Let me begin this story with its moral, so I can open this post with something positive.
We can (and should) all be kinder to guests.
Jordan taught us this lesson in two very different ways.
We arrived in the country across the land border from the Israeli Red Sea town of Eilat. As soon as we stepped foot outside passport control, we were approached by a man — an “organizer” — who said he worked for the government, and his job was to organize a taxi for us from amongst the numerous green vehicles in the parking lot. The conversation went as follows:
Man: The prices are fixed, and are on the board there. Where are you going?
Man: 54 dinars (~$70 US).
Us: OK, well, we’ll wait for some other people and split it.
Man: No, no, you can’t do that.
Man: You can’t stand here on the border. It’s restricted. 5 minutes, maybe. The guards won’t let you.
Us: Well, we’ll wait 5 minutes then.
Man: Listen, 54 dinars is not too much money! It’s a 2 hour drive, the taxi has to pay for gas. They are not rich men.
Us: Fine, he’ll get 54 dinars, but we can split our cost with someone else. We are not rich either.
Man: If you wait and two more people come, I will charge you double. 27 dinars per person.
Us: I’d like to see you try. Those are government prices. It’s still one car to the same place.
Man: (yelling now) 108 dinars to split! You cannot wait here for other people. 54 dinars is not too much!
Us: You can’t charge us double. We’ll wait.
Man: I can! See all those cameras? Everyone here knows what I do. The taxis pay me 5 dinars, and I pay police here. You can’t complain to anyone! (To taxi driver:) Here, give me 5 dinars. (Taxi driver pays.)
Did we have a choice? We couldn’t walk to town, since the border zone is militarized. Plus, it was almost $20 US for a 5-minute taxi ride into Aqaba. What a racket. Taxi mafia. So we grudgingly got into a taxi and were hurtled at near warp speed toward Petra (sans seat belts, of course), through desolate desert canyons and rocky hillsides. Welcome to Jordan.
We had arranged a couchsurfing host in Petra, and borrowed a cell phone to call him when we arrived. He appeared to meet us promptly, and in retrospect my greeting toward him was probably a little colder than it should have been. I was afraid that all Jordanians were as unpleasant as the taxi “organizer”. But Nawwaf was warm, welcoming, and sincere. He drove us from the main tourist gate to his apartment in the nearby Bedouin village to drop off our bags, then delivered us to the ruins “Little Petra” to wander around for the afternoon and walk back to his apartment.
Little Petra is a small canyon with several ancient buildings carved into its walls, and myriad narrow staircases chiseled into the sandstone amongst the caves and columns. A mere fraction the scale of its more famous larger neighbor, Little Petra is still worth a visit. We walked to the end of the area, which revealed a long stairway up a slot canyon. A small sign read, “The best view in the world” with an arrow indicating we should climb the stairs. We did so, and were greeted first by a Bedouin woman wanting to sell us tea (which we declined), and then a Bedouin man reclining on the cliff with an assortment of trinkets and jewelry for sale. We sat with the man, Awaf, for a while and chatted. His English was excellent, and we joked about tourists, Egypt, and the like. We told him we are Americans, and he said, “Yeah! Obama country!” (A common response in this region.)
We walked back to Nawwaf’s apartment, and he soon arrived with two Polish tourists who were also couchsurfing with him. Anna and Rafael were a young couple, soft-spoken and thin. We piled into Nawwaf’s giant Ford pickup (he complained at length about the gas mileage, which was quite comical — we assured him we had the same complaint about American cars), and off into the desert across sand and slickrock. We parked the truck after 10 or 15 minutes and carried blankets, firewood, and groceries up into a canyon and across a sandy plateau into the saddle of another long wadi. There, carved into the sandstone, was Nawwaf’s family cave.
All five of us shared a fire, a meal of meatballs and vegetables cooked in the fire and prepared by our host, and a small cup of Arak (liquor) as we chatted into the night by candlelight. Nawwaf was eager to talk about politics, religion, and the traditions of his people. He told us he has friends in Israel, and we were surprised that the phrases he knew in Hebrew were “You are my neighbor” and “You are my friend.”
Nawwaf was appalled when we told him about our interaction with the taxi organizer, and the claims the man had made about double fees and police bribery. Even worse, Anna and Rafael had the same experience. Nawwaf urged us to contact the tourist police, and even called his cousin (one of many), who is a policeman. We all agreed we would file a complaint the next day. “That is no way to treat a guest in our country,” Nawwaf said. Bedouins are renowned for their hospitality, and mistreating visitors is for many of them a shameful act.
The Bedouins are a historically semi-nomadic Arab people, ranging across the Middle East from Tunisia and Sudan all the way to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Jordan. They were herders and traders, and are still divided into different tribes — their current populations are more settled, and are concentrated in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Israel. But they still herd livestock, and many of them still ride camels or donkeys around to do so. Some, like Nawwaf, earn a living from tourism and tours of their native lands.
So we spent our first night in Jordan sleeping in a cave with a Bedouin man and two Polish travelers. Not so bad.
The next day we went to the main Petra archeological park. True to our word, all four of us stopped in the tourist police station to file a complaint against the border taxi mafia. The complaint was written by me and under my passport (my English spelling was the best of the group), and faxed to the Eilat/Aqaba border. We were given the name of a man with the border tourist police along with a phone number, and we were told to call when we arrived at the border in Aqaba on our way back to Eilat. We agreed. This was all very cordial, and only took 20 minutes — soon we were on our way into the park itself.
After the riches of the Nile Valley, we were perhaps a bit desensitized, but the ancient city is by any measure impressive. We hiked for five hours amongst the Nabatean and Roman ruins, yet we only covered the highlights in that time. The ancient city is massive, and its columned tombs and temples are etched into the cliffs for several kilometers.
Oh, and I rode a camel, which was hilarious.
After the long day of “looking at old shit” (our catch-all term for archaeological tourism), we were grateful for a social evening at Nawwaf’s apartment. He cooked lentil soup for us with fresh pita, and soon his neighbor (Awaf from Little Petra) and two of his cousins appeared. Nawwaf’s tribe is one of the biggest in the region, he told us, and over 1500 members are related to him. Hence, a lot of cousins. We helped with some things on his laptop, ate food, and chatted while the Bedouins chain-smoked cigarettes and drank Arak. A heated discussion about the nuances of Islam ensued, which was both educational and entertaining.
The next morning we again experienced the not-so-hospitable side of Jordan. We caught the local bus , which also served as the school bus, from the village to the big town. Teenagers filled the bus, and the four of us seated with our packs made for a crowded ride. Several of the teens hissed at us, and started arguing with the driver and an older rider in Arabic. We don’t speak Arabic, but we knew they were arguing over us. The teens wanted us to get off to make room for them, and the older men scolded them. And yet, when we boarded the big bus to Aqaba, two local women got up from their seats to sit in the uncomfortable wheel seat to make room for us. Hot and cold, is Jordan.
They were waiting for us at the border. Apparently, filing an official complaint is a big deal in Jordan. The taxi organizer smiled when he saw us approach, and Ben asked, “Remember us?” The man said he did. Another man approached and said he was another “official” taxi organizer. Ben said, “Oh! Another “official”. Great. There’s another official I’m going to talk to, and he is inside.”
We waltzed past passport control into the series of Jordanian border offices. The taxi organizer made a big show of greeting every guard and official as he followed us, as if to say, “Look! They are all my friends. This will get you nowhere.” But we ignored him and walked directly to the tourist police station.
What happened next is rather difficult to describe. There was a lot of yelling and gesticulating in Arabic, some shaking heads, some arguing in broken English. A very gentle man from the tourist police served as our interpreter, and told us that they had been working on our complaint since they had received it the night before. He again took my statement and passport, talked with the big border police boss, and explained that indeed charging double for splitting a cab was not allowed. He also assured us that the organizer in no way paid off the police, and that especially the tourist police were there to protect visitors. The organizer, after all his yelling and showboating, now looked deflated, cowed.
I left the complaint to be taken care of by the Jordanian police. I was told the man would have to explain himself in court, and I would receive an email when the matter had been settled.
Holy cow. We had no idea it would be so much hassle. We simply filed the complaint to hopefully save future tourists the same poor introduction to Jordan we suffered, but it created an hourlong ordeal at the border we had not anticipated. I was detained again as I tried to get my exit visa, and had to again call for the police boss to allow me through. We are glad, in retrospect, that my American passport was on the complaint instead of Ben’s; we are told things might not have gone as well if the complainant was an Israeli citizen. (US passports list birthplaces.)
We were grateful to land back in familiar Eilat. We stayed at a hostel Ben had lived at for awhile while working in Eilat many years ago. The same people still run the place, and were happy to have us stay there. And we were happy to be somewhere that we speak the language, and where we are mostly left alone.
Also, after two weeks in the modest and conservative Arab countries, Israel’s beach scene was a dramatic shift. Like a European beach promenade, Eilat’s shores are littered with malls, bars, bikinis and topless sunbathers. We went for a swim in the Red Sea one more time before catching a bus north toward Jerusalem. On to the next chapter…
And as for the moral of this chapter — next time you see a tourist in your home town, take the time to say “Welcome” (and mean it), give them a smile and ask if you can help them. They won’t forget it.