Indonesian cities empty as millions return to villages to celebrate end of Islamic holy month

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Millions of Indonesians crammed into trains, ferries and in greater numbers than ever, motorcycles, as they poured out of major cities to return to their villages to celebrate the end of the Islamic holy month with families.

The annual mass exodus, which always leaves the country's overburdened and poorly maintained transportation systems bursting at the seams, resulted in massive traffic jams and the ever-growing threat of road accidents.

Flights were overbooked and anxious relatives weighed down with boxes of gifts formed long lines at bus stations for journeys that can take days.

"It's going to be exhausting," said Sri Maryati, a 21-year-old waitress, as she waited Wednesday with five friends to go to East Java province. "We're going to be hot, cramped, uncomfortable. But still, I can't wait. I just want to get home."

Indonesia, with a population of nearly 240 million, has more Muslims than any other country in the world.

Around 30 million travelers were expected to crisscross the vast archipelago that spans 17,000 islands for Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Islamic holy month, Ramadan. The holiday is expected to fall on Thursday or Friday, depending on when the first visible crescent of the new moon is spotted in the skies over the country.

Many are construction workers, field laborers and others who earn less than $200 a month, but eagerly spend their savings on the trip.

Half are from major cities, like Jakarta, which turn into virtual ghost towns. Without the help of maids, drivers and other members of their domestic staff, many of the capital's well-to-do opt to spend the week in hotels.

The exodus, known locally as "mudik," peaked Wednesday, two days before the expected Eid al-Fitr.

In an effort to reduce road accidents, which kill hundreds every year, the government has urged travelers to avoid making the long, exhausting journey by motorcycle.

But with so many people struggling financially, the motorcycle has turned into the vehicle of choice for nearly 7 million people this year, Transportation Ministry spokesman Bambang Ervan said.

"What else can I do?" asked Maman Abdurrachman, 35, as he and his wife and 5-year-old son prepared to go to Cirebon. Plastic bags stuffed with food and presents hung from his bike, and a wooden board extended from the seat to fit extra baggage.

"This is the cheap way to go," the factory worker said. "And it's efficient ... we can avoid some of the traffic this way."

During the four weeks of Ramadan, Muslims are not supposed to eat, drink or have sex during daylight hours. On the first day of Eid al-Fitr, people flock to early morning prayers and families later gather to eat specially prepared snacks and offer them to friends and neighbors.