Winter in Madrid

I’m spent. Completely and utterly spent, in heart and body and mind. Ready to drop to my knees and sleep for a thousand years like some twenty-first century Rip van Winkle. I’m back in Spain, I’m back home, and I’m back in bed, and if it weren’t for the sake of this blog, I’d be fast asleep by now. But that can wait.

I’ve dropped enough hints over the last few months for you to guess what I’ve been up to. I’m back from three days in Madrid with my dear friend Ali, who has stuck with me through thick and thin over the last few months and been a most valiant and enduring friend, putting up with more of my less-than-perfect Spanish than she deserves. As a way of saying thank you, and as a birthday present, I took her to the capital (a long-term dream of hers) to see El Rey León, or The Lion King (a long-term dream of mine). And since Madrid’s a long way from both of us, we decided to make a weekend of it.

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First things first, The Lion King. Oh. My. God. Words fail me. I’m normally fairly speechless when I leave a theatre or cinema, but Friday night’s performance had me tongue-tied for a record half an hour. It being almost entirely in Spanish – but for the Zulu and Xhosa lyrics – had absolutely no effect on the impact whatsoever. Shadowland and He Lives in You had me welling up like a new father and it’s nothing short of a miracle that I didn’t lose all control and burst into tears completely. There’s even a few fitting modifications to the Spanish version that make it – dare I say it – even better than the original in places. Timon in especial, and he’s not normally one of my favourites, was pure gold in Spanish, and a lot of the puns translate brilliantly. I know, I know, I’m late to the party as ever, but I’ll recklessly advertise it to you as its been advertised to me. You’ll simply have to see it for yourself if you haven’t already. It’s a once in a lifetime experience, and with seats on the first row of the platform, it could hardly have been better.

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There’s so much to see and do in Madrid – too much for a single day’s sightseeing – but we made good of the following day, taking in the Palacio Real, the Egyptian Temple of Dagón, the gorgeous Parque del Retiro with its street musicians and its Crystal Palace and, last of all, the Prado, home to some of my all-time favourite works of art, like Velazquez’s study of the Conde-Duque de Olivares and Goya’s Maja Vestida and Maja Desnuda, as well as the über-famous Las Meninas. If photos were allowed in the Prado, I’d have gone berserk. Naturally, they’re not. So you’ll have to look them up. We were herded out with the rest by the guards before we had the chance to find the equally famous Dos de Mayo, which is a shame, but that’s what you get for being thrifty and waiting until the 6pm free entry, giving you, and everyone else who’s in on the secret – which seems to be most of Madrid – just under two hours to appreciate it all. Fear not, Goya. I’ll be back.

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This weekend has also done one system a world of good, and that’s the thrifty-gifty BlaBlaCar operation that so screwed me over in December (or maybe it was me that screwed up…?). Getting to and from Madrid from our respective backwater neck-o’-the-woods could hardly have been easier, faster and more enjoyable. This year I will try to use it much more often, if not all the time. It requires a little bravery and certainly more social skills than simply hopping on a bus, of course, but I do believe I’m getting there. Consider me, then, a willing convert. And if you’re reading this, Mr Oulad Berhil taxi driver, you could learn a lot from BlaBlaCar. It’s all about the conversation, at the end of the day, and these can be worth their weight in gold, though it’s mere pennies you’re paying. Truly.

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Post script. Madrid is a capital city. By all rights, it should have scared the living day lights out of me. But with Ali by my side, it didn’t occur to me even for a second. I’d even go so far as to say that it was one of the best adventures yet. A lot of auxiliares living and working here use Spain as a launch-pad to other European destinations, but I maintain that there’s enough to do here to last you not just a year, but a lifetime. Oh Spain, how cruelly you play with my heart…

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Well, I guess it’s finally time to pack up the festivities, dust off the schoolbooks and get back to work. I’m none too keen to do so, but at the same time I really need to. The wind is howling outside and winter, it seems, has finally arrived. And long has it been in coming. BB x

No Going Back

Saying goodbye is never an easy thing to do. I’m certainly not particularly good at it. In fact, there are quite a few goodbyes I’d like the chance to go over again, given the opportunity. You know the kind: the ones where it was all too fleeting, or maybe you didn’t quite say everything you wanted to say, or maybe the real goodbye never came around and you were left with a last meeting that wasn’t really a send-off at all. Most likely you’ve encountered that oh-so-very British awkward goodbye at least once in your lifetime: the one where you say goodbye to somebody, only to bump into them a few minutes later. Don’t you find that situation crops up a lot? It certainly does in Durham, anyway…

