Moving to a new city means hours of wandering around finding this store or that necessity. The other day I had a specific list of places to find as I dodged mopeds, hopped over the results of donkey carts pausing for passers by to look at the owner’s wares, avoided strange puddles in this desert city, and averted my eyes from young men trying to get my attention.
I had been in a new city for a few days learning my immediate neighborhood, figuring out how to buy groceries even though I didn’t speak any Arabic, and learning how to work my incredibly odd washing machine with all its strange buttons.
And now it was time to venture beyond the confines of my three block radius and get to know my new home.
This is not as easy as it sounds.
1. I don’t have a car.
2. I don’t speak the language.
3. All the maps are labeled wrong and about 25 out of date.
I got on a servees.
A servees is the mass transit system for this city. Basically 10-25 people get on a 15 passenger van that has a set route, much like a bus would. The challenge is reading the long title of each servees line while it’s barreling down the street and getting on the right one going in the right direction.
So, I grabbed a notebook and hopped on one parked near my apartment waiting to fill up before it started its journey. I noted its squiggly, Arabic name and then ferociously wrote down all the landmarks we passed until the driver told me the route was over.
Then I rode another servees. And another. And another.
Fifteen serveeses later and I had mapped out the city based on landmarks and major intersections. I was now a free woman.
Until two weeks later when they changed all the routes.
Walking it is.
How do you learn a new city?
Moving into a new place is always filled with great adventures and many trips down various aisles of places like Walmart and Lowes. But I live in the Middle East. We don’t have Walmarts or Lowes. What we do have are amazing furnished apartments like mine. This cozy little two bedroom flat boasts a tiny balcony that overlooks the dirty alley with an extra broken washing machine. It has a lovely little kitchen with mismatched plates with various type of gold flowers painted on them. The spacious living area has a set of couches that are completely unique: medium brown with sideways orange tulips. But the real clincher are the goat skins. Because what apartment wouldn’t be complete without SIX smelly, ratty goat skins adorning the floor?
So, where do you suppose I find the store that sells tools? Or irons? Or…
Living in a foreign country means visits to government offices. An intimidating task, to be sure. There’s a lot of trial and error in figuring out exactly what needs to be done when. And then they change all the rules. For a while this is what is required of me:
Take a service (15 passenger van that runs like a bus system) for about 10 minutes to the immigration office. It’s kind of hidden on an alley and the sign is unreadable. Tell the guard why I’m there. Head up three flights of stairs (sometimes two, it changes). Push my way through the mob of men there to she them my passport, pay the 50 cents, and get the form. The form must be obtained that day from that office because of a special stamp. Then I leave that room partly because it’s suffocating, partly because it’s so loud I can’t think. I go back downstairs and outside to the kiosk down the street where they will give me another form and copy the first. I have to actually fill out both forms in triplicate. Then they copy my passport and I buy a bunch of stamps that get put in various places. That part is fun because the stamps are pretty and different colors. Once my documents are fancy enough and everything is in order, I go back up to the first room. Again I push my way through the mob of men. The officer looks at my documents and then sends me to another office. He looks at my documents, signs one and sends me to yet another office. He signs something and then I get to go to the general’s office. This is always a treat. His office is so nice with a tv and a kid who brings him tea and changes the channels. He signs several pages and then sends me back to the original room. Now things are entered into the computer. Here. Always get questioned because my father’s name isn’t on my passport. It’s not on any American passports. It didn’t change from last week (or yesterday). Yet they are still surprised. He enters my information into a computer I’m sure I played Oregon Trail on in elementary school and then tells me to sit. I go over vocabulary from class as I wait for “America” to be called. It’s how I’m identified. They give me my passport and tell me when I get to do the whole process again.
The entire process including transportation costs about $1.75 and between 2-4 hours.
I was supposed to have a lovely weekend. I was supposed to have some friends over to study for our Arabic mid-terms. I was supposed to have neighbors over for a visit. I was very excited for this weekend.
In preparation, I decided to make sweet tea and my aunt’s chocolate chip cream cheese bars (after figuring out our version of cream cheese since no Philadelphia was to be found). I mixed and poured and ceremoniously placed my soon-to-be yummy treat in my child-sized oven. I then proceeded to clean in preparation for my impending visitors.
Upon returning to my little kitchen to check on my baking beauties, I discovered what all those living in the Middle East dread – the gas tank had run out and the oven had stopped working. There’s no option for electric ovens. Natural gas, too, is unknown in my city. No, our energy of choice for creating food comes in propane containers on trucks with young boys clanking their wrenches in a rhythm to attract desperate women in need of this resource to feed their families. These trucks drive regularly through neighborhoods except on Fridays. Of course my need came on a Friday. So, after putting my treasure in the fridge in hopes it wouldn’t spoil, I began my trek to find a new gas tank. In my naïveté I began at the gas station near my house. I was informed that they did not, in fact sell gas tanks. However, the neighborhood barber does. Of course, the barber, why didn’t I think of that? So, I walked the short distance to the barber, thankful he was open. Upon entering, I explained that my need. He asked me where my gas tank is. I explained at my house on the fifth floor 2 blocks away. I asked if his worker could bring a gas tank and then get my empty one. He told me to have my husband bring it. I explained that I had no husband. He told me to have my brother bring it. I explained that I lived alone and there was no one to bring it to him for me. He then began a tirade about foreign women and how inappropriate it is for a woman such as myself to be traipsing around the globe unchaperoned. I politely waited, trying to keep my tears at bay, for him to finish berating me and my singleness. Then I asked again if his worker could help. Even the man whose hair he was cutting felt sorry for me and came to my defense. The barber staunchly refused. I left without a gas tank.
Dejected and concerned for my treats, I wandered through my neighborhood, praying for a gas truck. None came. I returned to my apartment plopped on my bed and began to cry over what the barber said about me. I began to wonder if I had made a terrible mistake. Life in the Middle East wasn’t just hard. In that moment, it seemed impossible. How could I begin to make friends? I looked around my little apartment and tried to figure out how I could just go home. In order to buy a plane ticket I had to go to the travel agent and pay in cash. Getting that amount of cash from an ATM would take days. I wanted to hug my mom right then. So I just laid down and cried harder. Once I was out of tears, my eyes drifted to my clock and I realized my guests would be coming soon. So, I lifted my head with new resolve: I will make these chocolate chip cream cheese bars. I will make this my home. I unhooked my gas tank, a first, so I was very proud of myself, and half-carried, half-dragged the tank down the many flights of stairs. I paused about halfway and contemplated how I was going to bring a full tank up since beads of sweat were rolling off my face carrying and empty one down, but decided I would cross that bridge later.
I walked the two blocks to the barber shop, my empty tank in tow, and proudly placed it on the floor. Again the barber yelled and gestured about his disdain for me not having a male over me. However, economy won out and he sold me a full tank. He would not help me bring it to my house. So, I began my journey back to my house dragging a full gas tank with me. And then something so beautiful happened: a shopowner near my house saw my predicament, came out and carried the tank all the way to my house. He even helped me hook it up and then left with my sincere appreciation and a promise of chocolate chip cream cheese bars when they were finished.
I discovered that terrible day that living in the Middle East would be the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted to do. But, if I really give myself and life over and make this place my home, it will surprise me. I’m so looking forward to my next beautiful surprise.