Sunday, September 26, 2010

Coming home, crossing the Allenby Bridge into Israel, Eladio’s birthday, routine again, a new diet and the girls’ news

Eladio opening his presents on his birthday this week

Hi everyone,

There’s not much news this week and nothing of great interest to tell after our amazing Holy Land adventure of which I have written reams. We’ve been home a week now and are now back into our normal routines but still talking and remembering our incredible trip. I have spent the best part of the week selecting photos, printing them and sticking them, together with paper memorabilia, into special albums for which I have even written our itineraries and included all my blog posts. I wonder if anyone, other than us and my Father, will be interested in leafing through them now or in the future. But this is something I nearly always do after a special trip and my bookshelves are full of our travel albums as well as guide books.

So yes, the first part of my headline this week refers to our coming home and crossing the Allenby Bridge into Israel. That wasn’t easy and for the records the most interesting thing to tell you in this blog post. We got up early last Sunday morning in Amman and were picked up by our efficient driver Sufian at 7.45. We knew we had to calculate 3 hours at the infamous border and another 3 hours to go through the tough security procedure at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv before we caught our 15.40 flight to Madrid. We thought we had plenty of time but it was touch and go. On the plus side it was one hour earlier in Israel than in Jordan but on the minus side we had no shekels to pay for a taxi in Israel to take us to the airport.

The infamously difficult to cross border, Allenby Bridge, between Israel and Jordan

We got to the Jordanian side of the border called King Hussein Bridge at 08.30, and here Sufian helped us by queuing up with our passports for a stamp and a tax duty to be able to get on the shuttle bus that takes you to the Israeli frontier some 6 kilometres away. We waited around in a rather smelly, fly infested and shabby waiting room with funny looking Jordanian officials who did not speak English. At about 10 o’clock we got onto a modern bus with other tourists like us and were finally given back our passports in a very inefficient way. The official came on board with a huge pile of passports and had great difficulty finding the owners.

The collection and return of passports on the Jordanian side of the border is very chaotic and undisciplined

We arrived in a sort of no man’s land, got off the bus and showed our passports again. Meanwhile a young Israeli soldier girl came on board with a machine gun to check the bus. We then got back on again and drove a bit further until we came to the real Israeli frontier. Here we watched from within the bus the total confusion and chaos that reined outside and we all wondered to ourselves what we had to do next to get our luggage and ourselves through security.

Chaos at Allenby Bridge crossing into Israel from Jordan which took 4 hours

Once outside we tried to figure out which queue to join or rather which mass of people. There were many Palestinians with huge bundles of luggage and cross officials barking instructions we did not understand. Finally we worked out you had to give your passport and luggage to one of them. The luggage disappeared and the passport came back with a stamp on the back. Then you had to join another massive queue to show your passport. When you thought you had finished you had to join another queue and go through the body check. That’s when a young Palestinian girl asked me why I hadn’t used the VIP border crossing service. I couldn’t believe my ears. Was there one? Later I read that for 95 dollars a tourist could request the service at the Jordanian end and that the process was much quicker. Well that’s a good piece of information for next time or for passing on to people who want to cross the bridge. When I told the girl that I hadn’t heard of it, she answered: “well now you know what we have to suffer”. She was right, indeed now I do. The process still didn’t end there. After the body check, came yet another passport queue, the final one thank goodness. Once through that we emerged into the baggage claim lounge where there was no security whatsoever. The whole process took longer than 4 hours and we were told that that was a good day as it usually takes 5 hours. Hopefully the peace talks may influence this and shorten the process but I doubt that.

Our next obstacle was to find a taxi that would take us past an ATM to get shekels out to pay him and also to negotiate the price. That was fairly easy but the price high. We were worried the ATM might not accept our European credit cards as we had had many difficulties previously in Jerusalem. We were in luck though this time and the machine accepted my card the first time around. Once back in the taxi we were stopped at a check point and this was where I began to worry seriously about time. A young Israeli soldier with a huge menacing machine gun asked for our passports. We gave him our British and Spanish ones. He spoke to me in English and asked me who the man sitting next to me was. I stammered that he was of course my husband. He asked me to come out of the car and to show him our luggage which thankfully he didn’t open. He then wished us on our way. After that final scare we arrived at Ben Gurion International airport at 12.45h with just under 3 hours to go through security and eat something at the airport. Security was perhaps the toughest I have been through at any airport. But it was also very slow, the slowest part being the boarding queue. Finally we made it and along with many other tourists and lots of Ultra Orthodox Jews who even prayed in their funny hats on the walking conveyors, we boarded the flight. It was uneventful and took 5 hours to fly us to Madrid where our sweet daughters were waiting to welcome us and drive us home.

Once home and over dinner with the girls, we got out the multiple gifts, food and souvenirs we had bought on our trip such as baklava, halva, Jordanian cushion covers, a Bedouin knife, necklaces, Dead Sea cosmetic product, the Jordanian clothing and Baptismal tunics as well as that days Jordanian Times for my Father who loves to read foreign newspapers.

And so our trip was now over and we had to adjust quickly to our daily lives in Spain again. I went into the office twice this week, got up to speed with my work, had a working lunch with my new Swedish friend Mica, made dental and chiropodist appointments and generally got used to being at home again. The best thing about coming home, most definitely, is sleeping in your own bed but also returning to our daily walks.  Norah will have missed them in our absence.  Now the days are shorter, but even so there is still light until past 8 pm.  I caught this great moment on one of our walks this week when the moon made its appearance and suddenly we had a most romantic moonlit walk.
On our walk, a moonlit one this week.  Just had to capture the moment the moon made its appearance.
The biggest news of the week of course was Eladios birthday which we all celebrated in our typical family way on Thursday. I got up early to go and get some breakfast goodies such as churros and mini croissants as breakfasts on birthdays in our house are always a formal together affair. This is what the table looked like before we polished it all off.

The breakfast table on Eladio's birthday this week

There were presents and a card of course, as the staple ingredients for any birthday. You can see how happy he was to receive them in the photo illustrating this blog.  He got a new shaver from my Father, a pair of trainers from me and sports socks from the girls.
Lunch was another formal meal where the other essential ingredient of any decent birthday, the cake, made its appearance. Birthday cakes in our home are nearly always chocolate and this was no exception. Here you can see Eladio and his cake with Oli and Suzy. They don’t know but I am collecting birthday photos of them with their Father on all his birthdays in the recent years.

Eladio and his girls just before we had the birthday cake

In the evening Eladio and I went out to dinner for the final birthday celebration of the day. I am sure you are not surprised to hear we went to La Alpargateria.

What you will be surprised to hear is one of the reasons. Well the next day I was going to start the strictest diet I have ever been on but supposedly the most effective and would not be able to eat pasta for a very long time, La Alpargateria's speciality. I read a comment that very day from a friend on Facebook about how good the Dr. Dukan diet was and went to have a look at the website. 5 minutes later I had signed up and paid just over 100 pounds. That was when I received my instructions. I think now that if I had seen the instructions before paying, I may never have signed up. Last year at about this time I started my own restrictive food diet and then went on to do the Up Day, Down Day diet. I lost about 11 kilos but still needed to lose at least another 10kg and of course had put on some weight eating all the delicious buffet food in Jordan. I started the new diet on Friday. Today is Sunday and I have lost 1.5kg. Not bad you will say but then it is very strict, so strict I'm not sure I'll stick it out. It's a protein and protein and vegetable only diet and I know I will get tired of it but right now I am motivated and when you are motivated any diet works. Wish me luck  my friends.

Now you know about my diet, I have nearly come to the end of this week's blog post and it's time to tell you  the girls' news.

My girls, Oli on the left in white and Suzy in pink on the right at the Retiro yesterday

Suzy has been looking for a job to earn some money before she goes to London to seek her fortune. On Monday she had an interview with a food quality and development agency called Adecal who are looking for trainees and on Thursday they rang to say she had got the job. She will be working in the mornings only for a pittance but will supplement that with her English lessons to Sam, the Chinese adopted son of friends of ours who live nearby. It is a start on the professional ladder and I wish her lots of luck. She'll be starting on Tuesday, the day before the General Strike in Spain.

Oli is entering the final phase of her practice contract with The Spanish TV Corporation is very strict about hiring people and has lots of rules and regulations which mean they cannot keep her on even if her department wanted to. Meanwhile she has been to interviews with the Cadena Ser radio and La Sexta websites. She is also thinking of doing a master degree in television for which there is an exam just to get in. However on Friday she received a message from her boss to say there would be an internal exam to apply for a full time job where she is working now. The application procedure involves a big exam in general knowledge and politics, etc for which there is no set curriculum to study. Her teacher is going to be her Father, of course, the most cultured and knowledgeable person she could ever find. The exam will take place within the next month and I wish her all the luck in the world too.

The girls have studied hard, speak good English, are outgoing, good looking, lots of other good things too but are part of a generation that have become adults just at a time when it is very difficult to find a job or rather a job that pays well. Without a decent salary young people today cannot leave home; they depend on their families and parents and although all their needs are covered for, the one thing they crave, independence, is at the moment unreachable. Thus I hope and pray they are on the right rung of the ladder now towards that goal, independence. Good luck girls.

On that note, I finish this weeks blog,

Hope you have a great week, me too.

All the best Masha

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Our Arabian Adventure and impressions of The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

Riding on horseback into the hidden city of Petra was the absolute highlight of our trip to Jordan

Hi again,

Last time I wrote it was our last night in Israel, just under a week ago. And now I am writing from Aqaba on the Red Sea on our last day but one in Jordan. Time has really flown and we have done so much and there is so much to tell. So let me start from the beginning.

Our adventure started when we took the bus from Nazareth to the River Jordan crossing which is called the Sheikh Hussein Border in Jordan. We decided to rough it and take the local bus leaving at 08.30. We got up early and had ordered a taxi at 7.30 to take us to the bus stop. It never came, so we ventured into the town with our luggage only to realise later that the clocks had gone back an hour that night in Israel. Thus we had got up at 05.30 and had time to kill on the deserted streets of Nazareth before we could finally board the bus.

The drive to the border took only 45 minutes but crossing it was another matter. Israel has borders with many countries (Siria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan) but the only ones open are with Jordan, the West Bank, the  Gaza Strip and Egypt.  So relations with the Kingdom are good but security is very strict. There are 3 borders only with Jordan and we went through the River Jordan crossing near Galilee.

Crossing the River Jordan into Jordan from Israel took over 2 hours!

You get off the bus and go with your passport to the Israeli frontier and pay 100 shekels to leave Israel. You return to the bus, show your passport again to an Israeli border policeman and then the bus drives another 50 metres or so to the Jordanian frontier. Here a Jordanian border official comes on board and checks everyone’s passports. Afterwards you get off the bus and go through the next passport check and visa too if you don’t already have one like we did.

Hanging around at the border between Israel and Jordan

That process was fast enough as I have great experience at borders and frontiers in getting to the front of the queues so as to avoid lengthy waiting. We then had to return to the bus and remove our luggage and walk through customs and outside to a sort of no man’s land. Here we thought we would be met by our driver Soufian for our trip in Jordan but that wasn’t to be as only frontier taxis can take you outside and here we met with a bit of bureaucracy. Finally we got a frontier taxi which drove us a kilometre to outside the frontier territory and there was Soufian and his nice Toyota car waiting for us with a cold lemon and mint drink to quench our thirst in the oppressive heat upon our arrival. The whole process of crossing both frontiers had taken just over 2 hours and the feeling we had was as if we had just passed an exam.

It was heaven to get into Soufian’s air conditioned big comfortable car and drink that delicious lemon and mint drink which I am beginning to get addicted to. It’s a bit like a mojito without the alcohol! Soufian, a big burly dark skinned man who speaks fast American English with a Jordanian accent, welcomed us to this country and told us he would be our host and driver for the week. We felt we were in good hands.

Our first night was to be in Amman but first we were to explore some places on the way. Our first stop was in Umm Qais in the very north of Jordan, an ancient Byzantine town and one of the locations where the Miracle of the Gadarene swine is supposed to have taken place. It was hot and we were tired so did not really appreciate the ruins of this town. Truth to tell I am no fan of Roman ruins when they are in a bad shape. I always prefer buildings to be whole, as well as statues, plates and other ancient objects. I get no pleasure of seeing broken Roman columns and headless statues although I am sure a lot of people do.

At the ruins of Umm Qais

From Umm Qais we drove to Jerash which is apparently a close second to Petra on the list of favourite destinations in Jordan. I have a different opinion as I think Petra is in another league and no ruined Roman city can rival its beauty and magic but I’ll come to that later. Jerash is supposedly one of the best preserved Roman provincial towns in the Middle East. I wasn’t taken with the ruined amphitheatre and was more impressed with Hadrian’s Arch which was built for when Hadrian was to visit Jerash.

By Hadrian's huge arch at Jerash

From Jerash we drove south to Amman, the capital city where we were to spend the first night of our Arabian adventure. We were booked into the Kempinski Hotel which is in a residential area and here we were to be introduced to the security procedures in Jordan for entering the hotels. There are bomb detectors for the car and then a security procedure similar to airports. After our simple accommodation in Israel, it was great to be in a clean luxury hotel and of course to be able to cool off in the swimming pool.

On Monday morning we were up early for a tour of the city which was actually only the Roman Citadel where we saw more ruins.

The citadel in Amman
Instead of seeing more ruins in the old Roman amphitheatre we asked to go for a walk in the main streets and here we saw the real Amman. We walked along King Talal street and entered into the old fruit market and then on to the main city mosque where we were not allowed in. The streets are noisy and dusty and you see people dressed in both western and Arab attire. Here we bought Eladio a “keffiyeh”, the traditional Arab headdress made famous by Yasir Arafat. It is also called a “Hattah”. We bought the Jordanian one in red and white and of course the Agal black ring shaped accessory to hold it tight on the head.

One of the main streets in Amman

After a detour to pay the Jordanian travel agency I had used for the trip, Jordan Direct Tours, and to meet Marina, the very efficient Argentinian member of the agency with whom I had exchanged so many e-mails, we set off to our next destination, the most alluring Dead Sea.

We were to stay at the Movenpick Resort, the first of the 3 hotels we would be staying at in this Swiss luxury hotel chain. I am not very familiar with resort hotels and I think this is probably the biggest hotel I have ever stayed at. It seemed to me to be the size of a large village.

The view from our room by the Dead Sea overlooking Israel

You needed a buggy to go everywhere because of the huge distances but also because of the extreme heat. The hotel was excellent but a bit over the top for me. However we were to experience the Dead Sea there so I could hardly complain.

Riding a buggy at our hotel in the Dead Sea at six in the morning and it was even hot then.

The Dead Sea is dead, nothing lives in it and it contains 33% salt and of course some minerals. There is huge business in Dead Sea cosmetics and they are sold everywhere in Israel and in Jordan and they are not cheap. It is 56km long and 22km wide approximately and 850m deep and of course it is the lowest point on Earth. and therefore has an extremely hot climate.  One side is Israel and the other Jordan. Our first swim was in the evening when we arrived and it was already getting dark and the sea was a bit choppy. Sun sets here at 18.30 this time of year so the afternoons are somewhat short. Thus the famous photo reading a newspaper was out of the question! The water was nearly hot and of course you floated but not quite as much as you may expect. When you come out you have to shower quickly otherwise the salt begins to burn your skin. There is a sort of mud which looked like more like black grease to me that people spread all over their bodies but that was not for me. I preferred using the lovely swimming pool above the stony Dead Sea beach to cool off afterwards.

Swimming in the pool by the Dead Sea
We decided to try our luck early next morning just after sunrise and that was really something. This time the sea was calm and we got some superb shots floating and supposedly reading a magazine. The experience was fun but in reality it is much more enjoyable to swim in normal sea water than in the Dead Sea.

The classic photo, floating and reading a magazine in the Dead Sea

We left the Dead Sea region on Tuesday and were to reach Petra in the south by evening with quite a few stops on the way. We were to go by the scenic route, the King’s Way, an ancient route that still has marks left from traders, armies and pilgrims who crossed it centuries ago. Our first stop was to Mount Nebo of great religious importance in the Bible as it was here that Moses saw the Promised Land on his way from Egypt. Unfortunately he never reached his destination and legend has it he was buried somewhere near Mount Nebo. You can see Galillee and the Golan Heights from this point and just to stand where Moses stood and see what he saw was an enriching experience. Mount Nebo has had many visitors for religious and cultural reasons, the most important being that of Pope John Paul II in 2000.

At Mount Nebo where Moses saw the Promised Land

From Mount Nebo we made our way to nearby Madaba, the city of mosaics. The chief attraction here was the Greek Orthodox church of St. George which is filled with icons made of mosaics but more importantly a 6th century Byzantine mosaic map showing Jerusalem and other holy sites.

The mosaic map of the region at the Orthodox Church in the Mosaic Christian town of Madaba

From Madaba we continued our journey via an amazing gorge called the Wadi Mujib (wadi means valley in Arabic) with breathtaking views and steep mountainous roads.

A view of the magnificent Gorge Wadi Mujib on the King's Way

Our last stop was at Kerak castle to see the ancient Crusader stronghold which sits 900 metres above sea level and lies inside the walls of the old city.

Kerak Castle, the Crusader stronghold which is nearly intact.

In the late afternoon we finally arrived at Petra, the most interesting place on our itinerary in Jordan and one of the most visited and admired monuments in the world, “the rose-red city half as old as time” to quote Dean Burgen. We were to discover why the next day after a good night’s sleep in our wonderful room at the Movenpick Hotel in Wadi Musa (the Valley of Moses), the town next to Petra full of tourists and souvenir shops. People come to Petra from all over the world, some 3.000 a day in the high season, spend a day there and leave, often not visiting anywhere else in Jordan.

We heard later that Petra became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985 and that the Bedouins (the ancestors of the Nabateans who built Petra) who lived in its caves were moved out into a village nearby built specially for them. They were allowed to run the visitor centre and take charge of all the tourist business using their camels, donkeys, horses and selling Bedouin jewellery and thus many of them have become rich; though not all. We also learned that more than 100 Bedouins have married Western women. I was intrigued by that idea and bought a book at the hotel shop called “Married to a Bedouin” by a New Zealand woman of Dutch extraction who still lives there. I asked one of the Bedouins why Western women were attracted to them and he smiled cheekily and said “because we are strong”! I wonder if that is the only reason. We were to meet many the next day, whose language school is the contact with foreigners visiting Petra like myself.

