Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bad TV

To all of the loyal readers out there in Hubbard Nation, I apologize for the long delay between posts. I’ll try to make up for it by writing a small novel here. I really don’t know where to begin, so I guess I’ll just pick up where I left off and talk about a couple of my new favorite TV shows.

First, I have to explain that there are almost no good actors in the Arab world. The worst actors in Hollywood are considered demigods in Amman (case in point: Jason Statham’s Transporter series is huge over here). Jordanian TV is no different and as a result most of it is imported—either from America or Europe (with Arabic subtitles), the Gulf states (via satellite channels like al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya, etc.), or from Turkey. My new favorite program, Masrooah Warad (literally, “Crying Flowers”), falls into the latter of these categories. It’s a soap opera, but with a twist: all of the males are in the Turkish mafia. It airs every day of the week including the weekends, so the plots are pretty thin on substance but heavy on drama. For example, this past week one of the “good” mafia guys (I really understand very little of what the characters say, but the acting is so over-the-top that you can instantly tell who is good or bad) named Amar was caught in a love triangle with Nermeen, the main female lead who looks like Penelope Cruz and has already captured my heart. The third leg of the triangle was Nermeen’s husband, whose name I can’t remember but who is in a rival gang. Anyway, about twenty minutes into the hour-long episode, Nermeen’s husband catches her and Amar sneaking around and shoots both of them. He takes Nermeen in his car to help her (because even though he shot her in a moment of rage, he still loves her), but leaves Amar for dead. The rest of the episode periodically cuts back to Amar, who is trying to crawl toward his SUV and reach his cellphone to call 911. At least ten times, Amar collapses in exhaustion only to try again minutes later. I laughed at the absurdity of it all and gave up with about five minutes left in the episode. Three days (also meaning three episodes) later, I was watching with my family and was astonished to see that Nermeen STILL HAD A GUNSHOT WOUND IN HER STOMACH. Apparently, her husband had taken her to a field (because that’s the first place you take a shooting victim) and, after a dramatic 5-minute monologue, left her for dead as well. She had to crawl through the woods for three days before finding a truck driver to take her to the hospital. And, as the girls in the audience were quick to point out, her hair and makeup was still perfect.

To make things even more interesting, the program is entirely in Arabic, which is dubbed over the original Turkish. Unfortunately, either the voice actors or the video editors sometimes decide to just mail it in and don’t even try to match the audio to characters’ lip movements. So during a pivotal scene, there will be audio when nobody on the screen is actually talking. Mix this idiosyncrasy with the incessant dramatic silences of a soap opera, and you have unintentional comedy at its finest. This is why I love Masrooah Warad—that, and the fact that almost everyone follows the show every night because it’s on during dinnertime.

My second new favorite TV show is actually a channel, called Zweidna Baladna (something like, “Our Music, Our Country”). It’s entirely Jordanian-produced music videos, but 90% of the footage is provided by the Jordanian Army and/or government. So the final product is pop music set against images of artillery demonstrations, soldiers marching, helicopter assaults, and every other kind of military exercise imaginable, plus the occasional video of King Abdullah speaking or greeting people. It’s very... Soviet, and the Cold War-era nationalism is weirdly mesmerizing. The only thing I can compare it to is watching a History Channel feature on the USSR, but that doesn’t do Zweidna Baladna justice—the History Channel uses old images, but Zweidna Baladna is a living anachronism. I really want to track down some bootleg DVDs for both of these programs so I can bring them to the states, but I don’t know how easy that will be—most of the bootlegs for sale on the street are of American movies.

Anyway, part of the reason I missed three episodes of Masrooah Warad was because I had an insanely busy weekend. Thursday after class we went out to a dance club. Zack, Luke, and I were rocking some pretty flamboyant clothes we picked up at the 5-dinar store—I believe I was wearing a 100% polyester gold and black pinstriped shirt, and Zack and Luke had similarly ridiculous outfits—and we got photographed for an Amman-based magazine called Layalna (“Our Night”). The camera flash only accentuated the sheen of our shirts, so we looked like 1970s boxing promoters. I really hope the magazine doesn’t publish these photographs because they could sink my future political career before it even takes off. Even before we got photographed, the club was a ton of fun but pretty expensive, so I don’t think I’ll be going back anytime soon. It was worth going once, though, if not just to have my first encounters with sloppy-drunk Jordanians (Not to brag, but I got hit on in stilted Engrish by a girl who was wobbling back and forth. Of course, her 5’4”, 180-pound frame awkwardly balanced on top of four-inch heels might have had something to do with this, too. Also, when I ducked in the bathroom to escape her, I saw an Arab dude on his knees puking into the toilet. His buddy just looked at me in exasperation and we both laughed. Good times.).

On Friday, after some much-needed sleep, I woke up early to go to the Friday market, which is a famous place where you can buy almost anything for ridiculously cheap prices. I picked up Zack in a taxi and we headed toward the center of town (fun GAWD: Worcester Ballad or “woost al-balad” means downtown). But when we got to the market, there was only an empty parking lot. Well, the parking lot wasn’t completely empty—it was actually ringed by taxi drivers and transport companies offering rides to Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, and Saudi Arabia. In terms of sketchiness, the place was about on par with a Greyhound terminal, which isn’t that great of an endorsement. But I had no interest in traveling outside the country—I was just trying to buy some clothes for my upcoming homestay with the Bedouin. Luckily, Zack and I wound up getting a ride from Luke’s host dad Amar to the more touristy shopping district. Amar is a chain-smoker who works security for the king, and aside from my host dad he may be one of the most imposing guys I’ve met in Jordan. I was just excited to meet someone with the same name as the guy on Masrooah Warad; in America, this would be the equivalent of freaking out after meeting a guy named “Tony” because you saw an episode of The Sopranos. Amar negotiated with shopkeepers so we could buy dishdashes (traditional white Bad’ia robes) kaffiyas (red and white checkered headscarves), and all of the other stuff we will need for living in the desert for five days. Thanks to him, we managed to avoid paying “white people prices” and got all of the clothes we needed for 16 JD. Of course, I promptly turned profit to loss by spending 20 JD on the biggest Aladdin-style knife I could find (the thing is about as big as my shin, with a massive handle carved from sheep horn. Probably my best purchase so far).

Luke’s dad was also hilarious the whole time. He speaks almost no English, and Luke speaks very little Arabic. Actually, that’s not quite true. It’s more like Luke, a 6’2” blond kid, gets a kick out of being the whitest thing for miles around and enjoys accentuating the contrast between his pidgin Arabish and his host dad’s perfect Arabic. Amar gives it right back though—whenever there was a lull in conversation in the car or the market, Amar would just turn to Luke and say “sabah al-khayer” (which means “good morning”) in the most condescending tone he could muster. Amar is a nice guy, though—he invited us to his house that night to smoke hookah, which we did after a game of pickup soccer. On a side note, almost the entire time I saw Amar, he was smoking either hookah, cigarettes, or both. Luke says Amar approaches four packs a day, plus hookah, plus something called zarghoul (black tobacco with hookah coals on top, smoked through a hookah. It packs the biggest head rush I’ve ever experienced and is probably about as healthy as eating tar). Judging from what I’ve seen, Amar is not alone—smoking is the vice of choice here. It makes sense if you think about it—since drinking is forbidden by Islam, people just substitute smoking instead. Still, if the Arab world ever gets its tobacco settlement, every major cigarette company would instantly go bankrupt.

Also on Friday, I met my language partner Bashar. SIT provides language partners, usually university students, to meet with us outside of class for extra Arabic practice and also for the kind of language education that teachers can’t always provide. In our first meeting, he taught me a few very creative curses—like Spanish, Arabic swears are simultaneously incredibly foul and strangely poetic. Because Hubbard’s Adventures strives to be a family-friendly blog, I won’t provide any examples, but suffice to say that Bashar will be an excellent resource for broadening my Arabic horizons.

