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The Great Nyepi Escape

April 29, 2013

I usually enjoy Nyepi Day, Bali’s annual Day of Silence, when all are confined to their domiciles for 24 hours and no noise, work, fun, or illumination is permitted. It is an opportunity to reflect and allow the stillness to enter you.

Despite having honoured this day for the last  four years,  sequestered alone in my dwelling, this year the prospect was a little more daunting. A few minor technical hitches – such as a broken stove, a malfunctioning DVD player and no hot water – would have made the enforced isolation more unpleasant. OK, OK – I’m a wimp.

My brilliant solution of checking into a hotel with expansive grounds, where guests can wander around freely during Nyepi, came to naught. Bali’s hotel prices are just too high for me now. Expansive grounds come with an expensive tariff, and of course the Nyepi lock-down means you have to book two nights. As it turned out, going off the island – to Kuala Lumpur – ended up being cheaper for four nights at a hotel, including airfares, than staying in Bali.

So here I am in Malaysia. Ten minutes to get through the immigration formalities, an automatic, free visitors’ visa, luggage waiting for me on the carousel. A train station right in the terminal, and a 25 minute, 57 kilometre trip to KL Sentral on the KLIA express.

The KL traffic is busy, but free-flowing, with amazingly disciplined and courteous drivers. Drivers stop for pedestrians on crossings, they stop for red lights, they wait for traffic to clear before pulling out from the left, and they park properly. The streets are wide and clean and clearly signposted. I don’t see a single piece of trash on the footpaths.

It’s weird being in a place where everything just … works. The electricity stays on, water quality is good, places are open at their designated hours, and everything in my little hotel is as it should be. Well, most of it – my room’s air-conditioner control panel appears to be connected to a Bali-style ‘Wishful Thinking’ module, which in turn is connected to nothing. Like governments, I suspect it is there purely to give us all an illusion of control.

But no-one controls the weather, and at this time of year, there is rain. Lots of it. Regular as clockwork, the customary 4pm thunderstorm hits the city, often violently. Today’s is massive, with lightning striking every building around me every few seconds. I notice that all the smart birds are diving from the tops of tall buildings and taking refuge at street level. They don’t look happy, and they’re not smiling – but how can one tell? I mean, they have no lips …

I witness two hippy types, presumably with an IQ far lower than that of most of the birds, dancing in the rain on an 8th floor roof across the street. Faces upturned towards the continuous bolts of lightning, they wave their arms towards the raging skies as if in supplication to their gods. They are far closer to heaven than they ever imagine. But someone is looking after these dolts, and they fail to be vapourised in an incandescent ball of energy. I confess to feeling faintly disappointed.

While Bali is dark and silent for Nyepi, Kuala Lumpur is pumping. Checking out the restaurants, I find one called the White Raja. Ah, OK, Indian food. Then I look closer and notice that it’s actually called the White Raja – Borneo. Right, it appears that we have Kalimantan food with an Indian influence. Possibly with some traditional Dyak fare? Interesting. So I check the menu. It’s Italian.

Never mind. I find a basement under one of the plazas which is crammed with every imaginable type of food stall, each one serving delicious food. While English is widely spoken in KL, the locally-patronised food stand owners tend to stick to Bahasa Melayu – or Chinese, or dialects from the Middle East. Fortunately, even though they struggle to understand my Bahasa Indonesia (which is no surprise; people in Indonesia have the same problem) I can make myself understood.

I think I’ve worked out the secret. If I Anglicise every 5th word, add “lah” to every 3rd word and excitedly finish every sentence with “!”, they seem to understand me better. Or I could just stop torturing them and speak English …

After dinner, I find a footpath bar close to my hotel, and kick back with a wee drink while watching the passing parade. Suddenly, my ears are assailed with a strange, eclectic mix of Euro-Arabic-Latino-style music. Shortly thereafter, a figure materialises in the gloom of a doorway to one side. I see a hint of sinuous dance movements, a silhouette promising sensual delights, and a tantalising glimpse of a deep décolletage. And then the lighting improves, and an … apparition becomes visible.

He, because it definitely was a he, is about 190 cm tall and is dressed in a frilly, black, deeply low-cut top revealing astonishingly profuse chest hair, black leggings and a strange sort of fringed tutu. His dancing is a cross between belly dancing, erotic salsa, and pole dancing. Pelvic thrusts of an energy and amplitude that suggest a serious future back problem seem to hypnotise the rapt female patrons of the bar. The first unexpected thrust makes me inadvertently swallow one of the ice-cubes in my drink.

But that isn’t all. Every half-minute or so, he emits a shrieking ululation of a frequency and volume high enough to coagulate eyeballs for a one kilometre radius, as well as instantly kill any birds that have survived the earlier lightning storm. The first of these lifts me  completely of my chair, and I spill my drink. I discover later that this is a Zaghrouta – a traditional Iraqui cry of great joy.

My own joy is tempered somewhat when I try to go to sleep in my room later, only to discover that not only is his performance continuing, but the walls of the hotel are completely transparent to the sonic barrage. As I watch my bedroom walls tremble, their paint flaking off, and my bathroom fixtures fracture into shards of porcelain, I am struck with the thought that George Bush was looking for the wrong Weapons of Mass Destruction. The real ones were larynx-based, completely hidden and totally transportable all this time.

Zaghrouta aside, KL was a great short break from Bali. Perhaps I shouldn’t compare the quality of infrastructure with that found in Indonesia, as the circumstances and mindsets are so different. It is amazing what a genuine pursuit of excellence can achieve – and of course, the will to improve things. It is a shame that some of those in power in Indonesia are so consumed with antipathy towards Malaysia. They could learn so much.

Will I come back for next Nyepi? Probably not. I sort of missed the silence.

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