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Saturday, December 25, 2010

An Ode to Y'all

I came to Jordan a scared and paranoid soul. I was worried no one would like me, I’d be the ‘foreign’ little child who kinda crept along the outskirts of the group. I would not be smart enough to converse intelligently with these exemplary co-students and I would fail at Arabic, especially given my history with languages. Ya. Sometimes I wonder why I even embarked on this trip. How was I to know that my deeply entrenched low self esteem would be knocked straight out of the ball park by this amazing group of students I have been privileged to share this out of the world experience with.

Oh you dearest of friends. You all have made me a better person, someone I’m kinda OK with being. You were my oasis of strength, support, fun and comfort in this absurd, soulful, chaotically colourful and challenging three months. I doubt I’d have loved these months as much without you. Thank you, for teaching me, amongst others that:

  • Texas is actually pretty OK
  • There is a difference between the South, the Deep South and then Texas. What I’m not sure but hey! You got to begin somewhere right?
  • ‘Foreign’ is a term of endearment – who knew that being culturally insensitive/racist/ethnocentric was in fact a show of love???
  • The frattiest bro you’re likely to meet is a sucker for a stuffed toy, a yellow baby chicken to be specific.
  • It is possible to be really good friends with Conservative Republicans. Yes multiple. I’m still a flag burning liberal socialist though, not to worry.
  • Being tossed over someone’s shoulder is a particularly unpleasant experience
  • Glee brings people together. Oh wait… I already knew that!
  • Riding a horse sounds like the scariest thing ever.
  • Your friends are musical geniuses when drunk and tone deaf when sober
  • An abandoned rubble pit on a steep slope is actually a fun place to hang out at when drunk
  • UN parties are fun to crash. As are US Embassy parties. Especially if you’re an Indian dressed as a Texan and your friend is a Texan dressed in your Sari
  • Feathers make for great fashion accessories
  • ‘Sounds like my prom night’ (a friend’s invention) allows for waaaay more versatile usage that ‘that’s what she said’
  • ‘WORD’ is a really popular slang term. Who knew?
  • People will pretend to find law and legal discourse interesting just coz they love you so much
  • It is possible for 23 completely different, polar opposite, disparate people to be really good friends, to get along, genuinely like one another and make a lasting impression on your life
  • Your tribe is forever (well a really long time if nothing else) – the memories, the lessons and most importantly, the people

The Airport Sagas

Airline companies are not my friends. Airport lounges on the other hand, are. I have spent many an hour at various airports globally, sitting right in front of the Check in counter, in the desperate hope that somehow my luck turns, just once. That… is yet to happen.

My freshmen year I had what my family lovingly called ‘the travel jinx’. My university forgot to pick me from the airport for orientation which please note was my introduction to American college life. I got dropped off on the side of a highway that year, spent 80 USD on a cab ride from the airport and then would have done so again had it not been for the generosity of a stray college professor who drove me, in the hope that one day, somewhere, someone would return the favor and look out for her own college-aged daughter. The climax was my return trip home however, when I spent 37 hours at a particularly boring airport due to rain in Chicago and then got held up at London airport because they didn’t like the look of my replacement ticket. The domestic leg of my trip home met with a similar disastrous fate when Cyclone Aila hit Kolkata, my final destination and I got to spend 7 hours on the tarmac of a State which was controlled by separatist militias and then flew back to where I had started from 12 hours earlier. Yes. That was a memorable trip.

Anyhoo, we all assumed that I had broken the junx when I succeeded in crossing both the Atlantic & the Pacific in the same year, without any mishaps. We rejoiced. Especially when I managed to avoid the snow storm of 2009 that descended upon Europe and the East Coast, stranding travelers across all major Western airports. I had ebaten the system and could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

And then of course Gulf Air ‘happened’ as we would have said in school. The Gulf Air roundtrip was a good Rs 10,000 (USD 200) cheaper than the Royal Jordanian flight and allowed me 1.5 times the weight limit. A golden opportunity, yet another airline triumph, I was on a roll. Or so I thought.

My ticket home said my flight left at 1330 hrs. their website was down for the three days preceding my flight. I didn’t think to call up as I assumed they were legally bound to inform me or my travel agent about a change in schedule. Oh but what was I thinking! Is Gulf Air legally bound to anyone but their own inefficiencies?

I reached the airport, close to 3 hrs prior to my departure only to find my flight was boarding. In true Jordanian style, no one at the Check In counters had any idea as to what was going on, partially to blame was the fact that Gulf Air, has no official counter at the airport or even a sort of office where they can pretend to sit and deal with problems. My flight had left at this point so after much running around and tracking down of airport managers who could call Gulf Air employees only to be handed a retinue of excuses, I gave up in sheer frustration and bought the ‘last’ ticket on the Royal Jordanian flight home. I have never bought a ticket this last minute before so maybe I’m overhyping the situation but somehow I find myself, yet again stranded at a rather boring airport for 9 hrs with no viable food options around and my ever cheerful mother 500USD poorer. Hail Airlines!

(Interesting Fact: Airport employees, in three different continents now have seen a sobbing Paromita Sen, which is more than can be said for some of my closest friends even.)

Airlines That So Far Have Tried To Screw Me Over:

Lufthansa

British Airways

American Airlines

Spice Jet

Gulf Air

United Airways

Ones That Haven’t:

AirIndia (Really. No Joke)

Royal Jordanian’s fate is now hanging in the balance

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Wonders

The Wonders

Just thought I’d post the list of the 7 wonders of the World too since it is now my life’s mission to see all. Check off the ones you’ve been to.

This is the newest list, as announced on 07/07/07. So funny they are, I must say.

Each monument is said to stand for something. Once I find that list, I’ll edit this post.

Wonder

Country

Description

Christ The Redeemer

Brazil

Statue of Christ – the beginning shot of multiple apocalyptic movies

Great Wall

China

A Wall – a really long one. Like really really long.

Taj Mahal

India

Marble Mausoleum – built in mourning for a beloved wife

Colosseum

Italy

Guess the West had to have something going for them.

Petra

Jordan

City Carved Into Rock - literally

Chichen Itza

Mexico

Ziggurats – does anyone know what those actually are?

Machu Pichu

Peru

Incan Temples

Honorary Candidate –

Pyramids At Giza

If you don’t know which country these are in, you don’t deserve to exist.

Pyramids – Nuff said.

The Pyramids from now on will be an Honorary Candidate on all revised lists, the 8th Wonder for time eternal.

3 Down 5 to Go

Don’t feel like making this poetic. So I’m not going to.

Petra is a newcomer to the list of wonders of the world. In 2007, due to very active campaigning by Queen Rania, Petra was included in the revised list, and oh thank god it was. How would I describe Petra? Hmmm… Petra is a city carved into rock. Not out of rock, because these rock monuments are literally carved into the stone mountains of the region. The city was built by the Nabataeans supposedly around the last century BCE first century AD. Details are yet to be known as since the 5th Century AD, the city was abandoned, and kept hidden from the rest of the world until about the mid 19th Century when a Swiss traveler heard of the Sacred City of the Bedouin, open only to those of the Badia and thus snuck in with a goat. (Yes goats are that cool, they’ll get you into sacred cities. Please reference previous post about the omniscience of the goat.)

Anyhoo, Petra. The city is reached through a Siq or a natural gorge, the best defense from invading armies. Once you walk down this 2 kilometer long winding, oft narrow gorge you understand why Petra was carved where it was. The gorge tapers off sometimes to allow only maybe one chariot through, and sometimes it is broad enough for a couple of elephants to trundle through. The road itself is paved such that parts are racing horse friendly while other parts will be sure to trip up a wheel unsure of where it is headed. An intricate knowledge of the Siq is therefore important for one’s grand entrance into the city. The Siq itself is beautiful with random carvings in the rock walls that serve no real purpose but just look pretty. Trees and bushes sprout out of the rock interface, thus indicating the presence of multiple water channels that fed the city in its heyday, another reason for the location considering the surrounding desert. You want to climb into some of the rock crevices you see but guides loitering around with their tour groups prevent you from doing so. Beh. Great photo op lost.

The entrance to Petra is framed by the Khazeneh or Treasury. It is an absolutely magnificent rock façade carved into the first mountain of the city. Initially thought to be a temple to one of the patron Nabataean gods, recent excavations found skeletal remains thus indicating that it probably was a tomb, even though the façade implies otherwise. Under the actual tomb structure you see where the doors leading to the underground tombs are. Over 8 bodies are said to have been found under just this tomb.

You can just meander through the city, which would be the best way to see it. Take an entire day, from 8 in the morning till 5 when it gets too dark to see anyway. We however, had 4.5 hours. Fail SIT. But not to be daunted we zoom through. Do not underestimate the speed a group of young adults can explore at.

Nature has been kind to Petra. Some of the carvings have been weathered such it is difficult to state authoritatively if all the crevices we saw were man made. They most probably were but who’s to say for sure? The layers have given away to reveal a kaleidoscope of colours so vivid, they make you stop. They bring to life the sands of the desert, the bleakness of the landscape is let up, even if briefly.

We zoom on, till we reach the Colonnade, a row of pillars where the city centre once was. Surrounding it you see the rubble of the free standing houses that once stood there were destroyed by successive earthquakes. This is the fate of most of the free standing rock structures in Petra, one of the reasons behind why it was abandoned eventually.

The highlight of the exploring however is the trek through the mountain to the Monastery. The Monastery was used by both, the Nabataeans and the succeeding Christians and is reached by trekking up 800 steps through the mountains. It is not easy. I almost began doubting the existence of the Monastery about 45 minutes in. You see, when they say 800 steps, they are counting the physical rock steps cut into the mountain. What they forget to mention are that there are no steps someplace and you just have to walk up the slope which is not really that difficult but the principle of the fib is what hurts. The little shops set up by local Bedouin women make it so much more pleasant though. If you do wish, donkeys are available at relatively affordable rates to carry you up. Coming down could be scary considering the slope but the Monastery is more than worth it. The monastery is yet again a beautiful rock façade which you can clamber into with the help of three of your friends. (There are pictures of my valiant attempt on Facebook.) More importantly, the view of Petra and the surrounding Desert and sand dunes and hills is what is so beautiful. It is an amazing panoramic view of the region and you’re as high up as you can get in this area.

Anyway, darkness descends really early since winter is here. By about 430 the sun has gone to bed and we’re still meandering down. We have a deadline to meet so we decide to spend our last deenars on camel rides through Petra at dusk. Every penny worth it. The streets are abandoned as everyone has packed up and left. You get a really great scenic view of the city as you trot down towards the entrance. The camel man is friendly and a wealth of knowledge and plus he says my Arabic is very good. It is so endear yourself to me, I realise. My friend decides to make her camel start cantering which means mine must too since they are tied together. Let’s just say we are not friends anymore. I’m kidding. Maybe. It’s quite an experience actually. Trotting camels are very very very bumpy. This camel ride was my favorite so far though. Yes it even beat the one at the Pyramids. I would highly recommend a camel trot through the empty streets of Petra to all and sundry. Just don’t canter if you plan on going sand dune crashing/rolling/God Alone Knows what the next day.

