The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea is one of the only bodies of water on the planet where I don’t have to be with the fish.  It is named as such because the water is so salty that nothing can survive in it, but the water also has the pleasant side effect of making people float.  Between this novel sensation and the fact that the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth (1,269 feet below sea level), it was a must visit during our time in Jordan.

The bottom of the sea is covered in smooth salt.  When swimming you have to be careful not to get any of the water near your eyes or your mouth – it’s painful in the eyes and tastes disgusting.  (I sampled a drop out of curiosity and it’s horrible.  Horrible.)

The floating sensation is incredibly odd.  Once you have walked far enough in to submerge your legs you can pretty much just sit down in the water and everything will buoy up – legs, arms, everything.  I actually had to work my abs pretty hard to keep my midsection underwater so that I could lift my head and look around.  It’s very odd, and impossible not to laugh when you first feel your legs go out from under you.

Here’s John floating in the water.  Note that he is not sitting on anything, just floating.  Behind him you can see Israel on the opposite shore.
I’d never seen date palm trees before, but they are all over the Middle East.  Each tree has so much fruit (its no surprise you can buy dates in bulk around here.)There is no public access to the Dead Sea, so we got a day pass at a beach area where there are two huge pools, a beachfront and showers.  After a little while the salt begins to burn your skin a bit, and the novelty wears off.  Time to shower off the salt and hit the pool!All in all, we spent more time swimming in the pool (it’s far more pleasant.)  But I very much enjoyed the novelty of floating in the Dead Sea.A little fun fact – less than one week before visiting the lowest place on earth, we were in the mountains in Nepal, home to the highest place on earth.  We really hit the extremes this week!

Amman


Five countries in three days – I think that’s a new record for me.  Nepal, Oman, UAE, Qatar and Jordan.  Granted, Oman and Qatar were layovers, which means I’d never count them as countries I had legitimately visited, but that doesn’t make them any less confusing.  When we finally arrived at the Passport Control desk in Jordan, I was turned around.

Usually I’m completely on top of immigration and customs paperwork for every country we visit.  I always know what kind of visa we need, how much it will cost, and what information to put in what box on the form.  I’m the queen of organization when it comes to these matters – I like to be prepared.  But somewhere during our fourth flight my brain clouded over.

As we sauntered up to the Passport Control counter upon arrival in Amman airport, the official started asking me questions.  (There is no paperwork when you arrive in Jordan, so they do everything verbally, which is new for me.)  He asked me how long we were staying in Jordan.  I knew that one – 10 days.  Then he asked for $20 for the visa.  I handed him US$20 (every country in Asia required US dollars for visa fees, even over their own currency, so I’d gotten used to paying in US bills.)  He frowned at me, and sent John to change our money into local currency while I stayed at the counter to answer his questions.  Where are you going, he asked.  Um, Jordan, my foggy mind said.  But that seemed like the wrong answer, so I just kept staring at him.  Again, he asked, Where are you going?  Um, let me think, Amman, Petra…  No, where are you staying?  With a friend (we were Couchsurfing.)  Where does your friend live?  Amman.  No, where in Amman.  The address.  I don’t have it written down.  (I was told by the Couchsurfing people to not give their info at the desk lest they get bothered later.)  Do you have a telephone number in Jordan?  No.  Does your friend have a phone number?  No.  The guy blinked at me, shook his head and handed my paperwork to the guy next to him, who then tried asking me the same questions, and got the same answers.  They chatted to one another in Arabic for a moment, looking at me with confusion.  By this time, John had returned with the cash, and the line behind me had grown quite long.  No doubt wanting to get rid of me as quickly as possible, they took our money, stamped our passports and waived us through with an exasperated sigh.

Afterwards, John and I laughed at how blase I was about the whole procedure.  Shouldn’t I have been nervously answering the questions with as much information as possible, rather than looking at them blankly in confusion?  Perhaps that’s what happens when you’ve been traveling for this long – crossing into another country becomes so passe you stop paying attention and forget to be respectful in front of the immigration officials.  Regardless, they let us into the country.  I guess I don’t need to be so fastidious with my paperwork in the future – it seems that even grinning idiots can pass through immigration counters.

Once they let us into the country, we had an adventure trying to find our Couchsurfing hosts.  Even though I did actually have an address and phone number for them, we still had a hell of a time getting there because of our lack of skills in Arabic.   After being left on the side of the highway by the bus, driven in the complete wrong direction by a confused taxi driver, stopping at a cafe to call for help, taking another taxi to the proper meeting point (where John had to bum a cell phone off of some teenagers who didn’t speak English by pantomiming so that we could call our hosts to come find us), we finally connected with the lovely couple that was hosting us for the night.  They taught us some basic Arabic phrases, I taught them some yoga, and we all enjoyed some delicious Jordanian fare together.  Unfortunately, we could only stay with them for one night (our sensitive lungs had a much stronger than anticipated reaction to their indoor smoking habits), and we chose to move to a hotel in the city the next day.

The photos above are views from the hotel’s rooftop of the Roman Amphitheater and into downtown Amman.  The buildings in this city are completely monochromatic, allowing them to blend into the desert landscape.  Amman is a bustling city, but most of what Jordan has to offer lies outside the city limits.  There is so much to see here, we’re still trying to sort out what we’ll have time to cover during our stay.  I guess I should just be thankful they decided to let us into the country so that we can see anything at all :)

Abu Dhabi

One word has become practically synonymous with the United Arab Emirates (UAE):  Opulance.  While I would argue that Singapore has Abu Dhabi beat in terms of sheer wealth and impressive displays of grandeur, and it isn’t as comically over-the-top as sister city Dubai, there is certainly enough money being thrown around in Abu Dhabi to make the term seem fitting.
After exploring the beautiful (and somewhat excessive) Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, John and I traveled to the downtown area to enjoy tea with a view.  The Observation Deck at 300 sits on the 74th floor of the Etihad Towers (seen above), and enjoys one of the best views of the city.  The dust filled skies in Abu Dhabi obscured our vision a bit (as did the accumulation of dust on all of the buildings windows), but even through the dust it wasn’t hard to see impressive construction projects and expanding displays of the country’s wealth.

The view of the Emirates Palace Hotel from above tells you more than a visit to the hotel itself.  The hotel cost over $3 billion to build, and costs over $700 per night.  Water is a precious resource in the desert, and I can only imagine what it costs to keep the lush surroundings of the hotel looking so green.

We wandered around inside the hotel, meandering through the endless tiled hallways with their beautiful seating areas and museum-like displays of ancient artifacts from all over the world.  The architecture inside is impressive, and there is supposedly an ATM inside that dispenses gold, but we weren’t all that impressed.  I would hope the rooms are impeccable for what they charge.The waters have a striking green color, though the sky is dusty and colorless.  Even at sunset the sky just appeared a dusty grey color, the sun reduced to a white orb floating in the sky.  Hardly as impressive as the purple and pink hued sunset we watched from the airport in Oman during our layover.Again, think of the water bill for maintaining the luxurious gardens on this property.The hazelnut cake we enjoyed at the Observation Deck is Abu Dhabi opulence in food form.  It tasted like the love child of a Toblerone bar and a jar of Nutella.  It was incredibly rich, decadent, and you only needed about ten bites to feel satisfied (though I must admit we finished all of it – so delicious.)
That about sums up our short visit to Abu Dhabi:  It was fascinating to see, totally over the top, and we only needed one day.  Satisfied with our stopover, we departed ready to explore Jordan.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Have you ever wondered what places like the Taj Mahal or even Angkor Wat looked like in their heyday?  Visiting this mosque felt like visiting a world wonder before time has had a chance to reduce it to ruins.  While it may not be as impressive as some of the ancient ruins simply because its construction benefitted from modern technology, someday future generations lining up to marvel at the opulence of this incredible structure.

Built by the beloved president of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, the Grand Mosque took 11 years to complete, and is the eighth largest mosque in the world.  40,000 people can worship here at once.  Architecturally, this place is stunning.  The perfect contrast of the pure white and gold, mirrored in the blue reflecting pools that line the outside.

Dress code at the mosque is pretty strict, but they loan out clothes for the women to wear to keep them covered head to toe.  John was allowed to wear pretty much whatever, so long as he didn’t have shorts on.
The inside of the mosque is massive, and can accommodate 7,000 worshippers at one time.This is just one of seven huge crystal chandeliers, and it is apparently the third largest chandelier in the world.The carpet inside is the largest hand-made carpet in the world.  It took 1,200 women a year to complete it.The gold niche marks the direction of mecca, toward which worshippers should pray.  Surrounding the niche are 99 flowers with each name/attribute for god written within.  The photo on the right is our guide explaining how the prayer clock.  Traditionally, Muslims pray 5 times per day, but the actual times change depending on the day (ie the first prayer is to be done before sunrise, but the time can vary.)  In Abu Dhabi the call to prayer is performed five times per day at the Grand Mosque and then broadcast all over the city through all of the smaller mosques.So many beautiful archways…

LRK - August 31, 2017 - 3:07 pm

Hello,

I was wondering if you remember what time of day you visited the mosque. Thank you!

LRK

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[...] Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.  Such an impressive and beautiful building, even if it is a little over the top. [...]

Worlds Apart

In the early afternoon on June 1st, John and I piled ourselves and our bags into a hatchback Suzuki taxi headed for the airport in Kathmandu, Nepal.  The taxi was easily 20 years old, and it jostled down the potholed dirt roads as the driver laid on the horn.  Seven hours of transit later, we exited the airport in Abu Dhabi and headed to the taxi stand, where we were directed to a brand new Lexus.  After sitting comfortably in leather seats and cruising down smooth highways for 20 minutes, we arrived at our new hotel and into a completely different world.

We’ve made some sharp contrasts before during our travels, such as landing in New Zealand after four months in Central and South America, and arriving in Singapore after two months living in rural Bali.  From these experiences, I knew we would experience some culture shock transitioning between Nepal and the UAE, and Abu Dhabi did not disappoint.  Small guesthouses turned into mega chain hotels.  Streets teeming with life (and livestock) turned into soulless highways and pedestrian free walkways.  Lush mountainsides gave way to arid and dusty deserts.

To illustrate the differences of these two worlds, I present the above photographs.  On the left is the construction happening at a hotel in Pokhara, Nepal.  The scaffolding is made of bamboo and the work materials are piled up on the street in front of the building.  On the right is the construction of a new hotel in Abu Dhabi.  I don’t think there’s any bamboo in site.

Worlds apart, indeed.  Another sharp contrast was the change from Buddhist culture to Muslim culture.  More on that to come.