by Jane Merryman
You can learn a lot about yourself when forced to do nothing but fool evil spirits.
It is dawn on the day of Nyepi, Balinese New Year, and the only sounds I hear are the sounds of the first morning of the world.
Light barely delineates my window, but roosters already call to each other up and down the street. Doves coo-coo-coo in the plumeria tree next to my porch and small birds titter in the dense foliage by the pond. Bamboo leaves brush each other as the wind passes. In the background trembles the pulsating hum of invisible insects.
I hear no voices from the kitchen, no telephone jangle, and no mutter of motorbikes and cars from the main road. I lean back into my pillows, reluctant to move lest the rustle of the sheet shatter the quiet.
Yesterday, Suti, her daughter Tutut, and I paraded to all corners of the house compound, waving incense sticks and banging pot lids—“to wake up the bad spirits so they can see the offerings we have laid out for them,” Suti explained. We began at the stone portal facing the street, moved on to the kitchen building, to the parents’ sleeping quarters opposite, and then to the girls’ sleeping house where laundry had been hung to dry on the porch. We circled the ceremonial bale, the pavilion open on three sides where the family’s rites of passage are celebrated—rituals for babies, tooth-filings, weddings, and funerals. We didn’t forget to include the garden where my room and four other homestay rooms for visitors stand sheltered beneath bamboo and plumeria entwined with red bougainvillea. Finally, we went into the family temple. Earlier in the day Tutut had covered the four gray stone shrines with white and gold cloth, mirrors, and red tassels and tucked in small palm-leaf baskets filled with offerings of rice, fruit, flowers, and incense. We shouted and banged the pot lids in all the corners of the temple and left the incense sticks on the main altar to burn out silently.
Just before sunset we hurried down Jalan Kajeng to the main road in Ubud where crowds were already milling in the street. We made our way through excited groups of tourists and Balinese families to the crossroads, where Suti said the action would be. Tension grew as night closed in on us: Balinese don’t like to go out after dark when evil spirits roam the streets. Tonight we were boldly defying the ghosts.
At last, the first stars appeared. In the distance we heard the cymbals and gongs of the walking gamelan band—the ogoh-ogoh parade had begun and was marching toward us.
The ogoh-ogoh are giant effigies of evil made of bamboo, paper, rice paste, and whatever comes to hand. These monsters can be up to twenty feet tall and are built by the young men of each neighborhood. They vie with one another to see who can create the ugliest, scariest creature. All the ogoh-ogoh have bulging eyes, pointed teeth, and long, long fingernails, traditional signs that the spirit within is malevolent. Their hair is spiky. Ugly paint completes the image. It takes several weeks to build such a monster, an hour to parade it through the streets on the eve of Nyepi and then burn it.
The first of the ogoh-ogoh burst into the crossroads carried on a platform of bamboo poles by men dressed alike in black shirts and black and red hats. They shouted and called instructions to each other; the crowd roared at the sight of the monster. In the middle of the intersection, the men turned the platform around three times, plunging wildly into the whooping, delighted onlookers. The band played furiously, flashbulbs popped. We clapped and cheered as the monster and his band continued into the darkness to the burning grounds. Then we heard more cymbals and gongs and soon a new monster staggered into the crossroads and we screamed and scattered as the claws and teeth bore down on us.
That was last night. We had mocked Evil and reduced it to ashes.
Today is the first morning of the world, bright and fresh, silent but for birds and insects.
Today we lie low; we pretend no one is home. The whole island is unplugged. On this day, from midnight until the dawn thirty-six hours later, we are allowed no fire or light—that means no use of electricity for anything. We must stay in our compounds, do no work, make no noise. Some say we do this so the evil spirits, whose home is in the sea that surrounds us, will think everyone has left Bali and go elsewhere to find wretched humans to torment. Others say this pause at the turning of the year is the time to fast and meditate.
These last two are hard to do. The women of the household spent yesterday mixing lawar (spicy dishes made of finely chopped meat and coconut), frying chicken and pork, and wrapping sweet rice cakes in coconut leaves, so we have plenty to munch on—if we choose. Darta, Suti’s husband, lies motionless on a mat on the ceremonial bale, meditating—or is he asleep?
