Back to the beginning of May, 2015...
P.s. This update is probably full of typos and mistakes of kinds. I'm doing it in Africa...I don't care!
Oh Jordan. I'm going to start off by saying this Jordan update was written entirely retroactively such that we've been out of Jordan for months before I had been able to write. So I will likely both write about our experience and reflect on our experience at the same time. And this is definitely a hard one to write because we both equally loved Jordan and hated Jordan. It was inspiring and also absolutely exhausting. It was quite ironic because, to this date, we had some of our most aggressive, terrible interactions on this trip with people in Jordan and yet at the same time, we have also never experienced such unsolicited warmth, friendliness and gifts as we did from the people of Jordan having some of the best, most charming interactions of our trip. It is also important to note that our experience of Jordan occurred within a very particular context whereby the tourist numbers had plummeted this year and there was a bit of an air of desperation across the country. I guess Jordan does not have many local resources to call its own and tourism (especially Petra) accounts for a large proportion of the country's income as well as individual's income. Many people we chatted with had depressing stories to tell about how little tourists are visiting Jordan this year and how business is very bad. The fact that it shares borders with Syria, Iraq, Israel and Saudi Arabia doesn't help its case, scaring many a western visitor away. Local people shared endless stories with us about how tourists used to come and travel overland between the countries in this area, including Jordan on a more wide scale itinerary but since instability in neighboring regions has prevailed, the Jordanian tourist industry is taking a hit as a byproduct. The ISIS attack on the Jordanian pilot earlier this year also did not help the case, and I must admit, I had also second guessed our visit in light of this event, particularly after the king of Jordan had justifiably so, openly condemned and sworn mobilization and vengeance against the perpetrators. There definitely exists a widespread notion in the west of the "danger in the Middle East" and while I can absolutely appreciate this given much of what has gone on in the region, we can say with absolute certainty that Jordan felt safer than many other countries we would visit on this trip. The police/army seems to keep a tight grip on the country, we've heard over and over from local people how safe Jordan is (it's a real point of pride for people!) and there was never a point where we felt vulnerable or unsafe in any way, very much the opposite in fact. Actually I read somewhere that "Jordan is a quiet house in a noisy neighborhood" and I would absolutely agree, a pillar of stability in a notoriously unstable region. Spread the word, safety is NOT a reason not to visit Jordan!!! That being said, obviously our experience in the country existed within the context of this tourist vacuum per se and it was hard not to feel that the country was trying to squeeze as much money as possible from what little tourists existed in its borders at the time. We unfortunately quickly became a bit bitter and jaded how on one hand the government and people of Jordan were begging for tourists to come but yet we felt totally exploited and screwed by the extortionate costs of everything for foreigners, especially in light of the usually sub-par product you bought for your huge cash flow out. If the country is serious about putting Jordan back on the map for tourism, they should be offering some sort of incentive to visit instead of gouging you at every corner. Regardless of how you spin it, Jordan is a tiny little plot of land full of contradictory feelings that are really hard to express on paper but here goes... Number one shocker about Jordan...it is flipping expensive. Not only was the visa fee 40 Jordanian Dinar, approximately $68 CDN, it was the first country we/I have ever encountered where the local currency is more valuable than my home currency. What that meant was that, while dividing local prices by 3, 30, 8000 etc. in other countries, in Jordan we actually almost doubled the local prices to arrive at the good old Canadian cost. Water in Jordan listed at 2 JDN make that 4 CDN. Kebab listed at 4 JD, it's actually 8 CDN. Taxi 5 JD, make that $10 and so it goes. Ouch. The other completely unrelated thing that was unexpected was how light featured many Jordanian people were. A total Middle Eastern virgin, I think I expected that classic Arabic look of dark hair, eyes and skin but Jordanians were much lighter skinned and some even had these crazy piercing blue eyes. From the airport we headed to Amman, capital of Jordan. Amman doesn't have the best of reputations for being the most interesting place, however, we were very charmed by it, perhaps it being our first true Middle Eastern city. The city is built through the hills (seriously it's like the Middle Eastern San Fransisco-walking was a bit torturous) and the buildings are actually those stereotypical Middle Eastern perfectly square/rectangle concrete boxes and these seemingly go on for miles across the city. It really is quite a sight, especially as you are sitting on your rooftop terrace surrounded by this as the Muslim call to prayer echoes throughout the city.
Not to mention the fact that the weather was quite temperate and the air was really fresh. In our heads Jordan is the desert (most of it is) and deserts are smoking hot (they're not) but even though the days were hot, I actually froze in the evening and went back to Korea style wearing every piece of clothing I had. Bridger, however, was tickled pink about it all. Actually there is a "tent" on the roof and Bridger was itching to try it and it was cheaper so I said we could give it a go. It wasn't really a tent as you'd imagine it but a canvas box with a few beds inside. A really awesome spot and set up...until the sun went down. And it was freezing. Only to get more freezing as the night went on and I spent it curled up under two blankets in the fetal position. Until the call to prayer came on at 4:30 in the morning and woke us up because, of course we could hear it loud and clear because we were virtually outside. So that only lasted one night.
So Jordan is a very true to form Middle Eastern Muslim country/culture and daily life here demonstrates it. Everyone dresses very conservatively, men in pants and usually long sleeve shirts and women, even highly educated women fully wrapping their head up and wearing either abayas or fully covering clothing. They eat Middle Eastern food, they play Middle Eastern music, they speak Arabic, shisha is EVERYWHERE, the architecture showed it an on it goes. Though Dubai was also Muslim, the true feeling of being in the Middle East was slightly lost as it was somewhat diluted by the huge migrant/expat presence there. It was definitely an adjustment, mostly in dress because I pretty well wore pants/long skirt and t-shirts every day regardless of the heat as I definitely would have felt uncomfortable in everything else, but really exciting to experience SUCH a different way of life. What constantly struck us was how devout Muslims are, being required to stop and pray 5 times per day. There were times when we would be in restaurants and the waiter would roll out a mat in the middle of the day and go through his prayer movements in the middle of the restaurant. Seriously, that level of devotion is commendable! And that call to prayer comes so early as we experienced in our tent the night before! You know, traveling here I read so many TripAdvisor reviews that rated a place poorly and said something like "the room was right beside the mosque so it was so annoying/couldn't get any sleep/constantly loud..." etc. etc. and I can't help that I wanted to punch those people in the teeth as it just seems like the peak of ignorance to travel to a Muslim country and then complain about a massive part of their daily lives being an inconvenience to your sleep in your cozy hotel room! I do get it and I was, unfortunately, one of those people once upon a time as the call to prayer rung out far and wide 5 times a day in Malaysia as a 21 year old and I grumbled as it woke me up early in the morning in my freezing cold tent but to complain heavily about it is a terrible thing to do let alone rate a hotel poorly because of it! Go home! Rant over...
Anyways, as we travel in Muslim countries, we keep trying to reconcile the positive things we are experiencing with the stereotypes and beliefs we grow up with around the Middle East. In the West we associate being Muslim with oppression, tyranny and violence and the negativeness becomes associated with being "Muslim". But what we are understanding while traveling in this part of the world is the separation between religion and culture/government. What if what we've always thought of as the negatives associated with being Muslim was actually associated with the cultural/political standards of conduct in a region that happens to also be Muslim by religion?! Based on our ever growing and never complete understanding, there is nothing inherently oppressive about the Muslim faith any more so than the code of conduct associated with other religions. It is the radicalist culture of the countries that promotes oppression rather than anything inherent to being Muslim! That's a really insurmountable distinction to make! Alot of the negative associations we have about being Muslim seems to come from women's rights which, as a woman and a man who loves women, we're totally behind. But again, the same argument as above stands re: cultural codes of conduct. The fact that Muslim women cover their head/face on first glance seems immediately oppressive, however, if you think about it, all religions command modesty from their followers. It makes me wonder if perhaps Islam is just a religion that hasn't fallen as far away from the ideals as written in the "book" as many other religions have? There are many Muslim women who cover themselves by personal choice as a devout follower of their religion, not oppressive at all. A culture where it is acceptable and expected that a man "owns" a woman and all of her behavior and punishes her for acting in opposition to this is oppressive and reprehensible. Yes I agree, often these two are impossible to tease out from one another and unfortunately do exist but what I'm saying is that they are not automatically and unequivocally the same thing. But I'm also really still learning about this stuff, so this is where we're at right now and time, education and experience may change our views as they so frequently tend to do.
