Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Golden Arches

I admit it. I did it. I broke down. I succumbed to the pressure of the eyes! Ronald just kept staring at me day in, day out. Every time I walked to work or walked home at night they beckoned me. I couldn't stand it any longer. I ate at McDonalds! (mock weeping)

You have to cut me some slack though. Seriously. I had my reasons. A number of locals have told me that McDonalds in Amman is comparable a nice restaurant. A treat for the palate if you will. My interest was somewhat peaked because a number of these individuals had spent time in the states where they said Mickey-D's was "less than adequate for human consumption." Ok, yes, that's how I described it but they agreed whole-heartedly.

Plus, this particular box shop looked very reputable. It has it's own delivery guys for cryin'-out-loud! That's right, you can order McDonald's delivery here in Jordan. Imagine adding that feature to American fast food. Couch potatoes and college students would no longer be limited to pizza or Chinese food to get their fix. A midnight munchies run would be forgone and much safer because you could stay at home and wait in your hazed stupor until the burgers came to you! The possibilities are endless and...(waking from dream state)... totally sick! This would only necessitate more holes being punched into America's already over-stretched waistband. Please, please, please can nobody get any bright ideas of marketing this idea in the states.

I still couldn't make up my mind though. I kept vacillating between the choice of eating at McDonald's for the experience and the greater-good of the blog or staying strong and not supporting the world's leading advocate of malnutrition. But alas my mind was made up for me before I started my home. It was well after midnight and the streets were deserted. All the shops closed for the night and most souls were already at home enjoying a nice slice of Kunafa or minced meat pie. The darkened streets reminded me of a Clint Eastwood era ghost town, only with an exceedingly strong mid-eastern flare for some reason. I was alone, my stomach was empty, and the Golden Arches shone bright, like a well-lit navigational beacon guiding a wayward sailor to safety.

Ok, I'll cut the quips and get to the chase. I ate there because I was tired after a long day at work, wanted something cheap, quick and easy and I didn't want to work very hard to get something better. It's the same reason why most Americans eat at McDonalds or frequent a brothel.

So, the results of my foray into the netherworld of Jordanized American fast food? Same !&@$, different continent. That's the quick and dirty of it, but I'll admit it, I'll more than likely still grab a large fry every once in a while when I'm feeling particularly home sick or healthy. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

12 Days Down

I am 12 days deep in my first Ramadan. Only 18 days to go! My fasting is a cultural experience not a religious act. I haven't learned much from a spiritual level but I didn't really expect to because I  haven't sought that out. My experiences have been concentrated quite heavily around food. The lack of it of course creating a strong desire to consume large quantities of it. Ramadan is supposed to be a time to develop self-discipline and renew thyself. I've renewed my pre-Amman weight so that's plus and the self-discipline is somewhat mandatory when it comes to fasting.

My experience with self-discipline is more about what you do to break the fast than it is about the fast itself. Its actually not that hard to not eat anything all day. The no water however is somewhat insane in the summer but that's another issue. The busier the day, the easier it is to accomplish my malnourished mission. My days off I find are the hardest to cope through. Obviously keeping your mind busy keeps if off the growling stomach. Honestly though, three days in and my stomach had shrunk so that it purred more than growled anyway.

Breakfast, (literally break-fast, I bet it was eye-rolled the first time that pun was used) is where the self-discipline is really developed. After walking to work under the oppressive sun, teaching a full day of dance classes, and in general sweating through the Amman day, the first meal is quite a welcome site. Ravenous is a good word to describe how I feel by sunset. On some days dizzy, loopy and, at times, giddy would also be appropriate. I learned quickly, although 15 minutes too late, how painful it is to lack self-discipline and over-indulge. Fifteen minutes is apparently the amount of time it actually takes our lackadaisical stomachs to tell our brains that we're full; greedy organ!  It's like our own built-in Catholic-guilt function.

After my first breakfast of Ramadan, I felt like I'd imagine 9-months pregnant feels like. No resting position felt comfortable. Standing for that matter wasn't pleasant either. I wanted to walk around in nothing more than my birthday suit because anything touching my skin felt like a Victorian corset. I felt as if nothing short of a cesarean would alleviate my self-imposed glutinous punishment.

