Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Flag Day: Part Five

Colombo, Sri Lanka!

Monday, October 29, 2018

How to Drive in Jordan

Elise's first triathlon was only one of two endurance events we participated in on Saturday.

The second was the drive back to Amman from Aqaba.  There are two main highways connecting the north of Jordan with the south.  The Dead Sea Road connects Amman with the Dead Sea resort areas before continuing to the south, hugging the fence line between Jordan and Israel, and ending at the port city of Aqaba on the Red Sea.  The Desert Road is a straight shot from Amman to Aqaba.  As such it is about 30 to 45 minutes faster than the Dead Sea Road, even though it is constantly under construction and passes through several small towns which necessitate slowing down for speed bumps and children and small dogs sprinting across the highway between speeding cars.

Since Aqaba is the port city, the Desert Road is heavily used by tractor trailers hauling goods from the port to Amman and points beyond.  When parts of the Desert Road are torn up by construction, the going can be harrowing (at one point yesterday, as Elise will attest, we went to pass a car only to find four eighteen wheelers abreast of one another barreling towards us in the opposite direction).  We had planned to use the Dead Sea Road, even though the trip was a little longer, because the going is much safer, but the Dead Sea Road closed on Thursday night, right before we planned to leave, and doesn't look like it will be re-opening any time soon.

As mentioned in the last post, Thursday brought the first rain of the year.  Last year, the first rain was a light, but cold, spittle, little more than a mist, that barely got anything wet.  This year, the rain was torrentuous.  Several inches of rain fell in a very short amount of time.  On earth that hadn't seen a drop of moisture in nine months or more and likely had the consistency of hardened concrete.  Amman sits atop seven hills.  In between the hills run wadis, the Arabic word for river bed.  The wadis connect with one another all the way down to the Dead Sea, below sea level.

On Thursday afternoon, the heavy rain thundered through the wadis, wadi emptying out into wadi after wadi, until finally reaching the Dead Sea, splitting the canyon asunder and gushing into the sea.  Tragically, 21 elementary school students lost their lives in the flash flood which also wiped out a bridge on the highway.

With the Dead Sea Road closed, all traffic was on the Desert Road coming back to Amman Saturday night. The traffic was definitely heavier than it was driving down to Aqaba Friday morning, but didn't get really bad until we drove up behind a sea of brake lights and flashing hazards.  Cars stacked up behind us and we were soon boxed in between vegetable trucks.  We inched forward for a few minutes before coming to a complete stop.

We sat there for a few minutes, wondering what could be causing the blockage.  Truck drivers opened the doors of their cabs and leaned out, then stepped out of their trucks and walked to the side of the road to see if they could see what was causing the traffic jam. Then, people started walking past our car.  Had they abandoned their own vehicles and were now walking to Amman?  It was slightly apocalyptic: rows of abandoned cars on a freeway, zombies stalking from their cars in the night.

As we sat in the highway, we watched cars pass on the shoulder, as they inevitably do.  Then we saw cars get off the highway completely and bump across the desert, headlights shining to and fro as cars bounced over rocks and tumbleweeds.  Then we saw cars drive down the median. Box trucks tipped precariously dipping off the pavement into the steep gravel.  Finally, we saw a car drive down the opposite side of the highway into oncoming traffic.  Then two cars.  Three.  Four.  Before a whole lane of cars took over the opposite side of the freeway.

We finally decided to follow suit. When in Rome, right?  We made our way to the left side of the road and drove down into the median and up onto the opposite side of the freeway, looking to make sure no headlights were rushing at us from either direction.  To our right, finally, we saw the cause of the backup, a tractor trailer on its side, dozens of men milling around it as though contemplating lifting it out of the way, if that were possible.

We drove into oncoming traffic until we found a place safe enough to cross and work our way back on the right side of the road.  We were almost home, but drove slowly the rest of the way until we got home and rested our weary tailbones. 

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Elise's First Triathlon

This past weekend, the five of us drove to the southern tip of Jordan to Aqaba on the Red Sea.  There, Elise would compete in her first triathlon, the 3rd annual Ayla Oasis Triathlon and Duathlon Championship.

We left Amman in the morning on Friday, after seeing our friends visiting from Dushanbe for the past week off to the airport.  After checking into the hotel, Elise headed down to the Red Sea for a short warm-up swim to check the water temps and shake out some day-before race jitters.

