After my usual early morning Friday biking with Cycling Jordan, I ended up staying over at Kamal and his fiance Ruth’s apartment in north Amman, as we were doing some Linux work on Kamal’s laptop. Whiskey was consumed, and I was given the guest room to drag my weary self to, still dressed in my biking spandex and gear. Early the next morning, I was awoken by my mobile beeping on the table next to me – it was a message from Aaron: “YOU’RE DEAD!” It was paintball day.

I had been notified a couple days earlier by Jeff and Aaron that they wanted to have a paintballing get-together, something Aaron had wanted to do for a long time. After catching a taxi home to quickly shower and finally change my clothes, I was picked up by Karen, Jeff and a couple of their friends I hadn’t met before. Somewhat nervous from the graphic stories of paintball bruising and helmet-splitting I had received from Kamal the previous night, I asked the others who had gone paintballing before. Neither Karen nor her friend Christine had gone before, and Jeff had gone once. Although Aaron, Laura, and others were in other vehicles, rapidly forming a convoy as we sped from Amman, Jeff informed me that despite Aaron’s slightly-maniacal enthusiasm, he had never experienced it either.

The one (and only) paintball course in the entire country is located in the picturesque mountains of the Zai National Forest, just slightly north of Salt. As Karen’s tiny Chevy Spark weaved along the rocky mountain slope, we caught glimpses of the now-familiar spread of the Jordan Valley through the olive trees surrounding us. The name of the course is Mountain Breeze, part of a country club in the middle of the wilderness. The site is simply beautiful, with real attention to care and maintenance of the grounds and trees. For one of the first times in Jordan, I didn’t see litter lying in the bushes.

We discussed the layout of the teams as we exited the cars and walked towards the registration table. There would be 16 total people playing, 8 on each team. The 8 members of our team, “EGT” would, of course, be made of EGT members – myself, Laura, Aaron, Jeff, Karen, Galen, and…Khalil and Wajih? I paused and said, “really?” Aaron responded to the affirmative: “He’s planning on using Khalil as a bodyguard. He would have brought Najeeb with him to to use him as a weapons platform.” I had only met a few members of the other team, like Ericka, who had come with us to Wadi Rum for Thanksgiving six months ago. I felt pretty good about our odds, until Aaron commented: “oh yeah, and they have Ali, too.”

This is Ali.

This is Ali.

Ali, who is English/Iraqi and pretty much the reason why they had the unofficial name “the Iraqi team,” works in Iraq as a private security contractor. This means that he actually knows how to aim and use a real weapon instead of a paintball gun, which the majority of us also had never operated either. Needless to say, he’s also built like a wall of muscle and as you can see is a good 4 inches taller than me. I felt significantly less confident about our odds.

We suited up quickly, and I suddenly became much more aware of the sun beating down on us through the trees. Basing my reasoning from Kamal’s horror stories once again, I was wearing 4 layers of shirts and 3 layers of pants, including both of my bike shorts, because I had no idea what sort of covering or armor they’d be providing us. As it turned out, it was camouflaged, canvas-like material which made the heat go up a good 10 degrees. The women in the group had to wear, uh, chest protection as well, which Karen and Laura commented added another 5 degrees as well and looked like a housewife’s apron (in camo).

I’d watched my brother put this stuff on many times before, but never had worn it myself. Several people commented that with my tanned, dark face, bulkier looking body (thanks to the clothes instead of anything Mr. Universe-winning), and camo doo-rag, I actually looked quite menacing. I could get used to that. Or, at least I looked menacing when I took off the green hood I was wearing from my sweatshirt.

I looked kind of ridiculous with my hooded sweatshirt over my head, and Lillie pointed out it was like wearing a neon green target

Right before the first match; the meshed-off course is behind us.

The referees told us that we would have 3 sessions, each one twenty minutes long, and we’d be playing capture the flag in the L-shaped course. One side of the course is up, the other is down – to make matters worse, the down side of the course has almost no cover compared with the other, only a few barrels and sapling pines. EGT won the coin toss, and I suggested to Aaron, our enthusiastic “commander” to take the high ground for the first round. The rules were simple: if you get shot, you go back to your base, touch the flag, and you’re back in to keep shooting. This also worked out well for Mountain Breeze, as they were selling us the paintballs for JD8 per 100, a fairly ridiculous markup. Rory, an American on the Iraqi team, commented that that price would be unheard of in America, but here in Jordan with only one place to rent the equipment, there wasn’t much that could be done about that.

The airhorn sounded as we crouched next to our ragged red flag, peering over the rocks and barrels towards the other corner, where we could catch glimpses of the purple markers attached to the other team’s shoulders. I played conservatively at first, really dreading getting shot for the first time. As I crawled forward to the halfway mark, cursing my 6’1″ frame for my lack of crouching ability, I heard the rhythmic smacksmacksmack of balls exploding on the trees around me. I traded gunfire with unknown assailants, the masks preventing any possible recognition. Only the hulking Ali was recognizable to me, and Ericka and Christine with their chest aprons. I nailed one, maybe two people – they put their guns in the air as a sign of defeat and retreated back to their base. Grunting with victory (and by crawling into a low tree branch which clocked me in the forehead) I suddenly heard a POW and my hand flew backwards, coated in yellow paint. I had been tagged, directly on the knuckles of my left hand, now dripping paint. Thankfully, I was wearing my bicycle glove and the ball did not actually hit my hand itself. I raised my rifle, crawled painfully (paintfully, haw) to my feet and retreated to the base where Laura and Karen were crouched, guns aimed outwards waiting for the Iraqis to attack.

Aaron, Jeff, and Galen kept up a strong forward push on the left flank, and I stayed back to provide middle guard. Wajih and Khalil kept the right flank covered – plus a little extra, perhaps less helpful covering fire. I heard later that Galen had gotten within 3 meters of the Iraqi flag, and Wajih, carefully monitoring from the bushes, picked him off from the side as he approached the base, without noting the red mark on his shoulder. There was a little bit of teeth grinding about that from Team EGT, but not as much as the scenarios the other team described to us later, in which poor Khalil, who like us had never played before, sat, helmet off and in his lap, firing indiscriminately at the other team, who retreated in frustration because they weren’t going to shoot someone without his helmet. The first round ended without anyone having scored a point, and me narrowly avoiding getting shot a second time by, uh, strategically falling backwards over a barrel as Rory sniped me from behind a tree 20 meters away. I knew the barrel was there all along, seriously. Right.

We took a 5 minute break between rounds to clean the paint and sweat from our masks. Although I hadn’t been hit in the fact, several balls had exploded on walls and trees next to me, leaving me with a generous helping of unpleasant-smelling colored paint splattered over my goggles and face mask. We collapsed exhausted in benches, ordered overpriced bottles of water, and drained them as Wajih tried to explain to Khalil that he had to wear the face mask even if it was hot and uncomfortable. Rory told me that he was sure he must have shot me in the rump or something as I lay folded over a barrel, but I denied this, as there was no paint on me to prove a rear attack. The buzzer rang for the second round as Ali calmly bought 300 more rounds. I stared at the bandoleer around his waist, completely full, and quickly bought myself another 250 rounds. Mountain Breeze was making a killing off of us.

The new round switched our bases, so now EGT had the low ground to defend, and the Iraqis had the high ground. This time, we went out on an early offensive and almost immediately surrounded the other base, knowing that if we gave them the time to come down on us, we’d be helplessly shooting up onto a hill, our paint unable to maintain velocity and range. I did much better and was bolder on this round, and EGT in general worked as a team much better – we moved up in a straight line, providing covering fire for each other. Laura on my right was recognizable by her differently-colored uniform, and I tried to watch her left flank, while Jeff was on my left doing the same. Within a few minutes, we had trapped the Iraqi team in their base, where they remained for most of the game, or fell back into the thick trees right behind them to sneak around the sides. I utilized the underbrush more this round, as I had learned that the barrels were not quite tall enough to conceal me properly, and the difference between bullets and paintballs is that the paintballs will harmlessly explode on branches in front of you. At one point, Wajih marched, Terminator-style from my left rear flank, firing from the hip. “I’m covering you, Zach,” he cried. “Wajih, I remember what happened when you were covering Galen, come up here instead!” I responded. He laughed and kept marching past me, laying massive amounts of fire into the trees behind the base where the Iraqis were hiding. “Wajih, you have to take some cover!” I called to him frantically. “I’m not scared of any paint!” Wajih yelled back, as he vanished into the trees.

The other team could hear my voice and were pumping gallons of paint into my large bush, which was rapidly looking like an art project, and I decided that I wouldn’t stay lucky here much longer, popping up and shooting the remaining defenders of the base. I tried to make a long swing around the front of base, running and shooting and hoping that the breeze would keep the enemy paint balls drifting away from me. I made a complete 180 degree semicircle around the base to the left flank, and suddenly found myself barrel-less and behind a bush with three base defenders firing at me. My luck had run out and with a solid WHAM I was hit full my plastic-shielded nose with a pink paintball, which coated my goggles and splattered through the airholes in the mask and into my mouth. Coughing and cursing, I fell to my knees, spitting red goo out of my mouth. I couldn’t take off my mask without risking accidental and much more serious damage, but I was saved by the airhorn ending the round. Once again, neither team had scored and we were still sitting at 0-0. I quickly retreated to the bathroom to wash my face and wash out my mouth.

