Friday, May 26, 2006

May 13, 2006: Arabian business

I’ve been gone for a few days on an official business trip to check out the south. I was paired up again with Mahmoud, the reporter from Gaza, and Yousef of course was there to get us to our destinations. I knew we would be spending a few nights away from Amman, but had no idea where we would actually be staying. My last experience with hotels in Jordan was that they were pretty bare bones and you were lucky to get a towel. I decided against bringing my computer, the thought of it getting stolen or being left in the car for long periods of time gave me intense anxiety. We left Amman at 6am and were searching for our hotel in Wadi Musa, the town just outside of Petra, by 8:30am. It quickly became apparent that Yousef had no idea where our hotel was. He would pull over randomly and ask someone on the street where the Petra Hotel was. Apparently, it didn’t exist. Finally after stopping at the Petra Palace Hotel, they were able to determine by the fax number we were given for this mysterious hotel that it was most likely the Marriott. It wasn’t until after we returned from hiking Petra that I truly appreciated this hotel choice.

After 10 days with minimal showering, little to no water pressure, hot water, or even water, for that matter, I fell in love with the shower at the Marriott. It was spotlessly clean, large, the water pressure perfect, huge spa towels… I was in heaven. It was especially refreshing after the dusty sweaty hike up and down hundreds of stairs in Petra. It was so nice to really feel clean again. And, I had a huge hotel room with white down comforters, piles of down pillows, a real mattress—not a foam cot—and, Hellboy was on the Movie Channel. Exactly what I was in the mood for: a mindless action flick. It was my own personal slumber party.

Earlier that night we had met up with Naiym, the guide from last year who had taken us all over Jordan. He lives in Wadi Musa or perhaps just outside of the city and came and met us for a drink and shisha. We ended up at the Cave Bar, which is just outside the gate to Petra. It’s an actual Nabatean ruin and used to serve as a customs office of sorts for the traders who, centuries ago would bring their goods into Petra to buy and sell. Naiym apologized that he wasn’t available earlier in the day, but we made tentative plans to meet up when I came back in a couple weeks.

Petra, as before, was magnificent. This time I hiked up to the high place of sacrifice. The trail wound around the rocks with sheer cliffs on one side and a towering rock wall on the other—the path had literally been cut out of the rock, stairs and all. I actually recognized a couple of the workers from last year. They were still there doing their same thing: selling jewelry, riding horses, trying to a make a buck.

Tomorrow we head to Wadi Rum, the desert that looks like Mars and actually where quite a few movies have been filmed. Speaking of which, I ran into the Italian film crew. They are staying at the Marriott and were doing what appeared to be auditions. I walked into the conference room that they had overtaken, which had Polaroids of potential cast members pinned to the wall and a sign taped to the door that said “The Holy Family”. I introduced myself and asked them if they had a few minutes to comment on their production. The woman I spoke to disappeared briefly and came back a few minutes later with the name of the production manager for the Royal Film Commission. Apparently, in order for them to speak with us, we first needed to get the Royal Film Commission’s permission. But, she said they would be there until the end of July, so would be happy to do an interview after the Film Commission gave the okay. All these rules, maybe I shouldn’t have identified myself as a member of the press. I’m beginning to learn that this isn’t always the best practice.

In Wadi Rum I finally meet Erga, the 65(?) year old woman who has lived out in the desert with the Bedouins for the past 9 years. Char had told me about her, but until now had been a mystery. We sat and talked with her in the Sheikh’s house, drinking tea, and discussing the changes she has seen in the area over the years. Life in the desert is a hard life and it shows on the people who live here. People can look 30 years older than they actually are. It’s amazing. “How old do you think he is?” Mahmoud had asked me, referring to this man we met in one of the villages. “Oh, I don’t know….seventy-five?” I guessed. Mahmoud agreed. “His grandson is so cute,” I added. “That’s not his grandson, that’s his son,” Mahmoud corrected. I was shocked. Seventy-five and still having kids??? “No,” Mahmoud told me, “he’s only 45.” Let’s all remember to hydrate, please.

Just being in the south, especially in Petra and seeing the vastness of Wadi Rum was invigorating. Amman to me is definitely the least interesting place in Jordan to be. After Wadi Rum we headed to Aqaba, the city on the tip of the Red Sea and the place from Jordan where you can see into Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. There’s an enormous flag that waves over the area, the Arab Unity flag I was told.

