Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Petra: Utterly Indescribable

Stop and consider the wondrous works of God.
~ Job 37:14

The earth takes shape like clay under a seal; its features stand out like those of a garment.
~ Job 38:14

I caught a bus at 6:30am last Monday bound for Petra. As I watched the sun rise over sandy, desert hills I was expectant about the adventures I would have and the sights I would see. But over the course of my trip, Petra exceeded my expectations far beyond what I could have imagined. I have procrastinated writing this post because I still find it difficult to put my experience to words. I want so badly to share just how amazing Petra is with all of you, but I fear I will fail miserably if I even try. I will try though! I will try to convey the awe-inspiring nature of the place through a few humble stories and novice pictures. 

Upon arrival I decided to first head to Little Petra which, as the name suggests, is a smaller park with similar rocks and carvings about 20 minutes away from the entrance to Petra. I tried to bargain for a taxi, but they all tried to rip me off. Before forking over the cash, I called Atef from the Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp where I planned on staying to see if he'd be willing to drive me. Sure enough! He was more than willing to be my tour guide! The taxi drivers were not too pleased I took my business elsewhere though. 

Atef dropped me off at Little Petra and it was amazing! Little Petra has a totally different atmosphere than Petra because there aren't as many tourists, thus there aren't as many people trying to sell things to tourists. It was beautiful, peaceful, and above all it was quiet. I can't remember the last time I was in a place that quiet. I had to just stop and listen to the stillness. 

I could have stayed there all day, basking in the quiet, but I had an opposing urge to talk and whistle because the acoustics amongst the rocks were so cool! So I whistled some to myself as I walked along. 

My good buddy Atef picked me up when I was finished exploring Little Petra and then made a suggestion I couldn't pass up. He offered to take me off-roading through the desert to a particular overlook, which he promised would be spectacular. In hindsight, it may not have been too smart of me to go off-roading in the middle of nowhere with a man I had just met... but I made it out alive! No worries! We drove for a while, then got out and hiked a short ways. I huffed and puffed up the mountain, struggling to keep up with my tour guide who was 10 meters ahead of me, wearing sandals, and smoking a cigarette. haha When we reached the top, the view all around me was indeed spectacular. Pictures DO NOT capture the majestic beauty my eyes beheld.

And the story just keeps getting better! Atef and I walked back to the truck and he headed for the passenger side... he let me drive the truck back to the road! I hadn't been behind the wheel of a car since I left the U.S. It was so fun to rattle through the rocks and sand and herds of goats. Atef really knows how to show the tourists a good time. 

I made it back to the town and did a little browsing through some of the shops. There was a sweet, young Jordanian woman working in one of the shops, which is pretty unusual. I typically only encounter men in the shops, so when I'm alone I tend to keep conversations limited and short. But I got to talking with this woman and after a bit she invited me to stay for coffee. We had a lovely time talking and laughing and learning from each other. 

The next day I had the extreme privilege of meeting up with a group from my home church in Oregon! It just so happened that Athey Creek planned a trip to Israel and Jordan this year! They were only in Petra for one day, but it was a huge blessing to be able to spend time with them. I have to say it was a bit weird to be with a big group though! I'm so used to being on my own all the time! We did the main hike through the Siq (a long and narrow gorge), past the Treasury (made famous by Indiana Jones), and up 800 steps to the Monastery. 

The Treasury, peeking out through the walls of the Siq.

The Treasury and some camels!

The magnificent Monastery.
The colors of the sandstone as we walked through the Siq were exquisite. Different shades of pink, grey, and brown (a result of various minerals in the rock) change and glow depending on the light. Coming upon the Treasury for the first time, I was struck by the grandeur of the monument. And you cannot help but be completely impressed by the feat of the Nabatean people who carved the structure into the rock. The hike from the Treasury to the Monastery is arduous to say the least, but it is not without company. Bedouin men on donkeys followed us most of the way up asking if we wanted a ride to the top. Bedouin women have small shops set up along the trail, selling trinkets and jewelry, "No charge for a look." 

Reaching the Monastery was well worth the effort of 800 steps, burning muscles, and the bombardment of donkey ride offers. Once there, the whole group gathered inside the Monastery. We sang a couple worship songs and then Pastor Brett did a brief study on the biblical significance of Petra. It was awesome!

I parted ways with the Athey group that afternoon and headed to the Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp for the night. I had a relaxing evening sitting around a fire, eating a delicious dinner, and drinking copious amounts of "Bedouin whiskey" also known as sweet tea. Then after an equally delicious breakfast the next morning I headed back to Petra for round two of hiking, sunshine, and people pestering me with donkey ride offers. Even after refusing, twice I was tricked by the line, "Lady, you dropped something... You're smile." Very funny. 

First, I hiked to the High Place of Sacrifice, where I was rewarded with more stunning views in all directions. It was here that I met Sami, a sweet Bedouin girl trying to sell me some necklaces. I used what little Arabic I know to ask her name and how she was doing (although I'm pretty sure she knows way more English than I know Arabic). She was beautiful. 

Sweet little Sami and her armful of necklaces.
After a quick snack break, I hiked up another mountain, Jabal Al-Kubtha. A nice Bedouin woman with a CUTE baby pointed me in the right direction. I'm telling you, it's the cute children that entice the tourists to look at the trinkets they are selling. This hike led to a spot on the mountain that overlooked the Treasury from above. Check it out! 

There was a very nice guy with a tent set up at this spot. I would argue he has the best spot in the whole place actually. He offered me some more Bedouin whiskey and I took in the view. It is here that I will pause briefly to implore all of you to be good tourists. I heard numerous stories from the kind Bedouin people I talked to about tourists who were rude and disrespectful. They also know when people feel uncomfortable out of ignorance. I know firsthand how important it is to be safe and cautious, but that doesn't have to come at the price of basic niceties. And sure, at a place like Petra a lot of people are there just trying to sell you things. However, I met some genuinely kind people who merely want to show what an amazing place it is. So the next time you find yourself hiking through Petra and you make it to the top of a mountain and a nice person invites you to sit and rest, be friendly, strike up a conversation, and take it all in. :)

Now, I could have stayed and basked in the beauty of Petra for hours more, but unfortunately I had to catch a bus. As I came down the mountain, the same woman with the CUTE baby waved to me and asked how I enjoyed the view. I had just enough time to sit and have tea with her and little Lulu. A lovely ending to my incredible trip. I made it back to the bus worn-out and dusty, but full of fresh desert air and experiences I will most certainly cherish for the rest of my life. 

There are many more stories I could tell about this trip, but I'll close with one of my favorite camel pictures. Aren't they great!? 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Alive in the Dead Sea

I made it to the lowest point on earth! The Dead Sea! For one final birthday adventure last week, I treated myself to a day of floating and relaxing. It was the best!!

The sun was out and the water was warm. I waded into the thick, salty water and as it got deeper and deeper, my feet just lifted off the bottom of the sea, unable to touch because of the crazy buoyancy. It's a challenge to stay vertical in the water and pretty soon it just cradled me as I floated effortlessly on the surface. It was wild! 

The extreme saltiness is a natural exfoliant for your skin, so it felt great. But you can go a step further and rub dark, smooth Dead Sea mud all over to leave your skin feeling even softer! Quite an experience!

As you can see, I opted to wear modest swimming attire by Western standards, but I felt rather immodest compared to the women in FULL coverings swimming next to me. Showing a little skin, something we consider so normal when swimming or hanging out at the beach, is unthinkable to other people. While the full covering seemed a bit cumbersome to me, I was also glad I wasn't one of the few conspicuous tourists in teeny bikinis.

I thought a lot about Bailey during this fun day. I chuckled out loud thinking about what she would do in the buoyant water. Although, all the flies in the area would have really bugged her. She would totally dig being covered in mud (in fact, when I told her about this detail she was indeed quite jealous). But the party would have been over if she got salt water in her eyes. Bailey's wise comment after I told her all about the Dead Sea, "Maybe you can't drink the water." Good thinking. :)

Funny story. So the beach I went to has a couple large pools with tables and chairs all around and stunning views of the Dead Sea, as well as the beach access. Anyway, as an ex-lifeguard, I can't go to a public pool without watching and cringing when people do unsafe things. It's a curse. But it was particularly difficult (and amusing) to see the lifeguard, without any kind of life saving device, smoking a cigarette next to the pool as children jumped on top of each other. A little later, he had his hookah pipe next to him too... a bit of a different world.

