This summer I floated in the Dead Sea. I listened to (but did not understand) a wonderful Lebanese singer while sitting on the roof of an amphitheater that was built two thousand years ago. I stood in – or, more realistically, near – the spot where Moses was said to have first seen the Promised Land, and I stood on a different spot where you could glimpse parts of Israel, Syria, and Lebanon in the same breathtaking view. I even got to spend the July night that marks the transition from America’s birthday to mine laying on the sand in a Bedouin camp, under the stars of a crisp desert sky. But more than anything else, I got to spend time in Jordanian taxis – a lot of time. And it was through talking with Jordanian taxi drivers, more than the sitting and standing and laying and even the floating, that I learned about Jordan and Jordanians.
I’m a New Yorker. And as a New Yorker I’ve learned that you experience a city by walking through it, wandering through its parks, getting lost in a maze of side streets and eventually stumbling into a dingy café that has a surprisingly great cappuccino. And in the past, when I’ve visited European cities, the walk-and-get-lost model has worked pretty well. But not so with Amman: when I ventured out on my first afternoon there to walk and find my cappuccino (or Turkish coffee – I’m flexible), I discovered a few things. First, that Amman only has one park, and I wasn’t near it. Second, that its streets rarely intersect and there is nothing that even resembles a grid. Third, the expansive Arabic vocabulary I was so proud of didn’t include esoteric words like “right,” “left,” “exploring,” or, you know, “lost.” But really what I was starting to understand was that Amman is an emphatically unplanned city whose thousands of years of haphazard expansion and successive waves of inflowing refugees have conspired to create a thoroughly un-walkable city, and that I’d just have to deal with that. So, I took a taxi what ended up being two blocks back to my host-family’s apartment. It was the first of many.
I was in Jordan for five weeks, or 35 days. On average, I would say I took about four cab rides in the course of a day. Don’t worry, they were pretty cheap. But still, that makes for upwards of 140 unique rides, and, more importantly, 140 unique interactions with the wonderfully undefinable character that is the Jordanian taxi-driver. The disposition of the men whisking me about the city ranged from the effusively hospitable to the brusque and laconic. Plenty tried to rip off the American tourist, and some succeeded (quick note: before you go to Amman, learn how to say “turn on the meter”). A few asked me to arrange a visa, while some merely wanted to be introduced to American women so they could acquire a different type of citizenship. One even refused payment because my fellow student and I were such a cute couple (we weren’t). Many gave sightseeing advice, talked about the ongoing wars and even delved into Jordanian identity politics. As in many non-US cities, driving was crazy and traffic laws a joke, but almost all of my drivers managed to not hit pedestrians (he was okay).
During my last week in Jordan, I had an experience with a cab driver that in its own way has come to emblematize my interaction with Jordanian culture. I had finished my language program and was traveling alone in the north of the country, staying in a city called Irbid. I had also just been diagnosed with tonsillitis and so I was really considering spending the whole week in my hotel room, eating pita with Nutella and watching How I Met Your Mother on my laptop. It actually sounded pretty good. But on my ride from bus to hotel, I happened to have an uncharacteristically friendly cab driver, even by the characteristically friendly Jordanian standard to which I had become accustomed. I shared with him some of the places I was thinking of visiting, and he insisted that I call him should I want transportation, making sure I entered his number into my prepaid phone. The next day, feeling better, if somewhat guilty about how much Nutella I had eaten, I gave him a call. Ten minutes later he was outside my hotel and we were on our way to Um Qais, an ancient Roman town on the northern border.
At the beginning of the car ride I listened to him make a phone call to his wife, anxiously justifying the price we had negotiated for the afternoon trip. But after that, it was smooth sailing. We had two half-hour long rides to kill, and so exhausted the range of my shiny new Arabic skills talking about history, family, culture, and, of course, what parties were like at Princeton. When we got to Um Qais, having nowhere else to go, he accompanied me on the tour. It was the middle of Ramadan, so we were in fact the only ones there. After learning all about the only black-marble columns in the Roman Empire, we headed back. But rather than going straight to the hotel, he took me to his house. I met his wife, apologized for stealing her husband, and then got to fawn over his newborn baby girl as we drank tea and talked about the day. It was an unexpected, completely wonderful experience. But I’m still not taking a cab in Manhattan anytime soon.
~ Daniel Teehan '17
© 2014 Princeton Traveler