Thursday, July 5, 2012

Road Trip: From Dead Sea to Amman to Unknown Parts of Jordan

So there I was at a three-day conference, comfortably ensconsed at the picturesque and family-oriented Jordan Valley Marriott Resort and Spa (situated an impressive 400 metres below sea level,) when I roused myself from imagining how much my papercuts are going to hurt when I float in the Dead Sea, to embark on what I thought would be an uneventful 50 kilometer drive into Amman for dinner.
One of the several pools at Jordan Valley Marriott Resort and Spa,
overlooking the Dead Sea and beyond that, Israel.
So the moment my last session ended at 6 p.m., we hopped into our Hertz-mobile and set out in the general direction of the capital.  Rather than take the highway, we opted for the scenic route which meant veering from the King's Highway onto a signless road up one of the mountain ranges between the Dead Sea valley and the city. 
The road to Madaba
We headed towards Madaba, the fifth most populous town in Jordan that dates back beyond 1300 B.C., is best known for ancient Byzantine mosaics, and is mentioned several times in the Bible (then again, it's not that difficult to find anyplace in this region that's not given a shout-out in the holy books.)
The road to Amman
After a quick look-see around Madaba, we turned left in the northern direction towards Amman.  There was one stop to make before heading to dinner: the Citadel, situated above the city on the hill of Jebel al-Qala'a, which has excavated ruins of an Ummayad palace dating from about AD 720, and the Temple of Hercules which was constructed during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.  Plus it's a great place to view the day's last sun rays on downtown Amman sprawled below.
Downtown Amman
It was nearly 7 o'clock when we got into the core of Amman; we could see the Citadel and the hill it was perched on, but for the life of Ripley, we couldn't find the route heading up there.  There it was, one of the most popular and historic attractions in the world, within eyeball range, and yet it was hopelessly and frustratingly out of reach.  We navigated through the madcap, eternal rush hour traffic, ventured through dozens of claustrophobic roads and side streets, taking care not to topple any street vendors' carts along the way, and tried in vain to match the rare obscure street signs to the ones listed on our woefully inadequate map, but no dice.  We alternatively circled around and barrelled through the city several times, and finally, somewhere along the way, we ended up on some highway that was headed towards the Syrian border.  Yes, that Syria.
Round and round we drove in downtown Amman.
By that time, we were driving through towns that were generally out of any regular tourist routes. There were zero English signs anywhere, no notable touristy landmarks to be found, and everyone only spoke Arabic.  That was truly one of the super rare times in our lives when we were at a loss as to where we were located, not just in the general vicinity of a city (and the capital, no less) but in the entire country.  Panic and gloom were starting to set in.  And hunger.  Definitely the hunger.
Driving through the streets of.....I'm not even sure where this is.
At the end, it was through sheer divine, mad, capitalistic luck how we eventually found ourselves back on track. You see, the people who'd created that sad Hertz-provided road map had struck a deal with the Subway sandwich chain of stores. So whatever it had lacked in its basic proper functionality as a map (like, you know, naming all roads and landmarks clearly,) it made up for by listing every single friggin' Subway outlet in Jordan. So never mind the wonders of the Byzantine era or the Middle Bronze Age; let's scoff at the ancient stargazers who could chart their way home by harnessing the power of the universe and the skies; no, we only need an American sandwich chain to steer us on the right highway "home."  Somewhere, I was sure Jared Fogle was smiling knowingly at our enlightened state brought to us by his corporate sponsor, as he chomped down on a foot-long Meatball Marinara.

So long story short, we'd gone in the northeastern direction way, way, waaaay beyond Amman and its treasures, to a point where we were more than 30 kilometers away from the capital and a whopping 80 kilometers from our hotel.   To recap, we never got within spitting distance of the Citadel or Temple of Hercules, we totally missed having dinner (and I was so looking forward to sampling the Jordanian national dish of mansaf - lamb cooked in a sauce of fermented dried yogurt and served with rice,)  we'd been driving dementedly and determinedly for four and a half hours, and our backs and legs were cramped from sitting prone in the not-Mercedes S Class all that time. 

It definitely didn't feel like it then - you know, back when we were starving, moody and achy - but yeah, it's definitely one of those Lucy moments where we can now look back on that crazy, long drawn out evening, and laugh our asses off.
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