Updated: Nov 24, 2020
For the last 3 weeks I was in Israel for 10 days on a birthright trip, and then in Jordan for about a week. I’ve decided to write about Jordan first mainly because it is the most fresh in my mind, and I actually kept a journal. The following are excerpts from that journal.
– Today is the first day I am on my own or at least done with the birthright trip. It was a ton of fun, but being on a bus with 39 other people and being rushed from one site to the next for 10 days can be both a physically and mentally exhausting experience. So I am very excited to take things at my own pace, and generate my own itinerary. My Friend Anita is in Israel for a few days, she has family in Tel Aviv and arrived on the 25th. She is scheduled to leave on the 3rd. Her whole trip is a little last minute, and given my schedule for wanting to be in Jordan, we will only have two days to hang out.
Today we met up in Jerusalem, and had a pretty full day of treasure hunting different sites with the Israel guide book. Of the cooler things we did, we found the city of David outside the gates of the old city. In this city there is a tunnel system that was built by the Jews when the Romans were storming the city, they dug underneath the walls to the city of David were the water supply was. Parts of this tunnel are still intact and open for exploration. It’s a pitch dark tunnel no more than a body width wide that runs for about 1km and water is still flowing in it, sometimes up to the knees. At first I was against the idea, but Anita was persistent, as she usually is about such random adventures. Of course neither of us had any spare clothes or even a flashlight. We got a lucky because the whole area was about to close and every day there is someone that works there that walks the tunnel to make sure no one is stuck. He came just was we were debating about how to do it, and gave us flashlights. So we rolled up our jeans as best we could and dove in. It was pretty amazing to be in some wet dark cave underneath Jerusalem, which is in the same condition as the day it was built. Needless to say the rest of they day I was cold and wet, but it was worth it.
Today is the day that I set off for Jordan, but before I do I was going south with Anita to hike Masada and possibly go to the dead sea again. Masada is something all birthright trips do, so I had already seen it, but thought it might be fun to see different parts at a different pace, and for the most part it was. We wound up staying on Masada for a long time and I had to skip going to the dead sea in order to catch the bus to Elait, which is the bordering Israeli town to the Jordanian city of Aqaba. My plan was to get to Elait and then cross over to Aqaba and somehow get a room. I had heard since it was New Years Eve it was be nearly impossible to stay in Elait which is a big party town, unlike its Jordinian counter part which is in the relatively dry Arab world.
On the bus I met a Swiss girl that was attempting to do the same thing as me, we decided to tag team it and split busses and cabs and possibly a room in Aqaba. There is a tenant to traveling alone that I preach over and over again, and that is you are never truly alone. The world is full of this qausi underground society of like minded backpackers that take the cheapest busses, and stay in the cheapest places. If you place your self on the circuit you don’t have to hold your breath for too long before you run into someone willing to share a room, cab, or just travel advice with you. Actually I would go as far as saying that it’s pretty difficult at times to just be alone, as there are so many people that really want someone to travel with, be it a day trip or a few days.
The first unique experience of Jordan was crossing the border. The cab dropped us off on the Israeli side and from there we went though a series of booths before being allowed to cross. The actual crossing was pretty bizarre. We walked through a heavily guarded gate onto this road that was no more than 200 meters long surrounded on all sides by heavily fortified fence, at the other end the was an equally fortified gate that was the entrance to Jordan. The road was dimly lit and there was a group of people walking towards us on the other side coming from Jordan. The land I was walking in was no-mans land, a true border that was the width of the pen line it would make on a map. It felt like being in a prisoner exchange.
There were no issues crossing and besides the bizarre atmosphere of the experience it was pretty uneventful. We then were forced to take a cab from the border into Aqaba. Of course the border is in the middle of nowhere 10k away from the city and the cabs at the border charge whatever the hell they want because you really have no other options. The cab dropped us off at a hotel I had read about in my guide book. For Jordan I am using the “Rough Guides” series, and in retrospect it was the best guide book I have ever used. The hotel we stayed at was as basic as they come. But two beds and a bathroom with hot water that sometimes worked for 7 USD a piece. We actually had to pay extra for a room with running hot water.
