Nothing too interesting.

Dear readers,

Hi.

I apologize for the lack of posts recently.  There is this weird thing I have about wanting to have something to write about before sitting down to write a post and the things that surface when the fingers hit the keyboard that I have yet to fully understand, and that I am sure is not unique to me.  Furthermore, I am not really partial to writing about my day to day life.  BUT, in an instance of lacking inspiration and feeling badly about it I will stray from my normal musings and do a brief recap of what I have been up to lately.

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As of today I have been back in Amman for a few weeks.

In early December I finished my semester of Arabic studies at the Qasid institute and immediately left Jordan for a brief trip to Palestine.  When I say immediately, I mean to say that after finishing my final exam, having brought my packed bags to class with me, a classmate (and fellow traveller) and I walked outside, bought a couple of falafel sandwiches to tide us over for the journey, and found a cab to take us to the border.

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While I could go into serious detail and chronicle my journey, I have chosen to cover a large span of time in this post so pardon my brevity.  While in Palestine I spent a few nights in Bethlehem and took a day trip to Hebron.  It was really excellent, as excellent as such a trip can be.  As I have described to people in the past, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I was having tons of fun, but it was a really excellent experience that I enjoyed.  I am not sure if eye-opening is the right description, as I like to imagine that my eyes were already open, but it was informative.  We stayed with a friend of a friend who quickly became a friend who lived in Bethlehem in the home of an old Christian family.  They were wonderful.  The woman was very grandmotherly and her husband was a quaint and jolly man with a bit of a drinking problem.  We spoke to them almost exclusively in Arabic and ate wonderful home made meals, and were sad to leave in the end.

We departed after a few days to head back to Amman where I had less than 24 hours to prepare for my flight to LA.  It was anxiety inducing but everything worked out in the end and I made it back to the USA with a bag full of dirty laundry, some olive oil and za’atar, and a craving for mexican food and good beer.

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Like always, my stay in California and the greater west coast area was excellent – it was dream-like.  In a good way.

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After a few weeks at home and a lot of time in the car and an excellent new years and many many trees (read the big things that stick out of the ground and are huge and phallic and populate the pacific northwest in terrifying numbers), I set off again for another indefinite stay in Jordan.  Indefinite, as in at least until the summertime, depending on how my graduate school applications go.

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Since then, I have settled into the comfortable and surprisingly ordinary life that I live here in Jordan.  I moved to a new apartment in an area called Jebel el-Weibdeh.  I know many people who live in this area and it is conveniently situated a short walk from the Beled, the downtown/old city area with great food and an interesting populous, and Jebel Amman, home to the famous Rainbow Street and some of the better western style cafes in the city.

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I am embarked on a job hunt, a somewhat silly thing regardless of the country you are in but potentially more funny here in Jordan than in other places.  I have had a few interviews in which I am potentially hired but will be called the day before work begins IF there is a position for me.  I have been asked to work full time for an international NGO without pay.  I have contemplated getting a job at a coffee shop.  INshallah, I will have a job teaching soon.  If things work out, it will be at an international school teaching social studies to middle schoolers.  If things work out less so, it will be at a language institute teaching english.

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In other news, I have done a bit of volunteering at an organization that a good friend (read as only friend) does work for.  It is called the CRP – Collateral Repair Project – and provides assistance to Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Jordan who have fled conflict or war.  If you are interested, please check out their website – they do great work. http://www.collateralrepairproject.org/.  I taught a few english classes for them and helped put together packages of winter clothing to be distributed to the families that they work with.

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In other news, I spend much of my time perusing the internet, reading fiction, and enjoying being utterly under-occupied.  I recently finished Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Gibson’s Neuromancer.  Both were excellent, although for the hype Neuromancer was underwhelming.  I am now reading Less Than Zero and am unsure as of yet how I feel about it, but I am enjoying it.  I should probably be working harder in my free time on my arabic, but I get to practice on a daily basis whether I want to or not, so I don’t feel overly bad.

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Lastly, tomorrow I will travel to Tel Aviv to meet up with a great friend from college, and we will then travel to Istanbul for a few days.  I am extremely excited.  Potentially, my travels will inspire me to post a bit more, as it has done in the past.  Inshallah.

P.S. The photos are completely irrelevant to the post but are nice and thought they would make everything more pretty, of course vital to a good update.

A meditation on Quality and my life as of late

So for some perspective, because I think its helpful – it is now 11:15 PM and I am sitting at a high and relatively low-comfort table in the bar at my hostel in Brussels drinking a Duvel (amazing) and listening to relatively low-quality country music.  I have just returned from eating dinner at a restaurant completely too incredible for a recent college graduate who has no job to be spending money on.  I had found it on the internet accompanied by fantastic reviews.  If I were to post internet reviews for things, I would write equally fantastic things.  My room was occupied by sleeping people of whom I have never seen or met before when I returned to it.  I felt badly because I could probably have been more quiet than I was, but I needed to get my computer and charger out of a locker that refused to aid me in my efforts to maintain evening time noise levels.  

 

Before eating at said far too expensive restaurant, I had a couple of delicious Belgian beers at a nearby and also critically acclaimed-by-the-internet bar, because on first arrival at the restaurant I was turned away due to a complete booking for the night.  My only hope lay in the good graces of the waiter/manager, one of two workers at the restaurant (he and the chef), who said that if I came back in a while he may be able to make room for me.  While before this I had been somewhat unsure of my decision to indulge myself at this mealtime, the indubitable demand for this restaurant made me unable to turn away the opportunity, and so I waited it out, not overly angry at the chance to try some different and delicious beers.

 

I seem to be distracted.  Dinner was delicious.  That is what this all means.  While eating dinner I finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which if you have read my last post, you will know that I was reading.  As I walked back from dinner, my mind was still reeling and trying to work out my feelings about the book itself and the way that it ended.  I thought that some of the themes discussed would be an interesting way to discuss what I have been up to the past few months in Amman, seeing as I haven’t discussed it much here and have been goaded by some faithful readers to discuss it, and of whom I am nothing without and so must oblige.

 

So first let me outline some of the things discussed in the book that I found interesting and then I think that will lead me to discuss my ongoings as of late.  And if it doesn’t, then I apologize in advance.  But bear with me.

 

So, the book is quite interesting and weird and I really have not yet completely worked out my feelings about it.  It is a philosophical discussion that is set to the backdrop of story that seemingly involves a man and his son traveling across the United States on a motorcycle but really ends up taking place in the mind of a brilliant but confused man struggling to come to terms with himself and the world in which he lives.

 

But this is not very important.  Basically, one of the things that the philosopher father man discusses is the idea of Quality.  He equates quality to the greek idea of Excellence.  He refuses to define Quality – it is neither subjective nor objective – in fact Quality is definitive, in that Quality is that which defines things.  It is something that occurs in the very act of the subject-object relationship.  

 

In simpler words – Quality is something that you know.  You cannot define it, but it exists as something that you can differentiate.  You can point to something as having Quality or not having quality.  

 

So, like, my dinner tonight, had some serious Quality.  And so far, in my experience, most of Belgian’s beers have some SERIOUS Quality.  It is awesome.  Really really great.

 

Okay, I am going to try to stop talking about Belgium just for a bit now.  You can see I am a bit smitten.

 

So, for the past couple of months I have been living in Amman and studying Arabic.  Upon arriving in Jordan I lived in Jebel Amman, a really great area that is close to the Beled, or the downtown/old city area, in the basement of a house named “Rainbow House” (as deemed by its inhabitants, or ancient folklore, one can’t be sure).  Now, this house is a total shithole.  Sorry.  I really can’t sugar coat it.  BUT.  That being said, it has some really great Quality to it as well.  I lived in the basement and never talked to anyone who lived up stairs for almost the entire first 3 weeks.  I had nothing against them, I just didn’t know them and am not always that willing to introduce myself to people because I like being alone a lot and sometimes have a  fear of meeting new people.

 

But after a few weeks I needed to do laundry and the laundry machines were upstairs, so I knocked on the door and said HEY come let me in I live downstairs and need to do laundry.  Well, this elicited an interesting response and from this moment on I have been termed “the basement guy” by most of the people residing in Rainbow House.  I take it as a term of endearment, and even now that I don’t live in the basement they still call me “the basement guy” and I think it’s great.  Rainbow House is an example of something where if you had delimited your understanding of Quality to some sort of definition it would definitely fall outside of these limitations, but there is an undoubtable and large amount of Quality to be found in Rainbow House and I think that almost everyone who has been there would agree with it.

 

After meeting the people who lived upstairs from me, I decided that a bit of human contact was a (slight) improvement upon my hermit-like behavior up until then and started to spend time with them.  They introduced me to the formerly greatest restaurant in Amman, run by an amazingly sweet Syrian man who was also a serious sorcerer in the kitchen.  For the next few weeks, until I moved away and then he had to shut his doors, we ate dinner with our favourite Syrian sometimes as many as 5 times a week.  It was incredible and I miss it dearly.

 

As you can guess, the Syrian man and his food had an incredible amount of Quality.  I still cannot understand how such a small man could have so much of this thing.

 

During this time I was working as an intern for IFES – the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.  There was an upcoming municipal election and there was serious work to be done.  While my work was far from intellectually stimulating, it was interesting to see what some of the preparations were like leading up to such a thing in such a place.  I learned a good amount and worked with great people and had an overall good time.

 

The above description is of my time from August-September.  In September I began Arabic classes again at Qasid – a highly appraised language institute in Amman that is close to the Jordanian University and is a great place with its own sizable amount of Quality.  Before starting classes, I moved from my basement dwellings to a studio apartment in Dahiet al-Rasheed, an area of town right next to the University and much closer to Qasid.  My commute to school would have been long and expensive and so I felt that it would be better to live closer to school.  Also, the apartment that I moved to was MUCH nicer than my basement accommodations.  

 

That being said, the overall Quality did not necessarily increase.  In fact I might even have to argue that it decreased.  Dahiet al-Rasheed is a much quieter neighborhood than Jebel Amman, and I have moved back to a fairly solitary existence, as I do not live with a bunch of goofball friends upstairs (I do try to get out when I can because I think that mental health is important and that it is good for that).  BUT – I have a great kitchen (not great but totally adequate) and I have my own space that is nice and it is easy to get to and from class and so things are good.

 

My classes are excellent as well.  I am in a class of only 6 students and my two professors are both really great.  They both have a huge amount of Quality but in VERY different ways.  I don’t think I have enough good things to say about them so I will leave it at that.

 

So like, that is what I have been up to lately.  It is weird but as you can see I have far more to say about my past week traveling around Belgium than I do about my past months in Amman.  I am not quite sure why this is, but I think it has to do with the somewhat monotony of my life in Amman and therefore a bit of a lack of serious stimulus, besides for the on the Arabic front.  I don’t really do very much except study and read some books in my free time and have some human interaction once in a while.

 

When traveling in Hostels you end up meeting people and asking their stories and they inevitably ask you for your story and you are forced to relate what you have been up to in as condensed a form as possible, because, like, you feel uncomfortable talking about yourself and receiving the reactions that you get when doing so.  

 

People have asked me about Jordan and Amman and what I think of living and being there.  And like, I don’t really know how to answer it when I am faced with these questions.  I really think it would be great to be able to rave about how taken with Amman I am and how I love it so much and want to live there forever, but that is too far from the truth to fake.  Its honestly quite hard to relate how I feel about it and so when I have to do so with strangers it is even more difficult, but I think that the discussion of Quality can give an interesting perspective with which to discuss this topic.

 

As you may have noticed, much of the Quality that I have encountered in Belgium has been material.  The food and beer are incredible.  There are fantastic coffee shops and BOOK STORES.  Holy shit I really love these things.  They are important to me, as much as I want to believe that I am not attached to material things and/or dependent upon them.  On the contrary, the things of Quality that I have encountered in Jordan are immaterial.  My Professors are fantastic.  I have great friends.  My ability to excel in learning Arabic, the major task of my life currently, is excellent.  But these things, at least in my eyes, are only loosely related to living in Amman.  I have met great people in many places and had great teachers all over the world, from California to Oman to Amman.  

 

So, I think that this is where my relative ambivalence towards Amman stems from.  I have encountered Quality in Jordan but it does not quite have the inherent locational Quality that I seek out in a place that I live.  

 

Walking on the streets of Belgium has been incredible.  It is so beautiful, it is ridiculous.  Like, it really makes you think holy shit this is an amazing world.  

 

Walking on the streets of Amman is different.  It often makes me really sad.  There are malnourished kittens everywhere.  They are almost as ubiquitous as trash is on the streets.  It is common for people to throw trash out of their cars when driving down the streets.  Everyone is smoking cigarettes.  When these are the things that I encounter walking down the street, I do not experience serious Quality in the way that I have walking around in Belgium, understandably.  Like I said, I am sad.  That is not to say that I don’t have experiences in Amman that make me think holy shit, life is amazing, and I am seriously glad that I am here on earth doing this.  But it is a different than walking down a canal in Brugge when the sun comes out over the rain clouds and you are just like, wow, I have no words.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I think that there is a serious amount of Quality in Jordan.  I think that Jordanians have extreme amounts of Quality.  I am proud to be able to call some of these people my friends now.  And my studies are amazing.  There is inherent Quality EXPLODING out of the Arabic language.  It is really amazing and I would like to be doing nothing more than what I am doing now – furthering my knowledge of this language.

 

But at the same time, I can’t deny that there are a lot of things that I miss, including my family and friends, and even material distractions like bookstores.

 

So, that is what I have for you now.  A brief synopsis of my recent life.  And some philosophizing that I hope isn’t too weird.

 

Disregarding all philosophical aspects because I would probably not like where they would lead me, my biggest quandary in my last two days in Brussels is the inverse relationship that books and beer are currently playing in my life.  I only have one suitcase to bring back with me and only so many things can be put in it.  And while the beer here is amazing, I will drink it and it will be gone if I bring it back, while that copy of The Pale King that I saw earlier today in a bookshop can be read over and over again and I will still be struggling to understand a tiny fraction of what Wallace is trying to tell me.  

 

So, what do I do?

 

 

 

Eating Tongues

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Tonight, I had tongues for dinner.  Tongues.  I mean, one animal can’t have that much tongue.  I guess there are other things like that – I mean, if you are eating shrimp, you are likely eating not one shrimp but many shrimps.  And the same thing goes for like, anchovies.  But with a Lamb?

The moral of the story is that I have been a pretty bad vegetarian ever since I left the United States.  But – to be fair, I am relatively okay with that.

As of right now (12:15 AM), I spent yesterday getting a first glimpse of Ghent.  At least most of  yesterday – In the morning I woke up in Brussels but before noon was on a train heading at relatively average speeds towards this humble city.

It is weird being in a foreign country where they speak foreign languages.  I thought that I have been doing this for a while, and that coming to a European country would be a piece of cake.  Well, on the contrary, getting from my hostel in Brussels to the tram that would take me to the train station that would take me to Ghent where I could then take a tram to my hostel ON a boat, was difficult.

I do not speak Flemish, or Dutch, or German, or French.  I learned that today, also.

After figuring out how to do all of the things previously described as difficult (an understatement) – I set out to explore Ghent.

It was cold.  And raining.  But, beautiful.

I established a direction in which to travel.  I had consulted a map – but unlike most other times, I was not working with GPS and the internet in my pocket.  Wow, that is a serious handicap.  I had chosen to leave my Vans at home for this trip and wear my Clarks.  This was a great decision, my feet would have been so wet and cold.  I had my camera with me and my current reading – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintanence (on the Kindle – I KNOW not ideal BUT sometimes you just can’t have everything).  I had my headphones, although I kept those in my pocket at this point.

I think that it is an interesting thing exploring a new city.  I think that it is more interesting if done without your own comfortable soundtrack.  And I am generally on the pro-headphones side.  But I think that at first, if you block out the sounds of a city and insert your music, you lose a dimension that will add to and further differentiate this new experience.

And so I walked, headphone in my pocket, with my camera and a rain jacket and I glasses that were hopelessly waterlogged.

If you have never been to Belgium, I highly recommend it.  Even if it is to just walk around for an afternoon.  This might be the most beautiful place that I have ever been to.  I don’t even really know how to describe it, or why it is so incredible.  But the buildings.  And the streets.  And the alleyways.  Its amazing.  Its like entering a completely different world.

MAYBE this has something to do with my having lived in the Middle East for the past 4+ months.  MAYBE going from Oman to Amman has made me forget what it is like to live in a place not like these places.

Clean.  Pretty.  Old.

BUT even so, I was blown away by this city.  After wandering for a while on the streets, trying to take quick pictures of things that I saw without allowing my camera to get too wet, I stumbled into a cafe for a coffee and a bite to eat.  There was a young man, about my age, working at the counter, and he said some things to me in a language I didn’t understand.  Likely Flemish.  Or Dutch.  My blank stare and “hello” alerted him to my language deficiencies.  Its funny, I quickly figured out that the only thing I need to do to get people to speak English to me is say Hello, or Hi.  They understand immediately – its great.  So my friend at the counter asks me what I would like and apologizes for the menu – they don’t have one in english.

