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LetsRun.com Goes To Amman
2009 World Cross-Country Coverage

March 24, 2009

By Robert Johnson

LetsRun.com's Robert Johnson is in Amman, Jordan to cover the World Cross-Country Championships. He got there on Monday night and thought he should blog about his experiences.

The Flight & First Night

Flying across the world is never fun (well, it's never fun if you are in coach - one time I got bumped to first class and it was spectacular), particularly when you have two connections and you start off flying on a bumpy-as-hell prop flight from DC to Newark after sitting on the runway for 1.5 hours thinking your bag missed the flight.

The next flight was from Newark to London, and for the first time, I realized there is an upside to the global economic crisis. The flight wasn't at 95% capacity as all flights seemed to be last year. Having that middle seat open is a lifesaver!! Thank you greedy mother******** on Wall St!!!

In London, I had a quick 2 hour layover and as I was sleepwalking up the stairs to the plane (yes, we were outside on an international flight), I saw a few thin people wearing Canadian jackets. I thought to myself, "That's gotta be the Canadian XC team," and sure enough it was.

This flight was shocking on two accounts. One - and don't call me racist as you'll see later that at least one other person had the same impression - I was struck by how white the whole plane was. If you were looking for Middle Easterners or Arabic speakers, you were on the wrong flight as this thing was almost as white as Vermont.

The second real big shocker though was how packed this flight was compared to the other one and how everyone on the flight must have gone to the bathroom twice on the flight, which was less than 5 hours long. Every single seat was taken and I knew exactly how many people went to the bathroom as my seat was on the aisle - about three seats in front of the rear toilet. Literally, during the whole flight there was somebody standing next to me grimacing as they were holding it in.

At least I got to overhear random people who know nothing about running talking to Canadian runners about why they were on the airplane. Let me share some highlights of what I overheard.

Second most favorite snippet: 50-plus white male talking to Canadian, "You're a runner? I went to high school where that Galen Rupp guy went to school. He sure is good."

Did I hear it wrong or is Central Catholic really that old?

Amman World XC Gives A Big Welcome

Most favorite snippet came near the end of the flight from an overweight American talking to a Canadian: "Well good luck to you in that race. I really hope to look in USA Today and see that Canada dominated everything."

Hmmm. Let's have a quick over/under here. What is higher: The odds USA Today has more than a blurb on World Cross-Country versus the odds that Canada has anyone in the top 20 at World XC? I'm not sure who I'm going with on this one as I'm sure Dick Patrick will try his hardest to get a story in there and maybe he could sell them on German Fernandez. But on the other hand, the junior races aren't that deep and the Canadians were saying they had pretty good junior teams.

Anyway, after a bumpy landing, we disembark and I'm a bit nervous as the World XC people said they'd be there to pick me up. No need to worry - as we walk into the terminal there is a huge World XC kiosk and a ton of volunteers. The Canadians have all already given them their passports.

God I Wish I Was Wearing Some Canadian Gear
I walk up and do the same but am a bit paranoid the volunteers think I'm in the same group as we are staying at different hotels. I find my name on a list and point to it and say, "Media - not Canadian." Now Canadians, trust me, I didn't say "not Canadian" with pride. I said it with fear. Despite the fact that I had been told by a lot of people it's safe in Jordan, you can call me the typical xenophobic American but I had some nerves about coming over here given how unpopular the Iraq war has become.

We get the VIP treatment and breeze through immigration and are taken to the baggage claim where I'm thrilled to see my bag. My pure joy is immediately crushed as my fears about being American instantly grow ten times bigger when a guy yells out at the top of his lungs, "All right, there are two Americans here. Where are you?"

Bobby, Is That You?

Bobby Curtis - Looking Good!!

For a brief moment, I stay silent and then for some reason I figure if I'm going to be executed they'll probably find me eventually so I speak up and say, "No, no. One American." But then I see a guy dressed smartly in a sort of non-athletic looking button-down and sweater meekly approaching the guy I'm talking to. He looks very familiar and I'm pleased to realize I'm not alone. If I'm going to be taken outside and executed at least it's going to be with Team USA leader Bobby Curtis.

