“This is insane!” I repeated for at least the tenth time.
Josh and I were standing in a taxi queue outside the mall. A rather long taxi queue. In fact, there was no actual queue at all; rather, we were surrounded by hundreds of people who were trying to get home after a successful day of Ramadan shopping.
I clutched our “27” card given to me by the Bluebird taxi attendant, and waited for our number to be called. There were no taxis waiting around; instead our hopes lifted every five minutes when a Bluebird rounded the corner and we got one step closer to getting in our own. After what felt like ages, I heard the end of an exclamation: “–tujuh!”
“Is that finally us?! Did he say dua puluh tujuh?” I asked Josh. Without waiting for an answer, I began pushing my way through the crowd but stopped when I heard the call again. “Tujuh! Tujuh! Tujuh!” Number seven.
Needless to say, Josh and I waited for a long time that night. When we finally got into a taxi, we waited some more, moving inches at a time just to get out of the mall’s parking lot. Thirty minutes after getting into the taxi, we silently cheered as our driver pulled out into the street and we began the next phase of waiting. It was a slow crawl all the way back to our house.
Why all the waiting? We had made the mistake of going to the mall on the last week of Ramadan.
Having never lived in a country with Islam as the main religion, Josh and I really had no idea what to expect from this month of fasting.
As it turns out, everyday life—even for those of us who are not Muslim—was impacted in a lot of small ways from the very beginning. We were not allowed to bring food or drink into classes at EF, and many food places were closed during the day. The restaurants that did remain open covered their windows so as not to tempt those who were fasting.
The fast ended every day at sunset, which was roughly around six each night. At that point, we gave all our classes a 15-minute break (most classes at that time are 4:30-6:30), and the students ran downstairs to pray and break their fast with the snacks that EF provided or that their families brought. I even saw a few families who ordered pizzas earlier in the day and then saved them for breaking fast.
For the month, it seemed as if the entire country changed its schedule. Public places were deserted or even closed during the day but became immediately crowded after sunset. Daytime traffic was a little milder than the usual perpetual traffic jam, but after sunset, the roads were congested, even around 9 or 10 on weeknights. Fireworks could be heard at any given time of the day or night.
As the month progressed, we began to get used to the changes. Or so we thought. And that is how we unwittingly became stranded at the mall, anxious–though unable–to get home and escape the unfathomable number of people crammed into every corner of every public space.
Luckily, our little mall fiasco was effective in preparing us for one of the largest temporary human migrations in the world.
Lebaran is the Indonesian term for Eid al-Fitr–the end-of-Ramadan celebrations–and though it earned us the same time off work as Christmas did, this was obviously the biggest, most important holiday for the majority of Indonesia. City-dwellers flocked by the tens of millions to the countryside so that they could celebrate with their families.
A recent statistic recorded 18 million Indonesians flying home for the holidays and 11 million driving. Indonesia is already notorious for its grueling traffic, so you can imagine what the effect was as everyone hopped into their car or onto their motorbike and hit the road.
Coming back to work this week, I heard nightmare stories from some of my coworkers who experienced the traffic firsthand. If you look at Java on a map, it’s a fairly long strip of land, but I never would have guessed that it would be possible to spend 37 hours driving from Jakarta to the east side of the island. And yet that is just what some people spent several days of their holiday doing.
Another coworker told of the 6-hour drive from here in West Java to his family’s house–also in West Java–taking about 13 hours in the holiday traffic.
Had Josh and I known all of this when we were making our holiday plans, we might have chosen to stay at home and enjoy the eerily empty streets of Jakarta instead.
But with our tickets to Yogyakarta booked months ago, we had no choice but to become part of what I started calling The Great Migration. As someone who struggles with a lot of anxiety in anything even remotely resembling a crowd, I have a lot of weird ways of coping, and this was how I dealt with the stress of one of the craziest travel days of my life.
And so it was that Josh and I began our journey to Jogja on a Saturday afternoon in the midst of The Great Migration. We got home from work and called a taxi. An hour later, we were still waiting for it to arrive and getting worried about making to the airport on time. So I left Josh at the house with our bags and walked out to the main road to hunt down an available taxi.
Frustrated, I waited in the rain, my hair getting frizzier and my new shoes getting muddier. But as the cars drove by, I reminded myself that this was all part of The Great Migration. Finally, I hailed an available Bluebird and directed the driver back to our place to pick up Josh and the luggage before embarking on the first part of our journey.
We made it to the airport in good time. I was surprised that the traffic wasn’t much worse than normal on the way there. If anything, it was perhaps a little lighter. When we arrived, I realized that there had been no traffic on the roads because everybody was already at the airport.
It was a different terminal than where we usually fly out of–noisy, dirty, smelly, hot, humid, and outdated– and Josh remarked, “This is what you’d expect a Southeast Asian airport to look like.” Even more so because of the crowds of people packed wall to wall.
We squeezed between groups of people to get to the check-in desk, where there wasn’t an orderly line, but more of a push-until-you-get-to-the-front system. I took some deep breaths, made a huge mental effort to ignore the sweaty bodies pressed against mine, and commented to Josh, “We’re definitely part of The Great Migration.”
We found our way to the gate waiting area. All seats were taken. All floor space was taken. Just outside the gate area was an outdoor bridge, where we sat down in the non-smoking section. Inevitably, we had to put on our pollution masks when everyone sitting around us smoked anyway, but we wrote it off as just being part of The Great Migration.
An hour later, our boarding time had come and gone with no announcements indicating our flight status. Voice raspy from the smoke, I pushed through the crowds to the gate desk to ask about our flight, which was scheduled for 6:30.
“Is this flight boarding?” I asked.
“I think maybe in 15 minutes,” was the reply.
I glanced at my watch. “So at seven? Jam sembilan belas?”
A pause. “Yeah, maybe at 7:20.”
I found my way back to Josh and confirmed our suspicions that the flights were running on Indonesian time–though this was only to be expected of The Great Migration. We weren’t alone in our delayed flight status: boxed meals were being distributed to some passengers who had been waiting for more than five hours for their flights.
Eyes stinging and unable to handle the smoke anymore, we squeezed into the gate waiting area and managed to find some floor space where a few children sat staring up at the TV. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was just beginning, so we plopped down and settled in for the movie.
Every so often, one of us wandered back to the desk to see if we had missed any announcements. Finally, as the movie was ending, people started to rush toward the gate. We gathered our backpacks and joined the queue, asking if this was the line for Jogja and rejoicing when we got a solid “Ya” and were waved down the hall that led us to the tarmac.
The plane took off three hours later than it was scheduled for and the flight landed in Yogya a mere 50 minutes later. We considered ourselves lucky, given that so many people were spending hours or even days longer than anticipated getting to their destinations.
Josh and I are still waiting for some “I survived The Great Migration” t-shirts, but until then, we’ll always have the memory of the time we unsuspectingly joined one of the largest temporary human migrations on earth.
*All photos except for the first were taken by Josh, who somehow managed to stay completely calm during all the aforementioned events.