“Do you want me to translate the whole thing for you, or are you just looking for a coffee” he asks me.  He was not bothered by my incompetence and inability to speak any of the many languages of Belgium.  He was completely happy to help me.  He gave me an abridged version of the menu.  I ordered a Panini and a Cappuccino.  It was awesome.   I ate and drank my coffee and read for a while.  The Cafe was half Cafe and half Art Gallery, and the divide was completely indistinct.  If you wandered back the tables slowly morphed, until they looked like things you probably shouldn’t sit on, but you really couldn’t be sure.  They had Wifi – I think I will go back tomorrow.

There is a funny thing that I was thinking about at dinner, which I will get to in a minute, AND I have already gotten to (in the beginning) BUT will further get to, as previously stated, in a minute.

Basically – there is this idea when you are traveling, or at least it is an idea that I previously harbored unconsciously and therefore am not exactly sure where it comes from, that you should try as many things as possible because you are only there for such a short period of time.  Like – why would you go to the same restaurant twice if you are only in a city for 3 days.

So I was sitting at dinner thinking about how I will have to find more places to eat tomorrow and hopefully they will be great, when my neighbors got their meals, and they looked seriously delicious, and then I thought damn, I can never have that because I can’t come back here.

But then I thought, wait a minute, maybe I should only eat here now that I know that it is great, and then I can try all of their dishes and be a total local when it comes to this one restaurant.  That would be kind of awesome too, right?

So now I am not sure if I should eat at the same place twice in a row for dinner or not, and it will probably be one of those things that eats at me for the rest of my life regardless of the decision that I make.

So anyway, I have an excellent time at the cafe and leave after a couple of hours.  While I entered the cafe to escape the rain, and it is still raining, my desire to see more nice things overwhelms my desire for rain shelter.  I start walking through the streets.  I see some more truly fantastic things to see.  And it just keeps raining, harder than ever.

I enter a small bar/cafe.  There is another nice young man behind the counter.  I pre-empt his indiscernible language greeting with a “hello!” and he goes straight for the English.  Score one for Kevin.  I tell him its my first time in Belgium, I am wet, and I would like a drink.  He says that I should probably have something strong.  I agree wholeheartedly.  Hence my first Belgian beer in Belgium – a Blonde of his picking.  It was excellent.  I had a second Belgian beer in Belgium immediately following this one – strong and dark.  It was different.  Maybe even more excellent.

I left this place when the rain had died down.  I had read another few chapters and had a slight buzz going.  Things were going well.

I walked for a few hours.  I found the city center and was wowed for the umpteenth time.  I walked and walked and walked.  It was raining.  It was cold.  I don’t think I could have enjoyed myself more.

Someone very important to me has been greatly inspirational as of late.  She has showed me the beauty of spontaneity.  Because I have this thinking problem.  I like to do it.  A lot.  From the words of my mother, ever since I have been able to speak, I have had an answer to everything.  Now, I would disagree.  I would not be so bold as to say that I have an answer to everything, because I am absolutely positive that I do not have all of the answers.  That being said, I cannot deny that I like to answer questions whether I know the answer or not.  On top of thinking comes planning.  I like to know where I am going and why I am going there before I leave.  The internet basically puts me on speed – instead of planning things beforehand, I can plan things as they are being executed.  It is amazing, but I do often question whether this is beneficial or detrimental to my mental health.

But back to the point.  I walked with a purpose.  I had a map of landmarks.  I had done lots of research and read about all of the things that I must see.  But when I started walking I put everything away and just let the city take me where it wanted me to go.

It was easy – really.  I mean, all of the real landmarks are the biggest and tallest old churches – you just have to look up and you will eventually stumble upon them.  So its not like I was really flying blind.  But I did allow myself to be distracted by shiny objects down the road, or interesting buildings down an alley that I had not previously read the full wikipedia article for.  It was great.  I got a bit lost and wandered much further than I intended to, but I am alive and in my hostel and typing this on the world wide web so things must have gone okay.  It was a nice experience.  I saw really great things, and much of it was unplanned and probably unspectacular if you take away the weather and the mindset and all of the factors that made each of those moments those moments.

I ALMOST FORGOT.  I found a bookstore.  Full of English books.  It was fantastic.  I was so happy.  I spent almost an hour inside.  I bought four books.

1. Cormac McCarthy – All the Pretty Horses

2. William Faulkner – Go Down, Moses

3. Naguib Mahfouz – Autumn Quail

4. John Updike – Rabbit Run

I am extremely happy with my plunder.

So there’s that.  And then -

I decided I was hungry.  I realized that all of the suggestions on the map that I had with suggestions on it were where I had just meandered away from.  I turned around and made my way back along a different route.  After much meandering, some photos, and a few instances of standing in one spot and spinning in circles trying to understand my location, I found myself sitting in a restaurant eating a plate of tongue, with a side of the most amazing tater-tot like things I have ever eaten.  The potatoes of course had a great Flemish name but holy shit, its hard to remember those words.

And then I was trying to decide why I had this idea that I could never come back to this restaurant again unless I come to Ghent again.  And it was all because of the tongues.

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Amman – Sounds the same, looks different

Dear Readers,

Until now, many of my blog posts have consisted of long and overwrought philosophical explications of the issues that my under-stimulated (over-stimulated?) mind wrestles with on a daily basis.  I sit down at my computer and things that I  have been subconsciously dealing with for days or months or years pour out of me and onto the electronic page.  It is interesting and surprising for me – if it is anything like that for you, then things are working out.

Right now I am going to try my best to do as little of that as possible.  Thats not to say that I won’t let anything like that come out – it is utterly unavoidable.  BUT I am going to attempt to coerce the tides that are my thoughts as manifest by my fingers on the keyboard to move in a certain direction.

