What It’s Like To… Travel Jordan in 5 Days with USD$285

#LONGOVERDUEPOST #DONTJUDGEME #WHATEVER

Jordan is no Thailand, Bali or Egypt when it comes to a backpacker’s bank account. Many a time we were told that Jordan was the most expensive country we were to visit on the trip. With the 1 JD (Jordanian Dinars) =  1.3 USD going rate, it is a shocking contrast from its neighbouring Middle Eastern North African (MENA) countries where you can buy fake IDs for less than half a Macca’s cheeseburger. Not that I checked.

Bar desperately needing to fulfil some childhood dreams of floating on the Dead Sea and visiting the Rose City of Petra, I had failed to do any research prior to arrival. I mean, what’s the point of a travel buddy (read: Jing) when you don’t get to rely on them and assign blame when things go wrong?

Walking out of Queen Alia airport at 4.30AM did not help with acclimatising to surroundings. Although it does mean that you get to skip the drone of tourist-hungry cab drivers who close in on you and deplete your oxygen supply at every airport in the third world.

So our cab driver puts on his keffiyeh (pictured below) before he starts off towards our hotel, much to our amusement. I always thought that it was some highly stereotypical misrepresentation, like ‘Chinese’ chop suey or fortune cookies. Had to fight urge to catch a sneaky photo.

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Cab to Amman city: 15JD

1 bed in a 6-bed dorm: 14JD/night at Jordan Tower Hotel

People know me as a hardly judgemental person, evidenced by the first thing I said about Amman to Jing upon peeking out the window when morning came: “Well, this place is a shithole.”

I know. I’m a ball of positive energy.

But I hardly meant it. I was just so grumpy after an early morning and it was just so very brown and pigmentally challenged. Which led to a little Jing & Tracy lightbulb moment i.e. “Hey… are we in a desert…?”

The answer still is a mystery…

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“Hi I’m Amman and this is me being brown. Aren’t I cool?”

DAY 1 – Amman 

Amman is a juxtapose between the Then and the Now, the conservative and liberal, with a little bit of a struggle to balance its deeply seated cultural roots with inevitable modernisation if you cared to look beneath the surface of bustling and fast-paced events that is synonymous to city life. The Arab culture we had had the pleasure to enjoy albeit fleetingly in our last stop, Turkey, was found replicated here; in custom, food and drink. We have been taking it all in amusement and observing in its people a general tone of awe, interest, warmth, hospitality topped with an unparalleled openness to a traveller.

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Downtown Amman

As usual, it is always wise to observe local traditions, dress conservatively and be wary of surroundings. Not to say it isn’t safe but we did consistently receive cautionary advice to keep an eye on personal belongings. I found it extremely easy to strike up conversations with locals on the streets. Most Ammanians speak English and if they don’t, someone in close proximity will and will be more than happy to help you by.

A typical day in Jordan for (female) travellers consists of turning down a few marriage proposals, drinking about 50 cups of tea from various shop owners and bargaining over-the-counter exchange rates all before 10 in the AM. After trawling aimlessly for a while looking for someone to get our arses to Petra the next day, some pleasant girls directed us to “Abdali” where we could find a travel agent. Hailed a cab and totally had a classic Jing & Tracy moment which went something like this:

Cabbie: OK, where you go?

(silence and durrrr faces)

Jing: What’d she say again?

Tracy: I wasn’t listening, I thought you were.

So I fumbled and told him to go “UP THE HILL”. As far as I was concerned, it sounded close enough to the name the girl had passed on to us. How many places could possibly be named in a similar fashion anyways?

Fast forward 5 months, my Jordanian mate Mahmoud shed some light on the topic. Turns out there are heaps of areas in Amman named Abjalil, Abdelil etc. etc. Right. But 5 months earlier, we were in a cab going round and round Amman watching the meter run, frown lines more pronounced on our faces with each dinar added to our fare.

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Le dancing cab driver

He had Yacht Club DJ’s We Speak No Americano on repeat in the car to which he did a funny dance which consisted only of moving his shoulders up and down in sync with his eyebrows that made it look like a caterpillar brawl on his forehead.

Getting lost in a cab: JD5 (optional)

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Camel on the road a.k.a. just another Ammanian day

Lesson #1: The stereotypical travel agency does not quite exist in Amman city.

We were dropped off at a row of travel companies but quickly sussed out they were purely bus companies. The local buses are easy enough to book over the counter and one pays a total of JD8 to get to Petra in 4 hours. Sounded good until they got to the part where the bus leaves at 6.30AM which was when we decided we needed a Plan B. Details to come.

We decided to do a couple touristy things and visited King Abdullah mosque which is very pretty and blue. I found out literally nothing about this mosque because the man manning the entrance passed on some wisdom about the subject matter which I will now pass on to you, that is to “Just Google it.”

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King Abdullah mosque

There is also a Roman Theatre in the city centre right next to Jordan Tower Hotel that is worth checking out. Too easy to find for a traveler, and a great view from the top. It’s a shame we were about 7 Roman cities in post-Turkey at this leg of the trip and went cross-eyed just thinking about another Roman amphitheatre without any intention to play down its obvious significance.

Cab ride back: 7JD

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The Roman Theatre in the city centre

Lesson #2: If you are on a tight schedule, spend a minimum amount of time in Amman.

Had a Melbourne moment when we turned 3 corners into a tiny alleyway next to our hotel and found a Knafeh stall. I hardly talk about food but Knafeh is, and I quote Wikipedia, “a cheese pastry soaked in sweet sugar-based syrup” which translates to “Dopest Shit” in Tracypedia. Beware the local men telling you “Oh, you like the knafeh? You get FAT.” when you have more than 2 slices in a row (not speaking from personal experience or anything). Do not let this dishearten you and stop you from having more!

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“”I am tastier than a McFlurry, more interesting than a bar of chocolate and more exotic than a macaron. You know you want me.”

Jordan’s nightlife is concentrated in Rainbow Street in the city centre- a fairly straightforward street of cafes and restaurants. Free wifi and shisha available. I picked a restaurant based on the fact that it had a X’mas tree and a blow-up Santa at the entrance. There we sat dawdling the night away on second-hand apple-flavoured shisha smoke whilst staring at iPhone’s loading circles thanks to what seemed like 256KBps dial-up speed connection.

Lesson #3: Arabic numbers are different than the standard 1, 2, 3’s so before you visit, it’s defs wise to get it translated and saved on your phone to avoid getting ripped off at places with menus expressed only in Arabic numbers.

Dinner: 10JD for kofta, kebabs, 2 non-alcoholic drinks.

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Jing enjoying my riveting company

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Lesson #4: Thou shalt definitely not walk 5KMs back to your hotel on the streets of Amman at 12AM if you are unfamiliar to the city and especially if you’re female.

So that is me, photographed during the 5KM walk back to the hotel at close to midnight, somewhere in between us thinking it was a most delightful idea for an evening stroll and wanting to cry from (a) desperation to get back (b) wearing bad shoes (c) being absolutely scared shitless of every dark alleyway we walked past.

I don’t know if this is the type of place to enjoy an evening walk without a local and especially on your first night out. An immediate observation is that females do not roam about the streets openly in Jordan after sunset and as female travellers, you will inevitably attract a lot of attention, wanted or otherwise. That, and there is really nothing exciting to see on the streets at night unless your idea of fun are an outdoor rattan furniture stores, as pictured above in the left.

DAY 2 – Amman > Petra via the Dead Sea

9AM start for the Dead Sea the following day with Khaled whose car and personality was at our disposal for the day, arranged via Jordan Tower for the sake of an additional 3 hours of sleep and a detour to the Dead Sea.

If you’re taking the route we took, you will hit the Dead Sea Highway which eventually meets King Valley Highway, taking about 6-8 hours all up, depending on how many stops you make and how long you spend at each.

Khaled: 25JD

Khaled was a middle-aged migrant from Dubai who has been burnt by love. He spoke with much gusto and emphasized every other word in the sentence. We learnt much worldly wisdom from Khaled.

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Khaled and us.

“Khaled, why do they keep repeating ‘habibi’ in Arabic songs?

Because Arabic SONG always… ALWAYS about the love (dramatic pause) or the SHIT!

What is The Shit, Khaled?

You don’t KNOW The Shit? When love IS over, that is THE SHIT!

We call that heartbreak, Khaled.

No, it’s THE Shit!

Other Khaled-y wisdom:

Jordanian girls don’t ONLY put the make-up ON their face. They PUT their face IN the make-up.

GIRLS! They tell you “No, no, I’ve never BEEN with man before. And THEN you find out they have an ORGANISATION of men before you!

So I’ve always giggled at silly tourists featured on travel pamphlets reading books and kicking back whilst floating in the Dead Sea as if to say “You better believe it!”. But this floating business is quite honestly the MOST AMUSING THING EVER. I mean… you REALLY float unassisted!!

Lesson #5: Calling the Dead Sea ‘salty’, is going down in history as the grossest understatement ever made. If all of Chinatown got together to make an MSG soup, it’d still only ever taste like half the Dead Sea. And that’s saying a lot.

Lesson #6: Never, under any circumstance, feel the need to open your mouth whilst in the Dead Sea. Not even to laugh at your friend Jing who is demonstrating how not to be graceful in water. It’s just not worth it.

If you’re a Bible buff like me, you’d be excited to know that Lot’s pillar of salt of a wife still stands over a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea till today. If Khaled tells me so – then this must be true. Why ever would he lie? She looks lovely.lots-wife-salt

Lot’s Wife

And here is the Gaza Strip across the thin blue line which is the great Dead Sea. This was taken when the attack on Gaza was happening in November 2012 so it was very solemn looking at the foggy sky in the distance and pondering the myriad forms of pain and massacre that lay in such close physical proximity to us. 😦

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We continue along King Valley Highway which is just the most scenic route if you manage to stay awake for it all (read: we did not). Khaled brought us to the most random tea house situated on the top of Dana Valley where I met a man more boss than Ron Swanson himself.

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“BEHOLD THE POWER OF MY BOSS MOUSTACHE, KEFFIYEH AND PIPE. I COMMAND YOU TO BE INTIMIDATED.”

Get to Petra by 4PM and made Khaled drop us at the different hotels in Wadi Musa (the town next to Petra in which one finds accommodation), allowing for us to speak to the owners and get a feel of each place. We decided on Cleopetra Hotel (or Cleopatra Hotel or Celoptra Hotel or Celoepata Hotel or any one of the 12 ways it has been spelt on their official website) which receives my giant stamp of approval. Its sole (but huge) downside is that it is a far walk from the city of Petra although it is in the centre of Wadi Musa – 2km or 30 to 45 minutes (depending on how lost you get on the way). Although Mosleh, the owner, will guarantee you a great time and great laughs and free rides to and from Petra if you asked nicely!

Double bed room: 30JD

Having only one night to spare, we were told that Little Petra was a good visit before we embarked on the real deal the next day so got led into a cab. It is 12KMs and/or a 15 minute cab ride from central Wadi Musa all for the price of: too much.

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Watched the sunset in Little Petra

Go only if you are spending a significant time in Wadi Musa/Petra. But if you were going to do Petra anyways (and I sure hope you do since you’ve made it all the way here), giving it a miss won’t be a biggie. It pales in comparison and does not have much to add to the Petra experience.

Also, I don’t know about you but there are only so many red rocks I can look at without wanting to keel over and die. Maybe my negative review has a little (read: all) to do with the fact that I got groped by some dirty preying Bedouin boy who offered me a hand (literally… up my top!@#$%) coming down from a very steep unmanageable climb.

By pure luck and/or coincidence, we found ourselves in Petra on a Thursday night, and it is on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays that they run what they call Petra by Night.

treasurysiqqnightCandles leading the way down the long walkway that is the Siq

If you can plan your trip with this in mind, I definitely mark this one as a #mustdoforshizzlemydizzle because it was the highlight of Petra for me. It’s basically a tour of Petra that starts at 8.30PM and ends at 10ish which allows you access through the Siq to the Khazanah (the famed Treasury) by the light of 1800 candles which light your way. I KNOW RIGHT? SOUNDS AH-MAYZING. And when I say tour, there’s no annoying nasally guide with a memorised script whose jaw you want to punch in– atmospheric silence is enforced, the crowds nonexistent (much less people than in the day), you walk at your own pace, no flash photography is allowed etcetera etcetera.

Petra by Night: 17JD

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1800 candles with 10 second long exposure

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The Treasury through a gap at the end of the Siq – definite OH MY GAH moment

I almost (read: did) tear as I stepped through the Siq opening out to the Treasury as that marked the first I have seen it in the flesh after having watched numerous documentaries, dreamt numerous dreams and read numerous articles about sacred Petra. The haunting Bedouin music in the background being played adds build-up to this atmospheric climax while hot tea is being served and you all shuffle into rows. The local Bedouins put on a nice little performance which end with stories of Nabatean Arabs.

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The Treasury or Khazanah

Lesson #7: Learn from your lessons.

Upon reflection, we agreed that we must indeed have a death wish of some sort, since we decided (for the 2nd time in 48 hours) to do the 2KM dark night walk back to Cleopetra from Petra. Travel has a way of making one feel invincible, and then immediate regret after. May you learn from the mistakes we made.

Day 3 PE-frigging-TRA!!!

People say it’s advisable to get up at 5.30AM to fully enjoy being the first ones in at Petra. So we were up at 5AM the next day as hiking is no reason not to blowdry your hair. Highly advisable to pre-order a packed lunch from your accommodation for the day of your hike as food and water is not only sparse and expensive within Petra, but its eatability is also extremely questionable.

Packed lunch consisting of bottled water, Laughing Cow cheeses, bread, banana, apple: 3JD

Petra entrance fee: 50JD

By 6.30AM, we were first in the glorious grounds of Petra, getting ripped off by the dudes who get a horse to take you to the Siq. So the ticket counter is a good 10-minute walk to the entrance of the Siq, and your ticket includes a horsie ride from counter to Siq. But this men were loud and in our faces about tips tips tips so we paid them 6JD (and were later told we were being stupid tourists) and were on our way.

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Look at us with our innocent happy smiles, just moments away from getting ripped off by mean old Mr Chubbs over here.

Lesson #8: Noted generalisation, but from our experience, there is an expectation to make moolah out of every service rendered to you, most of which might just come across initially as friendly help. Demanding tips was pretty normal and most times, you be ready for a bit of haggling about the amount.

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The Treasury

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House of Facades

While hiking Petra does not demand specific training (may we be living proof of this), it does require you to be relatively fit. For those who are not, fear not as there are donkeys at your disposal for specific hikes like the Monastery and the Place of High Sacrifice for anywhere between 3JD to 12JD depending on how high you rank on the locals’ Stupid Tourist radar.

