Stories Left Behind in Asia

I WRITE THIS FROM the last frontier of Asia, Turkey’s eastern half, before flying over the divisive Bosphorus River into what is securely the First World, and the second half of this four-month journey. I have a few thoughts leaving Asia, where V and I spent the last two years living and travelling; mostly I wonder if I will miss it (and the solid income) enough to return soon, or if I will forget its oriental charms, conversations in broken English, shoddy medicines and spicy curries, and settle back into a first-world routine, taking for granted TP in public washrooms and sanitised forks. I realise how little this applies to the two most recent countries we visited, Jordan and Israel; though they are Asian countries in the technical sense, they also really aren’t. The hospitality we received in each of those, though, for which we paid heftily in Jordan and not at all thanks to my generous family in Israel, was unquestionably welcome after two months of dodging mosquitos and sweating through shirts in southern tropical climates. Now, with V having flown back Stateside, I am left to trudge through the cheaper side of Europe solo, couchsurfing among friends and going, to their probable chagrin, days without showers.

Anyway, here’s some stuff that happened in India, Jordan and Israel.

1. The Night Train from Varanasi to Agra

We slept in a distressingly cheap six-berth car, poorly cooled by three overhead fans but exceptionally chilled by the broken window that hung open all night. We shared the space with a Korean couple, both of whom were wearing light scarves and well-fitted summer clothes, who were amazed to meet some waygooks capable of speaking something of their language, and a French woman, who never found out I could speak even worse in hers. The woman has been in India since 2009, working with a children’s charity near the Himalayas, and speaks impressive Hindi. “But lately, I don’t know,” she told us. “Maybe I’m getting older. I find India is too hectic, always everything outside is noisy, cars, you know?” Later, an official came around and shoved a paper into V’s hands, warning her to watch out for poisoning, and to not accept food from anybody. “Ahh,” the French woman nodded. “Apparently it is quite common, you know? Some trains with many tourists are famous for this.” I asked her which trains. “Delhi to Agra,” she said. “Also, probably this one. I don’t know.” She then inflated a small pillow and went to sleep, which was when I realised that this train did not offer pillows, and the window was still broken, allowing the chilly Indian night air to seep in for the next seven hours.

2. The Changing Face of Amman

They say Amman is an ancient city, having been repeatedly conquered by all sorts of BC-era rulers—the Romans, the Persians, the Macedonians. Ptolomy II Philadelphus of Egypt once took over and renamed it, hysterically, “Philadelphia”. Driving through Jordan’s vast seas of rock and sand, you get a false glimpse of what this might have looked like; crumbled stone ruins scatter the roadside, obviously more recent than 100 BC, but to guess based on appearance, not very far off. Still today, a different sort of conquering is taking place; its influx of refugees is simmering, potentially, into the next Middle Eastern crisis. At Amman’s Northern Bus Station, we bought a bottle of water from a clean-faced boy with greasy hair. He asked us where we came from, and we told him Canada. “Syria,” he exchanged, pointing at himself and grinning. “One year.” Then he brought his hands into a machine gun. “Al-Assad—bang, bang, bang!”

3. Bdul’s Lonesome Paradise

Speak to any Bedouin in Petra and you will inevitably be asked, “How long in Petra?” And when you tell them only one day, each will shake his head sadly, look down, and say, “Not enough time.” This, coming from men who have never known life anywhere else: we asked one man by the name of Bdul Mofleh, who runs a tea and coffee shop out of his cave on a quiet peak above the local museum, how long the cave had been in his family. He puffed his cigarette and squinted out at the mountains. “Long time,” he said. “I was born in those caves there.” V and I, in tandem, took two seconds to realise what he had said. “You were… born there?” we repeated, incredulously. He grinned. He has no brothers or sisters: “It’s better,” he claimed. “Quiet. Not much people. Now, it’s all for me.” Nawwaf, our host in Jordan, later told us that Bdul caused a scandal back in the ’70s by being the first Bedouin in Petra to marry a foreigner, a Swiss woman. They had a daughter, and he tried to move to Switzerland with them, but the culture shock was overwhelming, so he returned, sulky, to his desert, divorced and alone.

4. An Italian in Jordan

Tetziana the Actress moved from Naples to Wadi Musa in 2005, under the pretence of working at an archaeological excavation site. We found her improvising an interpretive dance to the flute song of one of Petra’s hippier-looking Bedouins behind the Do-Not-Cross gate inside the Palace Tomb. There seems to be a fashion trend among the 30-year-old Bedouin locals to sport dreadlocks, baggy Bob Marley pants and heavy slouches, and Tetziana blended in perfectly, with dark eyeliner and frazzled red hair. She and her friends are something out of Before Sunrise: they talk swiftly and fluidly about art, philosophy and social structures, criticising Jordan’s paternalistic Muslim government and Western Europe’s snobbish obsession with privacy. “It’s beautiful here,” Tetziana gushed. “There are no borders. I can sleep outside, and it’s safe. Nothing will happen.” She then suddenly looked serious and took a dramatic step back, drawing her hands up the side of her body. “But I can get it if I want.”

5. A Typical Israeli Grandmother

A middle-aged woman with a fat nose and short hair sat with her plump blonde friend at a cafe in The Shuk in Jerusalem. She spoke a grandmother’s Hebrew (that is, slowly and repetitively) which meant I could catch some of what she was saying. “Where are all my friends today?” she asked the woman across from her, though it sounded like soliloquy. “Usually I see so many. Today, I haven’t seen anyone.” V and I munched on our rugelach and sipped an ice coffee. “You want a coffee?” she asked her friend, who had been saying very little. The quiet woman told her not to worry. “It’s fine,” the woman persisted. “Give me three shekels. It’s 10, but they’ll give it to me for three.” A skinny young man dressed in black walked past and she grabbed his wrist, drawing him near. She whispered to him with the confidence assumed by many Jewish mothers: “Give me a coffee for five shekels, please.” The boy looked queerly at her and walked away, and did not bring her a coffee. She and her friend left a few minutes later.

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