Saturday, November 01, 2008

October 10, 2008: 5am, Dubai, U.A.E.

A thick haze of humidity shrouds the city of Dubai as the plane descends, so I can’t see a damn thing, but I don’t care, my main concern is retrieving my checked baggage quickly enough to make my connecting flight at the other terminal, which was a 15-20minute taxi ride away.

* * *
Made it, with a half hour to spare! Kabul here I come.

I was hoping to get a window seat so I could lean my head against it and perhaps get a little sleep—as the last time I engaged in this blessed activity was Tuesday evening and it was now Friday.

“Hello.” An older man with kind eyes greeted me as I sat down next to him. I didn’t particularly feel like conversing with anyone, but his warm greeting prevented me from being aloof, which is my normal M.O. on airplanes as there are few things worse than being strapped to a cramped seat with a conversation forced upon you.

I quickly learn that him and his wife have been living in California for close to 30 years, but are originally from Afghanistan and plan to be in the country for about a month. He shows me his American passport, the picture shows a man who’s wearing what looks to be a general’s uniform and identifies him as Said Opeyany.

“I live in San Francisco now,” he says.

“How long has it been since you last visited Afghanistan?” I ask.

“Oh, about four years. I expect there will be some people at the airport when I arrive,” the excitement of returning home showing on his face.

He asks me if I work for a NGO or the UN. When I tell him my plans, he nods with understanding. “I am an editor and founder of a magazine called ‘Marafat’.”

My eyebrows raise mentally, but the gears that started turning quickly stop as he mentions that it’s a religious magazine about faith and how to worship. Not a lot of room for my bomb squad in that…ah well.

We keep talking, and I learn that his wife, Fariba (sitting next to him), is a microbiologist. “You know, when we get to Kabul, there will be a celebration. I’m kind of a famous man in Afghanistan. I used to be a judge and I’m a candidate for a position here. Ah, you should join us! Come to lunch with us and have some authentic Afghani food and experience our hospitality.”

I thank him sincerely for the invitation, but how do I explain that I’ve spent the last 48+ hours in public spaces and all I want to do is retreat to a dark hole, have a shower, and sleep until tomorrow? The journalist in me was feeling guilty, but the woman in me needed some pampering.

“Well, I do have someone meeting me at the airport and I should probably have a shower before going to your party…,” I begin to explain.

“Have a shower at our house! You are welcome and bring your friend that’s coming to the airport!” he says enthusiastically steamrolling over my roadblocks.

“Oh, hmm…,” thinking it over, “well…maybe that could work,” I said, not completely ready to commit.

* * *
I had managed to fall asleep for about 20 minutes and when I woke up I saw my first glimpse of Afghanistan over the shoulders of Fariba. Even from my limited vantage point it did not disappoint. The jagged mountains reached up at the plane—barren now, but in a month or so would be covered with snow. They screamed of isolation and looked impenetrable and unforgiving despite being silhouetted against a brilliant jewel-colored blue sky.

October 9, 2008, 7:30am: London, England

I had endured the 8 hour bus ride to London in the middle of the night with the belief that when I arrived I would head to Joe’s place in King’s Cross, have a nap, then a shower, check-in for my flight online and take care of other last minute emails and logistics, meet the travel agent (who supposedly had my plane ticket to Kabul), give Joe & Gerhard (who were flying back from Seattle that same day) a welcome home hug and kiss, and then be on my merry way with enough time to pick up last minute essentials at the airport.

Robbed of all of these possibilities thanks to the late arrival of my bus, thereby missing Joe’s roommate before he headed to work, I was forced to do the last of my prep for the trip from Camino, my favorite wifi café tucked away not too far from St. Pancras station. Fortunately, it was a good base camp as I literally found everything I needed within a 2 block radius plus several cell phone calls and texts to Andy and Jason, which carried a range of helpful antidotes to prep me for my trip:

“You’re a nightmare! You don’t even know what terminal you’re flying out of??? Just where were you expecting to go when you got there???" –Andy



“Make sure you ask for a room in the back, that way the next time the hotel gets bombed the blast won’t blind you. Although, it really doesn't matter as the whole place is glass... not that there would be anything left... um, sleep with your back to the window.” – Jason

The hours of my 10hr layover in London were quickly passing and I began to get anxious when within an hour of me catching the tube to Heathrow, I had still not heard from my travel agent. I did, however, manage to line up my fixer in Kabul, who would be like my “Alfred” if I was Batman. After a brief phone call we had worked out that he would meet me at the airport with a driver, take care of my hotel reservations, help me buy my domestic plane ticket to Mazar, change my money, get a local SIM card, credit card, and teach me some survival Dari.

Fifteen minutes before I needed to leave for the airport, my travel agent appears. We do the exchange: $700 USD for a roundtrip ticket. We talked about safety, journalists he’s worked with (I find out that he helped Seamus Murphy extensively with his book on Afghanistan), burqas and headscarves.

“So, do I need to get a burqa?” I keep asking this question to different people to see if I will ever get a different response, but each time I’ve received a definite: “No.”

“You’re fine, just the way you are, you’ve got a scarf, so no problem.” I was wearing my old AG jeans and a plaid cowgirlish-like button up shirt. I had wanted to change and have a shower at Joe’s, but…

“…and you don’t look American,” he continues. “Everyone will just assume you’re from the north. I just came back 3 weeks ago, it’s better now. Just make sure you’re not in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Classic!

We come out of Camino’s courtyard and are blinded by sunlight. He looks up, “Ah, beautiful. See this sky?” he points upwards, “So different than Afghanistan. The blue of the sky in Afghanistan is unlike anywhere else.” He sighs, then asks, ““Do you know anyone in Kabul?”

“No. Well, yes, but he’s not there yet. I do have someone meeting me at the airport, though.”

“Good, good,” he says as we reach the station and say goodbye.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

October 9, 2008: Border Patrol, United Kingdom

“So, what, you’re like a photojournalist or something?”

It was 3am and we were crossing British immigration at Dover, or was it Calais? We had gotten on and off the bus so many times I had lost track. It was all a blur of cold air, heavy luggage, and grunting responses to various government officials.

“Mmm-hmm,” I replied, too tired to open my mouth and form words.

The surprise registered clearly on his face. “And, how long do you plan to be in London?”

“Just a few hours, I’m in-transit,” I said, mentally visualizing the “IT” they would add to my entry stamp.

“Okay, and what time does your plane leave?”

“4:30pm.”

“Today?” he asks and I nod. “Oh, so you really are in-transit. And, what are you going to be doing in Afghanistan? It doesn’t matter,” he adds quickly, “I’m just curious.”

“I’m going to be following around a bomb squad that finds and disposes of left over munitions and explosives.”

More surprise registers on his face, followed by the click and clink of the entry visa stamp. He clears his throat slightly, “Interesting story, good luck and be safe,” and hands me back my passport with a genuine smile.

October 8, 2008 - The Journey Begins

The Afghan Diaries: Paris, France

The day before leaving for a war zone I probably shouldn’t have been having waffles. I also shouldn’t have stayed up half the night. Nor should I have hired myself out as a photography instructor, a Photoshop tutor, and a personal chef. And, I should have gone straight home after all of these activities, rather than accepting a dinner invitation at my friend’s house, and definitely had no business even entertaining the idea of a possible nightcap. But extreme circumstances made me want to relish every minute of the present. Eat them up, much like the five pounds of waffles I had consumed in the last 12 hours.

As a result, I found myself running around Roland’s apartment in such a frenzy that I would often forget from one minute to the next what I was doing as details about my trip that hadn’t quite been worked out surfaced in my head. You know, small details, like I didn’t actually have my plane ticket from Dubai to Kabul yet! Ah, but at least I had my visa, secured that very morning.

