Monday, December 28, 2009

How to do a French Christmas dinner

We came back to Paris for the holidays this winter to be with Elodies family, but more importantly it was time to gorge ourselves on the french christmas dinner. After living in the desert and eating nothing but reconstituted dried beans (hummous and fhool) and Papa Johns Pizza (our Nigerian American housemate LOVES that stuff) we were just DYING to come home to France and go the distance with their famous 5 course meals (7 courses if your really looking for punishment).

Normally Elodie's parents go overboard so we have to tell them to go LEGER (light) with the food, but this year we gave them the green light to give us a food coma. There is nothing ultra gastronomic about our family dinners in terms of technique. Its simple cooking with a use of quality ingredients. Whats more important is how its presented and staged to accent the food and your appetite at each stage.

The first stage of any important meal is your aperitif. An aperitif is a sweet or light drink that you begin with to open up your appetite. More importantly I find it ties in with the french philosophy that families should socialize and focus on spending time to talk to eachother. The children have juice or schweppes, and the adults have vermouth, porto, or champagne. In our case, we were served a very nice bottle of Charles Lafitte Champagne that Elodies dad had been saving.

After the bubbly is finished, we all sit ourselves around the table and move onto the next course, which is a plate full of giant slabs of foie gras. This is the homemade stuff y'all. We sit around a table in november and blend goose livers with all spice and cognac to make this divine artery clogging dish.

To start, you basically take a knife and you spread it on a fresh slice of bread while washing it down with a sweet wine. Traditionally with a Sautern wine but in our case we went with a more 'minerally' white Condrieu wine.

After all the oohs and ahhs from the foie gras, champagne, and Condrieu, at this point the Christmas dinner is going full steam and there is no stopping it. Everyone is completely focused on the food and what was once an immense plate of goose liver is now being scraped with a knife to catch those last remaining morsels.

By this time, the conversations are broken up around the dinner table to different sections. Elodie and her parents are engaged in catching up on her life in Jordan. I'm sitting next to the grandparents so they are talking about stuff that old people talk about.

The next stage moves onto something more substantial so we are treated to an excellent dish of sauteed scallops with apples, cinnamon and créme frâiche. The Condrieu is still working its magic at this point so we stick with it up to this point.

In Paris, you would be surprised as to how there is a butcher in every neighborhood. In America for example, you do have butchers. But you don't have one in walking distance from every neighborhood. I have one right below me and maybe 5 within walking distance. Sure, you can buy a cheaper roast at the supermarket, but the French seem to uphold a tradition that what you put in your body should be of the highest quality. Our friend Caroline even has 5 side by side next to her house!

In my opinion, to make something for the french dinner table you keep it simple with a high quality main ingredient and combine it with something seasonal. Maybe enhance it with some wine or a special spice to get a little fancy. Take the previous dish for example. You sauté a couple of fresh scallops with a seasonal fruit like apples. When they are close to being finished you add créme fraiche, fresh ground cinnamon, salt.. pair it with a nice wine, and BAM.... Bob's your uncle.

In my Korean home, when you have a big meal you just drop every main course on the table and about 15 side dishes to go along with it. Finding a place to put your chopsticks down can sometimes be a challenge!

With these dinners, it is quite possible to have a few entrees and a few main courses served out in stages. In this case, Elodies family wanted to take it up another level and serve something Antillais Caribbean. The French have former caribbean colonies within the Republic and there is a deep appreciation for their cuisine. Here we have a peculiar dish made with lamb, plantains, curry powder, onions and caribbean chile (similar to mexican jabaneros). Since this dish is quite strong, Elodies dad chose a bold Chambertin wine from the Burgundy region which was gladly welcome as we needed something strong to wash down the heat from the chile.

Normally if I had eaten this much food, I would have stopped at the scallops. But this is Christmas.. NO WAY!! GOTTA CHARGE ON FORWARD since we are only at the Halfway point... Thats right.. you heard me.. HALFWAY(!)

Now you might think that we are total pigs for moving on forward but the truth is that at this point, you take 'La Pause'.. which is basically a short break on the meal. Some folks get up to walk around the yard or play with the dog. Elodie's brothers both succumbed to food coma and flopped onto the couch. I'm still with the old guys who are talking about their medical conditions and I'm busy trying to finish off the rest of the Chambertin when no one is looking.

Once the table has been cleared, its time for the cheese. This plate of cheese is quite simple, but they can get real fancy at times. This is just family, so yes, believe it or not this is just a selection of supermarket cheese. You don't always have to go expensive to have a great french meal. I as a foreigner however, have to go for the stinkiest and moldiest of the cheeses to win their respect. I read in some stupid Polly Platt book about integrating with French..'always cut the cheese in a way to retain its shape and beauty..' I have NEVER seen a French person follow this rule.. They just cut the cheese in any which way and nobody gives a damn.

French food is funny in that with every bite of artery clogging cheese or foie gras, your heart is screaming for help. And then you wash it down with wine and its saying.. ahhhhh... now that's relief.

Here you see my moldy goats cheese... my favorite. Its sharp and creamy and always washes down well with red wine. Once again Elodie's dad went crazy and opened a 1998 bottle of Sarget de Gruaud -Larose (Bordeaux) for this time around. Its been sitting in his cellar collecting dust. The label looks all nasty, from sitting in a dark room under the house for the past decade. Naively, I got laughed at when I once tried to wipe a bottle clean. Evidently, the dirtier it is, the more prestigious the bottle. Dumb americans...

Time for dessert, or should i say dessert(S). You gotta have the 'healthy desert' (because its good for you) accompanied with the 'danger of becoming a diabetic' desert. The healthy desert is a simple bowl of preserved peaches and fruit, covered in an extra dose of sugar syrup (just to make sure it tastes good). Once we pat ourselves on the shoulder for being so health conscious, we attack the 'danger of becoming a diabetic' cake like a pack of blood thirsty sharks.

The cake in question is called a Carolo, a very local specialty from Elodie's hometown. Its a brittle meringue made with almonds and praline cream. Can anyone say sugar rush??? Man, keep this stuff away from this kids. Better yet, give them some and they will love you forever and you can avoid that whole teenage 'rebellion' stage altogether. Its a good thing we served it with candied chestnuts to balance out the sugar in the cake.

By this time, I normally feel guilty as hell but how can you say no? .. Its just SO DAMN GOOD! I mean, I have been eating for three FREAKING hours by this time and yet.. there is still space?!? Which brings me to another notion about the french meal. When you eat slow, and take your time... you can somehow manage yourself through a huge meal. At some meals, you'll get something that will help you digest and move to the next stage.. an example would be a 'Trou Normand' which is basically a shot of distilled apple liquor that helps you digest and get to the next meal. I've had a Danish guy serve peppermint schnapps. You get the picture.

Anyways, by this time we have all but decimated the plate where the Carolo once stood and we are ready to wash it down with something. Some people like to take at this stage, what is called the 'digestif' which is basically a strong alcohol that will burn that lump of food just sitting in your digestive track. Take a shot of cognac, whiskey, amaretto, rum... you name it. If it burns, then its just right for the job of clearing out those pipes.

None of us are the digestif type.. I still have a four year old bottle of whiskey at my house that never seems to get we move onto coffee. My friend Gerald Wu visited us in France for a year when he did his study abroad and he was pissed off as hell when he saw us drinking nescafe at the end of each meal. WTF??? In seattle (his homebase), you have all these francophile snobs that mock your instant coffee at home. They tell you that in France, they would never dream of doing such a thing because they believe in the ritual of good coffee and using a french press. Yet here we were, drinking nescafe out of grandmas 30 year old coffee chalices. I have YET to see anyone use a french press (except for that one time we went camping), and pretty much everyone drinks the powder stuff and everyone knows George Clooney the nespresso salesman. The end.

So there you have it folks. You can have a french christmas meal with all the french recipes and ingredients, but remember its as much about protocol as it is about the food. If you were to serve all the food at once, you wouldn't get to appreciate all the high notes of the food without the appropriate wines to match. Plus, you would probably burst in about 15 minutes.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Crushed noses at Al Pasha - $30

The middle east is famous for Hammams, but surprisingly Amman has only one. Al Pasha is a turkish style bath house that provides a steam, scrub down, hot bath, and a massage. If you are amongst the lucky ones (like me), you got a crushed nose thrown in for free.

