Thursday, June 08, 2006

May 22, 2006: Stranded on the moon

It was a peaceful day in the desert, but hazier than I had ever seen it. The wind had stirred up the sand, giving the landscape of Wadi Rum and even more moonlike appearance. We traveled south on the Desert Highway passing the backside of the mountains that hide Petra with my friend, Naiym, who had lived in the area all of his life and seemed to know every nook and cranny.

After about 45 minutes of driving we took a sharp left and left the paved road and the modern world behind. The road was bumpy and after a few minutes Naiym stopped to take some of the air out of the tires, apparently this is a trick for being able to drive on sand. It works so well, in fact, that we were cruising smoothly without even using four wheel drive. We stopped here and there taking photos of land formations, climbing over rocks, and enjoying the scenery.

We stopped to have tea under a pomegranate tree and there it became apparent that we were not the first ones to come to this place.

Man, I just hate it when people don’t put away their goat carcasses.

The desert is amazing, the sand changes from yellow to deep red and the rocks tower hundreds of feet above us.

We reach an area in the desert that looks like a silver lake. It shimmers and now I understand why mirages in the desert were commonThe “lake,” which is actually an open area of desert that spans for miles, is comprised of sand so compacted and dry that it’s essentially cement. After bumping around in the dirt and slogging through sand dunes, Naiym takes the opportunity to race through this natural highway as we head back towards civilization.

We’re cruising at over 100kph/60mph over the hard pan when both Joe and I see a dark line on the horizon up ahead. Neither of us say anything. It’s approaching rapidly. By the time we all realize what it is we’re only a few feet away. To our horror we see that it’s a fissure in the desert floor and there’s no way we’re going to stop in time. Naiym futilely tries to break, dropping our speed only slightly. We hit the crack going about 50mph and I see the desert floor and hear glass shattering around me. I must have closed my eyes because when I open them the windshield of the truck is completely gone and the truck has flipped onto its side. I’m completely stunned. I look to my left and Naiym is right beside me trying not to fall on me. “Jump,” he says. When I don’t move, he says it more urgently, “JUMP!” Suddenly images of the truck exploding enter my head and I crawl out the windshield in a matter of seconds, spitting a chunk of glass out of my mouth on my way. I get out, still in a daze, and then remember that Joe is still in the back seat. Joe! Joe! I randomly think about the miscellaneous camping gear that was in the back of the truck, any number of things that could have injured him.

Joe emerges from the windshield in just about the same state of shock. We all ask each other if we’re okay. I seem to be the only one bleeding and Joe quickly slides back into the truck to get water to wash out my cuts, which I guess came from the dashboard and windshield. I’m more concerned with my camera gear at this point and start taking photos. Joe and I are both a little delirious from the accident and it takes us a few minutes to realize that we’re stuck in the desert, many miles from help.

Fortunately, Naiym is still getting cell service and going through his phonebook to see who is available to help. After a few tries he gets a hold of a friend who can come out with a vehicle that can get the truck back on four wheels. After several tries, the truck is freed from the desert, the steering wheel turned completely around so the writing on the wheel is now upside down. We drive back an hour and a half to Petra, mostly in silence, all the while Joe and I having the same visions of him being stabbed in the throat by the stray piece of windshield glass that’s still holding on or having a piece of rock kicked up by one of the semi-trucks on the highway embed itself into his forehead. We vow to each other that we will have many cocktails to celebrate our safety.

Me, after the accident: exhausted, bruised, scraped-up, and incredibly dusty. Joe’s at the pool. I take an hour long shower.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

May 18, 2006: Jordanian hospitality

I’m horribly behind on my postings, but have been happily distracted for the last week by my friend Joe, who has been visiting me from London. I can’t begin to express how wonderful it was to have a friend to travel with, someone who you can let your guard down with, who you don’t have to be formal with, who gets your sense of humor, and has the same travel-tolerance and attention span as you.

Joe’s always been such an awesome host when I’ve visited in London. Always gracious and generous—making sure I was well taken care of. So, naturally, I wanted to do the same for him.

