It was not our first Nyepi spent in Bali, Indonesia, but this one was certainly different.
The first time we heard of Nyepi was back in 2010, when we spent the last month of our round the world trip in Bali. We attempted to see a parade of ogoh ogoh, but failed as we had no idea what we were even looking for and what time things happened. After, we were locked inside a hotel, with awful food, and a bunch of strangers. For 24 hours. We were barricaded, with the front entrance enclosed by plywood. It was a strange holiday, and I knew we were missing something.
This Nyepi, we were living in Ubud. In our own house. In a village we love. I knew it would be different than the last. We had local friends who explained more about the traditions, and the rules, of how to experience Nyepi, and more importantly, the night before Nyepi.
Nyepi is the Balinese New Year, and one of the most important holidays of the year. For weeks before, we saw the neighborhood boys creating their ogoh ogoh, large styrofoam monsters and demons which would be paraded through the village. During the afternoons, younger boys were working on a blue monster with wild hair. In the evenings, the older guys were at work on a large frog, with tiger stripes, and a blue monster sitting atop, while listening to music, and probably drinking a little Arak. Each day as I drove by, the monsters took shape and looked more like the ogoh ogoh I have seen before.
As Nyepi inched closer, preparations of another variety took place – stocking up. It was the talk of the expat community. The day of Nyepi itself is a day of silence, and all Balinese and Bule need to remain in their homes. No one is allowed on the streets. Restaurants and shops are closed. Even the airport closes. You can face stiff penalties for being out of your house or hotel.
We felt as though we were preparing for a storm as we prepared for two dinners, a breakfast, and a lunch for everyone in the house. For us, our Nyepi family included Emerald. And, the three of us are known for our eating. I felt a little pre-Nyepi stress trying to ensure we had enough food on hand. Even on the afternoon before Nyepi, I raced around to buy bread and ice cream, just some of the important necessities.
As dusk neared on the eve of Nyepi, we made our way into the village of Kutuh Kaja, where we have been living since returning to Bali in November. I watched all of the neighborhood boys adding finishing touches to the ogoh ogoh of Bali. They practiced carrying them as a group, which each monster perched on a bamboo carrying platform. There were several ogoh ogoh for the village, of varying sizes. The smallest was carried by the youngest boys, including one who was so small that when the ogoh ogoh was lifted, he was lifted right along with it, feet dangling a few inches from the street, until his mother pulled him out to keep him safe.
We had some time to kill before the festivities kicked off in the village. So, we took a quick detour into the town of Ubud, to check out the ogoh ogoh that are presented on the soccer field. There were many more ogoh ogoh and they were much more elaborate than those in Kutuh Kaja, but I wanted to get back to our village, where we knew people, in order to witness Nyepi as it should be – with fewer tourists and little tourist spectacle.
We raced back up Jalan Tirta Tawar just moments before the festivities began, conveniently just outside of the driveway to our house. We parked our motorbikes and waited. As the sun set, the ogoh ogoh started to light up, and the procession began. Boys carried their ogoh ogoh with pride into the village and through it, with villagers joining the procession as we passed each family compound.
We saw Ibu Made, our neighbor, and her daughter. We saw our housekeeper, Santi, who carried her young son with us through the entire procession, asking us repeatedly in Indonesian if we were happy to be experiencing Nyepi. We saw Nyoman and Sri of Abe Do Warung, and Made of Made Becik’s Warung, who was busy as a bee running around as a Pecalang, or neighborhood police, helping to direct traffic and keep order in the chaos.
It seemed that everyone in the village was out on the road that night. As we were at the tail end of the procession, the crowds became larger and larger, with motorbikes hot on our heels. The street lights were turned off in the village and it was dark walking the kilometer down to the temple. Every once in a while I would turn to look behind me to see the swell of the crowds, an amazing sight as generally the road is fairly quiet, with little traffic or fanfare.
As we neared the temple, the men carrying the largest of the ogoh ogoh of Bali became more active, yelling along with the gamelan music, jostling the ogoh ogoh left and right and up and down. The goal was to make as much noise as possible with the ogoh ogoh to scare off the demons that have haunted the people of Bali during the prior year. The idea behind the silence of Nyepi, the following day, is to keep so quiet that the demons pass right over the island and leave the people in peace for the coming year.
There was certainly a ruckus as the final moments of the procession took place. I was trying to take photos, and then suddenly the ogoh ogoh changed direction and came right towards me, with Eric yelling at me to move. The crowd swelled in the direction of the village. It was like being chased by a loud bull when suddenly dozens of men came in my direction carrying an oversized frog, covered in green lights.
Traditionally, in generations past, the ogoh ogoh was burned. But, as Bali has grown in size this tradition has been limited due to safety concerns. Instead of a fire, the lights on the ogoh ogoh were turned off, quite unceremoniously, and people immediately started walking back home through the already darkened village, anxious to get home for Nyepi, and a day of silence.
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together they have traveled to over 70 countries.