Back in Amman, we had just endured our first ran of the season.  Unlike last year which produced a light misting for the first rain, this was a torrential downpour that split apart canyons with flash floods and brought with it cooler weather and a stiff rain.  Aqaba, however, at sea level, was warmer, though the wind of the previous day was still present, and would be a factor on the bike leg the following day.

We enjoyed a late lunch of fish fingers and french fries by the pool, sipping on a couple of cold Carakales, before heading over the race hotel to pick up Elise's race packet and to attend the pre-race briefing.

Besides serving as Elise's initial foray into the sport of triathlon, the race was also host to the Asian Cup and West Asian ITU Championships which meant the race meeting was filled with broad-shouldered, pimply-faced professional triathletes zoning out on their headphones or scrolling through their iPhones in the packed conference room.  Elise was convinced she was the only mother of three competing in the race the following day, and she was most likely right. 

Because of the pro races, Elise's wave wouldn't go off until 10:30.  We had to head down to the race start first thing the next morning anyway, because she had to set up her bike and transition area before the gun went off for the Elite men's race at 8:00.  

Unbeknownst to Elise or I, she was missing a handlebar plug on the end of her handlebar. The open metal tube (though wrapped in tape) can be a hazard, especially in a fall.  They weren't letting Elise into the transition area until the end was plugged; they said tape was fine.  The only problem was we didn't have any tape.  In our haste to get to the transition area on time in the morning, we didn't bring the first aid kit with us (or our snacks for the kids who would tell me they were hungry approximately every 15 minutes in rotating shifts).  

This called for fast, creative thinking.  I looked around for something, anything that could be used to cover a small opening in a metal tube about the diameter of a quarter.  Then, I saw it. Tape. The blue electrical tape that was keeping the carpet Elise and Peter (and a bunch of other random triathlon dudes) are standing on in the photo above connected to the carpet next to it, and so on and so forth all the way through transition and down to the water's edge. I quickly pulled up a small piece and ripped it off, and between Elise and I we fashioned a handlebar plug out of electrical tape in true McGuyver style. 

It was a beautiful morning as you can tell from the photos.  The kids and I watched the Elite men and women's races, cheering for the lone American in the men's race (as well as the Jordanians, Syrians, Palestinians, and Egyptians...when in Rome, I guess). 

Elise (tried to) relax on the beach until the start, and before we knew it, the time had come for her to toe the starting line. 

So, Elise will tell you she didn't know how to swim before she met me.  And will credit me for teaching her to swim when she was pregnant with Peter in Florida.  I don't know how much of all that is true, but the results is quite clear...she can now swim! 

Elise was nervous about the swim, never having swum in the open water before.  A few weeks ago, she and I got up early and drove down to the Lagoon Resort near the Dead Sea.  There is a large, man-made lagoon, a giant swimming pool really where you can drive ski boats through that is a couple of hundred yards across at its longest point.  This was good practice for Elise. 

I watched her receding form carefully to make sure she didn't panic.  When one women had to be fished out of the water by kayak, I squinted into the sun to make sure it wasn't Elise.  Of course, it wasn't, and her swim was much faster than I thought it would be.  As I was tracking her progress, I had her a little bit ahead of one of the medical rafts -- at one point, still at the 3rd and last buoy before making a last left hand turn and heading for shore -- when in actuality she was almost to the finish of the swim!

At the end of the swim, Elise sprinted up the beach and to the transition area to get ready for the bike!

The course called for four laps of a four mile loop.  Fortunately, the road was closed and the course wasn't too crowded.  Though there was the wind and a few ascents to contend with.  

Elise professes she saw a few of the elite women get out of the saddle coming out of the hairpin turn, so she decided to do the same!

After the bike, it was back into the transition area to strap on her running shoes. 

The run was two laps on a 2.5 km circuit, or 3 miles total.  It was a long straight stretch in the hot desert sun, and Elise said it was pretty brutal as it was almost noon by the time she finished the race.  But finish she did!

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Spin the Wheel

One of the reasons the blog has been suffering as of late, like a neglected child left in a basket on the steps of the firehouse, besides the fact that Elise and I have been crazy, ridiculously, beyond busy, is because we are deep, deep in the throes of bidding on our next posting. 

Like it or not, we have to leave Jordan this summer. The job I am in now is only two years. No option to extend. They left out that part when I signed up for the job. In fact, they’ve recently hired my replacement, so we really must go. 

