pyramid scheme

Behind us lay labyrinthine, garbage-strewn alleys through which we had just maneuvered the beasts. Ahead of us, the the flickering lights of a bonfire, the desert’s own lighthouse. And to either sides, no one knew.

“Don’t worry, Cate,” I offered to she who had just observed that falling off the horse would ensure certain death by trampling, “if your horse took off into that dark unknown,” I pointed off to my left, “I’ll chase after you. I was a horseman last summer, don’t forget.”

The horse was so enthusiastic, my saddle so improperly fitted (my knees sometimes bumped into my chest), and I’m such an amateur that I rubbed part of my ass raw riding to The Pyramids at 4am that one fateful morning. Then again, a horsewoman at Yellowstone told me once, “If yer not bleedin’, yer not ridin’ hard enuf.”

Sarah’s mom actually warned Cate against this. “Sarah’s going to try to get you to ride horses to the pyramids late one night.” As if it’s something we had to be persuaded to do, something to avoid?

Howdy, pardner.

Continue reading

Booted from Petra

We weren’t sure of the path.  The hiking guidebook we were using provided gems such as, “At the big rock, go around.” Or something similar.  We followed the stairs, which appeared to be new but styled to look ancient.  We passed our yoga studio, dipped into a valley, and climbed the side of the mountain once again.  We came to a huge shelf of sorts overlooking endless valleys below and for as far as we could see.

Who's comin' up around the bend?

The ancient Bedouin didn’t so much appear to us.  He was just, well, there.  “Would you like some tea? Maybe a hand-made necklace?”  I can’t decide if his business plan is genius or slightly insane.  Of course we had tea.  We hardly refuse it. I call this moment, “The Tea Sipped at the Top of the World.”  The sweet, sage-infused tea shared among friends grounded us atop this mountain.  We might not be following the guide book anymore, but it didn’t matter.  We had a Bedouin guide confirm we were on the right track.  He also knew where we had camped, that we had a fire late into the night, that we were American, and where we had hiked from.  News travels fast, and we weren’t exactly quiet.  After charging us one JD ($1.41) for each cup of tea, I noticed other hikers far behind us on the same route, and decided this old man’s business plan was genius. Continue reading

penultimate eid

Deep valleys and steep mountains lay before and behind us – and we zoom around the curves, gripping the sides of the bed of the truck for dear life. I find it difficult to light my cigarette in this wind, but I prevail with a little help from my friends. Mohammed, an army officer and friend of our driver joins us in the back. I keep staring at the door of the bed, wondering how tightly secured it is, and how long Mohammed would tumble down the mountainside before coming to his final resting place. Thankfully this leg of the trip was without incident, save for Mohammed’s questioning as to why I’d allow my wife to so bluntly engage in conversation with such a strange man like himself. “She’s very independent. She has her freedom.”

The camel of modernity

We went to a castle, and it was really old. I feel jaded. I’m saddened to say that the sense of wonder that once welled up inside my chest upon facing an ancient site no longer wells, but remains placid and deep inside me. So, the castle was old. I hardly took any pictures of the site itself, but instead tried (failingly) to capture the magnificent view from atop the mountain. I positioned myself in a watchtower and tried to imagine defending the castle as invaders scrambled up the hill, but even this musing failed to stoke my passion. Instead the thoughts of violence intensified the suns rays upon my frail face, and I was ready to get back into the truck. Continue reading

Eid trip — still…

Operation: speed through the rest of the trip. First of all, it feels like years ago. I hardly even remember anything. It’s as though I heard a story of someone else’s awesome trip and I’m just giving a second-hand retelling. Second, I’ve done some awesome stuff I want to eventually get to on this blog. For example, I went to Jerusalem, Ramallah and Tel Aviv last weekend. I’m going to Egypt this upcoming week. So, with that, let’s try to conclude my eid trip as quickly as possible.

