For a thousand years the waters have poured from the hole in the wave-cut limestone shelf on the shores of this warm tropical sea. Hidden and revealed by the cycle of the tides, the spring either quietly mingles its cold fresh flow with the tepid salty waters, shocking the schools of fish which graze the high tide shallows, or, when the salt water has withdrawn, brightly proclaims its presence, its swift and voluminous body bursting forth to wave two muscular arms and its many braided rivulets, its voice calling "Here I am! Drink of me and be refreshed!"
I can hear the girls long before I see them, their distant laughing voices a counterpoint to the rhythm of the waves and musicality of the jungle's bird and insect life. They emerge from the jungle shadows through the high line of coconut palms that demarcates dark jungle and brightly sunlit beach.
There's a gecko on the wall of my atap hut. He won't let me sleep. His loud and erratic calls are unpredictable, following no soothing rhythm. His voice is a petrified chirp, perfectly described by the Indonesian name for his kind: "Cheh-Chack." The sound of a bird with a crop full of quartz pebbles.
Despairing of sleep, I rise and leave the hut, crossing the few yards of sand to the nearby beach. It's midnight. The air is warm, the sea silent. The scents on the night air are salt and stone and seagrass. A low insect chorus rises from the jungle behind the beach.
Bali goes crazy on New Year's Eve. So much noise. Fireworks are legal on the island, and nights in the holiday season are filled with them. The fun starts a night or two before Christmas, when random launchings from the grounds of your neighbour's house can blast you awake at any time of the night. From then until New Years Eve sees a steady escalation. It's a bad time for those who need their sleep - an even worse one for the island's dogs and cats.
New Years Eve is sheer insanity. Rockets and random explosions begin at sunset and slowly intensify as midnight appoaches. By ten, the low rolling clouds are alive with flickering light as if filled with ceaseless orange/red lightning. Alcohol fueled young Australians, unable to buy fireworks at home, are doing everything they can to prove their fun-killing legislators were right. Fighting duels with hand-held roman candles, lighting aerial repeaters in the middle of beach dancing crowds, launching skyrockets on low trajectories toward thatch-roofed villas. One guy holds a mortar and manages to successfully skip the shells across the surface of the calm night ocean - really stupid, but very cool. (Considering he didn't lose any body parts!)
Explosions and non-stop rocket launches are happening everywhere. From villa courtyards and hotel poolsides, from every entertainment venue and from countless private residences. Everyone's in on it. Local kids launch bottle rockets from sidewalks and vacant lots, and throw firecrackers and ground spinners into the traffic. Watching from the ocean, as the night time fishermen must from their boats, I imagine the whole southern part of the island roofed by a pulsating umbrella of sparks.
Although it doesn't seem possible, at midnight the cacophony increases tenfold. The staccato goes chaotic, becoming a dense aural blanket that muffles even the pounding bass doof emanating from the neighbourhood clubs. The low rolling clouds are a ceiling of flickering colour, as if they contain a source of endless orange-red lightning. Our cat, fur on end, bushed up as if the mother of all electrical storms really is upon us, races from room to room, seeking somewhere - anywhere - where the wall of sound is not. A dog races in silent, abject terror down our street, ears flat and tail curled to his belly. He'll be miles away by morning. Further conversation is pointless. It's a crazy, crazy night... and then it's morning.
Peak season done, the work of the pawang hujan1 is over and the wet season finally rolls into the south of Bali. Still living the crazy life, the hard core drinkers cling to last night's revels, clutching minimart-bought beers and, proud of their endurance, ignore the sweeper whose work is another hint that it's time to leave. The last of the kupu kupu malam2 are moving off, abandoning their marks to the morning's beggar mums and kids, who'll try their luck in turn. Three lads arrive on a bike, unexploded ordnance in hand, seem unconvinced that the party's over and ride off looking to find it. Somewhere...
Leaving the beach, my path home takes me by the Griya Dalem Segara, on the corner near our house. Ladies are placing offerings by the spring within the shrine's small courtyard. It occurs to me that there's many bulé3 on the island this morning who would surely benefit from doing the same - Griya Dalem Segara translates as The Abode of Profound Health. The calm of the shrine reminds me of the way the Balinese New Year is celebrated - the antithesis of last night. Twenty four hours of reflection in complete silence. No lights, no fires, no noise. No electricity, no broadcasts, no lights in the window at night. No air traffic. No road traffic. No leaving your house. Nyepi. Bring it on!
1 Pawang hujan: The "Rain Handlers". The Balinese men who are hired by hotels, entertainment venues, wedding planners and anybody else who needs a guaranteed rain free day or part thereof. Scoff all you like - after thirty months living here, I'm now convinced they'd stand up to scientific scrutiny
2 Kupu kupu malam: Literally, "night butterfly" A nice name for female sex workers.
3 Bulé: Variant of "bulai", Bahasa Indonesia for albino. A flexible name for white skinned people. Occasionally pronounced "bully" (in complete cognizance of the import.)
This dust drowned city of brickworks, this snarling, fume choked and refuse bedecked warren of crumbling masonry, its paths and chowks now obstacle courses for the city's competitively impatient motorists, was once a famed entrepôt, an essential waypoint on the roads of transhimalayan trade, spirituality and unbridled wanderlust. A vibrant and colourful place, founded at an auspicious confluence of mountain rivers, nestled in a long valley protected by forested ranges...