My back had been aching for two weeks since my trip to London and I did everything I could to get the knot out. I even had Elodie drop WWF style smashing elbows on the offending spot to loosen it up but it didn't really get me anywhere. I finally threw in the towel and resigned to go to 'the Pasha' to get myself fixed up.

The place resembles some big Arabian tent filled with old collectibles picked up by an eccentric old man who likes to horde his treasures and twist his mustache all day while lying down on his side while being propped up by an elbow with his shisha pipe in his hand. It doesn't seem like a place for a hot bath, but who am I to criticize?

Next is the front desk. Every time you have to reserve a service or book a tennis court, there is that front deskman experience here. You have a guy who works there and is employed by the company. He's got 2-3 buddies there too. You however get the feeling that they don't work there. They are playing backgammon, eating, smoking shisha, or drinking tea. You announce your prompt arrival. They stop what they are doing and look rather annoyed at you for breaking their concentration. They then point you where to go and hand you off to someone else. Playing backgammon, eating, smoking shisha or drinking tea re-commences and your on your way.

The first step in a turkish bath is to take a hot shower. Yipeee.. unlimited hot shower. My shower at home requires me to heat the water boiler 30 minutes in advance in order to get a ten minute hot shower. Everytime the hot water goes out on me, you would swear you heard the blood curdling screams of a little ten year old girl emanating from the bathroom. So what if the water smelled like well water and the pile of hair on the floor indicated that some guy with a receding hairline got pissed off and decided to just pull it all out right then and there. It was unlimited hot water and I wouldn't let anything take that moment of joy away from me.

After about 15 minutes, I was escorted to the hot steam room. Passing through the curtains, you enter what seems to be a malfunctioning disneyland attraction. A dark room with kaleidoscope colored glass ceiling sets the tone for the staging room where only the brave can venture to the next level up the steps. A dark hissing from an overworked steam machine god seems to blow angrily at anyone who dares to approach. I was like the first guinea pig in Indiana Jones movies where they send some poor hapless native to check out a booby trap, only to get his head chopped off or stabbed by a hundred poison darts. Well, since I was the booby, I ventured into the second stage room where the ominous steam god rested. Suddenly lava hot water droplets from the ceiling crashed on my neck causing me to jump and stand up....and just like the poor hapless native guinea pig in Indian Jones movies, I got my head chopped off. A cloud of "fry you to death vapor" just floating 4 ft above the groundfloor burned the crapola out of my scalp and fried my ear like a deep fried wonton wrapper (this probably explains why there is hair all over the floor. Others before me probably ran back to the showers and it probably all just kind of fell out from there. I did not see ears on the floor so I will have to rethink this theory some more). OWCH. So like a hapless coward I retreat to the staging room and decide to sit there since it is well below the vapor cloud. By this time, the attendant brings me a tall glass of hibiscus juice with crushed ice and I'm thinking 'do I drink this or pour it over my head?'

OK. I get called out. Its time for a scrub. Finally, some action. There is something particular about the staff that works inside of the hammam. They are all this breed of stocky, burly, strong, hairy men. Super friendly, but I somehow I get the sense that they are hired to manhandle the customers and get them scrubbed and washed as efficiently and as quickly as possible.

I am escorted to a small room with a marble countertop built into the wall. One side of it is open to allow water to drain while the other three sides are sectioned off by a wall. The problem is that its not exactly flat and as manhandler #1 starts to rinse it off with warm water, I notice the water starts to pool up on my marble countertop. I am asked to jump on top and lie on my back in this small layer of water and mandhandler #1 begins to scrub the sh*t out of my skin with a wet rag. This is a process where they take the dead skin cells off in order to promote the growth of healthy new skin. Manhandler #1 then takes my hand, puts in on my chest and I feel something that feels like a large mass of rubber from pencil erasings. "Today's skin" he says to me as I am totally grossed out by the fact that he made me feel all my dead skin rolls. In true manhandler fashion, he just flips me over and takes off more of 'today's skin.' So I'm on my belly, looking down at this water film and I get to see this soup of all of my dead skin floating around me. Just as I am thoroughly grossed out he flips me over again and commences to wash me with a loofah pad and aromatic soap. Ok, much better I suppose, but I'm still grossed out.

I get a bucket of warm water dumped on me to rinse and I am promptly moved on next to Manhandler #2 for my massage. I tell him that I have a tightness in upper back and I would appreciate his help in getting the knots out. "No problem. I take very GOOD care of you." Manhandler #2 was even bigger... with a long mullet and hands that can crack a walnut.. He was really going to work on my tight muscles. Right around the time when i was on my back and he was massaging my THIGHS he asked me where I am from. I said "America..where are you from?"

"I am from Iraq" - followed by a short uncomfortable pause.

Did I mention he could crack a walnut with those hands?

The coup de grâce was my final back massage where he pressed and pinched and pounded all those nasty little knots in my back with the force of those huge arms of his. I lay face down in a towel and he moved to the front of the massage table next to my head to push downwards on my shoulder and shoulder blades. I forgot to mention that manhandler #2 also has a huge beer gut and while he was pushing down on my shoulders he was basically burying his belly fat into the back of my head, crushing my nose and cutting off my air supply.

At the end of it all, I got a hot shower, burnt scalp, skin soup, and a crushed nose.. all for $30. I think I got my moneys worth.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Books at Cafe Amman


This happens all the time. I must have a GPS chip lodged somewhere in my body... but where?

I'm sitting at Books@Café which is THE place for foreigners in Jordan to congregate. A huge sprawling bar on top of a house overlooking the downtown area of Amman. Its decorated in a style of mixed pastels and flower power wall paintings with 'The Reflex' playing on the loud speaker. They sell out of date books at the basement but its one of the only places where you can buy a glass of wine, grilled cheese sandwiches, and cherry flavoured hookah pipes in Amman.

So, I just wrapped up a meetup with my friend Andy Jacobs who is heading a new film school here in Jordan sponsored by Steven Spielberg. Evidently after filming Indiana Jones 3 here, Spielberg has had some sort of love affair with Jordan and volunteered to help build the regions first film school. Andy and I have this great deal going on where he has this empty apartment on the beach and I 'volunteer' to house-sit while he is away on business.

So I'm sitting here with Andy discussing his IT strategy for his school and we here a voice at the table behind us saying... "So how the heck am I supposed to find this guy in Amman? Do I need to just go to Books@Café and just ask if anyone knows Andy?"

So we turned around, and just calmly said.. "Yes, as a matter of I'm Andy. Is there something I can help you with?"

Small world? Try microscopic.

This experience has led me to reflect back on all the times I bumped into people I know. This type of thing really does happen to me all the time. I even bumped into my friend Khaldoun on the road while driving out to Books@Café just an hour ago. The last time I was at Books...about 2 weeks ago... I ran into a dutch couple at the Halloween party and then the Italian guy from Syria I met at a UN party... Weird?

Even three days ago, I was doing another one of those "Lets go hang out at the beach (Andy's apartment) for a week while everyone is working thingamajigees" and before I know it my Japanese buddy Mitsu just happens to be showing the great majestic Red Sea to his mother who is visiting for a week.

And of course, one of the rare times I decide to walk down the road in the hot Jordanian sun, Crazy taxi driver buddy Akhmed screeches to a halt and offers to give me a ride to wherever I am going. Never mind that he has paying customers in his car at that moment who are wondering who the hell this Korean guy is.

I suppose I do have this talent for running into people I know. When I was a student in Tokyo, I happened to be travelling at some random temple in Kyoto 500 km away and happened to bump into my mom.

The cousin of my friend Shana came to visit from Chicago while I was in highschool in california. I asked if she knew a filipina friend of mine named Faith who lived in Chicago. Of course, this girl rolled her eyes and said ' duh... chicago has like only a few million people...' What happens next? They end up living on the same floor in their dormitory the next year during their freshman year.

Encounters can be unpleasant though... like the time I ran into an ex-girlfriend who had recently scrumpled my heart in an unfashionable Ren-and-Stimpy-take-a-tennis-racket-and-swat-the-beating-muscle-out-of-the-yard....Yeah..
We bumped into eachother again at a calistoga hotspring large enough for 8 people with her new boyfriend and myself accompanied with Elodie. Can you say "awkward???"

