Petra (The Obligatory Girls Blog)

Tremor: 6.1, Depth: 2.3 miles, Location: 0.3 kilometers from Wadi Musa, Jordan.

I hope I don’t have to explain to people what exactly Petra is. The ancient city in the cliffs is the iconic image of Jordan, and was made famous by its constant depiction in film (most notably Indiana Jones), and today is the largest tourist attraction in Jordan. This allure did not escape those running the CIEE program, and so, Saturday morning, 130 students piled into the narrow Siq that leads from the city of Wadi Musa to the inside of the city. Unfortunately, I found myself a little preoccupied.

If you have read my blogs in the past, you know that using names isn’t really my style, and I’m not going to begin on the blog subtitled the way this one is. Instead, I will describe the two types of girls I often fall for, both of whom I have encountered on this trip, whom I will give two more false names to: Fiona Apple and Sharon Van Etten. (Okay, not exactly “false”…)

Fiona is that girl you meet first out of her element. She may be more of the “popular” persuasion, or of the “study” stereotype, or even might get lumped into the “religious” group, but when you meet her, she’s none of these. She’s just a person. And this is what surprises you most. She’s attractive, even often gorgeous, and really intelligent. It’s intimidating. If she doesn’t have a significant other, it’s clearly only a matter of waiting for her to decide. Fiona is the whole package. Often times, they engage you in a conversation, maybe two, before joining a group more suited to their level. However, sometimes, circumstances fall into place that require Fiona to engage in a platonic relationship with you. In these situations, you still find it somewhat surreal: This shouldn’t be happening. And yet it is, and you often end up an awkward mess in social situations. While I’ve yet to have an irreparably awkward situation with Fiona, it seems to be constantly on the horizon, and will be something I will constantly have to struggle to avoid.

The other type of girl, Sharon, is largely the opposite of Fiona. Where Fiona walks into a room and turns heads, Sharon could go on for a long period of time without ever being noticed. This isn’t for a lack of personality, or charm, but rather because she simply isn’t the instantly recognizable type. For some reason I will never understand, this is often misconstrued by both men and other women as shyness, when this is not always the case. Whatever the truth, she has an ability to capture my imagination like none other. Before any real, meaningful interaction, I am already smitten. The cause of this too is unknown, but it has happened many times before, and unfortunately, it can taint my interaction with the person. Any motion towards another is some end-of-the-world slight, and every time she sits next to me at lunch, it’s a sign from God that we will grow old together. A stronger man could perhaps push the thoughts from his mind, but not I.

So, into the Siq I went, crammed together with Fiona, and Sharon, and John, and 126 other students, all trying to figure out how to adapt and survive in this environment without killing each other. Unfortunately, the constant cramming became too much for me, and by the end of the visit to Petra, I nearly broke a friend’s camera for simply requesting that I take a picture of them. At the end of the day, I know I won’t be going home with stories about how Fiona totally made out with me at that party, or how I have this great new girlfriend Sharon from New Jersey (Where the actual Sharon Van Etten is from), but for some reason, that doesn’t keep me from trying. For now, the identities of Fiona and Sharon are known only to one friend from back home, and that doesn’t seem to want to change soon. But just as the sands cover and uncover the ancient city of Petra, feelings change on a whim, and what may seem so simple now may turn complicated. For now, I will just try to survive, with a little help from the real Fiona and Sharon.

P.S.: Werewolf and Don’t Do It from Fiona Apple and Sharon Van Etten respectively. Great songs.

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#neverforget

First, an update to the last blog. The morning after posting it, I had a conversation with my host mother. She and I discussed the film, and held the exact same opinion I did: While this film is disgusting and stupid, it’s just a movie. So while I will not take down the last entry, as this blog is supposed to be more like a series of written photographs than a living document, I would like to apologize for the implication, if I promoted it, that there is a large section of Jordan, or the Middle East in general, that accepts the killing of Ambassador Stevens. That was wrong. Now, onto the post. This was supposed to go up on September 11th, so again, this one is dated too. I promise I’ll get my shit straight on day…

Tremor: 4.2, Depth: 9.3 miles, Location: 3.7 kilometers from Amman, Jordan.

I haven’t been checking my Twitter feed lately. Twitter is this up-to-the-minute, constant stream of notifications from people and news agencies that will just compile the information together at the end of the day anyway, so in a country with limited internet access and a much more laid back attitude towards breaking news, it’s hardly a necessary thing. However, upon returning from school Tuesday night, I decided to open it anyway. It was around 6pm here, or 11am in New York and 8am in San Francisco. Already, seven of the ten trending topics on Twitter were 9/11-related, with the first being #neverforget.

Being in the Middle East on September 11th isn’t strange. Not at all. At least, not in the way that many in the United States would think of it. September 11th means little to the people of Jordan, and perhaps rightfully so. While they feel many of the effects of the U.S. foreign policy that materialized in the wake of that fateful day, (Or was perhaps decades in the making. See: “Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power”) there were few protests or commemorations. It was just another day.

Lost in all the stories of the protests of the anti-Islam film was the criticism NBC got for not airing a moment of silence at the time the first plane hit the North Tower 11 years ago. While it is never excusable to ever play an interview with Kris Jenner, it opened up the door for a very reasonable discussion: How much is too much? Obviously, September 11th will be ground into our brains like Pearl Harbor or the Boston Massacre for generations before, but is it fair to attack a private news organization for their decision not to broadcast a moment of silence? Or should this moment of silence be mandatory across all facets of life? While I do not have the answer for this question, it brings up the even larger point. We, as a human race, failed our obligation to the victims of the Holocaust time and time again, when they said “Never Forget”, and we forgot Cambodia, and Rwanda, and even Kosovo for a time. Will we #neverforget this time around? Or will we just make the same mistakes over again?

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Rest In Peace, J. Christopher Stevens.

Tremor: 8.1, Depth: 1.3 miles, Location: 1.8 kilometers from Benghazi, Libya.

I didn’t finish dinner tonight. I doubt I’ll be sleeping much. For some reason, the actions of a gang of monsters approximately 925 miles from where I am have me sick. I am also scared, for I feel my disgust towards the killings is not a common sentiment here.

There is a written, solid rule in Islam: Do NOT, under any circumstance, depict images of the Prophet. This is a large part of their culture, and it is reasonable, as they seem Mohammed as merely a messenger of God, and not anyone to be worshiped directly. The words of Mohammed are sacred not because they are his words, but because he was merely a conduit for God. However, the rule of depictions of Mohammed appears nowhere in the Quran, but it is rather in supplemental texts. And nowhere in U.S. law does it ban a depiction of Mohammed.

Freedom of speech, press, and religion is a freedom often claimed to be under attack in the United States, usually from whichever side is losing an argument. But the truth is, we have much more freedom of speech many other countries worldwide. And while these freedoms are often taken for granted, they make the United States a unique country in the world, and begin to justify that old cliche about America and freedom.

George Bush was wrong: They don’t hate us for our freedom, they hate us for how we misuse our freedom. However, that in no way justifies killing four innocent people, just trying to serve their country. The Prophet never once spoke of his depiction in images, yet spoke numerous times of peace and understanding between people. Tonight at dinner, when I mentioned my sadness about the killings, my host brother simply shrugged and said, “If you depict the Prophet, there must be some punishment. But I would not have killed them.” And so I lie here awake, hoping justice will be done for the poor families who lost their loved ones in Benghazi, and hoping that one day, we can end the killing of innocents for the opinions of their countrymen. Fingers crossed…

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The Successes (and Failures) of the Great American Experiment

Okay, maybe these blogs were less rapidly posted than I anticipated…

Tremor: 5.1, Depth: 4.6 miles, Location: 3.7 kilometers from Amman, Jordan.

It’s strange to think, but there is hardly a person alive today that doesn’t remember a time without the United States as unimpeachably the world’s largest superpower. After the collapse during the Great Depression, and the recovery under Franklin Roosevelt, the United States capitalized on the situation and emerged as the preeminent world power, regardless of the claims made by Red Scare propaganda. While the rest of the world burned in the afterglow of Hitler and Hirohito, the United States rebuilt, and today has three times the G.D.P. of the second place nation. However, with this great and awesome power that we have paid for with blood, sweat, and tears, comes a great burden. Which brings me to “John”.

I’ve thought a lot about whether or not to include this person’s real name in my post, and after thorough deliberation, I’ve settled on the idea that it is better not to do so. However, what I can tell you about John is that he is a CIEE student on the Amman program, and he sat next to me at lunch.

“You know, I really don’t get it…”

“Get what?”

“So many people from Jordan go to America to study, and work, and they come back, but their internet is still so bad. And you can’t even flush toilet paper! You have to throw it away! I mean, you’d think they’d want to take our technology and fix their country.”

I had to take a long sip of water to prevent my jaw from falling wide open.

How could someone, especially someone who wanted to come and study in Amman like John, think that way, even for a second?! This is a nation that has opened its doors to millions of refugees without thinking twice. It is situated in one of the most water poor areas in the world, in one of the roughest neighborhoods, with a per capital G.D.P. eight times lower than that of the United States, and this guy is worried about the fact that the pipes may not be able accommodate his poop paper. I felt embarrassed for my country, and moreover, it was the most culture shock I’ve felt since I too found out you should not flush the toilet paper.

As if it was predetermined, that evening me and my roommate had a conversation with our host brother about the economic effects of the Iraq War and the influx of refugees on Jordan. He was telling us how the influx of refugees, many of them wealthy former inhabitants of Baghdad, caused prices of everything, from food to property, to rise by at least 300% over the past ten years, while wages have risen at a much lower rater. While there was much discussion of the affects of this on the Jordanian people, never once was their the suggestion that the Iraqis should have been turned away. This would have been simply unthinkable to the Jordanians, a people whose generosity is matched only by their heart.

This is the real image of America in the world, reflected all around this city. While we have become a great power not on the backs of others, but with their hands lifting us to glory, we often neglect the fact that we cannot force ourselves upon people who simply do not want us. We continue to strive for glory as a nation, sewn together from all backgrounds into a beautiful tapestry, but we cannot expect others to follow our path. We makes mistakes, and we make amends. We use our power for the Marshall Plan, not the Bush Doctrine. America is a great country, with great potential that will continue as long as we keep an unwavering commitment to all we value. And we could also do with a little less John.

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First Impressions

Okay, this is one of two blogs going up in rapid succession. This one was written a couple nights ago, so the references to “just” having done stuff are now dated. But that’s the price you pay when studying in an internet poor country.

Tremor: 4.3, Depth: 5.6 miles, Location: 1.2 kilometers from Amman, Jordan.

“Oh yeah! You were the guy who was constantly worried about his ‘first impression’!”

Chicago is a big city. Maybe not Tokyo big, but it’s big. So, it came as no surprise to me that its airport should reflect its size. Unfortunately for me, this meant, to make my connection between the flight from San Francisco and my flight to Amman, I would have to leave security. And the process didn’t get any better from there. Finally, after jumping over the needless hurdles Royal Jordanian put in my way, I finally arrived at the gate. Upon seeing other CIEE students also waiting for the same flight, I walked over to them, and promptly collapsed in a heap in a chair. Throughout the next two hours while we waited for our flight, the number of us grew from 4 to 6 to 10, finally taking up two whole rows. And sleep-deprived delirium has never been my friend.

Don’t let the fact that we were 12 people strong confuse you: We rarely ever made it past idle chatter. This was understandable, as no one was willing to risk alienating people before we had even left American soil. However, the part of my brain that should have known better seemed to be on vacation. I found myself constantly making jokes, some that might have even seemed offensive, and even downright mocking. Usually, this was followed by a small laugh, some awkward silence, and then a crack from me referencing how horrible of a first impression I was giving off. By the time the plane was boarding, I was praying that everyone else wouldn’t remember, and I wasn’t the only one in this position.

