Sunday, June 27, 2010

30. Visit Jordan Happy Hour, Part I

So, I have about 15 minutes of time before the battery dies on this computer and I'm dying to share some images from our most recent adventure. So, here there are, with almost no explanation, which I'll write up soon. The very short story is that we went to one of the most amazing sites in the world and had an incredible adventure when we were befriended by Khalide and Ibrahim, whose families are some of those who cooperatively own the shop across from the Monastery, which is the furthest point of the buildings at the Petra site. They took us on a sunset hike out of Petra and took us to one of the caves where they stayed where we cooked dinner over a fire and danced and talked for hours on end in the middle of the mountain desert. More later, but here are a few images for now.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

30. Visit Jordan - And Learn the Meaning of the Word "Hospitality"

So, when I posted about my trip to the Dominican Republic my one-word description was "vibrant". Applying the same exercise to Jordan, the word that immediately comes to mind is "hospitable". And that is really saying something because a week ago I would have been completely willing to bet any amount of money that I had already been to the most hospitable country on earth, which I was sure had to be Tanzania, where the first word you always hear is "karibu" (welcome). But despite Tanzania's incrediby admirable showing every time I've been there, I have come to believe that Jordan has it beat.

I know some people I've taken to Tanzania (and maybe a few who I've now been to the Dominican Republic with as well) who might dispute my claim, so I'm assembling a few points of evidence from the many we've experienced the last few days to make my case.

Exhibit A: Our hosts, Chris and his family, the Omrans. Even though none of them were actually going to be in town when we arrived, they opened up their guest home to us, called and checked in (twice) the day we arrived, and set us up with every form of information we could ever need before we even knew we needed it. Pictured in one of the photos above is the wonderful Ashraf, who works with the family and picked up Connor and I at the airport, and then took us back again at midnight to get Siham. All of this for strangers they had ever met, just because Jamila made a request to Chris.

Exhibit B: Khaled, Jamila's good friend, who took about 10 minutes to become one of ours as well. The first night we were all in town he picked us up, and took us out for dinner and drinks and our first shisha experience (as you can see in the picture here). On top of being a fabulous host, he's a brilliant guy and a ton of fun, and all three of us are now twisting his arm to please come be a tourist with us to sites he's already seen, just because hanging out together is so much fun.

Exhibit C: Inas, our guide to the University of Jordan. My friend Gary also really came through on this trip, and very generously shared his Middle East contacts with me, doing a whole host of e-introductions on my behalf. Inas teaches English literature at the University of Jordan, and she devoted the better part of a day to showing Connor, Siham and I the highlights, and some of the nooks and crannies of the University. I think we all agree that among the unexpected things we will never forget was a tour through the campus medical museum, where an astounding array of diseased human parts were floating in formaldehyde. There were also a number of fetuses, including one with multiple heads that made one of us (okay, me) involuntarily scream when we came upon it. Inas also has the distinction of providing what was probably the most generous portions of lunch we've ever faced, and if you check out the table in the photo of Connor, Inas and I, you will see what I'm talking about.

Exhibit D: All the Jordanians we have contacted about water scarcity and refugee problems, or asked for any help about anything really. We have people who have never met us who have: offered to help us go to refugee camps, offered to accompany us to them; offered to skype in interviews with us because they are too far away for us to get to; and made contacts 3 to 4 times removed to get us talking to people they think would be helpful. And that doesn't even factor in the random acts of kindness we've experienced, including this afternoon when we were re-grouping at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the staff brought us bottled waters and candies (twice as much for Siham, of course, because everyone here loves her twice as much as ordinary mortals).

At this point, I hope I've made mine (point, that is). This place takes hospitality to a level I've never seen. There are plenty of reasons to visit, but this is definitely at or near the top of the list.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

30. Visit Jordan -- Part I: in Praise of Jamila, Siham and Leah

So, I think I'm going to have to do a whole bunch of posts to do the tiniest bit of justice to this Jordan trip, but before I even begin, I have to do one about three former students and now close friends who were intimately involved, even though only one of them is actually here.

My first thank you is to Leah, who originated the idea of the 52 New Things out of a more amorphous idea and who was in on most of the plans getting us to this point, and who is very definite that she WILL be part of the next trip to this part of the world (which I hope will be soon).

