An American Girl in Jordan: An Interview with Cari Pittleman

Today, I’d like to introduce Cari Pittleman; a fantastic writer and avid traveler who truly embodies the twenty-something travel lifestyle. Cari has spent time studying in Spain, Mexico and Ecuador in addition to traveling Wadi Ibn 060through South Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Currently she is studying Arabic full time in Amman, Jordan.

Cari is also one of my oldest friends. From across the globe she always inspires me with her unique and thoughtful insights on travel.  As a result, I’ve asked her to write an occasional column on Twenty-Something Travel, to share her personal experiences as well as advice and impressions on travel.

How did you end up in Amman, Jordan?

Right before graduating college I was struck by the desire to live in the Middle East and learn to speak Arabic.  It was important to me that I get to know the region firsthand, as a real place beyond what media headlines and stereotypes had to say.  I did a little internet research and found an Arabic program at the University of Jordan, which appealed to me because Jordan is very safe and English is widely spoken.  I lived at my parents’ house for a year and saved up to live in Amman and study.  After staying here for four months I was ready to go home but knew that I wasn’t through with the country.  Now I’m back after another year of working and saving at home.  This time my plans are completely open-ended.

I love living in Amman.  It feels like a small town filled with fascinating people from all over the world.  Many people come here to work for NGOs and embassies, or study the language.  It’s easy to make new friends, and I never know where the day will take me.  When I’m sick of the city it’s easy to escape to any of the amazing sites around Jordan (the desert of Wadi Rum is my favorite).  Not to mention that I’m less than a day’s journey away from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Israel!

Wadi Rum 053What was the reaction of your family and friends to your decision?

Actualizing this seedling of an idea has been a three year process, and I’m very fortunate that the people close to me have been extremely positive and supportive along the way.  That’s not to say that they all understand it.  When I decided to backpack through Europe last summer, everyone I talked to about it had the same reaction: “Awesome!”  When I mention living in Jordan in order to learn Arabic, the first response is always the same, “Umm, WHY?”  Either way, I think people get a kick out of the novelty of what I’m doing.

What is the most rewarding part of living in Jordan? What is the most difficult part?

It’s incredibly satisfying to see the progress I’ve made with Arabic, and I love reflecting on the many unique experiences I’ve had as a result of living in the Middle East.  I wake up every day excited about my life, and I constantly feel like I am on the cusp of an exciting adventure.  The only commitment I have is my daily Arabic classes.  Once the term ends I’ll have nothng keeping me in Amman, so I’ll move if I find an enticing opportunity.  I’m fascinated by this region and am determined to master the language, but if I ever stop loving it I can just pack up and go home.  Or somewhere else, perhaps.  The whole world is wide open, and I feel completely untethered.  Incidentally, this is also the most challenging part about being here.  If I’m unhappy with anything, I have absolutely nothing to blame but myself.  The burden falls on me to make a change.  Beyond the language study and exposure to a new culture, this whole experience is really just an exercise in self-awareness and personal exploration.

Have you encountered any safety concerns as an American woman travelling solo in the Middle East?DSCN0964

The same safety issues apply here as anywhere else in the world, including many US cities.  Yes, in geopolitical terms the Middle East is dangerous, but the really risky places (Gaza and Iraq, for instance) are prohibited to travellers anyway.  The day to day reality is very calm, and most people are friendly and hospitable.  It can be annoying to deal with the unwanted attention from local men, but it’s always harmless.  I’ve lost count of how many times a taxi driver has offered, “I learn you Arabic, you learn me English” in hopes of taking me out on a date.

You’ve done quite a lot of travelling over the last 10 years, to a variety of places. How has your travel philosophy evolved over time?

Being abroad has been an integral part of my life since I was in high school, so a lot of my development as a person corresponds to my travels.  Over time, I’ve become a much more independent and savvy.  With some of my earlier experiences, the thrill of being away from home and the freshness of a different environment was enough to make a trip exciting.  I tended to spend most of my time with other Americans and did not change as much about my way of life.  Now I feel like much more of an internationalist.  I’m more willing to break out of my comfort zone, and I crave a deeper connection to the places I live in and visit.

IMG_2040At the core, my philosophy is unchanged from the very first time I went abroad, on a school trip to El Salvador in seventh grade.  I live for the moments of fresh discovery when the curtain is pulled back and I get a peek at one of the world’s secrets, be it a breathtaking view from the top of a mountain, a moving religious ritual, or a clever play on words in a different language.  “Aha!” I say to myself. “So THIS exists.”  And then it becomes a part of me.  No matter what I do, though, the most rewarding aspect of my travels will always be the people I meet and the relationships I form along the way.

What advice would you give to others planning to travel to the Middle East

Come!  As with all travel, the most important thing to have is a positive, open attitude.  There is an abundance of glorious sites to discover, but don’t neglect mingling with locals.  English is spoken throughout the region, especially at major tourist spots.  Learn a few basic Arabic phrases and people will love you.  No one has ever given me a hard time for being an American as there is a general understanding that individuals are distinct from the decisions of their government.  That said, I would not recommend engaging in serious political debates if you feel strongly about defending US policy in Iraq and Palestine.  As far as religion goes, most people will assume you are Christian.  This is respected because the Qu’ran upholds that Jesus was a prophet.  Keep things simple and easy for yourself by confirming this even if your actual beliefs differ.  Atheism, for example, does not go over well.  Along those same lines, if you are travelling with a member of the opposite sex, it’s easiest to say that you are married.

When taking a taxi, always make sure the driver turns on the meter.  If they quote a fare at the beginning of the journey, it’s most likely an inflated foreigner price.  Be patient with inefficiencies and understand that Middle Eastern time moves at a different pace (possibly even a different direction) than Western time.  Go with it.

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17 thoughts on “An American Girl in Jordan: An Interview with Cari Pittleman”

  1. Loved this post. It reflects my own experiences when I decided to move to Syria after finishing college. It certainly was a novelty thing to do, but I’ve met a handful of amazing people who were doing/have done the same thing!

    I LOVE the Middle East region; the time I spent living in Syria was the happiest in my life. I couldn’t afford to continue traveling/studying Arabic/bumming around, so now I am trying to get the best of both worlds by living and working in Dubai.

    I’m always so happy when I hear of other Americans who are brave enough to disregard stereotypes and take a chance on the Middle East.

    .-= Kathryn Kremer´s last blog ..Phone Etiquette =-.

  2. I’m glad that my experience might bring some attention to a very misunderstood part of the world. It’s definitely a great place to visit for the traveler who wants to veer away from the norm and step out of her comfort zone!

  3. thanks for the great interview – I am so interested in going traveling in the middle-east – seems like such a unique and beautifully different place!

  4. So inspiring! My mom learned Arabic in the 1970s while she was working for the FBI, and I grew up with an appreciation for Middle Eastern culture, language and food. I’ve always wanted to visit the Middle East and learn Arabic, but have never gotten too serious about it–I speak French, and generally spend any money I have on returning to France! I’m definitely going to look into studying in Jordan–sounds like an amazing experience.

    1. From what I’ve seen Arabic seems like a really challenging language to learn- but a really useful one! And I think immersion is probably the best way.

      1. Yes, the State Department categorizes Arabic as being one of the hardest languages in the world to learn (along with Chinese and Japanese). The learning curve is very steep, and it takes years of devoted study to reach proficiency, even in an immersion environment. It’s a fascinating and beautiful language if you can make that kind of commitment, but it’s easy enough to get around speaking English.
        .-= Cari´s last blog ..My Lady Syria =-.

  5. Nice interview.
    I am Italian but I lived in London for 7 years and now I am traveling around the world.
    What I realized in those years is that the most interesting part of my life was about the relationship I had with different cultures, I learned so much and I think I am not the same person I was 10 years ago!For sure traveling opened my eyes,now I feel different, maybe I am a better person.

  6. What a great interview!!! I´ve always wanted to go to Jordan. Cari´s advice is great and it definitely inspires me to put the Middle East at the top of my travel list.
    .-= Nancy´s last blog ..What´s New Buenos Aires? =-.

  7. Wow, what a great post 🙂 I have to admit that it doesn’t really occur to me to travel to the Middle East…like not much at all. And your comment about travel being about the relationships along the way – that is completely the conclusion I came to at the end of my RTW…all of my best stories are with friends, and the huge tourists are a background to the relationships we were building 🙂
    .-= Shannon OD´s last blog ..A little tour…It’s raining on Uluru =-.

    1. I think a lot of people overlook the middle east as a travel destination. Hearing about Cari’s adventures has definitely increased my desire to go there!

    2. I went to jordan this past September and it was a great place to and visit. I felt very comfortable there. People are so nice and helpful. The food is wonderful to. I will be going back real soon. I never felt safer. A lot of things to see also.

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