Q&A about Jordan on Pink Pangea

A Q&A about my recent trip to Jordan has been featured on Pink Pangea, an online community for women who love to travel.

You can read the whole article here: Travel Jordan: The Real Deal with Jo Brown

But to wet your appetite, here’s a snippet of that interview…

Tell us about yourself! What do you do when you’re not traveling the world? Where do you live? What made you decide to go to Jordan?

I don’t want to be one of those people who sits at their desks and stares grumpily out of the window as the glorious British weather treats us to yet another deluge of rain… while dreaming of hiking in the Nepalese Himalayas or island hopping in Thailand, or sharing Shisha with newly made friends in Jordan. I want to say that I have no regrets, that I am following in the footsteps of all the other brave women before me who have rejected boring jobs and instead jetted off in pursuit of dreams. Yes, people may say I’m an escapist, but traveling makes me happy.

When I’m not abroad, I’m one of those people behind a desk – I work in digital marketing. It’s not something I’ve always planned to do, but it’s something that I enjoy doing to raise funds for fun trips! I live in Reading, UK – it’s really near London, Oxford and Windsor – you’d probably want to visit those first!

I’ve always wanted to visit the Middle East – especially since studying Theology at University – to see the place brought to life rather than just reading about the history or culture in books. So when the opportunity arose, I jumped at the chance. One of my dear friends was leading a trip to Jordan with the charity Bridges for Communities, a British charity that focuses on bridging the gap between different communities, cultures and faiths, predominantly between the West and the Middle East. The trip would be an exploratory experience of seeing the amazing sites in Jordan, learning about Jordanian culture, participating in volunteer work, and making many lifelong friendships. And it didn’t disappoint!

How long did you go for? How did you spend your time?

The trip was 4 weeks in total, including 5 days in Jerusalem and Bethlehem – a completely memorable experience in itself. Time was predominantly spent in and around Amman, so I got to know the city pretty well.

There were 6 of us on the ‘Yalla’ (meaning ‘let’s go’ in Arabic) trip with Bridges. During the first week of our trip we participated in an annual event called the ‘East West Summer Forum’ which is run by the Bridges partner charity ‘East West Initiatives’. Around 35 attendees from America, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Jordan all joined together for 5 days of fun, travel and little sleep! We packed a lot in – floated in the Dead Sea, visited Jesus’ baptism site, Mount Nebo, Jerash, a night in Wadi Rum, snorkelling in the Red Sea and of course Petra. We also listened to talks about the Israel-Palestine conflict and Jordan. It was short but incredibly informative – I came away with friendships, knowledge and many great photos.

For the time before and after the Forum we stayed with different Jordanian ‘host’ families. This was a great way to learn about their culture, to eat fantastic home-cooked food and to become fully immersed in the Jordanian way of life. Somewhat unusually, I stayed with 3 Christian families – 2 in the small Christian town of Fuheis just outside of Amman. One family I stayed with for almost 2 weeks. I truly felt like I was a member of the family by the time I left.

I have never experienced hospitality like I did in Jordan. People went out of their way to make sure I was taken care of – even picking my friends and I up in Amman in the early hours of the morning. On a few nights the whole extended family were invited to enjoy traditional meals together – the shisha and whiskey flowed, the Arabic music was cranked up – they really know how to entertain!

When you tell most people that you’re going to Jordan they immediately say “why would you go there?!”, or “come back alive!”. I realized that so many people had a completely misinformed view of Jordan. It’s true that Jordan is surrounded on all sides by war and conflict, and you do see reminders of it. However, it’s a misunderstood nation. It’s one of the friendliest, safest and most beautiful places I’ve ever been. The people are some of the kindest I’ve ever met. Yes it is a predominantly Muslim country, but I met and stayed with many Jordanian Christians who aren’t oppressed in any way. It’s a free country where the West is beginning to have a lot of influence. It’s all about the ‘selfie’ among youth!

What were your most memorable experiences? What were the biggest disappointments?

Every day was memorable. Every day something incredible happened – whether it be a simple joke that we laughed at for hours, or an evening spent sharing shisha with our newly made friends from the Forum, or an afternoon spent relaxing in a cool cafe on Rainbow Street – there are so many happy moments. And I honestly can’t think of any disappointments.