Although she couldn't come this time, Connor, Siham and I owe an everlasting debt to Jamila,who has the broadest and deepest friendship network of anyone I know, and the greatest logistical know-how. She spent a semester abroad in Jordan, and she spent the weeks before this trip connecting us with friends and helping us figure out flights and a million other things. Her good friend, Chris, is allowing us to stay in his family's guesthouse our first week here. Another good friend, Khaled took us out on our first night on the town in Amman (about which more, later) and greeted us with a question, "So, are you guys okay with following the itinerary Jamila suggested for this evening?".
Finally, I must thank Siham, who is sitting next me as I blog this. In addition to being the best all-around travel buddy anyone could ever ask for (this is now the third region of the world we've travelled through together), she has been translating for Connor and I. She's making everything infinitely easier, from letting cabs know where we're going, to reading menus at local places to us, to showing me how to log in to do this blog posting (all the labels are showing up on my computer in arabic script -- and written right to left). And being Siham, she's charming her way through the country as well. Taxis drivers go from grumpy to insisting on us not paying our fares after she chats with them, newspaper sellers call her the most charming creature they've ever seen and forget to bug us about buying the paper, and perfect strangers offer to drive us home when she asks them for directions.

Wishing they were here, I'm putting in one picture of Leah and Jamila, from a few weeks ago when they were both visiting in Burlington and helping with trip planning. There is a picture of Khaled, Connor, Siham and I eating a feast on our first night out, courtesy of Jamila. And finally, here are Siham and Connor, looking appropriately touristy as we were standing in front of the world's largest flag pole (which happens to be right here in Amman). It's a great trip so far, but it never would have happened were it not for Leah, Jamila and Siham, and before I posted anything else, I wanted to say a huge thanks.

Monday, June 14, 2010

29. Try Glass Blowing

My trip to the Pacific Northwest is winding down. My sister and her family, Katrinka, Brian and Tigist, shared their vacation with me, and we had a fabulous road trip to Idaho together. Tonight we're back home in Tacoma, and tomorrow I'll spend on planes and in airports making my way back to Burlington. A lot of the trip was actually about "old" things -- especially seeing old friends and familiar places from high school and college, which was wonderful, of course, and I just had to throw in a picture of Tigist and me standing in front of the spectacular Snake River Canyon just outside my hometown of Twin Falls, Idaho. But my brother in law Brian and I also did get to slip in another New Thing that's been sitting on the list for a while -- trying glass blowing.

While we were visiting my sister's good friend, Sarah, I had mentioned my disappointment that we hadn't been able to schedule the glass blowing class in Tacoma, which is a sort of world glass art center. Sarah solved that problem in about 30 seconds by pointing out that Boise had its own very fine glass artists, and sure enough, we called and scheduled a class for Brian and me the next afternoon at the Boise Art Glass Studios ( with the owner, Filip.

The first decision we had to make was: furnace or torch work? In torch work you sit on a bench over a torch and make lovely delicate "breakables" (as Brian put it); in furnace work you alternate between turning a long pipe with a ball of glass on the end into a 2000 degree furnace and working the glass ball with instruments that get so hot they literally catch on fire and you have to dip them in water. Guess which one Brian picked? The furnace intimidated me a little but I'm hugely glad that's the way we went.

It was definitely a learning-by-doing experience, and after demonstrating how to make a paperweight, Filip had Brian and I each make one. Basically, you dip the pipe into a pool of molten glass and get a blob of it on the end. Then you go over to the furnace, and turning the pipe constantly, heat the glass some more. Then you take it to a table and dip it into little bits of colored glass called frits, then heat in the furnace again, and then sit in a seat where you basically play with your glowing superheated glass blob with pliers and other instruments, twisting and pulling and shaping it. Then it gets another coat of clear glass, then goes back in the furnace and then gets rolled in a hollow wooden mold. When it is scored and knocked off the pipe, it gets put in a kiln overnight.

The vases we made were more complicated, with extra steps, particularly involving the actual glass blowing which, like everything else in this art, is much harder than it looks. Filip had to blow the initial bubble that turned the blob of glass into a hollow vessel for each of us -- it takes a long time to learn just how to do it so that it's centered and of sufficient volume. Each of us took a turn blowing more air into the vase form, and it was a little humbling that, just as I thought I was about to blow a lung out, Filip told me, "You can go ahead and blow a little harder."

