Spring Break Part 2: Lebanon Mountain Trail

After an exhilarating four days in Beirut Matt, Lesli and I packed up all our things and headed north. We had everything we needed for hiking and camping along the Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT), including the maps, contact information and advice from everyone at the LMT office near Beirut. The maps and trail descriptions were essential as most of the trail had not yet been blazed or clearly marked. In certain areas, they highly recommend a guide. But at around $50 a day, these students decided to skip that particularly luxury, relying on our navigation skills and the advice of contacts in each town. The path doesn’t stray far from the main road, and no point along the trail is more than a few kilometers from the nearest village. Parts of the trail are at a pretty high elevation, but the LMT office assured us that there would be no snow in the portion we were planning on hiking. Their mistake.

From Beirut, we hopped on a bus north to Byblos. We were told that it wouldn’t be hard to find a bus from there to Afqa, our starting point. However, when we were met with polite chuckles upon asking where to catch the bus to Afqa, we realized we would have to arrange our own transport. We did our best to bargain with a cab driver to take us there for less that $50, but he wasn’t having it. At one point I thought I got him down to $35 because he said, “Ok come here,” and started walking towards his car. Turns out he was just walking me over to a point where I could clearly see the price of gas. “How am I supposed to make a living with prices like these??” Fair enough. Cab drivers make little enough as it is. I’ve gotten good at avoiding getting ripped off, but sometimes paying a little more than you hoped is better than stripping someone of their dignity. We hopped in his car and headed for Afqa.

Yusef, as we soon learned his name was, had no idea why we wanted to head for the mountains without a bed to stay in. He kept telling us that he didn’t think we would find a place to sleep in Afqa. No matter how many times we told him that we had everything we needed and we planned on sleeping in a tent in the next town, he just thought we were crazy. This was the first of many similar interactions with townspeople along our trip. The LMT is only a few years old and is usually hiked in large groups of ten or more. Our random excursion looked a little out of place to most.

Matt and I pose with our trusty taxi driver, Yusef

Once in Afqa, we made our way to the grocery store to buy bread, hommous and chocolate for the trip. We were glad to find the store open for business because the whole village seemed strangely devoid of people. Homes lined the main road, but even in the middle of the day, we saw only a couple of people walking about. Either much of the town was actually gone, or everyone was sitting quietly in their house in the middle of the weekday. We passed a few towns just like this during the trip. Some of the larger cities are busier during the winter when people come to enjoy the ski slopes, but Afqa wasn’t a ski destination. We couldn’t figure out why there were so many empty streets and buildings. It made our brief stay there slightly eerie.

A view of the valley beyond Afqa

Before we headed out, we called the local guide to get a detailed description of the trail we were about to take. His explanation was straightforward and seemed helpful, but the higher we climbed, the more snow we encountered. When we completely lost the dirt road we were traveling under an expansive snow bank, we were forced to change course and descend into a tiny rural settlement instead of walking along the ridge that overlooked it. This added time and energy into a day that had already started much later than we had planned. Around 5pm, when we were heaving our bags back up the steep slope, a car drove by and offered us a ride. They said it was about 3 km to Hrajel where we planned to stay. Since we were walking along a boring paved road anyway, we took them up on the offer. And good thing we did because Hrajel was definitely farther then 3 km away!

After a long day, we were pretty happy to accept a ride

"You are now entering Christian territory."

Once in Hrajel, we enjoyed a warm dinner of fuul, hommous, baked potatoes and Lebanese sausage before seeking out the local hotel, Mount Smash, to ask if they knew of anywhere to camp. Hrajel is a safe town to sleep in, but we didn’t want to pitch our tent just anywhere. We ended up sleeping in their concrete rooftop parking lot because the earth was wet due to melting snow. After a long day of carrying our packs, the concrete ground was a bit less welcoming bed than we had hoped for. We set out the next day feeling considerably sore, but excited for another beautiful day in the mountains. Thank goodness for Matt and Lesli’s cheery company. It wasn’t hard at all for our group to stay optimistic.

Tent, sweet tent

The next day’s hike was similar to the first, but with a lot less snow. After a few hours of hiking, we had lunch in a ruined Roman temple in Faqra. As we were leaving, an attendant asked us if we had paid entrance. We had hiked up the back way and weren’t aware that there was a $2 entrance fee to see the ruins. We were ready to pay, but once he learned that we were backpacking through the mountains and just happened upon the ruins during our trek, he waved us on and wished us luck, doing his best to point us in the right direction.

A view of Hrajel after a bit of climbing

It took a little X-TREME climbing over some fallen barbed wire to get to the ruins

The next portion of the trail took us along an “agricultural road” that connected to a main road for a few km before descending into the river valley and farmland that would eventually lead us to Kfar Aaqab. But after an hour and a half on the same road, we decided to stop and ask for directions in the town we were passing through. We called one of the LMT contact, Josephine, a kind lady with a short silver hair who helped us get back on track. She suggested a different route for us that would take us past Kfar Aaqab and straight to our next day’s destination of Baskinta. Following her advice, we called a convent in Baskinta to make sure they had room for use to lodge there (beds were absolutely necessary after our achy night in Hrajel), and walked the surprisingly short distance to the quiet Christian town of Baskinta.

I was so relieved to walk into town knowing that I was so close to discarding my backpack and finding warm food. However, our final challenge was to hike through the narrow streets of the town and up the tallest hill towards the large cross that marked the chapel and home of the sisters of Mar Sassine, a Maronite Christian convent that would be our home for the night. Thanks to the help of our fourteen-year-old new friend, Anthony, we didn’t have to wander around the town asking where the Mar Sassine was.

Our first hazy view of Mar Sassine Convent. The fog creeped in just as night started to fall.

We didn’t know it at the time, but Baskinta was to be our home for the next three days. At first we decided to stay an extra day to rest before heading for our final destination, Mtain. But we instantly fell in love with Baskinta and kept coming up with excuses to stay. First, we decided to rest for an extra day and check in with our families at their small internet café. That day we made many curious friends who invited us to tea, told us how welcome we were in their town, and pointed down the road to their house, making sure that if we needed anything at all, we wouldn’t hesitate to knock and ask.

Baskinta wasn’t quite as small as it felt—the year-round population is about 22,000. But many of them must live far from the center of town because the city center can be completely covered on foot in about half an hour. There were about 6 or 7 beautiful churches that towered over the city, and several smaller churches that weren’t quite as extravagant. The whole town was Christian, split evenly between Maronite, Catholic and Greek Orthodox. Easter was in the air and everyone in town was getting ready for the holiday by baking special sugar cookies and pistachio pastries. I’m sure they were doing other things too, but the baked goods stand out in my memory the most. Sister Rafqa, the motherly nun who took care of us while we stayed in the convent, kept bringing us more and more plates of delicious nun-baked goodies. Can you blame us for staying a couple of days?

On Wednesday, our second day there, Rafqa told us that it was a Maronite tradition to visit seven Christian churches on the Thursday before Easter. That was our excuse for staying Thursday. We got up early and started making the rounds, visiting the main churches around town. Unfortunately, there were two funerals that day at different churches and, as luck would have it, we walked up just as the mourners were arriving to pay their respects. When we asked a man in the parking lot of the first church what was going on, he responded with the memorable line “fii dead,” meaning “there is dead.” We got the picture (figuratively) and visited the church later, after the “dead” was over.

We found this little door in a shed next to a tiny chapel

One of the most memorable parts of our time with the sisters of Mar Sassine was our participation in the daily prayers. The sisters got together and sang hymns and read scripture for about an hour once each day. The priest would usually read a bit from the bible as well before spreading insence and holding up the cross for all the nuns to kneel and pray. The whole thing was in Arabic, which was a little intimidating at first. But sister Rafqa always had her eye on us and helped us to know when to stand, when to kneel, and when to do nothing but just sit there and look respectful. Every word of the service was printed on a bulletin. Following along in Arabic was good for my reading, even if I didn’t comprehend any of the vocabulary.

Inside the chapel at Mar Sassine

On Thursday and Good Friday, many people congregated with the nuns for a community-wide service. These were slightly less pressure because we weren’t the only ones worshipping with the nuns. I’m not sure if I was supposed to or not, but at one point I went up with the rest of the church to receive an anointment from the priest. Another time, the nuns were preparing and distributing little bits of bread dough in small film canisters. I received one of those as well. Matt, Lesli and I pretty much copied what everyone else was doing. Matt took communion. (Gosh, it sounds like I’m trying to get him in trouble! As a Catholic, I think it was ok for him to round up to Maronite.) But that time, Lesli and I held back. In my church back home, all guests are welcome to take communion, but I wasn’t confident that was the case with the Maronites.

On Good Friday, the place was packed. We arrived a couple minutes late and had to sit in the side chapel, sort of an overflow space for all the children and latecomers. It didn’t matter much to us since we didn’t understand much of what was going on anyway. At one point, everyone went and kissed the cross that the priest was holding, grabbed a candle, and marched outside and circled the parking lot many times singing and chanting together. In the end, we all entered the chapel for a final prayer before everyone exited the chapel and dispersed.

As this was our last day with the sisters, they took special care to make sure we understood at least a little about the Maronite faith. They showed us the three saints: Maroun, Charbel, and Rafqa. Apparently a fourth, Hardini, is on his way to becoming a saint, too. I was surprised that the Maronites are part of the Catholic Church and are loyal to the Pope. Syriac is the ancient liturgical language, which explains the strange script and language I didn’t recognize at one point during the service on Thursday. I still don’t know a ton about the Maronite faith, but the beautiful chapel and the kindness of the nuns left a strong impression on me. Oh! And their music. They all sang a cappella and it was pretty much bible verses to the same 16 measures or so of the same slightly haunting melody. One nun in particular led the group with her strong voice. They use a different scale than most hymns I’m familiar with. I bought a cassette recording from Rafqa of the sisters singing so that I could remember their voices in the future. Now all I need to do is track down a tape recorder.

We miss you, Sister Rafqa!

It was sad saying goodbye to Rafqa and the rest of Baskinta on Friday afternoon, but we wanted to get to Beirut with plenty of time before our flight out on Saturday. It was a very windy and bumpy ride through the mountains to get back to Beirut, but after an hour and a half, we were back in the city. We had arranged to stay with Ali, an acquaintance we had made through Couch Surfing, a social network that links travelers with individuals in cities who are willing to host. Ali is a Fulbright Scholar who got his master’s degree in computer science just a few years ago. He seemed interesting, so we’re glad he agreed to host us!

Before you get too sketched out, there is a service that allows courchsurfer hosts to get certified so that you know they are who they say they are. We also looked and many positive reviews from others who stayed with Ali in the past. Plus staying with a new friend would be far more interesting and less expensive than finding a hotel or hostel for the night. You can also use Couch Surfing just to meet people for coffee and make friends in a new place. I recommend it next time you’re traveling!

We met Ali at his office and learned about his start-up website, The Dream Matcher, which will be in full swing in just a couple of weeks. The social network links people with specific hopes and aspirations with others who can make their dreams possible. I’m not entirely sure how it works, but it sounds like a great idea.

Ali shares an office with Nader, a young and extremely driven entrepreneur who is a year younger than I am and already the CEO of his own successful start-up company. It’s called ThinkUP  (like their Fbook page here!). It’s a company whose goal it is to empower people, particularly youth, to formulate their goals and develop strategies and skills to meet them. Nader got the idea by talking to young people around the world about what they wanted to do when they grew up. In the US, Taiwan and throughout Europe, he found that youth had specific dreams and goals. He didn’t find that this was the case in Lebanon. He originally worked specifically with young people to help guide them and provide the necessary resources for realizing their goals, but when he officially founded ThinkUP, he expanded to include adult clients as well.

When I asked him why the service is profit-making as opposed to non-profit, he told me that he gets that question all the time. He explained that he seriously considered making the business non-profit, but that in order to provide a worthwhile product, he had to have a reliable budget to work with and a professional team to make it happen. He has a team of psychologists, speech therapists, tutors and other consultants that he wouldn’t have access to if the business weren’t profit-making. He also stressed the psychological importance of paying for a product. As Nader puts it, when the students and adults who use ThinkUP’s services actually invest (or receive scholarships that invest) in their future, they’re more likely to hold themselves accountable and follow through with their goals.

This may seem like a random topic to be writing about. It is. It’s extremely random. My whole last day in Beirut felt that way. We chose to couch surf with Ali and ended up in his office talking with Nader about his business (and his plans to expand to Los Angeles…). Then Nader and his girlfriend, Fatima, kind of kidnapped us and took us out for sheesha and coffee while we talked about our travels, Middle Eastern politicals and—you guessed it—ThinkUP. Nader invited us to stay in his home that night where there were three beds for us. Ali, who had joined us at that point, was okay with this. We wouldn’t have minded sleeping on the floor at Ali’s place (better than a hotel parking lot in a tent!), but Nader’s home turned out to be a great experience. His mother was extremely welcoming and made sure we were all well fed. Lebanon is considered throughout the Middle East to have the best cuisine and, after enjoying a simple yet traditional dinner with Nader’s family (not to mention our entire experience in Lebanon up to that point), we were thoroughly convinced.

Nader and one of his giant spoiled cat-like creatures

The next day (I can’t believe this was yesterday—Beirut seems a world away!), Nader took us to a school in the nearby city of Saida to witness a youth event that he and the school had been preparing for a long time. The event was a sort of fair, where middle school and high school students professionally presented their solutions to pressing community and global issues. We didn’t get to stay long before we had to head to the airport, but we spoke to a few of the students before the event got started. These kids were downright impressive. Some of them had developed mobile apps while others had created a prototype for a water-reducing toilet. The one presentation we got to see was delivered in flawless English and was very professional. The school and ThinkUP really did a great job challenging and preparing these students. The students of course did an awesome job rising to the challenge. After seeing what these young students could do, I left with refreshed conviction to learn Arabic as best I can before returning to the US.


Some of my favorite student art work at the school

Nader welcomes everyone to the conference

Freeway Graffiti on the way to Saida, Lebanon

Now I’m back in Amman and am pleased that it really does feel like home. Easter isn’t until next week in Jordan, but Happy Easter to everyone reading in the United States! If you’ve made it this far in the blog entry, I congratulate you. I promise not to overload you with so much information in the future.

As always, be sure to check out my (far more regular!) blog at http://reachtheworld.org/. I write two entries per week for Ms. Collura’s second grade classroom in NYC. The students often send me specific questions about Jordan and on occasion I get to Skype with the whole classroom. They’re really a smart bunch of students! (Shout-out to Clara and Katie for keeping up with my RTW writing! It’s nice to know a few loved ones are reading it as well 🙂 ) Educating others, especially young people, about Arab culture is one of my main objectives while I’m in Jordan. RTW is a perfect way to do that. Posting 5,000 words in one day on my own personal blog is another way to do that. But I’ll try not to make a habit of it.

Take care! Keep an eye for a catch-up post about Georg and Stephen’s visits.


Spring Break Part 1: Beirut

In complete disregard of chronological order, I’m temporarily skipping over many of the exciting events of the past month (including visits from two very lovely American gentlemen, the famed Stephen Steen and Georg Ristock) in order to deliver the following urgent message: I just got back from 10 days in Lebanon and it was the most fantastic spring break I have ever experienced. I’m talking lively, trendy and trilgingual Beirut. I’m talking snowcapped mountains and fresh green valleys. I’m talking the most thorough hospitality I’ve yet experienced in life. I’m talking hitch hiking, actual hiking, and couch surfing. And the best part? Nuns.

Allow me to elaborate:

After racing through my Arabic test last Thursday, I headed straight to the airport with my friends Lesli and Matt. If you’ve read previous entries, then you know Lesli well. Matt is a new friend and fellow outdoors enthusiast from Colorado College. The three of us joined forces to storm Beirut for a weekend before heading north and hiking south along the Lebanon Mountain Trail, a new-ish trail that spans the modest length of the tiny country. The trail is split into 30 day-long treks, but we only selected a portion of the trail that would take about five days to hike.

We arrived in Beirut after the sun had set, but I didn’t need the sunlight to see that I was in a much more orderly city than Amman. Cars stay in their lanes (for the most part at least), streets are pedestrian friendly, and much of the skyline looked sparklingly new. I just about wet my pants when I saw a public recycling bin the following morning.

Most of this fresh feel to the city, particularly the eerily pristine downtown area, is the result of many years of violent conflict that recently destroyed or mangled many parts of the city. Lebanon’s civil war, their conflicts with Israel and their Palestinian refugee crisis are just too complex for me to attempt to explain here (not that I fully understand the topics myself).

The recent bloody past means tensions between the 18 official religious groups, managed by a delicate balance of government based on sectarian affiliation (the President must always be a Maronite Christian, the Speaker of Parliament must be a Shi’a Muslim, the Prime Minister must be a Sunni Muslim, etc). But even with their differences, Lebanese seems to prefer their agreement to disagree rather than to keep making war. While the recent conflicts seems to linger in the air, Beirutis have a keen optimism for the future of their country and are eager to establish the violence as a relic of the past. In any case, it was an interesting backdrop for my experience in a new country.

We had no idea when we booked our hostel that it was in such an ideal location. Gemmayze, just a few blocks from downtown Beirut, is a funky street full of small restaurants and bars. It’s much more lively at night than during the day.

A view of Gemmayze from our hostel, which was really just our own furnished aparrment. Score.

Our first night, we ended up enjoying a live blues band and getting to know a couple Jordanians on vacation sitting at the table next to us. Their names were Yazan and Hanadi and they were in Beirut to celebrate their two-year anniversary. We soon learned that Beirut is the Vegas of the Middle East. People come from all over to enjoy the nightlife that just isn’t matched in any other Arab country. We spent the next few nights doing just that. In Amman, a night out usually means coming home to the host family around midnight, not long before most bars are winding down. In Beirut, we went three nights in a row and were never in bed before 4am. So exhausting! But a really fun change of pace.

The outside of our favorite club, Chaos. How many places actually ask you to dance on their tables?

There is so much to do in Beirut that one long weekend was hardly enough. But we spent our days doing our best to see as much as possible. My favorite sight was definitely the Blue Mosque. It was finished only a couple of years ago as part of the completely rebuilt downtown. The architecture is just breathtaking. I’ve only seen Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia in pictures, but that’s what it reminded me of. I got a chance to go inside between prayers and see the stunning domes and chandeliers. I was a little self-concious wandering around the mosque taking pictures, but the men at the door assured me it was definitely allowed, as long as I removed my shoes and put them in the designated cubbies. I must have been nervous because, on my way out when I grabbed my shoes, I put them on without thinking while I was still inside the mosque. I took about one step toward the door before one man reminded me “shoes are for outside!!” I apologized and practically ran out the door. Super embarrassing. At least this way I’ll definitely remember for next time.

It's impossible to pick one picture that captures the beauty of the inside of Beirut's Mohammad al-Alim mosque

The mosque is only a block away from some (preserved?) ruins from the war. I’m not sure if they’ve been deliberately left alone to remind Beirutis of the horror of the bombings or just because no one wants to invest in tearing them down and rebuilding. Either way, the blackened church and gaping building that was once a movie theater make a really poignant visual comparison next to the fresh-out-of-the-package look of the new mosque.

Bombed movie theater and Blue Mosque. Hard to describe how it feels to see both at the same time.

A bullet-riddled wall on a church near the blue mosque

The other very memorable experience was actually outside of Beirut in a city called Jeita. We went there to see the natural grottos that are famous throughout Lebanon. There are two main caves in Jeita. The second is only accessible by boat and was closed because the Dog River was very high that weekend. But walking through the first grotto was breathtaking enough.


In the gondola on the way up to the grotto. That's Lesli, Emily and Nick. Emily and Nick shared the hostel/apartment with us for the weekend.

We weren’t allowed to being cameras inside. This was actually a nice break from trying my best to document everything. It allowed me to appreciate the natural beauty of the meandering cave and the dramatic stalagmites and stalactites. One stalactite was on display as a timeline of human history. It was cut open to reveal the grainy mineral make-up of the stone. They had marked certain events such as “first human settlements” and “the birth of Jesus.” The stalactite was about three feet long and has only grown about two inches in the last 2,000 years. Mind-boggling.

And it just wouldn’t be right for me to write about Lebanon without devoting some attention to the linguistic situation of the place. It’s just so interesting! Lebanon was colonized by the French, so just about every student in Lebanon either learns to speak French in school or just by conversing with Europeans who come to enjoy the very “Westernized” city (I’ll give a $1 milllion prize to whoever can satisfactorily define “The West” for me). And Europeans aren’t the only tourists who come to Beirut. I met Brazilians, Americans, Canadians and people from many other countries while I was there. Obviously, English is extremely important, not only due to tourism, but because Lebanon has long been the banking capital of the Middle East.

The Lebanese are very proud of their high education. Most citizens, at least the ones living in Beirut, are fluent in at least two of the three languages—Arabic, English and French. And people really do speak all three. I heard Beirutis speaking to one another who would use all three languages in one breath without thinking.

The Arabic dialect in Lebanon is a little different from Jordan’s, but they are similar enough that I could get buy fairly easily. In fact, the Lebanese dialect is pretty much the same as what is considered the educated, metropolitan dialect of Amman (no coincidence). In Jordan, this is almost exclusively used by women. Men who ask for ‘ahua instead of gahua (coffee) in Amman are considered nancy-boys. Using the [g] sound instead of the [‘] sound (think of the throaty stop in the middle of “uh-oh”) is considered urduni urduni (Jordanian Jordanian) and is associated with the Bedouin tradition and thus masculinity.

(Interestingly, linguists find that it is most often women who lead the frontier of language change. There are lots of sociolinguistic theories on gender difference, but the general consensus is that women have more invested in being able to adapt quickly to a new way of speaking whereas men are often more concerned with preserving their long-established speech patterns.)

Honestly, I prefer the more fluid sound of the Lebanese dialect. And, let’s face it, being a nancy-boy is my state of rest. But in order to fit in with other Jordanian men, I usually ask for gahua instead of ‘ahua just like I ask gadeish? instead of ‘adeish? (“how much?”). Just one of the many personal choices I make in favor of assimilating as much as possible to the Jordanian experience.

The amazingly popular Barbar Restaurant in the Hamra district. Delicious sandwiches!

This particular cross was everywhere in Bourj Hammous, the Armenian district of Beirut. With 18 sects in Lebanon, religious symbols begin to feel like tags.

Falafel in Bourj Hammoud (Beirut)

Lebanese Lira still looks like Monopoly money to me

"Stop rape." These were all over Gemmayze. I ❤ Beirut.

An orthodox Palm Sunday procession down Gemmayze. Great view from our balcony.

Snow, Wadi Ibn Hammad, and the Dead Sea

Snow is falling from the sky!

I kid you not. Jordan may be mostly desert, but with an elevation of about 2,000 feet, Amman is known to get snow from time to time in the winter.

That’s what I love about this place. As soon as I think I’m getting pretty good at Jordan, something totally unexpected happens. Yesterday was the warmest day we’ve had in weeks. But before we could enjoy the warm sun for more than 48 hours, the weather turned crazy. This afternoon the sky turned orange. It was 2pm when everything got dark and everyone started gearing up for a sandstorm. Two hours later, the sky was even darker and hail was pouring from the sky. The hail soon gave way to thick snowflakes that quickly began to pile up. At that point, CIEE cancelled all classes and advised students to get home as soon as they could. I hung back at the university because I had scheduled up to meet with my peer language tutor, Murad. The two of us braved the freezing sleet and snow to document the weather.

As you can see, the snow began to pour more and more heavily. After a quick bite to eat, I caught the bus home before road closures made things really difficult. Traffic was much worse than usual, but I made it home! I was freezing and dripping from head to toe, but a hot shower and the news that school is cancelled tomorrow warmed me right up.

Murad is my Arabic language peer tutor. Each CIEE student is paired with a student from the University of Jordan so we can practice our Arabic and meet Jordanians our own age. Although I haven’t had much of a problem meeting Jordanians, it’s been really fun getting to know Murad and practicing my Arabic with him a few hours a week. Our first meeting was organized by CIEE a few weeks ago. We completed a photo scavenger hunt of Amman, visiting historic sites and sampling our new friends’ favorite food along the way. This was my first taste of Kanafeh, my new favorite dessert made with thin pastry dough, rose, water, cheese and pistachios. Food is always a great way to get the know a new culture!

The weather feels especially strange after my weekend trip to the warm and beautiful Dead Sea. Lesli has a more complete account of the trip on her blog, in case you’re interested. Last Friday morning, Lesli, Rebecca, and I headed southwest with our Jordanian friend Omar who knew about a beautiful hike along one of the many river canyons that feed into the Dead Sea. The place was called Wadi Ibn Hammad and, although we didn’t get to camp downstream because the ranger was worried about flash floods, we did enjoy a relaxing few hours walking along the bank, wading through the river, and climbing down waterfalls. Maybe it’s just something that comes with being from the Pacific Northwest, but I’m always surprised when naturally running water isn’t freezing glacier runoff. The water actually comes from hot springs nearby, so it was pleasantly warm!

After massaging our backs under a small but powerful waterfall, we had a picnic lunch, dried out in the sun, and headed back upstream. We had gotten a very early start and had lots of daylight left, so Omar took us to the nearby Kerak Castle. I haven’t been to many castles, but it was a very different experience from the impressive structures in Japan and Scotland. Instead of being escorted through rooms that were halfway roped off and glittering with reconstructed scenes of medieval splendor, we got to climb around and explore every passage that caught our eye. We got there a little past closing time, but we were allowed in anyway, meaning that we had just about the whole place to ourselves.

After Kerak, we headed to the Dead Sea to find a place to camp. Since we were improvising, it took us a while to find a suitable spot. (More about that exciting story on Lesli’s blog!) Once we found one, we pitched our tents and spent a warm night on the sandy beach. Since it was already dark by the time we arrived, we didn’t have a chance to enjoy the beauty of the sea until the following morning. As the sun rose, it was a strange sensation to look across the water and see for the first time the disputed East Bank. For one, I always imagined the Dead Sea was much larger. (Aren’t seas supposed to be enormous? Why aren’t the Great Lakes called seas, anyway?) Being so close to Israel/Palestine, watching the twinkling lights disappear as the sun rose, it was hard to imagine how such a peaceful looking place could be wrenched by such violent conflict.

The entire experience was just plain gorgeous. And the Dead Sea was so strange! The surface is 1,400 ft below sea level, making it the lowest point on land on Earth. The Dead Sea used to stretch much farther, covering what is now the Desert of Wadi Rum and beyond. I’m definitely not used to my ears popping on my way to the beach. And with 33% salinity, it’s no wonder that nothing can live in the water. I didn’t have a change of clothes for swimming, but I did put my hand in the water to feel just how warm and oily it really was. The beach was scattered with solid salt-rocks and a general dusting of white salt covered everything. Even at 6 in the morning, there were people bobbing happily, super buoyant in the salty water. I’m looking forward to jumping in next time to see what it feels like.

Traveling with a Jordanian was a new experience. I had a GREAT time going with Lesli to Wadi Rum three weeks ago (Ah! Time goes by so fast!), but it wasn’t exactly great for my Arabic to be speaking English the whole time. Having Omar with us was seriously more valuable than two weeks of class. When we weren’t learning Arabic jokes and pick-up lines, we were discussing touchy but fascinating issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Arab media coverage, and religious vs. national identity. This may sounds pretty dull to many of you, but since these are the things I flew across the world to learn about, it made for a pretty enthralling weekend!

Two more recent highlights:

I had my first Skype conference with the second-grade classroom that is following my Reach the World blog. They students from PS-682 were adorable and had so many good questions! It was a challenge to improvise simple answers to big questions like “What do they wear there?” and “What do people do for fun?” The meeting with the students made me about half an hour late for class, but it was worth every single moment. One of the main reasons I love being here is that so many people get to learn about Jordan and the Middle East through my experience. If you’ve made it this far through my blog, I hope you know what I mean! Blogging for RTW also has a fun side-effect: I’m beginning to see everything through the eyes of an eight-year-old. I’m constantly thinking about what the students would find interesting about Jordan, and I never miss an opportunity to catch  snapshots of my experience. For example, after seeing a large gathering of frog eggs and tadpoles at Wadi Ibn Hammad, I dropped to the ground and started clicking away much more enthusiastically than the situation called for. As silly as it seems, I think it’s good to see things from a kid’s perspective as much as possible. Otherwise, we run the risk of taking ourselves far too seriously.

I have a few visitors coming very soon. Georg and Stephen are coming during their spring break in less than two weeks! Both of them just recently bought their plane tickets, so their visits have gone from hopeful musings to swiftly approaching reality. I’ll have class most of the week, so I may be making some strategic decisions in regard to my attendance. It’s not everyday that two such important people fly across the world to visit! Clara is coming to visit after she graduates from USC in May, so even after the two of them leave, I have another great trip to look forward to! My study abroad program will officially be over after Clara arrives, so we plan to travel to Turkey and Israel in addition to Jordan. I’m so excited to see all three of them!

Amman in Ramadaan

Here’s a video from a show called “Bath Bayakha,” a local comedy show inspired by Saturday Night Live and Monty Python. One of the creators is visiting CIEE next week to tell us all about it. The video pokes fun at the daily realities that the Islamic month of Ramadaan brings, all to the tune of Con Te Partiró (Andrea Bocelli). Enjoy!

Between Iraq and a Hard Place

After spending hours finishing my Arabic homework (a combination of a long assignment and three distracting Turkish soap operas in a row), I’m about to crash into my bed and get some rest before my 8am class starts tomorrow. But since I hate to leave everyone in the dark about what I’ve been up to (hey Mom!), I’ll fill you all in.

One thing I’ve heard a few times since arriving in Jordan is that this country is “Between Iraq and a hard place.” Care to take a guess as to which hard place they’re referring to? The following two articles should answer your question. You don’t have to read every word if you’re in a hurry; the first couple paragraphs of each should be enough.

This a link to the Jordan Times, a popular English language news source in the Kingdom:  http://jordantimes.com/amidst-jewish-calls-to-storm-al-aqsa-arabs-largely-silent

Next, take a look at a very different version of the same conflict in the (obviously Israeli) magazine, Israel Today: http://www.israeltoday.co.il/News/tabid/178/nid/23122/language/en-US/Default.aspx

Notice a bit of a difference? So did I.

As I’ve explained, I’m not here to speculate about which side is “right” and which side is “wrong” when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian or, far more accurately, Arab-Israeli issues. The conflict is far too complex for such a basic ruling anyway. (I just did a quick Google search and found 50 million hits for “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and only 24 million hits for “Arab-Israeli conflict.” Anyone else find that interesting? Just me? Ok.) While I avoid taking sides, I will say that searching for reliable news is a tricky business anywhere. As you can see, the Middle East is no exception.

I will also say that it has been refreshing to hear so many different perspectives when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s not very often that you hear the Palestinian perspective in the United States. But in Jordan, where about half the population– not exaggerating here– is made up of Palestinian families who had to cross the Jordan River and find a new home, it’s just about all you get.

My classes are not as one-sided. Besides Modern Standard and colloquial Arabic classes (a total of 12 hours of class per week! Exhausting, once you factor in all the homework), I’m taking two history classes. One of them covers the modern history of Jordan and the Middle East. The other is called “Seminar on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” Both of my professors are extremely well qualified and have studied at prestigious universities in Jordan, Europe, and the United States. My Israel-Palestinian conflict professor studied for two years in Israel just to learn Hebrew. I find his commitment to truly understand both sides of the conflict really inspiring.

I could go on and on about my experience tip-toeing around this issue. I’m sure you’ll see a great deal of just as non-committal coverage in future posts. I was hoping to include more details about my host family and our party last weekend, but I’ve been busy with other things.

In fact, I have a confession to make: I’ve been blogging for someone else. It’s true. This is not the only blog I’ve been keeping. It’s just so hard being so far away from you all, I have to share my experience with everyone I possibly can. But don’t worry. I think you’ll like Reach the World a lot.

Reach the World (RTW) is a non-profit organization that “cultivates relationships between young students and volunteer world travelers through an innovative program of online journalism and face-to-face interactions.” (Watch their short video here.) The deal is, if I write tons and tons of details about my travels each week, then RTW will pair me up with a classroom in one of New York City’s most under-served public schools. Most of the students are in elementary school. By following my journey, they get to learn a lot about world geography, learn to read and write in a fun and interactive way, and get comfortable with technology that many of them wouldn’t have access to otherwise.

My favorite part of RTW is that it inspires kids to achieve great things. All the students blogging for RTW are Gilman Scholars. The Gilman Scholarship Program is a scholarship granted by the US Department of State for low-income college students seeking to study abroad (hint hint– any young people out there thinking about studying abroad in the future should consider applying!). Back in elementary school, many Gilman Scholars would never have imagined they would be able to travel the world. But now, thanks to inspiring individuals and generous programs like Gilman, we are! Besides teaching kids about world geography, we are motivating them to think ahead and work hard to achieve their goals of going to college and traveling the world themselves. I’ve been blogging for the last couple of weeks (though my content isn’t live yet) and will be paired with a classroom soon. I can’t wait to meet the students via Skype and answer all their questions!

So, sorry I didn’t get to blog more this week. But I’m not really that sorry.

Before I turn in, here is a hodge-podge of photos from the last couple of weeks. I hope you enjoy them! And Happy President’s Day!

PS: Did you know it snowed in Amman the last couple of days? It didn’t stick long because it rained pretty soon after. The weather has been absolutely miserable the last couple of days. But tomorrow it supposed to be sunny and a little warmer. Here’s hoping!

A picture of the dance floor at the mass birthday at my host family's place last week. Lots of American students were there, and this particular shot seemed to catch everyone of them!

My host brother Waseem poses with ALL SEVEN CAKES and other party goodies before the company arrives

My host mother, Muna, looks on as my American host brother, Joey, cuts (one of) his birthday cakes

Waseem prepares me a bowl of fuul (mashed fava beans with olive oil, a zippy sauce with a slight minty flavor, and lots of yummy fresh vegetables)

Out with spoons. In with warm pita bread. My host dad, Fayez, spent a whole meal a couple of weeks ago coaching me on the most effective scooping methods.

Joey settling down for a typical and delicious meal of rice, vegetable/beef stew, chopped veggies, and bread. This was before we lived in a post-spoon world.

Homesickness is no match for a breakfast of peanut butter and banana

Jackie (Fight On SC Linguistics wooo!) and I discover the wonder of a cup of warm corn on a rainy day.

In what I'm now realizing is my only non-food related image, my crazy/brilliant professor gets creative with my name in Arabic during calligraphy club.

Wadi Rum

Alright. This blog just got interesting. Nothing like a weekend in the most beautiful place I have ever seen (not even exaggerating) to breathe the life back into this online publication. Welcome to Wadi Rum, everyone!

As always when it’s difficult to know where to start, it’s best to start at the beginning. In this case, that puts me on a bus with my friend Lesli at 6:30 yesterday. If you haven’t met Lesli yet, allow me introduce her: http://mideastwandering.wordpress.com/. That’s a link to her impressively fun and detailed blog. I have numerous wonderful things to say about her but, for now, let it suffice to say that she has a killer smile and is the best travel companion I could have asked for.

Anyway, we had been led to believe that this particular bus left on the hour and, having already missed the first bus that left at 6am, we were eager to get going so we could take advantage of as much sunlight as possible at Wadi Rum. The plan was to arrive after a roughly four-hour journey, meet our guide, and set off with all our camping supplies across Jebel Um Ishrin (Um Ishrin Mountain), west of Rum Village. The trek w0uld be through Rakabat canyon, a narrow passage that takes about two hours to complete. Once we were on the other side, we would say good bye to our guide, set up camp and stay the night before returning back through the canyon and starting our journey home to Amman.

Sounds grand, right? Well, like just about every great plan, it didn’t work out exactly the way we had thought. After spending all night partying with my host family (more to come on that experience later), I was working on about an hour of sleep. Naturally, I settled in for a nice nap as soon as I got on the empty and waiting bus. Imagine my surprise when I woke up two hours later to find bus only slightly less empty and just as waiting as it was before. A bad sign. After a few questions to the bus driver, Lesli and I concluded that it would be best to check on prices of the vulture-like taxi drivers who were circling the bus station, swooping up potential passengers that, had they entered the bus, could have guaranteed a much speedier departure for all of us. However, as soon as I descended the bus and asked one driver his price to take us to Wadi Rum, a ride we had heard from reliable sources should not be more than 10 JD (14 USD) each, I was swarmed by taxi drivers who all insisted on charging at least 50 JD. Suddenly our 5 JD bus ride sounded much better.

It was then that I noticed that the bus was driving away, so I hopped on. But it was all a show. The driver moved about 2 feet, then turned off the bus and got back out, trying to coax more people on. The next hour was spent threatening to take a taxi, getting on the bus for about a minute, and then stewing in frustration after we realized that we still weren’t going anywhere.

A view from the bus before we moved anywhere

A view from the window after several starts and stops. That's the same little coffee stand there.

It was all pretty absurd. And in hindsight, hilarious. But by the time we finally got going, it was about 10:45. The bus was stopped a couple times by police– twice for ID checks and once for someone violating the new public smoking bans (what’s weirder: the fact that people smoke on public buses, or my surprise that someone was actually busted for it because I’m so used to it?). But other than that, it was a very uneventful ride.

One of the prettier views during our journey

At the small-ish city on the highway near Wadi Rum, the bus stopped barely long enough for us to leap out, scramble for our packs under the bus, and close the door before it zoomed away. We crossed the nearly empty highway on foot, waved to some goats who were doing the same thing up the road, and hopped into a van that took us to the visitor center, the checkpoint everyone must pass through to enter the reserved area of Wadi Rum. There, we met our guide, Sulayman. Actually, we thought we did. But after putting our stuff in his trunk and climbing into his truck, we all realized that we were meeting a different Bedouin named Sulayman and he was meeting a different pair of Americans. Hilarious. Finally, we met our Sulayman and made our way to the village.

It was immediately obvious that Wadi Rum was going to be one of my favorite places on Earth. Like I said before, I really am not exaggerating. But we were pretty disappointed because it was already about 3:30 and we had lost most of our sunlight for the day. So, after a cup of coffee with Sulayman, we decided to walk out into the desert and build our camp before returning to do both legs of our originally planned trip the following morning. Rather than trying to describe it all to you, I’ll just include a few pictures:

As night fell, we found a cozy spot between two enormous rocks (mountains?) and set up camp. By then we were starving, so we feasted on bread, cheese, falafel, hummus, bananas, and oranges. Yum! The weather was cold, but we were pretty cozy and warm inside our tent and sleeping bags. The next morning, we woke for a spectacular sunrise so we could be back in the village in time to meet Sulayman for our journey through Rakabat canyon. Walking through the sand is tough work! We did our best to walk on the compressed sand left by tire tracks, but the the flat walk for 1.5 hours with those packs on was surprisingly exhausting.

Sulayman was waiting for us in his car, asleep. We knocked on the glass and asked if he was ready to go. Surprisingly, he was. All he needed was a 1.5 litre water bottle and a pair of Converse high tops to scramble through the mountain.

And I really do mean scramble. I’m not familiar with rock climbing at all, so it was a new term for me. Apparently a scramble is something between a hike and climb. Although no safety ropes were necessary, there were some pretty exciting moments. One minute we were climbing hand over hand, wondering when we would see over the next rock; the next, we were deciding whether to ease our way down a steep slope/slide/mini-cliff face, or just jump and brace ourselves. We had spectacular views, and the rock formations themselves were gorgeous. Sulayman was a speed-demon, but slowed down enough for us to catch up with him every few minutes. During one of our short rests, he told us that he had been married just two months ago in December.  He described the celebration as a giant tent in the desert, where they invited the entire 2,000 person town. “Yes it was very big. We killed 20 goats.” 20 goats?? I don’t know much about goat-killings to human attendance ratios, but it sounded pretty grand. I loved the way that Sulayman substantiated his claim of the magnitude of the gathering in terms of goats slaughtered rather than places set or– if you’re in college– cups distributed. Since we weren’t camping, we left our packs in his jeep. Thank goodness we did. Early on we realized that it would not have been possible to squeeze through all those tight spaces with them on.

Spiderwoman! This was probably the most fun part of the whole climb. I mean scramble.

The legend. The Bedouin. The man himself. Sulayman.

This was sitting on a rock without explanation


Down the sand dune! This filled up my shoes all over again.

Rounding the mountain, the village is back in view!

The first person we met at the edge of the village was a young girl, about 8 years old, I think. She was by herself, hanging out by an enclosed garden, and was wearing comically large high-heeled slip-ons. Thinking of the kids in my mom’s daycare, I thought she must have playing dress-up by wearing her mother’s shoes. She was thrilled that we spoke the tiniest bit of Arabic and invited us to tea. We told her were going to the village to meet our friend (Sulayman had hitched a ride on a jeep while we walked back), but she walked with us into the village anyway, insisting that we have tea with her. Hoping to change the subject, I told her that I liked her shoes. Her response was “1 dinar.” It was surprising how jarred I was by these words. But I shouldn’t have been surprise. This girl was extremely poor and lived in a town that, during peak season, was full of European and American tourists. I would have said the same thing. The reality of it just sneaked up on me.

As we walked away from her towards the restaurant, she came running out of her house to hand me a catchy English-language brochure from Aqaba, the beach city to the south. I refused, thinking she would likely charge me for that, too. But she made sure I kept it as she backed away, nodding and smiling. The actual brochure would have been insignificant to me, but the fact that she gave me the most fitting gift she could think of made me hold onto it. Walking away, I noticed most children were playing barefoot, and it occurred to me that she probably hadn’t been playing dress-up at all.

After a relaxed lunch, we thanked Sulayman, and rode back to the highway in his friend’s jeep. From the road, we saw the iconic Seven Pillars of Wisdom rock formation. This may sound ungrateful, but after all the beautiful terrain we had seen, it didn’t impress as much as I had expected. Maybe I just wasn’t close enough.

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, names after TE Lawrence's book of the same title

The driver dropped us on the main highway with little more instructions than “The bus will come.” I was prepared for a long wait, but after about two minutes, we flagged down a charter bus and it stopped for us. The doors flew open and we met Nasser, driving his empty bus back from Saudi Arabic, bound for Amman. Glad for the ride, but suspicious of his enthusiasm, I asked how much he charged. He looked at me with such genuine surprise that I was afraid I had insulted him.

It turns it was just good old fashioned hospitality. Not only did he provide us with a comfortable ride, he bought us coffee and tea at a rest stop. We told him we weren’t hungry when he asked if we wanted food, for fear that he would continue to shower us with gifts. But there was no escape. As soon as he saw the bread we had on the bus, he shook his head, went back into the store, and came back five minutes later with lamb sandwiches and a Coke. I’m learning that the best way to handle this is just to say “Shukran!” and accept.

The rest of the way back, we spent conversing with Nasser in the front seat about all his travels as a tour bus guide. He showed us two passports– and old one and his current one– each filled to the brim with stamps upon stamps upon stamps. He really did drive that bus everywhere.

Turns out Nasser had his own pantry and coffee station under the bus-- one he showed us with pride!

And with that final, flattering picture, I’m going to call it a night. I knew this weekend was going to be great, but I didn’t know how much it would blow me away. Breathtaking sites, great company, an energetic climb through the canyon– I can’t wait to do this again soon.

Say Your Prayers

One of my favorite parts of living in Amman is the regular call to prayer. Five times a day, every mosque in the city blasts their own adhān from the top of their minarets. Traditionally, the adhān is sung by a muezzin whose job it is to remind everyone to pause their day long enough to turn towards the city of Mecca and recite their prayers. Not everyone stops what they are doing, but many Muslims have prayer mats with them just for this regular occasion.  These days, the call to prayer is typically a recording projected by loudspeakers. The tune of the call to prayer is not the same at every mosque, but the wording is uniform. Even if people don’t bow down to pray, the prayer serves as a reminder to both Muslims and non-Muslims of the most basic beliefs of Islam (“God is great. I testify that there is no God but Allah. I testify that Muhammad is a messenger of God….” For one reason or another, these probably sounds pretty familiar).


King Abdullah Mosque in Amman. Some minarets are more impressive than others.

The speakers at this particular mosque sound like they could use a little tuning up; most calls to prayer are clear enough to understand the words. But as I was walking home this morning, I couldn’t help but stop and record this for you guys. Maybe it sounds a little spooky to you. That’s OK. It takes some getting used to. In the short time that I’ve been here, it’s become a welcome and relaxing part of my daily life.

It has taken some getting used to, being in a place where religion is a very real part of everyone’s daily routine. For example, people say alhamdulillah (praise to Allah) for just about everything. Seriously. How are you? Alhamdulillah. How did you sleep? Alhamdulillah. Do you want more food? Alhamdulillah. Just burped? Alhamdulillah. People use the phrase so often that, in many cases, it has actually lost it’s religious significance. At this point, it’s mainly a cultural feature of the language. Most Christians in the region say it as often as Muslims do.

During the CIEE orientation, we were advised not to bring up conversations about religion or local politics. In fact, they told us (wisely) that it’s not a good idea to discuss our personal lives with anyone who we haven’t come to know and trust. But religion is a difficult topic to avoid. Topics that are sensitive in the US (finances, politics, religious beliefs) aren’t quite so off-limits in Jordan.

During my first couple days in Amman, I wandered into a coffee shop near the hotel I was staying at for the CIEE orientation (While it’s nice to have such a strong support network of American friends, I was anxious to escape for a bit and meet some Jordanians). It was immediately obvious that I was fresh from the United States, and everyone made sure I felt welcome by reciting the usual ahlan wa sahlan and pouring a cup of Turkish coffee. There were about half a dozen men in the shop. All of them were taxi drivers and all of them were curious about what I was doing in Jordan. Within about five minutes, they asked me what my father does for a living and how much it costs for me to live with a Jordanian host family. These have become regular questions from new acquaintances. I don’t mind telling them what my dad does, but I’ve gotten good at avoiding questions about program cost.

When the call to prayer floated in through the open window, the patrons began taking turns unfurling the communal prayer mat in a small corner of the shop. When one of them had finished his prayers and rolled up the mat, the next taxi driver would roll it out again and start his own prayers. My new friend, Waseem, must have noticed that my eyes couldn’t completely avoid the prayer corner, because he invited any questions I had about what everyone was doing. I didn’t want to get in too deep with my barely passable Arabic, but I did ask him about the bracelet he had been holding since I got there. It looked just like a rosary, and he kept using his thumb to rub bead after bead. I couldn’t quite understand everything he said, but the gist was that each bead represented one of God’s gifts, and the bracelet was a way for him to remember both the vastness of God’s generosity, as well as the smallness of his own existence.  No matter what you believe in, it seems like a good idea to just sit and feel thankful every once in a while. I appreciated how he didn’t ask me what I believed in. It was clear that he wasn’t trying to force his beliefs on me. He just wanted to be sure I understood them.

For the most part, Jordanians have been extremely friendly and respectful. I’ve made plenty of friends with people who simply approached me in cafés to introduce themselves. It’s refreshing to be in a place where it’s not considered rude and invasive to say hello in a public place. Last week, I was having lunch in the hotel (yes, yes, I’ll be getting to my homestay details soon), when a guy named Hameed asked to sit with me. Of course I said yes! It turns out Hameed was visiting Jordan with his uncle from Libya, making them two of the thousands of Libyans who have been pouring into Amman seeking medical treatment after fighting to topple Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.

Late nights with my new Libyan friends

This seemed crazy to me. It’s one thing to hear about the Libyan revolution on the news. It’s quite another to meet some of the people who actually made it happen. Later that night, I met Hameed’s friends. Many of them had canes and heart monitors or walked with limps. These people were seriously injured. I wish I knew enough Arabic to ask them their stories. Instead, we were forced to stick to the basics. It was actually really fun. I spent a few hours with them each night, learning about their families, showing them pictures of mine, talking about Amman, all the while learning a lot of Arabic. And they had such cute kids!

Anyway, it’s getting late. In the US, I would never say this before midnight. But something about constantly stretching my language muscles tires me much faster than usual. Tomorrow morning I get to meet my peer language tutor, a University of Jordan student that I’ve been paired up with to help me practice my Arabic. I’m glad for the opportunity to meet some Jordanians my age! My classes started this week, but the rest of the university doesn’t start until this Sunday. I’ve been busy already, but things will be picking up even more soon. Can’t wait!