To Um Qais by bus
March 23, 2014
I made it up to Um Qais the other day. I think it may be my favorite place in the whole of Jordan. There’s stiff competition, to be sure, but it’s definitely up there.
I went with my friend who was visiting from the UK for a week. We decided to get the bus from Amman, because it’s so much cheaper than any other mode of transport, and is also incredibly fun.
Last week I went to one of the hotels stretched along the coast with friends for one night. We arrived in the afternoon, entered the immaculate lobby, rushed our bags to our rooms, and went straight down to the beach.
It’s the air of uncertainty in Jordanian transport that makes it such an experience – buses here just tend to leave when there are enough passengers on board to make it worthwhile for the driver to set off. There do seem to be set stops, but only ones that locals know of – you’ll see groups of them by the roadside in what appear to be random places – no signs, no benches, nothing. And the bus drivers just stop whenever someone hails them down, like a big, crowded taxi. Buses here are mostly old, with fringed curtains inside to keep the interior shaded, the size of a large minibus, and almost invariably with some verses from the Qur’an above the drivers seat. All of them seem to have a unique route and none of them seem to have a maximum capacity. Be assured though – if you’re female you’ll always be able to get a seat because someone will give theirs up for you. This kind of behavior, which would be unusual, maybe even eccentric in England is standard practice in Jordan. It’s not being kind or polite, it’s just what everyone does. Here was me being terribly English, waving my hands and shaking my head, saying “Oh no, please, there’s no need.” in my broken Arabic, and the rest of the passengers looked on, bemused by the foreigner who was questioning what seemed to them to be like common sense.
Anyway, we got a bus from the Northern bus station in Amman to the Southern bus station in Irbid. Then we stumbled around the fruit stands in the biggest bus terminal of Jordan’s second largest town (it feels wrong to call Irbid a city, somehow, seeing as it has a population of about 250,000 people) and were helped by a man selling fresh oranges, who pointed us to a bus that he said would take us to the northern bus station in Irbid. It was there that we’d be able to catch the bus to Um Qais, which was another forty five minutes away. This was no issue to us, as winding through the northern countryside of Jordan is spectacular. It’s so much greener than you might expect, which dramatic hillsides, smatterings of houses, and fields of fruit trees. Living in Amman can make you forget what the countryside looks like sometimes, and northern Jordan is breathtaking at times.
We arrived, and again were helped by another man who gestured at the bus going to Um Qais, closer to the borders with Syria to the North and Israel/Palestine to the West.
The further outside of Amman you travel, the more unusual it is to be western. We attracted open stares as we waited in the bus station and felt almost as if we were intruding in life there somehow. There was no hostility, mind, just curiosity; we were an interesting break from the homogeny of Irbid locals, something rare, something to be observed. It’s funny being a minority – sometimes it’s difficult, sometimes you just want to blend in, but it’s definitely something I took for granted living in the UK for my whole life. How many people have I looked at in the same way when I’ve seen them, without even realising I’m doing it?
When we arrived at Um Qais, three hours after setting off from Amman it felt as if we’d accomplished something. We were immediately distracted from our sense of achievement, however, from the large group of local schoolboys who were there on a school trip with their two teachers. As soon as one of them caught sight of us, the cry of “Foreigners!” went up and spread across the crowd. Phones came up in a mexican wave of photo-taking. They applauded as we walked past, teachers shouting for them to be quiet. It felt like being a weird kind of celebrity. Or something at a zoo. But it was funny, nonetheless, and we quickly passed them and headed to the Northern tip of the ruins.
The view from Um Qais is truly something to behold, something I’ll never forget, something pictures don’t do justice. We saw the Golan Heights, we saw the Sea of Galilee, we saw Nazareth, we sat and looked across at the places Jesus lived and walked and felt awestruck. I remember too, hearing bombing in Syria as we sat amongst the ancient city in silence. Thundering coming from the North, as an ominous reminder of the troubles of the modern world. I thought about the conflict this part of the world has known. It seems completely incongruous that somewhere so beautiful should be home to any kind of suffering.
And then the boys were on top of us, asking for pictures, and we stood with them, grinning, feeling self-conscious again, and it was easy to slip back into our little world on this side of the border, and experience the strange sensation of being an alien in a foreign land.
There’s a beautiful little cafe in the ruins of Um Qais. We sat there for a couple of hours, drinking in the view, talking about life, talking about mundane things, talking about big things, and then somehow, miraculously, stepping back onto the road outside the ruins and meeting the bus back to Irbid’s northern bus station.
The journey back was smoother; we caught a coach back to Amman. The driver, pleased to meet foreigners who could speak Arabic, took us closer to where we were staying than he needed to. Yet another example of that everyday Jordanian generosity I’m going to miss when I go home. We arrived in the big city at night. It felt much further than three hours away from where we’d sat overlooking two other countries that day. I’m definitely going to go back to Um Qais – you don’t see views like that often in life, I think.