Thursday, October 16, 2008

Jordan: To the heart of the Middle East

Chapter One - To the heart of the Middle East

The airline that took us from Brussels via Amsterdam to Jordan's capital, Amman, was KLM, always a very reliable company. The ticket cost me 15,300 Belgian Francs (about 413 US Dollars at the going rate at that time, which was quite high). Cheaper tickets of about US$337 were possible with the less reliable Turkish Airlines. All in all US$413 is certainly not a bad rate in my opinion.

After what felt like a rather rough landing, we were at Amman's Queen Alia International Airport. It was around 10.30 pm. I had arranged a visa prior to departure. The fee at the Embassy in Brussels was BEF1200 for Belgian citizens, BEF1000 for Dutch. Getting a visa at the airport would have posed no problems whatsoever; they were readily available at comparable or cheaper (!) rates.

Passing through immigration was a drag. There were only about 7 or so people in front of me, but it took over an hour before I was cleared. The immigration officers looked as if they could fall asleep any moment, and weren't particularly friendly or fluent in English. My first advice: as soon as you get off the plane, try to move on to immigration as soon as possible!

Right. There we were, about 35 kilometres from the city centre. No buses at this hour, so we needed to get a taxi. I decided it would be a good idea to pre-book a taxi from the taxi booking booth in the arrivals hall. Off to a good start: it wasn't manned. Some guy from the neighbouring Avis booth moved over and asked if I wanted a taxi. I sure did. He could organise one for me, he said, but it soon became clear that he had organised a short-term Hertz (yes, the competition!) car rental with driver. They wanted JD15 for the trip into town, a bit (?) too steep for my liking ! I bargained it down to JD11, which was actually one Dinar more than the going rate for ordinary taxis (as I later discovered).

On our way to the city, I noticed small fires along the highway. Some people, mostly young boys, were selling Arabic coffee from huge cans. Our driver invited us to a sampler. It was pretty good actually, but he said it could be much better. They have two cans on the fire, one with very sweet coffee, one without sugar. For Westerners, it's best to ask for a 'mix'. At least this way we recovered a bit of the Dinar overprice for the ride...

Considering it was quite late, there wasn't much time to shop around for accommodation. I asked the driver to take us to the Park Hotel on King Hussein Street. Apparently it has been renovated in some way, and is now very originally called the New Park Hotel. A room with fan there was JD12, regardless if it was single or double. And no bargaining! Breakfast was not included; taxes were. Breakfast cost JD1.7 per person. There is room service. The staff are very friendly and helpful and most of the receptionists speak English well. The rooms are rather basic, but certainly good and clean enough with a working hot shower. We ended up staying there for three days.

King Hussein Mosque, Amman Continuing on King Hussein Street in the direction of the King Hussein Mosque, we could find everything we needed round the corner in Basman Street. Wimpy's/Southern Fried Chicken is not really a burger joint. Of course, you can have burgers, but they also do Arabic food, such as a very good and not really expensive mixed grill or plate of shish-kebab. The people were very friendly, and it felt a bit odd to sit in a would-be burger joint which looked like a 'real' restaurant with dressed-up waiters. Nearby, on the corner of Basman Street where the Vinice Hotel is to be situated, there is a tiny place called Snack 22. It's open quite late and is mainly a burger snack bar. It's inexpensive and very popular with the locals. We found it convenient when most other places had closed. Back towards Wimpy's from Snack 22, but passing it, one can find a good shop on the right-hand side of the street which sells nice postcards and stationery. Not expensive and convenient if you need something to write on or with. On the same side of the street, further to the Northwest one comes to a set of stairways. Climb 'em to find a very convenient, reliable and cheap telephone office. Rates were really cheap, honestly! Only JD4 for a five minute call to Europe and no three-minute minimum! The guy running the office is a really cool dude too!

On Omar al-Khayyam Street, between King Hussein Street and Basman Street, we also spent one night in the Bdeiwi Hotel. The guy at the reception was nice enough and spoke English well, but tried to lure us into deals such as car rentals, tours and the like. Something about him made me think of him as not really trustworthy. The rooms were pretty good value at JD4. Unfortunately for a budget place, a 10% tax is slapped on top. Bathrooms are shared, quite clean, but unfortunately very highly frequented. International calls can easily be made from this place, but the rates were higher than in the office mentioned above.

Now about Amman itself... It's a bit of a disappointment, as I had anticipated. The sights are nothing much to speak of, the people aren't really any more friendly than in other big cities and the whole place looks downright ugly for the most part. Furthermore it's almost impossible to find your way around as everything looks almost the same and English signs are obsolete, or sometimes they're there, showing the way somewhere but disappear when you're about halfway. Crossing the street as a pedestrian in this city indeed is a major achievement. The car drivers are downright arseholes. In Cairo or Delhi, or wherever, at least the drivers stop if you decide to leap into the traffic. Here they seem determined to try and run you over. Unfortunately this is no joke...

