Thursday, October 18, 2007

Jordan: Travels in the Hashemite Kingdom

October 11th was the final day of Ramadan, which meant AUC had a four-day weekend. Most students capitalized on this opportunity and traveled to nearby countries—Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan. I chose the later, mostly because of Petra, but I had also heard rumors of other spectacular sights. Jordan’s proximity to Egypt also made it an attractive option.

I traveled to Jordan with two other AUC students, Alysa, from Georgetown, and Caryn, from Bates College in Maine. A fourth member of our group decided last minute to visit Turkey instead, so our group was just three as we left downtown Cairo on Thursday. Unfortunately the traffic was horrendous, even by Cairo standards, due to the holiday, and the trip took two hours! Normally the drive would only be about 45 minutes. I was concerned we would not make it to the airport in time, but we moved through customs and baggage check very quickly, and even had time to buy a shake at McDonald’s (only my second McDonald’s purchase since living in Cairo). After a two hour taxi ride and a one hour flight, we arrived safely and punctually in Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport.

The airport shuttle dropped us off in Amman, and after a quick taxi ride we arrived at our budget hotel. Certainly not luxurious, but good enough for us (we only had to kill two cockroaches). Luckily Alysa and Caryn are adventurous and low maintenance, which is part of why we got along so well.

The first stop on our itinerary was the Dead Sea. Getting there proved difficult because busses were irregular during Eid. A taxi drove us to the bus station, a second bus dropped us off closer to the Dead Sea, and a third and final bus got us to our destination. The best part of the journey was meeting two other Westerners traveling on the same busses. Piotr and Ania were a young couple, probably in their late 20’s, who were traveling around Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, where they will attend a friend’s wedding in Beirut. Piotr recently spent four weeks hiking in the Himilayas of Nepal. Since we were heading to the same place, we decided to travel together. Piotr and Anya also greatly appreciated our knowledge of Arabic that, while minimal, was enough to bargain prices, ask directions, and prevent scams. I will write more about them in the coming paragraphs.

The Dead Sea was so much fun. Floating around in the water is an experience not to be missed. Swimming is effortless because you ride very high in the water, and there is much less resistance than normal lakes or oceans. You can stand up in the water, float around as if sitting in a recliner, and lay on your back and stare at the sky. The Dead Sea is also famous for its therapeutic, mineral-rich green mud that leaves the skin unbelievably soft. I have pictures of us all covered in green mud walking around like Martians from an old cartoon.

After a few hours at the Dead Sea, we all showered, changed, and ate a light lunch. Piotr and Ania were traveling to nearby Mt. Nebo and Madaba, and we decided to travel together. We like each other’s company very much, plus we could share the expense of taxis. Mt. Nebo is the site where Moses supposedly viewed the Promised Land and died after leading his people out of the desert. The Bible says, “On that same day the Lord told Moses, ‘Go up into the Abarim Range to Mount Nebo in Moab, across from Jericho, and view Canaan, the land I am giving the Israelites as their own possession. There on the mountain that you have climbed you will die and be gathered to your people, just as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people.’” (Deuteronomy 32: 48-50). Mt. Nebo was my second Moses mountain in two weeks, although this time I rode up in a minibus. The view from the top was excellent, and we toured the small church at the top that features an amazing collection of mosaics created (if I remember correctly) sometime in the 5th century AD.

After about a half hour on Mt. Nebo, we drove down to the local town of Madaba, best known for its collection of mosaics. The most famous is located inside a local church and features an outstanding map of the Holy Land including all the important religious sites and major bodies of water. I think the mosaic was slightly overrated, but it was nice to see nonetheless. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if there wasn’t a wedding photo shoot going on at the same time with little kids running under the ropes and stomping on this priceless, centuries-old artistic masterpiece.

Day 2—Wadi Rum

We met up at the south bus station with Piotr and Ania early Saturday morning for a bus to Wadi Rum, a beautiful desert area in southern Jordan. Since no buses were going direct to Wadi Rum, we boarded a bus to Aqaba, which dropped us off along the desert highway 15 km from Wadi Rum. After a little negotiating, we found a driver willing to take us to Wadi Rum for a reasonable price. Wadi Rum has a nice visitors center, and here you can chose from a variety of jeep and camel safaris through the area. We decided on a 5-hour tour to all the main sites.

Wadi Rum was stunning in every way. Our jeep rumbled through the rough, sandy valley floors between large, steep rock formations. We hiked through a deep, narrow canyon carved out of sandstone by wind and water. We climbed up natural, picturesque rock bridges and took pictures of the beautiful scenery from below. I ran down a giant sand dune after climbing to the top with tremendous effort, my shoes filled with red sand. Still out of breath, we stopped in the middle of a valley to watch the sun set over the mountains.

