BALI: The Night of the Ogoh-Ogoh

Nyepi is Balinese New Year.  This year their calendar will be changing from 1931 to 1932.  Nyepi is better known, however, as “Do Nothing Day”, an enforced day of rest when all movement outside is banned (the airport is closed), no human sounds should be heard, and no lights shown.  It is taken seriously: in case of a medical emergency, we were warned, the Nyepi committee has to be consulted, and special permission given to go to the hospital.  Although Bali is Hindu, and the observation of Nyepi is enforced by Hindus, there is certainly no equivalent in India: it seems impossible there could be one universally accepted moment of silence in that charged up country.

India, though, would really like the day before Nyepi.  Like Mardi Gras to Lent, it is a day of noise and processions before the big renunciation.  The purpose of the festival is to lure troublesome spirits out into the open, scare them away, and then when they return pretend that the island is deserted so that they won’t see any point in stopping and settle somewhere else.  The day before Nyepi people sweep out their houses, purify them with burning incense, and leave beautiful offerings in front of their doors on the street.  In the meantime, elaborate foam and papier mache diabolical figures called ogoh-ogoh are being built.  The streets around Ubud are full of these creatures.  Many, like the one on our alley, seem to consider huge breasts and pointy nipples especially fearsome.

The procession of the Ogoh-Ogoh begins after dark.  They are paraded down the street and into the main square by the royal palace, held aloft on bamboo platforms by the groups who made them.  Often they are accompanied by gamelan orchestras, and once they reach the square a frenzied running about occurs, with the huge demon figures tossing like ships on a stormy sea, and a loudspeaker extorting the crowd to stay out of the way or risk serious injury.

Fortunately we have chosen a comfortable retreat for Nyepi day.  Hotels are down to a skeleton staff, and ours is letting us use the kitchen.  We cook a little, use the pool, and basically follow the injunction to do nothing.  There are only three sets of fellow guests.  One is a French photographer now residing on the remote island of Sumba, and helping the locals address a chronic water shortage by digging wells.  He is accompanied by a friend from a tiny adjascent island, and they are taking their cooking seriously, pulverizing fresh spices into marinades and cooking soups, sauces and a whole chicken.  A pair of Dutch ladies subsist on toast and mah jong, and a lone Spanish guy insists his soda crackers are all he wants, until the mounds of chicken and rice win him over.  The biggest surprise on Nyepi, however, is the Balinese couple who have a small plot of land on the other side of a small canal, just opposite our patio.  It is a relatively deserted place anyway, and the last thing we are expecting is to see someone there on Do Nothing Day.  Yoga and his wife, unfortunately, spend all day scooping gravel from the canal for the foundation of a new building.  They can’t be seen from the alley, so all day they labour on, even though the Nyepi police at one point warned us against moving a chair too loudly in the restaurant.

After Nyepi is over we ride up to one of our favourite places, Tirta Gangga.  We have pared down our gear to the absolute minimum, and both of us and our pack fit on a 110 cc Honda scooter.  Set between two volcanoes, in the midst of verdant rice fields, Tirta Gangga is glorious.  From our balcony we look over the hibiscus and frangipani and bougainvillea in the garden, the jungle-lined bowl of terraced rice fields, the smaller volcano, Gunung Seraya, to the east coast and the sea.

Katheryn, in the early days, spent a wonderful time in a quiet hamlet out on that coast, Jemeluk, snorkeling endlessly in a splendid coral garden.  She hasn’t been back since, but it is only 30 minutes or so away, so we take our beach gear and do a day trip.  Fortunately the winding road down to the coast is still fabulous.  Jemeluk has now merged with its bigger neighbor, Ahmed, into a continuous strip of resorts and hotels.  The black pebble beach never was much of a draw, and it is still lined with brightly painted outrigger boats, as before.  We rent a mask and a snorkel, and I am the first to go into the water.  Then Katheryn takes her turn.  It is depressing.  Almost all the coral is dead.  There are still some colourful fish, but they are outnumbered by a steady current of plastic rubbish.  We intended to spend the day, but it is stinking hot on the sand, and there is no reason to stay.  There are still wooden salt-drying racks along the coast, and Ahmed is famous for having some of the best sea salt in the world.  But even when we stop to buy a bag it turns into an unhappy scene, as other vendors run over and thrust identical bags at us, at identical prices.

Riding back over the hills we get caught in the only rain we have had since we’ve been here, a soaking downpour that leaves brown rivers flowing over the road.  There are still lots of motorbike riders out, but most of them have jackets or ponchos.  We just get soaked.  But it’s a good rain to get soaked by, tropical rain, and afterward the plants all rejoice and exhale simultaneously and the air is so rich we bathe in it as much as breathe it.

See some more of our Bali photos (more Ogoh-Ogoh) at

Also, we were stymied by slow downloads when we posted the last blog, so if you were disappointed not to be able to see the latest videos, now you can!  The rest of our Nepal videos are at the end of the last blog, but here is one to whet your appetite: Bad Road Movie.  From Bali, you won’t want to miss the hilarious Pig Dance.  There are also: From Calcutta to Bali; Hiking and Biking in Tirta Gangga; and the terrifying Night of the Ogoh-Ogoh.

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