Archive for March, 2011

Jordan By Day

And so, we woke up and took our first look at the city. We’d been hearing it all night; for some reason every snort, scratch, fart and whistle from the street below came in through our window. It was almost as though we were sharing a room with the various tramps and late night street vendors – not to mention the incessant beeping of car horns. Still, it was lovely to be woken by the Muslim Call to Prayer – played on loudspeakers from the towers of every mosque, it was a haunting melody with a soaring, yearning quality – utterly different from the harsh wail you hear in movies. Of old there would have been a man singing it out from each tower five times a day, which must have seriously devalued the nearby houses if your local singer was crap.

My first opinion was that Jordan is… brown. If you think this is unjustified or insensitive, please refer to the following photograph:

Amman by daySo there. There’s no flat land in Amman – every building clings to the hillside and every alleyway leads to a steep flight of crumbling steps. To live here is to gain thighs like tree-trunks and lungs like Zeppelins – unless you’re a woman. They don’t go out much. I had the unusual experience of seeing more pre-Christian archaeological sites (2), more city-dwelling wild rabbits (3) and more kilt-wearing Jordanian-Scottish bag-pipers (2) than I saw women on my first day in Amman (0).

Day One; Mum locked herself in the loo again. Possibly this was due to Karma, since she had stolen a butter knife from the plane “in case we need it for picnics”. This thought occurred to me at exactly the right time, as using the knife I was able to free her from the outside. This is now the forth continent on which I have successfully broken into a toilet.

Our hotel receptionist showed us the back way up to the ancient Citadel. By climbing up, around, past and sometimes through the local people’s houses we came from below and snuck into the ruined fortress in secret. Thus we bypassed the entrance fee, which has made me feel guilty ever since. It’s true – crime doesn’t pay. There were guards – armed police that were dressed more like the SAS – but they didn’t seem to be doing much. Just standing beyond the safety barriers, on the edges of cliffs and monuments, chatting. Almost as if to say ‘We’re police, nothing is forbidden to us! Just you try it…’

“Tough gig,” I remarked. “Can’t see much trouble up here. Visitors tend to be in the 60+ age bracket. Not much gun crime in that demographic… Job description: Look menacing. Smoke cigarette. Take a call. Move to other end of site and repeat.”

But it had to be said – the ruins were amazing. Gigantic. These ancient civilisations, they liked their columns and they liked ‘em BIG. Two in particular dominated the site, somehow still supporting a carved lintel that must weigh the same as a decent truck.

Roman Temple ColumnsThey were crying out to be climbed. But surely that wasn’t allowed? The few tourists and locals were strolling casually over the walls and fallen archways, clambering onto stone pedestals for a better view or posing atop smaller chunks of ancient masonry. No-one seemed to care. I couldn’t resist trying a few parkour jumps across gaps in the stonework – after all they’d survived the earthquakes that destroyed most of the citadel.

Parkour JumpGood clean fun! Then I spotted two other lads, both clearly local boys, doing a bit of the same. They’d scrambled up the massive stone walls, right to the base of the twin columns. They seemed to be contemplating an epic jump down to a grass covered mound below. Surely if they were up there it must be allowed? It never would be back home… Before you could say ‘Bad Idea’ I was leaping up the blocks towards them. Just then a harsh command in Arabic exploded behind me. The other two guys froze – then they threw a pair of worried looks over my shoulder. I crapped myself, jogged along the wall in the direction I was facing and jumped off the far end to safety. Roo was waiting for me in the shadows. A quick glance back the way I’d come showed the would-be athletes surrendering themselves to a whole pack of armed guards. Neither group seemed particularly happy.

We moved as quickly as we could in the opposite direction, putting a sizeable chunk of ruins between me and the soldier-police. I even took my bright red jacket off in case it made me more recognisable – though the fact that I was being very obviously arm-steered by the only blonde woman we’d seen since we entered the country probably didn’t help. ‘Go in springtime, the guidebook said, there’ll be no crowds…’

As my almost-partners-in-possible-crime were frog-marched away by the police, Roo and me peeked out from behind a two thousand year old corner. “See, how they’re carrying those machine guns?” Roo gestured at the departing escort. “There is a time and a place for climbing old buildings and jumping off them,” she said. “This is NOT that time.”

Amman For The Night

Roo asleep in the Arab Tower(Being a Summing Up of Our Adventures on the way to Jordan.)

