Well, you will doubtless be as surprised as we were to find out what has happened to us next on our epic journey of discovery!
But first, a little summary of our final few hours in Delhi and onwards to the Middle East.
We arrived with many hours to spare at the airport, so that we could relax and enjoy all the facilities of the departure lounge. At this point, we were perplexed to see the long queues simply to gain access to the check-in zones. We were eventually herded to the front of the line and told to go away by a security officer with a machine gun. Apparently people are only permitted into the building no more than three hours prior to the departure time of their flights. We had arrived eight hours ahead of time, and were waved over the road to a pokey little area with uncomfortable seats and a food hall serving reheated slices of pizza. After some games of chess (in which, incidentally Jon adopted some startlingly new, aggressive tactics which resulted in a 2-0 victory for him) we were asked to leave even this area because we were occupying a table. Simon commented to the restaurant manager in a rather brusque way his opinion of this policy. On our way to the second attempt at penetrating the check-in zone, a very pretty but unbelievably rude young lady again tried to stop us. Once past her, another security guard attempted to fob us off once more, but Simon was having none of it. “Go away”, said the guard, by now worn down by the persistence of the weary travellers, pointing them in the direction of the other security guard. Perhaps the next one would be more of a soft touch?
Staff training SHOULD become a priority at this airport in the very near future. More specifically, training the armed guards to read and understand an airline ticket. It’s not rocket, is it? This final guard was completely flummoxed by the concept of an e-ticket and by the idea of a stopover. He was unable to ascertain even the dates on which we were to fly. Simon adopted the tactic of repeating over and over again the same, simple information, in a very forthright manner. Eventually the guard realised the only way to get rid of us was to let us pass. And pass we did, into what can only be described as the paradise of the Indira Gandhi International Airport. Check-in was smooth and perfect, as was our passage through security and into the comfort of the departure lounge. Perhaps this must count as one of our best ever experiences the world’s airports?
The Royal Jordanian flight was on a brand-new Airbus A-319, painted in ‘One World’ alliance colours. There were very few passengers, and a very helpful and attentive crew on the six hour flight to Amman, during which there was a great breakfast service, followed by cakes with tea and coffee. On reading the in-flight magazine, we quickly realised that we were not to be the only important visitors to Amman that morning: Pope Benedict XVI was also arriving in town! But would we get to see him?
Our onward plans within Jordan took an unexpected turn: yes, we WILL get to explore Jordan, as you will soon find out, but first, something else was beckoning. Something with deep spiritual significance.
Many people visit India for its spiritual and mystic qualities. Perhaps the holy Hindu city of Varanasi offers a certain depth to travellers seeking a profound experience. Or perhaps the meeting with Buddhist monks and the visiting of Buddhist monasteries gives the weary traveller a glimpse of some spiritual peace. But for us, these expected experiences didn’t quite happen. There was something quite alien and false about the mumbo-jumbo of Hindu practices we had witnessed, both in India and Nepal, whilst this emptiness also seemed to be at the heart of Buddhism. Strangely, we longed for a fix of some Christianity.
And so as we smoothly negotiated our passage through the Queen Alia Airport in Jordan, buying our Jordanian visas and getting our hands on some Jordanian Dinars, we decided on exactly where to head next!
“Where you go?”
“The King Hussein Bridge!”
This border crossing would then be just a short shared taxi ride from our goal. Exiting Jordan was perfectly simple. Gaining entry to the most security-conscious country on Earth was to prove far trickier and far more time consuming. Would it be worth it?
After much queuing, multiple passport inspection, disinfection, photography, finger-print taking, answering of personal and intrusive questions (for which, incidentally, Jon took the lead with his diplomatic expertise…) we were in. “Welcome to Israel”, beamed the pretty young lady.
Dropped off by the Damascus gate, we marvelled at the scope and size of the city walls as we headed into the Old City with its different quarters: Arabic quarter, Jewish quarter, Christian quarter, Armenian quarter and so on. And later we marvelled at the moonlight casting its beams over the white limestone of the magnificent fortifications.
We stumbled across the Golden Gate Hostel, a converted mediaeval brewery, and couldn’t believe our luck in finding a small room complete with exposed ancient brickwork and a gothic-vaulted ceiling. And then out to explore in the streets of the Old City, with its myriad, teeming bazaars selling all manner of goods from tempting sweets, to pungent and aromatic spices, to souvenirs, ancient icons and carvings, oil lamps and textiles. How magnificent!
The muezzins began their call to prayer, each mosque interweaving and intermingling with the sounds of the others to create an otherwordly, slow harmony. And as the sun began to cast its final, golden rays of Friday afternoon sun onto the stonework, we found our way to a small balcony overlooking the Wailing Wall. Making our way down onto the Plaza we mingled with vast numbers of Orthodox Jews as Shabbat commenced, and covering our heads as a mark of respect we made our way over to touch the sacred wall. Later, as darkness descended we passed hundreds (possibly thousands) of Orthodox Jews as they walked in procession out through the Damascus Gate. What a memory of a lifetime!