Monday, July 14, 2008

If It's Raining, This Must Be Connecticut

From my breakfast counter in Coventry, over a cup of Yorkshire Gold:

As we drove away from our hotel on the 1/2-hour drive to the Cairo Airport, we crossed the Nile (yet again--it splits the city into three sections). I looked down from the bridge and saw two rowing shells, each with four men dressed in white t-shirts, rowing away. And then trailing them, I saw another, a single-person shell, being rowed by...a veiled woman. What a perfect symbol of the incongruities of this city, nation and region. This is a place where almost every receipt we managed to get for Betsy's bookkeeping needs was hand-written, as computers have not at all taken a hold in day-to-day commerce, yet everyone seemed to have at least one, often two, cell phones.

Our flight home was uneventful, at least for me. Betsy was stranded at JFK for hours awaiting her flight to Burlington. Jim chauffeured me home, offering appropriate re-entry narration along the way: "These are clouds. They hold moisture. Sometimes they release it. We call that rain." His mission was to keep me awake until at least 9 pm (4 am Cairo time), and I'm happy to report he was successful. Of course, I was wide awake at 3 am and he was sound asleep.

I know friends will ask me, "How was your trip?" and I was thinking (at 3 am), that's not easy to answer. It was: great, fun, hard, intriguing, troubling, fascinating, hot, mind-bending, and maybe one of the most educational (in terms of my world- and self-views) two weeks I've ever spent. I can't even begin to list all that I have learned, but here's a start:

Jordanians and Egyptians (I would never generalize to the entire Middle East) love America and Americans. We encountered not a single hint of anti-American sentiment anywhere. "Where from?" we were constantly asked. "America." "Ah-med-ee-ka!" would be the inevitable response. "Great country!!"

I don't know the Quran well, but I think it must include a lot of instruction on hospitality. In both countries, we were overwhelmed with how warm and friendly people were, how intent they were on helping us (even if they had no idea what we needed), and how almost to a person, they asked us to come back and visit their city/village/country again.

When I told people, before we left, where I was going, a number of folks asked if I was concerned about my safety. I wasn't then (but did wonder if I was being naive). I'm happy to say that at no point during these two weeks was I ever afraid for our safety (except for the whole traffic thing, but that has also happened in New York City, and I really did get quite used to the insanity of the driving).
I joked in an earlier post about the whole Middle East being a risk management nightmare, and thought of that again when I read in the English-language newspaper about a building in Mansara that had collapsed, killing 6 people. The story said the building had had three stories added without permission, something that routinely happens in Egypt. The story also recounted about five or six other similar collapses, with the same cause. "Building codes are routinely ignored in Egypt," the story said. So I guess if I had thought more about it, the risks to us were more infrastructure-related (the elevator at the hotel in Cairo, for example, was particularly harrowing). But here we are, safe at home, so I guess Allah truly does look out for the foolish.

Seeing so many women in veils, from just the head scarf to burqas with eye slits to fully-covering burqas with no openings for eyes at all, was intriguing, thought-provoking, assumption-challenging. The few conversations we had with women and some of the reading we have done on this topic has made me realize the incredible complexity of this issue. Is a veiled woman "repressed?" Not always, I think. Just like there are many women in this country who would never dream of wearing a spaghetti-strap, midriff-bearing top and low-cut jeans that highlight their muffin tops, and whom we would never characterize as "repressed," in these places there are women who prefer the more conservative looks the veils provide. I'm sure some have not made a conscious choice to cover, but others have. I was struck by how much more I noticed their faces when their faces were all I could see of them (no hair, no neck), and by the beauty I saw in only their eyes. Betsy and I were also very aware of the quality, the elegance, of some robes and head scarves--the colors and fabric--and it made me realize that just as many women there take great pride in their garb as here. I was surprised to find myself realizing how the mystery of what lay behind their covering made them attractive in a way I never thought about before.

I learned a lot about what a spoiled American I am. I might have copped to that before this trip, but mostly just to show how hip and self-aware I am. To quote an old friend, I didn't know what I didn't know. I am such a comfortable and spoiled American that I'm finding myself in a state of total self-disdain at the moment (Jim teased me this morning about being overwhelmed by the air-conditioning and wi-fi). Life is really tough in these places I've been--tough to make a living, tough to get decent health care, tough to be at the mercy of people in other parts of the world who make decisions and policies that profoundly affect your life, yet know nothing about your life. And yet, there they are, making life work, and being kind to visitors in the process.

