A long day of travel: Jordan to Chicago – October 18, 2008
The super early morning drive to the airport was beautiful–about 45 minutes. The road signs offered us a variety of places to see if we took a wrong turn.
We arrived with plenty of time…and thank goodness…the rest of the airport/flight experience was a series of challenges.
Returning the car wasn’t simple. There was no place marked to drop it. We parked at the terminal and Bryan went in to deal with the return guys. That took about 30 minutes.
Next was the checking-in challenge. Before you do anything, there’s a security line. Women to one side, men to the other. Infuriating.
Then, we discovered the flight was delayed. So, we were moved aside while all the others checked-in for a flight that left 30 minutes ahead of our delayed one. After an hour in line, we had boarding passes.
Next was a booth to exit the country via passport controls. Line jumpers and such made this challenge an entertaining one at least.
We entered the shopping zone and looked for final gifts, reading materials, and food. Hmmm. Gifts easy enough. Reading materials–limited. Food–also limited. We bought a bag of M&Ms, pistachios, gum, and bottled water. And then found a bad coffee shop and a Popeye’s.
Next came another round of security. Again men and women separated. Why I found this so maddening, I’m not sure. The women’s line moved faster–though it was a thorough pat down. I just didn’t like being separated and not being able to help watch the stuff.
Finally it was time to board. And uh oh…surrounded by babies for this 13 1/2 hour flight. No kidding…8 babies under 2 in the row in front, behind and beside us. The baby in front of us would cry for 7 hours straight in a little while.
We ate our meals, tried to listen to the iPods, tried to read, watched snippets of stupid movies, anxiously awaited the maps of our journey on the screens, walked to stretch our legs, and I struggled for 2 hours on 2 sudoku puzzles (my first ever).
I made notes:
1:30 p.m.: Wheels up, rising over Israel…there’s the Dead Sea…is that Jerusalem?
2:30 p.m.: Babies, babies, babies…they hear each other, and now it’s going in rounds.
3:00 p.m.: A man opens an overhead bin and a cane falls on the man with the comb-over below. I’m sure it hurt, but the guy makes a much bigger deal out of it than necessary. Whiney.
3:30 p.m.: The really old guy next to me in a cool-looking wool overcoat throws-up in his barf bag. He goes to the bathroom for the first of perhaps 20 times. It is not a pleasant smell, but I feel sorry for him. He doesn’t say a word to anyone.
4:00 p.m.: Bryan takes a sleeping pill. I’m jealous. I’ve got Italy out the window, and a stupid Eddie Murphy movie on the screen inside. The baby in front of us begins her crying jag.
4:30 – 6:15 p.m.: We switch places–Bryan to the window. I am drinking wine and trying desperately to concentrate on the sodokus. We pass the NW tip of France at 6:15.
6:15 – 8:00 p.m.: The baby in front of us is screeching and earns the “machine gun baby” nick-name for her percussion-like cadence of crying/whining. Still working the sodokus, and a word jumble, and a scramble…and trying to read the captions in an Arabic newspaper…anything to NOT hear the blasting baby!
8:30 p.m.: Bathroom break. I get up to walk and stretch. Got a muffin, a drink of water, and put on some lotion. Pulled out a book to read.
11:00 p.m.: The baby ahead is asleep. Thank God. I doze.
11:30 p.m.: An announcement “Is there a doctor on board?” !!!!
11:45 p.m.: The baby behind us wakes up and begins crying.
12:00 midnight in Amman and still 3 hours from landing…the babies beside us begin crying, but thankfully are quieted quickly.
12:30 a.m. in Amman: The baby ahead of us wakes and begins the machine-gun cries. The guy behind me has just sneezed about 10 times in a row. I smell baby doo.
FINALLY, we begin the descent into Chicago. I can’t tell you how happy I was to see the giant grid of lights below us as we came in at twilight. I couldn’t wait to get off the plane.
Immigration easy. We were waiting for the bags for almost an hour–but had fun watching the beagle sniff out all the fruits/foods brought over. Watched a nasty little man berate his wife for moving a foot away from their carry-on bag to point out their bag coming around on the carousel. The fool, ignorant little man, missed it anyway. This was repeated for each of their 4 large bags–he failed to see all 4. Unbelievable. And his tone was so super ugly–even if I couldn’t understand his words.
But by 8:30 p.m., we were home! Home to jumping dogs, a huge pile of mail and lots of pictures to download!
Driving North in Jordan: From Aqaba, along the Dead Sea, to Mt Nebo – October 16-17, 2008
Our last 2 days were intended to be all about relaxation (as it turns out after 5 OTHER days of relaxation!) The Moevenpick Dead Sea Resort has the world’s first spa, supposedly the Queen of Sheba and Solomon visited awhile back…(probably before it was the Moevenpick).
