Thursday, October 16, 2008

Jordan: The North, perched between Israel & Syria

Chapter Three - The North, perched between Israel & Syria

We headed for Jerash. The drive there, through busy and uninteresting Zarqa, was unimpressive. For those who want to stay in Zarqa, there are a couple of small places there. Just ask around.

I knew that the ruins of Jerash could only be more interesting than Amman, and they were! They can easily compare with those at Ephesus, in Turkey! Entrance to the ruins is now JD5; in this case the price really is justified. For this kind of extensive ruins you'd pay similar fees everywhere. The Visitors' Centre was - in good Jordanian tradition, it seems - a building site, and inaccessible. Highlights were Hadrian's Triumphal Arch, the Forum, the Temple of Artemis and the Nymphaeum. Like most museums in Jordan, the one here amid the ruins was small and quite uninteresting to non-archaeologists. The people there were friendly though.

One should allow at least three to four hours for a stroll through the Roman city. From within the new city of Jerash you can shoot good overviews of the ruins. Just drive up the hills a bit and use a strong enough telephoto lens.

In Jerash we ate the best bread of the whole trip. There's a good bakery on the Y-shaped intersection of Abu Baker as-Seddiq Street. It's number 13 if I recall correctly. The bread is very inexpensive and fresh out of the oven; it's delicious! It's very strange that there is no hotel in Jerash. Although it's an easy day trip from Amman, if you want to continue north, it's a drag to have to return to Amman. We ate at the al-Khayyam Restaurant, just across the road from the entrance to the ruins. An average meal of shish-kebab, two or three side dishes and a drink each was around JD4.5 per person. Service wasn't particularly friendly. The views are alright.
Something incredible was to be seen here: to get rid of the insects that attacked his meat, the guy at the grill found no better way than to spray the meat with repellent. I couldn't help laughing out loud in astonishment, but at the same time made sure I wasn't getting a piece of this 'chemical food'! Perhaps it was my imagination but I thought I noticed some bigger-than-average flames licking the meat when it was placed on the grill plate ...

Avoid buying in the souvenir stalls/shops nearby. The guys there are friendly enough, but everything is way too expensive. Don't fall for the sand bottles either. They're not expensive, but then the quality isn't particularly good either, and they use artificially-coloured sand, which I hear tends to fade after a time. Better buy a more artistic one with natural coloured sand at Petra. It'll be more expensive, yes, but with some hard bargaining you can end up with a little jewel for the price. That is, of course, if you want one ...

It's only a little over 20 kilometres from Jerash to Ajlun. The drive goes through what you could call pine forests. It makes quite a nice drive, although it's probably more impressive in spring when everything is greener.

From quite a distance away one can see the Qala'at ar-Rabad, the castle on the hilltop. When you drive into town, the first thing that strikes you is the beautifully situated mosque. Entry to the castle was JD1. There's not that much to be seen inside the castle ruin, but the views from the top are great!

The people in Ajlun were very friendly and helpful, and so were the guys at the ticket desk of the castle. First thing we were asked was as usual: "Where do you come from?" "From Belgium." "Belgica? Good guns! Very good!" This also happened to us in Egypt. It seems Belgium does a fair amount of weapons exporting to the Middle East. But what's new, right?

From Ajlun we continued to Tabaqat Fahl to see the ruins of Pella. We took the road that runs along the West Bank, or Palestine if you like, via Kurayyuna. The ruins of Pella are disappointing themselves, but they have the advantage of being very nicely situated, scattered over some hills. Australian archaeologists are still working on the digs and restorations, though work had stopped for the coming winter. The view from the Government Rest House looking towards Israel, especially at sunset, is great. The food there wasn't very good and hellishly expensive at JD15 for just some pieces of chicken and orange juice for two.

The proprietor, Hussein, is a good source of information, but unfortunately he's also definitely gay and comes on strong! Beware! I have no problems with gay people, but this guy is very pushy and doesn't know when to quit. He started off telling us some stories about how great Israel really is, which I found very strange for an Arab. It turned out that he regularly stayed in a kibbhutzim and he told us with a 'sensuous' voice : "Oh, there are so many nice boys in Israel." I realised what kind of guy we had in front of us, but my (male) friend seemingly didn't. He soon found out though, because as soon as I went off to the toilet, Hussein started telling my mate how much he loved to have his, well, errm, thing, sucked. Again the Israeli boys seemed to have played a major role in that too. My companion made it clear that he was not that kind of guy, or should I say gay? To no avail. Hussein kept coming on ... "Ooh, Philippe (my mate), that sun in my face is so annoying. I'll come sitting next to you." He did, putting his hand on his leg. I could only just keep my friend from striking him. After finishing our 'meal', I asked if there was any dessert. Hussein said: "Not here. But in Jordan we have such good desserts. Maybe we can go licking some ice creams in Irbid?" Yeah, right. I ignored the last bit but stupidly asked if the desserts were sweet. "Ooh, very sweet", he smilingly answered, looking at Philippe. I couldn't help but laugh out loud, because it actually was kinda funny at the same time. Well, it was for me, not for my friend.

When we arrived at the Rest House, I had asked Hussein if we could stay at the guesthouse mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide. He had been affirmative. Now, after all his gay crap, I told him we were leaving for the guesthouse. He insisted on showing us where it was; to be honest we needed this, as we couldn't find it ourselves. As we approached our car, I told him to sit in the front, next to my pal, so he could point the way. I didn't want him behind me... He 'sensuously' said : "Oh yes, I know Phil likes me." Shortly afterwards, we arrived at a small house with no signs or anything. He showed us a room. It smelled odd, it looked odd, and we felt odd. This could have been the guesthouse, but if so it was also clearly his place. Hussein made some more really dirty remarks - the sign for my friend to decide to leave, which we did. I felt that if we stayed, something violent would happen. We made it clear that we weren't planning on staying there. He didn't give us a hard time over that though, probably because he knew that homosexuality in Jordan is something to be careful about. We headed for Irbid, which isn't far away.

In Irbid, I checked out the Hotel al-Amen. It's a very friendly place, and rooms were JD8 for a double, JD6 single. The room was clean enough too, but to reach the bathroom we had to walk down a corridor, across the reception area and then along another corridor. A bit too much at night if you're in a hurry! I went to the nearby al-Umayya Hotel on King Hussein Street. There they wanted JD20 for a double with toilet and shower in the room. A colour TV was also thrown in. Bargaining was not possible. I decided to take it anyway, and some other travellers who had just arrived seemed to agree with me on that. The staff are friendly, but not genuinely so.
Virtually next door is a very good supermarket where you can stock up on cheap foodstuffs and drinks, and any other things you may need. If you leave the hotel, turn right immediately and continue to the corner of the street. Turn right at this corner, then immediately cross the street. There you'll find the best shawarma that I ate in Jordan. It's excellent and cheap. The guy that prepares it, is a friendly dude on top. Recommended!

There's not much going on in Irbid but it's quite a pleasant place to spend some time, as are most university cities in the world. The Museum of Jordanian Heritage at the Yarmouk University is indeed the best I saw in Jordan. On top of that, it's completely free. Strange, as I found this the only one worth paying for. The people at the university entrance and at the museum's reception desk were very kind and helpful. Across the road from the university, to the left of the Chicken Tikka and Delicate Restaurant, is a photo shop. To the left of it, is a restaurant that bears only an Arabic name. It's really good. The tropical fruit shake here is absolutely delicious. No, it's heaven! A complete and tasty meal of kebabs, including the fruit shake, some side dishes and two cokes was only JD4.5 per person. Unbelievable! Recommended!

For a university city it's surprising how little English is spoken in Irbid. In fact, it seems that not many people in Jordan master English. In some of the Jordanian Tourist Authority brochures I came across was the statement "...and many Jordanians will surprise you with their English language." Oh, yes, they did surprise me! I was surprised to find that almost nobody speaks it, and the ones who do, are mostly awful at it. Oh well, I guess I don't speak Arabic very well either. But then, English is my second language just as it is for them. Some people I mentioned this to remarked that I was expecting too much from these folks. Perhaps that's true, but I am not just talking about the man in the street, I am also speaking about the university students. One guy who had graduated as an English teacher was horrible at it. The lack of being able to communicate seriously hampered travel sometimes, but luckily the people are kind and helpful enough, so almost always somebody will be found who speaks English well enough to be able to help you out.

From Irbid we went to Umm Qais, the site of ancient Gadara. Judging from the enormous parking lot at the entrance, the people here are certainly prepared to receive lots of visitors, probably in the future, as right now it's still rather quiet - although the tour buses have made their entrance. It cost 1 Dinar to get in. Golan HeightsThe ruins themselves were (again) rather unimpressive. Their location however, with views over the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights makes up for this. The museum with some mosaics and statues is the most interesting of the lot. There is a very good (but rather expensive) little book shop, where you'll have no problem finding little booklets about almost all archaeological sites in the country. Tony Howard's guide 'Walks and scrambles in Rum' is readily available for JD4, as are heftier works like Insight Guides' guide to Jordan. It's also a good place to inform yourself before joining a dig if you're interested in that. If you don't want to spend any money here, you can pick up a free copy of 'Occident and Orient', a publication of the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology, the people working on the excavations in (among others) Umm Qais. It's pretty interesting. The person manning the desk is very friendly and informative. We had a drink in the Government Rest House which is an incredibly nice place to sit and sip. Service however is dreadfully slow, especially when a busload of tourists has arrived. We had to wait twenty minutes before we were served. The waiters aren't exactly friendly if you just order a soft drink. They've got used to more affluent tourists already, which you can judge from the enormous collection of tour company stickers on the doors.

From Umm Qais we continued right up to the border, to the baths of al-Hemma. There were a couple of military checkpoints along the way. The first was almost round the bend from the Umm Qais site. The soldier stopped us and said hello. We replied and handed him our passports. He said he didn't want to see them, but wanted me to open the boot of the car and look into our luggage. When I opened both, he was looking the other way, totally uninterested. Strange! He walked to the front of the car again, and asked my friend (who was driving): "You have Mercedes at home?" My friend hasn't, but noticing the guy's deep interest, he replied: "Yes." The soldier smiled widely and said: "Yeeeess. Mercedes good! ... Go!" We could continue. He waved us good-bye until we were out of sight. On the way, we could see military bases and watchtowers on both sides. Just before entering al-Hemma we had to pay a road tax of 1 Dinar, but not so for coming back. The restaurant by the baths is a great place to sit. It's very quiet and relaxed. There's not much to the baths themselves. The water wasn't that smelly, but I wouldn't jump into it either. It occurred to me (again, maybe) that most sites in Jordan aren't really places you should go to for their impressiveness. They are places you must go to, to sit and absorb, if you know what I mean. And then, they're always great.

The food in the restaurant was good enough, and not particularly more expensive than elsewhere. Possibly it used to be, but now that prices seem to be higher in the whole country, the difference is gone.

The children in al-Hemma are crazy. They came begging for money and/or sweets when we were in the car and didn't give up when they didn't get any. They grabbed the roof and windows and held on whilst we were driving. They insisted on getting the can of Pepsi that was in their sight. A bloody dangerous thing to do, for us, too. You can imagine what'd happen if you hurt one of the little brats. Finally, to get rid of them, I had to literally throw the can of Pepsi out of the window.

Also beware of the giant wasps here. They're present in the whole of Jordan, but in al-Hemma they were aggressive! Some locals at the restaurant who had ordered some sweet desserts or something, had to flee from their tables, to avoid getting stung! And they couldn't return to their places. The wasps were feasting on the sweetmeats. Shortly after, the whole table and the chairs were inhabited by over a dozen stray cats, who joined the wasps in the feast and ate the chicken leftovers. The locals stood and watched. The waiters chased the cats, but wisely didn't chase the wasps! Only minutes later, the cats returned and were having a ball again. Nobody bothered anymore. It was a lost battle.

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