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Fasting for Ramadan, or “puasa”

Puasa Ramadan_1

Just before 5:30pm, we find ourselves in the middle of a restaurant packed with patrons. At the next table, more than 15 university students load up on white rice and a rich assortment of main dishes. Some stir their ice-cold drinks in anticipation of the coming feast. It is the perfect representation of a scene that my father described from the days before I was born, when my parents lived in Kuala Lumpur.

I look around at the other tables; families with small children sit ready to sip at bowls of kolak, a sweet soup of pumpkin or banana. The four of us bloggers – Bama, Bart, Badai and myself – also have our own bowls prepared. All of a sudden the sound system comes to life with the solemn call to prayer at sunset. “Udah!” Bama says excitedly. Already! I glance over at the students, who gingerly take their first sips after 13 hours of thirst.

It is my third time in Indonesia during Ramadan, and while previous trips had seen me keep Islamic tradition at arm’s length, I had long decided that this visit would be different. Though a Christian, I would challenge myself by taking part in puasa, the Ramadan fast. The act of denying yourself food is not a foreign concept in my family; I had grown accustomed to seeing my own mother doing different kinds of fasts (in fact she may even be fasting now for my safety), but I was too attached to the earthly pleasures of food and drink to attempt the same.

For me, fasting was a conscious choice to engage more deeply with local traditions and put down my individual needs for the common good. It was a natural decision since all three of my travel companions on this first leg of the Spice Odyssey were doing puasa. I was also buoyed by the commitment of an American friend in Kabul, who had been fasting from the very first day of Ramadan. In doing so, she found kinship with the Afghan people and inspiration for her own faith.

As much as my travel mates told me otherwise, I felt that not taking part would be detrimental to our shared experience. It would have been rude to eat and drink in front of them, and burdensome to look for food during daylight hours. So I chose to alter my body clock for the next two weeks, until the celebration of Idul Fitri.

The hardest part of the Ramadan fast is neither running on an empty stomach, nor waking up at 3:00am for sahur, the pre-dawn meal. After a few days both of these habits become routine. The real struggle lies in confronting the nagging thirst that sets in from noon onwards, especially after being outside in the wilting tropical heat.

It has been ten days since I began my own fast, and I have learned much from the experience. I admire the perseverance and tenacity of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world who commit to fasting year after year. I see the value of humorous talk shows at sahur, opening tired eyes with laughter ahead of the solemn prayer at subuh, the time when puasa begins. I understand the necessity of an afternoon nap, and I know the joy of breaking the fast with sweet drinks and deep-fried snacks, or a bowl of noodles with sate. After these two weeks have passed, I will never take another glass of water for granted again.

There are other revelations too: fasting has been an exercise in self-control, proving that it is possible to control my voracious appetite even after a space of thirteen hours. Because puasa adheres to a strict schedule between sunrise and sunset, it also suggests a return to an ancient way of living, when daily rhythms were dictated by the movement of the sun. That is something we mostly ignore thanks to our modern reliance on electricity.

For now, I do not intend to break the commitment I made to myself and my travel companions. The end of Ramadan is just five days away, and I know the most difficult stage is already over.

Puasa Ramadan_2

Making empal gentong, a specialty of Cirebon, in a clay pot (gentong) over firewood

Puasa Ramadan_5

Empal gentong is a beef soup spiced with turmeric, shallot, coconut milk and other ingredients

Puasa Ramadan_4

Lontong – fragrant rice steamed in banana leaf

Puasa Ramadan_3

Es kacang merah campolay – an iced drink of red bean and sweet syrup from Cirebon

Puasa Ramadan_6

Nasi jamblang, another specialty of Cirebon with rice steamed in teak leaf

42 Comments Post a comment
  1. Those foods look amazing! And I can only imagine how wonderfully they taste, especially after 13 hours of fasting. Good for you sticking to local traditions! I bet your trip will be more memorable because of the bonds you forge through your group fasting experience. I’m not sure I could do it…

    July 11, 2015
    • Fasting has made me much more grateful for meal times. And yes, you are so right about forging bonds through the shared experience – the camaraderie we have felt in the past 10 days has really transcended language and culture.

      July 12, 2015
  2. eternalglobetrotter #

    Interesting post! I am doing ramadan in Senegal (It goes for 19hours here and sometimes with the heat it is difficult, but I have realised that after a while the body gets accustomed to it…. 🙂 The food looks so nice btw!

