I had read every page in the handbook and attended every orientation, but will be the first person to tell you that nothing will prepare you for life in the Middle East; let alone Amman. Amman is an interesting place that I have grown extremely found of in my first (and probably most eventful) week abroad. I will try to break this post roughly down by day and give you a step by step overview of my first week full of firsts.
After landing at the airport, I was immediately greeted with smiles form the CIEE staff members and dropped off at my host family’s home. I had accidentally put my departure date as my arrival date and was not given a packet with information about my host family. So head first I went.
Sadly, I did make some major assumptions that I still feel awful for today. The biggest and most important being that they were Muslim. My host family is actually Christians. Depending on who you ask in Jordan, the statistic varies from 2% to up to 8% of the population being Christian. The other assumption I made was that their English would be terrible. They are actually almost fluent in English and is much better at English than I will probably ever be in Arabic. This lack of a language barrier has definitely made my transition much easier. We are able to have intellectual and open dialogue with one another about life. It is so refreshing to hear their perspective and the lenses they see the world through.
My official day in Amman was spent inside because there was “snow”. I live in Jebel Weibdeh which is not as high up on the hills as other neighborhoods, so only saw a dusting of snow. Even though the whole city only got a couple inches at the most, there is no infrastructure to even handle that. The roads immediate freeze over, salt is not put on the street, the fog is frightening, and because of how hilly Amman naturally is, makes travelling extremely dangerous. The government put out a 10 am start time for all businesses because it was so dangerous!
Luckily for me, day two was not as alarming as my first day. I mustered up the courage to step outside and invited a few people in my study abroad program to meet up for coffee at a local café. My first step outside was exhilarating. Everything was new and exciting, half of the things I said that day was, “WOW!” The biggest lesson I learned that day was that smoking, cigarettes and hookah, is as accepted and normal as drinking tea. Some people even claim that is healthy! As one of my new friends stated after hearing that, “Healthy hookah? That’s like eating a salad at McDonald’s!” It was comforting to get to meet people who had similar interests in my program and could understand exactly what I was going through at the moment.
On a very personal note, day two was the first time I realized how prevalent a bidet was. Yes, a bidet (and I am not talking about the one that is attached to the toilet); or as my boyfriend asked, “Why do you have a second sink next to the toilet?” Growing up, my mother always said to check for toilet paper before sitting down… This advice could not ring truer than in Jordan.
Day three was spent exploring Rainbow Street by First Circle in Amman. The street and surrounding area are often seen as the cool, young, and hip place of Amman. I had read many articles and blog posts about the neighborhood and in particular about Al-Quds Falafel (the oldest falafel stand in Amman) and Books@Cafe (the notorious bookshop that happens to be both the Middle East’s first Internet cafe and the most LGBTQI friendly establishment and hub of the city). My new friends and I all met up in front of Al-Quds and proceed to journey our way to Books@Cafe. The owner of Books@Cafe is also the notorious Marian Al-Jeezera from Thomas Freedman’s The Oil and the Olive Tree. The café is absolutely stunning and so welcoming. The view of the city from the café is hypnotic and you cannot help but stare. More importantly, their WiFi is one of the best in the city and the Mint Lemon thirst quenching.
It was also on this day when I realized how scare of a resource water really is. It is not just a fact that you hear about in the news of in documentaries you watch after taking a hot twenty minute shower. On this day, we ran out water at the apartment and had to borrow some from our neighbors. I only found out that we were running out of water because I was trying to refill my water bottle and the water spout was inconsistent and a thin trickle. In Amman, water is rationed out by the government and my host family gets their water every Wednesday. Because of this, we only shower on Wednesdays and Sundays. I was told that if I need to take a quick shower between these days, I can do so, but only if I really need to and to make it very quick. I have learned to take five minute showers where the water is actually only running for half of the time at most. The other water wakeup call is that we must manually heat up water if we would like to use warm water. If I need to take a shower, I must tell my host mom of my intention to shower and wait about an hour to warm the water up. As a privileged American, we have so much water that we “play in it and shoot it up in the air for fun”, as a fellow student stated.
Day four was spent in a Safety and Health orientation presented by my study abroad. This orientation covered everything from staying healthy and active in Amman to harassment and assault. Before the presentation, I was living on cloud nine. Though I was homesick and just wanted to be home, I had never been too concern about being in Amman. After the presentation, the paranoid side of me kicked back in. Coming from a Big Ten university where one in four women are a victim in an attempted sexual assault in her lifetime, it is not a topic that I am a stranger to. But somehow, to hear how accepted and common verbal harassment is in everyday life was a wakeup call. The scariest part was how polarizing a taxi ride can be and how groping might happen. Taxi drivers can try to rip you off by not starting their meter, but have also masturbated while driving. Sadly, the most comforting part of the orientation was when we were told that though verbal harassment is common in Amman, it is not as bad as other places and sexual assault is much less likely than any college campus in the United States. This was my new reality.
TODAY IS THE DAY I TRULY UNDERSTOOD WHAT FALAFEL WAS. Had a Sesame bread falafel sandwich from Al-Quds on Rainbow Street. Worth the 0.75 JD I spent on it. I wish I could have it for lunch every single day.
On day five was my first weekend in Amman! It was extremely exciting because my host mother’s married daughter would be coming to visit with her family from a neighboring village/suburb. We had a wonderful lunch of two different types of Foul (a popular stewed bean dish), hummus, various pickles and jams, bread (khoubz), and fresh vegetables. My host sister and I had the most interesting talk about different education systems and the psychology of children. She and her husband are both music teachers so we were able to bond over dorky music insights and jokes.
The other thing I learned that first weekend was that the weekend starts on Thursday not Friday. We get Friday and Saturday off and start the week on Sunday because Muslims have a special prayer midday on Friday and well Saturday is the day of the Shabbat. I am still unsure how that works with going to church on Sundays for the Christian minority…
Day six was the most exciting day of the entire week (and probably my time in Amman) because my program planned a whole tour of the city for us. We visited the Citadel, Roman Theatre, ate delicious food, and then was sent off on a scavenger hunt of various parts of the city. Of course, my team won! Being an American is often frustrating for me because our history is so short. Some of the oldest things we have are only 250 years old which is insignificant compared to the thousands upon thousands of years of history parts of the Middle East has. Jordan in particular is one of oldest and most religiously significant area of the world.
Here are some of my favorite fun facts/quotes from my tour guide:
“Jordan is the Swiss of the Middle East.”
“We [Jordan] are surrounded by fire.”
“White city; limestone…”
The scavenger hunt was the most tiring thing that I have ever done. Just kidding, but we did a TON of walking.