Our family’s goal is to live all over the world and to really experience it, so we try, as best as possible, to maintain a “when in Rome” type attitude. In London, we ate steak and kidney pies and drank ales and spent lovely long afternoons at pubs talking about rugby and the weather; in Ipanema, Brazil, we cheered along to the football games and listened to bossa nova. But, when Nyepi Day – a day of silence which marks the start of the Balinese Year – came around in Bali we sort of hummed and ho’ed about what to do.
On Nyepi Day, Bali literally goes silent. It is hoped that the evil spirits will be tricked into believing that the island is deserted and leave. On Nyepi there are four key rules that must be followed: no work, no entertainment or pleasure, no travelling, and no fire. The airport is closed. No one is allowed to leave their homes – this rule applies to everyone; even tourists have to stay in their hotels. Some Hindus even practice fasting and total silence (no talking at all).
So we had two options. The first (the easier, perhaps most sensible one): we could rent a bunch of DVDs, keep the TV low, take advantage of what must be super fast internet (no one else is using it right? And it goes through the phone line, which won’t be shut off…) and Skype with everyone we know. Finally get to that to- do list. Sneak out to the back and play in the yard out of view. Keep the lights on all day but tape up the windows so no one can see. The second: Do as the Balinese do on Nyepi Day. No electronics, no internet, no entertainment. No work. No fire. Stillness.
We chose option 2.
In the absence of a guidebook to Nyepi, we made up our own rules (we asked around and got many different answers about what was and wasn’t allowed). We made exceptions to the electricity rule by using fans/air conditioner to sleep (and justified it by saying that with this heat, there was no way to keep a toddler relatively silent if he was also hot and bothered). We talked but kept our voices low. We didn’t use the phone but didn’t shut it off either in case of emergency.
In the days leading up to Nyepi Balinese Hindus carry out melasti, a purification ritual, which involves taking effigies of gods to the beach or river and cleansing them before returning them to the temples. The day before Nyepi, the villages come alive in anticipation. Villagers make “Ogoh-ogoh” out of bamboo, paper mache and bags of cement. “Ogoh-ogoh” are monsters which symbolize the evil spirits that the Balinese want to rid themselves of. Some examples of the “ogoh-ogoh” that were in our neighborhood were a giant green frog on a motorcycle (which I interpreted as being a symbol of the many motorcycle accidents in Bali); looters and robbers and a crazy looking man drinking alcohol. The “ogoh-ogoh” are paraded through the village the night before Nyepi, and at the end of the evening a small part of them are set on fire symbolically with torches. The idea is that on the night before Nyepi, the evil spirits will be aroused and drawn to the island by all the noise and activity. Then, on Nyepi day itself, all is silent.
The void of sound is something I have never experienced before. We live in a pretty quiet place anyway, so I didn’t expect it would be that different. But it really was. What we think of as “quiet” or “silent” actually already incorporates the hum of daily life- cars, people, motorcycles, airplanes, appliances… When all of that is removed it is almost unnerving- so quiet that when you hear a bird chirp or the rain, it is almost as if it were a brand new noise. It is hard to put into words how it sounds, how it feels. Amazing can’t even cover it. Where else in the world can you go to hear no modern mechanized noise?
What did I learn? Being still in your own thoughts, letting your mind wander wherever it wants to or needs to, grounds you. You have this sensation of having a conversation with yourself for the first time in a long while. Going slowly and quietly is an art to master, one that the Balinese for the most part have perfected but most of us Americans don’t even strive to achieve. The day after Nyepi, walking on the streets, I felt like I understood the Balinese way just a little more, like I was a little more connected to the local way of life.
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