So the moral of the story here.. especially in Jordan is.. Do not piss anyone off. You WILL meet them again. Perhaps in a hotspring. Perhaps in a Buddhist temple. Perhaps at Books@café.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Festival des marionnette

What's a festival des marrionnette? Ten glorious, attention grabbing days for its host city, Charleville Mezier (Elodies hometown). The only other times it manages to make the national news broadcast is when it hits the record for the coldest temperatures in France or when a Belgian Pedophile crosses into its borders. The festival des marrionnette is held every two years with a line-up of hundreds of shows featuring the worlds best puppeteers.

Elodie came back from Jordan for a week to be with her family for the birth of her brothers first born son. We tried to explain to his wife that she needed to give birth by Wednesday at the latest or Elodie will need to pay a penalty fee for extending her return flight date but they for some reason didn't do anything about it.

Sooo..while we were waiting for the little guy to pop-out, we decided to pop-in to the festival at every chance that we could.

When we walked into town the first day, we recognised a huge transformation in the modest town of Charleville. Gone were the middle aged mothers in short bobbed hair treated with multiple layers of differing hair colorings (I call it the 'Grand Canyon look' due to the earthy colored strata of their heads).

Replaced by the moms and strollers was a sort of Puppet Woodstock.

The first type of people are the earthy, artsy folks whom I am guessing are the professional puppeteers. I haven't seen that many people wearing hand woven clothes since I got lost in the Santa Cruz mountains and stumbled upon an enormous hippy drumming circle in a grove of pine trees.

The second type of people are the street performers giving incredibly crappy performances for spare change. I have a theory that maybe these guys are just plain crazy and are just playing out their multiple personality disorders in the form of puppetry... and now we give them money for being crazy!

Exhibit A: Crazy old lady on the bookstore corner playing loud music and displaying decapitated dolls on her pushcart. Every once in a while she will jump up, clap to the music and try to do square dancing with the people passing by and cackle the whole time doing it. Sometimes her drunk ass bearded husband in overalls comes by to join in the celebrations. These guys are regulars.

Exhibit B: Skinny young Jerry Garcia on a black floor mat next to the pharmacy showing a crowd of ONE sympathetic viewer how his skeleton puppet can be made to slowly crawl and die. He spent 2 minutes to show me how slowly he can move the finger to make it look like its dying. I didn't want to point out that the mere fact of being a skeleton annotates that it is already dead.

Exhibit C: Wierd guy making an elf puppet play the violin to a recorded song next to the ticket office. Why an elf, and why a violin? And its the same song. One song. And he does it all day, every day. You gotta be either crazy or have an elf fettish to do that all day, every day of your life.

The third type of people there are the tourists who are asking themselves how the hell they landed in the middle of nowhere in France. Everytime I stood in line for something.. a ticket.. a crepe, a beer.. There was a frustrated tourist trying to communicate in English what it was that they were trying to get. Nobody, and I mean nobody at the festival spoke English at the international festival. Its all made up of local volunteers who don't speak a lick of english except for "voulez vouz couchez avec moi."

Now Charleville Mezier is at most a big, small town. Big enough to have a Carrefour supermarket, but small enough to run into everyone you know when you get suckered into becoming part of a street performance.

Yes, the guy had a street show and it needed an asian guy to play the bad-ass Bruce Lee character. So while I hid in the back, he pulled me to the center of his audience because, well, quiete frankly, I was the only asian in a 200 mile radius to play the part. He even gave me a pair of nunchucks believe it or not.

So he grabbed another guy and a lady and made up this story of jealousy and a duel between two guys competing for the privilege to be with the damsel. Kind of a street Kung Fu theater. The best part of it is that they were expecting some mild mannered nerdy asian guy or something. Instead, I lept in the air riding an imaginary Harley Davidson and made roaring loud motorcyle noises that shocked the hell out everyone . Then I whipped out a set of nunchucks that he gave me and started nunchucking straight out of a bad ass scene from 'Enter the Dragon.' Nobody thought that I would actually know how to use nunchucks. I surprised the hell out of everyone, even my wife, who had no clue I had this hidden talent, gained from fighting imaginary teenage mutant ninja turtles in my backyard in the 7th grade.

After a big round of applause, I had a chance to look at the audience. Elodie was there. My mother in law. My mother in law's friends. Elodies highschool friends. Elodies highschool friends' parents. People who I did not know but were invited to my wedding by Elodies parents were there. Geeze, there is no hiding in this place.

Subsequent walks throughout town were greeted by passerbys screaming 'Ouiii C'est la Coréen'!!! I walked into a Hungarian puppet show about Borat's ancestors and got greeted by multiple members of the crowd. So this is what fame must be like if u live in Charleville Mezier.

On our last day at the festival, we decided to see a big name Australian puppeteer named Neville Tranter of the Stuffed Puppet Theater. The description sounded good. He had been a festival regular. Reviews said 'Shocking and Funny.' Great, just how I like it. Except that, it was anything BUT that.

Maybe I just don't understand art. That's it. I am too uncultured to pick up the subtleties and underlying messages about humanity expressed through puppet rabbits with big giant red penises sewn on them. Ok, it was only one, but that's when I decided that there was no turning back on this show... I would just have to sit there and suffer.

First bad sign was that we had just been talking about swine flu, and this lady ends up coughing a lung into the back of our heads so we decided to rudely move out of the way from her spray. Then there is the puppeteer who is part of the act, wearing fake bunny ears, and evidently he thinks he's a rabbit. Then one rabbit tries to have sex with him, another tries to get him to adopt an orphaned rabbit, another one is a rapping gangster rabbit with a red weiner half his size sewn in-between his legs. The final act ends up with him finding out he's not a rabbit because he 'pisses while standing up', the others kill and grind the orphan rabbit and feed it to the unknowing guy, the guy doesn't have sex with the first rabbit but does get raped by Randy the gangster rabbit and somehow seemed to enjoy it ('I could hear the sound of a butterfly's wings flapping' was his post-coital remark), and half the audience was shouting 'Bravo!' at the end while the other half was shouting 'WTF?'

So there you have it folks. You can come and enjoy the festival next year... err I mean in two years. Just bring a translator, nunchucks, and your schizophrenic uncle and you'll have a blast!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Visiting/Surviving Hammamat Ma'in Hot Springs

Death is not usually the first thing that comes to mind when you visit the beautiful Hammamat Ma'in hot springs in Jordan. Survival however, was the only thing in my mind in this situation. You would think that with all of my past history with taxi drivers, that I would stay away from them. One of my best friends in Jordan however, is the 29 year old 'Akhmed the crazy taxi driver.' Love it or hate it, Akhmed has somehow become family. To give you a lesson in pronouncing words in Arabic, you don't say his name like 'Ack-Med.' Pretend you have some salt water taffy or peanut butter stuck in the back of the roof of your throat and your trying to hock a loogie to unlodge it. AKHH. Try it again. AKHH. Okay, now add the rest... AKHH-MED. There you go!

Of course, trying to be a good friend to Akhmed, we tried to use him whenever we needed a guide through the outer regions of the country. For a while, our relationship had been quite formal and friendly but he was through the moon when we finally we invited him over for a few drinks just the day before our trip to Hammamat Ma'in. When he found out that he could be himself and just hang out, have some laughs and drink some beers and stop with all that professional 'sir' and 'madam' formality, he finally felt at home.

Have you ever hung out with a professional alcoholic before? Jordan was probably the last place I figured I would run into my first one. We served in true formidable French fashion, the apéritif, which is a light alcoholic beverage before eating dinner. To pronounce apéritif like a true French native, just read it out loud just as you would read it in English but put your nose up really high in the air so that the tip of it is at a higher elevation than your ears. If you don't look snobby enough, then I suggest you take up smoking and stare past people when you speak to them and look uninterested in what they say...there you go!

We poured brother Akhmed a campari on ice and introduced him to all the joys of slow culture and appreciating the fine things in life. Akhmed introduced us to the concept of grabbing a glass of booze and showing how one can gulp it in a single go by pinching his nose and opening his throat like a bucket mouthed black bass. A look of dissapointment wiped his smile away when all the energy and enthusiasm he put into downing his drink was answered by a girly evening drink with low alcohol content. "Alcohol, not very strong. Absolute is better!" Being gracious hosts we served him one Absolute and orange juice after another with which he subsequently pinched his nose and gulped in rapid fire concessions.

The next morning he returned with his taxi and we set off to go. With us was Caroline, a french canadian friend of Elodies who quit her crappy job in Paris and flew out to join us in Jordan for a week's adventure. We thought it would be a good idea to show her a good time and introduce her to all the rare sites of Jordan.

