Tuesday, April 21, 2015

International Incident, Inc.

Ah, the joys of taking students on an international trip.  Here are Taylor and Emma shutting down security at the Frankfurt International Airport for around ten minutes with their purple unicorn.  The security guards kept scanning the unicorn, which was inside a backpack, before finally, and gingerly, pulling it out.   As their teacher and chaperone I had to stand there and keep the chief of security happy, or at least mollified, which is traditionally not one of my strengths.

To me the bigger question was not the danger posed by a purple unicorn, but why a 19 year old woman would need a purple unicorn.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Camping in the Wadi Rum

I wish I had more pictures of the Wadi Rum, but, tragically and typically, the desert ate my camera.  I know people who routinely smash their phones, which I've managed to avoid, but I can never mock them because apparently I am really hard on cameras.  A couple years ago in the UAE I destroyed three cameras in the space of three months, each time in a different fashion (water, smashy-smashy and sand in the aperture [which sounds like a Smiths song]).  I recreated the sand in the aperture misadventure this trip, so I have precious few pictures of the part of the trip that I was most excited about.  Oh well, I'll take more next time.

We stayed at a little campground run through Petra Moon Tourism, an organization that I can not speak too highly of (definitely look them up if you're considering visiting Jordan - or drop me a line and I'll pass along their contact information).  

Leaving the road behind and heading out into the Wadi Rum proper.

Our little huts.  The students slept two to a tent, except for the two students who slept out under the stars.  The professors had tents all to themselves.  Well, Cyndi did.  I ended up not sleeping in my tent, but that's another story.

All in all, pretty comfortable digs.  A couple of the students were cold.  I wish I had told them that the desert is very cold at night - oh, wait, I did - a dozen times!

There was also a much bigger communal tent where we gathered for meals.  Here are Andy and Cyndi scarfing down a quick lunch before we headed out for a jeep tour.  This is the tent where I ended up sleeping, and I'll get around to that story soon.

The Cave Bar

When you lead a group of students overseas, even if you love spending time with them as much as the excellent Cyndi Brandenburg and I do, there is a time when, after you have settled the little lunkheads down for the evening, that, to paraphrase the Drive-By Truckers, Daddy Needs a Drink.  We had heard that there was a cool bar right outside the entrance to Petra that would be a great place to visit.   So, after experiencing Petra at night (which was a memorable first for me, and which I'll discuss later), and getting the students safely ensconced in our hotel, we decided to stop by for a nightcap.  The bar was called, in the end not surprisingly, the Cave Bar - not surprisingly because it was in a cave.  We asked the bartender if the bar was new, but he said that it had been there since something like 1995, which means that all the other times that I've visited Petra I managed to miss it.  This doesn't seem possible - well, actually, it does, because I'm more than a bit of an idiot.  Even considering my profound idiocy it still bothered me because it means I missed a lot of opportunities to relax in a very cool establishment.  I ended up ordering a Philadelphia, which is a local Jordanian brew (again, the Middle East is never as simple as one would think).  It seems like an odd name for a Jordanian beer, unless you consider that the ancient name of Amman was Philadelphia.  It was a lovely ending to an exhausting day that had started off with with an early morning bus ride, and then trips to Madaba, Mt. Nebo, a swim in the Dead Sea, and then eventually pulling into Petra at night.  Next time we take students to Jordan, and we obviously have to return, we'll simplify the schedule - and definitely schedule another visit to the Cave Bar. 

Yes, the eponymous Cave Bar.  It is located between the main entrance and the gate to the actual historic part of Petra.  Just climb up behind the souvenir shops, or ask anyone.

I was going to get a second Philadelphia but they ran out, which seems odd for your national beer.  Obviously, Cyndi ordered some drink that reflects her more patrician upbringing.

The evening was not actually this blurry.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Warmth and Warmth

We're coming dangerously close to mid-April and it's still bloody cold here in Vermont.  I devoted too much time today thinking about the warmth of Jordan - and of the Jordanians (my disdain for the emotionally reclusive, if not just cold, Vermonters is well-documented).  The problem with wanderlust is that it never goes away.

