demons of the deep fry – nyepi & nuptials in bali

Ok Bali, I get it. It’s taken me two months, but I think I finally get it.

Everyone here is always going on about the ‘M’ word…that Bali magic that has a tendency to cast its spell on expats. They arrive from the far reaches of the western world, rent a motorbike, bang out a few sun salutations, shoot back some young coconut water, and BAM, faster than you can say sama sama, they’re getting their hands on a freehold and opening an import-export business…or a woodcarving studio…or a raw cafe/yoga studio/retreat centre/B&B…and staying here forever and ever because the Island of the Gods is their one true home in the universe.

The magic didn’t work on me. Let me explain.


Bali: a monstrous first couple of months

The first few weeks were a black hole of jetlag and back pain. It was lonely and draining, getting acclimatized to the heat and humidity, adjusting my expectations to meet the reality of my life in Bali, and trying to fit in to a community that appeared welcoming at first glance but in fact made me feel more invisible and shut out than I’d ever felt before.

My motorbike - Independence laced with danger.

My motorbike – Independence laced with danger.

Then the infamous Bali Belly churned me up and liquefied me for a week. The first month ended with a motorbike accident that crushed my right foot – painful under normal circumstances; debilitating when your commute to work involves hiking down a muddy track, climbing a couple hundred uneven stone steps, and weaving along jagged lava rock pathways.

Just as I thought I was getting better, I fell off the bike again, re-traumatizing the same foot and adding some road rash to the mix.

I was feeling useless at work, socially inept, and frustrated with the string of physical maladies that seemed to have no end. So if Bali was waving a magic wand over my head, I didn’t see it on account of the massive grey thundercloud that hung over me from January until March.

But this week the cloud of toxic smoke from burning garbage cleared, and the sky looked blue for the first time in nearly two months. I’m still not entranced or enthralled, but I do have a kind of middle school crush on Bali. I don’t really get it, and it’s a feeling I’m almost embarrassed about after thinking it was icky for so long, but I kinda like it and want to stalk it’s Facebook wall til it pays attention to me.

Preparing a rooster for a cock-fight near Padang Padang beach

Preparing a rooster for a cock-fight near Padang Padang beach

This past weekend was indisputably awesome. Saturday I drove (yes, on the motorbike) down to the Bukit, the little tonsil-like hangy ball at the south end of the island. I met a Jakartan guy from Couchsurfing in Jimbaran, and together we cruised around to a few beaches. I witnessed the striking contrast in a Balinese day – equal numbers of locals participating in a Melasti purification ceremony on the beach at Padang Padang, and betting on a cock-fight on the cliff overlooking it. These apparent contradictions coexist everywhere in Bali; they keep me on my toes and remind me not to make surface judgements. Visitors to Bali commonly typecast the locals as carefree, innocent, spiritual people -a generalization that can be true but also risks being condescending, infantilizing and misses these contradictory nuances that are a vital part of life here.

Anyway, back to my awesome weekend…we caught a great surf-side sunset from the high cliff at Uluwatu, and I drove back home, two hours of peace in the cool night air.

Sunset from Uluwatu cliffs

Sunset from Uluwatu cliffs

Sunday, I did the bule (westerner) in Ubud thing. My foot was healed enough to go to my first ecstatic dance session at Yoga Barn – a MUST if you happen to be in Ubud needing a release at 11am on Sunday. I shimmied, twirled, and sweated out two months of pent-up BLARGH, then treated myself to a raw lunch and a $10 hour-long massage. Even though I’m here working for free, it’s easy enough to justify a totally indulgent splurge day; all-in, it costs about as much as seeing a movie in a theatre back home. In the evening, I  made my house finally feel like home by inviting a few friends – and even more strangers – to a pot-luck dinner party (slash new moon gathering). After feeling isolated for a couple of months, it was great to cook and eat with people.

