Jordan, Brought to You By Pepsi
January 2006
 
For my 40th birthday, I wanted to be somewhere where I would be able to say, on that day, "Wow, look at this place. It's beautiful/incredible! I'm so happy to be here."

The problem was, I wasn't sure which place that should be. In planning the day for the last three years, I've considered a return trip to Egypt, going to Turkey, or taking a package adventure tour in Sri Lanka, among other ideas. But ultimately, I decided on building a trip around a visit to Petra, a place I had wanted to see every since -- well, like most people, since I first saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It has long been a dream of Stefan as well, so he got to come with me (grin). I was sure there was even more to see in Jordan -- enough places to grant my wish for my 49th birthday.

As usual, I used the Lonely Planet guide for the country to plan everything and, as usual, it was right-on-the-money about just about everything. We used it to book our hotels, plan for in-country transportation, and pick what to see in our very limited time (just six days).

Some overall impressions of Jordan: as with Egypt, people are very nice and quite happy to help. Jordan has less poverty and a much-larger middle class than Egypt (per capita), and Amman feels much more manageable than Cairo (which is probably because it's so much smaller!). Unlike Cairo, we didn't see people sleeping on cardboard pieces on the sidewalks, although I'm sure that does happen in Amman. Overall, the city seems more modern, and the driving in Amman is slightly less insane that Cairo (Stefan says he thinks he could drive there, but I'd really prefer him not too...). But while there may be more wealth in Jordan than Egypt, per capita, I also found the country much more conservative: unlike Cairo, I never once saw a woman driving a car, and on the street, I saw only one local woman without anything covering her head. In fact, I felt like I saw a lot less women on the streets than I had in Cairo, and it made me much more self-conscious about being so obviously foreign on the streets of Amman.

The night before we left for Jordan, we were, as usual, both incredibly nervous. While I love to travel, I also always get into an almost panic before I go, worrying about absolutely everything there is to worry about. I also was (and am) still in mourning for Buster, and thought about how, when I came home from the trip, it would be the first time in more than 15 years I wouldn't be looking forward to seeing him. I cried for him in the night and woke up the next morning with swollen eyes.

We decided to get to Frankfurt airport on the cheap, taking three different trains -- which works fine if all the trains are on time. We took a cab from our home to the train station, and ofcourse, the train was late. We got to Koblenz with less than two minutes to get off the train, run down the steps, run over to the next platform, up more steps, and onto the train. Stefan had to tell people to move out of our way, and by running as fast as we could with our bags and almost running over a woman poking along with a baby carriage, we hit the other platform just as our train arrived. I sat hyperventilating most of the way to Mainz, where the transfer is much easier -- you just walk across your platform to your awaiting train. The train to the airport was an "EC", which means that it is a long distance express train, and it is nice. If you ever get the opportunity to travel on one for a long distance, do it. We, however, took it only to the next stop -- the massive, confusing Frankfurt airport.

It took forever to find what terminal housed the Royal Jordanian check-in. On the way there, I got a big laugh as we passed a delivery company inside the airport that had posted a "No feeding" sign in the window. Once we were finally checked in, we had lots of time to kill, so I broke my no-beef stance and ate a hamburger (I'll be blunt: it was that time of the month, and that, plus stressing over the trip, made me crave beef like never before). Security wasn't oppressive, so we got to our gate rather easily. Turned out that our plane was half empty, as we were flying at the beginning of El-Eid, a major Islamic holiday that commemorates Abraham (Ibrahim) almost slaughtering his son at God's orders and God saying at the last minute, "Just kidding", and it also coincides with the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Our Royal Jordanian Airlines plane was... well, interesting. The flight staff was nice, and the food was tasty. But the inside of the plane was... well-worn. Our seats were broken (the buttons to tilt back were missing completely), the tray tables were sometimes held together with duct tape, and the audio and video systems don't always work. But, hey, as long as the mechanics of the plane and the seat belts work, and there's free alcohol, I'm good.

Arrival in Jordan was oh-so-smooth. The airport is much nicer than the Cairo airport, and after navigating through immigration and customs, there was a guy standing there with my name on a piece of paper. It was so nice to see. It made me feel that I was going to be taken care of. We got in his well-worn but fully-functional van, and we were off. As we drove from the airport into Amman, we saw signs for the Iraqi and Saudi borders, and I started my plans for a way to get our pictures in front of one of them at some point during our trip. Some of the houses on the way in from the airport are gorgeous, and we were pretty much glued to our windows watching the scenery -- it was night, but there was still lots to see.

