Pages

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Middle East trip A-to-Z

Alcohol

It was Ramadan when we visited the Middle East and in Jordan it is hard at that time of year to find restaurants that serve beer. One place we found near our hotel in the downtown area in Amman has a rooftop area with tables and chairs for people to use if they want to drink a beer during the day. You go up in the lift to the fifth floor, then walk up two flights of stairs to the sixth floor. The staircase is covered in graffiti by foreigners, most of it complimentary. Petra brand beer is local and is good. Rabbits, ducks, hamsters, and chickens roam around the rooftop among the feet of the tourists eating and drinking there.

In Israel some kiosks (just little shops on the main street) sell beer and they have a diverse range, some of which have no English on their labels. The Maccabee 10% brew is very nice. In Turkey they have Efes brand and Bomonti, both of which are good, and in tourist areas kiosks often sell beer. The wine in Israel was very good as was the local craft beer. In Abu Dhabi on the return leg I had some white Lebanese wine which was very dry and very good.

Beverages

As a general rule don’t drink tap water in these countries. Bottled water is available everywhere for little cost, even late at night. I had very loose bowels for the entire trip but they settled down once I got home to Australia.

Freshly squeezed fruit juice is available in all of the cities visited and it is not expensive. You can get orange juice, pomegranate juice, blood orange juice, or even watermelon juice in some kiosks. These small shops are on the main streets and the vendors often use manually-operated mechanical presses to extract the juice from the halves of fruit they cut for customers. Pieces of watermelon are put into a blender in the same way as happens in Australia.

In Istanbul some restaurants offered apple tea on the house after the meal was finished. Some might also on occasion give you a complimentary piece of baclava.

Food

Restaurants away from tourist areas give better value for money but in Jordan you will pay more if you don’t read or speak Arabic. The menus they give tourists are usually different from the ones locals use in restaurants and they no doubt have different prices printed on them although it was impossible to check if this was true.

Local food is excellent in Jordan and good restaurants in Israel are as good as their counterparts in Sydney. If you go for a wander on foot occasionally and take a little time to look around you, you can find good street food in places like Istanbul that will impress and that will cost very little. Google Maps was very useful in both Jerusalem and in Istanbul.

Restaurants in all of the countries visited on this trip use the American system of bringing a “check” to your table. Use your hands to write something in your palm, and say “check”, and they will bring you the bill. You put your cash or card in the folder the waiter or waitress leaves on your table and they bring you back the change or a chit to sign. You are sort of expected to leave a tip in Israel and they will highlight on the bill that the service is not covered by the tally you see on the paper. The American system slows down the payment process. I don’t know how good the minimum wage is in any of the countries we visited.

Breakfasts at all the hotels were good, and there was always a range of salads and dairy products on offer. The hotels made sure to give us a good feed before we set out for the day.

Hotels

I described the hotels in the daily posts, so this is just a digest. The hotel in Amman had nowhere to put your suitcase. In Istanbul the hotel also didn’t have a suitcase rack but at least there was more room on the floor to put it, but the shower stalls in this hotel were minuscule. The best hotel for luggage was the one in Petra. And in Abu Dhabi, where we stayed in five-star comfort. The Jumeirah Hotel in that city is a lovely place to recover from and prepare for the long haul to Sydney across the Indian Ocean, although the electrical switches in the rooms are a bit complex unless you are used to them.

I had a bit of difficulty checking in in Abu Dhabi however. The guy at the front desk made a phone call to Sydney and used as reference a printout I had brought containing the booking details that had been given to me by the travel agent. For the stay on the return leg they gave me booking numbers, which I typed into a note on my phone for reference. In Amman the booking was also not immediately clear to the desk clerk.

The hotel there and in Petra were able to organise good taxis for our long drives to and from Wadi Musa, which was a big help as you don’t want to be doing 120km-per-hour in a clapped-out bomb on a Jordanian highway.

Internet

This section of the post deals with data availability for my mobile phone and for my laptop, both of which accompanied me on the trip. Before leaving Sydney on the outward leg I had organised to have mobile roaming set up but this only covered Israel and Turkey. For Jordan and for the United Arab Emirates the cost of roaming data was high. For Israel and Turkey the cost of roaming data was A$5 per day.

In Israel and in Turkey I had to use a personal hotspot to do blogposts, however, even though the hotels in both places supplied wifi connection to a local router. Sometimes the speed of transfer on the hotel wifi was not fast enough, considering that I had to upload a significant number of photos each day, and I had to set up a personal hotspot before posting. Before this trip I had never set this up on my mobile phone, but once I got used to doing it it was very easy and fast enough for my purposes.

Discipline demanded that I made blogposts at the end of the day, before going to bed, but I also sometimes did them on the morning following the events described. I made notes on my phone that supplied details for blogposts such as the cost of meals and the times we sat down to eat, for a large number of events of a casual nature. This kind of detail can help to bring a post alive because it anchors the reader’s mind in what are often considered to be ephemeral details.

The best hotel internet was in Petra, where the hotel was in the town of Wadi Musa, which services the ancient archaeological site that people come in their thousands each day to visit. Often in cafes and restaurants in these places they also offer wifi to patrons, and it usually just involves asking for the password, which can then be typed into your phone so that you can browse the internet or use social media while you wait for your food to arrive at the table.

Itinerary

This is an itinerary of the trip, including flight and hotel details for each leg. I printed it out on a sheet of paper and took it with me on the journey. Part of the time it sat in the inside pocket of my jacket.

Abu Dhabi
Arrive on flight EY0455 (Etihad Airways) from Sydney on 10 May at 5.35am. Travel to Jumeirah At Etihad Towers Hotel via Arabian Adventures (look for representative with red jacket and my name written on a board).

Stay one night at Jumeirah At Etihad Towers Hotel (tel +968 9929 3309). Buffet breakfast on 11 May included. Get in car in lobby of hotel for trip to airport for 1.45pm flight to Jordan (EY0515).

Jordan
Arrive Jordan at Queen Alia International Airport at 3.55pm. Go to Zaman Ya Zaman Boutique Hotel (Hashemi Plaza, Hashemi Street, tel 962 6 4613140) and stay nights of 11, 12 and 13 May.

Check out on 14 May and travel to Petra. Book into Petra Palace Hotel (Wadi Mousa Tourist Road, Wadi Musa, tel + 962 3 2156723). Stay on nights of 14, 15 and 16 May.

Check out of Petra Palace Hotel on 17 May and travel back to Amman. Book into Zaman Ya Zaman Boutique Hotel for one night.

Check out on morning of 18 May and travel to Jerusalem by taxi. One taxi to the border, followed by border crossing. Another taxi on the Israel side from the border to Jerusalem.

Israel
Arrive Jerusalem and book into YMCA Three Arches Hotel (26 King David Street, Jerusalem, tel +972 2 5692692). Stay in hotel on nights of 18, 19, 20 May.

Check out on 21 May and move to Alon Hotel (9 Shamai Street, Jerusalem, tel +972 2 6250002) for nights of 21, 22, 23 and 24 May.

Check out on morning of 25 May and travel to Tel Aviv. Go to Tel Aviv-Yafo Ben Gurion International Airport and board flight TK0795 (Turkish Airways) at 2.15pm bound for Istanbul.

Turkey
Arrive Istanbul Airport at 8.30pm. Book into Sebnem Hotel (Akbıyık Caddesi Adliye sok no:1, Fatih, Istanbul, tel +902 12 5176623). Check out on 1 June.

Go to Istanbul Airport and board flight EY0096 at 2.50pm bound for Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi
Arrive Abu Dhabi International Airport at 5.50pm and find Arabian Adventures driver with sign with my name on it. Car takes us to Jumeirah At Etihad Towers Hotel. Booked for one night.

Leave hotel on 2 June and go to Abu Dhabi International Airport for 9.50pm flight to Sydney (EY0454).

Legal tender

I took a bunch of US dollars with me, and a money belt I bought at Myer, and both of these things turned out to be good precautions. I used my credit card to make withdrawals of new Israeli shekels from an ATM across the road from the first hotel in Jerusalem, but in Jordan I used the currency exchange offices that are numerous on the main drag in the downtown area to get Jordanian dinars. I also used an ATM in Abu Dhabi on the return leg to take out some UAE dirhams. In Istanbul I used US dollars and walked down the street in our area to the currency exchange kiosk to get Turkish lira. It is wise not to change currency at airports as they tend to give you a poor rate of exchange.

I paid for all the hotels using a credit card, and I paid for the Israeli hotels before leaving Sydney. I did internet banking during the trip. Sometimes using a credit card involves a PIN and on other occasions it involves signing a chit. Sometimes credit card transactions performed overseas can attract more than one transaction charge, so it is better and more economical to use US dollars for things like meals unless you are taking a lot of money at one time out of the ATM.

It is good practice to reserve small notes for incidentals like taxi fares. I generally paid with large notes for things like meals in the tourists areas, because I was sure there of being able to get change for them.

Locals

People are usually nice and they will ask you where you are from, especially in Jordan and in Turkey. Usually when you tell them they reply immediately by saying, “Welcome.” In Istanbul the young people speak good English and we were able to get help in two shops on Istiklal Street, which is a place locals go in their free time. The record shop we visited there turned out to be very good and cheap.

Museums

The museums in Jerusalem are curated very well but in Istanbul they have better Mesopotamian antiquities. You can see Egyptian antiquities everywhere in the Middle East. The labels on the displays in Jerusalem were very good and informative, possibly a sign of a different attitude toward icons that set the place apart from the Muslim countries we visited. Remnants of the Roman Empire are all over the place as well.

Police

They are all over the place in all of the countries we visited, except in the UAE. In Turkey, they park their water cannon trucks near crowded areas and stake out Istiklal Street (which translates as “Independence Street”) in large numbers. In Jerusalem they drive down Jaffa Street all the time on the light rail tracks. In the old city in Jerusalem they are ubiquitous and carry automatic weapons. In Amman they force their way along the crowded thoroughfares in their new cars and keep their sirens on. In Jerusalem their sirens are off but their beacons are flashing. In Turkey many of them wear civilian clothes with a badged vest over the top of their shirts.

In Istanbul they have Tourist Police who are ostensibly there to help visitors but they turned out not to be much use when we went to them for help. My travelling companion had been sold metal rings that were supposed to be silver and the policemen we talked to, in the evening and then the next morning, were nice and spoke good English but nothing useful eventuated.

Religion

In some places in Jordan they won’t serve you food until the hour of fasting has ended. This is usually 7.30pm but a cannon goes off in town that tells you when you can order and eat food. Some restaurants in that country will allow you to sit down before this time and order drinks, with the menus brought out again once the cannon has gone off. One place we went to on Rainbow Street in Amman before they would serve us closed the blinds on the front windows and made sure we sat well inside the café when we asked if we could order drinks.

During Ramadan people stay up very late at night and often leave work early during the day. The shops start to shut at about 6.30pm in Jordan and the shutters will come down as people get ready for the end of fasting. People overall are less observant in Istanbul than they are in Amman.

In Jerusalem on Friday afternoon everything shuts down except for a few cafes and restaurants, even in the middle of the city where most people congregate, because of the Sabbath which comes on Saturday. As a general rule Friday and Saturday are holidays in the Middle East. For the border crossing from Jordan to Israel, we left the hotel in the taxi early because on Fridays the border closes in the afternoon, as do the museums and shops in Israel.

During the trip we went into no mosques. Churches are open all the time but we felt uneasy about the idea of visiting mosques in Amman. In Istanbul the Blue Mosque has signs indicating the types of dress that are appropriate for women and men but we didn’t get there in time to go inside, and just strolled around the gardens in front of the building.

Taxis

Difficult, even in Jerusalem. Just getting Middle Eastern taxi drivers to set the meter running before we started our journeys was sometimes a major headache. If they don’t set the meter running they just charge you what they think they can get away with. We made a complaint to the authorities through a tourist office in Jerusalem but there was nothing on offer like this in Amman, in Petra, or in Istanbul. The municipal authorities in Istanbul also refused to help my travelling companion get justice after two rings she bought turned out not to be silver. Silver rings had been promised.

In Jordan taxis will always try to upsell. You If you are doing a small trip today, they want to take you further tomorrow and will ask you about your plans for the next day. They all have business cards printed with WhatsApp numbers on them, so that you can contact them if you want.

Toilets

Ask for the “WC” and you will usually find what you are looking for. “WC” means “water closet” and is an archaic English term for toilet. Try to take care of business in the morning before leaving the hotel. If you are caught short you might have to duck into a café and order a slice of cake, then use the amenities. In Jordan public toilets don’t have toilet paper, so make sure you have tissues available when you visit them.

Touts

Istanbul restaurant touts are very persistent and usually won’t take “No” for an answer. If you get short with them they will let you know they are unhappy. The tendency for locals in these countries to treat tourists as an opportunity to make money serves to a degree to spoil the fun for visitors. Hotel staff are usually a lot more gracious and will go out of their way to help you get what you want, from a theatre booking to access to a laundry service. In Istanbul the staff at hotels we were not staying in helped us as well. On one occasion a security guard outside a hotel got us a cab and made sure the meter was set. On another occasion the doorman of a hotel translated from English for the taxi driver we had found. 

No comments: