One year ago, I happened to stumble into a “right place, right time” situation. We arrived on the island of Lombok one week before the biggest celebration of the year.
Like all good festivals, Bua Nyale is centered around a folk legend. As the legend has it, there was once a princess Mandalika. Revered for her beauty, word spread throughout the island. Many princes from every corner of Lombok began to flock to her village to court her. In their eagerness to wed her, the princes caused massive unrest and upheaval all over the island. Mandalika was upset by the intense competition and only wished for peace for her people. In order to stop the madness, she threw herself into the ocean. As villagers went in after her, they found only multi-colored sea worms, now known as Nyale.
The Sasak people of Lombok believe the Nyale worms are the reincarnation of princess Mandalika and a symbol of good luck and peace. Each year, on the twentieth day of the tenth month of the Sasak calendar (usually February) the festivals take place. An abundance of sea worms flock to the shallows of the southern points on the island, a greeting from their princess Mandalika.
Festivals break down barriers and build up local traditions
As one of the most important events of the year for the Sasak people, villagers, government officials and visitors alike join each other to celebrate princess Mandalika. Men in high brow tailored suits sat amongst barefoot and barebones village fishermen. Retelling of the story of Princess Mandalika ranged from five-minute chats to days on end of speculation about her death. The weeks of festivities include stick fighting, horse racing, parades, dancing, rowing races, concerts and theatrical story telling. Bua Nyale is a poignant time in Lombok, where status and labels dissolve and come together to celebrate a cultural tradition.
Pictured above and below is a mellow day at the arena. I chose to avoid the massive droves of people on the first days of the Sasak stick fights. Instead, opting to see the fights that drew the smaller crowds let me actually watch the fights as opposed to fighting for good seats. Most of the stick fight is theatrics, but there is a very real and gruesome history of fights to the death. Stick fights were once a way to designate a village leader. Now, it’s simply for recreation.
The main draw, of course, is the sea worm harvest. A good harvest is a sign of luck and health for the coming year. The weeks leading up to the special date create anticipation and preparation for the arrival of tens of thousands of people. Stages are built, roadways are improved, accommodation fills up squeezing families into the maximum capacity.
In search of Worms
Susi, the local woman we stayed with, took me out at 3am to harvest worms until the sun rose. Three knocks on my door, just one hour after I returned from the massive concert and story telling. All the action was on the beach. People camped out at the water’s edge for over a week to ensure premium real estate.
We drove a bit farther out-of-town to beat the crowds. Following Susi through muddy jungle paths, nearly wiping out on my motorbike several times, we came to a small beach settlement. I heard the whispers as we parked and locked up our motorbikes together, bule, bule, bule bua nyale. They were either in awe that a white girl came that far to collect worms or they disapproved . I chose to believe the former.
We climbed the hill, trotted down to the water, where hundreds of locals were already crouched in the surf wading and swinging nets around.
Susi and I collected them with our hands to ensure premium quality worms. It was one of the weirdest sensations, to be crouched among thousands of other Indonesians, fishing for worms in the eerie blue that is the hour before dawn’s first light. The tide rushed out quickly, sucking back the water and the worms. By the time dawn creeped in, we were in ankle deep water, foraging for the last remaining worms.
Slowly, as the light filtered in, I could take in the scene. Hundreds of people, heads down, wading and grasping at their chance for good luck for the year. It’s no surprise that there is fierce competition for the best worms, and I was lucky enough to work with a talented worm wrangler.
At sunrise, we carried our tub of worms and hopped on our bikes. Susi giggled as the locals pointed and called out to me, now all well aware that I was the only bule at the harvest, and therefore, I must be crazy (bule gila).
Maybe I am.
Maybe I’m not, but…
I did have a good worm harvest…
and this has been quite the year.
While the worms signify a good year to come with health and wealth. It also provides a much-needed currency in a land of little food- protein. Many of Indonesia’s rice, fruit and vegetable crops are exported out to other Asian countries; food is much harder to come by these days. The Bua Nyale festival brings in a lot of worms to make worm curry and stews, providing a feast for the village and its visitors. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the texture of stewed worms, others praise its healing qualities and eat it with such reverence that it could have been the best meal of the year.
The Bua Nyale festival certainly took the title for most interesting cultural landscape of the year.
Tips for attending the Nyale Festival
- Book accommodation and arrive in Kuta, Lombok ahead of time
Places fill up fast and it is worth getting your head wrapped around the landscape and the festivities before thousands of people descend onto the village
- Walk- don’t drive. With those 10,000 people come 10,000 motorbikes, cars, trucks, horses. Traffic becomes impossible. I sat in a crowd of 3,000+ motorbikes with two friends, slushing through mud, breathing in exhaust, just to park in a secure location.
- Always lock up your motorbike, windows, doors, belongings.
Festivals, everywhere on the planet, are a prime opportunity for theft.
- Get the low-down from your accommodation.
Recommendations on where to go on what day, what activity is taking place when and other pieces of information are handy in a cultural festival. You can save a lot of time and peace of mind knowing you’re going on the best day to see the stick fights, or horse races, or where to eat the freshest bakso.