(ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF NATASHA)
A man is bent double, his overall-clad body hidden from waist upwards submerged inside the engine of a tank. As the Mutawa approaches all he can see is the buttocks and legs of the man. He is saying something about this being the time of prayer and how the man should not be working at this hour. Al Mutawa are the religious police in Saudi Arabia, charged with enforcing the upholding of sharia law. He is now raising his voice, whilst the top and bottom half of the man carry on working. Shouting and fingering his stick the Mutawa is screaming for the man to get out and get praying. It will involve a beating and a night in jail for this infringement. Suddenly the top half pops out of the engine revealing a broad smile under a baseball cap, a double thumbs up and a broad Kentucky-voiced: ”Yo! What’s up bro?” Billy, our old friend with whom we caught up in Aqaba, as larger than life as ever, arriving in what he called “a beaten-up ol’ green Chevy”, with every single warning light illuminated and guzzling litre after litre of oil. It had taken him a long time to get through the border, where he tells us that cars can be literally stripped down, and left for you to reassemble – engines out and doors dismantled in the alcohol check. Al Matawa could not touch a westerner, non-Muslim, so Billy had escaped a beating and the officer had looked away, avoiding eye-contact and just carried on walking in silence. As an anniversary present, Billy stood us a night in a top hotel in Aqaba. Having decided to celebrate our tenth anniversary by coming back to the place where we were wed, and our daughter was born, we returned to Jordan. We had left when she was five months old, so it was also a great chance to show Iona her country of birth.
Catching up with Billy
Catching up with old friends is a great bonus to a travel. Carol has left our old school (now an UNHCR centre and refugee camp) and here she is now in the middle of the busy two lanes and three lines of cars all jostling for position, arms aloft and hands waving in the air. “This is the only way to cross,” she tells us. It should be noted that in getting to the restaurant where we had arranged to meet we ended up getting a cab to cross the four lanes. It was just so busy in each direction so we had asked the cabbie to take us up to the roundabout and back to the other side. I had asked him to put on the meter. It is one of the Arabic phrases I remembered. “How much money you got?” was his response. After a short debate we simply got out.
Amman is cleaner than we remembered it being. And a lot busier with regard to the traffic. Now everyone has house numbers and their streets have names, so a whole new world has opened up since we left. Addresses were always PO Box numbers and you told taxi-drivers a local landmark, like a bakery or the nearest named main street. Now they can have home delivery from the supermarkets, home delivery takeaway meals and a private, reliable, cheap minicab service has started.
Two weeks is plenty of time to visit old haunts and see some highlights of the country. We had seen these before, floated in the Dead and snorkelled the reefs of the Red, Petra etc. but Iona had not. There are however, always new ways of seeing things, new highlights, pleasures. In Aqaba the sun puts me in mind of a great orange pool ball slipping into a pocket as it sinks into the hills of Israel above Eilat. At the Dead Sea the sunset is peaceful beyond compare.
Or marvelling at the sophisticated underground sewage system and earthquake-tumbled, columned streets of Jerash; the ancient Nabatean hieroglyphs and stunning landscape of Wadi Rum.
Drinking coffee roasted over an open fire then ground in a mebash (large mortar made from a decorated hollowed out log with a long club shaped wooden pestle) and listening to stories from our Bedouin hosts was another new pleasure. Staying in Bedouin camps is to be recommended.
In October 2018 the Jordan Times reported:
It goes without saying that Amman has a large traffic problem and the gridlock on the city’s streets is getting worse… you need to spend one hour to take a ride that should usually take you fifteen minutes.
So that is the context of my experience of driving around Amman, as well as up and down the country. And here below are ten things I have learnt about driving in Jordan.
- Whereas the relatively new initiative to give names to all streets can be helpful and denotes a certain unusual level of sanity with regard to driving around here, you will still be seen as mad if you ask for a seat belt, or use indicators.
- Do not be surprised if a small boy runs repeatedly across the street in front of you to fly his kite.
- The number of lines of cars bears little relationship to the number of marked lanes.
- Overtaking is just one way to pass a car in front of you – why not just undertake (even if this involves the creation of a whole new one-car-line-of-traffic, which only requires a 2 cm clearance between the sides of your car and the two moving vehicles either side of you)? And if you ever find yourself wondering whether that car will pull out in front of you, or cut you up, the answer will almost certainly be “YES!”
- Taxi drivers will shift mountains to get you there as quickly as possible as part of the service – the slow pace of relaxing on holiday is not relevant – and so the art of weaving at speed between multiple lines of traffic should be seen as the mark of good taxi-driving.
- Whatever you can physically get onto the back of your pick-up is permissible: precariously-balanced overloaded cargo; camels tied to the cab; horses tethered in the same way, manes streaming in the wind; wives and children.
- If your car does not have air conditioning, you can always drive with one hand holding open your door to maximise ventilation.
- If you miss your turning on the highway you can always do a U-turn and drive back along the hard shoulder.
- The crawler lane on hills may be unusable due to the presence of fruit or vegetable sellers’ stalls.
- Taxi drivers have perfected the art of smoking, talking on the phone and driving simultaneously.
On a plus note: petrol is cheap.
In Bedouin tradition, any stranger can turn up at the door (if tents have doors) and receive free lodging for three days without even being asked their name. After that time, questions may be asked. Coffee is roasted slowly and cardamom is ground separately to add at the end of the process. This negates the effects of caffeine. In the grinding, the pestle thumps against the neck of the mebash in an intricate regular rhythm, like the beat of a bongo drum. The coffee is brewed with water boiled over a brush wood fire and poured from a long-beaked brass pot into porcelain thimble-size cups or small cups that look like egg cups. The host always drinks first to prove that there is no poison present. A guest customarily accepts three servings. Bedouins signal they have had enough to drink by twisting the cup back and forth with their wrist. Imagine sitting in a large, comfortable tent on black and red-patterned floor cushions around an open fire, the aroma of the coffee roasting on a long-handled pan, while the host tells you about these traditions. After the grinding an old Bedouin man sings and plays a rebab (one-stringed bowed instrument) while the coffee brews. If you can imagine that, then you can come close to understanding the feeling that Jordan leaves me with on this return visit after ten years away.