Wadi Mujib Nature Reserve, 09/22/11-09/23/11


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And so arrives the first of many slideshows to be posted in the next few days. I’ve been working on all of these forever, and I know you’ve all been patiently waiting, so I’m finally here to assuage the building anxiety you’ve been feeling at not having enough visuals of my time in Jordan.

Several weekends ago, I had the wonderful pleasure of traveling to Wadi Mujib, a.k.a. the Grand Canyon of Jordan, located just on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. A fantastic foundation called the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) has been developing ecotourism projects (like Mujib) throughout the country in the last few years, establishing not only nature reserves where people can vacation, but also many small businesses specializing in local craftwork that provide income for the villages in which they are located in addition to job opportunities for women.

In support of this organization, and because I wanted to repel down a 20 meter waterfall, I went with seven other girls on an all-inclusive ‘Wild Weekend’ to Wadi Mujib, including (for only 64JD!) transportation to and from Amman, one night in the Mujib chalets nearly floating on top of the Dead Sea, three meals, and a guided hike through the water canyon.

I cannot adequately describe how beautiful this place is. That’s why I’ve given you so many pictures.

Imagine the warm sun stroking your shoulders and cool water, soft as silk around your ankles, sliding past, as 100ft red sandstone walls, decorated with ages of erosion, tower above. Peace flows through Mujib, and it is impossible not to wonder at the marvel of it all. As I sputtered out oohs and aahs around the girls who have since become my best friends here (I’m convinced our love sprung from the magic of the place), I told them that the 20hr travel time to Jordan, if one could only stay two days, was worth the spectacular manifestation of nature that was surrounding us.

Yet as astounding an experience as it was, I would be leaving this picture of Mujib incomplete if I didn’t mention what an absolute BLAST I had. The river flowing through the Mujib Canyon is God’s waterpark. I can’t count the number of waterfalls I slid down like water slides or the number of times I floated on my back and let the current direct my progress in the hike. Splashing, jumping, playing, laughing. It was an enthralling high.

Also, (and so my writing style deteriorates into conversational speak), have you ever had the chance to be weightless?! You should try it sometime. The Dead Sea, as painful as it is to razor burn, cuts, and other crevices, is incredible. It is not only impossible to sink, but also nearly impossible not to float on your back. The salt is a cradle that rocks you in only one direction, and the unintuitivity (not a word, but you know what I mean) of it all draws you in and urges you to suffer through the burning pain to reject gravity and appear less dense than water. Wow.

Stay tuned for more slideshows. Youbetcha they’re a comin’.


Nostalgia for Ketchup


As much as I love French fries, I am sometimes of the opinion that their most important purpose is to serve as a vehicle for ketchup. Some people find this disgusting because they find ketchup disgusting, but I can’t help myself. The salty, messy goodness of it is really wonderful. You should see me eat a hamburger. My face is no cleaner than the toddler’s whose entire meal is strewn across their mouth.

While I’m not the type of girl who loves ketchup so much that I’d eat it in any color it comes in these days (I don’t know that there is a ‘type’ of girl like that), I enjoy it enough to have imagined throughout my life that there never could be any ketchup different from what I always knew. Ketchup, catsup, the little red sticker on the silver pump at McDonalds, it was all the same.

Who wants to be the first to guess that I was disappointed to find out that this is not true?

I sit writing this in my host family’s living room, munching on the ‘hamburger’ my host mother Ibtsaam made for me. Think two beef patties (well, she actually gave me three, but I can’t eat them all), a piece of pita bread, and some Kraft singles type things that are more the color of a pale duckling than the toxic-orange cheese-food hue I’m used to. I assembled it myself, not very skillfully I must add, and then paused wondering if the ketchup on the table really was something that would pair nicely with pita.

Not really in the mood for dry meat, I proceeded to squirt some of the sauce on my plate, figuring a dipping method would be more desirable.

What I am eating, or rather was eating, was not ketchup.

This doesn’t mean I disliked it. In fact, I ate it all before I finished the burger. But it wasn’t ketchup. I’ll describe it like this. Over-salted rotten-looking A1 sauce that has been disguised by a label saying it’s the condiment I know and love.

Of course, ketchup is not the only thing that’s different here in Jordan. Though I am living with a family that appears to ignore these rules, it was stressed in my orientation that walking in the house barefoot, lying on the couch, or showing the soles of your shoes or feet to anyone was like racing to the front of the line for a one way ticket to the passive aggressive land of host family resentment. Equally emphasized was the warning to never put toilet paper in the toilet. Always say where you’re going, who you’re going with, when you’re coming back, and never deny tea or the 10pm meal. Dirty clothes never touch clean clothes, but if you want to shower more than twice a week, you’d better join a gym.

There are so many things I’ve taken for granted, not even entertaining a conscious possibility that I may not find them somewhere else. I miss things from home, like friends, family, Northwestern, but also things like shorts, dancing around in my underwear, chocolate, taking a comfortable and contemplative walk. Ketchup.

After all this insightful writing I know you’re just eating up, it would be anticlimactic to end with a cliché. But I think they’ve become clichés because there is at least an ounce, if not a kilogram, of truth to them. So try and roll with me here.

Sometimes, you never completely appreciate what you have until it’s not in front of you.

I consider myself a grateful, thoughtful, and life-loving person, but it can take a new perspective to really understand the good, and not so good, of what you were looking at before. That’s why I travel. I don’t know everything, and I never will, but at least I could learn a little about others and a little more about myself.

Still, I could really go for some fries and ketchup right now.

Shorts, Tanktops, and Hijabs


I never thought that one of my most eye-opening cultural encounters in Jordan would take place at a gym.

Yes, Mom, believe it or not, I joined a gym here and worked out yesterday.

Approximately 3 pages in my program’s student handbook are filled with various tips from past students, advising us on the best schwarma for a dinar, the right taxi driver to call, and the correct way to greet someone by a series of cheek kisses (left, right, right, left).

Contrary to some of the more ambiguous tips – “Potato Town outside the North Gate, YUM” – one naSeeHa is quite self explanatory: “Join a gym.”

Apparently, a growing phenomenon in Amman is the establishment of gyms (men’s, women’s, co-ed) throughout the city, from Aspire, to Flex Gym, to Sports City.

Going off of some recommendations from my friends here, I decided to join Aspire, an all-women’s gym just a block from the CIEE offices and a 5 minute stroll from the UJ campus. My motivations for joining? Staying in shape, being active in a tv-obsessed nation, and having an excuse each day for an hour of alone, non-Arabic-thinking time.

Hidden behind an iron gate under an orange-tiled awning, Aspire immediately felt like an oasis, a sanctuary within the bustling, gritty, and overcrowded city of Amman. Walking through the glass entrance doors, I was greeted by a smiling woman at the front desk who asked if I wanted a tour of the facilities. She pressed a call button on the phone, and within a minute one of the Aspire trainers came out of her office and began showing me the cardio and weight equipment, the spinning and aerobics studios, the beauty salon and spa, the jacuzzi, the sauna, and the rooftop swimming pool. Mom, you would have been impressed.

Aside from noting how clean everything was, I was most struck by the overall consequences of establishing a gym open only to women. Veils, face coverings, sleeves, long pants – sometimes even shirts! – were not required. Women were there exercising comfortably, both in what they wore and in the safe company of others of the same gender.

Huffing and puffing on the treadmill, I looked around me and wondered what each of the women in the room would don once they finished their workout, their steam, their shower. Would I be able to recognize them? It was not a culturally-insensitive question, but rather a legitimate curiosity. Yes, clothes alter the appearance of any person, but should a woman cover her hair, neck, skin and shape, there are less clues to go by.

I make no judgement on what Muslim women choose to wear, be it a hijab, a niqab, an abaya. If the garments represent just another way for these women to show their devotion to God, may the decision be their own. I respect and applaud the freedom and expression of choice.

