Monday, May 27, 2019

Day -4: Welcome to Jordan!

Originally, I planned to post about the Jordan Trail starting with Day 1. Maybe a Day 0 to introduce the Jordan Trail, but Karolina would have none of that. She felt very strongly I should post about all of my days in Jordan, including the five days before the actual hike started. I didn't want to blog about those days, though, since they weren't directly related to the trail and I'm lazy.

So she said, "Fine! I'll write the posts myself!"

Because she was there with me and knew about all of my pre-trip adventures. And that's what happened. So the first several posts were written by Karolina, and without further ado, here's her take on our arrival into Jordan....

Jordanian flag

Some time ago Ryan contacted me saying: “Hey, I’ve just heard of a new awesome trail in Jordan and am planning to hike it soon, wanna join?”

Jordan? I thought. Middle East?! It sounded exotic and tempting but at the same time a little scary…

So I told Ryan that before committing to this adventure I first wanted to run safety research.

Jordan is advertised as an island of peace and security in the region turmoiled by conflicts. They take particular care to keep things this way as their GDP depends heavily on tourism. As you will see further in this blog, the country has really a lot to offer to visitors – it is bursting in the seams with ancient history, culture and magnificent landscapes. Hiking the Jordan trail – 680 km of Bedouin footpaths running from the Red Sea in the south all the way to the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Umm Qais in the north – is an excellent way to get acquainted with Jordan and everything Jordanian.

The first idea was that Ryan and I were going to hike the trail on our own. At least until I started reading more about it. As it turned out, the trail wasn’t waymarked except for the northernmost sections which run through the countryside. No waymarks whatsoever in the desert in the south or mountains in the middle. Scarcity of water throughout the country. Limited resupply options. Locals in the desert and the countryside may not speak English. Risk of flash floods in the wadis. Unknown culture of the Arabs and the Bedouins. Unfamiliar language and customs. Stray dogs. Stereotypes about the region. All this made me chicken out.

Ryan said that he would understand if I decided to bail out. He would then join the group thru-hike organized by the Jordan Trail Association every spring – after all, hiking in the Middle East was outside of his comfort zone, too.

“Wait a second!” I said. Joining an organized thru-hike was an option? Why had we never spoken about it? That would make me feel so much more secure! "Let’s do that!” I said. And so we signed up – Ryan for the whole thing and I for four out of six weeks, not wanting to take too much time off work.

It's about time I finally rode the airline named after... ME! =) (It was my first flight ever on Ryanair.)

On February 24th , 2019 at 6:00 am our Ryanair aircraft took off from the airport in Brussels heading directly to Amman, the capital of Jordan. The flight was rather uneventful with the exception of some spectacular views as we were flying above the Alps. The skies were absolutely cloudless and we could very clearly see the high snow-capped peaks in Europe as well as other planes cruising above them. We spotted Corsica in the distance, covered with snow and reminisced about our time hiking the GR 20 there.

The Queen Alia International Airport in Amman struck me as very modern – and yet it was the place of my first encounter with a more traditional face of Jordan. I spotted my very first Arab wearing keffiyeh, the traditional headscarf, as I was running to the bathroom. How cool and exotic! In the bathroom the next surprise: a hose which can be used to clean one’s butt after doing the business. People in Middle East – and some other parts of the world – find our western habit of wiping with toilet paper disgusting and unhygienic.

We went through immigration where Jordanian officers checked our Jordan Passes which included not only our entry visas to the country but also tickets to a number of tourist attractions, Petra being by far the most famous of them. They also scanned our eyes, stamped our passports and wrote in them with Arabic characters that we couldn't read.

There were a number errands we needed to run before leaving the airport: eat something, get a Jordanian SIM card for the cell phone and arrange a taxi which could take us to Madaba where we were planning to spend the next few days.

