Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Secret Asian Man: Infatuations

This is something about me. I'm infatuated by buttons. It's really hard not to press them or try and figure out what they do.

In a hotel in Athens, I found a string connected to a switch high on the wall. A string that had to be pulled, so I pulled it. Nothing. Hmmm

Until 45 seconds into brushing my teeth, the phone rang with a concerned-sounding clerk asking if everything was ok.

Yes, everything is fine.

Oh, because we received notice that the emergency cord was pulled in the bathroom.

No, no.  Just brushing my teeth.

My firs time in Baghdad, I found a switch in my kitchenette with an orange light that was on. Wondering what it did, i flipped it. Nothing again.  So, I left it off.

The next morning I woke to a cold shower, but didn't make the connection. I figured I got up late and missed my chance at hot water.

The next day I got up earlier no still had a cold shower, so I called maintenance.

Apparently, there are others like me, because he asked immediately if I'd switched off the light in the kitchen.


Well, turn it back in. My next time through Baghdad. The switch had been labeled.

Which brings me to the Louvre.

Having acquired vast sums of wealth and built cities in the desert, the emiratis have taken to trying to stock them with things to do.  So, they made a deal with the louvre to make an Abu Dhabi branch.  They've spent millions on creating a very interesting space and borrowing louvre treasures. T really is something to see. They've put it together in such a way as to tell the story of civilizations and their intersections using art. I highly recommend.

In a corner of the modern art gallery is the sculpture you see at the top. It may represent just how far civilization has fallen, but that's a different matter.

Look hard. Do you see that big read button?  It beckoned me like a siren’s song. And I wandered over. That button, that big lovely button.

There was a security guard standing next to it, so I lunged quickly.

Just kidding.  I asked if one could press the button. He said, they press it once per hour. The next time would be in 25 minutes. 20 minutes later, and I was back, having finished seeing the remaining works.

A small group was gathering. Others were asking about the button. Kindred spirits.

Slowly, the guard sauntered over and depressed it with his foot…. Nothing.

“What’s wrong?”  I tried not to shriek.

“Well, sometimes it works, sometimes we have to wait a few minutes.”

“What do you mean? Is that part of some modern artistic message? We can’t always get something when we push a button?  Cause it’s bullshit if it is!”

He shrugged.  He was a security guard from Kenya  in a museum far from home. He wasn’t a professor, a docent or even an enthusiast. He did kind of giggle, though.

So, I waited around.  Pretending not to care too much, but staying in the same general area.  5 minutes went by, then 7.  He sauntered over again.  Click. Nothing

It was such a let down.  He smiled and shrugged again.  “I don’t know.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I guess we’ll have to try again tomorrow.”

Yeah, whatever!

I fumed off.  Back to my hotel. I pressed every button on the elevator and went to sleep.

Friday, February 9, 2018

S.A.M.- Lines Are For Democracy

Travelling, ever travelling, this week. On the way to Kabul.

Was waiting in line, preparing to board a plane.  The door hadn’t opened yet and the line and the line was about 70 people long. I was a third of the way back.

There had been a group of women sitting nearby. I don’t know where they were from. Let’s say they were from the planet Baru. They had been talking and twittering loudly.  When one can’t understand the tongue, it all sounds like twittering.

At one point, a Baruvian picked up her bags and walked my way. Her eye scanned the length of the line while she dropped her bags next to me. I caught her eye and then wandered my gaze back slowly toward the end of the line. She nudged her bag forward an inch or two with her foot. Still next to me, but the message was clear. She wasn’t going back there.

The doors opened and the line lurched forward. She was watching her friends, so I pulled my suitcase forward, ahead of hers, staking my claim. She kicked her bag into mine. Bump. 

With each movement, I felt a tiny bump.  Message received.

Her Baruvian friends stood up as a group and brazenly marched to the front of the line. No one seemed to bat an eye.

Bump from behind. All the way down the ramp.

Was talking with some people who remarked on how they lost a long distance bike race to someone who passed them in a car with their bike on the back. The other racer got out a mile or so before the finish and won. They lamented that some people do whatever it takes to get to the front. It was something that they’d gotten used to.

 “Lines”, they said, “are for democracy.”

I wondered if that were true or not.  I mean, sure, America is a representative democracy and we do pretty well with lines.  The British, though, are a monarchy, and they love lines.  The Germans seem very orderly and they’re democratic.  The French, home of liberty, fraternity, and equality, could use some remediation. 

I’ve thrown elbows at Greek grandmas, trying to make the last bus.  Greece is the founder of democracy.

India touts itself as the largest democracy in the world, but in a crowd, it’s chaos! 

And speaking of India, how is it that the British exported queuing to colonies, like Singapore and Hong Kong, but it didn’t take hold in India?

I grew up seeing photos of Russians in the Soviet era queuing for food at the store, but last year I had a group of Russian tourists walk through me like I was a ghost. They’ve got some democracy in ‘em now, right?

I wonder if it is more about scarcity. If there’s enough, I don’t have to fight. I can wait. I’ll get mine eventually.

I wonder if, as China or Russian gain strength, they will queue more politely?  As there is a widening income gap in the US, will we need to sharpen our elbows?

On my next leg, a group of Afghan men did the same thing even though there were stanchions set up for a queue.  Three of them moved as one, hand on the shoulder of the man in front.  Well orchestrated. Precision ditching. Shuffling ever forward. Grinning politely all the way. They could not be stopped.  

That’s okay.  I’ll guess I’ll still get my seat.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Secret Asian Man- Lumpy Old Dog

I developed a lump. This is not to alarm the reader. It is just part of the story.

I’ve actually had it for a while. A few years, really. Lately, though, it seemed to be a little bigger.  I’ve read stories and seen pictures of other peoples lumps that grew to the size of basketballs. They said they never noticed it.  Denial is such a powerful force.

I didn’t want to be that person, so I went to get it checked out.  This is my encounter with the medical system here.

I got a referral to a surgeon who spoke English and found the office. Because this office caters mostly to locals, though, all signage is in Arabic. There aren’t even Pictograms to guide you.  No photos of lungs or intestines or scalpels. In a small cramped hallway with four Arabic-scripted doors, I chose door number 3.  Success!

“You’re the American.  Please, come in.”  The Receptionist spoke terrific English.

They handed me a form to complete, entirely in Arabic.  “‘I’m gonna need some help with this.”

“That’s okay.  We will help you”  It looked pretty daunting, there were some 20 or 30 blanks on the form. “First, what is your name?”  I entered it.

“What is your phone number? I wrote it in.

Then they pointed to the bottom of the sheet and asked, “How many children do you have?”


She nodded, so I entered a response and then she said, “Okay. Thank you. The doctor will be with you shortly.”

I looked at the rest of the form.  I imagined, it asked for my address, or emergency contact info or drug allergies or family history.  But, they didn’t need any of that. Just name, phone and number of children.

I saw the doc within 45 seconds of opening an Arabic MotorCar Magazine. He took me back to his office. I told him briefly about my lump.  He walked me across the hall. I exposed my lump.  He felt around. “ I think you’re gonna be okay, but let’s take a look under ultrasound.”

So, he traipsed me, half clothed, down the hall to a third room, slapped on some goo and his magic wand and pointed to the flat screen on the wall. He showed me this and that.

“I wouldn’t do anything unless it starts to hurt, or unless you start to worry about it. And, I would encourage you not to start worrying about it.”

I got dressed and said, “Some dogs grow lumps when they get old.  I guess, I’m becoming a lumpy old dog.”

He laughed.  “I guess so.  Have a good day!”
I asked for his bill, since I’d taken up 15 minutes of his time and soiled two exam rooms.  He just waved and smiled.

I hope he doesn’t come for my children.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Secret Asian Man- God Is My Insurance Carrier

At dusk the other day, I was driving down the Jordanian motorway.  Three of the four cars in front of me had no working tail or brake lights. I had no warning when they were slowing.  They’d just loom closer.  

The same motorway a few weeks ago, I rapidly came up on a goat-laden pickup backing up toward me. No reverse lights functioning of course. Maybe the goats chewed through the wires.

