The Rural Retreat (Khalwa) Part I: Sharhabil Bin Hassneh Ecopark

This photo from my now deceased iPhone can give you an idea of how close the park is to the Syrian and Northern border with Israel!

I mentioned the CIEE Arabic Language program’s semester retreat in my last post, but at that point even I had no idea what was in store!! What I was told about the retreat beforehand was that it is a one-week long immersion opportunity in a rural area of Jordan with our program directors. I knew that last semester’s AL group spent most of the week in Shobak, which is south of Jordan, but it turned out that my program would be going to Sharhabil bin Hassneh Ecopark in the north, which I actually went to last semester with the DPS program (and really did not enjoy last semester!).

Thankfully, our experiences at the park turned out amazing this time! The park was so green and pretty during this time of the year, and our program directors took into account that several of last semester’s DPS students had come here previously and gave us a much different itinerary for the week.

I had such an incredible time bonding with my friends and program directors and jumping right into Arabic (and reaffirming my desire to reach a level of true proficiency). This week was also completely free of internet and my computer, which was not too much of a struggle although it was a bit annoying to not be able to upload pics and use Google translate all the time. Here is what we did for our awesome week of Arabic immersion and cultural activities!

Sunday February 22: Arrival at Sharhabil Bin Hassneh Ecopark

On our first day, we drove to the park, ate lunch, took an exploratory hike in the gorgeous greenery (and got meditation time/smoke break for the teachers). The beauty of the sunshine and trees was so refreshing from the freezing Amman snow that we had just escaped.

We gathered around the campfire at night and ate fire-roasted sweet potatoes and eggs fried over the fire! We stayed up so late talking and eating and messing around. This first adventurous day definitely set the tone for a week of wonderful activities with my friends!

The city of Salt still covered in melting snow.

My gorgeous friends in the house built of water bottles cemented together.


Our lovely hike through the gorgeous greenery!


Me and J. just being beautiful and happy in nature! <3

The theatre area: it was designed so that the voice of anyone standing in the middle of the circle is audible from all sides of the amphitheatre.

F. looking like a dream while watching the sunset.

Our director saying hello to the rare black iris.

During meditation time…

Monday February 23: More exploration of the Ecopark area

On our second day at the park, we got our volunteer work on! This turned out to actually be “working” for the camp which I certainly don’t mind because of all the great things they do for Jordan’s environment! We painted the cabins with linseed oil to recoat them, but the smell of the oil eventually started killing me!!

This same day, we visited a Bedoin camp which is on the park site. This was an interesting experience. We were separated into girls and boys and the women went into the women’s tent and the men went into the men’s tent. There were 3 Bedoin women and 2 crazy kids who were running around. One of the women clearly did not want to talk to us, and we later learned her husband had died recently. For the ones who stayed, we awkwardly asked questions and then someone decided we needed to sing her songs to make her happy….so that happened! lol. Amazing grace, the National Anthem and other stereotypical American songs were sung. The women brought us tea and coffee - the tea was definitely among the most delicious I have tasted before!! They told me it was not anything special but I am sure it had some special spice in it! Yum yum(:

In our few hours of free time that day, a small group of us went out to find the elusive waterfall we kept hearing about. While we did not find it that day, we had an excellent hike anyway!

For dinner, I made my (now famous) lentil soup for everyone and some of the other girls made tacos. It was a çok lezzetli (or very delicious for everyone who does not care for Turkish!)!

Volunteer work! We painted linseed oil onto the cabins.

While the boys hung around the camp area, a few of ladies took a walk to find the elusive waterfall…

Berkeley cuties!

Look at these caterpillar webs!!!!

Me and the incredibly green mountains.

The wonderful A. making faces for me.

Look at these views!!!


In the kitchen!

Night time campfire - we gathered round, ate fruit and played this ridiculous game with a storyline that centers on selling your rice (بعتي روزاتك؟).

Tuesday February 23

This day was not amazing but it was pleasant anyway! We made a visit to the nearby town and talked to the head of the town. This day we also engaged in something we call “رياضة ناجح” or Najeh’s workout. Najeh is one of the program directors and he lead us through an hour of calisthenic exercises…I wasn’t really a fan of it and we were doing it on the rocky grass which was extremely uncomfortable! بس رياضة شيمي بعد هيك!!

The government building.

DSC_0076 2.JPG
The head of the city came to talk to us. Too bad he was getting interrupted every 5 seconds with phone calls and people coming in and out to have him sign papers.

The boys grilling up meat for lunch.

Wednesday February 25

On Wednesday, we slaughtered a lamb. Well I certainly didn’t, but it did happen. Similar to last semester’s “cultural food experience” the plan was to choose a lamb, slaughter it and cook it up for mensaaf. Mensaaf is the Jordanian national dish consisting of stewed lamb on rice covered in yogurt. Clearly, I would not touch that! Nor did I want anything to do with the slaughtering. My darling friend A. was also not a fan of the slaughtering, so we went to find the waterfall again!

احمدالله we found it! After a fairly long hike on trail by the dam, we heard rushing water below us and climbed a bit lower to investigate. Success!!

After finding the waterfall, we ran into some village shabaab who were going to smoke hookah near the waterfall. They were from the village at the end of the trail and they were frankly shocked to see two white girls! They were also quite surprised that we had walked so far, and they seemed to think we were straight up weird.

A. and I decided to wander around a bit in the village. There was much rural farmland and the nicest building around was the mosque. We saw a bare pomegranate grove and lush olive grove! We were also invited to lunch by a random village man. While I do feel like he was being genuinely hospitable, I could never accept any random invitation because I am a foreign woman. Either way, our hike to the waterfall (الشلال) was wonderful and one of my best memories of the retreat!! Interestingly, when we reached the dam, we ran into an official-looking man who had binoculars. He told us that he had noticed A. and I running off into the mountains and that there were men near us and that he would have called the cops for us if we had not returned within a certain time period. I’m actually still trying to figure out where cops would reside in this super-rural area!

When we returned, mensaaf-eating commenced (I got rice and salad to eat because in Jordan vegetarian means a Jordanian meal without the meat, as always!). We then went to visit a local family for whom last-semester’s AL program had built an addition on their home. They were pleasant and I snapped the picture below of the little boy with soccer ball as we were leaving their small neighborhood.

This same day, my friend A. taught the girls a Zumba class almost completely in Arabic (I was not a fan of the booty-toning part…ow!!) and we later learned a Feiyruz song (سلمني عليه) and Abu Yazan homemade us kanafeh, the traditional pastry made of soft cheese and noodly bits soaked in syrup. Najeh teased Abu Yazan about the kanafeh because he apparently bought salty cheese instead of sweet cheese when he made last semester’s kanafeh! Thankfully this semester’s kanafeh was perfect! Thank Abu Yazan!!

We interrupted A.‘s “me time” to take photos on the rock.

This view!!!

Do you see the little dots of people in the fields below? Their home is a place of incredible beauty!

Our trail, carved into the side of the mountain.

Fresh mountain breeze and incredible nature makes me feel this way sometimes!

Finding the waterfall!! It was hidden below the trail, and you can see in this photo how A. had to go quite a bit below the trail before being able to see it!

Me and A. water-falling: that means enjoying it and photographing it and just generally basking in its glory while trying not to fall off the cliff and die at expense of it!

Leafless pomegranate trees when we reached the small town. There is an eery beauty to their lack of life.

We found a gorgeous olive grove. And then we were asked over for lunch at some random villager’s house!

On the way back we ran into a sheep herder, and his sheep…
I was overly excited because I wanted to use the phrase “Aiyunik ahla” in response to the herder telling us that we are beautiful. “عيونك أحلى” is a response to a compliment that means “your eyes are the most beautiful”.

We visited a local family in a small settlement near the ecopark. On our way out, this little boy’s confused expression caught my eye. He is adorable!

Campfire time!

Abu Yazan about to turn over the kanafeh.

N. and Abu Yazan and the almost-ready kanafeh. N. was teasing Abu Yazan because Abu Yazan accidentally used salty cheese to make the kanafeh at last semester’s retreat.

Thursday February 26

Our last full day at the Sharhabil Bin Hassneh campsite was a pleasant end to a lovely stay! We visited one of the most historically significant sites in all of Jordan, an ancient Roman and Byzantine site called Pella (ّبلا). The ruins were beautifully situated in the middle of the mountains and Abu Yazan gave us an excellent tour.

Later this day, we had more “volunteer work” cleaning up ecopark. This time we planted lemon trees. A. and I both named our trees (كابتن ليمون و كابتن اسد) and just had a good time with it in general. I honestly don’t remember this day that much, but that night we ended up playing some great games. In one game, we all tied a balloon to each leg then had to pop them off each other. In another game, it was me versus A. competing to get a quarter qurush piece out of of a plate of water and then another piece out of a bowl of flour WITH OUR MOUTHS. A. won by a long shot. I had barely gotten it out of the water when I looked up and she had already gotten it out of the flour! At least I did not have to put my face in flour LOL.

The ruins of Pella, an ancient Roman city which is considered among the most historically significant sites in all of Jordan.

A. gazing at the beautiful archaeological site.

L. smiling for me in the beautifully situated ruins of Pella.

A. who makes me more excited about ruins that I normally am!

Planting lemon trees with my axe.

This was lunch: Msakn = flatbread with fried onion and spices topped with a whole grilled chicken and raw veggies. As you can see, my veggie version is the same, just without chicken. This is why I have to make sure I am getting enough protein because bread/rice and vegetables is literally what I am served most days.

A. and I competing for 5JD. She won by a long shot!

I will save my writings on Petra and Wadi Rum for the next post because this one is quite long and full of photos! Enjoy <3


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