Meandering in the Middle East
Trip Start Oct 20, 2005
31Trip End Nov 04, 2006
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The scenery on the drive from the international airport outside of Amman, Jordan into town is similar to that of the high desert towns of Oregon and California: moon-like terrain punctuated by scrub brush, with a mix of suburban sprawl. Along the road into town from the airport we saw the "best" offerings of Western culture (ha, ha): McDonalds, Carls Jr., KFC, Burger King, Popeye's Fried Chicken, and Safeway.
But how do you know that you're in the Middle East? When the exit signs off the highway read "To Iraq" and "To Saudi Arabia" borders
We arrived in the capital city of Amman around 10:30 PM to find the downtown swarming with people and all the shops and restaurants doing a swift business
Ramadan is a month-long period where Muslims fast during daylight hours to fulfill the fourth (out of five) requirement of Islam - that on an annual basis, they demonstrate their adherence to the faith by keeping anything from passing their lips (like food and cigarettes) from dawn to dusk.
During Ramadan, most restaurants are closed during the day and public transportation is limited. During breakfast and lunch hours, we were lucky to find restaurants where we would get something "to go," and then eat it in the hotel so as not to offend those fasting. But come sunset, people rush home to gorge themselves.
Amman is not a beautiful city by any means; the beige concrete block architecture does not inspire lots of picture taking. The circular minarets and domes of the mosques are the only things breaking up the sharp edges of the utilitarian cityscape. It isn't until you hike up to one of the jebbels (hills) that you get the full impact of the city. Then its skyline becomes beautiful, in an austere sort of way. Those drab buildings blend into the brown, dusty desert scenery (like animals mimicking there surroundings) making them look like they are meant to be there.
Only after we had explored historical remains in other parts of Jordan and seeing how, centuries ago, people built their homes and mosques to blend into nature, did we realize that Amman fit an architectural tradition
Once again, we are no longer anonymous in our travels. We stick out as foreigners (with our camera and backpacks). Surprisingly, in this capital city, looking different did not invite the locals' stares, nor give us a heightened sense of "we're-going-to-be-cheated."
Different from any capital city we have been in, being a traveler in Amman was low-key and enjoyable. People singled us out, but only to welcome us and chat for a few minutes. We never once felt there was any expectation of us (of money or other things) behind those interactions. People were helpful with directions and happy to give you a smile. We felt safe, and most of all, it was okay to admit that we were Americans. We would get a hardy welcome and "I like Americans." We even heard, "George Bush and King Hussein, they are friends!"
Outside of Amman, however,
we were reminded of the fact that Westerners are seen as being made of money. On several occasions we were overcharged for transport and other items.
Someone recently asked Jamie the question, "why would you want to go to a country where people try to cheat you?" That was a good question and it wasn't until we were in Jordan could she answer it. Yes, it is always frustrating being over charged, or having to be in an uncomfortable position to protect yourself from being cheated...perhaps that is to be expected when you travel in a poorer nation with a distinctly different culture than your own?
However, nowhere else - certainly not in Western Europe or North America - have we experienced such random acts of kindness and hospitality like those we have experienced in South Asia, Africa, and now in Jordan
For instance, in Amman, a pita bread baker summoned us over to give us some fresh baked pita, when we tried to pay he shooed away the money. One evening, trying to hale a taxi, a man on the street stopped and used his cell phone to get directions to the restaurant so the taxi driver would know where to go (nowhere this year have we been in a place where taxi drivers know their own city!). These little things (and granted, they are little), show us that kindness and humanity do exist in this world.
The highlight of Jordan, for Jamie, would never have happened had we not been traveling the way we do. Wandering around the town of Wadi Musa by herself, she encountered a woman in front of her home and said "Salaam Alaykum" the woman invited her inside, gave her coffee and then invited her to break the Ramadan fast (Iftar) with her and her sisters that evening. [Don't feel bad for Justin; he went off with our friend Simon for dinner. In the first week, we met two British chaps in Amman and ended up traveling with Simon (Jay went home) for a few days.]
Thus, Jamie was able to experience a small slice of life for Jordanian women
We had read in guide books that, in many countries, the best meals are found in private homes, and this certainly proved true in Jordan. The Iftar dinner was the best dinner she had in Jordan. Because they hadn't eaten all day, Jamie's hosts provided enormous amounts of food to tide them over until the next evening. It was one of those meals that you don't want to stop eating because it all tastes so good. After dinner, she hung out with the women on one of the many couches in the many rooms of the house. They were speaking in Arabic most of the time, as only one woman spoke English, but Jamie had fun watching what Jordanian women do during an average evening: paint their finger nails, talk on the cell phone and visit with neighbors who drop by. All pretty normal... not that she expected otherwise.
