Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Jordan - My 41st Country

Well, the year started off with a whimper – a cooold whimper – and proceeded nicely into March with a BANG! Not much happening around the beginning of the year in Budapest. More of the same old stuff: dinners, expat gatherings, wine tastings and a comedy club or two. I did manage to complete my dental implant program in late February, thank goodness. No more pain (after the final placement of the bridges, which damn near sent me through the dentist’s ceiling), and I can eat steak again, if I want to. I also attended a one-day wine tasting class, given by a local wine institute, which was fun and educational. I can now order the right wine with the right food. Whew, I was getting worried about not being able to complement pizzas and burgers with the appropriate wine. No longer a concern.
Also, the annual Burns Supper came around again, as it always does, and another fun evening was had by all attendees. We ate haggis and listened to the bagpipes and danced some Scottish reels, on which we had to be coached as everyone forgets the steps from one year to the next. Our usual good time. Another English-language comedy night and the rugby six nations tournament rounded off the first two months of the year.
But what about my travels, you ask. Well, the implants took most of my money, and I thought I’d be flat-bound until late spring, so I consigned myself to reading used books and watching TCM movies and drinking half-pint beers at the pubs and indulging in various forms of other inexpensive entertainment until I could build up my cash reserves again. Even with the reasonable costs of Hungarian dentistry, the implants still took nearly three months’ income. But at least my dentist, with whom I’ve been for over ten years, gave me some leeway and let me pay the costs off over time (not a lot of time, but enough). I’ll still be paying it off for awhile. Of course, by this time I thought I’d be somewhere warm and sunny instead of cold and cloudy and depressing Budapest in the winter. Damn!
And suddenly, lo and behold, a miracle! A friend called and told me he and his girlfriend had booked a package trip to Jordan in March and then they’d had a monster fight and break-up and she’d gone back to Norway and he had this paid-up package with no one to travel with and would I like to come with him for eight days to Aqaba on the Red Sea? I started quivering immediately, then remembered how Mr. Wallet was gasping and hacking due to being so empty. I told my friend and he said I could pay him later in the year or whenever my finances tumbled back into the black. Well! How could I refuse that deal? Answer: I couldn’t! So, March 13, it was off to Jordan!
As is my wont, I did some research before taking off. I compiled a list of Arabic words and phrases I could memorize and use at the shops, restaurants and pubs, and I also checked out the sights to be seen and things to be done in the area. Aqaba is Jordan’s only Red Sea port and, as such, is known for its water sports, including diving. Cool – maybe I could go diving again after all these years. I hadn’t dived since 1998, despite an abortive attempt when I was on my Caribbean Cruise in 2000, so I was looking forward to trying it again.
Also, lots of local trips to various interesting sights, including: Wadi Rum, where Lawrence of Arabia hung out with his camels and young Arab guides; the Dead Sea, which I’ve also seen from the other (Israeli) side; and, of course, Petra, the building façade carved into the side of a cliff and made famous by the last of the Indiana Jones movies. I was really looking forward to seeing Petra – at least, until I found some of the recent reviews by other travelers on Trip Advisor and read what they’d written about the entrance fee. First I have to get to the site from Aqaba, about two hours by bus or taxi or car, and will have to see how much that costs. Then the entrance fee. Are you ready for this? Petra may be the single most expensive tourist archaeological site in the entire world. Fifty euro! That’s around $70 US. Damn! Even the Taj Mahal wasn’t anywhere near that much, nor the Eiffel Tower, Pyramids, Sphinx, passage tomb in Ireland, Hypergeum in Malta, Colosseum in Rome, anywhere else, as a matter of fact. Now, I’m sure Petra is interesting and worth seeing, but come on - $70?! Well, I’ll wait to get there and check it out again and see what happens.
So I bided my time until takeoff, cutting down my dining out and my purchases of new books and my attending newly-released movies (I always went on discount days). I was saving what little money I had for my trip.
Got away from the Budapest winter around 11 PM on Sunday, March 13, and landed in Amman, Jordan, four hours later (local time). We were met by our guide, Tamas, and hustled onto a tour bus which took us to Aqaba, another three hours away. During all this time, I had virtually no sleep on the plane and only about a one-hour doze on the bus. I was just a touch tired.
BUT – I weathered the speed bumps and sunrise over the sand-colored hills as we sped down a nice four-lane asphalt highway, finally arriving at the Hotel Mina around 7:30 in the morning. I checked into the hotel, then had to run out and buy some bottled water to brush my teeth – tap water is not drinkable in Jordan. I breakfasted and headed out for my orientation tour of the city.
