October 10th: Arrival in Amman, Jordan
It's night time as I arrive in Amman, and a stream of traffic hurtles by, bright lights amplifying out of the darkness. It's been a hard day. Since the dry, empty valleys of Jaresh, the road has climbed arduously for almost thirty kilometres. Now, Amman sprawls into the distance, an endless golden road glittering with shop fronts and fast cars. Freewheeling into town, I see symbols familiar the world over - McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, Baskin Robbins, Adidas - they're all here in their neon glory.
Finally I reach King Hussein Mosque, downtown, home to a clutter of budget hotels and eateries, the cheaper end of Amman. At times a city can take on a new life as the day ends, a dramatic shift in character as a whole new people walk its streets. But there's no unease within this darkness, as far as I can tell, and no ominous shadows spill from its alleyways. As I stand for a moment with my bike and take in this scene, no one approaches. In Syria, a small crowd might have gathered by now. Here on the valley floor, I look up to the profusion of shoebox shaped houses perched on the hillsides, lit up against the moon, while below flashing signs and neon strips speak the language of the night.
The Basman Hotel is a possible meeting point with 'Recumbent' Leo, who I rode with for a day from Damascus. I pass a kebab shop whose grill emits a blast of heat, turning up a flight of stairs to emerge into a hallway where local guests lounge in long shirts. It's a typical cheap hotel, just a few dollars a night for a bed in shared room. The walls are pink and white, a distorted mirror hangs in the corner, and framed excerpts of the Quran on every wall give it a distinctly Muslim flavour. Glad to put down my bags, I take a quick shower to scrub away the pollution of the day, and return to the streets to feed and explore.
Another city, another internet cafe. A magnet for cool young Jordanians, the trendy Books@Cafe is a burst of bright colours, offering more coffee flavours than I knew existed, a bank of computers, and customers lilting to a soundtrack of Moby. Young faces reflect the pale blue sheen of their monitor screens, designer sandwiches by their side. A slice of Western Culture, it's a different world from that inhabited by those sitting by the roadside in the tyre-towns that lead to Amman. A sign of the times, I even notice one traveller, a backpack by his side, busy working the on-line trading rooms. Thousands of miles reduced to a microsecond with the touch of a keyboard.
October 11th I meet up again with 'Recumbent Man.' Travelling in these parts after 10 years Leo's on a mission to look up a few long lost friends in the area. Having been caught up for months during the Gulf War in Iraq, he's also trying to locate a motorbike left at the Dutch Embassy in Baghdad. So I set off to wander the streets of this city, spread across a collection of 'jebels' - hills - contoured under a coat of houses, in this dry and sandy climate.
By day, downtown's streets are bustling but still orderly - cars stop at traffic lights, a surprise after Syria and Turkey. Visually, modern and traditional flavours blend. Red checked headdresses and starched-white robes are as popular as Western style clothes. While most women remain half hidden behind scarves and veils, others are more glamourously concealed behind large, dark glasses, their long hair flowing freely. Plenty of new cars glide past amid worn out buses and pickups, as Arabic pop overpowers classical songs crackling from old transistor radios.
As I write, my view is a vast Roman amphitheatre, built in the second century during the reign of Herod. Yet here I am in the institution of McDonald's... While I can't claim to be a fan of the Golden Arches, it's a different environment to take in. Aircon, Arabic MTV, a few travellers, families and young couples. Tinted glass is big business in the Middle East - its effect is coveted on Mercedes - and even here, we're shadowed from the outside world. The amphitheatre itself is impressive, hewn from the rockface, 6,000 seats that now look upon a busy street of tourist cafes, rather than the gladiatorial carnage of the past. But despite Amman's rich heritage - it's been run, overrun and plundered by Ammonites, Babylonians, Romans, Christians and Persians - few relics remain. Instead, its hilly contours are layered with sand-coloured apartment blocks, crisscrossed by telephone wires, dotted with satellite dishes, coloured by billboards and spiked with minarets.
After my recent stay in Damascus and the fascination of the old city there, Amman is not a place I will linger. It's the Jordanian desert which holds more appeal. I'll be back on the bike in the morning. The road from here descends to minus four hundred metres, the lowest point on Earth. By this time tomorrow, I hope to be floating on the Dead Sea.