Joyful Jordan

Trip Start Feb 20, 2002
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Trip End Nov 18, 2002


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Friday, July 12, 2002

Chapter 2 - The Middle East

-- Joyful Jordanian

When I arrived in sunny Jordan I was still in don't-trust-anyone mode. Seeing as the taxi driver who took me into town double charged me ( the bastard ), maybe this wasn't a bad thing. The scruffy, loud and obnoxious driver dropped me off, after an exuberant display of your-hotel-is-no-good-mine-is-better which was reminiscent of India, a block away from my hotel. Disoriented and walking aimlessly in ever-growing circles while starring blankly at my pathetic guide book map trying to find my way to the hotel in the criss-cross streets, an old Jordanian man quickly hobbled over to me. "Where you want to go?" he asked with a smile which crept up in the right corner of his cheek. In India, any assistance of any sort from *most* Indians was never free and almost always had an ulterior motive. My conditioned apprehensiveness snapped in, whispering a subconscious warning message in my ear to turn away and shoe him off with a lazy flick of the wrist, but in an attempt at good faith and, lets face it, desperation, I accepted the kind offer for help and followed him as he guided me to the Farah Hotel.

"Here it is, your hotel. Welcome to Jordan!" he said, shaking my hand. Then the strangest thing in the world happened, he turned, walked away, *without* asking for any rupees, or more appropriately, any Jordanian Dinars (JDs).

Elated, I walked into the hotel and the uber-kind man at the desk sorted me out within 10 minutes with a breakdown on the climate, sights and logistics and then set me up in a cozy dorm room for the night. By now, my frown had flipped horizontally into a gigantic smile of relief and a mushy feeling of being at ease with my surroundings swooshed over me.

Having settled in, I trudged around town in the sweltering, dry heat to shorten my checklist of to-dos. Guide book, Internet, food, sights and money, check! It took 9 attempts at the bank machine to find one which was on my ATM card's network. This made me quite nervous as my credit card had already expired and the ATM was my last desperate hope at obtaining any funds.

Dripping with sweat, I burst back into the AC cooled lobby of the guest house and gushed, "My god, you won't believe the trouble I had getting money, I was starting to think that I would be stuck here without any cash and would have to wash dishes to pay for the room!".

The friendly Jordanian man at the front desk chuckled and said "Don't worry, we would have helped you, you will see people in Jordan are not like the people in your country, we help each other.". He smiled and slapped my arm as he walked passed to fetch me a bottle of water causing me to cast away any doubts I had about the legitimacy of the kindness I had been experiencing.

As the sun began to set and the heat cooled, I walked out to soak in the last sights of Amman. I walked passed Nargila ( Middle Eastern Water pipes ) shops and Shawarma vendors and was showered with greetings. "Welcome to Jordan!" every second Jordanian shouted.

The sun was now a warm soothing orange and I dropped down on the rocky rubble studded remains of the Citadel, perched on top of one of the many mountains ( Jebels ) in Amman overlooking roman amphitheaters and buzzing streets below. A perfect ending to an exciting day of new languages, currencies, people, customs and foods.

As I fell asleep the first night, grinning contentedly, the many neighboring mosques filled the air with eerie Muslim prayers, sending a cold chill of excitement through my veins. Everything was new again.... I was happy.

-- Settled in

By the second day, I had started to settle in. My Arabic was improving ( all be it, slowly ) and my room mate Jon, an English chap on his last days in Jordan, had filled me in with all the info I needed to make a quick route plan through Jordan.

In India, the monsoon had kept the humidity level at sloppy 99%. When I had opened my backpack on arrival in Jordan, a musty waft of complex Indian smells and damp clothes tickled my nose. I hadn't noticed just how humid it was while I was there but as I inspected my wrinkled shirts, I found that they were all wet from the monsoon's thick humidity. Thankfully, after only a few hours of sun drying, something that would be next to impossible in the moist monsoon air of India, my clothes were all nice and crispy dry. Scabs which refused to heal in the damp Indian air now sealed and shrunk to healthy dark specks and, although it was still brutally hot, my dry skin felt much cooler than it had been over the passed weeks of sticky heat.

After a big plump chicken Shawarma, Jon and I decided to head off to visit Jerash, an ancient Roman city 45 minutes from town. The Middle East was ripe with history. Alexander the great, the Romans, the Muslims, the Crusaders and finally the Ottomans all made their mark in this ever-changing landscape. The remaining ruins and relics were a tourist's dream come true. The ruined city wasn't much of a spectacle compared to Rome or Greece but the calm familiarity of visiting sights of known civilizations was like a breath of fresh air. Something I could understand and relate to much better.

Jon left the next morning, promising to meet up for a drink in London when I arrived there in October and taking with him some of my heavier junk which I had wanted to send home but glad to have parted with.

To while away the next days, I embarked on a crusade of my own, tackling a mountain of logistics and waiting for my Egyptian visa to finally make it's way into my dog-eared passport.

When I finally did get my visa, I examined my passport. My newly issued and previously blank passport was nearly full. I made a quick page count and noticed that I had only enough free pages left for the 4 remaining visas, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and a second Jordanian Visa. Fewph....

Walking out of the Egyptian embassy passed hordes of Palestinians waiting for their travel documents, I jumped into a cab and headed back to gather my things for my exit from Amman.

"You America?" the cab driver asked suspiciously looking at me in his rear view mirror.

"No, anna men Canada" I replied.

He squinted his eyes and asked again "No America?".

"No no... Canada, really". I said as I shuffled through my daypack, searching for a Canadian flag, which I finally produced and held up smiling as proof.

"Ahh, good... good. Canada good."

I had been getting a feeling that American sentiment wasn't as rosy as it could have been in the region and instantly remembered that I had brought extra Canadian patches for the Middle East. As soon as I arrived back at my room I busily sewed a few more patches on my bag to clear up any confusion as to my nationality during future inquiries.

-- The Israeli Question

I dropped my pack on the floor in the lobby of the Farah Hotel and asked a question I had been dying to ask since I'd arrived.

"So, is it safe to go to Israel now? I mean, I know it's not 'safe safe', but like, are people, you know, going?"

The old man looked up from his newspaper, "No... not, it's not safe. Why you want to go? Life is precious, go some other time, when things are better."

Not the answer I wanted to hear. I filed the advise for future reference and ran up to my room to check with the Korean who'd taken over the 3rd bed in the dorm.

When I asked, he exhaled a low quick laugh as though he'd been asked this before and shook his head slowly. "Yeah yeah... it's safe. Really, no problems. I am actually headed back there tomorrow. Don't worry."

Alright, that was more like it. To stay on the safe side, I decided to skip the quick jump to Jerusalem from Amman and to head south for 2 weeks of Jordanian desert then, if all was still well, I would cross into Israel from Aqaba, the southern most town in Jordan. I was 99% sure that Eilat, the Israeli border town, miles south of the Israeli "hot spots" would be safe and the plan seemed solid.

"Alright boys, I'll catch you guys later".

Egyptian visa in hand and agenda mapped out, I headed over to catch a bus to Madaba, the town known for it's ancient mosaics depicting Palestine as it was thousands of years ago, south of Amman.

-- A surprisingly quick stop over

"You go Madaba?"

"Uh, huh", I nodded to the taxi driver in Amman as we zipped down the highway to what I thought would be the bus station.

"You go bus?"
"Uh huh..."
"Bus to Madaba?"
"Yeah... bus to Madaba..." I said impatiently.

The driver then suddenly began to honk and wave to the small bus flying by us at 100km on the freeway. When we swerved and slowed down to pull over, I couldn't imagine why the bus did the same.

"Madaba." my driver was pointing to the bus down who'd stopped on the roadside behind us.

"That's the bus? Really?" I poked my head out of the window and shouted to the man who had his head popped out of the driver's window of the mini-bus and shouted "Madaba? You go?"

He nodded a solid, yes.

Flagging a speeding bus down on the highway seemed like a bizarre way to catch a ride but as the bus motored towards Madaba, we stopped several times to board passengers who'd done just the same. "So much for bus stands". I thought.

