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Aqaba, and a hungry traveller

The sunrays gallantly shine into my room and wake me up from sleep. ‘Wadi Rum!’ is the first thought in my head as soon as I open my eyes. It’s the crux of my trip in Jordan and I am dedicating whole third of my time for this place.  ‘Breakfast!’ is the next thing that pops up in my head. My stomach has been hollow for so long and I think I can feel the entire casket of my body reverberate as it rumbles with hunger.

I get dressed with a speed of lightning and run downstairs that leads to the reception, then follow the arrow sign labelled ‘Kitchen’.  But the area leading from the reception is not the dining room, but a kitchen. Where do I go and eat? Just at this time of confusion comes out the Smiling Man from the kitchen and gestures me to sit on the sofa at the reception. Soon he brings out the Bedouin tea, some cheese and pitta bread stacked high on a small plate. That’s all I get for breakfast-  10 pieces of bread and cheese. I try to eat as much as I can crouching over the lounge table, but there’s only so much bread I can take.

Hotel Reception
Hotel Reception
Breakfast at Aqaba
Breakfast at Aqaba

At the check out, the Smiling Man asks me when I would be back in Aqaba. ‘I love you. I phone my friend, he give you free scuba diving. All for free. Stay here longer, please’. If Wadi Rum was not on my next itinerary, it would have been a tempting offer.

I only have an hour and half to look around Aqaba before catching a bus to Wadi Rum, so I decide not to venture out too far in case I get lost in the city. The locals are obviously used to tourists coming here for scuba diving at the Red Sea as there’s no obsessive staring I received elsewhere in Jordan. Only the taxi drivers who wish to strike up a business say a friendly good-morning, offering a bargain ride. I walk along the sea hoping to get a good look at the Red Sea, but a closer access to the beach is only reserved to those who are using the resort for diving. I walk further on in the squelching heat to get to an ancient ruin, only to find it’s nothing but a small pile of rubbles.

Red Sea...from afar

I get to the bus station an hour and half earlier than the departure time, as advised by the Bedouin camp manager at Wadi Rum. It is to ensure a seat as the bus gets full very quick. It is much cooler to be waiting outside, but I decide to stay put in the bus as I don’t want to lose my seat. The ‘excursion’ in Aqaba done and the mini bus to my destination found, now I can relax and have my lunch.

I open up the blue plastic bag that contains the food I had just bought. I have actually asked for a sandwich so it would be simpler and easier to eat but it turns out to be an open top kebab, and there is no plastic fork with it. The heat of the foil container on my lap makes me sweat even more, and the pungent smell of lamb fills up the air of the bus which is already getting crowded with people. But heck, I’m starving and I delve into the cooked meal that I had been deprived of since yesterday afternoon. I can live with my fingers smelling of meat and chillies.

Bus to Wadi Rum
Bus to Wadi Rum
Bus to Wadi Ru
Bus to Wadi Rum

The people in the bus must be Bedouins living in the desert visiting Aqaba for supplies. By the time the bus departs, every remaining floor is occupied with the box full of goods they are taking to Wadi Rum. All women and kids are sitting at the back, and the men at the front. The thick, carpet like curtain loosely hangs from all windows, shielding everyone from the fierce sunrays, but it’s not enough to cool down the hot air.

The journey remains sweaty, claustrophobic, and bumpy throughout. The view outside continues to be monotonous – plain sky, barren land, and sand dust.  The small child whines next to me, and I try to open the window for her and my sake but it remains obstinately closed.

Would I be able to get off where I am supposed to? Does the driver remember I am heading to Wadi Rum? In the tediousness of the bus ride surfaces up the petty worries of a solo traveller, but they soon sink back under carefree, come-what-may spirit. The bus continues on its long winding road, its tyres grating themselves against the rugged Jordanian terrain.

The sudden change in the landscape wakes me up from my half-sleep. Those majestic rock mountains grandly announcing the gateway of the Wadi Rum desert. I can no longer remember my disappointments in Aqaba nor the stale air of the bus, but my heart beats faster and faster at this long awaited sight. This is Wadi Rum.

On the road to the desert
On the road to the desert

Entrance of Wadi Rum Village
Entrance of Wadi Rum Village
Wadi Rum Village
Wadi Rum Village

DAY 5: 22 September 2013, Aqaba to Wadi Rum

 

 

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Hashemiyeh Street in Amman

“I give you five camels for marriage!’, jokes Abu Josef in Arabic which is swiftly translated by Uncle Sam.

Abu Josef owns a street stall selling antiques on  Hashemiyeh Street. While the majority of the shops on this street offer commercially manufactured souvenirs arranged in its categories, Abu Josef’s stall is cluttered with everything old everywhere. Plates, old cameras and pouches on the table; necklaces and beads hanging from the top; copper tea pots and cups laying on the ground.

I bought a defunct Iraqi dinar note with Saddam Hussein printed on it, got invited to have tea by Uncle Sam, so here I am sitting by Hashemiyeh Street listening to Abu Josef talk on and on.

“Five camels! No, no, ten camels for you!”

It’s been only five minutes since the unpleasant touch-ups at the fruit souq, but I’m already feeling light-hearted at this characterful old man. He is a small, thin man with a tight voice, and is quick to raise his voice  whenever Uncle Sam stumbles at his translations. Uncle Sam, in comparison, is a well built middle aged man with a soothing gentle voice. He has a calming presence and seems like a deep thoughtful person, so different from Abu Josef who chatters on with all sorts of flirtatious comments.

“If you give me five camels, I give you five babies! If ten camels, it’s ten babies!” At my banter Abu Josef comes back with, “A Jordanian/Korean baby will be beautiful! Korean eyes and Arab moustache! Arab moustache and Korean eyes! So beautiful!”

Just imagine that – a baby with tiny slit eyes with thick Arab moustache. God forbid.

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DAY 3: Friday, 20 Sept 2013. Hashemiyeh Street, Amman.

Fruit Market in Amman: “She thinks I want to f*** her”

I’ve been in Amman for three days already but haven’t been any parts of the capital city yet. So after a quick simple dinner (spicy pasta, 3JD) I set off exploring the Friday nightscape of Amman. The streets are filled with the excitement of a weekend night, and endless rows of cars and taxis honk in a steady rhythm in celebration.

Feeling I’ve been lacking in the intake of Vitamin C, I head for the fruit market, hoping to buy a bag full of fruits to snack on during my 4 hour long bus trip to Aqaba tomorrow. I stop by each stalls, but all the vendors refuse take payment from me, preferring to give me samples of each fruit instead – pear, lime, fig, honeyed date.. They are either too sweet, too sour, or too bland for my taste but I dutifully finish them all.  Before I know it, I am sitting on a barrel that one of the vendors have offered me, this time a quarter of pomegranate in my hand. The vendor who has invited me to sit next to him is an old man, and I feel like a girl receiving treats from her granddad every time he peels a different kind of fruit and places them in my hand.

It seems a young man with stubbles is the only one who can speak English, and he tells me anecdotes about each vendors – and he likes to use f word often.

“That guy over there, he used to have a Filipino wife. He likes to f*** Philippine girls” “F*** America. It’s a bad country. Syria is f***ing America, North Korea is f***ing America. It’s good”

He wants to take a picture with me, and as he sits next to me and pose at the camera, he puts his arm around my neck. His hand ‘happens’ to be placed over my chest, and he even dares to slightly cup his hand.  I stand up making some excuse about having to go back, and the old vendor puts his arm behind me as if to guide my way out protectively, but his hand is on my ass.

The young man offers to walk me back to the hostel and I say ‘it’s okay’, and he announces to everyone, ‘she doesn’t want me to come with her because she thinks I want to f*** her!’, as if telling a great joke. Everyone cheerily laughs and I laugh along with them, but I’m actually in a sour mood. I walk away with an unfinished pomegranate in my hand, with my back turned towards the old vendor who has cheekily asked if I could give him a kiss goodbye on his lips.

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Jerash: Not so Arabic style

Today’s plan:  Jerash and Elijah’s birth place in Ajloun (Mar Elias).

Transport is scarce on Fridays in Jordan so the North bus station was unusually empty. I sat on a bench with Susanne, a Dutch girl staying on the roof of the hostel, and simply waited. Not knowing when the next bus would arrive, we just sat, reading our books. It didn’t matter what time it was, or how long we were there for.  Falling in to the natural rhythm of time as it flows without keeping track of it’s rigid unit of 30 minutes is a bliss of travelling. Time stops tick tocking  and I find rest in it’s silence.

On the bus to Jerash, our conversation turns to feminist issues: How does it feel like to be covered up in public spaces? Does our freedom to reveal however much we want in the West cause sexualisation of women to be more overt?

The proportion of women walking around on the streets of Jordan is visibly much lower than the number of men, and the amount of attention we draw as foreign women made me very conscious of my identity as a female and the dynamics between different sexes. Women may have a quieter role in the society here, but men in return seems to assume more of a protective and responsible role than the men in the West. It made me rethink about my ignorant tendency to equate such cultures with gender inequality that needs transforming.

IMG_1818

Jerash is one of the Middle East’s best examples of a Roman provincial city, comprising a collection of triumphal arches, amphitheatres, a hippodrome and temples. Susanne decides not to go in so I enter by myself. It is so much bigger than I expected, and I find it a chore dipping my head into my travel book to read about each ruins when I would rather spend my time taking in the ancient view. ‘I would love an audio guide’, I think to myself. Then, as if by magic, a young boy approaches me and asks, ‘Do you need a guide?’. He seems very young and there’s no way of telling whether he’s a real guide or not. In his Arabic accent he carries on talking. ‘Moving columns, goats, lions, empty stones – I tell you all about. You know moving columns? I tell you all’. Moving columns? Goats? I can’t make out what he’s trying to say from what seems to be a random collection of words, and his thick Arabic accent adds to my suspicion that it’s a scam.

I say ‘no thank you’ but he still takes me to a nearby ruin anyway. ‘Here, the view is really good’, and he climbs up the stairs inside a small, insignificant tower nearby. The view IS really amazing and at this I decide to put a little faith in him.

The boy really knew his stuff. He shows me how the columns were designed to move a little, and the stones on the buildings are hollow so that they would make a sound when they clash into each other – so that one would know when there was an earthquake and the buildings are less likely to collapse.  He shows me where people used to sacrifice animals and a stone with knife marks on them and  and where all the meat used to be stored.

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He knew all the people working in Jerash, so we stopped by a vendor and chatted a little. I bought two silver bracelets for 10 JD, which the vendor told me were from Jerash (I later found Chinese letters engraved on the bracelet, and they were being sold in Petra for 3 JD). Mohammed, my guide, picked up a green bead necklace from the stall, said something to the vendor in Arabic and gave it to me saying it was a gift. He told me the stones were also from Jerash, and then took me to a nearby stone all covered with brown sand. When he splashed some water on it, the stone revealed its true colour of deep green, the same colour as the necklace. As we were about to leave, Mohammed picked up another jewel from the stall and said, ‘it’s my gift to you’.  I found it a little uncomfortable to accept another gift from a stall that isn’t even Mohammed’s so I discretely put it back where it was. The vendor saw this and told me to take it.

To say thank you, I handed Mohammed a lemon sherbert I had bought in England to give to people Jordan but he refused.  When I asked why he said it would make him want water all the time. So put it in my mouth instead for some energy perk up (I had no lunch and was starving), but soon spat it out. It was as if the sweet sucked all the moisture in my mouth and I couldn’t stand the thirst it created. It dawned on me why many had declined the sweets when I had offered it to them.

It was a windy day, and wearing a flared skirt was not a good idea at all, as the moment of misfortune finally came with a gust of wind and.. well, you can imagine what it did to my skirt.  More unfortunate was that Mohammed happened to be at the bottom of the stairs looking up at me, just at that moment.

‘This is the end of the tour’, he says when we are at the Temple of Artemis. ‘Can I have a kiss?’ You can have your money back’.  Just a few minutes ago he wanted me to pay him much more than what we had agreed on (and I did end up paying him much more as I felt he was that good), and now we wants a kiss instead. First he asks for a kiss on the lips, and asks to kiss me on my arms and my legs. At my constant refusal he changes his tact. ‘Ok, we just say goodbye in Arabic style’.  I naively believe he’ll let it go after a kiss on my cheek, but no, it’s my neck he goes after.

‘That’s not Arabic style!’ I still have my smiles on, hoping to be polite.

‘Ok, we’ll just take pictures together then’. He gets his phone out and sits on one of the stones. He purposely leaves a little space next to him and gestures to me to sit on his lap. I make him move over.

‘Why can’t I kiss your legs?’ ‘Can I kiss your arms?’ He asks again and I finally snap at this never ending insistence. I get up and announce, ‘I’m leaving now’.

He follows after me, his eyes desperate and even looks a little hurt by my sudden rush of anger and determined refusal.

‘I’m so sorry. I’m too hot for a girl.’ He takes out the money I had given him and tries to give them back to me.

‘No, don’t do that’

‘Just one kiss, please’.

I’ve just had enough. Without replying, I just walk off. He follows.

‘Give me high five’, he says. ‘No!’ My voice is high with irritation. ‘Just a high five’. He puts his palm out to me. Awkwardly I high five him and we both walk off in separate directions.

I hate leaving on bad terms with people, even if it’s with someone I will never see again. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only person I ended up storming off from during my travels in Jordan. 

 

DAY 3: Friday, 20 Sep 2013

 

More pictures of Jerash: http://www.flickr.com/photos/104035608@N03/

Conversations in Madaba: “If I was much younger, I do you”

Today’s plan was rather an ambitious one, covering Madaba, Mt. Nebo and Bethany-Beyond-Jordan, all of which an hour’s distance away from each other. The public transport only operates between Amman and Madaba, so I was expecting to spend a hefty amount of my budget on taxis.

The first stop was Madaba, famous for it’s Byzantine mosaics. It felt a bit too small to be called a city, but still had the energy and vibrancy that I much preferred than the hectic Amman. The town of Madaba was once a Moabite border city, mentioned in the Bible in Numbers 21:30 and Joshua 13:9. It also has the largest Christian community in Jordan, and I could see many women walking on the streets without wearing a headscarf.

I decided to follow the walking tour of the town suggested in my Lonely Planet travel book which should last about  3 hours, which would give me plenty of time to visit other biblical sites near Madaba.

 

After making a brief stop to watch a sand bottle being made, I started walking along what is known as the Tourist Street, filled with souvenir shops for tourists. Every single shop I pass by, the shop keepers tried to lure me into their shops, all of which I politely refused and walked on…until I reached a spacious shop called ‘Peace’ which seemed to deal with more high-end products. A man came out and greeted me with a big friendly smile, and to my surprise, a couple of young men nearby greeted me in Korean! He invited me for Bedouin tea and I could not refuse it.

His name was Menwer, and he used to work at the airport in catering. The shop he was working now was owned by his nephew.

It must have been a low-season for Madaba at this time of the year, as there were hardly any tourists in the town, which meant I could ask him as many questions about Jordan as I liked without having to worry about me disrupting his business.

Menwer at the 'Peace' shop

Conversing with someone from different culture and language can be an amusing experience, with interesting metaphors and unusual figures of speech.

“Are you married?”, he asks me.

“No.”

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“No.”

“Oh! Why not marry?? If I was much, much younger, I do you!”

 

I ask him around what age Jordanian girls get married, and he answers that it’s around 20 to 23.

“It seems so young!” I say.

“Women are like apples. When they are young, when ripe, they are nice and delicious. When the time goes, not so good. You have to have them when they are good”, and he makes a ‘yuck’ face.

I scream at him jokingly and we both laugh, and do a high five.

 

Spending time with Menwer set me back against my schedule, so I hurried through my walking tour. All key sites were very small and not very time consuming, but I got lost a few times with my pretty much non-existent navigating skills.

There were many taxis on the main street of Madaba but I decided to go back to Menwer to arrange a taxi for me. I felt I could get a more trustworthy taxi fare if it was through him.  Next stop, Mt. Nebo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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