Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tea with Ahmad

Jerusalem.  Looking for a place to eat my shawarma, I climbed smooth stone steps to a cafe overlooking Herod's Gate.  The Arab owner, Ahmad, struck up a conversation with the standard, "where are you from?"  Then, "Are you married?"  When I told him I wasn't he quickly suggested I get on the ball and began to give me the advice that led to his blissful union of 25 years...

"Girl who go for drink.. go here, go there, where is party.  This girl is rubbish.  You have to go find.. maybe America more difficult.  You must go find good girl from place and take from good place," he says pursing his fingers as if taking a delicate cholocate from a box.
First point:  Don't marry a party girl.
"She have good family.  Mother, Father good.  She nice."
Second point:  Solid family background.
"She don't here is money, there is money I go.  She make money.  She don't 'Oh you have money I go there, he has money I go there.'"
Third point:  Marry a girl who has her own cash or who comes from money so she's not bedazzled and easily persuaded by whoever has it.

"I will heed you advice," I said as I reached for my wallet, "How much do I owe you?"
"You owe me nothing," he replied with a small wave of his hand.
A free tea and nuggets of marital advice from Ahmad of Jerusalem which I pass on to you, for what it's worth.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Lowest Man on the Earth

This morning I was beneath all of you.  In fact, at 6:30 AM I was probably the lowest man on the earth.  The way it happened wasn't as planned.  I left Petra, the ancient city carved into narrow canyon rock hundreds of years before Christ, looking for a straight bus to a cheap hotel.  Four bus rides later I was sitting next to a toothless driver going down, down, down a dark highway.
Part of this no-guidebook experiment I'm trying is that you have to rely on the good will of the locals, have a little luck, and hope someone speaks at least a few words of English (or can understand my caveman drawings and crappy charades gestures.)  It's great for meeting people, but you could end up seriously screwed.. especially when you can't read or speak the language.
The last bus dropped me off in a dusty no name town in next to a pharmacy.  I was following a guy recommended by the last guy I followed.  This was supposed to get me there.  But it's twenty miles from my destination, dark, and the lone taxi driver in town has got me in a fix.. I've got no leverage. I turn to the pharmacist for aid and he makes this guy swear on the Koran that he'd take care of me.. lead me to a good, budget hotel.  So we plunge down the road.. it just keeps going down.
"Mister.. you America, me Jordan.. face to face," he says, squinting into the darkness ahead.
"Yeah good.  Jordan very jamilla."
"Jamilla.. oh you speak Arabic.  Mister you America, I Jordan, he Israel, he.. uh uh.. everywhere.  All.  We are all."
"Right.. we are all one.  All people."
"Mister you go hotel.  100.  Maybe you stay two days 500.  Mister my friend... hot water.  you hot water.  you sleep.  you eating.  no money."
"You mean stay with your friend?"
"You say hotel.. ok.. hotel.. you say friend.. ok... you say."
And so I ended up on a busted up cot, under the stars, next to a little family run shack that sells tea to truck drivers making the run from Amman (Jordan's capital) to Aqaba (Its only port).  After an hour of slumber the youngest son ripped the ratty blanket off and pointed to his dad.. hard at work at something.
"Oh.. your dad sleep? I go?" I mumbled, thinking shit.. its the middle of the night and a cold wind is howling
"No no.. you eat"
Dad brings over some flat bread and a tomato stew he cooked up.  We all tuck in under lantern light.  Dad gestures that i go back to sleep.
When I wake they are gone.  The sky is just starting to lighten. I walk 5 minutes down the hill and slide into the Dead sea, 1,385 feet below sea level at the surface.  If you were taking a walk along the beach last night, pants rolled up, waves rolling over your feet, I was four and a half football fields below you... bobbing like a cork in the water (nipple deep with head up and feet down).. 200 meters out (impossible to drown).  I watched the sunlight come up from behind me and slowly wake up Israel across the salty water...  and I thought about all you guys, my friends and family, above me.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Enemy of the Green Monster Is a Friend of Mine

