After our African adventures, we made stops in Lebanon, Jordan and the UAE on our way to our ultimate destination, "The Stans". If you've followed our travels, you know that I was keen on Africa whereas Michael's travel pins were stuck in Central Asia. In our strange world of continuous travel, we looked at each other with wonder and said "why not do both?" We started at the southern tip of Africa and worked our way north to Kazakhstan. And of course, that put The Middle East where it belonged - in the middle, and conveniently on the way.
We had some trouble deciding where to go in that region. Our first thought was to explore Iran. We'd heard so much about the beauty and history, both past and present that we were intrigued to see it. But after reading the dire warnings from the US State Department, we decided to save it for more peaceful times.
Two years ago we'd spent time in Israel that included a trip to Bethlehem. We left with new insight and fond memories, and we were very tempted to visit again to see friends we'd made on our first visit, but we were also eager to see different parts of the region. We settled on Beirut, Lebanon for its recent history, Amman, Jordan for its ancient history, and a brief stop in Dubai, a city that barely has a history.
Our visit to these Middle Eastern countries wasn't timed perfectly - but sometimes that happens when you are constantly on the move. We would arrive during the heart of Ramadan - the holiest month of the Muslim calendar, when abstaining from all food and drink from sunrise to sunset is mandatory for the faithful. This played out differently in each country, but we were prepared to avoid eating or drinking in public during fasting times, have shops closed, and be modest in our attire. In retrospect, being able to witness, and even participate in celebrating this special holiday allowed us to better understand Islamic culture and definitely, live a bit more like locals.
In deciding whether to visit Bruit, we scoured travel blogs and talked to friends who had either visited or lived there. The general consensus was "go for it". Just don't get kidnapped. Right. As it turns out, Beirut will make our Top 10 Destinations list. And, as often is the case in a completely foreign city, our Airbnb host made all the difference. This is a country where hospitality is ingrained in the culture, so of course, we were greeted with enthusiasm by our host Imad and his family, but they went over the top to welcome us.
And it also helped that our home for the week was modern and comfortable - a tribute to Imad's wife Janine. She is an accomplished architect who had the vision to turn a dreary flat in a neighborhood still recovering from the war (we could see bullet holes in the surrounding buildings from our deck) into a delightful home. It was perfect for resting up after almost three months in Africa.
Since we weren't actively seeking out members of Hezbollah, we also felt safe. If there was any immediate danger it came from being run down by drivers who were not only bewildering in their navigation, but were also driven by road rage, or rapture or just plain obsession to honk their horns incessantly. I mean at all times, for any reason. That may have been the reason Michael lost his HSBC debit card on our first day. Our taxi driver obliged our request to stop at a cash machine by literally halting in the street in front of a bank. And this led to the above honking, which led Michael to be flustered, which led, in his haste to finish the transaction, to leave his card in the machine.
Once we arrived at our new home our host walked us around the neighborhood and took us to a large grocery store called Spinney's where I signed up for a rewards card, just like at home. Then we hit the mall up the street which was as modern and spacious as any I've ever seen. There were brand names stores of all kinds, fountains, restaurants, and a movie complex. That night, we sat outside near the mall in front of a huge screen with thousands of Lebanese football fans and watched the Champions League Finals from Cardiff.
Of the three Middle Eastern countries we visited, at least from our experience in Beirut, Lebanon had the most relaxed approach to Ramadan because the population is mixed with just 54% Muslim, and the most observant of those were on the other side of the "green line" still dividing the Christian and Muslim communities. We were staying on the Christian side so the restaurants were full during the day. However, one evening we walked along the beachfront to a popular restaurant near Pigeon Rocks to watch the sunset. The restaurant was full and the tables were covered with multiple plates of food as well as drinks, but no one was eating. Then we realized they were waiting for the sun to go down. Just before 8 pm, there was a loud boom from a gun on the rocks and immediately everyone joyfully tucked in to Iftar, the "breaking of the fast".
Temperatures were in the 90's but we still took our traditional walking tour of the city. Our lovely guide Jana, was determined to give us a memorable experience even though it was just the two of us. She was in no hurry, in fact we walked for five miles spread over four hours! That allowed for plenty of time to divert along side streets and stop for in-depth background on the civil war between 1975 and 1995 and the effect it had the people and the city scape. We started on the Christian side and then worked our way to the Muslim side.
I can't begin to articulate the history, nor the devastation that war wreaked on this city, but I highly recommend an article I found in CJ Magazine that not only summarizes the politics but also begs the question of whether Beirut can ever regain its reputation as "The Paris of the Middle East". It's a satisfying read for those of us who don't need to go deep, but want to understand the backstory, and it may very well convince you to visit this gem of a city to see it for yourself.
"Beirut sometimes looks like what you’d get if you put Paris, Miami, and Baghdad into a blender and pressed PUREE. Gleaming glass skyscrapers rise above French-style villas adjacent to bullet-pocked walls and mortar-shattered towers. Hip entrepreneurs set up luxury boutiques next to crumbling modern-day ruins..." - Michael J. Totten, CJ Magazine
We did take a day trip to Jeita Grotto, apparently one of the "New Wonders of the World" Two enormous, deep caves filled with stalagmites and stalactites and other "mites" not found anywhere else in the world. Our Uber driver got so lost we were taken 35 Kilometers out of our way, so we got a bonus tour of the hills above the city.
We also visited a small, but well curated contemporary art museum, the national history museum, a magnificent mosque, and Our Lady of Harissa Cathedral that clung to a hillside and involved a harrowing funicular ride back down to sea level. And, once we concluded that Michael's debit card had been eaten by the ATM machine, there were visits to the bank where the card was snatched, and the bank we hoped it had been sent to, but in the end, it was sacrificed to the Gods and we will have to get a new one sent to us.
From Beirut we headed to Jordan, a country so ancient, you could trade in the Lonely Planet for the Bible as your travel guide. The first indicator that we were traveling in a part of the world that operates on a different frequency was that our "direct" flight took us north out over the Mediterranean and then south over Syria to avoid Israeli airspace. Safer? I don't know.
When we searched for an Airbnb to stay in Amman it was sort of like searching for water in the Jordanian desert. Luckily, we found a place that was a little rustic but looked comfortable, and it was in the city center, where we like to be. Our host Jamal had lived in Michigan for 20 years so he welcomed us like kin. We also knew we were in good hands because our address was on Khirfan Street, named after Jamal's great, (great?) grandfather so were housed in warren of Khirfan owned properties. Jamal looks after the family's ever expanding Airbnbs within their assorted buildings.
We were now in Muslim territory with a capital M. We knew this because we could hear the call to prayer from the six mosques we could see from our Airbnb, and a few we couldn't. I have to say, we don't mind the punctuation throughout the day by the haunting call to prayer (listen here if you'd like). Ramadan, however, adds a few more of these reminders, including a particularly long prayer before sunrise, in our case 3:20 am, to announce the beginning of the fast. That was followed by a 5:00 am call, and so it went. We could get into the cadence of all that - if it weren't for the additional cacophony from the sprawling old-town marketplace just below our balcony. We chose this place for that very balcony. The apartment itself was short on natural light so we had visions of spending time outside working, having meals, reading our books, and playing Scrabble. That would not be the case. The noise that rose straight up from the bustling marketplace itself wasn't so bad - but traffic noise and the blaring speakers from several cheap-goods stalls competed for airspace with screaming deals and heavy metal music to the point that we had to retreat to a coffee shop up the hill called Books@cafe.
It turned out to be one of the most popular stops on in any guide book of Amman - especially for English speaking tourists because of the well-curated selection of English language books and the excellent cafe. So not only was it a very nice retreat, but Ramadan was not observed so delicious food and beverages were served all day. It really felt like being home. We were also walking distance to Rainbow Street, a stretch of road celebrated for restaurants and unique shops, but again, due to our timing, most of everything was shuttered during the day. We did visit late one night and found an open-air market filled with food stalls, craft booths and live music that would be jammed until 2:00 am.
Back to Ramadan... we were curious about the holiday and how it was celebrated. Our host appreciated our interest and invited us to his home next door to ours to participate in Iftar, the official "Breaking of the Fast" that happens just after sunset. In this case, at 8:40 pm. Jamal's wife did not speak English, but she spoke perfect hospitality and served us a spread of traditional dishes. But no matter where you break the fast, it all starts with a sweet, chewy date.
The most delectable treat was their precocious 3-year-old daughter Makkah. She was a saucy little minx who already has her own cell phone (I am not kidding) that she takes to daycare and has preset numbers to call Mama, Papa, and Grandma as needed. She also dutifully laid down her tiny prayer rug and prayed before the meal.
Our first priority when we visit a new city is to go the nearest supermarket to gather the basics we need in the kitchen. Happily, Jamal took us shopping in his car shortly after we arrived. It was hot, we were tired, and it was Ramadan - so the locals were also hot, tired, and probably hungry, so not a lot of the usual friendly banter we experience while shopping. The store seemed overwhelmingly foreign even for us, and it seemed nearly impossible to find low-fat milk, breakfast cereal, bananas, diet coke, orange juice and a comforting package of cookies. Since we pride ourselves in being flexible, we considered letting these few western comforts go, but for us, they are as important as laying down our trusty bed pillows in making full-time travel have at least a smidgen of routine. So we stayed the course, and in the end, we managed to found most everything on the list and headed "home".
Jamal was a constant help and it seemed no matter what we needed or were curious about, he was there. He even drove us 45 minutes across town to a special police station to see if we could get the necessary permission to visit a Syrian refugee camp. As it turned out, we needed a few more days in Amman to get the paperwork through, but it was interesting to go through the process of interviewing with several important officials and watch Jamal try and work the system. Instead, we spent the afternoon at Jordan's National Museum where we saw some very ancient artifacts including the Dead Sea Scrolls and later in the day, we walked down memory lane at The Royal Automobile Museum. An incredible collection of classic cars owned by the late King Abdullah II ranging from the very first automobile to lean, mean racing machines.
One night we walked down from our perch on the hill into the old town to see the ruins of a Roman Amphitheater and the Citadel lit up at night. We had to navigate some very dark, twisting back streets, but once we reached the bottom, we burst onto a lively marketplace that was just coming to life after a day of fasting. Many shops were closed during the day - but once the sun went down, the relief after almost 15 hours of deprivation felt palpable. Store owners threwtheir metal roll-up doors and street vendors pulled the covers off of their carts. But the best part was everyone was eating together - and sharing the feast. As we strolled down the streets we were invited over and over again to join in Iftar celebrations as employees sat on the floor of shops or perched at makeshift tables in the street enjoying food prepared by their families. We were shy at first, but finally joined a group of young men outside a sneakers store that wouldn't hear of us passing by without stopping for some comaraderie. It turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences we had in Amman.
And then there was Petra. Apparently, if you do not visit this ancient site, you haven't really been to Jordan. We booked a tour that included a driver and a guide - something well beyond our usual budget, but we wanted to do this right. Petra is a hot place and a crowded tourist destination. Our agent from Petra by Night suggested we leave at 6:00 am for the 2+ hour drive so we could arrive just as the gates opened and it was still cool. Our driver had other plans, after some terse phone calls on Michael's part he arrived around 6:30. Then, half way through the drive, he deposited us at a souvenir Mecca in the guise of a bathroom/coffee stop that lasted almost 45 minutes. We arrived at the front gate of Petra just in time to join three busloads of cruise ship day-trippers.
Next up was the horse back ride to the entrance that was included in our package. This was my favorite part for two reasons. First, I love horseback riding and second, in over 40 years together, I have never seen my husband on a horse. Never mind this would be a quick 20-minute ride with a minder who expected an extortionate tip at the other end. Once inside Petra, you were pestered to ride horses, donkeys, camels, and rickshaws at every turn so I am glad we did this little ride at the beginning.
Petra itself was indeed amazing. Our guide was a bit robotic, but we could see beyond his rote explanations and not only enjoyed the jaw-dropping site itself but also enjoyed the people watching. We met some folks nearing the end of an around-the-world cruise that seemed even more disoriented that we are at times.
In the end, we felt our tour was less than satisfactory so Michael reached out to the tour company with his honest feedback. They were apologetic and prompt in their attempt to make things right. They treated us to an amazing Iftar feast at one of Amman's most revered restaurants that could easily sit 500 diners for the evening's single seating - and added a night tour of the city. We appreciated their efforts and we have restored faith in Petra Nights Tours.
From Jordan, we flew to Dubai. Michael had visited this made-from-scratch city through a Seattle Chamber of Commerce Inter-City Visit in 2009. He was interested to see what it looked like now. I was curious to see it myself. We had a notion of what the heat might be like, but when we walked off the airplane onto the tarmac, it felt like we'd open the doors of a blast furnace. It was 115 degrees!
Our Airbnb was small but had everything we needed. The best part was the view from the balcony that took in the marina across the way and just of some of the hundreds of otherworldly skyscrapers this city is known for.
We met our host Thomas and his wife Lucia for dinner and afterwards, we strolled the waterfront while they shared their favorite things to see in Dubai. We also bought some ice-cream from a vendor who must have been a sleight-of-hand artist in a former life...he would "give" you your ice cream, but also take it back before you blinked, in ten different ways. A sort of "you'd have to see it believe it" experience.
We had just four days, so we couldn't do it all, but we did our best to catch a glimpse of what life in this unique city must be like. First, we saw very few people walking - mostly from the heat, but also because of Ramadan, which is strictly observed here, when normal daily activity slows way down. The closest grocery store was very nice, but for the first time we found all pork products were sold in a separate part of the store, in fact having them at all was fairly recent, and you could not purchase alcohol except in hotels.
Our visits to the two luxury mega-malls in the city gave us a clue that most of the citizens (when they were not at prayer) were in their air-conditioned cars on their way to air-conditioned malls to return to their air-conditioned homes. The Maseratis, Ferraris, and Bentleys outside valet parking gave us a heads-up that right next to H&M and Claire's there would be stores where we would not be browsing.
The indoor ski slope at the Mall of the Emirates was something that had to be seen to be truly believed, there was even a Ski Lodge restaurant where you could dabble in fondue while you watched a totally fake winter wonderland, complete with hourly snow flurry's, just outside the windows. Or if you'd rather, you could catch the scene at the aquarium that featured giant tanks filled with sea rays, sharks and sea turtles winding through every floor. Nothing is too big for Dubai.
We also enjoyed the dancing fountains at The Mall of Dubai that easily rivaled Bellagios in Las Vegas. We did not, however, cross the street to spend $130. each to ride to the top of "The Burj", the tallest building in the world. I sort of wish we had, but this almost creepy video would have to do.
Next up, the five "Stans" Do you know them? I certainly didn't. So, for your next World Trivia Quiz they are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. See you there.
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads