Author Archives: Sarah Garvey

Something unexpected

I feel like one of the simultaneously best and worst things about travel in the digital age is that you can get a pretty good idea of what to expect on your trip.

This is good. You know to avoid certain areas that are rife with street crime or too touristy. You can find out if you’ll be able to get your wheelchair up the steps to that monument.

This is bad. You can watch videos taking you on a walk-through of the exact path you will take on Macchu Pichu. Live feed. You lose the element of surprise.

Planning is good. But I think we’ve become somewhat afraid of the unexpected in travel. Be prepared but don’t be too prepared.

I stumbled onto these “love locks” on a recent trip to Tallinn, Estonia. If I had read more guidebooks I probably would have known about them and even been given directions to them.

But finding them for myself made it feel more special.

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NA

This is a short story which appeared in the 2012 anthology of ROPES, mentioned previously in this post. It is my first piece of published writing.

(Some formatting may appear different than in the published text).

 

“So…what’s your story?”

He had to be speaking to me. There was no-one else here yet.

“Uhm, I didn’t think we were supposed to start talking until the whole group was here”.

He made a face of disgust and waved his hand, dismissing me. “No, I don’t mean your ‘NA story’; I mean your life story. You haven’t become your addiction have you? That’s the worst.”

It was hard to read him. He looked completely relaxed, sitting with his fingers interlaced behind his head and his legs stretched out on the floor in front of him. Doing his best to be horizontal.

How could he be at ease in a place like this? It was like the start of every bad horror movie ever made.

Interior. Night. Non-descript school hall. Drab, dreary. Sinister without the schoolchildren. A circle of chairs.

Our two protagonists occupy chairs at a respectable distance from each other. The air is joyless.

If this was a horror movie, this is when the window would break. Or the door would slam. Both characters would be startled and the female would look to the male to protect her. Because we all know who dies first.

“My story? I don’t really have one.”

“Well, now. That’s pretty sad. Everyone has a story”.

“Mine’s not very exciting”.

He was one of those people who find it easy to make prolonged eye contact, to look interested in the person they’re talking to. I have never been good at that.

His stare was making me uncomfortable. It was unsettling to be under such scrutiny. I hadn’t looked in the mirror that day but I knew what he was seeing. The deathly-white skin. The rings under my eyes which deepened in colour and depth with every passing day. The bleary eyes. I focussed my gaze on the artwork on the wall. Some of the younger students had drawn pictures. The usual: Houses with white picket fences, Mummy and Daddy. I think I saw a unicorn. Or a deformed horse.

He didn’t look the type to be a drug addict. But, then again, I suppose I didn’t either. Elderly people smile at me on the street. Occasionally men offer me their seat on public transport. I’ve never been dragged out of a gutter. My septum is fine.

They tried to make me go to Rehab and I said no, no, no. Rehab is for people who try to sell their children for heroin. Or people who murder their husbands when they’re high on Meth. Not me.

“Sleeping pills”. I turned to him and looked him in the eye. “It started with sleeping pills. And yeah, I think I have become my addiction. That’s why I’m here, right? You too, I’m guessing.”

He smiled at me sadly.

“Do you like video games?”

“Video games?”

“Yeah”.

“I guess, I don’t play them much. I don’t have a console.”

“That’s going to be your new hobby”.

I grinned. “What makes you think that?”

“You need a new thing.  I picked gamer. There aren’t enough girl gamers.”

“I’ll do my best to plug the shortage”.

His lips moved to form a smile. He suddenly moved his chair to straddle it and sat with his arms on the back of it, leaning forward.

“Why did you start taking sleeping pills?”

“I couldn’t sleep”.

“Oh ho ho ho”, he feigned laughter, clutching his stomach for emphasis. There was a pause and he looked at me expectantly.

“I don’t know. I watched too much Bill Hicks over a short space of time and just lost the ability to sleep”.

“Surely Hicks has suffered enough already without you blaming your problems on him”.

“I don’t blame him. If anything I would like to thank him. He woke me up. The only problem was I couldn’t get back to sleep again.”

He cracked another smile. He looked awfully happy for someone at a Narcotic’s Anonymous meeting. It was weird. It was like going into a wake to find the widow telling jokes about horses with long faces walking into bars.

I glanced at the wall clock, the ever-present feature of schools everywhere. Tormentor of the young.  I had to stare at it for a minute before I could figure out what time it was. The tiredness was making me stupid. Ten minutes until the meeting began. I guess people don’t like hanging around beforehand.

He raised himself up from his chair, revealing his tallness. Making for the refreshments, he called back to me, “Is this your first meeting?”

“Yes”.

“Excellent. I have the honour of introducing you to the special brand of hell that is NA coffee”. He balanced two coffees and a small plate of questionable looking cookies as he drew nearer to me. I wondered who had laid them out. As if reading my mind, he said:

“These are leftovers from the Cancer survivors. They’re on earlier in the evening. They let us have the dregs if we promise to clean up.”

He moved a spare chair between us to use as a makeshift table and set the cups and the plate down on it.

He grinned at me conspiratorially: “Just keep the powdered doughnuts away from the Cokeheads. It invokes a Pavlovian response”.

My mouth fell open somewhere between a laugh and a gasp.

He continued his interview while munching one of the cookies, which had gone soft from being exposed to the air. I didn’t reach for my coffee, my hands had been shaking ever since I stopped taking the sleeping pills and it made grabbing things awkward.

“Are you nervous about your first NA meeting?”

I thought about it for a second.

“I’m not…anything, really. I haven’t slept in about 45 hours. You kind of lose the ability to suffer from nerves.”

“Yikes…how are you still functioning?”

“Your body gets used to it. I’m freezing most of the time and my mind is a bit foggy but I guess it’s the price you pay to get off the stuff”.

“What made you decide to come to NA?”

His coffee was going cold. He reached out for a new cookie and I noticed the edges of some sort of tribal tattoo on his wrist where the sleeve rode up.

“When you re-read ‘Valley of the Dolls’ and no longer find anything wrong with what’s happening it’s probably a bad thing. Plus I figure it will be less traumatic than a Weightwatchers meeting”.

“Never read that one.”

There were footsteps in the hall.  A group of three emerged, bundled in large parkas and coats. They shed their layers and strode purposefully toward the circle. They had been here before. One shot me a cursory glance but the others ignored me.

I was glad. It was suddenly a bit real.

He noticed me tense up.

“Don’t worry. No weighing scales here. Just terrible coffee and people on the fringes of society.”

Several more people drifted in from the cold and he rearranged his seat to form the circle. I looked around for the group leader, the voice on the phone who had taken my tearful call and convinced me to come.

He cleared his throat and looked around at the group:

“Good evening, everyone. Nice to see all of you. I see we have a new member so I’d like all of us to introduce ourselves. I’ll start. I’m Marcus and I’m a drug addict. I grew up in foster care and dealt with my problems by burning myself and using glue and painkillers, along with alcohol. I’ve been sober for 5 years. I like video games”.

“Hi, Marcus”, the group echoed. Like schoolchildren in a classroom.

Ropes is available in several bookshops in Galway, or online through the ROPES website.

Jordan Trip Report- Wrapping things up

It’s an early start to catch our flight but we still manage a quick breakfast at The Abbasi. The Abbasi is probably my favourite place (hotel, motel, hostel) I’ve ever stayed in. It’s a little shabby in places but it is such an interesting building and the people there are not at all cliquey. The common room is filled with old books, carpets, instruments and weapons. You felt like the staff actually cared whether you made it through the night. There was a free computer to use whenever you wanted. Not forgetting, of course, the cheap tours to most big spots, which saved us a fortune.

Hani (a driver we had met on our return from Musa) delivers his promise of a cheap taxi to the airport and we’re there in little under an hour. He needs to break a note to give us our change so we stop at the cafeteria. He tells me to go in and break it because they staff will be more likely to do it if a woman asks. Sure enough, once they understood what I wanted, the guys there nearly did themselves an injury getting the notes. We waved Hani off and trudged into the airport. It was too early for much to be open but Amman airport has a reasonable amount of shops to keep you occupied.

We’re some distance from the BMI desk when, bizarrely, the guy at the desk there yells “Garvey?”. “Yes?”, I yell back from ridiculously far away, trying to weave through those godforsaken bollards. (I’m guessing we were one of the last to check in and he took a lucky guess). We go through security twice- one general and one for the particular gate we’re going to. Each time I forget that women are searched separately and have to be pointed towards the cordoned-off area to the side where a bored looking burka-clad woman with her shoes off frisks me.

The flight is enjoyable, despite getting decked by a falling baby basinette and spilling the most orange juice anyone has ever spilled on another person on the unfortunate man next to me. He’s very good-natured about the whole thing and we fall into conversation. He’s taking his wife, daughter and grand-daughter to visit his engineer and doctor sons in America for 4 months. When he hears I’m Irish, he says: “I went to Leeds once. That’s close, right?” “Eh…kind of. I mean, it’s in England. But it’s closer than Jordan!” After about half an hour he turns to me and says: “Riverdance”. Looking proud, he continues “I like Riverdance”. An hour later he adds “Riverdance and Irish coffee”.

Jordan Trip Report- Day 6: Ajloun and Jerash

In the morning, we prepare excitedly for Ajloun and Jerash. Jerash had been something the two of us had been looking forward to in particular and we couldn’t wait to see if it was as incredible as reports made it sound. We were sharing the car with two French women: Florence and Frederique. Their English wasn’t the best so I brushed off my French and spoke briefly with them. Like us, they were doing a week’s holiday in Jordan. Pretty much everyone else we had spoken to was visiting as part of a larger trip or a round-the-world trip. They were from Lyon and I embarrassed myself trying to talk about rugby for a while before the conversation faded out. Our driver, Hani,  stopped and bought us some still-warm khubez which was indescribably delicious. I’ve been trying in vain to find something to rival it since coming home.

Our first stop was Ajloun Castle, in Ajloun. Admission is only 1JD and the first thing we noticed was that it was full of Jordanian tourists, always a good sign. Ajloun is an attractive castle with a small drawbridge and a surprisingly well-stocked museum. My favourite item was the home-made grenade on display. There’s access to the castle roof and the views are great from up there. This was the closest we would get to Syria and the topic was on the english-speaking guides’ minds when we passed them on the way out.
I think Ajloun gets overlooked a lot of the time by Western tourists but it’s definitely worth a look. In fact, I would recommend it over the Madaba Mosaic.

Next is Jerash. Jerash is fantastic. I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking but I can say that it’s an amazing site. You have the strange juxtaposition of new and old Jerash beside each other. The area of ruins is vast and very little is fenced off (except if unstable).
We happily spent hours there before rejoining Hani, Florence and Frederique and heading back to Abbasi.

