Saturday, December 31, 2011

Jordan Challenge #23: Cross the Border with Chris

Before the year ends, I wanted to post one last challenge that I completed with Chris while he was visiting in November.  This one turned out to take some doing, mainly because of forces beyond our control.  When I asked Chris what he wanted to see before he got here, he suggested Israel and the West Bank, and Jerusalem in particular.  On a map, that looks like a fairly simple undertaking. The distance from Amman, where I live, to Jerusalem is only 44 miles.  But it requires a bus or cab from Amman to the border (known as the King Hussein Bridge on the Jordan side and the Allenby Bridge on the Palestinian/Israeli side), a different bus that goes through the no-man's land between the Jordanian and Israeli border stations, a third bus or cab once processed on the Palestinian/Israeli side, multiple checkpoints on both sides, and searching of luggage and passport handling on both sides.  So, though the distance is short, the process is not.

And everything gets more complicated still when you're in the position I was at the time, of applying for my residence permit and fearing that my passport might get called for at any moment by the immigration people here for processing.  But as always, Fulbright staffer and miracle worker Iman came through, made many calls to various offices on my behalf, and determined that I'd be able to make my way over without endangering my application process here.  So, on Thanksgiving Day (the morning after our stuff-ourselves-silly Fulbright Thanksgiving Dinner), Chris and I packed our backpacks and headed over.

Once we arrived we set ourselves at the very spartan but awesomely-located Palm Hostel in East Jerusalem almost directly across from Damascus Gate.  For those who have never visited the city, a huge proportion of what draws tourists and religious pilgrims of all persuasions lies behind the walls of the Old City, which is famously divided into Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian quarters.  Most of the Gates (and there are 11 total, though only 7 are open) enter into very complicated narrow streets that feel more like tunnels in parts, lined with shops, restaurants and holy sites.  Inside the Walls are, among other attractions, the Temple Mount (Sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims as the place where Abraham offered his son Isaac in sacrifice (though God did not make him go through with it) including the Dome of the Rock where the sacrifice was prepared and also where Muslims believe that Mohammad ascended into Heaven), the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall -- where Jews go to mourn that destruction of the sacred Second Temple), the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows) where Christians believe Jesus carried the cross to his crucifixion, and several churches, including the gigantic Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was crucified.  One of the most interesting bits for me about this church is that parts of it are claimed by, among others, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian and Egyptian Coptic Christians, and so the keys have been entrusted to a Muslim family to keep the peace among all the sects. For a direction-challenged person like myself, it's all crammed confusingly close together and it's incredibly easy to get lost in the narrow passageways.
Approaching the Old City from the West Jerusalem side.

Chris standing in front of the Western Wall.  Though we visited it at night, there were hundreds of people there.

Standing within the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

One of the cool things you can do inside the Old City is climb up on the rooftops near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and look at the Dome of the Rock.  That's how this picture was taken.
Monks chanting a prayer inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The view of East Jerusalem as you exit from Damascus Gate.

While we were up on the rooftops, Chris made a friend.  She made him sit there for about an hour, and if she'd had her way, we'd still be sitting there.

As it turns out, getting lost was actually a good thing, because it opened the way to a thoroughly wonderful experience.  On our first night, I managed to get totally disoriented and a man passing by had a fun time watching Chris and I disagree about where to turn next.  When we finally made our way out through Damascus Gate, he approached us and fave me a good-natured ribbing about my mistakes.  This led to a longer conversation, which in turn led to what I have found to be a typically Palestinian response to strangers, a sincere and hospitable offer to come over to dinner.  We accepted, and spent the evening at the home of Mohammad and his wife Yusra, after Mohammad gave us a tour of his community, the homes of his extended family, and the difficult changes that had occurred there since he was a child. Both Mohammad and Yusra had lived large chunks of their lives in the United States with other spouses, and had many interesting stories from those experiences.  Mohammad had gone to college in the US and created a successful business there, while Yusra had married as a teenager and accompanied her husband to the US, where her husband died and she found herself suddenly coping with the challenge of raising four children as a single parent in a foreign country.  However, both Mohammad and Yusra have deep family ties in East Jerusalem, and returned in part to help resist the shrinking of Palestinian control and ownership of land in East Jerusalem that has steadily eroded the community there. It was an amazing experience to share the lives of two of such wonderfully generous people who decided on a whim to open up their home to us.

