Obrigado, Lisboa

I left Berlin in a rush and arrived in Lisbon in a calm state of mind. That’s me in a nutshell: balancing chaos and calm.

After a delayed arrival – no worries! calm mind – I took the metro to my Airbnb and then meandered into the city, where I knew no Portuguese. I didn’t have any problem, but I like to know simple things like “ola” (hello), “fala ingles?” (do you speak English?), and “obrigado” (thank you). Almost everyone speaks English, so once I learned these quick phrases, all parties seemed comfortable in the rest of my interactions.

I wrote this much (above) on April 26, then abandoned the draft post while I began my yoga teacher training. Rather than try to recall thoughts from a month ago, I’ll close with some notes out of my notebook and photos of Lisboa.

  • Beautiful buildings. City blends well into the landscape.
  • Not much nature. Monsanto was beautiful.
  • Friendly people. Wonder if they’re hiding a struggle. My tour guide described post-Fascism fear of authority and recommended a book, Dancing Bear.
  • Tons of sunlight. Fast rainstorms.
  • Affordable, but not cheap. Suffering economically.
  • Wonder if they can preserve their culture while welcoming tourists:
  • — overemphasis of pasteis de nata
  • — farce of selling tinned fish
  • — tiles are functional (insulating) as much as decorative

Wednesday

  • Train from airport
  • Walked through Bairro Alto, Baija, and Chiado neighborhoods
  • Rainstorm
  • Smoothie made by pedaling a bicycle
  • Rainbow and concert rehearsal almost made me cry
  • Walked along coast in the sunlight
  • Into Bairro Alto for dinner, bacalhao (salted cod)

Thursday

  • Run in Parque du Eduardo to Monsanto
  • Breakfast at the mill
  • Walked to Santa Catarinha Miradouro and into Santos, another fast rainstorm
  • Read my yoga anatomy book on a park bench, annoyed by a senile homeless person
  • Walked to Praça de Camoes for Sandemann’s walking tour
    Important dates: 1 Nov 1755, an earthquake killed 2/3 of the population (est. 90k people), mostly Arabs and Jews survived in the Alfama neighborhood; 25 April 1974, peaceful revolution ends dictatorship, my tour was the holiday they celebrated 45 years of freedom
  • My tour guide, Pascal, took me to a tiny restaurant where he knows the owners, Davíd and Bella. Great food, some from their farm. They struggle to stay open. She’s illiterate. It’s not a well-known place.
  • Walked to Alfama. Beautiful live music at the miraduoros, ice cream, poked into shops in Chiado and read my yoga book at a pastelaria
  • More live music in the streets by a university “fraternity”

Lacy, Adam, and Lorelay Explore the Spreewald

Judging by my kitchen windowsill now adorned with a stuffed pink flamingo, blue bunny ears, two books, grow-it-yourself flowers in a wooden box, and countless types of Easter chocolate, I could have insisted more forcefully that I didn’t want birthday gifts. I’d written to the group before our picnic: “Oh! And, really don’t need/want object presents… I have a lot of material goods. Your presence is a present!” Most importantly, my friends did bring their loving company when we celebrated my existence this past week. Two of them thoughtfully made plans to continue the adventure and invited me for a canoe trip in the nearby Spreewald on Saturday.

Under a clear, blue sky, I walked down the street to meet Robin and Peejay at their place shortly after nine. The boys reserved a carshare for the day, through BMW’s DriveNow service, and “Lacy,” our spunky black convertible basked in the warm spring air, ready for our departure.

With the top down, we zoomed along the autobahn, escaping the city-state of Berlin into the backwoods of post-DDR Brandenburg. The crisp wind massaged our pale, winter skin, and the waves of the radio tuned out the sounds of spring nearby. Robin earned an A+ for his driving, even at the top speed of 190 kph (~120 mph). While trains are a preference for many travelers, Germany’s famous no-speed-limit highways are also a real means of transportation for inter-city transit. Germans take their cars, their roads, and their driving seriously.

After an hour of laughter, sing-a-longs, and feeling spoiled by the Easter weekend weather, grumpy, commanding attendants greeted us at the village parking lot and demonstrated excellence in German customer service (the lowest of low standards, from what I’ve seen in the world) at the peak of Easter weekend.