Ok that’s all. Made this long and boring enough. You’re welcome!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Jazz Cairo Style

Cairo Jazz Club. Don’t let the name fool you. No it’s not a jazz club. Or maybe it is. Just not the night we decided to drop by. A small little club in a not so hip area of Cairo yet overflowing with people. Egyptians and non-Egyptians alike. Egyptians, Lebanese, Spaniards, Americans, the token Indian (yes me), Italians all jamming out to music from the 70s and 80s. Requests for Lady GaGa turned down. Too new. Contemporary is so passé. The DJ spins ‘Don’t Stop Believing’. Three of us know the lyrics. All of them. We sing. All of them. No one else does. Money for Nothing. Talk About a Revolution. It’s My Life. We Will Rock You. Like A Virgin. Black Or White. Jessie's Girl. Losing My Religion. We sing a little too loud, a little too long. We lose our voices. We don’t care. It’s been too long.

Withstanding the Test of Time

This past week I decided that my life travels would henceforth be dedicated to knocking off the wonders of the world. Why? Because the pyramids literally took my breath away. My pilgrimage to the oldest standing monument was about so much more than just upping my elder brother whose lifelong dream it has been, something I now understand in its entirety. The pyramids, physically, are inspiring; an engineering marvel that modern society can still not replicate, art and creativity representative of the very cradle of civilization. The out of body experience of visiting the pyramids is about more than just the physical wonder though. They are a testament to what the human mind is capable of. They represent, to me at least, indestructibility, resilience of the human spirit and immortality. Pharaoh Khufu created a legacy that has withstood the test of time like nothing else can. The Pyramids at Giza are the only ancient wonder still standing. The others succumbed to natural causes such as earthquakes, man made causes like fires and for some just the test of time finally wore them down. The pyramids though, stood strong through everything. And its not that they were lucky or forgotten about. Human societies love destroying art almost as much as they love creating it. The empires who have come and gone in Egypt have all tried to bring to the knees this culture that preceded them and was a mockery of everything they stood for. The Greeks and Romans thought them uncivilized and backward, the Coptec Christians were vengeful and the Islamic dynasties thought they undermined everything that Islam stood for. Mohammed Ali Pasha for instance, the first ruler of Modern Egypt, wanted to deconstruct the Pyramids and use the stones to build his citadel now built in Old Cairo. What made him change this initial plan? The religious leaders of the day felt it would be sacrilegious to use the stones from a pagan monument to build the Salah-uddin Mosque. Thank the Lord that Anubis is a pagan god, not worthy of even being destroyed. Human scavengers lost their way inside and died in their attempts to plunder the oldest testaments to time. What did they think? Their individual human frailty and ignorance would survive the wonder of the ages? Who did they think would win? How could they possibly conceive it a fair fight? Actual human destruction was either too daunting a task or previous civilizations just didn’t care enough, ignorance that we should be grateful for.

The tectonic plates the pyramids stand upon are mostly free of faults and thus earthquakes. The fertile Nile river basin ensures the land doesn’t dry up enough to cause the ground to crack. Floods and other such disturbances disturb the structure but the stones aren’t held together with mortar. Structural disturbances therefore don’t impact the strength of the design. The stones shift a little but then resettle. They don’t impact the overall composure. The surrounding sand keeps fire away and the pyramids therefore even withstand the forces of Nature, something modern technology and engineering is still trying to wrap its head around.

The pyramids were built as monuments to the dead. It was a way of ensuring that they were not forgotten. Such a basic human need, isn’t it? The knowledge that you were loved enough to be thought of even after you aren’t physically there anymore. I once read somewhere that a person truly dies when the last person to remember them dies. When the memory of them dies, a person is truly gone. The pyramids keep an entire civilization alive. The Pharaonic Age passed over 3000 years ago, Pharaoh Khufu even before that and yet, he is remembered. The Egyptians, the Pharaohs did what every human wishes they could do, be remembered, become immortal, die knowing they have left a mark upon this world. The Pharaohs left their marks and oh what splendorous marks! May we never forget them, the lessons they taught us, the sheer magnificence of the pyramids and everything they represent. Oh Osiris, Smite us the day we dare to forget you, because that day we would have lost our right to marvel and create and be human. That day our souls would have turned to stone.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

My Soul Was Transported

We signed up for a hike through a canyon. Wadi bin Hammad. We drove through desert for two hours only to suddenly appear at the edge of a green, foliaged canyon, with the sound of rippling water, sweetest music to our ears. A small stream snaked through the bottom of the canyon and we plunged into the water for a walk downstream through a canyon of extraordinary beauty. The stream would be no more than ankle deep in some places but then sometimes right after a mini waterfall, the ground would fall away till you were thigh high in water. Mini showers from the walls of the canyon were dispersed up and down the trail. Jurassic Park could have been shot at that very canyon; it had that kind of explorer feel to it. An end of the world walk to salvation feel accompanied me all along, a euphoric apocalyptic survivor sensation that made me want to believe in survival, in resilience, adrenaline rushes and a sense of oneness with your own humanity that only comes from an experience like yesterdays.

You feel like you’re alive once you’ve done something like that. Wading upstream is a battle often, you fight for your balance, you fall, you splash about like in a bad jungle horror flick. You sun yourself by a stream, your feet dangling in the water, breathing again after that walk. You duck under reeds trying to find the sunlight, reminiscent of a 1960’s Vietnam War movie. Eventually the narrow corridor of the canyon gives way to a large span of flat gravelly land and everyone settles down for lunch and hookah (yes they brought hookah with them… Oh Jordan!) and then you begin your walk back. The long walk is whiled away in chatter with people you have recently befriended and the atmosphere lends itself to unprecedented intimacy. You discuss everything and anything, souls, transportation, dance, religion, women, homosexuality, driving even. You don’t remember names but you know them in a manner you might never know the people you sit next to in university. The sheer variety of experiences in just that one canyon is enough to take your breath away. You live again and again, a born again kind of feeling infuses your being, much like the sunshine that plays with the water. You’re glad your 20th birthday was this exceptional, this different, the kind of day that reminds you how amazing it is to be alive. Happy Birthday to Me :)

That's Why Jordan

College students don’t read. At least not on my campus. I would spend hours in the library freshman year, thanks to my job and the computer station they had there so I do feel I’m qualified to speak somewhat authoritatively on this issue. No one reads for the sake of reading, for learning. Our college lives are too strenuous, we barely manage to read for class, intellectualism threatens to shroud our youth and why would you want to read Virgil in your free time anyway?

