Letter from Bali – XVI
We had an earthquake a few days ago, it struck twelve hours before the bigger one that hit Japan. It was a tiddler as these things go, a 6.0, and as it happened during the night I managed to sleep through the whole thing. Next morning I was regaled with stories of people woken to witness their walls swaying. Since I’m a messy sort by nature, my desk looked only cleaner.
It certainly makes you wonder though, and who can deny that YouTube or the ubiquitous digital camera has not transformed our perception of such events?
I had started a post a few days before it happened. It was talking about things like Buddha’s arse and dreadful (and great) architecture, but it didn’t get finished, and somehow it now felt just a little trite.
Almost a quarter of a million people died in the December 26th tsunami of 2004, many of them not too far from here. Six years later they still don’t have a functional tsunami warning system in Indonesia, no SMS text alerts to phones. I don’t know, it’s all kind of depressing.
A lot of people sent e-mails to us of the ‘hope you’re not dead’ variety. That was nice. Amusing too is the computer logic that pairs Google advertising to written content. An inbox plastered with appeals to ‘catch a big one’ at various Bali surfing schools has just got to put a smile on your face. A lesser person might have found it in poor taste.
How the Balinese deal with these things both disturbs and amuses me. It is a particular example of a more general problem that exists world-wide. What do you do when beliefs collide with reality?
One of my sons managed to split his head open at school a few weeks back. It was an accident that could have happened anywhere, at any school, and there are no lasting ill effects. This hadn’t happened before at this school and what is interesting (once the nerves had settled) was the cultural reaction. He fell on bricks beside the swings and was then carried to the doctor before being driven to hospital an hour away on a road brought back from the moon landing. He was on a spine board but not fitted with a neck collar because the school only carried adult sizes. As a Westerner I had a few questions for the principle, such as: “How do you prefer to die? Hot scalding coconut or bamboo spear!?” No, not quite… but really – Why the brick pile? Where is the staff training not to move a head injury patient? No neck braces in kids sizes at a school? – come on! The Balinese reaction was different but no less concerned. Ceremonies and offerings had recently been cut back at the school and it was clear to everyone from this close call that the Gods were not happy. Something had to be done! More offerings please! Obvious really.
Nyepi is Balinese New Year. Like the earthquake it happened last week. It is now 1931. As a tourist amusement this is great; culturally interesting if somewhat inconvenient. For a month preceding the day the local Banjars (neighbourhood halls / temples / social police) build large elaborate demonic effigies out of laced bamboo, paper mache, paint, hair and feathers. They call these creations Ogoh Ogohs.
On New Year’s Eve the Ogoh Ogohs are carried on platforms and paraded around the streets to a cacophony of noise in a bid to purge the bad spirits from the island. Mission accomplished these figures are then cremated (unless a buyer is found – never give up a deal!). What follows is twenty four hours of serene meditation (one view) or twenty four hours of no air conditioning, eating, TV, lights, swimming pools, travel, beer and general misery (another view). Bali comes to a halt, there is not even air travel. No walking in the streets, not a fart dare you cut loose, nothing at all. The demons, scared away by the noise of the night before, are now meant to think all the people are gone. In consequence they shuffle off to places new – Japan likely – and Bali’s prospects for the upcoming year are improved.
It is all good fun and a lot of dreadful pish… but that’s the kicker, because around here people actually do believe that stuff, or far too many of them.
It’s when the fairy tales explain away Tsunami’s as the wrath of the sea god. It’s when faith gets in the way of functional medical care or simple early warning systems. It’s when these children’s stories, passed down from civilization’s infancy, interfere with the betterment of the author’s progeny. As Leon Trotsky once said, just before he was killed with an ice axe – “Happily living a lie makes it no less of a lie… and what are you doing with that large pointy stick!?”
So here are some cheery photographs of Nyepi, and a happy 1931 to you all. It looks like the bad spirits are upset at reactor #2 in Fukushima, I’d suggest rolling out a few more banana leaves in tribute. And to the thousands of poor souls who perished beneath the wave, our best wishes in your re-incarnation. We hope it brings some comfort to your families. Maybe that, and not the paper mache, is the point.