Jordanian Novelties III

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The invisible steps of a Roman theatre

In recent years, the ever-increasing irritating nanny-stateness of life in Britain has driven me mad on countless occasions.

So daily life and tourist travel in Jordan is balm to my soul. A complete lack of concern for classic Health and Safety issues has made this last week challenging, exciting and rewarding in equal measure.

Ordinary pedestrian obstacles take some getting used to. Curbstones are not for the faint hearted or moderately infirm. And the slender steel cables used to anchor street lighting to the pavement offer the prospect of clean and swift decapitation to the unwary.

Smoking is still freely permitted indoors everywhere (and although a non-smoker, I’ve always quite liked smoky atmosphere) and naturally no one gives a monkeys if you photograph the entire collection in the small folk museum at the base of the Roman Theatre in downtown Amman.

Amman is a city built on hills, so there are charmingly pretty but lethally crumbling irregular steps and staircases everywhere, and the most impressive of these are to be found in the Roman Theatre itself. Viewed in the harsh light of early afternoon sun, deprived of shadowed form, these 2,000 year old blocks of rock left me paralysed with fear as I stood wondering just how I was going to get back down.

Another exciting event was an invitation to the opening of a new but-not-quite finished arty-chic hotel in downtown, where we were encouraged to explore the delightful uninhabited guest rooms and the impressive nighttime view from an extensive unlit rooftop terrace six stories above the city centre- with a three-inch parapet.

The highlight, though, is Wadi Rum in Jordan’s southern desert. Better than Petra (yes, really) in so many ways, but above all offering the sort of outward-bound physical endurance, balance and agility challenge that all real travellers are looking for in their hearts. And no H&S namby pamby restrictions to stop the fun.

It started with a bone-shattering ride across desert sands in an ancient 4×4 (which by the end of the day needed Himself to run alongside and push to jump-start it, our young Bedouin guide cheering with relief on our behalf). At various points, our “guide” would stop and point in a vaguely upwards direction and suggest a climb to a viewpoint. And so we did free scrambles up vertiginous rock falls; punishing climbs up sand dunes; a Spider-man inspired vertical scramble up a sheer rock face; and edged along footwide shelves and over narrow rock bridges with clear drops either side.

There was no moment when at least one person in our party wasn’t being challenged by a lifelong phobia of some sort. And it made men of all of us. And the next day no one could move.

But lest anyone should be in any doubt, Wadi Rum is absolutely worth it.

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Jordanian Novelties II

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No opportunity is to be missed in Jordan for offering boxes of tissues to visitors.

They crop up everywhere: every imaginable surface and many unimaginable.

There were, for example, two boxes nestling in the passenger footwell of the hire car alongside a paper welcome mat. Sadly I only found them after I’d trampled on them.

But the most curious offerings were the two dozen or so boxes attached to the underside of the roof of the bus ferrying us to a beach. A miracle of gravity-defying innovative thinking.

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Jordanian Novelties 1

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(Necessary) drops in foot high curbstones to allow pedestrian crossing of road albeit no road markings

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Crossings marked on the road but with foot high curbstone to clamber up and down either end.

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A Single Perspective of Four Countres

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Apologies for loading up such a big file and well done for your patience if you waited for it to open, but I couldn’t resist the irony of this visual depiction of a single perspective on the Middle East.

I’m sitting in full sunshine in a Jordanian beach resort with a notice nearby announcing that by the pool, bikinis are de rigeur and “cloths” are forbidden. Having packed loads of long sleeved modest outfits with an eye to local cultural norms, I’m unsettled by this sudden reversal of dress code. And inadequately prepared.

It’s all quite delightful. Jordanians are hospitable and friendly and we are basking in the reflected glow and usefulness of Eldest Daughter’s moderately fluent Arabic; once locals have recovered from the shock of hearing it spoken by someone appearing to be an English tourist.

But the single most fascinating feature of this area of the Red Sea coast (and I’ve experienced it also from the Israeli/Eilat side) is the surreal view of being able to simultaneously view four countries without even a turn of the head. Imagine if there truly were one single beautiful view of the Middle East.

A classic subject for the panoramic iPhone camera feature.

Jordan in the foreground; Saudi Arabia on the left visible through the umbrellas; Egypt is the land mass in the distance on the right; Israel is the near land mass on the right

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Train Trials (reprise)

20140330-003131.jpgRefuge in Malmaison, 1am

1. Not one of the reservation ticket bits on the Day Trip to Oxford proved valid at any stage on any train;
2. At Birmingham, the train stood silent for 45 minutes awaiting a new train crew and enabling hundreds of inebriated Brummies to clamber aboard and raucously chorus crappy songs all the way to Stoke;
3. Delay at Birmingham ensured we would miss the last Transpennine express from Manchester to Leeds;
4. Pathetic Wifi facilities on board the Cross Country train meant it was impossible to pre-book a (relatively cheaper) cab from Manchester to complete the journey post-midnight;
5. Himself had gallantly offered to collect us from Leeds at the expected arrival time of 00.20. On hearing that no cab-rank taxi would take us over the Pennines for less than £120, he heroically offered to drive over to pick us up from Manchester;
6. The M62 was closed for a section. Battling off-piste, Himself was caught by a speed camera ensuring that petrol plus speeding fine of £100 made the taxi offers in hindsight a real bargain;
7. In the early hours of Sunday morning, Piccadilly station was full of drunks and police and curiously lacking anywhere to sit down. Refuge was sought in the local Malmaison Hotel where the coffee machines had broken down and at least two hen parties were in noisy progress;
8. The Malmaison Hotel in Piccadilly is in a satnav Bermuda triangle. We had to run the gauntlet of police and drunks back through Piccadilly station at 2am to a meeting point discoverable by Heroic Rescuer;
9. The introduction of BST ensured one hour less sleep on an already severely truncated night’s sleep;
10. Everyone too exhausted to make me a morning cup of tea on Mother’s Day.

Next time….

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Train Ticket Trials

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Having been immersed in Orhan Pamuk’s writing for a few months now, I was inspired to book for his talk today at the Oxford Literary Festival.

I’m now an expert on speedy flying day trips to Oxford, experienced in collecting traffic enforcement notices and parking fines with wild abandon as I negotiate Oxford’s impenetrably-regulated inner-city byways in the vicinity of two colleges and amass bonus points for not knocking over cyclists.

So the idea of a less frantic visit was rather appealing, and Middle Daughter found a couple of additional enticing talks on the programme and was enthusiastic about joining me to make a day of it and so we were all set to drive down.

Then Himself suggested the train would be a better option. Ah yes, I thought, no need to transport suitcases full of fancy dress, bin bags of bedding, cardboard boxes of crockery and tea caddies. No printer or laptop or music speakers to worry about. With one simple click on the Internet, I would eliminate the possibility of bus lane fines and parking challenges or alternatively, the hassles of remembering the whereabouts of the bus stop for the Park n’ Drive.

There’s no such thing of course as a cheap day return train ticket despite the promises on the web, but I managed to find a not-too-extortionate price for a 3 1/2 hour journey one way via Birmingham and a 4 hour journey back via Manchester. Such is non-London cross-country journeying in the UK.

(One would think it would be far faster to drive, but the entire length of the M1 these days has 50 mph restrictions (naturally I’ve received points for excessive speeding at 56mph on an empty motorway at night on a Saturday last December) and so the 7 1/2 hour round trip on rattling ancient cross country train services has won the day).

And so this morning in the grey fog of early daylight, I stood at the ticket collection machine and watched in awe as the machine vomited out a flood of orange and yellow bits of card. Seat reservations, tickets and a collection receipt for a simple day trip to Oxford for two amounted to thirteen separate bits of card, none of which are valid in the absence of any other bit.

