Out of the Desert and Good-bye

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Leaving Aqaba on the Saudi border, we headed as far north as it is
possible to go, stopping off just north of Jerash for a few days of
exploration. From desolate desert to lush groves in just a few hours.

We left Aqaba after a couple of days of R&R in a rather seedy resort
with some passable snorkelling out front, by way of the Dead Sea
highway heading directly north. As we drove along this seemingly
endless sandy expanse, dotted with herds of sheep and the odd camel
train but not much else, we could see the Israeli cars speeding along
their version of this road, exactly parallel with us just a few
kilometres away. Eventually the blindingly white potash flats
bordering the Dead Sea hove into view, and then the Sea itself. We
decided to take the Amman bypass (or so we thought) instead of
continuing on country roads through Salt where we had visited before,
and had one of the few frustrating driving hours of our trip as we
somehow missed an exit and ended up in Amman gridlock in one of the
suburbs, from which we were extricated by some municipal workers who
turned us around (fortunately U turns are the accepted method of
changing directions here, even on freeways, they have special lanes
for them) and we eventually reached our tranquil little hotel, set
amidst olive groves and wildflowers, between Jerash and Suf.

Such an amazing contrast between the barren, desiccated southern
desert, and the (relatively) lush and fruitful north. We spent three
days up there, as we now have extra days since we cannot go to Syria,
and enjoyed it all. Jerash itself is a fascinating site, with an
extremely well preserved Roman theatre and a partially preserved
hippodrome where a rather entertaining show is staged daily to
demonstrate chariot racing, the way Roman legions operated, and
gladiator sports. It is a joint venture with Italy and has been done
with historical veracity despite its purpose of being a tourist draw.

We expected to see droves of tourists there, which there weren’t,
tourism being dramatically down, but were nonplussed to see hordes and
hordes of teenage and younger girls streaming onto the site. We were
constantly surrounded, and accosted incessantly by requests for
pictures, or just out and out had cameras and cell phones thrust into
our faces for the requisite “a strange tourist I saw on my school
trip” shot. For that is what it was – a mass school trip, all female
– finally they told us it was school trip day for the girls, the next
day would be all boys. Thank heavens we got the girls we thought, not
realizing that the trips go everywhere – and last all month, why we
could not ascertain.

As I suffered horrendous teacher flashbacks, the girls screamed, sang,
beat drums, and generally were as wild and crazy as teenagers anywhere
with teachers who seemed to have mostly decided to have a fun day of
it too. As you may have seen from the previous blog, the variety of
garments was interesting. Girls below grade 10 are supposed to wear a
sort of loden green overdress or overcoat with a white hijab, though
some had uncovered hair and some wore niqabs. Apparently the senior
students can wear their own clothes. Oddly, drumming is a very big
thing, and what I took to be class groups all had a designated drummer
and a couple of girls who led everyone in stirring songs and chants,
seemingly in competition with other groups. Really the noise was
extraordinary, and attention to culture did not seem to be on the
agenda.

When we got into the amphitheatre, to our astonishment a group of four
traditionally clad men (ankle length khaki shirts, red chequered head
dresses, brown leather bandoliers) were playing bagpipes in a rousing
manner. I must find out the historical reason for this, as bag pipe
playing appears to be a Jordanian cultural institution. And don’t
imagine haunting Arabic melodies coming out of the things, it was all
the Scottish standards, culminating in “Amazing Grace”… The girls
loved the bass drum’s addition to their own rhythm and crowded the
floor, chanting and clapping and swaying to the music as you would
imagine them doing clad in filmy costumes rather than green raincoats
and white head scarves. Their designer sun glasses did add to the
picture however. The pipers were very annoyed by what they saw as
interference in the possibility of tips from the few tourists that
were on the scene, but to no avail. There was no stopping them. We
climbed to a high vantage point, had our picture taken a few more
times, then settled down to watch. A few older girls came to chat,
and were able to explain a lot of things about their schooling,
uniforms, and so on. Their level of English was quite good I thought.

Next day we set off for Ajlun Castle on our way to the Ajlun nature
preserve. The castle is very well preserved, though according to our
guide book a disturbing conglomeration of architectural styles as it
has been added on to and modified by groups of invaders and such like
ever since the days of the Crusaders. We couldn’t tell. Horror upon
horrors, we had no sooner arrived than buses began disgorging groups
of BOYS! It was boys’ trip day. True to form, and as pointed out by
my extremely biased travel companion, the boys had practically no
English compared to the girls, and zero social skills, so despite the
fact that they found us fascinating, their way of showing it was
slightly less adept, more in the “let’s pretend to throw each other
off the battlements and entertain the tourists” style. When they
began tossing around the ancient catapult balls, my teacher flashbacks
intensified and I had to leave the scene. Their teachers, all male,
were completely and utterly oblivious to the goings on. Doug wanted
to get out of there before someone fell from a height and required
first aid or the last rites or something.

The rest of the day we walked in the nature preserve, enjoying the
wildflowers and picnicking among the olive trees. We visited three
little villages where cooperatives have been set up to allow rural
women to work together and make some money from traditional activities
like olive oil soap making, baking, and even calligraphy. It was
interesting to see the insides of the homes that were used for the
displays and the women were very keen to try to interact with us,
albeit in limited English. Arabic is a very hard language for
westerners, as always it would be so nice to be able to ask more
complicated questions!

Our last day we headed up to Umm Qais at the very northern border,
just a spit from Israel and a couple of kilometres from Syria.
Interesting old ruins, and an abandoned Ottomon village but the main
attraction for us, and for the homesick Palestinians who flock there
on weekends, is the gorgeous view over the Sea of Galilee (Lake
Tiberius here) and the Golan Heights. There is a very good restaurant
housed in a converted Ottoman dwelling perched right over the view
where we decided to deviate from our pita and cheese picnic habit and
have a good lunch. The poor staff were driven mad by the packs of
girls – yes they were there too, even louder and brasher than before –
who set up competing drumming/chanting groups on the steps of the
restaurant. There was nothing the staff could do – as they ejected
one group with angry gesticulations, another would take its place.
Very funny to watch. Many of this group were from a private school in
Amman, very western and sophisticated, the only bare arms I saw on a
Jordanian girl on the trip.

When we left we drove the twisting and turning Jordan River valley
route back, which again parallels the border with Israel. On the
Israeli side intensive cultivation takes place, greenhouses abound,
and everything looks lush. The Jordan side is much greener than
anything else we’ve seen, and this area is the breadbasket of the
country, but clearly the Israelis have some water source the
Jordanians don’t – not the Jordan River which as you recall from the
Baptism site is but a shadow of its former self.

The funny hotel we stayed in, which was reminiscent to me of a
converted hospital for some reason (it may have been the institutional
linoleum in the vast dining hall) but which had very comfortable
rooms, was packed with 120 people when we arrived. Many of them were
part of tours which had just come in from Syria, others were trying to
decide what to do since the border was in the process of closing. By
the time we left we and a French family were the only guests, and the
very friendly staff were in despair as the cancellations kept pouring
in. Evidently they are full during the season with French tour groups
who arrive from Syria in 4 wheel drives and vans, spend a couple of
nights there for the sites and hiking, and go on the to southern
Jordan. All gone with Syria’s troubles

After a couple of days in Amman, which despite our expectations was
quite interesting, but just for a short time, we are back in Madaba,
in the friendly, family run Mariam Hotel. They welcomed us like long
lost friends. We are basically killing time until we leave in two
days, but since we had planned to do all our shopping in the souks of
Damascus and Aleppo, we are looking around and purchasing the odd
insignificant souvenir (except for Doug who, characteristically, has
bought a rather heavy carpet which he will have to get home somehow).

This has been a fascinating trip, and though it is ending
precipitately, we are not too disappointed. It has been a novel
experience for us to do a trip where we had an itinerary planned and
knew where we would go each day. In fact, we have never done that
before. The style of the trip suited the country which is small but
intensively packed with sights, though in other circumstances we still
enjoy our ad hoc approach to travel. We have enjoyed having our car –
we gave it up when we reached Amman—but have also missed the
interaction with local people that we get when we take public
transport and hire drivers and cars. On the other hand, with the
great driving conditions and the lack of public transport on the
scenic highways, it is really the best way to see this country.

Standards of hygiene are also good here, and we have eaten salads
(unheard of in many of our travels) and brushed our teeth in tap
water, though we do subject the tap water we put in our bottles to
the Steripen treatment just to be sure. More expensive than our
usual trips, but we sure have not lost weight and our mid range hotels
have been friendly and comfortable. People are amazing – apparently
the king thought it was a good idea if people would greet tourists by
saying “Welcome to Jordan” and it is universal, coupled with genuine
friendliness and an astonishing willingness to help. We just open a
map and traffic screeches to a halt! We will say good-bye to Jordan
with nothing but happy sentiments.

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