Friday, February 27, 2009

Completing Jordan

I suppose it is time for another blog. I have been sadly sporadic as of late as to the frequency of my blogs. But life is so…mundane! Beautifully mundane, do not mistake my banality for boredom or disgruntlement! But my adventuring days are at an end, at least for a little while J I have returned to the routine of classes and work five days a week. Between that, and my desire to study in the evening, I have little time for the pleasures of leisure-going out, reading trashy novels, finding alternative sources of amusement, traveling, or blogging. But it is a life of contentment, of satisfied enervation at the end of every day. If I could spend my life learning the intricacies of the Arabic language, of the subtle connotations behind the addition of a preposition here or an extra vowel here, I would die a happy woman. As it is, I merely lap up what I am learning learn in these last few months, and hope to continue down the road, somewhere, somehow. And my teaching…an unexpected pleasure/frustration of my life in Jordan, but still welcome. There are days when I wish I could throttle my students for their lack of respect and attention; but, happily, there are other days when they amaze me with their perspicacity, and I feel as if I am actually contributing, meaningfully, to their education.

I have begun to teach some of my more advanced students media articles; I choose an article for the newspaper or internet, print it out, and read it aloud in class. We discuss the general meaning, define any difficult words, and then try to incorporate those words in sentences of our own design. I am still working on the perfect system for my media classes, but my students appear to be enjoying it. Most recently, we read an article on Obama, and the past November’s elections in America, adding such words as “victory” “replace” “symbol” and “agenda” to our combined English/Arabic vocabulary. My little ones are learning the names of various clothing items.

I look at what I just transcribed…”my little ones”…and cannot help but smile, as I never thought I would ever possess the potential to have little ones, either as a teacher or mother. Never say never (no, this does not mean there are little you-know-whos on the way, mother, don’t worry). Never say you won’t have a Bedouin horde living in your apartment in Jordan; never say you will manage to retain a passport for more than a year; never say you will never go home with a man in Syria (if only just to eat his food)...

In regards to Mother, I have neglected to inform you of the events that transpired, now over a month ago, when she arrived to the non-centrally heated state of Jordan. Thus, it falls to me to provide a somewhat abbreviated description of our adventures in the land of Bedouins.

So it was that mother arrived on the eve of the 16th of January into the chill of an unheated winter’s night. I had not looked at the latest e-ticket info that she had e-mailed me, and arrived to the airport a bit over an hour early. I waited submissively (that’s about the only time you’ll ever see that word describe me, so enjoy….), studied the Arabic, and stood next to the railing, surrounded by colorful veils, impatient sweethearts, and bouncing children, until she finally emerged from behind the customs barrier in the arrivals terminal. After hugs, I led her through the crush of similarly joyful multitudes into the van I had chartered. We settled into the torn, sunken bench, tugged the rattling door closed, and jarred as the van sputtered to a protesting life. “Welcome to Jordan,” I said with a smile.
As I have expressed in previous orations, the airport is quite far from Amman, and it was a little while before the lights of the city winked into view from atop their mountains and valleys. After a brief argument with the driver over money (oh, the Middle East) we began the arduous climb to the apartment. Fate placed my bowab (doorman) and his sidekick on the stairs, doing maintenance, so we did not even have to lug the suitcases up the 4 flights of stairs!

The following few hours are a little hazy; I recall mother’s reaction to the temperature of the apartment-“How do you live like this!?”- her reaction to the water pressure in the sink-“How do you ever get clean!?”- and her reaction to my expanded wardrobe – “At least I know how you spent your money!” I spent a blissful hour unpacking her extra suitcase full of magical American products like peanut butter M&M’s, insulin, Bath & Body Works lotion, trashy romance novels, and syringes. With two of us in my room, and luggage to boot, it was a cozy fit, but welcome after several months of separation.

We went out to the Macarena Café that evening, and met a few of my friends, but retired early due to jet lag. I was bundled happily beneath Pooh, reading trashy romance goodness, when Mother walked in after her shower-“I thought the sink was bad. And that only cleans your hands!” Indeed, I think the scrappy vestiges of illusions that Mother had, about my exotic and fabulous lifestyle abroad, were sadly semi-washed away under the steady drip of my showerhead. At least, she conceded, “the temperature was good. But then, I can’t very long showers, because I worry about running out of water…”

A lazy morning ensued. Jessica picked up the car we were renting for the following several days, and, around noon, we headed to the spa, Essentials, for some pampering/torture. Mum and Aunt Suzie settled into pedicure heaven while Jess and I entered waxing hell…Which might be a bit of an exaggeration, since it is an entirely voluntary practice, but still. It is at least a quick procedure, and I settled into my own pedicure treatment about 15 minutes later.