In between all of this, I finished some homework. School is already kind of a drag, though. The way I see it, academics shouldn’t occupy too much time during study abroad because the entire point of being abroad is to do things you can’t do in the U.S. I can do Arabic homework anywhere, but I can only travel and explore and use Arabic in the Middle East. I am excited for my monthlong independent study project (ISP) at the end of the program, though, which I’ll write about in my next post.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Pickup Soccer and Throwing Rocks: The Definitive Arab Experience

This weekend, I played my first games of pickup soccer in Jordan and, in the immortal words of Bill Swartz, I played like a complete fanny merchant. Luckily, it was pickup, which is the soccer equivalent of the NBA (no defense expected) so I was actually pretty content to let Jordanian kids tool on me in exchange for my own occasional moments of relative brilliance. But let me back up and tell the full story:

On Saturday, maybe 2/3 of the kids in the program took a day trip to Salt, the oldest city in Jordan. Basheer, a younger guy whose official capacity in the program I still haven’t figured out, is from Salt so he organized the whole trip and showed us around the city with a few of his friends. We went to a couple of museums, had lunch in a café, and eventually visited the oldest school in Jordan. The school was on a hilltop overlooking the city and it had some incredible views (see the latest photos here—I took more pictures than a drunk girl at a costume party this weekend so I’ve only uploaded the best ones).

As we were about to leave the school, a few of us noticed some high-school aged kids kicking a ball around on a dirt field. There were also some older dudes playing 5 v 5 soccer on a basketball court (in the ongoing soccer-as-basketball metaphor, these guys would be the equivalent of streetball lifers). Along with a couple of girls who speak better Arabic than me, I walked down to the field and introduced myself. Within a few minutes, more of the Americans had joined me and all of the Jordanian guys had come over to gawk at the white kids. I did my best to explain that we were students studying in Amman and ask if they wanted to play a quick game. Before I really knew what was going on, one of the kids (he couldn’t have been older than fourteen) took my arm in his like I was his prom date and started walking me toward the basketball courts. [On a side note, this prom-date walk is a cultural tradition in Jordan. I’ve seen a lot of men walking around arm in arm or even hand in hand, and it’s considered a nice thing that friends do for one another. Still, it was a little surprising at the time.] At the basketball courts I met two adults who looked and acted like coaches. One of them spoke OK English and from what I gathered, he used to play professionally and now he spends his time coaching kids of all ages on the weekend. After a long series of negotiations in a mishmash of English, Arabic, and mime/gesticulation, we finally managed to set up a 7 v 7 game of Americans (plus a couple of locals) versus Jordanians.

With the rest of the kids in the program cheering from the sidelines along with about 20 of the younger local kids, we turned in a valiant effort against the local elite. Unfortunately, everyone on our team had dressed for a day of tourism rather than competitive sports. Jeans and sneakers are not ideal attire for soccer on a dirt field. Still, it would be disingenuous to blame our 4-1 defeat completely on our clothing—there was a noticeable discrepancy in skill between the two sides. Our offense was run entirely by the two Jordanian guys we borrowed, and our only goal came on an ugly toe-poke by yours truly after a scramble in front of the “net” (I say “net” facetiously because our goals were marked by two rocks). Nevertheless, it was a really fun experience and I’m glad we made it happen. In retrospect, I should have swapped jerseys when we shook hands at the end, but my “jersey” was a sweaty T-shirt and everyone on their team had on replica uniforms so I don’t think it would have been a fair trade.

After that, we went to a place by the side of the road to watch the sunset over the West Bank (obviously, we were still in Jordan, but on top of a mountain with a direct line of sight to the border and beyond). Basheer whipped up some tea (actually, it was more like sugar with hint of tea) and we all took tons of pictures. I ventured down off the road with Luke and Blair—two of the guys in the program—and we created a game based on throwing rocks at specific pieces of trash on the hillside. Even though we probably came close to starting a rockslide, I found this game strangely peaceful—more so than actually watching the sunset. I can’t really explain it other than to say that it was kind of like what Charlie and Mac did in the Always Sunny Christmas special—sometimes, you just have to get back to the basics and throw rocks at stuff.

This week I’m going to be pretty busy with school, so I have no idea when I’ll write next. Helen (a girl from CMC) and I are running a class discussion after the former Jordanian foreign minister/deputy prime minister/chief of the Judicial Council lectures us on Thursday (as I said before, Dr. Raed has the wasdas). Since this guy is a good bet for being my ISP advisor, I have to make a good impression, which means I might have to do something drastic like wear a tie. Anyway, I’ll have to wait until next time to write about my new favorite TV show.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Taxicab Confessions Pt. 1

This is the first installment in an ongoing series, “Taxicab Confessions: Amman,” wherein I relate funny conversations I’ve had with taxi drivers. Unless I’m talking with friends, I usually make an effort to speak with the taxi driver, though sometimes it’s difficult and usually it’s a mix of Arabic and English. Anyway, I had the following conversation with a Palestinian taxi driver last week:

Driver: Where are you from?
Me: I’m from America.
Driver: Do you like to play videogames?
[I have no idea why he said this, but I find it pretty funny that videogames are the first thing he thought of when I mentioned America]
Me: What?
Driver: Do you play Xbox? Call of Duty?
Me: Oh, yeah. I play Xbox a lot at school.
Driver: What games do you play?
Me: Halo, FIFA...
Driver: I play Mass Effect 2...

At this point, the driver listed some other games which I now forget, mainly because I was hanging on in shock and awe as he pulled into the left-hand turn only lane and sped past a giant line of cars that were stopped at a red light. We were approaching the red light doing 60 km/hr when the light suddenly turned green. Without slowing down, the driver zoomed right through the intersection, around all of the traffic, and swerved back into the straight lane.

Me: Do you play Need for Speed?
Driver: Yes, I love Need for Speed Underground.
Me: Good, it helps with your job.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Nick Works Out With Jordanian Bodybuilders, Hilarity Will Probably Ensue

After much deliberation, I settled on a gym to work out in today. I joined Nadi Weder (Club Weder), a bodybuilding gym that’s about a 10-minute walk or a half-dinar cab ride from my host family’s house. The owner Mohammed is the former national bodybuilding champion of Jordan, and he speaks only broken English so I got a chance to try out some Arabic on him when he showed me around. Unfortunately, he speaks only in the Jordanian local dialect, which I’m quickly learning is completely different from the MSA that I’ve learned for three semesters. He can still understand some of what I say, but it’s a little awkward because talking in MSA a pretty big social faux pas (think of addressing a blue-collar worker in Shakespearean English). But I’m still looking forward to my time at the gym for a few reasons:

1) I’m the only American. Most of the gyms I’ve looked at are very western and the common language is inevitably English. This place is old-school enough that almost all of the people are locals, though some still speak excellent English. Oh and by the way, when I say “people” I mean “men” because this gym is dudes-only (I told you it was old-school). It’s kind of a bro-fest—I saw one too many guys working out in polo shirts today—but since my lifelong goal is to be a frat boy, joining Club Weder was definitely a step in the right direction. Maybe I’ll introduce the Jordanian masses to beer pong and set gender relations back another decade. On a more serious note, the fact that it’s a local gym means I’ll get lots of chances to practice amee’a (the local dialect) that I wouldn’t get in a western gym. Just today, three people came up and asked me where I was from and about life in America.

2) The gym came highly recommended by Ahmad. Let me explain a little: Ahmad is the assistant to Dr. Raed (the program director), and he’s the unofficial “get-shit-done” guy. He has a barrel chest and a hawk-like gaze which broadcast that he is not a man to be trifled with. He also has his ear to the ground. In Arabic, there’s a word called “wasda,” which roughly translates to “connection” or “hookup.” A wasda can be anything from an inside recommendation for a restaurant job to having a Barack Obama on speed-dial. Dr. Raed has wasdas with lots of local academics, which makes him a great program director because he can bring in expert speakers to our seminar classes. Ahmad seemingly has wasdas with everyone in the city of Amman. He begins an inordinate number of sentences by saying “I know a guy...” For example, I was talking with Dr. Raed and some of his Iraqi friends during orientation, and they were having a good time describing Iraqi dive bars where “you can take home beautiful women.” Jokingly, I asked if there were any places like that in Amman, and they all said something along the lines of “no, no, Amman is much more conservative.” Ahmad turns to me and just says, in all seriousness, “I know a place... but you have to pay 70JD, and you cannot take the women home.” So, to reiterate, Ahmad has the wasdas and he knows and likes the owner of Club Weder—in fact, Ahmad described Mohammed by flexing and saying, “He is like me, but with more definitions.” Which brings me to my third point...

3) Thanks to Ahmad’s wasda, I got a discount. I paid 70 JD for the entire semester instead of the normal 30JD/month. Considering that my other choices were between 40-50JD per month and had a lot of stuff that I considered extras (pools and masseuses are nice, but I didn’t come to Jordan to get back rubs), this is a really good deal. Coincidentally, 70JD is also what Ahmad told me a Jordanian prostitute would cost, so I figure if I pick up just one girl with the help of my swollen biceps and washboard abs I’ll at least break even (kidding, Mom!).

In other news, we had our first classes today. I thought there was a general understanding that this was a party semester and not “real school,” but someone didn’t get the memo and we still have an annoying amount of work to do. Luckily, we are doing what’s called “qualitative research,” which as I understand it is basically glorified gonzo journalism with citations, so it shouldn’t be too difficult.

Finally, in one week of being in the country I have am proud to report that I have only mistaken ordinary Jordanians for terrorists twice, and both occasions were completely understandable. The first time, I was hailing a cab at the corner of my street when a black van with three guys bundled up in kaffiyas (the traditional checkered headdress) raced around the corner and screeched to a halt next to me. From my perspective, it looked kind of like this:

As they threw open the sliding door, I froze for a second and considered which P90X Kenpo moves would work best to disarm three armed terrorists. I was about to unleash a fearsome ball kick-back knuckles-back kick combo when they tossed a stack of newspapers at my feet and kept going. They were just newspaper delivery guys. I felt bad, but I don’t think any jury in the world would convict me for freaking out a little there. The second time was on Saturday, when every high-school senior in Amman celebrated graduation by driving around the city and shooting fireworks and guns into the air. When I woke up to gunshots, looked out the window and saw kids with weapons piling into vehicles, naturally the first thing I thought of was the invasion scene at the beginning of Red Dawn. Once I verified that Jordan was not actually being overrun by Soviet troops and that I wouldn’t have to lead a band of high-school kids into the mountains to form a resistance a la Patrick Swayze, I went back to sleep.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Cribs, Cops, and Crazy Eights

So for those of you who were wondering, I will in fact be staying in my own private bedroom with custom-built wood furniture, a full-size bed, cable TV, attached private bathroom with marble tiling, and an eerily beautiful wake-up call every morning from the nearby mosque (call to prayer, meaning Quran’ic verses played over loudspeakers, is at 6 AM). Right now there are only two minor downsides to my situation: first, there’s no heat, which won’t be a problem in about a month or so but right now it means I have to sleep with roughly 40 pounds of covers on; and second, there’s no internet, which means I’m submitting this entry from an internet cafe. Here’s a few pictures of my crib: Edit: Apparently I'm paying for shitty dial-up internet access that doesn't even have enough bandwith to upload photos. I'll do it at SIT where I have legit WiFi.

Edit #2: All photos are on my flickr account for now. Sorry about the confusion, Blogger is ridiculously slow from Jordan.

I have three words to say about my host family. They. Are. Awesome. They hosted Jake Scruggs (another Pomona kid) last semester, so they’re pretty familiar with what I need/want. My host mom is a total sweetheart, she doesn’t speak much English but like any good mother she puts piles of food in front of me until I have to tell her to stop. She has three kids—Muhammad, Waleed, and Leeana, who are roughly 10, 7, and 4 years old, respectively. They don’t really know any Americans other than me, Jake, Barack Obama, and (thanks to Muhammad and Waleed) the entire WWE wrestling lineup. I never thought I’d be mentioned in the same sentence as both President Obama and The Undertaker, so that’s pretty cool. I watched WWE with the kids last night and tried to explain to them that it was all fake, but they were too busy pointing and saying things like “Look! Fat man, fat man!” In the episode we saw, Jon Heder (aka Napoleon Dynamite and the guy who wasn’t Will Ferrell in Blades of Glory) was the “guest host.” He wound up getting into the ring and beating up a midget, only to get pinned by a very large man with a mullet and then jumped on by the aforementioned midget. This has nothing to do with Amman or study abroad, I just wanted to say that it may be the biggest and quickest fall from grace in Hollywood history since Robert Downey, Jr. discovered cocaine.

