Jordan: The Real Land of Smiles

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May 19th 2009
Published: May 19th 2009
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Here's the lowdown on our week in Jordan, the most pleasant surprise of our trip thus far--particularly since it wasn't even on our original itinerary.

We arrived in Jordan via ferry across the Red Sea, landing at the Port of Aqaba with several dozen Christian package tourists (the "Christ Died for Your Sins" t-shirts and reading aloud of biblical passages re: the parting of said sea were the giveaways) who were all quickly shuttled through immigration and onto waiting buses before the port officials finally stamped our passports, and we headed outside to a parking lot devoid of taxis. We continued walking to the main road, where a Jordanian man looking expectantly in both directions told us he'd been waiting twenty minutes for a cab, and that they came through sporadically, at best. He chatted us up about our trip while we all waited. After some time a cab finally came by, and the Jordanian walked over and spoke to the driver--but instead of getting in, he turned and said, "You two take this one, I've told him the best way to your hotel and to not even think of overcharging you. Welcome to Jordan." Indeed.

That night, Jub negotiated a price for a driver for the next few days while passing around a water pipe with the owner of a taxi company. In the morning we met up with Moussa, part driver part absolute character, who took us north into the desert, while regaling us with stories of his runs into Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and pointing out the names of everything we passed in English, Arabic, and Hungarian--the later of which he attributed to a huge influx of Hungarian tourists following the Jordanian King's recent trip to Budapest. We eventually reached our first destination, Wadi Rum, where we waited by the train tracks along which Lawrence of Arabia staged many an ambush, until a Bedouin driver arrived, and took us out for a half-day trip into the desert wasteland in a 4x4 adorned front and back with Bedouin pin-up girls--each fully clothed, but flirtatiously peeking out from behind their veils. The desert we drove through was expansive and beautiful, as our driver gunned his jeep over the lips of sand dunes, and through dry lake beds, stopping often so we could scamper around and explore rock formations and a few ancient carvings. During each stop

Jub inside the souk.
he stayed at the truck and brewed a small pot of tea that we all shared. He also partook of the traditional Bedouin practice of insisting that we had one of whatever he was having. Since he chain smoked, the result was Jub smoking one cigarette early in the trip, and taking two or three puffs from the next half-dozen Marlboro's that came his way before squirreling the rest away in his pockets.

From Wadi Rum, we drove north into the hills towards Petra, and the dunes turned to scrub brush, and then to grassy hills of grazing sheep and ancient, knotted olive trees.

Petra itself was absolutely stunning. And huge. We were thankful we'd allotted two days to explore the site, since we walked for hours in different directions both days we were there, taking in the hundreds of ancient houses as well as temples, amphitheaters and tombs carved into the red sandstone cliffs thousands of years ago--by the Nabataeans, who'd grown wealthy by cornering the market in frankincense. The extra time also let us appreciate Petra's amazing natural colors, which swirled above our heads and below our feet in cake-like layers of red, yellow, blue, black and white, such that many walls and ceilings in the millennium-old abodes resembled modern-day abstract paintings. The Treasury--made famous in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"--did not disappoint, as its carved, recessed pillars and iconography appeared out of nowhere as we snaked through a mile-long tectonic crevasse. The following morning, we hiked two hours to the even more impressive Monastery building, where we sat in the shade contemplating its massive proportions and swirling interior while a group of mountain goats raced down the precarious cliff-side into which it was carved at full speed, and a local man played traditional guitar just inside its amphlifitic main entrance, stopping only to refuse money from the small crowd, including us, saying, "No, no, I play for this space, not for money." On our way back down, we did our best to encourage beleaguered groups of Italian and German hikers who paused to ask if the hike up in the blazing heat was worth it, and briefly stopped to buy brilliantly colored souvenir pebbles that a cute six-year-old girl, who--it can safely be said, was not born with innate capitalist tendencies--was both selling for $1 dollar and smashing into dust between two large pieces of metal. Near the exit, a group of teenage girls came over and introduced themselves, saying they were from "Palestine," and asking where we were from. America, we said, and braced ourselves for political debate, but instead, they became instantly giggly and excited and insisted on having their photos taken with us, all the while going on about how they love Americans--and especially Obama--and how two of them hope to move to California some day.

