Your Vacation in Lights: Speaking Arabic adds depth to Virginia woman's visit to Jordan, Syria and Israel

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ellen Hamilton Baugh of Vienna is the latest contributor to Your Vacation in Lights, in which we invite Travel section readers to dish about their recent trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. You won't win a million dollars if your story is featured; in fact, you won't win anything but the thanks and admiration of your fellow readers. To file your own trip report, see the fine print below.

WHAT: Two-month trip to Jordan to study Arabic, with side trips to Damascus, Syria, and Israel.

WHO: I joined a group of 10 students from Mary Washington University in Fredericksburg. The group was led by Shukri Abed, chairman of the Languages Department at the Middle East Institute. The last week my 22-year-old daughter Katherine joined the group, and we traveled together to Israel and through Jordan.

WHEN: June 18-Aug. 17.

WHY: I wanted to study Arabic at the University of Jordan Language Center in Amman. My side goals were to explore Jordan, Syria and Israel.

SCHOOL'S IN: I studied intermediate Arabic about four hours a day five days a week (no English allowed) and practiced with a tutor and a speaking partner. Last summer, I'd studied Arabic at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon; I tried harder this time to get out and speak at every opportunity.

COVER UP: Women in Jordan and Syria dress very modestly, so I packed only long-sleeved tops and pants. However, I saw plenty of scantily clad American and European tourists who flouted local mores.

CAPITAL SIGHTS: Perched on seven hills, Amman is a combination of a modern Western city, with flashy, expensive hotels, and a more modest Middle Eastern city of markets, sidewalk eateries and overcrowding. There are mosques everywhere, and the calling to prayer is beautiful.

CAMEL RIDING: At the famous tourist spot of Petra, Bedouin men rent out camels, donkeys and horses and run the food and trinket stalls. Many of them wear kohl eye makeup. Bedouin women sell jewelry in tents and stalls along the paths. At the end of the trip, I returned to Petra with my daughter, and we rode camels into the valley and donkeys up to a monastery in the mountains.

LAWRENCE, I PRESUME: Aqaba is the scene of Lawrence of Arabia's legendary raid on the Turkish fort there in 1917. The town is now very touristy, with visitors mostly from Europe. I stayed in a cheap hotel and paid a beach fee at the InterContinental Hotel ($50, which included lunch and excellent facilities).

FLOATERS: The Dead Sea is lovely and the lowest dry land elevation on Earth. The Jordanian side is surrounded by desert and some agriculture. The resorts have the best beaches. We went to the Marriott ($40 per person) and spent hours treading water. Some beachgoers covered their bodies in black mud (purchased from lifeguards) that is famous for its healing qualities.

DAMASCUS HIGHLIGHTS: A six-hour bus ride from Amman, Damascus is famous for its Old City, Ummayad Mosque (Syria's most important mosque), Qasr (palace) Azem, Bab Tomah (the Christian Quarter) and the souks. I stayed at Dar al Yasmin, a charming old house converted into a hotel in the Christian Quarter. Nearby was the Chapel of St. Ananias, who was sent to heal Saul/St. Paul after he had been struck blind on the road to Damascus, and the Chapel of St. Paul, a modern stone building that includes part of the ancient city gate through which Paul escaped from Roman soldiers.

ISRAEL-BOUND: We crossed from Jordan into Israel at the North Bridge; the border was heavily fortified. In Jerusalem, we went to Mount Scopus and viewed the Old City, the Wailing Wall and Temple Mount, which we were unable to visit because of security. In the West Bank, we saw many prosperous Israeli settlements with irrigated farms and many poor Palestinian villages surrounded by desert.

LET'S EAT: Mediterranean food is delicious; we feasted on falafel, chicken shawarma, tabouleh, hummus and olives. Be careful about the cleanliness of eateries; I had problems with some expensive buffet food. There was plenty of Western fast food in Amman, but the local food was better.

FINAL LESSON: Trying to speak Arabic gave me many opportunities to make acquaintances and talk politics. The young men in the shops, cafes and taxis were delighted to hear me speaking and would all respond with "welcome" in English. One lady in a bookstore had been a foreign exchange student in California and reminisced about the United States. I started in Arabic, then changed to English.

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