We found a cabbie who promised to take us over for $8 for 15 miles which was expensive but we did pass through 4 checkpoints in Syria, to get out, and 9 in Jordan to enter. The Jordanians took our pictures, taped our voices, made us fill out papers and fingerprinted us. The main grilling was transacted over a counter which came up to our chests.
The agents at the desks behind could not see over it when seated and the shorter people could not see them so business was conducted with a screaming pantomime of hands waving over across this counterproductive installation. We were about to roll up our sleeves for a blood test when a guy with a gun called us into his office. “Sit,” he insisted darkly as he waved us onto a battered couch. He perused at our papers glumly and glared over his glasses at us.
He was looking for sweating drug mules (possible) or perhaps American terrorists (unlikely). Seeing no sweat or bulges he broke into a big smile and said “Welcome to Jordan! Obama good!” This was so typical of many places we went. In many countries the common folk are friendly enough but the guys with pistolays are a bit dickish. In the Middle East you learn to not mind a guy in a uniform even when he waves an AK47 in your face with one hand and shakes one of yours with another. In Mexico I have been robbed by uniformed police twice but in Jordan the cops hold open the door for you.
Crossing the border everything looked different. The sexy underwear in the shops windows was even nastier and the homes were more prosperous with sloping roofs indicating they were actually finished. We passed lush fields and the crazy driving ceased (except for the curious habit of spending a good deal of time on the wrong side of the road). We went through speed traps every 5 miles or so and police roadblocks every 10 so it looked like there had either been a major prison break or it was just business as usual in the Middle East.
Amman was a surprise.
It isn’t old at all. This place sprung up in the last 100 years and most in the last 30 so the city crawls over steep hills and looks much like San Francisco Amman’s newest sister city. The ancients didn’t build up steep hills but cars changed all that. We first went to the Russian embassy where they were their typically hostile selves. I love Russia; the rudest damn people on earth. Anyway Tyler wanted to go see a friend in Moscow but they wouldn’t give him a visa. Just before going there we were making copies for the visa and found ourselves in the 250 foot long lobby in a schmancy hotel featuring a 40-foot shark tank with 12, we counted em, 12 large sharks and about 2 million bucks in couches and knickknacks. This is where the diplomats stay. They wanted about $800 a night so we found a nice hotel a few blocks away with no sharks but included a very nice lobby cat for about $40.
That night in Amman we met street vendors who musically yell out in Arabic “we got fressssh fish here, we got riiiiipe tomatoes!” All singing out at once which is quite something. We liked Amman; modern, but not fancy. Friendly and fast without the feeling of being hustled. There are pictures of the king everywhere and he is smiling while dressed in the desert camo, with bands of bullets and the ever present curved knife. In the morning we snagged a bus to Petra in the south. We just loved the busses. 2 or 3 dollars for up to two hours with working people. On-off, on-off, a continual parade. In Petra we met the first high density of tourists on the trip. There is town next to this ancient city which it is all hotels and restaurants. A good many day trippers come by bus but leave in the early afternoon making the place eerily quiet.
The ancient city is known to many as the one depicted in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is a city built in the depths of a red sandstone canyon miles from any vegetation. It was a famous place for tombs and once again a trading center. The unbelievable part is that most of what is left is carved from living rock. This means that many of the structures, some 140 feet high, are carved in place. To enter the city you walk down a natural stone canyon past carvings of camel caravans and gods of all sorts.
The canyon is at times only 15 feet wide and becomes ever deeper until the cliffs are couple of hundred feet high. After about a half a mile you emerge to face an immense ceremonial building and as you walk ever lower into the valley it widens out and the tombs cut in the hills become more numerous. The carvings are primarily Roman but other cultures left their marks including the Aramaic speaking Nabateans. You can almost hear the faint voices of Cleopatra, Herod and Trajan in this desolate outpost.
