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Where’s My Tour?

Sorry for the hiatus – I came down with a bug. Antibiotics have fixed the sore throat, but not the cough and lack of energy.

October 29-30, 2009: Day 1 of my Explore! tour was October 29th, and I treated myself to a taxi ride back to Amman and the tour hotel, the Toledo, which overlooked the Abdali bus station. Although the front desk staff were very nice, and the sheets and towels were clean, the hotel seemed tired: worn carpet, a bath tub that needed replacing and a toilet that had to be babied to stop it from running. I cared most about the lack of soundproofing. I learned, as expected, that I would have a roommate, so I made sure to only mess up half of the room.

View from Amman's Citadel

Amman is a seriously spread-out city, sprawled over at least seven hills and not designed for walking – or, perhaps, designed at all. Although the first inhabitants in the area arrived around 1800 B.C.E., the present city only dates to the early 20th century, its growth fueled by several waves of Palestinian refugees, and, more recently, an influx of Iraqis. Downtown is gritty rather than old, and the current center of gravity, or at least of money, seems to be in the western suburbs. I did start my explorations downtown, at the dirt-cheap Hashem, popular with locals and backpackers, where I lunched on excellent hummus and falafel, before taking a taxi up to the Citadel. The driver wasn’t happy as it was so close, but it was also uphill.

New dome, old mosque, older columns

The walls that crown the Citadel hill encompassed the remains of a Roman temple and of a Umayyad palace, but I spent most of my time in the National Archaeological Museum, which contained some of the earliest statues of humans ever found, and some of the Dead Sea scrolls. I had seen Dead Sea scrolls, dimly lit, in a special exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, under heavy security, but here there was no security at all, and no effort at controlling the lighting. Then I made the mistake of setting out on foot for the Darat al-Funun, or House of Arts, on the next hill to the west. The downhill stretch was fine, but the shortcut shown on the Lonely Planet map didn’t exist, and I did not enjoy the trek uphill. Nor was the House of Arts worth visiting for the art, although I had a nice chat over coffee with a couple of other travelers.

Fragments of Dead Sea scrolls (at least that's what they say)

When I returned to the hotel I expected to find a notice from the tour company – information on when and where to meet, and helpful hints on Jordan in general and Amman in particular, but I found nothing. No notice in the lobby, no note under my door, no message at the front desk, and no roommate. I might as well not have been on tour. Then, even with help from the hotel staff, I couldn’t find a taxi that would take me to my choice for dinner, the Wild Jordan cafe, run by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature and said to have a fine view. Then the taxi that agreed to take me, instead, to the Abu Ahmad Orient Restaurant turned out to have no idea where it was.

After I gave up on the taxi driver, I asked him to drop me at 3rd Circle – in central Amman you navigate by reference to a string of roundabouts – only to discover (thanks to some nice guys sitting outside a barber’s shop) that he had actually dropped me at 2nd Circle. I eventually found the restaurant, and while I missed the view I thoroughly enjoyed the delicious cheese pie appetizers (buraik), spicy tomato salad, and lamb.

My view from the Toledo Hotel - note the church spire across from the King Abdullah mosque

Back at the hotel, still no word from Explore! and still no roommate. I finally remembered that the people using the group air would not arrive until late. I went to sleep in the expectation of being woken up, but in the morning I was still alone. Although there were still no notices posted, the front desk told me the group would meet at 11:00 to go to Jerash. Since the “optional city tour” scheduled for Day 2 apparently didn’t exist, I set off on my own to visit the mosque, the two churches, and the Friday market which were the only sights in walking distance.

The Mosque of the Martyr King Abdullah bin Al-Hussein (assassinated in 1951), almost deserted, impressed me with its tremendous sense of peace, despite its newness. It would no doubt fill up later for the obligatory Friday prayers, but I was surprised to find that both of the nearby churches were already full. It seemed that Sunday services were being held on Friday, in recognition of a differing day of rest. The Coptic Church, with men lined up to receive the Eucharist and their headscarved women seated, was more popular than the Greek Orthodox. The market was a disappointment, all clothes and shoes.

I returned to the hotel with plenty of time for some internet (not free) before 11:00.

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