Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Jordan Challenge LIst: What's Done So Far

I’m in-transit back to Jordan on a marathon flight itinerary: one hour flight from Burlington to Newark; five hour layover at Newark; eight hour flight from Newark to Frankfurt, Germany; seven hour layover in Germany and five hour flight to Jordan. I’ve been trying to use the time productively reading books I’m using for classes this semester, but I thought it would also make a good time for reflection on my Jordan Challenge List because I am now officially at the halfway point of my 10 month Fulbright Fellowship in Jordan. So, I’ve decided to take a look at the original list, see what I’ve done and what I have left to, and also consider what other things I want to add to the list as the result of the first half of my Fulbright experience. There’s a lot in both categories (that is what I’ve done, and what I still hope to) so I’m going to split the write-up into two posts.

This is the first post: Starting with what’s been done, here are the things I said I’d do and did, followed by other things I did that weren’t on the original list.

Cross It off the List:

Learn to Use my Washing Machine (Challenge #1). First thing I did, and a good thing, too. I’ve gotten used to hanging my clothes to dry as well, and hope to continue doing that when I’m back in the US to reduce my carbon footprint a little.

Learn to Use my Oven (Challenge #3). Did this one quite early too, though some might argue that it wasn’t a complete success, since my oven later attempted suicide in a rather spectacular fashion as it was about to be impressed into service cooking Wigilia Dinner for 26 people.

When the oven wasn't busy self-destructing, we've actually had a pretty good relationship, as exemplified by these Christmas cookies it turned out rather well.

Go cycling with Cycle Jordan (Challenge 4 and 24). Had a great time on both trips and surely hope to go again, multiple times, before I leave Jordan.

Visit the Ruins of Jerash (Challenge 8). This was the first of many trips I’ve taken with my excellent fellow Fulbrighter and friend Elizabeth. Jerash is the largest and most well-preserved of the ten cities set up by the Romans when they ruled the area, and very worth a visit, especially if you bring your imagination.

Our Jerash and Parts North Day Trip was the first of many adventures Elizabeth and I have taken since arriving in Jordan.

It was a perfect day for exploring the extensive ruins on the grounds of Jerash, and we took full advantage of it.

See the Ruins of Um Qais (Challenge 8). On the same day, we also visited Um Qais and the Crusade-era castle of Ajloun. If you go, be sure to pay homage to the pigs who committed mass suicide by running like lemmings into the Sea of Galilee when they were inhabited by the demons that Jesus cast out of some tormented humans.

Visit the Dead Sea (Challenge 16). Although the Dead Sea is a unique place, what made this visit truly memorable was doing it with Chris. The weather was awful – chilly and rainy – and we were part of a very small group of intrepid travelers who were going in no matter what. But Chris was having so much fun that his enthusiasm was totally contagious, and made what could have a been a frustrating day lots of fun instead.

Chris is the only person I've ever known to stay in the water longer than the obligatory floating pose period.  He loved it, and thought it was great fun to feel so buoyant.

Explore the Tiles of Madaba (Challenge 18). Lots of people overlook Madaba because it’s overshadowed by some of the Big Names, like Petra and Wadi Rum. But that’s too bad. The mosaics are great, the churches and ruins where they’re housed are fascinating, and the old town is charming. I’m glad Chris was up for a visit, and had a great time when I returned with Elizabeth, Grace and Hannah as well.

Experience a Hamman. (Challenge 20). What I learned from visiting the Pasha Hamman is this: Hammans are awesome. Many thanks to Elizabeth for suggesting this birthday weekend activity. It’s also the closest I’ve ever felt to having a whole new skin. I shall return.

Visit Lebanon (Challenge 21). As I noted in my post on this one, on the basis of this one weekend Beirut vaulted to a place in my Top Five Cities I’ve ever visited. Cannot wait to go back.

Visit Tel Aviv (Challenge 23). This was part of a larger visit to Israel and the West Bank that Chris and I took. We saw a lot, learned more, and generally had a great time.

Bonuses Along the Way:

Learn Something about Antiquities (Challenge 2). This is definitely one of those advantages that come of being at a particular place. I came to Jordan knowing next to nothing about archeology and the ruins of the Near East. But it’s a great place to attend free talks, ask lots of questions, and see things for yourself. I’ll leave with at least a little more knowledge and a lot more interest, that’s for sure.

Become a Rainbow Street Regular (Challenge 6). Friday brunches at Books Cafe, discovering the other restaurants and cafes of the area, meeting friends and doing work at Turtle Green – what’s not to love? Every city should have an area like Rainbow Street and First Circle.

Exploring Rainbow Street means (in part) trying all the different cafes in the area. Here are my friend Doa'a and I upstairs at Bifrost.

Teach at University of Jordan (Challenge 7). Since writing this post, the first semester is done, and though I managed to make more than my share of mistakes (I now know, for example, the importance of using paper that has been officially stamped for final exams), my students were terrific and we parted on excellent terms. I’m hopeful that the second semester will have in store even more great conversations and mutual learning experiences.

Wadi Rum (Challenges 9 and 13). I never thought I’d enthuse about a desert so much. But I’ve been there twice, once with Elizabeth and again with Chris. The experiences, like the desert itself, were widely varied, and I loved them both. I’m hoping to go back at least one more time to have the experience of rock climbing outside as well.

Rain (Challenge 10). Before this trip, my vision of Amman was as a dry desert city. But anyone who visited in November, particularly this November, would come away with quite the different impression. But Chris helped make the most of rainy time, happily forging ahead to dodge the drops to swim in the Dead Sea, and refusing to let a downpour stall our night-time arrival in Madaba.

As Mike would quickly tell you, Mensaf (the Jordanian national dish) should be eaten in any weather.  So he didn't hesitate to take Chris to Al Quds for Mensaf despite the fact that it was pouring outside.

• Eid Al-Adha (Challenge 11). This actually turned out to be a great advantage this year. Eid Al-Adha is a very important holiday in the Muslim calendar and this year it was longer than usual, thereby lengthening school vacation time and my travel-around plans with Chris (at the same time that it complicated them when (like border crossings) closed and buses were more than usually crowded with vacationing families.

Visit Aqaba (Challenge 14). Although Jordan is considered a landlocked country, it does have a few miles of coastline along the Red Sea, complete with coral reefs, and the city of Aqaba makes the most of it. Chris and I were lucky to visit, though I hope to return to try scuba diving there with Elizabeth.

Field Trip to the Royal Auto Museum (Challenge 15). This was yet another of Elizabeth’s great ideas, and Chris and I spent a rainy afternoon there one day, together with what seemed like half the school children of Amman.

Fulbrighter Thanksgiving (Challenge 17). This is a hallowed Fulbrighter tradition, and I can see why. Though the Fulbright Commission anchors it with the provision of three turkeys and a host of traditional pies, it’s also an opportunity for all the Fulbrighters to show off their cooking chops and they do. We all rolled out stuffed to the gills and appropriately thankful for many things.

Finding Christmas (Challenge 19). This wasn’t as hard to do as I had anticipated. Though Jordan is overwhelmingly Muslim, there is a small Christian population, and a number of stores and restaurants and areas that cater to westerners and Christians indulged in some Christmas decorating. Our second trip to Madaba, a town with a sizable Christian population, put us in a decidedly Christmas-y mood, and my cookie-baking frenzy sealed the deal. I was also touched by the thoughtfulness of my students – none of whom are Christian, but all of whom sent me messages, texts and even gifts to make sure I had a Merry Christmas.

Host a Fulbrighter Wigilia (Challenge 22). I think this was one of my favorite challenges of the year so far. It turned out a lot bigger than I expected (26 people came to the dinner), but so was the help and general willingness of everyone to throw themselves into the experience. I had a fabulous crew of friends who spent most of the day before Wigilia learning to make pierogi, ushkas and borscht. And I’m willing to bet we celebrated the biggest, and possibly the only, Wigilia to happen in Jordan in quite a while.

Here are Elizabeth and Donna on pierogi detail the day before Wigilia.

Having failed to get a group photo at Thanksgiving,  most of the attendees of Wigilia posed for one together that night.

So that’s the story of the first five months of the Jordan Challenge. Next up is the list of everything I hope to do in the five months remaining. Here’s hoping that it will be an open invitation to my Jordan-based (and Jordan-bound) friends; let me know what you want to do, and what I left off the list!

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