A view from the hotel, where we stopped for lunch and a swim, of the Dead Sea.  I'll post some pictures of our time in the Dead Sea itself soon.

Birth and Re-Death

You grieve for those beyond grief,
and you speak words of insight;
but learned men do not grieve
for the dead or the living.

Never have I not existed,
nor you, nor these kings;
and never in the future
shall we cease to exist.

Just as the embodied self
enters childhood, youth, and old age,
so does it enter another body;
this does not confound a steadfast man.


So why the words from the Bhagavad-Gita?  Well, everyone benefits from an occasional re-reading of it, especially the Second Teaching (which I've used innumerable times in class - included in the primary document reader I edited for McGraw-Hill back in the antediluvian past - and would propose as required annual readings for all folks who aspire to any level of intellectual/spiritual elevation).  Beyond that, maybe I've just been thinking about my own mortality and immortality lately, which I suppose is an entirely age appropriate thing to do.

One of my highly unofficial New Year's resolutions from this year was to figure out, as much as one ever does, the spiritual side to my nature.  I do think that I am a spiritual person, which I think surprises many people, but maybe I need some focusing structure to allow for greater growth and more profound reflection.  For a couple years I've been considering, increasingly seriously, the concept of converting to Islam.  Why Islam?  That, again, as these things tend to be, is a tougher question.  Maybe I'm trying to replicate the almost blissful serenity that I find in the desert, especially the deserts of the Middle East, which I equate with Islam.  However, I suppose it could also be a false positive.  Maybe I just like deserts.  I'm very drawn to Sufism, the more ethereal branch of Islam, maybe best represented in the poetry of Rumi, Hafez and Khayyam, and the emphasis on the transcendent connection to god/God/love/spirit.  The Sufis also are much less concerned with rules, and, as everyone knows, I don't do well with rules.  That said, I suppose I wouldn't be a very good Muslim, although, doubtless, I wouldn't be a good Christian, Hindu, Jew, Buddhist or Sikh either.  Maybe in the end all that matters is that you're trying the best you can in whatever path you choose.

The other reason why this has been on my mind lately is a very strange event (and in my odd little life what qualifies as a strange event is, I suspect, stranger than in most people's lives) in which I played a tangential role.  If you noticed the labels associated with this posting you might have picked up on the country Sierra Leone.  Normally I have pretty strict rules on whether or not I include a country in the list of places visited, with the exception of Uganda because of my near mythic quest to get out of the Entebbe Airport.  So, truthfully, I've never been to Sierra Leone; at least I haven't been there physically.  This is a complex story, which I will try and tell as briefly as possible.  A friend of mine is a reporter who recently traveled there to write a series of articles relating to their struggles with Ebola.  As part of this process he was also interested in examining the interplay between traditional beliefs and western medicine, more specifically the effort to bring shamans into the confines of the hospital/clinic so that folks from the countryside would be more inclined to seek help.  Some of these more traditional healers practice darker arts, which are frowned upon, and certain acts are, in fact, illegal. Nevertheless, one of the most popular, and doubtless profitable, actions relates to firing a Witch Gun at the picture of an enemy to cause injury or death.  Not surprisingly my friend really wanted to witness this procedure, and, equally not surprisingly, he was having trouble rounding up volunteers.  Yes, you can see where this is going.  I volunteered to have the shaman fire his Witch Gun at me.