I did some reading on the Dead Sea before I went and did you know that the water level is decreasing at a rate of about 1 meter per year? Dams and canals on the Jordan River, which feeds the Dead Sea, have severely reduced the water flow. As you can imagine, water is a huge issue in this region. While it's important to use the Jordan River for drinking water and to irrigate crops, it comes at the cost of a shrinking Dead Sea. However, Jordan and Israel have gotten together to propose the Red Sea - Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project. Broadly speaking, this project intends to convey water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea for the purpose of maintaining and even re-filling the water levels in the Dead Sea. In addition, the project hopes to incorporate desalinization plants and generate hydropower to provide water and energy to the region. Pretty interesting! Here's a brief overview of the project from the World Bank if you're interested, check it out. This project is a huge endeavor and I look forward to following the progress in the coming years.

Here's a couple more photos before I sign off. Stayed tuned for an update about my trip down to Petra!

Really cool salt patterns on the shore of the Dead Sea.

We love the Dead Sea!

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Promised Land

Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the LORD showed him the whole land- from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the LORD said to him, "This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I said, 'I will give it to your descendants.' I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it." 
And Moses the servant of the LORD died there in Moab, as the LORD had said.
~ Deuteronomy 34:1-5

I may not have climbed Mount Nebo like Moses did and it wasn't a particularly clear day like it probably was back in bible times. But looking out over the Promised Land, at the very place that Moses may have walked, was breathtaking. Like much of what I see in the Middle East, the scene that lay before my eyes was unlike anything I've ever seen before. I could sense the vastness of the Holy Land. It is still unbelievable to me that I am in a place with such immense biblical history. Take another look.

Like I said, I did not climb Mount Nebo, but the story how I did get there is quite comical. (Transportation in Jordan never fails to amuse me.) I was hanging out in the city of Madaba, with Mount Nebo about 10km away. I knew I had to make the trip up, but I really wasn't sure how to get there and get there relatively cheaply. I waited around for a bus at the spot that my only-somewhat-trusty guidebook suggested, but didn't have any luck. As I was about to give up a taxi driver pulls up and asks where I want to go. The same somewhat trusty guidebook said a roundtrip taxi ride would cost about 12-15 dinars. So I asked how much the taxi driver would charge, making sure he understood I wanted a ride up there AND back. As cool as it might have been to camp out on Mount Nebo for the night, I didn't really want to get stranded. Anyway, he only charged me 10 dinars! Perfect! Finally someone who didn't try to rip off the young, foreign, female traveling alone!

As we got on our way, it became clear that his English consisted of the phrase, "NEBO GOOD!!" Then when he gathered that I was from America, "AMERICA GOOD!!" Complete with a very enthusiastic thumbs-up. At one point, he pulls over and runs into a small grocery store. I am, of course, very confused, but after a minute or two he emerged with a soda for each of us. Wasn't too sure what to think of this one, but I went with it and we enjoyed them as we made our way to Nebo. When we arrived, I got out of the taxi and started to explain that I would be back. "Don't leave without me!!" But the driver got out of the taxi and followed me in! He stopped and chatted with the locals at the gate, allowing me to explore a bit on my own. Then he caught up with me later and pointed out some important sights and took a couple pictures for me. It was sweet! 

Side note: If any of you are getting a bit concerned about friendly taxi drivers I encounter in this country, just know that my danger sense is certainly on high alert. I make sure I don't get into situations I can't get out of, I'm not overly friendly in return, and I do my best to distinguish between friendly and creepy. Prayers for safety and wisdom are always appreciated as well. 

On our way back down the mountain, we blasted some arabic music with the windows down and he tried to convince me to stop at some of the souvenir shops on the side of the road. I told him to take me to the bus station in Madaba, despite his offer to take me all the way back to Amman. "Only 10 dinars!" Always willing to help... for a price. :)

What else did I do in Madaba? Well, Madaba is known for its ancient mosaics, particularly a 6th century mosaic map of the Holy Land. This map covers the floor of the Church of St. George, which was built over the remains of a 6th century Byzantine church. Here's a part of it, the whole thing wouldn't fit in the picture. 

I also stopped by the Church of St. John the Baptist. This church was also built on some Byzantine ruins which visitors can explore beneath the church. I definitely felt like I was in National Treasure, all I needed was a torch lamp and Nicolas Cage and I'd be set.

My favorite mosaic.
All in all, it was a great day of sightseeing. NEBO GOOD!!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Hey! I Don't Know About You, but I'm Feelin'...23

Taylor Swift really needs to come up with a song about being 23. I was at a loss on what song I should have been blasting yesterday ... I'm considering taking matters into my own hands at this point...

Anyway, this may not be the most exciting of posts, but I'm writing it partially so that I will remember the birthday I celebrated in Jordan and partially so that all of you know that I had a LOVELY day! Mostly, I splurged on delicious food. I had to make up for the fact that my parents couldn't exactly send an edible arrangement like the last few years.

So, the festivities actually started the night before my birthday! My roommate and I went to the Wild Jordan Cafe for dinner. It was on the list of 99 Things To Do in Amman, so we figured we would check it out! This was the view from our table.

Couldn't get enough of it. We will definitely be frequenting this place more often. I splurged on their special caramel cappuccino, dinner, and dessert. So fun!!

The next morning, after a FaceTime call with my mom (so thankful for technology!), I set out for my favorite cafe. I treated myself to an expensive coffee, spent some time with Jesus, and got some work done. So relaxing! 

I got a falafel sandwich for lunch and enjoyed it with this view. It was a BEAUTIFUL day!!

Oh and I couldn't pass up ice cream near the Rainbow St. stairs.

I bought myself a birthday scarf before catching a taxi back to my apartment. Which brings me to an interesting story. I got in the taxi and told the driver where I wanted to go, to which he responded, "Do you remember me?" Uhhhh, I meet a lot of taxi drivers... then he said that he was the one who took me to the bus station on my way to Madaba! And it all came back. He was the one who wanted to know where I was from, how old I was, whether or not I was married or had a boyfriend... Well, this time he informed me that he really likes California, that he would like to see me everyday, and that when I go back to America he would like to take me to the airport. Let's just say I had him drop me off at the grocery store down the street so that he doesn't know where I actually live...

I spent the rest of the afternoon with my dear friends at Nour Al Barakah before a late dinner at home with my roommate. I splurged one last time and picked up some desserts from the sweets shop down the road. It has taken A LOT of self-control to refrain from buying something from this shop until now. The name of the shop is Vanilla & Caramel for crying out loud! How could I resist!?

And just when I thought my wonderful day couldn't get any better... You've Got Mail was on the English movie channel we discovered a couple weeks ago!! For those of you don't know, I am not ashamed to admit that this is my all time favorite movie. It helped me get through a rough patch in Japan and I couldn't believe the coincidence of it playing ON MY BIRTHDAY! It was perfect.

Thank you all for the birthday wishes! Life is good in Jordan and this was a birthday I won't forget.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Reality on the Ground

As you may have noticed, I have been in Jordan for about one month and have yet to provide a project update. The reason for this is twofold. First, I purposely didn't plan things for the first couple weeks after I arrived. My first few weeks in Japan were utterly overwhelming with culture shock and jet lag, so I opted for a nice slow start here in Jordan. And I'm happy to say it has been a very smooth transition to this new part of the world. There is another reason for the lack of project posts though. The reality is that there are not many provisions for people with special needs in Jordan.

I have spent time the last few weeks thinking about how I want to portray what I'm learning. I certainly don't want to just point out things that Jordan is doing poorly in the area of disability provisions, but I do want to be honest. I want to bring to light some of the challenges different entities face as the country works toward advancement in this area and also highlight some of the interesting and courageous things people are doing despite these challenges.

The reality of the conditions for people with special needs in Jordan has necessitated a mindset adjustment. The questions I asked in Japan aren't applicable here. The concerns of parents and the governmental issues I learned about in Tokyo are not the same in Amman. In fact, after my first couple project related visits I wasn't even sure I would stay in Jordan for the full three months I had planned. I was so busy in Japan and there was so much I didn't even see there. At first glance, it didn't look like there would be much for me to do here in Jordan. However, after coming up with new questions and adjusting my mindset I am confident I will have no problem filling my time. There are a lot of intricacies to be uncovered and I look forward to learning all I can.

So what have I learned so far? Early on I went to visit the Jasmine Society for Down Syndrome Children. This society was started by a group of very passionate parents about three years ago. I met with the president of the society who has a four year daughter with Down's. She explained that because I have a very special sibling, it is like I am part of the family. It was a very welcoming sentiment. The Jasmine Society provides early intervention services free of charge. Mothers bring in their child about once a week for a 45 minute session where a trained early intervention specialist instructs the mothers on how to best help the child learn and develop. For example, the mothers learn different techniques for strengthening their child's jaw to improve speech or they learn different games to help their child identify colors and objects.

Before the Jasmine Society began there was no such support for parents and their children. They are providing an innovative and unique service for these families. And most importantly, the Jasmine Society is providing the families with hope. In a country where medical professionals and government organizations say that children with Down's Syndrome are incapable of learning and cannot contribute to society, the Jasmine Society teaches otherwise. They encourage parents and give them the resources to help their child reach their full potential.

In addition to the Jasmine Society, I have been involved with an organization called Nour Al Barakah on a regular basis. This is a one-of-a-kind organization, founded in 2009, that provides opportunities for adults with intellectual disabilities. Also started by a group of parents, Nour Al Barakah rents a small piece of land in the city where they have built a nice classroom-like facility and started a garden. They meet in the evenings at least three times a week. One day is a community work day where local high school students often come to help in the garden and interact with the special needs individuals. Also on this day, a volunteer comes in to do a movement/exercise class for the participants. Volunteers come on other days to teach a music class and an art class as well. They provide a safe environment for adults with special needs to do something fun and socialize with their friends.

The garden, very well maintained.
Playing with a beach ball. The kids LOVE this!
Art class!
Painting pasta to make into a necklace.

I'm really glad I have been able to go regularly and get to know some of the special people that utilize Nour Al Barakah. It took a while for the kids to warm up to me and trust me. I finally felt like I was "in" when one day my sweet friend, Basma, greeted me with the traditional kiss on both cheeks. I definitely cherish that moment. Looking forward to more good times with this great group of people!

Spot the cat in this cute park adjacent to Nour Al Barakah. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Red Velvet Curtains to Desert Oasis

Transportation in Amman can be quite exhilarating. I spend my days hailing honking cabs, hoping that I know enough Arabic and the cab driver knows enough English so that I get where I need to go, and praying that he doesn't try to rip me off in the process. Just the other night I had a dream that a cab driver drove me all over the city and wouldn't let me out just to keep the meter running. I ended up dramatically jumping out of the moving vehicle. The impact woke me up, it wasn't pleasant. Now, I'm not afraid of this happening in reality, but apparently my sub-conscious finds this to be a real concern.

So far, I have stuck with taxis as my main mode of transportation. Before arriving I had this grand idea that I would use the bus system almost exclusively and save a ton of money. But that idea has proved to be rather unrealistic. Buses don't really have routes or timetables and a certain level of Arabic language skill is required that I just don't have. My solution: I adjusted my budget to allow for taxi transportation! This works great for getting to places within Amman, but to travel to neighboring cities taxi fares can be quite spendy. So, I tried my hand at bus riding this week and it was an adventure indeed!

My desired destination was King's Academy, a private boarding school located near the town of Madaba, west of Amman. I had an appointment for 10:30am and not having a clue how long it would take me to get there, I set out from my apartment just before 9:00am. There are a few large bus terminals around the city so I hailed a cab and told him I wanted to go to the South Bus Station. I had spoken with a girl who had successfully taken a bus from this station to Madaba in the past so that seemed promising. The taxi driver asked me which city I was going to and tried to convince me that he could take me all the way there, but I stood firm. "No, I will take the bus."

I made it to what I think is the South Bus Station... I can't be sure because as it turned out there weren't any buses to Madaba... I had about three people gesturing to the street and giving me directions on where I could catch an appropriate bus. I think they sensed my confusion and incompetence so a nice taxi driver took me down the road a ways (at no charge!) to a chaotic intersection and said I could catch a bus from there. Sure enough, a big bus pulls up and stops for just enough time for me to run up and ask if it was going to Madaba. It wasn't... but they assured me they could take me to ANOTHER bus that would, in fact, get me to Madaba. At this point, I'm not even stressed, just highly amused. I recalled all the seamless train transfers I had experienced in Japan and just smiled. Life in Amman is a bit different.

So, after two taxis and a bus, I made it to bus that was headed toward Madaba. Whew! Now, this wasn't your typical public bus. It's a cross between a bus and gigantic van, complete with red velvet ceiling coverings and matching tasseled curtains on all the windows. Luxurious or tacky, whatever way you want to think about it. Most buses, I believe, have a driver and a person I will call a "bus conductor". This person collects the money and rearranges people if necessary. A woman is never expected to sit next to a man on a bus, so it the bus conductor's job to make people move around so that women sit next to women and men sit next to men. This is cultural norm I really appreciate.

We got on our way when the bus was nearly full, but the bus conductor remained hanging out of the open doorway yelling "Madaba" to people on the streets. We picked up a few more passengers this way as we approach the outskirts of Amman. I sat contentedly taking it all in. However, my next task was to figure out where to get off the bus. I was told to look for a sign for King's Academy on the highway and get off on the side road that led to the school. In no time at all I spotted the sign! I jumped out of my seat and motioned to the driver and the bus conductor that I wanted to get off. And no problem at all, they let me off on the side of the highway and drove away leaving me in a cloud of dust.

As I walked toward the King's Academy gate, I spotted a nice little herd of sheep on the move. I didn't see any lush pasture around so I have no idea where they were headed, but it seemed somewhat fitting that I bump into these guys after my transportation adventure.

And believe it or not, I arrived at King's Academy RIGHT ON TIME! Upon arrival, I soon realized I had stumbled on a true desert oasis. I got connected with King's Academy through a Harvey Mudd professor and it was such a privilege to visit the campus. The purpose of my visit was just to meet people and learn a bit about the school. I received an incredibly warm welcome from everyone I talked to and I even came away with a few contacts to further my project here in Jordan. It was an amazing day!!

King's Academy was founded by King Abdullah II of Jordan in 2007. Like I said, it is an elite boarding school based off of Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts (where the King received his high school education). As a graduate of good ol' Oregon City High School, this is world I know very little about, but find quite interesting. King Abdullah II had a vision to bring the unique New England boarding school experience to Jordan and so a desert oasis was born.

The campus is absolutely beautiful. I think it was the first time I had seen grass in Jordan. And the grounds are complete with two helipads for when the King comes to visit. The architecture reminded me a bit of Pomona college, or perhaps it was just the clock tower...

I found myself thinking about what it would have been like to leave home as a 9th grader and attend boarding school. While I'm certain I would have enjoyed the routine, the challenging academics, and the college prep help, there is a certain family bonding that occurs during high school that would be lost. Regardless of how well I would have liked boarding school or not, I found King's Academy to be a really unique place that is providing an opportunity for girls and boys to learn alongside each other. In addition, almost half of the students are on financial aid which creates a unique socio-economic diversity uncommon in most private schools in the region. These are the kids that have the potential to be leaders in the region and in the world. In midst of a region where countless non-profit organizations and NGOs work hard to make a small bit of difference in education or quality of life, King's Academy is educating students in a rigorous and innovative environment that is sure to produce big results. Again, it was an extreme privilege to get a glimpse into the King's Academy world and I look forward to following their growth and achievement in the years to come.