Here's a contrast. In two weeks, Betsy and I were never once treated rudely, told no, you can't do that, brushed off in any way, despite doing what I'm sure were some dumb things. In fact, as I've said, it was the opposite--people were very patient and polite. So we got off our plane at JFK and headed through the passport checkpoint to baggage claim. We were mostly surrounded by Egyptians, and I assumed some were in America for the first time. This fat, loud woman in a US Customs uniform walked through where we were all standing near the baggage carousel. She said something obnoxious to a waiting skycap before turning and dressing down a teen-aged boy who was (gasp!) looking at his cell phone. "Put the cell phone away!" she said, as rudely as it can be said, "And don't take it out again when I turn my back." His face remained expressionless as he slid the phone in his pocket. "Welcome to New York," I said to Betsy. We were both incredibly uncomfortable and not a little mad at this woman's bullying treatment of this kid. I think that here in America, or at least the Northeast, we are so inured to rudeness that it probably has eroded something important in our souls, and even my very short two weeks of being away from it allowed that important something to peak its head out like a crocus in February. And, like that crocus, I'm sure after a few days at home, that sense of indignation will be covered up by a snowfall of typical American abruptness and dismissiveness of others' needs. But just try to imagine the response in a place like New York City, or Hartford or Boston, if a local person saw obvious foreigners standing on a street corner looking perplexed. Would the local person come up to them, ask to help, offer to take them where they wanted to go, ask them where they were from, if they had children, if they were happy, offer them tea? That happened every day for us. And here, if an obvious outsider did something dumb, inappropriate, unknowingly rude, what kind of response would they get from, say, a clerk in a store, a cabdriver, any observer at all?

[Incidentally, if you want a good example of both Egyptian bureaucracy as well as a cautionary tale about the importance of duct-taping your passport to your chest while you travel, read Betsy's colleague Gary's account of his lost passport, courtesy of the five-star Intercontinental Hotel in Cairo:

How was my trip? Incredible and complicated and (despite the volumes of description I've offered in this blog), hard to describe. Would I go back? Not to Cairo or Amman. This trip has reinforced my belief that I am not by any means a city girl. But to smaller towns and villages and to other countries? Yes. I know, though, that those places have even fewer of the amenities for westerners that the cities have, so it's a significant compromise. And to be honest, I don't know just how far my sense of adventure extends to such opportunities. Betsy and I had a great trip in part because we were very careful about what we did, what we ate, where we stayed. Safe (and by that I mean "comfortable" more than physical) options in all those categories exist in cities, but not so much in villages. I have to say, too, that traveling with Betsy made all the difference. We never allowed ourselves to both be stressed at the same time, and so as soon as one of us got out of sorts, the other would switch to reassurance mode until the crisis passed. That's how we've always traveled, and is probably the hallmark of our friendship, but that was never quite as clear as it was in this very different part of the world.

And yet...for the first time in my life, I feel a more-than-cursory interest in this very important and complex region, and in the Muslim world. On the way home, we passed a billboard advertising "Muslims in America," some sort of information expo at the Hartford Convention Center. Three weeks ago, I would have paid no attention to it. Yesterday, I thought, "I need to go to that so I can learn more."

On our last night in Cairo, Betsy and I were (again) in a cab with a driver who spoke no English (we carried a card with our hotel address in Arabic). As we got closer to Zamalek, he signalled for the card again, which had a very basic street map on it as well. I leaned over from the back seat and said, in my most carefully-accented Arabic, the name of the street we were hoping he'd find. He happily laughed and said, very excitedly, "Arabic! Arabic!" (which actually sounded more like "aah-da-beek!"). I felt the most incredible sense of accomplishment (heightened when he made a few turns and landed us on the right street).

So sure--sign me up for another Middle Eastern adventure (after I've recovered from this one). And if you're even considering the possibility yourself, do it. As Freddie Mercury once sang, "Guaranteed to blow your mind," which, at least in my case, is a pretty good thing to have happen.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Cairo: Sanity Does Not Speak Arabic

We thought Amman was big, but Cairo makes Amman seem like South Windsor. There are six million people in the greater Cairo area, and I think I saw a majority of them during our three days here.

We arrived from Luxor at the Cairo airport and were efficiently whisked by a driver sent by our hotelier (again, a German-owned hotel) to our hotel, a European-style boutique place called the Hotel Longchamps. It's in Zamalek, which is a quiet (relatively speaking) part of Cairo right near the Fine Arts Institute. There are a number of westerners in the area, some of them here for school, or to learn Arabic (as I always tell my students, and my pal Christine Wilson knows, thanks to her daughter, it guarantees a job after college). The hotel is on the fifth floor of an old, kind of run-down building that is long past its glory days, but as one exits the lift (which had no inspection certificate anywhere, I should say), it's like stepping into an era of the fine old family-run hotels of Europe. Not that I've actually ever been to one of those. Just seen them in movies.

Speaking of movies, if you've ever seen a movie depicting the absolute craziness of the urban Middle East: cars swerving in between one another constantly, pedestrians oblivious (or perhaps impervious) to oncoming traffic, people shouting in all's not fiction. It's Cairo. I hear from Betsy's colleagues that it's also Mumbai, but they have the added twist of cows in the city streets.

Yesterday was the holy day, so we were a little limited in what we could do. So we went with Jen (another of Betsy's colleagues) to Coptic Cairo, an area of the city with an old Coptic church and museum. It was quite interesting, learning how this particular branch of Christianity was born, thrived and struggled in Egypt. Egypt to me feels so strongly Muslim that it's intriguing to be reminded that this has not always been the case.

Later in the day, we went to the main bazaar. Upon stepping out of the taxi, we were instantly greeted by this man who wanted to show us all around the various parts of this enormous marketplace. He kept insisting he didn't want anything from us, but apparently, men like this get a kickback of sorts if they can steer tourists to particular booths and tents. We followed him for a few minutes, but as we wound through this maze of alleys and found ourselves surrounded by hanging meat (fun idea in 90-degree temps), rotting vegetables, and the kind of filth that makes uptight Americans like me uncomfortable, we refused to go further. Betsy roughed him up a bit, I'm proud to say, and he finally stalked off, leaving us next to a side of beef that was teeming with flies. We found our way out of the alley maze and over to the more tourist-friendly part of the bazaar, where we had some otherwise pleasant shopping experiences.

Our taxi ride home was typically terrifying, although I have to say that one result of two weeks of this madness is that I no longer flinch in the face of what, on the surface, is an impending disaster. I just sit there indifferent to what I've come to think of as normal driving. Egypt, and perhaps the whole Middle East, is one giant risk management nightmare, but it's made me realize how overly-sensitive I am (most of us are) to potential dangers. At the bazaar, we saw a child, no more than two years old, walking out above the stairs that lead to a tunnel to the other side of the bazaar. His mother sat nearby, unconcerned. I had to walk away, so scared I was that he was about to fall ten feet to the steps below. He was, after all, standing on about 5 inches of sidewalk on the wrong side of the railing, clinging to the rails behind his back. I saw him later on, perfectly fine. I thought, wow, I really need to chill out about danger and risk. But then I remember reading recently about the carnage on these roads, and think, maybe crosswalks are a good idea.

Today's big adventure was a trip to the Great Pyramid of Giza and the slightly-less great (but really pretty good) pyramids at Saqqarah. We had a driver and guide for the three of us, and that made a huge difference. The touts pretty much left us alone when Loyi (I have no idea if that's how it's spelled) gave them a dirty look and some harsh words in Arabic. And our driver's car was air-conditioned, something that is extremely rare here. We had a good lunch at an overpriced tourist-oriented buffet place, but after two weeks of trying to figure out menus and potential health code violations, we were grateful for a clean place and tasty fare.

The Pyramids were as incredible as one might expect for an official Wonder of the World. Loyi was a terrific guide--informative but not too detailed. We definitely got the Reader's Digest version of Egyptian history, but it was enough to help us put Luxor in some context, and to appreciate the enormity of the Pyramids' construction. Those Egyptians--they knew how to get things done. They were like the first Teamsters or something. We did find a room in one of the Saqqarah tombs that had unfinished decoration, and we kind of laughed, imagining the artists, 2700 years ago, thinking, "What's the hurry? We're going to rule for all eternity."

It wasn't eternity, but in their 5000 years or so as rulers of this part of the world, they created some impressive tourist sites.

Well, my days as a walking salt-lick are about over. We will catch a 10 am plane from Cairo to JFK tomorrow, and I should be back in bustling Coventry by 7 pm local time. I'll do one last post from home after I've had a little more time to process all of this. Thanks for keeping me company on this, Lee and Betsy's Most Excellent Middle East Adventure.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Ma as salaamah (goodbye), Luxor

[Picture is of Betsy in front of the enormous columns that are part of the Luxor Temple.]

We wrapped up our four days of Luxor heat and harassment at a different hotel, one on the east bank of the Nile. Quite a different experience. While on the west bank, we were hassled by the taxi drivers only at the ferry boat dock, on the east bank, which is full of tourists, it was non-stop. It's hard to describe the incessant chatter of taxi and surrey drivers, literally following alongside us as we walked on the sidewalks, asking us if we wanted a ride (to quote something Jim says to me sometimes, "That's not really a question, is it?") We tried several approaches: politely declining (didn't work), ignoring them (ditto) and then rudeness (and, again, ditto). The only things that thwarted their efforts were either a physical barrier, like a parked car, or other tourists who looked more promising. I never tried the fourth approach that kept coming to mind (screaming), which is probably fortunate. But another day there and I might have been reduced to it. Maybe my patience wouldn't have been quite so short if it wasn't 110 degrees, or if we were able to actually walk on the sidewalks and not have to detour around parked cars, men smoking seeshas (water pipes, known more commonly among our students as hookahs), indifferent policemen and the surreys themselves, pulled by some sorry-looking horses.
[This picture is the back of a woman getting off the local ferry. She was carrying a basket on her head with one rabbit and two chickens--bound for a sad fate, I'm afraid).

Luxor does indeed have amazing antiquities, including the stunning Luxor Temple ruins, and the awe-inspiring Nile River, but those working diligently to enhance Egyptian (and specifically Luxor) tourism really need to re-think this approach. Okay, so maybe it's a strategy that's a thousand years old. I don't know. I just wanted to walk, and sightsee, and window-shop in a little peace.

[I took this picture on the local ferry, trying to be unobtrusive. The kids always notice, though.]

There were, though, plenty of charming moments. Betsy and I had a very fun hour with two young Egyptian women who gave us pedicures in a tiny hotel beauty shop. You might know from reading Betsy's blog that one of her goals was to spend time in a Middle East beauty parlor of some sort because she had heard from someone that such a place is a good spot for talking with, or at least overhearing, Muslim women ("Veiled Magnolias," I guess). Not surprisingly, there are not a lot of these places in a city like Luxor, which caters more to western tourists. The places that take care of local women are not easy to find. So Betsy had been thwarted until I happened to see a young, unveiled woman passing out fliers for her services to hotel guests around the pool (that was the reason we switched to the bigger hotel for our last night--it had a pool, something I never thought would be a necessity for me, but there you go; plus, it was quite a bit closer to the airport). So I showed Betsy the flier and suggested we at least get pedicures because, well, our toes looked a bit ragged after four days of traipsing through the ruins. Actually, it wasn't just our toes, but there are limits to modern skin care. Anyway, she happily scheduled us for appointments, and at 7 pm, we met her and another very young girl (maybe 18 or so) in the beauty "shop," hoping to have some conversation about life as young Muslim women.

They were listening to Arabic music when we entered, and to break the ice, I asked Hala (the one who we met at the pool), "What is this you're listening to?" She immediately brightened and said, "Christian music!" "You're Christian?" I asked. "Oh yes. See my cross?" She showed me a small tatton on the back of her hand. Her partner (whose name turned out to be Yvonne--not the most Arab name we'd heard), nodded enthusiastically. Yes, there we were, about to have pedicures done by two Christian Arabs, one of whom was a Cairo beauty school graduate. So much for insights into Muslim women's lives.

They were great fun, though. Yvonne spoke no English, so we didn't always understand what they were saying to one another, but it was clear that Hala, as the pro, had some strong opinions. When Betsy chose a color, Hala said, "Oh no. Not with your skin." She wanted Betsy to have something that was the color of melted chocolate. Betsy put the kabosh to that and ended up with, well, I'll just post a picture. You might not be able to make out what's on my big toe, so I'll describe it. I simply asked for a color (Hala approved), but after my very modest color was dry, Hala opened another bottle and without asking, handpainted a tiny palm tree on my big toes in white, and then trimmed it in silver glitter. I was a little freaked out, but sat still and when they were done (and all my other toes were detailed with a small bit of silver), I thought, hey, that's kind of cool.

Hala and Yvonne also treated us to the Middle Eastern torture that is known as "threading," again without warning. This is a procedure used to remove hair and involves a piece of thread that the stylist holds in her teeth and hand and somehow quickly runs over your skin in a kind of cross-hatch motion. It takes a split second, but hurts like hell for about three seconds. I didn't know I had hair on the tops of my toes--have never actually seen it, but those suckers are gone now. Middle Eastern women have full-body threading done before their weddings, and let me tell you: I have a newfound respect for their pain threshhold.

We left Luxor this morning and flew to Cairo, a city of 6 million people, 16 million cars, and 3 traffic signals, none of which anyone pays attention to. We are in a small hotel on the fifth floor of an older building in a quiet part of the city. The hotel is quite nice and has wireless, so I'll post some pictures of Luxor to wrap up this part of our adventure.
Do check Betsy's blog for her observations and some cool pictures of Luxor, including our hot air balloon ride.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Luxor in July: Not our Best Idea

Hello from the west bank of the Nile River. Betsy and I are in an internet cafe flanking an Egyptian teenage boy who is doing better with his keyboard than we are.

Luxor is an interesting place, for sure. It is as though all the Egyptian kings and queens agreed, oh, say 4000 years ago, to build a most excellent tourist site. It went well for about 20 centuries, and then got buried for about 2000 years. Luckily, someone started digging, and the rest is history (literally). We have been in tombs, among ruins, and, thanks to a hot air balloon at sunrise this morning, over the tops of fields, houses and the Valleys of both the Kings and Queens (they had their own separate valleys for burial--as if dating wasn't hard enough).

The heat is incredible (and if anyone says, "But it's a DRY heat," I challenge you to walk around in an oven and see if it is any less uncomfortable than humid heat). Our hotel, El Nakhil, is small and not very busy (for some reason, sane tourists choose the winter months to visit). Thus we are attended to in a manner that can be a little disconcerting. They know our comings and goings and are very concerned with pleasing us. The hotel itself is at the end of a street that reminds one that this is truly a developing nation and we are not far from Africa. It's what we in American would, not so generously, call a "slum," but every day we walk along this very narrow street and greet the residents and their many children (and donkeys), and you know, it's just life they live--not rich, not poor. It's a village with a hotel at the end. The hotel itself is quite nice--very clean, very simple with some nice decorative touches. The room is air-conditioned (a lifesaver) but the rooftop restaurant can get a little steamy.

Yesterday our host (the owner of the hotel), Mr. Salah, took us to a couple of places here on the west bank, including a mosque, which was an intriguing, mysterious place. He also arranged for a driver to take us to the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, but really, without some level of and/or interest in Egyptology, Betsy and I found them a bit repetitive. We didn't, though, go into the tomb of Tutan Khamun, despite the hype, and the one Betsy was keen to see, Queen Nefertari's tomb, was closed (for a private party? No, for further restoration).

Last night we took a cruise on the Nile--just us, our boat captain Mosse and his 13-year old brother Mohammed. He pulled the boat over at some very out-of-the-way place where we found a delightful open-air bar (or some reasonable facsimile), and sat and talked over a Stella beer (authentic Egyptian beer!) while we watched dusk fall on the Nile.

Our hot air balloon ride this morning was very touristy, but for good reason. It's quite amazing to see these places from that vantage point. Our balloon captain, Ahmed, was quite charming and funny with us, but then ripped into his ground crew in a way that made me want to cower (more about Arab conversation in a minute). His cell phone ringtone, by the way, was the Fifth Dimension singing "Would You Like to Ride in My Beautiful Balloon?" Seriously.

When Arabs talk, it sounds, like Al said earlier about his Italian relatives, "like a joyful song or an argument." We have witnessed some pretty harsh exchanges between Arab men here, often as they bicker over us. There is an incredible and annoying culture of "the tout," or those who want your business. It is constant and relentless, and can wear you out. Even in the Luxor Temple today, one of the (armed) guards slyly asked me for some "baksheesh" (small change) after he had pointed me in a direction. Yesterday at the Valley of the Kings, I had to practically wrestle Betsy away from a man who felt he had earned a considerable sum by walking with us up a trail. Unlike American sites, which are so strictly controlled, here there is a culture of the independent entrepreneur. And the haggling is unlike anything I've experienced. We are learning to say, very harshly, "NO!" Otherwise, they follow and get right in our faces. Sometimes I want to scream, "I'm an American! I have personal space and you're in it!!"

It all leads to these weird interactions where someone tries to be helpful, we are suspicious, they become chagrined, we realize they are sincere and then engage, they then realize we are ripe for the taking and move in for the kill, and we then act like the ugly Americans we try not to be, harshly saying "no!" and rudely walking away. Honestly, ten days here has given me doubts that we will ever truly achieve peaceful relations with the Middle East. Our approach to interactions is just so different. And yet, they are so friendly, so reliable, and so eager to engage with foreigners. I think those that truly want to just talk are bothered by the ones who are playing the take-advantage-of-the-tourist game.

The east bank of the Nile is where most of the tourist trade is done--the big hotels, big sites like Luxor Temple, the big souk (market) and we will visit again tonight. To get there and back, we take a ferry across the Nile (which costs about a quarter), and sit amid scowling old men who do not approve of our bare arms, covered young women with children, and covered old women who carry bags, boxes and baskets balanced expertly on their heads, returning from their shopping on the east bank to their homes over here on the west bank.

Here's hoping this blog entry posts without trouble. No pictures, because I have no easy way to post them, but perhaps will in Cairo. We're here in Luxor for another day, and leave for Cairo on Thursday. Cheers!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

One Last Look

Salaam! This is the view from our room, looking west across the Dead Sea to Jerusalem. We are leaving just as the Microsoft Learning Summit/Middle East-Africa begins. Paaarrrty!!

I hope they enjoy this opulent, elegant, decadent resort as much as we did. They are unlikely to spend quite as much time at the pools, but I'm sure Akram, the khabana boy, will take care of their mud-related needs.

Dead Sea: Down, Low

The thing about Jordanian drivers is that once you have become acquainted with one, they want more than anything to drive you everywhere. Such is the case with Jamal, a driver whose name and number we got from Al. We called him and asked him if he could drive us to the Dead Sea. He said yes, for 35 dinar. Betsy said, "How about 30?" He said yes, and, true to his word, was there at our Amman hotel at precisely 11 o'clock. The drive down (and I do mean "down"), less than an hour long, was pretty amazing. This is not a landscape you would call "hospitable," ironic since that is the word that one must use when describing the people. Jamal wanted to stop so we could shop (we said no), take photos at viewpoints (we agreed once), and then asked us the rest of our itinerary so he could drive us wherever we were destined. I think he would drive us to Egypt if we asked. Jordanians are so eager to please that it feels like we're in a country of golden retrievers.

Anyway, back to the travel stuff. We did stop halfway down so Jamal could take our picture at the official "sea level" spot. We also stopped briefly at a couple of security checkpoints, reminding us that we are practically a stone's throw from Israel, and these folks have issues. Big issues. An example of how deeply-ingrained their hatred of each other is was neatly summed up in a story covered by the Jordan Times all week. There is a month-long festival planned to begin July 9, with numerous performers, Jordanian and international (Diana Krall and Placido Domingo were the two names I recognized). A group was calling for a boycott by the performers because it was rumored that the French company hired to do the festival planning had also helped organize Israel's 60th anniversary celebration. Even a slight whiff of connection to Israel almost blew up the entire festival. Eventually King Abdullah II issued a statement assuring the Jordanian people that the French group had not worked on the Israel celebration, and the boycott (already agreed to by several prominent Arab performers) was called off.

It is hard to adequately describe driving to the Dead Sea. I shouldn't have been surprised, of course, since it is the lowest point of land on Earth, but still. We just went down, down, down, kind of like driving from Boone to Greensboro only ten times the steepness. The temperature rose conversely, and by the time we reached our destination, the Kempinski Resort, it was well over 100 degrees and dry as a Watauga County Baptist church picnic.

At the gate to the Resort, our car was searched, another reminder of the way people this close to the border live (we can actually see Jerusalem from our window). We finally made it inside, and were greeted with an ice cold washcloth and a glass of fresh, cold pineapple juice.

The Kempinski is a world-class hotel chain, run by no-nonsense Germans and staffed by consistently competent and beautiful staff, all impeccably dressed in gorgeous uniforms. No detail is spared. Staying at a resort like this would likely cost $1000 a day in the states, but it's less than a quarter of that here. Of course, the environmental conscience in me makes it somewhat difficult to not see the incredible amounts of water being used here, re-directed at a significant ecosystem cost to the Jordan Valley. But like in many places, tourism and the environment exist here in less-than-peaceful accord.

We checked in, found our room, and immediately headed for the beachfront so Betsy could fulfill her long and weird dream of swimming in the Dead Sea. We were immediately greeted by the Arab version of a cabana boy, Akram (note to my sisters: he was very nice but he's no Laurent). He instantly became focused entirely on our pleasure, walking each of us by the hand over the rocks into the water, taking pictures of us, and then, without really explaining what he was doing (since his English was quite limited), slathering each of us in mud. I can't imagine the ablutions and prayers necessary for a Muslim man who spends that much time with his hands all over women.

Suffice to say that I have never done anything in my life that's good enough to deserve even a short stay at a place like this. But I promise to aspire to such goodness so I may one day feel worthy of the Kempinski Ishtar Hotel.

We leave tomorrow for Egypt. No telling what our technology will be like, so if you don't see a post for a while, it doesn't mean we decided to stay here at the Kempinski until our credit cards are cancelled. Just that few hotels have this standard of tech stuff. And spa stuff. And dining stuff. We're staying at smaller places in Luxor and Cairo, but we'll both do our best to keep in touch.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Enormous Amman

Amman's defining characteristic: traffic...mosques...the amplified call to prayer 5 times a day...the incredibly helpful local folks...or maybe the topography--hill upon hill stacked with square white buildings practically on top of each other, as far as the eye can see. Choose any or all of these.

So about the driving: I've learned that Ammanites use their horns in a different way here. In America, the blast of a horn in traffic means "Look out!" Here, it is loosely translated as "If you continue on your current path, I will hit you." And a second toot is "Man'shalla," or "God bless you." Imagine, if you will, Manhattan. Times Square, specifically. Only no traffic signals and no crosswalks. Jaywalking in Amman is an Allah-given right apparently. Never have I seen a place where both drivers and pedestrians embody absolutely fearlessness of one another. Needless to say, it makes for some interesting rides in taxis and some terrifying crossings of streets.

We got a late start on the day, suffering from the classic Jordan tourists' malady of "Petra calves." This is where one's calves are so tight and sore from scaling the steep hikes of Petra that one cannot step across a threshhold without moaning.

