Jordan: Salt Water, Rock Canyons and Wanted Men

It was only an hour and a half flight from Cairo to Amman and the oddly lax airport security made the trip easier than taking a bus from New York City to DC. We landed and made our way to the bus that would take us to meet the friends we were staying with during the next two days.

On the ride through the city, I pointed out the window and asked Caity, “do you see the trash in the streets?”

She gazed out at the quickly passing buildings and responded “no…?”

“That,” I said, “Is how you know that we’re in Amman and not Cairo”.

If Middle Eastern cities were a family, Amman would be the quiet younger sister, organized and unadventurous, the one who does her homework and goes to bed early. This is quite unlike the larger, more boisterous and older Cairo, who parties late into the night, even on school days. That said, it was nice to cross the street and not fear for our lives and for Jordanian “traffic” to be akin to Cairo’s streets on a good day.

After a wonderful night chatting with our friends Annas and Gheda, we took a taxi early the next morning to our first destination: the Dead Sea. Our driver turned out to be an aspiring guide and took it upon himself to tell us everything about Jordan, from its population, the names of all the major cities, and a bit about the Dead Sea too. F

or your information, it is the lowest spot on earth and its waters are over eight times saltier than the ocean!

All this salt contributes to the most wonderful part of visiting of the Dead Sea; you literally float on top of it. Although we arrived in the morning, the public beach soon filled up with tourists from all over the world, all taking pictures of each other reading books while floating on the water. We had a great time, but made sure to shower off the salt before it turned us into white-specked crustaceans.

We spent the afternoon in downtown Amman with Gheda, who is originally Egyptian herself, visiting the large Roman amphitheatre and then made our way to one of Amman’s more famous restaurants: Hashim’s. Located in a small dead-end street and filled with cheap plastic tables and chairs, the walls of the restaurant are covered with framed photos of famous visitors (including the King himself!) who have enjoyed its hummus and drank its notoriously sweet tea. It is also wonderfully cheap and a party of ten can eat for about as many Jordanian dinars.

It also turns out that almost all of the employees are Egyptian and happily welcomed us once they heard our Cairo accents! There are over 300,000 Egyptians working in Jordan, filling up many of the service positions that Jordanians refuse to do. They treat each other well, demonstrated by our server who cleared people from one of the better tables for us and part way through our meal even took our half-finished tray of falafels and replaced them with freshly made warm ones! We waddled away from the restaurant in complete food bliss.

The next day we went with Annas and Gheda on a tour bus filled with Jordanians down to visit Petra, Wadi Rum and Aqaba, after which we would make our way back to Cairo. After a five-hour ride that started at 5:30 am, we arrived at Petra, recently voted one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Unfortunately the tickets were priced accordingly and we paid fifty dinars to enter, an amount made more painful when we found out that the price was only one dinar for Jordanians!

Declining to rent camels or a horse drawn cart, we walked down the rough stone road as it winded itself deeper and deeper into the canyon complex that was once a thriving city. Although our tour did not give us much time, we were able to see the most famous and impressive building in Petra: the treasury (also known as the Temple of the Crescent Moon and hiding place of the Holy Grail to those Indian Jones fans out there). The surreal building suddenly jumps out at you from around the canyon’s bend and completely blows away any of the structures previously seen, making them look like child’s play compared to this pinnacle of ancient art and architecture. Unfortunately you are not allowed to get too close (perhaps for fear we will find the Grail!) but you quickly see that the building is all fascade. The gorgeous exterior leads only to a large unadorned square room with a bench running along its sides. It was almost as if they spent years carving the front of the building only to realize that their deadline was one month away so they hastily carved the center room to give purpose to the exterior. We saw some of the main city with our short remaining time, but had to quickly march out to make it back in time for lunch.

After lunch, the tour made its way over to Wadi Rum, one of the most beautiful deserts in Jordan and famed for its connection to Laurence of Arabia. We were looking forward to taking 4x4s out into the desert but when our bus pulled up to a tent compound located within a string of similar recently built settlements, we found out that we would have to pay for any further activities. We instead decided to hike into the desert ourselves and admire the stunning views. However, we were surprised to return and find music blasting and the tour group sitting around a large open circle and a few younger Jordanian men dancing in the center. Although we had come for the desert, it seems that many of the Jordanians just came to get away from Amman and relax. The music was still playing when we went to bed and the last thing I remember was someone doing karaoke to, and I kid you not, Hotel California by the Eagles. To say the least, I prefer it when the band sings the song.

The following morning, the group started the final leg of its journey and headed over to the port city of Aqaba. We quickly found out, however, that the Jordanians did not come to the city for its well-known Red Sea snorkeling spots. Instead, the bus took us to a huge mall where everyone quickly disembarked and, after taking pictures next to a life-sized Santa statue (what?!), began to shop. As we were not looking to update our kitchen in Jordan, we ditched the tour and made our way over to hotel where we were going to stay the night before taking the fast ferry back to Egypt the following day.

We booked a room, dropped our stuff and went to buy tickets for the ferry. Upon arriving to the office however, we found out that there was no fast ferry the next day! Our only option was to take the slow ferry, which left at 11:00pm that night, meaning we had to cancel our recently booked room.

Back at the hotel, we started explaining our predicament to the man at the desk, who turned out to also be Egyptian. He called the manager and worked out a deal to let us keep our stuff in the room until we had come back from snorkeling and letting us pay only part of the fee. He would not have done this for Jordanians he said, but since we were from Egypt…

Knowing that we had little time left in Aqaba, we took a taxi out to the southern beaches, right next to the border of Saudi Arabia. Renting flippers and masks, we waded out into the water where Caity heroically conquered a long-held fear of fish to explore the offshore reefs, valiantly clutching my hand the whole time.

After three and a half short days in Jordan we boarded the ferry that would take us to Egypt. We got our passports stamped and started looking around for a place to sleep during the five hour night trip. Most of the boat was filled with regular tables and chairs that quickly filled up. There was one room that looked really comfortable though. It appeared to be the ship’s theatre and was filled with rows of plushy red chairs with no armrests, perfect for lying down on. Although there were two or three men inside lounging on the chairs, the door was oddly padlocked from the outside. When Caity looked at one and motioned “how do we get in?” he smiled and shook his head.

Wondering why we could not get access to what was obviously the best sleeping area, I went and asked some of the crewmembers. The conversation went something like this:

In Arabic

“Why can’t we get into the theatre? It looks really comfortable.”

“It’s closed.”

“Yes I can see that, but why can’t we go in?”

“It’s closed.”

“But there are men in there, what’s the deal with them?”

In English

“Wanted.”

“What do you mean? They are VIP?”

“No they are wanted.”

In Arabic

“Like criminals?! Like from prison?”

“Yes.”

That explained the padlocks on the outside of the door and made Caity’s gestured conversation with one of the men inside the theatre seem quite comical. Following that conversation, we joined the group of “unwanted” people and paid and extra $10 for a small cabin.

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