When the plane started making its descent at the Queen Alia International Airport, Amman, Jordan I was hooked to my window seat. If someone could have seen me from the other side, they would find my face quashed flat against the window. The landscape unfolding beneath was unlike any other I had seen ever before! It held me completely in its thrall.
I was traveling to Jordan on an invitation from Jordan Tourism Board. This has been my maiden trip to middle east! The Jordan trip is always going to be special for me because I got to photograph Pope Francis on this visit!
Most of Jordan is an arid desert but even in my wildest dreams I never imagined that it would look so fascinating from the air! My first stop in the country was also an equally fascinating place, the Dead Sea. Contrary to the name it is actually a lake bordering Jordan, Palestine and Israel.
At Dead Sea we were hosted by the Holiday Inn. First things first, the resort has a free wifi access. What you see in the picture is the pool area and behind that near the horizon is the Dead Sea. I had a comfortable stay at the resort.
Before my visit my niece was quite excited as she was reading about Dead Sea in her school. Dead Sea is 427 meters below sea level. It is one of the most saline lakes in the world. I had infinite fun at the place but that is surely a separate post.
As our primary mandate in Jordan was to cover the Pope’s visit the sightseeing was also around the biblical places. Mount Nebo finds a mention in the bible as the place from where Moses got a glimpse of the holy land though he could never enter it. Our guide Salah told us that on a clear day one could see Jerusalem from Mount Nebo. The group you see in the picture was from a Kerala Church doing a Holy Land tour. Church tours are very popular in the region.
There are outstanding pieces of mosaic art all over in Jordan. The most famous is the mosaic map of the Holy Land at the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George which belongs to 6th century. It was rediscovered in 1896. The mosaics on the church’s walls were equally impressive.
Bethany Beyond the Jordan is the ancient site where it is said that John the Baptist baptized Jesus Christ. My mind simply fails to comprehend the significance of the idea! However, its modern day manifestation is an equally fascinating. Jordan River flows close to the baptism site and you can see that I am sitting in Jordan. However, across the river is Israel! So if you wish to travel without visa to Israel you simply need to get pushed across! There was a mild visible presence of soldiers on both the sides, so I have warned you too. So, however much I craved for the visa less travel, I firmly remained on the Jordanian side.
Being a vegetarian I rarely get excited about food when I travel to other countries. Jordan proved me wrong. They have a culture of serving Mezze or small dishes before the main meal. It used to be served with hummus, flat Arabic bread and the salads were lip smacking with many vegetarian choices. They would always find something vegetarian for me for the main course as well, but I could happily live on the salads for the entire trip. Food was certainly a wonderful surprise for me on this trip.
Then came one of the most memorable events of my life, when I attended the Pope’s mass at Amman Stadium and got to photograph Pope Francis! Never even in my dreams I thought I would such an opportunity and that too because 9 years ago I decided to start a blog!
We were hosted at Grand Hyatt in Amman, which was once again a luxurious property. The wifi is not free in the rooms at Hyatt but Jordan Tourism Board had arranged free access for us which was much appreciated. The breakfast buffet at the hotel was lavish. Wifi is free in the lobby.
Sheesha is very popular at restaurants in Jordan both with women and men. For the first time in my life I took a few mild puffs and quickly decided it was not for me. Even those timid whiffs gave a sore throat for the next half an hour!
Our last day was devoted to exploring the city of Amman. It has a huge refugee population and the dense housing you see in the picture are Palestinian settlements. I feel I have not even scratched the surface of this amazing country but for me it will always remain special because of the opportunity to photograph the pope.
My excitement knew no bounds when I was invited to Jordan to cover the Pope’s mass at Amman Stadium. I was also quite realistic about my chances of actually photographing the pope. On the D Day, the media movement started quite early in the morning. We went to the cultural center at Amman. After a security check we were allowed to board the media bus, which would take us to the venue, Amman Stadium.
When we reached the stadium, at that point in time there were still some empty seats in the main ground. All the announcements used to happen in the local language. However, the choir sang in the universal language of beautiful music. The giant screens would show the movements of the pope elsewhere in the city. At one point our guide told us that we should go near the boundary as the pope was about to arrive and he would go around the stadium in a open vehicle (dubbed ‘popemobile’ in various media articles) and we might get to see him at close quarters.
There were people on both side of the fences. The invited guests and the media was seated in the football field and was closer to the main venue. My allocated seat was at an angle and far far away. I was not sure if they would let me move closer once the pope arrived. So, photographing him while he was going round the stadium was my best bet.
By the time I reached the fence, the front row was already gone. I saw some journalists standing on chairs and I copied them. I too stood on a chair bringing it as close as possible to the front row. My original plan was to shoot a video while Pope Francis was far away and then click stills. I did try to execute it, but later there was nothing in the video! While I was switching cameras I realized my hands were shaking badly. Then I zoomed in and clicked the pope in continuous shooting mode. When his mobile passed to the far end, away from my vision, I looked at the pictures on the screen. And then I let out a scream of joy because I did manage to capture the pope!
There was a festive atmosphere in the stadium. School children dressed in white were cheering the pope. There was a big group of priests too in the main arena of the stadium.
I just tried my luck trying to see if I could click pictures of the pope from a closer distance. As I said earlier my own seats were far far away from the stage. I soon hit the first chain of volunteers and I timidly stood there. In a slight scuffle, I showed them my media badge as a precaution. They immediately gave me way, to go further ahead! Next time if I ever find myself at such an event, I am going to ask instead of just standing like a frightened mouse!
The only people who got to go on the stage briefly were rumored to be from the pope’s own media team. I also read that the plane in which the pope and his team travels is informally called Shepherd 1!
There were many media people at the spot from where I was shooting. But people were quite accommodating of each-other. At one point a group of people went on to the stage to present offerings to the pope, this cute girl was one of them. His brother climbed up again to get her little sister down safely.
The volunteers and the security were well trained. There were instances when they would request us with folded hands to comply with some request. At times they asked us to kneel down and shoot so that the people seated behind could see the mass uninterrupted. It was only once that a security personnel took a photographer by hand and put him back. The girl laughing would almost always make request with folded hands. It was only when all that failed they took the photographer back physically!
For me it was such an awesome experience, after all it is not every day when I go masquerading as media and get a chance of photographing pope!
Pope Francis visit to Jordan and beyond has already been hauled as historic. I was part of the Indian media team that was invited by the Jordan Tourism Board to cover the event.
When the ‘popemobile’ entered the Amman Stadium, the crowds erupted in a deafening cheer. The charismatic Pope Francis waved to the crowds. At some places the mobile stopped and the pope shook hands with some blessed souls. The music from the choir and the spontaneous cheer in the stadium blended harmoniously.
Pope Francis has been on a three day visit of bringing hope and peace to the Middle East. He visited Jordan, Palestine Authority and Israel. Apart from conducting holy mass and performing other religious ceremonies at important religious sites across these three nations, he invited both the Israel and Palestine leaders to visit Vatican. At this moment it seems both the sides have accepted the invitation. While addressing the gathering in the Amman Stadium he urged for an end to the civil war in Syria. The Pope hailed the efforts of Jordan for offering shelter to Syrian refugees.
Jordan has been an oasis of calm in an otherwise troubled region. Its neighbors Iraq, Syria, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt all has gone through turbulent times. Jordan has taken refugees in large numbers both from Palestine and now Syria. With a 92% Muslim population and Islam as state religion, its constitution still provides freedom to practice other religions. My guide to the events Salahuddin Abu Naffa mentioned that Jordan has tried to be the Switzerland of Middle East in the recent times.
Away from the pope’s mass, at the Dead Sea, after having my fill of floating, ‘reading a newspaper’ and exhausting my skin with mud packs, I noticed an Arabic woman in her headgear swimming strongly beyond the safe barrier erected by the hotel. When she came back I asked her how was the sea out there? She replied that it was clam but she could swim well. The customary ‘where are you from’ followed and I asked her the same as well. But her reply was not what I expected. She said, “I am a doctor from Palestine. I now live in Jordan. I cannot go back to Palestine; there is no hope of it. All my neighbors are Arab, we speak the same language. Was there no other land in the world for Israel?” I am of course a novice at understanding the nuances of Middle East politics which baffles even the pundits. But I was completely taken aback by her anger, it was almost a physical thing, I thought I could almost touch it.
With so much anger buried deep inside common wo/men (on both sides I am sure) I wonder how long the road to peace is going to be? But peace there must be, as Pope Francis emphasized throughout his historic visit to the Middle East for the alternative is cruel to all.
On the personal front, when the ‘popemobile’ started whizzing past me, I knew I had only this one chance to take a picture of the Pope at such a close range. I was perched precariously on a chair to gain height, so were many other photographers. In the past, I have captured a tigress that was even closer but my hands were ever steady. They shook so badly on this occasion that I when I saw some ‘in focus’ pictures of the pope in my camera, I raised my free hand and yelled with glee.