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Windsbird: Footprints around the world

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Walking around the Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun: Day 1 in Thailand.

With no set itinerary planned after seeing the Reclining Buddha, we impulsively decide to cross the river and take a walk to wherever it takes us.

Tha Tien Pier is the nearest spot to take a boat, and getting there feels like a mini-adventure of its own. We walk through rows of vendors selling dried sea food, curry paste, salted fish and other exotic foods I have never seen before. It’s Tha Tien Market, a wet market that has evolved from a community of floating households. Today it developed into clusters of roofed area which protects their produce from rain. but nonetheless, the floor is wet. We walk through the narrow paths, turning our bodies left and right to weave through the haggling crowds. The air is salty with smells of fish and squid. We see spices in bright orange, red, and brown. The deeper we walk into the market, the darker it becomes as the clusters of roofs become denser. After passing a few eateries- still in darkness – we pay a small fee for the boat from a scrawny man at a tiny cell-like ticket booth, pass the revolving barrier gate and voila! Back to sunlight.

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Tha Tien Pier

A short one it may be, but the boat ride across Chao Phraya River is a welcome breather from the hustle and bustle of the crowded market few minutes ago.

The boat takes us to Wat Arun temple, but it’s what lies beyond this famous temple that steals my heart away.

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We are met with an eerily quiet neighbourhood – lanes laid with well polished, pastel coloured stones, occasionally its peace interrupted by a motorbike or a tuk-tuk.

The main road (Wang Doem Road) is lined with small local eateries, as well as western cafes that feels artsy and hipster. We take a break in one of these small places and share a banana toast. Despite it being a simple toast with sliced bananas and syrup on top, it takes a long time to be prepared.

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The whole neighbourhood is full of quirks. A canal is running in between rows of houses, and pots of plants are bursting everywhere, completely transforming the town made out of rusty corrugated metal roofs, iron pipes and grey concrete floor.

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Despite all these signs of life – laundry hanging, aroma of food filling the air, young children occasionally appearing and disappearing – not much is moving in this quiet neighbourhood. Cars and bikes are parked on the side. There are a few street food stalls but has no customers. A handful of tourists like us are the only ones that’s making a noise here.

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We wonder around this funny little place, taking in another side of Bangkok that is so different from what we’ve seen in the morning.

As if the area isn’t quirky enough, I find a wooden bird cage hanging on a tree, with a dried up bird as hard as a stone. Its feathers are too real for it to be a figurine, but its body is too stiff for it to be a real dead bird. It’s a quizzical, odd little town.

Day 1. 1 October 2015. Bangkok, Thailand

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“It’s like a dream, is it not?” – Night at Wadi Rum No.1

It is already dark when we finally arrive at the Bedouin camp compound. Five small sleeping tents and a communal area form one square section of the compound with all their entrances facing inwards so that it creates an intimate courtyard in the centre. The toilet facilities and the kitchen are on the other end of the section. It’s a small and cozy site surrounded by rock hills all around.

There are already a few tourists gathered in the communal area listening to the Bedouin music played by three musicians.  I take my shoes off and sit myself on one of the cushions sprawled along side the edge of the wall. There are two or three couples, and one German family. Everyone keeps to themselves and not much conversation is happening.  I have no access to electricity for the three days of stay in the desert which means no unnecessarily playing with my phone.The light bulb attached  to the ceiling is a little too dim to do any reading or writing. For the first time in my travels alone in Jordan, I’m bored and I don’t know what to do with myself.

The dinner is served – chicken and vegetables cooked in underground oven – which is plain and is only seasoned with salt. All the Bedouin guides wait till all their customers have taken their plateful of food, and while we eat our dinner in silence, they discretely take their share and eat outside.

After dinner there is more music. One of the Bedouins in a white robe gets up and dance, and we all sit there and watch him. It takes a good effort for him to persuade another English tourist to get up and dance with him, and another good 10 minutes to get another (also English) to join them. The rest of us smile dutifully and clap along, but no matter how jovial the rhythm of the music is, the Westerners remain rigid and unparticipating.

Enough of this awkwardness.  As I am about to walk out the communal area, a young Bedouin stops me and says hello, which seems to be the very first verbal interaction between a tourist and a local in the evening on the compound.

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By the time I come out of shower and come back to the tent, the whole compound is quiet. Mahdi had said that I could ask one of the guides to show me a good spot in the desert to sleep outside, but there are no Bedouins to be seen.   All lights are off and everybody seems to be sleeping inside.

Not wanting to end the day quite yet, I sit a few meters away from the sleeping tents and look up at the sky. The compound is surrounded by walls of high rocks so the sky is the only view that is granted to me right now.

“Hello.” Out of nowhere a Bedouin with his headscarf loosely wrapped his head around approaches me. It’s Ayaan, one of the musicians that had talked to me earlier in the evening. He has his sleeping mattress and places it next to my sitting spot.

“Oh, is this where you usually sleep? I’m so sorry, I didn’t know. I just wanted to look at the sky here.”  I say naively, thinking it is an odd place to sleep, so close to the toilet and without any privacy.

“It’s ok. Sit next to me so I can talk to you.”  He gestures to the spot next to him on the mat.

“I just wanted to look at the stars.’ I reply staying put where I am.

“It’s beautiful isn’t it? If you like, I can take you outside to show you the night desert.”

It’s a dilemma. My two inner voices fiercely arguing with each other – The Sensible reminds me of all the advices on travel websites not to venture into the desert night alone with a man, even if he is an official guide of a sizeable tour company. The Curious has no reasonable counter argument, but fills my head with an obsessive plea, ‘But I want to see! But I want to see!’.  Naturally, The Curious wins and I accept his offer.

“None of my friends know I am here. Maybe you shouldn’t tell Mahdi that you were with me here tonight.” Ayaan suggests as he guides me out of the safe walls of the Bedouin compound.

The moment we climb onto a higher pane, a magnificent view of the vast desert land unrolls before my eyes.  Black, solemn mountains at the backdrop of a silent sky, and the sandy ground with its light blue hue illuminated by the radiant moonlight in its full silver glory. I cannot help but gasp at this mesmerizing sight.

“It’s just like a dream, is it not?”

I nod, speechless.  If I squint hard enough to block out the moonlight, I can just about make out the milky way and the occasional shooting stars. He leads me further away from the camp and I follow him like a girl enchanted. I can feel the soft sand between my toes and the crisp night air on my skin but it feels like I am standing on a land that doesn’t exist – it’s just too beautiful to be true. I haven’t a faintest idea that this night is about to get even more surreal.

We sit at the nearby rock, and Ayaan teaches me a couple of Bedouin games played with small rocks. We tell riddles and sing our own traditional songs to each other. Ayaan gathers some firewood and lights a small fire, and we listen to the desert foxes squeak in the far distance.

“You see this foot print on the sand? This is of the eagles. And the ones that look like this,” says Ayaan making a hoof mark with his fingers on the ground, “is of a camel”. He goes on making various footprints of various desert creatures, and I recreate them with my fingers.

I tell him I want to see the desert fox, so he goes back to the camp and brings some left over cheese. We leave it out some distance away from us so that the foxes won’t be scared by our presence, blow out the fire and wait in silence and stillness.  Ayaan keeps his eyes fixed into the distant mountains, his dark curly hair falling just short of his broad shoulders.

The foxes do not come, and we resort back to talking. We are now both subdued by the tranquility of the night and the stillness we have just been dwelling in, and our voices grow softer and gentler.

“I give you a Bedouin name. I call you Gomar. It means, Moon.” He whispers, stroking my long wavy hair, tousled and still moist from the shower.  “Gomar..” I repeat after him, looking at the full moon hanging above us. He leans in for a kiss, and I move away from him and shake my head to tell him no. Perhaps it was my cue to call it a night and go back to the tent but I don’t. The serenity of the night in Wadi Rum is intoxicating, and I dare not break away from it.

Ayaan shifts his position and lies behind me, so that I have to twist my waist to my right in order to talk to him. I was sitting a meter away from him 20 minutes ago, and I cannot remember how we ended up sitting so close. I can feel his waistbone hard on my back and I shuffle forward to create some distance . “Awal, thani, thalith, rabe’h…” He starts counting in Arabic and I follow after him. Never before had another language sound so exotic in my ears. Again I feel something hard on my back – he has moved closer to me – so I shuffle forward again. “Khamis, saadiss, saabe’h, thaamin…” Ayaan recites, his voice growing even more gentler. And again, something hard pressing against my back. Without much thought I turn around to look behind me.

“OH MY GOD…”

When had he pull down his trousers? His penis tall and erect, pointing towards the moon I had been adoring all night. Smile beaming across his face, he proudly exclaims,“Look at that!”

I look. I look with an odd determination to remember the sight clearly so that I do not tell myself later that I had imagined all this. The spell of the desert night is horrendously shattered, and I can feel my anger rising up, stifling my breath.

Without another word, I turn around and walk away. I fear that I will not be able to find my way back to the camp amongst all these rock mountains but there’s no room for such worries now.

‘Gomar!!’ He stands up and calls after me, but only once and no more.  I do not look back, nor does he come after me.

 

 

DAY 5: 22 September 2013, Bedouin Camp in Wadi Rum

 

At the peak of Jordan, Um Ad Dami

Passing the main entrance of Wadi Rum, the bus enters into the Wadi Rum village.

Made famous by TE Lawrence’s book Seven Pillars of Wisdom and the film Lawrence of Arabia, the desert had been under the stewardship of the nomadic Bedouins for centuries. Now, many of the remaining 5000 Bedouin have chosen the settled life in the Wadi Rum village situated at the north of the desert.

The visitor centre in the village is surprisingly well built, in contrast to shabby looking houses surrounding it. It’s a long open building, with a yard in the front with many benches and tables. I get out of the bus and spot a slim man in a simple black tunic head scarf, standing at the side of the courtyard. There’s a quiet but sturdy charisma in the way he holds himself, and even before getting to see his face properly, I know it’s Mahdi, the head of the Wadi Rum tour group whom I’ve been corresponding with to discuss my travel arrangements.

We exchange greetings and sit down on the bench. He brings me Bedouin tea (black tea with herbs and lots of sugar) in a small glass cup and explains to me where I would be travelling on a fold out map of the desert. There’s something about the way he speaks that makes me shy. Softly spoken with a hint of Arabic accent, each word meaningfully uttered to form carefully thought out sentences. There is no room for silly chatters in his presence. After his introductory talk of the desert, we sit there in silence for a while. I’m not sure whether he’s waiting for me to take my time of rest, or I’m waiting for him to tell me we are ready to go. Too shy to ask, I just sip my Bedouin tea and stare down, studying intently every single font on the fold-out map.

Today’s plan is to drive to the southern end of the desert and hike a mountain called Um Ad Dami . It is more than 1,800 metres high and is the highest peak in Jordan.

Visitor Centre
Visitor Centre

My guide is a 24 year old boy called Id, with a slightly chubby face that looks like he still has his baby fat. The initial awkwardness for meeting for the first time fades out quickly and we soon get on like a pair of old friends.

‘Are you married?’ He asks me, as everyone does here in Jordan. I shake my head and he asks again. ‘Then why are you wearing the ring?’ pointing to the fake wedding ring I’ve been wearing while travelling by myself, in case of any unwanted advances – ‘Oh, my husband will be here any second’ would be my cover story while showing my ring. I never got to use it though – I couldn’t bring myself to lie.

‘No, I’m not married’. ‘What’s the ring for then?’ He asks and I just shrug my shoulder, not really wanting to explain myself. Then I also notice a ring on his left hand. ‘Are YOU married?’ He shakes his head and I raise my voice. ‘Why are YOU wearing a ring then?’, exactly imitating his intonations. ‘I’m married to Jordan’, he cheekily replies to which I bounce off by proclaiming, ”I’ll marry Wadi Rum then”. We both giggle.

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After a long, long drive, we finally reach the southern end of the desert. Only carrying two bottles of 1.5 ltr water on Id’s backpack and a DSLR with my Canon EF-S 10-22 mm lense, we set off the hike of Um Ad Dami. It seemed like a plain rock mountain from afar but up close it’s actually full of plantations. Only that they are grey, short, and spikey. Not the lucious green ones I am used to seeing in the mountains in Korea. As we zigzag our way up, Id frequently stops so that I could get my breath back and take a sip of water. The Kenyan cloth I draped over my head and shoulders provide me with some sort shade from the sun, but the heat is so strong that covering only makes it hotter and sweatier. Id comes and makes it into a headscarf by wrapping it around my forehead in Bedouin style. It cools me down immediately and makes me more relaxed as I no longer have to constantly raise my had to wipe the forever dripping sweat from my face.

‘Long time ago, there was an American tourist who sneaked out the camp and climbed … without a Bedouin guide. Instead of zigzagging, he climbed vertically, fell off the mountain and died’.

Our conversation fades out as we get closer to the summit. My energy slowly draining out, I have to bite my tongue from pestering Id with ‘Are we there yet?’ every ten minutes.

When we finally reach the top, we plop ourselves on the rocky ground and take big gulps of water.

‘That’s Israel, and that’s Saudi Arabia. I would have taken you to see my family tomorrow but they are now camping in Saudi.’ Explains Id with a cigarette in his mouth. ‘You can just go to Saudi Arabian part of desert from here?’ ‘Yeah we just pack and go’.  I am slightly disappointed that I don’t get to see the real nomadic family life.

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‘You know, Koreans shout Yah-ho whenever we reach a mountain top’. ‘Yah-ho!!!’  Id shouts into the distant mountains. ‘YAH-HO!’ I follow suit. Yah-ho..Yah-ho..Yah-ho…. A multiple layers of echoes come back at us, as our voices hit against many mountains and reflect at different points of time. I’ve never heard an echo like this before, and me and Id spend a good ten minutes shouting as loud as we can in all directions.

‘We better get down now. The sun will set soon. We will have dinner at the camp and there will be some musicians’.

It’s another hour of drive back to the campsite, and the White Desert that we drive through turns dark pink as the day darkens.

 

DAY 5: 22 September 2013, Um Ad Dami

 

 

Aqaba, and a hungry traveller

The sunrays gallantly shine into my room and wake me up from sleep. ‘Wadi Rum!’ is the first thought in my head as soon as I open my eyes. It’s the crux of my trip in Jordan and I am dedicating whole third of my time for this place.  ‘Breakfast!’ is the next thing that pops up in my head. My stomach has been hollow for so long and I think I can feel the entire casket of my body reverberate as it rumbles with hunger.

I get dressed with a speed of lightning and run downstairs that leads to the reception, then follow the arrow sign labelled ‘Kitchen’.  But the area leading from the reception is not the dining room, but a kitchen. Where do I go and eat? Just at this time of confusion comes out the Smiling Man from the kitchen and gestures me to sit on the sofa at the reception. Soon he brings out the Bedouin tea, some cheese and pitta bread stacked high on a small plate. That’s all I get for breakfast-  10 pieces of bread and cheese. I try to eat as much as I can crouching over the lounge table, but there’s only so much bread I can take.

Hotel Reception
Hotel Reception
Breakfast at Aqaba
Breakfast at Aqaba

At the check out, the Smiling Man asks me when I would be back in Aqaba. ‘I love you. I phone my friend, he give you free scuba diving. All for free. Stay here longer, please’. If Wadi Rum was not on my next itinerary, it would have been a tempting offer.

