Have you ever heard a kingfisher sing? Or seen swallows flit straight across the sky unhindered (for once) by pockets and thermals of petrol-polluted air? When’s the last time you saw, in plain sight, a shooting star sweep down the black night sky?
Well I did – and I do, each and every Balinese New Year.
That’s because on that one day, a.k.a. the Day of Silence, everything that wo/man and industry have created, does – and must – come to a total standstill. A period of protracted pause.
If you’re not yet familiar with Nyepi (from my blog or elsewhere), it’s an exquisite expression of the Balinese culture, when potentially mean-spirited and damaging spirits passing over the island, are tricked into believing that no signs of life and activity means the absence of humanity. It is the cultural equivalent of naughty kids playing hide and seek – in the dark.
It’s also a sui generis experience, as the entire island shuts down for a full 24 hours; residents and tourists are forbidden from leaving their property; the use of electricity is prohibited (at night-time); and vehicles are verboten. Even the airport is closed and all flights cancelled (though why they are ever booked to begin with, when this is a longstanding tradition and the date is known well in advance, is still a mystery to me). The inevitable and precious result is that nature’s creatures are more audible and the sky is carpeted with stars and light otherwise unseen on most nights.
This year (2018) for the first time ever, the Balinese authorities also pulled the plug on all internet/Wifi and data networks, so all connections to the outside worlds were put on pause. Which meant that you either packed up and headed off-island, or you switched off. I did the latter, and – in a strange and unexpected way – I felt thankful for those government-enforced sanctions, because I had no choice in the matter!
The sounds of nature came alive: The rat-tat-tat of roosters crowing cracked through the calm of early morning, as it settled around the dawn. Cecaks and tokays (geckos of every size) nattered on. Pigeons cooed more loudly – or did it just seem so? You could even hear the scratchy sound of a light breeze rustling the leaves of palms and flowering trees nearby. The distinctly light touch of dried-up leaves fallen to the ground.
The all-too-common sight of planes streaming by on a westerly flight path, not too high above the water, for their descent towards the airport, temporarily disappeared.
The imposed digital withdrawal lightened my spirit, brought me back to childhood, a simpler, less cluttered and disconnected time. I practiced yoga, meditated, and fasted (on liquids). I read from Light on Yoga, a B.K.S. Iyengar classic, and from a text on Narrative Therapy (course work). I spent a few joyous hours painting – with A and her kids (I now share quarters with a woman and her 2 daughters, in an extraordinarily sprawling house, very close to the beach). I listened out for the birds, the cows across the street, the dogs howling at a far distance. You could hear a palm branch drop – and that, I did.
With time slowed down, and no emails to reply to, no campaign mailings to ship out, no Skype calls to make, I pulled out a notebook and mindfully practiced my handwriting; wondering how these decades of fast typing, fast note-taking, fast jotting down, full of acronyms and bullet points, had so cramped and spoiled my once-legible and expressive handwriting.
From one sunrise to the next (I snuck down to the beach for both), with a glorious night smoothed over by darkness and quiet, I was nestled into a cocoon of calm… until, moments after 6 a.m. on Sunday, a thundering roar of engines prompted me to turn away from the rising sun – where I witnessed the first wave of oncoming hordes, the Balinese descending en masse to the beach, in an endless convoy of cars and bikes, as if a tsunami of humanity had just been released from enforced confinement.