Just Another Day In Indonesia…

Reflections on Ramadan.

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Well, we are halfway through Ramadan, so it’s time for an update on my fasting experience.  Overall, I have really enjoyed the last two-and-a-half weeks of fasting. As I mentioned in a previous post, I really haven’t had many side effects from fasting, and I’m so grateful for that. Having a clear head and a positive attitude has made this a great experience. The sociologist in me is loving getting to observe and participate in a religious – and arguably, cultural, since almost everyone is Muslim – tradition first-hand. I definitely think joining the fast has led to more opportunities for me to integrate into my community*…see below for anecdotes on some of my favorite events so far. And, last but not least, I also joined the fast to see if I could do it. I’m excited to say that I can, and it’s been fascinating to watch myself adapt to a completely new circadian rhythm and dietary pattern.

Before Ramadan I was accustomed to eating and drinking lots of water all day long. Then it was off to bed for 8 or 9 hours of sleep every night. If I drank too much water before bed, it meant a midnight trip to the mandi, which in my house is a real pain because it means walking all the way through the house and outside to the mandi, unlocking two doors and usually creating a racket as I stumble sleepily through the house. But if I time my water intake correctly, I can avoid this spectacle and sleep blissfully. During Ramadan, this all changes. I wake up in the middle of the night to eat as much as I can force down and then I drink water until I feel like bursting. I can’t sleep right away because I’m too full, but I usually get back to sleep after an hour. When I wake up – generally even more exhausted than I was at 3 – I can’t eat or drink anything.** Getting ready for school takes hardly any time. Being at school can be the hardest time to not drink water because teaching makes me thirsty. But I’m usually not too hungry, and it helps to know almost everyone around me is experiencing the same thing. At home I try to sleep for at least an hour, although I’ve never been good at napping on an empty stomach. By 3 PM I’m usually feeling re-energized, so I might ride my bicycle or try to study Bahasa Indonesia. By 5:30ish when we break fast, I’m not even hungry! I think, “Man, I could keep going!” (Meanwhile my family is practically inhaling their food.) The next few hours consist of me eating and drinking as much as I can. Most people eat at least two times at night, while snacking in between these meals. I can’t do that. I eat once, and I’m full. I see no reason to stuff myself, but I do try to drink lots of water. All the fluid intake results in multiplied midnight mandi trips which means my sleep is broken up into 3 or 4 hour chunks. And that brings me to the hardest part of Ramadan: getting enough sleep. Between waking up with a full bladder and anticipating the 3 AM wake-up call, I sleep pretty restlessly. For this reason, I will not be sad to see the end of Ramadan. But, I’m only halfway through, and here are some success stories that make up for the lack of sleep.

While I didn’t broadcast the fact that I’m fasting, when one teacher or student found out, they inevitably announced the news to everyone who was around. This happened recently on the day that I attended the first regency MGMP (this is a meeting for all the English teachers from public, non-religious high schools in our area) in Tulungagung. Pak Bagas, one of the English teachers from my school told my counterpart Bu Chris that it would be difficult for me to join the MGMP because everyone was fasting and they would have to find me a place to eat lunch. Bu Chris  quickly told Pak Bagas it was no problem, I was fasting too! I don’t know how he missed that news, since I broke fast with him and some other teachers the previous Friday and they all knew I was fasting. Anyway, as soon as I arrived at the MGMP, Pak Bagas proudly announced to all the English teachers in the regency that I was fasting…he didn’t mention that he had just found that out a few hours before. 🙂

Breaking fast is my favorite time of the day. It’s a social event and it’s common for large groups to gather together to break fast. This stands in stark contrast to my experience during non-fasting months when my family members usually eat by themselves when they are hungry (and often they eat in front of the television, something I have done more in Indonesia than I ever did in America!). Two Fridays ago, I broke fast with several teachers at school. Some of them brought their children, and it was delightful to see their families. Last Friday I was sitting at home grading tests when one of the 12th grade students showed up at my door to invite me to break fast with him and his classmates. That was easily one of the highlights of Ramadan so far. I don’t teach 12th graders because they are preparing for the national exam, so none of the students were my students. There are pros and cons to this. On the one hand, I don’t get to interact with 12th graders often, but on the other hand, it’s easier to be friends with them because I’m not their teacher. I think I’ve been lucky because I’ve already had several opportunities to hang out with 12th graders – on the trip to Bali, through English club, and informally. Some of the most welcoming students/best English speakers are 12th graders and they’ve been some of my first friends at site. These students were from IPS 3 (look for an upcoming blog post explaining more about the different tracks in Indonesian high schools), and they cheerfully informed me they have a reputation as some of the worst students in school because they are always causing problems for their teachers. They described their schemes to get away with misbehavior, and it reminded me of some of my brother’s high school escapades. I wasn’t quite sure how to react, since I’m a teacher now, but I just laughed and decided I’m quite glad they can be my friends and not my students! There were about 20 students there and 4 teachers. After we broke fast, we had the obligatory photo session (the students informed me that almost all Indonesians are narcissists because they like to take photographs of themselves so often) and then a few students played cards with me. I taught them Egyptian War and they taught me their version of Black Jack/Poker, which I’m fairly certain was a distinctly Indonesian version of the game. When we played “poker” they told me we needed to have punishments for the person who lost each round. I immediately thought of several American versions of the game…strip poker, drinking games, etc. But sometimes Indonesia is endearingly innocent and our punishment was simply to hold a small water cup in our mouths until there was a new loser.  I was usually the loser, which meant I had a sore jaw by the end, but it was the most fun I had all week. Next Tuesday, I am breaking fast with the English club – can’t wait!

While Maghrib (the meal to break fast) is the highlight of my day, Sahur (morning meal) is the opposite. It’s never easy to wake up at 3 AM and eat. For one thing, I’m never hungry. I’m still quite full from Maghrib and the subsequent snacking throughout the evening. But Sahur is an important meal because it will give me my energy for the day, so I never skip it. Shout out to Emily for buying me oatmeal so I have another option for Sahur besides rice! And while it is difficult to wake up, there’s something about getting up in the middle of the night with your whole family that feels very communal. I definitely have felt like part of the family since joining in the fast.

I also really enjoy the evenings. Everyone is happy because they’re full and the lazy silence of the afternoon is replaced by a noisy excitement. Children ride their bikes up and down the street in the dark or set off firecrackers. Most males, teenagers and up, go outside to smoke. (While I dislike smoking, I must say I am impressed that these habitual smokers can abstain from smoking all day long. That’s gotta be tough!) Many people go to the mosque for special prayer services and reading the Koran. My family, though, has been doing this less and less which means there are more people to hang out with me in the evening. Sometimes we watch TV, sometimes we chat, sometimes we color pictures (ok, so that’s just me and my little host nephews, but hey, I love it), and we always snack. I love the social aspect of the evenings. It’s hard to pull myself away to go to bed, but I’m usually exhausted by 8 and well aware that it’s only 7 hours until Sahur.

Halfway through, and I’m feeling good. I’m excited to see what Lebaran/Idul Fitri (the end of Ramadan) is like. For Muslims, this is the biggest holiday of the year. It’s the equivalent to Christmas. Stay tuned for more updates!


* I should mention that Peace Corps in no way pressured us to fast. They left the decision up to us and gave us information on healthy fasting habits if we wanted to join. Likewise, no one in my community expected me to fast. Most people are very surprised to find out I am fasting. Many other PCVs are not fasting, and I don’t think this will harm their ability to integrate successfully in their communities. But, for me, I’m glad I’m doing it. It’s been interesting and challenging.

** I mentioned in a previous post that I occasionally drink water throughout the day. Muslims don’t drink anything during fasting hours but since I’m still adapting to the climate, I see no reason to force myself to adhere to a strict standard. At the same time, I don’t drink anything in front of people so I’m usually limited to the about 8 oz of water that is still in my waterbottle from Sahur. So, like my Muslim family, I pretty much get all my fluids after breaking fast.


Author: Sarah

I'm Sarah and I like many things starting with the letter "S," including (but not limited to) Seattle, springtime, summer, sunshine, swimming, sunrises, surprises, and sociology. For anything else you want to know, you will have to read my blog!

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