Saturday, April 16, 2011

Ethiopia and Kenya

After my forced exit from Yemen, I arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, with high expectations for my African adventures. Expectations notwithstanding, as soon as I cleared immigration I was played for a small sting. The culprit and I had shared the flight, so I lent him my otherwise guarded trust and shared a taxi with him. When I was dropped off at my hotel, he asked for my “half” of the fare, and, unknowingly, I paid his share also. The scam was small, but it left a bitter taste in my mouth, and set a bad tone for my trip. I slept with suspicion.

I woke up and decided to give Ethiopia a second chance.

As I explored the city, I heard a familiar sound as I walked into restaurants, bookstores and music shops. I was sitting in an Italian restaurant when, realizing where I’d heard this familiar sound, I was overcome with a terrible anxiety. In a number of late 80’s and early 90’s romantic comedies, there is a song that narrates the climax of the story. The climax: A pensive lover realizes that the trifles separating him from his better pale in comparison to the monument of love. At this point, the man—sans the aid of cell phones—scurries to find his lover, and, after tearing apart the city, finds her, admits his shortcomings, professes his love and grovels … the "song" being played throughout this scene. You know the song; an electronic hum, heavy emphasis on vocals, a few timely drum runs. Anyway, I subconsciously associate this sound, leaking from every store and restaurant in the city, with climatic, life-altering moments, and I found myself scurrying urgently nowhere and ready to confess nothing.

In Addis Ababa, one's health is safe, but money will be preyed on by the opportunistic hustlers scavenging the roads. Being the only white guy in the street, I stood out, and rarely had a chance to walk in peace. The scammers were roughly my age, and would start friendly conversations before trying to take me places were people were celebrating the “holiday” and eating green cake. I don’t think there was any holiday, and I never found out what green cake is.

The incessant 80’s music and aggressive hustlers were crushing my traveling spirit, so I decided to jet. My destination: Zanzibar.

Zanzibar is an island that floats off the coast of Tanzania. I’ve dreamed about visiting Zanzibar since I was a little kid, specifically after watching the National Geographic documentary “The Leopards of Zanzibar,” which follows a soccer team, Leopards of Zanzibar, as they journey from their dirt and sand soccer fields to the big city stadium in Dar Es Salaam. Life in Zanzibar seemed simple. The documentary recorded the lives of the locals living in Abweju, a city on Zanzibar, and, to my youthful eyes, the city appeared utopian. Under an equatorial sun, the women would cultivate seaweed in the Indian shallows and gossip about their husbands who were off in deeper waters spearing octopus. In the evening, the men would gather and practice soccer on the beach while a glowing sun waned in the background.

But, Kenya stands between Ethiopia and Zanzibar, and I headed to the bus station to inquire about the next bus to Moyale, a border town between Ethiopia and Kenya. Walking into the bus station, I discovered that everything was written in Amharic. The most academic way I can describe the look of Amharic is “Hebrew on crack.” There weren’t any English signs, and none of the employees spoke a helpful amount of English. So, after buying a ticket to Moyale, I asked, “When does the bus leave?” The employee responded “Tomorrow at 12:30, but, for you, 6:30.” I thought to myself, what the hell does “for you” mean? We repeated the same script a couple times and both grew frustrated with the other’s stubbornness. I didn’t know if he was dropping a metaphysical riddle on me, or just trying to piss me off. Later, I found out that Ethiopia does things a little differently than the rest of the world. For example, Ethiopia is 6 hrs. ahead of European time, and they are in the year 2003, some facts that can easily throw off an unsuspecting traveler.

The morning of my departure, I arrived at the bus station an hour early with sleep still in my eyes, and, in keeping with the tone of my trip, the bus left an hour late. As the bus began to rattle toward Moyale, I noticed a sticker of “Jesus” looking at me. I wondered if it was the sticker manufacturer’s goal to portray Jesus as a pathetic metro-sexual returning from a salon with fresh Cherubim Blond highlights and an eyebrow waxing. I thought about it some more, and concluded that the actual Jesus looked more like the Western perception of a terrorist than the images displayed of him in American living rooms (and Ethiopian stickers). In fact, if you sat next to Jesus on an airplane, you would probably be nervous, especially if he started dropping the apocalyptic one-liners to which he was prone.

