..: Seat of My Pants :..

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Change of pace

I have thought that it might be worthwhile to start posting some experiences I have had while travelling abroad. I wrestled with this for a long time because it just seems so darned narcissistic. I certainly don't love myself much and this would feel to be so obvious an attempt at attention. However, I am going to go ahead with it because I want there to be record of these memories. I spent some days with my father recently and I was reminded of a realization I had many years ago that I do not really know what he was like as he grew to adulthood. I remember stories he would tell my sisters and I about growing up in Norway under German occupation in the Second World War, and stories about his early years in Canada as a timber cruiser/lumberjack. But these feel incomplete. I remember being magnetized by film he shot in his youth, before moving to Canada. I scrutinzed what he shot because it felt like being able to see through his eyes in those years - years which I myself had already passed through into adulthood. How was he different from me? What were the similarities? It is with great sadness that I reconcile within me that I shall never know the answers to these questions. I have the very same wonderings about my mother and her life experiences as she grew up west of Montreal.

One of the larger experiences I had abroad, now 13 years ago (holy cow!), was the crash and destruction of a car in Jordan. Without further ado and with apologies for the length (I pared it down as much as I could):


Yadudah, Jordan - 1993

I have to start with the car crash.

In the early summer of 1993 I was working in Jordan as a site photographer to an archeological excavation sponsored by Wilfred Laurier University in Ontario. I didn't know anything about archeology (other than what I knew tangentially through my Egyptologist sister) and still don't. But I fired off 20 or so letters of interest to archeological 'dig' directors operating from Israel and Palestine to Ireland and Pakistan. I found these digs in a sort of 'digs-in-review' edition of Biblical Archeological Review. I received one positive response, from Wilfred Laurier, and was taken on board and flew in with the team at the end of May.

Without going into too much detail over how a dig is photographed (that's for another post), I got up early one morning at the end of the dig season to begin 'final photography' of the site. These are the last site images taken before 'back-fill' with earth and the closing of the dig for the season. In ‘Final Photography’ the photographer shoots all of the principle dig locations within the site proper (and their details) and does some aerial work as well, if possible, from a very high ladder so as to get as complete a picture of the site as possible.

A dig day usually begins at 4am, rising before the sun so as to be breakfasted and on-site before sunrise. Work should be well underway by then and 'second breakfast' had shortly thereafter. Because first breakfast is taken at about 4:30 or so, a second snack of pitas/falafel and such is had about 8 or 9 am. The fieldwork on a dig day is over by noon, due to heat from the sun. But it also gives the archeologists time in the afternoon, back at main camp to review finds from the day before and to wash the objects collected that day. On last photos day, I walked down the hill from the apartment I was sharing with two archeologist students (still sleeping then), and crept into the American Research Centre where the bulk of the archeologist students were being housed. It was usually possible to kick your way across the small field separating the two buildings and thereby reveal shards from antiquity, churned into the soil through time. These shards often dated back several thousand years, and could be bits of looped handles from amphorae, tips from pestles, or fragments of 'loaf-shaped' millstones. Because these bits were so far out of their original context that no meaningful archeological data from them could be relied upon, and because they are so generally plentiful throughout the Levant, there is no movement to record or assemble these loose pieces in the soil.

I met the two students in the Research centre as they pulled themselves up from quarters and we assembled our gear for the day in the Centre's lobby: My photo gear consisted of two camera bodies (one colour film one BW film), two 28mm lenses, a 135mm lens and a 60 mm macro lens - all housed in a tan Domke bag. I shot with Contax/Zeiss gear in those days for the lenses' unparalleled sharpness and contrast. I also had a tripod and a shim or frame with cloth stretched across it that I'd made to work as a sun shield when shooting small objects 'in-situ' in the field. I’d made it from fibreglas camping tent poles and then sewed the white fabric to it and made a square from the poles. This square shim could then be held by an assistant over me as I worked closely with objects found in the field. It softened the harsh Middle Eastern sun and reduced the deepness of shadows cast by the objects I was shooting. The shim could easily be disassembled and rolled up for transport. It became an essential tool during the two summers I spent shooting the Tell Jawa dig for Laurier. I also carried a flash unit (and a second backup at camp) and small candies to give away to the dig kids that meandered over the Tell from time to time. Many of those kids were hired through the summer and previous weeks of dig operation to assist the Canadians with sifting soil for artifacts and hauling away excavated soil and stone. It was tough work for those kids and they were paid fairly well - almost as much as teenagers could earn later on at regular jobs in the area.

But the crash happened that first day of final photography.

The two students and I loaded the car with our collective gear. Theirs consisted of brushes and measuring tape, burlap sacks and trowels, item boxes and a surveyor's transit. I remember joking that our rented car for that season, being a Daewoo and so flimsy in body panelling should instead have been called a Daesoon ('Die-soon') because it was so crappy a vehicle. There were wan smiles at this - it was only 4:30 am after all. We piled in and I drove as I was the only one with an International Driver's permit. The American Centre for Oriental Reserach is located on the outskirts of 'Amman and the city was quiet at that hour, with few people on the road into town other than some shepherds collecting strayed sheep and goats from the night before. Our path took us into town and then onto the King's highway that lead's out and north toward the Airport. For some reason, 'Amman's International Airport lies well outside town, by a good hour or more. We were digging on a Tell, or small hilltop, near the town of Yadudah on the way to the airport. We pulled onto the highway, having it to ourselves entirely for most of the way.

At about the midway point on the highway portion of our journey, there was a scream from directly behind my head. It was my name being shouted and was so high-pitched that I wondered for a second who else was in back of me in addition to Serge, a gentle, six foot Canadian male. I shook myself up as I had fallen asleep and saw our vehicle headed straight for a large concrete pillar. Our two left wheels (front and back), were already in the downward-sloping concrete median and were pulling us further leftwards into the railing and pillars. The pillars had huge sodium vapour lamps towering out of them - used for illuminating both southbound and northbound traffic from their central location. I wrenched the wheel to the right and the front left tire pulled up and out of the sloped median, but not the back tire. I felt the backend of the car slide down and leftwards. The backend of the car suddenly slammed violently into a pillar and then started spinning rightwards again up and out on the highway. I remember just seeing sunrise, sunrise, sunrise as we spun around freely. But then there was another violent slam as the back of the vehicle rammed flat-on into another pillar.

I suppose we must have been bounced around alot inside the car, but I honestly don't recall. Each of us were wearing seatbelts, and that very likely prevented us from being thrown from the car. I recall now that some statistic points to more car fatalities happening from being thrown free from the car than being held fast inside it. There was a sickening crunch as the back of the car collapsed up to the rear window. It seemed so slow to happen, as these things do. But then there was quiet and a small hiss as steam escaped from the ruptured radiator in the front. Immediately we asked one another if anyone was hurt. Miraculously, no one was. Well, actually I found out a year later that I had a broken toe, and we could see then that Serge had two small vertical cuts above his eyes - his glasses had jumped up and when he bounced around back there and the glasses' nose supports had been banged into his forehead. But he seemed alright otherwise. Adele, beside me, was shaken, but made from stern English stock and claimed to be OK.

All windows seemed to have imploded. There were small glass shards everywhere, in our hair, in our ears, in our mouths. The doors were all hopelessly jammed shut and so we crawled out over the hot hood and stood, bent-kneed in front of the car. I remember just looking down at the pools of liquids gathering under the car and looking at the rivulet patterns on the tarmac without comprehension. Serge suggested we see what was left of the surveyor's transit in the mashed up trunk, and it was then I remembered my beloved camera bag was in there too. We pried open the trunk lid and heaved up on its crumpled form. The orange plastic transit case was disintegrated and the transit itself was bent in odd places. I saw my camera bag further in under the collapsed rear window, and pulled on the strap until I could work the bag free. Inside it, all my gear was intact. Unbelievable. My tripod was too jammed to retrieve then, but that mattered little compared to the principle gear being OK.

We went back to the front of the car and crouched on the ground. It was too hard to stand reliably, and I suppose shock was setting in. The three of us just crouched there numb. I realized that I smelled gasoline. The smell must have been there all along, but we were too hopped up on adrenalin to notice it. I suggested we move farther away from the car and we stood and shuffled down the road perhaps 10m metres or so and crouched again.

Within seconds of doing that we heard the roar of car engines approaching. The crash site was located just around a bend in the highway, and the sound of the car engines was coming from around that bend. In a flash we saw two cars racing each other, each side by side in the two available lanes. One was a red Volvo and it was in the lane now occupied by our dead car. What a shock that must have been to see, for that driver travelling at what must have been 100 KPH or more. Within a second it had slammed into our car and was screeching up the road toward us, shoving the Daewoo before it. I remember seeing the shuddering mass of twisted metal that was the Daewoo getting larger as it was rammed toward us. The screeching stopped with the Daewoo perhaps eight feet away. The other, unhurt car in the race slowed down and then sped up and off out of sight. There was silence for a few minutes before the red Volvo squealed its back tires as it tried to pull away from the wreckage.

We watched in stunned silence, still half-bent at the knees from shock, as the Volvo wrestled with the Daewoo. After a few seconds the Volvo broke free, and backing up still further, screeched again as it roared around the Daewoo and hove off out of sight in the same direction as the other, unhurt car. We gasped at our predicament, shock piled on shock, and went to sit on the railing separating the north/south traffic of the highway. This was before cell phones and so we just waited for the next vehicle to come along that would stop and give us some assistance.

Several vehicles did come along and slow down but three passed without addressing us before, in a fourth car, a kind soul yelled out the window at us in Arabic. We just called out 'need police' before he, too, drove off. We hoped he would tell someone. After perhaps 45 minutes a police jeep came around and stopped. Was there anyone dead, we were asked. On hearing no, the two police (who were actually military) started examining the wreck without addressing us further. They then asked who was the driver and took us off in their jeep to the highway military station. We called the dig director from the station and she arrived an hour or so later.

I was placed in a cell and made to wait while I thought they would sort things out and get us to a hospital. I didn't know I'd get to know that cell fairly well over the next two days. Adele and Serge were released to the dig director, and she said the police needed to keep me there until they could verify my driver's license with the Canadian Consul (although I never actually spoke with anyone from the consul). It was ironic that I had glad-handed with the Canadian Ambassador and aides just about a week previously at a Canadian tree planting ceremony outside 'Amman. We'd been invited as the largest contingent of Canadians then in-country. It was fun day. The ambassador wore a Tilley Hat which I thought nice and patriotic and all that but sorta plebeian, somehow. I forget his name. Maybe you're supposed to do that.

I sweated with worry in the cell as they poured over my Ontario driver's license (valid) and my International Driver's license (invalid for over a year as I discovered right there right then). They never noticed that the Int'l permit was expired, thankfully, and were most interested in the Ontario license anyway. I always travelled with my passport in my camera bag on the assumption that I never went anywhere without that bag. They took my passport too, of course, and I wondered whether I would see it again. How odd the immense feeling of attachment one assigns to one's passport. It has always felt like a small time-vortex back to home and comfort - like a Get Out of Jail Free card or something. Only this time, it certainly didn't do that.

The team lead in the station came in to speak with me. I saw at once that he was different from the other officers. He was tall, well-groomed and wore an immaculately-pressed uniform. He shook my hand and asked (in English) if he might join me. I was taken aback and nodded. He sat across a small wooden table from me and asked me to tell events from start to finish, which I did to the best of my recollection. He apologized for the handling of us by his officers, explaining that they were simple men used to boring duty. Himself, he was from Caucasia, from a noble family and finding it difficult to fit in Jordan at a small military post. He missed his homeland, but still wanted to advance in ranks beyond this posting certainly. Who knew what lay ahead? he asked He smiled and left.

He came back a few more times, mostly for what seemed like conversation, but occasionally asking for details such as my rate of speed or how long I'd been a driver. After a night there of sleeping on a wooden bench in the cell, I was roused by one of the officer's the next morning and brought out into the sun. It was quite bright and I could see that they had towed the Daewoo wreckage into the police yard. The dig director was there, as well as a representative from the American Centre for Oriental Research and the station master (the Caucasian) again apologized for our handling and said I would be driven back into the city by an officer and taken to a court for some formalities; just some formalities he said wiggling his fingers at the ground. He shook my hand and went back inside. The dig director spoke with the officer for a few minutes and I snuck away a few paces and took some pictures of the wrecked car.

The police officer and I got in his jeep and drove off toward 'Amman. He spoke a little English and this was likely the reason he was given guard of me. He asked all the usually questions about where I was from and what was I doing in Jordan and then whether I was Christian. When I said no, he asked Jewish? No. Communist? No. What then? When I said I am nothing, I am my own god, he seemed struck by this and doubtful. God is in my steering wheel, he said, you are not. When you drive, God is in your steering wheel too. I said I did not agree and that I did not believe in any god. Then you are communist he announced. And that was that discussion. 'Simple men' indeed... We drove for awhile, and then he said “after two days, you will be asking me for Islam.” Give it your best shot, I retorted, a bit miffed. He went on to explain the beneficial aspects of some muslim traditions that he saw the West reviling. Muslims don't eat pigs, for example, he said, because one has only to look at what pigs eat to be revolted. To this I agreed, but countered that chickens certainly eat pretty questionable things in his world too. No answer to that. And the idea of women praying at the back of a mosque was useful too because should then pray in front of men, their behinds rising and falling might distract the men from their true purpose in that building. To this I agreed as well, but again countered that was this not a man's problem that he might be distracted and actually have nothing to do with the woman in her prayers at all? Again no answer to this.

We arrived at a government building in 'Amman and got out. This was a courthouse and it gleamed a beautiful cream colour in the bright sun. Jordan is chock full of stone cutters and clearly this was a modern example of what they could do. There were a variety of small tables scattered hither and yon across the imposing structure's steps. The officer pulled me over to one and motioned for me to wait. He disappeared up the steps and returned perhaps 15 minutes later with some long legal sheets, all in Arabic. He said I would need to pay US$10 to the men at their tables to fill in certain areas of the documents with my answers. I realized only later that this must have been because the officer was himself illiterate. The man we stood before, took the papers and wrote out line after line on the form only resorting to the officer now and then for a question. He asked my name once.

After this, we went into the interior of the courthouse and waited in a congested hallway some floors up; leaning against the wall and sweltering in the close heat. We gradually worked our way up the line of people leading to a door that was constantly opening and closing. The closer we got, the more frequently I could feel a wonderful draft of cool air when the door opened. Eventually we were ushered inside to what was a bare and fairly small room with perhaps 10 people in it. There were several men seated behind a flat trestle table. One of these asked the officer with me some questions in Arabic, to which he responded with very short answers.

Some papers were put in front of me and I was asked in broken English if I understood that I was being charged with speeding, endangerment of persons and destruction of public property. It was only at that point that I realized I was actually before judges in a court of law. He said I was guilty and would have to pay a fine to repair the two tower stanchions the Daewoo had crashed into. I thought back to the scene and recalled only seeing some fist-sized chunks of concrete that had come off the concrete stanchions. A subsequent visit there a few days later proved this out. However, in that courtroom I had no representation, did not understand Arabic, had a judge whose English was marginal, a police officer who was aggressive in pushing his religion on me, a bad headache from being pretty shaken up and never having received medical attention, and almost no sleep in 48 hours. How could I plead not guilty? I felt in my heart that we were not travelling more than 100-110 KPH, but how could I argue with the judge when I had already said I'd fallen asleep at the wheel? He felt entirely justified in telling me I *had* been speeding when he knew I could not say otherwise with any certainty - and yet he felt a certainty himself of my guilt when he had not even been to the scene or even heard of me before ten minutes previous to my entrance to that court. A kangaroo court indeed.

I paid a US$50 fine. All I had were traveller's cheques and so we were required to leave the building, cash a cheque and return to pay the fine; which we did. The officer then drove me back to the American Research Centre, where I collapsed into bed and slept for almost 2 days.

The end of this tale was that on notification of the accident, Wilfred Laurier University's lawyers had decided that, at the dig director's discretion, I should be charged on return to Canada with a similar set of accusations as the Jordanian court and further that I be saddled with repayment in full for the totalled car. I suppose there must have been some rider on the Jordanian insurance that precluded coverage should an accident occur while the driver had fallen asleep. I am indebted to the dig director for not taking advantage of this option open to her.

I went back to Jordan the following year to be photographer at the same dig. I was not asked to drive anywhere, and mostly enjoyed the season. I had a darkroom assistant that year and this took a load off me as I could then concentrate on shooting the whole time, instead of also developing film and making prints in the cramped darkroom at the British Institute. One interesting thing: on return to 'Amman that second season, I entered the country via the airport, and the immigration officer stopped when I handed him my passport. On swiping it through a device, it had called up some information on me and he swivelled his monitor for me to see as he handed back my passport. I saw a bright red line underscoring my name and then some sentences in Arabic.


  • Tim, I had no idea it was as terrifying as that. I am humbled by your experience, and so fucking glad you came out of it as easily as you did. It sounds like it could have been so much worse. You are one brave man. And I think it's a terrific idea to write these things down. It has nothing to do with self-aggrandizement. I look forward to the next one.

    By Blogger Jen, at 2:45 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home