Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Jordan Challenge 4: Go on a Bicycle Trip with Cycling Jordan

I've seen a couple people on bikes in Amman since I got here, and I'm pretty sure they both had a death wish.  I have to psych myself up just to cross the major streets here; I can't imagine being in traffic on a bike. But, as I learned today, outside of Amman is a whole different story.  I had taken the advice of one of last year's Fulbright students and resolved to do a bike ride with Cycling Jordan this year.  Once I joined their Facebook Group, I was privy to the weekend schedule and saw that there were not one but three rides this weekend.  I picked what looked like the easiest one (a morning of cycling outside the town of Madaba south of Amman), threw caution to the wind and signed up.

This morning, as I prepared to catch a cab to our meetup location at the Abdoun Mall, though, I was having some pangs of trepidation.  I didn't know where I was going and wouldn't know anyone when I got there.  What if I couldn't keep up?  Turns out that my worries were for naught.  Cycling Jordan runs multiple trips every weekend, and Sari, the inspiration and coordinator behind the whole thing, has been doing this since he was in his second year at the University of Jordan (he's now graduated and does this on the weekend in addition to his "real" job).  It's all been honed to a science.

One of the things that made the cycling experience so cool is that the trip was anchored at a farm outside Madaba.  Here I am in front of a grafiti'd logo there, about to board the bus back to Amman.

There were close to twenty of us who met up at the mall parking lot, and after signing some paperwork and paying the trip fee, we boarded a bus and headed out of town.  Our destination was a private farm in the countryside of Madaba.  Once we arrived, we were all issued bikes and helmets, a brief orientation of the rules of the road, and off we went.

Sari (in the yellow jersey) assigning us our bikes
The whole experience was very laid-back.  We stretched out, with people adjusting their own paces, and about every 15-20 minutes we'd stop for a water break and to make sure everyone was okay. We rode on paved country roads where we were passed by the occasional car or truck, not-so-great bumpy roads, and dirt roads: the bikes performed really well on all of them. There was even a truck that followed us that a few people used as a rest stop when they got winded.  After an hour and forty-five minutes of riding (I timed it out of curiosity), we wound up back at the farmhouse where we'd started.
Not a great picture but I had to include it.  I had been cruising along thinking "this isn't so different than the desert fields outside my hometown of Twin Falls, Idaho."  Then I saw the camels pictured here and thought, "Actually, yes it is. I'm biking in the Middle East right now!"

On a dirt road we had to stop for the herd of goats who clearly had the right-of-way.

A great thing about Cycling Jordan is that it's purposely designed to help people meet other people as much as it is to give them some fresh air and exercise.  When we got back to the farmhouse we relaxed a bit while Sari and the other trip leaders put together a light meal for us -- pita bread, hummous, fuul (bean dip -- their's was a particularly good one), tomato/cucumber salad and tea.  We sat in the sunshine and chatted while we ate, and I got to know some of my fellow riders better.  There was Elvira, a German development worker who recently arrived here after an interrupted tour in Yemen; Tareeq and Waded, a great Jordanian couple who recently relocated back here after years of living abroad; and Ahmad, a recently-graduated Palestinian doctor who went to med school in Egypt and is now interning at a hospital in Amman. 
Two of my new friends, Waded and Elvira, relaxing after the ride.

Sari kept telling us the fuul was really good while he piled on our plates -- and he was right.

Eventually we loaded back up and headed back to the city on the bus.  At the mall Tareeq and Waded graciously offered rides home to Elvira and me, and with any luck, we'll be meeting up for another biking expedition, or maybe one with a hike thrown in for good measure. My original challenge was to do at least one ride with Cycling Jordan, but right now I'm thinking that shooting for one or two trips each  month would be great.  So, if this sounds like anything anyone here in Jordan or planning to visit wants to try, be sure to let me know.  Double thumbs up for Cycling Jordan!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Jordan Challenge -- 3. Learn to Use my Oven

I think most people have irrational fears, but mine are different than other peoples'.  Thanks to an awesome first-year biology TA who forced us to handle them, I like snakes, and after reading Charlotte's Web growing up, I see spiders and the webs they create as miracles of nature.  My attempts at rock climbing have made me see heights as challenges, and put me on a plane -- any place, any size, any weather-- and I'm happy as can be.

On the other hand, there are some fears I always thought I'd grow out of, but since I recently reluctantly came to the conclusion that I am a grown up (and have been for quite a while), I think I'm stuck with them.  The two worst of these are fear of the dark and fear of gas and electrically-powered things catching on fire or exploding.  The latter fear gained a bit of momentum when my friend and former student Jamila had a gas oven blow up in her face here in Amman while she was studying abroad a few years ago. 

Thus, I am quite proud to announce that I have completed the third challenge on my list -- making my Jordanian oven work -- with good results according to my Fulbrighter friends Mike and Cooper, who kindly served as guinea pigs for the resulting oatmeal raisin cookies.  When my landlady showed me how to light the oven (whick needs to be re-ignited each time it's used -- no wasteful pilot lights here), she unconcernedly stuck her hand and a lighted match deep into the depths of a hole that I couldn't even  see.  I invested in one of those lighter wands but still had to take the bottom part of the oven out to see what I was doing.  But, as far as I'm concerned whatever it takes is fine, as long as it means I'm back in the business of cookie baking, and here's the proof that I am.

Despite a few glitches -- golden raisins instead of dark, sub-par vanilla, and about a dozen attempts to get the oven lit -- here they are the official First Cookies I've Baked in Jordan.  Definitely not the last.

Still warm, and ready to be taste-tested by Mike and Cooper.

Chris, Leah, Josh, Siham and Drisk, if you want your Chris Crinkles, Almond Bennetts, Leah Lasches, Maple Hoxies, Siham Surprises, and Lemon Driskies, you know where the kitchen is.  Come on over and I'll bake you some.  And everyone else, if you've ever wanted a cookie named in your honor, this might be your big chance.  Come to Jordan and there might be some cookie-inventing in between hiking through Petra and trying mensaf.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Jordan Challenge -- 2. Learn Something about Antiquities

So, when I started my list of Jordan Challenges I purposely left it unfinished, partly because I'm lazy, but at least partly because I (to only somewhat misquote Donald Rumsfeld) didn't yet know what I didn't know.  Tonight I began to fill in that gap a little, when I came to realize that I will never, ever have such an amazing opportunity to learn all about antiquities and archeology as I have right now.  I still definitely want to try to actually go on a dig, but in the meantime you practically can't walk down the street here without bumping into an authority -- local or from the far corners of the earth -- on the Ancient Near East, particularly what is referred to as the Levant (the area encompassing what is now Syria, Israel and Palestine, Iraq, and Jordan).  In addition to the fact that each of these countries has a government department of antiquities and that the University of Jordan has world-class scholars on the subject, the area on across the road from the University is home to several research institutes that host scholars as well.

This picture of Dr. Oleson talking is deceiving.  It looks like there's only a few people when it fact I took it from where I was sitting on the side, in the overflow seating area.  As I mentioned before, there are LOTS of people interested in these topics here.
Tonight, some Fulbright friends and I went to see one such scholar, Dr. John Oleson, give a talk entitled "Sand without Lime" that burst all of our bubbles about the perfection of Roman architecture and construction.  After tonight I can now say with some assurance that faulty architecture, fraudulent contractors and major cost overruns are not the province of modern times -- they date back to antiquity, and there is a lot of lamenting in the records to prove it. The talk was given at ACOR, the American Center for Oriental Research, which sits on a hill and provides a research library, housing and all kinds of other support for the scholars and students who come here from around the world to conduct digs and look through archives and collaborate with their colleagues.
Some of my Fulbrighter friends -- Cooper (who was the only one to obey my instructions and pretend to be having cocktail conversation), Mike, Tess and Christina -- at the ACOR reception after the talk.

One of things that I like best about the Fulbright program is that its designers understand -- clearly and deeply -- that the value of the program is not only about the stated research or teaching project that brings a scholar or student here.  It's also about experience -- everything from learning how people get their day-to-day needs met in a different country and culture to the ways that we differ (and don't) in the sources of our joys and sorrows to the special things that can only be learned in a place where those things are actually common.  Here, antiquities and their study  -- so foreign and exotic to we Americans -- are all around us.  I'm definitely planning to keep taking the opportunities that present themselves to learn more.
This post would not be complete without a special mention of my nearest neighbors - Fulbright students Mike, Luke and Cooper.  In addition to being fabulous human beings, all of them speak Arabic (though they're here in part to learn more) and each has taken a turn in the past several nights sitting in the front seat of taxis and directing the drivers in Arabic to tricky spots that would have defeated lesser humans.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

50 Jordan Challenges: The List

So, taking a leaf from my 2010 52 New Things adventure, I've decided to embark on a new one. This one will attempt to pack 50 challenges (and document them) into my ten month Fulbright experience here in Amman, Jordan. That sounds more ambitious than it actually is: some of the things I'm labelling as challenges are everyday experiences I'm going to have to master whether I call them challenges or not, and others are trips I've been hoping to take for years. But as I learned in 2010, thinking of challenges and actually making a commitment to do them, begets more opportunities, more new ideas, and more new friends (and old) who might just be interested in doing some of them too.

So, here's the list so far. It's obviously still in formation, and, as in 2010, there will be things to be added and things that get knocked off. So feel free to make suggestions, sign up for ones that look of mutual interest, or make your own list for comparison!

Things I Need to Do to Acclimate to Life in Jordan

* Learn to use my washing machine. This was the first thing I thought of with the list, and I'm happy to say I've done it (and did a post to prove it).

* Learn to use my oven. My oven and stove are connected to a propane tank, and both the oven and individual burners need to be lit any time you use it. I can't even figure out where you light the oven or what the mysterious dials mean. But as everyone who knows me knows, I can't go too long without baking something, so this is a must.

*Get to know my neighborhood.  A funny thing about Amman is that here, addresses are meaningless.  Give an address to a cab driver and he'll just stare at you. You have to know a nearby well-known landmark that you can direct him to, then tell him how to get to the place from there.  I am, to put it mildly, directionally challenged. So, the recent assignment given by our Fulbright Commission director Alain, to draw maps for him of our place within our neighborhood (to have in case of emergencies) means that I actually need to get out and get to know my local landmarks.

* Learn some Arabic! Everyone has warned me that Arabic is a very tough language, so I am going to set up some baby-step goals. The first: being able to ask Nasser, the guy I've been buying my fruits and vegetables from, for what I want in Arabic.

* Learn some Arabic, part II. I think my second goal will be to learn to write a full sentence that includes my name.

* Learn Arabic, part III. The third, and this one feels pretty tough right now -- but I do have ten months -- will be to try to read a children's story in Arabic. The idea was suggested, like a bunch of things on this list, by my new friend Christina, who is a font of ideas, wisdom and excellent tidbits about the Arabic language for a total newbie like me.

Uniquely Jordanian Skills and Experiences

* Learn to cook a Jordanian main or side dish. There's tons of things I've eaten that I have no idea how to make. I hope to learn from a pro how to make one or more of them.

* Learn to make a Jordanian dessert. Everyone who knows me knows I'm all about the sweets. I want to make one of the pretty and fancy desserts or pastries that get produced here.

* Ride an Arabian horse. Suggested by my sister Katrinka, and complicated by the fact that I've only ever ridden a horse a few times in my life, period. But maybe that makes it that much more of a challenge

* Do a fun run here in Jordan. One of the toughest things about being here so far is that I can't run outside. I'm a painfully slow runner, and running on a treadmill is not only boring, but a constant reminder of that. So, I think a good way to get motivated will be to sign up for a 5 or 10 K during my time here (and no, I'd rather not try the Dead Sea Marathon unless there's something shorter attached to it.)

* Go on a bike trip with Cycle Jordan. This was suggested by Megan, an outgoing student Fulbrighter. The group takes trips to all kinds of cool spots around the country. I think it would be a great thing to do from a biking and an exploring Jordan standpoint.

* Watch a movie in Arabic. Suggested by my new friend Christina. I think I'll need to try to get some Arabic-speaking friends to go with me so I can find out later if I got the gist of the plot at all.

* Visit Petra Three Ways. When I did my 52 New Things, one of them was to do what is probably Vermont's most famous hike, Camel's Hump, in all four seasons. Similarly, I'd like to go to Petra in three different ways. They are: to see Petra at night (the long Siq is supposedly lit by thousands of candles); to visit Petra in the winter; and to visit Petra with someone really well-versed in its archeology. (I just had to post the picture below because it's from the first time I went to Petra, because it features my close friend Siham, who I hope will be taking part in one of these Petra adventures again, and because it's my favorite picture I've ever taken).
My first trip to Petra with my friends Siham and Connor, was one of the best experiences of my life.  We were befriended by a couple of Bedouins, Khalid and Ibrahim, who took us on a hike out of Petra over the cliffs into the desert and spent the night in one of the caves they took us to.  Here is my friend Siham with Khalid.

* Go on an archaeological dig. My new friend Elizabeth knows lots of people working in the antiquities realm. Here's hoping she can swing a tag-along for a day or two at a site somewhere. How cool would that be?

* Go rock climbing in Wadi Rum.  Wadi Rum is the legendary desert of Lawrence of Arabia.  It's full of cliffs and canyons and is said to have some of the best rock climbing in the world.  I am just a novice at rock climbing, so I won't be able to take advantage of all it has to offer, but I sure would love to see and try it anyway.

* Go snorkeling in Aqaba.  Aqaba sits on the coast of the Red Sea and has spectacular coral reefs, which I definitely want to check out.

* Explore the tiles of Madaba, the City of Mosaics. There is a really famous one in a Greek Orthodox church that is a 6th century Byzantine map of Jerusalem and other holy spots, plus a museum and lots of other smaller mosaics in other churches in Madaba.

*See the ruins of Jerash.  Jerash is considered one of the best preserved Roman provincial towns in the world, and you can still go to the theatre, hippodrome, nymphaeum and other sites.  If I'm lucky, I'll be able to catch one of the re-enactments they do of chariot races and gladiator battles.

*Visit Umm Qays. This is another ancient city full of ruins that overlooks the Jordan Valley and the Sea of Galilee.  It's also the place where Jesus worked the miracle where he cast demons out of a man and into a herd of pigs that then ran into the Sea of Galilee and drowned.

* Visit the Desert Castles.  These include Qasr al-Hallabat, Qasr al-Azraq, and Qusayer Amra in he Eastern Desert and Qasr al-Mushatta to the South of Amman.

* Go hiking in one of Jordan's nature reserves.  Mujib Nature Reserve is in a very low altitude gorge that opens into the Dead Sea it offers both dry trail hikes and river hikes. I might try to do that or try a visit to Dana Biosphere Reserve or Ajlun Nature Reserve, both of which have hikes as well.

* Visit the Dead Sea and cover myself in  mud.  I've been to the Dead Sea once before, but it was a bit of an impromptu visit and Connor, Siham and I managed to make do without swim suits.  This time I'd like to actually plan the trip, and find out if my skin really will be beautifully revived after being slathered in mineral-rich mud.

* Experience a Hamman.  This is a Turkish bath, and I understand that the experience includes a steam bath followed by a very vigorous scrub and massage.  I've heard different (including a bit of a horror story from my new friend, Fulbright student Cooper) about them, but definitely want to try it out for myself.

*Visit a Biblical site. Jordan is loaded with them, from Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where John the Baptist baptized Jesus, to Mount Nebo, the final point of Moses' flight from Egypt to Mukawir where King Herod had John the Baptist beheaded.  This is another one off my sister Katrinka's suggestion list. Not sure which I'll visit yet, but I hope to see at least one of them while I'm here.

Because I'm in the Neighborhood: Beyond the Border

*Go to Beirut.  I've wanted to do this for a long time.  It's supposed to be a great city and I really want to see it.

*Visit the wine caves in Zahle in Lebanon.  This one was recently  suggested by my new friend Catherine and she made it sound so fun that all of us at the table were ready to pack our bags immediately.

*Return to Bethlehem.  Kate, Alexsis and I experienced some of the most amazing hospitality of our lives when we visited in May.  I hope to return and see the wonderful friends that we made.

*Visit Tel Aviv. Kate and Alexsis were able to visit Tel Aviv during our trip, but I had to return to Amman early.  They came back with reports of a beautiful and lively seaside city that I'd like to see.

*Take a ferry to Egypt. This is yet another great idea from Christina.  There's a ferry that runs from Aqaba across the Red Sea to Nuweiba, Egypt.  What a fun way to do the crossing.

*Visit Turkey.  My former student and friend Alexsis studies abroad for a semester in Instanbul and her dispatches back home filled me with the desire to see it myself. I'm determined to do that during or at the end of this Fulbright period.

So, there it is.  Anyone who's been counting will see that there's still a good bit of room for some more challenges to hit 50, and I think that's a good thing, because obviously, I don't know what I don't know yet. But I'm putting it out there in the hopes that it will inspire me, as well as other Fulbrighters who are here and people who are contemplating visiting, to dig in and explore.  If anyone sees anything on the list that they'd like to do together please contact me; and if there are other suggestions I'd love to hear them.  Here's to an amazing experience in Jordan!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Jordan Challenge: 1 -- Learn to Use my Washing Machine

So, I had an exciting thought a few nights ago.  Given that I am in Jordan for ten months with opportunities and challenges swirling at me like crazy, I thought it was time to resurrect my 2010 obsession and create a new list.  Here's my thought: A Fulbright Year of 50 Challenges.  As with the original list of 52 New Things, it will be drawn from all kinds of categories.  Some won't be particularly tough, but more along the lines of things I definitely want to take the opportunity to do while I'm here.  Others will be simple but important things about conquering everyday life here, as is the case on this one.  And, as in the original list of 52 New Things, a few will be really pretty hard.  I'll be posting the list in my next blog post after this one.  But in the meantime I thought I'd share the first Jordan Challenge. It is short, but oh-so-critical: learning to use my washing machine.

First of all, I'd like to point out in my own defense that this is not as simple as it sounds.  When I moved in my landlord went to great pains to show me the two full pages of instructions he had posted on the wall above the washer after repeated expats had unwittingly assaulted the machine in a whole variety of ways, all of them resulting in disastrous breakages.  And, to put some teeth into his warning he let me know in no uncertain terms that his patience was at an end: break it and it would be my problem, not his.

Page one of my two sheets of posted instructions.  Perfectly clear.  Any questions?
 So, it was with some trepidation that I bought my new front-loader detergent, put in my clothes (not less than 3 kilograms but not more than 6), selected what seemed to be a few dozen settings and pushed the final start button with a small prayer for my washer's safety.

The object of my trepidation, and my first knowing encounter with the finer points of Turkish appliance design.
 I am happy to report that both the washer and the clothing survived my efforts (though I do now know that perhaps the fabric softener to which I've had a lifelong aversion might have a place in my life after all).  No one uses a dryer here, and given how dry the air is, the clothes that I hung on my shower line were ready to go in no time. I feel the washer and I now have a good relationship, or at least an understanding. Onward and upward to further (hopefully more exciting) challenges!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Home Sweet Home in Jordan

It's Tuesday night in Amman, and tomorrow it will be a week since I arrived in Jordan.  We're in the midst of our Fulbright Orientation, but for the first two days we'd break after lunch and pile into vans to tour the city of Amman and pursue the all-important task of finding our homes away from home for the next 6 to 15 months (mine is ten). As Fulbrighters go, we're particularly lucky because here in Jordan we have a full-fledged commission, with an awesome staff looking after our welfare.  Last night we had a lovely dinner in our honor at the giant Mezza Restaurant, and I thought I'd put in a picture of our hosts, the Fulbright Commission staff.
Our awesome Fulbright staff -- Fearless Leader Alain, Eman, Aya, Jawad and Miracle Worker Iman
Thanks mainly to the amazing efforts of Iman, who somehow manages to get our whole group (and I think there are about three dozen -- scholars, students and English teaching assistants (ETAs)) housed with astonishing speed, I was able to find and move into my new place after only two nights in a hotel.

My apartment is in a residential neighborhood in an area called Shmeisani, which is about halfway between the heart of the downtown and the University of Jordan.  It's also made my life personally easier this week, because it's only about two blocks from the "Fulbright House" where the Fulbright Commission works and where we go for everything from our mail to crisis management.
Here I am in front of my new building, pleased as punch that I'm done lugging suitcases up the stairs.

I'm the smaller rear apartment on the top floor

Bonus! The chance for sweets, tea breaks and sitting outside just down the street
The inside of my apartment is a bit worn on the edges, but very spacious and airy. Like all the others we looked at, it's already furnished and has mainly tile floors and lots of dark wood furniture.  I picked it because it was midway between some places where I thought I'd spend a good amount of my time; it was on the top (third) floor (cool, except for the day I climbed up the three flights of stairs with my big fat suitcase and duffel to move in); has two bedroom (with two single beds in the guest bedroom for visitors!); and most importantly, it has a large balcony that runs the length of the guest bedroom and living room. Here are a few inside views:
My new friend Tess stayed with me a couple days while she was apartment-hunting, and here she is in the living room. She just found herself a palatial gem and I'm already calling dibs on her oven for Christmas cookie -baking.

The whole American disintegration-of-the-family-meal-thing hasn't hit Jordan.  All the apartments I've seen, including mine, have full dining rooms with plenty of room for the whole family to eat together. 

Plenty of space for sitting outside and enjoying the sunshine.
So, that's my new place. Here's hoping that at least a few of my nearest and dearest will be inspired to come see it for themselves!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Thursday's the New Friday, and So the Adventure Begins

The first full day of my ten-month adventure in Jordan is done, and one of the things I'm getting used to is "weekend shift".  Here, the day of worship is Friday, and the weekend is Friday and Saturday.  That makes Thursday night equivalent to our Friday night and Sunday is the first day of the work week. Right now it's Friday morning (we're seven hours ahead of Vermont), and not much is open because it's the equivalent of Sunday morning in a Christian country.

So, I thought I'd do a quick post about the two conclusions I've come to after my first 24 hours here. They are:

1.  It's good to be a Fulbrighter, especially in Amman.  Being a Fulbrighter means that someone meets you at the airport and carts you and your luggage back to a hotel.  It means that there will be some sort of orientation after your arrival and someone to turn to for advice.  In Amman it means more than that, because there is a full-fledged Fulbright Commission, headed by a charming executive director, Alain, with a host of helpful staff, all housed in an actual office/home that you can visit. Being a Fulbrighter also means that you'll be in good company, with a pack of other new arrivals, some of whom will already know the country intimately and speak Arabic fluently, others who will be brand new to the whole scene.  But all of them will be interesting, because they are the sort of people undaunted by the prospect of taking a chunk of time out of their lives to go somewhere completely different to live and learn and be challenged in ways they can't really anticipate in advance.  Which brings me to conclusion 2:
Obviously, I had to go back to my favorite Amman hangout, Books @ Cafe, during my first 24 hours here.  Here are my new friends, Tess, who will also be teaching (nursing) at the University of Jordan this year, and Christina and Elizabeth, who are here as Fulbright student fellows doing research and Arabic language work.

2.  No matter how much you try to prepare for a trip like this, you can't.  Of course I am already wishing I would have packed some different clothes (less short sleeved tops and more with 3/4 or long sleeves, plus more formal clothes), taken 12 passport pictures (which I did and then threw out both times I went to Tanzania for extended stays), and brought different books.  But even more than the packing is the mental prep, which I guess is just impossible.  There's no way of knowing how things will unfold until they do. You can't force it, and that's one of those life lessons I keep having to re-learn.  Experiences like this are good for that.
It gets a little chilly at night (hence the scarf) and we stayed at Books long enough to get the spectacular view of Amman in the evening.  A great way start my first Thursday (Friday-ish) night in Jordan.

Next week we have orientation and the University of Jordan opens and (fingers crossed) I'll find a home for the next ten months.  I'm sure there will be plenty to post about, but for now,