Madaba, a christian city in the desert

I believe the statistics say that around 6% of Jordanians are Christian. This might not seem like a lot, but we’re talking a couple hundred thousand people in a very small Muslim country. If you plan to make a pilgrimage to the ancient Holy Land, then Madaba is NOT to be missed!

Madaba is a medium-sized city of roughly 60,000 residents. It has been a  Christian city since the days of Constantine. It is most famous for the church of St. George, a still-functioning Greek Orthodox church with beautiful byzantine mosaics decorating the interior. Most impressive is the floor, with a mosaic map of the Holy Land… the OLDEST map of the Holy Land still surviving! The tickets were about 1 JD when i went. You buy the ticket in the gift shop. I didn’t understand this, and there wasn’t a guard on duty when I went, so I accidentally got in without one, but found the gift shop when I finished and bought an ex post facto ticket to support the church.

Just to the side of the church is the tourist district! Lots of lovely shops selling all sorts of trinkets, including Petra labeled gifts. Although they might be cheaper than those you can get IN Petra, this still seems a little silly to me. But BEWARE, lots of shops in Jordan sell illegally acquired antiquities!! DO NOT BUY ILLEGAL ANTIQUITIES!! They will get confiscated in customs, you could be slapped with a fine, but most of all, it encourages GRAVE ROBBERY and LOOTING! This is a huge headache for archaeologists and the Department of Antiquities. It ruins the scientific integrity of the site. DO NOT buy ancient coins, pottery (pieces or whole) that looks really old, etc. If it is a legitimate antique rather than an “antiquity” it should come with papers. “Antiquities” belong in a museum or a lab, and are not legally allowed to be sold. Please don’t support grave robbery!!

Another note to be careful of… Madaba is an unusual city by Jordan standards. It is a relatively large city that is rapidly expanding. Traditional Bedouin families are migrating into the city (diluting the Christian population to around 40% these days) but many of them are traditional pastoralists all of a sudden settling into a fairly large, fairly modern, very touristy city. Culture clash is an ongoing issue here. If you are a woman traveling alone, I recommend sticking with touristy tracks and not hanging out alone at night. Use basic safety sense. In all honesty, the most you probably will get is a creepy stare or, in extreme situations, you might come across a young man trying his luck with the women of MTV by brushing your arm or touching your hand. He won’t likely know what to do more than this, but understand that touching like this is FORBIDDEN in these parts. If any man comes too close for comfort, try to walk away or walk into a local shop. If he touches you, give him an angry look, turn around and go the other way.

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Field Trips of Jordan: Part 1

On the first dig at Balua, we had one free day a week. Every Saturday, we would go on an adventure somewhere in Jordan. The first weekend was a trip to the Dead Sea. We made it a full day trip by stopping at Bab edh Drah, a bronze age site with a massive amount of tombs, and a local wadi (canyon) to cool off. Next, we made a quick stop by Lot’s Cave, the supposed site where Lot and his daughters hid from the fire and destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Whether or not this is actually THAT cave, it IS the spot of the ruins of a monastery that certainly thought it was.

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Bab edh Drah

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Enjoying the view while trying to survive the heat

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Our Balua Team 2012

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View out of a wadi

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Rather intimidating rock formation. Perhaps blown out of the sky?

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A nice place to take a nap on a hot summer day in Arabia

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A very exciting little waterfall makes the well-over 105 degree weather

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Ruins from a monastery at Lot’s Cave

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Relaxing in the buoyancy of the water

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Sunset over Jerusalem

We finally arrived at Amman Beach, a western resort on the lowest point on earth. Very nice place with a lovely pool and nice locker rooms. Going down to the Dead Sea was pretty cool. The water is so salty, it is impossible for a human to sink! What a cool science lesson! This also means you never want to get a drop of it in your eye or mouth. It is quite painful. But to be at hip-level depth and be able to lie back and float completely relaxed as if you are on a pool floatie… it is out of this world! We relaxed, swam in the pool, and watched the sun set over Jerusalem on the other side of the sea.

Life in a Christian Village

Our work day was pretty well scheduled. We were up by 5 am to have oatmeal, drove out to the dig site before the sun rose, watched the sun rise over the Wadi Mujib, worked in the dirt taking a break for tea brewed over a fire (shai narr) around 10:30, and headed home around 12:30 for lunch. After we ate, we had a chance at a nap and a shower before scrubbing the pottery sherds we had collected that day. We each took turns cooking and cleaning in the evenings. This didn’t leave a whole lot of free time, but the time we did have was spent relaxing. My favorite thing to do was to sit on the porch and watch the neighborhood. The kids would walk by and wave “Hi how are you? Hi how are you?” without knowing the response if you asked them the same question. It seems that every Jordanian learns three phrases in English: “Welcome in Jordan!” and “Hi how are you?” and “I love you!”

