The hilltop holding Amman’s temple is unremarkable as far as hills are concerned; the things, Amman, Jordan is a city comprised of seven hills, and the one holding the Temple of Hercules isn’t taller than the others, it’s not greener, or more “hilly,” but yet this hill was the one chosen by the ancient Romans to hold the Temple of Hercules. And in hearing the name Hercules, in an instant my mind takes a fanciful wander through Greek history and mythology.
As the illegitimate son of Zeus and Alcmene, Hercules has long held a fascination for me…and likely not just me. Greek mythology paints Hercules as a human as much as he was a demigod, as strong as the Gods but riddled by earthly disputes and relationship problems.
I find it hard to describe the way my memories often work — I remember experiences as if a single Polaroid photo was taken of each event. Sometimes, mini vignettes play out and conversations echo around the central snapshot memory; rarely the whole event, instead brief and often times quite inconsequential moments.
My earliest childhood memories standout in this fashion and already snapshots of memories from my trip to Jordan this past May are bubbling to the surface as snippets. These people may never remember my name and face in ten years, but these are pieces of the memories I take with me. Not all of my memories. No, certainly not all. But instead a few moments that made a brief impression, they created enough of an impact to come back and make me smile all over again.
Amman, Jordan, a capital city churning with activity, hemorrhaging with people, and pulsating with an open curiosity throughout the nearly uniform off-white and cream sandstone brick buildings. The Western woman is still a bit of a novelty on the streets of Amman and stopping to catch a photo of a busy street-side coffee spot yielded hilarity. Far from the innocuous “take a surreptitious photo and move on” mentality I had planned, rapid and friendly Arabic exploded onto the street as I slowed with my camera pointed toward something intriguing.
This oh-so-young coffee barista was prodded into action with a playful admonition from a Jordanian man perched against a car nearby; Ali, my guide translated the interchange between the two men: “quick, make a cup of coffee so she can take a photo!”
Although no one was buying a drink at that moment, our diffident and goofy barista worked in slow-motion to make a cup of coffee so I could document the entire process (unprompted by me, mind you!). Everyone in the nearby vicinity was entertained and my only regret is that I don’t speak a lick of Arabic and thus lost out on the comments and observations from anyone nearby; our scene induced giggling and smiling from on-lookers and I hammed it up for them, documenting the tiny coffee nuances, as well as the big grins.
The restless and rapid friendliness of Amman (it is a capital city after all) transitioned into a slower pace outside of Ajloun, a wooded and forested region in the north. The green and verdancy came as an abrupt jolt as I passively watched the endless miles of stretching desert give way to a rolling hills and crisper, cooler air.
Smiles waited for me high on a hilltop in Rasoun at the Tourist Tent Camp; the setting is remote and quiet, with views of nearby Syrian mountains and Palestine, alongside a new cultural lesson to take away for the day. I shared a tea with Zuher, the owner of the mountainside tent camp before some sweet moments with his lovely daughters; they were completely intrigued by us as foreigners. The eldest daughter, shy but beseeching, she so desperately wanted her father to continue prodding her to practice her English with us and the cute dimple when she fully faced us, no longer pushing herself into her father’s leg for security, and shared her age and name was so very, very sweet.
Cooking dinner with a family in nearby Rasun just hours later yielded more giggling, smiling girls, eager to handhold and be held. I miss my niece and nephews something fierce when I’m on the road, changing destinations and they’re back home, losing teeth and growing up. So the time with these children, a brief window into their lives and interactions intrigues me—I compare experiences, attitudes, and that ever-so-present smile. Even the shyest children around the world will reward the patient and attentive with a smile.
I bounced between playing with the children running through the house and kitchen-time with the women of the house as we cooked dinner. Just us women cooked and shared, we were sequestered away from the men who sat outside swapping stories around the garden fountain. These moments stand out as some of the quieter moments of gentle cultural exchange. A cutting board, knife and some quick gestures communicated enough to prepare the dinner with the mother and daughter duo. I’m not an adept cook in any country, so Jordan was no exception and my blunders in cutting (I mean really, is anyone fantastic at mincing?!) created the universally understood chuckle as I grinned and did my best.
I gripped the small glass cup delicately on the rim to avoid a burn and one sip of tea was enough to shoot my eyebrows to my forehead as my eyes widened in surprise. I contemplated the cultural differences indicated by our palates as I comfortably settled further into a brightly colored woven blanket, feet crossed Indian-style and a cup of steaming hot, super-sweet Bedouin tea in my hand. The Bedouin are such an intriguing culture; so different from my own. Without packaged sweets accessible in their diet, traditional Bedouin tea is served piping hot right from the fire and with a boat-load of sugar.
As the sugar seeped down my throat, I glanced up and noticed Abu Abdullah studying our group with what can only be called a mischievous grin. I cautiously continued sipping my tea and watched as he prepared the beans for our lesson on how to make traditional Bedouin coffee. The women nearby, watched avidly at my every gesture, but not in an “holy cow I’m under the microscope” way, but rather a with a curiosity and keen interest I reciprocated mere minutes later when I learned to make jameed, a thick goat’s milk yogurt.
Even the camels smile in Jordan! The camels at the eco-camp in Wadi Feynan are treated by the bedouin like cherished members of the community. The owner of these happy camels had a deep bond with the animals and he took delight in introducing us to his animals, and then carefully selecting which camels we would ride for our sunrise camel ride.
The sunrise was magnificent, and it remains one of my most lasting memories of traveling Jordan. But coupled with that are memories of hugging baby camels and learning about how the bedouin integrate the camels into so many parts of their daily lives.
There’s no single moment to pin down for Ali and Rami, my guide and driver for the ten days I spent in Jordan as the guest of the Jordan Tourism Board. The entire ten days are soaked with laughter in my memories; my laughter, their laughter, all of us in fits and stitches as we drove the stretches of desert highway.
My friend and I are full of shenanigans when we travel together and Jordan was no exception. I didn’t expect, however, that Ali and Rami would embrace our senses of humor and take us through not only the historic sites and serious discussions about Jordan, but the lighter side of friendly banter as we toured and explored.
In short, we met as strangers and parted as friends.
These are snippets of other people’s lives that stuck with me; I enjoyed their company for mere minutes in some cases, and yet the imprint of the interactions sit on my memory. I always wish that I could travel back to a moment in time; I don’t want to just revisit Jordan…but instead I have an emotional attachment to the experience I had.
And if I go back it will be different. Good different, bad different…that’s all here nor there. It’s just always different. This is the case with nearly every country, every time I make new friends and spend time exploring and enjoying I know that if and when I return the world will have shifted. I feel this way about Jordan, Nepal, and Thailand. And Laos, where I had a wacky happenstance run-in with Laura, a college-years friend, just one day into my six weeks backpacking around Southeast Asia; though unplanned, we spent six weeks exploring Laos and Cambodia together and I loved both countries so much, but with her anecdotes and presence also in those snapshot memories.
I love these random moments that pop into my head months and years after I leave a country—these are the ones most prevalent right now and I’ve been collecting the snapshot images from my brain for weeks. I’m intrigued to ponder what may stir to the surface a year from now, and even ten years.
Tell me, have you had any moments and snapshots of memories percolate to the surface months and years later? Would love to hear your thoughts below! :)
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As a vegetarian traveling to a new country, I face a few extra challenges and considerations. While I wouldn’t out-right skip a destination because of food, the pecking order does change if I know I can eat well once I’m there. So when I read the invitation from the Jordan Tourism Board about a sponsored trip to the country, my initial thoughts circled like vultures around every tidbit of Middle Eastern foodie information stored in my brain.
A few quick keyword searches online and bam! I had my answer—all systems were a go on the foodie front, Jordan offers dozens of dishes consistently cooked vegetarian and the country is touristy enough to easily communicate the concept of vegetarianism.
The gentle vibrations from my iPhone slowly cut last clingy strings of dreams from my thoughts as I pulled myself awake. Looking at the gaps in the tent wall showed just the faintest tint of color lightening the morning sky. The dead silence surrounding me at the Desert Tent Camp in Wadi Rum invited me to curl back into my heavy blanket and claim another hour of sleep – 5:00am seems barely human for a wake up call.
My iPhone was on to me though, and just as my eyelids drifted closed the phone’s insistent buzzing woke me again. Oh yeah, a sunrise camel ride.
Last month’s Chinese New Year celebrations embraced Chiang Mai’s small Chinatown section with wholehearted enthusiasm. The signature red Chinese lanterns adorned every doorway.
Every shop entrance strung crimson bulbs from end to end. And the effect, as evening settled over Little China, was faintly magical. The tinted light tinkling out of the lanterns warred with the harsh street lights for ambient command of the Chinese New Year festivities.
Crowds thronged the main-stage hours before the performances and the long row of stop-light red food stalls offered up mounds of fresh, steaming food for the hungry masses gathering nearby. The mysterious preparations on stage included huge dragon heads, odd without their accompanying long dragon bodies, being unceremoniously hefted into place.
And that’s in that moment I wished I could spend the next hour through the eyes of a child…
…the little boy dutifully minds his helicopter parents as food is pushed between his parted lips. Mechanical chewing as the child eats his food but refuses to move his glance from the on-stage preparations; he’s fearful of missing a single moment of the performance, which in his mind will jump-start into life the very moment he loses focus.
A jumble of balloons briefly obscures the stage and the child is distracted; the shininess arrests his attention from the stage just as the next mouthful of food is shoved into his gaping mouth. He manages to utter a muffled grunt and point, an obvious and instantaneous request for the newest object of his fascination.
The parents confer while the child already begins to plot out which balloon is the best decoration for his petite wrist; he knows that today is a celebration. And that means balloons.
And cotton candy.
The vendors pick their targets well and even a few adults (including a tall, farang red-head) are captivated by the thought of sticky-sweet, colorful cotton candy.
The vendors pass, the chink and jingle of a few extra Thai baht audibly weighs down their pockets as they scan the crowds for more easy targets.
Then the murmur and sudden silence of the crowd confirms the child’s suspicions. The moment he was thoroughly engrossed in his cotton candy and balloons he missed the opening beats of the performance.
A dragon leaps onto the stage. The legs underneath the dragon look awfully human-like but the child’s eyes are invariably drawn, instead, to the enormous dragon head bobbing across the stage. The dragon’s blue eyes light up with a flash and the child knows: this performance is for him alone.
In fact, he’s so engrossed in the jumping, jiggling, gyrating dragon he scarcely notices as his mom gently pries the cotton candy out of his fingertips and his dad lifts him overhead and settles him firmly into place. Dad’s shoulders feel so natural so he rests his hands on his dad’s forehead and settles in for the rest of the show.
The dragons give way to the giggle-inducing ladyboys who dance and prance around the stage with umbrellas and balls. Their antics are meant in jest and the crowd can’t help but chuckle right alongside the child.
Dancers, no older than the child, delicately walk onto the stage. The heavy makeup, applied with absolute precision, cannot hide the fact that they’re just children. The boy, still hunkered down on his dad’s shoulders, imagines that one day his little sister might dance on a stage like this too.
The music changes and just as his attention starts to drift, the dragon is back. Except, this dragon is different. The dragon’s rainbow of colors trigger a different part of the child’s imagination and instead of asking to get off of dad’s shoulders, he imagines himself a dragon slayer. He is up on stage and everyone is cheering him on, chanting his name, and relying on him to save the day.
The dragon show is abruptly over; the boy lost track of time and didn’t even notice the minutes tick by as the dragon show progressed. His baby sister is getting tired and mom and dad insist it’s time to leave. More dancers are up on stage but his dad has already started to weave through the crowd. The child throws one last thirsty glance back at the stage.
The Chinese New Year festivities will continue throughout the night, but every cotton candy sugar coma has to wear off at some point. The child lets out a plaintive whine, he doesn’t want to miss a second of the shows, but already his parents have turned the corner.
Happy Holidays! In honor of the joy and happiness suffusing the holiday season I invite you to join me on a photo stroll through the markets and streets of Ubud, Bali, where the whole city smiled at me.
From the cheeky grin of mischievous children to an open, toothy smile from market vendors, an openness and joy is inherent.
Follow me on a tour of Bali’s Smiles
You step out of your room and into the family compound area of the guesthouse. You’ve had your tea and breakfast, brought right to your front patio and the cool fresh fruit was a perfect way to start your day.
As you weave through the compound you pass by a few members of the family weaving and readying their offerings. The oldest son speaks great English and you welcome the cheery and inquiries about your plans for the day. The little girl on his lap is less convinced of your harmlessness and shyly smiles from behind a mobile phone, on which she has been playing games.
You plan to explore one of Ubud’s larger markets and he gives you a pleasant smile of dismissal; you have no doubt he’ll follow up with you when you return for a full account.
Before one foot is even out of the elaborately carved wooden door guarding your compound two children dart by you giggling. With her perky pigtails perched on the top of her head you ready the camera and call out to them.
A cheesy grin breaks across the face of the youngest one – a grin so similar to the squishy grin your own young niece prefers that a pang of nostalgia for home breaks over you and then flows off just as quickly as the children scamper away down the side-street.
You leisurely follow in their wake in search of the nearby market and it’s mere minutes before you stumble into the densely packed maze of stalls.
The first woman you encounter gives an instantly open smile and offers up some fruit – you’re on the hunt for mangosteen and you eye her heaping pile. She’s not very pushy and instead asks the usual patter of conversation “where are you from? Are you married? Holy cow why not?”
You’re now toting a bag of mangosteen and dive deeper into the maze.
The colorful kites catch your eye. You stop to admire and the craftsman is more than happy to show off their features. If you had more space in your backpack you might be tempted, but a kite is not packable so you continue on.
You pass by tables full of knick knacks, wooden jewelry, and, oddly, a table full of moderately creepy wooden cats.
Your friend is on the hunt for a new purse and so the two of you look through the stalls until this woman’s frank friendliness and adorable children catch your eye.
You chat for ages with the vendor as your friend continues looking through the purses. Her son is quite the ham and his mother so clearly delights in her youngest.
The sun is high in the sky and the bright light penetrates the dense stalls and your hunger is now more insistent and you set your sites on the Dewa Warung as you leave the market.
You’re content and happy; it’s as if, through the process of proximity and osmosis, the simple inner joy of the locals is now your own.
Joy is universal no matter your religious denomination, so cheer and happiness to you, I hope you have joy this holiday season! :)
My 15 hour long layover in Taipei may not have been enough time to settle in and truly explore all that Taipei, Taiwan has to offer but it’s plenty enough time to eat!
There were moments where the Asian culture shock was creeping up but the familiar pace of a city extinguished a lot of the potential angst. Instead of focusing on being lost throughout the day I followed my nose along the streets of Taipei, allowing the locals on their lunch breaks to dodge around me as I poked my nose into all kinds of treats.
Some were suspiciously meaty and avoided. But a busy street food cart perched right on the corner of a busy sidewalk caught my eye. The muffin pan-like cart top took about one minute to produce a whole steaming hot treats filled with mysterious fillings.
The man pours what looks like pancake dough into the holes. The woman scoops in your chosen filling. More dough. As the lunch snacks briefly cooked the well honed dance of movements between the duo working the street cart never faltered.
The long queue of locals flowed with swift ease and stood as a testament to these tasty and simple treats.
