WHAT’S THE PLAN, YOUR MAJESTY?
guf·faw /gəˈfô/ a loud and boisterous laugh. A very loud guffaw is my husband’s response when I showed him my plan for our Jordan trip. It involved getting picked up at the Queen Alia Airport, being chauffeured around the country whilst watching the desert go by from the comforts of the backseat of some fancy, airconditioned car, listening to commentaries from our driver, and perhaps even snoozing during the longer legs of the drive. For a three-day weekend, the estimate came up to over €1,000 each person—a very good punch line to a really funny joke, according to my husband.
Looking back, I admit that my very first plan sounded ridiculous, and in some parts, even preposterous. It’s like a plan made for Queen Cersei of the Seven Kingdoms, and had “God forbid I walk on sand!” written all over it.
Of myself, I am very, very ashamed.
THINKING OUT OF THE BOX
I blame my ludicrous plan to my ignorance. Having never been to the Middle East before, my planning had been influenced by a lot of misconceptions about the region. Shame on me, I know. Much like how Jordan is boxed-in by controversial countries such as Israel, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia (shown in the little map I made), the itinerary I came up with was also constrained by fears and worries.
Luckily, my husband spent a big chunk of his life in the Middle East and he very patiently cleared out the garbage thoughts from my head. But he didn’t stop there; he took a very active role in the planning of what turned out to be one of the best trips we’ve taken. (I’m almost tempted to add him to the About section.) But in truth, his role of being the trip planner pales in comparison to the part he played in the actual trip: my private chauffer. It all started when he said, “We’ll drive, baby. It will be fun.”
DAY 1’s 350KM DRIVE THROUGH MADABA TO PETRA
Arrival in Amman
We arrived in Jordan at 6AM on Black Saturday after 10 hours of transit from Amsterdam to Istanbul and finally, to Amman. I had about a combined total of four hours of sleep between the flights and sleeping on airport chairs. Despite the lack of sleep, my husband and I were almost skipping our way through passport control, excited for the adventure ahead.
Car rental, car return
After freshening up at the spotless washrooms of Queen Alia International Airport, we headed off to pick up our rental car right outside the arrivals area. Waiting over an hour to get our car was confirmation that we’re no longer in Europe—we were back in the loving arms of slow, inefficient Asian customer service. After close to two hours, we were presented our rental car. I personally expected an SUV-esque car imagining that we will need to drive through sand or unpaved road. Surprise! It’s a ’52 Lancer. OK, that’s an exaggeration. But the car did look old, dilapidated, and decorated with scratches both inside and out. We had to ask if there was a better one available, but of course, there was not.
We’ve been on the road for about an hour when we decided to turn back and return the car for three reasons:
- The airconditioning doesn’t work—a real problem if you’re driving for three days in 30ºC heat
- With major highways closed due to construction, our GPS started to go ballistic and even took us to a road to Iraq. With the heat in the car and the constant “re-calculating… re-calculating…” coming from the GPS, we started to consider that driving in Jordan may be harder than we imagined.
- The A/C is broken! Yes, it’s that important that it gets a second mention.
Back at the airport, we informed the folks at the Thrifty Car Rental desk of our intent to return. In response to this, the Thrifty guy walked us back to the car, showed us the secret switch for the air conditioning, flashed us a smile, and walked back to his desk. Of course, why won’t we turn on the secret switch?! (Please sense the sarcasm.) So, with two of three issues resolved, we decided to push forward with the plan to drive the 350km route for our first day in Jordan (map image above.)
“TOTO, I’VE A FEELING WE’RE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE.”
Our first stop is Mount Nebo just outside Madaba, which is about 40km from the airport. With the detours from major constructions on Highway 35, we’re pretty sure we drove more than that. The drive to Madaba with sunshine and blue skies was very pleasant. However, there was no denying that we’re not in Europe anymore. The lanscape varied from green grass, to freshly tilled soil, to just fields of rocks. The flora and fauna are different, as well; palm and cedar trees line the roads, and every now and then, we’d come across stray dogs, or donkeys, mules, and camels.
When we reached downtown Madaba, the flavour of Asia became even more apparent: electric cables criss-cross overhead, buildings are made entirely of bare hallow blocks, fabric streamers with Arabic text are almost everywhere you look, and old car models abound including, of course, ours.
The Filipino in me almost felt at home.
MOSES’ MOUNT NEBO
It was a little past noon when we reached Mount Nebo which is said to be the place where God gave Moses a view of the Promised Land. Raised Catholic, the place was very special.
Getting to Mount Nebo with your GPS will be very easy but without one, you’ll simply need to follow the brown signs that were put up for tourists. And if this fails, just ask someone—Jordanians are very friendly although not everyone speaks English. Even with the GPS, we ended asking locals to re-confirm directions and every single person we asked offered directions through broken English, a lot of hand gestures, and a warm smile.
At the summit stood this plaque that gave us a guide to the panorama ahead, showing the distance between where we stood to the Dead Sea, River Jordan, Bethlehem, Jericho, and Jerusalem—places that are very familiar to me growing up to ‘stories’ from the Old and New Testaments.
While headed back to the car, we got to speaking with another local who recommended that we swing by Madaba to see the Byzantine mosaics before we head to the Baptism Site. It was an easy 10km drive on one road so we went for it, and I’m so glad we did.
We stopped at the Greek Orthodox Basilica of Saint George which housed the famous mosaic of the Holy Land—a mosaic of over 2 million coloured tiles—showing a 6th century map of Jerusalem including the Damascus Gate, towns in Palestine, and the Nile Delta. The combination of history (the mosaic is from the Byzantine period), religion (the depiction of the Holy Land), and art (2 million tiles?!) makes the visit really quite extraordinary for an unplanned stop.
Apart from the floor mosaic, the church’s walls are also covered with very intricate mosaics that are jsut as worthy of admiration:
POSSIBLY THE BEST FALAFELS IN THE WORLD
Outside the basilica is a strip of restaurants that are clearly targeted to tourists. We were hungry so we considered just going in one and getting a quick bite. Luckily, none of the restaurants offered falafels—the vegetarian go-to meal on this part of the world. So we asked the locals and everyone pointed us to a store ‘around the corner.’
The teeny tiny store, about 5ft wide and 6ft deep, was packed with locals buying falafel sandwiches. The ordering window was like in a money exchange shop: speak through the hole in the glass, and grab your order in the gap at the bottom. At the back was a young guy with what looked like a cross between a paellera and a wok, cooking over a hundred falafels balls in a big vat of boiling oil. Yes, boiling oil. Health and safety codes are clearly not practiced in this side of town but the moment you take a bite into their falafel balls, you will forget your name faster than you can say “third degree burns.”
With nothing but utter respect to the Michelin star restaurants I’ve visited the past year, I can say that the falafel sandwich I had in this random shop in a side street in Jordan, sitting on a stool about two feet from a wok of boiling oil, is the best meal I’ve had in years.
JESUS CHRIST’S BAPTISM SITE AT BETHANY-BEYOND-THE-JORDAN
Full and re-energized, we made our way to our next stop: the Baptism Site of Jesus Christ at Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan. Nothing prepared me for how beautiful the experience will be for me. But looking back now at our photos, I cannot help but notice that the beautiful drive to the site may have been an indication of how special the visit will be.
JC & JB’s STOMPING GROUNDS
I cannot begin to describe the feeling that I got when we arrived at the site and our tour guide started to talk about the time that John the Baptist and Jesus Christ spent in the actual area we were at. To those not familiar with the story, John the Baptist (Jesus’ cousin) used the waters from the Jordan River to baptize people who were repenting their sins and preparing for the coming of the Redeemer—Jesus Christ. Jesus himself was baptized in the same waters by John, as well. All Catholics follow the same ritual of baptism so to say that the site is special, is quite an understatement.
I remember my father (together with a whole bunch of other people) having several photos taken of himself at Abbey Road in London where the Beatles themselves crossed for their album cover image. At the Baptism Site, I was doing the same. Although I do not follow Catholic teachings to the letter, I do have a very strong personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Thinking that I was walking in an area where He may have walked at some point in the past, filled me with an indescribable sense of peace and happiness. It really was quite precious.
Beyond Jesus Christ’s baptism site is a stairway that gives access to Jordan River itself. At the foot of the stairs is the Jordan River—no wider than 30ft in my opinion. The other side of the bank is Israel. When we got there, there was a group of Sudanese men laughing and submerging themselves in water over and over; they were getting baptized into the Catholic faith.
Did the thought of bathing my Hindu husband into the Jordan River cross my mind? Interesting question.
I went to the edge of the water and uttered my prayers. After which, my husband, the good sport that he is, did the same.
THE ROAD TO PETRA
At about 4:30PM, we started the four-hour drive to Petra. We had the option of driving the quick route through the Desert Highway, or the scenic drive through King’s Highway. We opted for the latter as it is claimed to be one of the most historic and most scenic drives in the world. So, armed with our trusted GPS and a kilo of sweets, we plotted the 250km drive to Petra:
For the first hour of the drive, we had the Dead Sea on our right. The calm, milky waters looked very peaceful.
Then slowly, the terrain started to change to towering red rocks:
After two and a half hours of driving, we started driving into the mountains and the scenery just went from beautiful to ridiculously breathtaking. We had to stop.
When we stepped out of the car to take photos of the sun setting and the colours it’s casting on the red rocks. It was so peaceful that it almost felt eerily quiet. We spent several minutes pulled over on the side of the mountain road, taking pictures by the edge of the road. Before long we headed back to the car as we still had an hour and a half of driving left and this time, it will be in utter darkness since there are no lights in the mountain roads.
Happy with how Day 1 turned out, we drove along the dark, sometimes winding, sometimes steep mountain roads of King’s Highway to Petra, knowing full well that Day 2 will be even more amazing.