School is the worst, but Autumn is beautiful



This semester is giving me a hard time.  But I went for a drive up Provo Canyon on Saturday, and it is a beautiful time of year around here.









Back Home

“Now more than ever do I realize that I will never be content with a sedentary life, that I will always be haunted by thoughts of a sun-drenched elsewhere.”
― Isabelle Eberhardt, The Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt


There were a number of things I had on my mind during those last few days in Jordan that would have made great blog posts, but I never could quite find the time or will to write it up, and, since returning, military training and the start of a new semester at school have kept me from getting back to it.


I want to quickly put up a post though about how grateful I am to be back in my home country.  I do love this place despite its many flaws and failings.  I suspect my next adventure outside the United States is not too far off, but for now I’m happy to be in the land that I love.  There is so much I have to be grateful for.


Labor day hike with a couple of good friends


So the morning after we returned from our three-day trip I was sleeping peacefully in bed

baby sleeping

When suddenly and without warning I woke up


Because I needed to get to the bathroom IMMEDIATELY (I safely made it). I still went to work that day, but it was an uncomfortable day.  And the following two days I stayed at home. At this point the storm has mostly passed (I think. Hope.) but it involved some… less than ideal moments.  I suppose I’ve joined a long and storied tradition of travelers finding themselves similarly indisposed while living abroad, so I like to see the humor in it.

So as a result of spending an extended period of time sitting in a particular small room of my apartment, this week’s post is much less action-packed and much more reflective than previous weeks. If you therefore want to skim over it, I’ll understand.
One of the things I did to occupy myself was I read a book my roommate lent me titled The Places in Between by Rory Stewart.  The book relates the author’s experiences walking from Herat to Kabul, Afghanistan in the early months of 2002.  It was a really interesting read, and an insightful look into the modern and historical peoples of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is remarkable in its heterogeneity: the diversity of ethnic groups and tribes is striking.  For centuries – no, millenia, Afghanistan has been the highway for conquering armies traveling across Eurasia. The Greeks, Persians, Mongols, and Arabs, just to name a few, have at one time or another swept through conquering and leaving behind permanent tokens of their varied cultures. These tokens consist not only in archaeological remains, but also the very people themselves who are still living there.
It has made me somewhat contemplative as I’ve interacted with others in the last few days about people’s faces.  That’s sounds a little strange.  What I mean though is as the author of The Places in Between moves from one region of Afghanistan to another, he encounters various ethnic groups: Tajiks, Aimaq, Hazara, Pashto being among the most notable.  The book includes simple portrait sketches he makes of some of the people he meets and stays with.  It’s fascinating to me how these people, and really all people everywhere, tie into history.  This man in this village perhaps looks just like a great Persian prince of the Safavid Empire, while this other man in this other village bears the distinctive features of Genghis’ invading Mongols.  Perhaps also because this past week I was preparing to give a talk in church about genealogy, I am just amazed at the strength of the connections between us and our distant forebears, in terms of physical resemblance as well as temperament, life-views, mannerisms, etc. But especially this week I’ve been wondering about faces.  Am I wearing the same face as some distant ancestor of mine? And this man I pass in the street, did someone who looked just like him once walk this same ground centuries ago? I realize it’s silly to think about, because what does that have to do with anything, but there you are.
On a rather different note, another part of the book caught my attention.  I don’t want to give the wrong impression, I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to be here this summer, and I’ve had numerous unforgettable experiences.  However, I’m a little surprised to find that, with just under two weeks left, I’m really looking forward to coming back home. Last fall at two weeks before leaving I was certainly not ready to head back to the States.  But this time I can hardly wait.  I think the difference can be attributed to a few things, but primary among them is perhaps that I’m sick of working in a bureaucratic institution.  As the author enters Kabul at the end of his journey, he relates finding several Western and Western-influenced policy makers working on various projects in the months following the fall of the Taliban.  If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to quote at length from his account:

“I doubted the new policy makers in Kabul understood much of this [the complicating differences between the various tribes and ethnic groups]… I now had half a dozen friends working in Afghanistan in embassies, think tanks, international development agencies, the United Nations, and the Afghan government, controlling projects worth millions of dollars. A year before, they had been in Kosovo or East Timor and a year later they would be in Iraq or offices in New York and Washington.

“Their objective was (to quote the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) ‘the creation of a centralized, broad-based, multi-ethnic government committed to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.’ They worked twelve- or fourteen-hour days drafting documents for heavily funded initiatives on ‘democratization,’ ‘enhancing capacity,’ ‘gender,’ ‘sustainable development,’ ‘skills training,’ or ‘protection issues.’ They were mostly in their late twenties or early thirties, with at least two degrees – often in international law, economics, or development. They came from middle-class backgrounds in Western countries, and in the evenings they dined with each other and swapped anecdotes about the corruption in the government and the incompetence of the United Nations. They rarely drove their SUVs outside Kabul because their security advisers forbade it.

“Some, such as the two political officers in Chaghcharan, were experienced and well-informed about conditions in rural Afghanistan. But they were barely fifty out of many thousands. Most of the policy makers knew next to nothing about the villages where 90 percent of the Afghan population lived. They came from postmodern, secular, globalized states with liberal traditions in law and government. It was natural for them to initiate projects on urban design, women’s rights, and fiber-optic cable networks; to talk about transparent, clean, and accountable processes, tolerance, and civil society; and to speak of a people ‘who desire peace at any cost and understand the need for a centralized multi-ethnic government.’

“But what did they understand of the thought processes of Seyyed Kerbalahi’s wife, who had not moved five kilometers from her home in forty years? Or Dr. Habibullah, the vet, who carried an automatic weapon the way they carried briefcases? The villagers I had met were mostly illiterate, lived far from electricity or television, and knew very little about the outside world. Versions of Islam; views of ethnicity, government, politics, and the proper methods of dispute resolution (including armed conflict); and the experience of twenty-five years of war differed from region to region. The people of Kamenj understood political powers in terms of their feudal lord Haji Mohsin Khan. Ismail Khan in Herat wanted a political system based on Iranian political Islam. Hazara such as Ali hated the idea of centralized government because they associated it with subjugation by other ethnic groups and suffering under the Taliban. Even within a week’s walk I had encountered  areas where the local Bergs had been toppled by Iranian-influenced social revolution and others where feudal structures were still in place; areas where the violence had been inflicted by the Taliban and areas where the villagers had inflicted it on one another.  These differences between groups were deep, elusive, and difficult to overcome.  Village democracy, gender issues, and centralization would be hard-to-sell concepts in some area.

“Policy makers did not have the time, structures, or resources for a serious study of an alien culture.  They justified their lack of knowledge and experience by focusing on poverty and implying that dramatic cultural difference did not exist. They acted as though villagers were interested in all the priorities of international organizations, even when those priorities were mutually contradictory.

“In a seminar in Kabul, I heard Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, say, ‘Afghans have been fighting for their human rights for twenty-five years. We don’t need to tell them what their rights are.’ Then the head of a major food agency added privately, ‘Villagers are not interested in human rights. They are like poor people all over the world. All they think about is where their next meal is coming from.’ To which the head of an Afghan NGO providing counseling responded, ‘The only thing to know about these people is that they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.’

“The differences between the policy makers and a Hazara such as Ali went much deeper than his lack of food. Ali rarely worried about his next meal.  He was a peasant farmer and had a better idea than most about where his next meal was coming from. If he defined himself it was chiefly as a Muslim and a Hazara, not as a hungry Afghan. Without the time, imagination, and persistence needed to understand Afghans’ diverse experiences, policy makers would find it impossible to change Afghan society in the way they wished to change it.”

I feel like this offers a very broadly applicable concept based on a rather specific case.  The specific case is Afghanistan, and I could say a lot about how the frustrating situation in Afghanistan today is little helped and often harmed by the scores of bureaucrats who are still plaguing the country with their uninformed policies.  The broader concept though very aptly describes so much of what I despise about so many of the formal institutions in the world that are mucking things up with their projects and initiatives and task forces that speak of lofty ideals and aspirations and ultimately accomplish few positive changes, if any at all.  I’ve been spending my whole summer working in just such an institution and it’s maddening to me.  We spend our days typing into machines and pushing pieces of paper from one desk to the other, and from all that I can see, it amounts to so very little.  I can go work at the orphanage for a few days and clearly see ways of improving its operation and the standard of living for both the employees and the children.  Some of these improvements might even be fairly simple to implement.  But when I return to the ministry there’s a maze of procedures to be followed and reports to be submitted before any changes can be made, and anywhere along the line a paper might get stopped on a certain person’s desk and the whole process of bringing about a single, simple, yet significant improvement comes to a halt. I’m not blaming any particular person. The people I work with are, for the most part, very kind, nice, intelligent, well-intentioned people.  But they’re bureaucrats, through and through.  And I hate bureaucracy. So I’m ready to come home and be done with the Ministry of Social Development.
The other thing that somewhat concerns me from Rory Stewart’s account of the international policy makers he finds in Kabul is I think my major at school is exactly the kind of major that produces exactly the sorts of people he describes.  I feel like if all my degree is setting me up for is a career like that I’d be better off dropping out of school now.  Luckily, I think my degree is setting me up for more than just that kind of career so I’m gonna stick it out til graduation.  And then I can follow my own career plans.  Most likely in the Army.  Yeah, the Army.  Cuz we all know the Army is an institution free of frustratingly terrible bureaucratic processes.  I’m gonna go have a good cry now.
Seriously though, I wonder a lot about how to forge a career in the future where I can use these experiences I’ve had to make a positive difference in this crazy world without getting mired in all the bunk.  I think the answer, as essentially all answers do, lies in looking to the Savior.  The influence of His life’s work cannot be estimated.  How much time did He spend working on large-scale, heavily-funded social projects? How many government-sponsored initiatives or task forces did He head up? That wasn’t at all the way He operated.  His impact came personally, individually.  Most often, He ministered to small groups or individuals.  No one’s life was changed by a project proposal drafted by Jesus, but many were changed by hearing His voice, looking into His eyes, and feeling His love and care for them.  I think that whatever my life’s work is, it will work similarly.  Though, despite my efforts, I haven’t had any sort of impact on the orphanage as an institution, I’d like to think I’ve had a positive impact on individual children there.  In the same sort of way, whatever I end up doing with my life, I doubt I will be a power player in large-scale events, but I hope that by living a Christ-centered life there will be individuals who are blessed to come in contact with me.  Certainly my own life has been shaped and blessed this way, by the individual care and attention of good people (family not at all being least among them).
So, not an exciting post, I realize. But such is life after such weeks as my previous one.

رمضان كريم

“The great glory of travel, to me, is not just what I see that’s new to me in countries visited, but that in almost every one of them I change from an outsider looking in to an insider looking out.”

― Clara E. LaughlinTraveling Through Life


In front of the Treasury at Petra

Yes, I realize it’s been a while since I last posted.  Sorry about that.  Ramadan started a couple weeks ago, and I was fasting along with everyone else, and so after work most days the only thing I’ve wanted to do is take a nap.  So yeah, I haven’t written on here for a while and I’m behind on my homework.  Happy Ramadan!

Honestly though, Ramadan is pretty cool in a lot of ways.  If you’re not super familiar with Ramadan, it’s the holiest month on the Islamic calendar (which is based on the lunar cycle, so Ramadan falls at a slightly different season each year).  It was in the month of Ramadan that the prophet Muhammad received the first revelation of the Qur’an.  During Ramadan Muslims fast from sunrise til sunset.  Fasting includes abstention from food, drink, smoking and sexual relations.  Because we’re at the height of the summer right now, Ramadan this year includes a longer fast each day than other times of the year. Each morning around 3am the masaharji (the Awakener) walks around the neighborhood banging on a drum and yelling “La ilaha ila Allah! (There is no god but God)” to wake people up so they can grab a bite to eat before sunrise.  Once the call to prayer for the dawn prayer sounds, the fast is supposed to begin.  People fast until the evening call to prayer at dusk.  Work hours at the Ministry have been shortened during Ramadan, and a lot of people simply become nocturnal throughout the month.  It’s kind of funny to walk around at midnight and see kids playing soccer in the street, or find major traffic jams on main roads at 1am.  A lot of Muslims set a goal for themselves to read the entire Qur’an during Ramadan and it’s a time when people are supposed to be more conscientious and kind to the poor.  Zakkat, or Islamic alms, are usually given during Ramadan and people are often eager to invite guests to share Iftar, the evening meal to break the fast, with their families.  I’ve had Iftar with a couple of people and it’s really cool.

Obviously, I’m not a Muslim.  However, I wanted to participate in the fasting of Ramadan because, well, this is what I’m studying, right?  I’ve been learning about the culture, religion, and language of the Middle East for years now, but reading about and discussing a topic is never the same thing as living it.  So this is my chance to truly experience the month of Ramadan in an Islamic country.  That being said, after fasting for two weeks I think I’m gonna have to call it quits.  The end of this summer is quickly approaching and I need to be thinking of things like PT tests looming just around the corner, and it is unfortunately difficult to stay in shape while you’re fasting.  But I’m glad I’ve had the chance to experience these past couple of weeks.

This last week on Tuesday I was invited to have Iftar at the orphanage.  It was nice because I didn’t have to go in to work until 3pm that day.  Alright! Also, it was great getting to spend time with the kids in a slightly less structured environment.  The meal was delicious (shawarma and Papa John’s pizza.  How’s that for a combination?), and after everyone finished eating there was some kind of performer who played some extremely loud music and sang along.  He had the kids come up front with him and dance.  They seemed to be having the time of their lives and it was great seeing them so happy.  There’s a small crew of 7-10 year-old boys who seem have attached themselves to me, and so while most everyone was dancing around they were using me as a human jungle gym.  Good thing I have lots of practice with that thanks to my little brothers.  Anyway, after an hour or so I decided to leave, but the party was showing no signs of letting up any time soon.  That was a fun night.

The siq that serves as an entrance to Petra

Up until this weekend, things were going along pretty normally without much change.  Work, speaking appointments, a nap if I could get it in and oftentimes going to the restaurant across the street in the evenings to watch the World Cup matches.  This past Friday morning (early morning) we headed off on a three-day trip to Petra, Wadi Rum, and Aqaba.  Yes, I went to all these places last fall, but that trip was one of the highlights of that semester, so I’ve been really looking forward to going back.  We got to Petra around 10am and only had 4 hours to spend there.  This was pretty different from last fall when we had an entire day to explore Petra.  That was a little disappointing, because there are so many cool hikes there, and I didn’t get to re-visit my favorite places.  It was still really awesome though.  The other big difference between this trip and the one last fall is that the last time I was here it was late October, not the hottest part of the summer.  It was HOT this time around.  Well, it was hot last time around too, but not like this.

The Monastery at Petra

We left Petra around 3 in the afternoon and headed to Wadi Rum.  I loved Wadi Rum last time I went there and was disappointed that we only spent part of a day there.  This time we spent the night, and it was really, really cool.  Wadi Rum is where the movie Lawrence of Arabia was filmed (along with several other major films) and, in my opinion, is the paragon of desert beauty.  We got there in the early evening and settled into our “campsite.”  Really, it was more like a desert resort, with small wooden “tents” for sleeping in.  We then went on a jeep ride out into the desert, and watched the sun set out there.  It was seriously so great.  We went back to the camp for dinner and then most of us decided to go out on a night walk around 10pm.  I had heard that the stars out there at nighttime are amazing to see.  I was a little disappointed though, because the moon was nearly full and drowned out most of the stars.  It was seriously so bright.  Even though we were out in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night we didn’t need flashlights at all and were able to see everything very clearly.  I don’t really know how to describe it, it was almost a surreal experience: walking out into the vast immensity of the desert at night, completely illuminated by the moon, nothing moving but the wind.  It was like I almost expected my spirit animal to walk out of the distance and come talk to me about my life quest or something.  That was a really cool experience.

Overlook of our campsite at Wadi Rum

The following morning at dawn we went on a short camel ride out a little ways into the desert and then back.  While I didn’t appreciate waking up that early after spending a good part of the night walking around, I did appreciate catching the cool hours of the morning before the heat of the day could strike.  Camels are weird.  Watching them stand up, lay down, walk around, even just sit and chew you can’t help but wonder where these weirdos came from.  They’re seriously total goobers.

Just some normal traffic

About mid-morning we loaded up and headed the rest of the way down to the south end of the country, the city and gulf of Aqaba.  You would think a coastal town would be cooler, right? Not in Aqaba. That place was roasting.  It’s a beautiful place though.  That afternoon we spent on the southern beach, which was very rocky and almost impossible to walk on barefoot.  My favorite part of that day, and probably one of the highlights of the whole trip for me was after we headed back to the main part of the city and its much-nicer-to-walk-on beach.  There was a guy there with a glass-bottom boat who offered to take us out for an hour for 15 dinar.  We puttered around the gulf for a while, looking at coral and fish and even a tank that was sunk a little ways off the shore.  The best part though was when he took it out to some deeper water and anchored it and let us jump off and swim around.  I dunno what it was about that moment, but I had such a great time.  I’ve decided that if my career aspirations don’t pan out the way I hope I’m just gonna move to Aqaba and work on a glass-bottom boat for the rest of my life.  I think I’d enjoy that immensely.
The nearly full moon at Wadi Rum at sunset

After heading back to our hotel and showering, we went out for dinner.  Surprise, surprise, contrary to expectations it somehow seemed to get hotter once the sun went down.  That wind blowing off the desert was fierce. It was seriously like walking around inside an oven.  Anyway, we still had a good time.  After a good night’s sleep, we spent most of the following morning/early afternoon snorkeling at the south beach.  This was the second time I’ve ever gone snorkeling (the first time being the last time I was in Aqaba), and while I accidentally swallowed more salt water than I care for it was a lot of fun.  The ocean is a pretty incredible place.  Totally worth getting my back sunburned (to my mother: yes I did put on sunscreen, but it only did so much for me).
Jeep ride in Wadi Rum

After about a five-hour bus ride we made it back to Amman about 9pm last night (just in time to clean up a bit and watch the World Cup final. Yeah yeah!).  You know, despite the tedium of it, I really enjoy long drives.  I love seeing different landscapes and passing through small towns and wondering about the lives of the people who live in those places.  And I have to say, there’s not much to compare with driving up the east coast of the Dead Sea, watching the sun sink behind the Judean hills on the other side as you listen to some good music you recently discovered.  Life is pretty cool sometimes.
Sunset at Wadi Rum

Summer Has Made A Violent Appearance

“[Walking] is the perfect way of moving if you want to see into the life of things. It is the one way of freedom. If you go to a place on anything but your own feet you are taken there too fast, and miss a thousand delicate joys that were waiting for you by the wayside.” 
― Elizabeth von ArnimThe Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen

After my last post I meant to write again some about the trip we took the previous weekend to Jerash, Ajloun and Umm Qais, but since those are all places I visited last fall and wrote about on this blog at the time I’ll just say that it was a lot of fun going again and if you want to read about those places you can just scroll down and find my old posts about them.  And since I haven’t taken many pictures since then I’ll include some of my pictures from those places in this post.


Ruins of ancient Jerash in the foreground, the modern city of Jerash in the background

In relation to the quote at the beginning of this post, I do a lot of walking here.  I don’t have a car and public transportation costs money (and I’ve found that the cheapest forms of public transport involve taking a bus or “service” (pronounced like it’s French) car that takes you partway, then you walk 10 or so minutes to the next station and take another one the rest of the way). At first, all the walking made me really impatient.  If I’m completely honest, it still often does.  Back home I have my pickup truck and can take it anywhere I want to go, anytime I want to get there.  So walking for half an hour to get someplace I could drive to in 5 minutes can be frustrating when you’re a pampered American kid like me.  But I’m growing to appreciate it to an extent.  It’s still often uncomfortable. My legs are tired each night when I go to sleep.  As the title of this post suggests, the summer heat of a Middle Eastern nation has hit full force and I’m inevitably out walking in dark slacks and a shirt and tie.  However, you see and experience a lot more when you’re on foot.  You hear the music people play and overheard conversations as you walk through neighborhoods.  You see children playing and parents watching over them when you walk through public parks.  You experience the sensory overload of sights, sounds, smells and movement when you pass through the shops and markets downtown.  Walking puts you directly in the vicinity of the other humans around you without the buffer of car doors and windows.  It gives you a chance to say hello to strangers as you pass them.  It gives you a chance to smile and wave at the little boys chasing a ball as they run past you.  And it gives you a longer chance to think and reflect as you go from one place to another (something I otherwise would have had little time for this past week).


The remains of the Temple of Artemis at Jerash

Last Saturday we had no trips planned so most of us went to Waqe3 to do activities with the kids there.  Waqe3 is the community development center where I taught martial arts classes to kids each week last fall.  I think they were wanting me to do a one-time karate class again this time around, but there was some sort of miscommunication (or something.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the breakdown in understanding is coming from) and when we showed up all the employees were doing training (I think) and not many kids were there.  So instead of doing the different classes we had planned we just played games with the ten or so kids who were there.  Honestly, I think I preferred it that way.  It was a lot of fun playing Falafel, Falafel, Shawarma (which is just the Middle East version of Duck, Duck, Goose that we came up with last fall), Qala al-Mu’allim (Simon Says) and the Ninja Game with those kids.  Playing with kids is always a treat.  You never quite can tell what things they’ll say or do (“Simon says…fart!”).  We had never tried playing the Ninja Game (I’m sure many of you know what I’m talking about.  This is that game where you stand in a circle and each person gets a turn trying to ninja swipe the hands of the people nearby) here before and it was a BIG hit with the little boys.  The little girls weren’t into it quite as much, and all ended up running off to play a different game more to their liking, but even as we were leaving some of the boys were still calling out to me, “One more time! Come on!”

All this week, I didn’t go in to the ministry to work because I was assigned to work on other things outside the ministry.  One of the other interns is trying to do some statistical analyses for the department she is working in and needed to go visit some of the societies that the ministry helps to fund to get some survey data from them, and since she doesn’t really speak Arabic I was asked to go with her on Sunday.  It was quite the experience.  I’ve done a good amount of Arabic translation, but this was my first time doing real-time interpretation.  The first place we visited was the headquarters of the General Union of Volunteer Societies, which works with over 3000 charitable organizations spread throughout Jordan.  The second place was the headquarters of the Jordan Family Protection and Planning organization which runs 19 clinics throughout the country.  It was strange for me that we were meeting with the heads of these huge organizations who employ hundreds if not thousands of people, and that they went to such great lengths to be so respectful, almost deferent to us.  I realize that part of that comes from the culture; Arabs pride themselves on their hospitality and generosity.  But I think there was more to it than just that.  Something related to our coming as representatives of a government entity that finances and regulates their operations.  I don’t really know how to describe it, but it made me vaguely uncomfortable.  But overall I think it was a good experience.


Ajloun Castle

The rest of the week, Monday through Thursday I was assigned to help out at the Al-Hussein orphanage in Jabal al-Ashrafiyya with two other interns who are actually University of Utah students. The ministry has said they want me to visit centers like this to get a feel for their operations so I can write a report on them with recommendations for improving things.  When I first heard that my immediate thought was, “I’m sure I won’t have the slightest idea what to say about how to improve things.”  My first day there the administrators sent me to the infant center to have the pediatrician give me a tour.  When I explained to him that I wanted to understand how things work so I can write a report for the ministry he insisted on taking me on a full tour of the entire orphanage, so I could give a complete report.  And I have to say, I shouldn’t have been worried about having recommendations for improvement.  I don’t want to give the wrong impression, the orphanage does a lot of good and the living conditions for the kids there aren’t awful, but it was easy to see how much better off things could be if certain changes were made.  Honestly I have to give most of the credit to the pediatrician himself.  He was very thorough about making sure I saw everything and understood the problems they have.  He took me to every department of the orphanage, explained how everything works, and gave me the opportunity to speak with the employees and ask them about what they do and what problems they may face in accomplishing their jobs.  I suppose it would be easy for a sceptic to say that he saw me as a government official and so put on a good show for me, but I felt like he genuinely cares for and is concerned about the children and employees and wants to help them to the best of his ability.  Some of the biggest concerns include a lack of qualified care-givers to look after the kids and a lack of needed medical supplies.  The center has around 150 kids ranging in age from infancy to 13 or so.  The infants are kept in a separate department where three crews of care-givers look after them 24/7.  Each care-giver has to look after 8-12 infants at a time.  Can you imagine that?  At about three years old, if no one has adopted them yet, the infants get moved into the “family houses.” The family houses are basically normal apartments there at the center where an employee, a “mother,” looks after a household of 10-12 children.  Each mother is assisted by another employee who is in charge of cleaning up, which frees the mother up to deal with the kids.  Each mother’s shift is a week long, but often they have a hard time getting their replacement to show up, so their shifts often go longer than that.  The cleaning assistant employees have things pretty rough themselves.  Their work includes a lot of physically demanding labor and their pay is really low.  They don’t get weekends or holidays off.  Many of them have children of their own, but they center doesn’t offer them childcare so they have to pay for outside childcare from their meager salaries.  Anyway, these are just some of the main points I plan to include in my report.  I hope something good actually comes from it. But seriously, can you imagine spending a week looking after 10 kids between the ages of 4-9?  I know how overwhelming things got for my own mother, and there are only 8 of us, and usually there were older kids who could help out with the younger ones.  I get tired just thinking about it.

For the rest of the week I worked with the other interns in putting together fun, semi-educational activities for the kids.  I really enjoyed working with the kids, but sometimes it was pretty heartbreaking and discouraging.  There are classrooms at the center for the kids but many of them are still not very well educated.  Hardly any of them knew how to even write their names, including some of the ten and eleven year-olds.  Many of them have behavioral problems.  I have a good amount of experience working with kids and have something of an idea of how to maintain a semblance of discipline with them, but I had a harder time with these kids.  My inabilities in the language are probably part of that, but even with the kids at Waqe3 I had an easier time (in case anyone is wondering though, the phenomenon of having to tell a child to “come here” about 20,000 times before they’ll actually listen appears to be cross-cultural.  That’s one Arabic command I have down pat.  And I’m getting pretty good at “don’t hit each other” and “say you’re sorry”).  Despite the frustrations, I am hoping I can get my supervisors at the ministry to let me continue working there.  I would rather spend my days working with these kids than sitting in an office in front of a computer.  One of the administrators at Al-Hussein said, and I agree with her, that many of the kids need positive male role models.  Almost all the employees at the center are women.  I won’t delude myself into thinking that I can be some superhero come to the rescue of these kids, but I hope that some act of kindness and guidance can make even a small positive impact.  My first day, a little girl named Sarah came into the office I happened to be in.  I tried to get her to say hi to me, but all she did was stare back at me expressionlessly.  When she left the administrator explained to me that she is always very quiet around men because her father was very cruel to her and used to burn her before she was taken to the center (and the scars from that were clearly evident on her arms and neck).  I think a lot of the kids at Al-Hussein have similar sorts of backgrounds.  Again, I don’t know how much I can do for them, despite the overwhelming feeling I have that something must be done.  But I would like to think that kindness can be just as powerful as cruelty.  And while I still haven’t been able to get Sarah to say a single word to me, I have been able to get her to smile and yesterday after drawing a picture she brought it over and showed it to me.  Let’s hope I get more opportunities to show kindness to these kids.


Inside one of the amphitheaters at Jerash.  I didn’t touch up this photo at all.  This was just the natural colors and lighting.

Once again, I had more I was gonna say, but I’ll leave it here for now. الله معكم


Explosions and Missionary Work

“The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad. I speak now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate ass. If the case be otherwise, I beg his pardon and extend to him the cordial hand of fellowship and call him brother. I shall always delight to meet an ass after my own heart when I have finished my travels.”
― Mark TwainThe Innocents Abroad


Sunset from a friend’s rooftop dinner party two weekends back

Hopefully no one is offended by the Mark Twain quote, but I feel like I can relate all too well sometimes.  I’ll get into that in a bit.  I started writing a post a week ago, but somehow never got around to finishing it.  Mahmoud, the guy I share an office with, recently told me an Arabic saying: “الوقت كالسيف إن لم تقطعه سيقطعك (Time is like a sword, if you don’t cut it, it cuts you).”  Pretty true, huh?

So, something pretty crazy happened a week ago Saturday.  It was the first Saturday since we got here where we didn’t have something planned, which was kinda nice.  There’s a young guy named Osama some of us have become friends with and so Saturday afternoon he came over to teach us how to cook a Jordanian dish called kebseh.  We were all over at the girls’ apartment across the street and it was basically just me and Kaiti in the kitchen with Osama while everyone else sat in the living room talking or reading.  We were having a good time slicing vegetables, heating up rice, and all that while conversing and joking around.  Hang on, I’m gonna have to back up and give some background info for this to make sense. The kitchens in most apartments in Jordan aren’t quite, how can I put this? As nice as your typical American kitchen.  For one thing, all the stoves run off of gas, but there isn’t the infrastructure of gas lines and companies pumping gas into your house.  Everyone uses what they call “butagaz” (portable gas), which are these canisters that hook up to the stove in your kitchen and provide it gas.  All over the country and at nearly anytime of day butagaz trucks are driving all over the place blaring this obnoxious tinkling music like an ice cream truck, and if you need to refill the gas in your kitchen you flag down the butagaz guy who installs a fresh canister for you and takes the empty one away (for about 10 dinar of course).  So then also, the stoves in every apartment I’ve been in here aren’t all that great.  When you turn on a burner you have to light it yourself with a match or lighter and sometimes certain burners just plain don’t work.  And there always seems to be more knobs than there are burners, and they’re never marked so figuring out just what you’re turning on is a bit of a trial and error go the first few times you use a stove, all the while wondering if you’re gonna end up blowing yourself to kingdom come.  As nearly every Arab I run into for the first time will unfailingly say, “Welcome to Jordan.”

Anyway, so there we are cooking in the girls’ apartment and having a good time. The particular stove at their place has five burners and something like seven or eight knobs.  At one point one of these knobs randomly popped off onto the floor and I spent a few minutes trying to get it back on.  No problem.  I was over by the sink and Osama was standing right next to the stove when all of a sudden THE ENTIRE KITCHEN EXPLODED.  There was this huge noise and I felt a gigantic wave of heat wash over my  entire body.  The room shook.  It was terrifying.  It was like time stopped for a few moments.  When something like that happens all your brain can do is think, “What in the world is happening?” It was all over in less than a second I’m sure, but it was CA-RAZY.  When I looked around the door of the oven had blown open, the curtains over the window in the kitchen had fallen off and the three of us all looked at each other with expressions that seemed to say, “Is this real life?” Thankfully, no one was hurt, though Osama, who was closest to the blast, was missing a good amount of arm hair. As near as I can figure, the knob that popped off was the one that turns on the gas in the oven, and when I had tried putting it back on I inadvertently turned it on.  So while we were cooking stuff on the stove top, the oven was filling up with gas until some of it got ignited and EXPLODED.  Kaiti and I, being the Americans that we are, spent the rest of the day joking about the experience and laughing it off.  Though Osama assured us he was fine, I think he was pretty shaken up and thought we were INSANE.  Truth be told, we were all a bit shook up and decided to finish cooking everything over at my apartment (after completely shutting off the gas canister in the girls’ kitchen). Explosions aside, it took FOREVER to prepare that stuff (I’m talking, we started in the early afternoon and didn’t start eating til after 6pm).  It was probably the most time-consuming and life-threatening meal I’ve ever made.  But in the end it was dang delicious, so I’m chalking it up as a win.


One of the many views at Umm Qais. This is looking out towards the Sea of Galilee, which you can’t really see in this photo.

Have you ever had an experience where you feel like years and years of your life were all a prelude and a preparation for what you were doing at that moment? Last week at church a non-member randomly showed up at the Arab branch.  I think I’ve mentioned before that the Arab branch is pretty small.  And a lot of the members are somewhat…advanced in age.  So since this guy didn’t seem to be much older than me I made sure to introduce myself and sit with him in Priesthood and Sacrament meeting.  And we talked quite a bit.  And it was one of my favorite experiences since I’ve been here.  Let me tell you about this guy (whose name, believe it or not, is Daniel). He’s from Syria.  His family came here as refugees about a year ago.  He’s here in Amman working while the rest of his family is up in Irbid, not far from the Syrian border.  He grew up Muslim.  About six years ago, he started reading up about Christianity because he wanted to write some negative propaganda against Christianity.  He said though that as he was doing this research he kept having a nagging feeling that he was wrong.  He said it was there was a voice in his head and heart asking him, “Why are you doing this? Why are you fighting this?”  So eventually his research into Christianity changed from hostile to sincere searching.  He came to believe in Jesus Christ and was baptized as a Christian with one of his sisters.  I asked him how his family felt about that.  He said they still love him.  “And anyway, even if they didn’t approve, what would that matter if God does?” Wow! I was impressed.  A couple of years ago, while he was still in Syria, he came across and started reading about the LDS church, and was intrigued by some of the things he read.  He started looking for this church there in Syria but couldn’t find it anywhere.  And then when he got here to Jordan he started asking around and just this last week found out where we have church and came.  He stayed for all of the meetings, including a discussion in priesthood about temple work.  I was a little worried when we started talking about baptisms for the dead what he might think.  He asked several questions about that, but rather than being weirded out, he just seemed to nod, as if saying “That’s pretty cool.”

It was after the last meeting that I talked to him about most of this stuff and I asked if he had a copy of the Book of Mormon. “No, but I want one!” I practically ran the branch president down to see if there were extra copies around, and if it would be alright to give him one.  I know there are pretty strict restrictions on missionary work here, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t overstepping any boundaries.  But it sounds like the fact that he’s already Christian and not a Jordanian citizen open a lot of doors that might otherwise be shut.  So I got a copy of the Book of Mormon for Daniel and brought it back to him.  “What do you know about this book?” I asked.  “Well, I know it’s supposed to be another witness/testament of Jesus Christ.  I know that it came from a record that Joseph Smith found. And I want to read it for myself.” Perfect.  I briefly explained that, yes, it’s another testament of the Savior, that it contained the writings of ancient prophets on the American continent who knew about and believed in Him. “That makes sense,” he said.”Jesus is the Savior of everyone, not just people in the Middle East.” Bingo. I explained a bit more about it and read a few verses with him and invited him to read a few chapters that I marked for him. He was all gung-ho for it.  And I was unspeakably happy.  Seriously, there is nothing in the world like sharing the Gospel with others.  I am far, FAR from perfect.  There is so much I need to improve on and repent of and just generally do better at.  That being said I feel the Spirit pretty regularly.  But it was so much stronger and powerful when I was bearing my testimony to this guy about how the Book of Mormon teaches us of Jesus and brings us closer to Him.  And that’s how it always is when I have a chance to share the Gospel with people.  There’s nothing like it. As exciting as it might be to have your kitchen blow up, missionary work is ten times as exciting.

So I expect and hope to see Daniel again.  Just before he left he asked me, “So how do people get baptized here?” “Uh, do you mean in what manner we baptize?” “No, I mean what steps do I have to take to get baptized in this church?” Trying to keep my head from exploding, I explained that usually you had to attend church a number of times and take all the missionary lessons, but I wasn’t sure how that works here in an Islamic country where we don’t have proselyting missionaries.  So I called over Nasser, one of the members of the branch presidency and we asked him.  He said that after Daniel comes to church a couple more times we can set up appointments with a member of the presidency to start teaching the lessons and figure out things like baptism from there.  “That’s great,” Daniel said. “I look forward to coming back.” So yes.  I am looking forward to seeing him again.

I’m not gonna say that everything in my life up to that point was for the express purpose of having that experience, but that experience could not have happened without years and years of preparation.  The years of going to church and seminary and studying the Gospel, years as a missionary learning how to talk to people about the Gospel, years of studying this crazy, absurd, complex language so I can express, albeit clumsily, my thoughts and feelings in Arabic.  And maybe I’m speaking too soon, because I may never see this guy again, but I can’t stop thinking about how it felt to bear my testimony to him and how much that experience means to me. I am immeasurably grateful for the Gospel, and for my Savior.


“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”

Well, I had more to share from this last week, but I’ll leave it there for now.  A bit of humor, near-death experiences, and missionary experiences should suffice for one post, right?

Repeat Tourism

 10342768_10202962739041797_3410913515771295768_nI am living in the land of olive trees and mosques.

I tried posting yesterday but you would not believe the trouble I had getting pictures to upload.  And now that I got them up, I think they’ve been compressed to a lower quality. Sheesh.

So this is my third time in the Middle East, right? Well, every other time I’ve been here, on about the third or fourth week I come down with the same brand of sickness that sticks around for a few days (I’m convinced it’s related to constantly being around car exhaust and second-hand cigarette smoke, but I’m no doctor).  As if right on schedule, this past Tuesday or so I woke up with a little tickle in my throat and by Wednesday at work I couldn’t stop coughing every few minutes (there’s always someone in a nearby office smoking).  I should mention at this point that in some ways I just might be one of the dumbest people alive.  Whenever I start coming down with an illness I never, ever think about taking medicine or taking things easy to keep from getting worse.  While it’s not necessarily a conscious thought, I always seem to just assume that I’m basically invincible and if I just keep doing my thing, whatever the problem is will go away.  Yeah, that’s not the case at all.  And despite the fact that I’m writing this right now, I bet you anything, the next time I start coming down with something I won’t think about this and I’ll do the exact same thing.

So on Wednesday, once it should have been obvious that I was actually coming down with something, instead of slowing down and taking things a bit easier I had a full, busy, active, tiring day.  After putting in a full day at the ministry, I headed over to Qasid Institute for the first of the speaking appointments I’ll now be doing three times a week.  After a vigorous speaking experience there, I headed to the gym, which is right near the institute, and got in a decent workout.  Then I made the two or so mile walk home and started on my laundry (which is a bit more of an involved experience here than just tossing everything in a machine and pressing a button).  Anyway, by the end of the day I was exhausted and had a splitting headache.  So then all throughout the night I kept waking up because my whole body was burning up, but anytime I uncovered the blanket even a little bit my whole body started shivering.  It was weird.  I’m not looking for pity here, I’m mostly hoping we can all laugh at how dumb I can be.

As a result, I didn’t go to work on Thursday and instead spent the day at home, resting up, drinking orange juice and watching Arab movies.  I’ve talked to a handful of people who are really good at various Arabic dialects and almost all of them have said that a crucial step in achieving that proficiency was watching lots of Arabic TV shows and movies.  So I’ve gotten a good start on putting together an Arab films collection, and I watched a couple of them on Thursday (just a heads up for any interested parties: Arab films never have a happy ending).

I was still feeling pretty rotten on Friday but we had church and I was the slated speaker for sacrament meeting in the Arab branch so I went and just tried to avoid breathing too much around others  in case what I had was contagious.  As for my talk, I think it was ok.  At the district conference a couple weeks ago, one of the General Authorities, Elder Porter, said in his talk that though our numbers here are few, one day there will be tens of thousands of members of the church here in Jordan.  I’ve been thinking a lot about that, and just how exactly that is going to happen.  So for my talk I spoke about the importance of the Book of Mormon in missionary work and the miracles that can happen when we use it, and I shared a few personal experiences about how the Book of Mormon can change lives.  From a linguistic standpoint, while I obviously couldn’t express everything as clearly and well-spoken as in English, I didn’t have any major hiccups and got all my points across relatively well.  I’m really grateful for that.  I was also really touched afterwards when one of the older members of the branch, a guy named Salim (just between us, he’s my favorite) came up to me and told me he’d learned a lot from my talk.  I don’t even care if he was just being nice, it was nice to hear it.


Prayer candles in the Madaba church

So Saturday, congested head and all, I went on a full-day trip to a bunch of places I went to this last fall.  There are students here with me who were not here in the fall, and I wasn’t going to pass up on the opportunity to re-visit some of these places, and it was a really great day.  We started out by going to the Orthodox church in Madaba that has the remains of a famous mosaic.  This mosaic was a map of the Holy Land that early Byzantine pilgrims used as a reference for finding all of the significant religious sites.  The church where it’s located is really nice, and most definitely Orthodox.


I enjoy visiting these old Orthodox churches

From there, we headed to Mt. Nebo, where Moses was shown the Promised Land before the Children of Israel crossed over the Jordan River.  When I came here last fall, it was a very clear day and you could see for miles.  Unfortunately, it was not at all like that this time.  Whereas before I could clearly see Jericho and the Judean hills on the other side of the Jordan, this time I couldn’t even really make out the river itself because of all the smog in the air.  Oh well, ya win some, ya lose some.  It was still a cool place to visit and think about Moses and the Children of Israel.  Also, it was quite a hot day and, as one girl in my group put it, “Man, it sure makes you more sympathetic to those Israelites who wandered around in this for 40 years!”


If you look closely at the sign it will tell you all the cool places you could see if not for all the smog in the air (Okay, you wouldn’t actually be able to SEE all of them, but you could get a decent gist for where they are in relation to one another. From left to right: Hebron, Dead Sea, Herodium, Qumran, Jerusalem/Mt. of Olives, Ramallah, Jericho, Nablus, Lake Tiberias)

We then descended down from the mountain to see the Jordan River up close and visit the site where archaeologists believe Jesus was baptized. I wrote about this on this blog already when I was here last fall, but I think it’s so cool you’ll have to indulge me once again.  Rivers shift course over time (especially when large amounts of that river are now being used for agriculture and the like), so the place where it’s believed Jesus was baptized is actually no longer in the existing Jordan River. But they’ve found the remains of several churches built on top of one another dating back to early Christian periods, and a prominent staircase that obviously led down into where the river used to be.  Early Christian pilgrims frequented this site, obviously believing it to be the place where Jesus was baptized.  They even thought they had his baptism site down to a specific bend in the river where they built a four-pillared pavilion (which you can just see in my picture below). History is so fascinating.


Don’t be deceived.  That water isn’t actually the river, it’s just stagnant rain water. Still cool though, huh?

As I mentioned, it was a really hot day, and it took a decent bit of hiking to get around to the Baptism Site.  I think once we got back to the road and into our air-conditioned bus everyone was pretty relieved.  Sometimes it’s easy to forget how nice we have it with all our modern conveniences.  Heck, I’m able to communicate with my friends and family from the opposite side of the planet.  We are so blessed.  And I am so grateful for all the people who lived faithful, exemplary lives without many of the conveniences I enjoy, both here in this land and my own homeland.


I couldn’t help thinking while I was walking around that this was the same wilderness that John the Baptist inhabited, living off of locusts and honeycomb.  What a guy.

Maybe this sounds strange, but one of the things I enjoyed about this trip was driving from place to place.  I love driving through the desert (again, a nod of gratitude to modern conveniences: I love DRIVING through the desert. I’m sure walking the whole way would be a different story).  There’s just something about the huge expansiveness and austerity of it all that facilitates reflection.  Whenever I’m here I can’t help but think about this wild, crazy, wonderful land, everything that has happened here, everything currently going on, and all that the future holds.  And wonder how some goofball kid from Texas fits into it all, what he’s doing here and where it’s all leading.  إن شاء الله خير


“God is Love”

Anyway, after that we headed out to the Dead Sea to spend the rest of the afternoon at a resort.  I can’t remember exactly what I wrote on here about my last experience at the Dead Sea, but the thing I couldn’t get out of my head in going there this time was how awful it was when I got a few drops in my eyes.  Maybe I’m exaggerating the experience in my head, but getting Dead Sea water in my eyes last fall is right up there with the tear gas at Basic in terms of awful experiences my eyeballs have suffered through (this is also coming from a guy who’s been shot in the eye from point-blank with an air-soft gun).  That Dead Sea is some awful stuff.  Knowing that at some point we’d be going there I specifically brought a set of swim goggles with me from the States.  But – and this is going back to the idea that sometimes I’m a total moron – I left them at my apartment that morning! So while I did go ahead and get into the Dead Sea for a while, I was crazy paranoid the whole time about getting water in my eyes.  I will say though, it is pretty amazing how light and buoyant you feel in that water.


Foreground: swimming pool. Background: Dead Sea. I could spend countless hours in one of these.

The thing I was really looking forward to about visiting the Dead Sea was the pool at the resort (partially seen in the picture above).  This is the same resort we came to last fall, and at the time I was disappointed we only got around 45 minutes in the water before we had to leave.  No such constraints this time around.  And oh my heavens, that water felt AMAZING.  Maybe you’d have to spend some time living in a water-scarce Middle Eastern country in the summer to fully appreciate how nice it was, I dunno.  But I didn’t want to ever leave once I got in.  We spent probably three or four hours there before calling it a day and heading back to Amman. It was a fantastic day.  Repeat tourism really isn’t so bad sometimes.