Saturday 11 February 2012

Jordan - Spring 2012

My Week with Jordan
Sunday, 12 February 2012

It has to be said, Jordan isn't really a place that initially comes to mind when one considers holiday destinations and had it not been recommended to me as a top scuba diving site it would have never crossed my mind.  Though it took some persuading i managed to convince a colleague that Jordan was the trip for them and soon our flights were booked and excitement grew.  We arrived late Saturday night to our first hotel called "The Mariam" in Madaba.  I picked this particular hotel as it sorted us out with an airport pickup and organised a jam packed day of exploration as soon as we rose.  I was sat next to a local Jordanian on the plane and spent the flight, i am sure rather annoyingly, enquiring about all the local dishes.  My mouth was watering just talking about them and so breakfast couldn't come soon enough.  This is my first time in the middle east!  A completely new cuisine that has never come in contact with my taste buds.  Labaneh was the dish mentioned for breakfast by my in flight buddy but as a typical hotel buffet breakfast goes i couldn't help myself but to sample a bit a of everything that was on offer.  Hummus, a sort of bean stew and flat bread with a herb blend spread over it (later learnt that this is called Zataar which is a mix of thyme, sesame seed and olive oil).  Labaneh was a kind of yogurt, mixed with some herbs and olive oil, but thick enough to spread on your flat bread.  Olive oil seems massive here!?  I always thought of Italy as the don of Olive oil but it is quite clearly just as big (if not bigger) here.  Anyway, typical Jordanian breakfast... Check!

The Hotel restaurant is on the top floor giving a great panoramic view of Madaba.  Buildings here all tend to look like they are from a Picasso Cubic painting with blocky flat roofs and no curves.  Though it is a reasonably chilled 7 degrees at the moment, the landscape looks baked by an unforgiving sun.  It seems, however, that the clothes i travelled in (my only jacket and trousers) will be seeing more light than the shorts and t-shirts that take up the bulk of my luggage.  
The days itinerary included a visit to a Mosaic School, a climb up Mt Nebo, a tour around Bethany and a splash in the dead sea (all driven by our private driver for 30JD).  It was genuinely interesting to watch them make the Mosaics and learn how it is all done.  A complimentary Arabic tea went down lovely whilst we nosed through massively expensive mosaics and painted ostrich eggs before we subtly left without purchasing a thing.  Mount Nebo (described to us by our taxi driver in broken English as "big name, small place") is the supposed resting place of Moses and the point at which God showed him the promised land.  I am a practising Catholic and completely overlooked the massive religious significance of Jordan.  Jesus was baptised in the river Jordan, Moses's spring is just around the corner and if you're going to walk on water then the dead sea is probably your best shot!  As vulnerable tourists we paid 8 JD (plus 2JD entrance) for a tour guide of Mt Nebo.  I wouldn't recommend it as anything we learnt from him was pretty much written on signs around the place.  And in hindsight we were very clearly ripped off.  Live and learn.  Bethany was the baptism place of Jesus where the river Jordan works as the boundary between Jordan and Israil.  It is literally a stones throw away (though you would probably get shot if you tried) and it was fascinating to watch tourists in Israil doing exactly what we were doing but in another country.  Due to the river Jordan's great significance in the bible there are churches of all denominations being built here.  Well worth the visit.
The final leg of our day tour was easily the most anticipated.  The weather got warmer the closer we got and was a toasty 22 degrees (though it doesn't look like it) by the time we reached the lowest point on the entire planet... the Dead Sea!  We paid 16JD each (i know...) to get into a resort where we got changed and made our way down to the crystallised shore.  Though the air temperature was pleasant, the water was pretty cold.  Or at least cold enough to require a count down to dive under.  3....2... i brace myself for the chill...and 1! This was our first mistake.  NEVER dunk your head under in the dead sea.  "it buuuurns!!" wails Jane as she emerges rubbing her eyes.  My chapped lips felt like a well used pin cushion and my eyes were clearly on fire.  With blurred vision the beautiful "crystallised shore" became a gauntlet of jagged rocks as we tried to make our way out of the acid bath and to the comfort of our sodium free towels.  God forbid if we had stubbed our toe on a salt encrusted rock.  Here came my second mistake; i licked my lips... @%*!£#?.  I kid you not, it is definitely saltier than salt itself!  With a flush of fresh water and lots of blinking and rubbing the drama was over.  Despite what we just felt, the minerals in the water and mud here are supposedly very good for you.  Some of the best quality mud scrubs, which women spend ridiculous amounts on in shops/spas, come from here.  I used this thought to justify spending more money (3JD) to cover ourselves head to toe in the local mineral rich mud.  This was followed by the instructions to wash our bodies in the silky sea and our faces in the fresh water showers.  Go figure. Obviously you wouldn't wash your face in the sea.  Who would be stupid enough to do that.
This evening we ate our first local dinner.  Such a busy day we didn't even notice that we hadn't eaten lunch.  That is big for me!  So after a quick scrub down and a chat with our hotel man we went out on foot to explore the town and find dinner.  We were recommended to eat a "Shawarma" at a "Darna restaurant" in the city centre and then to hang out in Ayola Cafe afterwards with a shisha.  We couldn't have planned a better evening.  No more than a 10 minute walk we arrived at Darna which at first glance just looked like a typical kebab shop with its great towering logs of revolving meat and flickering doner sign.  They had two spits (chicken and lamb), an oven and a few trays of salad.  They clearly specialised in serving Shawarma and nothing else.  I would like to describe it as a doner wrap which you would usually experience in the early hours of a Saturday morning.  But no it is much more than that.  These still taste great when you've had absolutely nothing to drink!  In a Muslim country that's an important factor.  The meat is actual slices of real animal unlike the processed mush of our regular doner.  It is then wrapped, along with salad and sauce, in a paper thin flat bread and toasted.  I had two (one chicken and one lamb obviously) and have decided that i will be eating a large number of these over the next few days.  Fantastic fast food!  Roaming around we got a feel of Madaba city life; visiting shops and entertaining street vendors.  Street food doesn't seem that great here.  A lot of boiled corn and variations on different beans.  Taste pretty standard and nothing to really get excited about.  I am sure we will come across some amazing Falafel stall at some point.  Ayola Cafe was the perfect end to this eventful day.  Tourists and locals seemed to roost here once the moons out and with an Arabic tea in one hand and an apple flavoured shisha pipe in the other i can see why.  All stresses of all kinds had dissolved in a single night.  I'm chilled, i'm relaxed and i'm ready for the rest of what already is an awesome holiday. 

"That's not a knife..."
Tuesday, 14 February 2012

I thought of this title a while ago and have now realised that it is the wrong film... Indiana Jones/Crocodile Dundee.  Much the same i'm keeping it anyway!  We have spent the last two days visiting Petra.  One of the wonders of the world and home to the entrance of the "temple of the holy grail" in Indiana Jones (below left).  We caught a taxi at 9am from Madaba for 54JD and arrived 4 hours later.  At a toilet stop the taxi driver bought me a local coffee which is made very differently to our usual.  I watched as the man held a metal pot on the end of stick over a flame which contained the ground coffee.  He then proceeded to pour in what seemed to be an endless waterfall of sugar and then transferred it straight into a little cup.  No straining i thought?  Must be a form a instant coffee that dissolves.  It was too hot to drink straight away so i took it with me in the taxi.  Keeping my eye on the road for bumps, i took my first sip.  It is very sweet (and this apparently was a "medium sugar"), very strong and has a noticeable cardamom flavour.  All these things i like! Until i get about half way down.  The consistency of my coffee was gradually getting thicker with each sip leaving me with half a cup of ground up coffee sludge.  So no it wasn't special dissolving coffee.  Maybe they like it like this?! With the intention to not offend the taxi driver I closed my eyes and downed it like a shot of tequila.  Blurgh!  Instant rubber mouth.  In hindsight it was obvious, and a glance at the taxi drivers half cup of gunk confirmed that you do not drink the sludge.  I'm still finding bits of coffee in my mouth. 

We arrived at our Hostel called "Petra Gate" for 8JD (yup the same price as our Mt Nebo "tour guide") a night.  It was a quick stop as we wanted to do as much of Petra as we could today.  It was just a 10 minute downhill walk to the entrance of Petra with a brief stop for a Shawarma.  The first thing to take our breath away in Petra was the entrance fee.  55JD each!?!?! About £50!  This was for 2 days and we decided that we couldn't come all this way and not see Petra so we gritted our teeth and handed over the dough.  We didn't regret it.  This was a ticket into an entire lost city completely carved into the rock faces!  With our lonely planet guide book (replacing a possible further 50JD for a tour guide) we made our way pretty much through the entire place.  Well all the main parts.  On entering we were hounded by locals (whom i'm guessing didn't pay the 55JD entrance fee) trying their best to persuade us to take their horse around Petra.  Our response was that we would prefer to go around by foot today and then maybe tomorrow we would go by horse.  This was purely to get them off our back but it was actually a brilliant idea!  On foot we really felt we could stand in awe over the towering rose red scenery's and wonder about the life and history of Petra.  It was built over 3000 years ago and people actually lived there for a very long time!! 

The main site seemed to be the monastery which was quoted to be a 1200 step hike by a man trying to flog his decrepit donkey to take us up.  I'm not kidding, people were riding donkeys up the steps to the monestry.  The book said 800 steps and so, as pointed out by Jane, techniquely we had already covered 400.  With this as motivation we felt happy (and safer) to do the climb ourselves.  If you are relatively fit then its actually quite a nice trek without the need of a donkey.  If you are relatively fat... well... don't put the poor donkey through that.  The climb is worth it in itself with beautiful views and tea stops along the way (above - drinking a freshly squeezed lime and mint juice).  The monastery (Above) is a great end point and is an iconic and essential image of Petra.

We spent a good 5 hours wondering Petra and by the evening my feet were sore and blistered.  Back at our hostel we asked the owner for a good place to eat Mansaf; the Jordanian national dish.  We stated that we wanted real Mansaf and that we wanted to eat it with our hands (not because we are weird.  We read that this is how they eat it here).  He looked impressed but then saddened to tell us that it is very difficult to find real local Mansaf.  He left us saying that he will see what he can do.  In the time it took us to wash away the orange dust from our tired bodies Yusuf (our new friend) rang around and found a friend that would make it specially for us in his restaurant.  What a lovely man.  I was a little rusty with my hand to mouth skills but good enough to teach Jane.  Well attempt to teach Jane (above video)...  Mansaf is a bed of rice with a lamb or chicken kind of stew on top with a side of a yogurt based gravy.  It was served on a big plate and placed in the middle of the table for us to tuck straight in.  We looked great!  The Waiter was clearly amused by us and pointed us out to any local that happened to step into his restaurant.  We filled our face and then finished the night like any other night.  Shisha cafe!

This morning we were woken up by the chants from the local Mosque.  Though it was annoying trying to sleep through it at 5am, part of me couldn't help but be engrossed by it as you could hear the entire town responding to each prayer.  Somewhat eerie but fascinating none the less.  Today we had our second day visiting Petra and true to our word we went by horse this time.  We decided to reject the first few offers until we could get a decent deal.  Or at least what we would perceive as a decent deal.  The horses took us around the back and on top of everything we saw the day before.  We adored absolutely stunning cliff views gazing over the sculptures and carvings of Petra.  I could not recommend a better way of seeing Petra.  The first day on foot followed by the second by horse could not have panned out finer.  We paid 20JD each for a two hour tour and left feeling extremely satisfied.  Whether or not we got ripped off we don't know.  Ignorance is bliss.

Officially cool
Thursday, 16 February 2012

I can now tell people, without lying, that i am an advanced scuba diver!  How cool does that sound.  I am sure images of me wrestling sharks and fighting conga eels come to the minds of anyone i tell.  Which will be everyone!  We left Petra late afternoon a couple of days back and travelled south for 4 hours to Aqaba where i had prebooked us 2 days of diving.  Aqaba is to Jordan what Blackpool is to England; packed with hotels and completely kitted out for a high tourist season. 
It was valentines day and though me and Jane are just friends, we have been in a fake marriage for a good few days now.  Everything just seems a lot easier this way as local men don't shy away from staring, papping or whistling at Jane.  A simple finger switch of a ring (right - the ring and the acquired taste of Arabic Coffee) has eased any questions or problems.  In a relatively strict Muslim country, this is best.  We went out to track down another Jordanian dish called Maklouba which is a rice dish cooked upside down and turned out onto the plate.  We ate a fish Maklouba that didn't really look a lot like i imagined or read.  There was nothing upside down about? It was essentially just a very big plate of rice and fish.  Sorry, two very big plates of rice and fish.  If it was a Maklouba then i don't think it was a proper one.  It wasn't great.   A brief walk around Aqaba we came across another number on the list.  A local drink called Sahlab which is a thick creamy hot drink flavoured with pistachio, cinnamon and rose water.  Sounds amazing but it is very heavy and i presume sells like mad over Ramadan to break fast.  I wasn't keen.  Lets have Shisha instead...