Anyway, it seems as though I am doing that which I set out not to do.  I am trying to give you an update on the happenings of my life/travels/journey/etc.  On the 5th of August, I travelled to the Muscat airport with the 26 other Americans who participated in the CLS 2013 Ibri Arabic program.  It was a bittersweet journey.  I was greatly excited to leave Oman and finally arrive in Amman.  I was  crestfallen to have to leave all of the amazing people that I had met and spent the summer with.

The bus-ride was long but spent with great people.  It was one of those experiences that you almost wish could last forever, but only almost – if you could just maintain that in-between, leaving that which you yearn to leave while maintaining those things you can’t stand to let go of yet.  But alas, it was over before we knew it, and I was standing in the Muscat airport saying goodbye to some of the best people that I had met in a long time.

My travels were to be long and have a Murakami-esque surreal quality to them.  Just like 2 months before, I said goodbye to all of the people that I knew and cared about and flew off to a place of complete novelty.  It is a hard thing to have to say goodbye to people, not knowing when you will see them again.  Its doesn’t get easier when you have to do it a second time.

After spending some time in the Muscat airport, reading the penultimate Murakami novel I had yet to finish (Dance Dance Dance) – which of course served to further propel my feelings of being in such a story –  I boarded an airplane and flew to Abu Dhabi.  It was 11:30 when my airplane took off.  I landed less than two hours later.

I wandered in a daze through the airport, tired from the early wake up, bus-ride, emotionally draining goodbyes, airplane ride, and carrying of my backpack and guitar.  I reached a check-in desk where I was awarded two meal vouchers.  My layover was for 8 hours – through the night, and without a recognized soul in sight, my ever present paranoia reminded me that my eyes could not stray from my things for more than one second, lest I lose all of the material possessions whose powerful grip over me I deplore.  I was not to sleep this evening.

The foreign location, the isolation, further underscored by the hustle and bustle of thousands of people in close proximity to me, made for a surreal morning.  I walked, in a daze, lugging a over-flowing backpack, zippers straining to contain my laptop computer, DSLR camera, iPod, chargers for all devices, books, notepads, writing utensils, change of clothes, sunglasses, extra pair of glasses and nalgene – the essentials for survival, of course, IN ADDITION to my guitar, also equipped with books, music books, changes of strings, and extra clothes/socks stuffed into the guitar compartment.  I stumbled through terminals, staring wide-eyed at passersby, searching desperately for a sign that would lead me to the cafeteria – what I could only imagine to be a super cafeteria food-court mall complex, in which I had been instructed to pass my time.

I asked for directions ONLY ONCE, and eventually found what I was looking for.

It was located under a giant skylit dome.  The outside wall was lined with food counters.  Fast food was largely prevalent.  It was all in english – and the complex was saturated.  What looked like an endless area with seats to be seated in, was endlessly full of people, filing in from all sides and making sure that every free space was quickly taken.  It was overflowing.  People were sitting on the floor, two to a seat, at every counter.  Overwhelming is too generous a term.

My search for a long-term location was temporarily interrupted by my bladder.  I was forced to find the restroom.  I was sweating.  I was tired.  I had no recourse.  I was condemned to hauling all of my things with me on this second, possibly more urgent journey.

My bathroom journey was a success, albeit a stress-inducing experience.

As I re-entered the circular food court/people extravaganza, I was again overwhelmed.  There were white people – everywhere.  The dishdashs were sparse.  There were girls wearing skimpy outfits.  Guys wearing shorts and t-shirts.  ENGLISH.  I was appalled.   I made my way towards the center of the giant circular room and realized that I was on the second floor of the multi-level food-people-shopping compendium.  The center was below me – I was standing on a balcony looking down upon a conglomeration of duty free stores.  People were milling about.  My balance was further off set.

I did a slow revolution when the stream of people parted, trying to take everything in.  One of those slow motion spins that you see in the movies, as if my name had been shouted and I was searching for she who had shouted my name, as the camera slowly revolves and moves away from me and I am shown standing in an endless sea of bodies.  It was daunting.

I almost missed it.  But, in the distance, I spotted a sign.

BAR.

If you know me at all, you know I am not a huge drinker.  I like to drink excellent beer at small hipster bars in Eagle Rock.  I like the occasional mixed drink if the setting deems it appropriate and I am trying to feel like a sophisticated adult.

I wouldn’t call myself a complete straight edge or anything.  There are things I partake in a bit more frequently, but thats not important.   I was stressed out.  I was looking for a place to rest my legs, put my bag down, and watch the season finale of Firefly and then Serenity.  I had been reading Murakami – his characters are always traveling to strange places and sitting in bars alone drinking beer and contemplating the perils of life.  How could I not partake.

I drank a Guinness. – it was delicious.  I finished Firefly and Serenity – they were both excellent.  I ate McDonalds – it was mediocre (at best).  I drank an espresso – my second of the trip (the first one in Muscat) – and it was all that had been missing in my life and more during my Nescafe filled summer.  I perused each duty free shop – even those that were  less interesting than I could have imagined them to be.  My time passed slowly, yet astonishingly soon it was time to head to my gate.  I hadn’t fallen asleep.  I hadn’t lost all of my possessions.  I hadn’t gone crazy.  In fact, I wasn’t even that tired.  It seemed as though things were working out quite well.

But like all things – just when things seem as though they may be falling into place, you realize that you made a minor but crucial error and your tetris pieces are no longer falling into place.  It may not have even been your mistake.  Someone came along and nudged your shoulder, and you missed by just one square.  But then everything is thrown off.

Such was my luck.

Initially, the boarding of the plane seemed to be on schedule, and going according to plan.  I soon noticed that the buses shuttling people from our gate to the airplane in some distant and seemingly mythological land were arriving at our gate, stopping for a few minutes, and then departing without so much as opening their doors.  They had stopped taking people to the airplane.  The line, that I had avoided getting into because dealing with the initial length seemed futile, was only getting increasingly longer.  I was confused.  What could be happening.

There was a man standing next to me.  He struck up a conversation.

I am not a huge stranger-conversation-starter.  I don’t mind conversations with strangers.  In fact, it is my belief that such conversations can only be extremely brief, resulting in one of two scenarios.  The conversation is either quickly ended (first scenario), or extended for long enough so as to force those engaged in conversation to relinquish their status as strangers and become acquaintances (scenario 2).  The infrequency with which I engage in stranger conversations is less so due to my dislike of such encounters and more so because I generally have my ears plugged into the little magic box in my pocket, am tapping my foot to Radiohead and reading a book.

But this strange man insisted on a conversation.   He was a nice guy – an American from Ohio who now lives in Japan with his Japanese wife and kids and was traveling to Amman to meet up with family members for a quick vacation.  Weird, right?

He was quite vocal about his discontent with the boarding situation.  One of those people who says things that everyone is obviously thinking out loud (or so he thinks), and with considerable volume, and thinks that he is doing everyone a favor by being the one to willing to vocalize such thoughts.

That which these people often fail to perceive is twofold.  Firstly, there is a reason why people hold back in such situations – and it is not timidness or lack of comfort in the public setting – unthinkable, right?!  There are things that are thought but not said for many reasons.  Lack of purpose is one of them.  Your inner lament can do no good.  As mentioned, the situation is out of your control.  Additionally, your vocalization is both tepid and effete – and rather than helping the situation, it is more likely to add to the overall negativity of such a situation.  Secondly, for some reason it would never occur to these people that such thoughts are actually only their own.  Maybe shared by a few others in the crowd, but indeed not shared by all as they would so assuredly believe.  While seemingly obvious to most people, such an idea is unfathomable to such a person.  These are moments when the filter that exists somewhere in between your thought making mechanisms and your sound making mechanisms becomes paramount.

Anyway, it was interesting being a part of a conversation with one of these people.  Being the person that is being used as impetus for the preaching of that which all are desiring to be preached.  I can’t say I was enjoying the situation, but it was not overly unpleasant.  It was probably better to be that person than to have to sit there listening to him without being able to comment on what he was saying.

Eventually the problems with the airport systems were not fixed.  BUT, believe it or not, those working for the airlines were able to acquire such archaic tools (you may never have heard of these things) as pens and paper lists.  It was quite impressive to see such ancient means of conducting tasks used when boarding an incredibly new and technologically advanced magic flying machine.  AND to everyones surprise, especially the overly talkative stranger-turned-acquaintance-man, IT WORKED.

Without going into too much detail, as I am afraid that I have already done, my final flight, seemingly an inconsequential addition to my previous 12 hours of travel time, was a tough final 3 hours to withstand.  I had the ability to choose my seat, thanks (well, decide for yourself if this gratitude is deserved) to expedia, and as any experienced traveller would do, at no additional cost I chose the bulkhead.  LEG ROOM.  It seemed like a great idea.  An AISLE seat.  Even better.

The two seats next to me were occupied by women with babies.

The babies were not sleeping, nor were they of the quiet-while-awake persuasion.  Opposite the aisle, there was a man in an almost identical predicament.  To his left, two more individuals, two more babies.

I wanted to sleep.  More than anything.

I had been up all night.  I had spent 2 hours at the gate waiting to board, then another 2 hours on the airplane waiting for them to confirm that their manual calculations and boarding methodology had been accurate (it turns out that computers are much more efficient than people, who knew?).  I was arriving in Amman at 13:00.  I wanted to have energy to explore during the day, go to bed at night, not experience jet lag or the travelled-all-night hangover syndrome.   It was not in my cards.  My Shure headphones were indeed helpful.  The babies were drowned out, but not to the tune of sleep facilitating relaxation.

As we made our final descent, I looked out the window to see what I would soon call home.  It looked beautiful – or maybe that was the lack of sleep talking.

Oman : The Finale

As a precursor to a forthcoming update on what I’ve been up to since my departure from Oman, I wanted to post some of my favorite pictures from the summer.  Let me know what you think, or whatever.ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

A blurry line

Part I – Ramadan and a (sort of) White Man’s Search for Meaning :

Right now, I am awake, and sitting in a tiny bed in an apartment that is half empty in the minute hours of the morning.  Some would argue that the apartment is half full, and that an apartment that is half full is superior to one that is half empty.  I don’t think it makes a huge difference.  It is half full (empty) as of about 30 minutes ago, when half of the residents left the apartment (at 4:20 AM) for morning prayer.

I am trying my best to type as quietly as possible – in this room I am not alone, but I am alone in my wakefulness.  While views may differ on the character of Steve Jobs, at least he had the foresight to oversee the crafting of personal computing devices that not only embody sex appeal but also employ relatively quiet keyboard mechanisms.  That helps in my endeavor.

It is the first night of Ramadan.

Before those residents of a certain disposition left for morning prayer, I woke from my slumbers to participate in a final light meal – Suhoor – before the sun begins to rise and all consumption of either food or water is strictly prohibited.  I will be participating in Ramadan this year – I will not be eating or drinking anything between the hours of 4 AM and 7 PM (approximately) for the next 30 (ish) days.

At least that is what I am hoping to do.  While I have relatively strong faith in my resolve and strength of mind, I am under no illusions about the ease in which this will be accomplished, nor can I pretend to understand how such an endeavor will affect my day to day activities.  I am surrounded by people who will be eating and drinking.  They will probably be discourteous about it, as young Americans often are.  I have a small group of fellow participants who are also undertaking this endeavor.  I think there is strength in numbers – and we are outnumbered.  It will be an uphill battle.