Now, here's the odd thing - well, one of the odd things - about the story.  As of last Thursday I had been led to believe that the plan had been aborted for several reasons, chief among them is that it is, in fact, illegal, but also because it just seemed inappropriate to bring a picture to the shaman and essentially say, "dude, kill my friend."  Foolishly, I shared this story with my excellent friend Steve Wehmeyer, who is a folklorist (and with whom I am planning a student trip to Zanzibar next spring).  Steve was immediately upset by our plan and seriously encouraged me to call it off; quite seriously encouraged me to call it off.  So, he was very pleased to hear that I believed that it had been cancelled.  So, fast forward to last Friday - yes, Good Friday.  It's the middle of the afternoon and I'm chatting with my office-mate Craig as I'm heading out the door. Suddenly, my wooden Chinese good luck symbol falls off my bookshelf and lands several feet away.  Neither of us were even remotely near it, and in three years it has never fallen off the bookshelf.  This led to some infectious/nervous giggling on my part, and I shared the story with Craig.  On Sunday morning - yes, Easter Sunday - I find out that my friend did, in fact, carry out the now epic experiment, and that he had met with the shaman on Friday evening Sierra Leone time, which, if you do the math, is Friday mid-afternoon, when the good luck symbol fell.  Yes, fairly creepy, although, in the end, doesn't prove anything other than the foundation for a good story.  When saying their goodbyes the shaman told my friend that he suspected he would see him again soon because he would have to come back to Sierra Leone, with hid idiot friend the Witch Gun victim, in tow to have the spell removed.  Before Steve knew that the plan had been abandoned he proposed that the first thing we had to do when we landed in Zanzibar was to go to a local shaman and arrange a reading, which would allow them to determine if I would under a spell and they could remove it.  Very technical stuff.  As of this moment I guess I'm fine, and maybe the Chinese good luck symbol took the bullet for me, or maybe it just takes a while to work.

Now, the bigger question is - why did I so willingly offer up my life, or at least some portion of my spiritual life, as an experiment.  I'm not a pure skeptic like my friend Cyndi the  scientist.  Rather, I suppose I'm somewhere between Cyndi and Steve, because, I do believe, as Shakespeare remind us, that there are more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio, that are dreamt of in your philosophy.  Am I actually that skeptical?  Am I really that unhappy?  Do I think that at fifty-five I've already lived more than a full life?  Am I that pessimistic about the future?  I've always said, somewhat seriously, that if I wasn't the scariest guy in the room then I didn't want to be in the room anymore.  Is this entire silly/sad/enlightening story in the end nothing more than my conscious/unconscious raging against the dying of the light?  Or, more probably, is this just another example of my general ass clownery?  If nothing else it provides fodder for further self-analysis - if I live that long.

My spiritual force field.  It is really odd that the Chinese symbol chose that day, and that time, of all days and times to fall to thee floor.  If nothing else my death will, at least, potentially end up being far more noteworthy and interesting than my life.

Death is certain for anyone born,
and birth is certain for the dead;
since the cycle is inevitable,
you have no cause to grieve!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Quiet Moments

Trips are funny things.  Often they are defined by the huge moments - swimming with dolphins or visiting the Taj Mahal or meandering down the Siq at Petra - but often the absolute best moments are the quiet ones which get lost in the chaos.  My favorite family vacation as a child was an impromptu one where we ended up, in an almost unplanned fashion, driving up to my Dad's friend Stanley's little island that his family owned in the Great Lakes.  All we did for the entire week was just sit around for an entire week cooking and eating and barely moving.  One night my Dad and Stanley and I took a little boat out in the middle of the lake, allegedly to fish, but mainly to get out of the house.  We sat there for a couple hours, mainly staring at the sky, and that was the first time I ever saw the northern lights.  Now, granted, seeing the northern lights is a big deal, but I think I mainly cherish that moment because it was just the three of us talking. 

