The silent post of last week on Balinese Nyepi got quite a few search engine hits, some of them surfers wondering if they could surfing on Nyepi, the Balinese Day of Silence, as it’s commonly but inadequately translated. You can find the full philosophical and religious importance of Nyepi here, but for expats and tourists, required to stay indoors from sunrise to sunrise, it’s most often a quaint and “somehow more enjoyable than I thought it would be” day of enforced sloth, augmented by a stock of DVD videos, drinks and snacks. A lot of tourist operators advertise a “Nyepi Escape Package” to Lombok and elsewhere, as if relaxing in peace and quiet, with only the sounds of nature, not a single motorbike revving its engine or plane thundering overhead, is an intolerable ordeal.
But can you go surfing on Nyepi?
Short answer: No.
Historical answer: You used to be able to. Before the advent of mass tourism and commercialism, the Balinese pretty much celebrated Nyepi amongst themselves, and didn’t expect outsiders to follow their customs of staying indoors with no lights. Westerners, Javanese, and non-Hindus on Bali could wander about freely, on land and sea. Wily tour operators (many Balinese) would have special Nyepi tours so that their clients could see Bali’s natural beauty. Why, with the roads being empty, you could hit one scenic spot after the other at top speed, and be done sightseeing Bali’s natural charms by noon.
The night before Nyepi, village children and teens would go around making a hell of a lot of noise, banging on cymbals and tin cans, setting off bamboo cannons. The ogoh-ogohs are recent cultural phenomenon, starting in the 1980s or thereabout.
But with the onslaught of tourism, and the flood of foreigners, the Balinese started cracking down and insisting foreigners stay indoors. Up to the early 90s or so, you could still go surfing, and if you were caught by the pecalang (village patrol) , you’d pay a fine at most. It’s only been the past few years that the airport’s been shut down, and I believe only since last year that television and local radio broadcasts have been suspended for the day. In part, this strictness is a form of cultural pride and identity, letting everybody know whose island this is.
Every Nyepi there’s always a few surfers who sneak down to the beach before dawn and paddle out. They figure they’d just hang out in a beach shack or cave for the day and night, or sneak back to their joint. Surfers have traditionally disdained anti-surfing laws and regulations, flouting such rules if they can get away with it, but I don’t see why anyone would want to violate the spirit of Nyepi. Frankly, it’s disrespectful—one of the main points of Nyepi is that the whole island is being spiritually cleansed, and you’re deliberately screwing it up for the Balinese. Would you piss in a cathedral, set lose a pig in a mosque? (Maybe some anti-establishmentarian surfers are thinking “would if I could” so for them the question is: would you drop your shorts and have an aquatic bowel movement in the midst of a packed Padang line-up? )
Not to mention this is the island of karma. Not to further mention that these days you don’t want to piss off the pecalangs. Bad things could happen to you from both sides. Maybe you don’t believe in karma, but it’s really hard to ignore a very angry Balinese.
Don’t go surfing on Nyepi. Let the sea god Baruna have his solo session, and be stoked you’re in Bali, with all the tomorrows to go surfing.