Tuesday – Travelling to Amman
London – Istanbul – Amman. Turkish Airlines are very reliable every time! We flew from London Gatwick to Amman Jordan with a brief layover in Istanbul, Turkey. After almost 12 hours of travelling we landed in Amman, Jordan and with a quick taxi ride through the arid and desert like terrain surrounding the hills and city of Amman, we arrived at our final destination, Hotel Caravan!
Wednesday – Amman – Introduction to Youth Spirit
Awoke in Amman – fortunately did not get woken up by the Morning Prayer call from the huge King Abdullah 1 Mosque, which stood only 30 meters away from the hotel. Directly across from our hotel there stood a huge Coptic Christian Church also. I was surprised to see such buildings in such close proximity. Having said that, at this point I was very unfamiliar with Jordan’s history including the 600 years or so that it was under Roman and Byzantium rule. This of course made sense once I saw that the foundations of the city were built by the Romans, evidenced by more than a scattering of Roman ruins and not to mention the Citadel which is situated next to down town Amman. It overlooks the city’s slopes displaying views of the thousands upon thousands of traditional white flat rooftop houses and of many Mosques dotted in between, this view lasting for as far the eye can see beyond the seven hills of Amman.
In the afternoon we met with the Youth Spirit host team leader. Fortunately, the Youth Spirit’s office was located across the street from the hotel, so no excuses for being late each morning! As evening approached we finally met with all of the Youth Spirit participants. After introductions, we reviewed the week itinerary and shared our expectations and fears for the week and concluded with ice breaker games, which were important in order to get to know more about each other on the first day.
In Jordanian tradition, we all shared food together in a local restaurant. Apart from the beautiful food, it was a great opportunity to learn more about the Jordanian participants, become familiar with our local surroundings and ask lots of questions about this country we had just arrived in.
After dinner we drove to a nearby café. Amman has a big café culture, some traditional places and some rather trendy cafes. This outdoor courtyard venue was a mix between the two. As we listened to Arabic beats being played from traditional Arabic instruments we sipped our exotic pure fruit (non-alcoholic of course) cocktails from beautiful tall glasses decorated with pieces of fresh fruit as we sat in surroundings that felt rather trendy and hip.
Thursday – Silk Screen Painting, Cultural Studies & Arabic Language Lesson
Most of the Jordanian participants work free lance in the arts and music industry in Jordan and it just so happened that the Youth Spirit team leader was somewhat of an expert in the ancient art craft of Japanese silk screen printing. By 9.30am we were all deeply engrossed in this art we had learned; eager to cut out our stencils quickly and see the end result in the silk screen canvas (well, actually we used cardboard – save the good stuff for the experts)! It was humbling to share somebody’s talent from which they made their livelihood and it was fascinating to learn this skill at the same time.
As we UK participants did not know much about the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, it’s culture, history, customs, norms or values, a lesson on these areas was very much needed in order to develop a full understanding of the country we were in. Through simple observations it was clear to understand the importance of certain customs such as food sharing and dressing appropriately and respectfully, however it was necessary to delve into greater detail of Jordanian culture to understand the history of these very diverse group of peoples.
We even received an Arabic lesson. I remember it was at this point that it really struck me that Jordanian society is really changing, and changing quickly. From this lesson I understood that the traditional Arabic language is fast loosing formal practice by Jordanian people and in particular Jordanian youth. In fact I was told that some very young people even speak English as their first language and do not use Arabic at all. The language they use in forms of social media, including text messaging has altered the way the alphabet is used by younger generations, for example, new found slang language is fast becoming acknowledged as new vocabulary in Jordan and even new letters have evolved to be included in the current alphabet.
I was surprised at this information because I thought that traditions were important to people here. I was surprised that Jordanian youth was quickly becoming increasingly Westernized; not only through language, but through ways of thinking, consuming and having more materialistic aspirations than I thought they would have.
It was interesting to learn more as the week went on. It was mind opening to listen to the group of young people we were with about their own experiences in the education system and their own views about Jordanian life and culture.
Friday – Cultural Tour of Amman and Souq Jara visit
Wherever you walk in Amman, you are walking on thousands of years of history. I was just stunned at the immense history of Amman and of Jordan in general. It really is the cradle of the Middle East. A country situated in a vital position for people from all over the Middle East to pass trough on their way to neighboring countries.
The ethnic mix of people in Jordan is so rich and diverse. I noticed straight away that people’s looks are all very different; people from all over the Middle Eastern region; Northern Africa, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Lebanon, extending to Turkey, the Caucuses and beyond.
I also spoke to several of the participants who told me with great pride about their family histories and their Bedouin routes; stories of their grandfather’s and great grandfather’s living a nomadic lifestyle in the desert and living by tribal customary traditions until their father’s moved and settled in the city where they integrated into a more conventional way of living, received formal education and now sending their own children to school to receive an even better education; their children who are now participants of this Erasmus Plus Youth Exchange!!
We visited the Roman Citadel, and afterwards the Roman Amphitheater, which can seat almost 6000 people as well as the smaller Odeon Theatre next door where two of the Jordanian participants will be playing their band music in July for a well known Jordanian music festival.
After walking all morning we had built up a good appetite, one just good enough to attempt the famous traditional and national dish of Jordan: a dish that is always at the heart of tribal war stories – Mansaf. The dish is typically found in Jordan and Palestine and is made by cooking lamb in a sauce made from fermented dried yoghurt and served with rice.
Although we were a group of UK youth exchange participants visiting Amman, it did not feel like we were in any way ‘tourists’. Most of the Youth Spirit participants were from Amman themselves and most lived in the area we were staying in, Jebel Al Weibdeh is the renowned and rapidly expanding arts centre of Amman. It hosts a small community made up of mostly young like-minded people, who reside and try to make their living here, exhibiting their art work and making music as a lot of the Jordanian participants we met did. Walking down Jebel Al Weibdeh or Rainbow Street, you distinctly get a different feeling about it than other areas of the city, which tend to be more conservative. Here you can sense easily that this area enables a more bohemian-like way of life and get a sense that the types of people living here want an alternative way of life too. You see people sitting in front of cafes and art galleries, warehouse conversions, smoking, laughing, tanning, not observing any particular conservative dress code and enjoying this way of life. Whereas driving through other parts, especially West Amman you feel the complete opposite.
Other areas of the city display such contrasting ways of life and a complete blend between old and new. West Amman is filled with palatial mansions situated high on the hillsides far away from many other city neighborhoods which comprise of a mix between old and almost dilapidated housing, new buildings made with modern materials and old buildings that have been renovated into ultra modern flats for the new Jordanian generations.
Everywhere you look in Amman there is building work in progress. Amman has developed rapidly over the years; it has naturally evolved because of the many people coming to live here from all parts of the Middle Eastern.
It was obvious, that we as UK visitors experienced a unique insight into this city. We were hosted by locals and these particular locals had a lot of input into the community they lived in. We felt privileged to share their neighbourhood with them for a week!
Saturday – Hiking in wadi Al-hidan
Our only instructions before the hike were to take a spare pair of clothes, good walking shoes, swim wear, a rucksack and water of course. We truly had no idea how beautiful and breathtaking the hike would be. To our amazement we found ourselves walking down a steep valley into what could have been the Garden of Eden. A deep valley maybe 200 meters deep carved into the earth with a crystal clear river running though it, nourishing the desert flowers and greenery on each side; waterfalls that had flowed for so many hundreds of years that made the rock below smooth, we were able to slide down the smaller ones ourselves into the beautiful but cold pools below. We swam through parts of the hike, some parts we swam for 70 meters in length and dried off in the sun until the next water strip. After around 3 hours we reached the end point where some of the other Jordanian participants had driven our (dry) equipment too, in preparation for our arrival.
We ended the hike with a Jordanian style BBQ. Using our hands and a little water, we molded the seasoned minced lamb around long skewers and left them to dry slightly in the sun before placing them on the small fire. In great Jordanian tradition, we drank the traditional ‘Arak’ to wash our meal down and compliment the taste of the homemade kebabs whilst absorbing the sun in theses idyllic surrounding; truly a small paradise in the Jordan Valley.
