Saturday, May 28, 2011

Me and my Jordans... Amman, Petra, and Jerash...

When I first came to Doha, I asked everyone where I should visit. Everyone gave the same answers: Egypt, the Maldives, India, Dubai, and Jordan.

Jordan? Why Jordan? It has a lot of historical significance, but when you think of Jordan, nothing really comes to mind except the Dead Sea. But everyone raved about how beautiful it was and you could easily spend a week just walking… doesn’t sound like my type of vacation, but OK.

So during yet another Eid break when the temperature was in the high 110’s, I took off for a quick jaunt to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan… leaving one desert for another…

I arrived in Amman after a quick three hour flight from Doha. There was one bonus on the flight. Some guy in business class was wearing a downy-white suit with a bubblegum pink shirt, matching pocket square, think pinky rings and a white mesh fedora. Swear to God, he looked like the evil archeologist from the Raiders of the Lost Ark…

I met my fixer at the airport, a pleasant man named Saladin. He picked me up and we drove into Amman. For some reason, it felt strange vacationing in a place with Arabic on the road signs… too much like home. Amman is built on seven large hills, with row after row of low white homes and thick traffic. Along the roadsides we spotted large squatter camps made from trash and other junk. I thought they were just bums, but Saladin pointed out that they were gypsies, and spit out the window to show his disgust. We pulled up near the largest mosque in the country, the King Abdullah Mosque, where I checked into my really crappy hotel, the Abjar. For some reason, hotels in Jordan are ungodly expensive! For a regular Sheraton or Marriott, you’re looking at $400 a night… so stayed in a discount hotel… ugh. The place was falling apart, and my room was kinda nasty. There weren’t any restaurants or café’s nearby for dinner, and the hotel didn’t have room service. So a costly Domino’s pizza later, I hit the proverbial sack only to feel a metal spring digging into my temple. I was later woken up from the music and yelling of a wedding banquet taking place in the lobby all night long. Fun first night…

I awoke and ate my continental breakfast of bread, jam, and thinly sliced hotdogs in onions… why hotdogs are considered a breakfast sausage over here is beyond all hope of comprehension. My driver and guide for this trip, Mustafa, picked me up in our awesome 1987 Toyota Corolla. With a freshly shaven head, earrings, camouflage pants and an ever present cigarette dangling from his mouth, Mustafa looked more the part of German skinhead than your friendly neighborhood tour guide. He growled from years of tobacco and shisha and talked nonstop while he was behind the wheel.

We drove about forty minutes outside of Amman to the town of Madaba. The town itself was very small and pretty plain, but we pulled into the Greek Orthodox Basilica of St. George for Madaba’s main attraction. Inside the basilica is a large mosaic made up of over two million tiny colored tiles on the floor. This mosaic, made in the 6th Century A.D., is the oldest know map of the Holy Land. It shows the towns, rivers, mountains and lakes of the entire region; stretching from Italy and Greece, covering the entire Mediterranean Sea, and the valleys of what is now Israel and Lebanon, all the way into Egypt. Various temples and mosques are clearly shown on the map, along with the direction of the rivers and the defensive walls of Jerusalem. It’s really amazing that so much detail went into this mosaic.

After the church, we had to stop at the required, cheap discount tour mandated, tourist trap and mosaic shop. Here the incredibly pushy salesmen demonstrated how they made the mosaics (“cut little tiles… interesting…”) and tried to push me into buying. Personally, I had no desire for any mosaics… they just don’t go well with my modern art collections of tacky shot glasses and beads. But I was interested in a painted ostrich egg with multiple scenes on it… and paid a small fortune for it. An egg… hundreds of bucks for an egg… what the hell is wrong with me?

Another half hour on the road thru really beautiful hills covered by thin vines and rocky outcroppings and we came to Mt. Nebo. At the top of the small mountain were a long line of tourist buses sitting idle. Mustafa dropped me off and said to look around for an hour or so. At the entrance is a large stone with inscriptions in multiple languages that tell the story of Mt. Nebo. This is the place where Moses came and God showed him the Promised Land that was to be given to the Israelites, and it was here where Moses died and was buried by God himself. Markers showed where Pope John Paul II came here and prayed as part of his pilgrimage of the Holy Land.

The Holy Land. I was there. I know of the Holy Land, spending so much of my formative youth going to Sunday school and CCD (and quite a bit skipping Sunday school and CCD… sorry dad). We all read the passages from the Old Testament and played with the coloring books on the stories from the Bible… but in all that time, I never once thought of those places as ever being real. They were Middle-earth and Narnia… fantasy places in books and stories, not actually stone and dirt beneath our feet. But here I was, in a place where people sat on the rocks along the sidewalks and prayed while people like me stared at them strangely.

The church on the site, actually all three of the churches on the site, were undergoing renovation and were closed off to visitors. More mosaics on the ground were tarped over, showing scenes of fishing, farming, and stories from the Bible. At the rear of the site was a stunning overlook showing the valleys below… the literal Land of Milk and Honey. I was about 800 meters above sea level, but it seemed so much more. To the north you could still see the white hills of Amman. Rolling valleys of brown were broken by thins green lines of plants; visual clues that natural springs were nearby. A little more east was the city of Jericho, the oldest city in the entire world. They just finished celebrating their 10,000th year of existence… I don’t know exactly where they got that number, but congrats to them anyway. The city itself is barely a town, very tiny in size but rich in history. Roman aqueducts still stand. The ruins of Herod’s palace can still be explored. And right next to it is the site of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. The river is mostly just a muddy ditch now due to irrigation and drinking water, but they still clean some of the water to fill a pool for baptismal rites.

But looking directly west was the northern tip of the Dead Sea. It looked calm and beautiful from such heights. Across the narrow sea was Israel, and using binoculars you could just make out some buildings from Jerusalem. It was amazing that I got so close to Israel, but would probably never get to really see it in person.

From here Mustafa told me to buckle up and we started to drive towards the Dead Sea. The weather was beautiful and cool, about 75 degrees Fahrenheit. But as he whipped back and forth down the long and winding single road down the mountain, it steadily got hotter and hotter. At one point he stopped the car and said that we were now at sea level… but it looked like weren’t even half way down the mountain. I had totally forgotten that I was headed to the lowest part on the surface of the Earth… 423 meters below sea level. From Mt. Nebo to the Dead Sea, we were descending a full 4000 feet in less than half an hour, my ears popping continuously along the way. The road zigged and zagged, and the temperature quickly started to rise. By the time we reached the shoreline, it was almost 95 degrees Fahrenheit… and all from the elevation change. We had to go thru some security checkpoints since we were so close to the Israeli border, and made our way onto the highway that ran the length of the Dead Sea.

Fancy resort hotels dotted the shorelines, all nestled about fifty feet up from the water’s edge. Mustafa bought my entrance ticket into the Amman Beach, the public beach area. Inside the clubhouse area were two large chlorinated swimming pools with lots of beautiful women and children all playing in the shallow end and sun bathing. I picked up my ugly rented towel, bypassed the pools, and headed down the steps to the beach. Group showers and troughs of running water were stationed along the steps to persuade you to wash off all the salt and sand before coming back up into the pool deck. On the beach the sand started to burn the shit out of my feet. I threw my towel onto a plastic chair and made a sprint to the water’s edge.

To say it was like swimming in any other body of water is a bold faced lie. Swimming in the Dead Sea is so strange, so alien… and it’s actually quite difficult to explain. As you enter, it feels completely normal, just like the Gulf… very clear and warm water. Signs are posted on the shore, “do not get water into your eyes… do not swim face down, etc.” But once you get to waist level… something just doesn’t feel quite right. You mind is telling you it’s just water… but it isn’t. I dipped my hand into my mouth to taste it, and it almost made me retch. It can only be described as dipping your tongue into a salt shaker. The hyper-salinity of the water is almost pungent.

The water feels oily… but it’s not from oil. The minerals and salts of the lake are comprised of polar and non-polar compounds, giving it the feel of baby oil against your skin. This also causes it to have an increased surface tension, making the water “stick” to itself. As you pull your arms up from the water, it sticks to your skin almost like thinned syrup.

But by far the weirdest sensation is swimming. The water is so dense due to the salinity that you float without even trying. Once you get down past your waist, your body wants to flip you on your back. I struggled like hell just to put my legs under me to stand up in the water. Once up, you can move thru the water just by a regular walking motion. While floating straight up in the water, I could hold my arms straight out to my sides, and they were a good four inches above the surface of the water. Plus, all my less dense body fat is forced upwards, moving all my gut rolls up to my tits… giving me a lovely fleshy inner tube around my chest. I spent a good hour plus just figuring out how to move around. People were taking their picture sitting dead upright in the sea while reading a newspaper. On the shore the lifeguard was charging three Jordanian Dinars to grab a big handful of the miraculous Dead Sea mud. I paid the fee and pasted the inky black mud over my arms, chest, and face. You’re supposed to let it dry for a while then crack it off. I didn’t have that kind of time, so I just went for a quick wash off in the sea…

Big mistake. As I washed off the mud, I loved the feel of my skin, all exfoliated and tingly. But I accidently got some water into my hair, and it dripped down into my eyes. Instantly I thought I was blind. A single drop of Dead Sea water burned my eyes so bad I started to rush back to the shore. I tried to think of sad things hoping that I would tear up to wash the salt out. Oh god did that hurt! I used the last of my bottled water to flush my eyes, and decided to call it a day at the sea. I used the showers to rinse off the sand and salt, dipped my feet in the pools, and climbed back up the stairs to the clubhouse. Wanting to make sure I was completely salt free, I jumped into the swimming pool for a quick rinse…

Big mistake. Even though I was only in six feet of water, I dropped to the bottom of the pool and struggled to get my bearings. It was like I had never swum before… I had to force my hands to move correctly, digging big scoops of water under me until finally my head cracked the surface. I was panicking in a swimming pool… a sensation I have never felt before in my life (maybe once before). The transition from super-buoyant Dead Sea to regular buoyant swimming pool confused my brain. It was used to floating aimlessly in the thick sea water, and just couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t floating anymore. I thought this would be the strangest sensation of the entire day, but other things were yet to come.

Mustafa and I ate lunch at the café of standard Arabic fare of poached fish, a mixed grill, and umm ali, then headed south along the Dead Sea road. This stretch of road followed the shoreline, hugging scenic cliffs that were split open to form wadis, or valleys, along the hillsides. As we drove, Mustafa pointed out very specific details. He described how men used to scrape the shoreline for potash and bitumen. He showed me a cave up on a ridge and told me the history of Lot’s Cave… well basically it was where Lot lived with his grandsons, Moab and Ammon. The people born north of this cave are Ammonites, the southerner Moabites. Just across the Dead Sea is a pillar of rock called Lot’s Wife. I jokingly asked where Sodom and Gomorrah was, and Mustafa calmly pointed out a tongue of land that stretched into the se, “There… there was Sodom and Gomorrah.”

OK… quick question… did anyone actually think there were actual cities called Sodom and Gomorrah? And that we know exactly where they were? Basically, it is believed that the cities were destroyed either by the earthquakes that frequent the area, or a fire broke out fueled by the bitumen and from the sea bed. Soon the Dead Sea closed up and we began to head back up into the mountains. Numerous dirt devils were swirling all around us as we climbed. The little Toyota had to struggle sometimes up the narrow and winding road. We frequently stopped at overlooks and surveyed the stunning valleys and springs below. One wadi is famous because it is the only place where the three great prophets, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed all walked. Boys carrying cardamom tea would sprint out from shacks as we approached. The temperature had dropped at least twenty degrees from less than an hour ago at the shoreline.

We drove a while longer thru the mountains, all the time Mustafa was telling me stories about living in Thailand and screwing everything that moved. Once we reached the mountain tops, we leveled out on the Jordanian plains and headed south toward Ma’an. Along the way we veered off the road and did a quick pass by Al-Karack, a mountaintop castle built by Saladin… the great Arab warrior who defeated the Crusaders.

We finally pulled into a little town called Wadi Musa (Moses’ Valley) and pulled over to stock up on juices and waters for tomorrow. Mustafa invited me into a nondescript building right next to this storefront. Inside was nothing except some stairs leading down into a small stream. “Here you go,” he said, thinking I knew what the hell he was showing me. “This is the Prophet Moses’ water.” It then hit me… this is the spot where Moses struck the rock and water came flowing out. Right here next to a place where I bought my “No Pork” shot glass. I climbed down, drank the clear natural spring water, and we headed to my hotel right next to the entrance of the most famous site in all of Jordan, and one of the new Wonders of the World… Petra.

My hotel was tidy and clean, but had a distinctive flair to it… it was purple. Everything. Everything was purple… my bed, the carpet, the paint, the curtains, the lampshades, the chairs… everything. If you go, you must stay at the Silk Road Hotel… it’s so worth it in the morning being bathed in the purple sheen. I ate a paper thin pizza at Mystic Pizza (?) with Mustafa, and then he took off and said that he’d pick me up in two days. But before he left, he said that I should take the night walking tour at 8pm into Petra. He coughed goodbye and took off. I took a quick nap, and set my phone alarm for 7pm.

I awoke and hurried down the street around 7:30 to join the night Petra tour. But when I arrived at the visitor center, there was no one there. I had to walk around for a while until I heard the sound of the doors being locked. I asked about the 8pm tour, and he told me they had left half an hour ago… my clock was off by a full hour… shit. I thanked him and started to leave when he said, “just leave now, and you’ll catch up to them at the monastery.”

