Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Day 12: Aqaba & Amman

After much, much ado in our Business Class room, the three of us made our way down to breakfast, featured on the Lido Deck. Okay, it wasn't exactly called the Lido Deck, but the surroundings of that place, down to the ruffled curtains and last wicker chair just screamed, "The Love Boat." We had our table, we dealt with the rude waiter (that kept ignoring me whenever I asked for more coffee); we had cereals, yogurt, a make your own omelette station and yet another juice bar. Your standard three-star hotel buffet.

After that, we had the morning free in Aqaba. Per Raj's request, we spent our time venturing next door to the Intercontinental, to see what luxury had been so close to us and at the same time, so very, very far away. The Intercontinental's spread was nothing like the Radisson's, and therefore, absolute heaven. Crystal blue water in the three swimming pools, tiki huts, a bar, good looking people running around and splashing by the ocean shore. Their beach was ten times as long as ours, too. If there's a next time in Jordan for us, guess where we're staying?

Abu Fadi came by to collect us, we checked out, and started the drive home... but not before going back to the liquor store with the Tequila Jesus. James hadn't forgotten those prices, and wanted to do some more souvenir shopping. He got various alcoholic delights for his friends back home, while me and Raj got some more alcoholic delights for ourselves. Raj got a lime vodka cooler for himself, and another cherry one for me, which we drank down super quick, and then took pictures of ourselves with our tongues sticking out, his green and mine red.

The drive back home was a calm one. Abu Fadi put in an Om Kolthoum disc, the "Diva of Arabic music," who also looks a lot like Rosario from "Will & Grace," sunglasses and all. Her smoky tones carried us the entire three-hour trek to Amman. James slept in the front seat, and Raj slept next to me in the back. I put my sunglasses on, leaned back and noticed the scenery on the Desert Highway, since I knew I wouldn't be seeing it again for maybe a long time. I also took the occasional picture of Raj sleeping, mouth wide open, with a bit of drool.

Abu Fadi dropped us off back at the apartment, and gave me his business card for "next time." We thanked him, we tipped him, and went back upstairs to rest a bit before digging into the rest of our day.

At this point our trip is starting to wind down, our entire stay in Jordan that is, and I can feel it. It's that stirring I get in my bones of a journey come to end, and the onset of Airport Neurosis about to take place. We're leaving tomorrow night, after all.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

It would have been nicer to say it with him, say it to him, or just think it while being next to him.

Sitting there on that sandy dock in Aqaba, looking out over the calm waters of the Red Sea and drinking in the quiet night and salty air, he was the only one I wanted with me.

Because this is the man I love more than anyone in the whole world.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Day 11 3/4: Aqaba

Raj and I don't speak to each other often. It happens at least once a day.

This is the usual: He says something, I either retort with sarcasm or tell him he's overreacting, and then his voice goes up to blinking red on the meter, or, Exasperation Notch. He insults me, I insult him back, we both start to scream, then storm off in opposite directions. Most of the time he phones within the hour and we pick up the conversation as if nothing's happened. Sometimes, we both stay shitty because we're so unbelievably peeved at what the other has said.

This was one of those times. In addition to telling me I looked "washed out," Raj also said I had a bad attitude, shitpicked my makeup and wardrobe choice. Yep, I was staying mad. I stayed mad all the way down the hall, in the elevator, out the hotel and during the entire walk to the seafood restaurant. In fact, I stayed mad right through ordering, and until the appetizers came.

James played the glue, as he always does, made Raj see he had been unnecessarily testy, starting with those nasty texts, and got him to apologize to the both of us. This in itself is absolutely shocking. Raj doesn't apologize, he just says, "Anyways" and goes right on talking as if nothing ever happened. I was on cloud nine thinking that a "Sorry" had actually come out his mouth, when my balloon burst itself all over the calamari. "Kookoo, I totally forgot it's that time of the month for you. No wonder you're acting weird and saying stupid things." I knew it was too good to be true.

Dinner over, we rolled out of the restaurant and took a taxi to a mall. Yes, a mall. Malls in Jordan are open until the wee hours of the morning, just in case tourists or the rich ever need designer shoes on the fly. We didn't last long in there either, just not in that shopping kind of mood.

All the way to the mall, James and I listened to Raj cluck. All the way back, we listened to Raj cluck. We got out of the cab and walked around, listening to Raj cluck, so I wasn't surprised one bit when out of nowhere James said, "BOOZE!", and mowed us down to get into the liquor store not ten paces away.

This was my first liquor store in the Middle East, and I was pretty surprised to see it. Evidently there's more incentive to being a Christian in Arabia then just eating pork chops: you can own a liquor store, put a huge, light up Jesus in the tequila section, wear three gigantic gold crucifixes, and a Hawaiian shirt. Yes, that's what the shopkeeper was wearing, and that light up Christmas Jesus over the tequila totally freaked me out. I supposed that whole turning water into wine thing gained him a few fans.

The prices in this store were so amazing, Raj had to convince both me and James to not buy the five litre bottle of Chivas Regal for a paltry 47 dinars. It was the size of my torso, and while every fiber of my being knew I'd never make it past airport customs without getting thrown into a cell, my inner shopping diva was screaming, "Do you know how much this costs at home? Get it!!"

Reality won. I did not get the Chivas. James did not get the Chivas. I got some cherry vodka, and James got beer. We'd had enough clucking, and needed to drink. We got Raj a beer too, and wandered around looking for a place to guzzle.

My bottle wasn't a twist off, so James cracked the cap off a brick wall, and we tucked in to drink right there on the sidewalk. This is when Raj started freaking us out about religious fundamentalists shooting us if we were spotted, so we liquored up sitting between a Volkswagen and a Peugeot in a parking lot. Privacy AND necessity. Not long afterwards, we celebrated our daring with gelato.

Significantly loosened up by alcohol and ice cream, we ended our night back on the Radisson beach. Not so yucky at nighttime. None of us is a big fan of night swimming after seeing "Jaws," but by the ocean at night is a wonderful thing. The air was cool, the breeze was in my hair, and the water nipped at my toes. I left Raj and James alone awhile to do their mushy couple thing, and got comfortable on a dock aways from shore. I saw my first and only night in Aqaba sitting on sandy wood planks and looking out across the Red Sea, over to the lights of Egypt and Israel.

Venice, Barcelona, Aqaba. My three most romantic places that never were. Venice for the narrow streets, masquerade shops and impossible canals; Barcelona for the dancing and Spanish fire of it all; Aqaba for the impossibility of being in three places at once and saying, "I looked out across the ocean to Egypt."

It would have been nice to say, "We looked out across the ocean to Egypt."

It would have been even nicer to say it with him.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Day 11 1/2: Aqaba

Driving into Aqaba, Abu Fadi turned to us and said, "This entire town is Duty Free." Well, then! That's always something to celebrate.

Getting to the hotel wasn't as thrilling. The Aqaba Radisson SAS must have been a real kickin' place in the yesteryears, but it wasn't Y2K compatible. The entire place had the look and feel of Miami, circa 1985, having gone to seed. The lobby alone was complete with aqua themed furniture, gold trim and neon lights in the shapes of palm trees. I wouldn't have been surprised to see Crockett and Tubbs in their pastel polyester suits, sans socks, drinking cocktails complete with little paper parasols.

We checked in and went to our room, which turned out to not be in the hotel, but in one of the "charming" cabanas closer to the pool. The lock was jammed so badly, a bellboy had to force it open. We walked through the door, switched on the lights, and listened to Raj scream in horror.

Raj is a red carpet girl. He is in love with first class, at economy prices. As you and I all know, that doesn't exist. James and I had long ago accepted that 230 dinars for a three-day tour was a beyond reasonable price, and since the Petra Marriott had been exceptional, the chances of the second hotel being a diamond in the rough were pretty damn slim.

We didn't like the tiny room, chipped teak furniture, weakly buzzing air conditioner or nubbly peach bedspreads on sinking matresses, but recognized this as our budgeted fate. Not Raj. The look on his face was worth a thousand words, but being Raj, he had to add some more. "Oh my God... Oh my God... Oh my GOD, people, this is terrible! Disgusting! I can't sleep in these conditions! This hotel should be burnt down!"

He whipped out his cell phone, dialed like mad, warbled in Arabic for a good ten minutes or so then, lo and behold, in came two attendants and whisked our luggage away. James and I weren't surprised: Raj's needs for high maintenance could raise the dead. We were transported to the fifth floor and a room with BUSINESS CLASS stamped on the doorplate. It still reeked of shoulder pads and perms, but was much nicer. Best of all was the view with the jutting mountains of Jordan to your left, Egypt straight ahead across the Red Sea, and Israel to the right. Three countries in one viewfinder.

Today, Raj is going to the beach, while James and I wander about town. Again, no beach for me today. You will be tempted to think it was a self-esteem issue, but not so. It was Aunt Flo, that ho. We found Raj a deckchair on the wasteland of a beach (man, did that hotel need a makeover), and set out for our first stop of the day: McDonald's.

It was down the street from the hotel, and James was hungry. When in a foreign country, you go to McDonalds for one of three reasons: you are a neophobe who is completely afraid of trying something different, you are hooked on it like cocaine, or you want to see how the menu differs from the North American standard. The latter was our reason, and we were awarded with the McArabia.

The McArabia looks like a Ronald McDonald-ized shawarma: Arabic bread piled with grilled chicken, lettuce, tomatoes and Arab sauce. I don't know what "Arab" sauce is, or what's in it to make it so Arab, but then I've never known what's in the Big Mac special sauce, either.

Another reason travelers to go foreign McDonalds is because outside the Western hemisphere, they still deep fry the apple pies. We so had one. While this is not an ideal menu health choice, I'd like to remind you that I've had deep fried apple pie four times since my age hit double digits. Do the math.

Hunger satiated, we went to discover the city. I read somewhere, after I got back home, that Aqaba is not that exciting to superficial travelers, or people expecting to see cities through hotel windows and package deals. It needs to be excavated. Smart person, whoever wrote that. If you were to pick Nice out of France, toss it in the desert and let it simmer awhile, you have Aqaba. It's part European beach country meets tropical resort, with the wildness of the surroundings stopping the place short from reaching its goal. The structures of the past have aged while new developments are being built, and it has all become very mixed up. The Hotel Intercontinental, for example, is one of the most glorious hotels you will ever see. Up the street from there are vendors selling hookahs and Spiderman blankets.

But that's just what makes it Aqaba. James and I walked endlessly through this, looking for a mall we never found. He helped me bargain for jewellery. We went to an internet cafe, scoped out the public beach, and noticed two carloads of women craning their necks to breaking point to get a glimpse of James. Eat your heart out, Brad.

The absolute best was one of the souvenir stands by the beach, specializing in souvenirs for English-speaking tourists. Spelling mistakes of the world are some of my funniest memories. Dude was selling plastic hearts with touching messages written across, that were supposed to say "I Love You," "I Love You Very Much," and "Happy Birthday." These said, "I Lave You," "I Lave You Strong," and "Happy Berth Day." Also for sale was some Lemon perfume, the exact colour and smell of lemon scent Windex, or again in his words, "Limon Colone of the Highest Qulety." It cost a dinar, but I had plenty of Windex at home.

At this point we were about 20 minutes walk away from the hotel, and this is when the text messages from Raj started to come in. First message: COME BACK I'M BORED AND HUNGRY. Considering the room upgrade he'd gotten us, we heard and obeyed. Ten minutes later, second message: THREE HOURS IS ENOUGH PEOPLE, TAKE A TAXI FOR FUCK'S SAKES.

He was most sour upon our arrival. We'd "deserted" him all day, see. I thought that Deserted in the Desert was just hilarious, but Raj didn't find it one bit funny. He complained, walked to the room without speaking to us, demanded to use the shower first then used all the hot water, also used all the towels, insulted James and picked on me. He said I looked "washed out." I told him his head was too big for his body.

Stupid Raj. We went to dinner not speaking to each other.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Day 11: Wadi Rum

The next morning was your typical one in a hotel room shared by three people: foggy bathroom mirror, towels all over the floor, and a "get the hell out of here I'm changing!" or two.

The Petra Marriot breakfast was fantastic and, I hated to admit, a really, really nice break from breadsticks and jarred cheese. Eggs, french toast, pancakes, cereals, beef bacon, cheeses, a juice bar, and even a trio of French jams on the table. As in French. Any old hotel can give you Smuckers, but this is Bonne Maman we're talking here. After that we just checked out, Abu Fadi loaded up the trunk with our luggage, and we started the second part of our tour. Our morning today is devoted to Wadi Rum, the desert, and after that the city of Aqaba, on the Red Sea. But this morning it's all about the desert, and driving to our destination on the Desert Highway.

Everyone calls it the Desert Highway; if there is a real name, I have no idea what it is. The highways I'm used to are up to 16 lanes across and full of traffic and guardrails, but the Desert Highway is something else. Two lanes for the most part, scenery of sand and rock, Bedouins tending their flocks, mountains and sandstorms in the distance. Very different and exotic from what I'm used to. Very refreshing.

Wikipedia tells me that a "wadi" is Arabic for a dry riverbed that only contains water at times of heavy rain, and that Wadi Rum is a valley cut into the sandstone and granite rock. T.E. Lawrence was based there during the Arab revolt of 1917-1918, meaning Hollywood is also telling me that Wadi Rum is famous for being the shooting location of "Lawrence of Arabia."

After the Wadi Rum experience, I told myself that of everything I've ever seen in my life, it is one of the most miraculous places on earth.

I wasn't totally sold on seeing Wadi Rum. It's desert, it's rocks. Woopie. Not much to do, right? The process is even too simple: you get dropped off at a visitors center, go the bathroom, buy a souvenir if that's your thing, then go out to the parking lot in back that is chock full of pickup trucks. You pick your truck, complete with Bedouin to take you on a two-hour tour of the desert, climb in back and off you go. That's exactly what we did. Got dropped off, went to the bathroom (I got locked in and an attendant had to come rescue me), browsed through the souvenirs (and recoiled at the horrible prices), then went out to the parking lot. Chose a truck, met the Bedouin, got in back (makeshift benches, no seatbelts, sand everywhere), and off we went.

This is when it starts to get interesting. You're on road for all of ten minutes, then the truck goes right into the sand. Desertlicious, baby, and bumpy something fierce. I was thrown against Raj and James repeatedly, much to their disappointment, until we came to a very large rock, mini-mountain sized. Out of the truck, lots of people, more tour guides. We didn't feel like climbing any rocks, but pranced around the dunes instead, where I decided having sandals full of sand is no fun at all. I took them off, and spent the rest of my time barefoot.

Remember way back when I'd said I wanted to sink my feet into the desert sand? It is an extraordinary thing. I dug myself in, ankle deep and stared straight ahead. Sand for miles. I threw my hands up in the air and Raj took a picture, then I took both my girls for a ballroom dance in Wadi Rum. Thank goodness they humour me.

For those not climbing the rocks, Option B was having tea in a Bedouin tent. That sounded very nice, and so we headed in that direction. Since it seemed that everyone else and their mother had decided to climb the rock, us three had the place to ourselves. For one dinar we relaxed in a breezy tent, sitting on woven rugs and leaning against camel saddles, drinking tea with the Bedouins of Wadi Rum. Their tea isn't about bags, but herbs and spices: cardamom, sage, cinnamon and mint.

Back in the truck. More bumpety bump, and a short drive to the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. English for, gigantic rock formation containing what looks like seven pillars. Back out of the truck to join yet more tourists, to climb as far as you can in the deep crevices. This we did, James saved me a couple of times from almost breaking my neck (should've worn running shoes), and we admired the engravings and drawings made by natives hundreds and hundreds of years ago.

Again, back in the truck. I should add that the driver never actually opens up the back end of the pickup so you can get in and out with ease, instead it is sealed shut so you have to climb in and out like a moron.

We drove and drove, then stopped the truck again, chock middle in the desert, and parked next to a gigantic sand dune the colour of bricks. We got out. Our Bedouin pointed to the dune and said most stoically, "This was in Lawrence of Arabia."

Well, alrighty then. I've heard of tour buses driving by Aaron Spelling's house, but a dirty pickup driving by Peter O'Toole's sand? I wanted to ask if he was positive that each and every single grain was still in place from the original set in the sixties, but then his English wasn't all that good. I'd have to learn more Arabic for next time.

The Bedouin left us to ponder the sand. I don't know why, maybe he took his firstborn there or something. I didn't ponder it too much, because I was busy noticing something else. The truck was off, the Bedouin was now quiet, Raj and James were out of earshot. Everything around me was completely still; all I could hear around me was the wind, and my heart.

Stunning. Maybe sometimes, having nothing to do is the best thing of all.

Tour over, our Bedouin drove us back into Wadi Rum town and to Abu Fadi, who was waiting for us at a restaurant. We saw some camels by the side of the road and gracious Abu Fadi agreed to wait a little longer while we bought ourselves another go on the dromedary carousel.

Hoping to duplicate the magic of Zuzu from the day before, I saddled up with Shailan. Tall, grumpy, spiteful Shailan, who was the exemplary stereotype of a seriously pissy camel. I couldn't blame him, though. For one, his day job was lugging around stupid tourists like me. For two, the ride became extra long when Raj's happy-go-lucky, lazy camel decided to abandon the rest of us for a little snack. We didn't even notice Raj was missing until his shrieks of "HELLO!" forced us to turn around. And for three, James' camel bit Shailan's tail so much the entire time, it started to bleed.

Poor Shailan. If I'd had a treat he would've gotten it, but I had to settle for scratching his ears just like I'd done with Zuzu. This is where Shailan tried to bite me. What the hell? Dumbass.

Leaving Wadi Rum tugged at my heartstrings. I have been comfortable in a lot of places, and I have fallen in love with many. But something happened to me in the desert. Oli always tells me that when she is at the ocean, she feels at peace. I thought I knew what she meant, since I too love being near water, but being in Wadi Rum struck a different chord completely. I felt home.

No, I am not moving to any Arabian desert, the Sahara or even the Mojave. I know my place in this world, no matter what direction my soul points to. But I did get a Bedouin bracelet before I left. It looks like a friendship bracelet, deep red and sand coloured, handwoven from camel hair. Something to keep Home with me. I have worn it every day since.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Day 10 3/4: Petra

My time with Zuzu was over much too soon, and with great reluctance, I slid off the saddle. I took his picture, he smiled. I shot a video clip, he smiled. I pet him on the head, scratched him behind his ears again, then leaned over and touched my nose to his. "I'll never forget you, Zuzu," I told him, and he grunted in return.

I seriously considered kidnapping him via jumping back into the saddle and riding like the wind, but our relationship could never last. There isn't much sand back home and besides, I couldn't afford the entire two rows of plane tickets Zuzu would need to fly comfortably. Camels live for something like 30 to 50 years though, so I took comfort that we just might see each other again someday.

Rides over, we now had a bit of time to run around Petra. We climbed in and out of caves, up and down dilapidated staircases, and played hide-and-go-seek in the hundreds of chambers that used to be rooms. And, we talked to more Bedouins. Bedouins here, Bedouins there, Bedouins everywhere, mostly selling handmade jewellery and knick knacks at atrocious prices. We spoke with two Bedouin sisters selling handmade necklaces who let us take their picture. Then, wouldn't you know it, I got proposed to for the second time in two days.

One bracelet selling Bedouin (who wouldn't give me a discount on any of his wares, by the way), offered half a camel for my hand in marriage. Half a camel? That's not even alive. After Adham's stellar pledge, there was no way I was settling for half a camel. Raj mentioned that I'd scored a two million deal just the day before, so the Bedouin changed his offer to 100 camels for my hand, IF my family was rich.

Let's contemplate this. If my family is loaded, I get 100 camels in return for a smelly man who sells overpriced souvenirs in a tent. Honey, if I was loaded, I could buy a better husband off ebay. Second, if I'm just as poor as he is, all I get is half a camel's worth of meat. If he'd offered me Zuzu I might have consented, but only before spiking his drink with valium and smuggling my new pet onboard the plane.

We were getting antsy, and so started the long walk out of Petra. Raj didn't want to walk, though, and hired out a little donkey named Zorro to carry him back. It took two people, a lot of patience, Raj clawing a rock and James and me doubling over in laughter until he made it onto that donkey's back. He clippety clopped until we got back to the horses, where I was given a fine Arabian mare to ride this time back. Nice horse, nice Bedouins. I was a happy camper.

Raj rubbed the magic lamp, and Abu Fadi flew out to do our bidding. Joke, joke. He did respond to the text super fast though, and we went back to the hotel to relax a bit before dinner. We relaxed for 10 minutes, then went down to the bar for... drumroll... happy hour! The great thing about happy hour in Islam is, there's always *plenty* of seats available at the bar. James had beers, Raj had wine, I had martinis and an iced coffee spiked with who knows what. We hadn't eaten since breakfast either, and absolutely devoured the platter of cheeses and olives the bartender made up just for us, on the house. James discussed Jane Goodall's masturbating monkeys; Raj and I giggled like schoolgirls. Good times, my friends, good times.

Abu Fadi reappeared to take us to dinner in town, to a restaurant called the Sand Stone. The restaurant proprietor was a slick Arab with too much Brylcreem in his hair, a brown 70's suit and thick, gold pinky rings on both fingers. He recommended the lamb chops. I looked at the menu, but it took me awhile to recognize "Lamp Shops" as lamb chops. I ordered the chicken.

And then afterwards, we did a bit of walking, some browsing, and almost some shopping. If you're planning on shopping in Petra, bring lots of money because the markup is insane. For instance, Jordan is famous for sand bottles. Bottles of any and all shapes and sizes, full of coloured sand arranged in such a way to make pictures. The most popular ones have mountains and camels in them, big surprise. I wasn't intending on buying something so cheesy, I mean that's almost as bad as getting an "I heart Jordan" t-shirt, but then while in Petra I saw this small bottle about the height of my index finger, with a very simple picture of a woman from a Picasso painting inside. Price: $220 dinars.

This thing wasn't even three inches high. I started coughing out of shock and spluttered up some of my complimentary tea when I got that figure. I backed off so quick I actually forgot to give the cup back, and had to make a return trip. Just for laughs, James asked if they had a sand bottle with "Guernica," but the vendor didn't get it. I got it though, and flipped out laughing. James had to carry me out.

The rest of the night was your usual night in. James and I watched a Bruce Willis movie while tossing each other Arabic pastries, and Raj shuffled around the room wearing just a towel and digging through all our bags, wanting to know where on this great earth his special moisturizing body wash was.


James: What are you looking for?

Raj: Anything to wash my bum with!

James: Use what I put in the shower.

Raj: No, I want my special stuff. I packed it!

James: Packed what?

Raj: My stuff!

James: What is it, what's your stuff?

Raj: Pfft! My stuff!

Me: Did you want to borrow my soap?

Raj: NO!


In anticipation of spending the night in the same room as two hairy men, and remembering Raj's crashing subway-like snoring from our school days, I brought my earplugs with me and slept like a dead woman.

Fast Forward: After I'd arrived back home and developed my stacks of pictures (mostly from disposable cameras), I found a shot of me and Zuzu. I've just gotten on the saddle, but he's still on the ground. Raj took the picture without warning: I was in the middle of saying something, and Zuzu was halfway through a grunt. We both look like we're in protest. It is now in a frame on my windowsill.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Day 10 1/2: Petra

The day before, Marco had quizzed me on camel etiquette, or, how not to get your ass kicked by one. This is what he told me: Don't stare a camel directly in the eye. Don't touch it. Never approach one from behind. Or from the sides. Or even from the front unless it knows you're coming. Go slow! Always slow. Don't forget to speak in hushed tones. And, heaven forbid, if it bares its teeth at you, RUN.

I was determined not to leave the Middle East without having ridden a camel. And here in front of the treasury at Petra were dozens of tourists, vendors, and camels. Our guide told us this was the end of the tour anyway (hallelujah!), so we were free to do as we liked. James and Raj weren't nuts on my idea, but I whined so much they relented. Ecstatic, I ran around to find me a camel.

There were plenty of camels, and they were all lying down with their legs folded underneath them. Camels aren't particularly warm creatures, in fact it's generally known that they have a huge disdain for human beings. And when they grunt, it sounds like Jabba the Hut.

I saw a huge one, single hump, draped with traditional Arabic blankets on the saddle and a small number 23 hanging around its neck. It was him. My camel. Don't ask me how I knew, I just did. I approached it from behind and walked right alongside until we were face to face. I looked him directly in the eye and in my most normal voice I said, "Hi."

He grunted, then bared his teeth. It didn't look scary or threatening though, in fact, it looked like he was smiling. So I put my hand out to scratch him behind one ear, and he leaned into it like my dog Bluetooth does, eyes closed. I was thunderstruck - he liked it.

There was no way in hell I was leaving Petra now without my own camel tour, on this camel, and I stood my ground until Raj and James found their own creatures to ride. We paid our five dinars, and jumped on.

Well, strained to get on. Getting on a camel is hard work, especially when it's a big one and you have no boost or stepping stool. The top of the saddle came to my chin and you all know how tall I am, but I made it with a lot of squiggling and pulling myself up. The Bedouin who owned the camels (and happened to look a lot more like an Australian Aboriginal) informed me that I'd chosen Zuzu, 15-years old and raised in Petra. Then he made some strange hissing noises and nudged Zuzu on the rump, signalling him to get up.

If getting on a camel is hard work, being on one while it stands is even harder. A sitting camel doesn't just rise up on all fours, it goes up back legs first, then front. Meaning you're yanked forward onto this crazy slant, then suddenly pushed backwards really hard, all while grabbing onto the saddle horn for dear life.

When Zuzu got up I closed my eyes and shrieked, happy as a clam. I was even happier when I noticed that of all the camels here, Zuzu seemed to be the tallest, giving me the best view of all. This was more like it! I settled into the saddle, waited until Raj & James were functional with their camels, then prepared for our Bedouin to lead us through the ruins of Petra. But then the Bedouin did something completely unexpected. He gave me Zuzu's reins. And then he walked away.

What the hell was this? I don't know how to ride a camel, I'm just a useless city girl, really. So I called out, "Excuse me, sir? Hey!" I gestured with the reins to the questioning look on his face. "Isn't this your part?"

The Bedouin laughed. "You stop, you pull. You push, you go. He smart. You fine."

Okay, then. I was supposed to do all the work. That didn't sit well with me at all and so I yelled back, "This wasn't in the brochure!", but the Bedouin just walked off anyway. I heard James clearing his throat, and Raj muttering something. They were both behind me, their camels tethered and being led by yet another Bedouin, who made no move to assist me. From the looks of it, I was in charge. Fabulous. Let the clueless white girl take the lead. My family could read all about it in the papers tomorrow: PETRA MASSACRE: DOZENS CRUSHED TO DEATH BY CONFUSED CAMEL. TOURIST TAKES BLAME.

James cleared his throat again in the most sarcastic way possible, and I swore at him with some of Arabic I'd picked up. We did have to start at sometime though, and it might as well be now. "Alright camel, it's just you and me. Be nice, okay?" Zuzu grunted. Here goes. I gently kicked, and he took a few steps forward. I panicked and jerked on the reins; he came to a dead halt. Well, that wasn't so bad. I leaned forward to pet Zuzu on the neck and heaped mountains of praise on him for being such a good boy - force of habit from my dog - and then sat back up, more confident, ready to try again. Another slight kick, and off we went.

It was marvelous. Riding a camel is nothing like riding a horse. You're much higher, and constantly being thrust forward then back again from their slow, almost awkward gait. Instead of hooves there is the soft thudding sound of their large, padded feet. The Bedouin was right: Zuzu was very smart. He knew the way with barely any direction, and was never temperamental. I got confident and strapped the reins around the saddle horn, hanging on with my legs so my hands were free to take pictures.

Petra is magnificent. Once you turn past the treasury, the narrow roads disappear and the city sprawls before you in the most remarkable way. Everything, everything is carved from the rock and so the city itself is part of the mountains, and not the other way around. There is a monastery, there are tombs, there are entrances in caves absolutely everywhere that show where people and the famous Nabateans, ancient traders, once lived. The architecture is superb; the notion itself is staggering. And I saw it all from Zuzu's back, where for that one short hour, I was Queen of the desert.

One of my favourite Arabian moments started out as a scare: a seniors tour group was up ahead, and they were moving slow. I pulled on the reins to stop, but Zuzu had seen some pistachio trees up ahead and wanted some of those leaves. He was bearing down quick, and even though James' and Raj's guide started whistling and calling out, "Attenzione!", the seniors and their canes didn't move. If something didn't happen soon, we'd be in the middle of one giant, geriatric slush puppy.

I stood up in the stirrups, and at the top of my lungs shouted out, "Yela!" ("Let's Go!"), and to my amazement, the sea of white hair in front of me turned around. Shock registered on every face at the behemoth of Zuzu, and I'll be damned if they didn't clear the hell out of the way!

I was having so much fun that when we reached the end of our road and caught sight of the Aboriginal Bedouin waiting for us, I opened my wallet while still on Zuzu, and paid him right there for the ride back. I had even more fun hearing a heavy thud thud thud and turning around to see James's camel running at top speed, and the other Bedouin guide running behind them.

Mine and Raj's mouths dropped open, and James shot us a mystified look before galloping off into the horizon. We caught up with him later, and he told us that the Bedouin had purposely smacked the camel to make it run, and then led James into a cave to take pictures of him with his cell phone.

Featuring in Petra: the Great White Hope. Look out, Britney.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Day 10: Petra

The reason we are packing our bags and leaving at 6am is because Raj, James and I are going on a three-day tour of Jordan. Not all of Jordan, just some hotspots that visitors tend to find appealing. We are going to be tourists.

For the low low price of 230 dinars apiece we will see Petra, Wadi Rum and Aqaba. Petra is the fabulous ancient city that everyone knows from "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," Wadi Rum is the desert featured in "Lawrence of Arabia," and the Port of Aqaba is on the Red Sea. As in Moses, parting, slaves from Egypt, etc.

Also included in the 230 dinars fare is one night at a Marriott with breakfast the next morning; one night at a Radisson SAS with breakfast the next morning, and our own personal driving whore. Mr. Abu Fadi is our driving whore because not only is he hired to drive us to said locations, but at all times will remain a text message away for any and all of our automotive needs. Nice option. The one drawback is that the whole shebang starts early, so at six sharp Abu Fadi arrives to collect us in his town car. We are half-asleep, we are grumpy, we don't even know if we've properly packed, but off we go anyway.

With two pit stops and one souvenir shop, it takes us three hours to get to Petra. Like Jerash, Petra is two parts: modern and ancient. Modern Petra is a town atop a mountain, buildings and shops spiralling down to the canyon at the bottom. In the middle of this canyon is Ancient Petra, sprawled across several kilometres and carved right from the rose-coloured rock.

But before we see any of this, we have an hour at the Marriot Petra to unpack a bit and freshen up. The hotel is gorgeous. Stunning. Not "treat me like Robert DeNiro" five-star stunning, but a jewel in the desert all the same. It was a modernized casbah with bellboys. Gorgeous comes at a price though, and I haven't been fortunate enough to snag a room of my own. Budgetary issues, so I'm sharing with James and Raj. Yay. I love my boys, but I love them better in their own room. It's especially bad this time running, too - remember All Bran? Two days ago, James and I had dug into a box of All Bran cereal because neither one of us could take a proper crap. Well, now we can't stop crapping. Not wanting to experience the essence of James, I make my way down two floors to use the hotel guest bathroom.

