Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Travel: Memories of Jordan

© 2009, 2017 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

Official Name: Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan; Capital: Amman; Language: Arabic; Country Code: JO; Currency: dinar (JOD)

Once I learned I had to attend a conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, I immediately started planning a side trip to Jordan, primarily to visit the ancient site of Petra. This essay contains excerpts from the Jordan part of that trip. While I was in Amman, I was based at the house of an English academic, Richard, which he shared with his Palestinian friend, Abu. Richard was a host with Servas.

[Diary] The airport was quite some distance from the capital, Amman. Along the way, we listened to a cassette tape of 50's American pop classics, and I sang along. There were many billboards along the way, as well as numerous "traditional" Jordanian food places, such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and Burger King. A very large sign on an overpass was trying to lure people to a dream vacation in the Maldives (presumably before the islands sink) with Oman Airways.

We stopped at an international supermarket to get some groceries. It was very large, and I walked around looking at the products. As expected, everything looked the same, yet, on closer inspection, everything was different. Of course, all the signs were in Arabic, but most also had English. One thing that jumped out at me immediately was that all the prices had three decimal places instead of the two that most currencies have. There are a number of things worth mentioning about the Jordanian dinar. The basic unit is more valuable than US$1, and 1 dinar has 100 piastres, each of which has 10 fils, so there are 1,000 fils to the dinar. [At the time of writing, 1 fil was about 1/8th of a US cent, and it's not clear one could buy anything with that amount.]

[Diary] I slept soundly until around 04:00, and then I lay there thinking about sleeping! [Don't you just hate that when that happens?] At 05:10, off in the distance I heard the first call to prayers at a mosque over a PA system. 15 minutes later, there was a second call. After what seemed like an eternity, I went back to sleep only to be awakened rudely by my alarm at 08:15.

At 11:00, Abu and I walked some distance up to the main highway to a row of banks. I needed cash, so selected one, and swiped my bankcard in the security door lock, and, lo and behold, the international banking computer system recognized the card, the thick glass door slid open, and I had access to the cash machine. I entered my card and PIN, and the system recognized it was issued in the US, and changed from Arabic to English. I politely asked for 200 dinars, and it politely handed over that amount in a combination of bills right down to five ones. I was off to a good start.

We took a taxi to the new bus station. It was a good thing Abu was with me, as all the bus signs were in Arabic, and we were looking for the one to Jerash. All the scribbles looked the same to me, and were impossible to decipher! We soon found our bus, an aging Mercedes that had seen better days, but it still had some get-up-and-go. The cost for the two of us for the 35 km to Jerash was 1.400 dinars, which was pretty cheap. However, there was one problem; the bus had no schedule. It simply left when it was full or the driver decided he had enough passengers to make it worth his while. The bus had heavy curtains with royal blue on the outside, and burnt orange on the inside.

Seventy minutes after we boarded, the bus pulled out, and we were out on a highway with three lanes in each direction. (I say "lanes", but as best as I could tell, a lane was defined as that strip of road containing the bus, and the lane moved sideways with the bus!) We climbed up and down some pretty big hills, and the driver spent quite some time changing gears, but the old Mercedes performed admirably.

We eased into the town of Jerash as a dust storm blew, and got off the bus several hundred yards from the site of the ruins. The city really got on the map in the 3rd century BC, and saw lots of construction and destruction over the centuries. It was a favorite place of Roman emperor Hadrian, the Christian Byzantines controlled it for a bit, then the Muslims moved in, and, later, the Crusaders took it back. My admission was eight dinars while Abu's was only half a dinar.

We started at Hadrian's Arch, and moved on to the huge elliptical Oval plaza and its 160 Ionic columns topped with lintels, and a complex drainage system under the paving stones. Several groups of young people were working on digs around the place. The main road through the ruins was more some 800 meters long, was flanked by columns, and was paved in thick slabs of stone, many of which had been pushed up or down by a series of earthquakes over the years. The South Theater was beautifully restored as a 3,000-person amphitheater with a magnificently carved stone stage. A troupe of musicians in uniform played bagpipes and drums. From there, we went to the Hippodrome, a smaller version of Rome's Circus Maximus, complete with chariots, horses, and centurions in full armor. After a demonstration, the charioteers took paying customers for rides on part of the track, and soldiers posed for photos.

