ADVENTURES IN DUBAI: YOUR FAVOURITE NUMBER ONE BLOG BRITISH DESIGNER LIVING IN DUBAI TELLS (NEARLY) ALL
Sunday, January 29, 2006
Interchange Four and a Half
Interchange Four and a Half on Sheikh Zayed Road was opened yesterday. Yee-haa! This creates a badly-needed new access into Media City / Interweb City / Knowledge Hamlet. I haven't used it yet, but it does seem to have eased our morning progress up SZR to Police Academy Interchange a little bit.
But now this raises the issue of the names of these interchanges. In the olden days it was very simple - you had Trade Centre (i/c 1), Defence (i/c 2), Safa Park (i/c 3), Police College (i/c 4), Middle-of-Nowhere (i/c 5), Jebel Ali Village (i/c 6) and Jebel Ali Port and Free Zone. Now we have the new interchange (and it's a beauty - long, soaring, gorgeous bridges) between 4 & 5. Shortly we will have a smaller one between 4.5 and 5, so that will be four-and-three-quarters. There's also the Binned Potato Interchange between 5 and 6, and a one-way bridge into Al Quoz between 3 and 4. The old interchange five is now a no-go zone while it is re-built over the next couple of years.
The old interchanges used to have big signs on them that told you what they were called. The new ones have massive adverts for Emaar, Mall of the Emirates and Ibn Battuta. Very confusing for newcomers, I'm sure.
The Islamic New Year is coming up in a few days, and once again we have confusion over holidays. It was announced last week that the Gubment sector would have Tuesday off. Yesterday that was changed to Wednesday so that those in the Gubment sector would get a long weekend (the normal weekend for this sector is Thursday / Friday). Today it was announced that the private sector will have Thursday off. This is, of course, grossly unfair to those in the private sector whose weekend is Thursday / Friday. They will not be getting a day off. Their employers will not be required to give a day off in lieu.
Conflicting reports in some of today's papers. Emirates Today says the new telco will not be competing on price. 6Days says it will. Whatever. Having seen the stream of drivel emanating from the TRA ever since it was established, it is clear that the main thing that telecoms users want (prices on a par with the rest of the world) will not come easily. The main reason for this is the 50% profits surcharge that both companies must pay to the Government. Even though the Government is already a major shareholder in both companies and presumably gets a dividend from the profits.
The imaginatively named Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company has a great opportunity here. I hope they don't blow it. I hope they will listen to what consumers say they want, and convince the TRA to let them do it. So here's my wishlist:
Significantly lower prices for everything.
Great customer service: counter staff who are trained to treat customers as deities rather than potential criminals.
Lots of small offices in convenient locations (I could not believe how many high street shops the likes of Vodafone, Orange, T-Mobile and Virgin have in the UK - and no queues). And/or lots of payment machines that accept payment for everything.
Serious reduction in red tape. If irrelevant rubbish like tenancy contracts and passport copies going back three generations is required at all, then these things are recorded once and are never needed again. It's a phone company, not a branch of the Secret Service.
A coherent PR strategy that does not treat customers like morons, and does not lie to them.
Did I mention lower prices?
Deposit-free international roaming.
Optional proxy for Interweb access.
And a nice fluffy food-based brand image like Apple, Orange or Egg. Cheese, Banana, Shawarma. Something like that.
Not much to ask, is it? Fluffikins the Phone Company is expecting to start services in the latter half of 2006. They have a daunting task ahead of them, but I wish them the best of luck, I really do. They're gonna need it.
In case you did not receive this delicious piece of spam, I share it with you here. (Take a deep breath)
WHAT WOULD BE MORE ELITE, EXCLUSIVE, APPEALING & ALLURING THAN TO HAVE AN OFFICE SPACE IN ONE OF DUBAI’S MOST STRATEGICALLY PLANNED LOCATIONS NEAR THE GRAND SIGHT OF DUBAI MARINA WHICH IS CLEARLY VISIBLE FROM THE TOWERING HEIGHT OF SHATHA TOWER AS THE TOWER HAS MARINA VIEW AS WELL AS THE VIEW OF PALM JUMEIRAH. A LOCATION WHICH IS A PINNACLE AS IT IS RIGHT IN THE MIDST OF AN INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT AND HUB, A LOCATION WHICH IS GOING TO BE VERY STRATEGIC AND VITAL IN THE MAJOR BUSINESS ACTIVITY OF DUBAI IN THE FUTURE FOR THE COMING DECADES. A KEY LOCATION WHICH IS VERY PRIME, CRUCIAL AND VITAL IN GETTING THE POTENTIAL CLIENTS FOR THE MONETARY NATURE OF BUSINESSES OF ALMOST ANY KIND, A PRINCIPAL LOCATION WHICH IS RIGHT IN THE MIDST OF AN ALREADY THRIVING BUSINESS ACTIVITY AREA WHERE PROGRESS AND DEVELOPMENT OF EVERY POSITIVE KIND AND ASPECT IS TAKING PLACE AT AN ENORMOUS PACE, WHERE THE RATE OF GROWTH OF EVERY KIND OF BUSINESS PROSPECTS AND OPPORTUNITIES IS TRYING TO REACH THE SKY EVERYDAY, WHERE EVERYDAY BY THE END OF THE DAY A PERSON HAS A LOT TO LOOK AHEAD TO IN RELATION TO HIS BUSINESS CAREER. ABOVE ALL THE LOCATION IS IN A FREEZONE - A ZONE WHICH IN ITSELF HAS A LOT OF ADVANTAGES AND BEING THE HUB AND CENTRE OF BUSINESS ACTIVITY. PLEASANT WORK SPACE WITH HI-TECH FACILITIES, PLEASANT ATMOSPHERE, PLEASANT WORKING ENVIRONMENT, PLEASING VIEWS & PLEASANT SIGHTS-WHAT ELSE COULD BE BETTER?-HOW MUCH MORE IDEAL CAN AN OFFICE ENVIRONMENT GET AND WORK BETTER&BETTER? SO WOULDN’T YOU WANT TO GET YOUR CORPORATE OFFICE IN THE VICINITY OF COMPANIES OF THE FUTURE. ? !!!
For as long as I've lived in the Middle East, I've always been struck by the culture of blame that exists here. Somebody hit your car while it was parked? Well if you hadn't parked it there it wouldn't have been hit, therefore you are partly to blame. I've heard horrible stories of off-duty doctors being fined and jailed because they tried to help accident victims who subsequently died.
So the front-page story in Emirates Today was most welcome: the director-general of Dubai police's traffic department says that drivers who accidentally kill pedestrians 'should not always be fined'. He is referring to the idiots who try to cross our busy highways. I had not been aware up until this point that the unfortunate drivers that this has happened to face a Dhs 200,000 fine. Plus the diya (blood money).
Actually it is incredible that any driver on a highway should be held responsible for hitting somebody trying to cross the road on foot. But the problem needs to be addressed. Highways in the UAE are not accorded any special status, they are just roads where cars can travel fast without having to stop for traffic lights. Although I did pass a forklift truck trundling along SZR this morning.
In the UK, motorways are definitely not ordinary roads: the traffic allowed on them is restricted to vehicles capable of using them properly (nothing slow, nothing with a 'learner' plate and certainly nothing on foot). But in the UK there are footbridges where they are needed, and alternative routes for non-motorway traffic.
There have been times when I've contemplated crossing SZR on foot. I work in Media City, and I have some clients directly across the road in the Emaar Business Centre. So it's a toss-up between a five-minute seriously life-threatening trot across the Sheikh Zayed Road, or a 30-minute drive around the roadworks. The drive always wins.
Some of the staff from BetterArf's school went bowling last night. Naturally I had to go too. I have not been bowling for about ten years, so it was about time for me to give it another try. The selected venue was the Mall Of The Emirates. The bowling alley (do they still call them that?) is very whizzy and moderne and with lanes so highly polished that if you accidentally step over the line you have no chance of remaining upright.
My performance was, of course, useless. Plenty of gutterballs, and not much actual knocking over of pins. Although I did get a bit better towards the end.
As we left someone said 'let's go in The Black Hole'. I didn't know what this was. I mean, I know what a physicist would consider to be a Black Hole, but I'm sure I'd have heard of it if they'd managed to install one in Dubai's newest mall. I read the sign at the entrance with some bemusement. It was along the lines of 'do not try this if you have a weak heart, a pacemaker, high blood pressure, pretty much anything else'.
You enter through a darkened lobby, and you walk across a narrow bridge. It's about eight metres, not a long walk, no big deal really. Except that the bridge is surrounded by a revolving tube which is covered in pinpricks of fibre-optic light that seem to bulge towards you randomly. The effect of this is that you really believe the bridge is swaying, leaning, buckling. Eventually you battle your way to the other end, and you look back at this perfectly immobile bridge with people on it who are having a real hard time standing upright.
However, an official at the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority insisted that making internet phone calls illegal was not motivated by a desire to protect Etisalat. “We are protecting customers,” said Mohamed Gheyath, manager of IT affairs at the authority, who said that the companies selling pre-paid cards enabling customers to make internet calls have no licence and therefore there is no guarantee they comply with security and quality service standards.
Yesterday's Emirates Today featured this mind-numbing apology/explanation for why road traffic accidents are the major cause of death for Emirati males under 30. I honestly could not believe my eyes as I read the article. First of all the author (Taryam Al Subaihi) tells us that we cannot tell just by looking at a car with blacked-out windows what the nationality of the driver is. Fair enough, I'll give him that. It could be 'a Jamaican who holds a British passport'.
He goes on:
'Yes, some of us do speed and here is why. We are of a culture that enjoys mastering skills. In the days of the bedou, we were challengers, always attempting to perfect the art of any skill we find our interest in. Be it sword fighting, camel racing, having the fastest horse or being the best at falconry, as children we are taught to try to reach perfection in any field... to [Emirati] youths cars are similar to how our horses and camels were years ago. Many of us start driving in the deserts at an extremely young age and we perfect it. And some of us simply take that extra step in trying to perfect driving at fast speeds.'
So that's ok then. Nothing at all like me wanting to master the art of shooting by practicing with live ammunition in a crowded shopping mall.
His parting shot is a corker too. 'The fault lies not just in our youth but also in our roads, which are open to speeding'. Is he suggesting we should tear down the multi-lane highways and replace them with dirt tracks? Has he never heard of the idea of personal responsibility?
This comes in the wake of the end of the experimental raising of the speed limit on some Abu Dhabi roads from 120 to 160 kph. That experiment saw a significant increase in the number of accidents. It also follows the tragic death a few days ago of the 15-year-old son of the King of Bahrain, who lost control of the car he was driving.