We decide to take a walk through Downtown Amman to get some food and visit the Al-Husseini Mosque. The streets are buzzing with the sound of horns beeping, music blaring from every shop and stall and people talking and laughing. Everything is for sale here. Knock-off phones, dvds and cds, jewellery, western and traditional clothes. The Al-husseini mosque stands imposingly and makes an attractive addition to the square.

We get a cheap kabab from a street vendor and head back to the Abbasi to pack (BMI actually have quite generous baggage limits so this was fine) and say goodbye to people there.

Jordan Trip Report- Day 5: Little Petra

We attempted a lie-in today after our strenuous few days hiking for hours in the heat. We were still up at 9am on the dot. We had a leisurely breakfast in the dining room and noticed, not for the first time, that this hostel was empty compared to the bustling Abbasi in Amman. There’s probably too much accommodation in Musa which could explain it but the manager also notes that business has gone way down since the conflict in Syria began. The US department of foreign affairs put out a warning about Jordan just because it’s located next to Syria and this was enough to put many off. I had seen the warning before coming (the US site is good for up-to-date info about countries) and it had been worded scarily. I wonder just how much information on that website is hyperbole as we sit down for tea with the manager. He gets a bit nostalgic and says he wants to keep in touch by email. The cynic in me says he just wants it to make sure I give him a good Tripadvisor review but, true to his word, we’ve corresponded on and off even since I gave Qasr a positive review.
Mohammed arrives to bring us to Little Petra. More tea is had. Unused to the amount of caffeine I’ve taken on over the few days, I take a few sips and then let my friend take charge of my cup.
We drive through Baydha desert and some Bedouin camps to the entrance of Little Petra, but not before getting some more bousa (ice cream). I had come prepared this time to reciprocate Mohammed’s generosity by bringing him a few bags of jelly beans which were ubiquitous after my stint with Baby Wants Candy.

Entry to Little Petra is free and there are barely any sellers. Those that are there are stationary at the entrance and part of official Bedouin projects in co-operation with the government and various charities. Little Petra is amazing- beautiful and deserted. We walk alone through what feels like a mini version of Petra’s Siq and admire the small facades cut into the rock. A bedouin man is sitting outside one of the facades and greets us lazily, enquiring if we are Japanese. He tells us to make sure that we see the cave paintings.

Following his directions, we climb a set of steps hewn into the rock (not for the faint-hearted) and enter a small cave that was once a kitchen. Behind some thin bars, the paintings. They are spectacular. It boggles the mind that they could have survived this long, considering they were painted with natural materials. Intricate vines and flowers are depicted, with the odd cherub for good measure. We sit and eat some snacks while taking in the paintings for a while before descending the stairs.

It’s not long before we’re met with more stairs, which are a little tricky to climb due to uneven rocks. When we come to the top of them, it opens out onto a really great view. Hundreds of small facades decorate the rocks opposite us, so close together they look like apartments. Unlike Big Petra, there is some greenery here and it joins in to make it worth the hike. Again, we are completely alone and the silence just adds to the beauty. The landscape is unchanged, exactly as it would have been when it was used as a an outpost and teeming with people.

Scary stairs! You can see a bedouin near the top if you look closely.

We make our way back slowly and take a look at the charity-driven shops. There is a gorgeous handmade silver and turquoise bracelet decorated with carvings found in Little Petra which melts even my souvenir-hating heart.

Mohammed stops at a reservoir he wants to show us. It’s a crude building and used to be where the water for Petra was stored. Since modernising, it has been lying empty. There’s still a little but of water in it but, by rights, it should have been above our heads. It’s the little touches like that that made me grateful to have Mohammed as a driver. He was genuinely excited to show us his favourite hideaways and was constantly thinking of things to keep us entertained.
I give him some more jelly beans and we leave for the bus.

The ride to Amman was uneventful and it was dark when we got back. We were determined to do Ajloun, Jerash and possibly Um Qays on our last day and luckily there was a tour running the next day to Ajloun and Jerash. It was pretty convenient and saved us worrying about an expensive taxi fare if we did it ourselves. It was nice to be back in the Abbasi, such a contrast to the quiet Qasr. Our view changed from the rose-red sands of Petra to the hustle and bustle of Amman, we slept.

Jordan Trip Report- Day 4: Wadi Rum and Petra

As we head off to Rum the next day after a pretty standard but decent breakfast, Mohammed laughs when he spots a couple of tourists waving bashfully at him. He tells us that when he isn’t running his taxi, he works for the government as a driver. He is sometimes called in emergencies to take people from A to B. He got a call late last night from the tourist police about the man in the couple who, he says rather ominously, “lost the path” at Jebel Haroun (Mount Aaron) when trekking. He was eventually found by the police wandering in the dark at midnight. Mohammed drove him back to his accomodation and made sure he was okay.
“My God!”, I exclaimed. “Does the temperature get very low at night, was he okay?”
Mohammed, looking completely unconcerned, replies “No, no. Weather is very nice on Jebel Haroun”.

He points to it as we pass and we stop to take in the view. I ask him how long ago he left Petra and he answers that it’s been 22 years since he had to leave. King Hussein was enthusiastic and obviously saw the potential Petra had as a major tourist attraction. To aid this, he forced the Bedouin people living there to leave. They went one of two ways. Some, like Mohammed, reluctantly integrated and live in Wadi Musa. Others, like the bedouin sellers at Petra, preferred to live a life of nomadity and live in the deserts surrounding Petra, like Wadi Araba and Baydha. Mohammed points out various sites from the King’s Highway with obvious pride and an element of sadness. We stop occasionally for scenic pictures and laugh at the exclamation point road signs. We pass a significant number of bedouin living in tents by the road and keeping goats and camels nearby.


Ali is our tour-guide when we get to Rum. We get a private 4×4 with air-con with a 3 hour tour (including Rum entrance fee) for 55JD. Mohammed’s taxi from Musa to Rum return (including the 3 hours he would wait for us while we were on the tour) was 75JD between the two of us.
Ali buys us orange juice in a small Rum shop as he stops to pick up some petrol for his brother who has broken down in the desert. We’ll be passing him on our path so decide to come to his aid. We see a bit of a commotion of people and Ali tells us there’s a Rum wedding going on. It’s a small village of only 1,700 people so everyone knows everyone. We pass on the petrol to Ali’s very grateful brother and then go on to see the sites. We climb a stunning rock bridge, see inscriptions made thousands of years ago (kind of like open-air cave drawings). The inscriptions are a treasure and I’m struck by the fact that you would miss them if you weren’t being led by a local. There’s no museum or barricades or panes of glass to look through. You can stand where the people who made them stood and run your fingers over the grooves. It was just my friend and I out there and I felt like I was witnessing something very special. These drawings, exactly as they would have been thousands of years ago.

We also paid a visit to “Lawrence (of Arabia)’s House”, a crumbling ruin which allegedly was once home to Lawrence.


Note to self: one cannot simply run up a sand dune.

We take a break in a bedouin tent (one of a few located around for locals and groups to get out of the sun) and have some tea (of course). By this stage, I was getting quite adept at loading the tea with sugar and powering through my dislike of it. A child approaches with what I think is a biscuit…until he rubs it on my arm.
“Madame, the perfume. It smell nice.” He smiles and sidles away.

A short time later, we rejoin Mohammed at the gates of Rum. The tour was a little pricey, but ultimately worth it. Unfortunately, there is no cheap way to do Rum. We pick up a heavily-veiled Bedouin woman who’s walking on the side of the road to take her to the bus stop to Aqaba, which is on our way. Mohammed doesn’t charge her anything. He feels sorry for her because she will have to wait 2 hours in the heat for her bus to come. Periodically, Mohammed slows beside petrol stations and shops. He has a serious hankering for some ice-cream. When he finds a place that sells it, he buys three chocolate biscuit ice-creams and we happily munch them in the car as he teaches us some Arabic words and we teach him some Irish. Because of this, one of the few Arabic words I have total recall for is ice-cream: Bousa. (At least, it sounds like that).

We stop at a building Mohammed knows and interrupt a guy on his prayer-mat to look at the view of Petra from the roof. It’s really gorgeous. I envy the owner who gets to see this every day. Mohammed drops us off at the entrance 2 to Petra (past Baydha desert) because we wanted an alternative view of the site for our second day of the ticket. He buys us some khubez and bananas to bring in as snacks.

The entrance we go through is very loosely guarded (Petra has a lot of ticket inspectors at the main gate but hardly anyone goes this way). The path we take is completely deserted and beautiful. It’s a stark contrast to the procession of tourists that take up the paths leading from Entrance 1. We are the only non-Bedouin and the only pedestrians around. Kids going by on donkeys look bemused to see us there. We stop for lunch in the tomb of Turkmeniyya. (Sure, it’s technically a grave but the shelter was great).

On our descent to the centre of Petra, a tour-guide pops up over a hill and asks us if we need guiding. We say no. He says what we think is “Paris?” so I reply “Leh, irlandeeyeh” (Irish). He looks confused and says “yes…paddy”?
He asks what we’re doing in this part of Petra. When we tell him we came in the other entrance he looks alarmed and says “You don’t have tickets? You get in serious trouble if you don’t have a ticket. But…I never saw you”. He grins. I assure him we have tickets.
“I still never saw you!” He winks before disappearing back behind the hill.

We come out onto Petra’s main square.

Deciding against climbing to the High Place (the sun getting to us a bit at this stage), we make our way back to ground we travelled the day before. There were noticeably fewer tourists around and the light conditions were great for photos. We watched a tiny toddler getting a slow circular camel ride, held on by his Dad. The rosy colours of the Treasury and Siq were more evident than the day before. There were a lot of burka-clad groups of women and Jordanian men ambling along as sunset drew nearer. For some, it was undoubtedly just their regular evening walk.

Museum in Petra

The Treasury

We call Mohammed when we come out of the main entrance and he’s quickly with us, smiling his childish smile again. He has one of his sons with him, whom he’s teaching to drive. Thankfully, he’s the one who takes the wheel to drop us back to Qasr. Dead on our feet, we pull up. Mohammed invites us to his place for dinner later if we’re feeling up to it. (This is not uncommon, if you go to Jordan you’ll more than likely be invited to dinner at someone’s home. Jordanians are the last bastion of manners toward visitors). We regretfully decline, pretty ready to sleep there and then.

We grab a very quick dinner across the street from Qasr, in Al-Wadi restaurant. It’s on the main street so a little more than you should be paying, but we just wanted the closest place we could find. I had the Gayadhl with chicken and khubez for 5JD. It was basic, but tasty and the service was friendly.
Retiring to the hotel, we meet the owner for the first time. He presents us with a “welcome basket”, despite it being our second day there. It’s fruit he’s grown in his own garden, including some mouth-watering figs. Embarrassingly, I had never seen a fig that wasn’t dehydrated before.
We call Mohammed to ask him to bring us to Little Petra the next day (you need a car to get there) and then drop us at the JETT bus back to Amman afterwards.
We took a moment before bed to admire the view of Wadi Musa and Petra from our room as the Call to prayer rang out. It looked stunning in the darkness.

