Week 3: The River


I’m leaned up against a wall. It’s made of rough sandstone. Irregular bits and pebbles jut out. Houses here are made of similar materials. The hill left from me has many. Late afternoons, it has an amber glow. The wall is warm to the touch. Days often hit triple digit temperatures here. Sunlit areas can be blindingly bright. That’s why I hug the wall’s shadow. The contrast at the border is extreme.

I’m standing on the sidewalk. My office is behind me, uphill. It looms five stories above. A river of traffic lies in front. Fifty feet across, it’s incredibly busy. It splits in half to the right. It merges into one road leftward.

A small store is to the left. It offers cigarettes and not much more. A solitary Pepsi drink refrigerator stands outside. Its blue light provides some refreshing contrast. A layer of dust covers the fridge. It’s the same color as the walls. The sandstone tint is seemingly inescapable. The dust gets in your mouth too. Thirst is exacerbated by this dust. It’s Ramadan now, so no public drinking. You’ll get thrown in jail for punishment.

The store walls host some graffiti. Red and black Arabic was sprayed on. The shopkeeper stops sweeping the sidewalk. He yells at an employee to come. The subordinate brings a water bucket over. They start scrubbing the letters off together.

The Royal Palace is directly in front. Six uniformed soldiers patrol back and forth. Many more are in the guard building. It doesn’t appear to be air-conditioned. However, that still beats the direct sun. Every so often, an armored car appears. It’s waved through security and continues driving. One wonders if the guards are ornamental. The palace itself is usually empty anyways.

Yellow and white taxis flood the streets. Maybe one in a hundred is vacant. Faded blue and black trucks sputter along. The flow of cars is incredibly variable. An intersection to the left controls all. Traffic here moves in two-minute cycles. Two minutes of madness – two of silence. During traffic lulls, people cross the road. Bags in hand, they scamper through. It’s like a real-life Frogger. Except in Frogger, there are lanes.

Cars here don’t believe in cruising. They liberally apply both gas and brakes. Speed limits are goals to achieve. The quickest to surpass them wins. Cars bob and weave through traffic. Back home, driving could be relaxing. I sense little of that relaxation here. It’s near impossible to drive on autopilot. Avoiding car crashes requires constant situational awareness. And yet, almost everyone seems distracted.

Taxi drivers yammer into headsets, swerving around. People bury hands into glove compartments. Their eyes often follow moments after. They must REALLY need that one document. At least people don’t text and drive. The pedestrians are even more plugged in. Several people have walked by already. Almost all of them were calling someone. Otherwise, they had little in common. Some were essentially clothed in rags. Others were dressed to the nines. Their Samsungs and Nokias bind them together. Their phones are their Jordanian ID.

The street marinades in a smell cocktail. Gasoline fumes form the base notes. Most cars are older, less efficient. Their tailpipes belch out visible soot. The air is choked with engine exhaust. Back home, I associated gasoline with freedom. It embodied the agency to do whatever. To go wherever, to have free will. It meant driving along I-35 completely carefree. Here, it smells like standstill traffic. It smells of honking horns, screeching tires. It reeks of road rage and recklessness.

Yesterday, throngs of people were smoking here. Their tobacco smoke cut through the air. Today, as Ramadan starts, daytime smoking stops. A man irritably taps his foot nearby. I can’t help but think it’s withdrawal. He finished an entire pack yesterday. I can see him eyeing the store. There’s only four more hours until sunset. And with that sunset, comes freedom.

Refuse is strewn all over the road. Funny, since there are multiple visible dumpsters. The familiar smell of trash permeates everywhere. But, something smells different today. It’s like trash, but ten times stronger. Unfortunately, the smell is all too familiar. Stray cats are everywhere in Amman. When they die, no one buries them. They lie in the sun, completely exposed. Swarms of flies buzz around the carcasses. I start walking downtown to get away. This is too much right now.

Finally, I see an empty cab ahead. I jump, wave, even lean into traffic. Nothing gets the driver’s attention. I yell, hoping that he’ll hear something. No dice. The street here is just too loud. Tires squeal as teenagers race ancient Toyotas. Tires squeal as threadbare ones lose traction. Tires squeal as trucks swerve, avoiding deaths. Passing buses emit earsplitting roars. I’m drowning in an ocean of noise.

Suddenly, an invasive species enters this ocean. I can distinctly hear Fetty Wap. His voice mixes adds to the mixture. Of the noises of the streets. Of a thousand conversations, all at once. Of the Quran readings on public radio stations. It’s not the Lexus and the Olive Tree anymore. Nowadays, it’s the Fetty and the Quran station. The iPhone and the 1980s Toyota. The whole world and Amman.

– Bobby


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