Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What I learned as a non-Muslim, westerner fasting during Ramadan

Eid Moubarak! While the moon dissolved into a dark abyss as its waining cycle came to a close this July, a large portion of God's green earth found themselves savoring the final portion of the holy month of Ramadan. During, arguably, the most important and "happiest' of months on the Islamic calendar, I fasted for about half the time. For a Muslim, not only is this an unimpressive feat, it is sacrilege. But for a non-Muslim possessing dual-citizenship between two of the fattest nations on the planet, I'm happy give myself a pat on the back. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, and with this being my second crack at living in the Muslim world for the sacred month, another attempt at fasting was in order.

What is most striking about fasting to an untrained eye is how quickly an entire country can transform to being nocturnal. During the day, normally bustling metropolises have an eerie, almost post-apocalyptic feel. Heavy steel doors replace the welcoming view of goods hanging in doorways and windows. Stalwart men in cafes continue in their quotidian, yet their hands are restless, devoid of their normal caffeinated and nicotine-filled vices. The day is lonely and somber, but the night, in contrast, is alive and electric.

After the call to prayer (often accompanied by booming alarms or canons) sounds, allowing parched tongues and singing bellies to be satiated, the streets become overwhelmed with euphoric folks, restored and energetic. In the moonlight, they go about their procrastinated tasks. The narrow alleyways of souks in anciennes medinas become turgid, overflowing with motorbikes. Voices send out greetings or attempts at commerce. Corners of shade that were perviously filled with those unabashedly napping are now host to trays, filled to the brim with nourishment, which seemed to appear out of thin air. All is well, all is jubilant, until the moon's mischievous face brings rest to the land.

As a heathen, Ramadan was advertised to me as the best month of each year. When the new moon arises, a new chance to redefine and revamp faith is bestowed upon the devoted. It is a time to give Zakat. It is a time to practice patience. It is a time to revisit the holy book that was given so many years ago during this month. It is a time for family, friends, and becoming an overall better person, which in Morocco, is a more devoted follower of the fastest growing religion in the world.

I chose to fast during this month for a few reasons. One reason being I feel very uncomfortable eating and drinking while the general population is starving. The days I didn't fast, I snuck food and water behind closed doors or hidden deep in tourists havens. The main reason, though, revolves around building solidarity with my Moroccan co-workers, and a desire to gain a first hand experience of a different culture. As the Moroccans use Ramadan to build faith, I used these days in the same light, revisiting my own spirituality. Some rearranging occurred, as a large part of my spirituality is based on physical activity, but adaptability and patience is paramount during Ramadan. While starvation and dehydration did lead to more lucid visuals, what vividly stuck out to me was the bizarre relationship I have with food and drink. It's no secret that in the States we overeat. Having been a competitive athlete for a majority of my existence, my food intake has never been minimal. During the dry daytime hours, even the days when I was doing manual labor or playing soccer with the men in the rural village where I was working, I found hunger was not at the forefront of my thoughts. In fact, hunger was rarely the issue. The nourishing kiss of liquid to a parched mouth was nearly all consuming. This month opened my eyes to the truthful statement of water being the nectar of life.

While the daily arguments and short tempers of those who struggled to stave off vices may disagree, what I saw during Ramadan was a month of devotion, strength, and beauty. As a citizen of the US and Australia, I found my relationship with food drastically challenged. Though my main goals were gaining an understanding of fasting and overhauling my spirituality, seeing food as a vice, and almost an addiction, absolutely played a prominent role. Outside myself, over-achingly I witnessed patience in tired eyes, bestowed by a belief in a higher being. I saw humility and submission, as well as fortification of both body and mind. In the holy Month of Ramadan, in which I struggled and strayed, I found beauty in, and understanding of, a culture and belief so often misconstrued.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

How We Do it

The beauty of reaping the benefits of making travel a priority
One of the most frequent questions I am asked by friends and family of my nomadic lifestyle is "how do you do it?" Most people, save for a few who may have no cognizance of the slightly judgmental tone in their voice, are generally curious about how one becomes a nomad in the modern age. While I'm working on a larger, more in-depth piece about ditching the 9-5 for a more non-traditional lifestyle, the answer to this question can be found with ease. The first step, of course, is commitment to a goal.

When I left the states for my first extended travel in 2012, I had made travel a priority. I started saving and planning (which was more an exercise in excitement than actually creating a concrete itinerary) over a year out, and made decisions based on wanting to be abroad. Most of these decisions revolved around my personal budget. While I was willing to spend $800 on a TEFL certification (a source of travel income) I became less and less inclined to spend frivolously on nights out. Turning down happy hours, dinners, and bar crawls in your early twenties isn't always fun or easy, but the money saved each night-in equated to literal weeks in Chiang Mai where my daily budget was around $9-a-day. With any goal comes sacrifice, and part of that sacrifice is taking a hard look at your weekly expenditures, deciphering between necessity and excess. You can be as lax or as hardcore as you like, but 10, 20, $30 goes a long way in some of the most loved backpacking destinations.

At the start of my trip, I had saved between 7,000-8,000 USD. With my initial plan of only traveling for 6-months, and hopefully returning with a little fallback money, that gave me a budget of between $30-40 per day. Take out the $900 for my extremely cheap, extremely uncomfortable Eastern China Airline flight, and I was looking at closer to $25-30 per day. While this is more than sufficient to travel around SE Asia if youz a hustla (holla atcha boy), traveling with a small source of income can make a huge difference. Before my trip, I acquired a freelance writing job. It started out very humble, but by the end I was making close $225 a week. This was small potatoes in the states, but in Asia this allowed me to subsidize my trip, only dipping into my savings for things like travel, higher-priced activities, western indulgences, or the extended stint in Australia. Small injections of funds is the performance enhancing drugs of travel.

Leading high schoolers into the desert...while playing dress up. A job is a job!

Though writing was my PED, travelers have a slew of fancy tricks to continue their time abroad. The best way to do this is with passive income. If you are lucky enough to have a place to rent out, this extends travel. If you have a benefactor, sugar mama/daddy, know a good pyramid scheme or can procure a grant, this is gold too. For the less lucky, creativity is key. Travelers I've met have done anything from joining the Malaysian circus to teaching online TEFL classes to Brazilians while working under the table and living in Vietnam. I'm currently subsiding off of a mix of rent money, savings, and working as a guide for a travel company specializing in high school summer trips. Do any of these jobs pay well? No, in fact, it is sometimes a joke how many hours you put in for dismal pay, but what they don't offer in salary they make up for in subsidized experiences. If you have any talent, skill, or hobby you can translate into a good, you will be able to make money while abroad. It just takes a leap of faith.

While the preceding advice is important, the idea of a leap of faith may be the most necessary tool of becoming a nomad. Growing up in the states, I feel we are programmed to be constantly working towards a goal, a new position, a higher pay scale, etc. With this idea,  the idea of stepping out of line and reflecting seems ludicrous. We rarely take time off, so why devote a month, 6-months, or a year to travel or pursuit of something that doesn't necessarily equate to one of the proceeding goals? My answer? Because you can, and you should, and in many other developed countries it isn't an insane idea, it is something lauded. It also helps a society grow and progress. It's my personal view that Americans are too calculated. We need concrete evidence that something will work before we even begin to dream about it. With travel, doing before defining makes all the difference in the world. If you want to live in Spain, move to Spain. You can figure out the details when you get there. If you want to travel, buy your ticket and let the numbers and budget come to terms with all the new insights you will gain once abroad. On our money in the US it states "In God we Trust," yet I feel what we leave up to fate is truly minimal. To step outside of ones comfort zone, to step outside what we view as a normal way of life, one must truly take a leap of faith.

While I've existed on both sides of the faith fence, I can tell you that the most important thing I've learned from travel is believing that what you want can become a reality. While saving, creating multiple sources of income, and penny pinching can and will make travel a reality, nothing is as potent as being ready to take a leap of faith. Once you believe that your dream is possible and put yourself in position to pursue it, good things are bound to follow. It may not be instantaneous, but the will of the world works wonders for those willing to let it.

The beatiful stairs of Essaouria. One may not know what they are misssing when they stay put, but they will only find out if they take off

Photos courtesy of author and Wayfinderali