…all funned out.
We were at an all time low as we arrived at the Jordanian airport from India Airport. It was one of those ‘overnight’ flights that left late and crossed so many time zones that we were completely out of sorts. Before we could exit airport purgatory (the room where you have landed in the country, but are not yet in the country), we had to buy visas. We had no money. Luckily, there was a cash machine there for us to use. Of course, it was not connected to an electrical source. So, fearful that we would be the subject matter of a new Tom Hanks’ movie, we frantically asked around for a solution. A guard escorted Bryan to another ATM which was also without power. Finally, he found one and withdrew some cash. We paid our visa fee and officially entered the Middle East.
Arriving to Jordan, we had our first serious conversation about ending the trip early and going back home. Some combination of lack of plans and enthusiasm and leftover digestive issues from India led to STF (Severe Travel Fatigue). The Middle East is in political turmoil and our initial plan of traveling from Jordan up into Syria and Lebanon had to be completely scrapped. In the end, we decided to carry on, but not without seriously considering other options and coming up with a plan to get us back on track.
In Amman, we found a comfortable hotel. Next, we needed to find flavorful, nutritious, clean, filling food, that did not have anything resembling masala in it. Foodwise, Amman was heaven–hummus, falafel, fuul (beans), pitas, greek olives, fresh salads, fresh dates, good cheeses etc., etc. We stayed in Amman until we were rested and re-fueled.
Our days in Amman were filled with wandering around, taking in sites, eating, and lazing. Amman is a fairly modern city and it is nicely set up for walking. We got a hold of a self-guided walking tour itinerary and followed the map to see where it led us. We ended up having lunch at Hashem’s (Jordan’s deservedly most famous falafel stand), eating sweets at Habibas, visiting a Duke’s house, taking in a roman theatre and last, but not least, picking up some peanuts from a vendor who was on his way to Mecca from Ethiopia and got stranded in Jordan in the 1960s.
Coffee and Hubbly Bubbly - A Middle East Staple
The "Duke's Divan"
On our first walk through town, we were a bit nervous. This was our first time in a Middle Eastern country and it was hard to tell how we, as Americans, would be received. It was unfortunate when we met a Taxi driver who solicited us for a ride and when he found out we were Americans brought up the terrible things that happened to people in our war in Iraq. We were sorry to be there at that moment. As time went by in Jordan, however, this type of conversation was the exception and not the rule. Whenever we would meet somebody, they would ask where we are from. After telling them America, they would say, “You are our friend, Welcome.”
Roman Ruins in Center of Amman
Ethiopian Peanut Seller
At some point during our wanderings, we met some Jordanians who ran a puppet theatre. They invited us in to have a look and told us that the show was running that night. Sign us up! The theatre was in Arabic, but we didn’t mind. The puppet shows were a lot of fun, we felt like we could pretty much follow what was going on despite the language issues. However, at one point a male puppet started yelling at a female puppet who started crying. Eventually a little puppet veil was put over the female puppet. Luckily, we had already had a long conversation with the director of the theatre who seemed very progressive, so we figured this segment must have had a meaning that was not readily apparent.
After Amman, it was time to head out into Jordan itself. We realized that our usual backpacker and bus traveling style was going to have to be replaced for a while in order for us to get re-energized in our trip. So, we agreed on “Road Trip Jordan.” We rented a car and headed over to Jordan’s national park office, “Wild Jordan.” For such a small country, the national park office is really impressive. As soon as we walked through the door, there was a large sign advertising that much of the funding for their center came from USAID. It was nice to see that sometimes foreign aid funds are put to great use. We booked accommodations at various parks throughout Jordan, grabbed our maps, did some shopping, and set out.
During our trip, we adopted many of the teachings of our Yogi Pancho. One of the fun things he had to say was “Every day is Halloween, dress as you like.” When in Rome, do as the Romans. So when in the Middle East… We decided to get dressed up. Julian had been talking for some time about getting a turban in Egypt and dipping it in the Nile. At this point of the trip, we had ruled out Egypt, so it seemed most appropriate to get some Jordanian outfits.