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Sometimes you find kids who have learned some rather interesting offensive phrases, probably learned from an older brother who taught himself the most offensive English phrases he could find on the internet. Sometimes, when I was very bored, I would walk to the local shop for an ice cream. The neighbors all invited me for tea or a meal, and all wanted to talk to me. Unfortunately, at that point I didn’t know more than 5 words in Arabic, so you can’t get very far with “Hi how are you”. The neighbor girls all loved to sit with me on the street. They would play with my hair and steal my iphone to take pictures and play music.

One night the neighbors across the street invited me over for dinner again. They were barbecuing meat and taught me how to make mansef. When we started eating (most meals are with your hands or using bread as a utensil) it was unusual and amazingly delicious! I ask ‘what meat is this?’

‘Sheep. I kill him myself last week!’

wow, you killed a sheep yourself?

‘yes. he was in the wild. I shot him once and he didn’t die, so I chased him and shot him again and he was dead’.

Wow, I didnt know sheep could run that fast!

‘no, wait, not a sheep. What’s the word in english? In Arabic it is gazelle’

Okay then, BBQ Gazelle is one of the best tasting meats I ever had! I would rather not think of it as that I just ate an endangered species, but rather that I ate the food that was served to me as an honored guest.

Before I came to Jordan, I met a man through our blogs. He actually helped me do my research paper on the region of Moab. Through some messages back and forth, I learned that he was actually from the village I was staying in! He had met the dig director in 2008 when he was in the area. I invited him over for tea with me and the director! He is studying to be a doctor in Karak. We discussed social issues in the area and compared cultures. He is very educated and worldly, and as such has a very different perspective on his country than the average Jordanian. It was interesting to learn about how people live in a city with limited civil works; how they deal with trash collection and water issues. It is really remarkable to me how much the internet can bring people together! What are the chances of me moving to a rural, tiny village in the middle of a desert that is mostly populated by bedouin tribes living in tents, and already knowing someone on facebook from there!

A big look back

Since work and adventures got the better of me, I ended up with no time or energy to post on my blog. Let me take a big step back and start my adventure from the beginning.

My first dig was at Balu’a, an Iron Age city in the ancient kingdom of Moab (think Biblical times, the land where Ruth was from). We lived in a house in a nearby village, As-Smakieh. This small village looked like just about any other village in the region, except that it is exclusively Christian. There is not a mosque in sight nor a call-to-prayer to be heard. There were two rivaling churches, however, that faced each other and would have competitions over who could play church bells louder over their PDA systems. The first thing a newcomer is asked when they come to the village is “do you go to the latin church or the greek church?” This does not actually mean catholic versus orthodox. It is actually roman catholic versus greek catholic.

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In my natural state: filthy and exhausted

Because it is a christian village, no one walks around wearing hijabs and everyone wears t-shirts. They are still very conservative and traditional, but it is a contrast to the conservative bedouin villages in the south. There is distinctive gender segregation, not by any law but simply by social customs. Guys and girls simply do not hang out together. Even in the church service, women sit on one side of the church and the men on the other. During hymns, the women held hands and so did the men, but they did NOT hold each others’ hands. This made it awkward when I accidentally sat on the men’s side. Even communion had separate lines for the men and the women! Even during the “peace” the men would hug and kiss each other, and so would the women, but for me I had to sit still and not touch anyone, including my male friend sitting next to me. Oops! 🙂

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The two rivaling churches and the local sheep herd

I had an interesting time getting used to the culture. Because this is a small village, we were very exciting. Because there was a handful of single women with us, we were VERY exciting! It didn’t take long at all for every middle-school boy in the village to know my name. They would play ball in the street right outside our house.

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Local bedouin tents

I learned pretty quickly that in conservative societies, it is not good for a girl to walk around alone, even in daylight. The boys would surround me and ask me tons of questions. The most important questions included “Are you married? Why not? I have a cousin your age who is unmarried too!” It actually got pretty scary when that particular cousin drove by and they drug me over to his car and tried to shove me in it. The 25-year old man emphatically pointed at his ring finger, silently asking if I was married or not. One night, the boys all went crazy trying to drag me into his car. A neighbor girl saw me and ran over to rescue me, dragging me into her house. Her father and grandfather ran out to yell at the boys. They sat me down and yelled at me “Sit! Eat!” I sat quietly and ate.

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Ancient Ottoman ruins at the edge of the village

A whole new world

Jordan is a strange and beautiful place. It is safer than I could have expected, children run free on the streets, goats and donkeys and camels are parked on the sidewalks, tribalism is the main form of government and people live like they did in biblical times! The difference now is the shepherd boy has an mp3 player and Bedouin tents have satellite dishes and solar panels!

Lettuce is unheard of, but Betty Crocker is readily available. Milk is largely imported from Saudi Arabia (which I don’t understand) and cars stay on the road until they are barely held together by duct tape. Speed bumps are usually unmarked, meaning I have bumped my head countless times in the back seat. Drivers use both sides of the road, and hitch hiking is considered public transit! Women in burkas and school children hitch rides (and always offer a small payment).

Western women are stereotyped by MTV (very popular here) and the radio is America’s top 40 with American speaking DJs! You get 3G almost everywhere. Dating does not occur here. If there is no ring on your finger, you are up for grabs! Or, haggling, that is. A good wife can go for a couple camels from a wealthy family!

Courting is an important part of the culture. A boy sees a girl. He falls for her. He tells his mother or sisters. They do all the “dating” for him. They check her out, see if she’s a good girl, and see if she’s interested. If yes, they are engaged! She is off limits until they decide to get married or not. If not, back on the daughter in law market! Word of mouth moves faster than Facebook! Everyone knows everyone’s business, and that keeps everyone moral. Sexual harassment is punishable by brutal beating and rape is punishable by death.

I have been living in a tiny village in rural Jordan for a month now! It all feels almost normal now!

Welcome to Jordan!

I am late writing about my adventures here. I left in August for a 4 month adventure to Jordan! Why? I am on an archaeology dig! Two of them actually. That us why I haven’t posted anything. I was too busy with too little Internet. But now I have zain 3G on my iPhone so I have good coverage. It’s time to start posting.

I will attempt to backtrack but first let me give you an overview. I so fat have been chased by a scorpion, shot at by some school kids (the guns weren’t lethal but still were painful), have made friends with Bedouin tent dwellers and locals from a Christian village, all the middle school boys know my name and try to follow me around, I have had marriage offers and am being pursued by a family to live on a farm in the lowest hottest place on earth, ate goat sheep and gazelle, twisted an ankle and was impaled by a cactus, found an iron age figurine of an animal butt, visited a friend I met on my blog who happened to live in my village, swam in the dead sea, got a free “tour” of a batt cave underneath Jerash, made apple pie using no measurements, picked up a hitchhiker, and have had some of the greatest moments of my life. What would you like to hear about first?

Alaska Cruise: day 11 (Denali)

Day 11: For breakfast, we ate at the Salmon Bake. I got crème brûlée french toast, and Beau got a sourdough breakfast sandwich with reindeer sausage! There turned out to be some confusion with getting to the park, however. In our room, it said that there was a free shuttle to take us to the park entrance. It turns out that was last year, but due to gas prices, it costs $2 apiece. When we arrived at the wilderness center, where we are supposed to pick up the park shuttle, it turns out that we booked seats on the 6:00 am shuttle, and it was 10:30. This was confusing because the shuttle allows you to get on and off whenever you want as long as there is room on the bus. The lady was nice and changed our time without any charge or anything. She also warned us that there was no food whatsoever, so we needed enough supplies for the whole day on us. We had 4 water bottles and bug spray.

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We had to grab a pack of jerky and fruit from their snack shop, because even though it was overpriced, that was all we had. The shuttle is pretty cool. It is a fraction of the price of the tours, but it is still narrated, and actually takes you farther in the park and allows you to get on and off if you want to hike! Of course, our plan was to see the visitor’s center, which was a 3.5-hour bus drive away. Well, on our way out, we saw a herd of caribou by the river, which was really cool! But as we rounded the corner, we were stopped because in the middle of the road was a grizzly bear! We pulled down the windows and got some amazing pictures. There were bikers in the road who had to sneak past us, hiding behind the bus.

As we headed deeper into the forest, the weather took a turn for the wetter. We saw some Dall sheep on the mountains. We made it to the visitor’s center but it was too cloudy to see Mt. McKinley. We decided not to hike because we were not at all dressed for it. We were prepared for a cruise, not the tundra. On our way back, we spotted another grizzly, this one light blond! A bit further down, we saw another grizzly!! As we drove a bit more, we actually found a pair of grizzlies, frolicking in the meadows. The bears here do anything they want. If they think the road is more convenient for them, they will use it.

We made friends with a plumber from Florida who has retired with an RV. He told us about his many adventures camping in Alaska and how to travel by RV. We also met a fellow college grad who just graduated from USC! We talked the whole way back. He was staying in the hostel we were going to stay in before we found this place much closer to the park. We invited him to the Salmon Bake for dinner and to go grocery shopping (we have the only store that sells fresh produce anywhere in Denali). Unfortunately, we weren’t sure how the shuttle worked, so we didn’t know when or if it would come (plus it’s another $2 per person). Just then, the Princess shuttle drove up! Our place is across the street from the Princess Lodge (we couldn’t afford to stay there but many of our cruise friends did). We noticed that they really didn’t check anything, and we actually had our Princess tote bag on us! So we walked right on the bus! For free!

When we arrived at the Princess Lodge, we actually saw the shuttle that our friend, Jake, was going to have to take after dinner. As we walked by, we heard glass break. We looked up and the back window just blew out! We had no idea what happened or what that would mean for Jake. We brought our new friend to the Salmon Bake and shared a plate of ribs and nachos. Jake got the produce he needed from the market, and we found the replacement shuttle that had to do double duty as a train station shuttle and everything the broken shuttle serviced. Worked out great! Tomorrow, we have to be back at the Princess Lodge at 7:15 for our bus back to Anchorage.

 

Alaska Cruise: day 10 (to Denali)

Day 10: Disembarking was easy. Packing was hard. I will go over this later.

Princess does a great job of making the disembarkation process painless and simple. We arrived in Whittier, AK which is a town that was a military city until only recently. A population of around 800 or so, but every resident lives in one tall communist-style condo. There is a one-room school house (with indoor playground) across a yard from the condo, but because the city did not want snow days as an excuse from school, they built a tunnel underground so the kids always have to go to class. The city cannot expand because its only available land is owned by a company in Hollywood who wants too much money for it.

The only way out of Whittier by car is through a tunnel under a mountain. The tunnel is so long it needs its own ventilation system and a series of safe houses with food and water in case there is a cave-in! It is only one lane wide so traffic enters Whittier on the hour and exits on the half hour. Our bus driver had to wait for the half hour mark so he took us on a tour of the entire city. We saw every building in that city in a five-minute tour! The local kids were friendly and waved to us!

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After we made it through the tunnel, which was completely black, we came out the other side to see an amazing glacier lake! We stopped off at the visitor’s center and got a few great pics of us with blocks of ice near the floating icebergs! We are from San Diego, and were quite happily wrapped in double jackets. Our guide, however, was wearing a Hawaiian t-shirt. Show-off! Anyway, we learned a lot about glaciers and the tundra, and how global warming is affecting and changing the area. Ice is always changing so it is easy to study!

On our bus to Anchorage, we drove past a moose and a mountain goat! We saw a bald eagle couple fishing in a stream! The only thing we didn’t get to see was the illusive Beluga. We made it to Anchorage in one piece. We headed to the nearby mall to grab some cheap food. We saw an AT&T store, so we decided to swing in there after lunch. Beau managed to get a new iPhone, but while he was in the process of signing everything over, I realized that my backpack was not with us! I had forgotten it in the food court! It had everything in it, including my MacBook, our passports, our reservations and confirmations, and even the key to my luggage lock with all my clothes!!

I immediately left him to run to the elevator (which of course decided to stop at every floor on the way) praying that it would still be by the table. To my horror, when I arrived, the bag was missing! I asked a couple sitting nearby if they had seen it. The man said, “I did see it a minute ago! It was right here! I thought it must have belonged to another table” so he started running around with me looking for it. I finally asked a lady at Hot Dog on a Stick where the lost-and-found was, and she directed me to the mall office.

I ran full speed downstairs and around the halls until I saw an obscure sign pointing to the office. Of course, the office is down a windy path that zigzagged several times before I ran into the office, out of breath, yelling, “please help me! I need the lost-and-found! I forgot my backpack in the food court and I went to the phone store and then it was gone!” The lady was so sweet and calmed me down before radioing the mall cops describing my bag. They said they did have it and had already given it to Beau at the AT&T store! Thank God!!!

I walked quickly back to the store where he was waving for me to come in. Apparently, his phone had JUST been activated, and the lady handed him the phone, but as she did he got a call. “Hello, is this Beau? We have some of your information here. Did you loose a backpack in the food court?” Why, yes, sir, I did! I saw the mall cops walking by. They looked like Canadian Mounties in white! Alaska is such a friendly state! We really lucked out!

Once we got our things together, we headed back to the bus for a six-hour ride to Denali. We were wiped out. We booked our stay in Denali a week before we left on our cruise, so the only place left that wasn’t $600 was in a little dry cabin behind a restaurant, the Salmon Bake. There is only one restroom for the site, so it is basically camping with insulated cabins. We got a great price considering, and it is right above a restaurant. For dinner, we had smoked king salmon on a cedar board and buffalo chili made with bison meat! It is a really cute little place!

Alaska Cruise: day 9 (at sea)

Day 9 (part 1): Today was at sea, with an unbelievable cake buffet extravaganza! I took a dozen pictures of the deserts before asking for way too much cake. I headed back to my stateroom, but got a knock on my door. It was Sasha, my little 6-year old friend! She had been begging her grandmother to take her to visit me! What a sweetheart!! Again, my day has been made by a little smile!

I took some time to update my blog on a lounge chair with an ice cream cone while looking at the ocean. I saw a herd of seals, dolphins, swimming birds, and even a humpback whale! This is a great view! I might do a round of miniature golf later before preparing for dinner and then packing up for disembarkation.

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(part 2): We played a round of mini golf. It feels strange to play golf in the middle of an Alaskan fjord. We decided to go to dinner early so we could finish before we left the College Glacier. On our way out from golf, we looked over the railing and saw a dolphin! Pretty soon, we saw several other marine animals but these were black with white spots! After a few jumped out of the water, we realized they were Orca Whales!!! We saw about 10 of them!

Since our cruise was a celebration for our graduation, the cruise gave us each a card to bring to our waiters whenever we wanted to celebrate. We had forgotten until now, so we brought them this time for our last dinner. We were sat near another table with people we had eaten with before and a new couple, all of whom were very friendly and talkative. Two tables away, I saw little Sasha and her family! I didn’t want to disturb them so I let them be. When we gave the waiter our cards, he brought us out two wonderful celebration cakes! They sang us “Happy Graduation” to the happy birthday tune. All our old friends who we had met on our trip joined in singing and clapping for us! Then, front and center with the singing waiters appeared little Sasha who had just noticed me! Her grandmother came to me to ask what I studied. I told her that I studied linguistics and a little Russian. They had been whispering to each other in Russian, so Sasha looked a little embarrassed. Her grandmother smiled “khorosho!” and Sasha looked at her horrified and shushed her. Sweet Sasha insisted that her grandmother speak English and pronounce my name correctly. She had perfect pronunciation! Her family kept trying to keep her at their table but Sasha wanted to be with me for as long as possible.

The crew brought out the grand Baked Alaska Parade, which I had to try. It was an interesting take on the Baked Alaskan with Neapolitan ice cream. Sasha’s family got up to leave, so she ran up to me for one last goodbye. I snapped an adorable shot of her before she had to leave. We had to have our suitcases packed and out in the hall by 10:30 tonight so they could check them and have our bags waiting for us when we check out. Tomorrow, we will need to leave our stateroom by 8 am.

Last day aboard requires some preparation. You need to make sure your account is clear, but since we had our card registered it wasn’t a problem. Whatever cruise line you are on, make sure that your steward will receive a tip. Princess adds a $12 gratuity per person per day to your account, and that is split between your steward and every waiter who has served your meals, so you don’t need to worry about anything else.

Alaska Cruise: day 8 (Glacier Bay)

Day 8: Today did not actually have a port of call, but was a visit into the fjords of Glacier Bay. What an amazing sight! We visited all the places John Muir studied, say some unbelievable glaciers, watched a bald eagle float along on an iceberg, listened to white thunder, and enjoyed a talk given by park rangers that secretly boarded our ship while we were sleeping! We were at the bay for several hours. I spent a lot of the time sipping coffee while watching. A nice man let me borrow his binoculars (note to self: next cruise, buy and pack binoculars).

They had a special fish buffet to honor the trip. It was formal night again, which required us to dress up and head down for dinner. Tonight was lobster tail and prawns! I sat next to a man from the Panama Canal, who taught me all about the politics and issues of that region! I found it more difficult to walk in heels tonight because we were in more open waters than before, so I felt like I was stumbling drunk. While waiting in line for the restroom, a 6-year old girl looks at me and whispers to her grandmother, “look behind you! She’s beautiful!” I smiled at the girl and she told me that purple was her favorite color. When I came out of my stall, she was waiting for me with a huge smile on her face! Her grandmother told me that she thought I was so beautiful that she wanted to be my friend! Her name was Sasha. We walked to the dining room together, but Sasha didn’t want me to go! I told her my stateroom and wished her good night. She brightened my whole day!

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