When my turn came I put the first glitch in their process and both of them smiled indulgent if harried smiles as I indicated through pantomime my choice of two pancakey-things filled with a thick red bean paste and a third with sweet creamy custard.
These eats got me through my hike to Taipei 101 and before my street eats had fully digested dusk painted itself across the sky and the Shilin Night Market beckoned.
To be truthful the entire point of the Shilin Night Market trip was to spend as long as possible wandering food stalls sampling foreign treats with name’s I knew not then and know not now.
I found that Taipei was like so much of Asia, even to many of the locals the street eats are incredibly affordable and families converge on the street stalls for their nightly dinner as well.
Sweet treats weren’t far either and with a small crowd around these fried milk balls I was intrigued enough to try a stick of the burn-your-tongue-hot sweet cream coated in batter.
It makes me chuckle to think that for all that the rest of the world laughs at the US for deep fried ice cream and snickers bars, we’re not the only ones take odd concoctions, coat them in batter and drop ’em a vat of grease!
For the record, they were tasty as expected and I munched them rapidly as I ran from the beginning rain and back to the metro terminal.
The grandmother figure at my guesthouse in Ubud didn’t speak a lick of English but her open and friendly smile, coupled with a gentle beckoning of the hand, was the only invitation I needed to sheepishly shuffle over to the assembly line of family members weaving and plaiting palm leaves into tiny three inch by three inch containers.
The little pallets of offerings in Bali take so many different forms and are one of the first things I feel in love with wandering the streets of Ubud. Bali is a little anomaly in the middle of Indonesia and the daily nature-based worship of Balinese Hinduism is a stark contrast to the mostly Muslim country.
Every day as I dashed in and out of my guesthouse these little carafes of flowers and piles of petals dotted the perimeter of the compound – some appearing in the early morning hours as I sipped my tea (I’m an early riser and was able to silently watch the construction and distribution of these dozens of daily offerings), and others replacing the trampled petals of late afternoon.
And on the days when I slept in until the sun rose, I awoke to mini offerings perched on the table of my patio area.
Life Cycle of a Balinese Daily Offering
Before most tourists are wandering the streets the Balinese are out sweeping up all of the previous day’s offerings from around their businesses and homes. Buckets of water are used to wet down the sidewalk and they scrub not only the perimeter around the doorway, but the gutters too.
The streets of Bali are spotless in the early morning hours and sidewalks, steps, statues, and temples are now ready for the daily gift of offerings meant to appease and please the various gods and demons of Balinese Hinduism.
These little tributes are perched all over the city and could be as simple as a small and fragrant frangipani adorning each and every step leading into a housing compound.
Or more elaborate to guard the house’s doorway and appease the gods represented by statues throughout the house.
The offerings are simply everywhere.
They are a daily devotional gifts to their belief system. When I put it more in the context of my Christian background I think of it like saying the rosary — a repeated act of faith.
The darker side of it is that they use these offerings to appease demon spirits hanging around; so, as much as I present this sunshine-y side to the offerings, they are so much more than mere street decorations, they form a cornerstone of the daily practice of nearly every Balinese woman that I met.
They spend large parts of their day in the construction of these offerings, the dispersing around their compounds, and then they make more holders and palm leaf patterns.
The flowers are a lovely addition to wandering Bali but more than anything, sitting and watching the women and men plait palm leaves day after day took what I had viewed as a cute religious practice and grounded it into a much clearer window into their beliefs and daily lives. It’s so easy to travel to these countries and pick out the fun parts and view it from the outside, as a Westerner looking in on what could be regarded as cute or kitschy practices. But sitting there, with them. It’s so very much a lovely and honest part of their everyday life that these ornate offerings provide such a pretty opening to something deeper within the Balinese culture.
Learn More About Bali and Balinese Hinduism
Bali: Sekala & Niskala: A wonderful book if you want to truly understand Balinese culture and thought. The book is a collection of essays with topics life Hindu mythology and modern gamelan music.