Dorian was the bravest, so we set out for a shop to pick up a floor length shirt called a Gallebaya and a head wrap called a Keffiyeh. The men in the shop spoke no English, but once we pointed to the Keffiyeh they quickly started putting them on our heads. We had to hold them back from selling us three of them, as they discarded the packaging of multiple Keffiyehs onto the floor in an urgency of selling that we became all to familiar within the mid-east. It is the shock-and-awe sales campaign. They just keep laying on product, stating prices, calling you their friend, smiling, and then when the bill is presented it is time to backpeddle. Papa Bill would call this the “psychological aspect of the sale.”
We took some fun pictures with the men and eventually purchased the Keffiyeh for Dorian, which we learned the Red color signified a Jordanian. Later, Julian would purchase a black Keffiyeh, which signified that the wearer was a Palestinian. Then we bought the Gallebayas and the kids were representing the locals – one Jordanian and another Palestinian. The purchase of both colors proved to be an excellent choice as throughout Jordan, the boys were able to make friends no matter who we met.
Dorian Kickin it Jordanian Style
The first place we stayed was Ajlun, located in the north of Jordan in a scrub forest. While we were there, we went on a great hike through the preserve and picnicked.
Bryan, or Moses?
We also took a drive further up north to the border of Jordan, Syria, and Israel. Our destination was the Al-Hemma hot springs.
As an aside, driving in Jordan proved to be an interesting endeavor. We had three different maps and a compass, yet were perpetually lost. Eventually, we learned to scrap the maps and rely completely on the compass. For example, if we needed to go north, we would just try to take any turns that kept us on a northern course. While this method proved more reliable than using maps, it still had its issues. On the way to Al-Hemma, the “compass strategy” took us on some strange back road that eventually dead-ended. While whipping a u-turn, we went slightly off-road and heard a strange pop come from the undercarriage of our rental car. Of course, we did not stop to investigate, rather, we continued on. Eventually, as our car was driving lopsided down the street making the familiar thwapping, thwapping sound, we knew we had blown the tire. Good thing Bryan married Molly because the tire was changed in no time (actually, I’m sure he could have handled it on his own, but I am pretty proud of my tire changing abilities) and we were on our merry way.
Instead of the commercial hot springs we read about in the guide, we ended up in someone’s backyard in a “warm” pool, but it was fun nonetheless. What was most amazing about this particular site was that the warm springs that we were soaking in sat beside a small cliff that was on the border between Jordan and the Golan Heights, which is a strategic territory of Syria that Israel seized at some point in recent history. We could literally throw a rock across the border. Looking to the right, or northward, was Syria itself, looking to the left, or eastward, was Israel and the Sea of Galilee. It was fascinating. As we drove into the town, there were people wandering around on the streets, smoking their tobacco out of hubbly bubblies, not worrying about the cars aimlessly travelling on whatever side of the road they chose. And these people who were there seemed to be a bit different from the other Jordanians we had met so far and I think that it is because of where they live and the kind of tension and turmoil that exists in such a place near such a border. It was at this time that I (Bryan) realized I was a borderphile–drawn to places where cultures and political boundaries clash.
We spent about an hour there in the warm springs. Just to our left, a group of men in white gallebayas (long robes) pulled up in their SUV. They set up a picnic beneath a guard station. There were other couples and families as well, there, looking across the border while the sun set. I could imagine who they were. Perhaps they were people who were displaced from their own homeland, dreaming of a return. Maybe they were Jordanians who just like sunsets.
While staying in northern Jordan, we also visited the Ajlun castle. The setting was especially spectacular combined with Julian’s new outfit.
On the way out-of-town, we decided to stop at the ruins of Jerash, an ancient roman city. What is especially spectacular about the ruins in Jordan is that, at some point, nearly everyone passed through here–Persians, Byzantines, Turks, Romans, Crusaders, Ummayads, even Moses–and each left their architectural mark. Jerash was really a spectacular site and we were really pleased to see a great Roman site given that we had decided not to go to Turkey or Greece on this trip.
Next up was Azraq. It sounds a lot like Iraq, and in fact it is in the direction of Iraq that we travelled from Amman to get there. We left the relative green of the Jordan River Valley and into the rocky desert of eastern Jordan. This trip was especially pleasing for Bryan’s border obsession as we observed roadsigns indicating where to turn for Saudi Arabia, Syria, and even Iraq. It was in the direction of Iraq that we were headed along with lots of 18-wheeler cargo trucks. Finally we found our hotel in Azraq, whose main drag seemed more like a truck stop than a town. Talk about seedy – this was a truck stop for some of the biggest headline grabbing countries!
On our first morning, we met a small group of Saudi Sheiks in the parking lot of the hotel. They were accompanied by their falcons. We were totally excited to meet some “Falconers.” It was like a Saudi Arabian SNL skit.
The Sheiks explained that they use their falcons for hunting. Hmmmm, I guess instead of a bird dog, they have a rabbit falcon. Dorian was lucky enough to hold one of the falcons. As soon as they took his mini-hoody off, though, he got pretty feisty. Flapping his wings and going a bit crazy, one of the Sheiks got pretty nervous about their pricey bird (we later learned that a single hunting falcon can cost up to $30,000 USD). The hood was thrown back on, the bird calmed down, and all was well. We felt pretty fortunate to have avoided some sort of bad international incident.
It was the wetlands that we came for, as Azraq was known to be an Oasis in the desert. What we found was a much shrunken lake with some very impressive bird life. In fact, this area is a stop-over for migratory birds from all of Africa on their way north to Europe and Asia, the middle east is not just a crossroads for human civilization. The condition of the wetland provided some insight into the current biggest challenge of Jordan – Water. To feed the population growth and daily needs of Jordanians, water from the aquifer that feeds this oasis has been drained for the use of cities and irrigation of nearby fields through illegal wells. Most interesting is the fact that to keep the oasis wet, Jordan has to actually pump the water from below the earth. Unfortunately the current drain on the aquifer far outweighs its repletion by underground rivers. At some point soon, there will be no water left. It is unclear how Jordan will solve this problem. It is both an ecological and political issue. Over 50% of Jordan’s population is recent Palestinian immigrants and most Jordanians we spoke to blame the lack of water on Israel.
It is hard to describe the landscape around Azraq. However, imagine harsh desert (hard packed sand and rocks), no water, extreme heat, and very few signs that anyone has or is permanently inhabiting the majority of eastern Jordan. So, it is surprising that there are a series of desert castles, some of which still have paintings of ancient parties adorning their walls. The name ‘castles’ is a bit of a misnomer, since no one really knows why these dwellings were built and for which purpose they were used. The first castle we visited was Qasr Azraq, most famous as one of Lawrence of Arabia’s hideouts during World War I.
The second castle we visited, Amra, was particularly memorable as the scenes painted on the walls and ceiling in the 8th century were still in tact. Because this is one of the best examples of preserved ancient Islamic art, this castle is a World Heritage Site. Interestingly, the paintings depict ladies bathing naked, people drinking wine, lute playing, and all sorts of activities that are currently frowned upon for many followers of Islam.
Finally, we visited a castle called Kharana. It was two stories and was nicely preserved. It was hard to imagine anyone traveling to, let alone building, these castles out in the middle of the desert in 500 a.d.
The next stop on “road trip Jordan” was a town called Madaba. On the way to Madaba, we decided to stop for a picnic. Picnicking in Jordan is a national pastime. Every weekend, the roadsides fill up with picnickers. Location doesn’t seem to matter too much, as long as there is a place to pull off the road, set up a grill, and smoke the hubbly bubbly, a picnic is possible. We purchased all the requisite ingredients for an excellent roadside feast (hummus, pitas, and orzo pasta salad with black olives, feta, and veggies). We pulled up next to some fellow picnickers and started feasting. In between bites, I looked down and saw a lamb hoof, furry and bloody. It appeared as if someone had slaughtered a lamb for their picnic right at our very spot. Interesting, I wondered how that would go over at home.
We arrived at Madaba and checked into a great hotel with a pool. Madaba was a pretty happenin’ place during the Byzantine occupation of Jordan. The town was pretty much abandoned after the Byzantines were thrown out by the Romans until 1880. At that point, the Christian population in a nearby town (Kerak) was being persecuted and decided to relocate. All over town were Byzantine mosaics that were uncovered after the Christian relocation. The most famous was a mosaic map in St. George’s Cathedral. The map showed many of the biblical sites in Jordan, Palestine and Israel. Because the map was from the 6th century, this map was key in understanding where sites were in relation to each other in ancient times.
Close by Madaba were many biblical sites. So, we downloaded the Bible onto the kindle and headed out. First up was Mount Nebo, the mountain where, according to Exodus (thanks Uncle Gabe!), God showed Moses the promised land. Due to my (Molly’s) lack of map skills, we didn’t quite make it to the actual Mt. Nebo, but we were darn close. And, who knows, maybe we were at the actual spot where Moses was and everyone else was wrong. At our “Mt. Nebo,” there were other families picnicking and it was an excellent place to watch the sun set behind the Dead Sea.
Mt. Nebo - ish
Baptism Site (With Israeli Side in the Background)
The second biblical site we visited was Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan, the site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the river Jordan. This was an interesting day. The tour began with a bus ride that took us to a trailhead. As we walked, we listened to our audio recorded tour tell us about the significance of the different sites. The story revolved around John the Baptist, who was an ascetic, hermit, sadhu, choose your term, who hung out in the tree covered area near the Jordan River. They brought us to the spot, fed by the Jordan River, where it was reputed that John baptized Jesus. The trail then took us to the Jordan River, where we found another great opportunity to observe a border (excellent for this borderphile). The Jordan River divides Jordan and Israel in this location. The river is only about 25 feet wide, so we were able to wave and say hello to the tourists visiting the site on the Israeli side. We were also able to stand knee-deep in the water on a wooden platform set in the water. This is a very famous location for pilgrims to be baptised. At this site, there is a delicate balance between freely allowing tourists to dip into the water and enforcing the very tense border that exists between the two nations. As I stood in the water I wondered how long it would take for that guard with the automatic rifle to spur into action if I dove into the water for a quick breaststroke to the Promised Land. Thanks again to Uncle Gabe for citing the various Bible passages that describe the baptism of Jesus. We learned a lot about this story, and being at the reputed site made it a lot more interesting.
Back in Madaba, we also took in some additional Roman Ruins and even ruins of a wall that was built in the Iron Age. Seems as if everyone made it through this town at one point or another.
Now this trip isn’t called the Fantastic Ferrer Family Fun Round the World Adventure Trip for nothing. There’s no time like the present, so we figured we’d bust out of Madaba and hit some hot springs and do some canyoning as well. This side trip was inspired by Dorian’s declaration that he was “all castled out.” So, on our way to the Dead Sea we stopped in at Wadi Ibn Hammad. Wadi is the arabic word for Canyon. Now our little friendly four door family rental vehicle was really on a roll as we strolled along some windy bumpy rocky roads, turned around some traffic circles, pulled out the compass, looked at some maps, licked our finger and felt the wind direction and decided we were going the right way. Eventually, we arrived at the trail head of Wadi Ibm Hammad. Fortunately for the family, our bags were packed with a five falafel feast for lunch. Don’t doubt that we brought some Dates, a definite delicious delicacy from the land of Saudi Arabia, that we picked up in Azraq.
The trail was a sandy sneaker soaking slog through some slot canyons. The water was warm, and we waded where the water was weaving, winding, and waving along well-worn rocky floor. We wandered around wild water to a waterfall which was in the way of our trail but, why worry, we borrowed some friendly folks rope and slid down the slippery slope.
After Wadi Ibn Hammad, it was onward ho to the Dead Sea. This was proving to be a pretty epic road trip. We stayed in a chalet that was operated by the Jordanian National Park. Our little home was right above the coastline, complete with hammock. We could not have asked for a better spot. We spent two days floating in the Dead Sea, reading our novels, and having interesting cultural experiences.
The boys, being way more social than their parents, met some Jordanian kids who were vacationing at the chalets, too. They played with them throughout the day, bobbing in the Sea, running down the steep rocky-sandy-hill, and even a game of baseball using a stick and rocks. In the evening, the boys built an illegal fire with the other kids, while we (Parents) were discretely sipping our wine (purchased in Madaba from the Christians). Our date night was soon disrupted, however, when the parents invited us over to share their campfire.