I miss reading. I don’t do enough and I wish I had the strength of character to not watch Grey’s Anatomy on a Thursday night and read Jimmy Carter’s ‘Endangered Values’ instead. There are too many distractions in college, you live with friends you’d rather talk to, watch a movie with, read fiction at the most and your semester reading list is pushed to the back of your mind. It doesn’t mean we don’t want to. It means we don’t have the time, energy or inclination to immerse in a tome of knowledge in our only time off from the intellectualism that envelops us on liberal art college campuses.

But when you come to Jordan to study abroad, you realize there is so much you don’t know about and there is so much to learn and for the first time you have the time to actually learn beyond the classroom. The classes aren’t as strenuous as they would be on a college campus and we’re left with oodles of time to do as we may. Families here don’t read as much so your only source of literature is the library in school which primarily has books on Jordanian history, culture, politics, foreign policy, women, religion, et al. you came to Jordan because you were interested in these topics and here you are, immersed in the culture, surrounded by the issues you’ve read about in classes but never really comprehended till now. You realize there is so much to learn, so much to absorb, so much to do that you actually begin to crave the learning you had no patience for back in school. So when you get half an hour between classes, you read. Whatever book you can get your hands on. An ethnography, a study on women, a book detailing the Israel-Palestinian conflict or even a Saudi Arabian take on Sex and the City (yes it exists.. I read it). You’re game for it all. And the best part is reading becomes a communal activity once again. You’re not the lone geeky kid in the corner reading anymore. Everyone reads. At some point or the other, you’ll find them with a book in their hand, a book they don’t have to read but want to. And that’s why we came to Jordan. We all want to learn, we crave it and that’s why Jordan. Because you learn everyday. It’s all around you. So we read. To learn. To know. To appreciate.

The News Conundrum

Does news have a singular form? Or is the plural the singular? Can you not have just ‘new’? Just one article of it? Arabic has a singular form, Khabar and its plural is Akhbar. If they can pluralize it, why can’t we? Stupid English I say.

A Shout Out To Bollywood

My name is Paromita Sen and I am abso-tota-lutely addicted to Bollywood. There. I said it. I think Shah Rukh Khan epitomizes romance and I will brook no criticism of his various flaws. He isn’t perfect but then neither are you so go away.

My relationship with Bollywood dates back to the 8th Std when I was home alone for the holidays with a TV for company. Bollywood became my sole companion, it consumed my life and I found my soul mate that year. We are yet to have a falling out. College makes everything so much tougher. Bollywood has upped and gone ahead and I’m desperately trying to catch up with the last 2 years that have just zoomed past. Jordan seemed like a nightmare in that sense… where would I indulge this obsession, this absolute mania that was akin to breathing? Every Friday I log online and read reviews of the latest Hindi film release and feel miserable that I have to wait three months before I get to see these movies. But one beautiful Tuesday evening, as I pottered around the kitchen, Atif Aslam’s dulcet voice singing Bekhuda careened right through the door and knocked me off my feet. Kismat Konnection brought me back to life that day as I realized for the first time that Bollywood airs on Jordanian TV. That was also when my host brother chose to inform me that Khalid Baba, my host father, was a self-confessed fan of old Bollywood movies. He might speak minimal English and have only a basic idea of any TV show on FOX but mention Bollywood and he will excitedly rattle off names of the stalwarts of Indian cinema and their landmark movies. Raj Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor, Zeenat Aman and Amitabh Bachchan are but some of the names he will throw your way.

Bollywood was a conversation starter even in the Badia. The pitchy notes of Mere Naseeb Mein playing in a small village in rural Jordan was not something I thought I would ever bear witness to but Bollywood had brought me home again. They played the song over and over again that night because the grandmother thought it was tragic that I was so far away from home and my mother. It was decided therefore that Bollywood music would be my surrogate mother for the night. Hospitality knows no bounds, does it?

That night, Bollywood and the Badia redeemed my faith in the transcendentality of Bollywood, the universal messages of love, family and community that bridge cultures, worlds and languages and the collective appeal of Shashi Kapoor’s boyish charm, Parveen Babi’s coy looks and Amitabh Bachchan’s righteous anger. A ‘killer’ combination as we would have said back in Bollywood obsessed India. And I just found out that there is a channel on Jordanian TV that airs Bollywood movies all day long. My grades are not happy.

Oh I made a new friend last night. She’s Columbian of Palestinian origin and we live worlds apart. What did we find to talk about, you ask? Her favorite actor is Shah Rukh Khan. Veer Zaara is her go to movie and her ring tone is Haule Haule from Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. We had plenty to talk about…

Monday, October 4, 2010

Newsflash

Goats don't like to be milked. They are nothing like cows. Cows just stand around placidly chewing their cud while you try to milk them. they may occasionally tail swat a fly away but that's generally the extent of their physical exertions. i speak from experience. i tried milking a cow once and while i was really not very good at it. the cow made no effort to attack me. Thank the Lord. The cow is a forgiving creature by nature.
the same cannot be said of the goat however. goats sense human intent, first of all. they scatter at the first smell of Milking 101. while they may reluctantly allow the lady of the house, a master in the field, to milk them, they have no such contractual agreement with the student. the goat is a complete devil when facing an amateur. 3 children are recruited to chase the goat and pin her down. you valiantly get down on your haunches only to be surrounded in the dust aftermath of your goat's successful escape. A couple attempts later, you give up trying as you'd feel like a tool to persevere in the face of such resistance. you think the matter ends there and decide to just observe the proceedings , do the whole fly on the wall thing you're becoming real good at.

That's when you learn the second thing about goats. the next newsflash begins to go off just as you realise you've been cornered by three goats, hellbent on exacting revenge for the humiliating past half hour. Newsflash? Oh ya. Goats will chase you if they think you deserve it. And in Goat World nothing reeks more of being haraam than amateur attempts to milk them, a crime deserving of a mass planned, coordinated attack on all things human. The gated area which held the goats was a complete battlezone for the next 20 minutes. the ensuing skirmish involved goats clearing three feet high hurdles and children launching themselves off roofs at errant goats. I of course, just proceeded to run in all possible directions, defense /retreat being my priority rather than attack. yes children years younger than me were out there but being butted by a goat is not on my to-do list, surprise surprise. i finally just escaped the enclosure. yes. a little wimpy. whatever. i'm chalking this one down to experience.

oh and to make things worse? ryan got to ride a camel. something just does not add up here.

Here's to Culture

Attended a Meditteranean music concert courtesy the Italian embassy at the ruins of a Roman citadel in central Amman. How can you not miss culture in Greencastle after that?

Key Phrases I Wish They'd Taught Us

Long Overdue I know... well here goes.

It is perfectly possible to survive in an isolated village where you know just the basic rudiments of their language but some key phrases that you should probably learn before you land up to stay are listed below. these are from my limited experience and therefore the list is anything but complete. please do add on.

1)This is fun! - because clapping your hands constantly, trying to look like an excited school girl gets old real fast.

2) How do you lock the door? - You'll need that one in conjunction with 'May I use the Bathroom/Take a shower'. Go figure.

3) What does ____ mean? - Used alongside "Could you repeat that, but waaaayyyyyy slower this time?" & "I'm sorry I just don't know enough ____ (insert language)" might help you understand a fraction of what is going on and prevent you from looking like the daft, shy, awkward ajnabi, a fate many of us, unfortunately, are getting increasingly used to.

4) Be right back - SO IMPORTANT. you wouldn't think so but oh it is! Learn it or every small action of yours will be blown out of proportion. A quick, sneaky trip up the stairs or to the next room to grab a book, water, shoes, the bathroom, anything, quickly becomes a source of mass confusion. 5 people are sent to bring you back, apologies follow suit and seats are emptied for you to sit on. 5 minutes later, you end up with an entire sofa to yourself and no way of doing what you wanted to do initially.

5)This is too much food - Self explanatory

6) He is a devil child, Can I please throw him of the terrace? - Refer to next point

7) 'Please don't do that' or some variation thereof - If you're living with aforementioned devil child, aged 4, you will need this phrase if only to prevent him from throwing something off the terrace, ingesting litter, rubbing his face in dirt, hurling stones at the car/goat and/or beating up his various siblings with various instruments, namely his devil hands, brooms, hangers, bottles, knifes (who gives a 4 yr old child a butcher's knife anyway!!!!), flower vases, tree branches, siblings themselves and when possible, livestock. Do not underestimate a 4 year old child's ability to improvise.

And last, and probably the most important...

8) 'Thank you for letting me stay with you. I loved spending time with your family and in your home' - Coz you'll feel like a real tool if you can't even express that much after what is bound to be an amazingly real, rare experience.

Peace out...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Amman Shwei Shwei

Ø Cab Drivers know English Shwei-Shwei. And they will practice it on you. Just as you will practice your meager Arabic on them. The resulting conversation will have any bilingual individual in splits. And the driver too actually. This is right before he invites you home to meet his wife so be forewarned.

Ø Shuman Library is nowhere near Shuman Square. That is probably because Shuman Square is known as Abdun Circle. And absolutely no one other than the Royal Map Drawing Person of Jordan knows that Abdun Circle has an official name which has nothing to do with Abdun. Which is why as tourists, when you follow the map to Shuman Square, you will be completely lost and no one will have any idea as to why you’re even there. It is the same logic behind University Street which actually does have a name, Queen Rania Street. A perfectly legit name if you ask me. But it’s called University Street by all and sundry. Then why not just name it that? Good point. I’ll bring it to the attention of the Street Naming Committee who must think the world absolute wretches. They put in all this effort to name streets after numerous and one princes and princesses, and absolutely no one can name even one side street in this country. Maybe a couple of the main ones but probably not by the names the Committee picked anyway, so ya. They hate us. Much like how I hate the Gas Man (Re: Previous blog on the Gas Man). So yes, to summarize: Names lie. Don’t believe them.

Ø If you want to keep your nationality a secret, especially if you’re wandering the streets of a Muslim country right after a pastor from yonder homeland has threatened to burn the Koran, make sure you go with a country whose language you speak fluently without an American accent or are sure does not exist. Because if you think France a safe bet, be forewarned, the man in charge of the tiny street stall in downtown Amman probably speaks better French than you and in a more authentic accent to boot. So if you’d rather never call yourself Canadian, go with a country as random as say Eritrea because honestly, who speaks Tigrinya other than a fellow Eritrean?

Ø The Simpsons is a national past time. Especially for children. Even the ones who don’t really speak English. It’s the best way to keep antsy, hungry cranky children quite during Ramadan. Switch on The Simpsons or pop in the movie & there will be peace again in this world. This obsession does have its downside too however. Most children you meet who are trying to learn to speak English will speak with a distinct Homer Simpson accent. It is the tragic way of the world. But at least it’s not the little rude baby from Family Guy. Hooey? Whatever. Be grateful for small mercies, I say.

Ø Recycling is so last season. The concept is alien. But then again it is not. The yogurt container might eventually be thrown away but it will be used to store food in for at least 2 weeks before that or until the plastic starts melting inside. And food is never thrown away. And water is scarce anyway so that is used with great restraint. So yes, recycling might not exist American style but it is there in some form or the other.

