Ms. B. won’t let me take little A. to the Congo yet so we are all going to Florida on a camper van journey instead. Most likely, this first ever full family wander will involve at least a few escapades worth writing stories about. In the meantime, I will be continuing with my series of stories about traveling in Islamic countries. It will be interesting to see how family travel now in America juxtaposes against independent travel in Muslim countries then. Perhaps there will be a way to mingle stories from the opposing worlds for interesting literary effects. Hmmm… I guess that all depends on what happens. Anyway, this week’s story is from Jordan in 2013.
Amman, Jordan (February 2013)
The Fear of Travel
The verifiable truth is; a lot more Americans die each year in household furniture accidents than die in terrorist attacks. But household furniture accidents don’t sell news coverage; household furniture accidents don’t sell advertising revenue; household furniture accidents don’t sell weapons or war. Household furniture accidents are boring. As such, most people are blissfully unaware of the great danger household furniture poses. That is unfortunate because… the good news is… your chances of getting killed in a household furniture accident are greatly reduced during the entire time you are traveling out of the country. But most Americans never travel out of the country. Less than 30% even have passports. Many people won’t travel because they are afraid of terrorists. And there you have the paradox. While it is true that traveling outside the country may slightly increase your chances of getting killed by an act of terrorism, the reduction in the threat from household furniture more than makes up for that slight increase. Reality is sometimes confusing but it does make sense. Don’t be afraid of terrorists. Be afraid of household furniture instead. Go traveling. You won’t regret it.
After my hike in the canyon near Dana, I linger at the Dana Tower Hotel for a couple extra days. The food is incredible there and the couches on the rooftop terrace are nicely atmospheric for creative writing. Indeed, I manage to complete my non-traditional story about Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments before I leave town. I also have several interesting encounters with some fascinating people.
On one particularly delightful afternoon, I share a shisha on the rooftop terrace with an older backpacking dude from Austria. As luck would have it, he is a man with a traveling gene similar to my own. He works seasonally in Vienna and world wanders when he is not working. He is presently in the midst of an extended Mideast journey that began in Turkey and circled through Iran and Oman before bringing him to Jordan. He tried to go through Saudi Arabia as well but the Kingdom would not let him in. With the worst human rights record in the region and perhaps the world, the Saudis are not too keen on independent travelers. The only westerners allowed to visit them are oil buyers and weapons sellers… not tourists, travelers or journalists. Now isn’t that just a fascinating little factoid. Meanwhile, my extended tour of the Mideast also began in Turkey. I, however, circled through Cyprus and Egypt before arriving here in Jordan. I, too, suffered through a case of journey interruptus for political reasons. The passenger ferry from Cyprus to Haifa in Israel no longer runs so I caught a cheap direct flight to Cairo instead. The best laid plans of world travelers are so very often interfered with by the mice and men of world governments and their petty disputes. Sometimes, the world is just not fair. Oh well, the Austrian and I meet at the crossroads of a roof top in Jordan and trade our traveling tales. As the shisha smoke swirls up into the atmosphere, the stories stack together like stones in a stone wall. How much fun are humans allowed to have?
My other fascinating human encounter in the village of Dana occurs during the fabulous buffet dinner that the Tower Hotel puts on each evening. Seriously, there are about 20 different platters of indescribably delicious food. And thanks to my overly enthusiastic hike in the canyon, I have an appetite to try them all. I stack my plate like a jenga master and make my way towards an empty seat. The seat I find is right next to a young Israeli/American couple who are pretending to be Spanish as they travel in Jordan. Across the table sits a local Arab man who works for the hotel. The local guy has seen the couple’s passports and is aware of their true nationalities and he is trying to convince them that they don’t have to lie. “We serve many Israelis here, many Americans,” he says. “It is no problem. People are people. If you are a good person, Muslim people will treat you well. It does not matter what country you come from.”
“That’s easy for you to say;” says the Israeli guy, “but we were warned by everyone before we came. Arabs do not like Israelis. We have to be very careful.”
“And they don’t like Americans either,” says the young woman. “Because of all the wars and stuff. They blame Americans for everything. We both speak Spanish and we both look Spanish so it makes sense to pretend to be from Spain while we travel here.”
“But you don’t have to,” insists the Arab guy. “Yes, yes, many Arabs no like Israel. And yes ,yes, many Arabs no like America. But that does not mean they don’t like Israelis or Americans. It is the person that counts, not the country they come from.”
The young couple is not buying the Arab guy’s explanations at all. “No way,” they say, “but please, don’t misunderstand us. We are not trying to blame you. You are very nice. And you certainly seem sincere. But you are not like most Arabs. It is very dangerous here for Americans and Israelis. It is much better for us if we are Spanish.”
“I’m from the states,” I interject as I sit down with my plate full of food, “and I’ve been wandering around these parts for nine weeks now. No problems yet.”
“9 weeks?” they say, “really? Where have you been?”
“Jordan, Sinai and Egypt lately,” I answer, “Cyprus and Turkey before that.”
“We heard that Sinai is a no go now. It is impossible to travel there,” they say.
“I was there for ten days,” I answer. “Beaches were empty, the water was beautiful and the service was great. I wasn’t threatened or harassed at all. I’d recommend it to anyone.”
“Were you in Egypt proper too? Cairo? With the Muslim Brotherhood in charge? Are you crazy?”
“I can assure you that I am perfectly sane. It is the media that is crazy. Egypt was fine. The people were friendly. The Islamic government caused me no issues whatsoever.” I pause for a moment to munch down some delicious food but continue talking before they say anything. “I do understand where you are coming from. For many years I traveled in Central and South America and pretended I was Canadian because I was embarrassed by America’s foreign policy. But my lies about my nationality almost always caused more problems than they prevented. Whenever I lied a little, the story had a tendency to expand and expand until communication broke down completely. After a while, I learned that it was easier to just tell the truth.”
“So now you admit you are American everywhere you go?” they question.
“Well, maybe not everywhere,” I answer. “But almost everywhere. I’m always a little reluctant about it. And I don’t ever attempt to defend America’s behavior. I’m no patriot that’s for sure. If I was, I’d probably be dead by now.”
“If you were Israeli, you’d probably be dead too,” says the Israeli guy, “the Arabs might tolerate Americans but they really hate Israelis.”
“I don’t know,” I say, “I’m not Israeli so it is not for me to say. But in my decidedly unexpert opinion, I think it is attitude that counts, not nationality. No doubt, an opinionated Israeli Zionist would have great difficulty traveling in the Arab world as would an opinionated American Exceptionalist. But I think that a typical American or a normal Israeli who is nice and friendly and open to new experiences will have no trouble at all.”
The Arab guy agrees with me whole-heartedly. The Israeli/American couple thinks that I am naïve.
As my universe unfolds, I end up traveling with the Israeli/American couple for a little while on the following day. They are going to Madaba and I am going to Amman but we have to take the same local bus from Dana to the small city of Tafila. In Tafila, we will switch to new luxury buses for our final destinations but on the way there we will have to travel the old fashioned way. The experience is somewhat surreal. It almost seems as if our theoretical conversation from the night before is destined to play itself out in the real world.
When we first get on the bus, it is empty. The journey begins in Dana and the guy from the Tower Hotel drops us off at the bus garage for loading up. I take the very first seat next to the baggage and the Israeli/American (Spanish) couple sits behind me. Over the next hour or so, the bus circles through Dana and several other surrounding villages and towns. It probably stops a hundred times dropping people off and picking people up. After a while, the bus is packed. Every seat is taken and the aisle is full of standing passengers. Truthfully, I’m a little oblivious. I glance around at the great variety of Middle Eastern faces and try to guess if anyone speaks English. I imagine where they might be going on this early morning Wednesday in February. The world is such a big and interesting place yet we are all so much the same. It doesn’t even occur to me that there might be a problem until the Israeli guy starts talking to me in Spanish. I sort of understand his words but mostly what I hear is fear. I try to project an aura of calm as I respond to him in Spanish. “No problemo amigo. Todo esta bien. Llegaramos in Tafila en un poco tiempo. Entonces, un otra bus para Madaba.”
Fear is a very strange thing. It permeates the atmosphere and transforms reality. A few moments ago, I was happy go lucky… checking out the fascinating local scene. But now there is tension… now there is anxiety. I look around the bus and notice a number of people staring at us. It’s a lower class crowd so probably not well educated. Are they curious about what language we are speaking or are they simmering with anger and resentment because there are imperialist occupying infidels among them? Where does paranoia come from? I swear it’s like some kind of a disease that spreads from person to person. I can feel it emanating from the Israeli/American couple and I wonder if the other passengers can feel it too. My imagination runs with the concept as I see the force of fear stimulate a response in the crowd. The crowd response then triggers more fear. Back and forth goes the demonic vibration until it reaches a peak or breaking point. Is there any way to diffuse this volatile situation?
As it turns out, someone on the bus does speak English. A middle aged heavy set man standing in the aisle towards the center looks right at me and says, “where are you people from?’
“Who me?” I say as I point at my self. “I’m from the states. But the language we were speaking is Spanish. My friends here are from Spain. You know, Madrid.”
“The United States?” questions the man as he raises a single eyebrow.
“That’s right,” I say, “I’m from the U.S.. But please don’t hold it against me. It’s not my fault.” I laugh nervously.
“What you think of President Obama?” says the man.
“I don’t like any president,” I answer. “They all sell war so big corporations can get rich. Obama is no different than the ones who came before him. I’m a rock guy, not a war guy. I came to the Middle East to see the stones. The amazing, beautiful, wonderful stones. I already went to Petra and now I’m on my way to Jerash.”
“You archeologist?” says the man.
“No,” I say, “I’m a sculptor, a mason, a stone guy.” I use my hands to mime the action of carving stones with a hammer and chisel. “Petra was so amazing, I could hardly believe it.”
“Yes,” says the man. “Petra very nice. I think you will like Jerash too. It is my home city. Very nice ancient ruins. Very nice big stones.”
“I have seen pictures,” I tell him, “and now I can’t wait to see it in person. But first I have to go to Amman.”
“We arrive now in Tafila,” says the man. “From here you can take direct bus to Amman. From Amman there are many many buses to Jerash.”
Out the window, I can see a busy small city. The bus pulls over on a congested road next to a parking lot that has several big luxury buses parked in it. Everybody gets off our little bus and heads to the parking lot. The “Spanish” couple and I follow the crowd. One bus goes to Amman and another to Madaba. So now it is time to part ways with my new friends. I say good-bye and wish them luck in Spanish as they climb aboard the Madaba bus. “Adios amigos. Bien suerte en tu viaje.’ Such nice people and brave enough to face a scary world. They will probably be pleasantly surprised by what they find. I climb aboard the other bus and continue my journey to the big city.