First Glimpses

That first night, absorbed in my jet lag, culture shock, anxiety and underlying embarrassment, I couldn’t have told you what the weather was like. All I knew was that it was warmer than the snowstorm we had left in Washington, DC. We stumbled onto the big tour bus waiting outside the terminal and collapsed into the well-worn bucket seats.

On the bus, I thought I would surely fall back into that fitful half sleep of the trans-continental night flight now behind us. Yet, now that my feet had touched down on Jordan tarmac, I was filling with nervous, excited energy. I was really here, the biggest adventure of my life yet. As much as I wanted to rest my temple against the curtained window, I found myself compelled to hold back the curtain and watch the landscape flash by in the dark.

The palm trees, flashing past hip-high on the median, had always been for me a tell-tale sign of exoticism, of warmer climes and romantic getaways. The curb was distinctive, sometimes the height of cinderblocks laid lengthwise, sometimes cinderblocks standing shoulder-to-shoulder, always in half meter long alternating blocks of black and bumblebee yellow paint. I recognized the rows of squat, round olive trees from that summer I studied in Greece and was so deeply moved by the sea of rippling silver olive leaves stretching across the valley beneath us at ancient Dephi. Single story cinderblock buildings were romantic in the silver moonlight and golden street lamps, and the occasional red tile roof was exotic Mediterranean flair. My nose pressed against the glass all the way to Madaba in excitement, even as my forehead leaned against the window in exhaustion.

They took half of us to the Queen Ayola Hotel in Madaba. Wedged into a narrow street near the Byzantine-era old city, it had a tiny lobby. I remember lugging my suitcase up the claustrophobic winding stairs, close behind the white sneakers and white hair of Jackie, a retired sixth grade teacher who would become a mentor teacher and a good friend.

We had been assigned two to each little room, and each pair of small rooms had an even tinier bathroom between them with a plastic accordion door. The beds were narrow, with thin mattresses, scratchy woven wool blankets and dingy, well-washed sheets. I think my roommate was Katya, with Laura and the girl from Maine sharing our bathroom, but it was all a bit of a circus. By now we were all buzzed on the newness of the place, the experience, the common bond we were beginning to forge. You couldn’t have guessed which one of the four of us would complete her full two years of Peace Corps service. We all bounced back and forth between rooms, equally excited to compare accommodations and first impressions.

Just when we had lain down and started to settle ourselves for a few hours of sleep, the first eerie strains of the fajr adhan reached out over the city. To call it the “dawn call to prayer” is a misnomer, because dawn was still over an hour away. It is more properly first light, defined under Islamic jurisprudence as the moment you can see the difference between a black thread and a white one.

At the exotic sound of it, all four of us leapt up on Katya’s bed and threw open the shutters on her window. It was the ethereal city of the opening scenes of Disney’s Aladdin, square buildings and right angle rooftops in the faint moonlight, and minarets rising above them against a rich background of stars. Each muaddhan calling us to prayer was just a beat or two off from the next. The exotic, resonant tones floated over the rooftops like an intricate choral masterpiece. I got the kind of awed goosebumps that sometimes came to me in mass with a Catholic friend, or in circle worship as a Unitarian Universalist youth.

That night at the airport was far from the end of my anxiety attacks, one of the most common medical complaints of Volunteers the world over. The Peace Corps motto has always been. “The toughest job you’ll ever love.” From the first day, though, even the toughest days were tempered with warmth and beauty, like the steady support of new friends or the exotic chorale of the adhan.

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