Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Madaba Adventure

Yesterday I went with eight other members of my program to Madaba, a city about half an hour from my house that has a very Christian city center, including many, many old mosaics and churches, one of which houses an amazing mosaic map of the Holy Land. We took a cheap bus early this morning and proceeded to check out the very cool mosaic, which is actually pretty cartographically accurate, as well as some other archeological sites. I also went into my first mosque, one that appeared relatively new but nonetheless was beautiful inside. The mosque was honestly more interesting than the mosaics, and it – curiously – utilized rather churchy stained glass. (Funny side note: We saw this electronic board inside the mosque that looked like it had currency exchange rates, but we eventually figured out it was the times of the calls to prayer. Oops.)

The famous mosaic in St. George's Church

Mosque in Madaba

Times of the calls to prayer

Enough art talk. After lunch, the group met our three guides for a 35 km bike tour (planned by two of my friends – not an official program trip) to the areas around Madaba, including Mount Nebo, where Moses looked out over the Promised Land. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t very clear and the view from Mount Nebo was rather bleak. Usually you can see the Dead Sea and into the West Bank, but the visibility remained low throughout the day. I hope Moses had a better view (and that there were fewer European tourists milling about in his day).

View from Mt. Nebo

Devin and I

Then we biked many a kilometer to this field of dolmens, which are 5,000-year-old stone burial chambers or memorials – no one knows what they really are, who made them, what they’re used for, etc. In Arabic, a dolmen is called “beit al-ghula,” or “house of the monster.” Bedouins are supposedly afraid of them. Anyway, the bike ride to Mount Nebo and on to the the dolmen field was pretty hilly and intense, and a couple of my friends flew off their bikes or barfed on the side of the road, to later find themselves riding along in the support car. Good times in Jordan. In addition, bikes are practically nonexistent in the Hashemite Kingdom, so the Bedouin tending their sheep looked at us like we were Martians, and the kids on the side of the road kind of just stared, eventually trying to practice their English with us – excluding the one kid who tried to hit my back wheel with a rock. Real cool. Anyway, when it was time to return from the dolmen field, it was getting dark and drizzling a bit. Within 10 minutes, night fell and we rode through creepy fields and above really dark valleys with lights infrequently dotting the landscape miles away. The lead guide told me it was his first time biking after dark with a tour group. Wonderful. But no worries – we traversed extremely steep hills, random vicious-looking dogs and nutjob Jordanian drivers to make it back to Madaba all in one piece – where a guy in a truck proceeded to try to run us over (again, don’t worry: the guide reported him to the tourist police, who locals apparently are pretty afraid of). My friends from Tufts, Devin and Becca, found the tour company – which was super legit – planned the whole trip and did a really great job. The lead guide was even a champion Jordanian biker who gave me some tips (and gave Devin his Team Jordan windbreaker, for some reason).

House of the Monster

If an intense 35 km bike ride over pretty tough terrain wasn’t enough, our bus ride home was another adventure. We had arranged through a hotel for a minibus to take the nine of us back to Amman, and all was going well until, about 10 minutes from Amman, all of the sudden ONE OF THE REAR TIRES POPPED OFF! We skidded a bit on the axle, sparks went flying and fortunately the driver pulled over quickly before anyone got hurt. We waited maybe 45 minutes for another bus to take us back to safety, all the while watching Jordanian drivers fly by the bus that was blocking half a lane without pressing on their brakes (or even really changing lanes) in the least bit. It was terrifying watching how close they got to the bus. Rubbernecking clearly is not a problem in this country. I returned home, and my host family assured me that it is not common for Jordanian buses to spontaneously fall apart on the highway.

Of course.

The day was pretty crazy, but it was an awesome bonding experience and just really fun in general. Everyone in my group seemed happy. We’re probably going to plan another (non-biking) trip for this coming weekend. As for all the haphazard things that went down today, the consensus was that it was all punishment for something I did at lunch: after a moral quandary, I had taken a bite of a very much non-kosher schawarma pizza (only in the Middle East!). Basically, I’m not keeping kosher this semester because (1) I don’t want to offend anyone’s hospitality, which always involves food and often some form of chicken; (2) there aren’t many kosher delis in Amman; and (3) I believe visitors to a country can’t really get to know its culture – especially here – without sampling the local cuisine. Long story short, though: God punished the group for my transgression, with a treacherous bike ride and a weird bus crash. My bad.

For more pictures, check my Facebook photo album. I also added a couple food-related photos on that old post about food.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Lay of the Land

One of the coolest things about driving around Amman so far has been catching a glimpse of the occasional license plate from some nearby Middle Eastern state, on a nice BMW or Jaguar driven by a young guy with a headdress. I’ve seen Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – talk about a stark reminder of where in the world I am and who chills around Amman’s rolling hills. I even saw an Iraqi plate yesterday! According to a few sources I’ve read, Jordan serves as kind of a stopover for rich Saudi and Gulf families on their way to vacation in Lebanon and Syria, particularly during the summer. It’s also a regional economic hub. Or maybe everyone has just come to Amman to study Arabic at the University of Jordan. Who knows.

Anyway, after a week and a half here I’m getting a better feel for the city, the language and the people. Amman is a pretty big city with relatively boring buildings – I think the previous king decreed that buildings had to be from the same white stone, and I don’t think the ground is good enough for tall buildings (Justin, maybe you can do some soil analysis? … I’ll send you some samples). Some sign I saw the other day by Rainbow St. – a really popular, cool, leafy road with cafes and cool buildings in a neighborhood called Jebel Amman – referred to the architecture as “unpretentious;" talk about dressing it up.

Looking out from Rainbow St.

Two aspects of Amman make it particularly unique, though: hills and circles. The city was originally founded on seven hills and now it sprawls over 20 or more. It’s thus hard to ascertain from maps the lay of the land, although I’ve explored a couple neighborhoods and am starting to figure out what’s what and what section of the city is visible when I look out from a vista. The downtown area, called Wasat al-Balad (literally: “the center of the nation”), is cheaper, older and has a really cool, Middle Eastern souk-y feel. Carpets, cheap falafel, crisscrossing streets and alleys, etc. I’ve also wandered around Jebel Amman (jebel means “hill” or “mountain”) and Rainbow Street, its main thoroughfare, as well as Jebel al-Lweibdeh (see a pattern?), a quiet, artsy, Christian area where a friend and I stumbled upon an arts center – kind of like an artists’ collective. More on that in a later post. But yeah, Amman’s not too walkable, although basically wherever you area in the older parts of the city you have a sick view. And there’s the occasional staircase in those areas; you can jump from one neighborhood to the next just by going down a flight of stairs.

The view from Darat al-Funun, a cool art center in Jebel al-Lweibdeh

Circles, otherwise known as roundabouts or rotaries, are the major landmarks in the city. There are seven or eight major ones – and some smaller ones – that make up the interchanges along some of the main roads and often serve as the focal point for the neighborhoods around them. The seven or eight big ones have official names, but nobody uses them; you just call them “the 1st Circle,” “the 2nd Circle,” etc. I live by the 7th Circle – that’s what I tell taxi drivers when I get in (in Arabic: duwaar as-saabi‘a). The traffic and screwed up rights-of-way in these traffic circles makes the rotaries in the Boston area look like quiet intersections. My Association for Safe International Road Travel internal alarm goes off in my head every time we approach one (although some do have tunnels or bridges over or under them for through traffic).

This post has gotten pretty long, so I’m going to hold off talking about Jordanians, living in a conservative Muslim country and -- most importantly -- taxis, until later. I posted some pictures of my room on the past post. Please let me know if there’s anything in particular you’re curious about! Thanks!

The Roman Theatre -- ruins in downtown Amman -- during orientation

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Food, Family, Food

This is where I sleep. The home is really clean and organized, and I keep everything really neat (Dad, if you're lucky, this habit will continue into the summer at home).

This weekend I moved into the home of a Jordanian family, with whom I’ll live over the next four months. My host grandparents are Palestinian Christians – two of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Their five children are all older but three of them live with their own families in apartments in the same building (they have the whole building), and they and their little kids come in and out of our apartment all day. It’s cool – there’s so much action. Friday was “family day,” when all 10 of them came over for lunch and to chill for a few hours afterward (Friday and Saturday make up the weekend here). That evening, my host grandfather’s brothers came over. I learned the difference between a Palestinian keffiyeh (black and white) and a Jordanian keffiyeh (red and white) -- kefiyyehs are like scarfs; a lot of people wear them.

This is a major mess by Arab standards.

Frankly, I’m somewhat surprised I made it through the weekend in good shape, considering the sheer quantity of food I ate over the course of two and a half days. Food is a big part of family life in Jordan, and my host grandmother loves to cook for everyone. As a new house guest, I think I’m in a stage where they’re testing out what I like; basically, they make something, put a ton of it on my plate and watch how much I eat. But, according to my study abroad program's staff, I can’t explicitly say no to something, because that’s rude. And I can’t just not eat it, because that’s rude, too. Somehow I have to signal what I like and what I don’t like. It’s complicated. Here are actual excerpts from my journal (edited for length, clarity and bad jokes):

Thursday: “I thought my stomach was going to explode during dinner tonight. In order, here’s what I ate (not including a cup of tea and four pieces of cake beforehand): four slices of pizza, two meat pastry things, an apple, an orange, four or five pieces of this really delicious and rich caramel sweet thing, a piece of some American cake called ‘lazy cake,’ a glass of lemonade, a glass of Pepsi, a glass of water, a cup of tea, a cup of Turkish coffee and I’m sure something else I'm forgetting. All for dinner.”
Friday: “Day two in the fight against gaining 100 lbs. while I’m here: Failure again, except this time it happened for three meals. Ya allah! The only thing that seemed halfway successful was when I left more then just a little food on my plate. If there was one of anything left, like a piece of tomato, that apparently signaled, ‘Give me three more tomatoes, stat!’ But if I left a few pieces, spread them about, kind of maneuvered my silverware to block more food and at the same time stretched like I was done – I might get just one more tomato. Progress!”
Saturday: “I made piecemeal progress today amid generally futile efforts to stave off massive weight gain. Two tricks that appear to have some effectiveness:
  • Only take small amounts for myself – one of each thing, or bite-size servings. Without fail, my host grandmother will put more food on my plate (good rule of thumb: multiply whatever I take by at least four, and that’s the amount of food I’m expected to eat).
  • When they ask if I want more tomatoes, for example, say something like, ‘Yes, please. … The cucumbers are very good.’ Passive aggressiveness rules the day in this country. Arabs don’t say no, according to one of my program’s staff members. They just drop major hints. I guess I just have to figure out how to drop the hint that says, ‘Help! Until this weekend I didn’t think it was physically possible to eat so much foooood! Ahhh!’”
I've had ful for breakfast (beans -- really good), pizza, zucchini stuffed with meat, chicken and broccoli, meat pastry things, really delicious creme/caramel cake, lots of Christmas cookies and candy, lots of rice, lots of fresh fruit (including orange juice from the family's orange tree) and tons and tons of tea. During orientation last week, we ate mansaf at a restaurant; mansaf is the national food of Jordan -- it's basically lamb or chicken cooked in a sauce of fermented dried yogurt and served over a bed of rice (thanks, Wikipedia!). I had it with chicken. Zaaki ketir (very tasty).

I’ll write more about Amman, Arabic and my classes soon, once I get a better feel for everything. I'll also upload pictures soon (Internet's slow). For now, though, I’m happy, comfortable and extremely well fed. And, if I figure out how to more effectively/artfully/politely hint that I don’t like a certain food or that I don’t want any more food because I’ll vomit everywhere if I have one more bite, I’ll be sure to let everyone know.

Update (1/31/10): Food photos! This was my dinner the other night. It was all for me (not really -- my host family ate some of it the next day, I think). Sooo good. It's called "maqlooba zahara" and had cauliflower, rice, ground beef and potatoes. Really zaaki (tasty). It can also be made with eggplant.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ben, Bennigans and I

It's been raining and surprisingly cold since we got to Amman, the former of which is considered by Jordanians to be a very good thing because they associate rain with good luck -- and because Jordan is the fourth most water-poor country in the world. The rain has taught me about two major aspects of Ammani life:
  • A complete lack of any drainage system + a city built on 20 hills = humongous puddles and really, really soaked shoes. Outdoor staircases turn into waterfalls, and one-foot deep puddles have a tendency to appear between curbs and car doors.
  • The concept of time is not the same here. As one of the study abroad program staff members explained, the Jordanian thinking goes as follows: Because the rain is out of our hands, so too is our ability or need to show up on time. So everything starts a half hour late.
I'm finishing up orientation in a hotel and around the city -- my homestay starts tomorrow -- and they've basically been drilling Arabic into our heads nonstop, as expected. I've learned a lot of colloquial Arabic, but not nearly enough to actually communicate well with anyone. Ma'alish (=not a problem),because everyone is really nice, and the other kids on the program are cool.

But then today they decided to send us out in the city in small groups for a scavenger hunt, along with a Jordanian student who made sure we spoke only in Arabic (kind of). We checked off a couple things on our list: buy dictionaries, buy notebooks, get passport photos taken, done. Our next task seemed easy enough, albeit curiously non-Jordanian: go to Bennigan's and find the cheapest item on the menu. We proceeded to ask literally six or seven taxi drivers where it was, drive around the city for a good hour and a half, stop at multiple restaurants and accost people on the street for directions, all to no avail. BIG SHOCKER: Bennigan's is not popular in Middle East. Finally, as the time ticked away, we drove past a building and I happened to randomly glimpse "Bennigan's" written on the facade. Sweet. We drove up, and it turns out it was HALF DEMOLISHED. So we took a picture of the Benniruins and got falafel, and all was good. Alhamdulillah!

In other news:
  • David Letterman was on at 7:20 a.m. today -- simultaneous with the East Coast telecast. Jordan gives new meaning to "Late Show." No sign of Conan.
  • A wedding party passed our restaurant this evening, at which point I learned that bagpipes are standard at Arab weddings.
Yalla bye! I'll get photos up soon, hopefully.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Gittleson Gossip, the sequel

Ahlan wa sahlan and welcome to my blog!

I'm studying abroad this semester in Amman, Jordan, on an intensive Arabic program at the University of Jordan. Before I get into all that -- actually, not everything about how I'll be spending my time, what I'll be studying, where I'll be living, etc. is completely clear yet -- I think it's worth taking a look back at the namesake of this blog, the paper that started it all.

Back in the year 2000, post-Y2K brouhaha and in the lead-up to butterfly ballots and recounts, I apparently got bored and tired of getting letters rejected by KidsPost, so I started my own family "newspaper." As the editor, publisher and senior writer, I strove to keep family and friends -- total circulation: 25 households -- up to date on the Gittlesons' latest summer vacation, the 2000 U.S. presidential elections and the trials and tribulations facing all the family pets, among other topics. Amanda wrote a regular column on animals, and aunts and uncles contributed to a regular feature on jobs.

The first-ever issue of The Gittleson Gossip. Note the quote from Honey Gittleson in the bottom-left corner.

The paper graduated from Microsoft Word to Microsoft Publisher, with eight issues published in less than a year -- and one unpublished edition sitting dormant on my laptop -- before I guess I got too much Algebra 2 homework to continue. The last issue came out in the summer of 2001, and all was forgotten (other than when I had to think of a cool story for my college admissions essay!).

Until now. As much of print media has been moving to the web, it was clearly inevitable that The Gittleson Gossip would follow suit. I'll be updating this blog over the next four (!!) months as I document my time in Jordan and traveling around the region.

And finally ... to get an e-mail in your inbox whenever I post an update, please enter your e-mail address in the box in the top right of this page (under where it says "Receive e-mail updates") and follow the directions. Let me know if you have any trouble!

Anyway, I hope you enjoy, inshallah!