Thursday, June 26, 2008

how to overstay a welcome

We met Hassan in the dairy section of the grocery store. As an employee, with great English, he was determined to help us find sour cream. Up and down the aisles, this search became the foundation of our friendship. When the sour cream was discovered, we had already exchanged numbers and he had invited us to go out with him to his home. It was settled, he was picking us up at 7pm. Together we cruised through the Jordanian hills in his father's 1976 BMW, and about 30 minutes later we arrived into his neighboring town of Salt. At the door, we were introduced to his father, mother, and two of his sisters (a brother and four other sisters also make up this big family). It soon became very obvious, they were eager and delighted to play host, and we were their honored guests! It began with Arab coffee, a coffee so intense they only serve it in half ounce shots. On their best silver trays, they presented Pepsi, pears, water, chocolates, mango juice, tea and watermelon. As far as we knew, to reject any offers would be offensive, so we carefully and strategically managed to consume all the offered confections and drinks. During our third hour together, in fancy little glasses, they presented us with infamous Turkish coffee, and after the coffee the evening continued. This sweet family sat with us for hours; without understanding any English, they were committed to being proper hosts. Eventually I whispered to Joe "Do you think we should go soon?" But we both agreed, that might be rude, so we just sat there content, enjoying the kind hospitality of this wonderful Jordanian family and the warmth of this quiet little town. Finally, in our fifth hour together (and just before midnight) another round of coffee circled our way. Like any good guests, we drank up... and with our limited (but humorous) Arabic vocabulary, we continued to fuel the conversation. As another caffeine rush subsided, Hassan said "If you are ready to go, just let me know." Without wanting to appear too eager, we waited a few more minutes, then started our goodbyes. It wasn't until one week later that we learned a very important lesson in Arab hospitality: When the host serves coffee, it's a signal that the evening is coming to a close, and the guest knows it's time to go after the coffee is gone. Our gracious hosts catered to us for almost five hours and through multiple rounds of "this is your clue to go" coffee--if only we had known!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

going domestic, please help

On our third day in Amman, we met these two Arab girls: Rania and Tamara. From the moment we met, they have showered us with kindness. They have gifted our apartment with DVDs of the TV show Friends and big red heart shaped pillows "to make you feel more at home." At a mere twenty years old, they have captured our hearts. To celebrate the girls finishing their 2nd year of university, I offered to make a special lunch. Rania requested Fettuccine Alfredo. I looked at the cooking light recipe, but to me it read like chicken scratch. So, I invited the girls to come make Fettuccine Alfredo with me! Together, we chopped up garlic, guessed on butter, milk, flour... and soon enough it began taking on the resemblance of Fettuccine Alfredo! Rania added the parsley garnishing and Tamara set the table, and together the four of us (including Joe) sat around the table and enjoyed our home cooked meal. Okay, here's the real truth, not all my cooking stories have been as pretty as that one. I offered Tamara a taste from my third attempt at oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. She carefully examined my rounded oat creation and kindly took a nibble. With a big smile she said "perhaps you need a new recipe?" and walked herself over to the trashcan. Living overseas makes us miss places like Costco, where all our meals are a simple 10 minutes away. I have no choice but to become domestic. It's been a road of discovery for me; and I've been dealt my share of challenges. There is no oven... only a toaster oven. We have no measuring cups, spoons, etc... everything is in pinches, handfuls, and the very accurate "pure guess-timation." Don't even get me started about metric conversions. I've learned that butter is a very important element in cookies, that lasagna noodles stick together in strainers, and that yeast is very high maintenance. Here's my request: send your recipes this way! But here's the catch, please explain everything in terms like "3 small handfuls" "big pinches" and "about 2 cups." Anything that needs precision is a sure disaster. Share the recipe in a comment, for others to enjoy too. The girls loved cooking, and when I hinted at cooking together more, they were all for it. Later that evening, Rania sent me this text message: "When I pray, I don't see God, but I know he listens. As such, when I text you I don't see you but I know you think of me and smile." I was doing just that.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

we agree with the queen

"What in the world are we doing here?" "Why have we committed to spending a summer living in Amman, Jordan?" It's not that we ourselves are still struggling for answers to these questions, but people from all over the place continue to scratch their heads and ask, so we thought we'd spell out the method to the madness of our being here.

