Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"This Place...Isn't Real"

Once again, it seems that the time between blog entries has been far longer than I originally intended. I believe I will quit the charade of putting a deadline on my posts, because I am always about a week late. Or maybe, as my readers, you will just have to understand that you should add a week's time on to whatever date that I say I will be posting by. Thank you once again for your patience, and I hope this entry will have been worth your wait.

Now...there is much to catch up on.

The last several weeks have been very eventful. Just last week, I passed through the fires of Arabic midterms, although the jury is still out on how scorched I am from the exams as I haven't gotten my grades back yet. I've bashfully performed an Arabic dialog with my friend Stephanie in front of my class, filling the gaps in my Arabic knowledge with the appropriate amount of dramatic performance, not too unlike a high school presentation (I'm talking to you Senora Obando). And without a doubt my favorite part of the last few weeks, I have gotten to travel. In fact, this last weekend is the first weekend in four weeks that I have spend in the city of Amman. I am sure that many of you are rolling your eyes. "Baxter, you've already traveled to Jordan, what more could you want?" Let's be honest: I am a greedy traveler. Many people, if not most, say that they like to travel. However, to differentiate, I have an insatiable hunger for travel. As long as there is a place that I have not been (yet), I want to travel. Herein, my time in the Middle East has been good to me. I have had the chance to take nice weekend trips, to both the beach in Aqaba and the mountains of the Dana Nature Preserve. And I have the fullest intentions of relaying my experiences at these places, especially the camping that I did in Dana, one of my favorite places on earth. More recently, though, my roommate Sean and I had the opportunity to travel to a place unlike any other. For last weekend, we took an excursion to the United Arab Emirates to visit the city of Dubai.

About four weeks ago, Sean approached me about taking a trip to the Arabian Peninsula, possibly Oman or the UAE. At the time, I disregarded this suggestion, as I didn't have a particular interest to travel to that region of the Middle East. As time passed however, Sean's idea continued to eat at me, until one day I broke down and purchased a ticket to Dubai. Surprised by my impulsive decision, Sean also purchased a ticket and plans were made to spend my 21st birthday weekend in Dubai. Many days and adventures in Amman passed. And, last Thursday, October 28th, Sean and I packed our bags, boarded a plane, and prepared to hold on to our wallets as tightly as we could. However, this notion of living frugally for the weekend did not come to fruition, as will be seen.

Attempting to describe Dubai is a rather difficult task. As Sean said after about 24 hours in the city, "Dubai is the place that Walt Disney would have created, if he had no monetary limits and lacked his love of children." Prior to visiting Dubai, I was, of course, aware of the many impressive buildings and other feats of architecture present in the city. Actually experiencing Dubai was a completely different matter altogether. I feel as though the word "small" or the phrase "low-key" does not exist anywhere in Dubai. Everything in the city, from the buildings to the roadways, the restaurants to their menus, to the price of anything one would want to buy, was designed in an attempt to add to the collective notion of extravagance.

All of this being said: what did Sean and I actually do?

Friday morning, Sean and I woke up after a longer than expected flight and a very strange experience at an Iran nightclub (yes, those in fact do exist...if you ever happen to chance upon one, do NOT eat the fruit-plate) and asked ourselves that same question. So what did we decided to do? Go skiing, of course. And let's be clear, that's snow the desert. Not strange enough? What if I told you that it was inside of a shopping mall? That's right...Sean and I payed an equivalent to about $60, and were given skis/snowboard, ski pants and jacket, 2 hours on the slopes, and bragging rights. While the slopes may have been small, as we eventually timed ourselves at 6 minutes a run (including lift-ride time), the quality of the skiing, the snow, and runs was excellent! No snow-machines were blowing, as one would expect. Apparently, the snow is manufactured every night and maintained throughout the day at 30 degrees Fahrenheit, in what is essentially a massive freezer. Everything about the experience was authentic... My nose, ears, and hands froze, as we were not given a toboggan or gloves (my extra socks were eventually converted to mittens). Sean and I enjoyed lunch at the "ski lodge" and took the time to let ourselves thaw. And on my second to last run, my jacket was filled with freezing snow when I wiped out, just as it would at any "normal" ski slope. Unstrapping my boots as our 2 hour lift pass drew to a close, I was both completely satisfied and thoroughly impressed with Ski Dubai. As far as I'm concerned, skiing outside may be overrated. 

