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Last Days in Amman

November 6 – 8, 2009: The Colony Boutique turned out to be a new, sleek, glass-clad building. Very elegant, but perhaps not very practical in Jordan. I started in Room 401, and even with drapes drawn over the wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows, and the AC going full strength, I roasted. The front desk suggested opening the windows, but I couldn’t see a hinge, never mind a handle, and I figured a hotel in this class ought to be able to maintain comfortable temperatures without letting in a lot of dust and noise. I finally got them to move me to the other side of the building, where it was cooler but also darker: The only light in the main room came from a reading light over one of the beds – the other bed was lost in gloom.

I didn’t find a whole lot to do in Amman, having already visited the Citadel. I checked out the Roman theater and its associated museums, but wasn’t impressed. I took a long look at the Shmeisani section, which Lonely Planet thought well of. Some of the houses were interesting, and I found a small park with ducks and geese unhappily housed by dry ponds, but I had trouble finding somewhere to eat lunch, eventually winding up at a Turkish restaurant.

The Roman Theater in Amman

I had a much better time at the National Gallery of Fine Arts, two buildings separated by a small sculpture garden near Abdali bus station. I’m not usually fond of “modern” art, but the works in this collection were not especially abstract, and included art from all over the Muslim world. Pakistani art reminiscent of Persian miniatures shared space with a Palestinian sculpture of a boat holding keys titled “To What Exiled Country Are You Returning?” and a piece from the UAE on the intifada. I had wondered where the Jordanian artists were until I crossed the garden to the newest building, which contained both more Jordanian artists and more abstract works, with a number featuring caligraphy.

But easily the best part of my time in Amman was meeting up with my ex-step-daughter’s in-laws. This presented a few unexpected difficulties, as the “universal” SIM in my cell phone wasn’t working in Jordan, and the Canyon Boutique didn’t allow phone calls from its rooms, but we worked it out, and I spent an interesting afternoon in the western suburbs. I had only met her in-laws once, a number of years back, but they welcomed me into their home, and later her mother-in-law took me on a driving tour of their part of Amman, including a very glitzy new mall, and finishing with visits with their children.

When their house, large and comfortable, had been built, the area had been pretty empty, but no longer. We drove past walled estates where you might wonder whether the house qualified as a castle or a palace – some even had guards at the gates. Previous waves of refugees have arrived in Amman from Palestine (in fact, my hosts were originally Palestinian), but the current wave is Iraqi, and at least some clearly left with plenty of money.

I ate my last meal in Jordan at my hotel, up on the top floor, but I also went back to Abu Ahmad for a meal, and once again my taxi driver couldn’t find it. This time, however, I made sure that he dropped me at 3rd Circle. If you stand on the eastern side of 3rd Circle, with your back to Jacob’s Pharmacy, and then keep turning left, you will find Abu Ahmad quite easily.

I left Jordan by air for Istanbul – on Royal Jordanian since Turkish Airlines’ flights left very early in the morning. I had thought about taking the bus to the airport, but the stop had been moved from Abdali bus station to some place in the north, or I could  pick it up at 6th Circle. Either way I’d need a taxi, so I decided to taxi the whole way – for some reason the airport is a full 35 km south of the city. Canyon Boutique wanted 25 JD for a ride to the airport, but I negotiated a rate of 18 JD with an English-speaking taxi driver I used for a ride in town.

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Too Much Pool Time

November 4-6, 2009: Nobody seemed inclined to linger over breakfast at the desert camp, and as we turned out to be very close to the highway we were in Aqaba by 10:00. Unfortunately, our hotel didn’t have our rooms ready, and I was dying for a shower. While I waited I went out to look for coffee, and found a little place on the lower level of a shopping complex. I chatted with a local who said he was a lawyer, but also owned a concrete company. And a taxi company…

Wadi Rum near our camp

I got one of the first rooms available, so I was able to shower and change before we set off for the beach. I had intended to snorkel in Aqaba, but I hadn’t slept well, and decided not to bother with renting equipment and getting wet-suited up – the guidebooks said the best Red Sea snorkeling was further south. The tour took us to one of the beach hotels, which offered not-bad food, and a swimming pool. After taking a look at the state of the beach I was just as happy to chill out by the pool.

Aqaba turned out to be a very westernized resort, with a downtown full of hotels and restaurants. After dinner a small group of us did find the local market, still lively even at night, but also surrounded by souvenir shops. On the way back to the hotel my Birkenstocks betrayed me again, although this time I fell forward, badly bruising my left knee. I raided the mini-bar in my room for cold drink cans in lieu of ice.

Dead Sea

The last full day of the tour featured the Dead Sea. We visited the public beach, rather than one of the hotels, where we found changing rooms, freshwater showers, a buffet and swimming pools – but no spa or massages. Of course, I floated in the salty waters, although I held an umbrella doing duty as a sunshade rather than a newspaper. (No, I did not have anyone take a photo.) And yes, it really is that salty and it really is that easy to float. But you can only do that for so long.

We spent most of the afternoon at the resort, which, coming right after Aqaba, added up to far too much pool time for me. I was glad to get back to Amman. The tour leader didn’t organize a farewell dinner, and once again seemed to have no knowledge of the restaurant scene. He sent one group off in a taxi to the Shmeisani district, and as I discovered later that is no longer a good place to look for food (they eventually gave up and ate at the hotel). I went off with a younger crowd to a restaurant that a couple of them had found downtown.

Since I didn’t have a plane to catch I ate a leisurely breakfast at the Toledo next morning. Although the tour had been disappointing in some respects, it had provided the hotels and transport I had had trouble arranging myself, and I had enjoyed the company.

I said farewell to my roommate, and took a taxi to the Hisham hotel, near the embassy district. The Hisham sounded nice, but I wasn’t actually staying there. They were renovating, and were putting me up in the Canyon Boutique, next to the Jordan Hospital, instead.

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Waiting Around in Wadi Rum

November 3, 2009: The Explore! tour was called “Lawrence’s Arabia”. So you might think that during our day in the desert we would have visited at least some sites associated with Lawrence. You might also think that with a full day at our disposal we would have done the trek/camel ride when the light was at its best. You would be wrong on both counts. What we mostly did in the desert was hang around.

Natural Bridge

We set off from Petra with the group split between four 4WDs, and after a relatively sedate drive down the highway, turned off into the desert, where some of the drivers amused themselves with a few mildly adventurous manoeuvres which upset at least one of the women in my vehicle. We stopped at a natural bridge for photos, and rather a lot of waiting around. Then we drove a bit further and stopped again, by an undistinguished rock outcrop. And waited again. For lunch to arrive.

Camels - I don't enjoy riding them, but their expressions are always fun

I have borderline hypoglycemia, and need protein at regular intervals, so I was unhappy to find that the only things that might count as protein were processed cheese triangles. After lunch we waited again, this time for the camels to show up. The camel ride to the camp site was one of the optional extras – you could trek or ride in the jeep instead. My roommate and I were sharing a camel – she would ride while I walked and then we’d switch. She’d never ridden a camel before, while I had ridden short distances in both China and Morocco. Camel riding wasn’t something I had particularly enjoyed, but I didn’t think trekking through sand would be a whole lot of fun, either.

With all the waiting around we had done, we didn’t start the trek/ride until

After the camel stayed up

2:30: the middle of the afternoon with the worst possible light and the greatest possible heat. Who on earth planned this? The head Bedouin had tied my Bedouin head scarf correctly for me, so I had some protection from the sun, and I tried to walk in the shade of the camels, but I was actually glad when we stopped for another rest, and it was my turn to ride. Until my camel threw me.

