Ice, Ice, Baby
06.02.2010 - 14.02.2010 3 °C
The journey to Jordan’s capital was by another minibus. First thing in the chilly morning we walked to the station to find one, haggled with a driver to establish prices for the journey, then told him (using small Arabic words and lots of sign language) thanks, but we need to go get our packs. As the buses were fairly frequent, we took our time having breakfast, packing and checking out of our hotel. We turned up at the station some 40 minutes later to find the same minibus waiting, full of locals, engine running, and the driver standing outside, looking for us! Whoops - turns out that sometimes metaphors don’t translate. We hopped red-faced into the bus and smiled apologetically as the passengers squeezed in even further to accommodate our packs.
Five minutes later and we were on the mountains, driving through thick snow and ice! Our driver, unfazed, drove through the white out, despite no visible road ahead and we marvelled at the snowy bushes and hills, trying hard not to think about the bus’s tyre condition. Who would have thought there would be snow in the Middle East! Thankfully once we descended onto the Desert Highway the conditions just turned wet and cold.
About two hours later we arrived in Amman, to a parking lot in the middle of nowhere. Jac’s attempts to find out where on the map we were were waved away by the taxi drivers who are eager to take us to Downtown for JD10 (NZ$20). Jac always travels with her Rip-Off Meter on High Alert so got down to some serious negotiations and got the fare down to NZ$8 (however was still probably paying well over the odds). We offered to split the cab ride with a middle-aged English bloke, and emerged that he was far from being the fatherly type, and instead more of the South London Bank Robber type. After exchanging niceties he told us he travelled for 8 months of the year, every year. Amazed, we asked him what he did. He said he lived in Amsterdam and declared he was a ‘good honest criminal’, which was such a relief because we had started to worry he was one of those bad, dishonest ones. He was only in Amman for 12 hours, had been there before and didn’t like the place, and was only going to a hotel to take a shower before he hopped on a plane to India to meet a ‘bird’ from El Salvador. He added that the south of India was not what it used to be - it was one big hedonistic party playground before the authorities tightened up. We ordinarily would have invited him to our hotel to use our bathroom, but we dunno, something made us decide against it…
Our hotel in Downtown, ‘Palace Hotel’, which had a good write up in Lonely Planet, was anything but a palace and a bit of a flea-pit for the relatively astronomical rate of NZ$60 a night. However it was raining and freezing cold, so we decided to go with it for a night and try find somewhere better the next day. That evening we found the strangely-named but women-friendly ‘Eco-tourism Café’, that had nothing eco or tourism about it, but free WiFi, algeela, backgammon boards and hot tea - an appealing combination which saw us return each day after walking the city. It was awfully icy cold and like most of our days in Amman, we wore every layer we brought with us and in the evenings took liberal swigs of Jaegermeister we kept for such emergencies!
Downtown Amman is a sprawling quarter at the bottom of hilly neighbourhoods, with Roman ruins languishing among the hustle and bustle of markets, shops and traffic. The buildings are very clunky, concreted beasts, and although appear better built than say, in Egypt, are the same featureless, bland buildings we’ve seen around North Africa. Less touty than other main cities, you can disappear among the crowds and observe daily life undisturbed.
The Nymphaem and Amphitheatre were a little hard to find, mainly to one of us not knowing left from right when reading the map, and being convinced that the locals were wrong and clearly pointing us in the wrong way. We did get to see a lot of Downtown though, as a consolation. Like most of the towns we’ve visited, the small local shops selling like goods are all clustered together, and we passed kitchen goods street, rotor engine alley and mattress quarter. We found shops selling melamine anything and everything, Saddam Hussein banknotes and even nun-chucks, batons and shotguns! Jac stopped at a small cafe that had several glass bowls of white deserts on offer, as well as pictures of the proprietor in his shop with Jordanian royalty. It turns out the desert was called ashta and was a milk-custard that had fragrant syrup, sultanas and nuts drizzled on top. It was a little muted in taste, but if it’s good enough for royalty… The food in Amman was typically Middle Eastern - rotisserie chicken, khoobz Arabi Arab flatbread, nuts and soft cheese being street food, and in the eateries we tried Bedouin fare like curiously-named ‘Jews Mallow’, a slimy but delicious soupy spinach dish, and moolookhiye, lamb cooked in yoghurt, served on rice and garnished with blanched almond slivers and flatbread.
While in Amman we also walked around the upmarket Abdoun area and its surrounds, and also blissfully enjoyed the odd non-Arabic meal - steak, noodles and Mexican. As soon you climb those hills from Downtown the wealth is immediately evident - Audis, Porches and Mercedes all cruising the streets, fashionable bars, modern shops and European-looking houses. At one restaurant there was a school-aged girl celebrating her birthday with a large table of friends - for the first time we saw girls without the traditional halib headscarf on, mixing with their more conservative friends. As each guest arrived the birthday girl excitedly took them to the window and pointed out - turned out one of the aforementioned luxury cars was her birthday present!
We stayed in Amman for about 8 days, and took day trips out to see the surrounding sights - Mt Nebo, the mosaic town of Madaba, The Dead Sea, Crusader Castles, Jerash Roman ruins, and Arabic Desert Castles. Jac unfortunately succumbed to the freezing cold weather and was bed-ridden for two days. And our Palace Hotel did end up being palatial compared to the other budget-price digs around, and had really good day-tours and had the best soft, fresh flatbread at breakfast we’ve tasted in the Middle East.
Holy moly! The bus to Amman
A bit of Jaeger for warmth
King Hussein Mosque
Where you pick up your keffiyeh
A cart of fresh dried dates
Downtown market - vendors all yelling prices for their fruit and vegetables
ABC Bank - they know their 1-2-3s
Fancy a Softi Softi or a Rich & Rich?
Guns don't kill, Ninjas do
A Bedouin and his sons selling herbs and capsicums
Boiled goats head is actually a Middle Eastern treat
Abu Darweesh Mosque
The Ashta desert shop that has been frequented by Jordanian royalty
Jac tries the Ashta
Chalky warming himself with a Waitangi Day algeela
The 'Ecotourism' cafe we visited daily... nothing terribly Eco or tourism about it!