Trip to Jordan 2014

It’s late winter 2014. I’m at 140 countries. I’m watching TV. The news is on. They’re covering the Syrian civil war. Now they’re talking about the massive refugee camp across the border in Jordan, the fourth largest city in the country, the Za’atari refugee camp, 2nd largest camp in the world, with 120,000 Syrians, trapped in the camp, until they can return to Syria after the civil war is over. I try to imagine wandering around there. I imagine walking the camp, and finding a widow with children, to give food and other goods, maybe even adopting the family somehow. Fifty dollars a month I’m sure would make a big difference in their life. But certainly there’s no bank or Western Union in the camp, to even send money, right? For a week the thought keeps coming back. Then I take the step. I turn in frequent flier miles to book a flight to Amman, Jordan. I research the camp more. I discover you need a pass to enter. Or you can bribe your way into the camp. I find Saif online, while trying to hook up a car, for both the camp, and also to see Petra (more on that later). Saif let’s me know, it’s not possible to bribe your way in anymore, you must have a pass administered and awarded by the Ministry of the Interior. So I pull together a reasonable facsimile of journalist credentials, write a nice cover letter, describing the true sympathy I have for how the Jordanians have taken care of the Palestinians for a generation, and now likewise are supporting their brother Syrians, (the credentials might have been a little bit fabricated, but the sentiments are true),  and fax it all to my new friend Manal at the Jordanian Embassy in DC. photo 1 I try not to bother her, I have plenty of time, it’s five weeks away from when my flight leaves. I wait a few weeks, and check in, she tells me that the documents have all been submitted, everything is on track. I wait another ten days, bug her again, my pass for the camp is not ready yet. Time starts to click by. I want to bother her, bother her a lot, but I play it cool, and now I send a final email, four days before I need to leave. Nothing. Two days before I need to leave, I hear my pass is approved. I can’t believe it. I thank Manal over and over. Eventually I will send a handwritten thank you letter to her – she took care of me. But I will arrive on a Friday, and leave early on a Monday, all the way to Jordan and back for just two full nights, and as a Muslim country, their prayer day is Friday, and Saturday is also part of their weekend. So my only chance to visit the Ministry to fetch my pass is on Sunday, the last day I would have a chance to visit the camp, so If there’s a problem, it will be a problem. I email Saif. I ask if there’s any possibility that a driver, can go to the Ministry, and try to pick up my pass. I’ve not given him a penny yet, he’s working on good faith. I know this can’t work, the embassy has already told me I must secure the pass in-person. I scan my passport, write a note, and forward both along with the email from the embassy with my approval reference number. The next day Saif emails me back, and says the Ministry has told the driver to come back the next day, Thursday. Okay, that’s not good, but not bad. Saif asks me, “Are you sure you’re really approved for a pass?” That’s definitely not good. I urge him on, that all is kosher. He’s Muslim, so those were not my exact words. I don’t know if I’ll really get the pass, but I go on a shopping spree. I buy food, toys, and rummage children’s’ clothes around the house. I pack it all in a nice big red suitcase with wheels, that I’ve paid $20 for at an estate sale. goods


I fly from Dulles Airport near Washington DC, to Toronto. While there, I get the news from Saif, his driver picked up my pass. If I had waited until Sunday, my last day in Jordan, to try and pick up my pass, they would have said, “Come back tomorrow,” like they did two days ago to Saif’s driver, and it would have been too late for me to get the pass. This is unbelievable, it’s really happening. I can’t believe it in Jordan when I’m really holding it in my hand.


I’m connecting with Egypt Air to Cairo, then to Jordan. There’s a cigarette icon on my boarding pass, with no slash through it. Why is this on my ticket. Is it possible that smoking is allowed. I can’t believe it. I get on the plane and find my seat. Yes, I can smell stale cigarette smoke on the plane. This is going to be bad. I sit. I wait for the smell to get worse, but instead it gets better. It’s not smoke. Someone must have food. Of course smoking is not allowed. We land in Amman. I see what looks like my luggage coming off the plane, as the bus leaves from the plane to the terminal. I’m chill. All is on plan. Like a seasoned traveler, or like anyone that can read, I see on the screen, that our luggage will come to carousel 6. I sit and wait. I wait. I wait some more. Hordes of happy people grab their luggage and rush to go home, or visit relatives. I wait. This can’t be happening. No luggage. It’s time finally to go report my luggage as missing. I fein towards the other carousels hoping for a gift, and bingo, that might be my big red suitcase. It comes around, not sure if it’s mine, and I don’t know whether to grab it or not, I act like I know what I’m doing, and read the tag. I can’t read the tag. I can’t see my name or any name. I pull the bag, and finally see my name. My other bag is there too. I’m good.