Our fears of an imminent death subside a great deal as we learn they are looking for us as we are going in a separate car as our two hotels aren't close to the Canadians. As we make our way to our car, I ask Bobby, "Are you bit nervous about being an American here and did that freak you out like it did me?"

Bobby smiles and points to his spike bag which is tied on to the back of his backpack and I realize it's inside out so that the USA logo is hidden. Very smart. He also admitted that he was stunned by how white the flight was. Of course, I guess the LetsRun.com haters will point out that Bobby and I are both from the South.


Moving on. Considering it was pouring down rain outside, and that it was pitch black out, and that the windows in our car were dirty, we couldn't see a whole lot on the 30-plus minute ride to our hotels. The one thing that stuck out to both of us were the huge bright American chain signs. Amman is certainly more American in terms of fast food joints than Ithaca, NY as we saw at least two Pizza Huts, two KFCs (did I mention that I love fried chicken and that sadly the one KFC in Ithaca closed about two years ago?), one or two Popeyes, a Hardees and McDonalds. Hell, we even saw signs for Amp energy drink.

The place was so Americanized that Bobby Curtis at one point said to me in what I hope was a somewhat joking manner, "I'm thinking about paying a cab driver 200 bucks to take me across the border to Iraq to say I went." Let's just hope Bobby runs well and doesn't follow through on such madness.

Bobby and I had a good talk on the car ride. I asked Bobby "Why were you on a flight from London?"

Amman is a blur of Americanized tastes so far.

I'd seen US women's team member Julie Culley at her last track workout at American University on Saturday I knew the rest of the team was flying nonstop from either DC or New York. He said he'd been in London training for a few weeks trying to get adjusted to the time change. The time difference between Amman and London is only two hours, but it's six hours between Amman and Philadelphia, which is where Curtis lives. Very smart thinking since Curtis almost had his college career destroyed due to major league sleep issues. When I say major league, I mean major league. I recommend you read a great Runnersworld brief chat on Curtis' sleep problems here if you want more info.

Anyway, Curtis also revealed that after World Cross he's going to go do a 1,500 at Mt. SAC as a tune-up for the 5k in the meet that NYRR is putting on.

After Bobby got out of the cab, I checked into my hotel and was pleased to hear they were still serving room service. I ordered a hamburger with french fries that looked a bit odd but tasted pretty good.

1st Full Day In Amman
You'd think since I'm coming to the Middle East that I would have made plans or known what was going on when I got here. False. I had zero plans and no idea as to what my schedule was except for the fact that I knew the race is going to be on Saturday.

The one thing I knew that I wanted do was to see the ancient ruins at Petra as everyone had told me that was the big thing to do here. Since I didn't know when the press conferences would be, I decided when I checked in last night at 9 pm that I should go right to Petra when I woke up on Tuesday. I asked the hotel manager if that was possible and he said "Yes. It's 100 dinars (which is about 140 US dollars - crazy to think their currency is stronger than ours) for a taxi driver that speaks English. Be here at 6 am." 6 am?

I asked him if I could come at 7 and he said yes.

After a restless night of a lot of tossing and turning, I ate breakfast and then showed up at 7:10 in the lobby. No taxi driver. There is a new guy at the front desk and he makes some calls and says the guy is on his way.

Well, he certainly wasn't in a hurry (which would be a common theme of the day) as we didn't leave the hotel until close to 8. That was fine with me as I figured even it takes 4 hours each way (it was never made clear to me exactly how far Petra was from the hotel; I got various estimates of 2.5 to 4 hours) and I'm there for 4 hours, I'd sill be back at a reasonable hour like 8 pm.

The taxi driver's name was Muhammad. My first impression of him was great. I thought he was very nice and thank goodness my first impression was so high as I'd be in for the trip of a lifetime. Where to begin? Well let's just say that in the first hour of the trip we stopped twice. Admittedly, I'm the first to think that Americans are in a hurry to rush to the next red light but did we really need to stop once for coffee and gas and then again for breakfast - particularly when I'd already eaten breakfast?

Someone Give This Guy A Starbucks Gold Card
Suddenly I realized the answer to my rhetorical question was an emphatic "yes." The guy is a coffee and cigarette addict. He revealed to me that he drinks 10 or 11 espressos per day (and at least one place they cost 1 dinar each so that's $1.40 per pop) and smokes 3 packs a day. When he said 3 packs a day, I thought maybe he got his numbers confused as his English was very limited. I later wondered again if he got his numbers mixed up when he revealed that he has 4 wives, but considering before the day was over, he'd bang out three packs, maybe he knows his numbers just fine.

Anyway, the trip there was actually very enjoyable. He was having a good time smoking and offering me a cigarette every 10 minutes and I was having a good time trying to ask him a million questions about the country, his wives, the King's family, my fellow Princetonian, Queen Noor, etc.

There were two things remarkable about the trip down. One was how was how many cops there were. I'd never seen anything like it in my life. There had to be at least 20 police cars that we passed on our side of the road alone (and just as many on the other side) - probably one at least every 10 minutes.

The second was how slow we were driving. Buses, trucks, you name it, everybody was blowing by us. When I started the trip, I didn't quite get how it possibly could take 4 hours to drive less than 180 miles on a perfectly straight-as-could-be highway through the desert, but I soon understood. The speed limit for cars was 110 kph (68.35 mpw) and yet we were barely going 80 kph (49.7 mpw).

Now, you may say, "Well of course he was driving so slow when there were so many cops." But I certainly didn't understand it. I mean we were 30 kph away from speeding and the highway was so straight you could see the cops almost every time from half a mile away. No way we were going to get pulled over.

And then suddenly I became educated. The cops didn't need a reason to pull you over. They stepped out in the road and motioned to you and you pulled over - end of story. Sort of like a DWI checkpoint in the States I guess but no way do I think the ACLU would allow this to happen in America.

Jordanian Jail, Here We Come?
As this happened to us, I suddenly had a sick feeling in my stomach. I suddenly thought, "Oh shit, he was driving so slow because he really didn't want to be pulled over," as I remembered that on the way out of town, the driver had pulled over to the side of the road as a friend ran over and handed him some sort of taxi certificate to put in his glovebox.

Sure enough, the traffic stop wasn't going well. There was pointing, raised voices and then Muhammad hops out of the car and walks back to the police car to plead his case with the officer who had gone back to his car to type on the computer. As this is going on, I had two thoughts. The wimp in me was thinking, "There's no way I go to jail if he does, is there?" And then curious tourist me was like, "Try to enjoy the scene, Robert. This is a once in a lifetime experience."

It truly was unique because the wind was literally howling at probably 50 miles an hour. It was so bad we were in the midst of a sandstorm - so bad that the cop was totally 100% wrapped up like a mummy. Driving in a sandstorm is like driving in fog - one minute it will be real bad and the next minute it will be clear.

Maybe I was too tired to get nervous, but about 10 minutes later Muhammad comes back to the car holding two tickets. Visibly agitated, he points to his license and says, "Finished." At first I thought he meant our trip was finished and we had to go back to Amman.

Since I felt bad for him and liked him, I wasn't too upset. I was like, "Well, at least I got to see the rocky desert." Then he kept driving and pointing at a license which seemed to have an expiration of 7/2009. I figured that he was saying that his taxi career was ending then as a result of this ticket. Ultimately, I found out that his own personal license had expired or finished the week before (his taxi license was expiring in July) and he had a huge fine of what I thought he said was 250 dinar ($350 US approx).

Anyway, an hour so later, we finally turned off the main desert highway for maybe a 30 minute ride on a smaller road that had one lane in each direction and was at times a little bit windy. I was stunned when my super-cautious driver started gunning it down this highway. He pointed at the speedometer and said, "No police here" and let out a hearty laugh. Apparently, everyone knew where the police were.

Rojo and his camel in Petra.

We ultimately got to Petra in - you guessed it - 4 hours. We stopped at a souvenir type shop and I got to meet Muhammad's good friend whom he'd been calling all the time on his cell phone. I was struck how they truly were great friends as they did an elaborate greeting that involved a kissing of the cheeks. Every time we'd stopped for coffee along the way, he knew someone at each shop but he'd never shown them half the respect he showed his friend in Petra. His friend got me to buy a traditional Arabian scarf which I thought would be great for the photos I was planning on taking at the ruins (check it out to the right).

The ruins were pretty cool. I had a sweet tour guide (please email me if you want his contact info) who spoke amazing English and apparently Japanese (he had lived in Japan and had a Japanese wife). He also must have summed up that I'm in insane physical shape as he asked me if I wanted to go on the secret back route. Trust me, this wasn't a ploy to get a big tip. This was a back route that one in the US would never be allowed to go on as it was very dangerous (at one point you had jump over a crevice that had a 50 foot drop). The end result? An unreal aerial view of one of the more famous ruins - The Treasury.

Tons of photos later (we'll put them online them Wednesday morning), I got back in the cab and headed towards Amman. Muhammad nicely decided about 20 minutes into the drive that we needed to pull over so he could take my picture with me standing in the rocky desert. A nice gesture. As we did this, apparently his friend drove by in a bus headed the other direction. The friend gave us a call and then after that we drove at about 20 miles an hour for at least half an hour. I didn't really understand what Muhammad was saying but I thought he said we were going to wait for his friend to catch up to us in a bus and take him with us. Well, that never happened. We got another phone call and started to go at our normal speedy 50 mph.

Let's Spice Things Up With A Hitchhiker
Well the ride back was uneventful - for about an hour. Then suddenly we pull over and next thing I know Muhammad says "Hold on. Wait here." He then hops out of the car, starts talking to a hitchhiker and then proceeds to run across the four-lane highway with the hitchhiker. Again, I did my best to just chill. They came back about 10 minutes later and the hitchhiker hops into the back of the car. Now truth be told, I wasn't scared at this point as I realized on their way back to the car that the hitchhiker was a cop just getting off his shift and Muhammad wanted to talk to him about his ticket.

I think he must have given Muhammad some good advice as we ended up giving him a 45 minute ride to the next big town. He was super nice and with him in the car, Muhammad actually drove the speed limit.

The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful (more espressos and more cigarettes and more slow driving) except for one strange occurrence. We pulled over at the same rest stop that Muhammad ate breakfast at. He asked me, "Restaurant okay?" and I said yes. Well, we get there and he goes into the back of the place while I sat at a table (it was more of like a souvenir shop/convenience store than a restaurant but they had a few tables up front).

Muhammad comes back 10 minutes later and they serve him a nice-looking dish. The waiter never spoke to me so I figured I'd just eat when I got back. No big deal. Then Muhammad gets an extra spoon, pushes his food into the middle, and offers me some of his meal. I was like, "What a great gesture. He's letting me have some of his food."

Well, that's what I was thinking until I was told to pay $15 bucks for it as we were departing. And the screwed up thing was I barely ate any of it as I didn't want to be rude.

So all in all it was a pretty uneventful day. 340 miles of largely uneventful driving on a largely empty highway - not!!!

In our 12 hour trip, let's see ... Muhammad and I took down at least 60 cigarettes, 10 espressos, got pulled over the by the police, picked up a hitchhiker and saw some sweet ruins. And to think I forgot to tell you about the strap that flew off the top off the car on the highway which we proceeded to back up a quarter mile and pick up. Or the fact that he preferred to split the two lanes on the highway rather than drive in the left or right lane.

But in all honesty, day 1 was actually a lot of fun if not a little bit nerve wracking. My only regret is I probably paid 50% more for everything than I should have. Weldon just wrote me and said he drove all over Egypt for $60 US. Oh well. My scarf looks darn good in my book even if it did cost me $60.


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