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Windsbird: Footprints around the world

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Jordan, 2013

As-Salt: ‘What’s your name?’

On the streets of the town of As-Salt, I come cross little children playing.

‘What’s your name?’ I ask.
‘Wat sure nem?’ says one of the boys.

‘Me, Su-Min. You?’ I try again, this time with hand gestures.
‘Mee soomin. Yoo?’ he repeats after me.

I laugh, and he laughs after me.

I turn to the back page of my travel book and carefully read out ‘shoo es mak?’, to which he replies ‘Mohammed’. ‘Shoo es mak? Shoo es mak?’ I ask this to all the children who have now gathered around me.

Unfortunately, my glee and pride at this conversational breakthrough doesn’t last long when Mohammed carries on asking me questions in Arabic, to all of which I have to read out ‘maa fa he met (I don’t understand)’.

DAY 4: Saturday, 21 Sept 2013. As-Salt

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Hashemiyeh Street in Amman

“I give you five camels for marriage!’, jokes Abu Josef in Arabic which is swiftly translated by Uncle Sam.

Abu Josef owns a street stall selling antiques on  Hashemiyeh Street. While the majority of the shops on this street offer commercially manufactured souvenirs arranged in its categories, Abu Josef’s stall is cluttered with everything old everywhere. Plates, old cameras and pouches on the table; necklaces and beads hanging from the top; copper tea pots and cups laying on the ground.

I bought a defunct Iraqi dinar note with Saddam Hussein printed on it, got invited to have tea by Uncle Sam, so here I am sitting by Hashemiyeh Street listening to Abu Josef talk on and on.

“Five camels! No, no, ten camels for you!”

It’s been only five minutes since the unpleasant touch-ups at the fruit souq, but I’m already feeling light-hearted at this characterful old man. He is a small, thin man with a tight voice, and is quick to raise his voice  whenever Uncle Sam stumbles at his translations. Uncle Sam, in comparison, is a well built middle aged man with a soothing gentle voice. He has a calming presence and seems like a deep thoughtful person, so different from Abu Josef who chatters on with all sorts of flirtatious comments.

“If you give me five camels, I give you five babies! If ten camels, it’s ten babies!” At my banter Abu Josef comes back with, “A Jordanian/Korean baby will be beautiful! Korean eyes and Arab moustache! Arab moustache and Korean eyes! So beautiful!”

Just imagine that – a baby with tiny slit eyes with thick Arab moustache. God forbid.

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DAY 3: Friday, 20 Sept 2013. Hashemiyeh Street, Amman.

Fruit Market in Amman: “She thinks I want to f*** her”

I’ve been in Amman for three days already but haven’t been any parts of the capital city yet. So after a quick simple dinner (spicy pasta, 3JD) I set off exploring the Friday nightscape of Amman. The streets are filled with the excitement of a weekend night, and endless rows of cars and taxis honk in a steady rhythm in celebration.

Feeling I’ve been lacking in the intake of Vitamin C, I head for the fruit market, hoping to buy a bag full of fruits to snack on during my 4 hour long bus trip to Aqaba tomorrow. I stop by each stalls, but all the vendors refuse take payment from me, preferring to give me samples of each fruit instead – pear, lime, fig, honeyed date.. They are either too sweet, too sour, or too bland for my taste but I dutifully finish them all.  Before I know it, I am sitting on a barrel that one of the vendors have offered me, this time a quarter of pomegranate in my hand. The vendor who has invited me to sit next to him is an old man, and I feel like a girl receiving treats from her granddad every time he peels a different kind of fruit and places them in my hand.

It seems a young man with stubbles is the only one who can speak English, and he tells me anecdotes about each vendors – and he likes to use f word often.

“That guy over there, he used to have a Filipino wife. He likes to f*** Philippine girls” “F*** America. It’s a bad country. Syria is f***ing America, North Korea is f***ing America. It’s good”

He wants to take a picture with me, and as he sits next to me and pose at the camera, he puts his arm around my neck. His hand ‘happens’ to be placed over my chest, and he even dares to slightly cup his hand.  I stand up making some excuse about having to go back, and the old vendor puts his arm behind me as if to guide my way out protectively, but his hand is on my ass.

The young man offers to walk me back to the hostel and I say ‘it’s okay’, and he announces to everyone, ‘she doesn’t want me to come with her because she thinks I want to f*** her!’, as if telling a great joke. Everyone cheerily laughs and I laugh along with them, but I’m actually in a sour mood. I walk away with an unfinished pomegranate in my hand, with my back turned towards the old vendor who has cheekily asked if I could give him a kiss goodbye on his lips.

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‘Where are you from?’ – It’s how all the conversations begin here in Jordan. Usually followed up with something like, ‘Ah! Korea! Korea good! Samsung good!’ or ‘Are you married? Have a boyfriend?’. It’s a question of which the content of the answer has no significance at all. I might as well be a Venezuelan or a Congolese and the conversation would still have gone in the same direction –  apart from today.

I walk through the Colonnaded Street to come out of the ruins of Jerash with mixed emotions. Flustered, angry, guilty, upset and very hungry. Not having the energy to browse for the shops that offers the cheapest lunch, I walk into a spacious restaurant I see in front of me. Let them rip me off if they will.  When order a sandwich to take away (priced at 3 JD, which is roughly about £3), and the man who took my order asks me the question. ‘Ah!’ A light sparks in his eyes and says something hurriedly to a boy next to him. The boy runs off somewhere and soon comes back with a young Jordanian man.a

‘안녕하세요, 저는 한국말 공부합니다 (Hello, I am studying Korean)’, slowly but flawlessly he speaks to me.  A big smile floods my face and I become animated, bombarding him with questions after questions. Where does he learn Korean? Why? How long?

The restaurant is a family run business and he was one of the owner’s nephew, and I am suddenly treated like their family friend.

‘Come inside! Come! Come!’ I am ushered into a room inside the restaurant, and takes only 1 JD for the sandwich I ordered. I tell him I want to buy a bottle of water, and he gives it to me for free. Another man in the restaurant gives me a CD that has photos of key sites in Jordan as a present and a bottle of coke is on the house.

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‘How can I get to Ajloun and Mar Elias?’ It is Friday so I have to rule out public transport. The man at the restaurant makes a couple of calls, asks around people around him and eventually leads me to a table at the back of the restaurant an Asian man and his Jordanian driver are having lunch. ‘They are going back to Amman today so maybe you guys could travel together and share the costs’.

This is how I met Masato, a very easy going, mischievous Japanese man who also happen to speak Korean fluently. We are soon listing Korean/Japanese music bands and TV programmes we both know, and bam! We’re now friends travelling together. He was happy to visit  the Ajloun castle and even come along to the Mar Elias, which is a site visited by Christians and Muslims.

We fill the rest of the afternoon being typical Asians – clicking away with our DSLRs, triumphantly holding out our ‘V’s with our fingers at each photos, and of course, singing PSY’s Gangnam Style in the car.

DAY 3: Jerash/Ajloun/Mar Elias, Friday 20 Sept 2013

Jerash: Not so Arabic style

Today’s plan:  Jerash and Elijah’s birth place in Ajloun (Mar Elias).

Transport is scarce on Fridays in Jordan so the North bus station was unusually empty. I sat on a bench with Susanne, a Dutch girl staying on the roof of the hostel, and simply waited. Not knowing when the next bus would arrive, we just sat, reading our books. It didn’t matter what time it was, or how long we were there for.  Falling in to the natural rhythm of time as it flows without keeping track of it’s rigid unit of 30 minutes is a bliss of travelling. Time stops tick tocking  and I find rest in it’s silence.

On the bus to Jerash, our conversation turns to feminist issues: How does it feel like to be covered up in public spaces? Does our freedom to reveal however much we want in the West cause sexualisation of women to be more overt?

The proportion of women walking around on the streets of Jordan is visibly much lower than the number of men, and the amount of attention we draw as foreign women made me very conscious of my identity as a female and the dynamics between different sexes. Women may have a quieter role in the society here, but men in return seems to assume more of a protective and responsible role than the men in the West. It made me rethink about my ignorant tendency to equate such cultures with gender inequality that needs transforming.

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Jerash is one of the Middle East’s best examples of a Roman provincial city, comprising a collection of triumphal arches, amphitheatres, a hippodrome and temples. Susanne decides not to go in so I enter by myself. It is so much bigger than I expected, and I find it a chore dipping my head into my travel book to read about each ruins when I would rather spend my time taking in the ancient view. ‘I would love an audio guide’, I think to myself. Then, as if by magic, a young boy approaches me and asks, ‘Do you need a guide?’. He seems very young and there’s no way of telling whether he’s a real guide or not. In his Arabic accent he carries on talking. ‘Moving columns, goats, lions, empty stones – I tell you all about. You know moving columns? I tell you all’. Moving columns? Goats? I can’t make out what he’s trying to say from what seems to be a random collection of words, and his thick Arabic accent adds to my suspicion that it’s a scam.