In much the same way one of my fondest memories of the recent trip to Jordan was one of the quietest.  It was a day wherein six of the students decided that they wanted to head up to check out the incredible Roman ruins at Jerash (always a great choice), so Cyndi and I arranged a private car to pick them up and head north.  That left the remaining folks with a window of opportunity to explore, so we hopped in a taxi and headed to the King Abdullah Mosque.  As I've mentioned elsewhere, usually every Islamic country has the one mosque where non-Muslims are allowed to visit during certain times, and the beautiful King Abdullah Mosque serves that purpose in Jordan.  Somehow I had only visited it once during all my visits to Jordan and that was ten years ago.  After a crazy taxi ride with a driver who didn't know where he was going - and who then wanted more money for getting us lost - and me, as is my wont, losing my temper and yelling at him (which usually happens about once a trip in regard to the continuous battle of the taxi) - we made it to the mosque.  The women - my friend and colleague Cyndi and the three students, Taylor, Emma and Keebee - had to, in addition to covering their hair, also slip into a loaner abaya (the same practice holds true for the Shaikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi).  They were allowed to go into the main section of the mosque, which, ironically, many Muslim women would not visit.  We spent a lovely hour inside the mosque just walking around and chatting - one of those teachable moments where an unplanned classroom discussion, delivered in respectful whispers, erupts.  In between my own fascination with Islam - and decades of teaching experience - and my own travel experience in the region - I, while not an invaluable resource, at least proved to be marginally useful. 

Now, inside of that, the quiet moment resides.  Taylor is a very bright young woman with tremendous potential, but she's also an individual of tremendous faith, in this case Christian.  As is well-documented, Vermont is the least religious state in the union.  Only about 14% of Vermonters regularly attend service (of any religion) in Vermont, which is the lowest figure in the US by a comfortable margin.  Of course, I guess that's perspective - I was following a Twitter discussion related to this once and a Brit pointed out that if 14% of folks in the UK attended service that would qualify as a religious renaissance.  Consequently, some students of faith sometimes feel, if not necessarily persecuted for their faith, at least a little uncomfortable discussing it. Taylor and I ended up having a fascinating discussion about God, both the Christian and Islamic interpretations, and faith and humanity, while standing in the middle of the mosque, surrounded by its artistic beauty and an almost tangible silence.  One of the many wonderful results of trips such as this is that they allow faculty to see students - and students to see faculty - in a very different light.  This is definitely a moment that I will cherish.

The picture is a tad blurry, but the memory is crystal clear.  Thanks to the excellent Keebee for sending it along.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Bridges and Bridges

As I mentioned earlier, one of the aspects of this last trip to Jordan which made it so special was that I was able to do things I had never done before.  Eventually I'll blog about those, but I'm still in a buzz (even a few weeks later) about the time we spent in the Wadi Rum.  Again, as Steve Wehmeyer opines as he paraphrases Lawrence of Arabia, I am one of those desert-loving English.  Why?  Well, I've devoted time to this question before, and I'm probably no nearer a definitive answer.  Although, once again to paraphrase Wehmeyer paraphrasing the film, maybe it is because the desert is clean.  Now, if the Wadi Rum had not paid back my fascination by eating my camera (or at least sliding sand into the aperture) and thus prematurely ending my picture-taking I'd be posting many more pictures.  I'm sure I'll make up for it by dragooning my students into sending me copies of their pictures.  Maybe the best place we stopped was at the base of an astonishing rock formation that formed a natural bridge.  Of course, we all had to climb up the rock face so that we could cross the bridge.  Unbelievable.  I'm sometimes tweaked by administrators because of my desire to take students places that I consider to be truly transformational (which is a lovely metaphor for what I think I do best in the classroom every day), but there's no way that any of the students who crossed this bridge - and more generally the bridge into Jordan - will ever be the same.

Like most of the places we visited on the trip I could have easily spent half a day here just soaking it all in.  It was more imposing in real life - the picture doesn't do it justice.

My excellent friend, boon traveling companion, and titular little sister, Cyndi Brandenburg.

Clockwise from the top: Taylor Post, Andy Beain, Devin Carlin and Mike Albrecht.  About 3/4 of the Champlain crew voted for the Wadi Rum as their favorite spot on the trip.

Try telling a bunch of 19 year olds that the rock formation may be too high for climbing (herding cats became herding feral steroid-infused cats).  The best you can really do is just climb up there with them.

"Bedu" nee Katherine nee "Keebee" nee "Dexter" Chapin - she was the one who I was most convinced was just going to wander off into the desert and give herself to the life of a bedu (and be happy as a lark).