Sunday, October 10, 2010

JORDAN: The surreal and scrumptious


There were endless tracts of beige. The beige of soft sand. Dotting it sporadically was scrubby green vegetation. At times the odd tree, bereft of any leafy cover, stood sentinel-like. Once in a while a camel came into view, languorously munching the frugal lunch on offer and nudging his Bedouin owner. Nothing changed for miles. Almost always, the only sign of civilization was the strip of spanking black tarmac snaking through the beige. This was a desert and as is its fate, deserted. Yet, even in its aridity it held an emotion, offering a succulent quietness and therapeutic calm. A landscape usually referred to as monotonic, felt intensely meditative.

I'm yet to decode how the heat and dust of Jordan soothed the soul. Was it its towns that reflected an inherent peace rarely found in urban settings? Was it because it's a neutral state in the most hostile region of West Asia? Or was it the vibes from its past, of being a cradle to some men born ordinary who were destined to don prophet robes and show the path to Eternal Light?

Hmmn, maybe it was the effect of the delightfully-coloured mezze platters we were served. Or the fact that Jordanians appreciate India (yes, of course, are passionate about Bollywood) and lovingly refer to it as Hind. Whatever the reason, it accentuated the pleasures of a driving holiday across the palm-sized nation ruled by a handsome monarch. Ah, well, maybe I was merely under a mesmeric spell of the blue-eyed royal.


Surface travel is the only way to get a grip of the country and a feasible option is booking a cab. There’s the choice of hiring a self-drive car too but us Indians can feel tad hampered as Jordan follows the right hand traffic (or left hand drive) system. I was part of a tour group that was happily driven around and as we traversed the land, the bright and bold road signages confidently brought home a pointer: a driver will have to make a conscious effort to lose the way here.

Our drive-off point was Amman; a blend of prehistoric and modern, it's Jordan’s most populous city (over 12 lakh) and expectedly choc-a-bloc. The saving grace is its uniform Arabic architecture — typically sugarcube buildings with harmoniously-fawn sandstone fa├žades. This has been a multi-cultural region abounding with archaeological sights and the two excursions from Amman I found remarkable were to Jerash, considered the best preserved Romanesque city outside Rome, and to Madaba, the capital of mosaic art, where on the floor of the Greek Orthodox Church of St George is the splendid AD 560 Byzantine-era Biblical mosaic map made with over 2 million bits of local stone. Madaba town exudes unfettered cheer, offers a host of adventures and definitely deserves more days.

At Amman, the Citadel was the flag-bearer of its lineage with excavations yielding notable Roman, Byzantine and Islamic relics. The Temple of Hercules (mere pillars stand) is its signature symbol but I thought the museum was the worthiest spot, which, besides housing a collection to relish, provided much-needed relief from the harsh temperatures! Among other sites, Downtown Amman with its buzzing colourful bazaars seemed a fascinating area to explore but our packed itinerary ensured we leave that for another time.
To the religious-minded, Mount Nebo and the Jesus Baptism site will evoke a certain sentiment but the places had me ambling through. Instead, I looked forward to the thought of floating on the Dead Sea, but somehow changed my mind and settled for some nutrient-filled mudpack on my feet and face, enjoying the idea of a natural spa treatment direct from the source—the lowest point on earth. 

Nevertheless, I had fun watching the others wade the viscous waters and was amused by clumsy attempts of champion non-swimmers to stay afloat. The Dead Sea, by the way, is the world's only water that determinedly ensures that you can never drown. It can do other things to you, though, with its liquid power. Sitting on the shore I thought how salty could be the waters others were blaring about and bravely drank a mouthful. No sooner than had it touched my tongue that I spat it out: it was bitterly salty and I felt my mouth had disintegrated. Phew!


The scenic King’s Highway took us to Petra. It was the longer route, as usual deserted, but the dramatic rocky topography the road wound itself around was oh! utterly compelling. The drama in stone staged a new act at Petra, Jordan’s most famous site that's now ranked as a world wonder. This is the ancient kingdom of the Nabateans (an Arab tribe) carved into sheer sandstone rock. It's the overwhelmingly colossal scale of rock formations here that give the dimension of awe to its structures, particularly to the much-photographed poster-edifice, Al Khazneh or The Treasury (see pix). It’s a large landscape that requires time and comfortable walking shoes. The entry ticket to Petra is steep (JD 33, includes a horse ride) and money’s worth requires a complete day be spent here to absorb each nuance and see it in changing daylight. We jogged out in four hours, not having done complete justice to it. We couldn’t do Petra by night, either, which am told, is not to be missed.
Petra’s touted as a wonder, but I found Wadi Rum (Lawrence of Arabia was shot here) more wondrous. A desert with spectacular monolithic rockscapes, it came across as timeless and untouched, totally at peace with itself and exuding tranquility. Almost perfect for life in the slow lane, it is breathtaking at sunrise and sunset. Explorations here are done on camels/jeeps/ 4x4s, tents for stay are available, and engagingly, a slice of life of the Bedouins can be observed. This spot definitely gets my top pick: it felt almost "godlike", as is often said about it.

We barely skimmed through Aqaba, a happy, duty-free zone by the astonishingly-blue Red Sea, before being driven back to the airport. In the aircraft, as I leafed through a pamphlet of Jordan, I realized there is so much the country has to offer. I had barely flavoured the mezze. The main course awaits.

Factfile
Air: Royal Jordanian has daily flights from Delhi and Mumbai
Currency: 1 Jordanian Dinar (JD) = Rs 65 appx
Car rentals: For a self-drive holiday a valid Indian license is sufficient, but keeping an international driving permit is recommended. Car daily rentals are usually JD 30 upwards plus tax and fuel. Operators do give a discount if it’s hired for a few days. Check insurance and car condition before signing up. Payment through credit cards is accepted. Reliable car hire companies include Avis: www.avis.com.jo and Hertz:www.hertzjordan.com. Hiring a private taxi for a fixed tour is considerably the best option. Local cabs run by the meter.
Distance monitor: Amman to Dead Sea (55 km); Dead Sea to Petra (225 km); Petra to Wadi Rum (121 km); Wadi Rum to Aqaba (50 km); Aqaba to Amman (367 km)
Accommodation: There is ample choice in the semi-premium category, where the tariff is upwards JD 120 (Rs 7,500-plus). Some suggested hotels:
Amman: Crowne Plaza (www.amman.crowneplaza.com)
Petra: Beit Zaman (www.jordantourismresorts.com)
Dead Sea: Holiday Inn Resort (www.ichotelsgroup.com)
Aqaba: Marina Plaza (www.marinaplazahotel.com)

Published in The New Indian Express, October 2010

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