A day at Rishikesh Yog Peeth

I am currently in the middle of my fourth week of a six week yoga certification program in India.  My program has attracted students from a wide range of ages, countries and experiences.  There are students from America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Germany, Hong Kong, Russia, England, Scotland, Trinidad and two India natives.

I am so thankful for all of the stories shared and the genuine spirits of everyone in my program.  I have made some incredible friendships during my time here. I am beyond grateful for the cohesion and unity of my group.  To give you an idea of our life here in Vill Jounk, I will outline a day in my life here in India. 

It’s 6am and the sun is just coming up, people should still be asleep. But, I am not because our days begin early here at Rishikesh Yog Peeth yoga school. We begin our mornings at 6:30am by drinking herbal tea as we attempt to wake ourselves up from slumber. 

After our herbal tea, we head outside for a morning detox.  During this time we have used “Nettie pots” filled with salt water solution, used a cleansing nasel band and have done other salt water detoxification practices according to traditional Ayurvedic practices.  

Following nettie pot time, we head to our yoga studio and start our morning asana practice.  We begin asana with pryanama and chanting. After our various traditional yogic chants and our morning meditations, we begin a yoga practice.  

During our morning practices our teacher teaches us proper adjustments of various asana poses. After our morning yoga class, we head to breakfast at 9am. We eat our meals at Krishna Cottage which is a building that is five minutes away from Surya Palace where we sleep and have our practices.  The walk to and from Krishna is always wonderful, filled with plenty of sights within the small village area. 


Breakfast consists of a fruit salad including mango, papaya, honeydew, banana and watermelon. It is usually a race for the fruit, whoever arrives first gets a whopping serving of papaya and whoever is last gets stuck with the bruised honeydew. I often top my fruit with hemp seeds that I brought from home, as pictured below. 

Following breakfast we walk back to Surya Palace.  Along the way I am always greeted by many sights and smells.  I must often dodge the cow manure along the little stone paths and attempt not to get hit by the honking motor scooters that zoom beside me. I usually see cows, sleeping dogs, children and pass by little snack stands as the workers whisper “Namaste” with a sweet smile. 



Sometimes I stop by little cafes before our 10am course and order a coconut milk chai latte, they’re incredible. All for forty rupees.   


From 10am until 12:15pm we have anatomy and philosophy class. The classes are discussion and lecture based. I love observing the classes and the interesting things that are taught.  Following our class periods, we have lunch at 1pm and free time until 5pm. During the free time I do a variety of things. I either catch up on sleep, hammock, do a personal yoga practice, adventure and shop around, go on walks, journal at a cafe, catch up on leisurely reading, FaceTime my family, or people watch. 


From 5 until 7pm we have another asana class, mediation and chanting. This time is usually focused on our personal practice. During my third week here, our night classes were taught by students in the 300 hour course so they could have teaching practice.  We usually have a five or six minute break between our asana class and our meditation time which gives us enough time to catch a glimpse of the sunset from our roof. It’s always stunning. 

Following our second asana class, we have dinner.  After dinner I usually head to a nearby cafe and talk with fellow students.  I am usually back in my room, showering, reading, catching up on global news/politics, talking with family or doing laundry. I am usually asleep by 9:30 or 10:00pm every night to prepare for my early rising.  Pictured below is my little puppy friend that I made one night walking back from dinner.  His gratitude and love he shared with me when given a bit of food, was beautiful.  Such a sweet little guy.  

The program has this regimented schedule Monday through Friday. On Saturday mornings we do nice, long silent meditation walks/hikes instead of our asana class. We then watch a few yoga videos after our hike and a free afternoon until asana at 5pm.

Sunday’s are excursion days. The first week we did whitewater rafting in the Ganga. It was a great morning filled with rafting, cliff jumping and just drifting along the holy river. 


The second week we did a night excursion to a traditional yogi lighting ceremony at an ashram. They were both wonderful experiences, more to come on the lighting ceremony and my other adventures here.

 

But for now, that is a day in the life of Amelia during her 6 week yoga certification program. 

Stay true, live justly and always travel on.

Peace and love.

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A very real India 

I am currently sitting on some soft floor cushions, nestled in the corner of a local Ayurvedic cafe here in Vill Jounk Swargashram in India.  I have been living in this small village for the last two and a half weeks. This remote area is located at the start of the Himalayan mountain range outside of Rishikesh. I am here participating in a 6 week long, 200-hour yoga certification program.  


Right now every one of my senses is being stimulated. Despite the fact that there is a fan overhead, I feel the heat and humidity of India’s summer climate. The electricity could shut off at any moment and I am well aware of this fact, as it often does. Lights will flicker, fans will turn off and all water will be gone, all in an instant. But, for now I am wholeheartedly enjoying the cool wisp of air that this fan is offering.  

I hear men working outside the cafe with power tools on some medal machinery. I also hear cows walking by, mooing. I look outside the open window and door and I see mango trees, hear birds and I look for monkeys playing around in the trees. 


Like cows, monkeys are everywhere. 


 And, I’ve learned that both the former and the latter, are not always nice, especially when babies are involved. Advice? I’d say don’t make eye contact with a mother cow or monkey if babies are around, because it won’t be a pretty site. 

As I begin to wipe away the beads of sweat that are beginning to form on my forehead, I also have to swat away about five flies. But, that’s nothing. Flies are everywhere here. And, they’re constantly swarming, landing and crawling all over everything. Even from the restaurant, I cannot help but notice the distinct smell of cow manure that lines the streets, of course the smell of manure is mixed with the smell of chai and curry from where I am sitting. Despite all of this, as I sit here I feel the comfort that my humble little cushion offers me in this humble area in our world.

As I walk through the streets here I am no longer shocked by the fact men will be peeing on the side of the road. I no longer attempt to pick up every piece of trash here, as I have seen the endless heaps of trash that seem to fill every gutter and clutter most open spaces. Coca-Cola bottles and cans, the wrappers of processed sweets, old corn cobs rinds and tissues litter every street corner here.

When I walk through the city area of Vill Jounk, I may see a man squatting and burning freshly mulled corn, over a small open flame. I may also see children running about barefoot and asking foreigners for rupees as their mothers attempt to sell bracelets and trinkets. I may also get stopped by a family asking for me to hold their baby as they snap a photo of me and the child. 


The city is filled with Ayurvedic health food shops and with individuals selling fruits, veggies, fried dough and popcorn. If I walk down a long, unshaded path I can easily find my way to Lakshman Jhula, a busy little city with a large suspension bridge, tons of shops, people, smoke, smells and of course cows.


Near the bridge there are various Internet cafes that overlook the Ganges River. It’s beautiful to sip on a smoothie and watch the river rush and the people swimming and jumping around in the water attempting to cool down in this hot weather. 


What I love about India is that it is real. It is rustic, it is dirty, it is not a cookie cutter kind of country. A majority of the people here live simply yet find joy despite their own physical poverty. The children run about picking mangoes, playing tag and sharing sweets with one another. I imagine myself in their place though it is rather different than my privileged western upbringing. 


India is a country where people are raw, authentic and connected to their own humanity. It is more than just trash-filled streets, Delhi belly and seemingly strange sights and smells. It is a beautiful country filled with the second largest population in the world, settling at around 1.2 billion people. It is a country that may at first be off putting for some yet is complex and absolutely incredible.  While I am here I will keep my heart and mind open to these new experiences that I am confronted with on a daily basis.  I hope that being here, where I am learning about the ancient roots of the yogi culture, and experiencing a taste of what life is like in India, will help guide me towards greater openness, a more compassionate mindfulness and help me love people on a deeper level. 


More to come on my experiences in India!  I will soon share a post that will chronicle a day in the life of a yoga student (a.k.a. me) in India. Until then, stay true, live justly and always travel on. Peace and love. 

more photos from Jordan 

After spending four weeks in Jordan, I flew to India, where I will be for the next two months. There will be more to come on my adventures in India. But, for now, here are a few photos from the Dead Sea, Jerash, Petra, Jesus’ baptism site, Aqaba, Wadi Rum and more.

 

Stay true, live justly and always travel on.

Peace and love. 

The beauty of Jordan

While in Jordan, my love for photography was rekindled. I appreciate the fact that photography, if done well, can reveal beauty within seemingly overlooked sights and capture the emotion of a moment. 

Photography has the power to connect the viewer to the humanity of the other and it has the power to capture aspects of the various states of the human condition. 

That being said, here are some of my photos from Jordan.

Stay true, live justly and always travel on.

Peace and love. 


P.S. More photos to come, these were mainly taken in Amman. 

A Visit to the Bedia 

During my final week we visited a beautiful Bedouin family in northern Jordan to eat a traditional Jordanian meal and to experience a traditional cultural setting. On our way to the Bedia we stopped by two caves, one being the supposed resting spot of Christ. 

