Sunday, August 30, 2009


View when standing at front door. This is perhaps my dining room? I want to start the tour by saying that these pictures were taken after my cleaning lady scrubbed this little place for SEVEN HOURS (I helped and fed I witnessed her miracles).
The kitchen and bathroom are side by side, which is convenient since I don't have a bathroom sink. The plus side is that I have to keep my dishes washed or I'll have nowhere to wash my face!

Close-up of my cute little stove and ancient frig. I have no storage or counterspace, though, so cooking is a bit of a challenge.
Also wanted to show my toilet/shower combo. They are literally on top of one another. And yes, I have to keep my toilet paper in the shower caddy because it gets wet anywhere else.

My bedroom/sitting room. It's actually a good size, but the window with the white curtain is my only source of outside light. There used to be a gaudy green curtain there, but I changed it to white to at least let a little sunlight in. We did a window test, so I'm pretty sure the neighbors can't see in! The window above the tv (which doesn't work) just passes through to my dining area (which is a very dark and narrow space). There is usually a dark green carpet down, but my cleaning lady scrubbed it by hand and it's drying outside. It closes the room in a lot, but the tile is kindda cold, so I will put it back down.

And I just wanted to close the tour with aquick glimpse of the fantastic fabric of the chair and loveseat that I decided to cover. This place was a dark green disaster, but I think I've made it livable for the time being.
The rent is so cheap and I am getting attached to my surroundings, but the lack of sunlight in here and the bathroom situation might be the deal-breakers. I've put word on the street that I'm looking, so we'll see what happens....

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Beauty Schooled

I had to move flats unexpectedly last week and am still waiting for the landlady to set up internet in my new flat. Consequently, the blog has moved to the back burner and my addiction to this form of technology overall has been severely tested. Also, when I am able to pick up a slow internet connection at school, I need to be doing things like getting ready for students to come on Monday, rather than updating my blog or chatting online. But now I have so much to share! Let’s see if it is physically possible for me to write concisely (unlikely).

Well, I indulged in a girly spa day last week, which provided a fascinating peek into the culture of beauty in Jordan. Appointments are not needed due to the gazillion beauty salons throughout the city. However, you have to look for them carefully because they are often hidden down side alleys and windows are always covered. Learning to read Arabic always helps, too ;-)

It is incredibly taboo for women to show their hair in public according to Islam, so slipping into the salon with my girl friend was even more intimate than in the U.S. Filipinos comprise the vast majority of the service employees in Jordan, so I was not surprised that my nail technician was Filipina. It was a mixed sentiment for me, considering I have very close to Filipino friends in the U.S. In one sense I felt incredibly guilty, but in another sense I was relieved to interact with someone who felt familiar to me. The woman doing my nails, who I will call Mary, loved my extremely limited Tagalog vocabulary and ability to discuss which region of the country she is from (turned out to be Mindanao in the south). Perhaps it is the anthropologist in me, but we were soon divulging about our families, relationships, and experiences as outsiders in the country. She was so friendly and practically invited me to her house for dinner when I inquired about Filipino restaurants and where to buy pork in Amman. My friend and I eagerly noted her tips and decided we would explore Little Manila later that evening. In the meantime, I sipped Arabic coffee, observed me surrounding, and chatted with Mary and the other nail technicians.

While observing the goings-on around me, I noticed that many of the women (and teenagers) entering the salon were accompanied by female friends and/or family and almost all wore hijab (hair coverings) of high quality fabric, loose designer coats, and oversized sunglasses. I feel so disconnected from these women when I see them on the streets or bump into them in crowded stores, so watching them peel off their barriers and reveal their fashionable clothes and styled hair reminded me how similar we really are. It was also nice to feel as though I finally fit in and didn’t stand out as a half-naked sinner (due to loose-fitting short sleeved shirts and exposed hair). I had a conversation with a female American teacher at my school married to a fairly traditional Arab who explained that the beauty salon is one of the few places some women can go without being escorted by a male family member. And although she can go by herself, she is questioned incessantly by her mother-in-law about where she is going and when she will be back. I mention this not in condescension, because I do not believe it is my right to judge the way things are simply done within some families (although certainly not all), but I am baffled when I meet intellectually engaging women who live with this one aspect in their lives that I cannot relate to.

Unfortunately, the intimacy among the nail technicians and women getting their nails done was broken when I went downstairs to get my hair cut by male hair stylists. Having been in the country for two weeks, I have already built a wall of apprehension between myself and men, so it really was awkward to have two of them touching me. Moreover, I felt annoyed that they had to be the revered people in the salon. I’m sure the language barrier also added to the disconnect. I accept full blame for that since I am in an Arab country and can hardly speak the language (working on that!). And also in their defense, the male stylists were professional, appropriately friendly, and provided me with a quick yet precise trim and thorough blow dry for 20JD ($28USD). My highlights are in major need of touching-up, so I may be back for that soon. And although their hair is often covered, I have discovered that many women here are sporting the same blonde highlights as me, so I will be in good hands :-)

Also, I learned that there is a tiny salon in my neighborhood (that I fondly call the “barrio”) where I can get a blowout (which involves getting your hair washed and blow dried super-straight, for those of you not in the know) for 4JD (usually $20+USD in the U.S.), so I may be indulging in that regularly since the hard water and dry air is turning my tresses into a giant mess of stringy frizz. And my one last beauty confession is that I now apply ample black eyeliner and mascara every morning. I have yet to meet a woman that does not do this….so I am jumping on the bandwagon!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Desert Gardens

Two days ago, Anne and I spent the morning watching movies and snacking on hummos, falafel, and taboon bread--which is basically a giant, extra thin pita that is bought piping hot from the local baker, who folds it several times into a big pile of carbohydrate yumminess. We had left her front door open to catch a breeze; however, the local children interpreted this as an invitation to enter when we were only halfway through Kite Runner. Unable to resist their eagerness, we let them pull us into daylight for play. Deciding that a "sprucing up" of Anne's garden was in order, we dressed the children in old t-shirts, distributed shovels, and started digging. Unfortunately, I had to leave in midst of mudpie-making and mystery plantings, but Anne reported later that the children were so helpful that they cleaned the courtyard afterward, swept her floors, AND did her dishes! Not only are they adorable, but incredibly helpful :-)

What was actually planted and whether it will really grow remains to be seen....

On a slightly similar note (not really), the next day, we took a trek out to the fruit and veggie souq (market) in the outskirts of Amman. I was skeptical when the taxi dropped us at a dillapidated warehouse alongside a dusty, industrial highway. However, upon entering, my senses were flooded with heaps of vibrant, aromatic produce and cheerful chatter of daily goings-on. Vendors smiled when I pointed questioningly to miniature purple plums or ample nectarines the color of sunsets, and reached into secret stashes to reveal their most succulent offerings. Exercising restraint, I only bought a handful of plums, four nectarines, and a bushel of arugula....for a grand total of about $3USD.

And my kitchen now smells scrumptious!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Hood

I live up there, on the roof! Check out the art deco circles and lines on the railings. Love it.

This is our little side street, which just got a street sign a few months ago. So it is best identified by the nearby mosque and corner market.

Anne lives down here--below the family who owns our flats. She's got a great sitting area and garden. I will be moving next door to her very soon. My flat will sit sort of behind this staircase, though, so it's pretty dark. Awesome neighbors, interactions with locals (which is often hard to have), and very cheap rent are tempting. We'll see how I like "the cave" and what else I can find before I make any major decisions.

Finding Rainbow Street

Written two nights ago….slowly getting caught up!

The setting is almost perfect. I am sitting in an urban chic rooftop café sipping coffee and looking out at a cityscape hillside sprinkled with lights. After an intensely hot desert day and a beautifully dusty sunset, the night air is fresh with a gentle breeze and scents of jasmine and sweet tobacco. The décor consists of square wooden tables and black metal chairs. The main building is an ancient structure of traditional tan stone; however the rooftop terrace is committedly modern with rows of red drum lights hanging from the industrial, open-air covering and large graphic prints in bright colors on the walls of the neighboring structures.

Trendy Ammonites gather around me in groups sharing snacks and nargileh (water pipes with fruit-flavored tobacco). Modernity extends beyond décor to include the mix of men and women intermingling. On the opposite hilltop, women sit on dusty stoops behind full burkhas. Here, most women’s hair hangs straight and arms are defiantly bare; nonetheless, some compromise with long-sleeved stylish tops and designer scarves around their heads. Men wear the standard uniform of acid-wash jeans and skin-tight t-shirts. Although they wear this elsewhere in the city, here they are a little more polished and understated; and considering that this is an “alternative” hangout (relatively speaking), their hair gel and cologne have also been toned down. I do feel a bit out of place as one of very few Americans, the only woman sitting alone, and the most underdressed woman. But I feel a lot better here than I did an hour ago wandering through the traditional downtown at dusk as I attempted to find my way up to Jebel Amman, where this café is located.

Prior to leaving my apartment, I scuttled around all afternoon because I'd stayed up way too late chatting online with my sister then slept all morning. Let me interject that my sleep was continuously interrupted with calls to prayer, blaring car horns, crying babies, and carnival music from the gasman’s truck--and while earplugs helped, I’ve learned my lesson about attempting to sleep in late. Also, the eyeshade I scored on my transatlantic flight eased the intensity of the sunlight sneaking in through my gaudy blue curtains, but I left the windows open for a breeze and the rustling fabric and play of shadows around the room finally forced me awake. Once my internal clock adjusts and school starts, these antics won’t be able to continue. But the fact that I am having coffee at 9pm suggests that they may happen once more tonight. But back to my scuttling.

I ended up microwaving my tea this morning after deciding that I might blow up the apartment if I attempted to turn on the gas for the stove. Likewise, I took a quick, lukewarm rinse-off rather than a leisurely hot shower because I couldn’t figure out how to work the hot water switch and water scarcity is a huge problem here that long and leisurely is bad practice. Since it was 86 degrees Farenheit (or 30 Celsius, which I’m attempting to learn!) and I am staying in a concrete building that lacks air conditioning and sits on top of a hill that gets direct sunlight all day long, the cool shower was not unwelcome. Afterward, I played on the internet again to remedy my homesickness and enable my avoidance behavior. Finally, hunger kicked in and I knew I had to tackle my first day in the city alone.

I chose to wear jeans and a loose short sleeved top because it was hot and I didn’t think I would be in the downtown area for more than a few blocks. Moreover, I think being shamed into jeans in 86 degree weather is punishment enough. But I did regret the decision for about an hour in the early evening. I got completely turned around as I wound down staircases alongside my neighborhood hillside, which dispersed me onto a busy thoroughfare where I risked my life multiple times and walked a half-mile out of my way in an attempt to safely cross 8 lanes of traffic. (This is not abnormal in Amman, even for locals). I also had to cut across to a park outside a mosque, which was a bit unnerving. I have decided to play the same here that I played in Mexico, where I win if the men can’t catch my eye or get me to acknowledge them. I accomplish this by imagining I am encapsulated in an armor that deflects sleazy comments and lurid staring. It’s a strange to feel like showing hair and revealing elbows in public equated a tube top and miniskirt in church. But even with my armor and bravery, I decided after about fifteen minutes that I was over the game and it was time for a taxi.

I jumped into the first taxi that stopped and quickly realized that he wasn’t using a meter (as they’re supposed to) and thus would have to use my best negotiating skills. I talked him down from 5JD to 1.5JD per the advice from my friend Anne that a taxi to anywhere in Amman should never cost more than three or four JD and I knew Jebel Amman wasn’t that far. My rookie mistake was not ensuring that I had sufficient change, but I lucked out with a driver who told me repeatedly that he loved America and appreciated my limited Arabic vocabulary. So he actually got out of the taxi to make change for me when we arrived in a very safe and well-lit 1st Circle. From there, I strolled down Rainbow Street, the main drag through Jebel Amman, and turned right onto Sharia Oma bin al-Khattab, a tree-lined side street flanked by gorgeous mansions and posh cafes. And here I am.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Diving in Head First

I'm already getting behind! The post below is from three days ago. But I am getting caught up and will practice the "less more often" method from now on.

My first full day in Amman was especially long and equally as lovely. After enjoying a leisurely morning chat with Anne as we sipped tea and munched on cereal, we set out for my grand tour of Amman. With little more than a plan to eat at the famous outdoor falafel dive, Hashem's, and get some basic shopping done for my apartment, Anne decided to throw me in the deep-end and we headed to the traditional downtown area called al-Balad, . Friday is the holy day for Islam, and mosque was just letting out, so we were swarmed by men in traditional dress who had just finished praying. After wading through makeshift prayer mats of cardboard strips strewn across the mosque courtyard, we ended up at the fruit and veggie market where men were shouting above one another in Arabic about the quality and price of the produce. Both of which I agreed were great. It was interesting to me that very few women were actually shopping. Despite the overwhelming scene and sea of men, I never felt unsafe because among the pious it is haram (forbidden) to touch a woman—although I did get accidentally bumped a few times.

From here, we admired the ancient Roman Theater over tiny cups of potent Arabic coffee from a second story, no-frills café. With my fresh eyes, it was a dump (but I loved the coffee and view). With Anne's experienced eyes, it was an expensive tourist jaunt (but she also loved the coffee and view). After paying an "expensive" 1JD ($1.25USD) for our coffees, we headed back out onto the street where we made quick stops at little local shops for power adapters for me and cheap DVDs for Anne. From there, we reached the famous Hashem's, where enormous photographs entice diners with past appearances by the queen and king. We found seating at a plastic picnic table, ordered our food and super-sweet mint tea and welcomed a friend of Anne's and her friend's coworker to the table. We munched on pita, falafel (fried chickpea bites), hummos (mashed chickpeas), and fuul (mashed white beans)—and I remembered to only eat with my right hand!

With full bellies, we then climbed Jebel Amman to the Friday market. Jebel means hill, and the further we ascended, the more fantastic the view. Much of the architecture in Amman is from the 1930s and the well-preserved neighborhood was teeming with awesome art deco houses displaying the quintessential curvatures and geometric designs. We took an unexpected detour after admiring one particular house with enormous picture windows and a blooming front garden. Anne's friend remembered that she knew the renters and we ended up chatting with them for over an hour. The group composition made for some great dialogue: American teacher (me), Australian UN worker, Italian UN worker, Dutch UN worker Canadian UN worker (there is a pattern here), and a Palestinian-American lawyer working on water negotiations in the region. The American guy decided to accompany us to the market after we enticed him with the watermelon smoothies available there.

We poked around the very upscale outdoor market where I saw Jordanian women with uncovered hair and heard English all around. Considering I will be teaching English at a private school in this neighborhood, I shouldn't have been surprised, but my apartment and the downtown area are very traditional, so I was caught a bit off-guard. As I observed the giggling groups of girls and accompanying mothers in high heels and expensive, flowing frocks, I wondered if these were my students and their parents. We wove our way through the market and found ourselves at a very swanky outdoor café called Wild Jordan, which is perched precariously on the side of Jebel Amman. Inspired by our watermelon smoothies, we decided to order their famous mint lemonade version, which was tart, refreshing, and extremely expensive (3JD / $4.25UUSD). But you get what you pay for. At the edge of the outdoor dining area there is one step down that leads to a glass railing. And on this step pillows are scattered for patrons like ourselves to lounge and enjoy the view. We happened to arrive just as the sun began to set and the evening breeze blew in.

This would have been the perfect ending to a great day, but I desperately needed food and cleaning supplies for my apartment, so we all parted ways and Anne and I caught a taxi to a different section of the city called Sweifieh. There, we strolled the blocked off streets, stopped in to check the sale rack at Zara's, had pizza in an outdoor café, and then headed down to Safeway. Zara's, pizza, and Safeway? Indeed, Amman is a fully modern city with western influences scattered throughout—including throngs of giggling teenagers chattering in high pitched English. I wasn't really sure who was going to be wearing the tube tops and miniskirt from Zara (most of the girls I saw wore long-sleeved shirts under their trendy tops and covered their hair with colorful scarves). Or why anyone would pay $4USD for Starbuck's when there is excellent Arabic coffee to be had for $1.25USD, but the chain "coffeehouse" was packed. Image is everything, I suppose.

I have to admit, the Safeway was really convenient. I felt exhausted and barely had the energy to translate which yogurt to buy or find the cheapest muesli (cereal can cost up to $10USD!). Perhaps on another day I will have the energy to barter in the fruit and veggie market or practice my Arabic at Ducan Abu Azam's (the corner store near my flat, owned not coincidentally by the father of Azam). It was after midnight by the time we exited Safeway (Jordanians like to stay up late like me!), so we collapsed in the taxi and headed home for bed.

Monday, August 10, 2009

First Impressions

Here are pictures of how the apartment I am currently staying in looked immediately upon arrival. Too bad you can't see the gold trim around the toilet and sink in the picture. And the polyester curtains are hilarious. Definitely a little rough around the edges, but my mind is slowly readjusting standards. And the view is amazing! If you look closely at the nighttime skyline, you can see fireworks going off. They go off all night randomly throughout the city and add a great energy. In addition to the view, I get a nice breeze in my bedroom. (However, calls to prayer at dawn kindda kill that effect.) I've tidied up a bit, but I'm not going to be in it long enough to find the motivation for a big scrubdown or remodeling. I only have another week here until I move to a different flat downstairs, but I'm thinking of maybe finding a place in Jebel Amman or Jebel Webdeh, which are neighborhoods that have a slightly more established and ecclectic feel.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

What Does it Mean?

I probably would have started this blog ages ago if I hadn't been stuck on picking a name. Actually, I've also held back beause I can't entirely wrap my brain around public narcissism. But I'm motivated to finally start blogging so that I can share my latest adventures abroad with my family and friends. So in true Lena fasion, the name materialized when push came to shove.

But I don't want the blog to only be about my recent move to Amman, Jordan. (We're all narcissists deep down, I think.) And without the opportunity to divulge in person, online is my only option! Moreover, what if I actually stick to blogging after I have completed my 1 year contract? Or what if I want to write about something that does not relate specifically to Amman or my teaching experiences here?

So the title "My Meaningful Meandering" stems from several things. First, I have always strived for a meaningful life. I want to learn and grow from each person I meet and each experience I have. I want my education, formal and informal, to create a solid foundation that helps me reach my ultimate goals.

But herein exists the contradiction. What goals? Each time I set a specific personal, educational, or occupational goal, I change it or doubt myself. Moreover, I can rarely focus on accomplishing just one tiny goal. I am an explosion of intentions. And I move at a very slow pace--unless I am pushed or cornered, in which case I am driven and focused on nothing but that goal. In a nutshell, I am an adult with ADD, and coping with it is a neverending process. But I've outgrown my adolescent angst and mid-twenties tribuations. I am happy and assured. My faults are meant to be faced and tackled.

So the word meandering here has many meanings. It is physical, in that I really do meander in the way that I move and get things done throughout the day. It is psychological, in that my feelings constantly ebb and flow--and I generally let them carry me through life, for better or worse. And it is concrete, in that I am meandering throughout the Middle East. Assuredly, I will not just be strolling the streets of Amman for the year; I will be working in my chosen field as an international educator. But this year abroad is also a detour, or strange twist, to my life.

I never saw myself here, yet here I am. When you meander, you find yourself in unexpected places. And my ultimate goal is to find meaning in those places. Hence the meaningful meander.

Initial Misteps

Most of my meanderings are deliberate and rewarding. I take my time getting ready in the morning. I wander through new neighborhoods imagining alternative lives. I change my career based on instinct, need for change, and desire for growth. But yesterday's meander was one that snowballed and left me completely uprooted.

My move to Amman has been planned, more or less, for months. I accepted the job in February, made contacts abroad, and studied the language and culture as much as possible. A grad school classmate of mine offered advice about the school and finding housing, for which I was extremely grateful. I landed in Amman eager to meet the people she had promised would be meeting me there. Unfortunately, I had put a bit too much trust in the fate of loose planning...and found myself stranded at the airport.

Adrenaline and resourcefulness can get you far, I've learned. So I sought out the only plug down a random hallway for the cell phone that my friend had given me prior to departing the US, which contained the phone numbers of the people supposedly picking me up. I just want to interject that I couldn't have charged it in the US because the power plugs are different. Anyway, I tried the friend of my friend and realized that there were no minutes left on the phone. Having no idea how to add minutes to a phone, I approached the information desk and asked for help. The man was very kind in explaining how to buy the right calling card and then helped me make the call from his land line. But I received an automated message that the person's phone was disconnected (although I learned later that this was a mistranslation and her phone was actually just turned off).

My next approach was to see if the only cafe in the terminal had wireless internet, in case I had any urgent emails awaiting. After several failed attempts, I did finally picked up a weak signal; but all I found was the confirmation that my friend had sent my photograph to her friend and that she and the landlord were expecting me. So I sent out an SOS to another grad school classmate who lives in Abu Dhabi and happened to be on Google Chat at just the time I needed her. Having been through some trying situations herself, she shored me up with lots of encouragement and directed me on putting minutes on the cell phone. I thanked her profusely and regrettably signed off.

Re-energized and ready to put myself out there, I found the cell pone kiosk and asked the salesman how to add minutes. He fiddled with the phone, asked me for a reasonable amount of money, and entered some information into his computer. A few moments later, my phone buzzed and a message appeared telling me I had 10JD in my account. So I scrolled through the list of names and found the name of who I thought was my future landlord. She answered the phone, spoke English, and knew who I was! But she had no idea that I was stranded at the airport. Embarrased at the imposition that I thought had already been worked out, I quickly asked for information on taking a taxi to her house (where I would be staying in the second floor flat).

After some miscommunication, I was able to confirm the neighborhood and general vicinity of the house. With at least that much information, I figured I could call her again when I was close and have her give the taxi driver detailed directions in Arabic. Breathing a sigh of relief that the ordeal was over, I stepped outside and found a taxi that would take me to al-Asharfiyya. As they always do, he assured me he knew where it was. Money is more important than honest. Having been taken advantage of in the past, I clarified the price before getting in the taxi. He handed me a piece of paper almost completely in Arabic that basically stated that I would be charged 19JD, which I thought was fair ($26USD for a 40 minute ride).

Little did I know that the taxi didn't know anything about al-Asharfiyya and he stopped the car and got out to ask directions from strangers several times (which I'd been warned does happen occassionally). Mind you, this was after making several calls to the landlord, who gave him specific directions each time. Apparently the landlord had also called the friend of my friend, so she made contact with me and apologized profusely for the misunderstanding (she had been away from email and never received my friend's confirmation about my flight). Despite at least getting in contact with these people, I was still riding in circles around their neighborhood. And the driver had used my cell phone so much that the battery died and we had to stop at a tiny neighborhood electronics store to recharge it. At this point the novelty of the adventure had worn off and he no longer had my benefit of the doubt, so I asked him to pull over, steeled myself to the embarrassment of the imposition, and called the landlord for someone to meet me.

The landlord's son walked to the central area and hopped in the taxi to direct him to the house. On one hand I felt bad about taking up so much of this driver's time, but on the other hand I was furious at his ineptitude. In the end, I decided to round up the fare to 20JD and tipped him a few extra dinar. Apparently he thought this wasn't enough and went on a tirade in Arabic to the landlord's son. The son would have none of it and directed me toward the house. Once arrived, the family greeted me with warmth, relief, and assurance that the driver was an idiot and had been paid plenty. I even learned later that he had overcharged me in the first place about 5JD , so I no longer feel the slightest bit of guilt.

Adding to the family's graciousness, the son set up internet for me right away so that I could email my family and let them know I had arrived and was alive. Exhausted and upset, I collapsed in my room and cried. At that point, I had been travelling for 19 hours and eaten little more than granola bars and airplane food. As if sensing my need for nourishment and comfort, Anne, the friend of my friend, knocked on the door. She guided me downstairs to her apartment, cooked up an omlette, and warmed a mug of tea. We chatted like old friends and the anxiety of my imperfect trip slowly dissipated. I did cry again before falling asleep that night, certain this was a huge mistake. But the kindness of everyone who helped me provided solace. (Even the taxi driver to a degree, considering he didn't abandon me on the side of the road after my phone died).

It certainly wasn't the best way to start this experience. But I've learned my lessons about planning and know that with each day that passes between me and that awful evening, the negative feelings will soften and I will eventually have a laughable story about my first night in a strange country.