In Jordan it’s all about the car.
We arrived in Aqaba by ferry from Egypt innocently enough. We had a few plans and thought we knew roughly what to expect from Jordan, looking forward to a slightly easier and more predictable ride than in the more turbulent countries through which we had just passed.
But we’d reckoned without the third member of the team. On our rapid journey through Libya and Egypt we had promised her a rest and a service here, and Landy was bloody well going to get her money’s worth.
The whole of our experience in Jordan ended up being dictated by Landy, and in turn, Jordan and her people welcomed our beautiful old car with open arms and became deeply complicit in her scheming.
The sun is setting as we board our much delayed ferry from Nuweiba, the darkness and varying street lighting making it easy to distinguish between the countries bordering the Gulf of Aqaba as we pass Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel on our three hour boat journey. There are few other women on the boat and no other tourists but the atmosphere is light and we are befriended by a posse of Jordanian truck drivers. They seem fairly interested to see two British women on board but are inevitably much more interested in Landy. We were to get used to this.
Even at 1.00am a hostel in Aqaba is found without difficulty but the parking turns out to be on the far side of steep grassy scrub land. The teenage hostel employee gets into Landy with gusto but looks dubiously at Lucy behind the wheel. ‘Mumkin?’ (‘possible?’) he asks doubtfully. ‘Mumkin.’ is the confident response followed by a swift demonstration of Landy’s climbing abilities to the tune of his enthusiastic appreciation: ‘WOW! Mia mia!’
While Landy is showing off Anne-Laure goes in search of an ATM and has her debit card swallowed. It’s early Friday morning – the beginning of the weekend when the bank will be shut for two days. Luckily the hostel employee is already in love with Landy so he lets us in without paying until the morning…or perhaps he just figures we aren’t much of a flight risk.
Aqaba is a clean and shiny town with a holiday atmosphere. In fact one of the first things that strikes us about the entire country is how clean Jordan is. Since Europe it’s the first country on our route not to be littered with ‘blue flowers’ (AKA plastic bags), and the buildings are clean too – it’s not just the pavements. We’re amazed to see people put their cigarettes out in their car ashtrays rather than tossing them out of the window and even in the middle of nowhere in the desert we see a man sweeping the highway. It’s a really refreshing sight after months of rubbish lining the roads and beauty spots.
To Wadi Musa
Aqaba is stiflingly hot so we’re happy to be heading north and excited to find the landscape among the most striking yet. This is real Lawrence of Arabia country with dramatic rock formations and vast open spaces and we can see the gateway to Wadi Rum in the distance.
We’re on our way to Wadi Musa, a dusty, vibrant little town close to Petra, sited on incredibly steep hills, with a warm and friendly feel to it and where we have a deadline to make. Despite knowing all about Shifting Sands and the dates we’re be away, Lucy’s brother John has selfishly (!) decided to get married so she has to fly home for a few days. Although as we have three broken cameras to fix and now a replacement bank card to collect we don’t complain too much about the timing.
So Lucy leaves Anne-Laure and Landy chilling out in Wadi Musa with our friend Halina, painting, making friends and soaking up the sun and the small town ambience.
With Lucy away Anne-Laure and Halina hire their own car, a curiously complicated and expensive process that involves travelling back to Aqaba. This enables them to get involved in the favourite evening pastime of young people in Wadi Musa: cruising around the town one way system in their cars with music blaring, checking out who else is around and what the others are driving.
One evening, Destour, a young Yemeni who works in our friends’ hotel in Wadi Musa, is given some money and the night off. We don’t expect to see him until the morning but he’s back within an hour with the simple explanation ‘town no good without car’ – not being able to cruise around means that he has nothing to do.
Another night Halina gives Destour a ride to the supermarket, they crank up the stereo on and do a bit of cruising on the way back. His face lights up ‘Now THIS is a good night out’.
Landy getting some love
With the team reunited we roll up our sleeves and attack the car with a vengeance. Our friend Ahmad takes us to a nearby garage where Landy is jet-washed within an inch of her life, and then we set to work.
We begin by bleeding the hydraulic systems for the clutch and brakes, discovering that the head of one front brake bleed screw is broken and breaking the head off the other in the process…not a great start.
We rewire the cigar lighter and stereo – with the help of 12 year old Mohamed who is the only person who understands how the stereo is supposed to behave when functioning – and attach the incredibly loud horn we had purchased in Egypt – much to the entertainment of the local boys who soon discover which switch to press to activate it. We pay a bit more attention to locking the door.
