Life’s treasures.

It’s funny how one single week can leave such a significant mark on your life.

I’ve always been aware of how fortunate I am. I have a wonderful, loving family. A great education. A comfortable lifestyle. Good health. I couldn’t ask for much more. But, it has always surprised me how something so simple can make me so happy. A clear blue day. My favorite song on the radio. A beautiful sunset over the mountaintops.

Karak Castle. Dana Nature Reserve. Petra. Wadi Rum. Aqaba.

A week that changed my life. A week that can only be described with the adjective, incredible. A week that I found myself in complete awe and at times, even wanting to cry because I was so happy.

It’s days like these that allow me to describe my life in one word: blessed.

Below, I have laid out a photo collection of the past 5 days and the adventures I experienced. Memories that I hope to remember for the rest of my life and pictures that I will surely treasure forever. I hope they inspire you as much as these experiences inspired me.

If this ain’t livin’, I’m not sure what is.

Here’s your soundtrack to listen to while you look through them:

First I climbed the walls of Karak Castle.

Then hiked through the Dana Nature Reserve.

Chilled with the whole group.

Slept in tents with the most beautiful backdrop.

Climbed some rocks.

Watched the sunrise from the cliffs.

Explored the paths of Petra.

Saw the treasury.

Climbed the 1000 steps.

Conquered the hike to the monastery.

Celebrated with a small group of friends.

Enjoyed the view from the top.

Left my mark before I left.

Then road a donkey back to the bottom.

Chose our tents in Wadi Rum.

Took a jeep tour through the desert.

Took some wild turns through the sand.

Rode past the sunset.

Ran down some sand dunes.

Perched on some rocks with my classmates.

Tried not to fall off a cliff.

Ditched the tents and set up camp under the night sky.

Stood in awe as I watched the most magnificent sunset.

Ate chicken and lamb that was cooked in the ground.

Laid on the mud flats and looked for shooting stars.

Rode a camel!

Made a new best friend, Ali’an.

Went snorkeling in the Red Sea.

Laughed with friends.

Watched the sunset over Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Pulled a ‘Moses’ and parted the Red Sea.

Life can’t get much better than this.

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And the adventure continues…

This week was the start of our four day excursion and the trip I have been waiting for all month. Yesterday we kicked off the trip by hiking at Karak Castle and camping in tents at the Dana Nature Reserve. Today, I sit by the pool and wait to explore the ruins of Petra. Tomorrow, we head off to Wadi Rum – to ride camels, drive jeeps through sand dunes and sleep under the starry desert sky. Thursday, we end our travels in the Gulf of Aqaba, riding the waves on a private boat and snorkeling. Life can’t get much better. Tune in later this week to hear about all my adventures!

Until next time!

Christina

Reporter Blues

Photo cred to Eryn Carlson, my homegirl.

They never said it was going to be easy. And believe me, I wasn’t expecting it to be. Even back home in Boston, I am regularly challenged to find the next source, a great quote, the kicker to my story. I just don’t think I prepared myself for the level of frustration I would reach while trying to report here.

My first pitch, mental health care in Jordan. I imagined myself as a young Nellie Bly, a famous muckracker from the late 1800s, who snuck into mental health facilities and then wrote of the abuse she witnessed. “Ten Days In The Mad-House”, I could do that, right? Wreck havoc in the medical district of Amman. No problem. The next Upton Sinclair. The topic had investigative journalism written all over it, it was mine for the taking.

I could already see the article. The scene was perfectly laid out in my mind. Grey dimly lit cooridors. Patients staring off to a distant place. Not a nurse in sight. A mother quietly crying in the corner, telling me her financial troubles to take care of a son who gets no attention and is shunned from society.

A fantastic clip.

National Geographic would ask me why I didn’t apply for an internship sooner. TIMES magazine would hire me on the spot. Forget about the last few years of college, I could travel the world. Investigate. Write. Blog. Wear designer glasses, drink cappuccino and have a source on call at all times.

I need to stop watching so many movies.

Reporting for this story has been a carefully wrapped present from Satan himself.

Can I interview you? No. Can I see the patients? Of course not. Can I at least have a tour of your facilities? No. Is there a doctor around here? Not on call. Do you speak English? No. Does anyone around here speak English? No. Is there a mental health unit in this hospital? I don’t understand what you’re saying.

You mean the sources aren’t going to come running to me?

A girl can’t catch a break.

It’s May 31st. And I’m still sitting here, staring at an article that I’m not in love with and that isn’t coming close to hitting the high expectations I instituted for it. It’s actually somewhat heart breaking. Like seeing your child grow up with the opportunity of going to Harvard Law and then having them decide to live in a trailer park and feed pigs instead. (Not that there’s anything wrong with living in a trailer home or pigs – if you’re into that.)

So I sit here on Thursday afternoon, waiting for my internet to load, questioning why I forgot my headphones yet again, and trying to piece together an article that only makes me want to knock my head against a cement wall.

Just another speed bump on the road to journalistic stardom, am I right? Someone put me to bed.

I’m tired, I’m worn down and I have a smidgen of homesickness… but I keep pushing. And I know in the end, I’ll have an article that is at least somewhat decent.

My two other articles I’m working on: refugees taking up hospital beds in Jordan and a culture piece on film screenings in Amman.

Deep breathe, I can do this.

A little mud never hurt anyone

After a somewhat second-rate trip to the Badia, our excursion on Sunday certainly did not disappoint. In fact, it was my favorite day here so far.

First stop? St.George’s Church in Madaba, Jordan. A beautiful small Greek Orthodox church, famous for its amazing mosaics that filled the walls and covered the floors. The great detail and hard work that went into each piece, made them nothing less than beautiful.

My homeboy

      

From there we visited Mount Nebo, the site where (according to the Bible) Moses saw the Promised Land before he died. Too bad it was a hazy, overcast day or we would have had an even clearer view of Israel. The view from the top was still unbelieveable.

Jess and I in front of the Holy Land

At the top of Mount Nebo

Then we were off to the Dead Sea! Probably one of the coolest experiences of my life. It’s called the “Dead Sea” because the salt content is so high that it is impossible for any fish or sea creatures to live in it. (It’s supposedly eight times saltier than most oceans). Because of this, you also float to the surface – making it legitimately impossible to drowned in. (Aunt Diane, you would like this water.) Just don’t put your face in!

Floating in the Dead Sea with Israel in the background

The mud in the Dead Sea is also thought to be very special. It contains many vitamins and minerals that are extremely healthy for your skin, so many tourists slather up. You have to dig under the rocks and salt crystals to find the best brown goo. What kid doesn’t love playing in mud?

Melanie, me, Jess and Bri

For a few dollars, you could also buy black mud on the beach to put all over your body. Most of the students took part in this, including myself. It was like a mud mask for your whole body. Too cool. I think I pulled off the look pretty well.

Got some color at the beach!

A nice start to our week (since Sunday is a work day here). Now time to write some articles.

You win some, you lose some.

Badia. Where to begin?

To start off… my experience was nothing like I had planned it to be. Whatsoever. I also think it’s safe to say, that I was probably one of the most excited students for this excursion and even more excited when I learned that the family I was staying with lived right on the border of Syria.

Oh hey, Syria.

Sure, we would experience some weird foods and had a hole for a toilet, but I had roughed it for a month at wilderness sleep away camp, with no bathrooms at times – I could deal with this. And sure, maybe there would be some extra restrictions for the women, like only staying in a certain room of the house or always wearing a hijab…but I could deal with that too, as long as I was learning more about the culture.

When I thought of the word “bedouin” a few scenes came to mind. I thought of a relatively small house, made of mud and bricks, perched in front of a gorgeous background of the desert. I thought of two quiet parents with welcoming smiles. Seven children, ranging in ages, fighting for our attention. I thought of a simple lifestyle. The boys playing “football”outside while the women huddled in one of the rooms, sipping tea and telling stories. Maybe a herd of sheep in the distance, a blazing bonfire at dusk, a broom sweeping the dirt floor.

I thought of a few sleepless nights under the starry night sky. Colorful laundry hanging from clotheslines on the roof. The family’s prized camel, if I was lucky.

I shouldn’t have made so many assumptions.

We started of the day early, all anxiously sitting on the large yellow bus, waiting to hear which names were called when we pulled up to each house. Some houses were bigger than expected, some tinier, paired with a tent made of patched cloth. Families stood outside waving to their newcomers while excited children jumped around. Eryn and I were one of the last groups to get dropped off. We pulled up to the tiny gray house and I could already feel a twinge of discontent. It was quiet, no one waited outside for our arrival. The bus honked its horn and an old man dressed in a white robe and a Jordanian scarf wrapped around his head walked outside with a confused look on his face.

“Maybe this is the wrong house,” I thought.

It wasn’t. While the man talked to the coordinator, we were gestured to the front door where a short plump woman gave us a smile from the crack in the door and hurried us inside. The house was small, made up of three rooms and a bathroom. We were directed to the corner of the living room, a room lined with dingy golden pillows that stood out against the gray concrete wall. In the opposite corner, a television glowed with Cartoon Network in Arabic and a small boy probably around the age of 6 stared in our direction. We sat and waited for our new home-stay parents to come back inside.

My hands were sweating. The man and woman came back inside and tried to speak to us. They obviously didn’t know a word of English. My knowledge of a few common Arabic words would only last me a minute, if that. How on earth were we going to last three days like this? The father sat unamused, obviously not fond of our presence, while the mother went to fetch us some tea.

After several failed attempts of communicating, we stopped talking and I stared off at the television in the corner. I could feel the blood rushing out of my face. She tried to ask us something again. I had no idea what she was saying. Then the boy whispered something in her ear. “Lunch?” she asked with a smile. Aywa. Yes. I was starving. She runs off to the kitchen.

“Why did I sign up for this again?” I question.

At this point, I had to pee so badly my stomach was cramping. It would have been bad timing though, having to search through my bag for my roll of toilet paper in front of the whole family. She walked in with a platter of food. The first ounce of relief since we had arrived. Shukran. Thank you.

Rice, peas and potatoes in some type of sauce. I ate it with a smile even though I didn’t like the taste. I tried to like her. She was nice and at least she was trying. The man continued to ignore us. Once we finished, the wife showed us the remaining two rooms and the bathroom. Thank God. I felt nauseous.

Before walking into the bathroom, it’s customary in bedouin homes to put on special rubber slippers before entering. I slipped on the shoes and walked inside to inspect the whole in the ground. “This sucks and I don’t know how to do this,” I thought. On the way out, I accidentally knocked a nearby pitcher of water over, getting my rubber slipper wet. Shit. I walked outside to find the woman waiting to use the bathroom. She saw that my shoe was wet and quickly went for another pair. “Great, she thinks I peed on her shoes,” I thought. “Thanks for opening your home to me! Here’s some urine covered slippers!”

Rookie mistake. I tried to recover.

Time passed. We sat in the same spot till we heard a honk from outside. A glimmer of hope – maybe it was the bus coming back for us. Instead two men walked inside the room and sat down near the man of the house. They smoked and spoke loudly, obviously talking about us, as they gestured in our direction and used the word “amreeki” American. I fixated my eyes on my notebook while Eryn read an assignment. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes but I pushed them away. This was just uncomfortable.

“Hallo Miss,” one of the men said to me. “Hello,” I respond. We exchanged some small information. I told them I was from New York, since that’s the only state they’re familiar with.

They went on talking and I heard the words “Iraq” and “America” thrown around.

“Americans are ok. American government, no, bad,” he explained to me.

Not sure if this statement was supposed to comfort me.

Later that night Eryn and I met the man’s older son who lives next door. He took us to look at sheep in the field and then brought us back to his house to drink tea and meet his wife and children. It was awkward, but we were grateful for any break from the closed walls of our new home. Afterwards we walked back, ate dinner and got ready for bed. I was exhausted, so although we were sleeping on the ground, in the same room as the mother and son, I fell asleep quickly.

The Holiday Inn

The next morning I woke up to a nudge against my shoulder and a gentle brush against my face. For just a second, I felt as if I was home in American, cuddled in my bed, my mom brushing the hair out of my eyes and telling me it’s time to get up. I slowly opened my eyes and registered the fact that the boy had just caressed my cheek with his dirty feet. Ew, disgusting. I quickly turned over and fell back to sleep. Vigorously scrubbing my face with babies wipes once I finally got up.

The day went by slowly. It certainly wasn’t as uncomfortable as the first, the family was being nice, but it was still not the experience I had truly hoped for. Eryn and I tried to sit outside for most of the morning and read to avoid sitting in the dark of the house.

S.O.S.

For lunch we ate a traditional dish called mansaf, which is rice and chicken (or lamb) covered in some kind of sour milk sauce and scooped up with khubis. (pita bread) It was surprisingly very good.

That afternoon was when our time in the Badia finally started to turn around. Luckily for us, two of our classmates, Joe and Josh, were living only a 10-minute walk away, so when they visited us with their home-stay father, I couldn’t help but feel a slight sense of relief. After an hour of drinking tea, sharing our current experience and watching some television, we were invited back to their home to meet the rest of their family. We happily agreed.

Upon our arrival, Eryn and I were quickly swept away from our classmates and taken into a room filled with women. “Finally, the experience I was waiting for,” I thought. “How could so many women fit into one room?” Eleven gorgeous women, of all ages, sat around the small room and excitedly greeted us as they presented us with sweets and small cups of coffee.

Are you married? Do you have children? New York is beautiful. I love Brad Pitt.

Despite the language barrier, we somehow made conversation and gossiped. No, I wasn’t married. No, I didn’t have children… even though I accidentally told my home-stay parents I did. Yes, New York is very beautiful. And I guess I love Brad Pitt too.

The room grew silent as a shadow appeared in the front door. “GRANDFATHER,” one of the girls exclaimed. “YOU MEET GRANDFATHER!” Excitement in the room grew. A small woman with a wrinkly tattooed face walked in smiling, showing off her front golden tooth that matched perfectly to the gold ring that pierced her nose. Grandmother had arrived. She began cracking jokes before she could even sit down.

Once everyone settled down, one of the women, originally from Saudi Arabia, asked if we would like to try on her hijab. Uhhh…Yes, please! They all clapped and laughed as the woman quickly handed over her abaya (the black dress they wear over their clothing), fixed my hijab and tied her niqad around my head, only exposing my eyes. A funny site indeed, but a gesture that I was extremely grateful for. They don’t let just anyone try on their clothes. Once again, I was feeling like the cool kid.

That’s me, rockin’ the hijab and niqad. Don’t I look pretty?

After many cups of coffee and fruit juice, and even more laughs, we all sat outside on the porch enjoying the sunset while the women took turns showing me literally every photo on their phones. I ooohed and ahhhhed as they showed me pictures of their trips to Mecca and detailed shots of wedding dresses and eye makeup. By the end of the night, I felt like I had been accepted into their culture. If I actually lived there, in the middle-of-no-where, Jordan, maybe we would all actually be good friends.

After endless amounts of thank yous and goodbyes, we walked back home, enjoying the night’s sky and admiring fireworks in the far off distance. We did it, we survived two days.

A happy camper, walking home after “girls night out”

My luck couldn’t have lasted too long. I woke up the next morning to our home-stay mother standing above me with a slightly creepy smile on her face. “Hallo! Hallo! Hallo! Hallo,” she said. “Uhh.. hi. Marhaba,” I said as I wiped my groggy eyes. My hands stung. I inspected them, noticing my fingers and wrists laced with bug bites. Wonderful.

After a simple breakfast and peeing in a hole against my will, we decided to play some ball with the little boy and watch the sheep while we waited for the bus to arrive. Eryn and I even convinced the family to let us hold their baby goat. Highlight of Badia, obviously.

BABY!

“Ok, I’m ready to leave…right now,” I said. Eryn agreed. We patiently sat on the porch staring out into the distance and waited for time to pass. That’s when I saw it. The big yellow bus. Driving towards us from the left horizon. “YES,” I exclaimed. Eryn and I both started jumping up and down, dancing and waving while the bus driver drew closer and closer, honking his horn all the way. It reminded me of a scene from the movie Castaway, when Tom Hanks gets rescued by the boat. What would we do if the bus never found us?

We ran inside and grabbed our bags. “BUS,” we said, pointing to the front yard. “Shukran shukran shukran,” we repeated as we headed for the door.

“A’fwan, Ma’essalameh,” they said in return with a wave. You’re welcome. Goodbye.

I never thought I’d be so happy to be back on that bus.

So overall, my trip to the Badia wasn’t that great. Especially compared to some of the other student’s experience. But in the end, we were still grateful to the family that opened their home to us and some of the memories we received while there. Another lesson learned, another experience earned.

GOOD RIDDANCE, BADIA.

Christina and Eryn take on Badia

Sorry I haven’t posted in a few days – things have been busy here in Amman. Today we will be traveling to Badia for three days, living with a new family in a small desert land a few hours from here – near Syria. Tune in on Saturday to hear all about: not having a real bathroom, eating new foods, sleeping on rooftops, new families and (hopefully) some camels.

Till next time!

Christina

Heavy on the Salt

Saturday’s theme for the day was ‘salty’ and it started off with the cheese I ate for breakfast.

It was our first group excursion and we were off to the city of Al-Salt. Our first stop was the Salt Museum, where we explored ancient artifacts from the city and took pictures on the roof of the wonderful views.

Caroline and myself, enjoying the view from the roof

From there all 47 of us walked through the small twisted streets of the town’s market area. Fruits and vegetables were piled high in crates while skinned lambs hanged in butcher shop windows and cobblers fixed worn shoes in the shade of their awnings.

       

Bags of different spices outside a storefront

We then took a quick stop under the trees to watch some towns men play the game of mancala. At first I was nervous to take a picture, afraid I would interrupt their game, but then decided to ask anyway. They happily agreed and even invited us to sit down and play with them. I stood nearby and watched closely.

      

St. George’s Church was our next destination. Probably one of the most beautiful little churches I have ever seen. You could see the hard work that went in to building the chapel. Rounded ceilings and an uneven stone floor, it’s imperfections made it perfect. They gave us bread, holy oil and wish bracelets as our departing gifts.

The inside of St. George’s Church in Salt

That night we visited a beautiful mosque at one of the highest points in Salt, my favorite stop of the day. There, we saw the tomb of the Prophet Elijah and watched the sun set over the hills of Salt, while enjoying each others company.

      

Best view yet.

      

By the end of the trip, I was satisfied saltisfied. (I warned you I was cheesy.)

Everybody enjoying the sunset over the hills of Salt

I sat in silence on the bus ride home and gazed out my window, reflecting on the wholeness of my day. And a familiar question popped into my mind yet again, “how did I get here?” Never would I have guessed that my love for writing would bring me to a place so far away. While I watched the sunset that evening, with my new friends and my wonderful professor, Carlene, I realized it was the first time on this trip that I felt 110 percent comfortable. Being in a country that is so unfamiliar to me, I have obviously been out of my element… but it’s ok. I’m surviving. I’m learning. I’m growing. It’s not so scary after all. An experience outside of your comfort zone makes for a better story anyway, right?

So I sat on the bus, with a small smile on my face and thought, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to take pictures, I want to listen to people’s stories… and then I want to tell my own.”

I’m ready to start.

Staying connected

A photo I snapped of Eryn writing in the dark, wearing her flashlight headgear like a loser. What a dedicated journalist! I thought it was a cool picture.

We received internet access at our house yesterday, so now we will be able to work from home as well. Obviously we will still be regulars at our new favorite coffee shop, Bunzy Buns, though. (I type these posts to you from their first floor as I sip on a delicious iced latte.)

Anyway, I just wanted to take a quick moment to thank everyone for being so supportive and for all the wonderful comments, Facebook messages and emails I have received. Know that they are all extremely appreciated and if I don’t respond back quickly, it’s just because I’m caught up in my reporter ways – or wiped out from pure exhaustion. Stay tuned – more posts are on the way. Tomorrow we leave on a day-trip to the city Al-Salt. Also, make sure to check out what my classmates are up to, we have some great writers on this trip. You can find the link on the right side of my blog. That’s all for now!

Yawn sa’eed! Have a nice day!

The unknown

There was a gun sitting on the table. A toy gun. A very realistic looking toy gun. I stood there, staring at it for awhile.

“It must be a toy,” I thought. “Right?”

I walked out of the room, trying to pretend like I never saw it in the first place. It could have just been there for protection, maybe this was typical in a Jordanian household… right?

Eryn and I ran around the house playing games with the children as they laughed and screamed in high pitched voices, then departed to our room to try and get some work done. A quiet knock on the door and Khader ran back in with Juju trailing behind. The gun being waved around in the air, while a slight shiver of uncertainty went down my spine. The gun pointed at me, finger on the trigger. I ducked, questionably waiting for the bullet to penetrate my skin, cringing with my eyes clenched tightly shut.

*CLICK*

Nothing.

…Well this is embarrassing.

*CLICK* *CLICK* *CLICK*, A giggle sneaked from their lips.

I faked a dramatic death as I fell back onto my yellow polka dotted bed.

Bang.

Soldiers dressed in uniform stand outside of every embassy building here in Amman. An automatic machine gun tossed casually over each of their shoulders. Although this time, it is not a toy. It was a site that was unsettling to see when I first arrived, something that brought me back to my travels in Honduras, where guards would hold rifles outside of banks and children would walk through fields with machetes. After being here a week, it’s has become a normality for me.

Since the early 2000s, misconceptions of the Middle East have obviously grown in the United States. I don’t need to go into detail, we all known of the subject and although there are currently some serious dangers and oppression in surrounding countries such as Syria, Egypt, Iraq, etc., it does not apply to the Middle East as a whole.

I think we should all be better educated about the Middle East in general. I will even admit myself – I didn’t know much coming here, and I still don’t – but I’m open to learning and accepting the culture brought before me. I think we’re slowly taking the steps to get there, but maybe not as fast and not as many as we should be.

I got a few weary looks when I told people at home that I was coming here. “Be safe,” was something I heard on a regular basis. Understandable, since I was going to a place so far away and unknown, a phrase that I hear even when I’m home or wandering the streets of Boston, but still. Everyone was obviously very excited for me though. “This will be the opportunity of a lifetime, what a fantastic learning experience,” I was told. And believe me when I say this, it is.

Before we came on this trip, we were all advised to bring along a gift for our host families, something that would represent us or where we come from – a book, a Northeastern mug, something along those lines. I went to the bookstore with my father and looked for awhile, then decided on a large photography book filled with beautiful snapshots of New York City. A little piece of my home, brought to this new home in Jordan.

We presented our gifts the first night we arrived. A thank you for their generous act of opening their home to us. They gathered around the book and looked at the shiny skyscrapers in awe, turning the pages slowly and pointing to the pictures in disbelief. Then Riham asked me a question that I wasn’t expecting.

“If I visited New York City, would I be scared,” she questioned.

“…What?” I blurted out.

“Would I feel safe,” she asked again. “Isn’t it a dangerous place?”

The question boggled my mind. New York? The city that Frank Sinatra so sweetly sings about? The city that is undoubtably my favorite place in the world, thought to be scary? I needed an explanation.

“The action movies always make it look like a frightening place, lots of danger,” she clarified.

I answered her question. No, of course not. Sure, there is crime, but that comes with every city. It’s filled with tourist anyway. Filled with shops and museums, concert halls and restaurants – and when you want a break from all of the hustle and bustle of the city streets and speeding taxis – you can lay out in the sun on the large rocks of Central Park and watch the row boats go by in the pond. It’s my paradise, my home away from home. Never a place that I would place under the category of “frightening”.

“Why do they call it the Big Apple,” Riham asked. That question I didn’t have an answer for.

That night as I sat in bed, staring at the ceiling and the Strawberry Shortcake stickers on our dresser, I  was consumed in my thoughts. Thousands of miles away from home, I felt as if I was in a different world, with different people and different customs. But in the end, we all turn back to our top human instinct, our safety. Whether you’re an American from the United States, or a native of the Middle East, we’re all scared of the unknown… but maybe that’s just because we’re all ill-informed about the other.