But we did make it downtown, dropped off by our cab driver at the very top of the city (see, we learned something from our Petra climb), the Citadel. This is a place littered with ruins from a Roman temple (pictured), a small museum of antiquities, and a spectacular 360-degree of the city. In the picture of the ruins, look for Betsy in the lower left corner and you'll get a sense of their incredible size.

We then boarded a tour bus which turned into a fiasco that turned into an interesting tour in its own right. Here's an observation about this place: "I speak English" does not really mean that. It means, "I don't speak English but I want to help you so badly I'll pretend, even if it means I give you inaccurate information." Anyway, we saw way more of Amman than we had ever imagined, including the very posh west side of the city, which is where the King lives in one of his many palaces.

We eventually escaped from our tour guide (we were the only passengers on the bus, so this required some deception on our part), and found ourselves in the Souk (the old marketplace) where we considered our dinner options. We opted for a place well-reviewed in our guide book, "Wild Jordan," a cafe and restaurant attached to the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, known for locally-grown organic food and a great view of the city. Of course, it was nowhere near where we were, so we had to hail a taxi and yes, found another driver who "spoke English." Luckily, the clerk at our hotel had written the name and address of the restaurants we were considering on a card in Arabic, and we just pointed to this one and hoped for the best. It took a while and multiple requests by the driver for directions from people on the streets, but we finally found it. I think he was as happy as we were to have succeeded in this quest.

The restaurant more than lived up to the guide book's praise. The building is on the side of a steep hill, and from the upper terrace where we sat, we had an unbelievable view of sunset over the city. In the picture of the two of us, you can see the Citadel off in the distance, where we had begun our day. From our table we could see no fewer than 20 mosques dotting the landscape (mosques are easy to distinguish, especially at night, because they have green neon lights at the tops of their minarets). As we ate our wonderful dinners, fireworks lit up the sky off in the distance. It was stunning. And then again--fireworks in another direction. And a third time, in a different place. We asked the waiter, "What's the occasion for the fireworks?" He looked puzzled by our question (we're getting used to that), and said, "Anybody can do that, for whatever reason they wish." Aaah. Through our American lens, we had assumed fireworks were some officially-sanctioned (and lit) event, but it turns out any Jamal on the street can buy them and set them off. We saw about ten different fireworks displays overall, each one causing us great American delight, as we just pretended it was a Fourth of July celebration.

We eventually got up from our exquisite location and wandered out into the street (carefully) to hail a cab (no easy feat since we were in a much less trafficked place). Again, the cabdriver was less able to understand us than he wanted to, but after a few tries, he seemed to figure out our preferred destination (I have to thank Gary for teaching us the phonetic pronunciation of "University of Jordan," roughly "ja ma ordin-a-ya", which is close enough to our hotel to at least land us within walking distance).

We returned to our hotel to find a wedding in full flower out at the pool--loud music, dancing, and, I'm pretty sure, drinking. After three days of seeing almost every woman covered by at least a head scarf and long skirts or pants and long-sleeved shirts, it was quite a shock to look out at the party from the lobby above and see women in backless dresses, looking like they were at a New Jersey wedding (something I know a lot about). We watched a while, then headed to our room (thankfully on the other side of the hotel) where we crashed once again, hoping not to dream about over-eager tourguides.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Petra: Worthy of Its Hype

The four of us (me, Betsy, Al and Gary) were on the road to Petra before 7 am, in the care of a silent but extremely expedient driver named Jorad. It was a long drive through landscape that reminded me a lot of the American southwest--specifically southern Colorado: flat, dry, brown, increasingly desolate as we left the sprawl of Amman. Small villages dotted the view, and we passed many men and women standing on the highway, ostensibly awaiting rides to work, wherever that could possibly be. We arrived in Wadi Musa, the village outside Petra, in about two and a half hours, bought our tickets, and made our way into one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

It was a truly astonishing place, and though I took a lot of pictures, it would take me forever to upload more than a couple. So if you want to see what we saw, just Google "Petra" images and enjoy the visual feast. Petra is an ancient town, settled over 2000 years ago by the Nabateans, by most accounts a tribe that would have done well on Wall Street. These masters of their universe carved beautiful, awe-inspiring facades of buildings into the red rock of this place, and they are still there to be seen (and photographed). There are endless caves in which people lived (and still live, though not legally, as the last tribe to inhabit Petra was relocated when the place became a "national treasure"). As we wandered through the Siq (the crack in the canyon walls through which one enters--used in the third Indiana Jones move [The Last Crusade]), we understood why Petra is the most visited site in Jordan. The rock is beautiful--red, pink, yellow, brown--softened by long-ago water that smoothed its edges. Please do look at pictures online taken by more accomplished photographers than I.

