For my 24th birthday, I celebrated my youth by embarking, the day before, on a grand test of stamina: getting up at 6 AM, taking a public bus to Irbid, a town about two hours away, going to church, hiking up a two-mile hill to a crusader castle in Ajlun, visiting a Byzantine church and the supposed site of Elijah's ascension, hanging out at a farm in a river valley, navigating my way back to Amman on three separate public buses, eating dinner at the house of the branch president, chasing his young children around for at least an hour, and then having an impromptu midnight birthday party with my roommates and whoever of the 22 students on my program stopped by my apartment. Think that's not enough of an endurance test? Think again: I did most of that in Arabic, from chatting with bus drivers and old women pounding spices and overenthusiastic tour guides to praying in sacrament meeting, bearing my testimony, and translating the Young Women's lesson I attended. And it was 100 degrees out. And it was Fast Friday, and I, for once, remembered, which means I did all of that on an empty stomach and dry throat. Let it not be said that youth is wasted on the young: we enjoy it.
My hunger (or, more precisely, thirst) made me, luckily, not disposed to put up with any crap, which in this case means the attention of one of the bus drivers, who told me I had a "pretty body" and tried to kiss me, despite my effort to be fully covered so as not to look like a tramp. And here I thought long sleeves were a magic protective shield. Somehow, though, my creep-detecting instincts didn't kick in for the castle's tour guide, who, after taking me on an energetic and detailed tour of the castle, including the secret tunnels, announced that we would then continue our tour to Mar Elias, the aforementioned Byzantine church. "Wait," I wondered, "I thought he just belonged to the castle. Did I somehow agree to this without noticing? Well, he seems nice enough, I guess." So I jumped in his car and off we drove, just the two of us.
And that's how I ended up with an afternoon drive through a Jordanian nature reserve, with a 50-something Arab man inventing love songs to me, in grand classical style, with a low vibratro voice. Imagine Leonard Cohen, in Arabic, producing lines like "I would that I were a bird/so I could flutter near you forever, in any country, even America" and "the trees dance in the wind/only for your sake, O light of my eyes, O my blue-eyed darling." Every so often he'd pause in the song, just to make sure I understood the lyrics: "Flutter--you know? Like to fly around closely. So I could always be near you, see. Get it?" Yes. Yes, I got it. And yes, it made me uncomfortable--how, exactly, should one respond to such a serenade?
Not that I'm complaining too loudly: as the result of a little Arabic and a little flirting (or, okay, a little blue eyes/blue passport magic), I got a personalized tour not only of a crusader castle--and we all know how I feel about castles!!--but also of a beautiful old church site, complete with herds of grazing goats wandering through, and of a charming farm, where, get this, there were trees. And grass. Growing! Naturally! Maybe I've been in the desert too long, but that was the best part, that or the fact that my would-be suitor then plucked fresh figs and pomegranates and mint from those trees, thoughtfully arranging them for me in a box so that I could break my fast on them later, or, as the case was, share them with everyone who came to my impromptu birthday party. Wandering off into forests with strange foreign men is probably not a good habit--at least, my mother never sounds too happy about it--but how can I quit when I get such rewards?