The taxi driver is pissed.. he's burning time.  The two Polish girls sharing the cab with me aren't happy either.  They got there stamps thirty minutes ago.  My passport, the thick American one, is getting passed from hand to hand as winter-camouflaged soldiers at the Lebanese border look diligently for any evidence of a trip to Israel.  A thick necked, shaved head commando takes my passport from another and looks up at me.
"Mister, what's your profession"
"I'm an actor"
"Actor?"  He perks up. "What did you do?"
"Ah... a lot of small.. very very tiny movies," I admit with a laugh.  His smile fades and he starts to flip again.  Another soldier reaches out to have a look.
"Wait.   Samurai Avenger!  You know samurai?"  I make a katana slashing motion.  He's unimpressed.  Closes the passport and begins to slide it over.
"Godzilla!  You know the monster..  crush Tokyo?"  I take a couple Godzilla steps in place, swinging stubby arms.
His hand stops...
"What did you do?"
"I fight Godzilla."
"You fight Godzilla!?"  He pulls back the passport and opens it up to a blank page.  "Mister for you I give one month visa to Lebanon.. free."

Party like It's 1999

Coming out of Syria and into Lebanon is a little like getting out of church.  Time to drink some beer, watch football, and get back to sinning.  Three of my favorite things god probably doesn’t like:  Sex, music, dance.  When you get off the plane in Rio, Ibiza, or Vegas you can just feel the electricity in the air whether you’re partaking or not.  Like the hum of the refrigerator, you notice it when it's loud, or off all-together, leaving the house an eerie quiet.  In the shops, streets, and cafes of Syria the silence is deafening.  Men (who make up 95% of the people on the street) fill the void with camaraderie.  But when the talking is over and they walk down the street alone a grave look weighs on their faces.  A Brazilian once complained to me, "give a guy a few drinks, some ladies, and a good tune and the politicians can do whatever they want.. he won’t care."  In Syria they do care, and can't do anything about it.
My cute idea of asking few questions on film about relationships fell flat.  No one would answer the questions.  The idea scared them, and not a camera shy kind of scared.  One guy I talked with often said, "You are my friend and I want to help you, but this is not America.  Small things can cause big problems here."
I’m going to miss the simple, unpretentious life in Syria and the extremely friendly, generous people.  Those who spoke English would often tell me about the English music they loved:  Lionel Richie, Whitney Houston, Brian Adams, Celine Dion topped the list.  They are some easy listening aficionados those Syrians.  <<Speaking of Brian Adams he just had a concert in Damascus and charged 120$ for the tickets.  I thought that pretty douchey until i later learned he was donating all the money to local charities.. kind of a rob the rich/give to the poor nod to his Robin Hood soundtrack success>>  But after a few days the gravity of life was starting to weigh on my shoulders.. you can really feel it in the air.  Time to cross the border. 

Beirut is a party town.  Bars empty at ten are packed at two.  Word on the street is that there might be a war in a few months when the UN's special tribunal makes an official announcement on who assassinated ex premier Hariri in 2005.  People are bracing for it.  Is all this carefree, club-going living in Beirut some form of denial to an impending disaster?  Charis Bake, a traveling anthropologist from Berkley, smashed my half-baked theory over breakfast at the hostel.   The Lebanese have always liked to party.  And they’ll be damned sure to live it up while there is time on the clock.  Beirut is the closest to Vegas I’ve seen in the region… just take away the buffets, add a few thousand years history, and consider that at any moment another bomb could drop.

Street in downtown Damascus / Beirut

Reminders of Beirut's violent past

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

You're not in Damascus anymore Toto

The idea of traveling to Syria is not a popular one in the States.  Images of touts chasing you down the street beseeching "My friend, my friend... come look.  I give you good price!", shady guys looking to thow you into an unmarked van, and stray missles hitting your neighborhood all come to mind.  I was warned of all of these things and worse before my trip.  This morning it all came back to me at the Hamastra bus station outside Damascus.  I'd already walked through the massive cloth and spice bizarres without a single hussle, strolled down the streets of the capital alone at 2am without incident, and jumped into arabic covered minivans with map in hand and "lost" all over my face.  No worries.  But when the ticket agent, Aziz, grabbed my passport and said, "follow me.. we go to the police," and called out to the masses "Anna mah sadir min America!" my pulse quickened.  Gel slicked teenagers turned, dark bearded men popped out of booths... they looked at me.. raised their hands.. and shouted, "Hello.. nice to meet you!"  Big smiles.  The cops took a glance at my passport, stamped my ticket and done.  I got on the bus and thought to myself.. damn, this has got to be one of the safest places I've traveled.  As the driver pulled out onto the highway his young assistant passed out water and candy and cued up a movie on the tiny video screens:  Sniper, which opens with a scene of American special forces shooting Panamanians.  I sunk a little lower in my seat and pulled my LA Dodgers cap down.  While gazing out at the sunbaked counrty my daydreams were sporadically interupped with a rat-tat-tat!  bang!  uuughhh!  as a sour faced Tom Berenger fell another Latino.  At my destination, a small town called Homs, a fresh faced guy ran up and asked how was Michigan.. he was hoping to move to Detoit.  I said, "Its a start.. but watch yourself.. it ain't no Damascus."

Monday, December 20, 2010

This is not Beirut

My economics teacher in high school was fond of saying, "When life gives you lemons make lemonade."  One glance at my bank account will confirm that I remember little else from the class; however, the advice came in handy when a snowstorm beat us to the runway at London Heathrow, where our connecting flight waited .  Several hours and long lines later my seat companion, David, a Lebanese American, and I found ourselves wearily dragging our luggage into a hotel in downtown Paris.  We agreed to cowboy up and take advantage of the situation, so after a spash of water in the face we stepped out into the snowy night and took a 6 euro metro tour of the city from the Eiffel Tower, to the Arc de Triomphe, to a Christmas lit stroll down the Champs Elysees.  Ah.. Paris!  The next day the airport was a complete zoo..one runway out of four open, airline employees stuck at home, and again our flight canceled.  The airline rep said there was no way we could get to Beirut until maybe the following day.  I suggested a flight to Damascus and voila... two seats available.  My new friend David made a few calls and we were met by a group of his buddies at the airport.. several beers, hookahs, cigarettes, and shawarmas later they took me to a nice little guesthouse in the heart of the old city.  "David tell these guys that tomorrow there is a rare cosmic event.. winter solstice, full moon, and lunar eclipse."  He translated to a few quick nods and short smiles.  "I don't think it's very interesting for these guys.. they live day to day," he tells me.  What they didn't have in cosmic enthusiasm, my new friends certainly didn't lack in hospitality.  One day in Syria and some of the friendliest, hospitable people you could hope to meet.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Middle East Marathon Prep

Tomorrow I leave for a whirlwind tour of a small piece of the Middle East.  Beirut, Damascus, a couple spots in Jordan, a few spots in Israel, and a slice of Egypt will all be crammed into 3 short weeks.  The itinerary has been cut a bit short due to an Anna's Linens gig I booked a couple days ago that's filming in Los Angeles.  Since I'm covering a lot of ground in a hurry there is no one to impress with a wardrobe of clothes changes.  Although I'm no Rolf Potts, I do pride myself on packing light.  You always want to have some room for local purchases and forgetting something gives you the unique experience of buying toothpaste in Syria or underwear in Egypt... and honestly who doesn't like a nice pair of Egyptian underwear.  Here is a photo of everything that's going with me for 3 weeks and then one of it all stuffed in my backpack (minus the outfit on the left which im wearing on the plane). 

I'll be taking short videos from the journey and want to capture some insightful moments from the people outside of religious and political views.  My first thought was their opinions about relationships.  That horse has been beaten pretty good in the US with the likes of John Gray, Dr. Phil, and every other self proclaimed relationship expert; but what do the decedents of Cleopatra and King David have to say about the matter?  I'm going to gather ideas on the plane for questions in this line of dialogue and brainstorm other conversation threads on the plane.  Any suggestions would be welcome.