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June 29, 2009

Chariots Afire—عربات مشتعل

Filed under: Touring — Tags: , , , , , — admin @ 9:26 am

Getting out of Damascus ended up being rather more complicated than we had expected.  The staff at our hotel had given us rather specific times—five of them, in fact—at which busses leave from the Sulmariya station on the outskirts of town to Amman.  We were aiming to catch the 3pm bus and arrived at the station after having ridden the 12km through Damascus and its suburbs at about 2:15.  We were beckoned by one fellow to the window of a particular company to get tickets.  I was a bit dubious, being under the impression that there were competing companies with service to Amman, but it turned out that this company actually had no spaces left, it was leaving at 2:30, it was the only bus of the day, and this was the only company offering service to Amman.  I called to hotel to verify the information and make sure that there wasn’t something that I was missing.  Maybe there were departures from another station, or another company whose window was not yet open.  The woman at reception simply insisted that there were five departures per day from the company which had just told me there was only one and seemed unwilling to accept that her information might need to be updated.

Rather than spending another night in Damascus, riding our bikes back and forth clear across town, we opted for the more expensive alternative of finding a service taxi.  The first guy to approach us, to the consternation of the guard on duty who chastised him for approaching us outside of the designated servees area, offered us a fairly reasonable rate of S£2500 (around US$55).  The staff at the hotel had told us to expect to pay some S£3500 for a dedicated ride with our bikes.  This was about twice as much as we’d pay for a bus, but still not so bad, particularly considering the added convenience.  “Helping” us to load our bikes in the back of the vehicle while the driver went to go register our passports was a disabled Lebanese fellow who claimed to have learned English hanging around US Navy sailors, a claim backed up by his demeanor and accent.

Our driver seemed anxious to get on the road, but he was amiable enough.  He stopped in a neighborhood off of the highway to pick up a package that was going the same way and then we headed out of town.  I took note of the cluster of stuff hanging from his rear-view mirror:  a tiny Quran with its own little wooden house and a little ornament that read “We are all Jordan”, expressing the sentiment of unity among a nation largely comprised of immigrants, particularly Palestinians (of which our driver was one).

Before crossing the border into Jordan, Elaina reminded me to make a final call to Abd as-Sitar and Salwa.

The border crossing was, predictably, a pain in the butt, and the Syrians seemed to be particularly suspicious of me for some reason.  One officer spent a good five minutes going through my passport, page by page, then going through it again, page by page, this time under an ultraviolet light.  I have no idea what he was looking for, and the driver was getting at least as impatient with him as I was.  The next layer I had to go through on the Syrian side was also very suspicious, and asked me a number of questions, the answers to which would have been entirely obvious from paperwork in front of him, most of which was generated by his fellow Syrian officials.  I was starting to get annoyed when Elaina reminded me that this was just a fraction of what most citizens of this part of the world have to put up with upon entering the US.  Entering Jordan was thankfully much more straight-forward:  one of the benefits of traveling among “those who are with us.”

I changed my Syrian Liras for Jordanian Dinars at the border and we carried on.  The trip to Amman went by fairly quickly, and upon reaching the more urban areas, numerous kites appeared in the air.  It seems to be a particularly Jordanian pasttime, as I’ve never seen it in Egypt or Syria.  I asked our driver what they call kites in Arabic and he responded, “tayara wara'”:  paper airplanes.

He dropped us off a kilometer or so from our destination, hoping to avoid the worst of downtown traffic, and having a decent idea of how to get where we were going and bikes to get there easily, we did not protest.  The hotel was clearly set up for the western tourist, as there was a bank of internet-ready computers near reception (whether they actually had internet or not was up to the fates) and copious signage in English about visiting local sights and navigating the city.  After asking for a recommendation about renting cars, I found they also had a special relationship with a local rental company.  The latter, however, did not generally deal with one-way rentals, so the drop-off fee in al-Aqaba was a bit steep.  We decided to check with the larger companies which had offices in both Amman and al-Aqaba.

After settling in to our hotel room, we went to go get some dinner, which consisted of kabobs and meat-filled bread things, the name of which I’ve forgotten.  Our next stop was the nearby telecom store, where I went to pick up a new SIM card.  It turns out I should maybe have done a little research first.  The salesman rushed to sell me a plan which sounded like it had decent rates.  It turns out that the initial price was more than it should have been, even if the rates are pretty good.  What’s more, it was called the “Army Plan” and, as one might guess, was reserved for military personnel.  Soldiers were able to buy five such plans for themselves and friends and family, and it seems that our friend here made a little profit off of one of his own plans.  Perhaps they don’t air the PSAs here that they do in Syria, the ones that show the subjects of the PSAs committing various socially-corrosive sins (cheating tourists among them), whereupon they and their families begin to develop unsightly flesh-eating ulcers while they live high on the hog.

The following day, we headed off to the land of rental car agencies at King Abdullah Gardens.  I had heard about this particular concentration of such firms, but was still not prepared for it.  There were some 50 different companies here, and entire mall of just rental companies adjacent to an amusement park.  There were the international standards:  Hertz, National, Avis, Europcar; as well as a plethora of local joints with names like “Fancy” and “United” and the ever-popular “Jerusalem”.  We checked at a few of the big names, then a local company and discovered that they all had exactly the same prices, with a few differences in terms and drop-off fees.  Avis set itself apart simply by having a very small car, a red Chevy Spark.  The price was cheaper than everywhere else, and significantly, they were a “reliable” brand, so we went with that, a little reluctantly.

The vehicle did not inspire confidence from the get-go, as it sputtered through the parking lot.  It wasn’t clear to me just how bad its condition was because it had been some time since I’d driven anything at all, and I’d been in plenty of cabs in Cairo that seemed even worse.  We parked the vehicle near our hotel, checked out, put all of our stuff in the hotel storage, and then walked up the steep hill to “Wild Jordan”, the offices for the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (Jordan’s premier environmental quasi-NGO), as well as a high-end nature-y cafe.  We picked up some brochures for the various reserves around Jordan, including price lists for various hikes and accommodations.  We took these to the cafe to peruse while waiting for our food, on the way passing the dedication plaque:  “This Center was a gift to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan from the people of the United States of America.”  Indeed, from the prices, it was a gift that kept on giving, as American and European tourists are required to spend as much as a couple hundred bucks just to go on a hike (most of which include a compulsory guide).  And it is clear that the Kingdom is the primary beneficiary, as the prices are scarcely cheaper for Jordanian visitors, and only the very few people in the direct employ of the RSCN benefit from this “gift.”  Such is the neo-liberal ideal of a park system.  Gone is the notion of parks as a public good, a common natural heritage that should ideally be freely accessible to all, or at least accessible for a nominal fee.  Now the focus is on conserving nature primarily in order to better monetize that natural heritage, to sell it at a premium to the privileged in the form of eco-tourism.  It was an easy move to make in Jordan, where the notion of environmental conservation (and the prerequisite notion of the environment as separate from the human realm) has always been the province of a Western-educated elite.  It should not be so easy in a place like California, and yet things are quickly headed in this direction there.

So, while eating our over-priced nature-y lunch, we resolved to avoid the reserves as much as possible, or at least their fee structures.  Upon paying we were asked by the waiter, “do you have an ATICO card?”  Clearly confused, wondering which language he was speaking, he pointed to the brochure on the table advertizing the program, which was a sort of Diners’ Club thing, with at least the honesty to call itself a “loyalty scheme”.

We walked back down to the hotel, retrieved our stuff from storage and packed everything in the car, which we discovered had been given a parking ticket, despite the absence of any signage indicating what the offense may have been (the ticket itself provided no further clues, as the offense seems to have been “parking”).  We departed in any case and headed toward Jerash, one of the ancient Roman Decapolis cities, taking a number of wrong turns on the way.  During the trip, it became increasingly obvious how bad the condition of the car was.  It eventually started to overheat to such an extent that we had to pull over to let it cool a bit.  After it had cooled some, we checked the oil, which seemed normal, and the coolant, which was bone dry.  We called the number that had been given to us for a mechanic (I’m glad I had had the foresight to at least get this number in advance), who told us to get to a shop in Jerash (then just a few kilometers away), put some water in the coolant tank and call him back.  We pulled into a shop, lifted the hood, and let the car cool down for a while before adding water.  The staff at the station were helping out, supplying water and trying to diagnose the problem.  We called Yusef (the mechanic) and told him the situation and he indicated we could bring the car back in to replace it.  The accountant of the shop came out to talk to us for a bit, discussing issues of great social import—mutual respect and tolerance, etc.—in very poetic terms, which seemed an even greater achievement given his poor command of English.  It was mostly necessary for me to translate his words into Arabic to understand his meaning, although the general ideas were amply communicated simply through his earnestness.  When the conversation eventually turned to more practical matters, he suggested, “why don’t they bring a replacement car to you?”  Why, indeed!  I’m not used to interacting in such a service-oriented environment, or at least not on the receiving end of it, so the thought hadn’t occurred to me.  I called the Avis office and Mr. Yusef again, and they agreed to have a replacement car brought to us.  I handed the phone to one of the attendants to have him explain our location better.

Elaina then suggested that we go visit some of the ruins, as we were just a 100m or so from the entrance and could see Hadrian’s gate from the shop.  So, I called Mr. Yusef back, and tried to explain our plan to him, first in English, as his English seemed pretty good, and then in Arabic when he didn’t understand what I was saying.  I was happy to discover that I was able to make more complicated arrangements in Arabic here.  This had proven difficult in Syria because of the difference in the colloquial, but the Jordanian is either closer to my accustomed Egyptian, or there are simply more Egyptians here, and more exposure to it.

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So, we went to the site of the ruins at Jerash, but one of the attendants asked about the payment of “fees” for their unsolicited help before we left.  I suggested we could talk to Mr. Yusef about that when he arrived.  At the entrance to the ruins, one of the vendors (considerably less pushy than their Egyptian counterparts, I should point out) informed us that the place would close in 5 minutes.  The guys in the ticket office seemed utterly uninterested in taking our money, so we simply walked in.  The fist thing after Hadrian’s arch was the ancient hippodrome, where they apparently still hold chariot races on occasion.  We carried on to the main part of the old metropolis and were turned back after we admitted that we hadn’t any tickets.  We would have to come back the next day apparently.

We stopped at the cafe adjacent to the parking lot to kill some time before heading back to the shop.  Our waiter was Egyptian, and spoke English with a British accent that gave me less-than-fond memories of our acquaintance in Aleppo, you remember, don’t you?  The insuferable one.  His mother was British.  He saw us pondering the plastic bags filled with water all around the restaurant and volunteered, “They’re for the flies.  You know how?”  No, not in the least.  “The flies come up to it and see their reflection and think there’s a really big fly about to eat them.”  Well, there weren’t any flies, anyway.  Upon learning that I was living in Egypt he remarked, “everyone’s trying to leave Egypt and you moved from the US to live there?!”

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Back at the shop, we waited around for a bit, in the meantime striking up a short conversation with another of the attendants of the shop, the one who seemed to be in charge.  I asked for his help deciphering our ticket and he said it would be 10 Dinars (not anywhere on the ticket), and added that the cops in Jordan were horrible, not like the cops in the US.  I politely disagreed (at least about US cops).  Mr. Yusef showed up with a truck with our replacement car on it and hurriedly maneuvered it into position.  I greeted him and held out my hand, to which he held out his fist, as people are wont to do when they feel their hands are too dirty to shake yours.  Mr. Yusef and the latter attendant exchanged some words, and I asked the attendant if accounts were all settled.  He replied that everything was taken care of.  I ask Mr. Yusef about any paperwork, and he replied, again that everything was taken care of, that he doesn’t deal with the paperwork.  Hopefully we won’t have any big surprises when we drop off the car in al-Aqaba.

Mr. Yusef took off with the crap-ass car on his truck and we loaded our stuff in the new car, then maneuvered to get some gas.  This turned out to be considerably more complicated than one might think, as this was one of those cars built with some tricky ways to get it into reverse.  After five minutes, during which queuing customers were becoming increasingly frustrated, I had finally fiddled with enough things in and around the stick shift to figure it out.  We were helped by the first attendant in getting our gas, and he asked again about the fees.  I said I thought Mr. Yusef had taken care of that, and he responded that he had not, so we paid him the 10 Dinars for their services and approached the head attendant for a receipt, as we wanted to make sure that we had a record of payments we’d made due to the breakdown and an empty gas tank.  It became clear through the discussion about what should be on that receipt that the first attendant had not charged us “fees” for their services, but baqsheesh for his personal welfare.  Oops.  As we were leaving, I heard the main attendant demand 5 Dinars for his share of the “fees.”

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We headed toward the town of Irbid in our incredibly driveable rental car, where we were pleaded with to buy more cheapo sun hats and Jordanian flags by persistent street vendors who were unimpressed by the fact that Elaina had already bought one of each.

In Irbid, we checked into a very spartan hotel room with an animated fellow running the place, bouncing about, gesticulating wildly and generally depending on non-verbal or semi-verbal means of communication.  We took two trips to the balcony in as many minutes for him to explain food and parking in the neighborhood to me.

We went to go get some food and internet, but the latter took some precedence.  I waited for Elaina to do what little she had to do while the guy at the desk implored me several times to sit down and use the internet in the otherwise empty place.  I tried to explain that it would be difficult for me to stop if I started.  In the end, he refused payment altogether.  Somehow I had developed the idea that this was a peculiarly Syrian thing, and that Jordanians would be just as intent on payment as Egyptians, if perhaps rather less pushy about making the sale.  Not so, apparently.

We then went to get some shawarma sandwiches, passing a liquor store on the way and deciding to bring a couple beers along with the sandwiches back to the hotel to enjoy.  At the sandwich shop, we met another Egyptian ex-pat, this one having lived in Germany for a decade.  Yet another pleasant conversation, and a bit of a relief after having felt that I could no longer speak Arabic while in Syria.

Back at the hotel, we enjoyed the first booze we’d had in a while, and our pre-sleep conversation consequently lingered a bit longer than usual—a nice change of pace.


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