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Trip 19 -- Middle East

Part 3: Amman to you, Dubai
14 September 2017

Jordan is the only country on this trip for which I needed a visa; Qatar did away with the requirement for U.S. citizens just before I traveled. Fortunately, one can purchase a visa at the Amman airport on arrival. Unfortunately, it must be paid for in Jordanian currency.

For years the simple scam was to provide, just before the immigration desks, an ATM and an exchange counter, both of which offered horrible rates. The government wanted in on the action, too, so they now take credit cards -- but only with an all-but-forced acceptance of that insidious and worldwide-spreading scam known as dynamic currency conversion. A DCC transaction means a charge in the card's native currency rather than the local currency, with a markup on the exchange rate in favor of the merchant.

So I would have been happy to pay 40 Jordanian dinars for my visa, but instead the officer presented a slip showing a charge of $59.86, about $3 higher than it should have been. He never let me see the charge terminal, on which I should have had an option to accept or decline DCC. In fact, he never even had me sign the charge slip, which should make my dispute with my credit-card issuer easier. And of course they don't take American Express, which doesn't allow DCC.

So here's today's lesson: First, make sure your credit card doesn't have fees for transactions in foreign currency, but even if it does, DCC is still almost always the wrong choice. Second, always insist on being billed in the currency of where you're traveling. If you aren't, dispute it on the spot, or do so with your bank when you get home. I'll do this even for a difference of a nickel. This DCC thing has got to stop.

I thought Royal Jordanian Airlines was going to provide a hotel room near the airport, since I arrived in Amman in the morning and wouldn't leave for Dubai until the following morning, but when I inquired at the transit desk I was told that Beirut-Amman-Dubai is too short a journey to qualify. I took this as a sign that I should spend more time in town, so I got on the bus to the city and booked at the Panda Hotel Apartments, near the bus stop on the outskirts of the city. The room was beautiful, large, and comfortable, and it even had a washing machine, which seemed to be stuck mid-cycle and displayed such a bright digital readout that I had to cover it when I went to sleep. I was in the middle of a posh neighborhood, with malls and designer shops and supermarkets.

I took a minibus to the city center; the ride ended near the Jordan Museum and City Hall, where I hoped to see an exhibit called View Amman, describing the city's growth and architecture. The posted hours indicated that it should have been open, but all I got was a glimpse through a locked door.

Instead, I prepared to head uphill, which is pretty much unavoidable in Amman. I was amazed at how steep the streets were. The busy road near the minibus terminal was a congested market area. From there, narrow staircases headed upward, snugly and haphazardly nestled in at whatever angles the slope could accommodate. To get a map of central Amman you throw a bunch of cooked spaghetti in the air and see where it lands. It will all be curved, some strands more so than others, and some of it will land upon itself. There is no going straight.

I said to myself, "I'm going to climb that?" and then heaved myself up to the renowned Hashem restaurant for a lunch of falafel, beans, and hummus. The fuul (mashed fava beans) and the hummus were plenty tasty but drenched in enough oil to lubricate Amman's entire minibus fleet. The falafel may have been a bit dry but made up for it in flavor, and the plate of normal-size falafel balls was augmented with a couple of "super-falafels" -- giant stuffed specimens containing onions and sumac.

There was still some distance to ascend before I reached the citadel, but a cup of sugarcane juice mitigated the heat. Like Byblos and Tyre in Lebanon, Amman's citadel has been occupied by various groups since Neolithic times, including the Romans and Byzantines (during which time the city was known as Philadelphia), Umayyads, and Ottomans. Unlike in Byblos, where new buildings were built alongside old, in Amman structures were simply repurposed. For instance, the second-century Roman temple of Hercules was turned into a watchtower by the Sunni Ayyubids a thousand years later.

The citadel provided glorious views all over Amman. Below were the Roman amphitheatre and Odeon theatre, both still in use. The monotony of the city was mesmerizing. The several hills around me were crammed with buildings all nearly the same shade of beige, and all had the same boxy right angles. Few structures, such as the occasional mosque, tree, or giant flagpole, gave relief to the sameness.