IMG_1245I grab a cab, make it to my hotel in Amman. My room completely confuses me. First, I can’t figure out the Do Not Disturb outside the door. I tried to flip it, it won’t move. I start to unscrew it, but they wouldn’t engineer it that way. Only later that night, do some of the rooms have their notices lit up, and I realize there’s a switch inside the room.


I never really even figure out the shower. I figure it out just enough so water at the right temperature is coming out the top, but I know I’m not really doing it right.



There’s a secret button to push to make the hair dryer work.


There’s a hidden lever at the back bottom of the coffee pot. I spend five minutes till I finally figure it out.


I see the green light, the TV is on, but nothing shows. It takes forever before I crunch enough buttons at once, that the TV shows a picture.


I need to get on the Internet. I put in my name and password. Nothing. I call down, and finally figure out, that they have my name as MC KAY, instead of MCKAY. And I’m burning up, the AC won’t come on. Finally I remember that many rooms need the key inserted into the slot by the door. I’m finally set.

IMG_1182Time for a beer, down the elevator, I hold the door for a young Jordanian working in IT, his Muslim name is shortened to Dan, so English speakers like me can remember it more easily. He’s even done work in Washington DC. He asks if we should have coffee. We sit and discuss the current situation of Middle East peace. He’s one-fourth Palestinian. His family has documentation showing they own land in Israel, now lost to the Jews in one of the Arab-Israeli wars. Not only do they have this British documentation from the 1920’s, the paper trail goes back much further to the Ottoman Empire. He tells me that Jews will pay big money to buy the original documentation, so they don’t have to worry about lawsuits in the future. I tell him my vision for Middle East peace, is the entire world pays off all the people on both sides to just make peace. His vision is for a simple multicultural society living in peace in Israel. He has Jewish friends. He has Christian friends. Everyone can get along, it’s the governments that make the problems.

He gives me a ride a mile further into the center of the city. We have to make a U-turn near the hotel at Circle #3, and drive past Reem, the top fast food place in all of Jordan. There is a line day or night. They sell $10,000 worth of these sandwich wraps per day. The owner has been offered a million dollars to sell his establishment, and open franchises, but he refuses. I snack there four times during my trip, beginning later that night.






Here’s a video of them in action.



I ask Dan where to eat, I want a local place. He drops me off at the best spot, and tells me to order Mansaf. I have to write it down to remember the name. It’s plain, but the meat is tender. It’s not my favorite meal of the trip, but I’m glad to have had the national dish.



I walk to to the Roman amphitheater. I’m as tired as the stone. When you have to get up early, it’s hard to have a good night’s sleep. So I did not sleep well before flying. Plus I had to get up at 4:45am. So basically had almost no sleep. Then the flights went overnight, so a second night with almost no sleep. Now I’m being baked by the sun. I’m too tired to even walk up the stairs to the top. Pathetic.



I take a cab back to the hotel, then later go out for a walk. I go down a street with pet food stores on both sides. Why does retail work that way, with a city having all the car dealerships in the same area, or in a third world country, everyone selling just melons, or just flowers or in Jordan, olives sold strewn along the road all the way from the airport. Since age 12, I’ve owned three different Hungarian Vizslas, a rare breed, but here I see Vizslas pictured on the bags of dog food.

There is nowhere to have a beer. I’m in a Muslim country. I’m finally directed to an American style wing joint. They have a great beer called Caraka Ale. I look at the label to confirm it’s brewed in Jordan, it is, but by “Colorado Trading Inc.” I’m confused.IMG_1187 Later in the trip I have a beer called Philadelphia. One of the waiters writes out an address for a fun local restaurant. The first two lines are written by him in Arabic for me to show a taxi. The third line, I write, and show back to him to read. He stares blankly for some time. He’s confused. Finally I laugh, and tell him that I just made up some scribbles. Now he laughs.