This feeling in hindsight may explain the floor-length man-dress which seems quite fashionable in my current neck of the woods. My first thought upon arriving in the country and seeing this surprisingly current fashion trend was to open a boutique shop and give my ancestor's famed kilt a go. Ya know - enjoy a little more updraft to help alleviate the mercury impact if you know what I mean. Upon experiencing the Ramadan pregnancy however the kilt's lunar-preventing tight waist would be a marketing nightmare. Also, the extra leg, although quite a hit with the ladies in my experience despite the garish white hue I sport, wouldn't go over well with the Arab's proclivity towards ultraconservative fashion trends. Alas I'll keep to dancing to pay the bills and put the food on the table, even if I can't eat it all at once.

I have eaten some interesting meals during Ramadan and more importantly, I've learned how to eat them. Taking cues from Mohammad himself, who would apparently break his fast with a glass of lemon water and dates, I start with water and then something light like a salad, piece of fruit, or half a pizza. I said I've learned how to break the fast effectively. I never said I was able to do it properly every time!

I've included some pictures of some of the more interesting breakfasts I've eaten. My favorite to eat is the Msakhan - so far my favorite Arab dish. You simply can't beat half a chicken with a bed of sauteed onions and delicious purple spices dressed with olive oil on a flat bread for under three bucks. You just can't beat that! My favorite presentation was the "pineapple in a box" I received from the delivery guy after I ordered an avocado salad. Biggest disappointment was the pizza but it was better cold the morning after so it wasn't a total loss. Morning being the next night's breakfast in this case.

I couldn't wait to take the photo, that hungry
Ramadan has been a learning experience so far. With 18 days to go, I'm sure there is much more to learn, to eat, and to experience. I'll tell you about the goat later.

Like a taco

The After

The during
The Msakhan before

A very healthy meal

So much potential

Pineapple in a box
Better looks than taste

Saturday, July 21, 2012


Yesterday, Friday the 21st of July, was the first day of Ramadan. This is my first experience with Ramadan. If I make another bone-head move like running shirtless through the streets, it could be my last experience, ever, let alone last Ramadan experience. So, here's to good choices!

My understanding of Ramadan so far is limited but the gist of it is that it's the Muslim's most holy time of the year. Like Easter for Christians, this is the time to show your true colors. Every religion of course has the kaleidoscopic of followers; everything from the very devout-wouldn't-step-on-a-bug-on-Sunday to those who are consider themselves part of their religion merely because of birth and it's the easiest way to pick which holidays to celebrate. 

Unlike Easter however, Ramadan is taken very seriously. By the entire country. Not just those who practice the religion. Personally I find this intensely impressive. For instance, the celebration of Ramadan calls for a fast and I'm not talking about my (Christian) weak fast during Lent when I give up chocolate for 40 days and it's supposed to bring me close to God. No. This fast consists of not eating or drinking anything, not even water, between 4 a.m. and sunset. So, say I have no clue what's going on in the country, very possible situation, and I walk down the street drinking my ice cold bottle of water to keep from shriveling up like a shrinky-dink in a 450 degree preheated oven. I could in that case be hauled of to jail for the duration of Ramadan. (This is what I have been told by my locals so I am going by that.) Here's the impressive part - I wouldn't be put in the think-tank because I wasn't a Muslim, I'd be put there because I wasn't respecting their beliefs and traditions. 

To me, that's exactly what the Declaration was all about and what I think we've gone soft on back in the states. Yes, we say everyone can practice their religion free from persecution or prejudice but I think we're a little off when it comes to actually protecting people when we don't like what we see in them. I think somewhere along the way America got castrated. We need to once again grow a pair and start living up to the principles we preach.

Anyway, off the soap-box and back to Ramadan. So this fast would be completely fine if say I were living in Northern Europe where it's nice and temperate this time of year, or maybe in Alaska during the winter when sunset comes really quick! However, it's the dead of summer, in the middle of the desert where it's 104 at noon during my walk to work. No water through the day may just about put me over the edge. But we'll see how it all turns out in 30 days when I'm done participating in my first Ramadan. No Mom and Dad, I haven't converted, it's just part of the experience.

The basic idea of the fast, in this case religious, is to teach you self-discipline, strength, and deepen your relationship with your deity. To break it down: create a dire situation where you need something, someone, or some god's strength to see you through and you'll deepen your relationship with said thing. After today, in this heat, without water, the lethargy I experienced I also made me believe it's supposed to make you slow down and take a minute to appreciate life a little more.

Customs here would definitely allow for slowing down and appreciating that life. Work hours are cut down to between 5 and 7 hours a day on average if at all. I've heard in Saudi work basically comes to an absolute halt for the month. I noticed that I became very lethargic and sloth-like around midday. I think the lack of water and blood sugar caught up to me by then and I just wanted to lie around in the shade. Pause. I'd like to take this opportunity to retract my sloth-like feeling and say that I believe feel more like a lion on the African Safari. That's a much better self-image. Play.

I'm not sure how not eating all day will affect my health and overall weight but I do have to be careful. Not eating or drinking creates quite an appetite but at the same time a very shrunken stomach. By Eftar (the way to say the time for breaking the fast) I was famished but did exactly what I shouldn't have - ate way too much way to fast! Also, I ate, of all things, Mansaf, a local delicacy affectionately known as "Mansaf the Destroyer." You are given a bowl of seasoned yellow rice over which you spoon a white, yogurt broth and pile on chunks of lamb pulled from the bone. It's quite delicious but it's known for inducing comas on a regular appetite. I could barely keep my eyes open the second half of the night teaching lessons and it felt like I had a brick logged in my stomach. 

Here's to better decisions. Smaller portions and maybe starting off with say a salad and glass of water. I'll see how that fairs me tomorrow, my third day of my first Ramadan. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Jordan Dance Scene

I don't go out every night, but when I do go out, I'm in need of a good time. A good time to me means dancing. Any and all kinds so I'm constantly looking for new and exciting places to go and I'm always up for a challenge - in just finding the place, in trying a new move, or in keeping up with the locals.         

I know that I haven't found every dance community out here, or at least I hope I haven't. What I have found seems like close-knit pockets of dancers who all know each other and frequent the same spots. The Jordan dance scene is in most aspects limited. What they do have will surprise you and leave you wanting more, not only for yourself but also for them. Every dancer knows the amazing feeling of just letting the music take over and moving freely with every beat. The self-expression is freeing. The music is energizing. And without a doubt, the long sessions leave you exhausted but at the same time refreshed and ready for more. 

I'm thankful that I can go out to a salsa club here and be completely surprised when the host invites a hip hop group onto the floor for a demo. Because there is a limited amount of true dance venues here, the circles of dancers and lines of genre demarcation or crossed and blurred together creating a very nice and creative atmosphere. That creativity however is limited to the halls of whatever dance venue you find yourself. I would not recommend dancing on the sidewalk on your way home from work. Let's just say it doesn't build international relations very well.

I was at Trader Vick's the other night. It's a hotel bar that has salsa going almost every night of the week; Monday night is Argentine Tango! They pack the place on Thursday and Friday nights and include a live band. By the way, the weekend in Jordan is Friday-Saturday. I loathe this saying but you'll know what I mean, "Thursday is my Friday." As I was saying, I was at Trader's for some salsa and all of a sudden the host clears the dance floor and invites three guys out to cut a rug.

Now, I've been through NYC a time or two so I've got a high standard for performances but these guys weren't half bad. So apparently there's a hip-hop scene in Jordan that I'm going to have to investigate further. These guys were from Pulse Dance School, spin-off from the original Salsara Dance school started by my boss. The lead guy of these three performers is originally from Trinidad and came to Amman to dance. I told him later on we'd have to battle but I don't think he understood that it was a joke because he gave me a look like he wanted to hit me.