Yusra and I (with the very few of the fabulous stuffed grape leaves we couldn't  eat sitting on the table behind us)

Among other things, Mohammad and Yusra served us clementines off their own tree.  We were raving about how good they were, so they sent us home with some that Chris and Mohammad picked.

From Jerusalem, we took a bus to Tel Aviv which is situated right on the Mediterranean Ocean.  Our timing was less-than-perfect, however.  It was November, and too cold for swimming (unless you were a surfer or diver with a wet suit and we saw quite a few). We also arrived on a Friday afternoon, and at sundown, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, the outdoor market where we were haggling over dried fruit suddenly shut down in a hurry.  We wound up staying a few kilometers down the coast in the lovely seaside town of Jaffa and spent a day or so exploring both places.
A view of Tel Aviv from the beach...

..and at night.

And a night-time shot of Jaffa, just a couple pleasant kilometer's walk along the seashore.

Then we headed back to Jerusalem, and ultimately, across the River Jordan (which is not, as the bible hymn says, "deep and wide", but actually has been overused to the point that it now most resembles a muddy ditch) to seek out a few more sights for Chris to see before he headed back to Vermont.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Jordan Challenge 22: Host a Fulbrighter Wigilia in Amman

So, I think it would be a fair criticism if someone were to point out that some of the things that I have billed on this blog as "challenges" -- like going to a hamman or becoming a Rainbow Streeter -- are awfully luxurious as challenges go.  But I do have to say that Challenge 22 really did take some doing in order to happen.  For starters, there were some elements that seemed intent on stopping it, from my oven, which made a spectacular suicide attempt the day before it was to be put to major use, to the Jordanian postal service, somewhere in the bowels of which are residing communion wafers sent by my sister Katrinka from Tacoma for the Wigilia first course.  Then there was the ever-expanding guest list for what is normally a seven course sit-down dinner. And finally, there was the Ingredient Substitution Challenge as I learned how to make some things from scratch (like the borscht, which we usually bought already prepared) and figured out what could fill in for something else (No dried Polish mushrooms? Try Chinese.  Aren't communion wafers supposed to resemble unleavened bread?  We surely are surrounded by that here. Can't find pickled herring anywhere in the city?  Sift through the tins of canned fish at the grocery store till you find herring in tomato sauce.)
Making the transition from the sixth course (pierogi) to the seventh (dessert).  By this time we were all well and truly carbo-loaded.

In the end, though, things came together remarkably well, mainly because of the people who attended, many of whom contributed a lot of time and talent to the meal. In fact, one of my favorite memories of Wigilia 2011 will be from the day before when eight volunteers came over to learn the fine art of pierogi and ushzka making.  With amazing good cheer, they stuck it out for hours in order to make the mounds of dumplings that I thought we'd need for the meal.

Tim, Cooper and Jayme all peeled and chopped beets, carrots and potatoes in total accordance with my exacting "matchstick" instructions.

Elizabeth figured out the master list of who was coming while Donna whipped up the first batch of pierogi dough.

The kitchen crew (minus Jayme and Jen): Cooper, Mike, Donna, Angela, Elizabeth, me and Tim.
Things were supposed to start around seven, but wound up commencing closer to eight when Donna, our youngest Fulbrighter, went outside and found a star in the sky so we could begin, after Angela said a prayer for us all.  There were some changes this year to accommodate both the large number of people and the fact that we had some non-Fulbrighters who were meeting the crew for the first time.  So at the beginning of the night everyone was given a paper with their name on one side and a task on the other.  Some were asked to make one of the seven toasts of the evening, while others were tasked with sharing Christmas memories and traditions to the whole group and still others were given the weighty burden, at the beginning of our good luck herring-and-pickles course, of making wishes on behalf of the whole group for the coming year.  Everyone performed admirably well, and I will be indebted to the end of my days to the kitchen crew who had everything so spotless by the end of the evening that when I walked into my kitchen this morning, the only signs of the party were contained in packed refrigerator which clearly demonstrated that I have a long ways to go as a caterer making estimates -- I'll be eating pierogis and borscht for a good long time!

