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.