Saturday, July 21, 2012

Wadi Mujib

So my roommates and I rented a car yesterday, and had originally planned to drive to Wadi Mujib Nature Reserve, about an hour south, and hike in the early afternoon and then return to Amman in the late evening. By the wording of that sentence, you've probably guessed that the day didn't turn out as planned. Picking up the car took longer than expected, we took a less-than-efficient route out of the city, and, let's just say, Jordanian villagers' version of giving directions consists of some arm flailing and deceptively confident advice to keep going "dughri, dughri, dughri" ("straight" in Arabic). Rather than ending up at waterfalls by the sea, we found ourselves driving miles and miles through the mountainous desert. Not quite what we intended...

Desert driving
...but it was pretty, and there were some perqs along the way. For instance, we saw signs for the tombs of the companions of the Prophet!

"Tomps." Love the hopeless P-B confusion.
Driving through the Mujib desert, we came across a man selling jewelry on the side of the road. When we stopped to ask for directions, he told us "dughri," and clearly didn't know what he was talking about. But he offered us Bedouin tea and yummy cookies, so we sat on the couches and enjoyed the refreshments and soaked in the scenery, before continuing our drive in the wrong direction.

The nice man that fed us and tried to sell us jewelry.
Tea and cookies in the desert!
Eventually, we came across somebody who spoke enough English to laugh at us when we told him where we wanted to go. He said we needed to go due west. But if we wanted to stay on major roads, we'd first have to go north to Madaba or south to Karak, either of which route would take almost two hours. We must have looked pretty pathetic, because he then told us there was a shortcut, but we'd have to take smaller roads connecting villages, and he warned us that all the signs were in Arabic and we'd probably get lost. So we took it as a challenge. After a small accidental detour to what is supposedly a "castle" (read: two pillars and some rocks on a hilltop), we found our way. By that time, it was late afternoon, so we regrouped and agreed on a change of plans: since we were only a few miles from the Dead Sea, we'd spend the night there, then do the hike in the morning.

The Dead Sea. A happy sight after miles and miles of dry desert.
So we booked a hotel room at the Holiday Inn. Imagine a Holiday Inn in the US -- but ten times nicer. Countless pools. Several restaurants. Massive breakfast. Private beach space. Etc. After checking in, we headed downstairs and spent the afternoon sunning ourselves by one of the pools, and waited until the sun had almost set to swim in the Dead Sea (maybe you think 90 degree water sounds pleasant, but after a 100+ degree day, not so much...).

Pool area at the Holiday Inn
The sting of the salt gets old, but I don't think I could ever get tired of this view. 

Dead Sea shore
Post-swimming, we enjoyed dinner at a fancy Thai restaurant. So nice to have a break from traditional Middle Eastern food! (There is such a thing as wayyyy too much hummus.) After getting a good night's sleep and doing what three poor students do to a breakfast buffet, we headed to Wadi Mujib Nature Reserve around 8:30 am. Because it's Ramadan, there was almost nobody there -- it was just us and a small group of archaeology students from Stanford. We quickly signed a liability form, grabbed some lifejackets, and started the hike. 

My roommates and I before beginning the hike. Still dry!
Because the hike is through a canyon river that leads to a waterfall, we couldn't take our cameras with us. But I snapped one shot at the very beginning. It felt like we were in Jurassic Park!

The beginning of the hike
It's an out-and-back walk through the canyon to a 20-meter-high waterfall. It's a bit of an adventurous journey. Not a crazy, daredevil adventurous, but probably not the kind of thing you could just grab a lifejacket and go off and do in the US without guide supervision. Climbing little waterfalls with ropes. Navigating the current. Etc. But I loved the freedom of it. A great escape from the city.
A stolen picture of the canyon. 
Even if I had a picture of the waterfall, it wouldn't do the moment justice. Really an amazing experience. We stayed there for what might have been an hour, lying on our backs, letting the water wash over us. On the way back (downstream), there are sections where you can just float on your back and let yourself be carried downstream, like in a lazy river.
Post-hike. Soaking wet!
After changing into dry clothes, we headed back home to Amman, stopping along the way for some photo ops by the sea.

Now I'm back home. Sitting up on the roof of my apartment building, listening to an unusually beautiful call to prayer cutting through the buzz of traffic, the constant hum of the rooftop AC units, and the chirping of a few birds that decided Amman would be a great place to live. Enjoying the gentle breeze on a blazing hot afternoon, grateful for a still, quiet moment after an eventful weekend. Back to reality, homework to do...

A quiet Ramadan afternoon on the roof

(Update: It was a quiet moment until a fight, probably traffic-induced anger exacerbated by fasting-induced hunger, broke out on a nearby side street. Probably 20 men in the street screaming at each other. All the neighbors came out on their balconies to watch. A real spectator sport!)