I do not know the individual religious motives of the many women who choose to wear the veil here, but I can’t help but notice how the hijab has become quite the fashion statement. Of course, women who veil in accordance with their interpretation of Islam want to appear trendy, and the scarves they choose often show that fashion and beauty are highly taken into account, as they are for any woman (no matter what religion) who wants to be in “the now.” But I have seen some young, “cool” Jordanian women whose outfits would appear to be incomplete without their hijab. Without questioning their devoutness, I wonder how much the veil has become a symbol – for some – of current cultural trend rather than a symbol of their faith.

Still, tradition that stretches back thousands of years plays a major role in veiling practices of the women in Jordan, and of course, throughout the rest of the Arab world. An understanding that a woman should be modest and cover that which may entice a man who is neither from her family nor her husband drives the clothing culture of the region, and Islam provides yet another context in which it is justified. I wonder though if things are changing.

Swathed in my long sweatpants according to my understanding of how to best adapt to the culture, I noticed the gym was filled with women wearing sleeveless tops, shorts and capris, their hair out and flowing. Women passed through the bathroom wearing nothing but sports bras and towels. A woman in silent prayer in the locker room, covered completely save her face, immediately removed the shapeless garment upon completing her worship, the fabric flourishing in a dark black wave due to the rapidity with which she de-robed. A pink spandex exercise top was revealed beneath, and the woman made her way to the treadmills.

Standing near my locker, I witnessed a woman looking in the mirror and wrapping with the utmost delicacy her hijab. The preciseness of her movements, the care with which she worked, no doubt gave me a sense of her respect for tradition and its place in her religion. Yet I could not stop wondering if the gym, the women’s gym, was a reprieve for her. Are these gender specific fitness centers becoming so popular because they offer women a haven from expectations around men? Is the “relaxation room” I saw on my tour a part of the gym so women have a place to sit and relax uncovered? Did the woman I saw enter the front door, only her eyes uncovered, join Aspire to give her face a more public place? Was she the woman walking on the treadmill next to me?

I do not know the answers to these questions, but I hope that my time here will make my understanding of women more clear. As I type this in my long sleeve shirt and wide-leg pants secured with a belt, I am beginning to realize how different cultural expectations and relations can be, yet how ubiquitous is camaraderie of women.

I’ve got a daily membership at Aspire, so maybe I’ll learn a little more about this new place I find myself in.

A whole new world just next door


For those of you who were obsessively checking my blog, waiting for a new update that never came, praying that you would soon be graced by my thoughtful, witty, charming posts, I apologize for the lapse in entries. You’ll be jumping for joy to know that I’m back!

Well, as much as I can be.

You see, I am in Jordan now, specifically in the Talal Abu-Ghazaleh Knowledge Society Center, or TAGKS for short. Try saying that acronym out loud… Yeah, I can’t do it either.

Internet in Jordan is not quite as ubiquitous as it is in the States, just one of the many differences I’ve noted so far. The program here tells me the best wi-fi on the University of Jordan campus is in the library because no one ever goes there. Haha, study jokes.

Here at TAGKS I have access to a somewhat quick running internet connection. The Knowledge Society Center is basically a big computer lab donated by some rich businessman who wanted to bring technological access to a wider slice of society. So thank you, Sayyid Talal Abu-Ghazaleh. Really. Without internet at my homestay, I’ve truly learned that I cannot take the world wide web for granted.

Before I run off to get some dollars turned to dinars, I wanted to finish with a few observations. What a different place I am in, not only from the US, but also from the neighbors to the west.

Directly from the pages of my journal:

“Things to note about this amazing country:

-no sidewalks

-no real parking lots

-McDonald’s is high end for UJ students

-family is everything

-tradition is rife

-hospitality is limitless

-love is sincere”

Barnaby George (more posts to come soon!)


Barnaby George

There has been an unfortunate lack of updates recently (sorry guys!) but guess what, excavating takes some time out of your day and makes you pretty tired. I’m working on it though! Tomorrow there will be a HUGE post with lots of pictures from my amazing trip to Jerusalem last weekend, and shortly after there will be another post from my upcoming trip to Akko! Lots for you all to look forward to (I hope!). But until then, please enjoy this picture of Barnaby George, the baby tortoise I rescued this afternoon only to submit him to a photo shoot.

