pissed on and off the kings’ highway
kings' highway, jordan
june 24, 1999
i’m rolling along the kings highway – racing the sun south – from amman to petra, the fabled rose-colored, sandstone-carved city of the ancient nabateans. getting a rental car on friday, in closed-for-sabbath amman has eaten up most of the day, and there’s a lot to see.
first stop - madaba. to make up for some of my lost time, i decide to skip jerash, the supposedly classical roman jewel in the mountains of gilead. it's a painful but necessary decision. one of the most difficult of travel. which sites to see, which to skip. it’s just impossible to see everything you’ve heard about, no matter how wonderful or tempting. so instead of the “balm of gilead”, i go to see the famous byzantine mosaics of madaba, just an hour south along the highway. i roll into the tiny town - somewhere between tourist and provincial - and get directed to the greek orthodox church of st. george which houses the famous 6th century map of palestine, consisting of over two million cut mosaic tiles. at one time depicting the entire middle east, but with only a few remaining tiles indicating turkey, lebanon, and egypt, the most intact part of the mosaic still shows beautiful ornate detail of the byzantium cities nablus, jericho and hebron. i take my mandatory photos and pull myself away, resisting a very tempting invitation for lunch from a friendly jordanian who overhears my inquiring english in the church.
his name is michael. a small, wiry young man, with a sad, lonely look in his eye, he's spent several years in the states - texas of all places - and he's come back to jordan for his conservative muslim wife. he's bored. actually, more than bored, he's trapped. he needs a sympathetic ear, a shoulder to cry on. and… he won't let me go. "at least let me come with you to mt. nebo." "okay", i say. how can i refuse my own personal guide through the promised land?
so -- next stop, mount nebo. no wonder moses’ last request from god was a view of the land of “yisrael” from this spectacular height. apparently, moses had been refused entry to the land of milk and honey after forty years in the desert - because of his doubt. but god had some mercy, and rewarded him with this one look - from mount nebo - out over the river jordan across the glistening dead sea to jericho and to the sunlit hills of judea beyond. moses, having had his look, sent joshua and his tribe into the land of israel and their destiny, while he died here at nebo and was supposedly buried in a nearby unmarked cave. today, the site is marked with an enigmatic modern cross standing majestically in front of the sprawling view and a byzantine church dedicated to the jewish patriarch.
i walk through moses' “church”, but michael is distracting me with his life story about how much he loves his wife but how much he hates being here in small-time jordan. unable to escape his lament, i’m missing one of my few interactions with biblical history. not the comic books i read, or the history i leaned – but here – the real thing. sure, i’m sympathetic to his misery, but i’m selfish enough to want my own visit with moses – and to soak up the reverential quiet within the church. i advise michael to do something about his situation instead of complaining. but i can tell, this guy's stuck. between his western cravings and his islamic duties. i’m afraid he's going to be here a long time. i ask him for a little privacy, then i wish him well, and drive him back to madaba. i tell him to pray for a miracle. i figure maybe god pays more attention to folks who live on holy ground.
then i’m back on the kings' highway, racing the sun setting over petra. the highway is as spectacular as they say, with plunging roads twisting and cutting through the raw, jagged mountains of jordan. in fact, it's almost frightening how steep and barren some of the highway is; there's not a single car for sometimes half an hour at a stretch. no cities, no villages, just mountains, stark, shadowed land, and sky. then, all of a sudden, the sprawling highway shuts down into a single lane gravel road, and i can't tell if they're somewhere in the middle of abandoned repairs - or perhaps i've made a wrong turn and i'm lost in the middle of biblical jordan, never to be seen by civilization again. but crawling cautiously forward and displaying the little faith i reserve for such highway emergencies, i pull out of it and discover a handwritten sign with an arrow pointing towards “aqaba”. actually two arrows, pointing in opposite directions. this is definitely not triple A country. but i figure maybe it's something like "all roads lead to aqaba", and i plunge ahead.
by dusk, i'm still two hours north of petra. it's getting hard to see in the diminishing light, and in my zeal to reach petra, i’ve forgotten one crucial thing. to pee. unfortunately, they’re no arco or mobil stations in sight. (mcdonalds and the devil west have not yet made it to jordan.) so -- i’m driving like a maniac, trying to distract my mind with absolutely anything at all -- from the business at hand. or below.
