The Wonderful World of Traveling

Image(On top of the city wall in Chefchaouen, small town in northern Morocco)

It’s been a while since I last took the time to sit down and write something (A WHOLE MONTH!). I had intended to write a post about what Morocco was like but kept putting it off. At this point I think it’s been a little too long since I was there to try and write long flowery sentences about how beautiful it was or how it felt to walk down the streets or anything like that. The sights and sounds of the cities and the mountains have left, but a couple of reflections remain.

I try to avoid using this word because I think its overused and has lost some of its meaning, but I don’t think I’ve been somewhere that more warranted the term “diverse.” From the landscapes, to the people to the languages to the food, everywhere I looked in Morocco was something new and different. After my time in Jordan, the first thing that struck me about Morocco was how colorful it is. Just taking the train from the airport I couldn’t take my eyes away from the window because everything was so new and exciting. Jordan is a beautiful country with some truly amazing sights and landscapes, but it does sometimes lack for color. I spent time in crowed streets of ancient towns, up in the picturesque mountains, walking along the ocean and window-shopping in the modern stores and streets of the capital. And there is so much more I didn’t see (the Sahara for one!).

Image(market in Fes)

I could talk for a long time about the amazing things I saw and experienced in Morocco, but I don’t think it would do it justice and really the best thing I could say is: if you have the chance you should go. Just walking around the streets was an amazing experience that I will not forget.

Yet despite the amazing experience that Morocco itself was, I actually would like to take more time to talk about my experience as a traveler. This was my first time traveling somewhere by myself. I’ve traveled before with my family, I’ve traveled with other students but this was the first time I was truly on my own. I researched Morocco and where I wanted to go, I bought a ticket, found places to sleep, saw the sights and got home safe and sound. It was pretty scary at times, knowing I didn’t have anyone else to lean on, but was actually in a way exhilarating when I was finally set my backpack down in the hostel after haggling with cab drivers, getting lost, asking directions and eventually finding my way there and knowing I could relax a little.

Image(Photo taken with the self-timer at the top of the mountain overlooking Fes)

That being said, traveling alone can also be lonely at times (for one thing theres no one to take photos for you!). But that was the beauty of staying in hostels. Every night I met new people. I met a guy who works 17 hours a day for 2 weeks then gets 2 weeks off to “rest and recover,” but instead has been traveling the world. I met some other students who were traveling during their study abroad, some from the US but others from Brazil and Eastern Europe. I met a young German couple and a Japanese woman who was working in England to practice her English. And I met a guy who was born in Morocco, lived most of his life in Orlando, Florida but recently quit his job and had been traveling in Morocco for the last 6 months. I met an old man from Canada who was simply in love with life and had come to Morocco a few years before and loved it so much he never left (it may have been in part because he really enjoyed the hash…). I met a guy who was biking all around Morocco who had spent the last couple years of his life biking around South Asia and was trying to decide where to go next.

Image(common room of the hostel I stayed in at Fes)

So the most important thing I can say about Morocco is it made me fall in love with traveling. Exploring beautiful new places, meeting interesting people and learning about myself and the world.

Doha and Culture Relativeness

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This past week I finished my midterms and set out to see Morocco. But before I could get there, I had to wait for a 19-hour layover in Doha, Qatar. However, rather than sit in the airport I was able to go explore the city.

As I walked along the boardwalk, I was struck by the very evident oil wealth. Compared to Jordan, the streets were all beautifully paved, the traffic was better organized and the streets were lined with beautiful parks and buildings (or construction promising more of the same). The downtown was made up of brand new skyscrapers that could rival just about any major city in the world. While Jordan, is ethnically diverse because so many people from neighboring countries have sought refuge within its relatively calm borders, it seems that Qatar is diverse for its economic opportunities and from the time I got off the plane, the majority of people I interacted with at the airport or the hotel were from various places in South Asia.

While that sums up the differences I noticed in Doha, what I would consider my most important experience was about similarities. On my way to the boardwalk, there was a construction zone walled off and covered in posters that depicted a happy Muslim family running around and playing in the grass. They were dressed in traditional modest clothes and playing soccer or eating a picnic lunch or enjoying the sun. I was a little surprised by the image. The clothes seemed out of place in a park. But when I turned the corner and reached the boardwalk, I was stunned. While there were all kinds of people and families around, I was greeted to almost the exact scenes from the wall: Muslim women in hijab sitting on beach towels, men in long thobes playing soccer with their kids. As I walked around, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the atmosphere of boardwalks in California. There were people running, walking with their family, sitting and people watching or walking with their spouse or boy/girlfriend.

