Saturday, May 15, 2010

On An Enriching Vacation With A Minor Deportation

I trudged down a desert highway with my two bags full of dirty clothes and quickly melting Israeli chocolate. I guess I shouldn’t have left my sunscreen behind. In the distance I saw what might be a bus stop, and I was on a mission to find Israeli bus 961. Only then could I get up north to Beit Shean in Galilee, and hopefully – hopefully - make it across the border back to the Jordanian side.

How did I get here?

I suppose we have to rewind 2 weeks.


For the first week of May I had been sent to Amman, Jordan for Fulrbight’s annual Enrichment Seminar for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. There were 2 conferences – one in Rabat (the capital of Morocco) and one in Amman (the capital of Jordan) to give researchers a broader understanding of the region we live in, and thereby enrich our research experiences. I was one of the lucky Moroccan researchers chosen to go to Amman. Naturally, I decided to further my enrichment by adding about 2 weeks to my stay and traveling around the region. Adventures ensue.

ADVENTURE IN AMMAN: Realizing Moroccan Specificity

We began with three days of conferencing – presenting research and listening to presentations, guest speakers, the US Ambassador to Jordan, discussion groups, eating lots of food and drinking lots of coffee. It became apparent pretty quickly that Morocco is somewhat of an outlying case in the region. Should North Africa really be lumped in with the Middle East? We’re not exactly Arab; our dialect Arabic is unintelligible to everyone else in the region; we don’t have the oil or the “holy history” of the rest of the region. Basically, we’re MENA oddballs.

On the other hand, what other region would we belong to? Europe? Certainly not. Africa? No.

MENA it is, then.


On the last day of the conference we took an excursion. First to Mount Nebo, from which Moses surveyed the Promised Land and where he was last seen. It looked like a barren desert to me, but I’m sure at one point it was flowing with milk and honey. Or maybe it was a simple matter of perspective...not quite as barren as the desert the Israelites had been wandering in for 40 years.

From Party in the Promised Land

Next was a trip to the Baptism Site. Of Jesus, that is, in Bethany Beyond the Jordan. But the Jordan River has now dried into more of a gently trickling creek, and is no longer connected to the pool in which Jesus is said to be baptized. But the site is preserved, with an ancient church, a plaque from King Hussein, and a tasteful mosaic commemorating the Pope's visit to the site.

From Party in the Promised Land

From Party in the Promised Land

We finished the excursion with a sunset swim at the Dead Sea, and suddenly all seemed right with the world.

From Party in the Promised Land

To top it all off, we were given toolish hats and tote bags that say “Fulbright” on them in English and Arabic. Sweet.

From Party in the Promised Land

ADVENTURE IN PETRA: Discovering a Lost City

For my next adventure I hopped on a bus with my dear friends and colleagues CAITLYN and SAM to the lost city of Petra for a couple days. It’s beyond me how an entire city can just get lost lost, but I now believe that Jordanian Bedouins are without a doubt the best secret keepers in the world.

It’s a city, probably built in the 6th century BC, carved (yes, carved) into the caverns and canyons of the natural rocky desert terrain. Somehow it was lost – that’s right, lost for hundreds of years before its “rediscovery” by a Swiss explorer in the early 19th century. Unbelievable.

It is by far the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen, and I’m not sure anything could possibly top it. Words do nothing for it, so I'll post a couple pictures here, and you can satiate your curiosity by clicking the link to my photo album, "Party in the Promised Land"

From Party in the Promised Land

On day 1 of Petra, Caitlyn and Sam and I hiked all around, seeing the main sites, herding goats, and climbing on things we probably shouldn't climb on.

From Party in the Promised Land

From Party in the Promised Land

From Party in the Promised Land

On day 2 of Petra I was having some knee problems, so I sent my friends on a hike and ended up spending the day hanging out with 8-12 year-old Bedouin boys. They got tired of trying to sell postcards to tourists and decided to talk to that weird white girl who speaks Arabic instead. Story of my life.

From Party in the Promised Land

ADVENTURE IN TEL AVIV: Beaches, Bars and Shopping Malls

At the conference I particularly bonded with the Fulbrighters from Israel. They were also oddballs, for obvious reasons. I decided that I could add to my enrichment by going to Israel and hanging out with them for several days. Why not? So I got on a bus and headed for the northern border crossing. My plan was to start up north, spend a day in Tel Aviv, then head on down to Jerusalem, then finaly back to Amman. Plans soon changed, as they tend to do in this part of the world.

I fell in love with Tel Aviv. I stayed with Morgan, one of the Fulbrighters, and had a blast with her. I’m not sure what impressed me most – The beach? Western coffee shops? Girls wearing skirts and tank tops? People jogging at night? Bars? Recycling bins? The mall? A religious obedience to traffic signals? It felt like a little slice of heaven in the Middle East.

Granted, this is all very superficial, and I can’t really overlook the problems I have with a religious state and the national and international political and sociological problems that go with it. But from a vacationer’s standpoint, superficial glory is ok.

I got sucked into Tel Aviv and ended up staying a little longer. But when it comes down to it, I can do whatever I want. I’m on vacation.

ADVENTURE IN JERUSALEM: Jungle Boogie in Jesusland

Eventually I made it down to Jerusalem, where I stayed with yet another Fulrighter named Amalia. I spent my first day there wandering around the old city: Dome of the Rock, Holy Sepulchre, Wailing Wall, etc. More incredible history under my feet.

One thing that has really struck me about this region is the acknowledgment of religious diversity. That’s not to say that the religions peacefully coexist (obviously) but there are churches and mosques and synagogues everywhere – in Israel and Jordan, at least. Coming from Morocco, where the existence of Christians isn’t even acknowledged, it was a shock to see churches and crosses everywhere I turned.

I came at an interesting time, as it was “Jerusalem Day” – an extremely controversial celebration of when Israel “took back” Jerusalem. But a party is a party, and a concert is a concert. I went with Amalia and her friends to a massive concert in a park. Much to my surprise, Kool and the Gang was playing. That’s right. Kool and the Gang. Jungle Boogie...Celebrate...Get Down On It...


The next day was another day of sight seeing in the old city. Crosses still amazed me. I couldn't stop photographing them.

From Party in the Promised Land


Finally the time came for my return to Jordan. I was going to spend my last several days just hanging out with JULIA, a friend from Wheaton who is currently living and studying in Amman. I had entered Israel from the northern border, and planned to return through the middle one. It’s almost a straight shot from Jerusalem to Amman, and would take only about an hour by car without the security and formalities of border crossing. But that, of course, would be too easy and would give me very little to blog about.

I exited Israel and boarded the bus to the other side to go through Jordanian security. I had been told that going into Israel was the hardest part, but going the other direction should be a breeze. Lies.

A Jordanian security official boarded the bus and promptly told me that I couldn’t enter Jordan from that crossing. He said that by entering Israel I canceled my Jordanian visa. I’d have to get a new one and re-enter the country from the same border I had come through – up north.

This meant that I would have to return to Israel, find my way to the northern border, get into Jordan, then find my way back southward to Amman. Lame.

He made me get off the bus and wait there, somewhere in the nothingness between Israel and Jordan. He had my passport. I just waited. Finally a bus full of Americans came by to take me back to the Israeli side, where I had to go through the Israeli security again. They gave me one of those dreaded security stickers that says I’m dangerous, probably because I’ve spent time in Muslim countries. The border police took me aside for a chat. It all turned out well enough, because I’m so sweet and kept my cool. We ended up chatting about my Amazon Kindle. I talked to them about the pros and cons of reading on an electronic book, and eventually they passed me through into Israel. Again.

Once back on the Israeli side I had to figure out how to get to the northern border. Of course all the taxi drivers knew I was stranded and wanted to charge me about 10 times more than I could afford to take me up north. I had to do some creative problem solving. I found out the bus number from some of the Israeli border police. The next step was getting to the bus, since it’s illegal to walk the 2km from the border to the highway. I’d get shot. I found a tour bus driver who took pity on me, and allowed me to hitch a ride to the highway. He dropped me off and I had to walk until I hit the bus station.


And now we’re back where we started. I’m sweating, burning, hauling luggage down a desert highway, with my eyes on the box in the distance that might, just might, turn into a bus stop for Bus 961 which would take me up to Beit Shean, a town 6km from the Jordanian border.

It was. Hamdulilah. Finally the bus came, and I boarded. It was already full of Israeli soldiers. All with guns. GUNS! On the public bus! It was about an hour and a half ride to Beit Shean, and one of the soldiers said he’d let me know when we got there. He probably got sick of me asking “where are we?” at every stop.

Finally in Beit Shean, I sat down in a restaurant for a sandwich and some water. I made friends with the girl who worked there, and she offered me a ride to the border. I geared myself up for Border Crossing: Round 2. This one went much better.

The Jordanian passport stamper remembered me from when I came through 5 days before. His friend had asked me to marry him. When I got up to the counter he said, “Megan! Megan who lives in Morocco! How was your trip?” I was shocked that he remembered me. I sent my regards to his friend, reaffirmed that I’m still not interested in his proposal, and walked out the door into Jordan...beautiful Jordan.

A British woman and I shared a Taxi back to Amman.


When I got back to Amman I met up with Julia. Since then we have been just...chilling. In cafes, at home, with her friends. It’s been a much needed wind-down before I make my return to Morocco. As much as I love these adventures, it’s real life that really fascinates me. Just living and functioning in Fez or Amman or Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Or Petra if you're a 10 year-old Bedouin.

I’m very much looking forward to going back to Fez tomorrow. But I can certainly say that in the past 2 weeks I have been successfully enriched.