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).