Tiny Travelling Tales: Where Not To Go For Ramadan

I’ve visited majority Muslim countries during Ramadan four times now, and, generally speaking, would recommend it.

The standout experience was undoubtedly Istanbul. On my first day, on my first visit to the city, I was walking around the Blue Mosque around four-thirty and noticing that the lawn outside was filling up with families with picnic cloths and baskets, and a small market of food sellers were stealthily firing up their grills. The moment the call to prayer went out at five, a huge cheer went up and, shortly thereafter, everyone set to work.

Other visits, in Izmir and in Singapore, were rather more low-key, but still entertaining. Singapore is a city of multiple religions and one where everybody loves a party, so Ramadan is a time when it becomes harder than usual to book a restaurant, but it’s even more than usually worth it if you do. Izmir had special holiday bread loaves, fireworks at sundown, and a team of young people who would walk through the streets at 5 AM banging a drum to let everyone know the party was over and it was time to go back to fasting.

The one exception in my experience? Surprisingly, Cairo.

I’d booked a trip deliberately during Ramadan of 2010, based on my positive experiences in other majority-Muslim countries, and Cairo’s reputation as a cosmopolitan, cheerful city.

And the place closed the shutters for Ramadan.

Although it’s tempting to put it down to this being 2010, less than six months before the revolution kicked off, the reaction of local people was that this was normal. Everything shut for Ramadan; this was just what one did.

On the positive side, the Coptic establishments all opened up in the evenings, which led to some very exciting culinary experiences, including the best Hongkongnese food made by a non-Hongkongnese that I’ve ever had, and the discovery that Egypt, one of the inventors of beer nine thousand years ago, has definitely kept up the brewing tradition in the meantime.

But if I get to travel during Ramadan again, I’m going to Istanbul.

A Tale of Holiday Aviation

Christmas 1997, in the days before online check-in, airport and airline apps, and mobile phones cheap enough for a student to afford. Yes, this is relevant. Bear with me.

I was preparing to spend the holiday with my parents in Toronto. I’d booked a relatively inexpensive flight; I’d learned the best and cheapest way to get to Heathrow from Oxford (the Heathrow Express coach– this has not been a paid advertisement); I’d filled my rucksack with clothes, presents, and library books (I had a degree to get); and had tickets to fly out of Terminal One. I was getting ready to go when one of my flatmates stuck his head around the door.

“Have you heard the news today?”

Well, no. I didn’t have a television or a working radio, and I’d been too busy packing to look on the Internet.

Which was when I discovered that this was the day when a deep-fryer caught light at a Heathrow branch of Burger King, leading to the Great Terminal One Fire. Firefighters had been at it all night, and it was still ongoing.

The BBC was recommending that travellers contact their airlines. I rang up Air Canada, but the lines were busy. I tried again, and again, as the clock ticked closer to the point at which I’d have to leave if I was going to catch the bus. With no mobile phone, in the end I decided to just go to Heathrow and risk it.

Upon arrival, I got a front-row perspective on how aviation authorities handle emergencies.

In the first place, all flights had been redirected to other terminals. All North American and some Middle Eastern flights were now running out of beautiful, brand new Terminal Four, and I couldn’t quite believe my luck in getting to see what was then a huge attraction for anyone who likes airports.

(Yes, that’s me, in case you haven’t guessed. No apologies for that.)

But the queues for check-in were gigantic. And that was just for check-in. I shuddered to think what awaited passengers once they got into Security.

I asked one of the attendants what I should do. “Join the queue,” she told me, so I did.

A few minutes later, I heard a boarding call go through for a flight to New York.

Immediately, the attendants swung into action, running down the queues, shouting, “New York! Anyone travelling [flight redacted] to New York?” If someone indicated this was so, they were immediately yanked out of the queue and hustled to the front, where they were speedily processed and rushed through Security.

So it was all going to be OK then. I relaxed.

Sure enough, when I was about two-thirds of the way up the queue, a call came for my flight. An attendant snagged me, dragged me to the front, and I was processed, stamped, and throwing my bags through the X-ray machine in minutes.

I made the flight with a quarter-hour to spare.

So I did make it home for Christmas after all, thanks to quick thinking and efficient emergency operations. And I got to do it through Terminal Four.

I’m going to be taking a posting break over Christmas, obviously. See you in the New Year!