Saturday, 12 February 2011

Jordan April 2008

As can be detected, I am still alive. Though not altogether in the most vital health. One of the two main sites here is Jeresh, a vast Roman/Greek city about an hour from Amman. To top and tail it, I had to be taxied back after only just entering the site as my back went into a spasm. So, I saw hardly anything. The others went onto a crusader castle and a park.

Two days later:
Things have now improved and yesterday I really pushed it in Petra. This site is the most stunning place I have visited, vast with near-mountains all round it. I did a slow climb to the top of one to gaze at an enormous temple. Coming down was easier and  the four of us were the last tourists off the site, sitting watching almost to sunset as a row of ancient facades turned orange, sole owners of a spectacular, silent landscape; then legging it along the mile long gorge back to hotel-land.

Today, more of the same. However a twist will be going back down the gorge in the dark tonight, all lit by flames and they also light up one of the main temples. These are carved out of the rock rather than being free standing and the strata of rock make unique patterns that they incorporate into the buildings.

It is extraordinary early here and the cleaners are polishing the hotel floors as I write. Amman was fascinating though not in the least attractive; it teems with life and interest. We explored downtown enjoying local places to eat. They have an odd way of bunching various kinds of shops. So, three rope sellers sit side by side, then an entire street of rip-off DVD shops, olive oil sellers congregate and shoe shops sit in long rows. An odd idea; as all your rivals sit along side you. But clearly an ancient tradition that works for the locals. All this area of the city is quite run down and we spent hours exploring it. Eventually, getting very tired, we saw a cake shop with at least one table inside. The shopkeeper came out to greet us and discovering we needed to sit down, he,in a nice way, threw out his locals and cleared the single table to accommodate us. He piled on cakes, made mint tea and joked with us that he had four wives. I managed to penetrate to the truth when I asked how he got on with four mothers-in-law. He giggled and owned up, one wife was sufficient, one mother-in-law an over abundance. 

We could not finish the honey drenched cakes, so he wrapped them up and added at least as much again...this came to four JDs, say £4 for four of us. This friendliness is absolutely typical of how we have been treated. People continually say 'welcome' to us, just as they wander past us on the street.

We engaged a fantastic couple of drivers, father and son and in the way of life here, a business transaction becomes a relationship. Over three days in their company we got to discover so much about their lives. The father, Islamic, took us to the ancient capital of the country, Salt. Here he wound us through the town, endlessly uphill and it turned out his plan was to find for me an ancient Christian church well known for drawing people for healing. Here he insisted on praying for my back in this church! It turned out to be the third oldest church in the middle east, tiny and well looked after. 

This is indicative of the attitudes we encounter. Here Arabs are not the Jihadists, they live in peace and mutual respect with their neighbours. Our drivers were however very funny about the Saudis. Jordan is the most liberal of the Arab states, whereas Saudi will not even permit women to drive a car. On day two of our travelling around, our driver....known as Dave, declared that Saudis were fucked-in-the-head with their repressive attitudes. His own wife teaches in the USA and his son is about to go there to study.

As I said, business becomes a personal relationship and so, paying the bill became a delicate saraband where I took them aside, we sat down with tea and they open the discussions by saying that we must not pay anything; it has been their deep privilege to make us their friends. Of course, this is courtesy, but the dance went on for some time until reluctantly I drew a price out of them...a very fair one which I topped up. Then everyone was very happy.

I could go on, perhaps you will have the patience to read more another day. It is now light and I need to go wake Jane up so we can get ready for more climbing. When you see some of the photos, you will be amazed at the scale of the site. 

My few words of Arabic escape for now, just my usual cheers

On the way here to Petra we visited Madaba, the town contains a treasure. One of the oldest maps in the world. Set into the floor of a Byzantine church, scattered across that floor are the sprawing remains of an ancient mosaic. Jerusalem sits at the centre and to our Mercatored eyes the world looks unfamiliar. 

I will give you a bit more on Petra. It is a place I have so much wanted to visit for well over 30 years. It was one of these cities the West knew nothing about for years, then 'discovered' it in the 1880s....of course, as far as the locals were concerned, it had never been lost. It was on a trade route from about 100 BC until about 500AD. It is a very strange architectural mixture of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and a style all of its own. The people who built it were called the Nabatians. Almost nothing is known of them, only a single set of reed documents was found on the site and it refers to property transactions. 

This lack of knowledge does not stop the local guides who make such absurd declarations as...see here the Arabic inscriptions, it tells us this is a palace....utter piffle. Apart from the fact that the sparce inscriptions are not in Arabic, there are no palaces. All the buildings extant are funerary or temples. These vast edifices carved into the rock were mostly burial chambers or banquet halls for funeral celebrations. It makes it difficult to understand what their everyday lives were like as no houses have yet been discovered. Staggeringly, they estimate that only 10% of the site has been excavated. 

