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

Balinese masksPhoto by Pandu Adnyana via Flickr, (Creative Commons)

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.”

“No thanks.”


“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.

Tags: Asia, Indonesia, Bali

Poet, travel writer and novelist Linda Watanabe McFerrin has been traveling since she was 2 and writing about it since she was 6. A contributor to numerous journals, newspapers, magazines, anthologies and online publications, she is the author of two poetry collections, an award-winning novel (Namako: Sea Cucumber) and short story collection (The Hand of Buddha), and the editor of a travel guidebook (Best Places Northern California, 4th ed.) and eight literary anthologies. A past winner of the Nimrod International Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction, she teaches and leads workshops in fiction and creative non-fiction. Her latest novel, Dead Love, a Bram Stoker Award finalist for Superior Achievement in a Novel, was published by Stone Bridge Press in 2010.

41 Comments for Bali Belly and the Zombie Apocalypse

Lowry 05.17.12 | 2:13 PM ET

Zombies, Bali ... great combination!

Susan Arnold 05.17.12 | 2:16 PM ET

Linda Wantanabe McFerrin is one of those writers that draws you into her world so completely that you must read everything that she writes. This article I found myself holding my breath until the end of the article where Linda’s words let you go like an over filled balloon. She never disappoints and is always fun.

Marjorie Young 05.17.12 | 2:44 PM ET

Linda Wantanabe McFerrin:  A wonderful writer and a great teacher! - I love every thing she writes.

Unity S Barry 05.17.12 | 2:47 PM ET

An engrossing tale Linda spins, as always. But that’s no surprise, she is one of the world’s best travel writers.  If you loved this piece like I did, I’d highly recommend her book, “Dead Love.”

Anne Sigmon 05.17.12 | 3:48 PM ET

As always, Linda spins a great tale and organizes magical travel experiences that generate bewitching books-full of stories and memories to last a lifetime. Bali in 2011. Next up, Paris. Can we expect a zombie lurking in the basement of the opera house?

Antoinette Constable 05.17.12 | 3:52 PM ET

Ah, for those who, like me, enjoy Balinese food without having ever set foot in the
country that produces those spendid meals, here is a way to live thorougly and
vicariously through a zombie! A superlative romp, full of deceit, hope, urges and
longing, all free of digestive, respiratory troubles, though I would not say free of
mental anguish and fear, t hough they’re made more palatable thanks to a dose
of ingenuity, daring, and yes, fun.
Now I want to investigate other travel and poetry writing by this most gifted author.

Antoinette Constable 05.17.12 | 3:58 PM ET

You missed Bali? Well, Paris too can be exotic! Come and see how
different from your expectations it can be, how new, how thrilling,
and test whether French people are as awful or as wonderful as
described. It’s like a good meal, you can’t take other people’s word
for it, you must speak from experience, and I promise that not only
you will enjoy much laughter in good company, but your leader
and guide will keep surprising you and add to your knowledge,
however extensive it is a present. It will be thrilling! My ticket
tickles me already!

Georgia I. Hesse 05.17.12 | 5:16 PM ET

Linda, the first time I died also was in Indonesia. (We really DO have a lot in common, my dear.) It was on my maiden voyage as the San Francisco Examiner’s travel editor (Hearst’s Examiner, I hasten to add), and I had been assigned to attend the convention of the then-named Pacific Area Travel Association in Djakarta. Had I been surrounded by the undead, I would have found it all more entertaining. During a wakeful release from my near-final and fitful fever, I remembered I had a deadline (exactly so to speak).  The year was 18 B.C. (Before Computers). I arose from my rack and approached my portable Olivetti. I typed something, called the hotel manager (whom I had met at the conference), and asked that it be put into the mail immediately. My subterranean voice startled him. “Do you need a doctor?” “Yes,” said I, “and an undertaker, please.” Then I fainted.

The second time I died was in San Pedro Sula, Hondurus. But that is another story. Cheerio! Georgia

Joanna Biggar 05.17.12 | 5:22 PM ET

You go, Zombie Girl. This is SUCH a great piece. How magical it was to teach with you in beautiful Bali, and how I look forward to our next adventure. With travel writers. In Paris.
Incroyable, non?
Ta comarade, Joanna

Linda Watanabe McFerrin 05.17.12 | 5:30 PM ET

Bali and fellow frequently zombied travelers, did I forget to mention the host of funny, creepy, tasty, avaricious, profoundly spiritual tales to be found in the upcoming WANDERING IN BALI anthology ( Our next anthology is set in Paris, so Georgia, you know our routes criss-cross in an inebriated traveling totentanz.

patricia ljutic 05.17.12 | 9:20 PM ET

Glad you came alive again. Need to market that zombie cure! A good story.

