Yesterday coming back from dropping a friend off at his hotel, I was shunted down a side street by some construction. In Jordan, being shunted down a street invariably means driving on for miles and miles with no turn around point. You really shouldn't fight it: it's like death and taxes and Fourth of July countdown meetings. You just have to ride it out.
Only this time the shunting included the added variable of a very low gas tank. Very low. Much lower than I had realized. As one identical city block gave way to the next, the gas gauge needle was falling in an inverse proportion to my anxiety. Which was rising. A lot. Gas stations are few and far between in Jordan, emphasis here on 'few' and 'far'.
By the time the gas light came on, I was in a semi-controlled panic. Here I was, set to run out of fuel on the side of some unnamed street in the middle of who-knows-where at 11 o'clock at night on a schoolday. I thought about calling a friend, but how would she ever find me? "Kate, I'm out of gas! Tell Dave to come pick me up -- I'm right next to a pharmacy. He'll know it by the adjacent pile of rubble and the loitering stray cats."
So I did what any smart diplomat would do in the middle of the night in the Near East on an unmarked road with no streetlights: I pulled up next to a group of youth and practiced my Arabic. To their credit, they acted as if this happened to them every day. And who knows, maybe it does.
"Excuse me -- could you help me? I'm looking for a gas station." It's worth pointing out here that implying you'd like directions is about the stupidest thing you could ever do in Amman. Earlier when I'd called my friend's hotel to get its location, I talked to three different employees before one finally admitted, "We're sorry; we just can't assist you." So what I was actually hoping was for one of the young men to pull a gas can out of his pocket. Stranger things have happened.
The group members exchanged a few 'have-you-got-a-gas-can?' glances, then one brave soul stepped forward and shrugged. "I'll take you there." And he reached for my keys...
At this point I had a split second decision to make. Get in a car (my car) with a strange guy who is going to drive me (presumably) to a gas station. Or run out of gas and be surrounded by a lot of strange guys without any real means of escape. Not, actually, that difficult a decision in the end. Though I did offer a silent apology to the RSO shop as I slid into the passenger seat.
"How do I adjust the chair?" my savior and / or abductor asked. "Ah, it's broken." "Oh," brief pause while, in lieu of the carseat, he adjusted his glasses. "Is this okay?" He indicated the oil light, which was blinking. "Umm, also broken." I may not have been smart enough to avoid buying a car on the local market, but I did pat myself on the back for having randomly memorized the word for 'broken' that morning. At this point he was probably wondering about his own safety, but we started off just the same. His friends' heads swiveled to watch us depart as if they were on a single collective pivot.
We chatted a bit in the car while he steered us through intersections and alleys, down a path I had no chance of retracing on my own; I figured if I was on my way to my death, I ought to at least enjoy the last few moments beforehand. "Are you here for work, or school..?" he asked. "Work; I'm with the US Embassy." No point in lying about these things. He told me he was an airline steward for chartered flights, though also did work as a tailor. The words 'steward' and 'tailor' he said in English, which made me wonder if he was using my old language class tactic of just saying what you know, not necessarily what was true. He would, of course, very much like to go to America some day. "You would be most welcome," was my reply, one of the few times I've really and truly meant it.
20 minutes later and 30 JD fewer, we left the gas station to return to his random street corner. His friends were stacked up along the curb like a glee club, clearly awaiting his return with some interest. "I am so sorry; I've been a lot of trouble." I wasn't sure what to do: offer him money? shake his hand? "No, it was a small thing; it's normal." He jumped out of the car and pointed down a street; "The Embassy is that way."
Part of your job as a diplomat is to remind foreigners that Americans are people, not just policies or movie caricatures; it's nice to be reminded of the flip side of that yourself from time to time.