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I had to stop and question my assumptions. I was surprised by the image because I typically associate Islam and modest dress with a very conservative life style, but in retrospect it seems almost stupid to have thought that would mean they wouldn’t enjoy playing in a park or enjoying the ocean.

I mentioned in my last post that life in Jordan was starting to feel pretty normal. At the time, I attributed that to me feeling more comfortable with the language and learning to understand differences. I came to Jordan being warned to be aware of culture shock, andexpecting to learn about what sets Jordanians apart from Americans, but now I’m thinking its not that I’ve learned to understand “cultural differences” that’s made me feel normal but rather that there really aren’t that many.

When I first arrived the overt variances in clothes and language and traditions seemed to indicate how unalike our cultures are, but now that I’m habituated to these outward appearances I’ve realized that they don’t actually mean all that much. I’ve started to see a little deeper and I’ve got to say one of the most important things I learned is how similar we are.

A typical dinner table discussion with my host family revolves around the rising prices for food or about what we did that day. These conversations don’t reveal some crucial aspect of Jordanian society, they demonstrate that despite differences on the surface or at the international level, when it gets down to it we’re all mostly concerned with the same things: being able to put food on the table, being around the people we love and ensuring a happy future.

I’ve been so concerned with finding out what sets us apart, that I missed how much we have in common. My host sister is a Muslim and wears a hijab, but she is also studying to be an engineer, works at an upscale woman’s clothing store and likes to play Diamond Dash on the family computer when she has some free time. Rather than trying to question her about Islam or Jordanian culture, I think I would actually benefit a lot more from finding out more about what she likes to do with her free time, what she wants to do with her engineering degree and what she likes to do with her friends.

Camels at Petra, to Snorkeling at the Red Sea

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(Snorkeling at the Read Sea)

Life in Amman has become somewhat normal. I go to class, study for a bit in a café, go to the gym, come home, eat dinner, study some more and go to sleep. It’s nice to have a routine and I’ve really started to feel at home with my host family. As for Arabic, I definitely feel like I’ve come a long way. I’ve learned the basics of Ammia and its started to become more fluid (although my vocab is still embarrassingly lacking at times).

But at the same time, I’ve been feeling like something has been missing, like I’ve gotten complacent. Although I’m definitely still learning new things, it feels like I more or less go to the same places, see the same things and eat the same foods on a weekly basis. And with Arabic, although I’m a lot better than when I got here because I’ve been forced to use it all the time, I spend most of my time talking and interacting with other American students. While its definitely good practice, I feel like I’ve plateaued a little bit in my language acquisition. So, I’ve decided to change that.

This week I have a vacation from classes for the Islamic Holiday Eid al Adha. I spent the weekend traveling to Petra and Aqaba and the last couple of days catching up on sleep and watching all of the Batman Trilogy (I regret nothing). So now that I’ve been reminded of why I’m here and feeling quite well rested and recovered, I’m ready for another round with Arabic.

First, I’ve decided to try and spend more time with Jordanians (I actually randomly made a couple friends at the gym a couple of days ago, so that’s the first step!). Second, I’m always (ALWAYS) going to have my little notebook and pencil with me to write down new words. That may seem like a small thing, but when I do have it, its ridiculous how many new words I get every day. Its also pretty embarrassing how many times I’ve asked someone to tell me the same word because I just can’t remember it if I don’t write it down and study it (I’m also going to devote half an hour everyday to studying the new words). Lastly, and probably most obviously, I’m going to put more work into my classes. Unlike at Tufts, the responsibility for learning new words and vocab in my classes is much more on me. I’m held less responsible for memorizing and being prepared for classes and because I’ve been pretty frustrated and overwhelmed by all the new words I need to learn in the first month, I’ve definitely let my studying slide a bit. Well, no more.

That’s my plan. Lets see how it works… and how committed to it I can be.

So that’s a bit about my life. Now lets talk about Petra and Aqaba!

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(The Treasury)

Petra is more or less the tourism capital of Jordan. From the moment you step foot on the ground there are tourists everywhere and people trying to sell you souvenirs or offering camel or donkey rides, it’s pretty overwhelming. Because Petra is so famous, they can pretty much charge whatever they want and they know people will still go. So the price of admission is a fairly ridiculous 50JD (about $75). BUT if you’re Jordanian or a resident, it’s an amazing 1JD. So when we arrived we piled all of our University IDs together and tried our luck as residents (in the past, sometimes they admit the students from the program for the resident price, but other times not). Fortunately, this time we were lucky! So in we went and started exploring.

Petra is a remarkable place. When you first enter it’s about a 15-minute walk through an incredibly narrow and beautifully flowing canyon until you reach the most famous sight, the Treasury. It’s a majestically designed building carved into the face of the canyon itself. The size alone is overwhelming. It’s especially beautiful because of how well it’s been preserved because of the protection in all directions from the wind.

Next the canyon leads on into an opening and there are lots of other smaller building/carvings to see and you start to get a sense that this was once an enormous thriving city. From the clearing you have a choice between continuing through the opening, or hiking up the side of the canyon to see everything from below. Naturally, we went up and spent a couple hours of exploring and climbing/scrambling.

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(Climbing at Petra)

One of the many surprising things about Petra was just how big it is. Although we got a late start and spent a large portion of the day just climbing random stuff, we still spent several hours walking and looking at things, and saw really only a fraction of the city. Of course the size of the city was particularly evident when we turned around to go home and realized just how far we had walked. Although we had more or less shrugged off the offer of a camel ride up to that point, suddenly the opportunity seemed much more appealing. So after some haggling, we set off for a not-quite relaxing but certainly enjoyable and memorable ride back to the top.

After arriving finally at the entrance, we made our way to a nearby budget hotel. Although we had received conflicting information from everyone we talked to, the man at reception finally confirmed for us that there was in fact a bus the following day for Aqaba, and that he would make reservations for us. So we settled in for the night and headed out bright and early the next morning (although there was a bit of a close call catching the bus…).

While you’re obviously still in Jordan, Aqaba has a noticeably different feel to it compared to Amman, similar to going from the East to the West coast in the US. After a couple minutes to find our bearings, we made our way to the cheapest hotel listed in my guidebook. Although we were told that for two three-person rooms, it would be an incredibly cheap 6JD each, we asked to see the rooms before we made any commitment.  As we climbed the very shabby stairs to the top floor we were all sharing glances of concern and questioning whether we should just shell out a little more money for a nicer hotel, but when we reached the first room it seemed adequately furnished and we were relieved. But then we were taken to the second room. After struggling for a minute to unlock the door, we left the dark hallway and entered the brightly lit room and were shocked by the amazing view of the city and the sea. After that we were sold.

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(View from our hotel)

After a short nap we headed out to explore the city. First we headed down to the bay and marveled at the 132m flagpole and the ancient fort before haggling with a taxi driver and finally securing a ride to the public beach a few miles from Downtown. At the beach we rented snorkeling gear and dove right into some of the clearest water I’ve ever seen to explore the reef and the beautifully colored fish and sea urchins!

Although it was a generally magical experience, it was definitely tainted towards the end, as my friend was pretty blatantly sexually harassed. As we waded into the water for our final round of snorkeling, a young guy around our age was swimming close by. He kept getting closer and closer as he would dive forward, stand up look around and dive again. Once he got pretty close to us it was apparent that he was following us and staring at my friend. I made eye contact with him and told him to keep his eyes on the fish, but he just kept diving until finally “accidentally” landing on my friend’s legs. And at that point there wasn’t much she could do other than curse and splash water at him as he bashfully swam away.

I’ve watched guys on the street as they stare at a girl I’m walking with, their eyes moving from her face down to her feet and back up, or offering a “friendly” “Welcome to Jordan, pretty girl!” or taxi drivers asking their age and if they are married, but this was a whole new level. Regardless of the fact that its not okay in any context, I’m still stunned by the fact that even though I was standing right next to her, had made eye contact with him and very clearly told him to mind his own business, this guy still proceeded to touch her.  Maybe he felt confident enough that he could get away with it, or felt that it was worth the risk, or maybe just didn’t see a problem with it, I don’t know. But I do know that because he chose to put his desires ahead of someone else’s he tainted what should have been an amazing experience by taking away my friend’s ability to feel comfortable and safe.

While I’m confused by a culture where this sort of behavior is prevalent, I’m also somewhat unsure as to what my role should be. On the one hand I of course want to help ward off advances, either just by my presence or actually calling someone out when they say or do something inappropriate. But I also don’t want to perpetuate the culture by suggesting that a girl is unable to do that for herself or that men are “knights in shining armor” and women “damsels in distress.” I guess for now I’m just trying to be available to help and be ready to step in when necessary and be vocal about the fact that this behavior should not be tolerated. I guess that’s all the thoughts I have for now, I’m sure there will be more in weeks to come.

After that unfortunate ending, we returned to the hotel and the guy at the desk suggested that rather than spend a ton of money at a restaurant, we go to the local shops and buy our own food. So he walked us over to a nearby fish market and helped us pick out some fish, which they cooked for us at the shop, as well as some potatoes we bought nearby. Then he took us to a bakery and we bought some fresh bread and sweets then brought everything back to the roof of the hotel and had a pretty amazing dinner, looking out over the city lights and the large barges anchored in the bay.

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(Dinner on the roof)

The next day we found the bus station and got tickets to Amman. Over the course of the ride I had a long time to reflect and think about the trip and what I’ve seen so far. I thought about what happened at the beach, I thought about the experience of being a tourist and being perpetually out of place and foreign and more abstract topics like poverty and justice. Although I can’t say I had any specific epiphanies, I feel like everyday I see or experience something that gives me something new to think about and a new way of looking at the world. Like with the “study abroad experience” my thoughts are still too jumbled to pull any coherent blog post out of them yet, but I have a feeling that with time they’ll start to condense.

I did however have the realization that despite my frustrations with Arabic, I had just succeeded in traveling around, taking buses, finding hotels and generally having a great experience while speaking only in Arabic. It was pretty rewarding. It also helped remind me of why I’m here and why I want to learn Arabic (and maybe even refresh my French or learn Spanish!).

A Funeral, a Cafe and a Wadi or Two

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Well, that week went by quickly.

Classes went much better this weekand I’m starting figure out a regular routine. Nevertheless there were plenty of things that stood out.

First, last weekend my host mother’s father passed away which meant that the whole family was out of the apartment for most of the weekend at the house of extended family (although we didn’t quite understand what was happening or where they had gone until the end of the first day). But Monday night we were invited to come to the final stage of the funeral (which lasted for 3 days). After a conversation with a particularly strange cab driver, me and the other guy I live with arrived and met up with our host brother who explained what was happening. On the evening of the final day, there is a relatively informal gathering for all of the family and friends, although the men and women were separated. The men all gathered in a large tent with a carpeted floor and chairs and the women gathered in the family’s house. When we asked if there was anything we needed to know about the traditions or culture before we entered and did something wrong, my brother responded by asking (jokingly) if we could say Aslam wa alaykum/ walaykum aslam (the Islamic Greeting and response), we of course nodded and he said, laughing gently, thats was all we needed to know. When we entered the tent there was a line of about 10 men, who my brother explained were close family members, who were greeting people as they came in. So we walked down the line, shaking each of their hands and saying the Islamic Greeting to one after the other. Once we had passed through the entrance we found open seats and were offered some coffee. In the tent were lines of chairs and small tables and men sitting all around just chatting in small groups. So we did likewise amongst ourselves and exchanged greetings with the members of the family that we had met before. After about half an hour we headed back to our apartment to finish up our homework for the next day, but not before passing through the line of hand shaking a second time.

While that was a somber, although relatively informal outing, later in the week I headed out with my Jordanian mentor and a few other students and we explored what is some sort of cross between art exhibit/sculpture garden/roman ruins and then headed to a nearby cafe with a great view of the city. While we waited for our food and drinks, one of my mentor’s friends pulled out a deck of cards and started showing us some magic tricks which kept us entertained. Afterwards we sat around for a bit just talking and smoking hookah and I worked on trying to blow smoke rings, more or less my most important goal for the semester. Although I looked really stupid trying to contort my mouth into the appropriate shape(there are pictures to prove it), I finally succeeded in blowing one half-way decent circle. Progress!

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As for the weekend, I finally got out of the city and saw some nature!

