Thursday, May 22, 2008

Innocents Abroad Part 5: Bedouin Life

One of the most entertaining and interesting jaunts on our trip to the Middle East was the opportunity we had to spend time with a Bedouin family. Our Archeologist Guide spent a lot of time at a dig in Petra, Jordan and got to know some of the Bedouin workers there. He arranged for us to share and evening meal with this man, his two wives and his children. We literally broke bread together and got a small bit of insight into the lives of the Jordanian Bedouins.

The only “furniture” in the room was couch pillows arranged on the floor around the walls of the room. The walls were decorated with murals painted by our host of sunsets over the Persian Gulf. Our first “course” was a choice between a sweet tea or a high octane, concentrated coffee in cups the size of shot glasses. I chose the tea. Rushing in and out of the room were the children of our host who were introduced and became immediately shy as a result. The women prepared the meal as each child made an appearance and sat for a while with the father so he could display them like all proud parents.

Next a plastic, tarp-like mat was placed on the floor in front of us and soon after a huge platter with rice and various cut up pieces of chicken. Our host then poured a sauce of some kind over the whole mixture and then threw down a paper thin form of bread made on a rock out back. He then sat next to me and reached into the pile of food with his right hand (common plates ALWAYS demand use of ONLY the right hand) and quickly formed the rice mixture into a golf-ball sized bite and popped it into his mouth so quickly I wasn’t sure if he hadn’t just thrown it behind him. No utensils, no plates, no problem. I tentatively tried it and it tasted good but the rice and sauce spilled all over me and the mat. He smiled and said “no problem” and proceeded to down another golf ball with hardly getting his hand dirty. I went back to the old standby of using the bread to grab my food and ate that way. The pile in the middle was hardly touched as we motioned that we were full, I wasn’t; I was just tire of working so hard to get food to my mouth. How sad is that?

The Bedouins seemed to me to be a study in contrasts and contradiction. They are a loving people who will kiss you on both cheeks and smile easy yet carry an offence even longer then they carry a gun. I see them in their tents made of wood poles and rugs but also air-conditioning. I would see some come meandering up perched on the hump of a camel chatting away on a cell phone. They would proudly show off their children in the home yet keep them dirty with ratty hair for the sympathy of the tourists and a few more Jordanian Denars. Contrast and contradiction between their actions and their words and, wait a minute, that kind of describes us too. Hmm.

Innocents Abroad Part 4: Camels

Every day I grab a Diet Coke and walk outside to open the door of my truck with my only worry being spilling my soda before it get it into my cup holder. I sit comfortably in my nicely upholstered chair and calmly drive to wherever I am heading that day. I live in Las Vegas so there are plenty of hills and even a mountain or two to climb. I feel my truck downshift as I begin up the incline with, again, my only concern being whether my soda spills as I calmly sip it.

The camel is down and calmly chewing a cud from some long forgotten meal. On his back is a saddle with two horns, one in front and one in back. The saddle is tied down and a few ratty camel hair blankets are thrown on for a little extra padding. I sit calmly on the saddle as the Bedouin gives him a few light taps with a stick and says something in Arabic to get him up. All my calm went south as the camel rose. You have to understand that a camel doesn’t rise like an elevator; a camel rises more like a folding table. First the back side goes completely up while you are hanging on for dear life to keep from falling on your face in the camel droppings in front of you. Then the front side comes up to level experience with a thrill ride that compares with most roller-coasters.

Now that we are up we begin our slow rolling gate up the side of the mountain. The camel does well on the ancient carved steps following a path it has walked thousands of times with thousands of tourists. Sometimes it is a little close to the edge as remarked by one co-travelers who had a slight fear of heights. The ride up was not bad once you got used to the rolling steps of the camel. We got to our destination after about an hour of this riding, enjoying the sites. Then came the downward journey. While going up the camel would take the steps in his slow rolling gate but coming down the camel had a tendency to get both front feet to the edge of a step and jump down. Need I remind you of the two horns on the saddle? No more rolling gate enjoying the scenery, this we replaces by jumps and jolts surrounded by brief periods of respite. While protecting myself from the front horn on the saddle by pushing back in preparation for the next jump my tail bone was in perfect position to be assaulted by the rear horn. After a grueling hour return journey the camel folded his front legs under him pitching me one last time into the forward saddle horn and finally settled itself on the dusty desert floor. He calmly regurgitated his cud again and began chewing. As I walked away I swore I heard a smirk-like grunt.
A week later my tailbone was still sore and bruised. I was reminded with smirking of my co-travelers as I had to gently sit for the rest of the trip. We have it so good here in the States and when I got home one of the first things I did was hug my truck. Seriously.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Innocents Abroad 3: A Gun Assumption

Growing up on a farm in Indiana with my brothers involved a lot of war games. Many times I would be mortally wounded and the gun from my hand would go flying as I would tumble down the side of the ditch and end up in the muddy water, seemingly dead. My brother would rescue me and shoot the enemy while dragging me from certain death. I would retrieve my gun and commence shooting again until it was time to save him in his dramatic tumble into the ditch. Our guns were fashioned sticks and our enemies disappeared from our minds when we started home in our drenched clothes laughingly pulling leeches from our skin.

