Sophia & David
Omar, Annas & Hammod
Today we started with a plan. Meet up with Sophia and David from last night, head out to the Castle at Ajlun, and hopefully visit the church at Anjara. We knew where the bus station was, as it is the same one from going to Irbid, and there should be busses running from Ajlun to Anjara. Andrew at the cliff Hotel is very helpful in this respect.
David. David is 18 and from Melbourne, Australia. He has traveled a bit, but this is his first big trip alone. He is australian but also has an Israeli passport and he is Jewish.
Sophia. Sophia is also Australian from Melbourne. She has known David for a couple of months, and they are not a couple, but very good friends. Again 18 and first big trip alone. Her father is Palestinian/Australian and she is planning on spending some time later with friends and family in the westbank. She is learning Arabic and is helping us all out a lot.
Andrew. Andrew is a top bloke. He is well educated and thoughtful. A pleasure to speak to and a mine of information. In respect to today, he will give you your options, and when you decide, will try to make it as easy as possible. We could organise a tour through the hotel, hire a taxi for the day or catch service busses. Understanding that we are all backpackers (Sophia and David with real backpacks) he wrote directions for us in Arabic in case we had any problems. The cliff hotel has a dodgy toilet, cold water showers, and old beds. Andrew makes up for this and more.
Sophia and David were running late (This is usually me, so I welcomed the change) but we soon headed out. It started out well
enough. Taxi to bus station. Bus to Ajlun. Good timing as we got there when the bus was in hurry up and wait mode. Bus out to Ajlun. Same road as Erbid. Past Jaresh and into the hills. After a while we could see the castle perched up on the top of the hill like a decaying brick on an anthill. After winding down and around the hill we were on, we arrived at the main square of Ajlun. Everyone disembarked from the bus, but as we went to go, we were told to sit down again. When there was no one around any more, the driver offered to take us up the hill for 1jd each, As we hadn’t seen a taxi we thought it would be worthwhile, and not wanting to walk all that way, we agreed. He then drove us all the way up to the main gate of the Castle. We went up to it to buy our tickets, only to find out that you have to go back down to the visitors center to get them! Darn it. We now have to walk all the way back to town to get tickets and walk up to the castle. We had just paid a fortune to avoid this walk, and now its doubled. No. As it turns out, the centre is only about 600 meters down the hill. Not too bad.
Back at the gates we walk through and around to the main entrance. This is where the ticket office used to be. It has only just moved. This is a recurring theme in Jordan. A lot of things have changed since 2008, or are going to change. Ajlun Castle is built by some general in Saladin’s army. It has a commanding position of the area, and was built in response to a crusader castle near lake Tiberius in Palestine. It was built incredibly quickly, only a few years for it to be completed. This is surprising as it is dry stone walls. There is an internal render of mud and straw that is common to the time. While most of this has disappeared, there are some remains of it in places. The vaulted curved ceilings are really impressive. At times throughout the castle were mounds of rounded rocks. These are stones for the catapults. I am not sure if this was where they were stored, as it would be a hassle to move them up to the roof to fire them, or if they were collected throughout the castle to be stored here afterwards.
Making our way up to the roof we experienced the view. There is a 360 degree panorama of the area. It is brilliant. Standing there, absorbing the view, we started to hear a babbling of voices. Thinking there was a tour group below us, we tried to make out words or languages. It was not downstairs. It was the noise from the village in the valley. Floating up through the air to reach us over a kilometre away. Sofia & David joined us again up here, and thought it was great. We had to move on from here, as we still needed to see the church.
We wandered back down and talked to the Tourist police on how to get to Anjara. They organised a taxi for us to pick up the group at the gate of the castle. When the taxi arrived, they had a quick chat to make sure we got to the right place and we were off.
Arriving at the church, we were worried that we were in the wrong place. The church was an entire complex. There was a group of young boys playing football in the courtyard, and a few nuns were walking around. Having thought that there would only be a small church over a cave, this was completely unexpected. We went into the main church, and found out that the complex was also an orphanage. Adoption is illegal in Jordan, as the family are supposed to take care of kids, if anything happens to the parents. But what happens to the children that have no family? They end up here. This church is set out in a rather plain fashion, with beautiful paintings and stained glass windows. It was all really new though. Here there was another group of tourists hanging around having a look. We had seen and spoken with them at the Castle, so started talking again. They offered to take us to lunch after we had finished with the church.
Asking the priest about the history of the place, we found that there were excavations of the original church under the nunnery. This had been cemented up a while ago, as during the night people would come in and dig around looking for anything they could sell. Poverty in the region was extreme. The priest was happy to practice his english, as he hadn’t had much chance. He was Argentinian, and moved to New York for a while to practice, but with such a high population of Mexicans here, when they found out where he was from, they all spoke spanish! He was a bit miffed about that, and moved out here as a missionary. This complex was only about forty years old, and had a Dutch Mother Superior. That was an interesting conversation, as when we were talking to a nun, she found out Anna was Dutch. This started a game of charades. Which we lost, so we roped in the priest to translate. The nun was one of the happiest people though.
The 3 guys we were going to have lunch with had hung around all this time waiting for us, and now we were finally ready to go. We tried to decide on a place, and they said we would go out to an orchard, owned by one of them and get Mishmish. The next problem was how to get out there. This was solved by piling all of us into this little tiny car. Three in the front and four in the back. Interesting to say the least. Uncomfortable, hot, close, stuffy (until they wound down the windows to smoke) was the worst. It was not too bad though.
Our new friends were: Omar. Omar was about 37, and spoke the best english. He was the one that had invited us along. He is a sales rep selling everything from baby products to shampoo. Annas was tall dark and handsome. (according to Andrew, but the other three of us agree that Hammod was the best looking. Sorry Omar) Annas was the only single guy in the group, and we started making jokes about how they were taking us out to get him to marry Sophia. Quiet and intelligent type. Then Hammod. Hammod was cool. A bit of a character, and a lot of fun. Hammod was the driver for the day apparently, although we found out later that it was Annas’s car. We went and picked up lunch and headed out bush. After a long drive, we were apparently still around Ajlun. Up into the hills then out to a dirt road. Following this we had to jump out and almost push the car so it could go up the hill. We were at the orchard. It has a beautiful view of the countryside looking north towards Pella.
We sat down in the shade for lunch. Massive Shwaorma, that we couldn’t completely eat. We left it for later, and went for Mishmish. A quick walk through the orchard we ended up at a row of Apricot trees. This is Mishmish. Climbing the trees, eating apricots, it was a lot of fun. They even gave us a big bag of Mishmish (apricots). We found out that you can crack open the nut inside and eat the seed. It is almost almondy. Suddenly, we heard thunder, and we asked if you could hear the shelling this far from Syria. It was thunder. The sky darkened in seconds. Then it started raining. Heavily. We were drenched in seconds. There was a mad dash up to where our stuff was. David had gotten there first, and taken the most important stuff to the car already. We tried to save the food but it was ruined. We collected everything, and followed the car down the hill in the rain. It was great though. Who expected rain at an orchard in Jordan during the middle of Summer? As we were having fun, we agreed to go to their place in Ajlun. This was a small drive away, and then we were winding our way through the streets, down one way lanes, uturns up hills, and into a courtyard.
The house itself was sparsely furnished. A pile of mattresses and pillows for lounging on, TV and fan with a small coffee table being the only ornaments adorning the main room. Then there was a long kitchen with a bathroom and laundry attached. (As this was the first private bathroom we we in, it was interesting to see a squat toilet)
Back in the main room we chatted about all sorts of things. Where everyone is from. Hammod and Omar were both from Palestine, and took great interest in Sophia’s family in Safed. They outlined how big her family is and connected in Palestine and Jordan. Anna being Dutch and living in Australia, what the centre of Australia was like compared to Melbourne, and explaining distances. Then we got into religion. The differences between Shi’ite and Sunni, and how Shi’ite came about. Also that there are over seventy sects of Islam. It was a great day. We had to meet the German at 7, and David & Sophia had to meet up with some Saudis. So we started asking about the bus from Ajlun. Finding out we were too late, we then wanted to make it to Jerash to catch one from there. The guys said that they lived in Azarka, a lot closer to Amman, and busses run most of the night. Apparently this is only their weekend house. A place to escape the wives and kids for a few hours. As it was getting late we really wanted to head back, but now we couldn’t leave until dark. They didn’t want to be seen by the neighbours leaving with two women and not their wives. Gossip is supreme here. This caused us to all miss our appointments. But we were still having fun. The dancing started, and they tried to teach us some Jordanian dance steps. Finally it was dark enough that we could go. On the way to Azarka, they decided to take us all the way to Amman. This was fantastic, even though we were being squashed again, and they drove us directly to the hotel after passing the streets where they live.
It was an exhausting day, and we all had a great time. At the hotel we decided that it was a bit of fun to travel together for a while, and would go as a group to Jaresh in the morning. Andrew joined in the conversation then, and gave us a business card. If we are going to be out that late, please ring him so he wouldn’t worry. He is a gem. He had started worrying, as he knew our plans and we should have been back long ago. If we weren’t back by midnight he would have called the police to see if anything had happened. With solemn promises to let him know we were doing something strange, we went to bed.