I rode the bus all day, finally stopping at a small town to catch some rest before another day of travel. At a wooden shack I bought Obama Orange flavored gum, featuring, of course, the First Family on the wrapper. After a surge of flavor, Obama Orange lost its taste rather quickly.

After two full days on the bus, I arrived in Moyale, the quintessential border town, an African Tijuana. It appears that dreamers afraid of work and criminals gather in border towns; maybe they think they’ll be the first to catch a hot tip from the other side of the border, or know that, if they feel the heat, they can step into the neighboring country and dodge prison. Regardless of the population make-up, I decided the first thing I should do in Moyale was get my hair cut. After receiving an excellent chop, I mingled with the locals, chewed qat, and caught some sleep before my 07:30 to Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.

The hotel where I slept was questionable. The manager of the hotel was a fat Somali with midnight skin and Sammy Davis Jr. hair. His words bellowed from his gut and when he spoke his body quaked and the room echoed. His voice was disturbingly deep, and although I rarely understood his Arabic, I didn’t ask him to repeat himself.  My room couldn’t be locked from the outside, and, on the inside, a bent nail hammered into the doorframe could be swiveled over the door to offer an illusion of safety (in case a toddler was trying to break in). I paid 5 dollars for the room, and was probably ripped off.

Although the official languages of Ethiopia and Kenya are Amharic and Swahili, respectively, Arabic is used by many, and, in Moyale, many of the people are Muslim, so finding someone to converse with in Arabic isn’t difficult.

The drive from Moyale to Nairobi takes 22 hours. For the first ten hours of the trip we traveled on what could barely qualify as a road; the bus shook so violently that a window fell from its frame and landed on a passenger. Sleeping was impossible as the driver raged through the Kenyan countryside.

Once in Nairobi, I wasted no time finding a way to the next border city, Namanga. Approaching Namanga, I saw Mt. Kilimanjaro. The lonely mountain engulfs the horizon and towers above clouds meagerly adorning its face, demanding all eyes give notice.

Namanga is on the border of Kenya and Tanzania and I’ve been here for the last 4 days. The precedent for my African travels set in Ethiopia, which turned me irritable, suspicious, and explosive, was erased in Kenya.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

John Cena

For me, one of the joys of traveling has been listening to locals guess my nationality.  Whether I was jumping into a taxi, or just walking down the street, these are some comments I received:

"Ahh, a German.  Welcome."
"Are you from Canada?"  "No, dude, he's Amish."
"Syrian? You look Syrian.  Some Syrians have very light skin."
"François! Parlez vous François?" 
"You from the Netherlands?"

The list could go on, but, today, a kid topped all the said guesses.  In fact, he didn't need to guess my country of origin, because he knew exactly who I was.
While making routine purchases at a local snack shop, I noticed the eyeballs of a scraggily delinquent staring me down (he couldn't have been more than five or six years old).  I faced him and asked: "How are you?".  He was frozen with shock; his eyes and mouth gaped awestruck.  Again, I asked: "How are you?" .  His eyes became even wider, highlighting the contrast between the mud caked on his face and his white eyes.   With hardly a whisper, he squeaked: "John Cena?".  With more confidence he vanquished doubt and declared, "You ARE John Cena." 
Although parallels exist between John Cena and me, like a steroid jaw and an unhealthy muscle mass, I am not John Cena.  But, damnit, I looked that kid straight in the eye, assumed the POA (position of attention), gave him a military salute, said: "I AM John Cena", and briskly walked away.  
That kid is going to bed tonight knowing that Yemen is in the best of hands, John Cena's.


I had some visa issues, so I'm leaving Yemen, and in a couple of hours I'll be in Ethiopia.  Hopefully I'll be able to return to Yemen quickly with a new working visa.  
The revolution in Yemen still persists, and although many are fatigued, momentum continues to grow for the anti-Saleh demonstrators.  And, although I've learned that Middle Eastern predictions rarely materialize, many of my Yemeni friends tell me Saleh's exit is soon, and I agree. 

John Cena

Friday, February 11, 2011


Bite-sized adventures, like my stint as a faux reporter, have kept me sane through the monotony of study. Regardless, this past week of Arabic was particularly strenuous and Sana’a rendered no remedy for the stress; the tedium of academia awakened my travel vices and forced me out of Sana’a.

