Back in the Saddle

We’re back in Jordan. We’ve been here since September 1st. I’ve been meaning to post something to the blog for three weeks but after several attempts and much editing I decided it was best if I was fully recovered from jet lag before posting something for all the world to see. Also, I didn’t want to write through the lens of negativity and anxiety I often feel when I move to a new place. Maybe it’s just me but the initial adjustment period of a move is often overwhelming and rife with cursing.  Therefore, I decided to hold off on publishing anything. Until now.

So, hello!

For those of you not in the loop, we no longer live in Aqaba. We now live in Amman. Same country, different city. Amman is the bustling capital of Jordan (located in the northern part of the country) and it has a population of 4 million. Aqaba is a sleepy seaside community in the south of Jordan with a population of 100,000. We lived in Aqaba last year and while it was fun, by the time we left I was ready for some good food and good shopping. Small towns can be lovely but the ones I prefer have names like Carmel and Mendocino.

When we left Aqaba for summer break back in May, I was so excited to be going home to the U.S. I was also looking forward to moving to Amman upon our return to Jordan in the fall but that felt far far away.

Summer vacation was amazing and cathartic. I haven’t been on vacation in years and certainly not a three-months-long summer vacation. I haven’t experienced that since I was a kid. We went to Tucson to visit my in-laws and Northern California to visit my parents. We spent time in Los Angeles catching up on doctor’s appointments and visiting friends. We went to Carmela, my favorite artisan ice cream shop in Pasadena where they have flavors like strawberry buttermilk, salted caramel, and honey lavender. We went on a road trip through Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. We went horseback riding, Bret caught trout on a fishing trip in Bozeman and we ate it for dinner. We ate sweet corn on the cob almost daily. It was a real summer. And it was perfect.

***Little side note: I also read two awesome books this summer that I’m recommending. The first is called The Fantasy Bond by Robert Firestone. Read it. It’s amazing. The other is The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence by Rachel Simmons. I recommend this book to every woman (and man) on the planet, even if you don’t have a daughter. You should especially read it if you do have a daughter, but even if you don’t it’s an insightful book that examines the way in which we teach our girls to handle conflict. It’s a book about how to raise (and be) real girls, not “good” girls.

And then, the three months were up and suddenly were in a packing frenzy, stocking up on all the things we were concerned we wouldn’t be able to find in Jordan. Important, big things like my medications and little (but also important) things like pure vanilla extract and organic cotton tampons. In the weeks leading up to our departure, I was anticipating what life would be like in Amman. I’d never really spent much time there. One day, to be exact. Last year, we drove up to Amman to go shopping and then drove back down to Aqaba the very same night. I will never do that again.

But that one hellishly long day did offer me some insight into the Amman experience. I knew we would have ready access to more stuff, I just didn’t know the true extent of it. More significantly, I didn’t really know what it would be like to live in Amman. All I really knew was Aqaba. And despite its deficiencies, I liked it. I loved the Red Sea. I loved how clear blue and small it is. I loved living right on the beach and being able to walk outside our apartment and be mere feet away from the sand and water and tall date palms. I didn’t have any idea what I would love about Amman.

We arrived at the Queen Alia airport and already things felt different. The most obvious being was that we didn’t have to hop on yet another flight after 20 hours of international travel. I was relieved. It’s a short flight from Amman to Aqaba but at the 20-hour mark it aways felt like salt in the wound to have to board yet another plane. Also, Royal Jordanian Airlines could never seem to get our luggage to arrive in Aqaba when we did. Every fucking time they left at least one of our bags (usually mine) behind in Amman. I started to become accustomed to being without my clothes for the first few days in Aqaba.

Not this time. When we arrived in Amman, I chased Abby around the baggage claim area for less than 10 minutes before Bret appeared, sweaty and smiling, our suitcases piled high on a luggage cart. “Got ’em. Let’s go!” I was in mild shock. It had never been this easy before and I had prepared myself for disaster.

We walked out to the curb and were immediately greeted by a driver holding a sign with the word SCOTT printed on it. His name was Mohammad and he spoke English quite well. And he even had Abby’s car seat already waiting in the car. That made my heart swell.

Bret sat in the front seat, Abby was nestled in her car seat, and my sunglasses were still on my head. Life was as it should be and we were off to our new place.