Right after the first course vodka toast, Sam (in the green shirt) led things off recalling the Flintstones movie that was a classic holiday staple at his house.

Mike dedicated his toast to our family and friends back home who have spent so much time and treasure supporting us so that we could be halfway around the world from them.
Among the family visiting from the US were Grace's parents and Aunt Rachel and Tess's daughter Gwyneth.  Here are Grace's dad and mom, Paul and Martha, next to Tess.

Jen and Brad did a fine job on pierogi frying detail (and the stove even cooperated).

The day before, Cooper had made a monster pierogi with the last batch of dough.  On Wigilia his roommates ceremoniously presented it to him to consume in front of the rest of us.

So, while it was clearly different than any Wigilia celebration I'd ever celebrated, either with my family or the Szubert family who began celebrating their tradition with us more than thirty years ago, this one will be highly memorable.  2011 will be the year that most of the Fulbright delegation to the country of Jordan came together, along with a few friends and visiting family members, to share a longtime tradition of one of us that was wholly new to the rest of us.  At the end of the evening, a few people told me they hoped to celebrate future Wigilias, or incorporate elements of the celebration into their own holiday traditions. In a way, that is symbolic of our whole experience here in Jordan.  We're here to share the customs, special experiences and skills of our hosts, and to decide for ourselves which parts we hope to include in our own lives, thoughts and traditions. One of the many wishes that was made during the Wigilia was that we could all remind ourselves to be present where we are, and to fully live and experience the opportunity we have in front of ourselves for the remainder of our Fulbright year. It's not a bad reminder for any time or place, actually, and I hope all of us, wherever we are, can make and keep that resolution in the coming year.  (And if anyone wants a pierogi, please let me know -- I've got a bunch!)
Jordan Wigilia 2011 (top: Sarah M., Cooper, Anna, Sam R. Tess, me, Jen, Brad; middle: Sarah I., Almas, Tim, Elizabeth, Grace, Jayme, Sam; bottom: Mike, Donna, Angela, Luke (not pictured: Maria, Paul, Martha, Rachel and Gwyneth)

Friday, December 23, 2011

Jordan Challenge 21: Visit Lebanon

A funny thing about travel, at least for me, is that the more places you go, the more places you discover that you want to go.  Travel tends to beget more travel, both because it opens up the desire to see still more places, and because it creates an ever-growing list of places to re-visit.  Lebanon is now squarely in the latter category: in fact I'd say that Beirut is now officially on my Top Five List of Favorite Cities.  (In case anyone is wondering, the others are: Stonetown, Zanzibar; Burlington, Vermont (and yes, I am counting it as a city -- it's my list); Edinburgh, Scotland; and Tacoma, Washington).

 I was thinking about my criteria when I was telling my friend Elizabeth that Beirut is a top-fiver, and it seemed so obvious.  I think a truly cool city has to have most or all of the following:
  • It must be on or very near a beautiful body of water that is accessible to the locals and tourists, like the way Beirut sits on the Mediterranean Sea and offers a lovely Corniche for walking along the waterfront;

    Here I am standing in front of some famous offshore cliffs called Pigeon Rocks on the seaward side of the Corniche.
  • It must have lots of pretty buildings, like the mosques and churches throughout the city of Beirut;

    That thing being constructed in front of the beautiful Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque is a giant artificial Christmas tree being put up by the city.  Despite the city's violent past, there are many signs of tolerant religious coexistence here like this one.
  • It must have at least one (preferably more) charming, pedestrian-friendly areas lined with local cafes and shops and few or no chain stores and restaurants like Beirut's lovely and fun Rue Gourard in the Gemmayzeh District;

    Our first night in town Elizabeth, Grace and I went to the very memorable though-slightly-dodgy-from-the-outside restaurant, Le Chef.  It was fabulous and we stuffed ourselves silly.
    After we could eat no more we went walking outside and found that Beirut is a very pretty city at night.
  • It should be a college town, thus benefiting from the young population, forums for the exchange of ideas and culture and (most importantly) used book stores attendant therein.  In this regard, the Hamra  area around the large and extremely prestigious American University of Beirut (AUB) fits the bill wonderfully well.
  • It should have an interesting mix of cultures and populations, and ideally, should be a place where two or more cultures actually appear to meet.  The first impression I had of Beirut was that this is where the Middle East meets Europe, and a lot of the best of both appear evident in the everyday life of the city.

