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Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Petra day one

We woke up in Amman and had breakfast and packed our suitcases, then got some help to get them downstairs to the pavement on the street where our car awaited. The driver was a young man in his twenties or early thirties named Umar, a Palestinian who had been born in Jordan and who has a Jordanian passport. Umar has six married brothers and six married sisters and still lives at home with his parents. He said that his immediate family numbers over 200 persons which, he said with an amused inflection in his voice, means they can never assemble together in the one place.

We left the hotel at 8.30am on our 250km drive. Umar had the same propensity the cab driver the night before had shown of tailgating at speed, changing lanes without indication, and ignoring lanes altogether. Fortunately, his car is a six-month-old Hyundai Sonata hybrid and was in very good condition.

The trip was largely uneventful even though a little trying at times. Umar reassured us, saying that he had been ferrying tourists around for six years. Before that, he said, he had been a truck driver on the Aqba-Amman route. He drove the three of us like a falcon winging its way through a sandy waste where an occasional flock of sheep or of goats broke the pattern of dry, brown hills and tiny, poor-looking villages. At one village you might see a couple of camels. At another there would be a scattering of houses only. By 9.30 Petra was still 180km away, and at 9.55am it was still 140km away.

At 10.10am we stopped at a rest house to use the conveniences and have what turned out to be quite bitter cappuccinos, which were served in tiny paper cups (2JD for two). I bought a T-shirt for my son (15JD) there as well. Umar smoked a couple of Winstons and had a cup of coffee himself. He told us that the Bedouin who live in the southern part of Jordan are more religious than the people who live in Amman. To express this opinion he curled his fingers, his palm down, and then released them in a flicking motion, indicating the ease with which, he thought, most Jordanians treat their religious obligations. But he kind of spoiled the impression this story had made by saying that he doesn’t like the Bedouin.

The way he talked with his hands meant that he was occasionally driving momentarily with both hands off the wheel, which can be slightly alarming at 120km-per-hour. He also used his mobile phone while driving, but this seems to be standard practice for Jordanians.

At 11am we exited the highway and headed west along a road with a single carriageway that was far less crowded than the previous road had been, and a lot less enervating as a result. No fuel trucks to overtake, for a start. But Umar was still using the whole road at will. By 11.08am it was 40km to Petra and  at about 11.40am we arrived in the town of Wadi Musa, which services the ancient Nabataean capital city with its famous ruins.

We stopped and unloaded and after helping us with the suitcases Umar drove off. We went in toward the hotel’s front desk and spoke with the clerks who told us to come back at 2pm when they said the rooms we had booked would be ready to occupy. A porter took our luggage to hold and we left the building. We walked off looking for the visitor’s centre and eventually found it. There, we walked around getting our bearings and organising in our minds how we would handle the next couple of days.

In the building there are displays showing artefacts as well as printed signs (in Arabic and in English) that tell of the history of the Nabataean kingdom, how it was annexed by the Romans in the 1st century AD, and how the Treasury and the other ruins were discovered in 1812 by a Swiss explorer named Burkhardt. People from all around the world, many of them coming direct from the Queen Alia International Airport, which is located south of Amman, come to Petra to see the ruins. In fact when you leave Amman to go to Petra you take the airport road up to a certain point.

We then stopped in at a restaurant to have lunch.  We ordered maglouba, a Greek salad, and sambusak (deep-fried cheese pockets). Maglouba is a chicken dish served with rice and yoghurt. The flies in the restaurant were extremely persistent but they left us alone for at least part of the time needed to eat and pay (the meal was less than 30JD all up, including drinks). We then checked in and went to the hotel rooms, which were still being cleaned when we arrived on floor seven of the building, which is located about 300m from the visitor’s centre. Umar had taken us straight to the hotel without any hesitation, a fact which reinforced in my mind his claim to have taken 1000 trips to Petra in his time. The wifi in the Petra Palace Hotel turned out to be much better than what was available in Amman at the hotel we had chosen to use in that city.

After resting for a while we went to the front desk and left some clothes to be washed and dried, then went and got into a cab to head up to the uptown area of Wadi Musa where the restaurants are. The driver as usual gave us his card (his name is Abd Alrahman Salameen) and asked us to get in touch in case we needed a lift anywhere. Once we arrived at our destination we walked around for a while because it is Ramadan and restaurants mostly don’t serve food before 7.30pm, but ducking into a sweet shop we bought some sweets. Then we headed down the hill away from the built-up area and went and sat down outside at Al Mehbash Restaurant (which also has a Whatsapp number on its business card) where they said they would serve us immediately.

I ordered a mushroom soup but it wasn’t nearly as good as one I had had in Amman. We also ordered lamb but they brought us some chicken instead. After using Google Translate to make our meaning clear, we were eventually served a plate of grilled lamb with Turkish bread that had been spread with a salsa made from tomatoes and chilli. This came with some surprisingly tough French fries. The manager also gave us a bowl of diced tomato and cucumber with a dressing on it, which was very nice. The lamb was delicious and the bread was excellent with its tangy flavour. The meal, including two bottles of water, came to a mere 12JD. It was much better than our lunch had been.

We headed off in the dark to find our hotel and eventually made it relatively unscathed (there was a slight stumble on a sloping section of driveway that was covered in some fine powder or dust). A group of British tourists was just arriving when we got to the hotel, where I headed up to the restaurant and bought two small bottles of water for 1.5JD.


Above: The road from Amman to Petra is dual-carriageway for part of the trip. Roadworks sometimes interrupt this configuration. The land is very flat and dry, with little in the way of vegetation for most of the journey.


Above: Overtaking a container truck. Trucks move to the right and let faster vehicles overtake. Usually just coming up close to the bumper of the vehicle in front is enough to get them to move over.


Above: Near Wadi Musa.


Above: Wadi Musa uptown is a small settlement focused on servicing tourists. 


Above: A wide array of non-alcoholic beverages are displayed in this refrigerated cabinet. Drinks from all over the world are sold here.


Above: Inside a sweet shop in Wadi Musa.



Above: A motorway under construction, it seems.


Above: A cemetary in Wadi Musa.


Above: All the local residents appear to turn on lights in the evening in Wadi Musa. The effect is one of celebration.

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