I knew where we were traveling but didn’t bother to do any research beforehand. The quaint town of Lübbenau seems to be known for its little waterways, its pickles, and for its ability to advertise said waterways and pickles. Wikipedia seems to verify my impression. Wooden market stands offered the local varieties of gurken in the touristic town center, and on the nearby riverbanks, the captains prepared their tour boats, called punts (in English). I’ve never been to Venice, but I’d say that Robin’s mom was right to wish us fun in the “Venice of Germany”.

We meandered around the islands and bridges and rented a two-person and a one-person wooden canoe from Bootshaus Kaupen. The attendant – this one was actually friendly and helpful – directed us where we could explore and how to enter and exit the canoe, and we entered the river “highway” with the other canoes, kayaks, and punts.

Robin solo-navigated with his sturdy steed, Adam, while I took the front of Lorelay and Peejay steered from the back. We canoed about 200 meters then tied our boats to the edge of a family restaurant/café. We changed into our swimwear, enjoyed some warm beverages in the sunlight, and applied sunscreen, all the while enjoying the sight of the other tourists (mostly locals, we presumed) passing by as they lounged and drank beer (at 11 am!) in their punts.

Back in our canoes, no more than a kilometer passed before we were out of the village and surrounded by scenic forests and meadows. The trees’ greenery is coming to life this month, and the contrast of their tall, dark trunks reflected beautifully as we glided across the water. I explained my mild fear of small water craft while we navigated the meandering waterways. Again, I find conscious fear to be a great source of motivation. As we approached the next village, Leipe, we paddled into a lock, which was graciously operated by some local volunteers. What a sensation to slowly rise up with the force of water while sitting still!

Our stomachs stopped us for lunch in Leipe at a riverside restaurant, Froschkönig (Frog King), where we enjoyed more sunshine. Lunch tasted like fried and pickled herring, bratwurst, different preparations of potatoes (mashed, roasted, boiled), sauerkraut, cucumbers in dill and cream sauce, a real beer for Robin, a Radler (half beer, half lemonade) for Peejay, and an alcohol-free beer for me. That’s a sample of east German cuisine, if I say so! (With a side serving of more excellence in German customer service…)

After lunch, we ventured further off the beaten path, well out of the way of the larger tourist boats. Sunlight trickled through the canopy above, and mosquitoes quietly buzzed on the riverbanks, sometimes to our chagrin and their demise. At times, we practiced paddling stronger, with Peejay setting pace in front and me playing steering wheel in the back. My past trauma with canoes, kayaks, and electronics triggers my fear of rocking the boat, but I like to challenge my instincts. We had the river mostly to ourselves, and playfully pulled ahead of Robin or played hide and seek from behind.

At the height of the afternoon, we came across a second, unattended lock. I imagined we would lift the canoes and carry them to the other side, but Peejay didn’t skip a beat in exiting our canoe and figuring out how to operate the lock. “He probably learned it in high school,” Robin said, quite casually. “We have a lot of locks in the Netherlands.” I guess I was the only one impressed by this…?

As the evening arrived, we rejoined the parade of touristic punt boats and passed through the adjoining town of Lehde before reaching Lübbenau. Although we were traveling on water, it felt like a casual Saturday drive through suburbia, with families working in their gardens, preparing barbecues, doing work on the house, etc.

In Lübbenau, we returned Adam and Lorelay to the boat house, then changed clothes and walked back to the town center. A day without ice cream wouldn’t be a day with Stephen, and you guessed it… Robin and I snagged some scoops at a local shop. Ordering in German – proud moment! – I sampled their strawberry sorbet first. While I’m not usually a fan of strawberry-flavored “things,” some signage and my knowledge of the German strawberry quality led me to the truth: it was delicious and paired nicely with the cherry-yogurt ice cream. Peejay ate two fresh gurkens, and I’m still working on forgiving him for skipping ice cream.

We returned to Lacy, waiting patiently by herself in the parking lot, and took the scenic route home. While it’s less than 100 km, we enjoyed two hours of back roads, flowering fields of green, forests silhouetted against the setting sun, and even a hot air balloon flying overhead. With Lacy’s top back on, we grabbed some giant authentic Italian pizzas in our neighborhood, then walked homeward with full stomachs, sunkissed arms, and warm hearts.

One thing that I take away from this thoughtful gift-adventure is that adventure is often waiting just outside our “comfort” zone. In the almost two years that I’ve spent in Berlin, I never knew or thought to explore the Spreewald. Canoeing the waterways was an easy, relaxing, and fun day trip that I’d recommend to most friends. Thanks for the memories, boys.

Here, I Am.

I haven’t “quit” my job in the normal sense, but unofficially, I have. I agreed with my various bosses that I need time off. I thought about 8 or 12 weeks – a generous leave by US standards – and they said I should take more… From my “last” day of work tomorrow, I have four-and-a-half months of freedom. I keep saying, in a half-joking tone, that I haven’t had this much free time since before pre-school.

I couldn’t be more excited and scared. I guess both joy and fear are signs to keep going.

What’s going to happen?

I have about a week of down/prep time in Berlin. Next week I fly to Lisbon, Portugal and continue on to a 25-day yoga teacher training at a coastal farm called Cocoon.

Yoga teacher training? Are you gonna start teaching yoga, Stephen?

The intent is to ground myself in a practice that I know brings stability to my mind and body. I’ve practiced yoga for more than six years and consistently had a desire for a deeper yogic experience. I put yoga teacher training at the top of a psuedo-bucket list called “what are you waiting for?”… and after all, what am I waiting for? No time like the present!

Funny side story about my first experience with yoga, pictured below: March 2013 – I traveled to the beach with three friends. A guy was doing yoga on the sand, and I decided to follow along. He returned the next day. I repeated. I went to thank him after two hours of practice, and we talked. He was an architectural designer and split his time between New York and Russia, but was visiting his mom in Florida. He said something about the importance of following the rhythm of the breath. Suddenly, my insides felt empty, and I regretfully admitted that I didn’t pay attention to my breath at all in those first two “classes.”

I am following my instinct to know this is right for me in this moment. True story: I clicked an online business school advertisement (ha!) while browsing the web in my crazy state of what-am-I-doing-with-my-life, and I wrote a candid, borderline-distraught email to one of the business school alum: Matt Corker, a writer, yoga instructor, and people/leadership consultant. At Matt’s invitation, and sensing the too-good-to-be-true, serendipitous nature, I snagged a cancelled spot in The Sacred Fig’s yoga teacher training a few weeks ago. In the past few weeks, I’ve been enjoying the pre-assigned reading and mentally gearing up for this adventure. (I admit that I am also struggling with a brain that I have habitually conditioned against focusing on reading books! … working on that… and open to advice!)

And for the 3+ months after The Sacred Fig?

Mostly to be determined… depending on my state of mind after a few weeks away from work, I will make the decisions as they come. I’m trusting my consciousness. I’ll likely stay in Portugal and Spain for late May and June, then I have a return flight from Sevilla, Spain to Berlin after a friend’s wedding. I think that I might walk the northern route of the Camino de Santiago. I may also explore Portugal more, including scuba diving, or find something else that I feel called to do with my time. These moments are about being present, seeing and accepting new perspectives, and awakening my sleeping self. I have about 9 weeks that I haven’t committed to doing anything in June/July/August, and this empty calendar is the pinnacle of the fear! WOOHOO! As I heard from an interview with Meera Lee Patel this weekend, it’s refreshing to realize that I’ve survived 100% of the scariest moments in my past so far.

Leading up to the “start” of this sabbatical I am thoughtfully developing a sense of direction and intent. Right now, here’s what I know:

  • I want to practice awareness of my calm mind and be conscious in chaotic environments. I’m drawn to chaos but I also fight it. I’m going to ground myself in the present.
  • I don’t think that there is an “answer” to find in this process. Rather than answers, I’m focused on understanding what questions are important for me to explore now and in the future. Many family, friends, and especially strangers have gifted me with thought-provoking questions. I recognize some prompts as ones that I’ve avoided answering. Now, I’m allowing myself to receive the questions with curiosity about where they lead me… hopefully to more questions!
  • I know – especially from my unstructured weekends – that it will be challenging to not have a prescribed routine, a to-do list, a schedule, etc… those false constructions that create superficial validation for me. I accept this challenge and want to be mindful of balancing a hunger for productivity with the reality that being – and doing so consciously – is the most meaningful way I can spend my time. Work (doing) is a distraction from life (being). I am pursuing a different awareness of my preferred balance. I will practice shifting from a commitment to being serious to a commitment to play.
  • I have many, many, many books that I’d like to read. (And I want to write one… topic TBD…). Stay tuned for an eventual publication.

What type of skier are you?

I didn’t freeze, per se, but I didn’t exactly know how to answer.
“Intermediate.” Note the uncertain firmness and punctuation. I didn’t speak in uptone: “Intermediate?”
My insides froze, but my outsides stayed smooth as ice, if you catch my snowdrift.

This sequence played again. And again. In Austria. In Germany. In Switzerland. In English… but with enough skepticism and distrust that I sometimes felt like I was answering in my fractured German.

I learned to ski three years ago, in a very spoiled way, and I’m graciously indebted to my brother for teaching me. Brian learned to ski before me, embraced the sport, then volunteered to spend three days of his own ski trip in Tahoe to teach me. It was an early birthday gift, one that keeps giving. My lesson consisted of (abbreviated version – there was also one-on-one coaching and patience involved):

  • “here’s how to stand”
  • “I’m not going to teach you the difference between pizza and french fries, because you shouldn’t do pizza.”
  • “stop dragging your poles on the ground”
  • “maybe we should practice slowing down and stopping”
  • “okay, let’s go down a black slope”

My brevity isn’t criticism. I reiterate that I’m grateful for Brian selflessly sharing his knowledge. I learned fast, I skied decently well, and I had fun.


Until recently, I’ve guided my life with a philosophy of foregoing expectations, rarely planning more than 4-6 months in advance. I like the freedom of being uncommitted and being ready to say “yes” when I want. At winter’s dawn, I had no intention to take multiple ski holidays this winter. To my surprise I doubled my lifetime ski experiences this winter.

When it comes to European skiing, the mountains set a higher standard, even compared to the top Tahoe terrain that I’ve experienced. The confidence check started in Kitzbühel, Austria, while vacationing with my parents for Christmas. After three decades of not skiing, they both said they might like to do it again. Knowing my own level of experience and the downhill sport’s physical challenge, I maintained quiet skepticism. (Just being honest, Mom and Dad. Love you!) Ultimately, the rents opted for a day of relaxation. I texted Brian feigning inconvenience for fear: “It’s pouring rain 😦 might not get to go”. When the clouds parted, I followed my smartphone map’s little blue dot to the nearest ski rental shop, rented gear, and scooted my clunky ski boots to ride the lift up the mountain. Remember: frozen inside but slick outside.

The next text: “You would LOVE it here. I mustered the courage to go to the rental shop and buy a ticket by myself etc. it was worth it!”

I remember pulling myself over the edge and quickly rediscovering the muscular control for guiding my skis downhill, the adrenal rush of racing atop blankets of snow, and the sensation of seeing the snow-pocked valley below with mountain air in my lungs. In those moments, I had the thought that my prior hesitation was unfounded. Downhill, ride a lift back up, repeat. The last lift brought me up the mountain then back down to home base, where I returned my equipment and gleefully expressed my pride to my very relaxed parents. I chose to worry, and there was nothing to worry about.

Fast forward to February, when I joined a company trip to Harz, a mountain (er – hilly) region in central Germany. The agenda for Saturday included the option to ski, and suddenly, I was co-coordinating ski equipment for 20 colleagues in broken English-German. By the time we reached the lift, I was ready to jump off and race downhill with screaming confidence. I was pleased with my shorter-than-usual pair of skis, and the bunny slope gave me newfound confidence in my skills on the slope.

Bear in mind, Harz pales in comparison to the Alps, but sometimes it’s also the small battles that win the war. The war? Yes, skiing was still a war for Stephen, until last weekend.

A dear ex-colleague invited some friends and me to visit his seasonal workplace, a large, decades-old cabin tucked into a mountain side in Mürren, Switzerland. Over the course of almost twelve hours, four trains, a bus, two gondolas, a cog train, and a short walk brought Robin, Peejay, Olivier, and me through the snow to our new digs: the epic, world renowned SUPPENALP. Okay, so Suppenalp isn’t well known, but it’s very well loved. Whether staying the night in their private rooms, sharing space in the dormitory, or stopping for a hearty meal, some families record multiple generations of annual summer and winter visits to this classic Alpine hütte. We met one guest who comes every year for the past thirty years, and assured us that it takes a special person to find their way to this place. All this makes Suppenalp certifiably epic for a few days of leisure or adventure in the mountains, but I digress…

Peejay learned to ski when he was four. Robin learned to ski in middle school. Olivier – I don’t know, but maybe he skied out out of his mother’s womb. Micha probably skies in his sleep; after all, he’s Swiss. Suffice to say, they’re all experienced sportsmen with great technique. I am proudly amateur enough to undecidedly state that I’m an intermediate skier, and thank the ski gods for patient friends. These guys were golden. When they weren’t effortlessly demonstrating their own great technique and enjoying the spacious runs, they offered tips on the fly and multiple short lessons to improve my posture and help me conserve energy. I skied slower while practicing – and I’ve needed speed control since day 0 – and they patiently awaited my arrival at the waypoints along the slopes, without a single complaint.

