Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Away from Amman

It's been more than a year since I've returned from my beloved Amman.

"Beloved"- did I toss that word carelessly? Amman was "love at first sight", a body of newness where I landed in and decided I had fallen in love. It was a whirlwind love affair for a little longer than a month, and I had been betraying the current connection with my present location with my prolonged longing for Amman. Soft, cascading and lovely.

Longing, that's what is filling me up. Amman became synonymous to someone I grew feelings for. And I couldn't discern what I longed more.

Since Amman, something I've been thinking a lot about is the idea of being solo. The modern, survivor-of-the-fittest mental preparation for this crazy race called life almost advocated emotional independence.

But what Amman has given to me most prominently is a sense of wanderlust. Travel carries a term deeper in meaning than seeing new territory. Travel to me means immersion- losing oneself in the milk of an experience.

I have travelled in the mountains of Bangladesh, my homeland, yet learned to enjoy it in a new, deeper, more down-to-earth way. I have travelled to Istanbul this June and yet thought of my beloved Amman every step of the way.

As Pico Iyer said, the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

"Home" While Travelling

During my travels, I realized a connecting bridge between "home" and abroad/travel. It is a feeling that seems similar to the eerie warmth you sense when an old song from childhood starts playing on the radio, or when you smell the whiff of your mother's cooking after a long time. It is the feeling that you feel when you are nostalgic. And many times in life, you come across experiences, places and people which make you feel as nostalgic as your first home.

Nostalgia is a wistfully positive feeling. But it draws out a sense of gloom shortly afterwards, when through the absence of youth vanished, innocence eroded, positiveness clouded we are reminded of mortality. The past is irretrievable. And so will this travel experience be- a bittersweet, mortal experience. No matter how delectable each moment is, it will inevitably fade. Like home, it is impossible to clutch its straws. And just like that, home and travel becomes so similar. Both promises to exile us from a warm past.

Within a short span of time while travelling alone, I have realized there is nothing like the sweetness of contrast the endeavor throws upon us. It is a contrast between the complete control over the external self and the absence of the regular levers of control you have at "home". Allow me to explain- we are very much in control of our lives during travelling, in a way that appears quite arcane while immersed in the humdrum of scheduled dailies. We might be on a budget, but we spend on what makes us smile- whether it's a cup of Turkish coffee or a ridiculously expensive entry fee to Petra, Jordan. Yet we cannot run a coffee machine whenever, or frown freely at the annoying landlord, or save transport costs because the directions are still unfamiliar and the local language is still un-mastered. But because of that you begin to grow. Grow in ways that the fuzziness of home disallows, and we all know about that. But realizing this very sweetness of contrast makes the challenge of stepping out of the comfort zone a pleasurable experience.

And that sweetness lies in acknowledging that there are straws to clutch in a potentially discomforting situation.

There's a myriad of ways Murphy's Law can kick in during travels- with or without your local magazine's luminous horoscope predictions. It reminds us of home where we seem to have a better grip over our surroundings. And when we think of "being in control of your life" we tend to associate with a few basic themes that fluctuate depending on the environmental cues available- self-confidence from the freedom of time in the bathroom, the people you can choose to be exposed to, the ability to control where you would go depending on moods (yes, for many people it IS an issue!)- i.e. controlling the harvests of luck. We associate these themes with short to medium term. 

But are we really in control of that much when we lived with our parents in our first home? And is that something that makes our first home taste different than the second "crib" we arranged for our convenience and age?

Somewhere in the cascades of Amman roads, the kindness of my supervisor’s generosity, the warmth of my new friends’ eagerness to help me, the softness of Hajar’s cooking and Arabic lessons- I found the former kind of home in Amman in a most unexpected way. I would not go far enough to say, this is and will be my new home; home is too indefinable and alludes prolonged exposure. But I can define Amman somewhat.

Actually, maybe not.

Perhaps it is simply the place which has taught me how to take a look at the world outside my books, internet, television and conversations with people whether they were expatriates or whether they were locals. I never realized that in Bangladesh, somewhat did USA, found much clarity in Amman.

And the greediness to learn how to learn from places-and-people is finally kicking in. Just like home, my personal evolution harbored here at Amman. It was Amman for me, will be a different place for a different person.


Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Palestinian Wedding Party in Amman

Last  night I had the rare chance of attending a traditional Palestinian wedding party. Because the family is orthodox and had their restrictions, I couldn't take as many pictures or videos as I wanted to. Nevertheless, I definitely don't want it to prevent an accurate conveyance of the festivity.

My introduction to the ceremony started from the Qawasmeh building, my host family's home. The entire family of mother, father, brothers, sisters and children lived in the same building and an arrangement on the patio  was made for the kids where there was music, cake, and presents. Because Hamzeh, my host, was not present and he was one of the few English speakers in the building, I couldn't confirm whether this arrangement for the children was part of the ceremony itself. Nevertheless, as a curious foreigner it was splendid to watch and I got to speak with the housemaids from Sri Lanka and Indonesia and how they felt about being in Jordan, away from home and family. Lakshi, the maid who spoke the most English was one of the two Sri Lankan maids. While she was telling me how much she missed her family, children and beautiful country, the Indonesian maid told me how the latter identified herself to be Jordanian as she lived here her whole life. I was surprised pleasantly by the warmth and eagerness with which they tried to communicate with me in broken English and broken Arabic. The kids huddled around me like I was an alien.
It soon hit me that I actually was an alien, minus the green skin and bulbuous E.T. eyes.

After we reached the venue, I was hit by a wave of clapping, cheerful jeering and the characteristic beat of Arabic music. It was impossible for me to continue stealing glances at the television in the shop next to the venue where the Spain vs. Portugal football game was going on. Singing, music and a lot of joy and celebration, chanting in unison about their beloved Filisteen- Palestine. 

This caught me by surprise completely. As a Bangladeshi, I was used to weddings where the main music was unfailingly Bollywood songs We would sing along, dance like no tomorrow to music outside our culture to the extent now it has become a part of our own. We know Hindi. We celebrate and participate with Bollywood by our side. I could not relate to how natural it was for these people to be singing about nothing else but their land as they celebrated a new unison. Nationalism ran in the bloods of the people of a stateless entity, waking up each day loyal to the name of a territory that many in the world considered non-legitimate. While I was getting goosebumps at this realization, warmth and celebration around me continued with high energy.

The men and women were separated into two floors. Upon entering the floor for female only, I saw gowns instead of abayas, much more skin and hair. I have seen this phenonmenon with my host family as well- abaya outside, the most urban clothing inside the house in the company of fellow women. While many might find this culture contradictory, I don't find it negative. I find here freedom to be within the confines of practice religious value systems. Yes I used the word "confines", because it is indeed a leash. But in a good way- these people like the leash. As a liberal, while I cannot imagine adopting this culture, I celebrate it. Because this to them is being in their comfort zone, as being a liberal is being in my own comfort zone.

The location was similar to the Bangladeshi community centers I used to go to for wedding ceremonies- round tables, white cloth over chairs, lights and flowers and the decoration of what looked like a glorified restaurant. In the center was a lavish but very small stage with two seats for the bride and groom, infront of which was a dance floor with lights and it looked like those floors you see in movies depicting Christian weddings where the bride and her father would have a customary dance.

The lights soon dimmed and all the focus came upon the abundantly lit stage area. The polite jazz music at the background stopped and an announcement started. I guessed it was time for something official to start because the music abruptly switched to a religious chant.

And replaced soon by fast-beat Arabic music. The bride and the groom entered. As the bride and groom entered, I was reminded of Christian weddings again- the bride was wearing a white gown! A white gown! It had not even occurred to me that Muslim weddings in other cultures would use white gowns too. The husband wore a black, snazzy tux and a white tie. The music switched again, to something more mellow.They each picked up rings from a gorgeous white birdcage-like casket and exchanged with loving stares as the female photographers snapped away. I should mention, the groom was the only man in the entire floor.

The next part too aligned with my idea of Christian weddings- the couple danced slowly on the floor as everyone else did nothing but spectate with their soft, "awww" looks. As they danced, the new couple chatted and shared their moment. Nothing else around seemed to reach them.

Soon the slow dance stopped and more fast-beat song started. The bride separated from her groom, lifted her arm and swayed her hips in the characteristic Arab way that we are used to thinking of thanks to popular media. She danced for her groom who clapped to the beat.

The bridge, groom and the groom's mother share
a dance together
Another announcement, and the groom's mother soon joined the couple. Another announcement; the weary groom takes a seat and his new wife and mother shares a dance together to a song "Masha'llah! Masha'llah" which is an Islamic term roughly meaning "Thanks to the Will of Allah". 

And soon the bride's mother replaced the groom's, and the groom rejoined.

And soon more family joined and continued to enlarge the crowd of women dancing and celebrating. 

Widat, her sister-in-law and I were not dancing. At one point the dancing of certain people taking, umm, awkward and downright funny stances. We shared a silent bond of amused glances :P

The most beautiful abaya I've ever seen

By this point I fell in love with Arabic music and the nature of wedding celebrations. The fact that there was movement, sway, skin despite the orthodoxy of the families' religious value systems. I enjoyed the variety of clothes- gowns, dresses, the most beautiful variety of abayas, color and design. The abayas were particularly pleasant for me to watch because I was so used to the burkha's from back in Bangladesh- they all looked alike in terms of cut, material and even color (most were black).

(I wonder what was going on in the men's floor this entire time)

I could only catch the flames around
 the cake
The music soon mellowed and the weary but zesty bride took a seat next to her groom for the photographers to do their job. While they were taking photos, Widat , Hamzeh's wife, mutterest to me something in Arabic and the only word I caught was the English word: "cake."

It was time for cake! Now this part was not conventional at all: the couple unsheathed a gorgeous sword and approached the tiers of cakes. There was not one but a number of medium-sized one-tier cakes in different heights of steel stools. Flames standing guard next to each cake. What a scene.

More slow dancing. A bubble machine.

And soon more people joined.

I had a great time! :D

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"Extra-ordinary": Day 2, 3 and so far

Kid's Expo performance
Soldiers stopping for prayer
Palestinian natives
I thought I'd write to you about whatever's out of the ordinary. But keeping track of what is out of the ordinary would be counterproductive in this case, because everything seems novel. Starting from the beautiful homogenity of stone buildings, to the cascading roads, to the conversations with people here to the soldiers standing guard against Syrians welcoming an "American" into Jordan. I had the best shisha I ever had while watching Germany win with a local Jordanian guy after volunteering at a Kids' exhibition thingy the entire day.

And I cannot rant enough about the Dead Sea adventures. While floating in the sea with skin-awesoming mud was great, the salty spill into my eyes wasn't. However soon after the burning stopped I had, what I think, one of the most adrenaline pumping experience I ever had. I hiked a real canyon, the idea of which is so alien to me given my conservative family background. Yes.  Not only was it extremely rocky, there were parts which lacked a place to rock-climb/walk so I had to actually cross rapids by walking, gliding, sliding, swimming. 4-5 hours long, what a workout. I glided, collided (with rocks), panted, swallowed water, adorned scabs and it was the best thing ever. 
Drenched after the Zarka Ma'in hike

Every instance is eventful, starting from the act of acquiring  breakfast to absorb Amman each day after work in wandering awe. The other day, before suddenly planning to go see the Dead Sea, I ventured to get qahwa (coffee) and something to eat from roadside cafes where I just knew language issue would be an issue. I, a Bangladesh student from Amriika, ended up getting free coffee from one of the nicest men I ever met. 

The coffee however, was not as nice to me. The roadside cafe lacked the sophistication of cup holders and lids that an American consumer is used to. The sway of the coffee, which was heated over a tiny coal stove, knocked over the lid as I walked over to a cab and burned my hand. The same thing happened to my new friend Zaidoon yesterday: the charm of chances, eh? My burned hand pored over a notepad as I waited by a secluded corner of the roadside waiting for my tour guide to pick me up. 

How can I possibly resist ranting?

The only problem for me right now is feeding myself. Not that the taste of the food is the issue, but the access. Amman is an expensive city so I try to not spend unless its for a cab or for travel and just at home and the people I'm living with have different mealtimes than I am used to. For example they often don't eat breakfast. For example they often eat dinner super early or super late and I don't know when to get home. I feel like I'm in Mahboob Household again because it's a conservative family so I have to come home by 10pm. Life. And it makes me realize why the whole trip seems so damn colorful to me- because it had never even conceived in my mind that this kind of venture was possible. For me, a Bangladeshi-Muslim woman from a Middle class family, ripe for marriage. Possession of the knowledge that something out there, call it luck or call it fruits of labor, have decided to give me privileges beyond my own imagination. 

 Yesterday I had the best falafel of my life at Rainbow Street. And the best shisha. And ofcourse, mint tea. And Shwarma. Today my supervisor arranged to bring me a famous Jordanian dish called Mansaf. And then there was the Kunafa from my new friend Dana's engagement party.

A hedonistic foodie's excitement.


“One main factor in the upward trend of animal life has been the power of wandering.” – Alfred North Whitehead

Oh Internet

Another basic of travelling internationally- internet! Internet, its supply and it relation to the word “adventure”. We associate the word adventure with an elixir-like quality. As if contact with kind of quality would fix every shortcoming of a trip. We derive this kind of sense from literature, forgetting that literature itself is a form of romance. Thus hard work itself becomes a form of romance and we tell ourselves that no matter what form of hardship an adventure would bring with it, we would happily take it as it comes. At least I did.

Wrong. At least I was. Recognizing my dramatism, I say I already miss my damn internet in prodigal supply. Oh American hedonism!

I had become so used to the idea of using internet for finding and even logging everything that I de—emphasized the possibility that I would probably not have wifi readily available everywhere. Now the house I am in does not have internet ready. All my contacts are listed in Google Docs. So basically, I have a whole day unplanned and undirected with no contacts get in touch with in order to plan something. Luckily I have a slightly-less glamorous plan B. I have one contact’s name enlisted whom I’ll call, as well as a wonderful lady I met who invited me to her care and hospitality. Else, I’ll call a cab somehow and see what the day has to bring for me! 

The best thing about not having internet was forced efficiency.

Yes, that’s what I said- the lack of internet forced me to get efficient. I had woken up quite early today by jetlag and the hum of the azaan and immediately felt paralyzed at the thought of being at a new house at a new land without Couchsurfing and InterNations, Google Search and LonelyPlanet. But in order to overcome the lack of resources I was forced to plan with the limited resources I had available and did so with a pen, paper and a phone with barely two phone numbers.

The day turned out quite well.

It was interesting to get on a cab having very little language skills. This destination was relatively easy, all I had to do was tell the driver “Citimall” and he got at it like it was an honor. Okay, maybe I’m, exaggerating a little bit. Nevertheless it’s not false that most people were more boastful about the big malls than they were about cultural and historical landmarks. At least that is what it seemed like to me. The experience I had till then suggested the people cared more about development at that point. A “good” degree (I met at least seven proud Engineering graduates and students), a reputed job. Still, not many wanted to flee abroad to Amriika necessarily, something I used to find common in Bangladesh and India when I used to visit.

I went to Citimall to meet with Sudheesh, an Indian expat from Singapore I met at a professional expat website. While waiting for him, I strolled around the mall and was amused, for lack of a better word, to find abaya-clad women huddled infront of Victoria’s Secret and Pepe Jeans. I’m sorry, but the juxtaposition was amusing. While I was lost in my own thoughts and getting weird stares from people around  (I still am not sure why. ‘Cause I’m a foreigner?)  Sudheesh found me and we went into one of the most invigorating conversations I ever had. It started off with realizing the state of Israel and the terms Palestine and Zionism, and drifted deeper into theology, history, psychology and even careers. I won’t bore you with the details of it, although know that you’re missing out, particularly his interesting take on the three religions. He was a believer of miracles, and he attributed it to the power of a receptive mind, rather than the “power of God” in the general terms we tend to hear from everywhere.

He was also nice enough to buy me amazing cheesecake and a converter for my laptop charger.


Monday, June 25, 2012

Kicking off my first solo adventure in Jordan

I’m writing this blog not because I have something to write about. Something original, something me. But more because in my own research before travelling, I felt the presence of room for a blog tailored to answer the questions of mental preparation prior to a solo adventure. I was going to Jordan to do research for my senior thesis on Palestinian refugees and I wanted to come back not only with a wealth of academic information, but also a sharper, more worldly viewpoint. I will be doing research under a professor with the help of an organization named Arab Thought Forum. And in my free time, I want to explore and absorb Jordan

Now I know what those raised brows are thinking: travel blogs are not new. Maybe not. But my journey, my set of thoughts and combination of encounters, thrills, background, emotion and the product of memory that this blog will log is unique. It’s personal. And I hope through this log I can not only consolidate and solidify my experience, I can also provide for a nice group of people what it feels like to travel alone for the first time in an alien land after yearning for such an experience for years.

Before I reach Amman and start logging about Jordan, I’d want to share the yellow brick road that is leading up to it. I am in Zurich right now so the memory of it is fresh, untainted by the actual event, kind of like watching a ball game “live”. I love airports. Like hospitals, they never sleep. Airplanes themselves are like time capsules- you are essentially boxed into this flying contraption that takes you to a different time zone. While you are in the plane oblivious to the physical transition into another border, another time zone. And then suddenly, you get down from the plane at the hark of a faceless driver and whoop! You’re at a different time zone! Time zone. An interesting term on it’s own- a humanly constructed mechanism to make sense of day and night that dictates schedule, the physics of your wrist watch, your ability to attend a conference call the right way.

The other great thing about airports is the people. Essentially, it reminds me about international conferences- people from everywhere congregating at this hub. In conferences they exchange papers, in airports they come with travel documents. I wish people talked more, to each other. In an endless stream of mental occupations and shyness, people ignore the chance to meet another soul through random chance. Now I find this opportunity a privilege. Call me beatnik but I’m a sucker for the mass-consciousness theories. If nothing else, that should be enough reason to meet, greet and exchange cultures, stories and experiences. If the world is getting smaller why not make it more intimate? Why not deepen the empathy in the acknowledgement that there are many different types of people in the world. For these reasons, I am personally attempting to make room in my inherently introverted nature to accommodate the level of extraversion required to attract a great conversation.

Today it definitely paid off. I met two of the most delightful people I have in a very long time. One was a wonderful woman who just graduated her program in a type of dance, the name which I cannot accurately spell but sounded like urethmei. The other was a spunky old man who made a fantastic career in food engineering and work ethics. 

I don’t want to forget these people. I don’t want to forget people I meet in general. Maya said so many wonderful things about her life that I learned of, and the Swiss gentleman gave me valuable advice on career that I found pertinent to me. No I don’t want to forget their faces. Maya was lean, had the soft grace you would expect off a dancer, but meeker. I am not acquainted with the kind of dance she does, but seeing her makes me imagine it to be soft, with ethnic beats of a Belgian folk step. I don’t know why. Her face was kind, her forbearance like a pine tree- tall, lean and earthy. She was reading a book called “Bee Season”, and I remember.

The Swiss gentleman, with whom names were not exchanged, said he wanted to speak to me because he thought I had a motorcycle. I was reading Robert M. Pirsig’s book called “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and the travesty of the book cover design was such that the "Zen" part was de-emphasized to a degree that made me look like a manual-reading biker-chick. No wonder he wanted to talk to me: the brown girl with regular Plain Jane clothes and Kohl reading on Motorcycle maintenance. Unfortunately I wasn't that cool. He said "That's okay, I had my teenage years during the Hippie era. Nothing beats Flower Power!" I wish he was related to me somehow. 

And all this while I was staring out the windows at the beautiful Swiss view. Sipping a latte. Reaching out for the truffles I bought AS SOON AS I landed. One thing I certainly noticed is that I reflexively make attempts to “get the most out of a travelling adventure”. I labeled this endeavor an adventure, whatever that means, however fruity it is. For me it meant actively seeking out ways to make the “project” as comprehensive as possible. As you can probably understand, my tendency to get ambitious can compromise the Zen aspect of travelling- I have difficulty taking it as it comes. I’ll give you an example, while sitting in the airport reading my book, I constantly felt reminded that I was missing out an opportunity to talk to somebody. I mentioned how I felt about communicating with strangers, but having that sense of responsibility distract you from doing something good such as reading is probably NOT good. It shouldn’t be a burden. You shouldn’t constantly feel as if you are playing a tug war with yourself to just go up and talk to people for the sake of communicating.

The way I’m dealing with it? I’m reminding myself to do one thing at a time. Read now, if somebody from the crowd strikes you maybe make that effort to go up and chat. Otherwise, relax. And enjoy- chatting is meant to be enjoyable! That said, being able to talk to strangers at will is a skill that comes from habituation. That’s what I’m doing, expanding my comfort zone. I was always somewhat bold but shy and now I’m trying to minimize that shyness. Travelling, I thought, would be a great way. Months from now I will look back at these logs to see if I got far from this point. Maybe through my story, you could find your story. Hope is a great thing! And travel? It could mean anything to anybody. 

And with Hope I end my first post. The last thought I'd like to share is that I wish my passport allowed me to step outside for the few hours I was in Zurich.