Week Seventeen - Jordan 10/27/2010
“It’s midnight at the oasis, send that camel to bed.” - Maria Muldaur 1974
Day One Hundred and Fourteen October 9th
We are up to a cold morning here in Sirince. My puffy coat comes in handy. Breakfast in this neck of the woods is a mix of olives, flat bread, jams, yogurt, strong tea and coffee. This suits us just fine.
When we warm up a bit we venture down the hill to Ephesus. For those in the know there is no need to explain, for those new to ruin hunting, this one is a grand daddy. You can put it up against the best Italy and Greece has to offer and Ephesus is almost always in the top five.
I assumed it would be bigger. When you pull up to the entrance and park just off the road in a grass field you think that maybe you are in the wrong place. There are a few tour buses but nowhere near what I expected. There is no line to get tickets and a few guides lounging about waiting for you to ask them to guide you. It is all so different than Italy.
We wander in and pickup an audio tour headset to get a better lay of the land. There are ruins everywhere. Unlike other places, there are no ropes or barriers, you can walk all over them here in Turkey. There don’t seem to be any rules about where you can and can’t go so it is sort of a free for all. There are people climbing all around wandering in an out of places. It’s great fun.
There are two highlights here: the first is the main façade of what was once a huge library from what I can make out. It is incredible. You get a true sense of what the place must have been like with the intricate carvings, statues and the massive entranceway. It is commanding from both near and far.
The second is the amphitheater. It is carved into the side of a mountain and is can seat twenty five thousand people, or a tenth of the population of the city in its prime. That is a lot of people. We have seen a number of these on the trip to date and this one takes the cake by far. It is just magnificent.
We wander for the entire morning from one end to the other. The city was strategically placed in one of the prettiest settings imaginable. It fits perfectly onto the mountainsides and rolls down the valley. With over two hundred and fifty thousand people living here at one time the ruins stretch all over the hillsides. You can see arches and walls well off into the distance, far beyond the borders of the park.
Adele: “Why ducks, why are they about birds?”
Adele: “Aqua ducks, why do they call them ducks?”
We stop in town for lunch. To our surprise today is Saturday and the weekly market is in full swing. Most of the streets are lined with stalls selling everything imaginable. There is some order to it all with likeminded vendors clustered together. The food makes you wish you could take stuff back home and cook up a feast. Everything is fresh.
We eat at a place just off the main square and have an assortment of hot and cold small plates and kabobs. Watch out for the little green peppers.
Vince has been asking for a haircut for weeks so we line him up with the local barber. It is great fun watching a young kid, probably the owner’s son learning the trade, giving Vince and trim. I can’t tell who enjoyed the experience more, the guys in the shop, Vince or us. In the end he walked away looking like a little boy again.
We get into a conversation with an American guy who is “couch surfing” his way around Europe and has ended here in Sirince for a while. He liked the place and has decided to stay a bit. Coach surfing is defined as sleeping on some elses coach. Apparently they have a website and it is some kind of organization. It all seems a bit sketchy but the travel tales are great fun. Imagine touring Russia this way.
Anyway, he introduces us to Marco who invites us in for tea. Three hours later we have our Turkish rug. Actually it is a Kurdish Bedouin rug made by Marco’s family up on the Turkish border with Iraq. This is not easy territory and he fled there some fifteen years ago and came here to start a new chapter.
He has four cats in the shop that keep the kids busy for hours while we have tea and chat. It is great fun sharing the time together. We learn about his home town, he has pictures of the tent he was born in, we learn about doing business in Turkey and what it is like to come in as an outsider. He is curious about California and our lives back home. It is the perfect way to spend the afternoon.
When we get back up the hill to our hotel we are due for an early dinner. They set us up in the main area with a roaring fire and an excellent meal. Vince runs around the grounds picking flowers while the rest of us try and stay awake. It has been a long day.
Later in the evening as I sit filling in the day’s events the music from a wedding in town pulls me in and I wander out the front door of the hotel. There is only one street and it is blocked with white plastic chairs forming a big circle around the center. The whole town is there, singing and dancing on the cobblestones. The bride and groom are in the middle of it all, swinging arm in arm with the rest of the town folk. These are people that know each other their entire lives, probably cradle to grave. It is so interesting to watch them all interact. These are the times when it is so much fun to be off the grid.
The music goes late into the night. And the call for prayers comes over the loudspeakers just as early in the morning.
Day One Hundred and Fifteen October 10th
You can’t avoid the early morning wake up calls here. If the loudspeakers don’t get you then the follow up by the roosters will, or the dogs, or maybe the tractors. It would all be so much better with a hot shower. But that’s not to be today, someone forgot to turn on the hot water switch. They actually turn the water generator on and off every day.
We have a quick breakfast and get on the road. The car says it’s 7 degrees outside, I am not sure what that is in English but it seems cold. Our drive to the airport is fast in easy. In no time we have dropped off the car, checked bags and cleared customs.
I always get nervous when I see grown men with prayer beads praying feverishly pre-flight. You just don’t see that kind of thing in the States. Here it is commonplace ad I tell you it throws you for a loop. Sure back home you may run into an old lady holding Rosary beads but here seemingly everyone has prayer beads and most are actively praying. It is a very devout practice this Islam.
We do a fly by Istanbul again and pick up an Air Jordan flight to Amman. As we stand in line to check in you can already feel a subtle change. It is mostly men, many are in either white or black gowns: the guy sitting in front of us has a headpiece on and a flowing scarf. He must be someone since almost everyone that passes by seems to know him.
It’s big plane that lands on a long runway and taxi’s to a spot out in the middle of nowhere. We all deplane and bus in from there. It is much hotter here and from the looks of things we seem to be in the middle of a desert.
We change what money we have (mostly Euros and Turkish Lira) to Jordanian Dinar so we can pay cash for the Entry Visa. Then we clear customs and try to hail a cab. It is a bit chaotic with people pulling us in all directions trying to get us to let them get us a taxi. In the end two guys manage to get one for us and become very vocal about getting at tip. I have no small change so I give them what Turkish Lira I have and a Euro. They seem totally confused but it does the trick.
As we drive to the hotel we see our first camel and Bedouin camp. Amman is all one color – sand. The buildings all look the same and blend into the hillsides. The only color variation from sand is the garbage that is everywhere. It is striking how much trash there is here.
When we pull up to the Four Seasons they stop and check our taxi for explosives. They have a guardhouse with cement barricades; one entrance lane blocked with cement cylinder shields and armed guards. To get into the building they have a metal detector and they screen our luggage.
It is all very surreal as the nice hotel employees and saying, “welcome to the Four Seasons, nice flight?” All you want to do is ask why they need to x-ray your carry on and make your kids pass though a metal detector just to check in.
It is very late by the time we are in our room and ready for bed. I say goodnight and wander downstairs to spend a few hours filling in my journal. I love hotel lobby bars. It is almost sacred ground for people watching. In this case we have a true mix of global travelers, mostly on business, some for pleasure. The bits and pieces of conversation are well worth the price of admission. In my case an $8 bottle of Perrier and a glass with ice.
There is a wedding downstairs going full tilt. The music is loud and the people are all milling about dressed to the nines. It reminds me of why security is so tight here. Just four years ago Amman was the site of the coordinated hotel bombings that killed sixty people, a good number of them at a wedding. The Four Seasons was not one of the hotels that night but that was just luck, it could easily have been, and it is a harsh reminder of where we are.
This part of the journey is going to be much, much, more than we bargained for.
Day One Hundred and Sixteen October 11th
This is a rest day. We have been going at it pretty hard since we left Italy and we all need a break so we have pulled into the Four Seasons Amman to regroup and spend the day at the pool.
Our first impression of the Four Seasons is that it is like a nice Marriot back home. Maybe. Everything is old and a bit worn. Since it is “the only game in town” by Western standard, so says pretty much everyone in the know, it clearly gets a lot of use.
The people working here are friendly enough but they all seem stressed. At breakfast the place is a disaster: tables are half set, the staff is running in all directions, no one seems happy or satisfied. Guests are getting up to set their own tables and searching for stray salt and pepper shakers: this would never happen back in the States. We muddle through and manage to find coffee and feed the kids.
