The Road to Amman

After my mad dash to the border, the subsequent journey to Amman is dull in comparison, only livened up by a chance encounter with an urbane Palestinian named Ahmed.  Dapper and stylish, in a grey suit, smoking a cigarillo, we strike up a conversation at a bus break, and are soon engaged in a lively debate about...football.  He loves Man U (which would usually be enough for me to turn my back) but I'm in a generous mood - and, anyhow, my team are five days from a historic Double.  We chat about UEFA (I'm backing Inter, he thinks Bayern are favourites) and how often he used to travel to London (he's an engineer by trade). Nothing like a discussion about The Beautiful Game, to bring two strangers close. Ahmad alights in Irbid - a smallish city with nothing but a university to its name - and I wave him goodbye, only half-sadly. His company was greatly appreciated, but I'm exhausted and I need a power nap as my journey's barely begun.

We pull into the capital and the thermometer is rising.  I'm meeting my friend Stewart (a savvy American, whose Arabic is now fluent after a stint in Yemen).  He's currently working for a NGO but applying for a job in Iraq.  I'm only half-amused when he informs me that a bullet-proofed car is part of the package.  He takes me to 'Gambini;' a trendy western joint in a bourgeois neighbourhood.  The waiters are quiet, courteous, even shy and bring me one iced coffee after another to perk me up.  Stewart's doing a Noel Coward and drinking cocktail after cocktail, which makes him even more amusing.  We talk in a desultory style about politics...I mention that Hamas have just banned hip hop in Gaza, on the grounds that it's anti-Islamic.

"What a buzzkill" he remarks, and orders another Manhattan.

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I check in early with Royal Jordanian Amman and take the shuttle bus to the airport - full of gorgeous trolley-dollies (with fetching red uniforms, glossy hair and IPods).  To my amazement, Queen Nor has undergone a facelift since my last visit two years before - there's a Starbucks and the departure area is no longer a giant ashtray.  To my delight, I spy a copy of the New Yorker in the magazine store with a full-length feature by Janet Malcolm. Things are looking up.

I settle down at my gate with a cappucino and turn greedily to page 34 ("Anatomy of a Murder").  Malcolm's on form...only the cries of wailing children around me are an impediment to real engrossment.  Opposite me is a young woman with a six months old, looking wiped out- we fall into conversation and it transpires she's a Christian Armenian from Syria, en route to see her parents for the first time since she gave birth (her husband is Canadian).  She's been on the road far longer than I and it's tough only having one pair of hands.  In the name of sisterhood, I put Malcolm on the back burner and offer my help.  She looks at me as if I'm an angel of mercy and before I have a chance to change my mind heads off to Starbucks for her own fix.  I'm left in charge, literally holding the baby.  

Nadia is mesmorising - chubby, dark hair, bright black eyes and a pair of hearty lungs.  But - and I've never understood why - because I seem to have the magic touch with babies, within second she's taken to me.  Before long she's gurgling and laughing, as I sing her English nursery rhymes from my childhood and bounce her up and down on my knee.  There's something very comforting about holding a tiny, happy baby in your arms (not that I have any romantic ideas about motherhood).  All around are appreciative looks from other women with infants -  the general consensus seems to be that I should be doing this for a living - airport nanny services for desperate mothers...

But the lure of Malcolm and the New Yorker is just as strong and suddenly it's 'bing bong, bing bong.'

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My flight's on time (and it's not even full).  I wave goodbye to Nadia and her grateful mother, I"ve got the aisle seat I requested, the vegetarian meal, a brand-new Yorker and - I've been reliably informed - Royal Jordanian have just upgraded to individual movie screens.  It feels like I've been on the road a lifetime but, by my calculations, it's only been 16 hours.  India awaits and, since this is my third trip, I know a little of what to expect.  Fasten your seatbelt - it's gonna be a bumpy ride...