Sunday, May 30, 2010

My Dad

Dad went to law school after he returned to Canada from WW1. He joined the army because he thought he was going on a combination cruise and boy scout outing...ah, the perspective of a 15 year old. Of course he lied about his age in order to enlist. His mother found out and contacted the army. As he was already overseas he was used "in the back" of things, taking care of ammunition and other supplies. Just after his 17th birthday, he was ready to be moved to the front. He saw combat for 1 day when he was wounded and simultaneously the war ended. Dad was sent to Aldershot England where he recovered from his wounds and finally made his way back home.

He never lost his love for all things military and belonged to the Canadian Legion for his whole life. After a decade practicing criminal law in a private practice, he rejoined the army during WW2, training troops in Fort William, Ontario and then sitting on the bench as a judge advocate for the rest of the war. His last position was as legal counsel for the Veterans Land Act and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Every Veteran's day we dressed up, put our red velvet poppies in our button holes and joined the parade to the Cenotaph where we placed a wreath.

The creator of the famous "poppy" poem was a Canadian medical officer, John McCrae. The practice of wearing poppies to honor the dead has now spread world-wide.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

In Flanders Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders Fields.

John McCrae, 1915.

Monday, May 24, 2010


 Nothing prepares you for the drama of Petra in Jordan. It was used as a location for the popular 1989 feature film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Our guide, at the first "reveal" where you can see the monument through a gap in the rocks said, "Now you should be hearing the Indiana Jones bullshit movie theme." Later when we asked a question about the site, he referred to the writer of the information brochure (the facts were different in the brochure) as an "asshole" who made a lot of mistakes. A Bedouin, he made these references very casually as if the words bullshit and asshole were everyday words without much impact. It was funny but typical of the guides we had all over Jordan and Syria. Always men, they were universally jaded and bored with the job. They'd plod along reciting almost in a monotone, facts and figures which have been pared down to a pitiful few - and since we've been back and I've done some fact checking, I've found much of their information exaggerated and inaccurate. They overcharge and bluntly ask for tips after delivering poor performances. Several spent the first 1/3 of the tour telling us about how great they were - and how they had guided luminaries such as Elizabeth Taylor, Donna Shalala etc. After a few such tedious experiences we chose to skip the guides and just enjoy what we could see, preferring to look things up on our own when we got home. 

In their defense, they have no role models - they only mimic each other. I wish one of the archaeological research groups who send gobs of people there to "dig" would organize a class teaching how to guide through the site. 

The non-official vendors on the other hand were delightful. I spent a pleasant two hours sitting with a 35 year old Bedoiun who'd been born in a cave over Petra and spent his whole life around the ruins. Initially he was trying to sell me a donkey ride but once he realized I wasn't a candidate and business was slow, he passed the time chatting with me. One of his donkeys was named Michael Jackson and another Back to the Future. He had two gold eye teeth, wore mascara (most of the Bedouin men do) and told me he drank camel milk every day. He never attended a school but learned to read and write Arabic by watching people and just picked it up. One of ten children, he had five of his own who were all attending school but who saw their futures in these ruins either selling trinkets to tourists; guiding or for the lucky few going on to study archaeology to join the elite group who are uncovering the ruins a spoonful of sand at a time. 

I couldn't help but compare these awful guides to the many fabulous female docents I've had guide me around museums and historical sites in the U.S. What a contrast!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Wadi Rum

I hate camping. And camping in the desert has zero appeal for me - but the idea of seeing the night sky like nowhere else on earth convinced us to book a day and night at Wadi Rum in Jordan. This is the famous desert of Lawrence of Arabia fame and is incredibly beautiful both at night and by day. In a junky rust-bucket four wheel drive vehicle with a handsome young Bedouin driver, we tore across this desert landscape stopping at one breath-taking vista after another. The broad expanses of sand were peppered with clumps of blueish greenery as they'd had the first big rain of 16 years two weeks prior to our visit. Closer inspection revealed that every square inch of the sand had some small plants growing. The desert was abloom. It doesn't take long for you to be totally mesmerized by the whole romantic scene - the vast emptiness, the exotic Bedouin, the fascinating camels. We'd watched "Lawrence" again just before leaving and the sweeping score was playing in my head constantly.