We change the oil and filters and clean out the air filter, top up gear oil in the diffs, swivels, steering box, gear and transfer boxes, seal the rear half-shafts to stop oil leaks, and clean out the rear brakes. The front brakes are worn and need relining so our friend Asa ‘The Judge’ kindly takes them to nearby Ma’an to get this done.
Landy’s exhaust pipe is wobbling and grating against the chassis so our friend Abu Deraa spends a couple of hours under the car with long spools of wire until eventually it resembles a cat’s cradle and he’s secured it where he wants it.
At the sight of a clean empty fuel filter our manual fuel pump goes on strike so Abu Deraa and Lucy spend a fun evening siphoning, quaffing mouthfuls of yummy Jordanian diesel. We decide to ignore the leak at the top of the diesel tank for the time being – having now flooded every garage we’ve entered since L.S. Eaves in Stoke by Nayland we figure this was a problem we can live with.
We finally catch up with everything outstanding from previous countries, sewing on the beautiful seat backs that our friend Sihem embroidered and gave us in Algeria. Anne-Laure puts up our fabulous Libyan curtains.
The plywood of our bed is splintering slightly and we’re worried it will tear our sleeping bags so we make use of being stationary for a few days to get it painted. Inspired by the gorgeous fabrics all around us, Anne-Laure and Abu Deraa create a Bedouin work of art that is spray painted red, finished by hand and then carefully varnished.
Written in a neat list this all sounds quite easy so may we point out that it’s all been done in the searing heat whilst parked in a dirt driveway? Many of the nuts and bolts hadn’t been undone for years and required a lot of WD40 and elbow grease.
Hydraulics, brakes and breaks
On a visit to Amman Ahmad picks up two Land Rover bleed screws for us – along with a part to reattach the driver’s side windscreen wiper that has mysteriously fallen off – and introduces us to Mourad, a smiley local mechanic who reckons he can remove the existing shards of broken bleed screw. We seem to be back in business.
Until he sets to work that is when things get surprisingly difficult…
Bashing two of our front brake cylinders every-which-way and discovering that the bleed screws still don’t come out, Mourad realises that it’s necessary to detach them, which proves easier said that done. It’s as though he’s jinxed: somehow every part he touches breaks, and as he replaces them every adjacent part breaks as well. He keeps fishing similar looking parts out of random garages while we struggle to explain the difference between millimetres and inches in a mixture of English, Arabic and sign language.
At the end of the day we have two broken brake cylinders and three broken hydraulic lines and on top of everything else the new bleed screws don’t fit the cylinders. This is mildly annoying as we’ve managed to bypass the broken bleed screws and have already bled the hydraulic system from elsewhere so – until this point – replacing them with new ones was more cosmetic than necessary. The final straw comes when Mourad breaks Lucy’s favourite screwdriver and is subsequently banned from coming within two metres of the car.
Brake fluid is pissing everywhere and Landy was effectively immobile until we can find the parts we need.
Friends are dispatched far and wide to raid other old Land Rovers and the parts are finally found by Abu Deraa who’s fixing his own car in Amman and spends six hours walking between Land Rover workshops to find our bits and pieces. Despite this heroic effort further breakages mean we are still left with two non-functioning front brakes by the end of our stay in Wadi Musa.
Abu Deraa and family
Abu Deraa, his young sons Mohamed (12) and Yazzan (11) and their whole extended (mostly male) family turn up daily to help and watch. We bond over Landy and have a great time hanging out with them. Our work in Wadi Musa would probably take several days longer without Abu Deraa’s help and every day we have hoards of young boys at our beck and call. We feel this is something we can get used to.
The kids are on holiday from school and when they aren’t helping us spend their time improving their father’s car which is parked alongside, cleaning, polishing, sweeping and decorating it with ‘I love Jordan’ stickers, even unscrewing the mudguards behind the wheels to wash them and put them back. They each have designated jobs which include more mechanical work such as checking the oil and water levels, even the smallest daughter (aged about four) has her own role as the keeper of the car keys. They take their jobs very seriously and can clearly be trusted with them.
Work finishes late one night, Anne-Laure is online researching the next leg of our journey, and Lucy is working in the dark putting the brakes together and the wheels back on for the night. Mohamed and Yazzan stay up to assist and end up being genuinely helpful. They’ve watched this process quite a few times over the previous few days and know exactly what is required at each stage. They’re loving being involved and appreciate being recognised as useful.
