Sunday, May 29, 2011

Challenge 12: A Year (Almost) of Living in Jordan -- Ready, Set....

My plan had been to make my next couple posts be about Friends of the Earth Mddle East and water issues we've been learning about respectively, but Kate and Alexsis have my camera right now while they finish up our meetings and do a bit of tourist-ing.  So, I decided instead to use some pictures I already transferred to my computer to post about the big challenge I'll be taking up in the fall -- my ten months as a visiting Fulbright professor at the University of Jordan.  I thought it would be fun to give a little flavor of Amman, both in terms of what tourists see and what my everyday life might be like.

Spending our first 24 hours of the trip in Dubai predisposed us to be on the lookout for the biggest and/or mostest of everything.  Here I am pointing to what Amman claims is the world's tallest flagpole.  But I like the photo because I'm also pointing to the city that will be my home for the next academic year.

I had a meeting Sunday morning at the University of Jordan, and learned that my teaching, which will be in the master's degree American Studies program, will mostly be at night.  I will likely have two courses per semester, with each being taught for a three hour block in the evening.  As I mentioned in a previous post, here the work week is Sunday through Thursday, so two of those evenings I'll likely be teaching though I don't yet know which courses.  As for where I'm living, that's still not settled either, but a great thing about the Fulbright program here is that it is administered by a Fulbright Commission, and I met the charming and incredibly knowledgeable Director of the Commission, Alain, a few days ago as well.  The office very kindly arranged to take me around to a few of the flats being used by Fulbrighters this year, and it is possible that I will be renting one of those flats in September.  Below is a picture of the living room in one of them with Kate and Alexsis (who came along to give moral support and advice), Hussein, the Commission's driver, and the building superintendent.
Attention potential visitors: this might be the kitchen/living room in which you'll be drinking lots of mint tea when you come see me.

As for the all-important question of what I'll be eating next year, two items I know will figure prominently.  The first is hot tea with lots of mint and sugar. As one of the many hallmarks of Jordanian hospitality, they serve it everywhere here -- not just in cafes and restaurants but when you walk into a shop as well as when you enter a home -- and it's positively addicting.  The other is zatar, which I unfortunately don't have a picture of.  It's a mix of dried herbs, with oregano featuring prominently.  It can be baked right on the top of pita bread (sometimes with white feta-like cheese) or you can dip your pita in olive oil and then zatar.  Either way, it's great. It's very common to be served meze, which I mentioned in the previous post.  It's a whole host of salads and spreads and fresh vegetables, which are eaten together with pita bread.  Below is a picture of Khaled (who repeated last year's feat of introducing Siham, Connor and I to Amman by doing the same thing for this year's group), Kate and Alexsis tackling the spread on the table.
Dinnertime (about 10:30 pm) with Kate, Alexsis  and Khaled

Although drinking, as you might expect in a very Muslim country, is not very common here (though it does definitely exist), the Jordanians love their bars and cafes.  Instead of alcohol, they smoke, both cigarettes and the nargileh (sheesha or, as the signs catering to tourists sometimes call it, hubbly-bubbly) and drink lots of tea and coffee.  Altough the nargileh at first seems strange to some Westerners, it's actually a really nice communal way to pass the time.  You don't inhale deeply as with "regular" tobacco, and you are usually  sharing the water pipe so a lump of sheesha lasts a long time. The smoke is flavored, mostly with fruits like apple (my favorite), mint, lemon, and other varieties.  The bars will usually be playing Arabic music, sometime taped and sometimes live, and they definitely cater to a late night culture.  It's not unusual for people to eat supper here between 8 and 10 pm and then move on to a coffee bar.

Sitting next to the live singer in the coffee bar we visited on our first night in Amman

Finally, I should mention that Amman is quite the city to explore, and it's good that I'll have ten months to work on that project.  It's spread out over a lot of hills, and the roads are very twisty and though parts are shady and spacious, other parts have that crowded chaotic feel of a capital city in a developing country. Interspersed throughout are just the right amount of antiquities popping up to keep things interesting.

Alexsis and Kate exploring the Citadel at the top of the city

A lovely view of the Roman Theatre, which is undergoing some kind of renovation project at the moment -- here's hoping they finish before I come back in September.
So, that's a little glimpse of the city I'll be coming home for ten months starting in September.  One of the many things we can learn from the Jordanians and the Palestinians is hospitality, which they have raised to an art form.  Anyone who makes it to this part of the world will recieve a very warm welcome!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Thursday Night in Bethlehem

So, it's been a week since my last post, and a whole lot has happened. Alexsis, Kate and I have been travelling first in Amman, Jordan and then in various places in the West Bank learning about how the people living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (actually only the West Bank since we can't go to Gaza) have been doing with regard to the Millennium Development Goals.  Along the way we've been greeted with incredible kindness and hospitaliy wherever we've gone, and so the next few posts will probably be a mix of serious (and sobering) discoveries from our research and attempts to offer a sense of the fabulous adventures we have had along the way. So, in the spirit of fun adventure, it seems appropriate to begin with the story of how we spent our first Thursday night in Palestine.

In a future post, I'll be writing specifically about Friends of the Earth Middle East, which has been the organization we've worked with most since arriving here.  But for now I'lll just say that by Thursday night we were being hosted in the beautiful home of our new friend (and Friends of Earth staffer), Samiramis (who everyone calls Shamo).  Americans are used to thinking of Saturday and Sunday as the weekend, but here it's Friday and Saturday so that Thursday night plays the role of Friday night in the states.  For us, that meant a social agenda arranged by Shamo in two parts: first an engagement party of the son of a close friend, and second, a very important viewing of the TV show that all Palestinian televisions were tuned to that night, New Star
About half our table at the engagement party was American -- all invited by Shamo.  Here she is, together with me, Kate, Alexsis and Chelsea, the FoEME intern who introduced us to Shamo.

The engagement party was a lot like a wedding, with LOTS of singing, dancing and food.  Here's the bride-to-be being hoisted up on a chair during a dance.
One of the hallmarks of Middle Eastern hospitality is a generosity with meals that is unbelievable. At the party we stuffed ourselves with mezze -- the plates of hummus, fuul, vegetables and salads that are served with pita bread here -- as well as cake and chocolates.  But just when we thought we couldn't eat another bite, they brought us all the actual diinner, which was chicken, rice and vegetables.  There was a live singer interspersed with Arabic dance music and lots and lots of dancing.  But around 11:30 we had to make our exit because we had another event to go to.

Apparently, the singing competitions typified by American Idol in the US are actually a global phenomenon.  The Palestinian version is New Star, and Thursday night was the grand finale where the winner would be selected from among three finalists. One of these finalists was George, the Bethlehem hometown favorite.  So, we went to the restaurant of George's family to watch the final episode and cross our fingers.
These posters are plastered all over Bethlehem.  But this one is special because it's hanging outside George's family's restaurant, where we watched the results of the competition.
Alas, although we faithfully stayed till the bitter end around 1 in the morning, George was destined to be a runner-up that night.  But happily, all three of the finalists will be on a tour in the US together, so do keep your eyes out for George, possibly coming to a town near you.

Friday, May 20, 2011

New Thing 8 :24 Hours in Dubai

So, I'm sitting at the Dubai Airport right now.  It's 2:00 am here, and I'm waiting with two of my favorite newly graduated Saint Michael's seniors, Kate and Alexsis, for it to be 4:30 so that we can check in for our 7:30 am flight to Amman, Jordan.  It's all part of the MDG book project that I've written lots of posts on (and will be writing more as the summer unfolds).  But today's post is devoted to our 24 hour layover in Dubai, which actually was a long time coming, considering that it was on the heels of an epic ten-hour overnight bus ride from Burlington to New York City and a twelve hour flight from JFK to Dubai.

This morning we rolled off the plane, put our backpacks in "left luggage" for the day and headed into town after changing some cash and getting complementary visas from the government of the United Arab Emirates. Not knowing which way was up, we decided to take a river tour along the "Creek" which runs from the Indian Ocean through much of downtown Dubai, and we lazily hopped in a cab to get there.  Our first surprise came when we were tucked into a "Ladies Cab" -- which could easily be distinguished by its pink top and woman drive (and its slightly heftier price tag than the "ordinary" cabs).
Alexsis and Kate enjoying the shade while we wait for our Creek tour to begin.