The late-afternoon call to prayer caught me off guard. I had been in a museum within the citadel complex, but I ran out toward the edge when I heard the projection from the first minaret. It was chillingly beautiful: A long, sustained note with elegant vibrato gave way to a beckoning, yearning chant. And this melody spread slowly across all the mosques of Amman, like a breeze that rustles the trees of a forest from end to end. They played the same music a few seconds apart, not quite in a round, not quite in counterpoint, but building a delightful symphony of complex chords. For a few minutes, all of Amman seemed to be frozen, caught in this trance.

And then the music stopped, and Amman's soundtrack reverted to birdsong and car horns.

I finished up at the citadel and headed over to Rainbow Street, a short cobblestone road with trendy restaurants and a few old-school falafel shops. I went up the elevator of the Cantaloupe restaurant to watch the sunset. In the last few minutes of daylight, Amman's thousands of same-colored buildings all suddenly turned bright pink. Then the sun disappeared and it was back to beige. There was another city-wide call to prayer, followed by Sinatra singing "New York, New York" on the restaurant's stereo system.

I wasn't hungry for a big dinner or thirsty for cocktails, so I walked the hour or so back to my hotel, stopping only for sandwiches at Al Quds and Reem, respectively perhaps Amman's best-known falafel and shawarma shops, and some fresh berry juice and people-watching at the Avenue Mall.

I stayed so far out from the center because it was on the airport-bus route, but sources gave me different timings of the first bus, which would reach my stop about 15 minutes after leaving its origin. The bus counter at the airport said 6:00 a.m., the bus company's Web site said 6:30, and the bus driver who had taken me into town had said either 6:15 or 6:50; I couldn't quite tell. The differences were meaningful as I was dealing with an 8:00 flight to Dubai. I figured I'd get there a little after six, and if no bus came by 6:45, I could always take one of the numerous taxis that plied the airport road and were constantly vying for my business.

I didn't have to wait long -- not for a bus but for a driver who was on his way to the airport to do an Uber pickup. There was no mistaking the reason I was standing by the airport road, and after passing me, the driver reversed and offered to take me for five dinars, not much more than the bus fare itself. I climbed in and he offered his phone number in case I ever need a driver on future trips. He was friendly, and he was also perhaps the only driver on this trip who didn't use his phone while in moving traffic, so I may well give him a call after all.

I entered the airport only to find that my flight was delayed an hour. But they upgraded me to business class, so I can't complain. It was about three hours to Dubai, on a bright and clear day, as all days are in summer in that part of the world. I don't think I saw more than a faint wisp of cloud on the entire trip. We flew over Saudi Arabia and then I began to see some of the telltale signs of Emirati infrastructure -- not Dubai's wild buildings, but rather the perfectly circular roundabouts and arrow-straight roads, seemingly designed by a student afraid of receiving a failing grade for any irregularities. They soothed me the way a gleaming building with precise right angles might calm an architect or a finely tuned violin might please a musician: simple math doing its part in functional beauty. They were quite a difference from the snaky mess that was Amman, but in Dubai there were no hills to build around.

I was lost in the view and paying no attention to the captain's arrival announcement until I happened to hear, "And the outside temperature is forty degrees centigrade." I had left the relatively temperate climate of the Mediterranean Middle East and was now back in the oppressive heat of the eastern Arabian peninsula.

It was Friday, and I'd planned to have one of Dubai's overindulgent brunches, but I just wasn't hungry enough. I checked into the Crowne Plaza on Sheikh Zayed Road, a 12-lane highway near Dubai's World Trade Centre. That area is my usual home base in Dubai because there are a lot of hotels, bars, and restaurants, some open around the clock. When I first came to Dubai, in 2008, there was no way to cross the highway, and I had to plan my nights based on which side I wanted to stay on. But now the metro runs along it, and where there are stations there are also crossovers.

My window looked out toward the sea, less than two miles away, but because of Dubai's constant haze I couldn't see it. Mostly what I could see was the giant construction site behind the hotel, ready as all open plots of land in the city to receive another sparkling new residential tower, office building, or hotel.

I couldn't see the sea, but the hotel's free shuttle was about to head there. And so I spent the afternoon on Kite Beach, swimming in the salty, shower-temperature water. The beach was crowded with families, and casual eateries abounded. A boardwalk doubled as a helpfully bouncy running track. Signs reminded people to be respectful of Dubai's conservative attire and to avoid leaving the area in beachwear.

After walking along the boardwalk for a bit I boarded a bus for the Dubai Marina, another bustling district of hotels and restaurants, but much farther out. I headed up to the rooftop bar of the Hilton to view the fireworks that would be part of the celebration of Eid ul-Adha, the Muslim commemoration of the binding of Isaac. I sipped an Asia-inspired cocktail and looked down at the main marina road, which was snarled with standstill traffic. Straddling the road on an overpass was the pool of the Mövenpick hotel. I talked with a British couple who had lived in Dubai for almost a decade, work having brought them there. They loved it, but they were planning to retire and would probably go back to Britain or elsewhere.

The fireworks were impressive but quick, five minutes of blasts in triplicate over the Persian Gulf. I took the elevator down and, moving much faster than the traffic, made my way to the metro station at Jumeirah Lakes Towers. A large crowd was entering the system at the time, and in my effort to keep up I neglected to make sure my electronic fare card's check-in was registered at the turnstile. As a result, I had to pay a $1.50 penalty in order to exit at Emirates Towers, near my hotel. I felt the mental sting for a moment until I remembered that I had gotten an extra day's use of a day pass in Doha, since the driver of the airport bus had sold me a 24-hour unlimited-ride card but never activated it. So the Middle East had kept me near-even as far as short-distance public transportation was concerned.

To celebrate Eid ul-Adha the next day, I booked dinner at the Al Hadheerah restaurant in the Bab Al Shams resort. This was way into the desert, but I saw that I could get there by riding the number 67 bus for an hour and a half and then walking for twenty-six minutes. It would get me there just before the dinner event started, and the last bus would leave a half-hour after dinner ended. The timing was so convenient it was practically begging me to make the trip.

And what exciting things I'd see on the way! I drooled as I looked at the list of stops the bus would pass. I could pick up some livestock at Jazira Poultry Farm or Marmoom Dairy Farm or even make a purchase at Lusaili Camel Market (or the relatively tamer Dubai Outlet Mall). Or take a ride at Nakheel Stables. Maybe I could learn something when we stopped at Academic City or do some specialized studies at the following stop, International Center for Biosaline Agriculture. (There can't be more than one!) A few stations were decidedly less enticing, such as "Eppco, Muntazah Petrol Station" and "Al Ain Road, Ahazij Underpass." One stop was called Dubai Virtual Reference Station and I have no idea what that could mean. Was it not really there?

The ride, of course, didn't quite live up to the expectations promised by the stop names. There was a small caravan of camels, but they weren't anywhere near the market. The bus mainly followed a highway and let people off some distance away from the buildings they needed, leaving them to walk through the heat to their destinations. Most people got off at the Dubai Outlet Mall and there seemed to be no way to cross the highway so that they could get back on the bus on the opposite side.

I alighted at the next-to-last stop, an ominous-sounding place called Endurance City. There was a roundabout, beyond which a road led through the bushy sands to Bab Al Shams and then onward toward Abu Dhabi. I listened to a refreshing cacophony of birds as I walked down the road, and just as the sun set I turned off toward the resort, surprising the gatekeeper. Perhaps I was the first person ever to arrive without a car.

The winding access road had lanterns on both sides, some of which spewed out soothing Arabian music. Before dinner I had a few minutes to check out the grounds, which included a pool and a shisha lounge. To my surprise, the place served alcohol.

Al Hadheerah was at the end of the access road, and to reach its entrance I had to walk through a few souvenir stalls. A receptionist verified my reservation and the fact that I would not need a taxi after the meal, and an attendant introduced me to the giant buffet and to my seat in the following room.

The seating room had a tented roof and was air-conditioned. The buffet was in the open air and noticeably warmer. The food offerings were from all over the Middle East: Moroccan, Jordanian, Emirati, and Iranian, to name a few. A couple of notable Persian dishes I hadn't tried were the lamb harees, a mashed wheat dish with stringy lamb, and the salona, a stew with hearty vegetables such as zucchini, potatoes, and carrots. There was also a makmour ouzi, a giant pot filled with braised lamb and spiced rice. At the grill station, the chef made me one of the best steaks I'd ever had. The best dessert was a kind of pudding made with saffron and carrot. Some of the presentation was a bit gimmicky, such as the chute that delivered boiled crabs. I couldn't possibly sample everything, but it's hard to find Emirati food and I was glad for the opportunity to try it.

There was entertainment, including musicians, singers, and a belly dancer. The best performance was from a man in a large hoop skirt that somehow separated horizontally into two parts as he danced, the upper part of the skirt lifting off and rising above his head. There were also a display of camels, a horse caravan, and a herd of goats, each running around and loosely telling the story of two warring tribes. This show was on a sand ledge outside the restaurant and visible through the window, but the window had an etched pattern on it, which made viewing a bit awkward. In a back room was a museum with dioramas of life from a century or two ago, and in which I got to hold the resident falcon. So this is where all that livestock was that I didn't see on the bus.

After this repast, I was glad for the lengthy walk back to the roundabout. The bus came about 20 minutes late, and for the first half hour of the trip I was the only passenger. A crowd embarked at the Dubai Outlet Mall, so I guess there must be a way to reach the return stop once you're done shopping.

I finished the night at Cin Cin, which I remembered being more of a wine bar in the Fairmont hotel, but it was really a full-service cocktail bar, still beautiful and lively, if a bit loud with music. I also didn't remember the abundance of prostitutes. Mine would be Iranian. I ordered a negroni and took the only free seat at the bar, the one to my right unoccupied but clearly in use with a full drink of pink champagne on the counter. She came back and asked how my evening was going; she was in her early twenties and split her time between Dubai and Tehran. I asked where else would be fun to go, and she recommended bars in the JW Marquis hotel.

She asked, "So what are your plans for the rest of the night?" I said I would probably go to sleep soon, and she lost interest in me and resumed shaking her foot gently but ever so slightly impatiently, sometimes looking around and making eye contact with the other prostitutes. I stopped at one negroni.

On my last day in Dubai I headed up toward the creek, wandered through the narrow streets around Dubai's original settlement, walked through the spice market (the first place I ever had a Chocodate), and had lunch at a nondescript Indian restaurant in the gold market. Usually I walk this area for miles, trying to find an unlimited thali, where they keep refilling your tins with spicy vegetarian goodies until you beg them to stop. This time I wasn't hungry enough for that, so of course it's what I found in the first restaurant I approached.

I stocked up on Chocodates at the nearby Carrefour supermarket and threw in a couple of casual T-shirts because I needed some, they were cheap, and they'd remind me of my trip. Then I took the metro over to the Etihad Travel Mall and boarded the bus to the Abu Dhabi airport.

The flight home, of course, was the foundation of this trip: a seat in Etihad's first-class "apartment" that cost me $47.76 and 105,000 American Airlines miles. To begin the experience, I planned for a few hours in the airport at Etihad's first-class lounge, where I was invited to book a complimentary 15-minute spa treatment. (I tried to go for a haircut, but the receptionist thought my mad-pianist hair wouldn't be conducive to their quick-cut procedure.)

There were very few people in the lounge. I took a seat on a recliner in the relaxation room and had a cocktail and a snack of seared scallops with potato emulsion. There were just seven or eight recliners, all facing a giant screen showing moving light patterns evocative of a 1990s screen saver.