Most people camp out in the desert, but we had not booked beforehand, and the cheapest option was to sleep on top of the rest house. I was fine with this because we enjoyed the same beautiful view of the night sky and the pleasure of sleeping outside in fresh, cool air. Before bed, we enjoyed a nice buffet dinner at the rest house, complete with a large pot of complimentary tea. The five of us sat and chatted for a couple hours, although Piotr was suffering a little from an upset stomach that everyone gets at least once when traveling in the Middle East.

Day 3—Petra

I woke up on Saturday refreshed and eager to see Petra. A convenient minibus direct to Petra left at 8:30am, and we arrived into the nearby town at around 10:30. Upon arrival, we found a nice, clean, inexpensive hotel recommended in one of the guide books. The best part was the free shuttle between the hotel and the Petra entrance gate that saved us both time and money. As we settled in to the hotel, my stomach had butterflies of anticipation for what I would soon see. I had been dying to see Petra for a long time, and now I was halfway across the globe, just minutes from the entrance.

After buying our tickets, Piotr, Ania, and I headed down the path toward the canyon (Alysa unfortunately left her wallet at the hotel, so Caryn and her were a few minutes behind). As you walk down the hill, you see holes dug in the rock and a few temples carved out of the soft sandstone, a prelude to what is to come. Then you enter the Siq, the unbelievably beautiful canyon entrance that covers a distance of about three quarters of a mile. At times the canyon is only about 10 feet wide and probably over 200 feet tall. The trip in is incredible in every since of the word. It was literally not credible. Surreal is a better term. Pictures don’t do justice. Then, after strolling through the canyon for about 20 minutes, the famous Treasury jumps out of nowhere, a giant edifice carved out of the rock, towering over the canyon with sublime grandeur. I stood in front of the Treasury for several minutes just staring up in awe.

After several minutes, Caryn and Alysa caught up with us, and we began our trek through the rest of the city. Petra is massive, and it really takes two days to see it all. After exploring some of the buildings, we climbed up a path to the sacrificial point overlooking the city. The view from the top made the hike worth it. We then made our way back down and explored the “downtown,” which includes the remains of several free-standing temples, gates, and other buildings. By this time the sun was beginning to set, but I wanted to make sure to climb up to the Monastery, Petra’s second-most famous building, located on the opposite end of the city from the Treasury and a full 800 steps up a mountain. I reached the top, but didn’t have much time to enjoy the views. I needed to return to the Treasury by 5:15 to meet up with my group. To get an idea of how big the Petra complex is, it took me a full 45 minutes to walk from one end of the Petra complex to the other, a journey that could easily have lasted more than an hour if I wasn’t in such a hurry. And this doesn’t include the trek through the Siq, which take an additional 15 minutes.

We returned to the hotel exhausted and hungry, so we grabbed a taxi to a local restaurant where we munched on fresh falafel, humus, and bread. I ate a huge amount of food and was ready to crash upon returning to the hotel. My day in Petra was over, and I fell asleep more than satisfied with the day’s adventures.

Day 4—Jerash

We grabbed an early bus from Petra to Amman, which took a little less than three hours after which we jumped stations to take a bus to Jerash. Located northwest of Amman, Jerash is home to one of the largest and best preserved Roman cities. Among the many sites are a large hippodrome for chariot racing, two well-preserved theaters, an impressive center square lined with columns, and a half mile of paved road with groves still visible from chariot wheels. In all, we spent a couple hours viewing the main sites, and I’m very glad we made the trip. One of the best parts was the 45-minute bus ride from Amman to Jerash. The countryside was beautiful, with many hills and valley. At times I felt like I was driving through the European countryside with fertile valleys filled with a spattering of rustic farmhouses and a patchwork quilt of carefully tilled land. But my favorite sight of all was the pine trees—tall and straight and green, just like home. There are no pine trees in Egypt.

As the airport shuttle drove us out of Amman, I couldn’t help but notice how much nicer Amman is than Cairo. Cleaner, less crowded, and expanding, Amman is a welcome relief from the hectic life of the Egyptian capital. The taxis are new, clean models rather than the 1985 Fiats running around the streets of Cairo, spewing all kinds of toxic chemicals into the air. Stoplights, new skyscrapers, a minimal military presence, taxis with meters. All of these sights are microcosms of the tremendous economic, social, and political difference between Egypt and Jordan.

Interestingly, though, as I sat on the plane with my friends, waiting to return to Cairo, I thought of only one thing: I’m glad to be coming home.

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