Saturday, October 1, 2011

Sand to Salt

I boarded the bus to Northern Badia last Thursday and precisely 5 days, 50 cups of tea, 14 sheep, 11 goats, 9 siblings, 4 kilometers from the Syrian border, and 0 showers later.... I returned to civilization.

You may think, hmmm, Badia, never heard of that before, sounds fancy. Well, I'm here to tell you... it's not. The Badia is essentially just another word for desert. It's very flat, very desolate, and very sandy. Comprised of lots of little towns or villages, Bedouin life is very...simple. To put it in "American" terms, the Badia is kind of like a mixture of the Midwest and Amish people. That being said, let me explain how I ended up out there for five days.

In an effort to experience the "true" Jordan (aka the rest of the country outside of modernized Amman), the program I study through tasks its students each semester to venture out into the desert to live with a family in the Badia, a place that is in stark contrast to life in the states. The Badia is very, very traditional - some Bedouins live in tents, others in homes; Some rely strictly on their sheep, goats, or chickens for food, others go to the grocery store; Some homes have plumbing, some... do not.

I won't lie...I was terrified. I tried to remain pretty optimistic about it, but the possibility of living in a tent with scorpions and having to eat the intestines of a goat gave me nightmares. But, I wasn't about to back out of the experience, and I was ready to put myself to the test. I mean, I grew up in West Virginia, I've done the whole out-house thing, I should be able to do anything. So, about a week ago, I packed up some clothes, took a long shower and wheeled my little suitcase to the bus station to adventure into the unknown.

On the bus ride up north, I quickly discovered how different Jordan looks like outside of Amman. No more Mercedes rolling around the streets or people in Western clothes. Lots of camels and lots of long Joseph & the technicolored coat-esque clothing. If you've ever seen Star Wars and remember what Luke Skywalker's home planet looks like, I swear it looks exactly like that (nerd alert, nerd alert).

But finally, about an hour or so later, in the middle of no where, the bus dropped me off (to my relief) at a big house where I was greeted by my host mom and 3 youngest siblings. My host mom spoke zero English, so for a good hour or so I tried to communicate with her via Arabic before giving up. I've gotten much better with my Arabic since being here, but they use a very different dialect in the Badia so it was very hard to understand what she was saying - most of the time I just smiled, shook my head, and hoped for the best.

After a couple hours of hand motions and broken Arabic the rest of my siblings came home from school along with my host dad. The kids in the house kept multiplying by the minute and it was hard to keep track of who lived there and who didn't, but after a while of counting I finally determined that I had nine, yes nine, younger siblings all under the age of 16. I've always wanted to know what it was like to live in a big family, so I was actually pretty excited about that. I had 5 brothers and 4 sisters, the youngest of which was 9 months.

Host mom and two younger sisters :)

Host Dad!

Youngest sister

Somewhere along the way, I also managed to get a tour of my new pad for the weekend. Like I said, it was a very big house, much bigger than I had imagined but it was certainly not like any house I had ever been in before. The Bedouins, being as simple and humble as they are, don't really believe in furniture and by that I mean they don't have any. They prefer to eat, sleep, play and socialize on the floor. And they don't really wear shoes. In fact, as a sign of respect, before entering a room you take off your shoes. Most of the time, I just didn't wear any. I'm not sure why smelly feet is considered a more respectable way of life, but hey, who am I to judge.

The house had 3 stories:
First floor was comprised of a large sitting room for guests, as well as a smaller sitting room with a couple pieces of furniture - the only furniture in the whole house. It also had a computer! Even humble Bedouins need their Facebook fix from time to time, who doesn't?

Second floor was where I was most of the time. It had 3 large rooms as well as a kitchen. The larger of the 3 rooms had a TV and is where I sat most of the time; Its also where I slept. The rooms are lined with these thin mats which double as a place to sit and sleep - beds are very out of the norm in the Badia. Remember, they live in simplicity...extreme simplicity.

Big room - I sat/slept on those little mats along the walls

Third floor I never went up to because its the roof....and its where the men of the family slept. Typically in the Badia, the men of the family sleep outside. I'm not entirely sure why, but it doesn't seem like a terrible way to sleep I guess. The night sky was beautiful and its cool at night, so it can't too bad, right?

The best part however, was the backyard which was inhabited by a herd of sheep, goats, and chickens. My very own farm!

After getting acquainted with the house and the family, I pretty much just hung out...for five days. I didn't have a set schedule, so I just went with the flow of things every day. My purpose of being there was simply to observe and experience a different kind of life, so I was happy to go with the flow. In an effort not to bore you all to death, I'll just hit on some of the highlights of the trip - the memorable stuff.

I quickly found out that living in a house of nine kids is crazy. Someone is always crying, someone is always running around making a mess, and someone is always beating the shit out someone else (pardon my French). It was really comical to see that sibling dynamics stay the same no matter where you are...and that I'm not the only one who beat up on my younger sibling (sorry Adam).

The food was DELICIOUS! We ate lots of chicken, rice, and vegetables. Plus, my host mom made the bread fresh every day, so I always had warm bread with each meal. I finally had Jordan's most traditional dish - Mansaf - which is a dish filled with rice, lamb, and almonds. It was great - my host mom was an excellent cook.

One of the days I was there my host dad, Abu Mortez (Abu means Dad and Mortez is the name of the first born son - the mom and dad take their first born son's name, so its Umm Mortez - Mom - and Abu Mortez - Dad. Crazy, huh?) took me to the Badia Ecological Center where he works. From what I gathered, my host Dad is a pretty big deal in our village. He is involved in all kinds of different ecological things and works with a USAID funded project part of the time, which is really neat. The Ecological Center was basically the Badia version of a zoo, where they displayed the kinds of animals that run around in the area. They had your standard snakes, lizards, and desert rodents, and they also had a HYENA! I didn't even realize that hyenas lived in the country! I just always imagined them in Africa, like in the Lion King.

Another day, Abu Mortez drove me out to the nearby mountain in the evening to watch the sunset. We climbed to the top, which had sweeping views of my village and the surrounding area. Coolest of all though, we saw Syria out in the distance. The Syrian border was just a couple kilometers away from the village but we, of course, stayed clear of that area. Amidst all the unrest there, Syrians have been shooting at random people near the border so we were strictly told to stay away.

Host family looking out over Syria

Little brother Osama looking out at the view

Yep, that's me.

Other than a few other things here and there, I mostly just hung out with the family, read, and worked on some homework while I was in the Badia. Of everything I observed, however, one somewhat shocking theme stood out in my mind...gender roles. It was both shocking and frustrating to witness the differences in gender roles in the Badia. Not only that, but I got a rude awakening in domestication. The men of the family literally did nothing. Umm Mortez (host mom) did all the cooking and my oldest host sister Asra, age 14, and I did all the cleaning. After every meal Asra and I picked up everyone's dirty dishes and cleaned the entire kitchen top to bottom. It wasn't the chores that bothered me, it was having to watch my 14 year old host sister clean up all her brothers dishes, dirt, and crumbs that frustrated me. Maybe its the independent woman in me or maybe its having grown up in the U.S. where differences in gender roles aren't as prevalent, but it was very shocking to see how much women do and how little men do. These frustrations stem from my time in Amman as well, especially in regards to the hijaab. I just have a difficult time reconciling with the notion that women wear the hijaab because a man has essentially said they should. There may be ignorance to that statement, but I just can't imagine wearing certain things or acting a certain way out of fear of male intentions. It has been a notion that I have struggled to understand since I've been in Jordan, and is something I hope to come to better terms with in the future.

But anyways... as much as I enjoyed my time in the Badia, I was very much ready to head back to Amman and shower by time Monday came. It was a wonderful experience that very few can say they took part in, and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to live with such a kind family. I learned a lot about the culture and gained some new perspectives about my own life. All in all, as strange and somewhat challenging as it was, I loved the experience and was happy I took part in it.

As quickly as I returned to Amman, I left again. The day after returning to the Badia I packed up and headed out to see the city Madaba, Mount Nebo, and the Dead Sea.

I went to Madaba first, which is a town about 45 minutes outside of Amman. Madaba is home to a Greek Orthodox church that has the oldest map of the Holy Land in the the form of a mosaic on the floor of the church. The church, which was built around 500 AD was beautiful - it had lots of beautiful mosaic pictures on the walls, too. It's a very important place for Christians and is visited by thousands yearly - even the Pope!

There in the center is Jerusalem and above it is the Sea of Galilee

After Madaba, we drove a little farther to Mount Nebo, yet another Christian pilgrimage site, which is the mountain traditionally believed where Moses saw the Promised Land. If you're familiar with the story, God told Moses he would never enter the Promised Land because he worshiped false idols at Mount Sinai where he received the 10 commandments. So, after 40 years in the desert, Moses climbed his old bones up Mount Nebo to merely get a glance of the land flowing with milk and honey.

I climbed that same mountain, and well, promising isn't exactly the word I would use. I mean, don't get me wrong, it was a beautiful view but it was just very...desert-ey. Which should really come as no surprise, I just always imagined the view of the Promised Land to be rich and colorful and not so bland. No offense to Moses...or God, of course. Either way, it was a great view. You could see the Dead Sea and it was cool to say that I was on the same mountain that Moses climbed up long ago.

To end the day, we made the long-anticipated trip to the lowest place on earth... the Dead Sea. I floated in the salty water and laid by the pool all afternoon, which was very relaxing after the very long weekend. Only being able to float in the water was very surreal. You literally cannot swim because the water is so salty. I've never been much of a ocean swimmer, so being able to mindlessly float in the water was perfect. No worries of a shark eating you or of the waves taking you too far out - all you have to do is lay back and float. It was great. The only downer was, well, all the salt. If you hate getting a mouthful of ocean water then you will absolutely hate Dead Sea water. The tiniest bit of water that gets in your eye is enough to drive you out...or at least that's what happened with me. Either way, it was a very relaxing way to end the week.

Covering ourselves in Dead Sea mud - its rich in minerals and is supposed to be great for your skin!

Now drying the mud..

Sunset over Israel

Alright, I think I've blabbed on enough for one post. Hope I didn't bore you all to death! Leaving for Egypt in 12 days!! Absolutely can't wait.

Hope all is well at home!

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