On to trip updates...The first night in Amman we went across the street and smoked shisha while listening to live Arabic music. Our first day in Amman, we decided to try the famed Hashem restaurant for what would be the first of, well every morning for breakfast. It was busy. We sat down and asked for a menu to which we were told "no menu" so we weren't entirely sure how we would order truly having no idea what even food existed in Jordan. So we just looked around and pointed to what we wanted off other people's tables. After a few times of going there, we were pretty sure they only sold one meal: hummus, falafal, bread, bean dip and the most delicious tea with mint sprigs and sugar in it (no tea has ever come close to being as delicious as Jordanian tea with mint leaves and sugar) ... so they must have thought we were idiots pointing at what we wanted at a set menu place. We would also later come to realize how much we took for granted that smooth, creamy, peanut butter texture hummus that we assumed all hummus was like, but that we never found again. Mmmm Jordan had the BEST hummus. We headed out to see the old but restored Roman theater. Neither of us having ever seen a Roman theater before, it was actually really neat and only $2 admission...bonus.
As we were standing there taking pictures, a teenager and three younger kids came up and asked, "selfie?". Haha they just wanted to take a picture with us! Of course we obliged and chatted for awhile with them having almost no English and us speaking no Arabic. Eventually that convo died down and we went to leave, there were two more groups of kids that also came up and requested "selfie?". Haha so...even for people who don't speak English, "selfie" is the new universal language.
First day in Jordan and people were so curious about us...it was really funny and endearing and we also felt a little bit like celebrities :) In a related note, later I would go out myself to pick up dinner in a narrow little alley full of little food stalls and I got chatting with a super friendly grandfatherly old guy who introduced me to every other guy around us. And then another totally random guy came up and asked for a "selfie". So I guess friendliness and selfies with foreigners are a thing in Jordan?! However, in a related story, that same night Bridger also went out for awhile on his own and met a "super friendly" guy who turned out to be a total scam artist, his story to tell another day. Anyways, after this we continued our Amman exploring by foot. One thing Jordanians are known for is their incredible hospitality and you couldn't walk a few feet down the street without someone warming smiling and saying "Welcome!" or "Welcome to Jordan!" for the most part, for no other reason than just to actually make you feel welcome! Though a chorus of "Welcome's", we headed to "Rainbow Street", the area where supposedly, Amman's rather large expat community resides. We didn't care for it too much-just another ritzy boutiquey place with inflated prices, however, we both got the sudden urge to poo so we ran into a little cafe, bought a shisha pipe, poo'ed and smoked for a few hours. Somehow we got talking to the waiter, the usual where are you from where have you been, how do you like Jordan etc. He also ended up telling us about his dreams to go to Canada because he is a Christian from Egypt and Canada is a Christian country. Buuuut it's hard to get there because he needs someone to help him by sponsoring him. Of course, being quite ignorant about that stuff, we sympathized for awhile until he had told us about 10 more times and then realized that, oh my gosh, does he actually want us to offer to sponsor him?!? CAN we even do that if we wanted to?!? Which obviously we don't even know what it means nor can we vouch for the 2nd waiter we have met in Jordan so we followed up with the obligatory "haha...well if you ever get to Canada, you can sleep on our couch". Hmmm. In the evening we wanted to go to the Citadel, the highest point in the city and historical area. This is where we got our first lesson in "maps are only in 2D". Sure enough we followed our flat map right to the Citadel...and found ourselves at the bottom of a very large grassy, rocky hill with houses and other buildings strewn across it with no entrance in sight. Faced with either walking all around the base of the hill to find the "authorized" entrance/path up or "off-roading" of course Bridger opts for the latter and just starts climbing over rocks and trudging through thick tall grass.
