There is a lot of pressure on family vacations. Especially international ones. Money is spent, leave is taken from work. The expectation to “have a good time” is enormous. I wonder what we find if we reflect on what a “good time” really is. For the most part, family vacations are a time of tremendous irritability, botched expectation and sulking while they last. Their status is elevated to that of a “good time” only after a few years when perusing the photos.
The purpose of a family vacation, unequivocally, is to get away from routine life. It’s never quite clear, to get away from what. From the grind or from each other. Especially if the entire family lives together. Families also have to contend with what the destination has planned for them. We think we will control our vacations but really, we are at the mercy of not just our hotel staff but also the entire population of our travel destination. Well known cities have a way of ensnaring you into having a particular kind of good time. If you walk around London, every single establishment in the “nicer parts of town” is either a cafe, a restaurant, a museum or some kind of store. Your interaction with the city therefore occurs as an accumulation. If you’re a crude yuppie, you accumulate material in the form of food and merchandise. For the more sophisticated traveler, accumulating information in the form of names of places, stories, sights and historical facts takes precedence over eating out or shopping. Other people of higher refinement still take photographs or enjoy the performing arts. For some, this is a good time. I don’t contest that at all. This is not a lecture on how to spend your vacation. I wonder though, if it really is a good time. Certainly, if the family at hand is one where the members do hard physical labor for a living, spend a lot of time doing housework and eat meagre meals everyday, it is understandable they would like a vacation to be where they are taken care of by paid professionals and their minds and palettes are stimulated everyday with invigorating food and information. This type of family would get back from their vacation recharged and ready to go back to their lives. They might even feel a sense of gratitude at having been able to afford this luxury.
This is almost never the case for anyone who might be reading this blog. For the vague grouping of people that I will call “us”, who use the Internet everyday and watch television many times a week, a vacation of seeking novelty by accumulation is actually a chore. Our entire lives are a process of accumulation. The learning of school textbooks, polite manners, professional skills and finally remembering appointment dates and work deadlines. The pouring in of news, popular media and advertising. The acquisition and cultivation of acquaintances. We work sitting in a chair and eat our fills of diverse foods and culinary offerings while still at home. Practically every experience is available to us audio-visually without going anywhere. We absorb new things everyday. The logical theme of a vacation for us would be the opposite of novelty and accumulation. Perhaps a type of reduction and an embracing of the mundane. For it to truly be a vacation which by one definition is a time spent after which you are grateful to come back to your everyday life.
The reason I bring all this up is that I was confronted by a strange dilemma earlier this month when I left Delhi for my current trip to London. It is now ramzan, the month in which Muslims fast and withdraw from worldly things to make room for the remembrance and worship of Allah Subhana-wu-ta’alah. I had to decide whether I would fast during the vacation and give up sightseeing, eating out and exploring the performing arts scene because by the evening I am too tired to go out. It seemed like I had to choose between my deen and having an actual vacation. It was an international trip so money had been spent to make it happen. By the grace of Allah, some deep clarity came to me and I decided that I would fast the entire month if my health kept up and I altered my entire vision for the trip. I decided it would be a trip of reflection, prayer and being with family. The results have been contrary to one might ordinarily expect.
Freed from the need to eat, the restaurants and cafes do not even register in my consciousness. I walk right past them. My mind is too tired to bother with remembering the names of places or learning about a certain type of architecture or the history of something. I never liked shopping so that was never a problem. The stores and malls are a non-entity as far as I am concerned. I travel without a camera so I don’t need to stop to take pictures. I am totally free from the desire to absorb, record or accumulate in any other way. Not by carefully thought-out choice but by the blessing of ramzan. Fasting is known to slow down your mental activity. I spend my time sitting under trees in parks, watering the plants in my sister’s home, cooking with her and my mom and simply looking at things. The city ceases to be a conglomerate of addresses and instead becomes a continuum of experience. When my mind doesn’t retain, my perception is vivid. The red-orange of the old brick against the blue sky. The fluid motion of the silver Mercedez Benz taxi on the smooth asphalt. The orchids sway in the wind, then stop and then sway another way. The other day in Richmond Park, there was a brightness and clarity that illuminated the very being. You wanted to drink it in with your eyes like refreshing water but then the intense ecstasy of the realization hits you that you are in it already like a diver in an ocean. The yellow of the grass and the blue sky with perfect white clouds brought me a body wide smile. Once in the Regents Park, I was napping and woke up to a great flight of pigeons all around me. They were taking off and for a moment my head was in the very midst of them. I saw them come directly at me but would swerve clear of my face a few feet way. For a fleeting time, it felt like I was mid-flight with them.
At times I am gripped by an attack of self. My chest is constricted and some emotion relating to the past surfaces and I cannot escape. My thoughts race in some inexplicable patterns of negativity that to the best of my knowledge I left behind in my early twenties. Having no option to distract myself with food and too weak to busy myself with any other business, I have to go through the experience. That, perhaps, is obedience. Whatever the malady is that grips me, it inevitably melts away after I break my fast and turns into elation and gratitude. The meal is festive and it is a pleasure to share it with my family. Hours go by during the day in relative silence. If anyone in a Muslim family is fasting and others are not, they automatically become gentler in their speech and manner and assume an air of loving concern. One comes face to face with the reality of what one actually wants. What is the ultimate desire of a human being? Communion. When you appreciate this fact deeply, inwardly, your heart becomes connected to the Inexhaustible source and there is novelty everywhere. Your need for gaining contentment from an experience like a vacation become a secondary concern. Your expectations of life snap into their correct place and this releases the senses into an awakening that causes all of life, including your turmoil, to become a vivid journey.
This is the blessing of ramzan. The wisdom that it brings for those who reflect. It is a one month intensive laboratory course for the spiritually minded. If you apply yourself to it correctly, it is possible during this month to model your entire life and connect with your deepest aspiration. Most of us go back to a large degree to living the way we did and some of us retain a sense of spiritual elevation. Either way, ramzan is the ultimate vacation with rewards like no other.
There is always the danger of relating your experience that it may seem an attempt at positing it as a superior to another’s. I offer this writing in humility to all of those who wish to enjoin in such reflection. For certainly, Allah knows best and may He protect me from disseminating false wisdom. By all means, I wish you all splendid good times, in any way that they come to you.