Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Summer with no Travel, Just Travelogues

As anyone who has kept up with my rambling posts over the last 3 years knows, I tend to be inspired primarily when I am in a different country. Looking at last year's posts, the only thing that I wrote while in the US was about preparing for Jordan and was filled with pictures from my mountaineering trip to Mexico. The same holds true with pictures, I've taken somewhere around 10,000 pictures in the last 4 years, and would bet that less than 1,000 were taken in the States. Therefore, writing this summer has seemed a daunting task as I will not be leaving the country at any fully determined time in the near future (hopefully next summer, but it's hardly time to start preparing now).

So, without planning it, I have resorted to living vicariously through the travel exploits of others by reading a number of travelogues this summer that deal with all sorts of different travel experiences somewhat related to my own interests. The current list is as follows:
I've gotta say, travel literature both fascinates me and at times makes me incredibly angry or just disappointed with people in general (specifically Americans traveling overseas). I realize that I have committed many of the faux pas that I now scoff at, which in part adds to my unfounded momentary disdain for people writing travel literature, yet I'm sure that many people look at my silly stories and laugh at my own ignorance and naivety.

The main thing that irks me in travel literature is that most writers tend to be either scared at every turn when they travel, or they criticize everything they see. Dekker falls into the first category (as does Bill Bryson, which is why I couldn't finish A Walk in the Woods), although I admire the purpose of the trip in Tea With Hezbollah (to meet with America's enemies and look for good samaritans in the Middle East) and the insights which he draws out of his experiences.

Stevenson and Twain fall a bit more into the second category. Stevenson travels at breakneck speed around the world and his idea of experiencing a culture is to drink as much vodka as possible while crossing the Trans-Siberian Railway and all of Asia in under two weeks. Twain marvels at the novelty of distant shores, such as Tangier, yet goes on for pages about the savagery of the peoples and the inconvenience of having to carry his own soap. Most striking is the juxtaposition of Napoleon ("the brilliant adventurer...the genius of Energy, Persistence, Enterprise") and the "feeble" Turkish Sultan, Abdul-Aziz, who Twain describes as "the representative of a people by nature and training filthy, brutish, ignorant, unprogressive, and superstitious". Turns out Abdul-Aziz was a major modernizer and also a classical music composer, not quite given to "ignorance" and "indolence" as a first glance may suggest.

Finally, I just picked up for a second time a book of travel writing by Tim Cahill which my brother gave me for Christmas a couple years back. This is mostly to reassure myself that travel writing isn't all written for people who seek to have their own fears of the unknown affirmed by cynical and scared adventurers who seek comfort and safety in their journeys. Tim Cahill is a bit of a bad ass to put it bluntly. Most of his stories have some element of danger in them, or at the very least are engaging and interesting. Maybe it also helps that travel writing is his career, he has the art down, and writes for Outdoor magazine, a bit of an audience more up my alley.

A couple tips about travel writing from Cahill:
  • Rule 1: Avoid psychotic travel companions.
  • Rule 3: Exercise ordinary caution. Never, never, never put a marshmallow in your mouth and try to feed it to a bear.
  • Rule 6: Stop whining.
  • Rule 10: Don't follow rules. This is probably the most important rule.
  • Rule 11: Try the local foods. Eat what is put in front of you. Take the usual precautions, but expect to get sick anyway.
  • Rule 13: You are the foreigner, dickweed.
  • Rule 18: Wait until the last possible moment t punch out disagreeable traveling companions. It's best not to punch out traveling companions during the first two-thirds of a trip. The person may possess skills that could come in handy.
  • Rule 20: The worse the experience the better the story, therefore there are no bad experiences.
Very good rules. I think I'll try to apply them to my own travel and writing, and try to ignore some of the less agreeable parts of the other travelogues that I'm working through. Also, I've discovered that it is much more enjoyable to swap stories with other travelers (such as the marvelous Lori Baldwin, who just arrived back from her year long stint in Spain) or relive them with past companions than to indulge in the experiences of complete strangers. So if you have any stories to share, I'm all ears.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Stop - Blake Morrison

I'll pretend that this is actually part of my research for my paper due on Thursday about Lebanese Confessionalism. This poem comes from a book called "Lebanon, Lebanon" which I read last November while I was in Lebanon and then checked out again for my current research. The book is about the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, the poem is about the irony/tragedy of official tellings of war.