I enjoy finding these small pockets of people who share a passion for moving. I'm always reminded that music will touch people differently and make them move in very unique ways. It's always fun though and it can allow you to grow and strengthen your own dancing. Like I've said before, everybody has a beat. One of my students here said, "Yeah, but... I think mine is off time."

I'll keep exploring the local dance scene, looking for ways to have fun, ways to improve my dancing, and ways to help others enjoy theirs. I want to help create a huge community of dance here in Jordan. I'm excited to see what the future holds.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Hummus Soup!

I have eaten many things Arab.

Since arriving in Amman, every meal I've eaten has actually been local cuisine. My mouth has had no doubt enjoyed the meal decisions. Other ends of me have sometimes been less agreeable with my new appetite. I think it may have to do with where I eat and not necessarily what I am putting in my mouth. I do have to warn you however, Montezuma's Revenge is not locally owned and operated in Central and South America - it is a worldwide distributor of fun and excitement if you enjoy drinking tap water. Although not environmentally friendly, bottled water is your safest bet when adventuring abroad.

This food entry will be dedicated entirely to the amazing creation personally known as Hummus Soup. If you are a facebook friend, you already know a little about this amazing culinary invention. Here is the rest of the story:

Hummus is delicious. Hummus soup is out of this world. While hummus alone is a nice snack and can be eaten as a light meal if you use a little Arab bread. (There are many forms of this flattened pita like creation, however no matter which form I'm eating I'm always told simply that it is Arab bread) A bowl of hummus soup on the other hand is at least two sit-downs. The caloric content alone has to be in the range of three whole meals. I attribute at least 8 of my 10 gained pound to humus soup alone and I have consumed only 1.5 bowls since arriving in Amman. (As of this publication - 3.5)

Cooking chick peas and falafel stages.
Like Krispy Kreme Donuts, I will continue to eat my humus soup despite it's negative affects on my overall health and well being.

So... what is humus soup you ask? Officially, it's known as Feted Hummus. Feted - meaning stuffed with bread. Not stuffing mind you. Simply something that has been injected with bread. Hummus - meaning delicious paste, reminiscent of childhood Elmer's paste, made from mashed chick-peas, olive oil and sometimes garlic.

When I was first told of this magnificent creation I figured the concoction would be thicker than humus. Generally when you add bread to something, the bread soaks up the moisture and you have a wet soppy mess on your hands. Somehow though, these ingenious Arabs add bread to humus, heat it up, and it becomes thinner and more soup-like. Ok, yes, obviously they add some miracle liquid when I'm not looking to thin this out but admitting that just takes the fun out of the whole thing for me and if I knew the entire recipe I would be enticed to make it myself. I very much enjoy going to the small shop and taking in the full moment of the meal. Please, keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times and finish this ride with me without more interruptions.

Roll dough, flip onto pad, transfer dough to black burner
More about the full effect of the meal! My favorite shop to find hummus soup is just around the corner from the studio. You'll notice that most of my favorite eateries are "just around the corner because I have found them and they are within walking distance. Any farther than walking distance and I may keel over from the heat. I'd rather not die simply because I was trying to feed my pie hole. Anywho...

The place has one guy who tends to the hummus, hummus soup, sandwiches, and falafel making. A second guy is in charge of rolling out thin discs of dough, usually on demand, to keep up with the supply of flat bread for sandwiches, hummus dipping, or my favorite - the edible hummus soup spoon. There is a third man. His job is slightly more ambiguous but my best guess is that his job is to continually harass me about not speaking enough Arabic while at the same time, ensuring that the other two guys are extremely polite to me despite my Arabic inadequacies.
Finished deliciousness

They run a very systematic shop - I give it five stars. I'm not yet sure how my rating system will work but let's just say if you came to visit me, I'd take you there to eat.

Until then...

Post Script - When I first wrote this, I had in fact not eaten anything non-local. My boss however ruined my plans for not eating American fast-food when he told me he wanted to take me to a favorite eatery of his and we ended up at Popeye's Chicken. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Oh the Places You'll Go...

Unfortunately, I can remember only one high school graduation gift despite knowing that I received many from my family and friends. I’m not sure why this is, but it is what it is. A very dear friend of mine gave me a copy of Dr. Seuss's "Oh the Places You'll Go."

This insightful friend of mine, who I had known for less than a year, new I loved traveling and exploring new places, and I guess suspected that my life would be filled with adventures. I enjoyed imagining all of the places I would go in my lifetime and the myriad of different experiences I would have while flipping through the pages. This gift also made me reminisce on all of the places I had already traveled to and of course all of the different foods I had had an opportunity to enjoy. 

The book and gift were excellent. However, the late Dr. completely missed one of the most important parts of the places you'll go - the people you'll meet. A traveling Canadian iterated this point over a couple of shared brews the other night at my favorite Jordanian pub. "I've never been able to answer people when they ask me of my favorite place I've been. They're all different and the experience, anywhere I go, is dependent upon the people I shared it with." I couldn't have agreed with him more but I didn't tell him that because at the end of the day he was still from Canada, aih?

But it is true. I've lived in a few places growing up and I always tell people when they ask that I've enjoyed everywhere I've lived as much as anywhere else (Hawaii only slightly out-nudges the rest but only because it's where I was born and the waves!). They're surprised though because I spent a year in the bluegrass state of Kentucky. I tell them I met some of my favorite people in Kentucky and they made my least favorite high school (I attended three) a very memorable year - I even gained a third sister that year after we adopted a German foreign exchange student into the family. 

I give thanks, in large part, to the Army for moving my family anywhere and everywhere. I say "in large part" because not everyone who's in the Army moves as much as my family did. I owe the rest of the credit to my parents for having in them the willingness to travel, the intent to make us try new things, and desire to give us kids the opportunity to see the world. 

But like I said, it's the people I've met along the way that have really made the difference and inspired me. There is a woman back in Niantic, CT that taught me that it's never too late to realize your dreams or learn something new. She came to our dance studio there at the tender age of 76 to learn once again how to dance. The last time she said she had been on the dance floor was, “far too long to mention,” she told me. 

Her energy in the studio was felt immediately and she always dove right into her lessons with a passion and fervor that is usually reserved for 3 year olds learning how to ride a bike. She has now been back on the dance floor for less than a year but she got the opportunity to share a quickstep with her brother while visiting him in England. She always told us she didn't know how long she would be able to keep with dancing but that she'd keep with it as long as she could because she loved it so. It was inspiring just being in her presence.

I believe I failed to mention that along with taking on the challenge of learning to dance at her age, she was also battling against her Parkinson's. I'll always remember her and the lessons she taught me on the dance floor.

At the studio, I was also taught that no matter how difficult life is, more than likely, there's someone out there who's got it tougher so you should just lower you head, grit your teeth and keep on pushing through. I don't think we'd have half the continent we do today if people back in history didn't have that mentality. I learned this truth vividly from another student that used to frequent the Niantic studio. When she was diagnosed with cancer, I figured we wouldn't see her for a while; give her time to battle the disease and stay home to recover. For the most part, she didn't miss a beat.

Of course some days were worse than others for her but throughout her treatment she still danced us into the ground and competed shortly after she was "cleared." She doesn't know the affect she had on me nor the lessons she taught me but I think the great people are usually unaware of the larger impact that they create in the world. She proved to be strong throughout an impossible time in her life and always reminded me to think of the bigger picture when reacting to my "monumental" problems life was throwing at me. This lesson, she taught me every time I saw her in the studio and I’ll never forget it.

Any problems that I may come across, any setbacks no matter how big or small, I also learned, I must push through and not let them keep me from my dreams. That I can have a singular dream that I work for tirelessly no matter how unlikely or distant it seems. I learned this from a girl I met my junior year of high school when I lived in Kansas. Amy Hastings was a standout runner back then now she’s an Olympian representing the U.S. in this summer’s Games.

I remember talking with her back in high school about her dream of making an Olympic team and how cool it would be to be a professional runner. She took a huge blow this past March when she finished fourth at the marathon trials - one spot away from the team. This devastating blow didn’t deter her from fighting back and becoming national champion in the 10,000 meters at the track trials in June. It was one of the most exciting races I’ve ever seen run.

