‘Nyepi’ and spiritual tourism

On the morning before the last Hindu Day of Silence or Nyepi, the roads of the central Ubud area were strangely quite. This was a great surprise for me, as I’m used to complaining about the increasing traffic in this small Bali town.

Many people, like some of my friends, had probably decided to spend this boring Nyepi off the Island, making the most of the opportunity to visit other areas and other islands close by.

The town’s surroundings, where ogoh-ogoh (giant Balinese papier-mâché statues) had started to emerge, preparing for the big night parade, were unusually quite and silent.

The situation changed from 5 o’clock in the afternoon, with crowds pressing onto the roads leading to the area selected as the starting point for the parade: the football field on Jl. Monkey Forest.

The following morning, I woke up to the sound of rosters, competing for the best “cock-a-doodle-doo”. Little by little, birds also started making themselves heard, with their cheerful chirping. Then even geckos (cicak) took part in this chorus with their squeaking voices.

While in Bali it is normal to wake up to this magic atmosphere, I could fully enjoy it only on that day of Nyepi. Like almost everybody else on the island, I spent the whole first day of the Balinese New Year at home with my family. The only exceptions were some short walks inside the compound to dispose of garbage or to take some pots to the common kitchen.

Outside, on the roads, the silence was absolute and, for this reason, unusual but wonderful. No motorbikes or cars were seen. Everything was silent except for rosters, which continued to crow from time to time, their ritual song from dawn to sunset.

Only twice was the human silence broken. In the morning I heard cheerful voices coming from a neighboring compound, where a local NGO that helps children with physical and mental handicaps is located. But this, knowing the special character of the organization, was not disturbing. The only disturbance came early in the afternoon with the sudden shouts of several boys, who rushed onto the green field, passing a bordering stream, to play catch. Fortunately this didn’t last long.

All day long I had the opportunity to enjoy various aspects of this special day. The lack of pressure was one: it was impossible to go out to buy anything something, to try the specialties of a newly opened restaurant, or to rush to the bank before it would be too crowded. The air was crisp and clear compared to that of other days, when the odors and thick smoke of fuel, burned garbage and greens compete with the perfumes of flowers and incense burned for offerings or the fragrance of pots gurgling in traditional open kitchens.

I recalled this experience after attending a seminar promoting “Spiritual Tourism” in Sanur, several weeks ago. The event, publicized also in The Jakarta Post, could rely on the participation of prominent governmental and non-governmental institutions involved in social, cultural and tourist matters and well-known personalities of the cultural and spiritual world. This renowned participation and the interesting and topical theme of the seminar, aimed at attaining a more sustainable tourism, tailored for Bali peculiarities, resulted in a large audience, who were mainly representatives of the Bali tourism business world.

I think the best way to develop Balinese tourism more in keeping with local traditions and culture, and respectful to the local environment, is to start promoting events, products and other aspects of the local life, not for their immediate and direct monetary return, but just for a better understanding and appreciation of the special Bali spirit. This seems, in fact, the essence of spiritual tourism. That is to say a tourism less based on external, spectacular and folkloric aspects, which are easy to sell but also faster to be consumed and eroded. It must be tourism more attentive to soft, long-lasting and genuine aspects.

In this connection, Nyepi could be seen and promoted not only as an important tradition of Balinese New Year or, for foreigners, as a strange expression of local folklore and an occasion to pop over from Bali to surrounding areas to escape the boredom of a too quiet, homely day.

Nyepi could and should be seen as a meaningful and inspiring day to better grasp Bali’s unique but tangled culture. At this moment, when the flow of tourism has reached a peak, it would be wise, perhaps, looking at the future, to start thinking seriously about making tourism more attentive to qualitative, cultural and spiritual aspects.

Experience teaches us that the most successful and sustainable changes are those undertaken before the curve of success starts going down.

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