I am a doughnut…

…visiting Berlin then and now.

Trust me, if you’re a fan of Eddie Izzard that subject line is hilarious.

Anyway, in September as part of my jolly back to Europe while I waited for my visa and new contract, I went to Berlin for a week and roamed around having a lovely time with Asad:

These defensive camera moves happened a lot.

These defensive camera moves happened a lot.

It was a very different experience to the first time I made it to Germany’s capital which, while still lovely, was rather more impoverished and involved a lot more very sketch situations, all brushed off as good fun by 18-year-old me.

It was the tail-end of my gap year (darling) when I arrived in Berlin, bleary eyed and incredibly poor.

I had been on a sleeper train from somewhere in eastern Europe (where my rail pass was valid) to Germany (where it was not but hey ho, I got away with it.) I took sleepers a lot during that trip as it meant I got transport and accommodation in one.

By that point I had beach bummed and sofa-surfed my way around the Greek islands, had a minor heart attack at how expensive Italy was (we camped to save money, even in Venice. VENICE. It was damp), and mooched my way through eastern Europe, largely pretending to be Australian as it was the football world cup.

Battered by boats, trains and random bongo-playing Russians (that’s a different story), by the time I got to Berlin I was living on about €15-€20 a day, including accommodation.

This had been a trip when I had slept on beaches so I could afford to go to historical monuments and my diet consisted of bread and things people from whatever country I was in dipped bread into. And peanut butter.

So I arrived, an 18-year-old with a pack, a smaller pack, and shoes that were nearly worn through after nine months of walking everywhere that was less than a few miles away.

Walking past me on that platform in Berlin were three glorious-looking men in stilettos and sequinned dresses. Oh yeah, I accidentally arrived during Berlin Pride. An eye opener for a Yorkshire girl who had never travelled by herself before.

The Heart of Gold did not disappoint, also, I can't find my version of this picture so this one is from their website.

The Heart of Gold did not disappoint, also, I can’t find my version of this picture so this one is from their website.

A tallied forth to the Heart of Gold youth hostel (a place I chose purely for the name, aided by the fact it was a snip at €8 a night and there was HOT WATER you guys) lugging my bags with me and making sure my hand-drawn map, copied from the screen of a computer in a dingy internet cafe was to hand.

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Fast-forward ten years (and get over the fact that was a decade ago – I find alcohol helps with this) and we landed at a civilised hour after flying BA (something I never did for European flights ever – who needs food when your flight is less than four hours??) we took a taxi from the airport, using googlemaps and the guy’s satnav to make sure we ended up at our delightful, airy flat in Mitte.

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We had found the place on air BnB and chosen it for its amazing decor, central location, good reviews and the fact that it had all this while still not topping what we were willing to spend – a sum reached in about 5 minutes without the use of a calculator and copies of our bank statements.

There were no transvestites (I was a bit sad about this) and our suitcases had wheels.

After a leisurely breakfast with the guy renting us the flat, I napped in a comfortable bed before preparing to see the sites, DSLR in tow.

Berlin wall

Berlin wall

Day one was spent walking and walking, we walked along the remains of the Berlin Wall, and around the old Stasi headquarters and the Hamburger Bahnhof museum, accidentally seeing some Andy Warhols on the way round. (Also a giant gold statue of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the monkey, which was weird.)

This totally makes sense. Totally.

This totally makes sense. Totally.

We walked across bridges and down side streets and watched the sun set and then walked to find somewhere to eat before realising it was getting really and we live in the desert. Then we got a metro home.

Not having to worry obsessively over how much I am spending on holiday is a liberating and relatively new experience. I know that, as long as I don’t stay in ridiculously expensive places, or eat at excessively pricey restaurants, I will pretty much be okay.

It is a good feeling, but it is made better by the fact that I know I can, and have, done it on practically nothing, having to count as I go, and sometimes choosing between food and culture.

Obligatory lovely sunset picture.

Obligatory lovely sunset picture.

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From what I remember of my first visit to Berlin there was a lot of walking then as well, and considerably less metro. As in none. If I couldn’t walk it I didn’t go.

It turned out to be a very fun experience, made all the better as those months often were by the weird and the wonderful folk you meet at places that charge you €8 a night.

In this instance it was two Northern Irish boys who I can remember very little about, including their names, although the main thing you need to know is that they didn’t steal anything or hit on me so they are better than 70% of people in the universe.

They also had a tendency to go “Oh, that looks interesting” and wander off in a random direction.

By this method of zen navigation (I am very much channelling the late, great Douglas Adams in this post) we found a super dodgy bar that was on the top floor of a derelict building, the other floors of which were being used as a kind of urban art gallery, with graffiti and bits of wall missing where people had literally knocked the bit of art they wanted out of the plaster and taken it home.

The outer wall of the bar was missing and art-house films were projected across a vacant square and on to the side of the building opposite. Drinks were cheap, strong, and quite possibly moonshine.