I have been asked by many to explain the motivations behind my desire to participate in this practice that I seemingly lack connection to.  I am not a Muslim.  I don’t even consider myself religious.  If anything, I have been strongly drawn toward Buddhism through my recent studies (largely credited to Dale Wright) – but this connection is relatively new, lacking a solid foundation – by no means am I yet a Buddhist.

Why am I participating in this religious practice? And furthermore, this is a practice that I (likely) cannot fully appreciate as my ability to participate in what is arguably the pivotal aspect of this ritual – that of taking part in daily prayer – is hindered by my position as an outsider, who cannot enter the mosque nor pray next to my fellow fasters.

When I was last accosted with inquiries, I was on a small bus, sitting on a bench chair covered in plastic and sweat and lamenting at the discomfort of my situation.  I was thinking about my arrival at the apartment.  Traversing the two flights of stairs rapidly.  Unlocking my door frantically.  Entering the air conditioned room and immediately stripping down to nothing but my undergarments – bliss.

My mood was less that perfect.  Few would describe the exchange as tactful. After some general discussion on the subject, I was accosted with THE question (read accusation) :

“Kevin – why are you fasting?!  You’re not even a Muslim! AND you won’t even be doing it right.”

Insensitivity is a difficult thing to deal with. Especially for one striving to embody the buddhist ideals of equanimity, patience, and respect. Ignorance is similarly trying. Who cares if I am a Muslim, and what the *^%$ does fasting ‘right‘ mean?! When confronted with such an encounter characterized by these things, my patience dwindles and my angry californian vernacular rears its ugly (beautiful?) head:

“Dude – fasting sounds AWESOME!  SHUTUP about it.”

Not only was my response short and angry (and in actuality quite a bit more vulgar that shown) – but it was also relatively uncharacteristic.  As mentioned earlier, I generally seek to maintain equanimity and patience. A calm demeanor.  Those assailed by my response were taken aback.

Given the mindset that one is meant to embody during the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, this was probably not the best exchange through which to start my Ramadan experience.

The truth is that I am not exactly sure what my reasons are for taking part in this practice.  Big surprise, right?  Just another thing that a recent college graduate lacking direction in  life decides to undertake for ambiguous reasons.

But there is something about it that sounds “AWESOME”.

Dude.

Completely avoiding the theological significance of this time in the Islamic faith, that which is practiced during this month is beautiful.  The fasting is metaphoric and an aesthetic representation of the behavior that is meant to be followed during this month.  Not only do muslims fast during the day – the idea is that they also abstain from doing all things that are impure or immoral.  Now granted, this isn’t to say that during the rest of the year these actions are acceptable.  But the idea is that during this month, anything that is even questionable is abstained from. Even those things that we might let slip normally because we don’t think they are all that important are re-conceptualized, and imbibed with the import that is casually ignored throughout the rest of the year.  Cursing is prohibited, as is lying, stealing, talking about people behind their backs.  Some sects of Islam even prohibit listening to music – something I don’t quite understand and do not intend to follow – but let that underscore the seriousness of this practice.

Part 2 – The Connection (or lack thereof) :

On first glance, these seem like things that we should never do.  Stealing is never acceptable.  Lying is always morally reprehensible.  Talking about people behind their backs is unjustifiable regardless of the calendar month.

But there is a difference between aspirations and realities. Ideals and the concrete.

We live in a time where the line between that which is fiction and that which is reality is nearly indiscernible.  It is like the desert border between Oman and Saudi Arabia.  In the virtual, there is a demarcation between nations.  In reality, no one is willing nor interested in questing through the desert with a GPS device and building a fence along the coordinates depicted on a mutually accepted map.  It is all sand.  A mile here or there is relatively meaningless.  So there is no meaning.  So there is no fence.

Communication has been completely overtaken by technology.  The majority of our communication now takes place through indirect and technologically facilitated methods.

There is a game that young adults play when communicating.  The favored interface is SMS messaging.  The game involves communicating with someone while maintaining a facade – the facade can vary depending on the intentions of those playing. Commonly employed is the facade of inattention and distraction.  One receives a text message but does not respond immediately.  After a calculated amount of time, one responds to the text message.  The amount of time is calculated based upon an extremely complex theoretical formula that takes un-countable amounts of statistics and datas into account. It is extremely complex and theoretical and wholly unquantifiable. Yet somehow, the instant that a young adult is given the responsibility of a mobile phone with a text messaging plan, the ability to implement said formula is acquired – and they will implement it with grace and skill that can in no way be explained through reason. In fact, such ability can be uncovered at an even earlier age given access to a computer with some type of messenger client through which one can play the same game, but with a larger keyboard and a bit more flexibility. If we are searching for signs of divine grace and the esoteric, we need not look further than this phenomenon.

Technology has expanded that which is the virtual.  The virtual is even more expansive than it was in the past – which doesn’t even seem possible – potentially similar to the ever expanding infinitude of the universe. What I am getting at when I speak of the virtual is that which is in the in between – not fact nor fiction. Unknown yet knowable given the right circumstances.

You receive a response to a message hours after its initial sending – “sorry I was sleeping/busy/myphonewasdead/iheadnoservice…”

All of these things exist in the virtual. Any of them could be true. All of them could be false. Our connections and relationships become virtual – based on things that are unknown yet knowable. The problem is that we have no way of knowing them. David Wallace talks about one of the inherent problems with human interactions – with love. Each of our worlds are individual. They are connected but only ever so delicately. No matter how much time is spent with another person, their world is still mediated through their own mind, thoughts, and experience. Yours is different and always will be. This gap can never be bridged.

