Hari Raya Nyepi, Balinese New Year Greetings 1938
As I lounged around poolside this morning, I found myself re-reading the same page of my book at least a half a dozen times. A florescent light green dragon fly sat on the corner of page 64, distracting me as I watched her preening herself (or whatever she was really doing, who am I to know?). Simply stunning as her head bobbed independent of her long thorax with her compound eyes scanning to and fro. Two of her six multi-jointed legs clapping and twitching to no beat in particular. The bright sun through her transparent lacey wings cast a shadow mid page as if she were a puppet in a wayang kulit performance (shadow puppet). Magnificence in the moment.
Did I say lounging poolside? Correct. I am celebrating the Balinese New Year (Nyepi), one of their most special holidays of the year, at our friend’s guesthouse where I have stayed many times over the 20 plus years they have had it. A two day indulgence, but a modest one, and after working really hard for the past several weeks, I am enjoying it immensely with my dear love Connie. Yet everywhere I look I see Bill and Daniel, and have pangs of nostalgia and longing. We first stayed here before he was born, and then with him many times over the years, so much so the first thing the staff asks me when I arrive is How is Daniel, before How are you? Now, as we are teetering on Daniel graduating from High School and leaving home to moving into College, the next phase of his life, we can’t help reflect backwards, inwards, and then ultimately, forwards. But right before me is four year old Daniel is learning to swim in this very pool with his local friends and Australian swim Teachers Tom and Marcele cheering him on. Deep sigh and huge smiles at the same time.
Returning home to Bali a mere three weeks ago, my heart burst (in truth, it does a dozen times a day here on average) as soon as I left the airport and entered the main road. I was immediately reminded that for the first time in ages, I was in Bali during Galungan and Kunningan, the most sacred holidays for Balinese Hindus. The island is decked out in all her finery, a unique welcome accented by Penjors – the giant bamboo poles lining the streets, erected outside of every single household. These intricately decorated Penjors, rise 25 plus feet up to the sky and naturally curve down, bejeweled with harvest gifts fruits, coconut leaves, rice, coconuts, and more. They represent the mountains heights, with the top curve returning slope downwards that of the water running from the mountains to irrigate the island and provide for a lush bounty of rice, foods, and drinking water for the Balinese. I have long been enamored of such simple and gloriously beautiful symbols for their ceremonies, evoking the artist within me and the lover of ephemeral rituals – and art – as well. I spent the first few days home walking around looking upwards with my mouth open as every road in Bali is arched with these tall glorious art pieces, mindful not to trip or fall into an open ditch in the so called “sidewalks”. Set apart by 10 days (similar to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holy days) during which you honor all your ancestor spirits, believed to return to earth for this time period. Galungan is the day triumphing of good over evil, (so simple, non?), with Kunningan the other bookend, closing out the celebration. And now, the Penjors are aged and a bit weathered (aren’t we all?) still beautifully dangling, almost ready to be taken down, symbolizing the honored ancestors time to return to the other world, and my own readying to return to my other beloved home. I resonate so with the ancestral spirits annually returning to this island that I love so, and then returning back to the places they inhabit most of the time.
Today, March 9th, marks yet another bizarre coming together of two special events, Nyepi – the Balinese New Year and Day of Silence – and the partial solar eclipse, which was evident throughout Indonesia and especially in Bali, during the morning hours. The solar eclipse occurs every 18 months of so, but it rarely coincides with the new moon celebration of the New Year (it is1938 here because the Balinese month is 35 days long!). Nyepi is already a very eerie day to the Balinese, following a nighttime celebration of raucous parades with large Ogoh-Ogoh, paper mache effigies embodying the evil and demonic spirits, paraded around the town with as much hoopla and noise to entice the evil spirits, or low spirits, into coming down for this happening party. The following morning begins the traditional day (24 hours) of silence in Bali, literally no cars on the road, the airport and seaports are closed, no one leaves their family compounds or hotels, etc. and tends to be a day of introspection, meditation, or silent resting (or lounging poolside by Connie and me). The appearance of a deserted island is believe to trick the demons of the night that Bali is indeed abandon, and therefore very boring, and they go elsewhere to look for a more crazy party/island to inhabit. Nowhere in the world does this phenomenon exist – where international airports actually close to arrivals and departures. This wholly bizarre concept is heightened this year by the solar eclipse because for the first few hours of Nyepi, dawn was once again in shadow and darkness, so the low spirits could have snuck back onto the island to make more mischief early this morn. For a culture that wholly subscribes to black magic and witches, there was much concern for this most unique Nyepi day. Watch out!!!!
Walking within our compound back from dinner to our room tonight, with the light of a few candles in the pitch black, the endless night sky SPARKLED with stars. Remember there are no lights on at all tonight, just a few behind closed doors, and a new moon, so there is absolutely no light pollution anywhere on the island of Bali. And there are no cars or motor bikes to cover up the frogs and crickets serenading us. Such darkness, and stillness, one can only imagine. Tonight’s bedazzled and silent sky will forever be etched in black and white in my memory.
A few days back before Nyepi, my old friend Penny and I embarked on our favorite annual ritual of scootering around to the smaller villages out from Ubud, our home base, in search of old styled Ogoh-Ogoh. The modern economy has afforded the more prosperous (still relatively poor) areas to make fancy, huge, bejeweled creatures, made from foam rubber and all lit up with lights. We long for the smaller statements of evil, made from glue paste and paper where you can actually see the paper marks and tell the process by which it was made. We saw an old Rangda – bad crazy old witch – whose skin showed the wrinkles of her age, evoking her village made quality. Loved it. As I sat on the back of Penny’s scooter, we zig zagged on small village roads, often dirt tracks only, still framed by the glorious arc of the Penjors. Through the rice fields, up far from Ubud, lost and happy, we asked for directions only when we got to the end of a track, and could go no further. As we rounded one corner we met fields of rice almost ready for harvest, guarded by the best homemade scare crows ever. Their simple bodies made from palm fronds, bent and connected so that the frond leaves made their ribcage, and the center stalk their back bone. With a coconut shell for a head, who needs more? Behind them and their rice field charges, way off in the distance, was the lineup of Bali’s fierce volcanoes, clear as day. Striking and erect, 7 peaks starting from west to the east, finally punctuated by the Mother Mountain Mt. Agung, all 10,000 feet her. Seeing them on the horizon, rather than hiding behind the low lying cloud cover, reminded me of their boldness, as if they were lining up for a convicts perp walk, defying us to remember where the real power and spirits of the island reside.
From my first day I landed and took my annual baptismal swim at my friend Sarita’s beach, floating in the Indian Ocean, to the last few days where I am humbled by the presence of the mountains to the north, Bali continues to evoke in me a reverence for life with small rituals and grand gestures. I always strive to bring this energy home with me and practice it in small ways, my Balinese spirit living happily in the West, as I am of my two worlds. Remind me of this if you see me wavering. As the Penjors come down, I am so looking forward to returning home to my Bill, Daniel, Kaely and all my loves. A very Happy New Year to you all – see you all back home – in whichever one you choose!
Love, Love, and Light,