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Discovery Channel ought to come to Jakarta, and film one of the biggest voluntary annual migrations in human history. This occurs when almost the whole population of Jakarta, leave to go to their hometowns, at the end of the Ramadan fasting month, Lebaran.

No one really knows the exact population of Jakarta and the adjoining satellite towns. On paper it should be around 12 million, but in reality over 20 million people probably live in this crowded, smoggy city of slums that blend in with skyscrapers and ultra-modern malls.

Most Muslim Indonesians leave for at least four days once Idul Fitri starts. That simply translates into around 15 million people alone in Jakarta - heading out of the city at the same time by air, rail, road, and by sea. Leaving behind a virtual ghost city of empty streets and locked up stores.

Why do all these people leave?

Many of these people actually were born in Jakarta, but still consider their hometown to be that idyllic place outside Jakarta. Actually, in reality they have never lived or worked there, and chances are, never will.

This is the paradox of the exodus, why do so many people consider the city of dreams a temporary home? When they have built a life in the city, often owning property, marrying and raising families, and yet leave to go home, every Idul Fitri!

Many say it is tradition. Your home is where your parents were born, even if they do go home themselves, every Idul Fitri - to the town or village they were born in before they migrated to Jakarta.

No one seems to mind enduring the massive traffic jams often along pot holed roads or the crowded trains and many people take more than a day to get home.

Then there is an image of success that many returning relatives have to convey. Everyone who goes home usually wants to be seen as doing well in the city - taking with them lots of money, presents, and loose change for the neighbor’s children.
The reality is that most people borrow or become extremely inventive to get extra money before they return home. Wanting to gain the respect of their family and neighbors in their hometown seems to be the motivation. The stores that make good business before the start of the holiday are usually clothing shops, gold stores, and salons.

Rather like the Christmas syndrome in English-speaking countries with a go for broke and payback later mentality.

In Indonesia, payback has a twist, bringing wealth and sometimes tales of exaggerated prosperity to impoverished towns and villages, encouraging more people to come and try their luck in Jakarta.

Colorful stories made during a visit back home, encourage other families to send their sons and daughters to the city of dreams.

The population of Jakarta thus grows annually. Built for only around seven million people, it already supports a floating population of more than fifteen million.

The majority of migrants who return to the city create their own work. They survive selling street food and hawking goods on the street, until on a higher level they get some type of paid regular work, or a much sought after office job which many Indonesians dream of.

The unlucky few drift into a precarious life of crime and quasi prostitution. The majority somehow make it, surviving but barely thriving, as life somehow seems better than back home.

The odds against traveling in such a mass exodus and returning back to work on time are slim. Most people do get back on time, ready for work the next morning.

Other hopeful migrants often return with them, quickly learn the reality of life in the city of dreams on the journey away from the nosy ears of neighbors and relatives.

Jakarta somehow reluctantly embraces everyone and provides some form of living, no matter how precarious it is. This in itself is an Indonesian miracle, and one that has never been recorded on television.

Our thanks to Mark Medley for submitting this story !

by Mark W Medley

Copyright © 2011, Mark W Medley, City of Dreams: An extraordinary journey, inside the heart of Indonesia's capital - Jakarta