Last night we went to the candle lit concert. This was like nothing I have ever experienced. We preceded it by a rather eccentric meal, Gin and Tonics followed by ice-cream. 
The Siq is a gorge up to 300 feet high and mostly about 20 feet wide. There is a long concourse down to it and the Siq itself is about two thirds of a mile long. Here is the picture of the event. 

About 400 of us gathered at the gates and in silence, in a single file we walked in the almost full moon down the processional way; this was lit at floor level with hundreds of orange lanterns each with a candle. Over half an hour later, we glimpse the Treasury, the first and one of the largest temples with its wide courtyard. Here amongst hundreds more of these candles, with the vast facade of the temple barely lit, the audience sat on the ground and listened to haunting Arabic music. One performer, playing a wooden flute, started at the pitch black back of the temple, walked down the steps and wandered amongst us. Because of my usual back problems, I was given a chair and put right at the plinth of the Temple. It was an altogether extraordinary experience. We lingered long at the end and had the Siq virtually to ourselves as we wandered back through it amongst the still-lit lanterns.

No photographs of this event; sometimes I need to remember not to try to view all travel as though through a lens; it is really happening and the camera can be a distancing distraction.

Today, more clambering and yet more promised for tomorrow. My back is holding out well now, despite the undoubted extra weight, I do not lie, I have trousers here I could not get into today! We are all enjoying ourselves a lot and there have been laughs and only a little tension. 

G has bought the full Lawrence of Arabia costume. I have to admit, he looks fine in it, but it is hardly likely to cut the mustard in icy Edinburgh. His declared intent is to wear it at some point during our three day desert excursion. He has asked me to photo him in it. There may be camera shake as I simply cannot take all this seriously. He gave me a somewhat thin smile when I asked whether he was hoping to altogether emulate Lawrence and get himself thoroughly scourged and brutally buggered before our triumphal entry to Aqaba. 

I will let you know the answers to these fascinating musings when we reach Aqaba.

Meantime......salamalechim..or however it goes.


I am waiting for the others to come down to breakfast. Last night I had what was both the worst and the most expensive meal I have had since we arrived. Served in a stunning dining room by negligent and mainly absentee staff, my main course, veal, was unrecognisable as other than a burned offering, it was served with a few boiled vegetables. I could so easily have replicated this at home, but with less of a wait. I decided I would visit them this morning and speak to the manager....this in a Movenpick hotel. We ordered white wine, red arrived. G said he asked for white and the waiter then confirming it was indeed white, opened it and poured the ruby liquid into the glass. He somehow then managed to give G the impression it was all his fault, however the correct wine was ultimately delivered, with very bad grace.

Now, really, this kind of nonsense needed to be taken up at once, but apart from us wanting to chill out rather than create tension; I am always wary of complaining about food part way through a meal. I have seen too many documentaries where in even well known restaurants, the staff will kick meat round the floor if you send it back to be redone and spit, at the very least, into your soup.

Anyway, all this is a precursor in that tonight I expect a somewhat different experience.

Jane is going riding today for four hours. She will be taken across the high passes of Petra and see lots that is not accessible normally. As this is again a business transaction, money could not be discussed straight away and the young man, who I had not set eyes on, said he would appear at out hotel at 7.30 last night. We were a little suspicious, but went to the lounge on time...there he was, a Bedouin tribesman, casually but beautifully dressed in lose trousers and an emerald Chinese shirt. With him was his stunning bride to be, a Russian with green eyes. Business was transacted really quite quickly, though there was the by now inevitable opening that we must not pay, we are guests in his country, it will be his honour to show Jane the area. The price he suggested, reluctantly, seemed very fair. We readily agreed and he followed this up with an invitation for the four of us to eat at his house tonight. This will be a wonderful opportunity to get some insights into the lives of these people. They are in many ways distinct from the Jordanians amongst whom they live. 

It is absolutely forbidden to turn up with the kind of gifts we would in the UK, such as flowers or wine, etc. However, this so goes against the grain of our Western customs, we decided to take them a present that is to celebrate their wedding next week. What to take from the local shops that they cannot buy 10 of for half the price? Eventually, we decided on a large serving dish of blue and white design and we will just have to hope it will find a use.

I will not be able to write more until after I reach Aqaba. I hope you enjoy these reports, I used to write holiday diaries, but lost them all in one of our moves; so this restarts the tradition somewhat.

