Heading to an Arab country for the first time is a little intimidating, particularly for a single, American woman. “They don’t like modern women!” people warned, “be careful and don’t walk around alone.” Among other impractical advice I was told to: Cover your head! Don’t talk to men! Say you’re from Canada!
I arrived prepared.
At the airport in Amman I was ready for lascivious, predatory taxi drivers and questioning stares from burka clad women. My guard was up: shoulders back, reflective sunglasses firmly in place and Beyonce loudly cheering me on in my headphones.
Perhaps my guard was too firmly in place. A man waiting outside the airport attempted to help me – to sell me a ticket, direct me to the next bus and place my bag in a pile of other luggage. In return he received a stern dressing down, replete with finger pointing and accusations that he was either overcharging me or attempting to steal my only possessions. The words, “My Husband!” and “Italian Mafia!” may have have been thrown around.
It turns out that he was the bus driver.
He had clearly heard the accusations before because he calmly pointed to his price list and time schedule. The bus left 20 minutes later with my belongings firmly secured in the back of the locked trunk. This was my first indication that my expectations may be off the mark.
This was confirmed the longer I stayed in Jordan.
On the street strangers would approach me, wanting to know where I came from and why I was traveling alone. Instead of the ardently anti-American refrain that I had prepared for, each and every person gave a huge smile and proclaimed, “Welcome to my country!” -or- “You’re American? You’re welcome here!”
It wasn’t just the absence of anti-western sentiment that surprised me; the most difficult aspects of travel – bargaining, transportation, and avoiding touts- were far easier in Jordan than in Asia. The word ‘No!’ actually works in Jordan! Bargaining was as simple as saying, “I’ll only give you 50cents for that bottle of water.” Cabs readily turned on their meters and the only guide who offered his services was a 75 year old homeless man.
In fact, the only problem was that too many people wanted to help me. Women on the bus made certain that I paid the correct amount and counted my change. Cars would slow down to ask if I was lost or if I needed help. Everywhere I went men warned against other men, “watch for dangerous guys at the beach! Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you..”
Confronted with all this kindness, I left Jordan with the feeling that I was missed out on the best part of this country. I felt that I couldn’t accept this genuine hospitality because I was a single woman and it might give the wrong impression.
Every night I relaxed at the same restaurant and every night after serving his tables my very gentile waiter would invite me to join him at his table for dinner. I really wanted to sit with him, to ask questions and hear about his life. Instead every night I declined – smiling demurely, sitting all alone, enjoying my second sweet mint tea. I knew this man wasn’t interested in me romantically but I didn’t sit with him because I didn’t want to give his friends the wrong idea.
I am the type of person to say ‘Yes!’ and I enjoy finding myself in unusual, interesting, and exciting circumstances – the very experiences that have made this trip so memorable. But in Jordan I felt that I didn’t have that luxury. Although I felt incredibly safe, it was clear that I was in a man’s world and that there were specific gender roles that I needed to follow.
I enjoyed my time in Jordan – it’s safe, stunning and full of warm, welcoming people. But to really enjoy every minute and take advantage of every opportunity, it helps to bring a friend.