We had a spare 20 minutes before the train, so I took up residence at a spare Cafe Ritazza table, and laid out my cards in the manner of a professional Tarot reader. I began by eliminating the Collection Receipt, and then proceeded to withdraw and stack the return tickets and reservations. Finally I divided outward tickets into Railcard and non-Railcard and swept to one side the reservations, leaving with a flourish on the table top two Leeds-Oxford ticket cards.

With everything neatly filed away in the normally unused compartments of my purse, we passed through the ticket barriers.

Naturally the seat reservation system on the first train of the day is not operating, so that’s at least two redundant bits of card already. Except that in the Fantasyland that is Cross-Country Rail, the ticket inspector still carefully inspected them. After all, they validate our real travel tickets.

I’m stressed already and there’s a LOT of train hours still to go.

And should anyone be wondering, no, there was no print-at-home option. Not today.

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Remembering Rwanda

20140311-221051.jpgOn the steps of the Town Hall

Last Sunday, in full sunlight in front of Leeds Town Hall, a lit torch was handed over to representatives of the small Rwandan community in Leeds in remembrance of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

In a matter of weeks after April 6, 1994, some 800,000 men, women, and children perished in the Rwandan genocide, perhaps as many as three quarters of the Tutsi population. At the same time, thousands of Hutu were murdered because they opposed the killing campaign and the forces directing it.

1994 was only 20 years ago. It seems unbelievable that a genocide of this scale could have happened in such a short time so recently. But then again, given continual internecine killing in so many places across the globe even today, it’s chillingly not so unbelievable.

So on Sunday, Leeds’ Rwandans remembered their trauma, supported by their neighbours of Ugandan and Burundi origin; an Anglican minister; a couple of other communities professionals; and a not insignificant number of Leeds Jews. The group slowly marched from the city centre to a community centre in Lincoln Green where we heard testimonies and prayers.

20140311-222731.jpgMarching to Lincoln Green

We marched. We remember.

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Coffee, Micro-roasters and Beards

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A chance encounter with a seriously trendy serious coffee magazine for intensely serious coffee-drinkers led me on an interesting tour of coffee bars in Paris last week.

French coffee had always seemed fine to me, but the magazine article talked of a renaissance in French coffee standards thanks to the growing number of micro-roasters over there (a visible trend in Leeds too for that matter as excellent North Star coffee is demonstrating) so I was happy to explore further once my day’s work was done.

The bars I tracked down (three altogether all located within swallowing distance of the Canal St Martin) certainly delivered in terms of coffee quality.

But I was struck more by how quickly a fashionable “look” imposes itself in the context of new trends. First, the cafés were all tiny. Really, truly, small. I’m a naturally happy solitary coffee-drinker used to perching on window cills but even I was surprised by the miniaturization of the setups.

Next, the cafés were urban warm minimal-aesthetic. Bleached wood mismatched tables, benches, stools and simply painted walls with pride of place given to stacks of micro-roasted coffee beans and fridges of raw milk. And a curiously un-French selection of muffins and strange looking scones. Le look Anglo-Saxon.

And finally, beards were de rigeur for pretty much all customers and staff. In every place.

I began to feel an other-worldly sensation. It was very strange indeed: a portent of the future, a sort of retro-Edwardian look which might eventually appear as weirdly unsettling as Disney’s Discoveryland aesthetic of sulphurous yellow globe lights and oily-metal low-sheen patinas.

Funnily enough, when I came to pay in the final cafe on my list, I discovered the baristas were English. So it was probably all an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy anyway.

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Urban Navigation for Pedestrians

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At 7.23 this morning as I was still fast asleep, Himself thought it would be fun to go and start the day with breakfast in town. Where did I think would be a good and open at 8.00? Despite my deep slumber, by 7.36 we had made a decision and were on our way out with the dog in tow.

