Breathless in Paradise

Snorkeling is just about the best idea anybody ever had. The world underwater is singularly enchanting, whether you’re drifting over white sands, coal stacks or the open blue. If it weren’t for my breathing issues, and a nasty little demon called fire coral, I’d rank it right up at the top of my favourite things in life.

With school out for the end of summer – just like last year, I’ve been working all the way through it to the point where it feels like it never came at all – we’ve nothing but time on our hands until our Saturday morning flight. At Eloise’s suggestion, Andrew and I find ourselves back in Aqaba, two weeks after we popped by for a visit on our way back from Wadi Rum. By some curious stroke of luck, our hotel, the Bedouin Garden Village, happened to be the very same place we’d got our snorkeling gear from last time, so the manager, a carefree local who makes his living lounging about on the beach, smoking shisha and leading diving groups out into the reefs, already knew us and was pleased to see us again. It’s still intolerably hot – the midday sun peaks at a regular 42 degrees – but it’s cooler than it was, if you ask the locals. 

 

 The last time I wrote about snorkeling, I gave myself a paragraph. Looking back, that’s more than a little silly. It’s criminal. So this time I’ll put you inside my head, so you can see what I see:

I squeeze my feet into two giant flippers and waddle down to the water like a particularly incapable penguin, adjusting and readjusting my snorkel; there’ll be none of last time’s mistakes, or I’ll just have o March straight back to the hotel and ask – God forbid – for a demonstration. Walking forwards in the water isn’t easy in footwear more than three times the size of your feet, so I turn and start walking backwards, for all the good it will do. And what do you know? It’s a little easier. There’s a neat little life hack for you. Alternatively, you could just belly out and swim. And so I do.

For the first few metres it’s a long stretch of silver sand, dotted here and there with a buried cola bottle or lens cap. The first few fish are tiddlers, with the exception of a familiar school of silvery mullet that gawp their way along the shore. Up ahead, the reef looms. One more kick of the flippers and we’re over.

There’s only a small space between the reef and the surface, hardly enough for a man to swim over untouched, but temptation is a dangerous lady, and I can’t stop myself. Up on the reef it’s a sudden explosion of colour, and the coral has very little to do with that. It’s the fish that light up the place. There are canary yellow butterflyfish in twos and threes, flanked by dusky Arabian angelfish and solitary sergeant majors; the mottled form of a greasy grouper hugging the rocks while a triggerfish, resplendent in robes of blue and green, watches from the sand; dragonfish staring up in a stargazing torpor from the seabed whilst speckled white gobies dig their nests all about; clownfish weaving in and out of the multicoloured anemones they crave. Stranger denizens still, like the angular boxfish, the pipefish-through-photoshop cornetfish and the bizarre unicornfish, with what can only be described as a horn protruding an inch and more between its eyes, haunt the nooks of the reef, like the shady underbelly of this grand fashion show.

I’d like to say those are the thoughts going through my head right now, but it’s actually more of a constant stream of ‘ohh’, ‘wow’ and ‘ohmyGodthisissobeautiful’. Poetic to the last. And this time, my mask isn’t leaking and my snorkel is watertight, and I can enjoy this whole spectacle without hyperventilating. Further out, there’s a shipwreck that’s supposedly crawling with moray eels, and even a sunken tank. I’d love to swim out to see them for myself, but I don’t put much trust by the strength of my reserves. I may be a mean (if explosive) sprinter, but I’m not the strongest of swimmers, having been much too obstinate to ever learn to breathe properly. I’ll leave that adventure to Andrew and Mac. They already have a taste for exploring creepy wrecks from the abandoned hospital off Rainbow Street. I might try again this afternoon, but right now I’d rather continue to explore the reef.

Oh bummer, some seawater got into my snorkel. I have to surface to spit it out, but in the action a great wave pushes me under and I get an eyeful of Red Sea salt. By the time I’ve got my mask back on, it’s steamed up and I have to take it off again to clear it up. The vicious waves are making this little task impossible. I make a beeline for the buoy line that marks the edge of the reef and try holding on to that, but of course, it goes under the water, and it’s prickly to the touch from all the little reef creatures growing on it. So I make for a stack of brain coral and haul myself as gently as I can to sit on it and readjust my mask in peace. The wind’s really picking up; you can see the sand blowing across the beach back on the shore. The waves are equally relentless, but I’m holding my own here. I can see Andrew and Mac a fair way out. They’ve gone beyond the buoy that marks where the sunken tank is supposed to be, but they’ve drifted quite a way off course. If we’re not careful we’ll have a fair walk on our hands when we get back to the beach – or a harder swim, flippers or no.