I am not claiming that any nation has a perfect driving record. But the facts speak for themselves. When a country loses such a high proportion of its young men in avoidable traffic accidents, surely the authorities should be doing something. Better driver education, acceptance of personal responsibility and police/judicial enforcement unencumbered by wasta would be a good start.
I've lost track of time on this holiday (having such a great time!). This is basically our last full fambly day - Offspring's flight is at 0330 the next morning, but ours is not until 1930 in the evening of the next day.
Our plan for the day was to drive back to Madaba from Wadi Mousa. But we had to make a few stops en route. The first was to return to the Dana Hotel where BetterArf had left (deliberately we think) an embroidered scarf. We obviously had to stay for tea (their tea is unusual - it is flavoured with maramiyah, which tastes like sage). And unlike the two days that we stayed there we were actually able to find the place without any difficulty, and it was actually warm and sunny enough in the village for us to be able to sit out on the untented roof. Jabber, one of the co-op members and their government liaison chap, told us that we could buy the shell of a house in the village for maybe 2000 JD and maybe another 1000 to fit it out. A Canadian guy did just that last summer. It's an amazing offer but we still need to work until we retire (probably aged around 85) and it is too isolated for us to continue our urban-sophisticate jobs. Plus Suleiman had told us that it was difficult to do the subsistence smallholder thing because the village is in a Nature Reserve and you are not allowed to fence off any land where you might grow veggies, chicken and sheep or goats.
After leaving Dana, promising to return (and I have no doubt we will, but maybe not in winter), we headed for Kerak, a huge Crusader castle. It's enormous. There are seven levels, and all kinds of chambers and corridors. Plus a decent museum. Yet another mind-blowing place to explore in Jordan.
The entire town is within the old castle walls, and the castle itself is on top of a seriously tall hill. When we arrived we were well ready for lunch. We found a restaurant that had the elusive mansaf on the menu. We all ordered it. We were bemused when it arrived. Our plates contained a dome of rice with three lumps of evil-smelling mutton with bones sticking out of it. And then they brought each of us a bowl of white slurry. It all smelled rancid, and the meat seemed to have gone off at least a week ago. We could not begin to eat it. This was deeply embarrassing because we just didn't know if this was how it should be, or whether the owner was just taking the piss. He was deeply hurt by our rejection until I paid for it.
Later, in Madaba, we told this story to Joseph Sawhalla. First question 'how much did you pay for it?' I said '3 or 4 JDs'. 'Aah' he says, 'you must pay at least 10 JDs to get the real thing'. He explained that what we had been given was nothing like the real thing, that it should only be made with the very best bits of prime lamb, that we had been quite right to reject what had been offered, and that we should persevere in the quest for proper mansaf, because it is truly one of the world's great dishes.
The last leg of the drive should have been easy. From Kerak to Madaba we were told would take an hour and a half. Oh no it didn't. Thanks to Jordan's lousy road signs we ended up driving east when we should have been driving north. We only realised this when we hit the Desert Highway. We headed north on the highway, hoping to find a road that would connect us back to the Kings Highway. We were in serious dusk by this time and these unlit little roads were very hard work at night, mostly because of other drivers who used full beam all the time. Yekk.
We arrived at the Mariam Hotel in Madaba at about 6.30. We checked in, dumped our stuff and headed into town. We had met a few people from the Madaba Inn Hotel, and I thought it would be nice to have a slap-up dinner there on our last night.
The problem was, they were not fully open yet. It's a brand-new hotel and was in a kind of soft-opening phase. But they said the restaurant was open, so up we went. Hussam the waiter explained that the menus had not been printed yet. After a week in Jordan we had learned not to trust menus anyway, so we asked him what there was and he went into the kitchen to ask the chef what there was. We ordered steak and medallions d'beouf and a bottle of Mount Nebo Rouge. They had nothing that Offspring wanted to drink but said it was ok if he went to the liqour store around the corner. The food was excellent, and they gave us complimentary chocolate eclairs. I refused to eat one of mine because it looked like Dougal from The Magic Roundabout. Offspring photographed it and we discussed the possibilities of auctioning it on EBay. (Nil - BetterArf snaffled it).
Hussam was extremely cool. He explained that he had no experience as a waiter, and we had several chats about the existential angst of being a Jordanian in the modern world.
Back to the Mariam Hotel for a little sleep before going to the airport in a couple of hours' time. I had no plans to drive - I'd done that road after dark before and I didn't care to do it again. So we had Charl arrange transport - which turned out to be a clapped-out minivan with no seat belts. It got us there on a secret back road. We dumped Offspring at the airport and returned to the hotel.
Our flight back to Dubai was at 7.30 in the evening. So we had one day to kill and we planned to go to Ma'in Hot Springs, about 30km from Madaba.
When we got there we discovered that we could not afford the 10 JD each entrance fee. Actually we could if we really wanted to do, but that would involve changing more money. We turned round and headed for the Dead Sea. This road down to the Dead Sea seemed to be a new one. It was partly blocked by oil drums, but people ahead of us were going through. However, at the end of this spectacular descent into the valley, the exit onto the Amman/Aqaba/Dead Sea road was completely blocked. There was a stationary car in front of us, and we were approached by an insane bedu who yelled at us in Arabic. I had no clue what he wanted. None at all. He thumped the car (mind my CDW!), he yelled a lot, he jumped up and down. Eventually he went back to the first car, moved some oil drums and let them through. He then indicated that we could go through also. I didn't want to. As I started to do a u-turn, this pillock grabbed hold of my window sill, urging us not to go back. I'm afraid I might have been unpleasant to him at this point. He let go, I drove on.
