Nyepi — experiencing the Hindu New Year

11 Apr

Here’s what you need to know about Nyepi:

  • It’s the Hindu New Year.
  • The word Nyepi is derived from the word meaning “quiet” —makes sense considering the day is supposed to be spent in silence and introspection.
  • Going along with that, everything else on the island stops for 24 hours beginning at 6 a.m. The lights go off; people don’t speak, eat, drink or do a whole lot of anything. Even the airport shuts down, and if you are visiting Bali you aren’t permitted to leave hotel grounds. The only exception for activity on the island is reserved for emergency purposes. Though provided no one is doing anything, it would seem the risk for injury and illness is minimal.  There are even “religious police” that patrol the streets to enforce this. (Though it was tempting I didn’t test it.) The purpose of all this is two-fold:
    • It is meant to be cleansing for the body and mind, so you can start off the New Year right: fresh.
    • The second part has to do with the days preceding it. The Balinese Hindu create giant effigies, known as ogoh-ogoh, from wire, wood and foam. The day before Nyepi they carry these creations through town to scare evil spirits off the island.  They believe that once the evil spirits are scared away, they will return. When they come back, the island appears vacant because of the lack of activity and the evil spirits aren’t apparently interested in terrorizing a vacant island. So they go away leaving the island in peace and harmony once more.
  • Hence if you are going to visit Bali for Nyepi the real excitement is in the day before. The parades in Ubud were quite impressive but I hear Denpasar, the capitol, is where the biggest festivities are held.
  • That being said, the day off is a great time to take it easy and well, introspect.

So with all this in mind fellow PCVs  OmaJay and I headed to Bali. We were in search of a more authentic experience on the “island of the gods” than what past visits had provided us. Prior to this it seemed more apt to consider Bali the “island of expats and tourists.” There were still plenty of those, but we got a nice break from Java and its LOUD culture. We also saw a different side of Bali, one where the local people don’t let tourism or an ever-globalizing world interrupt tradition.

We stayed at Kajeng Bungalows. The family-owned place was ideal for our small budget, and it had hot water and western toilets with toilet paper. Exciting.

I would recommend the place. The family was the essence of Indonesian hospitality– helpful and kind. They served breakfast everyday consisting of tea, assorted fruits, and either a pancake or everyone’s favorite: the jaffle! The pool was surrounded by lush greenery and overlooked a waterfall and river. It was serene and not such a bad place to be stuck for a day when you aren’t allowed to leave the hotel.

Day 1 – Wandering

Most of the vacation was spent just wandering around. We didn’t have much of an itinerary other than to track down ogoh-ogoh at some point. We took an afternoon stroll through rice fields and stopped for some kelapa mudah (young coconut) at a self-sufficient organic farm and café. We ended up at a family-owned art gallery just as that family was preparing to head to the temple for an anniversary celebration. We asked if we could join and followed them to the temple. There, locals were streaming in dressed in sarungs and kebayas and carrying all kinds of offerings.  We sat in the back and watched as the offerings were brought forward. The community prayed together and took part in several rituals. All the while, my senses were overwhelmed with the sweet smell of incense in the balmy air, the colorful displays before my eyes and the calm chants echoing among the seated participants.  I have no idea what it all symbolized but it was impressive. Afterwards families reclaimed their offerings and departed to enjoy them in their homes.

Later that night we saw a dance and theater performance, for free. Free things are nice. This is especially so when you are a volunteer. The performance was better than one I attended and paid for back in January. This time most of the crowd was made up of locals rather than tourists, though several bule were in the mix.  It took Jay and I a while to figure out the show was being held in Balinese rather than Indonesian and that we didn’t understand it. Regardless I found myself laughing along with the crowd. Whatever was said was hi-la-rious. I was eager for the moment the kid next to Jay starting throwing up because he was laughing so hard. Much to my dismay it didn’t happen. Maybe next time.

Day 2 – Ogoh-ogoh

The next day we walked around again, nothing too exciting there. That is unless… you want to hear about shopping in Ubud and the amazing grilled ham, cheese and tomato sandwich I had for lunch…

That night the streets were filled with people in traditional dress. A throne-like platform was carried, proceeded by men drumming monotonous gamelan rhythms and woman chanting. We tagged along and ended up on the other side of town where the throne-like-thing (mostly likely sacred) was brought into the temple. The crowd quickly dissipated and that’s when we first saw an ogoh-ogoh. Mission accomplished.

Day 3 – Evil spirits beware

This was the day before Nyepi. Our assumptions were confirmed when we spotted the calf we saw tied up to a tree at the temple a few nights before, dissected and displayed among flowers, incense and food in a sectioned off area in the middle of the street. More offerings. Its face staring back at the tourists gathered around, the other body parts in forming less in-your-face arrangements. A hoof here, a knee there. This was all still for the temple anniversary.

Later that afternoon we ventured back to the public hall where we had seen the ogoh-ogoh the night before. We arrived during another ceremony in preparation to scare out the evil spirits later that evening. We hung around for a while and were told to come back around 5 p.m. to see the ogoh-ogoh paraded through the town before they would be burned. Knowing fully well we were now running on Indonesia’s infamous jam karet (rubber time) seeing that it was past 5 p.m., we grabbed a bite to eat. We met up with good friend, Blake who had newly arrived with new friend Kate. Both PCVs from the Philippines and Blake being the first person I have seen from back home since leaving for Indonesia.  They arrived just in time for us to join the ranks of people lining the street. Not too much later, one by one, youth groups in unison carried their ogoh-ogoh purposefully and skillfully wobbling and spinning platforms to make the creatures more animated than they already appeared. It all ended in the Hindu cemetery at the Monkey Forest with these giant foam ladden creations burnt delicious toxins into the night.

Day 4 – A not-so-silent Nyepi

Originally we had intentions of following the tradition of fasting, introspecting and not talking on Nyepi. Turns out the rare opportunity to be amongst other Americans and PCVs, especially those from another country, was too tempting. For a day where you are to refrain from speaking we spent a good portion of it doing exactly the opposite.

Day 5 & 6 – Aussie Bros

And what would a trip to Bali be without encountering the cultural phenomenon of Aussie Bros in their near natural habitat of Kuta? After another afternoon in Ubud Blake, Kate and I were ready to face the non-elusive creatures. We headed South to observe their drinking habits and party rituals. These could be summed up with sluggishly imbibe Bintang while soaking up the sun near a pool or beach —or another body of water by day and invade the club-ridden Jalan Legian by night filled with sweat and swagger. Though their main migratory season is well over — the peak being the end of December/beginning of January— there were still plenty about but traveling in smaller clans.

In conclusion

This vacay was bomb.com. Saw some unique things, caught up with an old friend and got to know new ones better.

(P.S. that domain name is totally up for grabs.)

An anecdote

We left intending to arrive sometime in the early morning to make the most of our first day. Anticipating traffic issues, (there’s always traffic issues) we left mid-afternoon. Things went smoothly and we arrived at our hotel sometime between midnight and one a.m. It was too late for anyone to be up and too early to go anywhere else.  So we made ourselves at home in the open “lobby” of the hotel. As the rain poured on and rats scampered by we ate snack mix and conversed into the early morning. Sooner or later we all ended up falling asleep on the floor, something I wouldn’t have considered an option a year ago. Now it’s just another story in the reservoir I’m building here.

Last, but not least, the exceptional people that made this trip so great

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