On yet another interminably miserable damp grey morning, I was tempted out as much by the prospect of walking a new route home from the city centre as by the attraction of a nice coffee in the Victoria Quarter to start the day. VQ (not to be confused with brand VB although equally aspirational) is a delightful place to hang out at any time of day, marred only by the jarring aesthetic of Louis Vuitton practically rubbing shoulders with a new Poundland next-door-but-one.

Going home via Chapeltown Road in Leeds is my preferred driving route, but it’s not an obvious pedestrian course. First, it’s not especially direct when you see it from a bird perspective. More challengingly, it involves venturing across the Sheepscar interchange on leaving the city centre.

I can’t beat the description of the Wikipedia entry for Sheepscar which states Clay Pit Lane, effectively an urban motorway, runs through Sheepscar to the south, while Scott Hall Road makes up the eastern border. The area consists of complex road junctions, Penraevon Industrial Estate and a number of warehouses thanks to the impressive transport links attractive to haulage companies.

Put bluntly, navigating as a pedestrian across the .37 miles of the junction calls for the survival and orientation skills of Bear Grylls. And I’m not Bear Grylls, even on a sunny day.

I had a target point in the far distance to head towards, but the loopy combinations of pathways, cycle paths and carriageways overseen by a forest of traffic lights and pelican crossings had me zigzagging the terrain as though I were traversing a swamp infested with crocodiles. The dog gloomily trailed at my side, tight leashed and bored with stopping and starting every few seconds. I couldn’t blame her. I thought wistfully of at least three alternative more practical
routes.

But it was with a degree of triumph I reached the other side. I marched along the Chapeltown Road with the demeanour of a 19th century explorer, and even the dog perked up. We had made it.

We had crossed Sheepscar.

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Lost (in Tesco)

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I was watching an old George Clooney/Michelle Pfeiffer movie the other night about two single parents who get through a hellish day of work and childcare challenges using each other as temporary child minding services.

SPOILER (should you care in the slightest): He wanders nonchalantly through the streets of New York, not holding onto either child and not looking in every direction simultaneously and manages not to lose either bambino. Later, she answers her phone and loses his daughter.

Watching George Clooney navigate road crossings so carelessly reminded me how I never really got to trust Himself with not losing any or all of our four when they were small and out without me.

I hate to generalize, but I’m going to anyway. Men are just more relaxed when in charge of kids, or indeed groups of any sort, especially in superficially safe environments like the local supermarket or trekking through unmapped forest. Or maybe it’s just me and my neurotic parenting that meant I couldn’t walk anywhere without constant checks and head counts. Sometimes I would stop dead in the middle of a high street and shriek “Where’s x ?” And find myself tripping over x as we all screeched to a panicked halt. And we did once manage to leave Youngest Daughter somewhere accidentally, despite my paranoia.

It’s because men (yes, I’m stereotyping sorry) like to lead and assume that everyone else will follow and keep up. It’s an understandable assumption based on evolutionary survival skills; who wants to get lost from the pack in the middle of the forest?

But I know better. I know about distraction and daydreaming and following impulse and noses. And never mind four kids, Himself is quite capable even today of losing me in a supermarket.

I offer up Tesco this morning in evidence.

I paused for a split second to assess shampoo, and he was gone. Completely. In the manner of a scary opener to a horror thriller. At first I was calm, methodically combing the aisles. No sightings. Next I resorted to the family whistle. No return call. Next I tried his phone (four times) and mentally practiced gratitude skills by not leaving aggressive rude messages when it went to voicemail. Still nothing. I wondered how management would react to me requesting a lost wife call over the announcement system. Not well, I reflected.

At one point I thought I caught a glimpse of him scooting past Eggs. It proved a mirage.

In no time at all I’d moved to a series of increasingly improbable catastrophic scenarios to account for his absence.

In a state of panic, but recognizing I needed to calm down, I finally exited the tills and went to send some rude texts (I’d given up temporarily on practicing gratitude skills) and sit down to read my book.

Finally a phone groan. He was quite safe, at till 17.

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