AMMAN, Jordan — There is the kind of travel for which you are celebrated in advance. “Nice,” say friends if you tell them about your plans for France — or Argentina or Japan. “Wish you’d let us tag along.”
But before a recent trip to Jordan my wife, Kathy, and I heard: “Why there?” “Why now?” “Aren’t you afraid?”
We knew about the civil war next door in Syria. But Jordan has the ancient city of Petra, not to mention moderate politics, a 30-year-old peace treaty with Israel, and a tradition of treating visitors like kings.
A friend who had been there warned us not to show a special interest in rugs or mosaics in a Jordanian home. “How come?” we said. “They will want to give them to you,” he said. “Right there. Right then.”
In fact, the first word we heard at the airport in Amman was a simple “welcome.” We would hear it again and again. “You are American,” said our hotel driver Motasem Rababah. “Good, very good. Well, welcome to Switzerland,” he laughed. “We are a bit like them. This is a noisy neighborhood. But Jordan is a quiet house.”
Officially called the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the country emerged out of the post-World War I division of the Middle East by Britain and France. The current monarch, Abdullah II, maintains close ties with the United States, following in the footsteps of his father, King Hussein, who died in 1999 after ruling for 46 years.
During our first days in the country, connections to the West popped up unexpectedly. A block from our Amman hotel, we were told, is the world’s largest Starbucks. “Oh, yes, oh, yes,” insisted a local when I questioned this. “And you must have a reservation to get in.”
Some women wore no headscarf. As subtly as she could, my wife pointed out a woman who was covered but in a pop-art-print tunic with neon-bright images of Marilyn Monroe.
Our Abercrombie & Kent tour guide, Omar Namruga, had a Scottish accent. “I hope you don’t mind,” he said. “When I learned English, my teacher was from the Highlands.”
Jordan and Scotland are a little bit alike, Namruga said, as he walked us around the ruins at the Amman Citadel, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited places. “Tribes, clans!” he said. “The power of extended families!”
Whenever we were on the road, Namruga told us stories from the Bible and handed us mandarin oranges from a tree in his yard. When we stopped at Mount Nebo, the mountain where Moses first saw the Holy Land, Namruga, who is a Muslim, gave an almost royal greeting to a robed Franciscan from the monastery there.
“I called him ‘abouna,’ ” Namruga said shyly. “It means ‘father’ in Arabic.”
We wondered when fear would confront us, if at all. During the flight from Paris to Amman, we had jitters when the flight attendant announced that the plane was flying through Iraqi airspace and that rules required that “all passengers stay buckled in.” The only sign we saw of the neighboring war was a line of refugees at the Syrian Embassy.
One afternoon cars with blaring loudspeakers circled a town where we were touring. The noise was insistent. Election? I thought. Revolution?
When I told Namruga about this, he almost hugged me, laughing while trying to reassure.
“These cars,” he said, waving at one that was blocks away. “These cars, that shout and shout and make everything rattle. They are selling vegetables.”