Unfortunately at that point in my life my camera was the film one my mum had bought me when I was about 12, so the pictures I did take came out as nothing more than blurs. Although that might not have been entirely the camera’s fault.

My first time in Berlin, then, was essentially one big walking tour, just looking at things that were out in the open and, more importantly, free. Brandendurg Gate? Check. Checkpoint Charlie? Check. Reichstag dome? Check. Berlin wall? Check. Bunch of other stuff I don’t really remember? Check. Lots of very friendly, possibly high homosexuals? Double check.

Brandenburg Gate, still there.

Brandenburg Gate, still there.

I walked through parks and round woodlands and into what used to be East Berlin and peaked in to the windows of things I wanted to visit but couldn’t afford.

I didn’t, on that visit, reflect much on the identity of the city or its cultural memory. The Jewish Museum had only been open a few years and was prohibitively expensive by my standards and the holocaust memorial was not yet complete.

I knew as much about the world as any average 18-year-old knows, basically nothing, and somehow didn’t connect the things I learnt about in history with the city I was in and the windows I was peaking through.

I was out in the real world on my own for the first time. I was on a self-involved voyage of discovery (read, being a slightly pretentious wannabe writer who was attempting to go through a phase of ‘not liking shoes’ but in reality didn’t like having dirty and sore feet more.)

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This time around I am pleased to say my awareness of the world has extended beyond my own bubble and I spent a lot more time reflecting on the city, and the fact that many of the things we think of as ancient history, the division of the city, the poverty and austerity and spying, were actually within living memory.

Asad and I went to the Jewish museum, which is beautiful and stunning and thought-provoking and you should go there. Now.

I read letters from concentration camps, but also letters from people who survived and were leaving for Israel and that opened up another floodgate of emotion. I looked at those pages from history, full of hope, and felt a sinking sorrow for what was to come.

Hindsight is not always a wonderful thing.

Something that struck me is that Berlin’s cultural memory is still very much in the negative. We walked through the Topographie of Terror exhibition about the rise of the Nazis, and on the way out I saw a sign for a new installation. I forget the exact name but it may as well have said “Coming soon: Another look at all the terrible things we did.”

I know it is important not to forget. It is important for every country to remember its mistakes so it does not repeat them. I especially appreciate the Soviet War memorial, built in 1949, and one of the only memorials I have seen the properly manages to convey the sheer number of fatalities suffered by the Russians.

Imposing is the word.

Imposing is the word.

But I also think it is time for the people of Berlin to start the bit where they move on and don’t repeat them.

We met up with a few German friends, and they were all young and smart and dynamic and doing good work and I look forward to visiting Berlin in another decade, when they are the ones in charge.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom and Stasi museums. Anish Kapoor was exhibiting and we spent a glorious few hours wandering around the installations being perplexed at how they worked.

At this point, the number of modern art selfless I took was faintly ludicrous.

Anish Kapoor: At this point, the number of modern art selfless I took was faintly ludicrous.

The Modern Art Museum was a glory of colour, and our hunt for the best currywurst in Berlin (which turned out to be at Curry36) was a glory of slightly oddly flavoured tomato sauce.

We ate the best burger (at The Bird) and drank the best cocktails (which definitely were not moonshine or cheap, but they were strong.)

One afternoon we went with friends to a flea market in Mauerpark and watched karaoke from the bear pit, along with about 500 other people.

Breakfast. With flowers in vases. Fancy.

Breakfast. With flowers in vases. Fancy.

One of the last things we did was have breakfast in the Reichstag. The tours book up months in advance but you can book breakfast or lunch about a week ahead of time outside of tourist season, and once you are in the dome you can wander around at will.

It was that breakfast that made me realise how different my two visits had been. I have a memory of standing in the rain, looking up at the dome, and thinking “Holy crap that’s expensive to visit, I need to find a tree to shelter under or something.” (I was profound.)

This time it was still raining, but I was on the inside looking out.

It isn’t just about having disposable income. Eighteen-year-old me would probably have hated this trip, and somehow felt staying in a nice place was cheating. Twentyeight-year-old me (urgh) however, has stayed in enough crap holes to know that when a clean comfy bed with a bakery downstairs is available, you take it, because you don’t know when the next one is going to come along.

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Good for the Seoul…

…a solo exploration of South Korea’s capital.

As I write (for the first time in a long time) I am sitting in my parents’ living room, the sun has just come out and I am hoping it will stay out long enough to dry the rain-soaked streets so I can go for a run.

As ever, when I visit the UK, I am waiting for my visa and my contract to be re-newed so I can return to work.

Unusually, this all seems to be ticking a long quite nicely and I am taking advantage of the fact I am not chasing stamp-wielders and dotted line-signers to catch up with all my writing. With a feature on hold until someone replies to my many phone calls, a blog seemed to be in order.

When we last spoke, I was jetting away from the silence and peace of Mongolia, and heading to South Korea to round off a three week jaunt away from Qatar.

I had hoped to have a brief catch up with an old friend who, in the surprising way life has of throwing old acquaintances back at you, has followed a remarkably similar path to my own career-wise, but in Asia rather than the Middle East.

James, it turned, was being sent on deployment the day I arrived, and a confusion of timings meant we did not manage to cross paths. He did, however, lend me both his apartment and his girlfriend as tour guide to make my time in Seoul pass pleasantly.

I set out on the first day with little to no plan, and just headed to an area James had said was fun to explore on what was to be the first of many metro-based adventures during my six days in Seoul.

My first problem was similar to an issue encountered when first travelling in Arabic-speaking countries before I got a grasp on the alphabet – that I had absolutely no way of working out how to pronounce the words displayed on the signs. (There was English underneath, but my stumbling tongue still couldn’t quite form the right syllables in some cases.)  Added to this was the fact that the people I randomly approached either did not speak English or did not want to help.

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An accidental moment of bliss.

Luckily, having lived in a world of incomprehensible letters, I had painstakingly copied out the characters signifying my home station, and a few stops I hoped to reach along the way. In this way, and with the help of a friendly man who also taught me how to say “thank you” I made it to the City Hall stop and roved around, taking in the Seoul Art Gallery and a narnia-esque garden in the process. (This last bit by total accident – having no sense of direction means you see far more or a city than originally intended.) The biggest shock to my senses at this point was when the construction noise of Qatar was replaced by the sounds of insects filling the air.

I also came across an exhibition of art depicting the abuse of Korean women during the war. This gallery offered no english translation, but the power behind some of the images meant none was needed and I left feeling like someone else’s pain had washed in to me.

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Seoul on this first day seemed oddly impenetrable. I had, perhaps arrogantly, assumed English would be widely spoken, but this seemed not to be the case, and I felt useless having to pantomime my way through ordering meals and coffee.

Part of the culture shock may have come from the fact I arrived fresh from two weeks of an almost technological celibacy, only to land in a world of lights and machines and slickness.

I tried, especially when on the metro, to find relatable figures and behaviours.

The school holidays had brought out gaggles of early teenage girls, standing in groups of five or so in the middle of the carriage, giggling, playing with smart phones, all dressed the same to assert their individuality without moving away from the herd.

The differences between here and there surround the surface style. There is more neon, more animal motiffs on bags and shirts, they all look younger than their contemporaries in London, who age before their time.

I found myself wondering when these girls, with long, straight hair and short shorts transform into the uniform older women, with stiffly permed curls and loose-fitting trousers. Few examples of the intervening stages seem visible, the transformation appears absolute.

I voiced this with my guides (who I met up with a little later in the trip) and they laughed at my observation. The story behind why all the older women look the same is quite a poignant one.

The ‘ajumma’ – meaning ‘aunt’ (I think) – are seen as hard working, slightly pushy, older women. I couldn’t quite work out if it was a term of respect (as in South Asia) or a pejorative way of talking about the older generation.

Anyway, I was told that in the past, where times were much harder and working days were long and difficult, women would have these fixed, tight perms as they lasted and lasted and never moved and the women did not have time in the mornings to style their hair before heading out to work.

(A quick search threw up this post from someone better placed to explain the lifestyle.)

I got up on the second day with far more of a plan, and a determination not to be culture-shocked out of having a great time in a city so bursting with possibilities.

One of the buildings at Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace

One of the buildings at Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace

Up and to the Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace, where a Korean/American girl and I drifted together in the manner of solo travellers everywhere and meandered about the place, before taking in lunch (I have no idea what I ordered – but it was delicious) and a calligraphy demonstration.

We then wandered off in our separate directions and I cable-carred up to N Seoul Tower (yes, I could have walked but *plurb* to you, I felt like being lazy.

At the top there are various over-priced places to eat and drink, a viewing station which I didn’t pay to go to, and a bunch of really fantastic displays made up of locks left by couples as a token of their love and relationship. It sounds tacky, I know, but the messages and the happiness kind of spills in to you once you get there.

Young couples also write their names on the fences.

Young couples also write their names on the fences.

Love lockets.

Love lockets at N Seoul Tower.

Guilt at not walking up came in to play, and I set off down the hill feeling all intrepid. This was eroded slightly when, during the course of my hike down the mountain, I was passed by a serene old lady, a women carrying a baby, and two blind men going the other way.

My happy wanderings brought me out at Bukchon Hanok village, a traditional 600-year-old urban environment preserved in the heart of Seoul. There, rather unexpectedly, my phone suddenly decided it could find a network provider after all, something it had completely failed to do in the more modern and shiny areas of the city.

Getting lost can be the best part of a holiday.

Getting lost can be the best part of a holiday.

Seoul is marvellous, but, as previously stated, somewhat mysterious at first. My trip would not have been half of what it ended up being without the wonderful Hyojin Kim who I finally managed to meet up with on my third day there.

Seoul Fish Market

Seoul Fish Market

Together with a friend of a friend we explored Seoul’s fish market, where you can purchase fish to be prepared in one of the many adjoining tiny restaurants – resulting in the freshest Sushi you are ever likely to eat.

Never able to leave my journalist hat in Doha, we also visited one of Seoul’s under-reported on slums, where I managed to conduct interviews and get some interviews which will hopefully prove useful down the line.

One minute from the slum, we sat on over-priced patchwork sofas in one of the most expensive malls in Korea, and I accepted the fact that my brain was never going to work in quite the same way since moving back to the world of reporting.

Oh, I also went to Gangnam st….ation. By accident. But still, there it is.

With all due apologies...

With all due apologies…

By this point in my extensive trip my joy of discovery was starting to wane and I will admit to a certain amount of happiness on my fourth day in Seoul when I was able to have a blissful lie-in before getting up to navigate grocery shopping before heading in to the real world for Korean barbecue and a night-time exploration of Seoul.

My fifth day was given up to packing and some last-minute exploring of the city in order to meet some people James had suggested I hang out with. The knowledge that soon my ready access to good beer and pork products would be coming to an end meant that I welcomed an afternoon exploring pubs and tea shops around the admittedly slight more westernised area of Seoul.

I was journeying home on the tube when began feeling desperately sad because one of the old women I described earlier was standing by the doors with a cloth pressed to her face. She removed it to reveal a raised, purple eye and cheek bone. No-one was paying her attention, no-one gave up their seat, I was reminded of London in the worst possible way, when everyone looks at the floor and doesn’t ask questions.

I felt trapped and isolated, wanting more than anything to speak to her, but knowing my message would never be conveyed successfully. I stood mute and screaming.

Then, she sat down between two other identical women and they immediately started talking to her, asking her questions, with faces full of concern. I was relieved they had just not seen, rather than ignoring her. I was more relieved when she mimed falling. In this situations one thinks the worst.

I felt so divorced from being able to be a caring member of this society.

On my final day I had managed to get on the full de-militarised zone tour (you need to book pretty far in advance to get anything other than the half day.)

IMG_0687It was an odd experience, walking through tunnels, seeing a train station with a sign boldly displaying “To Pyongyang” feeling the futility of the fact that the tracks just stop, that a train has never run, that signs stating “the beginning of unification” seem pathetically optimistic.

Above all that is the surreal way the place feels slightly like an amusement park. Signs and sculptures are everywhere. The propaganda reel says that when re-unification happens, they want the area to be a place of happiness and joy.

If Disneyland did military buffer zones…

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There were serious and interesting bits to the DMZ as well. You can stand facing North Korea, as heavily trained South Korean soldiers stand guard behind blue box-like buildings where the two sides can meet.

A low concrete line can be seen spanning the floor as the point that South becomes North.

By the end of the day, and the end of the trip, I was feeling exhausted. Nearly three weeks of adventures and new experiences and filling myself up with all the amazing tales I can now tell was been wonderful and refreshing, but I had never felt more ready to return to Doha.

Seoul is full of lights and sounds and unexpected corners that lead to hidden gems.

It is a city to explore, but it is also a city to share. The last few days of having people with me, showing me their favourite places and the hidden souls of Seoul made the tip better than I ever could have hoped, but it reminded me of the bad, as well as the good, of travelling alone.

I found peace being able to roam at my own pace, not stop until late, or coming back to the calm of the flat if it all became too much.

It is the singular joy of travelling alone that one feels no obligation to do anything and can enjoy a new place and savour it in ones own way.

With that, however, comes the loss of shared experience. A knowledge that to do something, to struggle through a mountain, or to stand in the baking heat to witness a particular event, is done purely to say “I did this” and to have no-one to laugh with about the arduous nature of the trials that were gone through so the reward could be enjoyed.

It is not to say I did not adventure and experience and live during that week.

Travelling alone opens doors to new friendships that might never have happened if the acquaintance had seen two people standing in a doorway instead of one.

As with everything, I would not change my trip, but I wonder how it might have changed if someone else were here as well.

Han river by night

Han river by night.

All these things…

…that I’ve done.

This post is about more than my long overdue confession that I actually like The Killers (go ahead, take away any cool kid points you erroneously gave me in the past, I’m tired of living a lie…)

Anyway, that aside, I decided it was high time I wrote about Qatar again, what with it being where I live and all.

There is a backing track to most conversations you have with new acquaintances in Doha.

It goes like this: “Doha is so boooring. There’s just nothing to do.”

It’s an easy conversation starter. It is also a pretty safe bet as far as opinions go – all the cool kids hate on Doha.

The speaker is usually standing in a five-star hotel, wafting around an over-priced drink. Or dressed as a pirate/ninja/fairy tale character in the large kitchen of a relative stranger’s home surrounded by coolers full of alcohol.

We’ve all heard it. Most of us have said it, including me.

In fact, given my current lethargic state I am probably more guilty than most of tarring Qatar with the ‘boring’ brush.

But here’s the thing. It isn’t. It isn’t boring. It isn’t dull.

Granted, it isn’t a city of culture either. You can’t wander around and marvel at the history as revealed to you by enthralling architecture through the ages. Up until the 1940s the place had a population of about 12,000 and everyone lived in tents so it doesn’t exactly lend itself to having a wealth of shared culture and learning.

What it does have, though, is a lot of people who are trying, trying, trying every day to make it great. From house parties that transform homes into jungles, circuses, beaches, to plays and events and stand-up comedy. Everyone brings something to this supposedly boring city.

And what we mean when we say it is boring is that we can’t do the same things we could at home. But we’re not at home and we all knew that when we hopped on board a plane and prepared for an 8/14/two-day flight. (Time zones confuse me. I think Australia might be in 2025 already?)

So what, in the past 18 sun-drenched months have I done in Doha. I asked myself this yesterday as I was lying by the pool reading. Well, there’s that for a start.

But there are so many other things as well.

1) Witnessed international sporting events

Spain vs Uruguay at Khalifa stadium.

Spain vs Uruguay at Khalifa stadium.

The top female tennis players of our time were here last month, battling it out until Serena Williams got beaten. Golfers rocked up to the Qatar Masters and Chris Wood eagled the 18th to win. Spain played Uruguay in Khalifa stadium and if you forget the queuing, lack of food, and pubescent squealing behind us, when else am I going to see a bunch of Spanish first team players running around in shorts?

2) Been to gigs I would never think twice about

I miss live music, I really, really do. But, (The Killers aside, shut up) I’ve always had specific taste in music. Not limited, I’m generally speaking quite eclectic, but the UK would never have seen me at Calvin Harris one month, and The Commitments the next.

I also got to see Wynton Marsalis live, which was pretty f-ing epic.

3) Desert camping, dune bashing, and general fun in the sun

Dune-bashing on one of my first weekends in Doha.

Dune-bashing on one of my first weekends in Doha.

In January I was making use of the best Christmas present a girl could get and using my beach cricket by the inland sea. It was about 27 degrees and glorious.

In December it was still warm enough to go to the desert and lie out under the stars for a meteor shower.

Don’t get me wrong, for four months of the year when the temperatures start to rocket all I want to do is sit in a bath of ice, whimpering quietly, but when the weather is good it is oh so good.

The desert itself clears my mind every time I go and it, alone, is enough to let me forget that I live in a city under construction.

Kayaking in Al Khor's mangroves. There were flamingoes, and lots of clay.

Kayaking in Al Khor’s mangroves. There were flamingoes, and lots of clay.

Beyond the desert and out of Doha to Al Khor, we discovered kayaking through the mangroves, an island of flamingoes, and general wonderfulness was available on our doorstep.

4) Made friends with Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, France, Canada, India, America, Sweden, Pakistan, Australia, the list goes on

This is probably one of my favourite things about Doha.

As I’ve said before, the people make the city, and the people are from all over the world. So I’ve hosted iftar during Ramadan, debated cricketing glory (or the lack thereof) with people who will happily brand me the token imperialist in order to win an argument (cries of ‘give me back my indigo’ are not uncommon during these discussions,) learnt that Americans are not, in fact, idiots, and that the French genuinely believe Brits eat jelly with most meals. (No, I have no idea where this came from either – maybe Asterix?)

5) Seen Kevin Spacey play Richard III

I mean… just… gah. Words fail me.

There are more things than the list above, two events in particular spring to mind and then jump up and down on a little trampoline vying for attention, but my total lack of self-editing ability means I will have to save them for another post.

And so, despite everything; the visa debacle, the constant construction noise that has pounded its way through my life and into my dreams, the dust, that time I got hit by a land cruiser, the rampant weirdness, I just don’t hate Doha.

(Detract cool kid points as necessary.)

One last thing:

I don't like cricket, I love it.

I don’t like cricket, I love it.

Jordan in five days…

…and too many words.

In lieu of being able to think of anything interesting to say beyond ranting about work visa woe (which I’m sure everyone is sick of hearing about), I thought I would pull something else out the archives of my now defunct blog.

Following on from the Beirut post, I’m continuing the travel theme and putting up something from last year about a trip I took to Jordan with a friend from home.

The below was originally in two parts and put up around mid-June 2012. It is pretty long as one post so I’ve  put in dividing lines to show where the original broke off, just in case you got tired of my rambling and needed a break.

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Post 1: Salam Panda…

…AKA reflections on a whistle-stop tour of Jordan.

I started this post on my final day in Jordan, scribbling frantically in a notebook as I desperately tried to recall all the funny/stupid/exciting things that had happened. As always, my natural procrastinator came to the fore each evening and actually recording the events of the day fell by the wayside and preference was given to napping/ eating/ generally mooching about wherever we were at the time.

I justified this by saying I was taking in life and sounds and smells of the place, in all honesty I’m just kind of lazy.

Let’s start at the end. That seems logical.

On my final day, after a wander around and a small but inevitable adventure due to getting lost thanks to my total lack of a sense of direction, I de-camped in what was clearly the cool indie-kid coffee shop in Rainbow Street, Amman.

Called the Green Turtle, it was obviously the student hang-out of choice and a far cry from the little street stalls with their disproportionately large tea urns that we had been buying our regular tea infusions from over the past few days.

I chose it because I needed time to sit in peace, and it was far removed from the hustle, honking and constant cries of “welcome in Jordan” that had punctuated much of our journey and in particular that part of it that had been in Amman.

These noises were far from unwelcome (for the most part), especially to me coming as I was from Doha, where you get very little street life unless you make an effort to seek it out. It was refreshing to see and hear the sights and sounds of city thriving and full of people going about their lives.

Before Amman, Lucie and I had very much done the tourist trail. This is not the normal travelling style for either of us, but we were pressed for time and driven by a compulsion to see everything this amazing country had to offer which meant we had to indulge in a certain amount of taxi tourism.

I landed ahead of Lucie and spent a fun hour or so playing the game of “find your bag in amongst the massive pile of suitcases we have just dumped in the middle of the floor.” After a mild panic and an hour wait, I headed to Madaba complete with pack and traveling companion.

After the first shawarma of the trip and me getting over the shock that places other than five star hotels sold alcohol, we crashed out in our first of many budget, but pleasant, hotels.

The tourist trail started bright and early the next day with a trip that took in Mt Nebo, where Moses saw the promised land but where we failed to see anything due to fog and low-hanging clouds, the baptism site, complete with the most biased audio tour known to man (gems included: making it sound like Jesus had been baptised in a cruciform pool which wasn’t built until 300 years after the recorded date of his crucifixion, and using the fact that people built churches where it was difficult to build things as further proof of the baptism. We also learnt that John the Baptist being beheaded ended his career as a Baptist.)

After Bethany we visited the Dead Sea (weird, floaty, therapeutic mud – GO THERE) where you can either buy the good mud or elect to dig through sand to get your own. We chose the digging, largely because it was more fun rather than because of the cost. Folowed b some hot waterfalls (Ma’In hot springs) which were weird but very relaxing, if being hammered with a torrent of 40 degree water is your thing, it certainly helped clean all the salt of my hardy underwater camera that survived being in the Dead Sea, before wending our weary way home.

The view from the Ma'in hot springs.

The view from the Ma’in hot springs.

All this was to the accompaniment of our initially friendly but quickly crossing into creepy taxi driver who’s line of questioning about whether we would like a bedouin husband resulted in some hastily created fiancés.

This did not prevent him making vastly inappropriate offers to Lucie while I was out of ear shot.

That was the first, but certainly not the last taste of the inappropriateness that somewhat marred the trip. Not that all the people we met were like that. Many, if not most, were simply friendly guys who made their money from being nice to tourists. However, this initial interaction put us both on edge for much of the trip. (More on the man dubbed “creepy mirror eyes” later.)

After a quick nap we headed into Madaba to find some food and ended up at a restaurant I have forgotten the name of but will find out soon and put in here. Anyway, I would heartily recommend it for quality, quantity and speed. Also, nom.

Walking back through the town proved an interesting experience as two late adolescent/ early 20s boys with hair and clothing similar to that of a T-Bird (always a good look when you can see your own face in someone’s hair) decided a legitimate chat up technique was to follow us around the streets saying “Hi” at increasing volume until they screamed it and then started the whole process over again.

That aside, Madaba seemed lovely.

Day two saw a rapid fire change of plans.

We had intended to head to the Dana nature reserve so I could see nature as opposed to the constant beige I currently live with but were informed by some friendly French Canadians that this would mean missing Petra by candlelight that evening.

Having decided we didn’t want to miss it, we threw in our lot with the aforementioned Canadians and two girls from NIR and hopped in a mini bus to Petra. Unfortunately Mr Creepy from the day before was our driver and we spent a rather uncomfortable trip moving Lucie from seat to seat after every stop, only to have the rear view mirror change position accordingly.

That, and my new-found role of body blocker, aside, we had a stunning roadtrip to Petra, stopping along the King’s Highway to take in the rocky mountains and bedouin camps that make up Jordan’s landscape. I don’t know if it is because I was coming from the flat, sandy, steel and glass sights of Doha, but Jordan seemed like another world. Its mountains seemed unreal in their size and dominance, like they had been dropped there rather than formed over millennia.

The only real down side was when my rather wonderful traveling hat got blown off my head, down a mountain, and is now no doubt making a very fashionable goat the envy of all its friends. Or lunch.

Martial arts at Karak Castle.

Martial arts at Karak Castle.

