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.

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.”

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.

EILAT Part Two

There we were, at the entrance to Israel. And there they were.

More guards.

One of them was a woman: sturdy, attractive, no-nonsense with dark sunglasses and hair pulled back into an efficient ponytail. I once read that it’s mandatory for all Israeli citizens to serve in the IDF for three years (women for 2 years, or 3 if they serve in a combat position). I wondered, as I watched this female guard flip through our passports, if she got to choose her position, or if she was just issued an assignment, like a Mormon on a mission. I’d rather be a paper-pusher than on the front lines. I’m too much of a pacifist to shoot at people. Besides, I look fat in cargo pants.

So, after the female guard gave our passports a thorough inspection, she waved us on our way. I offered her cohort a quick smile as I passed through the security gate. He was a tall, fit guy wearing a polo shirt and shorts. He actually looked more like a tennis instructor than a border guard. Well, except for the machine gun.

We shuffled along to….another gate.

There were two male guards there, waiting, machine guns poised. One of them had pale blue eyes and couldn’t have been more than 5′ 4″. The other guard was tall and looked like a low-rent Daniel Craig. I wondered if the guards took their machine guns home at night. Or did they leave them at the border, in little cubbies with their names on them? David — Sarah — Schlomo.

The short guard inspected our passports. When he got to Abby’s, he chuckled and held up her photo to Low-Rent Daniel Craig. Low-Rent started laughing and the short guard pointed to Abby’s picture and said, “So cute.” I nodded. “Yeah, she’s pretty cute.” I eyed their machine guns which were at the same level as my daughter’s cute head.

We were then directed to a low, stucco building to pay an entrance tax (hopefully we’d get our goodie bag at this one) and pass through the metal detectors. There was an x-ray machine for our bags too. Israel doesn’t fuck around.

As we entered the building, I felt a blast of cold air and I started weeping. Hallelujah! Air conditioning! Thank you, Israel! And then, through my tears, I spotted a vending machine just beyond the metal detector. COKE! For those of you who don’t know about Bret’s addiction to coca-cola, he drinks several cans a day and has since he was 15 years old. And at this point in our journey, it had been a whole twenty minutes since he’d had a coke, so he was due.

I was feeling better. We were almost to Eilat, Abby’s cheeks were no longer bright red, rather a pleasant shade of peach, and Bret was about to enjoy a cold can of coke. Things were looking up for the Scott family.

I plopped the diaper bag on the x-ray machine and pulled Abby out of the stroller. Bret folded up the stroller and laid it on the conveyor belt. I watched him for a moment.

Poor guy. He was soaked with sweat.

Bret’s body temperature is naturally about 5 degrees hotter than the average person’s. So, when it’s just really hot to you or me, it’s like an inferno to Bret. He sweats a LOT and his skin turns a deep shade of pink. He takes it all in stride though. Cool as a cucumber. That’s one of the reasons I love him. He never panics. He could be caught in a hurricane while dangling from a trapeze above a pit of angry crocodiles and he would still maintain a calm, practical outlook. “Let’s just wait them out, babe,” he’d suggest matter-of-factly, tossing a handful of pumpkin seeds into his mouth (he also loves pumpkin seeds).

Sometimes, his level-headedness drives me nuts. But sometimes, I find it very soothing, and this was one of those times.

I kissed Abby’s forehead. The air-conditioning had cooled her skin. “Baby,” she said, pointing to the young girl ahead of us, passing through the metal detector with her family. “She’s a little girl,” I corrected her. I didn’t want the girl to get offended being labeled a baby by an actual baby. Abby looked at me, “Baby,” she corrected me. The little girl didn’t seem to hear. Or maybe she didn’t speak English? So, I nodded, “Yup, she’s a baby.”

We made it through the metal detectors without incident. I did wonder why they didn’t have bomb-sniffing dogs at the checkpoint. It would have been nice to see a dog. We have two labrador retrievers back in the states (some of you know them) and we miss them terribly. There are virtually no dogs in Aqaba. People here (and Jordan in general) don’t really keep dogs. Apparently, in Jordan, dogs are one step up from pigs.

After getting through the metal detectors, we paid some mysterious number of shekels ($3 shekels to the dollar, right? Something like that) for the entrance tax (alas, no goodie bag), flashed our passports to about 800 more people, one of whom asked what we were doing in Israel. “Um…to get a baby gate,” Bret said sheepishly. I smiled and bounced Abby in my arms. Why was I trying to appear innocent? I had nothing to hide. We needed baby gates and some frozen yogurt. What’s weird about that?

And finally, we were in Israel. We were standing in a desolate parking lot and it was 110 degrees but we were in Israel! We scanned the area for the bus that was supposed to take us into town. All we saw were two taxis waiting nearby.

One of the cabbies got out and walked towards us. “Eilat?” he asked in a heavy accent. Bret politely declined and informed the cabbie that we were waiting for the bus. The cabbie shook his head, “No bus. No bus.”

Bret and I looked at each other. No bus? “No bus,” the cabbie said again. Could he read our minds?

My heart sank. “How are we going to get into town?” I asked, looking down at Abby in her stroller. Her cheeks were bright red again and her forehead was dripping with sweat. She pursed her lips and said “Boo-boo.” Boo-boo is what she calls my breasts. Sometimes it means she’s hungry, but usually she just wants to inform everyone that the lopsided lumps on my chest are called Boo-boo.

The cabbie started ushering us into his car. “We don’t have the car seat, babe,” I reminded Bret. We’d left it in our car which was still parked on the Jordanian side. We assumed we’d be taking the bus into Eilat, so we left the car seat behind. Bret paused.” What do you want to do?” he asked. What could we do? Go back to Aqaba? We really needed those baby gates to help keep Abby safe in the apartment.

We also needed a baby bathtub, by the way, as our apartment is only equipped with showers. We do have two bidets though in case anyone’s interested. Is it gross that we never use them? I’m not even sure HOW to use a bidet. Bret watched an online bidet tutorial (of course he did) and apparently, you’re supposed to sit on the edge of the bidet and wash your butt et al using the little spout. You’re supposed to lather up with soap and everything. I think this sounds like a lot of trouble. Why not just hop in the shower? Also, I’m unclear if you’re supposed to wash after you go number one and number two, or just after number two? I guess it’s sort of a “to each his own” kind of thing. I just leave the bidets alone.

So, back to the cabbie.

He didn’t seem concerned that we didn’t have a car seat. He popped his trunk for our stroller and lit a cigarette.

But I was really concerned. Panicked, actually.

I stood there for a moment. What should we do? Should we forget the whole thing and just go back to Jordan? What if I sat Abby on my lap and put the seatbelt across both of us? Am I nuts? She’s never ridden in a car without being in her car seat. Bret and I even took a course in car seat safety and then spent $270 on a state-of-the-art car seat with side-impact cushioning, a five-point harness and built-in stereo system. How could we even consider letting her ride without it? Jesus Christ, how could anyone think straight in this heat?

Finally, after much waffling, we decided to risk it and have Abby ride on my lap. Don’t judge me. I still feel shitty about it. I was anxious the entire ride into Eilat, which was all of 3 minutes and topped out at 34 miles per hour. The cabbie drove carefully, not too fast or erratic like most cab drivers you encounter. Didn’t matter. I felt like a terrible mother. How could I deliberately put my child in harm’s way? She survived the experience, but what if she hadn’t?

As soon as we pulled safely into Eilat, I promised myself I’d never let her ride without a car seat again. But then I remembered we would need to take a cab back to the border on the way home. Crap.

The cabbie dropped us off in front of the baby store. Well, it was actually one of three baby stores in Eilat, but it’s the one the cabbie said was the best of the three. I thought it was interesting that this grizzled taxi driver had an opinion at all about the baby stores.

Bret asked what currency the cabbie preferred.”I have American dollars or Jordanian dinars,” Bret offered. The cabbie shrugged and said “What good are dinars to me? I take dollars.” Fair enough.

We got out of the car and Bret got the stroller out of the trunk. I kissed Abby’s head, relieved that the 3-minute drive didn’t end in disaster.

We stood on the sidewalk for a moment looking around.

I was struck by how different Eilat was from Aqaba. Women were dressed in shorts and tank tops. There were nice cafes, nail salons, cute little restaurants. The sidewalks were clean, the people seemed sophisticated even though they were dressed in beach clothes. There were no headscarves or chadors. No strange smells, no dirt parking lots filled with cigarette butts and broken glass. I didn’t see any men in long tunics and sandals. No dead goats.

I did see a dog though! He was an adorable little pitbull-dachshund mix (imagine that for a second). He ran up to us, wagging his tail. He was small and brown with a pitbull face and long, dachshund body. I think someone said his name was Coco. “Doggie!” Abby exclaimed.

At that moment, I felt a strange mixture of relief and sadness. Relief because it was so nice to be in a place that felt familiar. Everyone was speaking Hebrew (which sounds an awful lot like Arabic, by the way) but the look of the place, the style, the people. The feel. It felt like home.

I like western culture. I like being free to wear what I want and drive my own car. I like being well-educated and allowed to speak my mind. I like clean streets and nice baby stores and dogs. The sadness was because I wanted to stay.

We walked into the baby store. It was well-stocked with fancy baby furniture and children’s clothing. The sales clerk, a curvy brunette, greeted us with a smile.”Shalom,” she said. We asked her about baby gates and an infant bath tub and she produced several options.

We decided on a purple plastic tub and two wooden baby gates from a reputable brand. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a gate wide enough to accommodate the entrance to our kitchen, which is unusually wide. But at least we would be able to cordon off the hallway which led to the bathrooms and bedrooms. It’s important to contain a toddler as much as possible.

While Bret converted the cost of our purchases from shekels to US dollars (thank you, iPhone), I browsed the selection of toys. The saleswoman asked me where we were from. I told her California and she smiled, “Oh, very nice.”

I then told her we were living in Aqaba for a year though, so we would probably see her again. Her eyes got very big. “Aqaba? You live Aqaba?” I nodded, “Yes, my husband is teaching at the film school there.” She put a hand to her chest. “You’re not scared in Jordan?” she asked me. I thought this was an odd question coming from someone living in Israel. “No,” I told her. “Even at night? Walking around?” she asked. “No. I feel pretty safe in Aqaba,” I said. She gave me a sort of vague nod and I got the impression that she thought I was either crazy, or lying.

Weird. I might be a touch of crazy but I wasn’t lying. Also, it was weird how I was worried about traveling to Israel and this Israeli woman was afraid of traveling to Jordan. I thought of the movie, THE OTHERS with Nicole Kidman. No matter what we are, we’re afraid of the “other.” Danger is based on perception.

I mean certainly, there are things that are truly dangerous. Being a Navy SEAL on a secret mission in Afghanistan is probably pretty dangerous. So is driving drunk or poking a lion in the face with a stick while wearing Lady Gaga’s meat dress. But is living in Israel dangerous? According to the saleswoman at the best baby store in Eilat, no. She felt perfectly safe there. But she was afraid of traveling to Jordan. So is living in Jordan dangerous? According to me, an American expatriate who’s been there for one month, no. I feel pretty safe there.

Perceived fear versus actual danger. Shark bites, lightning strikes, plane crashes, these are all pretty rare. They do happen, but not that often. If that saleswoman from Eilat went to Aqaba and walked down the street, the odds of her getting attacked are about the same as me getting blown to bits by a suicide bomber in Eilat. I studied the display of baby bottles. People are born in Israel every day. They grow up and live there for years and nothing all that bad happens to them. The same is true in Jordan. So what, exactly, is each side telling itself about the other?

“It’s going to be about $130, babe,” Bret announced, looking up from his iPhone. “Plus tax.” Sold. We asked the saleswoman if we could come back for our stuff after we got some food. We didn’t want to lug a plastic baby tub all over town. She nodded, “Of course!”

Once outside, we decided to go to the mall as it was within walking distance of the baby shop. Plus, we were hoping to buy a parasol. The sun was brutal that day and Eilat was easily 10 degrees hotter than Aqaba. How was that even possible?

The mall was busy and bright. It looked like a mall you’d find in the States, complete with a GAP, Nine West and a food court.

There were several frozen yogurt places but I opted instead for a smoothie. I know. After all that and I didn’t even get fro yo. Well, the smoothie had frozen yogurt in it. It also had dates, kiwi, fresh apples, lychee fruit and about nine other kinds of fruits. It was the biggest smoothie I’d ever had. It was delicious but I could only drink about two thirds of it before I started burping up kiwi seeds.

We looked through every single shop and there was not a single parasol or umbrella anywhere in that mall. I did find a bag of Craisins in the pharmacy though. It was the fanciest pharmacy I’d ever seen. It had everything: Ray-Ban sunglasses, hair products you only find in nice salons in the States, and Craisins! I was stoked. I always took Craisins for granted back home and I will never take them for granted again. You simply can’t get them in Aqaba.

After my monstrous smoothie and our failed attempt to find a parasol, Bret and I grabbed some lunch in the food court. I got a slice of mushroom pizza and a salad. It was good but I swear the pizza crust was made out of matzo. Like a giant pizza cracker. It was surprisingly good. Bret opted for traditional middle eastern fare (kebobs, etc.). He gave me his hummus though. Hummus is too healthy for Mr. Bret.

After we had sufficiently stuffed ourselves, we browsed around a bit more and then decided to get our baby stuff and head home. Home. Was Aqaba home?

We made it back across the border without incident, although it took FOREVER! I was glad I had bought a can of peach Nestea in Eilat because it literally saved my life. I thought I was going to die of heatstroke while we waited nearly an hour for the Israelis from Haifa (the ones with the gold crosses and Vanilla Ice haircuts, remember?) to make it through the security post. I don’t know what the hold up was but I was nearing the end of my rope. But then I downed that iced tea in one gulp and, like a wilted plant, I sprang back to life.

At least the Israeli rappers were nice. They fawned over Abby, pinching her cheeks and cooing to her in Hebrew. And Abby was perfectly happy to engage them. She giggled and smiled and called them “Baby.” It made waiting in the heat a little less painful.

So, that was our journey. We got what we needed, enjoyed ourselves, and definitely plan to return to Eilat at some point. Perhaps when the weather cools down.

About a week after our trip, a group of terrorists shot up a civilian bus just 12 miles outside of Eilat. It was actually a bus from Tel Aviv that was on its way to Eilat. Several people were killed and many others injured. The terrorists, who were apparently from Gaza, also detonated a bomb that injured several Israeli soldiers responding to the bus shooting. When I read about this tragedy in the news, I thought of the saleswoman at the baby store. I wondered if she still felt safe.

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.

Welcome to Jordan!

So here we are in Aqaba. We arrived about a week ago; Bret, Abby, and me. Our little family. We’re holding up okay, considering what a HUGE transition this has been. If you’re like, “What do you mean by huge transition, Marj? What’s so huge about it?” Well, for starters, Aqaba’s in Jordan. And Jordan is in the middle east. The middle east. You know, that strange, warring place you hear about on the nightly news. The place for which every rapper used to wish peace back in the 90’s.

Luckily for us, Aqaba (and Jordan) is pretty peaceful. But there’s a 10-hour time difference between Aqaba and L.A. so jetlag was inevitable. We’re only just now getting on a relatively normal sleep schedule.

It’s been a tough week for Bret and me–lots of testy exchanges and general disorientation.  For the first few days, we were going to bed (or more accurately, face-planting) at 4 in the afternoon and awakening at 2 in the morning, ready to start the day. It was a bummer for those first few days, especially since Aqaba doesn’t really get going until 10 am, which makes finding an early bird breakfast damn near impossible. Even finding a cup of coffee before 9 am is tricky. Adding to the weirdness is the fact that it’s Ramadan this month, which means that everyone is fasting (no food or drink) from sun-up until sundown for an entire month. Plus, it’s illegal (ILLEGAL, I say!) to eat or drink anything on a public street until after sundown.

For the record, I’m not fasting and neither is Bret.

Luckily, we also live in a gated community called Tala Bay (8 miles from the town center) filled with German tourists where the same Islamic rules don’t apply.  But to that end, a whole other level of weirdness DOES apply. For example, Bret could rollerskate through the streets of Tala Bay wearing nothing but a purple Speedo and munching on a stollen and no one would look twice. More on that later.

A little perspective: For the past five years, we’ve been living a pretty uneventful life in sleepy Pasadena (California, not Texas). Sure, our little house was sort of falling apart and we constantly stressed over finances but it was an easy life. It was familiar. I knew where the grocery store was, I had a favorite Chevron and we had our daily routines down pat. It was home. Now, we’re seven thousand miles away in a resort town in a developing nation. It’s different.

A few months ago, Bret interviewed for a job as a professor at the only film school in Jordan: the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts (or, RSICA). It’s an MFA program not unlike the production program at USC in Los Angeles. The program here in Aqaba is actually modeled after the USC program but the student body is made up entirely of young adults from the MENA (Middle East North African) region instead of kids from the Mid-west (Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio).

When Bret first mentioned the gig to me, we were in the middle of the worst period of financial hardship we’d experienced since undergrad and I didn’t care if he got a job on Mars, as long as it PAID. And didn’t land him in prison. I wouldn’t want him becoming a pot farmer, for example. I have scruples. Besides, we have a baby now. But things were getting desperate, so if he were offered a job as a mule, I may not have objected.

So, when he got hired at RSICA, it sounded like a dream. The school offered a decent salary and benefits package and the best part (or at least a huge bonus) is that Bret would likely ENJOY the work. It’s easy to lose sight of personal fulfillment when mortgage and gas bills keep knocking you down like little monthly tsunamis. Bret spent three years at USC earning his Master’s in film directing and now he would get the opportunity to teach directing and maybe even have time to direct some of his own projects. After spending the last few years doing editing gigs for mediocre television and internet shows, he would finally get to exercise his intellect, creativity AND Arabic language skills all at once.

After a brief discussion that consisted of: Bret: “So what do you think?” Me: “I think you should take it.” Bret: “Okay,” we decided to pack up our little family, rent out our crumbling house and move to Jordan. Our families and friends were thrilled for us albeit sad to see us moving so far away. We were sad too. Or at least, I was. We reminded ourselves and our friends/fam: it’s only for a year. It’s like going abroad in college. Everyone did that, right?

The most provocative question I got was: “Is it safe?” At first, I had the same question. Would I have to wear a head scarf? Or worse, a full chador? Would I be allowed to drive? Would I be treated like a second-class citizen? Would I get groped by Arabic men on a regular basis? Important questions.

So naturally, I consulted the internet.What I discovered is that Jordan is a pretty relaxed country as far as the middle east goes. Women are not required to cover their hair and they’re allowed to drive. I don’t get groped but I do get stared at a lot. I think that’s just because I’m an obvious tourist.

Also, I’m traveling with an insanely cute baby who says “Hiya!” and waves at everyone. For those of you who’ve met Abby know what I’m talking about. She’s a little cherub with the charisma of Johnny Carson. People naturally gravitate toward her.

After touching down in Aqaba at around 9 p.m. August 4th, one of Bret’s collegues, a lovely Jordanian man, picked us up at the tiny airport. He immediately made us feel welcome and assured us that the two bags the airline had “misplaced” would turn up the following day. I had my doubts as I imagined all of the new clothes I had recently bought from Anthropolgie and Nordstrom and how I would never be able to find suitable replacements in a town where the women wear black robes and rubber sandals.

I felt a rising panic in my chest but decided to trust Bret’s colleague. If you’re wondering why I’m not telling you this colleague’s name, it’s because Bret asked me not to. So, in the interest of convenience and protecting said colleague’s privacy, said colleague will henceforth be referred to as “Marty” (not his real name. Not even close).  So, Marty told me our bags were likely still in Amman and just missed the connecting flight to Aqaba and we’d surely get them in the morning. All we had to do was fill out a claim form and the airline would contact us when the bags arrived. Like I said, I decided to trust Marty. He seemed like he was telling the truth. Besides, Bret assured me over and over that airlines don’t like losing people’s luggage and that we would definitely get our bags within a few days. I couldn’t help but wonder if “a few days” in Jordan was the equivalent of six weeks in America. I took several slow deep breaths.

Thankfully, I had packed a smaller, carry-on suitcase with a few outfits for me and some for Abby. Her giant suitcase was the other one that had gone missing. It was filled with her Funzi Bunz cloth diapers and adorable little dresses from Tea Collection and Baby Gap. I imagined some greasy man with bad teeth peddling our expensive American clothes on the street somewhere in dowtown Amman and I immediately felt like an asshole.

I decided not to worry about our bags and instead focused on the incredibly hot desert air that was choking the breath right out of me. I thought of Brooke Shields in the movie “Sahara.” She wore that awesome khaki jumpsuit and her hair was feathered to perfection. I was wearing black jeans stained with cream cheese and a sweater that smelled like b.o. and secondhand smoke (welcome to Jordan!) and my hair was in a greasy ponytail. Brooke Shields I was not.

After filling out claim forms for our “lost” luggage, Marty took us to our new apartment by way of a small grocery store in town called Mohannad (not be confused with the ever-popular Mohammad). Mohannad was awesome! We picked up some Quaker oatmeal, a block of feta cheese, some chocolate ice cream, apples, bananas and I grabbed a can of kidney beans for some reason. Marty had stocked our apartment’s fridge and cupboards before we arrived, which was incrediby sweet. He got us 3 cartons of milk, orange juice, apricot nectar, plain yogurt, labaneh cheese (a cross between sour cream and Greek-style yogurt), cream cheese, tea, coffee, sugar, toilet paper, garbage bags and a giant box of these cookies called Snack Maamoul. They’re basically the middle eastern version of fig newtons, only they’re filled with dates instead of figs. And they’re totally rad.

After Marty dropped us off at our apartment and we hauled in all of our bags (minus the two most important ones), Bret and I stood in the middle of the living room and stared at each other with bloodshot eyes. Then we polished off about sixteen Snack Maamoul cookies apiece. Exhausted and bloated, we flopped onto our new (king size) bed and fell asleep…for about 5 hours.

Then we sat bolt upright.

It was still very dark outside but our bodies were like, “C’mon kiddos! Up and at ’em!” By the way, our daughter, Abby, was an amazing sport about all of this. She slept for 9 hours of the 11 hour flight from NY to Amman and she was pleasant and happy for almost the entire journey. She’s a far better traveler than either Bret or I.  She turned 14 months on August 9th. I wonder if we’ll get hit with the dreaded “Terrible Twos” next June when her birthday rolls around. I wonder if the so-called Terrible Twos isn’t a myth. If any of you reading this are parents who either have a two-year old or lived through a two-year old, thank you for taking the time to read my blog. And you’re also probably grumbling and laughing at me right now, “Bitch doesn’t know what she’s in for.” Maybe I don’t.

But maybe my girl will skate through the Terrible Twos like she always seems to skate through everything else: smiling, laughing, curious and sweet.

Or maybe she’ll turn into a screaming, demanding little lunatic and it’ll be pure hell for her father and me.

Either way, we’ll get through it. Just like we’re getting through the adventure of moving to Jordan. We’ll get really cranky, apologize and then stuff ourselves with Snack Maamoul.