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At Least We’re Friends with the Cops

We awoke the next morning in Amman, Jordon and promptly hopped on the cycles. We parked our Dahons down the block at the same outdoor coffee place that we had discovered the morning before, now more properly ordering unsweetened coffee, which is in Arabic “Kahuah Sadah.”

We sat down on a low-lying wall near a lower story alley, and began to drink our coffee. A group of fellows who were working below us to move some furniture and rugs around waved up to us, asking us to come down and interact. Scott obliged them, and soon the interaction evolved into a kind of comedic photo shoot. Here are the results.

We climbed back onto the road and started wheeling. We struck out in the opposite direction than we had the previous day.

We had another meeting, this time with a Finnish friend of Claudia’s. We met her in a large touristy market, which we discovered was one of the few places that was still operational, as it was run by Christians, of which there are many in Amman. It was Friday again, you see, and many of the Muslim-owned businesses had halted operation in observance of the sabbath.

We ate street food at the market: more hummus and pita, and falafel, and some shawarma wraps.

We spent the rest of the morning wandering around town with Claudia’s friend and learning about her unending frustrations with the administrative and bureaucratic hassles of trying to comply with the ridged requirements of the western powers that be. It turns out that in the face of no Jordanian ethical controls on studies, western researchers were required to jump through all manner of hoops to prove the ethical nature of their work. This is, in principal, good. But if it keeps people from getting any work done at all, are they not throwing the baby out with the bathwater? In the end it looked like our new friend would be spending the summer in Amman, but would not be able to do any research due to foot dragging.

As we were bidding goodbye, she taught us our new favorite Finn joke:

Q: “How do you tell a social Finn?”

A: “She’s staring at your shoes.”

We continued to crack up all the way back down the hill toward the city center. We loaded up on water, and after a quick session of furious work on correspondence for you, dear reader, we checked out and climbed onto the cycles. It seemed wise to put something more in our stomachs before heading to the bus station.

So we wheeled our fully loaded cycles over to a nearby falafel house and indulged in some of the house specialty and greasy cardboard containers of deep fried cauliflower. Outside the stand, a man peddled fan blades.

The meal was scrumptious in a most oily way, and feeling refueled, if somewhat laden with grease, we began to lean into the long climb out of the crater of Amman, back up to the bus station.

It was a long wheel up and plenty of climbing for three fully loaded wheelers. We stopped many times to make sure that we were on the correct route, to drink water, and to rest. Claudia was quite generous with her Arabic skills, stopping repeatedly to chat with large crowds of men outside of cafes, most of which she returned from with reports of thorough, though somewhat subdued, sexual harassment. Sometimes the sexual harassment would become slightly less subdued, and Claudia would find herself batting away stray hands. “This would be so much worse if I were not traveling with you two,” Claudia explained in exasperation. Scott and I continued to be flabbergasted at the behavior of Jordanian men, uncertain of how we could best protect her, and in total awe of Claudia’s ability to endure it.

At the bus station, we were soon surrounded by fellows offering to drive us to our next destination for unreasonable prices. Finally, we were able to find the fellow who ran the bus. He took one look at the cycles, and began a drawn out and tedious bargaining process. Finally, we were able to agree to a price to get us and all our stuff onto the bus. There was no luggage compartment, so we would need to pile our things onto the seats.

Once we finally got on, the driver pulled a last ditch attempt to get Scott and me to cram into the seat-and-a-half -sized space between our cycles and our luggage. Here again, Claudia came to the rescue. She was already hard at work making friends with our fellow passengers, who turned out to all be recent graduates of the Amman police academy.  She asked them how much they had paid for their tickets, and once we found out how drastically overcharged we had been, we found a more solid basis for an argument that our things might take up the back seats of the bus, with us occupying the following row.

In the face of our knowledge, the fellow began to exhibit what we would find to be a common Jordanian trait: rather than make any attempt to repair bridges or laugh it off (which would be the Indian, Indonesian, Cambodian, or Vietnamese style), the man simply became cold as ice, and refused to treat us with an ounce of respect for the rest of the journey.

This was fine, however, for he was at the other end of the bus, driving, and we were in the back with a whole crowd of new police friends. They asked about my ukulele, and I took it out, beginning to play. The driver of the bus promptly turned the radio onto a local pop channel and cranked the volume up.  Fair enough. I put the uke away.

With that the bus pulled out of the station and began its long crawl across the desert toward Wadi Musa. The bus ride was about four hours, enough to get comfortable, but not so much that we began to tire of the journey.

Meanwhile the desert landscape was beautiful in a completely unique way, compared to the desert we had seen in Oman and the UAE. It was a place of large flat lands, mesas, and south-western-U.S.-style rock formations. As we drove on, we continued to chat with our newly christened police officer friends.  It turns out they were all coming back to Wadi Musa for a kind of graduation party.

They had been proudly showing us their newly printed diplomas,which they all proudly carried with them. Unfortunately, when we stopped to stretch our legs, one of them left his diploma somewhere in the middle of the desert rest stop. He began to dissolve into madness, searching the bus wildly. We attempted be be helpful by moving our stuff around as well, engaging with him in the doomed mission to manifest the lost diploma. Then, just as quickly as the madness had set in, it passed. The fellow became relaxed and cheerful once again, and we continued the ride as if nothing had happened.

When we finally arrived in town, the sun was just setting. Our new friend who had lost the diploma got on his mobile phone. He knew of a good cheap hotel, he explained, and soon a driver from the hotel had arrived in a van to take our stuff. We ended up loading our larger bags into the van, and wheeling up behind him.

The party was already well under way in this city. People were driving around in over stuffed cars, and all around us we could hear the unnerving sound of automatic weapons fire. It seems the new grads were firing their machine guns into the air in celebration.

This was a hilly place, some of the steepest wheeling of the entire trip to date, in fact. The roads were also polished to an unnatural slickness, perhaps by sand, or wind, I have no idea. But I found my back tire slipping and loosing traction on the steepest sections. Once we reached the hotel, we were somewhat disappointed to find it to be your classic backpacker-type joint. The clientele were almost exclusively foreigners, and the interior of the place was so cluttered with a mixture of advertisements for touring services to the surrounding sites,  old faded posters of the most beautiful places in Jordon, or large advertisements for Petra brand beer. Needless to say, we were already a little wary upon entrance.

The initial asking price was monumental by AsiaWheeling’s and most Asian backpacker’s standards. Further inspection of the room confirmed that this was no Chinese business hotel either. The place was grimy to be sure, and expensive. But it was late, there was gunfire all around us, and we were hungry.

So we started bargaining. It was the most drawn out, energy intensive and multifaceted bit of bargaining we had yet experienced. In the hotel’s corner there were two chaps, one good cop, friend-of-the-owner-just-trying-to-help-us-out-type guy and then the grumpy and predatory owner. One was a short portly smiley fellow. The other was a rail thin chap, with sunken eyes and a jagged scowl.  His teeth, blackened and disintegrating with decay, sat like sharp stones in his small mouth. In our corner, there was one Arabic speaking blond girl and two weathered fellows in Panama hats and mustaches. It was going to be a close one.

We dithered back and forth, frowning, stroking our facial hair, making clicking noises, and generally play-acting. Finally we settle on a price that was still quite high, but doable. We asked to have a moment to chat, and after a quiet word outside returned in to seal the deal. During the chat, however, it seemed that the price that had been offered had been either repealed, or never was valid to begin with.

So in frustration we continued the assault. Finally, when the two fellows continued to refuse to return to the aforementioned price, we began to prepare, as much as we did not want to, to leave. Just as were turning our backs, the wiry, scowly front desk attendant called out to Claudia in Arabic, “Where did you learn Arabic?”

“Egypt,” she replied.

They then began to ask her a series of questions aimed at confirming that indeed she had lived in Egypt. And Claudia seemed to pass this test.

“I am an Egyptian,” he replied, Gitanes cigarette bouncing in his mouth, and stuck out his hand.  He revealed a tattoo proving that he was a Coptic Christian, hailing from a particularly poor neighborhood of Cairo.

Finally it was over. We paid the man; relieved to be on to the next task, we headed up to our room and threw down our stuff.

From there, we climbed back on the cycles. Barely able to keep from sliding on the steep, slick pavement, we ventured downhill toward the city center to find a little dinner and an ATM. The ATM was easy, and while Claudia was “WarBucks-ing” as we had come to irreverently refer to the replenishing of the steady trickle of money which is AsiaWheeling’s lifeblood, a child appeared from the dark street. He pulled up on his bicycle, and hopped off, flicking down his kickstand with a sickening rusty squeak. He was very interested in our Speed Series Dahons, and we decided to let him take a little ride. He did not seem 100% trustworthy, though, so I headed off next to him on Claudia’s bike to accompany him for the wheel.

While I was wheeling next to this kid, making sure that he didn’t disappear into the desert night with the Speed TR, another round of nearby machine gun fire sprang up. It was a startling kind of noise. I knew it was all in good fun, but something about mixing the sounds of war with those of celebration, was making getting used to this particular piece of culture harder than usual. By the time I returned back from my little wheel with this kid, Scott and Claudia had already asked a fellow for directions to a restaurant recommendation.

We followed his advice, and found ourselves wheeling not more than a block up the street to an pricey tourist-filled joint.  We sat down, taking our seats next to a bunch of British 17-year-olds, who were traveling in Jordon after graduating from high school. This place was way too touristy for AsiaWheeling… but we were hungry and tired, so we capitulated. We gave our order to a somewhat grumpy and overly costumed waiter, who spoke perfect English.

Soon the young kid who had ridden our bicycle showed up and sat down with us. He immediately ordered a Coke and began to chat us up. He took out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, and began smoking. Then he made a faux attempt to light my mustache on fire with his lighter. Pulling his hand back at the last minute and blowing out the flame, he proceeded to roll back into his chair consumed with laughter; we looked on confused.

The more time we spent with him, the more uncomfortable I became. Something was off about this guy. We couldn’t quite put our fingers on it. His English was okay, but not quite good enough to communicate consistently. He was likely not really dangerous in any way. He certainly wanted to get some free Cokes out of the relationship. But there was a strange performance aspect to the way he interacted with us that was really unsettling. Picking up his mobile phone, he fabricated conversations of business deals in an attempt to impress us.  In the end we hustled through our  mix-plates of falafel and pastes, and headed out the door.

Back on the cycles, we decided to indulge in a quick spot of night wheeling, letting the physical activity calm our somewhat frazzled minds. Wadi Musa… it was quite a place. It was the gateway to the splendorous world of Petra, an ancient city carved into the desert rocks. But had the beauty of its surroundings somehow turned its people into tourism-fueled predators?


Comments

  1. Mark/Dad | November 15th, 2010 | 12:44 pm

    Nice job conveying the unsettling mix of emotions on this trip–I feel simultaneously nervous and excited even nearly half a year and half the globe away!

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