A Jaunt to Jordan: Perambulating around Petra and a Dip in the Dead Sea

January 2, 2008

The trip to Jordan helped to clarify a few things about my personality to me:

1. I do not cope well when I can’t establish where I am and where I’m going geographically, especially if someone also tries to rip me off on top of that and traffic is not orderly.

2. Staying in really nice hotels is good for my overall mood.

We rented a car upon landing in Queen Alia Airport, 30 km south of Amman, got a map from Avis car rental, located the street in Amman that we wanted on the map, and got directions to that street from the car rental guys. Looking at the map though, it didn’t seem the most direct route, and in my navigational arrogance (pride goeth before getting very, very lost) I thought I saw a better route. So, off we went, me driving, and when I saw a sign on the highway to East Amman, I peeled off in that direction. As long as the sun was up, I at least had an idea of which direction I wanted to be heading in, but then the sun set, and we got further and further into some part of town that had no–that is zero–street signs and was a rabbits’ warren of twisting and very busy streets. I stopped a couple of times and asked people for directions and just to tell me where on the map we were, but the map was unfamiliar to them, the streets named in English, and they didn’t know, or when they figured out where I wanted to go would give me directions that I couldn’t follow, like turn left down there, then straight, then right, but there are so many streets branching off and curving and merging, that it would all fall apart again shortly after I left them. The traffic was not following any discernible rules, cars would appear where they shouldn’t be, there was a constant conversation of horns going on and pedestrians with blind faith weaving through it all. I could have borne the traffic, if I just thought I was actually getting where I was trying to go. I was a mass of tension. In the end we stopped at an optometrist’s office and one of the women there spoke to a taxi driver out front to find out where we had to go, and then she climbed into our car with us to take us to the place on the agreement that we would bring her back to her work. She was an absolute sweetheart. She came originally from Saudi Arabia, though she feels the freedoms of Jordan make it a much better country to live in, even if it is poorer. She chatted away, and helped Mom buy mittens and a hat en route to the hotel. Then the manager of the hotel came with us to take us back to her workplace, after which, he got hopelessly lost and had to ask directions several times in order to get back to the hotel. He was amazed we’d managed to get as close as we had to the hotel and told us that we had gone through the really poor part of town which was why there were no signs, and that if we’d called him from the airport, he could have given us directions which would have been really clear – the same directions, interestingly, and rather humblingly for me, that the guys at the car rental place at the airport gave us.

The hotel itself (hostel really) was not good. Smelled of stale smoke, was not clean, was not warm (the boiler was broken), and was very dreary – one fluorescent bulb in the middle of the ceiling of our room. We walked down the street for dinner, and came back. I slept in my clothes. I was suspicious of the sheets. Also, I was cold. Mom did the same.

Next day, more driving around in the city, trying to get to the ruins on top of a hill. We ended up lost on another hill, of course, no street signs, winding roads, and buildings jam-packed together so you can’t see where you’re going. We had a taxi lead us to the place in the end. On the way, we stopped for gas, where the attendant tried to give us the wrong change, to the tune of about 15 dollars. I walked over to him with the change in hand and I could see he knew exactly why I was coming. But even when he gave me the right change, it was grudgingly and in increments with pauses in between, as though he thought I couldn’t count and might just go away if he gave me just a little more, and no apology. So between the being constantly lost, the rip-off attempt, the chaos of the traffic, coupled with the fact that I wasn’t driving and Mom gets tense if she thinks I’m critical of her driving, which I am, my coping skills were at an all-time low. By the time we got to the ruins, I was only hanging onto my composure by my fingernails, and I just got out of the car and walked away before I burst into tears in front of all the other tourists.  I had my little breakdown while looking out over Amman. On the periphery of my mind, I did register that the view was quite compelling, but I was mostly busy trying to cry without being obvious. Overall, it was not a good beginning to the trip.

Things improved though. People in Jordan were extremely welcoming, helpful and warm, with the exception of the gas station guy, who according to our Jordanian friends “was probably Egyptian.” The poor Egyptians have a bad reputation over in this part of the world. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by Emiratis and now Jordanians that Egyptians are trouble, and to watch out for them with regard to money.

After Amman, we drove down to Petra, stayed the night in the nearby town of Wadi Mousa, and spent the next day wandering the rose-coloured archaeological site itself. Petra was incredible. Seeing the imagination-stirring ‘Treasury’ there that I’d seen in the Indiana Jones – The Last Crusade movie years ago was quite something. And as incredible as all of these huge building facades carved into the rock were, just as striking was the colouring of the rock all over the site. Not just the predominant pinky-orange colour, but the variety of other shades as well, yellow, and blue-grey and black and the swirls and patterns in the stone. I took photos of course, but I don’t think I really caught the beauty of it.

Off to the Dead Sea the next day. There were many border guard stations along the road that follows the coast of the Dead Sea because Israel and the West Bank are on the other side. Sometimes we had to show passports, sometimes not, but just like the regular citizens, they invariably said “Welcome to Jordan.” I’ve never felt so welcomed in a country.

The Dead Sea is something to be experienced! The way it holds you up is amazing. I think it would be quite a struggle to pull off drowning in it. You’d have to be unconscious and facing down to manage it. And everything along the shore is encrusted in salt crystals, even garbage. I tried to pick up some stones that looked loose and couldn’t because the crystallization had fastened them to the floor. While we were puttering around in the shallows looking for loose rocks and looking at the salt formations, the water on our skin dried and we looked like we were covered in frost.

Sun was setting then, so off we went to look for a hotel for our last night. We went back up towards the plateau and towards the Ma’in Hot Springs. I had an idea that there would be a hotel there. I’d seen a pamphlet somewhere. There was nothing for miles but dry land and occasionally sheep being herded by people and once, car-chasing dogs(very unnerving, that, because they run in front, so you’re trying not to kill them). Took the turn for the hot springs and back down, down, to 264 metres below sea level, to the hot springs and, much relief, a hotel. It was a really nice hotel. REALLY nice. Dinner and breakfast were both buffet affairs, but they were good ones with all kinds of fresh, delicious foods, not like some you get, where you’re hard pressed to even find one thing you’d like to eat. Oh, the food was so good, and the room was so beautiful and the hot springs were actually hot waterfalls and there was nothing else around but the hotel and these hot waterfalls and masses of stars in the sky. It was quite magical. This is where I really noticed the correlation between my mood and the quality of the hotel I’m staying in.

Teaching in Abu Dhabi – the military class and the ladies class and a side trip to the edge of the Empty Quarter

Military class and the ladies class

I’ve had two classes. A small class of ladies who were working in the government and have a very high level of English, and a large class of men in the military, mostly young, who have a very low level of English, and it turns out, some aren’t very educated even in Arabic.  The women are smart and love veer off into some really interesting conversations about life and society and values, and they love to laugh. They also love to hear tales of the military class. They think those guys are hilarious!

One guy, about 18, called Abdullah and I have been butting heads about the late policy. The policy being, if someone’s late, I mark an “L” beside their name. Abdullah is ALWAYS late. And always argues about it. He argues with me in Arabic, and then Talal interprets. The last time it went like this, not including the translation component:

Rachel: No Abdullah, it’s an L because you were late, and I’m not changing it. Go sit down.
Abdullah: No, I was praying!
Rachel: Look, we’ve had this conversation. Everyone else seems to manage to get their praying done during the break, so you should be able to too.
Abdullah: But I had to go the bathroom and the canteen too!
Rachel: Well, you should have gone to the canteen during the long break. That one’s 45 minutes, plenty of time.

Abdullah discussed with Talal, and then went to his desk, saying something else, which wasn’t translated. So I said to Talal, “What was that last thing he said?”
Talal shrugged and said, “He says he wants to be mad at you, but can’t be mad at you. I don’t know.” Sure enough, he was as participatory and enthusiastic as ever, which is to say, quite. So I guess he’s not a grudge-holder. I don’t even know why he argues so much, because as far as I know, there is no actual consequence for the L’s I put into the attendance.