The next day we walked up a valley. It took us all day. It was beautiful – there was water in this valley, and hence lush vegetation everywhere. It was surreal walking from an arid desert into a valley oasis, replete with swimming holes for children, palm trees, fresh springs (I drank the water trickling out of a spigot – a whole 3 liters of it, and I live to tell the story). Often we hiked shin-deep in water.

Lushy lush

Continue reading

Eid Trip #2

We rose a little after the sun to a new Islamic month: Not Ramadan.  I forget which comes after.  And I’m so late in writing this we’re probably another whole month or two later.  But it’s a moon calendar, so it’s not like a USA month.  True to form, those are bigger.

Ramadan having ended, and eid officially begun, we were served a huge spread of a breakfast.  I bet these breakfasts were served even throughout Ramadan, considering this place caters largely to a foreign clientele.  I don’t know to which fast our English word “breakfast” refers, but the etymology is the same idea: you don’t eat for a long time, and then you do.  Maybe it’s the fast of sleep.  I ate a lot, probably too much.  But isn’t it always that way at all-you-can-eat spreads?  Gotta get your money’s worth.

The hike started atop Wadi Dana from the Ottoman-era village, the one since abandoned for the newer village next to the cement factory.  Here we are all, at the start of our first day of real hiking.  We took a lot of these “Here we all are” pictures, bear with me.

The gang before descending to Feinan

The gang before descending to Feinan

Continue reading

first freelance gig

I’m pleased to announce I’ve been published in the monthly magazine Yemen Today!

The assignment was to write a Love Note to Yemen.  Check it out here.  The pictures are also mine, edited by YT staff.

I was paid for my efforts, a strange experience considering all of the things I paid my professors to read throughout my time in college.

The Yemen-Today website can be found here.

When I connect my laptop to the ‘net I will copy the text for easier reading.

eid trip #1 – we are indiana jones, we are macgyver, we are in search of Adventure and we’re on the right track

Wow, this life is exhausting.

First I had a three week vacation to Yemen. I spent my time chatting and smoking shisha and drinking tea and going to coffee & chocolate shop grand openings and magazine launch parties and cultural debates and wandering around and taking pictures of rainbows and sleeping away the Ramadan daytime. It’s not a pretty life, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Then I was compelled to sit through a grueling week-long orientation in Amman. I was forced to listen to presentations on security & safety, foreign travel, insurance plans, research clearances, how to get paid, establishing residency visas, renting apartments, signing up for classes, and other such nonsense. For four hours a day! How was I supposed to feel rested for nights on the town if I had to wake up at 7am every day?

Then I had a whole week of classes. I was pretty sure I’d be fluent by the end of it, but it turns out I have a lot of work to do. They placed me in an advanced level where the textbook answer key I brought with me from home no longer applies. We only read the newspaper and short stories, but thank God for Google translate.

Just as I thought I’d be crushed by the weight of all these responsibilities, the holy month of Ramadan ended and eid al-fitr began. Without nine days off, I don’t think I’d have made it this far in the whole “immersion abroad” thing.

To maximize cultural exchange, myself and eight other Americans grouped up for Travel ™! You should have seen us, all gussied up for Nature. Our titanium-alloy-spined backpacks were stuffed with GORP and our Kleen Kanteens swung lazily as we departed.

My friend’s sister joined us for the trip. Meet Sarah, a five-foot two-inch ball of intensity. I gave her slow instructions on how to get from the airport to the mall near my house, including such gems as, “If you ask nicely, someone will probably let you use their phone, or you can find an “ItiSilAt, which means “connections” or “communications” – a phone place, get it?!” Her flight arrived at 9am, and I started to wonder about her come noon. She calls. “Did you make it? Did you find a bus?” No, she’s waiting for me at the mall already. I walk up and she steps out of a Mercedes, smiles big and hugs me. “If we want to go to the Dead Sea or to Aqaba or Syria, Mohammed here says he’ll take us. I met his mom, she made me some great snacks. Thanks Mohammed!” Mohammed doesn’t speak English.

