Marriage, cheek kisses and strong hands in the danger zone

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October 20th 2013
Published: October 20th 2013
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Kiss one to the left cheek, 3 to the right, embrace with both arms for a 2 to 10 second hug, back pat then release in one swift high five to seal the deal.

If you so desire, try to hold hands with your male companion and swing them as you meander along the street in joy that you have been reunited at last.

This is the authentic traditional Jordanian greeting amongst heterosexual males when they have not seen each other for quite some time. I wonder if this would catch on in NZ? Yeah, nah, too casual! And they call us kiwis friendly……

Day two of the G Adventures tour began early. Being that my lovely room mate Sally and I were both on skewed body clocks, we were awake before the first call to prayer at 4am. We struck it off well and had a good pre dawn chat about everything from monogamy and humans, to healthcare systems, and NZ, thrown in with a bit of Larry Ellison, and round to what the real USA is like such that I am now sold on visiting the national parks one day. It was neat to be so well matched with this ‘stranger’ and perhaps this is testament to the trip type ahead.

By 6:15 we were both up and before breakfast I headed down to the Roman amphitheatre which most of the group had visited before, scaring a few locals by actually exercising. Nobody seems pro-health here, and to see a female jogging in modest clothing I was very much ogled and tooted at. Light shrouded the citadel on the hill top, which glowed and gave warmth to the rest of town which is a dreary white and grey city of 2.3 million Jordanians, feral cats, and the ever present rubbish.

Typical breakfast fare of omelettes, roasted eggplants, zucchini, olives, goats cheese, fresh fruit, and local cakes made for an elaborate feast, and when brunch was promised early at 10:30 – 11am we wondered if we would be ready for it (as it turned out we never got to eat again until 1:30pm…timing is loose and the itinerary merely a guide!). We set off in a minivan at 8am and via a water and ATM stop, and a fairly established refugee camp with 130,000 residents, we traveled via Jerash to Ajloun Nature reserve. The distance from Ajloun to the Syrian border is 10km directly across the hills as the crow flies.

This is where it got precious, and having mulled over all the available information we are fed in NZ and the restrictions and recommendations of our government, I originally decided to defer this leg of the journey and go straight to the Dead Sea. For the sake of the group dynamic and what I may have missed, I am so glad I went! Abraham our guide was very honest, and by putting my trust in him entirely and his analysis of the status of Jordan in the current Syrian (and past crises), I discovered what a beautiful part of the world this is.

Learning that 2 million Iraqi refugees, around a million Syrians and various refugee camps they have been allocated to growing from tent cities to established blocks, life is clearly better than is in their homeland and Jordan being the peace-loving nation it seems has managed to stay fairly immune in the past 67 years from too much Middle Eastern turmoil, even taking other countries military training responsibilities under their wings. Oh, there was a slight blip with Palestinians and Israel in the mid 1940s but otherwise it has been more stable than all the neighbours.

The power held over this region was held by the Turkish up until 1916, and after several wars, Jordan eventually gained independence in 1946 with the King at the time, the Hashimite family, giving name to the current day country. So I learned and in contrast, Palestinians apparently merged into current day Israel and this was facilitated by the British at a similar time, hence their uprising in the past 70 years or so.

Word has it that there were 4 wives involved with King Hashimite, the most recent one being a very wealthy and socially conscious American. Yet when quizzed on life expectancy and woman’s rights by the group, Abraham’s response was that the marriage license places more restrictions on woman yet the fact that Jordanian men die in their 60s from lifestyle and hypertension related diseases, it credited to “what you women do to us”. Ha ha ha. But they are supposedly progressive with mass health screening programmes, almost on par with what NZ has.

Once we dropped our bags at the visitors lodge at Ajloun we headed on an 8km hike up hill and down dale across a scrubby red soil and rocky landscape, seeing distinctly Syria in the background, without the expected gun fire. Noting large plops of excrement, the rural areas of Jordan are home to camel, onix, leopards, snakes, other large cats, so when you compare the risks I think there may have been more in the bush than near Syria! The biggest hazard we faced was rain, at times torrential, threatening good photos as we descended down to the soap makers quarters in a nearby village.

The 11am brunch by now was a distant memory. The poor lady demonstrating the calligraphy had few takers, but when faced with temporary food at a traditional Jordanian biscuit maker we perked up enough for a downhill ramble to lunch at 1:30. Being known for it’s figs, lavender and olive oil in this district, a local family in a modest dirt road café (as in a long table with plastic chairs) whipped up a feast of rocket, Lebanese bread, eggplant stuffed with walnut, chilli tomato and pepper, and washed down with ultra strong cardamom coffee and mint tea. This meal sealed a great day’s walk such that our legs were capable enough to get 10 paces to the local bus. Resplendent in window curtains with tassles, we chugged at snails pace up hill and down dale to the start point and our lodge.

En route we got to learn some quirky Jordanian body language and like the kissing/ patting/ holding ritual, it is unique. As you may know, there are some gestures with divergent meanings within the Euro-Asian countries, like the index finger held with the thumb in a circle, but this is meant to be a clean blog so I shall keep to 3 key hand signals guaranteed to make you communication experience in Jordan or with a Jordanian clear and effective.

Starting with the hand on the head patting/ massaging it slowly – this means “I am sorry, I have mucked up but please forgive me”. The next one is when greeting someone and offering them your hand. Dependent on their religious tendency (Jordan is roughly 10% Christian and the other is Muslim), you may have to
Sunset over West Bank, from AjlounSunset over West Bank, from AjlounSunset over West Bank, from Ajloun

Israel to west, and town of Pisan clearly visible from Ajloun reserve
retract the offered hand if the other person places their hand on their heart and pats the left chest gently. This means “I have great respect for you”. Lastly but by no means least is the thumb and 4 fingers held together tightly in a triangle, shaken gently forwards and backwards. This means “wait” - perhaps I shall try that next time I have a patient waiting, and hopefully they don’t misinterpret it as “give me money, now”.

All grubby but wound up on cardamom coffee, 6 of us, 3 girls and 3 guys, continued on a mini adventure with our cameras at the ready. A 2km amble became an off piste clamber, and being amongst the lowly company of 4 engineers, the agenda was one of a construction and gadget based hike, examining the nuances of a viewing platform, the flow of water into a pond, to using compasses, GPS’s and backpacks with solar panels for charging lithium battery to assist our short trip. I pulled out my only gadget that needed no battery, a monocular, and played a sniper spotting military activity in Syria. Concurrently, Joel the mechanical engineer took my photo and most likely that will make it to Facebook at some point as proof that I faced my fear and came near the Syrian border.

An elaborate dinner with the whole group free of alcohol and full of laughs was a fine example of when you have enough enthusiasm, commonality and food the conversations can go anywhere.

Fighting the jet lag, the next day dawning bright and cloudless was perfect to explore the Ajloun castle and Jerash. As we headed off in the minivan again, gazing from the lodge out at Pisan in Israel and towards the west bank, Abraham gave us a run down of marriage for Jordanians and why he is still with his wife of 20 years (a bond as a student of $20,000 local dosh is why!).

A pivotal point in Jordan’s marriage etiquette history was the advocacy of Queen Raina, a Romanian who lobbied to get women the right to instigate a divorce proceeding. Prior to 2006 this was only possible if the husband lodged it, and so this probably led to some miserable existences. When this law was passed, there was a flood of applications from Jordanian women trying to exit marriages and now more than ever women seem to be more discerning in their choice of mate and certainly not party to men with multiple wives which has is a stereotype that has virtually died in Arabic nations. Coffee has symbolism for marriage and if the man or women wants to reject an offer of marriage when one is visiting the parents home, they reject the coffee offered!

We also learned that if a Jordanian man marries a foreigner she becomes Jordanian and so too do any offspring. Yet if the reverse happens, the kids are always regarded as foreigners in their own land and can be ousted or kept on the outside. A kiwi lady we may get to meet, whom a book has been written about, did this by marrying a Bedouin. Now widowed she lives in Petra with her own business interests and 2 grown children. Despite being quizzed before I left on this trip if this will be me in a year or so, the answer is no…to live in a cave for decades with a tea towel clad man, they would have to be a pretty impressive catch to do so!

The castle at Ajloun and ruins of Jerash showed that yet again the Roman influence has penetrated most of Europe and parts of the Middle East. The temperature crept up and by 1pm we had watched bagpipes being played in an amphitheatre (introduced by the British), sunk cardamom coffee at Artemis’ temple for $1, and whipped into a supermarket for supplies before heading to the Dead sea spa resort 2 hours from Jerash. Passing through the valley of Jordan, and deviating away from the dirty enclave of El Mastaba (!), we arrived at our digs that overlooked Jerico and the West Bank mid afternoon intent on getting dirty and winding down in one of the string of lake side resorts.

Being just above 400 metres lower than sea level, we literally hit rock bottom and at 37% concentration of salt, there is no chance of swimming in it. Instead, a 25 metre swimming pool is on site with various leisure pools, a bar, restaurant and medical clinic staffed by surly sounding staff. Immediately I made a reservation for a deep tissue massage and entering the clinic was greeting by a tall bronzed Jordanian man with nice glasses and far too much hair gel. He faced me blankly and said, “5pm available”, and then trying to persuade me he could do 9am the next day I figured he wanted to go home. Deciding on the 5pm slot, I passed the time in the pool wondering if he would perk up for some deep tissue massage.

Then with some delay, his hands came alive “as you wish”. “Ok, I want legs front and back and lower back”. I am a physio, I add. “So am I” he said. Great I thought, most physios are fantastic people with well defined ethical boundaries and excellent communication, I think I am safe. At this stage I shall point out English was his 2nd language and when the towel was safely tucked in all available crevasses I assumed all would go as planned. We engaged in light banter….for my liking however, the hands wandered further than planned, but not outside ethical boundaries and by golly gosh was he firm. It was not just Syrian border that was the danger zone but this was borderline too. Thank you and here’s the tip!

Sun setting over the sea, I then raced down to the ‘beach and rubbed sulphur smelling mud all over my pummeled body and soaked, and with help from one of our group to take photos I was feeling rehabilitated.

And that is why this blog is called what it is.

We are heading south for the next 4 days for more action, ancient history lessons and no doubt plenty of wit to share

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