We left Aqaba in the morning and headed north along the Dead Sea Highway. It’s close to the border with Israel, so we were stopped often. “Where are you from?”, “Passports?”, “Where are you going?”, “Where are you coming from?”. Many of the Jordanian soldiers looked like bored teenagers with rifles. I think we were stopped to give them something to do on that long, empty road.
The colors of this area make me think of the phrase “land of milk and honey”…there are some incredible caramels, honeys and milky colors in the soil. Combined with the red sand, the green scrub grasses, and the blues of the Dead Sea and sky, it is quite a striking view along this road.
Eventually, we arrived in the Dead Sea hotel area and checked in to Room N17 (Nebo 17). A gorgeously posh room with a small balcony overlooking the Dead Sea. We changed and headed down to the Dead Sea.
Now, I’d read alot about the Dead Sea: the lowest place on earth, it’s shrinking by evaporating, the high salt content that makes you float, the benefits to your skin and your health, and the warnings about how painful small cuts and scratches can be in the sea. Let me just say that salt burns in places you never imagined!
The beach and bottom of the sea is rocky–painful to walk…but super easy to float, when the waves take hold. Even I am buoyant in the Dead Sea! Lifeguards are on hand just in case they get a leaden one–but mainly they are there to pour fresh water into burning eyes for those who don’t know NOT to put their faces in the Dead Sea. Bryan tried the special mud packs–an extravagant natural mixture to make skin soft as velvet. There are showers to wash the Dead Sea film off–it is quite a coating of salty minerals.
The next day, we went early to Mt Nebo to see the Promised Land. Moses is said to be buried up there somewhere–having been denied entry to the Promised Land after all he’d done. Hazy views of Israel and the Dead Sea. Really enjoyed the morning drive through small towns and wide open spaces.
And on our final afternoon, we splurged. We treated ourselves to the day package at Zara Spa. JD 25 per person lets you into the special pools and whirlpools on a day-long pass. There are 3 heated in-door whirlpools with varying degrees of salt. And a lovely outdoor pool with seats along the edges–and all of these were no deeper than 5 feet–so I could walk around and enjoy all this pool-time too. And then there was an infinity pool overlooking the Dead Sea and near a cafe/bar. In the middle of the afternoon, an attendant brought us ice cold washcloths smelling of rose oil. We had a meal out there and fresh juices. As the sun was about to sink–we enjoyed a local rose wine (from “Latroun, Holy Land”) and peanuts. We swatted flies, toasted the Holy Land and enjoyed a glorious sunset while listening to a mix of old songs piped into the pool area.
The plan was to spend a night in Aqaba–in a fancy hotel to clean up after 2 nights in the desert, and then go to Egypt for 2 nights to climb Mt. Sinai, returning to this fancy hotel for one other night after Egypt. Our plans were not to be.
We arrived a day early in Aqaba. We went into the beautiful hotel (Movenpick Resort & Residences Aqaba) early after having driven an hour into town from Wadi Rum. We were dirty, smelly and desperately in need of coffee. The 3 Brits and we sat down in the outside dining area and ordered coffee. I went in to see if we could get a room today.
It was on this first day that we made friends with Kenan, a kohl-eyed Mr. Bean kind of guy who was exceedingly helpful. I had to speak to “Mr Ramsey” the manager–and even had to go into the back room offices of the hotel to “make a reservation”. In the end, we would stay 5 nights here when the Egypt trip fell through–not just the original 2. Kenan was instrumental in helping us with the arrangements and kept us in the same room (post room #445) all 5 nights at a nice price.
So, Egypt was not to be on this journey. The group (Wings Tours) that was supposed to meet us at the Nuweiba ferry terminal e:mailed looking for final payment. We’d sent a copy of a credit card 2 weeks before and received confirmation that all was fine–so we weren’t sure what the problem was. Now, they said they didn’t have the card information and insisted on us paying cash in U.S. dollars upon arrival in Egypt. It was too suspicious, so we said no thanks and made a call to the credit card company for sanity’s sake.
That meant we’d be here in Aqaba for 5 days–a beach and pool vacation. Biggest decisions of the day were “which pool?”, “where to eat lunch/dinner?”, and “do you want to go down to the beach?” We read books (I bought Queen Noor’s biography and read it there). We got copper colored tans. We napped in the sun and in the shade–listening to the muezzins calling Aqaba to prayer. We swatted flies. We ate great meals at dinner on the Moevinpick campus. We ventured out to find oud music for Mark and to explore the area around us. We got lazy too. We watched movies in the room and left the window open to the night breezes in Aqaba.
There were pretty paintings in the lobby, and fresh flowers floating in the fountains. Four resident ducks would swim in the pool at twilight. Kenan sent us a bowl of fruit our last night. Very elegant place.
