Travel mishaps: How the worst moment of my trip to Jordan became the highlight

The worst moment of a great vacation came on a sunny afternoon in rural Jordan. It was the midday lull of Ramadan in early April, and the winding road away from Petra was deserted as we drove south. All except for the young man strolling provocatively into the lane a hundred yards ahead, a lone figure soon joined by two others.

I slowed and got close enough to see not young men but boys, 10 or 12 years old, walking where they shouldn't be. It didn't feel right. I fished carefully between them, but, as I gave it some gas, they slapped the sides of the car, hard. Then:

BOOM!

The entire back window exploded in a shower of shards. I hadn't seen the rock one of them had at the ready.

We were four: my sister-in-law Tyrie in the passenger seat, my wife, Ann, and 16-year-old son, Harry, in the back, wide-eyed and covered in sparkling shards. In the side-view mirror, I could see the boys running in the opposite direction.

"Follow them," Ann shouted.

I reversed, whipped the wheel around and was closing the gap when the boys split up: two down a steep road into the village, one into some trees and out of sight.

It's funny how people react differently to travel catastrophes. I was already deep into the annoyed-but-resigned phase. Would we have to miss our next stop on the itinerary, a night in a desert camp two hours south? Maybe I could tape bags over the back window?

But Ann had been a Peace Corps teacher in rural Botswana and spent her career as an international development consultant in remote villages around the world. She was not giving up.

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"Let's find a house," she said. "Someone will know who they are."

I sped down the road to a one-story house, silent and closed. Most families hunker down during the long daylight fasts of Ramadan. As I knocked, I turned and saw Ann, Tyrie and Harry running flat out, in three different directions, into the village. One of the boys had reappeared and was just visible a couple hundred yards away.

"Wait," I said feebly to no one.

The door was opened by a school-age girl, looking polite but wary as I explained, in a mix of English, pantomime and traveller's Arabic, that we had been attacked: Please, auto, police, shukran, shukran, shukran (thank you).

Moments later, her older brother came out, followed by three women fixing their hijabs in place. I pointed at the ruined back window and at the boy still just visible with Harry well behind him. "Do you know him?"

They peered at the figure before he rounded a corner and one woman said a name. She pulled out her cellphone.

In the village, the hunt was on - sort of. Harry had lost sight of the one boy, so he stopped to eat the vegetable wrap that had been in his hand since before the glass broke.

But Ann was enlisting the help of local mums. Tyrie had spotted one boy entering a yard. Ann knocked on the door, which was opened by a teenage girl flanked by a passel of astonished children, then their mother. The mother nodded and pointed to a house across the street.

There, another mother in the side yard invited Ann in for tea, but just then a third woman next door called over. Word was spreading.

"He went there," the woman said, pointing. "Try there."

There was no answer at that door. The trail was cold.

We thought.

Ann, Tyrie and Harry all made their way back up the hill, where the crowd around the car had grown. More than a dozen neighbours tsk-tsked over our pile of glass. One stocky man named Abdullah, who had learned the English of a Marriott hotel kitchen, took charge.

"You are all safe," he said. "A broken window is nothing."

He offered to make us tea and lunch, though not even water would pass his lips until sundown, still seven hours away.

I asked the teenage boy of the house if he would call the police. Abdullah pulled me to one side as he dialled. "Maybe we don't need police," he said. "We can help you."

I reached the Avis office in Amman, where the manager was concerned and reassuring. He promised to dispatch another car immediately, despite the approximately four-hour drive from the capital.

But he was clear about the cost. "You will have to give us 200 dinar for the glass," he said, about $395. "Cash or credit card."

Suddenly, three boys, ages 10 or 12, were pushed to the front of the onlookers. Abdullah fired questions at them. Their Arabic was defiant. Two began yelling at each other.

Abdullah turned to us. "Are these the boys?"

It seemed so. They had changed clothes, but the faces seemed like those that had loomed from the roadway. And yet, how could we be sure? We four consulted each other wordlessly.

"It was boys like this, this age," Ann said. "But we can't be positive."

Abdullah considered, then said: "It was them. They have said so."

Things began to resolve without our help. Two men pulled the remaining glass from the window. Another measured plastic sheeting and tape, and a fourth vacuumed shards from the back seat.

The three women invited Ann and Tyrie into the house for some shade and a tour. One called her English-speaking sister in Amman to interpret by FaceTime. They offered coffee, tea and, come sunset, part of the iftar feast being prepared in the kitchen.

Outside, Abdullah gestured for a nervous mustached man at the side of the crowd to come over.

"This is the father of one of the boys," Abdullah said. "What do you want to do?"

It would be the father, Abdullah had said, who might go to jail.

"What is fair?" I asked, spreading my hands. "That was very dangerous. My family is very upset."

They nodded.

"You must pay us for the glass. And the boys must apologise to my wife," I said. "If so, we will not file a complaint."

The father nodded, looking relieved, and got on his phone. Abdullah shepherded the boys to where Ann was sitting with the women. They spoke in Arabic, and Abdullah said, "They are telling you that they are sorry."

Ann let them have it, for creating such fear, for taking such risks. They clearly didn't get all the words, but the indignant outrage of a former teacher and a mother of three needed no translation. The three Jordanian women nodded along.

At that moment, a patrol car pulled up. Abdullah briefed one of the officers, who came to me, apologised for our misfortune and confirmed that I was not making an official complaint.

"That is your choice," he said. But we would still need to come to the station, 10 minutes away, to make a report.

Twenty minutes later, I was in a conference room with five officers and all three fathers. They wrote a detailed account of the encounter, smiled knowingly when I described Ann enlisting the village women and apologised, again, for our troubles. One of the officers called Avis to confirm the cost of replacing the glass, which they all considered shockingly high.

But we all signed the document, and the fathers pooled their money and handed me four 50-dinar bills. We shook hands solemnly. But the first smiles appeared.

We headed south to Wadi Rum, where we got a new car and instantly resumed the pleasures - the food, scenery and warm welcomes - of touring the Middle East.

The worst moment of a great vacation had become one of its best.

The Washington Post

See also: The 10 people that can turn your holiday into a nightmare

See also: No plane, take a bus: My nightmare journey back from Europe

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