Tales of the Pandemic: The quiet before Ramadan in Yogyakarta

I live on the outskirts of Yogyakarta, Central Java, Indonesia. To the north, travelling through small settlements, food outlets and rice fields, one reaches the now (alarmingly) puffing Mount Merapi.

To the south lies the centre of the city: the tourist attractions of the Tugu statue, Malioboro Street, the palace where the Sultan lives – Indonesia’s last active king. Throughout the city you can find university campuses of various sizes.

As it’s coming up to Ramadan, now is a time to reflect on crowds and quiet, and the ebbs and flows of mobility in the city.

At this time normally there is mudik, where millions of workers from around Indonesia travel home for the long holidays, to celebrate and to fast with loved ones, and all the students who normally fill the cafes and food stalls return to their kampungs around the country.

These two forms of migration, combined with Yogyakarta’s status as Indonesia’s second most popular tourist destination, means the population dynamics change a lot during this time, and even within the space of a day the force and nature of crowds shift.

In the days of fasting the early mornings are a hive of women measuring and selecting in markets and stocking up for the coming evening. During the heat of the day streets are still for people staying indoors, preserving energy and holding off thirst, restaurants are closed save a few with a sheet across the window and tourist destinations lay empty.

Come 6pm, the call-to-prayer and competing sirens to break the fast ricochet around buildings and the streets are full of people buying sweet, multicoloured snacks and rushing home for iftar (the meal to break fast).

Yet now, in this time just before the holiday but in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the streets are perpetually quiet. It feels the government aren’t sure how to act about mudik.

The president, Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, refuses to ban the mass homecomingreasoning that the economic impact would be too damaging if it were to stop altogether – yet appeals to those in Jakarta to stay put.

Meanwhile, in the cities and villages already watching the first waves of returnees, like Yogyakarta and its countryside region of Gunung Kidul, the mutterings and rumours of how many infected and how many having been lost to the virus since workers returned are shared in doorways and across front yards.

It is thought that 600,000 workers from Jakarta have already returned home, with potentially over a million more to make the journey. In my kampung, the village heads have taken to carefully monitoring who is coming in and for how long to try and maintain some control of the situation.

Last week it was my turn to emphatically state that I hadn’t been to the UK for a while due to the high number of cases there.


I’ve been staying in the house now for five weeks. My Masters at Universitas Gadjah Mada moved online long before the government started taking the issue seriously and people on the streets started worrying about what will happen.

A bamboo roadblock outside a mosque in Yogyakarta. Photo: Harriet Crisp

In this time I’ve been oblivious to the sensations and sentiments outside, fortunate to only need to venture out to the supermarket once a week.

Two weeks ago, the feeling on the street started to change – people joked a little nervously about the pandemic, mask and disinfectant sales increased. But it wasn’t until one evening we ventured out to restock on greens and rice that the real shift was visible.

Men from the kampung were outside working together making large banners with light-hearted signs reading ‘Uncles, aunts, sorry! We have to do this to fight Corona’ and ‘The villagers here want to be able to celebrate Ramadan!!”.

Bamboo poles were being lined against the gates to stop outsiders entering. “Where are you going?” one man asked my husband and I, only nodding at our answer. Out on the main road this scene was repeated across the area, each village having its own message and a collective of concerned looking spectators.

There is an increased presence of police cars on the road now, and many of the often-packed food stalls are shut. The streets, normally thick with the exhaust fumes of continuous mopeds for a while resembled the quiet usually seen at 4am. It is a surreal experience to have a forty five-minute drive take twenty.

Instagram accounts with large followings are posting traditional street venders who are suffering the loss of customers on the street, with followers tracking them down and buying their produce even if reluctant to let it in the house

Where everyday activity should be happening – a few ibu queuing for snacks from a popular street vendor, an elderly man waiting for the red light to sell newspapers – there are instead the food delivery Gojek drives, sat in the doorway of a closed shop waiting for an order. Their green jackets are now the most prominent feature of the city, as many people turn to online orders to limit the risk of going out.

