This is a true story, much too implausible to be fiction!
In July of 1979, J. and I were stuck in Amman for a week waiting for the Minister of Culture to grant us the necessary documents for crossing the River Jordan into Israel. Yes, the Minister of Culture, like a character on one of the little planets in Le Petit Prince.
Our last set of traveler's checks had arrived for us at the Jerusalem American Express office. Then we'd have to head "home" to the United States, not where either of us had been born, but the site of our less mobile belongings and college degrees. We'd first need to get from Israel back to Luxembourg, where a couple of suitcases full of Moscow winter gear awaited us, along with our roundtrip Icelandic Air flights.
An extra week in Jordan meant we could no longer afford even the cheap hotel in Amman, from where we'd visited the city's Roman citadel ruins and the restaurant for our one good meal of the day. Our sidewalk discussion about not being able to cross the Jordan/Israel border was overheard by an Iraqi student, who kindly invited us to stay in his nearby apartment. He'd sleep on the sofa and we could watch TV while he was at work. A good Samaritan!
The little TV was black and white, and I remember watching Dallas episodes dubbed in Arabic. My daily treat was a Kit Kat bar from the cigarette kiosk down the street.
Near the end of the week, we all decided to go south for a day to visit the Nabatean ruins of Petra. We found a cheap non-tourist bus, one that looked like a schoolbus painted dark green. The trip was also memorable for teaching me a powerful self-defense move: elbowing someone in the face.
I sat in front of a woman named Linda, enthralled by her stories of traveling alone from India through Afghanistan to Syria and Jordan. Alone. How do you do that, I wondered. Afghanistan had been closed to us since the US ambassador assassination in Kabul that summer, so she was lucky to have seen the haunting green and golden hills herself. Linda was from Seattle, returning each year to work for a few months until she saved up enough for her next global jaunt. Next year she would go to China. I was in awe.
All of a sudden, in the middle of these stories, she swung her arm backwards into the two Jordanian guys sitting behind her. Pow! What happened?
They had pulled on one blond strand of her hair. Zow. Don't mess with me. She turned back to me, pulling her long hair forward onto her red-striped shirt.
Linda hung out with the three of us that day, as we crept through the natural stone gorge to the carved temple, a huge chamber hewn straight out of the cliff. Petra was also the site of a number of other ruins, an earlier Roman amphitheatre and two later Byzantine churches. The Nabateans, who carved out the famous rock face temple, had lived there in the 2nd century A.D.
I noted that our Iraqi friend introduced himself as Luigi that day, a nickname from an Italian girlfriend. He clearly did not want anyone to know he understood Arabic, in the company of us foreigners.
Just before twilight we hiked from the top of a sandy cliff to where some Bedouin children and their mothers beckoned to us to join them in their tents for tea. I don't know why they were so kind, but I will always remember how lovely they were to us that day.
As it began to get dark, we started to look for a way back to the city. A blue pick up truck stopped near us and a local driver joined our group, offering to take us back to Amman.
Linda immediately said no, she would not get into the truck. She would camp out next to an American family that night and return to Amman in the morning. What did she know?
The rest of us happily agreed and climbed in to the cab. The desert was getting cold. After driving through the night for a while, the driver announced he had to speak to a friend at a house along the way. We stopped, got out, and it was here that "Luigi" overhead the two men discussing how they would separate me from the men, get rid of them, and then take me elsewhere...at this point the three of us ran as fast as we could down the dark road, until we saw the lights of a...truck stop!
Surreal as a bad dream, the bright street lights of a red vinyl-boothed restaurant appeared before us in the middle of the desert, an oasis for tractor trailers hauling cargo from the Saudi peninsula all the way through Turkey to Europe. We hid in the neon noise until we found a semi willing to take us three scrungy hitchhikers back to the city.
I'm still trying to develop those Linda-instincts, that awesome level of self-preservation that allows you to circumnavigate life like you belong here. On the planet. Wow.
Love you, Linda, always will.
18 SEPTEMBER 2022