Sunday, 12 May 2019

Amman day one

Before leaving for the airport we checked out at the front desk of the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers Hotel. This included paying for extras such as items from the mini bars. A porter took our bags to the driveway and put them in the car, a clean silver Volvo, that arrived. The car was driven by an Indian who was chatty but whose English wasn’t as good as that of the driver who had brought us from the airport.

Once we checked in at the airport we had to go through security. This involves taking off your shoes and belt (if you wear one). For the Indian woman in front of us it also involved taking off bangles and a hairclip. An official gave short orders and sounded brusque, but this is something that you get generally in the Middle East, I have found, when people have power over others. A man in a white Arabian style garment who was not clearly an official had started asking people for their passports when we were about to go through to the security area, and barked the order at them as they turned up at the access point, where you have to scan your boarding pass into a machine that is connected to a gate. In fact the screening process in Abu Dhabi is probably not as keen in its results as it is in Australia.

Where the departure lounges are located there is a currency exchange office and I bought about US$600-worth of Jordanian dinars (JD). I got about one JD for every two US dollars. There is only one cafe in that part of the building, but it sells delicious cinnamon rolls, some of which I bought. I also purchased some fantastic Barakat-brand mango juice there.

In the departure lounge a wide variety of people was waiting for the Etihad flight to Amman, including a group of senior Indians many of whom wore branded caps with the name of the company that had organised their trip: TCC Travel Company. There was also an American woman who looked Arabic with a small girl aged about seven or eight years who was very well-behaved and who sat next to her mother talking to her politely. A small child aged about three who was dressed in a pair of bright pink slacks decided to run to the gate itself where airline staff were waiting to process passengers. A boy who I assumed was her brother, and who was aged about 11, and a woman with very dark skin and masses of curly hair, who I assumed was the children’s mother, gave chase. The staff ignored the children. As the little girl came back toward the lounge area at the end of her explorations she stood in front of the other little girl and looked her straight in the face.

Once we had boarded, the party of elderly Indians took up about half of the seats in the A320. The flight was therefore quite full and in the seats in front of us were a young woman wearing a pink hijab who was with a girl with long brown hair who was aged about six. The girl at first looked through the gap between the seats to where we were seated but she slept for most of the flight, which takes about three hours. The plane goes roughly northwest from Abu Dhabi up the Persian Gulf and then across Saudi Arabia. The flightpath, which I tracked on the seatback, was not straight however. The plane avoided Qatar and then halfway across the Arabian Peninsular it turned dead east for some reason, possibly to avoid the Iraqi border. It then later resumed its north-westerly trajectory before turning dead east once it was over Jordanian territory. Before landing there was a good deal of turbulence.

The red earth beneath the plane as we flew over Saudi Arabia was dotted with farms with circular fields where hoses and booms had been set up to water crops. The colour of the earth at this point was generally pinkish, like what you imagine Mars must be like.

The woman who sat to my right was an Arab and I knew this because I could see what she was reading on her mobile phone. But she ate some of the meal that the flight attendants gave out, so it was clear that she was a Christian, and not a Muslim. There had been a call to prayer in the airport that we heard before leaving, at 12.20pm local time. Downstairs near the men’s toilet is a prayer room that people can use if they want. I didn’t see any of the people in the departure lounge get up to pray.

There was another call to prayer once we arrived at the baggage carousels in Jordan, at 4.15pm local time. The Queen Alia International Airport is a lovely brutalist structure with exposed concrete pillars throughout and a triangular pattern used for the cast concrete ceiling. In the passageway that leads from the gates to the administrative area there are broad, floor-to-ceiling windows that face north toward some hills with houses on them. We thought this might be the city at first but this impression was mistaken.

To get to the exit you have to go through the immigration area, which has separate desks for locals and foreigners. Foreigners pay JD40 for a visa on arrival and as in Abu Dhabi the officials on duty take a photo of you when they record your passport details in their computer system. The official on the right issued the visa and took my money then passed my passport to another official, who was seated in an enclosure next to him. This second official processed my arrival, and in a soft voice asked me my first name as I was standing in front of him. When I replied he seemed satisfied and gave me my passport with the visa inside it. When we were about to descend to the baggage area a man was checking passports at the top of the escalators and he had that same brusque manner I had seen officials display back in the UAE.

Customs was non-existent and we rushed through to the exit, where there were several men touting transport. We had read about these men before arriving and we left them behind and headed to a kiosk outside where they have the prices of different destinations printed on a sign. A man pointed to the area we wanted to go to – the city centre – and we read the price, which was 21.50JD. He then filled out a form and gave it to me. As soon as this had happened a younger man grabbed our trolley and we followed him to a taxi that was waiting by the kerb. The driver put our bags in the boot and when we were seated the tout asked for a tip. I didn’t understand him at first but in the end gave him one dinar.

The driver’s name was Abu Zamzam – I could see it printed on a sticker affixed to the inside of the windscreen – and we left the airport in his 15-year-old Hyundai sedan at 4.20pm local time, heading south. The way of getting about in a car in Jordan made sense once we arrived in the rather chaotic city centre but at 100km an hour on an open road it can be a bit unnerving for the uninitiated, and this was in stark contrast to Abu Dhabi, where the drivers we used spoke English and behaved impeccably behind the wheel in relation to other road users. Mr Abu Zamzam used his phone to look up the hotel and then followed the route it supplied him with, taking a series of different roads to get to Hashemi Street. At one traffic light when we stopped outside the city a man with very dark skin came down through the parked vehicles carrying a bag of what turned out to be packets of tissues, touting to drivers and passengers in the stationary vehicles. Our driver told us what he was selling and that it cost JD1 for three packets.

On Hashemi Street the traffic was atrocious and the driver said, “Traffic,” with a subtle yet dramatic note in his voice. Then he shortly afterward said, “One hundred metres.” It was not easy to know what he referred to. The traffic? We passed a ruin and he said, “Roman.” It was on the left and was clearly an amphitheatre dating from classical antiquity. Then he said, “Zaman ya Zaman,” the name of the hotel, and stopped the car in the traffic (there was no place to park on the busy street). So the distance he had mentioned foreshadowed our arrival at our destination.

We carried the suitcases us a long, steep stairway. At the top was the reception area for the hotel and a young man aged about 30 with glasses on his nose and a short beard and short hair on his head greeted us. I gave him my name and then he consulted a computer screen. He didn’t find the booking (was this going to be a problem everywhere we went?) and then used the name of my travelling companion. He said the booking was for the 13th and I gave him the two sheets of paper I had printed out at home in preparation for a moment like this. The second sheet contained an email from the hotel’s manager that I had received when we had changed the check-in day.

He showed us some rooms, one up a series of flights of stairs that made you consider your mortality, and we instead chose one on the ground floor at the back of the building, away from the traffic noise. I had to get an extension cord from the man with the glasses, so that we could charge our electronic devices. To secure this piece of equipment required getting past his initial refusal by saying that it was absolutely necessary. The TV in the room we had chosen was mounted on the wall in front of the electrical socket and there was no space available to plug in any device because of the plug adapter I had brought (two of them, just in case). He made a phone call to someone, then went away to another room in the hotel and found what I needed, then came back to the reception room and gave it to me. The main problem with the room remained that there is no place to put your bags, so you have to improvise and just take out things when you need them.

Once we had got ourselves organised in the room we went to the front desk and asked which way to go. The young guy with the glasses told us to head left (west) in the direction opposite from the direction we had arrived in the taxi in. On the street the traffic was still heavy and we had to watch our step with all the cars turning into side streets as there are no pedestrian signals in most cases. A false step under these circumstances can be fatal, I figured.

The street was bustling and seemingly chaotic, with shops selling a wide range of goods from mobile phones to baseball caps, and from jewellery to bottles containing different-coloured sand. There were a lot of clothing stores and a lot of places selling random tat. A man with a strange assemblage of objects, each attached to a frame by a twist of wire, was evidently aiming at the tourists who come to the area to browse for exotica. After walking west for about 15 minutes past Faisal Square and up to about the level of the Al Husseini Mosque, we headed up a side street. At about 6.30pm men started pulling down the shutters of their shops in preparation for the evening meal.

We ducked across the street as we had seen a cafe. A young man touted it, asking if we wanted a drink. We were a bit suspicious at first but eventually let him lead us up a flight of stairs into a darkish room with lots of empty tables. Two men sat at one table sharing a hookah. We took a table in the corner and ordered a plate of hummus and meat (beef), and bowl of mushroom soup. For drink we ordered a fruit cocktail (there is no alcohol served in the place during Ramadan) and a Pepsi. This latter item came in a slim can. The straw that the man brought me had the top of the paper wrapping still in place over the end of it but the rest of the straw was already in the drink.

The hummus was served with a basketful of discs of pita bread each of which was about 10 inches in diameter. The hummus was brilliant, absolutely an eye-opener. It tasked completely unlike the hummus you can buy at supermarkets in Sydney. The taste was round, fresh and fruity. You could really taste the chickpeas in it and it didn’t have that grainy feel of the stuff they sell at home. The meal came to just over 13JD and I gave the man 15 and said thank you. I was glad for the second time to have secured some small notes while in Abu Dhabi.

Walking east on Hashemi Street we popped into the square in front of the Roman ruin. The square is called Hashemi Plaza and it has an entry gate but there was no-one on duty so we just walked through the unattended turnstile. Inside, a dark cat came up to us and made as though to look for food, putting its nose close to the ground and twisting its body dramatically. The plaza was full of families and two men talked to us in schoolboy English when a gun went off at 7.30pm on the top of the hill overlooking the valley where we were located, starling us. The men told us that the gun indicates to people the moment fasting is over.

The ruins are pretty spectacular for something built 1900 years earlier. The gates to the amphitheatre proper were closed but we ambled around some columns, many of which had been broken to stumps over time. Some weathered capitals rested on weathered plinths. They were made of the same light-coloured limestone that we saw on the way into town that had been used to build houses. The flagstones might have been original but some looked very intact and I assumed that they had been replaced in the intervening years. Some of the plinths had food stains on them, as if liquid had been thrown around the place.

We eventually tired and walked back to the hotel but later we came out to get some water. At a shop a little way up from the hotel they sell the stuff in plastic bottles labelled “fresh water” in English. There was a tout closer to home who gave me an English-language leaflet for a place, called the Pasha Hotel, located just near us as we stood on the main drag, that sells alcohol and food. He said you can get lunch there during Ramadan. A truck drove east on Hashemi Street blowing insecticide out the back through a nozzle set up on the truck’s tray. The annoying midges that are in the air all around the area, including in restaurants, had evidently been remarked on to authorities by others.

Back at the hotel I buzzed at the intercom that is accessible through a hole punched in the front gate and had to wait a minute or so until the gate lock was released. Inside the room, the water in the shower as I washed didn’t seem to go down the drain and so I cut short my ablutions. I told the guy with the glasses about this and he sent a young woman to go and look at the problem, which she appeared to fix.

Above: The flightpath of our Etihad A320 from Abu Dhabi, UAE, to Amman, Jordan.

Above: Baggage hall of the Queen Alia International Airport. The exposed concrete columns and triangular pattern of the ceiling casts are lovely.

Above: Roman amphitheatre across the road from the hotel, with busy Hashemi Street in between, full of traffic as when we arrived in the city.

Above: Not sure of the name of this street but it continues off the end of Hashemi Street. The shops sell a huge range of goods, some useful, some purely for tourists.

Above: People sitting on the concrete barriers set in the roadway to control traffic.

Above: People getting ready for the fast to end at the finish of the day. Tables were set up on the pavement as well.

Above: Hashemi Plaza with the Roman amphitheatre in the background.

Above: The capital of this column is sitting directly on the plinth. The same ornate carvings were visible on columns of the Temple of Hercules which was built on a hill nearby at around the same time, first century AD.

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