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Nyepi – Bali (Indonesia) | We're Not There Yet

Technically, I shouldn’t even be typing this right now. Today is the Balinese New Year, Nyepi, which is observed by remaining inside your home and fasting, without the use of electricity. The whole island literally goes silent and tourists are expected to go along with the program. No shops or restaurants are open and there is actually a Nyepi police force to enforce the compliance with the holiday observations (no one is allowed on the street except emergency vehicles).

For Balinese people, this is a day of introspection, ignoring the temptations and hassles of everyday, and an opportunity to start the new year thoughtfully. For tourists, it is to catch up on sleep. Seriously; they hand out flyers about it. It is not unlike certain Jewish holidays, like the weekly observance of Shabbat for the actively religious. Part of me was tempted to try it: a day without lights, hot water, food, all that. But I realized that I could actually get a lot out of just staying housebound (or, hotel-bound, as the case may be) for a day. We charged up all of our electronics and stockpiled cheese, bread and crackers, which wouldn’t require any preparation. We anticipated that the electricity might be turned off completely, but we had not only light, but internet access for the whole day. R used his time to catch up on things that had to be done: taxes, phone calls, and emails. I sat in my pajamas and read a book all day long, interrupted only by rounds of Sudoku and snacking.

Our hosts didn’t seem to be the hyper-observant types. Even though they make offerings in their private courtyard temple everyday, they used light, cooked meals, and even tried to watch television (Mama Loka was visibly disappointed when none of her channels had reception). The very religious will fast and might even abstain from speaking for a whole day, but our small courtyard was filled with low conversations and frequent exchanges with Mama and her husband, including breakfast and dinner that they provided for us.

Maybe the day wasn’t special in a spiritual way (we had a pretty introspective evening just a couple days prior, so we weren’t lacking for it), but I woke up really looking forward to doing nothing and not having to feel any guilt about it. When traveling, we sometimes feel the need to fill all our time, see all the sights, make the most of our freedom. And, when we’re working, off days are filled with the necessary chores of everyday life. It was really refreshing to take a day off from things that had to get done (at least for me) and just hang out, relax. I can see the utility in celebrating this kind of holiday- especially without the distractions of gadgets and noise, but we’d have to work our way up to it.

By all accounts, no one complains about the holiday. Balinese, whether religious or not, are generally proud of their heritage and take pains to preserve it even in the midst of Two-for Tuesday drink specials and Bubba Gump Shrimp restaurants. Maybe not everyone finds Nyepi spiritually refreshing, but it would be a pretty jaded person who can’t appreciate a day off with no obligations except to tune out. (We did overhear a conversation by two twenty-something girls the other day about a general exodus of the Kuta Beach set to the Gili Islands in Lombok during the holidays, so I guess there are self-selecting exceptions to this rule.) Tourists may be surprised when they learn that participation is expected of them, too, I imagine that most visitors would feel lucky to be here during this special time of year to see all of the events that lead up to the day and understand that they are living through a tradition that is hundreds (thousands?) of years old. Bali is special for so many reasons and we have had the amazing luck and opportunity to see some compelling aspects of their culture. We’ll be glad to be let loose on this lovely island again tomorrow, but I appreciated spending the time in my own kind of observance of Nyepi today.

(Pictures below are from our days traveling around Ubud.)

Arrangement of flower petals floating on water.

Rice paddies outside of Ubud

R at ancient shrines carved into mountain face

Same shrines

Every morning, all Balinese people make offerings to their ancestors in these little leaves. Each leaf holds incense, flower petals and (if their ancestors smoked) cigarettes. Because everyone is devout, the offerings pile up at streetcorners and shrines each day, only to be swept away in time for the next day.

Women praying at ancient shrine

whoops, an old ogoh-ogoh pic

special altars made just for Nyepi. Each family makes one and covers it with offerings and woven packets of sticky rice.

morning offerings on altar

statue with offering

flower petal vendor selling petals to woman who will then make her daily offering

offering vendor (for people in a rush!)

Store selling wood for fancy American boardroom tables. Straight from the jungle.

View of rice paddies in the middle of Ubud from our hotel room balcony

offerings brought to temple for services around Nyepi holiday

man making offerings at temple