If I were a scrabble player -- and I'm emphatically not -- I'd have gotten another bonus from the experience in terms of a whole new set of vocabulary words. In addition to the frits, I learned two new verbs, merbering (which is rolling the glass blob on a merbering table to shape it) and flashing (which is moving back and forth from heating the thing you are actually making to also heating the moil, which is the additional blob of glass that is holding your project onto the pipe).

I'd say anyone considering a career in glass blowing should be advised of the following: first, it's an art, and like all arts, takes a super-long time to learn and perfect. Second, if you want to do it well, you need to be both regular and methodical (constant turning is what makes the glass pieces uniform) and quick and decisive (I thought the glass would be pliable like bread dough and but actually you have to really dig into it with the tools to make it bend and move). And finally, glass blowing is not for the timid or those who can't take the heat. Standing in front of a 2000 degree furnace is a little freaky, and also, not surprisingly, uncomfortably hot. As you can see from the pictures, we're all wearing glasses, which we donned after Filip pointed out that it was our choice, but most people like to have something between their eyes and the super-heated glass in case of any mishaps. But having said all that, I strongly recommend that everyone take a lesson. Brian and I are still raving about what a marvelous experience it was. We had a great teacher and a great time, and as you can see from the picture, are quite pleased with our vases. Do give it a try.

52 Ways to Say I Love You

No language with this post because I learned some new English words instead.

Coming Attractions

Nothing makes travel plans seem as tangible to me as buying the actual plane tickets, and the day I got to Tacoma I was finalizing itineraries and charging my plastic with the reckless abandon that makes credit card company CEOs sing with joy. So, below is the travel line-up, as well as some plans for New Things that I hope to fit in between the travel dates.

Saturday, June 19 - Friday, July 2. Head to Amman, Jordan with Connor and Siham to start learning about water scarcity in the middle east and explore the possibility of teaching for a semester or a year at the University of Jordan, and see Petra, among other things.

Sunday, July 3 - Friday, July 9. Fly from Amman to Entebbe, Uganda to speak at and attend an international workshop in Kampala on religion, AIDS and social movements in Africa. I'll have 8 hour layovers in Cairo in each direction, so if anyone has any thoughts about how easy it is to be a tourist for a day there, I'd love to hear them. Then I fly back to Amman for one more night and get back in the US on July 11.

Tuesday, June 15- Friday, June 18. Want to try to get in at least one hike or bike ride to somewhere new, so if anyone's up for either one (likely new hike possibilities: Stowe Pinnacle or Mount Hunger or if either Lucas or Ashley were up for it, an Adirondack 46er). Also I really want to try rock climbing outside, and that opportunity would trump any other, so let me know if anyone feels like doing that one.

Monday, July 12 - Saturday, July 24. In Burlington, and looking to do any of the new things listed above, plus climb Mount Washington with Kristin and try sea kayaking on the actual ocean (and continue to work on ice skating, so anyone who wants to skate in the summer, let me know!). Then I leave on July 25 for a couple weeks combining work (co-presenting a paper with my friend Jerry at Cambridge University) and travel to new places, including the Isle of Skye in Scotland, and Denmark and Sweden.

Friday, June 11, 2010

28. Visit the Basque Block

Last Tuesday I flew to Tacoma, Washington in order to take my sister Katrinka up on her invitation to join her, my brother in law Brian, and my 2 year old niece Tigist, on a road trip to our hometown of Twin Falls, Idaho, to crash her twenty-five year high school reunion. Katrinka went to college at Boise State, and so right now we're in Boise, visiting her close college friends, Sarah (and Sarah's 16 year-old daughter Oakley, who took me on a short but great hike) and Danny.

