by Rebecca Holland
I was 21-years-old the first time I ever left the US, in 2010. It was for a study abroad trip in Irbid, Jordan. Not surprisingly, I loved it and became obsessed with travel. Jordan remains one of my favorite places and I come back as often as I can. As I’m here now in Amman for a few weeks, I thought it would be fun to share some posts from an old blog I had while studying abroad. Reading through it this morning I was cringing at how little I knew about travel, or life outside the US. Some of the things I wrote or thought are things I would never write or think now! But I guess that’s the great thing about travel, right? It’s a constant education. So, enjoy these old posts (each section was a different post at the time), don’t judge me too much (though a little judging is justified), and let me know if you have any questions about Jordan. This is now my fifth trip back, and I’ve learned so much about this place and want to share it with you. (Also, I was dying laughing remembering that I actually had to use calling cards on this trip. How quickly technology has changed!)
Welcome to Jordan!
We’re here! After weeks of packing, panicking, phone calls and emails, running about a thousand errands, and a long day of travel, we arrived in Irbid, Jordan. The city is way different than I expected. In some ways very modern, in others not so much. everyone is extremely friendly though, which is good, as Brianna and I don’t know any Arabic and rely on our smiles and pointing to get us places.
The Alphamia hotel, our home for the next six weeks, is also nicer than expected. The one review Brianna found said it was a one-star hotel, so we were a little worried, but it’s pretty much your standard hotel, but with a cafe downstairs for tea instead of a bar, a slightly cold shower with bad water pressure, cute little seating areas, gold accents everywhere, old fashioned steps, decorative rugs, and a super friendly staff.
When we finally made it to Amman around 11 pm we were exhausted, but customs and currency exchange and everything went quickly. Sunday was orientation, which consisted of a bus tour of Irbid (the city we’re studying in), and the university. We stopped at two museums, neither one too impressive. They reminded me of the rock shows I used to put on with Emily in my bedroom, where we would set things on paper, write the scientific name, and force our parents to pay to see it. There were Persian squirrels, (the only difference I could find was they were skinnier than Wisconsin squirrels), some shells, insects, and a jungle cat with an expression like it was about to get shot–which maybe it was.
Irbid is known for their desserts, especially kunafeh, a cheesy, sugary, syrupy concoction, so we stopped for some of that as well. We had a welcome lunch at the University of Yarmouk, and took a placement test. Or, for half of us, wrote our names down, didn’t know anything else, and left to go to a cafe. We ended up also going to a restaurant for mansaf, the national dish of Jordan. It’s rice with fried almonds, lamb, and a yogurt sauce with some other flavor I can’t describe, served on a giant platter for the whole table. It was delicious, and very filling. After dinner last night we went to another cafe (that’s the main entertainment here), and then ANOTHER one, then finally got calling cards and phones and went to sleep.
Today was our first day of class. Easy, but I’m sure next week will get much harder. We learned the alphabet, sounds, and a little bit of reading. I knew a lot of it from Persian class so it wasn’t bad, but after the first week we’re supposed to finish learning to read and write and start speaking, then I’ll know nothing. We have class Sunday through Thursday from 8:30 to 4:30, so hopefully we can get through a lot.
Right now, Brianna and I are at a cafe using the Internet. We didn’t really know how to ask for the password so there was a lot of pointing. Then we asked for tea, we thought, and when the guy working asked what kind we told him to surprise us. So, someone came back with a hookah–not what we asked for at all. We tried explaining, but it turned into a lot of confusion on both sides. Eventually, we kept it, but also got our tea and coffee. Next, about 30 seconds ago, he came back to see how things were going, and tried to ask if we speak Arabic. We told him it was our first day of class, but it wasn’t coming across right at all. He asked if we liked America, but that was the only successful question/answer. Everything else either side tried to say was met with blank stares. Brianna kept trying to tell him we would come back when we knew more and would talk with him, and he was trying so hard to understand and turning so red, and I think also thought we were crazy, so I went on Google Translate and typed everything we were trying to say and he read the Arabic version. He burst out laughing and so did we, and then said ohhhh ok he’s excited for our return. Yay, technology! Also, they are playing a LOT of Enrique Iglesias. Like we’ve literally heard Hero four times in the last 25 minutes.
Tuesday was Jordan’s Independence Day, so school was cancelled and a few of us decided to take a bus to Amman, the capitol. The city is huge and really crowded. It’s built into mountains so the roads are kind of scary, but make the city look really cool. In some areas it’s very crowded and not so nice, then on the far west side is the palace and really nice areas, and downtown is a mix of that plus ancient Roman history. We went to Citadel Hill (Jabal al-Qal’a), home to the temple of Hercules. The Umayyad palace/mosque there is beautiful, and there are remnants of statues and buildings across the hill. Amman is situated on seven hills, resembling Rome, and behind Citadel Hill is a huge amphitheater used by the Romans. It was thought to be built between 138 and 161 AD by the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius, and can fit 6,000 spectators. We climbed to the top–so scary! The steps were extremely steep and slippery from hundreds of years of use. I almost couldn’t come back down, and Brianna and Jaimie and I had to sit on each step and scoot down like little kids because we were so afraid of falling. We went to a restaurant for lunch that had all you can eat for 1 dinar…the tables were outside under an awning and they just kept bringing bowls of hummus, beans, vegetables, falafel and pita bread.
Hummus in the U.S. is never going to satisfy me after this. We tried to visit a historical Byzantine church, now an art museum, but it was closed. An employee of the museum happened to be doing maintenance though, and let us in anyway, then brought us fresh squeezed lemonade. The rest of the day was spent shopping and taking the bus home. We met some people on the bus who taught us much needed Arabic words in exchange for English sayings.
The day wouldn’t be complete though without a dramatic language barrier incident, and that’s where buying a hair dryer comes in. Brianna and I made a trip to the mall with Jay (he came along only for food), because the heat is making my hair do crazy things and the dryer I brought doesn’t work with my converter. It was a disastrous first week without it. We finally found hair dryers in a grocery store, but there was only the display and none on the shelf. I tried to ask, but was unsuccessful, and soon a group of women with babies were trying to help me and give me a stereo. “Phillips! Phillips is what you want!” NO, I want this Sizzler hair dryer do you not see the lion mane on my head? Next thing we knew there were three employees trying to figure out what I wanted, and after much difficulty they gave me the hair dryer on the shelf. We headed to the cash register, but one employee insisted we follow him to one side of the store, where he proceeded to plug in the dryer and wave it around to demonstrate its drying abilities. We couldn’t stop laughing, and then neither could he, and soon the entire store had gathered around us. Of course, as we waited in line at the register, we saw an entire crate of the exact same hair dryer waiting to be stocked.
If I could go boating on the Red Sea every day, I would never come home. We left class early Wednesday for our weekend excursion to Petra, Wadi Rum and Aqaba. It was a long five hour bus ride to Petra, but arriving at a nice hotel was worth it. Never have I appreciated a real shower with actual warm running water so much. (Our shower in Irbid is touchy, to say the least). We were free until the morning, so the four of us from UW-Madison gathered around the hotel bar for way overpriced Amstel (not our first choice, I promise) in honor of all of you at home drinking on the Terrace.
Thursday morning we woke up at 5:45 to hike through Petra before it got too hot. It was incredible…an entire city completely carved out of rock. We wandered through caves, climbed rocks, saw the treasury and monastery, then ventured up the mountain of carved stairs to the highest point. 1,000 steps later (literally), we reached the top, and it was worth the sweat and sore feet. The view was “stupendous!” as the retired couple from Toronto we met kept saying. I tried keeping the beautiful sight in my mind as we trudged the two hours back, but in the desert heat it was hard. I don’t think I’ve ever been so exhausted. The people just starting out as we got back at noon probably got heat stroke.
Trading our resort for tents that night at Wadi Rum was fun but not ideal for summer. Canvas is suffocating. On a typical night, or basically any night except the one we were there, Wadi Rum is one of the most beautiful places on earth, especially at night. Lawrence of Arabia owned the land and was known to come and lie in the mountains and sand dunes and look at the stars to help him think. Unfortunately, we came on what everyone told us was the first night of bad weather in months–cloudy and dusty. We were entertained by traditional Bedouin dances though, which we participated in not so gracefully. In the morning it was on to Aqaba.
