Everybody’s got to make a living. It’s a simple fact that breeds an annoying amount of value-less interactions between total strangers in countries around the world. Tourists have needs, and anyone looking to make a buck will try to fill them. In the developing world, the volume of these interactions multiplies – but so does their value.
In Nepal, in India, in Bolivia, Colombia, Vietnam– you can’t get out of an airport without a taxi tout offering you a ride. He isn’t the driver – he’s the guy that gets the driver who only speaks the local language situated with a client. He gets the address of your destination, does the bargaining, puts you in a car, but then, he’s gone. You can repeat this with any mode of transport – the boat tours in Inle, the bike rentals in Hoi An, the motos in Phnom Penh – it’s the universal system of transport bargaining when a language barrier is involved.
In Myanmar, in Cambodia, in Thailand – walk near any monument, temple, or attraction and someone will be there to sell to you – postcards, sir? Sandals, buddhas, hand-made paper, bamboo wallets, souvenir t-shirts, sand paintings, Chinese waving happy cats? You need change money? Anything they can find that might interest you in the very least will be there. “Just for looking,” they invite. “No have to buy.” Don’t bother climbing a temple at sunrise to try to escape; a good salesperson knows exactly where the tourists are, and will be there with his paintings before the light clears the horizon.
Restaurant owners place their touts in the doorways. “Mingalaba,” they call in Bagan, as you try to bike by without crashing into them. “Massage? Pedicure,” they suggest outside spas on the streets of Saigon, handing a brochure across your path while you walk. The same tout from the same spa will come at you multiple times in a day. You are anonymous potential. In Hanoi, try not to touch anything you aren’t 100 percent sure you’d like to buy – they say ‘just looking’ but they mean just buying, and dirty looks (or worse words) may be thrown in your direction. But in Jordan….in Jordan, things are different.
In Jordan, all of it – the touts, the bargaining, the day to day crap of life that must be negotiated in a fashion fit to exhaust those of us who are accustomed to set prices and developed logistics – in Jordan, all of it is a joy. You will not offend by saying no. You will just elicit an escalating entertainment of pitches.
No, thank you, I don’t want to ride through Petra on your donkey. “Why not?” I like to walk. I’ll use my legs.
“Four legs, madam. Donkey have four legs. Better than two.”
“Walk? You not so fat you need to lose weight.”
“You worry about money? Happy hour price!”
You keep walking down the Siq, past the Treasury, to see the tombs. “You drop something, madam,” a kid will call. In Central and South America, be very wary – this is the beginning of a ploy to distract you while someone else steals your camera, your money. In Jordan, in Petra in particular, it’s the beginning of a joke.
“Madam, you drop something!”
“You, madam,” the child will respond, pointing toward the ground behind you. At some point, despite your better traveler judgment, you will turn around and look. The child will giggle, his friends will join in, and someone will call, “your smile, madam! You dropped your smile!” It makes no sense. It isn’t even that funny, and yet they have so much fun doing it, you have to laugh with them. You also have to laugh because they will remember you.
Don’t think for one minute that you are an anonymous tourist in Petra. Don’t think that just because it gets over 600,000 each year, you can’t be identified. That kid who speaks to you, who asks you, “where you from, Madam,” on your way into the site in the morning, he could have asked you the same in Italian, Spanish, Russian, French, Portuguese. But he sees you, sizes you up, nationality included, and when you leave later on, he will say goodbye in the language that is yours. He will recall a joke he told you, or an exchange you shared, earlier in the day.
Feel free to get a little cheeky – the kids enjoy it. If you respond to “where you from,” with the same question back, “and you, my friend, where YOU from,” the answer will not be ”Jordan,” or, “Wadi Musa,” or, “the Bedouin village.” The answer will be, smiling, “from my mother!”
Don’t misunderstand, you are economic potential. But in Petra – maybe in much of Jordan – the rapport is a prerequisite. Tea first – tea with so much sugar it’s almost a syrup – Bedouin whiskey, they joke – tea is first. A chat. And then – then whatever is coming will come. “We have tea, then maybe you look at my shop. If you like something, you buy it.” Or it will be time to haggle over the price of a camel ride, or a jeep trip through Wadi Rum, or the aba you see the ladies wearing and think you may want to take home with you. But first the tea, the talking, the laughter. Because in the wadis, life may be hard (living in a cave, or the desert – it isn’t easy, even if it is full of beauty), but it is also full of joy. And if you come to see the scenery, you must take in the joy as well. And that, for free, you may take home.
For more pictures of my time in Jordan, click here.