Upon our arrival, we were greeted by the large Bedouin family with much love and hospitality. We were told from the first few moments we were there, that their home should be considered our home as well. The home we were visiting was a Bedouin sheikh’s home. 

We were informed that the sheikh is in communication with the king and was appointed his current position by the local tribe members. The sheikh and his wife have twelve children and over thirty grandchildren. I enjoyed seeing all the children running about the breathtaking home nestled in the countryside.

After we were seated in the dining room, we were brought coffee. Though it is said that each guest should take three small glasses of coffee as a response to the hospitality offered, the hosts kept pouring the coffee for us. I drank a total of six little cups of the coffee. After the coffee and ritual hand washing, the traditional Jordanian dish, mansaf, was brought out in large platters and set before us as we sat upon the floor, barefoot. Mansaf is a delicious rice dish with peanuts and parsley topped with lamb and yogurt sauce. The meal was incredible. It was actually quite fun eating only with my right hand and not using silverware. It felt like a natural way to eat and I enjoyed the communal aspect of all sharing the same serving dish and eating with our hands. It was a beautiful experience. 

Following dinner, we headed outside the house to a fire pit area. We were then given mint tea, shisha, a small little dessert and more coffee. Our hosts also played us traditional music and I enjoyed watching the people dance as well. I wish I, along with the other women, could have participated and danced as well, but unfortunately I do not think that would be culturally appropriate. But, I did very much enjoy watching the others dance, especially the sweet children who were dancing all around.  

It was honestly a dream, just sitting outside, listening to the music and enjoying traditional mint tea. One of my favorite parts about being outside was when the sheikh told us history of the Bedouin lifestyle and education and, when he told us the story of his arranged marriage to his wife. 

 It was so interesting listening to the story of the sheikh, who married his wife when he was 19 and she was only 13 years old. I loved hearing about his persistence in asking for her hand in an arranged marriage and seeing the fruits of the marriage in their large, beautiful family.  

Something else I really appreciated about the night in the Bedia was that the men who were present also helped serve the food, the tea and set up the meal. When visiting and having dinner with another Arab family, the women did all the serving of the coffee and tea and the men did not help. I did, however appreciate that the men did help serve the food and drinks when visiting the Bedia. I found this particularly interesting.  

I loved the trip to the Bedia and it was definitely one of my favorite activities we have done in Jordan. And, to my surprise I loved the mansaf. Our meal there turned out to be one of my favorites, if not my favorite meal I have had since arriving in Jordan. I love the way that the family operates and how all those present were so warm, welcoming and generous. I will take back what I have learned about hospitality, kindness and love and share it with all those I encounter at home. I will also, as the sheikh stated, not forget to tell others about the loving, friendly Jordanian culture, that I have now experienced firsthand.  

Stay true, live justly and always travel on. 

Peace and love. 

Dinner with an Arab family 

I grew up in a rather collectivist family where hospitality, love and a welcoming spirit play an essential role in how we treat others. Though this is true, I have never experienced the kind of love and inclusivity that I feel with my family, with other families let alone with strangers. Not only did I experience the warmth and hospitality of the Arab culture and families in a dinner at a traditional Arab home, I experienced such things with strangers. My experiences with them took my ideas of hospitality, care and love on another level. 
Last week, my friend Noor and his family invited me and two other students, Ashley and Jack, into their home for dinner. I, along with the two other students and Noor’s girlfriend, headed over to Noor’s home. Noor’s family is from Iraq and they moved to Jordan in 2004. They brought us into their home with open hearts and much generosity. The women welcomed me into their home with kisses, the men by laying their hand on their hearts. We brought kanafeh with us as a gift to our host and to thank them for bringing us into their home. Though there was definitely a language barrier as none of us guests can speak Arabic well, our mutual love and openness united us all. And, Leah and Noor also served as translators throughout our visit. 

After we were welcomed into the small apartment building, we were escorted into the parlor room. The women quickly brought in pillow and mats for us to sit down upon, laid down newspapers and brought out huge platters of food. The meal was extravagant and I could tell they were feeding their guests with the best they had to offer.

 I could not express my gratitude enough since I know that the women probably worked for hours in the kitchen to prepare the meal for us. They made us a traditional Iraqi meal. One large pan of rice mixed with noodles, nuts and seasoning and topped with chicken. Another dish and my personal favorite, was a large pan of tomato and rice stuffed veggies including stuffed mini zucchini, grape leaves, tomatoes, onions, potatoes and other veggies as well. 


It was absolutely incredible. It was definitely the best food I have eaten since coming to Jordan. During the dinner, they kept insisting on feeding us more, so by the end I was completely stuffed with food. There was still an access of food remaining after the meal, which I know in the Arab culture is a sign of generosity. I loved how beautiful and communal the meal was, all eating with our hands from the same large pan. 

After our dinner, we headed outside and sat outside their apartment in a patio area. They brought out mint tea, watermelon andthe kanafeh. While outside, we looked at stars, the sisters and I gave each other massages, I held Noor’s younger sister’s baby, and Alawai’s parents showed us some of their wedding pictures. It was strange for me to sit with and converse with Noor’s family, knowing how hard their life was. 

His mother was born in Palestine, along with her four other siblings. They moved to Jordan but their parents returned to Palestine in order to bring other family members back home and they both were killed in the process. Noor’s mother and her siblings were then separated, two of her siblings were sent to relatives in France and she lost all contact with them. Noor’s mother and two of her other siblings were then sent to Iraq to live with her aunt. At 17, she was then married to her current husband. Their marriage was arranged. Though they were very successful in Iraq, they lost everything during the Gulf War and then moved to Jordan. Today, they live in a poor area of Amman and the large family lives in a small apartment building. The area they live is filled with many Iraqi and Palestinian refugees and during the afternoon there are lots of children running all about barefoot and playing in the streets. 

While sitting on the patio and sipping the mint tea, I noticed a small group of young men gathering in the street, singing, dancing, honking car horns and playing drums. When I looked outside the gate area of the apartment building, I saw that they were dancing around a young man in graduation garb. The young men were clearly celebrating their friends graduation. And, as I observed, the celebration soon became a community event for the men. Noor and Jack went out to join the fun. Us women and the children stood on the sidelines watching. I for a second, understood what it would feel like to be a women here. It seemed as though the fun was for the men and it was not appropriate or socially acceptable for the women to dance around in the streets. When I asked Alawi, “What do you do when women graduate from college?” He answered simply, “We sleep.”

 My opinion on this is not important but this experience reminded me of the reality that is life for many women in the Middle East and in the world. A women’s role is in the home, she cooks, she cleans, she hosts and she cares for her children. Being in the Middle East and experiencing this has helped me understand this reality. 

 One can argue for hours whether it’s cultural, religious or other influences that perpetuate these sort of gender roles, but I wish all could agree that women should be empowered and that keeping women at home and on the sidelines is really not taking advantage of their gifts and their abilities. 

After our time outside, we returned inside and talked for a bit longer. The women then invited me to come learn how they make their Arabic coffee. I loved getting to enter the kitchen with the women and see that part of their world. They taught me how to make the coffee and we then all enjoyed the coffee together in the parlor.

 It was a wonderful end to such a great night. After much thanks and a warm goodbye, we then took a taxi back to our program home. It was a beautiful night and one of my favorite and most authentic experiences during my time in Jordan. 

Stay true, live justly and always travel on. 

Peace and love 

Catholicism and Islam 

Growing up as one of six children in a traditional Roman Catholic home, I have always understood the vital role that religion plays in ones life. I learned from a young age about the catechism of the church, the sacraments, the importance of prayer, fasting during Lent, tithing and of pilgrimage. I learned about the idea that faith without action does not exist and was taught that I must participate actively in a faith life and really live a religious and pious life to show God my love and adoration. In addition to this, I was taught about purgatory, God’s mercy and grace, the practice of ritual cleansing through holy water, and was taught that God is large, vast, expansive, the creator of all matter, and is the first mover.

 I never encountered the idea of a personal and friend-like relationship with a deity until I was introduced to more reformed and other Christian practices of their faith. All of that being said, through various conversations with Muslims, including a friend named Ziat, and through the various speakers brought into the MESP program, I am beginning to see that Islam and Catholicism are extremely similar in both faith and practice.

In Islam, the five pillars are declaration and submission to God by declaring the Oneness of God, Allah, prayer, tithing, fasting during Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca. Like Catholicism, Islam is often seen as a religion where one must earn their way to God. I understand this misconception and see, because of my own upbringing, the bigger picture of the religion. Ones faith in God is primary and the rest is simply a privilege. Prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and tithing are all ways we get to show God our endless love and surrender for God’s goodness and love. We don’t “have” to do anything, we “get” to serve God in such ways since we love God. Catholicism, as mentioned previously, follows these same ideas. 

 In addition to this, both religions believe that their religions are a continuation of another religious tradition, for Christians they are founded on the fundamentals of Judaism, and Islam is founded upon and believed to be a continuation of Christianity and Judaism.

In Islam, the Qur’an is highly elevated and holy and seen as many Christians see Jesus. The Hadith may be more comparable to how Christians view the bible. But, in Catholicism, church doctrine and law is also seen like the Hadith, along with the prayers and writings of the saints. Like the Qur’an, Jesus is seen to be living and eternal and a message of the one living God. In addition to this, I believe that the intercession of Muhammad, where Muslims send salutations to Muhammad and follow the way he lives his life, is similar to how Catholics view and honor Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary is seen to be an intercessor between Jesus and the world in the eyes of the Church. Like Muhammad is not worshiped, so too is Mary not worshipped by the Catholic Church, though this is a common misconception by many people who are not themselves practicing the faiths.  

 The sacraments in the Catholic Church, like the Pillars of Islam, meet you at whatever stage one is in their life. In the Catholic Church one is baptized as a baby, receives first reconciliation and first communion around age 8, confirmation in the church around age 15, later on in life either enters a religious vocation or a marriage and eventually a prayer of the sick and anointing when on their deathbed. Like the sacraments in the Catholic Church, that meet individuals throughout different parts of their life, the ritual prayers meet Muslims at different points during their day. And, like Catholicism’s sacraments, the ritual prayer in Islam reminds believers to worship God at every moment and every stage in their walk.

Prayer is essential for both Catholics and Muslims. Both religious practices emphasize ritual prayer and use prayer beads. Many Catholics, especially those in religious orders, will pray a rosary multiple times per day including early in the morning, mid morning, at noon, at 3pm and before bed. This is similar to the call to prayer that occurs five times per day in Islam. 

Tithing and charity work are clearly and have historically played an essential role in both Islam and Catholicism. Both religious practices elevate social justice and emphasize ones duty to the poor, the needy and the less fortunate. In addition to this, both religions focus on cleansing oneself and remaining humble in ones walk with God. They do this through ritual cleansing. For Muslims, they must cleanse themselves with water before entering a mosque and their prayer postures throughout their ritual prayer services are organized and display an individual’s submission to Allah. Similarly, when a Catholic enters a church, she must anoint herself with holy water which represents the cleansing waters of baptism, redemption, the removal of original sin, and God’s power and mercy.

During mass, like during prayer in Islam, there are also various postures, like kneeling that Catholics must do in order to show their submission and surrender to God. 

Another essential aspect of both Catholicism and Islam, is fasting. While Muslims observe fasting in the 9th month of their calendar year what muslims refer to as Ramadan, Catholics observe fasting during Lent for forty days prior to Easter, commemorating the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. In addition to fasting, both religions stress the importance of pilgrimaging to holy sites, if ones health and wallet permits doing so. I, myself, have participated in a 520-mile Catholic pilgrimage in Spain in 2014. This has helped me grow spiritually and also helps me understand the beauty and religious significance of pilgrimage for both Muslims and Catholics. 

There are many other similarities between the religions that this brief blog post cannot address. A few other similar aspects, are: Muslims believe in levels of paradise and that ones actions determine which level an individual may go and Catholics believe something similar. Catholics believe in purgatory, where sinful individuals must be cleansed before they can enter the kingdom of heaven, which is somewhat similar to the belief in Islam since the amount of time that an individual spends in purgatory is solely dependent upon the number and the gravity of their sins. 

In addition to this, Catholics and Muslims both see God as large and vast and not necessarily a personal God. Both also believe in the concept of free-will under an all knowing and powerful God. And, in many traditional churches, like in Mosques, women will cover their hair with veils to honor and show their surrender to God. Also, both faith practices have mystic scholars and practices, which I find rather interesting.  

Throughout my time in Jordan I have observed and appreciated the similarities that exist between the two religions. This journal only scratches the surface upon my thoughts on the unity between the two religions. I look forward to learning more and growing in my own faith as I continue to study Islam and see its similarities to that of my own religious practice. 

Stay true, live justly and always travel on.

Peace and love 

Getting beyond the eyeliner 

In general, Americans are quick to judge individuals based upon their outward appearances. When meeting Sammy, a native bedouin from Petra, most individuals would be intimidated. Sammy has a short, slender stature, tanned skin, shoulder length black dreadlocks and dark beady eyes smeared with black coal eyeliner. That being said, many would be put off by his captain jack sparrow look and possibly would not take the time to go beyond his rugged appearance. 


