A difficult country for me to get excited about, as I have to admit I didn’t love it here. An expensive destination, yet no evidence of where the tourist money goes. Littering is a national hobby, as is charging exorbitant fees irrespective of quality and service. With so many historical sites and biblical drawcards on offer I feel Jordan can up its game to deliver a great visitor experience complete with bells and whistles.
Nestled between several countries who are experiencing tense political turmoil, Jordan has been labelled the “Oasis of Stability”. This is ironic as it’s the second poorest country in the world in terms of water resources per capita and at current usage levels it will soon run out. The Dead Sea is living up to its name and rapidly shrinking. Luxury resorts originally built on the shore are now a walk away across muddy sands, with cheap plastic chairs scattered along the salty waterline.
Predictions alarmingly state that the population of Jordan will double by 2047, due to high birth rates and welcoming Arabic speaking refugees with open arms. Already consuming more water than they are collecting Jordan is in strife! Real strife. Can they overturn this drought predicament? We can but hope.
So what about the good parts of Jordan? Petra. Definitely Petra. An ancient city in the Jordanian desert; known to most by featuring in the film Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. Wandering along the siq, a narrow rock gorge, you start to wonder when you will first glimpse the sight you have flown to Jordan specifically to see. Then rounding a corner magically a slither of the façade of the treasury appears in view. Carved into the sandstone rock some two thousand years ago, the tomb looms over you resplendently basking in the bright morning light.
What surprised me about Petra was the enormity of the site, and how everywhere you look there are carvings in the rock. Whether it’s the grandeur of a tomb, an amphitheatre or a series of caves. A colonnaded street runs along one area with remains of Roman temples either side. Being in a rocky desert there are plenty of opportunities to climb to majestic heights and peer down on the city below. I spent two and a half days exploring and loved every minute. Well, except for the painful walk back up the steep hill to the new town and hotel epicentre.
One last point, I want to shout out the generosity of locals. Whilst people were very reserved and conversation was stilted, they demonstrated hospitality by continuing to surprise me and pay for things on my behalf. This could be your bus ticket, or a cup of tea. I was even invited to a home cooked dinner with a family I met in the main square in Amman. I felt very welcome by Jordan where it matters most – at grass roots level.
So the morality police. I’d heard this term many times before arriving in Iran but after being there for several days all thoughts of this self-governing group had been banished. That is until I met them. That is until I was apprehended for my lack of conformity to hijab and showing my hair – an illegal act for women.
For my first few days in the country the challenge of wearing hijab, which translates as “cover up”, proved tricky. Whilst feeling the heat in long sleeved tops and trousers, having to maintain the position of my headscarf proved the most frustrating. A continual tug-of-war between gravity insisting that my headscarf slide off, and me desperately clawing it back into place became the daily norm.
Thankfully I was given what I can only presume to be a warning in Farsi and directions to suitably amend my attire, by the rather fearsome morality police. The next person to be questioned on their dress code, a local girl, seemed to be given a much more thorough grilling and her tears were freely flowing.
I have no intention of this sounding like a negative post, as I truly enjoyed my time in Iran. Though I did on occasion struggle with the intensity of the rules imposed in the country and the impact of these. On a more positive note, here are some of the things that I witnessed in my travels:
- The art of bread making is quite unique, I didn’t see two bakeries alike. My favourite one which I was invited behind the scenes of, though they spoke no English, made their flat bread in a hot gravel oven. Once baked part of the process, to ensure no teeth are broken, is to pick out the hot chunks of gravel. This is done on special wire mesh containers by the buyers just in front of the shop. And for the record it tasted delicious!
- An unbelievable level of kindness and warmth oozed from everyone I met. Iranians are a very proud race of people who are keen to display their country in the best light. People frequently seemed intent on sharing their food with me, I was given free lifts by relative strangers and was even let into and shown around closed mosques by caretakers and builders alike. Such a breath of fresh air being made to feel welcome in an unknown land.
- Surprisingly Esfahan boasts the second largest square in the World. The largest being Tiananmen square in Beijing.
- In the countries holiest mosque, Haram-e Razavi Shrine in Mashhad, devout worshippers swarm the vast complex. The majority of women wear the traditional black chador, a shapeless piece of material which covers you from head to toe, making it impossible to identify individuals from behind. I saw one ingenious group who had all pinned a white tag on the back of their floor length gowns. I couldn’t help but smile at this bid for individuality in the strictest place in Iran.
- Often claimed to be the birth of civilisation, there are several ancient sights in Iran. Dating from 520BC is the most famous sight of Persepolis, with a fantastically intricately carved stone staircase.
Everyone has been keen to hear about my trip through Iran, and with good reason. Whilst not many people I know have been to this political hot potato of a country; most know of it’s turbulent past along with it’s current on-going sanctions and alleged uranium processing facilities.
My first impressions immediately blew away my pre-conceived thoughts that this would be an authoritarian country where woman were not treated as equals. From the word go I found the country illuminating and culturally intriguing. Both men and women were keen to chat, and I learnt much about their thoughts and dreams for the future of Iran.
The things that surprised me in Iran were numerous, I’ve listed some here:
I think I’ll post more on Iran soon, as there is so much to this country that I want to share.
It’s the silk road
…. to peruse the photographs from my latest adventures (The Stans and Iran) simply use this link to my flickr account. Enjoy!!
Syria is an extremely interesting country to travel through. Strong cultural beliefs and traditions run deeply through the population.
- Experience a strong biblical undertone with young shepherds tending their herds of sheep and goats. I have never seen so many shepherds!
- Ladies pay a visit to a traditional hamman (a Turkish bath). On the streets of Aleppo, many women’s beliefs require total skin coverage with black fabric. This includes their hands and face, which is covered using thin gauze. There is also a certain unapproachable aura about these women. However in the safe haven of the hamman the majority of their clothes and inhibitions were removed; and I’m happy to say I witnessed the jovial chatty fun side of these mysterious ladies.
- President Bushar al-Assad smiles at you from every conceivable place. His image adorns car bumper stickers, flags and posters. They truly adore their political leader.
- Explore ancient ruins alone in stunningly peaceful Palmyra. This desert town is home to some of the friendliest people I met in Syria. I went into a small shop for a bottle of water, and left some thirty minutes later after sharing tea and biscuits with the non-English speaking owner. As I don’t speak Arabic conversation was limited, but smiles frequent.
This small war torn country is on the list of up and coming places for travellers to visit. To me it is still very much emerging, and is a challenge to explore.
- Get lost in the streets of Beirut. Bullet riddled dwellings stand alongside newly constructed buildings. The mixture of past and present on the same street is surreal.
- Witness the fragile state of this nation. An ever alert army stands ready to defend the country. Tanks are on the streets, razor wire surrounds key buildings and along the coastal walkway armed guards are stationed strategically.