I stood in the shade from the hot Jordanian sun near the Jordan River at the site where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. I had claimed a spot under a small tree in the line of photographers. To my left was a photographer from Oregon who had been hired by the Tourism Board. To the right was an AP photographer and past that another U.S. film crew that normally shoots Amazing Race who had been hired by the Royal family. The area bristled with tripods and large telephoto lenses. Mine was easily the least impressive of any of the gear being used since these were professional photographers and videographers. But around my neck was a press pass that bore the name of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Papal seal. We were waiting for the pope.
Travel blogging has occasionally led me into interesting circumstances. The original plan, when the Jordan Tourism Board invited me to their country, was to see the sites and report on why people should visit this middle eastern jewel of a country. Those plans changed a bit when the pope decided to visit Jordan for his first time. A portion of the Jordanian population is Christian although the percentage is debated since Jordanian law does not allow asking the question “what is your religion?” The country’s population has grown with refugees over the years from Palestine, Iraq, and Syrian. Some of these refugees are also Christian.
The first I heard of the papal visit was that the Tourism Board wanted to know if I was willing to attend a mass at Amman stadium but that was later changed to this more private affair. The pope would travel to the baptism site with the Royal Family and then would meet with refugees in an unfinished Russian Orthodox church nearby.
In my new role as a photojournalist, I wore my photo id which allowed me to walk past the guards into the government building where the press gathered and then boarded buses for Bethany (“House of John [the Baptist]”), Jordan. We arrived a little before 3:30 pm and boarded the buses about a half-hour later. It is a 45-minute drive down into the rift valley where the Jordan river flows into the Dead Sea. As you descend into the rift valley below sea level the temperature rises 1 degree C for every 100 meters and the Mediterranean climate turns much warmer.
We arrived. We claimed a spot. We waited.
The process reminded me of the times that I have had a chance to watch a movie being made. It all looks more glamorous from the outside. Most of the journalists were carrying equipment that weighed 2-10 times as much as my small camera (Canon T5i with a 28-200mm Tamron zoom lens). No one quite knew what was happening. I heard rumors that one of the other of the 3 spots where the pope would stop had food and water for journalists. Many plans had been kept secret for security reasons.
We waited an hour and a half for the golf carts with the pope and royal family to show up. They had a brief conversation. The pope, who is not a young man, was helped down the steps to the small spring which had been cleaned and refilled with water as we waited. He took a few minutes to pray at the site and they were off again. The stop took about 5 minutes. As the VIPs headed to their next stop at the current site of the Jordan river, the press trekked to the 3rd site, a church full of expectant pilgrims.
The pilgrims, mostly refugees, sang hymns and waved banners and waited for the pope to come. When he arrived they greeted him with shouts of “Viva Papa!” The pope spoke in Italian, a bishop translated a shorter version of his speech into Arabic. Some pilgrims were allowed to make short statements in a variety of languages. Gifts were presented. Children choirs sang. Representatives received a papal blessing. After about an hour of this, almost all of it in languages that I did not understand, there was the “Holy Scrum” where the pope walked into the audience and people pushed forward to be blessed. I was worried for him as this same frail man who had need help walking down the steps was now the center of a frightening amount of attention. Strong men tried to lend some order to the chaos.
On the bus back to Amman the journalists who do this regularly broke out their food that they had had the foresight to pack. They opened up their laptops and started writing stories, editing videos, and photographs. One journalist from Madrid said he would love to catch the soccer finals tonight featuring Real Madrid but he would still have more work to do. He hoped to catch the second quarter. Another journalist from Washington D.C. planned to get up at 5:30 am to cover the pope’s flight, then he would follow him to Israel.
I have a renewed appreciation for journalists and photojournalists after a day of working alongside them. I also now have no desire to be one.