Ramadhan is a confusing time if you are not a local in Jakarta. Firstly, just when you thought you were starting to understand the traffic a little – everything changes – the streets clog up at 4pm and stay clogged until 6pm when at last people have found their way to meet their gang to buka puasa (break the fast). Then the traffic starts again at some undisclosed hour and doesn’t end. Your favourite restaurants are often closed, and if not closed have a curtain up hiding the treats they are selling from hungry people. Beer is very impossible to get. Your coworkers are dazed and sleepy and the only conversation you can have with them is where to go to eat after work. You kind of feel guilty about guzzling your water on the street. The mosques turn up the volume and get going extra early. Your boyfriend and friends are jetlagged from waking up at 3am to eat a meal and pray before the mosque reminds them it’s time to stop. The malls are thick with people wandering around escaping the heat outside. The places you want to take your friends to show them what a funny place Jakarta is are deserted during the day. You feel like you are living on a different planet than the rest of Jakarta if you aren’t Muslim – where is everybody? Or, why is everybody here now?
And then there are the joys of Ramadhan – the sugared and spiced treats that line the streets – ice fruit drinks, fried food in abundance, cakes of all colours topped with melted brown sugar, piles of coconuts being sliced up for more sweet drinks. There’s the excitement of the night time when fasting is over and the streets are full and lined with market stalls. And the joy of breaking fast together with friends who you haven’t seen in a while. Everyone is excited in Jakarta for Ramadhan – excited to be fasting together and sharing together, excited about the holiday at the end, excited about the extra money in the pay packet, excited to see their families. The kids are excited about the wads of cash they are going to get at the end. There is a real feeling of community during Ramadhan – everyone is in it together – even the most lax Muslims get into fasting, and the rest of us can only marvel and try to understand.
Then comes mudik – the mass exodus – where everyone is pulang kampung – going back to their homes, back to their villages and their families for the once-a-year visit. Jakarta is full of people from all over Indonesia, and this is the time when everyone gets a couple of days leave from endless work, when airlines and train companies get excited to quadriple their prices, when Jakartans freak out that their nannies and maids (pembantus) have gone so they have to do their own cleaning and care for their own children. Jakarta is deserted by the millions of people who have come to the big smoke to make their fortunes. It is a time when those who are left behind rejoice at the streets clear of traffic – where you can get from the south to the north in half an hour – time to see the city. Or what is still open.
Ramadhan is like Christmas maybe once was when it was still a religious festival – before consumerism claimed it as their own way to sell heaps of stuff. For the unreligious, such as me, it is often difficult to understand and makes a confusing city more confusing. But it also makes you see the value of community that has often been lost in the West. Islam has been vilified by the West for centuries who have enjoyed boosting themselves up by having an ‘other’ to blame for its own screw ups. And yet, here are millions of people spending their days hungry and thirsty in order to control their minds, or to understand what it is like to be poor and hungry, who are giving money to those in need, who are getting together every night with friends to celebrate food, health and happiness. It kind of makes me feel a little uninitiated.
The climax of Ramadhan is Idul Fitri – when all of the family comes together to eat ketupat, which is like a rice dumpling that has been cooked in a palm leaf served with chicken or beef cooked in coconut. Houses are full and the young adults are kept busy with an endless line of dishes to wash before the next family members arrive. The children are carrying around their new purses and wallets filled with freshly minted rupiah of which the banks prepare trillions of rupiah to exchange before Idul Fitri. Whole families are proudly wearing their new husband/wife/children matching colours of a variety of Muslim wear. I dare you to try and look into the faces of the Indonesian teenagers and see if they are embarrassed to be wearing matching outfits with their families – you will be disappointed.
Families walk the streets of the kampung visiting their older relatives, sitting down for another meal of ketupat or a glass of soft drink before leaving for the next visit. The big sights of Indonesia – the zoo, Taman Mini and Ancol – are filled with families who have rented trucks and buses, to gather together and eat and play and spend their extra Ramadhan cash at vendors who have upped their prices to make their own profits. It’s a time to go and visit everyone – all means of transport filled with families driving all over the city to eat and laugh together then head off to the next destination. It’s now Christmas on steroids, and not the kind of Christmas that people complain of in Australia that are dreaded as people are forced to see their families once a year and just get through it. This is a time when you get excited to travel all over the countryside, even if it means sitting in traffic for an entire day and night, visiting family here and there.
Imagine a world where you just partied with your family in an alcohol free way, pigged out, enjoyed your time and wanted more. It’s hard to imagine when you come from Australia, and it’s difficult to understand if you live here. But toss aside your Muslim stereotypes and just say “mohon maaf lahir dan bathin” – ask for forgiveness and get off to a fresh start. Selamat Hari Raya.