3 June, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I have a fraught relationship with eating animals.
In short: I eat animals, but I feel bad about it.
I was vegetarian for a number of years following the consumption of a chicken burrito from the dining hall of my middle school. I remember the burrito: shredded chicken, chewy tortilla, wrapped in aluminum foil. Mr. Berger, the school chef, was talented and the burrito was good. But I had to participate in a debate for the Outdoor Action Club about the merits of hunting; I’m not exactly sure why I thought the position opposed to hunting was “vegetarian,” as plenty of meat-eating humans are opposed to various combinations of all hunting, trophy hunting, cage hunting, poaching, etc. The nuances were lost on me, though, and I figured I could only represent my side by eschewing animal protein all together. Taking solace in cheese pizza, I was vegetarian for a few years. It wasn’t until my father and I were on a dive boat in the Sea of Cortez and the only consumables were fish tacos (fresh caught, at least), that I ate animal flesh again, though I kept away from red meat with the tenacity of a teenaged socialist. Then one summer I was staying in a 900-person ejido outside of Nogales, Mexico, and etiquette dictated that I eat the beef they served me, and that was that.
I was vegetarian again, but always for boys. My first boyfriend, vegetarian when we met my senior year of high school, became vegan shortly before we took a trip to San Francisco. His obstinacy was shadowed only by his sanctimony: even while dining at an exclusively vegan restaurant, he refused to sample the faux-ricotta cheese in an order of vegan lasagna, for fear they weren’t doing it right. I was vegetarian for a while to soothe his principle-soaked nerves, and he promised to quit smoking in a sign of compromise. I think I started eating meat again around the time I found the pack of cigarettes he not-very-subtly had “hidden” in his front pockets (he wore women’s jeans, so they weren’t very hidden). I kept up the pretense, but I dropped it when Cara, my best friend, made fun of me for noticeably attempting to conceal my chicken dish in the food court of our university one day, concerned that the boyfriend might walk by and find me out. Interestingly, we broke up because he stopped believing in exclusive relationships, and our incompatible eating styles had nothing to do with it.
Another boyfriend, a few years later, decided to become vegetarian while we were dating, and in a similar show of support, I decided to as well. I was doing this relationship ill-advisedly long-distance, so when I went back to Cairo and didn’t eat meat, I was made fun of. So I quit that. Turns out you can make fun of me into or out of doing anything.
Obviously, if I can be so easily persuaded not to eat animal flesh, then I must be at least sympathetic to the issues. If I can be so easily persuaded to eat it, then I must not be very committed. Hence the strife.
Occasionally, I am confronted with the consequences of eating animals head on, and it never fails to make me uncomfortable. The rabbits I saw, sitting in a well-appointed cage in the middle of a restaurant in Bulgaria, may have been mascots but rabbit was on the menu, too, so they may not have been. The Nizwa animal souk is not the ASPCA; those goats ambling around the Bedouin women counting wads of cash are not going to be anyone’s companions. And on Saturday, in Daniel, Wyoming, I attended an annual ceremony of savagery that pushed the discomfort of consuming animals – and everything that goes with it – back into the foreground.
How would this change my life? Read on to find out.
When we arrived at the ranch, the first thing I noticed was the collective cry of a herd of cattle bellowing for their babies. I didn’t quit figure out the system – some mothers and the babies who hadn’t been branded yet were in one pen, and the rest of the mothers were on the other side of the corral. Babies were roped and dragged by their hind legs into the main area, where one person would heft their knee onto the calf’s neck to keep it still. Another would ready the needle of vaccinations and antibiotics (after a sinister test-squirt through the syringe, horror movie style) and then administer the drugs. Another person would approach the calf from the side with the branding iron red and hot and sear the calf until the cloak of smoke from the burnt flesh momentarily clouded the entire operation. Finally, for the calves becoming steers, a man with a bloody knife in his bloody knuckles would perform the surgery without numbing agents or hesitation.
I recently read an interesting article (found here) about the trouble with using Western/American test subjects in psychological studies meant to be generalized to the entire human species. In it, it’s mentioned that American children learn to stop anthropomorphizing animals later than children from other cultures where interaction with nature is deeper, earlier, and more pronounced. In other words, because urban and suburban American children are kept indoors and interact with animals primarily in the form of pets, they take longer to shed the human qualities they bestow on all animals.
I guess I’m a case study of this phenomenon, as watching the just-castrated baby calves limb alone from the site of their painful humiliation to the fence through which they would, resigned, whimper for their mothers, who on their end would shuffle around the pen trying to find their baby on the other side, really made me sad.
The ropers were all on horseback. This is apparently tradition. Interestingly, I questioned some of the ranchers there about why branding is still necessary in an age of microchips and ear tags. Why not identify the cow’s owner with a much less painful earring? Especially for cattle that don’t graze on public land, the branding process seems a little arcane; tradition is important, though, so they carry on.
I’m not sure how far back into “tradition” the antibiotics go.
The experience was harrowing and horrifying to watch. I was told to watch my facial expressions as animal-rights types aren’t exactly welcomed on hobby ranches, or any ranches, for that matter. I tried to stay stoic (though I’m sure I failed).
What really tugged at me, of course, is that this is probably one of the most humane, kindest ways to raise cattle for beef production in the country. These calves endure a really bad day of branding, and many become eunuchs, but then they spend the summer grazing with their moms on one of the most beautiful landscapes North America has to offer. They are not crowded into factory dairy farms or starving to death in the desert. This is one of the most delicate, most pleasant ways for a cow to live, and it was still difficult to see. The pain and suffering that animals in corporate-operated factory farms experience eclipses these guys’ castrations by an unimaginable factor.
I walked away from the corral a changed woman, but then they served a barbecue for all who attended. From a selection of herbed chicken, roast beef, and hot dogs, I sampled a bit of each. I guess I have a long way to go.
24 May, 2013 § 2 Comments
Recently a friend who grew up in Oman harassed me about why I study the Middle East, Islam, medieval Islamic history, etc., all these things. I was annoyed by the question, because I’m not used to being asked why I want to study something outside of the context of disingenuous scholarship applications (“Intermutual cultural synthesis understanding!”). I think it’s telling, though, that I felt annoyed by the request to explain myself, and upon further reflection, maybe it isn’t quite as obvious why someone like me would want to study and interact with the things, ideas, and people I do, given how far removed this all is from my own upbringing and personal history, so I thought it was worthy of a blog post – even if only for my own benefit. So, I’ve decided to give you two options for why I study the Middle East, and you can decide which one is true.
First, who am I? I am a white American woman who grew up in southern Arizona with parents from North Carolina-based descendants of northern European immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries. I have never experienced anything very bad. I grew up middle class in a culturally Christian context though I have never practiced religion myself. I had no contact with Islam or Muslims (aside from the smallest exceptions that prove the rule) before I went to college. In fact, I remember a lecture once at my high school, a private college preparatory school, by an archaeologist of ancient Egypt, and I specifically remember thinking that the modern Egyptians are real interlopers on the scene. This is not a particularly nice thing to think, but I did.
When I started college, I originally declared a major in Classics, aiming to study and ultimately teach Latin at the secondary school level. I did finish this major, in the end, but soon thereafter (i.e., the summer before I started college) I added another major in linguistics. I have always been interested in language. There’s no explaining this: I like grammar, pedantic explanations, and the way that people interact with the structures that invisibly form the meanings of their lives, whether those structures be linguistic or pragmatic or discursive. I was taking Latin that first semester of college, and in an ambitious attempt to keep up my math, I signed up for a calculus class which met at 3:00pm every afternoon for an hour. After two sessions – I obviously knew I could not stay in the calculus course for reasons of boredom – I plugged in my search terms (basically just time) to my university’s course schedule and first on the list was a 3:00pm session of Arabic 101. So I signed up and took Arabic that first year.
I spent most of the year studying Arabic. I had studied Spanish in high school and obviously Latin in middle school and again in college, but both languages had significant similarities to each other and to English. Arabic was different. No cognates to fall back on, no way for me to guess the meaning of a word, at first no way for me to effortlessly scan a page for words I knew, concealed as they were in scribbles and dots. My initial interest in the Arabic language was propelled, I think, by my fantastic first-year professor, whose compulsion to check every short vowel on our homework made Arabic a lot closer to the calculus class I had dropped than I would have expected. I liked the puzzles, and I liked the challenge. I’m not good at learning foreign languages, so I put myself into it with a lot of effort.
The point is that I started with Arabic and only then became interested in Middle Eastern history and culture. At some point during my freshman year, I added Near Eastern Studies to my list of majors and that came with a new set of requirements for my sophomore year, beginning with the first semester of a yearlong sequence of Middle Eastern history. This first semester covered the time of the Prophet to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans. I took the course in a large lecture hall with the professor who would become my much-relied-upon senior thesis adviser. I found out about the translation movement of Greek and other works into Arabic in the 9th century CE, and I wrote a crappy little research paper on it. But I was fascinated! Here, in this moment, where I saw the two currents of my interests interacting with each other as the classical/late antique world swirled into the Islamic one, is when I can be said to have become interested in Middle Eastern history.
My little paper on the translation movement required me to learn about Harun al-Rashid, the famous caliph of the Arabian Nights but also a real historical figure in his own right, and more importantly, his son the caliph al-Ma’mun. Al-Ma’mun’s attempt to strong-arm his way into defining theological positions for not only the caliphal court but also the entirety of Islamdom (to use Hodgson’s lovely term), while at the same time doing things like boring holes into the Great Pyramid at Giza and measuring (quite accurately!) the circumference of the Earth made me fairly enamored of him as a historical figure. I was enamored of him in the same way that I am enamored, in a detached, storybook way, of other major historical figures. It’s mostly a series of happy accidents that I happened to focus in my college and Master’s work on the Middle East context in specific.
One of those happy accidents was that I happened to decide to write my senior thesis in my Near Eastern Studies major rather than Latin or Linguistics, so that directed my academic development accordingly. I expanded my research on al-Ma’mun and the specific theological issue he took up in his mihna (“inquisition”). This would later be the foundation for my Master’s thesis. From there, it snowballed, I suppose.
I’m not really interested in one thing, in particular, at all, and certainly not in any specific topic. I’m interested in the way people say things, do things, interact with each other. I can read anything and find something interesting in it, in the way the author orders his words, or the unspoken posturing inherent in the tone, or whatever. So it’s fair to say that I easily could have specialized – and could still specialize yet – in any topic within history, or, uh, anything, so perhaps someone who meets me at a bar in the Middle East would find my particular thus-far specialization suspicious. Or at best random.
The thing is, all history belongs to all folks. This is a premise of my approach to history. We all own human history equally. This doesn’t mean we should ignore the role of history in modern people’s situations, and we should work towards eliminating the privilege that accumulates over centuries due to iniquity in the way the system deals out its shit. But fundamentally, I don’t think that I have any stronger right over understanding or engaging with American history than someone from Ghana does, and I don’t think someone being from Egypt necessarily gives them more of a right to study Mamluks than I have.
From the premise that all history belongs to all of us, I can’t deny that my own cultural upbringing is irrevocably linked to and steeped in American, Christian, middle-class, white culture. I will never, ever escape that. I don’t intend to, though I do try to do what I can to investigate it. From that cultural background, though, I do think that there’s a real value in trying to understand cultures that are different than mine. I feel equal excitement to learn about ancient Roman history – supposedly somehow “my” history, at least culturally – as I do to learn about ancient Islamic history – somehow not “my” history. I think learning about both is ideal, and if you can only write your thesis on one thing, there’s nothing wrong with going for the one that’s different than what you’ve experienced. I make fun of “cross-cultural communication” as a model for scholarship at the beginning of this essay, but I do believe in it. I feel as though I am a better American, a better scholar, and a better citizen of the world for my years of studying the Middle East; I do not think I would necessarily have had the eye-opening and horizon-broadening experiences I have had if I had studied anything else. Even if I do not ultimately base my career on what I have studied in the past (i.e., medieval Islamic theology, Middle Eastern history), I do not regret the time and effort I have spent in this pursuit so far.
