Server-Lady Tours Mid-East

photo: the monastery

The Monastery at Petra with its eight metre-high door.

Declines Beard Trim In Jordon

by Linda Thalman

Paris:- Sunday, 24. October 1999:- There's nothing like starting a vacation at 05:00 - 5 am! - to get to the airport for your 10 o'clock flight and then to be asked if you'd like to volunteer for the afternoon flight on another carrier because Air France has overbooked!

Even the 500 Francs offered to ease the pain wasn't acceptable. We opted to be on the waiting list and miraculously left on our originally-scheduled flight to Tel Aviv.

Israel has a service taxi system called 'sheruts' - collective taxis - which we used to get to Jerusalem for $10. We didn't bring any dollars, but prices are routinely quoted in them and in NIS - or new Israeli Shekels.

Before night fell we headed for the Old City and meandered through the Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim quarters as shopkeepers packed up for the day. We barely consulted the map as every narrow street was intriguing.

From the Damascus Gate we skirted the walls and returned to the Jaffa gate entrance to eat in the Armenian Tavern, 79 Armenianphoto: mid east internet cafe in In wadi musa Patriarchate Road. We spent one short night at the Mount Zion Hotel in a lovely room with a view on the Old City.

The Middle-East Internet Cafe somewhere in Jordan.

At 9:30 sharp, Charlie, a taxi driver, took us to the Jordanian border. With what we thought was plenty of time to get to Amman - only 80 kilometres due East of Jerusalem - we asked Charlie to detour through Jerico. We didn't want to miss the ruins of the walls of the oldest city in the world. We did, however, give the casino a miss.

Misinformed by the consulate in Paris, we were unable to cross the Allenby-King Hussein Bridge without a visa. We had to take another taxi north - for an hour! - where we crossed without a hitch at the Sheikh Hussein Bridge and got our visa for Jordan on the spot. Moral: never leave home without your visas - unless you, like me, enjoy a good adventure.

A three-hour bus ride later landed us in the suburbs of Amman. The 80 kilometres from Jerusalem as the crow flies took us all day, but getting there was the real fun and we saw some beautiful countryside on the way.

Amman by night is pretty darn quiet except for the Internet cafes. Amman city center by day is colorful, noisy and bubbling with energy.

We scrapped our original plan to rent a car from the airport. The clerk at the Carlton Hotel had a friend who had a car rental company and it was all so easy. The car we got had gone about 300,000 kilometres already, but the tires looked fine. The brakes squealed, the radio didn't work and there wasn't any air conditioning.

With minus one litre of fuel in the tank, we got lost in central Amman looking for a gas station, but finally found one. After paying cash for the gas it only took half an hour more to find the King's Highway, going south towards Petra.

Mercifully, most of the road signs are in English as well as Arabic. While I can decipher most of the Arabic alphabet, Pierre had to drive quickly to stay out of the way of cars, buses, taxis, pick-ups, pedestrians and trucks - challenging my speed-reading and navigational skills at the same time.

Our next stop was Madaba, known for its sixth century mosaic map of Palestine in St. George's Church - where all the tourist buses stop for an in-and-out glimpse. We took the time to visit the rather grandly termed Archeological Park as well and saw some beautiful mosaics and well-preserved remains of a Roman road - with just three other tourists.

Running short on Jordanian cash on a Saturday is not a problem even though banks are closed and ATM's are not on many corners. Just ask the local gift shop owner and he checks the Web for the day's conversion rate from Francs to Dinars and bingo, bills and coins are in your hands. This is not likely to happen in Paris.

Ed's note: In Paris there are ATM's on some corners.

At a roadside viewpoint on the way to Kerak, a uniformed policeman politely asked us in Englishphoto: a wadi, 1 km deep if we'd mind taking his colleague in civilian clothes about 20 kilometers to the nearest police station. Our hitchhiker didn't speak much English but I think he was a cousin of James Bond.

A snake-like two-lane blacktop climbs out of the Wadi al-Mujib.

We wound our way up and down the stunning kilometre deep Wadi al-Mujib. Lorries from Iraq and Saudi Arabia were in first gear going up and down the steep, but wide and newly paved road.

At the imposing 12th century fortified citadel we roamed the windy site, admired the views to the valley 450 metres below and tried to imagine being there in 1188 AD when Saladin conquered the site.

Deciding to push on to Petra, we again needed to find 'petrol' before sunset. We did the last run into Petra in the dark - fortunately, my Arabic gets better at night and the signs to Petra in English got bigger as we approached this amazing geological site.

There weren't any rooms at the inn near the park's entrance and as this was a trip of adventure all the way, we had purposefully not made reservations.

A most helpful clerk at one of the large hotels called another hotel and sure enough, we got two nights in the Petra Plaza Hotel with a large room overlooking the pool and the spectacular views - just five kilometres out of town.

The next morning we were so glad to have started our visit to Petra by 7:15, as we really beat the coach loads of guided tour groups and most of the heat. It's two kilometres down to the 40-metre-high Treasury - the 'Khazneh.'

This monument was carved out of the stone facades sometime between 100 BC and 200 AD, but it looked 'new.' Then we traipsed another three kilometres to the lower part of Petra; to the museums and Bedouin tent cafe for tea at 8:00 before lingering in the small but exceptionally well-presented museum.

The 26-degree Centigrade temperature rose to maybe 30 as we climbed for another hour to the Monastery with its eight metre-high door. Simply unforgettable.

We ordered tea at what must be the original 'Hard Rock Cafe,' carved out of a rock structure facing the monastery. The peace and quiet was marred by a boisterously loud group who might as well have been at a football match for all they looked at the grandiose vistas.

If you ever tour as a group, appoint someone to measure the decibels to make sure you're not sharing your jokes with every other tourist within a 200-metre radius.

photo: the treasury in petraIt was with great regret that we walked down the steps and then back up through the narrow path with 100-metre high sheer walls of rock - formed not by water or erosion, but geologically. Truly, Petra is one of the wonders of the world.

Exhausted, hot and hungry we ate at the Middle East Internet Cafe and Restaurant on the main street. There were at least three more Internet cafes, but they were all way up the hill and I couldn't move my legs another inch.

The 'Khazneh' at Petra.

We had to settle for freshly pressed orange juice as the non-alcoholic beer just didn't seem to be what we wanted. A cold 'real' beer by the hotel pool tasted even better later.

If you ever visit Petra, do stop by the Nabatean Kingdom Bazar, at the Alshaheed Center Circle - in 'downtown' Wadi Mosa, which is the name of the town by Petra. It is owned by Mohamad Abosaksoka.

Educated, traveled, fluent in several languages, he told us he was born 50 years ago in one of the caves of Petra. From his small shop we managed to do one-stop shopping for trinkets, a carpet, t-shirts, postcards - and he took French francs as well. Who needs ATM's?

Our short stay seemed almost over, but we didn't want to miss Wadi Rum - where T. E. Lawrence 'of Arabia' took part in the 1917-18 Arab Revolt.

Our guide was 20-year old Selman, one of 12 sons and 14 daughters of the village sheik with three wives. He spoke excellent English and handled his pickup truck like a professional Paris-Dakar rally driver. He said he couldn't imagine living anywhere but in his village and the desert.

The call of the warm sea waters on the Gulf of Aqaba beckoned, so off we went to spend an afternoon in the shade as the temperatures hit 33 C. Even the south of France is seldom this warm in mid-summer.

It was time to turn in our Nissan 'Sunny' with no options. Ayman Al-Zayed of Montecarlo Rent-a-Car in Amman, took a bus to Aqaba to pick up the car we'd rented four days earlier. His is a small but reliable company.

After crossing back into Israel at the Aqaba-Eilat border on foot, we were whisked by taxi to another rental company. In a newish car, with air-con and a tape player that 'ate' our music cassettes, we had the whole day to get back to the hotel in Jerusalem. Our guide books said it was worth a detour to see Timna, but having just been in Petra, it turned out to be slightly disappointing.

Floating like a sardine in a tin full of olive oil in the Dead Sea has to rate as one of the most unusual sensations I've ever experienced. Just don't leave your towel in the hotel room in Aqaba like I did.

We dried off in the car with air-con before getting to the extraordinary site of Masada, the fortified city built by Herod, 400 metres above the Dead Sea. A speedy cable car carried us up from the parking lot to Masada. Grandiose comes to mind as a description.

Then the portable phone beeped - Paris calling! - while we're staring at the ramp the Roman attackers built to lay siege to this seemingly impenetrable site in 70-72 AD. The modern and the ancient meet.

The last cable car down was at 16:00 and as we had been 'Petra-ed out' - we didn't want to have to take the 'Snake Path' down on foot back to the car. This constraint and a long chat with - Paris calling! - on a technical matter cut our visit a bit short.

As with all major tourist sites anywhere in the world, going in the morning early to Masada would have been a better plan.

Absolutely nothing had gone wrong on our trip so we were yet to have the most amazing surprise back at the Mount Zion Hotel.

A slight mix-up in our reservation was taken care of by the manager who twirled her mousephoto: 'land' in film laurence of arabia and put us in the best suite in the hotel for the price of a standard room without a view. How else can I say thank you, but recommend a stay at the Mount Zion.

Linda Thalman stands in Peter O'Toole's 'Laurence of Arabia' foot-prints.

The last morning was spent at the Israel Museum in the archeology section. The displays are excellent and the educational documentation in English - and Hebrew, which I don't read - was outstanding. Museums around the world could take a cue from this one for how to do it right.

Just slightly anxious about getting to the airport on time, we only had to 'look' in the direction of the taxi rank and a young man approached us. It was Charlie - again - our driver to the border a week ago. We treated him to a falafel on our way back to the hotel before catching a 'sherut' to Tel Aviv and then an airplane to Boullay.

As a final comment, may the shop and innkeepers of the world say 'Welcome to insert country name here' - as they did everywhere in Jordan. Even a barber rushed out of his shop -though I was most certainly not going to get my beard trimmed - to make us feel welcome.

While you may not get quite such enthusiastic greetings as you stroll around Paris, I know that if you combine a trip to Paris, Israel and Jordan, you will not be disappointed.

Text and Photos: Linda Thalman©1999
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