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July 2, 2009

Northern Jordan–شمال الأردن

Filed under: Touring — Tags: , , , , , , , — admin @ 1:08 pm

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The following day, we planned to go somewhat early to the Dibeen Reserve, one of the less-developed of RSCN’s nature sanctuaries, hoping to avoid the fees associated with the parks that have more facilities for visitors.  I asked the hotel owner where we could get some foul, a question which prompted him to lead me once again by the arm to the window, whereupon he gesticulated wildly in a manner that almost seemed to be a formal sign language in order to try to communicate to me where it was.  A few Arabic words were thrown in for good measure, though they made little sense without a full understanding of the sign language.  Nevertheless, I felt like I had a reasonable idea of what he was trying to communicate and we headed off in search of breakfast.

After a good long while of searching, we ultimately found nothing, but got some juice in the short term.  After that, we changed strategies and I started asking people on the street.  People were generally suggesting a place called Yaseen, but it took some triangulating to eventually find it.  We almost went to a different foul place a couple doors down, but a fellow who had previously heard us asking corrected us.  There was little to distinguish the place.  No sign hanging off the side of the building (every tiny little business in the area seemed to have one), and even a relatively small crowd.  The small sign painted on the glass just above the door simply read YaseenCo (in Arabic), and that’s the only thing I could find identifying it.  It fits the description “hole-in-the-wall” better than pretty much any other restaurant I’ve ever visited, and judging from the fact that everyone on the street suggested it, it seemed to be the local favorite.

The fellow who dragged us away from the first foul shop got the attention of the servers and we were henceforth treated like royalty.  We were given the special seat in the back, and when one server handed us our two immense loaves of flat bread, his superior inexplicably snatched them from off of our table and put them in the pile with the rest.  He then brought our two bowls of foul with tahini, though we now had nothing to eat them with.  I grabbed a loaf of bread from the communal pile next to me and the server rushed over and snatched them out of my hands: “you need fresh, hot bread!”  Charming as this was, I was getting a bit frustrated and hungry.  A minute or two later, that fresh bread arrived and we dipped in to our wonderful breakfast.  I apparently ate a bit too quickly and eagerly, and the fellow who seemed to be the proprietor refilled my bowl before I was finished.  I actually didn’t need any more, but felt that it would be rude not to finish, so I left completely bloated.  On the way out, we attempted to pay, but the shop owner waved us off.  We stood there and I waited for a break in the line of customers to insist again on paying.  He refused.  “Maybe later,” he said.  “Tomorrow”, I said.  “Tomorrow, God willing.”

With that, we walked (I waddled) back to the car and we drove to Dibeen.  The route was along small, steep roads, passing near a Palestinian refugee camp.  There was an entrance kiosk, remarkably similar to the kind you’ll find at State and National Parks in the US, but no access gate, and no one was at the kiosk.  We drove through and wound through forested lands until we found a place to park.  It was wonderful.  The smell hit us immediately.  We walked around for a bit, mostly just bushwacking with no particular destination in mind.  With two protein- and carbohydrate-rich breakfasts sitting in my gut, I only made it about 500m before I had to stop and take a rest.  We sat on a pair of rocks and admired the trees that looked to me like Manzanita, with smooth, peeling, red bark.  It wasn’t the lushest of forests, but it was certainly a departure from the sort of landscape we’d been riding and driving through since leaving Slunfeh.

We carried on again, and I was attracted to a little gully and the possibility of running water.  It was dry, and I was content to sit there and rest some more.  Elaina was rather more interested in making use of the calories in her stomach for something besides simply digesting them, so she went exploring for a bit and took some artsy pictures of the tree bark.

With a number of other things on our agenda for the day and me acting like a giant, puffy, starchy, overcooked fava bean, we went back to the car to head to the next destination.  Someone had decided to come by the kiosk while we were in the reserve, and we were unfortunately obliged to pay a few Dinars (still much less than the entrance at any other reserve).

Our next stop was the ruins of Jerash, where we attempted to catch up from our lost time the day before.  We wandered all around the vast complex, once a significant city of the Roman Empire.  We were both most struck by the two theaters, at the North and South ends of the complex.  Some serious effort had gone into restoring them, as they were the venues for the annual Jerash festival, apparently a fairly popular festival for visitors across the Middle East.

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The pictures above will give you some idea of what the place was like.  I was getting some serious ruin fatigue by the end, but nevertheless enjoyed my time there.  Unlike with its natural reserves, Jordan’s antiquities are not the sort of tourist cash-cow on growth hormones that I’ve come to expect from such places after my various jaunts around Egypt.  It was mostly fairly tasteful, and what vendors there are around the place were standoffish and seemed to rely more on their finesse in posing suggestively on ancient monuments (see below) than persistent nagging.

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On the way out, we stopped at one of the cafeterias for some water and stimulants.  Still unused to the availability of alcohol, I considered buying a beer, too, but thought better of it, as I was already feeling parched and over-heated.  Meanwhile, the gaggle of Asian tourists kept us entertained.

Our next stop was the ruins of Umm Qais, another ancient Roman metropolis, though we mostly weren’t going for the ruins.  The drive itself was one of the attractions.  Elaina triangulated between guide-book maps, my GPS and road signs to navigate us off of the major highways.  There were some beautiful vistas and amazing mountains.  I tried not to get too annoyed with the endless speed bumps.  They’re a sensible way, I suppose, to ensure people don’t drive at unsafe speeds through residential areas by appealing to their self-interest (or interest in not destroying their vehicle, anyway) rather than complicated and expensive enforcement mechanicsms.  Still, I think the best way to encourage people to drive sensibly, if there must be automobiles, is to design roads around communities and the natural environment.  With narrow roads winding along routes that don’t bisect human and animal habitats, drivers will necessarily have to go at an approriate speed, without having to rely on police officers or artificial “traffic-calming” measures.</transportationrant>

Our route involved a couple wrong turns and took a bit longer than expected, but we nevertheless managed to get to Umm Qais before sunset.  We had heard about the amazing views here, and that was what we came for.  Signage here was not altogether clear, though.  There were three guys hanging out near the entrance, and I asked them about “al-istiraha”, taking that as the translation for the “Resthouse” that was written about in the guide book.  They pointed us in the right direction, saying “the Romero is that way,” refering to it by its association with the hospitality company, the Romero Group.  One of them asked if we needed a guide and then insisted on showing us a “shortcut”.  The ploy was obvious from the beginning, but I went along with it (I think maybe Elaina wasn’t too pleased).  He spoke quickly and pointed out the Ottoman contribution to the place.  He then proceeded to spin a couple yarns about the place that made it totally obvious he had no idea what he was talking about.  First, he made reference to the Roman name for the city: “Gadara”.  “Look,” he insisted, pointing over toward the parking lot, “see this?”  Uh…no.  He went out on a precipice, “Look!”  He pointed to the old city wall, “It’s al-jidar.”  So, in his logic, the Roman name “Gadara” is derived from the Arabic word “jidar”, wall.  Riiight.  He then said something about how Umm Qais actually comes from the word al-muqays.  Plausible, I suppose, but still a bit flimsy.  He then realized we were unimpressed and in a hurry to catch the view and eat before sunset, so he pointed us the way and asked for some baksheesh.  I considered it as a discount on the entrance fee.

We reached the restaurant and found only one other party there.  The view was indeed astounding.  In the foreground was the River Yarmouk, flowing from below the Golan Heights of Syria to its confluence with the River Jordan.  A bit beyond, we could clearly see the southern portion of the Sea of Galilee.  On the other side of the Galilee was Israel, and beyond that was the Lebanon Mountains.  Seeing all of these political entities brought into unity through the confluence of various watersheds put into stark relief the absurdity of nation states and borders, particularly these nation states and these borders.

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As we watched the sun descend behind the Lebanon Mountains and Israeli lights begin to twinkle along the Sea of Galilee, our dinner arrived.  It was definitely well done, and the price was reasonable, particularly given the setting.  I’m not a food writer, so I won’t go into the tartness of the shankleesh or the pique of the pasta or whatever.  It was just good, though I found the meat wasps to be a bit of a distraction.  They were mostly after Elaina’s kabobs, but they still bugged me.

After sunset, it seemed that more people were arriving.  I had thought that the restaurant closed at sunset, but I guess we were wrong. There were groups of hip youth and families roaming around the ruins and checking out the view.  As we left, the parking lot seemed to have turned into something of a local party spot, and more people were still arriving.  It was nice to see that, just as in Syria, ancient ruins are a part of the public commons that the public actually uses and enjoys.  In Egypt, antiquities seem to have little interest to most locals, except for the money it brings from archeological teams and tourists.

After our visit to Umm Qais, we drove back to Ibrid and our hotel.  Although we took more major roads, it was a bit stressful driving at night for the first time in the Middle East (memebers of the US diplomatic corps are frequently reminded not to drive at night in the region because of the danger on the roads).  There were some nutty drivers out there, but the speed bumps were thankfully generally marked with reflectors so as not to surprise the driver, and the embassy warnings, as usual, seemed a bit overblown.


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