The just-completed month of Ramadhan was my third experienced during my so-far 3-and-a-half years on Batam. It would have been four but last year I was on my ill-fated visit to St. Kitts-Nevis in the Caribbean during Ramadhan.
Not that I really missed that Ramadhan observance, as I’m pretty much not interested in any religion or the gods they bow to. But it is interesting from a cultural point of view.
The first two times weren’t all that enlightening because I was cloistered in the protective environment of Smiling Hill and only experienced a Ramadhan-lite version, with the occasional Buka Puasa (break fast) company-sponsored dinners held at Goodies Restaurant, and the reporting on the Muslim holiday in the Smiling Hill newsletter.
This year, I was actually living among the local population throughout the whole ordeal (and in many ways it was an ordeal). There were far fewer filters to this year’s experience and far more inconveniences – and interesting occurrences – to adjust to or take note of.
For the uninitiated, Ramadhan is a month-long observance of the Islamic faith, a time to replenish your faith (I guess) and gather with friends and family. I would compare it to the Christian Christmas season in many ways, complete with gift-giving, lots of seasonal foods, and mass exoduses of people returning to their family homes for celebrations.
True Muslim believers will not eat, drink, smoke or have sex from dawn until dusk during the 30 days of Ramadhan. The people in Batam who actually adhere to this strict observance I would guess are far fewer percentage-wise than in most of Indonesia, where the environment is far less secular and religion is a significant part of life. Kind of like living in an American evangelical-dominated group of people.
I am living in another country, though, so patience and understanding of local cultures is important. But I will never agree with the government funding the religion, or passing laws founded on it, or the mosques blaring music and verses three times a day from their loudspeakers (five times a day during Ramadhan). But it’s their religion, so you deal with it.
Take, for instance, the nine days of what I call “Blackout.” These days are divided into threes, with the first three the first three days of Ramadhan, then three more in the middle of the month, and then the last three days of the month (Ramadhan doesn’t fall neatly into a calendar month and was from June 18 to July 18 this year.)
During these blackout days, my neighborhood basically becomes a ghost town. Bars are not allowed to operate at all. Many restaurants close out of respect to the people who are fasting (Besides, there aren’t so many customers when everyone’s not eating.) Those restaurants that remain open must cover their entrances so as not to offend those who are fasting. In some places in Indonesia, a very religious segment of the population will provide its own brand of vigilante religious justice to violators.
For me, this meant that the local street food vendors or restaurants tucked into the shophouses everywhere are not open. I couldn’t, for example, go a block away for nasi padang (rice with curry chicken) for lunch, or get dinner at my favorite Aceh-style warung right outside my apartment. However, if I so chose, McDonald’s and KFC two blocks away were open as usual.
This shutdown of business during the day was overwhelmed as dusk approached every day. Fasting believers would get up before sunup every day to feast and then near dusk would head for streets where food vendors gathered in an almost impromptu manner. My Aceh restaurant friends were at one, selling just ikan bakar (barbecue fish), and so was the guy who I often buy sate ayam (chicken on a stick) from his cart in kampong bule.
I had read about this gathering of the hungry people but never experienced it until the first day of Ramadhan this year, when I went outside to take my nightly walk and was confronted with a huge crowd on the streets outside my building. About 50-60 food stalls had been set up on a side street, pretty much shutting down traffic through that street. People were arriving on foot and especially on motorcycle to peruse the selections and buy their dinner to take home. You couldn’t eat there as there was too may people and no place to sit.
I’ve reported on this already, with a ton of pictures, and I did venture there several times for dinner. The selections were mind-numbing, especially because I had no idea what most of the food was. I did get some ikan bakar from my Aceh friends a couple of times (Once it was a large, whole squid, spiral cut, that was cooked too long.), and tried kari ayam, gudeng (a Yogyakarta specialty) and some of the pastries and sweets.
The blackout days often were a major inconvenience, not just for business but also because the banking system was shut down. At the end of the month, the banks were shut down for a week.
The bank closures affected me this year when I tried to send money to a friend at her village on several occasions via Western Union. I’ve never used Western Union in the States, so I don’t know if it operates the same as here, but Western Union was closed for business on all the blackout days and that last week of the holiday period (so, about half the month). I guess when the banks close, so does Western Union, which is owned here, I’m told, by one person. Fortunately, the ATMs still worked.
And then, of course, all those people had to come back from their kampungs (villages) and they usually waited until after the holiday was over, meaning many local businesses were missing staff well into the week after Ramadhan ended. People will leave before Ramadhan starts, or just before the final week, and return after it ends and not think twice about their jobs. This is after they receive a month’s salary as a Ramadhan bonus.
As I said, business really suffers during this month, and not just because employees will disappear for a month. Imagine how productive your staff is going to be if they can’t eat or drink during the day. The smokers will be having fits and the lack of food and water drags everyone down. The Westerners here in charge of many of the companies know that not much is going to get done.
There are other restrictive rules during the month, as well, such as bars and entertainment venues cannot open until 9 pm on the other 23 days of the observance and must close by 2 am. This has a huge impact on the many karaoke bars here. Interestingly, the massage parlors are not restricted in their operating times.
For me, one of the few benefits of the month was the bar closings, at least regarding the bar next to my apartment that blares music until 3 am most nights. It’s a prostitution bar, with an adjoining room for playtime, and it seems that whenever they have a customer for the adjoining room, the music gets louder. But for Ramadhan, there were nine days of absolute quiet and a number of others where the bar apparently was closed or had no customers, meaning I was able to sleep in my bed and not on the couch in the adjoining room (just until 3 am, when I move to the bedroom). That bar, and its noise, is back to normal.
And so is my neighborhood, with all the outside activity, the pop-up warungs, the street vendors, the neon signs, the traffic. It’s back to normal – and I like it.