In May of last year, Cheryl and I dove into a two-week “trip of a lifetime” adventure to Jordan and Egypt with two other couples.
A good friend had recently discovered as COVID numbers were beginning to wane that Egypt was opening to westerners again. Many western tour companies had ceased operations in Egypt after the Arab spring-related unrest, but now with new Egyptian leadership, travel companies were returning. When Cheryl asked me if I might be open to going, I immediately said, “Hell, yeah.”
That said, we were certainly still worried about the state of international relations prone to changing quickly, and the very real chance of a COVID surge. Both of these made us realize that if we were going, we should probably choose a “safe” option for travel. This meant choosing to toss aside Cheryl’s addiction to guidebooks and meticulous planning for guided tour. And if we were going to bite the bullet then it was going to be an excellent one! We settled on a company called Tauck, a not-inexpensive option. We held our breath, paid the big fees, and began prepping our adventure.
ORIGINS: Why We Went
Egypt hasn’t been open to visitors for long. In fact, after Egypt’s re-opening to western visitors in July of 2020 many archeological sites and resorts still experienced low numbers due to Covid fears. Therefore, our arrival was during a lull in tourism and offered a rare, uncrowded experience of some of the world’s oldest and most mysterious sites.
The First Decision: Travel With a Group or Alone?
Cheryl and I often travel alone, but lately have found a group of friends who we enjoy seeing the world with. Traveling with people is difficult, so picking good companions is essential. I’d recommend trying smaller weekend trips first before embarking on a major trip like this one. It’s hard to pick people to travel with because each person’s expectations and goals are so different. Just because we all love to “travel” doesn’t mean we love the same thing.
We’d been through many smaller trips with this group of friends. Maybe it’s that many of the people in this group are ultra-marathoners…everyone likes to walk and explore a lot, no one is afraid of a good bit of exercise! They’re also happy with time away from the main group, spending time discovering on our own. It works out well.
We enjoy some activities that I’m sure frustrate some of our friends: sightseeing for longer hours, experimenting with exotic foods, and burning the candle at both ends longer than many people want on “vacation.” Others prefer to enjoy the hotel, the pool, or to take in a few sights per day. Frankly, there are days when I wish I was in that camp, but I’m not. When I sit for extended periods of time by the pool, I usually find myself wishing I were out exploring. For that reason, we normally travel alone.
FLIGHT: Using Points – a debacle
I’ll preface this portion of the piece by saying that neither of us are points experts. However, I had been told by experts that using points to upgrade your experience on international flights as much as possible translates to a better value than using them on short-haul domestic flights.
This appears to be changing.
For our flight to Amman, we booked using American Airline points, and ended up on a Saudi Air flight from New York (JFK airport) to Jeddah, and then another Saudi flight to Amman from Jeddah. This airline was, to put it mildly, not great. While the in-flight service was fine, at JFK our plane took off over an hour late…which I couldn’t figure out because the plane was sitting at the gate, on time and there seemed to be LOTS of Saudi airline employees milling about who chatted with either other a ton…but didn’t load the plane. Nobody seemed to be in charge, and they all seemed comfortable prepping and loading the plane excruciatingly slow. Nobody ever gave any explanation why the plane was departing late. In fact, while US-based airlines are far from perfect, you usually are notified that there will be delays. This seemed not to be the case with Saudi Air.
That said, I do have to give some props to the staff in Jeddah upon landing. When we landed over an hour behind, it appeared that we were going to miss our connection to Jordan. A Saudi Air official was waiting just outside the jet bridge and escorted us…he literally ran with us across the airport to meet our connection. He also called ahead to the gate agent while running to have them hold the plane for us. I’ve missed so many Delta and American flights where this kind of service could have helped me make it instead of barely missing a connection. But this amazing service recovery doesn’t happen here. So, all in all, it’s a mixed bag between Saudi Air and what I often expect from American or Delta.
We booked points for the trip back via Delta, which was less circuitous but required tons of points to redeem. For our upcoming trip to Spain, we just booked round-trip on a single airline using cash even though we’re flying into one city and out of another. The price was tons cheaper than booking two one-way destination flights and using points would have inexplicably taken twice as long to make the same trip. Cash wins the day! And foreshadowing to future blog posts.
Packing For This Trip
What an adventure this was going to be! Overall, we wanted all-weather clothing. Our packing emphasized footwear and comfortable, breathable materials. This trip was going to require us to be ready to tour on foot no matter the weather. Also, both Jordan and Egypt could be hot this time of year (we went in May), check your weather before you go, noting the extremes. I found myself wearing running shirts far more often during this trip than I’d anticipated. I should have packed more. Cheryl, on the other hand, with her love of clothes and overpacking, was well prepared.
Few people wear shorts in Jordan or Egypt. If you’re walking around in shorts, you’re probably going to stick out, except in archeological areas. In high-tourist spots, wear what is comfortable. However, if you plan to visit wander and discover less touristy spots, you would be better off wearing long pants. You’ll not only fit in better, but you’ll be allowed into more restaurants, religious sites, and other areas.
Always be respectful of the culture and norms of other countries. For women, there are strict rules in some areas about having shoulders and knees covered in religious places. We watched other tourists turned away from a few sites (especially mosques) because they weren’t dressed appropriately. If you don’t care about seeing religious sites and some of the more formal areas, don’t worry about it. Otherwise, bring appropriate clothing for these areas. In mosques, be prepared to remove your shoes as well.
I also packed a couple of small card games for the trip, as well as a good mystery book and loaded my iPad with a few video games. I’m on vacation!
Pre-Tour in Amman, Jordan
Prior to joining the Tauck group, we decided to stay high-end in Amman. I don’t think this is necessarily a choice that you need to make, nor one that I will do next time. However, being unfamiliar with the region, we went with the recommendation of a family member. We paid through the nose, but it was a first-class experience. This hotel, the Four Seasons Amman, was amazing. The breakfast area was first class with newspapers in several languages, an omelet station, and every type of breakfast food and drink you could imagine. Drinks in the lounge were expensive (as we’d expected), but because of the elegance, you felt special. Imagine lots of marble, spacious seating, and New Age music, and you’re maybe a third of the way toward imagining the vibe of the lounge at this hotel. After freshening up, we went to celebrate our arrival, seated on a sweeping balcony overlooking the city. Freshening up meant a shower and changing into our only other set of clothing. Amman is built on a series of hills, and four luxury hotels, ours included, were situated at the top of one of them. The next afternoon, we’d enjoy the outdoor pool area on the roof with even better views. You realized quickly that you’d paid for something great and received elegance in turn. Do I need elegance? Not really, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it immensely. That said, now that I’ve been to Amman, the next time I’ll choose a more budget-friendly location.
In another way staying at the Four Seasons paid off. Shocklingly, because of our mad dash across Jeddah airport our luggage did not make the trip. The hotel worked with our Tauck representative to track it down and gave us kits that included a good toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb, floss, deodorant, and a few other items, all of which were top notch. We wouldn’t have had that service at an AirBnB or cheap hotel. We also learned long ago to pack an extra pair of underwear and outfit on our carry-on. Cheryl also has extra contacts and her glasses on her carry-on for such a contingency. We didn’t have most of our stuff, but because of the Four Seasons, we still felt clean and ready to go. Our luggage finally made a grand entrance about 48 hours later.
Getting Around Amman:
This was both a pleasant surprise and a nightmare. The good part first: Uber has a presence in Amman and lots of people use it. There are tons of drivers and overall super easy. However, according to our niece Maddie who joined us for this portion of the trip (she’d lived in Amman for two years so became our tour guide), many people in Amman don’t trust banks and prefer to be paid in cash. I still don’t fully understand how it works, but Uber allows some of these drivers to charge us in cash. The first time this happened we were surprised. The driver did not speak English and we speak no Arabic (this was often the case, but not nearly the problem you’d think it might be). Through a session of maybe the worst game of charades ever, the driver told us that he didn’t want the money through Uber but to pay cash. Problem was we’d already paid Uber and relented and gave cash since it was a small fee anyway. Later, when our niece was with us, this happened again. However, this second driver told us ahead of time that he would only take cash.
With future drivers, we just asked to save us time and confusion. Some canceled after they heard us speaking English. This didn’t bother me. I needed someone who’d be comfortable with us in the back seat, and I understood that this wasn’t going to be a fit for everyone. We had one driver who was a complete Jack wagon to us (to be blunt), but based on a very angry phone conversation he was having loudly during our ride, I gathered that we weren’t special. He was just a dick to everyone.
One of the highlights of our entire trip happened during a ride home from downtown our first evening in Amman. The driver spoke broken English and he asked us how we liked his hometown. As we’ll explain later, we told him how much we were taken with it. Cheryl asked him what HE liked best about Amman and the soliloquy that followed was truly a love letter to Amman. Our driver made me appreciate the culture there even more. He spoke lovingly about the friendliness of the people (we would definitely agree), the music (also would agree), the food (yum), and on and on. But he took each of these in detail, most of which I couldn’t fully understand, partly because of accents but partly because he was singing and we were all laughing and having so much fun. He described foods I’d never heard of and told us about sounds he loved and places to visit that I knew I’d never see. It was a great ride and an early welcome that I’ll never forget.
This is the kind of stuff you’ll miss if you take a tour (like we were going to take in a couple of days) and never get out and meet people. Joseph Rosendo said on our Stacking Benjamins podcast that travel isn’t about seeing the sights, it’s about getting to know the people. While I’m not fully there yet since it’s far easier to just snap pictures of pretty spots and do regret not meeting more locals. I’ve come away with the feeling that many Jordanians and Egyptians were just like our Uber driver, fun people who I’d chat or sing with any time.
Pre-Tour: First Night In Amman
While sitting on the balcony overlooking the city, our niece met us and we had a celebratory drink while catching up. Then we were on our way. She had an Uber drop us right downtown near a huge market. The market was fun. We were smelling fruits and vegetables (some vendors, seeing that we had no idea what we were smelling, let us taste them!). We walked past a historic mosque and after several turns ended in a huge square. It was the first of many, “I can’t believe I’m here” moments. We were standing in front of an outdoor amphitheater which had been built by the Romans but had been renovated and was in use today. Roman columns defined one edge of the square.
In the United States we say, “Wow,” when a house is two hundred years old. These columns were two thousand years old. You could feel antiquity built right into the guts of Amman. It was a part of the pride and beauty of the city, and made you realize just how inconsequential so much of what we fight about truly is.
Before we move on, you may be saying, “Oh, you had your niece who speaks Arabic, and she lived there, so that made it far easier.” That would be true. However, we weren’t with her the entire two days (she had to work), and TripAdvisor and Cheryl’s guidebooks were invaluable. The biggest push our niece gave us was to get out there. She made us realize that we could get along much easier than we’d expected, and in most cases, she was 100% right.
TripAdvisor will tell you the same thing we found out about the restaurant we ate at the first evening called Zorba. This second-story restaurant offered exactly what we were looking for, delicious portions of middle-eastern cuisine. The service was great (passable English, and there were many international people in the place along with locals…a good sign), and the menu was large. We walked out happy.
An Aside: About Alcohol in The Middle East
The vast majority of people in the Middle East do not drink alcohol. Knowing that, if you order drinks, as I often did, realize that you’re going to pay through the nose for it. I could have purchased TEN bottles of the single bottle we drank at a hotel in Egypt (more on that later) at my local store in Texarkana (shout out to Party Factory!). We did it anyway because it was a very special occasion. But don’t go to the Middle East to drink unless you’re this guy.
We ended the night outside among hundreds of people who were enjoying the cool but comfortable weather. Amman felt festive. We ate a dessert called konafa, which is sweet, buttery, sticky deliciousness but far too big (I’d recommend splitting one), and just sat on a curb taking it in. After a hug for our niece, we found our separate Ubers and headed our own way.
Pre-Tour Day Two & Three
We expected some heat so early on the second day we high-tailed it to The Citadel, ancient ruins and a museum on top of a central hill in the center of town. Our niece was on a mission. She said that we must arrive before 10 AM, when the call to prayer rang out from all of the different mosques around the city. We paid the nominal fee to enter the area and found a spot where we could see the city cascading up all of the surrounding hills. Within seconds of 10 AM the entire city reverberated with the sounds of the call to prayer. Hearing it the evening before from the mosque next to us (and maybe echos of one or two further away), was not at all the same experience. If you can time it, schedule that into your own plans. It’s well worth it. The call to prayer, I’ve been told, does not follow the same schedule every day. Ask a local for the best time or check your travel guide.
