You don’t go through a deep personal transformation without some kind of dark night of the soul. — Sam Keen
I check out of the hotel in Petra and wait for the cab driver. He doesn’t know what I look like and I don’t know him. A bit of uncertainty.
Illustration by Jeffrey Fisher
The rendezvous goes remarkably well. The cab driver, the father of Ahmad, my waiter of the previous night, looks a little like me — short, grayish-white hair and scraggly beard. He doesn’t have any teeth, though, while I have escaped that indignity. He doesn’t speak much English, so it will be a quiet trip — unless he accidentally runs over a few people on the way. Two pedestrians, unbeknownst to them, have already escaped with their lives. Even without fatalities, my trip from Petra to Tel Aviv in one day will still involve a fraught border crossing and a transfer in Jerusalem, all using public transportation.
I hope to make the Allenby Bridge (or the King Hussein Bridge, depending on whom you’re talking to) by noon.
I wonder, does the frequent use of inshallah, if God wills it, create a slippery sense of uncertainty about any fact, process or possibility, or does the uncertainty precede the phrase?
I wish that my driver would stop waving his arms and just stay on our side of the road. Speaking of slippery, my palms are dripping wet. This trip looks to be more subject to the aforementioned will of God than I had originally imagined.
In the middle of Jordanian nowhere, the engine stops for no reason that I can tell.
And then restarts.
I’m not sure I can adequately describe how desolate this landscape is. And the more often the car drifts to a dismal, dying, gasping stop and then, perversely, jerks back to life, the more desolate the landscape becomes. Death Valley surrounding a Dead Sea.
“Bad gas?” I suggest, helpfully.
He snorts loudly and yells, “Pompa?” — as if to say, “Like this?” — and holds up a cylinder of some sort. A fuel pump. Oh, boy.
The engine continues to cut in and out, even at 140 kph.
We sputter down from 140 kph to 2 kph, and just before we come to a complete stop, the surly beast resurrects itself once again. My driver’s thought, it seems, is to outrun the evil gasoline genie. Back to 140. At least at 140 we can cover more ground before we reach a dead stop.
Not sure if panic is yet in order, but I’m sweating another Dead Sea. That 140 might as well be the temperature.
I find it somewhat comforting to see that even down here, by the shore of what at least looks like water, the guy has cell service. He tries futilely to use his phone while driving at high speed, the car jumping and shaking. I would love to call someone, too, if my fingers weren’t clenching the car door handle so tightly. I imagine this might be like when you’re told that your plane is about to crash and you prayerfully try to phone someone, anyone, and say something meaningful.
I yank my attention away from the growing prospect of eternity and try to contemplate the countryside. I may be a part of it soon, anyway.
Illustration by Jeffrey Fisher
That humans can live in this country, where little rocks sprout from bigger rocks like mineral mushrooms, and also live in my verdant Oregon, where we have real mushrooms, amazes me.
We start slowing down again.
Please, not to a complete stop.
Allah wills it otherwise. And then the cab driver loses his phone service.
I am now wondering if this is the moment to panic.
I think I have to ditch this cab.
Allah pokes his nose under the tent again.
A taxi — an old, old Toyota van, like one that I owned 20 years ago, a taxi even lower on the rapidly sliding scale of Jordanian taxis than the one I’m in — stops to help us.
My plane leaves from Tel Aviv tomorrow at 2 a.m.
It doesn’t look like I’m going anywhere with cab No. 1.
I decide to abandon it.
I pay the first guy something and agree to pay cab No. 2 the remainder, if he can get me to the border at Allenby Bridge.
Even though we are less than halfway to the bridge, the driver of cab No. 1 can’t stop yelling that I am cheating him out of his fare, and that cab No. 2 is cheating him, too.
I think back to the offer of the first taxi driver I met in Jordan, who promised that if we didn’t arrive, I wouldn’t owe him. Having assumed that this might be a generally understood concept among all taxi drivers in the country, I wish now that I had negotiated the same contract before leaving Petra. Too late now.