One thing can be said about the 4 of us. We like to snack. And Abdoun has excellent snack shopping. From there, we headed to the mall. I know, I know, so much for Middle Eastern culture, right? Well, for one, the mall IS a large part of the culture here in Jordan. Amman would not boast at least 8 malls (with more on the way) if it did not constitute a dramatic part of the lifestyle. And, secondly, Mom received more than her share of Arab culture in the following days. And, thirdly, Promod?!

We went to the mall under the pretext of finding a location to pay the internet bill; however, we happened to also come across one of the two Promods (think Laura’s favorite clothing store) in Amman in the midst of sale season. Several hours later, and several shopping bags heavier, we headed downtown for Mother’s introduction to Jordanian food and friends. Mom sampled some native dishes, I smoked a little sheesha, and she met my circle of friends.

Our real adventures began the next day…no, I don’t mean exploring Petra or climbing on Crusader castles…I mean paying our internet bill. Because the office conveniently located one block from our apartment abruptly closed, we were forced to head to the mall to find another kiosk. And then Mom’s ATM card failed to work…eventually, we resolved our conundrums, the credit card mysteriously issued money, and we pulled out of Amman, an hour late, on the road to Kerak.

The itinerary upon which we embarked was eerily similar to another trip I did in Jordan…the one, two years ago, with the infamous Colin. I look at myself then, and at myself now, and am amazed at the changes that have occurred in the last two years-personally, linguistically, socially…There was a moment, long ago, when I had stood on a precipice of the castle of Kerak, gazing out over the terraced, rocky fields, the glowing sun setting the far mountains afire, my first real boyfriend at my side, and wishing briefly that I had studied in Jordan instead of Cairo. Standing there, a month ago, my mother and my roommate at my side, I felt complete, and a warm fizz of satisfaction bubbled through me. It was as if I had left a question hanging in the air over Kerak, and returned to shout my answer over the echoing stone walls of the castle. “This is who I am!” Loved, and loving life.

I will spare you the details of our wanderings through the tunnels and over the turrets of Kerak; suffice it to say mother explored her first Crusader castle with a bit of wonderment and a lot of photo-taking. From Kerak, we proceeded to Petra. Proceeded quite slowly. Determined to not backtrack, we took a circuitous (read scenic and slow) route, pulling over our little rental car, shouting and a gang of boys lingering on the side of the road, “Wayn Petra?” And laughing as they peered at us, four foreign, two blondes to boot, and could not decide whether to answer us in broken English or villager Arabic. Several hours later, by way of Tafila and other ‘quaint’ villages, a sign welcomed us to Petra. “So, where’s the hotel?” Jess, our driver, asked.

“Ummmmm…” Twas an excellent question. None of us had actually printed out the directions to the hotel. “We’ll just drive around and find it,” I suggested with a bit of trepidation. Wadi Musa, the town bordering Petra, is not large by any standard, but it is built in a valley and clings to the mountains surrounding it. One could drive for a long time to find the Valley Stars Inn…”Wait, there it is!” Mom said, and, alhamdulilah, the unobtrusive building appeared next to the road. In retrospect, it was lucky to have ‘chosen’ the road less travelled, as it led us directly to our hotel. The other road leading into Petra from the main highway is on the opposite end of town.

Our hotel was charming, and heated, and we all checked into our rooms, settled in for a brief nap, and then found some grub in the somewhat grubby village of Wadi Musa. Wadi Musa is a recent incarnation; Bedouins have lived in the area for hundreds, if not thousands of years, but they never required hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, or travel agencies to herd their camels and goats through the desert. However, in the off season, and because of the recent war in Gaza, Wadi Musa was sparingly populated with tourists. More locals than tourists gathered in the sheesha cafes (not that we gathered there, thinking of my mother’s peace of mind, I steered her to a more touristy, and empty restaurant), and there SUVs and pickups roared through town. Interestingly enough, we chose to dine in the one restaurant in town owned my Mahmoud, my infamous Bedouin suitor of the early Jordan days.