As of today, the peace process will be intensified
through war. These are safe bombs, and any fatalities
will be minors. The targets are strictly military
or civilian. Anomalies may occur, but none
out of the ordinary. This release has been prepared by
official Stop

First reports indicate a major break through
hospital roofs. the bombs were strictly targeted at
random personnel. Any errors are a mere blip
on the radar screen. Until our aim is achieved we will continue
missing. In modern war, mistakes are never made
official Stop

We can confirm that many personnel now enjoy peace,
underground. Several terrorists have been
created overnight. Our smart bombs are subject only to
intelligence errors. Certain one-off tragic events
will regrettably recur. We anticipate a stepping up
of funerals Stop

In another time-zone, the bombs fall unsafely.
There are reports of urgent talk under the rubble.
Numberless children lie accounted for in morgues.
Regrettably, we are unable to offer regrets today.
This poem has been subject to certain restrictions.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

On the Other Side of the Wall

"You were in Jordan? Jordan is trash, King Abdullah is trash! Egypt is trashier, and Syria is even worse!" said Abdullah as he lounged against the 5 meter wall of graffiti covered concrete. "Lebanon is alright, but only because they support Hezbullah."

I point to the wall behind him which is being constructed illegally by Israel (according to the International Court of Justice, because it crosses the Green Line), "That's trash."

"This? No, this is good. This means that they're finished."

I had this conversation in Arabic about a week ago as I was traveling from Ramallah to Jerusalem (only a 30 minute trip) through a checkpoint in Israel's West-Bank Barrier. Abdullah went on to list all of the heroes he had which included Hezbullah (written above his head on the left), Hamas, Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaida. And although most Israelis and Americans would be scared of a youth with such role-models, Abdullah was a really nice guy, and his opinions make sense given his situation.

Besides his support of everyone on the US's list of terrorist organizations, what struck me most about the conversation was the blunt acceptance of reality that his opinion about the wall portrayed. I wrote a research paper about the economic effects of this barrier for a class this spring, and I must say I'm not a big fan of the way that Israel has constructed it, although the case for some sort of border fence may be legitimate. However, for someone who has grown up in the West Bank and had to live in "the world's biggest prison" (as a bit of graffiti on the wall put it), I suppose that it is logical that you would put up with one last injustice if it means that your enemy is finally going to stop advancing and leave you alone.

The wall may be a land grab, but if a just solution can actually come from it, then maybe it is in fact a better step than separate peaces. I don't really agree with Abdullah, but it has been awesome just being here and being able to talk to people like him who you meet on the street. His view isn't representative of anyone in particular, but that is his opinion, and one that is rarely heard in the media.

Also, it is a view that I would be completely unable to hear if I didn't speak Arabic. So that has been a really amazing part of my 7 months here, being able to communicate with people who just two years ago were completely beyond my ability to interact with beyond pantomime and the occasional "Hello, how are you?" I still have a heck of a long way to go with my Arabic, but it is enough to get my point across, and that can go a heck of a long way.

Well, my next post should be about the rest of my trip on the other side of the barrier. Don't worry, much more to come - pictures, stories, and hopefully a video soon. Right now I'm saying goodbye to Amman, and I'll be back home just in time for Christmas, so I hope to see everyone in Chapel Hill soon! (and to any SIT people who may be reading this, I miss you guys and hope you all have a great break before jumping back into school back in the States, or wherever you are).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Checking in from Jerusalem

Quick post while I use up a bit of internet before trekking through the old city for a while. My study abroad program ended yesterday with a beautiful, rushed, and bitter-sweet farewell as people said goodbye and prepared to scatter all around the Middle East before we trickle back home to the states over the next few weeks. For many of the people from the program, it will probably be the last time I see them (at least for a long time), but I'm looking forward to catching up with a handful back in the US (Bonaroo '10?) and wherever our adventures take us in the future (Paris?).

For myself, I will be in Israel and the West Bank for the next 2 weeks, exploring holy sites around Jerusalem, checking out the night life in Tel Aviv, hopefully finding some live music, and hiking a bit in the Golan Heights.