I’ve seen a several toddlers standing on their parents’ shoulders with their heads poking out of the sun roof at speed.  Arms and hair flapping in the wind

We were in a fender bender in a roundabout. There were lots of cars moving real slow and suddenly, THUMP!  We were hit! The driver was a complete gentleman. He apologized and said he got distracted by his toddler who jumped from the back seat to the front seat.  

“I needed to catch him and I got distracted. My foot lifted off the brake.”

I greatly wanted to ask him if he knew of a way to prevent this.  If he knew that his Cadillac Escalade had straps, likely wedged deep between the seat cushions, which could be used either alone or with a special chair, as a restraint against jumping toddlers in moving cars. I feared my point would be lost. My car sustained no damage. His would require some pretty extensive repair.

Predestination is a tenet belief in these parts. It is the idea that on the day that you are born, the day of your death is already known. It is kept in a book in God’s vest pocket along with a pocket watch. Nothing you do during life can change this day. When it's your time, it's your time. This, I believe, is how many people live their lives.

Given this knowledge why would I replace my taillight bulb? Why would I pull my toddler in from the sunroof? My concern for safety has no bearing on my death or that of others. I am freed of personal responsibility. 

I thought of this freedom when, not far from where my fender bender occurred, I saw a man in a wheelchair, rolling down the middle of 3 or 4 lanes of traffic. His arms a-whir as he tried to match the speed of the cars. He was a double amputee.  

Did he wake that morning, like he did most mornings, and think.  “God, done took my legs, I just don’t think today’s my day to die!”? 

And then he wheeled off down the road.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Secret Asian Man- Food Porn

What was your favorite meal?  

I've got a list. Among the top was a meal at the Chop House in Naples, FL. We didn't have a reservation so we were squeezed in at a counter back by the kitchen. One of the cooks took a liking to us and was feeling creative, so he threw lots of things together for us. We were so glad we didn't call ahead.

There was also a souvlaki place in Athens that was just Amstel, fries and grilled pork on a stick at a folding table under a Mediterranean moon.

Then there was Uri Buri. Apologies to those who've seen Mrs. S.A.M.’S quick post on this. She's quick on the social media these days. The household tweeter in chief.

In Acre (pronounced Akko), an ancient Mediterranean port and former Crusader capital, is a spartan place right on the water. The sign is stenciled on plexi-'glass, hung from two links of rusty chain.  Inside is neat and tidy, nothing that gives away any of the sublime tastes you're about to eat.

Chef Uri has moved from demolition expert to fisherman to chef with no formal training. He just serves what he likes to eat. 

If you're picky, you can order off the menu, but the tasting menu is where the magic lies. Putting your trust in the fishermen and the cooks. Your waiter asks about any food dislikes or allergies and What comes in and what is freshest is what goes on your plate. It isn't all you can eat for one low price, but it is all you can eat. They'll keep bringing out courses until you say stop

We'd starved ourselves and scrimped so that we could afford and taste our way as far into the tasting menu as we could go. Here's what had….

Simple Oysters on the half shell with a lemon picked off the tree out back and a dash of green Tabasco

Persimmon slice topped with marscapone, sweet shrimp and caviar

Bruschetta with charred eggplant and ceviche

Grilled octopus and zucchini splashed with olive oil

Scallops with Jerusalem artichoke

Ceviche of jack fish

Seafood soup in coconut milk

Shrimp artichokeand lemon butter over pasta and spirulina

Cubes of tuna caught an hour earlier served with yogurt and olive oil

Scallops with cream, ginger and seaweed flakes

Sea bass with saffron rice, coconut milk and apples

Gorgonzola shrimp

And two desserts of kiwi soup/grapefruit sorbet and creme brûlée with cardamom.   

Throw  in a couple of palate cleansing sorbets, a bottle of wine and a bottle of water and that was lunch. It was 2 ½ hours of pure bliss.

Chef Uri made his rounds.  Both he and the staff were keen to make sure everyone was enjoying.  

Here's your travel tip.  If you're in Israel...if you're close to Israel… if you're near Israeli airspace, fake a medical emergency, get your flight diverted and make the 90 minute drive from Tel Aviv and have lunch. Really.  It's that good.

So, what was your favorite meal of all time?