For a chatty gossip like me (you’ll just have to imagine the deep sarcasm there), I don’t suppose there’s much point in an elaborate farewell. It’s only really an issue if you’re going to be out of contact for an extended period of time, like stepping off the plane into the abyss and severing all connections with the outside world. Which is essentially what I do every time I step off the train at Three Bridges. I have a phone, true, but I rarely use it. I think I sent a grand total of three texts over the last three months, and all three of them last Sunday. Radio silence on my part doesn’t necessarily mean I’m traveling – I’m probably a lot more talkative when I’m on the road – but it doesn’t mean I’m inactive, either. I simply enjoy going for long periods of radio silence. Anything that needs saying can surely be said best face-to-face, and anything that’s worth saying is always worth waiting for. That makes me quite a distant person, I guess – and not the easiest to track down. For somebody who spent almost all of two years on teenage texting tenterhooks, it’s a policy I’ve guarded jealously for some time now. So in that sense, setting off on another long adventure isn’t really all that different from any other end of term break, as far as contact is concerned.

I’m going off topic. I suppose I’d better come out with it. I’m heading off to Spain in two days’ time – less – to spend nine months working in a secondary school… and I’m not coming back in between.

The idea first came to me when I had a look at the Spanish school calendar for the coming year. That projected end of term date on the twenty-second of December shocked me at first, despite having been schooled in Spain at Christmastime before. It’s all about the reyes magos out there, and that’s not until January. I must have got it into my head early on, but it wasn’t until saying farewell (successfully, mind!) to Andrew at Gatwick Airport that it hit me: I want to be out there for the long haul. Taking a year abroad isn’t just about honing your language skills to fluency, it’s about growing up – and Lord knows I’ve still so much more of that to do. What better way than to strike out on your own for an entire year? Because that’s what it’s set to be, with my second Arabic stint in Morocco striking up almost as soon as I’m done in Extremadura at the end of May, meaning I won’t see the green hills of England again until August 2016, at the very earliest. That doesn’t trouble me as much as it should.

I'm going to miss autumn in England. No, I'm really, really, really going to miss it

I’m going to miss autumn in England. No, I’m really, really, really going to miss it

The last few days have been wonderful for a last taste of England. I consider myself extremely lucky to live in one of the most charming spots in West Sussex, overlooking a dream-sequence of rolling hills as far as the eye can see, right up to the point when they tumble into the sea to the south. Autumn’s in the air, the forest is full of mushrooms and the buzzards that nest deep in the woods are cartwheeling noisily through the skies as usual. Morpurgo described them ‘mewing’ in one of his books and I can’t think of a better way of putting it. This is England, and I’m going to miss it. But there’s something in the air, telling me it’s time I should be moving on. Maybe that’s autumn. The signs are everywhere. The leaves on the oak trees are going a gorgeous golden colour. Out on the school rugby pitches the odd wheatear sits taking a breather, whilst flycatchers and warblers hurry on through the hedgerows snatching a quick meal on their way home. But most telling of all are the great flocks of swallows and the martins streaming on southwards overhead, and in a couple of days I’ll be following them. Maybe I’ll even see some of the same individuals swooping by from Villafranca. Who knows?

Ten points if you can see the buzzard in this one

Ten points if you can see the buzzard in this one

The hardest thing for me to leave behind – besides the monstrous tapestry, which is never going to be finished anytime soon – will be the growing mountain of books in my bedroom.

A year and a half, five metres in and still slaving away

A year and a half and still slaving away…

It’s pretty daft, but for an aspiring writer, I’m late into the fold as regards actually reading. I got it into my head once that if I never read any books that contained ideas similar to my own, I couldn’t get done for plagiarism, because I’d never have noticed the similarity. How very typically overcomplicated of me. The end result is that I haven’t read a decent book – besides Pavilions – in nigh on ten years. At least, one that hasn’t been prescribed by my course. Now I’m motoring through them at lightning speed, assisted by all the iBooks freebies, an immense library at home (courtesy of my equally bookish mother) that I never truly appreciated, and an all-too brief visit to a real bookshop over the weekend.

So many books, so little time...

So many books, so little time…

I say real to distinguish it from your average WHSmith or Waterstones. Seriously, this place had everything. All the historical fiction you could shake a stick at. The entire Hornblower saga. Flashman in abundance. Sharpe, Iggulden and even the master of the art herself, M.M. Kaye. All beautifully spined, deliciously musty and lovingly second-hand. A new gadget may be a good thing, but there’s nothing better than an old book. Mum found a particularly beautiful pair of illustrated Arabic dictionaries – formerly the property of a military attaché, as stamped. Oh, I could have died and gone to heaven. I was in kid-at-Christmas mode. If I’d had this newfound book obsession just two years earlier, I might have given languages the boot and applied for an English degree. The only thing holding me back at the time was a general reading apathy…

Today’s been the downer of the month for no other reason than that every so often I have a lonely spell where it takes a lot to lift me up. Fortunately I’m in the best place for it: start of term or not, the grounds of Worth Abbey are no less than the finest place I’ve ever encountered for soul-healing. Alright, so the stone-pine copse along the Raya Real with its attendant black kites just comes up trumps, but that’s not on my doorstep every morning. Not yet, anyway. Besides, when the loneliness birds come flying in, the open world is always there. Nature’s an unpredictable lady at the best of times, but she’s never let me down. I’ve said that before, and I’ll say it as often as it takes to drive this funk of mine away. Everything will look better in the light of a new morning. It always does.

Waldeinsamkeit - the feeling of being alone in the woods!

Waldeinsamkeit – the feeling of being alone in the woods!

These are curious things to dwell on when home will be so very far away for the next eleven months. But home is where the heart is, and mine has been in Spain for as long as I can remember, and that’s got to count for something. Maybe she’s out there, and maybe she’s not. That’s not for me to decide. If fate decides to cut me a break and give me a good turn, I’m ready to run with it. But one thing’s certain: I will leave Spain fluent. If I can leave the country at the end of the year as bilingual as the grandfather I never knew, I’ll have accomplished a dream two generations in the making. Being a quarter Spanish will mean so much more.

I will be fluent. And that’s a promise. BB x

The World’s Most Beautiful Women

Why am I doing this?

No, seriously. Why am I doing this? This isn’t Amman. This isn’t even vaguely Arabic. We’re halfway to Kiev on a bus that isn’t the Skybus that Google and Tripadvisor recommended. Come to think of it, I didn’t even ask the driver where we’re going. It might not even be Kiev. I’m going by the size of the city and the great big river we crossed earlier and assuming it is. Other than that, I really don’t know. I can’t read the alphabet. Any and all Russian I learned in those four after-school sessions has jumped clean out of my mind, except that the letter P becomes R and K, T and A stay the same. Ten points for effort for this worn-out linguist! I mean, there’s no escaping it this time: this is sheer lunacy, even by my standards.

‘We could be going anywhere right now,’ says Andrew. ‘We could literally be going anywhere.’

Well, this really isn't Arabia anymore...

Well, this really isn’t Arabia anymore…

We really could. It all looks bleak and Soviet; pine forests, grey skies and grim skyscrapers with peeling walls. Even the hooded crows look seedy. But I do have £33 worth of Ukrainian hryvna in my wallet (or at least, I think I do) and I plan for us to be back at the airport for six o’clock at the latest. So there is some semblance of a plan beneath the anarchy. Blimey, but what I wouldn’t do to have fellow linguists and Russian speakers Shahnaz and Rosie here with me now, if just to have a vague idea of what’s going on.

Nope, I don't understand any of this

Nope, I don’t understand any of this

If that whim decision to go for the twelve-hour layover bothered me slightly at four o’clock this morning, it was practically crucifying me by nine, when we’d touched down in Borispol Airport and navigated customs. Andrew managed a good couple of hours’ sleep on the journey from Amman; I did not, and it’s really beginning to kick in now, as I’m no longer constantly on the move. But fatigue is the smallest of barriers to the determined adventurer!

…once again I find myself picking up the mantle some two hours later. Two sentences later I woke up with the iPad slipping off my legs onto the floor of the bus. So I take that back. Apparently fatigue has other ideas.

I digress. After a minor financial confusion over the exchange rate of the Ukranian hryvna, Andrew and I made it to Kiev (it really was Kiev in the end) with six hours to kill. Cue at least half an hour of ‘wow’, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this’ and ‘this is absolutely bonkers’ as Andrew patiently bears my childish enthusiasm. We took a wander into the old part in search of the Bessarabsky Market to grab a bite to eat. Every single stall inside, without exception, was manned by what can only be described as the stereotypical babuschka. And no, try as they might, Andrew and I didn’t understand a word of what they were saying. But an idea struck me at one of the aisles and I procured a tin of caviar from one of the stallholders who was anxious for us to try a spoonful of all of her wares, from sweet to tongue-zappingly salty, from lumpfish to Beluga sturgeon. And if you think I’m exaggerating, I point you towards the sequin-scaled monstrosity lying headless on a mound of ice near the market door, barbels removed. It hardly needs saying, but this is a world away from Amman. Period.

Concrete block for make unification of great Russian Power and Ukraine

Concrete block for make unification of great Russian Power and Ukraine

The miracle of Kiev is that there is so much to see in so small an area. Like I said, a world away from Amman. In just under four hours we had covered almost everything there is to see. Beginning with St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, an elaborate Orthodox affair in gold leaf and black-robed majesty, we set off an a tour of the old city. There’s something really special about Orthodox churches. At first glance it all looks a bit showy: giant crosses, bold block colours, gold used just about wherever there’s breathing space, not to mention all the icons. But it’s a great deal more complicated than that. It was Andrew who pointed it out to me. The congregation, outnumbering the sightseers by about nine to one, were mostly women, in varying states of dress, but the one thing they all had in common was the wearing of a headscarf. A kind of step-down for us from Jordan, perhaps.

‘Surely it doesn’t work like that,’ says Andrew, as a scarfed young woman in high heels leaves the cathedral after making the sign of the cross twice across her chest and bowing out, a lurid pink thong showing above the cut of her miniskirt. Apparently, it does. You know what they say about book covers…

Overloading on the blue, much...

Overloading on the blue, much…

One of the subjects that came up in conversation with Fahed and Massoud yesterday was the subject of Ukrainian women, whom Fahed believed, as ‘proved by science’, to be the most beautiful women in the world. I set out to test that theory today, both to conduct some kind of fair test in light of such a sweeping statement (especially when any suggestions of Spain and Colombia had been overruled just minutes before), and more so to justify this ridiculous little side-quest into Kiev at the end of our labours.

Or you could just cut out the middle man...

Or you could just cut out the middle man…

I’m going to surprise myself, but Fahed’s got a point. Ukrainian women are pretty stunning. They must be, or we wouldn’t have run into not one, not two, but a total of seven weddings in the course of our wanderings. There’s also a heck of a lot of them; more than the men, anyway, at least from my observations. A bit like Elvet Riverside, come to think of it. But seriously, those weddings we walked in on (there was hardly any avoiding them, they were all over the place…) Flowing white dresses everywhere on a backdrop of marble steps, spiralling turrets and Orthodox spires. My heart was on a serious flutter. Perhaps it’s the healthy skin tones, the raven hair, or the eyes that shelter a mixture of light and dark? Or even the fabulous dress sense? No, surely it’s the curled smiles most of them are wearing… (I wish Nizzar Qabbani could help me out here, I’m teetering on the edge of the villainy of objectivity)

Somebody stop me before I make a rash move!

Somebody stop me before I make a rash move!

Before I go too far, I’ll throw you the anecdote that tipped me over the scale of utter disbelief of Fahed’s claim to conceding a little ground to the guy. In the grounds of the St. Sophia Cathedral, Kiev’s jaw-droppingly beautiful UNESCO cathedral complex, Andrew and I stumbled upon an outdoor recital by a young Ukrainian student playing quite possibly the largest lute I have ever seen. I believe, if memory serves, that it is called a bandura? We still had a good three hours to kill so we stopped to listen, and am I glad we did! No sooner had she put her fingers to the strings than the girl began to sing, and in all my years as the son of two music teachers I have rarely heard a voice so magical. Like a siren, but sadder and more graceful. I was totally drawn in – so much so that it took me some time to realise that the bandurist and I had been staring at each other unflinchingly for almost a minute before I snapped awake, and she’d been singing all the way through.

‘You should have got her number or something,’ said Andrew, as we moved on to the Great Gates of Kiev twenty minutes later. ‘You haven’t got forever. Get them before they’re all gone, that’s what my godmother told me.’

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I’m not running out of time yet – at least, I hope I’m not. Maybe I should have done or said something. As ever, I was lost in the music, I guess. Too lost to appreciate that we kept looking back at each other after her set was over. My obliviousness reigns supreme. At the very least I have a good three minutes of her set on video, so I can listen to that siren song again if ever the mood requires. And by that I mean, of course, sleep. Andrew fell asleep during her recital. If I hadn’t been so entranced, I guess I might have done so too.

