Sunday, February 28, 2010


     As soon as we got into Amman's downtown bus station we would take a taxi to ACOR where we would promptly check into our rooms (usually located down on the basement level), strip off all our clothes and add them to the rest of our dirty laundry which we would send to the laundress for washing (and while there was a small fee for this service, it was well worth it! Whoever did the laundry at ACOR did a marvelous job, as everything came back within hours smelling and looking clean and bleached, softly machine dried, AND neatly folded. Needless to say, I saw this as a reason to never do laundry at camp!). Within minutes of dispensing of both clothes and laundry J would jump in the shower for about 10 mintes, at which time I would follow, an order we agreed to since I usually took longer. And Oooooh, how unbelievably GOOD that hot, steamy water felt as it powerfully sprayed down over my head and body! I could have stood there forever, lathering up, rinsing off, over and over. Plus I could finally shave my legs decently, and generally pamper myself like I could never do at Abila! The showers here were so clean, and there were no spiders or lizards running over the walls. I would have been in no hurry to get out EVER if it hadn't been for the fact that J and I were both usually starving half to death, and here there was the promise of some real food. On Fridays we always skipped lunch at the dig in order to make our early getaway, so after having taken care of one very essential luxury we embarked on another. Upstairs, the main floor housed a large industrial kitchen used to cook all the meals and desserts which would feed weekend visitors a full lunch (the cost of which was included in the price of the stay), and which fed the archaeology teams who were digging nearby, but who lived at ACOR, three meals a day. I couldn't help but feel jealous about how much nicer these dig crews had it than we did at Abila. The difference between their accommodations and ours was like night and day! Oh well. I at least got to experience a reprieve on weekends, something most of our team members were not so fortunate to get, and I clung to this very selfishly, as there were only a limited number of rooms left on any given weekend, and we three had standing reservations!
Fridays at ACOR the standard dinner fare was spaghetti, and we had permission to help ourselves to the leftovers! J would heat up a big pot of spaghetti, while my assignment would be to make a pitcher of freshly brewed tea (shay, in Arabic), which, let me tell you, was a real luxury, poured over tall glasses of an unlimited supply of ice! All week long at the camp I would drink plain water, sometimes refrigerated, but usually not, and even on our treks into Irbid I could barely satisfy my craving for ice, so this became one of my biggest challenges on our outings, especially since I am a huge ice fanatic, something I didn't fully realize about myself until I left the familiarity of my own country. In American restaurants it's no problem to get all the ice you want, so at the Pizza Hut in Irbid, when I saw pictures on their paper place mats of tall glasses of Coke filled with ice cubes, I felt encouraged to try to communicate my desire to have that which I so desperately lusted after in the illustrations. I would point to the picture and use the Arabic word for ice, talj, and then point to myself, all the while shaking my head yes, and saying "I want, please" (biddi, min fadlak) in Arabic. When the waiter would finally understand what I was requesting, there would be great joy, accompanied by lots of smiling and laughing, followed by my eager anticipation of a glass soon to be filled full with ice cubes. But alas, every single time the waiter would return holding up a bag of about 12 individually wrapped frozen cubes, smiling, offering me very graciously, ONE (wahid)? Oh! You would like TWO (itnen)? Ha! This was very funny! Oh, but could I possibly have THREE (talateh)? Asking this always made me feel like a greedy American who wanted everything in excess. But in America ice was not only abundant, it was free! It was just frozen water! Unfortunately, a commodity that was NOT that abundant in other parts of the world, and especially not in the deserts of the Middle East. And while the waiter at Pizza Hut wasn't going to charge me for that ice, and while I'm also certain that he was indeed very happy to serve it to me, I'm also certain that he never understood why on earth I would ever want such a thing in my drink in the first place. How very odd! Apparently, those packages of ice were something the franchise shipped to them, along with those Coke advertisement placemats that were lying out on all the tables, as was the chrome salad bar that just sat in the middle of the floor with a big bowl on it for serving iceberg lettuce salad, something also not available in the Middle East. Either because lettuce didn't ship that well, or because Jordanians don't use lettuce in their salads, or both, that bowl just sat there empty, as did the rest of the salad bar in most areas. A very visible reminder of a piece of American food culture that was out of place here. So I didn't push it. Most of the time I lived with two cubes and felt happy for what I got, always profusely thanking the waiters, repeating over and over in Arabic, shukran, shukran! But at ACOR, why, I had all the ice I wanted! And so J, Tim, and I almost embarrassingly, yet happily, scarfed down our amazingly delicious early evening meal, and then washed the dishes and wiped off the stove and countertops, making certain that we didn't wear out the good graces of the kitchen staff, before heading back to our rooms for a restful nap, setting the alarm clocks for about 8:00 p.m., so as to leave ourselves a reasonable amount of time for an early night on the town.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Living for Weekends

