I was thankful to be away from the cold and bustle of my New York world but I still had some distance to travel within my own psyche to catch on to the soft rhythm and flow of the life on this tranquil green island.
From my hotel window, high above the beach, I had restlessly looked out often through the night. I could see a few small beams of light from flashlights playing across the shallow waters, from fisherman casting small nets in the dark.
I would drift back and forth from the sweet bliss of this world to the equally inviting embrace of sleep. But soon enough, even long before the restless sun had brimmed the horizon I could stand it no longer and made my way out of the confines of the hotel to wander on the little road that rimmed the shore.
The voices that had reached me at times through the unsettling night were now gathering strength as I made my way along the road that meandered by the beach. I saw small crowds of smartly dressed young men walking together arm and arm in front of me. They were clearly not the dregs of late Saturday night revelers but people out to gather and celebrate for some special purpose I knew not what.
I asked to take the boys pictures and they happily agreed. I also asked them why they had come out so early and they smiled and laughed. Smiling with the pleasure of each others company and laughing with a gentle mock at me and my obvious limitations. I was after all a stranger to their familiar world who could not speak even one word of their language. Still we could share the universal language of smiles and looks of celebration but I was none the wiser to the purpose of their early pilgrimage.
Somehow though, through a a series of gestures and a well placed knowing wink I realized that they were gathering in anticipation of the imminent sunrise, which was now just beginning to brighten the horizon to the east. I mistakenly thought that the purpose of this gathering was just for young men and soon enough I realized that the gathering crowd was made up of most of the small village nestled in and around the Bali Beach hotel.
Even before the sun rose some were praying and making offerings towards the east. Like this young couple all were dressed in what looked to be their finest clothes.
Some families were celebrating in less formal ways but many burned incense and in the quiet dark said prayers and watched that small children did not wander far.
Some wandered out into the shallow water and you could feel the energy and spirits of the gathering crowd gradually rise as the glowing brightness in the sky gathered strength.
I wandered almost aimlessly here and there amidst the people. I could see no other foreigner and yet I felt welcome to be there and amongst them all. I realized that whatever was happening was not so sacred and private that a stranger could not wander into their midst and take some small part.
I always asked permission before I took pictures and everyone seemed delighted to participate. It felt as though I was helping them in some small way capture the sweetness and gentleness that pervaded the entire beachfront.
After taking a picture I would then invariably share it with those I had just taken. They seemed delighted that this special moment was being recorded and that I would take the trouble to be here and humbly walk amongst them.
It was the sweet innocent look of these small children that reminded me of my own puzzlement. I had no idea what was really going on but it did not take away in any measure in my own delight in just being able to be here. To be spontaneously caught up in a sweet Balinese moment.
For the children the excitement was mixed with equal parts mystery and part fatigue. Clearly some had been up for hours.
I thought that once the sun had crested the wet horizon something bigger would collectively take place. That the mystery of this great predawn pilgrimage would become obvious.
Yet as the brightness in the east gradually became a ball of red in the sky nothing really changed.
Some wandered into the still ocean waters and some never left the repose of their spots on shore.
The littlest ones were accompanied by Dads and Moms and enjoyed the coolness of the ocean. The morning air was already gathering the thick heat of the equatorial sun.
Some small children just played the games that children do in any beach in any part of the world. Discovering treasure in a sunken piece of coral or splashing a brother who had come to close.
The tide was out this day so it was not easy to wander very far in the shallow rocky waters.
And as it grew brighter more cameras came out. At times I felt myself to be some kind of celebrity as people came up to have their pictures taken with me as I would so often take and share pictures with them.
A small fishing boat came to shore to sell its small catch of fish. I suddenly realized that I had not seen anyone eating at any time during the morning. That now I had been wandering amongst them for a couple of hours. Lost in picture taking and the delightful mystery of what was taking place.
Some continued to stay in their spots on the beach and offer up prayers in silent worship, or at least that is what it seemed.
Here and there were countless small banana leaf offering baskets brought and left in the sand by the celebrants.
But as the crowd gradually became more restless as the sun rose higher and higher they became trampled and strewn.
A spontaneous game of soccer started between a group of young boys who used a couple of plastic sandals as goal posts. The ball whizzed here and there. At one moment soaring into the ocean and landing with a splash and then just as suddenly zip through the legs of this small boy.
My hotel from this vantage seemed so close and yet so radically distant from the simple joy that permeated the local people on the beach on this clearly sacred Sunday morning. For them joy was just to come here and sit on a dark beach and wait patiently for the sun to rise.
I would learn, much later in the day, that I had chanced to come upon the Hindu celebration of Shivatri that comes twice a year when the moon is new. Most people had spent the previous day fasting and had stayed up the entire night. All would end with the rising of the dawn sun. By doing this devotedly the pilgrims could gain good karma and perhaps release the burden of the cycle of life and death. For one such as me from a place far off it was a sweet introduction to a place that many consider a gentle paradise.
Blesses our hearts