Halfway up the mountain there is a viewing platform. I was not keen to use it, I just wanted to get the hell away from this place. But we stopped. BetterArf went a-wandering, while I tried to chase Dead Sea flies out of the car. As I sat there, a car full of Men In Black drove slowly past on the wrong side of the road. I was seriously spooked. I felt that for whatever reason, we were objects of hatred in a very remote place, and we could well be up for kidnapping. I went to get BetterArf. We left.
We headed back to Madaba, and went to see Joseph Sawhalla again. We had the chat about mansaf, and then he said we might as well extend our stay in Jordan because Dubai will be closed. We are puzzled and he explained about the demise of Sheikh Maktoum. We were shocked. We had heard the news about Ariel Sharon, but completely missed this story.
It was time for us to head off to the airport. After a long queue at the entrance the soldier asked 'Where are you going?'. 'The airport?' 'OK'.
We parked where the car had originally been delivered to us. I couldn't see Ayman from Monte Carlo Car Rental, so I called him on his mobile. I asked him where he was and he said 'at home in Amman'. (It is Friday, the first day of the weekend). He told me that someone would be there within an hour, but if I'm in a hurry I could put the key under the seat and lock the doors. We were just starting on a long debate about how this might realistically be done, when someone tapped on the window. It was a guy from Monte Carlo. He checked around the car, and was... Surprised? Amazed? Astonished? ... To find no dings on the car. Well, me too. 1,553 kilometers without a prang in a country full of very charismatic drivers. Yayy Keefieboy!
Aaah, if you have never been to Jordan, go now! Take my car! Despite the prats who want to rip you off, and the risk that Westerners might be terrorist targets, go now! The landscape is stunning. The history is amazing. But more than any of that, the people of Jordan are truly wonderful. They all say 'welcome to my country', but you know what? They really mean it.
I loved the fact that it is a half-Christian / half-Muslim country, and everyone gets on just fine. I loved the fact that there are liquor stores around the place - you don't need a licence to buy the stuff, and muslims seem to be quite disciplined enough to just ignore it. I was intrigued by being in Old Testament Land, and only a stone's-throw away from Israel and Palestine. Coming from the Gulf, I was also intrigued to find that this 'non-existent entity', that you are not allowed to mark on a map, very clearly does exist. I know it does, I've seen it across the Dead Sea, and next door to Aqaba.
I have to say, this has been the best holiday we have ever had. It was nothing like sitting on a Spanish beach for a fortnight, we could do something like that at home if we wanted to. We explored the country in the middle of winter. We saw life as it really is for lots of people. We met people whose lives are steeped in civilisation and history, and they have become our friends.
We went to see The Chronicles of Narnia yesterday. It's a staggeringly brilliant film. Go see it now!!!
I think it's interesting that a lot of the recent blockbusters (Potter, Kong, Wallace & Grommit, Narnia) have been great films, and have done fantastic box-office business without needing to rely on established, big-name, expensive actors. This is not to denigrate the likes of Bruce Willis or Stallone, I'm sure they are worth every cent that that they get paid, based on the revenues that they bring in. But I've never been one who would go to see a movie purely because it has an actor in it that I like. In fact it's the opposite way around with me - I will not pay good money to see films featuring certain actpersons.
A good film is the result of the collaboration of literally hundreds of people working in different specialities. I've never understood how we got to a situation where leading performers (lots of whom can barely act) got to be paid tens of millions of dollars for speaking words in front of a camera. Don't get me wrong, I think good actors are worth their weight in gold - but they are rarely the ones that get rewarded that way. Anyhoo, it seems that that era might be coming to an end.
Aqaba was totally cloudy when we woke up. We didn't fancy breakfast at the hotel, and weren't even sure it was provided, so we wandered around the town and found a little restaurant. For such a well-known place (thank you Lawrence), Aqaba is tiny. We took a drive to the South Coast where the beaches are - but they were all windy and deserted. We had a spot of rain on the way. The day is looking like a bit of a washout - it's too cold and windy for the beach or Wadi Rum, lots of sand in the air, and we don't really know what to do.
One thing on our list was to buy Offspring a new shisha - his old one is allegedly held together with sticky tape and silver foil. BetterArf and I had looked at some the previous evening and noticed some very small cute ones in armoured travelling cases, but really we don't know anything about what makes a good shisha, so fortunately we didn't buy one. Offspring know exactly what to look for - the bigger the better seems to be the mantra. He chose a monster - at least a metre high, and of course the most expensive. But even at 19 JDs it was a fraction of what he'd have to pay in London.
We had been thinking about a trip in a glass-bottomed boat, but the operators try to rip us off. The official government price list has been doctored, so the one-hour trip that was supposed to cost 15 JD now reads 25. One guy offered us 20, but I was pissed off with being robbed and we left. As we did so a guy was calling 'one-hour, 15', but it was too late, they'd blown it with this particular tourist.
A new plan was hatched. Go to Wadi Mousa (the town next to Petra) and splurge on a hotel with stars to its name, a full-sized bath and stupidly hot water. We got to Wadi Mousa about 3pm and checked into the Petra Palace Hotel. We got a huge room with a fabulous bathroom and lots and lots of fluffy white towels. It was 60JD for the night, but we reckoned we'd earned a bit of luxury.
