Middle East: Jordan: Amman

After a four-hour drive, through the mainly desolate Arabian Desert, save a random police vehicle parked under a lone tree with a prayer blanket at its side, we arrived back in Amman in the bright daylight. We dropped our rental car back at the Queen Alia International Airport and saw the construction we had dealt with in the dark of night when we left the airport to make our way to the Dead Sea four days ago.

Amman, Jordan

Amman, Jordan

Signs of growth and prosperity in the region are shown in the almost finished new main terminal, looking very modern in a very ancient setting. After dropping our car off, we hailed a cab for our first taste of life in Amman – a much faster pace than we experienced in the Dead Sea, Petra and Wadi Rum. In Amman, speed limits are a suggestion, road lines go unnoticed and steering with one’s hands are optional. Our driver had one hand hanging out the window with a cigarette dangling from it while the other hand-held a phone to his ear, using his knee to steer the car while racing down the highway at uncomfortable speeds.

But that is life on the roads in Jordan – kind of a cross between NYC and Rome taxi drivers. Once off the streets in Amman, the pace of the culture leans to the other extreme of subdued and reserved. Timelines are not strictly adhered to and things will get done when they get done. There is always time for tea, prayer or an occasional puff of watermelon flavored shisha from a hookah pipe.

A dear friend enjoying a quiet moment and a puff on a hookah pipe at Old View Cafe, Amman, Jordan

A dear friend enjoying a quiet moment and a puff on a hookah pipe at Old View Cafe, Amman, Jordan

At our hotel, we were greeted with barricades on the parking lanes and security check points at the hotel entrance. These were installed in 2005, when 60 people were killed after the nearby Grand Hyatt Hotel, the Radisson SAS Hotel and the Days Inn, were all bombed.

For me, it wasn’t until we arrived in Amman that I experienced what it was like to exist in a male dominated culture. In the U.S. men open doors for women. In Amman, men walk through the doors first and their women follow, a certain amount of paces behind. But other than the need to cover our shoulders and wear long skirts or slacks, my daughter and I did not feel oppressed in this male dominated culture and were always greeted with respect and equality.

Making sure to cover up, even in the heat of the summer, Amman, Jordan

Making sure to cover up, even in the heat of the summer, Amman, Jordan

Since my daughter had already spent several weeks in Amman she was able steer us in the direction of the local highlights, while she spent her days at work, at a local English language Arabic magazine, Living Well. There have only been street signs in Amman for a short period of time but locals don’t use them. The city is set up on a series of eight circles and directions send you left or right off each circle, towards landmarks or down a certain number of blocks.

My daughter doing a little modeling for Living Well Magazine where she interned in Amman, Jordan

My daughter doing a little modeling for Living Well Magazine where she interned in Amman, Jordan

Amman is an ancient city, founded in 7000 BC. From the ancient Roman ruins of the Citadel to the modern Abdoun Bridge, life in this city of almost 3,000,000 inhabitants is constantly in motion. Walking the streets of Amman we were greeted with the smells of falafel (fried balls of chickpea and spices); the sights of limestone architecture (all buildings have to be built of limestone or the be the color of limestone): heard the calls to prayer (five times a day); and felt the warmth of the arid hot summer sun.

My husband and I set up a private tour that took us to the Citadel that sits up high on the opposite side of town; then down into the bustling market place lined with street vendors; then past one of the oldest mosques in town; and finished at the ruins of the Roman amphitheater.

Roman ruins of the Citadel in Amman, Jordan

Roman ruins of the Citadel in Amman, Jordan

Bulk spices at the Il Balad Souk - and open marketplace, Amman, Jordan

Bulk spices at the Souk Jara – and open marketplace, Amman, Jordan

King Hussein Mosque, Amman, Jordan

King Hussein Mosque, Amman, Jordan

Roman Amphitheater, Amman, Jordan

Roman Amphitheater, Amman, Jordan

Our driver, a well spoken man who had served as a steward on several major airlines, had us take note all the different license plates from surrounding countries, people taking refuge in Jordan – denoted as the ‘neutral’ country of the Middle East. He said that generally the streets in Jordan are empty during the summers – too hot for the locals – but with all the civil unrest in bordering countries, the city is in full swing year round and it puts a strain on their own natural resources for their own people.

One of the highlights of our whole middle eastern trip was getting to know a family that had befriended our daughter. The patriarch was a business associate of one of my husband’s brothers who not only graciously agreed to be a ‘go to’ person for our daughter in case of emergencies, but they became her family away from home. They picked her up at the airport, provided her with a local phone, drove her around the city and invited her to their home to share in family dinners.

Mrs. Taghreed overseeing a family dinner at the home of Abu Jawad

Mrs. Taghreed overseeing a family dinner at the home of Abu Jawad

When our daughter first wanted to go to Jordan, we were very hesitant because of the ongoing unrest in the region surrounding Jordan. But after meeting this special family and experiencing their hospitality, my husband and I left lighthearted knowing our daughter was in good hands for the duration of her stay.

I want to dedicate this post to Abu Jawad and his family and to Mrs. Taghreed. Your friendships will be treasured for a lifetime.

Abu Jawad, my daughter Allison, Mrs. Taghreed

Abu Jawad, my daughter Allison, Mrs. Taghreed

Check the Global Gallery – Jordan: Amman for more pictures of this great ancient city.

Middle East: Jordan: Wadi Rum

Floating in the Dead Sea was surreal. Journeying into the depths of the hidden city of Petra was mind-blowing. But it was the trek across the desert in Wadi Rum that was the real standout of my trip to Jordan.

Arriving late afternoon from Petra, after a quick detour to Aqaba and the Red Sea, my husband, daughter and I prepared ourselves for the unknown. We checked in at a visitor center, and then were directed through a gate leading into the Bedouin community Rum Village, in the Wadi Rum Protected Area, part of the Arabian Desert. But other than a few paragraphs from an online website explaining we were going to spend the night at a Bedouin campground, follow in the footsteps of T.E. Lawrence and watch an amazing sunset, we had no idea what was coming.

What came, was a Bedouin tribesman by the name of Suleman. One of 18 children of a Bedouin tribal leader who had three wives, Suleman said he was related in one manner or another to just about every inhabitant of the little village. He lived on his own, but all his neighbors are brothers and or cousins.

Suleman picked us up in a well used 4×4 Toyota. The bed of the truck had been equipped with two long lightly padded benches and a railing to hold on to. And hold on we did, as we raced across the desert, kicking up a fine deep red sand, bouncing and flailing around the back of the truck and loving every minute of it. Or at least my daughter and I were. My husband felt Suleman could slow down a bit so as not to throw us from the truck, “Suleman, the desert has been here for 10,000 years, we don’t have to cross it in 10 minutes,” he shouted to Suleman.

Enjoying the wild ride through the Wadi Rum Protected Area, Jordan

Enjoying the wild ride through the Wadi Rum Protected Area, Jordan

Suleman quickly explained he wanted to take us to see a natural arch before we met up with a couple of other parties to watch the sun set. So onward we went, grinding our way up sand dunes and letting it fly down the other side. Going as fast as the truck could take us with no speed limits or cops out in the middle of the Arabian desert to hinder our progress. Upon arriving at the arch that was a good 50 feet high, Suleman jumped out of the truck, ran up the side of the outcropping of rocks, in his flip-flops and long bedouin dress, that led to the arch and yelled for us to follow. We all graciously declined and watched him stand at the stop of the arch waving his arms.

Suleman waving at us from atop the natural archway in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Suleman waving at us from atop the natural archway in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Once down, it was off to the races again, to experience one of the most amazing sunsets ever created. Right after being picked up in Rum Village, we had stopped at a Bedouin camp to have a cup of the sweet hot tea Bedouins drink, and we were greeted with more of this tea when we arrived at the mini campground set up in the middle of the desert. The tribesman used dried local brush to create a roaring fire and used heavy teapots encrusted with soot, to steep the tea in. They ran out of cups so they cut the tops off of plastic bottles and used the bottom for makeshift mugs. A little hot to hold, but still very tasty.

Suleman and another Bedouin tribesman making us hot tea as we watched the sunset in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Suleman and another Bedouin tribesman making us hot tea as we watched the sunset in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Tea in hand, we leaned against the front of our truck and as if on cue, the sun set behind the horizon line, creating a scene unlike any other. The vibrant color of the desert meeting the dark silhouette of the rock formations in the distance flooded with the last bit of bright yellow light and the feel of the temperature dropping as quickly as the sun was dropping – just like we experience in the desert where we live in Arizona.

Sun setting behind the horizon line in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Sun setting behind the horizon line in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Then with only the ambient light of the sun and our headlights to guide our way we drove through the darkening desert to our private Bedouin camp where we were served a Bedouin home cooked meal. The tent was made of a hand-woven black with white striping blanket draped over wooden poles, and the dinner table was set up under the stars. We gorged ourselves on more traditional Jordanian dishes. And then we slumbered in an Americanized style of tent, completely enclosed and weather proofed.

Enjoying an expansive traditional Jordanian meal, Wadi Rum, Jordan

Enjoying an expansive traditional Jordanian meal, Wadi Rum, Jordan

I awoke at 5 am, to see the silhouette of my husband sitting atop a rock outcropping, watching the sun rise, sipping on a cup of hot strong coffee. At that moment life could not have been any more perfect or serene and we all wished we had booked to stay longer in the desert. But soon the camp was bustling, we had breakfast and then back to zipping through the desert at high-speed. Not because we were in a hurry, but because it was fun.

Watching the sun come up over the Arabian Desert while enjoying a hot cup of java

Watching the sun come up over the Arabian Desert while enjoying a hot cup of java

We stopped at the base of a sand dune and our daughter climbed it, at times sinking up to her knees in the soft warm sand. Suleman said he had a board we could use to surf down the sand dunes, but taking a header out in the middle of the Arabian desert wasn’t part of our agenda. I’m sure my skateboarding/snowboarding son would’ve tried.

We took in more highlights as we worked out way back to Wadi Rum. We saw an ancient Olive Tree sitting at the base of a ravine. This walls of the ravine showed marks of an ancient civilization, above marks from camera stand used to film scenes from the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Suleman also showed us the remains of the house where T.E. Lawrence lived while spending time in the Arabian Desert.

The ruins of the house T.E. Lawrence lived in while stationed in Wadi Rum

The ruins of the house T.E. Lawrence lived in while stationed in Wadi Rum

In our chats with Suleman, we learned he owned 27 horses and multi-day horse tours was his main form of tours. We asked if he had any camels. He did not, but said his cousin did. When we arrived back in Rum Village, we drove by Suleman’s in town corral. His cousin lived down a back alley. Suleman opened the back gate to a small yard and there, lounging in the morning sun chewing on hay, were three camels. His cousin saddled up the stinky, mangy, rough-looking camels and helped us climb on which was a treat in itself. You get on the camel as it lies on the ground, and then when it gets up you lurch backwards, almost perpendicular to the ground, and then you are thrown you forward as it gets up on all fours.

My daughter’s camel was bellowing and screeching and not wanting to move. And then the camel let loose with a flood of green projectile vomit that flew several feet. After that the camel was fine – guess he had a bit of a tummy ache. Then we were off to the races. Well not exactly, although apparently camel racing is big time stuff in the desert. We rolled along in our saddles to the pace of the camels as they moseyed through the desert at the edge of Rum Village. After a snoozy 30 minutes of this we decided we had achieved what we came for – to ride a camel.

Going for a camel ride in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Going for a camel ride in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Check out more great pics of Wadi Rum in the Global Gallery!

Middle East: Jordan: Dead Sea

This month I will take you on a journey to the Middle East, specifically Jordan. My daughter was on an internship in Amman, working for an English language Arabic magazine called Living Well. My husband and I took the opportunity to visit this area that is intriguing on so many fronts, holding access to some of the worlds greatest treasures: the Dead Sea, Petra, Wadi Rum – the desert where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed, and all points in between.

Our journey started out at the Amman airport. We arrived to find our daughter, draped in way more clothing one would expect with temps nearing the 100 mark. But local customs warrant all women cover their shoulders and no short skirts or shorts are allowed. After renting a car we headed out to our first stop – the Dead Sea, about an hour away.

We had hoped to arrive during the daylight hours to get our bearings and a lay of the land we were about to drive through, since we no idea what to expect. But flight delays altered those notions and we were left to fend for ourselves with maps in our hands and our iPhone google map ap telling us we were on the right roads.

After a few minor missed turns through heavy construction and unlit highways, we found the only road into the Dead Sea resort town and to our hotel – the Moevenpick Dead Sea Resort. The staff was pleasant and helpful, speaking perfect English. It was mid-summer, and even the nighttime temps hovered in the 90’s. At the Dead Sea, the temperature averages 10 degrees warmer because you are 1,400+ feet below sea level. Between the heat and the lack of air movement at negative elevation the area felt dead.