It's ok, as long as I have cats I'll be just fine

It’s ok, as long as I have cats I’ll be just fine

Water under the bridge, hey? But what an adventure, and what a way to end my time in Jordan! It’s been a pleasure to live and work alongside you, Andrew, and I wish you all the best in France (knowing that you’ll be back in the comfort of your own home by the time you read this, and that Babette won’t have to check on how you’re getting on in this long-winded fashion anymore!) As for the rest of you, dear readers, I shall probably take a few days’ hiatus to catch up on sleep, as I’m dangerously behind, and to clear my head. Just a few minutes in one of Kiev’s parks was enough to recharge my batteries right the way up – green, green, GREEN, oh my God, the trees, the leaves, the grass and all of the GREEN – but I intend to set up stores for the winter, as it were. Villafranca’s not lacking in countryside, but I’ve learnt my lesson, and I’m not setting off into the open world without a well-supplied heart next time.

There’s still another hour to go until boarding begins for the flight back to London. Farewell, До свидания and I’ll catch you all later. Yours truly needs a well-deserved break from all this madness. Until the next time! BB x

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

Multiple Personalities

My stomach hurts from laughing so hard. The view of the night sky from the roof of the Dana Tower Hotel is really something special, Milky Way, shooting stars and all – and yet I’ve spent the last two hours face-down on my mattress choking on laughter. And all because of the wonderful invention that is Psychiatrist.

Today has been, without a shadow a doubt, the most ridiculous series of adventures yet. I’m all fired out from the mind games we’ve been playing, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg – the last of a long sequence of madcap antics since waking up at Nancy’s this morning. The family rustled up a wonderful breakfast for us in much the same line as the night before: energy food galore. Andrew and I crept away to write the family a thank you letter and packed our bags into a corner of the room to go. The family came in and served tea, and there we were, in what can only be described as a hospitable but highly awkward state of siege. We wanted to get on our way, but at the same time we kept being denied the opportunity; on our second attempt, just as we’d reached a decision, we were invited to join them for mansaf, which we couldn’t really deny, seeing as they’d already started. Then followed several rounds of ‘the Moon is in the Spoon’, which only the father of the family could get his head around, and he didn’t even play a single round with us. Another hour and a half later it was pushing three o’clock and they looked to be after a second night, which had to be postponed if we should ever get to see Dana at all. We had four oranges we could have given them as gratitude but it seemed more awkward a gift than none at all, paltry as it was. So having got them out, we packed them back into the bag and made our broken farewells before finally crossing the threshold and striking out for the road, though not before receiving another invite should we ever be in Tafileh again.

The next half hour was a world away. From the almost entirely female household of Nancy’s world we moved on to a minibus carrying half a platoon of Jordanian soldiers on their way to a wedding party, though it could just as easily have been a stag night, for all I know. It certainly sounded as much. The ringleader tried to press cigarettes on us all in turn whilst a guy in the row in front of me kept slapping his chest and yelling “sniper, sniper – best in Jordan”. Climbing aboard was a bit of a rogue move, since we didn’t really know where it was going, but it ended up to be heading our way, and it was totally worth it for the experience. When we were finally dropped off in Ar-Rashādiyya, we were well and truly worn out. The following minibus ride to Dana was notable only in that I lost any and all feeling in my legs; the driver loaded the five of us plus one of the grunts into his ride, kitted out with a very inconveniently placed sub-woofer, so that I had to endure a twenty minute drive sat sideways with my legs crushed between the dashboard, my bag and the grunt’s physique, with the driver ramming the gear stick into the small of my back every few minutes. By the time we got to Dana I felt like I’d been amputated.

Dana is beautiful, though. Maybe it’s because we’re here in the lowest of low season, but it was almost deserted. Not a modern construction in sight and plenty of scrambling opportunities; almost stone for stone the way I wanted it to be. We scrambled up the mountainside for a killer sunset over the canyon before dinner, which was well worth the extra dinars, though being stuffed to the gills with Nancy’s mansaf we were hard-pressed to do the chef justice. So to kill time (and an unusually full stomach) I introduced the team to Psychiatrist. Chaos ensued, as it invariably does with that madcap thinking game, but at least I saw it played properly for the first time. The lack of alcohol really does help.

Sounds like everyone’s kipped out. Andrew and Andreas stopped talking a few minutes ago. I guess I’d better follow suit. Early start tomorrow. My walking boots are so ready for this. BB x  

Beautiful People

Dear Jordan,

If I doubted you before, I must apologize now. I judged you by the opening couple of pages and now, as I look out across the golden hills of Tafileh, I see just how wrong I was. There’s no constant rumble of cars here. No horns, no screech of brakes. Not even the sound of the megaphone call to prayer. Just birdsong: roosters crowing at the dawn, sparrows chittering away in the scrub and that oh-so African call of the mourning dove. And this isn’t even Africa.

We were supposed to be waking up in Dana Biosphere Nature Reserve this morning. For all intents and purposes, we might as well be. I’ve seen more kinds of birds in the last five minutes than in the last three weeks in this country; from my post on the edge of a rise just in front of the house, I can see finches, wheatears, larks and doves in abandon. There’s even a rather gorgeous sandy-coloured shrike that keeps coming over for a look-in; I’m not sure what she is, but I’ll bet she wouldn’t be averse to a breakfast of one of the little scorpions I’ve seen lazing about. Oh, and here come the bulbuls, like the coda to the symphony. I’m in seventh heaven. Forgive me the nature nausea for this slice of paradise, as I intend to get very drunk on it.

A little back-story; I have some explaining to do. After all that sirri-mirri at the police station yesterday, we hurried back to the flat to grab our bags and hit the road. Five of us – Andrew, Andreas, Kate, MacKenzie and I – decided to spend a night or two at Dana, a nature reserve in the mountains to the south. Most everyone else had an afternoon spent lounging at the Dead Sea on their minds, and I don’t blame them for even a second. We got to the bus station in time for the second-to-last bus for Tafileh alright, but it was pretty packed, so the driver put us on the next. This turn of fate, and having the ever-resourceful Kate Brocklesby with us (read about her experience here), contrived to produce the miracle sitting before us, and I’m not talking about the kettle of piping-hot tea (although I could, and at length). During the three-hour bus ride out of Amman, where we all had ample opportunity to practise our Arabic, Kate got practically ‘shotgunned’ by a group of young women who were keen to try their English, one in especial, Nancy. I don’t know how, but as we pulled into Tafileh and braced ourselves for a tough search for an ongoing minibus to Dana after dark (there are no places to stay in this town), Kate told me that we had an invitation for dinner from her new friends. I’d also had a streak of luck with the driver who had arranged a very cheap minibus for us, but sometimes you just have to decide between two good offers and, after a few seconds’ thought, the answer seemed pretty obvious.

That’s how we ended up sitting around the garden a few hours after sundown, discussing animal noises with the hookah bubbling away in the background. I’d imitated owls, doves, monkeys and gazelles before the night was up. I haven’t had a more entertaining evening in ages. Nancy, the oldest daughter of the family and an aspiring tour guide, served us tea and coffee before treating us to a feast of a dinner: bread, labneh, tomatoes, olives, cheese, and even an omelette or three. But, at last, no hummus. I could have cried for the beauty of this change in repertoire. Seven they were in total: three daughters between nineteen and thirty, two younger children aged five and ten, the mother-in-law and the father of the house. For the first time, a very woman-orientated homestay. And a homestay it was too, for when they learned of our plans they offered to put us up for the night and even help us on our way the next day. How could we say no? How could anyone say no? Even if I did have to serve as Andrew’s flak-shield/reverse wingman for the first half of the night. Year Abroad Leaderboards aside, an unexpected marriage proposal would be a very awkward, not to mention inconvenient affair (mudhik, just kidding!).

Nancy said her sisters thought me wasīm, which apparently means handsome (but don’t ask me why, as I haven’t shaved properly in weeks and have this weird DiCaprio goatee going on). Worse, I’ve been selected as the ‘most beloved one’ (whatever that means) because of – would you believe it – my blue eyes, my nose (arrrrghhhh) and the fact that I look like “both a boy and a man at the same time.” As Andrew put it, I was “complimented and emasculated in one sentence.” As for why I took the fire, I don’t know, but I suspect it may or may not have something to do with Andrew breaking ranks and talking volubly about his girlfriend; the final line of defense. They, at least, are beautiful people as far as I’m concerned, inside and out. White-hearts, as a woman in Morocco once put it to me. Here’s that true Arab spirit I’ve been searching for for so long. As ever, you simply need to put a few miles between yourself and the capital. Tafileh may be the butt of many a yokel joke in Amman, but I’d back this place over the capital any day. I had the chance to meditate last night – much to our hosts’ amusement – beneath a canopy of stars in a silky-black sky and I feel so much the better for it. Here is a family I will try to remember in case I should return; such silver generosity is hard to come by and I should like to repay the favour some day, as I promised myself with dear Abd el-Rahman Rajji, the Berber. My faith in this country and its people has been restored and not before time, too.

All my love,
BB x