Saturday, April 29, 2017

Finding Deals for International Road Trips

There’s something incredibly liberating about driving around a foreign country with your bags tucked in the trunk, radio blasting some unfamiliar tunes, and snacks right beside you. You have the freedom to make your own itinerary. You can stop at roadside stands to buy fresh fruit. If you see a destination  on a roundabout sign, you can follow it freely.  Once you’ve done this, a commercial tour with a rigid itinerary just won’t do. It does take a bit of courage though, and a device to help you find your way like an iPhone with a data plan or a GPS with local maps downloaded. My usual takeaway from a road trip is that I feel accomplished, having gone out of my comfort zone a bit more. Every trip brings something new- roadsigns in a foreign language, police checkpoints, tolls to be paid, and interesting vehicles like the truck we saw carrying an enormous load of hay.

Last summer, we took a month long road trip around Morocco, which I wrote about in a book coming out in June, called Journey to Fez.  We found our vehicle, a tan Citroen Berlingo using Groupon Coupon before we left the US, and picked it up at an office in Marrakesh. We drove more than 1000 miles, through dusty rural roads shared with donkey carts, and also on the modern tollways through mountains. It was an adventure, to be sure. My husband who has never had a speeding ticket in his life, got two during this trip. It was impossible to avoid them. Police were everywhere. 
Police held speed guns along the street

Our car for the month
For anyone planning a trip, you’ll find that Groupon is the first place to go when searching for bargains.  You might be familiar with city tours or restaurant deals, but with Groupon Coupon, you can search companies that advertise through them, click on links for whatever you need, and save a bundle.  In this case, we used Sixt, a company we’ve used several times abroad in Zagreb, Santorini, and most recently Dubai.  It’s our go-to company because of price, service, and quality of vehicles. In every case, we got a car that was nearly brand new for much cheaper than we would have paid in the US, and the price was in US dollars, payable by credit card.

Using Groupon Coupon is easy, no matter what you’re seeking. You can find hotels, electronics, clothing stores, and much more. Just look for the coupons tab at Groupon.  You don’t actually need to copy a code or print anything. Just click on the coupon and it should take you to the deal at their website.  Easy peasy. So where would you like to drive this summer? A road trip adventure awaits you!

This post contains sponsored links from Groupon.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Jerusalem- So Much More Than I Expected

Jerusalem has holy sites and much more

During a visit I made to Jerusalem in March, I was treated to history and a lot more by iTravelJerusalem and other local sponsors.  The event was a Travel Blog Exchange conference and it was four action-packed days of speakers, tours, and special events. Naturally we made our way through the ancient, walled city to see holy sites, like the Western Wall, often called the Wailing Wall where Jews pray and fold up notes to be placed in cracks along the wall. But there were many surprises too.

Jerusalem is full of artwork.  From the murals at a renovated marketplace to the modern graffiti by local street artists, you will find a variety of beautiful paintings.

A portion of a larger mural at Cardo, a collonaded area
More of the Cardo, which is being renovated

Local artist Dan Groover creates a piece before our eyes

 Food stands and a fashion show by some of the city's top designers was held at a place called The First Station. They turned an old station for train travel between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem into an outdoor mall. If fashion is your thing, you might review some of the articles in TimeOut about fashion and where to find it. Eclectic, modern, beautiful, elegant. So many words to describe the gowns coming from this region.
Look at the evening designs by Persy
And talking about shopping...the city is full of shops with everything from tourist goodies to high quality gold and clothing. Spend a morning walking through the various quarters of the city to enjoy the markets.  Then walk along some of the city streets for pedestrians only.  More on top shopping destinations to get you started.  Walk slow enough that you can look at windows.  Sometimes you'll find hidden bargains.  You will undoubtedly see street performers too.

The Market in the Muslim Quarter

You can buy all kinds of food at Machane Yehuda. Eat as you go.
Carry coins to tip the musicians who will gladly play for you

Even a ventriloquist for all ages

Stop at a cafe for coffee thick enough to eat with a spoon
The highlight of the week was a music festival held on city streets and parks, and then an outdoor light and sound show at the Tower of David, called the Night Spectacular. Jerusalem is a city of festivals.  Who knew that it could be so hip and fun? I really enjoyed every facet of the outdoor night time experiences.

Projections on the wall tell the story

Ths Tower of David at night is quite beautiful and a great place for a city view
It was easy to get around during my stay. With buses, a light rail, and plenty of walkable spaces I found everything. People were eager to help tourists with questions and everyone spoke English. I used Googlemaps for instructions on what bus line to take and where to walk. Taxis were plentiful but quite expensive.  A trip just a few miles in length cost more than a shared van from the Tel Aviv airport.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Dead Sea Spa Experience

Nothing like a little mud between friends
Covering my entire body in mud wasn't what I had envisioned when someone suggested I go to Jordan, but it turned out to be an interesting experience. I bought a 40 dinar day pass to Dead Sea Spa Hotel, which allows you a lunch buffet and use of the pools, showers, lockers, etc.

It's easy enough to get on a tour to the Dead Sea from Amman, but I had a private driver.  Taxis are harder to find going back to Amman, and therefore could be pricier than a taxi bringing you there.  Be sure to check around for the best deal. My driver stayed at the hotel while I played, so I knew how I was getting back to Amman.

When the hotel was built, it was originally on the beach. Because the salty sea is drying up, the beach is now quite a hike, so it's a good idea to wear shoes with your bathing suit. Better yet, wear water shoes so you can just go into the sea and not feel the rocks and mud under your toes.
This was where the sea level was in 2000

The current beach- full of sharp rocks
There was a large bucket full of mud and a hose at the beach. You could find a buddy and help each other cover up, or do it yourself. The idea is to cover up and let it dry. Then you walk into the sea, fall backwards and float yourself clean again. Dead Sea mud, filled with minerals like magnesium, calcium, and iron, is well-known for its therapeutic and beauty effects. It can even help with joint pain, arthritis, and skin conditions like eczema.  I had this experience two days after hiking at Petra, so it was perfect timing.  Soaking in the water felt great and actually left me feeling much better.

It helps to have a buddy willing to get messy

You really don't want to get the sea water in your eyes because it burns, so there was that hose to clean your face.  Basically it's like self inflicted waterboarding. Turn on the hose and spray the cold water at your face.

After floating for awhile, I walked back up to the pool area and did some swimming. It was only about 55 degrees, and the pools weren't very warm, but it was refreshing.  The sea felt warmer somehow, though you can't swim. It's almost impossible.  You just float. Even putting your feet on the bottom can be challenging.
Floating is easy in the sea
There are many, many places where you can buy the mud and bring it home with you.  Find one of the mega-gift shops along the main road and ask. Or just look for this enormous billboard.  The Asian tourists were all taking selfies.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Rainbow Street in Amman

I spent only one night at Amman, and it was at a budget family-owned hotel, called Antika. There are plenty of chains in the city, but I prefer to get a taste of the local culture when I travel alone and don't have to be concerned about the size of the swimming pool for my son, Omar.  This hotel was recommended by a local, and it was perfect for me.  A large room with two double beds, TV, street view, and private shower, including breakfast was less than $50.  It was also a great location, though a bit noisy being right in the city center.  Just a block away was the start of well known Rainbow Street.  Probably more used by tourists these days, it has been a hang-out for locals too.

The weather was sunny in late afternoon, so I took a stroll up the street for several blocks, talking to tourists and locals alike.  There are cafes where you can sip coffee and enjoy shisha. You'll find musicians, locals playing checkers, people-watching, and lots of shops. Here's a photo essay about what I saw.  Take a walk there if you get to Amman.
Rainbow Street starts at one of the main roundabout

Apparently pokemon is played here too

A little graffiti art

The place to go for traditional foods

Yumm! Ice cream cones and crepes here.

Authentic brick oven pizzas- buy by the slice

Traditional Jordanian crafts and clothing

In case you didn't buy a few scarves during your stay

The chefs taking a back door break

Sit at the cafe and listen to a musician

Sweets galore- the cookies were tasty

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Overnight in a Bedouin Camp at Wadi Rum

Mahmoud, one of our hosts
Even the words, "Bedouin desert camp" sounded so mysterious and magical, that this was something I really wanted to try while in Jordan. It was an opportunity to sleep under the stars where the Arabs had united against the Ottoman Turks of yesteryear, as shown in the movie Lawrence of Arabia, one of the few American films about the Arabs considered historically relevant and correct enough that a copy was placed in the Library of Congress.  It's a good movie even if you don't have immediate plans to visit Jordan, though it might inspire travel as it did for me.

