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Taking the Long Way Around Amman

We woke up to a sunny Jordanian morning, light pouring into the somewhat squalid confines of our room at the Hotel Asia.

The first task was, of course, to find coffee. Luckily, we quickly discovered that Amman is a fantastic place to find coffee. All hours of the day and night, the streets of Amman are lined with street coffee stands, sporting giant ornate coffee pots, filled with boiling hot thick black Middle Eastern coffee. Little plastic cups of the stuff can be had for anywhere between 15 to 50 cents.  Not knowing the ins and outs of the coffee ordering system yet, we simply ordered the default brew, which was just this side of undrinkably sweet.

From there we continued to head out on foot in search of breakfast, stopping from time to time to enjoy some of the more unique signage in this city.

We eventually settled on a restaurant a few blocks down from the Hotel Asia. We walked in and were shown upstairs to the “family” dining section.  The downstairs, Claudia explained, we could assume was for men only.

The ceiling in the upstairs dining room was rather, low, but no obstacle is too large to keep AsiaWheeling away from its hummus.

We sat down and ordered what was becoming our standard Middle Eastern meal: salad, hummus, bread, and some type of meat or exotic paste.

The food was fabulous though the fattush salad that we had been eating recently was replaced here by a plate of salty pickled vegetables. For the meat, we chose a plate of pressed ground meat kebabs, all accompanied by more Middle Eastern coffee.

With bellies full, we headed back out into the crowded and sun-soaked streets of Amman. The next waypoint was a repair-job for Scott’s Sri Lankan sandals. They had become rather torn and tattered in the months since we had purchased them in Colombo. Luckily, on our walk back from the hotel we passed an outdoor shoe repair stand. It was run by some serious village elder-types, who quickly took interest in AsiaWheeling.

Tea was ordered and we were asked to sit down while one of the owner’s sons went to town on Scott’s sandal.

The tea was delicious, and served in the classic Jordanian style, plenty sweet and with mint leaves in it.

We sat around chatting, attracting a large and larger crowd, chatting about our take on Jordan, about life in America, about business opportunities in China, and about the relative merit of learning different languages. Soon the shoes were done, but it seemed there was still plenty more chatting that needed to be done. It turns out that another one of the local dons who had arrived to witness the strange Americans ran a bus company. He offered to charter us a free ride on one of his buses to tour the city.

We tried our best to explain that we were all about wheeling, and only mildly about busing, but it was at first misinterpreted as the Middle Eastern practice of refusing any offer two to 13 times before accepting. Eventually, though vehemence and redundancy, we were able to actually communicate that we were cyclists, intending to explore the city by bicycle. This was met with awe and confusion.

We promised to return later to show off the cycles, then excused ourselves. Back at the Hotel Asia, we grabbed the cycles and some bottles of water, and hit the streets. It was hot in Amman, but not nearly as bad as it had been in the Gulf, and we were excited to wheel in this new, more approachable weather.

First thing was first: we needed to replace those bells that the Omani kids had stolen. This city had much too gnarly a flavor of traffic to attempt to wheel with no bell. Since the dastardly theft of our bells and lights, I had been wheeling and ringing a kind of phantom bell, brushing my finger by the empty bit of air where my ringer used to be, and cursing myself and those little scoundrels each time my phantom bell failed to ring.

Luckily, though we saw few wheelers on the road, this city was quite full of bike shops, mostly focused on cheap Chinese-made children’s cycles.

We wheeled over to one near our hotel, and inquired about bells and lights. Lights he did not have, but bells were available. I picked up a Chinese rotary-telephone-style bicycle bell and began to play with it. The owner of the shop came over and explained to me in Arabic and pantomime that this bell was a piece of crap, but that he would give me a very good price. “For you,” he continued in words I did not know, “I would recommend this bell.” It was really an electronic buzzer that attached to the bike and required batteries. The noise it made was frighteningly loud and hair raising. Such a violent alert seemed very unlike AsiaWheeling to me, so we decided to purchase three of the cheap rotary-telephone-style bells. “Fair enough,” the man seemed to say, and lighting a cigarette, he began to help us attach the new bells to the handlebars of our Dahons.

As an added bonus, he insisted on giving us a large plastic bag filled with cucumbers, at no charge. The cukes were delicious, and as evidenced by the giant cardboard box of them that he showed us in the back of the shop, in great supply.

With many thanks and a hearty shaking of hands, we wheeled off, ringing the bells with joy. We continued to wheel downhill, through the thick traffic. We must have been quite a sight, for multiple times cars would pull up alongside us and offer their support with whoops and shrieks, pumping of fists, or sticking of heads out the window.

We pulled off this road onto a nearby one, climbing now up into the hills, onto narrow and ever more crumbling roads, many with very steep inclines. Most of the locals just stared dumbfounded at us, some of them called out offering assistance, or letting us know that we were probably getting lost. Little did they know this was our goal. At the top of the hill, we were rewarded with a splendid view of this neighborhood of Amman. Also at the crest of the hill was a section of railroad that we needed to cross. We were just about to lift up the cycles and portage across the tracks when an old man and a young boy arrived.

They began chatting with us, asking where we were from and what we were doing here. The old man spoke only Arabic, but the young boy spoke a bit of English. We gave them both chances to try out the bikes, and hung out for a while enjoying the view and each other’s company. Eventually the pull of the open road started calling our names, so we headed off. This tiny road connected back onto a more central road near a large mosque. We decided to pull over at a local shop to have a drink and a little snack. We left the bikes outside, unlocked and headed in.

We purchased a few bags of “Mr. Chips” and a small package of hummus to dip them in. While we were snacking, a crowd of children between the ages of five and 18 gathered around us and began to barrage us with questions, and demands to be photographed.

We indulged them, but soon the competition to be in photographs became so great, that some of the larger children started beating the smaller ones with their fists. When one of them picked another up by the neck, kicking and screaming, we decided that this whole experience was getting a little too raw, and we climbed back on the cycles, scolding the older kids, refusing to take any more pictures, and wheeling off.

We started to loop back toward our part of town, wheeling along a street filled with busted cars, most of which seemed to have just been parked and abandoned there, now apparently homes to vagrants. It was then that Claudia got a call from a friend of hers. It looked like we had dinner plans.

Now we needed to get across town. So we cut through a giant bus depot, and headed toward an overpass. We needed to figure out exactly where we were, so we stopped to ask a well dressed, strolling bloke for directions. The fellow turned out to speak passable English and was overwhelmingly helpful. He gave us very articulate directions, followed by a heartfelt invite back to his house for tea. We explained that we needed to wheel to a dinner date. He was understanding. As we left, he put his hand on his heart and bowed slightly. He then raised a finger up to his eyeball, pointing. “My eyes,” he said to us. Then, bowing again, and tapping his finger against his face, he repeated, “My eyes.” Anyone who knows more about what this saying means, and where it comes from is invited to share in the comments.

We pulled from there onto the large uphill highway known as King Hussein highway. We rode on for a while, but soon the traffic whipping by us became too unnerving, and we decided that taking the glass-littered sidewalk would be better.  As we rode, the three of us became somewhat spatially separated. During a moment when Claudia was neither particularly proximate to either Scott or I, a gang of young Jordanian youth appeared from the gravelly fall-off to our right. They grabbed at her water bottle, eventually tearing it off her rear rack, then began grabbing at her body, eventually running off with the water. I was in the front, and hearing some commotion, stopped, turning around. By this point I could see Scott and Claudia riding together, some ways behind me. I waited for them to catch up.

When I heard the story I was flabbergasted. “This is, unfortunately, quite common,” Claudia explained, startlingly cool and collected after such an occurrence, “especially for western women.” Scott and I were significantly more taken aback. What is one to do in such a situation, as a respectful traveler? Is it acceptable now to run back and grab the kids by the scruffs of their necks, lifting them off the ground and scolding them, pouring the remainder of the stolen water down the back of their shirts? Your guess is as good as ours, and most welcomed in the comments.

In any event, that was not what we did. Instead we kept wheeling, sticking more closely together. Soon we reached the top of the hill, and quite thankfully turned off the giant King Hussein Road, onto a more manageable side road. There we asked once more for directions, this time from a group of loitering youth. They too spoke passable English and directed us onward in sometimes hilariously compiled sentences, indicating a few directives simultaneously. In the end, being only slightly surer of where we were headed, we wheeled on, down a steep hill , and back up the other side, where we found ourselves at a large hospital complex.

The sun was now beginning to sink low behind a nearby mosque, and the temperature was falling to a cooler and quite comfortable dry Arabian night. Claudia was feeling winded and exhausted from previous events, and decided to take a break on a shady bench in the vicinity of the hospital, while Scott and I headed in to check it out.

We were soon accosted by a yelling and grumpy security guard, who seemed mostly interested in keeping us off the sidewalks. We apologized and headed back to collect Claudia. As we wheeled back toward the gate, another security guard came running up to us. “Uh-oh,” I thought, “now we’re in for it.” But it turned out this fellow was simply running out to direct us to where we had left our white woman alone, giving us a quick tongue-in-cheek scolding.

We continued to wheel upward, cresting the hill, just as the sun was setting. The uniform beige buildings all around us began to glow orange with the sunset.

From the top of the hill we wheeled down, flying through the cool wind into the night, and  into a new part of town.  Part way down the hill, Claudia’s phone rang again. It was our dinner date, calling to modify our plans from dinner to a mere after-dinner sheesha hour. This was fine by us. We refined our plans, beginning to scan the area for restaurants.

We were having trouble locating one that seemed a good fit, when Claudia spotted an old and rather well dressed man walking on the side of the road. She pulled over and began to chat with him. He turned out to be an Iraqi gentleman, and was just bubbling with restaurant recommendations. At the top of the list, of course, was a local Iraqi joint. It sounded good to us, so we followed his directions there, and locked out cycles outside.

The Iraqi restaurant was obviously a local institution, and was fantastically crowded, with a long line of people. They appeared to do mostly take out business, but we were able to locate a few plastic tables in a kind of side lot, where we threw down our helmets to reserve a spot.

We ordered a huge pile of pastes, a whole chicken, a large plate of salad, and some fried appetizers.  While Scott and Claudia executed the ordering process, I headed out in search of a place to wash my hands and use the restroom. I pulled back a piece of curtain and popped my head into a room where about 10 people were all lined up, standing on small carpets, and praying towards Mecca. I decided to wait to ask where I could find the loo.

The food was unsurprisingly incredible, and we feasted hungrily. It had been a long day of wheeling.

Soon Claudia’s friend, a Jordanian Brown University student arrived in a large Chevy SUV, thumping pop music. We loaded our cycles into the back, and drove off.

The Extremes of Experience Indeed.


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