(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!
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.
(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.
(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.
(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!).