I must have fallen asleep at some point, because I awoke to the man next to me alerting me to the fact that the stewardess had arrived to take drink orders. I put my order in, and quickly struck up a conversation with the man next to me. He was a Jordanian man who moved to New York and New Jersey before finally settling in San Diego. His daughters, however, had returned to the University of Jordan to continue their studies. We talked about Jordan and Amman for a good portion of the flight, and when the flight was over, he gave me his number, and told me to call him if I ever needed help in Amman.

“You look familiar… I can’t remember your name though…”

“We were on the same flight, I think…”

“Oh yeah! You were the guy who was constantly worried about his ‘first impression’!”

I had this exchange just the other night that sat next to me in that Chicago airport terminal. While I may have not been coherent, I know now that it was not my first impression I was really worried about. It was Jordan’s first impression on me. The plane ride here, and my encounter with the Jordanian man, had largely assuaged those fears. While I currently have no intention of dialing that number, knowing that he is there gives me comfort. Comfort enough to not care who saw me bring a 5 gallon jug of water to the dinner table. Comfort enough to ask people I’ve known for less than a day to help me make horchata just for shits and giggles. Comfort enough to sit here, just having finished the last glass of our “Mexican rice milk drink thing”, and to not feel apprehension about what strange signals I’m sending to these people, but rather security in knowing that I may be showing them a picture they don’t like, but that it was the true image of myself. While trying to handle a new country can be tough, I have a good feeling about the future, and I hope for the best.

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It Makes A Monkey Rich (Wretch)

Tremor: 6.7, Depth: 1.3 miles, Location: 3.7 miles from Morgan Hill, CA

Animal Collective, a Brooklyn/Baltimore experimental quartet, will release their ninth studio album in a week. While they began as a band largely based around the experimentations of David Portner (Avey Tare) and Noah Lennox (Panda Bear), their sound has continuously evolved, growing more and more accessible with time, but still keeping a unique and fresh perspective on modern electronic music. However, one aspect of their music that has constantly been becoming a more well refined and important part of their compositions has been the lyrics. Even on their 5th, and breakthrough, album, Sung Tongs, which was heralded as a modern classic, the lyrics would tell abstract stories with little depth or meaning. Contrast that with the track from their new album which inspired the title of this post, “Monkey Riches”, which is a meditation on growing older and reflecting on your long term relationship. However, buried in the wonderful new track is a line that, taken out of context, has defined my past few months, and all came to a head two days ago.

“Does this not occur to almost everyone?” Two days ago, a group of friends, family, and myself all got together for the obligatory going away party. We went to a local lake and swam, used the Sea Doos, and played games on the beach. It was a great time that I expected to continue upon returning to the house. However, when we did finally get back, I noticed something odd. Some of my friends were missing. After searching the house for a good 15 minutes, I found them in the backyard, in the hot tub. While I found it just a bit odd at first, their actions perturbed me. At first they refused to leave the tub, demanding that we bring them their dinner. Finally, when we got them upstairs for long enough to eat, they did their duty, then immediately reentered the hot tub. While the other twelve or so of us were playing large group games, their only interaction was to demand more food or liquor from passersby for the next three hours, from 8 to 11PM. Finally, when we got them out of the hot tub for long enough to engage with us, everyone was distracted by other events, until I lost it. I stormed out of the party, jumped in my car, and drove around for about ten minutes.

When I returned, I found my parents outside waiting for me. I was angry, hurt, and insulted, but my discussion with them shed a very interesting ray of light onto the situation. They really didn’t understand. The three in the hot tub had no idea just how hard it would really be to be apart from them for nine months, nor did they realize what being in Jordan would mean for them. While on some level, they knew my face wouldn’t be present at so many of the gatherings that will take place, it hadn’t really sunk in yet that this would really mean a long hiatus from the lives we now share in the limited confines of Winter Break, Spring Break, and the occasional long weekend. To connect the conclusion to the introduction, it really did not occur to everyone.

