Road Tripping in Jordan

When we saw the sign for the Syrian border, both of us took pause.  ”Yeah, let’s not go there,” John said.  ”Agreed,” I replied, as we kept driving.

Up until that point, it had started to feel like we were on a road trip back at home.  Fed up with the prices of taxis and transit in this country, we had rented a car for the week and were driving north of Amman to the Roman ruins at Jerash.  The roads were smooth, cars drove on the right side of the road, and the countryside even resembled some of southern Colorado (probably only if you’ve been out of Colorado for as long as we have, but still.)  Once we saw the sign that we were approaching Syria, reality came back into focus: we were road tripping through Jordan.

(A side note to both of our moms:  we did not go anywhere close to the Syrian border.  We did meet a refugee from Syria staying at our hotel, but I assure you that is the closest we got.  We also skipped signage for borders into Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, for what its worth.)

Our reservation was for a Toyota Yaris, but since neither of us can drive a manual car, they had to dust off an old automatic to rent to us.  Going up hills was a stretch for this car, and we often got passed by trucks and busses when John had it floored.  On the plus side, we avoided any speeding tickets from the multitude of speed traps set up all over the place.  (We did get a parking ticket outside of Petra, though.)The bonus of driving yourself is that you can stop at the many road side fruit vendors, who sell produce such as figs, apples, strawberries, grapes, apricots, cucumbers and tomatoes.  Pickup trucks brimming with dark green watermelons line the roads.  Of course, that’s only in the northern part of Jordan, where the produce is plentiful.  In the southern desert we rarely saw anything but abandoned-looking coffee shops.  Fortunately, we always had a plate full of amazing Jordanian sweets with us in the car in case we got hungry.  Best.Baklava.Ever.

The downside of driving yourself is that you have to navigate.  Amman is a maze of streets with chaotic drivers and few marked street signs.  I had an iphone app and a paper map and still got us lost several times.  Perhaps if all of the signs weren’t in Arabic that would have helped, but I think we still would have gone the wrong way.  Whenever we stopped to ask directions people were very happy to help; however, Jordanian directions are often oversimplified and nonsensical.  For example, a police officer gave us directions to one of our hotels that would have had us driving the wrong way down a one way street.  He was quite friendly, but not entirely helpful.Friendliness seems to be one of the biggest character traits of Jordanians.  On one occasion we asked to borrow someone’s cell phone and within five minutes they had allowed us to use the phone, brought us drinks, offered John a puff from their shisha, and introduced us to three or four friends (all despite the fact that none of them spoke English.)  I can’t imagine that happening in the US.

On another day, a driver in a pickup truck flashed his lights at John while we were driving down the road.  As we slowed down he pulled up beside the window to warn John that a back tire was off kilter.  We pulled over on the side of the road to investigate, but before John had even gotten out of the car the guy was wielding a tire iron and tightening the bolts on one of the rear tires.  Confused by something he said in Arabic, John tried to offer the guy a little cash for his help, but was quickly and adamantly waved off.  A few meters down the road the Jordanian driver tried to wave us into his house for tea (which we had to refuse because we had a long drive ahead of us.)  All of this from a teenaged kid with braces.  Again, it would be stretch to imagine that happening back at home.

I could easily relay five more stories of exceptionally helpful cab drivers and strangers on the street, but I think you get the idea.  The people in Jordan are above and beyond the friendliest we have met anywhere in the world.  And unlike most countries, that friendliness comes entirely without expectation of selling you something or garnering a tip in the future.  They genuinely just want to help.To repay some of this karma, John wanted to help out some Jordanian hitch hikers.  Hitching is hugely popular in Jordan (probably because public transit is so terrible), and there were often people standing alongside the road looking for rides.  Having grown up in a culture where hitch hikers = axe murderers, I patently refused to allow him to stop for a stranger.  John persisted, however, and once a woman from New Zealand told us how safe it was and recommended hitching to a nice German guy we met, I hesitantly acquiesced.

John pulled over to pick up hitchers on two separate occasions.  While I think John imagined/hoped we might have a fascinating conversation and meaningful cultural exchange with our hitchers, he was sadly disappointed to discover that neither of them spoke a word of English.  They rode silently in the backseat until we let them out of the car a ways down the road.  Given the language barrier and our ignorance about geography in Jordan, I’m not certain we actually took them where they wanted to go, but at least we rescued them from standing by the road in the heat of the desert for a short time.

Issues with the language barrier and inaccurate Jordanian directions converged into one last adventure for us as we headed to the airport.  The front desk clerk at our hotel in Madaba provided us with straightforward directions to the airport that seemed easy to follow.  So easy, in fact, that it wasn’t until we’d gone 15 kilometers out of our way that we discovered the inaccuracies in his directions.  After stopping for more help (which, due to the language barrier, came largely in hand gestures signifying ‘airport’ from John and ‘turn around’ from the helpful stranger), we managed to arrive at the airport.  We then made the mistake of assuming it would be clear where one is meant to return a rental car.  After driving in circles three times, and asking for directions twice, a friendly guy hopped into the back of our car to direct us through another loop of the airport and to the rental car return lane.  Apparently in Jordan you are expected to know that rental cars are meant to pass through the lane marked “Special Vehicles,” that the guys standing watch will remove cone barriers to allow you to pass, and that you should double park outside the Departures Terminal and run inside for someone from the rental company to come out and inspect the car for you.  By this point we were so ready to be rid of our navigational obligations and return to the life of trusting taxi and bus drivers that we happily ditched our aging rental and hopped our flight to Egypt, hoping not to need to drive until we return to the US.

The freedom of being able to drive through Jordan was essential to our ability to change plans at a moments notice, and generally made our travel through the country more pleasant.  I’m grateful that John was willing to take on the task of driving the entire time so that I never had to maneuver through the crazy traffic, and that he is a patient enough man to tolerate my navigational missteps.  For the next few weeks, however, we’re looking forward to leaving transportation in the hands of the professionals.

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