We arrived at Park Palace Hotel, and I had a flashback to Cairo (I'm sorry to keep comparing the two -- I swore I wasn't going to do that and then did it the whole trip). It was so similar. No doors on the elevator, which was a little weird... the hotel staff was very nice, and we were promptly lead to our room. Our room was the usual simple fare we are used to in our trips. On the good side, it had a balcony where Stefan could smoke and we could both study the city (and all of the clocks giving radically-different times), and there was a TV with satellite access -- not that I'm going to sit in my room the whole time and watch TV, but some nights, I'm going to want to relax, write postcards, make notes for my travelogue, and recover from some huge hike, and I like having the TV there. Plus -- movies and TV shows in English! Wahoo! On the down side, the room was stinky that first night, there was no shower curtain, which meant water went everywhere, and they have large windows over the doors, which allows the hall light to shine oh-so-brightly into your room. Luckily, we always travel with those cloth sleeping blinders you sometimes get on long-haul flights. But the cost was right, and the location was right, and the staff was nice, and the other guests were nice, so in the end, the hotel was a good choice.

We had wanted to walk around a bit and see the city, but almost everything was closed -- we had thought the holiday really didn't start until the next day, but we were wrong. It's a good thing we had already planned to head to Petra the next day, as there would have been nothing to do in Amman. That same evening, after a lot of confusion and two different cabs, we finally got to the Big Fellow Irish Pub, one of the few Amman night spots outside of large Western hotels where we could drink and I would be welcomed. The pub had Guinness signs and large Guinness taps... but no Guinness. So Stefan had Murphy's and I had Amstel, which is brewed locally. It's a great bar except for one thing: they play hip hop, and we hate hip hop.

Because of the rank smell in the room, the light, my nerves (I was worried about Albi) and the heat (I dressed way too warmly), I couldn't sleep. I woke up several times in the night. I was surprisingly well the next day, however -- which is usually not the case when I'm lacking sleep. We packed up, had a breakfast at the hotel, of flat bread (I love the stuff), boiled eggs and Turkish coffee, and went looking for an ATM. The manager of a Biffa Bila (or a former one -- I'm still not sure) helped us find the ATM, and we promised to come back and eat there eventually. Then we took a cab to Wahadat station, where all the mini-buses for the South are. Our cab driver was so nice: without us asking him to, he parked, got out of his cab, and guided us to a mini-bus going South towards Wadi Musa (Moses' River), the village that's next to Petra, explaining our situation to the mini-bus driver. That kind of thing happened a lot . The mini-bus driver, who knew very little English, told us he'd actually be dropping us off... somewhere else, we weren't sure where... and that we'd catch a bus from there to Wadi Musa. We just trusted that it was going to be okay. The mini-bus was full, and we were never sure when we would be taking off for sure -- some people suddenly got off before we left, and we cruised slowly out of the station, waiting for more people to get on (and they did). At last, we pulled out and were on our way. The guy driving was a practising Muslim, and I realize now that we'd gotten him that late in the morning because he had probably stuck around to do his second morning prayers in Amman; it was probably the last mini-bus going South for several hours. He played prayers in Arab all during our trip, and I guess many people would have found that annoying, but I really liked it -- it made the trip peaceful, and seemed to fit the desolate desert landscape. He was obviously proud of his van: it was quite clean, and he'd decorated it with curtains all around, and lots of cushions in the front. And he and his assistant kept an eye on our bags, even more than we did.

I realized at this point that I was going to have trouble not to violate a big taboo in Arab societies in Jordan -- gazing deeply into men's eyes. I have never seen such a variety of colors -- blue, green, hazel, a mix of everything. It was hypnotic. I would catch myself staring and have to turn away quickly, not wanting to give the wrong impression. Oh, those eyes...

I should note that Stefan and I use our five or so Arabic words at any and all opportunities, because it seems to me that greeting people with "assalam" (peace), thanking people with "shukran" or politely refusing with "la shukran," or joking in a taxi in slow traffic with "yallah!" (let's go) breaks down a bit of the culture barrier, and it often brought a smile to a person's face (particularly the last one -- thanks for teaching it to me, Wisam). And if a local asked if I knew Arabic, I would say, "Not much, except [now singing] Habeeeeeebeeee, Habeeeeeebeeeee." And that always got a laugh -- every Arab pop song seems to be made up primarily of a person singing just one word: Habeebee (My Love). I so want to learn Arabic -- it's the sound rushing water makes as it breaks on rocks.

There wasn't much to see on the long, straight Desert Highway, yet, both Stefan and I were fascinated. We passed shepherds with their large flocks of rams to be sacrificed for El-Eid, large mining facilities, small tea stands, and acres and acres of empty land. Seeing the occasional stray dog, or dead dog, just broke my heart -- you just don't see that in Germany. And the dogs are soooo beautiful... Our driver was in love with his horn, which he beeped, oh-so-briefly, for any reason: approaching a car, passing a car, passing a mosque, seeing a bird fly over, that it was Wednesday... He, and others, often drove right down the middle of the road, which should have been scarier than it was. And just when I was really, really needing a pee break, we stopped for noon-time prayers. While the driver and some passengers headed to the small prayer room behind a grilling stand, we went into the large building that had tables, a small snack stand, and bathrooms. It's the first time I've ever pee'd in a porcelain hole in the floor, but I must say, the bathroom was clean, and I'll take a porcelain hole over an outhouse anytime . I was one of only about five women in the entire rest area, but I never had any problems, even when I stood alone waiting for Stefan.

We drove on, occasionally letting people out, occasionally letting people on who had been standing on the side of the road for who knows how long. At one point, the van was absolutely packed, with people even in the aisle, and I felt bad for having such a big suitcase taking up so much space -- usually I pack light, but for once, I wanted to have lots of room to buy things. We arrived in Ma'an, and realized that this was where we were getting off. The driver directed us to a different mini-bus, and he spoke to the other driver to make sure we were taken care of. We sat there for about 20 minutes, waiting for more passengers. I really needed another pee break, but something told me Ma'an was not the place to do it. My guidebook says that the city is a "pilgrim city", a place where people to and from Hajj stop. I could tell it was not a place for a Westerner, and non-Muslim, to wander around in. It was the first time we saw beggars -- the street savviness of the very young beggar girls was startling. Eventually, we had enough people for the driver to be satisfied, and we left Ma'an for our hotel in Wadi Musa. We went from mostly flat desert into hilly, rocky terrain and a twisty, winding road. It was exhilarating -- and a bit scary. By now, we'd also noticed that Pepsi signs outnumbered Coca Cola signs 50 to 1 -- and Pepsi signs were everywhere. Germany is owned by Coca Cola, but Jordan is Pepsi country. So, where is a country owned by RC, my favorite cola?

We arrived at the Al-Anbat Hotel I, expecting what was described in Lonely Planet -- a little budget place. Well, surprise, it had been completely upgraded!! But at less than $20 a night (off season price), with breakfast and supper included, it was still more than affordable, but now, included luxury rooms, an Internet cafe, a large Turkish sauna, a restaurant, and a small grocery next door. Happy Birthday! Our room was massive, and our view of the valley, the city and Petra was stunning. After we unpacked and were heading downstairs, we met our next door neighbor, Monica, from Bolivia. After a bit of conversing, she asked if she could hike Petra with us. Being a young single woman, she was nervous about doing it alone. I just couldn't say no. Plus, hey, she was carrying the same guidebook as me -- she had to be cool. We asked the hotel to take us to "downtown" Wadi Musa, as we were starving and wanted to see a little of this relatively new town -- in 1991, there were just four hotels there; now, there's probably 20 or more. There's not much to see in Wadi Musa. There are lots and lots of barber shops for some reason. We ate at Al Arabi, which was good, walked around a bit, went to a grocery for munchies, then went to the Al-Anbat Hotel II, to catch the shuttle back to our hotel. Later that night, as I was preparing for bed, Stefan stepped in from the balcony to announce that there were about a dozen RVs in the new, huge parking lot for such below us. I had no idea RVing was something one did in Middle Eastern countries...

It was another not-so-great night of sleep, for all the previous reasons, and also, because I felt like the vacation hadn't really started yet -- I still hadn't had a definitive "wow" moment. We were down for breakfast at just after 6 in the morning. Monica joined us and we were on the hotel shuttle for Petra, arriving just after 7. We were expecting cold, even wet weather, and had dressed in layers for just such an event. It was neither cold nor wet (but, ofcourse, had we not been prepared for such, it would have rained all day and been freezing.) Passed the Indiana Jones souvenir shops, we showed our tickets and entered the park through a stone gate.

At times, we said nothing, just walked with gaping mouths at the white and pink scenery. In some ways -- the color and shape of the cliffs and ground, it reminded me of Capital Reef in Utah. In other ways, it was just completely unique. There are tombs and monuments everywhere, from the moment you walk through the gate, sometimes obvious, sometimes seemingly-long-forgotten. While the inside of the tombs are usually just large, bare rooms, the outsides are stunning. The weather was perfect -- cool and clear. It was so early that most of the people there to sell something -- a camel ride, a horse ride, souvenirs -- weren't there yet, or weren't set up, so our long, long walk to Petra's most famous monument, the Treasury, was largely unmolested. If you are going, don't bother with riding any animal in to the Treasury -- walk it. It's so worth it. You will see so much on the canyon walls as a result (okay, actually, it's not officially a canyon, because it wasn't formed by water; it's more appropriately called the "Siq"). And the quiet, the echoes... it was an amazing experience. Monica quickly proved to be a perfect hiking partner, going as slowly as us and being just as fascinated at everything as us. She's why we have so many pictures of us together at Petra. She also observed that the undecorated tombs made some places look like a small village from the Flintstones. And, well, she was right.

Going that early, we had so many sites completely to ourselves, or with just a few other people. We poked our way through the main part of the park, walled on two sides for most of the way by ancient tombs and even a massive theater -- the theater was mostly red rock, and, like many tombs, the seats looked like they were melting, per the slow deterioration of the sandstone from wind and occasional rain. We did our best to avoid the large group of Asian tourists, not because we don't like Asian tourists, but because we don't like large groups, and a puppy diverted my attention for quite a while. Then we walked down the "Cardo Maximus", a long, long column lined main street with ruins on both sides. We decided to head for the trail up to the Monastery, to spend the next hour or so torturing ourselves up 800 or so steps (when there were steps carved out of the stone) to see Petra's second-most famous site after the Treasury. It was a tough hike, but absolutely breath-taking. At one point, a little Bedouin girl and her brother passed us on their donkey, going up to set up shop near the top. The girl sang, and her lovely acapella voice continued to reach us long after she was high above us. It was such a beautiful moment. We took our time getting to the top, admiring various views (and me freaking occasionally because of the height) and the incredible yellow veins running through the red and white rock. And then, at last, there was the Monastery, yet another massive temple facade built directly into the rock. I should have been appalled that there was a large tourist stand with couches and chairs across the plain from the Monastery... but that couch just felt so good... we sat, drinking sodas and water, eating some things we brought and cookies that Monica bought at the stand, and just contemplating this huge work of art. A cat joined us for a bit, but was disappointed that I wouldn't feed him (Erica, I didn't have anything that I thought would be good for him, and he was fat). I could have come back to Germany right in that moment and been satisfied. But I'm glad I didn't.

We headed back down, and took a slight detour to see a tomb flanked by two lion sculptures, and ended up attracting the attention of several other tourists headed up to the Monastery -- I think we were the first visitors to it that day, and now we started a steady stream. I decided we should try out one of the two Petra restaurants at the bottom of the trail. We went to the Basin restaurant, for its buffet, and I was oh-so-happy we did. The food was quite yummy. It was a nice lunch, except for the bitch girl who was FURIOUS at us for taking her purse, which she left out on the well-travelled terrace while she went inside to get more food -- we'd thought someone had forgotten her purse, so we took it, hoping whoever it was would come back and, if they didn't we were going to leave it at the restaurant. We had been so worried -- and this was our reward, to get insulted? I was so mad -- no good deed goes unpunished, I guess.

We went back down the street of columns, and headed up to the Royal Tombs, for more breath-taking views of Petra City and more incredible facades. We encountered bitch girl again, this time insulting a Bedouin woman trying to sell her something. Unfortunately, I didn't arrive soon enough to hear what she said, but the woman was obviously upset. So, I, ofcourse, let her rip me off over a couple of camel bone boxes and a small carving of the Treasury, and then I think she felt bad so she suddenly threw in a silver bracelet. She was so awesome though -- funny, sassy, savvy. Wish I could have hired her as my assistant. Her birthday is January 20. Happy Birthday, wherever you are. A guy from Argentina and a guy from the Netherlands were hanging about -- the Dutch guy was sweet on her. Stefan said later that he hoped the Dutch guy had enough camels...

The three of us started walking back to the Treasury and then out of Petra at around 4, still spell-bound by the scenery. As we were nearing the exit, we found ourselves walking along with a young Arab couple pushing their 10 month-old baby in a pram. The guy looked over, smiled, and said, "Baby. 10 dinar!" We all laughed, and we ended up having such a nice chat. The young mother told us of how she named her baby after having a dream where a man came to her and told her the name. Her baby wouldn't wave with her hand -- she kept lifting her foot up as her way to say "hello", and it was so dang cute. We had forgotten to arrange a pickup by our hotel, and a souvenir stand guy let us use his cell phone. Back at the hotel, we said our goodbyes to dear Monica, who would be leaving early the next morning back for Aqaba, and then back to Egypt, to finish her vacation, then she'd be back to Illinois, where she is a university student. Dinner that night was oh-so-welcomed, in the dining room with about 30 Italians (they were in the RVs) and a very small group traveling with Kumuka tours -- enough people to warrent a buffet! I relaxed in our room that night by massaging my feet and watching most of Girl With the Pearl Earring (disappointing -- book is better. But, hey, Colin Firth, never a waste of time).

Okay, believe it or not, even after all that hiking and all that great food, I still did not sleep well, though better than the previous two nights -- I was awake at 5 to hear the first call-to-prayer of the day (it was very far off) and came in and out of sleep until 7, when we had decided to get up -- late by our standards so far. We were alone for breakfast, so there was no buffet -- our Egyptian waiter made us omelettes and gave us some very good salads and bread. We packed up some bread and cheese for later, and were off to Petra at 8. There were a few more people, but still not too many, at least for the first few hours. The light proved even better for more pictures -- it's amazing how different light makes the landscape seem so different.

Our objective for day two was, primarily, a hike up to the High Place of Sacrifice, or Al-Madbah. It's a somewhat easier hike than to the Monastery. I offered Stefan to a Bedouin woman for one dinar, and while she was enthusiastically accepting, he said, "Just one dinar?" Later, when we'd hiked far above her, she began to sing an Arab prayer, and we had yet another magical experience of sound and site and place. The earth seemed even more red than our hike up to the Monastery. The top doesn't have incredible monuments (though they are quite interesting), but it does have incredible views. We sat up there for quite a while, using my field glasses to look down on oh-so-many more tombs off the beaten track, and over at the Tomb of Aaron (Moses' brother) high atop another mountain. I talked a bit with a Bedouin woman, there selling wares with her two-year old son and two-month-old daughter. While atop this mountain, it dawned on me how many middle-aged women, in pairs or small groups, I'd seen hiking through Petra. Far more than middle-aged men in small groups, or even young men on their own. There were enough 40 and 50-year-old women hiking around that I started to wonder if the hiking and budget travel industry knows that there is a very large market out there they may be missing out on... and I realized that, if I'm lucky, I can keep doing this travel thing for many years to come and not be out-of-place.

There was a small group of Asian women (we like small groups of anyone), and one fed a cat that had a horrific wound where its left eye should have been -- I don't even want to know how that happened. The treatment of dogs, cats, camels, horses and donkeys in Jordan (and in Egypt) is heart-breaking. It's one thing to work an animal hard, but so many of the adolescent boys beat their animals. One of them stopped when I told him too (I just yelled "hey" and gave one of my patented dirty looks), and it was obvious he'd been told before. I don't care what cultural line I crossed -- it's wrong and it needs to stop.

We considered hiking back to Petra City a different way, but the trail was so poorly marked, I was really afraid of getting lost. So we headed back down the same way. As we were leaving the top, a young Bedouin girl tried to sell us jewelry, and then started asking for "a biscuit!" That's "cookie" for us Americans. We gave her a Mars bar, and I told her she had to share it with her little brother. She made kissy sounds, and so we kissed each other's cheek. As we walked away, I heard her brother cry -- she wasn't giving him any. So I turned around and said I'd come back and take it away if she didn't share. I don't know if she actually understood English, but she understood the message.

We went back to the Cardo Maximus, catching some really great pictures of the theater. This time, we stopped to tour the newly excavated Great Temple and Upper Tenemos, which is being excavated and restored by Brown University. We didn't even see it the first time we went down this main street (we got a much better view of it from far away, atop the High Place of Sacrifice and the Royal Tombs the day before). I'm so glad we took the time to tour it -- it's quite impressive, and very different from the tombs. It's a free-standing structure with many different levels, and what isn't preserved has been very well re-constructed. A Western woman - a Brit or an Aussie -- approached us, and asked us if we had a guide, or if we were going it alone. We said we were using Lonely Planet. She sighed, and said that she was with a guide, and he was AWFUL. She said he didn't really want to be there, and it was making her not want to be there either. I felt really bad for her. I'd seen a few other Westerners with guides, and some of them had looked entranced by everything their guide was saying, so they can't all be bad. There was a large group of American tourists at this particular ruin too, and a teenaged boy made a jump from one part to the other that caused a woman to put her hands over her eyes and sigh very heavily. I knew she was a relative, and I said, "that almost gave me a heart attack, and he's not even mine." She said, "Well, he's been doing this the whole trip, and if he doesn't kill himself, I'm going to strangle him." So I said, "One dinar." Got a good laugh from that.

We also got a closer look at Qasr al-Bint al-Pharaun, another free-standing temple that was definitely worth a second look, though its in need of more restoration. Then it was time for another Basin Restaurant buffet, different but just as good as the day before. We checked out the small Nabataean museum in the same building as the restaurant, and it was worth the short visit. It also turned out to have the best postcards we'd seen of Petra, and had both Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide Jordan for sale, among others.

We headed back down the Cardo Maximus, and turned down all the camel and donkey rides offered back to the Siq. As we passed the Treasury, some of the guys could tell I was hurting a bit, and they started getting really pushy, including the guy I had fussed at about beating his donkey. But I wanted so badly to walk out of the Siq again -- it's so incredible to see it all so slowly. We did take a break midway, just sitting and grooving on the scenery and passing horses and carriages, but eventually did make it to the riverbed at the start of the Siq. There was still about two kilometers to the entrance, and we decided to be tourists, take a break, and ride horses to the entrance gate. Stefan had ridden a camel and a donkey, but this was his first horse. It was a nice way to end the trip, even if the handlers tried their best to up the price along the way. They were the first and two of only three really annoying Jordanians we met -- the other was a little boy I had to get tough with when he wouldn't leave us alone for not buying anything. Everyone else took no for an answer, something Stefan really appreciated (I think he's still traumatized from Egypt).

