This seriously was a big risk! We had conveniently picked a long weekend so that we could minimize using more leave days than we had to. We had booked our tickets way in advance and my visa took a total of three months to be ready, it the longest I’ve ever had to wait for a visa. But it was understandable, they were are war, their president had strapped himself in a fighter jet was leading airstrikes against the crazy terrorist group of Iraq and Syria. Their country was in a heightened state of alert and risky according to the popular international news circles. The media were scaring the crap out of those who were not in the country. I thought there was a chance of us being kidnapped. Vika’s parents were obviously freaking out, our friend Natasha who came with us had her mom on the phone all the time to make sure she was ok. Well for me, I was going to tell my parents I was there only when I had gotten there. I had emailed them a copy of my life insurance the night before anyways 🙂 We had everything booked and it was too late to turn back now. One thing we were sure of was that we were going to be in awe of everything we were going to see.
Landed safely, I had the usual hiccups with immigration, I’m usually the first Cameroonian some immigration officers have seen or heard of. This usually requires additional checks for me, two or more officers need to confirm my passport and visa are valid and whatever other checks they had to do. Something which deeply troubles Vika but something I have made my peace with and educate every eager person about me and where I come from. Passport stamped, got through and our driver was there waiting for us with a sign across the rail. So I’m rushing towards him and then I see another sign which read “Mahalos” and hear a familiar voice calling from that direction. I can’t believe it, I know that sign and that voice, I look again and it’s my best friend waiting for us. I immediately became ecstatic and jumped over the rails and we start hugging and almost throw ourselves on the floor. I hadn’t seen him in about 7 months and had no clue he was coming. I had asked if he could but he was all the way in china and couldn’t make it yet there he was. Vika had secretly arranged with him to join us on the trip and surprise the rest of us at the airport. This is a guy I had met in India over 4 years ago and we shared some of the best experiences in my life together. One of the most chilled people I know and one who wouldn’t stop at anything to get what he wants. Just a year earlier I was transiting through Istanbul and had a 12 hour layover. He’s Turkish and set out to meet me at the airport as I was not allowed to leave. He managed to get to the airport without his passport and talked his was through all the checkpoints to meet me in the transit area under supervision! It was mind blowing how he achieved that but such is his determination. We have since grown into best buddies and still going crazy 6 years on. I’m still in my ecstatic state as we drive through the city to our hotel and just noticed it was a bit freezing. It was chilly but ok. We dropped our bags, prepped ourselves for adventure while the driver returned to the airport to pick up two more of our friends who were arriving. It was a happy reunion. We forgot the risk we had taken to get here and just chatted away. All six of us coming from different countries had met in India a few years back and developed this strong bond which is still going on till today. When we meet its talking, cracking jokes and dancing away into the night. We are like dolls with switches, we get into play mode, dancing mode, deep talking mode, rest mode, all the friend modes you can think of.
We set out to explore the city, our driver was excellent. We told him we wanted our trip to be remembered as the least touristy one in terms of food and wanted to eat local food at the best places in the city of Amman. He took us to one of the oldest known restaurants in the city called Hashim. The humus and falafel here are legendary. The restaurant wasn’t hidden but you could tell it was really old, broken tables and chairs, reconstructed walls et all. Our driver Marwan helped us place the order as non of us spoke Arabic. We pleaded with him not to order too much as we wanted to have lunch at another place. He placed the order and within minutes the food started arriving in trays hot from the oven. We started eating and about three minutes later, more food arrived. We just kept on eating, and more kept on coming, humus, bread, falafel, tea, repeat! That’s all they had and that’s all we ate satisfactorily. We weren’t sure how we were going to have lunch at lunch time because we had greedily packed our stomach with all the food we could eat at Hashim. We visited the main touristic sites in the city, starting with the remains of the Roman theatre at the centre which left us in awe. It was massive and I still ponder how the people who addressed the crowds here did with no microphones or public announcement systems. I believe it was a job you had to be born to do and that is why most of the people who did were really great orators and had such a huge influence with the people of their time. We walked around it for a bit, turned down offers from people trying to get us to pay them to tell us more about the place. Soon after, we got into play mode, we decided to go to the very top of the theatre. This, however was not an easy feat, the steps were very steep but it was fun going up and when we finally did, cameras and phones came out, we took a bunch of funny pictures for a bit and then turned around to see the view from the top and it was truly amazing. Everyone sat in their own space, recovering and at the same time observing the theatre from above, picturing how it would have looked like if we were watching one of the romans addressing the Jordanian people. It still baffles me though how they accomplished it. After a while we begun our descent which was another funny task, the guys macho spirits came alive and it was a fairly easy task but then we had to slow down to help the ladies get down too.
