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A Dream Realized in the Middle East, Despite Fears of Warfare

November 11, 2001|JERRY HAINES | Jerry Haines is a lawyer in Washington, D.C

In mid-August my wife and I heard about an inexpensive vacation package that would allow us to realize a dream of visiting Jordan and Syria. We would see what Moses saw, walk where pilgrims walked, even ride where Indiana Jones rode, in lands whose importance runs from the Old Testament to the front page of newspapers today. Lands filled with relics and temples of ancient civilizations, places where the Romans were relative latecomers.

Air fares had been prohibitively high, but this package would include air fare, hotels and tours, all at a price comparable to the usual air fare alone. Despite unrest in the Middle East, Janice and I couldn't resist. We signed up.

Then came Sept. 11. Here is how events unfolded:

Sept. 14: Like much in America now, the fate of our trip is uncertain. Our scheduled departure date is Sept. 29. Should we cancel or defer? Can we do either, since I didn't buy travel insurance? Even if we want to go, are the airlines flying--particularly there? In spite of jammed phone lines, I get through to the tour company, Sunny Land Tours in Hackensack, N.J., but no one has answers yet.

Sept. 21: We have an answer: Planes are flying again. We will lose our money if we cancel, nor can we defer. Would travel insurance have made a difference? That's unclear, but it's moot. We're going. "Wow, you're brave," friends say. I scramble to obtain visas from embassies, whose staffs seem pleasantly surprised to see a prospective tourist.

Sept. 26: "Looking American" becomes a worry. What should we wear--only dark clothing? Should Janice keep her arms and head covered? Clearly, we know too little about the culture. Our neighbor Bill strikes a chilling note: "Not to be morbid, but does your son have a key to your house?"

Sept. 28: We phone our grown son in Oregon, other family and friends, expressing far more affection than usual. I go to church and light a candle.

Sept. 29: It's Saturday. Airport lines are short but slow. Security is thorough; at the Royal Jordanian Airlines terminal in New York's JFK airport, the X-ray machine and metal detectors are at the front door. And that's just the first set. Before boarding we get "wanded" at the cabin door, and some carry-on luggage is searched. We are among the few non-Arab passengers. No one says they feel uncomfortable with us on the plane. We settle in for a long flight.

Sept. 30: Thirteen hours later, we fly over desert as we approach the airport in Amman, Jordan. As we disembark, the crew stands at the hatch thanking each passenger in Arabic--except us. To us they say, "Goodbye, thank you," in English. Are we that easy to identify? Should we worry? Immigration and Customs are efficient and courteous. A tour company driver takes us to our hotel. "We are all for U.K. and U.S. here," he says. We start to relax and enjoy the sights. There's a guy with a camel standing at the side of the highway.

Oct. 1: Our tour bus is a big pink-and-white van that screams "Tourists!" There is only one other American couple; the rest are from Britain. We explore Amman with our guide, Aziz, whose first stop is the beautiful King Abdullah Mosque, which shares its neighborhood with two Christian churches. I like that omen. We also learn that Jordan's second official language is English. So it may be that Jordanians automatically greet every obvious non-Arab in English. Perhaps we can pass ourselves off as Dutch.

After lunch we tour the crowded vegetable market on our own. It is, as Aziz has advised, perfectly safe. I take some pictures, and a guy asks, "What nationality you?"

Without thinking I answer, "USA."

He kisses his fingers, looks to heaven and repeats, "U-S-A." He pantomimes a machine gun and says, "Bin Laden--ack, ack, ack," showing us what he would do were the terrorist in his sights.

Oct. 2: Our pink-and-white bus breezes by Palestinian refugee camps on the way to the northern end of Jordan. We tour Roman ruins at Pella and more Roman ruins at Umm Qais, overlooking the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. Aziz presents a carefully balanced summary of the conflicting claims to the Golan Heights, which looms dramatically across the valley. We travel on to the Dead Sea, following a lunch of "holy fish"--St. Peter's fish--from the Jordan River. (They're overcooked.)

Oct. 3: Today's day trip is to Jarash, one of Jordan's principal historic sites. At a 1st century Roman amphitheater noted for nearly perfect acoustics, Aziz invites us to sing something. I lead off, belting out "New York, New York."

Jordanian elementary school students are touring here too. "Hi," one greets me.

"Hi, how are you?" I reply.

This they find hilarious. "How are you?" they hoot in response. "How are you-u-u?"

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