We're always crashing other people's parties

I couldn't do it. I couldn't stare a banquet of food in the face and not at least eat something - a sneaky olive, a corner of bread. Something. Even if I hadn't been fasting for 14 hours.

Everyone around me seemed to be handling themselves appropriately though, patiently waiting in small circles around huge spreads of food, some cross-legged on the grass, others sitting at makeshift picnic tables or folding seats. The Blue Mosque towered over the whole scene, silent and composed, its minarets glowing in the dying light.

It was Ramadan in Istanbul and the city was doing a thriving metropolis's impression of grinding to a halt. There were still traffic jams, still carpet salesmen touting their wares, still tourists roaming the streets. But the devout had stopped for the nightly ritual of breaking their fast.

They hadn't eaten since sunrise. (It must be a nightmare being one of the street-food vendors at this time of year - they have to desperately tout to non-believers while everyone else just gazes forlornly at their wares.)

It'd been a long day with just water for sustenance; those plates of food laid out before the thousands of families gathered in front of the mosque must have looked like sleeping gazelle to a starving lion. Still, from what I could tell, everyone was behaving themselves right down to the naughtiest toddlers.

They sat, they chatted, they glanced every now and then at the minarets from whence the call to break their fast would finally come but no one snuck an olive or a corner of bread.

It's a little strange, being given this window onto another culture. I wasn't the only camera-toting tourist wandering the grounds between the twin monuments to Islamic glory the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, watching an ancient ritual take place to which I had no connection.

It was almost a little creepy, like glancing in a window and accidentally catching sight of your neighbours in their lounge room watching TV. Is it right to so obviously observe someone else's private ritual, you wonder, as you pick your way through the blankets and tables.

No one appeared to mind the tourists' presence. There were a few smiles and nods from the families that seemed welcoming - but still, this was not my place.

And I had nothing with which to make comparisons.

Atheistic Australians have very few of these rituals to call our own. You could talk about a barbecue down at the park or a trip to the footy with your dad but that hardly qualifies as a centuries-old ceremony. And no tourist in their right mind would follow my dad and me out to the rugby to photograph us in our natural environment.

But we travellers are always crashing other people's parties. Go to Oktoberfest and check out all the foreigners joining in the Bavarian festival. See Carnival in Rio and realise how many outsiders are there, enjoying the experience. Wander through any church in western Europe and witness the non-believers queueing up for a chance to snap a few photos.

We do all this in the name of exploration and discovery but rarely stop to think about how it feels for the people whose parties are being crashed - those on the other side of the camera lens.

I've only had one experience that comes close and it wasn't even at home. It was in Thailand, on Koh Pha-Ngan, at one of the infamous full-moon parties.

Observing an ancient backpacker ritual passed down through the ages, I'd just sat down at a beachside bar and ordered a bucket of vodka and Red Bull when I caught the funniest sight: a large group of Chinese tourists who'd presumably just been ferried across from Koh Samui, walking down the beach taking photos of the revellers at play. Look, kids, at what the crazy backpackers do. I felt, briefly, like an animal in a zoo. Then my bucket of vodka arrived.

No such luxuries for the worshippers outside the Blue Mosque, of course, who were all still waiting patiently around their platters of food. The lids were off, the produce glistening in plastic bowls and empty plates were positioned in front of each expectant diner while wannabe photographers perched, ready to capture the moment when staring finally became eating. Eventually, with the sun completely below the horizon and the lights glowing from the minarets, the call rang out - that evocative drone that sends shivers down your spine. Allahu Akbar (God is great).

And so thousands of people indulged in a ceremony millions before them had participated in for hundreds of years: breaking their holy fast with fistfuls of food under the watchful eye of their god.

I, of course, could never appreciate the full meaning; or even the feeling of an empty stomach, as I'd been gloriously snacking all day. Sneaky olives; corners of bread. Ramadan is not my festival. But it was nice to be allowed to watch.