Petra, Little Petra and general hospitality
While Abu Deraa is in Amman running around looking for parts on Landy’s behalf we pay a brief visit to Petra, Jordan’s most famous tourist attraction and often considered to be the eighth wonder of the ancient world. Set in a breathtakingly magnificent landscape these buildings intricately carved into the rock faces behind are what remain of what was once a sizeable town. We spend a hot and sweaty few hours walking around – on a tight schedule because we have work on Landy to get back to – hitching a lift back in the sun in our friend Mahmoud’s carriage. The guides here are relaxed and full of friendly banter calling out for tourists to ride in their ‘air conditioned taxis’ (otherwise known as horses or donkeys).
Mahmoud invites us to a barbecue that evening in Little Petra where we sit on rugs around the camp fire with Anes, Yazeed and Loai eating marinated chicken roasted over the coals, the best pieces being physically handed to our mouths by our hosts, eventually falling asleep on the smooth sandstone with the stars twinkling above us, waking in the daylight to find ourselves bitten to death by mosquitoes and close to being nibbled at by curious goats as well.
Abu Ahmad, father of our friends Ahmad, Tarek and Osama and brother of Abu Deraa, is a constant friendly presence during our time in Wadi Musa and on our last day he decides to cook us maglouba – a fragrant upside down rice dish with meat, cauliflower, potato and tomato sauce – killing a two month old goat for the purpose. As is traditional a whole group of us sit around the one huge plate of food devouring it with bread and yoghurt in our fingers.
Another small act of random hospitality is Anne-Laure’s experience at the hairdresser in Wadi Musa, which weirdly starts with all the guys sitting around in the hotel debating what Anne-Laure is allowed to do to her hair (how much of it they’re happy for her to cut off) and who is the best person in town to visit. Once this is established we set off, escorted by Yazzan who is charged with explaining all of this to the hairdresser.
In a town where nearly all adult women cover their hair in public the salon is screened from the street by a lilac polyester curtain to protect the women from prying eyes. It is absolutely a male free zone – with the exception of Yazzan who at the age of 11 still has social freedoms that he won’t have for much longer. When her work is done the hairdresser smiles at us, reopens her half eaten kebab and offers us a handful of cold chips.
Every man in Wadi Musa seems to own two or three cars, and nearly all of them seem to be broken. Borrowing cars from friends and family is absolutely normal and if somebody asks you for your car it is very difficult to say no. On a couple of occasions Anne-Laure and Halina find their hire car being used by a local friend, Jihad, as a taxi to ferry tourists about, and sometimes their car even goes as far as Amman (three hours drive away) without them being aware that it’s being used.
And this custom goes a lot further than borrowing… If somebody asks you to give or sell them your car it is standard practice to comply, especially if they ask you more than once. There is a real belief that if somebody else wants your car then keeping it will only bring you bad luck and you’re likely to have an accident in it. But there are ways around this…for example Abu Deraa has put his – very attractive – 4×4 Toyota in the name of his son Deraa who at 18 is too young to legally sell it.
Most people buy old wrecks and then seem to spend half their lives fixing them up. Even Ahmad’s glitzy new looking Land Rover is just a newish body built onto a 1986 chassis and requires all sorts of work. He’s constantly buying gadgets for it. It did make us wonder…is it difficult to import newer – or at least functioning – cars into Jordan or is there just a cultural love of tinkering?
As you’d expect from such a car culture, mechanics in Jordan are pretty well respected, so it’s a great compliment to suddenly gain the honorific titles of ‘Mechanic Anni’ and ‘Mechanic Lucy’. Being covered in grease from head to toe also guarantees us local prices throughout town: it feels as though we’ve broken through a glass ceiling.
People even begin asking our advice about problems with their own cars – issues that are generally completely over our heads – and Ahmad comes up with a business plan to set up a company of female mechanics (headed by us) saying that people will flock from all over Jordan to get their cars repaired by women.
Traditional life and modernisation
Wadi Musa comprises an interesting combination of traditional and contemporary living. A host of languages are spoken despite many people never having travelled. Historically this is due to Jordan being situated on ancient trade routes and – in Wadi Musa anyway – is now primarily due to tourism. With this comes an openness to other cultures in the modern understanding of the concept – Facebook and cars for example – but it’s interesting to note that this openness itself is deeply rooted in tradition.
Some of our friends in Wadi Musa are the first generation of their families not to live in caves – and they are proud of this heritage – yet the increasing demand for a home of one’s own is resulting in the town expanding enormously even in the two years since Anne-Laure first visited.
Abu Ahmad spends an afternoon milking his sheep – and sells the milk over his mobile phone at the same time. By the time milking has finished it has all been sold and there’s no need for him to go to market. He comes back to town to puff on a shisha, satisfied with his afternoon’s business.