My suspicions of this theory were proven that night, around 1AM, when I had to take one of those hot tub friends home. Without provocation, he apologized for the amount of time he had spent away from the party (And is still the only one of the three to have done so.) I forgave him, and explained the general theory my parents had laid out and I had concurred with. He too agreed, and we had a great discussion on what the future would hold. In the end, this was both a lesson in forgiveness, as well as an eye opener. The next line of “Monkey Riches” is, “It makes a monkey wretch. It makes a monkey rich.” Their actions may have driven me into a rage, but the very fact that they were there proves that they care, and the old adage is true. If they don’t matter, they can’t hurt you.

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One Hell of a Concert

Tremor: 0.7, Depth: 9.8 miles, Location: Somewhere along the San Andreas Fault in the San Francisco Bay Area.

So I’m here with a quick update, but first, just a notice that the updates will be very irregular. This isn’t a blog in a more traditional sense, but rather a conduit for emotions. If there isn’t anything standout happening, there isn’t anything to write about.

Friday afternoon, around 12:30, I arrived at my friend Forrester’s house. Within five minutes of my arrival, we were back on the road, on our way to a concert in Oakland. Dirty Projectors, with Wye Oak opening. I expected it to be standard fare, but on the drive, as we were listening to the latest Wye Oak album, something changed my mind. I realized this would be something more, as I was so in love with the music of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack, and they were just opening. We arrived, and were second and third in line, behind a nice guy about our age named David. He’d been a huge fan of Dirty Projectors for years, and was excited to be seeing them again. As we waited, we actually saw the members of the band walk by at various times, and through our encouragement, David stopped a couple of them, and got his copy of their latest album signed. Around this time, the fourth person entered the line. His name is Brayden, and the four of us had conversation enough to last us the ensuing four and a half hour wait until the doors opened. The concert itself was fantastic, with the warmth of the latest Dirty Projectors material punctuated by the beauty of Dave Longstreth’s experimental nature (Not to mention Wye Oak, who are consistently fantastic). After the show, however, was when the real beauty of the event revealed itself.

Dave Longstreth has a reputation for being like a cult leader, with the other band members his disciples. Honestly, I have always found this to be an unfair characterization of Dave and the band, but if you were to see the crowd of about twenty people outside the backstage entrance, you would have thought just the opposite. As we waited in the crisp evening air, Wye Oak emerged, and the crowd largely ignored them. However, being the fan that I am, I approached them, asked them to sign my CD, got my picture with them, and chatted for a second, before they left to get tacos at the Mexican place down the road. As I returned to the Dirty Projectors fans waiting eagerly for some sign of movement from the musical genius they worshiped, I noticed something. Few, if any, of the people in the crowd knew each other from before this event, but you’d think they’d all known each other from birth. Laughing, chatting, joking, everything you’d see from the gang at the high school reunion that never lost touch. It was strange how their interactions were formed from a simple shared musical interest, and the circumstance of being the few diehards in a sea of indifferent hipsters and those dragged there by the lack of better things to do. It made me really hopeful for the next year. Even if I arrive, and everyone I meet on my first day just has issues with me, for whatever reason, I know that there will always be the Braydens and the Davids, who you can form an instant connection with, and the Forresters, who will give up their Friday nights for you in the name of friendship. In that moment, I almost didn’t want Dave Longstreth to arrive, because it could easily ruin the magic of the moment. On the contrary, when he finally did step out, he was one of the nicest people I had ever met. He must have took five pictures with everyone, signed everything in sight, gave hugs out like candy, and answered every question and declaration of love with the same smile and good humor. Finally, as Dave was finally preparing to go back in, Forrester offered to take a group photo of all of us. He was handed my camera and the camera phone of another girl. He used the camera phone for a regular picture, and when it came time to use mine, told us all to make funny faces. Half of us (including Dave, I think) heard him. The other half did not. But we all walked away with a renewed sense of hope in humanity, and I walked away with a fresh optimism for the nine months that lie ahead, after I board that fateful plane in just under 31 days.Image

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