At The Citadel we saw more amazing ruins and antiquity. A throne room, baths, descriptions of how life had been for the civilizations who’d occupied the area previously. It was a fascinating walk through history. The museum on site is included in the fee. It’s a treasure trove of ancient weapons, coins, relics, pottery, and more. Worth it but also fairly small.
We ate at three restaurants during this very full day. I’ll give you a quick rundown of each:
Dali (outdoor courtyard with heaters and then inside under the roof where it was slightly warmer). The service was sporadic, but I got a very hip vibe from this coffee shop/restaurant where we went for breakfast. Cheryl and Maddie tried Turkish coffee for the first time. A delicacy that they both found bitter even after adding tons of sugar! As an American, I wasn’t thrilled with the people at the next table smoking, but I was a stranger in their country…so I just enjoyed our own company. If I had a book or computer and didn’t mind some smoke around me, I could read or work here nearly all day due to the high walls and beautiful courtyard giving it a closed off from the busy world feeling.
Wild Jordan Center – This isn’t a restaurant, but a place where tours kick off to experience wildlife. However, if you’re in the area, the cafe in this place was INCREDIBLE. We had a snack of great pastries, coffees and smoothies in a beautiful setting. Our niece needed a break mid-moring to finish some work and the wifi was strong. Cheryl and I read email, chatted, and chekced out the gift shop that contained local made knick knacks from different parts of Jordan.
An Aside: About Gifts
I can no longer imagine bringing home a bunch of stuff from a trip that I’m never going to use or that will clog the drawers of my house just because it was neat. While we came home with some AMAZING gifts, these were the exception to the rule. A technique I learned to get the same rush? Take a picture of the item and then in the future you’ll smile again when you see it.
In all of my time traveling I regret not purchasing ONE piece, and it was a very expensive statue in Bavaria of girls reading a book. It was incredible and I passed. However, that’s one in hundreds of times that I felt I made a bad decision by just snapping a photo and moving on. This is especially effective with catchy tee-shirt and towel prints or sayings. I truly don’t need to wear the funny saying, my joy is from reading it and then sharing with others.
Sufra – If you visit one restaurant in Amman, make it this one. There is a casual elegance to what appears to be a home-turned-restaurant. We sat inside (it was still chilly) on the second floor overlooking the backyard gardens for a late lunch. In the next room they were making all of their breads fresh, so the smell in the place, as you can imagine, was amazing. This was the best food we had in Jordan, coupled with great service.
Mar Yousef – This was hard to find without Maddie but we did it. The restaurant is attached to an old church and is run by monks serving, of all things, pizza. This was my first taste of a local Jordanian micro-brew beer and I was impressed! The pizza? Not so much. Our niece said the place is usually packed, but I think that’s because of the cool old-church vibe and the novelty of eating pizza in Amman. I’d go but don’t expect Detroit-style pizza you’ll crave again the next day.
Down the street from the Wild Jordan Center we wandered into an art gallery called Nabad. We had to knock for entry, and again–if I’d been alone I would have passed–and luckily for me, the ladies demanded we knock and go in. It was a small but wonderful gallery featuring a single artist. Well worth the stop.
The Jordan Museum
Near the amphitheater in the middle of town is a jewel: the very new Jordan Museum. Tackling all of the history of this young country and the many civilizations who’ve inhabited the area, the museum did a great job of introducing us to the richness of what we were going to experience and the economic condition of the country. The museum detailed everything from the importance of wind power and water (with an exhibit about how the average Jordanian family conserves), the increasing literacy rate among women, and more. It’s not a huge museum but larger than the one at The Citadel and better presented. I was thrilled we had this history lesson before the immersive experiences we were about to partake in.
Much to learn at the new Jordan Museum
We are not Muslim, but couldn’t stay away from celebrating the end of the traditional Ramadan period with the locals,” if you call heading across the street from the Four Seasons to the even-more-posh Fairmount hotel for their feast. It was a great final night of traditional music, too much food, and lots of laughs with Maddie before heading out to the Dead Sea the following morning, where we’d begin our Tauck-driven tour.
What a beginning!
Join us next time for details on meeting our tour, initial thoughts, the Dead Sea, and first few adventures!