My friend had read of a town called Gahana, 20 km outside of Sana’a, which had a market full of assorted fruits, vegetables and light weaponry. Aching to flee the city and curious as hell, we decided to investigate this “weapons” market.

We signaled a cab, and with a mixture of broken Arabic and misguided sign language (miming the firing of weapons) we relayed our destination to the driver and were quickly en route.

Leaving the confusion of Sana’a ushered in a calm as we made our way toward Gahana. Clustered buildings transformed into small countryside homes separated by great distances and ancient land rights.

The road into Gahana slices the city in half, and small shops line both sides of the main street. About a stone’s throw beyond the stores, houses dot the landscape, all the way to the base of distant mountains. The grey houses are built with local earth and, being so, fade seamlessly into the mountains on the horizon.

Entering the city, our curiosity was satisfied in seconds. Shops hugging the road colorfully advertise the arsenal of weapons they carry. We hopped out of the taxi and approached the nearest storefront. Ironically, sharing a building with a weapons store was a candy shop. I imagined the conversation:

“I’ll take a Snickers.”
“Anything else?”

“Ummm … you know what? I’ll take that AK-47 too.”

We discovered that buying a weapon here was free of paper work, waiting periods, and registration. My friend asked if he could fire some rounds and, to my surprise, if he was willing to pay, they would allow him. I thought this would mean relocation to a shooting range tucked away somewhere in the city … Nope. The shopkeeper grabbed an AK-47 hanging from the wall, slammed a magazine into it, jumped the counter and handed the rifle to my friend. The man pointed up, indicating sky as the direction of fire.

As my friend lifted the rifle, pedestrians, cars and motorbikes maintained a steady flow in the street. My mind raced and I almost had a heart attack imagining any number of terrible scenarios that could be mere seconds away. Thankfully, four rounds were safely fired at a forty-five degree angle into the distance (I don’t think the bullets could have reached the mountains). My friend forked over the cash and we proceeded to another store. Craving more rounds, my friend appealed to another shopkeeper with guns on display. The man agreed, and, this time, better precautions were taken. We followed him behind the shop to a clearing that left nothing between us and a distant mountain. After my friend fired a few rounds, we walked to a candy shop, which happened to be the last of the stores lining the road.

Suddenly, a fight broke out in front of the store we first visited upon our arrival. I asked a local standing nearby if this was a problem, and he assured us: “no problem.” More men rushed to the scene, but not to settle the dispute. People in the crowd engaged in heated exchanges, and two men began to fight over a rifle. Tugging, pulling and yelling, they fought over the rifle while the others continued to trade heated words. We watched until we heard the crack of rifle fire from within the angry crowd. We dipped behind the store. “Small problem,” said the local.

Our taxi driver had been attentive to the situation, and seeing our position, quickly drove our way. We dashed across the street and jumped into the safety of his car.

Returning to Sana’a felt like coming home—a sharp reminder that things are quite different outside Sana’a.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


I’ve become friends with my neighbor, an Italian journalist. In addition to enjoying meals he’s prepared with Italian competence, I’ve been able to follow him on stories he’s investigating in Sana’a. A few weeks ago, I trailed him to the site of a collapsed building.

The first two levels of the building had been made of mud and the next three of concrete. A text message from a trapped survivor injected rescue crews and audiences with excitement and a sense of urgency. By the time we arrived at the scene, hundreds of Yemeni police hedged the site, standing shoulder-to-shoulder and keeping observers at bay. As spectators continued to amass, we strained to reach the police barrier. My Italian friend told a policeman that he was a reporter, but, under orders, the policeman stiffly refused him entry. I assumed entry simply wasn’t plausible, and began scoping out the scene immediately around me. Nearby, two kids were were trying to get a look at rubble and simultaneously inflicting light abuse on each other. One would stand on the bumper of a small semi-truck and peep around the edge of the truck over Yemeni heads. After seconds of viewing the ruined building, his friend would rip his safely planted legs from under him and send him crashing to the ground, millimeters from smashing his face on the metal bumper. They laughed it off and gaily switch roles.

Suddenly, I realized I had no idea where my friend was. Being a foot taller than everyone, I was able to quickly confirm he was nowhere near. I was retreating to a less dense area when I heard shouting past the human police fence. There was my friend, next to the crumpled building, yelling at someone, screaming that I was his assistant and demanding my entry. A ranked policeman waved me in.