And there is huge respect for the elders of the community: Abu Deraa has the absolute deference of his children and authority over them, and his father, the local sheikh, is still the first point of reference for all disputes. We hear how a friend had been caught up in a fight when the sheikh was away, and how – regardless of blame – everyone involved had been jailed until he returned from travelling and could sort it out. Until the sheikh concludes an argument there is a risk of retaliation, however, as soon as his decision is announced it is known for sure that all parties will comply.
As befits a rapidly evolving small town, life can be extremely dramatic: all sorts of bizarre scenarios flare up and at times it feels as though we’re in the middle of a soap opera with the younger men in the central roles. Car accidents, sometimes serious, are a regular occurrence and people seem to be best friends one minute and not speaking the next – it’s impossible to keep up with the gossip circuit and by the end we just opt out. With so much going on the presence of the older generation is stabilising and the knowledge that their wisdom can be brought to bear on a situation is definitely reassuring.
The road to Amman
With all our breakages it’s the general consensus that Landy – and possibly God – has decided that we shouldn’t be leaving Wadi Musa, and we do stay for an extra day to work on the brakes. But in the end – after a bit of a fight – Landy and God are overruled and we set off for Amman.
We leave Wadi Musa driving gingerly up the highway on our back brakes only, thankful for Landy’s low ratio gearbox on the town’s steep hills. Brake issues mean bypassing the spectacular King’s Highway which is a real shame – we know that Landy doesn’t care about seeing Petra or the other tourist attractions but in missing out on this beautiful drive we feel that she really has shot herself in the foot this time.
Thankfully our friends and support team from Wadi Musa are still in action and it takes several phone calls to Abu Deraa to find the Land Rover garage in the Amman suburb of Abu Alanda. The garage is a cross between a workshop and a Land Rover scrapyard and is owned by Jordan’s foremost Land Rover expert, Najar Haneti.
Najar, his employees, and other customers are all excited to see such an old Land Rover in action and rush at her with spirit. They ferret around in the vast workshop for the parts we need, break other parts while fitting the new ones, and dive straight back into the workshop to fish out further replacements. Brake fluid goes everywhere yet again and for a few hours it feels as though we’re moving backwards.
At 10.00pm Najar calls it a day. He has a party at his brother’s house to attend and his guys want to go home, so they show us the loo and the tap and leave us to it, Najar promising to return in an hour with some food. True to his word we have no sooner put the wheels back on and washed our hands when he appears with a massive steaming mensaf dish cooked by his mother. We eat in the workshop and sleep in Landy surrounded by her friends and relations and their various body parts.
It takes until lunchtime to fit two complete sets of functioning front brakes, at which point Najar insists we join him, his family, customers and colleagues for a scrummy workshop lunch, and charges us just £10 for his work. So we sit down with Bassim, Hamuda and Sayil Haneti (aged 6), Saddam Abu Shabbab and Bakir Az Zazma, and Abu Ghazim Salim who’s brought his own Land Rover from Petra. Only once we’ve accepted Najar’s hospitality are we free to drive into central Amman.
As the place where everyone goes to get their spare parts, Amman in the lynch pin of Jordan. Outside of the car world – in Wadi Musa anyway – we find people pretty self sufficient and not especially interested in city life but they are still absolutely beholden to their capital city to keep their beloved wrecks on the roads. And in true Jordan style we have had to do the same, however, we find the city to be rather more interesting than viewed merely in terms of spare parts.
As a city Amman doesn’t sleep. It is new, clean and modern with pictures of the centre from less than a century ago showing very few streets or buildings. For us it feels wonderfully free after a couple of weeks in small town Wadi Musa. Few people here are fully Jordanian – we meet an especially large number of Palestinians – which gives the city a diverse, cosmopolitan vibe. Liquor stores are openly present which is a first for some time and we find a thriving arts scene with great bookshops and markets ranging from second hand hardware where nothing seems to be thrown away to the fun contemporary take on traditional items on offer in Souk Jara.
Parking Landy immediately outside our hostel where we can keep an eye on her – but preferably not have to touch her – we decide we are in desperate need of a hammam. As befits a young city we find a brand new, clean and tastefully tiled public bath house about as different from the ancient Egyptian hammam experience – complete with cigarettes, cats and chickens – as can be imagined. It’s the most relaxing experience of our trip so far and it takes over two hours of soaking and being scrubbed by incredulous women (whose tutting implies that they’ve never seen another woman as dirty as we are) to remove the engine oil, grease and diesel from our bodies – in fact we have so much mechanical dirt engrained into us that it might be more appropriate to clean us with the pressure hose used to jet-wash Landy.
