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.