It's been a while now, but one day, post-9/11, a seed was planted--a seed that eventually produced fruits of interest in all things Arab and Muslim. Times are turbulent, true, but moving in the direction of the Middle East started sounding more beneficial than turning our backs to it. In the context of this trip, we decided to devote about half of it to engaging with the elements of one Arab Muslim society by immersing ourselves in it. On the surface it may smack at being foolish and idealistic to think that it will matter, but we're maintaining the faith to believe in a few ideas:

Real, personal relationships between the West and the Middle East have been replaced by politics and the media, and unfortunately, stereotypes are being enhanced instead of eliminated.
many misunderstandings between those who follow Jesus and those who follow Mohammad have resulted in a rift of fear and conflict.
Perhaps, then,
an open-minded approach to building a bridge between us and the Arab Muslim world through friendship and genuine conversation is important in light of today's global cultural climate, and at the very least we can enrich our own lives in the pursuit.

Jordan is a monarchy (quite a progressive one at that), and at the end of March, Queen Rania issued a challenge via YouTube for our different worlds to be more connected. Below is her optimistic and positive video in the spirit of dissolving stereotypes. In the words of one of my new Jordanian friends, Mohammad, "It's the time to understand each other."

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

the sun sets on our sojournings

Turks are warm and welcoming people, and likewise our time in Istanbul has been sunny and sweet. It's also been characterized by our awareness of tomorrow's imminent transition. We are, admittedly, a little burnt out on the backpack life, but nonetheless we maintain a sense of bittersweet closure as we share a smoke from the water pipe on our final travel night. From east to west and back as far as the Middle East, all five of our senses have feasted on every experience between two horizons and under the sun. Tomorrow we leave Istanbul, and leave behind 107 days worth of memories worthy of reliving. We don't really leave it all behind though, for with us we carry these nuggets of life into season two as we settle down in Amman, Jordan. Getting here has definitely been half the fun, and being that we're about to "arrive", tomorrow our pilgrimage road becomes an Arab city street in a home away from home.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

the $184 taxi ride (and other feats of endurance)

In Istanbul, we're marveling at the 36 hour timeline of events that finally and surprisingly brought us here. From noon Friday until midnight Saturday/Sunday, we endured sleeplessness, hopelessness, and visions of hitchhiking nightmares that we thought were sure to befall us. Triumphant after a day and a half of back breaking pack carrying, like turtles in a marathon, we finally closed the door of our Istanbul hotel room, and gloriously closed the door on this travel chapter. The point of this post is to tell the tale; to read about it may take you almost as much time as we spent living it.

Friday, noon
. We check out of our Mykonos hotel and, with our bags on our backs (and fronts), we brave the blustery island wind as we head down to town for lunch. Maybe we would have never moved on had we known what it was going to take.

2:15pm. In uneventful fashion, we board our ferry for a five and a half hour cruise back to Athens, Piraeus Port. The trip involves playing a lot of cards and sleeping on our arms. Let's go over what the plan was. Based on much internet research and some overthinking, we believed that we would take an overnight train from Athens to Thessaloniki, then catch another train on Saturday morning from Thessaloniki to Istanbul for arrival at 9:30 that night. It was almost that easy.

8:00pm. Back in Athens, the metro to the train station is cheaper and easier to use than we expect. We have an hour until the international ticket office closes (we didn't know that we actually had two), but inconsequentially we're above ground again in 20 minutes. The ticket office is easy to spot and unapologetic about being the bearer of some bad news.

8:30pm. There's now only one train per day to Istanbul departing in the afternoon? The man with alcohol on his breath presents us with a piece of paper outlining the schedule for traveling by train to Istanbul. There are indeed two options, but the sheet has been torn in half, and the other option (our method of choice) has been inexplicably and recently shelved--literally trashed. We talk to the domestic ticket office, she also talks to drunk international man, she talks to us again and offers no consolation, then we check with the bus terminal and consider spending $500 to fly instead.

9:30pm. Well, we don't want to unpack and pack again by staying in Athens, so we stick to our original expectation and purchase tickets for the overnight train to Thessaloniki. The one train per day schedule applies to the international leg from Thessaloniki to Istanbul. What this means for us is that now we'll have a 13 hour day in Thessaloniki before boarding a second overnight train at 8:00pm Saturday. We won't get to Istanbul until Sunday morning, but hey, here's to being cheap and on a budget and saving money by sleeping on the train two nights in a row.

11:59pm. On time--and prepared for the long road ahead--we depart. We make three Greek soldiers get out of our seats, but then befriend them and make good conversation in English for two and a half hours, then we sleep.

Saturday, 7:00am. Startled by our sudden arrival into Thessaloniki, we gather our stuff and squint at the dawn of a new day. Now what? We pass the international ticket window and figure that we'd be wise to check out the situation for our next night train. Maybe we'll bus it from here, who knows? The woman is kind, but provides only the expected information until, as we're walking away, she calls us back and informs us that there's a 7:15am train leaving for the Greece-Turkey border where we can then make a connection the rest of the way to Istanbul. Exactly! Why couldn't she have been in Athens last night to tell this to drunk international man? We're over Thessaloniki, give us two tickets.

7:15am. In hand we have our tickets and the following supplies purchased in a hurry: two chocolate croissants, one bag of oregano flavored chips, a 500 mL Coke Zero, and a pack of Werther's Originals. Ah, a balanced breakfast. There is no platform information anywhere, so we run to a station attendant and ask for the train to Pythion; Pythion, as we'll later learn, is a train depot, an outpost, in the farthest frontier of the Greek countryside. The station attendant doesn't even know our train, so he asks someone else who looks at us, says "Pythion?", and points to the same train we got off only 15 minutes ago.

8:00am. The train's rolling, but we're not quite sure about the direction in which it's rolling. Nonetheless, we have confirmation from four people that it ends at Pythion (well, at the Greece-Turkey border, at least). A man checks our tickets and sort of huffs and puffs as he says, "Istanbul?" He proceeds to tell us that there is no train to Pythion and that we'll need to catch a bus at the end of the line in Alexandroupolis, then he returns to checking tickets. What? Is he conspiring with drunk international man?

8:45am. My nails are nearly chewed off as the train clunks and clatters us toward our new destination, Alexandroupolis. There's a new ticket checker who's nicer and speaks better English, so we ask him about the Pythion situation. He only confirms our new reality, but adds that the bus is run by the train company and, even better, that it's included in the ticket price and should be waiting for us just when we arrive--brilliant!

Noon. We've befriended a Greek travel agent, and at this point, instead of pointing out the window at passing lakes and mountains, he becomes our interpreter. Another train attendant is trying to tell us in Greek that the train is running late and that we can't count on the bus to expedite us to our Istanbul train waiting at the border. We don't even know what time that train may leave, nor are we sure from where on the border this will take place, but we take his word for it. Oh yeah, and we're then instructed to get off the train at the second stop, where a taxi will be waiting to whisk us away to Turkey.

1:30pm. We don't really believe anyone or anything anymore, but at the same time we still listen to everyone. We're packed up as the train is coming to a stop in Komotini, and we follow the pointing fingers of men who may actually be trying to help us get to Istanbul. There's a taxi, backed in, trunk open, and an overweight Greek driver named Spiro (who speaks no English) becomes our escort. The best part about our upcoming ride is that, according to the train company, they were late, so they're paying for it.

1:37pm. We're doing 150 kph on a Greek highway with the windows down, and the jolly man behind the wheel is ecstatic because he knows he's getting paid today. Are we still in a hurry? We don't even know. We just keep driving, the meter keeps counting, and I keep pointing at our train tickets and saying, "Train. Istanbul." It's a beautiful day, and Spiro is blasting Greek music as we all snap our fingers to the beat. He points for me to mess with the radio station; I find Snow Patrol and give him the thumbs up, so he turns the volume way up.

3:05pm. We're passing through farmland when Spiro turns down a side road and reaches to remove his seatbelt. At this point we expect to be introduced to Spiro's friends and their weapons of choice for the quintessential crime, but alas, there are train tracks. Pythion! It's written on the station.

3:08pm. The meter is at just under 115 euros, but we don't care. All Spiro wants from us is a handshake. He walks us around the corner and introduces us to the Greek passport control agents who will stamp our pages for departure from the EU and the West. There are actually humans at this frontier station. It's old and quiet. All that's missing for the perfect scene from a country western movie are Clint Eastwood and some tumbleweeds. The train's sitting there, waiting, and it will leave on time at 3:30pm. We've made it! We even have time to stock up on supplies and relieve ourselves by trying our luck at the squatty potties. For the record, there is a second train from Greece to Istanbul, and you'll pay one third the price of a plane ticket for a ride and a better story. We had to hear one more train clunk and clatter on the tracks, only this time we were certain that the music was moving us to Istanbul.