Today I proved I am a true Bohemian. I took a small day trip on public transportation in a foreign country by myself with three small children. Here's the story:
We left the hotel at 7:40am and hopped a cab to main bus station to the north. Our destination: the northern town of Ajloun, it's 12 century castle, and the nearby nature preserve. Surprisingly, I'd never been there before, so it was for all our benefit that I planned this outing. I aimed to get there via public bus, the kind the leaves when full. I'd been afraid that we would have to wait at the station for some period before leaving and I worried how I would entertain the girls and keep them safe (the "station" is outdoor without any inclosed waiting area). I planned on paying to four seats, giving me extra space for Aya and the backpack. Yumi and Emi, I thought, could sit across the isle from me.
We arrived at the North Station shortly before 8am and found a bus ready to go. When I said I would Iike four seats the driver just laughed at me. Only two seats remained and that is what we got. You see this everywhere around the world outside of the West--whole families occupying two seats on busses or riding together on one moped. The fact that I was required to pay three fares makes me wonder if we would have been forced to all sit in two seats even if there WERE more available. Ah well, I figured, when in Rome....
So there we were. It took the girls only five minutes to start kicking and hitting each other but luckily they grew captivated by the scenery. Rolling hills of olive trees studded with countless large rocks and boulders. Gorgeous. The bus labored up small mountains and flew down opposite sides, passing through picturesque villages with names like "ayn janna"--The Eye of Paradise. I hope the girls appreciated the difference between these northern villages and Amman. I know I did.
We rounded yet another switchback and there it was: the aljoun castle. I LOVE castles. Not the Disney kind, mind you, but the fortresses built during the Crusader era. Like those dramatized in the movie Kingdom of God. Like my father, I love it explore these places and leave no placard unread. I figured the girls would appreciate the opportunities for exploration as well--staircases, deep window alcoves, arches, vaults, gated off areas--so much to stimulate the imagination. To help motivate them, though, I may have mentioned that Sleeping Beauty used to live there. Well, what would you do to keep squabbling girls in line while on a bus?
The bus dropped us off at the main Ajloun bus station. We doubtless made an amusing sight--a foreign woman with three small children on the side of the road trying to clean breakfast of the kids' faces and load up baby and backpack on her shoulders. That done, we hired a taxi to take us up the long road to the castle. Our driver, Abu Laith, offered to pick us up again in 1.5 hrs and I took him up on it. I could see it was the only way we'd get back down again.
As I predicted, the girls LOVED the castle. Yumi and Emi scrambled to and fro. Up and down stairs, through doors, down dimly lit hallways, peeping into cisterns and closed-off areas. What a relief! I had taken a chance in making this trip in this bohemian fashion and it seemed my bargain had paid off. I only wish that I had not needed to carry a backpack (breakfast, lunch, snacks, and the iPad) and that someone else could have carried the Chub. The cobbles and steps around the castle were too rough for Ayame Little Pants so she stayed mostly in the ergo.
Several people told me that the nearby Aljoun Nature Preserve was not to be missed so I decided to try to visit both. With this goal in mind, I started to pry the girls away from the castle. Not before, however, a little breakfast in one of those alcoves that feature a window slit from which a soldier would shoot an arrow or throw boiling oil on an invading army. Something pleasant like that.
Abu Laith picked us up and took us the ten kilometers to the nature preserve. I had pictured some open meadows and nature walks. Walks (or hikes), yes. Open meadows? What was I thinking? This the middle east, not Kansas. As I had only seen us frolicking about in meadows and eating a picnic lunch, I asked Abu Laith to fetch us in only an hour. Quickly I realized that our only option for experiencing the nature preserve was to go on a hike and suddenly we found ourselves on one in the company of an eight-person Israeli family. I called Abu Laith and extended our stay to an hour and a half. We'd come all this way, I figured. We might as well experience it to its fullest.
"Brave," the Israeli family called me. "Crazy" is more like it. Who takes their three small children on a 4 km hike without the help of another adult? I do, apparently. The Israeli family did not actually help me carry any of them, but they did provide us company and an added factor of interest for the girls. Yumi kept trying to talk to them in Arabic although from the get-go I knew they were Israeli and may not appreciate being spoken to in Arabic. They were perfectly friendly, however, and along the way invited us to stop with them for lunch. I was reluctant because I seriously doubted we could complete the trial by the time Abu Laith was scheduled to meet us. I could call him again and extend but I really REALLY wanted to be back on the bus to Amman. The girls were holding up admirably but I knew that if I did not get them back to Amman and down for a rest SOMETIME today we would all regret. And I had not the faintest idea how long we would be waiting for a bus for Amman to depart from Aljoun. Not to mention I was getting really tired. I did not want to turn them down, however, and the girls were very eager to join them, so we did for about 15 minutes. They offered us apples. I offered them digestive biscuits. They refused and I wondered about it until they were telling us later about their difficulty crossing the border with their supply of kosher food. Ah! That's right. The biscuits are not kosher so that is why they did not accept. I learned today that someone has developed kosher travel food similar to what astronauts eat in the space. No, really! It is packaged within a casing of minerals that, when you chafe them together by bending the package like you would hand warmers, it heats up the food and is ready to eat. Amazing. Apparently the Jordanian border officials had to try one for themselves before they would let this family pass with their four-day supply of rations. It must have been a lot; six kids, ages 10 months to 16 years! Nice people. Nate always teases me because I nearly always refer to their country as Palestine and not Israel. Really, however, that is just out of habit and pragmatism; the word for that country in Arabic is simply Palestine. To refer to it otherwise to an Arab is just incorrect and bad manners.
We left our Israeli friends to get a head start on finishing the trail. The girls were really lagging and I was starting to panic. Not only was I now officially worried about meeting our driver, I was seriously concerned that the girls would make it. They were being brave little dudes but were lagging further and further behind. Emi fell a number of times. She told me tearfully that she wanted to go home and not see Snow White (I may have told her that this was Snow White's forrest...). They really were hanging in there admirably but i knew they would crash soon. And thanks to the backpack, I simply could not carry anyone else on my back. I was also concerned that maybe we had taken a wrong turn. I had not seen a trail marker recently and could not spot any buildings marking the front gate of the preserve. When Abu Laith called to confirm our whereabouts I frankly told him I was scared we were lost. He passed his phone to a preserve employee who told me he'd come out to look for us. About this time, however, we came to a road and miraculously a little car was passing at that moment. I flagged it down and found out that this was the very road leading to (and away) from the preserve. With relief, I told Abu Laith to turn around and head down the hill and he would find us. What a blessing that car came; the entrance to the preserve, Abu Laith told us once we were safely in his car, was still about a half a kilometer away up a steep hill. I should add here that seconds before we found the road and the passing car, Yumi had said a little prayer on our behalf.
Abu Laith delivered us right to the Amman bus which was, amazingly, full but for two seats! So, once again, there we were. The kicking and pinching lasted longer this time and I was getting pretty frazzled. One the girls calmed down, however, and sat for two whole minutes with their hands in their laps, I pulled out the iPad--the main reason why I had brought the backpack and did not leave it at any of the reception areas of these places we'd visited. I figured I had better now use it. Once engrossed in the Arabic version of LILO and Stitch, Yumi and Emi were set. Not a peep out of then for the rest of the trip. Aya, on the other hand, was another story. Exhausted and cranky. Still cute, though. She slept for about a half an hour of our hike but woke the moment we got into Abu Laith's cab. One second she was asleep and the very next she was laughing and squeaking in glee. I love that Chub. But she was a tired Chub and could not be content to just sit on my lap. Not that I could blame her. The trip to Aljoun had been a brisk 1.25 hrs. Totally doable. The trip back was nearly 2 hrs, though, and both Aya and I were dying to get off the bus. As we crawled through Amman traffic I realized that the bus was passing very close to our hotel. Better to get out now, I reasoned. Probably I was right, but it took us nearly ten minutes to get a cab to pick us up.
Sweaty, smelly, tired, cranky--that is how, unfortunately, we ended our trip today. I do not regret taking this trip for a second BUT know now that I should have cut out the nature preserve. It just sounded so PERFECT for the girls. Better, though, to have lingered longer at the castle and returned directly to Amman. Ah well, we had our experience and overall it was great. In fact, as we set off this morning and the girls were excitedly looking out the open window at the beautiful countryside flashing by, I wondered to myself why we did not do more of these trips throughout the whole summer. Why did I wait to the end? But I think the girls would have been miserable if I had attempted this in the earlier days of our stay. By now, though, they are seasoned. It was pretty grueling on them but they held themselves together remarkably well.
We got back and began a quiet time at 3:30pm. Nisreen has a university test and so is not coming today. It was because I had no lesson that I thought to schedule this trip today. I have spent the last hour in much needed relaxation and silence. As much as I love my Arabic lessons, I needed this time to recoup. Sadly, as Yumi is in the bathroom, I cannot take a much-needed shower.
This evening: This girls napped/rested until nearly 5pm (Aya slept until 5:30). Nate was home by this time. We did not have enough food to eat in our room and I just could not get excited about going to any of the "nearby" restaurants and ordering, waiting, and then bringing the food back to eat here. We thus decided to splurge on a meal at the one place we knew would be serving food before sunset--the same place at which we dined with Lindsay two weeks ago. Lindsay will be happy to know that not only did my girls remember the place well, when I told them we were going to "Crumbs" Emi immediately asked if Lindsay was coming too. Cute little Emi.
Dinner, return, fastest bedtime prep EVER, everyone in bed by 8pm.