Raj summons Abu Fadi, we have an early lunch of shawarma and then right over to the entrance gates for the tour to begin. The Petra experience is three parts: first, you get on a horse and ride about 20 minutes until you reach the edge of the canyon, which was also the beginning of the ancient city. I love horses but don't have much riding under my belt, so I was a little nervous. Not much to be nervous about since a Bedouin leads you the whole way; lots to be disgusted about if the Bedouin who owns your horse doesn't treat it properly. Needless to say, I nearly kicked mine in the head. The Bedouin, not the horse.

The second leg of the journey is right in the canyon itself. A tour guide meets you and takes you down the long, narrow road that leads to the heart of the city. As a rule, James and I don't like tour guides. They usually don't like their jobs and rarely say anything interesting, so we quickly become annoyed and insolent. For instance: "Here is a natural rock formation in the ancient city of Petra." We're walking, we're walking... "Here is another natural rock formation in the ancient city of Petra." We're walking, we're walking... "Here is a man-made rock formation in the ancient city of Petra." James snickers, I laugh, we crack jokes about natural and man-made outhouses in the ancient city of Petra. As a rule, tour guides don't like us much, either.

Besides, why would we listen to a boring tour guide when we can soak in the city for ourselves? Petra is spectacular. Imagine yourself on a road not more than ten metres across, red rock walls a hundred feet high on either side of you, rock with soft waves and curves made from the elements and carvings of days long ago. You go down, down, you turn a corner and then out of nowhere is your first glimpse of the magnificent treasury building.

In the last Indiana Jones movie, the Petra Treasury is where Indy rescues his father, finds the knight, the grail, yadda yadda. It is the most popular site of the whole city, where the hubbub of people collect. This is also the third part of the journey. After turning the corner around the treasury, the entire city of Petra is spread out before you in all its glory.

This is where I met Zuzu.

Goodbye, Marco

Put the champagne glasses away. It's not necessarily what you think.

You see, I can't tell you what happened. Not for the moment; maybe not for a long time. It was magic, that's no word of a lie... but for now, I want to keep that magic for myself. I need to keep it for myself, if only for a little while.

Then again I'm not totally merciless, and while I said I wouldn't write about *exactly* what happened, I didn't say you couldn't guess. So here are your options:

A) That night, I gave myself to one of my dearest friends, Marco. No, we gave ourselves to each other. We made intense, passionate love until the sun came up, and it was an experience like no other. This is one of the most important people in my life, after all, and something the both of us have been waiting for. It was beautiful, it was perfect, and it was a night like no other. I will cherish the memory forever.

B) Alas, neither one of us was ready for the next step, not with each other. But, that didn't stop us from making out like horny 15-year olds until the sun came up. Marco sent me off to Petra with swollen lips and two giant hickeys on my neck, covered under gobs of concealer. It was beautiful, it was perfect, and it was a night like no other. I will cherish the memory forever.

C) Marco is Marco, and I want to keep him that way, always. I know my life, I know where it is going, and there are relationships I don't want to jeopardize. Funny thing being Marco wanted to keep me the way that I was, too, and I was good with that. We talked and we connected until the sun came up, just like our days past. It was beautiful, it was perfect, and it was a night like no other. I will cherish the memory forever.

As for what really went down, I can give you this one extra tidbit: what happened was exactly what needed to happen. For the first time in his four days with me, I was completely at peace. And I still am.

We settled in for an hour's sleep; Marco's cab was coming at 6am, and so was ours. When we woke up he was shivering and running a fever, a kickback from having the flu a week before. I was concerned and wanted to help, but he assured me he'd be fine after a little more sleep. I packed, he rested some more, then quickly got himself together right before the driver called up. His taxi was here.

I walked Marco down to the ground floor, but instead of going straight outside, he put his luggage down at the bottom of the steps. "For a private goodbye," be explained, then wrapped me up in a gigantic bear hug that lifted me off the ground and made me catch my breath. "I would love to kiss you, but I'm sick. I want you to always know... that I loved Amman because of you."

That part made me speechless. After a couple of minutes, I helped him with his bags and we walked outside to the waiting car. The cabbie was loading up the trunk when Marco stood in front of me one last time and quietly said, "Goodbye."I fixed his collar, kissed his forehead, we hugged once more, and I told him goodbye. And then he got into the taxi.

When I'm seeing someone off, I usually wait until the car is out of sight to go back inside. I didn't wait for Marco's car to disappear around the corner; I went back into the building right away. I didn't want him to see me cry. Not again. I sat on the entrance steps that early morning in a futile attempt to collect myself before going back up to the apartment, thinking of the past few days and the amazing man that had been a part of it.

I loved Amman because of you, too.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Unlike cartoon consciences that have an angel and devil sitting on either shoulder, I have what James calls an Orthodox Left and a Catholic Right.

My dad is Orthodox, my mom is Catholic. Forever straining to keep balance in the household, Oli and I are both. According to James, the fiery, heated, arrogant gypsy girl in me who leaps before looking and has the libido of a thoroughbred is due to the Orthodox Left side of my body. Demure, sweet, guilty "Angela's Ashes" me who still cries watching Humane Society commercials is all about my Catholic Right side.

I hate to admit it, but he's not far off.

I am with Marco on the balcony, and I've just been told that I'm a sexy lady. I am feeling spirited, I am feeling wild. I am feeling free in a way I haven't felt in forever. I am hearing Orthodox Left: Pull him into your bed, woman, and take him right now!

Orthodox Left never comes without Catholic Right; they are the most demented twins in the world. This is his last night here. Do you really want him to remember you this way?

Orthodox Left: Yes. Yes! He loves you for who you are, and you expect nothing from each other. Do it!

Catholic Right: You're not good at letting go, honey. What if you fall in love?

Orthodox Left: You're not a child anymore, and you know better than that. It's okay to look at other men and have casual sex.

Catholic Right: This isn't casual sex. This is Marco.

This isn't casual sex, this is Marco. Big sigh. I can't do that to him, and I can't do that to myself. Catholic Right usually wins, anyway. I don't know why I'm at all surprised.

But then out of the blue, Orthodox Left gave me one final kick: That's right, sweetness. This is Marco.

What did I want to happen? I wasn't sure yet, but I wanted to find out. I took a very deep breath. And then I took his hand.
The whole drive back, I was high with the magic of Jerash. Ancient city. Julius Caesar. Two million camels. Art. Marco.

It had been a glorious day, especially when I'd pulled Marco into one of Adham's secret Jerash hideaways, and unabashedly kissed him. We'd been kissing ever since. Nah, fooled you again.

That didn't happen, but for the first time since his arrival I'd been completely relaxed and at ease with everything. When he took a picture of smiling me with the Temple of Artemis in the background. When he helped me off a high, crumbling wall. When he held my hand.

It was a laid back atmosphere in the apartment, with James and Raj watching TV and enjoying a light snack of breadsticks and jarred cheeese. I'd changed into something a "little more comfortable"; striped pajama pants and a blue soccer tee. Marco was on the balcony smoking a cigarette, and I went out to join him.

I put my arms up on the railing and rested my chin in my hands. It was a beautiful night. Clear, starry. A sheikh's calm, steady voice recited the fifth and final prayer of the day. It was Marco's last night here, and I didn't want him to go home remembering me the way I had been. So without looking at him I said, "I'm sorry, Marco."

He didn't say anything, but I knew he understood. Marco always understands. He edged over closer, put his arm around me, and we were like that for a long time.

We talked about a lot of things on that balcony. Actually, Marco did a lot of talking, and I did most of the listening. And what he mostly talked about was... me. Marco's known me forever, remember? My career. My writing. My finances, my family, my love life. We even talked about Jess, and he gave me the smallest and best bit of advice anyone has given me so far. "If you see anything with him, you have to go for it. You have to. If nothing is there, you have to be brave."

The hell of the last few months came down on me when he said that, and even though I didn't want to, I started to cry. I mostly don't want to cry because I don't want people to see me crying, and I did my best to hide it. A lot of elements were on my side: dark night, long hair, and when I cry I start off really quietly. Until my nose kicks in. A few sniffles later, he gathered me up into his arms to let me finish what I'd started.

I don't know how long we were like that for, a few minutes perhaps. The phone rang inside and startled, I pulled away, completely embarrassed for breaking down the way that I had. As you can see, I embarrass myself a lot. Around Marco, it seems I've broken all my own records.

The standard is that when I'm completely humiliated, Marco takes it all in stride. He didn't disappoint. I was looking down to hide my face; he put one hand under my chin and lifted up so we were looking right at each other. Marco wiped away my tears with his thumbs, kissed my nose and quietly said, "Hi, sexy."

Sexy? I almost looked behind me to see if anyone else was there. I didn't feel sexy right now, not in PJ pants, wrinkled shirt, mussy hair and a tear streaked face. In fact, sexy was something I hadn't felt in a long time.

Do you know what it's like to believe you're not good enough? To have been thinking for years that you're not pretty enough, or skinny enough, smart or successful enough and most of all, not sexy enough, so much and so often, that you feel you just don't matter anymore?

It consumes you. It consumed me. This is who I have become.

And then, along came Marco. I looked back up at him. There was a huge grin on his face; he wasn't kidding. This man, here on this random balcony in the Middle East, thought I was sexy. And he was serious.

I felt I could fly.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Day 9 1/2: Jerash

A few minutes after the end of our Scrabble game, the typhoon that was Raj blew through the apartment clapping his hands and shrieking, "People! PEOPLE! HURRY UP PEOPLE!"

Today Raj is taking us to the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Jerash. Unless he melts down first or snaps one of his fingers right off, which is very likely. We are behind schedule and according to Raj, it is all our faults. Never mind we were ready and he wasn't; never mind he was late and we were on time. This is Raj, and if it's not handled with mounting blood pressure and hissy fits, it's not handled at all. So with a final "Get in the fucking car already people, we're late!", we pack into the Toyota and zoom off.

But wait! We're hungry. We start to whine. James wheedles and I pull Raj's ears from the backseat. This is what happens when we're demoted to "people." Most grudgingly and very loudly, Raj pulls over to a sandwich place, insults us and studies his nails while we file out to order. "You people are going to disturb my corpse when I'm dead and buried," he claims. Uh huh. As long as we're not hungry when that happens.

Saj (rhymes with Raj) is an Arabic form of sandwich that is a cross between naan and a giant burrito. Instead of a flour tortilla, imagine a piece of naan about a foot and a half in diameter, spread thinly with your choice of toppings, then rolled up, wrapped up, and presented for eating in the form of a mini baseball bat.

Mine was filled with haloumi cheese; I wasn't feeling too adventurous. About halfway through I regretted being toppings stingy and pouted until James finished it. That done, I dug into my piece of saj filled with bananas and nutella that we had gotten to share. Beautiful.

Just under an hour's drive away from Amman is Modern Jerash, and the ruins of Old Jerash are right beside it. You pay the fee, get stared down, and enter the ruins to wander at will. Earlier I'd harped on how boring ruins are, but Jerash is marvelous. It's an entire city, not just pieces of ruined city dotted throughout an existing one. We had arrived late (as Raj kept reminding us by pointing at his watch), but in the long run that turned out to be better because we had virtually the whole place to ourselves. We also had Adham.

Adham was a skinny little 13-year old street urchin with a knit cap and dirty jeans. He'd ambushed us right after the amphitheatre, wanting to know if we were interested in seeing a moving column. We said no. Turned out Adham didn't take no for an answer. He followed us for ten more minutes, ignored Raj brushing him off and finally appealed to James, saying, "Big man, would you and your wife like to see the moving column?"

Wife? For fuck's sakes! Here I am with three different men and I'm stuck married to James again. That snap question made everyone laugh (except me), James explained that I was NOT his wife (thank the lord) and, curiosity piqued, we went to see the moving column.

Adham moved the column by putting a coin underneath a crack and did something illusory to make it seem like it was turning. Impressive. We moved on and so did he, spouting all kinds of interesting Jerashian tidbits. Jerash is one of the best preserved Roman cities in the East. The roads were constructed by Emperor Trajan. The two gigantic, rectangular stones on top of the forum were actually hollow and made high pitched noises during severe winds, warning the citizens of tornadoes. Lions were kept in this old stable; here were the scratch marks from their claws.

Adham knew the history and city so well, we guessed he'd grown up sneaking through the gates and tagging along with unsuspecting tour guides. He took us to all the secret corners and alleyways of Jerash; showed us which staircases to climb, which secret doorways to go through, and which dark spaces to stay away. Weak floors. And when Adham quipped that he was in the market for a wife (every 13-year old's priority, I'm sure), James piped up that I was for sale. Fuck off, James. Well, he'd probably never been thrilled about being my husband, either. Adham's eyes lit up, a big smile crossed his face, and he offered two million camels for my hand in marriage. I guess he liked older women.

Well, two million camels is a lot of camels. And, according to James' gay mind and calculations, Adham was a seriously cute kid who would grow up to be a ravishing 33-year old when I was 50. Not a bad deal. What the hey. For the rest of our Jerash tour, my fiancee traipsed around me most protectively, saying as often as he could, "James, don't touch my wife!"

Tour over, we said our goodbyes, but not before Adham hit us up for an extra large tip. Scoundrel. He was smart enough to ask *each one* of us individually too, and not accept just one payment as a group. He made a killing. Then he asked for a kiss, and I gave him one on the cheek. We parted ways with Adham jingling his pockets and pointing his finger, warning, "James, don't touch my wife!"

There was one more stop before we left Jerash, and that was to the merchants quarter where the souvenirs were sold. I wasn't in the market for baubles today, but there was one stall I was very interested in. Sinbad the painter sold his work from a tent where every square inch, ceiling included, was covered in art. There were belly dancers, fortresses, Bedouins, gypsy girls, horses, nudes, abstracts, every topic under the sun. His work was magnificent. I bought a huge abstract of a heavily jewelled woman with long, light hair and solid black eyes, and a man standing behind her. Sinbad told me it was called "The Meeting," and happily added that I was getting a special discount for bringing my friend, husband and brother along. Of course I was used to James being my husband by now, but brother? Sinbad pointed to Raj. Aha. This man thought I was Raj's sister. My dark hair and tanning sessions haven't been for naught. I have been mistaken for an Arab. Mission accomplished.

James, Raj and Marco finished up their souvenir shopping just as the tents were coming down. Jerash was closing up for the day, and it was time to go home. We walked back to the car and Raj had the key in the door's lock, when a pickup truck sped by and Adham popped out the window. Arms up and a huge grin on his face he yelled out, "JAMES, DON'T TOUCH MY WIFE!"

Day 9: Abdoun

One of my favourite ever movie lines is from "Mansfield Park" when Fanny Price says to her sister, "I have no talent for certainty." Fanny is referring to the dashing, womanizing Henry Crawford and at this point in the film, has changed her answer a gajillion times to his proposal of marriage.

There is nothing special about this line. It's just a handful of words. But I liked it so much because Fanny is talking about a man and as such, it totally applies to me. The opposite sex and I share a very special relationship in that I have not one miserable, fucking inch of talent for certainty when it comes to men. None whatsoever.

That first morning with Marco I was determined that me and him at Level Two were all wrong. Totally ixnay. Naturally this conclusion came after a good half-hour in the bathroom privately consulting me, myself and my paranoia, and I was fine with that decision. Anything to get the storms out of my head and for a little while, it seemed to work just fine.

I stuck to my guns and so my second day and second night with Marco passed by the same way. He parted ways when we were with Raj's family and at night, we talked. About everything under the sun. We talked until we were tired, and then we fell asleep.

That third morning I woke up to James parked in front of the TV, rubbing my cocoa butter lotion onto his feet, and Raj clucking about. He had some family duties today, and so the three of us would be alone this morning. I went in the direction of the breadsticks and jar of cheese for my first meal of the day when Marco said, "Come out for breakfast with me."

My morning was blissfully free and breakfast out, I thought, would be very nice. Besides, it was his last full day with us. Tomorrow Raj, James and me would be touring Jordan's touristy landmarks, and Marco would be going home.

We got ready on the sly, he hailed us a cab and we went to a trendy little cafe in Abdoun with contemporary seating and a display case full to the brim with Parisian-inspired pastries. All sweets, especially chocolate sweets, fuel Marco's fire and he picked us a table with the nicest view of the baked goods. I had to laugh. Marco's heaven is cocoa oceans on chocolate shores, and spun sugar trees growing pastry fruit under a soft rainfall of gargantuan cacao beans. Willy Wonka's factory spread out across infinity.

My heaven is a different story, and it was his turn to laugh when our three coffees came. One for him, two for me. My heaven is orchards of coffee beans with waterfalls of espresso, rivers of latte dotted with biscotti sailboats, and creamy white clouds of milk foam against a cappucino sky.

We ordered breakfast to share: a chocolate danish, French toast with assorted toppings, and leaned back on the couch to relax. He had his arm around me and I was okay with that; he did most of the talking this morning, and I was okay with that too. Being with such a person, being with Marco is otherwordly: his voice, the way he talks, his calm demeanor. It is awe-inspiring, humbling even, especially next to the ups and downs of my pogo stick personality.

But it was frustrating being with him too, because I just couldn't believe he hadn't said or done even one thing to react to my freezing up the way I had. One part of me I wanted to shake him and scream, what's wrong with you? Why haven't you stormed off or told me off or done anything you're perfectly within your rights to do because I've been such a bitch? While the other part of me wanted to bury my face into his neck, apologize profusely and cry for a hundred years over all the mess I'd made and emotions boiling inside me. How on earth could he always be so balanced?

But with Marco there is no overreaction or screaming over anything; this is just the way that he is. Definitely a more advanced human being than I am, that's for sure. In Buddha's books, I am positive that Marco is on his 99th life. I am even more positive that I am on my fourth.

Breakfast over, we headed back to the apartment where Raj was still awol, so the three of us played a game of Scrabble to kill time. Marco won and I would've come in second if James' sucky expression hadn't played on my sympathies. I gave him a U tile, ignored the word IQUEER, and lost by a mile. Bastard.

James took off for his room leaving me and Marco alone to clean up. He was putting the tiles in their cloth sack when he said to me, "Thank you for breakfast."

"For what, I didn't even pay. Thank you."

"No, thank you for coming along."

"Yeah, issues and all."

That was the first reference I'd made about my shittiness. He just smiled. "Your issues are what I like best about you."

If this conversation had taken place at a meal and my mouth was full of food, I would have been choking on it. "You're kidding, right?"

Marco laughed, stood up and pulled me into a hug. "No, I'm serious. You wouldn't be you without them."

It is very nice to be accepted. It is even nicer to be understood.

I started to let go.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Why am I the way that I am? That said, how can I possibly be any different?

The morning that I woke up with Marco, I felt different. A little weird. A lot freaked out. Why? Because in spending the night with him, even mostly in innocence, I felt I was betraying Jess? That I still love that man and despite it all, want to believe things will work out? Or because this was Marco, my lovely Marco that I’d known in one way for so many years and was now faced with the prospect of seeing him in a whole new way?

You’re right.
You’re right.
You’re right.

It’s a lot to take in. It’s a lot to think about. I think too much.

And so, I started to pull away. When he woke up and didn’t find me beside him, it was because I was in the bathroom, yet again. Repeating the antics from the night before, yet again, but on a whole new level.

I am a very stupid girl. But Marco, he’s one smart cookie. It took him all of a few seconds to get it.

What did he do with this newfound information? Well, he was pissed off. He’d come all this way to see his friend, and in her place was a cold fish. He shouted his mind, threw in some profanities for good measure, and stormed off back home. I haven’t seen him since.

No, he didn’t do that. Not any of it. He was wonderful. He took a deep breath (I’m guessing), took a step back (I imagined), and gave me my space (this I saw). He let me be, let me think my crazy thoughts, and didn’t for one minute make me feel bad for thinking them.

At night, he was ever the gentleman. He let me talk, paid me full attention, and didn’t make any moves. I took some of the edge off, let him talk, paid him full attention. I didn’t initiate anything because when we were like this, just like this, it seemed that everything was right with the world. I felt at peace.

It didn’t last.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Day 8: Amman

For breakfast we had breadsticks and cheese from the jar. Nope, novelty still hasn't worn off.

The stuff's fantastic: gooey, drippy white cheese and homemade flavoured breadsticks that could easily be classed "gourmet" at home, and therefore cost $8 per dozen in fancy packaging at the organic specialty foods store. To accompany our usual breakfast today is zatar flatbread, compliments of Marco's mother.

Today we are going back downtown to be tourists, and so we pick up Raj's youngest nephew, who is 11, and hail a cab. Why hail a cab when we already have a ride, you ask? Because Amman taxis are a wonderful thing. You can sit in one for a half hour and not pay more than two dinars, tops. Considering the price of gas, it actually costs less to cab it, than drive yourself.

Marco is with us today, plus nephew and cabbie makes six, all crammed together and bumpety-bump on the downtown trek in a Fiat. With insane Arabic folk music blaring from the back speakers, no less. We are headed to the "castle ruins," as Raj calls it, but looked more like a mess of ancient columns to me. He was right in the respect that they are ruins, and they are also on the highest hill in Amman, with a spectacular panorama of the city wrapped around us below.

Thanks to the takeover habits of the Greeks & Romans and their love of columns and arches, I have seen a lot of ruins. A lot. I remember the first time I was in Paris and giddily squealing at my first glimpse of the Arc du Triomphe, only to see another one in Spain. Then in England. Then a half-dozen more in Italy. Rape, pillage, burn then build they did, but when it comes to Greek and Roman architecture, trust me this one tidbit: once you've seen a few batches, you've seen 'em all. When you're showing the "My Trip" pictures back home, there's nothing like a good debate of Ionic vs. Doric to keep them yawning.

Having fun in ruins, now there's something. Scaling a column pretending you’re King Kong, for instance. We did this. In the old arena where chariot races were held (think Ben Hur), James kneeled over and stuck his head on my butt so we could be a horse. He was the backside, I was the head. Marco took a picture of me sticking my tongue out between the legs of some god statue. We ran to the doors of the ancient mosque and yelled out, "Sanctuary!"

Your pictures, your time with friends, your life is just so much better when it’s fun. Try and make it so.

When we weren’t fooling around like kids, we were climbing up the highest rocks and crannies the other tourists didn’t even attempt, walking along the tops of thick stone walls to look down at our universe. Thousands of years ago, people built these walls. Maybe before the roofs were on, roofs that lay ruin eons ago, they walked on these same stones we now did. Taking these steps, thinking these thoughts, is truly humbling.

And then, back to our childish ruckus when I got stuck in a high place and couldn’t come down. James had to carry me. Imagine carrying me, of all people, off a ruin. Bless his little heart.

We saw the ruins, we saw the mosque, we saw the armpit of a museum that had some nice old jewellery for me to look at, and a fossilized baby corpse for the boys. And now it was time to see more of downtown, where we haggled for bargains in every which corner, and people stared at James and me in every which way. Nothing kinky or out of bounds, just plenty of staring. A lot of women veiled in the city so I guess my hair and bright l’il toes drew their own attention, but the stares for James were absolutely unreal. He’s just so big, and so blonde, and so… white. A great sun god Viking descended upon the land of milk and honey. I highly doubt Britney Spears would get so much attention, provided the glitter thong stayed on.

Back in the taxi to Mummy’s and Papi’s, and a little more room this time as once again, Marco departs. With the exception of the one nephew he will not meet any of Raj’s relatives during his stay. For the sake of questioning and people who have become, in all our eyes, my adopted family, this is how it must be.

Mummy and Papi greet us with a tremendous feast. Again. At this point, was there any doubt? I don’t remember this meal so much as I remember the slight problem that James and I were beginning to notice.

See, the two of us and our North Americanized stomachs are having problems with the Middle Eastern diet. These people sure do love their meats. And rice. Bread, grains, beans. Chickpeas, oh man they have a thing with chickpeas. Vegetables, not so much.

James and I are used to salad or veggie sides, often both, covering at least a third of our plates. And because vegetable servings are in such high proportion throughout our meals, we are used to regularity. To be very blunt, it’s been days since either of us has taken a proper crap.

Once back at the apartment we take another little walk to the grocery store, meeting Marco on the way, where we buy ourselves the precious gift that keeps on giving: All Bran Cereal. Once back at home we cradle our bowls with loving care, saying little prayers all beginning with "please" and ending with "toilet," eating fiber like it’s going out of style. Throughout our pathetic but desperate little ritual, Marco sits, smokes and laughs. Can you blame him?

Towards the end of my first bowl and James’ second, Raj walked in and demanded we go out. I eyed my empty cereal bowl. I’d actually been hoping to stay in and have a little bathroom action, but I’m game. We all clean up and head back in the car to not only lament Raj’s driving, but to figure out what on earth we’re going to do.

We end up at Kan Zaman, a complex just off the highway and the pride of traditional Jordan. Kan Zaman is antique shops and Bedouin tents, a restaurant with grilled food and live music in the Arabic classical fashion. The walls and floor are made of stone, and there is a hookah at every table.

We looked around, we ordered some finger foods, we sat at a table that was far too short for any of us to be really comfortable. We talked and enjoyed the music. I remember what everyone wore that night. Raj was in jeans and a white shirt, vintage brown leather jacket, D&G prescription glasses, sneakers. James was also in sneakers and jeans, and a most dashing striped button-down in various shades of pink. My "I hate pink" rule extends to men even more, but it was very becoming on big blonde James.

I was wearing green pants and Chinese girl green canvas shoes, a white linen blouse with a Mandarin collar, and my white knit poncho. It was chilly that night. I’d decided to let my hair down and it was being defiant, poofy and frizzy in all the wrong places. Every now and then I’d excuse myself for a trip to the ladies room to try and calm it down with some water, but there was no saying goodbye to Jungle Jane tonight.

Marco was in freshly polished black dress shoes, black trousers and a charcoal gray shirt that suit his dark hair and olive complexion to the tee. I remember sitting across from him at Kan Zaman, watching him dip his pita and nod along to the music, thinking about how very nice he looked and wondering why he hadn’t said anything about it all day. Marco knows when I’m myself and when I’m not. As for how I’ve acted today, he’s smart enough to know the difference.

I was also wondering why, oh why, am I such a stupid girl?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Not much sleep, that is.

Inspired by my stupidity and brazen first kiss, Marco had brought on the second kiss, then the third, fourth, fifth and so on. Actually he kept bringing them on for about three hours and after that, got even more inspired. And even more brave.

It was the most intense experience of my life, being with Marco. Imagine dreaming about something, waiting for over a decade and then finally getting there. It's so much more than the cool drink of water after crossing the desert, it's like paradise after the gutter. And looking into his eyes, I knew he felt the exact same way. It was so passionate, so beautiful. We saw stars. We were knock knock knockin' on heaven's door. It was so incredible that we knew right then and there we were meant for each other and could never be apart. Imagine my shock and surprise when he got down on one knee and said what I'd been waiting to hear my whole life: "Will you marry me?"

Of course I accepted, he made me a ring out of chewing gum and then we got right to work conceiving our twins. That's right, I'm pregnant. After the babies are born we will move to Costa Rica and set up a catering busines with a menu that revolves around bananas. We love bananas because they are tasty, yellow and phallic. You're completely bananas if you believe any of this.

Hooey, the whole load. Most of it anyway. So, what really did happen with Marco?

The first part is true. My idiocy did inspire him, and he took the lead. Very slowly, very gently. Marco knows how neurotic I am and nicest of all, Marco doesn't push. It was wonderful to be kissed.

After a few minutes we got tired of standing and settled into bed where we made wild, insane, vein-popping love. Nah, fooled you again. I love to kid my darlings mostly because the real answer isn't nearly so interesting: we talked. Kissing occasionally, but talking more. A lot of years to catch up on, remember. Until the wee hours of the morning we were all words, closeness, and his fingers playing with my curls, one by one. His hands never strayed beyond that. Marco was always the gentleman. Sweet. Innocent.

Shortly before the sun came up, we drifted off. I woke up to blue skies in my cupcake pajamas, tangled up in floral sheets and in a man's arms. A man I'd vowed a long time ago to never touch. And for the first time in many years, a man that wasn't Jess.

I wanted to be happy. I thought I would be happy. Instead, my heart dropped into my stomach and my mouth went dry. Something wasn't right.

This is when I started to pull away.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Day 7 1/2: Abdoun

Raj's sisters live in Abdoun, a showier section of the Amman burbs riddled with limestone buildings and trendy shops. The three of us pack off for the barbecue; Marco goes his own way. He has friends to visit, so we'll catch up later.

Layla's apartment, or condo in North American terms, is gorgeous. High ceilings, very spacious and decorated with more of a European than Arabic twist. I suppose the fact that her husband spends a lot of time in Holland on business has something to do with that. Lots of pets too, since their two boys love animals: cats, fish, and two birds. One of the birds is friendly enough but the other is super crotchety, decides right away that it hates me and starts squawking so loudly I'm actually asked to leave the kitchen so the maid can work in peace.

It's not yet time to eat, so Raj's nephews have a little fun with us by testing mine and James' tolerance to wasabi peas. I'd brought some with me from home. Normally I'm not into traveling with freeze-dried legumes, but when I'd quizzed Raj on what to bring his parents (in thanks for the gracious accomodations) all he could answer on behalf of his dad was, "snack foods." Rising to the occasion I brought lots of chocolates, nuts, jams, and my own personal favourite, wasabi peas. Not a success though, I'm afraid to say. Sending an old man spluttering for a glass of water five minutes after you've met is not a good icebreaker. The wasabi peas were such a failure, in fact, that Mummy actually repackaged them up, put them into my hands and said, "Please, we cannot eat this."

Fortunately Raj's brother in law is a foodie and gave them a good home, but not before his sons bet how many James and I could chew at once without wheezing. Nine for me, 14 for James. Damn him. But I got my revenge with a winning Bingo game when one of the kids insisted we play. Nanner nanner.

Have you ever seen a gynormous banquet table piled four feet high with food? I have. An exquisite smorgasbord from hell, that's what it was, full of every Middle Eastern barbecued delight you could possibly think of, and then some. Paradise for your taste buds, catastrophe for your stomach. To give you an idea of just how surrounded we were by edibles: there were seven dips alone. Barbecued chickens, lamb, beef, some ground meat sausage things, salad, rice, it never stopped coming. Worse, as the honoured guests, James and I weren't permitted to fill our own plates, meaning they were always filled for us. And these servings put the Hungry Man meals to shame. At one point I asked for more bread to mop up the barrel of hummus, oyvey, growing before my eyes, and my response was met with a rainfall of pita from every direction. James took one in the eye. See whenever one of us asked for something they assumed that both of us needed it, so he got more bread too. Does that make sense? Of course not! God love those Arabs.

What's more, not ten minutes after the meal has been declared over, Layla tosses some bills at Raj and tells him to show his friends (us) the neighbourhood, and could we please pick up dessert on the way? Double oyvey. I can barely make it out of my seat without assistance, and I'm doing it now to get dessert. Oink Oink.

Dessert was wonderful, some phyllo, honey & cheese concoction, and they made me eat two slices. Two. Post pastry I was most unglamourously reduced to leaning back on the sofa cushions to accomodate my meal while breathing through my mouth. I ate so much in fact that even my vocabulary was affected. Someone asked James and me what we'd thought of Amsterdam and its many canals, and all I could think to say was, "It was very lovely and very moist."

