By request: some general observations

API Call ErrorTaxis: we weren’t keen on trying the taxis in Egypt, as we were still intimated, not wanting to get taken for a ride (no pun intended!), and Cairo cabs in particular have a bad reputation for milking as much money out of tourists as they can. As it turned out since we booked a tour for Egypt, there wasn’t any need for them. Our first foray into Jordan proved quite manageable. We probably paid more than necessary for the ride from the ferry into Aqaba, but the driver was kind and friendly, and we didn’t feel ripped off, and that’s what really matters. We took a taxi to Wadi Rum (arranged by our tour guides there) without any trouble, and again from Petra to Dana. By the time we got to Amman, we didn’t think anything of flagging down a taxi to take us across town, especially as they are quite supposed to use their meters. A trip clear across town ended up costing us less than $4 (and this in a country whose costs are generally only slightly less than back home).

Food: Real Arabic Restaurants (that don’t generally cater to tourists), don’t usually offer knives – spoon and fork only. Much is eaten with hands, and bread is used for scooping/dipping. Music videos are very popular (a little less so in Syria) – on in the background, and in place of sports programming in restaurants. Fast food chains offer full service – they will bring the food to the table when it’s ready, and clear the trash when done (they’ve taken it from our hands when we tried to do it ourselves). Restaurant chains generally cleaner than some back home. Not to say that we’ve been visiting many chains – mainly in search of McToilets, or on occasion for Western comfort food.

The pricing has been different (more random in Jordan than elsewhere) – cheap taxis, and import foods, when found, quite expensive. Some fruit at the Safeway in Amman was close to $12/kg!! Oreos, which we didn’t buy, were 3 times more than the local brand. Nescafe is very popular – even if ordering ‘American Coffee’ in some places, I’ve gotten Nescafe. Not a fan of the Turkish (or Arabic) coffee, which is not served with milk. It’s not only strong, but tastes like it is made with green coffee beans (ie, not yet ripened, or not roasted the way we are used to).

Potatoes are generally only available fried – no boiled, broiled, baked, mashed, etc. Don’t know about Neil, but I’m getting a little tired of fries (though I know that they know how to boil potatoes – the very nice restaurant owner in Palmyra sent up boiled potatoes to our room after hearing that I wasn’t feeling well).

Cucumber and tomatoes are the most common veggies – add some oil and salt, sometimes parsley and/or lettuce, and you have Arabic salad. Pudding and sweets are very popular here, and mostly good.

Breakfast has been hard to find – in local restaurants it consists of fuul (mashed fava beans, I think), falafel (balls made of mashed chick peas), bread, boiled egg, cheese, (olives in Syria), etc. Getting fried eggs has been an adventure; they were easier to find in Egypt, which is expected due to the much higher number of tourists. Crepes seem to be showing up on the menu a little more as we move north. We’ve gone to high-end hotels a couple of times for the breakfast buffet, which was very well worth it – everything you can think of except bacon/ham.
Juice stands are very common – fresh fruit is cheap, as is the juice. It was more expensive (relative to other things) in Jordan, but as mentioned, their pricing seemed more random – we had taxi rides cheaper than a fresh juice in Amman. Falafel and shwarma (donair) are the cheap and fast food staples, as is kebab – shish (lamb), meat (beef?), or chicken. Getting dairy has been challenging. We don’t like plain yogurt (and I think I may have gotten food poisoning from it Palmyra, as despite not liking it, I’ve been trying to eat it with jam anyway); we’ve been getting small amounts of cheese (it’s quite readily available, it’s just mostly in the form of soft cheese and is strong for our tastes); we’ve had ice cream a few times (something that they do very well in the region) – banana splits and milkshakes seem quite popular.

We saw a lot of Canada Dry in Damascus, including a fruit blend that we’ve not seen before – anyone know if this is actually available in Canada? It’s odd that Damascus was the first place we saw Canada Dry, seeing as the tout response to our nationality in Egypt was “Canada Dry, Never Die!” (after hearing that several times a day, it got REALLY annoying).