Took us most of the morning to make our way from the Treasury to the Monastery where we ate our lunch.

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This is us having a lovers’ moment pinic-ing across the Monastery. We’re too cute.

At about 2PM, we had made our way back down and tackled the Place of High Sacrifice via donkey (yes, we caved).

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Donkey ride: 3JD (optional)

After turning down marriage proposals from our 10 and 15 year old donkey trainers, we called it a day and left at 5PM – which is essentially 11 hours of Petra – much needed especially if you’re planning to tick off every significant monument in its confines.

The evening was spent at the Movenpick Hotel, situated right next to Petra and easily the most luxurious hotel in Wadi Muda, as I had bumped into Ben who I used to live with in Melbourne a couple of years back and he had scored a room there with his oil and gas wage. It has a great restaurant, bar and lounge area through which one had to step through metal detectors to get to, which was a real step-up from the backpacker life we had been living. Worth a visit if you are looking for some form of night life in the area, although you should be prepared to form out 50JD for a meal at the hotel.

Glad to say that on this night, we did take a cab back home. Jing and Tracy 1 – Jordan 0. Hah.

Day 4 Wadi Rum Desert

Booked this leg via Cleopetra which essentially covers transport to Wadi Rum, the tour of Wadi Rum and a night in a Bedouin camp. Wake up early and get driven to Wadi Rum.

Petra-Wadi Rum (inc. meals, accomm etc.): 55JD pp

Had we not comatosed throughout the ride, I could tell you if there are interesting sights on the way. Let’s imagine that there weren’t. We get dropped off at Wadi Rum and handed to Waleed, our desert guide. Waleed and us got off on a rocky start as he (a) did not laugh at our jokes and (b) drove a thing resembling a vehicle which was most definitely NOT what we thought was the 4×4 promised and would almost be what the Thai’s would call a tuk-tuk.

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“WHERE THE FLIPPIN’ PANCAKES IS MY LEXUS?”

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Waleed’s tuk-tuk. This is a petrol station in the desert, legit.

I decided to sit in the back to get closer to nature and lasted a total of 6 minutes, when Waleed made the first turn and the seats slid off the sides and I went tumbling down with them. This is the first of many endearing features of Waleed’s vehicle-like object. Also, sand and wind in one’s face does not make for a great combination.

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The world turns from tarred road/civilisation to sand and barren land right here.

Like us, if you are below the age of 89, you probably wouldn’t have a clue as to what or who Lawrence of Arabia is. Google tells me it is a 1962 cinematic epic. Wadi Rum is best known as the location for where most of Lawrence of Arabia was shot and our day comprised of following his adventure trail through a varied landscape of rising red rock monoliths 800-1000 metres in the air, gorges and rolling sand dunes all set within an awe-inspiring mash of red and brown that is the desert canyon against a bright blue sky.

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 Lawrence of Arabia inscriptions against the rock if you look closely

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Just the usual antics against a backdrop of classic Wadi Rum rock formations

But of course a Jing and Tracy adventure is never only about the sights. Now, I don’t imagine it’s every day you drive past someone babbling away on a cellphone while his friend looks on in the middle of this vast piece of barren land called a desert. But we did. Waleed does a double take and lo and behold, it’s a friend of his. I suppose there are not many people in the desert to not know one of its inhabitants.

Mohamed 1 and Mohamed 2 goes on to tell us that Mohamed 1 had walked 5KMs from the desert camp where he works to get reception for a call to his wife. HASHTAG AWW #aww.

So we picked him up, made him sit in the back with the sliding seats and get Waleed to do mega swerves. Fun times for all (bar the Mohameds)!

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Poor Mohamed trying his best to keep his bum on the sliding seat while we found much entertainment in his misfortune, bless his soul.

This was also when Waleed decides to put on some music for us except where I’d imagine his radio used to be was now a gaping hole with some suspicious cables with fraying copper wires at the end. He then shows us he’s a little bit of a MacGyver by pulling out a 2.1 sound system speakers he connects to the copper wires and plugs into his phone. He also demonstrated exemplary desert driving etiquette with one hand fist pumping to Calvin Harris while holding the connection to the speakers steady with the other.

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Revenge is served

We shared our packed lunch with Mohamed 1 & Mohamed 2, as well as a horde of flies. And I had a bit too much tea which resulted in me having to relief myself, the logistics of which I will spare you, but I will divulge the following in regards to being a lady and having to piss in the desert:

  1. Always, always check wind direction and act accordingly.
  2. Good to find rock formation to hide behind.*
  3. Not so good to pee ON rock, always in sand due to splash-back issues.
  4. Slow and steady does the trick.

*Terms and conditions apply; Wadi Rum specific

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Jing’s takeaway OJ with anti-spillage technology a.k.a. cling wrap

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One of Waleed’s many qualities; the ability to take a great jump shot

We get to the Sunset Desert Camp just before sunset, allowing for enough time to lay down our belongings and climb up a rock for some great views and some great shots.

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My awesome travel buddy contemplating the intricacies of life, like how to stagger water intake to lessen the need to go to the bathroom in the desert, all the while staring at the beautiful horizon

With there being no electricity, one can forget about having a hot shower or light in the room. There is an extra big lounge tent in which resides a massive fireplace which we spent most all our time in. Connecting with the culture of the Zalabia Bedouin was easily the stand-out of the evening, not only by way of food i.e. eating chicken and lamb cooked slowly in a Zarb (sand oven set into the ground) in their company but also camping out under the stars while dancing, shisha-ing and general goofing around by the campfire.

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Shisha, campfire, Jing, Amr and Waleed

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The Zarb, or underground oven

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Tea is to MENA culture like coffee is to Melbourne, except they don’t charge $4.50 for it, the barista is not necessarily a hipster and they don’t drink it sitting on milk crates while wearing John Lennon glasses.

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Bedouin dancing. I tried to do it but quickly decided I just can’t move like this.

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Midnight wander in the desert

Day 5 – Wadi Rum to Aqaba

A day without contact lenses and a blowdryer is a day without selfie shots. So you may look at this beautiful sunrise outside my tent instead.

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Hello 6AM. You look much better than I feel.

It was a flurry of packing and loading junk onto Waleed’s tuk-tuk and leaving the desert camp to catch our ride (which had been arranged via Waleed) to Aqaba, the port far south of Jordan, where we were to take a ferry into Nuweiba, Egypt.

Taxi ride Wadi Rum to Aqaba: 20JD

If you’re taking the same route, remember to check what time the Nuweiba ferry leaves from Aqaba. Then rock up to the port roughly 6 hours after the departure time, and you’d just make the ferry with an hour to spare. Also, hardly any English is spoken at the port so make sure you are quite clear on your Egyptian visa needs before you get there and clear immigration. If you are a female traveller, heads up that the people on the ferry will predominantly be men and the male crew will probably ask if you want to go up to “the Dick” with them. Don’t fret, they really mean the deck. They may also offer you use of the First Class cabin in ferry. Politely decline this invitation and then swiftly move away.

Enjoy Jordan and stay safe.

*** Splitting all taxi and relevant room costs by 2 gives you 203JD which makes it a total of USD$285. Food and drink is fairly cheap with falafels ranging from 1-2JD and full meals from 4-5JD. Everything tourism-related immediately demands an unproportionate price range, but every moment and single slice of Knafeh was worth every cent.

MEMORIES OF TURKEY: A PHOTO DIARY

 All photographs taken by Jing and Tracy

#1 – BEING IN COMPLETE AWE AT THE UNDERGROUND CITY OF DERINKUYU EXPERIENCING 7 LEVELS OF UNDERGROUND FUN (AND CLAUSTROPHOBIA).

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#2 – FINDING TOPKAPI PALACE ABSOLUTELY BORING AS BATSHIT. #justsaying

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#3 – CEMENTING THE POSSIBILITY OF GROWING OLD WITH DIABETES BY VIRTUE OF HAVING ONE TOO MANY TURKISH DELIGHTS.

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BUT WHO WOULDN’T WANT TO EAT ALMONDS SOAKED IN SYRUP COVERED IN PASTRY SOAKED IN SYRUP AND THEN FROSTED ON THE TOP, WITH SYRUP?

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#4 – MEETING THE MOST INCREDIBLE BACKPACKERS EVERY SINGLE TOWN WE WENT TO!

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#5 – CELEBRATING SECULARISM.

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# 6 – WEEKEND  WEEK-LONG BENDERS IN THE MANY BARS IN TAKSIM SQUARE.

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#7 – …AND THEN SUFFERING ITS CONSEQUENCES.

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#8 – HITTING UP GÖZLEMES AT 5AM POST-BIG NIGHTS OUT.

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# 9 – GETTING SUCKED INTO BABYSITTING A COMPLETE STRANGER’S CHILD FOR AN ENTIRE DAY.

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#10 – AND FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE LITTLE MUNCHKIN IN 5 FLAT MINUTES.

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#11 – A GLORIOUS BREAKFAST FOLLOWING A 10 HOUR BUTT-NUMBING BUS RIDE ON OUR BALCONY OVERLOOKING THE AMAZING BOSPHORUS.

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JUST THE BOSPHORUS IN GENERAL, REALLY

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#12 – CELEBRATING TRAVELLER TIM’S BIRTHDAY IN SELÇUK A LA TURKISH MEN STYLES.

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#13 – WHICH OF COURSE, INCLUDES THE CONSUMPTION OF RAKI, SOME POTENT AS FUCK (THINK 90%) LIQUID INVENTION.

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#14 – TWO WORDS. TURKISH FOOD.

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… AND THE GOOD FEELINGS THAT COME WITH IT.

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#15 – BEING COMPLETELY UNDERWHELMED BY THE GRAND BAZAAR. THIS ONE DID NOT RECEIVE JING AND TRACY’S STAMP OF APPROVAL.

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#16 – GETTING EXCITED ABOUT THE PRESERVATION OF ANCIENT CIVILISATION AND ROMAN RUINS.

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#16 – …GETTING JADED WITH THE PRESERVATION OF ANCIENT CIVILISATION AND ROMAN RUINS.

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#17 – GOBSMACKED BY CHURCHES SET INTO THE FAMOUS FAIRY CHIMNEYS.

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#18 – SITTING SILENTLY IN A CORNER TO OBSERVE THE FRIDAY PRAYERS.

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# 19 – GAZING DOWN ON THE VARIETY OF LIFE FROM THE ROOFTOPS OF ISTANBUL.

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#20 – GETTING PHENOMENALLY EXCITED TO JUMP INTO A POOL FILLED WITH ROMAN RUINS AND THEN IMMEDIATELY RETRACTING THE DECISION ONCE WE DISCOVERED THE ADMISSION FEE OF $15 AND SEE SLEAZY, HAIRY MEN SOAKING IN IT.

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#21 – BEHOLD OUR BEAUTIFUL CAVE HOTEL SET INTO THE FAIRY CHIMNEYS IN THE ISOLATED TOWN OF GÖREME IN THE CAPPADOCCIA REGION! (ALMOST WORTH NOT HAVING WI-FI RECEPTION FOR).

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#22 – A LESS-THAN-SAFE HOT AIR BALLOON RIDE ON A DAY SO FOGGY, ALL WE SAW WAS WHITE.

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#23 – KEBABS AND TURKISH TEA AT 5AM. ENOUGH SAID.

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#24 – REFLECTING ON THE MAGNITUDE AND MYRIAD TYPES OF BEAUTY OF THE WORLD WITH MY PARTNER IN CRIME.

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#25 – WHOLE AFTERNOONS SPENT DEEP IN CONVERSATION ABOUT LIFE IN TURKEY WITH STORE OWNERS OVER 1,000 CUPS OF ELMA ÇAY.

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#26 – MIDNIGHT DRIVE INTO THE HEART OF PIGEON VALLEY TO VISIT AN ABANDONED CHURCH.

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CREEPY. BUT LOOK, A PULPIT AND EVERYTHING BUILT INTO ROCK FORMATIONS. MINDBLOWN.

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#27 – THINKING THAT ISTANBUL MUST BE A CITY OF ASTOUNDINGLY HIGH LEVELS OF SEXUAL TENSION.

SPECIMEN A

(Note: I know what you’re thinking but no, that is NOT an arm on the label.)

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SPECIMEN B

(They weren’t kidding about the variety of their teas.)

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# 28 – THE GRANDIOSE OF THE BLUE MOSQUE IN THE FLESH.

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#29 – STREET CATS IN ISTANBUL. THEY’RE JUST SO MANY OF THEM. AND YOU CAN’T HELP WONDERING WHERE THEY COME FROM AND WHERE THEY ARE GOING.

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#30 – OUR MANY ATTEMPTS AT BLENDING IN.

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#31 – INAPPROPRIATELY SHAPED NATURAL FORMATIONS. SO. MANY. OF. THEM. FOR GOODNESS’ SAKE.

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#32 – WHIRLING DERVISHES…

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#33 – BEING BLOWN AWAY BY THE INCREDIBLE INTERIOR OF HAGIA SOPHIA AND THE IMMENSE HISTORY BEHIND THIS ANCIENT HOLY STRUCTURE

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#34 – THE BEAUTIFUL STREETS OF SULTAN AHMET, ISTANBUL

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#35 – RESISTING THE URGE TO SHOP AND BEATING OURSELVES UP FOR SCHEDULING TURKEY IN AS FIRST STOP ON OUR TRAVELS.

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#36 – OLIVES FOR BREAKFAST. OLIVES FOR LUNCH. OLIVES FOR DINNER. OLIVES IN YOUR APPETISER. OLIVES IN YOUR MARTINI. OLIVES, OLIVES, OLIVES. OLIVES IN YOUR POOP.

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#37 – NO FALSE ADVERTISING IN THIS COUNTRY, THAT’S FOR SURE!

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#38 – MEETING THE MOST BEAUTIFUL MAN THERE EVER WAS IN THE WORLD, HANDS DOWN (AND THEN PROCEEDING TO TAKE A PHOTO WITH OUR STALKER SKILLS).

Check out the waiter’s expression. Even he’s smitten!

HANDSOME

 

#39 – THE INCREDIBLE COTTON CASTLES OF PAMUKKALE

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The 8 Commandments of Backpacker Travel

I’ve been freezing in single digit temperature here in Melbourne. So to channel some positive vibes, I wrote about my ever-sacred, never-to-be-broken 8 Commandments of Backpacker Travel. Enjoy!

1. THOU SHALT CARRY A BACKPACK.

A backpack signals to other people certain things.

Firstly, it gives you street cred amongst the backpacker community. If these are the people you seek to meet, then these are the people you will attract. You will be judged when you lug your heavily monogrammed LV trunk onto a tuk-tuk in Koh Phangan, I promise you this. Lugging a suitcase into a hostel makes you look like a douche.

Secondly, and more importantly, leverage off the universal (and mostly true) assumption that backpackers are poor, broke tight-arses.

If I needed to leave my luggage in storage or unattended somewhere for whatever reason, I’d stake out a spot right next to the nearest briefcase/Gucci suitcase/flashpacker’s laptop bag/camera bag. It’s like parking your Nissan in between an Audi and a BMW. That’s just laying low and getting the crosshair off your possessions.

549979_10151694113560910_533966640_nExhibit A: Travel buddy Jing demonstrating the double backpack stance

Thirdly, a backpack is versatile. It doesn’t have a hard shell so it squeezes into tough spots. You can attach gear on the multiple straps of the exterior when you run out of space. You can carry your backpack onto that 12 hour bus ride through Laos and sit it on your lap while the other tourists worry about their bags sliding off the roof of the bus. You can’t wheel a suitcase through the cobbled streets of Europe or the medinas of Morocco or through sand to your desert camp, but your backpack trumps the situation. Carrying 20KGs on your shoulders is a breeze compared to heaving it with your arm. Running for a plane, train, bus is more doable with a backpack. Etcetera etcetera etcetera.

2. THOU SHALT ENGAGE WITH THE LOCALS.

Most people choose not to have much to do with the locals for various reasons. Admittedly, it is a hard thing to do – it involves making yourself vulnerable by trusting people you might have nothing in common with, making a conscious effort to step out of your comfort zone and expending time in your itinerary. Add to this the every few bad apples who prey on the unknowing tourist and scammers a-plenty and the inevitable reviews about these on travel guides and websites. All fair reasons but I say… to hell with them!

I may as well have been purely relying on National Geographic for the hope of ever learning anything about a culture instead of flying halfway around the world if I didn’t intend on getting to know the people- the making and byproduct of a country’s history. (And no, ordering pad thai from the staff in your 5-star beach resort does not count.)

The best (and most random) experiences most other travellers would never have lived out that I’ve had on the road were thanks to some amazing locals. Kemal, our contact someone in Istanbul had set us up with in Göreme, started reminiscing about Australia with Jing and I as he used to live here for 7 years. I was told time and time again to not miss out on the classic hot air balloon rides over their beautiful fairy chimneys and rock formations that this Turkish region was known for.

484729_10151694117485910_97485542_nThe fairy chimneys of Göreme from our hot air balloon

We, however, got driven right into the heart of Pigeon Valley at 2AM on our first night in Göreme (this must be safe right, hur hur hur). It was the single most beautiful thing with the sky speckled with stars and the fairy chimneys looking kind of ghostly in the night, mad dog chilling on the bonnet of the car with a couple of beers. Kemal brought us into an amazing fairy chimney which was an abandoned church, with the rocks forming an actual altar and pulpit! He tells us they now use it as a DJ stand for parties held there in the summer. Too cool for school. An experience I’d safely bet a majority of travellers wouldn’t have even imagined, much less have experienced.

3. THOU SHALT ENGAGE WITH OTHER TRAVELLERS.

It’s shocking that not many people do this.  There is nothing more I look forward to than to meet other travellers, which is predominantly why hostels are my choice accommodation while on the road. Travellers generally get along well with other travellers because of the obvious and immediate common interest you share.

Many are doing the same routes as you, and might have an abundance of wisdom to share from their personal experiences. When I took time off in Uganda from working in a safari to visit Kenya with 6 other interns, we were referred to an independent tour guide and driver via a traveller. He cut us a deal for 3 days and 2 nights in the Masai Mara outback for $200 per person inclusive of all meals and accommodation. A simple Google search will tell you the best price for the same package via a tour group would have been $650 per person. UH-MAYZING.

A Croatian girl we met in Istanbul who had done our route the other way around told us that it was low season in Morocco and hostels and B&B’s were ready to negotiate daily rates, what more take you in without a booking. So we ditched our $25 a night bookings for $5-$7 a night rooms.

Gina and Mickael who we met in Aqaba, not only dropped us off at the port to catch our ferry after a long day of diving, but also sourced a phone and internet from the owner of the dive centre they worked for, for us to make bookings and arrange transport to our accommodation in Dahab when we got there.

We met an equally homesick and miserable bunch of travellers in Fes who were all missing Christmas celebrations as much as we were. As you can imagine, no one cares for Christmas in a predominantly Muslim country like Morocco. So we wallowed in misery together and had our own Christmas, with turkey and everything.

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Shaped our Santa hats into little Fes-es, we did.

Most day tours organised by the hostels work out cheaper if you have the numbers. Or even taking the equivalent of a maxi cab somewhere helps when you have headcount. Definitely doesn’t hurt when you can get in on these and guarantee some amazing company at the same time.

Draw inspiration from other backpackers’ stories and build upon them. They all have as much, if not more, to share, as you do!

4. THOU SHALT NOT BE CONSUMED BY THE CAMERA

It is so easy to be drawn into the experience that you feel like you have to capture everything.

Have you ever taken a photo of a single landmark from more angles than you thought could exist and then ended up skimming mindlessly, and even deleting most of them when you get home?

Travelling with your DSLR attached to your face removes your presence in a place. It almost solidifies your role as a tourist, creates a barrier between you and other people worth meeting and all because you were trying to figure out the right damned exposure settings.

5. THOU SHALT IMMERSE IN THE CULTURE

Engage with the local culture, always have an open mind to new cuisines, routines and perspectives. It’s so easy to recognise a difference and immediately reject it as unfamiliar and unlikeable.

I remember being told about how cheap and convenient taxis were in Kenya when I first got there. What a win, I thought.

And then they flagged me down a taxi.

Turns out it’s an 8 seater van which really seats 13 (if you’re lucky) and only goes the one direction. Refer below.

uganda-taxi-matatuKenyan ‘matatu’ a.k.a. taxi

Yeah dudes… NOT a taxi.

Embrace the crazy and weird.  Take the taxis of the world anyway. Take a crap in a hole in the ground. Get into it for the experience, I say!

No better way to impress the locals and garner a smile than babbling in the local language colloquially.

Approaching someone with an Assamualaikum! Bonjour! Ni hao? conveys respect, gains respect and immediately gets them on your good side if you’re intending to ask for favours, help, directions etcetera. Also helps with number 2 (of the list, ahem).

After all, expecting everyone to speak and understand English is a little arrogant considering you’re the foreigner in the situation. Some people love hacking new languages and that’s an exhilarating challenge and experience altogether but for the less gifted commoner (me included), just the act of trying goes a long, long way. You don’t have to enrol for months of language classes, just use phrasebooks and download phrase guide apps on your phone.

540132_10151694120960910_543423107_nCan’t say we learnt much Turkish, but at least we knew what to say when hassled by shopowners!

7. THOU SHALT GET LOST

Chuck out the map, throw away the organisation and put aside the plans.

It is liberating to just get lost and walk aimlessly in a new place.

On my second day in Marrakesh, I wandered off back to my hostel alone to get a head start in the showers. Anyone who has read/been to Morocco know about the weaving labyrinths that make up the old medinas of this medieval country. It took me a whole 5 minutes and I was hopelessly lost. I had ended up at the same red door (or was it?) 3 times after having walked down 5 different alleyways. And it was dark. And I was a female alone in a country where females do not wander out alone in the dark. FREAK OUT.

