Monday, June 23, 2014

Jordan: Madaba, Jerash, and Amman

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Making our way north, again, we visited Kerak castle, which had been built by a coalition of European crusaders.  Some sections had more ventilation shafts than necessary, likely as a way for factions to spy on each other.  Existing Nebataean carved blocks, as well as Roman columns were re-used in the construction, which makes for some odd-looking walls.

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It was already getting hot outside, and the cool tunnels and dark chambers were a pleasant change from the bright outdoors.  

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Our driver noticed one of our tires was getting low, and he stopped at a garage for repair.  The tires used inner tubes, and the process of changing it was remarkably similar to fixing a flat on a bicycle (with a large hammer standing in for tire irons, to unseat the tire from the rim).  All this fixing of the tire happened while all of us sat in the bus and watched. Well, most of us watched. Lana slept through the whole thing. At this point in the trip, something about being on a bus just knocked her out. 

At an overlook and rest break, our driver jokingly posed when we asked if we could take his picture. Zuhair told us he was an oddity--over 40 and still single, living on his own away from his family.  In some ways 

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We reached Madaba in the afternoon, which is a largely Christian town.  There was a laundry across the street from our hotel, and Zuhair suggested that this was a good place for it, if we needed. We definitely needed to. This was a "by the piece" laundry, so we counted up our pieces, and took them across the street to the laundry. When the nice old proprietor asked us how many pieces we had. When Lana said "Forty," his eyebrows went up. "Four-zero?" he said, peering at us over his glasses.  "Yes, forty," David said. Dell and RJ, who were also dropping off laundry, cracked up. It was pretty funny.

However, it wasn't as funny the next morning, when we were sorting through our clean clothes and we realized we were missing about 1/4 of our clothes. Ten out of forty.  Mildly panicked, we checked with the others, who had also picked up their laundry—our stuff hadn’t been mixed in with theirs, nor were they missing anything.  Knowing that this communication was beyond the realm of the limited language of numbers that we shared with our launderer, we found Zuhair and asked him for his help.  After Zuhair explained to the proprietor, he initially looked puzzled, then had a visible ‘Oh!’ moment, and hurried into the back room, and came back with the missing items.  Unfortunately, they’d gotten left behind in the washer, and therefore were not yet dried, so we had a minor challenge in packing, but we weren’t missing a significant portion of our already limited wardrobe.

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Madaba was largely a convenient waypoint, but we did visit the Byzantine church of St George, where the Madaba Map had been re-discovered when the church was rebuilt in the 1880s.  It is a mosaic map of the Holy Land from the 6th century, and details the pilgrimage sites and routes there.  We also visited Mt. Nebo, the site where Moses viewed the Promised Land from afar.  It wasn’t quite clear enough to make out Jerusalem or Jericho, but it was a wonderful view.  The kind of view that you could imagine history happening from, whatever you believe.

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Not far from Mt Nebo, we stopped at the La Storia Complex, which includes a museum, a craft workshop, and the mosaic project.  The museum was fabulous in a detailed but incredibly corny way.  The mannequins reminded us of the old Forney Transportation Museum in Denver.  There was a mix of dioramas--from biblical scenes to bygone crafts, with a large section of Jordanian military garb in the middle.

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The workshop was established by the late Queen Noor, as a place to keep traditional craftsmanship alive, while also employing local, disabled people.  We saw demonstrations of mosaic inlay with silver and mother of pearl, mosaic tile setting, and carpet weaving.  It was one of the most relaxed versions of show-and-sell we encountered—there were no hovering salesman, or feeling of pressure.  In part, that may be because the quality of their crafts sell themselves; several in our group bought things there.  As we were leaving, we saw what was clearly an entourage, and when we asked, were told that one of the princesses was visiting the complex.  We all took a second look, and she waved at us. 

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At midday, we visited Jerash, which is a large Roman town that has been incredibly well preserved--under the modern city.  That means the bulk of it is inaccessible, but what has been exposed was quite impressive.

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In the amphitheater--which is still used for performances--we were surprised to see bagpipers.  Apparently British military influence in the 1920s led to the adoption of highland bagpipes in the Jordanian army, a tradition which continues today.  It was very odd to see Jordanians segue from "Amazing Grace" into "Yankee Doodle Dandy" on bagpipes in a Roman amphitheater, though.

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Zuhair mentioned that the taller columns move with the light breeze, though so little that it's hard to see with the bare eye--he carefully cantilevered a spoon between the bottom segment of a column and its base, and after a little trial and error, found the position where it would telegraph the motion of the column, with the spoon handle rising and dipping as the column swayed back and forth.  It was a beautiful, clear day, which meant the temperature was well over 100 F, and soon we were moving from shade to shade, and were quickly parched and exhausted.  

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For lunch, we were incredibly lucky; Zuhair had invited us to his family's house for a homemade meal.  It started as a lark that morning, when Taka handed out a revised itinerary that April and RJ had concocted, with visits to the site of Zuhair's first kiss, his ancestral home, etc.  Zuhair thought it was hilarious, and turned the tables on us when he did in fact, take us to his home.  His mother graciously offered to make his favorite meal, which is mandi, of Yemeni origin.  Unfortunately, we took longer than expected at Jerash, and by the time we arrived, Zuhair's mother had left to attend an engagement party. However, his older brother, who had been a guide, stepped in in her stead.  They were perfect hosts, and the lunch was incredible!  This version of mandi included two different preparations of rice, roasted chicken, almonds, and raisins, with a complex spice flavor that didn't overpower any of the ingredients.  It was served with two types of yogurt sauces; one plain, and one dill.  There was also a cucumber salad, and a fresh but spicy salsa.  We stuffed ourselves, and enjoyed talking with Zuhair and his brother, and briefly Zuhair's nephew, who was reluctantly summoned from his XBox game to practice his English with us.  He was in his early teens, and shy, but we managed to ask him a few questions before he deftly ducked out during a lull in the conversation.  We felt very privileged to have been invited in--this was definitely not on the standard itinerary, and we have the puckish members of our group to thank for it, and of course Zuhair himself.  It felt different than the family meals we attended in Egypt--it was spontaneous, heartfelt, and we were definitely touched.

We had reached the end of our tour.  We all went to dinner together at a restaurant above an English book store, and had a wonderful time.  The next day, we bid farewell to about half the group.  Lana and I were staying an additional two days in Amman.  We had lunch with some of the remaining group at Al Quds, which Zuhair had recommended--it was a very plain restaurant, but the food was fabulous.  Half of the restaurant was a bakery, and after lunch, we ordered almost one of everything they had, and that was even better than lunch.  In the upper left are sesame cookies, barazeh.  To the right is kneffa, which has a semolina crust a mild white cheese interior, and is topped with pistachios after it is baked.  In the upper right are some nutty pastries, and on the bottom is baclava, and a different form of kneffa which is the same mild cheese, but wrapped in a sheath of shredded phyllo dough (kataifi).  We preferred the semolina version of kneffa, but it was all wonderful.

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It was sad to say goodbye to the members of our group as they left.  We'd spent 17 days together, and seen some amazing things.  With any other group, it would have been a relief to be on our own again, but we had a fortuitous mix of people who blended very well.  That said, we really did enjoy having two completely unscripted days in Amman; we'd been on a schedule for 5 weeks, between Madagascar, Egypt, and Jordan. The only fixed thing we had to do was ship things home.  We'd planned on making a shipment from Amman, as they have a very reliable postal system.  It was also one of the most friendly post office visits we had on our trip.  We left with our bags 10 pounds lighter, and we felt very free (most of the weight was our snorkel gear, last used in the Red Sea in Nuweiba, as well as the underwater housing for the medium camera).

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One of our last meals in Amman was not anything expensive, or flashy, but it was stellar. We wandered up and down a street filled with restaurants and shops, checking all the menus.  Everyone waved, everyone tried to cajole us, but that isn't as persuasive to us as it used to be.  But this guy, sitting on his stoop, smiled at us when we went one way, and waved when we went back the other way. No surprise--we decided to come back to the saaj place. The griddle is the saaj, and so is the wrap.  David is a big fan of any kind of dough, especially flatbread, so he documented the production. The flatbread gets stretched over the pillow on the table, then cooked on the large round griddle.

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The end result was delicious.  And just as great were the conversations we had with the guy making the saaj. We didn't speak much of a common language, but he knew we were appreciative and we knew he was glad we'd come in.  

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The next morning, we would fly to Istanbul, via Cairo (Syria not being a viable route any longer).  While we were very excited about Turkey, we were already feeling nostalgic about Jordan.  The people, sites, and food had been exceptional.  Our experiences in Egypt and Jordan, and more so, our interactions with Mudi and Zuhair had really made us think differently about this part of the world.