My mixed-bag month in the Middle East

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Jan 21st, 2010, 07:44 AM
  #21
 
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Thursdaysd -

Have enjoyed your report. I'm so very disappointed you didn't enjoy Syria as much as I did (to each their own, I know, so I'm certainly not being critical). I've backpacked many places alone (as single female) and found Syria to be, hands down, the easiest place to be traveling as a lone female. (I was also bothered once in Hama, but it wasn't anything different than creepy propositions I've gotten elsewhere, including Europe.)

I loved Beit Jabri - it became something of a hangout for me in Damascus, so I'm sorry you didn't have such a great experience there either.

Thanks for the report --
Linda
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Jan 21st, 2010, 12:19 PM
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maxwell -

Interesting that we had such different experiences! Really shows that you should get multiple opinions before making a decision about a place. I, too, have backpacked in a number of countries, and I'd rate Syria the worst... Still glad I went though, and I don't want to turn anyone off the idea. Just be prepared.

Jordan coming up.
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Jan 21st, 2010, 07:32 PM
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T, do you know the name of the drug you took for your tummy etc? I ALWAYS have problems.....so along w/ what I bring I might stock up on my first day...so Im prepared!!!

I know the local stuff in Egypt worked fantastically and much better than the stuff I brought from home!

Thanks...
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Jan 21st, 2010, 08:10 PM
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Leanna - the package name is Mediofuryl. The active ingredient is Nifuroxazide (I have 2/3 of it left). But if you just walk into a pharmacy and ask for something for diarrhea you'll get whatever works best locally.
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Jan 22nd, 2010, 09:37 AM
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October 27-28, 2009: - Dolmens, Mosaics, Hamam

I like to travel independently. Sure, I’ve taken tours. I’ve even enjoyed them, and enjoyed the people I’ve met on them. In fact, on a long trip, mixing things up with a tour in the middle can be a welcome break from solo travel. But in general I prefer to go it alone: no-one but me to blame when things go wrong, no reason to stay in a boring museum, no-one to distract me from the view out the train window, and no hanging around waiting for the shoppers. So, I saw no reason to take a tour for Jordan.

Until I ran into even more difficulty with hotel reservations than I had in Syria. Nothing I tried got me a hotel reservation in the north, and a night in the desert for one person proved exceedingly expensive. Realizing that I was running out of time, I started checking into tours, and was surprised and pleased to find that Explore! had an itinerary and dates that seemed almost perfect. (See http://tinyurl.com/y9qark9 for the 2010 version.) I hadn’t traveled with Explore!, a UK company, before, but it seemed similar to Intrepid, the Australian outfit I had used five times. I expected a small group of moderately adventurous travelers, budget-level but acceptable hotels, and local transport.

I added a day each to Beirut and Damascus, and planned two nights in Madaba before the tour, and three days in Amman afterwards. Although Jordan’s capital did not sound like a particularly enticing destination, my ex-stepdaughter’s not-quite-ex in-laws lived in Amman, maybe I would see them.

So, back to the Al-Samariyeh bus station. With the going rate for a taxi seat to Amman only 200 SP more than for a bus, I arranged to take a taxi. I waited a long time for it to fill up – Beirut was more popular than Amman. We eventually left at 8:50, but since one of the passengers, a young businessman, had an appointment to keep, he persuaded the driver to speed and we reached the border at 10:00, going 140-150 kph much of the way.

It took the driver a lot longer to deal with the Syrian formalities than it did the passengers. I was amused to find that I wasn’t allowed to use the “women-only” line, and instead had to use the one for “diplomats”. Getting into Jordan was quite a performance: besides completely emptying the car and the trunk, and searching under the hood, one of the guards lay down on the ground and the car drove slowly over him! Once again it took the driver longer to deal with the paperwork – he took about half an hour for each side of the border. I paid 10 JD for my visa, and didn’t even have to fill in a form.

At the largely deserted Abdali bus station the taxi driver replied "Mariam Hotel?" to my request for ride to Madaba. He was right. We agreed the price, I got into his car, and then he carefully stowed the pail of water he’d been using to wash it in the back. Turned out, he was only driving me a few yards, after which I was turned over to the real taxi. This driver had been written up in a book by a British journalist – he gave me a very dilapidated copy to read. He also told me that he had 11 children – Jordan’s birth rate is a bit lower than Syria’s, but still high.

The Mariam Hotel (http://www.mariamhotel.com/ ) lived up to its advertising, although I hadn’t noticed that it didn’t have AC (but it did have a powerful oscillating fan). I ate a quick lunch by the pool, and then arranged a taxi to take me to see the Bronze Age (5,000 to 3,000 B.C.E.) dolmens that had been discovered by the owner of the hotel. You have to trek a good ways to see them, and I don’t think I trekked far enough to see the best. I did get a thorough education in the meaning of “stony waste”.

I was in Madaba to indulge my love of mosaics. I spent the next morning mostly following Lonely Planet’s walking tour, although I saved the pièce de resistance, the 6th century C.E. mosaic map of Palestine in St. George’s church, for last. This meant that all the tour groups had left town, and I had the church almost to myself. The map was both impressive and fun, with fish swimming in the River Jordan, and trees and ordered rows of houses occupying the land. Many early maps are hard to decipher, but this was surprisingly clear, after I reviewed the well-labeled replica outside, and located Jerusalem – the center of the world at the time. (For an excellent discourse on early maps, I highly recommend “The Fourth Part of the World”.) What most tour groups miss, however, are the equally good mosaics in the Archaeological Park. There are a lot more of them, too.

I took advantage of a free afternoon to visit the Madaba Turkish Bath – I figured that after six weeks of travel, I could use some deep cleaning. My hotel made me an appointment, and I had the place to myself – the hot tub, the steam room, and the marble slab where the female attendant scrubbed off the dirt. Although I got clean, I wouldn't put this in the same class as the hamams in Turkey.

The Mariam did meals, but it looked like dinner was a buffet, and I prefer my food cooked fresh (or at least the illusion that it’s cooked fresh!). I ate a couple of meals at the Ayola Coffee Shop and Bar – a good hangout with comfortable seating indoors and dirt-cheap falafel sandwiches – and ate my last dinner in town at the Bowabit Restaurant next door, with a good view of the main street below. At the Bowabit I enjoyed some good humus followed by chicken in a cream sauce and a large glass of red wine.
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Jan 22nd, 2010, 12:01 PM
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Have been following along and really enjoying your report. Very well written. I know that you know you're brave but you downplay it --- let me tell you, I would rather stick needles in my eyes than try any of that alone. I am in awe of someone that has no fear. Bravo!
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Jan 22nd, 2010, 12:27 PM
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Well, Leslie, I figure it's only bravery if you're afraid and do whatever it is anyway. And I don't get all that afraid all that often.

I once thought of putting together a class for worried would-be independent travelers that would start with establishing what they were afraid of, and then having them plan and execute a short trip to address it - if it was that they only spoke English, then they could go to Montreal for a weekend, for instance.
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Jan 22nd, 2010, 01:58 PM
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I never thought about the language barrier till you mentioned it. I'm one of those who has decided to not travel solo if I don't speak the language. It was simply too difficult and I found that it really diminished my enjoyment of the trip (and this was Paris!). Do you speak/understand Arabic?
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Jan 22nd, 2010, 02:50 PM
  #29
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Femi - I speak English and American, and can manage some French (which came in handy in Morocco). I can transliterate Cyrillic. That's it. And I've traveled to a number of places where I can't even "read" the script - everywhere on this trip except Istanbul, as Georgia and Armenia each have their own alphabets, plus lots of places in Asia.