I was expecting him at around 1:30am and had sent a driver to meet him at the airport under the name “Joe Fassio” – in order for him to stay with me at the apartment I was sharing with Victoria, he had to pose as my husband. I made him take my name. Earlier that evening, Victoria decided to have an impromptu house party as one of her good friends had just moved back to Jordan. It was a small group, just five of us. Two girls and three guys: Meesh, Salem, and Mahmoud.

Sitting around the table, we collectively drank whisky, rum, beer, and some really bad Jordanian wine. It soon became apparent that Meesh is one of Jordan’s resident party boys. His eyes lit up when he found out my friend was soon to arrive. “We have to play a joke on him,” he says. The mischievous look in his eyes scared me. “What kind of joke?” I say cautiously, not sure if I wanted to throw my friend to the wolves and also a little scared of what a Jordanian prank would be.

He thinks for a few seconds. “What we should do is pretend he is at the wrong apartment,” he says, “and pretend it’s a brothel.”

I start laughing. Oh my…should I tell him he’s gay now or wait and see?
“We can put the TV on one of those soft-porn stations!” Victoria enthusiastically chimes in.

Meesh starts planning it out. He’ll be the one to answer the door. He begins to practice his lines in a slimy heavily accented voice, saying, “you like girl or you prefer boy?”

We’re out on the balcony and see the taxi arrive. We call down to him and tell him to come up to number 8. Meanwhile, Meesh is preparing. When I walk into the living room all the lights are off, candles are burning and Meesh has stripped off his shirt and is wearing Victoria’s pink bathrobe. It’s a hilarious sight. Meesh is 6’3” or 6’4” built like a brick-shit house, and his Greek-Lebanese-Palestinian background gives him exotic good looks. Joe is going to kill me.

The apartment stairwell is pitch black and Joe can’t find the light switch to turn the hallway lights on. I wince out of guilt imagining him trying to find his way, but also know that turning on the lights will ruin the joke. It takes him what seems like an eternity to get to our floor. When he does, Meesh is waiting. Victoria and I hide in the dining room by the front door and watch Meesh get into character. He throws open the door, and mumbles a greeting to Joe.

“Hi, uh….,” Joe stammers politely when he encounters Meesh, “Um..I’m looking for Heather. Uh, do you know Heather?”

Meesh murmurs something and beckons him in asking if he would like a girl or boy. Joe is speechless and Victoria and I can no longer hold back our laughter. We jump out from the darkness and see a mixture of relief and disappointment on Joe’s face. Thank god he’s a good sport, he’s not going to kill me after all. In fact, he might have been slightly disappointed to see us. We all head back into the kitchen for more drinks, which last until 6am and include a 4am run for cigarettes. On our way back from cigarettes we get stopped by the Jordanian police, fortunately Victoria is driving Meesh’s car and as soon as they find out she’s American they stop all inquiries, welcome us and send us on our way. We ask Meesh what would have happened if he was driving. He says that the car would have been thoroughly searched. The sun had risen by the time we went to bed and I realize that this is my first sunrise to see. It was beautiful and the quietest I had ever heard the city.

May 15, 2006: Around Amman

Today was a pretty ho-hum day. We did a little tour around Amman, going to the citadel, once an Ummayed Palace, and saw two of the ten Roman theatres in Jordan.

We spent quite a bit of time at the train station and all I could think of while I was there was doing band photos in the old trains. I was pretty disappointed that I didn’t get to take more shots in the downtown area and in what I believe was one of the major bus transfer stations, which was basically just a big parking lot.

People had set up all manner of stands: clothing, shoes, CDs, DVDs, toys, something that looked like a churro stand, fruit, vegetables, nuts, old shoes, old clothes, you name it. I don’t think this was the flea market, since that apparently happens on Fridays, but it was similar. Part of the reason I didn’t get to take many photos was because Yousef couldn’t find a parking space and didn’t want me to go very far out of his sight while he watched the car. At least, I think that’s what he was saying. “Don’t go,” he said in broken English and waived his hand toward one of the side streets downtown. It’s pretty frustrating and very annoying. I spent an hour or more taking useless photos of trains because we got roped into a tour by someone who didn’t speak English and then when we get to an area like the bus station or downtown souk, I’m given 5 minutes and told I can barely cross the street. To top it off, my editor wants detailed information about every photo I take. Ha! Maybe she can extract the info from Yousef, he’s probably an expert on Jordan train history after this morning.