It was hot hot HOT in Dubai today, and we were more than happy to sit in the shade with about 25 other tourists and listen to an recorded English-language detailing all the notable buildings we were passing on both sides of the Creek.  And one thing you can't help quickly picking up on is that Dubai pretty much exists to be notable.  If there is a way for something in Dubai to be biggest/tallest/priciest/mostest-in-any-way, it will be, and if possible the new superlative thing will be attached to a gargantuan mall, where affluent (or at least heavily indebted) people of every race, religion and creed can gather together in the common purpose of shopping till they drop.
Oh look!  It just wouldn't be a proper Dubai attraction if it didn't set SOME kind of record -- in this case, the largest plexiglass sheet ever.  But walking underneath sharks and sting rays, I must admit, was pretty cool.

Anyone who knows me well may not believe this, but today my day centered around shopping (though I actually didn't buy a thing beyond some food and admission tickets).  Alexsis, Kate and I went to two of the biggest malls in the world, as well as one of the world's most famous gold markets (or Souk, as it's known here).  And while we were checking these places out, we naturally wound up viewing the world's only indoor ski resort with an actual functioning chair lift and everything, as well as an aquarium and "water zoo" that of course, had to set a Guiness World Book record (however obscure).
After a winter of skiing together at Smugg's Alexsis and I couldn't bring ourselves to shell out the money to try indoor skiing -- it just looked so silly (and yes, that's a real chair lift that we're pointing to). 

In the interim I am proud to say that we did also manage to eat a lunch at a local Iranian restaurant, where Kate got to try the Middle East staple of schwarma (Alexsis, who studied abroad in Turkey and travelled widely during that semester, is an old pro) AND we figured out the city's rather excellent public transportation system.  After our first pricey cab ride we ditched that option and bought day-long tickets that worked on the metro, public water taxis and buses, all of which we rode on multiple occasions. Finally, around 10:30 pm we came back to the airport, retrieved our packpacks and had some less-than-divine airport food.  Now Alexsis and Kate are napping and I am blogging.
Kate and Alexsis standing in front of their millionth gold shop in the Gold Souk during our evening of window shopping.

I am quite positive that the UAE has much more to offer, culturally, historically, and physically, than the gazillions of buying opportunities we saw today.  If you love the glitz and over-the-top quality of Vegas, you're going to adore Dubai.  If Vegas and/or shopping are not your things, you might want to dig a bit deeper than we did, because Dubai at face value is a bit surreal. For us, it's onward tomorrow to Jordan and then on to the Palestinian Territories and Israel.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Challenge Substitutions: Acting Locally and Globally

Back at the end of 2010 I decided that 2011 would be the Year of the Challenge, and put together a list of what that would look like.  Then Siham and Leah, predictably, helped me to refine it a bit further and became this list.  But alas, finances and injury conspired against me to knock two challenges off the list.  When I managed to pull my MCL on a Saint Patrick's Day skiing accident, all hopes of a running-based challenge went out the window.  And, although I am confident that Leah, Siham and I WILL take a cargo ship to Alaska, it will not be happening in 2011.

Of course, in line withe the old saying that for every door that closes, a window opens, circumstances have also dictated two new challenges, one for this summer and one starting in September and running into 2012.  They have both been caused by the exciting opportunity that opened up with the Fulbright award to Jordan for the 2011-12 school year.  Thus, the new official Challenges are: first, to wring every ounce of summer possible from this Summer in Vermont and second, to spend an entire school year teaching in a new place (specifically, the University of Jordan).

This first challenge means that I want to do every uniquely Vermont thing I can this summer -- hiking and biking new trails, trying out new and old sports on Lake Champlain and exploring the nooks and crannies and villages of Vermont I may have overlooked in the past.  And so I began the Challenge in earnest last weekend when I celebrated National Train Day by taking the train from Burlington to Bellows Falls, and visited Saxton's River (where Chris's mom, gracious mom, Ingrid,  hosted us and kept up the traditional of serving some of the best food I've ever had) and Grafton, home of Chris's former employer, Sue, and site of the Vermont Museum of Mining and Minerals.  I come from a family of museum lovers, and that love has been nurtured in large part by my sister Katrinka being a professional museum consultant and content developer.  I especially love local museums, particularly when I know the people who helped create and fill them.  So I had been dying to see the Museum of Mining and Minerals because Sue founded it and Chris helped set it up, and additionally built a number of the rock structures in it. Last weekend they were adding the newest rock installment, a fairy-sized house made of agate and other stones. This joined the fairy mine and lapidary (if you're not sure what that is, check out the picture below) and a new set of stunning geodes. Here's a fun set of pictures from the museum.

