Your Burning Questions, Answered

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1994 and people found out I was from Oakland, they would invariably say something ridiculous like, “Wow, Oakland huh? Did you carry a gun?”

And, of course, I would tell them the truth. “Hell yes, I carried a gun.”

Okay, no I didn’t. Carry a gun. And most of the people I knew in Oakland didn’t carry guns either. Non-Oaklanders often assumed Oakland was this really dangerous place because of stories they read in the news. And while Oakland had (and still has) its share of drive-by shootings and gang violence (among other crimes), it was a pretty nice place to grow up.

In fact, Montclair, the Oakland neighborhood in which I was raised, is one of the wealthiest communities in California. It’s very pretty, with huge homes, fancy cars and million-dollar views of San Francisco. I went to a private school, had nannies and ballet lessons. It was far from rough.

I bring this up because, much like Oakland, there are a lot of misconceptions about Jordan that I’d like to clear up. I’ve been asked by friends, family and even strangers back in States a lot of questions about life here; questions that indicate a fair amount of ignorance about this place.

Additionally, I’d like to open the floor to any further questions you may have about Jordan (or, at least Aqaba).  Please feel free to email me or post your questions in the comment section below. I’ll do my best to answer each and every one.

Please bear in mind though that I’m no expert. My answers are based on some research but mostly on my own experiences (and Bret’s too) thus far.

In no particular order:

1) Do you have to cover your hair?

No. Most of the time, I wear my hair in a scraggly ponytail so maybe I should cover it. It’s only muslim women who wear hijab (headscarf) or chador (long robe), although some muslim women do not observe this practice. Non-muslim women are not expected to cover their hair in Jordan. Some middle eastern countries require all women (including tourists and non-muslims) to cover their hair in public; Saudi Arabia for example.

2) Can you drive a car alone in Jordan?

Yes I can (and often do) drive by myself here in Aqaba. I’m free to do so in the rest of the country as well. I’m not required to travel with a male companion or even a female companion for that matter. Unfortunately, this doesn’t change the fact that Aqabawis are shitty drivers.

3) What kind of animal do you ride when you’re in town? 

A Peugot, which is a french import. It’s also a car. And its horn sounds like a clown fart (thank you, Bret). In other words, we don’t ride animals at all. There are a few horses and camels in town that tourists can ride for novelty’s sake, but people here drive cars: Toyotas, Hondas, Chevys, Peugots, Mercedes, BMWs, etc. In that regard, Aqaba looks like any other city. Also, the roads are paved with actual asphalt. Unfortunately, this doesn’t change the fact that Aqabawis are shitty drivers.

4) Do people speak English?

Yes, many of them do. In Amman, many Jordanians (mostly teenagers and young adults) don’t even have an accent when they speak English. And the Jordanians who don’t speak English fluently at least know a few words.

5) Do Jordanians hate Americans?

No. Some Jordanians may disagree with US foreign policy, but this doesn’t mean they hate American citizens. It’s likely that some Jordanians have misconceptions about American people but then, plenty of Americans have misconceptions about Jordanians too. In fact, many Americans don’t even know where Jordan is.

6) Is everyone muslim in Jordan?

No. Jordan is a muslim country but there are many Christians here and even a smattering of Jews, Buddhists, Mormons, Catholics and Hindus. There are churches in Jordan (as well as many many mosques) and there’s even a Catholic school in Aqaba run by a group of nuns.

7) Can you find pork products or alcohol in Jordan?

Yes, you can find both. Although pork and alcohol are traditionally forbidden in Islam, it’s perfectly legal in Jordan to consume either one. There’s even a liquor store in Tala Bay and a pork store in Amman. That’s right. An entire store devoted to pork. In Aqaba, we buy ham and bacon at a local grocery store called Muhannad. Think about it this way, pre-marital sex is forbidden in Christianity but does that mean all Christians wait until after marriage?

8) Is the internet censored in Jordan?

Ummmm….I’d rather not say.

9) Are you able to find “normal” foods/products in Jordan?

I guess that depends on your definition of normal. My answer to that is, yes. Some of the “normal” food products I’ve found here:

Healthy Stuff (stuff that I eat): fresh broccoli and spinach, whole wheat pasta, fresh strawberries, sweet potatoes, organic milk, whole grain bread, Greek feta cheese, dried cranberries, organic quinoa, black beans, pinto beans, organic low-sodium chicken broth, brown rice, Swiss dark chocolate, Perrier, flax meal, oats, natural peanut butter, Rice Krispies, raw almonds, ricotta cheese.

Not-So Healthy-Stuff (stuff that Bret eats): Pop Tarts, Oreos, Bugles, Cheetos (although they taste like Doritos, which is odd), all kinds of Haribo brand gummy candies, marshmallows (Campfire brand made with fish gelatin!), Pringles, Snickers (I eat these too, on occasion), Ritz crackers, Cheez-Its, Skippy-style peanut butter.

The produce market is pretty well-stocked with seasonal fruits and vegetables. Seasonal means you won’t find sweet potatoes in July, but when they arrive in early October they’re wonderfully sweet. Right now, pomegranates are in season and they’re delicious. Bright red with the juiciest seeds. I eat them plain or mix them into yogurt or sprinkle them on salads, in case anyone’s interested. Poms are a superfood, apparently. This means they wear a cape.