I edge away from cab No. 1 and toward the old bus, without turning my back on Ahmad’s father, who is fuming by the side of the road. I feel that this has probably happened to him before, since he is holding his spare pump. I don’t want him to hit me with it. Without remorse, I leave him standing next to his crippled car.
I climb into cab No. 2 and that driver, to my mute chagrin, proceeds to leave the highway and drive up into the hills, delivering bags of pita bread and a pile of plastic chairs.
I assume an otherworldly patience. Taxi driver No. 2 eventually returns to the highway, only to drop me on the side of the road, at a third taxi, where taxi driver No. 3, who speaks minimal English, motions for me to get in.
Allah holds the door for me.
For 20 dinars, indicated with 20 fingers, and then by pointing north down the road, we arrange that he will take me to the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge.
We are putt-putting up the road when taxi driver No. 1 passes us at 140 kph and with a deep scowl in my direction. I still feel better where I am, while hoping that I don’t run into him farther on and that I haven’t irremediably injured American-Jordanian relations.
I’m starting to think that I may be getting pretty good at surviving the vicissitudes of off-piste travel.
That’s when I stop breathing.
I suddenly realize that I left my passport back in Petra.
Finally, panic seems appropriate.
I take refuge in catatonia. I stare out through the front windshield, letting the bleakness of the desert symbolize my fast-fading hopes of making my flight.
I look around and see that I’m sitting among four Arabs who speak next-to-no English that I can discern. Maybe, just maybe, they are shy and know more than they might admit.
I assemble my explanation.
From the middle of the rear seat, I lean forward, sticking my head between the two guys in the bucket seats while dodging all the fringe and medals and icons hanging from the ceiling.
Using mostly nouns, I manage to express the idea of my stupidity and no passport. After I finish speaking, there is no sound, no one says a thing. Nothing much happens for a while. As I consider my predicament, I am hoping that, in their silence, they are also considering my predicament.
We are moving in precisely the opposite direction from a reunion with my passport.
At this early moment in the crisis, I can only imagine that I will need to return to Petra, now many hours behind us. I can’t see how I can manage to get back to Petra and then return to reach the Allenby Bridge before it closes for the night.
My flight will leave without me.
In the meantime, this taxi continues the putt-putting. I’ve said about all I could say to the guys around me, though they do seem to be talking among themselves.
About me, maybe, but who knows.
At some point, they pull off to the side of the road. It’s a store/gas station, an outpost far, far from anywhere. I am feeling particularly bereft.
They all pile out of the taxi and I do, too. A big, heavyset guy separates himself from the otherwise wiry group hanging around outside the station. He comes over and asks me, in English, what the problem is. I try to explain that I need a fast car to take me back to Petra and then return to the Allenby Bridge.
He says he can do it.
He has a brother who lives in New Jersey. So, of course he can do it.
A brother in Jersey apparently means things can happen. Small world.
This will cost a lot. I know this and he knows this.
But, back in Petra, have they found the passport? I feel like I want to know before committing to this plan.
I ask to use his phone. I eventually get through and, yes, the passport’s there and I explain my plan and the time problem. The concierge of the hotel, becoming my new best friend in the known world and beyond, says they will send it up immediately by courier and meet me at Allenby Bridge in plenty of time. I am elated and I tell the man whose brother lives in New Jersey and which therefore makes us friends.
It’s apparent that he doesn’t share my elation. Vast sums have just vanished from his plans. I say that I will pay him to take me to the bridge, but he’s not happy. I offer him more than the now-short trip is worth, but without feeling sorry. I realize that this has worked out so much better than I might ever have hoped, and I appreciate what he has done for me and I tell him so, many times. And I pay him, quite a bit more than any normal trip of this length would get him.
He’s not impressed.
I get into the car of Omar, his nephew, who speaks some English, and, with Arab hip-hop music blaring, we head for the bridge.
Omar leaves me at the entrance to the Jordanian border control and I give him a big tip because I realize his uncle is going to take everything for himself. Omar’s a good guy and we shake hands warmly.
I wait in the Jordanian exit lounge for a long time.
Finally, the eyes of the nattily dressed courier meet the frazzled eyes of the only white guy in the lounge, and he hands me my passport. I pay him, with a big tip.
Any problem that can be solved with ready cash is, ultimately, an inconsequential one.
I board the bus to cross the bridge into Israel.
Settling into the luxurious seats, I find myself in the middle of a conversation among three German guys who have just completed the Germany-to-Jordan car rally, a drive of more than 4,000 kilometers. The idea is to drive a car that is at least 20 years old, spend very little on food, bring something from every country you pass through, stay somewhere for fewer than 15 euros a night, and, at the end of the trip, donate the car to charity. It took them 20 days.
I can’t get complacent. There’s always a better adventure story out there.
Now to get a mini-bus to Jerusalem, cross the city somehow, get another bus to Tel Aviv, then get a cab to my hotel — all in all, this is a trip that, while still only an inchoate dream, is no longer an out-of-control nightmare.
It’s hard to describe what happens next, because it seems so improbable.
While I am asking if there is a taxi going directly to Tel Aviv from the Allenby Bridge, this very pretty woman, an Arab woman in full head scarf, very stylish, with the cutest daughter, walks up to me and says, “Come with me, we are going to Tel Aviv. We can share a cab in Jerusalem.” I say yes, without knowing what else to say. Her English is great, and there is no misunderstanding her forceful offer.
My stereotype of Arab women is that they don’t talk to men outside their families. Well, so, that’s not true, though I am still not sure how this will work.
Nothing is said as she and her daughter and I board the bus. As we prepare to leave and the driver asks where I am going, she turns around and catches my eye from where she is sitting and says to him that we are together. I must have looked puzzled because she smiles and says, “Trust me.”
It has been a long, puzzling day and my puzzler is sore. Well, okay, why not? I think.
We reach Jerusalem.
I pull her bag.
She changes money.
We get a taxi.
She gives directions.
I pay for us.
She finds the bus.
I pull her bag.
We board the bus.
She pays for us.
And off we go.
To extend the surrealism, the Arab taxi driver speaks Italian to me (I can speak Italian) all the way across Jerusalem to the bus station. Maybe a better term would be “magic realism.”
During the trip to Tel Aviv, she tells me that, back there, where we caught the bus, we were in run-down East Jerusalem. I tell her I know where we were because my first hotel, the Alcazar Hotel, was near there. Not only does she know it, but her grandparents live nearby.
This kind of thing doesn’t usually happen to me. Deb, my wife, is adept at finding all kinds of connections with people, but me, not so much.
We talk about how difficult it is for her as a young woman, even with a baby, to travel without a man. I feel useful.
Her husband was born in the Israeli-occupied territories and can’t come into Israel. They now live in Qatar. But she has to come back every six months to maintain some kind of residency relationship with Israel. She is a civil engineer, as is her husband. For as much as bureaucracy and politics seem to impinge on her, she loves her life and laughs very easily. It’s hard to understand why Israel doesn’t want this family as citizens.
When we reach the main bus station in Tel Aviv, we run to catch her bus, she carrying her sleeping baby and me dragging her substantial bag. We arrive at the last moment. They hop on and we wave, like real friends. I grab a cab to my hotel out near the airport.
Finally, I sit in my hotel room, eating Chinese takeout, ruminating on one of the most miraculous days in my history of travel:
Escaped from a nutty cab driver.
Found by a group of wonderful Jordanian hangers-about.
Recovered my passport, miraculously.
Rescued by an Arab woman and her beautiful child.
Discussed Rome in Jerusalem with an Arab cab driver speaking Italian.
It goes on and on.
Looking back, I feel it was not so much that I got lucky, but that I trusted people, that I let go.
Suffice it to say that I remember very little of the flight to Frankfurt.
Airport world will do that to you.
Jim Chapman is the author of Road to Holy: Israel – India – Italy, a spiritual travelogue.