Unbeknownst to us our arrival to Bali coincided with a special event of great importance and fun for the majority Hindu Balinese, which led to the most auspicious and fun beginning of our Bali sojourn.
We were rather puzzled when trying to find a place to stay that so many lodgings were unavailable over the weekend of 16-18 March. A friend just returning from a trip to Bali enlightened us-it is the time of Nyepi, the celebration of the Balinese New Year.
“I really envy you, it is great fun!”
And was she right! Especially the first part, the day before the New Year’s eve when there are big, colorful celebrations. The day after, the first day of the New Year, called the Day of Silence is a day when people are supposed to stay inside their houses, in silence and with no use of electricity. Most tourist establishments are closed that day, there is no transport, even a single plane does not land or take off from the Denpasar airport.
We figured it would be more interesting and authentic if we were away from a big city and finally managed to find lodgings at a small resort, Kubuku, on the less touristy black beach of Pemuteran. It was a challenge to find a taxi driver to take us there and we were advised to start early because of the preparations in the villages, blocking the roads.
“I hope you can make it back home to your family in time for the festival,” I said to the driver when we started off.
“No problem, madam,” he replied, “I am a Christian from Timor. Still, the rules apply to everyone, especially in the villages where village security and police will patrol the streets to make sure no one shows their face outside their house tomorrow.”
Our journey over the mountains and past emerald green rice fields lasted and extra hour and ended a good four hours later because in every other village the main roads were already closed and the community police was directing the traffic away from gatherings of festive crowds, excited children and huge figures of scary monsters. Along the roads many styrofoam—lacquer creations were waiting on big bamboo platforms for their turn to be carried in the procession.
There is an intense build up to this most sacred day in the extensive and complicated Balinese religious calendar with serious purification ceremonies on the beach, to cleanse everyone of past negativity and restore purity to both planet and people. The second day are the fun ogoh-ogoh ceremonies with the giant monster puppets paraded through the streets with lots of loud music and yelling, and the last the Silent Day.
When we finally arrived in our resort we realized we were the only guests. Besides being low season, the recent scares with the volcano threatening eruption have been keeping tourist away. Because of overbuilding of hotels and home stays the prices have fallen ridiculously low– we were paying $30 a night for deluxe bungalow with AC, pool, breakfast and afternoon tea included. We were fairly embarrassed to see the staff of up to 15 people running around in all directions just to cater to us. With no one else around they really took special care of us.
When we told them how much we were looking forward to seeing the ogoh-ogoh, they quickly rustled up some sarongs and dressed us up to, as they said, “blend in with the locals”. We certainly did not manage to blend in gracefully, as we have not been schooled from an early age in walking elegantly in the tight sarongs.
It was all in the spirit of fun, though when we walked out of our long side lane and into the bustling street where the first monster “floats” started parading by even some of the girls on the staff were a bit scared.
A lot of the little kids were fairly terrified and held on for dear life to the necks of their parents. I saw a grandpa trying to bring a little girl closer to the action cry in terror, until grandma came to her rescue, grabbed her from his hands and gave him a piece of her mind in no uncertain terms. No need to understand the words, the face expressions said everything.
The little kids were absolutely darling, I am used to cute girls, but the little boys in their holiday outfits were just the best.
One of the groups was preceded by a young boy with a red mask with endless energy. He skipped and danced and enjoyed sneaking up behind unsuspecting kids and scaring them stiff.
The creativity and engineering feats of the groups was amazing. Different villages had their own floats to show off, some were obviously the underdogs with less funds, making do with simple cloth and brown packing tape, and some spent significant amounts of money and time to create elaborate scenes of battling monsters with many hands, naked breasts and ugly faces.
Surprisingly, many were carried by very young kids very long distances under the watchful eyes of their adult chaperones, who would now and then run up with cups of water or simply turn on the hose to cool the exhausted kids down.
It was the middle of the afternoon with the sun beating down and the crowds swelling, especially at the end of the route, where performances were scheduled. We did not understand any of the story lines, but it was clear that some scenes were humorous and some solemn. There was a funny sketch of a pregnant girl and her two sisters, chasing after a young guy, possibly the father of the unborn child.
There was a large group of dark scary witches, who were dancing and wailing and throwing around “milk” and “blood”. They were companions to the demonic looking witch Randa with multiple sagging breasts and a deep male voice. The witches all ended up on the ground in a big heap and when they finally got backstage they had to carry one of them, as she fainted.
These goings on went on the whole afternoon until they all turned around and carried their monsters back along the main road and down to the beach. There they set them down in a big cleared area and set them on fire.
When the staff asked us when we wanted to eat dinner we suggested that we would have an early dinner and then they could all go home since we were the only guests. Their jaw dropped and then big smiles lightened up their faces. We asked them to tell the owner that those were our wishes and when he came by we reiterated that indeed we would be happy if he would let the staff go home early to celebrate. In a typical “can’t loose face” fashion he nodded and smiled.
When we got up in the morning all the staff was back. The girl with the best English came to ask us what we wanted for breakfast and explained they all came from their homes to the resort at 3 am, because after 6 am for the next 24 hours nobody could leave the house. They were assigned a few rooms and were going to sleep there.
“You were very nice and friendly to ask the boss to let us home early yesterday,” she said. “But he didn’t.” We weren’t happy to hear that.
“Well, at least he is letting us use the pool today if you don’t mind.”
Not only that we did not mind, I spent some time in the morning teaching on of the girls swimming. She was very determined and soon she could swim the width, then the length. Then we all had lunch together. We ordered simple fried rice for ourselves from the kitchen so that we would not stick out with our menu.We spend a nice time talking about school and they asked us about our children. Practicing English outside the scope of serving meals is a rare opportunity.
There was plenty of laughter and clapping. Every now and then someone would remember that it was Silent Day and said “Shhhh!” But as the afternoon progressed more and more loud voices were heard from around the neighborhood mixing with roosters and birds.
I think that for the vast majority just like our Christmas the Nyepi Silent Day is less a religious but more of a cultural holiday when the families come together and spend time relaxing and enjoying a special day.