When the flight attendant turned down my request for wine with dinner shortly after the Royal Air Maroc jet bound for Casablanca took off last September, I realized my yoga retreat in Morocco would bring some travel surprises.
There was no booze on board—and every Muslim on the flight was observing Ramadan.
If you’re a practicing Muslim traveling in the Islamic world, you already know what to expect during the holy month of Ramadan. But if you have little knowledge of the holiday, like me, you may want to brush up on what this period of devotion and self-sacrifice means.
The appreciation of the holiday will open up some meaningful conversations with your local hosts and create some great travel memories. Follow these five tips, and you’ll enjoy a more spiritually engaged Ramadan travel experience.
1. Know the facts.
Ramadan, which takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is a month-long period of patience, modesty and spirituality. In 2009, the holiday starts on August 21 and continues until September 19.
The Koran forbids food, drink, smoking and sex from sunrise to sunset during those 30 days. I learned this from my taxi driver in Agadir, and we spent my entire cab ride talking about how cleansing self-denial can be.
People who follow Ramadan, also called “submitters,” may eat and drink “until the white thread of light becomes distinguishable from the dark thread of night at dawn,” the Koran says. Then, submitters fast until sunset.
2. Practice self-restraint.
It’s easy to view travel time as free to be more self-indulgent than you would allow yourself at home. You’re on holiday and no one knows you in this foreign place, so why not?
But gorging can blind you to the significance of the event. And isn’t the whole point of travel to keep your senses open and awake to the world?
Fasting in Arabic is called “siyam” or “sawm,” which means, “to be at rest.” Suppressing your appetite is a form of prayer. Your quiet state allows you to come closer to God.
In Morocco, restaurants are open during Ramadan and some of them serve alcohol, so you won’t have any trouble finding food or drink. But be extra kind to your servers, who haven’t taken so much as a sip of water since waking up and are probably waiting to go home before they break their fast.
3. Seek community.
While in Agadir I visited the Kasbah d’Argan oil shop and, once again, found myself immersed in a conversation about the meaning of Ramadan. (Argan oil, pressed from the kernels of the indigenous argan trees that grow only in southwestern Morocco, is prized for its nutritive and medicinal properties.)
I told the shop’s owner about my yoga retreat and our daily sun salutations, and he responded by showing me a Salaah prostration with his forehead, knees, nose and palms touching the ground. The position looked strikingly similar to the Chaturanga Dandasana position of the sun salutation sequence I practiced every morning.
Now, I’m not saying that you have to prostrate yourself on the ground to make friends from foreign countries, but I do recommend seeking a sense of commonality through shared faith.
4. Share your water.
At the end of a long day of surfing on a beautiful beach with my yoga mates, we noticed a group of local teenage surfers collecting half-drunk water bottles from people as they headed home.
These guys had been observing Ramadan and surfing all day in saltwater—and they were parched. Once we spotted their need, we handed over as many bottles of water as we could gather together.
Nothing reflects the spirit of Ramadan better than performing an act of charity.
Because I was on a yoga retreat during Ramadan, I was constantly reminded of the blessing of breath. The yogic breath is even and deep, and paying attention to it reminded me that I was here, now, alive.
Similarly, Muslims perform Salaah, the fixed ritual of Islamic prayer, five times a day. During the prayer, worshipers focus on their breathing with each verse they recite.
In a Muslim country during Ramadan, life moves at a slower pace. Use the time to meditate and follow your own breath.
Don’t miss Tim Witting’s thoughtful essay on Spiritual Fasting: How To Appreciate Life Through Temporary Deprivation, and the powerful story from Sarah Shroud Escape From Iraq: A Muslim Family Finds Solace In Ramadan.
Have you experienced Ramadan before? Share your advice in the comments!