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Offending the Locals

Despite having slept on a ratty old pad on the browning linoleum floor of our room at the Sea View Hotel, I awoke quite rested and to find Scott and Claudia already awake and in the hotel’s lobby accessing the free wireless Internet, about which our energetic friend at the hotel cautioned us to always consult him, for it was protected by a password that changes all the time.

“Today the password is ‘123abc,’” he explained, which fell in line with all the wireless passwords that we’d encountered in the Middle East. Network security is apparently not of primary concern here.

We unlocked the cycles and dragged them out from where they had been parked underneath the stairs, hopped on, and headed out in search of breakfast, which we ended up finding in the same restaurant we had visited our first morning in Jordan. We decided that in all our excitement over the standard Middle Eastern pastes, salads, and flatbread meal, we may have missed out on some lurking delicacies. We couldn’t skip the hummus, but in addition, this time, we got a plate of lamb and potatoes in a central Uyghur-tasting tomato sauce, a plate of pilaf and lamb with a kind of cheesy, salty sauce, some kebabs, and few other lurker delicacies.

It was splendid, and as we were finishing, the owner of the place came by our table to chat with us in English and hear what brought us to Amman. He seemed puzzled but pleased by our response and explanation of the adventure. From there we headed out in search of more coffee, which we found in abundance at a nearby coffee stand. We made fast friends with the fellows who owned it, and hung around the place drinking a few cups, doing general coffee shtick, and posing for photos with our new coffee-slinging buddies, who had, for the latter cups, begun to refuse payment.

From there we headed off in search of a place to sit down and work on our pitiful backlog of correspondence for you, dear reader. And we found an amazing place. It was a coffee and hookah joint, situated in an ancient building, nestled in a tree and vine filled cul-de-sac. And they advertised Internet on a fantastically faded sign. Unlike the sign, however, the Internet was sorely out of service, with, the owners of the place assured us, no hope of repair.

Despite the lack of Internet, we barreled head long in to the giant pile of correspondence yet to relate, making great progress, halting all too soon when our laptop batteries died with no available outlets in sight.

The Middle East was proving a very hard place to get things done. So we drowned our sorrows in games of whist, cups of sweet tea, and hookah smoke, and left to head back toward the bus station in very high spirits.

With some help from a few locals, we finally found the way to our bus departure spot, which turned out to be actually a few blocks diagonally away from where our dear energetic friend at the hotel had informed us it would be. When we got there, it was beginning to get dark, and the crazed energy of those just about to board an international bus was palpable in the dry desert air.

We stood there as night fell around us and looked up at the bus. The bus was nice, shiny and adorned with plenty of LED lights and signs advertising the glorious constellation of amenities to be found inside. I’ll go ahead and say it was one of the nicest of the trip, in fact, which puts it up there with some truly luxurious Thai buses. Scott collected the entire team’s passports and headed into a kind of administrative building to get our tickets registered to our passport numbers. Meanwhile I worked to load our stuff into the belly of the beast. Claudia headed out to find us some food to eat on the bus.

With all the things loaded, and with the helper boy who had mostly sat back and watched me position the bikes heartily tipped,  I sat down on a piece of busted concrete and leaned against the side of the bus company’s administrative building and began to play the uke. No sooner had I strummed a few chords than I was approached by a number of gentlemen and a few boys, who were very interested in conversing with me despite their lack of English skills. The crowd consisted of a few bus officials, including our driver,  a smattering of general street children, and one fellow passenger wearing the Gulf-style dish dash.

It was thus that I began a great circular dance of cultural missteps and miscommunications. By the time Claudia arrived back from the restaurant, grinning and laden with falafel wraps, I was attempting to repair a terrible blunder that had indicated to the group that Claudia was both my sister and my wife. Meanwhile, I was operating a parallel and similarly dismal conversation with our bus driver about the America-Iraq war and our policies in Afghanistan. As you see, things were not going well in either conversation. The dish dashed fellow was shaking his head, frowning, and explaining in bits of English and bits of Arabic, that what I had done was frowned upon and would be a crime in the Arab world. The bus driver meanwhile was fuming and pacing.

Claudia’s arrival was none too soon, for she was quickly able to sort out my inadvertent admission of incest, which resulted in a great amount of belly laughing and back slapping with the dish dash wearing fellow who, realizing he had misunderstood me, was now quite thrilled at the experience. In the midst of the laughter, the bus driver  threw his hands in the air in disgust and disappeared, grumbling angrily. He was no fan of America or Americans, as the Syrian fellow next to me tried to explained, apologetically. I had, of course, lacked any of the delicate linguistic skills to express my own views on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and had been only able to express that I was not myself a soldier, which had involved a lot of dangerous pantomime, and possibly offensive messages.

“That guy really doesn’t like you,” Claudia commented “I hope he’s not riding on our bus.”

“He’s actually the driver,” I replied.

“Really?! Oh no.” Claudia sounded genuinely disturbed.

“What have we been learning about these ‘oh no’ statements?” I replied, feeling none too excited about climbing on the bus.

It left at 8:30 and was headed all the way to Damascus, and, as such, was probably an overnight bus, though our investigations into arrival time had all yielded “she’ll-get-there-when-she-gets-there”-esque statements. So we ate our falafel, which had come with some free salads, when the Egyptian owners of the shop realized Claudia had studied in their home country.  I have to admit, I had a bit of the heebee-jeebees at this point. The interaction I’d had with the driver was the first of all our time in the Middle East that had exhibited even a mild bit of anti-American sentiment.

Considering some of recent history, it had me unsettled. Tonight we were headed into Syria, and Syria was, at least in my own twisted perceptions, one of the most hostile places we would visit. What would it be like? Would we be welcome? Our great helmsman, David Campbell, had assured us that we would be welcomed there, so I continued to attempt to relax and take things as they come.

Then we were suddenly at the border. We all climbed off and filed into a giant hall. The entire rest of our bus was populated by Middle Easterners,  and the Middle Easterners were ruthlessly efficient in their rush to get through customs. By the time we had even identified which line was ours, many of them had already gotten stamped and were on their way back to the bus. We lingered in what we thought was our line, and watched as all the people from our bus climbed back on, and the engine started.

Then I was up to the window. The fellow took a few looks at me, frowning behind his mustache ,and then asked me in a kind of a sneer: “What happened on the 16th of July?” It was still June. So I stuttered an incoherent babble of words ending in “16th of July? … I’m sorry?”  Then the fellow coughed out a bit of laughter, twitched his mustache around like a bunnies whiskers, and stamped my passport.

Scott and Claudia got through with even less hassle. Soon the driver began running out after us, scolding us for taking so long in line. We apologized, and climbed on the bus. The bus drove for a few meters past what was to be the first of hundreds of portraits of the Syrian President.

Inside of the Syrian passport hall, we were shown directly to the diplomatic line, where we were very politely and courteously admitted into Syria by a slick-haired fellow, sporting the exact same well-trimmed mustache as the Syrian president.

He stamped our passports with the official Syrian entry, which proudly explains that “When staying for more than 15 days, he must register with branch of indication.” Women apparently did not travel much, or were of little consequence here.

Happy to be back on the bus and safely into Syria, I fell promptly into a deep sleep.


Comments

  1. Jack | September 30th, 2010 | 1:02 am

    When do we get to see Woody’s fine rendition of Edward Sharpe’s 40 Day Dreamin?

    Universidad!

  2. Scott | September 30th, 2010 | 1:06 am

    At the Holiday Party!

  3. Claudia | September 24th, 2011 | 1:28 pm

    The dish of lamb pictured above is called Mansaf. It’s actually the national dish of Jordan. We ate it often during Ramadan this year, it puts you right to sleep.

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