It’s the trip of a lifetime; my girlfriend, my Mum and myself have travelled to Jordan, a place known to many people as that big temple in the desert discovered by Indiana Jones. Oh, and the bit that happens to surround it. In fact it’s a pretty awesome place where the ancient and modern coexist on every corner. I’m going to explore it and blog about it – and because this is me, I will probably do some pretty stupid things and blog about them too. This goes double for my Mum (whose reputation in this area is considerable), with the exception that she won’t be blogging about them. Luckily enough, I will.

It started well. Great flight – delicious food on Turkish Airlines (apparently famed for it – who knew?) and safe arrival in Amman, capital city of Jordan. The flight out of Heathrow sat in a traffic jam for an hour, queuing up eight planes deep behind the runway, which led to my favourite experience of the trip: being late. It meant we were met at Istanbul airport by a frantic bald man in epaulettes who escorted us at a dead run to our connecting flight. Older and less fit passengers fell away wheezing in droves and by the time we reached the boarding gate for the Amman flight there was only three of us left. We’d sprinted the length of the airport leaving in our wake a sea of open mouths and confused expressions. “Who were those guys?” people were asking, “And why were they chasing the pilot?”

No-one awaited us in the airport. Perhaps because we were the very last to arrive, having queued all the way to the passport desk before being told visas were issued at a different desk (helpfully marked ‘Visas’). It turned out someone else had seen the sign our transfer driver was holding and pretended to be me to avoid fighting for a ride of his own. But it was soon sorted out with a call to the hotel manager, who negotiated on our behalf with an airport taxi driver.

Jordan by night is… dark.

The hotel by contrast was very welcoming. I’m a budget backpacking-type traveller, so typically have low expectations when it comes to standards of accommodation. That said, I’ve renovated a fair few houses in my time so I know how simple it is to turn a hovel into a haven with a mop and a fresh coat of paint. All too often the managers of lower-end hotels and hostels don’t seem to care about the upkeep of their establishment, as though being cheap makes it a wasted effort to keep the place clean and welcoming.

Not so in the Burj al Arab or Arab Tower, Amman (see photo). We’ve arrived at the very start of high season – hopefully good timing, as we’re expecting less crowds, milder temperatures and  good deals to be had. Our room in the Tower is a perfect example; having booked a three-bed room for three of us we’ve been rewarded with what appears to be a suite – a living room with sofa and chairs, tv/dvd player, bathroom and two single beds AND a separate en-suite master bedroom with the biggest double bed I’ve ever seen (room for six close friends :0) and another single bed. It’s clean, it’s gradually getting warm and it’s costing us about £10 per person per night including buffet breakfast (all the boiled eggs you can eat?! Go on, just try and refuse!). Quite simply – I love it.

On a creative note, the walls seem to be stencilled with a leaf design in pale gold – a massive expanse and flawlessly done. And to remind you you’re in the Middle East, every room features a wall plaque indicating the direction of Mecca. Salaam Alaykum everyone!

Travelling with my Mum keeps life interesting, that’s for sure. Her post-arrival investigation of our room was thorough and she quickly discovered the bidet jet built into the otherwise western-style flushing toilet. And – being my Mum – by discovered it, I mean: “What’s that? Oh it’s a… Where’s it turn on… Oh, down here… ARGH!” That last bit uttered as she squirted herself forcefully in the face with it. Thus ended her investigation, proving once and for all that even age has no cure for that urge, upon finding a strange button of unknown function, to push it.

Lessons learned:

1) Provided you do your research and read as many reviews as possible, budget travel really is the way forward. Keep low expectations, be pleasantly surprised and avoid that cotton wool wrapped ’Rich American Tourist’ experience. Unless you really want to be insulated from the locals and their (sometimes uncomfortable) environment, which is sometimes understandable.

2) Taxi drivers are a MINE of local knowledge. Use it – they love it! Be aware they’ll likely tell you what they think you want to hear (Of course it’s safe here at night!) and you may have to filter out declarations of poverty tucked into every comment – but you can learn a lot of key points in a short time, from a local point of view – and try out any dubious language phrases you’ve been practising.

3) They love the King (wise and benevolent) and hate the government (Greedy and corrupt) NOT the other way around.

4) Don’t rely on word association to remember foreign phrases, or when under the considerable stress of having to use your hard won phrase, almost certainly the wrong thing will come out. An example from my own recent experience; when attempting to remember the phrase “Peace be upon you”, (Salaam Alaykum) be very wary of coming out with “Salami alaykum” (May the sausage be upon you)…

4) Before testing a bidet, it is wise to interpose an arse between it and one’s face…*

The Bidet That Punished(*Later she tried it out again – properly this time – and emerged giggling, with two further comments – It works! And It’s VERY COLD!)

To be continued… I promise! Most likely after I’ve seen the county in daylight.