Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Unexpected Answer

"What are your summer plans?"

It's the question du jour, and everyone keeps asking it. I'm sure they're expecting me to tell them what local place I'm working at, or that I'm simply hanging out. Having just been certified as a lifeguard, some just ask what pool I'm guarding at. I've caddied in years past, and many ask if I'm doing that another summer. And every time, I tell them simply that I'm actually "going to be living in Jordan this summer."

After this point, the conversation is the same almost every time, regardless of who it is.

Person: "Really?"
Me: "Yes."
Person: "Where's that?"
Me: "In the Middle East, in between Israel and Egypt and Syria."
Without fail, the other person's eyebrows raise at that point.
Person: "Is that safe?"
Me: "Yeah, it's fine."
Person: "Is your family going?"
Me: "No."
Person: "Where are you staying then?"
Me: "I'm living with a host family for part of the time, and then the other part I have an apartment."
Person: "Oh." (short pause) "Why do you want to go there?"
Me: "I'm studying Arabic."
Person: "Can't you do that here?"
Me: "It's kind of hard to learn a language all by myself when nobody speaks it here."
Person: "Oh. Isn't it kind of expensive though?"
Me: "I have a full scholarship."
Person: "Huh. I still don't get why you want to go to the Middle East though... "

Excuse me when I go bang my head on a desk somewhere.

It's as if people hear the words "Middle East" or "Arabic" and immediately some sort of sensor goes off in their brains that tells them to steer clear. After that point in the conversation, I've noticed some patterns about what people think about the Middle East, and I literally want to scream every time I hear someone tell me one of them. Obviously there are exceptions, but for the most part, this is it. 

High schoolers don't really know anything about the region, and so the typical idea of the Middle East for them is something about the desert or camels. When I've mentioned it to some of the younger adults, in their thirties and forties, the response is somewhat more intelligent, and they are able to name a few countries in the Middle East, and ask what town I'm going to. Sometimes, miracle of miracles, they already know what language is spoken there.

But that's pretty much the top of the bell curve. Whenever I mention it to someone over the age of forty-five, their first words are warning me about how everyone in the Middle East is a terrorist and they hate women and there's no reason for me to go there. (Biggest pet peeve? People who literally think that terrorist is a synonym for Muslim, and vice versa. Second biggest pet peeve? People who know the difference, but use them interchangeably). 

And so I go. Maybe once I return in one piece, people will realize that the entire Middle East is not one big war zone. Hopefully, people will get that it's just another part of the world. I'm so excited to go.

Reasons to Write

In 352 hours I will be on a plane to Washington, DC.
In 408 hours I will be on a plane to Frankfurt, Germany.
In 431 hours I will be on a plane to Amman, Jordan.

Or at least that's what I figure, without figuring out the time zone changes on my schedule, and by ignoring the inevitable flight delays. It's probably not exactly accurate, but nothing ever is.

And as the countdown to take-off has shifted from months, to weeks, to days, to hours, the frequency of my Google searching "Jordan," increases. I've tapped everything from "Jordanian amiya" to "public restrooms in Amman" into that search bar. I've read pages and pages of internet posts about anything and everything in Jordan, from greetings, to food, to the language. Lots and lots about the language. I read about it incessantly, usually while I should be doing something else, seeing as how I still have two finals looming over me.

And yet all the advice that is available seems to come in detached, impersonal form. The only signal I have that some of the forums I've read were written by humans, not by some travelling robots, is the occasional misspelling. Sometimes I'll flip through pages and pages of general tidbits before I can finally find a story, some sort of an anecdote to learn something about what it's like there. Obviously, a few tales can't sum up a country, a city, or even a neighborhood, but they do a much better job than the generalizations out there, so vague that they describe regions and continents, if not the whole world.

I always seem to find the best stories on blogs, travel blogs specifically. And as I read through the posts, it occurs to me that I need to write one. A travel blog, about my time in Jordan. I need somewhere to spill all this excitement beforehand, because randomly messaging my friends with my latest discovery about Jordan is probably not their idea of a good idea. Especially at 2 am. So, for the next two weeks, this blog becomes the dumping ground for everything that goes through my head about this trip. Be warned, but don't worry. It's just for two weeks.

And while I'm positive that free time is going to be scarce when I'm there, sometime between homework and meals and exploring, I figure I should find time to post. I need to keep my mother calm somehow, because if the only thing she can read about what's going on in Jordan while I'm gone is the news headlines, she'll go mad.

And once I'm home, an idea that seems so far off in the future I can't even fathom it, I figure I'll want to remember. I'm going to take pictures - ridiculous amounts of pictures - but that only does so much. If writing can help me remember the little stories, the day-to-day things that made me laugh, or one of what I assume to be many cases of language screw-ups, then it's worth it. And maybe, once I've written everything I could write about my time in Jordan, someone else will stumble upon it, and appreciate the fact that there are indeed stories out there on the internet, not just vague generalizations.