First Excursion

We had a few days in our Madaba hotels before we were divided up and sent to our villages. I think of those hotels fondly now. The Black Iris was luxurious, and our Queen Ayola was quaint and romantic, even if the beds were a little scratchy and the facilities primitive. Already, though, PCTs began to fall like dominoes. One older woman determined on her first day in Jordan that she couldn’t handle the two years of teetotalling that stretched before us, and she went right back home. A tall, elegant mother of teenagers had a nervous breakdown on the second day and was medivac’ed back to the States to be reunited with her family. I felt great sympathy for her, thinking of my own near-panic attack at the airport.

When we found out which of the five training villages we would each be living in for our ten weeks of training, Naureen and I both got placed in the same village, with Jennifer as our LCF. It was a primarily Christian village, but Naureen would be living with a Muslim family. The patriarch of the town’s most important Christian family was hosting Michael, an extraordinarily tall young man who had joined the Peace Corps to learn Arabic before going into the United States Foreign Service. Jesse was a tall, slim guy with an unruly mop of straight dark hair. He reminded me of a lot of the farm boys I grew up with, and I took an immediate liking to his casual, friendly style.

Audra and Jeremy were a quiet, serious newlywed couple from Iowa. Unfortunately, Iowa sounds too much like aywa, the Arabic word for “yes,” so they found themselves having a lot of conversations that went like this: “Where are you from?”
Very slowly and enunciated carefully: “Where. Are. You. From?”
Now in English: “Where you from?”
“Iowa. It’s a state in the United States.” Eventually, they just started claiming Chicago as home, since Audra’s mother lived there. It was also a city that Jordanians recognized, just as I sometimes said I came from New York, even though it is three hours and a world away from where I grew up in Pennsylvania.

Chicago came with its own problems, though. Apparently, some dozen or more years earlier, a Jordanian was attacked or killed in Chicago. Just one, as far as I could tell, just that one time, but it seemed that he was everyone’s cousin, distant in-law or cousin of a friend. I, too, found myself hearing this story over and over throughout my years in Jordan, how dangerous Chicago is. “My cousin was killed there, you know!” Likewise, once while waiting at a bus stop, I was treated to a long tale by a neighbor about the time in the New York City subway that he was robbed of his wallet at knife-point.

Americans have an image of the Middle East and Arab world as violent places. While there is a history of suicide bombing in the Levant, dating back to 1980s Lebanon, in fact these events are less common than plane crashes. There have been periods of time in these decades when violence was more common, and Lebanon’s civil war meant years of legitimate danger. On the whole, though, American ideas of Arab violence are sensationalized and disproportionate to the actual violence found there over time. In contrast, many Arabs know that the violence in some parts of urban America is endemic. Many Arab immigrants and refugees have found themselves in these parts of the American cityscape, as residents, taxi drivers, public school students and more.

* * *

Once we had been assigned our training villages, it was time to team up with our LCFs for a dry run of the commute from the Madaba training center out to our village training locations. Jennifer led our little group out of the training center and towards duwwar ad-dakhiliyya, the traffic circle in front of the Madaba Interior Ministry where we had been greeted by the mayor and governor the day before. Behind the dakhiliyya, we stopped at an ATM to try our new bankcards, onto which our monthly stipends would be deposited. We all had a little walk-around money in our accounts for Training.

Then the street sloped gently downhill, with wide sidewalks and curbs twelve to eighteen inches high, painted in broad vertical stripes of black and bumblebee yellow. There were houseware and clothing shops on both sides, their wares spilling on tables and mannequins into the street. We were definitely noticed. Shopkeepers called hello, young men stared as we walked past. We stuck together in a little clump, scanning the scene to remember the way, but avoiding eye contact.

Then the shops trailed off, and Jennifer brought us to a halt on the corner of an empty lot. “This is the bus stop,” she said.

I looked around. Across the street in two directions were the blank whitewashed walls of residential buildings. Kitty-corner from us was a dukaan, a corner store of the sort a New Yorker would call a bodega: soda, chips, candy, and a little of this and that, dish soap and matches and tomato paste.

“How do you know that this is the bus stop?” Naureen asked Jennifer. It was exactly the question on my mind, too.

Jennifer looked around, her eyes thoughtful, and almost shrugged. “Everybody just kind of knows. You observe where other people line up and wait, and you ask around. Eventually you find it.”

I looked around. No one else was waiting on this corner that I could see, and there were no busses. “Are you sure?” I could feel a bubble of anxiety pushing up against my throat as I scan the area for some sign of confirmation.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” said Jennifer, with confidence. “Sometimes the bus stations move around, but I’m sure this is the bus to Ma’in.”

I thought that “bus station” was a pretty ambitious term for this corner of an empty lot without a bus in sight, but Jennifer was the LCF, emphasis on “cultural facilitator” today, so I tried to tell my bubble of anxiety to trust her. She wouldn’t lead us astray. Peace Corps wouldn’t leave us stranded.

* * *

Over the months to follow, I would see it for myself. Once I had my permanent assignment, the bus from Irbid to my site village always left from the same bay in Irbid’s South or Amman Station. The village buses from Jerash, though, moved around all the time. At first they were always on the far side of Jerash at the Amman Station. Then I learned to catch it on the north-bound side of the big hill out of town, or farther down by the farmer’s market. After a while, an informal system of shuttle buses across town began, and the buses like mine to small villages north of Jerash stopped going to the Amman Station all together.

Then a small new Local Station opened near the bottom of the hill out of town. Our village’s two busses shared a bay there briefly. Local government sanctioned official shuttle buses and established an official fare between the Local Station and Amman Station. Then our buses started parking on the curb in front of the new station. Inexplicably, the Local Station was suddenly boarded up, its bays and entrances chained off, but local buses continued to park along the curb there, then a couple hundred meters down the hill around the traffic circle.

I observed, asked questions. The local drivers got to know me, too. “Your bus isn’t here today. See it down there?” Or, “Your bus is gone for the day. Hop in and I’ll drop you at the bottom of the hill up to your village.”

* * *

At the Madaba – Ma’in stop, I started to get antsy, shifting from foot to foot. We were still the only ones standing on this desolate little corner. Jennifer had told us how much the fare was, and I clutched the large, thin coins in my hand, afraid to drop them and have to go into my wallet for more. I wasn’t used to so much of the currency being in coins, and they were heavy in my too-small wallet buried in my shoulder bag.

“It will come when it comes,” Jennifer assured us.

So it did, hurtling towards us and stopping abruptly on the edge of the dirt lot. The “bus” was a compact white ten-passenger van. As soon as the bus stopped, other passengers began to converge, from the dukaan, a café, I don’t know where else.

I had taught myself the Arabic alphabet before I arrived in Jordan. I could recognize that the bus said Ma’in over one headlight, Madaba over the other, and over the grill, b-ism-illah ar-raHmaan ar-raHeem—in the name of God, the Merciful, the Beneficent. Though known as a largely Christian village, it appeared that at least the bus drivers in Ma’in were Muslims.
The side door slid open and passengers filed out: Muslim women in hijab and jelbaab—solid colored, ankle-length dusters buttoned neck to knee. Christian women in modest straight skirts just below the knee and thick nude nylons. Muslim and Christian men indistinguishable in loose, pleated dress pants and buttoned shirts. Kids in hand-me-downs and Tshirts printed with Chinese characters or often nonsensical English.

When we got in the bus, the plush had been worn off the black upholstery and the springs in the seats were uneven. I snagged a window seat next to Naureen. There were curtains on the windows in dark red velour, stretched tight between curtain rods above and below the windows. Later, in the desert summer sun, barreling down the highway in a bus with open windows instead of air conditioning, I would understand why. For now, I was just annoyed that my view of the scenery was so restricted.

The bus twisted around through narrow streets of mostly residential buildings with smooth white walls and ornate iron grilles over the windows. Then, abruptly, the landscape opened up into wide wheat fields and olive plantations, a daylight version of the landscape that had captivated me that first night from another bus. Now I could see that the tile roofs of the villas dotting the landscape were the same red clay as the roofs of Switzerland and Germany. The stucco and boldly painted borders around windows and doors reminded me of the summer my family went to southern California. The wheat fields had been harvested, and most hosted several dozen goats gleaning for what was left, and a shepherd kicking at clumps of dirt as he watched his flock.

Sometimes the bus would stop to pick someone up along the side of the road. Occasionally someone would call out, and the bus would stop to let him off. Jennifer had taught us to say, naazilah houn, lo sameHt—Descending here, if you please. Except I learned it as “this is what you say when you want to get off the bus.”

It was one of many phrases I picked up early on as a single unit, without understanding its grammatical anatomy until sometimes years later. I had studied four other languages before Arabic, but I had never done it this way before. I always wanted to dissect and diagram every word of a phrase or sentence — literal translation, contextual meaning, grammatical particularities, social context, its etymology backwards as well as forward to English. We didn’t have time for that, and our excellent LCFs were not professional language teachers. I memorized in chunks. And now I teach language that way, because I know from experience and research that it is the most effective way for most people, if not usually my own personal preference as a student.

The part of the journey I remember most clearly about that bus route is the last mile, as the road sweeps along a gentle, open curve before climbing up the steep hill to Ma’in. I did that hill on a bike once, several years later. It’s no joke.

Precisely spaced rows of pine nut trees lined each side of the road, long needles and oversized cones on widely spaced limbs. Sometimes horses or donkeys were tied beneath the lowest branches. I hadn’t really experienced real winter in Jordan yet, but here I saw evidence of it. The prevailing wind cut across the Dead Sea from Israel in the west. It was so persistent and picked up enough power in its way across the top of the Rift Valley that the trees grew with a permanent list, leaning east at a sixty degree angle even on a still day like this one.

Those pine nut trees captivated me throughout my ten weeks of PCT in Ma’in, a metaphor of the life I foresaw myself stepping into. They were utterly unlike the lush blue spruce and white pine trees of my childhood, whose conical and oblong silhouettes were full and smooth. These trees were gnarled, bent, asymmetrical. They had a rugged, dogged tenacity to thrive in the desert wind. I would need the same.

* * *

On our way back towards Madaba, as we came over the last hilltop, the sun was low in the sky, casting a golden light across the city. The houses were all rectangular, flat-roofed buildings of two or three stories, often with rebar sticking out of the roofs so another story could be added on top, usually for the eldest son to start his own family. Built on a low, rolling hill, these boxy cinderblock houses, whitewash glowing in sunset hues, gave the impression of an ancient Pueblo or Anasazi village rising out of the Arizona desert. At the top of the hill was the thick, square stone spire of a large church, and beside it the minaret of a huge new mosque. The slender minaret was stubby and unfinished that afternoon, shrouded in scaffolding, but would rise over the next year above the height of the church spire. I was struck by how beautiful this city was at a distance, bathed in golden light.

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