Then a man on a motorcycle drives past and says he will give me a lift. I said no persistently, assuming he was either (a) a rapist, (b) a murderer, (c) one of the many faux guides in Marrakesh who would demand a ridiculous 10 euros if you were lucky after delivering directions or (d) all of the above. He then proceeded to proclaim that he was “Ali from yesterday! The hostel manager from Nari Nari!” who we had met.

What proceeded was the best half hour I’d spent in Marrakesh, which consisted of a death-defying fate-bending weave-in weave-out under-ladders pothole-avoiding tour of the city’s narrow alleyways where pedestrian walkways were shared with donkeys and coincidentally, motorcycles and pushcarts too. He showed me his favourite spots of the city, got me some good ol’ mille feuille (GOOGLE THIS NOW) before dropping me home in one happy piece back at my hostel.

ORSUM.

8. THOU SHALT TAKE THE PISS OUT OF ANNOYING SITUATIONS

Being on the road takes its toll. Living out of a suitcase is taxing. Sharing dorms and living on a budget is painful.

Add to that a whole different culture and place where you have to constantly be getting lost and finding your way back and people quite literally lose their shit.

One thing that annoys me on the road is constant haggling.

I’m always up for a great bargaining sesh but after having one too many “YOU WANT MASSAGE?”, “MAKE A SUIT, MA’AM?” and “TUK-TUK!”s being yelled at my direction, i get all pissy.

What do I do? I take a piss out of the situation. Have fun with it. Try selling them YOUR stuff. “I don’t want that, but DO YOU WANT MY SCARF??? Only $5!” Offer a massage. Don’t be snide about it but have some LOLs. It’s good for the soul and gets you out of the funk.

307658_10151661207960910_404409299_nUs trying to sell Chris Rock lookalike our scarves… after insisting he was indeed Chris Rock himself.

So there you go. My 8 Commandments of Backpacker Travel, tried and tested over the years. And I will apply them over and over again on all future travels.

I have a strong suspicion I’d add to this, however. Until next time!

Tracy, out.

Travel Resources for the Backpacker

As one of the most commonly asked question is how I plan for my travels, I decided to give everyone a low-down on the way I research most – if not all – of my semi open-ended backpacking travels. Also included are some invaluable tips I’ve learnt either from personal experience or from the numerous conversations with tour operators, hostel managers and travel agency employees I met along the way.

1. GOOGLEMAPS

Common fact: I have a thing for travelling to unfamiliar places. So I always start with GoogleMaps once I have decided on my continent or country of choice.

Starting by getting an idea of how a destination is set out means taking note of the major cities as they will most likely be mentioned in travel guides and will serve as a reference point for more isolated towns in the area. You also get to suss out if overland travel is preferable between different points and the approximate time it takes.

When tackling multi-country travel, sorting out the geography of a destination will help determine in what general direction your trip will take you i.e. North to South, East to West etc. and making that work to your advantage in terms of budget and time.

2. LONELY PLANET AND TRIPADVISOR

There are the obvious Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor guides for which I spend just enough time on to take note of the more popular sites and cities.

However, I’m no big fan of these sites as the lesser-known and sometimes more interesting activities rank low or do not show up at all. It’s really up to the individual to decide how much they allow reviews to dictate their own decisions as I know some people live and die by TripAdvisor ratings.

I personally, try to take these things with a pinch of salt unless there’s an undeniably strong concensus about Restaurant “Good Best Food” in Vietnam serving human meat pies laced with cocaine, in which case I must say I will abide.

3. PRICE OF TRAVEL

My absolute favourite site for budgeting is Price of Travel.

It essentially sorts cities by affordability according to a given index giving you an approximate per day spend in a particular destination. Given that they set out what’s included in the index i.e. food, transport, standard drinks a day – you can adjust the estimation according to the type of consumption you plan on making. Besides their focal Backpacker Index, there are also 3 star, 4 star indices for reference.

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4. WIKITRAVEL

Wikitravel is amazingly understated with the type of information they provide. The site increases in usefulness the more specific you are with searches.

So I usually read up about a country on Lonely Planet and after having broken them down to cities, I enter these into Wikitravel. They have easy to follow one-page guides about everything from currency to weather to getting in and out and all the respective costs.

5. TRIPOSO

Triposo: Founded by 2 Dutch brothers and their Australian friend, they set themselves apart by being an on-the-go, portable travel guide.

Their downloadable location guides on your mobile means contributing to the book stores’ declining revenue by not having to fork out $60 for a Lonely Planet, lugging it around book only to serve to collect dust after having travelled a particular country.

You leech off the hostel’s WiFi and you find the destination for which location guide you want to download, after which it is available on your phone without the need for a data plan – perfect for a traveller. One of my favourite things about this app is that it has a wide coverage of destinations (15,000+ locations) and the founders have travelled extensively themselves, averaging 100 countries each or so per person so they give you a personalised encounter with each of these.

Triposo

6. HIPMUNK

Skyscanner is great for flight research and sourcing the cheapest rates. However, once I narrow down my choice of  flights, I then revert to Hipmunk.

They are especially good for long haul flights with multiple transits as they allow sorting results by an Agony criteria i.e. the length of layovers. The layout also allows easy comparability between airlines and is extremely helpful when you need to organise connecting flights with multiple airline companies.

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7. OANDA

I am an absolute shocker at mathematics, which is almost illegal as I am not only Asian, but also work in finance.

If you are anything like me, I use the Oanda app on my phone for easy currency conversion.

Find out if ATMs and FX exchanges are highly inaccessible, which means you have to load up on cash in the nearest city/capital before you head out to your village or island destination. Some countries have unusual practices for e.g. Uganda has a more favourable exchange rate for the USD if the note is of a $50 denomination so I sure got ripped when I rocked up in Kampala with a pocketful of $20’s. Mauritius, for example, has more favourable exchange rates for traveller’s cheques so I loaded up on these before I got there.

8. HOSTELBOOKERS AND HOSTELWORLD

No backpacker is a stranger to Hostelbookers and Hostelworld.

I prefer open-ended travels so I book accommodation sparingly. I do use these sites frequently for approximate accommodation prices and to determine if there is high seasonality during the time of my visit.

Hostelbookers

Hostelworld

If you have to book, narrow your search down using these sites. Once you have made your choice, get onto the hostel’s website and send them a booking inquiry directly. This achieves 2 things:

(a) Bypasses the commission fees.

Most times, the commission is just a cut of the standard per room price. But sometimes, the hostel chooses to pass this cost on to the customer. This is where you can go around paying a little extra. A couple of bucks a night might not be an issue, but it will surely make a difference if you’re making a booking for 2 for a fortnight for example.

(b) Aligns your expectation of the place.

This, I’ve learnt from speaking to multiple hostel managers. Booking sites like Hostelbookers for example, have a standardised form in which hostels post availabilities and room descriptions. Due to this standardisation, the specifics of an availability may not always be communicated for example when you book a 5 bed dorm, you are really booking a 6 bed because this does not appear on the standardised availability forms. This results in the not uncommon bad rating on TripAdvisor which usually sounds like this: “I booked a 4 bed dorm, but when I got there, we were forced to split between an 8, 6 and 12 bed!” etc.

Rest assured there is a sliver of incompetent service in the world, but communicating directly with the hostels allow you to ascertain for sure if they have what you want and puts you in a better position for compensation if they do not deliver.

And if planning a trip is giving you more grief than it is exhilaration, and taking longer than you thought, then you’re not doing it right. Impulsive decisions pay off much better than planned itineraries so sometimes it pays to wing it!

Why do you travel?

One of the many wise things my old man once told me was: “Experience both good and bad. For without bad, how can one know what is good?”

That resonated with me for years to come, together with other fatherly wisdom like “There’s no need to call me for help- until you are in a police car.”

So that’s not your typical Asian dad advice and it raised all kinds of suspicion in my rebellious angsty teenage days. But he was onto something. Instead of cornering me into obedience, he left the learning and decision-making based on experiencing both ends of a spectrum to me.

And that, my friends, is why we should travel.

Truth is, the good, the bad, the world is relative. Cold showers are annoying. Relative to warm showers? Or to Nicki Minaj on repeat?

me

PLEASE GOD, NO.

Rest assured, I would take a year of cold showers instead of having to listen to “Freedom” one more time on the radio.

When one sees beyond the bubble of circumstances which forms the entirety of your identity and existence, one begins to put things into perspective. Our circumstances are wholly but unfortunately built upon simple things like our jobs, schools, neighbourhood, friends and our collective view of and interaction with all of the above. Your opinion of these may be formed on the basis of the majority view of your community.

For example, take the opinion that the Malaysian public transport systems are shit. It may also be affected by international mass media – TV, newspapers, magazines, the almighty internet. You see bullet trains in Japan and complex subway networks in New York and London and you draw conclusions.

God bless the TV for delivering my daily dose of Spongebob Squarepants. But it truly is just a cluster of colours, motion and sound delivered to you in pixels. Before it got to you, it has been manipulated, moulded, changed, edited, torn apart and put together so that you see exactly what the director wants you to see. The point I’m making is – how much is out there that cannot be conveyed via medium but only through experience?

So the Malaysian public transport system is a minefield. I used to think that too.

And then, I spent 5 days in Vietnam.
Okay, maybe Malaysian public transport isn’t such an issue after all.

And then, I spent 5 weeks in Uganda.
I was on my knees singing praises to the gods of buses and trains for having spared my country.

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Uganda: Trains so infrequent that it’s literally okay to prance around the tracks. Photocredit – demotix.com

But such is life, isn’t it?

I love that I hail from Malaysia truly Asia, the land of durians and butchered English.

I love that I grew up in a dynamic, developing environment and then was lucky enough to have lived in Australia for the past 7 years. Safe to say that whatever your circumstance, humans complain and whinge to anyone who is willing to listen. While I was promised (and delivered) a comparably higher quality of life, Australians complain about the same thing Malaysians do. The traffic, the government, the education system, the public transport system, the city planning.

While people clog The Age’s server with negative reviews and my Facebook newsfeed fills up with swearing and sarcastic remarks the one day a train is delayed by 5 minutes at rush hour in Melbourne, I am grateful a train exists.

I guess I travel for numerous reasons but this is my main motivator and favourite. The diversity of location is physical in the act of travel and one can stop at that, or one can find in it the shift in paradigm and perspective. Extend the simple opinion of the public transport system to a people, a culture, communities, religion, governments, way of lives and with every new country and new people I get in touch with, I feel like I am one step closer to truly understanding my place in the world and how to be the best human being I can be given the circumstances I have been presented.

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

YES, MIRIAM, YES IT IS!

Sooooo… why do you travel?

Culture Shock Moment #1: Jordan to Egypt

Instead of backtracking to Amman and catching a flight into Cairo after our stay in the Wadi Rum desert, we decided on the unconventional route to Aqaba at the southernmost tip of Jordan to hop on a ferry into Egypt’s Sinai region via the Gulf of Aqaba.

Gulf of Aqaba

Upon arriving at the Aqaba port for our 1.30PM departure, we were briskly waved away and told that the ferry was only leaving at 7.30PM. No worries mate, it’s not like we struggled for a 6AM start from Wadi Rum only to scramble onto a speeding taxi down to Aqaba to make the ferry.

Turning down an offer to “have a drink with me, maybe tea… maybe alcohol” from Ahmed our driver who saw little issue in making that suggestion at 11 in the AM, we had him drop us at a beach 4 KMs away from the port where I intended to nap and tan. To my uninhibited excitement, we were dropped right at the Dive Aqaba building. The thought of squeezing a few dives in while waiting for the ferry resulted in some muscle spasms, squealing, yanking of Jing’s arm and a bit of foaming at the mouth on my part.

Meeting dive instructors and travelers French Mickael and English Gina played such a big role in shaping the next couple experiences we had. We very quickly delved into conversation about our travels and Gina recommended Dahab over our original plans to head to Sharm el Sheikh, pointing us towards Red Sea Relax backpackers (who I now too, highly recommend). She also mentioned to call for a taxi to be sent by RSR in light of news regarding tourist abductions in Sinai. So we did, making a reservation for a taxi for 2.

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Milling around the Dive Aqaba Centre

Diving in Aqaba and our experiences on the 6 hour ferry ride, although riveting, will have to be told some other time as this entry is about our culture shock upon arriving at the port of Nuweiba, Egypt.

No one else besides the 1 or 2 people onboard the ferry spoke basic colloquial English which was not enough to give us an idea of how things worked at the port. We shuffled out the ferry into the dark unknown, Arabic being yelled here and there. Everyone else seemed to know where to go by virtue of having done this route several times as there wasn’t the slightest sign of… signage.

At the pitch black port landing, we barely made out the silhouttes of spare parts of ships, containers and other nautical nonsense, and no clearly defined street leading to anywhere in particular. Jing and I scurried our way through the crowd, applying learning points from Friday nights spent playing Charades, by using all types of hand gestures to ask for the exit.

Something we developed after a month traveling in the region was very good ESR, or English Speaker Radar. It was how we spotted Patrick and Cici from 30M away as they got off the ferry. We made a beeline for these 2 unknowing individuals who were about to be imposed upon by us confused and eager travelers. In 10 minutes, we had made friends and found out that Polish Patrick and Chinese Cici, his girlfriend, had been living in Dahab (#fistpumpmoment #pickedalocal) and diving for work for the past year and were returning from traveling Jordan. They were getting off at Planet Divers, right next to Red Sea Relax so it made sense for them to come with us in our cab. Patrick seemed to know his way around as we weaved through the darkness, so I spent my 20 minute walk swearing and hating on my 60LT backpack and mumbling thanks to the heavens for our human map, Patrick.

Direction finally came in the form of a lit square of buildings, crowded by people presumably from all docking ferries. An official-looking man in a coat walks up to us and Patrick seemed to trust him so I decided that I did too. He led us to the tourist police, then to the FOREX and I got some Egyptian Pounds, enough to pay for the taxi and to get the hell out of there. There was little communication but a form of understanding enough for us to keep following this man. It was obvious that we had been picked out because we were foreigners.

Amongst the chaos that surrounded us, I made note that these people boarding the ferries had the most unusually large boxes and luggages. We were led into a shed which I’m unsure of whether was the Customs or not, even until today. There was no order and organisation but it fazed me not as by this time, I had perfected the art of squeezing my 5″4 self to the front while constantly smiling and saying “Asif!” (sorry in Arabic) which usually results in people moving aside quite briskly once spotting that you are female.

There was a bag scanner through which we all put our backpacks through and that’s where Patrick met Trouble and got held back. Torn between already being 1.5 hours late for our taxi and abandoning our new found friends, we plonked ourselves on some make-shift security fences and waited while observing the commotion around us.

