What a difference a day makes. Where do I begin? I suppose, I’ll start with some very broad and probably profoundly inaccurate stereotypes about Jordanians I’ve gathered in the few hours I’ve been here.
Jordanians are very kind. Jordanians have a great sense of humor. Jordanians cuss like sailors.
Let me share what the last 24 hours have brought about. First, I phoned Citibank to notify them I’d be going on a sort of adventure whose exact destinations were disturbingly uncertain at a juncture where you’d hope they would be. As far as I know, this is the first time I’ve ever gone somewhere without booking a return ticket. When I mentioned to the Citibank receptionist that I’d be travelling to Jordan, I could feel her perk up on the other end.
“Oh! I’m from Jordan,” she beamed. This led to a light-hearted ten-minute conversation on what I should do and consider eating along the way.
I must say, this event would have hands down won the “Coincidence of the Day Award,” (admittedly, a competition in my life where the bar isn’t set terribly high) if only I hadn’t met Antonio – a Peruvian Jew, getting his PHD in physics from Columbia University, a few hours earlier. Apparently he’d too had just been to Jordan. Aside from not making me feel too inferior intellectually, he also had some helpful insights into a country he clearly had a great affinity for.
Fast forward to my cab ride to JFK, with Cheikh, a native of Senegal who’d recently purchased the cab he was driving me in - a 2009 Toyota Corolla. We stood at roughly the same height, but he must have outweighed me by a 100 pounds or so. I listened as he spoke nonstop, which I didn't mind for some reason. It also didn’t hurt that he was quite the raconteur.
In our brief time together I learned that Cheikh had two wives, one of which needed a lung transplant, that a man once paid him $350 to drive him to Philadelphia, and that his father is a famous general back in his native Senegal. He seemed equally proud if not distressed about each truth. “My country is very beautiful,” he said which sounded familiar. It was the same pronouncement everyone seemed to make when describing a country they left in the rear view for America. Invariably the discussion branches off into the beauty of its women and the food, perhaps a high five or two in between. But I liked Cheikh and tried to prove as much with the generous tip I offered in front of the hectic departure kiosk.
My journey from New York to Amman was like a sitcom. The plane felt like a day care. Two of its liveliest students sat behind me kicking the back of my seat for the entirety of the 10-hour flight. That commitment will take them far in life, I later thought.
I bonded with my seatmate, Abe, a 30-year old Jordanian, born in Dubai, living in Charlotte who was on vacation visiting his wife. He offered to give me a ride to my hotel and said that if my stay in Amman were longer he’d have invited me over to play XBOX, which he later revealed in a black carry-on. His consul was adorned with a few wires and some duty free cigarettes. For a moment I was envious of the image of him smoking cigarettes playing violent video games all day before realizing I had absolutely no interest in either.
Now, here I am wandering the streets of Amman at 7:30 pm in the middle of Ramadan just an hour after being dropped off by a cab driver that looked as though he was in junior high. He occasionally drove in harmony with that perception. Along the way I saw a sign for the Iraqi border and 80 feet later one for Ikea. Where am I? I thought.
But all is well that begins well. I can hear beautiful Arabic chants echoing throughout the city from colorfully lit minarets that draw me in like the sirens of the Odyssey. I walk the streets like a native without the slightest trace of fear or concern. Part hubris, part travel veteran, or maybe New York has beaten that mindset into me. Whatever the case my curiosity and gratitude don’t leave enough room for me to feel much else.
Cheikh, the 60-year old Senegalese cab driver said his father once told him, "You must go to one of two places in life - the army or jail. Otherwise you’re not a man. So I went to the army.”