Friday, November 15, 2013

A Series of Fortunate Events (and some not so fortunate)

[I wrote this post back in April and I'm now finally publishing it on my blog. I've recently come to realize how important it is to me to share my travel experiences and to record them so that I will never forget. This post was written when I still went by my former name. There is much more to the story that I have not written yet but soon I hope I will. Enjoy!]

From April, 2013:

After leaving the village and upgrading to a completely random life in Amman nearly 7 months ago I needed to get out of Jordan. A few weeks away from Jordan and somewhere new sounded oh so sweet. My mom also had plans to take a much needed vacation to travel to see me. As much as I wanted her to see this crazy, beautiful country I thought something more luxurious and relaxing was calling our names. That's right, a CRUISE! My mom and I are both suckers for cruises. Yes, it is a shame to only have a day or two in each country BUT it's also a very affordable, easy and relaxing way to travel (or so we thought). I scored a great deal on an 11 night Mediterranean cruise, which took off in Rome and continued on to Turkey, Cyprus, Israel/Palestine and Greece.

We booked the cruise immediately and 2 months later we embarked on what we thought would be a relaxing, paradise of a vacation. Little did we know the universe had Murphy's Law in mind for our adventure.

Murphy's Law states: "If anything can go wrong, it will."

Now for the breakdown.

CHAPTER 1: Romance in Paris

My travels started a few days before my mother's because I decided to take the most illogical route possible to get from Amman to Rome, in other words, the cheapest route possible. Instead of flying straight to Rome I flew all the way to London, from London I took a train to Paris, from Paris I took an 11 hour overnight train to Rome where all the shenanigans finally began. In the meantime I had a lovely time in London and Paris and the trip was as easy as pie.

It all began on a Thursday, the 14th of March. I had my bags packed and I was definitely ready to go. I hopped on a bus, which took me to the Queen Alia airport. I headed straight to the immigration desk after I checked in because I had overstayed my visa by 2 months. I knew the drill. When the immigration officer wanted an explanation for why I overstayed my visa I had to impress him with my very unimpressive arabic. I started to blabber about how much I love Jordan, how wonderful the people are, how delicious the Mansaf is... "Yes, of course I've eaten it with my bare hands before... Oh, I talk like a Bedouin because I lived in a village." After my schmoozing and a couple "mashallah's" from him I received his smile of approval. I paid the small fee and I was on my way and most importantly I knew I would be welcomed back.

First stop, London. I landed in London at 10pm. My train to Paris was the following morning at 5:30am. I had 7.5 hours to kill and nowhere to sleep so the plan was to pull an all-nighter at the train station. It didn't take long to get from the Gatwick Airport to the station. But man was it cold! My tosies were rosies and I knew it would be A LONG night.

I met a wonderful, truly kind-hearted person named Eric who worked at the station. He came to London from the the Congo when he was 15. He had an amazing story and he kept me company for a short time at the station, which was becoming increasingly more and more deserted. Finally I became too cold and had to take refuge in the Starbucks. Eric told me he would stop by when his shift was over.

I sat down with my first of many cups of coffee to come. I picked up the Peaceful Warrior and started to read. I noticed two guys sitting down the table from me. They were speaking in a different language so my attention was instantly piqued. After a few moments of unsuccessful eavesdropping I brought my focus back to my book. But It was hard to ignore the guy sitting on the other side of the table, our eyes kept meeting. I set my book on the table and pushed it toward him when I caught him tilting his head to try to read the cover. He looked adorably embarrassed and smiled. I smiled back.

A few minutes later Eric stopped in and he asked if I wanted to see London.

London at midnight?

I think YES! And so we were off. We walked for hours in the freezing cold and it was amazing. I felt like I saw the entire city (even though it was just a slice), my legs were reasonably tired and I was exhausted but still exhilarated by the new city. I met several memorable people along the way, and saw amazing buildings and some ugly modern ones as well in those special few hours. 4:30am rolled around and we made our way back to the station via big red double decker bus. I said goodbye to Eric and I sank onto a couch in the terminal.

