Monday, April 27, 2009

I got a peaceful easy feelin'...

Back to Wadi Rum where the four of us were journeying on in the back of a pickup truck (sounds like a country song, doesn't it?) through the desert. We reached another monolith, this one with red-orange sand like a gigantic dune cascading from it in a steep slope. I climbed it with Thomas, half pulling, half carrying him up. What a workout in the sliding sand! I could see there were no recent tracks to the top, so it was well worth it, and what a view.

Down below there was a young man playing an Oud in a Bedouin tent, the sound ebbing up to Thomas and I as we caught our breath gazing over the desert's shades of blues and oranges, pale sands and purple distances. Soon the second truck carrying the Koreans rattled up and they piled out to briefly attempt climbing up the dune, though they gave up quickly. An obvious sign of intelligence.

Thomas and I slid back down on our bottoms, much to his delight and my dismay when I realised I was dragging my camera, lens cap off and now lost, behind us through the sand. Oh criminy.

I went inside the tent and asked the Oud player if I could have a try. Amazingly, he let me, and though I was too timid to give the instrument a real go, I got the idea. Outside there were some interesting developments as the Korean's driver was doing something to "fix" the brakes. Thomas jumped right in there and was helping out. According to Mike, the fixing techinques employed were both "resourceful" and "alarming".

Not being mechanically inclined like Mike and Thomas, I merely took note that our driver let the Koreans and their vehicle go ahead of us now instead of behind. Not a vote of confidence, exactly...

Thomas and the Korean's driver work on fixing the brakes, as Audi offers his opinion.

The next stop was petroglyphs carved into a cliff face, including a marvelous outline of a camel. The kids were more interested in the nearby Bedouin tent, knowing full well that was the place for tea. Three little boys, obviously at home in the desert were there with their father. I went and got the three apples we'd brought for a snack out of our backpack in the truck and offered them to the children, who accepted them with shy smiles and dark eyes, but would not eat them. We took off our shoes and hunkered down to visit. After encouraging the boys to try the apples, I asked if they did not know the fruit. Their father made me understand that the boys would eat, but not while I was watching.

Encouraged by the communication, however difficult, I inquired after our host's family, as one always should. It conspired that he has two wives, one in town and one in the desert, and so far 10 children, more Inshallah. He told me proudly that his youngest was only two weeks old. I made delighted sounds and eyes and gestures and he decided something. Standing, he gestured for me to follow him and he led me past the tent divider from the men's side (alshigg) where guests are entertained, to the women's side (al-mahram). I never expected to be allowed past the Bedu version of the foyer, and couldn't believe my luck, and his generousity. I waited until he spoke to his wife, then followed, careful not to step in the sand and track it on my socks.

The sweet newborn was carefully swaddled and lying on the woven rugs, his mother fanning his tiny face with her hands. She was probably in her twenties, her face and head uncovered, eyes carefully lined with kohl, and she made no move to drape herself, which was lovely. The baby was very easy to fuss over; bright eyes looking all around, tiny pursed mouth. It was a true privilege. Of course my kids had to come see the baby too, and were welcomed.

I tried to imagine being the desert wife, in this beautiful but silent place, having no one but my husband and taking care of the children, living in a tent, hoping for the generosity of tourists. I decided some things we best left to the imagination.

Back in the men's side of the tent the three little boys were indeed munching on the apples, straight from Washington State. I wished I had money to thank them for sharing their lives with us, but I had to do the best I could with words.

Mike and the Arch at Jebel Kharazeh

The little truck took us to see beautiful arches in the desert, and I climbed the one at Jebel Kharazeh. Atop, it was peaceful to sit on the warm, beautifully striated rock and look over expanses, the lands of the Bedu, the unmistakable shapes of camels dotting the landscape, delighting in the scents on the breezes and feeling a deep peace and contentment.

Our next stop was a wall of ancient hunting petroglyphs that delighted me ( see photo below), including a handprint, a mystical seeming snake, hunters with spears and animals. Then we visited an ingenious water gathering system that had been created to channel rainwater along the rocks into a well. It was very interesting, and also had us holding the children far back for fear of never seeing them again. Even Audi was helping us keep them back and safe, so ominious was the large hole that seemed to go down into the rocks forever. Thomas loved getting an echo and he and Bethy whooped and hollered as we clung onto them.

