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: Petra

Being a big Indiana Jones fan, I was very excited to visit Petra, the site of the last scenes from, Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade. But it didn’t take long to find out there was much more to Petra than the Treasury – the facade carved out the face of a sandstone wall. One of many such carvings scattered throughout this ancient settlement by the Nabataean tribes some 2200 years ago.

I was quickly learning that getting to and from these national monuments in Jordan are a monumental task. The highway system, although fairly good roads, are minimal. We departed the Dead Sea around noon, with an anticipated three-hour drive into Petra. There is a high rugged rough mountain ridge that runs north and south through Jordan and my google map showed that road into Petra laid along that spine, with Petra sitting at its southern tip. The two major highways in Jordan run north and south along east and west sides of this ridge.

The roadway up to the rugged mountain spine running north and south through Jordan, ending in Petra

The roadway up to the rugged mountain spine running north and south through Jordan, ending in Petra

With my husband behind the wheel, and my daughter riding shotgun, we took the first main road we came upon, to take us up to that spine, where we came to a fork in the road. There were no signs. To the right was a very narrow two-lane windy paved road. A boy who looked about 10-years-old was on his donkey herding goats up that road that was strewed with rocks that had fallen from a roadside hill. To the left was most likely the road to the highway on the far side of the ridge that would be the longer way down and around to Petra. My iPhone map ap showed Petra down the right fork.

At the top of the first little hill was a blown-out shell of a house where a dozen Jordanian youngsters were talking and smoking. ‘Do we stop and ask if we are on the right road? Do they even speak English?’ At this point we felt it was worth our chances to ask – and they quickly responded by pointing down the road we were on and saying “Petra” over and over. Then they asked for more smokes with hand motions. Which we did not have. Note to self, pick up smokes for future “toll” roads.

For the next two hours we meandered through small town after small town, with our gutless wonder of a car whining fiercely up some of the higher passes. Eventually we came over a ridge and saw a sign to Petra, and wound our way down into a larger town and to our hotel that sat across the street from the entrance into the Petra monuments.

Moevenpick Petra Hotel, Petra, Jordan

Moevenpick Petra Hotel, Petra, Jordan

We were greeted in the lobby with a refreshing and very flavorful hibiscus juice, very common in Jordan. And something I have looked for but never found in the US. After unpacking and relaxing for a bit, we headed down the street a couple of blocks to a restaurant, the Petra Kitchen, where we would spend the next couple of hours learning how to make a traditional Jordanian meal. We were the only people signed up for that evening, so we had a good ratio of staff to our party of three creating a very hands on amazing experience. The kitchen soon was filled with the aromas of cardamom, cloves, mint, sumac, cumin, nutmeg, cinnamon all emanating from dishes of Green Wheat Soup, Tahina Salad, Baba Ganuj, Fatoosh and Suiyat dijaj (oven-roasted chicken).

Learning to cook traditional Jordanian dishes, in a Petra restaurant that offered cooking classes

Learning to cook traditional Jordanian dishes, in a Petra restaurant that offered cooking classes

With a full belly and exhausted from a long day, we all slept well in our comfortable and very large room and awoke early to beat the crowds and the heat in viewing the Petra monuments. We were greeted with horse guides willing to take us to the mouth of ancient Petra, some 500 hundred yards away on horseback – for a minimal, somewhat mandatory tip. We figured we could walk that distance and wanted to slowly take in all that lay before us, so we passed on the offer.

We walked about 2 km along a well-groomed meandering path that at one point would have been the river bottom of an ancient river. With signs along the walls showing the different levels that water passed through over the centuries. The walk was serene and peaceful except for the little boys pleading with you to buy their packet of postcards. One little boy of no more than 10-years-old hit on my 23-year-old daughter, “Miss, I think you dropped something – my heart.” What a sales pitch!

Walking down the path/ancient river bottom towards the hidden city of Petra

Walking down the path/ancient river bottom towards the hidden city of Petra

The original tribes of the area, the Nabataeans, were very smart in creating troughs to gather rain and river water to store during droughts and to sell

The original tribes of the area, the Nabataeans, were very smart in creating troughs to gather rain and river water to store during droughts and to sell

At the end of the walkway you are greeted with the giant facade of the Treasury – what a sight. The smoothness and the perfection of cuts is amazing, and the size and stature mind-blowing. Sadly, it is riddled with bullet holes from Bedouins who have tried over the years to release treasures supposedly hidden within the ruins. There are camels available for rides, but I chose to use them as part of the local scene. And donkeys available to take you up to the higher monuments along tight switch-back stone paths.

The Treasury, in the hidden city of Petra, Jordan

The Treasury, in the hidden city of Petra, Jordan – standing 30m wide by 43m high.

We walked another 2 km along the river bottom that widened out, showcasing an amphitheater, multiple cave dwellings, and flights of stairs leading up to rock face after rock face carved into amazing facades, many only partially finished or greatly eroded over time. Around a bend sits the strewed remains of a Roman Empire existence. Pillars and stone walls are all that are left of that establishment.

Ancient Roman Empire ruins in Petra

Ancient Roman Empire ruins in Petra

Past this point is an area that is staked – “Enter at your own risk. Guides are recommended.” We decided to tread slowly ahead to see what the trouble was being alluded to. Apparently it is an area not secure, so bandits may approach you. The last stretch was a tricky path and too steep for my fear of heights, so my daughter and husband trudged on and were rewarded with one of the most amazing sights of our trip of a view of the Monastery – that I got to share through pictures.

The Monastery, high up in the hills of Petra

The Monastery, high up in the hills of Petra. Look closely at how small the people are in the entrance.

Before the heat of the day became too much we made our way back out to the streets of Petra and rested before heading on to our next destination: Wadi Rum, where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed and T.E. Lawrence made his famous trek across a part of the Arabian Desert.

Check out the Global Gallery – Jordan: Petra for more amazing pictures from this ancient hidden city.

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.)