Next class, we stop for our first break, and I say, “Be back by 6:00.” And then I write 6:00 on the board. Abdullah, looking mischievous, says, “No Miss,” and points to himself shaking his head, and at this point, Bashar, captain of the class, starts to look stern and like Abdullah’s about to get into trouble, and then Abdullah, grinning away, writes on the board under my 6:00, ‘5:55’ (with backwards 5’s) and points to himself. We all had a good laugh, and sure enough, true to his word, Abdullah was back 5 mins early from break. He’s since fallen back off the on-time wagon, and is straggling in late again…

Liwa Oasis – the edge of the Empty Quarter
There is a paved road which goes 30 km into the Empty Quarter, ending at a massive sand dune called Moreeb Hill. We drove out there once on the afternoon we got there, and again early the next morning, to see what it was like at sunrise. On our afternoon trip we encountered some camels on the road and pulled over to take pictures of them. Having heard that camels can be belligerent and cantankerous, and also because they are very big, we didn’t approach them, but just stayed beside the car as they passed us. But they were curious and a few came over to me (I was on the same side of the car as them) so I held out my hand and one came over (Mom named him ‘Dusty’) in an interested sort of way, and so I, rather timidly at first (they are really very big), talked to him and patted his neck. Then I stopped for a moment and turned to say something to Mom, and while I was turned from him I felt a soft nudging at my side. I turned back and he (or she – I don’t know) was investigating the waistband of my dress, and then the hem of my dress. They’re much less intimidating when their heads are so low. So I reached down to pat his cheek and he lifted his head a bit, so I stroked under his chin, and then his face and forehead – it was quite the bonding moment. He didn’t want to leave. Seemed he’d have stood there all day, if the patting was to be kept up. It was altogether quite disarming and sweet. We finally decided it was time to move on and left him trailing along with the rest of his group.

The camel train in Liwa!

The desert in the early morning.


In which I wish for well-washed windows

My bedroom windows have been very dusty since I came here, and it was made worse by the two weeks of morning fog we were having condensing on the windows and creating dusty streaks as the water rolled down. I got out the watering can one day and tried to wash the windows by leaning out of the window that opens and pouring water all over one of the non-opening panes, but half the water ended up inside on the floor, because none of the windows are sealed well. It rains so seldom here that water-proofing isn’t a top priority for the builders. I could only really reach the one pane, and it wasn’t a very successful attempt. The window was still streaky. So, I went and spoke to Ibraheem, the guard/handyman, about it. He speaks very little English though, so it can be a bit of a trick when you need something fixed.

I tried to explain, using a lot of gestures, that I wanted the windows clean and had attempted washing one, and that it leaked, and it wasn’t even one of the windows that opened. He smiled and nodded and sent me away, saying, “I wash, yes. No problem.” I thought, he knows I want the windows washed but I’m pretty sure the whole point about them leaking passed him by. So I went up to my room and moved everything off the floor and away from the windows, just in case. We went out for the day, came back that evening, and I’d forgotten all about the windows by then. I went into my room and walked over to the window to close the curtains and very nearly did the banana-peel, feet-out-from-under-me move when I stepped into the small lake that had appeared all along the window wall and extended a good two or three feet out into the room. Glad I moved things! The windows aren’t really any cleaner. He just sprayed water at them from a hose from the ground. My latest thing is I have bought a squeegee, and spend a few minutes each night when I get home leaning as far out as I can and trying to wash one or another of the panes. In the morning though, when the sun shines in, the streaks are highlighted, and I realize that once again, it has not been a success. I’ve become a bit obsessed by them now. Half the times Mom comes into my room lately, she catches me fussing over my windows. I have a pile of window-washing paraphernalia now stacked up on the floor – paper towels, a hand towel, glass cleaner, a bucket and the squeegee. What I need is a ladder, so I can reach properly. I think I’ll go ask the guard about one right now. Nope, no joy on the ladder. He doesn’t have a tall enough one. If the windows would just open a bit more I could climb out onto the ledge…

Window cleaning - See how dirty by the light on the wall? The bottom section of windows that I've somewhat cleaned here let a lot more light through than the top section, which I can't reach at all.

2 new classes: smart ladies and military boys

This is from late November 2007:

So, here I am back to double shifts, after so adamantly saying I wouldn’t do it again. A bit of luck is that my morning class doesn’t take place on Wednesday. Of course, rather typically, I found this information out from my students, not the administration. I was busily telling them when we would have our first quiz and how the week would be laid out in general, when a chorus of “No Miss! No class on Wednesday!” erupted. I didn’t believe them at first. Well, I thought they were mistaken at least. But then they pulled out the schedules that they had been given for when our class was to take place, and it quite clearly stated that our class would not be taking place on Wednesdays, as some of them have also been signed up for some computer class. Turns out it holds true for all of us teaching levels 2, 3 and 4. None of the DCS teachers had been informed of this… Ah well, it’s nice having a paid day of free time in the week anyways.

My two classes are both very different creatures from what I had before. In the morning, I have 11 women in the DCS (Department of Civil Service) program, and they are quite a high level and very motivated. The book we follow, and that they are tested on, is very manageable for them, and so I’ve been supplementing with other stuff, like introducing new idioms twice a week in little true-life stories that they seem to like, and practicing using them, and listenings and readings that look at more of a variety of things than just business (the focus of our text book). We had a lively discussion (their English is really quite good) one day about government and what role it should play in citizens’ lives, that stemmed from a listening exercise about Napoleon of all things! They’re a really bright and engaging group, these women. I have to be careful though with my grammar. They keep me on my toes.

For example, is it “I didn’t used to…”, or “I didn’t use to…”? Turns out both are allowed. I know this now. But I didn’t! I had written the former on the board, and then they pointed out that that doesn’t follow the usual rule for making negative statements in the past, which the second one does. So I wrote both on the board and looked at them, and said rather weakly, “well I really don’t know. They both look reasonable to me, and I just like the look of the first one better. But you’re right, the second follows the rule…” I had to go and look it up and then I photocopied the page in my Azar grammar book that says both are permitted and brought it in to show them.

The other class is the military men, and I have ended up with a Fundamentals class, not Level 1 as I had thought, because so many of them placed as absolute beginners. Some of them seem to have had very little education, even in Arabic, but they are for the most part, quite hard-working, and are quite sweetly earnest. They all say thank-you at the end of every class as they file out and have lately taken to clapping at the end of class as well, which embarrasses me horribly. I know they mean well, but it just makes me want to crawl under the desk. I don’t think they can tell I’m blushing because by that point, after 4 hours with 30 bodies in that small classroom and my modest, cold-weather apparel, my cheeks are bright pink with the heat anyway. If I give them any flak about anything (through Talal, who speaks fairly good English and is my self-appointed translator and general teacher’s assistant), like being late back from break, or not bringing pens and books to class, or calling out the answer when I asked for someone else to answer, they apologize. “Sorry, Miss, sorry…” and look suitably remorseful. Also, Bashar, the captain of the class, who has some higher rank, speaks sternly to them to back me up. If I drop anything, one of them picks it up. If I have brought the speakers with me, and appear to be about to hook them up, two will jump up from their seats, take them and set them up for me. Arthur kept saying so much, “They’re going to be a rough lot–mountain men (he said this several times). It’s not going to be easy. Classroom management is going to be a struggle…” that I was quite dreading the class at first. But they are as gentle as lambs, well, boisterous lambs. I really like them. I don’t know why Talal is in this level. He says he wants to be in the lowest level because the review is good. I’m lucky to have him at any rate.

