Rhetorantical Bloviations

Location: Monterey, California, United States

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Changing Perspectives

While I remain an Atheist insomuch as the existence of an actual sentient deity is concerned, I have involved myself to some degree over the years with spiritual matters- that yearning in humanity to become more, and to arrive at a better understanding of the world. It is an issue I have wrestled with for many years, the attempt to distinguish truth from falsehood, to understand what is referred to as enlightenment. Maugham was correct in his evaluation of enlightenment in The Razor’s Edge in which he quotes the Katha-Upanishad: "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard." I understand Salvation in this context not as the Western concept of life after death, but rather as an abandoning of suffering and attaining enlightenment. Not something to be had in the afterlife, but something to be enjoyed now, in this world.

The discovery of the Buddhist notion of mindfulness, also present in Stocism (which comes as close to my beliefs as any system I have thus far studied), helped me to somewhat escape many of the preconceived notions and to approach at least an initial understanding of the universe. This notion of “god", at least as I understand it is not a sentient being, it is more like nature incarnate. It is nothing more than the “way and order of the Universe“. It is difficult to express really. It simply is. It is as water, fleeting and insubstantial; an ever-changing substance that changes even as you attempt to grasp it in your fist. From the Tao Te Ching:

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

As the origin of heaven-and-earth, it is nameless;
As "the Mother" of all things, it is nameable

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations

These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.

I am at last able to begin to understand this passage and much of the rest of the Tao Te Ching. The whole notion of the yin and yang, where each aspect of reality has its counterpart that both opposes and compliments it. It is not some far fetched concept at all (as I had thought for so long). It is no more complicated than saying this: without something to compare it to, a thing can not be said to exhibit certain characteristics. Strength cannot exist without weakness, else how could the fact that it is strong be ascertained? And as long as the two exist, and they do and must, there will be varying degrees of strength and weakness. A thing can be said to be strong only to the degree that another thing can be measured as weak, and vice versa. It is the same as saying that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It is also possible to cast the notion of reincarnation in this same light. Matter is never lost- everything returns to energy, a continuous cycle.

And none of these ideas are incompatible with Atheism, or with science for that matter. Both science and mindfulness are methods of understanding the universe. Science consists of categorizing objects and phenomena based on certain criteria and in giving names to these objects and phenomena. Mindfulness consists of analyzing the universe, but in a manner that involves discarding the manmade nametags so that one can see each object in its true light; unhampered by preconceived notions, but no less rational.

While I lend little credence to theology, the monotheisms in particular, it is possible to look at the various religious texts as feeble attempts at understanding the universe; analogies made by people with imperfect tools for observing the mysterious history of the universe. While there are nuggets of truth, and wild exaggerations, there is also much evidence of various agendas and rather distasteful clinging to tradition in the face of the discovery of new evidence. Additionally, there is much evidence of man’s baser characteristics in these works (greed, intolerance, the need to feel superior, etc). I believe that where theology errs is in assigning attributes to this “force” (read: god, Tao, Gaia, Logos, etc). It is in the details, the specifics. Particularly in fundamentalism, where adherence to even minor details and differences can inspire hatred to the point of murder. In a more global outlook details about something as enormous and thus far mysterious as the universe would have importance only so far as their veracity is concerned. When these details are arrived at rationally, with right thinking and proper contemplation, one will see that there is no reason for contention, because everything is one, all part of the “Tao“, and ultimately all will return to it- even if one‘s conscious self is no longer in existence. It is less about faith and more about…acceptance. It is not a clinging, it is a release. It is about arriving at a point where faith is a null issue, where one no longer needs to have the final answers, even to the point of manufacturing them. It is simply about being. None of us are important enough that the universe would pause even for a nanosecond to accommodate us, and we are all of us made infinitely important by the mere fact that we are an insignificant part of the greater whole.

I think I may have come across as sounding vaguely “cosmic” and new age, which was not my intention at all (and which is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself). It is really just a matter of a rather abrupt change in perspective. I hope that I have conveyed my view in some small way.

Friday, December 07, 2007

California-Texas Trip: Part Two

This journey has left me nothing if not more thoroughly convinced of the sanctity and majesty of the world’s remaining natural areas, heavily-touristed though they may be (and as one of those very tourists, I suppose condemning would border on hypocrisy). I am equally certain of the need to protect these areas from the encroachment of society at all costs. The beauty of Yosemite is truly staggering, rivaled in my journeys only by the great limestone peaks surrounding Yangshuo and Guilin in southern China- enormous, verdant pillars of stone which seem to have been dropped randomly upon the patchwork of terraced rice fields and simple villages. Yosemite, by contrast, consists of a glacier carved valley surround by a series of granite behemoths. Towering high above the valley floor, these silvery peaks jut into the cerulean splendor of the sky in a violent clash of unyielding stone and scintillating sunlight.

The valley itself is a forested collage, a delicate imbuement of greens and yellows, spattered with the erratic, titian brushstrokes of autumn. A number of meadows and small lakes dot the landscape. Also scattered about are the various camp sites as well as a charming wooden chapel and the community of Yosemite Village. It was near this small village at Camp #4, perhaps a mile distant, I set up my tent. After Jen’s departure and a very wonderful, very hot shower, I returned to camp and fell into a fitful sleep.

The next day was my last, and I intended to take in as much as possible. Waking early, I struck camp, packed my belongings, and drove to Mariposa Grove along Highway 41. I cannot recall the length of the drive, but it was at least an hour. Upon reaching the grove, I set out on foot along the trail to explore the many giant sequoias. Though there were some few other tourists, most of the time I had the place more or less to myself, a fact that only intensified the isolated, otherworldly tranquility of the grove. Located along the trail are various signs offering insight into the trees and the other flora and fauna in the park. Sequoias are born of seeds from the smallest cone of any conifer, yet they grow into the largest. They are aided in this endeavor by a number of creatures, who seem to live in a sort of symbiosis with the trees. Among these are a particular type of squirrel which obtains its sustenance from the covering of the cone and subsequently scatters the seeds which will sprout new sequoias. The sequoia has a very shallow, easily damageable root system. One of the placards in the park compared the tree to a nail standing on its head. Quite a amazing actually, particularly when you note the immensity of the trees.

I spent some four hours or so in the grove, and, but for misreading a sign and taking a wrong turn which resulted in my walking some three miles or so in the wrong direction (and observing some rather large, somewhat disquieting bear tracks- there are no more grizzlies in Yosemite only black bears), the hike was quite easy. Upon completing my exploration of the grove I drove up to Glacier Point (a trip of about thirty to forty minutes), a vantage point offering perhaps the best view in all the valley. It is here that one truly develops an idea as to the vastness of the park. I believe it was possible to view a fourth of the park from this point, though it could have been more. At any rate, even this portion of Yosemite is enormous. A great many of the pictures I took are from Glacier Point, including most of the pictures of Half Dome, perhaps the most readily recognizable feature in the park. While it is possible to hike up to Glacier Point, it is a rather formidable hike of some 14.5 miles and my legs were in no shape for another strenuous hike.

And so, with a renewed since of the beauties of nature, I left Yosemite and returned to Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort Hostel. I was greeted in the dorm by a young(er than me) Englishman, a technical wizard studying for his doctorate in computer science. We talked for some time about various subjects and then I took a shower and set off for the hostel’s restaurant. The meal consisted of mashed potatoes and roast beef, served up with a hearty helping of vegetables. Add to this a couple of Newcastles and I was in heaven. Enter our young English gentleman (I do not recall his name, alas I have slept since then- and several times at that- you may think of him as Ringo if you so desire) again for a few more beers and some conversation. With all due respect to my new friend, this was perhaps the dullest exchange I have ever been forced to endure (plus he was all but deaf). But for the beer, I likely would have excused myself and retired to count the tile in the dormitory bathroom.

The next morning I had breakfast (unfortunately without the presence of the fascinating young waitress from my previous stay), and set out for Arizona.

California-Texas Trip: Part One

And so the cross country extravaganza ends with me safely back in the bosom of my kith and kin, in time to participate in the ritualistic slaughter of not one, but two awkward, flightless birds.

I began my journey on the ninth of November in San Fran where I attended a Swell Season concert with Annie, a young woman I met in Africa, her partner Zeb, and their friend Sarah. For those of you who do not know, Swell Season is a band consisting of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the two leads from the greatest movie of all time, Once. The concert was brilliant (to quote Hansard's favorite expression of approval). With the help of a couple of additional musicians (bass and violin) the duo performed spot on renditions of many of the songs from the movie as well as a number of other originals. Perhaps the highlight of the show was Irglová's stirring delivery of "If You Want Me," during which she exchanged her usual instrument, the piano, for Hansard's battered guitar (the same used in the movie). They proved every bit as charming in person as they do on screen. Utterly untouched by the corrupting elements of stardom, Hansard's is a genuine aura of confidence steeped in humility. Irglová displays a quiet bashfulness that adds an affecting intimacy to the entire event.

