Sunday, November 21, 2010

I am a female Borat

Every time I travel, I can't help feeling a little bit like Borat. Dressed just a little bit different, asking too many questions... combined with the fact that I am not shy, and thanks to 12 some years of being a media buyer, if you give me an inch I will take a mile. Amman I come to make nice with you!! Saturday I took the "walking tour" of Amman, plus my own walking tour. Wearing my cargo pants, chicago marathon tshirt and flip flops, stopping to look at a map every 15 minutes, I walked a good 7 miles yesterday I think. I went from my posh neighborhood to the second circle, to the first circle - going all the way to the more traditional center of town. Amman's streets have no rhyme or reason. They aren't straight and the city is very hilly so a street that might look close on a map is actually up the side of a cliff through an alley. Usually I try to NEVER pull out a map in public, but after a few times I noticed that nobody was paying attention. It all felt very very safe.

The first circle is really congested. I went to a place that is recommended for hummus called Hashem, which is in an alleyway. Men walk around with baskets of falafel, and you can order either hummus of fuul (sp?) which is some type of bean puree. I got the hummus (above) and they brought pita with a basket of mint. It was by far the best hummus and falafel I have ever had. Just phenomenal!! The bad news is, it may have ruined trader joe's hummus for me forever, which is usually the only grocery store hummus I will eat. Salam restaurant in Chicago comes close, but this was just on another level of tastiness and lightness. Not a lot of women in this restaurant, but nobody even looked at me funny. I was so happy. The view from my table:

A main street in the first circle:

After the hummus, I stopped at the pastry shop. The walking tour takes you around through different markets of gold shops, cell phone covers, kohl for the eyes, socks, colanders, spoons, curtains, everything random and nothing I wanted to buy. Except maybe this book:

Surprisingly, I was able to make use of my discovery center arabic class. I had left my pen at home, and I needed one. One day our teacher made us all practice saying "is this a pen? no, it's a book. Is this a table? No, it's a pen" over and over and over and over and over.. I remembered the word for pen! But I have no idea how to say "do you have a pen", just "is this a pen?" So I went into a store that looked like it might have pens and I said "Hathi Qualam??!" and the guy knew what I was saying. Even though I marched into his store and said "Is this a pen?" he handed me a pack of three pens and smiled. It was like a miracle. I was so proud of myself! Now for the rest of the time I'm here, if I need another pen, a table or a book, I can buy one. But if I need to buy anything else at all, no guarantees.
I walked past another mosque, up hills (where everything is made out of the same smooth and slippery limestone), down hills, through crowds, through alleys until I was so exhausted and far away that I took a taxi home.
One thing that is a little unsettling to me are the young guys in camoflage and rifles. Before you start worrying, this really isn't uncommon outside of the US and Europe. In Guatemala I saw this every day. They are usually just guarding some building, or have some sort of military job. But it makes my heart race a little bit everytime I have to walk past one of them. I'm all for my friends and family up in Michigan killing turkeys and deer - my feeling about guns is that I never want to see them, I don't want them in the city limits of Chicago, but I'll gladly eat whatever you kill with one. (well, maybe not deer..) But I don't really like seeing them when I walk down the street. I can't help the reaction in my gut.
Last night after walking all over the place, I went to the fancy asian place next door to my hotel for some teriyaki and dumplings. Then I had a lychee martini! I am enjoying solo time because I know it is ending very soon. I read the book I've been saving for months - David Rakoff's Fraud, and had a nice little evening in a cozy bar. The book made me laugh out loud several times. I really like my neighborhood here. Amman has everything - in some places women are completely covered except for the eyes, and in this neighborhood the young and hip of Amman come to drink martinis to a hotel costes soundtrack.

Today I am going back to the hummus place. It is completely inconveniently located and I am going to have to take a taxi. One thing I've learned over the years of travelling is that if you like a place - GO BACK. Sometimes I go back to places again and again. In Paris, Kathy and I had a place we went to at least 4 times for an onion tart I was obsessed with. In Panama I had a chicken stew place. In New York, there is Joe's Shanghai. I never think "I'm so glad I went to so many restaurants!" as much as "man what I wouldn't do to go back to that chicken stew place.."
Here is my hotel outdoor patio:

When I came home last night to the Hisham Hotel, I had another Borat moment. There are some Olan Mills-style family portraits hanging on the lobby wall and what look to be family vacation photos, framed. "Is that Hisham?" I asked, just curiously asking about the hotel owner.
"No! That is the king of Jordan!!"
Oh.. haha.. well, I didn't recognize him. Then I noticed of course it is Queen Rania in the photo. The whole photo studio-style portrait threw me off. Then I did get the story about Hisham. He owned the hotel for 20 years, then sold it to two Iraqis and two Jordanians. They get a lot of repeat customers from the French and US embassies. It really is a nice place and very reasonably priced. The hotel owner told me sadly that Hisham died a few years ago. He seemed fond of him. Hisham would be happy that I like his hotel very much.
I may not be able to write much after today - until November 29. I'm not sure what the internet situation will be like. I will be with my group and we are going to the dead sea and out in the desert. I will catch up when I get to Egypt for sure, and many times when I am in Dabab. (I might be able to sooner, at Petra). If you are reading, comment so that I know.


Kate C. said...

Sounds amazing so far! Definitely go back for more hummus. If you need a friend to go on a Hummus Tour of Chicago, I'm in. We can ask for a lot of take aways!

So there is one thing about the tour I am a little confused about. Why didn't you get kohl for your eyes??? You could come back and it could be your new thing!

Nice work on the Arabic. Have fun on your tour.

Heather said...

Sara - You have no idea how much I enjoy your blog... it is brilliant! Seriously, get your stories published and I will buy a million copies. So fun to live vicariously through you. Can't wait to read about your time in Egypt. Stay Safe - Heather

Kate said...

I'm so happy to have Schirmyvida back to get me through my work day! The trip sounds amazing so far and a tip of the hat to you for busting out the arabic. Respect! Hope you have fun people on your tour and they toast you tonight for your birthday!

Anonymous said...

In my best Borat voice: "Very niiiiiiice!"

Do a shot of Arak (some nasty liquor that turns white when put on ice) for me :)
~Juan Lobo

Laura said...

Wow. Sounds like you are having an amazing time. I would love to go to the Middle East one day. Hope you have great travels out to the dead sea and camping!

Trisha said...

I am soooo proud of you for pulling out the Arabic! That is an awesome story - and I can totally picture it! I had a lychee smoothie today, and am a big fan of the lychee martini. Maybe, if we figure out where to get lychee, we can make some to have with food from Salam & Nazareth Sweets :) Happy birthday my friend!

sara said...

Oh, I have so much more to write about. One of the nastiest things I've ever eaten, and how a man tried to pull me in his shop and kiss me. Gross!! The Dead sea was awesome. There's just no way to describe it. Blog ya later...