While the traditional middle eastern food here is quite good, there are other kinds of cuisine here as well: Italian, Chinese, Lebanese, seafood, burgers, etc. There’s also a Burger King, Popeye’s Chicken, KFC, Pizza Hut and Gloria Jean’s coffee. But no drive-throughs.

As far as household products, the locals seem to really dig heavily-perfume soaps and aftershave (the muskier, the better). Fortunately they do have a few fragrance-free items. I’ve been able to find natural olive oil soap, fragrance-free laundry detergent and unscented baby wipes.

10) Do people really pray five times a day? 

Some muslims do, yes. Just like some Christians go to church a few times a week, some muslims pray five times a day in Jordan. Call to Prayer sounds five times each day (here’s a link if you want to hear it: http://gallery.me.com/bret.scott#100393) reminding muslims to face east and pray. People are free to pray, or not. . By the way, that video was shot from Bret’s office at RSICA.

11) Do women cover their entire bodies and faces in public? 

Yes, some women do. I don’t see many of them though. Most of the muslim women wear a headscarf and others wear chador (long black robe) but keep their faces uncovered. A few women cover their mouths and even fewer cover their eyes as well. How can they see, you ask? Well, the cover over their eyes is a gauzy fabric they can see through. I’m not sure how well they can see through it though as I’ve never worn it myself.

12) Do you feel safe?

I feel as safe here as I did back in Pasadena. The only time I don’t feel especially safe in Aqaba is when we’re driving on the highway between Tala Bay and town. And that’s because it’s typical to see some asshole doing something stupid like stopping in the middle of the highway and backing up. This happens all the time. That and people driving on the wrong side of the road. The drivers here are fucking insane. It’s something of an epidemic really. But in a nutshell, yes, I feel safe here. I don’t worry about terrorism, if that’s what you mean.

13) Is polygamy (multiple spouses) legal in Jordan?

Yes, it is. But according to Jordan’s constitution, the man has to treat all co-wives equitably and provide them with separate dwellings.  As this gets expensive and no doubt, exhausting, most men don’t have more than one wife here. Bret met a bus driver who claimed to have a wife in Aqaba and another in Amman but  that the two women were unaware of each other. I think that’s shitty. I don’t care if someone wants to be polyamorous but I think all parties should be in on it.

14) Are there terrorists and exploding bombs all around you?

Um, no. While there have been terrorist attacks in Jordan (one of them was in Aqaba in 2010 which unfortunately left one Jordanian man dead), they are not a daily occurrence. Furthermore, life is pretty normal here. People get up, eat breakfast, go to work or school, eat lunch, go to the gym, check their e-mail, hang out with friends, pay the bills, go to the doctor, visit with family, give birth, get sick, fall in love, and die just like they do everywhere else in the world. Aside from the crazy drivers, it really is a peaceful little town.

So there you have it. I hope this post cleared up any confusion you had about Jordan (or at least, Aqaba). If you have other questions/comments, feel free to post them below. I’m happy to oblige.

Until then, ma’a s salama!

Umm Abby

In the Land of Milk and Blood Tests

“We need to go to the government clinic tomorrow to get your HIV test.”

I looked up from my laptop. Say what?

“For your residency card. They won’t issue one without an HIV test. And a chest X-ray.”

Bret didn’t even look up from his own laptop while he informed me of this.

I groaned.

“It won’t take long,” he assured me. “And it won’t hurt.”

“I’m not worried about it hurting!” I snapped.

And I wasn’t. I don’t mind needles. I’m one of those weirdos who watches the needle poke through my skin and the blood pour into the vial. It’s not that I necessarily dig it. It’s just that it’s interesting to see my own blood. So, yeah, I guess I kinda dig it.

And I certainly wasn’t worried about getting positive results. I’m not exactly high-risk. Plus, I had an HIV test last year and it came back negative. Since I haven’t shot up any heroin lately nor do Bret and I have an open marriage, I figure my HIV results are more than likely status quo.

I groaned because I’m lazy and I don’t like dealing with bureaucracy. I hate the DMV. I thoroughly dislike the post office and filing my taxes. I would even break out in a cold sweat anytime I had to venture into the registrar’s office in college. I have an aversion to paperwork and government issued things. Bureaucracy is always so slow and lumpy and devoid of life. Like a bowl of cold, gray oatmeal.

To make matters worse, Jordan (as a country) is often a little disorganized about these sorts of things.  I’m not sure if it’s because they never sat down to write an official handbook, or they did but no one actually read it. But it seems like in Jordan, there’s a lot of confusion about rules and regulations. Did I say confusion? I meant blatant disregard.

From what I surmise, people make up their own rules here. Especially on the road. Oh my god. The stuff I’ve seen people do on the road here is totally certifiable. On the way into town yesterday, we came upon a group of idiots standing in the middle of the desert highway taking pictures of the ocean. That’s right. They were hanging out in the center of the road snapping pictures. Just standing there, totally oblivious that they were on a HIGHWAY! We narrowly missed them in the Peugot. And they actually looked shocked and irritated to see our car, like we were in their way. Oh sorry, guys, did we screw up your crappy snapshot of the glaring sun? Our bad.

But back to the blood test.

I knew about the HIV test already because Bret had had his blood test about a month ago. One of the administrators at RSICA took him and three of his colleagues to the government clinic.

