I asked desert sister girl Ronja Moss and her husband Shaan Reza Ali about Ramadan on Facebook on June 27:
“Hello sayang [darling]! I am assuming you and Shaan are fasting for Ramadan? It begins tomorrow here. Sama dengan Oz? [Same in Oz?] I am thinking I might join in! Though I don’t think I could last from dawn till dusk without water. What are your festive thoughts dearest Ronj? Shaan, would love to ngobrol soal Ramadan sama kamu juga! [chat about Ramadan with you too!] Julz xo”
I posted the above from Cipanas (in Sundanese: ci – water, panas – hot), a lovely little rice farming village flanked by water park resorts and dank motels about 60ks southeast of Bandung. Families flock there on weekends to frolic in the hot springs; magnificent Mount Papandayan, a conical complex stratovolcano, looms large to the south keeping everything warm. I woke early that day and felt like being on the road so threw some clothes in a backpack and hopped on an angkot to the Cicaheum Terminal (there’s that ‘ci’ again – several hundred West Javan locations begin with it) and then on a bus to Garut, 6ks south of Cipanas. The fare was only 20,000 rupiah ($1.80) but it took three hours to get there; public buses in Indonesia rarely depart till they’re full and the weekend macet was grindingly slow. From Garut I took an angkot to Cipanas and when I alighted in the idyllic little village fringed with swaying palms and apricot bougainvillea and enveloped by verdant sawah (rice fields) I rued packing in haste – I’d forgotten my camera’s memory card and phone charger so photos would be few. I quashed my regret with a vow to return as soon as possible with a little more planning and my trusty hiking boots – Mount Papandayan is ripe for the climbin’.
After wandering the main stretch for an hour attracting the attention of all (I guessed solo female foreigners were few and far between) and inspecting a handful of rooms I found the perfect one: a bamboo bungalow bedecked with beautiful batik bedspread, deep hot springs spa, veranda overlooking a long pool of lily-pads and magic view of Mount Papandayan out the back. I read House of Glass – the fourth and final book of The Buru Quartet by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, perhaps Indonesia’s foremost literary pillar – all afternoon till the end. I’d been reading it since arriving in Indonesia so finishing the series was a monumental moment. In the third instalment, Footsteps, protagonist Minke relishes aromatic ayam bakar (grilled chicken) smothered in sticky kecap manis and later sips his favourite drink of sweetened pureed avocado, a luxury purchased for him by his love interest though she can barely afford to eat. I ordered ayam bakar and jus alpukat from room service and sat on the floor at a low table to dine and reflect on Pramoedya’s extraordinary works.
It was the best ayam bakar I’d had, the jus alpukat was sublime and the sambal cibiuk, a fiery medley of fresh red and green tomatoes, garlic and chilli so delicious I devoured it on its own. Spontaneous solo getaway at a beautiful resort, stirring, enlightening literature and scrumptious dinner = bliss. It was the perfect pre-puasa (fasting) meal, I thought. And then I received a call from room service: Would I prefer bubur ayam or nasi kuning for breakfast, and delivered at what time?
Bubur ayam or nasi kuning!? Only my two all-time favourite Indonesian breakfasts! I’d first tried bubur ayam (chicken porridge) on the front porch of Nicholas Combe’s sharehouse in Yogyakarta, Central Java, a few years ago. Silky rice porridge is sprinkled with shredded roast chicken, spring onion, crispy fried shallots, peanuts, coriander and cakwe chunks (deep-fried dough), then drizzled with kecap manis and dolloped with sambal. Nasi kuning (yellow rice) is fragrant, slightly sweet, coloured and flavoured with turmeric and cooked in coconut milk. It’s accompanied with a variety of vegetable and meat dishes depending on the region; in West Java urap (steamed water spinach, green beans, bean sprouts and cabbage in a spicy coconut dressing), sambal goreng (tempeh rectangles in a spicy caramel sauce) and beef floss are pretty popular. All thoughts of Ramadan flew out the bamboo window as I requested nasi kuning then in a ridiculous moment of indecisiveness changed my mind to bubur ayam then back to nasi kuning. Wah! Aduh! So hard to choose!
The next morn at 8 on the dot a tray laden with two cups of black coffee, two glasses of orange juice, a cone of nasi kuning and a bowl of bubur ayam arrived at my front veranda. My botched order must’ve flummoxed ‘em. Wah! I’d start fasting the following day. Expecting the usual Sunday afternoon macet I thought it wise to return to Bandung around noon. After easily my most picturesque angkot ride out of Cipanas I hopped on a bright green bus and delighted in the fact that unlike the previous day’s constant shuffle of jajanan (snack) sellers up and down the aisle, today’s sole penjual was pushing Rubik’s cubes. The bus filled in a flash so soon we were wending through rice fields and rainforest, rapidly reaching Bandung’s eastern outskirts. It was then that I felt tremendously grateful to be travelling on the first day of Ramadan. The streets were virtually empty. I’m certain anyone who’s lived or travelled in Asia can appreciate exactly how strange and slightly unnerving this was.