Friday, January 12, 2018

Secret Asian Man- The Status Quo

In Jerusalem this week. This is a photo of a ladder on a balcony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, final resting place of Jesus Christ.  It looks pretty beat up and pretty ordinary, but it’s been there for hundreds of years. Or, something that looks like this.

The Church is controlled by three Christian sects, the Armenian Orthodox, the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholics.  Each is a guardian over a certain section and they haven’t always gotten along.  As it was told to me, the Catholics once controlled the door and refused to let the Armenians use it, so the ladder was put in place to allow them access to their section on the upper floor.  

Eventually, there was an agreement that allowed everyone use of the door, but the Armenians wanted the ladder kept there just in case relations soured again.  A pope in the 1700’s decreed that nothing in the entire church could be moved or replaced unless all the religions agreed.
Hence, the ladder remains.  It’s made of cedar wood, maybe from Lebanon, but it rots through from time to time. The last time was in the 70’s or 80’s.  And when it did, it needed to be replaced with an exact replica.
That, in its most concrete form, is what is meant by the term Status Quo, when it comes to Mid East tensions. Things should be kept exactly as they have been for centuries. In the 80’s when they found another entrance to the temple mount, there were riots in the streets until it was closed.  Just last year, when the Israelis wanted to put in new security cameras, again there were riots.

Want another example?  Just Google “Monk Broom fights Bethlehem” and see what pops up.  Full on Brother Vs Brother broom bashing.  Over what? Because one monk swept dust onto the section that another order controlled.

Back at Jesus’ burial church, the Christians guard the inside.  The Israelis guard the streets in the old city, but the Jordanians guard the temple on the top. Muslim’s hold on to the keys for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  One family has controlled the keys for centuries.  Every morning, they open. Every evening, they lock up. The 12 inch key is some 800 years old. After one muslim conquest or another, the head honcho saw, even then, that no Christians were going to get along, so he took the key and gave it to someone with less of an interest and that has been acceptable for millenia.

Giving up any control or ceding any trust is a glacial process with little thaw in site.
Flash forward to dinner the other night at the Jerusalem Young Men’s Christian Association. Sing it now, The YMCA.  It may sound seedy, but it’s a landmark designed by the same guy who designed the Empire State Building, who also designed the Leveque Tower back in the ol’ homeland, so... connections.  It’s got a tower with great views and reportedly clean, comfortable rooms for very reasonable prices.  Spa, Gym, pool and great gardens, too.

It also has a nice little bar/restaurant. I had an Israeli soup and salad along with my Palestinian kebabs and Palestinian beer.

Even through there is a centuries old status quo agreement, maybe there is also movement toward more commonality.  Here’s the sign, and the punchline.

I’m not even kidding.
Into the bar together, walked a priest, a rabbi and an imam...

Friday, January 5, 2018

S.A.M- Happy New Year

Happy New Year!

After several months and some fits and starts, I’m trying to get back in the groove. I feel I haven’t really related what life in Jordan is like and I hope to make it up this year. And I will.

I thought a lot today about what to start off with, but it really came down to missing my kids. We had two fun weeks and after going months without seeing them, it was great to have their energy and presence, their humour and personality back in our lives for a while.

The cookies get eaten a lot faster.  The hot water goes quicker, too. After they depart and sheets are changed, the echoes of our laughter and conversation remain. I pick the stale candy off the gingerbread houses and think about each spawn’s theme and architectural design.  They are certainly unique in their own way.  

It’s nice to see them grow up.  It’s nice to see them make mistakes and plans.  And it’s nice to look forward to when we can spend some time again.  

I mentioned my laxity in keeping up with this blog to my son. He, a budding writer, proposed that we keep each other motivated by supporting each other.  We gave ourselves deadlines and we’ll aim to keep each other honest.  He’s got a Tuesday deadline. Mine’s Friday.

So, look forward to entries on the ins and outs of Arab banking, or a brief foray into the Jordanian medical system to come.  Or whatever else, I can come up with.

In the meantime, you may also want follow along on his blog as well.  You can find it at….

Until next week…. Massalameh!

Secret Asian Man: Infatuations

This is something about me. I'm infatuated by buttons. It's really hard not to press them or try and figure out what they do. ...