Along the way, two near-tragedies have been averted. First, my camera broke, but luckily, Brian agreed to give me pictures from his, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I can get the camera fixed during my short window back in Burlington before I head out on June 19 for my Middle East and East Africa adventure. Second, the New Thing I planned to try in Tacoma, glass blowing, got sidelined because we could only do it on the weekend we'd be in Boise and Twin Falls. But happily, on hearing my plight Sarah pointed out a very fine glass art studio right here in Boise and so yesterday Brian and I took a two-hour lesson in front of a 2000 (not a typo, that's TWO THOUSAND) degree furnace. Our works of art (we each made a paperweight and a vase) are sitting in a kiln right now, and when we see how they turned out, I'll post a separate New Thing entry on lessons in glassblowing (which looks easy when a pro like our teacher Phil does it, but is actually very challenging).

So, in addition to getting to do the glassblowing after all, I've been able to do an unexpected New Thing that I though was blogworthy, and that was learning about the ethnic culture and history of the Basque (largely through eating, which I think is a fine medium of instruction).

For those who don't know it, the Basque are an ethnic group who live in the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain. After 9/11 they got a bit more famous because of the Basque separatist organization, ETA, that was originally blamed by the Spanish government for an Al-Queda subway bomb (the "3/11 attack") in Madrid. But in Idaho, the Basque came here mainly as shepherds in the early 1900s, and there is a surprisingly large population of them that is centered, though I never knew it till now, in Boise, Idaho.

In fact, there is a super-cool enclave right in downtown Boise, known as the Basque Block. In the last two days, I've visited the Basque Block twice, and in the process, visited or passed by: the Basque Culture Center; a restored boarding house where Basque shepherds used to stay when not in the mountains; the Bsque Museum (where I got a language lesson in Euskara and bought the requisite Basque national flag (attention political science students: the Basque are an example of a nation without a state) and refrigerator magnet); and two Basque restaurants, Gernika and Leku Ona, where I bent my usual-vegetarian rules enough to try paella and chorizo, but conveniently not enough to try the tongue dishes that are well-known Basque specialties.

52 Ways to Say I Love You Euskara (the language of the Basque people). There are fewer than a million people who speak it, so it is considered an endangered language, and interestingly, it is not related to French, Spanish or any other known European language. The people at the Basque Museum and Cultural Center (the only Basque Museum in the country) were very helpful in getting me these translations. You can check them out on line at, or the next time you're in Boise, visit it, and the whole Basque Block.

Hello Kaixo (informal) (pronounced like kesho, which is the Swahili word for tomorrow)
Good bye Agur (this is also the formal greeting for hello)
I love you Maite Zaitut (sounds like my-tie sigh-toot)
May I have two beers, please? Bi garagardoak, mesedez? (Sounds like Bee gara gar dowak, messa days?)

Coming Attractions

I'm going to do another post today or tomorrow on glass-blowing, and in that one I'm putting my travel schedule for the rest of the summer, plus plans to do other New Things during the times I'll be home in Vermont. I really hope people will take a look at it and see when and where they'd like to plug in on some of the activities, and post or shoot me an email to let me know.

Friday, June 4, 2010

27. Visit the Dominican Republic, Part II: Some Things I'll Miss (and a Few I Won't)

We've been back in the US about a week, and our group has been in touch with each other in a seemingly endless stream of commentary about the things we miss terribly from our trip. It seems only fitting to immortalize some of them in the Blogosphere. So here are my Top Five Things I'll Miss (and three that I won't).

Three Things I Won't Cry For:

3. Mud. We had been told when we arrived that the Ocoa region had been suffering from a drought, and the rain arrived with us. Good for local agriculture, not so much for Americans with our stereotypical preoccupation with cleanliness. It was really just an inconvenience, but it was a bit comical to go outside and "bathe" in our swimsuits only to walk through the mud and track it all over our house with our mud-encrusted feet. The mud got so deep that most nights we just took our mud-caked shoes off once we got to the bar and danced barefoot.
2. Cock Fighting. I don't think many human societies are particularly caring to their fellow species, and ours is awfully bad when you think of practices like factory farming and our meat packing industry. But in other places I think the forms of cruelty are less hidden, and in our village, one of its prominent forms was the local past time of cock fighting. A neighbor a few doors down had a very successful fighter, and he explained some of the procedures to us, such as cutting off the crest from the head of the rooster (so it couldn't be attacked) and plucking the feathers from the legs (so extra razors couldn't be hidden there). I've included a photo of something that startled us on our first walk home from the work site -- chicken feet tied to the laundry line. We later learned that this was the final indignity inflicted upon losing birds.
1. Los Ratones. As I mentioned in the previous DR post, the clear winner in the struggle over night-time supremacy was the rats, who had the group collectively terrified in the beginning and engaged in something like mortal combat by the end of the trip. The room that held the bunks of Korinne, Ashley, Katelyn and Carolyn looks so innocuous by day, but that's the one with the most rat visitations at night. Also pictured here, because he was so cute not because he in any way affected the rats, is a photo of our most ineffective weapon --Davito, the kitten lent to us by some neighbors on hearing of our saga.