By 10a we are poolside up on the roof over looking the city. It seems to spread out forever. It’s very dense with people and cars going in all directions. In the haze of the morning sun the air is thick and the streets are very loud and noisy.
There are many mosques calling out prayers around noon, just as they did in Istanbul. I am actually getting used to the sound and the rhythm of the calls. The horizon is filled with their minarets. In Europe you had the church in the middle of a village or town and the steeple rising from the center. People we called together towards a singular focal point. Here the mosques are everywhere.
We pass the entire day just hanging out in the sunshine, swimming, reading and relaxing. The break is much needed and it is a nice way to ease into the Middle East. There are helicopters buzzing by, horns and traffic sounds rising up from the roundabout below, political signs for the upcoming Parliamentary election hanging about everywhere.
Adele: “Dad, why are there so many sleigh dogs?”
Dad: “Sleigh dogs?”
Adele: “Yeah, the sleigh dogs all over Rome.”
Dad: “Stray dogs, you mean so many stray dogs.”
Adele: “Oh, I was wondering about all the sleighs.”
It is nice to spend the day sitting above it all before actually entering into the fray. By dinner we are ready to venture out so we head to Houston’s of all places to get a little taste of home. Lonely Planet says its one of the top places to go in town, actually listing it as a high end option, but when we get there we find that we are the only ones in the place. Maybe we are at the wrong one? It is all a bit odd but the food is great and it is nice to be out of the hotel for a bit. However, this is yet another reason that Lonely Planet’s days are numbered.
In the elevator we run into an American claiming to be a “diplomat” working on the peace process. It is sad I suppose that we don’t know which peace process. It could be Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Iran, really any of the countries around us. It is also strange that we are so far removed from the news of the world that we have no context for diplomatic discussions. The man looks tired and he just stands and smiles politely. Tough job working for peace here in the Middle East: must be like Sisyphus rolling a rock up the hill.
We also meet a very nice woman from Chicago who is here scouting out locations for a travel tour company. Now, this is a great gig. When I come back in life, I want this job. She used to be in finance until she made a change and hooked up with a high-end tour company serving wealthy travelers from the States going to Jordan. When asked if she likes the work she just smiles and chuckles. Apparently she does not miss finance. Lucky for us she gives an overview of the main sights here in Jordan and shares a few special spots to eat along the way.
Feeling much more relaxed we wrap the day and I head off the lobby to fill in a few more days and post some more photos on the blog.
Day One Hundred and Seventeen October 12th
Renting a car in Jordan is an adventure. First off, Thrifty Car Rental is the preferred agency for the Four Seasons. Not kidding. The nice people at the front desk call the man from Thrifty and he suddenly appears next to me, standing and waiting for me to introduce myself. I don’t know he is doing this so we stand smiling at each other for a while.
When I do finally say hello, he addresses me as “Mr. Carcano”, and lets me know that he is very pleased to be able to offer me a “nice car”, a “big car” for “let’s say seventy JD a day.” He made the number up in his head and writes it on a scratch pad from the hotel so I suggest sixty JD, which he accepts, but only because I am “Mr. Carcano from America.” I should have offered thirty.
When we get the car it is by far the worst looking rental I have ever seen. It is one big dent. It takes him twenty minutes just to mark everything that is wrong with the car on a piece of paper and then another fifteen minutes to review it all with me.
When he hands me the key it is taped together. When I put it in the ignition the key part falls off and breaks in half. I return to the front desk holding two pieces of key and ask if the Thrifty guy is legit. They insist that he is and that he must have made a mistake.
When he returns he has made “no mistake, just forgive, it is the only key, can nto find other.” Then he just stands there as if two pieces of key are normal. We look at each other again for a while until I finally suggest another car. The only other car they have is ‘much older” and “not good for a family with children”. The car can not possible be older than the five year old Mistubishi with 118K on the odometer. “Yes, yes, much older, I have a Jeep that is only six years old but no air conditioning, very good for the desert.” What about a new key? “Maybe.”
An hour later we are on the road in the “new” five year old car. The inside is actually very clean and it only makes noises when you break so all in all I would say we made out pretty good for fifty JD a day, we did get a price break for the broken key. Welcome to driving in Jordan.
There are no driving rules here. None what so ever. Go as fast as you want, stop if you feel like it, the lanes are not marked even though we are driving three, sometimes four cars abreast. I have done some pretty intense driving thus far and this absolutely the worst yet. Forget the Italians or the Turks.
Wadi Rum is at the other end of the country down by Saudi Arabia so we have a four-hour drive in the blazing desert heat. Actually, I am told this is not blazing, that in summer it is unbearable even by Jordanian standards. I cannot imagine what it is like out here.
When we do finally arrive to our “lodge” it is off road a bit and out in the middle of nowhere. We are supposed to sleep in tents, Vince is very excited about this, but the pillows are so filthy and the dust so bad we refuse. They do have a room with four beds, old worn out blankets, very dusty sheets and a light bulb. We opt for indoors. When we ask for a bathroom for Vince while we are checking in, the women suggests that we use the nearest bush. Just as well the shared bathrooms are not the cleanest.
This is the official end of Lonely Planet for us. They recommend this place as being clean and upscale. It is neither and a bit scary. To make the best of things we climb a hill and watch the sunset over the reserve. Sunset is a very special event here in the desert. Feeling a little better we go to the big tent for dinner and find a bunch of other Lonely Planet readers in the same state of shock we are. Except for the ones smoking hooka pipes: they all look like they don’t have a care in the world.
We met a very nice Australian couple that has an olive farm back home and we exchange Jordan travel plans and get a few recommendations. Dinner is a buffet of hummus, olives, chick peas, cucumber and pita bread. We make do.
The bathrooms are filthy even by our camping standards so there are no showers, just a quick wash and off to bed. In the pitch black we lay sleeping in our clothes with our jackets and extra clothes as pillows, convinced bugs are everywhere, and listening to the local mosque call out prayers. Once again strangers in a foreign land.
Day One Hundred and Eighteen October 13th
The morning call to prayer comes at 5a in total darkness. It jolts me awake, confused and disoriented. They go one for ten minutes of so then stop as suddenly as they started. I fall back to semi-sleep and an hour later we are up at first light.
Breakfast is pretty much the same as dinner the night before except we get instant Nescafe as an added bonus. It’s not half bad if you add enough sugar. The kids are starving: we are all surviving pretty much on pita bread, hummus, olives and water.
The book says to go to the Visitors Center to get a guide. This makes the man in the camp parking lot most unhappy and he keeps following us around pushing his jeep ride on us “for a good price of $35JD”. His jeep is totally open, no windows, just benches in the back without seat belts or restraints. Teri looks concerned.
When we do get away from the man in the parking lot and arrive at the Visitor’s Center we find all of the jeeps to be in the same or even worse condition. The cost is the same as the parking lot however, it turns out we support the preservation of the park by coming here, so all is not lost. We buy a two-hour desert tour ticket.
They should tell you when you but it that they time stamp the ticket starting your two hour block. Not knowing this we take our time getting over to the pick up area, buying waters and making a bathroom stop along the way. When we do get there our driver is frantically waving us down in the middle of the road. I don’t recognize him and drive on by. When I do so he looks near panicked and starts to chase down our car. I get a bit nervous when crazy men in head scarves start chasing the family in the middle of the desert so I do what any one else would do in the situation: I turn around and drive by him again going the other way. To which he counters and turns around, continuing his pursuit.
It is all so confusing since I swear to you that I have never seen this guy before and he claims we met at the check in. Somehow, by hook or by crook, he has the other half of our tour ticket. With no other options we load up into his ancient Land Cruiser and start driving at break neck speeds to make up for the lost time we spent dilly dallying.
The kids are in heaven. The parents I’m not so sure. We are flying along in the middle of the desert in the back of a jeep sitting on benches, holding on for dear life. Once we get comfortable enough that we will not fly over the sides and begin to settle into the experience we realize just how incredibly cool this all is: we hit bumps and go flying, get into deep sand and skid, stop at Lawrence of Arabia’s favorite watering hole, climb a real sand dune, pee out side and see it dry up as it hits ground, stand in the shadows of giant rock formations, see ancient carvings on the walls dating back thousands of years. This is all happening in the heat of the desert in Jordan. Honestly an adventure cannot get much better than this.