Our next stop was the Citadel. I enjoyed the short drive up there and engaged in conversation with Marwan. I asked him how the city had changed since the start of the nearby war. He told us they are a peaceful country and have accepted millions of refugees, it has changed the dynamics of the city but they were happy to help. He spoke of how everyone was free to practice their religion and how great Jordanian people were. I asked him about his family and he told us he had two beautiful daughters who meant the world to him. you can tell how much people love someone or something when they talk about them. His face lit up as he spoke about his girls, you could literally see him looking at them by the way he spoke. You could see and hear the memories running through his words and the brimming smile on his face. He looked like a very loving and engaging father who would do anything for his daughters. They brought him life and joy. He told me that was his life’s purpose and I believed him. Who wouldn’t be proud to have two amazing girls?
We reached the citadel and it was going to be hike around as well. We got our tickets and walked in. It was also in ruins but had guide posts from which we could read about the place or area we were in. A gentleman walked up to us, introduced himself and told us he could guide us along and tell us more about the citadel. We were going to say no at first till he told us this was the job he was doing was for a good cause. We signed up with him and he gave a brilliant tour of the citadel. The number of times it had been destroyed and rebuilt, the legend of Hercules and remains from broken statues to back up the claim he actually existed which was quite intriguing. The tour lasted about two hours of which we saw so many broken stones, bones, mummies, burial pods and chambers. We finished at a place which was one of the highest points of the city and had a beautiful view of part of Amman. It was built on small hills and the houses looked like they were stacked on each other in a nice way. We were hungry again and put Marwan up to the task of finding another local place for us to feast at which he gladly did. Natasha, the foodie of our group had being talking non-stop about the mansaf. She had done so much research on it and just couldn’t stop asking when we were going to have it. It is the national dish of Jordan which comprises of lamb cooked in a sauce of fermented dried yogurt served with rice and bread. Marwan found a place for us and we all ordered mansaf. What we didn’t know was that the portions were massive!! When the first two plates arrived we knew we were in trouble. Vika doesn’t tolerate me not finishing my food, if you ordered it, you ate it and you finish it. That was her rule about food. I’ve gotten into trouble so many times for not cleaning out my plate. We had to cancel two of the six plates we had ordered. The mansaf truly did live up to the taste Natasha had been telling us about. It wasn’t similar to anything I had had before and came with its mouth senses explosions which I did like. So there we were again and had managed to get induce ourselves into yet another food coma on the first day of the trip. We waited it out and then headed back to our hotel to rest a little and prepare for a night out in the city.
Marwan came by and we drove to the city centre and just walked around for a while, checking out stuff and chatting amongst ourselves and cracking jokes and poking one another. I spotted a small target practice shop and decided we try to shoot some rounds. So there was this one time in Singapore where Vika and I were watching a movie and they kept on referring to an AK and she asked me what it was. I paused the movie and went into teacher mode to give her what was my understanding of the AK-47. I graciously told her how it was the best thing that had probably come out of her country Russia according to some and went to explain more. It was the kind of explanation you finish and expect a clap or some kind of approval of your brilliance. She just looked at me and I was baffled as asked why she was not impressed, to which she replied “I know how to dismantle, assemble, load and fire rounds with an AK-47!” Which froze me for a couple of seconds as I hadn’t seen that coming. So here were were, and I wanted to see what she was all about with guns. I thought it was something I would easily get, but I fired the first couple of rounds at the targets and missed them all! Then she comes around and schools me on my posture, how to aim and how to fire, the method of release, how to breathe, all of that. She knew what she was doing! I followed her instructions and hit some targets while she observed calmly from behind. I finished and she gave me the thumps up with a cheeky smile as if to say “now you know”. We finally got around to finding a place to have dinner, we were still full from the afternoon so we decided to eat really light. we walked into a restaurant-bar and put two tabled together. It was only after we had sat down that we noticed there were only men in here. Not a single lady in sight, which immediately made the girls feel uncomfortable. Marwan explained to us that Jordanian women hardly ever go out at night except on very rare occasions. We pressed him to know if it was some sort of pressure from the men not to allow women to go out or it was just something they had in their culture. He tried to explained and I immediately realised I was judging their culture from my own cultural standpoint which was very wrong of me. We killed the conversation, had our food hastily and left to rest to be up early for a drive down to the river Jordan, wadi Mujib and the dead sea.
Rise and shine, it’s time to drive to river Jordan. Marwan arrived on time, we loaded ourselves up in the car, stopped by a small coffee shop and grabbed quick breakfast and jumped back into the car. Marwan warned us not to be sticking our heads and arms out of the car in order to take pictures in certain places. We noticed there were lots of army personnel as we drove out of the city and a few checkpoints. The drive itself was a very calm one until one of us decided to take a picture of something and we got stopped at the next checkpoint. We had been spotted! Marwan explained we were tourist and may have mistakenly taken the photograph, we had to surrender the camera for the officer to inspect and he handed it back to us. My crazy friend Cet decided it would be a good time to have the police officer take a picture of his own with us. He’s always doing crazy stuff like that and…the officer did agree so he got his other colleague to take photos of us all with him. We ended up talking for about 10 minutes with the officer and answered questions about where we were from and asked him about his. Out of nowhere we had dissolved what was a tense situation into one of exchange of names, laughs and pictures. He bid us farewell and wished us well on our adventures.
First stop of the day was the river Jordan and the religious sights which came with it. As we drove on we saw something small crossing the road and observed it carefully to notice it was a turtle. Marwan’s face lit up, he told us the night before one of his daughters was asking if she could have one and here it was trying to cross the road. He picked it up and kept it safely in the back of the car in a box with some grass for it to eat while we drove on. We got to the river jordan checkpoint, got our tickets and went it. The river runs between the borders of Jordan, Israel and Palestine and is the lowest lying river in the world at -400m below sea level.
Marwan showed us what is believed to have been the exact place where the prophet Elijah ascended into heaven in a chariot of fire. My mom would have loved this! what for me is just a trip or holiday would have been a pilgrimage for her. I was about see a lot of the things and places referenced in the Bible and pillars for Christianity. We came by the river, we had been warned not to try to cross it as there were snipers in the bushes on the other side of the river bank. That sunk in deep and we stayed way clear of the border.
We saw the place believed to be the baptism place of Jesus. There were many other people here all travelling as pilgrims to the holy land. The place was filled with so much detail about Christianity and Judaism. There was however a place where we could dip into the river if we wanted to. On the other side of it was Isreal and had it’s own pilgrims who had made the trip from that side of the border. A guy was preaching and others were singing, it felt like an outdoor church. We soaked our feet in the water for a while and observed more of the area. We shifted from pilgrim mode into sniper spotting mode soon after. We were intent on finding at least one sniper. our search was futile was we headed back to the car. It had nonetheless been a great visit, I took a lot of video logs for my mom. She was going to love them.
We the headed to the dead sea and we were all very excited. We had heard of the amazing once in a lifetime experience of floating in the dead sea and were eager to try it. The water is so salty nothing can live in it and which contributed to making anything dropped into it to float right back to the top. We got there, changed and ran into the sea right up to about knee-length deep then dropped! As soon as you dropped you floated right back to the surface and that too effortlessly. It was mind-blowing! So we began floating, we had magazines packed just for this, we were going to be floating unaided on water and reading magazines and news papers.
It was so much fun and we played for about an hour in the sea , we were like kids on a playground. We had dead sea mud on ourselves as we had been told it was good for the skin because of the presence of an overland of minerals in the mud. We believed it. One thing to note though- DO NOT SHAVE before getting there, give yourself at least two days prior to arriving at the dead sea without a shave. The stinging pain as the water got in your skin cracks is one you will never forget! Some of us learnt this the hard way. Be warned. We forgot about the pain anyways and focused on floating after a while. This was a serious high on the trip and one which I don’t think I can ever forget. We showered down, had some shisha and left for wadi mujib.
Unfortunately the entrance to the canyon had been closed off for renovation and preservation work. We were sad as we had seen really amazing pictures of the canyon and really wanted to hike through it. We later on realised we wouldn’t have had enough time and made our peace with it. We drove back to Amman, the following day was going to be the last sight seeing trip to Petra then a drive to wadi rum in the desert where nothing went as planned but everything left in complete awe as we experienced bedouin life! (watch out for part 2!)