I say ‘no thank you’ but he still takes me to a nearby ruin anyway. ‘Here, the view is really good’, and he climbs up the stairs inside a small, insignificant tower nearby. The view IS really amazing and at this I decide to put a little faith in him.

The boy really knew his stuff. He shows me how the columns were designed to move a little, and the stones on the buildings are hollow so that they would make a sound when they clash into each other – so that one would know when there was an earthquake and the buildings are less likely to collapse.  He shows me where people used to sacrifice animals and a stone with knife marks on them and  and where all the meat used to be stored.

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He knew all the people working in Jerash, so we stopped by a vendor and chatted a little. I bought two silver bracelets for 10 JD, which the vendor told me were from Jerash (I later found Chinese letters engraved on the bracelet, and they were being sold in Petra for 3 JD). Mohammed, my guide, picked up a green bead necklace from the stall, said something to the vendor in Arabic and gave it to me saying it was a gift. He told me the stones were also from Jerash, and then took me to a nearby stone all covered with brown sand. When he splashed some water on it, the stone revealed its true colour of deep green, the same colour as the necklace. As we were about to leave, Mohammed picked up another jewel from the stall and said, ‘it’s my gift to you’.  I found it a little uncomfortable to accept another gift from a stall that isn’t even Mohammed’s so I discretely put it back where it was. The vendor saw this and told me to take it.

To say thank you, I handed Mohammed a lemon sherbert I had bought in England to give to people Jordan but he refused.  When I asked why he said it would make him want water all the time. So put it in my mouth instead for some energy perk up (I had no lunch and was starving), but soon spat it out. It was as if the sweet sucked all the moisture in my mouth and I couldn’t stand the thirst it created. It dawned on me why many had declined the sweets when I had offered it to them.

It was a windy day, and wearing a flared skirt was not a good idea at all, as the moment of misfortune finally came with a gust of wind and.. well, you can imagine what it did to my skirt.  More unfortunate was that Mohammed happened to be at the bottom of the stairs looking up at me, just at that moment.

‘This is the end of the tour’, he says when we are at the Temple of Artemis. ‘Can I have a kiss?’ You can have your money back’.  Just a few minutes ago he wanted me to pay him much more than what we had agreed on (and I did end up paying him much more as I felt he was that good), and now we wants a kiss instead. First he asks for a kiss on the lips, and asks to kiss me on my arms and my legs. At my constant refusal he changes his tact. ‘Ok, we just say goodbye in Arabic style’.  I naively believe he’ll let it go after a kiss on my cheek, but no, it’s my neck he goes after.

‘That’s not Arabic style!’ I still have my smiles on, hoping to be polite.

‘Ok, we’ll just take pictures together then’. He gets his phone out and sits on one of the stones. He purposely leaves a little space next to him and gestures to me to sit on his lap. I make him move over.

‘Why can’t I kiss your legs?’ ‘Can I kiss your arms?’ He asks again and I finally snap at this never ending insistence. I get up and announce, ‘I’m leaving now’.

He follows after me, his eyes desperate and even looks a little hurt by my sudden rush of anger and determined refusal.

‘I’m so sorry. I’m too hot for a girl.’ He takes out the money I had given him and tries to give them back to me.

‘No, don’t do that’

‘Just one kiss, please’.

I’ve just had enough. Without replying, I just walk off. He follows.

‘Give me high five’, he says. ‘No!’ My voice is high with irritation. ‘Just a high five’. He puts his palm out to me. Awkwardly I high five him and we both walk off in separate directions.

I hate leaving on bad terms with people, even if it’s with someone I will never see again. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only person I ended up storming off from during my travels in Jordan. 

 

DAY 3: Friday, 20 Sep 2013

 

More pictures of Jerash: http://www.flickr.com/photos/104035608@N03/

Rounding off Day 2: Handful of yellow beans, a rejected shwarma and the self conscious white pudding.

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It is nearly 6 pm when I come back to Madaba after visiting Bethany Beyond Jordan. A young man from the Peace souvenir shop had offered to take me back to Amman in his car when I was having lunch there earlier on, but I ask the taxi driver to drive me to the bus station directly. I’m not sure whether his invitation was out of friendliness or hoping for something more, but either way I didn’t want to get into a car with someone I have known for 30 minutes.

