Friday, April 15, 2011

Rolling with Mahmoud- Wadi Musa Style

I think I've been Cheated
I make my way to the Amman bus station, where I board a crowded van headed to Petra. The driver asks me for eight dinars. “I was told it was four,” I retort.
“No, six dinars, two more for big bag.”
“Really?” I ask, almost positive I’m getting ripped.
“Yes, yes, I know price.”
Whatever, cheat me a few dollars. “Here you go.”

Now, I’ve booked reservations in Wadi Musa (the mountainous town acting as the gateway to Petra) and like many touristic areas the prices are by no means a steal, so when the bus made an impromptu stop at an inn on the outskirts of town, the driver announced they had vacancy, and the price was half my booking, I jumped at the possibility. After seeing the room, I informed the owner I would be happy to stay if I could cancel my other accommodations. I check the terms of my reservation on the net, no-go.
“No, no, no, I know the owner,” states the inn’s proprietor, “He’ll let you off, don’t worry.”
“I have to hear that from his mouth, and get an email from him stating so.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Are you kidding me?”
Begrudgingly he dials, mumbles a few words of Arabic into the receiver with little enthusiasm or hope, and hands me the phone. I look at him dubiously as I start speaking.
I explain my situation, the deep voice on the other end refuses to let me out of the booking. “My hotel is much better!” he states emphatically, “why would you even want to switch?”
“Trying to save money.”
“No, absolutely no! You show, you have place to stay, you don’t show, I charge.” Now he asks me to explain how I ended up on the phone with him.
“Stay where you are, I will come get you,” he commands.

The Warpath

Minutes later a large silver van shows up. Out steps Mahmoud- bald, 6’2” and 275 pounds, the Arab version of Andre the Giant.
His first order of business is a “frank” exchange on business ethics with the owner of the inn, but when he comes back to me, he’s more interested in the bus. He asks me details, anger clouds his face. “How much did you pay for the ride?”
“8 JD,” I reply (almost $12).
“Oh you pay very much. Very much.”
I load my bags into the van. Mahmoud is on a warpath, racing to get to the bus station before the driver is able to return to Amman …. SCCCRRRREEEEEECCCHHHH!!!!!! Mahmoud SLAMS on his brakes going down a slope steep enough to double as an Olympic Ski-jumping ramp. We skid to a halt maybe a foot away from a tin-box car, the driver wincing, unable to open his eyes.
“Oh my God!! Are you trying to kill me?!” I yell.  
HOOOONNNNKKKKKKKKKKKKKK!!!! “This big asshole,” shouts Mahmoud shaking his fist, “he’s going the wrong way. That’s a one way street.” Mahmoud points to the sign.
The other driver seems to shrink in his seat as Mahmoud sticks his head out the window and bellows at him in Arabic. I am unable to translate what he said but “Have a nice a day,” can be safely ruled out,
Mahmoud is on a mission, he pulls away. Upon reaching the speed of light traveling downhill he slams on his over-used brakes, again barely avoiding another head-on collision.
“Oh my God! You are the worst driver. Discount on my stay!” I shout, attempting to leverage a price-break while my heart is on the verge of exploding.
“No, no! No discount. He big asshole, don’t know how to drive!!” He BLARES the horn with contempt, as he points another one-way street sign on the street the driver just pulled out of- No discount.
Mahmoud races onwards to the bus station; we’re in luck, my bus is still there. Now, the driver is a thin, wiry man, standing 5’ 4”, while Mahmoud is the size of Mount Olympus, his thunderous voice warning of lightning that need never land. Indeed, the Jordanian Zeus doesn’t even bother exiting the van. Despite not comprehending a single word, I know the bus driver doesn’t stand a chance in this argument.
It’s like watching a featherweight boxer who’s just poured his Bloody Mary atop the head of Mike Tyson’s Mom, wearing her Sunday’s Best, on Mother’s Day, in public, while she’s cooing over her infant granddaughter, and when Tyson stands up, towering over him, with the everybody staring, his only defense is, “I’m sorry Mr. Tyson, I didn’t that was your Mother.” And now Mahmoud Tyson has him on the ropes, pummeling him with his deep voice, the bus driver tries to slip away but Mahmoud won’t let him. “How much did he charge you for the ride?” Mahmoud asks me.
“Eight dinars.”
“Eight dinars,” Mahmoud repeats to him.
“No, I charge him four.”
“Eight,” I state calmly.
The driver pulls three dinars from his pocket and hands them to me.
Mahmoud clears his throat. Utterly defeated, the driver drops his chin to his chest, reaches into his wallet and hands me one more dinar. Mahmoud then tells he is reporting him to the police, and to expect a ticket.

“He big asshole,” explains the victor, using his favorite phrase yet again, “he knows he’s supposed to go straight to the bus station. Not allowed to stop. He tries to steal my business. Big asshole.”
“He big asshole,” I repeat, mirroring Mahmoud’s tone. A chuckle emanates from the giant.
Mahmoud drives me to his hotel, and checks me in. “You see, hotel much much better,” he beams.
“Yeah, too bad owner is big asshole,” I reply, getting a hearty laugh from my new friend.  
It is too late in the day to visit Petra so I walk around Wadi-Musa, which economically is entirely dependent on the flow of tourists visiting one of the Seven Wonders of the World. After a few hours, I return, and Mahmoud invites me to run some errands with him. I’m actually excited to see what new adventure will find us.
the mountains around Petra
He generously buys me dinner, we talk. Turns out Mahmoud learned English in the employment of the US Military, working in Fallujah at the height of the conflict, of all things, as head of army base’s gift shop.
“I never left the base,” explains Mahmoud, “If the Iraqis found me walking around, they would have slit my throat.”
“How did you find the US soldiers?” I inquire.
“Bunch of big assholes,” Mahmoud states warmly. You can count on him using this term at minimum once every three sentences, you have to tell from his tone whether he means it affectionately or not. “After war, I take all I earn, all I have saved, and my family and I buy hotel. I work hard.”
Indeed he does. “Come on, I take you to meet my friend, he big asshole too.”
Mahmoud introduces me. “I hear you big asshole,” I remark to his amigo. Mahmoud laughs, this coupled with my friendly tone protects me from being punched. We drink the traditional Arab offering of overly sweetened tea watching the sun descend behind the mountains. Eventually we say our good-byes and proceed back to the hotel. As we walk in, and I’m about to head up for the night, I ask Mahmoud for one more piece of information: “Am I big asshole?” I inquire.
Mahmoud chuckles and puts his arm over my shoulder like an old friend, “You biggest asshole of them all.”
It’s nice to be loved.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Saudi Arabia + the Burkah- The Stiflement of Expression versus Jordan

Saudi Arabia versus Jordan- Female perspective
Before leaving for Jordan’s top tourist attraction, Petra, I go to check my email at the Internet Café. A twenty-two year old is the only one working. I catch her staring at me a few times. I halt my work to converse with her.
She asks me how I like Amman. “I love the people I tell her, but frankly, I find the city dirty and ugly.” She nods and agrees.
She is originally from Saudi Arabia. I note that she is wearing only a hajib (head scarf) “In Saudi Arabia women are forced to wear a full burka,” I remark, “but here you choose to dress in only a hajib.”
She LOVES the fact that she has the freedom to choose. She detests that the Saudi government forces the burka on women. “Women cannot do anything in Saudi Arabia,” she tells me, “They cannot drive, leave the house without a male family member, go to the movies, there is nothing we can do! In Jordan it is very exciting, because I can drive, although I don’t yet know how …  I can choose what I wear … I can do anything!” she  exclaims. “In Saudi Arabia they are soooo religious. Everything shuts at the time of prayer. Even the stores ALL close. Five times a day. If they do not shut, the police come.”
The Muslim hajib
You don’t want to be in trouble with the police anywhere in the Middle East. In America, you at least have some rights. In fact, I wonder for a moment who has more rights, American prisoners, or Saudi women.  
“You are going to Petra alone?” she asks me flirtatiously.
“Unless you wish to come with me.”
Her eyes light-up. “I would love to, but my family … not so much.”
Familial bonds in the Arab world are far stronger than in the West. In the Middle East, Jordan is second only to Lebanon in openness, but it’s still taboo here to kiss your spouse on the lips in public, much less have sex outside of marriage.
I'll be going to Petra alone ...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Unbelievable Hospitality one Experiences in the Middle East (Amman, Jordan)

Amman, Jordan
It takes another hour and a half to get to Jordan’s capital city of Amman. We finally escape the bus at 1:30 AM. Badr is greeted by his three cousins there to pick him up, who warmly embrace their Syrian counterpart. At Badr’s behest they unquestioningly agree to take me to the hotel I haven’t booked yet. I load my bags into Mohammed’s small car. They insist that I ride shotgun, while they squeeze three into the back.
Mohammed speaks the best English out of everyone and does most of the talking. He is a graphics designer with a penchant for film, and I am the first American he’s had the pleasure to spend any time with. Hopefully, in hip-hop terms, I’ll “represent .”
I am immediately struck by the visible signs of Westernization that have befallen Jordan; KFC, Mickey D’s, Pizza Hut, and the added poundage they bring to the population of Amman. My new friend Mohammed is one them, patting his small pot belly, while describing his affinity for McDonald’s cuisine, which he eats so regularly it landed in the hospital with persistent stomach troubles at the ripe age of 23.
My hosts pepper me with questions about my travels, about America, about how I find the Middle East, and I vice-versa, while we dine on a late night snack of Lebanese pizza.
It’s nearly 3 in the morning by the time we’re done, and all four of them are driving me around to help me find accommodations when they should be home in bed.
Honestly, if you are a guest in any Arab society, it is mandated by the culture that they treat you with respect, lay out their best wares for you, and go out of their way to helpful. It seems impossible to feel unwelcome in this society.
For a moment I forget all I just wrote about Arab hospitality, the Pavlovian response of anger races through me. Graffiti on a wall - in black letters is scrawled, “Osama.” It takes me a second to realize that this is a common name in the Arab world and merely a tagger seeking to meet his need for significance externally. “Osama is a bad word in the West,” I remark to my new friends.

At 3:30 AM we find a suitable hotel, at $50 a night it is by no means cheap for this region of the world, but it’s far too late to keep looking. My Arab friends have been kind enough as it is.
My room is HUGE, bigger than my two bedroom Los Angeles apartment. You could get lost in here. On the downside, electrical wires peak out of the walls in every direction, some with the copper directly exposed, the plastic covering stripped. It’s probably even money that I die in a fire tonight: Russian Roulette with worse odds. I book the bet, far too exhausted to move.
I wake up and marvel at my good fortune. From wrestling wild crocodiles in Ghana, to surviving the sloppy electrical wiring, it seems that the Grim Reaper seems to have no immediate plans for me.

Check out this quick video of Koran TV-- 24 hour satellite station, non-stop Koran (common through the Middle East)

My first order of business is to find Internet and grab some breakfast. Should be easy in a big city like this right?
WRONG: Today is Friday, and in Islamic tradition, everything is closed,.
The bank, the exchange, the laundry-mat, restaurants—All closed. For such a huge city this place is a ghost-town, no movement whatsoever. I walk around for an hour before deciding to take a taxi around to investigate if there is more to see.
There isn't: Amman is dirty, dusty, old, and ugly. The buildings are worn down, the ancient cars spout noxious fumes into the air, furthering the surrounding blanket of pollution that makes it all but impossible to breathe. Venturing to the Middle East with asthma would be suicide.
The Treasury in Petra

I have been invited to have dinner with Mohammed and his family at their house. I’m picked up in the late afternoon, and driven to the outskirts of town and their modest home.
Mohammed lives with his large extended family under the same roof along with his wife who is also his cousin. Both these scenarios are common amongst Arabs.
I am fed a small meal of chicken and grains, before we adjourn to the patio for a talk. I am eager to find out what Jordanians think politically. I ask. It’s not as taboo a question as it is in Syria where if you ask someone their opinion, they answer back is, “An opinion? What’s an opinion.”
As eager as they are to please me, they answer, but honestly, they "really don’t care about politics one way or the other, they just want to live a happy, peaceful existence."
The family is of Palestinian heritage. I ask Mohammed what he thinks of Israel. The unmistakable micro-expression of anger flashes across his face. He plays it off, again stating that he doesn’t really care about Israel he just wants to live his life. I back off the political, they invite me on a tour of Amman.
We drive to the main drag where twenty-somethings congregate, puffing away on their cigarettes amidst an ocean of storefronts selling sweets and drinks. You won’t find alcohol here, although underground clubs reserved for the wealthy do serve it elsewhere.
My friends are proud of Jordan’s modernity, at least as compared to the rest of Arabia. It’s still ultra-conservative compared to the West. To give your fiancée so much as a peck on the cheek in public would be considered quite risqué.
Amman’s shopping district seems to be additional source of pride for Jordanian’s, a confirmation of the relative progressive nature of their country, and the availability of quality goods that come with it. From my standpoint I just see another Western mall, with such names as Gucci and Tiffany- a tribute to mankind’s egoic nature and never ending need for validation.
I discuss this with Mohammed who tells me that he is infected with consumerism. “I see something advertised, I want it bad. I can’t not have it.”
“What does that mean?” I inquire.
“I am in debt,” Mohammed explains, “This car. Thousands of dollars in debt. My computer, I had to have it, another $1,200. I pay interest on this money too.”
“Well,” I answer, “Your car gets you around, you can move heavy items in it. You can communicate with the world using your computer, and you edited your short films on it. You invested money in things that increased your quality of life. If you are going into debt to purchase something, I don’t know any reason more sound.”
“But I see something, and then I just want it.”
“Again, if you go into debt $3,000 to purchase a Prada hand bag to be able to walk around with it and show it off, then that’s Madison Avenue manipulating the human ego at its worst. If you buy something of quality because it increases your productivity/ makes things easier, what’s wrong with that? The important thing is to understand the reasons behind the impulse. Having that Prada bag won’t change who you are, but for a split second your un-satiable ego might take a mollified breath and tell you that you “are” something: worthy/good/important, but that car will get you to work every day. Like right now, I’m going to buy you all ice-cream. Why, cause I’m having a lot of fun with you guys and I feel like it.”
“Oh, we cannot let you do that, we will buy you ice cream.”
Damn Arab hospitality. “No, this time I treat you.”
So we all enjoyed our sweet treat, on this warm night in the Middle East, under the lights of the Prada and Tiffany signs. Consumerism has invaded. I’m at peace with that. If I wasn’t, how could I enjoy this moment?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Crossing Jordan- the Syrian/ Jordanian Border adventure

I woke up early in the morning in my extravagant $10 a night hotel room, easily the highest price I paid for Syrian accommodations. Upon venturing outside, I was accosted by a red-head, let’s call him Rooster, who insisted that I take his cab.
“I want breakfast,” I told him, “Maybe later. Talk to me in an hour.”
Twenty minutes went by when he approached me again. “I’m not ready dude, back off.”
Rooster waited for me to finish eating and followed me to my hotel, anxious for my fare. Honestly, this is one of the rare times in all my travels that I have felt concerned for my safety. While money is scarce in Syria, and everybody is eager to serve a tourist flush with cash, he was trying waaayyyyyy too hard to get me into his cab. It was just one of those moments you have to use your intuition, and back away from the situation as coolly as possible.
I walked into my hotel, explained to the owner that Rooster was making me very uncomfortable, and would he be so kind to inform him that I won’t be using his services. This served the dual purpose of ridding myself of The Rooster, and also letting him know that the locals know who he is.
A friend of the owner’s showed up to drive me to the bus station. We stopped at Palmyra’s only currency exchange, which made your local DMV look like it operated with the efficiency of a Japanese assembly line. With only three people ahead of me, it took over a half hour to exchange $100.
Now, the exchange rate for Syrian pounds to US dollars is 45-1. Add to the mix that each bill is a different color from the other, AND, that the government is in the process of replacing all their old money with newly colored bills, with the ensuing rainbow of cash you get, a rocket scientist would have a hard time figuring out what he’s actually holding. As I traded most of my US dollars for 50 Jordanian Dinars ($70 US) I decided it would be prudent to tuck that quite valuable bill away into a special fold of my fanny pack, out of reach of possible contamination by the lowly Syrian Pound.
(the view of the surrounding mountains from a cliff in Petra, Jordan)

An uneventful four and a half hour bus ride landed me back in Damascus, where I had to transfer to bus terminal on the other side of town to continue my journey into Jordan.
The cabbies see me, and their eyes go wide, as I have far more “rip-off equity” than the locals, and everyone’s fighting over my fare (not ‘fair’.) Some went as far as to grab my suitcase from me without me so much as asking to insure my patronage.
“Put it down!” I order in a tone understood in any language.
A green-eyed cabbie is the only one who speaks any English, thus I choose to ride with him. He looks 50, which means he’s probably mid thirties. People age much more quickly in the Middle East.
A pleasant ride, we get to the bus station. He asks me for 200 pounds more than what we agreed upon, telling me that we had to go out of the way for the extra stop we made to get some food. It’s par for the course. I’m running out of Syrian pounds, but I have enough for the bus, and odds are I won’t ever be back here. I give him the big tip.
I go into the terminal and somehow communicate that I need a ticket to Amman. Syrians grab my suitcase and tell me in very broken English that they will make sure to get me on my bus. “Please putdown my suitcase.” They don’t understand. I lack the energy to argue any more. Upon getting to the bus they naturally demand money. I don’t have enough cash or patience left for this shakedown. “No,” I state, “go away.”
“We make sure you get on bus!” they argue.
“I didn’t ask you for help.”
“We help you! We don’t understand!”
At that point a diminutive young Syrian, Badr, stepped forward to help translate. I ended up giving away sixty cents, which by Syrian standards, is a decent tip, but they were expecting far more and clearly let me know just how discontented they were. I dragged my belongings onto the bus, tired of the continual haggling.

The Trip To Amman
Badr sits down beside me. The bus is relatively empty, and normally I’d have moved to an empty seat without a word, but as he had helped me, and it was obvious he wanted to converse, I stayed put.
Badr shyly practices his English, completely unsure of himself, getting frustrated when he doesn’t know a word.
Turns out he is part Russian, and is of the Catholic faith. I ask him whether it is ever a problem in a country that is over 90% Islamic.
“Yes,” he replies, “sometimes people get violent with me because I am.”.
It was around 10:30 PM that we finally hit the Jordanian border. Badr and I get out of the bus and walk into immigration. Having traveled for the last 11 hours just get to this point. I prayed that immigration would go smoothly.  That of course was a joke.

You’re more likely to win the mega-millions than to have an uneventful border crossing in the Middle East. The Syrian/Jordanian border was a mess. Long lines of Arabs moving slower than glaciers, people waving their passports near the front of the line, trying to get their ticket out of Syria stamped by the disgruntled government worker whose sandwich break coincides perfectly with your arrival to the front of the line, giving you the option of waiting for his return (estimated at between two and twenty days,) or starting over at the back of a new line where they have an amusement park ride style sign stating, “from this point: two weeks to the front.”
Two weeks later, my passport finally stamped, I am told to get into another line to pay a 500 pound exit tax. Oh no, do I even have that much left? I check. 400, 450 … fuck, I am 50 pounds short. Badr offers to give me the money. I don’t want his money, but I’m not sure I have an option. Let me see, I might have it somewhere, I look in my fanny pack. Success, a fifty! YES! Everything always works out for me! I pay them with my rainbow of cash, happy to Finally be done with the Syrian side at least.
We walk back to the bus, where we wait for the Jordanian guard to search our bags. “You had better hope they don’t search you,” warns Badr, “If they find your computer we will be here all night while they pour through the data and make a copy of the hard drive.”
We get lucky. We walk to Jordanian immigration. They have separate lines for foreign and Arab passports. Out of a thousand people there, I am the only Caucasian. I am done in five minutes. They stamp my passport and give me what I was a told was a 15 day visa. Great. I wait for Badr. Half an hour, forty-five minutes, an hour … Lord … He finally finishes , we get back to our bus. Our driver is upset with the time it has taken. Three hours to cross the border.
At that moment it dons on me: That extra 50 bill I so “luckily” found in my fanny-pack to pay the exit-tax out of Syria, was in fact the 50 Jordanian Dinars ($70 US) versus the $1 in Syrian Pounds it should have been. Everything always works out for me. I have to laugh- at least that border guard will be eating well tonight. Maybe he’ll even offer up a toast in honor. Hopefully he doesn’t use a word worse than “moron.”