At the airport in Cairo we saw armed guards but we see them at airports in the States now. Outside we see taxi drivers with pistols on their hips. On our bus we pass by farmers with rifles strapped to their backs. At every tourist site were armed Egyptians both military and civilian. We passed check point after checkpoint and more than a few times had to show our passports to armed security. We were told to make sure we take no pictures of them as we passed or as they questioned us. One in our group was so nervous at a check point that when a friendly guard asked “Where are you from?” while she sat strait and still in her seat. She nervously whipped up her arm saying “HERE’S MY PASSPORT!”

Our trip across Egypt to Sinai and on to Jordon included our own personal security. A young man who was drafted without a change of clothes and with little notice to sit in our bus and hide behind his pressed suit and sunglasses. The goal was to make him laugh over three days journey with him but the bulge of his automatic weapon under his suit barely let him crack a smile.

During our trip we saw guns, guns and more guns; from all the check points to our security guard, to the heavily armed border crossings. In Israel the guns seemed to be carried by teenagers, and I am sure some of them were since mandatory service goes from 18-20 years old for both men and women. I had to wonder that these “kids” were not too much older than me and my brothers as we played our war games on that farm in Indiana. A typical picture in Old Jerusalem was a Sabbath teaching of young kids by their Israeli Sabbath School Teacher. There were 30 or so kids with a few adults mixed in to keep order while the teacher was giving his lesson. Yet each of the adults had an automatic weapon strapped to their back or sitting on their knees. I have a hard time picturing our Sunday school classes in the same way. I talked to an Israeli about this and his comment stuck with me. He said “Guns give us the assumption of safety. Without the guns we feel we are not protected, not safe.” So everybody carries guns.

In the States we have the opposite assumption. We assume guns mean there is no safety. Without getting into a gun control argument I believe there has to be a line somewhere in between that needs to be walked. I was innocently shocked by the guns everywhere I looked but I also understood the need. They make the assumption that guns mean safety but that also means they make the assumption that their neighbor is trying to kill them and the threat of killing them back is the only thing that prevents that. A mini Cold War rages in our assumptions. What a beautifully fallen world it is that we live in.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Innocents Abroad 2: Panic Tunnel

Ever since my primary toys were Legos I have been fascinated with Pyramids. I would fashion Pyramids out of my fresh, red blocks and even make attempts at the Sphinx. I would read about the mummies and be scared by a dusty, linen-wrapped Boris Karloff. My parents took me to the Chicago Field Museum to see actual mummies and artifacts and I pressed my nose and stubby fingers against the glass to see if I could see them breathe or something. I have always been fascinated with Egypt.

At first our guide in Egypt teased us with passing glimpses of the great pyramids of Giza as we drove to various OTHER places in Cairo but finally there I stood. The fine sand would whip up into little desert tornados in the blue-skied backdrop while I stood looking at the immense structures built 5000 years ago. I just stood there taking it all in, it just didn’t seem quite real to me. It was kind of like my Grand Canyon experience: you know it’s there, you know you are there, but it all seems like you are looking at a huge, two dimensional photo and not reality. For a few Egyptian Pounds you could talk one of the security guards into letting you get your picture taken on one of the millions of huge stones hauled from miles away to form the Pyramids, so my wife and I get our picture taken next to them.

One of the things I could not have pictured was how many pyramids there were on the Giza Plateau. From the Cheops and Knufu pyramids you can see another 60-70 other ones across the desert. The Pyramids of Pharaohs and officials alike were bumping up like teenage zits on the desert landscape. Some just mounds, others excavated but all having a hidden story beneath them.

Our guide directed us to one that we could go into, go under and discover some of those hidden stories. My mind when back to the labyrinth Boris and even Abbot and Costello explored. I was looking forward to being handed a torch made out of a stick and mummy linen, soaked in some oil reserve, and like Indiana Jones go down exploring through all the cobwebs. Reality was much different. I am over six foot tall and the opening was MAYBE four foot so I had to bend over. The tunnel was not a labyrinth it was simply a way down, down, and more down. It was well worn steps in this small tunnel that I had to walk bent over. There were no torches but a simply a poorly wired string of fluorescents. After an eternity of downward steps we came to a small room a mile or two below the pyramid. The room was about 20 foot square with only the one entrance. I finally arrived there, out of breath from all the steps and realized I could not breathe. There was no oxygen pumped into the place, we were miles underground, there were hundreds of other people filing in and out breathing all my air, and I was feeling panic well up inside me like some kind of mental regurgitation. So this is what a panic attack is like, I thought. I fought the urge as I bent into the task of climbing all those steps again. The light at the end of the tunnel seemed more like heaven than I have ever experienced and as I finally burst out of the opening I felt that I needed to do an “I’m alive!” victory dance.

My boyhood fantasies were crushed and I put away my Indy fedora as I enjoyed air like never before. But quickly questions and a thirst for knowledge overtook my disappointments: How did they get the sarcophagus down there? They must have built the pyramid OVER the burial chamber with all the stuff in it right? How did the thieves get all the stuff out through that little hole? How did they find that little hole in the first place? While my boyhood dreams were pushed to the background I didn’t mourn them because they were replaced by experiences I will never forget and by new questions to research. And that really is what education is all about.