Knowing what she went through to get there, the miles and miles spent running around an oval, constantly pushing to become better, always being just on the cusp of absolute greatness, seeing all of that come out in pure effort and determination in the last 100 meters of a 6.2 mile race was incredibly inspiring. I’ll never forget the miles run in her midst or the vivid lesson she taught me with those final strides.

Of course I’ve heard most of these quips before – never give up, always put on a happy face, never too late to learn a new trick – but to really understand them they have to hit home in a personal way. I’m thankful for having had the opportunity to meet such a wide variety of people in my life who have all had an impact whether large or small. Each one has contributed to my growth as a person and I will forever be grateful.

Oh the places I have yet to go,
the people I have yet to meet.
I simply need to take a trip,
set about from my comfy seat.

(Dr. – you inspire me as well.)

Friday, June 15, 2012

It's Watermelon Season!

Watermelon is hands-down my favorite fruit. It has been since I was a kid. I remember summers spent in New Jersey, picking up a melon at the local farmer's stand, slicing it into large juicy pieces and then spitting the slippery black seeds at my sisters. A trick I learned from my uncles after having their seeds land on my shirtless back since I spent most summers in nothing but swim trunks and an occasional pair of flip flops when large stretches of molten hot asphalt needed crossing.

I was surprised at how little I actually knew about watermelon since it had been my favorite for so long. For one, it's considered a berry. I learned this from my Ukrainian coworker whose Russian schooling is in fact proving to be "the best in the world." Two, the plant had it's origins in southern Africa. And thirdly, China is the world's leader in watermelon production. The last two facts I found on Wikipedia being "schooled" by my coworker. I as usual needed a second opinion.

There is one thing that I do know about watermelons and I've known it since I've known watermelons - summer is watermelon season. Just my luck it's summertime!

If you walk or drive around Amman, you'll undoubtedly run into a fruit stand. They seem to be everywhere with huge "berries" warming in the summer sun and lucky me, there's one right next door to my favorite local bakery.

I've had a jonesing for watermelon for the past few days and I finally made some time after work to walk down to the shop and pick one out . Yup, I thumped on it to see if it sounded hollow. That's the only way I know of how to pick a watermelon.  Thumping, and making sure it's one of the largest in the bunch. I had my melon weighed and paid the four and a half JD (Jordanian Dinars) for it.

I then walked my melon home.

I would not recommend that last part. Watermelons are sweet and delicious but they are oddly shaped and awkward to carry. Especially when they weigh 12 kilos. I broke the strap to my satchel in my effort to carry this huge dessert home but I did eventually make it home at which time I promptly passed out instead of enjoying the fruits of my labor. (Do you think the first person to coin that term was also referring to watermelon?)

Putting off my feast till the morning did however allow me to have some fun with my camera. It also gave me the opportunity to chill the behemoth in the fridge - sun warmed and chilled are both great ways to enjoy this fruit but given the choice I'd have mine close to frozen. My friend Mo excitedly asked me in the morning, "Are we gonna cut the big green one?"

Arabs enjoy watermelon as much if not more than I do. They have also added many ways to enjoy this fruit and eat it at every opportunity. Take notes America: I've been impressed to see it enjoyed as an after dinner desert; fresh fruit instead of a processed dessert - very impressed. It's also served as an appetizer with fried cheese which was delicious - the hot, stringy, cheese made for a perfect salty combination to the sweet, chilled, crunch of the watermelon. I later tried watermelon with the same cheese without it being fried - not as good but I can see the appeal. The un-fried version of the cheese was just a little too salty for my taste. Fresh watermelon juice - yes please - awesome!

I love Amman! It's the bees' knees and those knees are covered in sticky watermelon juice as are my fingers and cheeks after devouring half the melon in one sitting.

On to more adventures in Jordan!

Hahaha, I laughed at these pictures. I was trying to get one to look like Rene Magritte's "Son of Man" painting. I think I needed a little more practice with the timing.