Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Salt water and Spontaneity

When I got to Jordan, I had a rough idea of goals I had for the summer. Some academic, some cultural, some personal, etc. One of them was to write at least two blog posts a week. See how well that's gone! The break from blogging hasn't been for lack of anything to say (it's the opposite) or even for lack of time. It seems like the more there is to write about, the harder it is to organize my thoughts. Sometimes writing is easy, sometimes it feels impossible, and I'm figuring out that it's hardest for me when things around me are changing very quickly -- it's almost silly to say out loud the things that are changing when they're so obvious. Culture shock is part of it. But road-trip shock is another part. I'm realizing I'd fallen in love with the freedom of four wheels on the freeway, sleeping in a different city every night, operating on my own schedule. I went virtually straight from that to living in a new country, constantly surrounded by people, and always, so it seems, on someone else's schedule. Not a bad thing, but different for sure.

With my lovely roommate on the way to Aqaba. Happy.
Goal-wise, one of the things I told myself when I got here is that I should say "yes" more. Be more spontaneous. Not always try to plan out my day in my head and refuse to do anything that doesn't fit with that plan. This is something that I'm challenging myself to do more of in general, but especially while I'm in Jordan. It's is hard for me to do, because it goes against the way I've lived most of my life. (Geez, how stupid does that sound now?) But I'm slowly getting better at it. Sometimes this means saying yes when my roommate asks me if I want to go up on the roof and have a cigarette hang out with friends and look out over the city lights as we listen to the call to prayer, even if I'd planned to study then. Sometimes it means hopping in a cab and riding 20 minutes to watch a soccer game at midnight, even though I'm tired and I don't even like soccer. And sometimes, like the weekend before last, it means saying yes when asked in the morning if I want to go to the Red Sea that night...

Cool view from our friends' roof
...and so I did. After class, my roommate Queeny and I met up with a group of five guys we barely knew and went to their apartment to hang out while they packed up for the trip. They have a ridiculously amazing view of Amman from their roof. Once we got some food, we hopped in a van and made the four-ish hour trip to Aqaba, a well-known resort town and port on the Red Sea. Between Amman and Aqaba, there's a border of sorts, a security checkpoint. Because one of the guys in our group was Syrian, we had to stop and wait while he got questioned. We had a Jordanian with us, so he didn't have too much of a hard time crossing the border--after a thorough examination of his passport and about fifteen minutes of questioning, we were back on the road. But apparently the process sometimes takes hours, and had our Jordanian friend not been with us, he might not have been allowed to cross at all. A weird reality check. Speaking of reality checks: as I was walking back to my apartment just now, my roommate and I were approached by two Syrian women with young children, begging for money. They showed us their passports as they explained that they are from Homs, and that their husbands are still in Syria so they are here on their own and they are very poor. Felt kind of horrible telling them I couldn't help them.

This guy was hanging out by the Red Sea 
Anyway, we got to Aqaba late at night and went to the beach the next day. A camel ride was definitely on the goals list, and it just so happens that I ran into one on the beach, and he agreed to give me a ride! Heh. I'm a shameless tourist, yes, but it was really cool and now it's out of my system. It was an afternoon of good food, good coffee, good conversation, and intolerable heat. The blazing sun wore us out, so we went back to the apartment to rest for a while and made a trip back to the beach after sunset once it had cooled off a bit. How to describe that night? One of those magical moments, better to just let it be. That said, it's pretty incredible to be lying on your back on a blanket on the beach, right across the Red Sea from Israel, under a sky full of brilliant stars, smoking shisha with new friends. (Our new Syrian friend was even reciting Arabic poetry -- if you know me, you know that listening to Arabic poetry might be one of my favorite things on the planet!) See? That doesn't capture the moment.
Beach at Aqaba at night

