Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Day in the Life

I have written a lot about travels, but not much in Tel Aviv where I actually live. This is not because it lacks fun or interest for me, but it is just regular for the time being so I don't think of writing of it. I think I better start off by doing a typical day in the life.. Though there is really no truly archetypal day, here is an array of common happenings.
7:30 wake up
Pack some food for lunch, likely a salad of cucumber, tomato, cheese, olives or something with quinoa and nuts
Descend from 4th floor dark stairwell and emerge on to Herzl Street with squinty eyes in morning brightness
Happy, sometimes dazed, sometimes alert, walk down toward Salame Street.
Walk faster and faster, get increasingly nervous that bus 25 will arrive just before I get to bus stop and I will see it pass just out of reach and the next one won't come for 20 minutes and as a result, be super crowded and I'll not get to sit for half an hour (seldom happens but the thought of it gives me slight anxiety).
Bad scenario doesn't happen and I wait seven minutes for 25 bus.
Crowded, push through the aisle to the back so I will get a seat soon. Annoyed that people do not move to back of bus, mainly because every so often, the bus doesn't stop because it is too full, but it actually is not at all, people just don't squish well. They need to visit Japan.
Sit down after 12 minutes and then read. Get tired and nap. Wake up and set alarm so as not to miss bus stop at univeristy
Alarm rings, look for loose belongings. Don't leave phone on bus.

This did happen once when I was caught off guard and the stop came too soon. Fortunately the next stop is the end of the line and the bus driver takes a break here. I found him sitting at a table drinking coffee waiting for the anonymous phone-loser (so lucky!) It reminded me of the time I left my phone on the bus in Seattle when I was working at a law office on 3nd and Columbia. The opportunistic homeless man called Dad from the wayward phone and demanded a $20 ransom for it's safe return! What a wonderful Dad (working nearby at Union Station) went and met the man to strike the deal. If I remember correctly, Dad tried to bargain but the man wouldn't haggle.

Back to the story at hand--get off bus and walk through hilltop park (favorite part of journey).

The Workday
Say "boker tov" (good morning) to security guard and lament that I have to leave daylight and enter fluorescent-lit building.
Say "hi" to Yaron (40-something jovial Indian-Jewish researcher in the lab)
Turn on computer, set bag down, get hot water and make Arabic coffee with cardamom ground in it and be very content
Eat yogurt with nuts and dried fruits (always excited for this even though it is the same every day. Love the yogurt every time, very sour and creamy… but the fruits change: apricots, golden raisins, cherries, dates, etc., almonds, walnuts, pistachios)

Read email. Respond maybe.
Open word document of article I'm working on. See where I left off and read/edit. Look for sources. Find journal articles online, books. Search books in and hope they have "look inside" so I can read it without going to the library (20 minute walk), or worse, forgetting it altogether if library doesn't have it.

Draw some of the images for the article when my mind needs a break. Listen to music during drawing time (today was mostly Mumford & Sons).

Lunch time. Sit on the picnic table in the yard and eat quinoa salad with nuts, raisins, vegetables which I made last night. Maybe talk to Ezra, the Ethiopian Jew who illegally escaped in the 70's in a death-defying land-journey who doesn't speak much English, or perhaps Hagit, the PhD student who likes to giggle about the cute professor. Every now and then I go with Yaron to the cafeteria to eat there, but I think the food is mediocre and overpriced. I do it for the social aspect.

If tired after lunch, take a nap in the park; if not, chat or read or draw. If rainy (rare), read news on internet.
Back to work. Same as before. Stumble upon something that I like and want to think more about. For example this quote:

"Besides, the art of living is neither taught nor encouraged in this country. We look at is as a form of debauch, little aware that its tenets are frugality, cleanliness, and a general respect for creation, not to mention Creation." from Bernard Rudofsky in Architecture without Architects, 1964, referring to our general way of ascribing exceptional insight into problems of living to specialists such as architects and engineers rather than valuing the generations of acquired knowledge by anonymous folks.

Mind wanders.
Cannot focus.
Make tea, maybe black tea with mint and honey.
Look at Facebook.
Get annoyed that I'm wasting time.
Make another tea, maybe Jasmine green this time.
Try again to focus.

Perhaps go to the bank today for a break. Walk through neighborhood to main university campus and have the security guard at the gate look in my bag. Walk past main library, lawn, shady path to Israeli Discount Bank branch where I opened an account. Chat with tellers. Use ATM, forget PIN, try again, remember correctly. Obligation to choose a popsicle from the freezer. Offer me to have one of the special ice cream sandwiches. I do not refuse.

Walk back to geography building, why not go through the park again? Enjoy the warmth of the sun on the walk. Smile cordially at students at picnic tables in front of building and then enter. Back to the desk. Work some more. Pack up around 5:30 and walk to bus terminal past the soccer field where kids are just getting out of practice.