When we arrived at our apartment, the landlady greeted us. The first thing she said in a thick Jordanian accent was, “Where are the dogs?” We explained to her that we had to leave them at home because of the heat embargo at the Tucson Airport. The airlines refuse to fly animals if the weather exceeds 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Tucson in the summer is waaaay hotter than 85 degrees. More like 110. In the shade.

The embargo was news to us as we’d never had to fly with animals before. We had no choice but to leave them behind with my mother-in-law. Now we realize leaving them behind was the best decision for the dogs. One of them, Sophie, has a chronic illness and is allergic to everything while the other dog, Ruby, is a chewer and afraid of people with dark skin. Bringing them here probably wouldn’t have been the right move for them. But our landlady was sincerely disappointed. Apparently, she’s a real dog person and was looking forward to meeting them. Generally speaking, in the Arab world, dogs are just one step above pigs. And pigs are haram (forbidden) in Islam. But there’s this portion of the population here (the progressives) who like and own dogs. They do have veterinarians here as well as pet stores. But generally, the locals have cats or birds as pets rather than dogs. Just a cultural difference. In Mexico, people cuddle with their chickens on the couch and watch soap operas. This is not a stereotype. I’ve witnessed it.

Our apartment is nice. It’s got engineered wood floors which is kind of unusual in Jordan. Mostly, apartments and houses here have tile or marble floors, or sometimes carpeting. Wood is very hard to come by in this region being that it’s a desert. Our apartment in Aqaba had tile floors throughout which made it feel a little cold, a little echo-y. Also, our apartment here is bigger than our joint in Aqaba.

We have 2 bedrooms, 2 1/2 bathrooms, a large living room, dining area, a decent-sized kitchen and a backyard. What we don’t have is the Red Sea right outside our door. And 7 swimming pools at our disposal, which we had in Tala Bay (gated community where we lived in Aqaba). Pros and cons, right?

Amman is much bigger than Aqaba. Not just in terms of population density but geographically too. And while the Dead Sea is a mere 35 minutes away, the Dead Sea is no Red Sea. For starters, there’s nothing in it. It’s so salty that it’s completely devoid of life — no coral, no fish, not even amoeba. Just salt. This means you shouldn’t get the water in your eyes. It also means it’s impossible to be eaten by a shark. Pros and cons.

On the pro side, Amman has more availability of goods and services. There are several large grocery stores with fabulous American and European imports. Things like, Oscar Meyer Thick Cut bacon. This was a very happy day in the Scott household when we discovered Spinney’s has a whole pork section (we call it the haram section). Spinney’s is a big, western-style (by that I mean American or European, not cowboy-themed) grocery store. It’s located in the newest mall in town, called Taj Mall. Taj Mall feels like a slightly smaller (and vertical) Glendale Galleria.

I like Spinneys. I find their produce to be less impressive than the other grocery stores in town but they have a fairly extensive organic and gluten free section. You can also buy things like Stonewall Kitchen brand bruschetta for $17 a jar, if you’re so inclined. On our most recent trip to Spinney’s I found Horizon organic string cheese. Abby loves string cheese and I love organic food. I’m a bourgeois white lady from Los Angeles. What can I say?

The other grocery stores are nice. Cozmo is my favorite. They have things I never thought I would find in Jordan. Things like Bob’s Red Mill coconut flour, fresh blueberries imported from Belgium, and organic, unsulphured dried apricots. I know. This is the shit I care about. But it’s a good store. Miles is another awesome grocery store. It has wood floors, a nice variety of products, and if I squint my eyes I could be at Whole Foods. Miles is located on the basement floor of Mecca Mall, for those of you who live in Amman or plan to visit. They sell a fantastic olive oil liquid hand soap called Dr. Mak. It’s lightly scented with essential oils and it’s made right here in Jordan. It’s a little pricey but good to support a locally made product.

There are also American and European clothing and shoe stores here (Gap, Nine West, Mango, Gymboree, Tape A l’Oeuil). The only problem is that the prices are marked up about 30-40% because of import tax. So, a simple T-shirt at the Gap that would cost about $15 in the U.S. is more like $30 here (this number reflects not only the import tax but also the conversion rate, which is about .71 JOD to $1). I probably won’t be buying many clothes here. Just as well.

