Thursday, November 10, 2011

Backpacking the Dead Sea and Judean Desert

Lately I have experiences random acts of kindness from the most random set of strangers. Whether it was trying to find a cab during the holiday rush last weekend, or hiking through a mountain valley and being invited to stay in a Bedouin's camp, the kindness off strangers here has helped me out so many times. Just wanted to share that before I start on my holiday adventure.

I guess I'll begin with the Eid. Its the biggest holiday here, a little like Christmas, especially in the shopping rush capacity. We just stayed in Nablus for Eid, and then on Monday made the decision to travel. Me, my two housemates Amy and Lindsey set out to meet up with fellow teacher from Australia Ella, her friend from home Patrick, and another teacher Tim. We later decided on the title : the Intrepid 6...or the dirty half dozen. Who needs a set label anyway? I got to be the translator,as I was the only one with a background of Arabic. I enjoyed being the one who had to talk to people and ask questions. The best was when we needed to figure something out and I was able to translate from Arabic to English and figure it out. Not that I am anywhere near fluent, but I guess I know enough to get the point across.

We set off from Nablus for the Dead Sea. We had heard of a place where you could pay to camp on their property along the coast (I wouldn't say beach because its all mud). So we got ourselves there just in time for sunset. It was beautiful! Me and Lindsey got some volleyball in with a couple people spending the day there. We were one of only a few groups spending the night. After the sun set (at like 5 pm) we had a whole night and not a whole lot to do so we chatted and then did the inevitable: go swimming at night in the Dead Sea!!! We got some cuts and bruises from not being able to see the rocks too well, but it was totally worth it! There were definitely some quirks to the place: like playing awful US pop music until late at night and then starting it up again at 730 am (I never want to wake up to Bad Romance or any Lady gaga for that matter ever again). I actually didnt end up in the tent with the group. Long story short, the night manager talked to me until 2 in the morning and then gave me a little hut with a sleeping bag and pillow. I came to find out I got the best night sleep of the group.

Before I continue I have to say one of the best aspects of the trip was the group: we ha d a great dynamic, traveled so well together, and didn't once have a guide taking us around or a program manager holding our hands. We did the whole thing spur of the moment on our own terms. It was fantastic.

The next morning we set off early for Jericho. There we had a delicious and much needed breakfast feast of hummus, foul, falafel, salad and most importantly Nescafe. We picked up some food and LOTS of water and then headed off for Wadi Quelt, which is basically a gorge/ valley running through the Judean Desert. We started at the St. George's Monastery right outside Jericho. The monastery is built into the mountain, and is quite a sight. Then we trekked on through the wadi. Apparently a lot of people hike up on the top along the old Roman aqueduct (which we did for a little on the second day), but we went on through the rocky gorge. It  was challenging but so worth it. We got to do a little rock climbing up the side of the gorge (we left our gear at the bottom) to check out some greenery growing in the rocks. I think in the spring there will be a little basin there, but coming out of the summer it was pretty dry. We hiked for several hours encountering a few rocky obstacles that we had to climb with our packs, which made the adventure all the more thrilling. We had a great group and made lighthearted jokes along the way. We even busted into "hit me baby one more time" at one point. Interestingly enough Patrick knew it better than the rest of us. The hike was incredible. I've never been anywhere more breathtaking, or done anything more spontaneous and adventurous. I'm afraid now that I've got a taste I won't ever be able to get enough!

As the sun started to set, we began looking for places to pitch a tent for the night. As we were looking we cam upon a little Bedouin camp (Bedouin=an Arab ethnic group known for living in deserts and the like and often being of a nomadic nature). His name was Mohamed, and he invited us in for some incredible and much needed tea. He lives there seasonally shepherding goats and sheep, while his family lives in Jericho. I think quite a bit of backpackers end up at his place and I think he likes the company.Then he offered to let us stay the night at his camp. We decided since he had some mats and a bigger tent that we might as well. We hiked up a pretty vertically mountain, or mount rather and watched the sun go over the mountains. It was an incredible view as we could see the Judean Desert mounts, the Jordan valley and we could even see the lights of Amman, Jordan! It was an incredible view after an intense sprint up.

We ate the food we had brought and watched a little bit of a movie and fell asleep. Thank God we were in Mohamed's tent with his blankets and mats because we were FREEEEEZING with all that. Had we been in a tent on our own with 2 sleeping bags to share for all of us, we would have been in serious trouble (aka we would have gotten up and kept walking). So after 2 nights bad sleep we got up, had some of the food we had left, and set of for a shorter hike to a spring. This time we hiked along the aqueduct. There was one point we had to walk through the aqueduct because it bridged two mounts and it would have taken longer to walk around or down and up. It was quite refreshing actually, even though my boots were wet for the rest of the day. The spring was gorgeous although previous travelers had left some bottles behind which really took away from the scenery. We chilled there for a while and talked to some other travelers that arrived after us (they had just come down from where we were about to exit the gorge). We then made the strenuous but not long trek out of the gorge to the main road. It was quite a view: we were able to see the whole wadi curve out to the Jordan Valley (where we had come from the day before). We drank some water, had some fruit and set off for Ramallah and then Nablus. We had met an advertising exec and his mechanical engineer friend who works for a company opening a reusable bag factory to help reduce the use of plastic bags here (which is a seriousssss problem here!) who offered to help us out with rides. They took us to Ramallah and then Nablus, which was really nice of them.

It was a totally exhausting trip, but soooo worth it! I had an amazing time with great friends, met a random group of really awesome strangers, and saw some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. I am so blessed!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Dwindling Vocal Chords

Disclaimer: If you only have time to read a little, I would love it if you read down a little further instead of form the beginning, because I talk about my Palestinian family, which is a HUGE part of my life here.

I'm officially sick. That being said, so far I don't mind a whole lot. I'll take a small cold and dwindling voice over food poisoning any day. Honestly I'm more worried about my computer which keeps crashing, than I am about being sick. I
The day began with a slightly scratchy voice. By the time class time came around it was course, but still pretty clear. The after participating in an impromptu skit for the kids with the other teachers (which involved imitating a teacher known for her yelling capabilities) and a unruly class (last day before their biggest holiday), my voice started to wane. And i still had two classes to teach, which involved singing Happy Days enthusiastically and of course speaking loudly. Happy Days really did me in I think.

I spent the rest of the day and evening visiting with Kayan at her family's house about a 10 min walk away. I met two of her sisters, her mom, and her aunt. They were baking cookies for the Eid (big holiday here). I think I had like 6 glasses of drinks throughout the evening: soda, 3 glasses of tea, Turkish coffee and some really interesting but tasty version of hot chocolate. My voice got really bad at this point, which made speaking Arabic more difficult, but Kayan speaks some English so she translated a bunch which helped. It was really nice to just relax, and spend time with this incredibly nice and welcoming family.

I guess this would be a good time to explain who Kayan is, and how I came to know her. I''ll preface this story by explaining where I live. There are two buildings (each with a couple flats) within a separate walled area. The people living in these two buildings are all family in some way. We are at the bottom of one building, and what I have come to call my Palestinian family lives at the bottom of the other building. It started I guess on my first day in Nablus, when I was invited over to Besma (the mother in the bottom flat) invited me over. The whole family was there, including the family members that live above us (sorry if this is confusing).  I'm not sure what the next thing was after this initial welcoming, but basically between a series of Besma giving us incredible food, and me staying to chat after returning the licked clean plates (also washed of course), I began going over there regularly. Now I pretty much go to visit on a daily or bi-daily basis. I love going over there and chatting with Besma. She is so much fun to talk to, has a great sense of humor, and speaks slowly so I can understand. She knows some English, but we mostly communicate in Arabic, which has been undeniably helpful in improving my Arabic. I'm nowhere near fluent, but I am definitely improving. It is becoming more natural to say everyday phrases in Arabic. The biggest challenge is going to be building my vocabulary. Anyway, in addition to our chats over coffee, tea, or some other food/beverage, I also get to spend time with the other family members in that house.

The Dad is so...i'm trying to think of the right word...good-natured or jolly would be the closest...and sweet, and the interactions between him and Besma are just so loving, and I can tell they really respect each other. He kind of reminds me a little of my Pop-pop when he was alive, just in his mannerisms and look. That's probably another reason I like him, on top of everything else. Besma and Mohamed have 7 kids total, the 2 youngest of whom are still living with them. Taib is 11 I'm pretty sure, and Mahdi (or as I have officially knighted him Ma-D) is 21 (just about).

Taib cracks me up. He is an 11 year old boy that speaks like a 35 year old cosmopolitan, or perhaps wallstreet man. His English is excellent and his vocabulary is surprising for even an English speaker of his age. H watches a lot of American movies apparently, and his older brother who lives above them and is married to Kayan (my aforementioned friend) taught him English growing up. He's a great kid, and so so so so cute! It makes me think of my little baby brother (ok i know he's 14 but he'll always be my little baby bro).

