Sunday, September 8, 2013

Snapshots from a week in Jordan

Getting There

As I board the Air France flight from Detroit to Paris, the French crew greets me: "Boujour". I know so little French that I don't even know what the proper response is, so I mumble a greeting in English and scurry down the aisle to look for my seat.

The plane is headed for Charles de Gaulle airport, and I'm concerned about being able to communicate once I get there. I ask a friend who travels internationally a lot if people working at the airport speak English. "Don't worry", he tells me. "Just stand there looking confused and keep saying 'I'm American.' They'll understand."

I find my seat in the center aisle. The middle-aged couple sitting next to me are Americans - I can tell because all the Europeans on the flight a) all look like Daniel Craig and b) are reading a copy of Le Monde. I initiate a brief conversation and discover that they are from Green Bay, Wisconsin. The wife is an ophthalmologist and the husband is an accountant; they're flying through France on their way to the wedding of a friend in Italy. I ask, Have you ever been to Europe before?" Mr. Green Bay admits he has not, and a brief look of fear washes over his face. I can empathize. I consider passing along my friend's advice, but decide it might not be as well received.

At this point, the well dressed European in front of me reclines his seat so that it rests directly on top of my kneecaps. This is of course the ultimate dick move you can pull on an airplane. Mr. Green Bay looks at me sympathetically, then admits apologetically in a whisper that the guy had done the same thing to him when they first boarded, and that he had convinced him to switch to the seat in front of me. I resign myself to watching Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Last Stand, which as it turns out is an excellent movie. Mr. Green Bay shrugs: Nothing I can do, his face says.

***

The Horn

"The horn is the most important part of the car in Jordan," my host brother explained to me as we drove through the streets of our neighborhood. "It is more important to have a working horn than any other part of the car." As if to underscore the point, he bumped the car horn again as someone ahead of us attempted to change into our lane. "I know it's considered rude in the States, but you just have to do it here." The horn is deployed liberally by all Jordanian drivers as they change lanes, pass other cars, or enter intersections.

One might think that the most important piece of equipment in any car would be the seat belt, but as it turns out, most cars in Jordan don't even have seat belts in the backseat. I've ridden in numerous taxis here, and so far none of the drivers have worn them either. Other students have told me that taxi drivers get offended when you put on your seat belt in the passenger seat. One of them refused to drive until the student took it off.

Yesterday, as the taxi I was in attempted to leave downtown, an accident created a traffic jam on the street ahead of us. Cars all around us slowed to a halt. The response of Jordanian drivers to traffic jams is, of course, to hit the horn. Blowing the horn in these situations is contagious, and I watched with amusement as every driver in the street began to lean on their horn for an extended period of time, creating a furious symphony of furious car horns like nothing I had ever heard before. I tried hard not to laugh. I know this is the driving culture here, but it is so unlike anything I've seen before. It's moments like this that make life in Jordan interesting and exciting.

***

Getting Sick

Before I left the US, I got a check-up from my doctor. He didn't find any kind of issue, but wrote me a prescription for antibiotics nonetheless. Get it filled in case you get Traveler's Diarrhea, he said, then you can take them in Jordan. I said I would, but privately decided the risk of me getting sick in Jordan was minimal and I didn't want to get antibiotics when I wasn't sick. I left the prescription unfilled at home.

Famous last words. My third day in Jordan (last Wednesday) I came down with, not surprisingly, Traveler's Diarrhea (TD). I will spare you the gory details, but I will say that the stomach cramps were severe and unpleasant. Sometimes I was going to the restroom every half-hour. On Thursday, I tried to participate in my program's orientation activities (mostly cultural training) at the University of Jordan and simply couldn't do it. Besides the fact that I was barely able to stand, it's incredibly frustrating to have diarrhea in a place where the only available toilets don't have a seat or even a chair. I went home.

After resting for a few hours and still feeling extremely bad, I gave it up and went to the Arab Medical Center, a hospital in Amman. In Jordan, emergency rooms functions as walk in clinics, not unlike they do int the United States the primary difference is price. I was in and out of the hospital in and hour. My prescriptions cost a total of about $18 USD. Seeing a doctor? $18. That's not the co-pay; that's the complete price.

After 36-48 hours, I started to feel a lot better. TD in Jordan and other countries is not uncommon, it afflicts about 20-50% of travelers, depending upon the destination. The number one problem it caused me, aside from the pain, was dehydration, which can quickly become serious in ultra-dry Amman. The lesson here: don't do what I did. If your doctor warns you about TD when you study abroad or travel, take it seriously. I'm fortunate to be in a place with readily available and relatively high quality medical care; if I was going someplace like Wadi Rum from the United States for an extended basis I would definitely get antibiotics to take with me.

***

The Citadel

After feeling better yesterday, I took the opportunity to meet some friends and tour the Roman, Ummayad, and Byzantine ruins in downtown Amman. The ruins are divided into two main parts: the Citadel Hill and the Roman Theater in the valley. The walk up or down the Hill between them is relatively easy, but passes through a residential part of Eastern Amman.

An ancient Islamic Mosque on Citadel Hill

The Roman Temple of Hercules
Me inside the Roman Theater
The Roman Theater as viewed from halfway up Citadel Hill.
It's extremely difficult to fathom how old these structures are. The Roman ruins alone date to more than 2000 years go. There are caves on the hill and artifacts that date back up to 4000 years. Each successive civilization in the area that is now Amman simply rebuilt Citadel Hill into whatever they wanted. The Romans built temples, the Christians built churches, and the Islamic empires built Mosques. It's stunning to consider this span of history in light of the age of the United States; we're not even 300 years old. I spent my summer as a guide telling people about history in Montana, most of which occurred less than 100 years ago. The difference is astounding.

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