Trip to Fujairah, and a new class

Seashells that I collected in Fujairah

Mom and I rented a car this last weekend and drove all over the northeastern part of the country. We started out on Friday morning (weekend is Friday – Saturday here) at 6:30 in the morning. We had the roads to ourselves, which was good, as there was a thick fog for the first hour or so. We headed southeast at first and this part was just sand, sand, and then sand dunes. Around 8, we pulled over to take a photo of the landscape and spied camels walking along a road parallel to the highway towards a town up ahead. Naturally we immediately went on the chase. We drove on and went into the town and back along the road where we’d seen the camels, but they were gone, so then we just stopped at a spot in there and climbed up a sand dune, took some photos, looked around and then turned around to go back to the car. As we were walking back to the car, the herd of camels re-appeared and made their way across the road, not more than 50 meters from where we were parked! Very exciting for us. They’re quite strange looking, I must say. Of course, I’ve seen pictures and seen them on tv, but it’s always quite different seeing things in real life.

The changing landscape as we near the Hajar Mountains

We drove the rest of the day till we got to the east coast, and it became more and more mountainous, and then drove north along the coast. Just before the point where you have to head inland again, or else enter Oman, there is a large and luxurious hotel, JAL Resort Spa Fujairah. There aren’t very many hotels around there and we were tired, so we took a room there, and ohhhh, it was so nice! Beautiful rooms, and all with sea views, and on the beach, there are all these cushioned lounge chairs with little shelters over them, and towels rolled up on them, and as you wander about looking for the one you want, a guy accompanies you till you choose, and then unrolls the towel and lays it out for you, and then if you appear to want anything, there is someone there to get it for you, or move the umbrella for you, or whatever you want (I got up to move the umbrella myself at one point, but no, no, no, the man would have none of it). The water was beautiful, visually and temperature-wise, and there were so many pretty shells that Mom and I and this little boy at the shelter next door had to have had 100 shells between the three of us. I think our small friend had the majority though.

The Hajar Mountains at sunrise from the beach

We stayed until we had to check-out at noon, and then drove through the mountains back to the other coast, had lunch in Ras Al Khaimah, and then drove south back to Abu Dhabi. We had to pass through Dubai on the way home, and as we got closer into the city, the traffic got worse and worse. I mean it was gridlock; so we got out of it and gave the city a wide berth, which was much better. It was so good to come home to much more reasonable little Abu Dhabi. I’ve had admittedly very little to do with Dubai, but it’s really not scoring well in my book.

I have not had a class now for nearly three weeks, but the easy times are about to come to an end! My DCS class starts up on Sunday next week, and I’m going to be doing an evening class 2-3 times a week until mid-January for the military. That starts up this evening, from 4:30 till 8:30. Their English is close to non-existent. We may have to review the alphabet. I was invigilating their placement test two days ago, and some of them couldn’t write their names in English. I had to take the pen for some of them, and have them tell me their names, and write it for them. That group should actually end up in the Fundamentals class. Mom and another teacher, the girl who invigilated with me, Stefanie, and I will be doing the Level 1 group. These are non-officers. Privates I guess would be the equivalent? We’ll see how this goes. Four hours keeping a bunch of young men who speak no English busy.  Should be interesting, possibly disastrous…

Greed vs. exhaustion: greed wins!

Really from September 2007:

The school is NOT well organized. According to the teachers who are experienced with the region, it’s quite common for here though. This morning was a gong show, because 3 teachers left this weekend, and three new hirees for a related program(the DCS program) that began today for civil servants didn’t show up. That’s 6 people down.  I got called in this morning to work a double shift, which means 8:30 to 1:00, and then 2:00 to 7:00. I have VERY reluctantly agreed to continue this till the end of the week. The thing is, if I can keep it up for two weeks, and keep my new class, as well as my old class, we go to Ramadan hours starting on the 13th, and that’s only three hours per class, for a total of 6 hours teaching a day, for, according to Eddie, the same pay as the 9.5 hours class time I’m presently doing. Which would be quite a bit. So, I will see if I can stick it out.