Sarah never takes the elevator, is a Northwestern triathlete, and gently comments upon your lifestyle: “Oh nice! I haven’t listened to English music since coming to the Middle East, let alone country western!”

She’s been in Egypt since June, and speaks better Arabic than I do.

The following day we show up at the bus station for the beginning of my much-needed recess. I don’t know why the price is suddenly double what it should have been, and I never found out why, because Sarah took care of it before I could even inquire.

A couple hours later, we’re at the outskirts of Dana, the largest nature preserve in Jordan, which is run by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN). Citrus and olive trees join 600 other species of plants alongside 45 species of mammals, 25 of which are endangered. The beautiful stone village of Dana, dating back to the 1400s, is largely uninhabited now, because this generation a cement factory was built. The residents left the historic village on the cliffs for a new one closer to the factory. Six-thousand year-old copper mines are dotted along the reserve; they were the largest metal smelting operations in the area and are even mentioned in the Bible. (Anyone who has read Lonely Planet: Jordan will see that I am borrowing heavily here.) There are a 100 different archaeological sites in the preserve, many of which have yet to be excavated or explored. Man, without this guidebook, for me Dana would have remained just something stunning to look at and walk through.

Even though we were planning on walking five days all the way to Petra, when the bus driver asked us if we wanted to be dropped off at our camp site or if we wanted to walk there, we of course wanted to walk. We stepped lightly despite our heavy bags, fueled by the self-righteousness in knowing that our $55 spent to sleep on a mattress on the floor in a stylized Bedouin tent was going to support the Conservation of Nature (TM).


Here we are, start of the trip, fresh off the bus.
(Left to right: Alex, Ali, Judith, Allison, Caroline, Regina, Me, Sarah.  David, not shown, took the photo.)

This was not about finding an authentic experience. Had we wanted to experience Dana like many Ammanis with disposable income, we would have rolled up in a BMW 4×4, seen the provided tents, noticed the fact that the entire place (including their hot water) was powered by solar panels, gotten back in our SUV, cranked up the AC and some bumpin’ Arab pop music, and sped directly to the Dead Sea Ritz Carlton for a night of all you can eat buffets served next to three swimming pools, followed by his and her facials given by Thai massage therapists. So, in this sense, thankfully for this trip we marched to the beat of our American drum. We are Indiana Jones, we are MacGyver, we are in search of Adventure and we’re on the right track.

It was the last day of the holy month of Ramadan, wherein Muslims fast and nothing passes lips from sunup to sundown. Fasting is a reminder of the plight of the poor and hungry, an emptying exercise widening one’s communication channel with God. Sprinkled throughout the month are devotional prayer sessions, and plenty of time for reflection and renewal. For non-Muslim foreigners, Ramadan is marked by dragging hard and fast on cigarettes behind buildings, enjoying secret lunches seasoned with guilt, and thoughts of, “Man, this would be so much better if I just fasted too.” Not wanting to appear inconsiderate during this last high holy day, we strayed off the path as we neared the campground to have a hidden lunch. The camp manager eventually pulled up in his truck and asked why the heck we felt the need to hide. He was waiting to orient us with the site.

A cluster of permanent sleeping tents hug the cliffside, and large open shade structures border the area. Using the phrase shade structure makes me think of Burning Man, but there were no flame-throwing three-story elephants marching through this desert. Shame.

Tents at Dana
(Photo Courtesy of Sarah?)

Still amped up from our first week of class and still fresh from only a bus ride, we flipped flash cards and drilled each other on new vocab as we relaxed through the hottest part of the day. A few hours before  sunset we hiked up a trail to check out stunning views from the valleys below.

Dana Shade Structure
(Thanks Sarah.  Daoud?)

Ali Overlooks(Thanks Daoud)

That night they served us an awesome dinner, and shared stories and sage-infused tea over a campfire. Apparently Jordanians never smile, an Egyptian will try to convince you the empty bottle of Coke is actually full before selling it to you, and Syrians speak excruciatingly slowly. We learned of a honey thief and and lies and secret passwords, and how neighbors solve problems without violence or angry confrontation. Why take things to the courts when cunning and guile get your honey back?

I sleep early and hard, and thus ends day one of my backpacking trip.

For a compilation of photos from the trip, click here. But check back, because people still have to upload their photos (Guilty.).

wherein an elderly jordanian thrift shop owner reads my numbers

The shop is so stuffed you can hardly walk through it. The only light filters in from the sunny street, dust covers every piece of clothing, and those thick plastic bags you might buy cement in spill all over one another. I arrive with my neighbor and his friend, two graphic design students in search of the cheap wares to augment their ‘vintage style’.

Upon the first step in the store, we simultaneously shift our sunglasses to our heads, and the horses are off. I want plain, long-sleeved shirts to wear to class. It’s quickly apparent that maybe what I’m looking for is under a pile somewhere, otherwise it’s a typical thrift store affair: dingy clothes loved then discarded alongside the loud, shimmery exaggerations of ‘style’ from bygone eras. I mean, there were items here to make any Synergy party-goer drool, the exact awful sequined jumpsuit with pockets and a hood that we all sought at Savers before every Thanksharing.

I browse about five minutes before leaving for a cup of coffee, coming back to Khalid trying on a knee-length bright red jacket, “Just what I need for the conceptual photo shoot I’m working on for class.”

The shop owner has to be seventy. Surprising that with such an eclectic mass of clothes, for today he has chosen leather sandals, khakis, and a faded collared shirt. He had been following the boys around stating the obvious, “Men’s pants. A bag of belts. That is a quality pair of corduroy overalls.” Upon my return he turns to me. “Coffee or Nescafe?” I tell him I’m drinking Arab coffee, with a little sugar, and milk. “Good, that manufactured stuff is bad for your health. Me, I only drink tea. But a cup of real coffee a day is good for your heart.” “I drink about five,” I tell him.

“Five! That’s dangerous! And you’re smoking! You’ll give yourself a heart attack.” I tell him I’m going to quit soon.

“What is your birthday?” Khaled had told me on the ride over that Ibrahim believes he is some sort of numerologist, able to read people by their dates of birth. When Khaled had told me this in the car, I was confused, and he clarified, “No, not your sign. Not your stars. Your numbers.” Oh. Same shit, right?

“If you tell me your birthday, I will be able to tell you if you will quit smoking cigarettes this year or not.” Hoping for good news and wishing to kill time while Nour checked himself out in leather jackets, I gave it to him: month twelve, day twenty-six, year one thousand, nine hundred and eighty-five.

He does a few calculations and shakes his head, does the “click” of the tongue that means “No, not at all” in Arabic, and explains, “You will not quit smoking cigarettes this year. You have tried to quit many times and you have failed, and you will try again soon and you will fail.” He looks at me sadly. “Do you drink alcohol?” Not in a while. “Good, if you drink even just a little bit, you will become addicted. You will drink even if you are a little bit sad or upset, and you will drink if you are happy. Thanks be to God! Do not drink, okay?” Uh okay. I shift my weight nervously from foot to foot, cross and uncross my arms.

“You know what your problem is? You have too much power in everything you do. People think you are here learning Arabic and learning about the Arabs to prepare you for something like the CIA or FBI, but you have too much power and do not do well with constraints. You will need to work for yourself or in a job that gives you lots of independence.” Up until this point I was getting along fine in Arabic, but I was finding my understanding of his explanations strange, so I started asking, “What do you mean by ‘powerful’….” Now he’s kind enough to provide his rough translation after reading my personality in Arabic. At this point Khalid is also standing in rapt attention, and translating when Ibrahim and I can’t reach a common understanding. “Do you think you will work for a group like this?” No, I tell him, I always speak my opinion and the CIA probably doesn’t like opinionated people.

