The annual exodus from city to villages reaches its peak this weekend. This year, with the Muslim Idul Fitri holiday falling in the same week as Christmas, a record number of city folks will head for their rural home towns to mark the festivities.
Most factories and offices, including most commercial banks, have given their workers the entire next week off. Even with the Indonesian economy barely recovering, many poor urban people have scrimped enough money to join the annual exodus. The government's warning of the perils of traveling, following recent floods and landslides across Java and Sumatra, was obviously not enough to discourage people from hitting the roads.
For most urban Indonesians, mudik -- as the tradition of spending the annual Idul Fitri holiday in one's home villages is called -- is simply a must, whatever the circumstances are. To outsiders, it defies logic that people would struggle to such lengths to spend a mere few days in their rural home towns.
Although the exodus has yet to reach its peak, there are already massive traffic congestions along Java's main highways; Merak's ferry port crossing between Java and Sumatra is already reporting delays; long lines of people queuing are seen at Jakarta's railway, intercity bus stations and Tanjung Priok port; would-be revelers are constantly falling prey to criminals and ticket scalpers.
Looking at the ever growing number of people who join the exodus every year, the tradition of mudik has strengthened rather than weakened as Indonesia transforms from an essentially rural agrarian base to a modern urban society. The growing strength of this tradition in a rapidly modernizing culture is probably one of the most difficult phenomena to explain. Because it is tied to the religious festivities, mudik for most people has move beyond a ritual, to a spiritual experience or a journey.
Mudik means spending time with their folks, to share their experiences, including their struggles in the city, and to share whatever affluence they have accumulated. The latter is a far more effective means of redistributing the nation's wealth, which is heavily concentrated in the urban areas, than the corrupt bureaucracy could ever hope to achieve through taxation.
Their success stories and show-off items in turn encourage more rural folks to want to come to the cities. This explains why after the Idul Fitri holiday, cities like Jakarta normally end up with more people than before the exodus. The only exception was in 1998, when many people returned to the villages with tales of their failures during the economic crisis.
Mudik for many people also means going back to their roots, to touch base, so to speak. This is true even for second or third generation migrants in the cities. For many, mudik is a means of finding themselves, of rediscovering their identity which they have lost amidst the dazzle of the fast-paced metropolitan life. Deep down, we are all really village people who yearn for the simple things in life. Rediscovering such values while in the company of rural people make people more appreciative of their city life. Many people will return to the cities and to their jobs after Idul Fitri not only with their batteries fully recharged and but also spiritually reinvigorated.
Mudik is also a means of strengthening cultural identity, which is not a bad thing given that the nation is being haunted by the threat of disintegration through growing regionalism. A growing sense of regional and cultural identity among city folks could strengthen their sense of national unity and tolerance, two essential elements that have kept this diverse nation united. Given the influence that city folks command in their rural home towns, city folks can help to moderate the voices in the regions as they press for greater political say and bigger share of the national pie from Jakarta.
As irrational as it may seem, mudik serves many positive functions for Indonesia during its transformation from a traditional rural-based economy to a modern urban one, and hopefully a more democratic, society. Because of its virtues to the life of the people and the nation as a whole, here is a tradition that is worth keeping and even nurturing. It is certainly worth the effort for the authorities to overcome the massive logistic challenge and the headache which the exodus creates every year.