Camels in small groups were clustered here and there - small herds, dozing like cats - always to conserve energy and water. We saw one with a young baby only about a week old. Watching them get up and down in their graceful but strange slow-motion way was intriguing. Bedouins love camels and many drink camel milk (extremely high in fat and cholesterol) every day.  We appreciated watching them glide along the desert like sand taxis with their colorful "fly swatters" dangling down around their necks. 

Richard and Abdul went clambering up one rocky area which I passed on due to my wobbliness. When they came back down, they had a picture of a rattler they'd encountered curled up against the rocks. Immediately on seeing the photo, the three Bedouin drivers (two other parties had pulled up while the guys were climbing) kicked off their sandals, hiked up their robes and ran up the side of the rocks like they had glue applied to their feet. I couldn't believe their agility. Once they located the snake they ran back down and siphoned off some gas from the vehicle intending to kill the snake with it. Another tourist, sporting a "Green Planet" t-shirt stepped up and objected - she said, in effect, "Hey, the snake was here first - if you kill these things, soon there'll be nothing left". The Bedouins said in reply -"These snakes kill people in 15 minutes. It's happened and we've had kids poisoned. Snakes are our biggest enemies." A bit of a debate ensued, voice raised a little - green tourists (just passing through) versus Bedouin (permanent residents). A comprimise was reached - the Bedouin agreed to catch the snake and move it to an area where tourists were unlikely to go. 

The photo is of our lunch stop in a tent where we were served a can of oily tuna, some kind of British crackers, a banana and water. The tent floors are covered in carpets and pillows so you can lounge while eating or enjoying a visit. The Yasser Arafat head wrap I'm sporting may look pitifully touristy but those people know what they're doing. The wrap keeps your head covered, neck protected and you can pull the front over your face when it's dusty or the flies bother you. I wore it, albeit wrapping it rather inexpertly, for a couple of days and when I tired of it and went back to my regular hat, Richard was sort of disappointed. 

Our night was spent in a goat hair tent on raised cots and because we were exhausted we slept like logs. The worst part, was the shared bathroom lean-two with one regular toilet (non-squat) and a cold dribble of a shower for those who couldn't bear to face the day without some kind of a wash. Unprepared, we didn't even have a towel with us (everyone in the middle east knows you bring your own linens camping). Fortunately, the camp wasn't full and we shared with two French girls and a Dutch family of six. Everyone was thoughtful and considerate about using the facilities which improved immensely once darkness fell and the lighting was by candle, making the sanitation shortfalls fade into the dusk.

After a simple evening dinner (grilled chicken and vegetables) in the main tent with corny but sincere entertainment provided by our driver, the cook and two other Bedouins - sort of wierd dancing and guitar music, we stood outside and looked at the sky until our necks were aching. Overhead was a glittering, twinkling panorama which stunned us all into silence. Every once in a while a shooting star would skid across the scene and elicit oohs and aahs. 

It was Richard's birthday and an unforgettable night. 

Thanks for your warm hostility

Welcme er...Welcome to Syrain er...Syrian Arab Republic!

We just returned from traveling in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and we're still laughing at the incredibly funny English we enjoyed all over in these three countries on signs, menus, newspapers.  Yesterday, approaching the border between Syria and Jordan a huge sign says " Clow down". After a few weeks of the Syenglish, you get these things almost immediately because your brain has been conditioned to solve the puzzles. "Grilled chicken chest" was a regular on menus as was various renditions of coleslaw, the big prize winner going to "coolslow", which sort of makes sense. Homeless chicken breast (boneless chicken breast) was another favorite. Grilled beef with "aborigine" (instead of aubergine or eggplant) was intriguing. The world-wide menu favorite, "fried crap" was on several menus but with a label pasted over with the correction. This must be the one misspelling that even the Syrians have come to recognize.

Funniest of all was a sign in a bad hotel that stated "Thanks for your warm hostility!"

Even after a couple of weeks, I still could not translate or decipher a single bit of Arabic so our laughter at their English is done with due humility. If the tables were turned, I can't imagine the kind of mistakes we'd be making.