Jordan’s tiny kingdom offers a wealth of treats for visitors
AMMAN: For centuries, the sick, the poor and the pale have flocked to the Dead Sea to soak up the mythical vibe and marinate in its salty waters, which are said to have healing powers.
But as the number of luxury resorts, expensive hotels and pay beaches proliferates along the Dead Sea’s shoreline, it’s getting tougher and tougher for Jordanians who don’t have a bank account in the UAE to take a dip.
On an unseasonably warm afternoon last month, several dozen men, women and children were crowded onto a steep and rocky patch of shore only a few meters from a busy highway, splashing away near the tin culverts that jut from under the roadway.
Under the watchful eyes of Jordanian patrol boats, men waded into the warm, salty waters below wearing cotton undershirts and T-shirts. And while most of the women around wore the higab, their enthusiasm was anything but veiled.
It wasn’t exactly Club Med or Baywatch, but spending an afternoon here was the perfect way to dive into the Jordanian tourist experience. This tiny kingdom sure is a land of contrasts, customs, and history that defies expectations and preconceptions.
Over the course of a couple of days, visitors can expect to explore ancient ruins, witness stunning desert vistas and devour sophisticated fusion cuisine. But first you have to get there.
Rather than traveling by plane, train or automobile (Royal Jordanian Airlines offers daily flights from Cairo to Amman) a friend and I decided to take the adventurous route: an overnight bus to Sharm El Sheikh (LE 70), with a connection to Nuweiba, where we planned to cross the Gulf of Aqaba on the “fast ferry Sservice (about LE 320).
The plan was to finish the journey by taking a four-hour mini bus ride north to Amman.
It proved to be an ill-advised and arduous journey.
While the overnight ride across Sinai was manageable thanks to half a dozen crisp Heinekens (LE 36) which we managed to smuggle onto the bus, the rest of the journey was a test of patience and a lesson in frustration.
According to our Lonely Planet guidebook, the ferry departs most days at 1pm. But after waiting in line to purchase our tickets, the clerk told us the departure was now 2 pm.
When we entered the customs terminal, we learned why: the warehouse-like building was filled with a motley crew of Bedouins, Jordanian men and Egyptian youths. The length of lineup was matched only by the funeral pace at which it was moving.
It was like waiting for Michael Jackson tickets. In the 1980s. In South Korea.
Finally through the lineups, the guards corralled us into a crowded, gender-segregated waiting area and forced us to linger for the busses to arrive, which would then take us the 100-meter distance to the dock.
When busses arrived and the gates finally opened two hours later, all hell broke loose. The pushing was so intense that several people were trampled underfoot. One man with a cane lost his footing and was pinned up against the iron gates.
On the bus, which sat sedentary for another hour, I watched an Egyptian policeman harass and humiliate a flustered Jordanian cancer patient by making him remove his cap. “Hey baldy . why are you so bald, said the guard, as he poked the plastic antennae of his walkie talkie into the man’s emaciated neck. Not pleasant.
We didn’t clear customs at Aqaba until after 9 pm – a full five hours behind schedule – and we didn’t check into our double room (LE 150 with a discount) at the Concorde Hotel in downtown Amman until 2 am.
The next day, we kicked it at Amman’s impressive Roman Amphitheatre, which is across the street from the hotel, and checked out the nearby city walls, erected by the Romans around two millennia ago.
That evening, we hopped a cab to the city’s trendy Abdoun enclave, where we pulled into Blue Fig: a meat market/fashion show/fusion resto where we found approximately 125 of the country’s most beautiful women engaged in the equally challenging tasks of wearing gravity-defying denim and decoding the cryptic menu choices.
Slightly dizzy from the smell of perfume and cigarette smoke, we settled on some spinach ravs (ravioli), a pair of oddly-shaped pizzas and washed the meal down with several fizzy Amstel beers (the total meal was about LE 110 each).
The next day, rather than deal with buses and tour groups, we rented a car (LE 320) at Avis) and drove two hours south to the ancient city of Petra, which was hacked into the rose-colored rocks of Wadi Araba by the Arabic-speaking Nabateans, who flourished some 2500 years ago.
Petra (entry is about LE 160) itself is spectacular, and is made all the more sublime by the fact that entry into the heart of the city is mediated by a 45-minute hike through a narrow, wind-worn gorge known as the Siq.
Clearly, the Nabateans understood the concept of tension and release: like a good movie, the suspense of the Siq hike builds until you reach the colossal treasury, which was beamed into the western consciousness after it appeared in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
On the zig-zagging drive back to Amman, we spotted a car at the bottom of a steep valley – the ambulances had yet to arrive and about 10 men were attempting to pull a limp body from the wreckage.
Taking it as an omen, we decided that the next morning, we’d skip the bus and the ferry and fly back to Cairo.