Friday, January 7, 2011

On to Jordan

The first two days of our trip in Egypt were a whirlwind of sights and sounds. The next two days we spent traveling to Jordan, and the activity never let up. We had to make it that way, though. My dad joined us only for the first part of our trip because he needed to be back in Texas and at my sister's house in time for Christmas. We wanted to be sure he saw as much as possible for the few days he was with us!

The excursion to Jordan was the only part of the trip that I had booked in advance, other than the hotels in Cairo and Dahab. I went with Memphis Tours because they specialize in short trips and handle all the necessary arrangments for visas. The representative from Memphis Tours arrived at the Isis right on time at 11:00 PM to pick us up. We left the greater part of our luggage in a storeroom at the Isis and headed out with one small suitcase and our backpacks. Downstairs, we found a nice van with two drivers who spoke almost no English. We settled in (each having our own bench seat), inflated our neck pillows, and prepared to sleep across the Sinai Peninsula.

When you think about it, that's an enormous amount of trust in your fellow man. The Sinai is still mostly desert wilderness, and the English-speaking rep didn't accompany us out of Cairo. So we were alone with people with whom we couldn't communicate well in the pitch-black darkness all night. It turned out fine, but there were a few frightening moments. At one point I awoke because the van slowed down considerably, and saw that we were driving through a sandstorm. The road had completely disappeared, and I could see only about ten feet in front of us. I don't know how the driver kept going. It lasted about fifteen minutes, but it felt much longer. Even when there wasn't a sandstorm blowing, the road would occasionally be gone, I guess because of sand drifts. On awaking from another short doze, I listened to the two drivers speaking in Arabic. I speak and understand some classical Arabic, but don't have any experience with dialects, so I couldn't understand much. I could tell, though, that they were talking about money, and doing your job because that's what is right to do. I had horrible visions of  murder in the desert, but thankfully that's more an American movie stereotype than reality. We finally reached the seaside resort town of Taba without incident at about 6:00 AM.

We were met there by another rep from Memphis Tours who took us through immigration and got us on the ferry to Aqaba. It was amazing that the tour company had such a great set-up, with a dedicated person in each place to meet us and smooth our way. The ferry was a huge catamaran, very nice and modern. The ride across the Red Sea took less than an hour, with waves splashing over the windows to the top of the boat most of the way. Those of you who know how seasick I usually get will be surprised to hear that I made it across feeling great, if a bit tired.

In Aqaba, we were met by another driver, named Rushdi. He answered our many questions about Jordan and the places we passed on our way to the mountain city of Petra. We saw Eilat, an Israeli city, across the bay less than two miles away. We took the Kings' Highway into the mountains, an ancient track that linked several civilizations, including the Nabateans who built Petra. The history of World War I is ever-present in this area, because this was the main site of the Arab Revolt, which T.E. Lawrence made famous. I enjoyed imagining how different Aqaba must have looked when the Arabs liberated it from the Turks as compared to the busy port city it has become. I also enjoyed the realization that so much of the open countryside looks exactly the same now as it did then, or even in the times of the Roman Empire. The road stretches across the mountains with no trees to hide it. There are terraced hillsides for farming, and flocks of goats and sheep with more rugged, seemingly impassable mountains in the distance. Jordan is gorgeous, and I fell in love with it.

The Sheraton Guesthouse
It took about two hours to reach Petra, which turned out to be a charming town perched on hilly mountaintops overlooking the craggy, snaking entrance to the ancient Nabatean stronghold. Our hotel was the Sheraton Guesthouse, a cozy, stucco-white inn built over the Cave Bar, an actual bar inside a Nabatean-carved cave. We were delighted by the setting and the location, right up next to the entrance of ancient Petra. After quickly depositing our bags, we met our Petra guide, Ahmed, at the gate.

You can see the snaky valley entrance to Petra on the right.
We opted to walk the gravel path into the winding valley instead of riding horses, much to Abby's dismay. Mark, my dad, and I just didn't want the tour to go too fast. The carvings in the soft sandstone were everywhere. I was especially enchanted by a life-size relief carving of two camels and a merchant on the valley wall. It was a long walk down the path, sometimes over original paving stones, to the famous treasury building. It was incredibly majestic, with graceful details in the rosy stone. Our guide told us about the Nabateans and their wealth from taxing goods on the trade route. We saw the remains of a staircase that climbed the valley wall for maybe 200 feet to lookout points. We also walked down a street that was once lined with columns, temples, market stalls, and fountains. The city was occupied from the time of ancient Greece until the Christian era, when an earthquake destroyed many of the dwellings in the 600s AD. The people of the town mostly lived in brick buildings, saving the elaborately carved sandstone caves for burial places. They ingeniously carved a waterway along the entrance to the city that had ceramic pipes inset.

Nowadays, there are many bedouins who live in the area around Petra. They sell crafts from booths in the valley and offer rides through the ruins on camels, horses, and donkeys. Abby and I stopped to talk to two bedouin boys on donkeys. They spoke excellent English, and I asked if they went to school. They said no, the tourists are their school. We conversed in a mixture of Arabic and English, and they convinced us to ride the donkeys back to the Treasury building. It was great fun! The donkeys were much more comfortable to ride than horses, and could really move if they wanted to. I had visions of life in a bedouin camp, under the stars in the environs of ancient cities, with no school to worry about and a life of freedom. Of course it was a romantic fantasy, and I'm sure the reality would bring many hardships that I didn't imagine.

It was dark by the time we returned to the hotel. My dad fell asleep on his bed fully clothed after a nice shower. We had intended to have dinner, but everyone was too tired. Abby was next to crash, laying down to read Harry Potter and getting through less than a page. I found Mark gone after I finished my shower, and promptly conked out without even worrying about where he might be. It turned out he had to explore the Cave Bar, where he met some tourists from Hong Kong. He didn't stay there long, though. We had effectively been up since 8:00 AM the previous day, and we all enjoyed sleeping in and having an excellent buffet breakfast late the next morning.

Rushdi picked us up at noon for our trip to Wadi Rum, a desert valley of softly sculpted dunes and weathered sandstone arches. It was every bit as beautiful as Petra, only completely natural. Rushdi dropped us with a driver, Yahya, in a Land Rover, for the tour. It was awesome to take off over the dunes and lose all sight of civilization. Yahya stopped and had us take off our shoes to climb a dune. I loved the feel of the soft sand, and clambered to the top like a kid. (Just as fast as Abby, I might add.) Abby and I examined all the tracks in the sand, and found fox, bird, and beetle paths. We next stopped to pet some camels, and Abby rode one with a bedouin guide to the nearby stone arch. She dismounted giggling, telling us about a hobbled camel that hadn't wanted to be left behind, but hopped along behind her camel with its front two legs tied. We climbed the arch and got some great pictures, then drove to see an ancient dam (when could water have flowed here?) and some petroglyphs, which we surmised were advertisements for rest stops on the trade route. We then traveled on to what is known as "Lawrence's House". It's a great block of sandstone sitting on the desert floor that has been carved out on the inside, with just a small doorway on the side facing a sheer wall of stone. What a great hiding place! I imagined Lawrence and his bedouin fighters sitting silently inside while Turkish soldiers rushed past looking for them after they had carried out an attack on the railroad which still runs a few miles away over the desert. Now, however, it's used as a nursery for baby goats by the descendants of those same bedouins.

Our driver, Rushdi, was called away to pick up some Israeli tourists because he is fluent in Hebrew. He handed us off to Mohammed, who took us back to Aqaba. After a lovely shawarma dinner in downtown Aqaba, we were dropped off at the ferry. We ended up having to wait for the last ferry, because giant tour groups were booked on the first two that left. In all we only waited about 45 minutes. Our ferry ride was uneventful, and we were soon back in Egypt and getting back in the van with our same drivers to cross the Sinai again. This time I slept well.

We arrived back at the Isis Hotel at 3:00 AM and slept for two hours. My dad's flight to London and then Houston was leaving at 8, so he had to get to the airport. It was awful saying goodbye, but I was so grateful for the time we got to spend together seeing such marvellous sights. We all came away from Jordan wishing we had more time to spend there. It has less of a tourism-driven economy, which was a pleasant change from Egypt. The people we met were proud, independent, and friendly, and the scenery is spectacular. My dad was itching to ride off into the mountains on a motorcycle, something he never thought he'd contemplate in a Middle Eastern country. I think Jordan defied our preconceived notions, and I hope to go there again someday.

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