Sunday – Madaba visit and Scavanger Hunt
One of the host participants lived in Madaba, a predominantly Christian town almost one hour’s drive from Amman. You can immediately tell that you are in a Christian place because of the many Churches dotted around.
Scavenger hunts are a great way to get to know your team mates better and also a wonderful way to see details of a place you may never have expected to see otherwise. During the game, we visited two very well-known churches in Madaba. The first, the Church of Saint George, an Orthodox Christian Church, which houses the 6th Century AD mosaic map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. The second church we visited was the Shrine of the Church of Beheading of John Baptist, dedicated to the man in the title who was imprisoned by Herod who ordered his beheading.
Similar to the mix and blends of new and old felt in Amman, the country as a whole lends itself to having a diverse mix of peoples, cultures and religions too. One can definitely feel the mix of religions here. Although Jordan is a predominantly Muslim country, you can still see many faiths being practiced here. As Jordan has experienced so much change in the past due to being subject to different empires’ rule including Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and so forth, naturally different faiths and religions have shaped the land as well. From the day trip to Madaba, we were able to see the Biblical Jordan and the Islamic Jordan too.
After the scavenger hunt, we were all invited back to the Madaba participant’s family home for some refreshing tea. This was our first experience of life in a Jordanian family household.
Monday – Dead Sea visit – Farewell Party at ‘Farm’
The Dead Sea is without doubt the most culturally, historically and geographically significant landlocked area of water in the Middle East. Situated east of Jordan and bordering Palestine and Israel on the West, this salt lake is the lowest point on earth. The land around the water is so fertile it is even suggested that somewhere around there is the setting of the Garden of Eden in the Bible.
The Dead Sea is famous for attracting tourists from all over the world. We had the choice of visiting the tourist beach for 30 Jordanian Dinar (JD – for reference £1 is almost equal to 1 JD)), or visiting the Public beach only 20 meters away for 12 JD. Honestly, the only real difference is the price. There is not a lot of difference in the water, it’s all the same!! Obviously we opted for the cheaper of the two and got just as much satisfaction!
It was more difficult to swim in the water than I had imagined. There is definitely a method to this; fall gently into a seated position and lift the knees toward the waist as if you are getting into a sitting position. This seemed to work quite well. However, there is no way you can swim on your front without either swallowing a mouthful of salt or splashing salt water into your eyes, which stings a great deal.
Of course we also doused ourselves in the mineral rich grey sludge that is found on parts of the sea bed. Once it’s on, it dries quite quickly and a burning sensation starts, which last for a while. I was conscious that I wanted as much minerals to be absorbed as possible, so was adamant to leave it on for as long as possible! When you wash it off, you skin feels like a new baby, so smooth, soft and replenished.
As evening drew closer, we sat down to watch the sun set behind the hills on the other side in Palestine. In fact, we could even see the silhouette of Jerusalem on the hilltop in the distance. It felt strange to be so close to Palestine and Israel.
In the evening, we drove 1 hour away from Amman where we feasted with one of the Jordanian participant’s family. This was our second experience in a Jordanian family household and this time it was a lot more traditional!
This was our final supper with our hosts and of course in true fashion, we ate plenty of meat again! During the farewell, it was a great opportunity to exchange email addresses, jot down last minute ideas about what they want to do when they come to the UK as well as take lots of group photos! The very final farewell was not sad, it was joyous and a time to celebrate meeting such wonderful young people who had more in common with ourselves that we might have thought at the beginning of the week! We look forward to acting host for these people soon in UK!
Tuesday – Amman – London
Amman – Istanbul – London. Turkish Airlines are very reliable every time!
Being present in Jordan I felt a far greater sense of awareness of what is currently happening in the region than I felt being back in the UK and reading about it from afar. Travel is so important and makes a huge difference to travel around a country, meet its’ people and experience first-hand the culture of the country: a positive experience in every sense and would love to experience another Erasmus+ Youth Exchange in the future!
Thank you to everyone, who shared their photographs during the visit.