Sunday, March 31, 2013

The University of Jordan, shopping and our farewell dinner

Sunday marked our last full day in Jordan. After breakfast, we headed out to see the Museum of Royal Cars of the late King Hussein of Jordan and the Mosque of King Abdullah. We then stopped at a Roman Orthodox Church for a quick visit. As a Christian, I welcomed the opportunity to spend a few minutes in prayer given that Sunday marked Easter in the U.S. Interestingly, I learned that for Christians in Jordan, Easter will not be celebrated until May 9th. It appears they follow the Orthodox calendar. It was a wonderful experience and I give thanks for the freedom Christians have in Jordan to worship freely given this is not the case in many other countries in the Middle East.

After leaving the church, we grabbed a light lunch on the bus and headed towards the University of Jordan for a visit with the Vice President of the school and a tour of the campus, which was set up for us by JUST. It was great to see the differences between the University of Jordan and JUST. While both campuses are large and beautiful, the University of Jordan appeared to be more diverse in its student body, most likely due to its location in a large urban center. I didn't feel like I stuck out quite so much as I did at JUST, but it may have been the fact that I was less anxious and unsure as I was when I arrived a week earlier.

Once we arrived on campus, we were welcomed by the VP of The University of Jordan who provided an overview of the university. We then had an interesting discussion about statistics of women employed and enrolled in the University, their fields of study, and the impact of societal norms on women in pursuing higher education. I found it enlightening and helpful in dispelling some misconceptions that I had previously held.

Following our visit to the University, we left for the city Center for shopping and site seeing of the
remains of ancient Roman ruins. I was pleased to find many shops with the kind of things I had been looking for all week. I got to practice my bargaining skills and meet some kind and helpful shop keepers in the meantime. I ended up purchasing so many souvenirs and gifts, that i purchased a small carry on bag in which to carry them all.

After shopping we left for the Flying Windmill, a wonderful open air restaurant where we met up with our hosts from JUST, Dr. Al-Ajlouni and the president and Vice President of the University. The food was delicious and the restaurant provided the perfect atmosphere in which to celebrate our last night in Jordan. It also provided us the opportunity to thank Dr. Al-Ajlouni for the intricate role he played in planning our itinerary and coordinating our visit and for us as a group to commend Ahmad, the leader of our trip, for the humor, grace, and enthusiasm with which he led our group during the trip. We surely will not forget the wonderful experience we have had in Jordan and thank Ahmad for all that he did to positively shape our experiences.

Last stop: Amman

On Saturday morning we left Aqaba for Amman, the last stop of our trip. In total the trip took us five hours. Although this was the longest stretch of time we had on the bus, we made a few stops that helped break up the long drive. Our first stop was at a little country side diner along the highway to pick up sandwiches for our lunch. We then headed to see one of the most famous mosques in Jordan. We were allowed to go inside the inner courtyard, but all the ladies had to have their arms and head covered. This was the first time since I had been in Jordan that I was required to cover my head. Having never been in a mosque, it was very interesting to see. The faculty leading the trip, Dr. Ahmad Audi, provided helpful explanations of some of the monuments within the Mosque. As a Muslim himself, he has been instrumental in helping the group to learn more about Islam and its practices and how that shapes the culture in Jordan and elsewhere. Ahmad is very open about his faith and I am grateful for his willingness to answer questions and engage in dialogue about Islam in a safe and respectful way, even with those who do not share his same viewpoints.

After we stopped at the mosque, we drove north again and then made a quick stop besides the road at a scenic overlook that marked the divide of the desert region and the green pastoral lands. Before long, we had arrived in Amman where we checked into the hotel and then out to dinner. The restaurant served fast food style Jordanian food, of which I tried Mansef, the national dish of Jordan. It is lamb stewed in a yogurt sauce served over rice and a pita bread. Although I am glad to try it, I must say that I did not care for it.

After dinner a few people went out for coffee and hookah. Given that it was my son's 6th birthday, I stayed behind to call and talk with him. It was delightful to see his face and exchange virtual Eskimo and butterfly kisses as we typically do in person and wish him a happy birthday. I was glad to see that he was having fun and a lot less emotional than me. It was also a treat to see and talk with my husband. I will always remember my time in Jordan with fondness, but it will be nice to be home soon.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

4x4s in the desert and Riding the waves in Aqaba

Camping in the desert at Wadi Rum proved to be more comfortable than I had originally envisioned thanks to the fact our tents came equipped with beds and several warm blankets and a pillow. I fell asleep pretty quickly after the music ended around 11:30 pm and slept well until about 3 am when what I think were coyotes started howling, followed by a chorus of barking from dogs in the area. Thankfully my ear plugs were within close reach and I was able to fall back asleep. I had intended to take a shower when I woke up as I was feeling pretty dirty from the sand and sweat from hiking and dancing the previous night, but it proved to be too chilly to attempt it given the showers were across camp and were not within a heated building. Not able to do much else with my gross hair, I pulled it up into a pony tail and hoped that we would arrive at the hotel in Aqaba early enough for me to take a shower before our planned activities there.

After breakfast, the group loaded into the back of several 4x4 trucks which had benches bolted in them and headed out to the desert for some sight seeing and fun. We saw some neat archaeological findings left by ancient Bedouins as a map of the surrounding area for travelers passing through the area. We saw desert plants used to make soap and a root that women could use for lip color. We climbed a big sand dune and slid down, and then we enjoyed a short joyride back to camp.

Shortly after returning, we boarded the bus for Jordan's southern most city, Aqaba. Once there we checked into the hotel and then left for an afternoon of boating, swimming, snorkeling, and lunch on the Red Sea. It was a relaxing afternoon filled with much fun. I didn't go swimming but enjoyed relaxing on the boat in the beautiful weather and taking in the wondrous sites around us. I was particularly struck by how expansive the Red Sea is and marveled over the miracle God performed in parting the Sea for the Israelites to escape the Egyptians. I don't know the exact point of crossing or how the sea levels may have changed since then, but it was still mind boggling to think about it.

After docking, we returned to the hotel. Although we had planned to go by bus, we ended up making the mile walk back to the hotel by foot. The bus got stuck on one of the roads leading back to the main street because of cars that were double parked on both sides of the street making the road to narrow to pass. Dr. Al-Ajlouni, the principle person at JUST with whom we have been working called the police and flexed his muscle as Dean at JUST to eventually resolve the situation. I understand that it resulted in many cars being ticketed and towed away....

After everyone had a chance to change, we headed out for a delicious dinner of grilled fish outside in the courtyard of a group of restaurants. It was an enjoyable time, but made for a late night. I understand that it is customary for Jordanians to eat pretty late at night, like Spaniards, but I have to admit having dinner so late has been difficult for me. Despite the late dinner, I went shopping with others from my group to some of the surrounding shops in search of souvenirs to bring back. Although it was almost midnight, all the shops were bustling and showed no signs of closing. I wasn't all that successful unfortunately, but look forward to some additional shopping in Amman.

Our trip is now winding down. As much fun as this trip has been, it will be good to be home. I think the others are starting to share a similar sentiment after being together now for 9 days. Given our very full schedules, that is understandable. I know however that we will all share wonderful memories of our time in Jordan.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Indiana Jones, camels, and Bedouin dancing

Yesterday was a full day full of excitement, rich culture, and lots of physical activities. We started the day bright and early hiking into Petra, an ancient dead city carved into solid rock by an ancient Arab tribe known as the Nabataeans. Some archaeologists have ranked Petra as the eight wonder of the ancient world, which is understandable once you see it.

Some people may know Petra from the movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which was where the Holy Grail was hidden. The building featured in the movie is known as Al-Khazneh, or the Treasury. It was carved in the 1st century BC as a tomb of an important Nabataean king, but it is also thought by scholars later have been used as a temple. Unbeknownst to me, it is only one of numerous monuments carved into the high sandstone hills known as Petra. Additionally, unlike the movie, the Treasury is not very deep. There is no inner courtyard or secret passages. Nonetheless, it was still spectacular to see this amazing feat of architecture and engineering. As a big fan of the Indiana Jones movie, I could not help but hum the theme song for the movie as I strolled through the valley of Petra. Consequently, I was greatly amused that on the way into Petra I spied a vendor who was selling bull whips and Fedoras like Indiana Jones.

The hike into Petra was one full of beautiful views and people from all over the world. It was approximately a one hour downhill hike to the Treasury. I rode a horse part way down, but probably should have left that part for the hike back up as it was all uphill. On the positive side of things, I got a great aerobic workout. Once we returned from Petra, I did a little shopping before we headed out for lunch and our next destination--Wadi Rum.

The drive to Wadi Rum took about 3 hours. We arrived in the late afternoon to the camp where we would be staying. Run by local Bedouins, the camp consisted of about 100 small Bedoiun style tents with short concrete walls and woven black and white goat hair blankets fashioned over a metal frame. Inside each tent were two beds on wooden frames with blankets and pillows. There were also a semi circle of hospitality tents in the center of camp with benches and tables resting low to the ground for meals and several seating areas with fire pits in the middle. In the middle of the hospitality tents was a large circular concrete patio that I later learned was for dancing.

After checking into our tents, our group had the opportunity of riding a caravan of camels a little way out of camp to watch the sunset. It was a much different experience than riding a horse-the wooden saddle was far less comfortable than that of a horse and getting up and down is a bit more precarious because the camel must sit down and stand up each time. However, I could not imagined a more perfect way to see our first sunset in the desert.

Once the sun went down, we enjoyed sitting around a camp fire before a delicious dinner of roasted lamb, rice, and other traditional Arabic cuisine. Soon afterwards, the DJ begun playing traditional Jordanian music and our companion from JUST, Moath, started leading a group of people in a traditional Bedoiun dance. I was surprised to see just how many faculty traveling on the trip let loose and got down on the dance floor. It was a great time enjoying authentic Aspects of Jordanian culture. Coupled with the opportunity to sleep in the desert in tents, yesterday was the best day in Jordan yet. This trip has been so amazing and has given me a whole new appreciation for Jordan and the Middle East. I am actually considering studying Arabic when I return home. Given our discussions for ongoing partnerships with JUST, I think it may come in handy.

Photo credit for Indiana Jones photo: Google images

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Mt. Nebo and candle light walk in Petra

Given that we didn't have to check out of the Dead Sea hotel until 11 am, I took advantage of the extra time before check out to take a swim in the Dead Sea. It was an incredible experience. The water was a bit choppy so it made floating atop the water even more fun. I did get a little salt water in my mouth, but thankfully my eyes were spared.

After checking out from the hotel we stopped to investigate some natural hot springs and then headed to Mt. Nebo, the site where Moses was buried. Afterwards we grabbed some lunch in Madaba, a largely Christian town in Jordan close to Mt. Nebo, and then had a quick tour of a Greek Orthodox Church there before leaving for Petra.

We arrived at Petra after sunset, but it was neat to see the high, craggy hills of sandstone as we drove south. After we checked into the hotel and had dinner, we went on a candle light tour of Petra. It was really neat. The moon was full and the light bounced off the tall sides of the canyon walls. Unfortunately my camera wasn't able to capture the beauty of it all, but I suspect that I will get some great photos tomorrow when the sun is out. I only hope that I don't fill up my memory card on my camera before the trip is over.

Tomorrow night we will be sleeping in tents in the desert. As such, I think it is safe to say that I won't have Wi-Fi. I will post again when I am able. The next two days are shaping up to be quite exciting.

Photo credit: Phillip A. Young

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Jerash, Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, and the Dead Sea

Today was a packed schedule full of many amazing sites. Our day started in Jerash, the site of the ruins of the Greco-Roman city of Gerasa, also referred to as Antioch on the Golden River. Jerash is considered one of the most important and best preserved Roman cities in the Near East. It was a city of the Decapolis. It was amazing to see the vast expanse of the ruins, which are still being uncovered. Because it was a Greco-Roman city, some of the features we saw of the ruins reminded of the Colosseum in Rome. Not only were the ruins fascinating in and of themselves, but the views of the surrounding area from the ruins was also stunning.

After Jerash, we had chicken swharma and falafel sandwiches on the bus on our way towards the Dead Sea and Bethany Beyond The Jordan, the site which has longed believed to be where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. It was a very emotional experience for me, bringing me to tears as I dipped my feet into the same river where Jesus was baptized. Fresh in my mind was the passage of scripture from the Bible, 'and behold, a voice from heaven said, "this is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased." '. What a humbling experience to visit this holy site.

