Pulang Kampung

Like the rest of the Islamic world, Indonesians in Bali are about to mark the close of the month-long fast of Ramadan.

After living in a majority-Muslim country for many years, I can personally vouch for one phenomenon that is under no threat of extinction: Mudik, or Pulang Kampung. Not only does “pulang kampung” rank high among my favorite Bahasa phrases, but it perfectly captures the annual migration of Muslims heading home to mark the last days of Ramadan with family: While some would translate it as ‘homecoming,’ pulang kampung literally means “going home, to the village.” Millions of Indonesia’s citizens are on the go; some, en route for as little as one hour, while others must travel for days – by car, bus, boat, plane, ferry or (most popular, and risky) motorbike.

Since last week, Bali too has shifted into major Mudik mode. Muslim labourers, housekeepers, gardeners and countless employees who uprooted themselves from families and close-knit communities in distant islands, to work in Bali’s massive tourism and hospitality industry, went on mass exodus. Pulang kampung. Which meant the streets cleared out, shops were being shuttered for an extended period of time, restaurants were closing to give their staff a week-long break. Vendors of mobile street-stalls (aka kaki-lima) closed down and tied up their five-wheeled carts. Traffic didn’t quite come to a standstill – as most construction sites did – but it slowed down considerably. Most noticeably, for myself, the drivers who work on Gojek – an app for ordering a motorbike or taxi – usually quick to respond and arrive, were almost impossible to locate. They too had… pulang kampung.

But, as time has shown, if you look hard enough, the Island of the Gods, always blesses you with hidden gifts.

Yesterday, returning from an early morning walk along the beach, it occurred to me that I could take advantage of the predictable drop in traffic to do a few errands in Denpasar – the capital city that I try to avoid at all costs – even if its concrete, street-choked sprawl has pretty much reached the edges of this coastal town.

Surprisingly, in mere moments, I snagged a Gocar driver. Markus, an easy-going Christian Indonesian from Flores, was in no hurry to pulang kampung. He was staying put, driving in a relaxed manner through the warren that is Denpasar’s network of streets and rare streetlight. In less than 30 minutes, Markus pulled up to the corner of Jalan Sulawesi; the main drag for fabrics near the market, that extends the length of this narrow road; all storefront awnings stretched downwards against the harsh morning light. In my favorite emporium, stocked with endless rolls of fine Indian cloth, and without a queue or other customer in sight, I picked up a few pieces of choice fabrics, chatted with the bored-looking Mumbai-born owner, and was back on the sun-beaten sidewalk in minutes.

Across the street, on Jalan Kalimantan, lies one of Bali’s main mosques. In short order, the call to prayer blared from speakers a stone’s throw away. Across from the mosque’s entrance, a grouping of Muslim shopping bazaars were doing a brisk business, with people crowding around to stock up on new prayer books, clothes and hats, perfumes, carpets and edible treats for Lebaran – chief among them: imported dates! (I picked up a pack myself).

There was a noticeably festive air in that corner of Jalan Kalimantan – much like one would find in American towns over Christmas. Nobody was in a rush to go anywhere else. The shopkeepers and clients seemed more relaxed, chatting with each other, picking through gold-lined tunics, calendars, herbal remedies and tins of dry biscuits. Clearly, they were of the minority who were fortunate enough to skip the tradition of pulang kampung.

I opened my app and ordered a Gojek driver – whose calm and easy demeanor I chalked up to the usual absence of clogged and impassable streets. I was back home in less than half an hour… which, on a normal, non-Lebaran, non-Mudik kind of day, would have been unheard of.

This island indeed has invisible benevolent spirits at work. Blessings and prayers, were answered. For me, ’twas a day of perfect timing.

Selamat Hari Raya Lebaran (Eid Il Fitri)

Fun fact #1: This year, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear (perhaps in response – or not – to the fallout over the recent political protests and riots), all government offices and *banks* have been closed since last Friday or Saturday, and do not reopen until next Monday; a full 10-day closure. Unheard of, even in these parts. But hey, welcome to Indonesia.

Fun fact #2: Indonesian citizens traveling across the country over Lebaran are known as
“wisatawan domestic – shortened to… Wisdom.

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