To find out more about my most memorable experience, read the whole Q&A with me on Pink Pangea

Visit to Jerash – the Gaza refugee camp

During my time participating in the Forum (a 5 day adventure run by East West Initiatives – a sort of ‘cultural exchange’), we visited a refugee camp housing over 30,000 Palestinians from Gaza. It’s become one of the largest cities in Jordan, and yet the people live amongst rubble and practically in squalor – it’s a camp, not a city. And yet this camp has been here since 1967 – to house those who fled from Gaza long after the 1948 separation of Palestine. These people don’t have a proper home, they have no Jordanian ID card, they have no passport, no legal way to work, no adequate medical treatment and no rights. They are unable to become Jordanian citizens because they came too late – and so the camp continues to expand with little promise of improvement. These people will be here until they die, or until they are able to go home – back to Palestine.

There is tremendous hope that one day they will return home – to the houses and cities they left behind decades ago – and that hope is so alive and prominent in their day to day lives. The elderly man who we had lunch with – the grandfather of the entire family (4 sons, their wives and around 20 children, who all live in 5 or 6 rooms) – still believes he will return in his lifetime. He showed us his Jordanian ID card that he was finally able to obtain after over 40 years living in the country.

We listened intently to his story of how he came to live in Jerash. He fled to Gaza in 1948 from his hometown with his family when he was a child. Here they lived for almost 20 years until he fled to Jordan in 1967, leaving the rest of his family behind (who he sent for later) – sadly two of his young children died during this time – and settled in the camp where has been ever since. Because of this massive influx of refugees, Jordan has had to learn to protect it’s own people. Therefore, any more refugees from Palestine who came after 1967 have been unable to obtain Jordanian citizenship. This means that these people are unable to work, and unable to leave. They have to be clever with the ways they make money, and they have little opportunity of gaining proper education to improve their chances of getting jobs.

On our arrival we listened to the story of one woman – which was loosely translated into English – who had managed to get a job working for ‘Save the Children’. She’d worked hard to get the education training she desired for a sufficient job, but when applying for any jobs outside of camp no one would hire her because of the area she lived in and who she was. Instead, she tried applying to jobs without any information on her background or her address – she was offered a position instantly. Even after ‘Save the Children’ discovered where she came from, they not only upheld their offer, but gave her a better job that she was more suitably qualified for. Another woman spoke of how she owned a small piece of land – but it was in the name of a Jordanian friend – she had a goat and sold it’s milk and cheese for money. The things people do to survive, the sheer willingness and creativity necessary to make a living was awe-inspiring.

One of the little girls in the family we had lunch with was clearly suffering from cancer – she was extremely thin and didn’t have any hair. We tried to find out what kind it was, but I think it got lost in translation. The miraculous thing though, is that she is receiving treatment – chemotherapy – only made possible because they applied for aid. There are so many other people who aren’t as lucky as her, who go without treatment for serious illnesses because they don’t have the funds or the residency to make it possible. It’s completely heartbreaking.

It’s difficult to comprehend the daily grind that these people have to go through to simply live everyday. It’s not as simple as waking up, going to work, going to sleep – they have to think about so much more than that.

With around 35 of us participating in the Forum, we naturally split into groups of 5 or 6 to share lunch with different families. As I mentioned previously, our group visited an elderly man and his extended family – it seemed like he’d invited everyone to meet the ‘special guests’. All 6 of us, including 3 Jordanians who nicely acted as translators, listened intently to his stories.

For lunch, the men and women split into two separate rooms. The women came alive with chatter, laughter and even took off their Hijabs – it was fantastic. The food was excellent, albeit simple, and they’d clearly gone all out to impress their international guests – offering us Pepsi and giving us the best pieces of meat. The two boys in our group were both Jordanian, leaving Haneen as the only translator for the rest of us girls – but she did an excellent job. Despite the language barrier it was simple enough to communicate with hand gestures and facial expressions and a few words of English and Arabic here and there. The whole experience with these women will be something that stays with me forever. They seemed amazed that we all had such small families, and were so happy that people from England and America were interested in hearing about their story. One woman told me that they know the people are behind the Palestinian cause, it’s the governments who aren’t helping the situation. This may not be absolutely correct, but it is true that people are becoming more aware of the conflict and more willing to see a peaceful outcome.

I wished I could’ve stayed there for hours. Sharing food, listening to stories, laughing with these women – they have so little to give, so little to stake a claim to – and yet they offered such a warm, loving and hospitable environment to be in. I’d take that over a rich person’s lonely swimming pool any day. I wrote the women a note on the back of a London postcard, asked Haneen to translate it and offered a small box of shortbread as a thank you. My offering felt so meagre in comparison. These few hours will stay with me a life time, and I pray that one day the hope they have to return to Palestine will become a reality.