It could have been worse – the camel decided it didn’t want a rider on its way up. It got its front legs up, and then, halfway through getting its back legs up, it fell sideways. Fortunately I was able to swing my legs clear, so the camel didn’t fall on top of me, but the sand wasn’t as soft as you might think to fall on. I guess the handlers gave the camel an effective talking to, because it behaved itself for the rest of the day, but I after a whole hour on camelback I was more than ready to get off. Give me a horse any day.

Sunset in the desert

While we did visit some mildly interesting petroglyphs, we didn’t see anything that anyone said had associations with Lawrence, and in fact, I found most of the rock formations disappointing – perhaps if you see them before Petra they look better. Or perhaps they look better in morning or evening light. After we visited the petroglyphs we saw a village not far away, and then came around some rocks to see a covey of 4WDs and a flock of tourists trying climb up a sand dune. Our camp was round the next rock corner.

Our camp site

We slept (those who didn’t choose to sleep out) in a big, rectangular black tent, full of mattress pads and sleeping bags. The toilets (western and squat, with TP) were a short distance away, requiring a trek through soft sand. The Bedouins lit a large camp fire, and served a surprisingly good dinner, with plenty of food including both chicken and lamb. I had packed for a cold night, but I stayed plenty warm – even visiting the toilets in the middle of the night without getting muffled up – and by moonlight. Just as the moon had overpowered the candles at Petra, here it overpowered the stars – I would suggest doing a desert overnight during the dark of the moon.

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Peerless Petra

The Treasury at Petra

November 1 – 2, 2009:  Even if all I had seen of Petra had been the Treasury, the beautifully preserved pink facade that is in all those iconic photographs, I would have been happy, but there is so much more to Petra than that. I had chosen this so-far-not-so-good tour partly because it included three nights, and thus two full days, at Petra. I could easily have used another day.

The first morning we started off from the entrance gate with the same

A horse cart in the Siq

national guide who had bored me the day before, and once we reached the Siq, the 1.2 km long rock passage that ends in front of the Treasury, I abandoned the group and went ahead on my own. This meant that at times I was completely alone beneath the soaring rock walls. While I really enjoyed experiencing the Siq that way, I suppose it wasn’t very authentic – one theory is that when the Nabataeans who built Petra were at the height of their power and influence this route was used for religious processions. I could also imagine it, more prosaically, impressing visiting ambassadors and potential trading partners.

I met up with my group again near the Roman theater (where access to the

The iconic view at the end of the Siq

seats was blocked off) and the toilets. The toilets were the blue portable type, with a woman guardian who was trying to charge 1 JD (1.40 USD) instead of the more usual .10.  Since many of the visitors to Petra were on day tours from cruise ships, and maybe not up on local prices, she probably had a very good thing going. Most of the group kept going to the Monastery at the far end of the site, but my roommate turned aside with me to climb up to the High Place of Sacrifice. As she was half my age, and my lung capacity not what it should be, she made better time than I did, but we met up at the top.

View from the High Place of Sacrifice

The guide had said that lunch options only included buffets at the two rather expensive restaurants by the museum at the foot of the path up to the Monastery, claiming that we weren’t allowed to take our own food into the site. Our hotel was quite willing to put up box lunches so I chose to disbelieve him, and of course, we had no problem taking food in. Presumably he got a commission from the restaurants. The two of us ate lunch all alone, high up, facing the altar. Magical.

Veined rock on the way down from the High Place of Sacrifice

Coming down the back way was pretty magical too, as frequently the rock face was decorated in beautiful multicolored swirls that seemed almost too regular to be natural. We also passed several tombs – the Nabataean tombs featured a carved facade and a large central room where the mourners could gather for funeral and commemorative feasts, the dead being actually buried in small chambers carved out of the walls. We celebrated our descent with red wine and coffee at the Basin Restaurant – it was getting ready to close for the day, otherwise you can only get in if you take the buffet.

My roommate on the way up to the Monastery

The next morning three of us got up really, really early so that we could have not just the Siq but the Treasury to ourselves. We reached the Treasury around 6:15, and although it wasn’t completely deserted, we shared it with only a couple of couples. Then we walked right through the site and up to the Monastery, pausing only for a cup of coffee at the Tent Restaurant, as the Basin wouldn’t let us in. Up at the Monastery the wind was so fierce I bought a Bedouin headscarf to keep from getting sandblasted.

The Treasury from above

Then we visited the Royal Tombs before heading up again, climbing behind the tombs to a somewhat precarious perch where we could overlook the Treasury. Again, we ate lunch alone in a magical setting. After that, visits to the museum and the Byzantine church were anticlimactic, and I was tired enough to be almost tempted to take a ride in a horse cart on the way out, except that they bounced and swayed so much.

I still had more walking to do, as I had signed up for the optional Night Tour. For this the Siq is lined with candles, and the area in front of the Treasury used for a concert. I didn’t care about the concert, but I did want to walk the Siq by candlelight. By hanging back enough for the crowd to get ahead of me, but walking fast enough to leave the serious photographers (and their annoying flashes) behind, I got the full effect – or almost the full effect, I think it would have been even better if the moon hadn’t been full.

Don’t miss Petra!

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I thought I was getting better, but my bug is now trying to become a cold.

October 30-31, 2009: At 10:45 on my watch I left the business center to go get ready for the visit to Jerash. On my way through the lobby I noticed a young local man standing around. After a little hesitation I asked him if he was with Explore! and discovered that he was the ground agent. The ground agent who had made absolutely no, nada, zilch attempt to contact me. Did he welcome me to the tour? Apologize for not contacting me? Hope I enjoyed the tour? Did he hell. Instead he lit into me for being late!!!

The River Jordan (looking at the West Bank)

True, on his watch it was 10:55, but that still gave me five minutes, and what effort had he made to see that I even knew to be there at 11:00? This tour wasn’t starting well, and went down hill some more when I discovered that there were 21 people in the group and that we would travel around on a big tour bus. I had expected a maximum of 16, but when I reread the Explore! brochure later I discovered that it said 16-22. I was used to Intrepid tours that maxed out at 12, and had never, in my experience, used a big tour bus.

We met up with the tour leader, Roger, who had come down from Syria that morning, at Jerash, where we ate a selection of meze for lunch. And then it started raining. Hard. It also turned cold and although I was wearing hiking boots and carrying an umbrella, I wasn’t wearing warm clothes and I knew from experience that if I got really chilled I’d get sick. So I chose not to follow the guide round the site. I spent some time in the very overcrowded cafe drinking bad coffee, and then took a quick look on my own – enough of a look to see that this was an impressively big site, but I think I have OD’ed on Roman ruins for a while.

Mosaic at Mt. Nebo

Back in Amman I tried to get a restaurant recommendation for dinner, but neither the ground agent nor the tour leader were willing to suggest anything other than eating at the hotel. I chose to eat with the group: not-bad lentil soup, dry chicken, under-cooked potatoes and some welcome beans and cauliflower. So far the only good thing about this tour was my roommate, an Australian headed home after several years in Edinburgh – as usual I lucked out with an assigned roommate and we got on well.

The next morning we set out on the bus with a crowded schedule of sights to see on the way to Petra.

Wadi Mujib

  • Bethany Beyond the Jordan – recently validated as the site of Jesus’ baptism. Close up view of the very, very, muddy Jordan. One devout group with its minister having a service around a pool of filtered water. View across the river of a similar but deserted site on the West Bank side.
  • Mount Nebo – where Moses looked over Canaan. I thought the Promised Land was the land of milk and honey: it certainly didn’t look it, but much of the view was obscured by haze. I did enjoy some quite nice mosaics, but the main church was off-limits for renovation.
  • Madaba – only enough time to visit the map in St. George’s church and eat lunch. I was very glad I had visited on my own before the tour. I listened to the guide’s lecture, and then ate falafel at Ayola again before visiting the map with just my roommate instead of the whole group.
  • King’s Highway and Wadi Muji – I had boarded the bus early so I could grab the front seat for this ride, and was glad to have seen the wadi – a deep, steep gash in the earth’s surface, with the road inching its way down in a series of switchbacks.
  • Karak – not very interesting, perhaps because our national guide gave us a lot of boring facts and no insight, and we only got a close-up view. I would have been happier if the guide had lectured us on the bus, while we were sitting down, instead of standing in front of the castle, but very few guides seem willing to do that.

Karak at dusk

We finally made it into Petra, or more precisely Wadi Musa, well after dark. I’m not sure whether our hotel was the Al-Anbat II or the Al-Anbat III but I certainly can’t recomend it. After a favorable first impression – big bedroom, clean bathroom – my opinion kept going down.

  • Nowhere to hang anything in the bathroom, no hooks, no towel rail, not even a shower-curtain rod.
  • No hairdryer, and the little, light one I was carrying had died on me – sparks out of the plug end and no air out of the business end.  (It was over 30 years old…)
  • The TV didn’t work.
  • The AC unit only did AC, not heat, as many units do, and it was cold at night.
  • Only one power outlet, and that didn’t produce much power.
  • Sheets that totally didn’t fit the matress. Remaking my bed with the top sheet on the botom helped some, but I still needed my silk sleep sack. And then I was too hot with the coverlet on and too cold without it.

Even a bad hotel couldn’t spoil my visit to Petra, though.

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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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Mosaics in Madaba

October 27-28, 2009: Back at Al-Samariyeh bus station, having established that the going rate for a taxi seat to Amman was only 200 SP more than for a bus, I arranged to take a taxi. Then I waited a long time for it to fill up – the Beirut-bound taxis were more popular. We eventually left at 8:50, but since one of the passengers, a young businessman, had an appointment to keep, he persuaded the driver to speed and we reached the border at 10:00, going 140-150 kph much of the way.

It took the driver a lot longer to deal with the Syrian formalities than it did the passengers. I was amused to find that I wasn’t allowed to use the “women-only” line, and instead had to use the one for “diplomats”. Getting into Jordan was quite a performance:  besides completely emptying the car and the trunk, and searching under the hood, one of the guards lay down on the ground and the car drove slowly over him! Once again it took the driver longer to deal with the paperwork – he took about half an hour for each side of the border. I paid 10 JD for my visa, and didn’t even have to fill in a form.

Abdali bus station on a Friday, when it's a market

We shed a couple of passengers on the way into Amman, but the driver duly delivered me to a largely deserted Abdali bus station. As soon as the taxi fixer who appeared as I got out heard that I wanted to go to Madaba, and saw my backpack, he said “Mariam Hotel?” He was right. We agreed the price, I got into his car, and then he carefully stowed the pail of water he’d been using to wash it in the back. Turned out, he was only driving me a few yards, after which I was turned over to the real taxi. This driver had been written up in a book by a British journalist – he gave me a very dilapidated copy to read. He also told me that he had 11 children – Jordan’s birth rate is a bit lower than Syria’s, but still high (19.55/1,000 population vs 25.9/1,000, the US is 13.82/1,000 and the UK 10.65/1,000).

When he asked where I was from, and I said I had been born in England, he gave me a big smile, and told me that Jordanians loved the English – “so friendly” (given Britain’s history in Jordan I found this a bit surprising). But when I added that I lived in America, the smile disappeared. Since I had seen the same reaction frequently on this trip, I asked whether the election of Obama hadn’t improved people’s attitudes to the U.S. The reply? “Troops are still in Iraq, troops are still in Afghanistan, there’s been no progress with the Palestinians, he’s as bad as Bush”. Not much you can say to that…

Dolmen, once a tomb, near Madaba

The Mariam Hotel lived up to its advertising, although I hadn’t noticed that it didn’t have AC (but it did have a powerful oscillating fan). I ate a quick lunch by the pool, and then arranged a taxi to take me to see the Bronze Age (5,000 to 3,000 B.C.E.) dolmens that had been discovered by the owner of the hotel. You have to trek a good ways to see them, and I don’t think I trekked far enough to see the best. I did get a thorough education in the meaning of “stony waste”.

The key to the mosaic map at St. George's

Detail of the mosaic map

I spent the next morning indulging my love of mosaics. I mostly followed Lonely Planet’s walking tour, although I saved the pièce de resistance, the 6th century C.E. mosaic map of Palestine in St. George’s church, for last. This meant that all the tour groups had left town, and I had the church almost to myself. The map was both impressive and fun, with fish swimming in the River Jordan, and trees and ordered rows of houses occupying the land. Many early maps are hard to decipher, but this was surprisingly clear, after I reviewed the well-labeled replica outside, and located Jerusalem – the center of the world at the time. (For an excellent discourse on early maps, I highly recommend “The Fourth Part of the World”.) What most tour groups miss, however, are the equally good mosaics in the Archaeological Park. There are a lot more of them, too.

I took advantage of a free afternoon to visit the Madaba Turkish Bath – I figured that after six weeks of travel, I could use some deep cleaning. My hotel made me an appointment, and I had the place to myself – the hot tub, the steam room, and the marble slab where the female attendant scrubbed off the dirt.

Although the Mariam did meals, it looked like dinner was a buffet, and I avoid buffets even at home. I prefer my food cooked fresh (or at least the illusion that it’s cooked fresh!). I ate a couple of meals at the Ayola Coffee Shop and Bar – a good hangout with comfortable seating indoors and dirt-cheap falafel sandwiches – and my last dinner in town at the Bowabit Restaurant, with a good view of the main street below. At the Bowabit I enjoyed some good humus followed by chicken in a cream sauce and a large glass of red wine.

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Tweaking the Plan

The Monastery (not the Treasury) at Petra

Back in August, in “Evolution of a Trip”, I wrote that I hoped that I wouldn’t need a Plan D. Since Plan C just said “Roughly four weeks going overland through Syria, Lebanon and Jordan”, I suppose that technically I did follow Plan C, but not quite the way I originally intended.

I like to travel independently. Sure, I’ve taken tours. I’ve even enjoyed them, and enjoyed the people I’ve met on them. In fact, on a long trip, mixing things up with a tour in the middle can be a welcome break from solo travel. But in general I prefer to go it alone: no-one but me to blame when things go wrong, no reason to stay in a boring museum, no-one to distract me from the view out the train window, and no hanging around waiting for the shoppers. So, I saw no reason to take a tour for Jordan.

Until I ran into even more difficulty with hotel resrvations than I had in Syria. I wanted to spend a couple of nights in northern Jordan, visiting Jerash, Ajloun, and Umm Qais (aka Gadara). Then I’d bypass Amman for Madaba and its mosaics, with either a day trip to the Dead Sea, or maybe an overnight in one of the expensive spa hotels, before two full days visiting the rose city at Petra, a night in the desert at Wadi Rum, and a quick look at Aqaba before finishing in Amman. But nothing I tried got me a hotel reservation in the north, and a night in the desert for one person proved exceedingly expensive.

The surprisingly beautiful Dead Sea

Realizing that I was running out of time, I started checking into tours. Since my dates were pretty well fixed by my flight from Amman to Istanbul, and the itinerary by my desire to spend three nights at Petra and one in the desert, perhaps it’s surprising that I found even one that worked. But Explore! had an itinerary and dates that seemed almost perfect. (See http://tinyurl.com/y9qark9 for the 2010 version.) I hadn’t traveled with Explore!, a UK company, before, but it seemed similar to Intrepid, the Australian outfit I had used five times. I expected a small group of moderately adventurous travelers, budget-level but acceptable hotels, and local transport.

After I signed up for the tour, I took the two days I had intended to spend in north Jordan and added one to Beirut and one to Damascus. I kept two of the three nights I had booked in Madaba – I would travel direct to Madaba from Damasucs, and then meet up with the group in Amman, and I would have three days in Amman after the tour ended. Although Jordan’s capital did not sound like a particularly enticing destination, my ex-stepdaughter’s not-quite-ex in-laws lived in Amman, maybe I would see them.

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The trip I most want to make is to follow the Silk Road through Central Asia, but it didn’t seem that this was the year. I got back from a month in France in May, and I didn’t feel that I had time to organize the visas and transport needed for a trip starting in Istanbul and finishing somewhere in the Himalayas, and leaving in August or September. So, having visited the eastern end in 2001, I decided to visit the western end this year, then next year maybe I could do the middle.

So Plan A was Eastern Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran.  But further research suggested I needed a Plan B.

  1. Turkey. I would start the trip in September, but this year Ramadan runs roughly from 22 August – 20 September. For that month, observant Muslims let nothing pass their lips from sunup to sundown. I have borderline hypoglycemia, and therefore have to eat lunch, but I wasn’t sure that I would find restaurants and cafes open during the day in the more conservative and less-traveled east. I also wondered about the availability of transport.
  2. Azerbaijan. Since the US started charging high prices for visas, other countries have reciprocated for people traveling on US passports. I was willing to pay the $131 visa fee (55 GBP for Brits), but then I learned that Azerbaijan had added a requirement for a Letter of Invitation (popular among former Soviet republics), which would run me at least another $75. Add in the cost of Fed Ex’ing my passport to Washington and back, and even if I didn’t use a visa service I was looking at well over $200 and it just didn’t seem worth the cost. Maybe the Azerbaijanis just don’t want tourists around – the Washington embassy website now says: “Due to technical reasons the Consular Section will temporarily work 2 days a week: on Mondays and Thursdays from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.”
  3. Iran. I waited until after the June election to apply for an Iranian visa, thinking that things might well be looser then. Well, we all know what happened instead. Based on posts on Lonely Planet’s Thorntree it seems that right now I can’t get a visa for either my US or UK passport. Rather than plan the trip and then regroup at the last minute when my application was refused, I reluctantly dropped Iran, too.

Well, the Silk Road was never a single rope, more a loose skein with threads slipping off in all directions. True, one route ran to Baku in Azerbaijan, another through Tabriz and on into Turkey. But further south goods were traded through Aleppo to Antioch, and via Damascus to Tyre. I still wanted to visit the Caucasus, but instead of Iran I’d make my first visit to the Middle East.

Plan B therefore was Georgia, Armenia, Eastern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. But I couldn’t work up great enthusiasm for the trek across Eastern Turkey, which would involve a lot of time on buses, not enough places worth a three night stop, and too much time added to the trip if I didn’t want to turn it into a bus marathon. Luckily, I learned that there’s a twice weekly flight from Yerevan to Aleppo.

Plan C:

  • Fly from RDU to New York on September 10th, staying for three nights. I’ll be visiting the city for longer than it takes to change planes for the very first time.
  • Fly New York to Istanbul to Batumi – Turkish Airlines say they will put me up in an airport hotel in Istanbul as I can’t make the connection to Batumi the day I arrive.
  • Roughly four weeks going overland through Georgia and Armenia, ending in Yerevan.
  • Flight to Aleppo on October 11th.
  • Roughly four weeks going overland through Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
  • Flight from Amman to Istanbul for three nights.
  • Flight to New York for another three nights.
  • Fly back to RDU November 15th.

Let’s hope there won’t be a need for a Plan D. I am keeping an eye on the Georgia-Russia situation. Worst case I can fly Batumi-Yerevan instead of going overland.

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