I will never forget the summer of 2013. GCSE exams had finished, and results day was far away. This was the perfect time for seven girls and two leaders to go on a remarkable expedition, hoping to embark on a journey that will help them experience a new culture, and become more independent. I can safely say that we accomplished this – the fruit of planning for eighteen months.
Our first stop was the capital city Amman. Amman is a vibrant and spirited city, its fruit and vegetable markets overflowing with excitement and friendliness, its buildings filled with history. The Citadel in downtown Amman watches over the city; its old and crumbled walls tell their story. It represents several civilizations that stretched across continents and prospered for centuries, as one empire gave rise to the next. One of the most exciting things I saw was one of the first statues from the history of mankind. Its condition could fool anybody that it was created yesterday.
We visited Jordan during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. This made the city a very different place. When walking through the streets in the late morning, Amman seems like a ghost town; every shop is shut and only a few people walk through the hot streets. But at night, the city comes alive. Horns blare in the traffic with people racing to get home for iftar (the breaking of the fast at sunset), markets overflow with locals, and restaurants pour out onto the streets, an eager chatter filling the air. We stood on the roof of a building in downtown Amman at night and watched the magical city shine brighter than the stars: fireworks, fairy lights, singing, dancing.
The city, and indeed the country, holds some values very strongly: peace and hospitality. Jordan, is in a location surrounded by conflict from the north – Syria, the south – Egypt, the West – Palestine and the East – Iraq. Despite this, Jordan is surprisingly stable, under the able rule of King Abdullah the Second. The capital is home to a mosque opposite a church, symbolising the peace and friendship between the religions. We found the people of Jordan to be kind, honest and friendly. Their treatment of tourists, as a developing country, is incredibly admirable – in the markets locals are chatty and curious; not once did I feel threatened or cheated. The markets were the soul of Amman: full of life and electric. One day when we were buying some lunch, the man at the grape stall didn’t have the right change to return to us, and gave us the grapes for free, and told us to come back another day to pay him. We were really taken aback and humbled by his trusting nature.
We had encountered our first problem on the first day when we found out we were over £120 short at the Airport in Amman as the cost of the visas wasn’t included in our budget. This challenge was not welcome, and we really struggled to make savings over the next few days. In the end, not only did we save all that money, but we were reimbursed by the expedition company, allowing us to spend an extra £120 on activities (such as camel rides) and food! One of the new skills we all learnt was exchanging money. As teenage girls, we had never encountered anything like this before, and even though it might seem like a simple task, we felt really proud after haggling to get a better exchange rate.
The Dead Sea was our next stop and it is one of the most unusual phenomena I have ever experienced. Being the saltiest body of water on Earth, it is so dense that you float on it. I never really believed it before I was there, and to be honest, even when you’re floating, it doesn’t feel real. Then of course, you get some salty water in your eyes, and are harshly woken from your blissful dream, and are left stranded far from the coast, left to waddle back to the blistering beach. The mud at the sea has been proven to be good for your skin; it’s a different story of whether you believe it or not. However, it cost 3 Jordanian Dinars, and due to our small budget, we couldn’t afford it, and kidded ourselves that exfoliating our skin with sand would do the trick! Soon after though, we found the source of the mud in the water, and slathered it onto ourselves, to the dismay of the men selling the exact same thing, which increased as all the other tourists copied us. Whoops.
We were all excited to go to Dana Nature Reserve, which was peaceful, and a sharp contrast to Amman’s explosion of lights, colours and sounds. Each morning the valley woke with an unrivalled stillness, as though, much like us, it was sleeping through its alarm. This was the location for our community work, a part of the trip all of us were most looking forward to, for it allowed us to give back to such a friendly and welcoming community. Every morning, we would go to the local primary school. The facilities in the school were more developed than any of us had anticipated which is great as the children have the opportunity to learn valuable skills such as using computers and the internet. However, we were slightly disappointed as we had expected to do something more worthwhile than painting classrooms, but the look on the children’s faces when they saw their learning place transform was priceless, and we still felt a sense of accomplishment. I don’t think they could ever imagine that the grotty walls, with scribbles all over them, could be so white and clean. I hope that our efforts will help the children to learn in a better environment.