Sure enough, we made it to the top, hopped a small fence and we were in. The view at the top provided outstanding views of the hills and buildings of Amman not to mention it was sunset so also pretty amazing views as the sun set around the Roman ruins that still partially stood at the top. Made even better by the fact that the locals came up here to fly their kites, a traditional Middle Eastern tradition. It was all very lovely. And in an added bonus, we realized later that there was an entrance fee so our accidental get lost/climb in bought us a few extra bucks savings. And then we high fived eachother for the "travel hack"...Budget travelers!
We walked back home and we picked up a 2 dollar shawarma. Jordan is the land of delicious shawarma's and delicious falafals sold pretty well everywhere in little street kiosks. We were so happy! Seriously, to have the option to have cheap delicious street food is such a budget bonus because the second you step into a restaurant, you know you're going to spend triple the price. Only thing is, most menus in these places are in Arabic so unless you have pictures, you're hooped. Though a great thing is that a shawarma place has the characteristic shawarma spit right out front so when in doubt, just order shawarma. We eat ALOT of shawarma. And in Jordan, they put french fries in your shawarma...sooo it's probably not that healthy. But cheap! We have also been saving money staying in a dorm room in Amman in a "hostel" that's actually more similar to your grandma's basement than a hostel but does the job. And we met this really interesting guy from France who has lived abroad in a variety of Middle Eastern places and spoke a bit of Arabic and who also had a pretty good handle on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Bridger and him spent quite awhile chatting and Bridger was very happy to get a bit of a better understanding of this as he's always been interested to know more. One day we took a day trip on the local bus from Amman up to the Roman ruins of Jerash. After a whole bunch of searching and a whole bunch of "go that way", we eventually grabbed a taxi that we shared with two local women and paid only 1 CDN ea. It dropped us at the bus stop. Now, this would be our first of many experiences that would indicate to us that Jordan is not set up for the backpacking, independently traveling tourists! It would have been a good thing to speak Arabic at this bus stop because not only was there almost no signage anywhere (destinations, times, locations, anything!), what was there was written in Arabic only. So we essentially wandered aimlessly saying "Jerash bus?". At first we were told we were at the wrong bus stop but after asking a few more times, eventually we were pointed on to a bus that hopefully, would go to Jerash. We were the last ones on before setting off (in Jordan buses pretty well leave when they are full, not on a set schedule). Not long after heading out, we were pulled over at a police checkpoint and everyone started handing over their passports/id's. Well shit, I had changed my purse that day so not only did we not have our passports or any identification on us, we also didn't even have copies of identification, let alone our visa that allows us to legally be in the country. Ugh. He came to us and I basically made a remorseful face and shrugged to say we had nothing to show him. And then it happened...the ugly uncomfortable laugh that came out way louder than expected. Bridger was mortified because he figured the police guy probably thought I was laughing at him and he still mocks me about it to this day. Whenever I'm doing something stupid, the imitation ugly laugh comes out followed by fits of real giggling on his behalf. Anyways, luckily no offense taken and likely for lack of speaking English, he just waved us on and we were on our way again. We really had no idea when to get off but hoped we'd see some well established ruins with a clear park gate and just get off then. Sure enough we spotted some little ruins on the side of the road but were not sure if they were THE ruins because they were small so we stayed on the bus. Until a local guy shouted to the driver in Arabic to stop and told us to get off even though he didn't really know where we were going but could only assume that the only reason a tourist would be on this bus is to see Jerash. We thanked him profusely and got off for 2 seconds before Bridger realized he had left his sunglasses on the bus. So he ran back on before the door closed and the same smiling guy was waiting for Bridger holding out his sunglasses for him haha. And then when he went to get back off the bus the bus driver closed the door and "locked" him on and jokingly wagged his finger at Bridger in the mirror before opening the door a few seconds later with the entire bus having a laugh. Hahaha, funny foreigners. You know, things like this happen all the time while we travel and you really start to realize how inherently good people are! While traveling, especially in transit, you never know where you're going or what to do and you ultimately just have to put your trust somewhere and hope people will care for and help you, which for the most part they really do. Today people could have actively misled us and told us to get on the wrong bus or just passively not