June 8, 2014
And thus began my final day in the beautiful country of Jordan. It was probably one of my favorite days but it started out with a lot of frantic last minute packing and trying to shove everything I had bought into my suitcase before the bus left me behind. We headed north, up to the ancient city of Jerash. I had spent all night last night filling out postcards for my friends and family, but now I realized how stupid it was of me to wait until the last minute to try and mail them. I told Sam that I needed to mail them before we left the country, but he assured me we would come across a post office in Jerash.
I was really not expecting Jerash to be as cool as it was. I assumed it would be like the other sites: some nice ruins, a little museum, some cool artifacts. I was totally and completely wrong, and I was really glad of that. We entered through a large indoor market area with lots of vendors and craftsman– everyone was preparing themselves for the opportunity to spend the last of our dinars before they weren’t of any use anymore. Sam ushered us away from the salesmen and through the door, promising us we could spend as much money as we wanted once we were done.
The park was massive, not quite as big as Petra, but still huge. Jerash was conquered in 63 CE by the Romans who turned it into an amazing city with two theaters, two temples, a hippodrome, and countless other ancient Roman goodies. We entered through the ancient city through the huge city gate, and from there it was as if I stepped back in time. Everywhere I looked, I was in ancient Rome, with towering buildings and white stone statues. The giant gate made me feel like a tiny little ant going through it. Sam told us that the Romans intentionally made all of their buildings and structures as big as possible as if they were “fit for the gods”. Other kingdoms would see the size of the gate and know that the city was wealthy, had a huge labor force, and that their gods were very strong and powerful, and realize that attacking was not a good idea.
Not far from the gate was the hippodrome, which was where the chariot races would take place. Sam old us that most of the structures inside Roman cities were actually for entertainment. “Their motto was ‘bread and circus‘,” he explained, brandishing to the seating area. “Keep the people well-fed and entertained, and they will have no interest in politics.”
We passed then into the heart of the city, the forum. This was the public outdoor space mainly used as a marketplace but where all the central activity of the city happened.
From up on the hill we could hear music playing, drifting down from the theater space. Once we got up there we found a bunch of men dressed in some kind of period costume playing bagpipes and drums.
Random and definitely not ancient Roman, but cool, and with Sam’s help we all did the dance that we had learned from the Bedouins.
When we got tired of dancing we climbed up the steep stairs to the top of the seats. Even from up there the music was loud and clear as if we were still down on the floor with them. The trek up was not as treacherous, but going down I felt like if I made one wrong step I could end up flying straight down headfirst.
At the bottom, around the lip that separated the audience from the stage, little round nooks were carved into the rock. My professor sent me to one side of the theater and another girl to the opposite side, telling us to talk into the nooks. Amazingly, even though she was 15 feet away from me, I heard her voice as if she were talking into my ear.
From there we marched across an open grassy field populated with goats and herdsmen. “Sam, why are there goats here? Isn’t this a national park?” someone asked.
“Before the ancient site was discovered, this was just a field where goats herded. When they turned it into a park, they told the people they couldn’t have their goats here anymore, but soon the grass and the weeds got out of control and they didn’t want to pay anyone to maintain it. So they let the goats come back.” Among the herd were a few baby goats, and Sam snuck up on one before it could run away so we could pet it.
A little farther away were the ruins of some Byzantine churches with more beautiful floor mosaics.
Sam sat us all down in the entrance area with the grand columns. “You know why these columns are still standing up?” he asked. We shook our heads. He took out a pocket knife and stuck the blade in area where the square base of the column and the rounded part met. With a huge push he shoved his weight against the column. The pocket knife rocked steadily back and forth as the column absorbed his force and swung slowly. “There is a big rod in the center, so they are earthquake-proof,” he explained. It’s much of the same design that’s used in skyscrapers today.
We moved on to the second theater, which was considerably smaller than the first. Sam said it had been mostly used for meetings and presentations and not for big shows. He showed us on the stone benches where the names of different tribes had been carved to show where each group was supposed to sit during meetings. A few girls from our group went down to the stage and sang a little song so that we could hear the acoustics, since we didn’t have any bagpipe players here.