What worries me is that the expanding of the virtual in regards to relationships can only push us further from each other, expanding this gap that exists inherently – fundamentally, due to that which is the human condition. This poses many problems, especially for those still waiting for the unification of the working class and the rise of the proletariat – but that is for a different time.

So what does this have to do with Ramadan?

Probably nothing. In fact, my endeavor to fast throughout Ramadan was ended after two weeks due to a variety of factors – namely, that participating in an intensive language program in which you are infantilized by the US state department and given no freedom to control your time and movement is difficult to do while fasting. Furthered by the fact that the main goal of my summer experience was to increase my Arabic language skills as much as possible, and the beginning of fasting (coincidentally?) coincided with a sharp decrease in my studying.

Fasting this summer was not for me as it turned out.

When I stopped fasting, I felt much better, I studied much more, and I was a happier person. Although I did miss the solidarity that I had with those fellow fasters. The 3 in the morning Suhoors with dear friends Joe and Benji, accompanied by story time and great laughs. There were many aspects of the experience that I loved and I am therefore glad that I participated, if only for the first half, but the decision to stop fasting was a good one.

Take aways?

As mentioned above, I was actually having a great time participating in the fast. Besides for times at the Mahad(language institute) when all I wanted to do was sleep but instead was assaulted by language partners, lectures, and national anthem singing practice, the experience was a great one – it was singular, difficult, and uplifting. Participating in something so widespread and communal is an incredible experience and something that is quickly being lost in the modern world.

Our relationships are virtual and individual. We are constantly assaulted by the media – we search for connection with others when sitting alone in the dark and staring at a brightly lit screen, frothing at the mouth over the banal mass marketed products that will finally allow us to express our individuality.

I am not advocating for a religious revival. I am not really advocating for anything specific at this point. If I have to pin it down, I would say that I am advocating for a bit more thought about where the world is going, and why it is going there. The technological revolution has had wonderful repercussions. I can’t dismiss the love that I have for the beautiful machine through which this is being created and made possible. The advances in transportation have made the world a much smaller place, largely beneficial. My ability to travel and see the world without having to traverse the ocean for months on end and face dysentery and pirates can only be praised.

But there seems to be some sort of sheepish herding that is happening – a direction that the we are moving towards simply because that is the direction in which we are moving.

We should be a bit more hesitant. Maybe contemplate a littler longer the things that we write off as out of our hands, a product of our situation, problems for others to solve. Seek to understand the meanings of our actions – the difference between advocacy and opposition, and the message conveyed through passive participation in a culture that we disapprove of.

Things don’t change quickly or easily, but they also don’t change by themselves. Newton’s first law of motion, right?

This said, the status quo is not maintained purely through passivity.

If anything should be feared, it is likely the passive acceptance of that which we believe to be out of our control. The passive belief that those in power know better than we do, are more qualified than we are, have more relevant experience and perspective than we do.

There is no such thing as being qualified. We are all equally as naive and unqualified as anyone else. My 70+ year old grandfather sent me an email the other day telling me that he feels no different than he felt when he was my age. He has a new girlfriend. He is happy.

Okay, I am finishing up, I promise.

One final anecdote :

I arrived in Jordan 2 days ago, and was put in contact with IFES – the International Foundation for Electoral Systems – by a friend of mine. They need help and have offered me an internship for the month. I have accepted, as it is should be a good experience. My first task is to make sure that all of the Jordanian government officials being trained by IFES and receiving money from the US government do not have terrorist links. There is a website run by the US government for this specific task. The great wisdom of the US government has dictated that the only way to run people through this system is to input their names in English. All of the Jordanian officials, weirdly(?), do not have English names. They have Arabic names. So I will transliterate their names from Arabic into English to enter them into the system and prove that they do not have ties to terrorism.

You may be thinking – oh great, Kevin know’s how to transliterate Arabic to English. I bet there is a formal method for that, and he has been studying Arabic so he must know it. This sounds official. There are no loopholes here.

If you are thinking these things, then you have missed much of my sarcasm, and I apologize – you are unable to see my facial expressions and so some of my meaning is swallowed up by the virtual. The truth of the matter is that there is no official way to transliterate. I can literally write their names in English however I would like to. If I end up getting a hit – a possible terrorist (!!! oh no!!!) – well then I just go back and transliterate the name a bit differently, until they are cleared – no ties to terrorism here!

So as a final testament to the great wisdom, experience, and foresight of the ‘leader of the free world’ – you are doing a great job America! Keep up the good work!! I hope that you are paying these people a lot of money!!!

Anyway – these are my thoughts, for what they are worth. I apologize for the length of time that I have let pass since my last post. I hope to be a bit more active these days.

Until next time.

Thoughts on Muscat

Some things have changed over the past few days.  Many things if we’re talking big picture.  Oman is still Oman, but Muscat now exists.

 

Muscat is an interesting place.  Humidity becomes real when you walk outside of a building and are immediately forced to wade through the air trying to carve a path that will allow you to make it to your next destination before your clothes are completely soaked through.  You will fail – your clothes will be completely soaked through.  The tangibility is almost suffocating.  Someone recently told me that she loves to sweat.  I think there is a difference between a healthy bodily function and the unrelated formation of condensation upon your skin due to external conditions.  

 

Muscat is a beautiful city, if you can wipe the condensation off of your glasses for enough time to take it in.  There is something strange about Oman – randomly dispersed throughout the vast desert landscape there are parks and playgrounds, spaceship like buildings, sculptures, and fountains.  There is a stark contrast between the development and the desert expanse.  While strange, it does yield some beautiful scenery.  

 

There is an immediately noticeable change that occurs when you enter a capital city, especially when coming from a tiny city like Ibri.  It was a great break from the relative monotony that is our Ibri’an existence.  

 

That is about all I can say about Muscat.  It is a place that I would recommend to those who are interested.  I would caution against visiting in the heat of the summer.