The Dead Sea

As we enter into the last week or so of our trip, we are getting increasingly busy packing, studying for our final exams, and squeezing in as many last minute experiences as possible. As a result of minimal time coupled with a failing internet connection, I’ve fallen a bit behind on blogging, but make no mistake, much has happened over the past few days!

This past Friday we embarked on our last weekend-long excursion to the Dead Sea. Early Friday morning we all flopped into our usual seats on the bus and headed for breakfast in Irbid. Instead of Hasham’s, we sampled traditional Jordanian breakfast pastries filled with meat, cheese, and spinach. Stomachs full, we rolled slowly out of Irbid, southbound. SAM_5030

We got off the highway about two hours into our trip at Madaba, a Jordanian town famous for its ancient mosaics. After disembarking the bus “bidun sweater” (one of the perks of hanging around tourist sites is the opportunity to cover according to Western standards) we wandered among the mosaics which date all the way back to the Byzantine Empire. A Freedom Trail-esque line led us to various historic churches, one the site of John the Baptist’s beheading. We climbed its treacherous clock tower which pierced the sky, offering a gorgeous view of Madaba’s skyline. After slowly making our way back down and wandering through some of the church’s ancient tunnels and underground shrines, we meandered back to the bus past tourist shop after tourist shop.

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Our next stop was Mount Nebo, where Moses first looked out over the Promised Land after forty years in the desert with the freed Israelites

. We made our way to its top among packs of other tourists and caught a glimpse of the tree far below that marks the place where Moses planted his staff and water sprang forth to sustain his people. A childhood love of Exodus and fascination with the impact of religion on history culminated in pure joy standing on Nebo. With our check in time
Upon setting foot through the entrance to the Kempinski hotel we were offered fresh juice and clean, damp towels which proved instrumental in our attempts to scrub away the sweat and heavy stench of smoke we had accumulated on our ride. Once checked in we were up to our rooms and back in minutes, clad in bathing suits and bidun bags, headed straight for the hotel’s gorgeous infinity pool overlooking the sea. After a quick dip, we made our way down to the shore. We coated ourselves in Sea’s famous thick grey-brown mud before climbing over the rocks baking in the sun and easing into the water. The salt immediately stung my many mosquito bites and it was almost uncomfortably warm, but as soon as I just relaxed and let myself float, I began to see what all the hype was about. No matter where in the world, salt water and sun create an infallible recipe for complete bliss. Had the day not been drawing to a close, I could have floated there forever, but evening was setting in fast so I traded my head to toe mud for a cover up and headed back to my room for a shower. drawing near we all eagerly scooted back to the bus. Then it was full steam ahead to the Dead Sea.

After some much needed rest, we regrouped for dinner at a Tai restaurant on the hotel’s massive campus and closed out the evening with a lovely dinner with Waed and Muhammad followed by some much needed rest in a real bed.

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Petra

SAM_4919Our third and final stop on our trip found us in Petra, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. After some much needed rest in the luxurious Movenpick hotel right at the entrance to Petra, we enjoyed another delicious Western style breakfast before gearing up for another day of sight seeing.

Waed and Muhammad cleverly convinced the people at the ticket windows that we were Jordanian students, taking down our entrance fees to one dinar. Then, tickets in hand, we made our way through the shouts of various groups offering horse and donkey rides and into Petra. When the Nabataeans began carving Petra out of stone in the early 300s BCE, they left nothing to chance. The entrance to the city is almost a mile long, narrow, winding, and nearly impenetrable by an organized army. We had no trouble navigating the canyon-like pathway, however, although I stopped every few feet in an attempt to capture the brilliant sunshine seeping through the tiny space between two walls of solid rock with my camera. Finally the famous treasury of Petra rose up before us in all of its magnificence. It is almost impossible to believe that such a spectacle was carved with hand tools centuries ago. After a few minutes of excited bouncing up and down and far too many group photos, we proceeded to begin our climb to one of Petra’s highest points.

