Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Jordan Trip Report Part 1: Getting to Amman

Traveling in the Middle East is complicated, to say the least.

I was talking to my brother last week about traveling [he lives in Mozambique] and, while he would definitely win in a competition of general ruggedness [he’s always telling crazy stories about hitching day-long epic rides in chappas full of fish across deserted dirt roads, etc] the Middle East might trump Africa in terms of pure complication. Whereas Mozambique suffers from a general lack of infrastructure, in Israel the complexities are almost entirely political. Unlike in Southern Africa, the buses run on time, they’re relatively clean, taxis have ac, and [to the benefit of foreigners] most drivers even speak English. But despite this well-functioning infrastructure, getting around still takes on a kind of epic quality. Travel, it seems, is not complicated out of necessity, but rather, because of a deliberate effort to make it so.

For example, this weekend I went rock climbing in Jordan. Traveling between Israel and Jordan is relatively easy by Middle East standards; given the peace treaty, it is at least possible to travel legally between the two countries. [This is not the case with Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, where I am now precluded from going because of my Israeli-stamped passport.]

However, when it comes to Middle East border crossings, possible does not mean quick.

As the crow flies, Amman is only 90 km from my place in Sde Boker; however, a slight complication arises from the fact that the West Bank lies between the two locales. The West Bank, I’m beginning to realize, is a bit of a black hole in terms of travel time. There just doesn’t seem to be much correlation between the geographic distance between two places and the time required to get from one to another. This comes from the bizarrely [and intentionally] complex system of check points as well as the fact that there are, effectively, two completely separate road networks in the West Bank, one for Israelis and one for Palestinians.

There are three border crossings between Israel and Jordan. One in the South [near Eilat], one in the North [near Beit She’an], and one in the West Bank [near Jericho]. The Allenby Bridge crossing [in the West Bank] is the only place where Palestinians are permitted to cross, but it is closed to both Israelis and Jordanians. Foreign passport-holders and diplomats are permitted to cross here, but only if they already have both Jordanian and Israeli visas. [It is possible to obtain single-entry Jordanian visas at the other two crossings.]

Because of its associated complexities, the Allenby Bridge has a certain mystique about it, at least from an Israeli perspective. I don’t know how true this is to the reality, but there is definitely a common [Israeli + Jewish] perception that the Allenby Bridge is an uber-complicated mess and general time-suck, requiring many hours of miserable waiting and the possibility of high security detainment and questioning.

Given that I was a] limited to public transportation b] traveling on Friday* and c] subjected to some last minute improvisation when Abo Nehad, the driver for a bus company that offers daily rides direct from Tel Aviv to Amman, informed me that Friday’s ride was cancelled because there weren’t enough people traveling, I opted for the Northern route around the West Bank. I didn’t encounter any problems …there were no hang-ups at the border or difficulties finding the right bus…but, between travel time and waiting time, it took an entire day to get to Amman. I left my place in Sde Boker at 9:30 am and got to my friend Peter’s flat at 7:30 pm, 10 hours later.

*Since public transportation in Israel is under the control of the rabbinate, buses stop running Friday afternoon because of Shabbat. The Allenby Bridge crossing also closes early on Fridays.

It’s possible that this is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done to go rock climbing. Then again, Matt and I have driven from Boston to Alabama [19 hrs] just to go bouldering. Regardless, the bottom line is that I don’t have many options other than ridiculous travel if I want to go climbing while I’m here. And besides, I figure it’s good for my climbing karma to demonstrate some hard-core-ness in travel patience. The rock gods will be happy and they will help me send. [Hmm…suddenly that seems like a heretical thing to say, given that I’m in the holy land of the three monotheistic faiths.]

Anyway, I finally made it to Amman Friday night and was instantly amazed by two things: 1] the almost-absurd levels of hospitality / protectiveness of single white female travelers and 2] the experience of Amman at sunset during Ramadan.

1] I met Salam while waiting at the border crossing. She is Jordanian, but now lives in Southern Israel with her husband who is an Israeli-Arab. Since we were both headed to Amman, we shared a taxi there to cut the cost from 28 JD to 14 JD each. Not only did she take care of leading me through the customs process, negotiating a ride to Amman, and making sure that the border officials and taxi drivers knew where I needed to go, but she also gave me her phone number and her sister’s number [so I could call if I needed anything], invited me for dinner with her family, and made me promise to call her when I arrived safely at my destination so she wouldn’t worry.


The taxi driver who took Salam and I to Amman wasn’t satisfied when I asked him to drop me off at Paris Circle. He wanted to know where I was staying and who was meeting me at the cab. I told him it was fine, that I was meeting my friend [Peter] who lived very close to Paris Circle; I knew how to get to his place and he was waiting for me at his home. The driver didn’t like the sound of this and insisted that I call Peter to check in. When I said I didn’t need to he demanded to see the number and he called Peter himself to tell him to meet me in the Circle at the cab. Peter told him it was fine…that I knew how to get to his house, but this was very upsetting to the driver who insisted that I should be met in person. We compromised, and I agreed to take a second local taxi who could drop me off at Peter’s front door.


The driver of the cab I took the next morning from Peter’s place in Jebel Lewebde to Naz’s house near the American Embassy refused to drive away until he saw that Naz was, indeed, there and awake and ready to let me into her house. He also gave me his number incase I ever needed a taxi or anything else and refused to tell me what the fare was, insisting that I should only pay what I wanted to pay and if I didn’t want to pay anything or if I didn’t have money, that was fine too. [?!] I guess this strategy worked well because in the end I gave him 2 JD [that’s what Peter told me a fair price would be] plus a 1 JD tip.


2] During Ramadan Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. This fast includes not only eating, but also drinking water, smoking, chewing gum, having sex, etc. It is, I am told, a time of intense spirituality, self-denial, and reflection. It also has some interesting urban manifestations.

Between about 6 pm and 7:15, the traffic in Amman is insane. First, imagine a city where traffic laws aren’t really obeyed under normal circumstances [i.e. there aren’t really traffic lanes so much as there are just lots of cars trying skillfully not to hit each other.] Now, take that city and fill it with millions of people on the road, delirious from a lack of food and water, all rushing to get home by sunset for Iftar [fast-breaking]. What you get is pure craziness.

However, by about 7:30 there are literally no cars on the road and no people in sight and the city is silent for about a half-hour. I had the good fortune of arriving in Amman just in time for this amazing and eerie metropolitan silence; my [Christian] cab driver was smiling as he sped through town at a somewhat alarming speed. “I like to take advantage of the empty city” he told me “in another few minutes there will be too much traffic to drive this fast.”


Once I finally made it to Peter’s place we spent a really nice evening wandering around his neighborhood, having a drink at a trendy ex-pat roof-top hang-out, sampling the local falafel [which, I’m sorry to say, does not live up to Israeli standards], catching up, and talking politics.

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