There’s this nice kids place called J’Imagine where I’ve taken Abby several times. She loves it. It’s an indoor play place that is quiet and clean and has wooden toys, baby dolls, a pretend city with a grocery store, veterinary office, a restaurant, a doctor’s office, and a fire house. There’s also a large water station with fish, fishing poles, and rubber ducks. Abby loves playing in the water and pushing the various baby dolls around in the stroller. She also likes to play cashier and ring up baskets full of play groceries. Here’s a photo:

Abby fishing at J’Imagine

Abby ringing up the groceries at J’Imagine

I’m glad J’Imagine exists. It’s a tasteful, thoughtful place for kids (and parents) with an atmosphere conducive to imaginative play, rather than forced bells and whistles like Chuck E. Cheese. We’re planning to check out the Children’s Museum this weekend. Hopefully, that will be another place Abby will like to visit.

A couple of things I’m not too thrilled about regarding our new digs:

1) Our apartment has rattan furniture with white upholstery. We have a toddler. This is significant for two reasons. A) Rattan rips easily, and B) Small grayish-brown footprints on the white couch are not as cute as you might think. We’re in the market for some grayish-brown slip-covers.

2) Our fridge is the size of an acorn. Our landlady cheaped out and furnished the kitchen with Fisher-Price Barbie appliances. The oven is literally the size of a breadbox and is not insulated. The first time we used it, the entire kitchen warmed up to about 200 degrees Fahrenheit and the oven itself started steaming. Bret has since disconnected the oven from the gas line and we now use the stove (which has a flat, glass cover) as counter space. We reluctantly decided to shell out the dough for a new oven, which we plan to sell when we leave. It’s a nice Italian model that is sturdy and insulated. It wasn’t as expensive as the German ovens (go figure) but it wasn’t exactly cheap either. Some things I just can’t live without and a decent oven is one of those things.

3) The traffic here is bad. Not only are the drivers batshit crazy, there are many many more of them here than there were in Aqaba. And Amman is laid out in such a ridiculous, Byzantine way that not even those who’ve lived here for years know how to get anywhere, much less give proper directions. Thank god for Google maps.

4) It’s noisy here. Much noisier than Aqaba — at least where we lived in Tala Bay. Most nights, Bret and I sit in the living room after Abby has gone to bed and either work on school stuff, write, or just hang out and try to relax. But the noise of the city feels as though we imported the 405 freeway to Jordan and parked it right outside our apartment. Not so relaxing. Also, the prime minister has a house (or an office?) on our street and his helicopter flies over us at least once a day. We figure it’s his hoo ride — not sure. Either way, it’s loud. And to top off the cacophony of honking horns and helicopter blades, we can hear call to prayer five times a day. And one of those times is at 5 in the morning. Every morning. Sometimes we’re even treated to dueling calls coming from different mosques. They’re just slightly out of sync which gives the already haunting sound a strange echo. Drop in some drum and bass and it would be the perfect comeback single for Enigma.

So, all in all, it’s okay here. I did have one dark day a few weeks ago. The protests in response to that stupid YouTube video were going on and I was nervous. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, then read the fucking news once in awhile. Bret kept reassuring me that we weren’t in any danger and Jordan is a very stable country. He’s right. Our embassy here was being watched by what looked like hundreds of military personnel, and, besides, most of the protesters (only a few hundred in a city of 4 million people) were the radical guys with beards and bad teeth. I don’t say that to be an asshole. We have radical guys with beards and bad teeth in the U.S., too. Interestingly, it’s the bad-toothed, bearded guys who hate each other while the rest of us coexist just fine and get on with the day. I haven’t gotten the stink eye from anyone or rocks thrown at my car (yet) so I’m optimistic that I’m safe here at the moment. Safe enough.

That’s the thing. What we see in the news is never the full picture. I read CNN and the Jordan Times online, among other news outlets, and while there are indeed protests happening throughout the region in response to what was basically a shitty home video, it doesn’t mean everyone in the middle east hates the U.S. Likewise, I remind all of you radical, anti-American types who burn our flag and call our president names, that one crappy video does not speak for or represent an entire country of people. Furthermore, and this is the most ironic part, the crappy YouTube video was made with Egyptian money by an Egyptian Coptic Christian. The bottom line is that people who don’t understand freedom of speech don’t fully get it that the government doesn’t endorse anything and everything its people create. In the U.S. blasphemy is just talk. And talk is cheap.

Things seem to have quieted down this week in terms of the protests. Although, I won’t be surprised if some other incident sparks the crazies and the flag-burning erupts again. It seems that someone is always pissed off about something. I think it’s that they weren’t loved unconditionally as children and they take it out on the world. No injustice is as great as a child rejected by his parents.

But that’s another conversation for another day.

I’m trying to enjoy this time in Amman. Some days, I feel cranky and fearful and I just want to go back to the U.S. But other days, I feel so grateful for this experience. I never thought I’d live in the middle east. For years I was afraid of this entire region and wouldn’t have even contemplated coming here for a visit. And now I live here. And most days, I really like it.

By the way, I’m keeping the name Aqababy even though we’re living in Amman. I’m not sentimental, just lazy. Now that we’re back here in Jordan, I’ll be posting here more often. We’re planning more travels. Stay tuned.

In the Valley of the Moon

So, you guys know about my trip to Petra. Now, I’m going to wow you with my trip to Wadi Rum. Or maybe I’ll underwhelm you. Whatever your reaction to the following, at the very least it may inform you about where to stay (or not stay) should you ever visit Wadi Rum.

We went to Wadi Rum earlier this month when my mom was visiting. I think we traveled more during her 10-day visit than the entire 8 months we’ve lived in Jordan.

Wadi Rum is a desert valley cut into the sandstone and granite rock about 45 minutes east of Aqaba. It’s the largest wadi (or valley) in Jordan. It’s also really fun to say: Wadi Rum. Waaadeeee Ruuuummm. Rum is pronounced just like Captain Morgan’s.

We chose to stay at the Rahayeb bedouin camp because it was hosting an Easter egg hunt that weekend. I, for one, have a hard time resisting an egg hunt in the desert.

We left Aqaba around 6 p.m. on a Thursday and arrived in Rum just after sunset (around 7). You can’t drive a non 4-wheel drive vehicle into the actual camp, so we parked at the Captain’s Camp parking lot and hitched a ride with bedouin drivers into Rahayeb. There are many camps to choose from in Wadi Rum, some nicer than others. Rum is a pretty well-known tourist destination. David Lean shot much of Lawrence of Arabia there. Bret’s colleague knows the owner of Rahayeb camp so we were able to score VIP tents for the night. More on that later.

The moon hung over the valley as we drove into Rum. It was stunning. And the sand is fine and soft, like a caribbean beach. Without the turquoise water and steel drums.

The surrounding towns of Wadi Rum are really poverty-stricken. Children with dirty faces run around playing with whatever trash they can find on the streets. Herds of goats wander and lone donkeys stand around munching on trash. All the women cover completely and you rarely see them out and about. As we drove through these depressing little towns on our way to Rum, I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in one of them. If it’s all I ever knew, perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad? I don’t know.

We arrived at Rahayeb Camp by 7:45 p.m. and at that point I was ready to eat. Unfortunately, about 150 extras from Spring Break Shark Attack had descended upon the otherwise serene camp and were yucking it up around the campfire. Literally, one hundred and fifty teens dressed in the unofficial spring break uniform (t-shirts, miniskirts, shorts, flip-flops) were standing around, hooting and hollering at nothing in particular. They appeared to be children of wealthy Ammanis and were apparently a last-minute group who showed up at the camp just before we arrived. They were also supposedly leaving right after dinner. Either way, this was not the magical Wadi Rum experience we were hoping for. Yes, okay. I’m old.

After a lively 10 minutes by the raging campfire, we were escorted to our VIP tents by the harried host who kept apologizing for the Girls Gone Wild atmosphere. I told him I didn’t mind as long as I saw some titty.

The tents were rad. Bret, Abby, and I shared one and mom had one to herself. Here are some slightly blurry pictures:

The bed

The sitting area inside the tent.

The tents were lit by candlelight except for the bathrooms, which had their own electricity (and running water!). We had a king bed and a lounge area with a couch and sitting chairs. The bed had grains of sand in it, but was otherwise comfortable.