After about 2 miles and dropping perhaps 1,200 feet we found a mile long flight of stairs to the very top of the ridge. The Bedouins call this place The End of The World and we could see for miles all round. There we found Bedouins in traditional bandoleer and dagger festooned outfits selling tea and cokes. Like all the other locals we met they were not at all weary of visitors and were unfailingly gracious. The Bedouins live all over this region and are the desert nomads still living in black goat hair tents in the searing dessert or on impossible mountain redoubts.
Petra is the single most interesting place, ancient or modern, I have ever seen. We simply could not leave. They tell you to be out of the ancient city before sunset but there were no patrols and we were there well after dark.
That night after an excellent dinner we were awakened to the sound of the prayers resonating between the stone walls of the valley…at 4am. I came to like this plaintive wailing. I liked it just a bit less when they started up just 30 minutes later for another full set. Still Petra, with its echoing prayers and high speed internet seriously rocks! As we left town we met four intrepid Dutch fellows driving from Europe to South Africa for the World Cup. They had their names and blood types stenciled on the truck’s body. “You never know,” said one grimly.
And on we pushed to the Wadi Rum, an even more desolate desert region yet further south. OK the whole place is a desert but this is where Lawrence in both the movie and in the fact worked his magic. The real and the Peter O’Toole Lawrence are held in high regard in the Wadi and we stood right where much of the movie was made and the trains real and cinematic were blown up in the war with the Turks.
We took a jeep out to an oasis and as we crossed the sand saw a man sitting in the middle of a pile of rocks laughing and waving a sandwich at us. On our way back he was still there and still laughing and shaking his sandwich. Just another man driven mad by the desert no doubt.
We caught a cab (and keep in mind we are now 40 miles from a town and cabs jsimply spring up from nowhere) and drove to Aqaba. This is the town that Lawrence surprised by crossing the Nafud Desert in summer. It locals said this was impossible at that time of year. We found ourselves on the spot called the Sun’s Anvil but it wasn’t so bad. Of course it was 65 outside and we went by car.
From Aqaba we went to the Dead Sea and man it is a most desolate place. Tyler had booked us online into a resort for $150 and we passed through the iron-gated security into the lavish lobby. Field weary and Petra-dusted we inquired about our room accompanied by a stunning woman at the grand piano. A Savile Row suited manager was distressed when he couldn’t find our reservation. Meanwhile the help plied us with fruit drinks and nut trays while Savile Row hoped we wouldn’t freak out as seemed common there judging by the Russian heavies snorting and bulging all over the lobby. One guy was paying his bill with stack of hundreds the size of a small dog.
I thought we were getting a heck of deal and went looking for the shark tank. Eventually it emerged that were at the wrong hotel. The sign on the hotel next door sure looked like it was in front of this one and the now relieved and apologizing manager gave us a driver to take us next door. You could see that he was used to some pretty tough customers. Our driver told us rooms started around $600 and went up to $15,000 a night (plus minibar no doubt). Now our hotel would have been great but it looked like a dump after going to the Kampinski. Dern and dreck! The next day we tootled on down to the famous shore where people float around holding magazines showing how dry they are staying.
The Dead Sea is far niftier than I would have guessed. First, it separates Israel from Jordan and there are no boats on the perfect sailing venue. Ahhh… well, they discourage boating as it generally ends up in gunplay. It really is salty. 8 times more than the ocean and you float like the dickens. It takes no effort to stay on the surface and you could swim to the Israeli side except your skin would fall off and you would probably be shot.
Finally back to Amman and to the airport. Our last hotel was like a prison in an open field surrounded by a fence with sentries at the gate. We decided to go for a walk and see the sunset. The hotel guard wanted to see our passports and check our visas before we could walk off the compound. Tyler soothed him by singing Happy Birthday in Arabic and he lets us free.
As the sun set over the ancient hills we agreed that we would miss these happy people with their mixed up currencies, taxis patched with plywood and high-fiving school children. Connecting out of Heathrow our plane flew over Iceland. Do I smell smoke? A few hours later they closed Europe.
Guest Post by contributing author Jamis MacNiven of Bucks of Woodside.