I had a full dinner in the dining room. I started with a plate of hummus, vine leaves, and falafel, presented with the same geometric precision as Dubai's roads. Then I moved on to beetroot ravioli and beef loin with baby shallots. More people started coming in, including a noisy family with children playing music out of their phones. Another diner and I exchanged glances and he had the waiter attempt to get them to turn it down. When that didn't work, I looked over and made a knob-turning motion. They lowered the volume somewhat, but I could still hear canned kids' music that was at odds with the serenity of the place. I went over and said, "I'm sorry, but this is a nice restaurant. Could you please turn off the music?" And they did, quite politely.

And then adults at the two tables behind me started watching videos on their phones. I gave them nasty stares, but by then I was done with dinner and it was time for my massage. I think I'm just going to carry around a bunch of cheap headphones and give them out to people who think playing any kind of sound out of a personal electronic device is appropriate.

My masseur rang a soothing Buddhist-style bell three times, and then he worked on my upper back, shoulders, arms, and hands for fifteen minutes. I'm not usually one for massages, but I appreciated the attention after walking around in the heat all day. He rang the bell again and we parted.

In my last half-hour, I visited the cigar room. I'd never had a cigar before, but somehow the first-class lounge in Abu Dhabi seemed the place to try one. They had three complimentary options and the rest were for a cost; I tried one of the former, an Arturo Fuente described as having a mild to medium flavor and notes of caramel. I paired it with an 18-year-old Glenlivet.

No one else was in the cigar room, which contained a small library with disassociated titles such as "London's Royal Parks," "The Way We Live," and "Reza War and Peace." The attendant had to relight the cigar a couple of times, but otherwise I had the place to myself, and I settled into an easy chair for a half-hour of calculated relaxation. The cigar did have the promised mild, slightly sweet taste, not at all overpowering, and it put me into a state of thoughtful content.

Abu Dhabi is one of the few airports with USA preclearance, which meant I had to leave the lounge 90 minutes before my 3:35 a.m. flight to clear immigration and customs. I declared my Chocodates but the officer wasn't interested. Getting through didn't take long, so I had some time in the considerably smaller and more-bustling preclearance lounge, where I refreshed with mint lemonade.

We boarded, and I took seat 4K on the Airbus A380. Each suite has a separate chair and bed, but the staggered layout of the cabin means that only 4A and 4K have forward-facing seats next to the window. There was a surprising dearth of storage space; the only spot was under the bed, and I had to squeeze my backpack underneath and move the bedding to a side closet. A sliding door provided some privacy, but the door didn't reach the ceiling.

In New York I regularly work on music with a 14-year-old who has read up on the Etihad apartments more than I have. "Be sure to book your shower right when you get on the plane," he had advised me.

An attendant came around and offered shower times; a few were already taken, but I got one I wanted, 90 minutes before we landed. Then the chef asked what I wanted for dinner. I looked at the two menus -- one for food, one for drinks -- and chose the Arabic mezze and the lamb loin with orange sauce, potatoes, carrots, and shallots. Of course, I wasn't hungry as I'd been eating in the lounge. No problem; all the food was cooked on demand.

They made up the bed. I slept for about seven hours and then had my main meal. I watched "The Hangover," "Barakah Meets Barakah" (a Saudi romantic comedy), and "Snatched." (I also watched "Taken" on a plane years ago. Apparently I gravitate toward kidnapping stories while airborne.)

They told me when it was time for my shower. I had five minutes of running water, but I could spend 30 in the bathroom. I could turn the water on and off, so I didn't have to run all five minutes nonstop. A graphic display told me how much time remained. The pressure was excellent and the water warm; my only complaint is with Etihad's shaving kit, which left me with a nick that still showed a week later.

I could have had breakfast, but I preferred to have them grill me "The Etihad Steak Sandwich," with red-onion jam. And I had to try the honey walnut cake, which the chef specifically recommended. I washed them down with a final mint lemonade and a glass of port.

We were about to touch down, but air-traffic control had us go around again. We were running early anyway, and I didn't mind stretching out this luxurious and spacious ride as long as possible.

It was Labor Day, and I arrived relaxed and ready to enjoy New York's weather, which was mercifully much cooler than Dubai's. But I'm sure in February I'll be pining for the heat.