The other day I went hiking with some friends from my study abroad here in Jordan to the nearby town of Ajloun. Much of the time, when we have a free day, we like to explore the surrounding cities and countryside. Jordan is beautiful, especially in the Northwest. I enjoy getting out for a hike (and, naturally, some herping) and others enjoy coming along for the scenery and exercise.
Locals are often curious about who we are and why we're in their town, so it gives us some good opportunities to practice our Arabic and mingle with the townspeople. As we were hiking in the Ajloun Forest Preserve, I began talking with a man who knew a lot about animals. It turned out that he was something like a zoologist that worked often in the preserve. I took the opportunity to mention my love for reptiles, and the conversation went from there. It was refreshing to speak with someone who knew the difference between a chameleon and a gecko, instead of using the same word for both. He may have been equally impressed to speak with an American kid who not only knew what reptile species lived in his country, but could throw out the names of them in either Arabic or their Latin scientific names.
More often than not, though, things don't go that smooth...
Today, my peers and I spent the day at the Dead Sea and visited the location held by tradition as the place of Christ's baptism in the Jordan River.
Not being a huge fan of large tour groups or dense huddles in the heat to listen to a memorized script in broken English, I walked away a few paces and sat down in the shade next to a gardener. As is my habit at times, I began asking him questions about the local fauna. His name was Abu Muhammad, and he was intrigued about my interest in Arabic and animals. I don't know the names of all the animals (though I'm improving), so there's always a lot of charade-like movements and hand gestures to figure out the animal he's talking about; or, he describes what it's similar to. I asked Abu Muhammad if there were chameleons by the Jordan River. He said only a few, but he said that vipers were common at times.
Then, he got animated telling me about the wild boars that run wild through the tamarisk and acacia trees. Honestly, most of my interest lies in knowing about the reptiles, but I proceeded and asked if hedgehogs were common out there, too. He nodded that they were, and he also sometimes sees this other animal. I didn't recognize the Arabic name. He said it was this big (his hands were about a foot or more apart), and it's really fast (again, a quick hand motion). "Is it a type of lizard?" He said no, and that it was kind of like the hedgehog, but long and fast. The only thing I could think of was a mongoose, and when he said it was like a hedgehog I'm guessing he meant that it was a mammal.
By then, my group was moving on. He asked me if I had a phone, so I took out my cell phone and recorded his name and number. I can't see myself taking a two-hour bus down to the Dead Sea to sip date juice and shoot pool with this nice gardener, but he had been really friendly and I was happy to talk with him.
My group walked further down to get a view of Israel off in the distance. I shook hands with Abu Muhammad and jogged off to join up with the others. A few minutes later, we began the return walk back to the bus. I looked ahead and saw my new gardener friend waving for me to come over. He had a piece of blue cloth in his hands that he was excitedly peering into. "Nice, I've already got the grounds crew working in my benefit to collect species!" I thought. He smiled as he unwrapped the cloth, revealing two small, frightened turtledoves. I know he was just being nice and wanting to give me a gift, but what was I supposed to do with two birds that were not quite big enough to fly? I asked where he got them. The tree (of course). Where's the mother? Oh, she flew away, he said matter-of-factly. I sighed, but thanked the man. Maybe if I did call him in the future and came to hang out, he'd give me a partridge that he extracted from a pear tree. (Ok, lame joke, sorry).
I asked my colleagues if they wanted two small birds, but they were as confused as I was as to why I had them and what I was supposed to do with them. I ended up setting them down in a shady area where an employee would find them. I did feel bad but didn't know what else to do. Trying to believe that the birds would be just fine, I climbed back into the air-conditioned bus to sanitize my hands and look up "mongoose" in my dictionary.