Seeing as there weren't any available seats and I was lugging a backpack the size of a washing machine, I dropped my bag in the aisle and flopped down on it. Sitting there on the floor reminded me of my rice bag journey in Myanmar but at least this time the road was paved, smooth as ice, and the chances of getting sick were thin.

When I finally did get a seat, after a fully veiled woman departed the bus on the roadside, I jammed myself into the tight seat with my pack on my legs. The straps slapped me in the face from the soaring wind gushing through the open window next to me. Wanted some air, I leaned half out of the window to catch a breath. My initial instinct was to only stick out an inch of my fingers and no more, in fear of having an oncoming bus graze some skin off. In India, the busses passed each other so dangerously close that at times only an inch was buffered between the two growling vehicles. Being in Jordan, with its wide lanes and safe driving, I stuck my arm out of the window and sailed my hand along the gusts of wind like a kid in the back seat of a car.

When I finally reached Madaba, it was late afternoon and the sun was perfectly perched for some brilliantly warm photos. To my surprise, Madaba was a tiny little town with only a handful of attractions that I gobbled up in a mere 30 minutes. The most stunning of which was St George's cathedral which was an Orthodox church that had been built over a Byzantine era church, supposedly to cover up the beautiful mosaic which depicted Palestine as it was thousands of years ago. The mosaic had since been meticulously resurfaced and minor parts where barricaded off for tourists.

I had slotted 2 days for Madaba and Mt. Nero ( The mountain were Moses saw Israel and then later died ) but it was only 6pm and I had plenty of time to squeeze the near by Mt. Nebo in for sunset. I ran out into the street quickly and flagged down a service taxi ( cheap shared taxis which roam the cities looking for passengers to share a ride alone a set path ). I paid a small fortune ( relatively speaking of course, it was only 4$ CAN ) to hire the driver exclusively for a ride to Mt Nebo and then back once the sun was gone.

The mountain had a small ancient church dating back to roughly 300AD was rustic version of a modern church with decaying mosaics, stone pillars and handmade cracked colored glass crosses. By far, the most stunning experience was sitting next to the giant cross on the hill top which was erected to symbolize the suffering of Jesus and watching the hazy orange sun set over rolling sandy hills ahead, the dead sea to the right and Israel off in the distance.

By the time the day had ended I was ready to leave for Kerak, a small town south of Madaba that boasted an ancient crusader castle built in the 13th century. In a matter of 4 hours I'd taken a bus to Madaba, checked into a hotel, visited the famous mosaics, enjoyed a quiet sunset over Mt. Nebo, booked a bus to Kerak for the next day and even managed to squeeze in a fascinating conversation with an aging shop owner on the Iraqi war which was now immanent with America. When the dust had settled, I realized that I was way ahead of schedule. This was a good thing.

-- Kerak.

In the morning I caught a ride with the 7am bus to Kerak. My backpack was always a problem on Jordanian busses, which had no room for a large pack in the cargo storage. As I fumbled to assume the daypack-between-legs-backpack-on-knees position in my cramped seat, a voice from behind suggested another solution.

"You can put bag on ground, in aisle", I turned to see a young Jordanian girl sitting next to me pointing to the aisle between us.

Herah was a university student in Kerak, studying English and keen to help. Having spent a few days in Amman with her boyfriend, she was returning to Kerak on her way south to Aqaba to visit her family for the weekend. On the short ride to Kerak we chatted a bit and she offered to tour the castle with me when we arrived. I jumped on the offer and we trotted out to the crusader castle atop a mountain in Kerak once we'd gone back to her dorm so that she could change into some trekking clothes.

Touring the castle was a quick run. Most of the castle's stones had crumbled and the remains were few and in constant repair. After 30 minutes I was ready to continue the journey south to Petra, a full day ahead of schedule.

As we waiting for our respective busses south, Herah insisted that I come with her to stay at her family's villa on the coast in Aqaba, which was a very tempting offer but would have disastrously destroyed my carefully pre-planned route through the south. I humbly declined but promised to call to meet up for dinner with her and her boy friend when I returned to Amman in October.

The bus south, once again was packed and left me no choice but to squat in the sitting-on-my-backpack-in-the-aisle contorted posture for the 2 hour ride. Unfortunately, in Jordan, the floor of the bus also doubled as cigarette waste and squished down was like lying in a dirty ashtray.

Speckled with ash and my back in desperate need of a good cracking, I arrived in the late afternoon to check into a dorm room at the Valentine hotel.

-- Petra, Indiana Jones and sore feet.

The hotel was just the ticket. It was the ideal place to relax with a comfy patio, friendly owners, roof top beds and movies on tap. In need of a good mindless comedy I quickly popped "Austin powers" into the VCR before anyone else arrived to hog the TV and laid back on the cushy sofa.

The rest of the day trickled away with almost nothing productive accomplished in preparation for the next day's long, tiring trek through Petra.

- Petra baby.

The next morning was another early morning. I awoke at 5am to wolf down breakfast and meet up with a Canadian couple I'd met the night before. Water bottle and daypack in hand we ventured off to the ruins of Petra.

Petra, the Nebetean city carved into shear rock, was deservedly one of the Middle East's top attractions. The Nebeteans prospered from their location in south Jordan and controlled the trade route to Africa for thousands of years. To the best that we could figure, the city was built around 2000-3000 BC and, due to it's size, was still being excavated. The most striking of features were the hundreds of facades carved into the rocky cliff-sides, which adorned swirls of reds, yellows, blacks and whites in mind-boggling natural rock formations.

Those multicolored towering gorges awaited us as we entered the city. Walking through the gigantic cracks to stumble onto the first, and perhaps the best, of the ruined city's gems, the Treasury. The treasury was best known for it's brief appearance in the Indiana Jones film "The last Crusade", in which Indiana and crew ride in on horse back through the gorge and enter the enormous Treasury to find the Holy Grail.

The facade was stunning and once our eyes locked on it, it was difficult to move on to the other sites. The inside of the Treasury, which was actually a tomb, the name "Treasury" was rooted in a myth in which pirates buried treasure inside the room, was noting more than a large square room cut from the rock with several doorways which once served as a giant tomb. Unlike the eerie passage with buzzing saw blades and booby traps seen in Indiana Jones.

When we finally did move on, we trekked up mountains, down into valleys and passed dozens of tombs and palaces. The valley was inhabited by the Nebeteans, the Romans and the crusaders, to name a few, and the contrast of sights was remarkable. The highlight of course being the ancient rock facades.

Once we reached half way along the path to the hilltop Monastery, the largest facade in Petra, we took a long well needed, peaceful nap. The quiet grotto served well to lift our spirits and we marched on.

The visit was spectacular, mostly due to the fact that there were practically no other tourists. We had been told that the year before thousands of visitors filled the city ever day, by noon we'd only seen 10 tourists walking around, a side effect of the troubles in the region.

Trekking along, I stopped cold once I reached the Monastery. The facade was impressive enough to an elephant in its tracks.

The picture of me standing in the doorframe, would be the best way to convey just how big it actually was.

By the time we had left the monastery we had walked for 6 hours and were running out of steam. Apparently the sun was supposedly good around 5pm on the Treasury so we ventured back to the entrance to get a good picture.

On the way there, we bumped into a young Lebanese-British man, Amir, who had been in Petra for several weeks on a dig. He was working to un-earth a roman temple that had been in the works for 30 years. To our luck, he gave us a private tour of the dig site and let us search through their garbage pile which contained mountains of ancient broken pottery which he let us take with us.

Drained and exhausted, we headed back for some food and a viewing of Indiana Jones, during which, I happily passed out.

--

Having a 4 day pass, I had the ambitious plan of touring Petra relentlessly but when 5am rolled around the next morning, I declared the day as a much needed slack-day. A day in which I managed to nothing aside from enjoying a traditional Turkish bath and massage. Preparation for the next day's daunting trek through Petra to soak in the last of the sights and to take Amir up on his offer to give me a tour of some other off-limits sights, which I never end up by do because I... uhmmmm... got lost.


--

Seeing as the Canadian couple I'd been to Petra with 2 days before had left the day before, I awoke early and ventured off to Petra alone for my last day in the ancient rose-red city.

Refreshed and legs slightly less rubbery than the previous day, I walked through the talk rock gorge to view the Treasury once again, this time waiting for the perfect light to hit the giant facade. The shadow slowly moved across the rock until at 10 am, finally, the bright orange glow of the sun fully illuminated the doorway. SNAP. Picture taken, I moved on to my planned route. A route that took my high above the treasury, on a giant rock, overlooking the ruin below. The climb was a grueling 2 hours, having reached the top I found a tiny, clothes pin like outcrop and snuck into the shade where I ate my pre-made lunch and slipped away into half sleep, examining the strange formations around me.

As the day drained away, I slowly made my way back to continue on. Unfortunately the map in my guide book was terribly inaccurate and it led me on a 2 hour hike over massive boulder strewn landscapes and over seemingly bottomless pits. After 2 hours, it was getting clear that I wouldn't be able to reach the intended castle by the route I'd taken and the heat, dehydration and confusion from being surrounded by giant mountains of orange rock set in. Suppressing a mild-panic of being lost and having to trudge back over the same difficult terrain I decided it best to find my way back before the light of day faded and left me stranded.

"Tour group?" the Bedouin man hearding goats over seemingly impossible rocky inclines asked as I desperately asked him for directions back to the main Petra center.

"No, no group..."
"Why you come out here?"
"It's this stupid map I have, it's horribly... " I stopped my self when I realized he had no idea what I was saying and barely understood a word of English. I raised both arms in the air as if to say "who knows" and he pointed east.

"Shukran" I thank him and plotted a new course east bound.

When I finally reach a water stand in Petra 3 hours later, I stumbled onto a chair, rolled my eyes back and collapsed from exhaustion. A small boy ran over, "drink?" ... I half opened my right eye and waited for the fuzzy image to focus.

I mustered just enough strength to reply, "Waaaahhhtttter? Water? ... Ohhh, Water! Yeesssssss!... Ummm, 6 bottles please."

The boy eagerly ran away to fetch some life giving water. Seeing as how business was dead in Petra since September 11th, a sale of 6 bottles was a clear jackpot.

He returned and lined the bottles up in front of me on the dirt floor like 6 shots of tequila. I slowly reached down and opened bottle after bottle of water, the first 3 of which I poured over my face and shirt. The boy stood in front of me and starred as if I was mad to be wasting, what I would later find out, was 3, 2 dollar mini-bottles of mildly cold water. Price didn't really matter at that point, I would have sold my soul for an ice cold bottle.

Once I'd recovered enough strength to drag my legs over to the gate, a man with a horse approached me.

"You ride horse to taxi?" The walk still had 1 hour to the road pack into it, a horse would get me there without having to strain my tired body anymore, plus I had seen Indiana Jones the night before and was eager to re-enact the scene where he arrived on horse back into Petra.

"Ok, ok, but I ride alone, ok?"
"Nono... no worry, very slow, you see." He said imitating him holding the cord hanging from the horse's nose as if to say he would guide me out.

"Nono, I want to ride out. I ride."
He handed over the horse, a bamboo stick and the reigns. Seeing as I'd never ridden a horse before, this probably wasn't the wisest of ideas but what the hell, we're talking about Indiana Jones here.

Although, I was a complete newbie, my stead seemed to know the way out.

"Yulla! Yulla!" I shouted as the horse galloped at top speed towards the exit leaving a blaze of dust billowing behind me.

-- New rules, no more CNN.

When I returned to my room and slept for some time to regain my strength I wandered down to the Internet cafe for quick email run.

While my email loaded in the background, I flipped my browser over to CNN.COM and pulled up a "chronology of attacks in Israel" web page. The report was less than re-assuring.

"Bus bombed"
"Palestinians open fire on public transport"

It seemed that the recent trend in the west back was to attack busses. Judging by the attacks and casualties, they seemed to produce the most lethal outcomes with disconcertingly high death rates.

To be on the safe side, I decided to shorten my stay in Israel and decided that the Dead sea and Jerusalem would be enough.

-- Wadi Rum, Laurence of Arabia's turf.

I had planned on venturing out to Wadi Rum, the rocky desert where Laurence of Arabia once galloped his way to glory, but when I awoke the next day, my tired body objected and convinced me to join a group leaving for an over night jeep excursion into the desert.

