The Middle East is Not Singular

I pieced together an early breakfast with the few remaining groceries I bought on my arrival to Eilat two nights beforehand. I pulled the drawstring on my backpack shut. I messaged my parents. They knew my plan to travel to Petra and on to Amman, and they knew there was no actual plan. My nerves hesitated. What other tasks can I justify doing to prolong the inevitable? 

Just before 7:30 am, I tapped “Request Ride” on Israel’s ubiquitous GetTaxi mobile app. These would be my last moments with access to internet and the final possibility to rely on Google for the remainder of the day. Had I fully researched and prepared to cross the border and find a ride to Petra? Would I need special paperwork? Would there or would there not be a fee for a Jordanian visa? Utter fear of the unknown, and I uttered nothing other than “toda” – thank you – as my driver dropped me at the border, a dust-coated, sterile compilation of fences and small huts separating Eilat, Israel from Aqaba, Jordan.

One year ago this week, I left the barely comfortable land of Hebrew and hummus, walked across the border with only a backpack, and entered the equally hot and arid deserts of Jordan. The geopolitical boundary separated dark from light in my thoughts and emotions. I desired the experience of Petra without feeling like an outsider in my own sneakers. I sought the taste of Jordan without knowing a lick of Arabic: illiterate, unequipped, alone, cash-less, thirsty, both cold and hot. After six nights exploring Haifa in Israel’s north and the sun-kissed urbanity of Tel Aviv, my yet-to-begin two days and one night in Jordan already felt like an eternity.

The no-actual-plan plan for Jordan consisted of the following:

Winging it, based on advice from a friend of a friend in tourism. Cross the border. Hire a taxi to Petra. Find someplace to store my bag then there will be many private guides waiting for guests. After Petra, hire a taxi to Amman.
Source 1: “If you arrive in Jordan’s southern city of Aqaba by air on an international flight, by sea from Nuweiba in Egypt or by land from Eilat, you are entitled to a free visa as part of the free-trade agreement with the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Area (ASEZA).”
Source 2: “‘Visa on arrival’ is back at the Wadi Araba/Arava Crossing but it is not free of charge any more, it costs JD 60.”

As shown above, internet searches suggest – somewhat contradictorily –  that visa fee policies can vary based on the day and current economic arrangements. I remain uncertain how I would have paid, since there was no ATM and I had not yet procured Jordanian dinar. Lucky for me, there was no fee. Following behind a young man and woman – couple? friends? could they help me if I needed assistance? don’t go too far! – I passed through several windows with paperwork and inked stamps marking my progress into Jordan. The border crossing surprised me with its ease; just like that, I reached the taxi and bus area.

I guess this is where I should ask for a ride to Petra? The young French couple and I negotiated in clear English with one of a few waiting drivers and we agreed to split the fare: 20 JD (28 USD) each for two hours of driving to Petra. We tossed our backpacks into the trunk of his 90s-model green sedan, and we hit the road into Aqaba and onward into the Rum Desert. (No, this is not rum dessert. Though that sounds more inviting than this scary adventure, the desert landscape offered an equally sweet, sensory-awakening experience.) With a weak air conditioning system, we alternated between the forced warm air through the vents and rolling down the windows. I felt surprisingly joyful and calm in the foreign, dry, desert landscape.

Along the road, we stopped at a roadside building for an unannounced bathroom break. Several vendors had wares and souvenirs spread throughout the open floor plan. I knew I would need protection from the heat and hesitated to try on a headscarf. Though there’s natural trepidation in the unknown, there’s also often delight in exploring local customs. Thanks to the salesman who showed me how to tie my scarf, I stayed cool in Petra – you know… I’m cool. I fit in.

After about ninety minutes of driving, our driver mentioned his brother also drove a taxi. We stopped at another roadside building with a scenic overlook of the desert valley, and suddenly our driver’s brother arrived with a slightly newer car. The brother would finish the drive to Petra – hmm… remember, Stephen, trust – so we switched our luggage into his trunk and hit the road for the final stretch.