Here, after everyone else had gotten back onto the truck benches, Audi presented me with a gift. I had said to him, as I climbed down from the arch and he was climbing up, that I thought it was a good place to pray. Perhaps it was this comment which inspired his gesture. I can't believe that it was from the moment before when I was delighted to learn that the numerous tracks I'd taken to be scorpion were actually from the beetles Thomas loves to catch. We'd oohed and aahed over it and Audi had been so pleased to be able to tell me that it was this that was making those marks in the sand I was asking about. He didn't say it quite that way of course, but we were doing well understanding one another.

Regardless, Audi carefully removed my hat and crowned me with a string of black and red beads so that it encircled my head, a tassel hanging down next to my face. I tried to ask him what the beads signified, but the closest we could get to understanding was that he agreed they meant friendship. Happily assured that we weren't engaged or something, I clambered back into the truck where Thomas was collapsing into sleep whenever the truck was in motion, his little face red and his curls all tousled. Bethy was exulting in the air blowing her hair all over from the motion of the truck.

We had to stop once in the soft sands for Audi to add water to the engine, Mike fretting about the ground and getting stuck but the truck proved its worth and we raced across the sands, arriving back in camp with our tired little kids. We were sorry to say good-bye to Audi. He'd been such a thoughtful driver and guide, encouraging photo taking and being good humored and patient with us.

I asked our hosts back in Zawaideh about the beads. It turns out they are prayer beads, something to treasure. Mike had been wanting to try on a kaffia for size, so we were instructed in the art of headwrapping and I thought he looked particularly dashing in Bedu headgear with his vacation beard.

Then we traded desert camping life for the highway, and headed south to Aqaba.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Red red wine...

Stop the presses!

The smile says it all: I finally, finally won the wine at the Predictor Race. I thought it would never happen. This has been a special, special evening for me.

For those not in the know, here's how the Predictor race works. At the beginning everyone decides whether they want to run one (3.4 km) lap or two on the running track around Safa Park in Dubai. There's also a Juniors race for kids, with a cash prize. I always run two laps, having been schooled by Graham, the organiser of this nuttiness. You predict the time you think you're going to get and then pelt off with your group. Graham and Katrina and some other willing volunteer time the runners and compare actual times with predicted times, and the winners of the one and two lap categories get a bottle of wine.

Participation costs all of 5 dirhams, $1.36, for adults.

I am never anywhere near my predicted time. If I'm within 30 seconds, that's excellent for me, but it won't win with this crowd.

Last night was warm, (it had gotten up to 102 F) but with a breeze, and not humid, which makes a huge difference. A relatively small turn-out. Cathy and I were having as good of a run as any. Which means the running was hard but the company was good. Nearly to the end, Cathy looked at her watch and said, if you sprint now, you might get the wine.

I was outta there, and sure enough, my time was just one second off the predicted, hooray! I got to pick my wine, a lovely South African Merlot Pinotage called (you're going to love this): Footprint.

I owe Cathy BIG for kicking me into high gear.

OK, thanks for indulging me. I'll get back to Tales of Jordan with the next post.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum...

Next on our agenda was a Jeep tour of Wadi Rum. Now, when I see the word "Jeep" I assume, you know, Jeep. What I didn't know was that for Arabs, "Jeep" means any 4x4 vehicle. Ours was already parked and ready to go for us, a well-loved and old pick-up truck with padded bench seats in the back. No, not the back seat. The truck bed. Made of plywood and colorful fabric, not dissimilar to our camel saddles. Now, Mike and I had been discussing how best to buckle in Thomas' car seat for our 4x4 trip.

Apparently we didn't need to worry about that. Now all we needed to worry about was being ejected out the tailgate or over the sides into the desert.

Raising our eyebrows at one another, we got in, putting the kids between ourselves and the cab. "You know," I said, "there's no way we'd do this in the States." Mike agreed wholeheartedly, and then our driver tried to start the pickup.

And tried and tried.

"Well, this is a reliable truck to take into the desert," Mike murmured under his breath. The rest of the camp workers were standing around watching with equal parts concern and humor, laughing and giving what was probably advice in Arabic.