Friends without cars
We meet Hiba through CouchSurfing. It’s nice to hang out with a woman for once and she’s a real inspiration. She’s 27 and has worked for years in media, published two books and lived in several different countries. She’s recently returned to Amman from Cairo when businesses there were being encouraged to lay off non Egyptian staff. Media jobs in Amman are scarce so when offered the opportunity she decided to become a baker and – we can verify – she is extremely good at it. We really enjoy meeting someone who just gets on with things and takes such pride in learning a new skill. She is now writing a third book – and this time her stories will be interspersed with recipes.
Hiba’s friends are a fun multicultural bunch of different nationality, gender and religion. She herself is Christian, which makes our lives a bit more comfortable as we meet her on the first day of Ramadan having assumed we would have to be fasting all day.
Amman has a few Christian neighbourhoods – which prove useful when we want water or a mid-morning coffee – and we discover that Jordan also has two almost wholly Christian towns. Jordan seems pretty relaxed as a whole so we’re surprised that it’s the first country on our route where we’ve encountered such obvious religious segregation – and it’s definitely open to manipulation. A friend has managed to secure a nice apartment at a really good price by bigging up her Christianity. ‘I told the landlord how much I love Jesus and how much I love Mary…it worked really well until the sleazy guy next door was spying on us in the bathroom and our landlord wouldn’t throw him out because he is Christian too!’ she laughs.
Friends with cars
On our first night in Amman we come across a red Land Rover with her bonnet up on the side of the road and feel compelled to walk over and see if we can help. Later we discovered that Landy has done the same to them and we find a message on our windscreen: ‘This is Muhammad with red Rover; plz call me’. So we do, and have a great night watching Algeria vs Germany with Muhammad and his nephew – also Muhammad – in a café full of supporters of the last Arab team in the World Cup. The Land Rover network is making friends on our behalf.
Another CouchSurfing friend in Amman is Zarine who with her friend Abood picks us up in their car and we all spend a couple of hours driving around the city. We too have finally reached the point of cruising as a recreational activity and it is actually quite fun. They are cool people to hang out with and it’s good to see the city from so many different vantage points, the coloured lights up all over the place in celebration of Ramadan curiously reminiscent of Christmas lights in England – although quite a different experience with the temperature in the mid 30s.
Ramadan clearly has a impact on life in the city, probably enhanced by the heatwave that heralds its arrival. People are sleeping a lot during the day, those on the streets are lethargic and sometimes tired and grumpy, but we frequently come across small acts of kindness – a man handing out chunks of ice to hot and exhausted commuters for example. It is a celebration after all.
At the moment of sunset there is nobody on the streets bar small numbers of foreigners as everybody local is with their families breaking their fast over Iftar dinners at home. But shortly afterwards the whole place comes alive with people celebrating: tucking into syrupy sweet delicacies and dancing energetically in the streets. Our friends Muhammad and Muhammad are fasting during the day but stay up all night to absorb the atmosphere.
Despite being the ideal tourist destination – this was Anne-Laure’s third trip so she can testify to this – visitor numbers in Jordan have more than halved with the country feeling the pinch from the more unpredictable states surrounding it. There is lots to see and do and a huge amount happening in a small geographical area. But we didn’t get to see much of it.
We spent more time in Jordan that in any other country along our route so far, yet we didn’t see Wadi Rum or the Dead Sea, we didn’t drive along the King’s Highway and we spent only four hours in Petra. Landy’s needs and wishes dictated the entirety of our stay.
And at length we resigned ourselves to this, forgot about our own plans and started to pursue Landy’s interests instead, eventually finding ourselves at the Royal Automobile Museum in Amman looking at the car collection of the late King Hussein. The opening piece of literature states ‘The automobile and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan grew and progressed in unison’ – this is not just a collection of impressive cars, but a visual history of a nation.
Through Landy we discovered the wider significance of cars in Jordanian society. Possessing a car is a lifeline, a mark of adulthood that brings with it the ability to make progress in today’s world and to pursue the traditional Bedouin nomadic values of travel and independence. Cars bring people together: friendships are made through the car, leisure time is spent in – or under – the car, family values come to the surface through the medium of the family car, and ultimately the whole history of the country is identified with the history of the car. More than any other country we’ve travelled through, Jordan really is Landy’s territory.
So there you have it: in Jordan it really is all about the car.