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(Wadi Feynan)

Thursday we left from the University and drove to Wadi Feynan which is a beautiful canyon south of Amman. We hiked for about 5 hours down into the base of the canyon and finally arrived at the Feynan Eco Lodge which is located in a small bedouin community and were welcomed with cold juice and wet towels to wipe the dust from our faces. Once we had all arrived, we barely had time to drop our bags off in our rooms before we were off again to climb up a small peak to get a view of the sunset. Afterwards we got to try some bedouin tea, which was fantastic (I bought some so I can drink it throughout the semester) and then gathered on the roof of the lodge to lie down and stargaze since we were far enough away from society that we could actually see stuff (I saw at least 6 shooting stars). Little by little, people trickled back to their rooms for the night, but I pulled out my sleeping bag and just camped out on the roof. It got a little cold, but it was definitely worth it. The next day we all loaded into the bag of pick up trucks and enjoyed the bumpy but beautiful ride through the wadi back to the paved roads and our bus.

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(Where I slept)

About an hour later (I’m not really sure cause I fell asleep) we arrived at the Dead Sea. I knew beforehand that because of the high level of salt in the water that I would be able to float, but I really wasn’t expecting how cool an experience it would be. It was like I had a life vest on and no matter what I did, I bobbed back to the surface. Of course there are down sides to the salt which I quickly realized after dunking my head in (the salt really stings if you get it in your eyes), and I also was made extremely aware of every tiny little cut on my body.

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(Sunset over our chalets at the Dead Sea)

Finally, we went for a hike in Wadi Mujib. While Wadi Feynan was wide and dry, Wadi Mujib was the complete opposite. Although the sides of the canyon are probably 1000 feet or more high, the canyon is extremely narrow and in some places the walls were no more than 15 feet apart. In addition there is a river running through the canyon so when the sides get narrow the result in small waterfalls that you have to scramble over. As you may or may not have noticed yet, I love photography and always have my camera with me. But for this we were warned repeatedly that we would be fully covered in water and not to bring anything with us. Nonetheless I had a “waterproof” bag so I decided to take my chances and clipped my bag to my life jacket. Despite the anticipated water it came out in one piece and I got some great pictures.

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(Water fall at the end of our hike in Wadi Mujib)

Sorry this week was a little heavy on the “travel blog” side of things (i.e. I did this, then I saw that, then I ate this…). This coming week I’m hoping to try and have some more in depth conversations with people about Jordanian culture, so maybe I’ll have some interesting thoughts to share on that!

The Streets of Amman

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For my last two posts I’ve just focused on what’s been happening specifically in my life and on what its been like to get settled here, mostly because that’s all I had time to think about. But now that I’m starting to figure out the layout of the city, the differences between the formal and the spoken Arabic and basic stuff like how to get to and from my classes, I have a little more time to think about the things that I’m seeing around me. Obviously I’ve only been here for a few weeks and haven’t really done any research on Jordan so I don’t feel comfortable doing any sort of analysis or drawing conclusions on Jordanian culture, so for now I just want to talk about literally what I’ve seen and not much else. That also means I’m only talking specifically about Amman (and really mostly about the wealthier/up-scale side of Amman and the University of Jordan at this point) and not Jordan as a whole. Lastly, because there is so much to take in I’ll just focus on the most noticeable things, so for anyone who has ever visited Amman, feel free to stop reading now because I’m sure you noticed the exact same things!

The first thing I want to talk about is just the experience of walking down a street in the areas near my apartment or the university. It’s a little hard to explain the bizarre contradictions that pervade the experience with out actually seeing it, but I’ll do my best. First, there is a lot of construction. Whether it’s installing new water pipes, refurbishing old apartments or building a new skyscraper (right now there are maybe 4-5 big skyscrapers in the city and they REALLY stand out over the otherwise fairly ubiquitous five story tall sandstone colored buildings). But at the same time there are also lots of empty lots and old gutted buildings with nothing inside them but dust and trash.

As you walk along the street there is a multiplicity of random stores everywhere you look. There are small local cafés next to enormous Western fast food places (pretty much anything you can find in the US: McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, there is even a Hardees; there are also plenty of local fast food places like Lebnani Snack), smoothie/ice cream shops next to local bakeries, new car dealerships next to small family owned restaurants. Even the store names themselves are a mixed bag of Arabic and English. Probably the most bizarre things are stores that are spin-offs of American franchises like “Donut World” which has the same theme as Duncan Donuts and “Starbuzzz” which rather than selling coffee sells hookahs (I could go on…).  Then of course there are the shopping malls, which you could plop down anywhere in the US and no one would know the difference (they even have Pinkberry).

