Holy Land, Batman!

Well, today was… interesting. It began with my early rise. A good job I wake up well as the promised wake-up call didn’t happen. I grabbed my bags, deposited my key at the front desk and tip-toed out so as not to wake the sleeping receptionist.

As I hiked up the hill looking for a taxi, a mad Arab ahead of me started yelling. He was holding a plastic cup in each hand and held his foot up, sole facing me while shouting “Stop! Stop!”

“Erm, no thanks. I’ll keep walking if that’s OK,” I replied as I squeezed past. Then he kicked me up the arse.

I turned and he’d stepped back a fair distance and started yelling stuff in Arabic. The only words I got were “hate” and “Bush”. Good grief. I’m wearing a flipping Newcastle shirt (incidentally everyone in Jordan thought it was Juventus) and this madman thinks I’m American because I’m white. All attempts at communication (which admittedly extended to shouting “English! Not American!”) were ignored as he just told me to “Go! Now! Go! Go!”.

As most people know, I’m not a violent person by nature. The fact that I was laden down with three rucksacks and in a hurry to catch a bus didn’t help. Also, the thought of getting arrested for smacking him wasn’t really appealing. So I did the right thing, shoved a finger up in the air at him and walked off. Quickly. Into the first taxi I saw.

I gave the taxi driver all the spare change I had – I couldn’t change it for another currency and it’d be useless in Israel. He seemed pretty happy – I’d probably doubled the 30p fare. I picked up my bus ticket to the King Hussein Bridge (or Allenby Bridge if you’re Israeli – same Bridge, different ends) and sat waiting for the bus. As time progressed it seemed more and more obvious that I would have a whole bus to myself.

As I stepped from the office, the driver took my ticket and I boarded the coach to the border. It was a short drive, thankfully. I’ve not mentioned before now, but in Jordan (actually everywhere in the Middle East) “no smoking” signs are put up purely for decoration. They’re everywhere and they’re roundly ignored. Immigration queues, buses, hotels, taxis… One thing I have noticed is that all the smokers (and there are a lot of them) are men, so maybe women are more intelligent after all. Or just not allowed to. Anyway, the short drive seemed longer as I had to try to breathe through the soles of my feet.

We arrived at the border checkpoint and I offloaded with my bags. After a few minutes as I conversed with two ladies who worked in Kuwait, someone finally pointed out where I needed to go and I had my bags x-rayed. Then we waited. And waited. There were no staff around at all.

After thirty minutes, the bus began to load up and people from several other coaches boarded it. The JETT is the only public bus allowed to drive over the crossing itself so I had to catch this. I found it strange that nobody had checked my passport yet and mentioned this to the driver. After some explanation, he went wild and got me to the front of the queue where my passport was stamped and I was asked for the 5JD departure tax.

“Departure tax?” Oh, hell. I raked through my pockets.

Four JD.

And two half-JD coins.


Wiped out, no currency left but able to leave. I re-boarded. And then the conductor tried to charge me 3.5JD for the border crossing. I tried to explain that I had already paid for the journey right to Israel, but he wasn’t having it. I no longer had my ticket and the driver was currently AWOL. The two ladies I’d been speaking to volunteered to pay the money for me and just as I was accepting it to buy the additional ticket, the driver reappeared. He confirmed I’d paid the full amount and the conductor apologised and walked off.

You’d think that would be the end of it. But, no…

On the bus over the crossing, I got talking to a couple from the UK who were now living in Israel and seeking residency. They were basically on a visa run and gave me a lot of information about how to find my hostel and so on. We offloaded on the other side of the crossing and handed our luggage over for x-ray as we were herded into the immigration area where everyone was interrogated. I actually got off lightly despite getting every single question I’ve ever had thrown at me at an immigration point all in one go. I didn’t mind, though. The immigration official was a very attractive girl (and I mean girl – all the staff are young Israelis on compulsory military duty) who could have talked to me all day if she’d wanted. Or swapped with any of the other three on duty.

*ahem* Back on planet Earth.

Very Attractive Immigration Girl: What is your business in Israel?
Me: Tourism
VAIG: How long are you staying?
Me: Two weeks
VAIG: Do you have any flight tickets you can show me?
Me: No
VAIG: Why not?
Me: I’ve not booked one yet (I should have said they were e-tickets)
VAIG: Where are you going to visit as a tourist?
Me: Erm, Jerusalem to start. And then… erm… all the touristy places
VAIG: So you don’t know where?
Me: Not exactly. I haven’t been able to get a guidebook. I’ve just come through Dubai and Kuwait and for some reason their bookshops don’t stock the Israel Lonely Planet… A friend I met in India will show me around.