The road to Hammamat Ma'in is the same road that you would take to go to the dead sea, which is about an hours trip from Amman. You take a slight detour up the hills to Madaba, the site where Moses was buried and where they make a good local cheese that our neighbor buys for us from time to time. You then reach the top of the hills in the back country where a steep rollercoaster backdrop of roads leads you to the fabled hotsprings.

It was at this point where Akhmed could not hold back his desire to drink at 10 in the morning and he reached into the grocery bag and cracked open a beer. We all screamed as the car descended down the valley at a vertical twist while our driver was steering with one hand and chugging a beer with the other. "What???? Akhmed VERY STRONG!" was his response when we objected to him drinking.

We made him put the beer away and in a short time we arrived at our destination, relieved to have made it through. Elodie and Caroline went their separate way to the newly built 5 star spa underneath the hotspring waterfall and Akhmed and I went to the public section of the hot springs. Not bad actually. For a public hot spring we had access to two gorgeous waterfalls dropping into rocky pools with a hidden cave and colorful rocks behind the falling cascade of water. The smaller waterfall feeds into a roasting 140 degree hot pool where anyone who dared to enter risked roasting their nuts off and eliminating all chance of offspring (that is, if you have nuts to roast off in the first place).

Akhmed just stripped down to his swim trunks and proceeded to SWAN DIVE right into the volcanic water of the hot pool and slosh water at the rest of us wimps hanging out on the sidelines. "Akhmed is VERY STRONG!" he would proudly proclaim. Shoot. Now I have to go into the water. About two hours later, I finally got the water past my belly button with no feeling in my feet and dashed hopes about the cute french korean progeny I was expected to deliver to my parents.

I emerged from the pool afterward with a pink fleshy tone to my skin, much akin to the color of a boiled frankfurter that has hit that stage where it starts rolling on top of the bubbles. In a burst of inspiration, I suggested we check out the indoor sauna and bath next door in order to escape the blistering heat of the waterfall.

The public bathhouse looks like a plain crumbling government building with a huge hot spring pool and sauna built inside. This is as local as local gets my friends. We walked inside to the swimming pool where it was filled with dozens of big, heavy, bearded and brauny men. Scores of young and rowdy energetic teens and a few old women clung around the edges of the pool but mostly this was a man's domain. At least the day I chose to visit it was. At least the time that Akhmed decided to forward flip into the pool and splash everyone it was. Oh boy. Yes, Akhmed ran, jumped, and flipped into the dead center of the pool, creating a wave and splashing hot water in the eyes of just about everyone in the pool. Emerging from the water, he declared quite proudly to myself and the entire room "I AM THE KING!!" Everyone just about wanted to murder him and probably myself as well for being his accomplice.

At the end of the day, we picked up the girls from the resort where they sat peacefully under the mineral water cascades while sipping tea after their thai massages. Ahh, the good life. Yes, they had the 5 star experience but did they get the opportunity to brave a full day of survival with Akhmed the Crazy Taxi Driver???


Monday, June 22, 2009

Abdulla the Aqaba Scuba Terrorist of the Red Sea

I LOVE scuba diving. Love, Love, Love, Love it. I estimate that I go down to see the little fishies about once a month now in Aqaba. The water is warm, clear, and filled with endless colorful varieties of fish. I tried scuba diving once in santa cruz, california and decided to give it up when I looked at my diving partner and her chubby face had puffed up underwater and turned blue like some over-weight freak smurfette. Lord knows what I may have looked like.

The outfit I go with in Aqaba is the Red Sea Dive Centre (0795591310). Its run by this Jordanian giant named Abdulla (you tube video here) and his cousin Amet (youtube video here). These guys must be working hard because I was asking them questions you ask 40 year olds here, like 'where are all your kids' or 'how many wives do you have?'

Errrr... 'Frank, we're 29.'

Guys. You need to wear more sunscreen.

So this time around, I asked them to organize a night dive for Elodie and I. Yes, the fabled night dive of aqaba. Its the stuff of legends. Sea creatures from the deep come out to feast on the easy meal they find in the coral reefs. Large predators, rare species, and prehistoric fish with bad dentistry all come out to eat the little nemos. And we were going to witness it.

When we arrived at the beach to do our dive, we were met by a soldier from the Jordanian Navy who had to watch our every move. Aqaba is right on the Saudi Border, so I guessed that maybe he was making sure we weren't planning on doing a night safari in Saudi Arabia.

We walked into the surprisingly warm water armed with underwater flashlights and our guides. It was pretty exciting as we went down as we found an octopus swimming in the grass. Its pretty hard to appreciate the beauty of a sea creature when all you are thinking about is how good it would taste on your plate. MMMmm. I love to eat live octopus like in this youtube video.

Following this, we saw the hugest puffer fish I have ever seen. Its easy to find one here the size of a rugby ball, this was even bigger. If it puffed up, it could have been mistaken for a pilates ball. The corals were hugely different with bright fiery colors and species of fish I did not recognize.

We saw so many fish, and really, its too many to name in this blog. We ended our tour and walked out of the beach from underneath the boardwalk pier. After about a minute of walking back, my spidey senses went buzzing off. I looked above at the pier to find about 200 jordanians crowding above and staring down at me whooping and cheering us. I suppose that maybe they don't get to see a dozen people dressed as frogs come out of the sea in the middle of the night that often.

After our dive, I had to ask Abdulla more about the Navy Guy. What was he worried about?

-'Frank, you mean I haven't told you the story of Abdulla the Terrorist?'

"Here in Jordan, we had a terrorist attack on some hotels three years ago in the capital city. The weeks after the bombings it was very tense and the government was on a high alert.

I had a job at the Marine Research lab to collect coral samples from various locations in Aqaba. One week after the bombings, I took my research boat and went past the port. Now, sometimes they have Navy boats, but this time they had dozens of them. More frightening was the fact that they were all coming towards ME!

The first one comes to me and starts shouting, who are you, and what the hell are you doing here??! Luckily for me, the captain of the navy boat was my friend and once he recognised that it was me he said, 'Abdulla is that you? You dumbshit! What the hell are you doing here taking your boat so close to the port just after the bombings!' I looked around and saw that there were the police, the navy, the army, all watching me from the Port.

I was able to explain that I was doing research and was left to continue my business.

I then took my boat to the other side of Aqaba and went diving for a coral sample. When I got back into the boat, another Navy Boat came to me at full speed. "Put your HANDS UP or we will SHOOT!"

"Abdulla, you dumbshit! is that you???!" This time, the captain of this Navy boat was my cousin.

"Abdulla, there is a report that some guy at the port saw a scuba diver had put a bomb on the bottom of a boat and everyone thinks that it could be you since you are the only one diving around today. Go Back home NOW."

So I go back towards the research center, but I realise after some time that the army from the road sees my boat. From the shore, they shout at me with a loud speaker. "Put your HANDS UP or we will SHOOT!"

I was forced to bring my boat to shore, with about 50 men with automatic weapons pointed at me. A large crowd was gathering from shore, many of them people that I knew.

So I was taken to the police offices and had to explain that I am a research diver and that I had all the clearances to be in the water. They brought in the witness to verify if I was the bomber.

"Hmmm. He has the same wetsuit. He has a mask. The watch is also the same. But I can't tell the face. I am 50/50 on whether it is him." Thanks asshole.

I eventually got let go and life returned back to normal. However, the arabic rumor mill would NOT stop!

Every time I took a taxi, the drive would say to me... "Hey did you hear about this terrorist at the port?! They caught him with a home-made bomb and he's in jail now!"

My mother was at a wedding and someone said "How is Abdulla?? I heard he was shot!" I had to assure her for two hours on the phone that I was indeed alive and not shot.

"Hey did you hear about the terrorist. He escaped from prison!"

So Frank, that explains why we have high security. Lots of smuggling of course, but we have a high alert for terrorism also."

I was amazed by this story of Abdulla the terrorist.

The next day, I wanted to give it a test. I went to get my haircut in Aqaba, and well, you know barber shops. They are the same all around the world. FULL of town Gossip.

I asked, "Hey, did you hear about this terrorist 3 years ago that tried to put a bomb on a boat?"

One of the clients there told me in a as-a-matter-of-fact fashion, ' Actually, it was not a bomb. It was a home-made rocket that he was trying to fire at a ferry boat.'

After he explained to me that Abdullah was trying to fire a home-made rocket at the ferry boat, he then tried to explain to me that 9/11 was a conspiracy from the american government and that the airplanes that struck the twin towers were actually US military planes according to a witness who 'saw the whole thing'.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Personal Space Bubbles

Folks, I have a personal space bubble. Thats right. That means when you sit next to me on the bus, we don't touch legs and we don't share the armrest (My bus trip to the Red Sea). You don't fall asleep in your chair and use my shoulder as a pillow and drool on me (My subway rides in Tokyo). We don't watch tv in my living room and you use my lap as a headrest (My entire dormitory in Korea).

Almost on a daily basis, people do things to me that would otherwise be seen as an uncomfortable moment back home in the States. People always giggle when they saw George Bush holding hands with the Saudi King. That's kinda like my everyday here.

Its very easy to get into these uncomfortable situations because in the US, we just don't like physical contact with others and we don't like others touching us. Here, you just kinda need to go with the flow.

Its easy to run into problems when it comes to personal space, especially in countries where the men and women are seperated from eachother during their youth. They tend to develop habits that err, would raise eyebrows in different countries. This kind of leads to an interesting phenomenon... namely, very very homophobic people being very, very gay with eachother.

In Korea the the men and women are seperated too so its pretty much the same thing. I'm used to it, but I always revel in watching a newbie to Jordan get tortured when someone calls them 'habibi' (my love) or someone gives them the traditional three kisses on the cheek (which almost always results in a bad beard burn). Here its not as bad in Korea where part of the culture is to go to a traditional hot bath house and make a train and scrub eachothers backs while your all butt naked. However a good friend here wouldn't think twice about giving you a soothing back rub in front of your wife.

Really, its just people being friendly in the way that they grew up with and one of the things you have to cope with when living in a new country.

Just watch the master on how to adapt:

The other day I was at a traditional Bedouin restaurant in a large outdoor tent here in Amman. I was presented with beautifully prepared pulses of eggplant, hommous, and fhool, followed by steaming plates of barbecued lamb and salted yoghurts. The food was delicious, and when we polished off our plates a large egyptian man with a thick heavy mustache arrived with a tray full of deserts.

Now, I can choose most dishes off of a menu now, but these house special deserts were knew to me.

Me: Marhaba, can you tell me what desert this is?

Waiter: Yes sir, this is a cocounut pudding with bread.

Me: Is it any good?

Waiter: Of course! Try!!!

Before I could even blink, the waiter grabbed the bowl, took a spoonful, and in front of my guests tried to feed me like a BABY at the table.

When in ROME right??? MMMM. Yum Yum. I rubbed my tummy as my new Papa served me my baby food desert. Now THATS adaption.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


Writing about ones great adventures can bring a tingly sensation of joy to the body. In my case, its brought to me in little electric zaps to my forearms by my mac book pro.

I couldn't figure out at first why my hair was poofing up. It looked like someone blew air into a rubber balloon and rubbed it on top of my asian afro (for some reason i was born with yakusa style permed hair).

Every once in while when I rested my hands on my keyboard in pensive thought, I would feel a slight pinch in my left forearm. Bzzzz! Strange.. I thought. The edges where the case joins together must be pinching me. Bzzz! Thats funny. My forearms are red. Bzzz! OK.. maybe I should google this.

What I found is .. damnit! Shocked again. OK, I continue. What I found is that the electrical wiring in my posh apartment is not so dependable and is sending small surges of electricity to my computer and through my arms.

Besides the electricity issue, you then have the water issue. You really don't realise how much you survive off of water until it shuts off on you. Well, it happened to us. Right in the middle of doing the dishes the water pressure just got weaker and weaker until finally it stopped to a dribble. No water in the sinks, showers, or the toilets. Nothing.

Big problem evidently because I had just finished a big mug of coffee and had to drain the lizard real bad. I eventually had to borrow the neighbors bathroom to take a pee. I do have a big balcony full of plants that I could have watered, but directly opposite of my balcony are about a dozen egyptians building the roof on the apartments next door and they would all be wondering when the day would come again when they would see a chinese guy walking around and taking a piss on his plants.

Ibrahim, the egyptian handyman that lives in a dark windowless basement of the building came up when I called him in a panic. "The building water is no more" he said. OK. Panic. "You have to use the pump for an hour" and he walked away. OK. Good. There's a solution. Wait. What pump? I suddenly had hallucinations of me with a bike pump contraption bending up and down and pumping water with a bunch of villagers standing around and watching. Not the case however as there exists a more modern solution.

I did however appear like the village idiot when Ibrahim looked at me incredulously like 'Did you grow up on a FARM???'(rolling his eyes). "When no Water, use pump for water underground." So evidently this type of thing happens every week in the spring and summer time. The building runs out of water supplied every tuesday, and when that runs out you pull from the reserves down below. So what you do then is turn on a switch to a pump and it draws water to your basin of water up on the roof.

So I turned on the pump. Watched Oprah with arabic translations for an hour. Still no water. Ibrahiiiiiim! I looked like a helpless wussy that grew up in a barn and did not understand modern mechanics or other such manly things. Shit. Blocked water pipe. We went up to the roof. Wait. Ibrahim had a solution. Open up the pipe and remove the blockage.

I stood by and watched Ibrahim take a puff from his cigarette, grab the open end of the pipe, put his mouth to the hose and SUCK HARD on that pipe. Dayam, Ibrahim was sucking that pipe hard! Suddenly water started gushing out and Ibrahim was covered in water! I had to laugh as yet, here we go again with another gay theme to my stories.

These are all small, isolated incidents of course. But then again, there are a lot of small isolated incidents all over the place. Not life threatening of course, but it all is beginning to add up to what I call Egypt-anomics (with the support of the Chinese empire). Everything falls apart in a few years and when things suddenly stop working, you then desperately need an Egyptian guy to fix it for you. I think its a conspiracy to keep the Egyptian machine going. The good thing is that having the services of a good maintenance guy in the building is worth its weight in gold, yet cost you the price of a seafood dinner for two.

So finally, I have water in the house. I have put a power strip between the wall plug and the power adaptor for my laptop. What else could go wrong?

Boom, Boom, Boom! Oh shit. The 100 pound central heating pipe just blew off the roof and landed three stories down in the neighbors garden.


(Click on the link to enlarge. You can't see it well, but its lying underneath the tree to the left of the two grey containers. )

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Visiting Wadi Rum

Wadi Rum. Never heard of it? Now you have.

Before moving to Jordan, Elodie first had to sell me on the idea of living out in the middle east. My only images of the middle east of course were CNN (otherwise known as 'Certainly Not News') and of course, Iron Man.

Elodie of course, simplified her sales pitch by saying 'Jordan has the ancient city of Petra, where they filmed Indiana Jones 3.' Oh, well if you put it that way, it must be good!

Sooo, before I begin my story... let me sell my story to you first... 'Wadi Rum, its where they are filming for the up and coming Transformers 2!'

Lets begin.

Wadi Rum is famous for its amazing rock formations and desert landscape. The area is inhabited by native Jordanians called Bedouins, who are known for their deep hospitality. Legend has it that they are pretty welcoming because in ancient times you could be travelling through the sand for days and have no one but your camel to talk to. So when someone comes by they usually invite you to stay and drink a shitload of tea with them.

The place is also famous as a former stomping ground for Lawrence of Arabia where he based his operations for the Arab revolt of 1917-18. That by the way was also made as a film if you want to learn more.

Wadi Rum is a red sand desert known for its incredible rock formations. The giant red cliffs look like giant melting lava honeycombs. Most people I show these pictures to comment that it looks likes tons of snakes and scorpions are just waiting to feast on you should you dare to go near.

We arrived in Wadi Rum at about 5 PM on a friday night and camped out in traditional bedouin tents. When we asked if it was OK for us to drink a few beers around the campfire, our guide responded in a very serious manner 'This is the desert. You must respect her and eat biscuits and natural tea.' We eventually figured out that he was joking and that lots of people bring their own alcohol. It was a great treat to find out that our guide was pretty funny, but I get the feeling that desert humor is very dry (get it?.. ha ha).