Our guide, as it turns out, is gracious and so incredibly friendly that we decide to hire “his father’s” camels for our camel ride. At first they were “his brothers” camels but now they are “his fathers.” He must have been mistaken.
When we return, I need to break a fifty. Some advice to those that may follow in our footsteps, always carry small change in the desert. Otherwise things cost exactly as much as the size of the smallest bill you have on hand (or the largest if you are foolish enough to flash it). All I have are JD 50s, about US $70. I can probably buy a camel for JD 50, maybe even a two humper.
Mistake number two after no larger bills, don’t leave you wife and kids in the back of a pick up truck sitting road side in the desert surrounded by camel hawkers. While the lady behind the counter in the shop digs through everything looking for change, Teri and the kids are surrounded and hemmed in by the crowd of young camel guys.
They all want us to hire them for a ride. At one point they are trying to pull Vince and Adele out of the car and put them on camels. It is a zoo. When I get back to the truck with our guide there are six or seven of them leaning into the truck with Teri and kids pressed against the benches trying to get some space.
Our guide immediately starts yelling and chasing them away. They push back and a great shouting match begins. About midway though the argument our guide tells us all to get in and he drives down the road only to have the hoard of others get on their camels and follow. He speeds off down a side street to try and lose them. We have no idea what is going on.
A ways down we pull in to his father’s house. This is also his house, his brother’s, mother and father’s, son’s and a host of others house. When he stops and hops out he motions us to get down and sit on the ground to wait for his father’s camels. A few minutes later the others find us and they try to move in again. He runs at them screaming, probably cursing, eventually chasing them away.
In the midst of all this our guide’s mother comes out and offers us tea. We are sitting on old cushions in the dirt under a tree drinking painfully sweet tea from dirty glasses. There are camels, chickens, old dogs, cats, trash, car parts, cardboard, old tires and god know what else scattered all around us. It is one of those times when you ask yourself, “How did I get here?”
The camels are fifteen JD for three so I give our guide a twenty and he disappears. So does the five in change. When he returns he announces he must leave and do another jeep tour so he motions for us to keep us sitting on the ground waiting for camels with his mother. When I tip him for the jeep ride, he get teary eyed, hugs me and kisses me on both cheeks, gives me Allah’s blessing and wishes us safe travels.
At long last the camels arrive. They are big and smelly and they burp and gurgle. Somehow they manage to get us all up on them and we head off for our half hour ride to nowhere. Adele has her own camel but she is still a bit traumatized from the earlier camel hawker experience so she is out of sorts a bit. Vince and I share one and have a great time discussing the merits of one verses two humps. Teri has her own as well and has great fun trying to capture it all on film without falling off. After all this prep and drama, we walk around the block and then our camels sit down and we are done. We are on them maybe fifteen minutes. But it is fifteen minutes that will last a lifetime.
Since we started at dawn we are done by noon and are up for a drive to the Dana Nature Reserve to stay at an eco lodge somewhat off the beaten track. The drive is long and hot. What was to be two hours turned into four somehow and we ended up way south down in Aqaba before taking the Dead Sea Highway back up north. It is strange to be on the Saudi boarder seeing signs to Yemen. At least we get a glimpse of the Red sea.
When we finally manage to find the turn off the Dead Sea highway we are all a bit weary. The road now winds deeper and deeper into a valley towards the base of the mountains. Living conditions are dismal. The Bedouin tents are supplemented with mud huts and make shift housing. It is hard to imagine anyone lives here, much less spends an entire lifetime. From the look of things they don’t know any other way of life though I do spot satellite dishes on most mud huts.
To check into the eco lodge we must leave our car under a make shift carport and board a broken down truck for the final half hour leg. We travel up valley on dirt roads rutted and cut deep with tracks. It is one long bounce and bump.
The drive is along an ancient seabed strewn with rocks. Over thousands of years people have tried to clear the land at various times leaving a maze of rock walls and traces of buildings and towns. Our guide tells us the larger ones are Roman and from the looks of the ancient arches it appears so. It is fascinating to see ruins in their purist form, untouched and left to crumble back into the land.
When we get to the eco lodge it is dark and lit solely by candlelight. No electricity out here save for a few lights in the kitchen and bathrooms. They apparently go through over four thousand candles a month! It gives the place a mysterious look.
Check in is confusing. There are two guys, Mohammad and Ali, at the front desk. The reference to our Mohammad Ali fails to humor them. A reference to theirs does the same. When you take them off script you get blank stares back.
Mohammad checks us in and Ali sits us down for a twenty-minute overview of the property. His combined English and Arabic leaves us all wondering what in the world is going on. The talk is a mix between a welcome / orientation, some kind of explanation of the candles and recycling program (I think) and some up selling other services offered (i.e. camel rides, guided hikes).
At one point a third guy comes in carry Vince. His name is Hussain and he introduces himself by saying, “here, we are all friends.” There is a particular stress on “here” making it clear that in other places we may not be. He is pleasant enough on the surface but underneath you can tell there is something entirely different going on. We do not feel threatened per say, since we are surrounded by and in the comfort of fellow travelers. But if we ran in Mohammad, Ali or Hussain on the street I have no doubt it would be a very different story. The place is a bit creepy that way, we feel tolerated but not comfortable.
When we finally get to our room, it is really something. We each have our own bed with mosquito netting that you pull down around you, its dark but we have two candles that give the place a warm glow.
We wander down and have dinner with the rest of the guests; they seem largely uninterested in mingling so we have our own table. It’s a vegetarian menu, delicious but sparse: pita, olives, hummus and water.
After dinner we all go up to the roof to lie on big pillows and gaze at the night sky. We have tea and make wishes on shooting stars, then, at long last, we are off to bed to read by candlelight and catch some much-needed sleep.
Day One Hundred and Nineteen October 14th
Vince and I sleep in while Teri and Adele go for a morning hike. They return around eight or so and find us fumbling around the breakfast area. We slam a few cups of tea and get ready to start the day.
The sun is up and it is clear and crisp day here in the desert. The camel guys come in around 9a and proceed to pose in front of the breakfast crowd looking for a couple of JD per photo. They have no takers so they settle in, sitting under a small bunch of trees, seeking shade. Vince promptly joins them.
He sits under the tree chatting away, pointing to the camels and picking up sticks. The camel guys have no idea what to do with him. At first they laugh and joke, then they ask us for 2JD for a photo, to which we say no, so they get a bit grouchy. We part ways and go up to finish packing.
When we come back down Vince runs outside shouting, “Hi guys, I am back!” They have no idea what to do. Eventually he warms them up and they are all sitting in a circle tossing rocks at sticks. The kid should go into sales.
We check out and they nickel and dime us in subtle ways: not enough to argue about but enough to notice. It feels good to move on.
The guy watching our car at the carport says the road to Petra over the mountains will save hours and that it is “just a few bumpy” OK for cars? “No problems.” Said with a big smile. “Just turn 2K down the road and head straight, water is at the store.”
15K later we find the turn off but there is no store and we only have half a bottle of water. How bad can it be? The pavement stops immediately. Giving us some comfort the camels appear just off the sides of the road so we are not alone out here in the middle of nowhere. It is very hot. The kids are already complaining. Some water would have been nice.
This drive is one of the most intense we have done to date. It is on a single lane dirt road, riddled with hairpin turns and thousand foot drops. At one point we pull over and email our where bouts just in case something goes wrong. If it does we may never be found.
We go up and over several peaks and valleys all in quarter time. The 50K “short cut” with an average speed of 10kph is not as “short” as we expected. Never the less, by noon we are over the hill and back down in civilization. It is nice to actually see other people again: we were getting lonely out there on the edge.
Petra is much smaller than I thought it would be. For some reason I imagined a bigger town and more infrastructure. Instead there is one main road that starts at the park entrance and ends up the hill when it hits the other main road going north/south. The guidebook only has a few recommendations for eating, all of which look pretty average. This is not a place know for fine cuisine.
