Yup, that's really my arm being penetrated by a thick needle. The man with grubby fingernails is a dukun (shaman) who sanitized his hands by dipping them in a bowl of tap water. A moment later I thought I’d be crippled permanently. The other shamans surprised me with a series of trials (involving a machete and huge rock) to determine if the magic charm (inserted into my arm) was working properly.
I came into this scenario, like many things on Road Less Traveled, with little foresight. I'd asked around in Jakarta if anyone knew of a witchdoctor, and finally a reliable source led me to a house 20 miles outside of the city. When I came out, I had the charm (a susuk) under my skin with the power of strength and protection.
Two guys on horseback followed us up Mount Bromo, hoping we would tire and pay them for a ride. At one point one of the guys, on the verge of giving up, said, "Mr... no ride??"
"No ride," I replied, gesturing to my arm and flexing, "I have susuk... I am strong!"
The rider gestured back to the producer, who was struggling up the hill behind us.
"And you friend?" he asked with a glimmer in his eye.
"No susuk," I said as we both started laughing.
"Screw you guys," the producer yelled up between gulps of air.
'No susuk' would be a common joke for the rest of the season when anyone struggled with a physical task.
Months later I was in an interview with Playboy Romania. The journalist asked me about a crazy travel story, and I began to tell her about the witchdoctors and susuk insertion as i pulled up the sleeve of my sweater.
"I see it!" the lady exclaimed.
Sure as hell the piece of gold was jutting half out of my arm. I plucked it out and stuffed it in a fold of my wallet. It may still be there today. Whether or not the charm provides comparable power from the back pocket of my jeans is questionable.
I can't wait to go back to Indonesia. It's an archipelago nation full of mysticism, surprises, and stories. It's also more progressive and open-minded than most travelers realize. Now would be a great time to go.
Watch this episode on the Travel Channel this Saturday at 9PM