Anyway, since my host family’s English is about as good as my Arabic, there’s a lot of miming and pointing involved in getting any point across, but as a result I’ve learned a ton already. They all loved my gifts—I gave Leeana a moose stuffed animal, Waleed a toy lobster boat, and Muhammad a set of cards, which I used to teach them Crazy Eights (themaneeya majnoona). We played that for a couple of hours yesterday because they didn’t have school—apparently, all it takes is two inches of sleet to shut down the entire city of Amman for a day. The kids also have a Konami knockoff of FIFA for the PC, so we’ve been playing that too. My host dad runs a café/bar so he is gone most nights and sleeps until the mid-afternoon, but he was nice enough to take me on his errands yesterday and show me around the neighborhood. He speaks the most English, but he’s still nowhere near fluent, which made the drive that much more interesting...

One of my groupmates said that driving in Amman is like “taking the worst parts of driving in New York and Boston and throwing them all together,” and I think she was right. In my short time here, I’ve personally witnessed two accidents, which is twice as many as I’ve seen before in my life (and I was driving in the last one I saw). One of the main reasons for this is that Jordanian roads, including the ubiquitous traffic circles, are designed without lanes. So a three-lane road can turn into a two-lane road without warning, meaning someone is going to get pinched. Also, about half of the cars on the road are taxis, which are low-slung stick-shift vehicles trying to dart in and out of traffic as quickly as possible (the manual transmission is important because taxi drivers would rather tailgate than go to the trouble of downshifting). The other half of cars on the road is pretty equally split between high-end private cars, whose owners naturally have a strong sense of entitlement and demonstrate it by driving like angry New Yorkers; and lumbering government vehicles, which are usually either civilian buses or Humvees and trucks ferrying troops around the capital to different assignments. Basically, it’s like an old Cruisin’ USA game—there are a lot of cars driving fast and trying to outmaneuver each other, and then a few trucks and buses thrown in to make things interesting.

As I mentioned, there are very few lights in Jordan—just European-style traffic circles and cops at some of the busier intersections. The army, police, and traffic cops are basically the same entity in Jordan--they wear identical uniforms and have identical equipment, which usually consists of mirrored sunglasses, blue-gray urban camouflage jumpsuits, bulletproof vests, and submachine guns. Some incarnation of these security forces is stationed at almost every corner, every embassy, and every government building, which seemed intimidating at first. Depending on your perspective, their presence can make Jordan seem like either the most secure democracy or the most democratic police state. In reality, I think they’re more of a resource than anything else—the uniformed guards I approached in the tourist district were very friendly and helpful (and they also spoke excellent English), and without them I would not have found the landmarks we visited for our “drop-off” mission on Wednesday. First, we went to the National Art Gallery, which was incredible because it was filled with Arabic calligraphy art.

Then we also visited Lawrence of Arabia’s house, which was converted from an old church and built on top of one of Amman’s hills. It’s pretty close to downtown near the shopping district, where everything is dirt-cheap—I picked up a couple of bootleg Arabic DVDs (I assume they were bootleg because they were on DVD-RW disks with printer-paper covers) with English subtitles for 2JD. Based on what I could understand from the guy running the store, one is a Jordanian chick-flick and the other is an action-romance where the main character is a guy who looks like the Middle Eastern answer to Vin Diesel. Sounds promising.

Today my main goal (besides getting to Starbucks) is to find a gym somewhere close to my host family’s house so that I don’t have to take a long taxi ride to work out. My host mom said that Jake played basketball at a gym behind the British Embassy, which is a ten-minute taxi ride from home but walking distance from SIT, so I may try to check that out. Until next time...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

First Impressions: Food, Class, and (possible) Arab Prostitutes

I wrote this last night, but I didn't have internet access to post until now. Apparently it's about to snow in Amman and we're about to go on a "drop-off," which is basically a practice run of navigating the city as part of orientation. We meet host families tomorrow so I'll probably have a lot to write about after that. Anyway, here goes nothing:

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I’ve been in Amman for just over 24 hours. It’s not nearly enough time to get a feel for anything, so I’m just going to offer up a series of unorganized initial impressions about the city, the program, the group, and everything else that I’ve managed to absorb.