The sun sets as the bus makes its way from Madaba to Amman’s North Bus station. In my fatigue, everything seems to be slowly moving through an invisible jelly – the bus, the traffic, people getting on the bus….. Half awake, half dozing off, I watch the sky turn from grey blue to jet black, and how city lights grow brighter and busier as we approach Amman.

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Madaba bus station

It’s late in the evening, so the North Bus station is empty when we finally arrive. When I am about to call a taxi to take me back to the hostel, four or five men surround me. ‘Where are you going? No taxi, no taxi. Bus. Free. Come! Bus!’ They put me back in the bus I just got off.

As the bus drives away, the men ask me a few questions in broken English, give me a handful of sour tasting yellow beans (I think) to eat, and just as quickly as I was whisked onto the bus at the station, they drop me off in the middle of a busy roundabout and drive off. I have no idea where I am.

Assuming they dropped me off somewhere closer to the Amman downtown, I get a taxi from there. The driver is an old man, who finds it very amusing that I am travelling by myself without a male company. ‘Do you want to eat dinner with me? I pay for you. You like shwarma?’ On and on he keeps asking.

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Bus to Amman

 

After quick dinner at my hostel, I take a walk to the street food shop that the Crazy Girl recommended. The small square shop is tiled everywhere, and has nothing in it apart from a stainless steel table, giving it a very cold clinical look under the bright fluorescent light.  It is outside the shop that they have set up a counter to sell two things: white drink and white pudding. A kid at the counter scoop up a big ladle of the white stuff into a glass bowl, sprinkle some honey and dessicated coconut on top and hands it to me. I wanted it in a paper cup to take back to hostel, but now I’m stuck with this on the busiest street in Amman with nowhere to sit.  So I just stand there and eat.

A group of teenagers stop by the shop and order a couple of bowls as well. They stand a few steps away from me and stare at me with curiosity peppered with occasional giggles. People in the car peer out the window and some even honk their horn. Another group of men appear and keeps calling out ‘Hey, China!’.  None of the stares are nothing close to an unpleasant leer – just pure curiosity.  Nonetheless I become intensely self conscious and the T-shirt and over-the-knee skirt I am wearing feels way too skimpy. Forget savouring the exotic Jordanian street food. I gulp down the whole lot and rush back to the familiarity of my hostel.

 

DAY 2: Thursday, 19 Sept 2013

Bethany Beyond Jordan

View of the promised land seen from Mt. Nebo

We had to drive up and down a small mountain to get to Bethany-Beyond-Jordan from Mt. Nebo. It was all desert, without much to see but rocks, sand, and more rocks. I never knew barren land could be so beautiful, and the experience was made much more surreal when the taxi driver played PSY’s Gangnam style from his MP3 Player. What a strange juxtaposition.

We got to the Bethany-Beyond-Jordan, only to find it closed 7 minutes ago.  Apparently you would have to take a shuttle bus for 10 minutes from the ticket office, and need a guide accompanying you in the site. Unfortunately all the drivers have now gone home – the ticket officer tells me.

The taxi driver steps in and has a slightly heated conversation with the ticket officer in Arabic. The only words I can understand is ‘Korea! Korea!’. I guess he’s telling him that I’m all the way from Korea. I actually live in the UK but keep my mouth shut.

Finally the ticket officer gives in and makes a phone call to make a special arrangement with the security soldiers to let our taxi into the site (security is tight near the Bethany Beyond Jordan because it is right next to the border with Israel), and a tall man comes with us to show me around the site.  I smile and thank him for his time, but he just walks past me without making any eye contact. At  that time I thought he was angry at me for the trouble I caused, but now I think he was being a little shy.

I was expecting the site to be a small shrine near the River Jordan, taking about 10 minutes to have a look. It turns it is quite a trek, following a little foot path amidst dried up trees and grass. The guide doesn’t speak much English so our conversations were made up of short simple words. ‘Church, Catholic’. He points to one church. ‘Church, Orthodox’. He points to another church.

The site has a number of significant places such as Tell Elias (where Elijah is said to have ascended to heaven) and a hermit cave, but they all seem to be closed and I couldn’t ask him to take me to those places, as I was feeling already too bad for taking up his time.  The actual baptism site is also made up of several ruins, and my Lonely Planet book wasn’t very clear which ruin was which. It was slightly disappointing that I only get a brief glimpse of the place that holds such a personal significance, but at the same time I was grateful that I got to have a look at the site at all.

The guide teaches me a few Arabic words, and that’s what we keep on saying throughout our 45 minute walk around the site.

‘Yallah (Come)’. ‘Tamam! (Good!)’. ‘Shukran (Thank you)’.

After the tour, we get into our taxi to come back to where the information centre is. The taxi guide gets out the car with a brief goodbye, without even hinting for a tip. I hurriedly follow after him and shake his hand with a very sincere ‘Shukran’.

DAY 2: Thursday, 19 Sept 2013

Conversations in Madaba: “If I was much younger, I do you”

Today’s plan was rather an ambitious one, covering Madaba, Mt. Nebo and Bethany-Beyond-Jordan, all of which an hour’s distance away from each other. The public transport only operates between Amman and Madaba, so I was expecting to spend a hefty amount of my budget on taxis.

The first stop was Madaba, famous for it’s Byzantine mosaics. It felt a bit too small to be called a city, but still had the energy and vibrancy that I much preferred than the hectic Amman. The town of Madaba was once a Moabite border city, mentioned in the Bible in Numbers 21:30 and Joshua 13:9. It also has the largest Christian community in Jordan, and I could see many women walking on the streets without wearing a headscarf.

I decided to follow the walking tour of the town suggested in my Lonely Planet travel book which should last about  3 hours, which would give me plenty of time to visit other biblical sites near Madaba.

 

After making a brief stop to watch a sand bottle being made, I started walking along what is known as the Tourist Street, filled with souvenir shops for tourists. Every single shop I pass by, the shop keepers tried to lure me into their shops, all of which I politely refused and walked on…until I reached a spacious shop called ‘Peace’ which seemed to deal with more high-end products. A man came out and greeted me with a big friendly smile, and to my surprise, a couple of young men nearby greeted me in Korean! He invited me for Bedouin tea and I could not refuse it.

His name was Menwer, and he used to work at the airport in catering. The shop he was working now was owned by his nephew.

It must have been a low-season for Madaba at this time of the year, as there were hardly any tourists in the town, which meant I could ask him as many questions about Jordan as I liked without having to worry about me disrupting his business.

Menwer at the 'Peace' shop

Conversing with someone from different culture and language can be an amusing experience, with interesting metaphors and unusual figures of speech.

“Are you married?”, he asks me.

“No.”

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“No.”

“Oh! Why not marry?? If I was much, much younger, I do you!”

 

I ask him around what age Jordanian girls get married, and he answers that it’s around 20 to 23.

“It seems so young!” I say.

“Women are like apples. When they are young, when ripe, they are nice and delicious. When the time goes, not so good. You have to have them when they are good”, and he makes a ‘yuck’ face.

I scream at him jokingly and we both laugh, and do a high five.

 

Spending time with Menwer set me back against my schedule, so I hurried through my walking tour. All key sites were very small and not very time consuming, but I got lost a few times with my pretty much non-existent navigating skills.

There were many taxis on the main street of Madaba but I decided to go back to Menwer to arrange a taxi for me. I felt I could get a more trustworthy taxi fare if it was through him.  Next stop, Mt. Nebo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘The Crazy Girl’

IMG_1598The hostel I book is located on the first floor of a building, and as I reach the staircase a man out of nowhere appears and helps me up with the luggage. As he walks behind me, I keep glancing back, paranoid that he may run off with my bag – unbeknown to me that he would later become one of those people that I find the hardest to say goodbye to in Jordan.

My dorm has three beds and everything in it has a yellow tinge to it. The window is facing another hotel just about 6 meters opposite from my hostel, and a few men are sitting on the balcony looking into our room.

I’m glad to find another Asian girl in the dorm – a Chinese girl with a boyish haircut. I spend the whole evening with her and am slightly taken back by her VERY carefree attitude. When a few men try to talk to us on the high street, she gives them her middle finger. With a shop assistant she finds cute, she flirts with him outrageously and insists on seeing her outside his work hours, despite him saying no to it rather firmly. In the hotel lounge she sits with her feet up on the sofa and legs wide open. When a female staff whispers to her that it maybe better to sit in another position, she just doesn’t get why she should. Back in our dorm, she roams around our room just in a T-shirt and her knickers. It’s all fine between us girls, but the problem is, the window is still wide open and the men on the balcony are still looking in – with a lot more intensity, naturally.

‘Perhaps she isn’t so informed of the Muslim culture here’, I think to myself. Her eccentricity has earned her a nickname of ‘The Crazy Girl’ among the people at the hostel, and I continued to meet other travellers who had stories to tell of this girl in other parts of Jordan.

DAY 1: Wednesday, 18 Sept 2013

Amman

Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/104035608@N03/

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