When we awoke, we opened the curtains to an amazing sight. Laid out before us, in all its salty glory was the Dead Sea – looking very calm and serene – looking dead – with Israel off in the distance. The sky was bright blue, but the Dead Sea was a deep slate blue. There was a swirling haze that rose from the water because of the intense heat mixed with the air rising off of water with a 34% salinity. Hence the reason the Dead Sea got its name – the salt content is so high that neither plant nor animal can survive these conditions. Pretty amazing for a 50,000 year old body of water.

The Dead Sea as seen from our hotel room, with Israel in the distance

The Dead Sea as seen from our hotel room, with Israel in the distance

Before heading to the Dead Sea for a swim, we headed to the hotel restaurant to try our first taste of middle eastern food. Since our daughter had already been in Jordan for several weeks she was able to help us navigate through the spread of breakfast foods. Even though several foods looked familiar, there was definitely a different slant on many of the foods – a smooth middle eastern white smooth cheese called halloumi; a dried salty thyme based herb spread called Za’atar; dried apricots and figs. And fresh olive oil used on everything. I quickly realized going hungry while in the middle east was not going to be a concern.

On the way back to our room to change into swimsuits we passed by several specimen Olive Trees on the property, one was 1,500 years old and one was 1,000 years old. We had been in Jordan all of 12 hours, but the history of the area was quickly revealing itself to us. But as the ensuing days would play out for us, the history of the culture would create lasting memories to rival any of the amazing landmarks. And our trip down to the Dead Sea was our first taste of that culture.

1,500 year old Olive Tree at the Moevenpick Dead Sea Resort

1,500-year-old Olive Tree at the Moevenpick Dead Sea Resort

We made our way down to the water’s edge and came across several people bathed in ash or mud from head to toe. We weren’t sure if it was a religious thing or a spa treatment. The resort was very quiet because it was off-season – too hot for even the locals to venture out for long. So not wanting to be obnoxious nosy Americans we watched and waited.

We had not thought to ask at the hotel what to expect when entering the water, and were blown away by its affects. It was bathwater warm, very soothing. I could smell the saltiness of the water, like having a mild version of smelling salts waved under my nose, which quickly thwarted my natural instinct to dunk my head under water. That would have burned my eyes out! But it was the buoyancy of the water that really set me giggling.

Floating along make sure to keep your head above water

Floating along in the Dead Sea making sure to keep your head above salty water

It is almost impossible to float on your tummy. Every time I tried, working my arms in a dog paddle motion to help prop my head above water, I’d lose my balance a bit one way or the other and my body would flip me onto my back. If I kept my legs downward and put my arms upward and out I’d float like a bobber in the water – no treading necessary. Back floating quickly became the preferred position. The feeling of being able to float like you are on a floaty was so effortless, I wanted to just put my head back and lay there for hours. But because of the high salt content it is recommended you do not spend more than 20 minutes in the water at a time, and there is a lifeguard on duty to help watch your minutes in the water.

Floating along in the Dead Sea without the help of a floaty or any floaty device

Floating along in the Dead Sea without the help of a floaty or any floaty device

The shoreline is rimmed with salt covered rocks – slippery in the water, crusty when exposed. So it is very tricky getting into and out of the water. On our second departure from the Sea we noticed an ancient looking large vase on the shoreline. We asked the lifeguard what was in it and he said clay that had been dredged up from the bottom of the dead sea. We soon learned this was the mud that all the locals were slathered in. The lifeguard told us to put in on every inch of exposed skin and to put it on thick. When at the Dead Sea, do as the locals do! Salt caked rocks in the water along the shoreline of the Dead Sea make for a very slippery entrance in the water

Salt caked rocks in the water along the shoreline of the Dead Sea make for a very slippery entrance in the water
Applying mud dredged from the bottom of the ancient Dead Sea

Applying mud dredged from the bottom of the ancient Dead Sea

The mud is to be allowed to dry completely on your skin and then rinsed off in the healing waters of the Dead Sea. A fresh water shower head installed on the shore was available to wash the mud off our faces. My skin has never felt so silky soft. So after our excursion to the Dead Sea itself, it was off to the Dead Sea resort gift shop to stock up on Dead Sea salts and mud.

Mud monster beauties giving themselves a Dead Sea Mud facial

Mud monster beauties giving themselves a Dead Sea Mud facial

Mudded from head to toe with the mud from the bottom of the Dead Sea

Mudded from head to toe with the mud from the bottom of the Dead Sea

Not a bad start to our first visit to the Middle East. After a morning of eating, swimming and shopping it was time to pack up our little gutless wonder, a rented BMW 300 series, and make our way to our next Jordanian destination: Petra! (Next week’s blog posting.)