Well, once again I failed horribly at keeping up with this blog, but so it goes.
My first month at my new site has gone reasonably well. Busy, as you could imagine. Setting up a house, settling into a new village, meeting new people, and starting a new job isn’t exactly easy, but folks in my village have been kind and helpful. During this process the J15s (last year’s Peace Corps class) introduced me to a new phrase: “smothering hospitality.” I didn’t know such a thing existed, but I am now familiar with it. Of all the problems to have, this is a good one.
So, let me start off with what I left off with last post. Swearing in.
I moved out of my host family’s house on January 13th, early in the morning. Packing up my things and getting ready to leave was harder than I’d thought it would be. Despite the occasional personality and cultural clashes, they were a shelter in a storm, and far more generous and patient than they had to be. I got a great host family that accepted who I was and where I was coming from without trying to change me. Leaving them was tough. Plus, their kids are really cute. We’ve talked on the phone a few times since I left their house, and I hope to keep in touch with them in the future.
We, the soon-to-no-longer-be PCTs, stayed in Madaba for a few days for our last few days of training. I wish I could say that I remember a lot of it, but I don’t. At that point we were all at a weird place mentally. We were crashing after a long and stressful training, and then excited for the move to our new sites. Exhausted and energized.
There were a few highlights in the last days of training. One was a lottery conducted by the Medical Officer here. She’d acquired a bunch of useful items from volunteers that were leaving (or magically pulled them out of The Void, I’m not entirely certain) and gave them away. I came away with two extra blankets, and counted myself lucky. Others got irons, coffee mugs, or packages of instant noodles. I was glad to get the blankets, though it meant that my already brimming bags had to find more space. You wouldn’t think people would complain about getting free stuff, but as ever Peace Corps Volunteers are the exception. EVERYONE was grumbling about the lack of space. And I mean, yes, blankets, heaters, medical kits, emergency flashlights, and CO2/smoke detectors are useful, but come on! It’s not like I’m gonna leave behind the shoes I bought or all the free clothes I’d gotten.
Swearing in happened on January 15th at the Madaba municipal building. For those of you on facebook, that’s where the photos of the women in brightly color dresses are from. (It’s called a thobe, and is traditional Jordanian dress.) It was a nice ceremony, but as with all official ceremonies, a bit boring. Our Country Director spoke, welcoming us to Jordan and reminding us that we are the only volunteers the US government is sending over to the Middle East this year. Universities and private companies are, but there’s no one else that the US government is putting their faith behind. Just us. All the other folks the government sends over live in compounds or gated communities, and most live in the big cities. My town doesn’t even have a stoplight. So we were to accept the privilege and responsibility and do our best not to screw up. (My words, not his.)
After our Country Director spoke, the US Ambassador to Jordan, Stuart E. Johnson, gave his speech. He welcomed us to Jordan, spoke of the loving family relationship (read: occasionally contentious) between the Foreign Service and the Peace Corps, and his hope that we would go on to become great public servants one day, much like the late Chris Stevens, US Ambassador to Libya and a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco.
It was a lovely speech, don’t get me wrong, but I have two things to say. First, don’t try to sell me on another job before even get started on this one. I didn’t like it when the Alumni Association gave a speech at my college graduation ceremony, and I don’t like it now. Second, when sending me out to a village, alone, please don’t remind me of a guy who died. Yes, he had a common touch that could be traced back to time in Peace Corps. Yes, he was champion of so many of the best ideals that Peace Corps has. Yes, he was a part of the lamentably small group of people who both care about how the US is seen in the Middle East and who actually do something to impact it. Don’t just remind me that a good man who started where I’m standing died; tell me how his life mattered. I know the risks. Tell me that doing this work, despite the risks, matters.
Okay, mini-rant over. Moving on!
After the Ambassador’s speech, we all came up to the stage and told the crowd (in Arabic) our name, what training village we were from, and where we were going to live. That went well enough, a few stumbles, but we all got through it fine. There was a laugh when one of the trainees from my village called himself by the Arabic name the village had given him after they couldn’t pronounce his English name. So hats off to you, Hatim Al-Shakhanbeh (a.k.a. Tom).
Then came the actual swearing in. We stood up on stage, raised our right hand, and flubbed the oath.
You see the Peace Corps oath is like a lot of government oaths: wordy with a not terribly familiar cadence. And we, the training group, flubbed it. The Ambassador read a phrase that was too long for us to remember, and we kind of trickled out before the end. Cue awkward laughter and a look of pain on the Peace Corps staff members’ faces.
Then it happened again, a line later.
Then the Ambassador realized he needed to spoon-feed us the oath, and we got through the rest of it with what remained of our dignity intact. Luckily, the audience was made up mostly of our host families, who had already heard us speaking nonsense for three months. I prefer to think of it as another humiliating moment where they just smiled indulgently.
And that is how I made the transition from Peace Corps Trainee to Peace Corps Volunteer. Ah, memories.
After we were allowed to flee the stage in shame, two of our brand spanking new volunteers made speeches. They were brilliant, thoughtful, and done completely in Arabic, so I understood maybe one word in five.
There was one final speech from our Director of Programming and Training, issuing us a challenge to engage with our communities, to teach and learn in equal parts, and to fall on our faces every so often since that means we’re actually reaching for something. (Again, she had a slightly different phrasing, but that was the message I took away.)
The ceremony ended. We had snacks and hung out with our host families for one last time. I had thought that only my host father and two of the kids were going to make it, since my host mother had to work and five- and two-years olds don’t handle boring ceremonies well, but she and the five-year old were there. I was surprised, but very happy to see them there. My host sister snuck into the reserved seating and sat next to me, holding my hand for much of the ceremony. And yeah, I got a bit sniffle-y at that. They had to rush out pretty quickly afterwards, since my host father had to work. It meant a lot to know that they had to carve the time out to come. I like to think I’m not the only one who felt the parting.
The rest of the day was a blur of last minute packing, buying of things needed, repacking, hanging out together for the last time before we go to site, and generally feeling relieved that I made it this far. I felt buoyant now that I’d finally gotten past the question Can I get through training? It crossed my mind nearly everyday. Could I adapt to the language? Could I adapt to the culture? Could I ignore the stares? Could I withstand the thousand and one questions, much of them inappropriate to American sensibilities? Could I find the emotional and physical reserves to force myself through the inconsolable bad days and fragile good days so that maybe, maybe I could get to do the thing I’d wanted to do? It turned out that I could. And that felt good.
The next day I was up bright and wickedly early to get to the training Center one last time. And again, it was an exercise in hurry-up-and-wait, since the bus taking half of the training group south was not big enough for half the group, plus all their stuff. We were supposed to be the first to leave, and instead were the second-to-last. One of our new brethren didn’t come with us, though.
The J16s had our first Early Termination (ET) that morning. After getting through training, he realized Peace Corps wasn’t the life for him. I haven’t heard from him since, and I don’t know if I will, but I wish him the best. I’m rather fond of this group of government-issued friends, and I hope this is the only ET we have. It won’t be, but I still hope.
We loaded up the buses and headed south. I was the first one off the bus, and I challenge any group of people to unload a van faster than PCVs can. They dropped my stuff off, complimented the apartment, took a photo, and were on the road again in what felt like five minutes. And I was finally alone, in my own space, at site. The deep breath I let out wasn’t so much a sigh as an unraveling of every knot I’d worked myself into over training.
Ten minutes later, my mudeera and counterpart English teacher showed up, and whisked me away to go shopping. Food, water, bread (it’s own category here in Jordan), and household what-its were all purchased for me. They came into the apartment and helped me set up the few things that I had. Then they were gone within a half hour. A whirlwind that left me better organized than when they arrived. Then I curled up and took a nap.
The next few days were blessedly slow. My landlord’s family checked in on me. I met my neighbors across the street (my landlady’s sister who is married to my landlord’s brother). My counterpart and her teenage daughter came over, and invited me to their place. They invited me to go pray with them on the first Friday that I’m in town. To which I agree, because, why not?
Thus began the craziest Friday I’ve had in Jordan.
And, fair warning folks, if you want to refill a cup of coffee or something like that, now’s the time. This is another fairly long story. (Also, how do you know you’re acclimating to Jordan well? You give your readers coffee breaks in the middle of a post.)
The invitation was to go pray, and so I’m thinking this would be a few hours, maybe grab lunch with them, and then back home by midafternoon. Right? Wrong! Eleven hours later I get dropped off, dusty, muddy, and covered in sea-salt. I was sunburned and sore.
She picks me up at about 9am that Friday, and I’m dressed in church clothes. Because we’re going to church, right? It’s only after we’re in the car that I realize everyone else is wearing jeans and t-shirts. We start driving, and head northwest from Karak, and end up down in the Jordan Valley along the banks of the Dead Sea. Now, Karak is about 900 meters above sea level and the Dead Sea is about 400 meters below sea level. We covered that drop in elevation in about three or four miles of switchback roads. So I became acquainted with how my eardrum feel, and didn’t blame the two-year old for throwing up.