We wound up and up rock staircases, some carved, some natural for what felt like forever. Carts full of jewelry and other souvenirs lined the path along the way, tempting us to rest and pour over the jewels. We pushed on, however, eager to get to the top. And although we were all uncomfortably sweaty, sun burnt, and exhausted by the time we reached it, the view was incredible. From our perch we could see many of Petra’s intricate buildings carved right into the rose colored rock that covers the area.

Once we had soaked in enough of the stunning view, we clumsily found our way back to the stone’s base, legs shaky from exhaustion. We then headed for the entrance and happily happened upon a camel caravan in need of passengers. So, leaving all dignity and sense behind, I struggled onto a camel and was lifted into the air, half laughing, half squealing with fear and we trotted off into the cavernous path out of Petra. Joined by Kaitlyn, Vanessa, Emily, and Waed, the ride was a joy. When we finally reached the end of the path, however, we were all fairly sore and couldn’t quite kick the camel stench.

We met up with the rest of the group then headed for a nearby restaurant where we all ate in near silence from hunger and exhaustion. And with that, our weekend came to a close. SAM_4956

Wadi Rum

We left Aqaba all too soon and the bus was filled with grimacing faces for a half hour or so into our drive. The mood lightened significantly, however, as we approached Wadi Rum Preserve in the refreshing coolness of late afternoon. We pulled up to a Bedouin camp and piled out of the bus to enjoy yet another glass of steaming black tea as we waited for the trucks that would take us deep into Wadi Rum. After chatting and munching on Waed’s never-ending stash of chips for a while, we all climbed aboard the beds of several pickup trucks and did our best to secure our belongings and ourselves.

Then we were off, racing through the sand, bouncing over rocks, sliding down dunes. Wadi Rum’s rock formations rose up around us as we dangled over the sides of the trucks, frantically snapping photos and falling on top of each other. We stopped first at a cave-like formation housing

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an ancient Bedouin map of the mountains and valleys in the region. And although deciphering it nowadays is no small task,  its longevity is more than impressive. After some more bumpy driving that revealed more breathtaking views of sand and stone, we took a break to examine the plant from which Bedouins make natural soap. It turned out to be a surprisingly simple process: one merely has to crush the plant in their hands and add water. (It’s only a matter of time until this method becomes the newest organic craze in the US) Our next stop was a giant sand dune although its overwhelming height did little to deter us from running straight up it, then collapsing, exhausted. After plenty of jumping and sliding in the sand followed by several group photos, we loaded back into the trucks and headed for our final destination. We bounced along more recklessly than ever, laughing and screaming in a whirlwind of fear and pure joy. We roared over dunes past face after face of magnificent rock and even spotted a camel caravan on an early evening stroll.

Just before sunsSAM_4802et we approached a towering rock and disembarked the trucks (ours with one less cushion than we started with- a casualty of wild driving) to begin our climb. The ten of us ran the entire way up, moving in a blind mass of excitement. Waiting at the top was a view so incredibly unique and yet equally infinite. The desert stretched out endlessly before us, placing us at the mercy of its reds and browns, glowing under the setting sun. We fooled around, snapping photo after photo with our dorky-at-best Connecticut College flags, not caring for a minute about our wind tangled hair or sand coated bodies. And as the sun finally disappeared behind a row of massive rocks, a certain peace settled over the whole place, silent and soaking in the deep purple of night.

I would have been content to just sit and drink in the majesty of Wadi Rum for days on end, to pitch a tent on top of that rock and stay forever, but Waed and Muhammad eventually coaxed us down from our perch and back into the trucks. We flew back to the Bedouin camp, bouncing higher on each rock, sailing faster over each dune. Covered in sand from head to toe and completely exhausted, we flopped down on couches at the camp to await a highly anticipated dinner. After a few failed attempts to remove sand from the more remote crevices of our bodies and clothing, dinner was ready to be pulled out of the ground, where Bedouins traditionally cook their meals. We all crowded around as huge trays of rice and meat were lifted out of well-like holes in the ground on the outskirts of the camp, then lined up to pile our plates high.