Our lunch is terrible. We are all tired and hungry after the drive so the bad food is amplified by the situation. We eat as much as we can and head off to find the Marriott. Yes, that’s right, we are staying in a Marriott.
Hotels were very hard to come by and we got lucky with the Marriott. It is considered an upscale brand here in Jordan; really anything is with an American label. The guard rolls back the heavy metal gate and after a few questions lets us into the parking lot. We are the only car. It takes awhile but we finally figure out we are the only ones driving ourselves. Everyone else staying here is on a bus tour.
Marriotts are predictable the world over. They are no different here than at home except they make you pass though metal detectors and serve pita bread, olives, hummus and water for breakfast. We get the kids to the pool for a bit but it is way to hot in the midday sunshine. By late afternoon all four of us are in the cramped hotel room lounging on the two double beds. Such fun this travel thing.
Teri and Adele head out at 6:30p for an evening tour of Petra. There is much excitement as this is one of the highlights for Teri. She has been talking about Petra since day one. Vince and I have some food, play around and crash around nine.
When Teri and Adele roll in around 10p, Vince is fast asleep. They are both very excited: the candle lined walk and ceremony at the Treasury were everything they expected. (Except for a few people steaming. Leave it to the Americans to come via tour bus and sit smoking amongst the ruins.) The walk in is 1.2K and the word is that Vince will probably not make it in the stroller due to the sections of Roman pavers. Therefore, I draw the 6a walk up card and get to go in on my own. How cool is that? I set the alarm and try to sleep.
Day One Hundred and Twenty October 15th
The Petra experience is very hard to describe. It is so vast and powerful that my descriptions will be painfully inadequate. I will say upfront that if you ever get the change to come here you should take it in a heartbeat. Do not think twice, and sign up immediately, it will be a life highlight.
I get up at 6a and grab a quick breakfast at the buffet. The only other hearty souls up at this hour are doing the same thing I am. We all look kind of nerdy in our zip off pants, long sleeve REI shirts, hiking boots and assorted cameras. I leave them to the buffet and speed on over to the entrance hoping to be one of the first to arrive.
The doors open at 6a and I am in at around 6:40a. To my surprise I am all alone . Apparently most people sleep in. When you come get our to bed and come early, you will have the place to yourself.
The walk through the Siq is fascinating. It is the main entrance to the city of Petra and it runs through a winding slot canyon for 1.2K. The natural rock walls are tight and high giving the impression that you are at the bottom of a riverbed. They are smooth to the touch almost polished. All along the base of the passageway there is a trough carved into the wall to bring water into the city. Along the upper walls are looks outs and carvings tucked into the rock. They go unnoticed if you don’t look up.
You don’t really get any warning as you come upon the Treasury. You have been walking for twenty minutes or so with expectation building with each twist and turn but nothing really prepares you for the initial encounter. Suddenly you get a glimpse of something entirely different. It appears out of context and is actually carved into the rock. Somehow they carved the thing into the rock! And it is a masterpiece.
The light has not crept into the Sig when I round the corner so it is still wrapped in the dull grey light of early morning. The rock is a red and orange with subtle colors changing as the eye move up the structure. It is massive. You come into a small opening and it dominates the natural square. I have nothing to reference for comparison, not sure anything exists to do so. It makes you stop, stand and stare.
I am the only one there. It is an eerie feeling to be standing all alone in front of such significance. You feel like a visitor from some other world, almost like an intruder in some aspect. All I can think of is Angor Wat in Cambodia. This place has the same kind of mystery and inspires the same sort of reverence.
I am alone for most of the morning wandering amongst the two thousand year old ruins. It is an incredible experience. As the city unfolds before you the size and scope of the place becomes more and more apparent. It would take a good week to hike and explore the different sections. In the short time I am there I wander through the Street of Facades, the Theater, Main Promenade, the Grand Temple, the Winged Loin Temple, a well preserved set of mosaics and the Royal Tombs.
By the time I start heading back out around 9:30a the tour groups are pouring in. People are everywhere. The Siq is actually crowded with big groups of folks from all over the world. I am so thankful I got out of bed and made the early morning trip.