“Is there a place in the city where I can get a book on Dari?” I asked the embassy representative after he had handed me back my brand new passport, with the first page brandishing a one-month visa. I smiled down at it. This is going to be fun to re-enter the US with.

I looked back up at the embassy representative; he was staring at me like I was crazy. “Dari language resources?” I added hopefully.

He asks his colleague, who shakes his head.

“Oh, okay,” nodding my head to the colleague and thanking them both.

It’s a brisk fall day in Paris and I put on my headphones and walk through the park by the embassy noting the falling leaves and wondering what autumn is like in Afghanistan. Holy shit, it’s really happening, I’m going to Kabul.

On the road again...


I spent several weeks after Jordan traveling and there were many highlights and adventures that ensued. BUT, I have to stop somewhere or else I’ll never get to Kabul…

Speaking of, just how does one get to Kabul? It’s easy and here’s a little map to illustrate.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Saved!


After dodging Arabs in the desert, I was saved by the Virgin Mary herself, also known as filmmaker, actress, editor, yoga master, and world traveler extraordinaire: Jackie S. She had in fact just finished playing the role of the Virgin Mary for a historical documentary filmed in Jordan and unbeknownst to both of us our paths may have crossed during her work on the Italian film “The Holy Family”, the crew of which I kept running into during my stint with the Jordan Times in 2006. But, we instantly had another commonality, in good friend, former roommate, fellow wanderluster, badass editor, journalist, and linguist, Victoria M.

Sitting in the living room of Sofian’s (Jax’s super cool & super talented BF) parent’s house, my narration of recent adventures in the desert where punctuated by Jackie’s disbelief.

“OH MY GOD! I know him!” she said when I disclosed M.’s identity. “He’s hot shit in those parts.” She turns to Sof in explanation, “He’s like the Ivory Tower of Wadi Rum.” She begins to impersonate his high and mightiness with her funnier than hell Arab accent and mannerisms.

I proceed to tell them about the camel milk, the comments, the massage incident (oh yes, there was a massage incident with both M.’s)…

“OH MY GOD! I can’t believe I left my mother alone with that man!” Jackie exclaims.

When I tell them about M2 and the drinking games, Sof interjects, “So you had ‘After Sex’?”

“WHAT?” Jackie and I whip our heads around and ask in unison.

“’After Sex’ – it’s a drink here. It’s what we call vodka and orange soda. You can get it at most liquor stores,” he explains matter-of-factly.

“What??? It’s actually written on the bottle ‘After Sex’?” Jackie asks, shocked that the conservative government would allow a product with ‘Sex’ in its name to be sold off the shelf.

“Yeah, it’s premixed orange soda and vodka, it’s really cheap, you can get a bottle for like 3 JD.”

Jackie and I look at each other and start laughing. A stop at the liquor store is in our future.

I sigh dramatically. “Oh, M2,” I say, full of forlorn sarcasm, “that’s what you were doing wrong--you can’t give me ‘After Sex’ before…”


At the 2nd liquor store we check, we find our orange treasure.

When I see it, I start laughing.

Jackie, picks up the bottle for a closer inspection and reads the label. “After Six???” she rolls her eyes and laughs. “Oh, brilliant…it’s like the words “version” and “virgin” they can’t pronounce the difference.” She begins another hilarious impression playing two roles:
“I’ll take the other ‘virgin’.”
“Uh, you mean, ‘version’.”
“Yes, ‘virgin’.”
“No, ‘version’.”
“Right, ‘virgin’, I want that ‘virgin’.”

I take a peek at the label as well and remember the assortment of sharpies in my bag, “Ah, we can make it ‘After Sex’ after all,” and load up my arms with several bottles and a sly grin.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Bedouin Mind Tricks

The last thing that M. did for me besides insisting that I owed him at least 200 JD for the pleasure of his advances was to deposit me at the small hotel owned by his friend, um…let’s call him Mohammad (M2), close to the resort where the rest of the Distant Heat festival was taking place. I was skeptical, but when I arrived, it was indeed minutes from the main resort, the rooms had air conditioning, their own showers, there was an outdoor pool that was clean and peaceful, and it was within my budget.

After another all-nighter, I collapsed in my little air-conditioned hut and planned to laze the next day away poolside in silence and solitude.

The day started out pleasantly. M2 greeted me on the way to the pool and asked if I wanted coffee. I happily accepted the needed fuel and breakfast, which M. had told me, was included.

I was a little disappointed when M2 brought out a tray for two, but at least it wasn’t one beach towel for two—I tend to count my blessings with the little things now. I was hoping the coffee would cure my headache, but I was overly optimistic.

“Do you have any aspirin?” I asked M2.

“You have a headache?” he seemed incredibly interested in this possibility.

“Yeah, I was up pretty late last night,” I replied ignoring the alarm bell that just went off in my head and was competing with my headache.

He leaves and a few minutes later returns with some aspirin. I thank him and before I can even swallow the pill, he’s sitting behind my lounge chair and grabs my head and begins a massage technique that he tells me he learned from the Russians.

I wanted to shout, “Hey look! I’m cured – good job!” and then under my breath add a “quit fucking touching me" to the accolades. But, before I have a chance, he asks, “Can you feel this?”

He has a lock of my hair that he’s holding up from the top of my head. “Yes,” I say tentatively.

“Okay.”

Snap!

He pulls hard on the lock of hair and I immediately turn around and put my hands to the top of my head. “What are you doing?” I demanded.

“You have to pull the bad energy up from the scalp through your hair. It works, the Russians taught me.”

“Do I have a huge bald spot on the top of my head????”

“No, no….” he assures me.

I rub my head and look at him dubiously. “Don’t do that again.” Still a bit dazed from the hair pulling, I barely notice that he has moved from his head massaging perch and is now standing over me with a bottle of sun tan oil and an eager look on his face.

“Lay on your stomach,” he says, “and I will rub this on your back.”

Fuck…

“Oh, no, that’s okay. I’m good,” I say trying to be politely dismissive.

“But, I want to massage you.”

“No, that’s not necessary, really…”

“But, really, I want to do this for you,” he insists.

“Ah, well, maybe later, I’m going for a swim so best not to waste!” I say cheerfully, knowing that later will never come.

Finally he relents and jumps in the pool.

I don’t follow. A few minutes later he’s back at my lounge chair.

“I think you are lazy,” he states plainly. “You are not swimming.”

Mamma mia! I might actually drown myself in the pool if he doesn’t leave me alone.

“I’m getting in, I just want a little more sun,” I say in response, but hating the fact that I’m even explaining myself to him.

He annoyingly stayed by my side for the rest of the day, but it gave me ample time to question him about the area and find out that some of the best snorkeling in the world is located across the street.

He insisted on coming snorkeling with me and as he knew where the best coral was, I relented. Little did I know he would come to think of this later as a date.

“Can I make for you a dinner on the beach?” he asks as he’s putting away the snorkeling gear.

“Uh, well, isn’t dinner served here at the hotel?” I ask.

“Oh, yes, but I can grill for you some fish, it will be very nice.”

“Ah, thank you, but I think I’ll just eat here--with everyone else.”

“As you like,” he says, and then a few minutes later, “What do you like to drink? Vodka?”

“Um, yeah, sure…I drink vodka sometimes.”

A huge grin appears on his face. “Okay…tonight we drink vodka.”

Whatever, dude.

I gladly retreat to my hut, alone at last, until my stomach leads me to the communal dining area towards the front of the hotel.

Thankfully, M2 does not dine with me, but just as I’m finishing my meal, he’s by my side.

“So,” he says with that same big grin, “what do you like with your vodka?”

“Um, soda, I guess?”

“Ah, you like orange soda, like orange Fanta?”

“Sure, sure, orange Fanta’s great.”

I sigh inwardly as he motions for me to follow him towards the pool area. I suppose if I can’t hang out by myself, at least I’ll have some vodka to dull the pain.

I plop myself down on a lounge chair by the pool. M2 stops in his tracks carrying the tray with vodka, ice, orange Fanta, and glasses. “No, the view from the terrace is very nice. Come, come...” he beckons.

“Oh, I’m sure it is, but let’s just have a drink down here,” I suggest. Where there are plenty of lights and people.

“No, you must see the view.”

I follow the direction he has cocked his head, it’s just up a short staircase and within site of all. “Okay,” I relent.

Up on the terrace there are two lounge chairs set up facing the sea. I don’t lounge; instead I sit upright, really wanting that drink now.

He pours me a drink and I realize that I have nothing to talk to him about, so decide to get some fact-checking for my article out of the way. I ask him more questions about the area: distances, names of towns, future plans for this part of Aqaba, history, etc. Soon, he’s pouring us another drink, plus a shot.

“Look, here,” he says as he’s pouring vodka into a small shot glass. He covers the top of the shot glass with the palm of his hand, picks it up with his other, gives it a good knock on the table, and then shoots it. “This is how the Russians do it,” he explains proudly.

What? Am I supposed to clap? Let’s see, the last time the words “shooting” and “Russians” were in the same sentence, I was aiming an AK47.

“Oh,” I say. “So the Russians taught you that? Do you get a lot of Russian tourists here?”

“People from all over, yes,” he says and shrugs. “Here, for you” he slams another shot on the table and then hands it to me. I proceed to sip it. He looks disappointed and pours himself another.

I finish my drink and shot and he quickly pours me another of each.

I chuckle to myself. Hey, I know this game! It’s: “Let’s get the small American girl drunk!” Oh, M2…if only you knew that I have a Norwegian-like ability to drink...

Having run out of questions and growing tired of drinking, I tell M2 that I’m heading to bed.

“But, wait,” he says, “I still must give you a massage.”

“Ah, no, thanks – I’m just going to bed, I'm really tired.”

“Okay, well we can do it either in your room or my room, as you like.”

“Uh, no, that’s okay, I don’t need a massage.”

“But, you told me ‘later’ – you said I could massage you later,” he protests.

Ah, fuck. Using my words against me – dammit!

“Well, I don’t want a massage,” I reply flatly.

“But, I want to do this nice thing for you. What? You don’t trust me?”

The alcohol is kicking in and he’s starting to get agitated by my refusal.

“You said ‘later’ so I waited. I want to do this nice thing for you. But, now, you don’t trust me? Look, we went snorkeling together and I could have done something then—“

“WHAT could you have possibly done while we were snorkeling?” I ask cutting him off, shocked by this ludicrous example of his trustworthiness.

“This is the way it works,” he tells me like I'm a six year old, “if a man and a woman are having drinks, surely they will have sex.”

“WHAT!???”

“Yes, yes,” he reiterates. “For a guarantee—if we drink together, either I will end up in your bed or you in mine.”

It takes me a moment to recover when I realize he’s dead serious. “Well, I can guarantee you that that is NOT the way it works.”

“Yes, it is. I see it in your movies, this is what happens.”

“Wait, you’re basing your ideas of how men and women behave toward each other on Hollywood movies?” I ask incredulously.

“For a certainty, this is the way it works,” he insists.

Speaking of Hollywood, his insistence is starting to remind me of Rainman. “Look, I can make ten phone calls right now to male friends of mine who will tell you otherwise.”

“I do all these nice things for you!” he continues ignoring anything I’ve said, “…dinner, drinks, breakfast, snorkeling...and now I just want to massage you,” he mutters annoyed by my refusal and working himself up into a tizzy. “Fine, fine—the snorkeling and the drinks I’ll pay for, but you can pay for your breakfast and dinner.”

I stare at him dumbfounded, shocked at how quickly he has become belligerent and rude. And what’s this about paying for breakfast and dinner? First of all, I was told they were included and, second of all, I had intended to pay for everything, especially if it meant I wouldn’t be harassed about being given a massage.

“Look, I only let my boyfriend massage me,” I say tersely, thinking that maybe this will put things in perspective for him and make it clear that he should drop it.

“Fine!” he sneers. “Go find your boyfriend then!”

Ah, shit. Now he’s done it. He crossed the line.

I could almost feel all the emotion draining from my face. Even the shock I initially had at his belief that drinking would inevitably lure me to his bed had left me. I went quiet and still and stared coldly off at the horizon taking deep even breaths. I must have been giving what Pat used to refer to as “devil eyes” as M2 began to back peddle quickly.

“Well, I want you to have a good time. You’re my guest…” he trailed off.

“Thank you,” I said coldly and left the terrace without another look in his direction. Forget this Bedouin, nomadic, hospitality, bullshit—I’m tribal, too, asshole. Mabuhay Waray-Waray.

Lactose Tolerance

My cave in the desert.
The weeks leading up to Distant Heat, I had wondered how I would manage to stay up the entire night without the help of much alcohol (being that I had to stay coherent enough to take photos and remember the event well enough to write about it), but after 3 days in the desert with M. I had all the incentive I needed. In fact, I was pretty damn sure I could have stayed up for 3 days straight if necessary.


In the past few days, I had learned way too much about the properties of camel milk (a Bedouin aphrodisiac, in case you find yourself in a situation where someone offers it to you) and M. had also disclosed to me intimate details about various down and dirty adventures in the desert that he had had with other women who had found themselves alone with him in the desert. It was if he was interviewing and providing me with examples that could showcase his virility and lovemaking skills.

Fortunately, my demure-asian-thing was working.

“I think you have more of your mom in you, than your dad,” M. says to me as we’re bumping along through the desert.

You have no idea.

Images of my mom flash through my head: her with a hoe raised above her head killing a snake during a childhood camping trip; her chasing the neighborhood bullies down the street with a frying pan after they threw a rock at my sister; picking up spiders with her bare hands that would make most people faint; the murderous look she would give right before all hell broke loose…

“Really, what do you mean?” I ask lightly.

“Well, you’re not the kind of woman that is always after a man, and I’m not the kind of man that’s greedy for a woman.”

“Well,” I said in reply, “I am shy,” still playing Asian, “and besides I don’t get it, YOU’RE MARRIED!” I say with extreme emphasis.

“Oh..well,” he says with a slight shrug as if brushing off some sand from his clothing, “I’m celibate from my wife. She does her thing and I do mine. We have children together, but that’s it.”

Translation: I haven’t been laid in a year and I’ve been drinking camel milk on a daily basis. Holy fuck, thank god the festival is tonight.

“Ah, it’s a good thing you didn’t have any of the camel milk,” he says.

I turn my head and stare out the window at the passing desert scenery. I want to mouth “HELP ME” to the rocks and sagebrush—I can’t even imagine what the look on my face must have been.

Yup, he milked it on the spot.

Voyage into Dumb…I mean Rum

It’s pitch black.
The stars crowd the sky.
The night is quiet; the breeze is light.
And I am incredibly anxious.

The night sky in Wadi Rum is unparalleled for stargazing. Here there are so many stars that it’s difficult to make out even simple shapes like the Big Dipper or Orion. They are outshined by constellations that most people will never see in their lifetime. Under normal circumstances I would revel in this spectacular light show, but enjoyment eludes me.

I’m lying on my back on a mostly flat section of sand, hands resting absently on my stomach. To an outside observer, I may appear relaxed, but every muscle in my body is tense—instinct telling me that something is going happen, while my mind is trying to convince my body that it’s wrong.

