Travel Date 22nd-25th March 2008.
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I had looked forward to the flight from India to Jordan as an opportunity to fly over the path that Alexander took as he conquered the region millennia ago. Unfortunately, it was not to be. One of the disappointments of the various flights in Asia was that I rarely saw the terrain we flew over except for the initial climb and the final descent. On the ground the skies could look clear, but at altitude there was a brown murky haze obscuring the ground. This applied on all my daylight flights in South-East Asia and on the flight from Delhi to Amman. Additionally, and unsurprisingly, the flight path curved to the South avoiding over-flight of Pakistan, Iraq and Iran.
I had not intended to visit Jordan, it was a fortunate accident. Another serendipitous occurrence, similar to my earlier trip to Istanbul. My original aim was to visit India followed by Egypt. In my original One-World-Explorer planning I was struggling to find a way to get from Delhi to Cairo without going a long way around via the UK or Germany. Then Royal Jordanian joined the One World group and the problem was solved; Amman was a much more logical transit point. However, my pre-conceptions and fears almost caused me to ignore it. I agonised for quite a while reading everything I could find to check on the safety and security of travelling in Jordan before I went.
We all grow up in an environment which creates and nurtures pre-conceptions, no matter how much we think our education and reading has changed them. My early knowledge of Jordan was Sunday School biblical descriptions, the world of Moses and the land of the river Jordan. My adult pre-conceptions were fed by the media reports and my reading of the chaotic history and troubled present of the Middle East, all mixed in with the Hollywood myths of Lawrence of Arabia. Like many westerners I tended to lump Jordan together with its neighbours. In 1981 my thesis at Staff College was a gloomily accurate prediction of the coming Gulf Wars, so my reading had tended to be focused on the volatile states of the Gulf littoral. Not a cheery grounding for a tourist visit to the region.
I should not have worried. Within a day of arrival I realised that almost all of my preconceptions were shattered.
The first thing that struck me in Amman was the order and cleanliness. After India there was almost no rubbish in the streets, no poverty in sight, no derelict or tumble-down homes, few if any squalid huts and no beggars. Actually, to say "after India" is a bit unfair. Amman, and most of the Jordanian towns and villages I passed through would compete well with Aussie towns in a "tidy towns" award. Most of these pictures were taken from or near the Commodore Hotel, which I booked via HotelClub. It was a good, clean hotel not particularly close to anything in the suburbs. I had no complaints, its main customer base seemed to be European tour groups, mainly Dutch and German while I was there. The breakfast buffet choices were excellent.
There was an agency in the foyer that I used to arrange for the car and driver on my first afternoon to Jerash, and again for the driver next day to take me to Petra, stay overnight, and bring me back the following day. It cost 160 JD, about AU$240 for the car and driver for the two days, which I thought was very reasonable when looking at the quality of the car, driver and service compared to grabbing a cab.
The second pic is my driver for the trip to Petra. My drivers implied that the prosperity and order in the nation was due to the years of peace and the legacy of their much-lamented King Hussein continued by his son Abdullah II bin al-hussein, present King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The Kingdom is, of course, a monarchy, but there is a slow but steady progression towards democracy occurring.
As I departed the cynic in me may have seen a slightly different reason. Waiting in the Queen Alia Airport departures lounge I read the International Herald Tribune over a coffee. The headline article reported that the US Senate was voting that day on a replacement 5-year plan increasing aid to Jordan to US$900 million annually; $500 million for un-stated civilian purposes and $400 million for the military.
Look at the map. The strategic importance in the modern world of a country bordered by Israel, Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, which is also a near and influential neighbour to Egypt, the Lebanon and the other Arab states is inestimable. Add that it is not an oil-rich country, unlike many of the others, and that it has a history of sensible and stable government and it is easy to see why the money may be gratefully received and well spent. Money given to governments does not always buy friends in the streets of the towns. Maybe this time it has.
The people were friendly and helpful, even when the only possible communication was gestures. In my short visit I did not meet a lot of Jordanians, mainly my drivers, hotel staff, guides and occasional friends of theirs. But all showed genuine interest in Australia, our government and our culture, never hostility, despite most being very aware that we were fighting beside the US and British in Iraq and Afghanistan. I felt quite safe wandering in the area around the Commodore Hotel, night or day. Possibly the most surprising thing was the general lack of any anti-Western or anti-American feeling; again, something I had mistakenly expected.
Driving through and around Amman I noticed an "American School" (that was its name) and all the usual American fast-food franchises; all were well-patronised. During the visit I chatted in the car to both drivers on fairly long drives. Possibly they were just diplomatic and good at pleasing customers, but both talked freely and cheerfully about their country, their King and the royal family, the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan and other things such as the political and economic situation in the Middle East without the rhetoric, religious fervour or jingoism the media would lead us to expect.
On my first day I hired a driver to go to Jerash, north of Amman. I was very surprised to see the green hills and crops on that trip, as seen in the photos above. I was expecting a generally dry and arid country. Instead I found that Jordan, and later Egypt, has extremes of fertile irrigated land contrasting with sudden changes to arid and hostile terrain.
During my time in India with a driver I had learned some of the subtleties of the game. So I didn't object when he chose the restaurant for lunch or I was taken to places like this mosaic factory. The workmanship was marvellous, both for the mosaics and the furniture on display. But I didn't buy, not just because I have no great interest in such souvenirs, but I had many more flights to make with two carry-on bags and no desire to add extra kilogrammes to my luggage weight.
On the trip towards Petra the next day we soon hit the more arid regions as we followed the Jordan River South. The following photos were taken during that trip.
The river valley and a major dam for the water supply.
This Bedouin camp represents a way of life unchanged for centuries. The longer shot gives some idea of the inhospitable country they happily elect to live in.
This is Wadi Musa, the town adjacent to Petra.
This was my dinner in the Crowne Plaza at Petra. I have no idea what was in the little triangles, but I do recall they tasted delicious and so did the soup. For my diabetic friends it was a zero-spike dinner.