Routines and Realizations


Akhmed in his typical resting pose as Britney digs (like my arrow?)

I have made a new friend here.

He is one of three Arab workers at our site. His name is Akhmed, he is 40 years old, he has 6 daughters, and we talk in Arabic.

Now before any of you get concerned about a cute, young thing like me talking so much with an older man (mom, dad), let me just give you an example of how our conversations usually go:

Akhmed: (pointing to a pickaxe) Mankoosh!

Me: (looking confused and perplexed by his mumbled accent) Ma? (meaning “what” in Arabic)

Akhmed: (smiling with his gapped, yellowed front teeth protruding) Mankoosh!!

Me: Hada y’ani “mankoosh”? (That thing is called “mankoosh”?)

Akhmed: Aaiwa! (Yes!) (now pointing to a bucket) Sattl!

Me: Sattl!

Akhmed: (now pointing to the dirt) Trab!

Me: Trab! A’alim kitiir minak! (Soil! I learn so much from you!)

Akhmed: (laughs and begins to point at something else)

In the past week, I have settled into a routine. Wake up 4am (sometimes 4:15), eat my cookies and chocolate spread, get dressed and leave by 5am, hit the site, 8:30 breakfast, more work and Arabic lessons with Akhmed, 11:00 fruit break, more work, clean up, leave the site at 1pm, lunch, shower, sleep, pottery washing, watch the Office (THANK YOU NORTHWESTERN VPN), dinner, bed.

Moving back and forth from the dorms to the site, from the dining hall to the pottery washing station, it’s easy to get trapped in a world totally unappreciative of the incredible fact that we’re in Israel. We dig, we eat, we sleep, and aside from the signs in Hebrew, the different electrical outlets, the nightly calls to prayer, the hillside villages, the beautiful mountains, the Mediterranean Sea….


I’m halfway around the world, in a new country, in a new continent! I’m looking out over a landscape I’ve only read about until now! I’m speaking in a new language while searching for the remains of a culture 6000 years old! How absolutely astounding this world is.

Have you ever wondered why the world can’t just be like the Olympics? Have you noticed that during the games, people from all countries, countries that have fought, countries that have cultures, religions, heritages different from one another, all these people from all these countries come together peacefully, stand as proud representatives of their homes and their talents, and have no intention to degrade others, but merely to display their strengths and celebrate those of the rest?

At the risk of sounding like any other cliche-ridden hopeful who has written on the need for worldwide peace and acceptance of difference, let me say that in the few years I have been able to travel this earth, and have been lucky enough to do so, I have seen the most amazing things. The most amazing people. The most amazing pride in culture, tradition, home. The most amazing smiles. I hope for the sake of these things, and for the people yet to inhabit this world, that at some point, the true beauty of this place is appreciated. I’m not hoping for a utopia, nor do I want one, but I do hope that as time goes on, more people will have the chance to experience the good things in this world (like learning a new language from a friendly new face) and start to believe in the magnificence of it again.

In all the places I’ve traveled to, there has been in each a moment that encompassed the experience. A moment that defined the awe of existence and made me yearn for the rest of the earth I hadn’t seen. A moment where everything was still, I was entirely in the present, and my understanding and wonder of the world reached a new level. I know that I will always remember the waking sun chasing away the early morning fog at the start of each day on the dig here, yet I’m still waiting for that one striking moment. I know it will come.

The next few weekends should give me plenty of chances. This Friday and Saturday, I will be in Jerusalem, which I am unbelievably excited about. We’re staying at a gorgeous Christian place called The Austrian Hospice. Check out the press photos and the view from the roof. It is beautiful! The following few weekends, I’ll be headed to Haifa, a coastal city with famous Baha’i  gardens that is only a couple of hours away, as well as the Old City in Akko, a small seaside town only a 15 minute drive east.

I’m in Israel… I’m in Israel! This world just keeps getting better and better.