Five Things I Really Miss:

5. The Idea of Community. All of us talked at great length about how strange it was at first, and then how wonderful, to be in a setting where constant communal interaction was the norm. We marvelled at how quickly we grew to appreciate the ways it changed our everyday experiences -- from being expected to interrupt a walk to sit down and have tiny cups of sweet local coffee at anyone's house who invited you; to comforting any child in the neighborhood who had taken a spill; to being handed a baby to hold while its mother turned her attention to the rice and beans being cooked over the three-stones outdoor fire for everyone at the work site.
4. Tropical Beauty. Maybe it's coming from the austerity of New England, but I definitely romanticize tropical places and in the DR that's easy to do. The ocean, the mountains, the lush vegetation, and the vibrancy of the culture all seem connected to the tropical location in lovely ways.
3. Dancing. Not something I would have predicted, but that's the beauty of travel and new experiences. Just about everyone in the village participated, and as temporary villagers, we did too. I think the experience was a highlight for all of us, actually.
4. The Other Ten. As with other MOVE Volunteer Trips, we ended most nights with a group reflection, and one of our favorite things was the chance to do "snaps". But Erin got sick on the last night of the trip, and we cancelled our last reflection. So here's one last snap on behalf of my ten fabulous friends with whom I shared the mud, the rats, the construction, the dancing and incredible experiences of ten intense days. Here's to:
Tom, who modeled for the rest of us what it means to be a truly kind and compassionate person, and who's performance at the airport on the last day of the trip was certainly worthy of an academy award;
Erin, who taught me volumes about putting the needs of her students before herself, and who showed me how to lead with a light touch wherein she somehow managed to both keep herself in the background and still be a constant positive presence in everything the group did;
Carolyn, who caught the eye and then the heart of Jose Luis when she taught the village of Los Palmaritos an array of new dance moves, with the same sense of humor and fun she brought to everything during the trip;
Kate, who always seemed to know just what to do, whether it was displaying an amazing aptitude for new skills on the dance floor (all the while protesting that she wasn't) or knowing when it was time to take the flashlight away from Carolyn;
Eireann, who showed the same impressive level of poise at the work site as she did in connecting with the children of the village who adored her, and in shutting down the attentions of some ridiculously insistent macho men;
Mark, the king of the one-liner, who cheerfully carried most of the village children on his back at one point or other;
David, whose hilarious "Dear Ethan" letters and general commentary had us all dying of laughter, which was the best possible antidote to the rats who competed for our bed space each night;
Joy-Ann, who put a smile on her face in spite of being sick, was entrusted with babies by village women who had just met her but immediately invited her into their homes and always figured out how to be in the right place at the right time;
Korinne, who was literally the life-blood of the group. We all depended on her phenomenal language skills (and equally great general ability to communicate with anyone) as much as the villagers did, and she never let any of us down, or even acted fatigued by the insistent cries of "Korinne!" from morning till night by Americans and Dominicans alike who needed her help.
And finally, to Ashley (or Ass-Lee, as the people of Los Palmaritos insisted on calling her). If she goes back to the village there is a good chance that they won't let her go next time. She is the embodiment of the word "ambassador" and I don't think I've ever seen anyone become so beloved by an entire community so quickly.
5. Los Palmaritos. For everyone in our group, I think our vision of the Dominican Republic will be this small mountain village that we fell in love with in less than a week. Each of us made special bonds with special people there. I'll always carry memories of Yorkis, who taught me construction during the day and dancing at night and Spanish all the time, and who picked me up and carried me over muddy streams and slippery rocks as if I were visiting royalty. And as much as we'll all remember specific people we'll also remember with an equal measure of love their home, and harbor the hope that we'll be back someday.