(Boys, if you’re reading this and you were talking smack about me in your native Dutch, also cool… helaas, pindakaas…) (Non-Dutchies: that means “unfortunately, peanut butter,” which is apparently Dutchies’ way of saying “oh, well!”)

dedicated to Robin, Peejay, and Olivier for their patience and wisdom in building my strength as a skier, and Micha (not pictured) for inspiring this adventure and being inspiring in general

At some point – maybe it was while we were skiing off piste through a foot / thirty centimeters of fresh powder (never tried that ’til now!), or maybe it was when I said yes to the steepest runs without hesitation (“I’m seriously up for anything – why not!”), or maybe it was on the Lauterbrunnen World Cup run, or maybe it was when the fog and snow rolled in on our second day – at some point, as I breezed down a slope, I had the thought “this is scary. I’m afraid.” and I realized that I ski with an entirely fearful mindset. Let’s be honest: how rational and safe does it sound to strap two sticks to your feet and skate sideways down a sheet of loose ice, weaving between other humans of equal (or better or sometimes questionable) capacity? It’s a scary concept, and I think our achievement in sports like this show the power of the mind and body to work in synergy with the world.

Having this thought brought pure joy, to know that I can embrace fear and that becoming aware of fear can also be a positive experience. Next time you find yourself doing something hard, trust yourself, trust those around you, and don’t let fear be a reason to change your course.

“What type of skier are you?”
“Intermediate. Afraid. Trusting. Willing & Able.”

Weinachtsmarkt am Jagdschloss

I gently giggled when the woman in front of me proudly announced to the German border police: “I’m here with my son to see the Christmas markets.” Doesn’t she know that Germans aren’t so forward or friendly?

“Oh, really,” he smiled. “Do you not have the same markets and shopping in the US?”

“No, we don’t,” she responded. “We’ve been planning this trip for five years.”

While Mom told me that mothers have eyes in the back of their head, it was this mother’s smile that I could see from behind.

The elderly couple in front of me shuffled their feet toward the counter next.

“Das ist meine Frau, und wir sind hier für die Weinachtsmarktes.” (This is my wife, and we’re here for the Christmas markets.) They continued the conversation, split between the husband’s German and his wife’s broken English.

With my turn to show my passport, I wondered if I needed to announce to the border agent that I was merely returning to work after spending Thanksgiving in the States and I was not entering Germany for the Christmas markets like everyone else (apparently). This pattern gave me pause: maybe I shouldn’t take for granted the multitude of Christmas celebrations while I live in Germany. I generally feel that outside of work I live a cozy life with minimal rush to explore the quintessential cultural and touristic sites, and I like the fact that foreign discoveries fold into my day-to-day rather than separated as distinct experiences.

While it’s not the best known in Germany by any measure – I’m looking at you, Nürnberg – Berlin hosts dozens of Christmas markets. Some last the duration of advent, others only weekends, and still others pop up just for one weekend. Many of the markets in the center of town – Alexanderplatz has two – host a kitschy flavor of Christmas with vendors that repeat a similar mix of Christmas decoration, alternating with stalls selling glühwein, savory bites including sausages, and sweet treats like Lebkuchen (a gingerbread-esque cookie). Some specialty markets focus on local artisans and designers, and these events are more sensible places to shop for legitimate Christmas gifts. And then you have your one-of-a-kind markets that cultivate a special nostalgia for Christmases past.

Enter: Weinachtsmarkt am Jagdschloss, the “Christmasmarket in the hunting palace”

While glühwein warms the heart regardless of quality, you’re unlikely to be blown away by the actual market – the things to buy. Knowing full well that the best way to experience the Christmas markets is to make plans with friends, one colleague mentioned a market in the forest that would only take place this weekend. Weiwei and I browsed a few markets together last year, so I suggested that for this year’s date we should be atypical and leave the city center.

IMG_4829-2.jpg

Grunewald is the “green forest” (literal translation) in the lakes region bordering Berlin’s west side (not West Berlin ;). When the weather is warm enough, I favor cycling the journey along Berlin’s central promenades and into the forest, yet I didn’t know the forest played host to a castle or a Christmas Market.

See for yourself: this Sunday afternoon adventure was a one-of-a-kind part of the Christmas season. Combined with the commercial nature of many markets, Berlin is a rather grungy city, so finding a warm, cozy atmosphere in a Christmas market was a truly special discovery.

We enjoyed a variety of snacks: a fish cake, caramel cheesecake, glühwein (the quintessential mulled wine), freshly roasted chestnuts, and bratwurst. Actors entertained the kids with a live rendition of Hansel & Gretel. Does it get more German fairy tale than watching the Brothers Grimm in the forest? When dusk fell and the sky faded to black, we stepped into the central house, where the state maintains a museum of antique hunting art and trophies from the time when the property was a Prussian hunting lodge.

After a few hours, with our stomachs full, we followed a cloaked man carrying a lantern back to the bus, on to the train, and returned to the bustle of the concrete jungle. Next time I hear an American announce to the German border police that they came for the Christmas markets, the sparkle in my eye will mark a new appreciation for this special tradition.

The Middle East is Not Singular

I pieced together an early breakfast with the few remaining groceries I bought on my arrival to Eilat two nights beforehand. I pulled the drawstring on my backpack shut. I messaged my parents. They knew my plan to travel to Petra and on to Amman, and they knew there was no actual plan. My nerves hesitated. What other tasks can I justify doing to prolong the inevitable? 

Just before 7:30 am, I tapped “Request Ride” on Israel’s ubiquitous GetTaxi mobile app. These would be my last moments with access to internet and the final possibility to rely on Google for the remainder of the day. Had I fully researched and prepared to cross the border and find a ride to Petra? Would I need special paperwork? Would there or would there not be a fee for a Jordanian visa? Utter fear of the unknown, and I uttered nothing other than “toda” – thank you – as my driver dropped me at the border, a dust-coated, sterile compilation of fences and small huts separating Eilat, Israel from Aqaba, Jordan.

One year ago this week, I left the barely comfortable land of Hebrew and hummus, walked across the border with only a backpack, and entered the equally hot and arid deserts of Jordan. The geopolitical boundary separated dark from light in my thoughts and emotions. I desired the experience of Petra without feeling like an outsider in my own sneakers. I sought the taste of Jordan without knowing a lick of Arabic: illiterate, unequipped, alone, cash-less, thirsty, both cold and hot. After six nights exploring Haifa in Israel’s north and the sun-kissed urbanity of Tel Aviv, my yet-to-begin two days and one night in Jordan already felt like an eternity.

The no-actual-plan plan for Jordan consisted of the following:

Winging it, based on advice from a friend of a friend in tourism. Cross the border. Hire a taxi to Petra. Find someplace to store my bag then there will be many private guides waiting for guests. After Petra, hire a taxi to Amman.
Source 1: “If you arrive in Jordan’s southern city of Aqaba by air on an international flight, by sea from Nuweiba in Egypt or by land from Eilat, you are entitled to a free visa as part of the free-trade agreement with the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Area (ASEZA).”
Source 2: “‘Visa on arrival’ is back at the Wadi Araba/Arava Crossing but it is not free of charge any more, it costs JD 60.”

As shown above, internet searches suggest – somewhat contradictorily –  that visa fee policies can vary based on the day and current economic arrangements. I remain uncertain how I would have paid, since there was no ATM and I had not yet procured Jordanian dinar. Lucky for me, there was no fee. Following behind a young man and woman – couple? friends? could they help me if I needed assistance? don’t go too far! – I passed through several windows with paperwork and inked stamps marking my progress into Jordan. The border crossing surprised me with its ease; just like that, I reached the taxi and bus area.

I guess this is where I should ask for a ride to Petra? The young French couple and I negotiated in clear English with one of a few waiting drivers and we agreed to split the fare: 20 JD (28 USD) each for two hours of driving to Petra. We tossed our backpacks into the trunk of his 90s-model green sedan, and we hit the road into Aqaba and onward into the Rum Desert. (No, this is not rum dessert. Though that sounds more inviting than this scary adventure, the desert landscape offered an equally sweet, sensory-awakening experience.) With a weak air conditioning system, we alternated between the forced warm air through the vents and rolling down the windows. I felt surprisingly joyful and calm in the foreign, dry, desert landscape.

Along the road, we stopped at a roadside building for an unannounced bathroom break. Several vendors had wares and souvenirs spread throughout the open floor plan. I knew I would need protection from the heat and hesitated to try on a headscarf. Though there’s natural trepidation in the unknown, there’s also often delight in exploring local customs. Thanks to the salesman who showed me how to tie my scarf, I stayed cool in Petra – you know… I’m cool. I fit in.

