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July 2006

Jordan ROCKS!


The Two Crabs are back in London after four wonderful amazing days in Jordan: two days at the Dead Sea and two days in Petra. Both are amazing places. Especially Petra. It's one of those places you see or read about in books and movies but don't believe it exists until you're standing there, seeing it with your own eyes. 

Our trip began Wednesday evening, when I checked into the Jordan Valley Dead Marriott Resort & Spa...a spectacular hotel with four pools, great restaurants and just steps down to the Dead Sea, which is about 30 miles west of downtown Amman.

Jordan_060 I picked up Pineapple Princess from Queen Alia Airport at 12:10 a.m. and didn't get back to the hotel until nearly 2am. We spent the next day doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, just enjoying the wonders of the Dead Sea. The water is 7 times saltier than ocean water. You CANOT sink.  You can't even swim for that matter because your body floats right on the surface. It's called the Dead Sea because the water is so salty that no creatures can live in the water, which is good if you're afraid of being bitten or stung by critters. All you can do is bob around the slimy water like a little cork. Every tourist takes the obligatory photo of themselves floating in the water reading a newspaper. The other must-do activity is slathering your body with the gray, clay-like Dead Sea mud. Supposedly it’s good for your skin. If getting the mud for free isn’t enough, you can also pay for the privilege at every hotel spa. The mud is also sold in souvenir shops and the airport…a small tub of mud is about $10. Either way, the mud feels cool on a hot day, and it was HOT. The daytime temperature at the Dead Sea was about 110 F (40 Celsius).

Img_7493 Had a great dinner outside under a palm forest, dining on Middle Eastern dishes like chicken kababs, hummus and lamb, while we were entertained by a belly dancer (sorry guys, the photos didn’t come out well). The next day we took another morning dip in the liquid salt lick before hitting the road for Petra along the Dead Sea Highway and Kings Highway, a three hour drive from the Dead Sea. Before we checked out, we realized the Marriott had neglected to give us our bottle of champagne we were promised as part of a “romance package.” We complained and within 30 seconds, a champagne bottle materialized, which we drank in about 15 minutes before getting on road, which took us from 415 meters below sea level to the mountains of the Jordan Valley about 1,000 meters ABOVE sea level! 

(Incidentally, Hertz rental agency in Jordan is a HUGE RIP OFF! If you are planning a trip to Jordan, do NOT use Hertz’s chauffer-driven vehicle plan. And unless you have nerves of steel and extensive overseas driving experience, I would not recommend renting a car and driving yourself, as Jordanians tend to drive in the middle of the road and have no regard to lanes, speed limits or turn signals. The easiest way to get around is to just hire a regular plain yellow taxi and barter with the driver. Hertz charged us 90 JD (about $126 USD) for a chauffer-driven car from Dead Sea to Marriott. When I called the bastard driver a few days later, he wanted 150 JD (about $210) for a return ride from Petra to the airport! We ended up hiring a normal taxi on the street for just 45 JD ($63 USD) for the 2 hour, 10 minute drive from Petra to Queen Ali International Airport.)

Jordan_054 The town of  Petra itself was relatively good-sized city. We stayed at the Movenpick, a boutique hotel just a 5 minute walk from the Petra visitors’ center. We even got upgraded to a suite because it was low season. Woo hoo!

We had a late lunch by the pool, where the silence of the desert was broken by heavy machine gun fire! The blonde American woman at the next table looked like she was about to hit the deck and run home crying until the waiter explained that today was Thursday – the end of the week in Muslim countries -- and the gunfire was just celebratory firing for a nearby wedding! 

Img_7693 We went out for drinks at the Cave, one of the most unusual places we’ve ever enjoyed a pint. It’s located in what was once a tomb or house, carved out of a cliff face. The pub was showing the World Cup series on large screens in the outdoor courtyard, where we met a cool British couple from Cyrpus.

The next day we explored Petra.

Petra was nothing short of spectacular. A city carved out of cliffs hidden from civilization. You begin the adventure with a mile-long walk from the visitors center through the Siq, a narrow gorge less than 10 feet wide in some places. The colors and light and dramatic geology of the cliffs is amazing enough. But then you turn a corner and you catch a glimpse of the Treasury, the first and most spectacular ruin within Petra.

Img_7633 But contrary to what you may have seen in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” there is nothing inside any of the structures. Everyone recognizes the Treasury building, which was the supposed resting place of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones. It’s the most spectacular structure, but just one of hundreds of ruins within Petra. Like all the buildings, the Treasury is just a façade. Inside is just a small empty room with absolutely NOTHING. No sculptures, no statues, no secret passageways or knights and NO Holy Grail.

Img_7765 Petra 101: Petra was built between 100 BC and 200 AD by the Nabataeans, nomadic Arabs who lived in the desert and gained enormous wealth by charging tolls on the trade routes that came traversed through the area between the Middle East and Europe. The Nabataeans were later conquered by the Romans, hence the obvious Roman influence on Petra’s architecture like the amphitheater, columned paved streets and intricate facades. The Romans were in turn replaced by various other conquerors until Petra disappeared from memory for about 700 years. It was forgotten to the outside world until 1812, when a Swiss explorer, Jean Louis Burckhardt, discovered the lost city of Petra. The Nabataeans got the last laugh when Burckhardt died not long after of dysentery.

Img_7724 In addition to the Treasury, the other must-see site is the Monastery. It’s located on a mountaintop, 900 very-steep steps up a staircase carved out of the cliff. Pineapple Princess opted to ride a donkey to the top, led by a small boy named Allah. Coconut (me) decided to walk. About half-way up, I wish I had taken the donkey. The donkey herders warned me it would take 1 hour to climb to the top – it took me only 24 minutes but I felt like I had walked for 24 hours. Luckily it was ONLY about 90 degrees today, and luckily we had carried four liters of water for the day trip. In all, we spent about 7 hours hiking and exploring Petra. Dinner at the Movenpick BBQ with our Cypriot Brit pals, and that was about it. The next morning we got up at 7am, took a taxi to the airport and were back in London by 4pm.

Img_7782_1 Jordan is an absolutely beautiful country well worth exploring for a few days or longer. We would love to return to see the other major sites like the Wadi Rum desert and Jerash – one of the most preserved Roman cities in the world.

Sadly, not many Westerners – especially Americans – consider Jordan as a tourist site. Of the 1.5 million foreigners who visited Jordan last year, 1 million were Arabs from neighboring countries. Only a handful of the tourists were Westerners. The fact that Jordan is surrounded by hot places like Iraq, Syria, Israel and Saudi Arabia doesn’t help. Neither did the November 2005 bombings of three hotels in
Amman. Too bad, because Jordan is a perfectly safe country. Security at all the hotels and tourist sites was extremely high. For a Muslim country, Jordan is extremely liberal. Most women do not even wear hijabs (head scarves). And Jordanians were among the most hospitable people we’ve ever encountered. But the good news is Jordan is still traditional and unique. Go now before it’s ruined by tacky tourist traps and crowds!

The Cave Bar, Petra, Jordan: