Get ready for a whole lotta update:
Because my first big international travel since undergrad was the year I spent in Kenya, I have found myself comparing all aspects of my trip so far, especially the first 24 hours, to that experience. My family and friends (aka y’all) remarked at my relatively caviler attitude towards my impending trip. I seemed to be leaving a lot up to chance, and trusting that things would work out once I arrived. Fortunately, they have. Aside from a too close for comfort transfer at Heathrow, my trip was incredibly seamless. Getting my visa in Amman was a breeze, and my baggage appeared on the belt almost instantly. I pushed my cart into the arrivals area and was pleased to see a man holding an UNRWA sign who graciously loaded my bags into his car and took me to my apartment, tutoring me in basic Arabic phrases the whole way (every one of which I have since forgotten). Thinking back to my first solo trip abroad in 2009, I remember the sleepless nights leading up to my departure, the over-preparing for details I ultimately had no control over, and the uncertainty I felt while waiting for my visa and baggage, all the while holding back tears at the thought that no one would be there to greet me. In fairness, that first trip, all also went according to plan; I just wasn’t as confident that it would.
My trip from the Nairobi airport to the house I spent my first night back in 2009 was, in my eyes, perilous. I was unaccustomed to so many pedestrians standing and walking on the side of the road. The darkness, illuminated only by headlights (streetlights were nowhere to be seen) made everyone’s silhouettes look grisly, and every time the van had to swerve off the road to avoid a pothole, I was certain that someone would jerk open the van door and grab my bags, and possibly me. It’s incredible what a difference the daylight can make; my ride to the village 2 hours outside Nairobi the next morning was a totally different experience.
In contrast, I had no confirmation that the man at the airport in Amman was actually going to be there to pick me up, or that he was taking me to the address of the apartment I had in my email. He was certainly friendly enough, but loaded me into an unmarked van (which I did think was strange, as UN vehicles are often marked), and could just have easily have had bad intentions. However the brightness of the afternoon, coupled with my faith that everything would work out for the best gave me not a moment’s pause that this van would take me where I needed to go.
Sure enough, 45 minutes later we pulled up in front of my new home. My roommate, a DrPH (doctor in public health) student was waiting on our front porch, along with the UNRWA woman who enabled me to feel so at ease during my journey, as she had arranged for everything from housing to my airport pickup. She is even nice enough to drive us to and from the office every day, and is going to accompany us on trips to the Dead Sea and the markets. They ushered me into the apartment, where I was greeted with a massive living room, complete with two full couch sets, a TV and dining room table. Our huge kitchen has more cupboards than items to fill them along with a granite kitchen table and gas stove. Continue on to the laundry room (washing machine included!!!!), first of two bathrooms, and three bedrooms. The apartment is not unlike the one I had in Nairobi as far as price and amenities, and is apparently located in a very swanky area. Its location across the street from the Cote d’Ivoire embassy ensures the highest safety.
My time in Kenya was spread over two trips. I remember arriving the second time and hitting the ground running. My six month stay the year before, coupled with my roommate, a coworker who had been living in Nairobi for a year, allowed me to feel at ease nearly instantly. While I had not lived in Nairobi my first time around, I was familiar with some of the public transportation routes, as well as the basic layout of city center. While never proficient in Swahili, I understood how to bargain and could communicate my point and stand my ground, proving I was no “mzungu” (tourist). I knew what things should cost, and could recognize when prices were inflated because of my white skin. After a few weeks, I was comfortable with my new neighborhood, the local bus routes and had a new group of expat friends (mostly as a result of leeching off my roommate’s social life). I didn’t think twice about going out on my own, and while my actions were guided by basic common sense – not staying downtown or on public transport past sundown, taking a taxi for even a mile ride at night and never being flashy with jewelry or money – I had a good grasp on things.
I think I came to Amman expecting that I would be able to hit the ground running, the same way I did in Nairobi. Yet, just as it took me several weeks, months even, to get a mental map of New York City, Boston, and Nairobi, it will take that same amount of time, if not more, for me to get my bearings in Amman. I am mentally ready to be independent in this city, but I am not yet knowledgeable enough to be really ready. This frustration with my inexperience in this city is compounded by the customs and social mores that dictate a woman’s life in the Middle East. I’m fairly confident in my prediction that gaining my independence in Amman is going to be more difficult than it was in Nairobi. In my few short days, I’ve felt largely comfortable. The clothing I brought, while modest, does not feel dowdy, and the women’s dress in the UNRWA offices varies from headscarves (hijabs), high necks and long sleeves, to trendy and form fitting. The only indication I have that things are not as low key as they seem so far has been the result of conversations with fellow interns and my Lonely Planet guidebook.
For example, I was informed on my first day in the office that going outside with wet hair is frowned upon, and conveys the message that you are a “loose woman.” To quote the Lonely Planet guidebook (hmm, do you think MLA citations are required in a blog?), “don’t go outside with wet hair – this apparently implies you’ve had sex recently.” I feel like a cleverer woman than I, in my jetlagged state, could find a way to use this to her advantage. However, when I made a comment Thursday morning about how my hair was at least 85% dry and should be good to go by the time we arrived at the office, the woman giving us a ride laughed hysterically at this vulgar implication, as she’s never heard it before. She mentioned that she had often intentionally wet her hair as part of a style, and jokingly wondered what her fellow Jordanians might have thought of that.
I have also purchased a fake engagement ring and wedding band for myself, which is ironic, as I’ve never been one of those girls who longs for a ring on her finger (…not to say that I haven’t known for years the exact ring I one day hope to have…). I almost feel as if I’m jinxing my future love life by sporting this bit of faux bling on my left hand, but again, according to Lonely Planet: wearing a wedding ring will “add to my respectability in Arab eyes. A photo of a husband and kids will clinch it.” Hmmm, I wonder if Channing Tatum will mind if I use a photo of him and his kid, with a picture of my face photoshopped over his wife’s…
I feel like this week has been all about dichotomies. As I began to write this, I was at Caribu Coffee Shop (similar in style and price to Starbucks) sitting next to a girl around my age wearing a spaghetti strap tank top. The fact that I couldn’t tell if she was a local or tourist highlights another thing I’ve been struggling with: everyone looks like me. In Kenya, it was obvious that I was a foreigner, and I had no trouble identifying who was Kenyan. Here, however, I can’t tell half of the time whether the person I’m passing is from Jordan or elsewhere. Of course, the Middle Eastern features are distinct: dark eyes, thick eyebrows and dark hair. But, this also describes half of the people I know in NYC. The fact that only the most orthodox of Muslim women wear head scarves and that many people’s English is impeccable doesn’t help. My blonde hair immediately singles me out as a foreigner, but at any given store at the mall, I could be in NYC and not know the difference [interesting side note: I’ve been told by an intern who had lived here before that there is a booming Russian prostitution business here in Amman. Many of her blonde friends have been mistaken for these women in the past. I anticipate a hilarious future story]. Just hours after arriving in Amman, I was eating schwarma with my roommate at a nearby café and one of the employees came up and asked us a question. Had I not known better, I would have fingered him for a New Yorker, clothing, tattoos and all.
I have also been advised not to make eye contact with men and to avoid accidental touching, especially when exchanging money with a cashier. I’m so used to handing over money and accepting my change, unaware of whether or not my hand ends up brushing the other that this has been a real effort for me. Additionally, I never know what men I am allowed to make eye contact with and which men I am not! It’s awkward to avoid the eyes of the men in my office who are so friendly and welcoming, and how do you order a coffee or meal without looking at the person you are speaking to? So far, I have been able to deduce that this rule is mostly intended to prevent unwanted attention from random men on the street, and those who are clearly dressed in religious garb, for whom contact like that with women is considered in appropriate. The best solution I’ve come up with so far is to just wear dark sunglasses at all hours of the day, so that I don’t unintentionally offend.
Two of the other interns I have been working with have been here for much longer than Jill and I, and are both relatively proficient in Arabic. It’s here I feel my handicap. Both are comfortable with the layout with the city and can communicate in Arabic (like Kenya, English is widely spoken, but nothing says “I’m not a tourist” like taking public transportation and knowing at least a little of the language). I think my frustration with shuttling back and forth between the office, my apartment and the mall/shopping area in my neighborhood is exacerbated by the fact that there are young women who have a grasp on this city like I used to have on Nairobi. However, even they admit that there are places they won’t go without a male escort, and that riding the bus can be an uncomfortable experience, as it is appropriate for men and women to sit next to each other, and busses are often crowded. I think this is what discourages me: even though I may at some point get that mental map of Amman in my head, I may not be able to explore it freely.
The outgoing, energetic person in me knows it will be an adjustment to keep my eyes averted and head down, the 80s wild child in me knows it will be hard to keep the crazy colors and outfits in the closet, but the global health professional in me knows this will be an entirely new adventure that will add yet another chapter to my incredible life so far.
Stay tuned for posts re: my first trip downtown, my amazing hummus lunch, my afternoon at the market, pictures and about what the hell I am actually doing here in Jordan until December!