Seeing Jordan wrecked me forever. I ate savory shwarma and crispy falafel and met the nicest people. My beliefs fell out from under me. Namely, the one that says travel is difficult. It’s not. Not in the twenty-first century. The biggest two things it takes is the willingness to go and, unfortunately, money. Many people say they want to travel, but they really don’t. Because there are a million things that get in the way: family, friends, jobs, grown-up things…responsibilities. I only spent two very short weeks in Jordan, but those weeks changed me forever.
As the plane touched down in Jordan, my eyes had to re-adjust to the color—brown, everywhere, to the horizon. As we drove from the airport into the city of Amman, I saw camels—two, just lazily munching the ground on the side of the road—and herds of sheep. I saw Bedouins, nomadic people who live in tents, tending their flocks. But the scene changed the closer we got to the city. There, I saw sights strangely familiar to home: McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and other fast-food restaurants. The driving I never adjusted to. Stop lights are taken as suggestions, and the roads resemble one huge river, all flowing together, sometimes cars colliding. Horns honk continuously. Men idle on the side of the road, smoking cigarettes. We almost got involved in an accident before we even left the airport parking lot. One strange sight, so foreign to me, was the armed guards carrying very large guns stationed on every street corner. Although we were assured they’re there to protect people, it still felt threatening.
One of my big concerns was how to act as a woman with men. Gender relations are so different there. I wore long-sleeved shirts and pants, to accommodate the culture. Yet I still seemed to attract unwanted attention. The customs official stamping my Passport on the way made a “kissy face” at me, while the rest of the officials laughed along with him. After visiting Roman ruins in Jerash, our tour guide’s cousin — who was tagging along, and looked about 18 — asked me what my name was and how many sheep it would take to marry me. At our English language center, where I taught a class of mostly young people, an elderly man tried to arrange my marriage, first to his own English teach and then, after I expressed disinterest, to his own son, “an engineer who has no wife.” He called me, “The beautiful one.” I feel confident that should I still be single upon turning 30, I could easily find someone willing to marry me in Jordan.
Many things surprised me in Jordan, but the biggest was the overwhelming niceness of the people. As an America, I half-expected to be hated. But I wasn’t. Although most people there do hate America, they seem to easily separate people from politics. Most people I met identified themselves as “Palestinians,” people displaced from their homeland in neighboring Israel—a country whose existence they don’t generally acknowledge. This surprised me. One time we got lost on our way to a coffee shop. An employee of another coffee shop not only told us directions but personally guided us to our destination, which was easily a mile away, across several busy thoroughfares. What makes this so surprising is that it’s not unusual at all for Jordanians. Rather, it’s typical. The concern there is always for other people, the group, above self. It’s cultural and starkly different from the self-centeredness found in America.
So many people I got to know in those two short weeks asked me these two questions: “Do you like Jordan?” and “When are you coming back?” They seemed very aware of the negative perceptions the west has toward them, particularly America, and I saw—because they would never say it—that it pains them. The people there suffer from stereotyping. Just as all Americans are not fabulously rich Hollywood movie stars who have no morals—something many people there think—the average Middle-Eastern person is not an extreme, bomb-throwing terrorist. Fear leads us to clumping people all together, but when you get to know the faces, they separate out from each other beautifully. One girl in my class aspired to law school and another to start her own business. One older man, the one who tried to set me up with his son, came to every class with a bouquet of freshly picked jasmine flowers for me. The last evening of class, graduation night, we went to the apartment of a family who invited our whole group to dinner. The food, attention and care they lavished upon us—people they hardly knew—is something I’ll never forget. The question, “When are you coming back?” haunts me still. I was asked it so many times. I gave them hope, that maybe I’d be back someday, but I couldn’t say when. I thought of so many things, my full time jobs, my student loans, my this, my that…
But one of the strange and wonderful thing about traveling is that you realize how easy it is. In our minds we build it up. Yet I saw that I really could get an a few planes, spend a few days shuttling through airports and arrive somewhere halfway across the globe. A couple thousands of dollars poorer but somewhere exotic and completely opposite from anything and anywhere I’d ever before experienced. You realize not just the possibility of it but how easy it is to get anywhere, even to Jordan, even to the Middle East.
I tasted some of the best food there: hot pita, fresh from the oven, garlicky humus, heavily seasoned chicken, shwarma freshly shaved and heaped into a wrap. I sometimes still crave it, but replications here in Buffalo don’t taste nearly the same. I saw things in Jordan that went straight from my eyes into my heart. Like Petra. It’s like seeing another world, like slipping back into the past and getting to meander through it. I bobbed in the Dead Sea, feeling the salt prickle my skin while gazing across the water to Israel. I saw things that disturbed me, too, like all the young boys—7, 8, 9-years-old—working from morning to night in the hot, unrelenting sun, selling water bottles, gum and candy to tourists. In Jerash, one boy wandered around all day, trailing after tourists. He looked like a ghost, with crusted-over eyes, protruding bones and dirty rags for clothing.
One dominating feature there is the moon. One night, I slipped outside our apartment, feeling the cold, smooth tile beneath my feet and just looked straight up at it, hanging suspending in the sky. It cast a glow upon the whole city, including me. I felt mesmerized by its size and by the illusion of its closeness, as if I could just reach up and feel its surface. At home the moon is much smaller, the people familiar and food not half so good. Sometimes Jordan feels like something I dreamed. At the grocery store now, I look at the wall of newspapers, many with photographs showing strife in the Middle East. I used to feel fear looking at the weapons, or seeing the blood. But now all I see are the faces.
I feel like I have this little inner twinge now anytime anyone says the word “travel.” I sort of sit up straighter and get this funny achy feeling like I’m missing out, like a little kid standing in the doorway saying, “Take me too, take me!” I get wrapped up now in the possibilities. I can get on a plane — and go, anywhere. Although seeing such different sights in some ways disturbed me, it left me feeling shaken up inside in a good way. Maybe what’s so addictive about travel is that it causes the traveler to think differently about nearly everything: culture, assumptions, ourselves. Suddenly we’re positioned in a new way in the world, and so we see the same things we’ve always seen in a fresh way, sometimes a better way, many times a healthier and truer way. Oftentimes it carves compassion into us, simply because we feel better connected to our common humanity, to each other, to the world.