Thursday, June 5, 2014

Jordan: Aqaba and the Wadi Rum

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Our ferry crossing of the Red Sea from Egypt to Jordan was quite smooth.  We were all taken aback when, as we were preparing to leave the boat, the ships officers demanded we hand over our passports, and then continue onto land without them.  Lana and I hadn’t been parted from our passports in 7 months.  We had no alternative, and the officers either didn’t, or wouldn’t speak any other English, so we all handed them over, and marched onto land.  We were immediately met by Zuhair, who was to be our G Adventures guide in Jordan, and he quickly reassured us about the passports; everything was perfectly normal.  He shepherded us into the amazingly advanced immigration office at the port of Aqaba, where they used retinal scanners to associate each passenger with their passport.  Apparently a massive amount of cargo flows through Aqaba, so they need a very efficient system.

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We’d been amazed by the difference between neighboring countries before, and transition from Egypt to Jordan was abrupt.  Even in the gathering dusk as we rode in our minibus from the port into the city of Aqaba, we were struck my the differences.  The streets had lights and curbs and sidewalks.  There were trashcans on the sidewalks, and no sign of blowing trash.  The hotel rooms all looked like they’d been vacuumed recently.  It was like an amplified version of driving from New Mexico into Utah, for anyone familiar with the western US.  Coming from Madagascar, the lack of curbs and trash cans hadn’t really struck us until we saw them again.  The other palpable difference is that we were suddenly free to walk around town.  We wouldn’t have any safety precautions for the remainder of our trip—a freedom we hadn’t felt since Thailand, a month earlier.

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We spent just one evening and morning in Aqaba before heading inland to Wadi Rum, a high desert valley of wind-carved sandstone.

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Photo by Wendy
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Wadi Rum has been inhabited by people for a very long time.  Some of the petroglyphs represent the trade routes that passed through the valley.  It has been the home to Bedouins for roughly 500 years.

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We stopped at a Bedouin camp where we were given spiced tea (flavored with local sage, as well as cinnamon and cardamom), and got to hear one of the men play the one-stringed rebab.  We were amused by his friend checking his smart phone in the goat-hair tent, in the video below.  April and David bought a package of the tea spice and split it (the bag was massive and cheap; mostly we split it because neither of us could justify the volume in our luggage).



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If you look closely, you’ll see this camel is hobbled; it is part of a kept herd, but the animals seem to do better with very little interaction—the shepherd will typically keep an eye on the animals from a great distance—likely one of the ridge tops in the background, so that the camels don’t see him.  Below is another picture courtesy of our friend Wendy; that's David and Chris visible in the pickup.

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It was a pretty fantastic landscape.  We were lucky, as we’d just missed a dust storm that would have made it miserable, and cancelled our journey.  We jeeped further into the valley and hiked up and around one of the arches, as well as seeing an ancient, and still working drinking well.  Below is the size of a camel’s print next to David’s size 12.

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As sunset approached, we stopped and all pitched in to gather dead branches from the low-lying scrubs.  Soon we had a reasonable mound, and drove on to a sunset viewpoint, where our drivers kindled a fire from the branches, and made another batch of spiced tea.  The temperature had already dropped, and the tea was welcome.  Sunset was pretty, with the remains of the earlier dust storm coloring the horizon.

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We spent the night at a traditional Bedouin camp made up of goat hair tents set up in the lea of a hillside, eating one of the best meals of our entire trip, sitting around the fire telling stories.  As silence fell, Zuhair asked us if there was anything else we wanted.  David, jokingly, said a bag of marshmallows to roast would be nice.  Zuhair looked surprised, then reached into his pack and pulled out two bags of marshmallows--he'd forgotten all about them until then!  In no time, we all had marshmallows over the coals, and were happily chattering again.  It was a tough thing for Zuhair to come into our group after we'd spent 10 days together and had bonded with each other and Mudi. But having that night by the fire really helped draw us to him.  Some people slept outside in front of the fire out in the fresh air. It was a choice between smoke in your eyes or the smell of the goat hair tent (SPOILER: it smells like you're sleeping in a pile of goats).

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By the next morning, as we roused (only April managed to get up for the sunrise, we think) and headed back in our minibus to travel on to Petra, Zuhair got a phone call, and had bad news to break to us that wasn't going to win him any admirers; due to the world economic summit happening at the Dead Sea, it was going to be closed on the day we originally had planned to go, and for several days afterward.

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We were going to have to choose between the Dead Sea and Petra.  While Zuhair got back on the phone to check on logistics for one or the other, our group held a conference.  We quickly established that we couldn't all agree on just one or the other; the Dead Sea was a highlight of Jordan for some, and Petra for others.  Collectively, we all came to the same conclusion: we had to find a way to do both.  Zuhair had recently mentioned how small Jordan was, and most of us were from large countries accustomed to driving long distances.  We suggested that we switch the order, instead of going to Little Petra, 60 miles away, today, why not drive up to the Dead Sea today, 190 miles away, and come back to Petra and Little Petra afterwards.  It would be backtracking, and longer days, but we'd see everything.  Zuhair talked to Mohammed, our driver, as he'd be on the hook for longer days than he had signed up for, and he was happy to drive the extra distance.  It was settled, and,  Zuhair (and Mohammed) was the hero of the day.

We settled in for a long ride up to the Dead Sea resort area. Zuhair told us to ask him anything--anything about himself, Jordan, its history, the larger picture of the Middle East. And so we talked. We talked about Islam, and the fact that it's actually the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and that the population of Jordan is now half refugee, and all sorts of other things. It made the time go by very quickly, and before we knew it we were arriving.


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The water was an indescribable blue--somewhere between blue topaz and turquoise and nearly shimmering with salt crystals. 

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The water may have been beautiful to look at, but it felt very strange to be in it. It was incredibly slimy/oily and thicker than regular water. To a person, everyone we saw get into the water began to giggle when they floated so high in the water. It was also a little perilous--you float so high, that it's easy to tip over, and you really don't want brine in your eyes.  After the obligatory photos of us bobbing in the water, and some of us getting smeared down with Dead Sea Mud (it's a great spa treatment!), we rinsed off and went up to one of the several swimming pools.  We swam for about an hour or so, and a number of us had some sprint races in the pool. Zuhair may have made himself a hero by figuring out a way to make us happy, but the fact that he was teaching himself how to swim endeared him to the Aussies and Americans who grew up swimming. 

Eventually we had our fill and after taking showers and having some ice cream, we headed back for the long drive to Petra .  Our drive took us through some spectacular landscapes, unlike anything we expected Jordan to look like. The Dead Sea is actually 1300 feet below sea level, and we could definitely feel our ears pop as we descended down to it. We had to do a significant amount of climbing to get back up, on high dry mountainous desert roads. 

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The landscape was quite beautiful in its desolation, stretching on for what looks like forever. It's hard not to think about Moses when you're in Jordan, and having a different understanding of the wilderness he was wandering around in for 40 years.


Thankfully Mohammed was an excellent driver, and not only did he get us to the Dead Sea and back again, he found a stop where we could watch the sunset on a hillside in the middle of nowhere where a little boy was selling spiced tea. Wendy, ever the negotiator of the group, asked him "How much?" He told her "anything." That's a price that even Wendy found hard to bargain with.

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We finally made it to our hotel in Petra, as originally planned, around 9pm. Because of the late hour, we ate a mediocre dinner at our hotel and all went pretty much straight to bed. It had been a long day, and we had to get up at 5am to get an early start to beat the heat in Petra in the morning. But the long day meant that we were back on schedule, and our trip through Jordan would include all the things we wanted to see. The ancient city of Petra, with its glorious carved Treasury. It was high on our bucket list when we were planning the trip, and the primary reason for our trip to Jordan. We couldn't wait.