     So it was that I lived for the weekends! Every Friday afternoon as soon as we finished working in the field J, Tim S. (a close friend of ours, and the dig photographer), and I would head out for Amman. It was a rather long trip so J always wanted to get going as soon as possible. What he wanted (and so what we did) was to be first off the dig bus, run into our rooms, grab the small bags that we had already packed the night before, and then quickly head back out to the road in order to catch the next local bus that would soon be passing by on its way into Irbid, timing this just right so as not to miss it. Translated into girl language, this meant no shower, no clean clothes, no makeup, and no way that I could ever look any worse ever in my life if I tried! In guy language this meant, "We can clean up when we get there. We'll have nice bathrooms and showers, real beds, someone to do our laundry; we'll get some real food. So come on, let's hurry up!" Ugh! Guy language is so much more logical! How I felt about how I looked was inconsequential to him, though not to me. Never mind that I had to ride on the local bus looking filthy dirty in my dig clothes and boots, with my hair all messed up, and  a dirty face and neck that helped clinch the total look I had going of being a homeless wayfarer, but from Irbid I had to ride (and under different conditions I might have otherwise said got to ride, as these were air conditioned!) on one of Jordan's big hijazi coach buses all the way into the metropolis city of Amman, where people were far more aware of good hygiene and fashion. One thing I learned about Jordanians is that staring is not considered rude behavior. Nor is pointing and giggling. On the hijazi women POINTED at me! How humiliating! Thankfully, I was under the "protection" of a man, but I could imagine them all wondering how any man could possibly want a woman like me. Many of them had only Hollywood picture versions of what American women looked like, so what could explain me? Maybe I should have worn a Canadian flag or something! I felt like I was miserably representing my American sisters, and I was so sorry! But my husband wasn't noticing me either. I seemed to be turning into "one of the guys" on this trip, and while J hadn't forgotten I was his wife, taking excellent care of me, he wasn't exactly thinking about me in the way I wanted him to. All the stress and angst, the poor living conditions and long hard hours (never mind the foam mattresses on concrete floors), combined with the fact that keeping romance alive anyway on a day to day basis with someone you see 24/7, all added up to there being more nights when rolling over and saying "goodnight" was the easiest thing to do. So I was a little touchy! But I was hoping that letting go of my vanity might be a good thing, so I held my head up even higher than I did on the local Irbid buses, and stayed focused on how happy I was to be headed towards the more creature comforts that awaited us when we got to ACOR (the American Center of Oriental Research), a home away from home for American archaeologists.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


    Whenever we'd go into Irbid I would love it! It was like going on a date. At least it was the closest thing to going on a date as anything had been yet on this trip! This was my honeymoon after all, but my "honey" was more often than not feeling very tired, and very mad at the director most of the time. He hated the separate living arrangements, feeling that those of us at the second school were too isolated from the main dig camp, and he hated Dr. Mare's miserliness. As far as he was concerned, running out of water in the showers was unforgiveable! And in general, he not only felt neglected by Dr. Mare, he also felt like he was basically being treated once again like a flunkie grad student rather than a real assistant. This was his sixth dig season with Dr. Mare, and while he was happy to have been given the title of "Assistant," it was also starting to piss him off, which meant that he was more and more willing to perform a disappearing act on any given afternoon, something I was all too happy to encourage! So at least once every week, either on a Tuesday or Wednesday, the two of us, along with anybody else who just wanted to get away and was game to join us, caught a local bus and rode into Irbid. I loved the freedom of it all, but I would have been terrified to ride into the city on my own. Riding on the local buses was quite an experience in itself. We were coming from a very small village, one of the many that dotted the road going into Irbid. You can only imagine what an odd sight we were to the local men and women riding on the bus, as this rather large American "gringo" and his wife boarded, and then traveled anything but inconspicuously the miles into town. While I always made certain my arms were covered, I did not wear a scarf or anything over my short hair, I barely wore any makeup at all, and I often donned my pants (a clean pair) rather than a skirt, as I had only packed one of those. Lacking a certain amount of feminine appeal, I was much more of an enigma to the women than J. One very obvious aspect that I couldn't help but notice about even the oldest woman whose face was mostly hidden by a veil was her heavily charcoal lined eyes! On these rides into Irbid I would often feel those eyes boring into me, only to be followed by whispers and giggles behind sets of hands, particularly if the women were traveling together rather than with their husbands. (No woman ever traveled alone.) But I would hold my head up high and try to retain as much dignity as I could, as I was, unbeknownst to them, stepping out on the town! Ladies, I was on my honeymoon! (These poor women would have never guessed it!) And to this end, I never felt so happy to "belong" to a man as I felt in Jordan!
     Once we arrived at the bus station in Irbid I could escape all the stares and giggles, and walk about more freely, feeling much more like a tourist in the city, and therefore less noticeable. Well, really there weren't hardly any tourists in Irbid, but it was a university town, and there were lots of young people and thus much more hustling and bustling about. J, who loved the adventure of it all, had his own favorite destinations, and one of those was far enough away from the bus station that we had to take a taxi (which in Jordan were mostly older, stripped down, big four door Mercedes, painted yellow). Since food was always J's primary concern, he knew where a lot of good inexpensive local restaurants were located, and depending on how our supply of Jordanian Dinars was holding up, we sometimes first had to make a quick stop at a currency exchange shop. (The rate of exchange at that time was about 70 to 100, which meant that our dollars went a little further there than they did in the U.S., thankfully!) A few doors down from the exchange shop where J liked to go was a restaurant that served the absolute best kababs. For anyone trying out Jordanian food for the first time, and who might not be that adventurous, these are an excellent choice. Jordanians eat meat at nearly every meal, with chicken and lamb being the most popular, and beef coming in third. (Pork is absolutely forbidden.) Shish (which means grilled) were my favorite kababs, and I had no preference over which meat I ordered, as they were all delicious. A shish kabab was made up of chunks of lamb, chicken, or beef with vegetables (sliced onions and yellow, green, and red peppers) threaded onto skewers and grilled. These would be served with a side of yellow rice (given its yellow color by the dye, Tumeric), or with French fries, and pita bread. Most locals would also add to their order taboola, a common salad of diced tomatoes, onions, and parsley. Of course appetizers ( or, mazzat) are very popular in Jordan, with hummous (served with pita bread for dipping) being the singular most popular dish, made up of pureed chick peas blended with tania (sesame seed oil), lemon, and garlic, topped with olive oil and a sprig of parsley. (Our friend, Adnan, who would later come to visit us in Kentucky, taught me how to make hummous during an all evening event that temporarily transformed my home kitchen into a Jordanian culinary school! Something I considered a blessing, being a small town girl from WV). Desserts in Jordan most often tended to be fresh fruit, with  watermelon being served more often in restaurants, and on the dig, than any other fruit. Restaurants and bakeries also served amazingly wonderful sticky sweets like baklava, or a popular angel hair pastry, or cookies stuffed with pistachios or dates, but we rarely had room left over for such rich treats. Along with dessert, Jordanian meals ended with either coffee (often flavored with cardamom), served very strong in small cups, or else hot tea, which was also served very strong and heavily sweetened. All around the city of Irbid, on these outings, we would go in search of what would become our favorite dishes, but our most singularly favorite meal, considered more of a "fast food" in Jordan, sold by vendors along the streets (all around the Middle East, actually), and extremely cheap to pick up was either shawarma or falafel. J preferred the former, and I the latter, though we were happy to share with one another. Shawarma is very much like an Arab version of a Greek gyro. It's a rolled piece of flat bread filled with strips of lamb or chicken, smothered in yogurt, while falafel is pita bread (khubiz) stuffed with a mixture of deep fried chick peas, yogurt, spices, and parsley. Some of my other favorite local dishes were mansaf, a traditional Beduoin chicken and rice dish made in a rich yogurt broth, served without utensils, usually in huge amounts from a big communal platter (and though you eat this with your hands, Arabs never use their left hand to eat, as it is considered to be unclean), kabsa, another chicken and yellow rice dish, oozi, basmati (a yellow rice) with roasted chicken, usually served with roasted potatoes, or green peppers and onions, or both, and kibbeh, palm-sized deep fried balls made of a mixture of finely ground lean beef or lamb, cracked wheat, some spices, onions, toasted pine nuts, and olive oil. While we would have variations on these dishes for lunch back at camp, as well as other typical Jordanian fare like mahshi (baked stuffed eggplant), and baba ghanoush (a smashed, smoky, runny eggplant dish in a molasses based sweet and sour sauce), the food never tasted all that good because of the conditions under which our hired professional cooks had to work, and because of the cheaper quality of groceries that Dr. Mare purchased. All of this was quite unfortunate, as I think it hindered a true appreciation of Jordanian cuisine.
    In any case, I was in heaven when I was in Irbid, visiting restaurants (and yes, sometimes we'd go to the only American joint in Irbid, Pizza Hut, which tasted so much better to me when I was over there than at home) and grocery stores, shopping for snack foods we could take back to camp to get us through another few days until we could make it to  Amman, where we spent almost every weekend.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Middle Eastern Foods

     Besides the unearthing of Artemis, which was a huge boon for everyone (especially for all of us up on Area A), I'd have to say that discovering the many delicious Middle Eastern foods was my next biggest surprise! I'm guessing, though it's probably safe to assume, that by the first time I ever traveled to Jordan everyone else who lived in any large U.S. city, and had any curiosity about foreign cuisine, had probably already been tipped off about the amazing dishes offered by local Middle Eastern restaurants, many of which are tucked away in some quaint corner of their favorite neighborhood. And while I was quick to learn where I might locate such restaurants once I returned home, up to this point food was just another aspect of Middle Eastern culture for which I had no clue! Remember, I grew up eating mostly southern cooking, a lot of fried meat and potatoes, as well as all the other typical American foods. (I will state for the record, however, that when I moved to California I learned to love both Mexican and Chinese cuisine, something we did not have in West Virginia at the time, at least not to my knowledge. I also tried Hungarian, German, and Vietnamese foods, thanks to my mother's boyfriends and husband). Still, experimenting with what I considered "exotic" foods when not in the company of a person encouraging me to do so was out of my range of experience. On the dig, the cooks who kept us fed tried their hardest to make anything American they knew how to make. I can't imagine that our Director encouraged them in this, as I'm not sure he cared about anything other than saving money, but somehow, out of their strong belief in being as hospitable to their "guests" as possible, combined, maybe, with their sense that not doing so could have led to a total revolt on the part of many of the college students who were away from home for the first time, and who were already trying to cope with so many other new experiences and hardships, we ended up eating a lot of cold French fries, served alongside our daily fare of chicken and rice! To any Jordanian who worked in the food industry, the idea was that the majority of young and middle age Americans lived mostly on hamburgers and French fries (don't know where on earth they could have gotten this notion from), but since beef was extremely expensive, having a juicy hamburger just wasn't going to happen (and while I'm not that big a fan of the burger, most afternoons I would have died for one!). In any case, our cooks were so happy to serve us French fries, that in their eagerness to make us all as content as possible, they made up a bunch almost every other day. Unfortunately, due to the sheer volume they had to cook, by the time they ended up on the table for our consumption, they were always hard and cold. The salt purchased for the dig was so old that it had no taste, and the ketchup, if you could call it that, was some Jordanian brand, so nobody got that excited, especially since they were sorely missing their much coveted Heinz or Hunt's, whichever was the case! So, each one of us just had to make due with that runny, semi-pastey red liquid they served, or else go without, and afterwards, if we could muster up any graciousness, thank the cooks profusely! At least they tried. I always felt sorry for them because, while they did have experience cooking in large volume, they had to cook for us from a very tiny school kitchen that had only one stove and one refrigerator, and had been constructed to feed only a small number of middle school children. One of the cooks did bring (from her own home) her own hot plate. (Thank god for an extra burner, right?) Another considerate thing they did was that whenever anybody had a birthday, they would try to bake an American cake, topped with icing (which I think someone actually brought one can of from the states). Our American deserts were also very foreign concepts to them, and so these cakes were never as good as we dreamed they might be (especially since most every American was suffering from chocolate withdrawals, another food staple not readily available in the whole region of the Middle East!), and while they were often barely even edible, we still thanked them for their efforts. You never wanted to be on the bad side of the cooks! J had told me how back in 1986 he and his buddy had taken the cook at ACOR (The American Center of Oriental Research, a center that housed visiting American archaeologists, located in Amman) bags of chocolate chips and brown sugar, neither of which were available in the grocery stores, even in Amman. The two of them were on a 90 day trip, part of which would include Syria and Israel, where they would use local bus transportation, before heading off to Abila for the dig. Needing to leave their dig luggage (and remember what that consisted of) at ACOR so that they would not have to haul it all around with them, and needing permission to leave it, they tried gaining favor with the cook. I'm sure J was hoping to get some chocolate chip cookies for himself out it as well. He had already worked on "friending" the cook two years earlier, and so basically had free reign of the kitchen (something I would be grateful for on this trip), and the cook knew how much J loved to eat (something all cooks appreciate), so the deal was sealed! For anybody traveling in a foreign land, let alone living under such conditions as we were at Abila, what you get to eat becomes of supreme importance! And while our cooks tried their hardest, and did manage to put on the table some excellent local dishes, they didn't compare to what we could get if we ventured out beyond the perimeters of our camp. It was to this end that J made certain that he took me into Irbid, the closest city to Abila (less than 10 miles away), at least once every Tuesday or Wednesday evening for dinner.