A Panacea Problem

By Hannah Black

Last week I developed a cold, which had been threatening to come on for ages. I fought and fought, but more family members and my colleagues had it than those who didn’t, so I was pretty much fighting a losing battle.

I woke up on Sunday morning with an aching back and ribs feeling a bit like I’d been in a fight, and wondered if I was getting the flu. However, I was quickly informed by my husband Ongky that I was actually suffering from the all-encompassing illness masuk angin.

Masuk angin, or “being entered by the wind,” is one of those illnesses unique to Indonesia that foreigners seem to discredit without a second thought.

But we had been out the night before and my helmet had been stolen from the motorbike, so the ride home was pretty chilly and – more importantly – windy. For once the facts seemed to add up.

I admit until I’d been here for a few years I too was a disbeliever in ailments such as masuk angin and panas dalam (hot insides) and maag (heartburn and indigestion of some sort); but these days, although I’m still not sure what the exact symptoms are, I recognise they do actually exist.

The problem I have is the amount of advice that’s doled out here with absolutely no scientific backup.

I think all too often potentially serious illnesses are diagnosed as masuk angin or panas dalam before any tests or even a proper check-up take place. It’s almost as if there are fewer illnesses here to choose from than in the West, so even if the diagnosis doesn’t fit exactly, it has to do.

It’s hard to listen to advice here from family and friends because medicine sometimes seems so far behind. Throwing paracetamol and amoxicillin at people every time they have a sniffle doesn’t do anyone any good, yet the Balinese have an unshakable faith in medical professionals.

A few years ago I had a doctor at a well-known clinic in Ubud tell me I was sick because the weather in Bali is very hot. At the time I’d been living here for about two years. It turned out I had amoebic dysentery.

A friend told me about a foreign girl she knew who was having blackouts and moments of amnesia, and was told at one of the most reputable international hospitals on the island that she was mentally unstable. She went home and found out she had a brain tumour.

I’ve had some horrendous advice here from doctors and family members and I pretty much go my own way on cures, and if I do get really sick I go to a great Singapore-trained doctor in Kuta that friends recommended.

It’s a shame I find it so hard to believe some of the things people tell me, because it turns out sometimes even if they don’t know why themselves, they’re absolutely spot-on.

For example, while I was pregnant I was told I was absolutely forbidden to eat pineapple. Yeah, right – what could a pineapple do to my baby? It turns out that pineapples (in large quantities) can be an abortifacient and are eaten in many countries to bring on labour.

There are a million things you aren’t allowed to do when you’re pregnant here and it can get tiring having people on your back all the time about things as simple as drinking a drink with ice in it. I got an earful every time I had a fizzy drink, and in the end had to start smuggling it into the compound. It gets so tiring that it’s easier to completely discount everything they say.

But it makes me wonder that if they’re (partly) right about this, what else could the Balinese be (partly) right about?

Are they right to scratch their backs red raw with a coin to cure masuk angin? I’m not too sure, and I’m really not prepared to be scarred for life just to find out. Instead I reached for my trusty ibuprofen and the aching seemed to drift away in that nice, easy Western painkilling way.

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