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.