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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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