Sunday, July 8, 2012

Marhaba Jordan!

The fact that the airline would not accept credit card payments for reservations made online should have been my first warning sign. But it was a good price (better by far than other fares), and the arrival time was before dark. So I visited the airline office and bought the ticket with cash. The second warning was that the flight was leaving from Terminal 2. If you’ve ever flown into or out of Abu Dhabi International Airport, the odds are that you probably arrived in the glamorous new terminal 3 if you flew on Etihad Airlines, or to the well-kept Terminal 1 if you flew on another carrier. Terminal 2 is not even located remotely close to the other terminals. It’s almost 1km behind them, past the airport offices, past the cargo departments, and back in the very back. It’s the oldest terminal for all the small obscure airlines, such as Pakistan International Airways, Uzbekistan Airways, Air Turkmenistan, and Royal Falcon (my carrier for this trip). Last summer I got a steal of a deal from Abu Dhabi to Istanbul on Pakistan International Airways, out of Terminal two. The flight out was great. Then the entire route was cancelled mid-summer while I was still somewhere in the Balkans and there was some drama involving whether I would make it back to Abu Dhabi in time for work. That was my last Terminal 2 experience, but I thought perhaps it was an anomaly. I learned this week that it was not.

 I received a call on my mobile phone from the Airline the morning before my flight. The polite man on the other end explained that my flight had been delayed from 6pm to 10pm, and to please arrive at the airport at 8pm. I thanked him and hung up. My Jordanian friend Mahmoud kindly offered to give me a ride to the airport, and we raced to make it there by 8:30pm. He dropped me off, said goodbye, and I ran into the terminal, only to find that the departure time noted on the boards was 12:20am. I called Mahmoud again (thank goodness for mobiles! What did we do before them?) and he graciously offered to let me wait at his place near the airport until it was time to check in again. When I checked in again, there was a huge line of men of passengers queuing for flights to Pakistan and Bangladesh.  I moved through immigration to the departures lounge, where I was the only person from the western world among about 500 passengers waiting for middle-of-the-night flights to interesting places. Thankfully I had dressed conservatively because I looked extremely conspicuous already. I was surrounded by men who looked like they had just come out of the mountains of Afghanistan, and ladies in ornate south Asian attire while others wore niqabs or burqas.

 While I sat patiently waiting for my flight, and adorable little boy who looked to be about 18 months old (that's him in the picture, though it doesn't do justice to his cuteness!) came running over to where I was sitting, put his little head on my knee, and looked up at me with a huge, beautiful smile that melted my heart. It was such a precious experience. His embarrassed mother pulled him away a few times, but as soon as he could get loose again, he came running back over to repeat the process.  It was so sweet because usually children of other nationalities are a bit freaked out by this foreign looking woman and don’t naturally just snuggle up to me, but he had not qualms.

Hours passed and there were no announcements about our flight. 12:20am came and went with no motion and no announcement. Then 1:20am came and went…with children starting to get really cranky. Flights started leaving for South Asia, but nothing was going on with ours. Jordanian customers started inquiring and getting a little bit testy. By 2am, customers were pushing toward the gate entrance and arguing with police and the one dutiful airline representative: my friend the operations manager who had sold me the ticket a few weeks before. When he moved the crowd would move with him in a herd, getting more and more upset. I thought perhaps we might have a “Jordanian Spring” right there in terminal 2 that night. There were still no announcements about our flight, but at about 2:45am, the pilots and flight attendants came waltzing through as if they were right on time and nothing was out of the ordinary!   Finally we boarded for a 3am departure. Crazy! Luckily this pacified the angry passengers sufficiently to diffuse the situation and the rest of the flight went smoothly.

The one good thing about being delayed for so long was that we arrived by 6am, so the buses between the Amman airport and downtown were running again and I didn’t have to pay 30 Jordianian Dinars (about $50) for a night taxi to get to the city center. I finally made it to town and passed out in my hotel room shortly after. When I woke up, I discovered a flea market being set up just across the street from my hotel. Fantastic! So after a brisk walk around the neighbourhood, I re-outfitted myself with a bunch of great used clothes for 10 JD (about $15). At my hotel, the owner and his son were eating a traditional Bedouin dinner cooked by his wife and they invited me to join them. It was a delicious mix of onion, tomatoes, eggplant/aubergine with a few chilis, eaten with soft Arabic bread. Desert was sweet melon. Later that night I met a couple of Jordanian Couch surfers for dinner and a walk around “Rainbow Street” the trendy section downtown. While there I bumped into my friend Khaled from Abu Dhabi Couchsurfing who happened to be in town visiting his family. He had given me great advice prior to leaving Abu Dhabi, and it was such a funny coincidence to see him in this new context. It's really a small world! That night I went to bed exhausted, but happy to be here, make new friends, and get going with volunteer projects.

The next day I met Sanabel (Sona), a lovely mutual friend of my friend Tariq in Abu Dhabi. I love her adventuresome spirit and hope to get the chance to know her better and go for some adventures together this summer. She is an Electrical Engineer (she fought hard to get her family to approve) who lives in Amman but goes home occasionally to Irbid (in the north) on the weekend. She offered me a ride with her, which was wonderful, because I got to know her and hear about her life experiences as we traveled.

My stay in Irbid for the weekend was nice. I found a guesthouse with a wonderfully friendly manager, Abu Tariq (older gentlemen here are referred to as “Father of __(oldest son’s name)___” instead of their first name). Abu Tariq came from Lebanon as a young man in the 1970s during the civil war. He married a Jordanian lady and they now have 3 kids. He used to go home to Lebanon frequently before, but now that things in Syrian are quite bad, he’s cut off from his extended family. He was so gracious and kind, and really looked out for my safety (so important as I was staying/traveling alone, which is a really foreign concept in Jordan).

At my guesthouse I also met a fellow-traveller Ahmad who is from Deraa, in southern Syria. He was accepted to a Master’s Degree program for Teaching English as a Second Language in England and is waiting in Jordan for his visa to be processed.  So far it has taken nearly a month with no news of an interview. He’s just waiting and hoping that things will come through. We had good discussions about the situation in his country and his hopes for the future. Before I left, he ordered Mansaf, the most famous traditional Jordanian dish (the Syrian style is very lovely too!), and would not let me pay a thing for it. This is the kind of generosity that is interwoven in the fabric of middle eastern life. Time and again I have to fight with Arab friends to let me pay/provide a meal once in a while because of their overwhelming generosity, regardless of circumstance in life. In fact, Abu Tariq invited me to come and join with his family for an Iftar meal during Ramadan and meet his wife and 4 children. I was so honoured.

In Irbid I met with a couple of friends of friends to see what opportunities exist for volunteering up there, and got some very good ideas from them.  Because of its proximity to the border, there is quite a large population of Syrians mixed throughout the community. There are also other groups in need…Irbid is surrounded by several Palestinian refugee camps where life is still very difficult after all these years, as well as several orphanages. The only challenge is that because Irbid is a bit more traditional and less accustomed to having foreigners visit, and it will take a longer time for this foreign woman travelling alone to break through and connect with people in meaningful ways. If I had 6 months to stay here, I'm confident that I could get involved in very meaningful ways. But with only 6 weeks, it seems better to find existing projects to contribute toward instead of starting from scratch. At the end of the weekend I came back to Amman feeling very optimistic about opportunities to get involved and the wonderful people I have met so far.

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