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25.8.11

Mudik To My Ears!

Tomorrow begins an annual Indonesian ritual that is a wonder to behold.  It is the beginning of a holiday called Lebaran.  It is akin to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year all rolled into one.  And it is the one time of year that it is an absolute joy to live in Jakarta.

But, let's back up just a smidge.  What's going on?

This past month has been Ramadan, which for those unfamiliar with muslim practice, is the month of purification.  A true practitioner will fast from before dawn until sunset.  By fasting, I mean that one doesn't eat, drink or even swallow saliva.  Al Quran also commands the practitioner to work hard and suffer as a means of achieving holiness through denial and patience.

Generally, the ritual involves folks waking up around 3:30am, performing the morning prayer, then eating a large breakfast before sun up.  The mosques help out with the high-volume chanting to get everyone started.  The chanting continues roughly every hour until 10pm.  For muslims, though, the most important one is around 5:50pm, when the call goes out to let everyone know they can 'buka puasa,' or break fast.

During Ramadan, restaurants cover the windows.  The few small pubs still open serve beer in coffee cups.  All anyone talks about is fasting, breaking the fast, are you fasting, did you eat yet, what time can we buka puasa?

Ramadan begins with the first appearance of the Moon at a certain time of the year, which moves around a bit.  Last year, it was October, this year in August.  The month ends with the final disappearance of the crescent Moon.  It's such an important time of the year, there is even a government agency whose primary function is to set the exact dates and times for the beginning and end of the Fast.

The culmination of Ramadan is a holiday called Idul Fitri, which is the Indo version of the Arabic name.  That particular day is a lot like America's Thanksgiving, in which everyone goes home to the family and eats special foods to the point of medical intervention, and spends a week recovering.

Tomorrow, beginning about noon and lasting through the weekend will be a ritual of truly gargantuan proportions.  Millions of people will migrate from wherever they are to the home village in an annual nightmare called mudik.  Mudik more or less translates as 'exodus,' and it truly is every bit of that.  Just about anything that rolls will be pressed into service to carry folks back to the home village to gather with family for the feasting.

What's truly fascinating is that Jakarta, a city of roughly 12 million people, where the legendary traffic snarls are a full-contact sport (literally), becomes a ghost town.  Suddenly overnight, the 18-hour-a-day traffic jams vanish, the crowds at the malls evaporate, and the omnipresent toxic cloud over the city wafts away.  For one week, the city is positively a joy to live in.

The first year I was here, I made the mistake of going to Puncak, in the mountains south of the city.  The area has a great number of villas and resorts for city dwellers, and normally it's quite pleasant up there...except during mudik.  The main road through the mountains became a literal parking lot.  It took as long as an hour to drive three kilometers.  I swear I saw a little old lady, four feet tall and nine years older than God, walking faster than the cars...up hill.

The next year, I stayed in Jakarta and found out that those left behind absolutely own the city.  You can almost literally lie down in the middle of normally busy roads and not move for half an hour.  You can actually see the mountains south of town.  You can go places and not have to wait or be run down by mobs.  The constant drone of traffic noise dies down to almost nothing.  You can even get a table at the Batavia Restaurant without a reservation, not that a reservation guarantees anything normally.

Imagine having Times Square all to yourself, and you almost get the feeling here.

This time of year, I use a taxi instead of motorcycle.  I can actually go across town in 20 minutes, instead of the usual 2 hours.  Places that normally cost $10 to get to, run about $4 or $5, by taxi.

There's also a festive feeling in the air.  The pubs open again and you can get a beer in a frosted mug.  People aren't tired, hungry and irritable all the time.  Folks run around giving gift baskets of food and fruit syrup and everyone gets THR, or the Idul Fitri bonus at work, so they're happy again.

For one whole week, the city is vacant and quiet.  It belongs to us tiko with nowhere else in particular to go.  We sit in sidewalk cafes for the only moment of the year that it's sanitary to do so.  We go to the museum or Monas, because no one else is there.  We are Charleton Heston in Omega Man!

Then, just as suddenly, the week is over.  Comes Monday morning, the traffic is worse than at any other point in the year, except during floods, as millions of people come back and try to rearrange their lives once again.  The magic moment flees and the rat race once again takes over.

Until that time, we savor every lonely, quiet moment in the Big City.  The glorious solitude in the midst of wall-to-wall humanity.

For a brief and shining moment, there was a place called Camelot!
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