The taxi takes me to the wrong restaurant.  The menu is awful, all tourist food, but finally I realize there is local food from the appetizer section, and I have a fantastic meal, almost all vegetables, tabouli salad the best ever, falafel, raw veggies, tomato, cucumber, Jordanian olives, and hummus w/ meat. Wow.


IMG_1292IMG_1296I sit with a sheik from Qatar and a Bedouin retired commando. I ask the sheik, “Are you from Saudi Arabia?” and before he answers, I remember that the Saudi’s wear a square band on the top of their heads, on their keffiyeh, and his is oval. I’m upset that I asked him when I actually knew he was not Saudi. This is me the next day, telling my driver the story, showing him how I picked up a tissue box from the table, and put it on my head, exclaiming, “Saudi Saudi!” It was quite funny. My driver later stops, and dresses me with a real Saudi fold. But back to dinner. The commando films me saying something in Arabic all crazy, we post to Facebook, and within moments, we have 30 likes. He tells me by the next day, there will be thousands. My kids would be jealous. The rant went something like this: “[Me yelling something in Arabic] Number One!, [same thing in Arabic] Number One!, [something else in Arabic] Number One!!.” The restaurant is nearly empty still at 8pm, we’re almost the only ones there, I’m told that it fills up solid from 3am to 6am, but I bail to go home and get some sleep.

Here’s a half minute video from my hotel’s outside stairwell, during the call to prayers. As Americans we’re not used to hearing the call to prayers, to us it sounds spooky (hard to hear in this video). Notice the giant flag at the end, that’s the King’s palace.

I walk to an ATM machine by the hotel. This is a video of the rat that ran in front of me. I jumped back screaming. Turns out it was not really a rat.

IMG_1222It’s the next morning. I leave in 45 minutes for the camp. Woke up at 4:45am after three hours sleep, could not get back to sleep. Got up, found cold bottled water, hit the can, and eventually fell back asleep. Morning time I’m drinking in-room instant coffee watching the news. So a good meal the night before, good sleep, all set for today. My driver now is 15 minutes late. I email Saif. The driver calls my room. Saif forgot we agreed that driver would call my room. He’s been sitting downstairs for half an hour. My driver’s name is Moumad. He looks dour in this picture, but he’s funny, smart, and over two days we become brothers. He’s Jordanian, but was born in Kuwait, and lived there for 27 years, until escaping just before the Iraqis invaded. His Arab friends told him not to leave, that all would be okay. Those people were mistaken. He’s lucky his family left just in time. In Kuwait he was a mechanic working on Lamborghini’s. I asked him if he ever got to drive them. Kuwait is very small. He said they would inform the police they were going to drive, then scream them to the border and back. In Jordan there are no Lamborghini’s. Jordan has no oil. So Moumad now drives a taxi, but he’s a content man. I tell him that beyond the camp, I’d like to try and somehow step into Syria to collect it as country number 142. He calls Saif, who reacts strongly. Saif tells Mamoud that if we get caught at the border, they will throw him in jail, confiscate the car, but let me go because I’m an American. I have google satellite maps of the area that I don’t need now. I don’t want to risk his livelihood just for my ego.IMG_1217

IMG_1220We see camels. Do not get too close, they will spit at you, or bite you.




We drive for an hour, topping the rise of a hill.  There’s the camp, wide and white on the horizon. I’m excited, apprehensive, anxious. The camp is less dangerous in the daytime. I hope I can hire a bodyguard. I try to not worry. But Mamoud tells me he’s worried about my safety. He knows a doctor working  in the camp. He says refugees don’t have just physical issues, but mental as well, that if you see your father killed before your eyes, then you change, you just don’t care. Likewise Mamoud could have worked in the camp as a translator for $1,000 monthly, more than driving a taxi, but he did not want to wake up and see the sadness each day.



We get to the first checkpoint. My driver speaks with the soldier. Luckily, instead of me walking down the long road by myself, towing the big red suitcase like a big red flag, among a lot of people coming and going from the camp, they let in my driver and our car too. I am so thankful.


IMG_1192Then they let us both, along with our car again, past the second checkpoint, into the main camp. We’re in. I’m incredulous. We drive to an admission center. Some Europeans are leaving a conference room. They’ve just seen some kind of presentation. None of them make eye contact with me. I think we’re all nervous.