Our time in Jordan was non-stop sightseeing. From Amman we headed south to Dana Nature Reserve for some hiking.
We were surprised how much desert scenery can vary from kilometer to kilometer. From the scrub brush-filled tundra around Amman, we traveled to rounded, pillow-like rocks and gorges of Dana to the purple and pink carved rocks of Petra and then to the sheer rock mountains in Wadi Rum, one didn't get bored exploring the different desert scenery.
Dana National Reserve is one of Jordan's first "ecotourism" efforts with the aim to protect the fragile desert ecosystem and, at the same time, ensure that local villagers benefit economically from tourism
After a few days of hiking in Dana, we headed to the very popular ruins at Petra.
Petra, beginning in the 6th Century BC, was the home of the Nabataeans, a nomadic tribe from Arabia. Maybe you can't recollect learning about them in your high school world history class, but you've certainly seen their temples in the movie "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." Do you remember when Indy was searching for the Holy Grail at that desert temple? Supposedly, that scene was shot on location at the "Treasury" ruin in Petra. But to remind you of those 10th-grade history class facts....
The Nabataeans gained their wealth from the taxes they levied on the frankincense, myrrh, and spice caravans that traversed the Incense Route from southern Asia to the Middle East. It is estimated that at the height of the civilizations glory, about 30,000 people lived in Petra. In 106 AD, the Romans took over Petra. A few hundred years later, earthquakes damaged the city and by the mid 500 AD, Petra passed into obscurity and became known as the "lost city:" only known to the Bedouins. The Bedouins, descendants of the Nabataenans lived in and among the remains until the early 1800's when Petra was "discovered" by a Swiss explorer. As the Bedouins feared, with the discovery of Petra, came an influx of foreigners - including us.
Petra was extremely appealing to the eyes. The colors found in the rocks looked like a half melted, swirled rainbow sherbet. Purples, pinks, blues, yellows and browns of the stone were vibrant in the sun light
Unfortunately, when you popped into the many caves carved into the rocks, all there was to see was the trash people had left behind (as well as the acrid stench of urine). Despite this, we spent two days exploring the glory that once was the Nabatean kingdom.
Though we were in the "high" season for tourism, there were relatively few visitors because of the recent Israeli/Hamas conflict in Lebanon. [We say "relatively" because in the 1990's, Petra saw about 400,000 tourists a year.]
Due to this scarcity, we were prime targets for the donkey and camel ride touts as well as all the Bedouin women and kids selling their kitsch. You wouldn't walk more than 10 feet without hearing, "would you like a donkey ride," or the more creatively, "taxi ride for you sir." Despite our refusals and our irritation at being solicited so often, we couldn't help but feel sorry for these individuals whose livelihoods depended upon the tourist dollar.
After Petra we moved south east to the desert of Wadi Rum. Like glaciers rise from the ocean waters, the massive rock formations of Wadi Rum rise out of pink desert sand. To thoroughly explore the area, we rode in a four-wheel drive truck in the desert. We spent the night under the blanket of stars at a Bedouin camp. This was a perfect way to spend our last night in Jordan.
The following day, we took a taxi to the border to cross into Israel
We took a taxi directly to the Eilat border crossing right near the Red Sea and began to enter Israel. We say "began" because more so than the entry into any other country we've have been, it was a thorough process.
We think it all hinged on the way Jamie said the word "Shalom" ("Hello" in Hebrew) to the border guard upon entering the Israeli border complex. Jamie's greeting had been honed through years of going to Friday night religious services. Subsequently, she sailed through the security portion of immigration.
Justin didn't have the benefit of years of practice and said "Hello!" in English. He subsequently had his baggage x-rayed three times and unpacked completely (down to a reading of one of his books). His bags and every page of his passport were swabbed for explosives. Finally, we were admitted into the State of Israel.
We decided that the seaside town of Eilat was remarkably similar to the Pacific Beach community in San Diego and other beach communities we have visited this year: warm sea breezes, beach accoutrements and kitsch for sale, and a laid-back atmosphere.
Some differences: residents of Pacific Beach do not have holstered pistols on their hips, store security guards do not carry Uzi submachine guns, and the shopping centers on Garnet Ave
Surprisingly for us, it was pretty easy to get used to the security focus of everybody in Israel. Being surrounded by so much firepower back home would have really unnerved us and made us worry that some nutcase would become unglued and mow everybody down in the mall. But here, it seemed...natural?
Despite having a citizen army (with 20-something recruits, both men and women, lugging M-16 automatic rifles all over the place), Israel has relatively few gun-related deaths. According to the guide book, criminal misuse of army issued firearms is extremely rare.
On the subject of military: during our time here, Israel launched an attack in the Gaza Strip (about 40 miles from Tel Aviv). If we hadn't been watching the news, we would have never have known this. Whereas America would probably be completely chaotic in similar circumstances, people here in Israel proper seemed unaffected; they continued to go out and shop and hang at the cafes.
The bus ride up to Jerusalem through the West Bank was uneventful and the scenery, sparse desert scape
The Old City thrives because it is highly sacred to adherents of the three major monotheistic religions.
We immediately became acquainted with the religiosity of the place and of other guests. Within five minutes of checking into a grotty hotel, the long-term guest-cum-receptionist asked Justin, "Do you believe in God?" Then there was the pleasant man from Connecticut who has been here for 13 years, and lives his life strictly by laws of Moses in the Old Testament. [He explained this to Justin as he hand-ground wheat, which he does weekly, for his meals..."commercial flour has bugs in it, you know."] One guy proclaimed to Jamie that he was "High on Jesus." She responded that she was happy for him (and, left unsaid, it was healthier than being high on cocaine).
We again met up with our new friend Simon who was also staying at the Petra Hostel
On an ecumenical tour, we also paid a call to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches believe to be the place where Christ is said to have been crucified, was buried, and rose from the dead. Perhaps to be expected, there is the "competing" site which some Protestant groups maintain is the "place of the skull" - where these events took place. Indeed, one can see...if you squint?.. the outline of a human skull in the rocky cliff. Unfortunately, the spirituality of the place is ruined by the bus terminal immediately adjacent. We also hiked around the Garden of Gethsemane (where Christ is said to have been betrayed) and its chapel. Of all the churches, we have been to this year; Justin decided that this was, to him, the most spiritual. Perhaps this is due to the interior's beautiful mosaics, which were placed there when the Ottoman Empire ruled Jerusalem. Seeing this church gave us a good idea of what the ruins we saw in Jordan must have looked like at their prime.
Finally, we had a sunny day where we could view the Dome of the Rock and Temple Mount. Moslems believe that this is where Mohammed ascended to heaven to receive God's teachings of Islam. [As non-Moslems, we were unable to enter either building.]
For sale, everywhere was a huge amount of religion-based souvenirs and books. Because it wasn't just the usual tourist kitsch of T-shirts and plastic replicas of the Taj Mahal, we took note. It varied from the sensible (Old Testament texts) to the silly (plastic figures of famous rabbis) to the nauseatingly bizarre (do people really need an actual Crown of Thorns?).
Jerusalem is not just a city of religious Jews, Muslims and Christians; it is also a hip place with cafes and shops. We were surprised by how many English and A American accents we have heard all around the city.
One area of town seems to attract all the young American Jews who are here to study, and possibly find their place in Judaism. Wandering out of the Old City brings you into neighborhoods that are built of light limestone blocks with little architectural appeal. What gives each neighborhood its character are the people and the shops. We spent some time exploring the Ultra Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She'arim where Jamie's purple fleece stuck out amongst the black clad Orthodox men and women.
Because there is such a mix of people and cultures here in Jerusalem, we have benefited by enjoying many types of cuisines
The huge number of Ethiopians ensured that we would be able to indulge in our love of good Ethiopian food. Georgian, Armenian fare and the ever-present falafel and shwarma have also been featured on our menu. To top it all off, after searching for bagels in India and Europe, we have finally found the best bagels outside of New York City. Needless to say, we have been well fed and it is a good thing that Jerusalem is a walking city!
After being in predominantly Muslim, Buddhist, Christian and Hindu countries this year, it is interesting to be in a Jewish state. Business hours and holidays fall according to the observances of Judaism. If only because of this, Israel is definitely different from other places we have been.
After six nights, we were ready for a more secular locale, so we took a short ride to the capital of Tel Aviv. We have enjoyed our two days in this pleasant coastal city with its sidewalk cafes, and an inordinate number of shoe stores. Aside from the crazy drivers, Tel Aviv is a fairly laid back city with a good vibe. We said our tearful goodbyes to Simon, a wonderful travel companion, who headed off to Turkey; we prepared to head back to the good old US of A.
By the time you read this blog we will have ended our 379 day journey and will be on our way home. We plan to send one more blog out describing what it is like to be back home, in our own bed, after a year away - so stay tuned...