Unfortunately, we were asked to wait until 10:30 p.m. for dinner. The camp host thought it somehow made sense to make us wait until after the extras from Spring Break Shark Attack had finished eating. Fuck that. I had a hungry toddler to feed. I grabbed two plates (1 for me, 1 for my mom) at 8:30 and jumped into the line. I blended in surprisingly well with the spring break crowd. What can I say? I’m a MILF. I stocked up on hummus, salad, labaneh, chicken, rice, and vegetables. They even had a platter of middle eastern pastries. I scurried back to the tent where mom was waiting with baby bird.

The food was decent. At Rahayeb, they cook dinner on hot coals underground. Right before the camp host serves the meal, the guests gather around and watch as two men pull a metal box out of a sand pit oven with a dramatic flourish. They rip off the tin foil and reveal roast chicken and lamb. Everyone applauds and cheers, not because of the spectacle but because the food has finally arrived.

After dinner, Mom retreated to her own tent and Bret, Abby, and I fell asleep in our gritty bed to the sounds of howling wind and the echoes of drums and oud on the rocks outside. The oud (pronounced ood) is an Arabic instrument that’s a cross between a banjo, fiddle, and a mandolin. Bret’s colleagues stayed up late to enjoy the live music, while I fell asleep dreaming I was Brooke Shields in the film Sahara. What is it with me and that goddam movie?!

The following morning, we woke up around 7. My skin felt dusty and I was tired. I didn’t sleep as well as I had hoped. But when I saw the views outside the tent, I didn’t care. I was so impressed that it didn’t bother me that I was groggy and still had Maria Muldaur’s Midnight at the Oasis stuck in my head.

Here are a few images:

The view from outside the tents. The grooves and ridges in the rocks are formed from wind and sand.

Captain’s Camp, one of the other bedouin camps.

The view from one of the dunes overlooking the Rahayeb Camp.

More rocks and sand

Me outside the tent in my pajamas.

That background doesn’t even look real. It’s real.

Hand-carved benches at Rahayeb.

Wadi Rum is actually very big and seems to go on and on. It’s spectacular.

We had a quick breakfast of boiled eggs and hummus. We also had some Nescafe after five minutes of trying to explain to the camp host that we wanted American-style coffee with milk. The Arabic coffee is very strong and thick and is blended with cardamom. I’m not a fan. I like cardamom in baked goods but not in my morning joe.

Abby played in the sand with a friend’s 3-year-old son:

We were planning to stay for the egg hunt but then the camp host informed us they were expecting 300 people and a DJ. A side note: Jordanians love a DJ. Any chance they get, they throw in a DJ. Get married — have a DJ. Going out of business — have a DJ. Get a chest X-ray –have a DJ. Also, they moved the start time of the hunt to 2 p.m. when it was originally scheduled for 11:45 a.m. Rarely do things start on time in Jordan. Mom, Bret, and I all agreed that a 300-person techno-party egg hunt in the scorching desert sounded like hell on Earth. So, we packed up and left.

Readers, I don’t recommend you ever stay at Rahayeb. There are many camps in Wadi Rum and Rahayeb was not very accommodating. They refused to drive us out of the camp the following morning which is totally unacceptable as that’s the only way to get out. It’s not like you can hail a cab. Fortunately for us, Bret’s colleague had a 4WD vehicle and she drove us back to our car at Captain’s Camp. But part of the service guests pay for at these camps is a ride back to civilization.

Also, Rahayeb charged us 55 dinars (or $77) per person, not per tent. This included dinner and a meager breakfast. At all the other bedouin camps in the area the charge is per tent, not per person. I admit, we had the nicer tents complete with private bathrooms. But for them to make us wait for dinner and then refuse to drive us out the following morning was bullshit. I will not stay at Rahayeb ever again and I recommend you avoid it too.

But definitely go to Wadi Rum if you get the chance. And I also recommend falling asleep to the echoes of drumbeats on the rocks.

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

We’ve been living in Aqaba now for 8 months (minus the month we were in the States for winter break). And you know what? Aqaba feels like home.

Sort of.

I know I said in my last post that it was nice to be home in the States in December. But it’s funny. When we were in Pasadena, it felt like a familiar place but not necessarily like home. Maybe it’s because we have a renter in our house and we didn’t actually go “home.” Instead, we crashed on the couches of family and friends. While I’m still so grateful for the generosity of said family and friends, it was nice to finally get back home. To Aqaba.

The thing about expat life is that the concept of home becomes more abstract. It’s not just a particular house or city. It’s…many things. Pasadena is where our house is. The U.S. is our country of origin. But where is home? Where can we walk around naked? Where is the coziest bed? Where do we feel totally comfortable to be exactly who we are, warts and all? Right now, the answer is Aqaba. In our little pre-furnished apartment in Tala Bay.

There are still many things about this place that feel completely foreign. When I drive around, I often think to myself, “How the f*ck did I wind up here?” It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just that it’s so….different. So unexpected. In other words, the novelty has yet to entirely wear off. I don’t know if it ever will.

I do know that my daughter has developed a taste for labaneh sandwiches (labaneh on pita sprinkled with za’atar) and she can count to ten in Arabic. She says the word “finished” when she’s eaten enough of a meal, but she also says (and understands) the word “halas” (which means “enough” in Arabic). She knows the story of Ali Baba as well as Goodnight Moon. And the red and white checked headscarves are not foreign to her. They probably never will be.

This isn’t to say I love everything about this place. I don’t. There are some ways women are treated that I don’t especially like. Cab drivers won’t allow us to sit in the front of the cab and if they do allow it, it’s usually because they want to hit on you. Some of the men here assume because I’m not covered I must be “easy” or quite possibly a hooker. Nevermind the wedding ring on my finger, or the husband sitting next to me, or the baby on my hip.

There’s this one guy at our vegetable market, for example, who always asks me where my husband is and tries to caress my hand when I hand him the cabbages I want bagged (the cabbage, not me). I always tell him in a firm tone that my husband is at work and then I turn to Abby and engage her in conversation. It’s all very routine but I wish he would just knock it off. Even if I were single and looking to score, he stands ZERO chance. I mean zero. I’d rather make it with a cabbage.

The other thing I dislike is the general lack of responsibility. In the US, every child grows up with the idea that he or she could one day become president. This isn’t to say that every child aspires to be the leader of the free world (or should aspire to for that matter), but any person born on American soil (this includes Obama, for all of you birther wackos reading my blog) has the legal right to be president. I believe that does something to a person. It makes one believe anything is possible. As Americans, we are responsible for ourselves, our society, our government because we create it rather than it being created for us. It isn’t always perfect. In fact, our society is rather flawed. But the system itself allows us to create our destiny, to take responsibility, to take action. Theoretically.

In this region, there are kingdoms. Kings are born into their roles. They’re not voted in by the majority. They’re born and presto! They’re kings. It’s actually a little more complicated than that. It actually involves family and royal courts and behind-the-scenes manipulation. My point is that in a kingdom, different rules apply. And I wonder what that does to a person. How does that change a person’s feeling of responsibility to contribute? I don’t know because I grew up in a democracy.

Americans are descended from a long line of pioneers willing to suffer for a better life. Generally speaking, we’re a country of innovative, inspired, and enterprising people. There are plenty of good-for-nothing a-holes lazing about all over the US of course, but there’s a can-do spirit that’s an inherent part of American culture. And it’s specifically American. I don’t often see it here in Jordan. The people here are very kind but I don’t always see the same work ethic that I see in the US. That’s not to say Jordanian people don’t work hard; some work themselves to the bone. But there seems to be a much more laid-back attitude here because family is the priority for most people, rather than work. In the States, people have a tendency to live for their jobs. It’s important to strike a good balance, I think. Maybe the US and Jordan could learn from each other.

And then of course there’s the whole smoking thing that I’ve mentioned before. Not crazy about that. And also the batshit drivers. As my friend, KW says, “There are no rules in the desert.” This could not be a more apt phrase when describing the way Jordanians drive. No. Rules. At. All.

But I wonder, when we finally do move back to the US and this place is no longer “home”, will I miss it? Will I miss the desert air or the daily camel sightings? What about the smell of shawerma wafting out of the sandwich stalls or the strange little nut shops or the odd assortment of goods we find in the local Safeway? Will I miss seeing Israel and Egypt from my backyard? Will I miss hearing call to prayer, or seeing women wearing hijab? I wonder if a part of me will always long for Aqaba.

