Jordan and the People of the Rocks

Trip Start Jan 18, 2006
Trip End Jun 02, 2006

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Jordan and the People of the Rocks

Walking on Water: Amman and the Dead Sea

Lebanon was gone as quickly as it had appeared, dissolving into the clouds beneath our plane. After a five day visit, and a dozen life-changing moments, Erin and I were flying to Amman, Jordan for the final leg of our journey. Jordan sits inland of Lebanon, bordering Syria, Israel, the West Bank, Saudi Arabia, and Northern Iraq. It is known for being more Western and, until the bombings last year, was considered immune to the terrorist dangers of its neighbors. Our plan was to start in Amman and work our way South to Aqaba, this path had been chosen partly because of logistics and partly because I wanted to recreate Lawrence of Arabia's desert trek.

Last August my friend Andrea Michaels left for Amman, deciding to enroll in an Arabic language school there. Throughout the fall we e-mailed back and forth, I scrutinized every word of her responses and her solid faith encouraged me when doubts about my impending trip arose. She met us at the airport and I have rarely been so excited to see someone. For three months I hadn't seen anyone from home, none of my friends at AUC know anything about my life before Egypt.

Andrea was the perfect American hostess. There were soft mattresses in her beautiful apartment, a hot shower, and (miracle of miracles!) Folger's coffee. This combined with homemade coffeecake each day erased the drudgery of early mornings. At night we would talk and watch American movies, in the mornings we lingered over our steaming mugs, not wanting to end the pleasant conversations.

The first day we caught a minibus headed for the Dead Sea. An hour and half to the East of Amman, this salty body of water promises to make the most clumsy individual an excellent swimmer. I was the first in the water, joyfully splashing and bobbing around. My excitement was tempered when a wave caught me in the face, burning my eyes and filling my mouth with its putrid acidity. After an hour in the water my skin was fully exfoliated and my eyes needed to be flushed, so I dried off and spent the rest of the afternoon poking around souvenir shops.

Petra: The Red City

We had planned to go North but Andrea dissuaded us, reminding us that after awhile all Roman ruins look the same. So we bypassed Jerash in favor of Petra and the desert to the South. By the time we arrived in Wadi Musa, the tiny hotel town outside of Petra, it was evening and too late to pay the expensive entrance fee to the site. Our hostel's owner, Mohammed, decided to help us out and soon we were piling into his friends truck for a tour of Little Petra.

The Nabataeans built Little Petra in the 3rd century BC and then built big Petra when they had outgrown the smaller city. The city is hewn into the red rock, is cliff hanging tombs and cavernous homes blending unobtrusively into the mountainside. But Mohammed was far more interested in us climbing Little Petra than actually seeing it. Poor Leah got dragged up and down a dozen hills as Erin and I went bounding from one boulder to another. Eventually my capricious attitude got me into trouble when I followed Mohammed up a particularly steep incline that even Black Hills Erin had shunned. Once on top I forgot about the precarious climb up and Mohammed and I talked about Jordan as the sun set.

The trip back down was a different story. I tore my jeans right in the seat and was trying to tie my sweatshirt around my waist so no one would see as I also sought out footholds. Mohammed was supposed to be leading the way when suddenly he slipped and tumbled to a rock ten feet below. Luckily he's Jordanian and he landed like a cat with perfect balance. I went white thinking that I would have broken my neck. But with some coaxing from Mohammed and a less hasty pace I made it down at last. My poor jeans though. For the rest of the trip I was stuck wearing pajama pants.

That night Mohammed generously offered to rent us a movie since he really didn't want to watch the hostel's copy of Indiana Jones again. Unfortunately the film was pirated and we could see the curtains of the theatre and the heads of the audience. The TV was also some archaic thing with dials so you can imagine the picture quality.

The following morning we went to big Petra, the main site of the ruins. For a steep charge of $15 we got a one day pass and started wandering along the path into the city. Suddenly we were enveloped in a siq, a narrow rock passageway that is made by tectonic forces. This siq was one of the main reasons Petra survived, it was impossible to march big armies through its narrow entrance. We were still enraptured by the rocks and the beauty of the siq when suddenly there it was at the end of the passage, the Treasury.

When you walk up to it the Treasury fpeaks out at the end of the siq, like a nervous actor behind a curtain. Then it grows and grows until you realize its height and the ornate detail of its fašade. Although Petra is never named, the treasury is featured in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade so many tourists recognize it without knowing why.

I'm more interested in people than places, so I soon strayed from the chain of monuments to talk with some of the mingling Arabs. Two Bedouins caught my attention; they were sitting in the shade the one playing a flute while the other listened. I was intrigued by the shrill melody and the cocky attitude of the two men as they watched the tourists stroll by. Their kifeas, red and white checked scarves, were tied like bandannas around their heads giving them the appearance of gangsters rather than nomadic shepherds.

They noticed me sitting there, trying to inconspicuously film them, and they came over to talk. My broken Arabic proved entertaining and soon we were chattering about Petra, its history and their lives as Bedouins. Soon I was getting a free tour. They told me they used to live in Petra like many other Bedouins who had made its ancient caves their homes. Now they lived in the desert in tents with their families. I was struck by the tenacity of Bedouin tradition, even with so much tourism the people still cling to their customs and values.

As the sun grew fat and red on the horizon we hiked to the top of a final mountain to see the monastery, site number twenty-six on our foldout guide. It was the last stop and we plopped down at a restaurant, taking their chairs and refusing to buy anything. We lingered too long and soon we were the only ones on the summit. Erin suggested we head back down before it got too dark, and as we began the long trek back we heard all the guides packing up as well. Soon we were surrounded in front and back by Bedouins heading home for the night. A five year old named Sabrina began following me, trying to talk with me despite the language barrier. The only English phrases she
knew where "I give good price" and "it looks very beautiful, nice with your eyes."

The sunset bathed the hills in magenta tones as we caught a cab and dragged ourselves back to the hostel. Exhausted and happy, we fell asleep to the sounds of Mohammed and his friends watching more pirated movies in the hostel lobby.

Valley of the Moon: Desert Trekking in Wadi Rum

Samee, our Bedouin guide for Wadi Rum, showed up early the next morning with a truck and supplies for a night under the stars. At first it was a bit awkward, but soon our enthusiasm about the desert broke the cultural barrier. We drove, leaving behind all the touristy conveniences of Petra as we headed South. Then, without warning, Samee turned sharply off the highway, making a road where there wasn't one in the middle of the landscape. It was my first experience with off roading and I finally understood why trucks have four wheel drive.

We bumped and stalled across the parched ground until cliffs and rocks appeared on the horizon. I was happily taking pictures of the camel herds and multicolored dunes when Samee announced that it was time to have some fun. He switched on Santana and as the chorus blared "Give me your heart, make it real or else forget about it!" Samee sped the truck in circles, weaving around dunes and occasionally plunging right over them. I stuck my head out the window and let the hot desert air whip against my face as I tried to take it all in. Of all the things I've seen in the Middle East, the desert is probably the most beautiful.

Eventually we pulled up in front of a black, goat-hair tent. It was time for lunch and we were crashing at a Bedouin family's place. The tents are divided into two parts, haram which means forbidden and is the women's part, and another section for men and guests. We went into this latter section while Samee handed some food into the haram section. Later the food reemerged, cooked and smelling of spices. There was laban, or sour yogurt, in a big communal bowl. Being Lebanese, I gulped the stuff down as Leah and Erin looked on in horror. The bread had been baked over coals and the olive oil we dipped it in was a delicious, smooth and a brilliant lime green. I had told Samee that Leah was a vegetarian so they served us lamb. Somehow "vegetarian" in Arabic ends up meaning that someone doesn't like chicken.

After lunch we got onto the inevitable topic of marriage. Our fifty-six year old Bedouin host was the father of thirteen children with a fourteenth on the way. Thus he had many sons to find wives for and here were three, young Americans sitting in his tent. Samee began the negotiations, bargaining on my behalf.

"She is part Lebanese and she knows some Arabic," he was saying. I just chuckled, it was all to absurd.

"Seventy camels," the Bedouin man was saying.

"I've had better offers in Turkey," I countered, "In Turkey I was offered seventy camels and a palace." It is actually true although I wasn't close to accepting
the fifty-year old Turkish man's bargain.

"Seventy camels is nothing. You must kill that many just for the wedding feast!" Samee exclaims. At this the Bedouin man bumps the offer up to 90,000 dinars. This is a lot of money and I'm starting to consider.

"Maybe," Samee says slowly, "We must bring her Baba here and her grandfather and you can ask them. Also, everything must be written in her name so that if she wants a
divorce she will have money." I'm amazed by the cleverness of his plan.

"Samee, you think like an American," I say and he grins. The Bedouin is waving his cigarette and clucking.

"No, everything cannot be written in her name. My first wife will get mad," he says extinguishing the cigarette in the sand floor of the tent. I choke on my lamb. His first wife! He wants me to be his second wife! All this time I thought that I was going to be marrying one of his eager sons sitting next to him, not this fifty-six year old father of thirteen. All negotiations stopped.

That night Samee took us to a campground with fake tents and dozens of Jordanian tourists from Amman. There was disco music and obnoxious people crowding the whole place. I begged the manager to take us back out to the desert and, after I insisted three times that we really didn't want to spend the night at his lovely establishment, he packed some mattresses and pillows into a pick-up for us and called a driver. So we left the blaring lights and loud American music of the campsite, and slept instead under the stars. Wifts of clouds would occasionally obscure our view, making the starlight that much more brilliant when a breeze would push back the fuzzy veil and reveal the luminescent sky.

Erin and Leah fell asleep quickly, but I stayed up, sitting with my knees hugged into my chest. My heart was restless and I knew that I needed to pray. When I heard the soft, measured breathing of my two companions I began whispering my fears and hopes to my omnipotent creator. My voice was small and weak, dwarfed by the awesome landscape that reminded me of the splendor and majesty of my God. But still he heard my pathetic cries and comforted me with his presence. The words of Psalm 8 filled my mind. When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.

Aqaba: Snorkeling and Sunburn

We decided to spend out last day in Aqaba, unfortunately we didn't realize that half of Jordan had had the same idea. All the hotels were booked and we ended up staying in a hostel that was still being built. Our room had no electricity or furniture, but there was a roof and that was all that mattered. That afternoon the owner's nephew Mohammed took us snorkeling in the Gulf of Aqaba.

I've been snorkeling twice before, but the underwater world never loses its magic. Leah and Erin were too distracted by the masks to stay out for long, but I've always been a bit of a fish and Mohammed and I explored reef after reef. Mohammed was an ambitious guide, trying to teach me about every kind of coral and fish. He then decided I need to learn how to dive which is difficult in the salty water that pushes you constantly to the surface.

At one point Mohammed dove deep, swimming under a coral archway. I stupidly decided to follow him, holding my breath and kicking hard against the surface. I started running out of air and came up before I had cleared the arch completely. I banged my head and got stuck in the coral, damaging it as I thrashed to get free. The coral in turn did some damage to my arm and back. At last I got out of its rocky grip and took a grateful gulp of air at the surface.

When I returned to the beach, panting and bleeding, Leah had just decided to overcome her fears and give the snorkeling a try. She took one look at me and lost all courage. So, the three of us just sat there for the rest of the afternoon, baking in the sun. That morning I had refused sunblock with some arrogant comment about Lebanese people not getting sunburn. Unfortunately, my white, German roots seem to be dominant and I burned so badly that day that my back turned purple.

The sun set and we drank tea and ate dinner with the owners of the hostel in an open hut with pillows and carpets spread across its sandy floor. They told us stories from the Qu'ran as I stirred my drink, thinking back over all the adventures of break. At last, Erin broke the magic of the moment by saying we needed to go to bed. So, regretfully I said good night and went to sleep, knowing that in the morning I would return to classes, koshiri, and Cairo.
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