Then there's Ma-D. I guess since we're the same age its logical for us to be friends. But above and beyond any kind of logic, he is a really great guy, someone I would want to be friends with anywhere anytime. I really enjoy talking to him, and as we have gotten to know each other it turns out we have a lot in common. I'm really really lucky because if he hadn't been my neighbor, we probably would never have met. This is a  conservative city, so interactions between men and women are pretty regulated. I feel really blessed that he lives next door and we are able to be friends. He speaks English I would say nearly fluently, if not fluently, so when he's around he translates sometimes when there are things Besma and I aren't able to communicate clearly. He is also helping me with my Arabic: when I need to know how to say something I can ask him. And after the Eid we're going to exchange Arabic lessons for Spanish lessons (he loves languages too). We're waiting until after the Eid because his schedule has been really crazy lately. He has exams, and on top of that has to work extra because of the upcoming holiday (picture retail stores one week before Christmas or the weekend after Thanksgiving, etc.). Basically he's a super hard worker.

The hospitality and welcoming that Besma (which by the way means smile in Arabic)  and her family has blown me away. I mean Arab hospitality in general is an astounding phenomenon and something I was already aware of, but this is more than anything I could have possibly expected. Like every time I go I come back with food. For a while I felt terrible about it and was terrified she felt obligated, but began to realize that this it wasn't like that at all. I think the moment I really realized it was when she told me I am like a daughter to her, and since then on numerous occasions she and other members of the family have told me I am family now.

Recently I started hanging out with Kayan, Besma's daughter in law. She is 23, and we get along really well. Between her English and my Arabic we are able to communicate pretty well. Its really exciting because she is my first female Palestinian friend, and I really like her. She is so sweet and of course welcoming. I mean she took me to her family's house after just meeting me! I'm really excited to spend more time with her and become better friends.

Then there is the family above us: our host family. They are also so incredibly sweet and welcoming. The Mom Abeer had us all over for dinner the other night and it was sooooo good!!! The son Husam who is finishing up high school is a lot of fun. He's a total jokester (I've labeled him snarky mc snarkeyson). He is also always so willing to help. He's fixed our cable, brought us gas tanks for hot water and cooking, and offers to help with any other little problem we may have. He also wished us a Happy Halloween and said he wished he could make us feel more at home. It was really sweet. He really always tries to make us feel at home. Also very smart and ambitious like Ma-D (theyre cousins).

My dilemma: basically, I was just told recently not to become too chummy with neighbors (too late for that). The bosses don't want us to. The reason is that in the past they have had an issue where they were chummy with a neighbor who would come over a bunch, but turns out she gossiped about them and damaged their reputation, which is not good for the school. This is a big city and small town in one I guess. So I understand where they are coming from. However, I know for sure that this won't happen with my family, and I don't have anything to gossip about regardless. Like the woman they had a problem with would come over and snoop around....whereas I always go over there.

 If they had told me when I first got here....I honestly don't know what would have happened. I'm glad they didn't tell me until it was already waaaayyyyy too late. I know that being with the family is right, not wrong in any way. I mean I missed going there one day, and the next day when I went over Besma grabs my hands and asked me where I was and then ushers me into the living room, shares a blanket with me (its getting chilly here) and tells me I'm one of the family. Like I said I see the school's point, but I KNOW that I am not in danger of that situation happening to me.

Ok I rambled on a bunch now. This has quasi become my journal since writing cramps my hand and takes up too much time, and my journal handwriting is illegible anyway, even to myself. I need to lesson plan now. I started this post last night (wednesday) but had to finish the next morning (thursday) because my computer kept shutting itself off (HUGE prayer request that this works out simply and cheaply...basically I cannot do my job without a computer as I make all my worksheets and materials pretty much). My voice is totally gone now, so Im going to stay in today (private school doesnt have English today, and I had to cancel my refugee class because I literally cannot talk. I would normally go into the school to do work, print out materials, make posters, but I think its best to stay in. I want to be able to travel a little over this week-long break!!!!) So NOW I need to work on my lesson plans for the week after break, so I can do materials next weekend when I'm back and better. Hasta Luego

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

For the record...

OK so not everyday is going to be as amazing as yesterday. If yesterday was an example of a great teaching day, today was an example of a horrific one. Oh well. I guess the amazing days are only amazing because of the horrific ones to compare them to. Pressing on of course, tomorrow is a new day.