Following our experience on the manufactured, snow-covered, mountain, Sean and I decided to continue along the nature progression of our day. And what might that be? Why an afternoon trip to the beach, of course. Thus, within one hour, allowing time to return our ski equipment, walk through the Mall of the Emirates (the largest mall in Dubai), and catch a taxi, we had transported ourselves from one very distinct climate to another. Jumeirah Beach was very pleasant and enjoyable. Sorry to report, the beach lacked any artificial enticements, as there were no androids zipping about delivering snow-cones or margaritas, and Dubai has yet to discover how to replicate a beach environment wherein one has no need for sunscreen. But give them time. The hot white sand and warm turquoise water of the Persian Gulf made for a relaxing afternoon. However, to separate this experience from any other beach I have visited, I simply had to take my eyes off of the sailboats and waves and observe the incredible skyline of Dubai which pressed in all around me. Additionally, the outline of the Burj al-Arab loomed several hundred feet down the beach, beckoning to be photographed. By the time Sean and I were finished with our time on Jumeirah Beach, the sun was beginning to set and so we decided it would be best to return to the beach the next day in order to get a closer look of the renowned, sailboat shaped hotel. 

After devouring two large pizzas in our hotel room in a futile attempt to keep to our budget, Sean and I suited up and headed out for a night in the city. As impressive as it may be during the daytime, Dubai puts on a new mask as the sun sets, transforming into another spectacle to be at which to be gawked. Every massive skyscraper and feat of architecture has taken its lighting into careful consideration, allowing the city to become a pulsing glow of luxury. Doing our best to dress for the occasion, we made our way to the premium Dubai Marina Club where, after being dropped-off by our taxi at the wrong location (although it happened to be the Marina Club's main house, modeled after the Sydney opera house), Sean and I were shuttled by golf cart to QD's, a creek-front restaurant and hookah lounge. Seated just off the water, Sean and I enjoyed excellent views of the Dubai Creek and the surrounding cityscape while soaking in the cool breezes which the night had to offer. Accompanied by good conversation and wonderful watermelon-mint shisha, I knew in that moment that regardless of how expensive this trip was, I was extremely happy that I decided to come to Dubai. 

After a late night out, we decided to sleep-in on Saturday, before heading back out for our last day in Dubai. Upon checking out of our hotel, Sean and I made our way to the first and primary destination of the day, the Burj Khalifa. Formerly known as the Burj Dubai, the Durj Khalifa is the tallest building and man-made structure on planet Earth. Standing at over 2,500 feet and 160 stories, the Burj Khalifa towers above the city of Dubai, as it rightly would tower over any other city in the world. However, the structure is viewed by the citizens of Dubai as "more than just the world's tallest building, Burj Khalifa is an unprecedented example of international cooperation, symbolic beacon of progress, and an emblem of the new, dynamic and prosperous Middle East." And while I may not be able to fully grasp all of those concepts, coming from a different background and perspective, the Burj Khalifa is no less breathtaking. Once I was finally able to move inside from staring at the massive and beautifully designed construction of glass and metal, I was impressed by the actual tour of the building. After a thorough exhibit explaining the construction and vision behind the Burj Khalifa, Sean and I entered one of two elevators leading to the tallest observation deck in the world (as a note of interest, the elevators had only two options when it came to buttons to press: Floor "1" and Floor "143"). 

The view from the top of the Burj Khalifa was incredible. I could attempt to conjure up as many adjectives as I possible to try to explain how incredible it was, but I do not wish to water down my vocabulary's credibility. Please just trust me, when I say that it was amazing. To put it in perspective, take your memories of the viewpoint from the tallest building that you have ever been inside (for most "tall" buildings, maybe 30-40 stories)...and multiply that perspective by about 4 times. Then, in your mind's eye, surround this viewpoint on one side by the business district of one of the world's most progressive and luxurious cities. On the other side, fill the image with pictures of a coastline and beach, off of which sit some of the world's most famous man-made islands (not mention some of the most frequently visited sites on Google Earth). As a final touch, complete this panorama with an expansive desert that stretches far beyond the, maybe, just maybe one can at least have an understanding of how awesome the view from the top was, while also grasping how difficult it is to describe. So, after about 45 minutes of soaking in the reality of the scene, taking pictures, and gaping at workers cleaning windows above 140 stories, we made our way back to ground level.

In all honesty, after our visit to the Burj Khalifa, combined with the busy day that we had on Friday, Sean and I were rather exhausted. However, we knew that we had more to see in Dubai. Following a quick lunch at the bottom of the Burj, we hopped in a taxi and headed back to Jumeirah Beach. We managed to find a much closer view of the Burj al-Arab and took time to admire the iconic, seven-star hotel. It was indeed remarkable standing next to the distinguished building that I had seen amazing pictures of for several years and which has been used as a cultural beacon of opulence. I was surprised by how close one could actually get to the hotel via public beach access. But I was no less grateful for this opportunity to witness yet another magnificent building. The trip to the Burj al-Arab was much simpler than our visit to the Burj Khalifa, as we merely stood and gazed at the structure, the beach, and the scene as a whole. Yet, this was incredibly relaxing.
After a quick visit to Jumeirah Mosque, one of the largest and most famous mosques in the city, Sean and I decided to take a quick nap in a Starbucks across from the mosque (yes, it's true) before heading to the creek area and exploring the souqs. Dubai Creek proved to be very exciting, as I found it to be the most "local" experience that I had in Dubai. Taking an abra (small, simple boat that belongs in an Indiana Jones film) from the southern side of the creek across to the northern side was unexpectedly exhilarating. Cramming onto the abra with about twenty-five local dockworkers, Sean and I payed the cheap fare and smiled nervously to each other as we set-off across the creek (which in reality is a wide river). The sun was beginning to set and cast an inspiring golden-orange glow across the water. The contrast between modernity and tradition was ever-present as skyscrapers, such as the National Bank of Dubai, loomed over the venerable wharfs, lined with aged ships preparing to transport their cargo to Iran.
After parting ways with the abras on the north side of the creek, Sean and I ventured into the mysterious and fragrant souqs. We wandered through the maze of creek-side shops, avoiding being dragged into small stalls (filled with every nostril-burning spice imaginable) by small, thin men attempting to sell us overpriced hookahs or poorly copied Omega watches. Eventually, Sean found an Iran rug shop, and I got to enjoy watching him barter with the two shopkeepers. They were actually genuinely friendly and gave Sean a good deal, once they figured out that he meant business. I eventually got to do some haggling myself, although not for nearly as noble a cause as an Iran carpet...I just wanted some t-shirts. After an hour or two, wandering amongst the gold, the cardamom, and the replica Polo attire, we found ourselves completely fatigued and knew that it was time to call it quits. We did, however, still have several hours until our flight left for Amman. So, we did what any true Arab male (or American twenty-something, college student) would do: we found a modest hookah bar on the rooftop of a hotel and absorbed our final images of Dubai through the lens of the beautiful night that had risen around us. With shisha in one hand, a cup of shia (tea) in the other, and the lights of the vibrant Emirate city around me, I don't think I could have asked for a better way to end the weekend.

And that my friends was my weekend in Dubai. Yes, it's true that Sean and I both stumbled back into the apartment at about 3 a.m. Sunday morning, following several flight delays, with empty pockets and barren wallets. But please have no doubts, this was an incredible trip, and I honestly don't know if I will ever have the opportunity or will-power to return to Dubai. Hence, I can certainly say that my impulses proved to be beneficial on this occasion, as I am so happy that this trip came together. Dubai is one ridiculous city. And while its furious economic drive may have slowed down some at the moment, the city remains one of the world's most distinguished locations, as both a center of progressive industry and exuberant wealth. And now, I have seen it with my own eyes.

Next up: Ten days exploring, experiencing, and discovering everything that I can in Lebanon. Wish me luck. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Diving Deep

If I have learned one lesson since I have been in Jordan, it would be that I am not the most committed blogger. As you can see, it has been about two weeks since I last published an entry. Acknowledging this fact, I believe it is about time that fill in the gaps of my time here. I am sure that some details of my trip (while they may be broad) would be appreciated.

While I have discussed Jordan and the culture here with many people before, this is by far a completely different trip from my past experiences. As I mentioned in my last entry, the adjustments that I have faced were rather unexpected. However in the almost 5 weeks that I have been here, I have had some truly incredible experiences and gotten the chance to actually live in and experience a culture that I have appreciated and been interested in for almost 2 years now. I am almost positive that every student who has studied overseas has said similar things. But again, I'd like to point out the fact that, because I have traveled to Jordan before, I believe that I am able to dive that much deeper into the Jordanian culture. In previous travels, I've waded in the shallow waters of the lifestyle in Amman; I've even gotten my hair wet in the rich history of the society. Now however, in this fall semester, I have the chance to take a plunge into the deep waters of Jordan and its people.

Having said all of this, I am afraid that I am going to have to disappoint everyone once again: the details of the last 5 weeks are going to have to wait just a bit longer. One of the many simple joys that I have found while living here in Jordan has been my disconnection with most modern forms of technological infrastructure. This doesn't mean that I cannot use the internet or check my email, clearly as I am publishing this post. This does mean though that my dependence upon these tools, especially my cellphone, has evaporated along with all other moisture in this desert. I send probably a total of 15 text messages a week, which those of you who know me back home, realize that this is a remarkable feat. The point of all of this is that the internet connection is not always the most reliable piece of Jordanian society...come to think of it, the only reliable aspect I can think of would be Jordanian hospitality. Sorry taxi drivers, you did not win this one, believe it or not. Anyhow, the pictures that I wanted to upload with this entry are currently not working. And I did not want to begin to describe my time here without pictures. So please, I just want to ask you exercise a bit more patience. I promise to submit a new, full-bodied entry (with PICTURES) the next time I post (most likely this Saturday/Sunday).

I want to thank everyone for even encouraging me to write and keep this blog. I hope that it hasn't been too much of a disappointment. I mean, even on days like today, you get a small glimpse of life here, illustrated by the lack of internet dependability. At least that's what I am going to tell myself. But as it is getting late here, I need to go work on my Arabic wonderful professor, Dr. Muna, informed my class this week that now that we have learned the alphabet and covered some basic aspects of grammer, my class has moved from an Arabic Level 1 to Level 2 class! I don't know whether to be excited or scared out of my mind. Either way, that probably is a sign that I need to start actually focusing on my homework.

Oh, and one last note of interest...Sean (my roommate) and I have now official booked hotel rooms in Dubai! Thirty-two dollars a night, in downtown Dubai? Who would have thought such existed? 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

In for the Long Haul

Three weeks in another country can seem like a lifetime. It can even feel suffocating to acknowledge the fact that you have made this decision yourself, to leave all those that you love behind. For what? Adventure? To experience another culture? To learn a new language? Or even because you tell yourself that you are looking for something? But what is that something that you are looking for after all?

As I begin my fourth week here in Jordan, these are the questions that I have wrestled with for the past twenty-odd days. My first two weeks here in country were full of the orientation events that one would expect to take place when beginning a new college program. However I, of course, did not take these into consideration in anticipation to my trip. 
"Jordan? Oh yeah, I've been there before," I said to myself as I walked through the security checkpoints in ATL's Hartsfield-Jackson airport, having said a tearful goodbye (you killed me, dad) to my family. Knowing that I would have plenty of wonderful, new experiences in a country that I loved, I did not expect the transitions that I would face in my first two weeks here. Have no doubts: I LOVE it here. The difficulties that I have faced since I have been here have been completely unrelated to Jordan, the culture, the people, or even the language barrier. I failed to take into consideration the fact that I was basically starting college over. A whole new school- encompassing a larger campus, different professors, and new comrades. My first two week were an adjustment. But have no fear, I believe I can confidently say: my feet are set. And I am here. I'm here to stay. 

So, considering those questions that I have been asking myself, did I leave my loved ones behind? Of course.
Did I come to Jordan- seeking adventure, attempting to become Bedouin myself, and hopefully to learn as much Arabic as possible? Without a doubt.
And lastly, am I looking for something, here in Amman, in the bustling city and in the vast desert? Absolutely

But I have come to this overarching conclusion that rises above all of my fears, doubts, and joys: I am here to ask just these questions and more. And to seek out their answers. I am here to learn about myself and the world around me. 

Regardless of the insecurities that I once had, it is refreshing to walk outside of my small two bedroom apartment, look around, and know that this is where I belong.

At least where I belong for the time being...until I find somewhere else to wander off and ask questions. 

Oh, and as I said, the Bedouin lifestyle is definitely for me:

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


After about 25 hours of travel time, one day of orientation at the Dead Sea, 12 days of forging food for myself, 21.5 hours of Arabic exposure, and 15 totals days since I have arrived to this wonderful city of Amman, Jordan, I have gained access to this modern technological advancement that we call the Internet and have started my blog.

Many thanks to all of you who have encouraged me to start this blog and for your patience in waiting for it's creation. I hope that it lives up to your expectations.

This blog will no doubt be a work in progress, as this is all very new to me (don't be too disappointed Patrick). I hope to create an actual post very soon to recap all that has happened and all that it now going on here in my world of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Again, thank you for your patience.

But for the time being, please just know that all is well. I'm alive. I'm in school. And I'm beginning to learn the difference between "haa" and "khaa" (that's an Arabic joke, by the way. Shout out to Micah). 

If you're reading this, then you are obviously someone I care about. Please know you are missed. But right now, I've got to run and catch the bus. I'll be back soon.