and i’m thinking to myself, that somewhere along the way of this mideastern adventure – somewhere between uptight jerusalem and free-flowing amuka, i think i've finally figured out how to tell if one’s having a good trip. going with the flow, enjoying oneself. i mean, i think i’ve discovered a good measuring stick for such things, a divining stick so to speak, for measuring the level of one’s personal freedom and uninhibited self expression. and with my current urge, it seems even clearer than ever. i mean, driving south on the kings’ highway, racing the sun and nature’s call simultaneously, it suddenly strikes me – that - you can tell if you’re a free and clear traveler - by how and where you piss. i mean, if you, i mean i, can be just a little less restricted, a little more creative, a little more instinctively and spontaneously free - about the time, place, and manner in which i relieve myself, well then - bully, bully, for me. bravo. “tov”. (“good” in hebrew). for example, take just walking into someone's back yard - not an LA suburban manicured kinda back yard, but more a gravelly, weedy, scrub-sagey golan heights kind of yard - say moshe tzipper’s - and just - getting the urge - reaching down - and taking a leak... well then - that's simple unrestricted pleasure. and success. am i right? or if, for example - you can just pull your little red israeli rental car off the winding, dusty road at the side of the free-flowing, white-capped, deep green river jordan - and - just - let it go; well, then – that’s freedom, right? or if -- you can be driven in seven-seat land rover down to the volcanic shores of the formerly syrian side of the deep blue sea of galilee, where persecuted young jesus walked on water, fed the multitudes with fishes and loaves, and was inspired to wail his sermon on the mount - and - just, again - let it flow -- well then, what i'm sayin' here, what i mean to say - is -- well - dig it - it's a - liberating, gratifying, expansive, appreciating the sky-land-water-eco-universe release kinda thing. dig?
so now, desolately alone on the king’s highway, the sun teasing the horizon, it’s surely obvious what i have to do. i just pull off the highway, crawl the car up a winding dirt road, and get out -- to relieve myself. there’s desert sage and nothing else. i don't think twice about it and i start to do my business. i’m happy. content. in tune with nature – and myself. so - i’m standing there in the brush – enjoying the moment -- taking my time – enjoying my freedom -- when suddenly, like out of a comic paranoid fantasy – or maybe a bad karmic mirage – i see another solitary car coming in my direction -- up the dirt road. it's surreal - i'm standing there in a rather exposed position and this car is getting closer and closer. i try to hurry my affairs along, and i turn my back to the encroaching intruder in a newly discovered gesture of one-man-alone-in-the-desert modesty, but this approaching cloud of dust is getting me more and more paranoid. i mean, what the hell is this guy doing driving towards me out here in the middle of nowhere? i look around. there's nothing - no buildings, no fencing, no signage. could he actually be coming for me? in the next split second, i have no doubt -- this angry, bearded, dark-skinned guy violently stops his car, rolls down his window and starts screaming at me viciously. in arabic.
the only thing i can understand are a few choice english words like “animal”, “dirty pig” and “fucking devil”. i stop my business short and try to defend myself. in english. as i zip myself up, he gets out of his car and starts running at me, hurling more and more gutteral, spitting insults at me, working his rage into a violent and frothing frenzy. i’m sure he’s going to kill me as i’m zipping, apologizing, and running back to my car as fast as my shaky legs can carry me.
what’s this maniac’s problem? how can he be so pissed off at me for taking a leak in the middle of his barren jordanian desert? it’s not his home. i mean, he doesn’t live right here. they’re no houses anywhere. was i that insensitive or unaware to have crossed some kind of sacred, incomprehensible boundary of cultural etiquette without even knowing it? is pissing in the desert really taboo? i mean, i know it’s the holy land of islamic jordan, but don’t goatherds and shepherds and truck drivers have to take a leak sometimes too? well, where the hell to they do it? there are no goddam bathrooms or holes in the ground that i can see. mea culpa. mea culpa. i run towards my car, finishing zipping and buttoning up my pants. i jump in and start her up. just in time - as this wild-eyed, red-kaffia-ed fanatic stops and spits on the ground, still cursing me to allah and high heaven. as i tear off back down the dirt road, i see the guy kicking holy dirt in my direction, threatening me with his fist, still screaming at the top of his lungs.
jeez, fuck me, i can't believe it. i'm rattled. even my intrepid traveler's shield is a little shaken. i hurtle down the road to petra. maybe my pissing theory just isn’t any good after all.
it's dark now. i can't see anything but stars. this is the time they tell tourists to get off the road in third world countries - before they hit potholes or cows - or get mugged. i heed my own advice -- as i finally come to a tiny village along the kings' highway. i figure this is a place where spice traders - or camel drivers - or holy men - stopped and rested on their routes from china to bagdad to jerusalem to constantinople to seville to fez. i figure okay, i can find a place here for the night. but i don't see anything. no motel signs. just locals hanging around the streets. i drive up and back through the town. finally i see a restaurant. i park and go in. i wade my way through the first few arabic-speaking men until i find one who speaks english. everyone is friendly. a great relief. i ask for a place to stay for the night. the young man tells me that this isn't a hotel, but i’m welcome to stay on the floor upstairs. i thank him and decide to stay for a meal. it's home-made and delicious - a fresh lamb barbecue with the usual humus, salad, and rice. after dinner, perhaps sensing i’m not one for the floor, the young man offers to bring me to a friend who runs a small local hotel. he warns me that it's not very fancy, but i assure him i am more than willing to take a look.
he's right of course. the "hotel" is a pretty primitive rooming house, but there's a bed and a sink and a lock on the door. i pay five dollars and get a much needed night's rest. by five in the morning however, two bulldozers are already tearing up the dirt parking lot just below my window. i open my window, scream loudly at the workers, and gesture wildly (a little like my red-kaffia-ed friend) - but to no avail. i make a quick tactical decision and decide to get out of dodge, making an early exit towards petra.
and hoping i’m not in for another day of highway mis-adventure.
to be continued....