Day 8: A Journalist’s Journey to Jordan

•June 15, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The last morning in Jordan was a hectic mess. I woke up to the sound of my alarm, skyped with my mom, and then ran out the door with my passport in hand and suitcases ready to go.

The morning before a flight never seems like a good time to sit down and calmly have breakfast, thought it is probably a good idea and probably healthy, it somehow never happens. This was one of those times. Breakfast was last priority on my mind, of course until I got to the bus and realized just how hungry I was.

I ran to the lobby of the hotel to meet my group as we figured out checkout procedures and for the third time on the trip explained that our internet was to be paid for by the Jordanian Embassy and therefore should be included in the room price.

We finally loaded our many massive suitcases into the bus and headed off to Queen Alia International Airport, where I ran to the ATM to get my final dinar withdrawal of the trip in order to pay our kind driver and tour guide a tip for their help on the trip.

On the run to the ATM, my keychain, which I had received on the first night for my “beautiful smile” fell on the ground and broke into pieces. I took this as a slightly bad omen, as the keychain was the symbol of the “evil eye,” which is supposed to protect you. Clearly, this was not the best thing that could happen in my final moments in Jordan…at the airport, about to board a plane. Fortunately, I still had my lucky travel necklaces, so I proceeded through the check-in.

The check-in, like many other security checkpoints in Jordan, includes a traditional bag check like most airports do, but in addition to that, due to the cultural and traditional restrictions, also includes a special body checkpoint for all females, who go through that instead of the usual metal detector. As fun as it was getting felt up for the third or fourth time on the trip, I found my way as quickly as possible to get my tickets and go through the long immigration line.

Another difference that I noticed in airport procedures in Jordan is that instead of having the ticketing right at the gate before boarding, the ticket check is right before the seating area, so that when the time comes to board, instead of an orderly line, it was much more of a “pile-in” into the place. It reminded me a bit of the streets in Amman, where we saw people walking right in the street. While there is something slightly unsettling about the disorder, there is also something a bit stiff about the way we do things here in America. Perhaps a bit of both wouldn’t do anyone any harm.

The 12 and a half hour flight back to the United States was not fun, to say the least, but the good company of my trip-mates, a couple glasses of wine, and several slightly mindless movies made it all a little better.

As I stepped back into America past immigration and security, and was asked:

“What was the purpose of your visit to Jordan?”

I was amazed that for the first time in my life, I got to reply:

“I was there for business.”

Not only was it business, but it was an amazing journalism press trip. Nobody knows when I will get a chance like this again, but I’d like to believe that this is the first of many press trips, where I will not only get the chance to travel around the world, but I will be doing it on business….as a journalist.

Thank you for sharing this trip with me!

Thank you for sharing this trip with me! I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!

Advertisements

Day 7: Last Day in Jordan

•June 12, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The next morning, we took the drive from one tourist city to another, from Petra to the Dead Sea, only stopping by the Jordan river and Baptism site along the way.The Baptism site was where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist around the age of 30. My favorite part of the site, however, was the beautiful mosaic next to it, that, upon close examination, included a mosaic-ly typed out “www.baptismsite.com.” My trip had come full circle. Perhaps the internet is not so hard to find, even in the depths of the Jordanian desert.

Cracked soil near the Jordan River

Cracked soil near the Jordan River

The thin Jordan River

The thin Jordan River

We then stopped by the Jordan River, which was quite the sad sight to see. After hearing, during our many briefings, about Jordan’s water problem, seeing the depleted river right at our feet with the cracked dry ground around it was a testament to everything we had heard.

It was also particularly interesting to stand one side of the Jordan River and to see Israel’s flag only a couple feet away from us. It is rare to be so close to the border between two countries and even more rare to see a natural border rather than an officially patrolled land border.

The natural border

The natural border

After this stop, we drove on until we arrived at our beautiful resort right on the Dead Sea. Every time, on this trip, that we arrived at a new hotel, I thought about how lucky I am to be on this trip and to stay at all of these amazing hotels. One of the guys on the trip and I talked about how in many years, when we are old and retired journalists, we will look back on this trip as one of our most lavish and impressive press trips of our career. After all, since when do journalists reside in 5-star resorts on the water with all-inclusive buffet lunches and dinners? If that’s the case, however, I can say with certainty that I have chosen the right career path.

My beautiful balcony

My beautiful balcony

After settling in our rooms, which, in my case had two massive beds and a balcony out onto a tropic jungle, we proceeded to take a swim, or should I say, a float, in the Dead Sea. The experience was certainly sting-ey and salty, and we even managed to give ourselves free self mud-treatments and swam in the beautiful infinity pool.

Self-service Dead Sea mud treatment by the sea itself

Self-service Dead Sea mud treatment by the sea itself

Dinner with and drinks with Joranian Senator Akel Biltaji followed, where he spoke candidly to us about his reaction to President Obama’s speech and his views on America’s relations with Jordan. It was a great conclusion to our trip, as it covered the very reason for our trip – the Sixty Years of Friendship between our two countries. We learned, as we had heard many times on the trip, about the importance of our new administration in improving America’s image in the Middle East. Personally, I had never fully jumped on Barack Obama’s crazed-fan boat, but this trip showed that if we, as Americans, respect our own President, the rest of the world will follow. And it is crucially important that the Middle East is part of that fan-club because, we need their cooperation, especially that of our friends, such as Jordan.

As it was our last night in Jordan, we decided we had to properly celebrate, especially after we had heard about the beach party and the British DJ. We proceeded downstairs to the beach, only to find that we were some of the only enthusiastic beach party participants. We ordered some drinks and ended up having a not so pleasant run in with another group of Americans, who proceeded talking to us using some inappropriate racial slurs. While they were enjoying the comfort of staying in Jordan, they were speaking rudely to the locals. Sure, they were drunk, but that was no excuse for being prejudiced, especially when an Arabic country is showing you hospitality. I could definitely see where the bad image of Americans comes from in the Middle East. Hopefully, our press group was giving the people in Jordan a different perspective. The men eventually shuffled off to another hotel and we paid our bill.

We were all pretty offended and needed to cool off so we went up to the restaurant/bar which was upstairs and listened to a Jordanian man try to pull off Enrique Iglesias and then Bon Jovi, which was certainly unforgettable. Some drinks and a hookah (hubbly-bubbly) later), we all slowly returned to our great hotel rooms, a long and daunting night of packing ahead.

Day 6: 800 Steps of Sightseeing

•June 12, 2009 • 6 Comments

The next couple days marked a significant change in our press trip, where we became journalists who looked and felt rather than took notes. There were no more briefings or official meetings. This was our chance to get to now the country for ourselves, not through the eyes of officials or their official stance on the country’s issues.

Sure, we were to visit some of the most tourist-filled sites and landmarks of the country, but we were getting a feel for the land, hiking on its sandy and rocky surfaces and touching its rare and depleting water resources.

This particular day, we were visiting the one place I was told not to miss by every single person that knew about my trip to Jordan – Petra. Hidden among the shaded hills and rocky valleys, this ancient Nabatean village is not only one of the modern wonders of the world, but it is also a very good hike.

Horse and carriage at the entrance to Petra

Horse and carriage at the entrance to Petra

We began by walking by the horses and donkeys at the entrance to Petra, where locals try to lure tourists into a traditional ride on their carriages or saddles into the village. As poor and likely stingy journalists, we opted not to take the ride. After all, we needed the workout after days of lavish meals and sitting lazily taking notes on comfortable briefing halls. It was about time for a walk or maybe even a hike.

We walked along the entrance to the gorge, gazing in awe at the remains of the Nabatean arch and the intricate and sophisticated water piping system developed by the residents many years ago. The first part of the trip was not too much of a hike as we walked along the flat lands and looked at the first instances of the numerous tombs to come.

The moment every Petra tourist waits for is not so much amazing just in itself, but rather in its context and element of surprise. Walking through the dark, cave-like, gorge of the entrance to Petra, the breathtaking treasury is an unexpected surprise. Perhaps this is why the most famous shot of the treasury is from this very view. It is as if the first break of dawn that shines though a narrow crack in the wall. The view is beautiful and as you walk though the crack, you find yourself face to face with…

Petra

Petra

…a camel. Or maybe two. At the foot of the treasury, several camels await tourists who pay to have their picture taken on the camel as they ride around in front of the building. The treasury itself is nothing of the sort. Much like other buildings in the ancient Nabotean village, this is actually a tomb. Unfortunately, the British didn’t know that and shot at it quite a bit, only to realize that there was no treasure to be found.

Me in front of the Treasury

Me in front of the Treasury

After playing the traditional tourist role and taking a great number of pictures in front of the treasury, we continued our walk through the village and found an amphitheater, among many other smaller tombs. We also found several unruly and risk-taking local children climbing dangerously close to the edges of the various cliffs in the village. Their acrobatic movements and the abandoned donkey in one of the cave tombs told us that they spend quite a lot of time here, either trying to sell donkey rides or just, quite literally, living on the edge.

After a traditional Jordanian lunch near the treasury, we braced ourselves for the hike that was to come. About 800 rock-cut steps and a scorching-ly hot and dehydrating hour later, we found ourselves in front of another large tomb, much like the famed treasury but much much larger in size.

Yeah...that's how big the monastery is...

Yeah...that's how big the monastery is...

We took a deep breath and congratulated ourselves on our first and only major workout of the trip. Those who still had some energy or determination left, took the smaller hike even higher up to see the view of Wadi Araba, which might just put the Grand Canyon to shame.

100_7190Wadi Araba

Wadi Araba

A long and sandy shower later, we found out that not only did we have to hike today, but we were also cooking our very own dinner at a restaurant called Petra Kitchen. We were to cook traditional Jordanian food such as tabouleh salad (what I worked on) and other dishes like baba ghanoush, pita meat sandwiches and rice and meat dishes. What we didn’t know was that we were cooking our meal together with Brazilian soap stars, who, being the divas that they were, showed up about 2 hours late to cook and tape their cooking session for TV Globo. The show, called Viver a Vida, featured a main character who plays a travel guide and happened to be in Petra. The cooking show was a post-show add-on, where the viewers got to “cook with the stars” and well, we had to “wait for the stars.” The interesting outcome I got out of it was when I chatted with the star of the show, Thiago Lacerda, over a glass of wine and was interviewed for Brazilian television. I have yet to find out when or where I will be able to find my 5 minutes of fame, but as a family friend noted “that’s a lot of trouble to go to in order to pick up a girl.”

100_7203

Here’s a link to the TV Globo video (you can see some of the people from our trip in the background): http://video.globo.com/Videos/Player/Entretenimento/0,,GIM1083300-7822-THIAGO+LACERDA+PREPARA+RECEITA+EM+RESTAURANTE+DA+JORDANIA,00.html

After the dinner, which, surprise surprise, we were finally able to eat about two hours later, we walked over to the Cave Bar, which is located in a Nabatean-like cave. We finally ordered some hookah for the first time on this trip, or as it is very technically called by many Jordanians, even, interestingly enough on receipts, hubbly-bubbly. In addition, the Cave Bar brought some much needed relaxed entertainment, where most of the members of our group took some time to dance around the restaurant, sometimes with the bar’s wait staff in tow, teaching their American counterparts the art of the “dabke,” a traditional Arabic dance.

Learning to dance

Learning to dance

Day 5: Ancient Adventures

•June 4, 2009 • 2 Comments

Our 5th day of adventure began with a breakfast meeting with Fr. Nabil D. Haddad, the executive director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center. He spoke about Jordan, praising it as a country conducive to peaceful religious coexistence, which is what his organization promotes. He fears that many countries and religions have incorrect and often negative perceptions of one another and works to promote tolerance and understanding among them. One interesting thing Haddad noted was that despite the wonderful relationship between Christians and Muslims, there still are no Jordanian Jews living in Jordan.

On Mt. Nebo

On Mt. Nebo

After the meeting, we checked out of our Amman hotel and set off to see Mt. Nebo and then to visit Madaba, “the city of mosaics.” Mt. Nebo is where Moses was thought to have died and looked upon the Holy Land.  The site is beautiful and included, due to our luck with weather conditions, a wonderful view of the Dead Sea as well as Jerusalem beyond it.

The next stop, on the way to Madaba, included a mosaic workshop, where we watched workers at the craft and viewed the results in the beautiful shop next door. Madaba itself was where the real mosaics were, or to be more correct, the one mosaic located at the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George that has the sixth century Byzantine map showing Jerusalem and other holy sites within the area. The mosaic originally included over two million pieces of colored stone and was 82 by 16 feet in size. The remains of the mosaic today are beautiful and one can still note the Dead Sea and Jerusalem as well as many other important sites on the Mosaic Map.

Madaba Church

Madaba Church

The consequent drive to Petra took about 3 hours and we arrived at our beautiful hotel which used to be a village in this area. The village map, though slightly confusing and labyrinth-esque, leads us to our rooms, which are decorated beautifully. The dinner was, once again, a wonderful buffet, where we also had the pleasure of meeting Ibrahim, who works for the Petra National Trust and spoke to us about the efforts of conservation and management of the Petra site.

Some Petra beers out on the terrace followed dinner, where some of the group leaders took a break from political jargon and journalistic antics and just talk American pop culture as well as world culture.

Petra Beer

Petra Beer

The hike up to Petra itself awaits.

Day 4: Foundations, Finance, and Films

•June 4, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I was quite excited for Day 4 to begin as we were visiting one of the people I had originally requested to see. The rest of the day, however, was quite daunting as it was our first full day of briefings without much tourism.

We started the day at the Ministry of Environment, speaking to Khaled Irani, the Minister of Environment. He began by giving us an overview of the current state of Jordan’s environment and its challenges. The main challenge to Jordan’s environment are its water s supply, as we had heard from EDAMA the day before. In addition, Irani spoke about the problems with energy and waste management. The main solutions being looked at today were about a part of the national water strategy and relate to replenishing the continually sinking Dead Sea.

Khaled Irani speaking about the environment

Khaled Irani speaking about the environmentThe ministry, which is quite new, has set some goals for themselves, including working towards less air pollution, which it has managed to partly accomplish with the lowering of carbon emissions.

Irani also spoke about the nature reserves, eco-tourism and conservation projects of the ministry as well as the work of the environmental police, which has been enforcing environmental issues and consciousness.

On a less regulatory way, the ministry has also promoted environmental consciousness through marketing strategies and by bringing nature to the Jordanians.

At the market in Amman

At the market in Amman

Our next step was a walking tour of the city, where we walked through old markets and shops. We saw spice shops and walked among grocers hollering out their prices and products. We even managed to incite competition between two adjacent juice shops, which were trying to invite our group as customers by shouting out various juice names in our direction.

After a dose of reality, we drove to the Jordan River Foundation’s Queen Rania Family Center, where we were shown how Queen Rania and those who work for the foundation have found a way to deal with some of Jordan’s not so pleasant realities.

At the center, we visited a puppet-making workshop, where Jordanian and Iraqi women were making puppets for their children, who were at school. The center promotes families and has exercise courses for women and girls, as well as theatre workshops where children are able to talk about themselves. The center is working towards lowering abuse cases as well as simply for helping families deal with any issues they might come up, through a phone service as well as workshops and preventative measures. The foundation itself also works on community empowerment projects, empowering citizens to lead a development process in their areas as well as creating more jobs.

The Jordan River Foundation

The Jordan River Foundation

Our next visit of the day was to the Jordan Investment Board , where Dr. Maen Nsour spoke to us about the region’s economic problems, as well as more specifically about Jordan. He spoke about Jordan’s necessity to concentrate on its human capitol, due to its lack of oil and other resources. In addition, he gave an overview of the region, saying that the Arab world needs to work on the creation of more jobs in order to prevent poverty from causing the region to become even more unstable. Nsour also mentioned the negative effects of the political instability of the region on the investment necessary for its future success.

The evening ended at The Royal Film Commission, where we were given a tour of the beautiful building and met some of the students and mentors who are working with the center on making and promoting Jordan a center of film production as well as a place where films can be made.

After the site visit, we continued onto dinner, which was hosted by Royal Film Commission at Wild Jordan, which is a restaurant within the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. The Society has been given the responsibility by the Jordanian Government to protect the country’s wildlife and natural habitat places. The food was delicious and we exhaustedly returned to our hotel to sleep and pack for our departure the next day to Mt. Nebo and Madaba.

Day 3: Roman Ruins and Modern Ministers

•June 3, 2009 • 2 Comments

On the third day, we started out our day by going off to see the Center for Strategic Studies and meeting with Dr. Mahjoob Zweiri, who spoke about his studies about the region and the regional conflicts, including trouble areas such as Iran, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

He also spoke about the effects of the economic crisis on Jordan, mentioned their minimal negative ramifications on the region due to the low price of oil helping the government.

He mentioned the importance of media to Middle East politics, saying he believes it will help shape the political arena of the region due to its ability to shape public opinion.

Zweiri explained that he thinks the problems in the world today come from a lack of leadership throughout the world, saying that there is a problem with maturity in politics.

The next stop was certainly less business oriented and more on the side of tourism. After our meeting Center for Strategic Studies, we drove over to see the beautiful city of Jerash or as it was written in ancient Greek – “Gerasa.”

Me in Jerash

Me in Jerash

The city itself is full of ancient Roman ruins. While I have seen my fair share of Roman ruins, and particularly Roman amphitheaters, all throughout Europe (I think the count is somewhere between 3 and 5 by now), it is quite different to see them in the Middle East. We wandered among the ruins, through the various gates and even heard our own voice echo while standing at the center of the amphitheater stage. Of course, being the big kid that I am, I then proceeded to run up to the very top of the amphitheater and look down. Stairmaster galore.

After getting in our daily share of culture, we got back to business and the city. Our next meeting was at EDAMA with Karim Kawar, who actually attended Boston College. The initiative which he heads is focused on environmental issues and their affects on Jordan such as energy, water and the environment.

As Jordan is one of the most water-poor countries in the world, this is certainly a topic that came up again with many other ministers. Kawar spoke about the importance of desalination of Jordan’s water supply and the danger of the low levels of the Dead Sea. He almost noted that agriculture was consuming a significant amount of the water supply and that of this farming was being outsourced to Sudan.

Kawar mentioned that nuclear energy was being considered to help with the country’s energy supply in addition to the solar energy and the solar panels being used in some parts of the country.

Some of the girls posing with the Foreign Minister

Some of the girls posing with the Foreign Minister

The next and last briefing of the day was at the Jordanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs where we met with Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. Judeh spoke primarily about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Jordanian and American involvement in the issue. He noted that while both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have approved the roadmap for peace, there is still much to be done.

As with many other Jordanian officials, he reemphasized the Jordanian official position on the issue, repeating the words of King Abdullah II about working for progress rather than process. As many others as well, Minister Judeh mentioned that many in the region expected President Obama to deal with the economic crisis first, but were surprised at how dedicated he was to reaching out for peace in the region from his very first couple days in office.

He noted, once again as other leaders did, that the fundamentalists use the lack of a Palestinian state as a playing card in their actions, citing it as an excuse for violence. He said that taking this card away leaves little room for excuses.

At the Nai lounge in Amman

At the Nai lounge in Amman

After a short break, we attended dinner hosted by Hashemite court at Lebanese restaurant. In attendance were two media and communication advisors to the king. While the food was very good, I did not notice much of a difference between Jordanian and Lebanese cuisine. The only major visible distinction was the dessert part of the meal, which included very good cheese blintz-type dessert with a sugary syrup and a cake made of thin noodle-like dough and a cream in between. Both were very delicious, as was the outing that the group of journalists attended after the dinner. We went to an Arabian nights themed lounge, where we had several Jordanian brewed Amstels and watched some very strange music videos on the large projector screen, including a dancing baby, which I now know is called “One Desire” by Jakarta.

Watch it here!

Day 2: Briefings, Broadsheets and Banquets

•June 1, 2009 • 3 Comments

Yesterday, on our first day of meetings and activities, I learned two expressions in Arabic on our way to the ministry.

Saba aher – Good morning.

Shukran – Thank you.

Our guide on the bus told us that he will try to teach us a couple words every day. This seems like a solid start. Throughout the day, we had several briefings and a few tours.

The morning included a meeting with Dr. Nabil Al-Sharif – the Minister of Media and Communication, who let us know that Jordan is at an important time in its history, as King Abdullah II will soon be celebrating 10 years in his role and the reforms he has managed to make throughout his time as a leader.

Ad Dustour

At our Ed board meeting at Ad-Dustour

The minister continued by talking about the current major hotspots of the region, including Israel and Iraq. He explained that it is impossible for Jordan to separate itself from either conflict because of its proximity and involvement in the region. He spoke about what issues and whom he thinks is to blame for the problems in Israel. In addition, he expressed Jordan’s interest in the Arab Peace Initiative, which basically would provide Israel with recognition from Arabic states in return for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Al-Sharif also expressed the importance of President Obama’s upcoming speech in Cairo and how the entire region is awaiting to hear what he will have to say.

In addition to discussing various conflicts, Al-Sharif also covered topics relating to Jordan’s lack of water supply as well as the refugee situation.

One thing we learned throughout this first day is that anywhere and everywhere we went, we would be served tea. At every briefing we attended, we were served drinks, if not refreshments as well. Another thing we also came to terms, yet another journalistic lesson, we will be hearing a lot of diplomatic and suave curbing of issues rather than substantial information, unless we speak to unofficial people.

Our next stop was the Ad-Dustour Newspaper, where we were given a tour and served tea or coffee once again. The managing editor, Ahmad Shakar, spoke to us through a female staff member from the paper, who translated his words and his answers for us. We learned about the history of the paper as well as his opinion on the changing media landscape, the Jordanian journalistic self-censorship and how the US is viewed in Jordan. It always amazes me just how much some of the world is led to think that the US media is one-sided and conservative, where I had certainly learned from my experience as a student and intern, that this is quite the opposite in our media world. Shakar expressed a concern for writers who take a news feed and simply remake it without doing their own homework, but he told us that he felt confident in our group as new generation of journalists.

A short break from briefings took us to the citadel in Amman, where we saw the view from the top as well as several pieces of the region’s history, including the Greek, Byzantine and Islamic history of the small space. We visited the archeological museum, which traced the region’s history from the stone age and included some of the leather Dead Sea Scrolls.

Visting the beautiful Citadel

Visting the beautiful Citadel

Our final briefing of the day was at the US Embassy of Jordan, where the security was certainly the tightest. We met with some senior US officials and to our chagrin, once again heard a lot of diplomatic talk about the great relationship between Jordan and the US over the past 60 years. Of course, some of that is certainly true, but true to journalistic form, we don’t really care about the good and happy stuff. We want conflict and complications.

After returning to our hotel for some time off before our dinner, we got back on our bus and headed off to dinner and more cultural experiences.

The restaurant, Kan Zaman, is located on a hilltop and is surrounded by small shops and entertainers. The place looked like a ranch with it stone fortress type build and it’s open nature. In addition to a lavish buffet of the salads and meats will have been eating on a regular basis already, there was musical entertainment and part of the way through dinner, we saw a group begin to dance as well.

Me learning how to drum by the artisan shops

Me learning how to drum at the artisan shops

After dinner, we headed to the artisan shops on the hilltop, and were entertained as we shopped for gifts and souvenirs. One man offered to write our names in Arabic and make silver necklaces. While I passed on that, I bought several gifts with some bargaining skills and managed to even receive a free souvenir because of my “beautiful smile.” As we wandered the craft shops, one man taught us how to play some of the instruments he was selling. While we did not buy any of them, some of us managed to have a go on the drums or even some old-fashioned string instruments.

Watch a video of us learning to drum!

The night ended well, though a little late for the jet-lagged sleep that was to come. Here’s hoping that the jet-lag will subside soon.