I know this not because he was there, alhamdulilah, but because of Fadii. Enter Fadii. After an utterly unremarkable dinner, we returned to the hotel, and awaited the arrival of Fadii and company. Fadii being, of course, the (erstwhile?) boyfriend of Kathy, and tour guide of Petra and environs. He came, with Mohammed in tow, and met our family and chatted awhile. I have always liked Fadii. His choice of companions, and desire to bring them to our apartment, unasked, has occasionally cast him in a less than favorable light. However, Fadii has always treated me with respect, humor, and friendship. It was different, seeing him without Kathy at his side. He was more subdued, more mature, and also treated us (Jess and I) with an intangible sense of relief. Almost. We are neither as accepting nor as lenient as Kathy, and Fadii, alhamdulilah, understands that. I think. Before he left, he told us to call him, and he would take us horseback riding the next day, after we were done with Petra. He did not offer to guide us, or try to pawn the services of one of his friends on us. It seemed, that night, like it was the offer from a friend to a friend.

Ah, Petra. There is nothing on earth like it. The feeling of walking through the Siq, watching as the smooth stone walls arch higher and higher above you, until you are a mere blot of humanity between their heights. Anticipation heightens as you pass suggestions of history, faintly etched carvings, weathered stone building cut into the cliff face. And suddenly, sunlight. Before you, the Siq widens, and you stop, in awe at the Treasury unfolding from the curves of the walls. You stand for several moments, drunk in the glory of its perfection, of its mystery, of its permanence, the rose-colored columns still proud, still distinct after thousands of years of humanity have passed beneath its shadow. Eventually, you tear yourself away from its beauty, and realize, with a lightness of being, that an entire city awaits your exploration. A day in Petra is a day of wonder, and wandering, and imagining. There are no signs, no barriers, just you and the ancient city.

Of course, there are Bedouins, most of whom are selling jewelry and trinkets and food and donkey rides. But, still, even they cannot blot out the majesty of the rose-hued desert city, chiseled from sheer rock. Mother and I, and Jess and her aunt, stuck together for a little while, but we eventually parted, each off to explore our own corner of Petra. Jess and I climbed a delightfully precipitous cliff face together, gazing at the views of the surrounding tombs and camel trains winding through the hills. Then, we separated, and mother and I clambered through the pillars and stairs of the Roman settlement, reuniting with the other two for the hike to the Monastery.

Mohammed Gold Teeth, as I will call him, had encountered us early on, just beyond the plaza in front of Treasury. We declined his offer of a donkey ride, but told him, perhaps later, to the Monastery. So, I put mom on a donkey ;) Just as we had wended our way through Petra, ambling slowly down the main road, past the theatre, past the High Place of Sacrifice, past the market, past the tombs and palaces, so had he, and met us again at the place of donkey congregation near the Monastery. He, of course, first quoted us an exorbitant fee, and we politely declined, but then we countered with a more reasonable fare, so Mother and Aunt Suzie took donkeys up the mountain. Jess and I walked. Well, Jess walked much faster than I, as did the donkeys, so I enjoyed a leisurely stroll up the 700+ (I think far more, I lost count after the first 100) stairs. Mother waited for me before we entered the area of the Monastery, a building not unlike the Treasury in terms of size and grandeur, although there is an element of discovery about the Treasury with which the Monastery simply cannot contend. However, it was a pleasant location to sit in the over-priced café, soak in the warm sunshine, chatter with some former AUCians (American University in Cairo-ians), and rest after such exertion.

The climb down was more pleasant, at least for me. Mother took her donkey down, as well, and I must confess I am glad I did not ride down the uneven stairs and past sheer cliffs to the valley far below. To assuage your worry, dear reader, donkeys are far more sure-footed than silly humans, so there was nothing to fear, other than fear itself. From the Monastery, we slowed meandered back the way we had come, pausing to climb up to some remote buildings, devoid of any tourists, and wonder at their past. January is regularly off-season in Jordan, and with the onset of war in neighboring Gaza, only a few tourists populated the vastness of Petra. We bartered for a few Bedouin trinkets, and then trudged, weary by this time, having hiked, all day, through the desert, up through the Siq, up the ramp, and, then, to the entrance gates.