After about ninety minutes of driving, our driver mentioned his brother also drove a taxi. We stopped at another roadside building with a scenic overlook of the desert valley, and suddenly our driver’s brother arrived with a slightly newer car. The brother would finish the drive to Petra – hmm… remember, Stephen, trust – so we switched our luggage into his trunk and hit the road for the final stretch.

Upon arriving in Wadi Musa, the town that serves as the entry into the archaeological site, we agreed that the brother would store our luggage for the day and that we should meet him in the parking lot at 4 pm to continue our travels. I would continue on to Amman after we dropped the French couple at their Bedouin camp nearby.

Trust in fellow humans is a paramount quality for travel. People are human everywhere, and they’ll take care of you.

Trusting that my luggage would be safe until 4 pm offered a fairly negotiated deal considering I had yet to pay the first driver or his brother for their driving. I never guessed that lack of cash would cause the most anxiety in this lonesome adventure. Imagine my concern when I’d taken two taxis and arrived in Wadi Musa still to find no working ATM. I paid for the Petra entrance fee and an additional private tour guide by credit card, then met a mid-30s bearded gentleman who was assigned as my guide to walk me through the canyons.

Walk and talk, we did! Mahmoud originates from a local Bedouin tribe, whose people lived in the caves (formerly tombs and temples) of Petra until 1985, when the UNESCO World Heritage site designation forced their move/removal. In fact, my guide was born in one of the caves in 1983 – see, mid-30s was a good guess! – and he started supporting tourism when he was five years old. While some kids sell wares and animal rides – I saw many of them, including one young girl who casually asked me to marry her as I strolled past! – Mahmoud went on to university in Amman and studied sustainable tourism. Today he develops private guided treks on Jordan’s desert trails. Petra has dealt with an influx of tourism since the 2007 designation (determined by a corporation, cough) as one of the “New 7 Wonders.” It’s no doubt why the rocks enamor us, but not all the locals wanted to win the honorable title. Seeing this site as their home and hearing the words of a native resident, I can imagine why.

As we meandered through the sunlit canyons, Mahmoud explained the current philosophy of the ancient site’s construction and the known purposes of various features: the caves, facades, aqueducts, temples, amphitheaters, etc. For example,

  • more layers of carving above an entryway indicate a more prominent resident, because their edifice brings them closer to the heavenly gods.
  • Petra is an active archaeological site, with most funding and exploration coming from foreign universities and governments, and the researchers believe that the site is barely 80% excavated. This means that many structures remain buried several stories deep by sand that has blown through the area over many years.

Mahmoud greeted various other guides and their animals as we walked and talked, transversing geology, history, culture, and the current state of affairs. Without any Jordanian cash, I offered to tip Mahmoud a small amount in American dollars, and he agreed to give me change in the local dinar.

After settling the tip and exchange, I hesitated to rent a horse named Whiskey from his cousin, Samson. Business stays in the family in Jordan, I guess. Samson aggressively pursued me, suggesting that I’d save two hours of walking by riding Whiskey to the highest canyon viewpoint instead, and I agreed to pay 20 JD to rent the horse. After negotiating the price with Samson, he walked alongside while I rode Whiskey to the back of the canyon, stopped for photographs and a snack, and returned to the main site. Whiskey flawlessly – er, I mean, he didn’t fall! – navigated narrow passageways and rock surfaces that were smooth yet steeply angled. I rode nervously, more like a mechanical bull.

Believe it or not, while I lacked cash, many of the outposts that sold small knickknacks, souvenirs, and snacks accepted credit cards through machines connected to satellites, and the bodega offering sandwiches and juices had WiFi! I paid 6 JD cash for a pomegranate-orange juice and a pita wrap with a small spread of hummus.

Upon return, Samson hustled me for a bigger tip! I had to be stern, knowing that I’d already negotiated a lower price than the original offer – he agreed to the price! – and that I didn’t have much cash. I needed to get water and a snack and to get back to meet my driver. He seemed upset that I didn’t offer a big tip for riding Whiskey. Did they take advantage of me? Did we make a fair deal? Did I take advantage of them? The concept of “fair” is perhaps an age-old question in establishing peace in the “Middle East”.