I work for the CIA.
12 April, 2013 § Leave a Comment
One of the feelings I’m most interested in is nostalgia. I’ve written about it before. It’s hard to write about feelings with the burden of sarcasm, because it’s scary to be earnest enough to actually say anything. But the truth is that one of the things I think most about in the empty moments between doing stuff – in the car, in the shower, before I fall asleep, before I get out of bed – is the folly of the deep-seated uneasiness I so often feel, an uneasiness which is stupid and pointless because I know I’ll end up feeling nostalgic for these times.
I’m reading The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts. Blah blah blah yeah I know it, I’ve read a few pages of The Power of Now. The present is the only thing, the future haunts us, the past chases us, but the present is all we ever experience, so we can either be in it or skip it. And I try not to skip it; I try not to totally unpack everything in the queue line for the future. But so often it does feel like a queue line. Doing this is for getting that later. Meeting this person is for getting that from them later. The job now is to get the next job. The school now is to get to the next school.
It isn’t bad! It isn’t sad! You have to do things in order, you know. I was having a discussion with my students about transitions and how to make life choices (around the time I wrote this). I’ve been struggling recently with how to make choices. Do you think about your current self? Do you think about your short-term self? Do you think about your long-term self? Do you think about (in my own personal experience) what your father wants from (or probably FOR) you? Do you think about the outcome with the greatest chance of success, or the outcome with a small chance of much bigger success? Do you not think about it at all and just do whatever seems right?
For better or worse, I’ve decided to try that last one, just once. I’ve given myself six or eight months to see if it fails. Even though I don’t know what metric to use to see if it fails. I guess I’ll just decide when it’s time. But yeah the point is that one of my students is one of those sorts of people who can lacerate all the crap from something and come out with a sentence or two of significance with less effort (seemingly) than anything I’ve ever produced. He said, in reference to his own life plan, “I guess I just plan things, and then I do them.” I may be misquoting slightly, but it’s a fair paraphrase.
“I guess I just plan things, and then I do them”! What an idea. If only I could count the hours I’ve spent on rooftops, in parked cars, in emails, on the phone, in professors’ offices, around dinner tables, in armchairs, backyards, text messages, inside my own head, all those hours just getting at WHAT SHOULD I DO.
I am making myself look like the absolute most disgustingly privileged person ever, spending hours laboring under the delusion that my life choices are somehow important and worthy of even my own hours of thoughts. That’s not really my approach and it’s not really true. But it’s kind of true, that growing up with my background, in my socioeconomic stratum, with my kinds of parents, with my culture, etc., left me with this unshakeable feeling biting at my ankles, that I have to Do Something Impressive all the time. Or, if I choose instead to Be Happy, it has to be Be Happy Now but Also Happy Forever Based On Sound Life Choices Now. My life is a staircase, starting in the basement of Infant, each academic year or maybe professional experience is a step.
Everyone’s life is a staircase, right? Why else do we take the “next step”? You don’t take steps sideways. You take steps forwards, backwards, up, down, and if you’re marching in place that’s something your parents and friends are going to be gossiping about behind your back, using exactly that metaphorical framework.
The funny thing is that for all my struggling with deciding what the right framework of life planning is, in the end I always do something decent that my parents are proud of. Or at least they tell me that, and I can relax for another year. I wouldn’t ever actually do something that wouldn’t give them something to tell their friends, would I? I don’t and wouldn’t do drugs, I don’t and wouldn’t kill folks, and knowing me, even if I did one of those CRAZY WILD THINGS that sometimes I think about (moving to the tropics to have an experience of finding or destroying the self or something), I’m sure I’d send home thoughtful letters and maybe even write a book about it, justifying and rationalizing my choice to step outside of the “ratrace.” So brave! So, so brave!
Usually about 20 minutes after getting into a thought spiral like this, I’ve reached my destination or finished my shower or fallen asleep. And then I just end up doing the thing and then it’s done. And these transitional parts, when I think I’m just plodding through the boring parts, become the parts I’m nostalgic for later: they are the parts when the next step wasn’t set or initiated or whatever, and the fan of possibilities is still spread open, and I have the luxury of wondering about all the millions of things that might happen.
Do folks from my generation get this? Do I have something wrong with me?
24 March, 2013 § 2 Comments
At some point in my life, I am probably going to be tired of transitions. I have consciously thought to myself “I am living through a season of change” (and I’ve thought this without irony, even!) every three to six months for the last several years. Probably since the start of college. High school was an endless stretch of same in front of me, but starting in college I think, when life was divided into semesters, began the “well, this is how it is this semester, but soon it’ll be next semester.”
After the semesters faded away, it was countries. “This is how it is in this country, but soon it’ll be another one.”
I’m in another such period of change. That’s fine. I will probably be in this particular period of change for much longer than I’m even thinking I will now. It’s always like that.
I’m happy, though.
9 February, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I went scuba diving yesterday afternoon. Sometimes I do that, but not very frequently.
I am writing about this mainly because it’s immediately relevant to the last post I put here, and I don’t want too long to go between posts. A month is too long!
Anyway, you’ve now seen that I track a lot of things. That post didn’t even mention a few other things I track, such as the books I read over at Leaves of Trees (where the lack of recent posts doesn’t mean I’ve given up, but just that I haven’t finished a book lately), the hours I work (I keep an enormous spreadsheet of all my hours including what major tasks I complete each day), and a few more documents of work-related journals I keep both to use myself and to give to the next person who has this job.
There’s one conspicuous absence, though. If I tell you I’ve been a PADI-certified scuba diver since 1998, you’ll immediately recognize what’s glaringly, obviously missing.
I’ve tried! In my defense, I’ve tried!
I logged my check-out dives, November 1998, in Himalaya Bay near San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico. I logged that dive where my weight belt’s buckle released itself and dropped to the sea floor as quickly as I popped to the sea surface. I logged that dive where I saw the enormous sea lion. I logged that dive where I saw five octopuses, the dive where I saw the jeweled moray, the dive where my dad pretended that some gooey coral was snot. Then my dad got his logbook wet one evening and lost the logs of all his dives from the 1970s to the 90s, and instead of being enraged, as I would be if I lost my journals or spreadsheets, he figured maybe he didn’t need to be too particular. (Now, I don’t think this is my dad’s actual attitude. He likes tracking things as much, if not more, than I do. He tracks many of the same things as I do. But he’s also good at taking things in stride.) And somehow I just never really got that much into logging dives. Some of the best dives I’ve done are preserved only in prose in my journal, no logbook to speak of: the cenotes in the Yucatan peninsula, the clear water off the coast of Zanzibar, the magnificent Blue Hole in Sinai. There’s no log of the puffer fish I saw blow up at an octopus right before getting inked. No log of the choppy water and jellyfish sting near Cozumel.
What makes this funny is that the single most tracking-oriented people on the planet are divers. My personal impression that it’s especially bad among PADI divers, but of course that’s just speculation. There’s also an ambiguous hierarchy that operates as a shadow to the explicit hierarchy (see the flowchart here) of fees and schedules and courses and fees. This ambiguous hierarchy suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong with an inexperienced diver (which is what I am, with my infrequent dives and disinterest in climbing the flowchart ladder) failing to log their dives. You have to be a divemaster to skip logs. I totally agree and yet somehow I still can’t manage to keep one of those little books with me.
It causes me trouble, too! I’ve been diving on and off for about fifteen years, usually going for a few dives a year or every other year, so I’ve gone on about fifty or sixty dives. This is not very many for the real enthusiast, but way more than the new hobbyist. It means that I tend to forget how to manage all the oppressive details of diving in the eighteen months that sometimes elapse between outings; it means that I’m not really scared anymore. It means that when I wanted to dive SS Thistlegorm in Egypt with a reputable dive shop I had to buy a logbook and start logging the week’s dives with 50, since I needed to be above 50 to do the dive at the end of the week. It means that I had to write “I refused the assistance of a guide and will instead dive with my companion who is a divemaster” to release liability from the dive shop that couldn’t verify that I’ve gone on more than 25 dives yesterday.