 I met Sammy as I was exploring around some of the Petra ruins. He told me and those I was with about a beautiful overlook for sunset watching. After a long hike up to the overlook, Sammy met us up at the top. He then insisted giving us donkey rides up to the top of the Treasury. During our time together I asked Sammy about his life, experiences and his perspectives on the Bedouin life and culture.

In contrast to the other Jordanians I have met, Sammy was not born in a hospital, he was born in a cave. From his birth, he was defined and marked by what he calls “the simple Bedouin lifestyle.” Though I presume Sammy is in his mid-thirties, he has not left the confines of Petra more than a handful of times. He claims that places like Amman, which he has only visited one time, are far too crowded and busy. Sammy prefers the simple life guided by the moon and stars and engulfed in nature. 

 When I asked Sammy “If you had one piece of advice or a life lesson to share, what would it be?”. He responded, “Life is a journey and I am still learning. Everyday is a new experience full of learning.” During my short time with Sammy he mentioned the word “learning” various times and it is something he clearly values. However, Sammy has never had an organized education and explained that he never attended one day of school, not even as a child. So, Sammy cannot read or write yet he mentions the word learning more than many of my peers at my university. 

 Sammy reminds me that learning does not only occur inside a classroom yet also outside of it. He has picked up various languages from the tourists, including English and Italian. I actually had a conversation with him in Italian, one of my favorite languages. It was funny to think, an American and a Bedouin speaking together in Italian, of all languages. Though Sammy never received any formal education, he did explain that his sister is currently attending a university outside of Petra. 

Everyday Sammy wakes at dawn from his cave, where he lives and begins work at a nearby excavation sight until 1pm everyday. He has found various things in his site. He told me that he often finds small coins and treasures in the site which he precedes to put in his shoes for safekeeping. After his morning at the excavation site he typically rides around Petra meeting tourists and often invites them to a traditional bedouin dinner at night. When he needs groceries or food he simply rides his donkey through the rugged terrain to a nearby Bedouin village grocery store. He cooks his dinner over the open fire every night and drinks to the moonlight before he turns in for the night in his cool, dark cave.

For Sammy, like many Bedouins I presume, they do not understand the concept of time or being constrained by time. From my brief time with him, I noticed and marveled at the simple freedom of the Bedouin lifestyle. During my time walking and riding on Sammy’s donkey, I was taken aback by the sweet goats trotting along and the baby camels that would nestle against their mother’s warm bodies.

Sammy also told me about a writer who came and lived with his family last year in order to study the Bedouin life and culture. Sammy recounted the story of his writer friend with a soft smile, remembering how they taught the writer their specific Bedouin dialect and how to make their traditional coffee. Through my conversations with Sammy I realized that Bedouins, like all people are more than meets the eye.  

While some may see Bedouins as uneducated cave-dwellers who have rotting teeth, tattoo scribbles, and coal covered eyes, I see that they are more than what one may think. I know that many westerners and many Americans can learn much about life from the Bedouins. The Bedouins know how to live life in ways many Americans and city dwellers do not. They are not worshippers of time as many westerners are, they value relationships and notice the simple beauties in life. 

Stay true, live justly and always travel on. 

Peace and love. 

An unexpected hero 

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 I was eight years old, and I was safe at home. Across the sea, while I played on the swing with my younger sister, Noor who was born in Iraq and is now 26, had a completely different story. 

Growing up in Baghdad, bombs, death and violence were no stranger to Noor, who was only 13 when the U.S. began its relentless fight against terrorism. Regardless of ones political orientation, all can agree that growing up on battle grounds is a tragedy. By 2004, he and his family lost most of their hard earned savings and were forced to move to Jordan. His father, a Shia Muslim, had to invest most of his remaining money on a passport to enter Jordan. When he arrived to Jordan he did what he could to provide for his wife and seven children, but his entire family was completely jaded by the Gulf War and many of their wounds were, because of Saddam Hussein and the U.S., too deep to mend. 

Today, Noor lives with his family in Amman, Jordan where he works at at three-level shop in the Balad. Though he was not formally educated beyond middle school, his ability to pick up languages, among other things, reveals his intelligence and natural ability. Noor speaks Arabic, his native tongue, in addition to English, Turkish, Italian and Japanese. 

Noor explained that he works as the shopkeeper everyday except Friday, at time working fourteen hour shifts. He also explained that he has worked since he was twelve. Though it was not necessary for him to work when growing up, he always had the desire to do so. He happily recounts working in a bakery and a sweet shop, during his early years. In addition to working, Noor loves to have fun. He is hesitant to thinking about his war-scarred past and wants everyone to live in peace and harmony and he often finds himself escaping from his memories through smoking and drinking.

Noor smokes shisha at a coffee shop nearby his shop, three times a day in place of meals. Often he only eats one meal per day pledging that he never seems to have an appetite. Though a professed Muslim, Noor does drink. He doesn’t seem to put much thought into the fact that the Qur’an clearly bans alcohol. He also does not attend daily prayer or enter a mosque. He recounted being a child and attending a mosque dressed in a white robe. He remembers tripping over his robe and falling to the floor in front of everyone, vowing to never enter a mosque again. And, he never has. Despite this, he does practice the ritual of fasting during Ramadan, which he takes very seriously. He loves the time past sunset when all Muslims gather in the street, after a day of fasting, and share a meal together. He really seems to treasure this aspect of his faith. In addition to this rather unconventional ways he practices Islam, he has also broken his familial norm by dating an Italian-English girl named Leah.  

Leah, though Italian, was born and raised in England, where she attended college. She is passionate about social justice and aspires to one day work with the UN to help with the refugee crisis. Leah studied Arabic in college and speaks four other languages as well. She and Noor met last July when she inquired with him about a nearby hotel during her initial visit to Amman. Leah now lives and works in Amman planning tours for people but she is looking for a new outlet where she can get involved in helping others. She and Noor seem to come from different worlds yet their worlds collided and the rest is history.  

Since our meeting Noor has talked freely about various interesting topics. He talked about his family’s marriage rituals with his sisters. He informed me that his father has chosen a husband for each of his daughters. And, once the husbands are chosen, his daughters are married off within the week. Noor also shared bits and pieces about the challenges he has faced in regards to his identity.

 As an Iraqi, Shia immigrant in the Sunni majority Jordan, Noor has struggled to find his place. In a fairly conservative family Noor has struggled and he feels his views are more liberal than that of his family. In the eyes of the world, Noor would not seem to have many prospects either. For on paper, he is an Iraqi immigrant who did not receive an education past secondary school. He desires to meet his girlfriend Leah’s family in Italy, yet cannot get a visa to do so. Visiting America is an unattainable dream for him since he sees that obtaining a visa to enter America would be an impossible endeavor. And, in Noor’s case and many cases in this world, the world has it wrong.

Noor is, in reality, a bright, young, intelligent entrepreneur who has had a challenging life because of the geographic location in which he was born. Had he been born into a middle class, American family, like I was born into, his world would be different because the world would see him differently. The world would be at his finger tips. Yet, this is not the case for Noor and thousands of his peers. 

 While many of Noor’s childhood friends have responded to their war-scarred past with violence, Noor has chosen a different route as he tries to find peace and treats all people he meets with respect and kindness.  

Noor and his family, who invited me into their home and shared with me so much love and hospitality have taught me about humility, love and reconciliation that, in my opinion, is unwarranted. I feel undeserving of the kind of love they have offered me. I have never experienced such genuine hospitality and kindness in America. 

 People like Noor remind me that people are more than their circumstances and that true heroes exist in the most unexpected of places. I have hope for this world because of people like Noor. Maybe someday the world will stop stereotyping people based upon how things appear on paper and will begin to see the beautiful, pure hearts that exist within people like my compassionate, Shia Muslim, Iraqi-Jordanian friend.  

Stay true, live justly and always travel on.

Peace and love.

*The names of my friends mentioned above have been changed for their security and privacy. Thank you. 

an adventure to salt and mafraq

Two weeks ago we had a day off from classes prior to our trip to Petra. I wanted to take advantage of this. So, I along with two other students, contacted my friend Alawi, a shopkeeper that we had shared tea with various times. Alawi, along with his girlfriend Ashleigh, volunteered to take us on a trip through the Jordanian countryside to visit Salt, the former capital of Jordan, and the city of Mafraq, which is known for its large Syrian refugee numbers and for proximity to zaatari, Jordan’s largest Syrian refugee camp.  

Our day began with a stop by a falafel shop near Alawi’s shop in Amman’s Balad. We also stopped by a small shop that sold fresh, stone-baked flat bread. When there, we were brought inside and asked to get a group photograph. The shopkeepers were obviously not used to tourists. They were very kind to us, we felt like celebraties. 

After our breakfast, we headed to the bus station via taxi.  We took a bus to Salt and arrived around 12pm. We walked through the scenic city, sat along a stone wall, talked with village children and admired the view. 


 We also visited a Greek Orthodox Church built in the mid 1600s and a beautiful Orthodox Church, among other things. 
 As we walked through the city, we listened to the loud Friday afternoon message at the mosque, I was taken aback by all the children playing and the friendly locals who wanted me to take photographs of them. I loved walking through the little residential areas and enjoyed looking at the multi-colored clothing that drifted through the wind as they were left to dry on the clothes lines. Salt was also filled with apricot trees which Alawi pretended to knock down strategically using a rock. We enjoyed those sweet fruits as we walked through the stone city. 



After our time in Salt, we took yet another bus to Mafraq. From there we were able to see the Zaatari camp’s entrance. One young couple, who had three small children and an infant, sat among us on our bus and got off near the camp’s entrance. I watched them as they walked through the camp’s entrance. That made the situation all too real for me. Seeing the white tents as we drove away from Zaatari was a surreal experience.  

While I head off to Jordan for its natural beauty and rich culture, many are forced to come to Jordan because they are fearing death. They were forced to leave their homes, their lives, their country and part of their identities behind them. Now they are each branded with the label “refugee” and have become a number and a statistic in a tragic situation. They wait in anticipation and hope to return to their now unrecognizable and destroyed homes. Their current “homes” are now dirt floors and flimsy white tents. Despite this, here I am, traveling, attending a university and leaving my home out of a desire, not a necessity. Seeing Mafraq’s state and the refugee family was a humbling experience. I hope that I am currently attaining skills in school that will help me to give a face to the statistics, spread awareness and somehow help with the refugee problems our world is facing. 

While in Mafraq, our taxi driver brought us to his cousin’s shop where we shared mint tea. After our time in Mafraq, we began our trip back to Amman. Along the way, I joked that I wanted to try camel’s milk but the taxi driver took my pleas seriously. We stopped at a camel farm in the countryside along the way. The first farm we stopped at was run by a Syrian Bedouin refugee but it did not have any nursing camels. About ten minutes later, we stopped at another camel farm. 


  The second farm was much smaller and did happen to have a nursing camel. We ran out to the rural farm as the sun began to set. We then watched a baby camel drink its mother’s milk as a farm boy gently milked the camel, filling a small white bucket. The process was peaceful and the mother did not even seem to notice. The boy then filled water bottles with the warm milk. Feeling adventurous, I took a swig of the warm, freshly milked raw camel’s milk. It was creamy, warm and I was told good for health. It was an experience I will never forget.


During the remainder of our journey back to Amman in our small van, we clapped and sang and danced in our seats to fun, upbeat Arabic music. Upon our arrival to Amman, Alawi insisted we visit his family’s home. We first stopped by a supermarket where we picked up a large watermelon for his family. Upon our entrance to Alawi’s home we were greeted with hugs, kisses and so much love. We were brought to their parlor and brought kanafeh. 
After the kanafeh and some funny conversations, the women brought out the freshly cut watermelon, in generous portions I might add. We then drank some mint tea. One of my favorite moments of the day was when Alwai’s younger sister helped her grandmother, who was in a bed in the living room, sip her tea. When the little, frail grandmother spoke, all were quiet and listed. The love and affection the family showed their elders was absolutely moving. I have never seen such a thing in America.  
After the tea time, Alawi’s cousins brought out drums. We had a little mini dance party all together. Then the women disappeared into another room and signaled for Ashley, Ashleigh and I to follow them into the separate room. When I entered the room, Alawi’s sisters and cousins began to remove their hijabs and whip their hair around. We had a little private dance party. It was surreal and so much fun. They taught me how to dance in the traditional Arab way. 

After our dance party, we went back to the living area and were offered coffee, at 10pm, but we could not say no as we understood that drinking coffee is a sign of hospitality in the Arab culture. After our coffee they invited us to return to their home for a traditional Iraqi dinner this upcoming week. I am excited to embark on yet another cultural adventure and to spend more time with such a loving and welcoming family.   
I am so thankful for the small little spontaneous moments during my day trip to Salt and Mafraq and I look forward to more cultural experiences during the remainder of my time in Jordan. 

Stay true, live justly and always travel on.  Peace and love.