Friday, May 14, 2010

Road Trip Jordan (Part 1)

The following is an account of a road trip through Jordan, from the town of Wadi Musa, just outside of Petra, up along the King's Highway, to the capital Amman.

The Players (from left): Herb (Jay), a chef from Austria whose real name is Herbert, but because he impersonated someone else when I first met him, I never knew what his real name was until we got to Amman, so for the purpose of this post, I will continue to call him Jay; Louis-Philippe (Philip), a student from Montreal, Canada with a very royal French sounding name but answers to Philip;  Laurence, a student from Buckinghamshire, Britain whom I've traveled with for several weeks now, and have been mentioned before in previous posts; Tom, a loud Italian from the Northern Italian Alps region who earns his keep working in the family farm during the summer months so that he can travel the globe the rest of the year; and me, the Lost Backpacker and designated driver. Some other important characters: Ahmad (not his real name) – because I cannot remember his real name – a service taxi driver; and Bayan, the car rental guy.


Hitchhiking from Wadi Rum to Wadi Musa (Petra), Laurence and I were picked-up along the highway by a service taxi driver, Ahmad – a seemingly friend and chatty middle-aged man with a growing pot-belly. After a short negotiation, we agreed to pay him 10 Jordanian Dinars (JD) – equivalent to US$14 – for the 1.5 hour ride, about what it would have cost us to take the bus, but with the convenience and speed of a private car.

As with most conversations with taxi drivers throughout the middle east, our conversation soon turned to how long we were going to stay in Jordan, and how were we going to get to the places we want to go to. This always then leads to an offer to take us to all the places we mention for a fee. In his defense, Jordan is a relatively hard place to travel around cheaply. Long distance public transportation is nonexistent or unreliable at best, and most budget travelers end up hitchhiking their way up or down the King's Highway, where most of the major sights lie, or join a 1-day organized tour rushing through all the sights. Laurence and I had ruled out any possibility of joining a tour, and had been weighing the option of renting a car, allowing us to visit all the major sites over a leisurely 2 or 3 days. When we brought this up to Ahmad, he immediately tells us that his “friend” runs a rental car company, and he could get us a car. When quizzed about how much that would cost, he calls his “friend” – Bayan, and hands the phone over to Laurence.

After a quick conversation, we get the basics. Pick up in Wadi Musa, return in Madaba (about 1 hour outside of Amman – so we don't have to drive in the chaos of a big city) for 40JD a day, including all insurance coverage. “Hmm...not bad”, I thought, especially if we can recruit a few more people to split the costs. We tell Bayan that we will think about it, and let him know in a few days.

Over the next couple of days, we decide that two days was sufficient, and we had recruited Philip, Jay and Tom to join us on this road trip, splitting the cost five ways. Calling Bayan to arrange for the car, we are informed that the price now is 95JD for the two days, 15JD more than what we initially agreed on! Used to having to deal with this infuriating practice of bait and switch pricing, and frankly too tired to put up a fight over what really amounted to 3JD more per person over two days, Laurence and I agree to the new price and collected the keys to a light metallic green Hyundai Accent.

And We're Off

Packing five guys, five backpacks, lunch, water, and all of our gear into a Hyundai Accent was no easy task, but miraculously, we manage to fit everyone and everything in without anyone having to sit on someone else' lap!

Leaving Wadi Musa early on Friday morning, I quickly learn the rules of the road in Jordan. First, use of the honk is necessary and recommended! When honked at, it could mean a friendly 'hello', 'hey, I'm passing you', 'thanks for letting me pass you' or 'GET OUT OF MY WAY!' Second, two lane roads are wide enough for three cars, so driving three abreast is perfectly normal. And third, passing another car around blind corners on mountainous roads with no guardrails is a perfectly acceptable practice (remember, the roads are technically wide enough for three cars)! So when going around a blind corner on a two lane road, do not be alarmed when you suddenly see a bus passing a watermelon laden truck heading straight for you. There is no need to frantically swerve out of the way, for they will somehow manage to squeeze between the cliff and your car, going at 100km/hr, without causing a scratch or taking out your side mirror!

Escape from Shobak Castle

Crawling on our hands and feet, we inch our way down the steep incline of a subterranean secret passageway. Any remnants of stairs, or notches cut into the near vertical tunnel to provide any form of footing has long eroded away! Lit only by a headlamp and a hand-held flashlight, we slip and slide down the sandy pitch-black tunnel, kicking up clouds of dust, turning all of our clothes, skin and hair a pale yellow. One wrong move could lead to a domino effect, sending those in front of you sliding uncontrollably down into the pitch black hole! All of a sudden, I hear a frantic cry from behind, and the telltale sounds of someone losing their footing! Bracing for impact, I grab at whatever jagged rocks I can, hoping that I won't be taken down as well. First, a rain of sand and small rocks hit me, followed by back to back whizzing sounds as two rather large objects fly by my ear, bouncing off the tunnel walls, cartwheeling down into the black abyss below, and then silence! “Phew! That was close!” Tom exclaims, with hands and feet spread out, gripping at anything he can to stop sliding. “But I think I just lost my sandals!”

Shobak Castle, built by the Crusader King Baldwin I in AD 1115 sits on a grassy knoll about 40km north of Petra. As one of the lesser visited castle ruins on the main tourist trail, it was practically deserted when we arrived, and free to enter! Scrambling through dark dungeons and remnants of vaulted arches, we spent about 30 minutes following the directions in the Lonely Planet guidebook locating a crusader cross, etched into a doorway inside of a ruined church on an east facing wall! Finding this cross was like a scene right out of the DaVinci Code, with five of us scouting out every doorway and scouring every east facing wall with a flashlight. When we finally did find the cross, it was rather underwhelming, measuring only about six inches across, it was faded from hundreds of years of weathering.

The highlight of Shobak Castle has got to be exiting the castle grounds through the secret tunnel. Not for the faint-hearted or claustrophobic, we managed to make it to the end of the passageway in one piece, without any more mishaps or lost sandals, and finally surfacing out of a manhole via a ladder at the bottom of the hill.

Spare Brakes?

“Shit! I think we have a flat!” was my reaction as soon as I heard the telltale woosh woosh woosh sound coming from the front right tire. Immediately pulling off to the side of the road, we jump out and inspect all four tires, strangely finding them still fully inflated and intact! Back in the car, we move on, and the sound mysteriously disappears. We were on the way to the city of Karak, to visit the Karak Castle, we had just departed the Dana Nature Reserve, where we stopped briefly for a picnic lunch overlooking a deep rift valley that was formed when the tectonic plates pulled apart.

Just outside of the medieval walled city of Karak, the strange sound reappears. This time however, I notice that the sound gets louder whenever I hit the brakes, positively indicating that we are having brake problems! Since this could potentially lead to a very dangerous situation, given the narrow hilly streets of Karak, we all agree to immediately find a workshop to get the problem fixed.

Finding a workshop, that happened to be open on a Friday (the traditional Muslim day of rest) was surprisingly easy. Explaining the problem to a mechanic that didn't speak a word of English was a whole different matter! “Faramil (the Arabic word for brakes)...Faramil broken...errr...Faramil Kaput!” Tom yells while animatedly pointing at the wheels, drawing a blank look from the mechanic and laughter from the rest of us.  “What language is 'Kaput' anyway? Is it an internationally recognized word for broken?” I ask. Only after a lot more pointing, and a quick drive up and down the street to let the mechanic hear the sound, were we reasonably satisfied that he knew what the problem was.

Calling Bayan to report the problem, and to make sure that he would be covering the cost of fixing the brakes, he tells us to look for the spare brake in the trunk. “Spare brakes? I know you have a spare tire in the boot, but are you sure there are spare brakes in there too?” Laurence asks.

Pulling all of our bags out of the trunk and piling them on the sidewalk, we lift the cover, and lo and behold, there together with the spare tire and accessories is a box of spare brake pads! I guess this happens enough that people in Jordan carry spare brake pads. Fortunately, the mechanic was able to quickly rectify the problem, and with the car back in business, we continued on our little adventure.

Karak Castle

One of the more complete and well preserved of the Crusader Castles, Karak Castle, unlike Shobak, is on the main tourist trail, and busloads of tourist visit it daily. Fortunately, due to our unscheduled pit stop, we did not arrive till about an hour before close and most of the groups of tourists were leaving as we were entering.

Wandering through what used to be stables and barracks for the soldiers that lived there, we ended up at the far southern end of the castle grounds. Climbing up a set of hidden stairs, and then scrambling up a crumbled wall, we found ourselves perched high atop the fortified southern wall of the castle. With nothing between us and drop-off of over 300 feet, we had commanding views of Wadi Karak, all the way to the Dead Sea, overlooking an area thought to be where the sinful towns of Sodom and Gomorrah, as described in the book of Genesis, once stood.

Descending next into the bowels of the castle, where a prison was once located, we find rows of tiny cells, lit only by a small slit on the back wall, or through a single hole in the ceiling, sending a dramatic beam of light into the room.

Staying well past closing time, we decided to climb up to the northern castle walls on our way out, overlooking the modern town of Karak, the dry moat, and the Ottoman's Gate - the main entryway into the castle. Looking down towards the gate, I see the attendant locking up, and walking across the bridge that was spanning the moat, heading into town.

“Umm guys, I think we've just been locked in the castle!” be continued.


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