STORY - "In 2014 I wrote this story about the Ramadan for the travel magazine 'Wereldwijzer Reismagazine' in the Netherlands. You can find now the English version on the website."
I wanted to know how westerners experience the Ramadan among muslims in their own culture. This year, I'm together with my fourteen years old son during this fasting month in Indonesia - the country with the largest muslim population in the world - and I join the Ramadan with my Indonesian friends. And no, I'm not in Bali which is quite western and mostly Hindu. I take full part of the spicy Indonesian culture and the muslim community.
Meanwhile, we are halfway through this holy month of Islam. Between dawn and sunset, nobody eats and drinks. This fasting period is not just not eating and not drinking, it means a lot more for a good muslim: you strengthen your inner mind and try to control bad habits. For example, during the day in Ramadan, you don’t smoke, you don’t try to quarrel and you don’t make love when the sun shines on the tropical sky. Not that making love is bad, they just want to say that we sometimes have to keep our drifts and pleasures under control and that we as human beings can’t do anything whatever we want. That we must keep in mind each other, with the nature and everything around us. Ramadan is also the month of solidarity. People make very early in the morning and in the evening time to share the meal with their family members, or with neighbors or friends who have less money. Ramadan have to be a festive to everyone. A festive month of joy, of togetherness and of inner strength.
When we arrived in Jakarta at the beginning of this month and stayed there for a few days, I realized that there were still some people in the restaurant at noon. But Jakarta is a world city with a mix of cultures and religions, and many foreign Asians who aren’t muslims at all. However, the many stalls that you can usually find along the streets with all kinds of Indonesian delights and spicy scents, they disappear during the daytime in the streets. They show respect for the fasting muslim everywhere and they eat only behind the walls. When it’s almost dark, these many stalls appear again and become one big festive everywhere in the streets and people eat and drink until early morning. Throughout whole the night it’s a cozy crowd of people, smells and flavors. At the hotel we had the opportunity to have breakfast at 3 o'clock. The Ramadan is just everywhere, in every piece of soul from Indonesia.
Later we took the non stop long distance train from Jakarta to Surabaya, about a distance of about 800 kilometers to get from one side of Java to the other side of this island. Sixteen hours we sat between Indonesians on this very hot train. I especially took the 'ekonomi' (lowest) class because I didn’t want to feel myself like a spoiled westerner. I wanted to feel, smell and sweat like a normal Indonesian human being. Especially sweating we both succeeded. As a result, our body immediately became an attraction for the many Asian mosquitoes. When during the train ride, the sun finally went to the Javanese horizon, everyone in the train took festive meals and water from their plastic bags, cardboard boxes and other improvised carrying cases. The train of simplicity and many people was transformed into a palace with an extensive banquet of food. The sweat and the silent faces that occasionally changed a few words of simplicity during the day, were transformed into an exuberance as you can only discover at the most pleasant Burgundian parties. Food was shared and tasted from each other. And water cooled the dried throats that had been on a sweaty train since the morning. In the late hours the crowd twisted into a mass of sleeping legs and bodies that lay criss crossed on each other and next to each other in the train. And we two, we just fell asleep with them and as the only westerners on the train we took part of the whole of scattered limbs on the train.
In Surabaya we saw that local Indonesian markets where local farmers sell their fresh vegetables, picked chickens, miscellaneous fish and seafood, herbs and all kinds of spicy foods, changed the day by night. Under the great starry sky and moonlight, there was a cozy crowd of people, lights and motorcycles.
Since one week we stay in the city of Bima on the island of Sumbawa and here we remain the rest of the Ramadan. This region is less familiar with tourists and most of them cross this island without visiting the city of Bima and its surroundings. What is totally unjustified. Because Bima has a lot of culture and natural beauty without too much western influences. A tourist in this city is therefore a rare thing that comes here a few times a month. Most people in Bima are muslim and Ramadan is therefore visible everywhere. Although they sometimes say that Bima's people are quite extreme muslim, I don’t think so. Most people here are highly religious, but their habits and their religion are not imposed on the catholics and protestants who live here too. The various religions go hand in hand without extremism. They have respect for each other, a kind of respect that I can’t longer discover in Western Europe where they ask others to adapt instead of discovering the wealth of other habits. As a Westerner I join here the Ramadan, I go to the mosque on friday and I become part of the community of Bima people. Every time I wonder again how great the togetherness is and how much they care for each other. Rich and poor go hand in hand during the Ramadan. Young and old celebrate this month in their own way. The children come outside in the evening with small lights of fireworks and shining twinkling eyes. Every evening it’s again a festive, a meal of more than just some food. A festive meal made of spicy solidarity and loving care, and an unstoppable thirst for more of this in Europe. A pure honesty which meanwhile becomes a rarity on our miraculous earth.
Text & pictures: T. Hanan S.
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Thierry Hanan loves to travel without something to plan in advance and let everything just be what it is. Thierry Hanan has no fears to leave just on foot or by hitchhiking. Destination? Somewhere, nowhere and everywhere.
Thierry Hanan Scheers,