Pretty good so far. But this weekend was a long weekend – Tuesday was the Balinese Hindu new year – Nyepi, the silent day. My co-worker invited me to celebrate with his family, so I bought some ceremonial garb (a kebaya, sarong and sash) and headed to Newman’s house. His wife, mother, and 3 daughters stuffed me silly with nasi goreng, mie goreng, ketipat, betutu, gado-gado and once – just to show they were down with Western cuisine – spaghetti. Their house is on the outskirts of congested Denpasar, but their neighbourhood is bordered by a tranquil rice paddy, with clear views of the mountains from their second-floor temple.

View of the rice field from Newman's home temple

View of the rice field from Newman’s home temple

In the weeks leading up to Nyepi, the young men in each Banjar get together and craft amazing demon effigies called ogoh-ogohs. Some of the ogoh-ogohs are scary and demonic looking, with huge fangs, sharp claws and wild hair. Some are really vulgar, with huge genitals and pendulous breasts. The rape trope appears quite often, as does the bule gila (crazy foreigner). Drunken demons hide in the flames, and occasionally an ogoh-ogoh depicts Krishna or another Hindu god fighting a monster.

The idea is that the night before Nyepi, all these evil spirits are released for one last royal rumpus. The evening before Nyepi, the whole island takes to the streets parading the ogoh-ogohs around on bamboo daises. Illuminated by torches and street lamps, the ogoh-ogohs sway and rock to the sound of clashing gambelan music while kids and adults line the streets shouting and cheering. It’s Where the Wild Things Are on acid. At the end of the parade, they burn the ogoh-ogohs (yup, they’re made of styrofoam and all kinds of nasty toxic stuff) and the cleansing begins.


The island goes dark and silent for 24 hours so whichever demons were spared the previous night’s lynch-mob will think that Bali is deserted, and with nobody to spook, they’ll move on. Businesses are closed, the airport shuts down, and everyone has to stay indoors all day. It’s supposed to be a day of silent meditation, but at Newman’s place we still chatted, did arts and crafts, helped the kids with homework, and sneakily dashed back and forth to different neighbours’ homes.

At night, with all the lights in Bali turned off, the stars overhead were unreal. But not surprisingly, instead of taking the opportunity to quietly stargaze, everyone clung to the safe blue light of their smartphone screens. The kids ran up and down their street with flashlights, whispering and wary of the Pecalang (cultural police) who roam around busting people who break the Nyepi rules.

The day after Nyepi, Newman invited me to a relative’s wedding in Denpasar. The alleyway was closed off and partially tented, with plastic chairs set up for the procession and a table where people placed their gifts – baskets of rice for the new couple. Each house on the street was involved in the ceremony, courtyards full of women in colourful kebayas and men in udeng headdresses. The bride and groom received visitors in one house, with kids playing gamelan music in the courtyard. Next door, a dozen men arrived at 4:30am to start cooking enough mie goreng, chicken satay, and lawar to feed 800 guests. The buffet was set up in the next house down. People rotated through, coming and going all day. I kept waiting for ‘the wedding to start’ but these hours of unstructured schmoozing seemed to be the main event.

Finally, Newman grabbed me told me that the wedding ceremony was beginning and I should go watch. He ushered me up the stairs in the first house to a temple overlooking the neighbourhood’s tiled roofs, where a priestess was solemnly performing the wedding rites – making offerings, burning incense, and sprinkling water on the couple and the family. It was an intimate affair, literally just the priests, the couple, their immediate family, two photographers, and me. I felt like an intruder – I know if it was my wedding I wouldn’t want some stranger’s mug in all my photos. I tried to insist, tried to step down a few stairs, tried to duck in the background, but they kept pushing me in to the inner sanctum. Once I got over the awkwardness, it was really a beautiful ceremony.

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Afterwards, Newman brought me back to where the men were cooking, and we drank tuak (a drink made of fermented palm sugar) and chatted in a broken Indo-English hybrid for hours. In the evening, I hopped on the back of Newman’s bike and headed back home to Bamboo Village through streets littered with the remains of ogoh-ogohs.

Bali is starting to win me over. ‘Magic’ still feels like a stretch, but give me another few weeks like this one, and I just might sprinkle a little fairy dust over my next blog post. For now, I like it enough that I’ve decided to extend my contract and stick around until August – five more months of dodging demons and downing fried food.


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