JAKARTA - Indonesian street food vendor Ahmad Dedi and his family arrived at Jakarta's Pasar Senen train station from the neighbouring city of Bekasi more than six hours before their departure to Kebumen, Central Java, on Tuesday (May 4) evening.
They had left early to avoid the capital's notorious traffic jams, not wanting to miss the trip home for Hari Raya Aidilfitri after being unable to do so last year because of the pandemic.
While the family used to travel home by motorbike, Mr Ahmad, his wife and their three children, including their nine-month-old baby, decided to take the train this time, just before a ban on the exodus for Hari Raya took effect on Thursday. Major inter-city roads will be closed with the ban.
He told The Straits Times: "We were sad not to unite with our parents and relatives last year. Now, despite the ongoing pandemic, we're trying to gather with our families."
Each year, as the end of Ramadan approaches, millions living in the capital Jakarta and other parts of the vast archipelago make their way home by air, sea and land in a massive exodus known as mudik to celebrate Aidilfitri.
Festivities in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, where over 90 per cent of its 270 million people practise the faith, are normally marked by home-cooked feasts and visits to the homes of neighbours, friends and relatives.
But the government has called for modest celebrations again this year to curb the spread of Covid-19, which has killed more than 46,000 and infected 1.7 million people in the country. It has also banned mudik until May 17, suspending sales of tickets for long-distance journeys on various modes of transport and closing major roads.
In an address to the nation on April 16, President Joko Widodo reminded Indonesians that the travel restrictions were necessary to stem the spread of Covid-19 infections, which had surged during long holidays last year.
"I understand we all have missed our families and relatives in these moments, especially the upcoming Lebaran," Mr Widodo said, referring to Hari Raya Aidilfitri.
"But let's prioritise our communal safety by not returning to our home towns. Let's pass Ramadan with an effort to break the chain of the pandemic for the safety of our entire families and relatives, ourselves, and the whole society."
A Ministry of Transport survey showed that 18 million would return home, mostly by car and motorbike, despite the ban, with Central Java, West Java and East Java the top three destinations, Transport Minister Budi Karya Sumadi said on Wednesday.
Fearful that they may be stopped by the authorities at district borders after the ban took effect on Thursday, some workers simply scooted off in advance without telling their bosses.
The owner of a Jakarta-based workshop, Mr Kosim, 45, who goes by one name, said: "We are down to only two - my son and me. I have to go to the project sites myself to do the installations with my son's help. We are not going to finish in time."
Despite a similar ban last year, many still managed to find their way home, some by hiding in trucks to travel to different cities.
Like Mr Ahmad, Mr Eko Marwoto and his wife left Jakarta early.
They travelled to Solo in Central Java on Tuesday, before the ban kicked in, taking with them new clothes for their 13-year-old son and parents.
"We are rushing to go home. We bought the tickets online at the start of Ramadan," said the 40-year-old, who works as a printing worker and a courier. "We are so happy to finally be able to go home and unite with our son this year. He has missed us so much," he said, adding that he and his wife will stay home for up to three weeks.
Another train passenger, Ms Ari Natalia, is set to celebrate Hari Raya Aidilfitri for the first time in her husband's home town of Kebumen this year, where prayers will be held for her mother-in-law, who died recently.
Ms Ari, who together with her husband and two children were infected by Covid-19 in January, said she understood the risks of travelling during the peak period ahead of Hari Raya. "Actually I'm worried about travelling. If there wasn't such an important event, it would be better for us not to go," she said.
In contrast, Mr Ainul Yaqin, 31, thought nothing of travelling with his six family members, including his parents, to Malang, East Java, bringing food such as instant noodles and coffee back with them.
"It's okay. We could get tickets," he said. "As long as the ban has not started, we may return home."