The Sound of Silence
On Saturday, town was so quiet you could literally hear the silence. Not the usual raucous night-time non-quiet, the squawking yabber of geckos, the surprising baritone of tiny frogs. But that daytime silence you get in the deep countryside, where you can hear the breeze in the leaves and the rice shoots.
It’s the year 1933 in Bali now, by the Caka calendar. And Saturday was Nyepi, the day of silent meditation which marks the coming of the New Year — and, depending on which version you believe, either calms the demons into acquiescence or fools them into believing the island’s been abandoned.
Bali is, quite probably, the most religiously observant society I’ve ever seen. The daily tending of gods, ancestors and demons, the elaborate offerings, the grand ceremonies which are still a crucial part of rural life…
And then there’s Nyepi. The annual New Year ritual which shuts the island down completely. After a blaze of parades, with gory, monstrous ogoh-ogohs, where teenagers party all night with firecrackers, and quieter ceremonies at every rural temple, the rule is to retreat home, stay indoors and meditate with family.
There is no transport on or off the island: the ferries cease. Denpasar airport is closed to flights — the only international airport in the world to close for a public holiday every year.
And there’s no transport within the island, either. All businesses close but hotels and hospitals. The traffic stops dead. Many longterm non-Hindu residents head out for the Gilis or back to Java.
On much of the island there is no one in the streets but the men from the villages charged with policing the silence and ushering stray tourists back into their homes or hotels. The temptation to wander, to explore, to break the rules is high — but we resist.
In theory, one uses neither fire nor electricity on Nyepi. In practice? You’re allowed to keep the lights on after dark provided the windows are covered.
Work is banned. Yet in the villages outside Ubud, some strays work quietly in the rice fields.
We’d walked in the parade through Ubud with Z’s school, a bunch of excited children carrying a monster of surprising weight on a bamboo frame, with adults lending their shoulders too.
And walking back, I’m surprised by the darkness. It’s an overcast night. A new moon night, like every Nyepi. A handful of sparse streetlights still illuminated — there will be none on Nyepi itself — and a glow of smouldering coconut husks around the offerings.
Z’s worried about the dark. Will the electricity go off? He doesn’t like the dark.
But the electricity stays on. It’s a festival, like so many, becoming diluted over time. Though even in Kuta they shut the shops, the restaurants, the water park, the tacky nightclubs, the surfwear stores, the purveyors of cheap ethnic clothes and Viking motorbike helmets…
How do we pass the time between the two dawns? I’d like to say we meditate, like true Hindus. But we’re neither Buddhist nor Hindu, so we don’t.
We read. Well, I read. Z, having chosen two books from the library, demolishes both in record time. We play cards. Not the blackjack games I played with my cousins as children, but Z’s own invention, cardominoes. He draws a bit.
We go outside and admire the silence, listen to the breeze. It’s the one day of the year when the air in southern Bali is even halfway clear, when your pores aren’t clogged by the fumes of hundreds of thousand scooters and choking lorries, and the dust they spit up off the road.
And I think how good it would be to have one day a year in every country where the shops shut down, the traffic stopped, folk were allowed neither TV nor films nor internet, and people just had to be.
Nyepi falls on 23rd March next year. If you’re thinking of visiting Bali, it’s an intriguing time to visit.