Thursday, May 12, 2011

Jordan; Aman and Petra

If you are reading this, I will assume you are also reading Rayna's blog and her post about her trip to Belarus to lead seders there during Passover.  Well, with Rayna leaving town for a week, I decided I might as well do the same and take an opportunity to travel.

Some backstory: A tourist visa in Israel is good for three months.  My stay - three months and three days.  Thus I HAD to leave the country at least once and upon reentry get a new tourist visa for three months.  So I took the opportunity when it presented itself.

Sharon is a Rabbinical student at HUC, and one of Rayna's colleagues.  Her boyfriend Adam is a student at Hebrew University studying biblical history.  I've gotten to know both of them pretty well over the past few months, and had some incredibly interesting discussion with Adam.  He is like a walking talking insightful answer machine for all the questions that pop into my head here in Israel.  Turns out it works in Jordan too.

A week or two before Rayna's departure (a few days before Passover actually started) Sharon and Adam mentioned their plans to go to Jordan, and I jumped.  As the date drew nearer I made my bus reservations and hotel reservations online (it's cool, the bus system sends you a text message with your confirmation number, then you enter that into the machine at the station).  I was to leave one day before Rayna, and get back on the first evening of passover with time to get to seder.

So we took the bus to Eilat, on the Red Sea, the southern most part of Israel, then taxi'd to the border.  Walking across is a cinch, but you have to pay about $30 to exit Israel.  From there we taxi'd to Aqaba, the Jordanian town mirroring Eilat.  Both are beautiful beach towns.  We picked up our rental and drove immediately to a gas station.  When you rent in Jordan the tank is empty!  You return it the same way.  Weird, I know.

From there we drove back North all the way to Amman (which is actually North of Jerusalem by a little bit - reason for this is complex and involves the visa requirements at different points of entry to and from the countries).  We found a parking spot on the busy market streets of Amman and hoofed it to our Hotel.  It is always strange to arrive anywhere at night, but doing so in a rental, in another country, that speaks a foreign language, that has in the past been hostile, and with new travel partners, well it should be a bigger challenge that it was.  It was cake.  Except for figuring out where to park, we found our hotel, checked in, found Adam's friend (who was also staying there), got a recommendation for dinner, and ate an AMAZING mixed grill dinner for 3 for like $14.

Amman is a beautiful city.  It has it's challenges, and is very different from the more Western feeling cities of Israel, and of course the US, but it is also charming, and friendly.  Sweet smells (and some others...) of delicious food, new and different things for sale (and many many familiar things), friendly people, ancient ruins, modern conventions, and all very reasonably priced.  Truth be told the people were some of the friendliest I have met.

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Now, I wasn't advertising that I was Jewish, but I wasn't hiding it either.  i was honest with everyone, told them where I was from, but didn't offer any more info than I needed.  But it never seemed like an issue either way.  I hope this is true to some degree, and not just my optimism, but maybe people are beginning to see that we are all really much more similar than we are different.  Semitic people, Arabs, descendants of Abraham, half-brothers, cousins... monotheists.  Dark skinned, argumentative, fun loving, hummus eaters all of us!

So I felt very comfortable the whole time.

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Next morning we checked out of our hotel, brought our bags to our car and walked through the city a bit, to the Roman Theater, and the Greek Theater.  Around and about the shops in the old part of town where we stayed.  we ate at an upscale spot with a great rooftop terrace (if you know me then you know i'm a sucker for terraces) with a great view.

DSC 0072 The story gets a little more interesting here.  We headed south to the Amman Airport to pick up Andrea, Adam's sister.

In hearing about this plan from the start I'd made the rational assumption that Andrea must be at least as adventurous as Adam, since she was flying into Jordan from the states to meet her brother.  There are always potential complications in a complex pickup operation like this, so i figured she was a traveler to even attempt this arrangement.  On the ride there Adam assured me it was the opposite and that if he wasn't there waiting for her she would be quite upset.  Well kudos, Andrea, for taking the leap and flying way outside your comfort zone.  But don't worry, dear reader, we made it.  And I'm glad we had a little extra time!  They are building an amazing new airport literally in between and around the old one.  It is a complex glass, steel, and concrete form, but entirely curving, and arching.  Much like other Arab structures this one emulates the sheltering tent like structures native to this ancient culture.

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With Andrea secured, we got back in the car and headed south... to our ultimate destination, and one of the places I've been wanting to go see for YEARS: Petra.

Legendary city of stone.  Ancient mystery, magnificent unparalleled masonry, unique in the world.  Petra, just hours away, we were on our way.

The desert highway, rolling, burnt earth, and pipeline snaking forever alongside.  We turn off onto an older, smaller desert highway, that begins cutting through hills and valleys, shifting up and down, from lush to arid and back again.  Descending down towards the unknown, excitement brewed within me.

Finally, we round a bend and the road hugs a steep hillside, we descend towards a town that seems to reach up, beckoning, signs and light, many languages, banks, shops, all the elements of a major tourist destination.  Much like Aquas Calientes in Peru, modern entry and way-station for Machu Pichu, or even the town of Moab, Utah, the base for so many hikers and bikers in Arches National Park , all these towns feel the same in some weird detached way.

Our Hotel, or Hostel more accurately, is in this town, on the hill opposite the large brown red stone labyrinth that hides the ancient city of Petra.  You can see the mound below, obscured in mist and the diminishing light.  The sun began to set as we stashed our bags in our rooms, and i managed to route out yet another rooftop terrace to try to capture the mystery of this place.  The excitement inside me, the anticipation, the known energy of the unknown awaiting, pulsating in my chest.

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We dined at the hostel on their terrace, then moved into the Bedouin tent for some hookah.  As the night grew thicker so did the crowd, and some local Bedouins arrived and began to play traditional music on the Oud (like a guitar but with a fully rounded body and a twangy, lively, eastern sound).  Yes, we danced, and yes, we talked with the Bedouins, later into the night than I had thought reasonable for such a big next day, but we were wild, and we were wired, and we were all just so damn excited, i didn't think I'd be able to sleep much anyhow.

I did sleep, but I woke up as I tend to, before my alarm, wide awake, ready, and so excited.  Shower, pack back up, and back on the terrace for breakfast.  Delicious, but the flavors seemed to wink out on my tongue as soon as I got the food in my mount and my mind back on the day ahead.  Soon Adam and Sharon joined me, but I knew and understood that Andrea would be feeling the effects of 9 hours of time zones, and when she roused soon after, i have to say I was impressed, if unable to show it due to the implacable anticipation coursing through me.  
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We drove down, Adam guiding and driving since he'd been here once before, to the park entrance and parked on a sidewalk (totally normal here, I assure you).  Words began to fail me as they do now as I try to type.  So i will let photos speak for me, and try to provide some captions to tell you what they are.  You'll be able to ascertain our day, as these are chronologically placed.  The entrance hike in, the stunning delivery of the Treasury approached through a narrow chasm, the unbelievable wall street, the ascent up to the sacrificial altar, the Urn Palace, the treacherous donkey drivers, and the Monastery.  Unparalleled in all the world.  Enjoy.  I did.

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