21 April 2009

Cabbages and kings

I finally bought a bike and last night I BIKED TO THE GROCERY STORE and bought groceries ON MY OWN.  This improved my general well-being by 10,000 points.  

A momentous victory. We all live in villas which are pretty far from town, and we have drivers that will take us where we want to go, but the vehicle options are 1) mini bus and 2) large bus.  Either bus is normally 90% vacant, which is great for needlessly wasting carbon. We must first arrange with the driver where we want to go and schedule the bus. If we want boys and girls on the same bus, must obtain prior permission or call the director of General Services.  Public buses don't come out this far, and taxis can't find our villas (no road names, no address numbers...not that they would help that much...taxi drivers typically navigate by landmarks, not street names.)

Thus, it was AWESOME to just jump on my bike and go.  I can't describe the sense of freedom that has returned.  (Although I very much miss my fixed-gear beast in Boston.)

Life is filling up fast. I'm taking an hour or two of Arabic every day now (I can read like a kindergartener!), plus various other activities.  I'm also sitting in on one of the coolest classes EVER: the History and Politics of Oil in the Middle East.

It began as something I thought I "should" do, a topic I "ought" to know more about, so I dragged myself into it.  And it's orders of magnitude more fascinating than I ever imagined.  The course text is The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, by Daniel Yergin and it's SUPER.  The book does an awesome job weaving an off-the-wall story complete with outrageous characters and all their quirks.  

For example, take Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the first monarch of Saudi Arabia.  He was the Saudi king who united the warring tribes of Saudi Arabia- a desert adventurer, roaming the sand dunes with his camel caravan, conquering tribes, and wedding desert princesses to forge alliances.  (He fathered 50 kids in his lifetime!) Before oil was discovered, he could carry all his wealth with him on a camel. 

When the Middle Eastern oil craze was just beginning, he was initially not interested offers from companies that wanted to prospect for oil, he wanted to drill for water instead, which makes a ton of sense when you think about how much value water has in a desert. 

From all accounts, Ibn Saud was incredible.  Six foot four, charismatic, dashing, everything a king should be. Later in life (after oil discoveries) when he met Roosevelt on the USS Quincy, all the Westerners slept in the cabins at night, but Ibn Saud and his entourage insisted on sleeping in bedouin tents pitched on the deck.  That is so cool.

Saud had an advisor/friend named Jack Philby, aka Sheikh Abdullah, a British expatriot who converted to Islam. He was fluent in Arabic, as well as Persian, Urdu, and Punjabi.  It seems like any time anything important happened between the British and Saudi Arabia, Philby was there, swaying things one way or another. And when the American relations with Saudi Arabia started growing and Britain was fading away, Philby was there, facilitating that change too. (Britain thought there was no oil in Saudi Arabia.  They advised Ibn Saud to take the Americans' money and sell them an oil concession the Brits thought was useless. Boy, they regretted that.)

Philby was an avid bird watcher, a desert explorer, and his son is famous in his own right for being a spy for the Soviet Union. His second wife was a Saudi slave girl. After Ibn Saud died, Philby began openly criticizing King Saud, the next ruler of Saudi Arabia for his wild spending, among other things.  Philby was exiled.  On his deathbed in Beirut, he spoke his last words: "God, I'm bored."

I've learned a ton about World War II, oil companies, OPEC, Iran, and some about the Palestine/Israeli conflict, Egypt, and the evil oil company stereotype (which is both true and false, quite a change from my previous stance of "oil companies are evil, die, die, die.") 

I also learned more about the energy crisis in the 1970's when for the second time Americans had to wait for hours in long queues to buy gas.  President Carter's approval rating dropped to 25%, comparable to Nixon's rating during the Watergate Scandal. For various reasons, Americans viciously blamed Carter for the frustration of waiting in gas lines.  It made me think that when Bush invaded Iraq, it wasn't just for "those evil oil companies." He was also doing it because we Americans, as individuals, demand a reliable oil supply through our actions and habits, and if anything happens to the supply, there's hell to pay.  Yes, I know, gross oversimplification, but the point is that my entire view of how oil works is now vastly altered, and I feel about 100 times more informed than before, which means I'm about a millionth as informed as I should be.


The Prize was also turned into a PBS documentary series, and we watch some of these films in class, which are also super great.  It's absolutely wild to see black and white footage of old classic cars driving up and down sand dunes.  Which reminds me of a story...

There's a highway that runs north-south called the Desert Highway in Jordan, and according to Husam's dad, it was once literally just a swath of desert that people drove on.  Thus, you'd be driving along on the sand/dirt and you might look to your right and see another car driving alongside you, but maybe 100 meters away.  At any rate, back in the day, Husam's dad was driving from Maan to Aman in the north.  He ate lunch, then jumped in his car and started driving on the Desert Highway.  About midway there, he meets another car headed the opposite direction.  

They stop and chat and his dad asks this other fellow where he's going.  "Aman," he said. "No way," Husam's dad replies, "I'm going to Aman, you're clearly lost."  They argued for a few minutes, but in the end, they both continue driving opposite ways.  ...several hours later, Husam's dad ends up (you guessed it) back at the restaurant where he ate lunch earlier in Ma'an.  

18 April 2009


Heard of Maker Faire? (Think catapults, flame throwers, knitting, circuits, DIY, artistic soda explosions, hackers, geeks...kind of like Burning Man, but less drugs and more building cool stuff?).  It's growing an African branch! Maker Faire Africa, 13-15 August 2009 in Accra, Ghana (oh-so-conveniently scheduled to happen at the end of IDDS, also happening in Ghana this year, July-August.) I think this idea came from the founder of AfriGadget.  This event has so much potential to be the coolest thing ever.

13 April 2009

Time Machine

I was pretty shaken by some articles published recently.

(The following article is particularly alarmist and depressing, brace yourself...and make sure to read the comments...)

And some responses:

06 April 2009


Dearly beloved, pay close attention, there's a magical land you should travel to, and it's called JORDAN.  [insert adventure music: dun dunnnn dun dunnn dunndunn AAAAHHHH ahhhh AAAAAHhh ahhh]

Okay, here's a sneak peek through the seeq...and the same bloody picture that a billion other people have taken. 

Petra!  Remember it Indiana Jones?  Well it's sooooooooooooo much cooler than I ever possibly imagined.  First, take a long winding walk through the seeq (canyon) or hire a horse carriage if you're not feeling plucky.

Then, [dun dun DUUUUNNNN], the Treasury of Petra!

Congratulations, you've made it as far as 99.9% of the tourists.  But don't stop now, it gets even MORE AWESOME.

There's tombs carved into rock (some of them are HUGE), Bedouin caves, a Roman ampitheater, ruins of a Roman town, it's such a completely awesome mix of cultures and it's all set in some of the best hiking scenery I've ever seen. Okay, 50% of tourists make it this far, but wait, IT GETS BETTER.  Climb higher (or hire a donkey) until you find the [aahh ahhh AAAAHHHH] monastery!  

Okay, it's tiny in this photo because we climbed above it, but it's huge and arguably cooler than the more famous rose red Treasury at the end of the siq.  Look, here are our intrepid explorers!

Can you see vertical black line just below the dark doorway?  That's a person standing up.  The monastery is HUGE.  Congrats, only 10% of the tourists make it up here.

Also, I would like to officially declare my deep love for camels.

Ahhh...what devastatingly gorgeous creatures.  Awkward yet graceful, elegant yet beastly.

Ok, don't stop now, hop back on the road and venture farther south to Wadi Rum!

Hire a Bedouin guide, camp out overnight in the desert!

Red sand dunes, craggy canyons, rock arches, breathtaking landscapes, it's incredible.  

And Husam finally had a chance to show off his raw brute strength:

Speaking of brute strength, did I mention how much I love camels?

Ah, Jordan, land of wonders...Where else can you visit places like Mt. Nebo, where Moses first viewed the promised land? (You mean all those places in the Bible actually exist?  Galilee? River of Jordan? They didn't just make up all those names I learned in Sunday school?) 

And you know what? We didn't even see half of what Jordan has to offer!  There's some awesome Roman ruins in the north we didn't have time for, and I'd really like to spend some time living in the capital city of Amman - full of twisty hilly streets where everyone stops you just to say, "Welcome to Jordan!", and the most gorgeous otherworldly prayer chanting blasts/echoes through the streets at 5 am every morning.  

If you're thinking about going, definitely take a look at this website: Ruth's Jordan Jubilee.

The other side of the story? A few weeks ago, I joined some friends and  impulsively bought a plane ticket to visit Jordan.  I had a lot of reservations about it.  I've been growing away from one-night-stand tourism where I drop into a place, look at all the sights with the other hordes of one-night-stand tourists and then leave again.  It's started feeling kind of hollow, especially after seeing what kind of changes rampant tourism can bring to a place.  I mean, I suppose it's good for local economies, but at the cost of becoming trashier when they start catering to all those one-night-stands. I've also noticed that I have a ton more fun during travel like D-Lab Zambia, where we don't see any sights but just live and work in communities.  It feels more connected. And full. And real.  

I've been making quiet promises to give up my wasteful, carbon-spewing, one-night-stand tourist ways, so I nearly passed on this Jordan opportunity.  ...but Husam is a native Jordanian, and he was coming too...and we were meeting up with Sheena's friend, S.J., who's been living in Jordan for a few years...and those pictures of Petra just looked so wicked cool...and I wasn't likely to make this trip on my own... 

Ha.  So, in short, I came up with a list of excuses and justified it to myself.  And I'm glad I went. It was kind of like a scouting expedition--Jordan is definitely on my list of places I'd like to live.   

Okay, so my no one-night-stand tourism goal isn't working out.  But I have a new goal to work towards now: spend more on donations to my favorite groups than I spend on airplane flights in the same year.  I'm pretty durned far from reaching this one right now, but it seems to be a better framed goal than STOP TRAVEL.  I think it will serve the double purpose of making me think twice before jumping on a plane, and stretching me to give more freely of my money to groups who use it better than I will.

Aaron:  "I think Laura and I have the same hair style."
"Yeah, we both go to the same salon."
Aaron: "That's right...the salon of riding on a camel in the desert."