There's more on the menu at Alchemy, a holistic, raw, and vegan café in Ubud, Bali's epicenter of "wellness," than meets the eye. By their noticeboards shall ye know them, and Alchemy's is a real doozy. There's a dude with a "Fake" sticker on his forehead, advertising something called "Insanely Gifted," where for just 4,200,000 Indonesian rupiah, or around $315 (two months' work at minimum wage in this part of Bali), you can "open a channel to direct inspiration" at the "world's first organic vegan cinema." There's permaculture, transcendental art, ecstatic dance, ceremonies in flavors that range from spiritual to sacred to cacao, "god consciousness healing and life counseling," and raw food cooking courses.
Yet I'm not here to unleash my inner goddess. I'm not here to buy vegan flip-flops, an enema kit, or a plastic drumbox that will enable me to "immerse yourself as a creator new cosmic music [sic]." I'm here for the clinic upstairs, which offers a perplexing range of services. More standard spa procedures—massage, colonics, and vitamin injections—sit alongside "breathwork," "Reiki healing breathwork," "intuitive reading," "ozone therapy," and "other treatments" (acupuncture and ear candling). I'm going there, essentially, because a friend of mine once pointed at the menu in the café, just as I was starting to rave about the raw cheesecake, and said, "'Vaginal ozone'? What the fuck is that?"
Alchemy has since split off the clinic menu from the cafe menu, which is probably a good thing. A lemon squash based on vegan kefir tastes yeasty enough—with top notes of old socks and lemongrass—before you try to understand why on earth anyone would pipe a recognized pollutant up their genitalia (or, for that matter, their rectum, or into their ear). Still, in the interests of research, eschewing the charms of ear candling, an ozone colonic, or an intuitive reading, I head upstairs to establish what a vaginal ozone is. Though the treatment is described as "great… for all kinds of problems from endometriosis to thrush," you don't need to have anything wrong with you to benefit. The magic of ozone can help protect even a healthy vaginal area, I'm assured.
Ozone gas (O3) has a long and vexed history as a wellness treatment. Nikola Tesla patented an ozone generator back in 1896; during World War I (before antibiotics) it was used as an antiseptic. An initially sciency-seeming paper, which turns out to be published out of a journal in Bangalore at prices from $250 per paper and based on trials with no results available or that have been terminated, claims ozone can treat "infected wounds, circulatory disorders, geriatric conditions, macular degeneration, viral diseases, rheumatism/arthritis, cancer, SARS and AIDS."
If you missed the front-page headlines when doctors started curing AIDS through ozone blood treatments, you're not alone—a peer-reviewed study showed the procedure had no effect at all. (Rectal ozone cures have also been marketed in South Africa.) Like some of the alleged AIDS therapies, the ozone cure for cancer typically involves extracting some blood, bubbling it through with ozone, and then transfusing it back. Alchemy also promotes rectal ozone for "hemorrhoids, prostate and gynecological illnesses," not to mention cancer and metastases, reassuringly spelled "metastosis" on the clinic's leaflet and "metasis" on the website.
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"As with all charlatanism, it gives the claim that it cures everything," Professor Martin Dyer, a cancer specialist at the University of Leicester in the UK, tells me the day after my visit to Alchemy. "Ozone is one of the most powerful oxidizing agents known to man, and people have been looking to exploit this very powerful antioxidant action right since its discovery. But it's never amounted to anything."
Basically, ozone, like hydrogen peroxide, is great at killing nasties on the outside of the body. If you were to put it into the system at a concentration high enough to kill internal nasties, Dyer says, it would also kill the patient. "It's a toxic molecule—that's what tends to get overlooked," Dyer says.
Thinking of adding it to your blood? "The hemoglobin would be oxidized in the red blood cells, so they wouldn't be able to carry oxygen, which wouldn't be a very good thing at all."
For the desperate, ozone is no laughing matter. Intravenous ozone therapy has caused fatal embolisms. Four of seven terminal cancer patients in Perth, Australia, died of a treatment package that included ozone (the remaining three died by their condition). And the list goes on. The US FDA describes ozone, bluntly, as "a toxic gas with no known useful medical application."
Won't having gas blown up one's vagina be rather drying?
I am both glad and a little unnerved that I conducted this interview after undergoing the procedure. Up I head to a waiting area that feels like a yoga studio, with rattan matting on the floor, semi-open walls with glimpses of palm thatch, a little reception desk, and an impressive amount of birdsong for an area whose rice fields are rapidly turning to villas.
My therapist, a registered nurse who does mornings at a hospital and afternoons and Sundays here, leads me to a small, slightly grim room that contains a medical-looking bed, a ceiling that's starting to peel, and a gray box on the wall attached to a terrifyingly large blue cylinder. It is here, in the gray box with laminated dosage instructions pinned up next to it, that the magic happens.
She asks me to remove my underwear and wrap a red fluffy bath towel around my waist. Relievingly, the tube she produces is still in its original plastic.
"Because it's your first time, I give you 20 minutes," she says.
"Oh," I say, back-pedaling rapidly—won't having gas blown up one's vagina be rather drying? "I think five minutes is OK."
She's having none of it. If I feel uncomfortable, I should tell her.
Up comes the towel. She parts my labia and inserts the tube. There's a buzz as the machine switches on, and the air starts to fill with the distinctive burnt-static scent of ozone, the smell of thunderstorms. I try not to think about my survival chances if the giant cylinder explodes.
The flow is reassuringly light. No symphony of queefs. No unnerving tingling. No uncomfortable fullness. At the end, the therapist shows me a small quantity of mucus that has gathered in the tube: Removal of "slime" is allegedly an additional benefit of vaginal ozone therapy, especially before or after menstruation.
Roughly $25 poorer, I hop aboard my scooter, wondering whether the incipient tingling down below is psychosomatic or a sign of ozone-induced infection. But most of all I'm wondering how a clientele so obsessed with the natural, organic, and spiritual could subscribe to something so artificial that it comes from what is clearly a machine.