Adventures in the Middle East

In 2008 I spent six weeks in Jordan participating in an archaeological excavation. It was a great experience, if only because it was so difficult that it taught me to appreciate my life in the United States more than I've ever done before. Between heat stroke, witnessing a murder, coming to grips with the oppressive Muslim culture, and getting dysentery, it was probably the hardest six weeks of my life. However, I also saw and experienced some amazing things, and the whole experience really opened my eyes and gave me a new perspective on life. Overall I'm so glad I went, and even gladder I came back alive.

We drove in and out of the site every day in two pick-up trucks, with 6-8 people riding in the bed (I loved riding out in the bed, although the metal-on-bone contact could be cruel). On our first day out the driver tried to go up a slope that turned out not to be a road, and the truck got stuck at a disturbing angle. It was revving like crazy and then the next thing I knew the driver was jumping out of the truck, yelling "Everybody jump, get out of there now!!!". As the truck started rolling backwards down the slope (one of my greatest fears) I leapt desperately over the side and landed hard enough on my knees to rip both knees out of my pants. I think I'm more graceful in my head than I am in real life. The truck rolled down the slope and got stuck in the canyon below, and we were only seconds away from going down with it! My knees turned the most gorgeous shades of purple and green.

Excavating in Jordan

On the dig in Jordan with our Bedouin workers.

We were working in the desert in Wadi Araba, where the daytime temperatures got as high as 130 degrees Fahrenheit (56 degrees Celsius). The heat and dehydration, despite drinking 7-8 liters of water every day, were torturous but the archaeology was fascinating. We were excavating a Roman/Byzantine fort complex which was built on a caravan stop along the Nabataean Spice Route, which led to the nearby ancient city of Petra. We found ancient coins, oil lamps made of clay, and intact ceramic vessels, things that look unbelievably beautiful coming out of the ground.

I had to go to the hospital in Aqaba twice for IV fluid due to dehydration, and it was slightly terrifying. There was dried blood on the walls and the sheets of the hospital beds. The doctors smoked inside and didn't wash their hands or wear gloves. There was some kind of horrific screaming coming from another room which I never had the courage to investigate. The toilets were just holes in the floor, and there was no toilet paper or soap. All in all, a nightmare for anyone even a little concerned with basic hygiene. On a positive note, though, it was extremely cheap.

On one trip home from the site, in the middle of an empty desert highway, we saw a man get beaten to death with a tire iron. Our driver called the police but didn't stop the van, and as we passed by the group of men doing the beating froze solid, staring at us like cold stone statues. The man on the ground was clearly dead, and it made all the hair on my body stand up on end. I remember that it felt surreal and horribly different from dead people you see on TV. I had nightmares about it for a while and then I had a hard time remembering it at all.

We went to Petra, the ancient city carved into a rock canyon. It was one of the most incredible and beautiful things I have ever seen. I went back in the late afternoon with a small group and some Bedouins took us up to the Treasury building, the highest point in Petra. We ended up climbing the mountain that the building is built into, and we got to watch the sun set over the ancient city, truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Then we hiked all the way back through Petra in the pitch black, because the Bedouins told us not to use flashlights, that our eyes would adjust. Amazingly enough they did, and we navigated cliff edges, stairs, and rock mazes without anything but the light of the moon.

Climbing to the Church

At the top of the mountain by the Byzantine church, on the way to the hospital.

Then there was the dysentery. It came from a food shop near Petra and everyone who ate there got sick a few days later. It was so painful that I thought I might actually die. Some of the supervisors on the dig drove me to the capital city of Amman, where there was a better hospital (another girl from our group was already there and she was even sicker than I was). The car had to stop at a site in the desert where some friends of the project director had opened a small cultural center. I overheard them saying that there was a Byzantine church up the hill from the 500's, and my mouth watered (despite my dehydration). There was no way that I was going to let that opportunity slip by and I managed to convince them to let me go up and look. Unfortunately, "up the hill" turned out to be several hundred rock-cut steps up a mountain and I was ridiculously weak, having lost almost 15 pounds. I was in pain but eventually made it to the top to see the ruins of the church which was so worth it (I refuse to let anything stand in my way when it comes to historical sites!). Then we drove straight to the hospital.

On a camel

On a camel in the desert. Not one of the dowry camels, just a no-strings-attached camel.

The Jordanian people were mostly quite friendly, though few of them spoke English. We drove through some remote areas where the people had actually never seen anyone with light hair and eyes, and they were stopping me on the street to take pictures, which was really awkward. I also got several marriage proposals from strangers, one even offering 20 camels as a dowry. I'm told this was a pretty high price so I was flattered, though I didn't take him up on it. To this day, whenever my parents are annoyed with me they joke that they should have taken the camels. At least, I THINK they're joking...

All in all being in Jordan was an extremely worthwhile experience. I have never been so happy in my life to get back to America, where I can make eye contact with men on the street and it doesn't invite them to grope me, and where I don't get charged triple price just for being out in public without a man. It made me realize that the basic human rights we see as so inherent are just words, and that there are certain places in the world where we are not entitled to them. Whatever problems American may have, that trip to Jordan made me so appreciative and grateful for the freedoms, rights, and clean water that we have in the US. Now if only we had camels.