Perhaps the only incident to mar an otherwise perfect concert was the treatment afforded the opener, Martha Wainwright (sister of Rufus Wainwright) by a congregation of revelers huddled near the bar. Their chatter grew to such a level as to interfere even with Wainwright's vehement delivery. Clearly perturbed, she was forced to stop several times and ask that the conversation be kept to a minimum. While I was not particularly moved by her music, such behavior is reprehensible; an affront not only to the musician, but to the other concert goers as well. Though he said nothing of the incident, Hansard countered with his first tune, a fiery rendition of "Say It To Me Now," a song whose lyrics could not have been more appropriate if they had been written expressly in retaliation for just this offense.

I stayed the night with Annie and Zeb in their apartment near Haight Street and they treated me to breakfast the next morning. I cannot imagine a more interesting place to live. After saying our farewells, I spent the remainder of the day wandering around the Haight-Ashbury district in a light drizzle (as far as I know, this is the only form of precipitation to fall in Northern California). I ducked into the occasional bar for a beer before moving on to the next. Along the way I managed to find a Nepali/Tibetan ring I have been searching for, and for a very reasonable price. While the area has lost the glory of its sixties heyday, having become much more up market (like the rest of San Fran) it still retains an atmosphere of bohemian zaniness.

From here I proceeded to the Globetrotters Inn, one of the many hostels in San Fran. Not the greatest hostel by any means, but the only one with available space. The next day I set out for Marin Headlands, a former military post located just over the Golden Gate. I ventured to the nearby resort town of Sausalito where I had breakfast, washed some clothes and did some shopping for camping supplies. Later I returned to the Headlands to the hostel, located in a former military building. The area has been transformed into a park and has lovely views, and the hostel is warm an inviting, with an unmistakable hippie quality. The next day I headed out for Yosemite and got some wonderful shots of the Golden Gate.

I arrived in the small town of Mariposa, some thirty odd miles from Yosemite where I stopped for a rather uninspiring lunch and a much better haircut, before heading to yet another hostel, Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort, located about nine miles out of town and twenty five miles from Yosemite. After checking in, I was greeted by one of my fellow dorm-mates, Rodrigo, a young Frenchman who had been living in Chile for some time studying. He had a rather contagious exuberance about him and we talked at length about a wide range of topics, including the fact that he had been searching for an American who was not a dissenter ( i.e. did not think Bush is a moron and that the U.S. is headed down an insane path). Unfortunately, I was no help in this area, other than to suggest possibly widening his search to areas outside California.

This ranks as one of the best hostels I stayed at during my travels. It is located in the mountains and has a wonderful restaurant/bar, operated by an incredibly friendly staff and with some of the best and most wholesome food around (though this night I limited myself to a few beers). I spent the rest of the night studying up on Yosemite. I awoke early the next morning and had a hearty breakfast (the "American Breakfast") and was treated to the sunny, larger than life personality of the waitress. The food was outstanding, though she added an entirely new dimension to the experience, such that I think even a simple meal of hardtack and what passes for coffee in most American restaurants would have been transformed into an incomparable feast before her radiant smile and charismatic banter. After breakfast I lit out for Yosemite. While the drive to the park is stunning, it does little to prepare you for the majesty that is Yosemite.

After driving around a bit to get my bearings, I at last tracked down Camp #4, one of only two camps open in November, and set up my tent. Armed with a considerable amount of daylight, I set out on my first hike, Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. According to the guidebook the whole affair was supposed to take six to eight hours, though I completed it in a little over four, so I think perhaps the literature provided in the park takes into account such things as age, health and physical ability (as I was to discover the next day, my own physical ability is somewhat more diminished than even I had suspected). At any rate the hike is beautiful, and, I think, a wonderful introduction to the park. Unfortunately, the falls were little more than trickles, but fantastic nonetheless. One of the best things about visiting the park in November is the lack of crowds. Indeed, there were few people present in the whole of the park. This, coupled with the cooler weather, make this an ideal time to explore Yosemite. I would be afraid even to think what it must be like in summer with the endless throng of tourists and the relentless heat of the sun.

Upon returning to my car I was surprised to find what I initially thought was a ticket fixed to my windshield. As it turns out Jen, one of my classmates in Monterey, was also in Yosemite and had somehow managed to find my car (not certain of the odds here, but I am sure they are quite a bit higher than tracking down a nondissenter in America). We met up later and I gave her directions to the camp where I was staying. I built a camp fire and feasted on one of the MREs (Meal-Ready-To-Eat) I had purchased for the trip from the commissary in Monterey. All I can say about MREs is that they are vaguely food-like and will do in a pinch, but that I would not go out of my way to try one, and certainly would not live on them by choice. Jen joined me later, set up her tent (in the dark, to her great credit), and we passed the night engrossed in wonderful conversation (hers, not mine).

In the morning we awoke early and Jen struck her camp as she had the leave that day. We set out for the top of Yosemite Falls at about nine, a hike described in terms ranging in degree from "very strenuous" to "highly strenuous" in the various guidebooks. The "very" did not kick in until about halfway, and at about the three-fourths mark, when we encountered a rather steep switchback trail located between to peaks, I think I might have append the description with a few adjectives of my own (none repeatable here). At last we reached the top, where we were greeted by magnificent views of the valley. Though a tad easier, the return trip was still quite intense. Toward the end our legs were shaking with exhaustion and I was near collapse (I think breakfast would have been a good idea). We treated ourselves to a sandwich at the deli in Yosemite Village and then Jen lit out for points unknown (actually for Maryland, Fort Meade to be precise), and I headed for the kitschy, overly touristic Curry Village Campsite for a shower.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Across the Universe

Set against the majestic, turbulent backdrop of the Sixties, Across the Universe plays out like melodious acid trip. The story is, at its heart, a simple love story between Jude (Jim Sturgess in his film debut), a young manual laborer from Liverpool, and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), a young woman from a privileged, conservative family in Ohio. Through their adolescent eyes we watch the civil rights movement unfold- from its unfortunate causes, to its gentle roots, to the point where it explodes into violent struggle and suppression, and all told by way of lush, familiar melodies from the Beatles songbook. Indeed, it is these songs which serve to fuse the movie into a cohesive whole and to imbue it with its fascinating magic. Perhaps my favorite performance is T.V. Carpio’s touching version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” This sequence in itself, in my opinion, was worth the price of admission. The scene featuring “Dear Prudence” is a close second, for both its literal and figurative meanings. The film truly grabs hold from the first moments, and only lags on a few occasion, and even then not enough to lose the viewer.

While not overly political, the film does offer some delicate anti-war messages, nothing at all like the ham handed attempts of some other recent releases. Sprinkled throughout are various memes and cultural references from the Sixties, including, but not limited to: Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters (and the Electric Kool-Aid Tests), Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and numerous allusions to Beatles iconography. Particularly interesting is a highly fanciful, reimagined telling of the relationship between Joplin and Hendrix.

The cast quite competently supply their own vocals, delivering innovative interpretations of the timeless melodies of the Beatles. Sturgess and Wood are believable and charismatic in their roles as the young lovers. Relative newcomer Joe Anderson is a veritable firebrand as Max, Lucy’s rebellious brother, delivering perhaps the most inspired performance of the film. Martin Luther McCoy is superb as Jojo and Dana Fuchs equally so as Sadie. Both are accomplished musicians and deliver perhaps the strongest musical renditions in the film. Bono gives a brilliant, surreal turn as hippie guru Dr. Roberts, and, quite appropriately, Joe Cocker plays three equally bizarre characters.

The film is yet another installment in a recent wave of musicals (perhaps only a ripple at this point- the first faint flaps of butterfly wings), a genre I am happy to see return to the limelight, particularly the rather avant-garde approach utilized by contemporary directors. Compared to the recently released Once, this film is far closer to a traditional musical, though with more than a few wonderful surprises. Also unlike Once (which is a far superior movie), Across the Universe remains a bit more superficial in its exploration of the characters, never delving too far into their psyches, though the final result is nevertheless charming and wholly captivating. Considering some of the content, I am practically giddy that this film earned a PG13 rating.

For all its majesty, the film nevertheless remains a flawed masterpiece. Its shining moments are many and beautiful, though it does on occasion fall somewhat flat. It is at its most powerful when depicting the relationships between the various characters, though it somewhat falters during some of the scenes employing special effects. Though they often work, at times these scenes come off as uneven, hastily planned, and poorly executed, almost as if they were added as an after thought. The film threatens to fall apart near the end, before pulling itself together for a well delivered finale. All told, the wonderful moments far outweigh the few ragged edges and the result is a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Into the Wild

If the Into the Wild comes to a theater anywhere near you, please take the time to go see it. The film tells the tale of Chris McCandless and is based on the book of the same name by Jon Krakauer. I have not had a chance to read the book yet, but it is now on my list. You will likely recall hearing about McCandless back in 1992, when his body was discovered in a bus in the Alaskan wilderness. I was in my last year of high school at the time and dismissed the incident as a random case of foolhardiness. Both my subsequent experiences and this film have caused me to reevaluate my opinion of this "crazy" young man.

Sean Penn directs an utterly absorbing, heartbreaking retelling of McCandless' journey. Overall it got excellent reviews, though I have heard it panned, mostly for its nonlinear presentation. I believe this is an incorrect evaluation, and that, if anything Penn's technique enhances the story. It flows very smoothly from scene to scene, and never is there a moment of confusion or a lack of cohesion. I do not think a chronological format would have worked nearly so well. The cinematography is nothing short of breathtaking. The film is obviously a labor of love on the part of Penn, who co-wrote the script. He manages to capture every detail. There are some wonderful touches- moments of surprising insight and tenderness.

The cast is perfect, particularly Emile Hirsch who plays McCandless. Brian Dierker and Marcia Gay Harden deliver powerful turns as an aging hippie couple. Dierker so thoroughly captures the role that I wonder if he is not an actual hippie (I use the term quite affectionately here by the way). His laid back nature and sage-like wisdom are so instantly recognizable that I was overcome by the feeling that I had met him before. He is the perfect amalgamation of so many I have met in my travels (and in my life apart from my travels as well).

I am of course biased. To say that I identify with the protagonist is to wander into the realm of extreme understatement. Where many will no doubt see a confused, lost, even angry soul wandering through life without purpose, I see an educated man disillusioned with the status quo. There was a fire within him, a thirst for the truth that cannot be quenched with all the learning in the world. Prepackaged answers and a carefully mapped out life will simply not suffice for such a man. Was he careless an ill-prepared? Certainly. Though I actually find this thrilling, necessary even, in this age of fear and meticulously planned, cautious living. As a friend pointed out, everyone cannot lead such a life of wild abandon and freedom. Perhaps this is true, but those few who are able are the very ones who maintain the flame of man's spirit. To attempt to bend such a man into some corporate manikin is to attempt to fit a grizzly bear into a tutu. Even with all the many adventures I have undertaken, this fellow makes me feel a mere poser by comparison. He may have lived only to twenty-three, but how beautifully he lived. We are of the same spirit.

My own travels are similar, to be sure, though I have only ever lived as he does during my first trip to Europe when I was hitchhiking, living in fields, bathing at gas stations and living off very little money. And that was only a month. Of course this only goes as far as his "leather tramping" days, not the point at which he actually goes into the woods. This is not to say that I have not done similar things (trekking, whitewater rafting and such), only that I did not quite go to the extremes he does.

The Alaska trip is not something I would undertake at this point in my life, My knowledge of wilderness survival is nowhere near adequate, and living in the wild is not quite my cup of tea. That said, I can definitely see the attraction, and I might be tempted to try if at some point, or something similar anyway. Certainly, four or five months would not be difficult. For now, brief camping and hiking (or as I call it walking in the woods) excursions are sufficient. At any rate, my destiny lies on the other side of the world. If you do not know and want to understand what motivates such individuals, see this film.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Like a sailor, sailing over Jordan

Well, the last day is here at last. Actually the last couple hours. I fly out from here back to Frankfurt for a six hour layover. If you have been watching the news you know about the foiled attack on the Frankfurt airport and the U.S. military base there. Hopefully this will not cause too many difficulties with security and such. We have one paranoid Sgt with us (my roommate actually, and second in charge) who thinks there is a conspiracy around every corner- born a tool, lives as a tool, will die the same. Hopefully he will not interfere too much. I learned to wipe my own ass long ago...

Speaking of which, I finally discovered what all the hubbub is surrounding the stomach cramps and diarrhea that have been going around. Reminds me of when I was in India. I was afflicted the other day while we were in the middle of Petra. None of that wimpy getting sick in the hotel for me. Good thing I have to get on a plane in a few hours.

Petra is amazing by the way. I took some really awesome pictures (I hope). Anyway, the walk out of Petra was interesting to say the least. Oddly, or not, it turns out that the Bedouins speak amazingly fluent MSA. We spoke to some of the vendors and camel guides at Petra. On guy looked almost exactly like the guy in the Mummy (the new one), the one who was charged with maintaining the secret of the location of the temple. Anyway, what is interesting about this is that most people in the Middle East speak a dialect. What we learn is the language of the Quran, the language if the educated. I have no idea why they speak it, but I have had it confirmed by a number of source (mostly other Bedouins and taxi drivers). Maybe I will return and live with the Bedouin for a year or so. Set myself up in a nice little bayt sh'ar ("house of hair"...tent), buy a few sheep, some goats, a camel. I am sure my Arabic would shoot through the roof.

I have a new pen pal as well, a girl named Souad who accompanied us on the trip to Petra. She works at the University in the English department, though her English is not the best.It was interesting talking to her. She said that talking with us was the first time she had ever actually spoken Modern Standard Arabic in her life. Everything is written in MSA, and most can read it, but dialect rules the day as far as speaking. While Dialect is certainly more practical, I find MSA to be far more beautiful. You might find a similar difference comparing the language of Shakespeare with Cockney. Frankly, I have a difficult time with the dialect, though the Jordan dialect is fairly close to MSA.

After class today, we (Jeremy, Niz, Jen and me) went to the Dead Sea, an adventure in itself. We hired a taxi for 30 Dinars (40 USD), but he decided he wanted to switch out with his brother due to his being tired, so we waited by some random bridge for about thirty minutes. When his brother didn't show up, he finally gave in and took us himself. We went through numerous checkpoints, and he managed to get himself a fifty dinar speeding ticket. Not his best day, though through it all he remained calm and collected. Truly an easy going guy. He waited for us while we played in the sea for thirty minutes. It is difficult to describe the sensation of first having your body rise and then floating effortlessly in the sea. It is also hard to describe the level of burning that much salt causes to a certain part of the body due to constant diarrhea, a feeling we all shared. We gave the driver fifty dinar (71 USD) due to his being such a good sport about it all, which covered his ticket, but left him with only a random trip to the Dead Sea with a bunch of crazy foreigners snapping pictures of random camels, goats and Bedouin tents to show for it

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Furses, Coiled Again


Our plans were once again thwarted due to illness. Upon waking this morning, we discovered that a few others had been stricken with whatever bacteria is going around. So far, out of eleven, only two of us have managed to escape the dreaded ashal and tqa'ya (diarea and vomiting), myself and one of the girls (Nabila/Amber). She is one of those crazy types who was reared in a closet somewhere and believes that the world is only 8,000-10,000 years old and that it will end soon and all of people who do not share her extremely narrow world view will end up rather toasty of the rest of eternity. She condemns the Muslims, but does not hesitate to eat in their restaurants or shop in their souqs. She also believes, for some reason that there are still dinosaurs in Africa, though how this fits in I haven't the slightest idea. Perhaps as some feeble attempt to justify the existence of fossils. Insanity or religion? It's a thin line really.

I suppose this seems intolerant, though I am not sure if not tolerating intolerance in others is a sign of intolerance in oneself...hmmm...It is a tad difficult not to feel at least a tinge of intolerance for someone who tells you to your face that you will burn forever in hell and who sits in class and whispers "die, die, die" under her breath. Of course, obviously, some Muslims aren't much better, and others are much worse. It is always the crazy fringe; the terrorist suicide bombers raised and "educated" in the madrasas, or the Christian nutballs I saw in Texas who protest in the streets against gays and maintain shooting ranges and bomb abortion clinics...same mindset exactly. Fortunately, whatever they believe most people are moderate and just want to live out their lives and not hurt or change anyone else.

Yesterday, one of the other girls mentioned something about Islam being a cult without realizing that Christianity can as easily be considered the same. It is all a mere matter of perspective if one takes the time to step outside of oneself examine the entire picture objectively. "When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." (Stephen Roberts)

I will have to go with the Buddhists though. It is rare indeed you hear of Buddhists condemning people or bombing anyone. When something irritates them, they set themselves on fire.

Anyway, we all voted to stay in Amman this morning rather than go to Petra without our comrades. We are hoping that we can change the schedule and go sometime later in the week instead of going to class (hopefully missing the class on tribal laws...). If not, oh well, next time. Wadi Rum is a no go no matter what. Tomorrow's subject is Arabic Literature and I finally gave up after 30 or so pages of the 40 pages of Arabic we are supposed to read. I may resume at a later time. It is actually a rather interesting subject, but the information we have is extremely high level stuff, and, frankly, my poor brain is fried.

Earlier in the day, our teacher, the one who came with us from the states and whose family lives here, took us to the Mecca Mall. Not terribly exciting, it is just like any mall in the U.S. Mostly a day for resting and such. I think Wednesday we will take a trip to the Dead Sea after class, In Sha' Allah.

The other day Jen (Inas) and I were talking to a guard at the University and he asked if we were Christian. Jen said that she was, but that I was not. This did not leave me with many choices. Quick lesson- Most Muslims respect the "People of the Book" ( i.e. Jews, Christians, and other Muslims), but not other religions. Of course there are those who are more tolerant and understanding, but...It's like being in some weird club. He jokingly asked if I were Jewish, to which I of course replied that I was not. I finally settled on Buddhist (Buthi), rather than reveal that I am an Atheist. One of my Lebanese teachers (a member of the Druze religion, a small esoteric group that splintered from Islam and includes beliefs from various other religions in the region, including a belief in reincarnation, very secretive religion) cautioned me to never, under any circumstances, tell anyone in the Middle East that I am an Atheist (or even Buddhist actually). Craziness, to be sure, but not a huge deal. After all, the Dark Ages weren't so bad. They gave us all manner of innovations in torture devices.

All in all, Jordan is a wonderful country with amazing people, all very generous and friendly. I wish I had some time here alone to simply wander around and talk to people. As it is we are limited to groups of at least two, which is usually fine, but somewhat limiting. Being the introverted soul that I am, it is at times tiring being around people all the time (at least people that I know and cannot escape). In my travels I seldom travel with others, only those I meet in country, and then only for limited amounts of time. More than two (sometimes more than one), almost always eventually leads to conflicts and differences in opinion and desires. This is not hard if the group can split up for periods of time, but we are rather shackled to one another. I am extremely laid back and don't much care, but this is sometimes misunderstood, and the others are irritated by one another much more easily than I am. Plus, in that we are all in the military, the vast majority are extremely independent and of the take charge/I know best sort (and young), always with something to prove, though I am not sure what that is exactly. All in all it is rather draining and ridiculous. It has taken some getting used to, but I think it is a good experience. I am ever trying to increase my understanding, tolerance and patience.


Thursday, August 30, 2007

Jordan Class Day Four Email


Class was nothing special, but still interesting. We talked about Roman and Islamic architecture and our teacher was much calmer and more lenient with us because tomorrow is Friday, the Muslim day of prayer and rest (our Sunday). After school we went with our teacher to Mount Nebo, the mountain where this fellow named Moses or some such supposedly got his first glimpse of the "Holy Land." After that it was all downhill (no pun intended), and people have been fighting over it ever since, and for the silliest of reasons...Anyway, it was actually quite breathtaking. We had an Arabic guide, like we do every time , and he explained everything quite well. We also visited a church in Madaba, a primarily Christian town- The Church of Saint George. We attempted to visit some Mosques (sing- Masjid/ pl- Masajid), but we weren't allowed to enter. There are a few that are open to non-Muslims, and hopefully we will visit one of those. Not a huge deal as I have seen a mosque in Morocco, but would be good for everyone else to have the opportunity.

One of the girl's and I (Jen/Inas, the one from the desert training pictures) had a small adventure last night shopping for supplies at a local super market.

I didn't have a chance to send the above yesterday...

Just woke up and discovered that two of the girls (Jen and another girl) have been throwing up non-stop since the middle of the night, one of the guys has a rather unpleasant case of Montezuma's Revenge (Asahal in Arabic which means a case of the "easies). Also another guy was sick yesterday, but no throwing up and no "easies." Thus far I am doing ok. Slight change of plans. We were going to visit Petra today, then Wadi Rum (Valley of the Moon), a beautiful stretch of desert to the south. Instead will wait until tomorrow so everyone will be able to go (or we will all be sick...). I might seize the opportunity to explore Amman a bit, and to finish my homework. These things happen during travel. I once had the old ashal on a 35 hour bus trip from Golmud, China to Lhasa, Tibet, along with headache, fever, etc. F-un. I think it was dysentery, but I will never know for sure.


Jordan Class Day Three Email


If anything, today's class exceeded even my rather generous expectations, and, with the exception of our visit from Laila Al-Atrash, was even more interesting than yesterday. We had the same teacher, Ustatha Suhail, and the subject was the Arab family, in particular Bedouin customs and the phenomenon of people moving from the countryside to the cities and their effects on the family structure. This teacher is perhaps the best I have had. She speaks clearly and calmly and I can say with all honesty that I understand 100% of what she says. There is no English, even for word definitions, which is hugely beneficial.

The Arab view of the bedouins is a romantic one, perhaps best compared to Americans nostalgia for the "Old West." That wild sense of adventure, lawlessness and freedom, all but lost now in this modern age of urban sprawl and the choking fumes of diesel engines. It is the last faint stirrings of the pride and honor of a nomadic people now relegated to a sedentary existence of business suits and fast food restaurants. Hearing it explained in such a moving way by one who truly feels this passion, it is easy to see the attraction. In truth the whole of the Bedouin's code was tied to survival in the harsh environment of the desert. I will not bore you with the details, but the lesson was definitely entertaining and informational.

After class ended at noon, we accompanied our teacher (the one who came with us ffrom the US) to his hometown, where we enjoyed a wonderful traditional meal prepared by his mother. Only about 5% of the population is Christian and my teacher's family is among them (not terribly important, but...). After this we shared a class of mint tea (Shai Na'Na') with his father and his father's brother (and a rather lovely cousin, who served us the tea..yeah, yeah, sue me...). His father drove us back to Amman in his school bus. Though TV does nothing for me whatsoever and I have not watched it for some eleven years or so, looking out of the window of a bus is a fine substitute. Little gives me the same sense of inner peace than simply sitting on a bus watching the world pass by, tucked away in the great crush of my fellow human beings, secure beneath an impenetrable cloak of anonymity (this sounded better in my head on the bus..I will fix it later).
Below is a link to Laila Al-Atrash's sight. She is the author we met yesterday. Sorry this is not terribly well written. I am extremely tired and still have forty odd (very odd) pages of Arabic to attempt to read, in addition to some other homework.
Take care all,


Jordan Class Day Two Email


Today was rather interesting, and our teacher proved to be a welcome change of pace. She was calm and more focused on teaching than on drilling us on the previous night's reading. Our subject was honour killings and while she certainly considered them deplorable and not in anyway in keeping with Islam, she is definitely conservative in her views. She did not support unjustified honour killings, but there was an implicit message that a girl truly guilty of "dishonouring the family ( i.e. committing adultery), might very well warrant such an action, or at the very least some sort of legal response. It was interesting to be privy to this point of view. The entire idea of Sharif (Family Honor) is foreign. The word Sheriff comes from this word. The root means to oversee.

To balance it out, we had a meeting with the journalist, Laila Al-Atrash, I mentioned before. She is definitely an outspoken proponent of women's rights, and she had some wonderful insights into the issue from an Arab perspective. She was a broadcaster in Qatar for many years, and writes a column in Dustur (a Jordanian Paper) on women's rights. Needless to say we agreed on quite a few things (everything actually), including sharing a rather a dim view of American foreign policy (blaming it quite justly for many problems in the Middle East), a near outright condemnation of globalization (which she likened to a form of economic domination and certainly not a solution for the world's problems), and the fact that the true method of achieving change in the Middle East (or anywhere) is through education of the young. When asked by one student what she would do to help realize women's rights were she the Wazir (minister- Vizer in Farsi) of Education of Jordan she replied that she would distribute books on equality and understanding to various schools (to be included in the curriculum), and make them widely available. Possibly the best answer ever to that question. During speaking hour I always get (from one of our teachers) "If you were the King of Saudi Arabia, what would you do to achieve world peace?" To which I usually reply, "Ummm..."

At any rate, it was a wholly interesting, if laid back, day. Tomorrow we have the same calm teacher. Thursday we have psycho teacher again. I think she might actually resort to rapping the old ruler across our knuckles for wrong answers. It is beneficial though (I keep telling myself).

We finished off the day with a small adventure to the sports track. My friend Inas (from the desert training photos) is a dedicated runner and so I was going to accompany her and finish my homework while she ran. Unfortunately, it was closed, but the security guy bought us a cup of coffee and we talked to him for a bit in Arabic. The adventure part was crossing the road on the way back. All for now, take care.


Jordan Class Day One Email


Well, I am pretty much established here in Jordan and more or less adjusted to the time difference. We had our first class yeasterday, and let's just say the teacher was a tad intense, but a rather remarkable teacher. The lessons are entirely in Arabic, and she moves extremely fast (but is quite understandable), so it is impossible even to pause to think before answering. We are supposed to read 40 pages a night of rather difficult Arabic to prepare for the next days lesson, but this is impossible unless we wish to forgo sleep altogether.

The trip in was quite nice, if long, with a seven hour layover in Frankfurt. This was nice as I was able to see Marlena, the German girl I met in Africa last year, and will probably see again on the way out. There were a few rough moments at the beginning of the trip when we first arrived in Jordan. Some of the senior guys were somewhat paranoid and one (my roomate) seems to have allowed his new rank to go to his head. They attempted to put us on a rather short lease. Had to flex the muscles a tad and bitch quite a bit, but they pretty much leave us alone now. We had some briefings which said pretty much what I already knew, that it is not particiularly dangerous.

We have been existing primarily on Shwarma sandwiches and fries, but last night a few of us went to a really nice restaurant and had some hummus, baba ganoush and heaping plates of mansaf (bedouin dish consisting of rice with lamb). Of course using the language is awesome, and the dialect among the more educated people is close to Modern Standard Arabic. The less educated are simply impossible to understand. There is a considerable Iraqi refuge population here (700,000), and most of the population is actually Palestinian.

We also went to Jerash yesterday, which has possibly the best preserved Roman ruins I have seen (lots if pics), better than Volubilis in Morocco, but without the wonderful mosaics. Today's subject is honour killings and we are going to talk with a reporter and women's rights activist, which for me should be the highlight of the trip. I hope to pick her brain a bit about working in that field in the future.

Take care everyone.