Tracking my alcohol intake over 13+ months now, keeping a list of everywhere I sleep for nights on end — these things do not improve my life in any way and if I were to suspend either practice (or any of the others), my life would not be impacted in any way. Yet somehow I can’t bring myself to log the one aspect of my life that my peers obsessively keep track of.
I am wild!!!!
Anyway, we went with the dive shop out of Sawadi Beach Resort. I won’t link because I don’t want to be rude and let a negative review filter back to them, but overall, I wouldn’t dive with them again. I’ve only gone with one other shop here in Oman (Euro Divers), and they were awesome. In comparison, the operation I went with yesterday were overpriced, asinine, and undergood. Oh well! It was a big chunk of change to lay on the table for subpar service and a crowded boat (I won’t blame them for the low visibility, though), and they just can’t compete with the reasonable prices and overall good service provided by the other guys.
But zebra shark! An enormous zebra shark! And I was lauded for my “average” air consumption and “not as annoying” range of distance from my dive buddy (whose biggest complaint in the past is that I tend to dive like a koala baby, attached to the fins of my partner…what can I say. I am afraid of sharks, and my dad always told me to stay close to him when we went diving when I was a kid. I thought it was SOP). One of our companions on the trip had an underwater camera, so if I get permission to post any photos, I will.
Okay I realize there isn’t actually a story here, but I’m trying to post more often.
3 January, 2013 § 3 Comments
As someone who isn’t that good at math but enjoys numbers and statistics (as long as someone else did all the counting and sorting for me), I decided on 1 January last year to keep track of a few metrics. I do so in a number of different media, so I thought I would share what I keep track of for those who would like some ideas about quantifying your daily experiences.
Daily Log. I kept a very brief journal for five years, from my birthday in September 2006 to my birthday in 2011. I used a template I made with Microsoft Word that divided the page into 14 boxes, so I could fit the most important information from each day for two weeks per page. This was an easy habit to keep because it only took a few minutes a day, but it limited the amount of information about each day I kept.
Journal. Starting around my birthday in 2011, I decided that my five years of preparation had sufficiently trained me to manage a more verbose journal. I retrofitted the previous five years of logs into journal format and incorporated various texts from elsewhere. For instance, I had kept a travel diary during my 45-day backpacking trip in the winter of 2007, so I put those entries into the relevant journals from those years (which I had transformed from the logs). I also went through my old blog posts and incorporated whatever information was helpful. Since September 2011, I’ve been writing at the very minimum what I’ve done each day, but often much more. I’ve found that one drawback of having a journal like this is that I typically write more about issues that are troubling me than things that are going well, so looking back on previous entries I always seem a little moodier than I really was (at least, I hope). I do make an effort when I can remember to write about what things are going well in my life so that my journal is better balanced.
Data. In addition to my journal, which is text, I keep an Excel file each year of some health-related metrics. I keep track of daily weight (and have a column for weekly average), so that while I can’t manage to lose the 400 pounds I’ve been meaning to lose for years, I can at least congratulate myself for maintaining the same weight for those same years. I also keep track of exercise I do in that same file. Occasionally I have added a third spreadsheet for calorie counting, but I don’t have any patience for that so I always end up deleting it.
Country List. I keep a list in Microsoft Word of every country I’ve been to, with the dates of my visit in parentheses. When I revisit a country, I add the new dates. I use the rules promulgated by the Travelers’ Century Club. I also keep the same list for my dad because he can’t be bothered but he is obsessed with comparing his scores against mine.
Inventories. I keep a few inventories of various belongings.
Budget. Using Excel, I keep track of the current status of all of my bank accounts. I check my bank accounts on the 1st, 15th, and 25th of each month and record the numbers there, so I have three figures for each month for each account. I keep track of my total cash (that is, the sum of both checking accounts and all savings accounts) and total credit card debt. At the bottom of each column, I have my total net worth (i.e., the difference between my total cash and total debt), and my total debt-to-credit ratio at any given time. I have found that this is the best way to see trends over time. I know that all major banking websites let you do this, but I like doing it manually and most importantly, offline.
