Driving is a non-starter here in Jordan, so in order to see the sights outside of Amman last weekend we hired a driver. Let’s call him Mohammad, nearly everyone is. We met him earlier in the week as we hired shorter rides, and his cheerful disposition and near fluency in English made us glad to spend more time with him. About 10 years younger than us and a world traveller himself, we were able to relate well enough to get a window into the realities of life here.
The work week is Sunday-Thursday, with Friday as a special day for prayer. In fact we met Mohammad on Friday during a time when literally everything was shut down for prayer. Though a muslim Mohammad is not particularlly religious. He works through the week, earning the average income for a Jordanian. That average is roughly equal to the monthly expenses for an individual, 700$. That doesn’t include rent, and sure enough Mohammad lives with his parents.
His fee for a day of driving was minimal, friend prices really. Owning a car here is very expensive, as is gas. So someone living month-to-month won’t get out of town that often. An upside of the trip for Mohammad was getting to be a tourist himself. We went north about an hour to the town of Jerash. There a huge array of well preserved structures line a few Roman roads over almost a mile.
It is a gobsmacking sight. Just humbling. I don’t think I would have ever left if it wasn’t close to 100F out there. I’m evolved to live under a rock in Scotland, it seems. I’ve been around Roman ruins recently in Germany in Cologne and especially Trier. A lot of the stuctures in all three places were contemporary. I lovingly poured over every detail in Germany, imagining life in that far flung ancient culture. To have dedicated that same care here would have taken weeks.
To get in to the “Archeological City” you first pass through a bazaar selling overpriced trinkets. Mohammad was worried we’d be suckered in, but he needn’t have been. We’ve learned to hate stuff over the years. Then you pay a fee: 15$ each for non-residents, 0.75$ for Mohammad. He was sheepish about this, but the tourists demand the infrastructure, they might as well pay for it. It’s cool man.
All along the road Jordanians try to make ends meet helping out the tourists. A self styled tour guide led us forcibly at a maniacal pace through his well worn waypoints. The echo point in the forum, the old inscriptions, good vistas for a selfie… He kept taking my phone and camera to record us in the spots he knows appeal to the tourists. I would have given the cold shoulder right away: I don’t like being led around any place and for any price. But I felt the need to take Mohammad’s lead, who whispered that we could pay him a small amount when done. After 10 insufferable minutes he asked for a tip. I offered some change, he was offended. Kristin offered 3$ and he took off in disgust. We were a dry well.
We looked to Mohammad for help. Had we been rude? In the states we would have known how to act, but here? He said no, that 3$ for 10 minutes of work that no one asked you to do was perfectly reasonable, and that he thought it was the man who had been rude. But he explained that the official guides charge 50–100$ per hour as they lead tourists around, and so the guide expected more for his efforts. He took some pretty damn good pictures too! But I feel like I haven’t paid for them so you won’t see them here.
The thing is, the average income for a married couple in Seattle is over 10,000$ a month. So when it comes time to decide what something costs in a poorer country we are at a distinct disadvantage. The joke on the show Arrested Development goes “It’s a banana Michael, how much can it cost? 10$?”. Imagine us at dinner, unable to read the menu or talk to the waiter, so we try to order by cost. Having paid about 10$ for a dinner for two, a stupid amount of food arrives. It feels terrible. Imagine you’ve saved up for months to get a bike, and you go in to the shop but the guy in front of you says “I can’t decide which one I want, so I will take one of each”. It’s an insult to your effort… the thing you’ve worked towards and dreamed about is a toy for them. Well, what if that waiter can’t afford to eat at the place where we ordered too much?
That volunteer guide expects a big payoff for his tour not because he is unreasonable, but because tourists are unreasonable. Prices are rising in Amman and I bet NGOs and people who don’t know what stuff is supposed to cost are at fault. I like to be generous, I suppose. I mean, I like to share and its fun to treat someone to an experience. But that is not the same as spending indiscriminately. But what something should really cost is the sort of thing you may only know if you are local.
As we walked back to the ticketing gate kids with iced water bottles swarmed us. They addressed Mohammad, and bantered back and forth. Later he said “they would sell me water for 50 cents, but they wanted to charge you 75”. We laughed. We already had purchased water to avoid paying too much at Jerash. I’m guessing 75 cents for water kept on ice and delivered to you by hand is too much? We found cheap food in Jerash ("the tourist places charge insane prices!" explained Mohammad) and thanks to his help I was able to get a bowl of hummus and a bowl of cucumber. It is hard being allergic to gluten and unable to even convey the idea of such a thing. Can you mime out gluten? Some people literally live on bread here. Not eating bread? What the hell is wrong with you? How do you feel about breathing air?
A couple of adorable young girls hit us up for change and Mohammad shooed them away, giving them some coins. How much should we have given them? Were they really in need (probably) or just sent by their parents to shake down the tourists (also probably)? We finished our meal and paid the 3$ tab. Then we sped off to make the sunset at the somewhat distant castle in Ajloun. To the south of us in Salt (Mohammad’s hometown), near Amman, police had recently been killed, blown up by a terrorist group. This night they were hunting down the perpetrators, and by the next day they would corner the group in a building. There the group would blow up the building they were in, killing some of their number. Civilians would be injured in the exchange of gunfire.
But for us the sunset at the castle was peaceful, and just amazing. From it’s high position you could see the deep valley carved by the Jordan river as it flows from the Sea of Gallilee into the dead end of the Dead Sea. Windows from homes in the West Bank caught light and reflected it to us. The sea breeze blew in from the Mediterranean and finally I was cool. On the ride home Mohammad said he had a fantastic time and needless to say so did we.