Monday, December 4, 2023

George Takei of "Star Trek" weighed in on Georgia schools censoring "gay"

I'm beaming this up a bit late, but it's lost none of its potency.

In August, elementary schools in Georgia gave me a choice: leave out the word "gay" from my author presentations or leave. I left. News coverage.

Outspoken and uncompromising Star Trek actor/activist George Takei took notice...and took no prisoners:

Note: I added George himself.

Sunday, November 5, 2023

Wadi Shab—an Oman hike that turns into a swim

Part of a seriesMiddle East, October 2023:

On my last day in Oman (and the Middle East), I got picked up at 6 am and was driven 1.5 hours to Wadi Shab, an unusual and largely pristine hike through a relatively narrow, boulder-strewn valley. 

First you pay $2 for a two-minute boat ride to the start of the hike. 

After an hour, you reach a point where you must swim or wade through three clear pools to get to the big finish. The last pool is too deep to stand. 

Unless you used a waterproof bag, you leave whatever you brought on the shore before the first pool. For me this included my phone, eyeglasses, and sneakers (I changed to water shoes). Though I knew in advance that I’d have to do this and was assured it’s generally safe, I nonetheless hid my backpack in a crevice rather than leave it out in the open as others did.

the first of the three pools (from a slight distance)

As with my visits to Jerash and Petra, I went without a guide. Unlike Jerash and Petra, Wadi Shab really doesn’t necessitate one. It’s a straight if rugged shot—no way to take a wrong turn when you are at the bottom of a gorge, though sometimes I had to figure out a way around an impenetrable cluster of boulders or swampy patch.

For most of the hike, I was the only human in sight. (I did spot a gray snake and a heron.) Once I got to the pools and lingered, people began to appear behind me, including a boisterous group of men I soon learned were off-duty soldiers. 

At the end of the final pool is a triangular-shaped opening just big enough for a human head. If you didn’t know to look for it, you’d miss it.

You half-swim, half-tread through this channel to emerge in a cavern with a waterfall (and nowhere to stand or sit). There is a rope attached to the rocky slope alongside the waterfall, but I did not try to climb up. Instead I soaked up the atmosphere while treading water for a couple of minutes, taking photos with my mind since my phone was (hopefully still) a few pools behind me.

When I swam back to the short stretch of rock between the third and second pools, I volunteered to watch the phones of a soldier and a woman from Slovenia who had both managed to take their phones through pools 1 and 2. The Slovenian woman then took a video of me jumping from a rock ledge into the third pool and took my email to send it to me. It’s been more than a week and still no email, sadly. I hope she remembers soon.

Even if not, I will remember the experience as a Middle East highlight.

tiny waterfall on the way back to the entrance

Spotted on the way back to the city. Corn, anyone?

Saturday, November 4, 2023

American International School of Muscat, Oman

Part of a seriesMiddle East, October 2023:

After a profound week in Jordan, I flew to the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula to speak for three days at the American International School of Muscat in Oman. 

I arrived on 10/15/23, then stayed in my fifth hotel in five nights (10/11 Amman, 10/12 Petra, 10/13 Wadi Rum, 10/14 Amman but only for a few hours because my flight to Oman departed at 2:25 am.).

As with my host Paige Spilles at the American Community School in Amman, I was blessed with a standout host in Ryan Callaway (who has worked with my Paige). He picked me up at the airport, took me to dinner with colleagues, invited me to play ultimate frisbee with staff in 100° weather, invited me to his home, and recommended/found me a guide for Wadi Shab.

The Israel-Hamas war was in week 2 but Oman is further removed than Jordan both geographically and culturally. I’m told there are few Palestinians at the school and in the country (not that only Palestinians have strong feelings about the situation). 

I felt no guardedness from certain students the way I did in Jordan.

As with ACS, I worked primarily with high schoolers: an assembly, a breakout writing or visual literacy workshop with each class, and a screening of Batman & Bill (for staff).

Thank you again to Ryan and TAISM for hosting me with such warmth.

Friday, November 3, 2023

Wadi Rum, a breathtaking desert valley (and popular film location) in Jordan

Part of a seriesMiddle East, October 2023:

Two hours south of PetraI spent the night on Mars. 

the small arch

To be precise, I spent the night in the desert of Wadi Rum, which is close to the borders of Israel and Saudi Arabia. (In Arabic, “wadi” refers to a valley, ravine, or gorge.)

Scenes for films including Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Martian (2015), and Dune (2021) were shot there.

There are no roads. There are no hotels. There is just majestic nature—and trucks that drive you to and through it. 

After getting settled at Memories Aicha Camp (recommended by a colleague and worth the splurge), I set out as the lone passenger in the back of a pickup truck for a three-hour tour of the desert, culminating in sunset with shisha (except me) and tea.

wider view of the small arch

Lawrence of Arabia (allegedly) slept in this 
partially collapsed structure

This is how you get to the big arch. 
Thats my butt halfway up.

