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Ramadan Gone

Today marks the end of Lebaran, which is a week-long national holiday in Indonesia.  The official days off were last Sunday and Monday, but so many folks bug out of town to pulang kampung (return to the village), that really life here just shuts down for a week.

12 million people vanish overnight - KOMPAS photo
Lebaran is akin to American Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter all rolled into one.  Airports are packed.  roadways are jammed.  Special feasts are prepared.  Gifts are exchanged.  Bonuses are received.

The cause for all this revelry is the Islamic holiday of Ei'd al-Fitr, or in the Indonesian spelling, Idul Fitri.  The holiday begins at the precise moment of the New Moon following the month of fasting and marks the beginning of the Islamic New Year, in this case 1488.

Ramadan is a curious concept.  It requires the strict muslim to not ingest anything. He may not eat, drink, swallow saliva, smoke, or otherwise take something into his body from sun up to sun down.  There are many devout observers of this practice, but there are many who practice in public.  As my aunt said about Southern Baptists, "Honey, we're Baptists.  We don't drink in front of each other."  As with all religions, there are many whose integrity extends only as far as the neighbor's eyesight.

Ramadan is actually quite annoying for those who are not caught up in the spirit of things.  There are the gangs of gung-ho youth who traipse through the neighborhood at 2am banging drums and cymbals to wake folks for the early morning food fest and prayer time.

The mosques begin their turn at 3am with the actual wake up call that the drummers prepared us for an hour earlier.  Depending on the local imam, this may last 5 minutes, or go on well past sunrise roughly three hours later.

This routine goes on for a full 28 or 29 days, depending on whether you follow the synodic or sidereal calendar.  In fact, the government agency in Indonesia whose official task is to determine the beginning and end of Ramadan is always at odds with the mosques.  Every year it's the same controversy.  The government agency follows the sidereal calendar, so they determine that Ramadan starts slightly later and ends slightly earlier than the imams.  Naturally, most folks follow the government agency, especially for the ending time.

The routine is always the same.  For the first week and a half, there is great excitement and fervor as everyone begins the fast.  By the end of the second week, folks have a haunted and pained demeanor.  By the third week, the paranoia sets in: are you fasting?  You better be fasting.  If I'm fasting, you need to be suffering along with me.  As the fourth week begins, the markets fill up with shoppers and prices go through the roof as everyone prepares for Idul Fitri.  Everyone starts worrying about their THR, or bonus pay.

Oh, THERE they are! - KOMPAS photo
Then comes the day before Idul Fitri.  There is nothing quite like it.  Dump trucks get hired out by groups of people going to any given village and 50 to 100 people pile in with their bags for the long, arduous journey to anywhere.  Trains are piled inside and out with people.  Literally millions of cars and motorcycles hit the roadways.  The news is filled with stories of macet, or 'log jam'.  The papers have a running, week-long death tally (this year 870 dead).  It reminds me of the Great Rita Fiasco in Houston several years back, though this mess is an annual ritual.

The night before Idul Fitri, the mosques begin the chanting that will last until well past sunrise the next day - about 13 hours here on the equator.  The next night is marked by a literal orgy of fireworks that goes on for a minimum of five days, depending on when supplies are exhausted.  There are spontaneous bands of merry-makers roving around whooping and hollering.  Everyone shoves food in your face claiming their variation of such-and-such a delicacy is the finest.

By Sunday (today), the fireworks are gone, the revelries have slowed, the shops start re-opening, most folks are back home, and life starts returning to normal again.  Prices, which sky-rocketed last week, start to settle down, though they never return to the levels seen just a short time ago.  The exercise group starts meeting again in the park in front of the house.  The food vendors return to their usual rounds.  Traffic jams clog every road and byway of Jakarta once again.  And the Christians start planning for Christmas.

Life goes on.  Hi Ho, as Kurt Vonnegut might put it.