As mentioned earlier, I was ready with my memorized Arabic words and phrases to get me by. Sabah al kheer(Good Morning), Masah al kheer (Good Evening), aiwa (yes), La (no), Bekam hada (How much is it?), Tat kallam ingleezi (Do you speak English), Oktobiha min fadhliki (does your sister take Mastercard?) --- you know, just the essentials. And what did I find? Damn! Everyone spoke English! And I mean virtually everyone. Good for me, and easier, obviously, but disappointing in a way. I really wanted to try and be a traveler and not a tourist, with my excellent command of basic Arabic phrases, but guess I’ll have to wait until I go to Syria or some such place. Of course, because of the Internet, they probably even speak English there. Sigh.
And so, armed with my trusty Internet map of Aqaba, I walked over to the seashore and along the strand above the public beach area. Checked out one of the Turkish baths (hammam), which was only 12 Jordanian Dinars (JD, to the locals), as opposed to a more modern bath I found which was 25 JD. I also walked the Great Arab Revolt Plaza with its humungous flag next to the old Aqaba fort.
I stopped in at the Tourist Office with some questions, then cruised the Gateway Center, with its trendy modern restaurants and bars, just to see what was there. It was windy in the morning, but calm in the afternoon and the temperature was in the mid-20s (around 76 F). I did lunch at the Formosa Chinese restaurant in Gateway Center, and it was wonderful – although a touch more expensive than I had planned – but then, isn’t everything? Came to 17 JD, which was around $20 US! Jeez, where’s the McDonald’s? (Actually, it was right around the corner).
Walking down the street was an adventure in itself, as it seemed every taxi driver beeped his horn at the tourists to try and get business. In addition, as friendly as they all were, these taxi drivers also spoke to us on the street, trying to arrange present or future fares. I did agree to be driven to Petra the following day by Mahmood, so all was not lost. I hung around the hotel’s pool area for awhile, then decided a short nap was in order.
Dinner was at the hotel, as I was on half board (breakfast and dinner included), which was adequate but solitary. I was expecting a rather basic hotel meal, and was surprised to get such an array of good-sized dishes: Salad, lemon chicken with veggies, fries, pita bread, hummus dip, tabouleh. Now, keep in mind that I was brought up in a time when the parents of American kids, who had lived through the Great Depression and World War II, still served seven-course dinners every night. If we dared balk at consuming such prodigious amounts of food, our mothers always came up with that generation’s tag line: “Eat your dinner; there are starving children in Europe.” Even if there were, there sure aren’t any more; my dinner alone would have fed a Bedouin family of 12 for a week.
I crashed early that night to be ready for my Tuesday-morning run to Petra.
Jolted out of bed at an ungodly hour, I abluted, breakfasted and met Mahmood for our three-hour drive to one of the most famous monuments in the world. The round trip cost me 60 JD (not cheap, but I was beginning to realize nothing in Jordan was), and it was cold and windy when we stopped for a photo op, but pleasant for all that. Mahmood dropped me off at the edge of the new town of Petra, and I walked down toward the old town. Paid my 55 JD and decided a horseback ride to the entrance to the Petra gorge was in order, so did that. I felt like a kid again on one of those ponies trotted around town so kids back then could have their pictures taken sitting astride.
Anyway, I soon found the main entrance to the gorge and walked the one-kilometer path through the sandstone cliffs to the entrance to the Treasury, which is as awesome as you might imagine. I also explored much of the rest of Petra – cave dwellings, amphitheater, etc – as I hadn’t realized the ancient city was so big; I was told there were 10,000 cave dwellings in the old city. Damn!
One interesting item: I had missed the toilet facilities at the entrance to the area, but was told there were portable toilets in the old city. I walked quickly when the need became urgent, followed the signs from afar and scurried toward the toilets; when I finally found the porta-potties, there was a nice sign on them saying, “For your Inconvenience, WC is Closed.” Just my friggin’ luck! I was standing there with my legs crossed, when one of the local souvenir vendors told me there was another WC farther down the road, by which I presumed he meant another ten-minute walk. He also told me I could wander over to one of the caves across the road and use that. Hmmm. Well, I really did need to pee, so I thought, what the hell, the local guy told me it was okay. So I did what he suggested and found a cave and entered it and found it was being used as a bathroom by the locals – nice. I held my breath and did my business and hurried out to resume my tour.
I did what I could, but was tired by that time, so after exploring only about one-third of the entire old city of Petra I walked back out of the gorge and took another horse ride to the top of the entrance trail. Just as well. Met Mahmood and he found me a nice local restaurant where I had a great lunch of shawarma, fries, veggies and a couple of soft drinks. Yummy. Managed to doze for most of the drive back, which this time only took around 90 minutes. When I got back to the hotel and paid off Mahmood, I realized I was sore and aching and knew it was time for my Turkish bath.
I chose the more expensive of the two baths, and it was nice, with sauna, steam, scrubbing, massage and Jacuzzi. A nice relaxing late afternoon. Wandering back to the hotel I found the Oxygen “Irish Bar,” which, of course, was anything but; however, they did have Amstel on tap, and it was cold and good, and I needed it. Rested up until dinner at the hotel, and realized I was still a touch tired, so turned in early again after watching some English-language movies on TV.
March 16, Wednesday, and I realized it was my daughter’s birthday. I wolfed down a quick breakfast and rushed out to find an Internet café to send her birthday wishes. They were all closed! I walked all over, and finally found a 24-hour café near my hotel, so was able to get my wishes off and check my other emails and Facebook account. During my wanderings I was also looking for the offices of the Sindbad Cruise company so I could see about a nice sea cruise to Pharaoh Island over on the Egyptian side of the Gulf of Aqaba. Couldn’t find it, as it seemed to have moved. Finally got the Tourist Office lady to check for me, and she found out they only offered their cruises on Sunday and Monday in March. Well, Hell! No cruise. Not happy. Not a great morning so thought I’d better eat and drink to offset the negative vibes. I settled on the Ali Baba restaurant and their well-publicized selection of mezze, which is sort of like large tapas plates, appetizers you can munch on while talking and drinking. The cold Amstel also went down well, along with the tabouleh, hummus with meat and some great baba ganuj. A lovely, relaxing extended lunch.
I took a nice stroll after lunch, then met our small group at the hotel for the trip to Wadi Rum, a nearby area where Lawrence of Arabia had once hung out during World War I. Or maybe it was Peter O’Toole. On the way I became acquainted with two Hungarian women, Zsuzsa (my age group) and her young cousin Eszter, a belly-dance teacher in Budapest. We arrived at Wadi Rum around 3:30 PM and embarked in our ‘jeeps’ (really old Toyota Landcruiser-type pickup trucks with seats in the rear for 6-8 people) for our desert tour. First stop was in the shadow of a high cliff where Lawrence of Arabia had supposedly camped lo those many years ago. At least, that’s what we were told. And it did seem to be a former military encampment, based on the ruins still in evidence. I wandered around and found a lone tree nearby, next to which was a small plaque that read, “In this spot on April 14, 1916, T.E. Lawrence urinated on this tree.” I was entranced.
We did a couple more stops, exploring a niche in the cliffs and ending up at a huge red sand ramp leading up to a spot where we could watch the sunset. I made it about halfway up that monstrous sand dune when my legs told me, “Nope, not today, Bud,” so I walked down (a lot more easily than I had struggled up) and watched the damn sunset from a lower vantage point. I’d seen desert sunsets before, so nothing important was lost, especially my quivering leg muscles.
I and my two new compatriots had dinner at another nearby hotel after our return to Aqaba, the Golden Tulip, as our hotel didn’t feel like cooking that night. Not important, as long as I get fed. And yet again, since it was another busy and physically tiring day, I hit the sack early.
On Thursday morning I still had three days left in Aqaba. No cruise, so that was out. I thought about doing some diving, but decided against it for several reasons, none of which are important to this chronicle. So, what was I to do with the rest of my time? Beach! The hotel arranged for a free shuttle-bus pickup for me by the Coral Bay resort, around 10 km down the coast. I was ready for a beach day. The shuttle finally arrived only an hour late and we drove down along the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea, which was a startling deep blue. It was a beautiful resort, and cost 15 JD just to get in to the private beach. Towel rental was another 1 JD; I didn’t dare ask for a snorkel, as I was sure to be scalped again. I really hate it when the tourist areas nickel-and-dime us to death. Not pretty.
So I spent a pleasant and relaxing day at the beach, did a few dips in the Red Sea and watched the sun cross the sky. The temperature was 31 degrees (low 90s) and I was warm and happy. The resort had what looked like a nice grill, so I checked the menu for lunch. I found such interesting items as ‘Gordon Blue’ chicken and a ‘Foul Sandwich.” I settled on the hamburger and fries, and they turned out to be really tasty. Afterwards I napped in the sunshine until it was time to return to my hotel late in the afternoon. I tried a beer at the Rover’s Return restaurant and bar in the Gateway Center, but I was the only customer (guess I was early), so I once again repaired to my room to watch movies until bedtime.
I took a walk the next morning to the north of the downtown area to see if any of the beaches up there were open to the public, but they were all private and attached to luxury hotels. So, back to the public beach, which was crowded on Friday, it being the Islamic Sunday. Lots of families and women in black outfits that covered them completely except for hands and face (and some even with those areas covered, with just a slit for their eyes) and little children and men in shorts and t-shirts. Very few men and young boys were bare-chested. It was almost like a bathing scene in the USA from the early 20th Century.
The Red Sea is exceptionally clear and amazingly clean out to about the first 100-200 meters, and even farther as I was later to find out. A middle-aged man wading in the sea near me and watching over a young girl started chatting with me; turned out he was a high-ranking military officer who had traveled quite a bit professionally. Majid and I had a nice conversation and it was our hope that people from all over the world could meet and talk as we did; maybe there would be less violence in the world if we all got to know each other.
I decided I still wanted some sort of sea cruise, so I took one of the little glass-bottom boats out for a half-hour spin around the Aqaba area. The glass bottom was pretty crusty, but the sea was so clear I could see everything anyway, including an old Panzer tank from WWII. I had lunch on the strand at one of the ubiquitous fast food stands; a surprisingly good meal – shawarma, fries, veggies and a couple of soft drinks – and all for only 2 JD! Gotta come here more often.
I spent another hour at the beach, then opted for the hotel pool and a nap. By that time it was nearly dusk and definitely time for a beer or two at Rover’s Return to watch the sunset. The cold Kilkenny hit the spot as I watched the lights come on in Eilat, Israel, across the bay. Actually, when the weather was clear (as it almost always was) you can see four countries from the hotel rooftops in Aqaba: Jordan, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Cool.
My final day in Aqaba and I had run out of pretty much everything I wanted to do. I sat on the beach again, this time much less crowded, and swam in the Red Sea. I lunched again at the same fast food stand, this time having lamb kebabs and fries with assorted veggies, one of which was, and I kid you not, what appeared to be – and tasted like – a real, authentic, New Mexican roasted green chile! For a minute I was back at the Owl Café, scarfing down those spicy goodies. A real reminder of other times, other places.
The hotel’s pool was still cold, but in the 32-degree heat it felt just right. Another short nap and I was awakened by my new friends Zsuzsa and Eszter who had promised me a late lunch at their favorite seafood restaurant in the souk. I showered and changed and off we went to Al Sharmi. The fish was superb, and the grilled calamari hit the spot. No alcohol, but that’s okay too.
I took another stroll and when the sun went down decided to check out the hotel’s rooftop bar, Jazo, on my final night in town. Damn, I wish I’d have checked it out earlier during my stay. Since I was the only customer in the place for awhile, I had the sole attention of the bartender, Aksana, a sweet young girl from Ukraine. I dazzled her with my two Ukrainian words (“Budjmo, holubchik” – Cheers, little dove) and we became fast friends. A couple of beers, the company of a pretty girl, a starry night in the Middle East, and all was right with the world
For our final day in Jordan, we checked out of the hotel and took off around 8 AM for a four-hour drive to the Dead Sea Spa, about 50 km from Amman. We stopped along the way for a photo op of the stone pillar known as Lot’s Wife, who supposedly turned to stone when she looked back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The new spa/resort was beautiful and huge, and we had rooms for half the night. After a quick lunch, it was down to the Dead Sea, where I – and a few others – rubbed ourselves all over with the famous – and supposedly therapeutic – black mud. We then went into the Dead Sea and sluiced it all off, leaving our skin smooth as the inside of a Dutch girl’s thigh. Aaaahhh.
I floated for awhile in the Dead Sea – you can’t sink! – and had a light nap before dinner. The resort’s sports bar wasn’t able to show the last match of the Six Nations Rugby Tournament, so I settled for a couple of Becks beers and the attentions of the local resort tabby cat, who was pleased to settle her pleasure on me. I killed the time until 12:30 that night by watching movies, as we had to check out then and drive to the Amman airport, where we checked in and awaited our plane back to Budapest, which left at 4:30 AM. Another long, tired night without much sleep.
It was a nice, relaxing holiday in the sun and one which I needed desperately after nearly six months without so much as a weekender. It was good to be traveling again, and the even better news is there’s only a couple of months until my next trip.
The week went by too quickly, full of fun and rest and sunshine and heat and nice people. Some of my more interesting memories include:

A local map pinpointing the location of the “Flee Market”
A sign warning guests not to put their toilet paper in the toilet
My new friend Eszter whose dietary habits were never to eat anything with legs
Eszter having to buy a scarf to cover her cleavage (to keep the Jordanian men from staring at her), which is usual in Budapest, but definitely not in Jordan where the women cover everything but hands and face
The beer and soft-drink cans all have pop-tops
The wonderful friendliness of all of the Jordanian men and children; the women were more reserved with strangers, but not too bad
The fact that damn near everyone spoke English!

So – yet another in a growing list of great places I’ve visited in the world. I’d go back to Jordan again. And who knows, I may get to do so one day.


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