In addition to the overwhelming stores, you have to be quite wary of where you walk. Depending on where you are the “sidewalk” may or may not be there, there may be an enormous step to the next platform or it may be blocked by a tree or some ruble. Walking also means avoiding all the people who are either also walking or just standing outside smoking a cigarette or talking with friends. Also, cars are often parked someone haphazardly along the streets in front of shops and if the sidewalk has disappeared and you are forced to walk between them and the street you have to keep a close eye both on the traffic and possible cars backing out into the street. Which brings me to the topic of traffic in Amman, which takes a little getting used to. My first couple times in a taxi were a bit unnerving. There aren’t exactly established lanes; if there is space you go. The same thing more or less holds true for pedestrians who just wait for a brief break in traffic and then go and assume that cars will either slow down or avoid them. While it takes a while to get used to I actually really like it because it means for the most part people are paying attention and it works relatively efficiently.

So that’s a little on my neighborhood and the streets and general. The other place I’ve spent a good chunk of time is downtown, which has a very different feel closer to that of a bustling market. The streets are much more narrow and the shops are smaller and lined with goods rather than the more spacious open shops near me. There are also people selling goods from tables between the sidewalk and the street adding to the fast-paced environment. Wherever you walk you’re bound to hear either music, friends yelling to each other or shopkeepers yelling out prices (or even just a recording on repeat of someone yelling “Khdar Dinarain! Khdar Dinarain!” [Vegetables Two Dinars!]).

Another important thing to the general experience of walking around Amman is the prevalence of cigarettes. The Internet tells me that around 60% or more of the population smokes. Obviously that means a sizeable portion doesn’t, but even if only one person in a room is smoking the smell fills the room, so it always seems like I’m surrounded by people smoking (or on the street as well). The other thing is that a pack of cigarettes costs significantly less than in the US, about 1.4 Jordanian Dinars (about 2.5 US Dollars, compared to around 8 in DC, again according to the internet). Not really sure if that’s a result or a cause of how much people smoke, but certainly a significant difference.

Another striking thing about Amman is how common pictures of the King are. They’re in cafes, restaurants, and cabs, they’re in people’s homes and rooms in the university and on the walls of buildings all over the city. I’m not sure yet to what extent this comes from a genuine admiration for the king, or just from a strong social pressure. But so far all of the conversations I’ve had with people like my host family and a few other Jordanians (also from watching the patriotic Jordanian music TV channel which constantly shows parades where people are swarming to try and see the king drive by), people seem to genuinely love him. My host dad says this is partially due to the fact that he is constantly visiting schools or people’s houses and people feel like he cares about them. He said that even though the people don’t always agree with his policies they generally believe that he’s trying to do what’s best for the people. I also had a conversation with a cab driver who told me that he (and according to him, the Arab world) liked Obama because when he visited the Middle East he actually met with the people. I don’t know to what extent other people share this sentiment, but I definitely think it’s worth noting the importance some people place on a personal touch from politicians.

The last thing, and in my opinion the most interesting thing I’ve observed is how people dress, both because of the similarities and the differences to Western dress. First of all, there is an extreme diversity in styles. On the same street you can see guys in business suits, thobes and red and white Jordanian keffiyehs or jeans and t-shirts; for girls there is even more variation: black niqabs (even here there is variation as to whether the hands and eyes are covered as well), any and every color hijab or jeans and a blouse. It’s quite amazing to see these variations and extremes coexist in the same place. Yet, despite this diversity, there is a fairly ubiquitous adherence to modest dress. You will occasionally see a guy wearing shorts, but usually longer than his knees, and most of the time he is clearly coming or going to a game of soccer, and I don’t think I’ve seen a girl wear anything shorter than her shins, and even that is rare. I actually feel pretty uncomfortable walking around in shorts. I’ve never had someone say something about it or any actual issue (although I believe girls from my program have had a different experience with reactions to their dress), but I have noticed additional stares and I prefer not to draw additional attention to the fact that I’m a foreigner (I think being white, blond and blue-eyed does a pretty good job of that alread).

Despite the culture of modesty, there certainly appears to be room for personality and creativity in dress. To me the most interesting thing is the variation in dress of girls who fall between the extremes of Western dress and ultra-modest dress. First, it appears that the majority or women wear the hijab when they are in public. Nonetheless it’s far from a binary “wears a hijab” “doesn’t wear a hijab” because the clothes that can accompany the hijab vary incredibly. Some girls wear it with extremely modest dress while others are wearing tight jeans and high heels and look ready to go to a nightclub. And even between those it’s fascinating how some girls find a balance between modest and fashionable.

I guess that’s all for now. Hopefully in the next couple weeks I’ll feel comfortable enough to start asking people their opinions on these things and other topics like ethnic relations in Jordan, or political opinions on the Middle East or the West. But I hope this paints at least a very basic picture of what things are like in Amman. I know how hard it is to grasp and picture something without actually seeing it (that’s why I decided to study abroad!) so I’ll try to get more pictures up on my flikr in the next couple days of what its like just walking around the streets or in the University.

Also it rained a little yesterday, which was awesome. Ma’slama

The Emotional Rollercoaster

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Its been a long week.

Classes started on Sunday and it turns out that having all my classes in Arabic is pretty difficult (http://i.qkme.me/35ntxw.jpg). The first day mostly covered basics and introductions and was fairly straightforward, but the second day was pretty rough. In my Fus-ha class (Formal Arabic) we read a news article for HW, but I didn’t realized that we were allowed to use a dictionary and when I got to class everyone seemed infinitely more prepared than I was and it was a pretty uncomfortable experience sitting silently while the class discussed it. But after my teacher explained to me after class that using a dictionary was not only allowed but encouraged, I re-read the article and felt a bit better…until I got to my Middle East Politics class. I had chosen the class knowing that it might be a little over my head, but from the moment the professor started his lecture I couldn’t understand a single thing except the occasional reference to Syria or the US and was feeling pretty frustrated again. But when I got out of the class I was relieved to find I was not alone in my confusion and that although I hadn’t even realized it because I assumed I just didn’t know the words he was using, he had been talking mostly in Ammia (colloquial/informal Arabic), which is almost like a completely different language.

After classes, me and my friend Michael (Smylz) set out in search of a gym. After a couple fairly comical attempts at asking directions we finally found an old beat up sports complex to use and got a short workout in. On the taxi ride home we had a really great conversation with the driver about American music and culture and by the time I got home I was feeling pretty pumped again. The next day we returned to the complex (Sports City) and found the new gym complex which is brand new and beautiful (and quite cheap).

Overall that was pretty much my pattern for the week. Push through the frustration of my classes but end up feeling better by the end of the day. In fact, usually by the evening I’ve started to feel more confident about speaking Arabic and have even begun thinking in it. Of course, every morning when I wake up its gone and I start over fresh.

On Wednesday, after my last class, I headed to the opposite side of Amman (about a 30 minute cab ride) with some of the other students to visit Um Hussein Orphanage for boys to see if we would like to volunteer there throughout the semester. After a quick tour of the building, we started a soccer game with the kids and ran around for a couple hours, it was pretty great. By the time we left, however, it had gotten quite late and we had trouble finding a cab. So after about 15 minutes of waiting we got corralled, by the very insistent driver, into a bus despite the fact that we had no idea where we were going. 20 minutes later (and a fairly awkward conversation with a guy who wanted me to help him get a Visa to the US) we arrived at a crowded bus station near downtown where we were able to find a taxi home. When I finally arrived home I was feeling pretty worn out from soccer and the bus, but just as I arrived at our apartment building my host sisters were walking out the door and they asked my if I would like to go with them. Despite just wanting to take a shower and then sit on the couch and watch TV, I had decided that for the first couple weeks whenever an opportunity to do something new presented itself I would take it, so I rushed up to the apartment to drop off my stuff and then headed out with them. We ended up driving around the city with one of their friends for a while and finally stoping for a bit at a public park to sit and talk. I couldn’t understand much of the Ammia they were speaking unless they slowed down intentionally for my benefit (although I can already understand a lot more than when I got here), but I had a lot of fun just observing and even managed to get in on the jokes once or twice. And thus began my weekend.

Although the week felt long, I actually only have 4 days worth of classes, and have 3 day weekends every week (from Thursday to Saturday) so I have time to go exploring. I started out Thursday morning with a trip to the Police Station to register as an international student. After a relatively expensive trip because I caught a taxi going the wrong direction because I didn’t know which way the station was, I arrived at the station, only to realize I didn’t have the papers I needed and that I would have to come back on Saturday. Nevertheless, I headed back to the University for a kick-ass game of soccer with the other Middlebury Students and some UJ students who saw us and asked to join.

