A Letter Home from the IHP Human Rights: Foundations, Challenges, and Advocacy program:
Arrival in Jordan and Culture Shock
Jordan was a stark contrast to our past month in Nepal. The moment we stepped off the plane, we were confronted with a large and luxurious airport, bigger than any buildings we’d seen in Kathmandu. Driving into the city, we watched the sun set over the array of tan buildings, eerily similar to each other, one after the next. For some, it was a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of colorful Kathmandu. For others, it was shocking and to a point upsetting. The streets seemed barren and the diversity of gender appeared to be nonexistent. In addition, many of us missed our families in Nepal. After much debriefing, we were able to identify this as culture shock and in turn a vast acceptance of the next step in journey was recognized by all.
Fresh tomatoes! Fresh cucumbers! All kinds of salads, dips, and grilled meats (for the carnivores on our trip) galore! It was surely a welcome to finally eat fresh fruits and vegetables without worrying about what the consequences might be. One of our first meals in Jordan consisted of warm pita, hummus, pickled vegetables, fresh falafels, and many other plates of dips and salads, all meant to be shared. Sharing food in Jordan is deeply rooted in the culture: the national dish of Jordan is called mansaf, a simple meal of either lamb or chicken mounted on top of a heaping bed of rice, almonds, and parsley, served with a warm yogurt sauce. Everything is piled on top of a single serving plate and comes with eight spoons and a doggy bag to feed another eight people later on (okay, not always). Just from participating in these meals, we discovered that traditional meals in Jordan are much more than the just food on the table, but about the camaraderie, company, and appreciation of everything we have.
Speaking of which, the most important holiday in Islam, Eid al-Adha, was celebrated just days after we arrived in Jordan. Coincidentally, Eid fell around the same time as Nepal’s most anticipated holidays, Dasain—both of which involve sacrificing animals in honor of higher spiritual powers. Although some homestay families are Christian and did not celebrate Eid, many of our classmates were able to witness the slaughtering of goats, sheep, or chickens with their families. Traditionally, the animal is blessed, faced toward Mecca, sacrificed, and distributed in three parts: one-third each for the family, friends, and the poor. When we all learned of the similar holiday celebrated a mere five hour plane ride away in Nepal, we were able to realize that seemingly starkly different cultures may indeed share the same gratitude and enjoyment from long-held traditions and holidays.
When it comes to excursions and outside of class activities, it’s safe to say that if it’s in the lonely planet guidebook for must-see activities in Jordan, we probably did it. On our first free weekend, we did a whirlwind tour of Amman and the area just south of the city. We started at the Roman Citadel and the Roman Amphitheater, two incredible historic sites in the heart of downtown Amman. From there, we drove south to the ridge of Mount Nebo, a sacred space mentioned in biblical accounts as the place that is believed to be where Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land. From there, we drove a few more kilometers south and down, to the lowest and arguably saltiest spot in the world, the Dead Sea! We caked ourselves with Dead Sea mud, a spa treatment all in itself, and floated in the salty waters until the sun went down.
Near the end of our stay, we had the incredible treat of an excursion to the South of Jordan. We drove down the length of almost the entire country. Then, we started with every world traveler’s dream: Petra. We spent the day walking around the ancient rose-colored city, marveling for almost seven hours at the incredible buildings carved into massive rock. The next day, we headed to Wadi Rum, which in Arabic translates to “The Valley of the Moon.” We began with a jeep tour, driving through massive canyons of sandstone and granite – our cameras could not even come close to capturing the glory of this place. We slept that night in tents under the most incredible sky full of stars, and woke up the next morning to ride camels through the desert. On the last day of our excursion, we donned our bathing suits and loaded up on a boat for a day in the sun in Aqaba, Jordan’s only port city. We snorkeled, had a barbecue, and swam in the crystal blue waters. As the most perfect end to the day and the Southern excursion, from the middle of the Dead Sea, we watched the sun set over Jordan, Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia all at once.
A Male Perspective
As one of two males on a trip of twenty incredible students, I am grateful that I have rarely had to acknowledge any gender imbalance. That being said, I have never been as conscious of my gender as I was in Jordan. These realizations ranged from small to extremely significant. For example, as a male, I was always required to sit in the front seat of the many taxis that were our main source of public transportation. What was most stressing, however, was watching my female classmates recount uncomfortable and unfamiliar encounters in which they were treated differently because of their gender. At times, it was difficult to remain culturally sensitive when the culture itself was stirring so many of these difficultly frustrating emotions. However, I feel that I have grown to not only recognize the varying gender dynamics in foreign cultures, but also to appreciate the progressive education and upbringing I have received to acknowledge such differences. In this regard, accepting aspects of Jordanian culture was difficult, but extremely worthwhile.