May 11, 2018

An Essay by Marlena Fiol, PhD: "Ignorance"

Marlena Fiol, PhD, is a world-renowned author, scholar, speaker, and a spiritual seeker whose writing explores the depths of who we are and what’s possible in our lives. Her most recent essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Under the Sun, The Summerset Review, Barely South Review and The Furious Gazelle, among others. A sampling of her publications on identity and learning are available at

Photograph by Marlena Fiol, PhD


My teeth bit down on something hard and I spewed my partly chewed mouthful of rice onto the table in front of me.

We were having nasi goreng for lunch in Ubud, a small town in central Bali. We’d arrived the prior day and were excited about tasting this well-known stir-fried dish seasoned with copious amounts of garlic, tamarind, chili and sweet soy sauce. To get to this driver-recommended eatery, we walked down a narrow alleyway between fields of rice. Cows lazily grazed near the restaurant’s roof-covered, wide-open dirt floor with rough wooden tables and chairs. At the back, we could see open fires, where the kitchen help was preparing the food.

My husband stood up and came to my side. “What’s the matter? Is something wrong with the food?” he asked.

“There was a rock in it,” I cried out, holding one hand over my mouth and turning to wave for our waiter with the other.

A thin young man with golden-bronze skin and glossy black hair hurried across the room to our table.

“Yes, madam?” He asked, bowing slightly toward me.

“There was a rock in my food. I could have broken a tooth,” I snapped pointing at the plate of food, crowned with my spewed out mush.

He bowed farther. “I am so sorry, madam. I trust you are all right. What can we do for you?” His dark eyes were turned away from me down to the floor.

“Just take that away,” I said. I turned to my husband. “C’mon, let’s pay them and get out of here, Ed.”

Our waiter clasped his hands in front the chest in sort of a prayer position and said again, “I am so sorry, madam.”

We were about to step out into the steamy afternoon sunshine when the waiter ran toward us, his arms out in front of him, holding something in a white towel.

“Madam, it was not a rock. Did you lose a tooth?” he asked, showing me the little white cap in the towel.

I ran my tongue around my mouth, slowly. There it was. A gaping hole where the crown had been.

This time my eyes turned away from him toward the floor as I reached for the cap.

“Thank you,” I murmured, still convinced it was a rock in the rice that broke off the crown to begin with.

We made our way across the uneven dirt sidewalk toward our hotel. I wondered what we would do now. This was not at all how we had imagined our vacation in Bali. It had seemed like such a romantic idea to come here. I never believed Elizabeth Gilbert’s glossy view of Bali as some sort of Nirvana. But we did think that in the midst of the crowds, we would surely catch a glimpse of serene and tranquil life. From the moment we landed in Denpasar, nothing in Bali had been quite what we had expected.


We had hired a car and driver to take us from the airport in Denpasar to Ubud, just fifteen miles to the north. Ninety minutes of sheer horror and panic. Thousands of cars, scooters, and bike riders tangled with each other bumper to bumper. They all regularly violated the traffic lights, changed lanes without signaling (actually there were no marked lanes), passed each other from all sides, and honked at each other incessantly. At one point, our car cut off and hit a young man on a scooter. The rider turned to our driver from his bike and raised a fist in the air, screaming something we couldn’t understand.

Our driver pulled off to the side of the road, not out of concern for the man on the scooter, but rather to check his vehicle to make sure it hadn’t sustained damage. Satisfied that his car was OK, our driver grinned as he turned back to the two of us huddled into one corner of the back seat. “Rule number one. Bigger Car Win,” he said. We’d heard that same rule when we traveled in India some years earlier. But nothing had prepared us for this.


Now, walking toward our hotel on the broken-down sidewalk, humid hot air pressing down on us like a suffocating blanket, I shuddered and kept my head down. We gingerly stepped over cigarette butts, empty water bottles and tattered plastic bags. A small child sitting on the side of the road with open sores on her skin gave us a weary smile as we passed. Fumes from charcoal cooking stoves and burning heaps of trash choked the air. A woman washed her clothes in the small trickle of a stinky canal alongside the road.

As he so often did, Ed voiced my thoughts. “I wonder how we’re going to find a dentist around here who uses sterile instruments?”

We tried to inquire about finding a dentist at the front desk of our hotel. “Dentist?” the friendly receptionist parroted, not understanding what we were asking.

“Doctor,” I said, ripping my mouth wide open and pointing to my back teeth.

The young woman brought both hands in front of her mouth, trying to hide her smile. I guessed Balinese women never exhibited their teeth as I just had.

“This isn’t working,” Ed said. “Let’s ask the guide we’ve hired for this afternoon’s tour.”


“I know where there is a dentist,” our guide said. “I take you.”

Stuck between small shops and behind rows of scooters parked on the sidewalk, we spotted a sign that said “Dokter Gigi,” and underneath that the word “Dentist.”

“But how do we know that this dentist will use sterilized instruments?” I asked our guide.

He stared at us, seemingly not understanding.

I moved toward Dokter Gigi’s door. “We don’t have any choice, Ed. My mouth is already hurting. I need this crown.”

A young girl sat in the single room that made up Dokter Gigi’s dental practice. “Dokter Gigi is eating her lunch next door,” she said. “You can wait here.”

I decided to try once more. “Does this dentist use sterilized instruments?” I asked.

The same blank stare.

After a half hour wait, Dokter Gigi returned. She seemed competent enough, but I continued to worry.

“What is the problem?” she asked, leading me to her dental chair.

I handed her my crown wrapped in a tissue. “It came out,” I said, pointing to the hole in the back of my mouth. Would she even know what to do with it, I wondered?

“Oh, no problem. Here, we clean the area and we fix it. No problem,” she said.


I didn’t learn until recently that Bali is rapidly becoming a prominent medical tourism destination. In fact, the island boasts a reputation for its excellent wellness services. It’s a market boom for the entire archipelago, as medical tourism itself is becoming a major trend in this part of the world. A recent study reported that this emerging medical industry represents a worldwide, multibillion-dollar phenomenon that is expected to grow significantly in the years ahead.


Dokter Gigi cemented my crown for 500,000 Rupiahs (about US$38). More than two years later, the tooth is fantastic. Of course.

~Marlena Fiol, PhD

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