As usual, tea followed dinner and

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we all sat enjoying each others’ company until Waed came and whisked Chris and Kaitlyn away without explanation. We didn’t have to wait too long for their return, however. All of a sudden Dabke music started up and Chris and Kaitlyn emerged from a back tent fully dressed in traditional Bedouin wedding garb. We all made a run for the circle of dancers and clumsily (but enthusiastically) attempted to join in the Dabke as Chris was lifted onto a man’s shoulders and several Bedouins dressed Kaitlyn in the full neqab. We danced with several other groups of visitors to Wadi Rum, clapping and stomping to the lively music a midst whirling colors and hearty laughter.  I can safely say that I have never had as much fun at a real wedding as I did at my first mock one!

Once we got our newly-weds onto the bus, we headed out of the desert towards Petra, our final destination. Shortly into the drive, we decided to pull over quite literally in the middle of nowhere to rest and watch the night sky. With no electronic lights for miles, pure blackness blanketed everything in sight and the starts shone more brilliantly than I had ever seen before. I wondered at my own smallness in the magnificence of that sky. I don’t think I have ever seen anything more beautiful in my entire life. The stars stretched on forever, encompassing the world in its totality and it was hard not to feel in some way swaddled in sky, peaceful and protected. I stood staring upward, barefoot and alone, until my neck ached from craning and my heart ached from happiness. It was truly a moment of pure blessing, a moment in which to reflect on the overwhelming weight of life  in all of its joy and its ugliness.

At last we had to re-board the bus on account of the late hour. I kept my head pressed tight to the window, following the stars all the way to Petra, somehow managing to stay awake despite pure exhaustion while coming to terms with how truly incredible our day had been.

Aqaba

This weekend marked our first multi-day excursion to the south of Jordan. We all packed and re-packed several times as the week slowly crawled towards its early finish on Wednesday in eager anticipation of some much needed rest and the rare opportunity to wear shorts. When Thursday morning finally arrived we all piled onto our usual seats on the bus (after a mere month we’ve become creatures of habit) and headed for a delicious breakfast at Hashem’s. After stuffing ourselves full of what I’m convinced is the world’s best falafel and hummus and washing it down with steaming tea, we re-boarded the bus this time with Khaled, Muhammad’s brother, in tow and hit the road for Aqaba.

Due to the reported presence of some rabble-rousers on the Desert Road, the fastest route south, we opted for a longer journey on the Dead Sea Road. And while we lost some time struggling to use the hole-in-the-ground bathrooms at several “rest stops” along the way, the gorgeous views of the Dead Sea (next weekend’s destination) were well worth it. I spent the ride half sleeping, half staring out the window at the seemingly endless road. As we approached Aqaba everyone perked right up, excited faces flying by slowly rising mountains as we bounced over speed bump after speed bump to the beat of the blaring radio.

At long last we pulled up to the curb at the Intercontinental Hotel and quite literally dove off of the bus, luggage in hand. After checking in Vanessa and I scooted up to our room as fast as possible to find absolute luxury awaiting us. Fully functioning plumbing, beds quite a bit more substSAM_4676antial than two mattresses haphazardly stacked on top of one another, and a beautiful view of the pool and beach from our balcony greeted us in our hyper-excited state. We didn’t lounge around for long however. After slipping into swimsuits we headed straight for the pool, complete with a fountain and a swim-up bar. Soon enough, though, I traded chlorine for some good old salt water and splashed right into the Red Sea.

Aqaba’s  coast is a little inlet surrounded by mountains: Jordan on one side, Palestine on the other: a tiny piece of absolute paradise. The water is crystal clear, the sand warm and soft. And there’s nothing like being seaside again after almost a month without some view of a harbor for the first time in one’s life. As such, I had to drag myself out of the water once the sun began to sink below the skyline.