There have been times when I really wished I could speak the language so I could have an actual conversation with someone who didn't speak English - although sometimes there was someone else around to translate. But you can go a long way with gestures and a smile (and a guidebook/phrasebook). Especially if you speak English... (I know it's unfair, but it's a fact.)

What did you find especially difficult in Paris? It used to be that people in Paris refused to speak any English, but that was some time ago.
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Jan 22nd, 2010, 04:42 PM
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The people I met all around Paris were extremely gracious (well, except for the public workers), and many times they went well out of their way to help me. Pretty much the only person I met who was fluent in English was the receptionist at my hotel, but I felt like had to limit how much of her time I used.

For the first time, I realised what it must be like to be functionally illiterate. I had my guidebooks of course, but I really missed being able to interact with people.
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Jan 22nd, 2010, 07:29 PM
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I have stumbled around places on my own and enjoyed it. I always find people are very friendly and helpful and often amused by my state of being! I like being on my own for all the same reasons....mostly I can do what I want and when.

But I would think twice about traveling in many parts of the world....so for those I do tours.

In France when they get "cute" about how I don't speak French, I just start speaking Spanish to them and once they see I speak another language they get calmer!!! I'm far from fluent but can rattle enough to show Im not a complete idiot!
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Jan 23rd, 2010, 05:35 AM
  #32
 
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Maybe bravery & fear aren't the exact right words. It's not a fear of being messed with or anything like that but just the stress of dealing with all the logistics by oneself and the language barrier and how every little element of every day can end up a challenge. And the loneliness that some feel and others don't when traveling alone. That's probably the bigger part of it for me since I'd go to an off the beaten path destination with my husband & not a group tour and we would still encounter the logistical hassles but by being with a partner it would not be as problematic or unenjoyable, I think, as doing the same trip alone-alone. If that makes sense.

Anyway, didn't mean to derail the report!
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Jan 23rd, 2010, 06:12 AM
  #33
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Interesting piece along these lines - http://www.vagabondish.com/travel-le...-comfort-zone/

Report will resume shortly.
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Jan 23rd, 2010, 02:29 PM
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Good article!
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Jan 23rd, 2010, 06:01 PM
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That is a REALLY good article. I think I get what you mean Leslie......it does get exhausting being on my own sometimes esp. when I want to find a very particular site! But, like Thursday I think a combination is always a good balance.

Oh and Thursday...thank you for the medicine reply...I have copied it into my trip notes so I remember what to do!!
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Jan 24th, 2010, 06:39 AM
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October 29-30, 2009: - On My Own in Amman

I treated myself to a taxi ride back to Amman and the tour hotel, the Toledo (http://www.toledohotel.jo/ ), overlooking the Abdali bus station. The front desk staff were very nice, and the sheets and towels were clean, but the hotel seemed tired: worn carpet, a bath tub that needed replacing and a toilet that had to be babied to stop it from running. I cared most about the lack of soundproofing. I learned, as expected, that I would have a roommate, so I made sure to only mess up half of the room.

Amman sprawls across at least seven hills, and is still growing. Although the first inhabitants in the area arrived around 1800 B.C.E., the present city only dates to the early 20th century, its growth fueled by several waves of Palestinian refugees, and, more recently, an influx of Iraqis. Aside from the small and gritty downtown, it's not a walking town. Taxis are plentiful, and cheap - provided you remember that the meters count in fractions of dinars, not whole dinars. I started downtown, at the dirt-cheap Hashem, popular with locals and backpackers, where I lunched on excellent hummus and falafel, before taking a taxi up to the Citadel.

I took a look at the remains of a Roman temple and of a Umayyad palace, but I spent most of my time in the National Archaeological Museum, which contained some of the earliest statues of humans ever found, and some of the Dead Sea scrolls. I had seen Dead Sea scrolls, dimly lit, in a special exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, under heavy security, but here there was no security at all, and no effort at controlling the lighting. Then I made the mistake of setting out on foot for the Darat al-Funun, or House of Arts, on the next hill to the west. The downhill stretch was fine, but the shortcut shown on the Lonely Planet map didn’t exist, and I did not enjoy the trek uphill. Nor was the House of Arts worth visiting for the art, although I had a nice chat over coffee with a couple of other travelers.