Visit to a Syrian refugee hospital

It’s difficult to describe what I felt when I visited – we can’t even begin to imagine what they’ve been through.

Many of the children have lost their limbs, homes and families. One little boy, aged 11, has lost both legs and all of his family. It’s heartbreaking.

Another woman has recently discovered she has cancer. This only came to light because she had her leg amputated and the swelling didn’t die down. She was rescued from a refugee camp and taken to the centre here in Amman because of her leg – only then did the cancer explanation come to light. And here’s the worst part, Syrian’s are unable to obtain hospital treatment, and so she is unable to get any treatment for the cancer. She’ll most probably die – not because of her injuries, but because the country she now lives in refuses to give help her condition. Yes Jordan has given her a chance of life in another country, but that life has its boundaries – as is the case for most Syrians who now call Jordan home.

One man lying in a bed will most likely die because of his injuries. Not only has he broken his back, but his flesh and bone has been exposed so it has become incredibly difficult to treat without sufficient medical supplies. The people working there say that his best hope is death.

The centre is doing some amazing work with these people who have predominantly lost limbs. They have been assessed in refugee camps and those with hopeful outcomes are re-housed in the clinic for better treatment. It’s a home of happiness, the walls are brightly painted, there is a TV and Xbox and other games for entertainment. The women are taught crafts, sewing, and hairdressing – you can buy some of their items – it’s to help them have a better chance of making a living after their stay at the centre ends. Some volunteers from the UK are helping to teach English which is highly popular.

Listening to the stories, hearing about their experiences and seeing with my eyes the suffering that these people have gone through, and the repercussions that the war will have on them for the rest of their lives is completely heartbreaking. You hear about these things and see pictures on TV back in the UK – but actually being here and hearing first hand leaves a sour taste in the mouth. To think that there are people going through all of this pain when we’re happy complaining about the delayed train, or that Mum didn’t cook our dinner – is completely and utterly irrelevant in comparison.

The change in their lives is drastic – they were once from a wealthy and safe country. But, now destroyed by war, their lives have completely changed. They fled with nothing, their bodies are taking time to recover – both physically and emotionally. What those children experienced, no child in England will ever truly experience. The pain and suffering that these people have gone through makes you truly speechless.

Arrival and first day in Amman

Arrived safely in Jordan at 12am and waited in the airport for 2 hours for Josiane to arrive – wasn’t too bad, we chatted outside in the pleasant Jordanian warmth and the time flew by.

Had a relaxing orientation with the fellow Yalla Brits, followed by a delicious lunch of falafel and houmous – I could get used to this!

After lunch I spent a few hours walking around Amman with Thomas, following instructions from Hannah’s treasure hunt. She’d given us questions or things we needed to find out – mainly by asking the locals. This was a really interesting way to discover parts of the city and chat to Jordanians – they were so hospitable and welcoming and asking for nothing. Sometimes we would be approached and asked if we needed help – it was incredible. Chatted to one guy in his coffee kiosk- which had been in his family since 1946. He talked to us, practiced his English and gave us a taster of his coffee – very strong and not really to my taste but I drank it anyway!

Interesting things / cultural differences:

  • Put toilet paper in a bin
  • To greet – once you know someone well enough you may kiss them on the cheek – one on one side and two on the other
  • Like in Morocco the roads are quite crazy – there are no road markings as these have been eroded by the cars that never stay in the lanes
  • Very few people walk around – to cross the road you just have to start walking and hold out your hand to any oncoming traffic. A bit hairy but it works!
  • When you ask ‘Where are you from?’, we usually mean ‘Where do you live?’ or, ‘Where were you born?’ – to Jordanians, especially Palestinian Jordanians, they won’t say ‘Jordan’ or another place, but they will say ‘I’m Palestinian’
  • Jordanians are incredibly hospitable – they want to give you things, help you when they can and want to make you feel welcome. Our hosts want to make us feel at home, they’re so giving and kind. Passers by on the street ask to help or want to chat. I got waved at and had a conversation with 3 fully clad women in burka’s – they wanted to know where I was from and seemed so joyful to know I was visiting their country.

I think I’ve fallen in love with this place already. The city, the people and the culture – there’s just something about it and I can’t wait to discover more and make new friends.