Similar to an impulse that travels from the brain to the spine and elsewhere, the decision to take my feet to one of the places in my bucket list happened spontaneously. Destination : Jordan.
My random online surfing during ungodly hours of the morning in mid-May of 2014 made me aware about His Holiness Pope Francis’ visit to the Holy Land. With only knowledge of its proximity to my current work place in Dubai -despite the lack of preparation, research and concrete game plan, I found myself with complete requirements to travel to Amman in less than a week. In retrospect, it was like the stars, the moon, and the entire universe conspired, so to speak. I believe it was utterly destined. Budget but decent hotels booked online, a travel-guide-driver to tour me around was recommended, a “No-Objection-Certificate” or NOC was issued by my sponsor and my employer, visa stamped on my passport, return tickets via Fly Dubai purchased, a few Jordanian dinar bills secured, a courage to travel alone on a limited budget and yes, probably fate brought my feet to Jordan. I was weak to elude such once-in-a-lifetime-chance!
After immensely devouring Fly Dubai’s Chicken-Ala-Kiev and eagerly starting to read one of Khaled Hosseini’s bestsellers, “A Thousand Splendid Suns” that I still have yet to finish, and that almost-3-hour-flight, I arrived at Queen Alia International Airport at around half hour past 9PM, May 22, 2014, Thursday. Following quick airport proceedings, I finally met Hasan or Abu Malek, my friendly Jordanian travel-guide-par-excellence; I easily spotted him at the Arrival area, holding a white sheet of paper with my nickname on it, so classic just like in the movies! I loved it! :D
Hasan (whose contact details are listed below for your reference), drove me from the airport to my hotel in Amman. His casual but warm welcome greetings was followed by a string of suggestions about our itineraries to maximize my very first visit in his home country. I surrendered everything to him. My epic Jordanian road trip began the following morning.
About less-than-hour-drive from Amman, we reached Madaba, the small and quaint city famous for its 6th century Mosaic-Map of Jerusalem and parts of the Holy Land. A Greek Orthodox religious service was being held inside St. George’s Church when we arrived so tourists were asked to wait after 9:15AM for admission. Tickets were sold at the parish office for one (1) JOD or Jordanian dinar (US $ 1.41).
As faithfuls began to exit the church, I saw a few people inside unrolling the carpets. And lo and behold, the mosaic maps that were brilliantly laid on the floor were exposed! Amazing how colorful stones from Madaba and neighboring cities were used to create stunning mosaic in the church’s floor and in framed masterpieces. The appreciation of such ancient art and historical artifacts transcends religion!
To appreciate more of Madaba’s stone mosaic art, Hasan took me to Nebo’s Pearl, an impressive souvenir shop where such art pieces are being made by hand, not by merely ordinary craftsmen but physically challenged yet skillful and artistic individuals.
Buying from such shop would not only aid the artisans, but fractions of the purchase of some items go to church as well.
I bought a medium-sized-wooden-jewelry-box with a colorful stone mosaic of Madaba’s Tree of Life inlaid on its top. Some small souvenir items like fridge magnets, rosaries, Holy Water from place of Christ’s Baptism and small purses for a few relatives and friends were also irresistible to pass up.
Traveling is futile without sampling local dishes. I’m grateful that Hasan brought me to the best and most affordable food places in Jordan during our road trip. Even more thankful that I didn’t have to pay for his meals as he eats for free in all of those restaurants we went to!
I was never fond of eating lamb dishes unless it’s cooked well without leaving an after-taste. Luckily, my taste buds were treated to a few delicious lamb dishes I’ve ever sampled! I never found a single fault on everything we’ve feasted! Jordanian-Arabic food was that good!
I loved the Shish Kebab, the Oozie rice dish that was nicely seasoned, the hummus dip, the local salads and everything that I paired with a small bottle of that smooth-tasting local red wine, appropriately called Mount Nebo.
Time was never wasted with a local travel guide, like Hasan who knows how to maximize the day and perfected the art of tour-guiding in his own country for more than 20 years! After my last sip of Mount Nebo red wine, I had the small bottle with half of its contents takeaway, and went our way to our next stop. Where else but Mount Nebo!
Mount Nebo, or according to Hasan, Mount Siyagha, was mentioned in the bible and history books, as the site where Prophet Moses died. I’m far from being religious but there were no words to describe the feeling of being in the same mountain where Moses had his last breath, to be inside the humble museum where relics from old churches are kept and displayed, and to see the church that’s being built in Moses’ memorial site.
The Church currently under construction in memorial site of Moses.
Inside the museum…
Forty-five minutes after discovering Mount Nebo, I was in the passenger’s seat again of Hasan’s car. He drove me next to one of the densest bodies of the water in the world. The Dead Sea.
“Right across Dead Sea, you can see that mountain range -that’s Jerusalem already.” he said.
While there are five star-hotels to that popular beach, Hasan took me to a nicer and cheaper access where I paid 20 JOD.
Did I try to take a dip and float like everyone else at Dead Sea?
Forgive me as I came not prepared for Dead Sea. Without beach towels and slippers, I had to buy flip-flops at whopping 5 JOD just to bear the scorching temperature of sand under my feet.
But of course, for posterity’s sake, I didn’t leave Dead Sea without sampling that famous mud pack. So I paid 1 JOD and a local man selling that black mud applied it generously on my face (3 JOD for entire body).
So while everybody’s floating at Dead Sea, I was cam-whoring with my ear-to-ear-smile with that mud all over my face! It was itchy and a stinging sensation was really irritating, I had to rush to the shower area and removed it immediately. Ugh! The things you do for facebook, instagram, twitter and this blog! :P
According to Hasan, since rain in Jordan is scarce, Dead Sea has been reduced to a meter every year and sadly, they predicted that in the next hundred years or God-forbid even sooner, Dead Sea may become extinct.
FROM DEAD SEA EN ROUTE TO KERAK CASTLE
Moving on with our road trip, the next simple things and fascinating places that stimulated me were groups of sheep and goat, a spectacular coastline of salt, potash and whatnot, breathtaking mountainous view, and stone statues atop a mountain that according to Hasan, were naturally formed that depict the spot of what has been believed to be Sodom and Gomorrah.
A quick glance at Wiki, I read about Sodom and Gomorrah as“The plain, which corresponds to the area just north of the modern-day Dead Sea, was compared to the garden of Eden[Gen.13:10] as being a land well-watered and green, suitable for grazing livestock.”
BELOW SEA LEVEL,
AT SEA LEVEL,
ABOVE SEA LEVEL
“The world’s lowest roads, Highway 90, run along the Israeli and West Bank shores of the Dead Sea, along with Highway 65 on the Jordanian side, at 393 m (1,289 ft) below sea level.” – Wiki
With this day-long road trip from almost North of Jordan, to its Southern part in Petra, we passed along the areas below sea level, at sea level and above sea level where indubitably, temperature and humidity vary.
As we reached sea level, we then drove to ascend to Kerak Castle, situated 960 meters above sea level.
Strategically built at 960 meters above sea level, Kerak Castle consists of numerous chambers, mosques, bedrooms, dining rooms that served military crusaders well during the ancient times. What remains now appears to be a fusion of West European, Byzantine, and Arabian architectures standing at its magnificence over looking the valleys.
The 1 JOD-entrance fee included a quick guided-tour inside Kerak Castle. It was dark inside, with only small flashlight from the local guide, and there’s almost nothing but caves and chambers, reminiscent of its historic past. In contrast, the view outside atop the mountain was breathtaking!
From one castle to another, Hasan drove me over the desert and mountainous roads of Kerak to Shobak Castle. A deserted crusader castle perched at 1300 meters above sea level.
And just as accurately as he calculated, we reached Shobak Castle few minutes before 6PM when sundown was seen at its full glory! My photo could not do justice to the beauty of the mountains in Shobak Castle at that hour. I was told that during winter season, everything’s covered with snow and tranquility.
The last stop where we retired for the day was no less but in Petra, Jordan. I checked in at my reserved hotel while Hasan stayed with his friends’ place in Petra. Prior to that, he took me to another must-try local-eatery where Bukhara rice is offered. We ordered it, plus shish kebab (not on photo), hummus, salad and Arabic bread.
The following morning was spent remarkably in one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, probably the other reason why I went to Jordan. My blog post about my incredible experience in Petra here : http://docgelo.com/2014/05/29/petra-jordan-remarkable-steps-and-unforgettable-memories/
With Hasan’s helpful advice to leave Petra at 11AM for us to reach Amman before the 4PM-6PM Holy Mass by Pope Francis at Amman International Stadium (set last 24th May 2014), we were on the roads for that almost 4-hour-drive early as scheduled. We made an almost 1-hour-stop at one of his favorites where he made me eat Jordan’s traditional dish called, Mansaf!
MANSAF, JORDANIAN TRADITIONAL DISH
It may sound overly ridiculous but I couldn’t imagine myself leaving Jordan without sampling its very own National dish. It was like watching Maleficent without knowing it stars Angelina Jolie!
A lamb dish cooked in sauce of fermented dried yoghurt served with rice and yoghurt sauce; Mansaf’s delicious! The lamb shank was very fork-tender with no unpleasant after-taste, the yoghurt sauce was not tangy and was just right. The rice was perfectly flavored; quite different from Biryani or other rice dishes I’ve had.
After our hearty Mansaf-lunch, at the very same handsome restaurant, I managed to freshen up and changed into crisp clothes and got ready for High Mass at Amman International Stadium.
As we exited the highway and reached the capital city of Jordan, I was not in myself, probably out of severe excitement and incredible disbelief, when I asked Hasan what country does those flags displayed across Jordan’s, posted at poles along the roads represent.
“Oh yeah! The Pope’s here! I went here for that event, hahaha! Those yellow and white flags are of Vatican, of course! Silly me!” –Major face-palm moment! Toinks!
Hasan had to drop me off a few meters away from the stadium as roads were closed to traffic because of absolute security for the Pope. We even saw together the helicopter descending from the sky; must be the Pope, we thought and numerous tourist buses and policemen scattered on the streets. He left me and I agreed to be pick up at 5:30PM, just timely for our dinner together and to catch my 11:45PM flight back to Dubai.
After walking several meters to the gates of Amman International Stadium, I asked the presumably Head of security or one of those in authorities.
“Hi Sir, Is this the gate to Pope Francis’ Holy Mass?”
“Yes, but you are 5 minutes late. The gates are closed.”
“How come? The Mass is scheduled at 4PM-6PM as posted on the website.”
“Yes, it closed at 3:10PM. It’s already 3:15PM. You were 5 minute-late.”
“Sir, I came a long way from Dubai for this.”
“Doesn’t matter. The gates are closed.”
There are more places in Jordan I’ve not seen, there are many other things to experience, I left that same night with unfinished business. Some other time, Jordan! See you again, soon!
I may not have seen the Pope up close in Amman, but I came back to Dubai enriched with new experiences I learned from my brief but memorable trip to Jordan. I may not have attended His Holiness’ High Mass in Jordan, but I’ve seen more of God’s creations and for that I’ll be thankful forever!
*You may contact my ever friendly and trustworthy travel-guide-driver who became my friend-somewhat-like-a-family in Jordan through his facebook page : Hasan Bani Naser or Abu Malek. Please tell him, the Filipino Travel-Food Blogger, Gelo or whom he called, Abu Gabby referred you to him. Many thanks! https://www.facebook.com/hasan.mharebbaninaser?fref=ts