“Is it safe?” and “Isn’t it full of terrorists?” are just two comments made when I told people I was going to Jordan. Nestled between Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia I didn’t know what to expect. Unlike most Arab nations Jordan has no oil. An inhospitable desert, less than 5% of its land is arable. GDP is a mere $1600 per capita, and unemployment is estimated around 25%.
I braced myself to be the rich Westerner, a target for touts, scammers, and beggars. As it turned out, I wasn’t prepared for Jordanians at all.
That famous opening scam line “Hello, where are you from?” was asked of us by at least half the people we passed on the street. At first we answered grudgingly. But then we realised the response was always “Welcome, have a nice time in Jordan,” followed by other niceties, but they wanted nothing more than a chat.
Then there were the countless invitations for tea. In Aqaba, Jordan’s Red Sea resort town, we struck up a friendship with a shopkeeper Nassar and his neighbour Ahmed, joining them every night for tea. By the end of our stay they had given us more souvenirs than we had ever intended on buying.
Arriving at the giant Roman Theatre in the capital Amman, we noticed a group of men waiting at the entrance, as if for prey. We entered, preparing to be pounced upon from all directions. One man approached us and asked if we would like a tour. We agreed on a price and he asked us to wait a moment, explaining that there is a guide queue and he had to remove his chair from its front. At other sites in Jordan guides would ask if we wanted a tour; when we declined they would smile and tell us to enjoy our stay.
We had to laugh: this warm friendliness borders on absurdity, at least by our jaded Western attitudes. But it is very genuine. We were never asked twice by a tout if we wanted something. No one ever tried to scam us. No one asked us for money. We only ever felt that Jordanians were extraordinarily friendly, the world’s greatest hosts.
We visited Petra, the most well-known and heavily visited of all Jordanian sites ï¿½ and a likely spot for aggressive tactics that part tourists from their cash. I arrived in rough shape, and after struggling the two kilometers down the narrow Siq we emerged into the ancient city, where I promptly collapsed.
Several hours later I staggered from my table to take a picture of a camel. “Would you like a camel tour?” asked its owner (naturally no money was demanded for the photo).
“I can’t,” I replied, rubbing my belly. “I feel very sick.”
“You feel sick?” he said. “Please, come with me on the camel, I will take you to a place where we can get green to make Bedouin tea and you will feel better.”
I was shocked. The man actually cared more about my well-being than my money, but the thought of lurching up and down on a camel wasn’t an option. Apart from a runaway donkey though, we experienced no trouble and encountered only the same hospitality as in the rest of the country.
I don’t know why Jordanians are so much kinder and friendlier than everyone else in the world. Ancient Bedouin traditions aside, I suspect it has something to do with the small population of the country, giving everyone an Andy of Mayberry mentality. Maybe it’s because tourist numbers are relatively low, and the population hasn’t yet learned to see us as mere dollar signs; or perhaps they haven’t yet been subjected to the arrogance and abuse of travellers I’ve witnessed in other parts of the world.
Our last night in Jordan: it’s late; we’re hungry and searching for food. We stumbled upon a falafel stand with a few plastic tables and chairs crammed into an alley, all of which had men at them.
“Please, sit here!” a large scruffy man shouted as he jumped up to get our attention. We joined Zared and Ahmed at their table and were promptly offered their only remaining food ï¿½ red onions. Over dinner we struggled through the language barrier via wallet contents and challenges of eating hot sauce. Upon finishing our meal they invited us for drinks. Unfortunately we had an early flight, plus it was late, and we needed sleep.
“Please, you stay at my house, save you money.” But we’d already checked into a hotel. A little disappointed, Zared went inside and paid for our meal, before we ever had the chance to stop him.