M. is laying beside me and has fallen silent, but I know he’s still awake. I feel vulnerable and a bit duped.

Earlier in the evening M. had asked where I wanted to sleep. I had asked what my options were. He had given me a vague response, “Well, the village, or the campsite, or wherever…somewhere outside,” he had said with a wave of his hand in the direction of the vast desert.

“Well, I think the village would be best, especially since I have all my gear,” I replied with a wave of my hand to my bags in the back seat.

He shrugs slightly, thinking about that possibility. “Hmm…,” and mumbles something unintelligible.

Now, he asks the question again as we are driving away from Diseh Camp and I restate my wish to sleep in the village.

“Well, I didn’t make any arrangements in the village and it’s late,” is his reply.

Suddenly it all becomes clear, the bypassing of the village, the visit to Diseh camp, the extended dinner, the line dancing…all of this so that there would be no choice but for me to spend the night in the desert—alone with him.

Godammit!

When we reached the campsite he plucks two mattresses from the cave (I had insisted on sleeping out in the open), but only one blanket—meant to share.

Brilliant...

Now lying side by side, looking up at the stars, I’m desperately hoping I see another falling one so I can make one fervent wish.

There’s a slight movement beside me and a moment later all hopes of wishing upon a star evaporate as M.’s hand finds mine in the dark. I go as still as a corpse, but my mind is racing. What does one do in this situation?

Running away from this scene means running miles through uneven terrain without a flashlight, not to mention leaving all of my gear. Even if running miles in the dark was an option, I have no idea how to even get to the village and at 2am, it’s doubtful that anyone would be around to help me. Leaving the campsite is not an option. But, now what? What are the repercussions of rejecting a tribal leader who is used to getting whatever he wants? Powerful men typically don’t take rejection well. Would he feel slighted? Humiliated? Would that turn to anger? And, who even knows I’m out here? I begin to wonder. This situation could get ugly very quickly.

Think!

The little voice inside my head says: Stay calm, play it cool, don’t be a bitchy American. Be the shy, demure Asian girl that people expect to encounter when they look at you.

“Hey! Look at that one,” I exclaim and with a quick motion I free my hand from his grasp to point out a non-existent shooting star.

“Hmm…?” he replies sleepily.

“Oh, did you miss that one?” I ask innocently.

I’m quite happy with my chess move until a few minutes later my hand is again seized. I try to make it as limp and lifeless as possible—like a dead fish, is the feeling I was trying to invoke.

“Your hand is cold,” he says.

Hmm, maybe this dead fish thing is working…

“Don’t worry, I’m easy. I’ll hold your hand and just fall asleep.”

I say nothing in reply, not sure what to believe or what will happen next. I start to plot my next move, but try to factor in his responses to those. Let’s see, if I pull my hand away and he really is in the process of falling asleep, will that wake him up and start the game all over again? Or, will he reach for something else? My shoulder? My waist? (shudder) Right now, it’s just my hand. It’s kind of like a weak handshake…I mean, better a hand than a breast, right? Because then I’d have to smack him and then things would really get ugly…. FUCK!

I stare up at the heavens looking for an answer and to my delight I hear slow even breathing to my left. Whaddayaknow, he really did fall asleep...

I slowly extract my hand from his, much like tiptoeing away from a sleeping baby’s crib.

* * *

At the first signs of dawn I spring from my bed in the sand before M. could even entertain the possibility of morning hand holding, morning spooning, or even worse—morning wood.

“Where are you going?” he inquired to my quickly retreating back, “it’s too early, you should sleep more.”

Fat chance, buddy.

“Ah, but the light! The rocks! …take photos…I must…before sun…too late..” came my disjointed reply over my shoulder as I headed to the more permanent part of camp and reclaimed my personal space.

I must have taken 30 shitty pictures, but I would have gladly taken a 100 more.


shitty picture#28

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Return to Rum

July 29, 2008

“No way,” I said resolutely. “That’s too steep.”

I was staring down a sand dune that came off the rock we had just climbed down at about a 60 degree angle and I was rooted to my spot. My Bedouin guide—let’s call him Mohammed—was several paces ahead of me motioning me forward. I was back in the Wadi Rum desert and all too aware that my last visit had literally scarred me for life.

I had met M. on my first trip to Jordan 3 years ago and the second time, when I was working for the Jordan Times, I had stopped in at his house and seen his family, but we hadn’t managed to meet up. He and his ancestors had lived in this desert for generations. “From when there was only one, “ he had said when I asked him earlier how many generations of his family had called this desert home. As tribal leader, he was known from Aqaba to Wadi Rum, parts of Saudi and even as far as Amman, 500km to the north. A true Bedouin, I had never seen him in western clothes.

“Give me your camera,” he says ignoring my protests.

I hand him the camera and in one smooth motion he slings it across him, grabs my hand and heads for the slope. There was nothing left for me to do unless I wanted to scream like a girl, but my pride kept me silent.

We reached the top of the dune and took the first step over…oh god, here we go…

With the first step our legs sank into the sand almost up to our knees and caused the sand around us to start moving downhill at an alarming rate—an avalanche of sand grains. Another step and more sinking, a little sliding as the sand beneath our feet became more fluid. Then another and we were moving faster, quicker steps and more sliding—it was like surfing the sand with our bare feet—and amazing and disconcerting feeling at the same time. By the time we reached the bottom we were practically running to keep up with the momentum of the sand. I laughed as we landed on solid ground, “That was crazy! I NEVER would have thought we could walk down that.”

He chuckled. “Wait..I’ll take you to some bigger ones that we’ll do at night.” With that he walked away and headed towards the car.

I looked back at the sand dune we just walked down. An alarm belll went off in my head. Bigger? Steeper? At night? Just where the hell am I going to be sleeping tonight? Shit.

A few hours later, I’m at Diseh camp, the site where the festival that I came to cover will take place two days from now. We had stopped in to see how the preparations were coming and of course M. knew everyone there and we received the royal treatment. I’m sitting in a circle, the only woman drinking tea with four Arab men who are fully decked out in their Bedouin garb. They’re speaking Arabic to each other, smoking lazily, and I’m absently staring up at the stars wondering how long I will be able to avoid giant sand dunes in the dark when it hits me: Tim’s right. I’m not normal.

I had started the day in Tel Aviv, waking up at 6am to catch a bus to Eilat, the Israeli resort town next to the Red Sea. My taxi driver had taken me to the wrong bus station, which resulted in additional cab fare and the additional stress of almost missing my bus. After the 5 ½ hr bus ride, I crossed the border between Eilat and Aqaba by foot in temperatures exceeding 105 degrees and stumbled through multiple checkpoints, a retina scan, and fingerprinting before getting in another taxi and figuring out how to get a hold of M. now that my cell phone was no longer working. Now, it’s after 11pm and I still have no idea where I’m sleeping tonight and despite my fervent hopes that I’m wrong, I’m beginning to get the vibe that M. may want to be more than just my guide. I should be exhausted, but I’m wide-awake, thanks to the large amount of tea I’ve consumed.

Incredibly loud Arabic music starts up suddenly, disrupting my silent epiphany and evaluation of my current plight. There’s an Arab man dancing toward me with a huge smile on his face, and while I had distinctly remembered swearing off line dancing about 7 years ago, I looked up at his eager face and thought: What the hell, when in Jordan…line dance like an Arab.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

When you're alone in Prague...

March 27, 2008

Perhaps I had seen one too many Bourne movies, but there was something about Prague that made me feel like a spy—the towering spires, the majestic squares, the beautiful Czech women, and various Eastern European languages that I grew up associating with Global Thermal Nuclear War…

Whatever it was, my head was filled with thoughts of intrigue and danger and I decided to allow my inner Bond-girl to run free with a trip to the local gun range. Plus, I was quickly tiring of watching countless couples drool over themselves while I chowed down on my bratwurst and hot wine from the sidelines--although I can't say I didn't enjoy it.

The gun range was situated in Prague 6, a little ways out of town. As the directions on their web site were in Czech, I was left to fend for myself, but figured I’d get close enough and figure it out from there.

I had been walking back and forth down the same road for the last 40 minutes and had found a veterinary school, a college registration office, and two non-English speaking Czech men who had sent me in opposite directions when I asked about the gun range, which is called Magnum or Střelnice, by its Czech name.

After finally asking a woman and getting a correct answer, I was soon on my way down a gravel road, past an abandoned looking house, several dilapidated fences, and about five black feral cats that stared at me with bright yellow eyes as I walked by. I was just beginning to wonder if I was still on the right path when the sound of automatic weapons floated towards me.

The building was plain and communist like except for the plastic tables and umbrellas on the makeshift patio. As I walked up I was joined by a group of middle-aged Czech men all with various firearms slung across their shoulders. We waited together outside the front door and were buzzed in. The woman who greeted us sensed immediately that I didn’t belong.

This was Alena, we had spoken on the phone earlier. She leads me into a smallish dining room that consisted of doily-like curtains, a small bar, and a wood stove. She doesn’t speak much English, so with hand gestures she tells me to sit and returns a couple minutes later with a clipboard and a highlighter in hand.

Ah…the menu! I peruse it curiously…
-Pump-action shotgun
-.357 magnum
-.44 magnum
-.22 sniper
-Glock

And then there it was—the semi-automatic Russian made Kalashnikov also known as an AK47 (AK for Avtomat Kalashnikova, 47, as in circa 1947).

Arms dealers the world over have sold the AK47 to countless militias and it is the weapon of choice for many foreign armies based on its extreme tolerance to adverse conditions and ease of use—it was originally designed for Russian soldiers serving in the Artic who would need to operate the weapon while wearing heavy gloves. With an estimated 90 million AK47s having been manufactured in the last 50+ years, it is the most widely distributed assault rifle in the world, but outlawed for civilian use in most Western countries, including the U.S. until the ban expired in 2004. Although some states, such as California, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Massachusetts have specific restrictions. It weighs roughly 10lbs, has an effective range of 300-400 meters, and a “lifespan” between 20 to 40 years depending on the conditions it has been used under. It’s chilling to think that this weapon will last longer than my digital SLR, my computer, most likely my car, and countless other gadgets in my possession. Not to mention the fact that in the poorest and most war torn countries in the world you can purchase one for less than a tank of gas. And, now, here it was in front of me, providing some afternoon diversion, quietly waiting to see whether I had any aptitude for shooting a different kind of mechanical device.

I slowly pulled off the cap of the highlighter, made my mark, and handed the clipboard back to Alena. She looked at my selection with a smiling, knowing nod of approval and I followed her to the next room to meet my instructor, Tom.

I was fiddling with my camera gear as he began to explain how to load the bullets and I realized quickly that with his accent if I didn’t stop and really pay attention I might miss some valuable detail. His English was limited like Alena’s, but we covered the basics—don’t point the gun at him, only at the targets; load the bullets one at a time in the magazine; click the magazine cartridge into place; pull the side lever toward you in a quick fluid motion; hold the gun so your shoulder takes the brunt of the recoil; check your sights; and then Tom says quietly, “Very gently, so softly, pull the trigger.”

--if you see black (safari users), double click inside the frame to start the movie--

Somewhere Over Germany

May 30, 2008

I’m on a plane on my way to London and, somehow, I always spend my travel days completely exhausted. Whether it’s staying up late trying to figure out how all my belongings will fit into 2 bags or partying like a rock star until the sun comes up, it never fails—I end up on a plane, train, bus, car, boat, etc. completely wiped.

Just three days ago I was on Mykonos with Karina and Juice. The three of us traveled around Italy and Greece for two weeks and all manner of hilarity and craziness ensued. We laughed our asses off, danced our asses off, and drank like sailors.

I think I’ll have to just pick and choose singular events to write about as trying to summarize everything would be too much. So! here begins the part of the blog that will no longer be chronological as I fill in some of the gaps from the last couple months…

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Return to the Hut

May 29, 2008

Oh god…there’s something definitely living underneath Huong’s old bed. And to think I scoffed at her when she used to think she was getting chewed on at night. But, today I saw them…at least fifty tiny black carcasses in a mound in the corner. I had to stop investigating as I had no desire to see who my new roommate was and if I don’t actually see it perhaps I will still be able to sleep at night.

The latest update with Mr. Vardakas is that him and Poppy have split up for good. Apparently she moved out right around the same time Huong and I left the hut.

“I wish I had never met that woman,” he spat out the words bitterly. “She’s with an Albanian now. I told her to get out. She’s a son of a bitch!”

I tried to make sympathetic noises.

“So, I told her get out and I slapped her,” he said matter-of-factly. “She deserved it, she’s a bitch.”

Alright, then—sympathy time over. Must-leave-now before he does something else to piss me off.

As I’m backing out as quickly as possible from the conversation so as to avoid any additional details about their altercation, sex life, or racial slurs against Albanians, his bitterness evaporates and he gives me the once over.

“Oh, you look sexy,” he says with a wink and a smile. “Do you want to go out on the boat tomorrow?”

I start to throw up a little in my mouth.

“Why don’t you stay here with me?” he suggests.

I laugh. “I’m taken!” I shout enthusiastically and begin to walk up the stairs to the roof, acutely aware that he’s probably trying to look up my dress. So maybe it was a lie, but there is some truth to it–-I AM taken, I’m totally committed to myself!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sponge Bath Fas

May 12, 2008

I’m on the night train to Florence and my couchette-mates are two American girls and an older French woman named Monique. The light streaming through the window gives the cabin a golden glow as the sun sinks into the horizon. There’s something very special about traveling by train, perhaps it’s just nostalgia or the fact that I always think better as I watch the countryside speed by.

After six weeks in Paris and especially the last few days filled with trips to the park, concerts, patanque, goodbye drinks, and goodbye dinners, I feel much like I did upon leaving Seattle—sad to go, excited about my next destination, and in desperate need of sensory deprivation, not to mention a little detox.

I’m also immensely happy that for the next week I won’t have to travel across town to take a shower, although I have to admit, it’s made for a very interesting experience and I realize more than ever that I’m so fortunate to have such generous friends. In the last 6 weeks, I’ve slept in 7 different apartments and showered in almost as many places—hmm…perhaps more if you include the semi-sponge bath I did in Starbucks. Yeah, so don’t knock the Starbucks—they’ve got the cleanest bathrooms in all of Paris!

I got into the habit of just carrying bathroom toiletries around with me as my first lesson in Paris was: never turn down an opportunity to take a shower. The second was: French is a very difficult language, especially if you’ve studied a language like Italian, where you normally pronounce everything.

This past Friday marked the completion of a 5-week super intensive French language program that pretty much sucked my brain dry—in a good way. My day typically started at 7:30am, as the courses were held Monday through Friday, 9am to 6:15pm, with a variety of different professors. The courses were conducted completely in French and we were forbidden to use any English, even to each other. Some of the professors focus solely on working with beginners, others teach a theatre class once a week, there are also a variety of workshops that cover written exercises, audio drills, supervised study hours, and group exercises that focus on oral proficiency. I was pretty skeptical at first, but overall was pretty impressed with the level of professionalism that’s devoted to teaching and it’s pretty surprising how much I’ve learned in such a short time. Plus, it’s damn satisfying to be able to have small talk with Monique in French and then switch to Italian when the conductor comes by, so what if I speak like a toddler.