Afterwards we made our way to the Dead Sea. Also called the Salt Sea, the Dead Sea is a salt lake bordering Jordan to the east and Israel and the West Bank to the west. Its surface and shores are 1,388 ft below sea level, Earth's lowest elevation on land. With 33.7% salinity, it is also one of the world's saltiest bodies of water and is 8.6 times saltier than the ocean. We are staying at a hotel and spa resort on the edge of the Sea. This hotel is quite a step up from the hotel where we had been staying.

After check in, we had some free time to swim and relax. Eager to see the impact of the water's saltiness on their buoyency, many participants of the trip took a dip right away. It was neat to see them floating atop the water. I look forward to trying it out tomorrow.

Time for bed! Tomorrow we are off to Petra.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Ajlun's Castle, dates, and hookah

Today marked our final day in Irbid. We spent the first half of the day at JUST, touring the campus, engaging in scholarly presentations, and interacting with our academic partners. I found myself more comfortable on campus today than the day before despite the fact that I was wearing a dress. I also engaged in very interesting conversation with Nisreen, my academic partner, who is Christian, a shrinking minority group in Jordan. As a Christian myself I found it very interesting to hear how the very Islamic dominant culture still largely directs how one lives their life, even when in conflict with Biblical teachings. At lunch I was also able to ask how the conflict in neighboring Syria was impacting the people of Jordan personally. It was great for honest feedback and the opportunity to learn more about Jordanian culture and current events.

After lunch and a quick change of clothes, we then headed off to Ajloun Castle, an Ayyubid castle that stands atop Jabal Auf, near Ajloun, in northern Jordan. We arrived to find that it had closed an hour previously, but thanks to the persistence of our JUST companion, they allowed our group in to the outer grounds of the castle and gave us a private tour of the castle. I am so glad they did. The castle was amazing and the views from the castle grounds were beautiful.

On the way to dinner, we stopped at a local store to check out the dates and other dried fruit they had for sale. I had never seen so many types of dates before. The store owner let us sample some of the produce. It was delicious.

After leaving the store we went out for dinner where we met up with some of our partners from JUST. I was interested to find that the restaurant offered hookah. Also known as a waterpipe, hookah is a single or multi-stemmed instrument for smoking flavored tobacco called shisha in which the smoke is passed through a water basin (often glass based) before inhalation. It's use is very common in Jordan and other parts of the Middle East. Seeing our curiosity, the wait staff kindly provided is with a demonstration on how hookah is set up (see attached video). Some persons even tried hookah for the first time, including our college president! I was not one of them.

Tomorrow we leave Irbid bright and early and are headed to Jerash and then onto the Dead Sea. We will also be visiting Bethany beyond the Jordan, the site of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River. I can hardly wait. Our Internet connect will be limited but I will post photos as soon as I can.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Breakfast from the top of Irbid

JUST, the Sea of Galilee, and the search for dinner

We arrived at our hotel a little before 6 am. After a quick night's sleep (4 hours), we awoke to prepare for our first day at Jordan University of Science and Technology (JUST), the host of our visit to Jordan. We met with the university President, the Dean of the Engineering program, and our faculty partners. Both presidents from CLC and Joliet Junior College gave presentations, followed by a delicious lunch of pita, humus, babaganush, rice, lamb, chicken and a honey almond type cake. I also got a chance to try Arabic coffee. Because it is so strong and concentrated, it is served very small cups. It is bitter and seasoned with cardamom.

While I very much enjoyed our visit to the JUST campus, I did find myself feeling very exposed in comparison to the sea of female students and administrators in hijabs. I didn't have a scarf with me as I did the previous day but I found myself wishing I had. Everyone was very welcoming and I was reassured that what I wore was fine, but I couldn't help but feel a little awkward at all the attention the presence of our group brought while walking around campus. I will need to give some thought to whether to wear the dress I planned to wear tomorrow.

After lunch, we had a tour of the spacious JUST campus, changed our clothes at the hotel, and then went to Umm Quays, which is a village in the north of Jordan that borders Israel and the Golan Heights. Umm Quays was formerly Gadarenes, which was the site of Jesus casting the spirits of the demon possessed man into a herd of pigs which ran off a cliff and drowned (Mark 5:1) into the sea. Knowing the history of this location only added to the exhilaration of our visit. We arrived about an hour from sundown which made some amazing views of the valleys and rolling mountainsides. The highlight for me, however, was laying my eyes on the Sea of Galilee.

After returning from Umm Quays, we stopped for some shopping and then headed back to the hotel and out for dinner. Although we had intended to eat at a local restaurant around the corner from the hotel, the size of our group was too much for the restaurant and so began our search for another suitable place to eat. After walking a bit, we ended up at restaurant where we at a variety of delicious family style dishes. By the time we finished, it was 11:30 pm. This is not a time I would normally be eating dinner, but surprisingly--like Spain--it is common for people to be eating so late. I do hope, however, that we do get to eat a little earlier tomorrow. It's 1 am now and I have a feeling that I'm going to have a hard time getting up at 7 am.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

We have arrived!

After 13 hours, our flight arrived in Amman on Sunday, March 23 at 1:30 am local time. In flight we lost half a day. It took about an hour to get our required visas, get through customs and collect our luggage once we arrived. I am a bit blurry eyed and in need of a shower, but otherwise none the worst for wear.

We are now on a bus on our way to Irbid, a city to the north of Amman where the university hosting us is located. It is about a two hour ride. We were expecting some local fare for dinner on the bus, but because it is still early in the morning, we were told that the only option is McDonalds! It's a bit of a disappointment, but I'll be glad to have some food to eat. I trust that some more authentic Jordanian fare will be available tomorrow.

40 minutes later....

Well as it turns out, McDonalds was closed. So after a few times getting off and back on the bus in search of alternative places to eat, we found a little Jordanian restaurant (a Falafel House) where we were able to get falafel sandwiches and some bottled water. My stomach is happy! Now for some sleep before we get to the hotel. I have a feeling than tomorrow is going to be tough day getting used to the time change.

And we're off!

Per the airlines instructions for the group that I was traveling with, I arrived at the airport at 12:30 am Saturday morning to check in for our 4:30 am flight. When I arrived I found that the flight had been moved back again to 5:30 am! After making sure that the entire group arrived, I proceeded to the gate with some of my colleagues. Feeling slightly energized by the excitement, I spent an hour studying basic Arabic greetings and practicing my pronunciation with Ahmad, the faculty leader for this group. Soon afterwards, however, the sight of so many of my colleagues sprawled out across seats in the lounge trying to catch some sleep made me inclined to try and do the same. I was surprised to discover that I actually did fall asleep thanks to my neck pillow and ear plugs (the later of which I never travel travel without.)

I awoke about an hour or so later to calls to board. The once sparsely populated gate was now packed with people. I was struck by the large number of women wearing head coverings. I wasn't all that surprised given our destination, but it did give me pause to think ahead as to what it was going to be like when I arrived in Jordan and how I would feel being in the minority of women without head coverings. Although i have traveled abroad before, being in the minority is not an experience as a Caucasian woman that I experience very often. Nonetheless, I value the opportunity to explore another culture and to step outside my comfort zone. I believe this will be an eye opening experience in many ways and look forward to the adventure that awaits me.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Flight delay

We have been informed that our flight, which was to leave tonight at 9:30 pm was delayed again for a second time. We are now leaving at 4:30 am on Saturday. I don't think I'll be getting much sleep tonight. It does, however, give me more time with the fam before I leave, so I am happy. It also gives me more time to pack! Slowly checking things off my checklist and starting to feel less panicky. I even downloaded an awesome app to my IPad to help me learn a little Arabic before I land in country. Less than 24 hours before take off!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

I'm not ready!

In less than 2 days I will be flying out of Chicago on my way to Jordan.  I am very much looking forward to the adventure that awaits me, but cannot help but feel a bit panicked at the moment.  Life has been so hectic that I'm not nearly as prepared as I'd like to be.  I haven't had much time to study customary greetings in Arabic, prepare extra meals for my family while I'm away, clean out my massive inbox of emails at work or even finish packing.  Time is ticking....will I be ready???