Bali Belly and the Zombie Apocalypse
Travel Stories: When Linda Watanabe McFerrin fell ill, all the travel meds in the world couldn't keep the undead away
05.17.12 | 1:17 PM ET
I blame myself for introducing the zombie into the circle of elegant guests gathered at Villa Cahaya. The whole undead concept had no place in the paradise that our generous hosts had prepared for us, and yet the lonely Bukit Peninsula, or The Bukit, as it is often called—that desolate and surprisingly flinty clubfoot of land at the southernmost tip of Bali—did seem a likely setting for just such an appearance. There, at the end of a maze of unmarked roads with ultra-tight turns, the villa sprawled on a small cliff above the Indian Ocean. Remote—its access confounded even our host, who is one of the planet’s most famous and experienced travelers—it sported a decidedly post-apocalyptic air.
I was in Indonesia because of a novel I’d written about zombies, Dead Love, which was a finalist for a Bram Stoker Award, and because of a workshop, a festival, and a wedding. The wedding was the reason we were all on The Bukit; it’s a popular place for the type of fete that is by special invitation only, the kind so far from anywhere that only the invited guests—and perhaps the occasional walking corpse—will jet, motor, or stumble toward it. I was the only working stiff in our party, with almost daily commitments hours to the north at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. I was exhausted, having just finished co-directing a group of astoundingly energetic writers; I was consumed by the lurid characters in my book; and I was sick.
We found the Zombie in the hospital yard. They had just set her dinner before her, but she was not eating. The moment she sensed our approach, she broke off a limb of a shrub and began to use it to dust and clean the ground and the table, which bore her food. The two doctors made kindly noises and tried to reassure her. She seemed to hear nothing. The doctor uncovered her head for a moment (she had covered it with a cloth) but she promptly clapped her arms and hands over it to shut out the things she dreaded. Finally the doctor forcibly uncovered her and held her . . . and the sight was dreadful. The blank face with the dead eyes.
—Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse
Can you call contagion to you? I read somewhere that you call your fears. If this is the case, I was guilty, and I was certainly suffering for it. I believe my malaise began in Jakarta, where I had been careless. I should explain that I have an almost unbelievably finicky system. I am highly allergic to numerous substances, and they are the kind of allergies that require epinephrine (adrenaline) and, sometimes, hospitalization. Infectious agents and bacterial enteropathogens find hospitable terrain in my gut. In high-risk destinations like Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia—heck, even at home in the U.S.—I have to mind what I put into my mouth. So, whether it was contaminated water or food, non-pasteurized dairy products, a toothbrush improperly cleansed, or something I handled during my visit to the largest dumpsite in the world (my must-see on Java), my system had been breached. I was a walking Petri dish.
I was armed, of course, with an arsenal of prophylactics: loperamide, Ciprofloxacin, chloroquine and more—the kind of things designed to fill you up with anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-parasitic protection. To no avail, by the time I arrived on The Bukit, my belly was the size of a beach ball, and while that thing that would turn me into one of the living dead had not yet overwhelmed me, I could feel it crawling around inside me like a centipede soaked in hot sauce, making my stomach cramp, my head hurt, my vision narrow.
This affliction had no place here, amid villas so exquisite that they are like gemstones cut out of the heart of the rugged peninsula, and in company so illustrious. As the glamorous women and dashing men sipped cocktails and chatted, strolled the estate’s massive grounds and stroked their way slowly through the glassy waters of an infinity pool that seemed to be waterfalling into an ocean at the end of the world, I sat nauseated, my innards roiling, like an aging and unraveling Gustav von Aschenbach, the unfortunate protagonist of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” or ... like a zombie.
The cocktails, the meticulously served banquets set up under the stars on terraces and wide lawns, came and went. The talk swirled around me like a mad carousel, the food—what little I’d swallowed earlier—was dancing a tarantella in my belly.
“Linda, a cocktail?”
“No, thank you.”
“Try the prawns.”
“I don’t think so.”
“This grilled fish is delicious. Some nasi goreng?”
The smile on my face had turned into a corncob grin, my teeth clenched tight as prison bars. I ate and drank nothing, hurried back to my sumptuous quarters to lie on the bed in a state of alarm, breathing hard, waiting for the next god-awful spasm.
How long could it go on? In the evenings while the others feasted and drank I tried to converse amicably, manage what little was left of the “me” that once was, and stave off the indignity of the ultimate “transformation.” Let’s face it, ill health may be unpalatable, but a lack of control over basic bodily functions is a serious social disadvantage.
By day, while the others visited temples and beach towns and ran about and shopped, I sat, like one drugged, in the backseat of the rented vehicle on my daily trip north, watching the landscape race by and listening to my stomach burble. It was the only noise in the car. I looked out at the pocked and scaly landscape of Uluwatu and Ungasan, where skeletal livestock picked at the meager furze that stippled the barren fields, giving way to a fecund paradise. Inside the car, I did not move. I munched on pills and wrestled with intestinal demons. I was in hell in Paradise. I admit, there was definitely something vaguely poetic about being miserable in the midst of all that beauty, so I may have wallowed in it, in the same way, I think, that a zombie wallows in brains.
Meanwhile, well-meaning locals recommended natural cures for what they called Bali belly: tamarind juice, simple white rice, and so on. None of them worked.
A mirror hung on one wall. I approached it as one might approach a window, trying to look out onto a landscape, objective reality: physical, solid. The mirror was darkness framed in gloom, and the door to the room did not admit enough light to brighten it. I crossed to the window. I pushed back the drapes. I turned back to the mirror. A weak wash of moonlight invaded the chamber, animating the face there. I looked at a stranger, myself, for a brand new first time. My eyes were dark, but they had a surreal brilliance, like a couple of coals suddenly ignited. Under each eye floated a blue thumbprint of shadow. These two bruise-like marks never vanished. They were the result of my near extermination. They are also the mark of a zombie.
—Linda Watanabe McFerrin, Dead Love
I suppose that it comes as no surprise that, feeling “crappy” in the true sense of the word, and absorbed in what felt like complete disintegration, I found some solace and comfort in the miseries of the undead. Call it schadenfreude; it was no accident that I turned the conversation to zombies and, incidentally, my novel. In fact, we had joked about it earlier—about the living dead, about our desolate setting, still a backwater but for the sprinkling of villas, being ripe for a zombie apocalypse, the perfect place for the undead to stagger toward their inevitable end—paradise lost before it is really found. Our host, who is also a writer and terribly imaginative, introduced the concept of were-cats and were-dogs. And as the others, more newly arrived than I, began to take ill, a kind of zombie fever soon had us all in its grip. We exchanged medicines, worried about electrolytes, dispensed advice and exhibited copious communal concern.
There is something romantic about dying. And coming back from the dead is the ultimate romance. So, I suppose even my story ends romantically. I did not die on The Bukit. I returned—feeling horribly rotten—to the U.S., to doctors who saw me and saved me and billed me for the resurrection. As for the others in that Balinese party, of course no one died, but they were in some way affected. The zombie had walked among them, and they all—every last one of them—bought the book.