I messaged Chriswan in WhatsApp: “I am so happy to be on the road on the first day of Ramadan! Hardly anyone on the streets, kaki lima cleansed of their contents, shutters down, sheets across windows, not a Teh Botol or Aqua in sight.”
“Yep, that sounds about right. And inside people feasting still,” he replied.
“O?” I asked, surprised. “Fair weather Muslims or the non-Muslim population?”
“Both strands. You will see hehehe. There will be the women with their time of the month, the ones with various illnesses, the ones that will pay the debt sometime later, the ones whose strenuous activities and duties don’t logically allow them to fast, the ones that just don’t fast, and the ones that simply don’t remember it is fasting month. All in all it is not just about eating, they say, the hard part is coping with hatred and other matters of the heart.”
His message mirrored Shaan’s reply:
“The first few days are always the toughest, but after about three, you find a rhythm to fasting that becomes really enjoyable. Fasting is about so much more than abstaining from food. The principle point, for me, is self-restraint. While fasting, beyond not consuming food, I try to control my temper, negative thoughts, any frustrations and focus on being as calm as possible. I try to stop swearing and cut out bad habits – like my addiction to Facebook! – and focus on creating good, new ones. The theory for me is that if I can achieve those things throughout the day for one day, then I can do it for a week. If a week, then a month. If a month, then why not all the time. My second focus point is that Ramadan is an annual reminder to consider those less fortunate than oneself. Howling out, ‘I’m starving!’ has a whole new meaning when you’re fasting, and I try to take my mind to those without a warm meal or clean water awaiting them at the end of a long day – those who are fasting through the trials and tribulations of hunger on a permanent basis. It quickly puts my own ‘I’m starving!’ into perspective. Especially for me, I quickly lapse into taking everything for granted, so Ramadan is a jolt back into more empathy and compassion.”
The next day I woke an hour earlier than normal but ate my usual breakfast of muesli, yoghurt and fruit (sweet ripe papaya with a squeeze of lime this time) on my boarding house’s balcony. During Ramadan those who puasa wake well before dawn to eat a small meal called Sahur and to pray. I obviously wasn’t going to be doing this but wanted to eat while it was still early so there wouldn’t be that many people who might see me from the street below. I’d read a fair bit online about Ramadan during the week before and surmised that sensitivity to those who are fasting is of utmost importance. Almost all restaurants erect screens across their exteriors and warungs swathe their windows in sheets (or more often this year, the first time Ramadan has fallen during a presidential election year, campaign banners).
When I arrived at work my colleague Dian asked if I was fasting. Her usually glowing faced beamed even brighter when I confirmed. She then spoke spiritedly about kolak, one of the most popular foods with which to berbuka puasa, break the fast. Kolak is a sweet snack of palm sugar and water boiled with pandanus leaf then ladled with coconut milk. The most popular varieties are kolak pisang (containing thick, soft banana slices), kolak biji (marble-sized sweet potato and tapioca flour dumplings) and kolak campur, a mixture of both along with the peculiarly textured (you’d swear they were firm jelly), almost transparent and fantastically named palm fruit kolang kaling.
When I left work that afternoon I immediately spotted a kolak vendor strategically positioned outside my beloved Sundanese dining hall Nasi Bancakan, which later that eve and every night of Ramadan would throng with customers heartily embracing Iftar, breaking the fast together. As I would soon come to realise, despite the emphasis on restraint, Ramadan seems as much about feasting as it is about fasting. Stories abounded in the office about the enormous amounts of food consumed every night during the fasting month and then for Lebaran (also known as Idul Fitri), the national holiday at the end of Ramadan.
A piece about Ramadan in Bandung contained an enticing snippet of info: running tracks are popular places for ngabuburit – passing time before buka puasa. I strode the short distance through the divine late afternoon cool to Saparua, a sports centre with red dirt running track and inner asphalt oval on which speed skater pelotons gracefully glide and tiny novices weave through witches hats. Its northern edge is skirted with a sprawling canopy of rain trees. O how I love a Saparua sunset! I jogged five laps then took a few furtive swigs of water beneath a small squat tree in whose branches I’d stashed my bottle. I was fasting but still drinking water (but nothing else); it was Ramadan for bule, Ramadan lite. I jogged another five and mid-way through the fifth the adzan, the evening call to prayer resounded; the signal to buka puasa.
