Middle Eastern Adventure: Escaping Death in Jordan – Part 1

Here were these two Westerners standing on the side of the road that runs from Amman to Aqaba at 10:30 at night stopping cars. It must have seemed strange to people, but not to us.

While it often feels that we are born with choice, to see how others live helps me question what often seems so obvious to me.

Our trip to Jordan had started the previous night when we had miscalculated our timing to make it over the border. We planned to make it to the border just at 6pm. The only problem with that perfect plan was that 6pm was 2 hours after the border closed, but we hadn’t taken the time to look that up. It just seemed like 7pm was a good time for the border to close and we went with it. This led to us camping outside the border crossing and making this very large fire to keep our spirits high. This wouldn’t be the last time we were wrong about something on this adventure.

Desert in Jordan

Our huge fire, I think we burned a receipt and a napkin.

We are both young Israelis in a land full of people that don’t care much for Israel so the next morning when we crossed the border the border guards duct taped rectangular pieces of cardboard over Yoni’s Hebrew bumper stickers so we wouldn’t be targets. They told us it would be a good idea to not announce the fact that we were Israelis, we headed their advice…for a bit. In spite of the kind guards’ attempts it would appear we were standing on the side of the road in the middle of the night like targets.

After crossing the border we headed north between the red mountains that make up southern Jordan and found ourselves in a whole different adventure saved for another story.


The red hills of Jordan with ancient settlements in them.

Well anyways, here we were, the sun had set a while ago and the tourist map created to highlight amateur depictions of rock formations rather than roads was leading us astray again. We were a pretty good team, I assumed Yoni was my bodyguard and he assumed I had street smarts and could read maps. Up till this point in the trip I had clearly been doing a good job with us ending up on the side of the road trying to flag down help.

Finally a sketchy 1984 formerly white Toyota pickup truck stopped. I walked to the window and asked for directions to Vadi Ram. We had a system where I would speak on our behalf and present us as Americans. He replied in broken English, “No problem, you follow me, first I go home, then we go to Vadi Ram.” It seemed like a bad idea, following some guy we just met to his remote village in the middle of the night. So I said, “Sure we’ll be right behind you, thanks.” I got back in the car and told Yoni he was going to lead us there but had to stop at his house to get some food or something.

Off we went, driving down the freeway the opposite direction from Vadi Ram following this pickup truck. Then suddenly on the freeway he veered off and drove down a dirt road. Yes they have dirt roads that exit the freeway in Jordan. We looked at each other to see if the other was going to suggest we not follow him, neither of us spoke up, so off we went.

After following our new friend down the road for a few miles we drove into a little town that seemed like a cross between a country western cowboy town and a Bedouin camp. The “roads” were suggestions, there were campfires and kids running around and screaming even though it was late at night; it gave the place a communal feeling. We were not exactly in our element anymore, but this trip was all about getting out of our element. Yonatan had just begun his master’s program at the Wiessman Institute and I was thoroughly lost and confused about life at this point. We both graduated from UW together the previous summer. The trip had the theme of questioning what kind of adults we wanted to become, how important money was to us, how important doing something meaningful to us, what was important in a girlfriend, and how important adventure was in life.

One of the nice things about travel is that because it is so far out of the ordinary my memory of it always stays strong. It is a way to capture time periods of my life, to remember how I perceive the world during distinct moments. Whether the swarms of people in Wuhan, or the isolation of the Ecuadorian Jungle, living out of a van with twelve people touring the US, or being alone in a car in Iceland for days. I remember not only the place itself but myself in each place and they act like mile markers along my journey.

So off we were again following Muhammad back towards the freeway now officially on our way to Vadi Ram. Vadi Ram was one of Lawrence of Arabia’s favorite places in the whole Middle East and known for its immense beauty. As we approached the highway, Muhammad turned on his left blinker. This was strange since clearly this was a highway full of 18 wheelers transporting goods and materials from Jordan’s main port to its capital. And they were clearly driving the correct way on the highway at 11:30pm. Muhammad was not swayed by this and when he reached the highway he turned left driving on the shoulder and accelerating to around 45 miles per hour.

At this point Yonatan who was driving reached the highway and looked at me, then said, “when in Jordan… Fuck it.” So off we went, certain that if not by kidnapping it was by car that we would meet our fate. It was kind of like being on a roller coaster you know isn’t put together quite right as the 18 wheelers would drive past us at a relative speed of over 100 miles per hour blaring their horns and shaking the car as they sped by.

As we drove we concluded that Muhammad thought this was a good idea because the next exit to turn around was about 5 miles north, whereas if he led us south it would be just 2 miles before there was a break in the median he could sneak through. The 18 wheelers continued to blast past us when suddenly our friend pulls the wheel hard right and guns it, getting out of the way of an 18 wheeler by no more than one second. We continued on the shoulder going the wrong way now parallel to him looking for our chance. I can only imagine being one of those big trucks and looking down the highway to see two sets of lights are coming towards you on either side of the highway. For the middle of the night there are more semi’s than you would think and we weren’t in the mood to get crushed by one in the middle of Jordanian Desert. Finally we found our break and made it to the interior shoulder. A few hundred feet later we crossed what was basically a break in the median fence and were on our way towards Vadi Ram as if nothing had happened. We drove for another forty five minutes letting our nerves calm, when we finally made it to the entrance of Vadi Ram, an impressive gate that let us know there was no way in hell we would be spending the night inside welcomed us. Muhammad circled around in his truck, we thanked him and he drove off into the desert again.

Yonatan and I stood at the entrance under the one light that lit the otherwise desolate parking lot probably 40 miles from any town. We decided to continue our tradition and find a good place on the road to pull off drive a hundred yards into the desert, unroll our sleeping bags under the stars and hope no scorpions or snakes decided to cuddle up with us over the night.

So we laid down under stars that just can’t be explained, but those fellow travelers who have been in a remote desert at night know, and we chatted about what transpired throughout the day. Our conversation trailed off and we were approaching sleep when suddenly we heard the rumble of 3 loud trucks and saw their headlights. They were driving pretty fast and we both sat up quickly, one of us mentioned to the other that we hoped they wouldn’t see us. But the white sedan parked on a flat red desert with hills behind it must have caught their attention. Because when they were directly in front of us in unison all three of them turned off the road and were approaching us. Six headlights, barreling towards us at one in the morning, in the middle of the desert. We hurriedly jumped out of our sleep bags hoping to be a bit more presentable for what was about to transpire. I was fairly confident this was going to be the end of our Jordan trip as we knew it, and the end of a bit more than that. For what seemed like an eternity the headlights came closer and closer, and as they did my heart started to pump a little harder. I considered jumping into the car or just making a break for the hills behind us, but it was obvious neither was a solution and we would be caught by the trucks. So instead we stood there like two idiots, blinded by the headlights, in basketball shorts and shoes without socks waiting for whatever was coming our way…. To be continued

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