Wednesday, November 19, 2014

4 Days in Jordan–Day One

Donnette and I set out from Abu Dhabi to cut a swath across Jordan.
Mark was too busy working to go to Petra. We had a holiday coming up, but for that he wanted to go to a non-Arab country, Cyprus. Without Mark along, I decided I needed to do a mid-week girls’ trip.
So I put out the word on “The real housewives of Shangri La” Facebook page: “Petra is on my bucket list. Who wants to go with me?” I was sure I would get some takers. The unanimous response was, “You have to go there!” But everyone had already been except Donnette and her husband Ray, and he said, “Well, I’d like to go too.” Awkward. I coaxed Donnette with, “You can go with me first, scout it out, and then go back and do more, with Ray.” But it was still delicate. Husbands here work really hard, while the wives have all the fun, or so it seems.

Finally it came down to the wire, time-wise. Donnette needed to be in town for the F1 event at Yas Marina Circuit, and then was leaving to go home to Alabama a couple days before Thanksgiving, and not coming back until January. By that time, I would already be gone back to the U.S. for good. It was now or never. I said, “If nobody else can go, then I’ll go by myself.” I would’ve, but Mark said, “You are not going alone. That’s where I draw the line.” Although a solo trip greatly appeals to my sense of adventure, I knew he was right. I was alone in Paris for a couple of days, but Jordan, with its conservative Arab culture and proximity to Syria, is a different story. Plus, (forgive me for saying this but it’s true) Jordanian men can be … challenging. So I talked to Donnette, and she played our card. “If I don’t go, then Anne can’t go. And she’s not going to get another chance. I have to go with her.”

So Ray, bless his heart, acquiesced. He could see, ever since the Halloween party, that Donnette and I have a certain girl-chemistry. We get along easily, have the same drinking habits, and have a lot of fun together. We were both born in Michigan, in the same year - 1957. And during the trip, we found out just how much more we have in common, almost to the point of being spooky. But more about that later.

Mark, bless HIS heart, booked us rooms at three Marriott hotels – Jordan Valley at the Dead Sea, Petra, and Amman.
DSC01278Although we at first thought it would be best to get a car and driver, and Donnette said Ray would be more comfortable with it that way. Then I realized that would be too expensive, and inconvenient. We’d have more flexibility if we had our own wheels. I had no worries about the driving. I drive in the UAE. How bad could Jordan be? There were mountains, but I drive in mountains at home, all the time. Donnette just said, “I’ll tell him later, after we get there.” In the end, he figured it out for himself.

We took the early morning Royal Jordanian flight from Abu Dhabi to the new Queen Alia International Airport just south of Amman, got our passports stamped and heard “Welcome” for the first of probably a hundred times over the next few days, and found car rental row. When I handed my reservation printout to the handsome young Jordanian with impeccably slicked-back hair (with a little flip at the very bottom) who was behind the counter, he looked at it, shook his head a little, and said, “But, this is Budget.” I started to look up, even though I knew the sign said Budget, and by the time I caught myself he was already smiling mischievously. Ah-hah, almost gotcha! WELCOME to Jordan!


Our first stop was Madaba, on the way to the Dead Sea, about halfway between the airport and our hotel. With the help of Donnette’s Garmin navigation system, “Carmen,” we were there in less than an hour, found the visitor center in the middle of town, parked, and went on the walking tour.

Madaba dates from the Middle Bronze Age, has a long and fascinating history, and is mentioned twice in the Bible (Numbers 21:30 and Joshua 13:9.) Byzantine Christian and Umayyad Islamic mosaics were discovered and preserved there in the late 19th century when a group of Christians came to resettle and rebuild the long-abandoned town.
Hippolytus Hall
Although our visit there was short, it was the perfect way to begin the trip. Starting at the visitor center, we wound our way upwards to visit the Madaba Mosaic School and Archaeological Museum which covers and exhibits mosaics of the Church of the Virgin and Hippolytus Hall, and ended at the Byzantine Greek Orthodox St. George Church which houses the Madaba Mosaic Map of the Middle East dating back to the 6th century CE. This amazing map contains the oldest surviving cartographic representation of Jerusalem, and includes features that are still visible today when viewed on an aerial photo or satellite image like Google Earth.
Madaba Mosaic Map
Donnette and I were both fascinated by the mosaics and, as usual, I’m learning more as I research after the trip and learn about the larger archaeological park, the school where Jordanian students from all walks of life learn the timeless methods of creating and preserving mosaics, and I realize the incredible richness of the history of this place, the Holy Land, and its people.
 The Mosaic School has both male and female students.
St. George Church, Madaba

St. George Church, which houses the Madaba Mosaic Map, is quite plain on the outside. But this Greek Orthodox church is all Byzantine splendor on the inside.

St. George Church, Madaba, Jordan
And then it really hit me, that Jesus lived and walked right here. The world’s three great religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – all originated here.
(Disclaimer: I am no religious scholar. Any misconceptions or off-base comments are due to my limited knowledge and are not meant to mislead or disrespect. So. Please forgive.)
Mosaic of Jesus Christ, Madaba, Jordan

Donnette and I looked at the mosaic representation of Jesus in the church and agreed: he looked much like the Arabs we see every day, except Jesus’s hair and beard are longer, and lighter brown. Probably bleached by the sun, and there were no “saloons” to go have it “painted” darker back then.

When we emerged from St. George Church, it was 1 p.m. and we were famished. So we went directly across the street to a pizza place, of sorts. We ordered a couple of pies that came folded over, with a bit of filling, and undersized Diet Cokes. People may say that prices are high in the UAE, but we could have gotten the same meal at an Afghan hole-in-the-wall bakery in Abu Dhabi for 1/10 the price (minus the Cokes.) Then we wandered next door to a shop that sold Dead Sea bath salts and mud mask for facials, among other products. The owner magically appeared and, even more magically, it was the proprietor of the pizza place! Same guy!
He convinced us that we should buy products from his store, that anywhere else the prices would be much higher because he owned the factory and so we were buying factory direct. This, we think, was perhaps true because we actually never even saw any products similar to what we bought there. But really, who knows? And who even cares? Not us, we got some good stuff for gifts and girl parties..

Then we had to run the gauntlet back to the Visitor Center, with shops and street vendors hawking their wares: “Hello, you want to buy pashmina? Mosaic? Jewelry! Come, I give you good price! Hello? Where you from? Excuse me?Hello!” I did spring for a beautiful mosaic of the Tree of Life, which features prominently in ancient mosaics (and which Mark will find out about when he reads this.)

But I didn’t get photos of the great street life. The problem is, if you stop, even to take photos, you are committing yourself to something, perhaps just a discussion about why you don’t want to buy something, that’s hard to get out of. Taking photos isn’t exactly free.
DSC01273Finally we were on our way, over the crest of Mount Nebo – which, sadly, we didn’t realize the significance of at the time. This was where Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land, which he never entered, and where it is said he is buried somewhere. We wound our way through a landscape dotted with olive orchards and goats. Donnette was impressed by the heights, the views, and the curving road, but to me, coming from the mountains of Nevada and California, it was all in a day’s drive.

Arriving at the Marriott, I mentioned that my husband, who booked the room, was a Priority Club Gold member. “Will he be arriving later?” Well … no. “We usually give upgrade if the member is present.” But, minutes later, we had our upgrade to a pool view room. And what a pool – actually, pools! You’ve heard of a Pub Crawl? Well, here you could do a Pool Crawl, all the way to the Dead Sea.
We went down to look at the sea, but decided to wait until morning for our mud bath and float in the salty brine. I was wondering if the water would be cold. But no! It was surprisingly warm. But the Mojitos were calling and the sun was setting. First , we had a couple at the outdoor Oasis Lounge, while watching the sun set. Then it was Happy Hour in the Acacia Bar, where we retired for more Mojitos and a salad for dinner … and then time for sleep, so we could wake up early in the morning for our Dead Sea mud treatment.

To be continued …

PS I neglected to add the photo album before posting, but here is a link:
Jordan - Madaba Mosaics

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