Homeward bound

Trip Start Jun 16, 2008
Trip End Aug 06, 2008

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Flag of United States  , Ohio
Friday, August 8, 2008

We finally arrived home last night about 7:00 pm after a 36 hour trip from Aqaba. I'll get briefly caught up so I can make a final post on my travel blog.
Last Friday most everyone slept in. We had a late breakfast and I made arrangements to go into the old part of Amman in the afternoon, since several volunteers had asked about some final shopping. Kristen wasn't feeling too well, but really wanted to visit the staff at the YMWA Bunyat school. She contacted them by phone in mid-morning and was immediately invited to come to a staff member's home for a visit. She and Garrett and John took a taxi over and they spent most of the day with their friends and colleagues.
The other 8 of us had lunch at the hotel, and then took the hotel shuttle, driven by a smiling driver named Abu Farid, into the heart of old Amman. We parked just up the street from the King Hussein mosque on Hashemi Street, and walked down to it. Since it was Friday, and the weekly sermon had finished not long before, there were lots of men walking out of and around the mosque. Businesses were just reopening after the sermon break, so shopping got increasingly better. We split up into several groups and walked around for several hours, spending some of our last JDs on souvenirs and gifts for family and friends.
My wife and I stopped in a shop to look at metal work and were engaged in conversation by a very friendly young shop keeper originally from Jerash. We asked about the prayers beads for sale in many shops. He explained that there are men's and women's versions. The men have 33 larger beads on their strings, the women 99 smaller ones. I joked that the women needed to pray more to thank God for their husbands. He laughed at that thought.
Or it may be that the women need extra divine help to put up with their husbands (my wife made me include that...).
The conversation moved to family issues. He doesn't get along too well with his father, so he decided to open his own shop in Amman. He has a souvenir shop at street level and a coffee shop upstairs. He called for mint tea for my wife and me as we talked with him; we accepted his hospitality with pleasure.
He said he liked Americans, though not US soldiers. Then looking at me closely, he said "maybe you are soldier?" When I said I was not, he added, "Maybe many soldiers have heart white. I think so. Men with this" he said, motioning to his sleeves and shoulders where symbols of military rank would be, "they say you here war, then they war. The men with this," motioning again, "they war."
We discussed as well as we could the international situation, particularly in Iraq which is right next to Jordan. He explained that around a million Iraqis fled to Jordan from their country because of the trouble there. He didn't particularly appreciate having them come. In his simple English (with Arabic syntax) he explained "OK Egyptians or Syrians come, they come to work and then go home. But Iraqis come with families and business; I think they don't go back." He also talked about the relationships between "real" Jordanians and Palestinian Jordanians. He didn't care much for the latter, because he said they are often the ones who trouble the peace in the country.
It was quite a fascinating visit; we enjoyed talking with him and hearing his interpretation of events.
We headed back to the meeting point across from the mosque and found that everyone had made the last purchases, and spent their last dinars. We walked back to the van, where Abu Farid was waiting and we drove back to the Larsa.
We had a fairly late dinner, and were joined even a bit later by Kristen, Garrett and John as they returned from a long visit with the YMWA staff. They were very happy with how their day went, the friendship and camaraderie the felt for the staff was very evident.
Saturday, I think everyone slept in as long as possible, though we didn't want to miss the nice buffet breakfast that came with our room charges. Some of us ate not only cereal, omelet, and sausage, but also hummus and pita bread, thinking this would be the last time in a while we could do so. Others had already reached hummus capacity and didn't want any more for the foreseeable future....
At 11:00 we had our Bible Study on the topic of "Drive (Zeal), and Age Appropriate Tasks in the Church." After a break, we had one last falafel lunch at a stand down the street. Those who had had enough falafel for this trip had the option of snacks from the shop next door.
During the afternoon I interviewed each volunteer individually so we could have their thoughts on the project while everything was still fresh in their minds. All were very positive about the experience, and without exception they said it was well worth their time and the money they had spent to participate. It was challenging, educational and motivated them to want to participate further in the activities of the Church. One person said that this Youth Corps project was a logical progression of youth activities: first there are our United Church of God summer camps, then the UCG Challenger Camps which go a step farther in intensity and learning, and then this program takes the elements of character building and education for life even farther.
I also offered to give an evaluation of the work of each volunteer who requested one. Almost everyone did request an evaluation and my wife and I were happy to be able to share our positive observations about the participants this year. We trust they all have rewarding and worthwhile lives before them.
Toward the end of the afternoon we had a "debriefing session" as a group and went through the project chronologically, asking for an evaluation from them on each part of the program: the service projects in Jordan, the touring we did, the lodging and meals, the excavation program at Megiddo and the weekend tours we did in Jerusalem. A few constructive suggestions were made and duly noted, but for the most part the participants were very happy with the way things had been organized and administered.
For our final evening meal I had reserved a table at a very nice, atmospheric restaurant I knew from our previous trip here. The Reem Al-Bawadi is a large restaurant on the north side of Amman. Our table was in the spacious courtyard of the restaurant, under a Bedouin-style tent. The low circular brass tables have a diameter of 5 feet or so, and there are fountains in the center of the courtyard. This is a popular restaurant with local families, but is known to guides and tour companies as well, so we could order in English with no problem. We had the house special of mezza and mixed grill (beef, chicken and lamb) with fruit for desert. The food was delicious and the décor and ambiance were great fun. It seemed a perfect way to end the trip.  We reminisced about many aspects of the summer's project. As is often the case with longer, packed trips like this one, in some ways it seemed as if we had just arrived, but in other ways it seemed we had been gone a very long time, longer than just seven weeks. It was quite an adventure!
We arrived back at the hotel around 10:00 pm. We had three airport runs going out during the night: 11:15 pm, 4:30 am and 9:30 am. Abu Farid drove all the groups to the airport; that's part of his function as the hotel driver.  Two of the fellows set their alarm for 4:00 pm not 4:00 am, so we had to wake them just a few minutes before their departure, by banging on the door and they really had to rush to make the 4:30 shuttle run. In the end though, everyone made it off and away safely. 
Our family was the last to depart, so that we could see everyone off safely.  Because we used award tickets for Fiona and Tatiana, we hadn't been able get seats departing until late Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, which meant two extra nights in Jordan.
We decided to spend our day and half of free family time down in Aqaba. So after seeing everyone off, we caught the 1:00 pm (Sunday) Jett bus down to Aqaba; a five-hour trip. The tickets cost about $12 each once-way, a good deal. We knew the Desert Highway well by this time, having already gone back and forth several times. Taking the bus was interesting, however.  We were the only Westerners on the double-decker bus, but were treated very kindly by everyone. Jordanians are very hospitable to visitors. There was a stewardess who came down the isles several times offering tea, coffee, soft drinks and water for sale. She kept tabs for people as we went, and only collected the money right as we approached Aqaba. Smoking was allowed, and as this is an Arab country, there was a great deal of distinctive-smelling smoke in the air, throughout the trip.
A few miles north of Aqaba we came to the Customs checkpoint. Aqaba is has a special duty free status, so there is a security and customs check before entering the zone.  All the passengers, or at least all heads of families, had to disembark and pull their luggage out of the hold. They took the luggage through the customs checkpoint, where some suitcases were opened and checked. I descended too, but the customs agent asked our nationality, and when I said USA, he said we could stay on the bus, and leave our luggage in the hold. I decided to walk around and keep an eye on things anyway. Theft is extremely rare in Jordan, but it's good for me to keep my African reflexes active so I keep an eye on things by force of habit, without having to think about it. The crew had pulled my suitcase out of the hold, not knowing to whom it belonged. It sat on the pavement next to the bus. I was going to put the case back in the luggage hold, but just as I reached it, the bus drove forward, past the checkpoint, to begin reloading passengers. So I pulled my wheeled suitcase through the checkpoint by hand, smiling at the guards, and was not stopped.
We reloaded the bus, and drove on in the last half hour to Aqaba, on the Red Sea.
On arrival in Aqaba two taxi drivers immediately began arguing over who would take our luggage and our selves to our destination (prices are higher for foreigners - who can afford to pay more...). I told them we would take both taxis; the small cars here can't hold four standard-size suitcases, carry-on bags and four people. It was a short ride to our hotel where we checked in about 7:00 pm, and breathed a sigh of relief to have arrived: a day and a half and two nights to relax and unwind!
Monday morning we slept in, trying to catch up on sleep and rest up from the past seven weeks' activities. I went out and bought pita bread, hummus, and cheese for breakfast - we've become used to the local fare now.