    The five of us downing croissants and big bowls of cafe au lait worthy of a Paris breakfast.
  • It should have an interesting history, and Beirut is just about impossible to beat on that score;
  • Way too much here for a blog caption, but it's true that Beirut has not yet fully recovered from the violence in its past, including the 2006 bombing it suffered when Israel attacked the city as a means of striking at Hezbollah.

  • and finally it should be surrounded by other beautiful, fun and/or fascinating places to see.  Like archaeological sites waiting to be explored further down the coast, astonishing caves full of stalactites and stalagmites and mountains and cedar forests, perhaps?

Sadly, we were not allowed to take any pictures at all inside the Jeita Grotto, a series of two very large caves (you can take a boat ride, as we did through the bottom one) with the most amazing collection of stalactites and stalagmites imaginable.

After Jeita we journeyed onward to Byblos, a lovely port city with a colorful history and partially excavated ruins... of the highlights was drinks and dinner at Pepe's (recommended by my friend Gary), where we could watch the sun set and read about all the famous people, from Marlon Brando to Eva Gardner, who had found the place before we had.
As anyone can clearly see, the case has made itself.  Beirut is a winner.  Though we had a sneaking suspicion that this was the case, my Fulbright partner-in-crime, Elizabeth, and our fellow Fulbright friends Tess and Christina felt it was our duty to confirm.  We were lucky enough to meet up with still another Fulbright friend, Grace, who already knew all about Beirut's awesomeness, and was, in fact, back on a return trip.  Between the five of us, we managed to make a pretty good dent in the city's sights, eateries, wine bars and day-trip attractions.  But the one thing we all concluded is that Beirut surely deserves a (more like several) return visits. If you're in this part of the world, this is one place you do not want to miss.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Jordan Challenge 20 : Try a Hammam

Way behind on blogging these days, and my big upcoming challenge -- hosting a Wigilia Christmas Eve dinner in Jordan for TWENTY-FOUR people -- is shaping up to be one of the biggest challenges I've taken on since moving here.  For starters, turns out that a lot of Fulbrighters in Jordan didn't have plans for Christmas Eve -- but now they do, at my place.  Then, although I have not one but two sets of some of the hard-to-get items (particularly unconsecrated Communions wafers) somewhere in transit or within the bowels of the Jordan Post Office, it looks like they'll not be arriving here.  And then, the icing on the cake was the spectacular suicide of my oven and stove last night.  That one, at least, was resolved with a new-wood-and-cardboard-foundation fix that only makes me a little nervous, so the Wigilia and tomorrow's cooking party to prepare for it are still on.  Can't wait to see how it unfolds.

But in the meantime, I thought I' d try to catch up a little. In my original list of challenges for Jordan I had included a visit to a hamman (Turkish bath) and I can now report that it has happened.  And will happen again, because it is one great experience. I'd heard a few warnings that the masseurs are not gentle, and it certainly turned out to be true.  Yet the combination of steam and whirlpools and (vigorous!) scrubs and rough-ish massage leaves you feeling as if you've got an entirely new skin and at least a halfway new set of muscles.  On the down side, you do feel a bit herded in the beginning, when you are processed as a group through the first shower and steam room.  But then they start picking people off individually for their scrubs and messages, and suddenly it's easy to feel like you're the only one that matters.

I couldn't take any pictures inside, for obvious reasons, but did catch a few snapshots when Elizabeth and I took our inaugural foray on my birthday weekend to the Al-Pasha Turkish Bath.

