9:00am Today’s sunrise brought the New Lunar Year and the start of Bali’s day of silence: Nyepi. Right now evil spirits are swirling around Bali and hopefully, finding it devoid of human life, will decide to leave the island alone for another year. To keep up the illusion everyone abides by a few basic rules: no going outside, no loud noise, no open flames, and no visible light. Beyond those guidelines the spirit of the day seems to be up for interpretation. For some, Nyepi is a time for solitary reflection and even fasting, for others a time for enjoying good food and catching up on household chores. Many of the young people I know plan to hole themselves up with their friends and drink all day. That is, unless they get too loud and the pecalang, a kind of traditional police force, come confiscate their alcohol.
Yesterday had the feeling of the day before a hurricane strikes. Everyone was buzzing about visiting friends and stocking up on supplies. Most homes in Bali buy their meat and vegetables every morning, so even one day without shopping requires extra preparation. By the early afternoon, the stores that were still open had been thoroughly picked over. I had spent the morning watching a ceremony so now I will be eating rice and beans along with a few bruised tomatoes. Most women woke up early today to do the day’s cooking before the sun came up and all flames had to be extinguished. I wasn’t feeling so ambitious so my beans are stewing in the rice cooker instead.
Bali is a noisy and busy place. I can usually hear children screaming and motorbikes rattling down bumpy roads. There is always a construction project pounding away somewhere or an airplane humming overhead. Most evenings I can hear a gamelan group practicing in the distance or the Hindu epics being broadcast from temples and community halls. Today the silence is only broken by the birds and dogs, which are doing their best to pick up the slack. Likewise, the air, so often heavy with fried spices and burning garbage, is clear of human smells.
I have seen a few people poke their heads outside in defiance of the curfew, but for the most part the streets are empty. Apparently the silence is more strictly enforced in the villages, where the pecalang make regular patrols. I live in a more modern neighborhood where the traditions and community institutions are not as strong. Still, as I write, the only sounds I notice are the chirping birds and the hum of my refrigerator, more audible now that it has no competition. For once I wish I lived in the city so I could see the deserted streets and rows of boarded up store-fronts; or by one of the resort beaches that are momentarily devoid of sunbathers and hawkers.
Around eight o’clock the pecalang made a pass through the neighborhood checking that everyone had their lights out. I could see their tell-tale black and white checkered sarongs in the light of their flashlights. One large house across the street seemed to be defying the black-out, shining like a beacon with every bulb bright and every curtain drawn. But now it too has gone dark. I have allowed myself a single lamp to read by, but I shut the curtains and hung a sheet over the door just to be sure.
The Lunar Year starts on the new moon, so the darkness outside is complete. The animals finally take a hint and pipe down. Nothing stirs for minutes at a time; the stars and crickets are the only thing saving us from total oblivion. I think every place could use a day like this.
–March 23, 2012