First we visited the King Hussein Mosque. It's a pretty sight and non-Muslims are allowed inside. The nicest way to enjoy it is from the Arab League Cafe which faces it. This old place was a pleasure to spend a couple of hours in. Arab men sit here, drinking coffee, smoking water pipes or seemingly just doing nothing, which was what we did, just observing what was going on outside in the streets. All drinks were cheap. The entrance to the Cafe was hard to find, because we were looking for it across the street from the mosque, whereas it was behind the right corner.
The Nymphaeum (the old fountain) was easy to find starting from the Hussein Mosque, but was a major disappointment. Reconstruction works were going on and the whole place looked like a construction site. Nevertheless, I think I would still have found the remains unimpressive, even without the work in progress.

The nicest site in Amman indeed is the Roman Theatre. The colonnaded street leading to the theatre is a good place to photograph people and so is the theatre itself, although many are tourists. Entrance to the theatre was free, but we were approached by a guide who offered his services for JD3. We decided not to take him. You don't need a guide for this place at all. He also offered to show us the citadel for JD6 including the taxi ride up. No thanks.

The theatre's stage was clad in scaffolding, making the overall look of the place somewhat less good. We wanted to visit the museums in both of the theatre's wings. First we entered the Traditional Jewels & Costumes Museum. I was certainly disappointed by the size of it, and found the entrance fee of JD1 unjustified. The collection was modest; the mosaics were okay, but compared to those in Madaba (which you should see) they're definitely second-rate. Taking photographs is not allowed. As the Lonely Planet guide says that this museum is already better value than the Folklore Museum in the other wing, I decided to skip the latter altogether. Opposite the theatre, we ate at the al-Saha al-Hashemieh Tourist Rest. The food was very good and including a couple of Cokes, it cost us JD10 for two, which was quite reasonable compared to what we were sometimes going to pay later during the trip.

Temple of Hercules, Citadel, AmmanWe climbed the Citadel on foot, instead of going by taxi. It's not only cheaper but it's a pleasant climb and there are pretty good views on the way up. The best and nicest view from the top is from near the Temple of Hercules, which makes a real picture postcard.

Entry to the nearby Archaeological Museum is a joke: JD2. Much too expensive for a place which (again) looked like a construction site. The collection was good but not something to be amazed by. The 'collection' of Dead Sea Scrolls mainly consists of photographs of the originals; there are one or two real ones. Nothing to arouse my interest. The most interesting things are the anthropomorphic prehistoric coffins and a really life-like statue of Daedalus. Again, as in so many museums in Jordan, taking photographs is not allowed.

The Byzantine Basilica and the Omayyad Palace on the Citadel are still being restored. I'm sure the Spanish archaeologists are doing a great job, but the whole thing is (and probably will remain) rather unimpressive.

From the Citadel, on to the King Abdullah Mosque. Though only completed in 1990, one of the minarets and part of the cupola are already being restored. In Amman I started wondering if anything was built to last in this country, and that I had found the solution to why the whole city looks as if its been built in the last decade: on top of the enormous 'construction boom', nothing seems to be built to last. The mosque itself was impressive and really beautiful inside. We were shown around by some locals. Nobody expected a tip. The people showed us around because they were proud of their mosque. And they were really nice. We were also shown a nearby room where - according to our 'guides' - members of the royal family sometimes gathered. It's beautifully but (typically for Muslims) modestly decorated.

The third day, we went to pick up a rental car from the Avis office at the airport. It was not exactly with pain in the heart that we left the capital. A small survey on the Internet had told me that a car was really handy in this country. And it certainly was! I had heard that booking a car from abroad was cheaper, so I did just that, but I couldn't confirm that it actually was. Every rental company in Jordan will ask you for the rate you're paying, and then give you a lower one. I booked the smallest car, a sub-compact, which cost US$61 per day, including taxes, CDW and Theft Waiver. I got an upgrade, a Mitsubishi Lancer 1.3 litre, which was nice. The staff at the airport desk were superficially friendly. They made a very incompetent, lazy impression on us both. The Avis staff sometimes manned the Hertz desk and vice versa. The guy who was in charge at the time I went to pick up the car, didn't even know what the 'Theft Protection System' on the form meant. Very capable people to be in charge of an international company indeed! I asked some questions about what to do in case of an accident, and what was covered by the insurance. I was assured that everything would be covered and that I had nothing to worry about. The only thing I had to do in case of an accident was to get a police report. Read what happened at the end of our trip later in this letter! Fuel ('normal') was very cheap at only around 220 fils per litre.

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