By the time we arrived it was about 8pm, we wanted to explore Aqaba and Sylvia made it a point to have a nice dinner on New Years Eve, which I was not objected to. She wore a long skirt that was slightly past her knees and sandals. I had read Jordan was fairly progressive to their views on woman, but I had also read the guide books recommendations for foreigners to fully cover up. She had been to Egypt before, so I assume she knew what she was getting herself into and I didn’t say anything. As we left the hotel and walked out of the alley which it was in, a little kid in the alley looked at her legs, then looked at me smiled and gave me a thumbs up. As we stepped into the street these two older Muslim women coming the other direction literally stopped in there tracks and gasped in awe at Sylvia’s blatant display of skin. That was when I pulled her back in and said she should go change, she was of course oblivious to the reactions she had caused. After she put on jeans and shoes it was pretty much a non issue.
For dinner we ate at the Ali Baba restaurant that was featuring a “New Years Eve” dinner. It is unknown if this was mainly for tourists or not. It was a little pricy, about $20, which considering that is more than the cab ride and hotel combined is pricy for Jordan standards. It was however an 8 course meal, I had crab soup, some kind of seafood cocktail, some pita and dips, a massive amount of turkey and potatoes for a main course, coffee, cake, and of course some homemade ice cream. I’ve never been so full in my life for $20.
After dinner we walked around the streets of Aqaba thinking maybe we could hang out somewhere and get a drink. From the ground level of the streets we kept hearing all this bass thumping music, when we found the place it was coming from there might be 4-5 people in a place having dinner or sitting around smoking hookah. Basically Aqaba gave the illusion of a happening place, but was really a ghost town for night life.
The only other thing of note from today was when we got back to the hotel the toilet didn’t flush. I got the guy at the front who screamed at another guy in Arabic, eventually someone came to our room and proceeded to clean our toilet. Not cleaning of the pipes, but just wiping down the seat and the inside walls. Something was definitely lost in translation and I kept trying to explain with hand gestures that it wouldn’t flush, but he just kept polishing away. I felt pretty bad because the guy was probably pissed that at 1am these damn tourists were complaining about the toilet being dirty.
I woke up early this morning with the plan of walking around by myself for a bit and seeing about the options of renting a car. My entire goal in Jordan is to rent a car and explore the country for 5-7 days before returning to Israel to fly home. I told Sylvia I would meet her back in the room at 11am, she wanted to share the car with me to Petra and then we would go our own ways. Walking around the streets I stopped in a little corner shop in some alley and they guy in their made me a Turkish coffee, we sat on the one bench he had in his shop together and chatted about Aqaba and Jordan. After shopping around a bit I found a car to my liking. A 2002 manual Opal Classic. I got it for 25 Jordinian dollars a day, which is about 35 USD/day. Like anything in Jordan I had to bargain even for this. When I got in the car I had to back it out and couldn’t figure out how to put it in reverse. A taxi driver eventually told me that there is a button underneath the shifter that you have to press to move it into reverse. Not a good start.
As we left Aqaba on route to Petra about 50k north we stopped at what was maybe the one Safeway in the country. It was interesting because they had most things you would expect from a US grocery store, but they didn’t have any women’s toiletry products, only mens.
On the way to Petra we drove into the mountains and suddenly were surrounded by fast blowing fog high in the mountains with frost and snow lightly covering the ground. It was like being in some barren alien landscape.
Petra is basically a big national park that is full of ancient monuments and sandstone architecture. The most famous of which being the “Treasury” which was featured in Indiana Jones when he went looking for the holy grail. The park is bordered by the town of Wadi Musa, and with the exception of some shops for tourists and a couple decent restaurants it’s a pretty uneventful place. We arrived at about 5pm. We were in luck because it was Thursday night, and every Wednesday and Thursday there is a special tour offered called Petra at night were they light the canyon pass that leads to the treasury and the treasury it’s self with 1500 candles in small paper bags. The canyon pass is called the Siq which is about 1km long with these high arching sandstone wind blown arches that are striking to walk through day or night. There were maybe 150-200 people that were on the tour, everyone was instructed when the walk started to not talk and try and take it all in. My guide book in a brilliant recommendation said to let everyone walk ahead and stay in the back alone. Which I happily did.