My trip here was like any border crossing in the Middle East, made wonderfully difficult by the strong regional tensions. I took off with a group to try to cross the King Hussein Bridge which is the quickest route to Jerusalem from Amman. Unfortunately, it being the Sabbath, it was closed by noon. So, quick 3 hour detour to the northern border! Here I was held for 2 hours while the others went on. They questioned me extensively about my travel in Lebanon and Syria and my stay in Jordan, and even wanted to see what I was writing in my journal.

Finally, I made it through and continued on to Jerusalem. I met Libi, a wonderfully energetic Israeli girl on my first bus, and we made the transfer to Tel Aviv together. She shared her mango with me that she found on a "foraging trip" this weekend. She is about to start her national service work this week, helping new immigrants adapt to Israel. She declined military service because she is religiously orthodox (and a vegan). I looked incredulous and she pointed out the skirt that she was wearing over her jeans and the red checkered kuffiyah that she wore like a bandanna covering her head.

We sat on a bus for a couple hours surrounded by young Israeli men and women wearing military dress and many of them toting pretty heavy duty weapons. We laughed and sang and they tried to teach me military songs in Hebrew which I didn't really pick up easily. Libi tried the best she could to translate for me since she spoke more English than most of the others.

A strange bond united these young Israelis as we sat together in the back of this crowded bus. For most, they had never met before, but interacted like long time friends. And only a few times did difficult political questions come up:

"Do you love the Israeli army?" asked one man, dressed in civilian clothing.

"I don't love any army," I responded.

He thought for a minute, then looked at me again. "I was in Gaza last year."

I didn't quite know what to say, I smile and nodded. The conversation moved on.

They always say it is important to see an issue from both sides. After 6 months in Jordan, this is my chance to do that, and I'm really interested to see how that goes. My first experience with Israelis was a really good one, but it is definitely difficult to talk politics here, even for someone of a fairly moderate perspective.

Alright, back to the old city for a bit, and the 24/7 prayer house that I found which overlooks the city wall!

Monday, November 30, 2009

We Carve Turkeys With Swords Here, or How I Got Evicted From My Apartment

Despite the relative ease of translation (eid al-shukr, عيد الشكر) Jordanians just don't get the whole Thanksgiving thing. It's not Christmas or Easter and it's not a Muslim holiday, so what the hell is it? And why are 20 unrelated young people of both genders congregating in that apartment? The only answer could be to do illicit things, at 3 in the afternoon!

I like how my friend, Alex, tried to explain the whole thing to his homestay family. "Well, when the Pilgrims came to America they didn't have much food and so one day they had a big feast together with the Indians and they all shared everything, and it was really nice. But that was only the first one. After that, the Pilgrims killed all the Indians." He then revealed to them that the turkey is a separate species and not in fact a special type of rooster. And all this in Arabic, I'm impressed Alex.

For me, I just stuck to saying it is an American holiday where we get together with family and eat a lot of food, and people generally just smiled and looked confused while I went back to roasting my turkey or searching the Safeway in vain for french fried onions.

It was the first Thanksgiving where I actually tried my hand at a number of my family's recipes. With a lot of improvising, mainly from-scratch ingredients, and about 10 hours in the kitchen, I managed to come out with a pretty decent array of food: green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, a roasted turkey, and a massive pumpkin pie.

Add to that the variety of dishes brought by about 20 of my closest friends from SIT and you've got yourself a rather hearty Thanksgiving spread! The party went really well, we all had a ton of fun, and I think for all of us it was nice to have a taste of home for the day.

And then comes the part where I got kicked out of my apartment. Not as bad as it sounds, really, just quite a trip that I wasn't expecting to make this week.

As people were still arriving to the party, a man appeared at the door with the building guard to ask us what we were doing. We explained it was Thanksgiving and all of that, but he meant what we were doing in this apartment period. It seems that he was the owner of the building and had no idea that I was living there (I was supposed to be with my host mother's sister, who never came from America). It was shortly after the man left that I got a call from Ghada, my host mother:

"Don't say anything about the party to anyone. They might call the police. You need to move everyone up stairs (to her apartment) right now, there isn't any time. If anyone asks you were never downstairs."