On the way back to our home away from home, we heard loud music and saw a big group of people dancing. A post-wedding celebration. So what else was there to do but turn around and stop to check it out? How's that for spontaneous? We asked if we could join the party, and we were immediately welcomed inside. Arab hospitality in action. Queeny and I were the only girls in the whole group, so we ended up in the middle of a circle of sweaty men who were grabbing our wrists and shoving us around, insisting on taking pictures with us, and inviting us to go home with them. They grabbed each of our guy friends and threw them up in the air, like we were at a rave or something. I think we were only there for 5 or 10 minutes, but it was so overstimulating that it seemed like forever. I loved it, and I'd never do it again.
The post-wedding party we crashed

The next day, we left Aqaba and headed back to Amman, stopping at the Dead Sea on the way. There are lots of fancy hotels there, and if you want to find a decent beach spot, you'll end up having to pay a bit of money. But it's more than worth it! It's such a funny feeling when you first step out into the water and lift your feet off the ground and just... float. As a childhood swimming lesson dropout, I was happy to be able to venture out into the "deep end" without worrying about doggy paddling and struggling just to keep my head above water. It's relaxing to effortlessly float on your back, close your eyes, and feel the sun on your face, but my favorite part was sitting up. It's like you're in a recliner or something. Just try to sink. You can't! You can even "stand" without touching the ground, you just have to be careful not to lean forward too much, or else you will flip forward and land on your face. The water has almost 35% salinity, and that doesn't feel very good if it gets in your eyes. Also, Dead Sea mud is full of minerals and is supposed to be really good for your skin. They sell the stuff at spas. It's much more authentic to wade out into the water and grab a big handful of it from the bottom of the sea. It really does make your skin so soft.
Sitting up in the Dead Sea!

Making concrete goals can be a great motivator, but it can also be a little dangerous. When I go back and read the goals I wrote down on day one and think about my progress on them, it's so easy for me to be discouraged because I'm convinced I'm not doing "enough" (But come on, when is anything really ever going to be enough!!) When I feel that way, there's the temptation to just quit. I'm not doing it well, so why am I even doing it? What's that quote? "Anything worth doing is worth doing well." I hate that quote. I mean, I guess maybe it helps some people, but I'm not one of those people. Maybe it's a little paradoxical, but I'm much more productive and happy when I tell myself "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." It sounds great in theory to say I don't want to do a half-assed job today because I'll do a perfect job tomorrow, but the problem is that tomorrow becomes today, and so on, and I end up not doing the thing at all.

So I wrote a crappy and disorganized blog post. So what? I wrote a blog post! Take that, goals list! 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Yesterday our school took us on a "field trip" to Ajlun Castle, a little over an hour's drive north of Amman. Nothing like riding in a caravan of five buses full of students with North Face backpacks, brightly colored sunglasses, and cameras to make you feel like a tourist! And our bus driver made epic music choices: Killing Me Softly, selections from Backstreet Boys (or 'N Sync -- that was my generation, and I can never keep the two straight) and Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" at ear-splitting volume. He'd raise the microphone to his mouth with a huge smile on his face and threaten to sing along.

