Friday, April 06, 2007

`Aqaba to İstanbul

I arrived in İstanbul midafternoon, and wasn't sure what to expect. I've talked enough about how this is my favorite city and how I think it's the most beautiful city in the world ... but I'd only been here once, and only for five days. I wasn't sure if the reality would match the hype of my memories. Besides, I'd been saying all that without having seen Paris, which most people tell me really is the most beautiful city in the world.

Well, now I've seen Paris, and I'm back in İstanbul for the second time ...

... and sorry, Paris - İstanbul wins. Half a day and I can feel all the love coming back.

But first, let me get out of 'Aqaba. Billy and I splurged on a big meal our first night there - and it was a bit of a letdown. Not bad, but not worth the splurge. The cafe was set in a nice garden, and we finally tried the argile pipe that everyone here smokes so much of. It was ok, like breathing apple, but I really don't get the passion for it.

The next day we took it easy, and wandered around the port. The city was nice and laid back. There were a lot of sidewalk cafes, and dozens of mostly empty discos and bars with not-quite English names. The Super Night Club Prima Dona won for my favorite name. We didn't see a lot of tourists, though they were there. Most were Jordanians who seemed to hang out in the cafes and urban parks drinking tea and smoking the argile.

The only disturbing thing we saw was the municipal beach, where families were swimming in garbage-filled water and people were laying out on beaches covered more with litter than sand. There's a lot of money coming into this town - it's a Special Economic Zone - and I hope that a bit more trickles down to improving things for the local people.

Half way through the day Billy had a grand-mal seizure in a dusty alley behind the souq. I saw him start to go down, and managed to half carry him to a sidewalk. We were only a block away from the main drag, where I could have bought him the soda that would provide him the sugar and snap him out of it (he's Type 1 diabetic), but there was no way I could make it and back. He looked bad, and I didn't trust leaving him. I managed to find enough pidgin-Arabic to get some help (huwe sukkari, beddna Coka-Cola! is now a permanent part of my vocabulary), and a passerby brought out some sugar water.

It bought us a few minutes, but it wasn't enough. Billy made it a few steps, and then his body froze and I couldn't get him to move. And then he went down, screaming and thrashing and rolling in the road. I tried my best to keep him unhurt & out of the way of traffic. A crowd gathered, and some people brought a few sodas out. Again, we had a short reprieve before it hit again. We had a crowd watching by now - Billy on his back in the middle of the alley, his body in full spasms and cussing like a dying sailor (and lucky for us he cussed out Jesus F'in Christ and not Muhammed), me trying to cradle him & keep him from cracking his head open or running head on into a wall.

When he finally came out of it we were both quite dirty and bloody. He was fine once we got sugar in him, but we still made a pretty impressive site wandering out of the alley and back into the main street.

The next day we rented a car and headed up the King's Highway to Madaba and Amman. We took a few detours (some planned, some not), and explored small Bedouin and Palestinian towns off the main tourist route, took a tour through a ruined Crusader Castle that Richard the Lion Hearted and defended and Saladin finally conquered; took in the views at the Dana Natural Reserve, where a stone village rests on a promontory overlooking a steep red canyon that leads down to the Biblical Cities of the Plain (Sodom, et al); and bathed in the Dead Sea (and though our injuries didn't burn like we'd been warned, I did get some up my nose and that felt like an injection liquid fire & it still burns 24 hours later); and finally got lost in the Arabic Christian town of Madaba before finding our hotel.

We ate at Haret Jdoudna, which has a reputation as Jordan's best restaurant, and which redeemed the country's cuisine in my eyes. It is a land of processed cheese, canned hummus, and chicken spam (it's halal!). For the most part - and there were exceptions, like Aodeh's dinners in the desert, or Ali Baba's mezze restaurant in `Aqaba - the food seemed as if the Middle East had cross-bred with the Midwest, circa 1972.

But if they can't cook, the people certainly were lovely - it was full-on Aloha, all the time, from the streets to the markets to the hotels (though not on the roads!). I've never seen anything like it.

I'm not sure I would change much of this trip. Amman was interesting, and good for understanding the culture and country, but not really a vacation spot. I'd have probably done a few days in Madaba in retrospect. For anything else, I'd have had to added a few days. I could've done another day in Wadi Rum (though Billy would've been happy with one), and have heard great things about Dana and would probably spend a few nights hiking there.

And now İstanbul! I got lost in Amman heading to the airport, and arrived pretty stressed out. Now I'm off for a wander, then a massage, and then it's early to bed. Billy arrives tomorrow, and the man is facing a full weekend - Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Cinili Hammam (designed by Sinan for Suleiyman the Magnificent), a Mevlevi Sufi service (think the whirling dervishes), the Grand Bazaar, maybe the "alternative" hammam in Eyup (the Muslim conservative quarter hosts a gay hamaam!), a night dancing to Turkish House at the Love Bar, and I guess I'll have to return again to take in a cruise on the Bosophorus or a tour of the Seven Towers or anything else left undone. And since this city never ends, there will always be things left undone, and endless reasons to return.

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