So the next day after another wonderful breakfast we were all ready for discovering Petra. This is a good moment to mention the incredible buffet meals at the hotels in Jordan. They are so good that I am in dire need of returning to my up and down diet. The problem about buffet meals if they are good is that it is difficult not to fill your plate. My downfall, not surprisingly,  is the dessert buffet, especially with the wonderful halva and baklava Middle Eastern sweets I so love.  The food decoration was incredible, with statues made of butter, faces made of pumpkin, flowers made of water melon and endless shapes made of chocolate and even crocodiles made of bread, just to name a few.

The Movenpick Hotels had some fantastic buffets, terrible for your diet but mouthwatering

We were met by Soufian who bought our tickets and introduced us to our personal guide, a charming young Bedouin boy called Okalla (not sure of the spelling - he said it was pronounced O.K. Allah!) who played or rather prayed continuously with his worry beads.   We asked him what he prayed and he said that for each bead he said: "Allah is Great".  He spoke good English and had travelled in Europe and was very knowledgeable about Petra. Before we entered we went past various shops selling souvenirs and I spotted a white headscarf which I thought very appropriate for where I was going, not to mention the heat. I then spotted tunics for men and soon we were both kitted out and looking like locals, especially Eladio who wore the tunic, the keffiyeh and the agal. The headgear was arranged for us by the Bedouins and I think we looked great, especially my Arab look-alike husband! We certainly caused a sensation and quite a few people thought Eladio was genuine and wanted to take photos with him.

Dressed and ready to go and visit Petra with our lovely Bedouin guide Okalla.  We looked more like locals than he did!

Thus dressed for the occasion we were introduced to the Bedouin men who were to help us mount the horses we would ride through the Siq (the damn at the entrance). You can buy tickets to go on horseback or walk in but we thought it was much more fun to go by horse. And here you have us looking like something out of an Indiana Jones film and oh so happy.

Riding on horseback in Petra was one of the highlights of our trip.

Petra was established around the 6th century BC as the capital city of the Nabateans and is known as the rose-red city for the colour of the rocks in which it is carved. The ancient city with its water system, carvings, temples and monasteries, which are mostly façades, is hidden inside amazing red coloured mountains and was buried for centuries under sand until it was discovered by a Swiss explorer and archaeologist called Johann Ludwig Burckhardt who first came to the area in around 1812 to look for Aaron’s tomb, the tomb of the brother of Moses. It was an important junction on the spice route to China and India. The downfall of Petra came about from a change in this route as well as the invasion by the Roman Empire and finally by natural forces from an earthquake.

To get to the hidden city you walk through the siq (damn) through a narrow passageway between the tall red rocks passing caves and resting places and carvings in the rock. On our way we met Cavalry Police, Tourist Police and more interestingly to us, Bedouin Police as you can see in this photo.

With a Bedouin policeman in Petra

After about 800 metres you suddenly glimpse the Treasury through the slit of the passageway which you can hardly believe is there.

The Treasury at Petra

And then the mountains widen and the hidden city is no longer hidden. You find yourself in a huge square with the Treasury in the middle. The Treasury is more like a façade as it contains nothing inside it. It is called by this name because it was thought the rich people who died were buried with their gold here but none was ever found.

We wondered into the caves and touched the walls and took endless photographs and in one cave were shown the different colours to be found in Petra. If you rub them you get colour on your fingers and this is how the Nabataean women applied their makeup.

In a colourful cave at Petra, one of my favourite photos

From here we walked fascinated and marvelling all the way along the many paths with rock carved tombs and temple façades and even Roman ruins until we came to the natural footsteps of our next destination, the gigantic 1st century Deir Monastery. But first there was time for a stop at a Bedouin tent for tea and shopping for Bedouin jewellery from young girls who worked for the Queen Noor Foundation and rearranging of Eladio’s headgear.

Buying jewellry in a Bedouin tent in Petra

The Monastery was some 800 treacherous steps up the rocky mountain and we were told it would take more than an hour’s walk up and of course another hour to come down. The alternative was to hire a donkey for 10 Jordanian dinars each. I hate walking uphill and I love donkeys so this was the perfect answer for me. But wow was it a challenge, great fun but also a frightening experience at times as you went up what seemed like sheer rock which got higher and higher and one wrong foot from your donkey would have you tumbling down the mountains of Petra. The trick was to hold on for dear life, even though it felt like your wrists were breaking.

Getting on a donkey to climb up to the Monastery.  Another magical moment in Petra

We had a great guide and donkey leader in dear Hatta (married to an Italian) who never left my side. The donkeys could only go up halfway as there was some sort of construction going on thus we had to walk the other half which was a very strenuous climb.

Our wonderful donkey guides, Bedouins from Petra.  Hatta on the right in dark clothing is married to an Italian woman.
Reaching the Monastery was worth the effort as it is nearly as good a feast for your eyes as the Treasury.

Eladio by the Monastery at Petra looking the part!

Petra was by far the highlight of our trip to Jordan and is every bit as good as it is made out to be. What was not so good was the Petra by Night experience, quite a rip off actually, although the candlelit walk to the Treasury and back was a nice adventure and great to work off the evening hotel buffet.

With a heavy heart we left Petra yesterday knowing we would never go back but happy to have visited it. I fully agree with the BBC which includes it in the 50 places to see before you die, although looking at the list I am not sure I agree with all the 50 places. I mean how can Barcelona be on that list and not London or the Alhambra in Granada for example? I just counted and have only been to 9 of the places so will have to hurry up to see the rest as I am not getting younger, hahaha. Funnily enough Petra does not belong to the coveted list of places of the 7 wonders of the world.  They include: Great Pyramid of Giza, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, Mausoleum of Maussollos at Halicarnassus, Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse of Alexandria).  Petra however is included in the "official new 7 wonders of the world".(Great Wall of China, Christ the Redeemer Statue in Río, Machu Picchu in Peru, Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, The Roman Colosseum, The Taj Mahal and Petra) and it certainly deserves to be in this new and select club.