Our last stop of the day was an exhibition hosted by the Japanese embassy featuring kites and tops. All of us at the paper had a slight misconception as to what exactly this meant, as we thought we would see colorful kites flying through the air. No such luck. These kites were affixed firmly to the wall, although they were colorful. There were about 4 other photographers present, who I’m guessing were hoping for flying kites as well. It was interesting to watch how they worked and see the gear they were using and carried with them. They were all men and all knew each other. One of them came up to me after getting in the frame of my shot to apologize. “Ah...I’ve heard of you,” he says after introductions. “Heard that you were coming… I’m friends with all those guys, Samir, Ranjina, Jenny... Why haven’t I seen you until now?” he asks. I told him I had been traveling around the country building up the paper’s stock archive. “Oh, I would love to have that assignment,” he says. Ha, ha…and I would love to have YOUR job, I thought to myself, shooting for AP and Reuters.

May 14, 2006: Dana…

What a surprise Dana was… It’s amazing to me how Jordan can have yet another breathtaking national park in such a small country. Dana is 300km of virtually undisturbed wilderness and when you stand on the threshold looking out at it there’s a certain overwhelming aspect to it that makes you want to look at it, but not disturb. At least, that’s how I felt. I guess because it also demanded more of my attention than I could give. I was allotted a couple hours at Dana, at the most, and looking out across the landscape I knew that this was the kind of place where one needed to linger and would be best experienced in the evening. One of the rangers at the outpost gave me some literature, from that I read about a small hotel in the southern part of the park that you could stay at that is completely candle-lit or the Rumana village that consists of tents and makeshift kitchens for overnight stays. I try to imagine Yousef and I hanging out at the Rumana village silently staring off at the rocks, neither of us being able to say more to each other than identifying fruit and animals…no, Dana is a place that I could see coming back to with friends. A place to recount past experiences, laugh at our escapades, and enjoy one of the few places on earth where the land exudes solitude.

May 13, 2006: The daily grind

Today is Saturday, but it’s my Monday. I was half-expecting a call at 9:30am from Yousef for our next adventure, but it never came. Looks like today I’m on my own. According to the schedule I’m supposed to photograph the National Gallery, Darat al-Funun, the Roman Theatre, and the Luwaibdeh neighborhood, all located in Amman. I’ve been slowly getting ready. I thought two-day weekends were short...this one-day weekend routine bites.

I made it Darat al-Funun—barely—my taxi driver had no idea where it was so we circled the area several times before finally getting to the right place. I’m not sure how much I’ll be doing on my own if finding locations is this much of a problem.

They wouldn’t let me photograph inside the gallery until I identified myself as a member of the press. The exhibit on display was of findings in a town about 10km from Petra called Beidha. One of the most impressive findings in Beidha were the carved heads of various gods that were affixed to the capitals of columns located in one of the excavated residences. The residence is that of a wealthy family and the heads are in phenomenal condition. The presentation of the artifacts is also impressive. They are housed in a rectangular room, with a smaller rectangular structure built inside the room so one can walk around the entire display and view the heads from various angles. The interior of the smaller room is painted in blood red, but the outside is painted black with slats for viewing.

Another room, which showcases rock carvings found in the region, allows you to step up and walk—catwalk-style—with artifacts on either side. Nicely done. This installation was a refreshing surprise to what, so far, had seemed to be the lack of art in Jordan.

May 14, 2006: Arab Karaoke

After many quiet evenings in Amman, I decided it was time for me to venture out and see more of the nightlife. Aside from the first day I arrived, I’ve been somewhat of a homebody. I met up with Lena and some of her friends at a karaoke bar in the Kepinski hotel and convinced Victoria to come out and play as well. But what we stumbled upon was not just regular karaoke, it was World Championship Jordan 2006 Karaoke. Apparently, Jordan is participating in the world-version of American Idol and the contest will be going on for a few weeks. Being the seasoned and discriminating karaoke enthusiast as I am, I regret to say: I was not impressed. My prediction is that Jordan will not win the World Championship, but it’s nice to see that some things are universal.