I was wondering what the hell he was burying in the sand while we were out exploring the rocks around the campsite. At around 7 PM he started to unbury whatever the hell he buried and we discovered that he had in fact cooked us a traditional Bedouin meal underground. So evidently when you leave out for the day to tend to camels and such, you don't want to come home and cook. So they have this slow cook process for the morning where they dig a hole in the sand, build a fire, throw food on it, cover it to keep the sand out, then bury it for a slow cook process.

I wish that I could report that I slept well, but its pretty hard to go back to sleep when you feel the little pitter patter of tiny feet across your back at 3 am in the morning. Evidently you could see the tracks of a desert mouse in the sand outside our tent, so I opted for playing my Nintendo DS rather than allow unwanted visitors crawl into my ear canals during my deep slumber.

The next morning we set out for our adventure. Cool winds, 85 degree weather and no tourists.. It was just us, the desert, and a mouse. Wadi Rum is exceptional because the massive size of the rock formations really makes it an exceptional visit...sort of akin to visiting the Grand Canyon.

The most interesting place to visit was a crevice in between two cliffs. Evidently in ancient times when people travelled through the region on camel for the Mecca pilgrimage they would use it as a stopping ground. There are ancient messages in forgotten languages carved into the stone. Some travelers signaled danger by carving a picture of a man with a knife, or would tell you to climb up higher by carving a picture of two feet. Someone carved Ahmed + Sameera 4 ever which must mean something profound in ancient arabic.

We ended our trip exhausted, sunburnt, dehydrated but extremely enthusiastic. If you ever get a chance to visit Jordan, this is definitely a top destination!

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

When not to eat a Banh Mi

Ahhhh Gay Paris...

People have been asking my why I haven't been blogging recently. I had to explain that I actually had to BE in Jordan to blog about living in Jordan. Yes, I have gone back to paris for 6 weeks and subjected myself to an unrelentless bombardment of muslim sin.

Elodie asked me what I wanted to do as soon as I got off the plane. I replied, 'I want BOOZE, PORK PRODUCTS, AND I WANT TO SLEEP IN WITHOUT BEING WOKEN UP BY A MOSQUE AT 5 AM'.

The next tier down from that list is international food and entertainment which are the two other things in short supply in Amman (here, Bennigans is listed as a 3 star restaurant) . No Pho, no bibimbap, and the so called 'sushi' restaurants are all run with Philippinos pretending to be Japanese. I went up to the sushi bar once at The Living Room and said 'kamusta ka (hello in Tagolog)' and the blood from his face drained as sheer white panic gripped him. He didn't say anything, but I could read his mind. SH*T! The gigs up! I've been exposed! Somone knows my name really isn't Nakamura!

Luckily for me, I have friends who have culture in France. I got my ass dragged down to ART exhibits, which for me is 10 times more effective at putting me to sleep than an extra strength NyQuil. Since I was forced to see art, I forced them to eat Vietnamese. Vietnamese food that is... not the people.

A recent controversy sparked by a New York Times article got me interested in checking out the legendary Vietnamese sandwich. Man these Vietnamese are really pissed off about changing a sandwich! You would think that with all that anger Ho Chi Minh himself was behind all of this!

So off we went to Belleville in the 10th district, the now up and coming place to get your 'grub on' for asian food. Mike, Sabrina, and Peggy.. the three French that I brought with me were pretty hesitant about walking in with all these asians everywhere and strange mystery meats spread out all over the sandwich counter. Vietnamese salami, chilis, paté, a tub of gloopy vietnamese mayonnaise. My favorite topping is fromage de tête, which is chopped pigs ears held together with savoury gelatin. It makes the sandwich 'croquant' which is translated to CRUNCHY!

I bit into the Banh Mi and ran a mental check in my head to see if it was authentic.

Savory Vietnamese Mayo on bottom slice of bread - CHECK
Salty mystery meat - CHECK
Crudite - CHECK
Cleared sinuses from eating raw chilis - CHECK
Bleeding gums and scratched up roof of mouth from chomping into Crunchy Bread - CHECK

It was so authentically good that I saved half of the sandwich for savouring throughout the day.

So Mike, Sabrina, and Peggy brought me to an exhibit that they thought wouldn't bore me to tears. Its called the Our Body exhibit in Paris and its a scientific exhibit where they took 20 dead people from China and sliced them up into 100 cross sections to teach about anatomy. Its amazing that our countries are so dependent on China for cheap imports, we even go to them for cheaper dead bodies! Coincidentally, I just read that the French government has shut down the exhibit because it offends public decency. The director of course was surprised since they were 'not showing anything that could have been shocking people.'

I mean, who would be shocked at seeing this?

Did you ever have déjà vu, like as if you've been somewhere before? Eventually, I passed by an exhibit with cross sections of a human being preserved in a gelatinous resin. It really made me feel like I was back at that Vietnamese sandwich place with all the cuts of meat and crunchy ears fanned out on the counter. The only thing missing was the julienned carrots.

To give credit to the Banh Mi being one of the tastiest sandwiches on this planet earth, even after the exhibit I couldn't resist the urge to finish my leftover sandwich.

Really, I couldn't understand why the French leaving the exhibit were freaking out at the site of me eating that sandwich. I mean, haven't they had a Banh Mi before???

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

What its like to eat with Diplomats in Amman

What blog about expat living would be complete without detailing a dinner with a diplomat?

Elodie and I had the pleasure of being invited to the home of a senior official at the French Embassy. Local legend rumours that whilst the American embassy will occasionally host a bbq with american made frozen hamburgers, the French embassy will throw a classy soirée on a regular basis.

So I was quite excited by the fact that we were going to be received at a French dinner party. I was more curious about what we were going to eat actually. I mean, just how do you cook french food when everything is banned? Lardon (french bacon) is completely illegal, wine is more expensive than crude oil, and crème fraiche will run you about 7 dollars for a little tub. If you remove these ingredients in French food, then you basically have British food (YUCK).

Now, I've been to a few diplomatic dinners from my days as a lowly intern at the American Embassy in Tokyo. There is a certain protocol to these events. One must wear a dinner jacket or some chic extravagant accessory (A texan would wear a bolo tie, a european would wear a one of those neck scarves that barons often do).

Next you would be accompanied by your wife who is either an opera singer you married during your assignment in Kenya or an artist from Argentina that you met while teaching the indigenous people how to farm.

Following the introductions and declarations of who you are, where your from, and what organization you work with..the next questions that follow are polite versions of what I call the 'What the HELL brings you this far from home and HOW the hell did you two meet?' Of course, everyone asks a married Korean-French couple how they met but atleast in this environment everyone is kind of like us. Just about everyone we know is mixed couple here. Italian-Spanish, Jordanian-Lebanese, Spanish-Canadian, Italian-Estonian. A lot of people think that mixed kids look really cute, but I have seen a few freaks in my lifetime too. But, I digress....

In haute culture you serve an aperitif which is an opening drink of alcohol or juice just before dinner is served. While the martinis and olives are being served, the bragging about all your world adventures begins. Little drops about 'Oh that one time I was at that beautiful open-air theater in Bulgaria...' or 'I found that the best preservation of work life balance to be in Africa.' Elodie and I are pretty traveled people, but we found ourselves outnumbered and outgunned at this party. Having only lived in one or two developing nations and only a quarter of the G20 nations in our lifetime, we felt a bit sheepish to discuss any of our past destinations.

With the wafts of dinner aromas we were called to the table. French culture dictates that seats at the table are pre-selected as to optimise the flow of conversation and comfort of your guests. At the head of the table was our gracious host. Seated on his side were all the other diplomats and international aid representatives. WTF?!? I got seated with all the bored housewives while my wife got seated with all the men!!! Am I in the bored housewife category?!?

Its a good thing that I like to cook so I spent the evening exchanging recipes and pretending to know something about fine French wines. Dinner was ready and our hostess served.... Grilled Lamb in olive oil, garlic and herbs! Probably the ONLY food that is exactly the same between the middle east and France. Atlast, curiousity solved.

A typical ex-pat dinner party will feature some local main course, but will be spiced up with exotic treats picked up during their travels. Lebanese wine, European chocolates, African nutmeg, Brazilien rain forest honey. Anything that will act as a centerpiece for discussion is always a bonus.

Dinner is finished and now it is time for digestifs and after drinks to finish the evening. As people get to know more about eachother, the discussions within these circles always tends to gravitate towards politics and world news. The crisis in Sudan, the North Korean missile launch, Afghanistan, Slumdog Millionaire.

When the discussion focused on Obama and all that he needs to accomplish over the next 4 years, all eyes turned on me to see what my opinion of what lies ahead for the US.

So Frank... Do you think that Obama is up for the job?
(hushed crowd)
(pensive thought....)

(slow...deliberate...sage tone of voice proceeds....)

" With Great Power comes a Great Responsibility"

(a wowwww emotion overcomes the audience)

"Spiderman 2"

Elodie was NOT pleased with my joke.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dead Sea Enema

Its 12 noon.  Its the middle of winter.  Its a Friday.  The rest of Europe and America is off to work. 

I'm in my swim suit.  I'm at a 5 star resort. Its 24 degrees outside.  I'm floating in the dead sea.  

And my sphincter is on fire.

What does one do in this situation?  I'm supposed to be relaxing with the rich and well-to-do all around me and my wife Elodie just suggested that I try to float in a 'sitting up position' as if I'm reading the morning newspaper.

'Look the water is so salty that you can float sitting up' she says.

Something about that particular position just happened to 'open me up' to the harsh brutalities of dipping your body in 35% salt water....OWCH!  YOU BET YOUR ASS ITS SALTY!!!

This is the dead sea.  Full of rich vitamins from the natural springs below, it is known for its rich healing minerals but not so widely known for its colon cleansing properties.

We are pictured here at the Movenpick dead sea resort.  Movenpick is better known as a fancy ice-cream brand in Europe, but has somehow found the marketing power to convince people to stay at their hotels.  I expect Baskin Robbins to follow up with a string of branded motels along the Route 66 soon.

We arrived there early in the day and got our salt treatment, followed by a free mud treatment.  Basically, they give you a bucket of mud that smells a bit like dirt and fishbones but evidently when applied to your skin its supposed to pull out any toxins.  My theory is that it replaces those toxins with fishbone smell and drys your skin to a worser condition so I actually am not a believer that its actually good for you.  If however, you are into smelling like swamp fish stew, I can arrange to send you some in the mail for a minimal fee.

We went through the whole experience of the dead sea, massive swimming pools, pina coladas and shiatsu massage treatments.  Not to mention that its totally sweet that they pump you up full of strong arabic coffee  brewed over open fires in the traditional bedouin manner.  

We thought that the day was over but our driver introduced a few surprises.  We had been driven by the father of Elodie's driver at work and he didn't speak ANY english except for 'Welcome to Jordan.'   We would ask how far is the dead sea?  He would say, 'welcome to Jordan.'  Is the water cold?  'Welcome to Jordan.'  OK, so it was difficult to communicate with him unless we wanted to say 'This is our first time to your country.'

We pulled out of the Movenpick entrance at about 4 PM and headed off to home.  The phone rang and the driver picked it up and started looking around, swerving, and making multiple wrong turns.  We started the day off in a a luxury 5 star resort, and ended up being driven to a dirt parking lot next door.  

Hundreds of families were parked out in the lots with their barbecues at full blaze.  Kids playing in broken glass.  Bedouin merchants passed by on camels and horses to offer rides for 50 cents.  Garbage was everywhere.  We had unknowingly been invited to join in the weekend festivities with the driver and his family for the real Jordanian dead sea experience.   

We were treated to barbequed pieces of lamb, chicken, and minced beef with fresh pita breads and garlic yoghurt.  The best part about this was that the brother cooking the food had NO idea what Hooters meant on his sweater.

Six PM and it was time to go.  Wait a minute.  There are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 family members. One car.  How the HELL did they get here?   The answer: Car Yoga.  As other cars started to pull out of their spots, I watched whole families dog pile into their family cars.  One family I saw actually cut out the divider beween the back seat and the back window so that the kids could stand for the ride home.  Others put the children in the trunk to lie down with their brothers and sisters.

Since we had two extra spaces, we invited three of them to join us.  Hey, when in Rome right?

Exhausted, sun burnt, and smelling like fish bone soil, we thought.. its a shame that our other friends can't be here with us.  

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Jerashic Park

Welll, sorry for the long Hiatus. I had a Looooong bout with a stomach virus that I contracted from some awful falafel that I had at world famous Hashem's restaurant. Its so famous that even the royal family drop in there from time to time whenever they get sick of eating properly cleaned food in one of their many palaces. I'll take you there sometime.

So we had the great fortune of renting a 2005 chevy malibu from a Jordanian Hertz for the day, so we decided to go to Jerash. Why have I never heard of this place? Oh, probably because I couldn't even point to Jordan on a map 3 months ago, thats why.

But dang. This was a nice place. I went to a lot of Greek ruins a few years back in Athens, and they looked pretty ruined so you get kind of bored quickly. But this place was very well preserved. Like a park of Ancient Rome that Walt Disney setup so that you don't have to travel to several different places to get the full experience of the Roman empire and overpriced souvenirs. Here in Jerashic Park you get it all!

So the Roman Empire was quite large as I'm told, and it had gone down as far as the middle east. Several cities were erected to protect the territories in the Middle east and one of the best preserved ones is Jerash. I was quite surprised to see my best roman architectures so far to be in the middle east, but maybe someone wise hundreds of years ago thought that it would be good for tourism, so they preserved it well.

You first start off at Hadrians Arch where it dawns on you that you are no longer in Kansas. We snapped a few pictures just to prove that we were there and headed off down a path with fallen roman carved columns.

To the left there is a still operational hippodrome (for those who don't know what a hippdrome is, its where they raced horse chariots... not hippos. Watch gladiator for more information). We bumped into one of their ... eh hem.. 'gladiators' who offered to take a picture with us.

(No danger here of this one pointing his pinky finger at me!)

After taking pictures with the microwarrior we trudged up a hill to the sound of scottish music. Not quite clear what bagpipes were doing in a roman re-enactment but we found ourselves at a fantastically preserved roman theater. Evidently the Brits conquered Jordan for a while and left the locals a tradition for scottish bagpipes in the military bands and a pension for fried foods in their cuisine.

Here is a picture of elodie just before this rich Saudi guy asked Elodie to be his second wife. The first wife took elodies picture so that she could hire a witch doctor to cast a spell on her to give her warts. Just kidding if you didn't already guess.

After 15 minutes of bagpiping, we moved on up the hill to catch a glimpse of the entire park. Amazing...It was like stonehenge but with more stones. A circled plaza of roman columns could be viewed from the hills, with a temple dedicated to least thats what we think it was. It was all written in arabic so who really knows. After a while, tourists that saw that we had a book started asking us what these buildings were. We started making things up like, 'this is where they had their local starbucks'. 'I think this is the vomitorium.' 'I'm pretty sure they did sacrifices in this area.'

We wrapped up the day with a drive back home that only took 45 minutes. Talk about convenience. We had left the house at 12:30 and had an outright amazing experience seeing all this in half a day. I hope that you get a chance to connect to the full album via my facebook(click here) album. The place is one of the most beautiful places I've been to.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Surviving Amman Taxis

*** NOW, the Jordanians are some of the nicest, sweetest, people I've come across. That being said, I do get into trouble in every 1 out of 4 taxis. This is the story of my worst trip so far***

I still can't believe it. I think that someone connected in the taxi industry has put a contract out on me. I must not have tipped a cabbie enough and the weighted scales of Karma began their oppressive tilt towards making my life a living hell.

The best way to pre-empt this story is to ask you to click here and play this song to the 45-60th second. Please do not read further if you are uncomfortable with graphic descriptions of adult material.

The cab was horribly run down with loud arabic music blasting through the tinny speakers hanging halfway out of their door compartments. The driver dressed in clothes that looked like they hadn't been washed in weeks.

If there is any lesson to be learned for those travelling in a taxi... do NOT ride in the front alone with a taxi driver. In this case, I had to put all of my bags in the back so I was forced to jump in the front.

Imagine if you will a big toothy grin from an unshaven dodgy taxi driver. Now remove the four front teeth. It looked kinda like a run-down hillbilly toothless Borat.

Driver: Where you from? Philipino?

Me: KO-RE-A!

Driver: ah Korea........SMALL! (He flipped out his pinky finger, which I guess is an arabic sign for a small member)

Me: Oh my god. You. Drive!

Driver: SMALL he shouted again. ARABIC MEN --- BIG (He then did an Obama style air fist jab with his right fist and grabbed his right elbow with his left hand to mimic his johnson)!

Me muttering: Why me?

Driver: You like sex? ME BIG (He then started to unzip his pants while driving!).


I then got seriously pissed off at the guy and told him to drive and be quiet. He kept saying things like Pepsi Can and Centimeters and I would have jumped out of the car but we were only a few blocks away. He kept grabbing my leg for a feelskie but I kept beating him off with my backpack on my lap.

As we pulled into the driveway of our apartment building I opened the door and rested my backpack on the ground and prepared to step out. BAD Decision. This was my only protection and it gave him the window of opportunity to grab my JUNK.

Me: AHHHHHHHHH (Scream in terror)! as he squeezed his hand on my short sword.

I grabbed my things and ran out to the safety of the pavement. In a last ditch attempt to try to get some, he put out his desperate sales pitch.

Driver: Me sucky, you f**ky! Me BIG (followed by another Obama style air fist jab and elbow grab)!

Obviously this was a ploy to tempt me so that he does all the heavy lifting. Not going to work tonight!

Now I have taken the experience on with very little trauma, but every time I see a yellow cab pass by I have this raw image of my tormentor burning through my memory.

Below here is an artists rendition of my taxi driver, courtesy of my colleague Fletch. Now you too, shall have the same imagery forced upon you every time you ride a cab.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

West Side Story

The search is over. We have an an apartment.

I my friends, am a man of simple needs. Give me a decent apartment with decent furnishings at a good price and location, plasma tv, sound system, playstation and I am easily satisfied.

My wife on the other hand is French and is not so easy to satisfy. We just about burned through an army of real estate agents and 80% of the rentals in Amman over the past 2 weeks because Elodie has what I would describe to the poor unfortunate souls helping us out as ‘Picky European Female Tastes.’

So just to describe to all of you who only see the Middle East through CNN, Amman is a very safe and modern city with a cool climate. It actually snows in January and February (although due to global warming, those days may now be over). It is like the Denver of the Middle East because it is so high in altitude (They call it the kilometer high city in arabic...just kidding).

Before moving to Jordan, I read a lot of posts about the best places to live in Amman and I think it all depends on what type of experience you are looking for. If you want the locals experience, you live in the East side where the buildings are crumbling and the products that you buy are all imported from China. If you are an expat, a working professional, or a wealthy businessman, you live in the West side. There, all the buildings are new and the products that you buy are all imported from South Korea.

So.. back to the real estate agents (poor things). The apartments in Jordan are built more for function rather than form so its hard to get a building that doesn’t look like it was built out of cement Legos. For the support of Korea exporting, we chose the West Side.

So we were taken to apartments in the West Side of town and we would bludgeon the hapless agents by pointing out the flaw in each place that they proudly presented to us.

The apartment conversations could usually be broken down like this:

Agent: Look this apartment has a view!
Us: A view of a parking lot is not exactly what we had in mind.

Agent: Look this apartment has new furniture!
Us: It looks like Arabian nights meets Saturday Night Fever (A spanish friend here coins it as Disco Rococo).

Agent: Look this apartment is walking distance to shopping!
Us: Walking distance to a canned food shop is not what we had in mind.

So we went through one, two, three, four, five agents. One day turned into two. Then three, then four. One week, now two. We were getting so many calls from Mohammeds that we actually had to ask ‘Which Mohammed are you?’

We finally narrowed it down to two choices and took a final viewing. One agent was a rich playboy who’s parents owned the Max Mara fashion chain in Jordan. The other agent was a ‘from the streets of Chicago’ Jordanian re-immigrated to Amman. After visiting the property of the Max Mara one, he dropped us off at the property being shown by the Chicago street agent. Suddenly I heard growls. Stares. Mad Dog looks and fighting stances. Agent vs Agent combat was about to ensue. These guys were ready to throw down!

Luckily for us, the two did not throw fisticuffs, but I think that in the right circumstance it could have happened if we all stepped out of the car and let the two debate in front of us the benefits of going with their properties.

So here we were at the final property. Its perfect. Its on the roof. Its got a full view of Amman below. It got a huge kitchen. Its new. Its too expensive. Damn.

The financial crisis effecting all of us is really, really a terrible thing for all of us to experience. Might as well turn those lemons into lemonade. When traveling abroad, you get to see the real survival instincts of your partner come out. She wanted this apartment and she would stop at nothing. First Elodie said she wanted it for 25% less. Done. Then she asked for a queen sized bed. Done. Then she asked for a gas bbq (she asked this for me because I was too much of a coward). They pleaded for a charcoal bbq. They folded. Gas it is. Every time they said no to her demands, she would come back and say that the neighbor with the empty rental apartment said they would do it for us. Man! I would just cringe while listening to her during the negotiations.

So here we have it folks:

The view from our new apartment with a spare bedroom for guests:

See you in Jordan!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Red Sea Adventure

SO. What would you do in our situation?

A) Land in Jordan and look for an apartment right away.

B) Land in Jordan and Scuba dive in 80 degree sunshine in the middle of winter.

Hmmmm... Let me draw a picture for you...

SCUBA BABY!!!!!!!!

I particularly like this photo due to my Kim Jong Il hairstyle and Elodie is actually smiliing. If you look at the other 50 photos of us underwater elodie has no smile and looks as if she swam next to a dead body (One of these photos is in our facebook album).

That's right folks. Our true colors show and you now know where we hold our priorities.

After living in Seattle-like winter conditions for the past five years in Paris we decided that we should hit the beach and flip the bird towards Europe.

Getting down to the Red Sea was quite an experience in itself. You really feel like you are in a different country as soon as you start taking the public transportation. The bus was actually quite modern (no chickens flying in the back) with built in AC. It felt like any other bus really. There are some differences of course. The women next to us were completely veiled (called a 'Niqab'), the TV was playing an arab action film with the middle eastern world's version of a Keanu Reeves, and the children were completely well behaved. How is it that you have a four hour bus ride with well behaved children, while on European and American transport the kids are running and screaming everywhere?

Elodie and I were really rolling the dice on this voyage because we bought our breakfast off of a dodgy street food snack vendor just before boarding a four hour trip non stop bus. Not the ideal place if you have to do multiple #2's. Thank god Hommous is like quick drying cement for your digestive system.

Upon arriving in Aqaba (the main resort town on the Red Sea), we were mobbed by ruthless taxi drivers. Try this for fun. Get two taxi drivers, then get them to bargain against eachother in a bidding war. I don't speak Arabic, but it sure seemed to be some colorful language from the taxi driver that lost!

I hate being new to a city and only having a lonely planet. The advice is always outdated and often sucks. The french have 'Le Guide de Routard,' but I prefer to call it Le Guide de RETARD. Elodie insisted on getting 'Fresh' Seafood off of a boat from a recommended restaurant. We took the taxi to a rusting tugboat with no customers and homeless people camping around it. Great. We fell into the next trap which is asking the taxi driver for a recommendation. Mistake number 2. He dropped us off at some hole in the wall and said he will come out to say hi to his 'friend.' Realising that we had been duped we just freakin' walked around town to find a restaurant. Go lonely planet... yipeee.

We decided on taking our hotel at the coral bay since it was the furthest from civilisation and had its own dive center. This would most likely guarantee the healthiest coral and sea life. After dropping off our bags, we went out to the beach and jumped into the water to the bewilderment of many amazed arab guests (80 degree weather is like winter for these folks). It was indeed some of the cleanest water and healthiest coral life I've ever seen. I can attest to that because I swallowed the water 3 times accidentally and remarked to myself each time... wow THATs clean water!!

For scuba diving, I would highly recommend the outfit that we had found. We originally tried to go with the Royal Diving Center, but the service and attitude ROYALLY stunk. We found the Red Sea Diving centre and they were so welcoming and open we felt like part of the family. They busted out photos of their father teaching scuba to the king of Jordan and pumped us up full of arabic coffee.

Red Sea Dive Center
Abdullah Al-Momany
+962 (3) 202 2323

Our dive was pretty amazing. Like aquarium amazing. We hit the most famous spot called 'Japanese Gardens' and found ourselves swimming around dozens of puffer fish. Is it called Japanese gardens because its all the fish that japanese like to eat?

I really enjoy scuba diving around coral reefs and this was an exceptional chance to see the reefs in full healthy form. Evidently they have sold every beach front property to mega hotels, so I think these fish and coral will only be around for another ten years before it gets too crowded and beat up. You won't catch me swallowing the water in those times for sure.