Joggers dashed to a small canteen and downed whole bottles of water in one while big boisterous families sitting on rattan mats and picnic blankets tore the lids off copious containers. It was a vibrant, festive scene and one I’d relish many times throughout Ramadan. When I wasn’t jogging at Saparua I roamed the bustling streets at dusk to delight in the rapturous faces of those reveling in their first food of the day. A message to Chriswan on the third day of Ramadan: “Had a truly wonderful afternoon walk; a highlight was a gaggle of purple uniformed shop girls’ ecstatic expressions of satiation as they tucked in to bowls of berbuka puasa bakso :)”
Just as Shaan said he did, I found a rhythm to fasting that became really enjoyable. Of course by 3pm my tummy would be rattling but I rejoiced in my ritual of buying a 5,000 rupiah (40c) cup of kolak campur on my way home from work, gazing in awe at the Saparua sky, smiling at the garrulous groups of feasting families then striding home ravenous knowing just how good that first spoonful of kolak would taste. I was also elated the constant stream of snacks in the office abated and loved telling people I was fasting too. Alhamdulillah! was the most frequent reply – an Arabic phrase meaning “thanks and praise be to God”. My colleagues were impressed and appreciative, indeed, a large part of why I was fasting was for solidarity with them and sharing their pleasure in buka puasa. “You’re such a good Muslim!” my counterpart Atik loved to jibe. (I would never reveal to her that on more than a couple of occasions I broke my fast with pork; Chriswan is crazy about daging babi and has introduced me to at last count 13 different types!)
Something I was not expecting is Ramadan’s rampant commercialism which is on par with Coca Cola Christmas. Supermarket facades are plastered with gaudy displays, posters for ‘Holy Sales’ adorn shop windows and websites, restaurants and hotels offer Iftar packages, TV advertising is wall-to-wall buka puasa products,“Selamat Idul Fitri!” and “Alluhu Akbar!” (Allah is great), and malls pump Ramadan muzak (infinitely more bearable than Christmas muzak). This would not be the case everywhere – Bandung is of course a big wealthy city. After the first week of Ramadan fellow AVID and old mate Bronte reported the daily rigmarole was far more pious in the “Quran belt of East Lombok” and she loved “going jalan jalan [walking] at 6 because the streets are deserted.” This changed drastically in the last week though as “streets and shops have been packed because everyone is buying new clothes for Idul Fitri. Everyone seems a bit frantic and the mosque is going 24/7.”
I was also not expecting the crime rate to rocket. Extra money is needed for Lebaran when about 90% of the nation returns home to celebrate with family. It’s called Mudik (“travelling during Mudik is like travelling during a natural disaster,” said my friend Vincent without a hint of exaggeration – he’s lived here for seven years). Donning fine new garb, feasting with family and friends and dolling out crisp new bank notes to offspring are just a few of the rupiah-guzzling Ramadan traditions. It’s easy to understand why for many, just like Christmas, it’s the most stressful time of year.
I figured I shouldn’t have been surprised by the commercialism of the Islamic calendar’s holiest month. Shopping malls and swish hotels are the same the world over and fancy clothes and big parties cost big money. But despite the extreme consumerist element, I felt throughout the month the festive atmosphere of giving thanks to family and friends, being more charitable and celebrating with loved ones was palpable, especially in those final minutes before adzan when almost everyone I saw shared the exact same expression of hungry gratitude. It was these moments that made me most grateful to experience Ramadan while living in Indonesia. I was also grateful as I lost a bit of weight – the puasa diet really worked so I reckon I’ll puasa every year!
* * *
On the day Indonesia officially welcomed its new president I traveled by train with Chriswan from Jakarta to Cilacap in Southwest Central Java to stay with his parents for the Ramadan holiday. Throughout last night, the last of Ramadan, fireworks crackled, packs of teenagers roamed the seaside town whooping and every mosque and microphone resonated with “Alluhu Akbar!” A Lomba Bedug (Islamic drumming competition) was held in the Alun Alun (town square). During the guest performer’s set, a bombastic synth-backed traditional supplication belted out by a young guy bouncing around in skinny jeans and Raybans, I got a taste of what Chriswan called “the authentic Indonesian brand of Islam”.
At six this morning, the first day of Lebaran, we strolled to the central mosque to watch the Sholat Eid, the special Idul Fitri prayer. Beneath a cloudy sky thousands of people spilled out into the streets and prayed amongst motorbikes. When the prayer finished the women removed their praying gowns and kissed the cheeks of all those around, men shook hands warmly and children pressed the back of elders’ palms gently to their forehead. Hushed voices repeating the phrase “Mohon maaf lahir dan batin” (forgive me if I’ve hurt you physically or spiritually) echoed softly. For the next two days Muslims will visit those they hold dear and ask their forgiveness. It is this ritual that is Ramadan’s most distinguishing element.
If you’re keen to see more photos of Ramadan, Inside Indonesia recently published a fantastic photo essay titled Inside the kitchen of Jakarta’s Istiqlal mosque, which is the largest in Southeast Asia.