We have both visited Jordan in the last 18 months, independently and although seeing some of the same sights, the over arching aims of our respective trips were different.
I had a fantastic trip in April 2014 visiting an old school friend of mine in Amman. Arabella has been living in Jordan permanently for a couple of years with her husband Abed.
Using Amman as a base, my friend Chloe and I spent our first day floating in the Dead Sea and covering ourselves in its healing mud. This was following a rather interesting journey involving a public bus, a dead chicken and a round-about route to ten small villages in the surrounding area. After a frantic conversation with the non-English speaking bus driver we finally disembarked on a local beach and then spent the next hour walking along the motorway in the searing midday heat trying to find a more suitable swimming location.
My advice…get a taxi from Amman and find a nice hotel to spend a relaxing day. The hotels are set up for tourists and have swimming pools, cafes and the beaches are clean. You can also wear a bikini.
Our next couple of days were spent hiking around Petra pretending we were in Indiana Jones and camping out in a Bedouin tent in Wadi Rum.
As Pete has given a comprehensive overview of his time doing pretty much the same route as us in his piece I thought it would be interesting to ask my friend Arabella a series of questions about life in Amman and Jordan more generally, providing us with a little glimpse into local life and even some tips for travellers:
How and where did you and Abed meet?
One afternoon, while I was staying in Jordan, I was wandering down one of the roads that come off Paris Circle in the popular and old-town Jebel Al-Webdeh, believing myself to be heading back into the balad (downtown) where my hostel was. There used to be only one little mini-market on this road, a little way down from the circle, so I thought to stop in and double check I was going in the right direction. When I entered the shop, a young man was sitting at the cashier with his knees in front of him, playing on his phone. With confidence I began my salutations in awful Arabic and asked if this was the direction to Hashem’s restaurant. The man had sat up respectfully but there was laughter in his face as he listened without interruption. It wasn’t until I gave up speaking Arabic and asked if he spoke English, that he replied, in fluent English, asking why I didn’t take a taxi back. When I said I’d rather walk, he offered to pay and I refused. A telephone call interrupted, after which he offered me Nescafe 3-in-1 sitting on the chair beside him before he would drive me home once his father finished sleeping in the inventory downstairs. Abed did drive me home to the hostel, but only via a McDonalds way out in Abdoun on the pretence he was hungry, and a long walk around Abdoun once we’d eaten as evening drew in.
How long have you been living in Jordan?
Permanently, for 2 years and 3 months.
How important is it for visitors to speak some Arabic?
In many parts of Jordan, especially the parts of Amman and the rest of the country you are most likely to see as a tourist, you will find people who can speak good enough English to give you basic directions, etc. In the old parts of Amman populated by artists, galleries, modern coffee shops such as Jebel Amman and Jebel Al-Webdeh, you will find the majority of people speaking English be they Arab or Western. In general, a large proportion of the younger generations, notably those who have completed a university education can speak English pretty much fluently. However, like everywhere, learning a few of the basic words of greeting and politesse will likely warm local people to you, especially those who know no English at all. And like everywhere, the more you know, the more you will be able to communicate directly and in depth with local people living in areas less affected by tourism, international education etc.
Where in Amman would you recommend staying?
For those on a relatively low budget and not too fussy about personal space, luxury settings, I will always recommend the Cliff hostel, where I lived a happy two months when I first met Abed. The Cliff hostel is located downtown, opposite the famous Hashem’s restaurant, in the thick of the sounds, smells, colours of the balad, which never sleeps. The people running the hostel are friendly and helpful and have a wonderful sense of humour and other guests are eclectic, often eccentric with fascinating stories. Otherwise, very close by (50m or so), but more up-market in price and facilities is the newly opened Art Hotel, which is professional and clean and often houses art or handicraft exhibitions in the hallway. In general, I would recommend staying in the balad or in Jebel-Al Webdeh for the buzz that you will be based in, especially in the former.
What is your favourite place to eat in Amman (aside from Hashem’s)?
We don’t eat out much, so I don’t know that many places. However, aside from Hashem’s, I would recommend ‘Jasmine House‘ in Jebel Al-Webdeh. Jasmine House was opened about a year ago, founded by photographer, Sami Haven. The house itself is a beautifully constructed and delicately decorated gallery/art-house/Italian bistro, serving exquisite Italian dishes using fresh and local ingredients. Prices are somewhat higher than Hashem’s, though this is to be expected in Jebel Al-Webdeh’s more international food places. Then there is another wonderful place I have recently discovered, tucked in the hillside below Rainbow Street, that sells good hearty and delicious Palestinian and Iraqi food. If I can find the name, I’ll let you know.
Have you travelled in Jordan and if so, where?
Yes, we have. In the north, we have been to Ajloun (including the castle from which you have an excellent view of Palestine as well as the North of Jordan) and Jerash (including the Roman ruins). Both places and the countryside in between are stunning. The Ajloun nature reserve is also a beautiful place to walk around. We have been numerous times to the Dead Sea, which is so close to Amman and so often the venue for conferences, retreats and filmings. We explored the wadis that go inland from the Dead Sea, before one reaches the famous Wadi Mujib, walking through the mineral water and incredible rock formations created. We have been to Madaba to see the various mosaics, up to the top of Mount Nebo and to the Baptism site on the River Jordan. We travelled across the desert to the Azraq Water Reserve, passing by the numerous old castles on the way. Then further to the south, we have been to Petra, spent the night camping in Wadi Rum and passed a few hours in the baking town of Aqaba. One of our favourite locations has been the Dana nature reserve, one of the most stunning places of serenity and a place that seems to have remained since the era of the dinosaurs.
What would you recommend seeing in Amman?
Obviously the citadel and the roman amphitheatre are sites to be seen from a distance and from up close. The Roman theatre is a place full of life in the evenings, often with live performances on the steps or in the great stone area lined with pillars stretching out before it. Otherwise, the relatively new Jordan museum has been recommended as a very clean and thorough presentation of the history of this land, though I have not yet been myself. In general, Amman – old Amman – is a stunning place to walk about, with old stone staircases weaving themselves up and down the seven hills of the original city. In the evenings, the colours and sounds of the market in the balad are beautiful; and there is one old bookshop not far from the amphitheatre, behind the market and Husseini mosque… It looks like a corner of pavement squatted by way of old rugs made into a sagging tent over makeshift shelves of books. This is a bookshop owned by a wonderful man who speaks only in ‘Fus-Ha’, modern standard Arabic, instead of the colloquial spoken by people every day. His books are in all languages and many date back nearly a century if not more. He himself is a fountain of poetry, stories and songs which he can accompany by oud or piano.
Any advice for single female travelers to Jordan?
While not nearly as aggressive and pervasive as the harassment sadly so common now in Egypt, female travelers in Jordan would do best to observe the cultural codes of dress: long sleeves, trousers or long skirts, high neckline, non-transparent clothing, no bra-straps showing. There are places in Amman where you will find many women dressed as in any of the capital cities of Europe; and at the Dead Sea, the hotels allow and protect a liberal beach culture in which women can wear bathing suits and bikinis without risk of hassle. Elsewhere, however, it is best to dress conservatively both to avoid additional stares and hassle from young men, and for the sake of respecting the local culture and earning their respect. In terms of greeting, the traditional mode of greeting is (between women, or between men – not between a man and a woman) one kiss on the right cheek, and 3, 4, 5 or more kisses on the left cheek. Between men and women, I would recommend waiting to see how the person you are addressing offers to greet you: with a hand-shake or without. More conservative Muslim men and women will not shake the hands of persons of the opposite gender who are not related to them. In general avoid physical contact. Always sit in the backseat when taking taxis even if the taxi driver invites you to sit in the front. For both men and women, using a loud voice or laughing loudly in public is often considered immodest and disrespectful to people around (although you will certainly find these subtleties largely ignored in certain places especially by men) – like you are trying to draw attention to yourself. None of this means you have to be meek, docile, accepting; you will find some really strong women here, who will not accept for a second disrespect.
What’s the one thing that you, as a local, would say that everyone should do, that they don’t do normally when they come to Amman/Jordan?
It’s a very hard question… A few things that come to mind… get invited to a wedding or some form of celebration. For women, it is a wonderful moment to join with the women when they remove their hijabs wearing stunning dresses and dancing altogether for the bride. You will experience something of the culture of the family, the music, the noise. Even a traditional meal of mensaf eaten with one hand for the men, all standing around the great dish of meat and rice soaked in yoghurt. Then I think talking to people here… Jordan is a country full of people from thousands of different stories; Jordan’s role in this region is unique: one of the only countries at peace surrounded by conflict, occupation. It’s a country with limited resources, dependent on foreign aid as it hosts over a million refugees. It’s a country full of people in transit.