My driver recommended I overnight at  Hasan Zawaideh Camp,  a relatively new desert experience at Wadi Rum, where the prices are incredibly affordable.  I call it an experience rather than just lodging, because guests are somewhat isolated at these camps. Meals and entertainment are often included. This one includes breakfast and dinner.

We arrived in late afternoon to small glasses of hot tea in a communal tent, where we could sit on Arab sofas or pillows. My driver greeted, and then introduced me to, one of the brothers who run the camp, Mahmoud. Dressed in a long blue robe and a traditional headscarf called a keffiyeh, it was no surprise that he too bore a striking resemblance to Johnny Depp, just as I had seen at Petra. The male greeting ritual was charming among the two friends. There was hugging and many kisses on the cheeks. Then they called each other "habibi," the equivalent of "bro" or "my dear friend." The shisha, a waterpipe, was brought out and filled with apple tobacco and charcoal, and the men smoked together. Of course, they asked me to join, but I declined.  I had tried it the day before and decided it wasn't really something I enjoyed.
What a view!
Hot spiced tea served in a small glass
About an hour before sunset, one of the young Bedouin men working at the camp took us out in a pick-up truck that had less than 300 miles on the odometer. I enjoyed the ride but felt like crying at how the truck was going to be torn up in no time with this kind of driving. He took us to a few significant places nearby: hieroglyphics on a rock, a sandy hill to climb, rock carvings, and some view points. Each time we got out and walked a bit, filling my shoes with sand.
What a way to break in a new truck

You could climb the sand dune or with the right equipment ride a board down it

A young man with a small herd of saddled camels came by to ask if I wanted a ride. I politely declined, thinking that one camel ride in a day was enough.  Earlier on this day at Petra, I had already been on a horse, donkey, and camel.  That must certainly be a personal record.
Camel rides were available

A few minutes before sunset, we climbed to the top of a high rock and watched the desert swallow the sun. It was magnificent.  Our Bedouin driver told us to buckle up, then took us back to the camp after a few quick jaunts over steep dunes, which left sand flying into the windshield as the truck rocked precariously.  It was somewhat reckless, not really necessary, and a whole lot of fun.
The view was nice from up here

My driver explained that dinner at the camp was sometimes an animal cooked in a pit, but because of heavy rains the previous day, the pit was filled with water.  We had chicken, rice, hummus, and a number of delicious salads instead.  It wasn't only delicious. The Bedouin chef had taken care to make a formal presentation of everything, using peppers and other vegetables to decorate the platters. A group of about 20 people from 7 different countries, we filled our plates and then sat on the Arab sofas with plates in hand, sharing travel stories.

After dinner, there was a bonfire, shisha for those who wanted to smoke, and music. The men danced shoulder to shoulder, and anyone who wanted to join in could. We sat around the fire for a couple hours as the stars appeared overhead.  Unfortunately, it was a cloudy night, so there weren't as many visible. It was still very nice.  The camp lights were turned down, and the rock face protecting the camp was lit up with lanterns, as was the pathway to the tents and bathrooms.
A campfire after dinner

There were maybe 15 tents in the complex, and I had one with had a king size bed, toilet, sink, and shower. All the tents had electricity. It was more like a hotel room because it had a locking door and real furniture, though it was difficult to keep anything clean with so much sand surrounding everything. The tents were quite close to each other, and I found myself awake for a while listening to distant conversations, and even someone snoring. Even though there was a heavy blanket, I was chilled at first.  It got quite cold at night, but warmed considerably during the day.

Inside my tent
When I awoke for breakfast, it was chilly enough to need a jacket. We ate a filling breakfast of yogurt, hummus, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, pita bread, and hot tea or coffee. Most people headed out quite soon after that.  It's not really the kind of place where you'd spend more than one day, though some did and planned tours to Aqaba or Petra for the day. Overall, it was a great adventure. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Exploring Petra

This is how I felt about reaching the treasury at Petra
Petra is possibly the most photographed site in Jordan. Most people would likely recognize the enormous carved stone treasury, featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I had seen photos, but I wanted to experience it first hand.