Elise has been training like mad for her first triathlon in two short weeks from now. She is ready. Even if she doesn’t think she is. She will toe the starting line on the edge of the Red Sea just a few days before we may hear where we will move to this summer. 

For some reason — I’m not exactly sure why — this bid season has been particularly gut-wrenching and especially stressful. The list was very good, and we could easily imagine ourselves on any one of the four corners of the globe. We started researching and reaching out earlier than last time; that, in part, has made this time around very long. We’re just ready for it to be over. 

We talked over all the possibilities with the kids. They have been more involved (and curious) than ever. They’re no longer tiny babies in bucket seats we sling over our shoulder and head out. Nor are they quite the petulant teenagers we have heard about, filing ardent protests of having to move and leave friends, boyfriends, and girlfriends. They are excited by the move. Like Elise and I, they are thriving in this lifestyle. 

We submit our final list this Friday and may hear something by the end of October. The last two times Elise and I have bid, we reached the end and still didn’t know where we were going. I am hopeful that is not the case this time around. 

Or, as they say in Arabic, inshallah. 

Wadi Rum, Part Two

We left the house for the four hour drive south at 8:30, in time to coincide our arrivals with our friends from Jerusalem who were driving up from an overnight in Petra.

The King’s Highway connecting Amman to Aqaba on the Red Sea was completely turn up and made driving like a spectacle out of Grand Theft Auto, 18 wheeler’s hurtling down the wrong side of the highway, random barriers, shoulders, not to mention pedestrians popping up out of the middle of nowhere. The drive was long than we had intended and we arrived after our friends. But after proceeding through the visitors center and paying our 1.5 JD (the residents’ going rate) per person, we drove a few more km to the parking lot in Wadi Village where we were met by our Jeep which would 4x4 us out to the camp.

The Jeep was actually a tricked out Toyota FourRunner. It was the only vehicle in the entire village, giving the rundown landscape a disorienting “Children of the Corn” feel, as though every vehicle was a clone of the other.  But given the terrain, the mode of transportation made sense. It was either FourRunner or camel. You decide. 

We were met by a striking man in a long white robe. I’m sure the gown has a traditional name but I don’t know what it is. It was surprisingly immaculate given that everything else in Wadi Tum was covered in several centimeters of red dust. He had the eyes of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in “Pirates or the Caribbean”, piercing and ringed in black as though circled in mascara though he wore no makeup. 

He loaded our luggage into the front seat of the Toyota as we loaded into the back l, squeezing onto two bench seats on either side of the flatbed truck. We then bounced over the last few meters of rough asphalt that was Wadi Village. The road ended and the desert began. We were soon sliding over red sand. 

Wadi Rum looks like the surface of Mars. In fact, the Matt Damon movie “The Martian” was filmed there.

In addition to the traditional Bedouin tent, many of the more upscale tents have taken the Martian theme and run with it. Hence, the dome tent, a round white pod. Most have their own facilities and air conditioning. You can really spend as much or as little as you want to on accommodations in Wadi Rum. We opted for the former for our first sojourn to the red desert. 

The Jeep maneuvered across the desert floor, navigating around and between colossal red rock formations rising on either side of us like stone giants. The Jeep tumbled by the occasional random caravan of wild camels before pulling up to our camp, Memories Aicha Luxury Camp. 

We were guided to the sheehsa/coffee area where we were reunited with our friends from Chennai. Neither of us had lunch yet so we let the kids scramble up the rock escarpment which rose steeply on either side of the tent city while we waited for lunch to be served, a family-style serving of maqlooba, a Jordanian chicken and rice dish. “Maqlooba” means “upside down” in Arabic and that is exactly how the dish is prepared. 

After lunch, in order to avoid the somnambulism brought on by such a heavy meal, we went on Jeep excursion to see some of the nearby sights, our family in one Jeep, the other family in another. 

Monday, October 8, 2018

Wadi Rum

Last weekend, we had the opportunity to meet friends who are currently living in Jerusalem in Wadi Rum for a night of glamping.  It was our first trip to Wadi Rum; we had been planning to go for a while, but had yet to fit it in.  It definitely did not disappoint.

We were picked up in the parking lot just past the visitor center.  We would be driven in a 4x4 "jeep" out to the camp. 

These are just a few shots from our arrival.  It’s been a couple of weeks and I wanted ed to get these up. More photos to come!