I decided that Nuweiba port beats people watching on a bench in Central Park.

For one, people put everything through this bag scanner. A few interesting items to note would include: TV, a microwave, a washing machine, a 2 seater couch. Secondly, I kid you not – there was a man who was specifically tasked to pick these up as they rolled off the end of the scanner belt and slide them down the length of the walkway because the bags were coming out faster than people were.

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Good ol’ bag scanner machine

Laughing silently to ourselves as the 3rd refrigerator was rolled off the conveyer belt, we sneaked a video recording. Cici eventually came back with news that Patrick had been stopped because there was a knife in his bag. I dismissed it as some sort of pocket knife or dive knife only to have my jaw hit the ground 20 minutes later when he walks past customs holding abovementioned “knife” which was 3 inches short of being a sword. AWKWARD.

With Patrick back, we walked another 50M or more to the exit, where we were greeted by vehicles of all sizes, pounced on by fella after fella asking if we needed a taxi and slashing prices before we even nodded yes. We spotted Jing’s name on Abdul’s cardboard and inched our way over, explaining that we had 2 more with us and would he be happy to bring them too? Why not, he responded.

He had a van – more than ample space for 4, plus our backpacks. But as we loaded them into the booth, we noticed a crowd had formed around us and while they were mainly addressing Abdul, their voices had been slowly rising and their hand gestures were getting more expressive. Or aggressive….. depending on how you read the situation.

Something was wrong.

Abdul was holding his own and Patrick had sensed this as the crowd leant in on us. We question Abdul and he tells us that these taxi drivers had been waiting at the port all day for the ferries to come in for a bit of business and they had known we only had 2 people. It was unacceptable to them that Abdul was ‘taking their business’ by taking on 2 additional people in his taxi. As they yelled in Arabic at us, we yelled back in English – pointless, but fun nonetheless.

We were quick to apply our first-world logic and rationale to the situation, proclaiming with impatience the following:

They are with us! They are our friends!

It’s a van – there is more than enough space for all of us. We are going the same way!

How can they decide if they can take us or not?

As he tried to translate our discontent to the mob which had surrounded us, we quickly told Patrick and Cici to shut the booth and get in the van, that we’d had enough and weren’t going to deal with that. So we did, while Abdul stood outside attempting to be diplomatic with the crowd. Once the door was shut and the voices muffled, I noticed that all 4 of us were breathing hard, a mix of nervousness and uncertainty in the air. The Arabic outside got choppier and louder, the crowd got a bit bigger, rowdier and had surrounded the van and there was intermitent banging on the windows.

Eventually, Patrick gets up.

He slides open the door allowing the loud yelling to pierced into the shell of a van and motions Cici to get her bags.

He looks at us deadpanned.

“You don’t want to fuck with the Bedouins. They can get crazy.”

That seemed to be enough for us to admit defeat and fall back in our seats. We watched as the crowd dispersed, the noise died down and the Bedouins claimed their prized Patrick and Cici. Abdul gets in, exasperated – and we apologise profusely for the trouble we caused. We sit in the car for 15 minutes waiting for people to clear away from the van and for the vehicles who had double parked us in in the midst of the fight so as to stop us from driving off.

Once we had escaped the madness that was Nuweiba port exit and hit the streets, I caught sight of Patrick and Cici walking a little way down. Instinctively, we pointed it out to Abdul and the man immediately pulled over, so I made a dash across the street and got their attention. They turned around only to quietly inform me that they were still being followed by the Bedouin van. I looked around just in time to see a van rolling over at crawling speed, 5 heads poked out the window, intensely eyeballing me as they came to a halt right next to us.

Unwillingly, I said bye to Patrick and Cici and went back to deliver the news to Jing and Abdul. It was past midnight when we finally hit the highway and Jing and I reclined in our seats as Abdul announced that it was going to be a 1.5 hour drive before we would be in Dahab.

Staring up into the brilliant sky dotted with millions of stars, visible because they didn’t believe in lighting things up in this part of the world, I swallowed all my pressing questions as my eyelids got heavy, my breathing steadied and 19 hours of commute took its toll on me.

Whether or not we understood, liked or recognised it, we were in a different space. A space where carrying a machete-like knife across borders felt necessary, where passengers carried furniture and electrical appliances across international waters, where ferries scheduled at 1.30PM left at 7.30PM, where female foreigners got to skip queues and where Patrick and Cici could not travel with us by virtue of someone else losing out on some business.

I had stopped asking questions a long time ago. And we never bumped into Patrick and Cici all 5 days we were in Dahab.

The Maghreb

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Morocco and I did not get off to a great start. Nothing about it that could be expressed in print appealed to me so I arrived in Marrakech armed with nothing more than the knowledge of its famed spices. Marrakech hit me like a French-speaking piss-smelling brick in the face. It confused, and to a certain extent, annoyed me that so much French was being spoken. Largely because it didn’t quite fit with my narrow understanding of what a stereotypical Muslim country should be.

The medina frightened me. To me, it was nothing more than bad planning that the 21st century didn’t bother to fix. An alley in a lane off a walkway behind one of the many streets made for poor navigation. Men barking prices in my face and being hurried by one of the many faux guides disoriented me. And the 20 orange juice carts all lined up next to each other in the middle of Djemaa el Fna all selling a homogeous product each at the same price of 20 dirhams a pop was a spit in the face of the economic laws of supply and demand.

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Add to that the return of my bowel movements with a vengeance after a week-long hiatus at the convenient time of 4AM in the middle of the Sahara materialised an emotion resembling pure hatred for my circumstances – which I quickly associated with the place I was in. Then, just as I made up my mind about this foreign land, I set foot in the ancient, medieval city of Fes.

In Morocco and within the walls of the medina, every fraction of life is theatrical. As sure as you will be welcomed into its motions, there will be a sense of urgent secrecy. Its ecosystem accepts and rejects you all the same – it is ambivalent to the presence of an outsider. The events on the cobbled streets feel staged – timed, almost. And you realise that it’s life led in perfection that your first world conscience fails to comprehend as someone’s actual reality.

The riad was to me, a placenta to an unborn child. A separator between the private and public lives of its inhabitants – one of pivotal importance in a culture built upon impressions and perceptions. Much social life takes place behind these walls.

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I still struggle to articulate why I chose to make a return so soon. Maybe it was to assess the legitimacy of my memories, because God knows the human mind has a way of amplifying great moments. Maybe it was my way of re-engineering a reality I have come to believe too good to fit into the plane of existence – to prove that this whole thing was in fact not a dream. Or maybe, plainly, I was a girl in love with a desire to be reunited with the object of my obssession.

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I remember sitting there on the balcony of an Englishman’s holiday home in Zerhoune, looking down at the rolling green countryside typical of conjured images of South England, never of Africa, and the tomb of Moulay Idriss, founder of Fes and quite honestly believing that that was the happiest moment of my life. To reduce our entire being to moments like these is humbling.

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It would be silly of me to try to explain how and why Maroc left such a big impression on me. It’s not the people, or the culture or its history but more the way they all come together… like features on Ryan Gosling’s face. I DIGRESS.

I’ve never quite felt such pure unadulterated love for a concept a people a place. For fear of sounding like the ignorant first world traveler, I have avoided saying this to many. But alas, it is true that North Africa made and broke me at the same time. For it has showed me what life could be, but the fact remains that I will never be the same before I met the Maghreb.

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