Before entering a short, narrow passage to climb up 
to the bridge, you need to navigate a narrow ledge 
with people coming back from the bridge. 
When a woman in front of me saw the tightness
of the passage, she turned back.

worth it

Of the four historic/natural sites I saw on this Middle East trip (Jerash, Petra, Wadi Rum, and Wadi Shab in Oman), Wadi Rum was the only one for which I hired a guide…because you have no choice. The desert is (obviously) vast and would be treacherous for the average tourist to wander on foot. Hamed (age 21) knew the hotspots among the hotspots and had the wheels to take me to them in a reasonable amount of time.

I was expecting the desert to chill off after dark, but on this particular night it felt just right. I wore the same thing at night as I did during the day and wasn’t hot or cold in either case. 

Memories camp at night

steps after both Petra in the morning 
and Wadi Rum in the afternoon

view from my tent before sunrise

my tent

Moving through the desert was hypnotic. At times I had to snap myself of a trance of sorts, reminding myself to focus on the otherworldliness all around me. The landscape did vary and called to mind stories unknown of nomads of the past who inhabited that unforgiving environment. I craved to catch some vestigial extrasensory glimpse of their lives. No such luck.

But transcendent just the same.

Wadi Rum + the universe

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Petra, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World (and Indiana Jones locale)

Part of a seriesMiddle East, October 2023:

This masterpiece, Al Khazna (AKA the Treasury), is a stone-cut temple near the entrance of Petra, a onetime capital city winding among rock cliffs of Jordan. 

When it appeared in the climactic scene of the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, many Americans had no idea what it was.

But that first impression was built to last.

On 10/13/23, I got to visit Petra, and it instantly assumed the number 3 spot on my list of most stunning sites I’ve seen in real life (following Easter Island and Machu Picchu). *

It’s my fourth of the New Seven Wonders of the World (following the Colosseum in 1993, the Taj Mahal in 2015, and Machu Picchu in 2018).

The date of construction is uncertain. Petra was the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom, which flourished in the first centuries BCE and CE. 

The site opens at 6 am, so I got there at 5:59 am—and was about tenth in line. 

Petra is more than the iconic Treasury that welcomes you to the site. It’s an assortment of ancient temples, tombs, and other structures, some built into cliff faces. The bookend attraction is Ad Deir (AKA the Monastery), which resembles a wider variation of the Treasury. (The walk from the entrance to the Treasury is approximately 1 mile, Treasury to the base of the steps to the Monastery approximately 2 miles, and steps to the Monastery: 800. Then you have to walk back.)

Some recommended that I enter at the back of Petra, which involves boarding a truck for about 20 minutes to a point where you start walking to the Monastery. An upside: you would then walk from the Monastery to the Treasury and out—in other words, downhill and one way. A downside: by the time you get to the Treasury, it will be mobbed with tourists and camels—nearly impossible to get a solo photo. 

So I did not do that. I started at the start, walked all the way from the Treasury to the Monastery, then doubled back. I arrived at the Monastery at 8:15 am and arrived back at the Treasury at 11 am. It’s a better workout, plus you see everything along the trail twice, from a different angle and in different light. You also notice things you didn’t the first time.

An American who grew up in Jordan and attended ACS told me that the school used to take students on camping trips in Petra before it was a heritage site. No guards, no tourists, no merchants. The kids were given free rein to set up their sleeping bag in whatever cave they wanted. Some got too bold, went a bit too far, got scared, and relocated closer to others.

Highlights of my visit to Petra:

surely an authorized use of Harrison Fords likeness 
and the IP “Indiana Jones”

The Siq
(gorge that leads you into Petra proper)

I arrived even before the camels,
but just barely.

Not only my first time at Petra but also
my first cargo pants!

the Royal Tombs

“big sale”

the Monastery largely to myself

Across a sand plaza, facing the Monastery, are shops.
I am assuming this boy is the child of one of the employees.

Visitors willing to climb have multiple options for 
vantages like this...

...and this.

A visitor facing a formidable ravine (and Israel).

This Bedouin, who called himself “Arab Jack Sparrow,” lives in an open-air house in Petra, overlooking the ravine shown immediately above. He kindly lets tourists into his home throughout the day and offers drinks and trinkets for sale. He says he can get a cell signal from Israel and has wifi in a nearby cave, where he also retreats during inclement weather.

his house

admiring someone admiring the view

Zoom in to see the start of the 800 steps to
the Monastery.

This is 11 am and this is why you want 
to get to the Treasury first thing.

what I brought to Petra in my new desert cargo pants
(except the water bottle, which I held)

my steps after Petra...
but see also my steps for the day

As I politely declined purchasing anything in a particular, the merchant popped her head out as I walked on and said “Good when you smile.” It was so sweet but also sad because it suggested that many others don’t smile when they pass—and some surely don’t acknowledge her at all. I asked if I could take this picture and she said yes...with a smile.

* My personal list of New Seven Wonders (considering only places I’ve been):

  1. Easter Island (Chile, South America/Polynesia)
  2. Machu Picchu (Peru, South America)
  3. Petra (Jordan, Asia/Middle East)
  4. Taj Mahal (India, Asia)
  5. Colosseum (Italy, Europe)
  6. Stonehenge (United Kingdom, Europe)
  7. Angkor Wat (Cambodia, Asia)

Soon after noon, I went two hours south to Wadi Rum and had my second epic experience of the day touring the sweeping desert.