When I returned to the hotel I expected to find a notice from the tour company – information on when and where to meet, and helpful hints on Jordan in general and Amman in particular - but I found nothing. No notice in the lobby, no note under my door, no message at the front desk, and no roommate. I might as well not have been on tour. Then, even with help from the hotel staff, I couldn’t find a taxi that would take me to my choice for dinner, the Wild Jordan cafe, run by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature and said to have a fine view. The taxi that did agree to take me, instead, to the Abu Ahmad Orient Restaurant turned out to have no idea where it was.

After I gave up on the taxi driver, I asked him to drop me at 3rd Circle – in central Amman you navigate by reference to a string of roundabouts – only to discover (thanks to some nice guys sitting outside a barber’s shop) that he had actually dropped me at 2nd Circle. I eventually found the restaurant, although I had to cross a busy divided highway on the way, and felt I had earned the delicious cheese pie appetizers (buraik), spicy tomato salad, and lamb.

Back at the hotel, still no word from Explore! and still no roommate. I finally remembered that the people using the group air would not arrive until late. I went to sleep in the expectation of being woken up, but in the morning I was still alone. And there there were STILL no notices posted. The front desk told me the group would meet at 11:00 to go to Jerash. Since the “optional city tour” scheduled for Day 2 apparently didn’t exist, I set off on my own to visit the mosque, the two churches, and the Friday market which were the only sights in walking distance.

The Mosque of the Martyr King Abdullah bin Al-Hussein (assassinated in 1951), almost deserted, impressed me with its tremendous sense of peace, despite its newness. It would no doubt fill up later for the obligatory Friday prayers, but I was surprised to find that both of the nearby churches were already full. It seemed that Sunday services were being held on Friday, in recognition of a differing day of rest. The Coptic Church, with men lined up to receive the Eucharist and their headscarved women seated, was more popular than the Greek Orthodox. The market was a disappointment, stall after stall selling clothes and shoes.

I returned to the hotel with plenty of time for some internet (not free) before 11:00.
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Jan 24th, 2010, 03:44 PM
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Waiting to see what's happened to the rest of the group!
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Jan 25th, 2010, 01:26 AM
  #38
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I've really enjoyed this so far; Syria and Jordan were definitely on the to-do list, and now Lebanon as well! (That list just keeps getting longer...)
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Jan 25th, 2010, 02:57 PM
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Funny how the "must-see" list does that, isn't? LOL And visiting places doesn't always help, as I also have a "should revisit" list.

October 30-31, 2009: - A wet day, a very busy day

At 10:45 on my watch I left the business center to go get ready for the visit to Jerash. On my way through the lobby I noticed a young local man standing around. After a little hesitation I asked him if he was with Explore! and discovered that he was the ground agent. The ground agent who had made absolutely no, nada, zilch attempt to contact me. Did he welcome me to the tour? Apologize for not contacting me? Hope I enjoyed the tour? No, he did not. Instead he lit into me for being late!!!

True, on his watch it was 10:55, but that still gave me five minutes, and what effort had he made to see that I even knew to be there at 11:00? This tour wasn’t starting well, and went down hill some more when I discovered that there were 21 people in the group and that we would travel around on a big tour bus. I had expected a maximum of 16, but when I reread the Explore! brochure later I discovered that it said 16-22. I was used to Intrepid tours that maxed out at 12, and had never, in my experience, used a big tour bus.

Aside from a couple of people and the group leader, who had been touring Syria and met us at Jerash, and my roommate, who arrived overland from Damascus shortly before the bus left, everyone else had flown in from Britain the night before, getting to the hotel at 1:00 am. They were all on the bus when I boarded. We had some time to start sorting people out over lunch, before we were supposed to start touring the extensive Roman ruins at Jerash.

However, while we ate our way through a good selection of mezes, it started to rain. Hard. It doesn't do that very often in Jordan. I know they could use the rain, but the timing was unfortunate. It also turned cold, and although (unlike most of the group) I had hiking boots and an umbrella, I wasn’t wearing warm clothes and I knew from experience that if I got really chilled I’d get sick. So I chose not to follow the guide round the site. I spent some time in the very overcrowded cafe drinking bad coffee, and then took a quick look on my own. Enough of a look to appreciate just how impressive a site this was, but I'm afraid I may have seen too many Roman ruins recently.

Back in Amman I tried to get a restaurant recommendation for dinner, but neither the ground agent nor the tour leader were willing to suggest anything other than eating at the hotel. So far the only good thing about this tour was my roommate, an Australian headed home after several years in Edinburgh – as usual I lucked out with an assigned roommate and we got on well. The next morning we set out on the bus with a crowded schedule of sights to see on the way to Petra.

We started at Bethany Beyond the Jordan – recently validated as the site of Jesus’ baptism. While I was glad to actually see the Jordan River, it had been reduced to a sad, not-very-wide, distinctly muddy, stream. One devout group with its minister was having a service around a nice clean pool of filtered water. Across the river on the West Bank side we could see a more developed but deserted site.

Next stop was Mount Nebo – where Moses looked out over Canaan. I thought the Promised Land was supposed to be the land of milk and honey: it certainly didn’t look it that day, but much of the view was obscured by haze. I did enjoy some quite nice mosaics, but I wouldn't go out of my way to visit this site unless you have an especial interest in Moses, or are lucky with the weather.

We reached Madaba around lunchtime, and, as I had expected, the group was only taken to see the map in St. George's. I was very glad I had visited on my own before the tour. I listened to the guide’s lecture, and then ate falafel at Ayola again before visiting the map with just my roommate instead of the whole group.

The best part of the day for me, given I had already been to Madaba, was the drive down the King's Highway and through Wadi Mujib. I had boarded the bus early so I could grab the front seat for this ride, and enjoyed seeing the wadi, an impressive gash in the earth's surface, with the road inching its way down and then up in a series of switchbacks. Calling it the "Grand Canyon of Jordan" is clearly hyperbole, though.

Our last stop was at Karak, with the light fading. Perhaps I had seen enough for one day, but I found the castle not very interesting. Our national guide gave us a lot of boring facts and no insight, and we only got a close-up view, while you need to see a castle from a distance to really appreciate the site. I would have been happier if the guide had lectured us on the bus, while we were sitting down, instead of standing in front of the castle, but very few guides seem willing to do that.

We finally made it into Petra, or more precisely Wadi Musa, well after dark. I’m not sure whether our hotel was the Al-Anbat II or the Al-Anbat III but I certainly can’t recommend it. After a favorable first impression – big bedroom, clean bathroom – my opinion kept going down. Clearly, the designer hadn't tried to stay in the room. There was quite literally nowhere in the bathroom to hang anything - not even a rod for a shower curtain. Then the TV didn't work, the heat/AC unit only did AC, and the lone power outlet was too feeble to charge my n800. Finally, the sheets were an even worse match for the mattress than usual. Remaking my bed with the top sheet on the bottom helped some, but I still needed my silk sleep sack. And then I was too hot with the coverlet on and too cold without it.

But even a bad hotel couldn’t spoil my visit to Petra.
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Jan 25th, 2010, 06:21 PM
  #40
 
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Can you feel me patting your shoulder in sympathy!!!! Wow!! I think I would have picked up that tour guide by the collar and sent him flying!!! You have great control!!

Hate to make generalizations...but it just seems every single Ozzie I meet is just the greatest traveler. They manage to move about for weeks on 2 lbs of luggage, can hold their beer, and are always great fun!!! I'm sure there are stinkers out there but I sure have not encountered them. They are my travel role models!
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