Wednesday, October 29, 2008


I have never slumbered more soundly than last night, I fear. And I have never had a more satiating nap than the one from which I just awoke. You know that feeling of consummate contentment, where your body no longer yearns for sleep and your eyes no longer blur with fatigue? Yup, that’s me. You may also recall my early commendation of the weather here in Jordan. No more. I hung out a load of laundry to dry on Thursday night, only to awake Friday morning to a line of clothes heavy with rain showers. Uggh. And now it’s cold! Well, cold is relative, but cold enough for every Jordanian to be huddled in sweaters and long sleeves. Me? I throw a scarf on over my short-sleeved shirt and am quite pleasant. Except at night. I had somehow forgotten the inexorable desert chill, when the cold seeps through the floors and wall, underneath my not-nearly-warm-enough-but-still-beautiful Greek blanket to suffuse me in, well, shivers. An investment in a real thick, cozy blanket may be needed. Either that, or I find something else to warm my bed J

Ok, so that’s weather talk, a necessity for a Minnesotan. “Ya, hello thar neighbor! How’s the weather lookin’ thar today, eh?” Onto far more pressing matters, like one of the most enjoyable weekends I’ve had, ever! And I owe a large thanks to Ahmed (see previous posts), the self-proclaimed (and righteously ordained) Tourist Pimp, who organized and herded us through the wonders of Jordan. My weekend began Thursday-Bedouin Horde departed, Jess and I tidied the place, and then I attempted to cook dinner!! What, whoa, Laura, you’re getting weird on us! I know, I know, allow me to elucidate. I thought it might be a nice gesture for Embassy Man to come over for dinner, rather than continually spending unknown sums of money on wonderful dinners. So, I went grocery shopping, picking up various veggies, meat, and other yummies in the shops around my building. With Jess’ supervision, I de-skinned the chicken (all slimy and raw) and chopped veggies. Jess, I must mention, started sautéing the dinner. About that time, my cell phone buzzed, and Embassy Man informed me that he would be unable to make it. Is protecting America from the world of terrorism really more important than a home-cooked meal in my apartment? Mumkin….

Anyway, Jess and I proceeded to successfully produce a large quantity of gulaya, the Bedouin concoction we love. Ahmed we had also invited, being a good friend, and, as ALL of our other friends were busy, the four of us devoured the meal, accompanied by a nice bottle of wine, in our living room. At some point during the meal, Kathy, emerging from her bathroom with a look of disgust, mentioned the cockroach she saw. Arrrrrr…Bloody hellion. I joined her in a witch hunt for the little booger, gathering up the numerous toxic chemicals in our home, chanting vociferously, and pouring them down the drain in her floor, where the cockroach, she thought, was taking refuge. Whether we got him or not is anybody’s guess, but that poor bug certainly got a large dose of noxious substances and equally vile curses. Feeling much less resentful, Kathy and I returned to enjoy the lovely dessert Ahmed had picked up at Habibeh, a local bakery, and had even brought something I could eat!! A very sweet pie is how I would describe it, with a moist, spongy texture peppered with nuts and divinely delicious. And, of course, wheat-free. My friends here are so wonderful!

And then Embassy Man, who said he would try to stop by, did, in fact, come, albeit somewhat chargrined. Kathy, whom he had never met, regaled him with her hatred of CNN while I cleaned the dishes. Kathy we love, but she can be somewhat opinionated/abrupt at times J I rescued him from her rant against CNN, Jess determined his age (which I will not reveal here), and then he went home, claiming he needed to ‘work’ in the morning. Ahhh, well, I suppose you don’t get to his position by being (too) distracted by blonde 22-year olds…Afterwards, we took the rental car that we were leasing for the weekend out on the town, ending up at the Irish Pub, once again, and burning off those dinner calories while shaking it with cute British/Sudanese boys named Zach. I’m very multi-cultural. We left quite early (truly!), heedful of that 8 am start the next morning.

A two car caravan pulled out of Amman the following morning, filled with myself, Jess, Kathy and Ahmed in one car, and Nabil, Ahmed # 2, Nadia the Dane, and her friend, Shani. After a stop for benzene (both the gasoline and Diet Pepsi kind), we rolled into Madaba, a town maybe 40 minutes south of Amman famed for its 6th century mosaics inside the churches throughout the village. Mother, if you recall that ginormous vase I transported back from Jordan 1.5 years ago and is currently collecting dust downstairs, this is an excellent imitation of the mosaics of Madaba- small, irregular pieces of white tile, occasionally coloured, and arranged to form beautiful images along the floors and walls of ancient churches. Though most images were not religious-many displayed a repeating pattern, a certain plant or animal, or, when necessary, a naked woman. Mwahaha. We visited two of the sites in Madaba, a still-operational church, and then a complex harbouring the ruins of several churches, coughing up 3 JD each. Well, not the Jordanians. Like many places in the world, locals essentially get in free, while tourists pay the occasionally exorbitant entrance fees. I suppose I should not complain, being a ‘rich’ American. Madaba is a sleepy little town, the main tourist street lined with kitshy shops, beautiful mosaic galleries, and other such delights. Breakfast was traditionally Arab, meaning I drank some tea and ate a fingerful of hummus-bread, dips, and falafel were had by the rest. Which was alright, because I toted along potato chips and chickpeas. I think I will soon become a chickpea, based on my current rate of consumption. Before we left, everyone stocked up on snacks for the waterfall tackling ahead-this time, I managed to find an apple to compliment the requisite potato chips.

Piling into our cars, we left Madaba, passed the ridiculously expensive houses that are built up along the road, and headed into the hills, to Mt. Nebo, the mount from which Moses viewed the Promised Land…and then died before reaching it. I’m not sure what you think of when you ponder the Jordanian landscape-probably desert, desert, and more desert. And, of course this is true, but it is truly a varied terrain, offering steep gorges, craggy cliffs, rolling hills, flat plains, undulating dunes…dusty white sand, pine forests, olive groves, scrubby vegetation, Red Sea beaches, verdant gardens....Mt. Nebo is typically desert-a white stone mountain overlooking Palestine, topped with a few trees and obstinate brush. Although the view was nice, and the mosaics found on the site were interesting, Mt. Nebo itself was a tad, well, boring. I’m glad I’ve been there, but a lot of the site was also being excavated, meaning I did not have the freedom to clamber and explore. The number of tourists at this site was greater than the others, primarily because it holds great significance to all three monotheistic religions-Moses being, of course, a major figure in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. I made a bathroom run in the serviceable restrooms at the summit of the mountain, wondering, as I sat on the toilet, if Moses himself had trod over the very spot.

From the mount we descended to the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea, about a 15 minute drive from Mt. Nebo. Our road skirted the edge of the sea, and we passed the fancy resorts, local beaches, and innumerable guard posts surveying the area, preventing any illegal crossings to/from the Israeli side. You realize, as with most things in the Middle East, how a simple geographic feature becomes transmuted into a major political symbol. Beneath the halcyon, if salty, water of the Dead Sea roils an argument with far deeper implications than belies its shallow depth. The Dead Sea is dying, drying up rapidly every year, and both countries depend heavily upon it for the tourism and beauty industries. One of the more palatable solutions is to dredge a canal from Aqaba, on the Red Sea, to the Dead Sea, essentially providing both countries with waterfront property for hundreds of miles, along with billions of dollars in construction costs-and a political morass.

Our destination, however, was not the Dead Sea, but Wadi Mujib, a nature preserve with a river that feeds into it. This was a corner of Jordan I had never imagined-steep cliffs clambering to reach the sky, green plants clinging to the rock face, a shallow river coursing through the narrow gorge…and more fun than I’ve yet had in Jordan. Our team of 8 changed into getting-wet clothes and shoes-well, everyone else did. I stripped down to a tank top and a pair of white exercise capris, conveniently forgetting that white becomes rather transparent when wet. Ahh, well, at least I was wearing fairly un-obnoxious, grey underwear J

After a brief entrapment in the bathroom stall with no handle (Help!), I joined my comrades and we began the hike, trudging upstream in the warm mineral water with the shadow of the cliffs muting the intense afternoon sunlight. Kathy was kind enough to lend me her pair of Crocs, and, with no bag to hinder me (we left Everything in the car except for one camera), I splashed happily through the rushing water until we encountered our first mini waterfall. This one was fairly easy to conquer, and Team Gowad helped pull everyone over the rapids with ease. From there, the falls became steeper and more daunting-happily, the park service has installed ropes and pegs at strategic points during the climb, so, with a bit of exertion on my part, I managed to avoid making a fool of myself.

Except once. Until this point, I had somewhat adroitly scrambled over the rocky heights pulled myself over various falls under my own volition. Faced with a sheer wall devoid of handholds, I watched Ahmed surmount it with relative ease, and than watched Ahmed # 2 wash back down into the pool. Hmmmm…I grappled about half way up, felt myself begin to slip, and did the only thing I could think of-I straddled the rock, locking myself into place with my legs. After a few seconds, I realized the compromising position I was in, and turned around. Sure enough, Kathy was too consumed by laughter to hold her camera properly, and the rest of them were in similarly debilitated states of levity-even Jess, who had managed to climb up before me, was collapsed against the rock in laughter. So much for friends J To be truly honest, I, too, was laughing just as hard as they…until I ascertained that I could not straddle that poor rock forever…so-this is bad-I kind of rode up it (think cowgirl), flipped around, and rolled into the pool at the top, Jess’ guffawing combining with my own as she pulled me to safety. I suppose I must mention that everyone else ascended the slope with much less difficulty than I.

At long last, we reached the final waterfall, a dramatic plume of white thunder plunging from rocky heights far above. We played in its spray, and then headed back downstream, finding the trek much easier with the current-and with somebody holding your hand J Ahmed had timed our day perfectly, and we had just enough time to change our clothes (I’ve long since mastered the art of shimmying into dry pants while seated in the backseat), gawk at the Jordanian men wandering around in their underwear, fend off the barrage of flies, and head up to the Dead Sea Panorama, where we watched the sun slide behind the clouds and cliffs of Israel, perfectly reflected on the calm surface of the Dead Sea. A short drive back to Amman, a stop off at our apartment, dinner at Ben and Clement’s (they ordered pizza, but got me roasted chicken and French fries-awww…) and sleep.

You see, the next morning we did it all over again. Up at 8 am, piling sleepily into the car with Nadia, Shani, Jess and Ahmed, off to explore the wonders of Jordan. The previous day we ventured south; Saturday we investigated the north. Our first stop, Jerash, contained Roman ruins (don’t ask me to date them, but they were old. Trust me) spread out impressively over a large plateau, including the largest columnade of free-standing pillars in the world! Cooler weather had arrived the night before, borne by the fiery embrace of lightening and the rumble of thunder, a somewhat welcome relief from the previous humidity. As with most sites in the Middle East, we were fairly free to wander amongst the columns and dart into crumbling doorways to see what lay beyond-rock and dust, generally speaking. We watched a ‘traditional’ Jordanian band play music in the ampnitheatre and some local Jerashians (yup, I made that up), dance the dibka, a peculiar sort of art native to Jordan and Palestine. After breakfast at a local eatery (and food I could actually consume), we headed off into the pine forests toward Ajloun Castle, a fortress constructed by Salahudiin to fend off the pesky Crusaders.

More ruins to explore, narrow staircases to ascend, and castle walls with which to collide. Yes, unfortunately, our most memorable moment of Ajloun occurred when Jess had a brief, but intense, meeting with one of the low doorways in the castle, effectively giving her a concussion for several days. Don’t worry, she’s recovered, or as recovered as Jess ever is J We also encountered a donkey carrying gravel through the bowels of the castle. I thought he was cute; everyone else thought he looked a bit dirty and melancholy.

Onwards to stop # 3-Um Qais, another of those bloody Roman sites in Jordan, this one a bit more remote and less visited than Jerash. Over the last two days, we had encountered several checkpoints with fairly lax security. Ahmed explained who we were, Kathy waved, and we were ushered through with little delay. However, Um Qais is in the far northern reaches of Jordan, very close to the borders with Israel, the Golan Heights, and Syria. Most of the territory is militarily-inclined, discouraging one from wandering too far from the paths. At the checkpoint near Um Qais, we were stopped, asked to show our passports, and then had our bags checked! What really amused me, though, was the fast that the guard told Ahmed to tell us to not wander off into military zones. Which was wise, because, clearly, I have a tendency to amble off in the direction of gun posts, barbed wire, and glowering soldiers…

So, Um Qais was remote, evocative, and more ruinous than Jerash, which I actually preferred. As we strolled (on the marked path!) through the fallen pillars and half-buried foundations of the marketplace, I could not help but imagine the scurrying of humanity millennia ago, leather sandals slipping over the marble flagstones and voices raised over the price of camel. Here, in the corner between worlds, with wildflowers twining around stone pedestals, and olive trees shading the ruins of a Roman house, and the wind whistling through the brambles filling an ancient well, history seemed to shimmer just beyond the mortal ken, so close you could feel the whisper of long-forgotten tongues if you paused long enough…

We saw the Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights, and the hills of Syria, enjoyed the setting sun, and sped off to Irbid to dine in a chic café, driving home past Ahmed’s old university before arriving, fairly fatigued, in Amman, where I promptly collapsed into a slumber. Mmmmm…what a good weekend. And more pics...