On the way out I stop by and pick up a tee shirt written in Arabic with picture of camels on the front. The guy tells me it is made in Jordan. When I point out the Made in Jordan label is sewn on top of a Made in Syria label he just shrugs and denies it. Then his father comes in holding a wad of bills and asks me my name. When I tell him he nods, “Steve, you are Steve Austin, very rich man, you Steve Austin, million dollar man, buy more shirts made in Jordan.” I burst out laughing.
I spend about twenty minutes talking to the two of them trading barbs and talking about women. They are arguing over which country has the best looking women. When they find out where we have been I am anointed arbitrator and tasked with making the final decision. At this point several other vendors come over and join in. After much debate over the Italians and French I suggest the Americans to break the tie and get nods of general agreement all around.
When I tell them my next stop is Cairo the old man frowns and starts cursing the Egyptians. I try to explain that we are only going in to see the pyramids but he gets so bent out of shape that he throws his hands up in frustration and moves on. I make a mental note not to bring up Egypt again in conversation.
I get back to the hotel at 10:30a. Adele is just wrapping up school and Vince is bouncing off the walls so we immediately head out to the castle of Shawbak. This turns out to be true Indiana Jones stuff. An ancient ruin set on a mountaintop with one guy taking tickets and no rules or regulations what so ever. We are all alone and have full run of the place.
It is almost to cool to be true, especially if you are eight and four years old. Vince wears his headlamp and Adele clutches her flashlight as we shine them into pitch-black spaces and around blind corners exploring secret passageways. It is dusty and dirty, hot and dry. There are old wooden planks that shift when you cross them, balanced up three stories high across different sections of wall and tower. The inner rooms have secret tunnels that go down over three hundred meters and exit well below the castle coming out somewhere outside the grounds on a lower road to town.
On the way in to the castle we meet one of the friendliest people in Abu-Ali. He is selling jewelry outside a small café by the entrance and he immediately takes a liking to Vince and Adele. Initially we discuss the potential of buying one of his necklaces, the “oldest and best one of Bedouin beads” for a mere 40JD. Over coffee the price falls and the added value grows. He showers the kids with gifts. His generosity is so genuine that it takes us off guard. He keeps bring out more and more things, all small items but ones that mean so much to the kids.
At one point he pulls out a cell phone and calls one of the guests staying in “his cave”, also American apparently staying in Shawbuk on business. He hands the phone to Teri and it turns out the guy is an archeologist from San Diego studying/working in Petra. Abu Ali is so happy that the two of us are both Americans and that he can connect us he looks like he may explode with joy.
As we finish our drinks and start to head into the castle Abu Ali notices Adele’s necklace from Wadi Rum and suggests he take it down to his cave to make the “A” prettier and more suitable for her. We are all totally confused. In the end, Abu Ali takes the necklace and tells us to meet him down at his cave at the bottom of the hill when we are done with the castle to pick it back up. How will we find it? Apparently we can’t miss it.
That is how we managed to end up sitting in a cave sipping unbelievably sweet tea and watching CNN with Abu Ali and his son MJ. The scene is surreal. We are in cave in the middle of the desert in the middle of Jordan.
MJ’s English is excellent. He is self-taught, mainly via school, television and interaction with tourists. He hands me a book, “The Cross and Crescent” and says the it is a good read, I believe implying that Christians and Muslims can get along. This is good to know when you are sitting in the cave under the Jordanian flag with it’s seven pointed Islamic star.
We spend a wonderful hour or two touring the cave and the newly built cave hotel, talking to our hosts and various others that come in and out. What ever else they had planned for the day did not seem to matter. They would have visited with us all day and far into the night is possible. We are not accustomed to this kind of behavior. Our lives back home are so structured that the thought of tossing out an afternoons activities to just visit with some one from a foreign land would never, ever cross our minds. It is not even in the realm of possibility. But here, in the cave, it seems perfectly natural. It is a healthy lesson for all of us.
When we get back to the hotel we are all exhausted. Over a quick dinner we decide that Teri and Adele should get up at 6a tomorrow morning and make the early trip into Petra to beat the crowds. So by 10p we are all fast asleep.