BetterArf went off for a good old pummelling at a nearby Turkish Bath while Offspring and I headed for the bar downstairs. It advertised Kilkenny and Guinness, but of course they didn't have any. I settled for Petra Beer (8% alc), 'The Taste of the Rosy City'. We had a little chat with the barman who told us he had lived in Sharjah for a year but found it 'too fake'. While we were in the bar, the heavens opened and we witnessed a terrific downpour.
In the evening the restaurant offered a buffet dinner. I was starting to panic because there was no mansaf to be seen. I asked the maitre d' about it and he raised an eyebrow as if to say 'you won't like it', but did offer to send out to a local restaurant for some. I didn't bother, but in retrospect I probably should have taken up the offer.
Tension builds - will Keefieboy get to try mansaf before leaving Jordan?
We left Dana after breakfast and they only charged us 60JDs for the two nights and dinners. Although we had tickets for Petra we really didn't feel like doing it again. We wanted to get down to Aqaba and get warm.
We stopped at Shawbak Castle which is not too far from Dana, and then headed across country towards the Desert Highway. Our route was about 200km and I discovered that the car could not go faster than 155 kph, and that Jordan does not seem to have any speed cameras. Most of the trip was on the Desert Highway, and a bit boring. But the last 50 km or so were through beautiful pinky/red mountains. On the outskirts of Aqaba there is a serious checkpoint because the whole of Aqaba is an economic free zone.
In Aqaba itself we rejected the first hotel we saw, and booked into The International Hotel. It was pretty basic, but our 'triple room' was a suite of two bedrooms with a little lounge. Can't complain for 20 JDs a night.
BetterArf wanted a sleep, while Offspring and I planned on spending the afternoon in The Rovers Return. This plan was thwarted by their complete failure to supply Kilkenny or Guinness, despite them having the fonts. Had one pint of Amstel (yawn) and went shopping.
I'd been trying to get an adapter so my three-pin Brit-style phone charger could plug into the Jordanian two-pin power sockets. I finally managed to get one but back at the hotel was amused to find that the sockets were three-pin jobbies.
We were heading back to the hotel and bumped into BetterArf on the way - she was going out and we were going in. We re-arranged our rendezvous (it had originally been T'Rovers Return) and she gives me the lowdown on the shower and hot water situation.
A bit later I met up with BetterArf. Offspring had put himself to bed (it was 6 pm). As we walk she told me about Salim, the bookshop owner who had sold her a million JDs worth of books. He wanted to talk to me about doing business in Dubai. Then we bumped into him. He was on his way to pray, but took us to a very good fish restaurant and chose a couple of fish for us. We promised to stop by his shop in the morning.
Anyhoo, the food was excellent, and we went for a little walk around Aqaba Corniche. We found out where the beaches and aquatic activities were, and it looks like we'll be basking in sunshine tomorrow.
This will be our first Petra day. Because we loved the Dana Hotel so much, we had decided that we would return there in the evening. Petra is maybe a 45-minute, easy drive from Dana. In daylight we are able to see Dana properly, and it really is a fabulous little place.
Petra itself was virtually unknown to the world until it was made world-famous by the shooting there of parts of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989. It had actually been unknown to all but a few local residents until Johan Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered it in 1812.
The entrance to the Petra site is actually in the town of Wadi Mousa. The site itself is meant to be free of any tourist tat - the tat, the hotels and restaurants are in the town. Fortunately there is also a digital photo shop, so BetterArf was able to get the photos off her camera chip onto a CD (miracles of modern technology).
You buy your tickets for Petra at the visitor's centre. I bought 2-day passes, 25 JD each for the grownups and 13 JD for Offspring with his magic student card. From the visitor's centre it's a couple of kilometers to the entrance to the Siq. The Siq is a narrow canyon, possibly one kilometer long, that leads into Petra itself.
There are dozens of people offering the use of horses, mules and pony-and-traps to get down to the Siq. We opted for horses at 2JDs a head, and then continued down the Siq on foot. The Siq was just amazing. Bizarre rock formations, different coloured rock strata, impossible structures. Probably worth the entrance fee just to see this. But at the end of it, at right angles to the Siq and directly facing you, is The Treasury. A complete building facade carved out of the red rock of the mountainside. At this point we were assaulted by assorted bedu kids who all wanted us to buy things (it was only later that we found that these bedu actually live inside Petra). We mooched around for a bit, and then one of our party (certainly not me) decided it would be a laugh to climb the 800 steps to the The High Place of Sacrifice. I don't know exactly how high this is, but I was certainly glad to find an old geezer selling water when I got to the top. It was possible to get on a donkey to take you up there, but I felt that that would be cheating. The High Place of Sacrifice, by the way, is a bit of a temple where they used to, you know, sacrifice things.
The walk down is obviously much easier than the stagger up, and we amused ourselves by telling folks on the way up that there was nothing at the top or that it was closed.
We mooched around the valley some more, and explored the Amphitheatre. Offspring was walking along what would have been the front of the stage when a five-year-old kid started trying to climb up behind him. Being a kind-hearted soul, Offspring pulled the kid up, at which point he tried to sell Offspring some postcards. I was sitting a few rows up in the amphitheatre when the kid spotted me. He ran over, climbed the tiers with ease, and thrust his postcards at me. I declined to buy, at which point he adopted the time-honoured sales technique of beating me around the shins with the product. It didn't work. And honestly, I have never seen so much snot on a child in my life!
After four or five hours in Petra we were getting hungry. There was no food to be had inside the site, so we left. We were somewhat tired by this time, so when we finally staggered out of the Siq, we were definitely up for horses. Unfortunately I got a bit of a scoundrel, who wanted to torture his horse and me by making it gallop. Actually it was fun, but the horse's owner demanded more money because the horse was tired now and probably could not work for the rest of the day (yeah right). Whatever, I pay him.
Back on Wadi Mousa's main street we settled outside the SandStone Restaurant. I tried to order Mansaf, but the owner said they only did that on alternate days. Today was Maklouba day so I had a mixed grill instead. BetterArf had the maklouba and enjoyed it. I had a few beers (Philadelphia, one of the local brews) and Offspring had shisha (double-apple, of course).
We left Wadi Mousa at about 4pm, but got hideously lost after Qadisseyah and end up driving 100km trying to find the Dana Hotel! We finally got there at about 6.30. The weather in Petra had been pleasantly warm, but in Dana it was cold and blowing a gale.
One thing we had been warned about by our Jordanian friends: Jordanians are without exception 100% hopeless when it comes to putting up signs for things. In the case of Dana Village there are six signs close by (three on each side of the main road), and they are spaced maybe 100 meters apart. Unfortunately, they all direct you to the unpaved road into the quarry 4 kms away. So that's, like, a bit wrong. There is one other sign that is actually correct, but you can only see it if you are coming from the north. If you approach from the south, well, yes, you can see the sign, but only the backside of it that has no words on it. So that's how you find Dana Village.
Apart from that, I'm lovin' it! Jordan is just one of the most remarkable places I've ever been to, the people are lovely, really hospitable (plus you actually get to meet them 'cos they work in shops, hotels, drive taxis etc), the landscape and history are incredible.
Our plan for today was a bit vague - basically head south and see where we got to. We got seriously lost leaving Amman - driving as far east as Zarqa before eventually hitting the Ring Road that brought us onto the Kings Highway. After passing through Madaba we went to Mount Nebo, and hired a guide. Nebo is where Moses popped his clogs. The church here has some incredible mosaics, and there's a sensational view across the Jordan Valley. You can see Jericho and other cities in the West Bank /Israel.
We drove down and down and down to the Dead Sea. When you get onto the Dead Sea road you get to meet soldiers at Army checkpoints (there's three or four along the length of the Dead Sea coast). There's a couple of big hotel/resorts at the north end which we ignored. Then there's a couple of smaller places. We stopped at one, hoping to get some lunch, but they wanted us to pay the full day's admission as well, so we skipped it.
We stopped at the entrance to Wadi Mujib Nature Reserve and wandered over to the Dead Sea. None of us fancied going in. For some reason the Dead Sea is the fly centre of the universe. They are everywhere and they just love to lie down on people, cars, and better still, inside cars.
We go back to the Nature Reserve. If you pay a little entrance fee, that entitles you to go stand on a bridge overlooking the place where the wadi meets the sea. There is water in it, so unless you fancy a bit of rock-climbing and wading there's not much you can do. In fact there's so much water that you cannot get off the viewing 'platform' (rocks) without getting wet. Offspring of course is in there like a shot. When he comes out his trousers are soaked. Kids.
Continue on to As-Safi, the site of Lot's Cave. Found the Visitor's Centre they're building, but couldn't find the cave. It's about 4pm, we've had no lunch, we do not have a hotel booked for that night, and it will be dark in a couple of hours. We decide to head inland for Tafila. This involves driving up a stunning road through the mountains. Actually, stunning just isn't the word, it's mind-blowing. We pass a few inhabited caves. We stop about halfway up the road and discover a deep ravine only a dozen metres from the road but completely hidden from it. Inside the ravine there is lush greenery and some small dwellings.
Driving onwards and upwards, we arrive at Tafila. It's a one-street dump of a town. We find a rest-house (this normally means a pension-type place), but while they can offer us food, 'food with sleep' is not available. They send us to Dana Nature Reserve, half an hour away. This has a hotel, and we call ahead and book rooms. We follow the signs and end up lost in an unlit, unpaved quarry for at least half an hour. A truck driver gives us proper directions.
The hotel is well worth the struggle to find it. Dana (Varna?) is an ancient village of small stone dwellings. Many are being restored. They seem a bit surprised when we arrive (we found out later that we had phoned the Dana Guest House, which is a completely different place - they're probably still wondering about that party of three mad Brits who made a booking but never showed up). The hotel is run by a co-op called the 'Sons of Dana and Qudassiyah' and comprises 9 rooms around a courtyard. The dining room is a steel-framed tent on the roof. Suleiman tells us that dinner will be ready in half an hour, meanwhile, go up and have some tea. My pleas for beer go unanswered.
The tea has sage rather than mint in it. Very nice. The dinner was wonderful, as was the breakfast in the morning. There's no menu, you just eat what Mariam has cooked, and boy, can she cook.
There's another hotel in the village 'The Tower' and we could hear drumming. We went over to investigate and it was a little band - an oud player and a couple of guys with drums. No beer at this place either, but we did have a little something that we'd bought for emergencies in Amman.
