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Souq or shuk (part 2) (Saturday, 2019 February 13)

May 20th, 2019

Whew! I started writing this in February but (as of this writing) it’s already May and I still haven’t finished it. I started a few months after the last post because I still had things I wanted to say about our Middle East trip, and quickly wrote up a series of vignettes about our trip, but ran out of steam before I finished. I’m going to try to tie this off, let’s see how far I get.

Somewhere over the Atlantic

We fly on WOW Air, which is a low-cost Icelandic carrier, out of EWR with a layover at Keflavik, which is a pleasant-enough airport. We disembark directly onto the tarmac on a staircase, which is always charming. On the first flight, some woman overhears us talking either about Hebrew or about Israel and strikes up a conversation. She’s Israeli and we try to get as much information about what we’re getting ourselves into as possible. We tell her we’re going to a friend’s wedding and she says it’s good that we get to see an Israeli wedding. We tell her that Yaya told us it would be a small wedding, and she laughs. "To Israelis, a ‘small wedding’ means 200 people." We’re doubtful, but who knows. We learn that although the extremely Orthodox don’t climb the Temple Mount, we’re unlikely to fall into that category, since, after all, we’re flying on a Friday. Great.

We have a beer in Keflavik during our layover. Everything is expensive. Surprisingly, both the moms and Rita are all selected for additional security screenings. We manage to board our flight on time.

Ben Gurion International Airport (outside Tel Aviv)

Immigration takes forever. We are waiting in line in a giant hall. About a half-hour passes and we make not much progress. Suddenly there’s a loud commotion, including some shouting, and for a second I panic, wondering if I need to duck and cover or what. But no, it’s just an audience reacting to the World Cup games being broadcast on a television in the corner.

We continue to stand in line and after a while, Rita and I are the last two of our group to talk to a surly immigration officer. He wants to know if I’m Jewish, to which I respond "My father", which for me is a shorthand that explains a lot. I wonder if it will mean the same things to him. He wants to know if we’ve arranged meetings with any revolutionary or terrorist organizations. No, of course not. How about Arab or Muslim organizations? Well, we’re going to Wadi Rum to stay in the desert with some Bedouins. We’ll be going with those four women that have already gone through customs. Does that count? He’s nonplussed, to which we try to be friendly and helpful. He flips through our passport pages, looking for anything suspicious. "Here, it says you were in… Doola. Where’s that?" Doola? "Do you mean ‘Douala’? That’s in Cameroon." Rita and I exchange glances. We reach an unspoken agreement not to follow up with "You know where Cameroon is, right? In Africa?", lest we give offense. Eventually he concludes that we’re harmless if ignorant tourists and off we go.

We take the bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I had expected the entire Middle East to be essentially sand dunes and dust storms, and the area on the road to Jerusalem isn’t like this. We drive through hills and valleys filled with scrub. Jerusalem at first glance looks much like a typical European city, although it is mostly shut down for the Sabbath. We pass Ethiopian restaurants and apartment buildings.

We’re staying in the old city, which is much like other old cities, in an Airbnb that bills itself as a "Palestinian home". Really it’s something like a basement, but there’s hot water and it’s hot outside, so having a clammy dungeon to come back to is not so bad.


I really wanted to visit Ramallah, the "de-facto capital of the West Bank", and out of fear that some kind of civil unrest could spring up at any time, we decide to head there first.

I really like Ramallah. It feels friendly and inexpensive in a way that is familiar. Yaya later comments that the West Bank provokes in her a feeling not dissimilar to being in Cameroon. I’m not sure what exactly provokes this feeling, but I agree with her. Maybe it’s because people walk around selling stuff. For example, people dressed in what I assume is traditional Palestinian dress pour some beverage (tea? carob juice?) for passersby. (I thought I took a picture of one, but I don’t seem to have it any more, so here’s one from this person’s blog.)

It could also be the markets. Some stalls are built in concrete structures that reminded me distinctly of markets in some Cameroonian city (although I can’t quite put my finger on which one). Others are under roofs but felt similar to an open-air market that you might find in village (pictured in the last post).

More interesting merchants in Ramallah.

Eating arab gum ice cream in Ramallah.

The outskirts of Ramallah on the bus ride back.


One the list of things I absolutely have to do on this trip is going to the Western Wall. I have been given a small note by my father to try to put into the cracks between the bricks and I don’t want to miss my chance. We head there the next day, first thing in the morning to beat the crowds. Personally, I find it more interesting from an archaeological and sociological perspective than for any religious one. There are so many people, many working through their individual rituals, including a tour group from Nigeria (who we see throughout the day around Jerusalem).

I pick my way through the crowds of mostly Orthodox Jews with sprinkling of a few others and place my father’s note in a space among other notes. Everywhere around me, others are praying sincerely, and I feel I ought to try, as long as I’m there anyhow, although (as I have admitted before) I don’t really have a clear idea of how. I start by looking within myself, trying to find any sensation of divine presence. I don’t find one, even with my eyes closed.

I look around again, trying to see what everyone else is doing, maybe hoping for a bit of advice from a stranger. Some are some distance away, singing and chanting and reading from books. Others are close-in to the shade of the wall, as though in a conversation with an interlocutor. I try touching the stones of the wall, and with my hand there, pray again. It’s hard to shake the feeling that I’m praying to a wall. I rifle mentally through the things in my life that I’m unhappy with — there aren’t that many — and politely request that they be fixed. Eventually I do feel a sort of calm or peace come over me, perhaps as a response, but it’s hard to tell if it’s the divine presence and not just, say, the wall itself, answering with the everyday presence that a cool stone wall has. I turn to leave, passing one other gentleman who had found a peace that was indistinguishable from having fallen asleep in the hot sun.

From there we go to the Temple Mount. Immediately upon setting foot on the area, I feel a holiness and sacredity that had been missing from the Wall, though in hindsight maybe that was just because there were no hysterical Orthodox carrying on. I think, then, about how the Jewish tradition was that some aspect of divine presence is still on-site. Maybe so, but it’s also simply a wide, quiet plaza, with not too many visitors and beautiful architecture, and it feels easy to mistake one for the other. We spend some time here taking pictures. The Dome of the Rock is stunning. In terms of the beauty of their sacred sites, the Muslims are really thrashing the Jews.

The plaza in front of the Western Wall/some of the men’s side.

The Western Wall (women’s side).

The plaza at the top of the mount.

The Dome of the Rock.

We didn’t try "The Bible Experience" virtual reality attraction.

Overlooking Jerusalem from the south side of the Old City.


We travel north somewhat to Haifa. Haifa is the site of Israel’s first underground transit system (the Haifa funicular) and we are determined to see it. Unfortunately, we discover when we get there that it’s closed down. There was a fire and it’s still being repaired. Other than that, there’s not a lot going on in Haifa — if Tel Aviv is Manhattan, Haifa is Jersey City or maybe Newark. (I’m not sure what Jerusalem corresponds to in this analogy. Maybe a reverse Atlantic City.) Beyond that, our plan is to use our location in Haifa as a jumping-off point to see the Galilee. In hindsight, maybe we oughtn’t have bothered. When we told Yaya of this part of our plan, she asked our traveling companions, "Are you Christian?", the implication being that if you weren’t, you could probably find a better use for your time in the Holy Land.

On the day we arrive, we are too late to go much of anywhere, so we wander the streets. We see the outside of the Bahá’í gardens, which are impressive; a bit of industrial waterfront; eventually we wander our way over to a bit of beach. We sit at a table outside a beachfront refreshments stand; adjacent, there is another table, at which are seated some salty-looking Israelis drinking and smoking. Eventually one of them makes eye contact with me and says something in Hebrew. I indicate that I don’t understand Hebrew and he becomes embarrassed, maybe even saying "Sorry" in English while gesticulating something like an apology. He and his friends have a laugh. He points out one of his friends to me and says something else in Hebrew that I don’t understand, to which the friend replies in English "Don’t believe anything he says. He’s drunk!"

The view from our balcony.

These "Danger of Death!" signs around Haifa amused the ladies.

Bahá’í gardens.

Sunset on the beach.

A playground on the beach.

The next day we go to Tiberias, more or less at random but because it’s adjacent to the Sea itself. It’s underwhelming. Everything is hot and bright, and the sea is hazy with evaporation. We go to the national park, where we briefly dip our feet in the hot springs. Within the park is also a reconstructed synagogue dating from the 4th century CE; it has a mosaic floor depicting a mix of Jewish symbols, Greek writing, and the signs of the Zodiac. It’s a reminder of how deeply intertangled the overlapping histories of religion are in the Holy Land, which, as you probably already realize, is a major theme of the trip.

We spend the rest of the afternoon across the street in a "resort" (kind of like a pool/gym), swimming and hanging out, before heading back.

Mosaic floor.

Sea of Galilee. It looks beautiful here rather than humid and miserable.

Al Amari Mosque, now disused and in need of repair, in what I think used to be the town square.

Tel Aviv

We see a little bit of Tel Aviv, in particular the beaches, which are populated with the most beautiful people by far we see on the trip. We see a little bit of the rest of the city, walking through another open-air market, but mostly we don’t have a lot of time because we need to get ready for the wedding.

I ate a sandwich out of a bus station vending machine between buses.

A "frame" set up by some tourism authority to inspire you to take a photo of the scenic beauty. Hashtag trying too hard.

And what a wedding it is, dear reader. Just as the woman predicted on the plane, there are 200 attendees. There is also an open bar, of which liberal use will be made later. There are five or six "stations" each serving a different food. One is serving falafel and hummus — by this point in the trip I have gotten so used to the "xh" sound in "xhummus" that when I ask about the bread, I mistakenly call it "xhole wheat". Embarrassing!

The ceremony is beautiful. Most of the speakers graciously speak in English, and generally everyone appears happy to converse in English (Rita and I never manage more than a few words of Hebrew). The remarks are wonderful — I’ve forgotten most of them, but I remember Amit’s brother, who addressed Yaya’s family regarding their joy at Amit being newly added to their family: "I get it. He’s a hot doctor." Similarly, to Yaya, how happy that he was that she was joining theirs: "Not only are you beautiful and intelligent, but you have the ability to Shut. Amit. Down. Which is much appreciated."

After the ceremony, a screen is set up and a video is played. It’s a "life and times of Amit" that have been put together by some of Amit’s friends as well as his family. It shows Amit’s mom talking on the phone (this part is subtitled in English) about her son and how proud she is that he’s decided in high school to major in Arabic but that she’s uncertain that the school is really set up for it. Later it shows Amit (depicted by a friend wearing a printed photo of Amit as a mask) deciding what unit of the armed forces to join. Each unit he considers is portrayed as a stereotype — the marines are all doing push-ups and bicep curls, the infantry are all marching and standing at attention, but finally when Amit considers the signals unit (i.e. the one he really joined), it’s portrayed as a bunch of flamboyantly dressed weirdos. In the next scene, Amit is portrayed meeting Yaya (portrayed again by someone wearing a printout of Yaya’s face) — she’s throwing a frisbee (a shout-out to her ultimate frisbee career). Suddenly the manner of the video changes to a nature documentary, with a British voiceover talking through Amit’s prowling manner as he attempts to close in on his prey, with silence being his only chance. Suddenly, he passes gas, startling her. She turns to look at him. "Uhh… ni hao ma?" he tries. She replies, "I’m from Detroit, motherfucker!"

After the video, there is some commotion as a clearing is produced. Out of nowhere, a skit is performed — all of Amit’s friends have put together a show in addition to the video! The skit is in Hebrew and I can’t follow all of it, but it largely takes the form of Amit interviewing with someone about his time in the armed forces. Someone playing Amit sits opposite a woman who is asking him questions. Occasionally other friends will jump in behind/around him to enact "flashbacks". For example, one question that transcended the language barrier was about Amit’s drinking habits: does he drink too much? No, he replies, as one of his friends crawls along the floor and passes out in front of him. Eventually the skit ends on the question: who is his favorite Johnny? "Depp," replies Amit. "Depp?" "Depp." And with that…

… the dancing begins. There is a lot of dancing. And drinking. At one point a table is lifted by several partygoers and the newlyweds are hoisted onto it to dance atop it. Or maybe that was after they were lifted into the air and crowdsurfed over to the open bar, whereupon the bartenders poured alcohol directly into their mouths. I seem to recall the parents also getting lifted onto the table, or maybe it was only Yaya’s father. It is, to put it mildly, a wild party. Us Americans stick together. Yaya’s father and I were already fast friends at the first wedding when he bought a bottle of moutai and I drank most of it. The rest of her family is also awesome. The drinking and dancing continue. At some point the party clears out and we board a bus to go back to Tel Aviv. Someone throws up on the bus. However, the contents of my stomach remain where they are. Somehow we stagger back to the hostel and pass out, and not a moment too soon because the next day we are making the overland crossing to Jordan and have to get moving as early as possible.

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A video of the dancing.

It’s really blurry, but you can see some of the printouts on sticks in the background to serve as masks.

Yitzhak Rabin Border Crossing

Getting moving as early as possible turns out to be difficult because of the aftereffects of the party. Somehow we manage to get to the bus station a bit earlier than we need for the 12 o’clock bus. We’re doing the overland crossing both for the practical reason that there are no direct flights from Israel to Jordan or Egypt and also because philosophically it should be more interesting. We have committed to being at Wadi Rum in time for dinner but that seems increasingly difficult. We are going to take a bus towards Eilat but stop before entering the city and instead go to the border crossing. Shirley (the cool mom) is coming back from the bathroom when the bus pulls in to the bus station. Julie (the less cool mom) suddenly realizes that she, too, would like to go to the bathroom, and hurries off to do that while we’re loading our luggage onto the bus. A few minutes later she comes back — the bathrooms are coin-operated and she doesn’t have the right coin. JC gives her the coins and off she goes again. We’re getting pretty close to the scheduled departure time now… The driver starts the motor. "Can you wait for JC’s mom?" we ask. "No — I’m leaving now," he replies. "Shit," says JC. In the heat of the moment, we make a foolish decision: we decide to split up. JC removes her luggage and her mom’s from the bus. They’ll meet us there somehow. Of course, JC hasn’t read the documents I have meticulously prepared and doesn’t know where exactly to go. I tell her to tell the driver "Yitzhak Rabin", but by the way she repeats it back to me I know there’s no chance she’ll get it. But no problem! There’s wifi on the bus. I’ll text her what she needs to know and when she boards the next bus (an hour later…) she’ll be able to get the instructions and behave accordingly. So thinking, the bus leaves.

I’m still hung over so I nap. When I wake up, I haven’t received any response from JC. This is bad. More time passes as we drive through the desert and I’m becoming increasingly anxious. I decide that we will have to use a bit of finesse: we will have to wait for them at the bus stop, flag down every bus they could conceivably be on, and then board just to look for them. This feels risky in a number of ways — they could not have boarded the bus at all, they could have boarded a different bus than they were supposed to, the bus could take a detour for any of a number of reasons — but we’re supposed to be at Wadi Rum that night and I don’t have a better idea.

We descend at the correct stop and unload all our luggage. We are now in the desert, the Negev just north of Eilat. It is warmer than one would like. Cabs and vans come and go, probably driving people from Eilat back to the border crossing. We are rationing our water, just in case. Buses with other numbers go by, but our eagle-eyed team pays them no mind because there is only one number they could have taken. The bus stop lends a little shelter against the sun, but not much.

Eventually the whole hour goes by and we spot the bus in question. We flag it down and lo and behold, JC and her mom are there, completely oblivious! I signal to them and they get off and retrieve their luggage. "We thought we were going to take this bus to the end of the line," JC tells me. It doesn’t matter. We’re going to be super late to Wadi Rum. We start walking to the border crossing; unfortunately there are no more cabs to be had on this side of the border. The border crossing is essentially pleasant — the Israeli side is crisp, efficient, almost European; the Jordanian side is casual, almost disorganized. We somehow make it through OK and find two taxis. Wonder of wonders, they agree to reasonable prices to take us to Wadi Rum. We eventually make it — we are the last ones to arrive, and they have been holding back dinner for us. Everyone is reasonably good-spirited about it.

Border crossing.

Zarb being extracted from the sands.

Successful zarb.

Wadi Rum

We stay with Rum Stars, which is where Jenny stayed on her trip to Jordan. Being in Wadi Rum in the summer has its advantages — the camp is almost empty, and it’s warm enough even in the evenings that you can sleep outdoors. In Cameroon I wouldn’t, because of the risk of mosquitoes, but there doesn’t seem to be enough standing water for them here. Besides, the Bedouins who run the camp do it all the time. Wadi Rum is vast and dry and empty, and at night you can see stars upon stars. (It looks like the recent XKCD. We assume that the lighter patches we see are the Milky Way, but honestly we have no idea.)

We spend a pleasant day and a half here. We ride camels. After you mount them, they lurch terrifyingly up on their hind legs before standing up on their front legs. It is startling and not entirely pleasant. The ride is itself uncomfortable, and some of our camels seem interested in flirting/picking fights with the other camels. Afterwards we drive around a lot and look at rocks and go hiking, with plenty of stops at different Bedouin tents where we are offered tea and the opportunity to purchase tourist goods. We pay prices that we later learn are dramatically inflated, but we are tourists so what do you expect.

I have two beers that I had in my bag when we left Israel. I am somewhat uncomfortable about carrying them due to the strained diplomatic relationship between Israel and Jordan, but equally unsure about the protocol about drinking them in a Muslim country. I share them with an American woman who is working for Rum Stars. She seems unbelievably grateful — it is the first beer she has had in months.

Camel spider in the camp. Harmless but enormous.

Camels at sunrise.

The desert.

A certain amount of climbing and scrabbling occurred, which led to some great shots.

Wadi Musa/Petra

We have arranged travel with the same taxi drivers who brought us from the border crossing. They stop at a gas station on the way and buy us soft drinks. It’s a nice gesture that makes us feel a bit welcome. Middle Eastern hospitality is definitely a thing.

Wadi Musa is basically a nothing town that exists only to house people visiting Petra. The site of Petra has been slightly developed, with turnstiles and pamphlets. The downside is that there are no shortage of vendors trying to sell you more souvenirs as well as trying to get you to ride their horses, donkeys, or camels. Received wisdom on this is to not take any animals; their hooves aren’t good for Petra and the humans don’t treat the animals well. Because it is still the low season, there are much fewer tourists and it feels like everyone is just a little more desperate, and it’s incessant and more than a little exhausting.

I bought one of these bottle openers.

One thing that stands out is how the vendors call you. In Cameroon, a vendor in the market may try to get your attention by shouting "Oh, le blanc, vient acheter quelque chose, non?" ("Oh, white guy, come buy something, no?"). In Cameroon, it isn’t considered rude, but to an American’s ears it can be quite grating and aggressive. The Jordanians, by contrast, will address you with: "Welcome!", followed perhaps by a suggestion that it will cost you nothing to look at their wares. It goes a lot further towards engendering goodwill. Of course, the haggling is just as bloodthirsty as in Cameroon, and as the tourist you are still just as much at a disadvantage, but the experience is more pleasant. Overall, the impression you get is that a Jordanian may try to cheat you, but he will never try to rob you.

Petra itself is remarkable. "A rose-red city half as old as time" indeed. Just find some pictures online if you don’t believe me. The pictures are in my opinion every bit as good as going yourself, or maybe better. The color of the stone doesn’t stand out until you are no longer surrounded by it. It’s also fascinating as a ruin of a city, the capital city of the Nabateans, about which we seem to still know very little. In particular, signboards and blurbs indicate that the functions of those rock-cut facade structures is yet unknown. (Or maybe it’s just that I know very little. Wikipedia tells me that the Treasury, the best-known part of Petra, is actually a mausoleum.) The Monastery, some 800 steps up a hill, remains disputed, with it serving perhaps as a family tomb or perhaps a meeting place for members of a cult. And (again, typically), the place just oozes a long and complicated history. Some structures (including the Monastery, thus its name) were clearly repurposed at one time or another as Christian churches. The Colonnaded Street tell of its time as a Roman colony. Even the name Petra is itself Greek, named for the stone the city was carved out of. (Wadi Musa, the name of the nearest town to Petra, translates as "the Valley of Moses", since in the Muslim tradition, it’s where Moses struck a rock to produce a spring.)

It’s quite a spread-out site — UNESCO Heritage or no, I think it could do with a bit of funicular — and in the summer heat, quite exhausting to walk around. Did I mention how hot it is? At the top of the hill with the Monastery, there’s a little cafe with a few stray cats. (JC and Rita have dozens of pictures of stray cats all over the Levant, and indeed any animal of any kind that we saw anywhere on our trip.) It’s so hot that the stray cats would come up and beg — not for food, but for water, which we would pour into the little bottle caps of our water bottles, from which they would drink gratefully.

I’d encourage you to know what you want to see ahead of time. There’s no shortage of sights and once you get off the beaten path it’s easy to find yourself trekking down some underdefined path towards a sight that, while interesting, was perhaps not the best use of your valuable time in Jordan. On the other hand, Little Petra, unless for some reason you have an excess of time in Wadi Musa and literally nothing else to do, I’d recommend skipping. It’s not as developed as Petra itself, and suffers more from the pushy vendors as a result. It’s essentially just one long alley, with structures that are similar in style, although perhaps it’s a tiny bit easier to scramble up and down the rock and imagine how this alley may have functioned thousands of years ago.

Dead Sea / Madaba

We take our stuff to Amman via the adventure related in the last post and we hire the same driver to take us to the Dead Sea the following day. From reading Jenny’s travel report I know that it will be wise to also stop in Madaba and possibly somewhere else such as Mount Nebo. JC’s mom ensures we get a late start.

We stop at Madaba first. It’s a cute little town. We wander around the "archaelogical park" looking at the mosaics. Madaba has mosaics galore — the archaelogical park contains mosaics that were recovered from private residences, which had re-used the mosaics that had been built on top of previous earlier mosaics, as flooring. Some of the mosaics on display in walls had been defaced in antiquity for depicting living things, which is of course against Islamic practice. We also stop in at the Orthodox Basilica of St. George, which is marvelous. Not only does it have the famous map of the Holy Land, but there are dozens of other mosaics on the walls.

This one is my favorite. The combination of the halo and the Arabic are another reminder of the rich, confusing history of this part of the world.

If, like me, you are American, the Dead Sea probably has a mystique, with its mud ascribed powerful healing and beautifying properties. You may also consider it a "fun" place to go, where you can float on the water even without being able to swim. And when we actually enter the water, we do begin bobbing like corks, even with all our limbs out of the water. However, the idea of fun is quickly qualified by signs warning us not to enter the water face down, because we can be borne off our feet and unable to get our faces out of the water and quickly drown. Not only that, the whole valley is blanketed with a dense haze even thicker than the one over the Sea of Galilee — as Earth’s lowest point on land, it’s very hot, and the distance between where the infrastructure ends and the sea starts speaks to a lot of evaporation. (Indeed, the Dead Sea is dropping by about 1m per year.)

A pleasant suggestion along the shore of the Dead Sea.

The water is so salty that you can’t stay in it too long. It sets every opening on your body to burning. JC didn’t think things through and regrets shaving the night before. Jenny Wang described it in her blog post as "caustic", which is apt. Another thing we didn’t anticipate is the smell. Rita describes it as being like burnt tires. It’s enough to remind you why this place is called "the Dead Sea", not just "the Really Salty Sea at the Bottom of a Valley". Nothing can live here. It’s hard to imagine wanting to try.

It looks better than it smells.

We try to leave the mud on us for as long as we can manage but it’s rough going. We try to wash as much off as we can, but the smell follows us in the car back to Amman. [Editor’s note: while doing research for this piece, I discovered that "Currently, only sewage and effluent from fish ponds run in the river’s channel." I wonder if that’s the source of the smell?]


We spend a couple days in Amman. We stay at the Jordan Tower Hotel, which is where Jenny Wang reported staying, and find that not only are the price and the location are unbeatable, but the staff is quite friendly, even forbearing of Julie. (One morning, Julie comes down to the lobby with a scarf over her head, perhaps to protect from the sun. She jokingly tells the man behind the desk, "I’m a Muslim today!" The rest of us are of course horrified by the reductive and regressive attitude and rush to explain that we’re sorry, she doesn’t know better, etc. but what’s worse is that with her accent, it sounds like she’s saying she’s a "mushroom", so before we can even apologize we have to translate what she’s saying to the baffled gentleman, who (luckily) finds the whole thing amusing and even asks Julie on future mornings if she is a mushroom today.)

We are also quite close to Pizza Roma Cafe/Amman Pasha Hotel, which has a lot of things going for it: a rooftop terrace overlooking the Roman theater; waiters who will bring you beer for decent-ish prices (considering); a collection of animals, because apparently the owner likes to take in strays. I think their website does a pretty good job selling the story.

Clearly some previous visitors were French.

Although beer is not 100% readily available, we are quick to discover a replacement beverage in the form of sugar cane juice, which is available from stalls everywhere for quite cheap (less than one dinar, usually). A pleasant diversion, and one that we embrace for the rest of our trip.

Of course we see the Roman theater, which is interesting enough. We also see the Citadel, which has its own dramatic Roman ruins. Amman is a city of seven hills, and the Citadel is on top of one of them. The afternoon prayer time arrives while we are there, and the call unwinds from several mosques all around the city and echo throughout, mixing into an unearthly although beautiful sound, the sound of a city muttering to itself. I try to record it with my phone and don’t get great quality, but if you turn your volume up, perhaps you will get the idea.

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Julie is bored to tears by the Citadel and on subsequent days, JC cuts her loose with some money and instructions not to get into trouble. After that day, when we find her back at the hotel, she is visibly brimming with excitement. She apparently took a cab to the posh part of town and found, wonder of wonders, a Burger King. "Ice cream is only 79 cents!" she exclaims.

A perfume shop. This was lots of fun!

FDR and her mom have to cut their trip short after Jordan, but Rita and I will be continuing with JC and her mom to Egypt. We take a taxi to Queen Alia International. We are stopped at a checkpoint. After a spirited discussion with the soldiers there, the taxi driver turns to me. "China, right?" What? "You’re going to China?" No, we’re going to Egypt. The taxi driver relays this information to the soldiers, and they wave us through.


We land in Aswan, which is a small regional airport, comparable in nature to the Yaoundé airport. We have no Egyptian pounds and it is not clear how we are going to get any before taking a taxi to our hotel. We spend a while waiting by the baggage carousel for our suitcases. They don’t arrive. I’m on high alert, feeling quite vulnerable without local currency or our suitcases. JC asks politely of a white-uniformed policeman if there are more suitcases. While I am distracted, he requests JC and Rita come with him. I eventually notice that they’ve gone and start to get anxious, but before I can get very far, they are back with our suitcases. (Apparently the suitcases had gotten flagged for some random screening or whatever.) We ask if there is an ATM, and the policeman instructs me and me alone to follow him. We walk through the airport to an ATM and I am able to extract a sufficiency of money. I’m off balance — is this a bribery situation? Some kind of airport security thing? But before I can figure out what’s going on, they politely escort us out the front door.

We easily procure a taxi. "Welcome to Alaska," the driver says, referring to the oppressive arid heat. We haggle a bit just for the practice but the taxi drivers are firm in their price and honestly we don’t really care that much, because the taxi fare is still cheaper than the price that the hostel quoted us to meet us in a shuttle. The drive is pleasant enough; we see a little bit of the village and before we know it, we are at the place. We are the only guests.

The host is a pleasant man of Nubian heritage who has traveled relatively widely. He is happy to arrange "excursions", in particular he can take us to the Nubian village, where we sightsee and hold a crocodile, and he can arrange for a Nubian dinner prepared by Nubians. Not only that, he says, but one thing he sometimes likes to do in the summer is to take people down by the first cataract, where there’s something of a little beach, and you can take a little swim in the Nile and cool down. JC is immediately excited about this. My initial reaction, like any good RPCV, is to remember that back in Cameroon, we had been warned not to swim in any fresh water for fear of getting schistosomiasis. But I catch myself before I say anything — certainly this is not like Cameroon, and our host wouldn’t have suggested it if it weren’t safe, right?

From a felucca ride.

The hostel doesn’t have Internet access the first night, which is a bit of a hardship. "Sorry about that!" he says, "But it’s a little bit Africa here, you know?" I do know. Still, we have enough information to go out and see a little bit of the town, and especially so we can book travel to Abu Simbel.

We go to Philae Temple, which is inconvenient and only accessible via extortionate boat people. All Egyptian monuments are beset with intrusive Egyptian "hosts" who try to show you things you can already see, prevent you from taking pictures, permit you to take pictures, take pictures with you, etc. in exchange for a little money. It makes the experience quite a bit less pleasant. Still, Philae Temple is beautiful and the heiroglyphics are intricate.

Still at Philae Temple. This cross "graffito" is a relic of when Philae Temple was repurposed much later as a Christian church.

I am startled to find that unlike e.g. Cameroon, where by dark everyone is inside for the night, and despite my preconceptions of the Middle East as strict and repressive, in Aswan we find that people are still out and about, the souq is still active, etc. fairly late, with a decent gender mix, at least until 10 or 11. This pattern holds true in all the Egyptian cities we visit. Perhaps it’s because the height of the day is unbearably hot.

More refreshing sugar cane juice!

Aswan at night.

We also see Abu Simbel, which (while impressive) is an enormous pain in the ass to get to and may not be worth it. (If you do go, I echo the recommendations of the editors on Wikivoyage who encourage you to read up about the site before you get there.)

Obligatory Abu Simbel photo.

We got to visit the traditional Nubian village where they still raise crocodiles in the traditional manner. They are heavy!

Camels rushing through the Nubian village.

This is the dinner arranged by our host. I guess this is Nubian food! (It was delicious, whatever it was.)

The Internet isn’t available on the second night either, but after coming back from our splash in the Nile, we do finally get some access. Just out of curiosity, I look up schistosomiasis; Wikipedia helpfully informs me that "Schistosomiasis is endemic in Egypt, exacerbated by the country’s dam and irrigation projects along the Nile." (Rita and I try to get checked out back in the States. We test negative and we are asymptomatic, for whatever that’s worth.)


We take the train to Luxor. (In case it isn’t clear, I lean into overland travel vs. air travel for within-vacation stuff, since it’s usually more pleasant if not cheaper and easier.)

While we are in Luxor, we make sure to partake in the traditional Ancient Egyptian hot air balloon ride. (Luxor is also a great place to learn to walk like an Egyptian.)

We see the Valley of Kings, the Ramesseum, etc. but by this point we’ve seen more than enough ancient Egyptian ruins to last us for a good while and in particular the ladies are over it. Medinet Habu is pretty interesting, especially because of the mystery of the Sea Peoples. (These are shots of Medinet Habu.)

The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut.

From Deir el-Medina.

While at Karnak Temple.

At Luxor Temple. The first is from the avenue between Luxor and Karnak temples. The last is from a collection of Egyptian monument fragments reassembled and ordered by period, which let you see the deep conservatism of Egyptian art and the subtle influences over different historical periods (such as when the Greeks and Romans showed up).

We also go shopping. Through perseverence, I am eventually able to purchase a Stella Beer t-shirt (motto: "That which does not kill us, makes us stronger"). We end up in a multi-level souvenir store which according to my credit card statement was called "George Bazaar". JC spends some time buying jewelry, and in particular silver. The store seems to be operated by Coptic Christians. (Interestingly, the word "Coptic" is a corruption of a word which was itself the corruption of a word which was itself a borrowing of the Greek Aigýptios.) When I am back in the States, I ask a family friend, a naturalized Egyptian, what religion he is and whether he is a Coptic Christian. "Let me tell you something," he says, smiling. "If you look at the history, all of that stuff," meaning religion, "that all happened in Egypt. We invented the whole thing."

We saw some of these little water-fountain kinds of things, which I thought were fascinating (a far cry from the wells we had in Cameroon), but never got close enough to really interact with.

We engaged a local entrepreneur to drive us around on motos for a little while. Here the ladies are posing ferociously. (Well, I think Rita just looks ferocious by accident while she tries to untie her hair.)

Murals in Egypt were quite charming. (The first is in Aswan, the others in Luxor.)

We take a sleeper train overnight from Luxor to Cairo. Next to the Luxor train station is a liquor store (Drinkies) and I am able to purchase a few beers for the trip.


Cairo is a nice enough city. (I find time to take the subway, which is pleasant.)

The view from our balcony.

Another carob juice vendor (or whatever it is). I’ll drink anything!

Although we are completely sick of ancient structures, we take the time to go to see the Pyramids. We have a terrible time. First, we try to go with someone we met on the train, but he flakes out on us, costing us valuable time and making us look stupid. Second, when we finally arrive at the site, we are pressured into riding animals (we accept out of fear of being hassled too much while inside the pyramid complex, and also because of misunderstanding of just how large the site is — it’s only about 1km a side), for which we pay too much. Third, after all the intricate carvings we’ve seen at all the different temple, the pyramids themselves are underwhelming — just giant piles of blocks. Wikivoyage describes the Sphinx as "a frankly mangy-looking lion" and they’re not wrong.

However, our "handlers" (from whom we rented the animals) encourage us to take the time to stage several ridiculous photos.

Behind the scenes of the shots.

The photos are so ridiculous that looking at them after they are taken is enough to reduce the ladies to hysterics.

We also visit Saqqara, which has some slightly-more-interesting monuments. (We come within sighting range of the Pyramid of Djoser and the Pyramid of Userkaf.)

We see the Citadel and the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, which is rich and stunning.

We see Old Cairo, which is fascinating and beautiful.

We also visit Al Azhar Park, which is an upscale paid-admission park. While we are eating ice cream, some people come up to us and ask to take photos with us. It’s not unlike in Cameroon. Operating under the doctrine of "once a PCV, always a PCV" I pose dutifully with many different Egyptians. However, Julie loves the attention and has a great time being photographed. The taxi back to the hostel overcharges us.

Thus ends our trip. Even the baggage handlers at Cairo airport who hoist your luggage through the scanning equipment ask for tips. Although this could be considered a nice example of local flavor, I feel that this is a violation of the international monoculture/cultural imperialism of airports and give them nothing. While shopping in the duty-free store to kill time, Rita and I buy a bottle of Egyptian rosé (Obelisk brand) for $6.


Our planning efforts were aided by Jenny Wang’s heroic blog posts: Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. Additionally, this site on the overland crossings from Israel to Jordan was pretty helpful.


Souq or shuk (part 1??) (Saturday, 2018 August 25)

September 10th, 2018

This is a long-overdue travel report from our time in the Middle East, which happened in July and I have put off writing about until just now.

Some backstory is required first. You should know by now that our girl and queen of the photobombs Yaya met an Israeli boy after her service. When you COS, you’re given a plane ticket home (meaning, the States). If instead you want to take advantage of your current location, you can instead take what’s called "cash in lieu", where they take the amount of money they would have spent on that plane ticket and give it to you straight. Lots of Volunteers use this to travel around a bit before coming home — I went to Europe, and I happen to know Peter, Allison, and I think Jenny Wang went to see the Middle East, and it turns out Yaya bounced around East Africa for a while. While there, she happened to bump into a group of young Israelis who had finished their tour with the IDF, and apparently have a similar tradition of post-service travel. The rest of the story is super juicy but largely predictable. Anyhow, Yaya and Amit tied the knot this year. For legal reasons that I don’t really understand, they did their legal marriage here in NYC, Capital of the World, which of course we attended. After which, they mentioned offhandedly that they would be doing a follow-up in Israel too, and that we were free to come if we wanted. Well, how often do you get a chance like that?

Of course, if you’re going to Israel already, then it seems a shame not to also go to Jordan. And if you’re going to Israel and Jordan, then Egypt seems like a natural addition as well.

I realize now that I haven’t written here about our major trips in the last couple years, but here’s a capsule summary. In 2016 we went back to Cameroon for a trip, and knowing that the effort in planning such a trip doesn’t really grow if you add another person, I invited my co-worker Matt, who was happy to come along and whose fresh eyes added a new perspective on our trip. In 2017 we went on a sailing trip in France, and knowing that we would have a better experience with an 8-person boat rather than a 4-person boat, we invited Rita’s friend Lisa and a few others, all of whom were lovely even through the seasickness and occasional moments of terror. So when Rita’s friends JC and FDR mentioned how they loved to travel and didn’t have any travel plans lined up, we thought, why not?

The thing about traveling with friends is that it isn’t the same as normal friendship. Things are turned up to an intensity that you may not expect. You’re attached in a way — you can’t just say "OK cool I’ll text you sometime". You have to negotiate the terms of your vacation together. It’s like the difference between liking someone as a friend and liking them as a roommate. Some people are fun to have as friends but no fun to travel with, and vice versa. Getting both at the same time isn’t impossible — I’d say we’re batting better than .500 given our history so far — but every time you travel with someone new, you’re rolling the dice.

Our first bad sign was when JC texted Rita, "Hey, can I bring my mom?" I guess JC had done the same calculus we had, and figured that adding one more person didn’t add too much workload to the trip. OK, cool, but you really want to travel with your friends AND your mom? To the Middle East? Do you bring her to the nightclub too? Aren’t you afraid of subjecting her to the danger or, even worse, the fun, of the Middle East? Apparently not, because a few hours later FDR texted us something like "Oh I’m so glad Jen said that because I would also like to bring my mom!"

OK, cool, so our fun me-and-Rita trip is now a six-person elder hostel. No big deal. There were other red flags having to do with how difficult it was to coordinate with everyone — JC would often text Rita something, who would relay it to me verbally, to which I would respond "Why didn’t she read the Google Doc I sent out via email three weeks ago, which certainly covers this already?" which I assume Rita modulated somewhat before delivering as a response via text back to JC. But basically whatever, people are different and everything is fine.

FDR’s mom (Shirley) is a lovely person, sweet and classy. JC’s mom (Julie) is by contrast what we would call in Cameroon villageois, which literally means "villager" but is usually used to mean "from the village", i.e. a hayseed or country bumpkin, unsophisticated, the opposite of worldly. She was also, well, Chinese, rude and culturally insensitive to an extent that even I as an American found embarrassing. In particular, before we had left Jerusalem (in whose Old City we had stayed), she had already announced that she was not interested in looking at any more "old stuff" and was only interested in new and fancy things. Like, are you sure you’re on the right vacation, lady? Every time JC stopped somewhere to buy souvenirs, Julie complained loudly that she was wasting her money on junk, that the products available here were equally available at any 99-cent store in America, that she was paying too much for everything, etc. We tired of hearing her litany of remarks and cut her loose for the day in Amman while we visited the Roman amphitheater, and when we caught up with her afterwards we discovered that she had taken a taxi to where all the four-star hotels were and found a Burger King and was very pleased because she had had ice cream and it only cost 69 cents!

The thing that especially bothered me was essentially that for Julie, every conversation was a form of parallel play — she would say the next thing in "her" conversation regardless of what you say. It goes without saying that she wouldn’t always pay attention to anything that didn’t involve her clearly and directly.

One exciting situation developed in Wadi Musa, which is the town outside Petra. Our second morning there, we were planning our day, which was going to involve spending all day in Petra and then heading to Amman that evening. One option was to take the JETT bus (Jordanian equivalent of Greyhound), but I got stopped by one of the many taxi people who wander the streets and who could get us transportation, even though we were six, by hired car. The price he quoted wasn’t much worse than the cost to take the bus for six people and so I agreed that we would meet his driver at 6pm. Then, before we cut Julie loose for the day and headed back in to Petra, I explicitly told Julie to meet at 5pm, knowing already that I could not rely on her to be punctual.

Of course, regrouping at the hotel a little bit before 6, everyone was still scattered throughout — some finishing up a meal at a restaurant, another getting some water, and Julie somewhere on the mean streets of Wadi Musa, probably in heels, nowhere to be found. "Don’t worry," says Shirley, the cool mom. "I told her that everyone was going to meet here at 6pm." Oh no. You didn’t. "I told her in Chinese so I’m sure she understood." I appreciate your effort but understanding wasn’t the thing I was worried about..

So sure enough Julie rolls in at 6:45ish when the van is completely loaded and we’re all very anxious. No sooner is she in the minivan then (I’m proud to report) Shirley lets loose with both barrels, demanding why she was so late. The argument switched into Cantonese very quickly so I didn’t get the full effect but they really went at it for quite some time, to the point that both JC and FDR got exasperated and tried to shout down their moms to get the argument to stop, but this only had the effect that the moms started shouting at each other in louder Cantonese so that they could make their points heard over the petulant complaints of the daughters. Apparently the dispute centered on what Shirley told Julie (Shirley says 6pm; Julie says she was told 7pm), but branched off rapidly into Julie’s performance as a mother, the way she treated her daughter, Shirley’s honesty, and probably other topics that escape my memory. Shirley, switching into English, told me "Apparently I need to record every conversation I have with her to prove what I said!" I apologized to our driver Ali, but he laughed and said it was OK. Around this time, FDR shouted that maybe Ali could put some music on? Which he proceeded to do, and so it was that we proceeded up the Kings Highway to the strains of the Arabic radio and a Cantonese shouting match.

Eventually the two women gave up in the face of the persistent mechanical song, and eventually we stopped at a gas station to use the bathroom. During this time I tried to express my appreciation for Shirley’s efforts. I was impressed that Shirley had really given Julie her best efforts. Personally I had already given up on trying to change Julie — I had clearly already given up on her, concluding she was the kind of person you can’t fix, but at most contain. Shirley displayed excellence in the way she dealt fairly with someone who was beyond fairness.

[Edit: argh I just remembered I forgot the best part! Which is the next paragraph:]

Both women stayed civil for the rest of the ride, until we dropped off FDR and Shirley first at their fancy hotel in Amman. But then on the ride to the hostel where we were staying, Julie started to complain again. "Stupid woman! She thinks she is better than me because she is staying in a more expensive hotel!" Wait, what? "Fucking her," she seethed.

In the end, we tipped Ali generously, and we engaged his services the next day to drive us to the Dead Sea, which went well enough.

Morals of the story:

  • Travel with friends, or travel with parents, but never both at once, and certainly never with friends’ parents.
  • Never travel with more than can fit in a cab (i.e. 4 usually).
  • Your entire travel group should share one language, and especially that means that if something is said to the group in this language, everybody is responsible for understanding it.

Today’s word is "souq" (Arabic) or "shuk" (Hebrew), meaning marché, marketplace. Different souqs are different — the one in Jerusalem is fancy, with parts more like a Parisian gallery, and serves as a tourist destination, whereas the one we saw in Ramallah was more like a Cameroonian one (specifically it reminded me of the one in Bazou), with some vendors selling out of concrete buildings and others selling in a covered plaza.

Here are some random photos.

Me, Rita, and Julie. I think this is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Some refreshing beverages. Taybeh Beer is made in the West Bank (we’re at a bar in Ramallah). Personally, I’d say it’s the best beer in the Levant.

Some clothing in a random stall in Jerusalem. Note the "Pika-Jew", which got a lot of laughs.

Another similar article of clothing.

Fresh produce in Ramallah.

Olives at the shuk in Jerusalem.

One of several spice merchants scattered throughout Jerusalem.

A restaurant we ate at on our first night in Jerusalem’s Old City.

A Bedouin tent in Wadi Rum, complete with some articles for sale.

The shuk in Jerusalem. JC is on the right, FDR is center and her mom between them.

Of course, there are also normal sorts of markets in Jerusalem. Here’s one of the several products we found at a "bodega".

Here’s another shot of FDR and Shirley at a bar in Amman.

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Alternance codique (Wednesday, 2017 February 8)

February 9th, 2017

I was briefly in Europe for FOSDEM and to see some of my French coworkers. We flew into Charles de Gaulle and drove up to Brussels, where FOSDEM is, and then drove back for a few days in Paris. I’m on the flight back now.

I’ve been working now for Mozilla for 9 or 10 months. It’s an interesting place, and it has some similarities to being a Volunteer. The first, of course, is that it’s a company with a public mission and a global scope. There’s also the fact that some 40% of its employees are "remote", meaning not working in an office but rather embedded in some community, and working for its good in a way that feels subversive. In Cameroon, my post was in Batié, but now it’s in New York. When it doesn’t feel like being a Volunteer, it feels like joining a secret society, one with a proud history and rich traditions. Looking at me, you’d think I’m just some guy working on a laptop, but actually I’m part of a global network of operatives, communicating over the Internet on a frequency that nobody hears, even though anyone can listen to it.

Being in Europe brings out a lot of the same interesting linguistic situations that I was familiar with from my time as a Volunteer. The choice of language felt itself like a logistical concern. Most Cameroonians are Francophone, of course, but the Anglophones feel like an oppressed minority, and so speaking French to one could be seen as an insult. Sometimes people would want to speak English with me because they wanted to practice English, or to show off, and I didn’t mind either. When with Americans, we’d normally speak English, but we might drop into French if it was the only language that all participants could understand. Over time I tended to keep my mouth shut until someone addressed me, and then follow them in whatever language they were using. I began to sense a power in that first moment, when the first word comes out. Until you spoke, you might be Dutch, British, French, American. Afterwards, all possibilities were removed but one. I often tried to delay that revelation as long as possible using expedients like non-verbal noises, or the use of brand names (which were the same in both languages).

Belgium at a tech conference is even more complicated, linguistically, than being in Cameroon. Belgium’s official languages are Dutch (and/or Flemish), French, and German in some parts. Brussels, being the capital, is a linguistic no-man’s-land. But English is the language of tech, and thus of FOSDEM. Still, I found myself switching into a Volunteer "natives speak French, friends speak English" mindset when I ordered at the cafeteria, even though it was staffed by FOSDEM. At the restaurant in Paris where we ate last night, one server overheard our mixed group talking English (the only language everyone supported) and would address us in English, while the other one hadn’t noticed and continued to address us in French. In case it wasn’t obvious, the title of this blog post is alternance codique, which means "code switching".

FOSDEM itself was a pretty good conference. It’s interesting in a lot of ways — it’s free, and registration isn’t required; you just show up. It’s held on a college campus and staffed entirely by volunteers (with a little v). One thing that makes FOSDEM unusual for a tech conference is that they set up "bars" on campus which sell a variety of Belgian beers. Of course I tried almost all of them during the weekend. If I had to select a favorite, I think it might be the cherry lambic that I had, the Kriek.

Brussels is relatively affordable for Europe. Belgian beers in most places were only a few Euro. Like everywhere else in Europe, tax is included in all listed prices, and there’s no such thing as a tip. Buses have displays showing the next few stops, and there’s also a tram system, and I think a subway as well. Everything is cute and everyone we met was polite.

By contrast, Paris was not what I was expecting from Europe at all. If Brussels is a pleasant but stiff bureaucrat who maintains a formal distance, Paris is an old lady who lives in a corner house and chain-smokes aggressively. She can be mean, but she’s had a rich and colorful life and if she invites you to dinner, it’s always fascinating. The City of Lights is full of gilding and filigrees and beautiful historical buildings. The place we were staying dates from 1725 or so, but locks on the front door were much more modern and quite substantial, apparently because Paris had a serious burglary problem for a while. While we were waiting for one of our group to pick up a few things in the supermarket, someone shoplifted and the guard chased him down the street. Nothing violent happened per se, but it definitely felt less safe than Brussels.

Apart from a couple bad apples, the Parisians have been lovely. I had a charming if somewhat challenging conversation in French with the check-in counter for Air France about why I didn’t have long hair any more like in my passport. (I had been afraid that I wouldn’t be able to understand the accents of the people in Europe, but I was gratified to find that I have largely been able to get by.) The food has been quite good when I’ve been able to get it without milk. Paris is nice, but in the (admittedly short) time I spent there, I didn’t really see how people can fall in love with the place, unless you’re already powerfully in love with the idea of France or the French.

Some photos:

The place where we stayed in Brussels had some cool nerd junk.


Beer list. For a conference, this is quite a selection!

The PostgreSQL elephant was in attendance. Can MySQL do this??

Vending machine waffle. There were fresh ones being made too, but these were only 0.50€ and didn’t have milk.


One of the passages/galleries in Paris. These are actually pretty cool; they’re not exactly closed to the outdoors, and they have a skylight, so you can feel like you’re getting some fresh air, but at the same time it’s enclosed enough to be pleasant, even during the winter.

Notre Dame de Lorette, a fancy church in Paris. Also depicted are my teammate Rémy and our intern Mansimar.

My intern Gabi and the adorable Firefox stuffed animal at the Paris office.

Airplane cognac. Only on Air France…

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Accueil (Thursday, 2015 November 26)

November 29th, 2015

Starting about a month or so ago, I got a series of increasingly frantic emails, texts, and phone calls from Julie, one of the returned Volunteers that still lives in NYC. Apparently one of her friends from village, a young lady named Annette, won the Diversity Visa lottery and was coming here, to New York, and Julie had no idea what to do with her. What kind of paperwork was going to be necessary? Where was she going to sleep? What kind of work could she do?

Although the government issues visas, those visas aren’t backstopped by programs, services, or resources, even for fundamentals like learning English. You’re on your own for all of the above. Hopefully you have family or friends who know the lay of the land and can help you along. And if those friends or family are, like Julie, in the middle of moving house, then things become a bit more difficult. Julie apparently spoke to some of her "civilian" friends, and they discouraged her from all of this — she’ll take advantage of you, they said, or she’ll never leave. Maybe so. But we’re still Volunteers, and this is some prime Goal 3 kind of work. And if you think about it, Annette is kind of a Volunteer now too for some reverse-bizarro nega-Organization that lets people into the States. That means she’s family. We have to take care of her.

A plan has slowly coalesced around some of the returned Volunteers in the New York area. Julie (or maybe it was someone else?) found a Cameroonian woman who lives in the Bronx who came over just a few years ago with nobody here to help her but some other returned Volunteers. She now lives in an apartment with enough room to take in a few other Cameroonians. Julie’s trying to arrange for Annette to move there as of December 1st. In the meantime, she’s staying with us, sleeping on our couch and borrowing Rita’s old computer.

It’s been a weird experience so far having Annette — sort of like inheriting a slightly clueless 23-year-old daughter. I picked her up at the airport on Friday and it was the first time she’d ever been on an airplane. We’ve had to explain everything to her — how to ride the subway, how to buy vegetables at the supermarket, even how to flush the toilet. She’s an intelligent enough girl — she finished lycée and got her Bac, and even has a couple years of university under her belt — but is missing a lot of context. And then there is the occasional unfortunate incident like her not remembering how to work the intercom to let someone into the apartment, so going downstairs to let them in and thereby locking herself out.

It’s almost like she’s doing a reverse stage, and we’re (all of us in NYC) her famille d’accueil, her host family. (Accueillir means to welcome.) One fascinating thing has been to watch people come out of the woodwork — in just a week in America, Annette has had more guests at her parties than I have had at mine. Between this, and the above observation that she’s a reverse Volunteer, I keep leaping to conclusions that aren’t 100% correct. The main one recently has been about her maturity. Volunteers are always college graduates; Annette, though 23, hasn’t finished any degree. Indeed, I think of her as a good kid, which stands in stark contrast to the rest of us, who are generally hot messes. Nevertheless she’s seemed pretty cool for a Cameroonian, young and idealistic and essentially open to new ideas in a way that I can’t remember even in myself. (About homosexuality, which is illegal in Cameroon, she just said "Well, it’s up to them to manage their lives, and it’s up to me to manage mine.")

There’s a lot more to say about her stay with us, or indeed about the last year or two, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

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Cyclone (Tuesday, 2014 June 17)

June 18th, 2014

Last year Timothy came to visit me because his girlfriend was in the Mermaid Parade down on Coney Island. I am thinking now of standing on the fire escape here at Woodcrest and him telling me that I had quite an appetite for strong drink. Then, maybe the next day, we’re all standing outside in the sun and heat, running out of nigori sake or whatever we were drinking that morning, and watching the parade go by. In particular there’s a parade of muscle cars, some of which are fancy-looking antiques and one of which is just a loud car driven by the kind of person who knows how to make his tires squeal. After that car drives by, revving the engine like a beast only to stop short behind the next car, a guy in front of us says "Ha, and they have New Jersey plates, that’s perfect." Timothy, if you’re reading this, you asked if I "heard banjos" when I was in Brighton Beach. To answer your question, Brighton Beach is still civilization. For banjos, you have to go to Jersey, or at least Staten Island.

I’m getting off topic. Not too long after the cars go by, the parade starts, and before Jackie gets to go, the Brooklyn Cyclones mascot goes by. (He looks like a baseball with a duckbill and a baseball cap.) Timothy’s from out of town, so I’m explaining to him, "The Cyclones aren’t major league. They’re just below major leagues. Is there a name for that?" And the guy who made the quip about Jersey turns around and says "Triple A." So maybe the Cyclones are Triple A. (Although now that I’m looking it up, it seems like they’re Class A — Short Season.)

They don’t play at Barclay’s Stadium, in downtown Brooklyn, named after a major bank — they play at MCU Park, named after the Municipal Credit Union, open to all former employees of the City of New York. The park is in Coney Island, which, while once the gold standard for American amusement parks, is now one of the seediest neighborhoods in New York. So it’s a triple-A team playing at a triple-A stadium in a triple-A neighborhood. And when they sent me an email saying that they were observing Peace Corps Day with special seating available for anyone who used the discount code PEACE, I knew I had to go. Finally I would be able to relate to my father and his sister talking about the team’s dancing girls, the Beach Bums, walking around and shaking their bottoms. Best of all, I’d be able to heckle the Hudson Valley Renegades (?) while getting sufficiently drunk and being surrounded by other Volunteers.

We rolled up late, having had a chili dog and a Coney Island Lager at nearby Nathan’s, but as soon as I got there I knew I had made the right decision. The whole place reeked of Brooklyn spirit. Instead of ads for companies best described as "brands", the place was festooned with decorations for places like Astoria Federal Savings, New York Methodist Hospital, Midwood Ambulance Service, and Peter’s personal favorite, Send In The Clowns Entertainment Corp. A trained eye could look at the Beach Bums and easily discern the swarthy attitude of Canarsie, the tawny pride of Flatbush, or the self-important swagger of Midwood. There was a table for Peace Corps where they gave Volunteers a t-shirt with the Peace Corps logo on the front so you could broadcast your affiliation to the larger community, and it was easy to spot the section where your ticket was, even if you didn’t know exactly where to sit. Of course, PCVs don’t hurry right over to their assigned seats — instead we stood around the table and gossiped with the other (more experienced) Volunteers manning the table.

Apparently they’ve recently changed the application process? What used to take 8 hours to fill out now only takes 1, and instead of expressing a vague preference about where you want to go, you get to apply to an individual country. ("How can they do that?" Peter asked. "That’s not — they can’t do that! That’s not what Peace Corps is about! It’s about the cold hand of bureaucracy telling you what to do, and you doing it. With a smile.") Apparently if your application for a particular country isn’t competitive enough, they tell you to apply again when your application is more competitive.

To be honest, I’m with Peter on this one — if you know enough about a country or about Peace Corps to know where you want to go, you’re losing out on an opportunity for some serious cultural exchange. I had essentially no idea about anything about Cameroon before I landed there. My country selection process was almost exactly like my college selection process — random and undirected, just the way I like it. For some reason I think that worked out really well for me, although all evidence does seem to point to the contrary. It certainly does seem, though, like you’ll just get a bunch of people aiming for Beach Corps/Posh Corps posts like Jamaica or Ethiopia. But maybe it’ll sort itself out the way college seems to for so many Americans, or maybe they’ll recoup those frustrated failed volunteers and send them to slightly less posh places like Haiti and Mongolia.

The game itself was pretty forgettable, although we did beat the Renegades 5-1. More important were all the other bread and circuses that seem to surround a baseball game, even a triple-A one. For example, towards the middle of the game, a woman wearing what looked like business-casual went out and sang God Bless America, and then a little girl went out and sang Take Me Out To the Ball Game. They had a race with three hot dogs, Ketchup, Mustard, and Relish, and Ketchup won but only by playing dirty (he pushed Mustard over). The scoreboard was lit up with numbers (most of them zeroes), but I wasn’t wearing my glasses and really had no idea what most of them meant. Periodically the announcer would mention that such-and-such an event was sponsored by Kings Plaza Shopping Center, and then play a sound which was presumably meant to be some kind of theme music for Kings Plaza but was actually the Law and Order sound. Everything was chaotic and ridiculous but essentially harmless.

Everyone there seemed really cool and I had a really great time. I did not have a great $7 beer in the stadium. Instead I planned ahead and had an even better flask of Absolut Vodka (this is not a product endorsement — it’s just what I had in the house). Afterwards, there was a fireworks show (which, like the man says, wipes my brain slate clean — it strikes me silent), and then we got to run the bases. And the best part was that it was only 20 minutes from home. Go Cyclones!

Uncategorized ,

Véhiculé (Saturday, 2013 August 10)

August 10th, 2013

Greetings from scenic Albany, where I find myself for a friend’s wedding. I went to college not too far from here and hated it. I figured Cameroon would soften my disgust for the place, because at least here there is running water and reliable power/Internet. It remains to be seen how I feel about it long-term, but when I got off the MegaBus and found my way to the once-hourly local bus, it seemed sufficiently fine.

Aside: When I was back in Bafia, having just received our bicycles, my host brother Hyacenthe remarked, "Woah, Ethan, you’re already vehiculated (véhiculé)?" The CDTA bus is what you take when you are not vehiculated. I guess I wasn’t in a great position to evaluate them when I was going to school, because there was only one or two such buses that I ever took, but this time I got on a bus at 10 PM and it was pretty much on time. I think they renumbered some or all of the routes, which is encouraging — it suggests someone at CDTA headquarters is thinking.

The bus dropped me off at Walmart Plaza. Walmart was still open, but the liquor store wasn’t. The hotel was a half hour or so away by foot. This part of the country isn’t designed so much for pedestrians. Sidewalks are often absent, and overall the whole place is a lumpy, rustic place, blue collar in ways that New York isn’t.

This morning I splashed around a little bit in the hotel pool (which is just large enough for me to traverse in five strokes), and tried some of the complementary breakfast — the scrambled eggs had butter, but I had some bacon, and they had hardboiled eggs, but no piment. Still, running water, right?


Rêve (Monday, 2013 June 17)

June 18th, 2013

I had a dream last night that I was getting ready to start the school year all over again. Now that I’d sucked as a volunteer/teacher for two years, I was ready to buckle down and I was going to magically be better at it. I was going to concentrate on the things that mattered to me and I was going to do a good job. Most of all, I was convinced that now that the Terminale students had bombed the Bac last year, they were also going to be way more serious and interested in the things I was trying to get into their heads. I was excited, the same sort of excited optimism that I had at the beginning of my second year.

I woke up almost a little disappointed that I wasn’t going to be teaching again. But then I started to think about it and all the other more plausible disappointments came trickling back in…

Peace Corps volunteers have become a major linchpin in my life lately. Yaya blew through a couple months ago, and Charmayne a couple months before that. One is coming to visit this week, and Jenny "Spaghetti Omelette" Wang is coming to NY in July and we’re going to take a road trip to visit some others in Middle America. Maybe that’s why I had a Cameroonian dream. It’s not the first time — I had a confusing one with a Cameroonian saying something like "Pardon monsieur pour ne pas te donner du food" and me correcting him that "food" in French is "la nourriture" — and I’ve given up on trying to make sense of them. My life here has its own challenges, but at least it makes sense.


Continuer (Sunday, 2013 March 17)

March 17th, 2013

A few months passed. Late October my parents started remodeling the bathroom. At first I was like, "Finally! I can show off my bucket bathing skills, since we won’t have a shower." But then I realized our backyard doesn’t have any place where you can bathe without being seen (no outdoor latrine), and that I had no desire to shower outside in NYC in late October. Just goes to show, even the "roughing it" skills we learn in Peace Corps don’t always translate well to a culture where the infrastructure doesn’t support them.

Around the same time, I was due to start my job, so I really wanted to have regular access to a shower for the week or so that my parents were due to not have a bathroom. Accordingly, I started putting in motion the move to a new apartment. I thought I had timed everything correctly, with me moving in at the beginning of November, and the management company telling me I could pick up the keys a few days early, but hadn’t counted on the super needing more time to change the locks. Oh, and then there was Hurricane Sandy. We lost power (and therefore heat, which has an electric ignition) at my parents’ house for a couple of days (long enough to run out of charge on all my electronics), which I definitely hadn’t expected to happen in the First World. Me and Rita played cards by candlelight. My first day of work, our new office was still nonfunctional, so our office manager had people over in her apartment and we worked there. Subway service was inoperative, and buses were swamped. Flatbush Avenue has this longstanding phenomenon of "dollar vans", which are sort of analagous to taxis in Cameroon. Maybe that’s why I didn’t want to take them. They were doing a brisk business. I decided to walk it, which was tiring but not unreasonable. Thenceforth I took my bike.

And then things settled down, slowly but surely. Mass transit started working again normally. The subtle terror of lines at gas stations and what that might portend faded gradually as gas started flowing back into Greater New York. I started a job that I’m good at. Eventually I went on isoniazid for my tuberculosis, then off it again when there was a national shortage, but now I’m back on it. There’s the occasional oddity here in "White Man Country" (to use the Anglophone phrase), like discovering that traffic buttons don’t really do anything and neither do elevator "door close" buttons in normal operation, but by and large I am living the good life. I eat a lot of meat — in Cameroonian terms, I’ve become even more "healthy" — and I drink a fair amount of delicious things (at least, when I’m not on my isoniazid). I play board games (of which I now have almost 100) and I see my friends and even other Volunteers like Peter Paskowsky pretty regularly.

I always strive to be not like other people, but of course (as previously) I’m not too far off from Volunteer-normal. I’ve had to struggle to understand and accept that things that don’t matter to me are nevertheless taken quite seriously by people I care about, and that I need to respect that. A good example is wearing shoes — it feels like most everyone I know has a standing policy that you take your shoes off immediately as soon as you have one foot inside the door, despite the fact that nobody’s gonna track any mud in from their apartment building corridor. It isn’t rainy season, after all! I guess I’ve made a peace with it because I know I’ve got my own quirky neuroses too (like the occasional French word or "When I was in Africa…" story), and I figure if people can put up with mine, I ought to put up with theirs too. None of us are really objectively right — we’re all just screwed up in slightly different ways.

Lately I’ve read The Magician King by Lev Grossman, which I enjoyed, but not as much as the original The Magicians, partly because of some of the deeply disturbing scenes at the end, Bone Dance by Emma Bull, which I loved, and Redshirts by John Scalzi which was also quite enjoyable.


Suite (Wednesday, 2012 September 18)

September 19th, 2012

[This one goes out to all the UPS drivers out there that are not delivering my computers. It’d be nice if you guys could, you know, deliver them. Sure, it’s an unreal wish-fulfillment fantasy, but hey! Speaking of unreal wish-fulfillment fantasies, here’s the last installment of the fiction.]

I know I didn’t talk much about the Mission’s evacuation program but I really don’t know much about how it worked. They had picked us up and now we were heading back to Capital City in a wheeled ground transport that I didn’t know the Sumi name for. It was squat but high up, and wide and long like someone had put couches on stilts and wheels. I was sitting in the back on one side of two Missionaries. They looked shell-shocked, like I did. One was crying. Utkeu’s laser pistol was stowed — the drivers hadn’t asked about personal armaments so I wasn’t saying anything.

As far as I could tell from the curt answers the Zhenae drivers gave me, the revolution started in a city near Sunken Grace (one of the major economic centers of Zhen). Word had gotten out that Planetary Counsel had written their report on the election results, which the local population found objectionable on the grounds that the votes hadn’t been counted. These townsfolk proceeded to their local Town Counsel to express their disappointment. Local authorities, including the local branch of the Arms, rebutted their views with rigor and force. Of the townsfolk who survived, some were wearing black armbands. Riots spread from there to the equatorial regions, and by personal communication to the Plateau and the Outer Islands. All government establishments were at risk. Most Missionaries worked at government establishments. You get the idea.

I had a lot of time, because our transport was taking us all the way back to the Mission in Capital City. This let me start to process what I’d seen happen to Utkeu, one of my closest friends on Zhen. I know he had been disappointed in me. In a sense, I’d killed him. He’d given me the benefit of his wisdom, tried to dissuade me from the course I’d already been on, and I’d blown him off. My hubris had gotten him killed. I’d made a mistake. He’d paid for it. I had survived, through no fault of my own. He was gone and he was never coming back.

What about everyone else? I didn’t know what had happened to my friend who had tried to seduce me at the club. Was she OK? I’m glad she hadn’t been there with me when I’d had to leave. She would have been on her own.

As for Jamie, I hadn’t heard from her, but I was willing to bet that she was someplace safe, maybe even already at the Mission, or even off-planet already after finding a way to get out early. I worried, in a completely platonic way, about Morgan.

We trickled in over the next day or so. The last Missionaries pulled into the secure compound in the early afternoon, and we all shuffled to the biggest conference room we could find for a debriefing. The logistics were pretty straightforward; we were going to private shuttle to the Starport in groups and from there lift off back home. Anyone could ask for a transfer to a different planet, but me, Jamie, and Morgan, making eye contact in the back, would not be exercising that option. Our possessions would eventually be dug out of our residences and sent to us.

Missionaries who were evacuated were considered to have finished their service, like an honorable discharge. We’d gotten, therefore, the best of both worlds. We’d finished our service, but without having to actually finish our service. It was all playing out like Jamie had planned. We’d hit the jackpot.

We weren’t allowed out of the compound to go drinking; some Missionaries were staying at the hotel next door, but they were only allowed to go in groups of four. I was alone in a corner behind one of the administrative buildings when Morgan found me.

"We did it," she said.

"Yeah, we’re regular heroes."

She smiled vaguely, choosing not to be drawn in. Instead she sat next to me.

"I wanted," I said. And then I had to stop for a second. "I’m having buyer’s regret. I’m not sure this is the right revolution."

She gave a quiet laugh, almost a sigh. "We did our best. I think time will tell."

"Did they attack your school?"

"No, things are different on the Islands… a little more respect for teachers or something. They just took the Arms House and more or less left us alone."

"That’s good."

"Where are you gonna go next?"

"Not sure yet. You?"

"Back to school, I think. Maybe I’ll really learn how to teach."

"Listen," I said. "I guess I’m still learning how to grow up, how to put other people’s feelings into consideration. I’m sorry about everything."

"It’s fine. Now I can finally get away from you." She smiled and stood up, stretched. "Maybe I’ll see you on Earth."

"Maybe," I said. But as she walked away, I thought, maybe not.

A plan was already forming in my head. I’d gotten this whole planet into a mess because I wanted to go home. I’d thought I knew what God had wanted, and one of my closest friends was dead because of it. Maybe I could turn this around, try to act selflessly for once.

My bag was already packed. I left a note, then climbed over the wall.


Correction (Sunday, 2012 September 9)

September 10th, 2012

Here are updated versions of the books I wrote incorporating typo fixes and minor grammatical changes that were in the printed version.

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