Well, Mother did. I was accosted by a galloping desert man on a white mare ;) Fadii. A horse track parallels the human one, and the Bedouins, at the end of the day, race their gorgeous steeds up and down this. However, I was somewhat surprised when a white mare halted suddenly beside me, and the dark-haired Bedouin on her back removed the scarf covering half his face to grin at me. He plopped me upon Qamar, or Moon, and walked beside me for awhile. I sent Mother off with Jess and Auntie. A horse materialized by way of a friend, and Fadii and I rode up the steep mountain cliff to a narrow trail overlooking Petra. Galloping briefly along a wide stretch of it, I felt something akin to perfection stealing into my soul. There I was, atop a beautiful white horse, racing along a cliff in Petra at sunset, my Bedouin friend beside me. The horses rested, snorting softly, as we watched the sun gracefully dip below the rose red rock of Petra. Words were useless in the face of such beauty.

Real life returned, and we walked back in the fading light, both dismounting so our steeds would not slip on the pavement. Near the Movenpick, Fadii handed off the horses, and then we sipped tea in a local café, chatting, before I visited his family at their house and was deposited, famished, back at my hotel in time for dinner at 7. The Valley Stars is a family-fun establishment, and the mother of the family (she has untold numbers of offspring) cooks delectable dinners for guests, occasionally. That night was no exception. I ate Maglooba until I fairly burst. Maglooba=rice and chicken and potatoes and yummy flavors all upside down and irresistible. After dinner, Fadii, Jess, Mohamed, and I drove to the Movenpick bar and enjoyed a few sophisticated hours of catching up, laughter, overpriced drinks, and amazing ice cream.

So, I realize that this is turning into more than an abbreviated description of events. As usual. I will conclude swiftly, never fear.

The following matin, as we were on the road leaving Petra, I saw a sign to Shobek. “Hey, you guys want to see another Crusader castle?” I mean, honestly, how many times in life will you be able to say that? So, we pulled off and drove about 5 minutes to the castle of Shobek, a much less visited cousin to Kerak. I prefer it. Kerak may be more intact, but Shobek is more dramatic, set upon a remote plateau, surrounded my windswept desert plains rather than congested city streets. Plus, Shobek’s got the Tunnel.

Go back to the archived entries. Skim through the old Jordan trip with Colin until you come to the section about Shobek. Note that we found a tunnel, descended a little ways, and then turned around. Not this time! No, hell no, Jess and I conquered that baby. Same torch as last time, different, different resolve.

This tunnel is akin to a descent into Hades. The daylight quickly fades past the first bend in the stairs. If one can even call them such. They are mere suggestions of steps, crumbled, worn bumps on a ramp sliding into Stygian blackness. Jess and I shared the flashlight, and the occasional onslaught of fear, as we descended, step by arduous step, into the unknown. When surrounded by the certainty of the uncertain, when your body is coated in a sickly sheen of centuries-old white powder and the sweat of fear, time slows to a trickle. We were only in the tunnel for about a half an hour, but, of course, I felt I had been submersed in the blackness for hours. Finally, I spotted a glean of light on the wall of the tunnel ahead. It was truly only a lessening of the stifling darkness, but, to us, it was the brightest ray of sunshine. We followed the light to an empty well, climbed up the shaft using metal hooks fastened to one side, and emerged at the base of the plateau, walking back up to meet the mothers (photo: relief, after emerging from the tunnel).

After that, the day felt rather mundane, though it wasn’t. We visited Mt. Nebo, where Moses saw the Promised Land before he died, waded in the Dead Sea via the public beach, attempted to visit Ma’ain Hot Springs (but refused to pay the 12 JD fee, per person), and, finally, dinnered in Madaba, at an atmospheric restaurant whose name I will never be able to pronounce. And then, finally, home. Whew! A whirlwind of Jordan touring, and that was before we ran around Turkey for two weeks.

The next day we intended to visit some Desert Castles in East Jordan, near the Iraqi border (fun!), but slept in instead. After lunch, Mother and I ‘happened’ to wander past the second Promod in Amman (fancy that!), where we spent another enjoyable afternoon (at least I think she did). By nightfall, we headed back downtown, I took her past the Roman theatre, impressive by spotlight, to the pirated DVD store, and then to Books. Books@Cafe, that is. In the span of 5 days, Mother managed to cover the majority of my life in Jordan, from my favorite restaurants, to my favorite friends, to my favorite sites. And, together, we went on to discover the wonders of Turkey. What a perfect vacation from school!