I came home to Kolda the other day to find everyone in the thick of Ramadan. I had been gone for a work meeting in another part of Senegal. Breakfast stands had vanished, candied dates were being sold everywhere, and young men had stamped out the last of their cigarettes. My co-passengers remained silent for our entire 5-hour journey, the seven of us intimately squished in a Peugeot station wagon.
When Ramadan arrives, there is a seriousness to everything.
I decided this year I wouldn’t do the dance of seeing whether I could fast like everyone else. This is the fourth Ramadan I’ve experienced while living in Muslim countries (once in Morocco, three times in Senegal). I usually fast for at least a few days.
I fasted for the entire month when I lived in Morocco (meaning I refrained from food and drink during daylight hours and consumed only at night). It invigorated me. But those were also the days when I played integration like a game, dating a Moroccan guy and doodling Arabic in my notebooks. I loved haggling endlessly in the markets, drinking ultra-sweet tea, and doing things that made me feel like I fit in.
But in the end, no one is asking me to be more Senegalese. I’m not Muslim, and no one is hoping I’ll become a religious convert. The experience of fasting made me more compassionate toward Ramadan’s meaning and toward the dedication it requires. But of the things I’ve learned, one of the most important is knowing when to stop proving yourself to others, and most of all, to yourself.
Someone in the New Yorker recently quoted the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss as saying, “[I]n an encounter between two cultures, you have to find the right distance in order to really get to know each other.”
Many Peace Corps volunteers dread Ramadan and plan vacations to escape it. For those who live in villages, Ramadan can be especially rough: even less food than normal, thus more pangs of starvation. Our work projects slow down. People in our communities are tired and thirsty, so it’s difficult to convince them to help double-dig soil, start up community gardens, or give young women self-esteem building workshops. It is frustrating sometimes to feel like everything is on hold
For any type of traveler in a Muslim country during Ramadan, it can be hard to experience things as they would be normally. Businesses are closed or have unpredictable hours, making breakfast and lunch hard to find. People expect modesty, so engaging in vacation behavior, such as tanning on the beach in a bikini, is tricky.
Sometimes during this month, sunlight seems like a punishment, an examination lamp upon everyone’s movements and desires. But experiencing Ramadan, whether you’re fasting or not, can be a worthy, eye-opening cultural undertaking.
The main way to participate in Ramadan as a non-Muslim is to restrict yourself from eating or drinking publicly during the day. You feel how challenging it is to ride a bike uphill or take an all-day dusty car ride with locals when you can’t sneak even a sip of water. You may feel, even if artificially, the sense of community during Ramadan, of everyone around you sharing the same physical torment. Later, in the safety of your hotel room, you can scarf down a few Clif bars and realize what a fortunate experience it is to eat.
Ramadan is also interesting because rather than being a private religious ritual, it is evident in the very rhythms of the day. In Senegal, it is a rare month to choose to travel (both culturally and seasonally), so you’re not likely to encounter many other tourists. You’ll experience the emptiness of sundown, when the streets are vacant because everyone is breaking the fast; the chatter around midnight, when people are eating dinner; and the unusual calm of morning, when people are still dozing after their 5 a.m. snack and prayer. If you’re staying with locals, they’ll usually invite you to break the fast with them.
An outsider is bound to notice the distinctness of Ramadan—its odd schedule, the special foods eaten, the way it’s the subject on everyone’s lips—and walk away with this memory from their travels.
I’ll spend the rest of the month hiding my eating habits. I’ll be crouched on the floor of my hut cracking open cans with my Swiss Army knife for my one-woman lunch. I’ll be at the 9 p.m. dinner bowl for the odd ones out: the kids who are too young to fast, the menstruating, the ill, and me. And maybe, like Lévi-Strauss said in the quote above, that puts me at the right distance.
A version of this post was originally published at the Huffington Post.