The truck sputtered and choked. Finally an Egyptian fellow got into the cab and did something and the engine came to life, reluctantly. He patted our driver on the back as they switched places and we drove off. "We should make him come with us," I said, only about half joking.

Thomas, Audi, Bethy and Audi's "Jeep".

Now we were off, trying to be calm. We drove through the village, past the donkeys and garbage and tires, over the first set of train tracks we'd seen in the Middle East, and out into North Wadi Rum.

I had talked with Harb about where to go on our 4x4 adventure. Now, he said the north, outside of the protected (and fee) area where many of the tours go to the south. He pointed out that it would have fewer tourists, is quieter and that he feels it has just as much to offer. So I went with his recommendation, and was glad.

It was astoundingly beautiful, the wide stretches of sand and the monolithic rockscapes, magnificent scenery, though for the first while we were almost completely preoccupied with getting used to riding in the back of the truck and questioning whether our judgement with the kids could still be considered sound.

Eventually we relaxed enough to enjoy the ride, our driver taking the bumps and turns well enough for us to develop some sort of faith in him, or at least some good old-fashioned Arab fatalism.

We were certainly in the middle of nowhere, no other person visible as we zipped along the sand. At one point a huge pale colored lizard startled out of some camel grass and charged away from us as fast as his legs would go, tail whipping back and forth behind him.

We came to one of the rock formations and stopped, our driver Audi coming courteously around to open the tailgate and let us out. Climbing up the pale rocks behind him, we followed a path into the rocks and back in a sort of cave we found inscriptions carved into the stone from long ago. Thomas, of course, was determined to climb up higher and higher into the rocks, but Audi showed both his willingness and good sense and climbed up after our little lizard and kept him from harm.

Emerging back out into the sands, Audi directed us to wander into a Bedouin tent at the base of the rock. Outside was a table with colorful beaded necklaces. Oh dear. Support the locals...but we hadn't brought a single dinar (Jordanian currency) with us. We were invited to sit upon a rug or cushions and enjoy tea by the owner of the tent, a man with a deeply lined dark face who spoke even less English than our driver. Our problem, not his. He was courteous and sweet, and Thomas was all over the tea bit.

"Salam Aleekum (hello), tea please!" in his little boy voice.

The tea was being made in a kettle on a small but very hot fire in the sand where there was a gap in the rugs, and it was very, very hot. Our Bedouin host solved this issue for Thomas, who is not yet Starbucks trained, by rinsing one glass in a container of cooler water then pouring the tea into it, rinsing the empty glass that had held the tea in the water and then pouring the tea back in, over and over until the tea cooled enough for a child. The rest of us singed our fingers slightly, but Bedouin tea is so delicious it was worth it. Besides, we could probably use some toughening up.

Notice Thomas is not only sitting properly, but has employed his Maisy Mouse as a cushion.

Tea pouring must be done from as high from the receiving cup as is deemed prudent by the pourer. Why this is, I have no idea, but it adds a splash of showmanship to the process and is repeated all around and through the Sahara.

Another group arrived, this one a Korean group of several young women and one young man, who we'd waved to earlier out in the desert while also taking our respective camel rides. Now we were reassured to see that their truck was outfitted the same as ours...obviously this was the way things were done.

They fussed over Bethy and Thomas, of course, and we figured it was a good time to go.

Thomas kissed our host and both kids chorused Shukran (thank you) beautifully. I tried to learn how to say thank you in Korean kamsa hamaida (kam'-sah hum-nee-dah' ) as well, opportunistic language, but forgot it within a few kilometers of bouncing over the sands. Mike was watching the depths of the sands and the speed and hoping we wouldn't get stuck. You could see it on his face. We crested a dune with a steep slope down on the other side and just as I was saying "oh my" the engine cut out and our driver hopped out again.

Thomas the desert explorer, following in TE Lawrence's footsteps, perhaps?
Now we gave the kids a chance to play on the dunes, running up and down and laughing as Mike and I took in the glory of the scenery. We might have done a bit of dune scampering ourselves. I asked Audi about the tracks in the sand, drawing pictures of which animals I though they might be. I was correct with the gerbil and the rabbit, but when I drew a scorpion next to the tracks we'd seen all around the camp he hesitated. "No big," he said, "small, no dangerous." I was making a stinging motion with a hooked finger to try and ask in a strange game of charades out in the dunes.

We got back in the truck. Audi released the brake and we slid silently down the dune, he starting up the engine when we'd built up some speed at the bottom, and off we went again.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Do the hump, do the humpetty hump...

In Wadi Rum I clambered up on my camel first, and was happy to have had a good grip when it lurched to it's feet before the camel driver asked her to do so. When you're up on a camel the hump is a good 7 feet off the sands, and you go from ground to up very quickly.

Bethy was carefully put up in front of me, then Mike got on his camel. Just as he took hold of Thomas by the shoulder his less than well-behaved camel decided to stand up as well. From my perspective on the other camel it was Thomas screaming as he was yanked up and dangled and spun, flailing above the shifting feet of the uneasy camel. This was, not to put too fine a point on it, a terrifying moment, Thomas shrieking as though his shoulder was being pulled out of its socket, the camel thumping its heavy feet as Thomas swung dangerously. Mike, hanging out of his saddle, said options were racing through his mind in the few seconds: when he had a chance he flung Thomas clear of the camel to thump down in the sand.

Poor Thomas was traumatized and let the world know it. Our camel driver gently picked him up and gave a quick cuddle, then handed him to Mike up on the big bad camel. Thomas wanted a parent, but was pretty sure camel riding had fallen from favorite thing to a terrifying experience he wanted nothing to do with. He sobbed and sobbed which faded to hiccoughs. Finally he chatttered away with Mike, talking himself through his feelings until he was relaxed enough to enjoy the ride. Which he did, though his usual endless giggling was not a component this time around.

The camel ride was about an hour though the sands around the mountain, into beautiful scenery, as the camel driver led us and sang an Arabic walking cadence song. My camel was tied by it's lead reins to Mike's camel and one could see this did not please my camel. Essentially, my camel wanted to go first, so instead of following placidly, it pushed up so it was at least next to, if not in front of, Mike's camel.
This would have been fine except that this jammed my leg up against Mikes, which again would have been fine except that the camel saddle beneath us was made with plywood sorts of boards in an inverted V shape. On the top it was well-padded and comfortable for tourist behinds, but on the side the board was exposed so I was getting a series of grinding bruises on my calf every time the camels body tagged each other. I tried riding with my leg bent all the way and pulled back, which may work for Bedoiuns, but not too well for me for an extended period of time, and finally started pushing away the other camel with my foot whenever it got too close.

This worked well for a time, and my camel seemed to settle for following in second place. For a while we enjoyed the side to side loping motion, the tracks in the sand, the sculptures of the rocks. Then, for reasons known only to a camel, my camel reached the end of her patience and visciously bit Mike's camel on it's upper thigh. Ouch. Mike's camel showed remarkable patience with this, which didn't suit my camel at all.

So, my camel, being the well brought up lady that she was, bit the other camel again, this time directly beneath the tail.

That's gotta hurt. I was having visions of a camel fight with our two kids on top of the camels in front of us being dragged into the fray. Our camel driver sized me up and paid me the compliment of handing me the reins to get my camel the heck away from the other one. He demonstrated the tongue cluck sound to encourage the camel, not dissimilar to the one you'd use with horses, and grinned as Bethy and I tried out our Arabic.
Yalla: OK, go.
Imshee: go away! Walk!
Hayya: move it!

So I got to drive my own camel, which made me pretty darned happy.
And there was no more beneath the tail biting or kid flinging, phew.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Far and Away...

"Vast, echoing and God-like"
-TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) on Wadi Rum

After reaching an impasse with the room phone (there were no directions, for those of you sniggering in your hands, as to how one could dial out) I went downstairs and had the reception desk call Budget. After expressing my uncertainty as to the desert-worthiness of our rental car they promised to come by and exchange it for a free upgrade. Not bad! However, the free upgrade came with an empty tank. "No problem!" We were told by the rental car guy. "There's a gas station very near for you, no problem."

Mike, being of sound mind and body, figured we could manage to find a gas station in the capital city. I am pretty sure the decision to drive around and around an unknown city with the "empty" light glowing ominously on the dashboard cost us a good year apiece off of our lives.

Happily trading Amman for the Desert Highway, we noticed that the trend of rebar sprouting from the top of buildings, reaching for the empty skies continued, as though everyone expected to add another story...someday. Sheep and goat herders had their animals grazing the median strips, usually accompanied by a donkey, and sometimes a herd dog. I was impressed that the shepherds, often boys rather than men, somehow managed to get their herds safely across the multilane highway and then keep them out of harm's way. I saw no flattened mutton.

The trees and blooming fields around Amman were left behind as we continued south, replaced by endless, windwhipped sand and scrub brush. The kids, who by this point had earned the right to be completely squirrely, continued to be well-behaved in the back seat, playing, singing, reading. Hours passed.

The rock formations and beautiful sand of Wadi Rum reminded us both of Arizona in their staggering beauty. The sands varied from brown to most orangy red, and the views were romantic and wild. Proceeding into the village of Diseh I began asking the locals how to find Harb, our local host. Now, what he'd told me was: Come to the desert. Raise your head and smell the air. You will smell the Bedouin man. Smells like camel. That is me.

I had heard the Bedouin have a sense of humor. Obviously this was true. We'd failed to get our mobiles to work in Jordan, though we'd given it a good try; I'd spent a goodly amount of time in a local mobile phone service store with the owner changing settings on my phone. In the absence of our own phone, (Mike was just telling a visitor from Seattle how your mobile number is like your social security number back home...absolutely essential), we pulled up to locals along the dusty street, asking "Do you know Harb?" "Could you please dial this number for us?" In other words, being truly annoying tourists, and painfully aware of it. We kept getting sent down the road, literally, and many small children got a good laugh out of us.

Darkness approaching, we were thankfully rescued by one of the Bedouin guides in his small but obviously desert-worthy little work truck who led us with unmistakable good will to Camp Zawehdah at the base of one of the larger rock formations. He made sure we parked at the entrance and flipped a wave to us as he headed back to wherever it was he was going.

Mike's favorite reading spot on the rock in Camp Zawaideh.
Thomas implored us: I haff-a climb-a mountain!

Once inside the camp, things fell into place. There was room for probably a hundred guests, but as it turned out it was just our family and a retired Dutch couple staying that evening. We were given the choice of a Bedouin style goat-hair tent or the canvas variety. I chose based solely on the Thomas-falling-out-of-bed factor: the canvas ones were erected on the sand, the goat hair ones on concrete. The tents were quite large, with real beds and quilts and they brought us clean white sheets. Bliss!

Our host, Harb, tall and like all Bedouins, swarthy with dark hair and large, dark, heavily lashed and intelligent eyes, showed up to make sure we were comfortable and to grill me about the economy in Dubai and the viewpoints of Americans on the Arab world. I found myself apologetic but honest about my countrymen. Harb listened at length, then went and spoke with the othe guests and staff and finally excused himself to attend his sick father. I was under the impression that the entire family was there at the bedside, keeping tabs on who was there and who not, as what seemed to be wrong with their patriarch was a back ailment.

The camp itself was extraordinary, well laid out and clean, the red sand underfoot and the sculpted rock face and stars overhead. Old lanterns and campfires, brightly patterned weaves in blankets, camel saddle seats, a delicious dinner of local cuisine. Mike told me that the rice would have been a luxury; they always carried it out on the sands, but it was a real treat when they had enough water to cook it. I was partial to the fattoush, myself, a tomato and cucumber salad with onions and garlic and lemon and vinegar, and croutons made from thin Arabian bread baked in the oven and undoubtedly drizzled with oil at some point.

We were so happy to be out camping, sitting on rugs by the fire, drinking spiced Bedouin tea, with habuck and marmaraya herbs that give it a market spice sort of flavor without the orange, cinnamon-y. There would have been singing and dancing and drum playing had the number of guests been larger, but as it was we got what was probably a more "authentic" experience of sitting around the fire as the Arabs answered their mobiles, smoked cigarettes, local folk appearing out of the darkness for a cup of tea and companion-ly discussion in Arabic, then leaving again, to be replaced by others.

The desert itself was silent, so silent with a clear sky arching away, the shapes of Wadi Rum all around us. Thomas and Bethy amused themselves by chasing the camp cats, their loud laughter absorbed into nothingness by the desert stretching away.

That night the mosquitoes dive bombed us. Being a veteran camper, did I bring bug repellent? No, I did not. As the bloodsuckers would buzz nearby (I think perhaps in the encompassing silence the relative loudness of these insects was magnified) Mike and I were both smacking ourselves with ringing slaps and I, personally, was hiding under the covers whenever one got especially close. Thomas could not be persuaded, even in sleep, to keep his little arms beneath the blankets and when he and Bethy got up in the morning they were both a mess of angry red bites.

We awakened before them to the faraway sounds of camel racing, the camel owners calling "Heh! Heh!" to their animals as they chased them around the distant course with their 4x4s. The shadows fell away as the sun rose, and we prepared for our first day in Wadi Rum.

It began with an hour long camel ride, and us being sure Thomas was not going to make it to see another sunrise...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

On the streets of Philadelphia

Amman, Jordan (known as Philadelphia during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus)

We're baaaack...

Our vacation began with a prolonged dash through Dubai Airport to catch our flight at the absolute last second, the "Final Call!" echoing as we pounded our way to the terminal and flashing red on the screens (who knew arriving 2 hours before the flight would be cutting it extra close?!), then relaxing for a pleasant 2 1/2 hour flight to Amman, Jordan. Thomas loved having his own earphones and little table and meal. We ended up waiting a couple of hours in the terminal for our rental car to show up, no one's fault in particular, and befriending everybody from the coffee guy to the janitor while we waited and ate junk food.

It was not a luxury sedan. Admittedly I had asked Budget for the basic package, to Mike's dismay, but this was, well, not an exemplary example of the car species. It took some maneuvering to get the luggage into the limited trunk space, and we were off, in a puttering sort of way.

Our first impressions of Amman and Jordan were: major military presence, pine trees, and charming flocks of sheep and goats being herded along the freeway by shepherds. The trees made us homesick for the NW. The Humvees with machine guns mounted on their roofs had another effect entirely. Not in Kansas anymore. The city is a maze of pale colored buildings clustered along hillsides, beautifully green from the spring rains. Arabic everywhere, but thankfully English on the signs too. Those signs were another reminder as to exactly what neighborhood we were in:

We found our hotel, thanks to helpful directions from the Budget guy, a map, and Mike's impeccable sense of direction. Oh, and stopping and asking for more help and circling like sharks until we pinned it down. Our Amman home base was in the Embassy district of Jebel Amman and there was a police guard with a machine gun every half block or so, each guarding his own building, be it hotel or embassy. It made us edgy.
Walking though the metal detector we emerged gratefully into the outdoor garden restaurant. At the front desk they'd never heard of us before, despite my phone calls and having made reservations for the 3 times we intended to be in the city. Finally, two men working on the problem, they put down the new book and looked in the old book and found a name spelled almost like ours and a phone number that matched. After some debate they decided the chances of that being a coincidence were too great and allowed us to have a room.

We didn't even care too much that they didn't honor the price I'd been quoted (they determined that Thomas should have his own bed and I should say here they were quite correct once I saw the size of the beds), and we decided to appreciate the honor of having the World's Tiniest Shower (converted from a janitor's sink, one could barely turn around in it, and Mike got the quote of the day by calling it a scale reproduction) and we went downstairs and gratefully ordered lunch and an Amstel beer for Mike, (these locally brewed and bottled in HKJ "Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan").

We decided to go out and explore the city, armed with our map and a sense of...OK, so actually exploring was a stupid idea. We instead got lost, but managed to find a city park that made us acutely aware of being "rich" Americans. I felt particularly ashamed of my new purse and $200 running shoes. The park was weedy and full of adults and children we guessed to be Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, graffiti, broken glass. Bethy and Thomas were happy to run around, though we decided, probably prudently, not to stay too long. Immediately one of the fathers engaged Mike in conversation as best as they could with his limited English and Mike's essentially nonexistent Arabic, and his daughter played with Bethy on a seesaw with no seats.

After that we decided to go get lost again and did so with great skill. We did manage to find the Roman Amphitheatre (actually, most of the roads lead there so it wasn't that much of a feat) where Bethy showed her appreciation for classical mosaic:

And then proceeded to scare the bejeesus out of us by climbing to the highest point of the amphitheatre and perform feats of jumping and wobbling that had everyone nearby concerned.

When Mike dragged her back down and we could all take a deep breath of relief, we tried out the acoustics by standing on the magic "x" in stone of the middle of the stage and speaking. It was staggering to hear your own voice amplified back to you. Those wacky Romans. They sure did know stuff.
Everyone we came into contact with wanted to know from where we were from and welcomed us to Jordan wholeheartedly. These were obviously good people.

A few more frustrating attempts at trying to match the map with any street sign and fruitless driving around in the frankly alarming traffic patterns that included pedestrians weaving into the street at any given point and drivers making 5 lanes out of three, though not committing to any one in particular, the pointy-hatted traffic police directing on major traffic circles but otherwise essentially chaos (and making Dubai look rational, for Pete's sake!) we tried to go back to the hotel and hunker down. Our hotel was located between the 3rd and 4th traffic circles, which Mike decided, after a particularly trying attempt at navigation, were designed by Dante and summarily renamed the Circles of Hell.
I insisted upon buying bottled water (and a sad excuse for dinner for the kids as well) at the neighborhood convenience store. We were too tired to attempt the restaurant again and I'd repeatedly read on websites how other tourists had stomach ailments though forced themselves to have a good time. There really is no forcing kids with stomach cramps to appreciate anything.

It was a major relief to finally find our way to our room, riding up in the little elevator that the kids liked, and to call it a day.

That night we dreamt of leaving the city and heading south into the country...

Thursday, April 2, 2009

(Just for a little fun) I want to get away, I want to fly away..

We're leaving the country again. This is getting fun. A spring break trip through April 15th to Jordan, that little country bordered by Israel and Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Now, admittedly this country is in a bad neighborhood, but we intend to stay nicely within it's borders, therefore in relative safety.

When Bethy heard we were going to fly there she wanted to know: "How many days will it take?"

This is actually a pretty good question based on her past flight experiences. Fortunately for her, this flight will be only a couple of hours of so, which I think will please the kids no end. At least they won't dread every time we get into a plane.

We will be traveling through the country in a rental car, and are so excited to be going to a place so rich in history and culture.

Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Greeks, Romans, Turks and Crusaders all traded, built cities, and fought their wars here, leaving behind rich cultural influences.
-Lonely Planet, Jordan

We plan to stay in Amman, Aqaba, with the Bedouins in Wadi Rum, in breathtaking Petra, and as a bonus I will be running a half marathon in the Rift Valley to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth (now there's a T-shirt!). Castles, snorkeling, camel riding, we're planning to have a wonderful time and soak it in.

So, that's all for now, folks. I'll be posting all about our latest adventure when we get back.

Thanks to Cathy for her camel riding photos of Bethy and Thomas, and for turtle-sitting while we're gone.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

speedfreak way too fast, way too fast, gonna be the first and last

I am happy to report that the running is still going on. Graham successfully ran the half marathon in Prague with his son after taking 6 weeks off of running due to injury. No running in Prague for me this year, but the Dubai Road Runners 10K that Graham organised was a great time, and such a fantastic deal at 80 Dhs including breakfast at the Dubai Sail Club afterwards.

Graham and Katrina are really devoted to making races affordable for everyone, including doing all their timing and data entry manually and having reusable fabric race numbers to keep down the cost. That's a lot of work.

The fantastic volunteers as the 2009 DRR 10K, Safa Park

Another medal for my stash, a Saucony shirt, and a nice set of DRR mugs besides, great haul. A PB (personal best) for Cathy. She's racking them up no end, one after the other. Very cool.

The next weekend was the ABRaS 10K out at Mina Seyahi, the second of their three race series through the race season. This course, a loop repeated three time, had killed me during my first attempt at the series last year.

Second lap, see Atlantis in the background?

Nigel, my headband-wearing but distinguished running friend from Essex, England had convinced me to run alongside to keep him at a steady pace. He has a tendancy to go hard at the beginning, wearing himself out and having to fight the distance. Now, Graham once told me he enjoyed our training runs together since he knew they were "good solid runs at a nice slow pace." Er, thanks, I think? Nigel was looking to get some of that steadiness incorporated into his race, though he was also talking frequently about how I was going to take a minute off my PB time at the end.

Last year, same course, was when Nigel and I had fought for victory at the end and had come in at exactly the same chip time down to the hundreth of a second, thus cementing out friendship.

Now, I never run for time. I do my best, am happy if I get a PB, check the pace, and feel good as long as I'm either consistant or improving and tried hard. I want a good showing at the end. Nigel, like many runners, has a Garmin on his wrist telling him exactly how fast and far he's gone, calculating splits (how far you should have come in a certain amount of time...every kilometer, for instance). I hate to tech up the runs, prefering to take them as they come and not have technology betwen me and my experience. Well, except for those running shoes on my feet, sunscreen, and the joy of spandex.

can you spot the short runner in the dorky yellow headband?

Nigel, geared up, clawing at the start line, earphones on and AC/DC blasting loud enough for me to enjoy it as well, set us out at what I considered a hard pace. My whole job was to stay with him. I was nervous as all get-out. Cathy was wisely running the race at her own pace, more power to her. Nigel and I zoomed along, me noting that several runners around us were those I consider in a faster league than my own.

The first lap was doable, second lap was almost doable, our times were just slightly ahead of Garmin-dictated schedule, but I was struggling. I knew I'd had it when, halfway through the third lap, we got to my little incline spot that I'd flown up twice before and was now dejectedly flat-footing. Nigel, as per our agreement, was a gentleman, held up his end and took off. Out of his sight I gratefully, if disappointedly, slowed to a walk for a count of ten. Back to a forced run, I took off my sunglasses and headband and tossed them into a bush, they seeming too heavy to carry any further. (Race mentality is a funny thing.) Slowed to a walk for another count of 20 or 30. Back to a run, getting a little angry. Finally the last corner and the stretch to the end.

My sprint was NOT what I wanted it to be, but to my shock I had taken a minute off my 10K best time and achieved a sub 50 minute. It is telling that I was unhappy about how I'd run (OK, unhappy about how I'd walked, to be perfectly honest) even with the PB. At the DRR 10K my time may have been 2 minutes slower but I felt better about that race overall. I did enjoy the challenge of keeping up with Nigel for as long as I could, as much as one can enjoy such insanity.

Finished and medaled, I staggered to the water station at the finish line to be told, "Hmm, sorry, there's got to more water around here somewhere..." dragged myself to my backpack to get the camera to get a promised photo or two of Cathy running for the end. Nigel was, I believe, lying in the grass somewhere recovering and enjoying the spoils of his awesome finish.

I limped dazedly back up the course to the station there, thankfully finding some bottles of water for me and my compadres. I borrowed the tail of another runner's race vest to wipe the lens of the camera, my outfit being entirely soaked and useless for such (he was surprised but obliging, "well spotted" quoth he in typical Brit fashion) and got my shot of Cathy getting another PB. Two minutes worth of PB, no less.

Nigel, Natalie (wearing the now-retrieved headband) and PB Queen Cathy

I owed my PB to Nigel, no question, and he and Cathy were my heroes of the day (especially later in the day when Cathy proved herself undauntedly good natured after I got the car stuck in the sand and in an unrelated incident Nigel and his lovely wife Lisa sent me a lovely large chunk of homemade fudge cake). My other heroes were these two who crossed the finish line a good 30 minutes after I came in:

the second-to-last finishers of the 10K, huge smiles and Pocari.

Big cheer of approval from the crowd.

You gotta love that.

Riders on the storm...

Our family is loving this weather! Loving it! Rain followed by winds and lightning, but mostly winds and sandstorms. Interspersed with pretty darned nice hours of warmth, if not clear skies.

No, the skies are greyish-beige, and visibility is lousy. Humidity is up too, and like or hate it, all anyone can talk about is the weather.

Been doing some driving through floods, which would be much better in one of our SUVs than our little rental sedan, but oh well. The storms have been much worse away from the city, so we're lucky.

Here are some shots from today. Remember, it's warm, not cool, and that's not fog hiding the buildings. It's sand.

Al Khail road (by Bethy's school)

Towards the Marina and JBR

Towards Sheikh Zayed Road

There was a guy playing golf out there as the winds whipped and lightning snapped. Me, not only would the ball really get blown off course, but it is really wise to raise a golf club during an electrical storm? Just a thought.

The Burj Dubai
which has been fading in and out of view the past few days.

Impressive for a 2,694 foot building. (For comparison, the Space Needle is all of 605 feet tall...)

Last thought: the rains have made our plants very, very happy, and with careful shooting, one can get some rather lovely flower photographs!