A close-up of the fairy lapidary

Did you know that garnet is the Vermont state gem?  If you want to see a fabulous set in all its different forms and levels of processing, come to Grafton to see the museum sometime.

The state gemstone, and the state mineral, talc (shown above), were officially declared by the Vermont State legislature following a campaign initiated by Sue.

Here are Chris and Sue, with Chris's newest work, the agate house, between them.

A close up of the agate house. All the pieces were hand cut -- my favorite is the perfectly-matched stone shingles on the roof.

Chris bringing in his newest work

I asked Sue to take a tourist-y  shot of Chris and I in front of the museum she founded
So, the newest challenge of living a truly full Vermont summer has begun, but it's about to be interrupted.  On Wednesday, Kate, Alexsis and I embark on a middle eastern adventure that will include buses, planes, layovers in exotic cities, and lots more.  I'll certainly be blogging about it in the next two weeks.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Time for a Re-Set: Challenges 5 and 6

Who knew that a little pull to a medial collateral ligament (MCL) could take a person so far off her game?  It's been over a month, and I'm still limping.  Any attempts at running are distant memories, and I learned the hard way last week jumping up to grab a silly exercise ball that my knee is NOT jump-ready.  However, I am pleased to report that I am slowly starting to get back on track.  I need to do a major overhaul of my entire list of 2011 Challenges, given that the knee injury sidelined some, and my upcoming trip to Jordan has placed different ones front-and-center.  But this post is about two challenges that are being dusted off -- and one's even being put on the fast track. They are rock climbing (Challenge 5) and the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) book project (Challenge 6).

Rock climbing had fallen completely off my list of activities on Saint Patrick's Day when I hurt my knee but I'm happy to report that, with a little help from two friends, I got to get back on the Saint Mike's climbing wall last week.  My ever-patient student, MDG collaborator and climbing coach Amanda was on hand to help, and Alyssa, another student and MDG collaborator took up my challenge to try it out for the very first time.  She managed to get all the way up on her first go -- impressive.
Here's Amanda showing Alyssa how to tie the ropes before she starts her climb

Alyssa coming down after her impressive first climb all the way to the top

Me trying to learn how to lean to the side for more leverage in a hold -- it's harder than it looks!

As for the MDG book, we need to get into our speediest mode for two reasons.  One is that we need to get a substantial amount of the text actually written this summer.  Early summer is also when we're headed out -- in four country case teams and with incredibly generous support of the office of the Academic Vice President of Saint Mike's, Karen Talentino -- to make it all happen.  Last Friday we got a chance to share some of the work in progress at Saint Michael's College's third annual student symposium. I'll be doing a whole post on the MDG book project and where we're at with it, but for now, wanted to post some pictures from the day of students involved in the MDG project presenting at various research venues throughout the day.
Here are Alyssa and Jerry working on a poster presentation on how Ecuador is doing on the Millennium Development Goals

Connor (part of the team for MDG 2) reporting on the problems of water scarcity for the refugee population in Jordan that we researched together last summer with Siham

Alexsis (part of the team for MDG 8 and the Palestinian Territory case study) giving a presentation on her last summer's Provost Grant research on the financial crisis in the EU

As I mentioned above, there's a ton of work to be done this summer, and teams of students (and I) will be writing feverishly in the months ahead.  But for now I wanted to send out a little post as a shout-out to the students on this project and what they've already accomplished.  Now it's back to our last two weeks of school -- classes this week and finals next -- to finish out the semester.
I made Jerry and Alyssa (Team Ecuador) and Matt and Annie (Team Bangladesh) pose with me  in front of their posters on those topics