We walked for the entire day, stopping for lunch at a restaurant at the lowest part of the city, then hiked to the highest--the Monastery (not really a monastery, but oh well). At every point, incredible views of Roman ruins, Nabatean carvings and present-day Bedouins (who work at small tables along the trails, selling water and trinkets) kept our attention from the heat and unrelenting sun. It was close to 100 degrees all day, and I've got to tell you--there's not a lot of shade in that place.

I could write easily a dozen paragraphs about Petra, but who wins that way? Suffice to say that we had a great time, were appropriately awed by it, and Betsy and I rode camels. Camels, by the way, smell really bad and up close have faces only a mother camel could love.

We came home around 9 pm, showered off three layers of sunscreen and three accompanying layers of red dust, ate a quick late dinner, and collapsed, dreaming of little Bedouin girls who insisted on selling us rocks (the one in the picture charged me one dinar--about $1.25--to take her picture).

At the moment, we are trying to recover by sitting at the hotel pool. I am amazed by the Jordanian sky. I have not seen a cloud since I arrived here, and given my general disposition as well as my own homeland of Connecticut, that's a little disconcerting. We're on our own as both Gary and Al have departed. We will eventually make our way into the city and take the tour bus Al recommended that will drive us to various sites around Amman (he said it's a new tour company, and he was the only one on the bus when he went). Tomorrow we'll head to the Dead Sea for our Middle Eastern spa days. I'll check in again from there.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

July 1: Amman, Jordan

After a long night on an airplane packed with families excitedly bound for Jordan and other parts of the Middle East, we arrived in very hot and dusty Amman, the capital and largest city in Jordan. Betsy and I planned to get a ride with Gary, a Champlain College faculty member on the same flight, to our hotel, which is located near his accommodations. Our driver was not quite expecting us, and really had only enough room for Gary and his bag. He kindly made room for us, and we rode, suitcases on our laps, into the city and to our hotel.

Amman is dry, brown, and hilly. The traffic is what one might expect in a city of two million people who consider lines on the highway to be mere suggestions. As much as people might worry that the incendiary politics of the region make travel here risky, it does not compare to the roads. Even the walk from our hotel down the street to a strip of shops near the University was sketchy, as sidewalks kind of come and go and drivers belie all that one hears about wonderful Middle East hospitality. Impatience is the prevailing theme.

Nonetheless, we survived the walk and found a Lebanese snack shop where Betsy and I shared a "mishwi" (my best estimation), which was a lot We were surrounded by mostly college-aged folks, owing to our proximity to the enormous University of Jordan (60,000 students). It is truly fascinating to see in person the Islamic dress common to this region: women uncovered, women in hijabs (just head scarves), in ornate, close-fitting robes that cover their arms and legs completely, and in burqas (a full covering over the head and shoulders with just a small slit where their eyes are). The men look like they could be on the street in Hartford--jeans and open-necked shirts. It's really the women who are quite striking in their dress and beauty.

Today we went to the University of Jordan where we met several faculty members who are working with Gary on Champlain's Global Modules program. While he did some business, Betsy, Al (another CC faculty member) and I took a tour of the campus with a public relations staff member. It's quite a lovely campus, behind a gate and tall fence, teeming with students. Again, the women really stood out, in part because it was about 95 degrees and we were having a hard time imagining what it was like to be covered head to toe in black cloth. We did see some men in traditional garb, but that was the exception. The physical layout of the campus felt something like one of those big California community colleges, but one glance around at the people would convince you you're not in Ventura County. We enjoyed a great lunch in the faculty dining room with our hosts, three of whom teach in the English Department. It was fascinating to talk with them about the texts they use (and don't use) in their American literature classes. Our most senior host, Rula Quawas, who also teaches Women's Studies, explained the "three taboos" about which they are not permitted to teach: sex, religion, politics. She laughed and said, "But these things are what literature is about!" I sensed that Rula is someone who enjoys coloring outside the lines. Another instructor, a much younger woman named Inez, said that she stays away from the three taboos because she finds that such controversy (whether or not it's okay to even discuss these) distracts from discussing the material. And a third, Laza (the only one of the three who was covered--wearing a head scarf), was somewhere in between. She shared a great story about teaching Kate Chopin's "The Awakening," in which a woman commits suicide in part because of her hopelessness about her marriage, a concept that elicited great discussion among her students.

Betsy extended an invitation to both Laza and Inez to come to Champlain (both are hoping to do their Ph.Ds in Europe or the States, so are very interested in such opportunities), but somehow the words "near the Canadian border" seemed to cool their enthusiasm.

Tomorrow we head to Petra, which I am even more excited about, having had everyone here ask, with genuine concern, "Are you going to Petra?" and then responding with great enthusiasm when we answer yes.

I'll try posting some pictures later. It's time for dinner.