Tag Archives: weather

Adventures of a Pilgrim: Mecca

The two predominant travellers to Saudi Arabia are expats and pilgrims and I fall into the latter category. Although there has been a slight growth in leisure tourism, religious tourism is a thriving industry, bringing in Continue reading

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Welcome to Jordan: Everyday Realities

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Welcome to Jordan

I had heard a lot of criticism about Amman as a city — that it is boring with nothing to do or see. In no way is this true — the city has plenty to offer! It may just take some effort to discover.

I moved here as part of my BA Arabic degree, which meant spending the entire academic year in a country I had never visited before. Having never travelled in the Middle East, this was rather an exciting prospect and, having come not as a tourist, but to stay (if only for a limited period), I wanted to know what the city was like to live in.

Having spent three months here so far, I have built up a list of observations that I found surprising, coming from a European background, which any visitor will notice sooner or later.

Blue skies and all day long sunshine over Amman's busy and often dangerous roads. Photo © Annabella Ahola

Blue skies and all day long sunshine over Amman’s busy and often dangerous roads. Photo © Annabella Ahola

Weather

While the assumption is that it is always hot in the Middle East, this is not entirely true. Admittedly, the heat in late August can be overwhelming — over 30 degrees and sunny all day long. But you get used to it very fast: soon 30 degrees feels like nothing. It gets to the point where you almost forget what a cloudy day looks like.

Come mid-September, everyone keenly awaits for the first signs of rain. “Look, clouds!” someone may shout, and everyone goes over to the window in eager anticipation. Jordan is 90% desert, and the climate is respectively a desert climate — scorching hot in the day, cold at night. Houses have little to no heating, and in November a common complaint is how cold it is — colder inside than out.

Amman is hilly, and there is a constant breeze — refreshing in summer, but in late Autumn, 18 degrees makes you think “winter is coming” (summer in Northern European terms!) There is a promise of ice and maybe even snow by January: sounds slippery considering the steepness of these hills.

City layout

The layout of the city (due to its fast growth) makes it very difficult to walk anywhere. Granted, there are a few areas where the pavements are decent enough to walk on, but for the most part, excursions on foot often mean dealing with cracked pavements that can be up to two feet high, and honking horns. Venturing from one area to another, the roads resemble motorways because of the amount of cars and lanes, and pedestrian crossings are virtually non-existent. Be prepared to walk a mile to encounter a bridge, or dare to run across the road fearing for your life.

Amidst the new builds in hilly Amman stands the remains of a Roman Amphitheater picture © Annabella Ahola

Amidst the new builds in hilly Amman stands the remains of a Roman Amphitheater. Photo © Annabella Ahola

Transportation

The above point means that taking a taxi anywhere is a common means of transport. Buses exist, but they are rare, and no one really seems to know their timetables and routes. The joke is that the bus is so fast you cannot even see it. There are also white servees taxis: a kind of shared minibus. With no designated route, they leave as they fill up with customers. Outside, men shout destinations at passersby, and you get on a bus heading in your direction, telling the driver where to drop you off. Sounds daunting, but it is very cheap — 35 qirsh* for a ride. A taxi across the city will cost you about 2 dinars. That said, taxis might not be easy to get, depending on how busy it is. A driver may even refuse to take you, and foreigners run the risk of getting ripped off. Hence one must always check to make sure the meter is running, or to agree on a price before boarding.

Money

Despite the preconceptions one might have about the Middle East, Jordan is not a cheap country to live in. The dinar is stronger than the pound, and the prices in supermarkets and Western-style malls are similar to those found in Europe. (This is why it is better to leave the malls for a special treat, and stick to local shops and produce.) Prices can vary significantly depending on where you are. A Turkish coffee from a corner shop could cost 35 qirsh, an American-style filter coffee, 2 dinars. In a nicer mall café, this could be 4 dinars including tax and service charge. That said, not all prices are fixed. A good rule of thumb is that if there is no price tag, the price is negotiable. This is particularly true for the souks, such as those in the older part of town. Traditionally, for Arabs, haggling is an art form, and agreeing to the price right away is somewhat disrespectful and makes you look like a fool.

Shopping

When it comes to the kind of produce on offer, Amman has a lot of variety. In the bigger malls and supermarkets, one finds a lot of the same brands and products as in Europe. No big culture shock there. However, when it comes to more specialised things, such as organic produce, or foods aimed at vegans or people with allergies (tofu, gluten free…) the struggle is real. If these are available, they are rare and difficult to find.

The Taj Mall in Amman, where the likes of Miss Selfridge and Burberry can be found. © Annabella Ahola

The Taj Mall in Amman, where the likes of Miss Selfridge and Burberry can be found. Picture © Annabella Ahola

“If you have specialist needs — like a particular brand of shampoo you like — bring a supply of it with you,” we were advised by our school. But with limited suitcase space, I think I am OK with my hair adjusting to something new, for now.

[*a qirsh is one hundredth of a dinar. 1 dinar is equivalent to £1.11 at time of publication].

Featured image © Anton Mukhametchin

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Different types of tourists: 1, 2 and 3

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Unravelling 'the tourist'

The term ‘tourist’ is far more complex than many of us are willing to admit. Characters in literature and film attempt to negotiate the difference between ‘tourist’ and ‘traveller’ in everything from Paul Bowles’ 1949 novel ‘The Sheltering Sky’ to 2014 film ‘The Inbetweener’s 2′ (albeit in very, very different ways). I realised recently that ‘tourist’ is increasingly becoming a derogatory term, and isn’t only used in this way by people with a misguided superiority complex. So, in this series I’m going to attempt to unravel ‘the tourist’, looking at who and what it means and why we might not be happy to identify as one.

The first thing I must mention is that if you recognise a sliver of yourself in any of the descriptions below and are mortally offended, I can only apologise now. Secondly, I’ll openly admit that I myself, have probably exhibited one or two of the behaviours I’ve listed. On other occasions, whilst in hindsight I know I actually behaved very well, I’ve worked myself up into an unnecessarily panicked state of paranoia in case others thought badly of me due to how I came across. The most important thing is simply to enjoy travelling, but if next time you go away and run out of ideas in a game of ‘I  Spy’ when in a public place, see how many of my ‘different types of tourist’ you can spot.

What's the point of travelling at all if you spend your time worrying what other people think, in a place where no one even knows your name? I've asked myself this so many times, but I think that comes from harbouring unpatriotic feelings towards where I'm from and wanting to appear at least a little ambiguous rather than 'obviously British'. (Photographer: k rupp; Flickr)

What’s the point of travelling at all if you spend your time worrying what other people think, in a place where no one even knows your name? I’ve asked myself this so many times, but sometimes I just can’t help it. (Photographer: k rupp; Flickr)

  1. The tourist who exhibits a curious combination of being ridiculously over-prepared and totally clueless, and usually has more money than sense

If you’re this kind of tourist, you might as well have ‘this is the first time I’ve ever travelled in my life’ tattooed on your face, because you will always appear as though you’ve just taken your first steps outside your hometown. This tourist is easily deceived and simple to spot, usually clad in very sensible shoes or sandals with thick socks, a hat and/or t-shirt that is clearly merchandise from a bar or theme park, beige or navy blue shorts that reach just below the knee and, more often than not, a very expensive anorak with lots of pockets. Likely to have pricey but comprehensive travel insurance, minimal self-awareness and a vacant expression.

These lost souls act as magnets for any opportunist looking to make some quick cash, and place too much trust in taxi drivers, street traders and other people who realise their ability to fleece them for all they’ve got. Cameras are kept hung around the neck, money belts are worn over the dreadful shorts and city guides and maps are partially tucked into pockets, slightly exposed for easy access when they will definitely be needed later on so as to keep to the strict itinerary of sightseeing. They are unlikely to leave their accommodation without sun cream, hand sanitiser, a spare pair of socks and an endless supply of tissues.

Dear Lord, why does this happen?! (Photographer: Tony Alter; Flickr)

Dear Lord, why does this happen?! (Photographer: Tony Alter; Flickr)

People like this do not intend to be irritating or offensive but invariably are due to their naivety. They will complain about the absence of something purely because they don’t understand that things are different to where they’re from and will obliviously offend locals by asking questions like ‘Is the tap water safe to drink in this restaurant?’

They get excited when they see the words ‘tourist menu’ as it means they are massively increasing their productivity: trying ‘all’ the local specialities at the same time (one more item to tick off the carefully constructed list of things to do). They do not deviate from the itinerary as this is not considered necessary, and can usually be found either on an open-top sightseeing bus, or queuing up for one.

Expect to see these tourists using the binoculars above to 'properly' take in the view. They will be the only ones queuing for such contraptions except petulant five-year-olds. (Photographer: Andy Arthur; Flickr)

These tourists also pay to use the above contraptions to ‘properly’ take in the view. They will be the only ones queuing except petulant five-year-olds and their tired parents. (Photographer: Andy Arthur; Flickr)

  1. The tourist who is ignorant of the fact that people actually live, work and generally exist in the place they’re visiting

Tourists in this category generally make an absolute nuisance and spectacle of themselves every time they go abroad and tend to be thoroughly loathed by everyone who encounters them — they are the very reason why ‘tourist’ is now often considered a dirty word. They are also the kind of people who clap and cheer when an aeroplane lands at its destination (no more needs to be said on this part, it’s too awful to think about). Continue reading

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Part 3: Sunshine and Sleep (That’s More Like It!)

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Hitting the Road... In Your Own Backyard

The upper-east coast of South Africa, between Mozambique’s border and someway past Durban, is often called ‘The Sunshine Coast’. Presumably, that name was thought up to sell package beach holidays to pasty tourists; yet, as Claire and I gratefully discover, it is apt. In contrast to the moody, unsettled landscape of inland Kwa-Zulu Natal, the coastline of this province is almost tropical. Think banana trees and sugarcane. Think balmy sea water. Think 25 degrees Celsius in winter. Having spent two weeks traipsing our way through some of the coldest parts of South Africa, Claire and I reach the Sunshine Coast ready for some rays.

Fresh, locally-grown fruit in St Lucia.

Fresh, locally-grown fruit in St Lucia. © Caitlin Tonkin.

After one of our longest days on the road, where hills wind into pine plantations and eventually flatten towards the sea, we arrive in St Lucia — a coastal town reliant on tourism for its survival. The draw of St Lucia is its close proximity to a number of South Africa’s most stunning natural attractions. Between Trip Advisor, Getaway Magazine, and St Lucia’s official tourist website, you’ll get an informed sense of the scope of activities that St Lucia offers (but do be wary, because a number of the activities sold as pricey package tours can be done on a budget by yourself). We have five days in St Lucia, and we pack them full with as much of what is on offer as possible. Our more budget activities include a daytime amble down to the fruit market on the town’s main road to pick up fresh pineapples, and also sundowners at the beachside Ski Boat Club (the walk to the club is lush, but be cautious of doing it after dark, because you may meet a foraging hippo!) We do splash out once in St Lucia, opting for a guided drive of the Isimangaliso Wetland Park, a World Heritage Site, followed by snorkelling in the warm waters of Cape Vidal. Multiple rhino sightings, sunshine fun, and an excellent braai (barbecue) lunch, make it money well spent.

The sign says it all!

Seriously — watch out for the hippos! © Caitlin Tonkin

In hindsight, St Lucia stands out as my favourite stop in the five weeks we are on the road. Although our lousy accommodation at Bib’s International Backpackers causes us to abandon St Lucia a day early for an unscheduled night in Durban, the thrill of lying in your tent at night, with the evening breeze carrying in the piggish snorts of hippos digging up grub not 100 metres away, is unbeatable.

Nevertheless, the road (and cleaner accommodation) calls. With less than 24 hours to spend in Durban, we prioritise: visiting the fishies at uShaka Marine World (fun, but very touristy), and finding bunny chow. Bunny chow is a Durban speciality of a hollowed loaf of white bread, filled with curry. We locate some in a no-name, kitsch Indian restaurant in the mall where we do our shopping — and eat ourselves into such a state of the itis that we cannot eat again until lunchtime the next day. However, it is worth it, not only because it is delicious, but also because I develop such a bloated stomach that, with Claire’s subtle manipulation of the camera angle, I manage to briefly convince my long-distance boyfriend that I am pregnant (he is less amused by this prank than I am). Heavy with food and somewhat worn-out from our whirlwind introduction to Durban, we drive a short distance further south to the tiny town that is our final stop along the Sunshine Coast — Umzumbe.

Travelling, as we discovered that first half of our road trip, is exciting. It is eye-opening, get-your-heartbeat-racing, empowering. But… it can also wear you plumb out, doing all that adventuring every hour of every day. So when we pull in at dusk to what becomes our favourite backpackers of the trip, Mantis and Moon, we collapse on the sofa with two sluggish dogs, in front of the first TV we have seen in weeks, and sleep through at least two films we have both seen before. And for three days, the pace of life proceeds much like this. We snooze, we walk to the beach, we visit the local pub, we get into a tiff with the resident vervet monkeys over food that is left unattended owing to said snoozing, and we chill for long enough to get friendly with some fellow travellers. With the singular exception of zip-lining at the Oribi Gorge (well worth it!), we do a lot of nothing. Although the Sunshine Coast offers an array of activities to keep you busy, the real pleasure of it, for us, is in this: the chill factor. The Sunshine Coast, for all its business, exudes easiness, a happy-go-lucky feeling. It gives us permission to soak up the sun, sleep and restore some balance to the force. It is an excellent place to be on holiday.

Featured image © Steve Slater

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Bushfires, the Ecosystem and Climate Change in Australia

The past months have seen devastating, fast-moving bushfires sweep across Australia. High temperatures and strong, variable winds have put hundreds of lives and homes at risk, whilst neighboring Tasmania faces severe damage to its World Heritage forests.

While bushfires are a naturally occurring part of Australia’s weather cycle (with evidence of forest fires stretching back to the Paleolithic era), experts predicted that this season’s conditions would be particularly severe. Indeed, firefighters have been battling to contain frequent bushfires over the Christmas period, with bans on open fires declared in parts of Australia.

November saw lightning strikes start fires in the Esperance region which quickly spread, claiming the lives of four people. Smoke from the fires was seen in satellite images 2,000km away as sheets of flame were fanned by 100km/h winds. It was only after the smoke died down that aerial water bombers could be deployed to tackle the blaze. Australian firefighters bravely struggled to contain the blaze, but the conditions were so bad that there was little to be done until the weather grew milder.

Further loss of life occurred in Yarloop on 7th January, when fire swept through the old, wooden buildings of the historic town. Many residents remained in the town until half an hour before the fire struck, claiming that Yarloop was not mentioned in emergency evacuation broadcasts. The speed with which the fire moved through the town has meant that the damage is extensive, with residents facing the arduous challenge of rebuilding the picturesque milling town. Continue reading

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