The classes were made up of students from all over the world and of varying age ranges. The largest nationality represented in my class was Swedish, but there were also Spaniards, Italians, Mexicans, Germans, Brazilians, Portuguese, Chileans, Dutch, British, Australians, Americans, Turkish, and a surprising amount of Koreans. If you’re traveling alone it’s a great way to meet people, as you automatically have something in common with everyone there: learning French.

I'm incredibly excited about seeing Karina and Juice as well as Capt Lew & Nick in Italy and being in Florence again after four years. I've never returned from Italy unchanged so it will be interesting to see what this trip brings. Already the conductor has checked in on us for the 8th time...ah...viva italia!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Paris is always a good idea…

April 14th, 2008

It’s been nearly 5 years since the first time I set foot in the Paris city limits and that trip taught me that when your current living situation looks bleak, Paris is always a good place to recharge.

I had already decided to go visit James and Leigh for their birthdays when Huong had given me the bad news about the hut. She had decided to leave for good, but wasn’t quite sure of her heading. Being that I’m scheduled to meet Juice and Karina in Pisa on May 15th, I’ve decided to camp out in Paris for the next 6 weeks and learn French. I’ve been couchsurfing between 3 different apartments since arriving mainly because I have an intense fondness for showers.

Leigh had graciously offered to let me stay at his place while he was on tour, but had warned me about the less than luxurious amenities: servant quarters in the attic with the toilet in a closet down the hall, faucet in a hallway, no heat, no kitchen, and up a dizzying 8 flights of stairs. The attic was made up of narrow hallways lined with multiple doors, some of which had tenants and others that were simply storage compartments for the tenants that were fortunate enough to live in the main part of the building. I rummaged around in one of the rooms in the far end of the attic and found a broken mirror. Voila! I now had a makeshift vanity – nevermind it was in the hallway by some ancient mops.

It reminded me a little of my old Georgetown loft, gritty and a bit dorm-like. “So…,” I asked, after Leigh had given me the grand tour, “where is the shower?”

“Yeah…um, I haven’t been able to find one yet.”

Gulp. I suddenly realize that “camping” is a very appropriate term for my stay in Paris. “What do you do?” I ask.

“Well, I go to a friend’s house, sometimes Vero & James’, or I go swimming.”

Time to find a swim cap, I guess.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Last Days

March 26, 2008

“Do you want the bad news or the really bad news?”

I had just received an email from Huong and at the mention of bad news my heart sank. She had left Prague three days prior to head back to Chios, but I had stayed behind to meet with a photography contact.

“Give it all to me,” I wrote back hastily.

She then began to detail out the series of events that would lead to the eventual parting of ways between her, the hut, the island, and ultimately Mr. Vardakas.

When she arrived back at the hut, the warm weather, a dripping shower, and airtight doors & windows (which we had left closed) had created a steam room effect. The entire hut was weeping. Our mattresses, our blankets, our sheets, our clothes, and any paper that was left out—all of it was soaked. A ½ inch of water covered the hut floor; water dripped from the ceiling and walls, and the entire bathroom ceiling was covered in mold that was quickly spreading to the kitchen.

To top it off, the next day she awoke to Mr. V. dumping brown liquid onto the roof from a suspicious cistern on top of the hut. “Um…what are you doing?” she asked him anxiously.

“We clean the tank, “ he replied.

“The sewage tank?” she asked even more anxiously. “Water from the toilet?’

“Yeah, the water, it comes down and we clean, “ he replied matter-of-factly.

She watched in horror as the brown liquid emptied out in vast quantities onto the rooftop and inched its way to our front door. She ran inside to escape and then discovered her bed was covered in tiny black specks that had been biting her all night. During her killing rampage, Mr. V. brought her a bill for April’s rent—9 days early. “Rent is due on the 21st!” he told her happily. I could just picture her, flip flop in hand wanting to swat Mr. V. like one of the tiny bugs that had pestered her all night.

The next day, he lured her into his apartment under the premise that he had some food to give her.

“I want to love you,” he told her over some pasticcio.

“I said no already,” she said coldly.

He was not deterred. “Poppy…she’s no good for nothing. She works too much. I told her to get out. So, you can move down here and live for free.”

Soon after I received an email detailing out these events and her decision to leave.

But the clincher was what had happened the following morning.

She wrote, “And, this morning I heard him having sex.”

Later I asked her how she came to this conclusion. Was it Poppy? Someone else? Who could he have possibly convinced? She proceeded (at my prodding) to tell me about the sounds she had heard in the dark. It reminded me of that scene in Grizzly Man where Werner Herzog tells the coroner that no one should ever listen to the tape that recorded the sounds of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend being killed. Well, I realize now that I never should have asked her to describe the sounds she had heard early that morning. It’s bad enough that she has to live with Mr. V.’s happy ending echoing in her ears—now I do, too.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Night Out in Dublin

Finally had a chance to go through some video footage and string together this little clip. Possible long load times, when you see black, double click in the frame. Enjoy.

Friday, March 21, 2008

St. Patrick's Parade


I've been a little behind at posting thanks to intermittent wifi in Prague (oh, and a crazy woman who is renting the room next door...She apparently hears voices--angry voices--at all hours of the night). She got kicked out this morning and now the wifi is also working. So! here are some photos from the big St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which had a surprising amount of American marching bands performing in it. Even one from Washington State—the Shorecrest Highlanders.

I was actually expecting the parade to be crazier, I guess the Fremont Solstice parade has made me equate parades with all kinds of wackiness and freakiness, but it was all wholesome family fun at this one.

www.hfassio.com/stpatricks/index.htm

Monday, March 17, 2008

Embrace Your Inner Irishman

March 17, 2008

I made this little list while drinking Guinness and shots of Bushmills at an Irish Pub called The Ivy House not far from our B&B. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to take notes as I managed to accomplish task#1 on the list rather quickly. So, for those of you who have yet to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, here are some tips (from the source) on how to be Irish.

1. Get loads drunk.
2. Start a fight.
3. Learn an Irish song.
4. Hate Irish celebrities.
5. Be friendly to all.
6. Wear green.
7. Know (by heart) a song by Oasis.
8. Participate in a “breezer” (as in Bacardi Breezer – insert straw in bottle, tilt head back, say a prayer, and try to finish first).
9. Slug an Englishman.
10. Snog an Irishman.
11. Do an Irish jig.

And last, but not least…

12. Be sure to tell someone “Póg Mo Thón” (kiss my ass) or just wear the shorts!

hmm...do these shorts make my butt look big?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

blimey!

Gotta love technology. I'm currently at heathrow posting from my iPod touch. I love this little gadget. Thank you Henry!! I'm on my way to Dublin for St. Patrick's Day and then headed to Prague later in the week where the forecast calls for snow. Then it's back to the hut in time for Greece Indendence day, which has got me wondering if there are any countries that do not have an independence day. The Uk perhaps?
But back to St. Patrick. A couple interesting facts:
-Yes, he was a real person.
-At 16 he declared himself a pagan.
-He was captured around the same age and sold into slavery by a band of maurauders.
-He spent 6years in slavery during which he found god.
-March 17th is the anniversary of his death.
-The Celtics celebrate Mar 17th as the rebirth of spring.
-In Celtic lore leprechauns were cranky ferries who were forced to mend the shoes of other (I would say more fortunate) ferries.

Okay kids that's all for now my index finger is tired of pecking this screen.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Day at Sea - Part Deux

More from our day at sea. This is my tribute to Bear Grylls by way of Mr. Vardakas. I call it "Man vs. Tiny Sea Creatures." The load time will probably be long and you might have to click or double-click in the black box to get it to start. Please ignore my frizzy hair.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Day at Sea

March 9, 2008

Huong and I have taken a time-out from our normal routine at the Internet café to get a cooking lesson from Mr. Vardakas on how to make tsatziki. It’s best to let the tsatziki sit for a bit to release more of the garlic flavor, so he suggests that we go with him for a fishing lesson. Today he will be hunting sea urchins, or “ah-hee-nee” in Greek.

Sure, we say, and soon after we’re heading out to Agnusa, a small island north of Chios and closer to Turkey. The wind is with us so the trip should only take about an hour.

We didn’t realize it, but entertainment was included! I couldn't post this video to Blogger for some reason, but go here to view: www.hfassio.com/movie.html

And here are some stills. These poor little things were alive, it seemed so cruel!

How to eat a sea urchin:

Crack the sea urchin in half using a knife or fork. The juice inside can be drank and Mr. Vardakas assures us that it will do wonders for you.

Scrape away the grayish-greenish-brown gunk, which I believe is its waste.

The orange (meat) that is left are eggs, sea urchin caviar.

Scoop out, squeeze fresh lemon on top of it, put on some bread (preferably lagana, a Greek sesame bread), and enjoy!


It tastes very similar to raw oysters. I don’t need to have one again. For additional photos from our day at sea, go here: www.hfassio.com/sea/index.htm

The weather got a bit rough on the way back to Chios and Mr. Vardakas emboldened by ouzo, or maybe the sea urchins, decides to chat me up while piloting the boat. He’s sitting too close for comfort, but as moving about the boat to escape is not an option, I’m a captive audience.

“You watch the show the Honeymooners?” he asks.

“No, not really,” I reply.

“Oh…I used to watch it while I made donuts in New York—late at night. I have lots of tapes at my house, if you want to watch,” he offers. “My daughter, she gives me Titanic—have you seen it?”

“Yes, many times,” I say.

“I have that also at my house. And…other videos, too—sweet videos,” he says with a smile. “You like sweet videos?”

I’m desperately wishing the sea was infinitely rougher so that he would have to give all of his attention to steering the boat. I look around at the sky, there are thick clouds over the island and I begin to wonder what the chances are of a freak thunderstorm and 40mph winds.

“Sweet?” I asked, feigning confusion.

“You know ‘sweet’,” he emphasizes. Oh god, here it comes… “Sexy videos,” he says and gives me a knowing grin.

I'm suddenly reminded of Borat..sexy time? I laugh uncomfortably and then become intensely occupied with photographing some detail of the boat. He begins to serenade me with a Greek song. I glance back at Huong; she’s sitting on a bench bundled up against the cold wind and his advances. She’s grinning from ear to ear. “Your team,” she whispers so only I can hear. I resist the urge to give her the finger.

Nightlife

March 8, 2008

Saturday night in Chios and we’re at our favorite gyro place by our hut. Isadora, who owns the restaurant and speaks a little English, is working and we chat with her and her father (another Stomatis – much nicer than the one at the bar), take some photos of the two of them, and practice our limited Greek vocabulary.

“We are going into town tonight to go dancing,” Isadora says pointing to the other girl (Eleni) who works at the restaurant as well. “Do you want to come with us?” she asks excitedly.

I look at Huong, who is non-committal and ask what time they plan to go.

“Oh…probably around 2am,” she says.

Huong starts shaking her head, laughing, and says that she will be fast asleep by then, but tells me that I should go without her.

Hmm, I thought, weighing the idea of heading into town at two in the morning. It reminded me of a night in the south of Spain with my best friend, Leah…

We had been staying at a timeshare that was very reminiscent of the resort portrayed in the movie “Dirty Dancing.” We had had our fill of bad flamenco dancing and couldn’t take it anymore. In desperation, I had asked our waiter where we could go dancing. “Ah,” he had said, “meet me at reception at 2am.” Of course, he had replied in Castilian Spanish (my Spanish was conversational at the time) and so “reception” actually sounded like “ray-thep-thee-own”. After a few tries my brain engaged and we nodded happily that we would pick him up at 2am as we had Leah’s parent’s rental car for the evening. The night had ended at a private villa in a swimming pool with me wearing a pair of speedos and a t-shirt that said something like “I like beer.” So, naturally, when Isadora suggested going into town at 2am, I was up for the adventure.

At half-past midnight, I got a call from Isadora. “Maybe,” she says, “it will be another 2 hours.”

“Okay, so 2am?” I ask to confirm.

“No, 2 more hours after that,” she clarifies.

“4am?” I laugh. A 4am start is pushing it even for me. I tell her I will go next time, when I have a chance to take a nap.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

History of the Hut

March 6, 2008

At about 11pm there was a rap on our door.

“Hello, girls!”

It was Mr. Vardakas—in blue pajamas.

“I saw your light on, so I come up! I looked in the window and saw you weren’t sleeping, so I knock!” he says grinning enthusiastically.

The window he is referring to is right above my bed. It takes all of my willpower not to look at Huong. The image of Mr. Vardakas peering in at us while we were sleeping was comical enough, but I might just burst into laughter at the look of horror that was surely crossing her face.

He had given us food earlier that day and it was surprisingly good. A homemade version of spanakopita and then a shrimp risotto of sorts. Tomorrow he said he wanted to make us another dish.

He looked around the room and began to tell us about all the improvements he had made to it over the years. How he and his ex-wife had lived in the hut when they were first married. His eyes rested momentarily on his most recent contribution to the hut—my bed.

“You know,” he began, “one day I was on my boat—out at sea. There were no fish, but I see this log on the water…And, well, no one was around, so I stopped and pulled it up.” He pauses to laugh as he remembers and continues, “So then, when you came, I said, ‘Whatta I'm gonna do?’ and I thought, I make a bed with this log.”

“This?” I asked, pointing to the bed I was sitting on. “You made this out of a log you pulled from the sea?”

“Yeah,” he said shrugging nonchalantly, “sometimes freighters/Russian ships pass by, things fall off… Well girls, sweet dreams!”

With that, him and his blue PJs shuffled out of the of hut and back downstairs. Kind of nice, I thought to myself, being carried off to sleep every night on a piece of old driftwood.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Invisibility Cloak

March 4, 2008

I've started waking up and doing yoga on the rooftop--well, a combination of yoga and kickboxing moves. I'm sure I'm giving the neighborhood something to gossip about, as we're situated in a very visible area, but I don't care--I am a ninja.

Interestingly enough, like a true ninja I have developed a certain amount of invisibility, although my invisibility stems from being an immigrant dishwasher rather than years of practiced stealth. It's amazing how much you're ignored when you don't speak the language and when you're at the bottom of the social food chain. It's like a handicap that my co-workers would rather pretend didn't exist than having to deal with it. They actually don't even know my name. I think they've been calling me “Poppy”, the name of the Bulgarian dishwasher. Hmm…maybe “Poppy” is Greek for dishwasher?

There's been some debate over my employment at the bar. I had stopped by to see Stomatis, one of the bar managers, to talk about my schedule. He's a small, blonde, possibly gay man who doesn't seem to like me very much. Perhaps this is because I called him Stomachness when we first met.

“Okay,” he had said, “you work Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.”

Whoa…whoa…hey now...

Huong was right, the old bait and switch. Originally when I “interviewed” with Steyo he had been very open to whatever shifts we could work, which in my mind did not include 5 days straight of the vampire shift. Not to mention the shifts were so long that even doing 2 equaled 20hours a week. And that doesn't even factor in the recovery time from an all night shift. I was lucky to get to bed at 7am and even being exhausted it was hard to sleep past 11am with the bright sunlight streaming into the shared, one-roomed living space. Huong had actually never taken the job, she decided being a zombie wasn't for her.

So I told Stomachness/Stomatis what Steyo and I had discussed. “Okay, I'll check with him,” he said and took my number.

“Uh, do you want my name?” I asked, looking at the scrap of paper that he had scribbled my number on.

“Oh,” he replied absently, giving me the pen when he had no clue how to spell my name.

When I walked out of the bar Huong was waiting outside away from the endless cigarette smoke trying to catch the Wi-Fi signal. “Well?” she asked.

I started laughing. “I think I just got fired.”

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Tech Support

March 2, 2008

Huong’s computer died two days ago and she’s been mourning its loss ever since. I can’t blame her; our laptops are our lifelines to the outside world. We have no TV, we can’t read the newspapers, and most of the locals are indifferent to our presence. If it wasn’t for the Internet, we could almost forget that an outside world exists.

The last couple days have been spent lazily walking to town and hanging out at our favorite wi-fi Internet café, Cosmos, sharing my laptop. It’s a huge step up from the InSpot Internet café with its rows of desktop computers, teenagers playing video games, and constant cloud of cigarette smoke.

Yesterday Huong went to pick up her laptop from one of Mr. Vardakas’ cousins. He has a shop that sells heaters, stoves, washing machines, random kitchen appliances, and apparently can fix laptops, too. We both were skeptical. When we arrived, Huong asked meekly if they were able to save anything.

“No,” Costas, the technician, replied. “Big problem.”

That was as much information as we could get out of Costas. Much to Huong’s dismay, they had reinstalled a Greek version of Windows XP, which left most of her computer indecipherable. On top of that, the wireless modem and DVD drive was no longer working. Even more to her dismay were the several text messages from Costas asking her to get a drink. Perhaps the half-fixed computer was all a ploy to see her again.

We went back to see Costas again and dropped off her computer. We have no idea what he’s going to do with it.

Meanwhile during my stint as a dishwasher, I had missed out on some domestic drama that Huong filled me in on: she thinks Mr. Vardakas is in love with Poppy, the Bulgarian dishwasher. Everyday he takes her to work and every night he picks her up. He lets her stay with him (in her own bedroom) free of charge while she sends all the money she makes at the bar back to Bulgaria for her children, who are 19 & 21. At every occasion Mr. Vardakas likes to mention how stupid this is. “They should be making their own money,” he says adamantly shaking his head, “but instead she works herself to death. Stupid woman.” Ah, yes… such terms of endearment.

“No, really!” Huong tries to convince me, “There were tears in his eyes as he was talking about her!” Hmm…was this before or after he mentioned how badly he wanted a girlfriend, I asked.Poppy seems only irritated by Mr. Vardakas’ attentions and as she speaks only Greek and Bulgarian, our conversations are currently limited to pleasantries.

Friday, February 29, 2008

¡Dios Mios!

February 28 or...eh...29, 2008

It's six in the morning and I've never appreciated last call in the States until this very moment. I smell like a stale hookah—no , a USED hookah. Ugh. I spent the last 10 hours washing dishes at one of the busiest bars/nightclubs in Chios. The night started out pleasantly enough, cappuccino in hand I sipped the liquid caffeine that would get me through the night and surveyed my surroundings. Everything was in order, no problemo.

At about 2am we ran out of water. I’m the dishwasher and there is no water. My world sucks ass right now. As the dishes piled up and up and up and up, Britney Spears sang “Gimme, Gimme, more…” Little did I know they would be continuing to give me more until 5:45am.

I feel like I’ve smoked five packs of cigarettes, my feet hurt, my back hurts, I have tiny cuts all over my hands thanks to multiple glass breakage—the intense hot and cold from the ice and then the dishwasher makes the glass extremely brittle. In 40 minutes I will have been up for 24hours straight. I must have expended 3,000 calories tonight. I am starving. Can someone please get me a gyro????

On top of the hours of hard labor I just did, I now have to walk 2 miles home—in the dark. But the sky is quickly changing; it’s gone from a pitch black to a deep midnight blue. I’m sitting on a bench across from a large square. I breathe deeply, hoping to muster enough energy for the walk. The city is starting to come alive, but I’m about to die.
my own personal hell

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Hello, I’m your Mexican

February 26, 2008

Huong and I have been exchanging questioning looks as Mr. Vardakas explains the job that he thinks he can get us at his cousin’s bar. “Well,” he says nonchalantly, “you start at about 8pm and then you’re done whenever the bar is closed. Sometimes they close early, sometimes they go until 8am.”

We find out that the pay is 30euros a night, regardless of how long the shift is. It's a bit of a dilemma: do we spend our nights working, days sleeping, barely making any money, or do we throw caution to the wind, plough through our savings, but have a blast for the next 3 months traveling about?

We have an appointment at 3pm to meet the boss and Huong and I have been weighing our prospects. On the one hand, the bar is situated in a primo location, right on the main street that hugs the sea, it’s always packed, and the potential for getting more integrated into this culture increases by working in a social environment. So far, our interactions have centered around Mr. Vardakas and Poppy, a Bulgarian woman who also works at the bar 7 nights a week and rents a room from Mr. Vardakas.

The reality is that our options as illegal immigrants are few and we find ourselves in a curious position—we are the Mexicans here. We share a cramped living space, we don’t speak the language, we will be working long hours for little pay, our country’s currency is significantly weaker than the country we are currently in, and we don’t have the official paperwork that would allow us to get a job that doesn’t require menial labor.

Steyo, one of the three partners of the bar, breezes down from the upstairs office. He greets us kindly and says, “So, would you like to work here?” I stall by asking questions. I knew Huong was still on the fence, but I had just about convinced her that this job could lead somewhere. Where that might be, I had no idea, and although I had only planned on working at a restaurant as a last resort, the journalist in me wanted to be a Mexican.

So when Steyo asked if we wanted the job, I served us both up on a platter. After all, I’ve met some of the most amazing people I know in a bar.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

“…but I don’t love to arrive.”

February 24, 2008

There’s a line from my favorite poet, Mahmoud Darwish, that describes my mood right now: “Addresses for the soul, away from this place…I love to travel to any wind, but I don’t love to arrive.”

All the anticipation, excitement, flurry of activity, day dreaming about what things will be like once you arrive, plus the physical effort expended to get to your destination puts you on an adrenaline high that heightens every sense. Then you arrive and you still can’t relax—a new set of realities is greeting you at every turn, your own reflection in the mirror looks strange...everything is foreign.

Our one bedroom apartment is literally one room rectangle about 12’ x 10’ with a smaller hallway for a kitchen in back and a tiny bathroom. It could be worse. I remember my friend James’ apartment in Paris had the toilet in a utility closet—so small that your knees brushed the door when you sat down—and you had to step up onto the kitchen counter to take a shower. But, at least there was water and even hot water, unlike the apartment in Jordan, which was huge, yet missing these key elements much of the time. Given the small space, right now our luggage looks like it threw up in the room.

But, despite our clutter, some nice details greeted us: fresh vine-ripened oranges on the shelf and in the refrigerator, newly painted walls, two new beds, and my personal favorite, which words cannot do justice:Was this little shrine left over from previous tenants? Or, was this Mr. Vardakas’ personal interior decorating touch? Best not to dwell too long on this subject…

While our little hut on the rooftop is small, we do have the entire rooftop to ourselves and we wake up every morning with a view of the sea. We’ve decided that we will claim the rooftop as outdoor living space and make it cozy.








Later in the day we got our first look at the island with Mr. Vardakas as our tour guide. We met an Orthodox priest, who is the lone caretaker of the Mersinidiou Monastery, apparently because everyone else has died.
We asked Mr. Vardakas what will happen to the Monastery when the last priest died, he shrugged his shoulders, picked some geraniums and handed a stem to each of us. Next we strolled about Lagada a nearby town to the North, very idyllic, with its main street floating just above the sea. Not bad for a short Sunday drive.