Upon arriving in Wadi Musa, the town that serves as the entry into the archaeological site, we agreed that the brother would store our luggage for the day and that we should meet him in the parking lot at 4 pm to continue our travels. I would continue on to Amman after we dropped the French couple at their Bedouin camp nearby.

Trust in fellow humans is a paramount quality for travel. People are human everywhere, and they’ll take care of you.

Trusting that my luggage would be safe until 4 pm offered a fairly negotiated deal considering I had yet to pay the first driver or his brother for their driving. I never guessed that lack of cash would cause the most anxiety in this lonesome adventure. Imagine my concern when I’d taken two taxis and arrived in Wadi Musa still to find no working ATM. I paid for the Petra entrance fee and an additional private tour guide by credit card, then met a mid-30s bearded gentleman who was assigned as my guide to walk me through the canyons.

Walk and talk, we did! Mahmoud originates from a local Bedouin tribe, whose people lived in the caves (formerly tombs and temples) of Petra until 1985, when the UNESCO World Heritage site designation forced their move/removal. In fact, my guide was born in one of the caves in 1983 – see, mid-30s was a good guess! – and he started supporting tourism when he was five years old. While some kids sell wares and animal rides – I saw many of them, including one young girl who casually asked me to marry her as I strolled past! – Mahmoud went on to university in Amman and studied sustainable tourism. Today he develops private guided treks on Jordan’s desert trails. Petra has dealt with an influx of tourism since the 2007 designation (determined by a corporation, cough) as one of the “New 7 Wonders.” It’s no doubt why the rocks enamor us, but not all the locals wanted to win the honorable title. Seeing this site as their home and hearing the words of a native resident, I can imagine why.

As we meandered through the sunlit canyons, Mahmoud explained the current philosophy of the ancient site’s construction and the known purposes of various features: the caves, facades, aqueducts, temples, amphitheaters, etc. For example,

  • more layers of carving above an entryway indicate a more prominent resident, because their edifice brings them closer to the heavenly gods.
  • Petra is an active archaeological site, with most funding and exploration coming from foreign universities and governments, and the researchers believe that the site is barely 80% excavated. This means that many structures remain buried several stories deep by sand that has blown through the area over many years.

Mahmoud greeted various other guides and their animals as we walked and talked, transversing geology, history, culture, and the current state of affairs. Without any Jordanian cash, I offered to tip Mahmoud a small amount in American dollars, and he agreed to give me change in the local dinar.

After settling the tip and exchange, I hesitated to rent a horse named Whiskey from his cousin, Samson. Business stays in the family in Jordan, I guess. Samson aggressively pursued me, suggesting that I’d save two hours of walking by riding Whiskey to the highest canyon viewpoint instead, and I agreed to pay 20 JD to rent the horse. After negotiating the price with Samson, he walked alongside while I rode Whiskey to the back of the canyon, stopped for photographs and a snack, and returned to the main site. Whiskey flawlessly – er, I mean, he didn’t fall! – navigated narrow passageways and rock surfaces that were smooth yet steeply angled. I rode nervously, more like a mechanical bull.

Believe it or not, while I lacked cash, many of the outposts that sold small knickknacks, souvenirs, and snacks accepted credit cards through machines connected to satellites, and the bodega offering sandwiches and juices had WiFi! I paid 6 JD cash for a pomegranate-orange juice and a pita wrap with a small spread of hummus.

Upon return, Samson hustled me for a bigger tip! I had to be stern, knowing that I’d already negotiated a lower price than the original offer – he agreed to the price! – and that I didn’t have much cash. I needed to get water and a snack and to get back to meet my driver. He seemed upset that I didn’t offer a big tip for riding Whiskey. Did they take advantage of me? Did we make a fair deal? Did I take advantage of them? The concept of “fair” is perhaps an age-old question in establishing peace in the “Middle East”.

The next interaction more deeply strained my concerns and nerves. After speed walking and photographing (see above) my way from the colonnade through the main canyon areas – gah, golden hour sunlight, why must I abandon you just to meet a taxi driver!? – I opted to take a horse for the remaining mile to the entrance. Mahmoud had shown me that my entrance ticket included a one-way horse ride for the first or last portion of the main Petra pathway. A gentleman approached me offering a ride, and in a hurry, I figured why not. Along the way, he picked up the reigns of a second horse and verbally acknowledged that I had two horses. You can imagine my surprise when, after the five minute ride, I tipped him 2 JD (almost 3 USD!) and he started harassing me for more cash! He suggested I pay extra for the second horse, which I never touched. A ride that was included in my ticket with a tip that I felt was reasonable… you may have nice horses, but I’m not an American cash cow. Petra is beautiful, but you’re not the rock carvings and you have no cash machines.

Who determines what is a fair, middle compromise amongst a politically and culturally diverse and de-centralized set of communities, languages, and cultural norms? What is culture? Simply my thoughts: culture is the spoken and understood identity of a place or group of people. It’s the combined sensory experiences – unconscious and conscious behaviors, sounds, flavors, scents, rituals and habits – the perception when you close your eyes and hear a name or place. I have to imagine that my negotiation and tips could be truly wrong in their eyes and that their willingness to shame me would also be acceptable. This is their world, not mine. This is Easter, and I’m dressed as a Halloween ghost. The misfit has a right to be scared, even when they wear the scary costume as a guest to a not-scary party.

I could go on, and maybe I will write more in another post. The abbreviated summary:

  • Instead of the brother driving me to Amman, I rode for four hours with their cousin and then paid him for all three taxi legs. Do business and money both stay in the family? The “taxi” cars became progressively nicer, while the English fluency of my drivers grew worse. (Dear cousin, “your” and “my” are not to be confused, especially when calling my friend Lauren to arrange where to meet in Amman. No, driver man, it’s my friend, not your friend. I was tired. We managed.) I was cold and sleepy, but afraid to snooze in the car with a stranger, so my headscarf became a blanket.
  • I saw men walking arm-in-arm on the streets of Amman, and this was certainly not the culture I expected in Jordan, a country dominated by Islam which forbids homosexuality. Most likely, they weren’t gay. Women fraternize with women, men fraternize with men, and this is an everyday way to accompany your friends out in public.
  • Amman was as hot as Israel, but I couldn’t distinguish signage for a toilet from a cafe, as everything was Arabic-only.
  • Taxi drivers especially tried to charge higher prices with Lauren, despite her living in Amman, knowing the fair rates, and speaking some Arabic.

A day in Petra and a day in Amman gave me many of these experiences, ones strange and eye-opening to me and perhaps everyday life for Jordanians. Plentiful observations and sights in Jordan, yet my arrival in Amman sticks out.

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Lauren stands alone under the reconstructed dome of the empty Umayyad Palace at Citadel Hill in Amman.

My emotional tank stood empty from the nerves of travel and the excitement of seeing Petra. My stomach sat pruned, with little cash and barely enough time to see Petra. Pulling up to a shopping mall to see Lauren relieved both of us. I dropped my bag in her shared apartment at the language school, and we promptly left to find dinner. She apologized that she only knew a few places where she felt safe and comfortable to walk in the neighborhood. It was cheap, too. 3 JD for both of us, cheap. I told her not to apologize:unun

“it’s hard to step outside your comfort zone when your comfort zone is not all that comfortable.”

The words thoughtlessly rolled out of my tired brain, maybe from the deepest canyon of my empty stomach, and the words resounded with the chimes of every call to prayer we heard the following day in Amman. I can hardly imagine Lauren’s experiences over six months. To be a single, white woman in a culture that actively discredits femininity is to be the face painted witch at that Easter brunch. My ghost’s white sheet innocently veils my ignorance, while her masked skin suggests she wants to be accepted like any painted egg, yet we’re all scared of what we don’t know.

The beauty overwhelmed me, and my unfounded fears kept me grounded. If Israel felt foreign, Jordan felt extraterrestrial. We call this tapestry the Middle East, but the only middle I can find is that people are people. There are common genes where there is not common ground. These aren’t bad people or bad hosts. They’re different people. They welcomed and chauffeured me. Different is neither good nor bad; it’s different.

To see more of my two days in Jordan and perhaps a more celebratory perspective of Jordan, read Beit Sitti: My Grandma’s Kitchen or watch the two videos, from my Instagram daily stories, below (coming soon!)