Daily Picture. I take a picture of myself using my laptop’s webcam every day. This was a very random decision I made one day in 2010. I really have no idea why, but I took a picture of myself sitting in front of the computer at my friend Keegan’s house in Cairo, where I was renting a bedroom for the semester. Then I did it the next day, and the next. By the time I had done it for a week, I figured I may as well keep it up. Now it’s been over two years and at this point it seems like it would be a shame to quit. I do miss a few days every month, but rarely do I miss more than a day in a row. I figure I may one day be glad I took a picture of myself every day, like when I’m old and crazy.
Daytum. I use Daytum to keep track of three categories: alcohol, flights, and sleeping. I’m not sure why I chose those, but I chose to follow those metrics on 1 January 2011 and I’ve enjoyed doing it. For the duration of 2011, I kept track of every alcoholic beverage I consumed, organized by type. I kept track of every flight I took (for 2011, it was a total of 40!). Lastly, I kept track of every place I slept in 2011. As someone who rode on 40 planes, you can probably imagine it was a lot. And it was: in 2011, I slept in 36 separate places. The place where I spent the most nights was in the bedroom I rented in Cairo this spring: 100 nights. On the other side of the spectrum, I spent a single night in 15 different places: a bus to the Sinai peninsula, an all-nighter in Tahrir square, a hotel in Ibri in Oman’s interior as part of a school trip, a farm in Ibri on another trip, a hotel in Roswell with my best friend Cara, a girlfriend’s house in DC, a Cairo friend’s house, a hotel in Dubai for a visa run, a desert camp in Oman, another desert camp in Oman, a beach camp in Oman, and a number of all-nighters on planes.
Google Calendar. Everything above is focused on things I’ve done. I use Google Calendar for all things in the future. This includes not only events and plans, but also things I need to remember on a certain day.
It makes me nervous to post all the crazy I do all the time on the internet, but I was inspired by a conversation I had with my best pals last night. They were all interested in the idea of keeping track of your life in a more structured way and didn’t make fun of me. So, I thought I would share what I do.
1 December, 2012 § 1 Comment
One company here in Oman runs two camps in the greater Sur area, and we went to both of them for our excursion week. Excursion week is a magical time of the semester when my colleague and I take our students around northern Oman for a few days. Let me start with saying that it was a great time, and my only complaint is that I had to work over the holiday weekend.
Our first day, we drove to the sinkhole at Bammah. Here is how you get there: drive over the mountains to Amerat and turn right at the globe roundabout. Turn left a few roundabouts later. Maybe there’s a sign? Debate with your navigator. Curse your directions. Keep going! Okay now you’re there. This joke will never not be funny. It is and always will be funny to comment on how poor the signage is in this country.
At the sinkhole we discovered a principle that would follow us through the entire trip: when women go swimming, an enormous crowd of Arab and Indian men will materialize as if from the ether to gawk at them. I do not know where they came from, but within minutes of our first lady submerging her modest clothing in the water of the sinkhole, there were probably about 40 creepy men staring slack-jawed and recording video on their phones. Men are gross.
We had the best Chinese-Arab-Indian-Continental food I’ve ever had at a Chinese-Arab-Indian-Continental food restaurant in Sur and then went on to the Wahiba Sands, by way of CONFUSION. I cannot recommend a GPS device for this region enough. How do I know to recommend one? Because we didn’t have one, and should have had one.
Anyway, whereas before when I went with Laura and James and stayed at Thousand Nights Camp, this time we stayed at al-Areesh Camp, run by a company called Desert Discovery. The main difference is that al-Areesh looks like the whole thing could be taken down in about 15 minutes and transported somewhere else in a few pick-ups. Thousand Nights is based on similar tent architecture, but there is a swimming pool, concrete pathways between buildings and tents, and a conference room. Al-Areesh Camp has a few real buildings, but not really. It’s also on the edge of the desert, so you don’t even need a 4×4 to go there. If you want to park right by the camp, you need to gun it to make it up a small sand dune. I did not have the guts, after hours of searching for the place in the dark, to make it up the dune, so I had one of my students do it for me. It worked out okay.