“Yes, that’s in your numbers. You always speak the truth. Your mother gave birth to you on this day [he taps the paper with his pen], you were birthed from her kind, strong heart, and from then on she always instructed you to tell the truth, and to have great manners. She raised you to be strong and independent. You do things on your own that others your age cannot, because your mother loved but did not baby you.” He scribbled more on his page, performing some clairvoyant calculus. “Yes, you always speak the truth, but you are also an amazing talker. ‘Great, great, great talker’” (this last sentence in English). “You can sit in a cafe and if a friend of yours is being quiet, or is mad or sad, you can excite them into talking. You can talk to new people with ease. Your tongue is very powerful, maybe too powerful. You can convince people to do things, you can change their minds. You are blessed with talk. But this power you have with people is limited to when they are around. When you go home and are alone in your apartment (you live alone, right?), you get nervous fast. ‘Quick to nervous.’ Yes, when you are alone, you worry. You have trouble going to sleep. If you are tired and lay down, you sleep, but if you are tired and try to do something else first, you cannot fall asleep for a while, and toss from right to left, right to left.” My jaw drops and I just nod. As I tossed in bed last night I had this exact thought about my sleep patterns. Why did I pick up the book even though I was so tired?

“Yes, but you also have bad luck. You are not lucky! You lose things.” I am on maybe my eighth phone in five years. “When walking, make sure to look around you! Maybe someone will throw something off a roof, watch out! When crossing the street, be very careful.” Now I’m getting scared. “You are not lucky, no, you’re not. You try lots of things and do not succeed.” “This isn’t good news!” I tell him. “No, but you keep trying. You do not succeed for a while, but you do not give up. This is part of what makes you powerful. Maybe you study, then fail, then resume, then succeed strongly.” I think of the time I left Stanford for a while.

I wonder if this is the sort of reading where one can believe anything the seer says, pulling one instance out of an ocean of experience to match his description, but am also dumbfounded at how specific (and accurate) he has been on some points.  Yet, I think I talk too much.  Little of my hot air is powerful.  But we all love a good ego-stroking, and I begin to wonder if a leather jacket would look good with the head he’s inflating.  I ask him to continue.

“You get very lucky every ten years. 2006 was your last year. You will maybe not quit smoking until 2016.” God I hope not. 2006 – two quarters of sophomore year and first quarter of junior year. Worked at Argonne in the summer. Got probably my worst grades. I remember this year as unremarkable, so when he tells me, “No, you are unlucky, you will never win the lottery. Nour here, he might, but you never will,” I am suddenly bitter towards his calculations. I’ll show you. I’m going to go buy a ticket right after this.

Oh, wait. Dad, considering gambling is ‘haram’ or against the Muslim religious code, will you buy me a lottery ticket next time you get a chance? Play something with my birthday. Tell me what happens.

“Can I use your pen, and do you have a piece of paper? I want to write this down for later.” “You don’t need a pen or paper. You are very smart. You will remember everything I say. You will write it down later. I’m right about everything, no? It’s all in your numbers.” I just wear my shit-eating grin and shake my head in disbelief. “You also drink lots of water. Me? I sip it once in a while, but you, you like it and drink it all the time. Good.” My shoulder bag is in the car, containing nothing but the two-liter bottle that was too awkward to carry.

Nour and Khalid buy their new clothes. “I have no new bags for you guys. Ha! But nothing is new here. Reuse these bags, or else they fly away into the sky, like dirty birds. Too much pollution.”

“Happy opportunity,” I tell him, and shake his hand. “I’m, um, I’m going to come back. I’d like to talk some more with you.”

“I’ll see you then. God willing.”

mountaintop sunset yoga
Coming soon: details on a five day camping trip ending in getting escorted to the police station in Petra.  Bedouin mountaintop apparitions, sunset yoga (above), near-death scorpion and goat attacks, and more!  Tune in at the totally unscheduled time!

how do i smell bacon? there’s no bacon in jordan.

I always love when cops follow me.  I am either a threat or something worth preserving, which in either case means I’m at the very least interesting.

“Peace and the grace of God and his blessings upon you,” I respond.  This is one of the possible responses to hello (“Peace be upon you”), and I choose this more formal one because I figure it might buy me some insurance.  I’m worth preserving, but my past encounters with cops usually weren’t for my own good.

He bumbles out a few words in English, and I say, “It’s okay, I speak Arabic.”  I speak too soon.  I’m already saying I don’t understand, but he just keeps repeating that same word, making no attempt to circumlocute.  My patience with cops being about twenty seconds, I quickly blurt, “Sorry, what do you want?”

Okay, but why do you want my ID?  Why are you with the servees driver that just dropped me off four minutes ago? Are you guys cousins about to offer me a ride to my house, only to rob me or force me into marriage with a sister for the sake of US residency?  How much is this going to cost me?

I pat my ass, sigh, and smile.  He was saying



Wallet.  My wallet is in his hand.

I give him my passport, and he spends what felt like an unnecessary amount of time trying to find my names.  “Just wait a minute,” he tells me.  “These pictures…”  “This is when I was sixteen, this was  this year.”  I have black curly hair, all sorts of piercings, and a dirty, hippy shirt on in my California driver’s license, and I’m baby-cheeked and zitty in my passport.  In these pictures I’m smiling, but both is a far cry from the respectable form I wear here in Jordan.

“A thousand thank yous!” as he hands over my wallet.  I pull out 5JD ($7.07) and the cop immediately says, “No!  Welcome to our country.”  I look at the driver and he gives a “screw him, I’ll take it!” smirk, and I gladly hand it over.

I asked the guy on the bus next time how much he would have paid in this situation.  “Nothing!”  he said.  I hate making generalizations, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say almost every Arab I’ve met has been nothing but welcoming, hospitable, generous, and honest.  Even this guy on the bus insisted I come to his house to have tea and talk about our studies and life in America, where he just returned from a month-long trip.

My first two posts were about money.  This makes the third.  Sorry, I promise to try to write about more interesting things from hereon out.  And now, not two days after writing said posts, a divine intervention to remind me of what I strive to believe: sometimes you have it, sometimes you don’t, but in the end, it’s still just fucking money.

on the defensive

My American friends here in Jordan read my last post.  Today I heard a number of, “Yeah, but it’s really expensive…” comments.  And “Let ME pay for the cab!”  “Do you want these leftovers?”  “Can I pay you for a cigarette?”  I have built myself up as the cheap bastard, and now I will ever try to live it down.  That, or I will collect all the money I save and fill a bathtub with it.  I will kick up my legs and feed myself grapes.

I will have it be known that today I hung out in two different coffee shops and ordered whatever I wanted without thinking twice.  Coffees, shishas, iced mint lemonades, teas.  I took a friend out for brunch.  I paid for three months of electricity [under forty bucks, which my neighbors said is expensive.  I blame them.. we, as a floor in the apartment complex, split it 🙂 … They have lots of lights and blare their stereos every waking minute.]  I bought a book (but, it was copied… only $2.50).

Okay, but I did go out for cheap lunch ($2).  Purportedly the best shawarma in the city.  I would have splurged on expensive lunch for the sake of railing against my previous post, but apparently Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie ate there last night.  I am cooler by the transitive property of you’ve-been-where-celebrities-go.  I bet this illustrious couple came to Jordan to collect an Arab baby for their growing collection.  They’re building a rainbow family.

I don’t imagine a child in my near future.  Babies are expensive.

Here I am on a rooftop terrace of Books@Cafe, with their amazing view overlooking a mountain of Amman: