I met Amelia at the House of Peace after returning from Hebron, and we caught a 6:30 bus to Haifa, a peninsular town on the coast north of Tel Aviv. While we waited at the train station for our CouchSurfing host, Amelia found a packet of Tim Tams, the Australian Oreo, two wafers around light cream and coated in chocolate. Once someone asked her what cuisine Australia produced, and the only things she could name were kangaroo steaks and Tim Tams. (Vegemite is a Kraft product that found a market in Oz when Americans turned it down.)
She reprimanded me for thinking to eat them with cold milk. The Australians follow the British in calling their cookies biscuits and in eating the treats with tea or coffee. Tim Tams go especially well with the latter: bite off a pair of opposite corners and you can suck coffee through the porous wafer, although this trick requires perfect timing, and anything less will melt the Tim Tam into a crumbling tragedy. Amelia was very excited about the cookies. She shared them with the security staff, the women at the convenience store, and with Shimry, our host, when he arrived.
Shimry apologized for the mess of his car, a beat up little Honda, but it had been so long since we drove in any private vehicle that neither of us cared. A tall Israeli with a shaved head, he did tech support in Tel Aviv, spent most of that time arguing on the Internet, studied physics and philosophy at Haifa University—“It doesn’t really attract the smartest students,” he told us—and enjoyed good beer, which is how I picked him out from the lists of CouchSurfing. He drove from the train station by the sea halfway up the hill that Haifa occupies to his apartment. His long-haired roommate, a big cat named Looloo, and two albino lab rats shared that dirty but spacious flat. He cleared some things away in the kitchen so he could make coffee and enjoy a Tim Tam in the proper way.
There was an American-style bar down by the city zoo that was a little pricier than the “sleazy” one we tried for initially, but Shimry assured us they had a huge menu of international beer. I sat there in indecision, staring at the dark Trappist brews from Belgium and the wheat beers from Germany and the British ales and remembering the names and tastes of the ones I’d tried in those lands where beer is an art. “Look at him,” said Amelia, “now he’s never going to leave this place.” Eventually I settled on a Taybeh dark, from Arabia’s only microbrewery, outside Ramallah, and fell into a conversation about beer and Oregon.
The next day we had our minds set on a picnic. We bought cheese, salami, a baguette, and a cheap Israeli red wine at a supermarket and walked with it under our arms straight up the hill, past the point where “it can’t be much further,” and the point where “we must have passed it by now,” and made it to “why didn’t we take the bus?” when we finally saw, at the peak of the hill, a building so strange it could only belong to a university campus. The meadows of Carmel Park ran along the curve of a ridge and looked down on a forested valley that ran all the way to the villas on the sea. There were a few cars parked there and two locals rode through on ATVs, but otherwise we were alone with a pair of grazing cows, which looked on Amelia’s affection for pulling bovine ears with a violent disdain.
We made sandwiches with the treasures we had bought, so different from everything we’d eaten in the past three months, and finished off the wine, and talked until the sun started to set. I made unsentimental Amelia wait to watch the disc’s final plummet—it would be the last Mediterranean sunset either of us would see for a long time. “It’s just another sea,” said Amelia, “you’ll see better ones in Asia.” “But this is a sea with so much history,” I argued, “and Odysseus was lost in it, and the Romans called it Our Sea,” and she laughed at my insanity. We went to a cafe for coffee and a hollow doughy roll that Amelia remembered having in Czech Republic on our way back to Shimry’s apartment, then bought beer and some things to make vegetable soup and had a good dinner.
There were a few other places to see in Israel—the baptism mecca of Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee; the last Crusader fortress at Acre; our friends’ kibbutz near the fence of Gaza; the Palestinian village of Bil’in, where the Wall separates the town from its olive groves, and the protesting inhabitants are teargassed every week on Friday—but O Jerusalem! we were tired of religion and suffering and Israel, and wanted to get out and move on to some new road. This of course took us back across the King Hussein Bridge, where we paid $40 for the right to leave the country, to Amman. It was the fourth time I’d come to that city, and Amelia’s fifth.
I had to get an Indian visa in the Jordanian capital, since in Israel the embassy outsourced the work to travel agencies that took two weeks to do it; and Amelia was plotting her trip north to Kurdistan, the northern region of Iraq where people are safe, the economy is stable, and George W. Bush is a messiah. Flights there from Amman cost nearly $1000, so she settled on meeting Jean in Damascus, who also wanted to go, and taking the trying overland route. Eventually, Jean would persuade her to visit Iran instead, and they would fly into Tehran and receive 15-day visas in the airport, where Americans must pay $100 a day and be on a guided tour; but these plans had yet to come to fruition, and we had four days in Amman.
We checked into Cliff Hotel and found ourselves in the same Room Number 2 where we stayed last time, which still smelled of felafel from Hashem’s. Neither of us could take that stuff, so we went to get schwarma and tea and shisha (or teasha) down the street, falling quickly into old habits. We watched TV in the hotel common room, around the oil-burning furnace.
The next day, a Thursday, I went early to the Indian Embassy by the First Circle on Jebel Amman to request my visa. I had to run around making photo copies and printing tickets and getting money, but eventually I received the promise of a three-month visa in a week’s time. I would fly to Mumbai on the 17th, in ten days. I brought breakfast back with me, banana muffins, and we took a cab out past the lists of Western restaurants, bearing such shockingly out of place names as Applebees, Fuddruckers, Popeye’s, Burger King, and TGIF, and emerged in the wide parking fields of two great shopping centers, the Mecca Mall and City Mall. When I had seen that horror New Moon in Cairo, Amelia promised she would see Avatar with me and was true to her word.
We bought pizzas and milk cartons at the City Mall's Carrefour, and picked out a bag of sweets for the show; when we received our box-framed 3D glasses, it seemed in most respects like some primary school date. We took our seats in the fourth row center of the sold-out theater and played with our glasses.
The Arab audience talked quietly through the first part of the movie, but at the flying scene, where the protagonists made a spectacular dive on their pterodactyls, they started whistling and cheering. The floodgates loose, this exuberance continued during the PG sex scene. During Jake’s big speech against the foreign occupation and its imperialistic greed for resources, the fervor exploded. The audience found it impossible to turn quiet, and a few scattered members kept whistling while the rest shushed them noisily, and a ten-year-old boy in the front screamed, “Shut the fuck up!” All through the last battle they cheered every explosion, every kill, every climax of the rendered action.
An effete, erudite (I tend to confuse the two) critic might call Avatar a cliched, uninspired film. The obvious political overtones, referring to "shock and awe" and "preemptive strikes," were not lost on the Jordanian audience. The characters and plot devices are drawn from stock archetypes, and it is, at its heart, another sci-fi flick about scientists on an alien world—but it has a steady beating heart, a tender love to the bulk of its expensive creation, that involves the audience easily and inextricably in its predictable arcs. Like most of James Cameron's movies, Avatar excels in the art of its storytelling, the creative depth of the world, and the leaps and bounds of its technology. Amelia and I left smiling, and we stopped in a store on the way out so she could buy a pea coat to keep warm in the mountains.
The bakery across the alley from the Cliff Hotel had cinnamon rolls the next day. Discs of flatbread fired noisily down the metal chute from the ceiling into a bin in the corner as I bought some pastries for breakfast.
Amelia and I went to the Wild Cafe up on the hill to use the Internet, and we reminisced on things. At night, we drank the arak I gave her for Christmas, then went out for beers with some Belgians and a Brazilian. The next day, a Saturday, was her last day in Amman. I went with her to the pharmacy for more eye gel and to the bank to change shekels. We got coffee and reminisced some more, both full of gratitude for good company on the unsteady road, for the inside jokes, for the easy-going, for the trust and the kindness, and for being more than a stranger to at least one friend.
That night could have been any other night, as we had a big chicken dinner. I bought beers at the liquor store where we’d once yelled to our taxi driver, “Stop!” on Kate’s birthday, the night we started our company ten weeks before, but the world keeps turning. We talked sparsely, feeling the imminence of separation. “It's a sad day when you have to set your alarm,” she said. The world keeps turning. In the morning I walked with her out to the corner to hail a cab that would take her north to the bus station for a shared taxi to the Syrian border. We shared an embrace and a sad goodbye, and then our partnership ended.
It was the first time I’d been alone since descending through the Cilician Gates into Syria, and I missed my constant companions sorely, especially Amelia. In the week that followed, I kept busy uploading a backlog of photos and writing, and I would hang out with Australian soldiers, a Norwegian named Erasmus, a girl from Utah named Hannah who knew Santiago and had met Jean on his trip back to Syria, and a Nipponjin named Takato on his way to Yemen—“But Al-Qaeda is there, and they closed all the embassies. Isn’t it dangerous?” Amelia had asked him when we first met in the Peace House. “No,” said Takato, “don’t worry, they released him last week.” “What?” “The Japanese man they kidnapped. They released him. He was only in jail for a month.” But I still felt isolated, very far from home, and very glad and grateful to have the memories of the last three months.
Amelia, I thank you. India is next.