Sitting in the back of a pick up truck, our newly acquainted group drove out passed, giant towering pink rocky hills and sprawling desert in the blistering Jordanian summer sun. The day passed quickly as our group embarked into various discussions and debates ending at a Bedouin tent where we watched the pink sun go down over the distant mountains.

"Have you ever rock climbed?"
"No, first time" I informed the climbing guide the next morning as we trucked out to a mountain for our first climb.

"No problem, easy climb. No problem"

An American on our tour had convinced me the night before to join him for some rock climbing in the desert. When we arrived at the first rock, I was concerned.

"Are you sure this is a beginner climb? It looks a little steep no?"

"No, no... very easy, you see. " The guide said as he began to shuffle his way to the ascent to fasten ropes to the rock.

"This does not look like a beginner climb" the American confided once the guide was out of ear-shot.

It was too late to back out and I'd never be back here again. When the American climbed, rocks, which served as hand and foot steps snapped and fell to the ground exploding in a cloud of sand. This couldn't be a beginner climb.

What the hell, I was up. The adrenaline blurred any thoughts of backing out.

The climb was a 25 meter sheer rock in the desert, but was "relatively" easy to climb.

When I finally reached the top and belayed my way down. The guide confessed.

"Good! I knew you could do it. I have to admit, it's not a beginner climb, we call it a 5 plus, but I knew you could climb it. I knew you could"

"What? You? He? The mountain? Not beginner?!?" Having already finished the climb, ego boosted and confidence swelling, there wasn't much reason to complain.

We raced of to a 50 meter climb which was significantly more difficult. I spidered my way up the rock, encouraged to push on my recent success and we ended our early morning climb.

It was still only 9am and I could still backtrack to Amman, by the end of the day.

I parted ways with the American and we both continued our Journey to Israel, he from the south, and me from the Amman bridge.

-- Japanese Influence

As bizarre as it seemed, there was a reason for me to head back to Amman to cross over into Israel, rather than taking the near by crossing that I had originally planned to do.

2 nights before, I had shared a dorm room with a Japanese man who was more than eager to talk about his stint in Israel.

From his take, and many other's I'd spoken to, the Hussein bridge near Amman was the best way to get across. The challenge was of course the Israeli stamp. In the Middle East, an Israeli stamp pasted into your passport was the worse thing to have. Syria and Lebanon, to name 2 countries, would refuse you outright if any evidence of entry into the Jewish state was found.

To my surprise, although now it seemed fairly obvious, a stamp from a bordering country of your exit from Israel ( i.e.: an entry stamp at the Egyptian border ) would be a dead give away that you'd exited Israel to enter that country. The ultimate goal was to have your Jordan exit stamp, Israeli entry stamp, Israeli exit stamp and finally the entry stamp back into a neighboring country, absent from your travel documents. It wasn't official policy to have the stamps put into a separate document, like a blank, unattached piece of paper, but it was common practice on the Hussein Bridge. Once I'd heard this, I decided to head back to Amman, 5 hours back in the direction I'd come from, to cross over.

It was back to Amman.

When I reached Amman and went to the Canadian embassy to have my passport refilled with extra pages, the consulate warned of the dangers in Israel and offered options should I be unfortunate enough to be branded with a stamp.

Seeing as how the trip to Israel and my return to Jordan would not appearing my passport, it would seem as though I'd never left Jordan. To complete the illusion, I went to the police in Amman extend my Jordanian visa.

Finally, I'd read of the 2 hour interrogation at the Israeli border and complete, sometimes bodily, searches. To expedite the theater of personal profiling, I packed away all but the absolute bare necessities into my back pack and stored it at a local hotel.

Everything was in check. My tiny day pack with minimal contents was prepared for the journey and my passport was primed. I met up with an Australian who I'd met in Petra and once he found out of my quick jaunt over to the Israeli side, he managed to convince himself to join me for 3 days. I'd stay longer in the troubled region but was glad to had company for the journey west.

I was ready, the time had come. I was going to Jerusalem.
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Comments

ahmad on

i'm from jordan
it's marvelous shots..... & i think you have the ability to be a photographer.....................so good luck .......visit joradn again

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