Yesterday we began our first day of diving with "Dive Aqaba" and the plan to complete my advanced scuba certification (which i started in Croatia) whilst Jane gained her PADI.  Timed perfectly i finished my advanced in the first day whilst Jane did all her skill tests leaving the second day to dive together.  The red sea is arguably the best sea to scuba as it has got an unbeaten high visibility and an absolute bounty of fish.  For my advanced i needed to do 5 specialist dives and in Croatia i had done Navigation, Boat Dive and Fish Identification.  This left 2 more to do and i chose to go for a Deep Dive and a Wreck Dive.  Both of these dives passed the depths and capabilities of my camera and so all the beauty that i saw is secretly locked away in my head.  We went out on boat with about 40 minutes to our diving site.  The wreck dive was simply amazing.  A massive purposely sunk boat was thriving with coral and fish of all colours.  Thousands of them!  Just minding their own business with little care of me swimming through them.  The star of the show was the butt ugly yet all so stunning frog fish that looked like a fat piece of coral with hands.  We swam inside the wreck and found a little pocket of stale air where we took our masks off and discussed life; 27m under water.  Back on the boat for a quick rest and a hot cup of sweet tea we went through the debrief of my deep dive.  As we descended the fish gradually got fewer, the water quickly got colder and the once colourful, flowery surroundings turned into a dull, lifeless grey.  I had to do a timed maths calculation of 4 + 2 x 6 (for times sake i didn't question whether this was with BODMAS and painfully gave the wrong answer of 36) during the debrief on the boat and then another one down at 30m (on a plastic slate with a pencil).  Interestingly it took me a lot longer underwater.   This was the point to prove as the brain functions a lot slower at such pressures.  Further to this, he showed me a red tomato on the boat, put it in his pocket and then magically pulled out a green tomato on the sea bed! It is a strange and lonely world way down there and i have no plans to return anytime soon. 
Last night we shared a gorgeous mixed grill and some starter dips of Hummus and Mutabel.  Mutabel is made from blended aubergine and is traditionally middle eastern (Lebanon to be precise i think).  It had a smooth, creamy texture with kind of smokey taste.  Should be a pretty easy dish to make at home too so i'll need to badger someone for the recipe at some point.  Ordering too much seems to be a recurring theme now as every night since the Mansaf we have struggled and failed to clear our plates.  It's not that the food doesn't taste good; i just get too excited with a menu in my hand.
Diving today was once again amazing.  I don't think scuba diving can ever stop blowing you away.  One of my buddies on the boat celebrated his 100th dive today and came out of the water buzzing as if it was his first!  I managed to tag along with a guy who paid to do an underwater photography course and the dive was a maximum of 12 meters.  Score! A free (kind of) photography dive and depths just within (kind of) my cameras capabilities!  The debrief talked about lighting, angles, backgrounds, filters, etc, etc.  The most important, however, he said was being patient.  Finding a possible photo opportunity and waiting for it to occur.  So approaching Nemo hidden inside an anemone and waiting for him to peak out.  Unfortunately out of the photos above i can only claim ownage over the hermit crab as the other two were taken by the dive master who borrowed my camera for five minutes.  Either way i am well impressed with my Mr Hermit and it took a lot of patience lying on the sea bed waiting for him to come out of his shell.  The lion fish photo was  actually taken underneath a purposely sunk army tank.   A hunk of war metal covered in delicate coral and fish gives a bazaarly beautiful structure looking like a metaphor for peace.  Like roses in the barrel of a gun. 

Being Bedouin
Saturday, 18 February 2012

Our hotel in Aqaba (Al Qidra) was slightly more expensive than our usual but completely worth it.  Coming back from a day of diving a nice bed and hot shower goes a long way.  The manager was more than welcoming and bent over backwards to do whatever we asked for.  This included organising our final activity in Jordan before flying back to the UK - camping in Wadi Rum dessert.  We said our goodbyes to the great people at Dive Aqaba and caught a taxi out to Wadi Rum.  We arrived just after sunset and transferred from the taxi to a jeep where our Bedouin driver navigated the baron pitch black dessert to our camp site.  Step out of the jeep and look up and your jaw just drops to the floor.  I have never seen stars like that.  We were told at Dive Aqaba that the stars were impressive but i just thought seriously how good can stars get!?  Not in a million years did i expect this.  There were more stars than sky! It was like being inside a giant cave encrusted with diamonds.  As if you could fly up there and hit a ceiling of stars.  My camera, as amazing as it is, could not do the starry sky justice.  Or even come close to it.  I like to think of it as natures way of keeping it a hidden secret so it can surprise and blow the minds of anyone who steps into Wadi Rum at night.
After being shown to our tent we were taken to the smokey communal tent where other tourists and Bedouins were conversing around a fire, drinking sweet mint tea.  We had a standard Bedouin dinner of stewed beans, chicken and rice and it was nice to swap stories/tips with the others.  One of the Bedouin people then cracked out a stringed instrument and we all joined in singing local songs (well, as far as we were aware) and dancing.  This coupled with lying in the sand and star gazing melted away any last remnants of work related stress and set us up for our final day on holiday.  The dessert is pretty damn cold at night so i just slept in what i was wearing and carried on wearing it throughout the next day.  A campers breakfast was had and some more sweet tea before we hopped into a jeep again and began our tour of Wadi Rum. 

We started our tour by camel; riding to various sites such as great big sand dunes (above middle) and rocks to climb up for the panoramic views.  An hour on a camel gets a bit achy and certain things get crushed if you don't sit properly.  I seemed to have drawn the short straw as i got the camel with the hump (as in it was in a bad mood...) as it moaned a lot and kept trying to bite the other camels.  Mode of transport was then switched to jeep where our guide took us to sites such as the rock bridge (left) and Lawrence of Arabia's house.  Little Bedouin shacks were set up at each site to sell you little trinkets and give you mint tea or "real Bedouin coffee" (above right).  The coffee didn't taste very nice.  Like a very weak coffee with no milk or sugar.  At one point the guide started making a small pile of sticks that he gathered from nearby as we tried to work out what he was doing.  For a minute i thought that maybe it was his time to pray but then he set fire to the sticks and pulled out an old, tin can kettle.  What a fantastic idea!?  So we sat around the little fire and watched him make the tea with a couple of tea bags, half a kilo of sugar and some mint leaves.  He then continued by toasting some flat bread on the coals and handing us each a cheesy triangle and some ham... Perfect.  What a way to finish our day in Wadi Rum. 

It was sad to leave as this signified the end of our trip as a whole.  The only activity left to do was to get to Amman and fly home.  Nothing overly exiting.  Taxi to Aqaba followed by a 4 hour coach to Amman.  We decided that we must enjoy one more shisha before we left. This plan was looking unlikely as our taxi on arrival to Amman had no idea where our hostel was (Riviera hotel).  It was our least favourite hostel of our trip with a strange stench in the rooms and an awful shared bathroom.  This just made us more adamant to get out to a shisha cafe and so we headed to a Jafra Cafe.  A wonderful little find with a wide range of shisha flavours and a good menu.  We went for the "Jafra Special" shisha and ordered a selection of foods to pick at (including Kibbeh; another middle eastern delight).  After a week in Jordan i still don't know where my taste buds stand on the food front.  Flavours are much more subtle than i expected with few strong herbs or spices being used.  We never had a bad meal but on the other hand nothing really jumped out and made me think "OMG this is amazing".  It is all very satisfying food but, for me, not much else.  We spent the night munching, smoking and talking over how unexpectedly perfect this trip had been and the amount of amazing things that we managed to fit in.  Jordan is full of surprises.  There is so much to do here and i have no idea why it is not a more popular holiday destination.  It has a ton of history, a load of fascinating sites, a wonder of the world and some beautiful beach resorts.  As far as one week holidays go, this is well up there with the best it can get.  When you fancy a trip that is a little different, think of Jordan.  :o)


  1. Bernie no words to say.awesome brief of the trip.Thoroghly enjoyed ur commentry and literally lived jordan in ur blog.keep going buddy.

  2. very enjoyable and readable write up...

  3. Thanks for the wonderful write -up Bernie! My husband and I are headed to Jordan next week to visit my nephew who is studying there. Your insights and descriptions have certainly prepared me for what to expect. I will now have warm clothes for the desert. I will not drink the sludge at the bottom of the coffee. And I will definitely NOT dive head first into the Dead Sea!! Thanks for sharing so much detail. I love the way you write and you obviously enjoy sharing your experiences. Continue to travel well and explore the culinary delights of the world!

  4. Thank you so much for your comments. I hope you have a brilliant time. Berny. :o)