By the time we finished walking around, the dust had stopped, and it was much more pleasant. We stopped in the bazaar among the touristy stuff, and sat in the sun drinking Coke and eating potato chips while contemplating Roman history. ("What did the Romans ever do for us?" I hear you Monty Python fans say.)

The next challenge was to figure out where the bus back home might leave. And after a false start, we headed in the right direction expecting to have to wait a good while. As we walked, a private vehicle with two enterprising young guys pulled up and asked if we needed a ride to Amman. The cost would be 1 dinar each. We quickly agreed, and got in the back of the small sedan. 100 yards further down, they got another customer, a Canadian from Vancouver, and they looked around for one more. As the car was small, and we didn't want to be crammed in, we offered to pay an extra dinar to keep the space free.

[Diary] A taxi dropped me downtown where I was met by Maha, a 24-year-old Palestinian woman who was a student in a Masters' program in American Studies. She was a day host in the Servas hosting program, and we had corresponded quite a bit in the weeks leading up to my arrival. Her parents were Palestinian, but were forced to leave the West Bank many years ago. They moved to Kuwait, where Maha was born. They all moved to Jordan some years ago, where she obtained a Bachelor's degree in Italian and English.

Several hours into our meeting, we were joined by Maha's good friend Rawan, who had attended university with her. Rawan was also a Servas day host, and her family background was similar.

We went on a driving tour. The first stop was the Roman Theatre. Built around AD 170 in a semicircle with around 6,000 seats, it was very nicely preserved. We entered from the street, right onto the main stage. There were several small museums featuring tribal costumes, crafts, and lifestyles. Next, we drove to an old part of town to the former compound of a wealthy family that now has a Foundation that sponsors numerous projects in Jordan. The gardens were nice, and the place had been turned into a gallery. We drank tea and juice in the trellised courtyard.

By the time we finished our drinks and another lengthy chat it was quite dark. Maha flagged a taxi for me and explained to the driver where I wanted to go. After what seemed like a lot of driving on small streets, we came out on a major highway, and, soon after, I saw a familiar landmark, the amusement park near home. From there, I used my hand-drawn map to locate the house (there were no street signs or house numbers). Two doors down from my house was a small corner store run by Wafa Al-Safadi, a very nice woman. Born in Saudi Arabia, she had lived in various places around the Middle East, and then eight years in Dallas, Texas, where her children were currently in university. Her English was excellent, and we chatted while I bought some emergency rations.

[Diary] Abu and I took a taxi to the south-side bus station at Mojama' al-Janoob. We decided to ride in style, in a coach with reserved seats, so we went to the JETT office and bought 2 one-way tickets to Petra for six dinars each. We had 1:20 hours to kill, so we walked around the yard stopping for drinks. Then we sat in the JETT waiting room. The 11:30 bus pulled up at 11:15, and we boarded soon after. We were in Seats 1 and 2, right behind the driver. I asked the driver if he had a license. He smiled, said "No", and that many drivers in Jordan drove without one!

We headed south on the main highway, and for three hours it was flat and desolate with very little vegetation. Apart from the divided highway with two lanes in each direction, there was a train line and a high-voltage power line. We passed through one large town and a few small villages. Most houses were incomplete. They built the ground floor and moved in, and added on as they could afford it. As a result, the roofs of most had 1–6-foot tall concrete pillars sticking up with steel reinforcement rods hanging out. I saw a few refugee camps, and the occasional camel and donkey.

We passed a turnoff to Petra, and I mentioned that to Abu. He said not to worry, as we'd stay on the better road until the last minute. We passed a second turnoff, and I asked again. "No problem", he said. I was a little concerned. When we passed the exit to Wadi Rum, I knew we had a problem, as that was well south and east of Petra.