Fantastic! What luck… I get to walk into Petra at night by myself! How cool! I paid for the ticket and jumped thru the turnstile and onto the dirt path leading into Petra. The night was very cool, with a half-moon and clear night sky above. There were no lights lighting the path, just tea candles in paper bags about every fifty feet or so. I could tell dim outlines of huge rocks and approaching cliff faces, but saw no detail or edges. After ten minutes, the patch dipped down into a narrow valley called the Siq. The Siq ranges from twenty to ten feet wide; with sheer cliffs over eighty feet high on either side… sometimes the cliffs would overhang and create natural tunnels. As I begun walking, the sound of my footsteps was all I could hear echoing off the cliff walls. The scurrying of a lizard or the tumbling of pebbles snapped me to attention. The stars overhead were almost completely blocked by the cliff faces, and the moon’s light was nowhere to be found. The tea candles were spaced farther and farther apart and the winding of the path made it seem as though I would walk off the edge of the world at any time.

I was, truly, terrified. For the first time in a long time, I was laughing at how nervous I was. I had no map, or any idea of what I was doing. I didn’t know how long this path was, or even if it was the right path. My pocket LED nightlight was the only thing I had to help me along. But most frightening of all was the silence… after a while I could hear my own heartbeat along the walls. Stones were spread along the path, former Roman roads long worn from hoofs and foot alike. Not being able to see them, I stumbled twice, straining both my ankles. I seriously considered turning back and leaving this all behind me.

Then, out of nowhere, I heard the eerie sound of a flute playing. I kept going forward, and just around a corner was shocked by the view of hundreds of glowing paper bags lighting up the Treasury… a building carved directly into a massive rock face. If you’ve ever watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or the second Transformers movie, you’ve seen it.

It was… honestly… magical. There were about a hundred people there, all perfectly quiet, making no noise at all. Everyone was just sitting on the dirt, listening to the flute, watching the reflections of the flames dance on the Treasury walls. Once the music stopped, they passed out tea and water, and everyone scrambled to get that one great night shot… which I never got. Soon, everyone walked out en masse back thru the Siq and up to the visitor center. The walk back was really arduous, as you don’t realize but you have to walk uphill the whole way back on shifting dirt and rock. After a full day of climbing holy mountains, swimming in Dead Seas, and getting scared to death in a dark valley… I was beat. A quick shower and another mini-pizza, and I was out for the night.

I woke up early the next morning, had my onion and hotdogs, and waited outside for my Petra guide to arrive. I had booked a local guide group for Petra, and a nice guy named Osama (no relation) met me with a busload of very, very old tourists. This group had been traveling together for almost two weeks, and I was just hitching a ride this one day. The entire group was made up of, and I’m not making this up, retired New York Jews. All the men had beards, yarmulkes, and early onset Alzheimer’s. One lady had more facial hair than her husband. This was going to be a great day…

Osama explained the history of Petra, the lost Nabataean civilization, and it’s rediscovery (all of which you can read on Wikipedia). As we entered the gates, the faint outlines from the night before finally made sense. The Djin (genie) and obelisks stones were massive, closely followed by homes carved directly into massive stone boulders. When the path dipped down into the rocks, I knew we had reached the Siq. During the night, it was terrifying; but during the day it was incredible. The giant swirls of pink and purple thru the rock made every corner into a new surrealist painting. I must have taken two hundred photos just walking around, trying to capture the absolute beauty of the scene. The Treasury building was gorgeous and glowing pink in the morning light. From there we walked along into the abandoned city, exploring ancient homes, tombs, and temples. We walked deeper and deeper into the complex. Osama pulled us off the main route and we climbed up into the hills and had to slink along narrow footpaths overlooking even more hidden homes. There’s still one man still living in the caves, and we met him while walking along. He invited us into his modest cave home where he served us clover tea. One of the old ladies was so afraid of heights that she couldn’t walk along one of the footpaths and we had to shield her from the drop to make it.

We made our way back to the main foot path where we ate our buffet lunch, and then everyone went their own way. Right next to the buffet site was a narrow flight of stairs that seemed to lead directly up into the sky. Osama told us that these steps, all 1500 of them, lead to the Monastery, a sister to the Treasury building at one of the highest points in the entire area. I started the climb, and quickly realized there was no fuckin’ way I was going to make it. But I did see a bunch of the old people and children heading up the steps on the backs of donkeys.

“Not the donkeys… don’t be one of the too fat and lazy people,” I kept telling myself. People will be talking behind your back… fat guy on a donkey… I know. But I really wanted to see the Monastery. So I paid a guide to get me the biggest donkey they had. He got me a big grey mule-beast that looked so happy to see me. I climbed aboard and we took off with the guide holding the reins the whole way up. This donkey walked up the uneven steps like it was nothing. More impressive was the fact that the guide was striding along on an incredibly hot day and was barely breaking a sweat. A few times I had to lean forward so the donkey could get some footing, and twice it slipped a little. The hardest part was looking over to one side and seeing drops of around fifty feet to the rocks below. The stairs became narrower and rougher, but the donkey just kept on going until we reached a landing near the top. I paid the guide handsomely, and bought an apple for the donkey… I should have offered to pay for the artificial hip it was going to require. I tried to complete that last fifteen minutes of climbing, but my heart was simply pounding too hard; as steps have always been my greatest weakness. So I started the long walk back down the 1500 steps. Along the way I met someone from Doha who works for a sister Education City university. Well, I more or less stumbled onto his wife pissing behind a rock… but still, a small world.

As I made it to the Roman colonnade, I soon realized that I had lost all my energy. It was over 100F, and I had forgotten my hat back in the Toyota. I was out of water, and almost out of money… and I had literally miles of uphill walking in deep sand to go. At this point, I was not feeling well and just wanted to get into some shade. There was one guy who was carrying his kid on his back while dragging a stroller behind him; the wheels locked up from the sand and dust. I finally made it back to the Treasury, where the afternoon sun had completely changed the look of the carvings from pink to a deep purple. At this point, I caved again, paying a local guide for a ride back up to the visitor center using his horse and very tiny carriage. It cost me almost fifty bucks, but they could tell I would have paid double that. Unfortunately, going over the rocks and stones almost broke my back a second time. I got some cash, picked up another pizza, showered, and fell straight asleep with a sunburned forehead and a killer headache.

Slept late, ate another helping of hotdog and onion, and spent the morning rubbing my feet and ankles. Mustafa picked me up around noon and we headed south for an hour to take a quick peek at Wadi Rum. But we had to visit the magnificent rock outcroppings from afar because we had to make a u-turn and head north along the desert highway back to Amman. The four hour drive was long and not very scenic. This part of Jordan is just one long, flat desert. The only sights were the dirt devils the swirled around us. A quick lunch of hot lemon yogurt with lamb shank was really good and killed some time. Back in Amman we pulled up directly next to the King Abdullah mosque again, and this time I checked into the Caravan Hotel… the biggest shithole in the world.

My room was no bigger than my closet. The TV didn’t work and the lone light bulb over my head had to be turned on by plugging two bare wires into the wall. Oh, and the toilet was so close to the bathroom wall that I had to shit sitting sideways. And the water from the taps was gritty and brown. Not too bad for $95 US dollars a night. I walked around the mosque and picked up some water and fruit from a stand, then headed back to the room to watch downloaded episodes of Law & Order. I couldn’t walk around anymore… my feet hurt just too damn much.

The next morning Mustafa picked me up with a Canadian journalist in the car along for the ride. We headed into downtown Amman to check out Jabal al-Qal’a, or the Citadel Hill. On top of this hill in the middle of the city stands a fort built by the Romans that overlooks the valleys below. It has another, much older name that means “City of a Brother’s Love”… Philadelphia. The main site to see is several of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in a small museum at the summit. From here we drove north to the town of Jerash, passing fruit and olive orchards along the winding road.
Jerash is a small city with one major attraction… one of the best preserved ancient Roman cities in the world. We hired a local guide who gave us a four hour tour of the massive site. We saw the original Hadrian’s arch, the still used hippodrome, rows of shops, baths, colonnade streets and the massive oval forum. Temples and churches with the mosaic floors still intact and plumbing systems that rival what my apartment has in Doha. Sixty ton free standing columns that had withstood thousands of earthquakes swayed in the wind… you could put your fingers into the cracks and feel the movement like a heartbeat. After hours of sightseeing and a long history lesson from our guide, we snuck into the buffet lunch with the other tour groups and noshed on whole roasted lamb.

From here, it was back to the hotel (damn) for one more night, and an early departure to the airport. I tipped Mustafa well and threw in a pack of smokes for him. Jordan has a strange feel to it. When you’re at the tourist sites like Petra or the Dead Sea, it is truly incredible. The absolute strangeness of its terrain and colors makes it feel imaginary. But when you’re traveling between those points, you get a little disappointed… because after the rocks, there’s really not much else to experience.

But I was still incredibly happy I made the trip.