Strange, but this is daily fare for my homestay. We moved the party upstairs, and like I said it went really well. During the dinner, Ghada pulls me aside to tell me that I will have to leave my apartment in the next two days and move upstairs with Alex (different Alex than earlier in the post) who is essentially my host brother, also from SIT. Apparently her sister is never coming, and so she sold the apartment back to the owner. And no one bothered to tell me this until 2 days before I get evicted. Thanks.

Immediately after the party ended, we started moving all of the furniture out of my flat into the one upstairs (which had no room to take it all). The next morning, I finished the job by packing up everything I own in Jordan and moving up with Alex.

It is still a fine situation, we get along great, but it was a jolt that I wasn't expecting. And I think it was this jolt that really set me loose enough that I am now ready to come back home. I'll be living out of my suitcase for the last couple weeks in Jordan, because there is neither room or need to unpack again before I leave. After finally becoming stationary for a while, I was thrust back into a transitory state, and once I hit that point I have to keep on going.

I've noticed in just the past few days that I have stopped making as much of an effort to see people in Jordan and more of an effort to catch up with friends from back home. It's a strange sensation, and despite being frustrated at times here in the last 6 months, this is the first time that I've really been ready to go. I guess it's good in a sense that I'm experiencing this now, but I've still got 24 days until I actually get home, and I expect to live those to the fullest. Wish me luck, I'll keep you updated on how that goes.

(I'm thankful for Cece and her lovely photos from Thanksgiving that I stole from Facebook)

Up in the Cedars

I took a secret trip recently. Fortunately, my academic director is never going to read this, so I feel it should be alright to divulge a few of the secrets before I get home. Unfortunately, that same logic didn't work out as well when I put a post on couchsurfing announcing our arrival and friends from school decided that day to sign up for couchsurfing (because I introduced them to it) and to check that same message board. Horrible luck, but no harm done.

The main reason for the secrecy of the trip is that I could technically fail my program if they found out about it. Also, we may or may not have been traveling to multiple countries with state department travel warnings and the propensity to break out into civil wars and skirmishes with Israel.

Eh, all in a day's travels.

So throwing all unreasonable caution to the wind (we held on only to the basic sort of caution that you should naturally keep about you when traveling), we jumped on board with Bilal, our fearless international taxi driver, and after a 5 hour wait to enter Syria and a quick drive through the mountains, we found ourselves wandering around with suitcases in tow in the middle of downtown Beirut. Perhaps I should explain that "we" is myself and 4 girls, just so you can get a better picture.

Like any good backpackers, we had done minimal planning and even less in terms of reservations or anything of the sort. Looking rather lost and tired after 12 hours on the road, we stumbled in the general direction of the hostel district and managed to solicit directions from a couple nice bar goers and one friendly Lebanese guy who actually walked us to what he thought was the hostel we were asking about. It wasn't. But it worked out just fine.

That night we went to a classy French cafe filled with locals chatting and flirting over bottles of wine. On the wall was an excerpt from the Little Prince and a lot of quotes about freedom of thought. It was cute, it was out there, it was pricey, it was Lebanon. I felt bad for ordering a bacon cheeseburger (especially traveling with 3 vegetarians), but I haven't had bacon since May and I've been craving it.

It was delicious!

The "reason" or catalyst for our trip was supposedly to see the Beirut Rock Festival. It was three nights of international acts featuring Peter Murphy, Yann Tiersen, Aqua de Annique, an Armenian girl, and a lot of metal the last night which we decided wasn't really worth attending. Overall, good music, especially Yann Tiersen who had a mostly instrumental sound with fantastic musical transitions which frequently involved him rocking the hell out of a violin.

As Beirut is known for it's night life, we of course did a decent bit of going out to the bars and clubs. The second night, a few of us couchsurfed with Danny, and also got to go joy riding with him and his friend Fadi in their convertibles up and down the Corniche by the sea. Also, the last night we went out until about 5am bar hopping and finally heading to BO18 (an underground club with a retractable roof that opens and closes throughout the night to reveal the stars above) to dance away our last few hours in Lebanon.

Despite all the activity, my favorite part of Lebanon was definitely the solo adventure that I took up to Bcharre to see the famous Cedars of Lebanon and to explore a bit of the Qadisha Valley. I have noted before that it is difficult to travel solo for long periods of time, but it is also tough traveling in large groups. So three days in, I took off early in the morning and caught the public buses all the way up into the hills where I found a completely different part of the Middle East.

Snow topped mountains where the ski season will soon be underway, quiet mountain villages full of Maronite Christians, orange trees changing colors in the crisp fall air, and the last remaining grove of Cedars all set this beautiful valley an unthinkable distance away from the daily life that I know in crowded, arid, urban Amman.

I took a taxi up to the Cedars and walked around by myself for an hour in the heavy mist that rolled slowly over the mountains all day. It was cold, it was beautiful, I was all by myself in the grove, it was very holy (the meaning of Qadisha).

I turned on an album that my friend, Richie, gave me of a number of ancient Hebrew and Aramaic prayers and songs. It was peaceful. I listened to a chanted version of the Aramaic Lord's Prayer for a while. I think that something I've missed in Amman is the ability to get away and have an opportunity to just sit somewhere and contemplate away from people. I just want to walk up on a mountain and pray. There are lots of hills in Amman, but not much chance of getting away from people. I need to do this more often.

Eventually, I retreated back to Bcharre by foot, armed with a hot cup of Nescafe to ward off the cold and the potential rain. The fog lifted and the view was beautiful. However, about an hour into my hike I realized that I probably wouldn't make it all the way back down to town before the last bus left for Beirut.

This was a problem.

I stepped off the road to relieve myself and figure out my next step, but heard a car coming and hurried out from behind the barrier to try to flag it down. Too late. It drove off down the road and around a bend, crap. Then the car reappeared coming back toward me and stopped next to me. The driver gave me the normal sign for "what do you want" or "where are you going," which is a quick twist of the hand starting with the palm facing down and ending with it up. I explained my situation as best I could in Arabic and he told me to get in.

In the conversation that followed, I answered the usual questions that are directed at me by most of the Arabs that I meet here (and fortunately I have gotten pretty good at this typical introduction): the incredulous what are you doing here?, where are you from?, what do you do? The one thing that struck me was his response when I told him that I am American.

"What are you doing here? We are Hezbollah."

"You are?"


"No problem. America, Hezbollah, same thing."

He laughed.

It was quite a ride. While I am pretty sure he was not actually a member of Hezbollah as he was a Maronite Christian, I can understand the sentiments and the feelings of animosity that America garners over here. But all political differences aside, you discover when you travel the world the great weight of humanity that binds us all together. And that's a beautiful thing.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Way Down South (Petra, Wadi Rum, Aqaba...)

After averaging about 4.5 hours of sleep per night this week because of a few too many midnight adventures scrambling up mountains, I finally caught back up with something like 14 hours last night. And today I have made time before I fall back asleep again to post a little update about those adventures and the events in between them.

Overview: This was a 5 day trip with my study abroad program to the south of Jordan where we visited a ton of sites for educational (read recreational) purposes in a whirlwind tour on our large, yellow bus. Although I really enjoyed all the places we went, it was probably a bit too much to stuff into this short of a trip.
Day 1: Amman - Karak Castle - Wadi Musa
Day 2: Petra - Wadi Rum (4x4)
Day 3: Wadi Rum (Camels) - Aqaba (Snorkeling)
Day 4: Aqaba - Dana Nature Reserve (Feynan Eco Lodge)

In general, the trip was incredibly similar to our Egypt trip: an opportunity for us to forget about school for a bit, adventure a lot, and stay up incredibly late since the curfews that many students have while in Amman are lifted on the road. Highlights include climbing on top of the Monastery at Petra, snorkeling around a sunken Jordanian tank in the Red Sea, and hiking up a mountain at midnight in Wadi Rum by the light of the full moon. After 5 months in the Middle East, it was definitely my most adventurous week by far! Pictures on their way, and I also just finished up a movie for my Arabic class entitled, "She Thinks My Camel's Sexy," so get excited about those being posted soon (check facebook first though).