The HIV test is a requirement to acquire a residency card in Aqaba. A residency card is exactly as it sounds. It’s a card that foreigners (like us) get while we’re living and working in Jordan. It proves that we’re not just loitering but that we actually live here. Residency cards also qualify us to receive discounts on things like entrance fees to Petra. Normally, it costs 40 JD (or, $56) for tourists to tour the ruins, but for residents it only costs 1 JD (or, $1.40). It’s like a driver’s license and KCRW fringe benefits card rolled into one.

“Can’t they just assume that because you don’t have AIDS, I don’t either?” I asked in all seriousness. I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if that were actually permissible here because women are often viewed as extensions of their husbands. Perhaps more in Saudi Arabia or the UAE than in Jordan, but still.

Alas, I had to get my own blood test.

So, the following morning, the Scott family took a little field trip down to the Center for Chest Diseases and Foreign Health. I’m not sure how chest diseases and foreign health got lumped together. It’s not exactly an intuitive pairing. Furthermore, are there really that many diseases of the chest that they require an entire building? Even half a building? Maybe they should open a few smoking cessation buildings in this town. Just a thought.

The Center for Chest Diseases and Foreign Health was hopping when we arrived at 8 a.m. I didn’t think the locals got out of bed before noon, so I was surprised to see so many people. Not surprisingly, most of them were smoking. Good thing they were right there at the Center for Chest Diseases!

The building itself was this crumbling, stucco gulag with a chaotic parking lot. It looked more like event parking in a seedy section of downtown Los Angeles than a medical building. We found a narrow spot to cram the Peugot.

Once inside, we made our way to the second floor. Thankfully, Bret had been there before so he knew where to go. I was still half-asleep as I hadn’t had my coffee yet. I was just following Bret around with a glazed expression. I was hoping this “neutral” face would mask my piss poor attitude. I really didn’t want to be there.

Bret led me to a cashier’s window not unlike the ones at the DMV. This was Window 1. An older Arabic lady wearing hijab was stationed behind the glass. She didn’t even look up at us, and she was talking but it was unclear to whom.

Bret patted my shoulder and announced, “My wife needs a blood test and chest x-ray.” I looked around the room. The place was swarming with Arabs. Many of them leered at us, which did nothing to improve my mood.

Cashier Lady gave me a cursory glance.

I offered her a half-hearted grimace. I didn’t mean to. I meant to smile, but for some reason all I could muster was a grimace. I really need coffee in the morning.

At Window 1, we paid the 30-dinar fee for the two tests. Then, Cashier Lady (who was still talking and it was still unclear to whom) gave us a piece of paper with Arabic writing all over it. Neither Bret nor I were sure what this paper said. It could’ve said anything. Perhaps something official or perhaps it read, “Take more money from these jackasses.”

We took this piece of paper to Table 1.5. Not even a window, just a guy sitting at a folding card table.

We were instructed to give him a quarter dinar and he handed us what appeared to be a postage stamp. No explanation. Just take the stamp and move along. I was hoping the stamp was for some sort of raffle. Bret told me that was unlikely. Oh, Bret. Where’s your sense of whimsy?

I think someone (Bret maybe?) affixed the postage stamp/raffle ticket to the piece of paper with Arabic writing and we were off to Door Number 2. Without actually looking at the paper, the guy at Door Number 2 took it out of my hands and handed it to a lady wearing rubber gloves at Door Number 3.

I was ushered through Door Number 3 and told to sit at what appeared to be a school desk from the 1950’s. It was one of those desks with the metal chair attached. I placed my arm on the desk and rolled up my sleeve. Miss Rubber Gloves told me to make a fist. Then without even swabbing the area with alcohol, she stuck the needle into my vein. She drew some blood and then handed me a piece of cotton she’d pulled from a giant ball of cotton next to her. She didn’t offer a Band-aid or even a piece of tape to keep the cotton in place. It kept slipping down my arm and I got blood on my shirt.

From there, I was hustled down to Door Number 6. Not sure why we skipped Doors 4 and 5.

At Door Number 6, I was summoned into a room by a young woman who turned out to be the x-ray technician. She looked more like a web designer. All black clothes and hipster glasses.  She told me to stand in front of the giant machine. I complied. Then, she stood next to me for a moment. “Pregnant?” she asked. I didn’t know what to say. As far as I knew I wasn’t pregnant, but what if I was? I’m not on the pill and well….you get the picture.

“I don’t know. I don’t think I’m pregnant,” I said.  The technician paused for a moment and then shrugged. “Okay,” she said and stepped out of the room.

“Finished!” I heard her shout seconds later.

All rightey then.

After the chest x-ray we wandered around in the hallway until a small, but surprisingly stern Arabic woman looked at us and said, “Halas!” This means “enough” in Arabic. Basically, she was telling us to get the hell out of her building. She had chest diseases to attend to.

So, we left. Turns out there was no raffle.

My results were ready for pickup a few days later. We returned to the Center for Chest Diseases and Foreign Health. The parking lot was a zoo, so I stayed in the car while Bret went inside the building.  He returned all of two minutes later clutching a piece of paper. I was eager to see the results. Do I have tuberculosis?!

He slipped the paper into his messenger bag and hopped into the driver’s seat.

