by Nancy Alima Ali

I’m the type of person who likes to make a distinction between being a tourist and being a traveler. In my mind, a tourist is someone who visits a foreign place as an outside observer. A traveler, on the other hand, is someone who visits a foreign place and gets to know it like a local person, so that the place is no longer foreign. I like to think of myself as a traveler. Before I set out on any trip, I think about who I might know at my destination, someone local who can help me get to know and love the place as my own.

When I was planning a trip throughout the Middle East a few years ago, I realized that I didn’t know anyone there. So I turned to the Internet and searched for amateur astronomy clubs. As an avid skywatcher myself, I thought there was no better way to connect with people half-way around the world than through a shared love of the stars. This turned out to be one of the best searches of my life since it led me to the Jordan Astronomical Society.

Group

The members of the Jordan Astronomical Society responded enthusiastically to my email and invited me to give a lecture at their club meeting. I had heard about the famous Arabic hospitality and the members of the Jordan Astronomical Society (JAS) did not disappoint. Rather than treating my visit as a one-hour presentation followed by a few minutes of obligatory chit-chat, they went out of their way to show me and my husband around the capital city of Amman. They took us out to eat at an open-air restaurant, showed us handicrafts made by local women and brought us to see a photography exhibit. But the highlight of the trip was definitely the overnight visit to the JAS desert camp.

About 20 of us set out in a bus for the desert near the border with Saudi Arabia. Along the way, some JAS members sang lively folk songs. I didn’t recognize most of the songs, but was surprised when they started singing “Old Macdonald Had a Farm” in Arabic. I knew I was really in for an adventure when the bus turned off the paved highway and started bumping its way through the desert without a road. I started to worry when the bus stopped, everyone got out and held their cell phones up to the sky. They were trying to get a GPS signal to identify our location. Yep, we were lost. I consoled myself with the thought that a group of amateur astronomers should be able to navigate by the stars after dark. Just then, someone got a GPS signal, we all piled back in the bus and about 20 minutes later pulled up to the gates of the JAS camp. As much as I appreciate celestial navigation, I sure was glad to have modern technology right then!

Food2

With evening approaching, the first order of business was dinner. Several men took the lead in filling a pit in the sand with hot coals. A three-tiered rack was loaded up with chicken and vegetables, lowered into the pit and then covered up. While the food was cooking, Basma (a woman who is one of the organizers for JAS) gave a wonderful presentation about the constellations. About an hour later, the pit was uncovered and the rack full of delicious food was lifted out.

As the sun set and darkness fell, the temperature dropped and we gathered around the fire for warmth. Basma led people over to the portable telescopes that were set up on the outskirts of the camp to see the Great Orion Nebula. The skies were clear and dark so there were plenty of stars to gaze at while we waited our turn at the telescope. We stayed out for hours looking at the stars.

The next morning, I woke up early to watch the sun rise over the desert. The color of the sand changed minute by minute as the sun rose higher in the sky. It was truly a spectacular show. All too soon, it was time to pack up and head back to town. Before we left, the group gathered in front of the Jordan flag for a group photo. It was almost three years ago that I spent the night at the JAS camp but when I look at the faces in the photo it seems like last month that I was with them.

The theme for this year’s Global Astronomy Month is “One People, One Sky”. I truly feel that my experience with the Jordan Astronomical Society members exemplifies this motto. Despite our differences in language, culture and geography, our shared love of astronomy and the night sky brought us together.

Sunrise2

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Nancy Alima AliNancy Alima Ali, M.Ed., is a Coordinator of Public Programs at the Center for Science Education at Space Sciences Lab at the University of California, Berkeley. For over 13 years, Ms. Ali has been active in both formal and informal education as a classroom teacher, college instructor, museum educator, curriculum developer and program manager. She specializes in integrating astronomy and culture and blogs at www.astroalima.com.

 

 

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