Wow, this life is exhausting.
First I had a three week vacation to Yemen. I spent my time chatting and smoking shisha and drinking tea and going to coffee & chocolate shop grand openings and magazine launch parties and cultural debates and wandering around and taking pictures of rainbows and sleeping away the Ramadan daytime. It’s not a pretty life, but somebody’s gotta do it.
Then I was compelled to sit through a grueling week-long orientation in Amman. I was forced to listen to presentations on security & safety, foreign travel, insurance plans, research clearances, how to get paid, establishing residency visas, renting apartments, signing up for classes, and other such nonsense. For four hours a day! How was I supposed to feel rested for nights on the town if I had to wake up at 7am every day?
Then I had a whole week of classes. I was pretty sure I’d be fluent by the end of it, but it turns out I have a lot of work to do. They placed me in an advanced level where the textbook answer key I brought with me from home no longer applies. We only read the newspaper and short stories, but thank God for Google translate.
Just as I thought I’d be crushed by the weight of all these responsibilities, the holy month of Ramadan ended and eid al-fitr began. Without nine days off, I don’t think I’d have made it this far in the whole “immersion abroad” thing.
To maximize cultural exchange, myself and eight other Americans grouped up for Travel ™! You should have seen us, all gussied up for Nature. Our titanium-alloy-spined backpacks were stuffed with GORP and our Kleen Kanteens swung lazily as we departed.
My friend’s sister joined us for the trip. Meet Sarah, a five-foot two-inch ball of intensity. I gave her slow instructions on how to get from the airport to the mall near my house, including such gems as, “If you ask nicely, someone will probably let you use their phone, or you can find an “ItiSilAt, which means “connections” or “communications” – a phone place, get it?!” Her flight arrived at 9am, and I started to wonder about her come noon. She calls. “Did you make it? Did you find a bus?” No, she’s waiting for me at the mall already. I walk up and she steps out of a Mercedes, smiles big and hugs me. “If we want to go to the Dead Sea or to Aqaba or Syria, Mohammed here says he’ll take us. I met his mom, she made me some great snacks. Thanks Mohammed!” Mohammed doesn’t speak English.
Sarah never takes the elevator, is a Northwestern triathlete, and gently comments upon your lifestyle: “Oh nice! I haven’t listened to English music since coming to the Middle East, let alone country western!”
She’s been in Egypt since June, and speaks better Arabic than I do.
The following day we show up at the bus station for the beginning of my much-needed recess. I don’t know why the price is suddenly double what it should have been, and I never found out why, because Sarah took care of it before I could even inquire.
A couple hours later, we’re at the outskirts of Dana, the largest nature preserve in Jordan, which is run by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN). Citrus and olive trees join 600 other species of plants alongside 45 species of mammals, 25 of which are endangered. The beautiful stone village of Dana, dating back to the 1400s, is largely uninhabited now, because this generation a cement factory was built. The residents left the historic village on the cliffs for a new one closer to the factory. Six-thousand year-old copper mines are dotted along the reserve; they were the largest metal smelting operations in the area and are even mentioned in the Bible. (Anyone who has read Lonely Planet: Jordan will see that I am borrowing heavily here.) There are a 100 different archaeological sites in the preserve, many of which have yet to be excavated or explored. Man, without this guidebook, for me Dana would have remained just something stunning to look at and walk through.
Even though we were planning on walking five days all the way to Petra, when the bus driver asked us if we wanted to be dropped off at our camp site or if we wanted to walk there, we of course wanted to walk. We stepped lightly despite our heavy bags, fueled by the self-righteousness in knowing that our $55 spent to sleep on a mattress on the floor in a stylized Bedouin tent was going to support the Conservation of Nature (TM).
Here we are, start of the trip, fresh off the bus.
(Left to right: Alex, Ali, Judith, Allison, Caroline, Regina, Me, Sarah. David, not shown, took the photo.)
This was not about finding an authentic experience. Had we wanted to experience Dana like many Ammanis with disposable income, we would have rolled up in a BMW 4×4, seen the provided tents, noticed the fact that the entire place (including their hot water) was powered by solar panels, gotten back in our SUV, cranked up the AC and some bumpin’ Arab pop music, and sped directly to the Dead Sea Ritz Carlton for a night of all you can eat buffets served next to three swimming pools, followed by his and her facials given by Thai massage therapists. So, in this sense, thankfully for this trip we marched to the beat of our American drum. We are Indiana Jones, we are MacGyver, we are in search of Adventure and we’re on the right track.
It was the last day of the holy month of Ramadan, wherein Muslims fast and nothing passes lips from sunup to sundown. Fasting is a reminder of the plight of the poor and hungry, an emptying exercise widening one’s communication channel with God. Sprinkled throughout the month are devotional prayer sessions, and plenty of time for reflection and renewal. For non-Muslim foreigners, Ramadan is marked by dragging hard and fast on cigarettes behind buildings, enjoying secret lunches seasoned with guilt, and thoughts of, “Man, this would be so much better if I just fasted too.” Not wanting to appear inconsiderate during this last high holy day, we strayed off the path as we neared the campground to have a hidden lunch. The camp manager eventually pulled up in his truck and asked why the heck we felt the need to hide. He was waiting to orient us with the site.
A cluster of permanent sleeping tents hug the cliffside, and large open shade structures border the area. Using the phrase shade structure makes me think of Burning Man, but there were no flame-throwing three-story elephants marching through this desert. Shame.
(Photo Courtesy of Sarah?)
Still amped up from our first week of class and still fresh from only a bus ride, we flipped flash cards and drilled each other on new vocab as we relaxed through the hottest part of the day. A few hours before sunset we hiked up a trail to check out stunning views from the valleys below.
(Thanks Sarah. Daoud?)
That night they served us an awesome dinner, and shared stories and sage-infused tea over a campfire. Apparently Jordanians never smile, an Egyptian will try to convince you the empty bottle of Coke is actually full before selling it to you, and Syrians speak excruciatingly slowly. We learned of a honey thief and and lies and secret passwords, and how neighbors solve problems without violence or angry confrontation. Why take things to the courts when cunning and guile get your honey back?
I sleep early and hard, and thus ends day one of my backpacking trip.
For a compilation of photos from the trip, click here. But check back, because people still have to upload their photos (Guilty.).