“Well?” I asked.

“Don’t know,” Bret said, buckling his seat belt.

“What do you mean you don’t know,” I said, a little unnerved.

“I mean I don’t know,” he said, “It’s all in Arabic.”

Strange and Wonderful Aqaba

It’s been over a month since I’ve posted anything and I apologize for my delinquency. I’ll try not to let that happen again.

We’ve been in Aqaba a little over two months now. Some days, it feels like we’ve been here forever. Other days, it’s as if no time has passed.

For the most part, we’ve settled into a nice routine. I’m even acclimating to the heat. Or, so I thought. Bret just informed me the weather has actually cooled down since we first arrived. For the record, “autumn” here in Aqaba means instead of 120 degrees F, it’s only 90. Whatever. At least I no longer feel like a strip of beef jerky every time I step outside. A few weeks ago, we had a few white clouds in the sky and you’d have thought they were made of gold the way everyone was oohing and ahhing at them.

I’ve made friends here too, both Jordanians and expats. Mostly other moms with young children. We have to stick together, we moms. You’ve seen us. We’re the ones with dark circles under our eyes and random stains on our clothes . We’re also the ones who desperately crave adult conversation and act a little feral when we suddenly find ourselves among other grown-ups. Moms are the same all over the world.

In other news, I got a job. I teach drama at the local International school. My students are 6th, 7th and 8th graders. It’s fun but some days the kids drive me nuts (to put it diplomatically). I have a much greater respect for my own middle school teachers from way back when. I went to public school in Oakland so you can imagine the hell we put those poor teachers through. Several of them actually had heart attacks and now I understand why. Kids are the same all over the world.

So, between my job, Bret’s job, Abby’s…well, just Abby, we’re a busy family. And it all feels very normal.

Bret works five days a week at RSICA and his hours vary, depending on the day; such is life for a college professor.  I work three mornings a week from 10:30 to 12:00 p.m. at the International school (part-time indeed).

But I do have a full time job, too. Her name is Abby.

Every morning, she wakes up around 6:00.  Thankfully, Bret gets up with her to change her diaper and feed her. At 6:00 a.m., I can barely open my eyes so I usually pull the blanket over my head and fall back to sleep. This is Bret’s gift to me each day. I get 30 minutes of “me” time in the morning while he takes care of the girl. I use this “me” time to sleep, so it always goes by in a flash. I’m in a blissful slumber and then suddenly, there she is. The bub. Hovering over me chanting, “Mama! Mama!” She’s usually still in her pajamas, a blob of banana stuck in her hair. I open one eye. “Good morning, Abby,” I croak.

At that point, Bret usually gets really dramatic, racing around, reminding me he has to get in the shower or he’s going to be late. I open my other eye and haul my tired bones out of bed, grumbling that he needs to relax. I’m up. He can get in the goddam shower.

At this point, Abby usually pulls my shirt down and latches onto a boob. I lay back down and we nurse. I close my eyes. Ah…more sleep. “Mama!” She’s up again. So much for that. She slides her little body off the bed and runs down the hall. I force myself upright and limp after her.

Is it just me, or do all moms feel like a giant lump of pain when they crawl out of bed in the morning? I look like Gollum when I first get up, my gnarled body hobbling around in tank top and boxers as I search for something to eat. And everything hurts! My knees, my neck, my back, even my elbows. What’s the deal? Am I still recovering from the train wreck that was childbirth? Am I just old? Is it because I lug around a 30 pound toddler all day? The answer is probably yes. To all of the above.

So, after Abby gets me out of bed, I brush my teeth and take a Synthroid pill. And then I have to wait for an hour before I can eat (the Synthroid needs time to work its magic). I’m usually pretty hungry when I first wake up, so that hour feels like an eternity.

While Bret showers, I bring in the laundry from the clothesline on our back porch. Nobody has a dryer here. We just hang our clothes outside and they’re dry in under an hour. Unfortunately, they’re also sort of crispy. For the first time in my life, I understand why fabric softener was invented.

After the Synthroid waiting period, I make coffee using my french press and scarf down a bowl of oatmeal with flax and butter. It tastes better than it sounds. I’m usually able to convince Abby to pause and eat a couple of bites of oatmeal too. Mornings are a busy time for her. She has to inventory her toys and push her potty chair around the living room. She has a life, okay?

It’s a pretty normal routine we have. I’m guessing most people, especially those with spouses and/or children, perform some variation of this routine every morning.

So, this got me thinking. Our life isn’t so different from what it was back in Pasadena. Some things are very different. The biggest one being that we live in Jordan, not the United States.

I realize I’m stating the obvious, but it’s actually quite significant. Even as foreigners, we’re subject to the laws here in Jordan. The personal freedoms we enjoyed in the States don’t necessarily apply to us here. It’s nothing to fret about, just something to be aware of.

Besides, any place you live is going to have its pros and cons. Even if you live in paradise, I bet you can find something to complain about. “These chocolates are too chocolatey. This massage is too awesome. Ugh! I am so sick of these amazing sunsets!” You get the picture.

That’s my amateur version of paradise, by the way. What is paradise, really? I  imagine a very zen-like spa in a lush jungle (but with no dangerous or poisonous animals, only nice monkeys). Also, I don’t actually walk in my paradise, rather I float. And I’m wearing a plush robe. Basically, my paradise looks like Burke Williams with howler monkeys.

Well, Aqaba isn’t exactly paradise. Or Burke Williams. But it’s home, for now. And like anywhere else, it’s a town that has some things I like, and some I don’t. It was the same in Pasadena. Plenty of things I loved and plenty of things I found annoying.

Since I’m in a positive sort of mood today, I’ve compiled a list for myself (and for you!) of some things about Aqaba that I find odd, funny, charming, beautiful.

For the record, these are only my opinions. The views expressed here do not represent those of…well, anyone other than me. If I had a studio backing me, or some sort of endorsement deal, not only would that be awesome, it would also be important that I give a disclaimer at the start of something like this. I thought I would practice, just in case an endorsement deal comes along.

1. Call to Prayer. This happens in town five times a day and it’s basically the Muslim equivalent of church bells. You’ve heard call to prayer, most likely in such films as Blackhawk Down and Hurt Locker. It’s some dude chanting in this eerie minor key, reminding everyone it’s time to face east and pray. Even though I’m not particularly religious, I think call to prayer is beautiful. It’s a haunting sound. We can’t really hear call to prayer out in Tala Bay so I only hear it when I’m in town. The only time call to prayer sounds creepy is when one of the speakers is on the fritz and the voice distorts. Then, it sounds like the lead singer of Pantera communing with satan.

2. The Camels. I love them. Such odd animals, aren’t they? Knobby knees, long, skinny necks, droopy eyes and lips. They hang out under the palm trees in this huge dirt lot in town. Occasionally, they go out for a stroll. Below is a picture Bret took while he waited to pick me up outside of the International school. Camels on walkabout.

3. German Kitchen Appliances. Say what you will about Germans, but they really understand efficiency. We have the most amazing oven. I never knew what an oven was capable of until I met our oven here. It comes with a thick manual explaining which setting is appropriate for any kind of baked good you can imagine. And our washing machine is badass –a little small, but badass. And we have a Braun hand mixer that just makes me giddy. I mix smoothies, milkshakes, soups, sauces, whipped cauliflower (sounds nasty, tastes awesome). Bret points out that it’s actually an “Immersion blender,” not a hand mixer. Whatever it is, it’s a thing of beauty. The day we brought it home I spent a few hours just immersion-blending various concoctions in the kitchen.

Our dishwasher is the only appliance I’m not crazy about. I’m glad we have a dishwasher, don’t get me wrong. Washing dishes by hand SUCKS, especially because I cook almost every meal. But our dishwasher has an especially sensitive flood sensor and it goes off sometimes in mid-cycle. It beeps and beeps and won’t shut up until one of us (usually Bret) gets up and manually turns it off. And then the whole cycle is ruined because when that sensor goes off, the dishwasher, in typical German fashion, is like, “Nien! Nacht! Nicht!” Something like that. Basically, it refuses to finish the cycle, or let us start a new one, until at least 45 minutes has passed. So we have to turn the machine off and let it take a nap or whatever the hell it does for 45 minutes and then try again. Two words: LITTLE NAZI.

4. Maktoob-Yahoo! The first time I logged onto Yahoo in Jordan, the homepage was in Arabic with pictures of celebrities I’d never heard of. In my jetlagged state, I kind of freaked out. But Bret fiddled with my computer and was able to switch it back to English. But he wasn’t able to switch it back to the United States version of Yahoo! Because of our IP address, we get the Middle Eastern version of Yahoo. It’s called Maktoob Yahoo. I don’t mind. In fact, I’ve grown quite fond of Maktoob. I’m now up-to-date on the weather in Amman, the daily prayer schedule, and the gossip in Bollywood.

5. Halal. This is an Arabic wording meaning, “permissible,” or “allowed.” It refers to food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, etc. that are suitable for use/consumption by Muslims according to Islamic (or, Sharia) Law. Meat and poultry must be slaughtered by hand with a sharp knife for it to be halal. This is what comes printed on our packages of frozen chicken purchased at the local Safeway. You don’t often see this in the States.

6. Umm Abby. That’s my Arabic name (unofficially). It translates into Mom of Abby. Some people go by Umm “insert firstborn child’s name here” as their name. For the dads, it’s Abu. So, Bret is Abu Abby. The one part I don’t like about this cute naming custom is that the name defers to the firstborn child OR a son. So if Abby has a younger brother one day, and we named him Mahmoud (for example), then Bret and I would be known as Abu Mahmoud and Umm Mahmoud, even though Abby is our firstborn. But if our second child is a girl, then we would remain Abu Abby and Umm Abby because Abby would be our eldest and apparently her younger sister would be chopped liver. Sexist and lame. I’ll be Umm Abby forever no matter how many sons I have. By the way, Umm rhymes with “womb.”

7. The Red Sea. It’s gorgeous. It sparkles like diamonds. I’m not trying to be poetic. That’s exactly what it does. Sparkles like diamonds. It’s warm and clear and very salty (so you’re extremely buoyant when you swim in it). The Red Sea is truly a fantastic body of water. In LA, we lived close-ish to the beach. Not close enough though because we rarely went there. In Aqaba, I go to the beach almost every day. Abby and I sit in the sand and look at rocks and shells. Abby likes the rocks. She picks them up and carries them around as she toddles on the beach.