Bathrooms: showers are little square stalls, generally in the middle of the room, or right near the toilet, and without curtain, so the whole bathroom gets quite soaked. It makes for a slippery and dangerous floor (I’ve only had one tumble so far, but I’ve been discovering that I’m mnore clutzy than I realized). Also the squat toilets – we’ve been pretty lucky to avoid them for the most part, the hotels all have western toilets, as do most of the tourist sites, but we’ve encountered the squatters a few times. I still don’t know how a woman is supposed to use them without making a mess; and there is no paper provided (though there is usually a rubbish bin thankfully, so we’ve been carrying our own) – the norm here is to use the bucket of water or hose provided – I’m not convinced that it’s supposed to be cleaner, more convenient or more comfortable. We’ve also noticed, at least in Jordan and Egypt, that the toilets in the hotels rarely worked properly – we often had to fiddle with taps, and turn off the taps so the tank wouldn’t overflow, or it took half an hour for it to fill properly… there was consistently bad plumbing. There’s been considerable improvement with this in Syria, but also an increase in signs advising not to flush the paper.

Squeegees: due to always-wet bathrooms and the seeming need to wash everything by throwing water on it, every home, hotel and business has a broom-sized squeegee. If there’s a mess, just throw water on it and squeegee it to the drain or the street. They also throw water on the sidewalks and streets a lot. Not sure why. Every hotel we’ve had in Syria has also provided us with squeegees in the bathrooms, which we did not have in Egypt or Jordan (seemed restricited to housekeeping there). It does help keep the bathroom clean and not as dangerous. They also actually use toilet paper holders here – holders were available in Egypt and Jordan, but rarely, if ever, used. We think they were too lazy to keep changing the rolls.

Barber shops: just like in movies set in the 50’s and 60’s, where it seems that mes used to hang out and gossip in the local barber shop, there apears to be an abundance of them here. In Amman, we saw several ‘Saloons for Men’ – we think they meant salons. Since bars aren’t common here, it seems that sheesha/narguileh (water pipe) cafes and barbershops are the local hangouts and gossip joints.

We’ve been offered food and samples a few times, but we don’t feel right accepting, especially if we’re just looking (most stores at home don’t appreciate smapling), but they really don’t take no for an answer (in any language!). Neil always refuses as he has a nut allergy, but I’ve accepted a couple of times, to be polite. In a couple of instances we’ve been offered part of someone’s lunch, and we’ve been shared a candy bar. I think it’s just the nature here that people share, and are generous.

We’ve been asked about what touts sell (the touts were really the worst in Egypt – many more of them, and very very pushy). The wares have varied by location – the mainstays have been stuffed toys, little carved boxes and animals, postcards, film, pop/water (which is actually of value), t-shirts and hats, etc.
In Egypt the touristy items were things like stone/glass pyramids, stone scarab beetles, papyrus sheets/calendars/bookmarks, galabyas (long dress-type clothes worn by men and women), stereotypical Arab headscarves (think Lawrence of Arabia or Yasser Arafat, not to be confused with Seikh turbans)… and tacky tassle-covered belly-dancing outfits.
In Jordan, stuffed and carved camels were quite popular (I did buy a stuffed camel as I was upset at having lost my elephant), as were coin purses and handbags; Madaba is well-known for it’s mosaics, so in that region there were many mosaic items for sale; the other big thing in Jordan were glass jars full of coloured sand, with desert landscapes and usually a camel pictured in them. They are quite lovely, but not very practical for us as we still have several months on the road. Magnets and stickers have also been pretty common. At Petra, there was a lot of jewelry for sale – some single strands of beads, some silver ann turquiose – the turquoise jewelry looked a lot like what grandma and grandpa brought back from Mexico – in fact we’ve seen similar things in the museums that are several thousand years old.

Many of the items at the tourist sites (jewelry, t-shirts, carved boxes and animals – the hollow animals with the lattice-style backs – I think mom has a frog like this) are typical of tourist sites around the world.

One thing I did think about one day as we were in a gift shop, is that I haven’t seen little silver spoons like grandma used to collect. I now understand the appeal of them, as they are small and very easy to carry, and they are easy to display and make neat and unique conversation pieces. We’ve also seen packaged postal stamps (like the packages you can get at Canada Post or coin shops for collecting), something I can see that grandpa may have at one time been interested in. If I thought I might ever take up the stamp collection again, I might have indulged, but I have a funny feeling that might be one of those things to just take up space in another box. The idea is neat though, and is different.

So! That’s a whole lot of observations over the past couple of months. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few things now (the original post that I had typed somehow got lost in cyberspace) 🙁 but, should I think of anything else, I will try to make notes for next time. If I’ve missed anything, or anyone wants to know more about something, send an email or write a comment, I’d be more than happy to reply!

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