First Impressions Don't Always Tell the Truth
About 2 months into Pre-Service Training, a 3-month period in Peace Corps Training in which volunteers are drilled daily in cultural and Arabic lessons, my fellow Peace Corps volunteers and I received our site placements. We were individually congratulated by staff and received a packet with the name of the village we were to live in for the next 2 years, along with pictures, a description of the school and village, and a paper Jordan flag.
My site placement was, at first, disappointing. I was out in the Eastern Badia, which is the armpit of Jordan. I imagined the whole region as desert, desert, desert, and a highway leading to Baghdad. I was the easternmost volunteer, and after a volunteer living just 10 minutes from me dropped out to return home to the States, the closest female volunteer to me was more than a 2 1/2 hour bus ride away. I was lonely, surrounded by brown dust, and sure that if I ever tried to run away, I'd end up just escaping to Iraq or running into the active land mine zone on the border of Syria.
The Eastern Badia is not a region that visitors to Jordan explore. There are no major sites here, except for the ruins of a Byzantine city and a highway that extends from Amman to Baghdad. When I broke the news to my host family (whom I lived with during training) that I would be living in a Bedouin village in the Eastern Badia, they looked horrified. Immediately, they started discussing plans to speak with the Peace Corps staff and have me moved to a new site. I asked them, in my rudimentary and struggling Arabic, "Why me village no OK?"
My host family proceeded to tell me horror stories of how the Bedouins live in tents, have no running water, constantly smell of goats, don't speak a word of English, and don't cook as well as those from the Irbid area. How would I survive? I assured them that Peace Corps had negotiated that I have a house with running water and a working water heater. I flashed a thumbs-up sign and said, "Everything OK!"
Once I moved to my village a month later, I was shocked that there could be this much of a lack of terrain. When I thought desert, I imagined that at least I would be living in the rolling sand dunes of Morocco, or the beautiful red-rock canyons of Wadi Rum. This, however, was an awful dull brown everywhere you looked, and no scenery or wildlife anywhere. Two years here, I thought, and I would emerge colorblind to anything but brown.
It's been 21 months in my village, and it's slowly grown on me. My neighbors are the most innocent and hospitable people I've met. Although, yes, their English is a constant struggle to deal with, it's been a boost to my Arabic, which is now at a level unmatched by any foreigner who's come through before (not very much competition in that category). The constant invitations I receive to come in and "have tea, study English, see my new baby, eat lunch, eat dinner, eat a snack, watch TV" are wholeheartedly welcoming and make me feel guilty anytime I'm forced to smile and say, "Not today, thank you."
The rumors that my ex-host family told me are untrue. Almost every family here has at least a simple concrete house, and running water is scarce but existent. The ratio of desert animals to people is actually something to be proud of; I cherish the fact that camels are just as much my neighbors as the little kid who runs around barefoot, refusing to listen to his mother when she probes him to come inside and take a shower. The Bedouin hospitality that seems mythical is true, and in any other area of Jordan, I've never had so many people inquire daily about my health, my family, my warmth, my meals, my happiness, and my marital status.
When I visit other Peace Corps volunteers in their villages, I'm not jealous. Sure, one PC volunteer has a bank, a rotisserie chicken restaurant, and several clothing shops in her village. Another volunteer has neighbors who can all afford Malaysian or Indonesian maids. Another happens to live in the lush and fertile valleys of Ajloun, where olive groves dot every inch of the green mountains. Yet another doesn't have to suffer a single Jordan winter, as she lives near the Dead Sea (although her summers are beyond unlivable).
But I'm happy here in the Eastern Badia with my Bedouins. Only in my village is there Abu Marzoog, a 90-year-old man who rides on a white donkey to get his daily bread from our village bakery. Nowhere else can you find that everyone who has a car has the same car: a rusty, dirty, on-its-last-mile white Nissan truck that occasionally has kids, occasionally sheep, riding in the back. Nowhere else can you find women who make their own bread, milk their own sheep, churn their own yogurt and butter in an old washing machine, and still manage to cook amazing meals daily. Nowhere else can you find that going barefoot is just as common as wearing shoes, and that boys here drive their father's tractors and trucks at age 10.
I love my village. I love how much my neighbors care for me, and how much they've accepted that I'm a part of their family – one weekend, I went on a short 3-day trip to the Dead Sea, and when I returned, my neighbor was frantically calling each number in her phone, inquiring where Mindy was. She hadn't seen any lights in my house for 2 straight nights and assumed that I'd had carbon monoxide poisoning from my gas cooking stove or that I had died in my sleep from not wearing enough pajamas. Her desperate attempts to locate me were solved when I appeared on my doorstep carrying a huge backpack. Another neighbor has told me that should any boys make any inappropriate catcalls or comments while I'm walking to school, I need only to tell him and he will "make sure they learn to never mess with my daughter." He's a retired prison guard, so I trust that he'd prevent those boys from harassing me again.
The Eastern Badia is, in terms of scenery, ugly and dull. But what it lacks in landscape it makes up for in character; the integrity and hospitality of my neighbors makes each conversation memorable. In three months, I'll be heading into the next phase of my life: exploring Nepal and India. I'll miss the friendships I've made here, the delicious home-cooked meals, and the smiles from my students every time I congratulate them on a correct answer. I hope they won't merely remember me as the "Chinese girl who runs in the morning, teaches English in the afternoons, and sits with old Bedouin ladies in the evenings." I want them to remember my smile and my individuality, my fearlessness about wild dogs, and my insistence that I will not become their brother's wife. I want them to remember my brownies (which were, at first, an experiment, but later turned out to be a village phenomenon), my lessons about tooth-brushing, my extreme fascination with watching women make their own bread, and my habit of smelling every fresh herb or leaf before it hits the boiling pot.