The city of Ajlun itself dates back to around 850 BC.
The town of Ajlun on the way to the castle
We had a very knowledgeable tour guide who spouted off tons of information about the history of the building and the battles it was involved in. I wish I could recount them here, but my brain doesn't retain historical facts. It just doesn't work that way. As interesting the history can be, it mostly goes in one ear and out the other. What I do know is that the castle was built in the late 12th century by Saladin to guard against Crusader attacks, but over the years the building served various purposes. Originally it was used to store food, water, and weapons, but it was later used as a monastery, a police station, and at one point even a medical school. There's not much to see inside, except piles of huge stones used as cannonballs. Really big. Wouldn't want that catapulted at my face.
Ajlun Castle
Then our tour guide took us up to the top of the castle and pointed out the views. Supposedly on a clear day (which yesterday was not -- note all the haze in the picture!) you can see the Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights, the Hebron Mountains, the West Bank, and even Jerusalem's famous Al-Aqsa Mosque. Not to mention Nazareth, Jericho, and Bethlehem...
View of Lebanon from the top of the castle
By the end of the tour, everyone was hungry and exhausted from the heat. (How did I fail to mention in my last post how much it sucks to wear long pants and long sleeves in this heat?!)  Envision open mouths and heads leaning against windows, bouncing with the bumps in the road. Thank goodness that the next stop was lunch. I think this was in Jerash but I slept on the bus ride there so... At any rate, the food was delicious. The obvious hummus, baba ganoush, tabbouleh, and freshly baked pita, plus a few dishes I didn't recognize. And there were french fries too. (What?!) It's not so bad being vegetarian in the Middle East! 
Delicious food!
After coming home and taking a two hour nap, I ventured out into Amman and took my first solo cab ride. I was nervous because my colloquial Arabic leaves much to be desired, and most of our communication with cab drivers so far has been via gestures, broken formal Arabic on our part, and equally broken English on the driver's part. But yesterday I managed to get where I was going using entirely colloquial Arabic, and even got compliments from the driver on my speaking! He tried to make me speak English so he could learn. I mostly refused, but I did teach him how to say "stop here," much to his delight. One of my major goals for this summer is to be brave enough to make mistakes. Lots of them. Because if I try to say everything perfectly, I'll end up not saying anything at all. And how can you learn to speak if you don't... speak?!

Today is my last day of "freedom" -- class starts tomorrow morning. The other day we took placement tests, which included a written portion and an oral interview, and this afternoon we'll find out which level we placed into. It's hard to believe it's been almost a year since I've taken an Arabic class, and I'm definitely excited to get back into it tomorrow.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

First impressions of Jordan

After anticipating my trip to Jordan for over a year, I've finally arrived in Amman. I left Cleveland on Wednesday afternoon and got here very early on Friday morning, after a total of almost 15 hours of flying and an 11-hour layover in Frankfurt (yes, it was horrible, but I had a chance to leave that confusing maze they call an airport and explore a little bit of the city). I'm still a little jet lagged, and everything is so new that I haven't gotten my thoughts together, and don't really know what to write. But something is better than nothing, so here are a few first impressions.

Because I arrived in the middle of the night, my first real view of Amman was from the top of my apartment building as the sun rose on Friday morning. Looking at a minaret while listening to the call to prayer kind of made me realize I'm actually in Jordan!
The view from the roof of my apartment
A lot of things will take some getting used to. The most obvious: being an American woman in an Arab country. We get stared at a lot, and honked at a lot. It's definitely a different experience to feel unwelcome at certain restaurants or cafes because I am a woman. (That doesn't happen most places, but it's uncomfortable when it does.) Men will roll down their car windows as they drive by and ask us in English if we want a ride, or yell "banaats!" at us (the Arabic plural of "girl" further pluralized by -s. haha). If you say so much as a few Arabic words to a cab driver after telling him where you'd like to go, he'll immediately ask where you're from and whether you're married. (We were warned about that, but I didn't think it would happen, till it happened to me!) It's also really easy to get ripped off by cab drivers unless you know what you're doing. It shouldn't cost more than a couple Jordanian dinars (about $3) to get from anywhere in Amman to anywhere else, but foreigners can get tricked into paying ten times more than they should. Luckily I didn't have to learn that one the hard way, although we did have a cab driver yesterday who drove us a few blocks towards our destination then decided he didn't want to give us a ride anymore, so he told us he needed to go to the mosque and asked us to get out. Also, street names and addresses don't mean much here. If you want to take a cab somewhere, you need to give the driver a landmark that's close to where you want to go (such as a hospital or a mall) and once you get there give turn-by-turn guidance.

Being a pedestrian here is next to impossible. Maybe I've been spoiled by living in Berkeley, where drivers willingly stop for pedestrians, crosswalk or not. But traffic here is nuts. The concept of right-of-way is a lot less well defined than it is in the US, and I can count on one hand the number of stop lights I've seen. We're learning to find locals waiting to cross the street, and follow them. 

We're also adapting to our living conditions. Overall our apartments are more than tolerable -- we have a big living space, a kitchen with a gas stove and a refrigerator, a washing machine, and satellite television. But the electricity hasn't been reliable (I still don't have electricity in my room!) and since Jordan is among the five driest countries in the world, our water use is severely limited. Our water tanks are refilled once a week, so it's actually possible that we'll run out of water if we're not careful to limit our showers to 3 minutes and to always remember to turn off the water while brushing our teeth or washing dishes. 

Although many things are different here, there is no shortage of chicken-related reminders of home, including a Popeye's restaurant, complete with play-places for children, and KFC's, translated into Arabic as "The chicken of Kentucky". Add to that Domino's pizza, Pizza Hut, McDonald's, etc. There's even a 24-hour Safeway a few blocks from my apartment, but with distinctive Arab flair:
The spice section at Safeway
In these first few days, we've mostly stayed in our neighborhood, a few miles northwest of the center of the city. Looking forward to exploring more of Amman before class starts on Wednesday.

Friday, June 1, 2012

RT12 Day 10: Chattanooga

I slept in this morning and woke up ready to see mountains and caves, but when I left the hotel it was pouring down rain. So I postponed the mountains and caves for a while and drove to downtown Chattanooga. Gross weather.

I grabbed breakfast at Aretha Frankenstein's, a sort of quirky restaurant and bar in a house across the river from downtown Chattanooga. My table was a repurposed Ms. Pac-Man arcade game table, the bar stools are old victorian-style chairs, and there's a flat-screen TV above the bar that's framed with a picture frame. The servers are friendly, but food takes forever to come out. I think they travelled to Greece to get the feta for my spinach and feta omelette, but I didn't mind the wait, because the food was delicious and I had time to kill while the clouds cleared up.

To make up for the fact that I went all the way to Carlsbad Caverns and then didn't want to wait in line to see the cave, I went to Ruby Falls, an underground waterfall in a cave system under Lookout Mountain. So it might not be Carlsbad, but it is America's highest underground waterfall, at 145 feet. The tour took an hour and a half, the group was about 20 people, and the guide was an obnoxious beatboxer named Dan who went by Danimal. Like the yogurt. But the cave was cool. Lit up in all kinds of colors:

I think my favorite part of the tour was the cave formations.

Most of these formations have silly names based on what they resemble, like Tobacco Leaves, Steak and Potatoes, Donkey, and Leaning Tower. 

This part reminded me of Gollum in LOTR.

Obnoxious Tour Guide gave us a mnemonic for remembering the difference between stalactites and stalagmites. Stalactites "hang tight" to the ceiling of the cave, and stalagmites "might" make it up to the top someday. Hmm. Maybe now I'll finally remember the difference...

After Ruby Falls, I went to Rock City. Basically a cleared off part of a mountain trying to be Disneyland. Gimmicky, overpriced, and touristy. There are paths leading to a lookout where you can see seven states, and I enjoyed parts of it, but definitely not worth the $18 admission cost. I should have known better. Oh well.

I walked across this bridge. If you know how much I love bridges (ha), it's a big deal...

The lookout. Do you see the seven states?

This part is Lover's Leap.

Eagle almost looks real?

After spending all of 15 minutes at Rock City (price per minute? crazy.) I went to downtown Chattanooga. Lunch at The Blue Plate -- a huge Portabella burger that I ate half of. (That is cheese, not candle wax, I promise.)

The restaurant is right next to the Tennessee Aquarium...

...which is on the Tennessee River.

There's a lot of art in the city. Or maybe I was just especially aware of it today. This one is in Rock City:

On Market Street, across from Miller Park. (I had to Google that name to realize why it sounded so familiar -- it's the name of the Milwaukee Brewers' stadium.)

On a wall near the river:

And my personal favorite. Totally creepy smiley face made out of found objects:

Made the two-hour drive up to Knoxville, and hoping to see some of the Smoky Mountains tomorrow before heading to Columbus. Early bedtime tonight!