Travels in Bali, part II – hiding from the evil spirits

Nyepi usually falls sometime in March, which is the rainy season and the quietest month for tourism.

OGOH-OGOH, a towering effigy of demons and evil spirits, is carried down the street in Uluwatu. (photo credit: JANE MEDVED)
OGOH-OGOH, a towering effigy of demons and evil spirits, is carried down the street in Uluwatu.
(photo credit: JANE MEDVED)
Nyepi, the Balinese New Year, is a day of utmost importance. Preparations begin weeks in advance and everyone participates.
For 24 hours, the island, including all roads and the airport, will be shut down. Absolute silence is observed and no outside activities are performed. It is a time of reflection and introspection. No lights, work or noise are allowed. For the more religious, it is a fast day. The island appears deserted, thus fooling the evil spirits, who move on to make trouble elsewhere.
Ever since our arrival, we have been seeing the huge ogoh-ogoh, towering effigies of demons and evil spirits, which will be paraded through the streets the day before Nyepi and then burnt. Imagine Macy’s meets Lag Ba’omer and you start to get the picture. As we draw closer to the holiday, the preparations intensify. Everywhere groups are putting the finishing touches on their floats, or rehearsing the clanging, drumming gamelan orchestras.
Nyepi usually falls sometime in March, which is the rainy season and the quietest month for tourism.
Even so, hotels send out a detailed description of the day and its limitations, so that unwary visitors can prepare (hotel guests are asked to stay on the premises and nearby villages have a special squad to police the roads). Everywhere, our Balinese hosts apologize for the impending inconvenience and ask us what we think.
“Oh, we have lots of days like that,” I reassure them. In fact, when trying to explain our own religious observances, I begin to refer to Shabbat as “Super Nyepi.”
So when stores, restaurants and even roads start closing down the day before, I am sanguine. No big deal, it’s “erev chag.” Folks have to get home and get ready. Women have to cook. I know all about that.
We are packed up and ready to move to the beaches. At our resort in Ubud, a modest demon made out of dried grass waits in the parking lot, while village women sweep the temple clean. But we are heading south, and will have to find another ceremony there.
Soon we are driving on the dry, flat end of the island, past the deserted fish markets of Jimbaran, the outlet surf-wear stores of Kuta and the designer malls of Seminyak.
I know we’re leaving the rice fields and the mountains. I know we’re going to hit traffic and shopping malls. I know that Bali has four million residents who go to work, fix their cars and shop for groceries.
But it’s still a shock. With relief, we arrive at the very tip of Uluwatu, where the Alila Villas resort hovers, stark and understated, over the Indian Ocean.
This is the Bali that was in the news when Muslims bombed a dance club in Kuta in October 2002.
Where dogs sniff for car bombs and every hotel has a security check at the gate. The southern tip gets less rain, has no rice paddies and is predominantly limestone interspersed with mangroves. The surf is rough and there is only one major temple, posted like a sentry on the southernmost cliff. In fact, this rocky promontory was once its own island, finally connected in the 1940s via landfill by the Japanese.
The contrast is striking. We have gone from the lush jungles of Ubud to the sandy edge of a vast cliff, from the winding banks of a holy river to the crashing waves of an ocean that answers to no one. The light is brighter, even the sky looks larger. And the Alila magnifies this feeling with its Zen-like arrangements of volcanic rocks and water, reeds and whitewashed bamboo, and a Japanese lighting design that invokes images of fire and water at night.
But we are running late. In the neighboring village of Uluwatu, the parade of demons is about to begin.
We jump into the hotel van and get ready to drive off into Nyepi land.
Our new guide and assistant is Angie, a Christian from Indonesia who happily fled the mob scene of Jakarta, and is anxious to practice her English. There are two women from Singapore in the car along with us, who look up from their phones long enough to nod a greeting.
But soon we are forced to abandon the car and join the rest of the village on foot. The ogoh-ogoh here are huge. It takes at least 10 men to push them, even on wheeled platforms, in the street. We are pulled along with the crowds to the community center, where a large grassy field is encircled by standing spectators and groups waiting to perform. As tourists, we are offered tickets to the VIP seats, where seven dollars gets us a front row seat, a fresh coconut to drink, and a complimentary blue or pink evil spirit statue.
“Welcome. Welcome.” Intones a deep voice over the loudspeaker.
We are in a colorful sea of chaos.
The whole town is participating – families eating fried rice off banana leaves with their hands, small children on laps, gongs and bells and towering demons with tangled hair and claws, multiple heads and sexes, pig-nosed, elephant-tusked, carried onto the field by struggling teenage boys, while Balinese princesses in gold tiaras hold baskets of offerings, children lift their torches, twirl a red umbrella, or clash cymbals festooned with red and yellow pompoms.
Group after group presents their demons and re-enact another story of Good versus Evil to the accompaniment of smoke, gongs, and even two roosters pulled out of sacks for the traditional cock fight. The girls from Singapore are long gone, headed off to the famous Rock Bar in Jimbaran Bay. In fact, I don’t see very many foreigners, and even fewer westerners. Angie pulls up the stories from the Bhagavad Gita on her cellphone, but I lose track of which spirit is possessing whom and by the break, when the crowds disperse, I am also ready to go.
Marco Groten, general manager of The Alila Villas, has a long relationship with Indonesia. He relates that traditional observance of Nyepi has grown stronger, not weaker, over recent years.
“As the foreign influences grow,” he explains, “this little pocket of Hindus gets even more sincere in their beliefs.”
Even in the secular environments of Seminyak or Kuta, a Balinese worker will still observe the religious traditions. That night at dinner, I notice that our waiter also steps away to make the evening offerings and returns with a flower petal tucked discreetly behind his ear.
The next morning we are in fullout Nyepi mode. All of the staff, as well as the guests, are staying on the hotel property. Yoga class is attended by Marco and his daughter, who is spending the holiday with him.
Angie appears regularly to make sure our villa is stocked with coffee, fruit and drinks. If possible, the Alila becomes even more tranquil, a palette of light and shade, reeds and water, ocean and sky. And in a display of cosmic solidarity, there is an actual solar eclipse (I’m not kidding here.) Before dark, we are handed flashlights to navigate back to our rooms, since by evening the paths and terraces are lit only by small candles. At dinner, the menus come with small reading lights attached.
Beneath the cliffs, the waves arrive and retreat. Soon, we are surrounded by an oyster of black night and then, since the entire population of Bali is not using electricity, a luminous canopy of stars. If there are tourists who complain about this, I truly cannot fathom why.
At breakfast the next day, the spell has been broken. Mysteriously, the lobby is populated by cellphones and selfie sticks, cigarettes and video games. I feel like I’m in Indonesia now, an experience that is intensified by the fact that even half the breakfast menu is Indonesian.
There is black rice porridge, fried noodles and a drink of galangal, temulawak and ginger that promises to boost energy. It comes in one bitter and one sweet (much smaller) cup. I manage to get down one sip, and then quickly revert back to coffee.
Since we can move around now, we head out to explore the local beaches, but it is still a local holiday and our destination, Pandawa, is a smoky, crowded mess. Fried food stalls line a littered boardwalk, where whole families walk in wet clothes, since they cannot appear in bathing suits. “Ten million Indonesians a year visit Bali,” Marco explains to me, “second only to the Koreans and Chinese.” Australians make up the third group, with Europeans trailing far behind.
By now we are desperate to escape the crowds and get to the Bali of the brochures. It’s our cab driver who suggests Finn’s Beach Club – a sandy cove with its own private gondola, where 15 dollars gets you towels, beach chairs, snorkels, a voucher for the café, and more importantly, a respite from other holiday makers. But even here, the water is noticeably dirty, with the ocean coughing up drifting trash.
Marco sighs in frustration at the problem. Apparently, three months a year, the currents run towards this part of the island, carrying refuse with them.
“The island of Java has more than 140 million people,” he elaborates, “and they dump their garbage into the ocean.”
All over the world, ocean pollution has risen to epic and disturbing proportions. The Pacific Ocean garbage patch alone is rumored to be twice the size of Texas, and over 7 millions tons in weight.
“It all just floats out there,” Marco moans. “And it’s all plastic. Nothing is going anywhere.”
If it’s possible to hide from these troubles, we are certainly in the right place. From our villa, the ocean looks blue and pristine.
There are hummingbirds at night and visiting monkeys, who sneak in to steal the pumpkin cakes. The Alila is committed to reducing garbage, hiring neighboring villagers and empowering the local staff.
Their line of organic spa products are packaged in sleek recycled plastic.
Cooking classes are available to learn Indonesian recipes using traditional methods. Even the landscaping of the resort is based totally on local plants and materials.
When I asked Marco what the secret was to the enchantment of Bali, he pointed to the importance of balance between environment, people and culture. And truly, after two weeks, I feel wrapped in a cocoon of tolerance and harmony.
The night before we leave, we go to Pura Luhur, the famous monkey temple in Uluwatu. We have come to see the Kecak (Fire) Dance, which is held daily at sunset. The amphitheater is full and we have all been given a sarong wrap for modesty and a swath of orange cloth, whose religious significance I haven’t figured out yet. It is boiling hot, and the paper programs are being folded and turned into fans all around me. It is crowded and frankly, pretty uncomfortable, but no one is pushing, complaining, or being unpleasant in any way.
At the end of the performance, one of the temple staff thanks us for our respect, patience and tolerance, during the performance tonight, but also in the recent days of Nyepi.
He comments on the fact that here all religions are seated together, peacefully. There is room for everyone.
We can co-exist. My eye is caught by the scalloped tower of the ancient Hindu temple perched on the cliff; still in use, revered – but tilting towards the ocean and the other unseen shores.