Despite its biblical history and archaeological sites from all periods, Jordan is far from being stuck in the past. In Amman, I found more than frequent flashes of westernisation and modernity juxtaposed against an ever present sense of antiquity and tradition. Like any major city Amman is busy and fast moving yet things still happen slowly. A stroll around downtown Amman, ideally in the evening, is the best way to get a true sense of its vibrancy and colour and a feel of its Jordanian character. Smells of freshly baked bread and sandal wood mingle in the street air while clouds of hubbly bubbly will leave you feeling somewhat heady. It is all too easy, and highly recommended, to pass a few hours drinking cardamom-scented Bedouin coffee at one of the many coffee houses while allowing yourself to be entertained by the live streets scenes.
I found the people both at the centre and beyond very warm and friendly and it was perhaps from them that I learnt more about life in Jordan than I could have guessed possible in such a short time. I spent a couple of evenings with one of the vets who surprised me with his open mindedness and persistent deep examination of fundamental values and the meaning of life. He encouraged me to challenge all my stereotypically held beliefs about Islamic religion and culture and life values. We talked about coping with water shortages, about the Muslim faith, halal meat, what it means to be a vet in Jordan and one hundred other things. The only thing we were not able to understand or explain between us was how the utterance of a few words can take all the pain away from farm animals who bleed to death fully conscious in the name of halal. Sadly, this was one of the few magical mysteries of Jordan I was not able to accept.
I found living in Amman surprisingly easy and comfortable. Traditions of hospitality are ingrained. The food is appetising – we often ate supper outside sitting cross-legged around a low table: olives, bread, hummus, tabbouleh, baba ghanoush and sweet mint tea in the sultry evening lull punctuated with the wailing call to prayer….it was magical. The vegetarian food is so scrumptious and nutritious I really can’t understand why the whole nation isn’t vegetarian. If you don’t live like a conspicuous tourist it can be very cheap to live in Jordan. Probably the biggest problem was getting around. For some reason I was discouraged from using buses even at busy day times. If you are staying for more than a month hiring a car would probably be advisable, for convenience more than anything else. Otherwise taxis are not too expensive and certainly very practical and make things so much easier. There are lots around and you never have to wait long before an empty one drives past.
Even the taxi men struggled and did their utmost to spit out a few broken words of English, as if it was somehow their duty to do so. They were proud of their country and wanted you to be pleased and happy with it too. And I was.
The Dead Sea is only 40mins drive or so away from Amman and can easily be done one afternoon after work. When I pulled off the Desert Highway for my first view of the sea, I was completely unprepared for its beauty. I had thought it would be grey and somehow scummy, but it was a spectacular transparent aquamarine with an ethereal quality, stretching out vaguely towards Israel and the mountains of Hebron. You see people lying ostentatiously in the water reading but the position that is the most relaxing is upright, bobbing like a cocktail stick. It is eerily quiet, there being no waves or current, and the salt hangs in a hazy mesh above the water. You just float. If you do want to move you have to march forward, like a dressage pony. I stayed in for hours, and then returned the next morning at dawn to have the sea and all its magic to myself.
All in all I recommend the HCAW and the Jordan volunteer vet experience to anyone who first and foremost genuinely cares about animals and wants to work directly with and for animals in a country where animal care and welfare is almost negligent. It provides an excellent opportunity to really test and put into practice veterinary skills, and what is so good about it is that it is suitable for vets and vet students or all levels of experience and knowledge. You can take a lot of responsibility, do a lot of operations and get really involved if you have the experience, or you can work alongside the vets there and develop and practice the skills you already have. You will see a lot of pathology and trauma seldom seen in the UK and quickly learn basic emergency medicine procedures and management. You will always be supported in your decisions and procedures. For some there is a real opportunity to get involved in the future shape of the centre and introduce best practice and protocols and contribute to its systems and veterinary management. So from a centre full of helpless animals crying out for help, to a country full of fascinating peculiarities a visit to HCAW really does promise enrichment.