My journey eastward, form the US capital to northern Iraq, began in humble National Airport in Washington, where the flight to JFK was delayed more than two hours. Bad weather in NYC, and the subsequent airline delays, had travelers running all over the tiny gate area in frenzy, worried about missing their connection, their ride, or their dinner. I mostly sat reading, partly because my flight to Amman did not leave until five hours later, partly because it’s not too comfortable to stand with a boot on your left leg and crutches.
In my last game with MSA International in DC, the Friday before my Tuesday departure, I landed awkwardly on one of my feet and caused a mini stress fracture to the ankle. The first injury in three years of playing in DC, and it comes days before a transcontinental move. Well, as it turned out, that meant weaving through international airports … on a wheel chair, pushed by airport employees of all backgrounds and walks of life.
Once I made my way – with priority boarding, of course, due to my handicap – on the plane that was to host me for 11 hours on the way to Amman, I realized my expectations of Royal Jordanian had been a little off. I suppose that working with Arabs from another part of the region for a few years inevitably ends up skewing your expectations. From the look and the amenities on board, the plane was probably a few years older than me. “Excuse me, sir, where’s my personalized screen? Is it under my arm rest?” No, dummie, look forward. Way forward. There are shared screens every 10 aisles or so. “Oh, the common screens showing one and only one thing at a time. Oh, those. I remember those.”
In-flight entertainment aside, I began fuming over the seat they had assigned me. At the check-in, the RJ lady told me she had hooked me up with a great seat: the first row of coach, with more leg room than the others, she claimed. It would be perfect for my current condition. I had stayed in that first row on flights before, and they have been an inconsistent mix of satisfaction, with some actually giving you more leg room and some instead cheating you with a nearby wall blocking any extension for your legs. Given what the lady had told me, I automatically assumed this plane would be of the former kind. I was wrong, and I was stuck in a seat where I could not stretch my leg-in-a-boot neither forward nor sideways. The flight was packed, but the crew managed to find me an empty seat 30,000 seats back, where I could fit my big black removable cast.
I arrived in Amman in mid-afternoon, and RJ had set up for me to stay at an airport hotel. As with many other parts of the region, everything looked under construction in the outskirts of the Jordanian capital. There were cranes, workers, machinery and dust all over the airport and the surrounding area. (I would be later informed that a new, bigger airport was under construction, right next to the current one. Of course…) Even the hotel was undergoing major renovations. The Golden Tulip Hotel was a cozy enough stay, complete with free dinner and breakfast. At the cafe’, which to my surprise served booze (and a lot of it), making it more of a bar than anything, three English-speaking, chain-smoking men chatted away about their experiences in the Middle East, their families and other small talk. The Canadian was an oil driller; he was on his way to Sulaimani as well, where he would take off for some oil field in northeast Iraq. The Brit worked for the Royal Saudi Air Force and was on his way to England. I didn’t catch what the Aussie’s story was, but he certainly didn’t lag behind the other two in number of Amstel Lights consumed, as the room continue to fill with smoke, the shy bartender accumulated tips, and I awaited my first day in Iraq.