Friday I got a chance to sleep in and then watch some old cartoons (like Tom & Jerry) in Arabic which was a weird combination of familiar and foreign. In the evening we headed out the the enormous thrift market (like 2-3 city blocks of tents) that happens on Thursdays and Fridays only to discover that it had closed a couple hours before we got there. So instead we just went exploring in downtown, and eventually found an amazing view overlooking the ancient Roman Theater (sort of like half a colosseum built into a cliff face).

Saturday I headed to the Police Station for a second time and spent a quite hectic morning jumping through bureaucratic hoops until the officer finally told me “Kul shaee tammam” (everything’s good). When I got back to my family’s apartment I recovered with a long nap on the balcony. In the evening I set out once again for the Roman Theater where a very well known Lebanese band “Mashrou’ Leila” was having a concert (the band’s name translates literally to Project Night, but I’m told is closer in meaning to Plans for the Night or Leila’s Plans since its ambiguous whether Leila is intended as the name or the word for night). I had actually learned of the band this Spring in my Music of the Middle East class and was really excited to go. Before the concert started they called out ticket numbers for signed copies of their latest album and I WON ONE!!!! After the adrenaline from running down to pick up the CD wore off, the music started and I had my best concert going experience of my life. I had an amazing time dancing and even joined people in running around the theater.

So that was my week. A little crazy, a little frustrating but mostly great.

Orientation Week

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So I’ve been in Amman for about a week now, although it feels like it has been much longer. Although I could probably write pages on what I’ve seen and done already, I’ll try to keep this post to the basics so I have more time to reflect and get into more details in later posts. Also please excuse the rambling/disjointed nature of this post.

When I arrived at the apartment of my host family I was warmly welcomed and shown around and told repeatedly that this was my family and my house and to feel at home. My family consists of two parents, two daughters and two sons, although the eldest son has moved out and is married with kids now. They’re apartment is one floor of our building and is decorated incredibly beautifully with large comfy couches, beautiful chandeliers and art all around the walls. There are several balconies (including one in my room!) for sitting outside and enjoying the breeze and the call to prayer.

In addition to providing me with a fantastic place to live, I couldn’t have asked for a nicer and more welcoming host family. My host dad has been really great at speaking slowly and using words that I understand and we’ve already had some very interesting discussions on Jordanian culture, current events and politics (in addition to everyday stuff like how the TV works). My host mom is probably the sweetest woman I’ve ever met (other than my own mom of course!) and really makes me feel at home and taken care of. Her cooking is amazing and I’m really hoping I’ll get the opportunity to learn some recipes from her. Both of my host sisters are older than me (26 and 32) but although the language barrier is a little more difficult with them than with my dad, I’ve had a lot of fun with them so far talking about facebook, watching Jordanian television and smoking “hubbly bubbly” on our balcony. The younger of my brothers (30 years old) is really into the arts/music scene in Amman and is almost always out of the house, either working or going to shows. Although he’s not around much I did get an opportunity to go see a show with him and I’m hoping I’ll have opportunities to get to know him better. I don’t actually see much of my older brother since he doesn’t live in the house, but his son is brought over quite often to be baby-sat and is freaking adorable! My mission is to be best friends by the time I leave. All in all, I feel very much a part of the family and am really excited to get know them better over the next few months.
In addition to me there are two other students from my program living with me in the house which has been great for lots of reasons. First of all, I have people to split the cab ride to and from university with (cabs are the primary way to get around anywhere other than the major thoroughfares; although they aren’t nearly as expensive as in the US, the ride to the university everyday is only 2 dinars for about a 10-15 minute drive). It has also been nice to have other students to discuss cultural differences in the house and go exploring with.

This past week was just orientation so we went to the university (University of Jordan) every day to to get to know the people and the program, for short lectures on general information and to take placement tests for language. For the most part this was in English so that the we would have a chance to interact and get to know each other before we became limited by our Arabic ability. It was a pretty great week, but also very fast paced. We met with Jordanian students who will act as our mentors while we’re here and we began exploring the city.

At the end of the week, we undertook our language pledge, promising to only speak in Arabic while we are here. So far it has been fairly frustrating, especially for talking with the other students from the program (trying to make plans or get directions over the phone is the worst part). That being said it also clearly going to push us to work much harder and learn a lot more.

So with that being said, my plan is to take a short period once a week (Saturday evenings before classes resume on Sunday) to catch up briefly with friends and family and to post something here. See you next week!