Exploring As-Salt

As-Salt, is an ancient town, situated about half an hour above the Peace Wadi, in the Balqa hills. It is the closest metropolitan centre to the farm and is served by frequent buses which charge just half a dinar each way.

The journey to As-Salt is easy and beautiful. I boarded the bus from Shuneh which is a five minute drive from the farm (or a half hour walk). Women were seated at the front of the bus, with men at the back. As we wound our way up the hillside with a lush green valley beneath us, I saw olive groves and cedar trees and smelt the sweet citrus of lemon trees lining the road. The hills were craggy, with houses perched on their sides, and as we climbed higher, the hills grew greener reminding me of the Scottish highlands.

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As-Salt means “thick forest”. The town sits in between three hills; a location which allowed its inhabitants to benefit from fresh water resources available on higher land. It is home to the first secondary school in the country where nine of Jordan’s Presidents have been educated, as well as many mosques and churches. As I learnt during my tour of the Historic Old Salt Museum, the town prides itself on the good relations between those of different faiths, with one monument, the Al Khader Orthodoc Church, welcoming Muslims and Christians alike for prayer.

After my tour of the Old Salt Museum, I went in search of some food. A stroll through the market led me to a kind man who handed me a delicious, fresh pancake-like bread and told me the name of a local restaurant where I could sit for lunch. I greeted many people as I walked through the market and repeated the restaurant’s name until I reached Abu Hamiz’s restaurant, where I was given more food than I could possibly have managed in one sitting.

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I packed some of the (mountains of) surplus baba ganoush into the last flat bread for later, and wandered through the streets before climbing up the Jabal Al-Qala hill, to the highest mosque I could see. As I reached the mosque, the Asr (afternoon) call to prayer began, and I took a seat to look out over the town and the valley below it. I caught my bus home from the bus station just below the junction I’d been dropped off at.
I’d recommend a trip to As-Salt to anyone staying at the Peace Wadi – the journey is gorgeous and there are plenty of religious and civic sights to check out among the hustle and bustle of Saltis going about their daily life.

A trip to Bethany: the Baptism Site

The Peace Wadi is no more than a fifteen minute drive from one of Jordan’s major tourist attractions, the Baptism Site.

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As we approached the entrance, the views were dramatic; with rolling sand-coloured mountains providing the backdrop to a largely barren landscape with freshly constructed churches, deep pink Bougainvillea (called Majnune in Arabic, meaning “crazy”) and of course, the occasional date palm.

At the entrance, we were given a special pass which allowed us to drive into the main site and explore in our own time (rather than hopping onto the main shuttle bus).

After dipping our feet in the cool water of the Jordanian River, which serves as the international border between Jordan and Palestine, we were welcomed by Abu Elias, a friend of Mohammad’s and Father of the Russian Pilgrimage House within the Baptism Site.

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We then wound our way under a shaded path to the baptismal pool uncovered by excavations around 25 years ago, and which historians and archaeologists believe to be the site where John the Baptist baptised Jesus Christ.

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I was surprised to see relatively few tourists visiting the site, given its religious significance. I also had not realised just how narrow the river was; no more than 20 metres wide at each of the points we saw it. At the furthest point we walked to, the river directly faced Palestine, so that armed guards on either side of the river stood observing visitors from around the world, as they stepped into the water considered by many to be holy.

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My guide book wrote that “with historical resonance, natural austerity and religious power, this is an extraordinary place”. My trip to the site definitely lived up to the bill.

My Jerusalem Visit: A ‘How To’ Guide

The Holy City

The holy city of Jerusalem is a full of history, unforgettable food, and some of the most significant religious sites in the world. The old city is a place of wonder for religious pilgrims as well as tourists and backpackers, with its unique mixture of bazaar, beauty, and religion; it is a city that overwhelms the senses.

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Peace Wadi is located 500m from the King Hussein Bridge border crossing to the West Bank, about 50 kilometers from Jerusalem. At night, the lights of Jerusalem stop the mountains at the edge of the valley flicker just at the edge of the horizon. The prospect of crossing the border can be daunting, especially if like me you are journeying alone, but my experience of travelling to Jerusalem, staying overnight, and returning the next day was surprisingly uncomplicated.

Crossing the Border

I arrived at the King Hussein Bridge border crossing around 7:45AM, as the first bus leaves around 8AM. Inside the departure building (make sure you don’t wander into the arrivals by mistake as I did) you go behind the line of counters to the foreigners’ desk. I handed my passport in to the border officers and paid the 10 dinar exit fee. This process took a while, with a lot of waiting around,  but eventually we were shepherded onto a tourist bus.

We were given our passports back on the bus and then waited for the bus to fill up with passengers. The bus ticket costs 7 dinars per passenger and 5 dinars for each large bag which has to be put in the bus’ hold; this is the only way across the bridge, foreigners are not allowed to travel in the large coaches which the locals use. This is a bit frustrating, as the locals’ coaches leave more frequently and presumably cost less money, but there isn’t much you can do about it.

Once the bus was full, we set off across the Jordan Valley, passing by an oddly striking barren landscape dotted with deserted shacks, barbed wire, and beautiful rock formations. The river itself is very small and crossing it feels rather anticlimactic.

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On the other side, I queued at passport control, where an official scanned my passport and checked that I matched the photograph. Everybody joined a second queue for security; all bags had to be passed through an x-ray machine and everyone walked through a metal detector. After security, I was questioned at the next counter about my purpose for visiting, my personal background, and my plans for return. If you are staying overnight, have the name of your hotel handy. The visa is free and is a small slip of paper which is tucked into your passport. At no point do they make any marks in your passport – my passport looks exactly the same now as it did when I first entered Jordan, with no evidence of my having left.

To Jerusalem and Back

After exiting the building, I turned right and walked past a row of buses and around the corner, near to where the people departing for Jordan enter. Set in the wall is a small booth selling tickets for the minibus to Jerusalem, these cost 42 shekels but they will also accept 10 dinars (technically worth about 48/49 shekels).  When the bus has 10 passengers it leaves. The journey to Jerusalem takes about 50 minutes and I would recommend sitting on the left-hand side of the bus for the nicest view over the city as you drive in.

Throughout the journey, the minibus stops at a couple of checkpoints which can be a little unnerving. Have your passport and visa slip ready for inspection; it is typical for armed border soldiers to board the minibus and check everyone’s passports.

The whole journey from Jordan can take between 3 and 5 hours, so you should arrive in the city some time between 11AM and 1PM.

The bus drops you close to Damascus Gate, a main entrance into the Old City; asking anyone for directions should be easy if you are a little disoriented but you cannot miss the imposing city wall! About 100m in from Damascus Gate is a currency exchange with great rates (though most of the places I saw were pretty good).

I stayed in the Hebron Youth Hostel – a simple but inexpensive and clean hostel very close to Damascus Gate with good wifi and free dinner for all guests at 6PM each night – and did a whistle-stop tour of the city’s main attractions. I would particularly recommend trying the Knafeh at Jaffar Sweets. Beware that entry into a lot of sites does require modest dress (covered shoulders and knees) and that entry to Temple Mount is particularly limited. If you aren’t a Muslim who wishes to pray, you might have to do some careful planning to make sure you are able to visit the area before leaving Jerusalem.

I got the same minibus back to the Allenby Bridge crossing (this is the Israeli name for what the Jordanians call the King Hussein Bridge). The first minibus is at 7:30AM and it leaves from a small minibus stand behind the Golden Walls Hotel – this is not the bus station opposite Damascus Gate, but about a 5 minute walk away. It costs 42 shekels again and is typically a little faster driving as the checkpoint checks are a little less rigorous for those heading out of the city.  The last minibus leaves at 1PM, after this you will have to get a taxi which can cost anything between 200 and 400 shekels, try to negotiate a price beforehand, 200 is great if they’ll agree to it.

Back to Jordan

Firstly, make sure that you arrive at the crossing early enough, the Jordanian side closes at 1:30 on Friday and Saturday and the Israeli side closes at 1:30 on Jewish holidays.

At the Allenby Bridge crossing, I entered the departures building and went up to a counter on the right hand wall. An official checked my passport and visa, issuing a pink exit visa slip, and at the next counter I paid the 180 shekels exit fee, try to make sure you have this exact as if they’re busy they might not have change. You will get a payment slip with a bar-code on it. Go with your passport, visa, exit visa, and payment slip to the second row of counters – you present these 4 items to an official and then pass through a turntable to the car park.

You have to wait on the tourist bus, which pulls up directly in front of the doors on the left-hand exit of the building, I would recommend sitting in the shade and gathering as much patience as you can muster. It again costs 7 dinars per passenger and 5 per large item of luggage. The bus will stop halfway and everyone’s passports are collected by the driver.

At the King Hussein Bridge crossing, I passed my bag though the x-ray machine and then waited for my passport at the border control windows at the back of the building. The officials will check your passport and visa. This should not be a problem for anyone who has already come from Jordan but you cannot buy a Jordan Visa at the King Hussein Bridge, you must already have a valid visa. If you have any doubts, ask the border officials if you are fine to re-enter Jordan on your visa before you leave; as long as you have a valid visa it should be fine. From the border you can simply walk back to the farm, though you will greatly confuse and concern the numerous taxi drivers waiting to take people to Amman, who will likely assume you are lost and try to help.

My trip to Jerusalem was a wonderful contrast to the relaxing days on the farm and being so close to the border presents a great opportunity for a quick visit to the holy city. 

 

A Green Valentine

Our third annual festival in celebration of khubaizeh began on Valentines’ Day, the 14th February. The vibrant green symbolises life, love, happiness, and health; the perfect alternative for red on this day of love.

Khubaizeh grows wild in the valley. Its Latin name, Malva neglecta, perfectly captures the understated and humble nature of this herb. What makes khubaizeh so remarkable to us is its ability to grow in even the harshest of conditions; its ability to produce life and sustenance from dry earth without any help or human intervention. Chopped finely and cooked with onions and garlic, khubaizeh colours and enriches our lives here at Peace Wadi.

Our festival ends on the 21st March, Mothers’ Day in Jordan. In choosing to start and end this third Khubaizeh Festival on days of celebration, we desire for every day in between to be full of festivities, friends, and family.

Visitors and Celebrations

It’s 25 degrees outside and the sky is wonderfully clear; spring time in the Peace Wadi is fresh and beautiful. The main project building is covered in flowers and the surrounding farmland is full of date palms. When the skies are clear, you can see the mountains on either side of the valley and at night the lights from Jericho, just across the border, shine in the distance.

88bc4a94-db9a-40ef-a305-127058eea211I arrived here two days ago and what makes this place so wonderful, to me, is the constant stream of visitors, from both near and afar. I arrived on a Friday and was immediately welcomed by friends of the family, who were barbecuing, and offered more tabbouleh and stuffed vine leaves than I would ever be able to eat in one sitting. Children played in the pool as the adults took turns playing the oud and singing to clapping onlookers.

Yesterday we were visited by the society of village elders who originally come from Burqa. The men, some of whom had known each other since kindergarten, played backgammon and laughed over lamb stew, which I was invited to sit and share with them.

bb326890-94ef-44cd-b47c-15d0d78f969bMy first two days at Peace Wadi have been full of people coming together, laughing, sharing food, and celebrating life.

Klara (from England)