One of our favorite times of day was the breakfast buffet. There were resident cats who we fed. They played with the edges of the oriental rugs spread all over the courtyard. And there were resident crows–who waited until a table with food was unattended and would swoop in, grab a sausage, and fly off. I enjoyed the hummus, capers, boiled egg, steamed tomatoes, chocolate croissants, and orange slices. And we liked to watch the “coffee-boys”. There’s not really a more simple job–fill the coffee cups, bring milk/sugar and keep the coffee/tea brewed. There were always 6-8 coffee boys on the floor (this was an outdoor tented courtyard of maybe 50 tables–half occupied with 2-3 people) but there was always chaos and confusion. No complaints, it was just part of the charm.
I walked the beach looking for sea-glass and finding washed up pieces of bleached out coral. We could look out on the gulf and see Israel, and the distant lights of Egypt. Oil tankers came and went from the gulf. Muezzins called as the Jordanian flag fluttered in the ocean breeze. It was a lovely week. Every now and then we ached a little for Egypt, to DO something like walking in Jerusalem, hiking in Petra or climbing a red sand dune. But not too often
It was a grand week of doing nothing–relaxing. It was also our 11th wedding anniversary and 23 years together…more than half our lives.
A day and night in Wadi Rum, Jordan – October 10-11, 2008
On October 10, we headed to Wadi Rum–leaving Petra early in the morning. We were to spend 2 days/nights in the desert, riding camels, 4-wheeling and hiking to enjoy the landscape with Bedouin Roads. We parked the car and began the two-day trip with 3 funny British tourists and 2 Bedouin guides.
I learned some things in Wadi Rum. Here they are in no particular order.
1) Riding a camel is no easy affair. They kneel down, and you climb up. And then they stand up–back end first, which sends you nearly over the front. And then up comes the front. Camels are tall–the ground is way down there. My camel, Lulu was a chatty five year old (Seriously, she grunted, hummed, and snorted into the other camels’ ears just about every minute of our time together).
2) A camel saddle is not comfortable. First of all–it begins with a piece of wood shaped like this: ^ to fit over the camel’s hump. There are 2 horns to hold on to…and likely to keep you in the saddle and on the camel during the standing up/laying down process. Next a few pillows and blankets are strapped over the wooden ^. There are no stirrups. After about 20 minutes of legs dangling, you can no longer feel your legs. We learned by watching the Bedouin to put one leg up and over the camel’s neck–almost side-saddle. This let the blood flow again. Alternating legs was a necessity.
3) Taking pictures from a moving camel is hit or miss. They plod along and it’s a bumpy ride. Makes for interesting angles I suppose.
4) Walking in the sand is slow-going and tiring. Camels are smart to take their time–loping along in relative silence (well, not Lulu). It’s actually quite peaceful. You can hear the desert silence, the breathing of the camel beneath you.
5) Climbing a sand dune is a serious work-out.
6) Wadi Rum has red sand. It’s a beautiful copper color…and sparkles like snow in the sun.
7) Sand gets into everything. Inside your shoes, inside your socks, in your mouth, ears, nose, eyes, hair, food, tea, water, backpacks…and let’s hope not too bad in the cameras. (Two months later, and I’m still finding the red sand of Wadi Rum.)
8) There are a million more stars in the desert. Holy cow at the stars!
9) I’m not a camping girl. Sleeping in a bedouin tent was an experience I’m glad to say I’ve done…once. The goat hair tents were beautiful and kept us warm in the desert’s cold night air. Old mattresses that were like lawn furniture pads were laid out on rugs in the tents and we had an old duvet. Everything smelled old, unwashed. Bryan said it smelled like camels. Lulu didn’t smell THAT bad. The old style (hole in the ground) toilets were in a small room built against the huge rock shielding camp. Four stalls and 3 sinks were lit by candles–and 2 small stained glass windows. Despite the sleeping and toilet experiences–we ate a wonderful meal (Hunger makes a good sauce as they say in Ireland), and I slept like a log. And I did enjoy sitting in the cold morning air watching the sun rise–and then brushing my teeth out in the wide open desert.
10) Sitting around a camp fire just before the sun comes up and enjoying a cup of tea and a laugh is a great way to start the day. The British folks slept near a Polish couple. Apparently, the Polish guy made a variety of noises in the night that kept a lot of people awake. Their wit and sarcasm had us all rolling– “He sounded like a camel…like a dozen camels…like a pregnant camel plus birds”. “Maybe it’s the wife?” “I don’t think she’s the size to produce such a sound” When the Polish guy came over to the camp fire, the British guy asked “How’d you sleep?” The Polish guy, “Lovely”. “Incredible!” said the British guy. We sat there laughing in the warmth of the sun and the heat of the fire–eating boiled eggs and drinking tea.
11) When it’s time to go, it’s time to go. We decided to forego another day/night in the desert and hopped on the truck when it left for the village. The Bedouin Roads guys were great about our sudden change in plans. We got in our car, joined now by the 3 Brits who needed a lift to Aqaba, and headed out.
