I blame drinking! Although, in this case, it was one of the best decisions I have made whilst drunk.
My not-mother-in-law was visiting and we were discussing travel and places we had been.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Petra,” she announced.
“So have I,” I replied. “Shall we go?”
Some Googling of ‘cheap tours to Petra’ showed Encounters Travel ran a tour called ‘Jordan on a Shoestring’; a 5-day tour for £399 and we were sold.
We did wait until the sobriety of the next morning to sign up, as booking holidays after drinking is never that good an idea. Having worked out that I could use Airmiles to save £500 off the £750 flight if we flew a few days before the tour started, we were in!
Phil, my not-mother-in-law, has a friend in Amman. We met up with her on our first day. Hadda gave us a whistle-stop tour of Amman, showing us all the major landmarks and taking us to the launch party for the Christmas range at her friend’s cake and sweet shop, ‘Moka’. We arrived to find a red and white VW camper van serving hot chocolate with distinctly Arabic Santa outside, still complete with red and white suit and fake white beard and cuddly tummy.
The cakes inside looked and tasted amazing and there was a steady stream of kids bringing their letters and coloured pictures to Santa. Many then took out their phones to snap a quick selfie with Santa too; a slight change since my day!
Unfortunately, we couldn’t bring any of the amazing-looking cakes home, but we tasted enough of the range to be able to recommend pretty much any of it!
Approximately 4% of Jordan’s population is Christian, but lots of places were sporting Christmas trees and decorations. The Boulevard, an outdoor core to one of Amman’s newest shopping malls, had a whole winter wonderland. There were rows of trees, a ‘sledging’ hill (or rather inflatable tyre hill) and an enclosed snow dome for snowball fights. Oddly, The Boulevard was full of the recently graduated students, having their graduation photos taken, with all sorts of props, pre-prepared signs, and in the case of the girls, matching headscarves. A huge amount of planning seemed to have gone into many of the posed pictures, with the throwing-of-the-mortar-boards shots repeated again and again.
Jordan, in comparison with some of its neighbours, seems relatively religiously tolerant and relaxed. The Muslim religion is still obviously pervasive, with headscarves commonly worn and burkas not unusual. We had been warned to be modestly dressed, but in winter temperatures of 10 degrees, long sleeves and long trousers were perfectly comfortable and appropriate. In fact, I would have been wearing them anyway. As this was Friday, the Muslim holy day, we found huge queues outside the mosques and people praying in the street around them.
When we later visited As Salt we found many cultures living happily side by side in an old town. In fact, on of the doors out of the main mosque leads directly into a Christian church!
I had not expected my first night in Jordan to be spent learning salsa dancing and drinking cocktails in a tiki-style bar, but that’s what you can do at Trader Vic’s in the Regency Hotel. The unveiled 30-somethings, in short dresses and hot-pants, were also unexpected. It was a very friendly atmosphere where everyone was behaving impeccably and in many cases, drinking fruit juices or water.
I’m not sure quite what I expected from Jordan, but I can safely say that my first day there was entirely full of surprises!
We were up early the next morning for our first trip; driving northeast of Amman to the desert castles and a couple of nature sites.
The ‘castles’ are an interesting mix.
Al Kharaneh is a Bedouin coaching inn, with sets of rooms around a central courtyard and wonderful clay tablets decorating the top of the walls. It is very square and imposing, sitting on a flat piece of bare land, next to the main road. It looks like a castle, but the ‘arrowslits’ are angled for ventilation and airflow, rather than any defensive properties.
My favourite was Quasyr Amra; a bath-house with beautiful frescoes of hunting and bathing scenes, which are fascinating. They are very well preserved and in some cases quite racy! A contrast to the church frescoes which are the majority that I have seen. It was here we had our first obligatory cup of tea, in a Bedouin tent, with some very friendly cats and a firebox with amazing bronze camel statues to support it.
Jordanian tea is strong, sweet and served without milk and coffee is thick and Turkish style both served in tiny cups. Americano coffees and Nescafé are common and, in some places, you can even find lattes and cappuccinos
The final castle, a solid, defensive, basalt structure, is Qasr Asraq. This is much more what we in the UK would recognise as a castle, save for the mosque in the middle. It was used by Lawrence of Arabia as a stronghold whilst drumming up support from local tribesmen. With no ‘keep off’ signs, you can explore thoroughly.
In the area, we saw two different wildlife projects, one more successful than the other. Both are run by The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, who run seven reserves in the country.
The first, Shaumari Reserve, was a reintroduction program of the Arabian oryx, along with a protected environment for onagers (a type of Asiatic ass, related to the donkey), sand gazelles, and a type of bustard.
They have enclosed an area of the desert to prevent it being overgrazed by sheep and goats and that has made a huge difference to the vegetation in that area. You can see that you are approaching the reserve long before you can see the fence as there are green, scrub-type plants as ground cover. The native animals require a lot less food than the incoming sheep and goats and these have significantly worsened the desertification of the area. I believe this has been aggravated by the increased numbers which have arrived with Palestinian refugees more recently.
Two rangers came to show us around and answer our (many) questions. They were both enthusiastic and knowledgeable, although it took several efforts in translation to discover the gestation period of the animals. (I should probably add that this was only one of our many questions, not a single isolated obsession!)
For those that are interested, oryx are related to cattle and therefore are pregnant for 9 months; onager pregnancies last for 11 months, like horses and donkeys; and gazelle are pregnant for 5 months, a similar length of time to sheep.
The wetlands centre at Azraq Wetland Reserve is really anything but. It used to be a large freshwater lake and marsh complex; where people fished commercially. Due to the demands for water as the population of Jordan increased, the aquifer which sustained it has been drained and most of the wetlands have disappeared. Some water is now being pumped back in, but that is only maintaining about 10% of the previous area.
The Dead Sea is also shrinking in size and increasing in salinity due to the collection of water from and damming of rivers that traditionally flowed into it. This has been aggravated by commercial salt production in the Dead Sea, removing more water from it. In a linked development, the cheaper salt production in the Dead Sea area has put an end to the salt industry which existed in the Azraq area and the salinated water, which is no longer removed by salt production, is seeping into the aquifer, worsening the situation for animals and birds in the area.
There wasn’t a vast amount to see at the Wetlands reserve; some fish in the lake and some moorhens paddling about, but I believe they do get more exotic migratory species. It was very sobering to see all the dried-up, crusty reeds and rushes in an area that was marsh less than half my lifetime ago.
When it rained the following day, it was torrential and I was pleased for all the much-needed water, even if it frustrated our plans for the day. We decided to visit the Jordan Museum, where, unexpectedly, we saw some of the Dead Sea scrolls and the jar they were found in, along with the very unusual copper scrolls from the same cache.
It was an interesting exhibition, although we did giggle a lot at the silent drama-documentary film that went along with it. Phil’s son directs such films and we could imagine him tearing his hair out at the material he was given! So many cliched shots of military-hero-staring-off-across-desert!
The central part of the museum had a fascinating exhibition about traditional and modern life in Jordan, with sections on water collection and use, electricity generation, and changes in things like literacy rates and school attendance in the last 40 years. The literacy rate has increased from 55% to 95% since 1980 — very impressive, although unfortunately there still seem to be children around the tourist sites who are not going to school.
Around the outside of the halls was a timeline from statues made in 7500 BC, through the Nabatean who built Petra, via the Romans and Bedouins, to the Crusades. We spent about 90 minutes wandering our way through — we didn’t read everything, but it certainly helped to give us context and a better understanding for the rest of the trip.
We wandered from there to downtown Amman to investigate the souk. It is a bit intimidating at first, but you soon begin to feel more comfortable. Nothing is priced and haggling is certainly expected. The prices asked are pretty steep, but what we actually paid varied from about ¼ to ½ of the original suggested price, once we got better at the haggling.