In the third and final round, we had been moved back to our first and original base. This time knew we had to go all out, not only for the chance of scoring a flag capture, but also because we wanted to use up our expensive paint before leaving the grounds. Jeff coordinated us in the trees, peering out over the field and waiting for the airhorn to go off. “We don’t even hesitate this time. We just run, all out, and get as close as we can and pin them down.” With these rules, what did we have to lose? If we got shot, we just ran back, touched the flag, and then ran up again. Some of the more experienced players, like Rory and Ali, preferred rules that put more pressure on you not to get hit and stay alive. With warcry whoops (or possibly that was just me, to be honest), we sprinted down the hill, sliding and rolling and avoiding the hail of machine gun like fire that rained on us. The Iraqi team’s lack of cover within 10 meters of their base worked to their definite advantage here: we had them trapped inside, but it was almost impossible to venture any closer and all 8 of us just rained shells into us as quickly as we could.

I found myself on the right flank, right in front of Wajih and Khalil, pinned down behind one barrel and practically curled into a ball to keep my height from working against me. “Go on Zach, get in there, we’ll cover you!” Wajih called as he and Khalil kept a constant stream of fire on the walls of the base. I risked peeking my head around the side of the barrel and nearly had it taken off by Christine; retreated. “I’m not going up there when the whole base is shooting at us! Take out some people and I’ll go up!” I knew I still had a fresh canister of paintballs on my belt, so I leaned out quickly and fired about 30 rounds in 5 seconds, pinning Christine down and actually tagging her leg between the barrels she was behind. I crowed in victory, then realized it didn’t make any difference because she was right next to the flag and could keep firing a moment later. Suddenly, Rory and Ali’s opinions on the rules made a lot more sense.

As I was contemplating this, there was a noise like a hammer on flesh, and my right thumb suddenly bloomed with pain. I looked down and saw my glove spattered with paint, and blood leaking from my thumb and a large black welt under my fingernail. The irony; one of the only places on my entire body left uncovered is the one that’s hit. Only Ali would have had that sort of precision targeting! Just kidding; I still have no idea who did that fateful shot but at that moment the adrenaline pumping through my system felt me from feeling the pain too much (unlike now as I’m typing this, for example).

I returned a half minute later after the obligatory flag touch, and because the others still had the Iraqi team pinned down under heavy fire, was able to get an even better barrel, directly in front of the base. Here Ali and I traded gunfire for five minutes, him behind the wall of the base and me behind the barrel. He’d unload a dozen rounds on me, then I on him, and we kept up this pattern, until I worked up the courage to run the 2 meters to a barrel in front of me, putting me only 8 meters from the base. I was settling down here for another firefight until I realized I couldn’t hear the metallic thuds of the paintballs on the barrel any longer, and suddenly I heard the sound of shouting from the base and realized that they were now firing behind the base, at EGT team members coming around in a sneak attack.

It was my one opportunity – the best that we were going to get. I rolled from behind the barrel, sliding on the dirt, and grabbed the flag from its stand as I heard people yelling even louder behind me. I had the flag in my left hand, gun in my right, trying to think of everything I had learned from playing Unreal Tournament about dodging and diving, but before I could reach the relative cover of the treeline beyond the saplings, the Iraqi team focused on me and I felt at least a half dozen bullets pelt my back. I roared (theatrically) and slumped forward, dropping my gun and the flag and lying in a heap on the ground. Christine commented later that it looked “a little staged,” but the main goal was to buy someone time to come up and grab the flag and finish the job I had started.

Jeff normally hates it when I photograph him but he relented this once for our victory

Jeff normally hates it when I photograph him, but he relented this once for our victory

I lay on the ground a moment, panting, pine needles poking through my mask and into my face. I heard footsteps crunching on the ground next to me, and I looked up in time to see a red-shouldered soldier jogging away with the flag, and then the airhorn sounded to end the match. We had done it – team EGT had scored the only point of the day, and as my teammate removed his mask, I saw that it was Jeff that had picked up the assist. I ran about like an idiot for a moment, firing of my gun into the air and whooping, and we all unloaded the last of our bullets into the trees, buildings, etc until the place ran like a rainbow of colors.

Today, my thumb has swollen up a little bit and it hurts to touch the top of it, the part that was struck, and my upper leg muscles feel like they’ve been stepped on by an elephant, but it was a great weekend. The end fee for me and my extra paintballs turned out to be JD43, which is quite steep. I’d love to go again (and continue my winning streak) but only if I can find another source for paintballs to bring myself. I should see if Josh is still using his old paintball gear from his younger days, and then try to bring that over to Jordan. Good luck me getting that through customs!

Note: Some names have been changed to protect the innocent.