I only have an hour and half to look around Aqaba before catching a bus to Wadi Rum, so I decide not to venture out too far in case I get lost in the city. The locals are obviously used to tourists coming here for scuba diving at the Red Sea as there’s no obsessive staring I received elsewhere in Jordan. Only the taxi drivers who wish to strike up a business say a friendly good-morning, offering a bargain ride. I walk along the sea hoping to get a good look at the Red Sea, but a closer access to the beach is only reserved to those who are using the resort for diving. I walk further on in the squelching heat to get to an ancient ruin, only to find it’s nothing but a small pile of rubbles.

Red Sea...from afar

I get to the bus station an hour and half earlier than the departure time, as advised by the Bedouin camp manager at Wadi Rum. It is to ensure a seat as the bus gets full very quick. It is much cooler to be waiting outside, but I decide to stay put in the bus as I don’t want to lose my seat. The ‘excursion’ in Aqaba done and the mini bus to my destination found, now I can relax and have my lunch.

I open up the blue plastic bag that contains the food I had just bought. I have actually asked for a sandwich so it would be simpler and easier to eat but it turns out to be an open top kebab, and there is no plastic fork with it. The heat of the foil container on my lap makes me sweat even more, and the pungent smell of lamb fills up the air of the bus which is already getting crowded with people. But heck, I’m starving and I delve into the cooked meal that I had been deprived of since yesterday afternoon. I can live with my fingers smelling of meat and chillies.

Bus to Wadi Rum
Bus to Wadi Rum
Bus to Wadi Ru
Bus to Wadi Rum

The people in the bus must be Bedouins living in the desert visiting Aqaba for supplies. By the time the bus departs, every remaining floor is occupied with the box full of goods they are taking to Wadi Rum. All women and kids are sitting at the back, and the men at the front. The thick, carpet like curtain loosely hangs from all windows, shielding everyone from the fierce sunrays, but it’s not enough to cool down the hot air.

The journey remains sweaty, claustrophobic, and bumpy throughout. The view outside continues to be monotonous – plain sky, barren land, and sand dust.  The small child whines next to me, and I try to open the window for her and my sake but it remains obstinately closed.

Would I be able to get off where I am supposed to? Does the driver remember I am heading to Wadi Rum? In the tediousness of the bus ride surfaces up the petty worries of a solo traveller, but they soon sink back under carefree, come-what-may spirit. The bus continues on its long winding road, its tyres grating themselves against the rugged Jordanian terrain.

The sudden change in the landscape wakes me up from my half-sleep. Those majestic rock mountains grandly announcing the gateway of the Wadi Rum desert. I can no longer remember my disappointments in Aqaba nor the stale air of the bus, but my heart beats faster and faster at this long awaited sight. This is Wadi Rum.

On the road to the desert
On the road to the desert

Entrance of Wadi Rum Village
Entrance of Wadi Rum Village
Wadi Rum Village
Wadi Rum Village

DAY 5: 22 September 2013, Aqaba to Wadi Rum

 

 

The man with the moustache greets me in front of the hotel with his smile as broad as his arms wide open. ‘Welcome to Aqaba. Welcome, welcome’ – pronouncing ‘c’ like how the Spanish would pronounce a ‘c’, like all Arabs do here. He takes my luggage from the taxi and leads me into the hotel. It’s 2 am and all the lights are out in the building apart from the reception area. We are careful not to make a loud noise, but our whispers still echo against the stone walls, slicing the the cool early morning air.

‘Oh.. so beautiful, so beautiful’. He keeps repeating as he helps me check in and carries my luggage upstairs, smile never leaving his face. He opens the door for me and places the luggage on the floor. It is a small plain room, with thick furry colourful blankets being the most decorated furniture in the place.  In the middle of the room is a chunky, old fashioned TV on a stand with it’s legs at an angle that makes it look unstable. It takes up so much room that I need to twist my body sideways whenever I walk past it, so I don’t knock my arm on it’s protruding wooden panel. In the corner of the room is an equally clunky fridge. Despite the online advert promising a mini-bar, the fridge is totally empty.

The smiling man turns on the light in the bathroom – a clean modern one to my surprise – and shows me the switch that operates the electric shower. Then he goes towards the other end of the room and turns on the air conditioning on for me.  It’s been a long long day which includes getting lost in As-Salt and sitting in the bus to Aqaba on an empty stomach for 7 hours. My heart and soul desires nothing else but a hot shower and a bed to collapse onto.

But there he stands in the middle of the room, still beaming with a smile. ‘Oh I love you. The moment you got out of the taxi.. I saw you.. So beautiful. I love you’. My mind races at this unprecedented situation. Why is he just standing there? Is he waiting for an invitation? I quickly scan his posture and eyes for any sign of lusty expectation, but to my relief I find none. Just an innocent adoration. ‘Thank you’, I reply courteously and obligingly. Had I ever in my life responded so casually to an I-love-you.

As soon as he leaves the room, I rush into shower and savour every moment under hot water. Air condition is a little too cold to have it on during the night, but I cannot figure out how to turn it off completely. The off button I pressed has stopped it from pumping out cool air, but it carries on whirling. Never mind.

I drop onto the blue and orange blanket, its thick fur comforting and warm against my freshly washed skin. With the buzzing of the air condition reverberating in the room, I sleep ever so contently.

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The hotel promised me a mini-bar..

DAY 4: 21 September 2013, Hotel in Aqaba

 

 

 

As-Salt: ‘What’s your name?’

On the streets of the town of As-Salt, I come cross little children playing.

‘What’s your name?’ I ask.
‘Wat sure nem?’ says one of the boys.

‘Me, Su-Min. You?’ I try again, this time with hand gestures.
‘Mee soomin. Yoo?’ he repeats after me.

I laugh, and he laughs after me.

I turn to the back page of my travel book and carefully read out ‘shoo es mak?’, to which he replies ‘Mohammed’. ‘Shoo es mak? Shoo es mak?’ I ask this to all the children who have now gathered around me.

Unfortunately, my glee and pride at this conversational breakthrough doesn’t last long when Mohammed carries on asking me questions in Arabic, to all of which I have to read out ‘maa fa he met (I don’t understand)’.

DAY 4: Saturday, 21 Sept 2013. As-Salt

Hashemiyeh Street in Amman

“I give you five camels for marriage!’, jokes Abu Josef in Arabic which is swiftly translated by Uncle Sam.

Abu Josef owns a street stall selling antiques on  Hashemiyeh Street. While the majority of the shops on this street offer commercially manufactured souvenirs arranged in its categories, Abu Josef’s stall is cluttered with everything old everywhere. Plates, old cameras and pouches on the table; necklaces and beads hanging from the top; copper tea pots and cups laying on the ground.

I bought a defunct Iraqi dinar note with Saddam Hussein printed on it, got invited to have tea by Uncle Sam, so here I am sitting by Hashemiyeh Street listening to Abu Josef talk on and on.

“Five camels! No, no, ten camels for you!”

It’s been only five minutes since the unpleasant touch-ups at the fruit souq, but I’m already feeling light-hearted at this characterful old man. He is a small, thin man with a tight voice, and is quick to raise his voice  whenever Uncle Sam stumbles at his translations. Uncle Sam, in comparison, is a well built middle aged man with a soothing gentle voice. He has a calming presence and seems like a deep thoughtful person, so different from Abu Josef who chatters on with all sorts of flirtatious comments.

“If you give me five camels, I give you five babies! If ten camels, it’s ten babies!” At my banter Abu Josef comes back with, “A Jordanian/Korean baby will be beautiful! Korean eyes and Arab moustache! Arab moustache and Korean eyes! So beautiful!”

Just imagine that – a baby with tiny slit eyes with thick Arab moustache. God forbid.

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DAY 3: Friday, 20 Sept 2013. Hashemiyeh Street, Amman.

Fruit Market in Amman: “She thinks I want to f*** her”

I’ve been in Amman for three days already but haven’t been any parts of the capital city yet. So after a quick simple dinner (spicy pasta, 3JD) I set off exploring the Friday nightscape of Amman. The streets are filled with the excitement of a weekend night, and endless rows of cars and taxis honk in a steady rhythm in celebration.

Feeling I’ve been lacking in the intake of Vitamin C, I head for the fruit market, hoping to buy a bag full of fruits to snack on during my 4 hour long bus trip to Aqaba tomorrow. I stop by each stalls, but all the vendors refuse take payment from me, preferring to give me samples of each fruit instead – pear, lime, fig, honeyed date.. They are either too sweet, too sour, or too bland for my taste but I dutifully finish them all.  Before I know it, I am sitting on a barrel that one of the vendors have offered me, this time a quarter of pomegranate in my hand. The vendor who has invited me to sit next to him is an old man, and I feel like a girl receiving treats from her granddad every time he peels a different kind of fruit and places them in my hand.

It seems a young man with stubbles is the only one who can speak English, and he tells me anecdotes about each vendors – and he likes to use f word often.

“That guy over there, he used to have a Filipino wife. He likes to f*** Philippine girls” “F*** America. It’s a bad country. Syria is f***ing America, North Korea is f***ing America. It’s good”

He wants to take a picture with me, and as he sits next to me and pose at the camera, he puts his arm around my neck. His hand ‘happens’ to be placed over my chest, and he even dares to slightly cup his hand.  I stand up making some excuse about having to go back, and the old vendor puts his arm behind me as if to guide my way out protectively, but his hand is on my ass.

The young man offers to walk me back to the hostel and I say ‘it’s okay’, and he announces to everyone, ‘she doesn’t want me to come with her because she thinks I want to f*** her!’, as if telling a great joke. Everyone cheerily laughs and I laugh along with them, but I’m actually in a sour mood. I walk away with an unfinished pomegranate in my hand, with my back turned towards the old vendor who has cheekily asked if I could give him a kiss goodbye on his lips.

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Jerash: Not so Arabic style

Today’s plan:  Jerash and Elijah’s birth place in Ajloun (Mar Elias).

Transport is scarce on Fridays in Jordan so the North bus station was unusually empty. I sat on a bench with Susanne, a Dutch girl staying on the roof of the hostel, and simply waited. Not knowing when the next bus would arrive, we just sat, reading our books. It didn’t matter what time it was, or how long we were there for.  Falling in to the natural rhythm of time as it flows without keeping track of it’s rigid unit of 30 minutes is a bliss of travelling. Time stops tick tocking  and I find rest in it’s silence.

On the bus to Jerash, our conversation turns to feminist issues: How does it feel like to be covered up in public spaces? Does our freedom to reveal however much we want in the West cause sexualisation of women to be more overt?

The proportion of women walking around on the streets of Jordan is visibly much lower than the number of men, and the amount of attention we draw as foreign women made me very conscious of my identity as a female and the dynamics between different sexes. Women may have a quieter role in the society here, but men in return seems to assume more of a protective and responsible role than the men in the West. It made me rethink about my ignorant tendency to equate such cultures with gender inequality that needs transforming.

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Jerash is one of the Middle East’s best examples of a Roman provincial city, comprising a collection of triumphal arches, amphitheatres, a hippodrome and temples. Susanne decides not to go in so I enter by myself. It is so much bigger than I expected, and I find it a chore dipping my head into my travel book to read about each ruins when I would rather spend my time taking in the ancient view. ‘I would love an audio guide’, I think to myself. Then, as if by magic, a young boy approaches me and asks, ‘Do you need a guide?’. He seems very young and there’s no way of telling whether he’s a real guide or not. In his Arabic accent he carries on talking. ‘Moving columns, goats, lions, empty stones – I tell you all about. You know moving columns? I tell you all’. Moving columns? Goats? I can’t make out what he’s trying to say from what seems to be a random collection of words, and his thick Arabic accent adds to my suspicion that it’s a scam.

I say ‘no thank you’ but he still takes me to a nearby ruin anyway. ‘Here, the view is really good’, and he climbs up the stairs inside a small, insignificant tower nearby. The view IS really amazing and at this I decide to put a little faith in him.

The boy really knew his stuff. He shows me how the columns were designed to move a little, and the stones on the buildings are hollow so that they would make a sound when they clash into each other – so that one would know when there was an earthquake and the buildings are less likely to collapse.  He shows me where people used to sacrifice animals and a stone with knife marks on them and  and where all the meat used to be stored.

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He knew all the people working in Jerash, so we stopped by a vendor and chatted a little. I bought two silver bracelets for 10 JD, which the vendor told me were from Jerash (I later found Chinese letters engraved on the bracelet, and they were being sold in Petra for 3 JD). Mohammed, my guide, picked up a green bead necklace from the stall, said something to the vendor in Arabic and gave it to me saying it was a gift. He told me the stones were also from Jerash, and then took me to a nearby stone all covered with brown sand. When he splashed some water on it, the stone revealed its true colour of deep green, the same colour as the necklace. As we were about to leave, Mohammed picked up another jewel from the stall and said, ‘it’s my gift to you’.  I found it a little uncomfortable to accept another gift from a stall that isn’t even Mohammed’s so I discretely put it back where it was. The vendor saw this and told me to take it.

To say thank you, I handed Mohammed a lemon sherbert I had bought in England to give to people Jordan but he refused.  When I asked why he said it would make him want water all the time. So put it in my mouth instead for some energy perk up (I had no lunch and was starving), but soon spat it out. It was as if the sweet sucked all the moisture in my mouth and I couldn’t stand the thirst it created. It dawned on me why many had declined the sweets when I had offered it to them.

It was a windy day, and wearing a flared skirt was not a good idea at all, as the moment of misfortune finally came with a gust of wind and.. well, you can imagine what it did to my skirt.  More unfortunate was that Mohammed happened to be at the bottom of the stairs looking up at me, just at that moment.

‘This is the end of the tour’, he says when we are at the Temple of Artemis. ‘Can I have a kiss?’ You can have your money back’.  Just a few minutes ago he wanted me to pay him much more than what we had agreed on (and I did end up paying him much more as I felt he was that good), and now we wants a kiss instead. First he asks for a kiss on the lips, and asks to kiss me on my arms and my legs. At my constant refusal he changes his tact. ‘Ok, we just say goodbye in Arabic style’.  I naively believe he’ll let it go after a kiss on my cheek, but no, it’s my neck he goes after.

‘That’s not Arabic style!’ I still have my smiles on, hoping to be polite.

‘Ok, we’ll just take pictures together then’. He gets his phone out and sits on one of the stones. He purposely leaves a little space next to him and gestures to me to sit on his lap. I make him move over.

‘Why can’t I kiss your legs?’ ‘Can I kiss your arms?’ He asks again and I finally snap at this never ending insistence. I get up and announce, ‘I’m leaving now’.

He follows after me, his eyes desperate and even looks a little hurt by my sudden rush of anger and determined refusal.

‘I’m so sorry. I’m too hot for a girl.’ He takes out the money I had given him and tries to give them back to me.

‘No, don’t do that’

‘Just one kiss, please’.

I’ve just had enough. Without replying, I just walk off. He follows.

‘Give me high five’, he says. ‘No!’ My voice is high with irritation. ‘Just a high five’. He puts his palm out to me. Awkwardly I high five him and we both walk off in separate directions.

I hate leaving on bad terms with people, even if it’s with someone I will never see again. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only person I ended up storming off from during my travels in Jordan. 

 

DAY 3: Friday, 20 Sep 2013

 

More pictures of Jerash: http://www.flickr.com/photos/104035608@N03/

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