.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Meet Me in the Middle (East)

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Rum Experience

Disclaimer: The following is a description of my trip to Wadi Rum. I am however, at an internet cafe because the construction workers cut the internet cables at my office, so I apologize for any incoherence and the general rambling, I hope it's interesting! Other recent events include happy hour at the Marine house inside the U.S. embassy, an iftar for orphan children, indoor soccer matches, and many visits to several ministries in an attempt to become a Jordanian resident. But for now...it's all about Rum....

The trip began in the Safeway parking lot at 9:00 and I didn’t even know who was going to be there. The plan was to go camping in Wadi Rum, the desert nature preserve in the south of Jordan. Justin had told me about the trip. He is one of several Fulbrighters I have become friends with after meeting Heidi, one of his roommates, in a bathroom (yes I realize this sounds strange, but as so many of my experiences here remind me: truth is stranger than fiction). They live with Elizabeth in an apartment in Shmesani, a great part of the city not too far from where I live.

By ten o’clock 16 of us had organized and packed ourselves, along with sleeping bags, water, camping supplies, insane amounts of food and a guitar, into four cars and were on our way. The drive was about three and a half hours, with the convoy stopping once for gas and the discovery that rental cars have a built in alarm that goes off if you drive ‘too fast’. The sound is basically the same as that annoying noise if you have a door open, and is easily drowned out by open windows and good music.

When we arrived at the entrance to Wadi Rum, Justin and Josh, who had been once before and have some of the best Arabic skills among the group, began the negotiations about the cost of driving us in and picking us up the next morning. Once that was established, we piled into 4x4 trucks with our Bedouin drivers and headed into the reserve.

There really is no description that will do this place justice. It is stunning and changes dramatically from daylight to sunset and into the night. The light transforms everything, washing the entire landscape in sundry shades of red sand, stone and dust. The mountains rise out of the desert in dramatic shapes and the color is overwhelming. The sun is hot and bright, and on this day, as usual, there was not a cloud to be seen.

After a half hour ride in open-backed trucks we arrived at our site, a huge Bedouin tent tucked up against one of the rock formations, with not a single building, power line or road in sight. We unloaded quickly and began to explore because the sun sets early, usually around 5:15. After scrambling up the rocks directly behind our site, we chose our hiking destination and most of us headed out to climb one of the nearby rock formations, picking the biggest one and estimating we could make it up and back before the sunset.

Walking from our site to the base was actually one of the most difficult sections because of the deep sand. Some of the sand is the usual color but there are sections of deep reds and oranges, sculpted into beautiful waves by the wind.

The rocks are filled with amazing crevices, angles and curves that provide excellent hand and footholds for climbing. The climb looked challenging but with all the holds even the most vertical sections were conquerable without any equipment, it was just a matter of using the best combination of ledges and holes to make your way up.

The view from the top was stunning, with more mountains and rock formations in all directions, linked by vast sands and the entire scene was awash with these sandy colors, becoming more intensely red as the sun began its descent. We could see down to our campsite and most people made their way back quickly, not wanting to hike down after the sun set, but a few of us decided the view would be worth the challenge. We found a ledge halfway down and sat watching the sun sink below the distant peaks as the whole landscape reverberated the intense sunset reds and then faded to a colder stone shade and began to reflect the cooler blues of the evening sky.

We hiked back to the campsite where we lit a fire, cooked food and spent the next few hours eating, drinking and singing as the moon and stars began to rise.

Around nine I walked out into the desert alone. As I made my way up the sand dunes I felt swallowed up by the night and was stopped dead in my tracks by the sky. Living in upstate New York I have always said I have never seen stars like I do at home, so many that there seem to be more stars than sky, but this night I saw a sky unlike anything I have ever seen. The Milky Way shone so brightly it was like someone had just poured out a river of stars across the sky and everything, even the darkness, was crisp and striking.

And then there was the silence. I have spent many days and nights hiking, camping and exploring in remote places, but usually when you experience quiet it is that calming experience free of voices and motors, highlighted by the rustle of leaves in the trees or crickets in the grass (or peepers!). Hearing these small sounds of the earth is how you know it is quiet, but in the desert there are no trees, no grass, no insects. And when the wind stops, it is silent. Purely silent. Overwhelming, soothing, daunting and stunning at the same instant.

Slowly the moon began to rise and the stars faded. About two-thirds full, the moon flooded the desert with a surreal alternative daylight. By around 10:30 (after five hours around the fire) many people started to head for bed, but a few of us were drawn by the dark peaks and decided it was time for another hike.

Four of us headed out across the dunes as the moon rose, shining so bright our full shadows stretched across the sand. It may as well have been another planet for the way the world looked with moonlight glowing across the sand and the rocks jutting high and dark into the sky. Josh was dead-set on one of the highest rocks in sight. Hiking to the base took almost an hour and then we began our way around the monstrosity looking for a viable route up. We made it about a third of the way before reaching an impassable section and began to make our way around the rock instead. Most of the surface was sheer rock face and even with the amazing footholds was too vertical to attempt without equipment. We worked our way around the formation looking for any surface we could navigate our way up and after another hour and a half of hiking, we came to the conclusion that there was actually impossible to reach the top without serious ropes and climbing equipment.

Now about two and a half hours from our campsite, we decided to find a place to sleep and hiked around to a small valley nestle between two sections of the rock formation. We assumed the valley would provide some wind protection and as we curled up for what was left of the night we realized we were drastically unprepared, since we had left most of our equipment back at camp. We had one sleeping bag, food and water but this proved incredibly inadequate for a night under the stars. There were no bugs and the wind only blew on occasion but we spent the next few hours curled in a pile attempting to keep each other warm, feet tucked in the sleeping bag and rotating depending on who was shivering the most. It was a learning experience to say the least. But it was also so ridiculous that we spent a good portion of the time laughing at ourselves and of course we survived the night. The sun was up by around 5:20 and I opened my eyes to the most beautiful sight.

Even with two hours of 15-minute snippets of sleep, it was worth every second. The rocks and sands slowly began to reflect the heat and glow of the sun and we got up to hike back to the camp before the trucks came to meet us at nine. Since we had made it across the dunes and halfway around the rocks we had a good long morning hike to get back, but it was a simple route and I have to say I felt surprisingly good considering the complete lack of sleep!

We met back up with the rest of the group loaded up all of our gear and headed out. We went to the Dead Sea on our way back to Amman and made it back to the city on Saturday evening, at which point I collapsed into bed for ten hours and made it up just in time to head to work.

(This is the third day I have spent trying to post this and I cannot get any pictures to upload...sorry! I have them on snapfish for those of you who are interested, or check back and I will add them as soon as the Jordanian internet allows!)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Mount Nebo

Friday I finally got out of the city and went exploring some of the famous sites of Jordan. My guide, Abed, is the music teacher at one of the schools, his English is good and he is used to being around Americans. This may sound strange but makes a big difference because it makes it possible to relax and act 'normal' for me, which generally can cause some cultural confusion, so all in all we had a very fun and adventurous day, despite the heat and several wrong turns that resulted in some extra time exploring the mountains. As you can see, that was not a problem because it was gorgeous and apparently during the spring the entire valley region fills with greenery and flowers (and flash floods). It's hard to imagine when the entire landscape is drenched in sand and stone, but I guess I will just have to come back and see for myself!

We made our way down through the mountains to Madaba and Mt. Nebo, which is one of the alleged places Moses was buried. They say he climbed up the mountain and died there. I could see why if it's true, the view is amazing. It is quiet and on a clear day you can see across the to the Dead Sea, the West Bank and Jerusalem.

The vast landscape is overwhelming shades of sand, speckled with small villages, flocks of sheep and tents of the nomadic locals, and the occassional plot of planted trees in perfect grids. There is a small church that has been there since the 6th century, excavated in the 1930s and filled with hand-made mosaics.

I would love to tell you more about all of the sites and adventures, but it is now 3:00 and during Ramadan most places in Jordan close by around 2:00. This includes my office building, which locks the doors (with large padlocks) by 3:30-4:00 and I managed to get myself stranded INSIDE the building earlier this week. I'd rather avoid a repeat performance, so that is all for now!

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Kan Zaman (better than a day at the office!)

My Sunday and Tuesday mornings are now officially dedicated to the Strawberries, Butterflies and Jolly Bees, those would be the names of the three KG2 classes at Madrasa Al Assriya, or The Modern School, and while the jury is still out on how I feel about spending time with little people (or how much it is going to help my Arabic) it is definitely a nice break from the office! Especially this week, because Tuesday we took a field trip to Kan Zaman.

Kan Zaman is a walled village not far from Amman that dates back to the turn of the century but has been "transformed" into souvenir shops of all kinds and a trendy ‘authentic old-style’ restaurant. The shops have everything from antiques and sand art to glassblowing and woodcarving, not to mention one of those staged photo sets where they dress you up in traditional Arabic garb and take your picture in a Bedouin tent (no I didn’t do it how dare you ask!).

The architecture is impressive with hand-laid stone everywhere from the streets to the walls.

The food was excellent, just snacks for the children since all the teachers are fasting, and I didn’t plan to eat but the principal specifically brought me a plate so I sat myself right down with the kids and enjoyed a wonderful selection of breads filled white cheese and zatar on the top.

I have been spending the most time with the Strawberries, there are two teachers for each class (English and Arabic) and here's a picture of them, along with some of the little Strawberries themselves.