My flights, visas, luggage, and all of the simple stuff went fine. I had a seven-hour layover in the Paris airport terminal that I spent watching old episodes of The Wire and meeting a few of the SIT kids. In the process, I also broke my personal record for sleeplessness (starting at 7:15 AM in Bangor, ME, I didn’t sleep until 3:30 PM Amman time. That’s 25 hours and 15 minutes for those of you counting at home). By the time I rolled into the hotel with the other SIT kids, I was running on fumes. I gorged on an Arabic dinner platter, staggered upstairs and passed out for ten hours of glorious sleep.

We spent most of the next day doing orientation stuff. It was four hours of pretty commonsense “do”s and “don’t”s (do have an open mind, don’t disrespect your host family, that sort of thing). But on the plus side, our “campus” is gorgeous. It’s one four-story building that’s literally right next to the Venezuelan embassy (with the right password, I could steal their WiFi, but unfortunately their password was not “guest” so no dice). From the top floors, we have an incredible view of East Amman (I’ll have pictures later).

One of the coolest things about the program is that we get an hour and a half every day to get lunch anywhere in the city. Taxis are dirt cheap (a 20-minute ride across the city costs about 2 JD or roughly $3.00) and food is a pretty good deal too (we ate at Al-Baal, a fairly high-end restaurant for about 6 JD per person, or $8.50). And the food is phenomenal. I grew up eating mainly bread and pasta—I didn’t eat meat until I was 14 or so. Arab food is all of the carbs I loved when I was 7 combined with all of the meat I loved when I was 17. Even in restaurants, meals are served platter-style because Arabs want you to try everything. The result is a giant mix and match—staples like falafel and pita bread and meat collide with hummous, vegetables, and more exotic toppings to form a giant multi-course mashup of deliciousness. I thought I might catch some flak for eating left-handed (I grew up eating lefty but most Arabs eat only with their right hand). However, both local waiters as well as the Jordanian program directors said it wouldn’t be a problem, so I continued shoveling in food at maximum efficiency. This could turn out to be a mixed blessing; I probably consumed a Michael Phelps-esque 4,000 calories today without getting any kind of exercise. If this continues, I’ll wind up fatter than Luke Wilson.

The program itself seems like the perfect combination of organization and spontaneity. Class runs for five hours a day, but because of weekends and our trip to Egypt, the Bedouin family homestay, visiting Aqaba and the Dead Sea, and the monthlong independent study project, we’re only actually in class for 35 days. After orientation and a group dinner today, we still had time to spend a couple hours in a hookah bar, which was playing loud Arabic remixes of American songs and employed waitresses who wore exactly the kind of clothing that our directors said would invite “unwanted attention"--they totally showed off their shoulders and wore tight clothing (I also think they were trying earning some money on the side seducing the customers, because what self-respecting hookah bar keeps five “waitresses” standing around in addition to the seven male waiters at 9 PM on a Tuesday night?) But don’t worry, Mom, their charms didn’t separate me from my dinars—for some reason, they seemed to focus on the two businessmen in the corner booth rather than the group of 12 students. The point? At first glance, Amman really is the modern, relatively westernized Middle Eastern city it bills itself as.

Despite the distractions, we had some interesting conversations through the haze of hookah smoke and over the blaring of Arab rap. At first, it’s hard to think of our group as anything but homogenous—there are 29 of us, 22 are female, I think all but two are IR or Middle Eastern Studies majors, and almost everyone goes to a small liberal arts college. We’re the kind of group that can easily find mutual friends, common interests, and understand each other’s pop-culture references. But I think that beneath the overwhelming sameness everyone has a pretty unique story that emerges as you get to know them. For example, I tried to compare SIT’s cast of characters to Jersey Shore (with me driving the plot as The Situation, my roommate Luke as my partner-in-crime Pauly D, and my other roommate Martin as the laid-back, smack-talking Vinny), but I realized it’s too early to start with the comparisons. It doesn’t work. I don’t know if there’s a fight-starting Ronnie in the group, or even a psychotic Angelina, a manipulative Sammie, or a sweetheart Snookie among our ranks. I guess I can only hope Amman will be our shore house—a place to hang out and, you know, avoid all the drama.