This is a story in 2 parts.
It began, as mentioned, on the side of the highway. Well, that's not precisely true. I noted something new and strange when I walked into the immigration building on the Jordanian border and the security guard who searched my bag asked my name. After paying the $20 visa fee, he remembered it when I left with a friendly greeting. It felt like night and day, given the treatment I received just a few hundred meters away at the Syrian border. But of course I still had an hour into Amman with a surly cab driver who had long since realized I wasn't real interested in being ripped off more than I had already been.
From the side of the highway I flagged down a cab, who took me the last 10 minutes into the city center. My hotel was located roughly adjacent to a well-known mosque, but finding it was rather more tricky than they made it seem. Deja vu set in as I wound my way through shoe vendors, kabob stands and wheelbarrows filled with fruit being sold by shouting people.
This wouldn't last, Amman is remarkably different from other middle-eastern cities I'd been to - my hotel is situated in the 'downtown' area, which is also, I gathered later, one of the poorer and most conservative sections of the city. Much of the city is built on a series of hills and it gives a natural separation to different neighborhoods. One, for example, was a wealthy, strongly Christian neighborhood that was very westernized - though the soldiers on every street corner with machine guns do a lot to ruin that particular illusion.
The timing of this trip came about because Chris, my friend I stayed with in London, was going to visit and travel with me for a few days. Time was quite short - he only had 6 or so days here and I worried that we wouldn't be able to see much as travel in this part of the world can be unpredictable.
I shouldn't have worried. The hotel we picked at random was organized and professional. They put together day trips for us and arraigned transportation to bus stations and the airport with ease. Compared to some of my other experiences, it was pretty shocking. In fact the smooth, easy nature of the tourist infrastructure in Jordan was unbelievable.
I got in a day earlier than Chris and checked into the hotel (once I found it.) The rooms were spartan but clean, with amazing, modern features like towels and soap. Hot water, however, remained precious and elusive. More than anything, though, I loved the atmosphere - a big common room with couches couches and tables filled with travelers from all over the world. The owner, a Muslim woman of indeterminable age, would bounce into the room like a cartoon character and hold court with all her guests, complaining about the various details of running a hotel and whatever else was on her mind at the time.
That first night I ventured out only a little, instead spending time talking with a Swiss girl of Iranian descent, who spoke Farsi with a curiously German accent and an Italian chef working in Dubai who told wildly improbable but completely entertaining stories. I shared a room with an Irishman with whom I spoke very little but seemed to take some measure of post-culture-shock comfort in our common heritage.
The next morning Chris's flight was due to land, and I advised him to take the bus into town rather than a $30 taxi. This seemed like a good introduction to middle-eastern travel and I expected some horror stories - but of course, this being Jordan, there were none. It was a good reunion - it felt like a lot longer than the few weeks that had passed since I left London. We sat in the common area of the hotel for a while, just catching up and shooting the shit with the other guests.
Rudely, that day, we were interrupted in our excitedly casual conversation by an incredible, violent roar overhead that shook the windows with some force and set off car alarms up and down the street. There was a stunned silence for a few long seconds before we could all find our voices again. We later learned that it was an Israeli fighter jet and must have been flying very, very low to the ground. This, then, was a proper introduction to travel in the middle east.
That, and the grueling few hours we spent exploring the city in the blazing hot sun. Amman is a sprawling, hilly city that is about as un-walkable as they come, but there are some interesting roman ruins nestled tightly into the urban environment that need to be explored on foot.
But in stark contrast with the many of the rest of my experiences, travelling in Jordan was smooth as silk. The hotel had drivers on call to make all of the most common day trips and people would simply sign up for them and split the cost. In this manner a group of us drove out across the shocking green hills to the east and wandered around a castle and an old roman city. This was not without it’s own quirks: our taxi driver took a liking to the Swiss girl from the hotel that had gone along with us and would shout her name every few moments at the top of his lungs and roughly shake the seat of whatever poor soul was on the passenger side. Every culture has it’s own brand of humor and in much of the middle east it seems to involve a lot of pushing and shouting (sometimes biting.)
Another taxi the following day took us to Mount Nebo, where Moses is said to have spent the remainder of his life. It was a spectacular view, though we ended up wandering into some kind of monastery by accident and were yelled at. We spent the rest of the afternoon dead floating serenely in the Dead Sea, where the water bears you like a newborn, pushing you to the surface with shocking force. You can’t overstate how strange the experience is, like sitting on a water-chair.
Being us, we naturally managed to sniff out the meager local nightlife. Rallying together a small crew from our hotel, we piled into a few cabs and negotiated with the drivers to take us to one of a few bars in the area. This was harder than it seemed since of course none of the drivers had ever been anywhere near any of these places, for obvious reasons.
Drinking is also stratospherically expensive in the middle east, compared to everything else. In Egypt, bars I went to tended to be dark and well-hidden, filled with men furtively drinking awful, locally-made beer. In Syria, bars were tiny and and crowded with ex-pats, so we bought beer and drank in the park.
In Jordan, they were elaborate and huge, with terraces filled with beautiful young people and expansive views of the hills. It felt so much like Los Angeles that for a bit I couldn’t tell if I liked it or not. But I did, and I would return many times after that.
Anyway, we all got well and truly plastered.
Shrugging off a hangover, we boarded a 6 am bus filled with tourists bound for the legendary Petra.
Much of the world knows this place from Indiana Jones, but that hardly does the place justice. Lonely Planet (“the bible” - called as such because of how tourists clutch it desperately everywhere they go) recommends two full days for it, but we only had one, and it was long.
First things first, you pay. Getting in is a mind-boggling $40, which is about four times what we paid for a hotel room. Secondly, you hike. It’s about a two-hour walk into the site, but the process is so perfectly dream-like, turning from featureless, rocky desert town into a surreal narrow canyon walkway. This must have been deliberate - the builders fully intended this route to inspire awe in their visitors, and they succeed still today.
At this point in the trip, I’d seen a lot of ruins, to make a wild understatement. But today, anytime anyone asks the absolute highlight of the trip, this is what I tell them. The sheer spectacle of this place is without equal, the scale of it and setting and the effort it must have taken to carve into the solid rock cliffs. And more - the dissonance of the oriental Arab architecture mixed directly with the classical roman.
Through a vertical slit of light through the canyons, you see The Treasury, the most iconic of Petra’s buildings. How easy it is to imagine this square as it once was - the resemblance to Wall Street is somewhat uncanny. And further down, the site opens wide to row upon row of caves and temples set into the cliff sides overlooking a roman forum and a wide avenue set with columns. 'Breathtaking' comes to mind.
It comes to mind for a few reasons, actually. As I mentioned there's a lot of hiking involved to even get there. You can take a donkey, but it's a tourist trap (and you look like, yeah, an ass.) Your only other choice to brave the heat and the dust and walk it. We walked that day until our legs were useless. The most brutal of all was the 800-step climb to "the temple" - you feel every single one during the hour or so it took to climb up. 10 minutes or so into the climb someone passing down mentioned that we were "about halfway," which was incredibly, stupidly wrong.
But we didn't stop long once we reached the temple. You can keep going, climbing up rock formations to the peak of the mountain to look down on "the end of the world", a landscape of rocky valleys so alien and foreign that it doesn't seem even a little bit real. We sat for a while and just stared. Then we started the long walk down.
We returned to the hotel later that night for a well-needed shower and went out to eat, ingratiating ourselves with the waiters by slyly drinking beer out of coffee cups and then setting fire to the candle-in-paper-bag put on our table for romantic ambience.
The morning brought another 6am call, a 2-hour taxi ride south to Wadi Rum. Chris had one single-minded goal when coming to the middle-east: ride a damn camel. This desert, famous for its scenic rock formations and the hospitality of its Bedouin residents, seemed conducive to camel-based adventures.
But first we spent the day riding shotgun in a prehistoric Toyota Land Cruiser, driven by a guy who shared my disdain for 4-wheel drive - preferring long, slow drifts across the sand, the tail of the car hanging out like a puppy on a polished floor.
The sights themselves were less interesting - sand dunes, rock formations, some weirdly suspicious ruins. The crumbling wall of T.E. Lawrence's house (he figures prominently in the history of this region, but I suspect he mostly had a good P.R. agent, and Peter O'Toole.) But the setting itself was something pretty special and seemed a million miles from anywhere.
At one point, part of the "tour" consisted of our driver stopping at one rock and pointing to another one far in the distance, suggesting in the best English he could muster that we might find it interesting to walk there to get an idea what it must be like to be lost in the desert. Tempting as it sounded, we declined.
Night coming, we made our way back to the camp where we would spend the night. Our mental image of it was of us and our fellow tourists around a campfire, playing guitars and watching the sunset. Unfortunately, there were no fellow tourists. In fact, it was just us two and four guys from the camp staff. In any case, they made an amazing dinner for us, an Arab dish I'd had many times but never got old - simple rice and chicken cooked so long it falls apart when you grab it. The sunset was as good as you can imagine, the whole landscape set afire by the red sun and then cooling to a dim blue. When the stars came out, they painted the sky in totality, more stars than either of us had ever seen.
We were woken the next morning by the camels and their Sudanese rider. With practiced ease he buckled us in, and the animals rose smoothly with a grumpy snort from their seated position like an elevator. We set off, the route back to town taking about 2 hours. For moments it would become weirdly normal, holding onto the saddle pitching back and forth and chatting about nothing. Then one camel or another would get rowdy and bite his mate on the ass or grumble or fart and we would all just bust out laughing. The most surreal moment came when the guy answered his cell phone and then handed it back to me. I've never recieved a call on the back of a camel before, but I can scratch that off my bucket list now, thank god.
From Wadi Rum we took a taxi south, to the coastal city of Aqaba, where you can sit on the Red Sea and see Israel. We sat and had lunch and drank a beer and watched the glass-bottom boats go past the "family beach", where women clothed from head to toe in black frolicked in the surf with their husbands and children. But, it was too hot to stay, and Chris's flight would leave soon, so we jumped on the next bus back to Amman, back to Abassi, which was already starting to feel like home.
And then, I was on my own again. I didn’t know it then, but this would be something like the beginning of the end of this story.
But of course, even though I bid a sad farewell to my friend, there were still the many familiar faces at Abassi, and more came every day. In the evenings I became like a tour guide for the meager local nightlife in Amman, leading groups up the long staircase to Rainbow street to spend a few hours smoking sheesha and drinking beer and telling stories.
More troublingly, I received more and more reports of people being turned away at the Syrian border. One girl at the hotel had already paid tuition to an Arabic university in Damascus but couldn't get across the border to start classes. And not just American passports - Mexicans, Canadians. For some reason Aussies could still get through, but you try keeping an Aussie down.
Since Syria is the only option for travelling to Lebanon overland and flights to Lebanon pushing $200 and the security situation vis-a-vis Turkish flotillas getting worse, I decided the best idea would simply be to go directly to India. And thus began a process that would take nearly two weeks. It would strand me in Amman, force me to make it a sort of home and give life a weird cast of normality for long enough to poison the well of my wanderlust.
But it was something else, too. I've spoken before of heartbreak, of loneliness and isolation that punctuated my life in LA before I left it behind. It was the promise of the wider world that drew me out into it, the idea that out there I might find a home, a place or a person that would be worth trading my rootless freedom for. And in a way I did find it, though it slipped through my fingers like sand. But it was a taste of what I looked for, a tantalizing promise of the kind of life I had looked for.
One day we drove and drove and drove, out of the city and into the grassy farmlands to the west. We picked a spot under a tree and sat a while, talking and sitting close, hiding from the scornful looks and shouted taunts of the city.
One day I sat in a cafe writing when a coin fell from the sky at my feet. It brought me luck, though I couldn't keep it.
In time my visa came through, and I left Amman with bittersweet regret.
But I had one last thing to do. A friend of a friend, I had heard, was an underground tattoo artist, a practice thoroughly illegal in Jordan. I made a promise to myself when I was young that I would mark the biggest milestones of my life with something to remind myself of what I had learned and never wanted to forget. At 18, on the first of January in the year 2000, I drove to New Hampshire with my friends and got one to remember what my adolescent years taught me. And in the basement of a house in suburban Amman, I marked on my arm what I had learned becoming an adult, a man, 10 years later.
That night, I nursed my throbbing arm, finished a bottle of strong Arak and in my best penmanship wrote a long, sad birthday card. In morning I boarded a plane to Delhi.