My driver and I go into an office. There’s a soldier behind the desk. We talk. Finally my driver leans over and says, “Do you realize you’re talking to the commandant for the whole camp?” I cannot believe I’m in his office, this man responsible for the welfare of 120,000 refugees. The commandant is exceedingly polite, calm, direct, tall, and strikingly handsome. Later I realize I never caught his name. Days after I’m back in the U.S., there’s an editorial in the Washington Post below, a writer visited him the Monday after my Saturday, and mentions his name as Hmoud, the same as my driver, minus one vowel. I ask him if I can take his picture, but he demurs. He says he can’t afford to have mis-comments associated with his picture. We agree it’s a political issue. IMG_1193IMG_1194He’s called out of his office for a minute, and I jump up, and take quick fuzzy pictures of some maps of the camp on his wall, and of his desk, with the previous king, the current king, and the crowned prince.  Even knowing his name, later I google for an image of him, but he has protected himself. photo-2

He questions me, “So what organization are you with?” I tell him Act2 Media, with a straight face. He’s polite, pauses, and does not say, “Sorry, I’ve never heard of that,” but I know he’s thinking it. “How long did I want to stay in the camp?” I tell him just an hour or two is fine. “Would I interview people?” Yes, I’d like to interview a few people. An assistant brings in tea. We move to the bigger issue. He is concerned about my safety. So am I. He makes a decision, and requests a small but stern security associate to escort us both. I’m guessing this official will have to write up a report about my visit afterwards. I also find out that the paperwork sent to the camp, once my pass was approved by the Ministry of the Interior, explicitly addressed the security concerns for my safety.  This security officer is on our team, although sullen, he’s trying to help the whole time. The commandant even approves letting my driver and the car drive us everywhere in the camp with this officer. Then I start asking him questions, questions I would ask anyone in this situation, but strangely they’re the same questions as if I really am a journalist. How many come to the camp each day on average. 200. Didn’t it used to be about 350? Yes. How many are in the camp now, is it 120m? Yes. So you’re at capacity? Yes. You have a new camp, where is that? South, far. And all the overage goes there? Yes. How long have you been commandant? A year. And the Syrians can leave when they want? Yes, but we interview them. If they have a wife and kids, they can’t leave. If someone needs them here, they can’t leave. How do they get to the border, do you take them? Yes we have a bus. What’s the longest a refugee has been here? We opened in July of 2012. “This is all public knowledge,” he says. I say, “Yes, I saw on google from satellite pictures, how the camp has grown,” as I motion big, bigger, bigger with my hands. He laughs. I laugh. The tea we’re served is sweet. I don’t drink sweet tea, but this is a special occasion. It’s time to leave. The tea is so hot, I have not finished it, I drink some more, and although a tiny cup, cannot finish it, but I see no one has. The tea is not important. The offering of the of the tea, the sharing of the tea, is what’s important. At the car, the security officer asks about the suitcase. I ask if there’s a distribution center I can donate it to, if we can’t bring it with us. No. But we leave with the suitcase still in the trunk.

The security officer calls someone as we drive through the camp. He knows I’m looking for a widow with children. We drive, then turn around. He’s made contact with a strikingly tall older handsome bearded Bedouin elder in a flowing white robe, who directs our car to the tent of a woman who has arrived in the camp just six weeks before. I gently take his worry beads from his hand and flick them myself. He smiles.



We take our shoes off in a little ante-room and all enter this woman’s tent. Her name is Aziza. She’s from Alsuna Maim. It’s a surreal moment. She and her children stop eating to welcome us. Her three young boys are ages 3, 6, & 7. She’s just cooked lunch. I ask her how.