When I looked to my left I noticed the cute guy from the coffee shop sitting next to me. He must have also pulled an all-nighter in the Starbucks as he waited for the same train to Paris. He held out his hand offering me a piece of gum without words, I accepted it. Surprised we still hadn't spoken but enjoying our silent friendship that had formed I finally asked him where he was from. He said Brazil and then asked me the same question. His friend returned to the couch and I discovered they were brothers, Andre and Artur. Andre confessed to not speaking very much English so he continued to have his brother translate his questions from Portuguese. It didn't take long for me to realize he understood almost everything but had less experience in speaking.

The time came to board our train and we said our goodbyes. It only took 2 hours to reach Paris and upon departing the train I ran into the Brazilian brothers again on the platform. I had a full day to spend in Paris before my sleeper train to Rome and I couldn't wait to see another new city. Though I wouldn't have minded exploring it on my own I was more than thrilled when Andre and Artur asked me join them. We set off to find breakfast and found humor in the overt disdain I was treated with by nearly all the french people we met because I was just an ignorant American with zero knowledge of the french language. Okay, yes I should have learned at least a few French words to get around. I definitely could have mitigated looking like a total tourist dummy.

After breakfast we went on a search to find their hotel to drop off their bags. We got lost in the arab district and I felt like I was home. I utilized my arabic and received some directions that only got us further lost. Eventually we found it. The guys left their bags and Andre immediately took my giant, goofy backpacker's backpack and strapped it on refusing to let me carry my own giant bag. What a gentleman, apparently chivalry is not dead. But really, I wanted my backpack back; it was huge and heavy because I packed an hour before I left meaning I over packed and I couldn't allow someone else to suffer that fate. Still, he refused to give it back to me so we carried on.

It was even colder in Paris. Andre and Artur saw snow for the first time. We had a snowball fight in the street and then went in search for the Eiffel Tower. I described to the brothers that I really wanted a picture with the Eiffel Tower so small behind me that I could pinch it with my fingers in the picture. Really original stuff, I know. We walked and walked until we were directly underneath the massive, kind of ugly Eiffel Tower building in my opinion but still cool, none the less. Of course my camera died immediately because I am the worst traveler and never come prepared. Luckily Artur took all the pictures I wanted so I could get them off facebook later.

We stopped at a gift shop. Andre bought a little Eiffel Tower key chain with tiny pink rhinestones on it. He started trying to attach it to his backpack and I thought it was kinda cute he picked out that particular key chain for himself. Then I realized it was my backpack he was attaching it to, he had bought it for me. Okay, that was sweet.

All of us were starving after hours of walking but we still hadn't gotten that picture I wanted. Instead we were far too close to the Eiffel Tower but Andre refused to let us quit until I got that picture because he knew I wanted it. Even I was ready to give up and go in search for food. We eventually got both. I had the best day with the two Brazilian brothers and despite the language barrier I feel that I became close friends with both of them. When it was time for me to head back to the train station, they insisted on accompanying me there even though it was basically on the other side of the city from where we ended up. I have to admit I had developed a little crush on Andre that wonderful day but on our way back to the station he became quiet and somewhat distant. I told him he really didn't have to take me all the way back to the station. He replied, "You think I don't want to take you? I just can't express what I want in English." And we fell silent again. At the station, the brothers gave me giant hugs, we took our last pictures and said our goodbyes and they were gone.

I still had an hour before my train was supposed to leave. I sat down and noticed a beautiful couple standing in the middle of the station smiling and kissing each other over and over again. They looked completely happy, completely unaware of the strangers passing them by in each direction, completely in love. Oh Paris, I thought. Then I noticed the photographer on a balcony photographing this beautiful couple who were not really a couple at all, but models, actors. It wasn't real. I don't know if that aided in a sudden melancholy I felt. 30 minutes had passed since the brothers dropped me off but my mind wandered back to Andre. I would probably never see him again but I wouldn't forget his eyes and his smile, his sweet little gestures through out that day. As if I had conjured him up right out of my thoughts, I looked up and I couldn't believe my eyes. Andre came back to the station. He grabbed my hand pulling me out of my seat and he kissed me in the middle of the station. A kiss that told me all the things he couldn't tell me in English, and there we were, completely happy, completely unaware of the strangers passing us by in each direction. A kiss I would never forget. Andre came back for me and was gone again just like that, leaving me with a smile and a memory of the most romantic moment of my life. (At the time it was)

Thank god he waited long enough for me to inhale that giant chocolate croissant because that's exactly what I did after they dropped me off. That would have ruined the moment a little bit had I looked up to see him standing there with my mouth completely full, chocolate smeared on my face and my fingers covered in greasy croissant flakes. But I got the perfect moment.

Paris to me will always be the two Brazilian friends I made and an unforgettable kiss.

CHAPTER 2: Missed Connections

My independent adventures were almost at an end... almost. My train from Paris to Rome ended up being delayed 2.5 hours. I had no way to contact my mom to tell her that I would be nearly 3 hours late to our meeting place in Rome. Shit.

My mom was arriving at the airport around 7am, I was supposed to meet her around 10:30am at Ciao Cafe in Terminal 3 at the airport. I kept thinking to myself, "please Mom, just wait at our meeting point, please just wait at our meeting point, don't get bored after 30 minutes and try to surprise me and meet me at the train station."

Welp, I know her too well and that's exactly what she did. My mom went to the train station and I went straight to the airport. I arrived and she wasn't there. Shit. 

I knew we had to get on the boat at either 5 or 6pm? I knew the port was near Rome? So I waited for her and waited... and waited. Several times I unknowingly spent a small fortune to use the airport's bubble space phones to try to reach her cell phone, each time sending me straight to her voicemail. I'm pretty sure after the third try I was leaving some interesting voice messages for her to get come 2 weeks later. I couldn't imagine she would just go to the boat without me. She would at least leave me an email or some sort of message to let me know. So I continued to spend a small fortune to use the airport's internet to check my email.

It wasn't until several hours later I found a message in my inbox from her, "Megan, had accident meet at boat." Not even a complete sentence. Not even words that made much sense. Now I could begin to panic about two things, was my mom in some accident? And where the hell is the boat? Because I don't know!!! I pulled up the Norwegian Cruise Line website (again, using the outrageously expensive airport internet) and quickly found out the port was in Civitavecchia nearly an hour away from where I was! Shit. shit. shit.

There were no more trains at that point. My only option was to take a private taxi. Time was not on my side so I quickly agreed to pay the painful fee of $190 to get me to the boat. There should have been just enough time to make it there by 5pm, which was when my gut told me the boat was leaving.
The taxi driver eased my worries when he told me there was no rush, the boats all finish boarding passengers at 6pm and he knows because he delivers people to the cruise lines daily. So instead of rushing just a bit to make it before 5pm he took his leisurely time arriving me there at 5:05 pm. 5 minutes late. Because the boat did not finish boarding people at 6pm. They finished at 5pm. Though the boat was still there before my very eyes, they had already taken down the footbridge and it was too late for me to board.

I missed the boat. After that initial shock sank in my eyes began to sting with tears. My mom was on that boat! What was I going to do?

Just as panicked thoughts began to plague me a car drove up beside me and a man yelled out, "Are you Megan?"
I nodded.
"You look just like your mother crying like that too." He said.
My anger instantly dissipated knowing that my mom must be a mess too. No Mom, don't be sad! Even though from my perspective at the time my missing the boat was mostly her fault.
"Where is she?" I demanded.
"Don't worry, she's not on the boat. She got off and went back to the airport to find you about 3 minutes ago."
Are You F***ing Serious? was my unpleasant thought. We missed each other yet again, with still no way to contact each other.
An hour later (and $75 more down the drain) I had returned to the airport and there she was walking right through the terminal. I guess you could say we were "lucky" to have found each other so easily when I returned to the airport for the second time. It was apparent we had each suffered an absurdly stressful day but we just started laughing and hugging each other like we hadn't seen each other in 6 months because we hadn't seen each other in 6 months. It was only a sweet reunion.

Oh and the accident my mother was in is even more absurd than the rest of our missed connections. My mom had found out my train was coming in late so yes, she took it upon herself to surprise meet me at the station. And she made it in plenty of time. She had so much time to spare that she decided to check her bags for a while. My sweet mom had brought an entire extra suitcase just to bring me care package goodies and old clothes I wanted but didn't need. She also crammed in a giant pair of rubber rainboots that my roommate had ordered making this extra suitcase quite an ordeal to lug around. 

When she saw that my train was coming in she went to get the luggage. While riding the escalator back down to my platform the suitcase she brought for me tipped over. It tumbled down the escalator hitting a poor woman and knocking her down at the bottom. Another woman fell on top of the first woman and then my mom fell on top of her until the entire escalator full of people piled up on top of each other, suitcases and all. The observant civilians at the top had to jump over the side of the escalator throwing their luggage overboard before they as well became victims of this backwards domino effect of human bodies.  

Sadly, the woman at the very bottom broke her arm and several victims of the pile up were forced to talk to the Italian police to give a report, my mom being one of them. This incident kept my mom unreachable for hours, which explains why we missed each other. She begged the officers to page me but that request went unfulfilled and I went on straight to the airport oblivious that my mom was only feet away from me. My mom had also lost her phone at some point on this awful day so my expensive phone calls to her were futile.

When she was finally released she went straight to the boat because there was no time to go back to the airport. She thought I would know to go straight to the boat as well when time began to run out. Had I known where the boat was, how to get there and when the boarding time ended perhaps I would have given up waiting for my mom and headed there... but probably not. I could not have foreseen that she would have been held up somewhere other than the airport unable to contact me. Later I discovered that my airport internet and phone charges totaled about $160. Add in the outrageous taxi fare and there goes my plane ticket to India.


Friday, December 28, 2012

Big Jump

These past two months have been quite a whirlwind of change for me. I should start this entry by first announcing the most important decision I have made since I chose to join the Peace Corps.

I left.

I could go into every little detail that led me to my ultimate decision of leaving the Peace Corps after spending 13 months as a volunteer but then this entry would turn into a boring, negative, diary-like form of venting. Instead I am choosing to talk about what I've gained from this experience. Even the challenges have been an indispensable part of my journey. I am leaving a better, stronger, and more motivated and compassionate person than I was one year ago. And I am so incredibly grateful for that.

I will love this country forever. I will never forget the people here who I've come to love and who have touched my soul. I will never forget the joyful smiles on my students' faces. I will never forget the moment I began to understand and find true beauty in Islam. I will never forget the immeasurable kindness I have been treated with by the Jordanian people and others I've met from Iraq, Syria, and Egypt.

I have struggled and faced so many obstacles, I have laughed and cried, I have doubted myself and all the things I thought I knew about who I am. All of which have shaped me profoundly and I hope I will never let go of the remarkable changes that have occurred within my heart.

I was afraid that I would regret my decision because I was giving up. But I realized I wasn't giving up. I gave of myself, I took a chance, I contributed, but my time in the village was at its end. I couldn't justify staying there when there was nothing more I could do. Staying just to gain the recognition of completing the Peace Corps was not an acceptable excuse. What would that really do for me? I would spend a full year of my life doing something that would eventually make me unhappy and bitter towards a beautiful experience I've had.

It may come as a surprise that even though I left the Peace Corps I did not leave Jordan. I had my reasons for quitting the PC but I was not yet ready to leave this beautiful country.

In the end I will always follow my heart and this is where it's led me. I took a major leap of faith. I quit the PC and moved to Amman without guarantee of work, with complete chance of failure and it was one of the most exciting things I've ever done. Immediately I found a job teaching dance at a studio.

I've been living independently in Amman now for a little over a month. I love where I am living, I love my roommates, I love that I can dance again, I love speaking in arabic. I am happy here. For how long I wish to stay, I don't know. I just need to leave Jordan on my own terms and not be rushed out and practically deported with in 48 hours of my resignation like Peace Corps staff would have it. I still go back to my village to visit and I'm welcomed warmly. Volunteering will always be important to me and I'm looking forward to the next volunteer mission I can find and where it will lead me.

Since I left the PC I've been able to travel and do and see so many things in Jordan I never had the permission or time to do while being a volunteer. It feels absolutely amazing to be in control of my own life again. Another blog post to come about  my incredible adventures in Petra, Wadi Rum, Jerusalem, Bethleham and Tel Aviv.

I also got my first visitor! My friend Jana from college stopped over in Jordan while on her very own backpacking adventure. I couldn't have had a better travel buddy. 

Some pictures from this past month:

 Operation Smile Mission in Amman

This sweet little girl wanted her nails painted after she came out of surgery.

                                                                  Exploring Petra

Petra By Night

                                                                       Wadi Rum

            Road trip to the Desert Castles in the East

My little host brothers trying to give me a massage. (aka get me into a good tickling position)


The spot where baby Jesus was claimed to have been born in Bethlehem (before this church was built around it of course)


And more MANSAF!!

Monday, October 1, 2012

My Jordanian Family

I just spent a wonderful weekend visiting my Host Family in Mansheiya, a village near Mafraq city. It was very refreshing and exactly what I needed. My first 10 weeks in Jordan were spent living with this wonderful family. I try to visit as often as I can because they truly are my family here in Jordan. I now live alone in a village in the Irbid region and though I feel integrated and welcomed here, I don't feel a sense of family or closeness with anyone in my village like I did when I lived in Mansheiya.

My host family is made up of Ibrahiem, age 37 and Yasmeen, age 30 and their four sons; Belal, Derar, Mohammad and Obada. That is only mentioning the immediate family. In Jordan it is typical for the sons to live very close to their parents after they marry. Many sons will even build on top of their parent's homes to move upstairs with their new wife. That explains why Ibrahiem's many brothers live downstairs and on either side of him with their large families. One day Ibrahiem's sons will grow up, marry and probably build on top of their house or around it to stay near the family. The family dynamics here are like nothing I could have imagined before I was immersed into the biggest family I have ever known. Even Ibrahiem's sisters live close by with their husbands since everyone in the village is from the same tribe, carrying the same name and basically all related in some fashion.

All of the women in the family (Ibrahiem's sisters and the wives of his brothers) spend their time together chatting, drinking tea and cooking. What was once overwhelming for me to sit in a small room with 10-15 women is now very normal. And I can't forget all of these women's children who are constantly running in and out of the house. It is not unusual to count over 30 people in one room on any given day; all of the children playing and all of the women sitting on farshas, which are floor cushions that line the walls of the visiting rooms. I'm a pro at remembering names after having to learn the names of the entire Stayfat tribe in only a few days. Luckily the majority of the boys are either named Mohammad or Ahmad.

Every single person I have met in this absurdly large family has been so warm, welcoming and kind to me. Not a minute has passed that I have not felt like I'm a member of their family. They hassle me to come and visit them every single weekend as it is normal for a family member who lives and works away from the home to return every weekend.

On Friday I spent hours in the kitchen with Yasmeen learning how to make Mansaf, the national dish of Jordan and the most delicious thing I've ever had. Now I can check that off my Jordan bucket list. Mansaf is a rice dish with a salty yogurt sauce, sprinkled with toasted almonds and cilantro and served with chicken or lamb. Meals are eaten on the floor with the main dish on one large platter that everyone eats from. Drinks are always served after the meal, which I'm still not quite used to. I don't know how they don't feel thirsty while they're eating.

It is a great honor in Jordan to feed your guest so well that they gain weight so I shouldn't have been surprised that my host family weighed me when I first moved in with them and weighed me again before I left to make sure they did their job, which they did very well indeed! It is also normal to tell someone they look fat or skinny, no judgement or cruelty intended. I have heard many times that I am looking rather fat, usually accompanied with an approving look. This weekend my host family seemed very unhappy that I looked too skinny. I was forced to eat dinner twice. 

Over the weekend I also met all of Yasmeen's family. My host mother Yasmeen is from Syria and recently her entire family escaped from Syria and moved to Mansheiya with the help of Ibrahiem and his family. Her parents, her Uncles and Aunts, her cousins, her brother and 6 sister's along with their spouses and children all fled Syria to take refuge in Jordan. This large family left everything behind and they are now living in a cramped, bare house with few belongings. I could see the sadness in their eyes when they mentioned Syria but they only expressed their gratitude to God and the people in Mansheiya for delivering them to safety. I can't imagine the hardships they're experiencing but I am grateful they are with Yasmeen in Mansheiya and not trapped in the refugee camps like so many other Syrians or even worse, still trapped in Syria.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

me, my blog, why peace corps?

Nearly a year ago I embarked on a grand adventure to the beautiful country of Jordan. A small country located north of Saudi Arabia, south of Syria and sandwiched between Israel and Iraq. With extremely limited knowledge about Jordan and its culture I decided to make a 2 year commitment to live and work there as a Peace Corps volunteer in about the same amount of time it takes me to pick out a brand of shampoo. Why did I decide to move to Jordan? I still have not found a definite answer to that question. Since I have moved here I have been challenged in more ways than I can even begin to describe to myself. I have also just begun to realize the profound changes this experience has ignited in me.

I intended to blog about my life in Jordan from the moment I arrived, but nearly a year later and I am now posting my very first blog entry. I think I refrained from this because until recently my life could be described as a whirlwind of inconsistent happiness, loneliness, excitement, and several other competing emotions that made me constantly ask myself, "what am I doing here?" The past 3 months of my service have been truly extraordinary and all the pieces seem to finally be falling into place. I am now more than ready and eager to share my stories and experiences with my loved ones and anyone else who dares to explore the unknown world and may learn something from my words.

I can easily say that the idea of joining the Peace Corps took root in me when I traveled to Thailand at the age of 19. A short volunteer project, which involved planting trees (lots and lots of them) and working with rescued elephants gave my life more meaning than I had ever experienced before. For the first time I actually believed that I could make a positive difference in the world, as small as it may be. Other changes also took root in me on that trip to Thailand; I went from nearly crying when I saw a tiny spider to shooing away a spider the size of my head (or killing one if it came to that), I went from fearing heights to being the first to sign up for bungy jumping in the middle of the Thai jungle. I learned so much about a culture I once knew nothing about and I wanted to know more about the world, I wanted to experience more; it became a craving that never went away. I began to challenge my own belief that a happy life was supposed to go: college, job, marriage, kids. Leaving Thailand and returning to my far too systematic and sometimes materialistic life was extremely hard for me. But I made the most important decision I could; I decided to stop fearing the world and be in it.

The title of my blog is inspired by the quote, "The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page" by Augustine of Hippo or St. Augustine. I read these words a long time ago and thought what a perfect analogy this is and how completely true. My entire life I had lived in a little bubble so utterly unaware of all that the world possesses until I began to travel. Just before I returned to Jordan from a visit back home in Oregon a very close friend of mine gave me a journal. Throughout this journal she wrote quotes about traveling and quotes that reminded her of me on the tops of the pages. I flipped to one page and found this very quote once again. The words resonated with me and I began to visualize this book. I mentally filled in the pages with my most cherished memories and most moving experiences from my travels and then I began to fill more pages with images of India and Egypt, of Hungary and Cambodia, of places I long to see. Joyously, I thought to myself, I intend to read as many pages of this World as I can.