Friday, November 25, 2011
Dead sea strolls - Jordan
One of the recent fads hyped up as a panacea for skin diseases are skin care products derived from ‘dead sea salts’. The mud derived from the Dead Sea apparently has an amazing variety of minerals and is being increasing promoted for anything from the treatment of psoriasis and allergic disease to skin aging. So if you are a self /publically proclaimed old hag, just jump into the Dead Sea, roll around a bit in the blackish mud and voila! You come out with glowing skin a la Mama Aiswarya Rai! It’s not really an apt place for suffering husbands who are planning to dispose their ‘bitter’ half by the good ol’ ‘death by drowning thing’….not only will these wives remain floating on the surface, they might actually come back looking unrecognizable!
A couple of weeks back I too had the grand honor of dipping/floating in the Dead Sea (from the Jordanian side of course). Unfortunately no ‘ugly duckling to beautiful swan’ thing for me….my skin remained pretty much the same…extraordinarily thick and itchy. Besides, if this Dead Sea thing actually improved itchy conditions you would have expected that the Arabs and the Israelis would have a less scratchy attitude towards each other by now……but I suppose even nature’s cures have their own limits.
The Dead Sea
We visited Jordan in early November (We, as in my family and my friend with his family). The weather was great, the food was great and the people were great. We drove into Jordan from the Eastern end of Saudi Arabia and as expected the long drive was an experience in itself. It is about 1700 km from Hofuf to Amman , virtually a criss-cross across the breadth of Saudi Arabia. Major cities on the way were Hafr- Al Batein, Arar, Rafah and Turaif .We broke the journey and spent the night at Turaif. The ‘Omari’ border crossing is from the Saudi town of Qurayat. This time the Saudi side took just about half and hour (surprisingly!), while the Jordanian side took a good two hours, mainly for the visa on arrival thing and the car insurance (Visa is around 20 jordanian dinars per person and car insurance works out to about 50JD for a month). Most Jordanians speak at least a smattering of English, so conversation is not as difficult as in Saudi. Amman is around 2 hours from the Omari border and our first impression of Jordan en route to Amman was quite disappointing….mostly desert stretches for at least 150 km…I mean if you wanted to see deserts we have absolutely no shortage in Saudi! The other very interesting and mysterious thing is that every few kilometers you find a ‘police training center’. The Jordanian police apparently is a very professional unit, but so many training centers? I was half expecting to see some ‘Bad guy training centers’ ahead so that these cops would be kept occupied!
Things started picking up when we approached Amman. The desert started giving rise to more greenery and then we started experiencing the typical ups and downs of Amman. Amman is basically built around hills and it shows in the roads…it’s a bit like a marriage..Up-down, up- down with few level stretches!
We’re traditionally not very much into the planning thing, so we were cute enough to reach Amman and then search for a hotel instead of booking in advance as level-headed mere mortals would do. As expected (and as that guy Murphy found out) , we were going in circles and we had no idea where we were exactly (It felt a bit like my life story…going around in circles and not reaching anywhere..but apparently the others claimed to be more normal so they apparently felt uncomfortable). Finally we decided to trouble Dr Radi , one of our former Jordanian colleagues in Saudi, who is now settled in Amman. Poor Dr Radi went out of his way to help us. He found us a furnished apartment, invited us for breakfast and lunch the next day ( we were sweet enough to extend that to tea and dinner too!) and also gave us a little guided tour to one of major the attractions near Amman - the roman ruins in Jarash, around 65 km from Amman. We spent almost the whole of the next day at Dr Radi’s ancestral home in the village of Naimah, which is near the major town of Irbid (quite close to the Syrian border).The whole area has beautiful hilly landscapes.Besides the omnipresent olive trees and the lovely people we were treated to great food. Breakfast was ‘Khubuz’ (Arabic bread, something like a more obese cousin of our Indian roti), with hummus (made of chick peas…it’s another things which the whole middle east fights over …as to who has original patent rights – the Lebanese, the other Arabs and the now the Israelis are all laying claim to hummus….as though these dummies didn’t already have enough on their plate to fight about!) .We also had Felafel with a very tasty sauce made of vinegar and spices. In the afternoon we had Ouzi….essentially rice and chicken with lots of nuts and interesting flavours ( although Ouzi I think has more of a Lebanese slant compared to ‘Mansaf’ which is more typically Jordanian…who cares…generally if you put rice over a murdered chicken and rub salt into its wounds and cook it, it tastes good!). Anyway I’m sure we upheld the glorious image of our country in Jordan…Dr Radi will henceforth think twice (at least) before inviting Indians over again!
Amman city is more or less similar to most Arab capitals. What strikes you most is the almost monotonous white limestone buildings everywhere. This particularly white stone is very imaginatively called ‘Hajr al Abyad’ which means ‘white stone’ in Arabic (Ok…I’ll cut down the sarcasm next time……you think!) .Otherwise its typical congested roads, government buildings, malls and lot fly-overs, fly-unders and fly between over and unders. The people seem to be generally very well dressed (my wife though is convinced that even Bappi Lahiri is better dressed than yours truly, so maybe that’s just a relative thing).
Sometimes we sorely missed the luxury of talking in Hindi or Malayalam to every other person (like in the other Gulf countries).Indians generally seemed to be in short supply around here…till we bumped into a jovial mallu from Kannur who was in charge of the play area in Mecca mall, one of the largest malls in Amman. He was ‘simbly’ overjoyed and even gave free game passes to the children who were also ‘simbly’ overjoyed. The other major attractions within the city include the majestic blue mosque and the Roman theatre…but you should definitely not miss the “Citadel” on a hill in the center of downtown Amman…an area which has remains an ruins from half a dozen civilizations and is considered to be one of the world’s oldest inhabited places. So here you have the ‘pillars of Hercules’ and an ‘Umayyad mosque’ all jostling each other in the same space. The citadel also gives an absolutely grand 360 degree view of the whole Amman city around it.
Citadel, Amman and
The Pillars of Hercules
The two must-see things in Jordan of course are –Petra and the Dead Sea. Petra is around 400 km from Amman, while the Dead Sea is around 100 km. ideally you should do Petra and Wadi Rum together, but our schedule was a bit tight, so we skipped Wadi Rum. Wadi Rum is apparently famous for eco-tourism – things to do include desert drives, rock-climbing and horse-riding. The area is famous because of its association with T E Lawrence, of the ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ fame. The port of Aqaba is another place near Petra- famous for water sports and shopping.
Petra of course is quite magnificent…especially considering that the whole city was virtually carved out of rocks somewhere around the 6th century BC. The admission ticket is priced magnificently too…I’m sure that a lot of the rocks are actually guys who got ‘petrified’ after hearing the admission fees! Maybe that’s why it’s one of the new ‘wonders of the world’….you hear the price and then you ‘wonder’ whether you really want to go in or not! One Jordanian Dinar (JD) is around 1.4 USD .A ticket to Petra costs 50 JD per head..But jokes apart, it’s worth every cent. The ‘rose city’ as it is called needs to be viewed in leisure. The easiest way of course is to walk, but there are other options like horses and horse-driven carts, especially if you’re going with older people or children. The piece-de-resistance of course is the ‘treasury’ building, made famous by the Indiana Jones movie – ‘The last crusade’
The USP of the Dead Sea is the floating thing. You can actually lie down and read a book while floating effortlessly on the Dead Sea. Personally though I felt the drive into the area was more breathtaking. The Dead sea is the lowest point on the earth and is surrounded by a fabulous landscape which stuns your visual senses as you descend down the hairpin curves. Many Jordanians believe that it is not good to spend a lot of time here as it is a ‘cursed place’, alluding to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah of the ‘destroyed by fire and brimstone’ fame (The area around the Dead Sea is believed to be site of these ancient cities). There are quite a few historical areas nearby including Bethany along the Jordan river.
There are many areas to actually take a dip into the water, but most recommended is the ‘Amman Beach resort’. You have to leave before sunset though. Our guide mentioned that this restriction had something to do with the ‘not so friendly neighborhood Israelis’ being concerned about their security. The West bank is clearly visible from the Jordanian side. Our guide, an interesting and resourceful motor-mouth named Khalil, a Palestinian –Jordanian, intermittently put in nostalgic comments on his homeland where he was no longer allowed in, whenever his gaze drifted to the West Bank. Seeing the beautiful and serene Dead Sea, it would be hard to fathom the amount of conflict and hate deposited on its banks…..
Floating in the Dead Sea
Some general tips:
The best accommodation is around the area of the Jordan University. All major hotel chains are present. You can get a pretty good room starting from 50-60 JD a night. However if you’re going with a larger group getting a furnished apartment would also be a good option. A three bedroom furnished apartment comes for about 60-70 JD a day.
For moving around Jordan, it is better to catch hold of a taxi (even if you have your own car, the route can be confusing).The yellow taxis charge by the meter and seem the best option. For longer trips (like to Petra) you try a taxi, take one of the Jordanian Express Transport (JET) buses or rent-a-car. There are plenty of car rental outlets – a standard sedan like a Toyota corolla goes for about 200 JD a week (most places don’t rent for less than a week)
Prepaid sim cards are easily available at most company outlets. One of the best options is the Zain card which is available for around 10 JD
Petrol ( or benzene, like the Jordanians call it) is pretty expensive here, so if you’re driving in from Saudi, make sure you fill up your tank at the border.
ATMS are surprisingly scarce in Jordan, so keep some cash handy.
Nadia and gang at the Treasury in Petra
Please feel free to use the photos with permission.Thanks!