We walked along the streets that at one time had been roads for chariots, the huge white blocks starting to warp with time. There are still grooves in the street where the wheels of chariots rode in the same spot over and over again, wearing long lines into the road. In some parts of the road, like in front of the second temple, Sam said the bumps were intentional to let the people riding inside know they were passing by an important place. The area on the other side of the columns would have been covered and used as sidewalks for people who weren’t fancy enough to have a chariot.
My next favorite place was the agora, the marketplace. The little rounded courtyard was where people once came to buy groceries and other wares from vendors, like our marketplace back at the entrance.
Walking through all these places, I could imagine what life must have been like for these people. So much of their past still remains that it was hard not to picture people shopping in the market and walking down the street. It’s the little details that really complete the picture, like the small holes drilled into the sides of the columns in the butcher’s shop so that the meat could be displayed on spits.
Even though it might not be the most exciting thing to talk about at parties, the joy of stepping on the same stone block that thousands of ancient people walked on and roaming around a Roman city that still exuded so much life was one of my favorite experiences from the trip. It was like time travel, being able to physically step inside a preserved ancient temple and sit in the same theater where masked Roman plays were shown. It’s not something that’s easy to describe.
Just as suddenly as I had stepped back in time, I returned to the present as we entered our own little marketplace to finish shopping. There was a little post office for tourists to mail postcards, and I spent almost all of my remaining of my money buying stamps to send my letters home. With only a few dinars left, I eyed a long tunic-like shirt and asked the shopkeeper how much.
“You are so beautiful, you do not need to worry about the price. Pick out whichever one you want, I will give you whatever price you ask.” He was young with soft eyes, and we got to talking about where I was from and how I was on a study abroad trip. He told me he was also in university and was working at his uncle’s shop to make extra money on the side. “I make the bottles of sand for him. Would you like to see how I make them?” I said yes and we sat down on a small wooden bench as he poured different colors of sand into a bottle. With a small wooden rod he pushed the sand around and shaped it into the designs he wanted, forming an image of two camels walking across the desert with mountains in the background amidst a setting sun. “The top is sealed with a special glue, so the sand will stay in place.” I thought about buying one but Sam called us away before I had the chance. I thanked him and left.
We stopped for lunch at a restaurant where Sam told us we would be eating barbeque. Being from the Midwest, I have a very specific definition of barbeque– pulled pork, a rack of ribs, burnt ends. What we got was just different kinds of cooked meat, with no barbeque sauce in sight. Apparently “barbeque” in other places just means meat?
After lunch my professor wanted to visit the ancient site of Pella. It wasn’t as remarkable or impressive as Jerash, but it was the site of one of the earliest Christian churches. There were some nice ruins, a half-hidden floor mosaic, and some big rocks to climb around on.
We made a brief stop there just to look around before loading onto our bus for the last time and heading to the border. We were crossing at the Sheikh Hussein Bridge up in northern Jordan. “Now, when we go through the checkpoint they are going to ask us a lot of questions,” our professor warned us. “Do not give them any more information than what they ask you for. Keep your answers short. They’ll ask you if anyone in Jordan gave you anything to bring across the border, and you say no. They’ll ask you what you were doing in Jordan. Just say you are tourists.”
Back when we were in the US, our professor had passed out some of our required books for us to read on the airplane. One of them was a book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I am a Palestinian Christian by Mitiri Raheb. “Hide that book,” he told us. “Wrap it up in dirty laundry in case they search your suitcases.” My book was hidden between the folds of one of my dresses, buried deep in the bottom of my suitcase.
We passed through an area of high security and then stopped in front of a building. We unloaded all of our suitcases and bags and headed inside to have them checked and scanned by the Jordan Border Control. They barely even looked before waving us all on.
We got back onto the bus and drove a little bit further, then deboarded once more, this time taking nothing but our passports. We went inside another building and had them all stamped while Sam spoke rapidly with a person behind a different counter. They gave us all an exit visa in our passports and small perforated tickets. “Yala, yala! Hurry up, let’s go! I convinced the bus to wait for us otherwise you would have to wait for 30 minutes. Hurry!”
We scrambled to our bus and began unloading our bags. “Why can’t we just take our bus over the border?”
“I am not allowed to go,” Sam told us. We grabbed our suitcases and hurried to a different, bigger bus, filled with other people crossing into Israel. After hugging Sam goodbye, we took our seats and waited. The waiting lasted a very long time. An security person came through and checked every one of our passports very slowly, taking his time to compare our faces with the picture and then tear our tickets in half. We sat in the parking lot for about 15 minutes and then the bus slowly pulled away, heading toward the bridge. For some reason the air was tense and uncomfortable, even though we didn’t have any real reason to be nervous. “I heard that one year it took 5 hours for our group to get through customs,” someone said.
“Why? Did someone have a bomb?”
“Shhh! Don’t say that! Are you stupid?”
My last glimpse of Jordan was of a little street sign as we passed onto the bridge, telling us goodbye. We drove onto the bridge and then stopped. And waited. The waiting lasted about 25 minutes, as we sat silently, all hoping this would be a quick process. No one knew what was going on. Were they doing background checks on us? Searching our bags? Waiting to see if anyone looked too nervous? Finally the bus inched forward, and suddenly we were in Israel. We had driven a total of maybe one mile, but it had taken almost a half an hour.
The bus pulled in front of the Israel customs building. The first thing I saw was a woman, a security guard, standing in front of a fence. She was wearing blue shorts and a button down shirt with the top button undone, her hair pulled back in a simple ponytail. It was immediate relief that I didn’t know I had been missing. She was wearing casual clothing and wasn’t wary of anyone staring at her or ogling at her body. She wasn’t afraid to show her skin or leave her hair uncovered. She was just wearing shorts because it was hot outside and hadn’t given it a second thought. I felt as though the thick atmosphere suddenly evaporated, but I didn’t realized how much of an impact it had on my attitude until someone else mentioned how relaxed it seemed.
Once again we grabbed our suitcases and headed inside customs. A large sign above the building welcomed us into Israel. We got in line and waited some more. While we were standing there I pulled out my camera to take a picture, since I take pictures of literally everything we do. A security officer approached me. “Excuse me, I need you to delete that picture you just took,” he said, pointing to my camera. Uh oh, I thought, worried I was about to get in trouble. I quickly deleted the picture, and he walked away. I left my camera in my pocket for the rest of the ordeal.
We waited in line for another half an hour before it was our turn to go through. The person in our group who was first in line approached the security guard and handed over her passport. They had a rather long conversation before she waved her on and motioned for the next person. When I finally approached the table, she seemed tired of asking us all the same questions. “Are you with the study abroad group?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied, remembering to keep my answers short.
“What were you doing in Jordan?”
“Just seeing the sites. I’m a tourist,” I blurted out gracelessly. The woman grinned and I felt stupid.
“Did anyone in Jordan give you anything to take across the border?” I shook my head. She studied my passport and then asked me basic questions like my name and my birthday just to make sure I was the person I said I was. Satisfied and probably really bored, she moved on to the next person. I hauled my suitcase up onto the conveyer belt to send it through the machine and then emptied my pockets before going through the x-ray.
There were two men in front of me who must have been from Jordan, dressed in traditional attire with their heads covered. A security officer was tediously going through every single object in their bag, opening every pocket. She found a copy of the Koran and opened it, flipping through the pages and feeling along the spine, and then began unfolding all of their clothes. Crap, I thought, watching her shake out each one of their shirts. They are totally going to find our books.
They chose not to search my suitcase. I passed through without any problems. Once pretty much all of us were through we went up to the counter to get our passports stamped. The first person in line was not expecting it to be as difficult as it was. After asking her basic questions they asked her what she was going to be doing in Israel. She told them we were working for the antiquities department at an archeological dig, but the man had never heard of our dig site. He asked her where we were staying and she told him it was at a kibbutz, but she couldn’t remember the name. “Hakuk,” I cut in, coming to stand next to her. “It’s kibbutz Hakuk Balev.”
“Hakuk Balev? That does not make sense,” he said. His accent was very thick and I realized he must not speak English as well as some of the other people here, and that could be part of our problem.
“Just one second,” I said and started digging through my suitcase looking for our papers. We had gotten a voucher for the kibbutz when we signed up. I handed him the paper. He looked it, confused, and started going over it with another colleague. By this time our professor had joined in.
“We are staying at a kibbutz in northern Israel, Hakuk Balev,” he tried, but the man just keep getting more and more frustrated.
“But ‘hakuk balev’ is not a name, it is a… phrase,” he tried to articulate. Suddenly I understood. When I had been looking at the website for the kibbutz for some reason it had translated the name to “carved heart” or “engraved heart”. We were telling him over and over for some reason he couldn’t understand that we were staying at engraved heart.
Finally he was done dealing with us. “Okay, okay,” he said, shaking his head. “You are staying at Hakuk. That is good enough for me.”
The line began to move forward. “Oh no,” someone groaned. I turned around. Someone from our group had been stopped at the x-ray machine and they were going through her suitcase. “They found Molly’s book,” they said. The security officers did not look happy about the book, but they set it aside and continued searching her bag.
Finally, it was my turn to have my passport stamped. By this time someone else had come to help get us through security faster. I approached the woman and handed her my passport. “What is your name and birthday,” she demanded rather than asked. Her harsh and uncaring tone threw me off. I answered the questions quickly, knowing she was comparing them to my passport. She asked what I was doing in Israel, what I had been doing in Jordan, where I was staying and who I was with.
Then things started getting weird. “What is your father’s name, and your grandfather’s name on your father’s side?” I hesitated, wondering how on earth she could possibly know if I was telling the truth because that certainly wasn’t on my passport. I replied truthfully, but her hard set expression didn’t change. “Where was your father born? Where was your grandfather born?” With confusion in my voice, I answered “Um, the United States?” and she looked at me skeptically.
“What is your religion?”
“My… religion?” I stuttered, taken aback.
“Yes, what religion are you?”
“Uhh… I’m Catholic?” I responded, not sure what to say. Never before had I been asked my religion when dealing with government issues, nor had anyone ever cared. I wondered if that was going to be an issue somehow, or if they were going to keep it in a record and why they would need it. Maybe I should have lied and said I was Jewish? But without a second glance she practically threw my passport at me, and with her eyes on her computer in a deadpan voice she said, “Welcome to Israel.”
It was certainly not the welcome I was expecting. A bit stunned I picked up my passport and went back to my group. “Did they ask you what your religion was?” I inquired. Everyone else shook their heads and said no. I couldn’t figure out why she could possibly need that information. But I soon was distracted from those thoughts when they allowed Molly to pass through the next part of security and gave her book back to her. Once everyone had gotten visas, we grabbed our suitcases and left the customs building, after about an hour and a half of waiting.
There was another bus waiting for us, to take us to the kibbutz. Once again we loaded all our stuff on board and hit the road. As we entered the country, the difference between Israel and Jordan was immediately obvious. In Jordan where there had been vast endless deserts and dry, brittle grass, was replaced in Israel with trees, lush, fertile farmland, and beautiful green grass.
While Jordan was one of the most water-poor countries in the world, Israel had a lot of resources available to it and could afford to keep it’s country green. It was another welcome relief that I didn’t realize I had missed; familiar rolling green hills and sparkling lakes.
Around twilight we arrived at the kibbutz and checked in. Calling it quaint would be a bit generous, in my opinion. It had all the basic necessities we needed to get along for the next few weeks, but nothing more than that.
We had been staying in four star hotels while we were in Jordan, so the transition was a little bit more of a shock than I expected. I unpacked and then went up to the cafeteria to eat, where we met the director of the dig. He told us that tomorrow was orientation, and that we would be going to the dig site and then to a different kibbutz to look at some artifacts. By now, my excitement had worn off and I was pretty much just exhausted, but I had run out of clean clothes the day before and desperately needed to to laundry.
The laundry services at the kibbutz were only once a week, meaning if we wanted clean clothes while we were staying there we pretty much had to do them ourselves. Thus was my first experience with sink laundry, which really didn’t get my clothes very clean but did make them smell better, and I strung a laundry line up across the room to dry them before crawling into the hardest and most uncomfortable bed I had ever laid in and trying to get some sleep.