We toured the village and took the kids on horse-drawn carriage rides, then piled back onto the school buses, which reminded me slightly of school buses in the U.S. only much smaller and the fumes are worse because everyone is still using diesel fuel.

It was nice to have a chance to spend some time with them (teachers and students both) outside the class so we could actually talk. After that it was back to the office (budget proposals, student exchange selections, and a new project I'll tell you about soon!) And there are also exciting outings in my weekend plans so stay tuned...

Monday, October 03, 2005

In other news...

I have also moved into a new apartment that is SUCH an improvement from my last place. I have three rooms – bedroom, a kitchen/living area, and a sun room with two walls of windows, plus a bathroom of course. Yesterday I was invited for tea by the owner of the building who wanted to ‘formally’ welcome me to Jordan and to his building. He lives on the ground floor, the entire floor, although with its columns and marble floors it is hardly recognizable as the same building! He introduced me to his wife and daughter, he also has four sons that are no longer at home. They lived in Canada for a long time and just moved back to Jordan a year ago. His daughter, Lina, is in 9th grade and they all speak exceptional English. I’m hoping I can spend some time with her and practice some of my feeble Arabic skills with her.

On the Arabic front, tomorrow I am going to The Modern School, which is a private school relatively close to where I live. I met with the head of the KG section of the school and I am going to start going there twice a week to help out with classes and work on my Arabic. The KG classes only meet until around noon and are taught half in Arabic and half in English, so I can work with the teachers in the English section and then try to learn from the Arabic part (great, getting shown up by 5-year-olds!) It should be a good learning experience, and yes, I know, me spending time with little people, go ahead and laugh. :-) I’m a little scared but everyone says they are the best people to learn languages from so I’ll give it a shot! Plus a lot of the teachers seem to be young women so hopefully I can make some friends there too.

e-Village and Ramadan

Madaba is a small village less than an hour south of Amman. It’s a unique area because it has two villages that fall under the same municipality, Lib and Mleih, and both contain a variety of historic Ottoman-style stone houses and other old buildings.

Why the history and geography lesson? Madaba has been selected by UNIFEM as the site for a new project called the e-Village. Partnering with the Jordanian government and dozens of organizations, they are converting all the historic, and some not-so-historic buildings, into a wide range of high-tech community buildings. The goal of the project is to transform the villages of Lib and Mleih into an economically empowered, well-resourced, gender-sensitive community where ICT is implemented to achieve a better quality of life.

The idea is huge and so in the project, which will include a learning resource center with computers at one of the schools, an Intel Clubhouse (of which there are only 103 in the world, and this is the first in a non-urban area), a Lego Robotics lab, a community radio station, a small business development center (which will front the money to help local entrepreneurs get off the ground), training and professional development courses, a language center, and then some.

The organization I am working with, iEARN Jordan, has been asked to sit on one of the steering committees for the project and to work with the four schools in Madaba. The committee meetings are monthly, pulling together so many different organizations is quite a feat and will hopefully be a success. UNIFEM has been working on this project for about two years I think and the official launch is slated for this spring. The UNIFEM coordinator, Yazan, is a friendly Lebanese guy that has so far been great and is very committed to making the project be something bigger and better than any of the individual orgs. could do on their own.

I visited the girls’ school in Lib with Khitam, a representative from the Ministry of Education, and also got a short tour of the Lib e-Village buildings a few days later. We are going to be conducting teacher trainings after Ramadan for all the schools, and getting students involved in interactive projects. The e-Village is also especially oriented at being environmentally friendly and of course focused on empowering women so I am hoping some interesting environmental initiatives will evolve out of the student projects.

Ramadan is supposed to start either tomorrow or Wed. but no one knows until they announce it, which is based on the moon cycles and determined by whoever is watching these things in Mecca. Everyone in Jordan has also already turned their clocks back because the King moved up daylight savings so it wouldn’t fall during Ramadan, which is very confusing, slightly amusing and apparently very practical (Egypt does it as well, and I don’t know where else).

I keep hearing stories and cautions about what Ramadan will be like but a few things seem to be true…everyone is fasting during the day, this means no food, no drink(you’re not even supposed to swallow unless you have to), no cigarettes, and no sex (which is somehow connected to the fasting? I guess it is in the ‘general deprivation’ category). This means, according to my coworkers, that everyone is tired and cranky, very little gets accomplished and everyone goes home around 2:00. They say literally the streets will be crowded, and then the breaking of the fast, called iftar, which is the word for breakfast, is at sundown (which is at like 5-5:30 since we already changed the clocks!) The evenings are apparently like street festivals with a great deal of eating and socializing. The desserts are supposed to be exceptional and at the end of the month there is a holiday, called little Eid (not to be confused with the larger Eid that is in late Jan. I believe, or 90 days after the end of Ramadan). So there it is, I will write more about what it is really like once it happens.