Aqaba is a strange place. There are enormous five star hotels with beautiful grounds and all the amenities you could ask for and then dusty grimy lots as soon as their property lines end. It’s a little hard for me to believe that this is a resort town and is where many people come to enjoy the beaches after having enjoyed some of the most amazing beaches in the world in Hawaii, Australia, the Caribbean, and Brazil. I guess I’m a little bit of a snob, but my idea of a beach doesn’t involve having an oil tanker on the horizon. But, looking around at the dry desert landscape, I guess the Red Sea would seem like paradise.

We stayed at the Intercontinental, another five star hotel and I have to say I’m pretty shocked that the paper was shelling out this money for us. Yousef was in heaven, he said he wasn’t going to sleep tonight so he could enjoy the hotel and maybe find a nightclub. I have no idea if he ever found one—the hotel itself was pretty dead since the majority of people only come to the city on the weekends.

I look back on our time in the south and at the time, I thought we were accomplishing a lot. I was pushing to get a consistent theme going so that we would have a cohesive story or photo essay to bring back. But, I’m finding that my ambition goes only as far as what the editor decides to publish.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

May 9, 2006: Published!

The woman who committed, or at least tried to commit, the suicide bombings in Jordan last year has finally been assigned a lawyer. It has taken months, largely due to the outcry from the public that she be denied this right due to the nature of her crime. She and her husband entered a hotel in which a wedding was taking place with explosives strapped to their bodies and detonated them killing himself and several wedding guests. Although she tried to detonate her explosives, they didn’t go off and she was taken into custody. The government, however, feeling that she could not be deprived of a proper defense, appointed her a lawyer today. Yesterday, I went along with one of the reporters to his interview so I could get a photo—the first to be published in the paper. Maybe not the most interesting shot, but it was more difficult than I thought it would be to catch the right expression. We didn’t want him to appear happy, indifferent, upset, incompetent, or mean, which was the range of expressions that filled up my memory card. Plus, with Arabic being such a guttural language, it seemed like he constantly had his mouth open.

Despite the heinous nature of her crime, I can’t help feeling sorry for the woman on trial. Did she really know what she was doing? An Iraqi by birth, she told the Jordan authorities that she thought she was coming to Jordan to get married. At 35 years of age she has the education level of a sixth grader and claims that she had no knowledge of the attacks prior to having her husband (of two weeks) lace her with explosives a half an hour before they entered the hotel. Obviously, the husband and the other men had been planning these attacks for some time, but she was given a half an hour to mentally prepare herself for ending her life. I wonder if she felt like her husband was killing her. Or, did she reason to herself that death was the best option considering she would be a widow of a murderer with no family in a foreign land?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

May 7, 2006: Tourist trap

I don’t like tourists. They freak me out. They walk around with a manic look in their eyes and I just know at any moment they’re going to snap and I sure as hell don’t want to be around when that happens. In Madaba, they were everywhere. When did this little town become such a tourist destination? I find out later that tourism in Madaba is definitely on the rise, encouraged in part by the government. The majority of tourists come to see the oldest map of the Middle East, which is a large mosaic housed in the St. George Greek Orthodox Church. Then they shuffle off and head to Mount Nebo to overlook the promised land. We were headed there as well, but I decided to forego Mount Nebo due to the haze that covered the valley. “La shadra, il youm” I told the driver and pointed out at the horizon and then my camera. No good for pictures today. He got the point.

A few hours later we were traveling along the highway on our way back to Amman, when I caught a glimpse of some shepherds close to the road. “Wa-if losama!” I suddently burst out. Yousef quickly swings the car into a dirt shoulder and comes to a stop. “Shukran!” I say, laughing slightly and hop out of the car. He's probably wondering what he did wrong to ever get this assignment. I peer at the shepherds through the trees, all the while slightly tentative about walking up to strangers holding sharp knives who I can’t communicate with. I realize that I walk a fine line between being respectful and utterly obnoxious. They see me and motion for me to come closer. I put up one finger and run back to the car and get Yousef.

As we walk down the hill to where they are working I see that there’s an old woman sitting on the ground and in front of her are three men in the process of shearing their sheep and goats. The sharp knives are actually large bulky scissors, which they’re using to slowly undress the animals. The old woman pulls out a cup, fills it with Pepsi and hands it to me. I have no idea when the cup has last been cleaned, but I can’t refuse. I just tell myself not to look at it and take a big gulp. One by one the shepherds fetch a sheep or goat, lift them up and lay them on their side, tie their feet together so they can’t get up and start cutting away a year’s worth of hair. It’s fascinating, but pretty nasty to see the underside of a sheep. All that hair has accumulated a lot of shit. Literally. There is a good amount of their own feces that they’ve been packing around with them, stuck and matted in their own hair. It’s amazing how docile the sheep are during this whole process. It makes me wonder if they somehow look forward to it. They come out of their haircut half the size they were and probably 30 degrees cooler.

The shepherd on the left, looks at me, looks at the sheep and then says something in Arabic, which makes everyone laugh. What the hell? Did he just make a lewd comment about me and the sheep? Damn, I wish I could understand what they’re saying.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

May 6, 2006: Living up to my name

Yes, I’m living up to my name, my old nickname, that is, given to me by my brother so long ago: Scrub. Not only is there no hot water, there is now no water, period. I’m pissed. I thought it was bad the other day when I boiled water in a pot and took a ghetto sponge bath. But, today proves that situations can always get worse.

Fortunately, Victoria’s boyfriend intervened on our behalf and the water problem seems to be resolved, for now. I don’t trust it at all. Most of Amman doesn’t have city water lines. Instead water is stored in tanks and water trucks come and refill the tanks every few days. If your tank goes dry, there is usually a reserve tank, but switching to the reserve tank is not an automatic process. I realize suddenly that the entire city is run like an RV park. I watched, horrified, as the last drops of water dripped out each faucet and then dried up. I was so excited when I had overlooked one of the faucets in the kitchen and was able to get half a pot of water out of it. I will never take water for granted again.

May 5, 2006: Mall rat

The weekends here are Friday and Saturday as opposed to the typical Saturday-Sunday of the western world. I think this has to do with the Sabbath being on Saturday rather than Sunday, but I’m not entirely sure. My weekend, however, is Friday. At the paper we work six days a week. No one here knows about Cinco de Mayo, except maybe the Pollo Ranchero fast food chain, but even then it’s doubtful. Why is it that every time I go abroad what I miss the most is Mexican food and why can NO ONE outside North America even come close?

Victoria had a friend in town from Cairo and took off for Petra early this morning. They invited me to come along, but with all the day trips earlier in the week and future trips to Petra on the horizon, I decided to wait and save myself.

A large part of my day was spent at Mecca Mall, soaking up the wi-fi connection. I’m officially a mall rat.


It’s past one in the morning. Something’s happening to a cat outside my window. It’s probably getting impregnated. Sounds painful. This is the close of my first week. It’s been in a whirlwind. I seem to go back and forth between being exhausted and just wanting to be alone, to being lonely and feeling like I’m bored out of my mind. It’s not boredom, though, it’s more…isolation. Not being able to speak Arabic and communicate with others makes me feel very disconnected from the world. Even though I travel with Yousef, given the communication barrier, we often drive for long periods of time saying nothing, our soundtrack a tape of Arabic pop music playing the same tunes over and over. You take for granted being able to express yourself and having others understand, but when you can’t communicate even the simplest things, like buying a pack of gum, become a chore. I bought what I thought was grape bubblegum today, instead, I got what I can only assume is the Arabic version of spearmint. It was the worse tasting gum I’ve ever had in my life. It tasted…medicated. Bleck!

Friday, May 12, 2006

May 3, 2006: Peace and Umm-Qais

We headed to the far north today, to a small city called Umm-Qais (pronounced um-kh-ice), which houses one of the ancient decapolis cities of the Roman Empire: Gardara. Perched high on top of the rolling hills, there’s a constant breeze and great views of Israel, the Golan Heights, Yarmouk gorge, and Lake Tiberius. So far, this has been my favorite city. Perhaps because it was virtually empty and allowed me to imagine I had just randomly stumbled upon this place, unknown to the rest of the world. If only my iPod was working.

In the open air museum I was approached by the site’s resident archaeologist and manager. “You take so many pictures, what are you doing?” he asked politely. I thought for sure he was going to ask if I was Japanese, which has happened several times already. Camera, asian-looking, what else could I be??? Korean?

I explained what I was doing and he instantly told me that I had full access to the site and invited me into his office to share more information about the work they’re doing. Despite the amount of ruins that are present, they are still excavating the city.
He invited me to come on one of their digs that they primarily do during the summer and also to come back in two months when an Italian film crew will start production on a new movie. “What is the movie about?” I asked, intrigued. Umm-Qais would be a phenomenal movie set. He didn’t know, historical period piece, he thought. I took his information; perhaps Victoria can come back and cover it.

Yousef and I seem to be settling into a groove. With my broken Arabic and his broken English somehow we still manage to get to our destinations. My Arabic vocabulary has increased by 100%--I now know ten words. The most important being wa-if losama (stop please). I use this constantly.