Our drive to Amman the next morning started inauspiciously when Jub nailed his head getting into Moussa's car, which led Moussa to exclaim, ""Oh myyyy Godd, my car," before climbing out and beating on the roof in retaliation. Even Steven, we headed north on the King's Highway, which roughly tracks a string of Crusader castles built in the 13th and 14th centuries. We stopped at two--Shobak and Karnak, where we marveled at the brick archways, battlements rising straight out of white granite karsts, and the geologically improbable stone-studded panoramas surrounding each. We then veered west and dropped down to three hundred feet below sea level just as the Dead Sea came into view--cobalt blue and encircled in what at first appeared to be a white sand beach, that we later realized was a five-foot ring of hardened salt crust. We stopped for an obligatory dip (as a Saudi Arabian man and his four wives looked on) and were glad we shelled out a few dollars to do so at an area with freshwater showers, since we found the sensation of bobbing like a cork on top of the water to be great fun, but only marginally refreshing, as the water began to sting our skin after only fifteen minutes.

We spent the next three days in Amman, which is not an ancient or particularly beautiful city, but was nonetheless a lot of fun. Jordanian hospitality was again on display our first night in Amman, when we asked a money changer how to find Hashim alley, a famous falafel restaurant, and instead of telling us, he had his son lead us through the city center's narrow alleyways and deposit us at the eatery where we paid $3 and stuffed ourselves on outstanding hummus, falafel, pita, bobaganush, fulle, and mint tea. On the way out, we stopped by a music stand too see if it sold CDs by a Lebanese singer Moussa had played for us; another customer overheard our questions, came over and chatted us up about our trip, and then insisted on buying the CD for us! We returned to Hashim the next two nights, but always ventured out to the 'burbs for drinks afterwards. The short drive was a study in contrasts each time, as the bars we ended up at were full not just of men, but also of snappily-dressed Jordanian woman throwing down drinks and smoking water pipes--something we hadn't seen much of from the local woman in Egypt or southern Jordan. If the influx of "western" mores wasn't obvious by the third packed Starbucks we drove by, or the eight-year-old girl who roller-shoed between tables handing out fliers for a Gender Equality Rally, then it was crystallized by the Jordanian woman we saw later that afternoon at our favorite spot, Books@Cafe, sporting a full-on Pam Anderson-style barbed-wire bicep tattoo.

On our last day in Jordan we day-tripped it an hour outside of town to the Roman ruins at Jerash, which were beautiful and deserted when we arrived at 8:00 a.m., allowing us to peacefully explore the huge, pillared center boulevard (including the chariot ruts still visible in the marble paving), hippodrome, wrecked temples, and amphitheaters (it was a two amphitheater town). By 10:00, however, the whole place was overrun by several elementary schools' worth of field-tripping kids, and we beat a hasty retreat--after first trying to help a lost and crying little girl, an effort that we abandoned when it became clear that her inability to understand a word of what we were saying was making her even more hysterical. From there, we caught our ride home, to rest up for what we'd heard would be an all-day affair crossing the King Hussein Bridge into Israel the next morning.

Thanks for reading; stay tuned for stories and pictures from Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Additional photos below
Photos: 46, Displayed: 28



Wadi Rum
Jub and MoussaJub and Moussa
Jub and Moussa

On the King's Highway
Bedoin familyBedoin family
Bedoin family

inside Petra
Selling rocksSelling rocks
Selling rocks

Petra kids
Petra colorsPetra colors
Petra colors

OK, so I'm obsessed.
One of a thousandOne of a thousand
One of a thousand

unbelievable ceilings, Petra

19th May 2009

thank you!
Waouh! That looks like quite a trip and indeed jordanian hospitality is legendary! Love your pictures, so many colors and contrasts :-) make me want to jump in a plane and head to Jordan straight away! Looking forward reading your next blog Cheers from China Laetitia
19th May 2009

I think you just added a stop onto my itinerary. Thank you! This is fantastic!
20th May 2009

Great souvenirs
Was there last summer...and even if we all catch the same's still an amazing your pic game with the colors...

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