I started getting nervous when my seat-mate grabbed a piece of my shirt in her beak and pulled. The bus trip from Maarka to Amman in Jordan would, in many other countries, be a simple commute from the suburbs to the city. But in Jordan, you never know who – or what – will be seated next to you. On that particular day it was a loosely made, and poorly fastened, crate of squawking chickens. Let me first say that I have a few phobias, and one of them is to birds. I don’t mind the kind of bird that sits in a tree and sings, but birds that swoop at your hair or peck at your feet, or offer a good hard bite from a bill that is allegedly for talking – well, they can send me into full panic mode. I know it’s not rational, but the definition of a phobia is, after all, an irrational fear.
The chickens belonged to an Arab woman of indeterminate age; she could have been anywhere from 30 to 70, swathed in her robe and scarf. Few women in Jordan wear a veil, so I could see her weather-worn cheeks, and the smile crinkles around her mouth. But before I noticed those, I noticed the chickens. I saw her get onto the bus with the crate in her arms, and I knew, immediately, that she would sit next to me. I was wrong. She sat across from me. The chickens sat next to me.
I tried to edge discreetly toward the window, away from the crate. The chicken lady patted my leg and said something long and incomprehensible in Arabic. In all fairness, almost anything would have been incomprehensible, because my Arabic was limited to greetings, yes, no, thank you, how much, and a few numbers. But she clearly wanted to talk. I let her, although I could barely hear her over the chickens. As I watched them from the corner of my eye in mounting horror, they began to push against the side of the crate nearest me, and each time I scooted over an inch, so did those chickens. Their beady little eyes watched me greedily, until one bird, braver than her sisters, stuck her head out of the crate and latched onto my shirt. The chicken lady and a small group of grubby children who had approached to watch burst into laughter as the chicken pulled the button off my cuff and it vanished into her crop. For my part, I just tried not to scream.
Satisfied for the moment with a button, the chicken drew back into the crate and the hens all had a good cackle. I checked my watch and tried to estimate how much time was remaining on this trip, and wondered if I’d be able to reach downtown Amman if I got off on the next stop and found another bus. We were about five minutes into the trip, and I doubted it. I took a sip of my best travel mug 2017 and continued looking at the chicken lady.
The chicken lady reached across and grabbed a lock of my hair and gave it a good tug. Like chicken, like owner, I guessed. She clucked her tongue, again remarkably like the birds, and then smoothed her hand over my hair. Another burst of Arabic came from her, but by her face I guessed she might have been admiring my hair, so I blushed and said, “Shukran!” (Arabic for thank you). She looked startled, so apparently I had mistaken her attempt. I tried again. “Salaam Aleikum!” (a greeting, literally “peace be with you,” I think). Her look changed to one you might give a particularly stupid student. We were clearly too far into our one-sided conversation for me to offer greetings now.
I surreptitiously checked my watch again. Another two minutes had passed. Two of the children came forward, pushing themselves in between me and the chicken lady, and added their observations on my hair, along with some of the dirt from their fingers. I smiled and nodded, feeling like a bizarre and out-of-context bobble-head. It was going to be a long trip.
The chickens and I had the same destination: the markets, or suks, of downtown Amman. I was hoping to buy. I expect the chickens were intended for a butcher, and it couldn’t come too soon for me. The chicken lady continued our one-sided conversation through the entire trip, as I murmured things like “Mmm-hmm” and “Oh really?” knowing that she probably couldn’t hear me over the squawking and clucking anyway. The chickens periodically attempted further assaults on my clothing, and I lost a few pieces of my sleeve and a little bit of blood when an over-enthusiastic hen beaked me. Pecked me. Whatever. When the bus finally pulled to a stop at the depot in central Amman, the chicken lady stuck her hand into the crate and, pulling out a fresh brown egg, handed it to me with a smile. She refused my offered gift (a ball-point pen), and gave me a wide warm smile before once more smoothing my hair, then leaving with the chickens.
On a different day, I returned to the depot from my shopping excursion to find that it was no longer there. No signs, no buses, no nothing. I was appalled. I didn’t know where to go; I didn’t speak the language, and I really had to pee. There were a pair of public restrooms still there, but there were no little man and woman figures on them such as you see in the U.S. and Europe, and the labels were in Arabic, of which I read even less than I speak. Believing that it could cost my life if I used the wrong one, I waited, legs crossed, until a pair of men went into one. Just in time I went into the other, and for once didn’t mind squatting over a hole in the floor. At least there weren’t any chickens there.
When I emerged I noticed a 10 or 11 year old boy who had been hanging about before. I walked up to him and said, hopefully, “Bus?”
“No bus, lady,” he said. Jordanians actually mean “lady” when they say it, so I was not offended.
“Where bus?” I asked, feeling like a refugee from a Mel Brooks movie.
“I take you,” said the boy, taking my wrist and tugging. I didn’t have any better ideas, so I went with him. He led me through a couple of dingy winding streets, while I tried to convince myself that he was not the head of a band of white slavers, until we reached the brand new bus depot. “Bus!” he said, with a full sweep of his free arm. And buses there were. I offered him a dinar (about a dollar American) and a pen, but he shook his head. “No, lady, I help free.” His smile was an echo of the chicken lady’s, and I was suddenly very glad that I was in Jordan.
At least I was until I got back onto the bus to Maarka and met a goat. But that’s another story.