In the absence of clear government instruction, and with growing numbers of people in need, kampungs and local organisations are taking lockdown and food distribution upon themselves.

University groups and local communities are organising public kitchens for food sellers and small business owners who are struggling to get by.

Instagram accounts with large followings are posting traditional street venders who are suffering the loss of customers on the street, with followers tracking them down and buying their produce even if reluctant to let it in the house. Even the local graffiti community has put together a series of prints with profits going to making protective suits for hospital workers.

Right now, the atmosphere of the city seems hopeful, but cautious. People are working together and spreading what means they can. Numbers in the hospitals at present are 67 patients positive and over 600 patients under observation, but I feel many who may be ill are not being tested for different reasons.

One of my lecturers having returned from America for a conference has been announced positive, along with one of my classmates who is still in the process of recovering after three weeks of being sick.

We don’t know what will happen, and in our online classes we pray, regardless of religion or belief. There is a sense that all we can do is help who we can and stay at home as much as we can.

Outside the rice paddy has reached its peak, and like always the old ladies continue to meet, picking, backs bowed and working in tandem. The children outside continue to play, although less often now, and each day the number lessens.

There is no way to predict when this will be over, or what will happen when Ramadan officially begins, but I’m hoping this communal practice will continue.

It is through the collective that the most vulnerable will stay afloat, and the fallout from the virus will stop from evolving into a disaster.

First published on the South East Asia Globe here: https://southeastasiaglobe.com/ramadan-celebrations-indonesia-coronavirus/

Holding onto the Line

I worked in a call centre at university raising money for a number of charitable causes the university had. Although the causes for the call centre were good, I struggled with the prospect of calling the same people each year and asking for a slightly larger amount of money. Being an English literature student meant that I mainly called English literature graduates and, although English lit graduates on the whole didn’t have much money to give compared to those from the Business School or engineering, their stories were in general rich.

We were allowed to have conversations with those on the phone so we could build rapport with them before doing the ask, or to update them on what was happening at the university. For me, it wasn’t just about breaking the ice, but as an opportunity to get to know a different life or a glimpse of what could happen to me in the future. Sometimes conversations would last 30 seconds, sometimes an hour, and it was those conversations where you’d feel like you’d lived as a different person. Strangers imparted their stories and their feelings about places, people and their own failures and achievements. People who had moved to Italy, Turkey, Newcastle. Those who had stayed with their university sweethearts and those whose loves had come to an end. There was everything passed between the receiver to the headset, in a little booth in the Westwood campus next to the counselling facility.

I wish at the time I’d kept notes about these conversations, so many of them felt like something from a short story anthology and I think for those who were speaking it was a chance to see their past in a different light and reflect on it through the lens of themselves when they were still a student.

Perhaps my favourite conversation was with a lady who had moved to Italy. She and her husband had bought a dilapidated house in a rural region with the aim of building it up and turning it into their own. The house took years, they lived in it in an unliveable state, building it up around them. When it rained, there was no escaping the rain, when the roof went up, they were there to celebrate and experience the feeling of having a roof over their heads. Eventually, it was finished. A completed house in which they could call their own. She worked as a part-time journalist and he had a business. They decided to start an alpaca farm, producing fabric from the coats of their animals. That year however, he had passed away. She paused for a moment as she thought about it on the phone. They had lived there for years but he was quite a few years older than she was and he became ill. But the strange thing that happened was that one of her alpacas, who had been pregnant for months and was long overdue, gave birth the very day her husband died. So with the death of her husband came about a new life. The young alpaca grew up to be so affectionate and she knew it was a sign, a sign of one life ending and another beginning.

The line was quiet for a moment as we both thought. These two strangers exchanging stories over a network from different countries and different life experience, one beginning at university, looking for answers about what comes next, one having lived experiences and watching lives finishing and starting, a moving experience for both of us.

A call centre as a centre for connection.

 

Illustration by @sicovecas