We accidentally arrived in Bali on the one day when no one is allowed out on the streets.
After a few beers with mates at the pub one Friday night my husband came home and booked two flights to Bali. I had never had any intention of going to what I always considered a boring destination where bogans with no imagination to help them think of a more interesting holiday destination went to get drunk and buy cheap stuff.
“If I see cheap flights will you come to Bali with me?” my husband had been asking me.
“Mmm…maybe,” I replied. Bali. My previous trips had been to the Tibetan plateau and the Canadian Arctic. How could I now stoop to Bali? I was an adventurous traveller, not some sybaritic philistine looking to buy a cheap Rolex.
I think it was the tiny, cold, sweet lemongrass drink that began to thaw my cold-hearted cynicism. These were set in front of us as we sat at the front desk checking in to our resort, along with a cool wet washcloth to sponge our hot brows and necks. I’ve never in my life been on what many people consider a holiday, where you sit by a pool and drink cocktails and have massages and do a bit of shopping. It always seemed like a colossal waste of time and money.
As we drove from Denpasar airport to Ubud we passed monsters. These great bamboo and styrofoam creations, called “ogoh ogoh”, were everywhere, mounted on grids of bamboo so they could be carried through the streets for that night’s festival celebrating the Balinese New Year’s Eve. To the clash and clang of gamelan music (traditional Indonesian music) they paraded down the main street of Ubud. Some were so big men with forked sticks went ahead to lift up the powerlines. A group of school children carried their own mini ogoh ogoh. They ended their journey at the soccer ground where people wandered eating snacks, children carried balloons, and drones hovered overhead. Trying to get back to our hotel we were blocked by an elaborate, noisy and completely unintelligible performance being played out in the street. Orange light lit up billowing smoke as a voice thundered through a loudspeaker and the strange cadences of the gamelan rose and fell and crashed and gonged. Monsters ran at each other and away again, taunting, threatening.
The sound receded as we walked through the darkness of the monkey forest, back to our soft king-sized bed, now turned down by unseen hands, curtains drawn, and lights switched on. We made tea and went to bed.
There must have been a few tourists taken by unpleasant surprise when they discovered they were under no circumstances (except medical emergencies) allowed out on the streets next day. In case they needed reminding, men in checked sarongs patrolled the streets carrying long sticks, ready to escort escapees back to their accommodation.
For the Balinese Nyepi, the day of silence, is a day for meditation and reflection on one’s relationship to God, others, and nature. A Balinese must show gratitude to God by doing good deeds for they owe their existence to him/her. They must help others and treat them as they would like to be treated. And they must remember they are made from the same elements as the earth and that if they care for the earth it will care for them.
An article by Anak Agung Gde Agung in the Jakarta Post the previous day (no papers on Nyepi) stated that a Balinese person must:
…ask himself in silence if he can truthfully close a year of his life satisfactorily in line with the dicta required of him as a Balinese. Simultaneously, he makes resolutions as he opens a new chapter for the coming year about what he must do to make amends for his shortcomings and what deeds he must perform for his God, fellow man and natural environment for the betterment of himself, his society and the world.
We were told there would be no internet and limited TV, but even though we found there was we avoided it in keeping with the spirit of the day. We also made the most of our surroundings.
After our buffet breakfast, we both had a one hour massage, at the end of which we were served sweet cups of ginger tea and a plate of painfully sweet chocolates. The only thing to do after that was lie by the pool and read while we waited to eat lunch. After lunch? More reading and a sleep before dinner which had to be consumed by 5.30pm as no lights were allowed that night. We could put our lights on in our room, but there were no lights on around the resort and no street lights.
“Remember to look at the sky tonight,” one of the staff told us. “There’ll be lots of stars because no lights.”
Before dinner I leant on the front verandah rail and looked out on the street. The pecalang, as the street patrollers are called, still wandered up and down. A young child, followed by his mother rode his bike up and down in a small space. The pecalang left them alone, perhaps understanding how hard it must be to keep a child in all day. Another man followed an elderly man strolling along with his hands behind his back. Maybe the man had dementia and couldn’t be convinced of the need to forgo his afternoon stroll today. The pecalang left them alone too.
Nyepi began at 6am and finished the following 6am, meaning the staff at the resort that day had to stay overnight. Those finished their shifts for the day gathered by one of the pools, just outside the rooms they’d been assigned, drinking Bintang, laughing, partying.
We stood on the roof terrace and remembered to look up at the stars. We tried to find the Southern Cross but failed. Were we no longer south enough, we wondered. Except for the voices of the staff enjoying themselves all was quiet, all was dark over Bali, and I had fallen in love with it.