I do know this. Living here has changed my worldview. When we were in the States over winter break, we stopped by an outlet mall outside Tucson and we saw a muslim family kneeling in prayer in the mall parking lot. I found it to be a comforting sight. Before moving to Jordan, I either would have been a little intimidated by seeing something like that or I would have ignored it. But after living in Jordan, I was able to view muslims kneeling in prayer with compassion. In fact, it reminded of “home.”

Jetlag

Happy New Year! I realize it’s almost February, but as this is my first post of 2012, I thought it appropriate to start off with a little well-wishing.

By the way, at which point is it ridiculous to wish someone a happy new year? After the first week of January? Once February rolls around? Is it always ridiculous? When does a new year cease to be new?

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. No, I’m here to talk about one of my least favorite things: jetlag. It sucks balls. And I’ve got a mean case of it right now. So does Abby and so does Bret.

We went back to the States for a month over the holidays and now we’re back in Aqaba. It was a nice trip, full of friends and family and bacon.

We celebrated Christmas. At least, our version of it. At my mom’s place in Grass Valley, we all trekked out in the freezing cold to select a Christmas tree. After about 20 minutes of tromping around and debating which one was the most appropriate height and pedigree, we decided on a handsome Doug Fir with long, full branches. Bret had the distinctive honor of cutting it down. By himself. Sorry, babe. Mom and I hightailed it back to the house where it was warm and cozy and coffee and cookies awaited. My stepdad, Gary, videotaped Bret hacking away at the poor Doug Fir.

Once the tree was properly mounted (thanks again, Bret) Mom decorated it with about 100 glass ornaments while Bret scraped the sap from his body. I tried to keep Abby from ripping the ornaments off the tree and biting into them.

In the end, Christmas was very festive and the tree looked lovely but the branches kept poking Bret in the face during dinner. He was so gracious about it. He would gently brush them away and keep eating.

But, again, I digress.

Jetlag. We have it. It sucks.

If you’ve never experienced jetlag, here’s what it’s like:

1) You wake up at midnight, ready to start the day.

2) You’re not sure if you brushed your teeth today. Or was that yesterday? Is today yesterday?

3) You accidentally lock your keys in your car while the engine’s still running and your toddler is strapped in her car seat.

4) You find yourself eating a steak dinner at 3 a.m. and it feels right.

5) It’s 10 a.m. and you’re ready to hit the sack.

6) You catch yourself humming “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley with no memory of how it got stuck in your head in the first place. I RickRolled myself. Without a computer.

7) You find yourself sitting in the dark eating an entire bag of Bugles and a tub of cream cheese. And it tastes amazing.

8) You pass out at two in the afternoon and sleep for 8 hours. Maybe 10.

If you’ve just traveled into a different time zone and you’re experiencing any of the above scenarios, you probably have jetlag. If you have not traveled anywhere at all and you’re experiencing any of the above, you probably have a drinking problem.

It usually takes me a full week to recover from the acute symptoms of jetlag, plus one additional week to feel totally normal again. Abby seems to fully recover in about 10 days. She’s a great little traveler, our girl. I’m so proud of her. She slept 9 of the 11.5 hour flight from Chicago to Amman. But then she was up all night in the hotel room in Amman. Bret and I ordered room service and took showers while Abby watched hours of Egyptian soap operas. She finally passed out at 3 a.m., one hour before our scheduled wake-up call.

I would have taken melatonin if I could. Apparently, it’s amazing. Bret took it when we went home to the States in December and he said it worked like a charm. It’s basically a “natural” sleeping pill that makes you pass out for eight hours whenever you need to sleep. Brilliant!

I decided I would try it on the return trip to Jordan. But first, I did my due diligence. I read the label on the bottle to see if I could take it while breastfeeding. Turns out, no. In fact, my health profile matches every contraindication on the back of the bottle.  Basically, the label should have read: “If your name is Marjie Scott, you’ll die if you take this stuff.” So, I’m just sweating out the jetlag naturally.

Aside from that, it’s actually nice to be back here in Aqaba. Although, I cried on the flight from Chicago to Amman because I was already exhausted and sad to be leaving ready access to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.

More than anything, I was sad to be leaving my friends and family. It was so nice to see everybody face to face, person to person, in the flesh. I’m grateful for Skype but there’s nothing like being able to sit across from someone and look into her eyes or give him a hug. It was truly uplifting to be home. We didn’t get to see all of our friends because there just wasn’t enough time. We’ll be back in the summer. That’s what I keep reminding myself.

Being in the States was interesting after living in Jordan for almost five months. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. We are so lucky in the United States! We have access to so much variety.

I went into a Starbucks the day after we arrived in Tucson and as I waited for my cappuccino, I heard the guy behind the counter holler, “I have two artisan ham sandwiches for Paula!”

Artisan. Ham. Sandwiches.

Paula, dressed in head-to-toe Coldwater Creek snagged her artisan ham sandwiches and skinny vanilla latte and off she went, her frosty highlights glinting in the sun.

Does Paula know how lucky she is that she can walk into any Starbucks and order not one but TWO artisan ham sandwiches, made to order? Paula, wherever you are, I hope you savored those sandwiches, or at least said a little thank you to the heavens (or your capitalist, democratic country) for them. Because, here’s the thing. Even if you don’t eat ham, or sandwiches, you must appreciate the level of choice we have in the United States of America.

Even if you live in a small town where there is nothing but a windmill and an inbred family next door, you can have just about anything you want shipped to your house!

And the freedom! I felt free to speak my mind without worrying who might be listening. I could wear what I wanted without worrying that I might be offending anyone or sending the wrong message. I only saw an occasional headscarf in the States and it was always worn by an older Muslim woman chewing on pistachios while her younger, westernized family members texted on their smart phones.

The women in the States wear what they want. They go out in public with wet hair. They feel free to  wear sweatpants and tank tops, or fitted dresses and heels. The variety of dress in the States is only restricted by the individual woman’s taste and imagination. This has its own set of disadvantages too, by the way. A sense of decorum is always appreciated.

But the very fact that we are free to have good taste, or not, is so gratifying. Anything less is, quite frankly, soul-crushing. As a woman, as a person, I want to choose the clothes, job, husband, friends, the life that’s right for me. It was nice to be in a place, at least for a little while, that recognizes that.

It was nice to be home.

Misunderstanding

There’s a Genesis song called “Misunderstanding” in which Phil Collins (remember him?) croons “Oh, there must have been some misunderstanding.” While this song is about some lady flaking on Phil Collins (who would do such a thing?) I think the above-referenced lyric is an apt phrase to describe the picture below. Look at it closely.

I found this sign in front of a display of popsicle-making kits at the Safeway here in Aqaba. Just a simple misunderstanding between the translation department and the folks who printed the sign, right? It’s a mystery.

I was looking at the display in earnest because I’m interested in making my own popsicles (free from added sugar and artificial colors –you guys know how I do). That’s when I saw the sign. And I did what any good citizen would do. I snapped a picture of it with my iPhone. You’re welcome.

These little “misunderstandings” are part of the joy of living in a foreign country. In fact, we see these tragically hilarious mistranslations here in Aqaba almost daily. There’s the “Five Minute Restaurant” and a brand of canned pineapple that reads: “Tourist Pineapple. Best Without Taste.” Then there’s the Facebook Mini Market and my personal favorite, Happy Passion for Rental Cars. That last one is a real car rental joint here in town. Apparently, all they do is rent cars.

But back to the ass juices sign. Plenty of Aqabawis speak English, so why does no one point out the glaring error on the display sign? Are they embarrassed? Do they just not care? I care!

So why haven’t I pointed it out to management, you ask? It’s a good question. I probably should. But frankly, I’m amused by it and I’d like it to stay exactly as it is.

It’s akin to seeing someone with something stuck in their teeth or a visible booger. Do you say something? I usually do, but only to people I know. How awkward would it be if some stranger came up to me and was like, “Excuse me, ma’am but you have a bear in the face cave.” Not only would it be embarrassing, it would also be weird if a Jordanian used that expression because Bret is the only person I know who says it. Face cave, get it? The bear is the booger.

Aaanyway, the truth is,  I don’t have the heart to tell the manager of Safeway that maybe the reason no one is buying those popsicle making kits is because they’re turned off by the words “ass juices.”

What do you think? Do you tell people when they have food in their teeth or a blob of mustard on their cheek? What if they accidentally wrote the words “ass juices” on their lemonade stand sign? Would you let them know?

Don’t think of this as a post about ass juices. Think of it as commentary on the nuance of language.

Happy Holidays!

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.”