We left Petra and drove out of Wadi Musa to see Beida or what is known as Little Petra, a caravan stopping place of the Nabateans. Once again we dressed the part and mixed with the local Bedouins on our visit. They loved Eladio’s dressing like them which I think actually quite surprised them in a positive way and they were very happy to be photographed.

Eladio with a newly found Arab friend at Beida, Little Petra.  The locals loved his dressing up.  Me too.
I was equally interested in photographing them because their way of dressing so fascinates me, especially the ladies many of whom who are covered from head to toe like this one.

A great shot of a covered up Arab lady at Beida, Little Petra

Here again we had a great guide, also on the lookout for a European wife. He helped me up some impossible steps to what he described as the“VIP lounge” of the Caravan stopping place and called me an “oldie but goldie” which had me in fits of laughter.  Here you can see how this charming Bedouin helped me down the dangerous and steep sandy steps from visiting the "VIP lounge".

Climbing up to the "VIP lounge" at the old Caravan passing place of Beida (Little Petra). My dear Bedouin guide called me an "oldie but goldie" which had me in stitches.

From Little Petra we made our way south to the Wadi Rum Desert via the King’s Way. Here we were to meet more Bedouins, drink more tea with them and ride across the desert in a very old jeep driven by Hamed who again was delighted to meet Eladio in similar dress. Wadi Rum or the Valley of the Moon is where Lawrence of Arabia based his headquarters during the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans in World War 1. Here we saw various landmarks intrinsically woven into the history of the place and used in the film about him which was filmed here in 1962. One was the Mushroom shaped rock, another the famous 7 pillars of wisdom and the third Lawrence’s cave and personal headquarters where I am standing outside in this next picture.

Outside Lawrence of Arabia's cave in the Wadi Rum desert in the south of Jordan

The drive through the hot desert was another highlight of our trip to Jordan. We rode in an open topped jeep with no seat belts and had to hang on for our lives as Hamed raced across the sand, chain smoking, or even drinking a cup of tea whilst navigating steep dunes.

Eladio with Hamed our Bedouin driver in the Wadi Rum desert, a great chap.

We went down a couple of steep dunes which added to the excitement. At one point we stopped and Hamed and Soufian picked some dry sticks and lit a fire upon which they made some tea of course. It was great driving through the immense area with no buildings, just the odd camel, and to feel the hot air on your skin. Eladio had trouble with his headgear which Hamed had to fix for him but my headscarf stayed fixed to my head ever since the morning.

A shot of the Wadi Rum desert we drove through on an old jeep - some camels in the distance
From Wadi Rum we drove to Aqaba right in the south of Jordan and the only sea port in the country. It was given to Jordan by Saudi Arabia, the border of which is some 20km away, in exchange for a countless amount of desert. The story goes that Saudi Arabia did not want to have a border with Israel. Here in the gulf you can see Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia but cannot cross the borders if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport. We learned later that you can ask the Israeli officials to stamp a piece of paper rather than your passport and that way you can travel further. Aqaba is on the famed Red Sea which gets its name from the red coral reef in its bed and people come here to do scuba diving and snorkling, neither of which we were interested in.

Aqaba on the Red Sea, Jordan's only access to the sea. Surrounded by Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
We were booked into another Movenpick huge resort hotel, rather like those I would expect to see in places like the Dominican Republic. It was not in town but just by the Saudi Border at a place called Tala Bay. We were rather glad about that as the night before we arrived the US Government had issued a warning about threats to Aqaba. Eladio was so worried that we rang the Spanish Embassy in Amman. However the Spanish Consul, who took the subject seriously, told us we would be safe but not to go off the tourist route. Thus we stayed at the Resort most of the time only incurring into the city on our last night for dinner and to stroll around the vibrant centre.

The view from our hotel room of the Red Sea at Tala Bay in Aqaba.

The resort, again not my sort of place, was magnificent with huge gardens and multiple swimming pools overlooking the beach of the Red Sea.

The Movenpick Hotel at Tala Bay in Aqaba had amazing swimming pools by the Red Sea

It is patronised mostly by Saudi families who come here to enjoy fewer restrictions, such as “liquor stores” and mixed beaches, and Palestinians from Israel as well as quite a few Western tourists. As soon as we were settled in our lovely room, we rushed down to the beach for our first swim in the Red Sea. We had to buy special plastic shoes to walk on the pebbly surface of the sea. The beaches here are not made of golden sand I’m afraid. So we swam whilst we contemplated the nearby Israeli city of Eilat, the Hebrew alternative to Benidorm.

Swimming in the Red Sea at Tala Bay in Aqaba.

It’s very different being in an Arab resort than any other seaside place I have ever been to. The difference is in the way people dress, especially the women and I was both fascinated and horrified to see women dressed from top to toe going into the water. I took hundreds of photos of them and this is just one.

How the Arab women dressed at the beach in Tala Bay.  They were mostly Saudis.

One of the highlights of our stay in Aqaba was watching the sunset on the Red Sea yesterday evening at 18.30 which is when the sun has gone down every day during our stay. This is just one picture my little Canon Ixus camera captured of the remarkable moment.

The amazing sunset on the Red Sea at Tala Bay in Aqaba

And now it is Saturday and our last morning in Aqaba before hitting the road for Amman this afternoon for our last night in Jordan. Tomorrow we face our final adventure, crossing the infamous Allenby Bridge (called the King Hussein Bridge here) back into Israel in time to catch the flight to Madrid from Tel Aviv at 16h. We have been told we will need at least 3 hours to cross the border and another 3 hours to go through security at Tel Aviv airport, apparently the strictest in the world. So our Arabian adventure doesn’t end until tomorrow.


It has been a wonderful and different sort of holiday here in Jordan and I will take away with me lasting impressions. As a tourist in one week you only touch the surface of a country. Here you are taken to all the famous sites and tourists go there like sheep without seeing much else. So what else did I see you may ask? I saw a people proud of their country with photographs of the late King Hussein and his son the present King Abdullah everywhere I went and on all buildings. The royal family is much loved here but I’m not sure if that is out of respect or fear as it is a major crime to insult the King. I asked who of the two was most loved but already guessed the answer, the late King Hussein of course. To quote Sufian "the King and Queen are doing a very good job".  Queen Rania is very famous the world over but there are very few photos of her in the streets although there are some.

You see photos of the late King Hussein and the present King Abdullah absolutely everywhere in Jordan.

The Jordanians are obviously proud of their country as you also see the national flag everywhere and can buy one if you want. Amman boasts the highest flag in the world which you can see from everywhere in the city but especially well from the Citadel.

The Jordanian flag flies in every corner of the country.  This is the one in Amman, the biggest flag in the world or so they say.
There are also mosques in every corner of the country.  You even find them on roadside cafés.  Once again, as in Israel, there are practically no dogs. I asked Sufian why and his answer was to do with religion and cleanliness.  Most Muslims pray 5 times a day and have to do their ablutions beforehand.  If they touch a dog it means even more hand washing, so it's easier not to have one.
What about the countryside and the cities? What did they look like? We saw a bit of everything. Jordan is mostly a desert at this time of year so everything is very dusty and dry. Houses are flat roofed and often have water tanks and solar panelling on top like in Israel. The roofs look strange though as you can see the foundations for the next story which never seems to get built.

The people are friendly and welcomed us everywhere and when we said we came from Spain the welcoming got even warmer and of course the conversation lead to football. The Jordanians are great fans of the Barcelona and Real Madrid football clubs and were very happy that Spain had won the world cup.

The cities and towns differ but are mostly a little tatty and full of rubble. The northern town of Irbid, famous for its University, looked very primitive to me whereas Aqaba looked nearly European and a lot more modern and colourful.

Jordan is the most peaceful of countries in the Middle East and the only one,  apart from Egypt, to have diplomatic relations with Israel. It is quite free as far as religion is concerned and the strict Muslim way of life is something more natural to its neighbours. Having said that it is also quite obvious that religion rules in Jordan. They tolerate their Jewish neighbours after the peace treaty in the 90's but still refer to the country as Palestine and not Israel.  Its immediate neighbours are Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia,  Siria and Irak.

You see people dressed in both Arab and Western clothes. I would say, from what I have seen, that women in general cover their bodies and heads a lot, more  than those who don't,  but very few cover their faces. You see many Jordanians with blue eyes, something strange in this part of the world and of course the reason is the Ottoman and British heritage when apparently these invaders or "protectors" married the locals. There is segregation of sexes in the schools and homosexuality is a crime. So it’s funny to see men kissing cheeks in the street when they meet or holding hands of which there was much evidence of.   Gambling, by the way, is also prohibited.

Jordan has some 6 million inhabitants, 2 of whom live in Amman.  The main income comes from its phosphate mines but tourism comes a close second.  There were hoards of Spaniards, Russians, French and of course Saudis and people from all over the world, all visiting the same monuments.  Agriculture is also important.  As I said most of the Kingdom is desert but in the lush Jordan Valley all sorts of fruit and vegetables grow.  There are many banana farms here as well as date trees. One sees olive trees all over the country too and they are there for religious reasons but also of course for producing olive oil.  People can take the olives to special presses and make their own olive oil.  It is common practice.  
We loved our stay here and felt most welcome. It was wonderful to dress up as the locals do and ride horses and donkeys in Petra and travel by jeep in the desert and to experience swimming in the Dead Sea and the Red Sea all in one week. En fin a memorable holiday, one we will remember for a long time. Yesterday as we were sunbathing at the hotel beach I asked Eladio where we could go for our next exotic holiday. So where to next time? To China? To Burma, Vietnam, Africa, Australia? The world is ours and we are lucky people.

Goodbye Jordan, goodbye Israel, what an amazing holiday we have had.

Cheers till my next post from Madrid in a week’s time.

PS You can see many more photos of the first part of our holiday here and of the second part here too.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Following in the footsteps of Jesus in Nazareth and Galilee. Exploring the north and more impressions of Israel.

Bathing in Yardenit in the River Jordan where John the Baptist baptised Jesus Christ.
Hi again as I write on our last night in Israel before crossing the border tomorrow morning to go to Jordan. The second half of our 8 nights in Israel were to be spent in Nazareth, the town where Jesus grew up and was later expelled. From here the idea was to explore Nazareth itself as well as nearby Galillee, the Golan Heights, Haifa, Akko and the tip of the north of Israel, Rosh Haniqra near the Lebanese border which of course you cannot cross.

We took a taxi on Wednesday 8th September from Jerusalem to Nazareth and the journey was just under 2 hours. Our first impression of the town was not good. Nazareth has little to do with what we imagine it was like in Jesus’ day. It is the most Arab of Israeli towns, is sprawling and extremely dirty. Perched on a hill it seems the town is on a continuous hill which makes walking in the heat torturous. 70% of the inhabitants are Muslims and 30% are Arab Christians. There are no Jews.

One of my favourite streets in Nazareth because of the arch and the bouganvilla flowers
We have been staying at a guest house in the old city called the Fauzi Azar Inn which is highly praised by all the guide books. I expected a wonderful boutique hotel in this 200 year old Arab mansion but I found something else, a rather run down old house nearly in a ruin with some saving graces, such as the beautiful reception room. We have the best room in the house. It is big and light and sparse but has no decoration. It is clean for Israeli standards but not clean enough for me I’m afraid. On the plus side the staff are very friendly and there is a communal kitchen where it’s nice to mingle with the multi cultured guests. In short the Fauzi Azar Inn has something special about it, a certain charm and lots of atmosphere but is more suited to back packers. The only modern amenity is internet, something that works well in Israel as a general rule.

Reception at the Fauzi Azar Inn, the best part of the hostal.  The rest is not the same.
On our first day in Nazareth we explored the streets, walked through the endless souks which are mostly under a pound type stalls, got lost, visited the main holy site, the Church of the Annunciation and had a nice meal at the most recommended restaurant in the guidebooks. That was Tishreen in one of the main streets. Not a bad place but nothing to write home about.

Outside Tishreen Restaurant in Nazareth
The next day, Thursday, we hired a taxi for a day to visit Galilee and follow in the steps of Jesus so to speak, to visit some of places and events mentioned in the Bible. Our driver was Najib, an Arab who hardly spoke English and who I wished had seen to his B.O. before picking us up! He was nice enough but it was difficult to talk to him. He knew the right places to take us but didn’t want any new suggestions from us.

Photo with Najib our driver in Galilee and the North of Israel
Our first stop was at Cana where the famous miracle of turning water into wine was performed by Jesus Christ. The place was a bit run down and there were 2 churches rivaling which was the actual spot of the marriage. This competition seems to take place all over the Holy Land and is mainly a discrepancy between the Orthodox and the Catholic Church.

The Catholic church which commemorates the Miracle of the Marriage of Cana, the turning of water into wine.

Very soon after Cana we could see Lake Galilee and the Golan Heights in the distance. We stopped at a view point where in fact you could see Israel, Jordan and Siria from one place. I was most interested to see Lake Galilee from my studies of religion at school and University. It is called both the Lake and the Sea of Galilee, also Lake of Gennesaret, Lake Kinneret, Sea of Tiberias or Tiberias Lake and is located near the Golan Heights. More famous for Jesus having walked on it or multiplied the fish catch of his disciples in the Bible, it is in fact the largest freshwater lake in Israel, and is about 21 km long, and 13 km wide. At 209 metres below sea level, it is the lowest freshwater lake on Earth and the second-lowest lake in the world (after the Dead Sea). The famous fish, Peter or St. Peter’s fish is caught here. Eladio tried it at Tiberias and loved it. He ate it again today at Akko.

The part of the Sea of Galillee where you can see Jordan, Israel and Siria.  The hills are the Golan Heights
Our second holy site in Galilee was probably the highlight of our whole trip; a visit to Yardenit on the River Jordan where John the Baptist supposedly baptized Jesus Christ. A lot of people there were re-baptising themselves and bathing in the water in long tunics you could buy or hire there. The Yardenit people must make a packet. The lure of bathing in the River Jordan and at this spot was too big to resist and in we went. It was a huge pleasure, great fun, somewhat uplifting and also very funny; especially when the little fish swimming in the river bit our feet! Also it was great to cool off from the blazing sun. Here you can see Eladio coming out of the water in his wet tunic. He soon dried off! I bought mine and shall be using it as a nightie when I go back.

Eladio coming out of the River Jordan in his wet tunic.  An irrepeatable experience
Our next stop was the Sermon on the Mount, on the shores of Lake Galilee and also called the Mount of Beatitudes which I well remember from the Bible (the Gospel of St. Matthew). The 2 in particular I remember and always loved are: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for they shall inherit the earth” and “Blessed are the meek for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. I couldn’t believe I was there. It is a well kept place with wonderful grounds and flowers and of course a church. Wherever there is a Biblical or holy site in Israel, there is a church to commemorate the event.

The Church of the Beatitudes on the shores of Lake Galilee. Brought me right back to my Scripture lessons at school.
From the Mount of Beatitudes we drove to nearby Tabgha where two of Jesus’ miracles took place, the catching of the fish and the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes. Once again there was a church but also a lovely fountain with fish in it. At the altar in the church there was the well known fish and loaves ancient mosaic. So at the proverbial souvenir shop I couldn’t resist taking some pottery back with this design to commemorate the miracle. Wherever we go on our travels if we see nice pottery we bring back serving bowls and plates to our home; thus we have our South African, our Turkish, etc and now our Israeli pottery to eat our salads off and lovingly remember our trips to these amazing places.

The ancient mosaic design that depicts the Miracle of the Loaves and the fishes at Tabgha
From Tabgha we drove to nearby Capernaum, the village where Jesus went to live by the shores of Lake Galilee when he was expelled from Nazareth. It is also the village Peter was from. Today there are only ruins but the views are spectacular.

One of my favourite photos.  At Capernaum by the shores of Lake Galilee with a view of the Golan Heights. 
After a disappointing lunch in nearby uninspiring Tiberias, we asked Najib to take us to visit a Kibbutz. I had learned about them at school and was terribly disappointed with the one I saw in the Golan Heights. It was more like a run-down Spanish type “urbanización” than anything I had ever learned about. I had imagined everyone picking oranges, living together but it was nothing of the sort.
From the disappointing, dusty and empty Kibbutz we drove high up into the Golan Heights (what an exotic and far-away place to go to). I kept wondering why Israel needed such a barren area and wouldn’t it help peace if they returned the land to its proper owners, Siria. Maybe that’s on the peace talks agenda. I hope so.

A map of the Golan Heights which really belong to Siria.  They are very dry and unpopulated except for some kibbutzes
Yesterday, Friday, we stayed in Nazareth and went on the Tour organized by the Fauzi Azar Inn. Linda, an orphan from California, is in charge of the tours and I must say they are different. She doesn’t take you on the typical site seeing trip of the official places to see in Nazareth. These you have to see for yourself. No, she takes you on a different tour to see the things you wouldn’t normally know about and I must say she did a good job. The only other person on the tour was Merek, a young Czech diplomat based in the EU delegation in Amman.
Linda took us around the old streets and explained the architecture, she took us into carpenter shops which don’t look like they’ve changed much since Joseph’s time. If you don’t believe me, judge for yourselves from this picture.

A carpenter's shop in Nazareth that doesn't look much different from Joseph's times!
Linda also took us to the El Babour mill and spice shop which I adored. It had all the colours and smells you could imagine and was completely authentic. For 5 shekels (about a euro) we were allowed to help ourselves to whatever crystallised fruit or nuts we wanted. As I hadn’t had breakfast I had a feast.

The El Babour mill and spice shop in Nazareth, a find of a place with some amazing fruit, sweets and nuts
Our next stop was to a little Greek Orthodox church which you could only visit on this tour. The gate was opened by a lovely Ukranian nun called Olga with missing teeth. She showed us the jewel behind the gate; a church full of priceless icons. She also showed us a secret under the church, a man made cave built to hide Christians when they were persecuted after Christ’s death (and resurrection). It was an emotional visit for me especially. Afterwards we sat round a stone table under a vine drinking lemonade made by Sister Olga. We were 5 people from 5 different countries. I liked that.

In the Patriarche's room at the little Greek Orthodox church which the Ukranian nun Sister Olga showed us.
Linda’s tour also included a visit to the Mensa Christi church with the stone table (now an altar) where Jesus and his disciples were supposed to have eaten. When I touched the stone it was quite something to think that could be true.

The stone table at the Mensa Christi church in Nazareth.  Tradition says Jesus and his disciples ate off it.
The tour ended with a cup of cinnamon tea at a bar in the old town owned by a young Arab whose family had always owned the bar. The important thing was that at that bar Arabs, Jews and Christians played board games and drank together in peace. We were told that Nazareth was a peaceful and united place. That’s nice to hear. Now all they have to do is clean it up (a lot!).

After our tour with Linda we went on our own to visit another relatively unknown place of interest, the newly found ancient Roman Baths under a shop called Cactus. But that is an amazing story, too long to tell now, which you can read here on the website. Here you will find out about Martina and Elias’ find, a truly incredible story.

Martina telling us the story of the extraordinary discovery of the Roman Baths beneath their little shop in Nazareth
From the incredible Roman Baths where it is thought Mary bathed, we went to see her well, the so-called “Mary’s Well” at the Greek Orthodox, St. Gabriel Church nearby. Again this is the story of the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholics disagreeing on where the Annunciation took place, as the Catholic church commemorating the same event is in another part of the town.

The original Mary's Well at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth
All in all it was a very uplifting and intense morning, so much so we spent the afternoon resting in our room back at the Fauzi Azar Inn. We did go out for dinner in the evening and were pretty disappointed with the choice, recommended by the staff at the Inn, Annai. You can’t always get it right, of course.
Today was our last day and we decided to visit the north, to see Haifa where our main objective was the Bahai gardens and also Akko and the northern point of the country. Thus we contracted Najib’s services once again.

The Bahais who have some 8 million followers, are an eclectic religion who profess and believe in unity, equality and peace and supposedly take the best of the 3 monotheistic religions. In the mid 19th century, the founder Hussein Alli, from Iran, (called the Bab) proclaimed himself the next great messiah of the 3 religions. The Bahais were persecuted in Iran and had to flee to other countries. In our family we know of one such family. Their daughter, Miad, is Olivia’s friend from school and is now living and working in Haifa at the Bahai Centre. It so happens that the Bab is buried in Haifa and there is an enormous shrine nearly 1 kilometre above sea level with the most beautiful gardens leading up to it in the form of 18 terraces. The gardens are among the most visited location in Israel and they are well worth the visit, for their beauty and for the views which are spectacular. Hopefully this photo will give you an idea of how wonderful they are:

The beautiful and captivating Bahai gardens in Haifa
Haifa deserves a mention. It is the 3rd biggest town in Israel and the biggest port in the country. It has 280.000 inhabitants, 90% of who are Jews. There is a saying in Israel that goes: “In Tel Aviv people play, in Jerusalem people pray and in Haifa people work”. I cannot tell you if the latter is true as today was the Sabbath and a non working day. In Haifa we also visited Mount Carmel (a mountain at the top of the city) which apart from having great views too, is home to the Stella Maris Carmelite church, another ecclesiastical gem in the Holy Land.

The Stella Maris church at Mount Carmel in Haifa.
From Haifa we drove to Akko (also known as Akre), another port town once the most important one on the Mediterranean sea. The ancient walls are still nearly intact and the most notable thing to visit, we thought, was the Templar Knights’ tunnels, an amazing construction the Crusaders built so as to enter the city safely. Today the town was full of Arab families sight-seeing and it was possibly the hottest day of our stay. We got lost in the souq (market) and were squashed by crowds pushing their way through the narrow passages. As I went past the stalls I realised just how many of them sold the horrible plastic weapons so many young Arab boys seem to like and play with in the street. As I said in my first post on our trip to Israel, this is not the right step in the direction for peace. Certainly not!

A ghastly sight, plastic weapons are on sale everywhere in Israel

You see boys like this playing with plastic weapons everywhere, an unpleasant sight.
When we finally found our driver we went for lunch to the Abu Christo restaurant by the sea which felt like a sanctuary after the rather harrowing and claustrophobic experience. It had great sea-food but what I liked best was the pitcher of lemonade (so typical here) of which I had 3 cold glasses to recover from the souq experience before I even started on my prawns.

The ancient Port of Akko in the North of Israel, famous for the crusaders.  Very different today.
We had hoped to go for a bathe but Najib was not interested in taking us to nice beaches, but to finish the tour and rush back to Nazareth. The trip ended with a visit to the very northern tip of Israel at a place called Rosh Haniqra. It was very crowded and hot again, we took a couple of photos and drove back to Nazareth.

The view from Rosh Haniqra, the most northern tip of Israel and near the border of Lebanon which you cannot cross.
On our way back we stopped at the top of Nazareth to take photos of the town and I particularly like this one.

The view of Nazareth from the top of the town, stunning
This evening we went out for dinner again and this time the choice was good. We went to a lovely little romantic restaurant called Alreda. They served very spicy gazpacho but lovely sangria; it nearly felt like being at home.
And this brings me to the end of my last blog post on our 8 day trip to Israel which has been a fascinating experience. In 8 days you can only get the feel of a place and touch some of the surfaces. So here are some of my observations and in no particular order.

There are many cats here, apparently a heritage of the British. However I have not seen one single dog and don’t know the reason for that. Nor have I seen any swimming pools and this is a very hot and not particularly poor country. Here Arabs and Jews and Arab Christians live side by side but certainly not together. I feel I have seen more Arabs than Jews and certainly feel this country is similar to an Arab country. I have only been to Morocco but there are many similarities; the noise, the heat, the dirt, the wonderful colours, the spicy food, the music, the way people dress …. Everything seems pretty run down, dusty, shabby, dirty, as if there is no pride in the towns. The country seems on the verge of war judging by the amount of soldiers and controls I have seen. But then we know that don’t we. I have seen countless numbers of U.N vehicles too. I have seen many houses, especially in Haifa, with solar panels on the roofs, as well as water tanks, something I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world. I have seen bananas growing, mango trees, vineyards, pomegranate trees (and juice), olive trees and the most wonderful flowers growing in the heat and humidity, over the roofs of the old houses of Nazareth and on the roads. This country has a lot to offer but whilst there is no peace, progress in the everyday areas of life will and cannot prosper. On the bright side, I adored Jerusalem and was amazed and happy to discover and explore and follow in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth here and in Galilee. Shalom Israel, I wish you peace now and forever.

Flowers in Israel are exuberant.
Bye for now. Tomorrow we are off to Jordan so watch this space.

PS You can see a selection of photos of this part of our trip to Israel here