Ø The king is omnipresent. Truly. Every building has a picture. Or flags to indicate he’d been there. And his grandfather’s room for one night is enough to cordon off the room as a historical artifact for eternity. God Save The King.

The Gas Man

Just a small note on the gas man with his truck of propane and stupid background song – I hate him. That’s all.

Vodka Martinis in Amman

When you prepare to come study in the Middle East, you have your last drink the weekend before you leave with your friends and then say goodbye to alcohol for the next three months. You’re cool with that, I mean if you really wanted to spend your semester off campus drinking, Jordan probably wasn’t that great an idea in retrospect, what with Ramadan and then the crazy import tax and alcohol basically being haraam. But then… you chance upon Rainbow Street and it’s even better than the articles and the books and the Must Visits you’ve read so far in your background research. And come the first real weekend you have free and your entire program lands up on Shareea El- Rinbo at various different places on this long street and finally after a couple of beers at a café (pre-gaming as we would call it at a campus party) and about a couple of hours with the argeelleyh (the one and only constant love of any self respecting Jordanian – better known to the world as either the hookah or the shisha), you all descend on the same lounge and in true American style commandeer an entire floor and set up base camp, under the aegis of the really cool, dreadlock sporting manager. From there, start rolling the orders, the Long Island Ice Teas and the beers dominate with the occasional Vodka Martini and Sex on the Beach thrown in for the sake for diversity. A bartender is requisitioned off to cater to your needs and the manager himself personally checks in on you, clearing up more tables and chairs for you, your every wish is their command. Other patrons stop by, our high spirits having caught their attention, and we’re soon making friends and spreading out all over the lounge, taking it over slowly, one table at a time, one drink at a time. And as the evening rolls along and more people land up and you progressively get louder and more exuberant, you realize that Amman caught you off guard again. You’d made a pact with yourself, you’d thrown back that last shot and proudly said that you were done for the next three months but there you are, in your strappy top, sipping your Vodka Martini, laughing at a ridiculous drivers license picture stolen from the wallet of one of your fellow compatriots and probably having more fun than you ever did at a sweaty, overcrowded frat party on campus. That’s when you realize that the world was created to catch you off guard. And all you can do is kick back and refuse to be fazed. Laugh and clap your hands when the manager sends over free shots for your friend’s birthday and then toss back a couple just coz they’re probably the best cocktail shots you’ve ever had. The knowledge that you’re totally pushing the limits of your 12 o’clock curfew can only make them taste better. Sigh in absolute resignation as one of your fellow students kicks up a ruckus true drunken style with other obnoxiously drunk American students you have suddenly chanced upon. (We will find each other, we drunk American students – it is a bond stronger than that between identical twins, of that I am now sure.) Make a quick run for the nearest cab, now the designated getaway car, as the argument starts to look ugly and leave still laughing at the last joke of the night. It is vitally important that you leave still laughing. Don’t let the night get the better of you. Always leave laughing. That’s the only way to throw the world into disarray similar to what it threw you into it. You gotta win sometime right?

And as you finally wind down, and are about to get into bed, just take a minute to realize that you really aren’t all that drunk despite the generous dosage of vodka in your drink. The night was fun because you weren’t expecting it to be, because you hadn’t planned it and because the world caught you off guard. The first of many nights out with this myriad collection of souls in Amman, a city of surprises, a city that makes the best cocktail shots ever, a city that reminds you that you can have fun wherever and with whoever, you just need to look hard enough.

Vertigo Visions

Jordan is hilly country. Like really hilly country. Every city is built on hills, some on three like Es-Salt or on seven like Amman. The land between the cities is also hilly. Don’t let the flat highways fool you, the hills on either side are the reality we must face. This country ain’t flat. I am standing on a hill in Turki currently and all I can see around me are more hills. Some are big and some small, but there’s a distinct hierarchy, a sense of dimensions that just adds depth and intensity to a beautiful, nostalgia inducing scenic view. The only flatness one can see is the Dead Sea about 20 miles to the West as the crow flies of where I am standing. The edges are blurred thanks in part to the evening mist which is slowly descending and obscuring the distance from our view but nevertheless the sheer vastness of the Sea, even from this distance, is enough to make one pause to take a breath. The scattered light from the setting sun is showing up patches of shiny ness which I can only assume are bodies of water, maybe lakes and maybe canals. Only patches can be seen from between the hills but they indicate settlements presumably. This is not to assume that Jordanian society is settled in the valleys between hills. Quite the contrary actually. If you walk along a street in downtown Amman – the Balad- you look up and see layers upon layers of buildings and houses and people just living one on top of another. The city is full, there are buildings everywhere but the multiple levels ensure that it never looks cramped, never is cramped. Each building looms over another but isn’t tall enough or obnoxious to block the view for the house above it. The houses aren’t skyscrapers but then again, they don’t need to be. Each one has a beautiful view of what’s going on below and above it just by a little craning of the necks. Privacy may not be a viable option but then again, no one is really that keen on it anyway. What’s the fun in that right?

Tired of Being In Transit

I left home when I was nine. I’ve not been back ever since. To live that is. I was in boarding school till the end and then went to the corn fields of Indiana for college and now I’m writing this from Amman. I don’t plan to ever settle down in Kolkata so that’s it for home and me. It’s now never going to be more than a holiday destination for me. I’m going to have leave Indiana if I want to go to grad school and if life goes the way I envision it, that’s another city and another continent. And while I love this wandering lifestyle, this independence, this ability to just pack and up and move and not be tied down, I think I’m tiring at the prospect of doing this for another 10 years.

I sometimes wonder what it is like for those who are born in the same community, grow up there, marry into it and are eventually put to rest there. That sense of rootedness, that knowledge that you belong, that you’re home could almost beat the feelings of stagnation that I’m sure I would feel. Your life is where you are, not split across continents and countries. You know where you belong. I wake up some mornings and for a brief second, right before the morning actually dawns upon me, I am unable to tell where in the world I am. I open my closet to pull out a stole I really want to wear that day and realize I don’t know if it’s here in Amman, in a storage box in Greencastle, in a musty cupboard in Kolkata or with one of my many friends who could have taken it back during the days when we all had a communal closet in school and never knew what belonged to whom. If the last one is the case, then God Alone knows which corner of the world it is now draping itself around a slightly neck in need for cover. It’s a beautiful thought that I could potentially be leaving my mark in so many parts of the world but sometimes, just sometimes, this suitcase existence begins to grate. I want to finally be done with living out of suitcases. I want to know what it is like to actually live in a home, for real, one that is yours and your life is there, in that one place. I want to be known at the grocery store, I want to have a tab somewhere and subscriptions that need to be suspended for 3 weeks, not 8 months. I don’t want to be a seasonal flavour anymore. I want to be a regular. I don’t care where, just somewhere. And I want to know when. How long till I reach someplace? How much longer in transit for me?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

We Are Obsessed With Healthy Democracies

Jordan isn’t America. Surprise surprise.

There may be many states that want to ape the West, want to reach where the USA is today but you have got to appreciate the fact that many don’t. In fact, I believe it absolutely imperative that you do so because otherwise it is sheer hypocrisy that you criticize the US Government’s involvement in international affairs and yet view the world through the lens of what you define as a ‘healthy democracy’. Because honestly what is this obsession with ‘healthy democracies’? Living in a nascent state is a reality that large parts of the world are facing up to this very moment and I don’t think there is anything as daunting as that politically. Any nation state that exists as a result of the decolonizing process post-WWII will be able to identify with the issues that Jordan faces today in its liberalization and democratization process. The concept of a state is new to us of the colonial legacy. We belong to the era of kingdoms and autonomous, self sufficient units. Aristotle would have been proud of us. We were small enough governing bodies to prove his hypotheses if he had so wished. And then some colonial power or the other swept along and created new governing bodies according to rules of statehood that I don’t we really ever got. India may be the largest democracy in the world today but sometimes that seems like just the worst idea ever. Democracy allowed the Godhra riots, the infamous state sponsored carnage of Muslims early on this century, as well as the rise of extremist parties such as the Maoist movement in the North East and in the central tribal belt. Democracy has had to have been suspended in large chunks of the country, martial law has been imposed and human rights are characters in fictional tales narrated after curfew. This cannot possibly be what our freedom fighters had in mind when they envisioned a free and democratic India. And yes, we’re making do but really? We’re a god awful mess.

Jordan’s monarchy might not allow complete political and religious freedom but the monarchy here has been effective for this country, no denying that. Jordan’s citizens are looked after, their basic needs are met and most importantly they are safe from the consequences of the political instability that surrounds their fair nation. A Prime Minister is in power for four years and has to concern himself with winning elections, garnering public favor and has little time/power/freedom to carry out long terms goals in the interest of the country, in the interest of setting up an infrastructure that can help the struggling nascent state become a stable one. The monarchy is given the freedom to actually prepare and lead Jordan towards an effective democracy and that process is going on currently. It may be slow but it is happening. And what is so wrong about a bureaucratic monarchy anyway? It's not absolutist, this ain't George Orwell's 1984 being reenacted out here. The most major difference between the way Presidential and Parliamentary systems function and this monarchy is that the king is born to rule while we elect our rulers. The ruler however, still derives his legitimacy from the people, the people of El-Urdon want a monarchy, they respond to the system in place and we might not understand that but really, who are we to criticise it? The monarchy isn't random and arbitrary, the ministries are consulted, the government cares, the people are looked after and are safe and yes, they can't really be practising Scientologists but seriously? That's probably a good thing!

Freedom of Religion

You want the people of Jordan to have the freedom of religion in the American sense of the word, in the interest of civil rights but do you even understand what religion means to these people? Religion is about more than what you wake up for on a Sunday morning here, religion in this culture shapes who you are, who your friends are, who you marry, what food you eat and what you call yourself, your history, lineage and heritage. It gives you a sense of community, a sense of belonging, something to do on holidays. America doesn’t have religious holidays, at least none that I have witnessed in my last two years there, with the exception of Easter I think, when my Lutheran friend trotted off to the Baptist service on campus, as the Lutheran church was an entire 20 minute ride away. Religion is important to you but it is personal. It doesn’t play out in the social sphere. Here it does. If you weren’t Muslim like your family, what would you do during Ramadan? For an entire month? As the sole atheist in your family, would you celebrate iftaar with them and take money on Eid? Would you stay awake till the muezzin’s call to partake in suhoor? Yes they may not be pious, practicing Muslims year long but during the month of Ramadan, they are rooted, they belong to someone, to someplace. Religion is cultural, the rituals of religion are more cultural than significant of religious fervor. In a country where shari’a law exists successfully along side all the trappings of a liberalizing economy, how can you not appreciate the beauty of the integral role that religion plays in shaping the culture of this place? And anyway, you don’t argue when your last name is put down to correspond with your father’s. Instead, you trace it back to the first courageous immigrant who reached the hallowed shores of America so you can sit here today in someone else's country and argue about their presumed need for freedom of religion. Well, maybe the Muslims and Christians of Jordan don’t argue about their religion as it keeps them from becoming autonomous, ‘independent’ entities with no social fabric to catch them. They can trace back their lineage to the tribe they come from, the tribal saint they derive their ancestry from or even the Prophet. Are you really going to trivialize their ancestry to a debate about what you perceive to be civil rights? Because seriously, unless you’re absolutely fine with people in America just walking around saying their name are Jewel or Ke$ha with no last name, or some blonde stereotype who goes by just Amber and has no daddy to come take her home, don’t try and ‘gift’ the Jordanians the freedom to potentially be completely disenfranchised.

My country, my people derive their identities from their religious inclinations, the religion of their forefathers. Yes, I’m thankful that my mother allowed me to practice my freedom of choice as guaranteed in my Constitution, and she respects that my brother and I chose to be agnostics/atheists but this doesn’t mean that I pity those who were brought up within the parameters of a certain faith. I envy them to be perfectly honest. They have a sense of community wherever they go, the knowledge that they can be anywhere in the world but Diwali will still bring in wishes from family in India and world over, Eid will still be celebrated, maybe with strangers but those of your community nevertheless. On Diwali and Durga Puja I sit alone at home practicing my right to the freedom of religious beliefs while my city gathers outside to eat, dance, sing, pray and for that one evening they leave their unhappiness, woes, and sorrows behind and get along for once.

They belong. I don’t.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Victim Of Roads

The roads here in Amman are designed to make the walker burn off the calories they gain by eating all that rice and oil and meat and cheese. They're a smart move on the part of the Ministry of Health. Except, as a member of the uninitiated proletariat, I'm pretty sure they're out to kill me.
A friend and I recently went to check out a gym in our neighbourhood. 'Fitness Palace' is approximately 6 minutes and 22 seconds away from where I stay and should be a cake walk. The road there however is another story. There are gates in the middle of the sidewalk that guard or shut off nothing. They just are. Existentialism at it's best. Or they have been taken over by the trees or are completely dug up So you walk on the roads due to a complete lack of choice. The roads are generally at a 40 degree angle and they're slick as sweat on a bald head on a summer day and the cars drive like they're in a video game. There is a completely totalled car parked on the edge of the curb here and it is does so much for my self confidence when I attempt to cross the road here. I realise that all the stamina I plan to build up at the gym will be so crucially necessary just for me to able to walk up that insane road.
The walk downhill is a race against gravity that tests every muscle in your body, your dexterity, your personal flexibility and all your shoes. The soles of my beautiful bronze Madden Girl toga sandals, as I call them, are now as smooth as the roads they trudge. I could do atleast 5 salsa right turns in these shoes.
Either way, I'm screwed.

The Last Bastions of the ‘Right Hand Drive’

The British Commonwealth is no longer a force to be reckoned with. The initially omnipresent British have other issues to concern themselves with now, such as the discovery of CCTVs and Big Brother, both in reality show format and in reality itself. The Commonwealth has been left unsupervised which would explain why major arterial roads in New Delhi are caving in a mere month before the Commonwealth Games, and the Delhi government would rather direct its efforts towards kicking college students out of dorm rooms and ignore the actual fixing of the roads so college students can physically leave (which is what they want to do anyway) and the CWG participants may actually, finally find the road to the Games.

I’ve been in a couple of different countries this last year and what I now notice is that Commonwealth Nations are increasingly abandoning the Right Hand Drive in favor of the more ubiquitous and American form of driving on the ‘right’ side of the road. The French Commonwealth nations pride themselves on being former French colonies but we, as members of the British Commonwealth enjoy no favors within the community, no sense of community to be precise and no pride in our common legacy. I sometimes wonder why this sheer disregard of the colonial powers? Yes I agree colonialism is a detestable form of government (yes, China and the USA, neo-imperialism too) and economic or military might is no method of taking over a country but we must at some point think and realize that we owe these colonial powers a sense of identity that we might not have had. What the Commonwealth has in common is a common history, a common origin, a common root. Before we became colonies, we were but mere kingdoms, warring amongst ourselves, with constantly changing boundaries and a population that paid allegiance only to their tribal leader. The sense of a global world that is emerging today is possible thanks to the unity each individual country displaced in the face of a colonial imperialist. India should not be a country. We are split across the country by every factor that could help define as a common nation. Any factor that could make us a state is disputable when it comes to India. We are split by history, politics, religion, ethnicity, language, geography and any other factor that defines the reason behind a nation state. And yet we are a country. Because the British colonial powers created one country out of the 801 kingdoms that existed prior to their arrival and for the first time we of the subcontinent could talk about a common experience. We rallied together for the first time in support of a national cause in the face of British opposition. Kudos to us. I think sometimes only Bengalis and Australians now pride themselves on being former British subjects, my grandfather numbering this estimable group. We are, I think the last official, proud former British subjects. We now alone uphold the banner that once never saw night. We are the last bastions of the Right Hand Drive.

Amman: Theme Sandstone

It sometimes feels like the entire city of Amman met for a city council and decided to go with Theme Sandstone when it came to constructing their city. The city is entirely done up in shades of beige and varying gentle sandstone shades and while many may think this would make for dull window gazing, Amman has in reality made a smart aesthetic choice here. The sandstone is a constant reminder of the desert that surrounds this oasis of modernisation and the history of this place. One is never allowed to forget her origins. At the same time, these sandstone monuments allow the green of the trees to appear fresher than they actually are while the lights shine and glint off these buildings at night, giving the city a glassier look than it actually has. The buildings themselves are very contemporary in design and by investing wisely in sandstone that can make the buildings look like they were made of more expensive glass, the local economy’s sandstone deposits are being put to use, the builder’s coffers protected and the tag of modernizing Third World country preserved. Win-win-win situation if you ask me.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Crime Dramas at 2 in the morning

What is it exactly about crime dramas that I love so much? I watch way too many... i know that for sure. White Collar, NCIS, Chuck, Castle, CSI NY, Bones, Dexter... the list goes on. I guess they give me something to do and i can pick up in the middle of a season and not have to worry about storylines per se and they generally have this great banter going between the protagonists and thanks to it being tv there is always some eye candy atleast. messer on csi ny, matt bomer's fedora on WC and Zachary Levi's adorable next doorness on Chuck. plus i like happy endings. and someone ends up happy at least in these shows. and they give me something to do during the summer when im awake at 2 in the morning and the only thing on is CSI NY.