Friday, July 4, 2008

Enormous Amman

Amman's defining characteristic: traffic...mosques...the amplified call to prayer 5 times a day...the incredibly helpful local folks...or maybe the topography--hill upon hill stacked with square white buildings practically on top of each other, as far as the eye can see. Choose any or all of these.

So about the driving: I've learned that Ammanites use their horns in a different way here. In America, the blast of a horn in traffic means "Look out!" Here, it is loosely translated as "If you continue on your current path, I will hit you." And a second toot is "Man'shalla," or "God bless you." Imagine, if you will, Manhattan. Times Square, specifically. Only no traffic signals and no crosswalks. Jaywalking in Amman is an Allah-given right apparently. Never have I seen a place where both drivers and pedestrians embody absolutely fearlessness of one another. Needless to say, it makes for some interesting rides in taxis and some terrifying crossings of streets.

We got a late start on the day, suffering from the classic Jordan tourists' malady of "Petra calves." This is where one's calves are so tight and sore from scaling the steep hikes of Petra that one cannot step across a threshhold without moaning.

But we did make it downtown, dropped off by our cab driver at the very top of the city (see, we learned something from our Petra climb), the Citadel. This is a place littered with ruins from a Roman temple (pictured), a small museum of antiquities, and a spectacular 360-degree of the city. In the picture of the ruins, look for Betsy in the lower left corner and you'll get a sense of their incredible size.

We then boarded a tour bus which turned into a fiasco that turned into an interesting tour in its own right. Here's an observation about this place: "I speak English" does not really mean that. It means, "I don't speak English but I want to help you so badly I'll pretend, even if it means I give you inaccurate information." Anyway, we saw way more of Amman than we had ever imagined, including the very posh west side of the city, which is where the King lives in one of his many palaces.

We eventually escaped from our tour guide (we were the only passengers on the bus, so this required some deception on our part), and found ourselves in the Souk (the old marketplace) where we considered our dinner options. We opted for a place well-reviewed in our guide book, "Wild Jordan," a cafe and restaurant attached to the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, known for locally-grown organic food and a great view of the city. Of course, it was nowhere near where we were, so we had to hail a taxi and yes, found another driver who "spoke English." Luckily, the clerk at our hotel had written the name and address of the restaurants we were considering on a card in Arabic, and we just pointed to this one and hoped for the best. It took a while and multiple requests by the driver for directions from people on the streets, but we finally found it. I think he was as happy as we were to have succeeded in this quest.

The restaurant more than lived up to the guide book's praise. The building is on the side of a steep hill, and from the upper terrace where we sat, we had an unbelievable view of sunset over the city. In the picture of the two of us, you can see the Citadel off in the distance, where we had begun our day. From our table we could see no fewer than 20 mosques dotting the landscape (mosques are easy to distinguish, especially at night, because they have green neon lights at the tops of their minarets). As we ate our wonderful dinners, fireworks lit up the sky off in the distance. It was stunning. And then again--fireworks in another direction. And a third time, in a different place. We asked the waiter, "What's the occasion for the fireworks?" He looked puzzled by our question (we're getting used to that), and said, "Anybody can do that, for whatever reason they wish." Aaah. Through our American lens, we had assumed fireworks were some officially-sanctioned (and lit) event, but it turns out any Jamal on the street can buy them and set them off. We saw about ten different fireworks displays overall, each one causing us great American delight, as we just pretended it was a Fourth of July celebration.

We eventually got up from our exquisite location and wandered out into the street (carefully) to hail a cab (no easy feat since we were in a much less trafficked place). Again, the cabdriver was less able to understand us than he wanted to, but after a few tries, he seemed to figure out our preferred destination (I have to thank Gary for teaching us the phonetic pronunciation of "University of Jordan," roughly "ja ma ordin-a-ya", which is close enough to our hotel to at least land us within walking distance).

We returned to our hotel to find a wedding in full flower out at the pool--loud music, dancing, and, I'm pretty sure, drinking. After three days of seeing almost every woman covered by at least a head scarf and long skirts or pants and long-sleeved shirts, it was quite a shock to look out at the party from the lobby above and see women in backless dresses, looking like they were at a New Jersey wedding (something I know a lot about). We watched a while, then headed to our room (thankfully on the other side of the hotel) where we crashed once again, hoping not to dream about over-eager tourguides.

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