Deserts and Jordan

Since Syria is kind of off-limits at the moment, I had to fly from Beirut to Amman. The plane took off west, over the Mediterranean, nearly over Cyprus, and then turned south, to fly over Israel and Palestine to land in Amman. The airport was pretty far from the city center, so I took a bus through rush-hour traffic to arrive in a cold, desert town 750m above sea level.

the view of Amman from the rooftop of the Rainbow house

the view of Amman from the rooftop of the Rainbow house

Amman looked like a typical middle eastern city, but it’s currently undergoing some kind of renaissance of creativity and liberalism. Artists from around the Arabic world are making a home of Amman, and international organizations like the Global Shapers community and the British Film society have active projects and participants in Jordan. I couchsurfed with a house of entrepreneurs and film-makers in a place called the Rainbow house, and nearby was a cafe/book shop popular with LGBT’s.

weightless in the Dead Sea

weightless in the Dead Sea

I tasted some Jordanian rum and wine and went tango dancing with a girl from Tunisia before taking a taxi to the Dead sea, more than 400m below sea level. There it was warm and sunny, and we floated around in our bikinis like inflatable toys in the slimy, salty blue water. We had to wait for a conservative Muslim Yemenite family to leave before we felt comfortable bearing so much skin, but it was all worth it when you could cover yourself in black dead-sea mud for a luxurious, spa-treatment feeling.

home base in the Wadi Rum desert

home base in the Wadi Rum desert

Everywhere I went, I was surrounded by mountains and deserts, but nothing I’ve ever seen can compare to Wadi Rum and Wadi Musa, the valley where the old city of Petra, carved into the mountains, sits. Wadi Rum is the valley of the moon, but sadly I was there the 3 days when the moon never rose, so instead we saw a sky full of so many stars it was even hard to pick out the Milky Way. We slept in 2 different Bedouin camps, both a collection of tents and campfires and 4×4 driving Bedouins who made our stay ultra-cozy. We ate food cooked in the ground while sitting together on the floor of the buffet tent, and took a jeep tour to visit Lawerence of Arabia’s stomping ground.

the main form of transport for Bedouins

the main form of transport for Bedouins

Petra was definitely the highlight, after hiking more than 10 km around an entire city of extravagant buildings carved into the mountains. We visited the Treasury and the Monastery, along with hundreds of other awe-struck tourists, and switched it up between camels, donkeys, horses and our own two feet to navigate the huge, ancient city. We were lucky enough to camp one night in one of those caves, along with some Bedouins and yet another camp fire, and hiking out of the valley through a little village the next day was just as spectacular as the first day, seeing even more caves and archaeological sites that no-one else walking through the Siq mainway sees.

Petra's many caves and stone-carved facades

Petra’s many caves and stone-carved facades

I left Jordan through the little Red Sea port town of Aqaba, a place where you can see 4 countries at once – Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Jordan. I had seen Palestine on the other side of the Dead Sea, so after crossing into Elat in Israel and being questioned for 2 and a half hours about my travel history and intentions, it was finally time to explore some more of the Holy Land in the West Bank.

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Falling in love with Lebanese Hospitality

There are 4 million people in Lebanon, and more than 10 million Lebanese abroad, and I had met many on my trips in West Africa, Brazil, and the Balkans. They are beautiful, educated, worldly people, and most everyone speaks Arabic, English and French fluently, switching between them without hesitation.

on top of Byblos' citadel

on top of Byblos’ citadel

My favourite guy was Assaad, who I met in Accra 2 years ago, but he was still in Ghana when I arrived in Beirut. But his mother Randa was in town, who I had also met in Ghana, and she took me in like a daughter. I spent 2 days with her, and we were more productive in these two days than the other 6 I spent in Lebanon. Randa took me from Beirut to Byblos, a town famous for its long history, old citadel, and beautiful Christmas Decorations. We drove through the churches of Batroun and nearly drove her car into the walls of the narrow old city, and then returned to Byblos to see the Christmas lights at night. We stayed at her beachhouse nearby, ate breakfast in Tripoli, and spent the next day preparing her home furniture and decoration store for opening day. Then we drove into Kadisha valley, passing the town where Assaad grew up, the home of Khalil Gibran in Bsharri, and finally the snow peaked mountains near the cedar forests. We ate lunch and took some hitchhikers back with us to town, and then went to the best hairdresser in Lebanon for a haircut and blowdry. All of these things being standard Lebanese fare.

at BO18

at BO18

Randa introduced me to her friend, a gorgeous and famous singer who took me to the infamous BO18 80’s nightclub with her gay best friend. She lent me clothes to fit in and the bar gave out fedora hats, so this plus my new stylish hair cut had me feeling better than ever. It also helped to have a gay guy to grind on all night, they’re always the best dance partners.

The first snow in Kadisha valley

The first snow in Kadisha valley

I couchsurfed the rest of my time with Ziad, who also treated me with inexplicable kindness. He slept on the couch, and I moved into the king sized bed in the master bedroom. His best friend, who fed us the best sandwiches in Beirut from his sandwich shop, also stayed with us, and I met many of his other friends on our outings for food, drinks, or partying (and there was SO. MUCH. GOOD. FOOD!). They smoked like chimneys and knew the lyrics to every old-school rap song I could think of, and noone ever let me pay for anything.

Jeita cave

Jeita cave

I spent maybe one day alone, being a proper paying tourist, to the Jeita caves. They were an underground marvel of stalagmites and stalactites, and parts of it I visited on a boat on the underground river. I wanted to take a bus back but wasn’t sure if there was one, so I asked the only bus parked in the parking lot if he was going to Beirut. He didn’t speak English, but the woman beside him spoke a few words of French and I understood that I could go with them. When I got on the bus, there were a few sleeping children and eventually the bus filled with women coming out of the caves. It was a family trip, a bus full of mothers, daughters, cousins and grandmas, and some of them bellydanced in the isles the entire 1 hour journey back to Beirut while one of the younger girls played a drum. I was fed bananas and chocolate and coffee and chips and I really didnt want to get off after they invited me to finish their family trip with them. But, all good things must come to an end, and I wasn’t ready to leave Lebanon either, but I took my flight to Jordan with a pang of sadness for all the hospitality I knew would have to wait for next time.

Transylvania to Transnistria

Peles Castle

Peles Castle

The little city of Ruse, Bulgaria lies on the Danube, just before it empties into the Black Sea, sitting across from Romania. I had two weeks left in the Balkans, but I felt like I had left all the familiar things and traveled far away to another world after crossing the Danube. Romania is such a different place, with more Greek and Italian influence than Slavic or Russian, and a language that sounds something like Portugese. Being back in the EU was a more obvious reality in Bucharest, a mega city packed with more people and public transport than I had seen anywhere else. The stuffy metro was a baking underground puzzle, and I no longer felt I could walk anywhere without wandering into a train or bus first. Every western fast-food chain mass-production clothing store was on offer, but the city was also filled with museums and attractions to keep a tourist busy for days.

I felt a little intimidated there, but only really gave the city a chance for a couple days, since I decided to rather spend my time  in some small mountain towns and nearby Transylvania and Moldova. Romania is actually a country of countries, the former kingdoms of Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania. The first King of Romania built his castle in the hills of Sinaia; Peles castle and nearby Pelesoir castle looked like something out of a fairytale. The Sinaia monastery was also a magical place, covered with colourful frescoes and highlighted in gold.

Brasov, Transylvania

Brasov, Transylvania

Brasov in Transylvania is a must-see for any visit to Transylvania. Its cobblestoned streets, pastel houses and medieval remnants could charm any European, not to mention the Malay couchsurfer who I explored it with. We also went to Bran castle, which started out as a Medieval fortress and somehow became the imagined home of Bran Stoker’s Dracula. The inspiration for the character is said to come from Vlad the Impaler, the blood-thirsty 15th century ruler of Wallachia.

Bran castle, aka Dracula's castle

Bran castle, aka Dracula’s castle

I didn’t visit Moldavia, but only drove through it on my way to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. Its infamous for being known as Europe’s poorest country, but I didn’t really see more poverty there than other places, and I’d rather argue its the cheapest country and people can survive on much less money there than other parts of Europe. I guess they have to since someone managed to steal $1BILLION from the country. How is that even possible? How can an eighth of the country’s GDP disappear? No trace of the money or the people who stole it? Mindblowing.

To my delight, I then discovered another country to visit. Transnistria is a slice of land between Moldova and Ukraine, populated mostly by Moldavians and Russians, and has its own currency and border control and flag and other official sounding things. Yet its not a ‘real’ country, according to some, but visiting its capital, Tiraspol, was certainly a different place than anywhere I went in Moldova or Ukraine.

caves near Orheiul Vechi, Moldova

caves near Orheiul Vechi, Moldova

I only visited Odessa in Ukraine, the cosmopolitan, Russian-speaking port city on the Black sea. For the second time, I lucked out with a private 3 hour walking tour of the city, highlighting mostly the architecture and history of the city’s importance. The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and other famous writeres were a reocurring theme, and also Queen Catherine and other Russian royalty who all made a home of Odessa at some point. Its a very creative and international city, so its a shame to see tourism spiraling away since political unrest has increased in the region. But by any measure, it is a safe place to visit, and one of the few places where every Russian-speaker also speaks English or two or three other European languages, so if you’re looking for a summer retreat to the beach, consider the Black Sea.