At this point, she smiled and I knew I wasn’t going to get knocked back.

VAIG: Is your friend Israeli?
Me: Yes
VAIG: What is her name?
Me: OK, I know this is going to sound like I made it up, but it’s Rachel Meshuggah [not her real name, though I did give that to the VAIG]. And I know that’s as steroetypically Jewish as you can get…

I got in. And I got my passport stamped, not a piece of paper just as I wanted. I’ll be getting a new passport when I get home and I’d rather have a permanent souvenir.

Then picking up luggage, getting through into Israel proper (after around 7 people had checked my passport, given me bits of paper, taken them back off me…) and finding that the money change office was being refurbed and there was no ATM anywhere. And I was broke.


To my rescue came Paul and Eleanor, the couple I’d been talking to. They insisted on paying my shared bus fare (33 Shekels) and when we got to Jerusalem they walked me to the hostel so I wouldn’t get lost. I have their phone number and will repay the cash if at all possible before I move on, despite their insistence that it was a gift. And if they won’t accept it, I’ll pass a similar sum on to a charity of their choice.

At the Citadel Hostel, I unpacked as little as I needed and checked out my “bedroom” which has an amazing view and the best air-con in the world. Mainly as it has no walls or ceiling. I’m sleeping on the roof. Hey, it’s only three quid a night and how many people do you know who get to sleep in the open air on a roof in Jerusalem?

I found out that the wireless inside the hostel is amazingly fast and free, so checked emails before going for a quick walk and having my first Israeli meal… a nice, healthy falafel. Basically, a flay bread bun sliced into a pocket and filled with chick peas, humus, veggies and so on. Rather nice and pretty cheap. After more walking I finally found an ATM as well. In this area they’re either standalone ones which charge like the ones in the service stations and convenience stores back home, or they’re inside banks.

Just after lunch, I met up with Noa who I first encountered on my last night in Palolem all those months ago. She very kindly took me to some areas a little further out where we had lunch, wandered around a market, drank passion fruit slushy and took in some more of the city’s history. I also indulged in some pick’n’mix – the best I think I’ve had since I left the UK. I blame Noa utterly for that.

We arranged to meet again the next evening and she dropped me back at the hostel where I sorted my stuff out, spent far too long on the internet and curled up in my sleeping bag with the chill wind ruffling what little hair I have left.

Plodding around Petra

Petra is around three to four hours by road from Amman so I had an early rise. I packed the bread I’d saved from the previous day, some crisps, some water (highly recommended) and a packet of moderately acceptable biscuits and walked up to the JETT office, arriving as they opened at 6am.

I seemed to be about the only person not carrying a suitcase as every other passenger was heading to Petra and staying overnight. Some to see the city for two days, others to continue further down south to Aqaba. I’d opted to just do a return trip and blast my way through the place in a day. Not recommended in guidebooks, but I’m a quick walker and have a short attention span, as proven in various places before now. Angkor Wat is probably the best example. Yes, I’d go back but I still think two days would be too much.

The journey didn’t start too well. The bus was comfy but very soon smelled rather scarily of fuel. Our driver pulled up, checked something, apologised and then drove on. After another ten minutes, he slammed on the anchors as we passed a garage, reversed back and disappeared off to have a word with the staff there.

Half an hour later, we were back on our way and our fears of bursting into a hydrocarbon-related fireball were laid to rest. This meant we reached Petra a little later then we’d hoped, but I was still sticking to my one-day principle.

For those who don’t know, Petra is a huge “city” carved from stone. The natural rock formations are stunning in their own right, but the man-made carvings which have hollowed many of them out are equally as amazing in a different way. If you’ve seen the third Indiana Jones film, then you’ve seen Petra. The scene towards the end where Ford and Connery encounter the Germans and Indy has to undergo the three tests is set in Petra. The enormous carved sandstone building they arrive at is the Treasury which is fairly near the start of the trek through this fascinating region.

I’m just going to rattle on about what I saw and what I thought of it, but if you want a very detailed but easily readable essay on Petra, you can’t do much better than Petra – Myth and reality by Philip C Hammond written with help of the best research paper writing service. And if you want a photo that knocks spots off any of mine, check out the excellent Panoramas.dk site.

Heading for the ticket office (21JD for a day pass), I got talking to Xavier from San Diego and we decided to “buddy up” for the day. Like myself, he was doing the site in a day and heading back to Amman. Unlike me, he’d made it to the Dead Sea the previous day though he paid a fortune for a taxi driver to do it.

Even this early in the day, it was baking hot though we happily rebuffed every offer of a horse, donkey, camel and cart offering to take us to the end. It seems a common way to view Petra is to take some kind of ride to the far end and walk back to the start. We decided to see how long we had by the time we reached the furthest point and decide then whether to get some kind of four-legged transport at that point.

Shade is granted by an enormous natural fissure through which you walk for a few hundred yards before encountering one of the main attractions, the aforementioned Treasury (actually a tomb). There’s also the first of a million little stalls selling food and trinkets, but it’s so easy to ignore as you look at this phenomenal piece of carving. It’s around 2000 years old yet looks like it could have been chipped into shape shortly before its re-discovery in 1812.

The interior isn’t as large as may be expected, though it looks as though there is a basement area which is inaccessible to tourists. The stone inside is swathed in colours, though whether these are natural to the stone, vegetative or painted I don’t know.

Fending off several branches of the camel world’s answer to AVIS (Xavier convinced them he was camelphobic) we walked further to an area with a large amphitheater, and the Palace Tomb set back and up a cliff to our right. As we scaled the heights to see this building, several of the donkeys in the area decided to have a very loud conversation. Frankly, it was a really scary sound – braying and ee-or-ing echoing back and forth across a stone-clad valley. Freaked me out, anyway. Sadly, I didn’t catch it on video/audio. Actually, maybe that’s for the best.

Back down on ground level, we strode up the Colonnaded Street avoiding children wanting a dollar for a photo, cute as they were. Around here we stopped for a bit of a rest as the remaining section is rather steep. One guy trying to rent us a donkey told us “only a quarter way!” I’m kind of used to those fibs and one look at the map told us he was a factor of three out at least – we’d covered three quarters of the trail.

We set off uphill (well, upsteps technically) and after maybe 45 minutes made it to the Ad-Deir and accompanying cosy cafe. The Ad-Deir is an old monastery and another of the larger, more impressively decorated buildings. The cafe is pretty cool and amazingly not stupidly overpriced. I tried a can of “malt flavour non-alcoholic beverage” which tasted somewhere between crap beer and Ovaltine. Meanwhile, an old man sat in the corner playing traditional music on some kind of stringed instrument.

After the brief rest, we rounded the corner to walk up to one of the lookout points and see over the mountains. Petra is pretty high up, especially at this end, and the view was astounding (once we kicked a gaggle of Japanese tourists over the edge when they wouldn’t get out of the way. OK, we politely moved them but I wanted to shove them over).

And then for the walk back. We worked out we had more than enough time, and sure enough despite not giving in and getting some quadrupedal aid we made it back an hour before the bus was due to depart. We spent a lot of time on the free PCs provided to vote for Petra as one of the new 7 Wonders. In fairness, I did vote for it. I also checked my email and the footie.

We didn’t leak fuel on the way home, though we did pass the KFC I’d spotted in the taxi. This was when I realised how far out of my way the taxi driver had taken me. Nuts. Well, it was his fuel he wasted.

As is part of my mission, though, I had to have something from the Colonel so when the bus dropped me off I shook hands with Xavier, flagged a cab and asked for the nearest KFC. As it turned out, there was one even closer and the driver was a nice guy so got a decent tip. I indulged in a “mega-zinger” (two zinger patties on one bun) and taxied it back to the hotel where I realised that I couldn’t get the Champions’ League final on the in-house cable telly.

Walking around the corner to get some cash, I spotted a huge screen playing the game in a courtyard up some stairs overlooking the Amphitheater. Why not? I wandered over and was charged 1JD to go up and watch it, which seemed fair. It was meant to be 1.5JD, but I claimed I only had one and it was 30 minutes into the game so they let me in for cheap.

So there I was, watching Liverpool vs AC Milan on a screen the size of a wall. In Amman. Overlooking a 2000 year-old Roman Amphitheater. With around 100 Jordanian AC Milan fans (and about 10 Jordanian Liverpool fans). Good game, shame about the result (and lack of extra time).

I got to bed around 1am with my alarm set for 6am and a promise of a wake-up knock on the door. Another early bus to catch to Israel.

Stretching my legs in Amman

I had some plans for Jordan, but they were slightly dashed by the fact it wasn’t Friday or the peak of the tourist season. The guy on reception insisted on hearing “Dead Sea” as “taxi” so I gave up and walked around town. I spent about two hours walking around trying to locate a KFC and a tourist agency which would actually take me to the Dead Sea.

The KFC I had actually seen from the taxi the previous night, but nobody I asked knew where it was furthering my suspicion that the driver had been trying to rip me off. A bit daft when I was on a flat fare. It took me about 40 minutes to walk up to where I’d been dropped off by the airport bus the night before and the route I took was nothing like the one he’d managed.

Further uphill past the bus station I found the JETT office. JETT are probably the largest charter bus company in Jordan and offer trips to most of the main touristy destinations. I inquired about Petra (21JD) and the Israeli border (7JD), but was told I couldn’t book a ticket in advance. Instead just to arrive early on the relevant days.

Wandering back to my hotel, I did check more tourist offices but all of them weren’t really helpful. The ever-present RUM Travel with their leaflets and posh office were really poor, seemingly uninterested in providing information. Their huge “daily tours” posters flying in the face of the staff telling me “no tour today”. Or that I could get to the Dead Sea for a bargain 70JD. I’m assuming they were going to flag a taxi down for me.

So, I but the Dead Sea on the back burner as I could always travel there from with Israel later on. I’ll just make sure it doesn’t boil dry as there’s a lot of salt in it.

Plodding around Amman I saw most everything a person could need. Food, convenience stores, tourist agencies with no tours, “qualified dental surgeon”s. I just can’t help but get the feeling that a qualified dental surgeon in Jordan is a man with a small toffee hammer and a very good aim.

In lieu of floating on scarily salt water, I opted to look at the Roman Amphitheater which was literally around the corner from Hotel Sultan. This is a genuinely ancient structure, constructed sometime around 150AD. A lot of reconstructive work has gone on but the vast majority of the stonework is the original. It’s an impressive building, with a small “odeon” next to it.

The Amphitheater can be seen quite clearly from outside its grounds, but for only 1JD you can go inside and clamber all over it, visit two small museums and see the odeon. The ticket’s valid all day so you can pop in and out as you like.

I stopped for lunch at a restaurant nearby and paid a very reasonable 4 JD for several lumps of chicken, some salad, more bread than I could eat and a Coke. I also picked up and wrote my postcards as I ate and fed a raggedy stray cat that was hanging around nearby.

With little else to do, I walked up into the residential areas facing the Amphitheater and was pleasantly surprised by both the view and the plummeting price of drinks and snacks. A load of kids ran around shouting “hello!” and “howareyou!” at me as I took photos and strolled back downhill.

Time to move rooms at my hotel and that was fun as well. Rather than move me to the 4-bed dorm I was meant to be in, the staff offered me a single room which was fine. Until I noticed that it didn’t have a fridge or a TV. According to their literature, all rooms had these. So I ended up in the 4-bed by myself with a cable TV and no fridge. Mind you, it took us 2 hours to get the cable telly working, but I had nothing better to do with my time anyway.

I ordered dinner (more chicken) and sat and read until I fell asleep an hour later. Then they delivered my food. Grr. I roused myself, ate about half a chicken, stowed the bread with the rest I’d bagged up from lunch and went back to sleep on top of the covers with BBC World twittering away in the background.

Tip – Entering and leaving Jordan

Note that there is a visa fee and a departure tax for Jordan. Both are payable in cash, and I think the departure fee only in Jordanian Dinars.

The one-month on-arrival visa is 10JD, while the departure tax (land and air) is 5JD. I paid my visa fee in Dirham I had left over from Dubai and I’m fairly sure they accept US Dollars as well. This is handy as there are no cash facilities around the immigration area, so if you don’t have the money on you then you’re screwed.

When leaving, ensure your passport is stamped and you pay the fees. The whole procedure I went through was really badly organised and I almost missed my bus when the driver realised that the staff in immigration hadn’t sorted my passport out. Again, there are no cash facilities at the King Hussein / Allenby Bridge location, so ensure you have enough on you before you arrive.

These details are for British passport holders, because I am one. Always check your own details shortly before travel.

Kuwait to Jordan, home of the dodgy taxi driver

Not a lot to do today. Bob was working but had arranged to take a half day so that he could show me a little more of the Gulf before dropping me at the airport. I woke a little later than I intended and had some brekkie before donning my trunks and plodding down to the pool.

There were two other women down there with Aurelie: one American and one from Goole, not a gazillion miles from Bradford. And her husband a devoted Toon-following Geordie. I checked – it wasn’t the same guy I met yesterday! The American lady had two cute little dachshunds that barked at anyone who moved past them. Cute as buttons and completely soft once you made it obvious that a 6-inch high dog didn’t intimidate you.

While a lot of you would have been settling into your chairs at work, I was splashing in the pool, playing with dogs and taking a sauna. What a shame…

All too soon, Bob came home and it was time to pack for the trip to the airport. We drove a long route around up and down the coastline looking at some pretty amazing buildings (and the full range of fast food restaurants).

My final treat was the obligatory KFC in the restaurant I’d spotted when I arrived. Bob and Aurelie probably think I’m mad for wanting KFC in every country I visit but it’s a habit I started and I intend to keep it up wherever I can! With seconds to spare I located a cheap bookshop selling even cheaper postcards and got them winging their way homeward. I apologise in advance for the poor quality and lack of text on them but I was short of time and they were the only ones I could get!

Check-in, passport control and security were a lot better than I had been led to expect. The only confusion came when it turned out two flights were leaving at the same time from the same gate, which caused me minor panic when I thought I was at the wrong place with seconds left.

Royal Jordanian were to be today’s carrier and I was impressed. Possibly the best-looking stewardesses to date, really good food and four seats to myself. I almost wish the flight could have been longer.

Jordan was altogether a different experience to entering Kuwait. The visa was just as quick to sort, though involved a barrage of questions (“where have you come from, what is your address in Jordan, how long are you staying, why are you here…”) but passport control themselves were a nightmare. It took almost an hour to get through the queue and that was with every single desk manned. I had the same barrage of questions and also had to put my thumb onto a sensor thingy so it was registered.

Still, I got in. Only to find that I’d just missed the express bus into town and had an hour to wait for the next one. The guy at the counter became my friend for the duration which was pleasant, and he showed me onto the bus when it finally arrived.

Then things got a bit bizarre. The guy sat behind me kept asking my name and trying to get me to talk into his phone. When the bus finally arrived at Al Abdali station, he said I had to go back to the airport as my friend was waiting for me or something. The fact that I didn’t know anyone at the airport seemed lost on him. I just walked off into a crowd of argumentative taxi drivers each insisting that my hotel was a gazillion miles away and that I needed to hire them.

In fairness, it was a fair walk so I picked one who undercut his buddy by half a dinar (the fare on a meter would probably be half that again, but we’re talking 10p here). What I didn’t appreciate was the drive taking ten minutes when it should have taken two as he attempted to convince me that my hotel was full. The conversation went a little like this:

“I have number of your hotel. Let me call. *beep beep beep* Hello, is that HOTEL SULTAN? Are you fully booked? Yes? Hold on.”

I was given the phone.

“Hello, Hotel Sultan reception.”

“Yes, whatever. I have a booking with you for tonight.”

“I am sorry, but we’re full.”

“That will be because I’m taking up one of your rooms.”

“What name is the booking in?”

“John Smith.”

“I’m sorry, we don’t have that name.”

“I know, I just made it up. Just the way you’re making up being a hotel receptionist. I’ll pass you back to your friend. Please tell him to take me to the hotel I’ve already paid for and not to try and rip me off or I won’t pay him. Thank you.”

I think he got the hint. A couple of half-hearted attempts to get me to go to the Palace Hotel (which I’ve heard isn’t too bad, actually) fell on deaf ears and he reluctantly dropped me at the Hotel Sultan.

On entering, I knew for a fact I’d been talking to a ringer on the phone as the guy on reception barely spoke English. They had to get a guest from Georgia out to speak to me so that I could confirm I’d already booked. Even then, the dropped me in a double room when I’d booked into a 4-bed dorm. This didn’t seem to make sense to the otherwise nice guy at the desk so I settled in and went for a quick walk.

I located a cybercafe, printed out my original booking and the hotel listing from HostelWorld and walked back. They still didn’t help, but the chap rang his boss who did speak very good English. He told me to accept the double room at the rate I’d originally agreed on and they’d move me the next day. That’s fine by me. I couldn’t be bothered arguing about the lack of wireless access which featured prominently as one of their selling points. Maybe tomorrow if I saw the manager.

So, to bed. My third night in a row in a comfy double. Not too shabby.