After luxuriating in both a bath and a shower, I relaxed in the plush hotel robe until dinner time, marveling in my rare state of complete cleanliness and soaking up every bit of peacefulness. Shortly afterward our group reconvened in the lobby and grabbed a few cabs(colored green instead of yellow) to our dinner destination: an Italian restaurant in Aqaba’s yacht club. We all indulged in Western style food and a much needed glass of wine (although the drinking age is 18, alcohol is hard to come by in a Muslim country). I enjoyed seafood pasta followed by chocolate souffle and a beautiful view of of the glimmering city lights against the blackened water.

Aqaba

We followed dinner with a nice walk through downtown Aqaba on our way back to the hotel in an attempt to work off some of the copious calories we had just consumed and indulge in the cool night air. Despite the late hour, we chatted over drinks and hookah with Waed, Muhammad, and Khaled back at the hotel for a while before splitting off to the beach to dig our toes into the sand and listen for waves sloshing against the shoreline. Back in our rooms we had our first experience with Jordanian room service, a process in which “grilled cheese” was taken to literally mean a few pieces of cheese grilled. Nonetheless, we thoroughly enjoyed spoiling ourselves for the evening and sleeping in a clean, comfortable bed was the perfect ending to a day in paradise.

After only a few hours of sleep Vanessa and I rolled out of bed, eager to take advantage of the little time we had left in Aqaba. After another luxurious shower we headed downstairs to indulge in a Western style breakfast, our first in almost a month. We spent the rest of the morning soaking up as much sun as possible on the beach and lounging on a doSAM_4671ck, toes in the glistening water. All too soon it was time to board the bus yet again, this time for Wadi Rum.

More Food for Thought

As our week wraps up a little early in time for a long weekend in Aqaba, Wadi Rum, and Petra, I figured I’d post a little culinary update for you foodies out there. Here’s some more of what I’ve encountered over the past four weeks:

Oozii- locally prepared and served off of a plate the size of a large sheet cake, oozii is chicken on a bed of rice prepared with carrots and toasted almonds and pine nuts

Chicken with freekeh- similar to oozii in format, this dish features chicken, tender enough to be eaten with a spoon, over freekeh, a grain grown only in the Middle East. It is harvested while still green and toasted right in the field to produce a grain that looks somewhat like rice, but has the heartiness of quinoa 

Juice boxes- there’s nothing like a good juice box to make you feel like a five year old at the end of a long day and they happily cost about 20 gersh at C Town so our entire group has taken to buying them in bulk to have around the apartments 

Syrian chocolate- although much of the Syrian chocolate we picked up in the border city of Ramtha doesn’t taste too spectacular, it was smuggled across the border (a miraculous feat for a country at war) and therefore has a certain appeal

Baklava- lots and lots of baklava. While this pastry filled with pistachios and honey is widely available in the US, it’s worlds away from what I’ve had here. Needless to say, I may be several pounds heavier upon returning home on account of this sweet treat.

Watermelon- despite it’s claim to fame as a staple in most American picnics and barbecues, watermelon is served in Jordan most often as a desert. Completely organic with the seeds still inside, it’s some of the freshest I’ve ever tasted.

Fresh apricots- a friend of Waed and Muhammad’s who grows apricots in his yard was nice enough to give them some of his surplus crops for us to try. Just a little larger than a cherry tomato, they’re sweet, fuzzy, and perfect with our nightly black tea.

 

And now, I’m headed to bed in preparation for our weekend which happily includes a long-awaited American style breakfast.

Seeing Syria from a Roof

I’d like to preface this post by admitting that I cannot possibly understand fully what I have witnessed here so far, nor can I accurately articulate what I am able to initially grasp. 

Tonight found our whole group on the roof of our apartment building staring northeast towards Syria, searching for some visible mark of the heavy artillery fire that thundered in the distance. Every few minutes the relative silence of night on the sparsely populated JUST campus of summertime dissipated as a bomb touched down just over the border, leaving a cloud of thick smoke steadily rising with the wind. We stood quietly, anticipating the next hit while cycling through fear, fascination, and sheer horror. I had never heard so much as a gunshot before tonight and standing under a beautifully clear sky speckled with stars, it was easy enough to imagine the bombings as thunder claps, natural and nonthreatening. The reality of the situation in Syria, however, is omnipresent here. 

This week Assad’s armed forces began launching attacks on the border city of Daraa, the source of much of the initial anti-government violence in 2011. For the FSA, the city is a critical symbol of the revolution and, consequently, key to upholding Assad’s power. As Assad’s forces move in, they threaten the lives of almost 100,000 civilians who likely will not be spared by their own government. Soon, Jordan will be forced to close its borders to Syrian refugees due to overcrowding and economic concerns, forcing hundreds of thousands of civilians to continue living in an active war zone. And all of this is occurring mere miles from our rooftop lookout.

The conflict in Syria is becoming more and more a part of Jordanian life as time goes on. The Jordanian government has issued a mandatory evacuation notice for all citizens living in border towns due to concern over accidental spill-over of violence and the increased risk of building collapse as a result of proximity to bombings. Schools have been forced to close before the end of the academic year, citizens have had to abandon their shops and therefore their livelihood, and families have left their homes to seek refuge with friends or relatives. 

This is the world we live in. A world in which human life is torn down to basic survival, hundreds of thousands of people are massacred daily on account of their religious beliefs or political affiliations, and nations are forced to turn refugees away in hopes of self preservation. As a privileged American, I find it all too often easy to separate myself from such issues because they feel so far away.

And yet here I am, standing on  a rooftop to listen for explosions. To listen and to understand that mere miles separate me from the destruction of human life on a massive scale. But more importantly, to understand that mere miles separate me from a group of people so convinced of their worth as human beings that they are willing to die in order to assert it. I don’t pretend to know how to answer the cry from Syria. I am honestly unsure whether or not international aid will help or hinder the situation and I really don’t know how much more the UN can give. What I do know is this:

Hopelessness and the basic desire to survive breeds extremism. If foreign policy makers are worried about the growth of extremist groups in Syria, they should be. Put anyone in a desperate situation (i.e. life without food, shelter, or guaranteed safety) and they will turn to whatever removes them from a state of mere survival the fastest. If Hezbollah comes knocking and offers to feed your starving family in exchange for support, you’ll support them. Thus, if the Syrian people are continually forced to live in a war zone or in the firm grasp of an oppressive government that inhibits their ability to lead a fulfilling life, extremism will flourish. If they can live in a state in which they have rights, guaranteed safety, shelter, education, and employment, extremism will become an afterthought. And while any of these things are a long way off for Syria, working towards them is the fail safe way to combat extremism, debate over whether or not to supply the FSA with arms is not.

And secondly, the crisis in Syria is primarily a humanitarian one. The people of Syria have rebelled because they feel undervalued as human beings under Assad. We cannot ignore the conflict in Syria because we too are human. And while only idealists will suggest that our common humanity will save us or have any significant impacts in conflicts like this, we must be compelled to understand that the Syrian revolution is not a mere rearrangement of pawns on the US foreign policy chess board. These are humans fighting for rights that we as Americans are privileged enough to already have. These are people qualifying themselves as something more than just subjects, they want to be active players too.

Yet despite all that is going on here, I am, and will continue to be, completely safe. Our campus is far enough from the border that we are not in any way threatened by the conflict. If conditions were to worsen, Conn would have us all on a plane back to the US immediately, no questions asked. And that truly is the greatest irony of it all. Miles away, Syrians are shot and killed before they can cross the border to the miserable life that awaits them in the refugee camps. And yet at the drop of a hat, we will be able to return safely to our quiet homes with no risk to our lives. 

It is here that I am quickly learning what being fortunate truly means.