In the afternoon we made a family scuba dive. We dove the Cedar Pride, a Lebanese cargo ship that burned in Aqaba Harbor several years ago. After setting in the port for a while, it was finally decided to sink it in relatively shallow water as a point of interest for scuba divers. King Abdullah is an avid diver and looks for ways to develop the sport in Jordan; this was one example. Our friendly guides were Mohammed and Hamza. Mohammed has family in the US and speaks English with an American accent. They were both kind and competent, though the equipment provided was a little worse for wear. We geared up in town and drove out to the dive site in their mini-van.
One can dive the Cedar Pride from the beach, as it lies only a few hundred yards from the shore. The upper edge is reached in about 45 feet of water; the bottom rests at about 80 feet. Visibility was good on this dive: on the way out we saw some coral, not too much actually, but quite a few fish. The wreck itself, lying on its side, was the prize of the dive. We swam down by the huge propeller, and up past the rear deck where the cabins were. Coming around the stern we could see the lifeboat that had come off the ship and was lying next to the hull. We swam inside the side-ways cargo hold, which was open. We swam up into an air pocket at the top of the hold (what used to be the side), but were careful not to breathe the air there since such pockets, though they seem filled with good air, can be toxic. We swam through a small hole in a bulkhead from one hold compartment into another, as we moved toward the bow. There is something sublime in diving shipwrecks like this. They are clearly out of place, and there is a sense of disaster or foreboding that seems present around them. I've had the chance to dive several, and I've always gotten the same impression. It's serious fun.
As we came back up we met two young Dutch women who were taking their diving certification course. As we started talking they became interested in us. They spoke some French, and a little Spanish, and were intrigued that we spoke French and Fiona Spanish as well. They were very interesting in the volunteer work we had been doing both in Jordan and Israel and asked many questions about the organization behind the work, questions we were happy to answer.
We had fresh Red Sea snapper for dinner at a local restaurant known for its seafood: our last real evening meal in Jordan.
Tuesday, the ladies slept in again. I was up early, so I walked over to "Aqaba castle" a rather grandiose name for a smallish fort built by the Mamluks in the early1500s. The Ottomans occupied it until 1917 when it was assaulted and captured by Arab forces of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, with guidance and encouragement by T.E. Lawrence (as shown in the famous film, which scenes were not shot at this fort since it was too unimpressive!). This was a great victory for Lawrence, and the beginning of Arab nationalism. There is a huge flag flying near the fort. At first glance it looks like the Jordanian flag but, since it is missing the white star, it is in reality the Arab flag of Sharif Hussein, the great-grandfather of the present King Abdullah. His flag was the model for most national flags of Arab states today.
We spent Tuesday on the beach and around the hotel pool. We were struck again by the swimming costumes of some of the Muslim women. Since the more devout among them feel they must remain covered, they swim in suits that cover them much like a diving wetsuit would: a hood-like veil over their heads, and black material going covering them to the wrists and ankles. It must be very uncomfortable in the desert heat, but we saw many women wearing such suits. Alongside them there were European tourists in very small bikinis; the cultural contrast was quite striking.
We arranged a late checkout: 4:00 pm, so we could catch the 5:00 pm Jett bus back to Amman for our flight. We took out last shower and changed clothes for the last time as we prepared to start our day and a half trip home.
The bus trip north was just like the one south: the checkpoint near Aqaba, and then the long desert drive. We made one other stop this time, so the driver could use the restroom, and arrived in central Amman about 10:00 pm. We again took two taxis, this time out to the airport which is 30 or 40 miles from the city center: we arrived about 11:00 and waited in the lobby until allowed to enter the check-in area. All went smoothly.
The trip home took about 34 hours of travel time, from the time we left the hotel in Aqaba.  We had a 1:45 am departure (ugh!) from Amman, a 5-hour flight to Paris, a 5-hour layover in Paris, an 8-hour flight to New York (JFK), a 3-hour layover in New York - during which we cleared customs and changed terminals, a 2-hour flight to Cincinnati, and with various delays another 90 minutes to get home. Our friend and my brother in law David Evans kindly came to pick us up at the airport. It's wonderful to see a friendly face after such a long trip.
We're back home now, adjusting to the time zone and appreciating being on home soil.
This will be a short reprieve for me however; I'm flying out next Wednesday for a 2 ˝ week trip to West and Central Africa, and Europe. Check back on this blog site if you like, I will do my best to keep you up to date on that trip as well, which should be very interesting.
Thanks for following along and for your comments and encouragement. They are much appreciated.
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