Moist? Yeah, it was time to go, at least before the onslaught of Round #2. Raj dropped us off while he went to run an errand but instead of giving in to blissful sleep, the favoured pastime after big meals everywhere, James and I went for a walk. Where we bumped into Marco, who took us to an internet cafe and grocery store.

Out of the country, everyone should go to a foreign grocery store. It's cultural, it's off the beaten path, and it's great for souvenir shopping, even just for the comedy value. I guarantee that in any foreign marketplace you'll find something completely weird, so badly translated that the English name makes you howl, or both.

For instance: Cow Extract. Yes, this was the name on the can, in big blue letters, 100% COW EXTRACT. North-American translation: Spam. Into my basket it went. Next, a can of cheese. Yes, you read that right, a can of cheese. Never in my life have I ever needed to use a can opener to get to cheese. Gold, I tell you. That went next to the cow extract. And finally, a bag of coffee. Beirut Blend coffee. All I could picture was Juan Valdez with a machine gun.

Shopping trip over we headed back to the apartment for a quick change of clothes and out to a bar, where the four of us enjoyed martinis and drinks from a rooftop terrace. James' mojito tasted like a stick of gum and my martini tasted like rubbing alcohol, but the view was very nice all the same. Even if Raj and James insisted on polishing off two bowls of popcorn. Seriously, after all that food today?

And the rest of the night, nothing special. I fell asleep early, almost right away in fact. I'd been blinking sleep away for hours since I hadn't gotten any the night before.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Day 7: Abdoun

Woke up to NO breakfast of breadsticks and cream cheese from the jar. Not that we're sick of the stuff, but today Raj's sister Layla is having a barbecue. Mainly for us, but a lot of other people will be there too. More people = more food, so even if lunch is at 2pm it's suicide to contemplate anything but water meals until then.

My two goals for this morning are to get my camera dust-free, and an appropriate level of pretty for the barbecue. It's still early, so camera first. I attack my Nikon with everything I have, including lens wipes I'd picked up in Sweffiyeh the day before, and James' hair dryer. Nothing, and nothing. That damn dust won't move. I'm seriously irritated by now and take the camera apart, zoom in, zoom out, dust in every which cranny I can get my greedy little fingers on, and as a result, break my lens. Well, "throw out of whack" is a more appropriate term since all I can see out of it now are strange, kaleidoscope-ish patterns.

My beautiful, dusty Sigma lens and the three-dozen rolls of professional film I bought before coming here have been laid to waste. Booyah. I don't know whether to cry or throw it out the window, followed by all that film to rain down on the goats grazing outside. I settle for packing it all up in my suitcase, and giving the bag a good kick. Well, a gentle kick. Expensive camera. I'll get it looked at back home.

Alrighty then, pretty time. I dress & accesorize myself, Raj does my makeup and James does my hair. How can you not love living with queens? Raj initially wanted to do my hair but interestingly enough, the fashion designer turned image stylist turned Middle East reality TV star is absolutely horrible with hair.


Me: Just simple you know, half up half down, something to show off the curls. Nothing fussy. I really mean that. Nothing. Fussy.

Raj: How about this?

James: The Carmen Miranda look really isn't her thing.

Me: Okay, I wasn't quite envisioning a coronet on top of my head.

James: You know, if we put some cherries on that...

Me: Let's try something else.

Raj: (twisting and gathering) What about this?

Me: Oh lord...

James: Fabulous. Now she's a Byzantine whore.

Raj: You people are too complicated!

Me: Darling, I thought when you were at the TV station you did makeovers all the time?

Raj: I didn't do any of the work myself, I told the hairdressers and makeup artists what to do.

Me: Well if only I had known this ten minutes ago. Hey Marco! Need some laughs?

(Marco walks in and in no time is reduced to fits of laughter over my slutty, curls-in-the-air hair)

Raj: For fuck's sakes! Fine, I'll try something else!

Me: Let's concentrate on simple... very simple... James, he's fussing! JAMES!

James: Honey, that looks like Spanish moss.

Raj: You don't like this either?

Me: The retired flamenco dancer look? NO!

Raj: Okay then I have another idea...

Very lucky for me, James caught my whimpering and wet puppy dog eyes. Mouthing "help" didn't hurt either. In one swift motion he scooped up a handful of hairpins and jerked me into the bathroom, away from Jose Eber's clutches. Ignoring Raj's shouts and trying to pick the lock, it took James all of three minutes to deliver exactly what I wanted. Who knew a chef could be so talented with hair? Oh yes, he's gay. Almost forgot.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Khaki cargo pants, white peasant blouse, black sandals, my favourite gold chandelier earrings with blue stones. Bit of lip gloss, bit of black eyeliner, bit of black mascara, lots of black curls loose around my shoulders. This was how I looked when Marco arrived.

It was the Thursday night of our first week in Amman. Raj and James were watching a movie in the apartment and enjoying a light snack of breadsticks and jarred cream cheese. I, on the other hand, was running around like a chicken with its head cut off. I ironed, I showered, got dressed, shitpicked myself up and down and cursed the pedicurist for my chipped toenail polish. Terrible pressure it is, trying to be perfect for "the event" that has been a long time coming, especially when you know there is no such thing as perfect but strive for it anyway. And while I realize that I did absolutely nothing for myself by applying extra mountains of nerves onto an already stressful situation, why, of all fucking times, did my turquoise toes have to be less than stunning?

Finally ready, pretty and perfumed, I joined Raj and James for what I assumed would be a few more hours of waiting, but it was all of a few minutes after I'd made myself comfortable that the phone rang. His taxi was waiting downstairs.

Ah, those moments in life when your heart drops into your stomach and you want to puke. So few, but always so important. I jumped up and ran out the door, ignoring Raj yelling, "I'll come with you, kookoo!!", flew down the stairs and outside.

It was dark, and street lamps were few. The road was littered with parked cars, but up ahead a trunk was open and bags were being unloaded. There he was. Marco.

A few weeks ago I wondered if when I saw him, my heart would stop or I would shriek in euphoria. Neither of those happened. Instead I ran without thinking, jumped straight into his hug and barely heard his smiling, "Hi, sweetie," when I did something incredibly, horrifically stupid. The kind of idiocy I'm only capable of when my brain shuts down and the space between my ears is a bag of hot air.

I kissed him. Bang on the lips. A crazy Hollywood smack with my arms around him and my eyes closed. And somewhere in the middle of that, a little voice in the back of my head said, Good lord. I just kissed Marco.

When our lips came apart and I opened my eyes to his smile, the sledgehammer of reality whacked me upside the head and I started to get dizzy. GOOD LORD. I JUST KISSED MARCO.

Stupid stupid stupid girl. It wasn't supposed to be like this! What in hell must he think of me now? Quick, assess the situation. Okay, he was still smiling. Good sign. Rewind scene in head. He kissed back. Better sign. Now stop gaping and do some damage control.

What do I do when I screw up? I really go in for the kill. Marco asked me how I was doing, but I was still too appalled by my Oscar performance to answer. I knew I had to do something quick, and a brilliant idea struck me: his luggage. He had luggage! Of course. I would carry something upstairs. I grabbed the nearest bag and, not even checking to see if he would follow, started hauling it towards the building. At lightning speed. When I got to the sidewalk I passed by a mystified Raj who hissed, "What the fuck are you doing?", and I replied the best I could: with some kind of noise that was a cross between a gurgle and a hiccup. And kept going. Too late to stop now.

I went through the building entrance, up the stairs and kicked open the apartment door. I then dropped the bag in the living room right in front of a confunded looking James who said, "What's the matter? Is he here? What's wrong?", but just ignored him too on my way down the hall and into the bathroom, where I locked myself in. It was a prime opportunity to scream my head off but since I wasn't alone, I had to settle for sitting on the toilet with my head between my knees, hyperventilating in private.

I'd love to say that never in my life have I acted so hysterically, if only to make myself feel better, but then I've done a *lot* of stupid things. This one though, deserved some kind of prize. Sitting there on that toilet and replaying it over and over, I figured all that was missing were some circus poodles and Bozo the clown. Wait, Bozo had been there all along. I was Bozo. Bozo the demented, inbred clown.

Couldn't stay in here forever, and I didn't want to. Marco was out there. One of my best friends for fuck's sakes, and here I was having an asthma attack on a toilet. And no matter how disastrous I'd just made things, I'd have to face him sooner or later anyway. Unless I could somehow sneak the washer out of here without anyone noticing - doubtful - this bathroom was far too small for a comfortable night's sleep.

Okay, Bozo. Deep breath, stand up, hand on doorknob, that's it. Little by little. Move your feet out of the bathroom, across the hallway, into the bedroom.... and there he was. Taking off his watch and putting it on the nightstand like it was the most normal thing in the world, almost oblivious to the fact that I'd just acted like the biggest loser on earth.

Almost. He had heard me come in and so turned around, smirking, left eyebrow up and that "Uh huh" look I knew so well written all over his face. Well, if anyone knows how big a loser I can be, it's Marco. If I'm going to make a complete fool of myself in front of anyone, it may as well be him.

Marco went around to shut the door, and then came back to stand right in front of me. He took both my hands in his, kissed each one, then pulled me in for a big hug and started to laugh. "Silly."

"Oh, shut up."

This only made him laugh harder and even though I was probably blushing like mad, I started to relax. I started to breathe. I settled into his arms at last and when he pulled me in for a kiss, I noticed something that just a few minutes before I'd been too panicked to enjoy: he tasted like sweet tobacco and fresh mint leaves.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Day 6: Sweffiyeh

We wake up to a very light breakfast of black sesame breadsticks and cream cheese from the jar - the fact we're still eating the stuff tells you just how very big that jar was - and chill in the apartment. In awhile we will head to Mummy's and Papi's but right now, with the time I have to myself, I am appropriately nervy and sick. Marco is arriving tonight.

This morning Papi is taking us to Sweffiyeh, a fantastic shopping district plunk near the burbs. More specifically, Papi wants to show James and me his favourite shop in Sweffiyeh: Izhiman Coffee. Without even asking Raj if he wants to come along, Papi packs the two of us in the car and we're off. Papi loves his son more than anything, but his love of exotic food and shop scouring doesn't extend to Raj. Like I said, Raj doesn't like to mix with the local riff raff.

Izhiman Coffee is one-third coffee, two-thirds spices and everything else. I have always wanted to visit a Middle Eastern spice market, it's even #32 on my list of travel goals. Here's an excerpt for you:

29: Ogle a Venetian glassblower (done)
30: Pick tea in Ceylon
31: Ride a camel without assistance (done)
32: Visit a Middle Eastern spice market (done)
33: Visit an African spice market
34: See the Rosetta Stone (done)
35: Eat Peking Duck in Peking
36: Bungee jump off a Bavarian suspension bridge

And etc. The path to fulfilling goal #32 started with Mummy and Papi being so thrilled with James' and my love of their fabulous Turkish coffee (the rest of the country drinks Nescafe, yuck), and knew that we wanted to see a spice market, too. Izhiman fit the bill. The front of the shop is all coffee, various roasts and flavours, the middle is spices, and the back is tea, perfume & naturopathic remedies.

Either Papi is such a regular or Izhiman loves tourists so much that Omar, employee extraordinaire, was appointed our personal shopping stooge. Omar knew his shit. I knew Omar knew his shit when he brought over a large scoop of what looked like clear crystal chips, gestured to me with a smile and said, "Here, smell."

At the time I didn't know it was a scoop of pure menthol. I leaned over and took a sniff that cleared out my sinuses, orifices and entire body cavity in .03 seconds flat. What a wallop! James was spluttering from his first inhale and I'd just started to ride the menthol high when smiling, I put my arm in Omar's and said, "So tell me, what other interesting things do you have here?"

As it turned out, plenty of interesting things. I bought biryani spice, Egyptian chamomile tea, over four pounds of wild tyme (known as zatar), sumac, Nigerian black soap, cardamom, the darkest roast coffee beans available, and a special present for Oli: Snake Oil.

Snake Oil came in a small orange box with a picture of a cobra on the front. Underneath the picture it said, "Immediate Treatment for Damaged Hair". Perfect! Oli is terrified of snakes, but has some seriously thick hair that is tortured with a flatiron every day. And this is definitely one of the quirkiest gifts I could ever hope to bring back. It went into my basket, to the cash and out the front door.

Goodbye Izhiman, hello bakery. Papi loves sweets and baked goods; who were we to argue? He bought zatar bread, fresh pita and an assortment of arabic pastries for us to try... and laughed when we stocked up on black sesame breadsticks. Ooo, they had mint flavoured breadsticks too. We were going to need more jarred cheese for this.

We left Sweffiyeh with a full trunk and most satisfied with our visit. I crossed off #32 before we got back to the apartment, where yet another huge meal was waiting. A gigantic whole fish from the Red Sea, stuffed chicken, vine leaf wrapped rice rolls, hummus (I wasn't as overjoyed to see it yet again), and babaganouj. Better yet, we were joined by Raj's sisters and their kids.

Raj has one brother and two sisters, Nadia and Layla. They have two sons apiece, and really remind me of, well, me and Oli. The older one is shorter, mouthier and very much in charge. The younger has bigger eyes and likes denim jackets. They also happen to live next door to each other. Did I ever mention that Oli's townhouse is behind my loft? I liked watching them talk and argue, it made me nostalgic. Besides airports and her lack of the punctuality gene, Oli and I travel great together and it was refreshing to see sisters prod and insult one another, all in good fun, as much as we did.

After the meal, after the coffee, after yet another failed attempt at trying to read my future in the cup (I really have to brush up on that), Nadia started picking on Raj because he hadn't taken us shopping yet. James and I were just about on our knees praising her good senses when she ordered us all back into the car and back to Sweffiyeh for some decent retail therapy. When she told me she had a jewellery and pashmina addiction, it was all I could do from keeping her for life.

First stop jewellery and accessories store, where James picked up some cute things for his little sister, and I got a Yemeni necklace for ME. Yup, it's all about me right now. Second stop, pashmina store where I just about drowned myself in a cashmere ocean. I couldn't believe the quality of this stuff, and the prices to boot, easily half what they would have been at home. I got myself two gorgeously beaded works of art, and three silk shawls for moms. Would've draped Oli too but she's not a Bohemian like me.

Oli did get shoes, though. Leather wedge platforms that I knew she would die for. I never forget my big sister on an international shopping spree. Her purchase was made right as Sweffiyeh started to close, and so we loaded back into the car, dropped Nadia off and went back to the apartment where a big, big pile of laundry waited. Unfortunately, thanks to Raj's bad positioning of the drainage pipe, my bathroom got flooded and the three of us were reduced to mopping up the pools of soapy water with kleenex and paper towels. In such situations it's safe to say our true selves come out: I swore, Raj bitched, James took it all in. How I love my queens, even in the biggest messes. I was just titchy at the bad timing, see, cause it's not terrific for your bathroom to flood when you're busy preparing for Marco.

Day 5 1/2: The Dead Sea

I'm not the kind of girl that goes around with an extra pair of shoes, but I'm a huge believer in beach flip flops. The busted Skechers were thrown (quite hatefully) into the back of the trunk, and my indestructible blue Havaianas came out. All hail plastic.

The drive to the Dead Sea was all of a half-hour or so from the Jordan River, and very scenic in the "look there's another Bedouin with his herd of goats" kind of way. We also drove by a nomad with his camel while I squealed in the backseat - baby's first camel in the Middle East! - then kicked myself when James said, "Why aren't you shooting any of this?" I'd packed up my Nikon and left it in the trunk. Champion photo girl was off to a really bad start.

Every picture I'd ever seen of the Dead Sea seemed to show a beach made entirely of mud, and perky looking people covered head to toe in the stuff. The ones in the water are perpetual backfloaters, faces mucky, reading newspapers. I thought we would go to this beach, roll around in the mud like beached whales then partake of the Dead Sea waters with the other happy, happy tourists. Heck, it's a giant spa. How can you not get along at a spa?

Well, it's not that way at all. Turns out you have to go through a hotel. As in pay the ticket for pool facilities, beach pass and towel service for the day. I highly suspect there is a public beach somewhere, but Raj wouldn't tell us because he hates mixing with the local riff raff. When he knows the scene and we don't, he really takes advantage of it.

Raj's hotel of choice was the Marriott, and right away it reminded me of the hotels on the Vegas strip. Large, immaculate, themed. Red carpet to the door, uniformed, smiling host ready with complimentary lemonade, overpowering air conditioning, yadda yada. Gorgeous, otherworldly, unnervingly perfect. We each coughed up 20 dinars for said services, and headed to the back.

It was breathtaking. At least four swimming pools that I could see, striped deck chairs, bridges, flowers of every colour. Stone trails heading downhill to more pools, more gardens, tiki umbrellas and hot hot hot cabana boys attending to your every need at the lowest point on earth.

I know what you're thinking and so I'll answer that question post haste: while in Nirvana, did Fat Girl partake of these glorious services? Very politely, for two out of three, no. The one I did use was towel service, only because James is large and wanted my extra towels. Pool and beach service I did not use.

Here are my two reasons, #1 being that I did not know about the pool. I didn't find out until the evening before the trip about the Marriot hoo-ha, I honestly thought all there would be was a beach. With that in mind I didn't even pack a bathing suit. In my defense I did check out the suits available at the gift shop, but lord, they were tacky. If you're thinking I'm a snob for missing one of the most gorgeous swimming pool opportunities in my existence, then yes darling, I am. Simply put, I wouldn't be caught dead wearing a fuschia bikini with cartoons of fish skeletons on the boobs, and "I swam in the Dead Sea" printed across the ass. No way, no how.

So why didn't I pack for the beach? Reason #2: I am not allowed in the Dead Sea. Ever. I would love to tell you that I broke some international law, got in all kinds of trouble and was prohibited from entering the nation's precious resources - adds mystique, see - but the real reason isn't nearly so interesting. Da da dum... no Dead Sea for me because of health problems. Well, former health problem. I'll get into that later.

But I did get my feet wet. I rolled up my pants for the second time that day and waded in a little over ankle deep into the Dead Sea, and took pictures of everything I saw. Floating people, muddy people, a Chinese tourist swimming with all her clothes on. Raj striking poses up and down the beach, James pretending to be a viking boat. My toes.

After shooting more than just a few rolls with my dust-infected camera, I started to get bored. I couldn't use the beach, couldn't use the pool, I'd already walked around the hotel, wasn't hungry, wasn't thirsty, and I didn't want to write anymore either. What's a girl to do?

Go to the spa. And not just any spa, the... most... heavenly... spa... I... have... ever... seen... in... my... whole... life. As a connoisseur of spas and paid luxury, you can take my word on this. A haven of soft music & lighting, desert ambience, plushy bathrobes, a gigantic solarium and indoor pool that just screamed "Nicole Kidman swam here." A menu of offerings that reading the descriptions alone, quite frankly, brought me to my knees. How's that for embarassing?

I didn't become a spa junkie until a couple of years ago, after throwing out my shoulder pretty badly. I was sent for weekly massages for six consecutive weeks, where Havel the Hippie Masseur beat the problem right out. Nowadays, a trip to the spa is the best gift you can give yourself. Heck, it's the best gift I can give myself, and after reading the treatments available at the Jordan Valley Marriott Resort and Spa, I was fully prepared to give myself Christmas and several birthdays right then and there.

The Jordan Valley Full Body Massage with Hot Stones, oh yes. The Purifying Dead Sea Mud Facial, oh yes yes. The Dead Sea Aromatherapy Salt and Oil Scrub, dee-lish, and whatever the hell a Dry Flotation was, that sounded good too. By this point I was salivating so badly I could have put Bluetooth to shame. It'd been months since I'd had spa anything, and all this sounded *so good* and had me so relaxed already, I almost fell over getting to the front desk.

This is when the concierge said the most terrible words I'd ever heard: "I'm sorry ma'am, but we're fully booked for the day."

WHAT?? NO!!! No pool, no Dead Sea, and no spa? No spa? All this and a broken sandal, dusty camera and whining Raj? Seriously peeved, grumpy and still clutching my spa menu to cry over later, I turned and left the garden of eden. All I wanted to do now was sulk in my deck chair the rest of the day... after I tried one more thing. This day couldn't be a total jinx.

I gathered up James and went back to the gift shop, bypassed bathing suits and my heart did a little cartwheel. Jewellery. Nice jewellery. If I can't have anything else I set out for today then dammit, I can have jewellery. I bought a gorgeous silver ring with a crown of spiralling turquoise beads on top. Funky and different. Jewellery always makes it better.

By the time we were done our shopping excursion and ogling the dining room waiters, the sun was going down and stomachs were growling. We left the Marriott in pursuit of fish in the middle of the desert. One hour and four wrong turns later we made it to the fish farm and restaurant that Raj's brother-in-law had told us about that was, quite literally, surrounded by desert. Our evening ended at a plastic patio table loaded with grilled fish, hummus, drinks, arabic music, the wind in our hair and the lights blinking in nearby Israel.

Once during the meal I got up to use the restroom when the restaurant manager stopped me and asked if my husband would be needing anything else? Husband? I turned and followed his gaze to James. Sheesh. Five days en route and I'm already married.