Soon we came to a major security checkpoint where a soldier came on board and checked everyone's ID. Another soldier manned a machine gun mounted on the roof of a truck nearby, and had it aimed in the general direction of our bus. As I suspected, we were approaching Aqaba, the port city on the Red Sea, 100 kms south of our intended destination. [Don't you just hate that when that happens?] Obviously, there had been a major breakdown in communication. Oh well, on to Plan B, right? Ironically, I had decided to forgo Wadi Rum and Aqaba, as they were too far out of my way, yet there I was!

We pulled up at the bus terminal and went to the office to see how to get back to Petra. Naturally, the buses to Petra left from another station, so we asked several taxi drivers to give us a quote for the 120+ km trip to Petra. After some negotiations, one driver dropped his price to 35 dinars, which was three times what we'd paid for four hours on the bus. He said it would take two hours. In any event, we accepted, and off we went to Petra. Well, not quite. First, we had to go by the driver's house to feed the cat, kiss the wife, and spank the kids, as he'd be gone for four hours. So, we sat in the taxi outside his house and waited. Fortunately, it was only for 10 minutes. He jumped in the cab, and we then we really were off to Petra. Well, not quite. We stopped a km from his house while he made a phone call. His car was old and, possibly, might not be able to make the trip, so he called the half-brother of his uncle's cousin's next-door neighbor, who had a much nicer newer taxi, to see if he could take us. Yes, he could, and, surprise, he was there in two minutes, I kid you not. Finally, we actually set off for Petra.

We came across several herds of goats and sheep being driven by shepherd boys who were walking or riding donkeys. Some herds crossed the road, so we had to stop. Several other herds were being driven down the steep mountainside towards the road.

By the time we got to Wadi Musa, the town near Petra, the sun had set. We drove all the way to the entrance to Petra, and up a side street to the Petra Inn, at which I'd booked a double room for three nights, the day beforehand, via the internet. It was 18:00, and we were in Petra, only three hours behind schedule and 35 dinars out of pocket. It could have been much worse.

[Diary] We each packed a daypack, and stopped at the corner store to buy water. We knew that once we got inside Petra the prices would double or even triple, as everything has to be hauled in, mostly with horses and donkeys.

We entered the park at 08:00, and there was a small but steady stream of people going in. After a few hundred yards, we entered the Siq, a 1 km-long horizontal crack in the rocks through which Wadi Musa runs. Although it's dry much of the year, it can see some serious water flow.

Petra was built by the Nabataeans from 300 BC through AD 100. They were Arabs from eastern Arabia. They built a city of 20–30,000 people, but as they lived in tents, there were very few permanent buildings left to discover. However, what they did do was make some serious tombs, but rather than actually build them, the carved them out of the sandstone rock. And we are talking big here, 40-meter-high front entrances on some!

The Siq wound around and sloped steadily down. The people had cut channels in the walls to divert water into storage cisterns. They were big on water conservation. At the end of the Siq, one comes out to the main highlight, the so-called Treasury building. [If you saw the first Indiana Jones movie, you saw this place.] It certainly was impressive.

From there, we climbed ruins all around, and, eventually, climbed hundreds of steep steps up to a cathedral carved out of a cliff face. We rested there on seats with soft pillows, all set into a large cave. Although my can of lemon drink was expensive, it was cold and tasted great after the 1-hour climb. The lazy tourists with too much money opted to pay to have tiny donkeys haul their overweight butts all the way to the top. One thing I learned on the hike up, if you walk behind a farting donkey, keep your distance!

There were venders everywhere trying to sell crappy trinkets. One entertaining old guy offered me old coins made 2,000 years ago or fake ones made last week in China! There were camels, donkeys, and horses for hire everywhere one turned.

The vast majority of tourists were French, German, Dutch, Italian, and Australian. I met a couple from Leesburg, Virginia, the seat of the county next to mine, and a businessman from McLean, Virginia, not far away. I chatted with a retired Canadian couple who were on a National Geographic 30-day world tour. I had received that catalog, and recalled it had a chartered Boeing 757 fitted out as all-First Class. [I recalled that the cost per person was around US$60,000. OK if you are an armchair tourist with lots of cash!]

Of course, what goes down must come up, and the up-hill walk through the Siq and outer area reminded me I was still alive. I made it to my corner store where I drank half a liter of cold milk without stopping. Then it was up the very steep last hill to our hotel and a great shower. It was 15:30, and we'd been touring for 7½ hours. (I almost never work that hard for money!)

[Diary] Having covered most of Petra the day before, my plan was to sleep late, forgo breakfast, and go to the park around mid-morning. However, that was not to be. I figured that I had about four hours of solid sleep, and then lay awake until daylight broke around 06:00. [Don't you just hate that when that happens?]

By 06:45, I was ready to get up, and, soon after, I was in the hotel breakfast room. It had the same bland fare as the previous day, but I discovered the boiled eggs. Although they had been in a pan over a steam bath for a lengthy period, mine had not yet turned into a science experiment gone-wrong. People came and went while I took my time eating, drinking, and writing in this diary. I also started reading a new novel, but had a vague idea I'd read it before.

A short while later, I walked over to the park. I'd missed the morning rush, and the Siq was almost devoid of people. I travelled light, having left my daypack and video camera in my room. I wore my jacket, as it was rather cool, especially in the shade. I made it to the Treasury in double-quick time, and sat and watched the tourists take photos and try to mount camels for rides around the valley. A few hundred yards further on I located the path to the High Place of Sacrifice. Although it was steep, it was only half as far as the previous day's climb. The top was very exposed, and a stiff cold breeze blew over. I walked to the edge of the rock formation to take some photos of the Street of Facades far below. Halfway down the path a French family asked how far it was to The Cathedral. I pulled out my map and showed them they were on the wrong mountain, and quite some distance from the right one.

Back at the Treasury, I found a spare seat next to an English couple. We chatted at length about British Government and History, especially Churchill. I enjoyed it so much it may have been the highlight of the day!

I ran into people from New Zealand, Ukraine, Canada, Czech Republic, and Northern Ireland.

I took my time walking out, stopping, and sitting occasionally to look at the rock formations on the canyon walls.

[Diary] Although I woke a couple of times during the night, I went back to sleep soon after, so was delighted that it was 09:00 when I woke. I had some bread, cheese, and drink in the hotel restaurant, which was almost deserted.

Back in my room, I packed my gear, and then checked out. The room had been more than adequate, and given the decent price so close to the park, it was good value.

I said goodbye to the front desk staff and walked down the hill to the row of taxis. The drivers were talking and smoking, and welcomed me with big smiles. I asked how much to take me to the bus station. One guy said five dinars. I said that was way too expensive. Eventually, he dropped to three. I said that the hotel told me one dinar was the going rate, so he told me to go back to the hotel and let them take me there for that price. I smiled and started walking to another group of taxis, and one young guy followed me and said he'd take me there for only one.

It was 09:45 when we pulled up at the so-called bus station. It consisted of a paved area with a 20-person minibus and two small shelters sheds. The bus was going to Amman, and the driver told me the price was five dinars. We'd leave when the bus was full. I was the 2nd passenger to arrive, and being Friday, the big religious day of the week, business might be slow, so I settled down to a long wait. After 15 minutes, the count had risen to four.

At 11:30, after a 1:45-hour wait, there was a flurry of activity, and passengers appeared seemingly, out of nowhere. The driver started the bus, everyone boarded, and we were "off to see the wizard". Just outside town, we pulled into a gas station to fill up the tank. The cost was 410 fils/liter, about US$1.10/US gallon, less than half what I paid at home.

Once we got out on to the highway, an older man played conductor, moving around the bus collecting money. He wore a pinstriped robe with a matching jacket, and a traditional red-and-white Hashemite headdress. The load was made up of 20 adults and five children, including the driver, conductor, a young policeman wearing a pistol, four women covered from head to toe in black robes with faces covered, a big guy around two meters tall (who I pegged as a Special Forces assassin!), and one infidel, me. I sat in the back row with my legs sticking out in the long aisle, as that was the only place on the bus I could fit comfortably. There were two spare seats, one either side of me. Coincidence? I think not; no one wanted to take a chance on catching infidel-itis by sitting next to me.