There have been very few times in my life that I’ve been really taken back by the beauty of a landscape, this was undoubtedly one of those times. The candles were symmetrically placed on either side of the path about every 20 meters they shed an eerie light on narrow sandstone canyon walls that seemed to extend upwards to no end. The path itself was a mix of sand and cobblestone. At the end of the path there was traditional Bedouin flute music being played at the treasury that echoed through the canyon breaking the silence while leading you down the path. The treasury itself was brilliantly lit by about 300 more candles in front of it. Within this block of candles there was a Bedouin playing music he waited until everyone had arrived and began giving a lecture on traditional Bedouin music while playing different instruments. Tea was served and everyone sat and watched in silence. On the way back I again took my time, but stopped almost every 10 feet to prop my camera up on some rock and attempted to capture the whole atmosphere.
Today with much relief I was off on my own. I walked along the beaten paths of Petra for a little while, but it was of course not long until I was climbing up some sandstone rockwall far away from anyone that would hear my cries for help. The hikes in Petra were overall pretty amazing with some spectacular views.
There were Bedouin stands everywhere selling handcrafted jewelry. Just when I thought I was so far off the path or high up on some cliff there would be a Bedouin pop out of nowhere asking to me to check out the camel bone necklaces. What was pretty interesting is when I turned them down for buying jewelry, which I did all but once. They would often reply by offering me tea. The natural inclination to this in our minds is “oh great, now they want to sell me tea”. But it was just the opposite, the tea was free and the offer was just to hang out and chat, they had given up trying to sell you anything and just wanted to socialize, it was pretty cool, and what I had learned to be part of their culture.
As I was leaving Petra a small group of kids maybe ranging from 4-9 years old came up to me trying to sell me post cards as they often did. I declined, but instead started taking their picture. They loved it, and wasn’t long until they were hamming it up, one of them wanted to try taking pics with my camera. For whatever reason I put my camera strap around the neck of this Bedouin six year old and let her have a ball. She passed it around, and before long they all had their turn. I’m sure passing by tourists must have though I was nuts if they had any idea these kids were tossing around three thousand dollar camera. Before I gave her the camera I set everything to automatic including the facial recognition program and some of the shots they got actually turned out pretty decent.
After wandering around Petra for a little while longer I decided it was time to start the meat of my road trip. In Jordan there are really only two main roads that traverse the country from north to south. There is the highly developed Dessert Highway that is a wide flat road used for people zipping from one spot to another and big trucks. Then there is the kings highway which is the original trade route the Romans used, it twists and turns through the mountains offering some of the most scenic driving in the middle east. It’s not hard to guess which road I was taking. My first stop was this castle in the absolute middle of nowhere. I was the only one there, but there was a guide floating around that I hired for about $5, this was the first guide I’ve ever hired, and it was really only because the place was so boring and I had drove out there I figured I might as well learn something about the rubble in front of me. It was worth it. Next I found the small town of Dana which is a very small restored town perched on a cliff above the Dana Nature Reserve. This little farming community that was mostly the rubble of stone houses, yet very picturesque was the entrance to the nature reserve. There was an impressive yet quant hotel that perched on the cliff offering incredible views of the valley below. I though this would be one of my stops if I came back with more time.
My destination for the night was the city of Karak, which was basically an arbitrary point I picked on the map that I figured would have a decent amount of hotels to choose from. When I was about 60km out it started to get dark, soon enough it was pitch black. I was pretty disappointed because I could see the silhouettes of the views I was missing. However the driving was very exciting. Clearly not the safest thing to do I put on my IPod and went zipping through the dark mountain roads like some kind of rally racer. Just when I was starting to think that my speeds might be getting a little dangerous even for my appetite I noticed the speed limit and realized I was still under the maximum.
As I approached Karak, or what I thought was Karak according to my map the highway started to dissolve into round-a-bouts and side streets with no clear distinction how to actually follow the highway. I eventually stopped and asked for directions to the hotel I was looking for. I popped into a random convenience store and asked some kid where I was mainly by pointing at my map then pointing at the floor with a questioning look on my face.
He didn’t speak English, but called his brother who did. I was informed that his brother was on his way. Meanwhile I was seated and given a Pepsi, you have to love Bedouin hospitality. When his brother came who was about my age informed me that I was nowhere near Karak, but to my excitement invited me to the family home for dinner. Of all the reviews I read of Jordan most made mention of making the effort to get invited into a Bedouin home. The problem was none of these books ever mentioned how someone goes about getting invited. Well it seems that getting lost in some small town and asking for directions is a sure fire method. Before we went to their house the older brother Adham said he needed to get a haircut, but would leave me in the hands of his brother. While Adham was getting his haircut I was driven around in circles being shown random shops and sites in the city. It took me a second to realize that this was an attempt to entertain me while waiting for Adham. It was very thoughtful, but completely unnecessary and I told the brother that was should go hang out at the barber. When we finally arrived at their house Noel, the mom asked me what I wanted. She suggested a cheeseburger since I was American, and apparently that is all American’s eat. She was a little taken back when I said I would really just like whatever they were going to eat.. The house was quite nice, and not the traditional tent that I was told to expect. I was served a giant plate of rice with an accompanying bowel of boiled chicken soaked in a variety of spices and vegetables and arranged into a kind of stew.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I was the only one sitting down for dinner. When Adham invited me over for dinner, I had of course figured I would be sitting down for family dinner, but the family had already eaten and dinner was specially prepared just for me. Feeling overly flattered, and painfully awkward at the same time I demanded that Adham eat with me, he obliged after I think sensing my isolation. He shared a few bites with me, and it did make all the difference in making me feel just a little more comfortable. The whole meal was served in orchestration by the three brothers and two sisters that hid in the kitchen never to reveal themselves. I was being treated like royalty from a distant kingdom. At one point Noel served some pita, not knowing any better and having had most of my training with flatbread and soupy foods in India I started using the pita as a utensil and scooping up food. This was surprising met by looks of disapproval that were somehow saying “no we are civilized now, and no longer act like that” I was instructed the proper way to eat was to put some of the pita in my mouth and then with a spoon put the stew in my mouth. So much for north Indian eating etiquette. In meeting cultural expectations the end of the meal was served with a never ending cup of tea.
They would have let me stay the night, in fact Adham more or less felt a responsibility in providing me with some sort of housing. There was an issue with Adham needing to get up early in the morning to head to Amman, and somehow that made it inappropriate for a guest to stay, I can’t really say for sure, there was a lot of intense discussion about this between him and his mom in Arabic. The end result was the boys would escort me to the hotel I was originally trying to find and would find a ride back home despite my best efforts in offering to drive them back once they showed me the way. As I was leaving Noel handed me a traditional Bedouin scarf that the men wear called or better yet pronounced a “man-deal”. I had seen some of these in Petra being sold in the gift shops. The ones in Petra were of a generic red and white made out of cheap cloth, and I always found it somewhat cheesy and vaguely offensive when tourists would adorn them. This one however was blue and black in a very intricate checker pattern, made of high quality cloth unlike any I had seen. I was very taken back by this gift and it proved to be the ultimate gesture of Bedouin hospitality and kindness. I couldn’t help but be overly excited to wear it around the tourists of Petra which would somehow say that I and not them had truly experienced Jordan and had felt the pulse of the people while they only knew how to spend money in gift shops. In a way you could say it was my Lawrence of Arabia moment.
When Adham and his brothers walked into the hotel I was considering they were greeted by hugs and handshakes by everyone in the lobby, not because they knew each other, but because this is how Islamic men in small towns react to one another. Needless to say my room was negotiated for a rate that I would have paid triple for. It was actually a little creepy because the pillows and blankets were arranged in hearts making me think I had stumbled upon the honeymoon suite. Although this honeymoon suite came equipped with cold water, dirty floors and a space heater run by a propane tank that I’m pretty sure could have killed me in my sleep. But very nice bedding none the less.