“Give me Visa!” ordered the charmless guy at Avis at Queen Alia International Airport, in the middle of the desert just outside Amman. He was, pretty much, the only charmless person we met in 6 days of driving around the country. As we flew in to the airport, we saw dust devils, and later in the airport, for a few minutes, dust clouds completely obscured our view of some nearby buildings. It made me think of my friend who, when she discovered we were planning on renting a car and driving around Jordan, exclaimed melodramatically “but you might get caught in a sandstorm!”
These are the delights and frustrations of driving in Jordan:
- Maps are hard to find, and GPS isn’t available at Avis or any of the major rental car agencies. Approximately ten minutes after picking up the car, we were starting to wonder who had the bright idea to do this. Royal Jordanian had kindly rescheduled our flight from mid-day to late evening, and so night was falling by the time we set out. Maps of Jordan are hard to come by, either paper or online. We didn’t have a data connection, so online GPS was not an option. We had an offline GPS map, but its information was all in Arabic. We had some very poor Google maps of our route, and some screen shots of a major intersection and a town we needed to drive through. This all fell through as we hit the first intersection – large signs declaring “Detour” were greeted with dismay. There was no obvious way to get off the highway and across to the road we needed to take. We had hoped we would see signs (after all, the town we were heading to was a major one), but no luck. A theme on the trip was we’d find multiple signs to our destination, but not at critical moments – such as a major intersection/a complicated town/after a detour.
- Ask for directions. Not long after the detour, we saw a traffic policeman parked on the side of the road. D swung in, and directed me to get out and ask for directions. (I know!) And as luck would have it, the very helpful policeman spoke very good English. About an hour later, and after stopping three times in Madaba to ask directions (from a helpful pharmacist, a kid on the road, and three old guys sitting chatting outside their shop), we finally got to our hotel. Everyone we approached spoke English, and all seemed keen to show it off. That pattern continued through detours or after poor signage. Only once did we stop and ask someone – two farmers with their families sitting under a tree on the side of the road – who didn’t speak English. But they were no less eager to help us, gesticulating wildly. They would however have been more helpful if the two of them had agreed on the way to go.
- The U-turn. Rather than have major intersections off multiple lane highways, they simply have a gap where you have to U-turn. In this first case, given all the road works underway, our U-turn involved sneaking through a small tunnel (that barely fit our small car), across what felt like a building site, and mercifully back onto the highway, where we found our turn-off.
- Indicators here are also clearly not installed, as no-one uses them. They change lanes without warning, and stop suddenly.
- Of course, indicators are not necessary to change lanes if you’re not actually driving in a lane. It’s as if the lane markings are there as direction guidance – something to drive over, rather than between.
- Driving through towns was chaotic and slow. The historic King’s Highway takes you through many towns, so when estimating travel times, you may need to add an extra hour or two.Locals park on the side of the road haphazardly. There is no skill in parallel parking. No intention to even attempt it. So whilst you might have one car parallel parked near the curb, the next one in front of it might be a metre or more out from the curb, and the next one will be parked in at an angle, any attempt at considerate parking clearly seen as unnecessary. Or they will stop suddenly, in a lane, and leave their cars, like the white van in the photo below.
- Double-parking. Imagine the above scenario, but with random double-parking – two cars wide, equally haphazard, cutting off lanes, and holding up all the traffic.
- Humps. Camel crossing signs. I loved these. Especially when we saw actual camels crossing the Desert Highway. Sorry, I wasn’t quick enough with the camera.
- Humps #2. Not camels. Random traffic judder bars or traffic humps (sometimes called Sleeping Policemen) on major highways. Occasionally there is a sign, and occasionally there might be some road markings indicating an upcoming bump.
- Goats crossing. Randomly, with no notice, you might come across a herd of goats. We saw them on the isolated roads to the Dead Sea, as well as on the country’s major road, the Desert Highway from Aqaba to Amman. Staying alert is critical. Other small black animals running across the road disconcerted me, until I realised they turned out to be black plastic bags blowing around. We saw them everywhere we went, on the road like tumbleweed, caught in trees sitting there like bird nests.