Part of the reason why I went all the way up to Nazareth is so I could cross into Jordan without a visa. There is a checkpoint much closer to Jerusalem, but since it’s technically in the Palestinian territories you need to apply for a visa beforehand either in the Jordanian Embassy in DC or Tel Aviv. Or elsewhere in the world I suppose. I made half-hearted attempts to get to each of those two embassies but ended up making it to neither. So, I had to either cross up north near Beit She’an or way down south between Eliat and Aqaba. The plan was to cross near Beit She’an and then pick up a rental car across the border to drive myself down to Aqaba over a week. Then I would take a ferry to Egypt and get some diving in. Ambitious? Nah.
First thing first, I had to get myself to the border. After triple checking, I walked to the bus stop in town that would supposedly take me to the hub of Afula, about 15 minutes south, where I would be able to pick up a connection to Beit She’an. I showed up early enough that I should still make my 1:00 PM car pick up even if I missed the first bus. I didn’t though, and after some minor shuffling in the Afula station I was on my way to Beit She’an. After passing through town I was dropped at a gas station/rest stop seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Well it was somewhere. Somewhere my static Google Maps suggested the road to the border proper started. I inquired at the little convenience store and someone was able to find someone who called someone with a taxi. Which turned out to be just parked across the street. So off to the border I went. Or at least the Israeli checkpoint of the border.
Thankfully it wasn’t too busy, which meant that the immigration gates weren’t staffed. Like an idiot, I just figured that they would check my documents etc once I get to Jordan. So onward I went, breezing through the extensive duty free store and outside to wait for the bus to Jordan. They were suppose to be on 15 minutes rotations, but I waited on the good side of 45 minutes, but at least there was an outlet to charge my phone. Then everyone lined up to have the passports checked…and I started getting worried. What were they checking? I have nothing for them to check. I waited resolutely. Maybe it was just for Israeli and Jordanian citizens. But soon enough the immigration officer informed me that I had neglected to pay the exit tax. Nor had I gotten the appropriate exit stamp. So off I went, jogging back to the main building to get my shit squared away. Of course, when I got there, there was some complicated person with a bundle of documents and confusion clogging my lane. I waited. My bus left. I frustratingly walked back outside. The doorman helpfully informed me that he had no idea when the next bus would come. I tried to cajole my way onto a private tour bus. They were not impressed with my Americanness and I was shot down. Luckily, the next bus came along in just a pinch, and off we went through a series of gates and checkpoints and onward to JORDAN. But little did I know, the fun has just started.
Arriving in a large parking lot, we were shepherded to a rather large and ominous building chocked full of uniformed Jordanian soldier bureaucrats. I went in line to pay my $20 USD and get my Jordanian visa. The man looks through my passport, looks up at me, looks down at my Israeli exit stamp (that I specifically requested because LP told me it would be ok), looks at me, and then stands up and walks to the back with my passport. I can hear him conversing in hushed conspiratorial tones. I thought to myself “ah shit, way to be an idiot Matt.” And he returns, telling me to go into the back with him. I walk through a door and more uniformed me stared at me. My guide waves me to him down the hall. We enter a room with at least 5 uniformed officers, some more ornately decorated than the average. The man sitting on the desk smoking a cigarette in a white uniform gestures to me, said something hilarious in Arabic (everyone else laughed) and handed me back my passport. Then he said “OK”. The original officer then led me out again, took my $20, and taped a nice little visa into my passport. Off I went to immigration.
Immigration was a breeze by comparison. They took my picture and my fingerprint, and the man asked me why I was in Jordan, paid genuine attention to my answer, and then let me on my way. My way turns out to be a little walk to the taxi stand, where, I assumed, my car might be. At least that’s what my online research indicated. Avis wasn’t very clear.
Nope. There was no car waiting for me. And the phone number I got on my confirmation print out was most definitely defunct, which I found out after timidly asking the taxi boss to call the number for me. The big man in charge was busy fielding all sorts of calls and customers so I didn’t want to bother him too much. But eventually I did convince him to call the main Avis office in Amman (the capital) and figure out that there was in fact someone on their way with my car. Well, not exactly on their way because they just left after I called them. So I’m locked down to chill in this taxi hut for the next 2 hours with no one but a bunch of chain smoking cabbies and irate travelers to keep me company. There was a family with a youngish child and a mom decked out in designer heels speaking English and a harried businessman looking father going home to visit some relatives. That was relatively amusing. That and the truculent Arab teens. I entertained myself by trying to figure out the best times to ask the boss man to check up on my ride. After 2 hours he finally got word that my car has arrived and is parked outside the final checkpoint gate. He dispatched one of his drivers to ferry me out there and off I went.
My ride was a nondescript grey Nissan Sentra. The thing was so new that the rearview mirrors and seatbelt toggles were still shrink-wrapped. And there were plastic ties on the wheels. I signed some paperwork on the hood of the car, the dude failed to get an impression from my Chase Sapphire card (which didn’t have raised numbers), and the car was mine. I took my driver up to the nearest stoplight and he hopped on in search of a bus to Amman. Weird. The car was also delivered to me with a near empty tank. Also weird but at least i was warned by the interwebs beforehand. The plan was to make my way to the outskirts of Jerash and spend the night. Jerash was once a major Roman city and has some of the best preserved Roman architecture in the world. I had made a reservation at some sort of resort, camping in a provided tent for something like $20.
First task, find Jerash with a combination of cached Google Maps and the supremely sparse LP maps. Oh and driving in a foreign country was a pretty trippy experience. Especially where everything looked like this:
There really weren’t too many road signs, though the few there were did have English on them. Either way, it was great fun buzzing down semi-empty roads. I quickly got into the local custom of passing anything and anyone as long as there’s space. There weren’t many lane markings on these secondary roads. I was, fortunately able to find a gas station. And with some gesturing and money flashing, I did get a tank full of gas into the the surprisingly powerful Sentra. After awhile I took one of the many left turns into the hills and climbed out of the Dead Sea valley eastwards and towards Jerash.
At least I think I did. I mean, if Jerash is as big (as far as the areas is concerned) all roads should lead to it or at least have some indications. I was right, more or less. On the way I found Aljoun castle, decided to pass it by, and rolled into Jerash proper around 4:15 or so. The site closes at 5:00 so I figured I’d just come back the next day and I went in search of my accommodation. There was one helpful sign from the town center…but then I got dreadfully lost on the hillsides overlooking the city. I drove down more than one dirt road where I had to back out, avoiding junked cars, potholes, and packs of stray dogs on the way. A few u-turns and traffic stopping left turns later I did manage to locate my accommodations, which turned out to be a run down little resort type thing perched on a hill overlooking the city. The place probably had capacity for 200 hundred people, and there were at most 25 there. My tent was a tarp wrapped around a metal cube out front. The sides were moderately tied down but the wind made them flap something awful. Spotty ass wifi was available, but only in the foyer/lobby. There was a pool, but it was somehow way too cold. Yes, it was cold. Something about elevation and the howling wind. There was also a restaurant where I was the only diner. It was weird. But I was tired, so I posted up in the lobby with the other people checking their emails for a bit and then went and see if I could get some sleep.
The answer was no, I couldn’t get any sleep. The pile of blankets and mattress was comfortable enough, but the constant flap flap flap flapppppp was completely destroying my sanity. Every time the wind died a bit and I started to drift off it would come back with a vengeance. Terrible all around. I got up around 5, hopped into my ride, and drove on down to town. Which wasn’t all that productive because the archaeological park didn’t open until 7 or 8. In any case I had mad time to kill and nothing to kill it with. I walked around looking for some sort of breakfast place but the only thing open were a couple of convenience stores around the major intersection in town serving the commuters waiting for their buses/vans/shared taxis. That and a couple of coffee carts serving Turkish coffee. Having nothing better to do, I threw a couple back and stared at the local resident while the stared at me. Then I took a nap in my parked car.
Then I toured Jerash, which, truthfully, was a bit underwhelming. Maybe my head was still in the wrong place, but I just seemed like something to check off my list before moving on the bigger and better things. Which I did soon after, but not before getting my car stuck on a curb winding my way through the modern city. I took a turn too tightly and dropped around a descending turn way too aggressively. The front wheel of my front wheel drive was left hanging in midair. Ooops. I hoped out of the car shoeless (since I don’t like driving with shoes) and took a look at the situation. I didn’t have many thoughts other than “oh shit I’m stuck in Jordan”. Then I tried pushing the thing. No dice. But soon enough some helpful Jordanian man and another younger dude came up and spontaneously helped push the car back onto the road while I sat in the car and revved the sucker. That worked. Quickly nodding my thanks, I was again on my way to Amman.
Amman. Amman is the capital of Jordan, but much like Hartford, it’s a capitol without much to offer the casual tourist. And while I may not be a casual tourist, I was certainly a tourist on a tight schedule. First order of business was to navigate the chaotic modern city to find my hostel in heart of downtown. This was a much easier task than I imagined, saved one last wrong turn that tossed me into some traffic. No matter. I found the place soon after and even got a parking spot on the street right in front of the building.
There are some remnants of some citadel or another on top of one of Amman’s seven hills, but I was too tuckered out to go scampering after ruins again. Instead, I took a walk to the crown glory of the city…the Roman theatre. It was quite impressive, especially as it sat in the middle of a busy urban neighborhood. But even at this point I was relatively tired of gaping at theatres.
Instead, I went and bought myself a Bedouin style knife from this man:
Who made it himself in this workshop:
Then I went in search of some cheap food, happening on some sort of wraps filled with some sort of vegetables and some sort of sauce. Whatever it was, it was cheap and quite tasty. Then I made my way back to the hostel in search of a much needed nap but got sidetracked into talking to the man who originally directed me to the front door when I arrived. He turned out to be the proprietor of the cafe immediately below the hostel and was taking English classes at a nearby school at night. I got a little primer of modern Jordanian history from him along with my coffee. But even with the caffeine boost I had to go upstairs to take a nap and actually check-in.
After my nap I went and looked for a popular seafood restaurant I read about in LP and chowed down on some calamari thing with a strange creamy sauce. It was good. Apparently, though Amman is quite a few miles from the coast, the capitol purportedly has the best seafood in Jordan. I think it was the only place I had seafood in Jordan, so I couldn’t really say. But it was pretty good, and not a preparation I have encountered anywhere else. This place was pretty happening. It was overflowing with Jordanian families have a grand time and bustling waiters who seem to know a lot of the patrons by name. All in all it was a pretty jovial experience, after I found the relatively obscure entrance tucked within the downstairs fishmarket. After dinner I took a long walk towards the Intercontinental and tried to absorb some of the city life by observation. The highlight of the walk includes an entire block filled with various aquarium/pet stores and a outdoor recreation store filled with hunting accouterments straight out of a Bass Pro Shop catalog. After passing through a variety of metal detectors, I hung out in the ornate and extremely Orientalistic lobby of the Intercontinental for a little bit, had an overpriced drink, and then moozied back to my hostel. On the way I make my way to a couple of the outdoors market gatherings but wasn’t particularly enticed by the variety of women’s wear they were hawking. I did pick up some roast nuts though.
Back at the hostel I had a couple of conversations with my roommates, one of which just returned from Petra via one of the day tours. Another was a Palestinian-British man who was visiting some family in the area. It was very interesting to hear him talk about life back in England as well as the difficulties visiting families in the Palestinian territories and Jordan. This was a very cosmopolitan and erudite man familiar with Western culture who also happened to be a devout Muslim. It was obvious that he dwells in a very powerful nexus between two cultures and has the unique capability to provide a bridge between two seemingly opposing viewpoints. But at the same time, it wasn’t a position he had asked to be in, and it is clear that he was a little frustrated having to constantly be playing the ambassador to whomever he meets. We chatted for awhile before I fell asleep soon after the muezzin sounded the last prayer of the day. The next day would be another early start, as I hoped to speed out of Amman before the traffic became unbearable. My first destination would be Wadi Mujib for some river scrambling.