Once in the Jordan Valley we drive north for about two hours until we reach the Jordan River. THE Jordan River that you (Christians) spent so much time hearing about in Church. All the while along the road there are soldiers stationed on the side of the road with their automatic rifles and the Big Guns mounted on their trucks. (I grew up in a nearly-hippie household. I do not know guns. They were big, mounted on trucks, and pointed at the road.) I was close enough to the border to see Palestine out the window. We got to the church’s main gates, and the army had set up a checkpoint. They did a quick check to make sure everyone’s papers were in order and there were no bombs in the car, and wave us through. Everyone in the car was perfectly calm, but I was confused. I don’t know where you, dear readers, go to church, but this was an entirely new experience for me.
As it turns out, this church service was celebrating Jesus’s baptism, and was one that a large part of Jordan’s Christian population attends every year. So the army was out just to make sure that everything and everyone was safe. Once that was explained, I was fine. There were at least three different churches built along this one small strip of the Jordan River, and all had rather large ceremonies going on. I went with my counterpart to the Orthodox ceremony, which had a VERY different feel than the Protestant services I’m familiar with. My counterpart talked to one of the (civilian) crowd patrol folks, and I was taken over to a fence where I could actually see down to the Jordan River. I felt a little awkward being there, but if you can’t play up the ajnabiyya card at major religious ceremonies, when else can you?
After the service I went with her extended family for a picnic lunch. Again, it was all slightly awkward, but there were a number of kids under ten and a donkey tied up nearby. So, I made small talk, hung out with the kids, and acted like a kid when the donkey brayed. What? I grew up in a city!
At one point during lunch a woman comes up, and talks to the family. I didn’t catch what she was saying, but before I know it, the family has whipped out a plate and was loading it up. They handed it off, and the woman walked away. No one commented on it, and no one acted like it was a big deal. It was just random generosity because there was a hungry woman there, and they had food. I’d like to think that we’d do this in the States. I know that people probably do, but it was done so quietly that it seemed almost not worth noticing. It shocked me in a really great way. This is the Jordan that I’m coming to know. And remember the crack I made earlier about smothering hospitality? This is where that idea comes from, the simple act of taking care of those within your reach, stranger or family. It’s powerful to see in front of you.
After lunch we got into the car and drove to the Dead Sea, which was incredibly packed. It’s Friday, so it’s the weekend in Jordan. Muslim families had gathered after their services, and the Christian families were returning after the services on the Jordan River. PACKED! So what does my counterpart and her husband do? Flag down a guy who’d brought his camel to the shore.
Yep. I rode a camel. No, I don’t have photos.
And I have to give a big Thank You to my mom’s coworker at EMU, who I’m told occasionally reads this blog. She’d gone to Egypt (I think?) and had her own experience riding a camel, and passed along a piece of advice. Camels, you see, are tall, and in order to even get on their backs, the camel has to go to its knees. When they stand up, it’s done front half first and then the back half, and then opposite when sitting down. If you’re not expecting it, then you can tumble off very easily. Being forewarned, I was able to lean into it motion and not humiliate myself. It was a nice ride, calm and swaying. Stinkier than a horse, but not awful. I did not see the camel spit, nor did it kick anyone. But, boy, do they make a god-awful racket when they call.
The kids went swimming in the Dead Sea, swallowed too much of the extremely salty water, and threw up everywhere. The toddlers waded in and learned that extremely salty water does not react well with diaper rash. There was screaming, crying, and quick strip downs. I made myself useful by holding onto the screaming babies while their mothers ran off to the car to get clean water to wash them off and their fathers tended to their elder brothers and sisters.
After that little flurry of drama, I soaked my legs in the warm, salty water, which was nice. Then I put some Dead Sea mud on my chapped-by-the-cold hands and a little while later washed in off in the, you guessed it, extremely salty water. I sympathized with the toddlers and really wished it were socially acceptable for a grown woman to weep in pain. It was not, so I womaned up, kept washing off the mud, and when that was done, I turned my back on that gigantic, antiseptic nightmare, and spent time with the folks who’d brought me. Also, seeing as how I am a scientist’s daughter, I also collected a few rocks from the seaside (different colors mean different mineral composition, and that’s cool) and pondered how the high salinity and shallow depth of the Sea affected the waves (according to my Dad when I asked him about it later, it’s the depth more than the salt, but the generally processes are the same ones I’ve been ignoring him talking about for years).
The sun started to go down, we were exhausted, and headed back. Two hours south, up the mountains (hello, eardrums), a quick detour to show what Karak Castle (a Roman fort still standing and huge) looked like by night, and then back to my little village.
And thus my four-hour church-and-lunch date turned into a day-long event. It was awesome.
There will be more soon. I’m just tired of typing.