Travel Jordan: The Real Deal with Jo Brown

Travel Jordan: The Real Deal with Jo Brown

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!

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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.

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, snorkeling 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.

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.

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!

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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.

One day I will never forget is a simple lunch we shared with a Palestinian family who live in Jerash – the Gaza refugee camp which has been in existence since 1967. These people have little to no rights – they fled from Gaza in 1967 and have lived in this camp with over 30,000 others ever since. Their families were born there, they learn, work, sleep and will probably die there. And yet they have so much hope to return to Palestine someday. You can read more about this visit on my blog.

One of my most memorable experiences was the week when we taught English to Iraqi refugees from Mosul who were being housed at a rehabilitation center for the disabled. I remember feeling rather petrified at the prospect – me? Teaching English? I didn’t even know how! But after meeting with the people, and getting settled into my first topic – it all just came naturally and I had a phenomenal week.

These Iraqis are from reasonably well-off backgrounds but because they’re Christians and they live in Iraq, their whole world has been turned upside down because of a terrorist organisation named IS, or ISIS, or ISIL. And so they fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They have managed to escape the horrors in their own country, and have sought refuge in Jordan – hopefully, temporarily. We taught them a few basics of English as they hope to be rehoused in Europe or America.

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These moments are when you truly realize that horrors are really happening. In our safe homes on the other side of the world we can happily raise a fist to our television screens as yet another news story is broadcast about IS, but meeting these people and seeing how drastically their lives have been changed really brings those news stories to life. I can put a face to a Christian who fled from Mosul. I can remember the look in their eyes when they remember what they saw.

In our safe homes on the other side of the world we can happily raise a fist to our television screens as yet another news story is broadcast about IS, but meeting these people and seeing how drastically their lives have been changed really brings those news stories to life.

I taught a group of 7, ranging from age 14 to 60 and all from the same family. Sometimes it was quite hard to teach them as they wouldn’t stop laughing – some inside joke in Arabic I presumed! At other times I could feel the sadness among them, but in those moments my natural silliness took over the situation and helped them to laugh. Teaching came to me naturally. I loved sharing a language that I love with them without textbooks or a whiteboard. I resorted to drawing on scraps of paper!

The local community donated hundreds of bags of clothes and toys, and we spent a few hours every day helping sort them out. Once it was all laid out, the families were allowed to come in one by one and select 4 items each. I helped them pick out clothes and complimented them when they tried items on. It was a heartbreaking and excruciatingly difficult process. I remember imagining myself in their shoes – having come from a situation where I had so much, to suddenly having to take clothes that have been given freely. It would be painful. They don’t want to be seen as beggars, but on the other hand, they desperately need help.

That week and the time I spent with such strong people will stay with me forever. I remember telling one of the ladies in my group that I’d lost my sunglasses. As we were leaving that day, she came up to me and gave me hers. I tried to refuse – I have so much, and she has so little – but she insisted. That gesture meant so much to me. She has so little to give, and yet she wanted to bless me with one of her prized belongings. I was speechless.

Leaving them was tough. I felt like my heart was breaking and I didn’t want to go. I’d grown so attached to them – the lady who gave me the sunglasses kept coming back for more hugs! The whole ride back to Amman I cried silent tears. I doubt I’ll ever see them again, but I hope they are able to continue their lives in peace and in a new country.

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What do you wish you knew before you went?

How hard it would be to leave. But in all honesty, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to leave a country I had fallen in love with and the amazing people I had met on the way. I feel like I’ve left a piece of myself behind, and really need to go back.

I’ve kept in touch with a few people from Jordan, especially one girl who I just clicked with. It’s been great to get to know her even though we live 5 hours apart. This is all what cultural exchanges are about. I’m learning so much about her, her faith, her culture and her daily life in Jordan by simply texting her. I would much rather meet her for a coffee in Amman, but this is second best.

Any favorite restaurants/hotels/hostels/sites you’d like to recommend?

One of my favorite places in Amman is Rainbow Street. It’s located just above downtown, but it’s miles away from the hustle and bustle of those streets. Rainbow Street is like downtown’s quirky twin. It’s a street dotted with cool coffee shops and shisha bars, colorful graffiti on walls and a shop called Mlabbas sells awesome T-Shirts – from pro-Palestinian, to Arabic phrases, to Angry Birds decked out in keffiyehs. I couldn’t resist and came home with two.

A great cafe called Turtle Green sells fantastic fair trade coffee and some of the biggest and tastiest salads I have ever had. If you want to get your laptop out, have a coffee, and pretend you’re back in your hometown, then this is the place to go.

Another great place along Rainbow Street – if you’re feeling peckish for a ginormous burger that is – is Firefly Burgers. For 3.50 JD you can have a burger the size of your face with spicy fries and a drink. Yes it’s not the healthiest – but it really fills that burger hole – especially if you’ve gotten a little fed up of the falafel!

If it is falafel you want, then the place to go is Hashim Restaurant, which is along the main road in downtown. It’s incredibly cheap and has fantastic Jordanian food. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but it’s great. On my first day in Amman, I went there with the 5 other Brits, and we all ate very well for only 7 JD – for ALL of us.

For cheap shisha and great drinks, then Jafra cafe – which is just along the road from Hashim’s – is fantastic. Sit on the balcony overlooking the hustle and bustle below and enjoy a lemon and mint shisha, paired with an equally refreshing lemon and mint slushy drink.

For Jordanian sites I’d recommend Petra, Dead Sea, Red Sea, Wadi Rum, Jerash… the list goes on. I really would recommend a night out in Wadi Rum though – and the 5.30am wake up for the unforgettable sunrise.

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What’s next on your travel list?

I’m currently planning a 5-week trip to South East Asia in January. I’ll be meeting an Aussie friend who I met on my backpacking adventures around Europe last year. We’ll be travelling around Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia – though our plans may change! I’ll then be flying back to Melbourne with her, where I’ll head to New Zealand by March to start my working holiday! Who knows when I’ll return back to my desk…

Follow Jo’s travels on her blog, Slap on Sunscreen and see trip photos here.

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Real DealOn the Real Deal, women share the highlights and challenges from their recent trip–and what they wish they knew before going.

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