A stop at Karak castle, a crusader ruin that we got lost in and meandered around for an hour, followed by an odd lunch of unidentifiable meat substances, and we arrived in Petra at about 6pm, rapidly dumping out stuff at CleoPetra (hee hee) in the village outside the place itself, we had a rushed dinner in which I managed an actual conversation in Arabic, with only a few misunderstandings and then headed to Petra by Candlelight, a magical evening of mystery performed three times a week and using 1,000 candles a time.

I sound cynical, because I am, but it was undeniably stunning. On the advice of a guide, we hung back from the crowd and made our way down the candlelit path in relative silence. The crescent moon hanging above us did not shed enough light to indicate the vast scale of the rocks we were walking through, something that we only realised on re-visiting the site the next day.

As the candles became more frequent, we recognised the site of the Indian Jones scene

Indiana Jones-ing by candlelight.

Indiana Jones-ing by candlelight.

and so Harrison Forded our way across cobbles and rocks, singing the theme tune and ruining a couple’s romantic time-lapse photograph in the process.

On reaching the treasury, we were treated to a candlelit musical display and some stories about the people who had once inhabited the caves of Petra. Lucie was treated to a delightful offer of going to sit in the shadows with someone we had never seen before, and I was treated to a cat running over my lap ruining a serene moment and forcing me to suppress a girly scream.

Petra by candlelight ends with a musical performance.

Petra by candlelight ends with a musical performance.

A quick kip in another surprisingly pleasant and accommodating hotel (would recommend CleoPetra and the friendliest hotelier in the world)  and we were up again to see Petra by day.

Stay tuned for the next installment of my random stream on consciousness for stories about donkeys, run away camels, weeing in the desert, bedouin husband #457, Welcome in Jordan, genteel hitchhiking and fun with Mormons.

PS – If anyone goes to Jordan, please bring back several hundred packets of “Hello Panda” a biscuity, chocolatey treat.

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Post 2: The continuation of…

… the Jordanian Connection

I should probably preface this with an explanation as to why the second installment of the trip has taken so long in the writing.

I got hit by a car.

Not in a major “spending weeks in traction and nearly dying” way, but the resulting broken ribs and associated painkillers have left me pretty dazed and confused for the past few weeks.

It was enough of an effort to get to work in the morning and stay awake throughout the day.

Now on the mend and ignoring the minor distraction of having itching bones, my focus has returned to its previous state. Admittedly, this is only slightly above the attention span of a squirrel that has just discovered espresso, but still, progress.

And so back to Jordan.

I already mentioned Petra by candlelight, but to recap:

We arrived in Petra having survived the journey with creepy mirror eyes man (this survival involved moving my traveling companion to various seats in the push in the hope he would stop staring at her in the rear view mirror. When this didn’t work it involved me doing quite a lot of body blocking and employing the use of my elbows while entering or exiting the mini van.)

Safe and sound and slightly jaded we checked in to CleoPetra and offloaded our packs before heading to a cafe where I managed a semi-passable conversation in Arabic which resulted in food and coffee and me accidentally saying Petra was a camel instead of beautiful.

Fed and watered we headed to Petra by candlelight, the reason for our sudden change of plans.

It was stunning. The brightness of the moon and the thousands of candles used to light the path down the Siq to the treasury reflected each other, bathing our path in a silvery, flickering glow.

Naturally we spent quite a large portion of this magical experience singing the Indiana Jones theme tune (the opening scenes were shot there) and pretending to be avoiding booby traps.

The next day we headed to Petra again, and the full scale of the carved-out rocks we had been walking between the night before was revealed. It is a truly breathtaking place. I’m not going to go through its whole history, which we learnt from a friendly tour guide who made me an offer of clubbing in Aqaba I was only too happy to refuse, but I would recommend people have a read about it online, it is a fascinating place.

Also, there are a surprising number of rocks that look like elephants.

Petra in the day.

Petra in the day.

After the tour was completed, the six of us (dubbed “team pervy bus”) elected to climb the 800-odd steps to the monastery. Being the intelligent souls we so obviously are we started this ascent at about 11am, timing it perfectly with the mid day sun.

This combined with my “I’m in a real environment with clean air and stuff” cold meant that the trip up was long and hot, but worth it.

Regular breaks were no hardship as I gazed around at the mountains surrounding me.

I think the reason I fell so heavily in love with Jordan’s topography is because it contrasts so strongly with my current location.

Qatar’s highest natural point is Qurayn Abu al Bawl at 338 feet, whereas its tallest building is more than 980 feet.

Jordan has rolling mountains, greenery, natural flowing water. Bedouin camps spring up everywhere and the country feels as though it manages to combine the tourist trail, modern city living and traditional lifestyles with far more ease and success than the Gulf countries I have visited or lived in.

People for scale...

People for scale…

So we climbed, ate lunch in the blessed shade provided by being hoisted up into the monastery and meandered back down the mountain, re-assuring people as they climbed that it was definitely worth the hike.

Here team pervy-bus parted ways. Lucie and I were on a tight schedule and needed to make our desert camp in wadi Rum before sunset whereas the others had an extra day to spend marveling at the wonders of Petra.

This marks the only disappointing part of the trip.

For both of us, previous experiences of desert camps have involved being miles from anywhere with a fire, a tent and some camels. We were both excited to have this amazing experience in a desert immortalised in Lawrence of Arabia and with dunes and features that make Qatar’s desert seem like the dunes in Cornwall.

Instead we arrived at a collection of barrack-looking buildings that put me in mind of my time in Camp Bastion. There was no campfire and rather too many 4x4s parked behind the semi-permanent structures that made up our sleeping and eating quarters.

The only other people at the camp (apart from the Jordanian operators and guides) were a group of Americans who seemed reluctant to join in with our obviously hilarious observations about life, the universe, and everything, and two Japanese girls, neither of whom spoke English.

Determined not to let the disappointment mar the whole evening, we went for a walk with one of the young Jordanian guys running the camp who told us about the rocks surrounding us and the unlikely speed with which he and his father could climb them.

We also sat in the sand, burying our hands and feel until they reached the cool sand under the surface.

After tea, which consisted of chicken cooked under the sand, and some musical entertainment during which Lucie caught the eye of Bedouin husband #457 by committing the obvious come on of “having a nice time” we sat out in the dark and star gazed while chatting about various euphemisms for needing the lavatory. As you do.

This fun time was marred slightly by the sounds of a real-life bedouin topping up his mobile phone and by the arrival of husband #457 who proceeded to attempt touching but who then went away after being told that this was not considered acceptable behaviour.

So we star gazed and then went to sleep and in the morning got on our camels and left.

Oh yes, we did the camel thing. It was surprisingly comfortable. Having ridden horses

Camel-based longarm.

Camel-based longarm.

out of Petra, we had established that Lucie was not a natural-born rider but the Sudanese guide seemed happy to let me take control of the camels, which were looped together as he walked beside us asking us to explain the meanings of various rap lyrics.

(Lucie’s explanation went: “He likes a lady, and especially likes the way she is dancing and he would like to get to know the lady better but he has another lady who he is in a relationship with and so he is feeling guilty about getting to know the dancing lady.”)

He also asked us to conjugate the verb “to arrest,” which wasn’t exactly what I thought I would be doing on the back of a camel in Wadi Rum, but we rolled with it.

A small moment of panic when my camel tried to run away from Lucie’s camel despite the fact they were tied together, and a small detour so they could go and look at some lady camels and we were back in Rum with no means of transportation.

The main travel hub consisted of a cafe with several long benches outside where tour groups and individual travelers congregated. Some very genteel hitchhiking resulted in us getting a lift to Aqaba from some Belgians in a Mazda.

Aqaba was humid and a bit grimy. I have heard very positive things about the place, but at the time we arrived it struck me as a seaside tourist resort that was struggling in the off-season.

After a bizarre taxi ride to a resort that had a pool that wasn’t open and a manager who couldn’t grasp the fact that the fact it would be open tomorrow wasn’t much good to us, we hitched a ride back into town with a man called Charles who turned out to be a Mormon.

The weirdness continued back in town we had fish and chips, which originally came on one plate before we specified we did, in fact, want two meals. Eventually we struck gold after the dust of the desert and found a pool with a never-used water slide and some guys who brought us tea. After a refreshing afternoon of not doing much, we called Charles and hitched to Amman with him and his lovely Mormon friends, who didn’t try to convert us once and were basically delightful.

On the journey down we booked a room in a cheap place recommended by both guidebooks and after dumping our stuff and a quick nap we headed out to explore the city.

And it was a real city. I genuinely love some things about Doha and the area in which I live but one thing I don’t like is the lack of normal street life. People walking around, people with stalls and tea stands and selling a plethora of amazingly coloured spices. This was all going on in Amman.

I also miss being able to go somewhere selling food on the street and get a plate of whatever they have that day for the equivalent of a few pence. All this was going on, and I reveled in the life and the sounds of the city.

Amman by night.

Amman by night.

After our explore, we crashed out and the next (and final full day) we went to an hammam and got all cleanified (which is a word) and relaxed. We also hit the gold souq and bargained for jewelry, which was excellent fun.

Bread-to-face ratio = pleasing.

Bread-to-face ratio = pleasing.

Another meal, this time involving pitta bread bigger than our faces and another night and Lucie was up at O’Christ hundred hours to get a flight and I was left with a day of meandering, in which I took in a few of the touristy sites in Amman.

The museums, the ruins and other bits and bobs in the city are perfectly pleasant, but Amman for me was more about experiencing the life and the noise.

So that takes us full circle. A quick three days in Dubai and I was back in Doha, back in the portacabin and back to planning my next trip out.