Barcelona to Dubai Cruise

We decided to join Jen’s parents on a 16-day cruise from Barcelona to Dubai on a new Royal Caribbean ship called the Spectrum of the Seas. This was a good way to spend some time with them and relax. The Spectrum was a brand new boat and our portion of the trip was considered the inaugural trip.  The full journey was destined for Singapore where the boat would be stationed to serve the Asian market. 

Although this was a long cruise, it only stopped at the following ports: 
  • Barcelona 
  • Civitavecchia (Rome)
  • Naples
  • Athens
  • Aquaba
  • Dubai

The rest of the time we kept busy with multiple activities. Here are a few that we enjoyed: 

  • Progressive Trivia: Every day, we participated in a trivia contest that tested random knowledge. We learned a lot about South Africa (since that's where the trivia host was from), a lot about different phobias, and what random groups of animals are called.  Did you know that a group of owls is called a parliament?


  • Flow Rider: Yay


  • iFly: Nothing better to dry your gums 


  • Fencing: Yep, they really had fencing. This was their first attempt at this activity on a ship, and the experience was pretty short. But it was fun to give it a try since neither of us had tried fencing before.. plus there is nothing like being equipped with a sword and saying, "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die" 


  • North Star: The North Star is a big bubble on top of the ship that gives you a bird's eye view of the ship. It seemed like a silly idea at first, but in the end, we were surprised at how impressive the view actually was.


  • Morning Yoga: Every other day they had free yoga classes :)


  • Comedy, Music Shows, and movies on the top deck: At night we had a variety of entertainment opportunities with semi-known performers.


Jen's parents stayed on the boat for another journey all the way to Singapore. But we had to go back to work after Dubai. 

Hummus

In the Lonely Planet, one of the highlights of Israel and Jordan is actually Hummus... we had our doubts at first, but after eating it more than 20 times... we are now convinced!!  Not all are created equal, but none of them were ever bad... even the stuff that they sell at the grocery store was good!  

The falafel was a bit more hit&miss, but the good ones were super addictive - definitely the best we've ever had!

Wadi Rum

Wadi Rum: Life with the Bedouins or Walt Disney of Jordan?
…this, sadly, is pretty much the impression we got from Wadi Rum. 

We had heard great things about experiencing a night with the Bedouins in Wadi Rum, so we were excited to go there.  Maybe we got unlucky with the company that we chose, maybe going there right after being wow-ed by Petra was a mistake, maybe hearing so much about it got our expectations too high.  We thought it'd be an authentic opportunity to live with the Bedouins in the desert and envisioned ourselves riding camels deep into the middle of nowhere desert, pitching tents in a real Bedouin village, and sitting around a fire experiencing their traditional way of life.  We did do part of this, but the experience was not as authentic as we had hoped.

We took a local bus to Wadi Rum and met up with a guide that our hotel had recommended.  He brought us to his office in town to explain our options and prices for the day.  The prices and options were considerably higher than we had been led to believe, but we decided to do the four hour jeep-tour of the major sites plus spend the night at their Bedouin desert camp.  The other options sounded touristy and too pricey for our budget.

We met our driver and headed to the desert with another couple.  The jeep-tour basically involved following a set of tracks to the major sites in the desert.  The scenery was really beautiful, but you could tell from the tracks and crowds, that this was a very cookie-cutter circuit.  And the driver didn't say much, so unfortunately we can't give much insight into what we saw, but... here are the pictures! :)

Our first stop was at a spring that comes out of a mountain, which they refer to as "Lawrence's Spring".  You can't really see the spring… just the plastic hose sticking out from a crack… but the view from the top was quite stunning :)

Wadi Rum is a desert, but it's more of a rock desert…  so one of the major attractions was... a sand dune! 

Not far from the dune we stopped at a canyon.. nice for cooling down, but greatly pales in comparison to the canyon in Petra!

Next stop: a cool rock formation that they call the "big arch"...

Along the way to the last attraction, we stopped at what "used to be Lawrence of Arabia's house"… uhm.. ok...!

And lastly, the rock formation they call the "little arch"...

Then our jeep followed the tracks to the Bedouin Camp… 5 semi-permanent tents, 1 big dinner tent, and fairly permanent toilet and kitchen buildings.  The Bedouin tribe... consisted of one guy assigned to cook us dinner there.  But at least he is a Bedouin (or so he claimed... but he also later admitted that everything he says is a lie).

Overall, the scenery was nice and we had fun.  But it did really feel like a cookie-cutter attraction rather than an authentic Bedouin experience.. we learned absolutely nothing about their history, culture, way of life.. etc.  Prior to arriving we considered spending extra nights at the Bedouin Camp, but there was nothing really there for us.. so we decided not to extend our stay continued on our way down to the border town, Aqaba. 

To finish off our stay, they crammed all 14 of us in (and on) this little truck so that they could take us all back to the main town in one trip. 

Petra

Most people know Jordan and Petra because of the movie "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade", where Indiana and his father go in search of the Holy Grail.  It was a cool movie, but the only real resemblance to Petra is the siq (canyon) into the city, the carved entrance to the treasury, and the fact that Petra lies in the Christian holy land… the rest is pure fiction.  

Overall, the city of Petra is really impressive and definitely met our New Wonder of the World expectations.  We stayed in Wadi Musa (the city at the entrance of Petra) and decided to spend two days exploring the ancient city.  The entrance fee for Petra is by far the most expensive attraction we've been to - a 1 day ticket is 50 JOD ($75 CAD)!!  Fortunately the second day only costs an additional 5 JOD ($7.50 CAD). 

Petra's history begins as far back as 312BC when it was a capital city and major caravan trade centre to the Nabateaen people.  As with many major sites in the holy land, the walls of Petra had seen many habitants and rulers from many different origins, cultures and religions including Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Syrians etc.  The result was a magnificent city where the architecture and carvings took on an interesting blend from several different cultural influences.

At the Petra gates, you can choose to walk or horse-ride (it's included in the price of the ticket) to the entrance of the canyon.  We planned to walk to the complex known as "The Monastery", located atop a mountain 8km away from the gate, allowing us to escape the crowds and get a quick overview of the major sites along the way. 

We arrived at the entrance of the siq (canyon) that leads to the Treasury.  We initially figured the movies exaggerate this canyon and that it only actually spanned a hundred meters or so.. but it actually turned out to be 1.2km long and very scenic.  The entrance to the canyon was once decorated with large arches and, if you know where to look (or in our case, if you listen to other peoples' guides), you can see remnants of beautiful carvings that used to span all along the canyon walls.  You can also see the remains of a water system (canals) running along the entire canyon to bring water to the city.  Much of Petra has been covered or destroyed by erosion, floods, and earthquakes, but we can just imagine how amazing it would have been to walk through the decorated canyon back in its glory days!

At the end of the siq, the Indiana Jones million-dollar-view of the Treasury unfolds…

We admired the treasury for a couple of minutes (you don't need more as it's just a facade to a small room - there is no intricate complex inside like in Indiana Jones!!), then we continued through the valley where the grandeur of Petra's city begins reveal iteself.

We bypassed most of the city and started to make our way up the 800 steps to the Monastery before the sun was in full force.

After a few hours of walking, we arrived at the Monastery - it's really similar to the Treasury, but bigger.  We decided to sit and relax while enjoying the beautiful views surrounding us. 

We headed back down to check out the city in more detail.  All along the way, you see so many holes carved right into the rock, where people actually lived… the number of them was impressive, making it easy to see that Petra was a very large and important city back in the day.

We also stopped to explore some other ornately carved tombs and temples.

On our second day, we checked out the High Place of Sacrifice - their most sacred open-air altar where they performed rituals by killing animals.  You can see some ruins of the temple and obelisks, but the nicest part is the view of the surrounding hills.

Just when we thought we had seen it all, we took the back way down only to discover even more buildings/carvings… there were just so many, we were quite impressed!  

We took a wrong turn and ended up at the top of the Roman Theatre.  It's normally blocked off at the bottom so people can't enter, but we were stuck in there and had to go through it and sneak through the fence to get out.

Petra By Night

Since we still didn't have enough of Petra, we went a third time!  This time we walked through the siq to the Treasury at night, guided only by moonlight and some strategically placed candles along the path.  At the Treasury, we were served tea and they entertained us with a traditional Bedouin music presentation.  It wasn't particularly incredible (the crowds of noisy tourists really took away from the mystical / magical feeling of it all), but it was still a unique and enjoyable way to experience the site.


The Dead Sea

One of our best and most unique experiences in the Middle East was to float 400 meters below sea level… in the Dead Sea.  We enjoyed it so much that we went twice!  

Our first trip was a day excursion from Amman.  Our driver brought us to a private resort on the North Eastern side… it was a nice resort, but it came at quite the price!  We had to pay 16 JOD ($24 CAD) per person to enter the resort… it seems that our driver conveniently forgot to mention this before we left..!  We stayed for about 3 hours and had a great time playing with the oily-feeling water and weird buoyancy.  Jen still had some eczema/allergy rashes that burned like crazy from the salt, so she spent lots of time in the resort's cold fresh water pool.  On the plus side, the Dead Sea seemed to really help her skin!

Dom also dug up some Dead Sea mud from under the salt crust, and buttered himself in it to make his skin super soft ;)

We loved the Dead Sea so much (especially Dom) that we went for a second visit from the Israeli side.  During our road trip through Israel, we stopped for another dip at Ein Bokek on the South-West side of the lake (we learned our lesson and found a free public beach :)).  Jen's rashes had mostly healed now, so it was even more enjoyable.  

There are many beach areas all around the Dead Sea.  Of the two we visited, we prefer the Dead Sea on the Israeli side as it was a lot cheaper (free!), cleaner, calmer, and had better facilities.

Holy and Historical Jordan

Jordan is well know for Petra and less so for its other historical sites.  We were surprised at the amount of history here: from biblical sites to ancient roman cities.  In Amman, we hired a car and driver to visit a few sites in the north.

Jerash

Jerash is a Greco-Roman city that was founded by Alexander the Great around 331BC and was one of 10 metropolises in the region.  When you arrive here one the first things you noticed is how big the Roman city is: there is a hippodrome, 2 theatres, several churches and temples, and many columns still standing.  It was really fun to walk around the amazingly well preserved ruins and imagine what life there would have been like back then.

As you stroll around you also get to see some typical Arab bagpipe players… ok maybe not typical, but for some reason there were Arab bagpipers at multiple tourist sites that we visited in Jordan ;)

Mount Nebo

Mount Nebo is where Moses first saw the promised land of the Israelites, after 40 years of being lost in the desert.  He was forbidden to enter the promised land and died in the surrounding area.  Now, a church stands atop the mountain along with a look out.  Since the land is pretty desert-like, not a lot has been built in the area, so you can still get a sense of what Moses would have seen back then….

Here is the text from the bible (...can't believe we are quoting the bible): Deuteronomy 34:1-8

Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. He buried him[a] in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone. The Israelites grieved for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days, until the time of weeping and mourning was over.

Holy Land Map in Madaba

In a city called Madaba, you can find the oldest surviving map of the Holy Land… it's a mosaic on the floor of St. George's Church.  Much of it has been damaged over time, but you can still see the Dead sea, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, etc….pretty cool.  We learned that the map is oriented to the East because knowledge of magnetic north didn't exist back then.  In ancient times, people used sunrise to orient themselves East with the map to determine which direction to go.  According to our guide in Jerusalem, East = the Orient, so when you are "dis-oriented" it means you are lost because you don't know which way East is!  :)

Ajloun Castle

The Ajloun Castle is an Arab fortress built in the north of Jordan.  It was used to protect the country against crusader attacks.

Amman Citadel (Jabal al-Qal'a)

The lands in Jordan have been inhabited and conquered by different civilizations so many times, that all the major sites were built from multiple cultures. This is the case for the Amman Citadel, which is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world with remnants from both Roman and Muslim civilizations.  And again, you can see traditional Arab bagpipe players here... ;)

Amman's Roman Theater

Another example of the Roman Empire's vast reach is the well-preserved Roman Theatre right in downtown Amman.

Souvenir Shops

Similar to tours in Asia, the drivers here also want to take tourists to tourist shops so they can get commission or some free stuff (usually gas coupons).  Since we never buy stuff, we took the time to window shop and dress up ;).

Friendly Amman

After a 20+ hour flight from Singapore, we finally arrived in the capital city of Jordan: Amman. This is where our Middle-East tour began.  

Neither of us had been to the Middle East before, so we were excited to experience a totally new atmosphere and culture shock (yaay, a break from seeing more temples!! ;) ).  The culture of Jordan was actually less of a shock than we'd expected, but we did get a different shock that was unexpected: Amman has some of the friendliest and most welcoming people out of all of the countries we've been to so far!!

While walking past various shops and restaurants, most vendors happily shout out "Hello!" and ask "Where are you from?".  In other countries, these greetings and small talk are typical pretext for touters to then harass you into visiting their shops… we politely answer their questions, "Canada!"… and then expect the typical requests to visit their shop… instead, they excitedly respond with "Oh!!!!!  Very nice country!!  Welcome!!  Welcome to Jordan!"… "Thanks!", we reply.. ok.. now they'll ask us to visit their shop… except... they don't.  After this happens repeatedly over several of hours of walking, we begin to wonder.. maybe they really are just super genuinely friendly and welcoming...

After spending 7 months in Asia, the markets started to become typical for us.  Here, we started appreciating them again since there were so many new fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and spices that we'd never seen before.  The vendors could tell that we had no clue.. and they didn't speak much English, so we couldn't actually figure out names of what we saw... but they would give us a big smile and insist that we taste/sample stuff.

In other cities, when the call to prayer rings out, the volume is so high that it causes the loudspeakers to harshly pop and crackle.  The first time we heard Amman's call to prayer, it stopped us in our tracks.  It is actually sounds like a soothing meditation chant, ringing out through the silence and echoing from the hills in every direction … it was really beautiful and amazing to hear. 

During our city visit, we had a few Jordanians ask to take a picture with us (kinda indicates that they don't get a lot of tourists in Amman..).  One little girl was playing in front of her house and wanted us to take a picture of her and her sister.  In most other countries, this is a scam - after you take the photo, the children aggressively demand money for the picture you've taken.  Dom took a chance and took a couple of pictures anyway.  The girl just giggled and smiled as Dom showed her the picture.  Then she smiled and waved goodbye as we walked away.

We are now in the land of Hummus, Pita, Falafel, Tahini, Hummus, Pickles, Fatteh, Tabbouleh, Hummus, Shawarma, Shish-Tahouk.. did we mention Hummus?  

One of our favourite places to eat in Amman was Hashim, a small hole-in-the-wall type restaurant that is open 24 hours a day and serves only a few dishes… and no meat.  We walked in looking clueless and asked for a menu... which they don't have.  Instead, one of the waiters gave us a tour of the different food stations where each cook gave us a big smile, a food sample, asked us where we're from and, of course, welcomed us to Jordan!!  The waiter sat us at a table and for only 4JOD (~$6CAD) we got pita, beans, hummus, falafel, fresh vegetables and 4 cups of tea… such a good deal!  ...and so delicious that we ate here every day that we were in Amman.

We also visited the King Abdullah Mosque, which is built right next door to a Coptic Church… Christian and Muslim churches cohabiting.  This is where we had our friendliest encounter.  

As with every good tourist trap, the King Abdullah Mosque has a separate entrance for tourists that requires you to walk through the small market of souvenir shops.  As usual, we expected them to ask us to visit their stores.. instead they just greeted us, asked if we were here to visit the Mosque, gave Jen a special robe to wear, and pointed us up the stairs.  They even asked if we had a camera and said "good!  please take pictures of the Mosque!". 

After our visit, Jen returned the robe at the market where they thanked us for visiting, invited us to look around, and then disappeared back into their shops.  Jen started browsing some the bracelets when one of the shop owners approached her with a concerned look and asked about the eczema rash on her arm.  Jen warily followed him to a Dead Sea products store, where he brought her to see the shopkeeper.  The shopkeeper took a look at the rash, opened a new bottle of Dead Sea oil from the sales shelf and showed Jen how to apply it.  He explained that Dead Sea products were really good for skin and eczema and that she should apply the oil 2 times per day.  Then he wrapped the bottle and gave it to Jen saying "Thank you for visiting my store.. please.. take this as a gift".  We felt bad and tried to offer to pay but he absolutely refused to take our money and only said that his sister suffers from eczema and that the oil really helps her, so he hopes that it will help Jen also!

Exaggerating a bit… one of the stereotypes that Hollywood and the media ingrain into us, is that Arab countries are full of Muslims who hate Westerners.  Whether you know it or not, these constant media messages have instilled a subconscious and unjust sense of fear and paranoia in most people.  Within only a couple hours of being in Jordan, these stereotypes couldn't have been proven more wrong.  The people in Amman have been so unbelievably friendly and welcoming.. we were so pleasantly surprised that it made us both absolutely love it here!

That being said, it still doesn't mean you should trust anyone absolutely.. similar to in Asia, all prices require negotiating.  That includes anything from a bag of chips, to hotel prices, and guide/driver or taxi rides.  If you don't negotiate your prices here, you are most likely paying too much!