Well, it's New Year's Eve and we have to find somewhere where we can celebrate. It looks like Amman is the best bet. We tootle down from Jerash, and find ourselves hideously lost in the crawling morning traffic. I was impressed by the countdown timers at the traffic lights - they told you how long the light would stay red or green. We were looking for the Caravan Hotel which I'd seen mentioned on a website.
We found it eventually, it's near the Big Mosque and the Coptic Church. It's a quaint thirties building and the heating has broken down. But it was only 22 JDs for the night so we took it.
We walked around Amman a bit, and stopped to use an Internet Cafe. We had asked the hotel guys where the New Year's party action would be and they recommended The Big Fellow, an Irish Pub at Abdoun Circle. We took a taxi there, because our driver (c'est moi) was refusing to drive in the city.
Abdoun Circle seems to be the pub soukh, but they are all closed (it is noon). A few hours later they are still closed, but we find out that The Big Fellow would be opening at six, and that tickets for the New Year bash were 48 JDs. No thank you. Offspring and I are quite 'thirsty' by this time (BetterArf has gone shopping). We find a liquor shop with people drinking outside. The owner says we can have a can of beer if we're quick. We decline and he directs us to The Blue Fig. This is a ten-minute walk down and up a hill and is a quasi-Irish arty-farty cafe bar in a modern building. Service is extremely slow and when it comes they don't have the first three things we order: Kilkenny, Jim Beam, lemonade. Welcome.
After lunch we take a cab to meet BetterArf downtown. The Palestinian driver holds me personally responsible for everything from the creation of Israel to the invasion of Iraq. We meet up with BetterArf outside the Roman Amphitheatre. She was ripped off by a taxi driver - she paid 17 JDs for a fare that should have been 1.7. Then I almost got ripped off at a stinky public loo. The guy asked for 100 fils, and showed me a 500 fils coin so I'd know what it looks like. Then he pointed at a sign in Arabic that he says details the charges. I can see it does not - I know what the numbers look like. Another customer comes in and pays 10 fils. I do the same. 'Bare-faced cheek' is probably the right phrase to describe what this guy was doing.
One thing that I absolutely cannot stand is being overcharged for stuff. Yes, I know that these are poor people and that paying ten times over the odds is not going to bankrupt me. But that's not the point. If I am happy with a service, I will give a tip, if I'm not, I won't. But if you had seen, and smelt, the state of that toilet, you too would have been disgusted.
Anyhoo, we take a cab back to the hotel and tell them that the Irish Pub was a washout, so they suggest a place, not too far away, called Canvas. It's a gallery/restaurant in a little park, and it looks very nice. We go through the security x-ray, get frisked a bit, and then the manager explains what we would get for our 60 JDs entrance fee. We leave.
We headed back to the shopping area we had been in earlier and tried a few likely looking places at random. They all had extortionate cover charges. In the end we opted for a party at the Amman Kempinski (25 JDs including a free drink, band and DJ). We were reassured to note the high security all around, and the Kempinski x-raying, frisking and taking ID details of everyone going in. The bash was nicely un-English - no 'Auld Lang Syne'(God I hate that song).
The walk home was fab - streets were jammed with revellers, none of them drunk. Cops we passed wished us a HNY. And we were pleased to find the unheated hotel room was plenty warm enough.
After breakfast at the hotel we had breakfast and checked out. In case you’re interested the triple room was 28 JD for the night. Our plan for the day was to head north to Jerash. Jerash is an old Roman town – lots and lots of ruins.
Jordan’s main road system is very easy to understand. It’s all north-south, and all to do with connecting Amman in the north and Aqaba in the south. There are three roads: the Desert Highway to the east is a modern, high-speed motorway. The westernmost road runs along the Dead Sea coast for most of its length.
But the best road for tourists is the Kings Highway, also known as the Kings Road and the Kings Way. It follows an ancient trading route and it’s not a motorway. Some sections of it are dual-carriageway, but long stretches are two-lane blacktop and seriously wiggly.
We took the Kings Highway north, and had our first experience of Jordan’s extremely unflat landscape. For miles and miles we were heading down into the Jordan Valley. By the time the River Jordan hits the Dead Sea it is 800 meters below sea level. Add that to the mountains that are over 1000 meters above sea level and you have a recipe for some very picturesque sights.
Charl at The Mariam Hotel in Madaba had recommended The Olive Branch Hotel in Jerash. Being stupid we assumed it would be in the middle of the town, but of course we were wrong. I bought a SIM card from FastLink, one of Jordan’s three mobile operators, and called the hotel. It is about 7 km outside the town, on top of a mountain.
The drive to the hotel was fairly hairy, especially the last couple of kilometers where we left the main road and went into almost vertical mode. I don't think I managed to get the car out of first gear all the way up. But of course, when you get up there you have an utterly mind-blowing view. Having checked in we then went back down to Jerash to do the Roman stuff. There's a bunch of tourist shops clustered around the entrance and Offspring and I were both talked into buying keffiyahs (which turned out to be extremely useful in Jordan's winter climate - it's a hat, it's a scarf, it's a towel. Dip a corner into soup and it's a ready source of nutrients) .
The Roman city of Jerash is huge: we probably spent three or four hours exploring it. There are two amphitheatres, a racetrack, numerous temples and other things.
We had lunch at the Rest House in the Roman site, and then BetterArf announced she wanted to look at the (allegedly) nearby Dibbin National Park. No, I could not find it. But we did have a very exciting drive through the edge of the Suf Refugee Camp and then up, down and around a mountain.
Back at the hotel just after dusk, Offspring retired to bed and BetterArf and I went to see if there was any food or beer kicking about in the hotel. We found the dining room. It was cold, stark and initially unwelcoming. There was a log fire in one corner but there was a cluster of people around it so we had to huddle around a gas heater. After a while all but one of the cluster disappeared and the remaining guy invited us over. He was a social worker with UNWRA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) as were the rest of the cluster. They were in this hotel for a two-week training course. The rest of the gang began to drift back after a while and we began to learn a lot more about Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan than we had bargained for. Actually I never knew there were any such things.
Eventually the Director of the Agency turned up, and so did the food. She invited us to dine with them and was very keen to arrange for us to visit some of the larger camps. We declined.
Our Royal Jordanian flight from Dubai was due to leave at a very civilized 9.30 a.m. In the end it left an hour late. As we were waiting at the departure gate we spotted a buddy of ours coming through with her dad. They are Palestinian / Jordanian and were on the same flight to Amman. They told us about a million things to add to our already-packed itinerary, and when I said we were hiring a car they told me all about the appalling standard of driving in Jordan. As it turned out, I found that while some of the driving was charismatic, especially that performed by half-blind Bedu who have no idea what a driving licence is, we never actually witnessed a single accident during our entire week there (the same can be said of many other countries, it's just that in Dubai you think it's an odd day if you don't see at least one accident).
The three-hour flight was over in no time (well, ok, three hours if you want to be pedantic), and we had our first encounter with real live Jordanians. We had been told that Jordanians on the whole are the loveliest people on the planet, but for some reason all the nasty ones get jobs at the airport. When you enter Jordan you have to buy a visa (10 JDs). This we duly did, but we were a bit alarmed when we saw a sign on the wall that said visas would only be issued to people with more than three months' validity on their passport. This was somewhat worrying, as we knew that Offspring's passport expires in February. And he was already in transit from London, so there was the prospect that he could be put on the next plane out.
Quick note on money. The currency is the Jordanian Dinar (which everyone calls the JayDee). Depending on who you speak to it is divided into 1000 fils or 100 piastres. The JD is pegged to the US dollar (one dinar = 0.7 US$). This means a dinar is worth 5.25 UAE Dirhams, which is conveniently close (for us Brits) to a UK quid.
We had booked a hire car from Monte Carlo Car Hire in Amman. They were supposed to meet us at the airport. But guess what, they weren't there. So then we had to get a phone card and then try to find out what their phone number was. Yes, of course it's on the confirmation email they sent me, and yes of course I forgot to print it out. Anyhoo, what had happened with the car delivery guy was that he was waiting at Terminal One, while we had arrived Terminal Two, because of all the additional flights for people going on Hajj.
So, we get to the car. It is not the stylish Peugeot 307 that I had booked, it's a bloody Mitsubishi Lancer. And it's black. I hate it, but what to do. It's pretty much brand new and they're not going to charge extra for it. (!). We do all the payment stuff. I pay in cash, but they also want to block $500 security deposit against the credit card just in case. In case what, I don't know. Oh, and if the car gets the slightest ding they'll be wanting $750.
Queen Alia Airport is about 35km from Amman, but we had taken the advice of Ruth, the author of one of the most informative Jordan websites (www.jordanjubilee.com), and booked into the Mariam Hotel in Madaba. Madaba is 30km from the airport, but it is somewhat smaller (pop: 25,000) and more manageable than Amman (pop: many many lots). Ayman, the car rental bloke, needs to be dropped off about halfway, from where he can get himself back to Amman. On the way he suggests I should get some benzene. Eh? 'Benzene, benzene, car is empty!' Ah, petrol. He points out a gas station and after a bit of a kerfuffle caused by me completely failing to recognise it for what it was, we eventually get there and buy some petrol. Gas stations in Jordan are not the thrilling retail experiences that we are used to in the UAE. They are small, tatty, and indicated only by a sign that looks like a red asterisk on a white background. Without Ayman to point it out, it's entirely possible that we could still be stuck by the roadside somewhere. In a car with no petrol.
We get to Madaba, and it's a small town with a whole bunch of congestion in the middle. It also has one hell of a one-way system. We are completely unable to find our hotel. We ask directions from numerous lovely people, but none of them work. After about two hours (yes really) of driving around the centre of Madaba, we park outside the Herat Jdoudna artsy-crafty centre. We walk up to the Madaba Inn Hotel. They are extremely helpful and one of them, Rania, volunteers to come with us and show us the way. Brilliant!
We unpack a little bit, and then wander into Madaba for a look round. We visit St George's Church, which houses the Map Mosaic. This is a map of the Holy Land in mosaic form on the floor of the church, and it was used by archaelogists to pinpoint the locations of many historic events. After that we mooch around the town. There are many people selling little mosaics and woven stuff and embroidered stuff. BetterArf is very keen on embroidery and we spend an hour or two in the shop of Joseph Sawhalla, drinking tea and chatting. When we emerge the sun is setting and weather has become extremely cold. We buy shwarmas and then it is time to go back to the airport to pick up Offspring. We have been reassured by Charl at the Mariam that he will be ok with his visa, and indeed he is. So we pick up our baby, go back to Madaba, have dinner and retire to bed.