We drove on a back road through a number of towns, dropping off and picking up people. The road was in very good condition. After some 60 minutes, we were at the main highway, and we turned north to Amman. Up until then, the driver had us tapping our toes to some contemporary Arab music and singing, but, then, he turned to what I figured was a religious channel, and a cleric started in on a 15-minute sermon. Right from the start, the only mental picture I had was of Adolf Hitler giving a speech in Arabic, really! After a short break, another man came on and started singing in a rather pleasant voice. This went on for 30 minutes. My guess was that he was reciting verses from the Koran.

Traffic was light, and I looked out the windows watching the world go by. It was wonderful to have no smoking and no air conditioning. The children were all very well behaved, played quietly alone or with each other, and looked out the window. [They reminded me very much of Latin American kids in that they had an attention span of more than 15 seconds, and quietly observed the world around them without needing constant artificial stimulation.] At one point, we had to slow right down as shepherds pushed two large flocks of sheep (mostly with black wool) out over the 4-lane highway. Each man was assisted by two sheep dogs.

At 13:10, we pulled into a roadside café for a 15-minute break, and everyone got out. We were 100 km south of Amman. The "Special Forces assassin" came over to talk to me. He turned out to be a nice fellow, and he had a handle on a number of languages although I found it hard to understand his English. He gave me his phone number and email address, and asked me to contact him in Amman if I had any free time. He was especially interested in my hand-held computer, so I demonstrated some of its functions.

About 80 km out of Amman, we ran into a dust storm. Although it wasn't too thick, several times we had to slow down due to poor visibility. Strangely, light rain fell through the dust, and the driver had to put on the windshield wipers.

As was common, passengers waiting by the side of the highway waved down the bus. We stopped to pick up one guy, and the only spare seat was right next to me. He took it, but with some hesitation. Then, as we got going again, I noticed that several hundred yards down the road there was a large prison set on the hillside with high walls and guard towers. I wondered if my new seatmate had been visiting someone there, or, perhaps, he was an escapee. [I say this because once I was driving in the state of Utah in the US, and before and after a prison near the road, signs said not to pick up any hitchhikers.]

As we got closer to the capital, the rain got heavier. And as it was so dry and the roads had patches of oil and grease that had dropped from vehicles, we slid around in places.

By the time we arrived at the bus station at Mojama' al-Janoob it was 15:00, and the rain was coming down hard. I got a taxi right next to the bus, and with help from my assassin friend, managed to explain where I wanted to go. The driver took me straight there, but refused to use the meter. (If I never have to bargain with a taxi driver again in my life that would be just fine with me.)

Both Richard and Abu were home when I arrived, and Abu was cooking a chicken dinner, which we ate early with spiced rice and red pepper.

After supper, I showered and consolidated my luggage, and then downloaded the 220 emails that were waiting. I discarded more than half of them, but it still took a while to go through them. One was from my wife telling me that someone had tried to use my primary credit card to buy a lot of stuff, and that the card was now cancelled as a result. [Don't you just hate that when that happens?] I reviewed and named the digital photos from my trip to Petra.

[Diary] I woke for a few minutes when the 05:00 prayers were called, and then slept again until 08:30. I actually felt rested. Richard was making tea, so I made a pot as well, and sat down for tea and toast. Afterwards, I read a bit, and then caught up with new email that had arrived overnight.

I packed the last of my belongings, and worked on this diary throughout the morning. Then I noticed that a young man from my hometown in Australia was on-line, so we had a chat via instant messenger. He and his wife were currently living in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, on the west coast of the Caspian Sea. They had just returned from a week in neighboring Georgia.

Around noon, I packed up my computer gear, closed my bags, and chatted with Richard. He had reserved a taxi for 13:00, and it arrived right on time. I said goodbye to Wafa at her corner store, and we headed off. It was a very nice clean taxi, and the driver was young, polite, and dressed in a neat uniform. It was not your average Jordanian taxi and driver, I can assure you.

We stopped at a cash machine, so Richard could get some money. Then, soon after, we dropped him off to go in a different direction. We'd said our goodbye's en-route, and I looked forward to keeping in touch with him. Then, we headed for the airport.

