Saturday, 8 September 2007

A bonus jaunt to Jordan

Waking up in Jordan's only seaside town (they don't seem to count the Dead Sea as the beach) we couldn't help feeling a long, long way from Africa. The roads were paved, the electricity sound, the English good, and the shops full of goods. It wasn't Western by any means, but it also was definitely not African.

But it was still warm. We drank coffee and fresh juice for breakfast, and then went wandering. Over breakfast we had the bright idea of avoiding the ferry trip back to Egypt, and instead checking out the cost of flights from Amman to Cairo. It took a couple of hours to visit the Royal Jordanian office, and to get a good internet fare, but we did it, securing ourselves a couple of extra days in this very attractive country.

So, a change of plan - our first stop here was now to be Wadi Rum, the desert oasis famous for its associations with Lawrence of Arabia. After a good fish lunch (we thought we should take advantage of our coastal location), we checked the minibus station. Sure enough, there was a bus departing "when you get back, no hurry". We translated this as meaning the bus would depart sometime in the next two or three hours, but no, once we'd got back with our packs they closed the doors and we were off. Remarkable. And the price was only 2JD each (about $4NZ). It was about to get better though. The bus conductor came down for a chat and told us about his brother's tour company - he said they could do an afternoon 4WD tour of the desert, an overnight camp under the stars with dinner and breakfast for 25JD each, and they'd get us back to the bus station to catch the 8.30 bus to Petra the next morning. Sounded good to us and was to prove a bargain too. We spent a while at the conductor's house, meeting his son, wife and father and enjoying mint tea while they got themselves organised for us. Bedouin hospitality is rightly famed - we were to drink many more cups of mint tea during our time in Jordan.

The afternoon 4WD tour was fun, passing Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom and the spring named for him. As you can imagine, in the desert springs are pretty important, and this one emerged from halfway up a fantastic rock formation, but these days is rather unromantically piped and feeds a channel that stock drink from. We were shown some ancient engravings in a gorge and then did a bit of rock climbing to a "bridge", all good fun. The real star of the show though was the landscape. The desert here is anything but blank endless sand; there are small bushes, it's sandy alright but broken up with the most amazing rocks. In fact the area is known as a rock climbers´"Mecca".

Dinner under the stars was accompanied by the Bedouin boys singing in harmony, all very atmospheric. Not for the first time on this trip did I feel a little culturally empty. One local was left to spend the night with us, while the others left in their 4WD for the comforts of town. Aoudi was nursing a broken heart and confided in us the details of the recent break up with his Swiss girlfriend. I felt a bit sorry for him; as far as he was concerned he´d done all the right things - built a house in the village and bought a flat in Aqaba, said lots of sweet nothings, and made visits to Switzerland. ¨Women,¨ he sighed and broke into yet another tuneful lament.

The next morning we were delivered to the resthouse at Wadi Rum village for the 8.30 connection to Petra, and were there by lunchtime. Petra, or more correctly the village of Wadi Musa, was a bit bigger than I´d thought, and prettily tumbled down the hillsides. The nearby ancient Nabatean city of Petra, one of the seven wonders of the modern world as determined in a decidedly unscientific and somewhat controversial poll, is really magnificent. There are lots of Bedouin stalls and shops at the foot of the Treasury, and we got chatting to a local who turned out to be the nephew of Marguerite van Geldermalsen, a New Zealand woman who married into the Bedouin about 30 years ago, and has lived in Petra ever since. When they found out where I was from they insisted on ringing her so we could speak. Another insight into the way Bedouin tribes operate - it was unthinkable to them that Marguerite and I wouldn´t necessarily need or want to chat. I spoke with her, and she said she was never sure who was most embarrassed at such times, her or the tourists forced to speak with her by her enthusiastic relatives. She´s written a book about her life, which I dutifully bought. We spent a long day on our feet (no donkey, horse or carriage riding for us), climbed up to the Monastery in the hot midday sun which gave us the opportunity to admire it for at least two hours from the shade of a cafe. We enjoyed the rock hewn buildings, tombs and caves and also the natural scenery - fantastic gorges, valleys and mountainsides. After eating a late lunch/early dinner near the site, we caught a cab back up the hill to Valentina´s and Mohammed our taxi driver sold us on the idea of him taking us to Amman the next day, stopping at the Dead Sea for a swim en route. It appealed - inexpensive and easy.

Before 7.30 the next morning we were safely stowed in Mohammed´s taxi, and being driven along the King´s Road - the old spice caravan route that ran along the ridges of the mountains where it was cooler, from present day Saudi and Yemen, to Egypt. It was pretty here, with great views out across the desert. Our first stop was to Shobak, a Crusader castle still being excavated and restored and therefore without an entrance fee. Next, while getting a potted history of the life of Mohammed (the prophet, not the taxi driver) we were taken to a spot where we could admire the Dana Nature Reserve. As we reached the southern end of the Dead Sea, the rock pillar that was Lot´s wife was pointed out, as was the experimental oil drilling operation that an Australian company had started. Across the narrow band of water Mohammed pointed out the West Bank, and the minarets and mosques of Jerusalem. The oldest continuously inhabited town in the world, Jericho, was also visible. There had been lots of police checkpoints on today´s journey, more than normal apparently, and we were later to discover that Tony Blair had been visiting Amman. It´s one thing to see places on a map, but quite another to be driving in what appeared to be a progressive and moderate nation, and to realise just how close to international trouble spots we were.

The Dead Sea was good fun - we bobbed about as you do, and coated ourselves in the dark, mineral-laden mud. There was a nice restaurant where we had lunch, and we were delivered to the outskirts of Amman in the middle of the afternoon in good spirits. Mohammed put us into a local taxi, and headed back to Wadi Musa, and we made our way to the recommended Palace Hotel, a very well run operation with nice rooms and nice staff. Later that night we ended up in a smart restaurant in a smart part of town a taxi ride away from the Union and the old downtown. Amman was shaping up as a modern, sophisticated and easy city. We spent the next day touring the Roman ruins, doing some shopping and then went to Wild Jordan, a modern shop cum cafe where we had the best lunch we´d eaten in ages while enjoying the view overlooking the old town. More self indulgence was to follow as Sara and I visited Al Pasha, a Turkish bath, for a steam, scrub, soak and massage, before heading out to the airport for our flight back to Cairo. Even the airport was a dream, we checked in electronically, enjoyed coffee before the flight and a trouble free return journey.

Jordan had surprised us with the ease with which we could travel and get things done. The people were friendly, helpful and generally spoke enough English to make it unnecessary for us to use our dozen or so words of Arabic. King Abdullah´s smiling face accompanied us throughout Jordan. His picture is everywhere - variously dressed in a business suit, in traditional Bedouin gear (sometimes with camel), in the national football uniform, as a soldier, or as a policeman and is, so we were told, "a very good king". He is also taking a leading role in smoothing the way for the Blair-run talks which are scheduled to take place between the Palestinians and the Israelis in a couple of months. People here are pro-Palestinian (a poster of the world´s flags in the hotel in Wadi Rum had the Israeli flag scratched out, and the Palestinian flag drawn in), but there does seem acceptance that the current situation is intolerable. Even after such a short visit, I feel like I have more insight into the history and the future of this part of the Middle East.

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