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Jerash and Naïve Language Love

It's midterm week. How do I know? Because I slept in until almost 10, I'm making time to write the blog post I've been putting off for days, and my roommate and I just scoured the kitchen and bathroom. Please, anything but reviewing lists of vocabulary words...

Yesterday, our school took us on a day trip to the Greco-Roman city of Jerash, about 30 miles north of Amman. One of these cities that puts American history to shame. Apparently it was inhabited in the Bronze Age, thousands of years before Christ. It was part of the Decapolis during the Hellenistic Era around the 3rd century BC and became part of the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD. In the following centuries, it underwent a period of decline, as the trade routes that had led to its prosperity became less crucial, but it was revived as a Christian city by the Byzantines. (A few of the Christian churches have been excavated by the archaeologists, and they have beautiful and well-preserved mosaic floors!) In the 7th century, it was invaded by the Persians before being captured by the Muslims. In 790, it was badly damaged by an earthquake. Today, the city is the capital of the Jerash Governorate and has a population of about 42,000 people. Much of it is still being excavated.

These columns have withstood several major earthquakes. Though probably not by design, part of the reason for their structural stamina is that they sway a tiny bit in the wind, like modern-day bridges, etc.

There are three theaters in Jerash. (I think this one is the South Theater, but I forget.) They were used by upper-class Greek families for entertainment purposes. Archaeologists have discovered that the families had "assigned seats" -- you can still read the inscriptions of the families' names by their seats. Every summer, Jerash holds a festival for two weeks in July, during which they hold concerts in these theaters every night. They still use the seat numbers etched in Greek in the stone!
One of the three theaters at Jerash
Here's a big fancy building I didn't listen to the tour guide's description of, probably because I was too busy complaining about the 106-degree heat and trying to find shade to sit in.
The Nymphaeum
In one of the theaters (note the modern sound equipment, for the festival) we were entertained by some Bedouins playing bagpipes and bass drum. And guess what they were playing? Yankee Doodle Dandy, Frere Jacques, and Amazing Grace. Go figure.
Bedouin-style cultural fusion
These are columns at the Oval Forum. The Forum leads to the Roman main street, lined with columns. You can still see tracks in the road from chariot wheels, and names of shops carved in stone. It's amazing to walk down the street and try to imagine what life was like back then.
Columns at the Oval Forum
Cool to see the columns I'd learned about in freshman Art History class.
Corinthian capitals

The Temple of Hadrian, built in 130 AD to honor Emperor Hadrian
After our tour of the city, we got to sit down in the shade and enjoy a re-enactment of Roman Legion battles, Gladiator fights, and chariot races (cheesy, but good for a few laughs). Chariot races were the basketball games of the Roman Empire. They were held every single night of the week, and everyone and their mother came out to watch. If I remember correctly, this stadium could seat 15,000 people. It was packed every night, and the population of the town was only 30,000!
Re-enactment of Roman Legion battles
Thumbs up, he lives. Thumbs sideways, he dies.

After we got back to Amman, my roommate and I promptly took three-hour naps. (Can you tell napping has been a big theme on this trip?) At night, we went to Rainbow Street, a Westernized and vibrant part of Amman with tons of restaurants, cafes, and an overall energetic and fun atmosphere. We grabbed some falafel and a delicious banana and nutella dessert-pastry-thing, then went to Old View Cafe with some friends, where we smoked some shisha outdoors (also, can you tell that shisha is a theme?) while enjoying a beautiful panoramic view of Amman, lit up at night.
Sipping slushies on Rainbow Street
While walking back up Rainbow Street to catch a cab home, after we met the most adorable little Maltese puppy who was also trying to hail a cab, I had the weirdest combination of deja-vu and nostalgia, like I was imagining being in Texas in the fall and looking back on this summer, reminiscing about moments like that moment on Rainbow Street. At first I thought, how silly to preemptively think about missing life here instead of just enjoying life here. But then I was weirdly grateful for the unbidden, awkward, circular feeling because it made me realize I am enjoying my time here. Always fun when you can find that sweet spot, that balance between enjoying the moment and reflecting on it just enough to realize you're enjoying it. If any of that makes any sense at all. I came across a quote the other day: "If you're not happy where you are, how can you expect to be happy where you're not?" Something to think about!