Lauretta Zucchetti 05.18.12 | 12:06 AM ET

I am new to this group but wanted to say thank you for this beautiful story. It’s poignant, vivid and romantic! I have been to Bali several times (and have always managed to come away unscathed!) and was intrigued by the title. Now I will have to buy the book!

I look forward to meeting you all at one of the monthly get-together at Book Passage.

Katie Burke 05.18.12 | 1:05 AM ET

Only Linda Watanabe McFerrin can make illness fascinating. Love this.

Crissa Rios 05.18.12 | 4:56 AM ET

Interesting post! Love the masks!

Marianne Lonsdale 05.18.12 | 10:27 AM ET

I love the creepiness combined with the humor in this tale.  I look forward to the Bali anthology.

Cindy Rasicot 05.18.12 | 11:02 AM ET

A sorceress and weaver of words. A magical tale. I was traveling with you every stomach cramp along the way!

Fabrizio 05.18.12 | 11:39 AM ET

Linda Wantanabe McFerrin una scrittrice fantastica, oltre ad essere un amica e una persona piena di energia. Qualsiasi cosa leggerete ne verrete sicuramente catturati: uno stile unico e un coivolgimento da best-seller.

Peter 05.18.12 | 12:25 PM ET

Linda, you have a talent for introducing the zombie world to every elegant community you touch!

Superb: “vaguely poetic about being miserable in the midst of all that beauty”

Karen Nakamura 05.18.12 | 4:10 PM ET

Amazing connection between Dead Love location and this one but this was experienced much later, right? Loved it.

Robbie Scott 05.18.12 | 8:34 PM ET

“Can you call contagion…?” - a great question on top of pitch perfect description. The passage from Dead Love fits the mood exactly, and I chuckled at the final, funny twist.

Mary Brent 05.18.12 | 8:56 PM ET

Nobody brings life to the page like you. Great read!

Mary Brent

Mary Brent 05.18.12 | 9:00 PM ET

Nobody brings life to the page like you. Great read!

Mary Brent

Nancy Bruning 05.21.12 | 5:57 PM ET

Leave it to Linda to make even illness and near-death experiences entertaining.

Travel Packages 05.22.12 | 6:40 AM ET

A superlative romp, full of deceit, hope, urges and longing, all free of digestive, respiratory troubles, though I would not say free of mental anguish and fear, t hough theyre made more palatable thanks to a dose of ingenuity, daring, and yes, fun. Now I want to investigate other travel and poetry writing by this most gifted author.

Travel Packages

Linda Watanabe McFerrin 05.22.12 | 3:03 PM ET

Thanks, y’all. Yes, I’d love to writer more for World Hum.

Linda Watanabe McFerrin 05.23.12 | 1:39 AM ET

Oh, and the latest news ... the “Wandering in Bali” anthology is now available and can be ordered through Book Passage in Corte Madera, California. Buy it while supplies last! in bali

free essays 05.25.12 | 5:23 PM ET

Great so ncie so good!

Atv bcuresti 05.29.12 | 7:18 AM ET

Good article. Thanks for sharing.

Tiana Andreas 05.29.12 | 2:33 PM ET

Only an incomparable raconteur of travel tales could make a gastrointestinal Chernobyl sound amusing. Linda Watanabe McFerrin is one of those rare authors who can write on a plethora of subjects from Zombies to Cork harbor, Ireland in a way that draws you completely in. Cannot wait to purchase the new Bali book!!

Patricia Bracewell 05.29.12 | 3:06 PM ET

Linda Watanabe McFerrin’s writing is gorgeous even when she’s describing something horrendous—the kind of misery we’ve all experienced at some time in our lives and which is even more miserable if it’s experienced in a foreign land. This is a wonderful example of Linda’s skill at juxtaposing horror and beauty—as Linda so aptly puts it, “hell in paradise.” Wonderful piece.

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alanc230 06.06.12 | 2:48 PM ET

They’re everywhere! They’re everywhere! What an engaging story. I’ve just got to read Dead Love.

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I like those stuff, I will some of those when I get there this July.

Matthew Hutchins 06.20.12 | 3:38 AM ET

I hate getting tummy troubles when I’m travelling, that’s why I always bring some aid. There’s nothing more embarrassing than having to ask for aid when you don’t understand the language too well. I found it near impossible to ask for some cold sore cream when I first went to Japan.

Nick Venn 07.10.12 | 8:15 AM ET

Did you stay at Villa Cahaya part of Sinaran Surga Villas? if yes, you’re so lucky to stay in one of the best villa in Bali

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