Sometimes life throws a wrench in your plans, an unexpected twist in the road. That’s especially true when travelling to unknown parts of the world. Two days ago when I stepped out of the taxi and into the departures terminal at Bali’s airport, I discovered that life had a rather abrupt change of plans in store for me.
I’d booked a flight online from Bali to the remote Indonesian island of Belitung, where I’d hoped to see my first ever solar eclipse. When I got to the check-in counter and handed the agent my passport, she typed away for a few minutes, looked up inquisitively, and exclaimed “no ticket?”. Uh oh. I handed her the booking confirmation but still no luck finding me on the list of passengers. She then directed me to another desk where a helpful young man did his best to resolve the increasingly mysterious situation.
Definitely no ticket. Perhaps the booking service I’d used never actually completed the purchase. What’s more, there were no seats left. All sold out. Business class? “Ah, that will get you as far as Jakarta but no further.” Tomorrow’s flight? Also sold out. In the span of 10 minutes I’d gone from expecting to be boarding an exciting flight to learning that there was no way I could get to Belitung before the eclipse. In a last ditch attempt to save my travel plans, we went to another set of desks and asked all the other airlines that might fly there if they had any seats left. No luck, not a single one. I guess that’s what you get when you buy your ticket through a website called “cheapoair”.
And so it is that I find myself in Bali, rather than Belitung, on the day of the eclipse. Coincidentally, this day also happens to be “Nyepi”, the most holy and revered day in all of Balinese culture. As Bali’s New Year’s Day, it inspires people to reflect on the year past and contemplate the year ahead, perhaps making some important life changes. Much like New Year’s Eve, the night before is filled with wild abandon – singing, dancing, and boisterous celebration.
Each village builds its own parade float, a grotesque demon carried high atop a platform of bamboo poles. The demonic looking creations are meant to symbolize evil spirits that lurk in our streets and homes that derail our good intentions. Despite being heavy and awkward, all the floats are carried by dedicated teams, some just little kids.
The parade makes its way down the narrow streets of Bali accompanied by much ruckus clanging, banging, and drumming.
The most outlandish part of this whole procession is that power lines droop low over the streets – men holding long bamboo poles need to lift them up for the floats to slip by underneath. More than once a monster snagged itself, looking as if it really did want to pull the powerline down and electrocute us all!
All the demons eventually make their way to a large soccer field filled with enormous strobe lights and masses of excited revellers. As each monster enters the field, the celebrations reach a feverish pitch. All in unison, the teams spin, jump up and down, and run across the field, making the evil creatures appear truly possessed.
Frequently, those in the audience standing a little too close to the action have to jump up and run as a team careens into them. All while this is happening, an announcer groans and shrieks over a loud-speaker, giving voice to the demons.
Shortly before midnight the festivities come to an end and everyone heads home. This morning, I awoke to silence. The streets are empty. There is no traffic, no motorbikes honking, no vendors shouting out “cheap price, cheap price!”. Not even a single person in the streets. After luring out the evil spirits last night, the people of the island must all stay inside their homes and remain silent. The Balinese people believe that this tricks the spirits, making them think that the island has been abandoned, so they too leave.
As tourists, the locals give us a bit of leeway with the rules. Nyepi is meant to be a day of reflection and contemplation without any pleasures like food or electricity. The staff at our hotel graciously offered to prepare meals for us and welcome us to use the pool.
But, how about that eclipse? Well, Bali is a little outside the zone of totality (where the moon fully covers the sun). It is close enough for a partial eclipse, though, and early this morning I watched as the sun’s intensity slowly grew weaker and its rays darker. Birds and insects drew quiet (except for the roosters – they never shut up!) and the trees reflected a strange, unfamiliar pale colour. It was all very gradual yet somewhat strange and mysterious. Seeing a total solar eclipse will have to remain on my bucket list of a few years more.