Notes from Madaba and the Dead Sea

Nobuko, my travel-the-world friend, is posting from Madaba and the Dead Sea.

Madaba is a small town, 40km and a world away from Amman and also renounced for its Christian settlement. The Palace Hotel in Amman had a sister hotel in Madaba, so they shuttled me there for free. Well, NOTHING is really free in Jordan. But that’s how they put it. The hotel in Madaba was far from the city center, about a 30-minute walk, if you don’t get lost, that is. This was s contrary to what I was told before: a 10-minute walk to the town center. But it was a clean place. I give them that much. 17ND for a single. Jordan was stripping my wallet in just three days.

I ventured out to find the town center, following the map and verbal directions, accompanied by hand gestures given by the front desk staff. But I got lost. It seems that perhaps in Jordan left means right, or people don’t know what is left and right. I ended up going the complete opposite way. By the way, maps serve no purpose here: people don’t know how to read them. They will just turn it around, look puzzled, and turn it around some more just for the heck of it.

A police car with two officers passed, and not even they could read the map on their own, with Arabic indications. They were nice enough to give me a ride to the city center, but one of them tried to charge me. The other one pacified the greedy one, thank God. This type of “Nice gestures, that end in money making” schemes would repeat itself throughout my stay in Jordan, and strongly color my opinion of its people here (not a nice one as you can guess).

Once I got to the center, I continued to be lost. The map is not well written, not even correct. I found four young Jordanians from Amman, the sole exception to the general public who I’ve found to be greedy, liars, and distasteful. They suggested that we go around together. They could not even find some places, so this made me feel less stupid. We managed to find St. Jorge Church and a museum.

The next day, I went to the Dead Sea and the Jordan river where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Jordan is a hard place for an independent tourist to get around: the lack of public transportation options (hitch hiking is not recommended), the high cost of a taxi, the mob network of taxi drivers and hotels, and the Jordanians’ inability to read maps make this country one of the worst places to travel cheaply. I ended up hiring a taxi for 40 ND for a day to visit only three places.

The Dead Sea was very nice. The Amman Beach is a public one and costs 16 ND to enter instead of 40 at private hotel beaches. It has a shower facility and locker. If you want mud smeared on you, that’s an extra 3 JD. Remember, nothing is free here. I’m surprised they don’t charge for the oxygen you breathe. I went early in the morning and it was not crowded. I floated for about two hours – it is even hard to stand up, because of the very high salt content. And the skin feels very smooth afterwards. This was better than any spa treatments I had received in my life.

The next destination was the Jordan river. Both the Palestinian side (West Bank, aka Israel) and the Jordan side capitalize on this river to which so many biblical stories are attached. At one point, the river is only about 20 meters wide, so you can greet tourists on the other side. There are die-hard Christians who bring themselves and their babies to be baptized in this river. Apparently, Israel got control of the water flow of the Jordan river, so it is affecting the fresh water supply to the Dead Sea. As a result, the Dead Sea is shrinking. Soon, there will only be a mass of crystallized salt there. After taking a break at my hotel room for two hours, I was taken to a sunset point overlooking the Dead Sea, with Jericho on the West Bank and Jerusalem in the distance.

But the entire time I was trying to enjoy the view, the driver was giving  his spiel on whatever else he could sell me – tours to this and that place, shopping at this and that, shops which are presumably owned by his “uncles” or “cousins”.

At the hotel, I met two French people and we decided to share a taxi to get to Petra (there is no regular bus from Madaba to Petra, and though buses exist that connect Madaba to other towns in between Madaba and Petra, it’s time consuming). Even this decision was altered by the hotel staff who basically forced us to take their driver, and tampering with our itinerary. But at 22 IS per person, compared to me going alone and paying 66, it was still a good deal.

The next day, we hit five places before getting to Petra, most of which we spent only 45 minutes. When arrived in Petra, we could not get out of the taxi without hearing even more sales pitches. It’s one thing for them to talk, but these people try to make you feel bad about your plan, or your plan is a poor one. I was so happy to be out of that taxi.

Notes from Amman, Jordan with a Surprise Knock on the Door

This time, Nobuko is in Amman/Jordan and has this to say.

My flight from Alexandria arrived in Amman at 5pm. Air Arabia is a nice airline – I liked the friendly service, food, and the punctuality. The price was good at $110! I got myself a Jordanian SIM card, and then took a 45-minute ride on a  bus into the city. But Amman is a challenging city to navigate – it’s big (of course, it’s the capital!) with wide multi-lane avenues. I should have had a good map or a 3G ready device with map function in my hand.

I had contacted a host via couch surfing. She told me the neighborhood where she lives, so the bus driver dropped me off at the nearest stop to that area. At that time, I did not know this, but it’s quite far from the city center.

When I called my couch-surfing (CS) host, she instructed me to call her again after catching a cab, that she would give the address to the driver. Well, cab drivers in Amman are not so kind with tourists. If you don’t cough up big bucks, they simply drive away. I tried several cabs and each time I had to call my CS host again. I asked her to text me her address to avoid using up my phone credit, but she claimed that she had no credit herself and was unable to send outgoing calls or texts… and she also refused to tell me verbally, since she didn’t believe that I would be able to say it correctly (I do not speak Arabic).

I never found a cab who agreed on the fare. Soon I ran out of credit. The SIM card I had bought came with only 15 minutes worth of credit, and there was no store nearby where I could buy more. One hour had passed by this time, me on the curb side hustling for a cab. And I was carrying my bag weighing 15kg in total. So I decided to ditch the cab and my unhelpful CS host, and walked to look for a bus stand to go to city center instead.

However, since I was in an area that resembled U.S. suburbs with hardly any pedestrians, I could not find people to ask for directions. I wandered around for 30 minutes, and found a bus going by and tried to flag it down. But here in Amman, a modern and organized city, it seems that buses don’t stop unless you are at a stop. OK.I found a food joint and asked there “Salaam alecom, bus?” You can imagine how successful this interaction went. I really cursed myself for not knowing Arabic. I saw and flagged down a mini van (collective taxi) and said “City center?”. The driver nodded yes, so I hopped on. But a fellow passenger, who spoke English informed me, that the bus is NOT going to city center. So I got off after two stops.

I was fine to hunt for the right bus, but I was tired of carrying my bags. I saw a hotel-like building nearby, and walked there in hope of getting someone to help me. It was not a hotel, but there was a travel agency! The manager, Mr. Ali, who spoke fluent English, tried all that I requested, but in the end, said its far easier if he just dropped me off himself at a hotel in the city center. He served me coffee and sweets in a luxurious waiting room with a nice sofa – he even let me use the computer for internet – while I waited for him to close the office.

Then he drove me to a hotel (Palace Hotel). His parents are from Palestine and he was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. He recently took a trip to New York and found it boring to be there alone. I can understand that. Being in a mega modern city alone is not fun. I checked in and had two beers, Skyped with my friend Maria in Germany (the host blogger) and went to sleep.

The next day, I walked to the Citadel. It was a 30-minute walk uphill, but a pleasant one since there were hardly any cars driving by. The view it commands is amazing. You can see the city at 360 degrees around. From there, I walked down to the Roman Theatre, which casually sits by a busy road. Some locals approached me during my walk, but Jordanians – or more accurately, Amman residents – seemed less extroverted compared to Egyptians. I stopped at a food joint and had a big meal for 3 JD ( 1 JD = $0.73), so this is not so cheap. But the owner gave me free refills on salads and beans for which I was very happy!

The points of interests are spread out in Amman. So if you try to walk it, or do it cheaper by bus, you need a lot of of time. I gave up the idea of visiting mosques on the opposite hill from the Citadel and instead walked around the market near the hotel. Out of all, honey stores and shops that sell naughty lingerie stood out because I love honey and I find it charmingly interesting that predominantly Muslim countries (Egypt likewise) openly sell fantasy triggering night wear.

Every time I see one of these lingerie store I want to go in and look what else they have inside, but unfortunately the shop keepers are always men and I assume that me going in alone may not end in a harassment-free interaction. But why are the shop keepers selling women’s lingerie  men? Do only men go to these places to buy skimpy underwear for their wives and girlfriends? Don’t women go there themselves? I actually have never seen any customer inside – neither women nor men. So I don’t know what the make up of the clientele is.

That same night, I also received a surprise from a hotel worker. At 10pm, there was a knock on my door. I was stupid to open it, but I did. In India, I would have NEVER done that. There stood this guy who works as a cleaner. He asked me if everything was OK, and if I needed anything. I said no. Then he zipped down and pulled out his not so impressing wee wee….. I was speechless for a few seconds, due to the caliber of stupidity of this, but came back to myself and got really pissed off. I pushed him away (and he hit the wall and almost fell – with his ding dong hanging out, which is a funny scene to recall) and I locked the door.

Immediately, he started to bang on my door begging for my forgiveness. What an idiot! I called the front desk using my cell phone and asked the attendant to come to my room. He came, and that idiot was still standing there, half crying. Anyway, we settled the matter by the idiot paying for my hotel fee. Had he touched me even with one finger, I would have pressed charges against him. But this is all funny now. Ladies, be smart and don’t open the door, even if the knock comes from a worker.

Well, I raved about how I had never been subjected to sexual harassment in Egypt. But this guy was Egyptian. Just like anywhere, there are always stupid people as well as gentlemen. The male friends I made in Egypt were mortified and ashamed when I told them the story.

Notes from Luxor

Nobuko’s latest travel report is mainly about Luxor/Egypt and its shortcomings.

Yes, you read it right. I said “kuso”(*). Luxor sucked big time. I had planned on being there for  three days, but after being there for five hours, I couldn’t wait to get the hell out! So I left only after 24 hours.

Tourism is down in all of Egypt since the revolution, and the air of desperation is very palpable at the pyramids of Giza and Luxor. What’s sad is that vendors and all people who work in tourism are super aggressive – mostly toward each other. It made me feel awful to see that. And it certainly made my transactions very difficult.

For example, in Luxor, asking for a bottle of water at shops, most places tried to overcharge me. So I continued to look for one that sells it for a reasonable price. Then the previous sellers (some followed me and pestered me along the way) got angry with the shop where I bought the water. If I asked taxi drivers for the price (and repeated the same pattern as above), huge verbal fights broke out.

Whenever this happened,  I just walked away and tried to find mini buses that go my way, but only stated the name of the area I wanted to go to. But even bus drivers who should operate under a fixed fare tried to overcharge by tenfold. I found one honest driver who gave me back 0.5 E pound after I had given him 1 E. Until then, I did not  know the true fare of the mini bus ride.

In Luxor, which consists of the East and West banks, there are numerous sites. If you try to cover them all, you can spend a fortune on entrance fees (most ranging from 25-70 E pounds). On the West bank, the sites are not so close to one another. I saw some people bicycling. This is a feasible way if you have time and don’t mind the heat, because there are no steep hills to climb and it’s much cheaper than a tour.

I took a tour of the West bank. It said half day, but in reality it’s only  four hours. The pick up at the hotel on the East bank and the drive to the West bank = 1hour, go visit four sites such as  the Valley of the Kings, the temple of Hatshepsut, the Mortuary Temple of  Ramesseum, but one of which is actually a souvenir shop = 4 hours total. Then the drive back to the East bank took another hour. In addition, the guide we had gave us very very basic information about the sites at the entrances, and left us to wander around alone inside the sites.

We saw other groups who had their guides accompanying them inside, and  giving detailed explanations about the symbols, history, etc. So it varies widely. I paid 285 E pounds which included the entrance fee. But I think it was only worth a fraction of it. Sorry, I’m being very judgmental here, but this is my objective review.

In comparison, on the East bank, you can visit sites on your own easily. Within the city proper, there are two major sites: the Temple of Luxor and the Karnak Temple. They are much more impressive visually than those on the West bank. A historian may have different opinions, but for a general public who didn’t do their homework (me), these temples are the places to go to take photos and be amused by the size of its structures. I especially enjoyed being at the Karnak Temple. The Luxor Temple is a mere 15 minutes walk from the train station and many accommodations.

The Karnak Temple is about 3km from the Luxor temple. Just walk north along the street along the Nile river. But the heat can be wearing you down and you would have to deal with the beveragevendors / horse & taxi drivers constantly hustling you for business the whole way. I took a mini bus from the train station, though finding one that goes there, was not easy. It took 20 minutes to find one that goes there without a rip-off fare. Coming back from Karnak was easy because all of them go towards the Luxor Temple or to the train station.

There are some bars across the street from the Luxor Temple. I sat there and had beers looking at the Luxor Temple at sunset. I walked back to my hotel around 9pm. Though tourism is almost dead, the town itself seemed alive after dark. Major streets are well lit with many shops open and with a lot of foot traffic. Even smaller and dimmer streets had some shops with locals sitting on stoops, so I felt safe to walk alone.

As for Giza, on the way to the Pyramids, the taxi driver told me to roll up the windows and lock the doors. I saw why… as soon as touts hanging out at the entrance saw me, they chased the taxi, ganged together at the windows, and some even tried to open the door! When they could not get their way, they barricaded the path (! What are they, mobs?) and yelled out all imaginable lies, such as “Taxis are not allowed inside!”or  “You have to take the camel!”, “You need to pay a taxi fee of 100 E pound here!”, “The Pyramids are closed today (the most ridiculous one I heard!!)”. When my driver slowly proceeded forward, several of these guys jumped on the car bonnet and on the top of the trunk. They were determined to get me when I came out of the taxi.

As I got out to buy tickets, they followed me. Some even offered to buy it for me with an added “service charge” of 30 E pounds. They must think I’m so stupid, or they are so stupid to think anyone can be so stupid!  After purchasing the ticket, they demanded that I show them the ticket. I ignored them and walked away.

One of them touched me, so I hissed at him loud and called security. I mean, come on… a group of about 20 Egyptians saw this and took me in. After that, I was off-limit. So I enjoyed taking pictures freely without having any guard asking me for baksheesh for doing what I was entitled to do for free to begin with.

Their behavior is childish, mean, and ridiculous. They are only strangling their own throat by doing this as it encourages a further decline in tourism.

The Pyramids are wonderful to see. Note that going inside costs extra. There is a Light Show at night. Now that I think about it, visiting at night may have been a better option because of the cooler temperature and dramatic effects.

Pyramids are everywhere around Cairo! After Giza, my taxi driver Mr. Ali, took me to Dahshur and Saqqara. Saqqara has many sites including the famous Step Pyramid (now under renovation) whereas Dahshur has two pyramids, the Red Pyramid and Bent Pyramid.  But I really enjoyed Dahshur because the two pyramids are far apart from one another, and there is nothing else around them except vast open space! And the whole place had only 11 visitors, including myself. Also, the Red Pyramid has an inside chamber much like the one at the Great Pyramid in Giza which you can go into for no extra cost while the one at crowded Giza will set you back by 100E pounds. Both Dahshur and Saqqaraand were completely free of touts and vendors, and the guards were pretty friendly without asking for baksheesh.

The streets of Cairo, away from the tourist drag, are filled with wonderful encounters with friendly locals! Shop keepers of blanket shops, kitchen wear, and even tire shops, gave me sales pitches, clearly joking, knowing that I’m a tourist and  won’t need their merchandise.

This playfulness almost always turned into conversations – many times people wanting to know my name, my job, whereabouts of my family, my impression of Egypt, and suggestions of which sites to visit near their shops. Some would inform me to make sure to give their names so that I can get a discount on entrance fee, because they know the guards at these sites. Very refreshing interactions because they treated me as a person, not as a walking ATM.

My favorite places were old Cairo (aka Citadel), and the area sandwiched between the famed Khan Al Khalili Bazaar and the Citadel. This was also a bazaar area, but more for the locals. On the other hand, the Khan Al Khalili Bazaar has tons of souvenir shops and is geared towards tourists. The difference in atmosphere is felt instantly when walking from Khan Al Khalili to the local bazaar, the details of which is described above in previous sections. Also, this area is full of wonderful surprises for the lovers of Islamic architecture! There are many mosques that date back to 800-1000 AD.

All you have to do is walk along the narrow street, and  they just pop up right and left without you even trying to find them! A few to be noted are the Al Hakim Mosque, the Bab Zuweila Gate, and the Al Ghuri Complex. Many of these places have guys who will take you to the top of the minaret for baksheesh, and the views are well worth the money. In Citadel, there is an aqueduct which I have not visited. The oldest part was built in 712 AD!

In conclusion, I enjoyed visiting Islamic architecture much much more than the Pharaoh sites.

Having said all this, I really question my role in tourism in so called Third world / developing countries: I have money to spend and want to spend it wisely and ethically. But after thinking it over for a while, I concluded that it is not possible to be politically correct. The disparity of economic status that exists between someone like me and the local people is substantial. So it is human nature to want to justify overcharging the tourists because both we and they know we can afford it.

And I think in some cases, like India which charges 10 times more in entrance fees to foreigners, it is justified. But lying and cheating some trusting people shamelessly is wrong. Instead, they should do what Butan is doing: make it  legal practice to charge loads to foreign tourists from economically privileged countries (I heard it is $200 per day). Some tourists actually derive much enjoyment from the process of haggling and out-witting overcharging or lie-telling vendors. So for them, hustle free situations are like coffee without caffeine. But that’s not for everyone.

Me? I enjoy haggling, but only with vendors who know the limit and have a sense of humor. I don’t like to deal with angry and nasty people. Plenty of those are found in governmental offices in the U.S., some of whom I have no choice but to visit occasionally. And I have spent enough time with them already.

* kuso stands for sh@3 in Japanese.

Behind Egyptian bars

Nobuko – behind Egyptian bars (just kidding!)

Notes From Cairo

Nobuko left Nepal a couple of days ago and is now in Cairo. This is what she has to say.

Hi! I arrived in Cairo today. Staying at the apartment of a couch-surfing host. What a place! It’s kind of quiet, surprisingly. But perhaps, other areas of the city are more crowded and noisy.
The airport was quiet and almost dead as well, with only my prime time flight coming in at 1 pm.

But the locals are fun loving and enjoy using a soft greediness, wrapped in humorous jokes that I could not help but to laugh and give in a little!! Women, on the back of motorcycles noticing me sitting in a taxi and cracking a big smile and waving with a loud “hello!!” Even women, fully clothed  in Muslim black attire complete with hijab headscarves walk into a local bar and …(gulp), not only drinking, but also smoking cigarettes! An unbelievable and unacceptable sight if this had taken place in India. I was  shocked. But in a ticklish, giddy, comradely way.

(Note: Before passing through Nepal to come to Egypt, Nobuko spent some time again in India)

What stands out here is the good and hearty sense of humor people possess, which is proudly and happily displayed with a big grin or a wink. It’s contagious. And its a good thing. Since I have turned into such a hardened and cold bitch, I welcome their easy and  fun loving attitude to melt me back into my natural outgoing, open self.

I like this shift  in my outlook. I feel that  I can finish my trip in a good way.
Tomorrow I’m viewing the pyramids!

All Gizah Pyramids

All Gizah Pyramids

(Photo credit: Wikipedia.file.All_Gizah_Pyramids)

I went ahead and got a preview of what Nobuko is going to see today.

Wonder what she has to say about Egyptian street vendors based on this excerpt:

“You can’t walk down here at all. It can’t be a short cut because you get stopped every few seconds.” [moves aside to let an elderly woman pass] “See? I bet she left the house when she was 10!”

— Karl Pilkington, travel host of “An Idiot Abroad”

Notes from Antalya, Turkey

Nobuko, world traveller and occasional guest-blogger, is reporting from Antalya, Turkey.

Antalya in November 2012

I took the bus from Konya to Antalya. I basically had no particular reason to go there besides the fact that Konya was getting very cold, and I wanted to go to a warmer place, any place with 20°C or more.

Antalya has a beautiful old-town section called Kaleici. But I have to say, Antalya is better for couples or group tours. There are tons of shops and many bars playing all sorts of live music. I went to a bar and listened to traditional Turkish music and had three glasses of wine. Oh my god, did I mention how good their wines are??

Anyway, despite Antalya’s near-perfect set up to entertain tourists, I felt out of place as a single person traveling alone. I stayed only two days – long enough for my washed clothes to dry in 22°c temperature.

Antalya, Turkey

Edit: Nobuko, the wine must have been pretty good; especially since you sent a beer photo along with this post.