Finding something to eat was easy – we spotted a small food place right in front of the terminal. Getting a SIM card wasn't complicated either –inside the terminal there were booths of mobile companies welcoming tourists and offering them various phone call + mobile Internet packages. It was getting a ride that took us the most time –mainly because I insisted on trying Careem, the local version of Uber. It was a mess! We seemed to have booked a ride but couldn't find the car or its place of departure. Then we got a message that our driver and car were changed. Then a phone call followed from a lady who spoke English with a very thick accent and who we had trouble understanding.

Eventually we got fed up with Careem and decided to grab one of the regular taxis waiting in front of the terminal.

We quickly found a taxi, threw our luggage in its trunk and scrambled into the car – Ryan in front and I in the back. I reached behind me in an attempt to grab the safety belt but… it wasn’t there! As my head was turned around I also happen to notice that the back shelf was packed full with various stuff which was completely obscuring the view. The ride got even more interesting where the driver started talking to Ryan. First of all, he only talked to Ryan and completely ignored me. He asked for his name, introduced himself and shook Ryan’s hand. I didn’t exist to him. I was prepared to experience that, though – from my pre-travel research which included both reading online blogs and talking to people who had visited Jordan before I knew that men may want to talk exclusively to other men, sometimes asking their permission to address women in their company.

Ryan’s conversation with the driver wasn’t easy as the driver's English was quite poor. He tried to use an online translator to aid communication which involved him surfing on the internet while driving. That was quite scary. I was sitting there at the back, without a seatbelt, watching the driver fumble with his phone. I was praying for our safe arrival in Madaba!

Once we reached the city the ride got even crazier. The driver used his horn a lot – as all other drivers around us seemed to do – and rather aggressively zigzagged his way around other cars, pedestrians, animals and various obstacles, both mobile and stationary.

The streets of Madaba could be pretty crazy!
I felt quite relieved when we finally arrived at Queen Ayola Hotel. Before departing our driver asked Ryan what plans we had for our visit to Jordan. His eyes open wide and his jaw dropped upon hearing that we were intending to walk all the way from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Syrian border. At first he thought he must have misunderstood Ryan, so he made gestures with his fingers. “Are you really going to walk?! Walk?! On foot?! Aqaba to Umm Qais? Almost 700 km?!”. He gave Ryan that look which said “What is wrong with you guys?!”. It wasn’t the last time Ryan or I would be getting such reaction from the locals when they ask about our visit to their country…

Queen Ayola Hotel was rather simple but cozy and was run by the friendliest man in town. His name was Abu Sameer. He shook our hands (mine too!) and asked whether we needed anything today or tomorrow. Upon hearing that we wanted to reach the Dead Sea the next day he offered to arrange transportation for us – his son was going to drive us to the beach, wait for us until we were done floating and drive us back to Madaba. On the way to the Dead Sea we could also make a stop at Mount Nebo and visit the site where Moses allegedly died.

While making the arrangements and planning the trip Abu Sameer served us some tea with mint and sugar – a very Jordanian thing to do. I was very happy to have my tea but Ryan – who isn’t big on tea – decided to pass. Little did he know how much tea he was going to drink by the end of the trip…

We fly over Madaba--the city where we would spend our first three nights in Jordan.
Allegedly the largest mosaic in the world....
The video shows the mosaic in its entirety--along with my commentary (which isn't especially interesting).

Sunset over Madaba
Mosque in Madaba at sunset


GG said...

The mural has lots of English words.
I would have expected more Arabic or Eurocentric language.
Interesting information about The Red Sea.

Mary said...

Thank you, Karolina! I love reading about the pre-trail activities. Those activities are just as interesting as hiking the trail. I’m so happy to see you on this adventure!

Karolina said...

You’re welcome :-)
Good to hear you are enjoying the blog. The pre-hiking part was indeed quite interesting and exotic!

clueless said...

I love how four weeks off from work for Karolina is "not too much time". Most US employers would have a stroke at this request!