said anything when we had to get off the bus, but it doesn't happen. For the most part people don't just passively ignore and let you make mistakes but actively initiate helping you with no other self interest! It really is a beautiful thing and has made us think that we should make a bigger effort to help tourists at home and pay it forward! We walked toward what looked like the entrance and a local guy directed us down the opposite way. So we walked aaaaaall the way down that way, found no ticket counter. Even though we knew it wasn't free, we were secretly hoping maybe to pull off another accidental free admission so walked aaaaaaal the way back to the entrance where we started where we were denied entry and sent aaaaall the way back to the other side to a supposed ticket booth inside a little market down a hill. So we went, bought our ticket for 8JD where locals pay only 1 and then walked aaaaall the way back to the entrance gate. By this point, we'd done so much walking before we got in the gate that we didn't even think we wanted to walk around the ruins anymore! But we had our tickets so that's that. As we gave our tickets, the ticket guy was pleasantly curious "what that thing in my nose" was haha. I told him it's my nose hoop to which he replied that it looked good and asked whether I also had a tattoo. My hoop is just such a normal part of life now that I forget that in most parts of the world, still only delinquents have face piercings and tattoos so it must have been a curious thing for them because I look like a teeny little nice girl. Ok, we're not really ancient ruins people we find out. It was cool to walk around the sprawling site for awhile but sooner rather than later we just stopped reading signs all together. More than caring about ancient history (i.e. what each part/structure was once upon a time) which we really find quite uninteresting, we enjoy just admiring the structures for what they were and marveling at how such engineering masterpieces could have been created at the time that the people constructed them. We have a huge appreciation for construction and enjoy just looking at different structures and taking awesome pictures.
So there you have it from the most uncultured travelers in the world. When we went to check out the Artemis Temple which really was incredible, we met this really friendly Jordanian guy who we chatted with for awhile before confirming what we already had an inclination about-- "we look different than other tourists" haha. And then I got my first marriage proposal of the trip as he asked me how many camels I want and to ask my dad the same question. Then he proceeded to show us a slightly moveable pillar that unnervingly was held up by a rock and a spoon! And then he pulled out his phone and showed us pictures of Jerash...covered in snow! Guess what-it snows in desert countries, wtf?! He was really lovely and one of the first of the endless gems of people we encountered in Jordan.
Eventually (ok in not that long!) we tired of wandering and left the park to catch our 1 hour bus back...which turned into our first major foray into the world of Jordanian public transportation. We made the mistake of getting on a bus at the other side of the road as we were/needed to head because they said "Amman?" and we said "yes!" and it just seemed natural to get on a bus headed to the place we needed to go. But that was a bad choice because of that whole bus leaves when it's full thing. So we drove for about 5 minutes before pulling into the bus stop where everyone else on the bus got OFF. And then we waited an hour for the bus to fill up again before leaving! But positively, the bus cost only 1 JD. We had assumed we'd just go back to the bus stop we left from and taxi home but the driver asked us where we were staying in Amman. And he dropped us off at a local city bus and said "this is the downtown bus". We were the only people on the bus and the driver was a super friendly guy who was enamored by us and we chatted for the 15 minutes that we just sat there. And he didn't even charge us for the bus ride!! Eventually we left and pulled into another stop in front of the University where a very bossy man directed buses and people about what bus they could/couldn't get on. So we waited on an empty bus here too. Eventually university students were allowed to get on our bus and we filled up after about half hour of waiting. Our driver spent the rest of the drive playing "tour guide" pointing out all the important and some not so important buildings/parks etc. in Amman and being very concerned about getting us as close as possible to where we were staying, even though he didn't know where it was...so even though it was a public bus, he stopped and asked several people where our hotel was! Eventually he told us this was our stop and directed us what way to walk so we could make it home. Which we did... approximately 3 hours after we left Jerash, the usual distance about 45 minutes haha. It was a great dive into Amman public transportation and full of amazing, wonderful interactions with people who for nothing other than interest and/or hospitality, took personal responsibility to help us get where we needed to be. Little did we know that this wasn't just an isolated event but would be the norm in Jordan for the duration of our trip.