We left Jerusalem early in a shared taxi. 68 NIS total and we were on the bus waiting for the final passengers. I had gotten a bit spooked at breakfast on the roof this morning–we were feeding the cats, enjoying the sunshine, the olives and the view. And I noticed a playing card laying face down on the ground between our chairs. I reached for it and turned it over as I picked it up…uh oh…Ace of Spades. Travel days already are nerve-racking enough without the death card showing up at breakfast. But then, the last 2 passengers joining our bus were nuns from Mother Teresa’s order! They were accompanied to the station by several other nuns–and they blessed each other by gently holding and touching each other’s bowed heads. As the last one boarded the bus, she shouted “goodbye sisters” with a beautiful accent and smile. She squeezed into the seat next to me. I noted their soft white cotton robes with the distinctive blue stripes. They both wore finger rosaries.
And then I noticed Bryan smiling at me. Yep, he’d read my mind…I was delighted to be accompanied on this journey by nuns! The mini-van ride was quick…we were practically flying around the curvy roads. I noticed the nuns’ finger rosaries going round and round, just as I caught the last glimpse of the golden Dome of the Rock in the morning sun. Goodbye Jerusalem. But today, I was going to Petra! A place I’ve wanted to see for so long. The plan was to get to Wadi Musa / Petra today and enter the Rose Red City for the first time on my birthday. With the sun, the breeze, the nuns, the memory of Jerusalem and the promise of Petra…well, I was a happy, thankful girl.
The exit from Israel cost 150.50 NIS each. And the entry into Jordan was a chaotic mess. You get separated from your luggage and your passport and there are no lines for anything. It took well over an hour to go through. We found a cash station for Jordanian dinars and stumbled across 2 German girls negotiating for a taxi ride to Petra. We approached them as they turned to us to ask if we were going to Petra. And we offered them a ride in our rental car that we still had to pick up. Bryan said it’s a good gesture and will surely come back to us. Travelers’ karma. Manuela and Kerstin agreed to pay for the gas to Petra. We picked up the car at Europcar…an 11-year-old black economy car reserved about 24 hours ago. A bit of miming about this and that with the attendant, and some pointing to the Petra road, and we were off.
We headed out towards Road 65…the Dead Sea Highway. The deep blue Dead Sea was rimmed in white. No boats out there–just an incredible blue expanse with Israel on the other side. When the sea ended, we turned left onto highway 50…that went up up up. And then turned right onto the Kings Highway 15. This was like Nolensville Road in Nashville–a major thoroughfare that passes through little towns periodically. Along the way, we stopped to get directions–roll down the window, smile and ask “Petra?” They’d smile back and begin pointing. There was a road closure and a detour that took us into the back roads of a small town. Kids ran alongside the car smiling. We joked about what they must think of Bryan and his 3 rebellious wives–all without head scarves! We stopped for a bathroom break and Bryan bought those middle eastern sweets with the pistachios and flaky pastry from a small shop. All in all, the journey took 5 hours. Much longer than we’d expected. We pulled into town as the sun was sinking, dropping Manuela and Kerstin at their hotel and driving on to find ours.
The Petra Moon Hotel Wadi Musa is very close to the entrance to Petra. They were offering a Petra by Moonlight tour that night for JD12. We signed up, showered, ate a nice pizza at Mystic Pizza, and joined about 400 other people for a 3 1/2 hour walk. That sounds like a lot of people, but it is nothing compared to the crowds during a normal day. And the guides request walking 2-by-2 in silence to appreciate the moment. Most people abided by that…and it was a stunning experience.
The Siq–the mile long entry down into Petra–was lit by candles in bags spaced about 10 feet apart. I was giddy–about to see Petra!–and by candlelight no less. It was a clear night with a crescent moon and thousands of stars. I loved the sound of gravel and sand underfoot, the feeling of the walls rising up around us as we went deeper into the canyon, and the view of the stars narrowed to a sliver above. The anticipation was building. On and on we walked. It was so quiet as the Siq narrowed and we continued down, the walls rising above us. Careful over the larger stone path. 45 minutes passed. Finally, we heard murmuring ahead of us, heard gasps, and then we too turned a curve and saw the flickers of thousands of candles right ahead…lighting up and revealing a glimpse of the massive Treasury. Finally, you step out right in front of this huge 6 columned facade ornately carved into the side of a cliff. What a way to see it for the first time! The size of it, the rosy color of the columns accented by the dancing flames of a thousand candles. The silence. The stars above. Stunning.
Rows of carpets had been laid out for us to sit. We were brought mint tea on large copper serving trays. The Bedouin guide told us the story of Petra as we sat quietly in front of one of the great wonders of the world. He told us the story of the Nabataeans who carved all of this grand place over 2,000 years ago, of the Bedouins who lived in tents around here, of how the city was “lost” to outsiders and then found again in the 1800s. I couldn’t help but think about Indiana Jones–and wonder about the Holy Grail. We got to hear Bedouin music that night–an oud and a flute, echoing in the Treasury. Incredible.
We slept well that night after the long walk, the long ride from the border to Petra, and after 7 long, sleepless nights in Jerusalem. On my birthday, we took time over breakfast–better coffee, more hard-boiled eggs and hummus, but no olives We got the 3 day Petra pass and began the walk through the Siq at 8 a.m.
The Siq is a stunning walk–so many colors and shapes in the walls. We stopped a hundred times to climb this, photograph that. We finally reached the Treasury–and were even more stunned to see this magnificent thing in the sunlight. There is only a small room actually carved into the Treasury…but the detail in the columns, in the statues on the side…amazing. We stopped for tea and a Fanta and contemplated the day ahead of us. We’d packed a lunch of some cheese/crackers, almonds and oranges.
Petra during the day is crowded…and hot. During the day, it’s louder and you have to avoid the horse carriages coming and going through the Siq, then the camels and donkeys in Petra…not to mention the vendors trying to sell necklaces. There can be an intense smell of urine around the Treasury. And I couldn’t stand seeing the donkeys whipped or tied to stakes in the sun all day. We walked miles and miles every day–aching by the time we returned to the Treasury–only to face the 1 mile walk up the Siq to the village. All this to say–it is a physically and mentally challenging place to spend a few days. I wished I was in better shape, that I’d come when it was cooler (or when I was younger!), that I hadn’t worn shoes with sand collecting mesh, that I’d brought more sunscreen and water. I wished the people would be nicer to the animals, I wished I’d seen even one person giving their horse/donkey/camel a drink of water.
The place is stunning. It is a testament to human ingenuity. There are thousands of patterns and sparkling colors in the sandstone and so many stages of erosion. We walked for 3 days there and feel like we didn’t see half of it. And they say only 5% of it is excavated!
Day 1, we took our time. I took about 500 pictures along the way through the Street of Facades, the theater, the Royal Tombs. We ate lunch at the Urn Tomb–overlooking the collonaded street of Petra below.
On day 2, we went in around 6:30 a.m. There were only a few people (maybe 5) at the Treasury. We all took turns taking and getting our photos in front of an empty Treasury. And then we began the walk to the Monastery with a guy named Tony. About 10 miles round trip. Past all the stuff we’d seen yesterday and then a turn onto the trail that has 800 steps and winds up, up, up. The trail isn’t hard to find, but not exactly well marked either. We walked up ancient warped steps, around narrow cliff paths looking down into canyons, up, up, up. We thought we’d never get there. Along the way, a Bedouin family passed us…we exchanged “Merhahbah” with the dad who was walking, then another “merhahbah” with the ~10 year old son, and then the little ~6 year old girl passed and said “good morning” to us before we could speak. Big smiles. They waved us in the right direction as they took a different path into the canyon. We stopped in a cool crack between the cliffs to catch a great breeze in the little wind tunnel…and the Monastery was just to our right.
WOW. Another MASSIVE facade carved into the side of a mountain. Eight columns wide–not as ornate, but huge and every bit as impressive as the treasury. Only 4 of us there…not counting the Bedouins who must live out there to run a little cafe. We saw a man dressed in a suit/bedouin head scarf, talking on a cell phone and walking a donkey. We saw donkeys bringing in crates of plastic bottles of water, and firewood. We stayed a bit. Resting in the shade, taking pictures, wondering if we could get up top on the urn like the National Geographic photograph but, a tourist had fallen to his death a few years ago, so the path is closed–“no climbing”. This was a good day. It was early, cooler. I enjoyed the smell of the Bedouin’s fires, they were waking up and making tea in several of the little booths along the way. We encouraged those we met on the path as we went back–“not far now!”, “about 15 more minutes!” or to those close to the start “it’s worth it!”
On the way back, I noticed a little boy very carefully arranging colorful pieces of sandstone on a small table near the collonaded street. He couldn’t have been older than 7. But he was so cute, a proud little business man, meticulously setting up a beautiful display of rocks to sell. He even looked at the sun’s direction, and moved a stone just slightly to catch the sun in the right spot. I went back. His dad came up slowly behind him on a donkey. I asked the little boy if he was selling the rocks–he replied “3 for 1 dinar, your choice lady”. I chose carefully, and asked him what he thought. He again said “your choice, any”. I gave him my dinar, said “showkrawn”, he said “thank you” and turned beaming to his dad. I heard his dad say “Bravo” as we walked away…and the little boy laughing and talking excitedly.
We spent this night at Petra Kitchen with 7 other guests cooking an authentic Jordanian meal…lentil soup, baba ganuj, tabbouleh, galaya bandura, araias lahmah (I worked on this crispy meat quesadilla thing) and Magloubet (“upside down”). We were all having a little wine and chopping, stirring–while 3 chefs oversaw and did the heavy work. Excellent meal…and lots of it.
We spent the third day walking around the Royal Tombs and sitting quietly for our final moments in front of the Treasury. And of course, a slow passage through the beautiful Siq. Bryan joked with the boys selling postcards, trying to sell his back. Good fun, they were laughing when they understood him.
On the final night, we ate at Oriental Restaurant. I had mansafe with rice with almonds/pine nuts. Yum. And then we borrowed Indiana Jones from the hotel staff and watched Harrison Ford ride a horse in the Siq A nice ending to our Petra experience.
So many places we didn’t see in Petra. Such nice people in Wadi Musa. I’d like to go back someday.
Travel days always bring some level of angst. This one was a big one. We were crossing from Jordan to Israel via the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge. Mark Hamilton had warned us that this was one of the few border crossings in the world that still made a big deal of crossing from one country to another. I’d read travelers’ tales of long waits, intense questioning, lost bags, and unexpected closures.
Our taxi sped out of Amman on this bright morning and hurtled through the streets rimmed with eastward leaning trees, out into the empty land and down, down, down into the valley of the Dead Sea. Our ears popped. We marveled at the white and caramel colored land of Jordan (was this the Biblical “milk and honey” reference?).
Suddenly, our taxi pulled off the road. Two other taxis sat there–both with King Hussein Taxi stamped on the sides.
Our driver got out to talk with them. And then we were asked to switch taxis. As our original driver explained while we moved the packs from one trunk to the next, the first driver paid the second driver to take us the final bit to the border. We hopped into the 2nd cab and we were off again….this time with a car full of persistent flies. The last few miles seemed to be in a different age–we passed a herd of sheep complete with a shepherd in the red and white-checked head scarf and a herding dog. There was a smell of peat, and green trees lined the street. A black goat with bells walked with a dog along the side of the road. The road went down, more ear popping.
The entire journey from hotel to the border took only about 45 minutes. The border compound was a little cluster of buildings, with a bustle of people and transportation options. We entered a small room, put our bags through an x-ray machine and followed the people into another room and a line for passport control. The line was long and slow–and most people had little regard for it. Tour guides with bags full of passports tried to break line. We were in line behind a couple from California also traveling independently and struck up a conversation while vigilantly holding our places. When it was your turn, you paid JD 5 each to leave Jordan and got all the stamps. Then you were told to go sit and wait for the bus.
It was already close to 10 a.m. and the border was reportedly closing at 11 (not 1 p.m.) for Rosh Hashanah. We sat fanning off the flies and watching the show, talking to the Californians and a woman from Jordan with an 8-year-old daughter holding a U.S. passport. One of the border crossing security men smiled and assured us “You will be in Israel today.”
Finally, the correct bus pulled up…after there had been a few false alarms. We boarded and waited for another long while in the purple curtained bus. A young man got on and collected a fee to cross…per person and per bag. And then we were off.
The bus pulled out of the border compound and turned left past the soldiers and out into an empty street. We passed solitary platforms with soldiers watching carefully–machine guns at the ready. The bus had to make a few zig-zag turns to pass the barricades. After about 3 miles, we passed a checkpoint where we had to get out and show our passports while an Israeli soldier boarded the empty bus and checked it out. We reboarded, drove a bit again to another checkpoint with Israeli flags, and finally reached a large building for Passport Control. Our driver shook our hands as we left and picked up our luggage.
In this building, we went through airport-like security–bags on the belt and through a metal detector. We noticed that the Jordanian woman and her daughter were pulled aside in a separate place and were being questioned by a female soldier. Our passports were taken from us and collected by a young woman soldier dressed in a t-shirt.
She passed a small cotton wipe over them and took it to be analyzed. We were then ok’d to move into the next line. Here we would wait for almost an hour.
We were behind the Californian couple, in front of an Asian couple who were together for missionary work, and the Jordanian woman with the girl were behind them. We thought we would be the last crossing of the day, but another bus pulled in and about 50 Asian folks filled the room behind us. As we neared the passport control stations, we could see that only 3 were open. They were staffed by young Israeli female soldiers. Shy young lady soldiers were asking questions of those of us in line–“do you mind passport stamp?”, “are you together?” We were tired and getting hungry. Our line began joking about “you can stamp ME…just let me in!”
When we got to the window, we were asked several questions–“Where are you from? Where are you traveling from today? How are you related? Why are you here? Where will you go? Where will you stay? How long will you stay? Can you show me your flight return information?” and “will you be traveling in the West Bank?” Uh….Bethlehem is in the West Bank. So, I said–“Can we go to Bethlehem?” She said, “Yes–of course, this is fine…but anywhere else?” I answered an emphatic “No, thank you.”
She smiled at us, stamped the red Israel mark into our passports and nodded us through to the next line.
The next line was a haphazard glance at our passports and a wave into the waiting area–a cafe, empty cash exchange booths, and a waiting area filled with tourist groups gathering again. We were in Israel…with no sheikels and no ATMs around. A helpful soldier let me know that I could get cash just around the corner outside. We saddled up the packs and stepped outside, making our way around the building in the incredible mid-day heat.
“Just around the corner” was like another country. This was where hundreds of other people cleared passport control. These people dressed in traditional Arab clothing and carried huge piles of stuff–sometimes on their heads or in carts, sometimes stacked high on luggage racks–massive bags that looked like 100 lbs of meat wrapped in burlap, or 50 lbs of rice in pillow cases, or cases of water in milk jugs. People were busy on this side–hustling here and there with their baggage, yelling, sweating, and getting rides arranged. It was 2 days before the end of Ramadan, so I figured that many were coming/going to be with family for the Eid holiday.
We exchanged money and soon realized that our best ride to Jerusalem was to be a shared taxi for the price of 37 NIS (Israel New Shekel) each. Bryan paid and we piled into a van as passengers numbers 5 and 6. We needed 10 to leave.
Passenger #1 was an Israeli business man who spoke some English–he looked like anyone you’d see going to work on the el in Chicago, complete with laptop bag and newspaper.
Passenger #2 was also in business–let’s just say import/export, or theft. Every few minutes he would whistle, or yell out something and other men would approach the van handing in bags of cigarette boxes or a handful of cell phones. He crammed the packages into the back and the area around his seat.
Passengers #3 and 4 were older Palestinian ladies dressed in the long dresses, robes and head scarves. While they piously did not drink water during this Ramadan day–they did SPLASH it! A few times they would flamboyantly throw water on themselves (and coincidentally on me as I sat behind them), patting their faces and lips dry. We waited and waited. It was hot in there. I sweated in my long sleeve shirt–worn to be considerate of the culture–and eventually pushed the sleeves up over my elbows so that I could enjoy more of the little breeze we caught here and there. Bryan climbed out and walked impatiently around the van–keeping an eye on our packs that were now beneath a stash of cigarettes and what looked like a sheep carcass wrapped in burlap and paper. Whatever that was in that bundle, the flies loved it…and flocked to it.
Suddenly, but after about 45 minutes of waiting, we collected passengers #7-8-9-10 AND #11 and #12: a married woman traveling solo (who was arranged so that she had a single seat and did not have to sit next to a man), two young men and an older Arab man with the traditional keffilah head scarf, and two young girls without scarves who shared a seat vacated by the busy businessman (he sat on the steps next to the driver). I was fascinated by them all–and by the simple understanding and rearranging so that the single women were not profaned by sitting next to men they didn’t know.
We were finally off. I’ve never appreciated the breeze from an open car window more in my life! We had a checkpoint before pulling out of the compound. Half of the passengers got out at the road to Ramallah. Then after about 30 minutes, as we approached the outskirts of Jerusalem, we pulled over for a soldier to get in and see us and our passports. Traffic got thicker and suddenly as we sped around a bend in the road–I saw Jerusalem!
It was just a glimpse, but unmistakable–in the distance, the Dome of the Rock–golden in the sun, the walls. A smile, a chill and a wave of wonder passed over me as the view of the ancient city was lost behind a hill. This was the city so many people through the ages had fought for, the city that is Holy to Christians, Jews, and Muslims, the city we all hear about–but few get a chance to visit. Here it was in front of me. We were here!
We were dropped at Herod’s gate (not Damascus as we first thought). We loaded up the packs, crossed the insanely busy road that circles the old city and entered through the towering old walls. Inside, the road became a walking street–caramel colored stonework on the ground and in the buildings, narrow alleys and quiet. We walked and walked–looking for the hotel and taking in our first views of Old Jerusalem. We asked–and got directions in English, or gestures pointing this way and that. We passed a bird store in the open at the top of a flight of narrow stairs. Chilly in the shade with the breeze up there–and all these brightly colored song birds chirping and singing. We entered a more narrow and closed-in area of shops–a stunning variety of goods for sale. This was the Muslim Quarter. Finally we found the Hotel Hashimi. We were buzzed in, welcomed by a very nice English speaking man dressed in bright white robes and invited to go wait on the rooftop while our room (#305) was made ready.
We stepped out of the arrivals area into the usual airport arrivals chaos. Loads of people welcoming others and lots of people trying to sell you a ride somewhere. The Shepherd Hotel had agreed to send a driver for us for 24 JD. We found him easily and stepped out into the warm evening light of Amman. I can’t tell you how good it smelled after 12+ hours on a plane.
He drove fast–flitting from lane to lane. It’s a good 30 miles into Amman from the airport–it felt good to smell the desert air and the warm breeze at sunset. The muezzins were sounding off for evening prayer. The trees along the road lean hard to the east (there must be some harsh winds in these parts).
Once we checked in to our Amman hotel (The Shepherd Hotel), we went walking. Our place was located just south of the area between the 1st and 2nd circles–and hey, even the circles read right to left (east to west) for 1 thru 8!
We found an ATM, saw the brightly spot-lit Iraqi Embassy (gorgeous Babylonian design in blue and gold), and wandered the quiet streets. It was now dark and people were breaking the fast (“iftar”). Holiday lights lit windows and balconies–Ramadan decorations of a crescent moon and star. The streets got busier as people came out. There were some far off fireworks. It looked like folks were heading to meet others–walking with excitement and carrying bags of food.
We found a small restaurant–and pieced together our order with the teenage guy behind the counter. And enjoyed the street scenes while eating a pizza and burger for only JD 7. It was a simple little thing–but the Arabic on the Pepsi can delighted me. We were finally here!
The next day started sunny and brisk. Even though it was daylight and Ramadan, the hotel served a buffet breakfast–coffee, hard-boiled eggs, pitas and hummus, cheese and sliced meats. We walked a bit–snapping photos of the hills of Amman and the white buildings cast pink with the early morning light.
Our hotel rang up a taxi to take us to the Israel border for JD 25. We threw our packs in the trunk and wondered if we’d make the crossing before the border closed for Rosh Hashanah at 1 p.m.
Jordan, Israel, and Palestine = September 28 – October 18, 2008
The Holy Land. The Land of Milk and
Honey. Jerusalem, Gethsemane, Bethlehem, Petra, Mt. Nebo, The Promised Land, and the Dead Sea. Religious stories, history, and politics all in one tightly-wound place.
Chicago to Amman, Sunday, September 28, 2008
We began talking about this trip a year ago. Despite that, the details came together rather late. The day of our departure, I was still making arrangements. I didn’t even begin packing until a few hours before we left for the airport.
We were nervous about this trip. The “Holy Land” brought to mind images of stone throwing, skeletons of blasted buses, and bleeding, crying people stumbling from bombed-out buildings. Add to that the fact that our economy was crashing–everyday there was news of another bank failing, another dismal Dow day, another company laying off thousands of workers. Plus this was one of those trips we call a “working vacation”: a location requiring mental and physical exertion…a very different culture, hiking, climbing, and two languages each with their own alphabets and reading right-to-left.
We packed light in two new backpacks–4 pairs of pants, 8 shirts, a rain jacket, a fleece, the Blackberry now enabled as a phone–to keep in touch with calls and with a new app called Twitter…”just in case”, 2 cameras, a video camera and lots of memory cards. I even left the film camera behind…a first for me! Our packs *together* weighed only 22 kg.
The Royal Jordanian flight left Chicago around 9 p.m. on Saturday night from the International Terminal. The area before security bustled with activity–bars, restaurants and shopping. On the other side of security, it was eerily quiet and empty. We bought big bottles of water for the ride and walked the long hallways. A man knelt quietly in a corner performing his prayers towards Mecca. A woman with everything but her face covered walked with a little girl dressed in a short frilly pink dress and a miniature head scarf.
About 10 TSA agents were on duty at the gate–scrutinizing each and every passenger. No pleasantries, no smiles, just a hard stare at your face, your baggage, your every move–some people were motioned over for a carry-on bag search. It took a long time to board the plane. And it was full. Overhead bins stuffed to the max, many seats filled with moms holding children in their laps.
We pulled away from the gate around 9:30 p.m. and drove slowly to the runway. The old plane took its time picking up speed and lifting off…and then took a scary amount of time to elevate. It would be 12 hours before we landed in Amman.
The plane was old–small, shared screens showed a few movies, exercise videos, and the occasional flight map to tell everyone where we were. The flight map always started with a diagram of the location of Mecca’s Kaaba in relation to the plane. We were served dinner shortly after take-off. And we settled into seats 8A & 8B with our neck pillows, water, and things to read. Lap children were laid out to sleep across their parents on the seat-back tray tables. Because it was Ramadan and we had only had a few hours of night, Ramadan fasters were offered another meal just before we passed into daylight again. The flight attendants asked in both Arabic and English, “Are you going to fast?”
The night and day flight passed slowly. Reading. Sore eyes. Headache. Getting up to stand for a bit. Dozing. Saw bits of the 3 movies: the new Indiana Jones, Leatherheads and a Jackie Chan movie. And finally, we began the descent. I opened the window shade to see white houses in the red brown earth of Israel and Jordan.
We landed around 5 p.m. in Amman. Paid our 10 JD (1 Jordanian Dinar is ~$1.40 U.S.) to get our Visas, waited an eternity for our bags and finally–headed out to meet our ride.