Convoy to the Sea

My notes are in storage, and my memory is fading, so now that I have the ability to write again I want to take a stab at a fantastic experience that we had last March.

There are so many amazing ceremonies in Bali to behold throughout the year. Probably our favorite occurs every March, called Nyepi, the “day of silence”. It’s perhaps best known for the monstrous ogoh-ogoh figures that are wildly paraded around the night before. But as with many ceremonies, there are varied parts to this event which occur over several days. We witnessed some of the rituals during our first Nyepi, and were appropriately wowed. But a friend advised us next time to try to witness the ceremony that initiates Nyepi, called Melasti. This ritual aims to purify sacred objects from the village temples, and to acquire sacred water from the ocean. It is performed 3-4 days before the day of silence at various Pura Segara, or temple by the sea, found all around the perimeter of the island.

We were in luck this year because we lived on the compound of Bapak Ketut, a respected figure in our village, and one who helps organize the village events. Our only requirement other than dressing the part was that we awake early enough to join the village convoy. At 4:30 that morning, the hundreds of villagers of Nyuh Kuning began gathering at the sacred banyan tree, and by 5:00 we were all off. On motorbike, in the thick of things, we were surrounded by scores of cars, motorbikes, and open trucks packed tight with villagers, sacred objects, musical instruments, food, cooking supplies, ornaments and varied equipment.

As we passed through the many villages during this hour-plus convoy, I began to understand the organizational complexity of what was happening. Our lengthy stampede had the right of way the entire ride to the sea, as local officials held back cross-traffic and excited onlookers at every intersection, aided by members of our village. In fact, this set up a funny recurrence of our waving to those we knew as they stood beside their motorcycles helping -only to see them again at the next village, doing the same thing. We never saw them catch up and pass us, and in fact it seemed impossible that they could do so so quickly. That’s so Bali!

But even more impressive was how organized the island was on this day as a whole. We were just one of thousands of villages across the island taking part in this seaside ritual. Each was apparently granted a specific time for transport to a specific part of the coast, for a specific amount of time. There are nearly 4 million inhabitants of this small island, and most all made their way to the sea during this 2 day period. The planning and execution for this ceremony was indeed evident and impressive.

The scene at the coast revealed the sheer number of people involved and the limited coastal space available. Once there, we immediately lost track of which clan was ours but did our best to follow the masses, hopefully to the right place. Hordes of villagers were leaving as others were arriving. Squeezed in tightly, we slowly walked past lines of even slower moving trucks that were packed with people and components while varied gamelon orchestras played near and far and ornate banners flew and colorful parasols appeared. It was a gorgeous, sunny day.

Once we found our particular village spot, we were surprised at how much was already set up. A long and impressive line of bamboo and grass display tables and offerings stood standing, and tons of food was cooking. Most everyone wore white. This scene unfolded in both directions along the coast for as far as we could see, as other villages were doing as we were. It wasn’t clear where ours ended and theirs began. Hundreds of worshipers sat in the hot sun, while others busily scampered about to and fro. Incense burned, flags waved, music chimed. The high priest of Nyuh Kuning sat in his private bale, going through his own slow ritual of changing clothes and tossing flowers and ringing his small bell. There was a lot of collective prayer: hundreds of villagers sat on the ground in rows, raising flowers to their heads in unison before getting doused with sacred water. There was a lot of just sitting around too, plates of food on laps, or doing nothing in particular. Men gathered together and smoked cigarettes, laughed, people-watched, or looked bored behind ubiquitous sunglasses. There certainly was not a sense of being rushed.

Toward the end, women gathered together carrying tall, arched bamboo penjor-like poles and parasols, and carefully stepped down the rocky embankment to the beach sand, to dip the bottom tips into the ocean. This was followed by the significant closing procession along the water’s edge, of varied sacred artifacts brought from our village, carried by select village members and officials. These were spectacular sights, as was the entire event.

After maybe 4-5 hours, we followed the cue of others and joined in a long, slow, and festive walk back to the street where our vehicles and motorbikes were parked, passing members of other villages just arriving for their own festivities, like clockwork.

-matt

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