On a related note, I've been having these moments recently where I physically get chills when it hits me that I get to be spending my time studying Arabic (nerdy, huh?). Giggling to myself because, two years ago, I never in a million years would have guessed this is what I'd be doing with my life right now. The other night, I was sitting at my favorite outdoor cafe, contentedly sipping my Turkish coffee, that the servers know I like with medium sugar, and sifting through hadith commentary. Hmm. Here I am, living in Jordan, looking at fucking hadith commentary. Learning to read Classical texts, hundreds and hundreds of years old, in their original Arabic. Totally geeking out on grammar, all the time. Falling in love with the sound of the spoken language every time I walk out my door.

When I was studying chemistry, I very rarely had those moments where I reflected on what I was doing and felt deeply glad that I was doing it. I just did it because, well, it was just what I did. I was good at chemistry in high school. My teacher said, "You're going to major in chemistry in college, right?" I didn't have any better ideas, so I decided yeah, okay, I'd be a chemistry major. After my junior year, I started doing quantum mechanics research, for something to do with my time. My advisor said, "You're going to apply to grad school, right?" Again, I didn't have any better ideas, so I started applying. When I got into Berkeley, I thought it would be pretty silly not to go. Not to say I was forced into it, but I just kept taking the next step on what seemed like the logical, rational, sensible path. It took two years of a Ph.D. program to realize I was completely miserable doing the research I was doing. 

My story with Arabic has been just the opposite. Maybe if you're reading this, you already know about why I started studying Arabic, and how I'm deeply indebted to alphabetical order. One semester in college, I had space in my schedule and wanted to take a language. Something new. Something not a Romance language. So I got online and went to the class registration page. I hit the drop-down menu under the "Department" tab, and, thanks to the alphabet, Arabic was the first language I saw. It looked fun, so I signed up. I enjoyed the class, but I just saw it as something fun to do in my spare time to get my mind off of chemistry (haha, red flag, maybe?) and I laughed off my TA's many suggestions that I apply for Master's programs in the language. I went two years without taking another Arabic class, which apparently was enough time to forget all but the basics. Then I don't know what got into me, but in my second year of grad school, I decided to give Arabic another shot. I didn't even register until after the first week of classes. I withdrew mid-semester. I wasn't planning on taking a second semester, but again decided to register after the first week of classes. I quickly found myself spending almost as much time on Arabic as I was spending on chemistry. After I'd decided to leave grad school (for tons of other reasons), I had no plan for what to do next, but I had a vague idea that I wanted to study something related to Arabic. I found out about a summer intensive program in San Jose and applied the day before the deadline. After the program ended in August, I sort of knew that I wanted to study more Arabic, but I was planning on taking a year or two off before applying for grad programs. For reasons I don't really understand, I applied at the last minute, got accepted at the last minute, and decided to go at the last minute. (I'm even arriving in Austin at the last minute. A matter of hours after my flight lands in Cleveland, I have to hop in my car and drive to TX, to get there a matter of hours before orientation.) Adding to the chaos, my Jordan trip was canceled at one point, then reinstated, then canceled again, then reinstated again. And it was fully funded. At the last minute. All this to say, this whole journey has been a random walk. The next step has always been unlikely, or at least unpredictable. 

How do you know if what you're doing really makes you happy? Even if you're lucky enough to be doing what you love, you're probably not going to feel like you love it a hundred percent of the time. Even the best of all possible Leibnizian worlds doesn't feel like it's the best all the time, right? (Isn't that the point?) If you're unhappy with your work sometimes, is it because it's just one of those days, and everybody has those days, or is it because you'd really be much happier doing something else? Maybe you never know. But I like to think sometimes you do. I don't know why I get to do this thing I love. I don't know why life sometimes takes people on crazy paths, why we end up doing things we never really planned to do, things we never expected. But I'm learning that it's much easier to enjoy life when you give up the illusion that you have control over it. I'm figuring out that sometimes you just have to be patient when things don't seem to be working out. If it's supposed to happen, it's going to happen. 

And if not... you learn to deal. 

Argh. Vocabulary time. Believe it or not, loving grammar is compatible with hating memorizing lists of words, especially when one of the words on the list is "laxative."

(Do you like the naivete of this post? Ask me how I feel about this in two months, when I'm back in grad school...)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Petra and Wadi Rum

I've been in Jordan for exactly a month now. I guess that's hard to believe -- I just hit backspace without thinking because I had the sense I'd typed something false and needed to delete it. (Sadly, serious.)
Two months is an awkward amount of time to spend studying abroad... at least that was my experience when I spent a summer in France during college, and so far it's true of my Jordan trip too. In the first couple weeks, you're in this honeymoon stage -- everything is new and interesting and perfect and you don't ever want to go home. Classes haven't gotten too difficult yet, your roommates and teachers are only on your second-to-last nerve, and you're still eating hummus and ful for every meal. You're picking up new words quickly, and you have tons of energy to travel around and see new things. But I guess there's some black-magical thing that happens when you've been living abroad for a month, where you get sucked into this vortex of intense, delayed-onset culture shock, and you're tired and grouchy all the time and just want a latte from Starbucks, even if you hate Starbucks when you're in the States and you know Arabic coffee is way better. It seems like you're spending all your time either in class or studying, but you don't feel like you're learning anything. The call to prayer stops being culturally interesting and mysteriously beautiful and starts being just an obnoxious noise that wakes you up at 4 every morning. (I think this is how the story ends: After a few more weeks, you start feeling more comfortable, a little less like a tourist and a little more like a resident. For whatever reason, the learning curve picks up again and your vocabulary starts increasing at the speed of light. You finally start to settle in to a routine that's truly sustainable. Of course, once you get to this point, it's time to get on a plane and head back to the States. Cue reverse culture shock, jet lag, etc. But we'll see if that turns out to be the case.) So to remedy the homeless homesickness, my roommate and I hopped in a cab and went across town to Taj Mall (they have a sense of humor, huh?) and enjoyed some Pinkberry yogurt (or "binkberry," since there is no "p" sound in Arabic!) and treated ourselves to some retail therapy at American Eagle and H&M. There are not a lot of problems that a 12 JD pair of really comfortable jeans won't fix.

But jeans don't make classes go away. Things have been really busy lately. The other day, my friend sent me a link to an article that basically says when people go on and on about how busy they are, they're just bragging. Some truth to that? So be it! It's been a while since I've had anything to brag about. Class all day, going out to cafes or friends' places most nights, and traveling almost every weekend. It's fun, but it can be exhausting. (The only reason I'm making time to write now is I got sick from something I ate and decided I'd rather vomit at home than in public. So I'm home alone, curled up on the couch sipping tea, watching Egyptian movies, and listening to random intermittent gunshot-like noises out my window?) I added two classes this week, for a total of four: Classical grammar, Modern Standard Arabic skills, Jordanian dialect, and a class on tools for accessing Classical texts. It had been a whole year since I'd formally studied Arabic, so I'm a little in love with classes. But it does mean I'm buried in work a lot of the time, sometimes literally. (As I'm writing this, I have two Arabic-Arabic Classical dictionaries on my lap, one Modern Arabic-English dictionary, and two grammar reference books, not to mention the online Quranic translations and lexicons/dictionaries. Ha!)

Last weekend our school took us on a trip to Petra and Wadi Rum. We left after class on Thursday and arrived in Petra late at night. We stayed at a nice hotel right outside the entrance to the city. Showers with real water pressure! And comfortable beds! We spent the next day walking all around the ancient city of Petra. Seven hours of walking in insane heat. (Although I did take a donkey part of the way.) That same night, we drove to Wadi Rum to camp with the Bedouins. We got there just in time to take a short off-road jeep ride to the camp, watch the sunset, and have a delicious dinner before taking a midnight walk through the desert and coming back to camp to fall asleep under the open sky. The next day, we woke up basically at sunrise, had a quick breakfast and took a long jeep ride around the desert, in the blazing heat, stopping at a few places to climb on rocks, run down sand dunes, and drink tea at Bedouin tents. For lunch, we went into the village. A family hosted all 45 of us and fed us mansaf, a traditional Jordanian dish. The air conditioning on our bus broke down, so we had to spend an extra hour at an istiraha (hmm, best explanation is like... a rest stop, with restaurants or convenience shops?) waiting for a new bus to come, before embarking on the four-hour trip back to Amman. It was an amazing weekend, but after walking until our legs fell off, and not showering since before Petra, everyone was glad to be back.

I'm having technical difficulties uploading photos because my computer and phone don't want to talk to each other. And I don't have the patience to deal with formatting and putting photos in a sensible order. But you can't title a post "Petra and Wadi Rum" unless it has pictures of... you know.

The three surviving students from last summer's San Jose SLI Arabic program, watching the sunset in Wadi Rum:

Amazing view of mountains from a lookout point at Petra. This is after climbing over 900 steps! The view is worth the walk.

A theater:

The most famous facade in the city, the Treasury:

There were animals everywhere. They look nice and add to the aesthetic, but they also are really useful.  To see some of the best parts of Petra, you have to walk a lot. And it is so hot

Me and my roommate, happy to be watching a desert sunset:

Taken from a Jeep while we were off-roading through the desert:

One of the Jeeps we went in. Sooo bumpy!

We slept on mats, under the stars. Night sky in the desert. Nothing else like it.

Couldn't get enough of the desert landscape:

Ramadan is starting in two weeks, and traveling will be harder then, so I'm hoping to squeeze in one more trip next weekend. Hopefully I'll have more luck with pictures then. As for this week, it's midterm time!