Great Temple at Petra

Jordan Trip Report- Day 3: Petra

I’m finding it hard to summon up enough energy to write this post as a day in Petra has sapped me of all imaginable strength. I’ve been lying spread-eagled on my hostel bed, covered in red sand, transfixed by the odd ceiling fixture, for about 20 minutes now. After an impressive supermarket dinner of khubez, hummus, mixed veg and chicken hotdogs (an accidental purchase), I have certainly been refuelled enough to relay events.

We decided to get the early JETT bus to Petra from Amman. This meant a 5.20am start to catch the daily 6.30am bus from Abdali station to the gate of Petra (8JD). Abbasi very kindly gave us an early breakfast and found people to share a taxi with us to the station. The manager also quietly mentioned that he had reserved seats for us on the bus so it wouldn’t leave without us. I thought this was really considerate of him, particularly as there was nothing in it for him. We met Kate, a Brazilian, who had been travelling for a year already and had just come from working in Israel. We also dragged along a rather confused looking gentleman who didn’t seem to know where we were taking him. (The manager had told us he wanted the same bus as us but this seemed to have gone out of his head when we approached him).

Our taxi driver tried to charge us 10JD for what should be a 3JD trip. This is when Kate sprung unto action. In a volley of Portugese, English and Arabic she let rip at the driver while I laughed at his optimistic pricing. Ripping foreigners off is frowned upon in Jordan so a quick mention of the police was all that was needed to get the right fare.
We made the bus, which was a very comfortable and modern affair. We were searching for our allocated seats when someone yelled jovially “Sit anywhere! This is Jordan!”. The bus ride was about 3 and a half hours long, including a 20 minute break at the halfway point where we gleefully overpaid for snacks.

When we got to Petra we decided to drop our things off at the Qasr Al-Bint hostel before getting our Petra tickets. Most accomodation in Petra/Wadi Musa is a taxi drive away from the gates, mainly because the last thing you feel like doing after spending a day trekking in Petra is walking uphill for a few kilometres. The setup of Wadi Musa is as follows: high to low. Starting at the top, the fancy hotels and chains like the Marriott are located on the outskirts for the views. As you get lower (and closer to Petra) the accomodation gets cheaper and the main throughfare becomes more predictable: banks, overpriced restaurants, western-oriented giftshops. Wadi Musa is very much a town that is dependent on its attraction, and knows it.

This is where we made our first “taxi friend”. It’s likely if you’re in a small place like wadi musa that one of the taxi drivers will try to “claim” you and get you to take all your trips through him. This can be beneficial, as they tend to offer discounts on regular journeys.

The pricing of tickets to Petra is, to use a horrible cliché, mired in controversey. Only the King gets in free, with all other Jordanian citizens paying a perfunctory 1JD to enter. However, foreign tourists are charged 50JD for a one-day ticket (more if you’re not spending the night in Jordan, day-trippers from Egypt and Israel get stung badly by this). We went for a 2-day ticket, 55JD. As we paid for ours a fight broke out at the neighbouring ticket desk. My Arabic isn’t great but it was obviously over whether some people could prove they were Jordanian citizens to get the lower price.

The single annoying thing about Petra is the hawkers. I must have said “leh, shukran” (no, thanks) about 100 times over the 6 hours we spent there that day. No exaggeration. Mostly bedouins, sellers offer you everything from donkey and camel rides to makeup and jewellery. It’s how many of them make their living but it gets insufferable after a while, no matter how humorous they might be as they point to their donkey and offer “Lamborghini?”. (Word of advice: the guys with donkeys right at the entrance claim your ride has been paid for with your ticket. Do not get on that donkey unless you want to enter a world of suffereing).

Obviously, the scenery in Petra (even the long walkways to where the “action” is) is stunning and unique. See for yourself.

First sight of the Treasury,a magical glowing presence before us

Treasury

Widely considered to be the piece de resistance, the Monastery (a misnomer, it was never a Monastery), is a pretty tough climb. It’s about 1 and a half hours of steep uphill climbing after a few hours to get to the base. The steps are the killer, it’s like a never-ending stairmaster. I got dead legs a few times and we took lots of water breaks on our way up.
If you go off the beaten track at all, you’ll start to meet the child sellers. They’re not supposed to be there and will be hauled off by the police if spotted, so give them a wide berth no matter how cute they are.
Reaching the Monastery face was a rush, it felt like a great achievement. The scale of the thing is hugely impressive. It’s hard to imagine how the Nabateans succeeded in carving it in the rock with such precision and detail when they must have had quite rudimentary tools.

Monastery

We left Petra after making the descent from the Monastery (which was pretty tough on the knees, anyone with joint problems should note this) and headed back to Qasr with a different taxi driver who tried to overcharge us quite hilariously. From getting the taxi already, we knew the standard fare was 3JD (2 if you’re on good terms with the driver). He tried to charge us 8JD, which is what we had paid to travel the entire length of the country on the JETT bus. By some mixture of sign language and Arabic, I made it clear he was taking the piss and he recanted his offer.

When we got back to our room, my friend immediately became trapped behind the strange collapsible bathroom door that separated the ensuite from the bedroom. After the young guy on reception had freed her, forcing the door open with great bravado, he moved us to a new room with air-con. He even went to the trouble of buying an adapter for me to use, which was above and beyond what I expected. He laughed good-naturedly when I asked to borrow a spoon to eat some ice-cream I had bought. (Earned it).

Embarrassed of my food mountain? nah...

The guy at reception was helpful in answering our questions about travelling to Wadi Rum the next day. It’s unnecessarily complicated to get from Musa to Rum because, even though it’s quite a popular journey, there is a real shortage of buses. (This kind of becomes clearer when you actually get to Rum and see how small and isolated is it).

My fears about our taxi friend’s enthusiasm to be our one and only were realised when the manager knocked on our door to say Mohammed was there to discuss driving us to Rum the next day. Honestly, Rum was the one aspect of our trip we hadn’t really planned and we didn’t realise how lacking public transport was in the area. I went out to the foyer to be greeted by driver Mohammed, the manager and a Malay girl I had never met before. It was like an intervention. I was immediately on the defensive as his turning up at the hostel after our vague comments was strange to me. The longer you spend in Musa, though, the more you realise they have a different way of doing things here. It’s normal for someone to call over and discuss things over some tea rather than calling you. I came around to the idea of Mohammed driving us. It transpired the malay girl works in Qasr. They explain Rum’s setup to me. (Rum village is a separate thing to Wadi Rum and quite a distance from where the public bus sets people down. In extreme heat and with bags, this is not ideal). We agree that Mohammed will drive us after haggling a price and book a 4×4 tour of the Rum.

I get the distinct feeling that Mohammed is a pretty decent guy. His smile reminds me of a child and his english is uncannily good. As the manager leaves to make tea, we talk a bit about his background and he tells me that he is “ex” bedouin. (He still considers himself bedouin but is no longer a nomad). He used to live in Petra itself. It’s obvious he has a great deal of pride in his home and I predict he will be a better tour guide than the 4×4 guide we get the next day.

Jordan Trip Report- Day 2: Madaba, Mount Nebo, Wadi Mujib and the Dead Sea

Our first proper day of our Jordanian adventure sees us up early to a decent complimentary breakfast of khubez, falafel, eggs, pickles, cheese and jam. (Not forgetting the omniscient tea, of course). We got into the bus (the Abbasi runs daily tours) with 2 Germans and 3 Brits.

Madaba

Our first stop, Madaba, is a small town not far from Amman. There’s little of note besides the general ambience and the big draw, the Madaba Mosaic. Thought to be one of the oldest mosaics in the world, it paves the floor in a Greek Orthodox church in Madaba and depicts a map of the Middle East.

It’s quite interesting to look at (if a little confusing with the Greek letters) but the church is a revolving door of tourists. The entrance fee is only 1JD but even with the low fee, they must make a killing. The church itself is attractive and there are some nice paintings and artefacts scattered around but I honestly wouldn’t go out of my way for it if you are pushed for time.

We stop at a small mosaic factory to look around because our driver is friends with the owner. More tea. We pass through a mosaic workshop and marvel at the amount of work it takes to make even the simplest of mosaics. I very rarely buy souvenirs unless something jumps off the shelf at me so I lay back and talk to one of the workers. The Brits join me and he asks where everyone is from. When he gets his answer he asks:
“Are you friends?”
One of the british girls looks like she’s mulling over the definition of the word “friend”. She answers:
“Well, we’re staying at the same hostel…”
The Jordanian guy brushes her answer off and says:
“No, no. Are Ireland and England friends now?”
The English look alarmed and start ehhing while looking at me for guidance. I deadpan:
“We’re good, guys”.
The Jordanian is the only one who laughs.
(I found that everyone I spoke to in Jordan knew an uncanny amount about the conflict between Ireland and England. It took me a while to realise it was because they see it as a western Israel-Palestine situation and are understandably interested in how peace was achieved).

Mount Nebo

Mount Nebo was our next stop, an important place for the religious and home to a nice Serpentine Cross at the top of the hill. There is a small museum containing mosaics and pottery discovered on-site. The best bit for me is the spectacular view afforded at the top of the hill. The heat is a bit oppressive at this stage so we head back to the bus.

The Brits want to skip Wadi Mujib so we drop them off at the Dead Sea on the way to the Mujib and tell them we’ll be back later. We almost run over some camels who are chilling out nonchalantly in the middle of the road. The other travellers and I laugh and leap for our cameras. The driver just looks bored, like this happens all the time.

Wadi Mujib

The Germans and us consult in the backseat. None of us are completely sure what is in store for us at the Mujib. (It had been added on at the last minute so there was no time to research it). I know it’s a canyon and nature reserve so assume we will be hiking. The Wadi Mujib Centre is so newly built they are putting up the “reception” sign when we arrive.

I begin to suspect something is amiss when I’m handed a life-jacket. We are going gorge-walking. The two Germans, myself and my friend embark on what the Jordanian Rock-Climbing Association refers to as a “moderately difficult” gorge-walk. I am wearing nikes, long pants and a technical tshirt. This is not what someone about to go gorge-walking looks like. I decide not to care.

As is often the case in life, the aspect of the day we didn’t plan turns out to be the highlight. It’s hard to put into words how gorgeous the mujib is (I couldn’t bring a camera into the water). Imagine swimming (or in my case, paddling while holding your trousers up) in a narrow canyon, flanked by tall rock on either side. The sky is barely visible and the only sound is the water making its way through the gorge. We are moving slowly upwards and it isn’t long before we come to a small waterfall. Ropes are in place to help us climb up it to the next level. 3 men sit at the top of the waterfall holding loosely onto the ropes and looking expectantly at us. They offer to help us up and we take them up on it. There’s no graceful way to describe it, I’m forcibly hauled up the waterfall by one of them as the rest look confusedly at my clothes. I must look more ready to narrate a play than climb waterfalls. I thank them and they move on. I stare after them, wondering why they’re leaving. Suddenly I realise, they don’t work at the Mujib. They were just being nice by dragging my friend and I up a waterfall. If they hadn’t, I’m pretty confident I would still be at the bottom of that rock staring despondently upwards.

As we continue on, we notice what looks like chalk markings on the canyon walls. They rub off when we touch them. I realise it’s residue from the rocks found under the water. People pick up a rock and use it to write messages. I draw a heart and “hello” in Arabic and move on, happy with my work. There is a second, bigger, waterfall towards the end of the walk  but we decide to turn back as there are no friendly Jordanians to operate a pulley this time.


Dead Sea

A little later, we return to the Dead Sea (Amman Beach) to spend some time there and meet the Brits, who have been there for a few hours already. The way you access the Sea is by paying one of the hotels to use their pools and facilities. It’s steep at 15JD but they can basically charge what they like because people will always visit the Dead Sea. In fairness to them, the pool and facilities are attractive and well-maintained.

The tiles leading down to the sea and the sand itself are roasting hot, too hot to walk on barefoot. I end up putting my nikes back on. I’m stopped on my way down the steps by a Spanish woman who proceeds to speak very rapid Spanish at me. I look at her blankly and she points to my legs and says “sooo white”. Believe it or not, this is not the first time I have been mistaken for a Spanish person and I am confident it will not be the last. Used to pretty blunt comments about my skin colour (when I lived in San Diego people would yell at me from cars, gives you a thick skin), I laugh it off. The Spanish woman wanders away, occasionally staring anxiously back at my blindingly white skin.

I approach the guys in charge of the jugs of Dead Sea mud (people like to slather it all over them as it’s supposed to be good for your skin). They address me as “senorita”. A little confused to be mistaken for a Spaniard again, I enquire how much the mud is. 3JD. Somehow paying for wet dirt doesn’t seem right to me so I meander off in search of some fresh mud. I take my “Rough Guide” and float in the Dead Sea with it, reading. No-one else was trying to recreate the “man floats in dead sea while reading newspaper” photo, making things a bit awkward. The sensation was odd, your body weight was fully supported by the water and you can’t swim if you try. Getting water in your eyes or mouth is not pleasant as the salt content is so high. Same goes for any cuts you might have. You’ll definitely feel them.

When perusing the shops, we notice several amusing translations of dead sea face creams. I don’t know about you but I like my cream to be “anti cracks”. After a few hours, we all pile back into the bus. All nations reunited. We hit a few checkpoints on the way back and the driver gets a speeding ticket.

Back at Abbasi, we search for some cheap street food. Our search is not lucrative and our decision to cross the road proves near-fatal. There are no traffic lights or pedestrian crossings to speak of, crossing is mostly a case of striding confidently into oncoming traffic and hoping the cars won’t hit you. A supermarket we had been told about is essentially just a fruit&veg market. We continue until we stumble across a tiny restaurant surrounded by pigeon shops. (The Rough Guide did mention pigeon fancying being popular in Amman).

We have a mystery dish (I think it was mansaf but communication skills on both sides were not great) and more khubez than 5 people could eat. It only cost us 1.75JD each.
Happy with our bargain, we listen to the loud calls to prayer (Abbasi is quite close to Al-Husseini mosque) and welcome sleep.

Jordan Trip Report: Getting there and Settling in

Our tale starts on the Galway-Dublin Citylink bus. Strangely, the bus driver had no uniform and appeared from nowhere. I wondered for a moment if some random Polish guy in a football jersey had decided he’d like to drive a bus tonight.I decided to go with it.

A Chinese guy was playing mandarin rap, loudly. I shouldn’t have been surprised, I have a bad track record with bus travel and foreign rap. (One memorable 13 hour trip from Vegas to San Francisco listening to more Mexican rap than I ever needed to hear being the best example).

When we reached Dublin airport, we bypassed the horror that was Terminal 2 and its queues to get to Terminal 1.
I set off the alarm going through security. No biggie. (As mentioned in my ode to Glasgow, this happens all the time). I was told to take off my shoes, then lightly frisked. Still sounding. The security guard broke out the magic wand to sweep me. It went off. She looked excited and wheeled out a contraption. It looked like one of those giant scales in shopping centres where you can weigh yourself and test your blood pressure. There was a  picture of a foot on the metal platform.

Did I mention that the date was the 11th of September and I was flying to the Middle East? Yeah. I placed one foot on the picture and stood with my arms out straight while the guard swept me and frisked me a little more vigorously this time. She told me the contraption was so she could get more “leverage” to frisk. This was not as comforting as she might have imagined. I repeated the procedure with the other foot, the other passengers looking quite amused at this stage, and relieved it wasn’t happening to them. The wand sounded at my boobs.

Frisky McFriskerson grinned and said she wanted to “focus more on the chest area”. I felt like she could at least have bought me a drink first. She proceeded to feel that region, eventually conceding (with evident disappointment) that my bra was to blame. My boobs would not take down national security that day. But be warned: they may strike again at any time.

We reached Heathrow Airport for our connecting flight and had a bit of a wait. We killed time by people-watching. There’s a children’s playground situated strategically by a “Toy Box” shop in order to maximise sales. The cashier wandered around in fairy wings and wafted bubbles in the children’s direction, trying to entice them (and their parents’ wallets) to her like a twisted Pied Piper.
To my complete surprise, a guy I became friends with while flyering for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival  was on our flight. He’s Jordanian and was going home for a short visit.

The first person we met in Jordan was an Irish guy. (Of course). I had spotted him eyeballing us in Heathrow and wasn’t sure why. Apparently he saw us, thought we “looked Irish” and wanted to give us a helping hand, greeting us with:
“Are ye irish? What are you doing here? I haven’t seen Irish tourists here since February”. (No-one could get past him, apparently).

As the queue of disembarking passengers was entirely made up of returning Jordanians and middle-aged English businessmen, I had no trouble believing him that Amman was not exactly the Lanzarote of Irish tourism. He worked in Amman for a Swiss bank as a programmer and had been there for little over a year.
He turned out to be our saviour as Jordanian queues are lackadaisical at best and he had the insider track on how to navigate them. The baffling visa line was a kind of abstract pentagram shape, with no-one quite sure what direction they should be facing. Some of us were moved into the “Jordanians only” line to help speed things along.  The actual Jordanians looked very confused.

I had a brief conversation with a guard about my business in Jordan and my plans. He took a picture of me and then filled my passport with stamps.
After scanning our luggage just before leaving the airport (not sure of the logic of this), we made it outside to the chaos. In the darkness we headed to the taxi rank, where everybody was yelling at each other even though no-one was angry. This bled over to the driving style displayed by the drivers. It’s a bit…gung-ho. Everyone beeps their horn, as naturally as you would use the clutch. Our driver put on an english-language radio station. I caught him singing along to “Love is a Battlefield” under his breath. I joined him.

Ammanians decorate their shops with neon lights, which anywhere else would look tacky. Everyone on the streets was loud and boisterous and energetic. Small mobile food stalls had popped up to catch people seeking a late dinner. Amman is a city of hills, you feel like there is no house you cannot see at one time. Like the whole city is participating in something.

We arrived at our accommodation, Abbasi Palace. “Palace” may have been an overstatement but I liked it immediately. It was located on the kind of street where you would struggle to find a bottle of water to buy but where you could procure a mobile phone at 3am without stepping outside your door.The manager was in high spirits and made us tea while he got our room key. I don’t like tea but I appreciated the gesture and drank as much as I could. Tea is serious business in Jordan. (One of the many similarities between the Irish and the Jordanians). We quickly became accustomed to the toilet paper “situation” (similar to countries like Mexico, toilet paper is discarded in the bin rather than flushed) before heading to bed, exhausted.

We planned to do a tour of Madaba, Mount Nebo and the Dead Sea the next day.

Jordan: Trip Report

And so commences a short series on my week-long trip to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in September 2011. I’ve been dragging my heels writing this up but I wanted to do it justice. There will be a few parts (one for each day), so just click that box on the right for email updates if you want to keep up!

When I was telling people about this trip, there was only one reaction I got. Why Jordan? It was funny, because you wouldn’t be asked that if you said you were going to New York or Crete or Paris. Jordan is just that little bit out there in a lot of people’s minds. In fact, one or two people confessed they had never heard of the country. I’ve worked in tourism my whole working life so I’ve seen the PR war that’s waged between various countries and attractions. There’s a reason you know about the Roman ruins in Rome but are perhaps less aware of the Roman ruins in countries like Jordan or Israel.

The “why” was simple. I prefer destinations that are not overrun with tourists. There’s nothing wrong with a thriving tourist economy but when it takes over the authenticity of the place is diluted and the locals are understandably jaded. It’s the destination they think the tourists want to see, rather than what it actually is.
Another reason was the surprisingly cheap Dublin–> Amman flight. At the time of booking, it cost about the same as a flight to Rome. I love history and had yet to see some Roman ruins so I was looking for a country that had its fair share. Through my research online, I found that many people consider the ruins in Jordan (particularly Jerash) to be superior to those in Rome. (Perhaps because they’re less restricted and crowded). I also found that Jordan has a great reputation for being inexpensive as regards accommodation, transport and food. Reading about how invested the country is in tourism also comforted me. There is a special branch of “tourist police” for the explicit protection and aiding of tourists in the country. Add to that a desire to see the Middle East and I was sold.

I’ll admit, I nervous about going to a mostly Muslim country. I had never had to abide by modesty codes before. (Not that I’m any great exhibitionist). In my slight panic not to offend any Muslims, I ended up packing a wardrobe that can only be described as a hybrid between “lumberjack” and “fallen fitness instructor”.
Despite the (very slight) nerves about the unknown, I was very excited.

Schedule was as follows:
Day 1: Dublin (via London)–>Amman flight, (overnight in Amman)
Day 2: Madaba, Mount Nebo, Wadi Mujib, Dead Sea (overnight in Amman)
Day 3: Petra (overnight in Wadi Musa)
Day 4: Wadi Rum, Petra (overnight in Wadi Musa)
Day 5: Little Petra (overnight in Amman)
Day 6: Ajloun, Jerash, Al-Husseini Mosque, Downtown Amman (overnight in Amman)
Day 7: Amman–>Dublin flight

Useful information: 1JD (Jordanian Dinar) is about equal to 1e (euro), or was at the time.

Check back for Day 1!