Friday, May 05, 2006

May 2, 2006: Wandering the wilderness

Jesus didn’t get into the waters of the Jordan River to get baptized; he got into them because it was hotter than hell outside. Why else would he be lured into these murky waters? I remember being underwhelmed the first time I was here and this time was no exception. Because of the proximity to Israel, which is just on the other side of the Jordan River, everyone is escorted to and from the premises and counted to make sure the same number going in also come out. In three large steps you could literally cross the river and enter Israel, but guards are present day and night to ensure that doesn’t happen.

The group of tourists I ended up with wanted in and out as quickly as possible, and I didn’t blame them, you literally feel like you’re going to melt into the ground. Our guide, knowing I was with the paper, though, didn’t want me to miss out on anything so he offered to leave me to wander the trails by the river and then come back and show me the Byzantine church ruins, which was nearby. Oh, thanks soooo much! I tried to get out of it. “Is there a bathroom here?” I asked, knowing there wasn’t one and hoping he would get the hint that I should leave with the rest of the group. No luck. Having been to the Byzantine church ruins before, I knew there really wasn’t much to see, but how could I refuse when he was so enthusiastic about them? Off they went, leaving me and Yousef to wander the wilderness, both slightly crazed by the heat.

I begin to get a little confused as to exactly what I’m supposed to be covering today. I’ve literally been wandering around, stopping off here and there and I feel like I’m missing the real action, which is going on at the Dead Sea Convention Center, where we dropped off the other reporters this morning.

Earlier, Yousef and I found ourselves hiking through a small canyon climbing over rocks and wading through a stream.

Then we took a sudden detour off the main road to climb a dirt one straight up the hill so I could get a better vantage point of the valley. I guess this is part of the stock archives that I’m building for the paper. By the time I’m done I will have documented every thistle in the country.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

May 1, 2006: First day on assignment

Today I officially start for the paper. I woke up a full hour and a half before my alarm even went off—excitement, maybe? anxiety? A mixture of both, I think. I’m heading off to the north. First stop is Jerash an ancient Roman city, which is the site of several summertime festivals. From Jerash we head further North to investigate the city of Ajloun, which has been inhabited for over a thousand years, unlike Amman which has only been in existence for the last century. Ajloun has ignited some recent interest as of late due to a large amount of funding that is being diverted to the region without a cent being spent on the city. We’ll make another stop in Dibbeen, one of Jordan’s national and virtually untouristed forests, perhaps also see if we can uncover the mysterious reason Zubia (the other national park) remains closed, and also try to find a couple holy sites in the area, one being a 150 year old wooden statue of the Virgin Mary and the other of the birthplace of the prophet Elijah, significant to both Christians and Muslims alike.

I really hope there’s hot water so I can take a real shower today. I’ll eat my cornflakes while I wait for the diesel (if there’s any left) to heat up the water.

…much later…

What an incredibly long day, it's now close to 10pm. I was accompanied today by Yousef and Mahmoud. Yousef is the driver that the paper has hired for the month to drive me around the country. Nice, huh? I have a loose schedule, but I can basically tell him to stop and can investigate whatever I please. The only problem is he doesn’t speak English so I’m not sure how much I’ll be playing my driving miss daisy card. Mahmoud is a reporter that has recently moved to Amman from Gaza. He’s done freelance work for a number of U.S. newspapers covering the West Bank and although he loved the hard-hitting type journalism he was doing there, it was time for him to incorporate balance and a little less danger in his life.

At Jerash we were denied entry as journalists, which began an hour-long debate with members of the ministry of tourism. Phone calls were made, claims of friends in high places were threateningly uttered, but they were final in their decision—ultimately because I am American and Mahmoud is Palestinian, we would have to pay the non-Jordanian fee. Out of principal we left without seeing the ruins, but we were able to get into the show going on in the hippodrome, which featured menacing gladiators and fierce Roman soldiers, comprised mostly of ex-policemen.

I can’t believe I wrote earlier in the day that Dibbeen was untouristed. I guess that would be true if you ignore the used cups, soda cans, chip bags, shoes, pants, shirts, etc. that litter the forest floor. I have never seen so much litter in a place that is supposedly a national reserve. I see a story hatching…

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

April 30, 2006: The mega Mecca Mall

Since I was unsuccessful at hooking my laptop up to the Internet at the Times, I would now have to do the unthinkable: take a taxi to Mecca Mall with the sole purpose of visiting the Starbucks, one of the only places in the city that has wi-fi. It’s remarkable how much of my time, equipment, and energy is spent trying to communicate with others. Think about it…Internet connection, email access, acquiring a cell phone, hauling my laptop, film camera, DSLR camera, AND web-cam half-way across the world, this blog…all this, this..stuff…somone better damn well be reading this. I’ve decided I will go on vacation after this to some place where everything I need can fit in a fanny pack.

I stop in the corner grocery store to break a $50 JD bill and ask the owner how much I should expect the taxi to cost (he’s one of the few people in the neighborhood who speaks English). Seconds later I’m heading toward Mecca. The taxi driver says something to me in Arabic. I shake my head and smile. He asks me (in Arabic) if I speak Arabic. “La,” I reply. He then proceeds to ask me in English where I am from, whether I am someone’s wife, why I’m in Jordan, how old I am, whether I like Jordan, who I’m here with, why I don’t have a husband, how long I’m staying etc. etc. Fortunately, the twenty questions ended fairly quickly as the taxi ride was pretty short.

As seems to be the norm here, bags are hand-checked by a security guard, men are frisked, and entry is gained only by walking through a metal detector. The mall is a five level shrine of western capitalism and here you can find virtually every indulgence you could ask for, except a good selection of movies playing in their cinema. I’ve resisted the Mrs. Fields cookie stand twice now, but I’m not sure if I can hold out much longer. Starkbucks here is just like home including its larger than life muffins. I think I’m even sitting on the same fabric that they have in the one down the street from my apartment in Seattle.

I’ve been here for a while now using the Internet; people watching is a constant diversion.

April 28, 2006: Canvas, canafe, and a dead body

It’s hard to believe I just arrived this morning, especially since I just awoke from a second nap. I’m going out tonight with Victoria and some of her friends to a bar called Canvas, a swanky place that’s popular with hip Ammanis. I’m anxious to see what a bar in Amman is like and also to meet other people our age.

Canvas does not disappoint. It’s a beautiful restaurant and bar filled with beautiful people, candlelight, a terrace with cushioned seats, huge umbrellas, and pots filled with flowers and plants. They also have their own security staff. Our purses were checked by a metal detector and all men were frisked prior to entry. We take a seat out on the terrace and slowly the rest of the group arrives. Victoria is anxious for a drink. I’m still in a fog of jet lag, but of course, have a drink. The men in the group all introduce themselves formally; they shake my hand and say their name. Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure if they were saying their name or a greeting in Arabic, all of the sounds meld together to my ears. So I do what most foreigners do in a strange land, I smile, nod my head dumbly, and murmur something that sounds like a greeting.

An interesting group, one of Victoria’s friends, Jareis?, is part of a program called Operation Smile, which is comprised of a group of doctors who volunteer in the Middle East, particularly Iraq, to do reconstructive surgery on children who are born with hair lips and other facial birth defects. It’s amazing to think that what they do in a few hours will change a child’s life forever. Jareis said one of the most amazing operations performed was to a child who was born without a nose and without an upper lip. Victoria had covered Operation Smile for the Jordan Times during a mission they did in Jordan and was able to be in the operating room; she said for days afterwards she considered starting over and becoming a doctor.

Then there was Lina, from Abu Dhabi. She had lived in the Emirates most of her life, but had studied in San Jose, California and was anxious to make new friends, having just arrived to Amman as well. The beginnings of a dinner party began to form. I learned a few new words: sahtak, Arabic for cheers, aseer (juice) which I initially had mistaken for cheers and it became a great joke around the table, mensof (traditional Bedouin dish) which they had quite a lot of fun eluding to a special “surprise” that came on top of it, and canafe (traditional Jordanian desert made with filo dough, cheese, and sugar). Victoria decided that she would forego the banana split that was tempting her on the menu so that I, and consequently she, could have canafe.

On our way to canafe we stopped off at a cash machine as I was getting desperately low on cash and needed to give Jacob money so he could get me a mobile phone. Victoria and Jacob dropped me off on the corner and rounded the block to pick me up on the other side. As I slid back into the car, they pointed behind them. “There’s a dead body back there,” Victoria says. I look back and sure enough there is a crowd of men standing in a circle looking down. It must have just happened. I wondered if it was happening while I was getting my cash, only half a block away. “I want to go over there,” says Victoria, her journalistic instincts kicking in, “but, it just doesn’t work that way in Jordan.” She explains that the press doesn’t have the freedom and rights like they do in the states. We park the car a block and a half from the dead body and head for the canafe stand. Sirens and ambulance lights come from behind us and stop at the scene of the…what? Crime? I wonder what had happened. Was it foul play? An accident? A heart attack? Street crime is rare in Jordan, I’ve been told, but not knowing what had happened was still a little disconcerting. We walked through a small dingy alley, whose only light came from the pastry shop. Here we were in for another shock–they were out of canafe! Defeated, we headed home making promises to ourselves that the canafe would be all the more sweet because of the wait.