Beach towns are beach towns, wherever you are. Little kids running around with ice cream, touristy shops with cheap jewelry and sundresses, people piling onto boats with food and music. We ran onto the boat, free from long pants and scarves. As we sailed along, Jordan on our left, Egypt on our right, Israel behind us, we couldn’t get over the fact that we could actually see and were so close to three countries at once. After the sun got too hot to stand, we jumped in for snorkeling. The water was SO blue. We floated around coral and held a puffer fish, which was surprisingly cute. For the next few hours we ate fish, drank, had a dance party and did everything in our power to keep the day from ending. Taking advantage of the one city we could wear dresses in, the seven girls on the trip went shopping and met back at the dorms for a night out downtown. It started out rough, as we were surrounded by little boys with knives who wanted our wallets. We ended up at a bar called F.R.I.E.N.D.S, yes, named after the tv show. Mike, Cassidy, Brianna and I explored at least six other locations, but one hilarious cab ride (the driver wanted to marry Cassidy and have five kids), and a gold plated elevator that didn’t work later we made it back.
Now, it’s Sunday and week two of classes, which I actually really like. If only we could get past the alphabet. Brianna and I are at our favorite cafe again, and our google translate friend just brought us ice cream. It’s been a very fun, very busy first week. We’ve done so much I feel like it has been much longer. Happy Memorial Day in the states!
After a long week of classes and our midterm, we were happy to go to bed early Thursday night and rest up for a day of hiking through ruins. Friday we left early for Umm Qais, the site of the ruined Hellenistic-Roman city of Gadara. The view from the edge of the city was beautiful, looking over the Sea of Galilee , Tiberius and Golan Heights (part of Syria occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War). We spent a couple of hours walking through ruins and looking at monuments, then drove to the nearby Yarmouk River. The river forms the border of Jordan and Israel on its northern end, and of Jordan and Syria on the south. We were on the south end, and it was really cool to stand on a hill, look across and see Syria only about 100 feet away. In 636, the Arabs overtook the Byzantine Empire at the Battle of Yarmouk, which is significant because until this time the Arab Empire was a small power. The Byzantine Empire was the most powerful, and the Persian Empire second, but this battle started the string of Islamic Conquests following Muhammad’s death, which would lead to the advance of Islam in the Levant.
After Umm Qais we went north to Jerash, or Gerasa of Antiquity. It is known for its ruins of the Greco-Roman city Gerasa, and is considered the most well preserved and important Roman city in the Near East. Gerasa was part of the decapolis and is home to many impressive monuments. After a giant lunch, (pita, hummus of several varieties, kabobs, tea, salad, beans, noodles), we had fun wandering through columns, posing for pictures and jumping off rocks. There was an amphitheater with two men playing bagpipes for tourists. The second our group walked up they started playing Yankee Doodle…
Exhausted from a day in the sun, we went to the Yemeni restaurant for dinner–delicious!–and fell asleep early. Today, we had a lunch with a student at Yarmouk. He cooked a huge amount of food, followed by at least 9 watermelons. Now, Brianna, Cassidy, Mike and I are studying and watching the World Cup at our favorite cafe. The World Cup is crazy here. Everyone is so excited and there are flags and jerseys of every country hanging in restaurants and the streets. We’re halfway done with the program, and we’re getting used to Irbid and liking it more and more. . I’m excited to move into level 2 for Arabic this week! And next weekend we’re going to the Dead Sea, which should be a lot of fun.
The Dead Sea
A long week of class last week was made brighter by booking rooms at the Dead Sea for the weekend, and 15 minutes after class on Thursday Brianna, Cassidy, Mike, Claire, Akrum and I were on our way! Nothing ever goes perfectly here though (which is charming in a way I guess), and after our bus ride from Irbid to Amman, getting a taxi to the Dead Sea proved more difficult than expected. Cab drivers swarmed us at the bus stop, which is completely normal. They push each other out of the way, shout prices, pull you towards their car, but this time was the worst we’ve seen yet. Because Akrum speaks fluent Arabic, they pounced on him and bargained more than usual. This is good for us, because we don’t get ripped off as much, but the number of people and chaos surrounding him was hysterical. All other customers were ignored, prices dropped from 30 to 8 and back to 20. There was so much shouting and Akrum was standing there weighted down with a backpack and giant pink plastic bag, wearily yelling back as they close in on him. I wish I could explain the noise and the way they fought each other to get to him. What should have taken two minutes was taking over 10, then the shouting got so loud the police walked over and joined in.
Finally, we were in two cabs for JD15 each. At least until they pulled over the second we were away from the station and demanded 17. Of course. It’s extremely annoying, but when you’re in the middle of the road there’s nothing you can do, (actually, they demanded 25, but Akrum got it back down to 17). The hassle was worth it when we saw pools and beaches and swim up bars and buffets on arrival at the Dead Sea. (Unfortunately, the drivers saw them too, and forced 2 more JD out of us). Anyway, we jumped in the pool and spent the rest of the night enjoying drinks, a feast, watching the World Cup outside, and a beautiful summer sunset.’
Friday was spent the same way, mostly at the pool. We ventured through the sand, (which felt like fire on our feet), to coat ourselves in mud and float in the Dead Sea. It was such a weird sensation! Being in a giant body of water and not doing any work at all to stay afloat, not to mention not worrying about sharks or any other sea life, doesn’t quite feel right. But it was a lot of fun, and our skin felt extremely smooth after rinsing off the mud. The salt starting stinging our skin after awhile though, so it was a short swim.
We decided to go to the dinner and music show later that night, which was funny, mainly because of our bad dancing. They had a traditional band, which was especially exciting when they broke out in, “Wayn al Ramala,” (Where is Ramal), a song we learned at our culture club. We actually knew an Arabic song!! It was embarrassing though, when the leader of the program jokingly yelled into the microphone, “Will someone come up here and teach the Americans how to dance?” A woman came up and showed us some moves. They had contests too, and Mike, Akrum, Claire and I got pulled out of the audience for one. It was basically musical chairs but with a newspaper. Each pair dances around their newspaper until the music stops, then they both have to jump on, and each round it gets folded in half. Out of all the people that were called up, it came down to the four of us. Claire and I had to jump on Mike and Akrum’s backs, which Cassidy and Brianna found highly entertaining, and in the end Claire and Akrum won…because Mike apparently has no balance. The main event of the evening was the belly dancer and the couple that did ballet.
We had an almost worse taxi fiasco on the ride home. This one included the car breaking down in between Amman and Irbid. Overall, an amazing weekend. One of the best yet! Which only made it harder to go back to classes, which are now getting difficult.
It’s our last week of classes! I can’t believe how fast time has gone by. We’re ready for level 3 in Arabic, we’ve gotten really used to life in Irbid, and we’re going to miss this place more than we realized. Though we can’t wait for travels in Egypt, Greece and Turkey starting in a few days! This week is busy with final tests, final favorite foods, final favorite places, and final goodbyes.. We’ve learned so much about this country and culture. There are too many things (probably more important things), but these are the most relevant day-to-day lessons we’ve learned thus far.
1. High-speed Internet is precious. Use it wisely.
2. A cocktail is a very popular, non-alcoholic fruity beverage
5. JD1/$1.40 is an overpriced cab ride
6. Toilet paper in public restrooms is sometimes unheard of. Come prepared, as asking is a laughable offense.
7. Jordanians love, love, love Americans, but will double or triple charge the actual amount that any item or service is worth.
8. Nail files and chapstick are ridiculously expensive. So are real napkins, canned beer and apples.
9. Everyone and their brothers and their friends want to learn English. With you as their speaking partner.
10. If you’re the only woman downstairs in a restaurant, maybe you should check upstairs.
11. A sidewalk isn’t right if it’s not uneven.
12. When all else fails, open a furniture store or sweets shop.
13. Water is actually bad for your health.
14. Vegetarians and nut allergies cause confusion and are a big problem. Unfortunately for Brianna.
15. King Abdullah>anything
16. PINK underwear is more overpriced than previously thought (after a visit to the factory)
17. The Persian Gulf is an unheard of body of water. (Arab Gulf is preferred…)
18. Israel=Palestine (to Jordanians)
19. People are generally kind, helpful and trustworthy. But then old men ask you to marry them so they can move to the “Land of Free People.” So, be careful?
20. Hareesa, hummus and falafel will never be the same.
21. A cool day is 78 degrees.
22. People like you more once they know you’re learning Arabic.
23. 20 minutes means 1 hour and 20 minutes.
24. The US is seen as an almost mythical place, one that we’re really lucky to live in.
25. Often, the way things work/happen is rarely the most efficient or best way to do something, but I’m going to miss it.