I cannot meditate in Bali, whether it’s Nyepi or not, because I can’t escape the distraction of the subtle yet all-pervading aromas of flowers and incense, the soft melodies of the bamboo gamelan that drift out of nowhere, gold cloth and red hibiscus, the hot, damp air. So I go upstairs into the family’s open-air restaurant that looks out over a sea of trees to the west. I spread big, soft cushions on the wooden floor and lie back to watch clouds form and regroup and move off toward the Indian Ocean, and listen to the insects. I have nothing to do, no place to go, no obligations to fulfill. I have only to be, wrapped in sound.
The insects become my universe. Listening closely, I can separate their drone into several different tones; above this, metallic chirps repeat two or three seconds apart; and a deeper voice marks time at longer intervals. One creature mimics the rasp of a tiny silver comb. Suddenly, all voices stop for a few moments of breathless, expectant silence. Then they begin again as if cued by a demanding conductor. How like the gamelan music heard everywhere on this island.
In my mind’s eye I see the usually crowded roads now empty, lonely and forlorn under their drapery of banyan trees, winding into abandoned rice fields that stretch like soundless green rivers to blue volcanoes shimmering in the distance or to cloud mountains piled on the horizon. The heat hangs undisturbed over the roads’ white lines, insect noises pressing in all around.
A few days ago I walked into a wet meadow at the edge of a mountain lake. My companion and our guide had trooped off toward temple towers behind a cluster of fishermen’s houses, but I stood transfixed by the electric buzz radiating from the trees in front of me. At home in California I hike in wooded hills hushed but for a sigh of wind in the treetops, the bubble of a streamlet, the zzzt of a single fly. At the edge of this Balinese jungle, I could almost touch the din—I imagined it would feel thick and spongy.
I lie on the cushions in my tree house, mesmerized by these layers of sound, as insistent in town as in the jungle. The insects have the airwaves to themselves today and sing louder and louder.
On the pavilion next to the kitchen, the young people have turned on the television and are watching a DVD movie with the sound tuned to a whisper—otherwise, the adat police, who enforce the traditional ways, might come to investigate, to our shame. The kids sprawl on mats in the stuporous heat. On my way to the water cooler, I notice the film has Indonesian subtitles and I ask what they are watching.
“It’s a Chinese soap opera with nineteen episodes,” explains Tutut. It seems to be about a basketball player who must choose between a chance to go to basketball heaven—New York City—or remain at home with the girl he loves. But he is not sure which girl he loves.
I return to the cushions. My consciousness slowly accepts that I really have nothing to do and I am not just being lazy while other people are out there shopping, visiting, working, rushing about. I begin to understand the wisdom of this day. Even though I have not spent these hours in mediation, I recognize the something this pause creates. It is the pause itself, a new kind of space. It is the “now.”
The afternoon dwindles. I drift; perhaps I sleep.
The western clouds take on a tinge of peach and apricot. White egrets fly across the sky toward the northeast, solitary birds and groups of two or three. They are headed for their roost at Petulu. For more than forty years, hundreds of herons and egrets have come from all over the island to spend the night in the trees of this village. They squawk and squabble in the branches, totter in the ditch at the side of the road, hop up the steps in front of the houses. A patina of white lies on the street. No one disturbs the birds—they bring good luck to the village.
With growing sadness, I watch the egrets winging toward Petulu. I long to hold back their flight, as they seem to be pulling the day to a close behind them. The morning of the world will soon be over.
Night comes quickly here near the equator. Darta reminds me, “If you use your book light, you must keep it hidden.” The kids have turned off the TV because the glow might attract the adat police.
Soon the compound is enveloped in the blackest night I have ever experienced. No light creeps in from a street lamp or the courtyard of a careless neighbor. The family and the homestay guests seem to have disappeared. Now I am curious. I pull on a pair of sandals and inch my way along the uneven tiles of the path from my room to the family temple. The side gate is shut and I have never bothered to notice the fastening. With my fingers I feel the paint-encrusted metal and recognize a bolt that slides from side to side. I push it gently, trusting that it is not rusty or tight. It moves easily to the right and I swing the gate open only as far as I need to slip in. As I thought, here there are no overhanging trees—the temple is open to the glorious night sky, intensely black and deep and speckled with stars incredibly white, arranged in constellations I do not know. Only as a child have I seen so many stars.
I am told the Earth I stand on is hurtling through space, that the myriad incandescent points above are speeding away from me. But in this magic night all is still but for a few bamboo leaves that lift and fall as the wind passes. The only sounds are a million crickets and a frog by the pond.
Jane Merryman gardens and hikes from a base in Petaluma, California. She travels to places with great mountains and great art. Bali has both.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.