Ramadan is a month-long religious festival during which Muslims don’t eat, drink, smoke, or have sex from sunup to sundown. This reminds them what it’s like to be without the things they take for granted, and encourages them to be thankful for what they have. Certain people are excused from fasting, such as children, the sick, the pregnant, menstruating women, and travelers. The rest of the population has to suck it up and get through the day.
Traveling in a Muslim country during Ramadan poses two problems–you can’t eat in public and tourist sights may be closed. In countries such as Turkey and Egypt tourism is such a big draw that major sites will remain open and there are enough restaurants catering to non-Muslims that you’ll be able to eat. In smaller towns, however, you might find the attractions and restaurants closed. Gadling’s Grant Martin was visiting Cairo during Ramadan and found many places had abbreviated hours so the staff could eat at the appropriate times. He also found that while touristy restaurants remained open, some didn’t serve alcohol. Gadling’s Meg Nesterov, who’s living in Istanbul, reported very little changed during the fast.
The big challenge comes in more devout, less visited countries. Back in 1994 while I was crossing Asia, Ramadan started during my last week in Iran and my first three weeks in Pakistan. Pretty much everything shut except for museums in major cities and large archaeological sites such as Mohenjo-daro. Restaurants all closed their doors and I found myself in the odd situation of being an agnostic compelled to observe Ramadan.
So what to do?
Get into the spirit. Ramadan is one of the biggest occasions of the Muslim calendar and you’re there to witness it firsthand. You’ll almost certainly be invited to an iftar, the evening meal right after sunset. Muslims make up for their day of hunger with some seriously good cooking, and it’s traditional to invite a guest. One of my coolest travel memories was an iftar at a home for deaf people in Karachi. We communicated by hand signals the entire evening and one of my hosts gave me a silent tour of the city.
Be flexible with your hours. While shops and restaurants may be shut during the day, they often stay open long into the night.
Visit a mosque. You can rest assured that some of the major sights of any Muslim city will remain open during Ramadan–the mosques. Many are centuries old and are architectural jewels, like this one in New Delhi photographed by user jrodmanjr and uploaded to Gadling’s flickr photostream. Mosques aren’t only a place of worship, they’re a refuge from the heat and bustle of the street, a place where people sit around and chat. This makes them great places to meet locals. I’ve been inside dozens of mosques in many different countries and always found them welcoming. I’ve come across a few in Iran and India that were closed to non-Muslims, but in both countries I found mosques where the worshipers greeted me with friendliness.
Eat if you must. Strangely enough, I found food for sale everywhere in Pakistan and Iran. Nobody was eating, but they were shopping in preparation for breaking the fast. Shopping in daylight hours can be a bit awkward, however. The guy with the rumbling stomach selling oranges in the market knows that Westerner is going to sneak back to his hotel room and gorge himself. I found I couldn’t go the whole day without eating and kept a cache of food back in my room for secret snacks. Out of consideration for the hungry vendors I tried to do my shopping at night.
Know when Ramadan occurs. Ramadan is determined by the Muslim lunar calendar and thus varies from year to year. The exact start depends on when the first sliver of the crescent moon is spotted, which in 2011 Ramadan will be around August 1.
Be understanding. I get grumpy if my lunch is more than an hour late, so I can imagine what I’d be like if I skipped food all day. It must be extra hard for the smokers. Many folks are going to be a bit edgy. By the afternoon they may be lethargic or will have disappeared to take a long nap. Ramadan is a big challenge, so cut them some slack. Just wait until half an hour after sunset, though, and you’ll find everyone in a festive mood.