Sunday, April 22, 2018

Zata Making and Beekeeping

Yesterday, we went on an adventure just outside of Amman, near the town of Salt. The goal was to learn a little bit about rural living in Jordan, and we did learn that rural living today is very different than it was 100 -- or even as recent as 70 -- years ago.

The Jordan Valley used to be a fertile place and home to fruit trees, figs, apricots, and wheat and barley. Many of those crops have been replaced by olive trees, due in large part to the durability of the olive tree and the value of olive oil. Much of the olive oil made in Jordan is exported, and replaced on the local market by olive oils imported from Spain, Greece, and Cyprus.

We started the day learning to make zata, a spice mixture that is smeared on pita bread. All of the ingredients of zata are found locally, with oregano being the most prominent ingredient and base for the mixture to which sesame seeds and sumac, along with other spices, are added.

We drove to a house in the countryside outside of Salt where we made manakesh with the zata on top. 

Growing up, we would go to Sitti's house every Sunday afternoon for an early dinner before being dropped back off at my mom's house. Zata was a part of every meal. Here, the bread with the zata on top is called manakesh, but we just called it zata, and as a kid, I don't remember particularly liking it. That's why I was a little unsure as to whether or not the kids would eat it or not, but to my surprise -- and relief -- they did!

After baking and eating the manakesh, and after drinking both coffee and tea accompanied by tasty, local fig cookies, we headed out on what was to be a 6 km hike through the countryside to our next destination, the beekeepers house. 

The day was overcast and it actually rained as we were hiking. It only rains about five days a year in Jordan, so we considered it a good omen. 

We were grateful the weather was cooler, and I didn't mind that the skies were a little grey. The green the winter rains brought to the countryside is already starting to leave the hills, and they were more brown and yellow than they were even a few short weeks ago. But the grey skies brought out subtle colors. Tiny yellow and violet flowers one may usually not notice on a bright, sunny day were more vivid on a grey day by comparison. 

As the rain grew more persistent and started to soak through backpacks and outer shells, our guide suggested cutting our hike short and heading directly to the beekeeper's house. Both Elise and I were in favor of pushing on through the rain, knowing it would subside or stop any minutes, but we were in the minority, so a little soggy, we slopped back into the bus and headed to the beekeeper's house a short drive through the country. 

There, we were disappointed to learn we would not have the opportunity to don the traditional beekeeper attire as we had originally hoped due to the rain. We were. however, treated to a lecture about the ins and outs of beekeeping and were able to taste the local spring, citrus honey on a pudding made from sheep's milk. 

Though we didn't get to put on the bee suit or see the hives, we did see how the honey is extracted from the combs; each individual frame is hand spun in a centrifuge until the honey is pulled from the comb and collected in the bottom of a giant plastic bin. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Egypt. Part Five - Khan El-Khalili

After the Pyramids and the mummies, I think the kids next enjoyed visiting the large open-air souk, Khan El-Khalili, located next to Al-Hussein Mosque in the heart of Islamic Cairo.

The alley ways were narrows and lined with various vendors hawking their wares. The kids were on the hunt for trinkets from Ancient Egypt. Sam was in search of an 'Eye of Horus', while Peter was looking for a traditional scarab from Egyptian mythology. 

We stopped for an early dinner at Naguib Mahfouz. The restaurant is named after the Egyptian novelist who won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, the only Arab to do so, and is where he used to do much of his writing. 

We had scarfed down a late lunch of kushari only a few hours earlier, so neither Elise nor I were particularly hungry yet, but we knew we had to feed the kids before the long drive back to our hotel and this would be my opportunity to try grilled or stuffed pigeon, an Egyptian delicacy. I won't attempt to describe the experience here. I did find this interesting article about pigeons as delicacy on NPR

Sorry, the restaurant was too dark take pictures of the dish, but picture two small birds stuffed on a plate side by side, tiny, bony wings and legs askew. 

The artist -- always -- at work. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Egypt, Part Four - Cairo Museum

The theme for the next day....mummification!

We visited the Cairo Museum. I knew the museum was a site not to be missed, but I didn't really have a clear picture of what we might see or what to expect. Like I said, I didn't put in nearly as much research as I should have planning the trip.

We weren't allowed to take pictures of the two biggest attractions: the royal mummies and the treasures from King Tutankhamen's tomb. The later was a real treat as I had no idea the iconic head dress would be something I would see this trip.

The throne from King Tutankhamen's tomb. 

We paused before entering the mummy room. As you may recall, Peter turned tail as soon as he entered the burial chamber in the Great Pyramid, thinking there was going to still be a mummy inside. 

He and I stuck our heads into the mummy room and peered into the first glass case. The mummy was a female with long bony teeth jutting through protruding, withered lips. Her long hair, straw-like and yellowed by the embalming chemicals used by the Ancient Egyptians during the mummification process hung from her linen-sheathed shoulders. She had a hole in her cheek and another in her skull, and though her arms were crossed on her chest, her wrists were twisted at an awkward, physiognomically impossible angles.  

Uh-uh. No way. I didn't see this happening. 

After some initial hesitation outside the mummy room, everyone built up their inner Indiana Jones and steeled themselves for the horrors that awaited, and after much deliberation, everyone did indeed enter the mummy room. 

We have had a few visitors to our bedroom since, but no one has yet to admit it was the mummies who brought them there. 

