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You Can’t Get to Amman from Here

We awoke the next morning, bid Sid a very fond farewell, heaving our packs onto our backs, the cycles, folded in their bags on our shoulders, and teetered our way downstairs.

There was no problem finding a large van-taxi to load all our stuff into, and with one last tip of the Panama hat to our dear friend Sid, we were off. Our driver was, of course, Pakistani, and he made small talk with us in very entertaining English as we raced along the brand new highways of Dubai, toward an airport-shaped shadow that loomed in the distance, enshrouded in dust.

Our cab dropped us off outside the Jazeera Airways terminal, and we headed to check-in for our flight. Jazeera Airways is a low-cost Kuwaiti airline. As a low-cost airline, they have a reduced luggage limit. We had encountered such things in the past. We consider reduced luggage limits to be one of the main enemies of AsiaWheeling Global Enterprises, but generally a little bit of sweet talking paired with perhaps a small fee gets us through, and gets the bikes onto the airplane.

Unfortunately, it seemed this time would be different. We were a fair bit over the (dare I say skimpy) 15 kg per person luggage limit, and the charge for the extra luggage was going to be huge. I’m talking hundreds of dollars. So we began pleading, begging, presenting business cards, explaining AsiaWheeling and our mission of peace, complimenting the airline’s graphic identity, the check-in counter attendant’s uniform, and Kuwait in general. Eventually, the attendant got on the phone with her manager and, low and behold, all extra luggage fees were forgiven.

“You are very lucky, you know that?” she said to us in English.  We know. We thanked her again and again, praising the glory of Jazeera Airways, in their infinite mercy. And with the bags and cycles headed down the conveyor toward Kuwait, we strolled on through security, and got our passports stamped by men in flowing robes who earned hundreds of thousands of dollars a year; we were leaving the UAE.

With this stamp, Scott and I would be retiring our passports for a while, switching over to our second passports, which we had begun to affectionately refer to as the “moon” passports. So I took my slightly fatter 10-year “sun” passport out of my Hong Kong fake leather cover and replaced it with our totally blank “moon” book.

The departures terminal of the Dubai airport was just as expansive and luxurious as our arrivals terminal had been. In particular, we were impressed with the duty free time planner they had posted.  It let the duty free shopper time his or her shopping adventures down to the minute, while still ensuring an on-time departure. Why doesn’t every airport have this?

We purchased a couple of drastically overpriced cups of coffee and falafel sandwiches from a Starbucks clone in the terminal and climbed on the flight.

The flight to Kuwait was all too short, but we were able to make good use of it, oscillating between looking out the window, and getting a little work done in the AsiaWheeling mobile offices, Jazeera Airways edition.

Soon the sprawling capital of Kuwait City began to loom below us, a uniform dust colored grid-work, smack dab in the middle of the uniform dust colored desert. As the plane flew lower, the city began to take on slightly more color, and we felt an almost uncontrollable urge to wheel it.

While hard at work in Sid’s apartment, we had already tried to convince Jazeera airways to let us spend a night or two in Kuwait, but it had proven dreadfully expensive to change the ticket. So in the end we had to resign ourselves to spend just a few hours in the international terminal of the Kuwait International Airport. When we finally unloaded into the airport, we found we had even less than the two hours we had coveted. We were quickly ushered by Jazeera staff through the airport to the ticket counter, where our connecting tickets were issued to us by a man who looked uncannily like a friend of mine named Max Strasser. We moved on toward our gate, just bubbling with curiosity about this place.

The flowing dishdash robe was definitely alive and well here, as was the female Islamic outfit, in all iterations from simple hijab to full burka. There also were a fair number of white and Arab fellows in military fatigues roaming around as well. We wanted so badly to learn more about this place, to wheel its streets, but we could not. So we reluctantly joined the line to board our flight.

We landed in Jordon and filed off the airplane and into the customs room. We changed our Omani Reils and UAE Dirhams into Jordanian Dinars at a large glass booth and then got in line to purchase visa’s upon entry.  The Jordanian Dinar is actually linked one-to-one with the British Pound, so calculating prices would be slightly easier than usual.

I must admit, part of me was worried that my entering this country on a completely virgin two-year passport might cause a red flag, even encourage some detainment or interrogation. Luckily this was quite far from the case. The man who sold me the 10-pound visa barely even looked at me or my passport. His counterpart asked me a number of questions in a very thickly accented English including whether or not I had a Jordanian phone number. I explained to him that I did not, but he just stared blankly back at me, made a face like he had just discovered a bit of sand in his mouth, puffed out his cheeks and lips, making an noise like a mare, and stamped my passport violently.

Claudia and Scott got through with even less hassle.

We collected our cycles, and headed outside the airport, where we unwrapped and began to re-assemble them.  There we attracted the usual crowd of baggage handlers, fellow travelers, and security personnel, all interested in witnessing the majesty of a Dahon folding cycle. We indulged them happily.

From our previous research, the airport should have been positioned about 25 kilometers outside the capital city of Amman. This seemed doable. So after some discussion, we decided to wheel into the city fully loaded. Armed with some directions from members of the crowd, we hit the road.

The countryside was beautiful. It was arid, but not as striking a desert as we had found in the Gulf. The farther we rode, the more we began to notice quite a large amount of agricultural activity. Also, for much of the way, there was a wide sidewalk that ran next to the road. This was especially nice, since it saved us from having to ride in the fast and sometimes reckless Jordanian highway traffic.

Unfortunately, the sidewalk was also littered with a hitherto unprecedented amount of broken glass. It seems the practice of throwing glass bottles out of your moving vehicle is quite common in Jordan, though I don’t know if we ever spotted someone in the act… it could also be that for one reason or another all the broken glass from the surrounding area is swept by some municipal team over to the sidewalk. Stranger things have certainly happened.

After riding for what must have been 25 kilometers, we reached an exit indicating it was headed toward Amman. Amman was, however, far from visible from our current junction. So we flagged down a cab and Claudia asked in Arabic how far we were. The man said 20 or 25 more kilometers. This was perplexing, but the day was relatively young, so we kept on. A few kilometers later, with still no signs of increasing urbanity, the hunger hit and we pulled over to a roadside shop to buy some shapes.

As we were purchasing food, the call to prayer began to sound from all the surrounding mosques. The owner of the shop kindly asked us to hurry up so he could close down the operation and go pray. We quickly threw some bottles of water, a couple bags of potato chips, and a jar of halva onto the counter, purchasing them with haste, and heading out to sit on the curb and feast.

While we were eating, we noticed a particularly haunting child, portrayed on the sign above us. Any speculation as to its relevance is welcomed in the comments. Just as everyone was arriving back from praying, we climbed back on the cycles.

We were riding now on a smaller road, running parallel to the highway. It had been quite a while since we’d stopped to snack, and there was still no sign of Amman. What had we done wrong? We must have arrived in a different (perhaps low-cost carrier related?) airport. Regardless, we had been riding for a while and there was no sign of Amman, though we did continue to be reassured by signs and traffic obviously directed toward the capital. Eventually, we came upon a restaurant, poised on hill in the middle of semi-arid agricultural Jordan.

We decided to head in and ask why we seemed unable to reach the capital. Scott and Claudia headed in while I watched the cycles. They were taking quite some time, so I took out the ukulele and began to play. Soon a group of restaurant employees emerged from the kitchen to investigate what I was doing. They were all jovial fellows, and by the time Scott emerged with news of our location, we had a little dance party going.

It turns out that we were at least another 30 or 40 kilometers away from the capital, and that we would probably need to get a cab. Luckily, the owner of the restaurant knew of an unlicensed cab driver, who drove a large car or truck, easily able to fit our three cycles and all our bags. We decided to pull the trigger on the cab, even though the price was high enough that it would use most of our remaining money. We took stock of our remaining cash and decided that, though we were hungry, we did not have quite enough to eat at the restaurant. When we explained this to the owner, he insisted that we eat there for free, bringing out three pizzas and three bottles of water.

This unexpected generosity was going to be a theme of our travels in the Middle East, but especially then, it being so new, the action made me uncomfortable. What was the man looking for in return? What was the catch? Of course, there was none. I was just unprepared for Arab culture. We thanked him again and again, and hungrily enjoyed the pizzas.

The restaurant was nice, filled with flat screen TVs, sporting a large hard wood walled and floored interior, full of solid oak tables. How could this essentially depopulated bit of irrigation-dependent Jordanian farmland support such a swinging place? Thoughts of money laundering did cross our minds…

When the cab finally came, we were able to establish a price that was 30% lower than what had been quoted, allowing us to pay the man after all. In what Claudia assured us would be a “very Arab” way to do it, we thanked him again for the food and hid the full amount of the bill been under a napkin on the table, being sure to let the waiter see us doing it.

We climbed into the cab, which turned out to be one of those half-pickup/half-SUV  vehicles. There was indeed plenty of room for us and all the stuff, and with a few more goodbyes and waves out the back window, we drove off toward Amman. The sky was already becoming orange with sunset by the time we arrived. We felt giddy with our good fortune, and enjoyed the ride,  chatting with our driver in pantomime and through Claudia’s Arabic, and speculating as to what kind of illegal business might be laundering money through the pizza joint where we had just eaten.

Our man had quite the driving style. I felt surprisingly safe in the car, given that he drifted between lanes without signaling, chain-smoked cigarettes, and had wedged his phone in between the prongs of the steering wheel in order to better text while driving.

We unloaded our stuff once we had entered Amman city center, and bid our man goodbye. Amman is a city built in a kind of crater, so that entering it feels somewhat like climbing down from the nosebleed section of a stadium. The architecture and color of all the buildings is also more or less uniform, adding to the unique quality of the view. It is a very old looking city, but with decent roads, and plenty of wild drivers. Now that we were in the center, the city seemed to rise up around us, as though we were sitting right at home plate looking out into the stands.

The hotel that we had selected from our pirated copy of the Jordanian Lonely Planet PDF turned out to have been turned into a hospital of sorts, for when we arrived there, though the sign was still affixed more or less to the wall of the building, we were greeted by a large crowd of people in wheelchairs, on crutches, and sporting terrible scars and burns. They were very smiley and quite entertained by us, but also sorry to inform us that we could only stay there if we first got injured in some way.  This comment, made by one of the ringleaders, a large man of perhaps 50 years, in wheelchair and cast, was met with roaring applause and laughter by the rest of the patients. We smiled nervously and bid them adieu.

Luckily nearby we located another hotel by the name of the “Hotel Asia.” The place was only moderately filthy, not too expensive, and the owner spoke splendid English, having worked for some time with the U.S. forces in Iraq. So we decided to go with this one, paying for a few nights, and hauling our stuff upstairs.

It was certainly time to eat again, so we headed out into the Amman night, finding a large and very popular looking shawarma stand not far down the street. The owners turned out to be Egyptian and instantly took a liking to Claudia, who not only spoke their language, and had exotic and beautiful blond hair, but also had spent quite some time living and studying in Egypt.

Needless to say, she was a hit. The shawarma wraps were also delicious.

From there we wandered through the night to a rooftop café, where we wiled away a few hours playing whist. It had been some time since whist had played a role in AsiaWheeling. It was good to have it back in the mix.

It was good to be in Amman. It was a fascinating town, and despite the fact that the rooftop café charged us what we later learned was about %800 the normal price for tea, I was quickly becoming a fan of Jordanian people as well.


Comments

  1. Mark/Dad | November 12th, 2010 | 10:30 am

    So, were you actually going in the right direction, and distances were wrong? Or were you riding away from Amman? And what picture shows the “haunting child” sign?

    The pizza encounter was great.

  2. Woody Schneider | November 12th, 2010 | 12:11 pm

    @ mark/dad

    Good questions you ask. We flew into a completely different airport, one that I think specialized is lower cost carriers. We were riding towards Amman. It’s just that Amman was something like 50km farther away than we’d thought.

    I guess the haunting child pic did not make the cut… let me see if I can rustle it up and then I’ll post a link…

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