I did get fed up of the constant ‘buy one, get one free’ that was offered everywhere, even in the vastly overpriced tourist shops which are regularly spaced along main dual carriageways. I know it’s just an opening gambit, but it was massively overused!
In the downtown area, we found some excellent street food and restaurants for locals.
Ghada had taken us to Hashem’s Rest on King Faisal Street, Amman, which served excellent hummus/tabbouleh/falafel/faal (bean stew) dishes. These sort of mezze meals were really common on our travels.
The other restaurant that Hadda had suggested was Shahrazad (after suggestions by the staff at Hashem). It is slightly further along the same street on the same side, down an alley, which has a bookshop on the corner. Here we had excellent kebabs of various sorts and a wonderful dish called Mansaf: lamb or goat meat at the bottom with a yoghurt sauce on top, all served with very fresh bread. We went there twice, and each time a meal for two (where we couldn’t finish all the food) with a soft drink or tea came to 7JD (approx £9).
It’s by no means fancy — the plastic tables are covered with a disposable plastic cloth for each set of diners and cutlery has to be asked for. However, it is full of locals and has very fast polite service. There didn’t seem to be a menu, we were just brought food each time we ate there, all of which was good.
The other excellent dish we had on several occasions was maqluba, a huge pot where chicken, aubergine, potato and tomato are placed at the bottom with rice on top and the whole thing is cooked in a yoghurt sauce. It is served with great drama, by being turned upside down on a metal plate with theatrical banging on the top with metal kitchen implements.
Most of the meals we had on the road were relatively expensive tourist type buffets (10–15JD per person plus drinks), where there was a wide range of food (and I guess something to suit everyone), but invariably a similar range of salads, couscous, hummus and a couple of hot dishes. Sweets included sponge soaked in honey, rose-water panna cotta, baklava-type little sweets and a coconutty porridge flavoured with cinnamon and cardamom. In a coffee shop I tried crocan ice cream — a nice, but very sweet vanilla with swirls of caramel and pistachio.
We spent a couple of interesting hours at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, which was a nice break from wall to wall history and also the frenetic activity on traffic and people in downtown Jordan. The gallery is split, with buildings either side of a small park which also contains sculpture and many cats, children playing and some jugglers practising when we visited. There were a few nice pieces within the collection, along with a retrospective of a famous Jordanian modern artist. Not really to my taste, but it was interesting to see his style change.
The gallery is worth visiting just for the cafe on the top floor, which has a quiet atmosphere, good tea and a nice balcony with a view over the park. Definitely a place to stop and chill for a while.
Whilst on our own in Amman we used quite a few Ubers. I don’t agree with their business practices or treatment of staff, but it was certainly easier than negotiating with the local taxis and the cars were generally of a better standard too. Our local friend advised doing so and I think it’s a really useful tip.
One of our taxis took us up the street of the pet shops in Amman, which is somewhere near Rainbow Street. That was quite a distressing sight, with lots of caged birds and unfortunately many puppies and kittens in cages in the windows of the shops, obviously for sale. We have moved on from selling dogs and cats in pet shops and, hopefully, the Jordanians will too. I did see a veterinary clinic on the street, so at least we know there is some veterinary care for the animals.
We did visit Rainbow Street but were a little disappointed. There are some tourist shops and some restaurants, but it was lacking in life or atmosphere when we visited, although it might just have been too early in the evening. I did have some lovely hot chocolate and free wifi in the Green Turtle Cafe (who also do really nice teas). Free wifi seems to be fairly common, at least in Amman, but it is normally password protected and you have to ask for the code, which they may give you on your receipt, or often the waiter just types it into your device. That helps, as using data — at least on a UK phone — is prohibitively expensive.
After a few days in Amman, we joined up with our tour and set off to see the rest of the country, including Petra and the Dead Sea. I’ll write about that soon!
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