After the museum, we headed across Tahir Square to Abou Tarek, a small neighborhood eatery, for kushari, a traditional Egyptian dish originally made in the 19th century, made of rice, macaroni, and lentils mixed together, topped with a spiced tomato sauce, and garlic vinegar, and garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onions. 

It was our most authentic, truly Egyptian experience and a true highlight of the trip. 

Egypt, Part Three - The Sphinx

When we first moved from Florida to Washington, D.C. to start a new career, we had no idea what adventures awaited us. We didn't know which corner of the globe we would shipped off to. I don't think I'll ever forget the morning my classmates and I crowded into the campus auditorium that hot morning in early summer. Family members from around the country had converged upon that small space to see where their love ones would be sent. My mom came up for the occasion. She sat somewhere in the back of the room with Elise, Sam, and Peter, the later two not much more than babes. Peter literally was a baby, not even a year old.

I sat in the front of the room, in rows of folding chairs with my classmates. Flags from all over the world decorated a podium, and the instructor handed them out one by one to each of us until there were none left. Some of my classmates were sent to countries they had never heard of before. Some were visibly upset when they received their assignments. Some cried. I think both Elise and my mom were shell-shocked. Elise told me later my mom asked her where that was on our list, and Elise confessed to not remembering. I don't remember knowing what to think. We were sent to Brazil. Then India. Then Jordan. Then and then and then?

Before reaching that day, Elise and I spent hours -- weeks, really -- pouring over a list of 100 posts around the world. We had to rate each one high, medium, or low. Based on what? Places we knew nothing about, places we had never been, some we hadn't even heard of before. Is Paramaribo in Africa? Asia? Where is Guyana? Is it the same is Guinea? Papua New Guinea? Guinea-Bissau?

When it was all said and done and we turned in our list, we had tagged about 10 posts high, many in Western Europe, about another 20 to 30 medium, and the rest of the 100 low. Places like Guyana and Papua New Guinea.

Cairo was one of the cities we had listed as high.

The rest is history. We went to Brazil. We knew the couple who ended up being assigned to Cairo. They had a small boy about the same age as Peter and Sam. Shortly after they arrived in Egypt, a revolution erupted. Arab Spring. The first of many years of social unrest. They were eventually evacuated and left the job entirely shortly thereafter.

Sometimes, I wonder if we would still be in this line of work, travelling the world, had we originally been assigned to Cairo. There's no way of knowing, of course. I don't believe we were more resilient than that family was. Just lucky, I guess.

All of this to say, our trip to Cairo was a long time coming and our expectations were high. To Elise and I it was about more than seeing pyramids and mummies, though those were important, too. It may have also been about seeing what might have been and -- who knows? -- what might yet be some day.

After the camel ride, we stopped at the boat museum. Inside is the Khufu solar boat, an intact full-size vessel from Ancient Egypt that was sealed into a pit in the Giza pyramid complex at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza around 2500 BC. The ship was almost certainly built for Khufu (King Cheops), the second pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Egypt and was reassembled from 1,224 pieces placed in a logical arrangement at the bottom of a limestone pit. 

Egyptian mythos holds that Ra, the sun god, sailed across the sky from east to west. So, after death, Khufu would need his own boat in order to accompany Ra on his journey. Hence, the solar boat was placed next to the pyramid where his body was laid, so he could use the boat in the after life. 

After a long day spent first at the pyramids, then boat museum, and finally the sphinx, we headed back to the hotel for some downtime poolside where Clementine had made huge strides in swimming. 

We were originally scheduled to dine at Mena House, built on the site of an 1869 hunting lodge, and in 1890 opened Egypt's first swimming pool. Alas, the restaurant was closed for renovations, and we were forced to suffer through (yet another) dinner buffet at the neighboring Marriott. 

All was not lost, however. We crashed Hakim's wedding. Hakim is an Egyptian folk-singer and -- as our camel guide later informed us -- "#1 in Egypt!" The kids snatched cake pops from the desert table.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Egypt, Part Two - Great Pyramids of Giza

The centerpiece of our trip was a visit to the Great Pyramids of Giza. We were met in the morning by a certified Egyptologist who served as our guide to tour the pyramids on our second day in Cairo and to the museum the following day.

I didn't have many expectations and unfortunately didn't have a lot of time to do my own homework before traveling to Egypt. For example, I didn't even really know you could go inside the pyramids, but we started off our visit by entering the largest of the three Great Pyramids.

The passage was narrow. You had to bend at the waist and climb a wooden plank at a 45 degree angle for several hundred feet before the passage opened up and one could stand up right. After much deliberation, only Peter and I ended up ascending the shaft that lead to the burial chamber, approximately 2/3 of the way to the top of the tallest pyramid. 

Sam and Clem didn't have to stoop over to fit in the passage like I did. 

When we reached the burial chamber, we found a small room with perfectly smooth grey walls and sharp corners. The sarcophagus was at one end of the chamber, but I didn't get the chance to look. 

On the verge of tears, Peter immediately wanted to turn around, and we left the chamber straight away. Anyone would be understandably anxious under all that stone. Come to find out later, it was the lingering threat of mummies that lead to many of their fears, founded or otherwise. 

When we emerged from the pyramid we were lead to our camels for a ride to see the Sphinx that would end at the boat museum. 

Of the five of us, only Peter had ridden a camel before (in Petra), so this was a first, and for me, the highlight of the trip.