I look to the cookstove in a separate area off the back of the tent along with the few rationed supplies. Introductions ensue, then as a ‘journalist’ I get down to the business of ‘interviewing’ her. I have requested that we find a woman with children, who has lost a husband, and this woman’s husband and four brothers have all been murdered in prison in Syria. He was in prison for a year and a half, until a year ago, she’s told he’s dead. She never receives the body. This should be a moment of great heartache as we discuss it, but she still smiles a lot. I tell my driver, the only one that can speak English, to tell her that she seems very strong. She says she is strong for her children. She’s fairly young. Afterwards all of us men agree that she is attractive. We talk for awhile. Once we’re all comfortable with the situation, my driver goes back to the car to get the suitcase. I offer to go, but he says it would attract less attention if it was just him. We lay the suitcase in front of the family, and I unzip it, showing some things. “This is Cayenne, hot pepper from Mexico, this is Italian seasonings,” my driver translates. I’m nervous. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be a pseudo-journalist or just me. I’m looking in the suitcase, then it hits me, there are my kids’ old baseball gloves. I’m so happy to pull out the baseball and gloves, and then show the kids how to catch a ball in a glove. I try not to be one of those people who subscribe all things to fate, but that I had baseball gloves perfectly suited for her three boys, it did seem like all of this was meant to happen. I’m guessing these are the only baseball gloves in the entire camp. Maybe these boys someday will even have sons to tell the story, and hand down these gloves to. I ask what she’s given each month. She receives $13 in food coupons. Later I’m told they can get a few more things from NGO’s like UNICEF. I gave her some money as well as we leave. I reach to shake her hand. I’m not allowed to shake a Muslim woman’s hand, even my driver later says that he has never touched his brother’s wife in any way, even just shaking hands, so I boldly throw her a kiss and a big smile, pat my heart, with lots of waves, she smiling in return.

This is a half minute of video from inside the tent.



A lot of old women gather outside the tent. I was not allowed to photograph this woman inside, but when she came out of the tent, I took a photo from a distance, and somehow I think she knew and the men approved as well, because she had previously demurred – it was her way of saying thank you.

IMG_1207 - Version 2


Here’s a close up of Aziza from the same picture above.






It turns out, there is indeed Western Union in the camp, but we forget to ask for her phone number. My driver and I can’t believe we’ve forgotten. It’s the only way that I can send her more money in the future, to call and tell her a Western Union control number. My driver knows people in the camp, and luckily we took a picture of her ID, so he likely will be able to eventually get her number, and Saif will email it to me. We’ll find her somehow.

This is a video of the surroundings outside Aziza’s tent after we got back to the car.

This is the main street in the camp, Champ Elyses, named by the French NGO’s. This is 8 minutes of one straight shot, so just watch till you get bored, then bail out.

The miracle of the whole event started from a crazy thought in my mind in America, through the email to the owner of a tourist service, to the bond I made with his English-speaking driver, to the cooperation of the commandant, then the security officer, then the elder Bedouin, to finally living this small reality of a dream for perhaps ten minutes. The whole thing will be one of the most memorable days of my life. As we left, the driver and security officer told me that my gift was not to this woman, but that it was a gift to God, and a message of peace to anyone hearing of it. That really touched me. My driver told me that the security officer had worked there for a year, and that this was the first he had ever heard of someone coming with a package of gifts like this, especially alone, and from so far away. Everything I thought about visiting this refugee camp, and gifting a widowed family was very unrealistic, but somehow it  turned out perfectly anyway. The Syrian civil war will continue still for many years. It’s hard knowing when this woman might make it home, and what kind of life she will have once there. I’d like to think that someday, if even in ten years time, I will visit her sons and her there in Syria, and we’ll have another less-arbitrary but still as meaningful experience.

IMG_1211On the way home I say, “Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, almost Iran, why did Jordan have no Arab Spring.” I already know the answer, that Jordan is governed fairly, even though it’s a constitutional monarchy. Mamoud says, “King Abdullah can pilot a helicopter, he’s a marine, he’s head of all the marines – our king is a real king!”5349-king-abdullah-jordan




That night there’s a wedding in my hotel.

I eat at Reem yet again. I go to sleep early, as I need to get up at 7am, to meet Mamoud again the next day, we’re driving three and a half hours to visit Petra. There are many wonders of the world that don’t quite live up to expectations. Machu Picchu in Peru is one that exceeds. Petra I learn is another. The entrance fee is $50. A tour is another $50, but I know I can easily attach myself. I do. And as part of the tour, they hand me another free ticket. I didn’t even have to spend the first $50 if I had known (I’m not complaining). It’s a long hike down through a canyon, about an hour, a crevice at times, till you finally make it to the main area, containing the famous treasury, along with hundreds of tombs and apartments all carved into the sandstone. Petra was deserted in the 13th century, and not discovered again until 1811 (much like Angkor Wat in Cambodia was not popularized in the West till 1850). I highly recommend a trip to Jordan’s #1 attraction.

Here’s a half minute video of Treasury, plus pictures afterwards.