Monday, March 19, 2012

Jordan Challenge 28: Jordan in a Week

So, as I wrote in the previous post, after much cajoling and many empty promises I was able to convince my colleague,friend and honorary cousin Paul that what he really wanted to do was spend his spring break in Jordan.  And once he was convinced, the challenge was on me.  Chris came to visit in November, but he came for almost a month -- here the challenge was to get as much in as possible without it feeling like a relay race.  I guess Paul has the ultimate say on how it went, but my admittedly-biased take was that we did pretty well.  Here Are my Top 5 Highlights of Hosting Paul in Jordan:

1.  Two Days at Petra
So fun, it got it's own post here.

2..  Visiting the Dead Sea
Back when Paul was an undergraduate, he sailed around the world with Semester at Sea and while the group was visiting Israel, got  a chance to take a dip in the Dead Sea.  He wanted to try it from the Jordanian side, and so we did.  We went to the Dead Sea Spa Hotel, which turned out to be a surprisingly good deal. They charge 20 JD on a weekday to use their pool, facilities and beach front, but then give you 20 JD in vouchers to spend, so lunch and sodas all day turn out to be essentially free, as is the mud that everyone applies liberally to their bodies because, well, everyone else is applying it so it must be good for you, right? We also went up to the Dead Sea Panorama for a great view of the whole area and a chance to learn a little more about the history and ecology of the place.

The Dead Sea Panorama is a museum that also boasts an area with sweeping views of the Dead Sea below.  Quite spectacular.

Paul, still covered with the much sought-after Dead Sea mud, demonstrates that everything and everyone floats when they're in the Dead Sea.

3.  Afternoon in Madaba
It's not the site of Roman ruins or Old Testament stories like so many places in Jordan, but I really like Madaba.  What the city has is an array of amazing mosaics from the Christian Byzantine era, most of which were unearthed when a group of new Christian families moved from Karak to Madaba in the early 1900s and started digging foundations for their homes and public buildings. The most important of these is the "Madaba Map" of the region sitting in the floor of Church of Saint George, but there are many others at the archaeological park and even in the private homes of some of the city's prominent families.  The town has a great and easily walkable historic district and made an excellent afternoon day trip.

Paul and I standing in front of the oldest mosaic discovered so far.

4.  Exploring Amman
The first night Paul was here we headed to First Circle in the area of town called Jebel Amman and took a tour down Rainbow Street before grabbing dinner at Books @Cafe.  The next day we went up to the Citadel, and as I posted separately, on the last day, we were able to take a tour of the beautiful King Abdullah Mosque.

But I think one of the best things about having people come visit is that they also make you notice things the everyday things you take for granted in your own neighborhood.  Paul's curiosity led us to make visits to the two closest mosques to my home, both only a couple blocks away in opposite directions.  He also had a blast exploring the balad, the slightly chaotic and grimy, but very lively downtown area where we went on his last day to pick up a few more gifts and souvenirs.

This is one of two mosques within a couple blocks of my place.  All its domes are gilded and its truly a splendid sight.

A street scene from the balad -- decidedly more traditional and working class than the upscale neighborhoods of West Amman where we expats tend to cluster.

Gotta love the cafe -rich environment of Rainbow Street.  By his third day in Amman, Paul was on his way to becoming a Rainbow Street regular, as he hung out there while I was at work.

5.  Food and Friends
As I've noted before, one of the greatest things about this Fulbright year is that I'm sharing it with a remarkable group of talented, engaged and all-around terrific fellow Fulbrighters and their friends. Although we were out of town for much of Paul's visit, and many of them were out of town at a conference in Morocco, I am really happy that Paul got to meet at least a few of them. And of course, what better way to meet new friends, than over a meal of new foods.  While he never got to try the avocado drink that Grace recommended, he did sample (among other foods): mensaf (the quintessential Jordanian dish); musakhan (a fabulous Palestinian concoction something like a flat bread pizza with caramelized onions and chicken); fattoush (a salad with bits of dried bread, tomatoes, cucumber and red sumac powder); shawarma (a popular street food, kind of like a gyro) and kanafeh,a Jordanian dessert.

One of the worst sins of omission I can think of is to come to Amman and fail to get shawarma from the Reem stand at Second Circle.  It is so good that everyone goes there even, rumor has it, the Royal Family. Obviously, we got our Reem fix while Paul was in town.

My Fulbright friends Grace, Cooper, Mike and Christina helped me introduce Paul to mensaf at the Al Quds restaurant in the balad.  The reflection in the mirror is Marzieh, yet another Fulbright friend who obligingly took the picture.

A serving of mensaf, up close and personal.

Afterwards we went to a sweet shop next door.  Here are Cooper and Paul sampling the kenafeh.
Although we didn't get to Jerash, Ajloun or Um Qais to the north, or Aqaba or Wadi Rum to the south for a week, I'd say we did pretty well.  Jordan's not a big country, but its warm hospitality, spectacular landscapes and historic and religious significance make a big impact. And there's nothing like showing off something you've grown used to someone who's new to it to make you realize what you've been taking for granted.  Thanks for the reminder, Paul, that I'm mighty lucky to have landed here in Jordan for the year!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Jordan Challenge 27: Visit a Mosque

One of the most interesting things about living in Jordan is experiencing the degree to which Islam is interwoven into the daily lives of the people of the country.  I hear the call to prayer from two different mosques five times every day, and Arabic language is full of references to Allah, from the phrase  "insha'allah" (if God wills it) which is the standard reply to any proposal or plan, to "al-hamdollilah" (praise God) which is a common reply in greetings. I've been told that most Arab countries have a major mosque that is routinely open to non-Muslims, and in Amman, that mosque is the beautiful blue-domed King Abdullah mosque.  When I told Paul that visiting  it had been on my list of Jordan challenges since I arrived here,  he readily agreed that we should go.  And so, on his last day here we ventured out into the pouring rain for a final field trip.

It took Paul and I a minute to figure this one out.  It's a digital display of the times of the daily call to prayer (it's pegged to sunrise and sunset, so it changes)

I knew that I would need to cover my head, and was planning to use the scarf I was wearing but when we arrived we found that they had a room full of abaya gowns with hoods for non-Muslim women to wear, so I put one on, we took off our shoes and in we went.  The key feature of the King Abdullah mosque is its huge blue dome, which on the inside is also blue, with gold lines running down to the base of the dome, and said to represent rays lighting the 99 names of Allah.

Wearing the hooded abaya lent to me by the mosque for while I was inside

Paul didn't have to cover his head and clothes, but we both needed to take our shoes off.
Like all mosques, it does not have pictures or statues of the Prophet Mohammad or any people or animals because, at least as I understand it, that could become a form of idol worship.  Instead, the interior is decorated with beautiful geometric patterns.  This is one of the things that makes it feel very different than Christian houses of worship; the other is the lack of objects, or even chairs, since worshippers will kneel on the floor facing Mecca.

For most of the time, we were alone in the mosque and had a great opportunity to look at the beautiful ceiling and patterns throughout the interior.

The mosque was built in the late 1980s by King Hussein, father of the current King Abdullah II, in honor of his grandfather, Abdullah I.  It served as the National Mosque until 2006 when it was replaced by the King Hussein Bin Talal Mosque.  But it is still huge, with the main chamber able to hold 3000 worshippers, and though that was a bit difficult to imagine on our visit, when it was just Paul and I and a European tour bus, it must be quite a sight when it's filled to capacity
A view of the King Abdullah Mosque from outside.

One final noteworthy detail about the mosque is immediately evident from the courtyard outside -- the close proximity to the Coptic Church right across the street. Although Jordan is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, I have found the Islamic Jordanians very respectful of Christians (who make up 5-10% of the population) and their holidays and traditions.  Although the weekend here is Friday and Saturday, many employers swap Sunday for one of the weekend days so Christian employees can attend church. Christmas, though generally not celebrated by Muslims is given off as a holiday, and my students and Jordanian friends thoughtfully went out of their way to offer me Christmas greetings and gifts to be sure I would enjoy the holiday they did not share.  I've found it interesting as an American educator to note that schools here make more concessions for their Christian populations than we do for our Muslim, Jewish and other religious minority students. In a world where we tend to have our eyes and ears trained to constant talk of "extremists", the siting of the King Abdullah Mosque next to the Coptic Christian Church is just a small reminder that peaceful co-existence is a mainly a matter of mutual respect.
The view of the Coptic Church steeple from inside the courtyard of the King Abdullah Mosque.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Jordan Challenge 12.2: Petra for Morning People

For the last week, I’ve been hosting my friend/colleague/honorary cousin Paul who’s been visiting me from Vermont. We’ve had all kinds of fun adventures that I’ll write about in another post, but since one of the original challenges on my list was to visit Petra three times, and in three different ways, I decided to write about Petra separately. I went earlier this year with Chris, and the new element for me was taking the Petra at Night tour, which is an amazing visual experience. The one thing that was a bit disappointing about it was that it drew a major crowd, and so though it was wonderful, it was definitely, well, crowded. This time, I learned a valuable truth. If you want Petra to yourself, go in the morning.

Just outside the entrance to Petra, some of the shops are still capitalizing on the memorable scene that Harrison Ford filmed as Indiana Jones riding through the Siq and coming upon the Treasury.

In order to make the most of this trip, Paul and I took full advantage of the fact that we are morning people. We decided to go for two days, which means getting up really early to catch the 6:30 am bus on the first day. It’s a three to four hour bus ride from Amman, so when we arrived at Wadi Musa, the town that Petra was in, we first stopped by La Maison Hotel, where we’d be spending the night, and they obligingly let us check in early. From there, we did an early lunch and then headed into Petra for a day of exploring.

As I’ve mentioned in previously posts, one of the most amazing things about Petra is the Siq, which is a 2 kilometer long gorge that you walk through to get into the ancient city. It’s not like anything else I’ve ever walked through, and it’s all the more spectacular because it dumps you into a big open circle with a giant carved tomb (the Treasury) directly in front of you. Walking out from the Siq and facing the Treasury is surely one of the most visually stunning things a person can do, and probably one of the most-photographed moments in the world. This was my fourth trip to Petra, but it never loses that charm. We also, of course, hiked along the roads lined with tombs and later Roman ruins, and did the obligatory trudge up to the Monastery.

We had also resolved to try another highly-recommended Petra activity – visiting a Hammam. I had already visited one with my good friend and Fulbright explorer Elizabeth in Amman, but there’s something very enticing about ending a sweaty, tiring day of hiking in the desert with a Turkish bath. We took the hotel’s recommendation to go to the Nabatean Bath and were not disappointed.

Outside the Nabatean Hammam, which I cannot recommend enough as a night-time activity after a day of marching around the caves and cliffs of Petra.

Next day was the time to try out our theory that Petra in the early morning was the thing to do, and we were wildly happy that we had. If you want the Siq and Treasury to yourself, we learned, the time to be there is around 7 am. No one is around but a few Bedouin merchants starting their day and the camels and donkeys. The Siq and Treasury are always great, but to have them all to yourself is really an unforgettable experience.

Paul, enjoying the unusual experience of solitude walking through the Siq..

..and being able to sit all by himself on the steps of the Treasury.
We also hiked up to the High Place of Sacrifice, with virtually no fellow travelers.  There, we took advantage of having the place to ourselves to try to explore the actual slab where the Nabateans sacrificed the animals and also to let me do some of the burpees I needed to do to keep up with my 100 burpee challenge (it was day 78, I think). I only did a set or two there, but it's definitely the most memorable place I've done them (with the outside lobby of the Dead Sea Movenpick Hotel during the archeological dig with Elizabeth coming in second).
Sarah, our Fulbright exercise guru, will br proud to know that I didn't let my visit to Petra keep me from doing my daily burpees.  We had the place to ourselves and it was wonderfully flat and spacious.

They didn't actually ever sacrifice humans here in ancient times, but I asked Paul to do a bit of dramatic interpretation.

...and here he is in his second role -- Paul Olsen, yogi master.

Should anyone be planning a trip to Petra, here are the lessons I learned from Part II of my See Petra Three Ways Challenge:

• Get a two-day pass. It takes all the pressure off of having to see everything the first day.

• Hike hard the first day and hit a hammam in the evening for a fabulous experience.

• If you like to have a place to yourself, get up early and hit the trails. Unless you’re Bill Gates and can buy out the Park, this is the closest you will ever come to having your own private tour through the Siq and at the Treasury. Totally worth it.