It took 20 more minutes to get to the airport exit, and just before the terminal, we saw the Golden Tulip Hotel. We had to stop at a security gate where the guard asked if I had a reservation. I said that I did, and showed it to him. He then opened the gate, and we drove to the front entrance. There, I was greeted by two staff members, don't you know, one of whom ran off with my main luggage. I paid the taxi driver the very reasonable fare plus a small tip.

To get into the hotel, I had to put my luggage through an X-ray machine, and walk through a screening device myself. I though perhaps I'd arrived at the Beirut Hilton by mistake, but, no, I was in what I thought was sleepy old Jordan. The woman at the front desk was ever so pleasant, and found my reservation right away. Yes, she agreed, I'd prepaid via the internet with a booking agency. She asked my flight time the next morning, and recommended a wake-up call at 04:00 with ride to the terminal at 04:30. I agreed. My room was being made up, so she asked me to wait five minutes. The foyer was rather cavernous and nicely decorated without being "over the top".

Once my room was ready, the bellman took me to my room and set up my luggage. The room was nice, and had a large bed. I opened the curtains to the warm afternoon sun, but kept the window closed as a cool breeze was blowing. I decided against buying internet time, as there was no need for me to be connected again anytime soon. I set up my computer, and had it play some albums while I played games. Then I read my novel until the sun set.

At 17:00, I went down to the coffee shop off the foyer for a light supper. The prices were unbelievably good for a big hotel at an international airport. I ordered a tuna salad sandwich, which came in a large sesame seed bun, French fries, side salad, and a brand-new bottle of Heinz ketchup. Veddy civilized indeed, I must say. As I ate, I read my novel, which had gotten very interesting. The good news was that the author had written a series using the same character, so I had more stories to read once I got home. I finished off with a nice pot of hot chocolate. It was a fine "Last Supper in the Holy Land".

Back in my room, I read my whole diary making changes and corrections while listening to Vivaldi. At 19:45, I took a nice hot shower. Lights out soon after. All too soon, that 04:00 alarm would ring. Although I was tired, I took a while to get to sleep. A major problem with airport hotels is that they tend to be near airports! And a number of planes landed and took off with considerable noise.

[Diary] I slept right through to my 04:00 alarm. In 10 minutes, I was shaved, dressed, packed, and in the elevator heading downstairs. Checkout was a formality, and a driver was summoned to take me to the terminal, three minutes away. The security checkpoint was manned and a soldier stood at his machine gun on the back of a humvee. At the terminal, the driver took my big bag and wheeled it inside the main building. What service!

I went through security and was Number 2 in line at check in. Royal Jordanian's computer knew all about me, so I was soon processed. I asked the agent if he was up that early every morning. He replied, "Yes, but I prefer to think of it as late the night before!" Security and passport control was equally quick, and, by 04:40, I was sipping some wickedly strong coffee at the entrance to Gate 6. It had all been very uneventful, which was fine with me. And everyone made sure I was leaving the country with a good last impression.

At 05:45, I went through gate security and down to Gate 6. From there we boarded a bus for the short drive to the mid-field where an Embraer 195 jet named Petra stood ready to go. It was a crisp cold morning out and the sun was rising. We proceeded up the stairs in an orderly fashion and I sat in Seat 13A, window portside, at an exit with plenty of legroom. Instead of the usual cold air blowing around the plane, the heaters were on. Yes! Boxes of orange juice were handed out, the safety announcements made, and Royal Jordanian flight RJ342 took off at 06:30 to the southwest for the 20-minute trip to Tel Aviv.


Petra was everything I expected and more, and made the whole trip worthwhile. I only learned about Jerash a few weeks before the trip, and that was a very pleasant surprise.

Once while riding a bus near Amman, I saw a campus called "University of Philadelphia". My first thought that it was an American school. But No! Amman used to be called Philadelphia. According to Wikipedia, "Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the Macedonian ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom who reigned from 283 to 246 BC, renamed the city to "Philadelphia" (literally: "brotherly love") after occupying it. The name was given as an adulation to his own nickname, Philadelphus.