Indonesians Go Home, by the Millions


Irwin Fedriansyah/Associated Press. Many Indonesians return home at the end of Ramadan for a holiday they call Lebaran. In Jakarta, people waited on Friday to board a ship bound for the island of Sulawesi.

September 6, 2010
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
JAKARTA, Indonesia — The exodus happens every year.

During the last days of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, tens of millions of Indonesians leave the country’s cities to return to their villages by motorcycle, train, bus and boat.

The mass homecoming is both a decidedly Indonesian interpretation of the Muslim holiday and one of the world’s great movements of people. On a road network whose capacity is strained at the best of times, travelers brave enormous jams, exhaustion and bandits to make it back home. Hundreds perish on the road each year.

New arrivals to the cities or those with strong roots to rural Indonesia lead the exodus, which is called “mudik,” meaning “going home.” In Jakarta, the capital, businesses shut down, construction sites are stilled and wealthy households overly dependent on domestic help check into hotels while their maids, nannies and drivers are away.

At a bus terminal here, Ria Handayani, 19, and Puji Erawati, 20, cousins working as assistants and maids in the same household, waited to catch a bus for a nine-hour ride to their hometown in Central Java Province. Both were going home for the first time since an uncle had found them jobs here last year.

“I like Jakarta,” Ms. Handayani said. “I’ve made a lot of friends. We go to the malls and hang out at the park. But I really miss my family. I miss my dad and mom. I have five younger brothers and sisters.”

Ms. Handayani, who had finished junior high school, was helping some siblings through high school. She had sent home all of her first month’s salary — $50 — she said with a serious look on her face. She had also sent money each month, but two months ago she finally splurged on herself by buying an Indonesian-made Taxco smartphone for $40. “I use it to communicate on Facebook with my friends in my hometown,” she said, cradling her red phone in her left hand.

About 30 million people are expected to travel this year, most of them in Java and Sumatra, the main islands in Indonesia, which has a population of nearly 240 million. In Jakarta, a quarter of the city’s 10 million residents are expected to leave for mudik.

The annual homecoming is an integral part of how Indonesians celebrate what they call Lebaran — the Muslim holiday at the end of Ramadan known around the world as Id al-Fitr — by reconnecting with families, renewing themselves spiritually and asking for forgiveness. But beyond culture and religion, lopsided economic development favoring cities has driven urbanization and the growth of mudik.

“Indonesia’s economy has improved a lot, but there’s no balance,” said Irwan Hidayat, the chief executive of SidoMuncul, a large manufacturer of herbal drinks. “There’s no balance between cities and rural areas, no balance between rich and poor. That’s why mudik keeps getting bigger every year.”

In the 1990s, SidoMuncul became the first company to sponsor organized mudik convoys for its employees. This year, said Mr. Hidayat, 63, the company had chartered about 300 buses to send home more than 20,000 vendors of its products.

The annual exodus serves as one way for money to trickle down to Indonesia’s villages. At bus terminals here, hawkers of crisp rupiah bills sidled up to travelers who, according to custom, will be expected to distribute them to nephews and nieces back home.

Fuad and Ani, a couple waiting for a bus along with their three children, said relatives from their village had “pre-ordered” gifts, mostly clothes, from Jakarta.

Mr. Fuad, 39, a construction worker who uses only one name like many Indonesians, said he was the only member of his family to have left his village. He came to Jakarta in 1990 and met his wife, Ani, 34, here.

“Yes, there’s a lot of pressure going back home for mudik,” Mr. Fuad said, explaining that the trip this year was costing him about $660, or the equivalent of six weeks’ work. The family went back for mudik only every other year, he said, adding: “It’s too expensive.”

The pressure to give — and, perhaps even more important, the pressure to show off one’s success to those back home — was fueling business for pawn shops throughout Jakarta.

At a branch in south Jakarta of Pegadaian, the state-owned chain of pawnbrokers, the manager, Agus Helmi, said this time of the year was the busiest, along with the back-to-school season. While people pawned belongings to take out loans for the beginning of the school year, they reclaimed belongings, mostly jewelry, before the start of mudik.

“They’ve just received their annual bonuses from their employers, so they can come and get their jewelry,” said Mr. Helmi, who has worked for the pawnbroker for 32 years. “They want to wear it in the villages.”

“It’s in our tradition that we want to show off what we have accomplished in the big city,” he added.

But after the end of mudik, Mr. Helmi said, the same people often come to pawn the same pieces of jewelry.

The same kind of pressure was partly behind the popularity of the motorcycle, a way to get back home and a symbol of material success.

As many as 1.6 million people are expected to travel out of Jakarta on their motorcycles, typically small models made for short trips, despite the authorities’ attempts to ban their use for long-distance trips. More than 400 travelers died last year, most of them in motorcycle accidents. Each year, local news organizations report on infants dying, sometimes squeezed between their parents as entire families ride on one motorcycle.

Yamaha Motor Kencana Indonesia, a distributor of Yamaha motorcycles here, is organizing a convoy for some 3,000 Yamaha owners. Buses will transport the owners and the families to Central Java, joined by trucks carrying their motorcycles.

Early Sunday morning, Maman, 39, boarded the Yamaha-sponsored bus with his wife and son. Last year, he rode his motorcycle to his village for 12 hours.

Paulus S. Firmanto, a manager at Yamaha, said that as motorcycle sales kept rising sharply along with Indonesia’s booming economy, it was natural that motorcycles became the favorite way to go home for mudik.

“By riding their own motorcycle home, it shows they made some money in Jakarta,” he said.

“In the past, a motorbike would last eight years before an owner got bored with it — now not even five years,” he added. “Some of them are even embarrassed to bring back the same motorbike next Lebaran.”

Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting.

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About Uy Do

Banking System Analyst, former NTT data Global Marketing Dept Senior Analyst, Banking System Risk Specialist, HR Specialist
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