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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

Searching for El Chapareke (Jeff Biggers, Mexico, September 29, 1999).

Opium in the Naga Hills (Rahul Goswami, India, September 1, 1999).

A Saturday at the Auction (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, August 4, 1999).

The Bulls of Goa (Rahul Goswami, India, June 16, 1999).

The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo (Jeffrey Tayler, Nigeria, May 26, 1999).

Hotel Alf (Akash Kapur, Poland, May 12, 1999).

Strolling Moscow's Broadway (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 28, 1999).

Uygur Luncheon (Jeffrey Tayler, China, April 14, 1999).

Onion Logic (Akash Kapur, India, March 31, 1999).

Dreamcasting Japan (Trevor Corson, Japan, March 17, 1999).

Talmud in a Taxi (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, March 3, 1999).

A Place of Healing (Jeffrey Tayler, China, February 17, 1999).

The Tiger Queen (Akash Kapur, India, February 3, 1999).

Holiday Moscow (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, January 6, 1999).

The Long Arm of the Chinese Law (Jeffrey Tayler, China, December 16, 1998).

Panama by Panga (Benjamin Howe, Panama, December 2, 1998).

Tower of Babel (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, November 18, 1998).

An Unlucky Place (Katherine Guckenberger, Ireland, November 4, 1998).

The Wonder in the Bog (Allan Reeder, Ireland, October 15, 1998).

For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad Index.

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New Year's and Nothingness
October 27, 1999

"The Balinese New Year must begin with complete nothingness," my driver for the day, Wayan Rai, tells me as he squats on the ground in his family's garden preparing coconut rice, "because all existence originates from nothingness."

On the roads of Bali nothingness has yet to arrive. It is Galungan, the Balinese New Year's Eve, when people leave the towns to spend the holidays in their home villages. All the motorcycles, cars, and pedestrians jammed in the streets make travel almost impossible. It has taken us nearly three hours to navigate the twenty-five miles to Jimbaran Bay from Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali. Women wearing yellow sarongs and red temple sashes come pouring through the village with pyramids of assorted fruit balanced atop their heads. They congregate at the ocean and lay their food at hastily constructed shrines on the beach.

"You can't eat this," Wayan says, pointing at a box of bananas. "You will get in much trouble if you eat before the gods have taken their part."

The men, many of whom arrived on flatbed trucks packed shoulder-to-shoulder, are trying to keep the local dogs from provoking the gods. Balinese dogs roam the villages, sparring and copulating with each other while the locals look on, amused. Throughout most of the year villagers project a noninterfering, live-and-let-live attitude of detached respect for these four-legged islanders. But such nonchalance comes to an end around New Year's. Now when the dogs loiter around the festival sites hoping for a scrap or two, they're kicked away or pelted with pebbles. Nobody eats until the gods do.

All of this activity is only a prelude to tomorrow's holiday. The Balinese New Year is called Nyepi, and its date is determined by the lunar calendar. Nyepi nearly always falls close to the vernal equinox, toward the end of March or the beginning of April. Wayan, who has agreed to drive me anywhere I want to go for a fee of $15 a day, is the brother of the owner of the losmenwhere I'm staying in Ubud. Wayan has spent most of the week reminding me what I can't do on Nyepi.

For starters, I won't be allowed to leave the losmengrounds. Nor will I be allowed to use electricity in my room. I can't make noise or speak to anyone, nor can I read, smoke, watch television, cook, or eat. I can't have sex or enjoy massages. Restaurants, offices, and shops will be closed; traffic lights and streetlights will be shut off. The streets will be empty of cars. The ports will be shut down because no ships or ferries will be in operation. I'm not allowed to light fires, except for small candles. If I absolutely must use a flashlight, it should be pointed downward.

"But don't use a flashlight," Wayan says. "It's bad luck."

It doesn't sound like any New Year celebration I've ever heard of. But I know Wayan isn't pulling my leg. Most everyone I meet warns me about Nyepi, as Balinese, wary of angering the gods, are understandably interested in making sure tourists know the rules of this holy day. The lengths to which islanders go to ensure a twenty-four-hour period of darkness and silence is astounding. I am told that members of the local banjar-- a council made up of the married males in the village -- will keep silent watch at various points along the roads and in the alleys. If a car should come, which is unlikely, its passengers had better be carrying proof of official permission to travel.

Nyepi serves two purposes. The Balinese hope that the demons and evil spirits aroused by the noise tonight will be tricked by tomorrow's silence into thinking that Bali is completely devoid of life -- causing them to leave the island in search of people to pester elsewhere. Nyepi is also a time to meditate, to suppress passion and learn control of excesses, and to reflect on the previous year while looking forward to the next.

Wayan and his family live in his brother's losmen.Their daily life is typical of the Balinese, whose belief in an animistic form of Hinduism compels them to lay out offerings for seemingly insatiable deities. Wayan's brother-in-law, who like a large percentage of the population is also named Wayan (there are basically only four first names on Bali, given according to birth order, with the first- and fourth-born children named Wayan), has spent the past couple days making pilgrimages from temple to temple on the island. When he returns he spends the afternoon cleaning moss off shrines at the losmen, laying out food for the gods in the shrines and on the sidewalk by the street. Wayan turns his back to sweep the driveway, and dogs devour the offerings instantly. He puts down his broom and sighs.

"It is so difficult to be Balinese," he says. "We have so many spirits on this island. It is a full-time job keeping them all happy."

When I wake up the next morning everything is just as the two Wayans said it would be. There is no one at the hotel desk or walking around the compound. Soon I'm standing in the garden overlooking the empty streets of Ubud, where during the past week I have been hounded by hawkers, drivers, and artists shouting "I know you have money." Now it is desolate. Apparently they are all safely and silently tucked away in their respective family compounds, musing about life.

Even the dogs, sunning themselves in great packs on the sidewalks, seem particularly meditative.

Later I run into two other foreigners on the losmengrounds, a German couple who have broken the rule against self-indulgence by sunning themselves poolside. They are also whispering to each other, and at their beckoning I seize the opportunity for a little sun and conversation as well. Like me, they've opted to skip the fasting. "Who wants to starve on vacation?" the woman says. They also had the foresight to buy a case of beer. I go back to their room with them and help them drink it, quietly -- the walls are thin and one of Wayan's sisters lives in the next room.

The Germans told me they'd heard that some families work themselves into a trance that leads them up to the big, ancient temple at the end of the street. And so when evening comes, I decide to leave the compound and see for myself.

I step out into the street and immediately am petrified by the utter blackness of the night. It's the rainy season and the moon is obscured by clouds. I wish for a moment that I had brought a flashlight, but I'm too afraid of upsetting this precarious state of nothingness that the Balinese have so masterfully created.

There in the jet black street I begin to see things: flashes of color here and there. I feel an unseen presence, a sensation like being deep in the ocean at night while fish swim past. I wonder if these are the spirits I'm sensing, the ones the two Wayans are always talking about.

Then something brushes by me in the darkness. My eyes adjust enough to make out the silhouette of a man. He glides past, yet I can't hear his footsteps on the asphalt. Then, somewhere in the village, a dog barks twice. The dull thud that follows is undoubtedly a reprimand, as the dog whimpers and falls silent into Bali's holy void.


William Tyree is an American writer currently based in Tokyo. His work has appeared in the Japan Timesand North American Reviewand is forthcoming in Newsweek Japan.

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Photographs by William Tyree.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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