Despite my burning excitement, I reigned in my smile. I furrowed my brow and assumed a professional air. I had a pen and moleskine in my back pocket and I figured pulling out these props would convince the bystanders I really was a journalist. To complete the role, I asked some important looking people a few questions, then wrote complete nonsense down in my notebook. I wrote:

“Big Crane”

“3 a.m.”

“9 people”

Meanwhile my friend snapped the pictures he actually needed. I realized that despite my efforts, I couldn’t hide my smile and was actually chuckling at the absurdity of the situation and the "journalist's assistant" guise. I wondered what an onlooker might have thought, seeing a foreigner smiling and chuckling while a citizen struggled for survival under four floors of concrete. We left a few minutes later.

Friday, January 21, 2011


I left Jordan January 10th and arrived in Yemen at 1 a.m. on the 11th.

Yemen hangs from the lower left corner of the Saudi Arabian Peninsula. You’ve heard about Yemen before, either as the site of the USS Cole bombing, where the Christmas Day Bomber was indoctrinated; the recent target of U.S. bombs; or the distant land Chandler mentioned in an episode of Friends. The spontaneous violence has caused Yemen's tourism industry to plummet, and I’ve come here to study Arabic at the Yemeni Institute for the Arabic Language (YIAL) and to explore, while taking advantage of the low prices.

The institute is located in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. The city sleeps on the Sarawat Mountain range and claims the privilege of being one of highest capitals in the world (2,300 meters or 7,500 feet above sea level). These mountains have protected Sana’a from the insatiable appetite of time, and, as a result, ancient traditions of dress and behavior have retained their influence on day-to-day life. Exiting the plane, any traveler will immediately notice two unique characteristics of Yemeni culture; the jambia and qat chewing. The jambia is a knife worn and displayed by most males over fourteen. Qat is a small green leaf that is considered a narcotic. Chewing qat, a pre-Islamic tradition, is an afternoon right, and four hours of a Yemeni’s day is allocated to obtaining the high it produces. Walking anywhere in the afternoon, one can see cheeks brimming with the drug. Locals also take pride in the fact that that their capital is one of the longest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Fittingly, in the opinion of some experts, Sana’a could be the first major modern-day city to run out of water, and some estimates put this as early as 2015.

After a minor delay at customs, I met with Assam (YIAL’s public relations guy) and I was escorted to my apartment. During the ride, I discovered that my “minor delay” at customs was Assam arguing on my behalf and preventing my deportation back to Jordan on the next flight. Since the Christmas Day Bomber, Yemeni customs have tightly regulated who comes into their country to study. Supposedly, YIAL had informed me that I was to tell customs I was traveling in Yemen as a tourist, not a student. Luckily, Assam knew a friend at the airport and after a financial gift was given to lull the agitation my arrival caused, I was allowed to proceed. In my first hour in Yemen, I unknowingly contributed to the rampant corruption plaguing the country. YES.

Assam also told me that some other students were going to travel during the approaching weekend (weekends here are Thursday and Friday), and that I was welcome to join. I did.

After my first two days of school I was eager to embark on the weekend trip. One student opted out of the adventure and our final number was three; Assam, Abdullah (a student from Thailand), and myself. The drive to Zabid would take 6 hours, so our journey began at dawn, and I dozed in and out of sleep for the first half of the trip. Military checkpoints were frequent, and I still can’t decide if the checkpoints are comforting or demand concern. About four hours into the trip, we began to feel the pangs of hunger and, democratically, decided to eat.

I’ll never forget the restaurant at which we choose to eat. There was no wall separating us from the nearby street, allowing the noise to carry into the restaurant and the fumes of passing trucks to float into my next bites of food. The restaurant workers added to the cacophony with relentless yelling and screaming, and being submerged in the new tongue, it sounded like no more than incoherent epithets. I'd sat next to the restaurant's sink, and when diners washed their hands and afterwards snapped them dry, drops of water would smack my face, hands and meal. There were two fans above us, each rattling violently but managing to do little to ease the oppressive heat. A large mud oven (which looked more like a big bee hive) was used for cooking the only item on the main course: lamb. Dozens of legs of lamb had been wrapped in aluminum foil and tossed into the hive containing heated charcoal, and, eventually, the lamb became edible. The three of us shared, along with a family of flies, two legs of lamb, fresh bread, rice and a hot salsa. The meal was excellent.

