Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Petra, Part I

We rented a car in Amman mostly to go to Petra.

I was pretty much the only one brave enough to drive it.

Traffic in Amman is similar to, oh, say, Rome perhaps. Or Demolition Derby. It's nonstop, it's a free-for-all, it's every person for him/herself. And I loved it.

Aggressive driving is a trait that comes in handy if you live in Baltimore City, and it was a survival technique in Amman. There are very few stop lights and intersections through downtown Amman; it's all circles. Circles, circles, circles. Don't like circles? Don't drive in Amman. Or anywhere else in the world, really. Americans seem to be the only ones with such harsh aversions to circles. Having grown up in Annapolis, circles are simply part of the landscape. And, now that I'm back in Baltimore, I find myself with undue amounts of rage at the traffic light situation in this country. No wonder we have such horrible chockablock traffic - it's the damn lights! All that stop and go. Let us evolve to circles, dammit!

I digress.

Ah yes, Petra. 

So, we rented a car from the hotel. This was another exercise in understanding Middle Eastern business. 

US: We'd like to rent a car, please.


US: Well, today is Friday, so probably until Sunday.

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: Yes, that is fine.

US: What time would we need to return the car on Sunday?

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: Anytime is fine.

US: I mean, does it need to be back by a certain time? Or, what's the latest it can be dropped off? Because we might go down to the Dead Sea that day, and we're not sure when we'll be back.

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: You can bring the car back any time.

US: Oh, ok. And if we decide to keep the car for another day?


US: Do we just call you, or tell someone or....what?

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: No, you do not need to call. You can keep the car for as long as you need it.

US: just return the keys to the desk when we're done?

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: Yes, you can do that if you wish.

US: (confused chatter among ourselves)

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: While you are discussing, let me just make sure that we have a car available for you.

US: (stop talking, watch HELPFUL EMPLOYEE.)

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: (smiles at us)

US: (watching)


US: Um, do you need to call and confirm?

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: Oh yes, I will do that.

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: (still smiling, still not calling)

US: Should we...wait? While you call?

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: No, no, you do not need to wait. Everything is taken care of.

US: So, do we have the car for tomorrow?

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: I am sure there will be one available, I just need to call and confirm.

US: So...are you going


US: OK, so should we check back in with you later?

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: If you would like to come by and see me, you may if you wish.

US: But don't we need to make sure it's confirmed?

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: Oh no, everything is set, you will have a car, I'm sure.

US: (highly, highly, highly doubtful) Um, ok.

We leave.

The next morning: the front desk at the hotel calls our room at 9am.

"Your car is ready for you, whenever you can come to collect, the keys are at the front desk."

"OK, thank you," we said, and promptly continued the morning ritual of heading down to eat our weight at the breakfast buffet. 

An hour and a half later, after a very long leisurely breakfast, I said that I would go and grab the keys from the front desk while The Gentleman settled the bill. I sauntered out of the restaurant to the front desk, where a very tiny and distraught man in a suit was leaning on the counter and chattering away angrily in Arabic. I politely waited my turn, but the front desk employee waved away the man in the suit and motioned me forward.

"Yes, hi, I need to pick up the keys to our rental car?" (I've become astutely aware that in situations where I am uncertain, I turn declarative statements into questions. I'm irritated even with myself for doing this.)

The Tiny Distraught Man came rushing forward, waving a stack of papers.

TINY DISTRAUGHT MAN: I have been here two hours! I wait for you! They call you, they say the car is ready, but you do not come down!

I was mortified. I had no idea the front desk had meant: "A tiny, distraught man is waiting for you to come and collect the car, please get down here immediately." Such is the way of hospitality and business. "Whenever you can come collect" means "Get here now."

I apologized profusely, which somehow had the effect of making the TINY DISTRAUGHT MAN terribly apologetic in response.

ME: I am so sorry, I had no idea, I misunderstood, I apologize that you had to wait-

TINY DISTRAUGHT MAN: Oh no, of course it is fine, I only need for you to sign the papers and I show you the car, OK? Come, I show you the car, I make sure it is ok, yes?

ME: Um...ok.

The TINY DISTRAUGHT MAN led me outside where he showed me the impressive Chevy POS that we were renting for 35JD a day (approximately $60. You get what you pay for.) and we looked over it to assess existing scrapes and bumper bruises. 

I apologized about six more times while signing the paperwork, and every time he put his hands up and shook his head.

TINY DISTRAUGHT MAN: It is no problem. No problem. 

Finally, I asked him about the mysterious return policy of the automobile.

TINY DISTRAUGHT MAN: You keep for as long as you like. You just tell the front desk, they tell me, when you want to return it. I will come pick it up. You can just leave it out here, I will come collect.

More ambiguity. Ooooookay.

But we finally had the car, we loaded it up with our gear for a night in Petra (The Gentleman's parents generously booked a hotel for us all in Petra as a Christmas treat) and headed out on the road. 

Amman is a sprawling, monochromatic city. But as soon as you leave it, it's nothingness. Absolute nothingness. Miles upon miles of desert sky and sand, punctuated by tiny scraps of "towns" which are primarily a couple of roadside stops and some housing compounds.

Scenic route.
I drove for the first hour and a half, and we listened to Arabic Christmas carols on the tinny car radio (yes, Arabic Christmas carols exist, apparently), and then I got tired and handed the wheel off to The Gentleman's brother. Not five minutes into his leg of the trip, we got pulled over.

And by "pulled over," I mean an officer of the Jordanian law stepped out onto the highway with a hand-held STOP sign and waved us off to the side.

The officer approached the car, windows 

were rolled down, and The Gentleman's brother handed over his American license and passport. 

"You were speeding. 123 kilometers in a 110 zone."

This is the equivalency of going 71 in a 65. AKA - BULLSHIT.

Rest stop.
The officer made a great show of taking the identification back to his car, where he handed it off to what appeared to be two plainclothes officers sitting in the front and back seats. We watched as the officer pulled over a full 1970's VW wagon, and a new, sleek black BMW. The Volkswagen rumbled to a stop, handed over a license, and was on its merry way as the officer waved it on. The BMW started to pull over to the side, then thought better of it and sped away in a cloud of dust. The officer just shrugged. Why hadn't we tried that?

Sun setting over desert, Jordan.
One of the plainclothes officers (aka someone's bored cousin doing someone a favor) came back to the car and demanded a 20JD fine for speeding and offered a painstaking "receipt" in return. The receipt, when The Gentleman's brother translated it for us, informed the recipient that although s/he had been caught breaking the law, this transgression had been turned into a positive moment as the 20JD collected would go towards social services or arts projects as deemed by the king. Well, that's comforting.

We arrived in Petra under the cover of night, which was fortunate because had it been daytime, I would have crashed the Chevy POS off into a wadi (canyon) due to staring too much at the scenery. We checked into our hotel, got a dinner recommendation, and headed into town for an incredible meal of hummus, shawarma, baba ghanoush, roast chicken, and local wine. We visited the fancy schmancy hotel next door and had a drink in the fireplace lounge, and then headed back to our own hotel for a nightcap in the hotel bar. 

Hotel, Petra
The Gentleman's parents smartly retired to bed, but the kids (The Gentleman, his brother, and myself) decided to hang out awhile longer. After a bit, it became evident that we were the only patrons left in the bar, and the bartender politely explained that he needed to close up. We were given one more round and then paid out, and as he thanked us he said, "You all want to go somewhere and get some beers? I only need to finish a few things, then I can take you in my car."

Um, partying with the locals of Petra? Yes, please. 

We'll call him Zai'it, and he drove a sporty little car that he pulled around to the front of the hotel. We piled in, and he took off up and down the near-vertical drops and lifts of the wadi landscape. Driving down into the town, he pointed out various landmarks and asked us about our trip and how we liked Amman, his home town. He was living in Petra temporarily, making bank at the hotel as a bartender, and would eventually return to Amman in his little sports car with a fat savings account. "It is not a bad life!" he championed, and we agreed.

Watching Arabic-captioned "HIMYM" whilst chilling in the hotel bar = awesome.
Eventually, he pulled off down an alley into a clump of houses and told us to wait for a few moments while he "ran an errand." Zai'it disappeared into what appeared to be a garage of some kind, and came out with a tall fellow. They slapped one another on the back happily, and exchanged a black plastic bag. The tall fellow waved at us in the car. Perplexed, we waved back.

Zai'it came back into the car and I wondered what the hell was about to go down when he triumphantly produced tall Amstel cans from the black bag.

"Beer! It's good beer! You like?" We liked. He handed around the Amstels. Were we supposed to...ah yes, there goes Zai'it, motioning for us to open our beers. In the car. Like you do. We opened our Amstels, and Zai'it sped off into the night in his sports car.

Petra beer is for the hotel. Amstel is for the backseat of cars.
We spent the next hour or so whipping around hairpin turns up and down through the roads cut into the hills. Zai'it slowed down through the patches of town we passed through. At one, he stopped while a fat, white donkey ambled across the road. We watched in amazement as a fatter, darker donkey clopped up and nipped the white donkey on the neck. The two began a half-teasing, half-threatening dance in the middle of the road with ears laid back and tails swishing. Up ahead a block or so, another gray donkey had his head thrust into a trash bin and was rooting around for treats. A small herd of scruffy-looking dogs chased one another across driveways and front walkways. Animals were taking over.
Very terrible picture of donkeys fighting.

Vicious wild dog.
Caught dumpster-diving. Have you no class, donkey?
Zai'it kept pushing the car up and up a hill that was beginning to feel like a mountain, and finally pulled off to the side of the road and got out of the car. We looked at one another and followed suit. Zai'it walked to the edge of the blackness, the only sound the wind whining through the wadi below, and the faint ding ding ding of the car alerting us that keys were left in the ignition. Zai'it pointed up and, like some mystical movie moment, the sky revealed itself as a black sea studded with the brightest stars I've ever seen. So far away from any real city lights, these were stars as they're meant to be seen...the kind of sky where you can tell depth and dimension between the layers of stars, where you can see different sizes, shapes, and even colors of stars.  Our feet were on the edge of a crop of rock and below was black nothingness. The next day, I would discover that there was almost certainly a complete drop-off hundreds of feet to a rock bottom, but that night all I saw was darkness and all I felt was a cold wind pushing up from the canyon bottom.

The drive back to the hotel in Zai'it's car was not anticlimactic after that, but only because he cranked up some European house music and took the turns with race car-driver precision. He made another pit-stop, bringing back not beer this time, but bags of chips. 
Donkey in the wild.

"Snacks! You must eat!" he encouraged. We ate what tasted like cheeze puffs out of a bag with inexplicable Arabic on it. 

Zai'it dropped us safely back at the hotel around 1am. He flashed us his brilliant smile, and tore off in his sports car, and the three of us stumbled to the room where we all promptly passed out. The next morning at breakfast, we would explain our tired faces and our midnight adventure, but for the time being it seemed that not one part of that night had been scripted while at the same time playing out like a movie we all discovered we'd very much wanted to see.
This is what we would have seen had we arrived during daylight hours.

to be continued....

No comments: