A Princess Returns as Sea Worms: Nyale Festival, Lombok

I set my alarm for 3:45 am. I woke up and quickly gathered my things- camera, phone, water, and headlamp, then climbed onto my motorbike. Normally, everything is quiet at that hour, but as I made my way towards the main road I could hear the buzz of vehicles. I joined the lines of motorbikes whizzing by and followed the direction of the crowds- to my surprise there were even people directing traffic! My heart began bursting with excitement- the collective movement of people in the middle of the night felt special.

I followed the traffic to the beach and parked my bike along with many others. I was a white face among a sea of locals, many of whom where looking at me. I could hear them laughing and saying in Indonesian, “What is she doing here? Does she want sea worms?” Yes! I replied enthusiastically.

I noticed others had pales and bottles and fishing nets…which I had none of. Not to worry, I thought, the locals here are so friendly I’ll surely encounter supplies. I crossed a walkway lit with paper lanterns for the occasion and my concerns dissipated; on the other side was an old man selling green nets in various sizes. He offered me one for 20,000 ruppiah (about $5), but when I asked for the normal price in Indonesian the price dropped to 10,000.

I made my way past food vendors, some tents of the most dedicated attendees, and finally to the shore where, sure enough, there were hundreds of people in the waters. Equipped with bright lights pales, and nets, they were scanning the waters for these little worms…”nyale“.

It was low tide so one could walk out over the corals and scan the tide pools for worms. Stepping into the activities I was immediately welcomed in the local fashion – TOURIST! TOURIST!! The boys shouted. They began shouting to each other and also to me. I knew I was getting made fun of a bit, but that’s all part of the fun- for them seeing a white girl with a fishing net hoping for sea worms is a funny sight. I speak enough Indonesian for basic communication, but their banter was in another language “Bahasa Sasak”- the local language of Lombok. This left me at ground zero in terms of understanding. Still, I knew that their shouting and mocking was their way of welcoming me. They shined their lights in the water and pointed out little sea worms for me to catch. I happily scooped up the sea worms with my newly purchased net as they cheered me on. I navigated the low tides with them, snapped some selfies (did you know Indonesia is the #2 country in the world for selfies?), and searched for nyale.

At one point one of them grabbed a worm from my net to demonstrate a good luck ritual. He took the orange worm and smeared it directly between his eyebrows and at the base of his neck. At first I thought they were making fun of me- teaching me to do something silly. But then it seemed like they were serious; they said something in their language that seemed to mean “for good luck”. I followed suit, smearing the worm on my forehead and chest as they cheered.
Being white in Indonesia can sometimes draw attention. People will stare at you, ask to take photos with you, and often times will laugh at you. I had gotten fairly used to that part of the culture, but I was not expecting a news interview! Two camera men approached me and began asking – “Where do you come from?”, “Is this your first time at Nyale?”, and of course, “Would you eat a raw sea worm??” They handed me their bottle which was packed full of squiggly worms and brown mush. It was part of my mission…tasting nyale, and now I was being asked in front of news cameras – what’s a better time?

Skip to the 2-minute mark to see my national news appearance:

I say that was my first, but not last time eating sea worms. When I greeted the host family at my guest house the next morning, the mama asked me if I wanted to eat some nyale. I was intrigued – this is all part of the tradition for the locals, the worms are cooked and eaten and meant to bring good luck. She told me she would just bring me a taste, but then appeared a large plate with rice and seasoned seaworms. She had cooked them with coconut milk, chili, perhaps a bit of onion. I can only describe the taste as “worms”. It had a bit of salty + ocean flavor and a bit of meat + dirt as well. I was hoping for good luck, so, I finished my plate.

About the origins of the nyale:

The worms only appear at a certain time of the year, and only for a few days. Legend has it that a long time ago there was a beautiful Princess, Mandalika, who was being fought over by multiple Princes who wanted to marry her. She did not know who to choose and she was so coveted that conflict was arising between the Kingdoms. Everyone gathered on Seger Beach to hear her decision, but rather than choosing, she announced that she would instead become nyale so that she could be shared by all. She plunged into the rocky waters, sacrificing herself. They searched for her body, but nothing could be found. Instead, they only found a great many sea worms.
These specific sea worms became known as nyale and to this day, they only appear once a year around the date of her death. It has become a tradition for the local people of Lombok to enter the waters at low tide to collect these worms. They are believed to be a reincarnation of the princess, representing her beautiful hair. They are also thought to be good luck, and healthy too; thus, the worms are cooked and eaten.

Bau Nyale Mandalika Performance

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