You know when one of those super cheap travel offers pop up on-line? Do you ever wonder what the catch might be? It could be an experience you were not expecting.
Lauren and I went on a quick trip to Bali last year lured by a deal that seemed too good to resist. A superficial look at the Balinese calendar whilst packing showed it was New Year, but festivals are a commonplace and everyday occurrence in Indonesia so I didn’t investigate too closely but looked forward to the spectacle.
We had a lovely little villa with its own pool surrounded by high walls in a village on the edge of Seminyak. Lauren speaks Bahasa so she quickly learnt from our driver that our three day trip was going to be curtailed by a whole day of house arrest for the Balinese festival of Nyepi or ‘Day of Silence’. I cannot recommend it enough.
The Nyepi New Year celebrations are a three part ritual towards spiritual purification. The first part involves a cleansing of oneself and sacred objects in the sea or rivers. The second part is the driving out of evil spirits and the third part is the day of silence for self reflection.
Before our lock-in we had a day of driving about and the ubiquitous trip to Ubud. In every village along the road we saw preparations for the festival with enormous statues of the Ogoh-Ogoh – often a grotesque witch like female with pendulous breasts and bird like claws. They had been created out of wire and foam and papier-maché. Some figures were contorted in battle with other evil spirits and were fantastically painted and elaborately dressed with wild hair, gold paint and staring eyes .
On the night itself we watched with the celebrating crowds as the Ogoh-ogohs from the surrounding areas were carried into the main street of Seminyak and paraded to the beating of drums and fire crackers. There was much maneuvering and sweating as the huge floats were moved with teams of traditionally dressed Balinese all trying to outdo the other groups while men with bamboo poles strategically held up the overhead cables . There was Balinese dancing in front of the temple and then a heart thumpingly loud re-enactment of a traditional story from the Ramayana. The cacophony of noise rouses the evil spirits until the ceremonial burning of the statues in open ground just before midnight.
The following day the whole of Bali shuts down from 6am for twenty four hours. The evil spirit, having been driven out the night before, fly over the country and fooled by the quiet, fly away thus ensuring peace for another year. This national inactivity is strictly enforced with patrols to ensure that no one, excepting medical emergencies, is on the streets or beaches. Shops are shut and local radio and television is closed down. Even the airport and airspace is closed. Traditionally speaking there is a ban on fire, activity, travel and entertainment.
Within the walls of our villa we floated in the pool looking up at the sky surrounded by the falling flowers of the frangipani trees and marveled at the utter peace. I couldn’t imagine such a day being enforced in either the UK or Hong Kong but I thought how wonderful it would be for us all if it could. It was deeply quiet in a way we are quite unused to. The un-owned itch of noise that surrounds us; distant traffic, overhead planes, voices, radios, slamming doors was not just absent but were as if they had never been. Instead there was the sound of birds, running water and the breeze in the trees.
In the evening, moving about in the unfamiliar kitchen trying to compile a picnic type meal I absent mindedly switched on a lamp and quickly a knock at the outside door asked us to switch it off. Then there was nothing to do but to lie back and watch the geckos racing about the roof space in the deepening gloom until the density of an unlit sky revealed stars so bright it was like being on a boat far off shore.
We had come to Bali with an overly ambitious list of things to see and do and in the end we did almost none of it but found something much more memorable. We were fortunate we were staying in a villa. I understand in a hotel guests are not permitted to venture outside the grounds although they can use all the hotel facilities. For us it was bliss to loll in the shade all day. The following day there was a sleepy return to a semblance of normality. For the Balinese this is a family day so for tourists many places remained closed. I wasn’t sorry, I found the peace addictive and had to be cajoled out by Lauren who wanted to explore on foot.
This year Nyepi is on March 28 and if one of those bargain flights suddenly appears and
you need a shot of tropical meditation you know where to go.