Saturday, November 2, 2013

My First 7 Impressions of Amman, Jordan

1. "Welcome to Jordan!" If I heard it once, I heard it said a zillion times by random people on the street -- all of them male -- over the course of my first two days in the country's capital. It must be indicative of Jordanian national pride because I had the same experience down south in Aqaba, right down to the gender specifics (Do Jordanian women not talk to strangers?), and nobody ever mentioned any particular city. It was always "Welcome to Jordan!" -- as if town and country here are considered one and the same (unlike in Israel, where city and regional identity seem to trump national pride, hence the prevailing Tel Aviv vs. Jerusalem competition).

The taxi driver who took me from where the bus from Aqaba dropped me off to the Larsa Hotel on the other side of the city used "Welcome to Jordan!" as both a greeting and as a catchphrase to explain everything from Amman's traffic-jammed streets (very Asian metropolis) to its sprawling layout (which, curiously, lacks a metro system to make the distance from any point A to any point B seem less daunting) to his reckless driving (my friend Rob warned me about the "bats out of hell") to the cigarette he was about to light up. (See No. 4.)

2. The men in Amman are so chatty and attentive that it's easy to confuse their friendliness with flirtation, especially when they're on the hunky side (and in Amman, a lot of them are). One Larsa employee actually followed me as I walked through the breakfast buffet this morning, explaining what everything was, just in case I'd never seen scrambled eggs or potatoes in my life.

Even people who aren't paid to be nice are, offering directions, a simple "Welcome to Jordan!", or some other unexpected goodwill gesture, like the man who was at the Roman Theatre today with his wife and two young kids. He approached me to ask if I wanted him to take a photo of me sitting on the steps of the amphitheatre. He ended up taking two more, and he didn't even want anything in return.

3. Amman appears to have been built not by design but by improvisation. If any city planning has gone into it over the course of the several thousand years since it was first under construction, it's not evident from walking through it. I haven't been so confused and intimidated by any metropolitan area since my fist visit to Kuala Lumpur, a city with which Amman shares a certain dizzying massiveness, treacherous traffic and a preponderance of shopping malls.

Amman's city limits span seven hills, so it's a lot curvier than KL. In that regard, it reminds me more of Jerusalem, with its topography easily being its most distinguishing feature. The unpredictable, ever-changing landscape mirrors the haphazard layout. In the area between Jabal Amman and Jabal al-Qal'a -- the two hills that I explored on my first full day in the city -- extending to downtown Amman, you're never walking a flat, straight line for long. Roads suddenly curve, slanting upward, then downward, sometimes with nothing but the edge of a city cliff separating the walkway from the depths below.

It's not made for pedestrianism, the narrow side streets leading up and down the hills have seen to that. But there are frequent steps to make ascending and descending easier, and taxis to take you to the top or bottom of any hill in Amman, or to any of the city's eight levels (I'm still trying to figure out exactly what those are). They drive by frequently, and they're ridiculously cheap.

4. I don't know if my lungs will survive seven days in Jordan. Secondhand smoke here is a major problem and one of the reasons why I'm trading the Larsa Hotel, which put me on a smoking floor, for new accommodations at the Gardenia Hotel tomorrow. If I wanted to spend all night breathing in nicotine, I'd go back to Berlin, where my open window (a summertime requirement due to the citywide lack of AC) let in the fumes from outside all day and all night. I didn't think it possible, but Amman might be even more smoking-obsessed than Berlin and Rome. The Italian capital had previously unseen-by-me cigarette machines on the sidewalks, but Amman is the only place I've ever been to where I've seen a live street vendor (a elderly Muslim woman) selling cigarettes to nicotine-addicted passersby.

5. The Roman Theatre is far more impressive than the one Pompei was trying to sell as the most exciting Empire artifact since chariot racing went out of fashion, and it offers excellent views of downtown Amman and the wall of Amman Citadel one hill over (on Jabal al-Qal'a). An open-air museum containing archaeological and architectural remnants from Amman's past -- spanning, among others, the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic epochs -- Jabal al-Qala's city in ruins held my attention far longer than Pompei did, thanks to the stunning views it offered of the city's buildings and the seven hills they're built upon.

6. Amman is not a pretty city -- nor is it tidy and clean. Like Bangkok, it's most appealing when observed from above as, grit rules down below, especially downtown. If it were in high school, Amman would never be prom king or queen (it would spend way too much time in the smoking section for that), but it'd definitely be one of the coolest kids in class, the one for whom personality is lot more important than presentation.

7. I wonder if anyone here knows what twerking is. Aside from the bossa nova renditions of rock & roll classics that were playing at Books@Cafe on Rainbow Street (a commercial road that's sort of like Amman's version of Avenue A in New York City), the soundtrack has been almost exclusively Arabic.

In the rare instances (so far) where whoever's in charge of music in Amman has opted for more Western pop sounds, the choices have been curious indeed. In my first two days, I heard Stevie B's "Because I Love You (The Postman Song)" twice, possibly for the first and second time since it hit No. 1 in 1990. I suppose if you're going to serve hummus next to the scrambled eggs, why should the music that's playing make sense?

A Panoramic View from Amman's Acropolis

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