It is pretty special when you are invited to a campfire with people who seem so much like you, until you find out that they’re so different. It all began with an innocent conversation about the kids, school, our trip, what we do for work and all that. We learned that the father is a water engineer working towards a master’s degree. Water is a big problem in Jordan, especially with Israel stealing all of it (at least according to our new friend). Then he mentioned “Bin Laden.” He wanted to know if we believed that he was behind 9/11. I (Bryan) shrugged and said, “Why, yes, I do believe he was behind it.” He feels, however, that 9/11 was perpetrated by Israel. The evidence? Apparently many Jewish people were absent from work that day. Hmm… Uncomfortable silence ensued. A spark from the fire landed on my polypropylene shirt, burning a clean hole. Bummer, but at least the conversation shifted. So the father asks me (Bryan), “What do you think about taking additional wives?”
Ahem, well, not that I (Bryan) have anything against it, but it just seems like a lot of work. So the father says, “Work? What do you mean, work?” Well, uh, I guess it seems to me that one relationship is enough. With more than one wife, things might get a bit, uh, complicated. So the father says, “What do you mean, complicated?” In my (Bryan) mind, all kinds of thoughts are passing. I am, in fact, enjoying this very funny moment. Out at the campfire on the Dead Sea, my family around, mixing it up with some Jordanians. And we’re talking polygamy. And what I’ve learned is that it is legal here to have up to four wives. Four wives!!! Way too complicated in my mind, but I don’t judge and hey, if he wants to maintain that many relationships, then so be it.
At the same time that Bryan was talking to the dad about his views on polygamy, the mom whispered to me (Molly) that if her husband takes an additional wife she swears she will leave him. Then she asks me if I know how to lose weight. She is convinced that if she could just lose some weight her husband will not feel compelled to marry another woman. I (Molly) think to myself how much the power would shift toward the man in a marriage when every argument or debate could end with a legitimate threat of “Well then, I’ll just go find another wife.” Yikes! Needless to say, my advice of eating healthy and getting lots of exercise rang pretty hollow, what I really wanted to tell her was to hell with a man who would even dare suggest finding another wife.
Campfire Family Waiving Goodbye
The next day we take in a panoramic view of the Dead Sea, have lunch, and explore an excellent museum which describes the Rift Valley. We learned that the Rift Valley is a location on the globe stretching from Jordan south to Mozambique where two plates are splitting apart, leaving a valley that in some places is below sea level. Our next stop on the Road Trip is the Dana Nature Preserve where we spend Easter Weekend. It is a lovely national park with rock formations as the main attraction.
We sleep in a tented camp, and for dinner we hike to a spot that overlooks the Great Rift Valley, drink wine, and cook our dinner. It is an amazing site after having learned about the
Rift Valley because from our vista we can actually see the valley: the plateau that drops like a steep cliffside into a flat valley that stretches west as far as we can see. We enjoy meeting the management of the nature reserve. We learned that the site manager has spent a great deal of time in California learning how the United States manages its national parks. In fact, Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, is funded in part by the United States.
On Easter Morning, we plant candy that we purchased back in Madaba around the rock formations and give the kids an authentic Jordanian Easter Egg Hunt.
That afternoon we head off towards Petra stopping along the way at an impressive crusader castle called Shobak. This site is amazing for many reasons. First and foremost, it is currently being excavated so the place is a mess, in a fun way. The ruins are half buried, and to get to different locations we have to stoop, crawl, duck and adjust our vision to dark locations. Most impressive was the stairway down 350 steps which reputedly leads to a spring. In crusader times, this stairwell was used to gather water when under attack. As we walked down the staircase we had to illuminate our headlamps because there is no lighting, and of course no guide. The stairs were worn down and difficult to walk on. There was no handrail. As we looked on the sides, we found the stone balls used by catapults strewn about. On the walls there are holes carved for torches. Eventually the stairs become steeper and steeper, ultimately disappearing only to be left with a slick downslope of dirt. We decide to turn around before we start sliding down into the abyss.
Stay tuned for Jordan Road Trip pt 2, coming soon…