And Where Were You That Day?
We felt a buzz of excitement as the plane took off from Heathrow on a Sunday morning. Our trip to Jordan was finally happening and the dream of seeing Petra would soon come true. We had chosen an escorted tour and, on arrival at our hotel in Amman that evening, were surprised to find another couple from Purbeck in the group of twenty-one.
Early the next day we all boarded a coach to begin our sightseeing itinerary, heading north from Amman with our guide, plus a policeman assigned to accompany us throughout. The first stop was Umm Qais, perched on a promontory overlooking the Jordan Valley and the Sea of Galilee. Some of the party nervously speculated on the cause of a distinct booming in the distance. Being accustomed to the noise from the army ranges, the “Purbeck Four” quickly identified the sound of heavy gunfire, confirmed by the guide as coming from the Golan Heights about a hundred kilometres away. The slightly jittery effect this had on some proved in retrospect to be almost prophetic.
After an interesting afternoon visit to the ancient Roman city of Jerash, we headed back to Amman for a second night.
The Tuesday morning began with a tour of Amman, after which we set off southwards. We stopped at Mount Nebo, famed as the vantage point from which Moses looked upon the Promised Land. The spectacular views across the valley towards the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea, heightened our sense of anticipation, as we were to spend that night at a spa hotel on its northern shore.
I will fast forward to our arrival that afternoon.
After being shown to our rooms, everyone changed and headed to the beach; we couldn’t wait to try floating in the buoyant water. We found a little muddy pool among some rocks and plastered ourselves with the therapeutic salty mud. It was great fun and much cheaper than the spa! I must admit that my skin felt wonderfully smooth after a rinse in the warm sea. It was a pleasant, relaxing afternoon and we looked forward to an enjoyable evening as a couple on the tour had generously invited us all to join them in the bar at seven o’clock for a glass of champagne to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary.
After a quick shower, we decided to have a short walk as there was time to spare before we were due to meet the others. The grounds of the hotel were so pretty. It all looked idyllic, twinkling with fairy lights, and we meandered down towards the shore to watch the sun set. Darkness fell; the sea glistened and a gentle glow illuminated the sky behind the low hills on the other side of the Dead Sea. We felt a goosebumpy thrill when someone told us the glow was from Jerusalem. That tranquil scene is still fresh in my mind as if it were yesterday.
We tore ourselves away and headed back to the bar, arriving just after seven o’clock. We were surprised to find it almost deserted. There was no sign of the silver wedding couple and only two or three members of the group were there. We chatted for a short while, wondering whether to go ahead and order drinks, when another of our number burst in, looking shaken. He stared at us incredulously, asking “Haven’t you seen the television?” Seeing our blank looks, he told us that highjacked planes had been deliberately crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York. A few others gradually drifted in; the atmosphere turned from elation to horror and stunned disbelief. This soon gave way to speculation about the perpetrators and potential revenge by the Americans. Our minds started working overtime, imagining an order from President Bush for an immediate bombing campaign in the Middle East. My husband quietly disappeared, heading for the loos.
Needless to say, there was no champagne that night and I don’t think we had dinner. Everyone went off to watch the confused and sickening story gradually unfolding on our screens.
The next day, breakfast was a subdued affair and our guide did his best to reassure us that there had been no Foreign Office advice for immediate return to the UK and the tour would continue safely.
Frankly, for me that whole Wednesday was a blank. I know we made several scheduled sightseeing stops on our way to a hotel near Petra. I have absolutely no recollection of what we saw and there was only one topic of conversation.
Despite not feeling in the mood when we got up, the much anticipated visit to Petra the following day fully lived up to our expectations. Emerging from a Roman road through the Siq, a huge crack in the sandstone, we caught our first stunning glimpse of el Khazneh, the Treasury. It was truly magnificent and the remains of the city beyond were far more extensive than I had imagined. Our tickets were valid for two days so we were able to return on the Friday to wander at leisure.
Saturday was the final day of the tour and the group travelled to Aqaba via spectacular Wadi Rum, the location for desert shots in the film, “Lawrence of Arabia”.
Most of the group were to fly home the following day but we and the anniversary couple had booked a three night extension in Aqaba. We were no longer part of a tour group, just two couples on holiday, and it was slightly scary to note that the hotels became emptier each day.
On our last evening, the two of us headed for a night market on a quest for some karkade; dried hibiscus, which makes a delicious hot or cold infusion. We stopped at a phone booth in the street to ring our daughter, who was very worried that we hadn’t been flown straight home on the Wednesday. We made the mistake of saying we were going to a market and, realising that we were out on our own, she ordered us back to the hotel immediately. Of course we said OK and carried on. We found my karkade in an open fronted spice shop with an affable, larger than life shopkeeper. His friendliness was typical of all the Jordanians we met. He kept saying, “You Eenglish, you arre verr-ry verr-ry welcome”. Beaming, he took a pile of postcards from a shelf and proudly showed them to us, “Look, this is Lonnd-donn, this is Ox-forrd”. They had been sent by previous tourists and he extracted a promise that we would post one from where we lived. I decided I would send him one showing Corfe Castle.
Our homeward itinerary was for an internal flight back to Amman and connecting flight to Heathrow. However, we were all uncomfortable about this and the tour company arranged a minibus to drive the four of us to Amman. My husband was very nervous about the flight but was reassured when told that there is an armed guard aboard all Royal Jordanian flights. The idea of a shoot-out thirty thousand feet up was no more appealing than being highjacked, but I said nothing.
That unscheduled drive back to Amman through the desert landscape skirting the Dead Sea was a delight. I have a wonderful picture of us posing by a triangular road sign with a camel on it, just like ours warning of deer on the road.
The flight home was uneventful; friends and family were relieved to have us back safely, as if we had done something irresponsible or foolhardy by being in the Middle East at such a time.
There is a lovely sequel to this tale. Some months later, I needed to ring the doctor’s surgery. When the receptionist asked for my name there was a slight pause before she replied with an unexpected question, “Have you ever been to Jordan?” I hesitatingly answered, “Yes”, wondering whether I needed screening for some disease. She then asked if I had visited Aqaba. Perhaps you can guess the rest? She had recently come back from a tour ending in Aqaba, had visited a certain spice shop and been shown a pile of postcards. She saw one of Corfe Castle and naturally turned it over to see who had sent it!
Inevitably, whenever we recall our trip to Jordan our minds turn to the terrible events of what has become known as “9/11”. We have a kaleidoscope of memories of our night by the Dead Sea nearly twenty years ago - and I bet that as you read this you can immediately recall exactly where you were That Day.