I am about to experience Bali’s most important and sacred holiday of the year this Friday: Nyepi. It is the last day of the year before the new year in the Balinese calendar and a day when no activities are allowed; almost everything closes, including the airport, and the only thing you can do is stay inside your house with your family and converse (for some, even talking is not allowed). The rules differ for everyone, but for those who fully observe it, it strictly is a day of self-reflection and meditation—no working, no entertainment or pleasure, and no lights. Men designated for community watch, called pecalang, stay put in the main streets to make sure no one is breaking the rules.
Nowadays, the rules during Nyepi aren’t so strict for non-Balinese like my boyfriend, my co-workers, and me. We can enjoy using technologies and electricity at home as long as we are considerate (not too bright, not too loud, keep the blinds closed). We have some DVD’s we can watch, but I plan on spending this day to do as Ferris Bueller says:
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
It’s nice and refreshing that the Balinese observe a day like this every year; it really helps to be introspective about your life and this moment, which we all need from time to time. What I like even more about it is the idea that you don’t have to go elsewhere to remove yourself from the mundaneness of life because it can happen right where you are. Most of us have to go on some grand vacation to soul-search and get a fresh perspective on our lives—the Balinese do this every year in the comfort of their own homes.
Unfortunately, there is a side to Nyepi that I dislike, which has to do with the dominance of the tourism industry here. Hotels and resorts are the only businesses that stay open during this day. In fact, they sell Nyepi packages for 3 days and 2 nights and prepare special in-house events so that guests stay in and spend all their money at the hotel. This is because even tourists are not permitted to leave their hotel’s premises. Sadly, some of the newspaper ads for these Nyepi packages I’ve seen also have very disturbing fine print – package is available for KITAS holders only, and KITAS is a visa that grants foreigners a permanent resident status. While there is a lot of discrimination in this island that almost always favors foreigners and completely to the disadvantage of the locals (a typical syndrome for island destinations, I think), I find the blatant discriminating fine print of those ads the most appalling and obnoxious of them all. It just screams unwillingness to respect local customs.
Other than that bit of disappointment, I am very excited to see what’s in store this Friday. Sometimes I wonder if it’d feel similar to living in a post apocalyptic world if somehow I could walk around the empty streets during the day. If you had to observe Nyepi at your own city, what would you do?
[Update] To see more incredible ogoh-ogoh’s (they are spectacular and so fantastical!) from my neighborhood, you can view the photos Daniel Pham took here.