A Day of Silence

Image: Firdia Lisnawati (AP)

You’re in Bali, Indonesia, and everything just stops. Everything. The airport is closed. The streets are empty. You can’t go outside. Nor can you watch TV, or listen to the radio, or use your cellphone. The lights are off and you can’t use any electronic devices. Anyone who dares to break these rules and leave the house is taken back home or otherwise detained.

This isn’t a massive power failure or some sinister government-imposed curfew. This is Nyepi, the Bali Hindu New Year, a day entirely devoted to silence and self-reflection.

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It’s hard to believe that an island of over 4 million people can completely shut down. And yet it does, every year. Even tourists and residents who don’t observe the specific form of Hinduism practiced in Bali, where religious ceremonies are part of the rhythm of daily life, must comply with this ancient tradition.

That’s why I had come here, earlier this month. (This year Nyepi fell on March 7.) It was a few days before my birthday, and I wanted to have the opposite of a party. I’ve always found it a little absurd to receive presents and good wishes from people just because another year has passed since the day I was born.

This year, I wanted to do something a little different; I put everything on hold, forgot about the news and flew to Indonesia. After two days in the air, I landed in a kinder, greener and more chaotic Bali than I remembered.

The eve of Nyepi is a blast. Residents from every town on the island build huge, colorful ogoh-ogoh, statues made of cardboard and papier-mâché, ranging in height from 6 to 16 feet. The ogoh-ogoh symbolize evil spirits; many-limbed demons and monsters with hideous faces, bulging eyes, long tongues, and swollen abdomens. At dusk, groups of 10 to 30 Balinese men carry these handmade nightmares along the main road as part of a ritual parade to the cemetery, where, hours later, the statues will be burned. This is how the Balinese exercise evil.

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But Bali’s spirits are particularly stubborn, and even having been reduced to ashes, many refuse to leave. So, the next day everyone has to keep quiet in order to convince the gullible spirits that the island is empty and they must move on. This is the myth of Nyepi.

Once in Bali, I had to unlearn many things. During Nyepi, the hotel staff spoke only in mumbles, as if they didn’t want to wake the demons. We were told not to go to the beach or dive into the sea. Not that we would have gone outside anyway; the streets were completely deserted. There was no music or sound of any kind. Darkness and silence prevailed throughout the island. We stayed inside and had a cozy candlelit dinner.

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Many adults choose to fast during Nyepi. And, the same kids who had yelled when the ogoh-ogoh passed the previous day had to learn to maintain their self-control and be introspective. I’m not aware of any other society in which children are taught the virtues of silence in quite the same way.

And though some foreigners could choose to cheat (they were given Wi-Fi access for their cellphones), the pull of the digital world gradually gave way to a different kind of mandate: Don’t do anything.

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Something happens to your mind after 24 hours of silence. It’s easier to tell what is important and what is not. It’s not that you miraculously become a better person overnight; the powers of the gods have their limits. But you do start to react less viciously to everyday challenges. And, it’s precisely that spirit of generosity and patience that so many of us admire in the Balinese people.

After Nyepi there are still 364 days of the year to be lived out loud. The next day, Bali’s streets filled immediately with thousands of motorcycles, the islands primary means of transportation. You can often see a family of four - dad driving, two kids tucked directly in front of and behind him, mom in back zooming by, without helmets on. However skillful they may be, Bali’s reckless bikers need all the protection of the gods in order to survive.

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The roaring of planes taking off put an end to my sense of calm. But the silence of those 24 hours had been the best gift I could have asked for.

Jorge Ramos, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is a news anchor on Univision.

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