Hi everyone. I’m back. This website is now renewed for another year and my stonework season is finished so I will continue again with weekly postings of crazy travel stories and radical essays. This is a travel story from my archive of handwritten notebooks.
Istanbul, Turkey and Amman, Jordan; February 2013
The story is… We have been following each other around the globe for all eternity. In 1992 I was in Costa Rica and in 1993 I was in Ecuador. She was in Ecuador in 97 and Costa Rica in 99. In 2001, we were both in Southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia). But we didn’t know each other then. It’s possible we collided inner-tubes on the river in Vang Vienne or shared a shisha lakeside in Phnom Penn but such encounters are neither documented nor specifically remembered. In 2004, we were both in South America. She was traveling with her sister and I was on my way to meet an Argentinian love. We knew each other then, but just barely. Same hometown. Social acquaintances. Friends of Friends. We even exchanged a few e-mails. Perhaps we will meet up in Bolivia. But the timing didn’t work out. I was in a hurry to meet the Buenos Aires Babe and she was on her way to Machu Picchu. In 2007, we were both in Mexico at the same time. We were pretty good fiends by then and I thought seriously about going to see her in San Miguel. But she was involved with a friend of mine at the time and he was not with her. Avoiding temptation, I went to Chiapas instead. Then, of course, there was 2008-2009. My harrowing trip through North Africa where so many things went wrong. No, she was not traveling in North Africa that year. She was home in Oneonta reading my travel stories about North Africa on the internet. She was also the first person I saw on the streets of Oneonta when I returned from that trip broke, defeated and slightly traumatized. She gave me a hug on Main Street and welcomed me home. She offered to make me dinner some time for a proper welcome. She was no longer involved with my friend. I went to dinner a few days later. And the rest, as they say, is history…
We’ve been together for almost four years now but I do not discard the possibility that we were together in past lives or future lives as well. Sometimes it seems as if we have a connection that lasts for all eternity. We’ve already been on a few long wanders together. A big romp through Peru and Ecuador was the honeymoon trip and we also went on an extended journey through the campgrounds of the Southern United States. She’s a good travel partner. We always seem to find ourselves inside of fun little adventures. This year, I came to the Middle East on my own for a couple months but she is meeting me for the second half of the journey. These past two months of traveling is my longest time away from her since our togetherness began. I just want to put my arms around her and give her a great big hug…
In two more days, I am flying from here in Amman, Jordan to Istanbul, Turkey in order to meet Ms. B. Before I leave Jordan, however, I really want to see the ancient ruins of Jerash. It’s only an hour or so away by public transport.
I set out after breakfast in the early morning. Thankfully, I stop and talk to the guy at reception on my way out the door. He tells me I want the north bus station for Jerash and he writes it down in Arabic on a piece of paper. He also gives me a hotel business card with the name and address in Arabic. “If you get lost,” he says, “just give this card to any taxi anywhere and he will take you here.”
I don’t get lost. I walk down the road to the taxi stand, hand over the paper and get a ride to the north bus station. I find a seat on the bus to Jerash and it takes me to the bus station in the city of Jerash. The bus station is six blocks from the ruins and there are taxis waiting to take you. I walk the six blocks instead and along the way I learn that there are share taxis or collectivos that also go to Amman from here. Hmm. Maybe I’ll go back that way when I return.
The ruins at Jerash are surprisingly mind blowing. Wow! Seriously, I was half expecting to be let down. With Petra, Luxor and the Pyramids in my recent past, I have climaxed in the stone universe. I have reached the peak, the top, the ultimate. How much stone can one guy handle? But Jerash is no sloucher. It’s a very large ancient Roman complex with a stadium, a theatre, several large buildings, hallways and long sets of staircases. There are columns and pillars and arches and so much amazing stone stuff it boggles the brain. Yeah, I know, lots of people find ruins to be boring after a while. Stone stone and more stone. But not me; I find it inspiring. How can I possibly explain it? As I walk around Jerash, I can visualize the stoneworkers… the people who built the place. I don’t see the nobles and rulers who lived here when it was completed. I don’t imagine the day to day lives of the citizen occupiers complete with Hollywood movie sets, fancy costumes and soap opera dialogue. No no no, not at all… In my visions, the great stone wonders of the world are always half-built. And I get to witness the process. It is so very weird. In reality, I look at the stones all stacked together but in my soul I can feel the energy of the workers who put them together. I can sense the ache in their muscles and bones and smell their sweat. How lucky they were to have a chance to build this. What a great way for humans to expend their existences…
Yes, I know, according to the story of history, it was all slaves that did the building during the Roman Empire. That’s the part that always baffles me… stupefies me. There are so many stories and legends about the nobles and the warriors. We hear about all of their plots and intrigues and battles and romances. But what of the builders? They were definitely masters of their crafts. Just look at this amazing place. Surely there had to be lots of masters. Lots of incredibly skilled and artistically inspired people. What of the culture that creates such a workforce? The legends and stories always have the workers hovering in the background as slaves. For me, at least, that is where the legends go wrong. People who built a place that looks like this were not slaves. No doubt about it. The power of the stones had set them free.
You laugh, perhaps, at such a statement. But I assure you that I am completely serious. It is a subject matter that I ponder frequently. It is not an exaggeration or a tall tale. The truth is; stonework saved my life. Honestly, if I had not discovered the stones, I might have started blowing up banks. And we all know that the career of a bank blower upper does not last long and does not end nicely. But I was that fed up. I was that enraged. A young male of the human species can be a very very dangerous instrument. That was over twenty years ago so I’m older now with aches and pains and slower reflexes. But I can remember the rage and I can remember the power. I don’t know if it’s true for women. Or even if it is true for all men. I can only really speak for myself but I do believe it’s a common characteristic in younger human males. It’s a source of energy that charges outward from the center of the soul. It has to find a release, an outlet or a use of some kind or it will drive the person it is contained within absolutely crazy. In my particular case, the source of energy was locked up inside a suit and a professional reputation. I worked for the Empire then. I had not yet learned that it was evil. I was young and naïve with a promising career ahead of me. But the internal energy made me crazy. I was trapped in offices and conference centers and court rooms and complexes. It was all bullshit and I could clearly see right through it. I was a slave to reality who was not living out his destiny.
So what is destiny anyway? I think I first heard about it in 5th grade. I grew up in the U.S. and the washing of the brain starts early here. We were in grade school history class learning about the settlers who went west and transformed the virgin untamed wilderness into the United States of America. Manifest Destiny. The teacher called it. The brave pioneers were fulfilling god’s will. Or, at least, they thought that they were. In retrospect, as an adult, the concept seems like a form of insanity. I can’t even believe a teacher would stand up in front of a class of kids and say such things. But the teacher said it and I believed it. The image was implanted upon my consciousness for a very long time. I can still see the maps in my minds’ eye. There were territories and there were states. As more and more territories became states; colors and shapes were added to give form and substance to the nebulous wilderness. That’s right, my country was settled by God’s chosen people. It was not conquered by a bunch of blood thirsty psychopaths. God, himself, signed the Lousianna Purchase…
I gave up on Santa Claus before I hit puberty but I held on to “America” until my mid to late twenties. It’s hard to give up “America” when you live here because the mythology bombards your senses from every direction. It’s in the movies and the television programs; it’s in the newspapers and the magazines. We are the promised land, we are the city on the hill, we are the chosen ones, we are the exceptional nation. We have the best government, the best military, and the best economy in the whole wide world. We are number one and it is up to us to save the rest of the world from everything they are doing wrong. It’s kind of embarrassing for me to admit now, but I was a true believer of all that stuff for a rather long time. I even thought for a while that it was my destiny to become a leader of this great nation. Maybe a governor or Senator or perhaps even President.
Eventually, the illusion shattered. I’m not sure how or why but thank God and Buddha and Allah it did. Maybe it was my first backpacking trip in Central and South America that did it. Or maybe it was my work in the criminal justice system or the social service system or the international finance system. I saw it all up close and personal. I’m not sure how or why it happened. But the evidence of my experience eventually overwhelmed the story of my education. The realization hit me like a bolt from the heavens. I wasn’t educated in school, I was brainwashed… sucker punched into monetary slavery. All of a sudden, the whole great edifice of American Exceptionalism came crashing down around me and I was left naked at the center of the proverbial storm. And that’s when I wanted to blow up the Empire’s economic system…
Jerash is not at all like Petra. The atmosphere is totally different. Roman architecture and design instead of Nabatean artistry and inspired creativity. It’s almost like opposite sides of the stone universe. Petra is Yin and Jerash is Yang. Stone or god is the force that intertwines them. So why does walking around Jerash stimulate thoughts about destiny? Was I, perhaps, destined to discover the power of the stones?
Of course the plan to blow up the economic system was rather crazy but it seemed quite sensible to me at the time. For a while there, it even seemed like it was destiny. “America” the concept had transformed completely inside my mind through the amazing power of human psychology. No longer a “Promised Land” or “City on the Hill,” now “America” was a monster hell bent on destroying the world and I was the hero “destined” to stop it. Because of my time on the inside, I understood how everything worked. The money system was the fundamental problem. As long as a few oligarchs controlled the money supply, all the elections in the world would not provide any freedom. Currency is the chain that enslaves the masses. It is also the weak spot at the center of the death star, the Achilles heel in the proverbial suit of armor. Take out the currency system and everything else would collapse as well. So that is what I wanted to do. It was my sacred assignment, my Herculean task. Could I possibly recruit a few like minded people and plan an attack on the Federal Reserve Bank Headquarters in New York? We wouldn’t blow up the building and kill people. We would blow up the computer system that keeps track of all the money. Can’t you imagine the glorious consequences? With the money master destroyed, everyone would finally be free.
As I said before, thankfully, I got distracted from my crazy plan. Somewhat ironically, I ran out of money. After I quit my position as a well paid slave of the empire, I still needed cash to pay for groceries. A friend offered me a part time job as a laborer on a stone wall project. My first day on the job, the stones set me free. No longer did I obsess about destroying the evil empire. All of that erupting uncontrollable energy inside of me was focused on something else. Who in the world has time for revolution if there is a big pile of rocks to work with?
I spend over five hours wandering around Jerash. The guide book recommends three but the stonework consumes me. I immerse myself in the story as I soak up the energy of the ancient rocks. It almost feels as if I am walking around inside a myth. There are lots of stone arches here, and columns and stairways as well. The sky is partly cloudy so the lighting is intermittently magical. Sometimes the sunbeams shine in just such a way that the stone arch doorways look like magical passageways. They could be time portals or space gates in a sci-fi film. Or, perhaps, doorways to destiny in an ancient epic poem. So that’s why I’m thinking about destiny today. The stimuli in my environment have activated my epic poetry brain. Ahh destiny… But of course destiny. And free will too. Where does one end and the other begin? Why did I give up a promising career in order to become a revolutionary? Why did I give up the revolution in order to become a stone mason? As I walk the steps and pass through the passageways, it kind of seems to all make sense. Maybe it really was destiny.
It’s late afternoon when I exit the ruins. A slight drizzle falls from the sky. People are lining up on the sidewalk outside and a man is organizing them into collectivos or share taxis. I should walk the six blocks to the bus station and take a regular bus to Amman. If I reverse my journey from this morning, I will make it back to my hotel and I won’t get lost. I have an important flight to Istanbul tomorrow. I can’t get lost now. But the people inside the collectivo (passenger mini-van) wave at me. There’s an empty seat that needs to be filled. The organizer beckons as I try to walk past. “Amman,” he says, “you go Amman.” There are many neighborhoods in Amman. It is a very big and confusing city where few people speak English. If I end up in the wrong part of the city, it could be a real problem. “I go downtown,” I say, “Hashemi street. Near the theatre.” Clearly, the guy does not understand a word I say about specifics. “Amman,” he says again, “you go Amman.” The passengers inside are all waving enthusiastically at me. It feels sort of like destiny. I climb inside the passenger van and head to Amman.
The journey is not uncomplicated. Indeed, it’s a regular odyssey; like an ancient Roman epic. Nobody in the packed full mini-van speaks any English. They smile and nod as I keep repeating “Amman,” and “Hashemi street,” and “the Theatre”. The words they speak are in Arabic but their body language indicates that there is no concern. Of course I will reach my destination. No worry, no hurry. But the mini-van does not take me to my destination. Instead, it drives for about 45 minutes until it reaches a very busy four lane intersection in the middle of nowhere. Then it stops and all the passengers (including me) have to get out. Now what?
There are clusters of passenger van collectivo vehicles at various stages of full parked on the side of the road. One of the passengers from my van points out the one I theoretically want. The people on board all wave at me excitedly. “Yes, yes, empty seat. We go Amman.” In a few moments, I am loaded up and traveling down the highway again in another vehicle full of Arabs who don’t speak English. I have no way of really knowing if I am going in the right direction. “Amman” I say “Hashemi Street.” “Amman,” they say back to me as they smile politely. For some reason though, I have this notion that they are appeasing me or humoring me. Or maybe, they don’t understand me at all.
The packed full minivan travels for about 45 minutes and then stops. And this is when things get weird. Déjà vu’ all over again. The minivan unloads and as before I get off with the other passengers. I know it is hard to believe but it seems as if I am at the exact same intersection I was at 45 minutes ago. It’s a four lane highway criss-crossing in the middle of nowhere with clusters of passenger vans parked all around. Once again, someone directs me to a particular van with an open seat. The driver and passengers beckon me aboard with shouts of Amman, Amman. Once again, I find myself crowded into a packed vehicle with people who don’t speak English. Sooner of later, I have to reach my destination.
This third collectivo ride goes on for a very very long time. At least an hour… it’s hard to say because time stops. It is one of those moments that lasts forever. Did I perhaps pass through a magical doorway in Jerash after all? The truth is apparent in the feel of the atmosphere. This is not just any old collectivo, this is the collectivo of destiny. I have entered the dreamland… a story within a metaphor and a metaphor within a story. If you peel away all the layers of the onion, what have you got in the middle? I am surrounded by people I don’t know who are speaking a language I don’t understand. I don’t recognize the road and I don’t know where we are going. I am infinitely lost…symbolically lost… metaphorically lost. Is this the life I have chosen for myself? Why does this always happen to me. Today, of all days, I can’t get lost. I have a flight to catch tomorrow. I have to meet Ms. B. in Istanbul. What if this bus takes me to Syria or Gaza or freakin’ Saudi Arabia. What if I can’t get back to Amman? What if I miss my flight?
Eventually, the passenger van stops at several traffic lights and tall buildings rise up around us. No longer do we motor along endlessly on multi-lane highways; we are now jammed up on crowded city streets. Is this Amman? It has to be but I have no way of knowing for sure. It could be any neighborhood in any random part of the big city. For that matter, it could be anywhere within a two hour drive from Jerash. I could be in a refugee camp; I could be in the Occupied Territories; I could be in the Syrian war zone. I could be fucking anywhere. How in the hell will I ever find my hotel?
The passenger van stops at a parking lot where there is a cluster of other vans and everyone gets out. This time, however, no helpful other passenger is there to point out the next random vehicle I’m supposed to take. Instead, it’s a total and complete cluster fuck. A pulsating mob of people swarm around me jabbering away in Arabic. I can’t understand a word and I have no idea where I am. It is the story of my life. Thankfully, destiny is there to take care of me.
I see a regular metered taxi in the street across from the parking area. I flee the jabbering chaotic crowd and approach the solo taxi driver. I hand him the hotel business card. He looks at the address in Arabic and laughs. He opens the back door of his cab and I climb in hesitantly. I have a horrible feeling that this is going to be a very long and very expensive cab ride. But no; I’m wrong. The cab drives two blocks and drops me off at my hotel’s front door.
That night, I have a fine meal of lamb mensaf to celebrate the successful completion of my solo odyssey. The following morning, I take a cab to the north bus station and a bus to the airport. My midday flight to Istanbul leaves and arrives on time. If all goes according to plan, Ms. B.’s plane is arriving about now and we will meet up soon. I can hardly contain my excitement.
I collect my luggage from the carousel and make my way to the arrivals hall. There’s a big screen in the middle that lists flight arrival times. I walk towards the screen to see if there is any information about her flight from New York and that’s when I hear the voice. “Mr. Ryan,” she says.
The tone is bureaucratic and official like a security guard reprimanding a misbehaving patron. But I recognize the sweet sound of Ms. B’s vocal chords no matter what tone she uses. I turn to see her. My princess, my Angel, my Beacon of Light. Truthfully, she looks like she just rode side-saddle on a cyclone. Her hair is a tangled mess of wind blown frizz. Her big backpack hangs awkwardly off her right shoulder and her small backpack drags half-hazardly along the floor. After twenty some odd hours of travel time from New York, the poor weary traveler is disheveled, rumpled, worn out and exhausted. Nevertheless, she smiles at me and the whole universe glows. Happy, happy, joy, joy. The B. is for beautiful that is for sure.
Is it possible to be happy at the center of your soul? Will my heart explode from absolute joy? The stars are aligning and the universe is shining. One journey ends and a new one begins. Together now, we will go onward in the direction of destiny.