Today, a valley to an ancient quarry; then more high places...then a meal I know will be far more nourishing in every way than the sterile casual affair from last night.

Breakfast calls,

I left off at the point when we had been invited to a meal. Jane had a fantastic time riding across the top of the site and into the hills and I explored yet more of Petra. On that final day G and I went scrambling into what felt like a hidden valley, most beautiful with lots of virtually unvisited tombs. G encouraged me to stretch myself and was helpful in getting me up and down relatively inaccessible places. 

We encountered more locals than tourists. Ever hopeful, a young girl would offer some coloured rocks; when that did not work, a little tiny toddler would be sent off to learn the family trade and part us from our money. I can be entirely stony about this and prefer to deal with the adults direct or not at all. However, one girl did get to me with a hacking cough that sounded like well progressed TB; I did give her money and she wandered off, we heard the coughing for ages across the otherwise silent valley. Indeed across that wide hazy valley bottom there was an enormously wide cliff face, it had yet more carved tombs, clearly enormous, these not even shown on the maps. We decided that we needed to return next year and add Syria into the mix; Palmyra calls to me. I could write at length about the beauty of it all, but eventually will post a few of the HUNDREDS of photos. I assure you looking through them all will induce had to have been there.

Now, to the evening meal with Shadi, the horseman. Like so many of the men, handsome enough to be a model. We had no idea what to expect, but he surprised us by taking us to Little Petra, a site about 15 minutes away. By coincidence, Jan and I had been there while the other two were riding, etc. A tiny narrow Siq locked at night with a garden gate, the two of us got to the end of it and saw a set of steep broken steps rising within a narrow gorge, I could see there was someone at the top of this tiny gorge. We climbed the stairs with some difficulty and again, as so often, entered yet another little world. This time a woman with some chairs in the shade of an overhanging rock selling us mint tea. Her husband soon followed us in, sang and played an instrument that sounded like a lute. They also had ONE dress to sell, which happened to fit Jan. This was altogether a perfect interlude. 

Here we were again at Little Petra, unplanned and being shown round by Jane's horseman and his spectacularly dressed Russian bride to be. He in particular was as charming and kind a man as could be. He then drove us along to some woods surrounded by high rocks. Dark now, we met some more of his family who had prepared the site with carpets, candles all round and a roaring fire on which chicken was cooked. Soup came first and then the wonderful salads and breads. We all laughed, danced....then went walking by moonlight along this canyon. We danced linked in two facing semicircles and Shadi sang as we all danced. After it I asked him what the song was about. I imagined some ancient Arab lyric. In fact, he had made it up and it ran roughly, Apples are not like Oranges, Oranges are not like peaches, peaches are not like grapes, and so on. All this adding to the atmosphere of fun. When it got slightly cold, an enormous quilt appeared for the women to share. It was a beautiful evening. All this was hospitality, not business. Again, it was difficult to say goodbye to such warm and open people.

Early the next morning the desert experience started and I will try to tell you about the Empty Place tomorrow. Meanwhile, Aqaba...the hotel is a resort in its own right, the rooms like tennis courts and the bathrooms have both bath and a double shower the size of our bedroom at home. The contrast with the desert camp cannot be more acute and indeed that very contrast is part of what makes the holiday such a delight. 

So....I leave you now for my view of the harbour, then possibly a swim.

Don't all work too hard suckers.
As I write, I am sitting in a backstreet Internet Cafe, a fan on my back, as it is going to hit 45 here today. The others are out on a boat; they will all have to be very careful not to be burned. Last night we sat on the beach and had drinks, but at 8.30, still feeling as though someone was running a hot hairdryer over me, I gave in and almost staggered into the air-conditioned interior of what is a rather opulent hotel. Full size palm trees sit in the lobby along with a Venetian glass chandelier that has to be 40 feet from top to bottom. I gather our next hotel is considerably more luxurious! Jane and I were watching CNN today, by 2050 we will need to double food production to keep up with the population. What kind of world will my son inherit? Food will I think be increasingly expensive and the kind of astonishing buffet we experienced at lunchtime yesterday will have to become a memory of glut and waste.

The Empty Place was that part of the desert that Lawrence of Arabia chose to live in. G met a Bedouin called Promise. He was disdainful of the Empty Place saying it was now the playground of the Four Wheel Drive Tourists and he told G where real isolation could be achieved.

My going on the three day desert trip was a gamble and it only partly paid off. Half a day of being bounced across the desert without even so much as a seat belt to stabilise me and I was in real problems. The solution was that I was left at the cliff bottom base camp for the next two days and I explored the vicinity on foot whilst the others drove miles to see and photograph wonders. I would carry two litres of water, walk until I had drunk half of it, then turn round to get back to our rock.

Now this 'empty space' concept is clearly one of comparisons. I was in a vast landscape. On one complete afternoon I saw neither a vehicle nor even a goatherd. There was extended silence broken only by the occasional bird. Something that fascinated me was the sheer number and variety of animal tracks that this desert contained, criss crossing it.....sorry, distraction....the largest cockroach I have seen just walked across in front of my screen and round my coke tin. It is now an Ex-Roach.....well, it chose the wrong route today. is MUCH hotter here in Aqaba than in the desert...basically a puzzle to me.

That little roach event points up another contrast with the desert. There, I was careful not to kill anything at all; though the flies were pesky, we merely waved them away all day. By night they left us alone. The camp was basic and I even photoed the only sink and squat toilet.......we used the desert instead, much the cleaner option and G who is an experienced climber gave advice on the best procedure, back against a rock and all that. He never did don his Arab outfit. However, he was most fastidious that he would do his camel ride wearing his Alexander McQueen shirt and Thai fisherman's trousers. The rest of us just stayed in much the same clothes for three days. It was almost a childlike embracing of the filthiness of the time there and then the delicious long shower when Paradise was Regained at the Intercontinental. 

As I indicated; there were a lot of laughs, we were usually by far the noisiest party at any restaurant or cafe. This pertained in the desert, French and Germans variously joined the camp and left, but they were all so quiet. Of course, sometimes Jane and Jan doing the girlie talk about broken nails would get to G in the context of stunning scenery where some silence would be a balm, but even that just prompted riffs of mirth.

The food was really good; but Jane forbad us to even look into the kitchen, she said we would all be traumatised....but no one had an upset stomach; we regarded it as just part of the experience. 

At night we had a virtually full moon, one could almost read by it. We variously went walks in the coolness. On one occasion I turned round to explain something, fell onto my back with my feet in the air...everyone laughed so much they could not help me up. So I spent the time making sand Angel outlines and hoped to confuse some subsequent traveller or other. 

We also went in the late afternoon to where I could walk to rocks I could scramble up, something I surprised myself at really enjoying and photos were duly taken of Michael NOT sitting in a chair. Metabolisms are mysterious. We have not gorged ourselves, jet while Jan and I have gained weight, G and Jane have lost it. 

This is a place of spectacular rock faces that, as G said, look like millions of years of candle wax has dripped down them Also there are epic vistas at every head turn. They drew out of me the comment....'well, it is like!' I then asked that my tongue be pulled out by its root. Jan declared the place to be 'very viewy'. These asinine comments from articulate sentient beings will possibly indicate how jawdroppingly wonderful the landscape is and how inadequate words are in describing them.

Now the camel ride was seemingly very amusing; I drove by them as they processed in stately line towards journey's end. The camels were as bad tempered as might be expected, biting one surprise to me was they enjoyed eating one another's I guess that explains the Camel Breath analogy. G claimed his goolies were now located somewhere near his lungs and his back was very badly bruised by the constant thwack of the rear pommel of the saddle, so....he got half way to Lawrence's esoteric experiences. The camel driver's mobile went off at one point and it rang God Rest You Merry Gentlemen across the sands.

Jan, who always engages the locals in what I term philosophical discussions when they have only fifty words of English, departed from her customary questions about life and the universe and taught the elderly camel driver to yell, YEEHAAAA! He liked it so much and the echoes it produced, that after several very extended bursts of this.....she begged him to allow some silence.

I will sign off now...Bach Magnificat has been iPodding itself while I write. Now off to arrange transport to the Dead Sea and to regain air conditioning. I gather England has even seen snow since we were here.


I am now back home. I will complete the story, though you might want to take breaks!

I discovered that outside of the hotel, Aqaba is a dump. If you must venture out of the cosseted environs of the hotel, it can only be for diving. Touted as an upmarket shopping complex with a cinema, I found said complex to consist of a pub called after an English soap, two shops, five places to eat and a full scale ship sitting in about three feet of dirty water. The cinema shows 'Jordan By Air,' I was about to be seduced when the ticketseller happened to mention that the film was preceded by a half hour documentary on the Jordanian Royal Family.....I think not. 
I spent some time talking to one of the shopkeepers, clearly glad simply to have encountered someone. He is studying Hebrew! I could not quite get my head round that one. He will have to go to Tel Aviv to complete his studies. I did wonder how an Arab would interact with the Zionists who take that course.

I negotiated a good deal for our escape to the Dead Sea; as usual, mint tea, how's the kids, lovely weather....then a price can be discussed. We were reluctant to leave the hotel, it suited us so well; but off we went up along the shore of the Dead Sea to its northern most tip. We were in a temperature of 108 and the aircon was not entirely coping. Stopping off we had a quick photo opportunity with Lott's Wife, an unfeasible large pillar of salt. Clearly she would not have been someone to trifle with; or even to fit into your livingroom. How the idea came about that this large formation had been a person is a mystery.

She sits, gazing across the Dead Sea to Masada, Herod's bolt hole. This place across the water is the elephant in the room. On no Jordanian map is 'Israel' named, merely it is outlined.

We arrived at the 

and were provided with much needed hotel maps. We were also driven to our rooms on buggies. Here quite inadvertently we had been tipped into film-star lifestyle. How we had obtained the room rates we got I will never understand. It was the weekend of the Jordan Car Rally, a seemingly high profile offroad event starting right across from our hotel. Parts of the hotel grounds were off limits; as the Crown Prince and some others from the Royal Family were in residence for the rally. So at every turn there were overdressed goons with bulges under their jackets and earpieces. There were also quite a few of the army wandering about with their guns. If all that sounds sinister, it was really just part and parcel of normal life at this kind of resort.

We were in the annexe, known as the 'Ishtar'....I rolled my eyes when told...oh yes, out in the cheap seats I thought....but in fact, not a bit of it. We were in amongst the villas that had their own pools and Jane and I had been upgraded to a Jacuzzi suite that constituted the upper half of one of these poolside villas. This had a simply enormous room with three couches, a dressing room that would have accommodated Emelda Marcos' full travel wardrobe, a bathroom in which a reception for 50 could have been held without shame...the actual toilet and bidet being consigned to a yet further separate room and the shower taking up a turret. I could go on, but you get the picture. We had our own butler; though we did not keep him at all busy.

Our annexe building was done out like an Egyptian Temple. The main building was vast, a roughly three hundred feet long marble reception room with groups of chairs, flowers that were clearly about to be sent off to grace the funeral of Don Corleone and; no one in sight, despite the hotel being full.

This is corporate willy waggling hotel building on a pharonic scale. Excess for the sake of it, acres of redundant space, air conditioning sufficient to keep Luxembourg in permafrost and water, water everywhere in a country that is conspicuously short of it. Not one infinity pool...four....building the largest health spa IN THE WORLD. Outside our room, a long wiggly pool, yes....the longest in the country.

At the end of day one, using our map, we paid homage at the Temple on the sunset terrace, where the nameless place across the sea recedes into mist then into dusk. 

A language misunderstanding meant we ordered a double round of Bombay Sapphire and tonics for four. I signed a bill that proved I am an embryonic poker player. 75JDs.....about 120 dollars for the round. I remained stoic. We had all spent three entire days in the desert on half that. 

Although we did enjoy elements of the stay, lots of swimming, massages, wonderful food....breakfast included unlimited Prosecco....nevertheless, again, we felt uncomfortable in this is a kind of fantasy life, a little like the upmarket hotels in Vegas, but without the element of fun. We did not feel socially, rather ideologically out of our milieu. Here we have serious designer lifestyle, people taking their due, social X-Rays being rude to staff, teenagers carelessly using up resources that I feel certain will not be around in 30 years. Those vast halls will still be cooler than being outside, but who will be able to travel there to disport themselves? 

Outside of the hotels, there is NOTHING at all. The drive there was through dust and many army road checks, past tiny enclaves of sun struck breeze block hamlets. Nothing green for miles, no living thing moving about. Just hot, but polite, soldiers making sure no terrorists drive along by. 

We had our float in the Dead sea, covered one another in mud, baked it and re-entered the sea to wash it off. As usual, we were making a lot more noise than the other guests. Enjoyment seems to be a serious pursuit in this kind of existence. Ontological gaps being plugged with empty style.

Jane charms the local men. She picked up quite a few phrases, the formal pleasantries the Arabs set so much store by. This would get us instant attention. They were thrilled Jane had made the effort and she added daily to her treasure chest of useful phrases. The rest of us would stand by looking vague while Jane arranged sea view tables at the restaurants, fluffy towels were instantly produced, cold drinks offered gratis and she engendered lots of goodwill in which we basked by association. I would refer to this as Jane practising her dirty Arabic.

Finally then we drove to an airport hotel for our last night and out of a lotus-eating paradise into something more akin to a prison. It did have three pools, all empty of water, though one did have all the garden chairs tipped into it. Our aircon did not work, breakfast was disgusting....a much needed reality check and a good spur for us to anticipate home and home comforts after what we all agreed was one of our very best holidays.

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