Once again, we'd forgotten to arrange to be picked up and, once again, we had to bum a call from one of the vendor's cell phones (and this time, we had to pay). I'd signed us up for the Turkish sauna that morning before we left, and, wow, was THAT ever a great decision! There were several other people from other hotels there as well, including the small group traveling with Kumuka tours, and we all were obviously in need of relief after Petra. It's MUCH more steamy than a German sauna, to the point that it's really hard to see, but it just felt amazing on my many aching joints and muscles. I had to wear my underwear under my wrap, as it had never dawned on me to pack a bathing suit, but it worked out just fine. We had dinner, and almost agreed to a ride share with two other tourists going back to Amman the next day in a hired car, but they were going via the King's Highway, and were stopping a lot along the way, not arriving in Amman until the evening. We wanted to get back early to Amman, to actually see some of the city at last. Back in the room, Stefan surprised me with an early birthday gift: red wine. Yummmmmmm. We wrote postcards and I tried to watch "Gladiator", but I kept switching the channel at the start of each arena fight (I cannot stand movie violence), and that's most of the movie, so I finally gave up. I couldn't believe how much I had enjoyed Petra a second day. We could have easily spent a third day there, exploring the tombs outside of Petra City. And I wish I'd known that there was a small memorial near Wadi Musa that commemorates where Moses supposedly struck a rock and caused water to flow (although there's another place that claims that as well), just to get a picture for my grandmother.

That night, our last in the hotel, I slept better than I had the whole trip. We were up at 5:45 a.m., in order to make it to one of the two morning mini-buses back to Amman. After breakfast, we went by cab to the tiny station -- it's just a small parking lot, with signs you stand next to show what bus you want. The cab driver showed us where to stand for the bus back to Amman, and he told us that we'd just missed the first one (darn). We waited maybe 15 minutes and the next bus came, and then waited maybe 15 more minutes for the bus to fill up. Two westerners got on as well, but we were all too tired to talk. I think the entire bus, except for the driver, slept for the first hour. Our driver this time was secular (or maybe Christian, who knows), and so we listened to commercial Arab radio during the trip (Habeeeeebeeeee Habeeeeeebeeeeee). Our mid-trip stop was not nearly as nice this time around -- our driver obviously didn't care much for praying, so this place not only had no prayer room, its bathrooms were NASTY. As Stefan said, you could have just pee'd right on the floor -- and it looked like several people did. When I came out of the bathroom, he was talking to the Western guy -- he turned out to be a Peace Corps volunteer, as was the woman he was traveling with. I was so bummed we didn't have time to talk much more, as I would loved to have heard all about their work.

We got back to the station and then back to the Park Palace Hotel before noon. We noticed as we checked back in that, per a large display board, the hotel offered a day trip to Jerash and two other sites in the North (they offered several other day trips as well). It was expensive, since it was their own driver, but we were worried about trying to navigate Jerash and any other sites by mini-bus, so decided to splurge. And then we lucked out -- an American mother and daughter traveling around the world were at our hotel and signed up for the same trip, meaning it would be half the cost for us.

We walked over to have lunch at Biffa Bila, and the owner recognized us. It's a cheap, good lunch. Then we took a cab to the second circle to find the Al-Alaydi Jordan Craft Center, to shop for gifts for others and ourselves. It's in a very upscale neighborhood, and there's not much there that's cheap. It's all hand-crafted and very high-quality. I bought a "Hand of Fatima", an image I had never seen before but have now fallen in love with, and a small clutch bag (Happy Birthday). Stefan got two very old scales he seemed very pleased to find.

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Hand of Fatima / Hand of Miriam

This symbol is known in Islamic societies as the *Hand of Fatima*, sometimes the *Eye of Fatima*, and in Jewish lore as the *Hand of Miriam* or *Hamesh Hand*. Its origin predates Islam; the symbol was previously used in Punic religion (a Latin version of the term "Phoenician"), where it was associated with Tanit (a Carthaginian lunar goddess).

The symbol serves as an ancient talismanic way of averting the evil eye, or more generally of providing a "protecting hand" or "Hand of God". It appears, often in stylised form, as a hand with three fingers raised, and sometimes with two thumbs arranged symmetrically. The symbol is used in amulets, charms, jewelry, door entrances, cars, and other places to ward the evil eye.

Tradition in Islamic cultures associates the symbol with Fatima Zahra, daughter of the prophet Muhammad. In Israel and in Jewish culture globally it is most commonly known as "hamsa" or "chamsa". Some sources link the significance of the five fingers to the five books of the Torah, the Jewish name for the Old Testament scriptures, or to the Five Pillars of Islam, the core principles of Sunni Islamic faith, though this significance was probably attributed after the fact to the symbol, as it pre-dates both religions.

In recent years some activists for Middle East peace have chosen to wear the hamsa as a symbol of the similarities of origins and tradition between the Islamic and Jewish faiths.

 
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Then we took a cab back to downtown to walk around the Roman Theater and any other old ruins we could find on our walk back to the hotel. I found the theater disappointing -- it felt so hidden, ignored by its surroundings. The surrounding modern buildings haven't been built with views towards it (as they should have been). We talked with some soldiers staffing firetrucks nearby -- German-made trucks, ofcourse. They refused to have their picture taken, but were happy to let Stefan take pictures of the trucks, and him in the trucks. We passed a few more ancient ruins, also completely unappreciated by their surroundings, and did a little shopping in local shops (but never did find a clock with Arabic numbers, which Stefan really wanted), then went back to the hotel for a nap. I was just mentally and physically exhausted. I needed a break. That evening, we headed to Books@Cafe, which had been recommended by both Lonely Planet and my friend Sean, who lived in Jordan for a while. It was such the right decision. The pizza is terrific, the beer was cheap (and bad), the music on the sound system was great (blues standards), and the atmosphere was very relaxed and groovy. It's a place where any woman can go by herself, no problem. About a third of the people there were Westerners -- including, surprise, that small group traveling with Kumuka tours (it was funny when one of the women and I made eye contact, both looked confused by the recognition, and then realized we knew each other from Wadi Musa -- we ran into them again at Jerash later as well). Books@Cafe is not the kind of place I would have wanted to go every night in Jordan, but that night, it was very much needed. Downstairs, the English bookstore is vast, with a diverse selection. It took all my willpower not to buy anything. We walked back to the hotel from the cafe (our taxi driver to the cafe had encouraged us to do so), and it was a very steep, but very short and beautiful walk. If I had to live in Jordan, I would want to live in the neighborhood of the Books@Cafe (however, I wouldn't be able to afford it!). Back at the hotel, I took a shower and apparently got the only hot shower ever at the hotel (according to other guests we spoke to). Stefan gave me another present: a Swiss chocolate bar. We also finished the wine.

Our room smelled much better the second and third nights, but the breakfasts took a dive -- the coffee became awful. I have no idea what changed. At least I finally slept through the whole night. The next day was my birthday, and Arbor Day in Jordan. We left at 6:45, which actually felt like sleeping in at the rate we were going. I gabbed with Jessica and her mother, Carolyn, all the way to Jerash (Stefan sat in the front with the driver). They are from Southern California, and are taking nine months to tour the world and maybe even find a new country to move to eventually. The landscape was completely different than in the South. We got to Jerash, a vast city of Roman ruins (and other cultures as well, as always), at about 9. At first, I didn't think there was much to see, but once we had passed the massive hippodrome, we could see most of the huge fields of ruins. I was floored. Not only is there tons to see, there are tons that are still being excavated -- no doubt there's something new to see each year. I won't describe everything -- any travel guide will for you. But the highlights of the visit, for me, were two things. First is the South Theater, which has been lovingly restored, and where they hold music events in the summer (it would be perfect for a classic Greek drama). The acoustics were perfect: talking in a stage voice, Stefan could hear me all the way at the top row of seats. As we sat contemplating this beautiful structure, a local man ran across the orchestra section, saying, "You want to hear sound system? one minute." Then he was gone. We figured he was firing up a PA system. About five minutes later (we had already learned what one minute of Middle Eastern time meant), out he walked, in full military dress, with bagpipes. I cried. It was one of my favorite moments of the whole trip. The other highlight of Jerash was walking along its Cardo Maximus, seeing so many things still so well-preserved, and the deep ruts from chariots that had passed this way so often once upon a time. I was in Jerash. And I was 40. Wow...

Because we took much longer at Jerash than the driver expected (Jessica and Carolyn proved as meticulous tourists as us), we made only the briefest of stops at Ajloun Castle, a fortress built by a nephew of Saladin for troops fighting against the Crusaders. A heavy fog engulfed us there, so we couldn't see anything anyway, and I believe the view is more than half the reason for going to Ajloun. Then we went on to Umm Qais, which is more Nabataean/Roman ruins, this time high on a hill overlooking the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee -- we could see Syria, Israel and Palestine, all from one place, even though it was quite cloudy. Again, the highlight for me was the remains of an ancient theater. All these theaters in Jordan were my first in-person encounters with ancient theaters. I just love them. In most ways, these designs have not been improved on in any modern theater or sports arena. I dream of building my own... According to tradition, it was at Umm Qais that Jesus cast out demons from two men, transferring them into a nearby herd of pigs (although, ofcourse, there's another site, this one in Israel, that claims the same thing). We had a weird moment where one of the guards walked with us and asked if there was a man with Carolyn and Jessica, who were walking far behind us. We couldn't tell if he was wanting to know if he should be looking for a third person, looking out for them because they were two women alone, or if he wanted to hit on them. From what they'd told us, they'd been hit on ALOT in Asia and Egypt already. We had less than two hours at Umm Qais -- we could have easily made it three. Like Jerash, there is soooooo much still unexcavated. I really hope that changes.

