“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
― Maya Angelou
Something about travel abroad stirs in us a restlessness, quenching that desire to place one foot continually in front of the other. The unknown places perpetually before us serve as a proxy for self-discovery, or perhaps a catalyst for it. The instability of our existence while in foreign lands, unable to speak the language and unsure of our trajectory, does not allow us to withdraw to the comfort of familiarity or routine. This constant uncertainty is both enlightening and exhausting. And so, at the end of a month of exploration, we were ready to go home.
We boarded the bus in Nazareth, bound for Amman, Jordan. When I booked our flights in October, it was for some reason much less expensive to fly into Cairo and out of Amman than any other combination of flights to and from Cairo/Amman/Tel Aviv (the three major airports in the region of our intended travels). We were tired, and I for one was more than a little cranky.
The bus was fairly full, and we picked up some more passengers along the way. Ben and I sat in front, and the driver warned us that we’d have to move temporarily at the border because the Jordanian police would ride with us from the border to Jarash.
At the border, we all filed off the bus and proceeded to Israeli passport control. We paid the 100 shekel ($25) exit tax again, and through the Duty Free shop to the Jordanian immigration. Here we had to pay an entry fee. Seriously, a note to all overland travelers in the region: limit your border crossings to save money. We ended up paying more than $200 in border fees throughout our trip.
When Ben handed his US Passport to the Jordanian customs official, he thumbed through it and asked, “Where is your stamp from Israel?” Sigh. Ben replied, “In my other passport.” Israelis are required by law to present their Israeli passports, even if they have dual citizenship, to Israeli officials when entering/exiting Israel. However, he generally uses his US Passport when entering/exiting other countries. Busted. He handed the man his Israeli passport. “Oh,” said the man, indicating across the room, “You need to go to that line over there.” Ben joined the other Israeli in a separate line to be harassed.
I handed the man my US Passport, and he said, “Are you with the Israeli?” I nodded. “Do you have another passport, too?” I told him I did not. “Are you SURE?” Yes, I said I was sure. I told him that he could see the Israeli stamp in my US Passport. He narrowed his eyes, took my money, gave me a receipt, and sent me off to the next window to get my passport stamped.
Ben was still answering a battery of questions when I finished with passport control. I told him I’d go ahead. We had to get our bags rechecked by Jordanian security, and to save Ben more hassle I took both of our backpacks. The security men looked at me, looked at the giant bags. They asked for my passport, and I gave it to them. They waved me through without search. I joined the rest of the passengers outside waiting for the bus.
Ben finally came through security, having his two small bags (my camera and his messenger bag) thoroughly searched. He thanked me for taking the two big bags. When the bus pulled around to load passengers, Ben told me to get in line first to get our seat back, and he would load the bags under the bus. I did so. When the doors opened, the lady next to me literally threw her elbow in my face to get on the bus first. Sure enough, she took our seats up front.
This did not help my crankiness. I had just about had enough of rude, pushy people. Ben and I took the other seats in front, and the bus filled up. Finally, a woman and her young son got on the full bus, and demanded we give up our seats because she has trouble with motion sickness. Ben said she could sit across from us, and her son behind her. The driver argued with us, telling us the Jordanian policeman had to sit across from us, and the woman complained she couldn’t sit even one seat behind the front. This was all in Hebrew so I couldn’t chime in, but Ben told me later what was said. We ended up relinquishing our seats, and sitting across from each other a few rows back. The woman for whom we gave up our seats didn’t even thank us, nor did she offer to have her daughter (who was sitting two rows back and had both seats to herself) move so that Ben and I could sit together. This did not help my crankiness, either.
I was so sick of being pushed around. I complained to Ben that I didn’t want to give up our seats, that the woman and the driver were so rude, and why should we have to be uncomfortable because of the other pushy people? Why were we less important than them? I asked Ben to tell the woman her daughter should move so that we could have that seat. I wanted to nap, I wanted to be comfortable for the rest of the ride. I will admit that I was embarrassed later at my behavior. I usually am quite calm and rather unflappable, and I don’t like to be demanding. But after two weeks of dealing with public rudeness, I guess it was rubbing off on me.
Finally, the pretty young Arab woman sitting next to me, studying some sort of manual in English, offered to switch with Ben. I told her no, she didn’t need to do that, it wasn’t her fault. I was sorry I had complained so loudly. Ben switched with her, and was visibly irate with me. I couldn’t blame him. I thanked the woman, shut my mouth, and tried to do everyone a favor by napping.
We arrived in Amman without further incident. Ben and I agreed not to be cranky for the rest of the day. We knew we needed a taxi into the center of town, as Amman is a huge sprawling city in which half of Jordan’s 6 million people live. Taking a hint from our previous experience with Jordanian taxis, we pounced on two British tourists as soon as we got off the bus. “Want to split a taxi downtown?” we asked. They agreed and we found a cab. “3 dinars each,” proposed the driver. I told them we only had 10 dinars between the four of us, which was true. We hadn’t yet exchanged money, since the border exchange bureaus provide currency at terrible rates with a large commission. The driver agreed, and we all piled into the small sedan, backpacks on some of our laps.
We careened through the crowded winding streets of Amman, up and over many steep hills. The Brits informed us they were in Jordan for grad school research, and had been out in one of the Syrian refugee camps on the north border for the past two weeks. The driver had trouble finding the Brits’ hotel, and so just dropped us in the center of town near where the hotel should have been. We parted ways with the Englishmen, and began the search for a hotel.
As mentioned previously, almost all prices in the Arab countries are negotiable. Even hotel prices. We went to the first hotel and looked at the room. It was dingy and dark, with two sad sagging beds slumped against one wall. An ancient and tiny TV set perched on a cabinet across the room. The blankets were threadbare. All in all, par for the course at the price point. Back at the front desk, they said they would give us a discount. 15 dinars (~$20). We said we’d think about it and come back.
At the next hotel, the rooms were a bit brighter, cleaner, and with more substantial blankets. The window faced an alleyway from the 6th floor, and the room was quiet. Definitely preferable to the previous hotel. At the front desk, they said the rate was 20 dinars. Ben said, “Well, we were just over at the hotel down the street, and their rooms were about the same. They said 15 dinars.” The man gave us a skeptical look. Eighteen, he said. “That’s still quite a bit more for the same room,” Ben contended. “We don’t want to have to walk all the way back over there.” The man yelled something in Arabic to another man in the next room, a small office near the front desk. Fine, he told us. Sixteen. We agreed.
After dropping off our belongings in our room, we struck out to explore downtown Amman. The souqs are divided into sectors: the hardware souq, the clothing souq, the produce souq, etc. The produce souq included, to my dismay, a crate of small turtles amid the other caged animals. I assume they were for making soup, but I didn’t want to ask. It could be worse, I told myself. There could be dogs. Besides, I’ve eaten frogs and snakes and guinea pigs. I suppose there is no difference. The clothing souqs displayed many items with Palestinian or Iraqi flags them. Jordan has one of the highest percentages of immagrants in the world, with over 40% of its population having been born in another country. Over a million inhabitants are from Iraq (courtesy of the US invasion in 2004), and another 2 million inhabitants are ethnically Palestinian. As a result, native Jordanians are quick to tell you they are Jordanian instead of Iraqi, Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian, or any of the other refugee groups in Amman.
Ben was feeling rather ill with a nasty cold, and had been since we arrived in Haifa. He was on his last legs now; tired, disconnected, sore. We found a coffee shop, drank some shay, and played backgammon for a couple hours. On our way back to the hotel, we found some shawarma for dinner. Despite the malfunctioning heater, we slept quite well that night thanks to the extra blankets I found in a stairwell closet.
The next day we had 12 hours in Amman before we had to leave for the airport. The one item on Ben’s agenda: a session at Pasha Turkish bath house. I thought that sounded pretty nice myself, so I called to make reservations for 1.00 pm. So for a few hours we wandered the souqs to shop for items for friends and relatives, ate some lunch, and gradually wound our way up the many pedestrian staircase alleys to the bath house. However, when we got there, the receptionist informed us that only women were allowed before 7pm, and only men were allowed in the evenings. Ben told me I should go, even though he wasn’t sure he would have time before our car came to pick us up for the airport that evening to indulge himself. He said he would wait in the beautiful lobby for the two hours I would be in the bath. I said okay.
A Turkish bath is a real Middle Eastern delight. You are led around by a host of bath attendants, who constantly supply you with fruit juice slushies and water. They first deposit you into a very hot steam room, where you are given a wet cloth to place over your face while you relax. The room is dark except for tiny shafts of colored light filtering in through glass-covered holes in the domed roof. After 15 minutes or so, you are ushered into the jacuzzi in the center of the bath house to soak while you wait for the next step. More colored holes in the center domed roof and hanging star lamps provide gentle illumination. While I was there, a group of women from the US Embassy (employees and wives of employees) were having a ladies’ day at the spa. They were a friendly bunch, and it was really interesting to hear their take on the region and its political climate.
Soon enough, it was my turn for exfoliation. I laid down on a big marble table, and an attendant named Yasmin proceeded to scrub my entire body vigorously with an exfoliating cloth. I was amazed at the amount of dead skin that came off my body. After that, back to the shower, then back to the jacuzzi. The next step is the massage, which entails rubbing, chopping, and slapping while again laying on the marble tabletop. After that, back to the shower, then back to the jacuzzi. After a while you are ushered into the sauna for a sweat session. Then back to the shower and back to the jacuzzi. You can then make your way out to the changing room at your leisure.
I tipped the attendants, got dressed, and emerged after two hours feeling thoroughly relaxed, clean, and ready for the 24-hour journey home. I told Ben we would have to make time for him to enjoy the experience that night, and since our flight wouldn’t leave until 1.00 am, I was sure we could make that happen. He booked a 7.00 pm slot, and we left. More shopping, more coffee shop backgammon, more street food. We went back to the hotel, where I would wait for the driver while Ben went to Pasha. The driver would collect me and our luggage, and then we would stop by to get Ben before heading out to the airport. We had arranged for 9.00 pm, which would give Ben the 2 hours he needed and still get us to the airport 3 hours before our flight.
Little did we know that our mobile devices, which we relied on to update our time zones, did not get the memo that Jordan decided not to switch to daylight savings time this year. This is the first year they decided not to switch, and thus nearly everyone who visits the country is unaware and arrives an hour late for everything. We were no exception. Ben was an hour late to the bath house, and thus I also had to delay the driver for an hour. Fortunately, Lufthansa also did not get the memo, and so our 1.00 am flight was actually 2.00 am. Disaster averted. Cold-addled Ben emerged from the bath refreshed and relaxed, if still stuffy and tired. A perfect way to end our vacation.
We arrived at the new (but still only partially functioning) small Amman airport 45 minutes outside the city in the comfort of a private car. After 3 hours of sitting around at the airport (it took about 10 minutes to get through security and get our boarding passes), we were on the plane and off we went. Home, with its beautiful open deserts, craggy mountains, and tail-wagging dogs awaited us. Goodbye Middle East!
Our journey was definitely not relaxing, though it was entertaining and enjoyable. We learned much about ourselves, the roots of modern civilization, and about a culture that is so readily demonized by many in the West. Experiencing part of the Arab world first-hand helps to dispel some ignorance, which in turn alleviates misunderstanding. Whether or not we agree with the tenants or customs of another culture, it is important to understand them and the complexity of the political dynamics at work. The cobwebs start to clear and we can see that, in the end, we are all just people. We all have many of the same hopes and desires for the future. With the exception of a few crazies (in every culture), we all want peaceful, healthy lives in which our needs are met and our rights are protected. There is no “us vs. them” when we connect on an individual level.
I highly recommend travel to this region for anyone from the West. Do not let fear or ignorance dissuade you. We never once felt in danger, and the vast majority of people we actually interacted with (as opposed to passing public exchanges) were kind, welcoming, and accommodating. Travel through the Middle East is eye-opening and exciting, beautiful and inspiring. So, if it tempts you at all… go!
Until next time…