8. The Food. Labaneh, hummus, lentil soup, tabbouleh, falafel, fuul, shawerma, eggplant salad, lemon-mint drink. I love it all. It’s delicious and healthy and very fresh. Middle Eastern food is one of my favorite cuisines. It’s a good thing too because there’s plenty of it here.

9. Our Apartment. It’s bigger than our house back in Pasadena and has very high ceilings. We also have air-conditioning in every room, which is both lovely and necessary. The entire place has tile floors and we have two large bedrooms and two bathrooms. It’s also nice that nothing needs fixing. Back in Pasadena, Bret had a list of about 800 things around the house that needed some sort of repair. Here, not only is there nothing to fix, even if there were, it’s not our responsibility. We’re renters! There’s something delicious about renting. It’s liberating after five years of constant remodeling and repair efforts. I say this like I did any of the repairs myself. Bret did all of the actual work. But I don’t know how to do any of that manual labor stuff. I feel proud of myself when I change a lightbulb.

10. The People. For the most part, every person I’ve met and befriended here is lovely. Jordanians and the expats alike have been welcoming and kind. I’ve been invited into people’s homes for tea, coffee, breakfast, lunch. And the people who invited me were virtual strangers. They showed us true hospitality and I’m immensely grateful.

11. Everything is Smaller. In the U.S., things are so big. The cars, the people, the portions. In Jordan, everything is much smaller. Even the bugs. The flies are smaller, the cats are smaller, the people are smaller. The grocery stores are smaller and the grocery carts are about half the size of the carts in the United States. I guess in NY, things are a bit more compact but in California, everything is so vast, so spread out, so LARGE. Being here has been good for us as it’s inspired us to be more judicious with our space. When you don’t have a lot of something, it becomes more difficult to waste it. Not that we had a rolling estate in Pasadena, but we had two big cars, two big dogs, a big garage, wide freeways, big grocery stores, big malls, Big Gulps, the list goes on. Here, we have no garage and one small rental car (a Peugot!) that we share with one other professor at RSICA. We have no animals to look after here, just one small child; although, we do like to give her a wide berth. And in terms of physical possessions, we’re living on a pretty bare-bones household here. And yet, we have plenty. More than enough. I’m telling you, if you got rid of half your stuff, you’d still have a lot and you’d probably feel much lighter.

12. Affection Between Men. It’s a tender thing to see two grown men hugging and pecking on the cheeks. In the States, one might wonder if perhaps the men were lovers. But in Jordan, the hetero men are very affectionate with each other and it’s just part of guys being guys. It’s not widely acceptable to be gay here unfortunately, but it’s totally fine (and even expected) for two manly men to link arms and go for a moonlit stroll on the beach. I wish there was more tolerance for gay people here, but at least men can cuddle with one another without shame.

13. I Can See Africa From my House. This is true. Not only can I see Israel (the lights of Eilat shine brightly), I can also see Egypt. And Egypt is in Africa, for all of you who are geographically challenged. It’s an amazing thing to see another continent from your backyard. Eat that, Sarah Palin!

14. Men Like Kids. In Jordanian culture, children and family are the center of life. People work and have hobbies, but family is the most important thing for most Jordians. And what I find especially interesting is that the men are just as sweet to Abby as the women. Grown men come up to Abby and play with her or give her toys and candy. Many ask if they can hold her or kiss her cheek. Abby isn’t used to so much physical interaction with men (aside from Bret), so she usually rejects it, clinging tightly to me and occasionally bursting into tears. When she cries, the men apologize profusely and back away politely. I assure them it’s okay. She’s just uncomfortable with strangers sometimes. Personally, I think it’s a healthy fear. After a few minutes, Abby usually relaxes and starts to warm up to them. She might even offer a smile or blow them a kiss. And when she does, the men just melt. People really do like children here. In the States, women would often approach Abby or smile at her, but the men usually stayed away. I’m not referring to our friends or family, mind you. Just strangers. Jordanians have a true soft spot for the kids and, as a mom, I greatly appreciate it. I just wish they would stop smoking around children and started using child car seats. I often see kids riding on the laps of their parents in the front seat — no seat belt, no car seat. Some people think this is no big deal. I disagree.

So, that’s my list, thus far. I’ll keep updating it as time goes on. I’m sure I will discover many more wacky, cool, wonderful things about this place. One of these days, I’ll probably make a list of all the things I don’t like, too. I can already think of a few things, but I’ll save them for another day.

In the meantime, this is Umm Abby, signing off.

The Market

First of all, I want to thank you all for reading this blog and for your kind and supportive comments. I’m glad many of you are finding our experiences both informative and entertaining. That’s really the whole point of this blog, to entertain our friends and family. It’s also a good way to KIT.

KIT, or “keep in touch.” I used to write that in people’s yearbooks in junior high.  “KIT! Have a good summer! Stay sweet!” How did we manage in those days without the internet, texting and Skype? I guess we didn’t actually KIT much back then.

Second of all, many of you have inquired as to whether or not I ever got my luggage back. Thankfully, I did. The airline, Royal Jordanian, found the bags in Amman and flew them to Aqaba via private charter. Apparently, our luggage got freshly baked cookies AND warm hand towels. WTF?!

Those rogue bags arrived in Aqaba two days after we did and Bret’s lovely colleague,”Marty” picked them up and dropped them off at our apartment. Wasn’t that awesome of “Marty?” He really is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to reveal his true identity.

Unfortunately, I was passed out cold when Marty brought the bags by. It was the middle of the afternoon and Abby and I were dead asleep. In fact, that particular day, Abby and I slept from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. I remember waking up, wondering where I was and who this baby belonged to.  Then I wandered into the kitchen and stuffed myself with more Snack Maamoul. And then I thought: This has got to stop.

By the way, nothing was missing from our bags. My fears about the guy peddling our stuff on the street in Amman was totally unfounded. That guy probably took one look at my wide-leg linen pants and was like, “Well, these are a hot mess.”

Okay, SO, I want to tell you about the food in Aqaba.

First, a little history.

I love food. I especially love fresh, healthful food, although I do have a mean sweet tooth and can polish off a pint of ice cream in a matter of minutes.  I’ve already inhaled a whole jar of Nutella since we’ve been here. In my defense, Nutella is the DEVIL.

But most of the time, I try to eat healthfully and provide nutritious meals for Abby.

Bret, however, is on his own. I’ve given up trying to get him to eat well. He sticks to meat, white bread (or more recently, pita) and coca cola. He also likes butter, potato chips and noodles.  Oh, and ice cream. He likes that too.

As for me, I eat pretty well: Several pieces of fresh fruit every day and salad and steamed or sautéed veggies. I usually eat fish about twice a week and I love beans and whole grains. I’m not a big fan of soda (or, pop, if you live in the midwest). I drink mostly water with occasional glasses of fresh juice or iced tea. I do drink coffee every day but sometimes it’s decaf. I know, I’m perfect.

Back in L.A., I was a frequent flyer at Whole Foods and the local farmer’s market. I derived great comfort just wandering through the aisles (or stalls) of fresh, organic food.

Health food stores are so quaint, aren’t they? They all seem to smell the same and their aisles are never large enough to accommodate full-sized grocery carts. It’s just adorable.

When I was young and single, I used to go to Erewhon which is a health food store much like Whole Foods, only smaller. I’d get a cup of pumpkin red lentil soup and then spend an hour meandering through the aisles, leisurely picking out organic trail mix and nontoxic household supplies.

This brought me great comfort and calm. Even now, as a relatively busy wife and mother, I enjoy going to Whole Foods. I don’t luxuriate there like I did at Erewhon when I was an unemployed actor in my 20’s. But still, Whole Foods is a kind of sanctuary for me. I’m safe there. Nothing bad could ever happen in a place where everything is organic, free-range, grass-fed, wild-caught and devoid of any toxic chemical known or unknown to man. There would never be a chemical spill at Whole Foods or an accidental overdose. Overdose of what? Gluten-free waffles?

Here in Aqaba, there’s no Whole Foods. There isn’t an Erewhon, either. But there are several vegetable markets — the Brits call them green grocers. Isn’t that cute? The first vegetable market we went to here was the big one in the old section of Aqaba. The old section of Aqaba is mostly locals and is a bit rundown. Most of the tourists and expats hang out in the newer part of town that has more upscale shopping. The central veggie market is pretty amazing though. It has also stalls where you can buy bulk spices, olives, cheese and freshly roasted nuts.

We buy certain essentials at the Safeway in town: household goods like dish soap and a broom, bottled water, some produce, and some dairy products. Safeway also has every kind of snack food you can imagine (except Munchos, Bret wanted me to tell you). They do have Tostitos though.

Safeway here is the same Safeway as the one in the States. Sort of. It has the same red, swish logo on the sign. It also has a small produce section, a dairy section and a bakery. There’s even a meat department, complete with a wild-eyed butcher who slams his enormous cleaver down on a side of mutton. He’s like a bloodied Judge Wapner trying to silence two squabbling roommates.

I think he’s actually performing a show, depicting the life of the crazy, lone butcher of Aqaba. Like the reenactments of the old West at Knott’s Berry Farm. He dons an apron and performs a Sweeney Todd show at noon, 2 and 4 every day. It’s very loud and draws a crowd of curious and slightly uncomfortable onlookers.

The point is, Safeway is good for basic sundries, but for the fresh fruit and veggies, the veg market (or green grocer!) is the place.

The first time we went to the vegetable market in Aqaba, I was forced to come to terms with my own bias as a “wealthy” American. You see, I’ve grown accustomed to the organic Disneyland that is Whole Foods (or even Ralph’s Fresh Fare) and this market in Aqaba is…different. I don’t say that pejoratively, mind you. I like the market, even though I’m still a little intimidated by it. Let me explain.

First of all, it’s hot. Aqaba is in the middle of the desert so temperatures typically soar way into the 100’s in the summer (today it was 108, for example). But for some reason, the Shwe market feels at least 10 degrees hotter than the rest of town. Like a freshly picked gardenia or unpasteurized dairy, I’m extremely sensitive to the heat.

Bret keeps saying I’ll get used to it, but I won’t. There have been times the heat was so intense here, I thought I was going to die. I get really dramatic and start swaying back and forth, threatening to throw up or faint, or both.

Abby, of course, remains adorable and pleasant even when her enormous cheeks turn bright red and sweat drips from her face. I force her to drink bottled water until Bret has to intervene.

“She’s had enough, babe,” he assures me as Abby gulps from my giant water bottle. “I don’t want her to dehydrate!” I shriek, making my tourist status even more obvious. “We’ve only been out here for three minutes,” Bret reminds me in a calm voice. “Dehydration can happen in the blink of an eye,” I snap. Bret shakes his head as Abby, now bored with merely drinking the water, dumps it into her lap.

So, anyway, it’s hot here. And the veg market is even hotter.

The market itself consists of several outdoor stalls which are basically partitioned areas covered with cloth tents. Each stall is filled with crates of fresh fruit and vegetables. There are also tiny shops that sell fish, eggs and sides of goat, lamb and beef. The place has a distinct odor of raw animal carcass, cumin and fresh dirt. Trucks constantly rumble in and out on the street in front of the stalls, delivering more produce.

And the market just teems with people, mostly older women in full chador. There are also men in floor-length tunics and some of them wear the red and white keffiyehs or hata (head scarves).

The old women fascinate me. They have weathered brown skin and dark eyes. Sometimes all I can see are their eyes because the rest of them is covered with a black robe and headscarf. They have gnarled hands and they don’t speak, not even to the vendors. There’s a lot of gesturing and nodding.

Bret admitted to me a few days ago that when he sees a woman in full chador, he assumes she has no sense of humor. He said he realizes that that’s a product of his own prejudice and some of those women could be real riots.

I know what he means.

Whenever I see a nun wearing a habit, I have the same thought. I assume she’s a real bore who would be furious if I made a fart joke. She’d purse her lips and try to hit me on the knuckles with a ruler. But what if that nun knows some really great fart jokes? My own prejudice has prevented me from ever finding out.

I admit I’m afraid to test these waters with the old Muslim broads in full chador. They’re small but they look like they could kick my ass. Anyone who wears a black robe in this kind of heat can survive anything.

But back to the market.

The first thing I noticed were the goat carcasses hanging in the shop windows. They weren’t just carcasses, they were bodies. With the heads still attached. With fur on their ears and faces. But their bodies were completely skinned and gutted. A few goat heads (sans bodies) lined the bottom edge of the windows.

I felt faint. Those poor goats. Just hanging there. They had faces and eyes and soft little ears.

But then I remembered that I eat meat. I eat hamburgers and chicken and lamb. I eat baby sheep!? What’s the matter with me? But it tastes so good. I even eat bacon sometimes. Sweet little Wilbur. How could I eat him?

At Whole Foods, the meat was always displayed in neat compartments in a giant refrigerated case. It looked clean and fresh and didn’t resemble an animal at all. It was easy for me to forget the fact that it was once a sweet little animal with feelings and a soul. Shame on me.

There’s nothing subtle or neat about a dead goat hanging by its ankles from a metal hook. It repulsed me. It saddened me. It reminded me that I’m a hypocrite. If I care so much, why don’t I stop eating meat? I don’t know. Something for me to consider. Or maybe just something to accept. Those goat bodies are brutal but at least they’re honest. This is where meat comes from, Marj. Like it or not.

We didn’t buy any goat that day.

Instead, we browsed the barrels of fresh fruit and vegetables. We bought some zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, a small pumpkin, some carrots, onions, bell peppers, plums, peaches, apples, kiwis, and bananas.

And it cost 3 JD, or $5. I thought the guy had miscalculated.

He hadn’t. I was stunned.

There are also these guys who sit on plastic boxes just outside of the actual stalls and sell fresh greens and radishes. I asked him in English if he had any kale and he shook his head and said, “No English.” I shrugged and said, “No Arabic.” He smiled and said, “Salad?” I nodded. He picked out several bunches of fresh greens for me. They smelled amazing and I paid 1 JD for them, or $1.40.  At Whole Foods that same purchase would have set me back about $55.

We also bought a kilo (or 2.2 pounds) of fresh chicken breasts for 4 JD, or about $6. That night, Bret made roast chicken with potatoes, carrots, onions and bell peppers and it was heaven. It was lovely to have a home-cooked meal after eating airplane and mediocre restaurant food for almost a week. I was haunted by those goats, though. I’ve been vegetarian before. Could I do it again?

Bret and I make weekly trips to the veggie market for all of our fresh produce. We buy a few things at Safeway too, like peaches, plums and bell peppers. Overall, the fruits and veggies in Aqaba have proven to be exceptionally fresh and flavorful. The plums are especially sweet.

There are some things I have yet to find here: sweet potatoes, avocados that aren’t brown and shriveled, really fresh broccoli (although they have cauliflower and it’s awesome), fresh blueberries, raspberries or kale. It’s funny how you get sort of desperate for something when it’s suddenly not available. In LA, for instance, I could go several weeks without thinking about kale, but now that I don’t have access to it, I’m worried that maybe I’ll die without it. I’m already planning to stock up on kale chips when we come home for Christmas.

This brings me to a point I want to stress to you. Don’t take anything for granted. Not even something simple like your toenails. Be grateful that you have those toenails, or if you live in Los Angeles, easy access to kale. Or fresh food in general. Aqaba is a nice city, despite quirks that an American like me isn’t used to, but lots of places are a lot less nice. Millions of people in this world go hungry every day.

I’m not trying to bum you out. I’m just asking that you be grateful. For whatever you have.