The interior of this enclosed courtyard where Elizabeth is standing is very like the atmosphere inside the hamman (if you were to add a ton of steam).

We both paid the princely additional 3JD (about $5) for facials as well, and as you can see, I left with a whole new set of skin.
 At around 25 dinars (less than $40) for several hours of blissful relaxation and being the center of a (steamy) universe, it's just about the best, and most cost effective, luxury I can think of.  Yet another reason that everyone should come visit me in Amman.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

It's Beginning to Look (Sort of) Like Christmas...Challenge 19: Getting Ready for a Jordan Christmas

If I were back in the United States I'd be in the midst of finals week at Saint Michael's College.  At my Catholic college and in Vermont generally (which looks like a Christmas card even when it isn't Christmas), Christmas would be twirling all around me like the thoughts in Herman Cain's head. Here in Jordan, where the vast majority of the population is Muslim, not so much. So, I decided that, as an expat, the challenge to celebrating Christmas overseas was to figure out for myself what are the indispensable parts, then find ways to make them happen.  And anyone who knows me knows my two non-negotiations: celebrating Wigilia (the Polish Christmas Eve dinner introduced to my family by our close friends, the Szuberts when I was a kid) and making Christmas cookies.  So, I've decided to celebrate Christmas in Jordan by celebrating Wigilia and making Christmas cookies.  And because it's Jordan, both have shaped up as challenges in their own ways.

Turtle Green, a popular coffee shop on Rainbow Street put up some traditional Christmas garlands...

...while a tea and smoke shop a few blocks away offered a display of Santa Claus amidst the nargileh (sheisha) pipes.

On the Christmas cookie front, the big issue has been sourcing ingredients.  Who'd have thought that pure vanilla extract, Hershey kisses and plain old chocolate chips could be so hard to find?  My Fulbright colleague and friend,Tess, who also happens to be an extraordinary cook, suggested that we should go on an ingredient expedition to Cozmo, an Amman supermarket with a reputation for carrying lots of foods Westerners seek.  I did find molasses, but struck out on vanilla and my chocolate products. So, I'm now using vanilla powder (which is not as good but at least does not have the chemical taste of artificial vanilla) and chopping up chocolate bars to replace chocolate chips.  No substitute for Hershey kisses, but the ever-thoughtful Cooper, one of the residents of Carpetland, the Fulbrighter apartment nearest me, said he'd bring some back from the Kansas, where he's been participating in his sister's wedding, if he has room in his suitcase.  I am anxiously awaiting the verdict on that one. For cookie cutters I have hearts and stars -- but the stars have kind of narrow points that make the "arms" fall off at inopportune moments.  So, this year, we'll be eating lots of the not-so-traditional Christmas Heart.

So far, the substitutions seem to be working okay.  My annual Christmas cookie production has begun -- here are Meltaways, Jam Thumbprints, Chocolate Sugar Cookies and Santa's Whiskers.
On the Wigilia front, things are coming along in a big way, literally.  So far, eighteen people have answered my invitation to experience a Wigilia.  Assuming my apartment can hold them all, and the recipes I've found on-line for borscht made out of canned beets are not disgusting, we should be in good shape.  A team of people have volunteered for a marathon dumpling day, in which everyone will be put to work turning out ushkas and pierogis, and multiple people have volunteered to help out with the sizable amounts of vodka entailed in a dinner involving seven vodka toasts for eighteen people. How it all turns out will certainly be the subject of a future Jordan Challenge post, but the early signs are promising.

And best of all, I've found that, once I starting throwing myself into my two major Christmas pursuits, I started seeing Christmas all around me, too. I finally saw the definitively Christmas-y movie Love Actually (a bunch of my Fulbright friends were horrified that I had never seen it, and procured a bootleg copy -- perfectly fine except for some skips in the middle and the excision of some scenes deemed too racy for local viewers), a significant fraction of the shops on Rainbow Street have put up some decoration in honor of the season, and today, in honor of my birthday, my friends Elizabeth, Grace, Hannah and I headed back to Madaba, a town with a sizable Christian population for mosaic-viewing and Christmas shopping.
Grace showing off some mosaics in the partially restored Church of the Virgin Mary of Madaba.

Although you can't see the statue of Santa playing a clarinet behind us, what drew us to Haret Jdoudna for lunch was less the Christmas decorations and more the fabulous food.

Madaba even has a big Christmas tree set up in one of the city's traffic circles.  Elizabeth and I thought the Christmas stocking ornament theme was a bit limiting, but still plenty photo-worthy.

So, I guess it is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, after all, if only you know where to look and are able to appreciate the form you find.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Jordan Challenge 18: Check Out the Madaba Mosaics

From a tourist perspective, the town of Madaba only some 30 kilometers from Amman, is essentially Mosaic Land.  Everyone goes to see the famous remains of the mosaic map of a big chunk of the Middle East -- at least as it was envisioned in 560 A.D.  Much of the map, which sits on the floor in front of the altar of the Saint George Church, is still quite discernible, and every day tour buses deposit their human contents at the gates of the church to check it out before moving on to the Dead Sea and Mount Nebo (where Moses is believed to have died -- at the ripe old age of 120).  But the tourists do themselves a disservice because Madaba is a lot more than a mosaic map.  For starters, the map may be the most famous, but it is just the beginning of the mosaics to be viewed.  Where other churches have paintings and stained glass, St. George's is chock full of mosaic scenes from the New and Old Testaments of the Bible, as well as various saints including, of course, the church's namesake.

Here's a portion of the map that is still quite well-preserved...
...and here it is "in context" on the floor of the church.  I had to examine the other art closely to realize that all the other representations are also mosaics.
And here's Chris standing next to the map diagram outside the church that helps make sense of the mosaic inside.

Of course, there needs to be a mosaic of the church's namesake, St. George, carrying on with his slaying duties.

When I was a kid I liked the story of raising Lazarus from the dead, and as an adult AIDS activist I am always reminded of the modern "Lazarus effect" that African activists talked about when anti-retroviral medication finally arrived and started bringing people who were expected to die back to good health and vitality.
There is also a modern-day mosaic art industry and several other churches with their own treasure troves of mosaics, which leads to another Fun Fact About Madaba.  In a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim, Madaba has a sizable Christian population, and just about every hotel in town is owned by a different Christian family group who will, if you are as lucky as we were, tell you all about the town and serve you up some delicious homemade fig jam at breakfast.

In addition to its mosaics -- old and new -- Madaba is also home to many rug weavers, and shops that sell their wonderful and colorful work.  It also boasts a sand artist who is simultaneously the fastest and the best artisan of those I have seen in Amman, Petra or Aqaba.  And it has lovely cafes and simple hole-in-wall shops that sell a very tasty and cheap dish of cut-up roasted chicken and shrek bread smeared with a vivid red sumac-based sauce.

Sadly, I lost the scrap of paper I used to write down this sand artist's name.  But I am certainly going to head back to his shop when I return to Madaba because he is amazing!
But I would say that Madaba's greatest commodity is actually its hospitable people.  In a country that rightly prides itself on hospitality, Madaba deserves special mention.  We arrived in the middle of a heavy rain that we'd been caught up in as we were hiking along the road from the Dead Sea in search of a vehicle to take us the rest of the way.  The cab driver who finally picked us up spoke almost no English and did not know his way around Madaba at all.  When he dropped us at the wrong traffic circle for the Black Iris, the hotel we were hoping to stay at the for the night, a small group of men gathered in the rain to confer with us.  They quickly decided that the youngest, a teenager, should accompany us to the hotel to avoid any further problems.  He got us a cab, came with us and insisted on paying the driver.  Then he got out of the cab when we did, pointed out the hotel, welcomed us to Madaba and walked away in the rain after wishing us a great time in his town and refusing to take our money. From that auspicious beginning, we were treated to on-the-house teas, people who walked with us rather than simply pointing out the directions of destinations, and general friendliness everywhere.  No doubt about it, Madaba's got some great treasures on its walls and floors.  But the biggest ones are walking around in its streets. Not the flashiest of Jordan's tourist destinations, but surely in the running as the friendliest.