Jordan · media · travel

Jordan reflections

Friends of mine have been curious to know what the people are like here and the political issues (besides the amazing food and stunning natural beauty, see video by my very talented friend The Graphical Baker ^).  I’ve been wary because  I don’t want to make generalisations. So disclaimer- here are some observations based on my limited experience and interactions here.

Money /The Government/Wasda

There’s a huge divide here between those who have means (who live in West Amman) and those that don’t (generally East Amman). It came to a head when the Mercedes- driving son of a minister went on a tirade on facebook about his argument with a Kia driver, raging against the ‘backward xxxxs’ in Jordan. A local I met recently, Ali*, told me this was particularly galling because most people in Amman drive cheap Kia cars. Everything is expensive here, due to import taxes. I was flabbergasted to see a toaster with a tag of 25 JD ($AUS37) at the local shopping centre. I’m told the minimum wage with tips will get you around 250 JD a month, which is roughly half the weekly rent for a roomy apartment in central Amman. High employment combined with the rising cost of living and the perception of widespread nepotism and corruption has created a powder keg of discontent.

For young middle-class educated Jordanians, the aspiration seems to be to go abroad. Ali, a languages student who speaks Russian and Spanish, wants to work as a diplomat but says nepotism means plum postings are generally reserved for the connected elite. There’s even a term for it: ‘wasda’.

Rabia*, a young teaching student at Jordan university, says it’s so bad you’ll have guys who will not turn up to class all semester, but will show up at the end to  be ‘passed’. I asked how that works for professions where you could actually kill someone, and she said in med school you have some professors who will tell the class straight up, there’s no ‘wasda’ here, so don’t even try.

While Jordanians I spoke to are not entirely happy with the status quo, they are grateful for stability and safety in a region where Jordan seems to be the only safe harbour. They are wary of the unrest revolution in nearby countries has created. One of my teachers said that whilst we’re not entirely happy, we don’t know what the alternative would be. Ali says Jordanians don’t want a revolution but they want change. Any discussion of the ruling Royal family is done in hushed tones and in private.

Palestine

In a country where most people are of Palestinian background, the conflict with Israel is central. It’s the recurring issue in personal stories and in the news. Pretty much everyone has a story of being denied entry into Israel (especially young men), of a grandparent losing everything and migrating but dreaming of being able to visit again. Many won’t recognize Israel as a country and say Palestine instead. There’s a perception that US is not an unbiased mediator. It’s the cause of a lot of anger and disbelief and there is pessimism there will ever be a real solution to the conflict.

Refugees

Syrian refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Picture: UNHCR/ Jared Kohler
Syrian refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Picture: UNHCR/ Jared Kohler, Flickr

A lot of NGO workers I’ve met here are working on building camp infrastructure for the thousands of Syrian refugees flooding in over the border. A conversation between two Jordanians I met reminded me of the debate around asylum seekers in Australia.

A: It’s costing us a lot of money.

M: The UN is paying for everything. I’m really worried about the camps. I heard people are dying there.

A: The problem is people coming here without passports and papers. You can’t have open borders.

A: I feel sorry for them. They’re fleeing for their lives, they might not all have papers.

M: Also Syrians are willing to work for less than Jordanians creating problems for locals.

A: They contribute. I feel sorry for them.

M: So do I. I hate the situation not the people.

The difference of course is that M has loads of Syrian friends and a great deal of sympathy for the plight of those fleeing, generally reflected in the public mood towards refugees with numerous fundraisers and events dedicated to Syria (in Australia, the right-wing view features mostly hatred, hysteria and racism). I think the fact that Syrians, like Jordanians, are Arab Muslims, probably makes a big difference.

Gender/Religion

Jordan is generally a conservative country but I think liberal by standards in the region. A local tour I went on (where we were the only foreigners) and a group of artsy liberal Jordanian students I met recently seemed like hanging out with a group of 20-somethings back in Australia, down to justifying my abstention from alcohol (which is freely available). The men love to dance, openly hug and kiss each other and seem really to know how to have a good time (that was just on the tour bus). Most women wear hijabs with fashionable western clothing but many don’t. You can walk around safely pretty much anytime of the day or night, and will not be bothered except for the occasional hooligan, though I have heard of foreign looking women being hassled. Like Pakistan it feels like you have a divide between two groups -those who are liberal and irreligious, mix freely and party and those who are religious and conservative. But I think there is hope for that rare breed- the religious liberal – bucking tradition but staying true to their Islamic roots. One of my teachers is a single hijabi and practicing Muslim who works, lives out of home and travels abroad despite societal and family disapproval.  It will be interesting to see if it is people like this, who can successfully reconcile tradition and modernity within themselves, can pave a navigation of those forces within society.

