Amman for the Senses

After the unbeatable highlight that was Petra, it was hard to find motivation for more exploring around Amman, the ancient capital of the Biblical Ammonites.

However, I present you Amman for the Senses.

Sights: The first thing I noticed is that Amman is really hilly. The panorama of houses is an undulating one. The well-preserved Roman theater is smack in the middle of downtown, set into the side of a mountain. Its 33 rows of seats sit almost 6,000 spectators. It’s humbling to find yourself sitting there in the afternoon sun and imagining what performances back in the 2nd century AD must have been like. The acoustics are still amazing. The Citadel sits high above the rest of Amman and commands awesome views of the city. (Take a taxi up for less than JD 1 and walk back down when you’re finished…) It includes the Temple of Hercules, a domed palace and a small museum. Traffic is heavy but always moving at a walking pace. People are everywhere on the street and shops sell everything from custom-made sand sculptures to mixing perfumes to the scent of your choice. Feral cats run rampant. Random observation: Urinals are set strangely high up…

Sounds: Woken by the call to prayer that resounds over the city at 5am my first morning wasn’t exactly pleasant. But as the days went by, I found the call strangely soothing as it rang out at various times during the day, especially if I found myself at one of the many ruins that dot the city. I also heard lots of canaries singing. Ammanites love their canaries. It seemed every other shop had one, two or three of them around, cages hung high up. Walking through the night fruit & vegetable market was an experience. Every seller hawked his products in a sing-song chant at the top of his voice, making for a not-unpleasant cacophony. One sound I loved was the absence of touts. In most other Middle Eastern countries, aggressive sellers hound you to buy their wares, but in Jordan, it was refreshingly laid back. Sellers didn’t seem to pay attention to tourists and were almost always pleasant, even if you didn’t buy anything.

Tastes: The food is amazing. I love Middle Eastern food and while not as cheap as Egypt, Jordan did itself proud. Mansaf is the national dish, meat (traditionally lamb) stewed in aged, fermented yogurt and served over yellow rice with pine nuts and a side of tangy cooked yogurt sauce. Hummus and khubz (Arabic bread, think: pita) is served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A hummus and felafel combo usually was the cheapest option anywhere at just JD 1. My last meal in Jordan was lamb kebab with rice and tabbouleh for JD 2.55 As you’re walking around, don’t forget to stop for a glass of fresh, refreshing tamarind or pomegranate juice. At the really local places, it’s served in a glass for you to drink on the spot.

Smells: Ah, the smell of spices as you walk through the souqs… Lots of spice shops freshly grind spices on demand and often, cardamom was a condiment on restaurant tables in place of pepper. Chickens roasting on spits, schwarma slowly turning, lamb kebabs on the grill. And Smoke. It seems everyone in Jordan smokes. Every cab driver I had smoked, sometimes even in the cab! Everything from Marlboro to Bedouin-grown tobacco wrapped in paper.

On my last day in Jordan, I faced a dilemma: After all that touring around, should I just head across town for a relaxing day at Mecca Mall, a huge 450-store mega mall with 3-D movies in English? Or head to Jerash, a city about 30 miles north of Amman, considered to be one of the best preserved Roman cities in the near East (and sometimes called the “Pompeii of the East”)? While the mall sounded tempting, I decided to head to Jerash. Unfortunately, my hotel couldn’t get a group together for a day tour, so I struck it out on my own, determined after having the luxury of a car and driver for the past three days to use public transportation to get there.

Amman has two types of taxis: yellow for private taxis and white for shared taxis, plying a certain route and picking up and dropping off people along the way. You can find the taxi rank and tell them where you’re heading and wait for the taxi to fill up or try to flag one down and hope it’s going in your direction. The payoff is that rides are just a fraction of what you would pay for a private taxi. So after some confusion of which shared taxi would take me to the northern bus station, I was off. The buses work on much the same principle. No timetables. They leave when full. So I hunkered down with my book and waited a little over an hour for the bus to slowly fill up and paid my 70 piastres (about USD 1). We then puttered our way past craggy landscape towards Jerash. Jordan isn’t blessed with oil as some of its neighbors. That together with very arid conditions (only 10% of the country is farmable) makes Jordan #13 of 18 Middle East countries based on GDP, only beating out the likes of Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

After about 45 minutes, I spot the magnificent Hadrian’s Arch standing proudly in the middle of town. Jerash is Jordan’s second tourist destination (just behind Petra) and for good reason. I was astounded at how expansive and well-preserved the site was. It includes a huge oval plaza, a hippodrome (where chariot races were held) and an array of buildings influenced by Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and early Muslim cultures. My favorite spot was the Odeon, a theater in almost perfect condition. There I shared a mint tea with another Jordanian traveler. Jordanians are some of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met. Unfailingly, people would share whatever they were having, whether it was tea or gum or stuffed grape leaves. At first, I’d decline, but after saying “No, thank you!” three or four times, I found it was just easier to accept whatever was being offered, even if I didn’t really want it! Walking along the Cardo Maximus, the main Roman road lined with columns and still paved with original stones while listening to sombre opera on my iPod almost brought tears to my eyes. Every now and then, I’d get a glimpse of some columns through the trees and it wasn’t hard at all to imagine what the city must have been like in all its grandeur.

After a wonderful morning in Jerash, I splurged on one of the many taxis waiting to head back to Amman, paying for the whole car (JD 4) instead of waiting for it to fill up. Then, by minivan to Mecca Mall (made it there in the end!), what turned out to be a very strange place. Like someone plucked a mall from Middle America and plopped it down in Amman, but not quite right. Oh, there were all the North American standbys: Cinnabon, Sbarro, Payless Shoes, but there was also the smoking and felafel shops and shoppers dressed in full hajib.

All in all, I loved my time in Jordan. Admittedly, I was a wee bit apprehensive as it was my only non-European leg in this part of  my trip. But the people were overwhelmingly hospitable, the food was excellent and the sights were incredibly unique. A must-visit!

Travel tips: (1) Jordan also made it onto my list because you can easily obtain a visa on arrival ( JD 20, payable only in Jordanian dinars or by credit card). (2) The 10, 20 and 50 dinar bills were very similar in color, all shades of light blue or green. Once, when handing over 2 x 1 dinar bills for a taxi, I caught myself handing over 2 x 20 dinar bills instead. And you better believe the taxi driver wouldn’t have corrected me. From that point on, before heading out in the morning, I sorted out my money, big bills in the back to small bills in the front. It takes less than a minute to do, but will very likely save you from making a costly mistake. (3) In Amman, I first stayed at Abbasi Palace Hotel. In no way was it a palace or even a hotel. It was a rundown hostel that had me on my computer looking for alternate accommodations within 5 minutes. I ended up at the much better Arab Tower for JD 20 / night.

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