It was almost midnight when I received a photo on WhatsApp. I chuckled to myself when I saw a a blurry photo a pair of chopsticks picking up a piece of cake.
“Good job!” I texted back on WhatsApp.
The photo was from Bel, one of our Couchsurfing hosts in Petra, Jordan. Bel was only nineteen-year old, the same age as Olivia, and the youngest Couchsurfing host we ever had. He and his ‘mate’ Omar picked us up at the Wadi Musa (Valley of Moses where supposedly Moses struck a rock to create a spring water for Israelites to drink while wandering in the desert for 40 years) bus station and brought us to the home of two other university students, Hassein and Haitham, where we would be staying for the next few nights.
The next day, I texted Bel, “Annie is cooking Italian. You can bring your chopsticks!”
When we saw Bel again, he had the biggest grin on his face. We can tell that he couldn’t contain his excitement.
“Mr. Su, Mrs. Su, Olivia, Nathan, and Joani, how are you?” Bel greeted us meticulously and then proceeded to give us each a big hug as if we have been away for a long time.
“Look at the chopsticks you gave me. Last night I went home and practiced using it for two hours. I slept with the chopsticks under my pillow. What do you think?” Bel took out the chopsticks and demonstrated his new found skill proudly seeking for our approval and praise.
We were surprised how much he treasured the chopsticks we gave him last night when he asked if he can have it after Annie cooked Chinese food for him and our hosts. The disposable bamboo chopsticks were one of the four pairs we kept from street side food stalls in China and carried with us for 6 months through 11 countries. The children had fun teaching him how to hold the chopsticks. Besides chopsticks, we also kept plastic spoons and forks from Kyrgyzstan, India, Oman, etc. in our utensil ziplock bag. Usually customers would throw the bamboo chopsticks away after one time use but to Bel it was as if he had just received the best Christmas present ever. We were a bit embarrassed that he considered a disposable chopstick a gift but seeing how much he treasured it, we kept quiet.
For the next few days we enjoyed seeing Bel carrying the chopsticks with him whenever he came to visit us. Once he carried the chopsticks by sticking into his puffy round afro hair. He has such large of amount of hair, the entire length of the chopsticks was hidden completely inside!
That night, Bel asked Omar to teach Annie how to cook Jordanian’s national dish of lamb or chicken over rice with yogurt broth, Mansaf, and the next day, another famous Jordanian food called Maglouba or known as upside-down chicken dish, cooked in one direction and served in the other. Omar was very particular in having the right ingredient, constantly stirring the pot with yogurt, and using the right type of rice. It was quite an intermix of cultural scene as five Chinese sat on the carpet with a Sudanese, a Palestinian, and a Jordanian, circled together around a dish the size of a small tire with rice on the bottom and heaps of meat on the top, and ate with just our fingers in the traditional way while Bel used his new-found chopsticks.
It was hospitable people like Bel that made us fall in love with Jordan and the Jordanian food. In other countries, we also met very hospitable locals. But in Jordan, we received Middle East hospitality more constantly day in and day out.
Hussein and Haitham, who let us stay in their apartment in Petra gave us their own bedroom for our family to stay. Because of the sudden cancellation of our volunteering position in Egypt, we arrived one week earlier than planned in Jordan. Hussein and Haitham still graciously hosted us and even let us stay in their apartment for 2 nights when they went back to their family for the weekend. Because we couldn’t reach the other Couchsurfing host in Petra, they welcomed us to stay 5 nights instead of 3 nights.
Similarly, the AirBnb host in Amman invited us over for coffee and stuffed us with tasty Jordanian cookies and candies as well as sharing about the plight of the Christians in Jordan. After 2 nights, we stayed with our Couchsurfing host, Odai, in Amman. Again, Odai and his cousin Hassan, gave us our own bedroom to stay while they as the host slept on the couches in the living room, ironically reversing the supposedly convention of the guests sleeping on the couch. While we were waiting by the street for our host in Amman to arrive home, a Yeman student saw us in the cold and invited us to wait at his apartment and shared his lunch with us.
The beauty of Petra was definitely a highlight with carved-out sandstone tombs full of the natural veins of colors, ancient Roman ruins, and panoramic view of the High Places and the Treasury in the Wadi Musa mountains. We spent two full days just wandering and climbing all the endless trails inside the Petra area and still didn’t have time to cover all the key sights. It was in Petra where we celebrated our 6-month anniversary of our adventure.
In Amman, we perched high above the modern city at the Citadel surrounded by the seven hills of Amman symbolized on the Jordan flag, with the high columns of the Temple of Hercules at our back and the 3000 seats ancient Roman amphitheater down below. At Jerash, one of the largest and best preserved Roman planned city in the world, we walked on the same Roman roads as the ancients two thousands years ago. We even went to an olive farm to see how olive oil was produced. The owner gave us a cup of freshly squeezed olive oil to drink.
But at the end of our time in Jordan, the children talked more about the people we met in Jordan than the places we saw.
Doing Couchsurfing and AirBnB gave us a window into the lives of the people living among these natural beauties and historical ruins.
“We got to enjoy some very traditional, very home-cooked meals. That’s what they ate too!” Olivia recollected. “It’s funny how they were all cooked by bachelors…It is authentic in probably the simplest form.”
“The Turkish coffee was also very interesting. They prepared coffee for each small cup individually over fire. When they drink it, they only take a small sip each time while we drink it in one gulp! Gan Bei (bottoms up)!” Nathan cheered.
“It was also very interesting to hear their perspectives and views about different countries like China,” Nathan shared.”I remember what one of them thought about Chinese food yesterday. He said that China only have about four or five dishes like fried rice and fried noodle while Jordan has so many dishes,” Olivia said with indignation. “We were like, what? Are you kidding me?”
“That’s sensitive…National pride…Dude, we will show you the book (menu)! Don’t insult our food,” Nathan expressed what we all felt inside since we are a family of food lovers.
It was my turn to share, “For me, I really treasured hearing about their perspectives on Israeli and on the refugees here in Jordan. I didn’t realize that 90% of the Syrian refugees are not living in enclosed camps but living among the people in Jordan and that Jordan have been generously taking in refugees for the last 60 years, with people from Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and all corners of the world. It was sobering to hear first hand from Hussein, whose father was a Palestinian refugee, about his feelings towards the Israeli. He said, ‘The government of Jordan likes the government of Israel, but the people of Palestine hates the people of Israel.’ It was the first time I heard such strong hatred towards another people group. In other countries, we usually hear locals say that animosity is between politicians but not between the people. But here I heard something opposite for the first time. It really made me think…”
Nathan recalled next about our surprised visit to the Yeman apartment, “While we were at the Yeman student’s apartment, we really experienced Middle Eastern hospitality. There were so many people going in and out and in and out and we were only there for 3 hours. He was also so excited about his country, kept showing us videos from Youtube of the earliest skyscraper in the world and the alien-looking dragon blood tree.”
Olivia recalled about the conversation about dealing with the opposite sex, “It’s interesting to also hear the different perspectives on dating. One host seemed to see dating as very casual, while one host took it seriously. He would only go out on date after they are engaged.”
Not only did we get to know the culture and food of Jordan, but also we slowly incorporated ourselves into their everyday life.
“It was an interesting experience when a local asked me at the supermarket whether I live here, because he saw me buying fresh chicken meat, rice, and cooking oil. He knows tourists don’t buy these thing,” I recalled with a chuckle.
“I felt we got closer to Odai (Our Couchsurfing host in Amman). The first day was kind of awkward. He laughed a lot, which was nice. Then slowly, because we are a family of five people, we become kind of like co-host,” Olivia shared and acted out our interaction with our hosts turned guests. “Oh, you’re back! Do you want to eat dinner with us? We cooked you lunch. You can join us for this and that even though we are living in your house and using your stuff.’ I feel like I was at home.”
“Welcome back home, to your own home,” Nathan joked.
Joani also laughed, “Even he asked us about his own kitchen, ‘Is this salt? Can I use it?'”
“Because of that, Odai becomes kind of part of our family or at least a close family friend. He would bring us here and there,” Olivia concluded. “He can laugh about himself and talk to us about different things.”
“When Bel came over, he felt like a guest, not a host. We would invite him in and asked him if he wants to eat or play games with us,” Nathan shared as well.
“I felt we were like equals,” Olivia concluded again.
Olivia shared another challenge of living together, “When we eat with our hosts, we know that it will be very late around 10pm. We already knew. Even if they start preparing at 6pm, it will be late. We know to start do our entertainment before dinner because there will be no time after.”
“For me it was the constant smoking that was challenging even though they were very nice about it. Everyone of our host seemed to smoke constantly, much more than China or other countries we visited,” Annie shared.
“When they have nothing to do, they smoke. When they have something to do, they smoke,” Nathan joked.
“Living with our Couchsurfing host taught me a lot about the Middle Eastern culture. Before I had no clue,” Annie shared.
“Egypt was mostly about the different tombs and temples. Here in Jordan, it was mostly about people…I like that,” Olivia reflected. “There is a feeling of closeness.”
As we talked and shared and laughed, we all agreed. In Jordan, the beauty of the people outshines the beauty of nature and ruins.