Hush, Little Bali

By staying unlit and quiet for 24 hours, dark spirits passing over the island will think no one is home and pass on by.

The day before I left Bali was Nyepi, the Balinese New Year and the annual Day of Silence. Had my cousin called me about my mom’s illness (she’s doing much better!) 24 hours earlier, I would not have been able to leave on the same day. Airports were closed. As were the harbors. Bali was shuttered. No motorbikes or cars on the road. No one walking outside their family compound. No checking-in or out of hotels.

Some say that dogs don’t even bark on Nyepi. This is a myth.

I had really been anticipating Nyepi. Think about it. An entire island dedicates itself to silence. No noise or use of electricity for a full 24 hours. Yes, even turn off the fish pond fountains and pool pumps.

Turn off the fish pond

And leave off the pool pump

Nyepi, according to the saka calendar, takes place at the first new moon after mid-March. The saka calendar is 78 years behind the Gregorian one, so while it’s 2017 in Bali, it’s also 1939. I hope it’s a better 1939 for Bali than it was for Europe.

You start to notice Nyepi preparations well in advance as you walk or drive by local temples where giant monster ogoh-ogohs are being designed and built. Some of the temples have big handwritten boards outside – kind of like leaderboards only with the names followed by donation amount. Everyone can see who ponied up and how much to help finance the ogoh-ogoh. Then, a few days before Nyepi begin the Melasti ceremonies described in Very Good Bad Days.

On Nyepi-eve, familes gather in their compounds and pray in the family temple, after which it gets noisy. Pots and pans are beaten with spoons and bamboo torches are flashed around to drive out dark forces. Around 9 pm, the dark forces, represented by the painstakingly built ogoh-ogohs are paraded and chased through the streets, sometimes burned, sometimes beheaded.

Then, the hush descends. By staying unlit and quiet for 24 hours, dark spirits passing over the island will think no one is home and pass on by.

Some people use the day to read, some to meditate; others to sleep, visit quietly within the family compound, or just sit back and enjoy the peace under a papaya tree.

Internet message boards focused on ex-pats in Bali go a little crazy with everyone telling everyone else the rules. Some westerners (there are a few in every crowd) speculate what will happen if they break the rules. Answer: the village police, or pecalang, will either gently escort you back to your quarters or toss you in the pokey. I personally favored them going to the pokey. Respect, people. Or leave.

The day before Nyepi I was trying to post my blog and had no internet in my villa. I knew everything was meant to shut down early to prepare for the celebrations, so I wanted to get to the wi-fi (pronounced wee-fee in Indonesian, BTW) in the Global Village Kafé before noon. Tony, one of the wonderful villa caretakers, let me hop on the back of his bike and we slowly, slowly, bumped over the potted dirt roads to Lovina, arriving around at the café around 11 am. CLOSED. So we turned back to go to another, very western place on the beach. CLOSED.

Yeah, I was thinking, you know, New Year’s Eve and all. Tourists about. Money to be made. No. CLOSED. And I hadn’t been to the grocery. I had eggs and fruit and veggies at home, maybe a little Jif left in the jar, but I was certain I was going to starve! Would I be forced to eat the fish the cats dragged in from the beach?

Forced to steal fish from a cat?

Locals (Tony is from Java, not Bali, and had only been on the island for a few days, so he was as clueless as I was) told us to head a little further north to the larger town of Siririt where I plunged into the body smash that was Hardy’s, the supermarket. Oh, dear. Imagine Target or the Harris Teeter on Christmas Eve. Did I really need anything badly enough to try and find my way to the check-out? Nah. Let’s just go home. Patient Tony. Didn’t even shake his head, but I’m sure he was thinking about it.

As dusk settled over the beach, I began to hear the bamboo “cannons” so popular in Bali. They are basically fat stalks stuffed with gunpowder and petrol that kids snap – creating a loud boom (and sometimes losing a hand).

Nyepi-eve sunset

But as the sun rose, I awakened to something very rare on the island. No human noise. Nothing. You have to understand how used you get to the constant vroom of motorbikes and the excited voices of playing children to understand how loud it is to hear nothing but roosters and the sea and your own internal ramblings. Well, and the neighbor’s dog barking. Told you that bit was a myth.

As the sun sank again after a full day of silence, I let the light from my Kindle lead me through to my bedroom where I cheated a little more and slept under the quiet whirl of the ceiling fan. (I had been told it was OK for non-Balinese to use light as long as it could not be seen outside the house, so I chose to use a minimal amount, thus the Kindle.)

The next morning I woke up to the roosters, the whine of motor bikes edging through the ruts in the lane outside, and the sound of children. Ah. Bali back to normal. I checked my text messages and learned from my cousin that my mom had taken a bad turn. After a phone call with my cousin, I called Made, my North Bali driver and asked him to take me to Ubud where I quickly packed up the One Big Suitcase and got on the first flight west to the USA. After tears and hugs with Kadek and Putu and a wonderful gift to remember them by. As if I could forget.

But I’ll be back. Bali beckons and there are things I left behind.

Bye, Bali. All roads lead back to you.

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Showing 4 comments
  • Karen

    Amazing. I’d LOVE to experience that.

  • Claudia

    I spent a Nyepi in Bali. I basked the whole day in the glorious stillness by the pool in my little haven in the middle of Ubud. It was a quiet place to escape the madness even on a normal day, but on Nyepi the air was different. All I heard were the ducks in the rice field next door, and sometimes dogs in the distance. In the evening I was cheeky and walked out to the gateway. I wanted to drink in the blackness and the bright stars. It was glorious! But suddenly a pecalang man came up to me, he just appeared out of the dark walking along the road, and told me quietly to go straight back inside the gates. I loved it.

    • Claudia

      Really enjoyed your story Ginny! Hope you can make it back to Bali soon 🙂

  • Taylo

    We spent Nyepi in Bali 21 years ago… we were invited into a local families house after all the celebrating… just met a guy on the street and he invited us home to meet everyone. We were staying at Tirta Gangga so it was already pretty quiet there…

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