Energized, we continued to Zabid. Stomachs full, the remaining two hours cruised by and Zabid readily welcomed us.

Effusive with history and, like Sana’a, inhabited for countless centuries, Zabid is currently a UNESCO World Heritage site. Sadly, the town has been in a continued state of decay, and without local initiatives the city will lose the UNESCO World Heritage privilege. The decay is more evident than the history. Litter decorates the alleyways and streams of indiscernible fluid create miniature rivers and pool in the tiny roads. Scrawny cats rummage through carelessly scattered trash bags. Most of the roads are too small for a car, so noisy motorcycles are the chief means of transport. I hadn’t done adequate reading about Zabid before our trip, so the whole time I was wondering what we were doing there. The heat was relentless. Usually, wind offers refuge from heat, but here, the wind was hot and only picked up sand and maliciously threw it in my face. No matter how tightly I squinted, sand stealthily made its way into my eyes and left me perpetually blinking. After we visited the town’s meager museum, I convinced the group to head to the beach that was 45 minutes away.

At the beach, the wind and sand, again and in tandem, made efforts to ruin the afternoon. But as we approached the shore and left the reaches of the wind, the view was worth any annoyance or pain. Opening our eyes, we saw colorful wooden ships beached in columns facing the sea. Huts made of driftwood and leaves were scattered along the beach. We took a stroll and after walking for 10 minutes or so we noticed a man tracing our steps. He was far away, but quickly gained ground. As the gap between us shrank, I wondered if we were trespassing and he was coming to reprimand us. His face came into view and I saw that he was an older man, possibly 60 or 70. He came closer still and, almost comically, I saw that his body was that of 30 year old who had completed the grueling p90x workout program. On the contrary, it was merely a simple diet of seafood that had blessed this man with unbreakable health, and without doubt, he still has many years ahead. When we met, he was holding a staff, and muttered a few syllables--most likely some profound pearl of wisdom, given from the ocean, that he had gleaned over the course of his life; I suspect that even if I spoke his language I wouldn’t have understood what he said. As quickly as he came, he left. At once we realized how exhausted we were and decided to head back to our hotel in Zabid. We all slept well.

We woke up and headed to Beit Al-Faqih. All you need to know about Beit Al-Faqih is that it is the biggest market in Yemen. The market is filled with thousands of hustlers, scammers, entrepreneurs and unsupervised kids. At this market, one could buy anything--from a goat to a motorcycle. The smells span a similarly odd range; your nose can enjoy the odor of putrefying flesh or frankincense. Before I had time to consider buying a cow and a few goats, it was time to go.


We were on the highway back to Sana’a. On the way we passed Somalians and Ethiopians who had braved the Red Sea and were marching with their small rations of water to Saudi Arabia, hoping to find employment. The road we traveled followed a river that for millennia had been cutting through the Sarawat mountains. The landscape was savannah plains and, incrementally, the geography became rocky. We stopped while the hills were still scalable and climbed down to the river. The hills provide fertile homes to date trees, banana trees, lush bushes and an assortment of grasses. Assam and Abdullah performed the afternoon prayer on a rock that sat on the side of the river. The rock was massive and created small eddies in the river, creating a pool in which minnows flitted lazily. Again, our scheduled forced us to leave earlier than I would have liked.


Before I knew it, days had passed and I was sitting at my desk in the midst of a strenuous study session. After 5 days of 4 hours a day lessons in my new school, I had encountered some discouraging facts: it can take years to learn Arabic, and it takes at least 1000 hours of study before one can become functional in the language. Discouraged, I asked myself, “Why the hell did I choose this language?” When others ask me this question, I usually respond, “I wanted to challenge myself,” or “I didn’t want to be the stereotypical American who doesn’t know another language or another people.” Those answers are partially true. The reality is that if I'd never joined the military and subsequently deployed, there’s no way I’d be studying the language right now. So, did my deployment plant a seed of curiosity? Am I anxious to understand the rising tensions between the West and certain Islamic movements? Maybe.