*Names have been changed.

Amman · Jordan · travel

Guide to taxis in Jordan

Hospitality workers and taxi drivers have a heavy burden to carry. Not only are they professions where long hours equate with low pay, they also become the default cultural ambassadors of any country.

The intersection between taxi drivers, generally working class folk (though I’ve met drivers who are struggling grad students) and generally privileged travellers is a fascinating study in itself (some might contest ‘privileged’ but even if you’re a poor traveller, by virtue of being able to choose to be away from your western home country you are privileged imo).

Generally taxi drivers here have been pretty friendly and helpful, with my mishmash of Arabic we can figure out where to go. Things are bit more, shall we say, laissez faire here. Be prepared for lots of chain smoking (Mad Men prevalent here), talkback morning radio and the driver stopping for a roadside coffee pick up or even to say hi to a friend. The smoking carries on in cafes, restaurants and in most public spaces (which makes the incessant warnings not to smoke on the plane on my way to Amman finally make sense).

 

Catching taxis in Amman is a precarious business. Picture: Paul Keller, Flickr
Catching taxis in Amman is a precarious business. Picture: Paul Keller, Flickr.

The fastest way to get around is a taxi which is relatively affordable, safe and in plentiful supply (at least in non peak hour times). Knowing enough Arabic phrases to get around is a must. Street addresses won’t cut it here, so best to know a landmark around where you’re going.  Drivers are nothing if not resourceful and will stop locals or even call a friend to find a tricky destination with limited information.

Catching a taxi is a great way to practice street Arabic, understand local culture and get the best tips on restaurants (though there is no obligation to make conversation if you’re a female, or if you are uncomfortable with any personal questions). I’ve heard grumblings about economy and cost of living, and gained insights into social interactions.

Dealing with drivers is also the best way to do to your head in trying to control what I will delicately call the ‘the meter situation’.

The battle of the meter begins when you step in. You need to make sure it is set to 25 qirsh or a quarter of a dinar. A trip anywhere in Amman should cost no more than three to four JD.

Every traveller and even locals have taxi war stories to tell. Some drivers won’t turn on the meter and will want to negotiate a price and then maybe ramp it up later. Some travellers ruefully admit to being charged up to 10 and even 20 JD.

After 11pm the fare will generally double and the meter will start from a higher base. Yellow taxis are your best bet. You can venture into the shared white taxis which are cheaper (you shouldn’t pay more than a dinar) but prepared to share with other passengers.

Now if I were poor taxi driver I would try to extort as much as I can too. But being on the other side of the driver’s seat (and if you’re a woman it’s culturally most appropriate to ride in the back) I’m here to provide practical tips to avoid being ripped off.

Besides refusing to ride into a non-metered taxi, there are some beautiful Arabic phrases to deal with tricky taxi or market negotiations. My favourite idiom “fi mish mish”  (which means something like “in the apricot/s”) translates delightfully to convey the ridiculousness of a proposition; an Arabic “when pigs fly” if you will. This is all part of the drama of bargaining in countries where respect derives from your ability to Apricot the situation.

The way you negotiate living in a city is I feel almost a microcosm of a society’s values. In western countries most commercial transactions are passive, fixed, cold. In others, everything is a negotiation, a dance, a play between two people where one’s knowledge and wits can be tested. This can be stressful when you’re used to the latter way of doing things, but once you understand how it works it can be enjoyable.

If all else fails just remember throw up your hands Arab style and shout,  “In the Apricots!”

 

 

Amman · culture · food · travel

Food adventures in Amman

 

 

Jordanian mezze. By Huda Aziz.
Jordanian mezze. Picture: Huda Aziz.

 

As many who know me can attest I’m a foodie. I can be at peace anywhere in the world if I have coffee, delicious food and wifi. I’d like to share some gems that I’ve discovered so far in my first few days in Amman (thanks to the recommendations of fellow intrepid travellers).

Hashem restaurant

The go-to place for locals and starving students wanting to eat on the cheap. Hashem is a no-nonsense vegetarian restaurant in downtown Amman where it’s all about the food. The décor is sparse and the food – simple, hearty unadorned bowls of bliss. We ordered fresh hommous, fuul, pita, salad and the most crunchy and sublimely soft melt-in-your mouth falafels, swallowed down with some sugary mint tea. You need to order in Arabic and quickly as this place is packed! The best part about Hashem is the price- the bill amounted to about 6JD for the four of us ($AUS9). Yep, that’s what I’m talking about.

Hommous, pita, falafel and fuul (bean dip), salad at Hashem restaurant.
Hommous, pita, falafel, fuul (bean dip) and salad at Hashem restaurant. Picture: Huda Aziz.

 

Jafra café

Also in downtown Amman, this funky restaurant features a library, paintings, antiques and quotes from famous Arab activists, writers and poets including Mahmoud Darwiche and Edward Said as well as a balcony view where you can people-watch. Be careful to go upstairs from the alley into Jafra not into a restaurant looking area on the ground floor which is ahem actually a men’s bath area.

 

Spiral dial phone and other funky antiques at Jafra cafe.
Spiral dial phone and other funky antiques at Jafra cafe.
Books and quotes at Jafra cafe.
Books and quotes at Jafra cafe.

You can smoke an arghileh here or munch on some delicious Arab or western style food. We ate a sublime selection of hommous, fattoush salad, shish kebab, fresh pita and meatballs in tomato sauce. It’s popular with foreigners and the waiters speak English. It’s not as cheap as Hashem, but the beautifully furnished spacious interior is a great place for large groups and with our bill totalling  13 JD for two ($AUS20), it’s not too much of a hit on the wallet.

Fattoush, hommous, shish kebab at Jafra resturant, Amman.
Fattoush, hommous, shish kebab at Jafra resturant, Amman.

Habiba

Down the road from Hashem’s is Habiba which sells Amman-famous kanafa (layered cheese and semolina drenched in sugar syrup). It’s sweet and savoury with the salty cheese a soft counterpart to the sweet semolina top. I’m not much of a dessert person but I’m told by connoisseurs the kanafa here is of a pretty high standard. There’s also an upstairs section open to families where large groups can sit.

Kanafa from Habibah. Picture: Huda Aziz.
Kanafa from Habiba. Picture: Huda Aziz.

 

Al-Quds

A bustling two-storey establishment next door to Habiba where you can ask for an English menu and sample the traditional Jordanian dish- Mansaf, made of lamb cooked in fermented dried yogurt sauce and served with yellow rice (and the yoghurt sauce). We also try some lamb neck which just melts off the bone. They also serve dessert here including a $1 JD rice pudding topped with pistachio. The entire menu doesn’t have anything for more than $7 JD ($AUS10). Across the road you can climb the stairs to check out Darut Al-Funun, an art gallery that regularly features lectures and exhibitions from artists in residence and a second storey library  (arts in Amman deserves it’s own post).

Lamb neck, mansaf, salad and olives at Al-Quds.
Lamb neck, Mansaf, salad and olives at Al-Quds.

Markets

After you’ve finished gorging on the amazing food at these restaurants which are within walking distance of each other – don’t forget to check out the nearby downtown markets next to the Grand Husseini mosque (which has a female prayer space).  There’s gold, clothing and food souks lit up beautifully at night with low hanging lightbulbs. The food souk is filled with piles of glorious fresh fruit, dates, cheeses and olives. Wandering through the souks in the open air with the shouts of vendors and the intermittent sounds of the Adhan piercing the air is so much more of a joyful experience than passively buying groceries at Carrefour (the local chain). Best thing is you can practice your Arabic conversing with the vendors.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Books at café

Books at café is located in the hipster central expat district on Rainbow street a short uphill walk from  central downtown Amman or Jabal Amman (mountain Amman). It’s filled with cafe, eateries, art-house cinema and galleries. At Books at cafe you’ll be greeted with the sultry tunes of Billie Holiday, spectacular second story views of Amman and can even buy a western-style weekend brunch which will take you back around 10 JD (AUS $15). Although this place is more expensive, it’s a safe place to chill for the day, find out about art exhibitions around town, catch up with people, or get your work done while sipping a refreshing mint-lemon drink. It’s a little expat-y and feels a tad formulaic but worth grabbing a coffee, checking the scenery and taking advantage of wifi.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Anyway I’m hardly a expert, I’ve been here less than a week. So look forward to updating this section!

 

fashion · travel

Climbing Kinabalu

Smiling from delirium.
 Smiling from delirium inspired by lack of oxygen. 

I want to die. But first I want to kill my editor, then the PR woman, then the smug athletes racing past me.

It is this train of morbid thoughts that sustains me as I struggle up South-East Asia’s highest peak – Mount Kinabalu.

It is dark, about 2.30am and freezing. I have my thermals on but quickly discard them as the energy needed for the climb generates body heat.

I am aching in places I didn’t know existed. I am finding new reservoirs of endurance as my mind baulks at the miles still above me, illuminated in the dark by the twinkling trail of headlights as climbers crawl to the summit.

But I am not in the mood to appreciate the beauty of the scene – the stately neighbouring peaks and wispy white clouds enveloping us as we ascend into the sky.

The mountain is in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo in the state of Sabah, about two hours flight from the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.

It stands 4,095m above sea level and to conquer the beast requires a round 17km two-day trek.

Mt Kinabalu is regarded as holy by the local Kadazan people who believe it is a resting place of the spirits of those who have died.

The Kadazan perform regular ceremonies to protect climbers attempting the trek.

That a team of people are praying for my well-being calms me down.

We start Day One at 8am on Ground Zero ready to scale a 6km trail made of steep formed steps and large rocks.

The climb operator, Mountain Torq, provides our group of journalists with a guide, Taising Samadin who becomes my personal saviour.

Taising is a 55-year-old Malaysian man who has been conquering the mountain for over 30 years.

He has smiling eyes and accompanies me patiently through rock falls, tricky crevices and hallucination-inducing altitude.

He is my Tenzing Norgay in the Everest-like battle for this non-sporty beginner to accomplish the impossible – reach the summit before sunrise the next day.

We reach the Mountain Torq’s Pendant hut at base camp at around 2pm where we will spend the night and then prepare for the final haul of the journey the next day.

I am feeling weak and mumble to the group something about “this not being my thing” and staying at base camp.

The group (all men of superior physical strength) look at me in pity.

Georgia, the PR woman, assures me it is my choice to go on.

There is only after all 2.7km left to reach the summit. It would be a shame to stop now.

But it is the last leg which is the steepest, with more climbing and using ropes to scale steep rock in high altitude.

I think of my story and the impossible triumph. I think of who I represent – women, the unfit, the fearful.

I must do it for them.

Taising tells me to hold his hand, I grab him like a liferaft as he navigates my climb through our last kilometre.

We have done the scary rope climbing and now are doing the steady upward climb across smooth rock, our legs like lead.

We have passed the checkpoint where those deemed unfit are turned back or voluntarily retire.

But the idea of going back through those ropes is more painful than going forward.

I munch on the granola bars with Taising as we silently scale forward.

The summit looms ahead but is still so desperately far.

It is a sheer almost vertical rocky drop which stands separately on the flat part of the mountain.

Finally, I am at the top. I understand why this mountain is considered sacred.

We are on top of the world, with the orange red colours of daybreak bathing us, high above the clouds.

I feel like dying. But this time in a good way.

My satisfaction at having reached the summit is dampened by realising we still have to go down.

Many climbers maintain that the steep 8.7km trek back down the mountain is the most difficult as jelly knees struggle to get a grip on slippery rock.

I take my time hobbling down.

When I see the team back at the hut, they are pleased and proud of my accomplishment, especially since being lean, mean climbing machines even they found the trek an intense challenge.

If you are considering the trek be sure to cushion your journey in the comfort of five-star luxury.

We land in Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria resort post climb and are rewarded with a luxurious room with an outdoor hot tub, spa massages and attentive room service that provides a welcome balm to our exhaustion.

Our preparation for the climb was spent lounging in Sutera Harbour’s Magellan Sutera hotel in Borneo.

Sutera Habour resort provides adventure packages to the mountain and to Poring Hot Springs where you can rest your weary limbs in hot baths in the World Heritage listed Kinabalu Park rainforest.

It hurts to walk but the pain wears away as amnesia sets in and I start to grasp my achievement.

I am quick to share my mountain war stories to whoever will listen, bragging unashamedly about my triumph in Borneo.

I find that every Malay I meet has a mountain story – those who have climbed, those who failed and those who are thinking of climbing.

We share strategies, stories and memories.

I wave around my certificate of completion.

I find I am now part of an exclusive club – those who have reached the summit.

IF YOU GO:

Malaysia Airlines flies 47 times a week from Australia to Kuala Lumpur and has regular connections to Kota Kinabalu.

To book a holiday to Malaysia, call Flight Centre on 1300-939-414 to book or visit: www.flightcentre.com.au/world-travel/malaysia.

* The writer was a guest of Malaysian Airlines, Sutera Harbour Resort and Shangri-La Rasa Ria resort in Borneo.