The next interaction more deeply strained my concerns and nerves. After speed walking and photographing (see above) my way from the colonnade through the main canyon areas – gah, golden hour sunlight, why must I abandon you just to meet a taxi driver!? – I opted to take a horse for the remaining mile to the entrance. Mahmoud had shown me that my entrance ticket included a one-way horse ride for the first or last portion of the main Petra pathway. A gentleman approached me offering a ride, and in a hurry, I figured why not. Along the way, he picked up the reigns of a second horse and verbally acknowledged that I had two horses. You can imagine my surprise when, after the five minute ride, I tipped him 2 JD (almost 3 USD!) and he started harassing me for more cash! He suggested I pay extra for the second horse, which I never touched. A ride that was included in my ticket with a tip that I felt was reasonable… you may have nice horses, but I’m not an American cash cow. Petra is beautiful, but you’re not the rock carvings and you have no cash machines.

Who determines what is a fair, middle compromise amongst a politically and culturally diverse and de-centralized set of communities, languages, and cultural norms? What is culture? Simply my thoughts: culture is the spoken and understood identity of a place or group of people. It’s the combined sensory experiences – unconscious and conscious behaviors, sounds, flavors, scents, rituals and habits – the perception when you close your eyes and hear a name or place. I have to imagine that my negotiation and tips could be truly wrong in their eyes and that their willingness to shame me would also be acceptable. This is their world, not mine. This is Easter, and I’m dressed as a Halloween ghost. The misfit has a right to be scared, even when they wear the scary costume as a guest to a not-scary party.

I could go on, and maybe I will write more in another post. The abbreviated summary:

  • Instead of the brother driving me to Amman, I rode for four hours with their cousin and then paid him for all three taxi legs. Do business and money both stay in the family? The “taxi” cars became progressively nicer, while the English fluency of my drivers grew worse. (Dear cousin, “your” and “my” are not to be confused, especially when calling my friend Lauren to arrange where to meet in Amman. No, driver man, it’s my friend, not your friend. I was tired. We managed.) I was cold and sleepy, but afraid to snooze in the car with a stranger, so my headscarf became a blanket.
  • I saw men walking arm-in-arm on the streets of Amman, and this was certainly not the culture I expected in Jordan, a country dominated by Islam which forbids homosexuality. Most likely, they weren’t gay. Women fraternize with women, men fraternize with men, and this is an everyday way to accompany your friends out in public.
  • Amman was as hot as Israel, but I couldn’t distinguish signage for a toilet from a cafe, as everything was Arabic-only.
  • Taxi drivers especially tried to charge higher prices with Lauren, despite her living in Amman, knowing the fair rates, and speaking some Arabic.

A day in Petra and a day in Amman gave me many of these experiences, ones strange and eye-opening to me and perhaps everyday life for Jordanians. Plentiful observations and sights in Jordan, yet my arrival in Amman sticks out.

IMG_1222b
Lauren stands alone under the reconstructed dome of the empty Umayyad Palace at Citadel Hill in Amman.

My emotional tank stood empty from the nerves of travel and the excitement of seeing Petra. My stomach sat pruned, with little cash and barely enough time to see Petra. Pulling up to a shopping mall to see Lauren relieved both of us. I dropped my bag in her shared apartment at the language school, and we promptly left to find dinner. She apologized that she only knew a few places where she felt safe and comfortable to walk in the neighborhood. It was cheap, too. 3 JD for both of us, cheap. I told her not to apologize:unun

“it’s hard to step outside your comfort zone when your comfort zone is not all that comfortable.”

The words thoughtlessly rolled out of my tired brain, maybe from the deepest canyon of my empty stomach, and the words resounded with the chimes of every call to prayer we heard the following day in Amman. I can hardly imagine Lauren’s experiences over six months. To be a single, white woman in a culture that actively discredits femininity is to be the face painted witch at that Easter brunch. My ghost’s white sheet innocently veils my ignorance, while her masked skin suggests she wants to be accepted like any painted egg, yet we’re all scared of what we don’t know.

The beauty overwhelmed me, and my unfounded fears kept me grounded. If Israel felt foreign, Jordan felt extraterrestrial. We call this tapestry the Middle East, but the only middle I can find is that people are people. There are common genes where there is not common ground. These aren’t bad people or bad hosts. They’re different people. They welcomed and chauffeured me. Different is neither good nor bad; it’s different.

To see more of my two days in Jordan and perhaps a more celebratory perspective of Jordan, read Beit Sitti: My Grandma’s Kitchen or watch the two videos, from my Instagram daily stories, below (coming soon!)