When we weren’t busy painting, we would play with the children at the school. We had taken a selection of toys for them, including colouring books, toy dinosaurs, and teddy bears. We gave these to the more-than-delighted headmistress of the school, who said she would use them as prizes for students who performed well in a test or as initiatives to try their best. It’s so lovely to think that something which only cost us a few pounds could make such a huge difference to a child’s education. Two weeks ago, I could never have imagined growing so fond of a person in four days that leaving them would be one of the hardest things I would ever have to do. The children at the school captured my heart, as they were so simple, so loving, and so ready to accept us into their lives. Not a day goes by when I don’t miss them.
Surprisingly, the language barrier was less than an issue than what we expected. Most of the children were able to speak a few words of English. When we said something they didn’t understand, they’d just say ‘yes’. This therefore was the answer to ‘Can I adopt you and take you home with me?’ We taught them how to count from one to ten in English; they taught us it in Arabic. But what they really taught us was that you don’t need I pads or Xboxes to have a good time. Skipping ropes and tennis balls are more than enough. Children from such a rural area in a relatively poor country have little of their own, that they find enjoyment in the simplest of things. The happiest people don’t always have the most money or toys. It is those who make the most of what they have. A smile, a kind gesture, a few friendly words mean the world to them.
The Dana phase of the expedition was definitely the highlight of the expedition for me. There aren’t enough words to describe how welcoming and affectionate the children were, and as we all know – it is the people that make a place, not the buildings. Unfortunately, as the school was a 20 minute drive away from our hotel, we could not play with the children after we had finished painting for the day. Even though we got time to relax and catch up on our washing, we would have loved to spend more time playing with the children. The disadvantage of our accommodation was not the fact there was two toilets and showers for all the guests but the fact we didn’t have any extra time to play with the children, as we were staying too far from them, especially as our last day at the school was a Friday, and there would be no children there. Luckily for us, some of the children (who must be living very close to the school) saw us drive in and came to see us. They stayed for the duration of the time we were there – bless them, it was their day off school. They also helped us scrub the floors and carry the heavy buckets of water, never complaining; they were just so happy to be with us, the discomforts didn’t bother them.
We left Dana with a heavy heart, but it was time to move on as we had a long day ahead of us, and we were very much looking forward to see one of the Seven Wonders of the World – Petra. You can’t appreciate the beauty of the ‘lost city’ until you experience it yourself. It covers a massive land area, and the one day we had there wasn’t nearly enough. We hired a guide, which was definitely one of the best expenditures we made. He pointed out things to us which we couldn’t have ever seen ourselves, and this made the day a lot more interesting. The Treasury is beautiful, and we were totally in awe of it. Carved into the rocks surrounding it, it is a wonder how it was ever built so many years ago. You may have seen it in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and been suitably impressed. Let me tell you a secret though, and please forgive me for this, but the inside is made up of just 3 large empty rooms. However, the facade of the Treasury is just magnificent! The tombs and the amphitheatre, remarkable as they are, are no match to the monastery. The climb of 800 steps felt like 8000 in the heat, but every step was worth it. It is double the height of the Treasury, and to think, each and every piece of heavy rock would have been carried up the 800 steps. Astonishing!
Seeing a desert safari on our itinerary was a pleasant surprise, but none of us knew what to expect. We climbed up to Lawrence’s spring, walked through Lawrence’s Canyon, climbed some bridges and ran down sand dunes. We had such a good time; we forgot to be bothered by the burning sun! As we watched the torch go out, it was the most beautiful sunset I have ever witnessed. The only way to describe it is ‘orange’. There was no other colour in the sky. That night, we slept outside, under the stars. Even though it was so windy, we didn’t mind, as it was something I would have regretted if I hadn’t done. It really made us think about how big the universe is, and how insignificant we were.
I had never been too excited about the last phase of our trip, probably because it symbolised the end of what had been an incredible two weeks. The two days in Aqaba, on the coast of the Red Sea, was the cherry on top of the expedition, and not just because we got burgers and pasta (after a 2 week diet of pita bread and hummus, this was like an oasis in the desert). We went snorkelling one day, which we all really enjoyed and something I would love to do again. For some of the time, we got a chance to relax and go swimming in the sea. Coincidentally, we stayed at the ‘Moon Beach Hotel’, and on the first night of our stay, there was a super full moon! I absolutely jumped at the chance to go swimming in the Red Sea in the moonlight! The water might have been freezing, but I felt so warm and happy, I just did not care. It was such a wonderful break from the hectic schedule, and we all got a chance to reflect on the trip.
One thing we all learnt from this expedition is that you don’t need a massive or even comfortable budget to have the experience of a lifetime. Good company and being around people who care about you, and look out for you is all you really need. None of us had done anything like this before, but we learnt that it is not always the holidays in which you sunbathe by the hotel pool which are the most fun. Things like this are so worthwhile; it makes up for the difficult conditions we had to endure, ranging from cat poo on the floor, to cockroaches in the shower. Even though we had minimal contact with parents through the duration of the expedition, no one in the group was homesick, probably because we had each other! This trip has given us all the confidence to do something similar again in the future, which we are all really keen to do. The support from our team leaders was really appreciated, as they were there to guide us when we needed it, but were never too bossy or forceful, and gave us full control of the expedition. As we were a completely independent group, we were in charge and responsible of everything that happened on the trip. We ended up cherishing this, as nothing went wrong, and we felt a lot better about what we have achieved.
One of the most challenging parts of the expedition was the food. For two weeks, all we would get for breakfast was one boiled egg, one small tub of jam, one cube of soft cheese and unlimited pita bread. The lunches weren’t too much better, but we looked for markets, so that we could buy fruit and vegetables, to accompany our bread and hummus. This is what we ate for tea as well. As it was Ramadan, most restaurants were shut during the day, so even if we had the money, we couldn’t afford to buy lunch in a cafe or restaurant! As much as we enjoyed this new type of food, sometimes it felt insufficient and repetitive, and we were left to eat cereal bars which we had brought with us. A rice dish would be very welcome, and we couldn’t ever refuse anything sweet. However, it could be very expensive, so we always had to watch what we were being brought by the waiters, and learnt to always look for or ask about the price of a dish.
In the two weeks I was there, I saw just one very small freshwater source, high in the mountains of Dana Nature Reserve. Places, like the capital Amman, have water piped in, whereas smaller settlements receive weekly shipments of water. Jordan is a country that should not be thriving, for without water there isn’t life, and yet it defies all odds and stands proudly as a gem of the Middle East. The culture in Jordan is really something unique as we met a lot of working women, including the headmistress of the school. However, there were no young girls working in shops, which were filled by boys starting from age 11. So though it looks like things are beginning to change, there is still a gap in the equality of the sexes.
To pay for the cost of the expedition, I had been very determined not to take donations, and that I wanted to earn all the money myself. I did extra chores at home and sent flyers to all the neighbours, offering to wash their cars, walk their dogs, babysit etc. I would like to thank all of my neighbours who have been so supportive of me. As a group, we set up a stall in the monthly Ridings Fair, selling authentic scarves, jewellery, and shoes and books which we decorated. We were really fortunate to meet a local artist, Emma Horsfield, who donated a large number of her paintings to us, which we really appreciate. We also sold eatables in the classrooms at school, but were limited in the amount of fundraising we could do at school due to rules and regulations.
Going to Jordan has been one of the best experiences of my life, and I am so grateful for being given this opportunity. I would definitely do it all again if I could – even the poor living accommodations, the repetitive food and the stress of the low budget. I would strongly recommend a visit to this spectacular country. It’s funny to think that 2 years ago, I didn’t even know there was a country called Jordan, and now it means so much to me.
Tanisha Sharma is aged 16.