Fwoosh! The giant wave comes out of nowhere and throws me back against the coral. No, not the coral, against the rock, and a stack of fire coral, which isn’t really coral at all, but a jellyfish-like creature with a nasty sting. I don’t have much time to think about that, because I’m back underwater without my mask. Pulling myself angrily back onto the brain coral and securing my mask back onto my head, I examine my arm. There’s an ugly red weal running up the length of it, scored with white. It could just as easily be leprosy. Not only that, there’s also a similarly nasty scar on my lower back and cut across my right hand from where I grabbed the reef as the wave took me under. Oh yeah, and the covered in salt water, too. Time, I think, to beat a hasty retreat.

  
The beach is no friend of mine today. Two seconds on my front in the sand and there’s a stinging sensation all along my right-hand side. It’s not even my reef scars; it’s the sand, whipped up by the wind to scour my skin. Talk about a full-body workout! We’re going to have to retreat further than just the shore. I’m heading back to the pool. I don’t think I’ve ever been more grateful for such a thing.

  

All the same, I don’t regret it for a second, even though the fire coral rash along my arm continues to pester me, some three days later. For another hour with the colorful denizens of the Red Sea, I’d do it all again. Tell me, though; is diving supposed to be such an ordeal every time, or is Butterfingers over here just as naive as ever? BB x

End of an Era

Racked up a grand total of five hours’ sleep last night. Not exactly great, but a lot better than it could have been, considering just how FRICKIN’ AWESOME yesterday was.

No more classes at Ali Baba, for a start. We’re finished. Khalass. Two months of study wrapped up and tossed aside, just like that. And doesn’t it feel like every day of it…! Nah, I’m just messing with you. In truth the last four weeks have flashed past in the blink of an eye. Wadi Rum feels like it was only a few days ago, and as for Dana and the others who were with us for first term… why, they could have been here yesterday (now somebody hit the cliché button and hit it fast). We’ve had a really good run of it and ended on a good high, with a certificate presentation, a few last rounds of Arabic language games and a talent show no less, which I won on votes with yet another dangerously one-man rendition of a song, this time the gypsy ballad Arrinconamela – chosen mostly because I’ve kind of done The Circle of Life to death out here and it’s not as fun without my Lights at hand. Hey, I got a double Snickers bar out of it, so I’m not complaining.

I digress. Ali Baba has been nothing short of brilliant in every way. I’ve learned so much out here and that has more to do with the intensity of my four-hour classes than anything else, so a great big shout-out to Wafiqa and the Ali Baba staff for a grand two months of Arabic teaching. I sure hope ALIF can match your level of commitment!

We scarcely had time to rush back to the apartment to start packing, Andrew and I, when I was whisked back to the internet range of Ali Baba’s fourth-floor cafe to book both of our hostels for the next week, in Aqaba and Amman. You see, unlike the homestay girls, whose hosts have graciously allowed them to stay on after their lease and then to take them as far as the airport, we’re being booted out on command and thus have to find – and pay for – somewhere else to stay for the next week. In fact, our cheery landlord wants us out of here by ten o’clock this morning. Worse, the chirpy chap even followed us to the main road yesterday asking over and over if we wanted to have left by eight instead. Words fail me; words did not fail Andrew. We’ve tidied up most of the place, but it’s still very much occupied for the time being. It’ll be a last minute rush down to the bus station when the clock strikes a quarter past ten, but it’ll be worth it to see the back of this little apartment. It’s been great having a pad so close to our school, as it were, and it’s been nothing short of the party nucleus for the last two months, both because of its proximity and because Andrew and I have been voluntarily phone-less, so the only way to contact us has been in person. A grand idea from the get-go.

That aside, I’m glad we’re leaving today; this place is simply not worth $1000 a month, even split between us. That’s double what I was paying in Durham, and that was for an entire house. Jeez. And for the gall of living in a city, no less! Ali Baba’s only flaw is the price it puts on student housing, whether they find you a flat or a homestay. Take my advice and find your own place, through AirB’n’B or from the friendly environment of a hostel. Because had I known how small a flat we’d be getting for $1000 – with a faulty kettle, nearly-headless tap and other inconsistencies too numerous to name – I’d never have been so quick to hand over the cash. Arabists, take heed!

With all of our hostels booked, Andreas and his language partner Abu Ahmad took us out into the country for a barbecue, and I might use this as an excuse to debunk a few myths that I started. It turns out that there are trees near Amman, and not the artificially-grown ones in the university grounds. If you can get as far as the neighbouring town of As-Salt, the countryside surrounding it is stunning, even in the last few days of August when it’s had the full force of the Arabian summer sun shining down on its back for three months and more. We cooked more meat than Andrew and I have had in our whole two months of egg-based existence and were stuffed to the gills within minutes. That we managed to gather our senses and box some for today’s journey stands testament to some last-minute quick-thinking, or else they’d have thrown the last home-made kebabs away. Ach, just thinking of it is making me hungry.

But seriously though: As-Salt. If you ever get tired of the noise of Amman, get yourself on one of the many buses bound for As-Salt (they pronounce it ‘salt’) and take a hike into the country. It’s so green, so quiet, and such a world away from the hustle-bustle of city living. There were wild birds there too: I saw a couple of jays, homely-sounding blackbirds and even an Arabian Babbler to top it off. If only we’d stumbled upon it sooner… No matter. We’ve had fun. More importantly this was also our last night with Andreas, who’s been such a rock in our time out here, both for Arabic queries and for good humour, not to mention strength of character. We’re all going to miss you, Andreas, our only and favourite Swede. Good luck in Cairo (you lucky thing) and I hope we meet again someday!

Our heartfelt farewells to Andreas were cut short because we needed to be back in Amman for seven to catch a taxi down to a place called The Dome, a party venue halfway between our pad and the airport – so quite a way out of town. Believe it or not, we had a stroke of luck in that – for once – the second taxi we asked was willing to take us there. Only, he had absolutely no idea where there was. So he got to driving south and rang up the venue for us, amongst other contacts, to divine the location, and in the end he not only got us there for eight o’clock but offered to pick us up in turn. What a charmer!

I should explain. We were bound for The Dome because the biggest name in the Arabic music world at the moment, Saad Lamjarred (the mu3allem guy), is in Amman and there was talk of a great big party on the grapevine. We had it from another taxi driver, as it happens, who let us in on the secret. He even called up his friend to get us tickets. At thirty dinar a head it wasn’t cheap, but any misgivings I had about the price were obliterated in the first hour – and Saad Lamjarred didn’t even show up until about twenty minutes past ten. No, our thanks go to none other than DJ Khaled.

Charged up on unholy slushie (I don’t even want to know what was in the stuff) and Kinder Bueno ice-cream (these Arabs have such great ideas when it comes to sweets) we – that is, Andrew, Eloise, Mackenzie and I – couldn’t help getting itchy feet every time a good song came on. About every five minutes, that is. And so what if nobody else was dancing? We were having fun. Sure, we must have looked a little crazy, just dancing alone as the four of us for about an hour, but when Khaled’s C’est la Vie came on and we realised that we knew it, we went wild. And before we knew it, there was a crowd gathered around us in a circle to watch us move. Andrew, Mack and I were milking it for all it was worth; Eloise had the sense to hang back a bit (and film it for last shaming opportunities). In the end it wasn’t just spectator sport either, as some of the men felt the vibe too and joined in, which is when the party really started. We met so many people our own age who had been waiting, it seemed, for somebody to bite the bullet in order to let loose. As for me, I haven’t danced so hard in months. Between the four of us, we got things going in the back row, and because of that it’s going down as one of the best nights of the whole shebang, if not of my life so far.

The craziness of it all is that the first, second and third class tickets counted for nothing, in the end. We’d gone for the cheapest option at thirty, the most sensible route by far, as next to nobody was in the £50 second class row, and the £70 first class row was a seated affair. That’s no fun! But it gets better (or worse, depending on how you look at it). The bouncers, some naturally built like gorillas, others just oddly proportioned with arms nearly three times the size of their legs, proved susceptible to the whims of Eloise and Mack and their charm and/or sheer determination to get ahead, because bit by bit, we found ourselves jumping from third class to second, and eventually even into first, right to the edge of the stage. How’s that for white guilt? It got to me just before the end and I hung back whilst the others rushed into first class, until I felt like a first-class muppet myself when it was just me, an old woman and a mother and child left in second-class towards the end of the night. As for the man of the hour, Master Saad Lamjarred himself, his show was nothing less than blitz-worthy; I mean that in a good way. He only really had four songs of his own, plus a few great covers, but he sure knew how to get the party going – and all the while with a great big grin on his face that was infectious at the sight. We had quite a rave at the back with our new friends.

I’d better leave it there. It was quite a night, and because of it we’re both knackered, Andrew and I. He was awake when I started writing this; he’s fast asleep now. We’ve got another long day ahead of us, but on the bright side, in a couple of hours we’ll be done with this apartment for good, and bound on a four-hour bus for Aqaba, where we can really let our hair down and chill. We’ve earned it. BB x

Necessarily Childish

Would you believe it? There are clouds over Amman today – real, genuine clouds. Yes, I really am getting excited about clouds. So tell me I’m crazy; I already know that. I just miss the sight of a sky that isn’t a brown shade of blue, that’s all.

We’re coming to it now, the end of my stay in Jordan. Just three days of class remain, and then a whole week and more to do whatever before our return flight takes us home – via a day’s sojourn in Kiev, provided the airport authorities allow us to pop out for a visit between flights! (Those twelve hours sure will drag if they don’t…) Way back in May when Kate, Katie, Andrew and I booked our flights, we had no idea we were going to get almost all of our traveling done before the end of term. Well, here we are at the end, and I’ve already seen the abandoned desert castles, seen the sun set over the Promised Land from the bitter waters of the Dead Sea, wandered the Roman ruins of Jerash, swam with triggerfish at Aqaba, trekked Dana, gawped at Petra by day and night and watched a veritable storm of shooting stars over Wadi Rum. Somehow I’ve managed all of that in our weekend breaks, and in retrospect, it’s as well that I did so; had I stuck to my guns in leaving some sights for next year, I’d have missed out for good on sights like Petra and the reefs of the Red Sea. Though Amman itself may have crushed this little country mouse, I can’t recommend Jordan highly enough. That’s always been my stance.

Trees, people! Trees……..!

We took an hour and a half of class today out in the sunshine in the Jordanian University grounds. They’re on vacation at the moment, so the grounds were deserted of students and we had the run of the northern campus. I’ve never felt more focused in all my time out here; just a little dose of sunshine, the warbling trill of a sunbird from one of the cedar trees and the taste of air that hasn’t come from a fickle conditioner… I was speaking more fluently than ever before. I guess that drives home this morning’s debate on students being more attentive if given access to green spaces in school. Now that’s something I can agree with! If only we could visit the university more often… It’s a bummer, living right next to the only green space in Amman, and not being allowed to enter it except on official business.

Class dismissed

To keep the engine going in the last hurdle, I’ve been making liberal use of Youtube. Specifically, two animated films from my childhood: Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (the 1988 Burbank version) and Don Bluth’s The Secret of N.I.M.H., based on the 1971 book Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. If there’s one thing I’m seriously into, it’s obscure cartoons. The ones that fell by the wayside, in a manner of speaking. I guess that has something to do with growing up with Freddie as F.R.0.7., the obscurest of the lot, but there’s something magical about trawling through all of these hidden gems. Jaded as it sounds, they just don’t make films like ’em these days. Dreamworks and Pixar paved the way for a new era of animation with works of genius like the Shrek films and Finding Nemo, but since then, it’s just been one furry animal film after the other, as far as I can tell. I’d say I’m getting too old for such things, but that’s a complete lie; I still get the same kick out of The Lion King that I did when I was a five year-old sitting ten inches from the television in the back room. Preach.

But Don Bluth… oho, now we’re talking. They’re just so… dark. Tell me you didn’t feel afraid when you first watched The Land before Time – those jagged landscapes and bubbling swamps, and all the death…! Littlefoot’s mother died onscreen. Disney could do it too: The Lion King was extraordinary because you saw Mufasa die onscreen. Powerful stuff. But the best Disney offers up these days is one of a thousand villains falling to an offscreen demise (my sincerest apologies, Clayton). Not so with Don Bluth. The wise Nicodemus is crushed beneath a mountain of scaffolding. Rasputin’s soul is sucked out of him by the forces of Hell itself. The guy even had a hand in the original Sleeping Beauty, so you know he knew what he was doing. His style is also truly iconic; those stark, jagged landscapes from The Land Before Time follow you through American TailThe Secret of NIMH and Thumbelina; truly, a world apart from the sugar-coated Disney kingdom.

Derek Jacobi, is that really you?

Not that I have anything against Disney. I love it. Even some of their new stuff is great. I thought Wreck-it-Ralph was going to be dismal from the premise, but it blew me away. I just find myself wishing that the Paperman project had pulled through. Hand-drawn animation just smacks of my childhood and I covet it dearly.

Don Bluth, you really did have a thing for glowing eyes…

If you remember any of these classics, I’ll point you towards some even more obscure titles that you may not have heard of. Give Ralph Bakshi a try if you haven’t already: I’m thinking Cool World and Fire and Ice. Or there’s Nelvana’s niche Rock and Rule. Equally trippy, but worth the ride. And don’t forget the darkest of them all, the one that gave an entire generation nightmarish images they would never forget: Rosen’s 1978 adaptation of Watership Down. So… much… blood…

This, of course, has next to nothing to do with Jordan, or even Arabic for that matter. But it’s a damned good healing technique. I’m quite ready to go home, even though eleven days still remain, but the memory of these animated gems will keep me soldiering on. Ah, to have been alive in the sixties and seventies when these wonders were being created… I might have thrown caution to the wind and gone for a career as an animator. What a different life that might have been! BB x

Jekyll and Hyde

One week from today, I’ll be sitting on the beach at Aqaba with term over and my labours temporarily at an end. Two weeks from today, I’ll be waking up in the comfort of my own bed once again, looking out over the Sussex Downs. Three weeks from today I’ll probably be back in Kent with the family, to see my brother in especial before he leaves for University. And one month from today, I’ll be sitting in the bus station in the sunblasted Plaza de Armas in Seville, waiting for the coach that will take me northwards to what is to be my home for the next nine months.

It’s all moving thick and fast roundabout now. I’m taking some time out in Ali Baba to work on the novel for a bit. Most everyone else has gone off in different directions: some to Wadi Mujib, some to grab a falafel lunch, others to one of the nearby cafes for some quiet study. I’m here in search of my voice, which I seem to have lost whilst I’ve been out here. I spoke to Andrew for quite a bit about this last night, reading back over some of my notes that I penned last year, in various states of emotion. Andrew gave me quite a jolt when he opined that my writing was a great deal better back then. Those aren’t easy words to take for somebody who’s set himself on the path to bettering his writing… How could this be, I wonder? Is it because I’m writing every other day, so I’m drip-feeding my thoughts rather than saving them up for a grand oeuvre? Or maybe it’s because I’m not finding enough time for myself to think properly out here in the city? I think there’s a bit of truth in both of those. My writing has become rather acerbic of late. Compared to all the self-help greenie moralising I used to throw about, my later work comes across as bitter, over-excitable, and above all else more than a little opinionated. I hope it’s not a lasting trend. I took the time to read over my notes a second time after I’d discussed them with Andrew and I’m a lot happier with them, though I know I wasn’t at the time. Maybe I’ll look back on these blog posts in the same way, and maybe not. My saving grace is that there was a victory achieved last night, however small; after comparing my writing, Andrew conceded that maybe sticking it out in a city really isn’t good for me at all. Because if there’s anything that might be described as a true window into the soul, it’s the way we express ourselves, poetry, paint or prose.

My summary of Amman a week ago was misinterpreted by some as an all-out attack on Jordan. I’d like to come clean on that point and confess that it’s really not that. In many ways, I’ve loved Jordan. The dizzying views up into the Golan Heights from across the river, the crashing waterfalls of Wadi Mujib and the stars stretched out like glittering velvet over the desert. Dana in all her majesty. Jordan is beautiful. And capital city though it may be, even Amman has its bright sides. In my melancholy, I’ve been unable to see it; largely, I guess, because I didn’t want to see it. It eludes me still. Picture this: you’re at the cinema, and the guy in the row in front of you turns around and asks you to stop kicking the back of his chair. You didn’t even realise you were doing it. Of course, you then spend the next five minutes wanting the kick the chair even harder – or is that just me? There’s a window into my mind and a half.

What I’m trying to say is that I have a bad stubborn streak, and this city – or any city, for that matter – brings it out of me like never before. When somebody tells me to stop doing something, or that I’m going to like something, my first instinct is to disobey. Watch Mean Girls, they say, ‘because it’s unavoidable… it’s part of our culture’. Instinct tells me therefore I cannot, under any circumstances, be made to watch it. Wait it out in Amman, they say, and try to learn to love it ‘because city life is just something you have to get used to… and Amman is actually a really cool place once you get to know it.’ Sod’s law dictates that it cannot be. It’s the old ‘I’ve come this far, I can’t turn back now’ line.

When you set it down in writing, it’s really quite pathetic…

What’s a guy to do? I reckon the thing that I’m missing most of all, perhaps even more than escaping the metropolis, is time. Time to think, to write, and to be myself. It’s not just my writing that got bitter out here, it’s my personality. It sure is helpful having people around to point that out before it gets rotten. The year abroad is such an important part of your degree that it can feel criminal to ‘waste’ even an hour of it. As such, the last two months have been almost non-stop. Wake up, class, study, go downtown, shopping, sightseeing, studying, repeat. I rarely have more than an hour or so to get my head straight and that’s seldom in the solitary silence that I crave. Maybe I’ve made myself too dependant on ‘me time’; if there’s one common feature in all of my notes from last year, it’s a heavy emphasis on the importance of ‘me time’. I was busy then, too, rushing from class to rehearsal to gig after gig – and yet, I still managed to find time to wind down every week or so and defuse. Not so here. And it shows, right?

Oh, there’ll be one last big reflection on everything that’s gone down out here in the Middle East before I go. I hope that will be a better read, too. A blog in itself is a funny old thing, pasting your thoughts and feelings for the world to see. But that’s what writers do, paper or pixels. Some of my best writing was set down when I was in the throes of a hopeless crush, some time ago. Or maybe it’s just because we’re human, and we all love a good gossip. I don’t know. I’m going to keep looking for my voice, and I hope that I can find it again before I leave this place, if just to leave you with Jekyll’s view on Amman rather than Hyde’s. I think that would be fair. (Oh look, I’ve gone and done a JK Rowling, leaving the explanation of the title to the very last line of the chapter. Now I really do need to get reading some more!) BB x

  

Tick Tock

Blimey, we’re on our fifty-fifth day already. Another two weeks and it’ll be almost time to head for home. In some ways it’s felt like every day of fifty-five, in others it’s flown by. I think it’s safe to say that we’re all ready to pack up and head for home, though. It’s been fun, but it’s been hard work too, and factoring in all of those post-exam rehearsals, I haven’t really had a decent respite since… Well, come to think of it, since the Christmas holidays. Ouch!

We had a lot of fun in class this morning acting out two or three of Nasreddin’s tales. You might also know him as Juha (جحا او نصر الدين). Plenty of opportunities to lark about. For counterpoint, we spent the second hour discussing the wonderfully British tradition of the stiff upper lip; that is, suffering in silence rather than causing anybody problems. Quite a world apart from the very hands-on Arab approach! Even though I’m not planning on returning to the Middle East in the near future, the 3amia classes (the local Arabic dialect) have been useful, if just for learning all the expressions and idioms which I adore. Here’s to the vain hope that some carry across into the Moroccan darija dialect, or even Egyptian.

Proof that I’ve been here too long is that I found myself slipping in and out of Arabic whilst trying to talk to my mum in Spanish over FaceTime. I’ve never had that problem before, not even with French. That’s probably a good thing for my Arabic, which has definitely improved since being here, but it’s doing no wonders for my mental state vis-a-vis my Spanish. Now that I’ve booked my flight it all feels a lot closer, a month and more away though it may yet be. A couple of days with my mega-drawing and it’ll all be over in an instant. I don’t know whether I’ll ever catch up at this rate; I’m already two years in arrears, so to speak. I’m going to have bite my lip pretty damn hard to stop myself from taking it out with me. But a promise is a promise: I’ll give it unti Christmas to get a feel for my new home in Villafranca de los Barros, wherever that may be, before I lug the monster out to Spain with me.

No, I haven’t started house-hunting yet. I’m kind of hoping to do that on foot when I get there. At the very least, I’m not making the same mistake I made out here in settling for a ridiculously expensive option for speed and safety’s sake. And no, I haven’t given up on my dreams of running into Lady Luck with flowing dark hair when I get there either. Or should that be Señora Suerte? Whatever. Miracles can happen. I’m not banking on it, knowing my luck, but it’d sure be a deal sweetener.

Ach, would you look at that, I’m setting myself up for a fall already! I’ve been rambling for a little longer than I intended to. I’ll love you and leave you for now. I need my afternoon nap as much as anybody. Andrew, in his wisdom, went straight home after class to take his. I think it’s time I followed suit. BB x

And Then He Threw A Table At Me

There’s a line in Tolkein’s The Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf returns from his first encounter with the Balrog and tells his companions that he has ‘never felt so spent’. Well, I just got back from an hour spent looking after nine Iraqi children, and I think I have a fair idea of what it must have been like to face said fire demon.

But don’t get me wrong. I signed up for this. Willingly, even.

After three weeks of teaching English at this church Andreas introduced us to, I’ve been enjoying it so much that when one of my co-workers called in to say that she’d be absent, I leapt at the chance to try something new in looking after the children of our students for a change. They looked pretty fun, they sounded like they were having a good time with the girls, and Firas’ youngest is just about the cutest little thing on the face of the planet, even with the super-saiyan hair. The year abroad is all about new experiences, right? And I’m not afraid to say I’ve always been rather good with kids. I guess it’s my willingness to de-age mentally by about twenty years whenever I’m in that kind of position. Clown mode, or something like that. Kids love it. It’s supposed to be foolproof.

These kids don’t exactly speak much English, but I’d been told that they could introduce themselves and that they knew a few basic words, like colours, animals, the parts of the body… that kind of thing. So I thought I’d get the ball rolling with a song and dance kind of game. ‘I get loose’, to be precise. It always went down a storm in Durham, and that was with twenty year old students. Once they finally understood that they were supposed to be copying me – Maryam, the oldest of the girls, had to explain it to them – they seemed to be enjoying it. But one of the kids, Fadi, wasn’t having any of it. He just stood looking surly in a corner saying ‘ba’ over and over again, getting louder every time. After a few minutes of this it became almost impossible to think, so I shot him a dark look. He just yelled even louder at me, and then ran over and started hitting me with a microphone that he’d picked up from who knows where. I scolded him for it but he kept at it, and in the end I let him tire himself out until he got bored of smacking my arm. At least, I thought he had. Instead he ran to the other side of the room, grabbed the nearest small object – a piece of wooden train track – and threw it at me. Luckily, he missed, which is more than can be said for the dollhouse, the microphone, Noah’s ark, the drum, the foam floor mat and three chairs. When I looked up from teaching the girls (whose attention was quickly beginning to wane by this point) and saw a table flying at me from the other side of the room, I guess I realised that we had gone beyond the point of no return. At least he didn’t get his hands on my iPad, or I might really have lost it.

And then the screaming began. Whether Maryam had lost faith in my ability to control the class, or whether she was angry that it wasn’t Susie taking the class, or whether she just revelled in the chaos, I don’t know. But the next thing I knew all five of the microphones that Fadi had been using as missiles had found their way into the hands of the older girls and they were all screaming at the top of their voices into them. Fortunately, they weren’t on, though for all intents and purposes, they might as well have been. I tried everything – disappointed face, changing tack, feigning ignorance, even getting strict – to no avail. They just waved a massive thumbs down in my face and the screaming continued.

It was at this point that Andrew stepped in to lend a hand. For a few seconds the kids stopped, judging how he might react – and then unleashed a new barrage of screaming on him instead. Between the two of us we made absolutely zero headway and eventually Andrew retreated back to the Bible study group. Five ear-bleeding minutes later Kate came to my assistance and we tried again. More screaming – only this time they got tactical. ‘We’ll stop screaming if you dance’. So I danced, and they stopped screaming – for a grand total of two minutes. ‘We’ll stop screaming if you sing’. I whipped out the Circle of Life for them, and they actually shut up – until the English lyrics, at which point the screaming started up anew, not least of all because one of the girls who had slipped away during the chaos had returned with five cups of water. Ammunition to renew the war on the Substitute. There was a point when Kate and I just looked at each other in an expression of utter helplessness. What could we have done? The kids were mutinous in the extreme. They weren’t having any of it; no Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, no introductions, no colours, nothing at all. Just screaming. When their parents came in to tell them to shut up, and they got the screaming treatment just as bad as we had, Andrew, Kate and I threw up our hands in defeat. We’d tried everything. The kids had overwhelmed us. And when the clock struck five minutes past five, I can honestly say I’ve never felt happier to have finished something.

So the next time I jump at the chance to teach kids, somebody stop me. Please. My ears, at the very least, would be grateful. BB x

  

From Burning Desert to Sapphire Sea

One minute I’m standing on a high rock, staring into a lunar desert whilst desperately trying to even up my tan lines; two hours later I’m staring down at a school of damselfish drifting over a coral reef. I’m still struggling to get my head around it.

