The International Writers Magazine: Jordan
Take A Walk
Step into discovery. When you journey to a new country, people always say to do as the natives do. Tourists, the red-headed stepchildren of travel, bring a faint sense of scorn with their cameras, loud voices, and fanny packs. Americans especially are known for obnoxious attitudes.
When I went to Amman, Jordan, I determinedly refused to be a tourist. First, studying, not travelling, took priority during this experience. Since I would be there for four months, I had time. Time to see the sights, eat the food, meet the people, and above all else, speak the language. I wanted to fit in so well that even the native Jordanians would take me for one of their own. I did not want to be an obvious American.
To tell the truth, my clothes and accent would usually give me away. Jordanians dress impeccably, especially the women. Decked out in silk hijabs, designer jeans, and tailored blouses, my brightly colored safari pants never stood a chance. My command of colloquial Arabic made most look at me blankly and immediately switch to English. Still, I tried. The culture was fascinating- complex social expectations wrapped up in modern packaging. Yet there was one element to the Jordanian life that I hated: the traffic. Amman has roughly two million people, a third of Jordan's population. It seemed like everyone drove. Cars, buses, and taxis riddled the streets, constantly honking and the people inside cursing each other for such poor driving skills. To tell the truth, all of them should have undergone some serious driver's education. They passed red lights, made illegal u-turns, and sped in school zones. I never was sure whether there were actual road rules or just suggestions, because I never saw a person get pulled over by a police officer.
I accepted that I probably would get hit by a car here. A couple of my friends already had, but, luckily, no one got too hurt. I don't even know the cause of such poor driving. Jordanians even have the driver's education I just suggested: I saw one of those student drivers go through a red light, her instructor not even phased. So I sat in the back of a taxi every day, awaiting the inevitable death that will come. One thought kept reverberating through my mind.
No seat belts in the back.
Taxi drivers could be nice, or creepy. If they did not converse, that was fine. I would simply state the direction and road I wanted to take, and look out the window for the rest of ride, often enveloped in the cloud of cheap cigarette smoke so many drivers created. But sometimes they would try to talk, and I would respond in my broken Arabic. They all asked "Min wayn inti?" "Where are you from?"
Answering American could provoke dangerous questions.
"Did you vote for Bush?" No, I was eight and twelve when he was first elected. The second grade elections my elementary school hosted barely taught me politics, so I would just shake my head, smile, and say I was too young for that sort of thing. Then the bevy of questions regarding my virginity, marital status, and ability to get them visas would begin. These were exhausting, and though I improved my Arabic tremendously by talking, I hated the constant drilling and accusations. Some taxi drivers could be creeps, trying to follow me home or not letting me out. Besides, seeing the city I moved to through a car was not what I had imagined. I saw in my mind strolling through the alleys of Jerusalem, ambling by the piazzas of Rome. I wanted the quiet and personal appreciation of Amman at my own pace, without the constant chattering. So, I did the most touristy thing a person could do in Jordan: I started to walk.
||Exercise seems strange to the Jordanians. Sure, the young men have lately started going to the gyms, the wives to their aerobics classes. Yet most of them see it as a social opportunity rather than a health benefit. Walking in the streets is both a sweaty experience as well as a health hazard; cars are flying everywhere and the sidewalks sometimes disappear midway down the street. Rural attitudes and customs of Petra and Jerash horrify the sleek city people of Amman. I lucked out with my host family. They lived in an apartment on a relatively quiet street in an upscale neighborhood known as Abdoun.
Rural attitudes and customs of Petra and Jerash horrify the sleek city people of Amman. I lucked out with my host family. They lived in an apartment on a relatively quiet street in an upscale neighborhood known as Abdoun. Cars flew past at half the rate of a normal street, and there were enough sidewalks or parking spaces for me to claim as my path.
Every day I would request the taxi driver to let me off at the 5th Circle. The drivers agreed, never giving it a second thought. After all, that circle has the Sheraton and Four Seasons directly across from each other, and foreigners always seem to stay at one or the other. Then drivers would drop me off, notice my backpack in confusion, and see me waving "Yella bye!” as I continued past. I would march confidently to my street past the men waiting for the bus, a look of anything but utter self-assurance could lead them into catcalling. A quick right turn into my street was safety. Usually deserted by the time I got back, the rest of respectable Jordanians either napping after their big meal or still at work, I had no one staring.
So I began to stare. I saw a lot on those walks down to my apartment- a mile can show you more than expected. It let me know about the dumpster cats, first and foremost, because they were quite literally in, or near, every single trashcan. Whole families of furballs lived and died in their dumpsters. Some would hiss, and run. Others would simply stare. A few would look hopefully for a handout and a pet, but happily accepted when I poured water into whatever bowl or cup I could find.
I saw the garbage heaped onto the side of the road. I saw the poor digging through the garbage, though Jordanians boast that they have no homeless. I saw the sun setting over that white city, gold and rose stamped across the sky. I got caught in a sandstorm, dust and debris hitting me every step home. And yes, I saw the crowd of riot police dressed to contains the risings protests against the government's decision to end the oil subsidies, which sky-rocketed cooking, heating, and transportation costs.
Those mile walks turned into a mission to see as much as I could. I sweated a lot, I ruined my shoes, but I got to find Amman at my own pace. Sometimes strolling everywhere could be foolish. Walking in a strange neighborhood at night is never advisable. At other times, my friends would join me, and we would walk through the shops in Amman's center district known as the Beled. We clearly stood out as foreigners, talking a little too loudly, dressing a little poorly, but we had fun. I know that going with the norms of a society when you travel is important. It shows respect to the nation and its culture, and allows you to dive deeper into your travel experience. Yet I do not regret my decision to walk. Those sights would not have been possible stuck in the back seat of a taxi. I needed a few quiet moments everyday to process all that I had learned and done and said. Walking the mountains of Amman gave me the time to breathe. And yes, to tour.
© Rachel Kaye May 2013
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