Monday 18 May 2009

Hello Heathrow!

Well we’ve made it! The flight on Royal Jordanian was five hours and thirty minutes: the plane was fantastic, and the drinks’ service was great: they came around twice with a very gluggable white wine which was poured copiously from the bottle rather than in those measly little individual bottles! With the plush red seats and perfectly attired stewardesses, it actually eclipses our experience on Virgin Atlantic on the way out. But anyway, onto the final section of our interview:  

Jon: Hello Simon

Simon: Hmm. Hello Jon.

Jon: What were your expectations of India before you went?

Simon: Oh very high actually. I had heard that Francis Grier had a spiritual experience when he visited India, and ended up staying and trying to explore Indian music and various alternative therapies. This is what I was searching for, but sadly there was nothing there, it was entirely hollow on a mystical level.

Jon: How did real India compare with your imagination?

Simon: The heady aromas of rose petals in Hindu garlands often filled the air just when we walked down the street: this was even better than the dream! But there again, there were other scents which would always compete with this: often the smoke of simple cooking fires, either burning coals or simple wood fires, and of course the smells of bodily functions which punctuate your progress down the street with every step. We were under-prepared for much of this, but we managed to take this all in our stride.

Jon: Were you particularly shocked by the poverty in Bangladesh?

Simon: At first, it was NOT self-evident. Our first experiences of Bangladesh involved the amazing scenery of West Bengal and then over the border. The flatness is VERY green, and punctuated by small settlements and massive palm trees, together with much water, either in rivers or streams. This scenery immediately evokes the world of Rabindranath Tagore, and was both serene and magical. And then our arrival in Cox’s Bazar made us wonder at the great natural scenery and the warmth of the people. It was only gradually, as we scratched away at the surface that we began to perceive the full horror of life here; yes of course it’s a third-world country, this we knew before setting out, but the reality stops you in your tracks. Even in Cox’s Bazar, just below the surface of the beach life, lies a grim and hideous reality: once beautiful streams now still and overflowing only with rotting garbage and effluent. People continuously discarding all household waste into these addits, and alongside every street, flows open sewers. All this comes as a matter of course in daily life. And then our visit to the shanty settlements, where normal life attempts to take place under great hardships. The beaming smiles of the local people tend to disguise, or at least distract from, the reality of a tiny country, barely forty years into its independence with a population of over 140 million, many of whom suffer overcrowding, poverty, starvation and arsenic poisoning.

Jon: What did you find special about Bangladesh that you can’t find in any of the other countries that we visited?

Simon: Optimism.

Jon: What was the most extreme part of the trip for you?

Simon: By extreme, perhaps you are thinking of the white-water-rafting? Well that was awesome, and we must, must, must try it again over the world. But there was something else extreme: remember the Hindu watermelon festival on Maheskhali Island?

Jon: Ummm…. Yeah?

Simon: The demonic trance of those women, that look was something I’ve never seen before; it was like possession. And I never want to see it again.

Jon: Did the Himalayas in Nepal live up to your expectations?

Simon: Up near the Tibetan border, it exceeded them. It was JUST what I was looking for (minus the monastery).

Jon: What monastery?

Simon: The one in the dream I’ve had since I was a boy, walking in the mountains of the Himalayas in breathtaking scenery and stumbling upon a little Buddhist monastery with candles, prayer wheels and chanting.

Jon: How did you feel when we were wandering lost around the Holy City of Jerusalem?

Simon: For the first time ever, found!

Jon: The Lost City of Petra was spectacular! It is one of the seven new wonders after all. But did that beat the Taj Mahal? And was there anything that particularly grabbed you in Jordan?

Simon: Yes, I think that it DID beat the Taj, by a narrow margin of course. And Jordan grabs you not by its other must-see features, but by its overall atmosphere and great people.

Jon: How does it feel to be on your way home?

Simon: Oh it’s a very special feeling, because travel doesn’t just teach you about what’s out there: it also shows you what’s inside, and what you’ve got already. We’re lucky, aren’t we?

Jon: Oh yes! Well, thanks Simon for a great trip and I really hope that the next one will be just as great!!!

Simon: I’m already off to buy another guidebook…

So thanks for following our exploits. We are glad that you all enjoyed reading up on our antics. All that remains is for a few photos to help jog our memories of some really great times. But keep watching, because who knows, before too long the intrepid duo may be off to another continent. And this time, it’s going to be REALLY extreme!

The Final Countdown!

We’re on our way home at last! It’s been fantastic, but now we’re really looking forward to getting back to family life! Now that we’re back at the airport in Amman, it’s time for a little interview:

Simon: So, Jon, what are your most powerful impressions of India?
Jon: I was particularly impressed with the architecture in Mumbai as it was like stepping back a few years in London, but the more basic slums were amazing because millions of people had built their own houses from whatever materials they could find and did great jobs, actually. Jaisalmer was probably the best part of India with the sandstone fort in which we stayed and the havelis of course. Makhania lassi was plentiful and I wouldn’t mind going back for a couple, but it was the winding streets that really did it for me.
The Taj Mahal was greater than every expectation that I had. It was a huge learning curve as I never knew that the Q’ran was inscribed into the smooth marble of the monument, but I also learned that the four minarets on each corner of the Taj are designed to fall away from the centrepiece in the event of natural disasters i.e. earthquakes.
Varanasi was a unique experience; being able to see burning bodies on the ghats and floating our prayer candles in the Ganges, whilst on a small wooden boat was not to be missed.
The Indian people were not how I’d expected them to be. I had created this stereotypical vision in my head that they were all very warm and friendly. A few are. But I found that a lot of them tried to do us out of money and are very aggressive in queues and when driving. There were some very nice Indians too though, of course.
Simon: Yes, of course. And do you remember our first trip on the Indian Railways? Wasn’t that amazing?
Jon: Yep! Really cool to meet that Indian family who gave us free food, which was delicious by the way. I am really amazed at how easy the long journeys were. I found it really easy to sleep generally and it was quite comfortable. And the breeze coming in through the windows was a real treat in that scorching Indian heat!!!
Simon: How about Bangladesh, did that live up to the way you had imagined it?
Jon: I hadn’t really thought a lot about Bangladesh before. It was a place that I never thought I’d see. In certain ways, it was better than I had imagined. For a start the language is beautiful and the spoken basics are easy to pick up. The people are extremely friendly and the countryside is beautiful, but I was shocked at the state of Dhaka and the abundance of people who are in distress, fighting constantly for survival below the poverty line. Cox’s Bazar beach was amazing and I thought it seemed strange that the palm trees we’ve seen in places like Goa have been replaced by evergreens. Up in Srimangal, the cycling around the Lowacharra Forest and the tea plantations was really awesome, and I must admit that I have never tried a cup of six-layer tea before. The friends we made, Russel and Michael, were really great and I hope that we all remain in touch and that Michael in particular fulfils his dream of making it to England one day. The big downside of Bangladesh is that we ate the same food for two weeks solid due to the little variation in dishes. Daal Fry? Never again!!! (Barfs).
Simon: The way we went to Nepal quite spontaneously, that was a superb way of doing it. What struck you most about the place?
Jon: Our experience on Nagarkot was very striking and memorable. Ascending from a baking hot environment down in the large and dusty city of Kathmandu and getting caught in a wind/rain/hail storm up in the higher reaches. It was a moment that I will never forget. And the mountain bikes we hired that day were awesome and we certainly picked up speed, weaving in and out of busy Kathmandu traffic!
Lets not forget the Last Resort though, where I did my first bungee jump! Will it be my last? The surrounding Himalayan landscape there was spectacular too and I am itching to return for more trekking!
Simon: Did Delhi manage to live up to the expectations of a world-class capital city?
Jon: Where we were, not really. It was nice enough but, where our hotel was, the ground was bumpy just like we saw in poorer parts of India like Bihar. In our locality there was not much going on either, except for the amazing gym we went to and a couple of great restaurants. Maybe they put all the real cool things in old Delhi? The folklore dance show we went to was absolutely amazing though, and it was exactly what I wanted to see whilst in India!
Simon: Our chance trip into Israel, even though it was only a few days long, what did you feel about our visit to Jerusalem?
Jon: That was the best decision we ever made! On the King Hussein Bridge border crossing, it was nice to see other like-minded travellers too. I confess that I developed severe Delhi belly-ness during our time in Jerusalem, but I battled it out and I am glad because I have now been to the holiest place on the planet. I would have been really gutted if the pains had kept me in bed. It was great walking the Via Dolorosa and imagining what it was like at the time Jesus walked it, before Old Jerusalem was even built. But on the Jewish spectrum, it was great to see the Wailing Wall as I had only ever heard about it in a religious education lesson when I was at school… I never thought that I’d actually be going! And finally, the narrow and cobbled streets of Jerusalem were great just to aimlessly walk around on and get lost in.
Simon: And finally Jordan: In a single word, what’s it like spending time in an Arab country?
Jon: Sorry Simon, but one word just doesn’t do any justice! It was different to any experience I have ever had and perhaps it was the best idea coming to the Middle East on the way home! Good call!
Simon: So if you had to choose two things, one natural and the other manmade as the best aspects of our trip, what would they be?
Jon: It’s a close call between the Taj Mahal and the Lost City of Petra, though Petra wins!!! It is the most marvellous wonder I have seen on our trip! In terms of the natural phenomenons, that thunderstorm in Bangladesh was really great to walk around in! Otherwise, probably coming tops are the natural dunes of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan!
Simon: Eek, our plane is about to go! Cheers Jon, thanks very much!

Sunday 17 May 2009

What's Amman to do in Jordan?

Perhaps we should have renamed this blog ‘IndiaBangladeshNepalJordanIsrael’ but would that have been a bit of a mouthful? Well it’s certainly had plenty of unexpected moments! Often it’s been the unplanned bits which have been the most thrilling and fascinating. Today is our last full day, and we spent it in Amman Downtown. It’s great looking forward to coming home, but things aren’t quite over yet. So look out tomorrow for our final blog entries, and you never know, we might even do a summary of all the best bits, with some photos you’ve not even seen yet!

Today reached even greater gastronomic heights: we went to Habibah, which is THE best cake shop in the whole of Jordan. I like a bit of cake. We indulged in chocolate cake, cheesecake, chocolate √©clairs, washed down with lemon tea and Arabic coffee. It just so happened that Habibah also sells fantastic ice cream, so it would have been foolish not to have sampled lots, purely for the sake of research of course. We tried chocolate, cream, mango and lemon ice cream. After some serious shopping, it was time for fresh orange juice. We found a great juice bar on a busy street corner close to the largest mosque in Downtown, where a huge glass of tasty and refreshing juice which he squeezed right there and then cost only 1 JD. Next week we’re going to invest in juicers, that’s for sure!

Saturday 16 May 2009

The Desert Highway

What a stroke of luck! Last night, the owner of the hostel said that a car was going back to Amman at 9.00 a.m. and that it would cost us only 20 JD. At 9 sharp, we met Ali, who was a very cheerful and light-hearted soul who bundled us into his Toyota and thus we began the three-hour slog northwards along the Desert Highway towards Amman.
The roads were all so straight and each stretch seemed to reach the horizon and beyond, excluding where small desert mountains popped up here and there. On our right, admittedly rather along way past the horizon, was Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Ali, our driver, handed us a card, which gave details on one of the many hotels in Downtown Amman. It was much better value than what we had an idea of, based on what we were recommended in Wadi Musa. The room we are staying in costs 10JDs per night; it is a twin room and breakfast is included. We were expecting to pay 18JDs per night without breakfast, so we feel very lucky.
Besides our travel from Wadi Musa to Amman, not much else was going on today, so we trekked up the steep ascent from Downtown Amman to Mango Street, where there is a fantastic café. It looks like a popular hangout for like-minded travellers and, although the drinks are way, way, way overpriced, it comes with free wireless internet access, which kind of works. Sometimes.
We're sitting on the terrace watching the lights twinkle on one of the seven hills of the city, eating great food: Caesar Salad, fettucine with a creamy mushroon sauce and huge pizza. Why not Arabic today? It's cosmopolitan here, with awesome music on the sound system, and after all, we played two games of chess earlier in a locals coffee-den. Happy days!

Little Petra

Actually, we will not be making it to the Dead Sea because the King of Saudi Arabia has decided to pay Jordan a visit. I don’t know why they have to close off all access to the Dead Sea just because he is here, but what can we do? And what, exactly, makes him MORE important than us?
Today though, things were looking up for Jon and he was feeling a lot better since taking his medicine, so we teamed up with another man called Baz who was staying at the hotel and we took a taxi to a place known as ‘Little Petra’.
As we left the hotel and walked downwards towards town, we flagged down a taxi and prepared ourselves for some hard bargaining.
We asked the driver “How much to Little Petra and back?”
“Oh… It is seven JDs there and seven back, plus I wait there for one hour, so twenty-five JDs.”
The JD (Jordanian dinar) is roughly the same strength as the British pound. Through winding roads of steep ups and plummeting downs we sped in the taxi, gazing out at the marvellous rock formations that surrounded the Lost City of Petra and extended all the way to the horizon.
To cut a long story short, we ended up going to Little Petra for fifteen JDs (not twenty five) and we spent about an hour-and-a-half there, wondering through deep, sandy gorges where rivers probably once gushed water in between the natural, sand-coloured, rock formations.

Lizards scurried across the sand as we explored by walking through the ravine and climbing up rocks, with spectacular views each time, without fail. Baz and Jon revelled in the ascent up to the fantastic view-point, and Simon made it there eventually, if a little miffed…

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Today we didn’t exactly make it to Wadi Rum. This place we’ve chosen to hole up in is just SO laid back we can’t seem to break out! Sometimes, local politeness can be astonishing: the shopkeeper just a few moments walk away is always helpful and refreshingly welcoming. After giving us a knockdown price on some bread, he repeated “Yes, you are most welcome; very welcome; you are welcome, enjoy your day; you are very welcome!” The furthest out that we went today was down to the local convenience store to get some breakfast and then to the pharmacy, where Jon got a hefty wad of pills against travellers’ diarrhoea and amoebic dysentery. Jon is not one for going to the doctors easily, but it finally clicked after going to the toilet every half an hour or so for the last six days, that he needed some treatment.
Moving on, the terrace is a great place to meet other travellers and exchange tales of mysterious locations the world over, for Petra is one of those magnetic draws which attracts fascinating people from all over the globe.
Our first character this afternoon was meant to be on a plane back home to California, but instead had decided to begin the next chapter of his life right here. And what a fascinating life, taking in the setting up of a school in rural Burma, as well as travels in South East Asia, Nepal and Spain. Good conversation always tends to draw in worthy participants, and soon another transatlantic guy was relating to us his odyssey from Egypt, via Jordan all the way to Taiwan.
An Australian also joined the group, but was strangely cagey when we asked him where he lived now. “Somewhere else” came the blunt reply. As we all started on the all-you-can-eat buffet (yes, you’ve now guessed the REAL reason we’re still here…) the conversation turned incomprehensibly peculiar. “Do you speak Swedish?” said American 2 to Australian 1. “No, but I live there and my mother is Lutheran”. How weird. American 2 then announced that he was going to live in Sweden because he could get citizenship because his father was Lutheran, although he had never been there. This would have baffled us all night if we had not quickly cottoned on to the fact that they were talking in code. For these guys were really talking about Israel and their Jewish parentage. How careful people need to be, even in Jordan!
There’s one other little fella we met here at the hostel. He’s so curious for everything he even once ended up marooned inside the rubbish bin!

Then it was time to go to the movies. What was showing? Well, ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ of course, for the real star of the film is the Lost City of Petra. After the movie, we saw the girl at reception. “Can we stay tomorrow night as well please?” Ah well, we’ll make it to the Dead Sea eventually…

Wednesday 13 May 2009

Wadi Musa

Why are the guidebooks so tough on poor Wadi Musa? It’s a great hillside town, with the echo of an amphitheatre, which magnifies the glorious calls to prayer, which punctuate the day. Here, the muezzins seem to intertwine their beautiful songs, both with the other mosques, and with their own chanting. Sitting on the balcony under a Bedouin tent, feeling the gentle breezes wafting across the valley, watching the sun move downwards towards the mountains of Petra and listening to the funky Arabic music as we await another tasty all-you-can-eat-buffet: well, this is as close as we have made it to paradise so far on this adventure! So, after our day of exploration around Petra yesterday, what, exactly, have we done today? Absolutely nothing!
Well, that’s not entirely true, but even intrepid travellers sometimes need days in their busy schedules when they are not haring around from A to B, or looking at the must-sees of B, or jumping off B… So today we decided just to sit back and chill! But before the big chill, we desperately needed to get our hands on some cash. Jordan is surprisingly expensive, and everybody seems to round prices up, which means that we have, admittedly, been caught out on money.
Simon had trouble getting cash in exchange for his travellers’ cheques today. The banker was very reluctant and, infact, refused to exchange them for him because Simon didn’t have the receipt slip with the cheque denominations and numbers written down. The banker later noticed the unmarked receipt, upon which Simon should have written the cash values down and stowed away somewhere, but he still refused to carry out the exchange. Must be a security thing. Without cash, Simon foresaw a tricky scenario, so much miffage then ensued!
We left the bank and Jon grabbed Simon’s bag and took out the travellers’ cheques, the unmarked receipt and a pen, and he copied the serial numbers from the cheques to the receipt, not forgetting to write the cash denominations as well. We returned to the bank and presented the newly marked receipt and Simon got his cash. So, the banker’s routine wasn’t very secure at all really, because anybody could have done it! Well, this team strikes again!
Although Jordan seems to be very expensive, can it be that this is the price that we have to pay to be in such a beautiful location? We may very well treat ourselves to yet another day of chillage tomorrow, for soon our programme is to encompass the Wadi Rum in all its glory (site of much Lawrence of Arabia shenanigans) and the Dead Sea. So keep your eyes peeled for more antics and special pictures!