With the Jordan Pass, entry to Petra is included, along with 40 other sites. Remember to purchase the pass in advance of your visit. It is not available once you are in-country. You pay depending on how many days you want to visit Petra.  Originally, I thought I would want to go two days so I paid for the "Jordan Explorer." One day was plenty though, and quite frankly was so physically challenging that I'm not sure I would have enjoyed a second day anyway.

There are plenty of ways to see Petra, and it's always best to be there when the gates open or just after to have fewer people and cooler temperatures. I was there at 7:15 AM.  When you arrive at the parking lot, it's about a mile to get to the Treasury, which is the first major site. You can take a carriage, walk, or ride on horse. The horse is included in the entry fee, but if you're a larger person, it is discouraged you burden the animal. I hired a guide for 2 hours and it was 50 dinar. If you want a guide, just ask at the visitor center and they can hook you up. Be sure to find one that speaks your language so you can ask questions along the way about culture, lifestyle, food, etc. It's great to have one on one time with a local Bedouin, and you might be surprised at how much you will learn.

I hired a guide at the recommendation of my driver because I wanted to see as much as possible and get good photos in a short amount of time.  My driver knew him and so he arranged for him to meet me at the visitor center, and we walked. This was definitely worth it for me because he talked as we walked and he took me through some caves and to some viewpoints I would not have found on my own. It was nice to have a second set of hands to take photos as well. It's rare I get into my own photos, as I am not a huge fan of selfies.  He does this every day, so he knew where to go for the best view of the treasury.  He took photos using my iPhone while I used my camera. You might bring an iPhone portable charger if you plan to stay all day.  I downloaded one of the Petra apps on iTunes so I'd have a map, and used it after he left  to learn more about what I was seeing.  The paper maps from the visitor center are also good though, so I don't believe you need an app. I used mine more after the trip to remember what I had seen.
Photo ops with a camel at the treasury

The color of the stone in this cave was beautiful and unusual

I also brought a couple water bottles and some clif bars in my backpack because I'd been told there were really no places to eat and drink once inside Petra, but it wasn't true.  I would still bring water, but you can easily sit at a cafe near the treasury or at several other locations where you can have tea or juice.  I'd recommend the fresh squeezed pomegranate juice. It was delicious and made fresh in front of me.
You could have a fresh juice made before your eyes

If you want Bedouin-made souvenirs, I was told to purchase them at the shop across from the treasury because my guide said they help real people who live in the area.  Nothing was made in China here, according to him.  I found a beautiful necklace and the guide asked that it be polished so I picked it up on the way out of the park.  If you want something simple like scarves, they got cheaper as I walked further into the site.  What had been 12 dinar at the visitor center was 1 dinar on the steps to the monastery.  Bring cash and don't expect anyone to make change, because they might say they don't have it. And of course, feel free to barter on the prices. It's expected.
The Bedouin shopkeeper had something for everyone
Any scarf was just 1 dinar at the top

After the guide left me, I had planned to make my way to the monastery, though I really didn't know what to expect.  There are hundreds of stairs, which are uneven and rugged.  You really need sturdy shoes. I was asked by a Bedouin man who looked incredibly like Johnny Depp (and many Bedouins do) if I'd like to have a donkey ride, and I agreed.  We talked about a price, and agreed to 50 dinar, though at the end, he asked for more because we were together for nearly three hours, he offered lots of information about cave dwellings and Bedouin life, and I paid him 60.  I will say that it's important you agree on a price and stick to it. Also look at the animal to be sure it is well cared for.  It was a bit uncomfortable climbing up stairs on a donkey's back...but hey, I bet it was a lot more work for the donkey. Coming back down, you have to lead the donkey and walk until you're on even ground.
My Bedouin guide with his donkeys

At last! I reached the monastery...which isn't that different from the treasury 

I had agreed to meet my driver at 1 PM back near the visitor center, so though I did some walking from the treasury, I ended up taking the free horse ride for part of the way. I felt I had seen most of the highlights.  There are many more tourists who come only as far as the treasury and turn around. That would be a mistake, in my opinion.  Having seen the vistas, cave dwellings, and other rock formations from the highest points, I thought they were worth the extra walking.