I came home to Kolda the other day to find everyone in the thick of Ramadan. While I was gone for a work meeting in another part of Senegal, breakfast stands vanished, candied dates arrived and young men stamped out the last of their cigarettes. My journey home was also curiously quiet. My fellow passengers remained silent for our entire 5-hour trip even though the seven of us were intimately squished in a Peugeot station wagon.
When Ramadan arrives, there is a seriousness to everything.
Many Peace Corps volunteers dread Ramadan and plan vacations to escape it. For those who live in villages, Ramadan can be especially rough: There is less food than usual, our work projects slow down and the people in our communities become tired, thirsty and harder to collaborate with. Everything is on hold.
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 (one in Morocco, three in Senegal). I usually fast for at least a few days.
That was when I was playing at integration: fasting for the entirety of Ramadan, 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.
Ultimately, no one is asking me to be --or pretend to be -- Senegalese. I'm not Muslim, and no one is hoping I'll become a religious convert. The experience of fasting made me more understanding of Ramadan's meaning and more respectful of 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.
The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss said that in an encounter between two cultures, you have to find the right distance in order to really get to know each other. There is wisdom in that.
For any type of traveler in a Muslim country during Ramadan, it can be hard to experience things normally. Businesses are closed or have unpredictable hours, making breakfast and lunch hard to find. People expect modesty, so engaging in vacation behavior like tanning on the beach is tricky.
The best 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.
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. Maybe that puts me at the right distance.