Sunrise feels far longer ago than this morning. After putting the finishing touches to last night’s report, I left the others sleeping in the campground and set off alone into the desert once again, this time to see the sunrise. I made it to the other side of the valley in time to catch the first rays of sunlight bursting over the cliffs. The sand was full of tracks: the footprints of beetles, snakes, camels and four-wheel drives crisscrossed the valley floor. There was even a lone skink trail halfway across, both satisfying and amusing on a more personal level (for the record, it’s an old family joke about lesser-spotted three-toed eagle-eyed skinks that gets wheeled out whenever yours truly gets boorishly specific about animals). The others were mostly up and about by the time I returned, and in perfect time for half an hour’s meditation before breakfast. The hefty futur Ahmad and his brother Khaled prepared for us was a kingly feast: fresh bread, helwa, jam, hummus, falafel and hard-boiled eggs (there’s no escaping them!), and that’s without mentioning four glasses of that lovely sage and cinnamon-infused Bedouin tea. Dee-lish. God help my teeth over the coming year, because Spain and the Arab world most certainly won’t.

The jeep tour of Wadi Rum was a pretty standard exploration of the main sights, as you might expect: the early Nabatean rock art, Lawrence’s house and the rock arches. I needn’t elaborate much; such sights, stunning though they may be, are better detailed in guidebooks. Besides, Langelsby’s got it covered. I highly recommend you go for a tour if you’re in the area, though. On a more personal note, I found it profoundly ironic that I finally found a haven for wildlife, in what must be outwardly one of the most inhospitable landscapes on the planet. Desert larks, white-crowned wheatears, rock martins and rosefinches followed us from rock to rock whilst the ever present grackles, the tricksters of Wadi Mujib, whistled noisily overhead. No sign of the nocturnal denizens of the desert, but a welcome change from scabby cats and pigeons. The naturalist in me will never be suppressed. So says the lesser-spotted three-toed skink, at any rate.

On the knowledge that wrangling a bus from Wadi Musa to Amman might be beyond us, we arranged with Ahmad, our kohl-eyed Bedouin guide, to take us as far as Aqaba instead, where buses to Amman would be easier to achieve. Aqaba may be your run-of-the-mill beach resort these days, but it has a notch on everything I’ve seen before: the Red Sea. Sapphire would be a better name by far. I’d heard stories and seen pictures, but I’d never really believed quite how deep a blue the Red Sea was. Quite by accident, and with no small meddling from my heart, I found myself physically incapable of passing up the chance to go snorkeling.

Water sports and I don’t have an easy history, let’s say. Ask the population of Whitstable, who watched me capsize a kayak twice and have to be towed ashore (yeah, that still smarts). Swimming’s just about my favorite sport, being both an important skill and the only sport I’ve ever enjoyed, but I have breathing issues – something to do with my nose – which makes most other water sports more problematic than entertaining. Snorkeling has always been a dream of mine, though. Not as technical as scuba and easily doable for somebody with breathing issues. I say that, at least. It’s easy in retrospect.

The first forty minutes were tortuous – not because very salty water kept leaking into my mask, or because I was panicking over the oddity of breathing through a tube, but because the scenes opening up below me were nothing short of some of the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever seen (ouch, that was a bad pun). Stacks of frilled and fringed coral giving way to deep, sandy gardens shimmering in the crystal sunlight. Black sea urchins stretching their tapering spines out of crevices. Angelfish, surgeonfish, triggerfish, even clownfish, frolicking just inches in front of me. It was like living a wildlife documentary in the flesh. By the time I’d finally worked out how to breathe properly – ironically, the key to it was simply calming down and having faith in the tube – we only had five minutes left in the water. But those last five minutes were magical, even more so than the stars over Wadi Rum. Who could possibly feel lonely, or even give loneliness a second’s thought, with scores of brightly colored fish teeming about so close to? Those were my brightest moments.

Christ, but I feel like a tourist right now. I’ve just tackled three of Jordan’s biggest attractions in two days flat: Petra, Wadi Rum and the Red Sea. I didn’t really give Petra much clearance, did I? Mm, I’ll leave that one to the girls over at Langlesby Travels (https://langlesbytravels.wordpress.com/).

It’s been a busy weekend and a half. It feels unreal, somehow. But I don’t regret it for a second – and for once, l don’t even feel ashamed. I am a tourist. Jordan thrives on tourism. I guess I’m finally beginning to accept that. And about time too! Travel is no more and no less than the best thing you can do with your life, and it’s such a shame to have it spoiled by something you could never change, even if you wanted to. BB x