We went dune bashing the next day. Our driver, the very capable Abdallah, drove down the steepest dune in the area while standing outside the car, steering with his foot, while texting. We were terrified!
Next was Wadi Beni Khaled, a canyon that’s been built up some. It’s a pretty easy walk up and there’s a small cafe and a bridge across the cliffs. We jumped off the cliffs several times and once again attracted a giant herd of young men. I do not know where they come from.
That evening we stayed at the sister camp of al-Areesh, Naseem Camp, near Ras al-Jins. Once again, we were driving blind (i.e., in the dark, but also without GPS — though I found out that the camp had printed their GPS coordinates wrong on their web site anyway so it wouldn’t have helped). We turned right when we saw a sign, but then realized that there was no signage after that one errant signpost. We turned left when it just seemed like we should, drove down a few kms, and then doubted ourselves and turned around. After an hour of phone calls to the catatonic employee and frantic map-reading, we realized that we had probably turned around that side street in front of the camp. We decided to go back and try again. We drove down, saw an archway hung with Christmas lights and emphatically no sign, and decided the worst thing that could happen is that someone might tell us where to find our camp.
So, we drive in. On the left is a structure housing an outdoor eating area and a couple lackadaisical dudes. One of them gets up and walks to our car, filled to the brim with seven people and lots of stuff. I roll down my window.
“Is this Naseem Camp?”
Not a good start.
“Are you sure this is Naseem Camp?”
“Yes? You make reservation ten people?”
“No…seven. Are you sure this is Naseem Camp?”
We were pretty sure we were going to get murdered. The man started showing us various features of the camp, but none of us had gotten out of the car yet. It was like he was showing the car. It was one of the most bizarre experiences. I kept saying, “where do we park?” so that we might get out and he could show us like we were real human beings, but he wouldn’t say. So I kept creeping besides him in the car until he took us past the bathrooms, fire circle, over to the tents. I figured we could leave the car by the tents, and he didn’t seem to mind, so we got out then.
“No, we need four. We’re seven people.”
“Okay. As you like.”
“Um, what do you mean as we like? We either have three or four, no?”
Then came the process of trying to figure out the turtle watching, which is the main attraction in the area and the only thing that could ever allow a camp like Naseem to justify the truly ludicrous price of TWENTY OMANI RIALS PER PERSON. This is crazy. That’s $50 in real money. Insane! Several bites deep into a word salad without any dressing, one of my students finally realized he was Bengali (she’s fluent in the language) and we finally made some sense. But not that much sense. Only some.
Once we had thrown our stuff into the tents, we had a look around. It was dark, but a full moon, so while we couldn’t see the mountains I knew were around us, we could see to the edges of the camp. The camp is about the size of a football field. Or maybe a soccer field. Somewhere in between. On the narrower side by the entrance was the eating hall and employee accommodations, with the entrance on the bottom right corner and communal bathrooms on the bottom left. Along the left long side was the no-bathroom tents which we were staying in, but spaced out so that it was a pretty decent schlep to the bathrooms. Along the far narrower side were some tents with bathrooms, and the long right side was studded with tiny huts with built walls. In the middle of the dirt lot? NOTHING. Besides maybe the invisible remains of a Satanic ritual or something, the contents of the entire camp were stretched along the sides of a enormous dirt lot, with nothing in the middle. We were truly perplexed.
Dinner was grueling, i.e., it was gruel. Well, I’m exaggerating, because I know it wasn’t that bad, and that’s because in hindsight I can compare it to breakfast, which was one of the more dismal culinary experiences of my life: canned beans, lukewarm; over-boiled boiled eggs; stale bread; stale cornflakes; bananas. The bananas were the best part.
I couldn’t resist, when our lone employee said “See you again” on our grateful way out of the place the following morning, chirping “Hope not!” cheerfully before sinking the accelerator.
However, the real reason we went to Naseem Camp was to see turtles, and that we did. I achieved the third of my three major life goals:
1. Pet a baby cheetah (completed)
2. Pet a baby armadillo (completed)
3. Pet a baby sea turtle (completed)
I even helped some of the stupid baby turtles get to the ocean. It was awesome.
I need some new life goals!