Those who have been in the military will be shadowed by the experience for the rest of their lives, and those who know what to look for can spot a veteran a mile away. Whether it is in the way they walk, enter a room, the seat they choose in the room, how they talk, the way they look someone in the eye or don’t look someone in the eye: their mannerisms betray them. Sometimes, identifying veterans is easy because they maintain the military dress code as civilians and still keep the high-and-tight haircut. But, one can also spot a veteran by his feral beard or other absent facial maintenances (this is the path some veterans choose after being emancipated after four years of strict grooming laws). IF SOMEONE WRITES IN ALL CAPS, THEY MAY BE A VETERAN. Honestly though, I thought I was an exception to these tells, and that my veteran status was invisible to even the trained eye.

After class, I went down to the break room, where students and teachers seek asylum after the stresses induced by learning and teaching alike. I casually put my elbow on the entertainment set and glanced coolly at the TV to see what was on the news.

A voice from the back of the room inquired, “Where you in the service?”

I hoped I would never face this question during my stay in Yemen. I hesitated as I carefully tried to figure out my response...

Friday, January 7, 2011

Hitch Hiking Part 1

Once I established Aqaba as my home base I decided to check out Wadi Rumi and Petra. While traveling to these places I experimented with an alternative means of travel; Hitch-hiking.

The day before leaving for Wadi Rumi I thumbed 10 km to a beach south of Aqaba and after this rewarding test I was comfortable with bumming 70km to Wadi Rumi.

A cab took me to the edge of town, away from the labyrinth of the city, and left me on the road to Wadi Rumi. I started walking. It may appear counter intuitive to walk when hitch-hiking, because standing still would get you to point B quicker, but, walking is part of the experience. After 15 minutes, I was picked up by a forgettable character and we navigated the bulk of the road until we separated at the fork where he continued to Amman and I began thumbing again. Sometimes the drivers expect payment for the added weight and sometimes the drivers feel benevolent and the trip is free. I brought extra oranges and offered them to my drivers, and if they accepted, the trip usually became cheaper.

After walking for eternity (20 minutes) under an omnipotent sun, I began to doubt my new travel methods. There was a camel-crossing sign hugging the road. I telescoped the desert floor to see if the sign was valid. And, sure enough, 400m to my right three camels were sun-bathing.

Finally, a dying Toyota that was sympathetic to my situation pulled over and offered me a ride. The two men in the car were brothers. The passenger had prominent cheekbones because of his skinny, almost emaciated, construction. His stoic face was dark and his skin, leathery. I imagined him slitting a throat and serving tea with the same frozen glare. I thought about jumping out of the car.

His brother, the driver, was lighter in color and spirits. They informed me that they were guides to the approaching Wadi Rumi, where they were born and raised. The stoic brother would occasionally turn around and dictate the course of my day. "You come to our house, drink tea." I made a decision here not to succumb to the paranoia I experienced with the coffee vendor. Pragmatically I combated my irrational imagination and soon embraced the experience with deserving excitement. The driver, Odah Hamd, was to be my guide and as the day progressed I found he frequently forgot his stern Bedouin guise and became a cheerful comedian.

After tea and crackers Odah and I jumped into the family heirloom, another ancient Toyota, and drove into the heart of Wadi Rumi. T E Lawrence, in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, writes this of the wadi:
The crags were capped in nests of domes, less hotly red than the body of the hill; rather gray and shallow. They gave finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place: this processional way greater than imagination…Our little caravan grew self-conscious, and fell dead quiet, afraid and ashamed to flaunt its smallness in the presence of the stupendous hills.
Lawrence wrote correctly, and the combination of his words and the pictures I took leave little for me to say.

The brothers own a campsite 3km into the Wadi, and, after the day was spent touring the wadi, Odah left me to enjoy the wadi in solitude there. Using random wood Odah collected for me, I pathetically started a fire, after exhausting half a box of matches and a box of tissues. The fire was too weak to provide reading light, so I was forced to mull over life. As the night aged, a cold calm covered the wadi. I pulled the blanket closer to my head. It smelled like urine. I was too tired to care.

In the morning I ate a pita lined with a can of tuna and, feeling replenished, began the hour trek back to the road to Aqaba.

I reached the Wadi Rumi Visitors Center and from there began walking down the road to Aqaba. Twenty minutes into the thumbing game I was frustrated with constant rejections. Most of the people passing by were in the ubiquitous rent-a-car, and, being vacationers, not likely to pick up a hitch-hiker. Another rent-a-car drove by and I, sarcastically, tossed up my thumb. To my surprise, 50m later, and probably after a brief conversation, the brake lights flashed and the car pulled over. I jogged to the car and opened the door. I was greeted by Marco, Enriquiz, and Franco, three Italians on vacation.

I had trouble believing they just ruffed the night in the same place I had, since it looked like they were returning from a night club, not a desert.

They were in awe. I was their image of the rugged wanderer: A nomad, who threw away all possessions except what he could carry, searching for the deeper truths in life. They began firing questions. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?!" "Is this how you travel?"(Italian accents). The amazement increased when they found out I was heading to Yemen.

Feeling the traveler status divide growing, I informed them that, honestly, I had pack luxuriously and had a wardrobe and small library waiting for me in Amman. I also informed them that, despite the illusion caused by hitch-hiking, I had a rigid itinerary. Equilibrium was restored and they were a little letdown. The conversation turned into recommendations and a comparison between Lonely Planet and Ruff Guides.

Franco, the driver, sneezed. They all said "Ewww" and giggled.

When I first stationed at Aqaba, I thought the most memorable experiences would be visting Wadi Rumi and Petra. Both places were great, but, after hitch-hiking, I remembered (cliche coming) that the journey and the people we meet on it are just important and memorable as the destination.

                                                                   Odah, my guide.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

new years in jordan

Around 2 p.m., I jumped into a bus and left rainy Amman for Aqaba. I spent the duration of the four hour trip staring into the desert while seated in the second level of a double-decker bus. I haven’t gotten bored of the desert yet, in fact, I find the vast, dry landscape humbling and conducive to personal reflection.
Aqaba is located in southern Jordan and rests on the Gulf of Aqaba, a conduit to the Red Sea. The city is commonly known as the port T. E. Lawrence and his entourage captured from the Turks in 1917 and, as result, increased momentum for the Arab Revolt. Despite the town's rich history, I'm traveled here because I heard the snorkeling is decent.
Entering Aqaba the energy was palpable due to the approaching New Year. I checked out a few hotels and, probably because of the holiday, the prices were a bit higher than Lonely Planet predicted. I finally found a decent place, dropped off my luggage and went exploring around town. On the Gulf of Aqaba beach, families were picnicking and gangs of bachelors were strutting along the boardwalk. I quickly found honest company with a man selling coffee. His operation was simple: a small butane burner, water, Nestle coffee and sugar. We talked smoothly in Arabic for minutes, then the language barrier obliged us to enjoy each others company in silence. In an extension of hospitality, he offered a cigarette and I, a non-smoker, sharply refused. But, he persisted, and I, not wanting to be rude, folded and smoked my first sober cigarette. Despite being disgusted with smoking, I wanted to appear seasoned at the trade. I tried the scissors grip with two erect fingers clamping the cigarette awkwardly. Feeling foolish, I switched to the limp grip. In this style, the smoker’s hand assumes a natural shape that makes no concession to the existence of the cigarette. If done correctly, the cigarette loosely balancing between relaxed pointer and middle fingers conveys the cool symbiotic relationship between smoker and cigarette. Haha.
In the midst of our cordial conversation, I was suddenly overcome by a moment of racial prejudice. I suspect I was infected with this prejudice during my time in the military, where insidious racism was necessary for diligent work. Ultimately, this racism may have received its cachet from a suicide bomber that hit a platoon in our company four days before the otherwise smooth deployment ended. Sitting next to this vendor in Aqaba, I couldn’t help imagining he was a covert operative in a terrorist cell, eliciting information from me in hopes of brutally murdering me in my hotel room later that night. When he finished smoking, I was relieved; I didn’t have to worry about him thrusting the ember of his cigarette into my eye. This attitude is a shame because all evidence points to this man as genuine and, actually, very intelligent.
Being New Years, there were fireworks, but not in Aqaba. From Aqaba, one can scan the gulf and see the lights of Eilat, Israel and Taba, Egypt. There was a chilling irony watching the fireworks of the neighboring countries--who miraculously manufactured a cold peace in 1978--share the sky in a celebratory display of beauty and light. In summary, it was deeply humanizing. The fireworks were so far off they could only be seen, not heard. Taking in the scene as one year retired and another awakened, I noticed that the gatherings on the Aqaba beach were more about family and friends, and less about being entertained by the colors of exploding copper sulfite and magnesium miles away.