We headed back to Amman, stopping briefly at a creek that we thought was full of ice and snow, but that turned out to be full of foam from a nearby chemical plant. Yucko. But we weren't the only tourists who made this mistake, as a large bus full of them was stopping as we were leaving. Stefan and I had forgotten to replenish our food supplies for the trip, and had finished off what little we had (and were so grateful for the cake that Carolyn and Jessica shared with us!). We got back to the hotel, freshened up, and then headed by taxi to the Irish pub again. The place somehow read our minds, and changed the music from exactly the same hip hop songs they'd been playing a few nights before to some sort of soft pop soundtrack. I never liked Frank Sinatra until that moment. And I was very thrilled to hear Elvis on my birthday (For I... can't... help... falling in love... with... you...). We ate everything served to us, and probably would have licked our plates if no one would have noticed. We had hit at happy hour, so got half of our beers free (hurrah). We got back to the hotel early, well before 9, and waiting for me was a small cake and birthday card from Carolyn and Jessica. Yes, I cried. I'm a crier. In honor of my birthday and my reading Mysterious Island right now, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was on TV (it was all for me, right?). We packed up before bed and, at around 11 that night, my sister made her first trans-Atlantic call, calling me at the hotel. Yes, I cried again. The hotel has a wonderful old wooden switchboard system that they still use to transfer calls to rooms, and the clerk had had to ask Rhonda to call back on a different number so he could put her through the old switchboard.

So, the next day, we left our hotel with heavy hearts. I felt like we'd just arrived. I started second-guessing myself, wishing we'd taken an extra day, wishing we'd gotten to Wadi Musa earlier, and on and on. There's so much we didn't see. At the rate we tour things, we could have easily spent two weeks in Jordan and seen something new every day.

On the way back to the airport, we were on the lookout for a sign to the Iraqi and Saudi borders. We found one, and our driver agreed to stop to let us take pictures, which I know was a risk for him, as it's obvious you aren't supposed to stop on that bit of road. We tipped him big, and got our pictures. It was a perfect ending to the trip.

And, by the way, just a few pictures are posted on my Yahoo group. Many more will eventually be posted to Stefan's site.

But ofcourse, the adventure wasn't over: the driver dropped us at the wrong terminal. No prob -- we jogged over to the right one. We checked in, went through immigration, and then through the first security checkpoint. I was pulled aside, and at first I was confused, but then realized all women went through their own, more private security checkpoint -- and ended up through everything more quickly. Unfortunately, when I went to get Stefan's bag to put it with mine, security stopped me. They thought Stefan's bag was a carry on, and it had a Swiss Army knife in it. I couldn't make them understand that it wasn't going to be carried on, but somehow, Stefan did... and they were speaking English! We walked through the small shopping area of the terminal, and we found a Starbuck's selling mugs for Lebanon and Jordan, which are decorated by a machine that Stefan built! We also bought a few things at duty free, then headed for the gate. Turns out there were a LOT of Hajj pilgrims also heading home. Going through the second security was a crowded process... except for women, who, again, got pulled aside to go into a closed booth, by a woman covered completely except for her face, wielding a security wand and cheerfully calling, "Ladies first! Ladies first!"

At the gate, no one really listened to instructions and the rush to get on and off the plane showed me how stampedes at Mecca happen. Stefan and I weren't seated together, but through negotiation, ended up so. Everyone fell asleep as soon as the plane took off, and I wanted so badly to take a picture of all the sleeping pilgrims. But I didn't. This time, the movie worked, but it was AWFUL: Picadilly Jim . Great cast in a WASTE of a film. But I watched because it was easier than reading -- I just couldn't read anymore. Before we landed, I tried to talk to the Palestinian guy next to me. He was young, and this was his first trip to Germany. All I could think of was of him and his companion getting lost for eternity at the endless Frankfurt airport. We lost them later, and I worried about them all the way home. Our passports were checked IMMEDATIATELY when we got off the plane. We stopped briefly so Stefan could smoke and we could both get a drink (it was so hot on the plane, and we'd over-dressed). We headed for baggage claim, and passed a large group of lost pilgrims from our plane. So I lead them through the airport, acting like their tour guide. I just couldn't leave them lost like that. Immigration was a breeze -- the Germans were fully prepared for an onslaught of Hajj pilgrims heading home. Very impressive.

While waiting for our train later, I turned on my cell phone, which hadn't worked in Jordan, and immediately received five text messages wishing me a Happy Birthday -- I felt so loved. I spent the rest of my time trying to reply to everyone. We got back to Sinzig, just fine, though tired and a bit cranky. Albi was, to say the least, very happy to see us. But she is so obviously still traumatized by being alone. I opened up my suitcase and all I could think of was how much Buster loved to stick his entire face into my dirty clothes after I got back from a trip.

While you are waiting for our pictures, I highly suggest you use Google's image search to find pictures of the places I've mentioned above. I'm sure Wikipedia has tons of helpful info and photos as well.

And so, I am 40. And I got to say, "Wow, look at this place. It's beautiful. It's incredible! I'm so happy to be here." With all sincerity.

See pictures from other travels.

Return to the broads abroad home page

 
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Any activity incurs risk. The author assumes no responsibility for the use of information contained within this document.


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