    July 12, 2015
    • 19 hours! That makes the 13 here in Indonesia sound like a breeze. It is really admirable that you can commit to that… and I completely agree with your post, that there is something beautiful in the communal nature of breaking the fast. 🙂 Indonesian food is so diverse and delicious – tucking into the complex blend of flavours (and sipping sweet drinks) has been a wonderful way to celebrate at sundown.

      July 12, 2015
      • eternalglobetrotter #

        haha Thank You. Indonesian food sounds truly delicious. I will have to go to Indonesia one day 😉
        Here in Senegal for the breaking of the fast we drink hot café Touba, eat dates and baguette with various pastries.

        July 14, 2015
  3. Thanks James, for your thoughts, and for sharing your experience. I admire your commitment. What an excellent way to gain a little authentic understanding of the culture. I think the thirst would just about kill me, but we seem to learn so much when we go without the things we take for granted.

    July 12, 2015
    • Thank you so much, Alison. One of the important lessons I will take away from Ramadan is not to eat more than I need. Actually I remember how, in several of your posts, you spoke of choosing to be a participant instead of a passive observer – that message has really stuck, and I’ve been inspired by the approach you and Don have taken on your travels.

      July 12, 2015
  4. Interesting stories, James.. It reminds me of time when I was living with a roommate. We lived together for two years and pass two Ramadan in between. She’s not Muslim but anytime Ramadan coming she was fasting also with me. She said that she was fasting for some reasons, but I know that one of the reason is also for me. Living in a country where Muslims are minority, she wants me to feel like at home when we had breakfast together..

    July 12, 2015
    • Nurul, what a wonderful anecdote – it sounds like your roommate had a heart of gold. I’m not sure if that could ever happen in my native Hong Kong. Most people love their food too much to even consider fasting for a day, not to mention an entire month!

      July 12, 2015
  5. So cool that you are participating. I just returned from Jordan, where Ramadan had just started during our visit. While I did not fast, I learned a lot about the practice, and we took pains to avoid eating or drinking near anyone fasting. It did change our visit – both for the better and on occasion for the worse – but it was a great way to feel a tiny bit in tune with the Muslim population. You have inspired me to give this a try next time I find myself in this situation!

    July 12, 2015
    • Well, I’ll be the first to admit that it hasn’t been smooth sailing. A couple of days ago I hit a wall – I was just so thirsty and exhausted from the interrupted sleep cycle, I felt like I was ready to give up. But I’m glad I found the strength to keep going – that night we had an incredible feast, one of the best meals we’ve had so far on our trip. I think you could start off trying it out for a day; fasting for two weeks has been quite the challenge!

      July 12, 2015
  6. Wonderful post James, gives me insight not only into an incredible culture but also a view of the great foods you get to enjoy after sundown. Keep strong 🙂

    July 12, 2015
    • Thank you so much, Randall. My body has grown accustomed to this new routine, though I still find it hard to deal with the thirst! A couple more hours and I’ll be sipping on fresh fruit juice or an iced drink. 🙂

      July 12, 2015
  7. Reblogged this on Conversations I Wish I Had.

    July 12, 2015
    • Thanks for reblogging – I appreciate it!

      July 12, 2015
  8. Salut buat James. Puasanya lancar, bahasa Indonesia makin pinter, basa jawa semakin jago.

    Can not wait to see and travel with you again James. For me, it was one of the best experience, to travel with you …

    July 12, 2015
    • Makasih banyak, Bart. Bahasa Indonesiaku belum lancar… harus tinggal di sini lebih lama!

      It was a real pleasure to have you along for the first 11 days of our journey. I have learned so much from you about Indonesia and Basa Jawa. Sampai ketemu lagi!

      July 12, 2015
      • Sampai ketemu lagi James 🙂

        July 12, 2015
  9. Bravo for joining your travel companions in puasa. I remember well being in Jakarta two years ago during Lebaran – while I did not fast, preferred to eat separately rather than in front of others – easy to do as most of the restaurants around where I was staying were shut and worked from the serviced apartment rather than the office. Was a special time and will never forget the joyous celebrations on Id with non-stop fire-crackers! 🙂

    July 12, 2015
    • Thanks Carissa – it’s great hearing your own experiences of the festive season. We can hear the fireworks already after sundown; I guess it will be crazy once Eid arrives in a few days!

      July 13, 2015
      • If it was anything like the year I was there… the smattering became an avalanche which went on all night! 🙂

        July 13, 2015
  10. Sweet! This post has touched me. No, in fact it is you, James, who did it all. Saya salut dengan tekadmu berpuasa Ramadan hingga akhir, and your genuine love to Indonesia has made me into thinking of reconstructing the definition of nationalism.

    Can’t wait to travel with you again! 🙂

    July 13, 2015
    • Hatur nuhun, Badai. I must also commend you for finishing that tough hike up Gunung Prahu – and in your sandals! Thanks too for joining Bama and I on the first leg of our Spice Trip… wish you could have stayed with us for longer. 🙂

      July 13, 2015
  11. Reblogged this on Farisa's Headspace.

    July 13, 2015
    • Thanks for this, Farisa – it’s much appreciated.

      July 13, 2015
  12. I remember traveling in Indonesia and Malaysia during Ramadan. I couldn’t believe that folks could go without water in that heat. I admire you for taking on this challenge. Great post. I hope you can take part in the feast at the end.

    July 13, 2015
    • One of the tips I’ve learned is to make sure you’re indoors during the hottest time of day. It also helps to slow down and not rush around too much. I’m definitely looking forward to the feast at Eid!

      July 13, 2015
  13. James…so you are now on the Spice trip?? Very inspiring that you chose to join in Ramadan fasting. Why travel if you don’t experience what is where you are? In Abu Dhabi, they fast for a month in that kind of heat—it was 49C the other day. Restaurants close, and nobody is allowed to eat in public. Or chew gum. I’ve fasted many times in my life, and some, for long periods like 30 days or more, but with water any time. It was more for health than spirituality, but when you fast, it seems spirituality enters your realm whether you expect it or not.

    July 13, 2015
    • Absolutely, Badfish. You are so right about there being something inherently spiritual in fasting. The Spice Trip began on the first of July – in a way it still hasn’t sunk in that I’ll be living out of my backpacks for the next six months. I don’t think I could take the 49C heat of the Gulf without water… that would be practically impossible!

      July 13, 2015
  14. U r 👍👍👍😊😊

    July 13, 2015
    • Thanks Alex! It has been a real challenge but that’s what the best kind of travel should be like. 🙂

      July 16, 2015
  15. Good thing I’m not there – you’d hate me after 13 hours of fasting 🙂 That is awesome that you are fasting with the locals. It will no doubt enhance your experience. I can imagine it is extra difficult for Muslims in places like Turkey where the days are long in the summer.

    July 14, 2015
    • Well Jeff, I was definitely more irritable some afternoons – and even more so if I didn’t take a nap. I am not the most patient person and had to stop myself from snapping in my thirsty, sleep-deprived state! I also wonder how Muslims in Canada or Scandinavia deal with that too; it must take a lot of resolve and resourcefulness.

      July 16, 2015
  16. What kinds of special foods are served when the fast ends each day in Indonesia?

    No I haven’t voluntarily undertaken any religious fast. I’ve just have had time periods for medical reasons I didn’t feel like eating much at all because I was injured (concussion), etc.

    July 19, 2015
    • Mainly sweet treats – a common one is a pumpkin or banana soup called ‘kolak’. People also eat dates and assorted pastries made from coconut, tapioca, pandan and other tropical ingredients.

      July 20, 2015
      • Very interesting. The sweets must symbolize something.

        July 21, 2015
  17. Your complete immersion into your travel experiences is inspiring James. Requires a lot more discipline than I possess. Beautiful post. And mouthwatering images!

    July 28, 2015
    • You are too kind, Madhu. It helped that this challenge came right at the start of our long trip – I don’t know if I would have the same kind of discipline one or two months in.

      July 29, 2015
  18. You do food beautifully, James!

    March 21, 2016
    • Thanks! I have to say that food photography is much easier than taking candid portraits. Is it Mitch or Kofi?

      March 21, 2016
      • This one was Mitch (father of K). I have a better handle on what makes a picture than I do of technique, so I find portraits easier — always provided I had a family member to engage the person in conversation while I snap away. Love your blog!

        March 22, 2016
      • Technique can always come later. I tend to get confused with aperture/shutter settings and all those different modes. That’s a great tip, Mitch – I can see how it would put the subject at ease.

        March 22, 2016

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