As most people who read my blog regularly know, I’m having a year of surrender. Surrendering to doing what feels right, not to what someone or something says I ‘should’ do. Surrendering to my intuition. Surrendering to the Universe.
Less than two months ago I was shown a number of signs that have led me to Jordan. Yes, in the Middle East. I’ve never been to any country in the Middle East and whenever I had thought in the past about going to Jordan, I never thought I would visit the country alone.
But that’s exactly what I’m doing. And I’ve been here for six full days now. Six days that have taken me out of my comfort zone in ways I couldn’t imagine. Six days of confrontation: physically, mentally and emotionally.
I’m not sure what I expected but I guess it wasn’t this. Somehow I thought it would be greener. And a bit cleaner. And although I expected to be hassled somewhat as a single woman traveller, I didn’t expect the level of interest I seem to get. I am stared at everywhere I go. I guess they don’t get too many 6ft tall, red heads walking around. So despite dressing extremely conservatively (I don’t know how I could possible look less attractive) I get stares and comments everywhere I go. Everyone wants to know where my husband is and when they find out I have children, they want to know where my children are. I can’t bear to tell most of them I’m divorced and skip over that fact.
I often feel like I’m in a play where everyone else knows the words, but I don’t. I am constantly trying to learn and catch up. Even basic things like going to the toilet are different. Toilet systems in Jordan can’t tolerate toilet paper so only body waste goes into the toilet and a hose is provided for ablutions. Toilet paper can be used to dry oneself but then is disposed of in a bin.
Shoes are not worn inside, I’ve learned to only shake hands with another woman if a hand is proffered, and no matter how full you are, Jordanians will want you to eat more. It’s best to stop eating before you are full (kind of a fake stop) because you will then be given more food.
Between the staring, the crazy driving and everything being so different, traveling on my own can lead to loneliness, I have felt very confronted. But every day, someone new has come into my life that is the perfect person at that moment. Are these people guardian angels that have shown up when I’ve needed? Or is it that most people are inherently helpful and kind and I attract those kind of people? I’m not sure, but the more I surrender to it happening, the more the right people show up.
When I touched down in Amman six days ago I arrived nervous but excited. All the best adventures in my life have a mix of excitement and nervousness, so I figured it was all par for the course. I was met at the airport by a representative from the rental car company who drove me to the office to finalise the paperwork. It turned out that although he is Jordanian, he had spent the first half of his life in Chicago. So we had basically grown up a stone’s throw from each other in relative terms of the entire globe. I took this as a good sign. He seemed surprised that I would be here on my own, renting a car for 15 days. He cautioned me about traffic and was pleased to hear I was heading away from Amman, towards Madaba for my first night.
That was all great. Except that as I drove out of the car park, I realised that all the road signs were just in Arabic, I had 1/8 tank of petrol and no idea where I was going. Without a Jordanian SIM card, my phone didn’t work which meant I couldn’t ask the Google Maps lady for help. So I did what I usually do in these situations and called in for reinforcements. I figured if the Universe wants me here, then it would help me every step of the way.
And that’s exactly what has happened. At least one ‘guardian angel’ has shown up each day. The first day I found my way to Madaba. Not the most direct way as I later learned there was a highway that would have taken me right there in about 20 minutes, but cross country, through fields and small towns. I even found three camels in a field which somehow (and I know this sounds crazy) made me feel better.
I found my hotel which was the only night’s accommodation I had booked ahead. It was comfortable and clean. Not flashy, but serviceable. I headed into the city centre on foot and found an ancient city, full of small windy lanes, old churches and ancient ruins. I also found helpful people. There was the guy who sold me a Jordanian SIM card for 20JD (about $30) and then proceeded to set up my account for me in my phone faster than anyone I’ve ever see do it. Luckily he did, since he was setting it all up in Arabic. He spoke enough English to get by and to ask for a selfie with me once he was done.
Then I was on the hunt for either a belt or a safety pin as my pants were falling down. I came across an area of the souk where there were ‘women’s shops’ selling everything from sexy lingerie to gorgeous high heeled shoes to any kind of beauty product you could want. The stores were no bigger than kiosks in a mall at home but they were packed to the gills with products. I ducked into one and found the shopkeeper, a young beautiful woman dressed in her abaya and hijab. Through limited English and a lot of miming on my part, she offered belts for me to try (all too small for my sized tummy) and then finally she figured out I wanted a pin. She took one out of the cash register, came over and pinned the waist of my pants. The pin was big and white and has diamanté on it, but it holds my favourite hiking pants up! She was so happy to help me, she wouldn’t take any money but shook my hand profusely. (And now every day I look at that pin and am reminded of her.)
And so it has gone… In Jerash I found a couple who owned and ran a huge hotel. They had lived for years in the US and had originally designed the hotel to be built in Florida. In the end, they returned home to Jordan and built their hotel high on a hill overlooking the city of Jerash. Their daughter lives in Perth, Australia and their son lives in Seattle, Washington. They gave me one of their best rooms despite me paying for their cheapest room. They only had 8 guests staying that night in a huge hotel with 100 rooms. I was blown away by their generosity and kindness as I slept in my king sized bed, in a room with a balcony overlooking countryside and their beautiful gardens.
I drove north and west to Umm Qais. It was a harrowing journey on small roads and in some ways, Umm Qais felt like the end of the earth. It’s where you can stand at the castle ruins and look to your left to see Israel and the Sea of Galilee. In front of you are the Golan Heights and when you look to the right you see Syria. I had two amazing experiences in Umm Qais. One was a home cooked dinner with the women from a local family. (Women and men eat separately.) Na’ela prepared the meal and she ate with me and her two nieces, Ghofran and Oribe. Ghofran reminded me so much of my eldest daughter, where Oribe was similar to my youngest. As we ate dinner Ghofran talked in English some of the time to me but most of the conversation took place in Arabic. It was fun for me to watch the interaction between the various family members and as an observer I could see so many similarities to dinner back home with my girls. It made me a bit homesick, but grateful for both of my daughters and for this experience.
The other experience was the next morning, walking around Umm Qais with my guide Ahmed. Not only incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about preserving the area’s heritage, Ahmed has traveled quite a bit and speaks English well. We hit it off right away and we found not only did we have similar philosophies on life, but on politics as well. The day was hazy due to dust blowing in from the Sinai and he decided I needed a better view of the Sea of Galilee so after touring the site and finishing for the day, he drove me a few kilometres down the road to a better spot. In order to get there we had to go through a military checkpoint which we did easily. I knew I was going to have to go through some of these on my own and was feeling slightly nervous about doing so. By doing this first one with him, it set my mind at ease for later in the day when I came to different checkpoints. In fact, the military checkpoints ended up just being a formality and in more than one I had soldiers carrying machine guns wishing me a good trip and calling out ‘Welcome to Jordan.’ Not the scary experience I had expected in my mind at all.
Ahmed also gave me directions on how to drive along the border and through the Jordan Valley to get to the Dead Sea. By following his directions, I saw the most beautiful corner of the country, one not seen by many tourists, and I was grateful for his tips.
When I arrived at the Dead Sea, I had booked an apartment through a company called Salt Sea Apartments. All of the booking and confirmations had occurred through texts on WhatsApp and I hadn’t given a credit card or any kind of guarantee. The whole experience seemed to be run on trust. And my intuition told me it would all be ok. One text told me the apartment was in the Samarah Resort complex and gave me instructions on accessing the apartment. I had to go through a security gate and I was assured my name would be at the gate. It wasn’t. They had no record that I was staying there. After reading all of the texts on my phone, disappearing with my passport and making a few phone calls, the guard finally let me through the gate. I pulled into the car park. It was empty. I found my allocated car park spot, found my apartment, found the key in the lock box just as the texts said I would. But the whole complex, a couple of hundred apartments appeared empty. It was strange. Like a ghost town. I decided to check out the swimming pools and see if I could find anyone. As soon as I stepped into the common area, I was spotted by a woman sitting on her deck nearby. She called out to me and we started to chat. She was Etisam, half Jordanian/half-Turkish. She lives in Amman half time and here in this apartment at the Dead Sea half time. She explained that all of the apartments in the complex are privately owned and that their owners come down for weekends and school holidays from Amman. She was surprised that I could rent one. She asked how I had found it and I couldn’t really tell her. I just did. I can’t remember how. We ended up having a half an hour chat about a little bit of everything in life. She is 80 years old, looks 60 and acts 35. She’s a hoot. When she found out I was going to be around for a few days she invited me to a lunch party on Saturday with a bunch of her friends from Amman who were coming down. She assured me that they were all closer to my age or younger, than her age. She said she doesn’t like hanging out with old people as they depress her.
Etisam and I have spent the last couple of days hanging out, drinking tea, chatting about life and again we have a similar outlook on life. On Friday night she took me out to see a belly dancing show at the resort at the bar. In a country where alcohol is banned for most people, we had a glass of wine together and enjoyed the show. She’s a force to be reckoned with. In fact, I hope I’m sort of like her when I’m 80.
Saturday was her lunch party. I attended with 9 other women who had all driven up for the day from Amman. It’s obvious they all have great affection for her. They also all have some connection to Turkey but are living here in Jordan. As I sat listening to all of them talk I was reminded of my own tribe back in Australia. Change the people around the table, change the language, but we would have had similar, if not the very same conversations. Again, I had a feeling like there are good people everywhere and most of us are more alike than we want to admit. I had a great afternoon with all of them. One in particular, Aynur, hit it off with me and we spent most of the afternoon chatting. Aynur (also divorced) has been living in Doha for the past couple of years and only moved to Jordan three weeks ago. We are similar ages and have had similar but different experiences. I felt like given half a chance to see each other again, we could become firm friends. She left in the evening after exchanging phone numbers with me and inviting me to stay in her flat in Istanbul anytime I want to visit Turkey.
So overall my first week in Jordan has been about the people I’ve met. I’ve had some amazing experiences as well: seeing 1st century AD mosaics in Madaba, seeing Roman ruins in Jerash that are as good if not better than what I’ve seen in Rome, my whole experience of being in Umm Qais and seeing what the closure of the border with Syria has done to these people who live right next door, floating in the Dead Sea, tracing Biblical footsteps by going to Mount Nebo where Moses saw the Promised Land and to Bethany where Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist. But as amazing as the sightseeing experiences have been, it’s been at least one special person showing up in my life that has made each day special.
Which has lead me to think about how I can be that person for others? What can I do that would make someone else’s life easier or more enjoyable when I see them? It doesn’t have to be huge — it could just be offering a stranger a big diamanté safety pin for their pants. In fact, its the small kindnesses in this world that can make the biggest difference.
I’m looking forward to the rest of my trip and seeing who I’m destined to meet this week.