Cultural immersion has its limits

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Preparations started days beforehand and it was all anyone spoke about. Galungan - a Balinese holiday celebrating the victory of Dharma (virtue) over Adharma (evil). I was psyched.

I'd recently had a conversation with Chip Conley about the power of festivals - he himself is now traveling the world to attend the world's largest festivals (Fest300.com), and I was ready to get a piece of it myself. I'd been in Bali for almost 6 months and was determined to immerse myself in the celebration that occurs every 210 days following the Balinese calendar. So I grabbed a friend, and together we made it our mission to find the festival.

We knew the rules: Dress appropriately. Act appropriately. To ensure we were being culturally appropriate, we borrowed sarongs, sashes and kebayas to blend in with the ladies, and asked friends about basic temple etiquette before leaving. On our 100cc scooters, struggling to stay balanced in tightly wrapped sarongs, we zigzagged from one village to another with an air of confidence that we'd return with picture perfect Instagram photos.

But we couldn't find the festival. And this is why.

Though fairly well traveled, I wrongly associated "festival" with "holiday," which back home conjures images of music, food, and buildings adorned with colourful decorations. But the reality is that Galungan is about time with family, quiet prayers, offerings to the Hindu gods at village temples, and a return home to spend quality time with the family - and eat pig. It's a private affair.

I still feel slightly robbed of the festivities I wanted to experience, but interestingly enough I came away from this with a new perspective on cultural immersion. Local traditions are simply that - they're local. While ideas of cultural immersion pique the curiosity of modern travelers including myself, most traditions simply aren't meant for outsiders, no matter how much we want the photo as a personal trophy.

Incidentally, I JUST googled Galungan to see what types of photos came up and Wikipedia showed me this. It then reads, "The most obvious sign of the celebrations are the penjor - bamboo poles weighed down by offerings suspended at the end." And it's completely accurate. If only I had done my research, I might know my festival seeking mission would be unfruitful.

And so I learn.