The Ride Home
Wait on curb while bus drivers have coffee break in the shack. One enters #25 bus and beckons me to enter. I swipe my card and choose a seat in the back of the bus which is for a brief moment all my own. Crowds enter 4 stops later at main entrance of university. More crowds enter downtown. Listen to the familiar rhythm of the automated announcer voice telling of the next stop. Read, write blog, sleep, watch the evening stroll on Ibn Gabirol and Allenby streets. Admire the shops, restaurants, architecture. Try to read Hebrew words on signs as they pass by too quickly like a subliminal message in a filmstrip. Look at my Hebrew phrasebook. Practice some phrases in my head. Maybe get off the bus early today and walk through Levinsky Market. Buy some almonds, raisins, dates from one of the dozens selling them. Turn left down Herzl and feel relaxed that I am almost home. Watch for puddles and poop, enter through the old black gate into the dark hallway. Try not to cut my hand on the sharp shredded part of the door. Switch on the corridor light and up the three flights to my apartment.
Someone is cooking, someone is reading, someone is on their computer, someone is holed up in their room. Greetings and chats to the roommates: Mushek from Poland, Lisa from Germany, Michelle the Israeli Canadian, and Ori the recently Israeli American from Massachusetts. Go directly to my room and change into workout clothes, take jumprope and key and head to playground with the nice rubber surface to do some skipping rope. Turn on hot water heater for before I leave so I can have a hot shower when I come back. Jog the three blocks to the park and do the routine. At 7 pm, the bar next to the park opens. Ofel puts the chairs and tables outside, Hila writes the menu on the blackboard. I smile at them and wave. Do some pushups and some extra minutes of skipping for good measure. See Rafi the neighbor heading over to the bar with his dog Sonny. Say hi and he invites me for a beer.

Go home and shower, come back after 15 minutes and join Rafi for a beer. Eat some of Ofel's homemade pickled cabbage & carrots. Sit there and chat with the folks for a while. Rafi gets a call from his woodsman son in Vancouver, BC. Ofel rolls another hash joint. Idan complains about the music. I ask him about his wedding planning. Hila pours us some shots of figling on the house. Rafi teaches me some Hebrew words to practice. The Sudani kid dishwasher peeks through the serving window and observes us intently but never comes out. Debbie the actress comes in with her dog and the two dogs play. Rafi's dog Sunny hears a noise and runs outside barking and chases a person on a bike. Rafi yells at him. I decide to leave. "Lila tov" (goodnight) to the people. "Why are you going home already?" I just feel like it.
Walk home and if it's early, maybe cook something. If the roommates are in the living room, hang out for a while. They fill the ashtray and drink Goldstar, the national beer. Feel my eyes are too smoky and go in my room and fiddle around on my computer. A neighbor comes over and tells us there are folks on the roof (I hear through my anything-but-soundproof room). I come out and go up to the rooftop. There are the French from Apt 5, the German, Swiss, and Danish from Apt 10, someone's friend in town, a couple roommates. Chat for a while and then feel bored of "when I was drunk" stories. Go down the unlit top flight of stairs to our apartment, gingerly step and try not to trip. Feel fortunate that I took the down blanket from the British girl who moved out (the landlord said I could) and go to bed.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Jordan Part IV: Amman, Jerash, and the Border

Jerash--the ancient Roman city of Gerasa
Saturday morning we went north to Jerash (the ancient city Gerasa of the
Decapolis), an extensively excavated Roman city, complete with all the requisite public buildings--theaters, baths, magnificent temples, housing blocks, and a long colonnaded avenue. It was magnificent to explore.

Only the journey there was annoying. I had to go to the bathroom like it was going out of style, and there was none to be found at the bus terminal. The 16 or so seats on the bus were nearly full when we got there, so we knew we'd leave soon. But this was not so; patterns don't always hold here. It took another hour for the last two seats to fill (bus does not leave until all seats are full).

The bus was mainly populated by somber Jordanians, but a hard-to-miss, big-boned Dutch
woman was getting visibly impatient. Tapping her foot, grimacing, obviously irked that the bus was not departing. Suddenly her fuse ended and she blurted in English, "This is absurd! Where is the bus driver? He made me hurry and guzzle my coffee as if the bus were going to leave, he's had a few leisurely cigarettes and now he's MIA!" (or something to this effect). Pacing down the aisle of the bus and out the door, she was dramatic, but we all just watched her dully, expressionless. I wanted to remind her that this is not the organized, well-functioning Netherlands that provides open, public toilets to the populace so they don't pee on the street (which was all I could think about), but there was no point. Besides, I was not only annoyed as well, but in pain at this point and the bus hadn't even left! I couldn't think about talking, let alone focus on anything. I knew that if I ventured out for three minutes even to find a toilet, that is when the bus would fill up, Muphy's law would hold, the bus would leave without me, and there would be no more buses for the entire day. I would not be able to call Ben because I don't have international dialing, and would end up sleeping on the street and missing the bus the next morning to Israel. A little physical agony is better that that dreadful scenario.

Eventually the bus did leave. We arrived in Jerash one hour later. Thankfully but painfully I made it. We explored the ruins for several hours and sat to eat lunch upon the Temple of Artemis. Ben was looking out at the avenue when he recognized two of his classmates. He didn't bother to say hi, but suddenly there were not two, but twenty! They made their way up the monumental temple steps and plinth, and caused such a ruckus of gabbing and antics! It was everything you'd expect at a junior high school field trip. Photos and posing and yelling and bunny ears. And Ben is their age? He told me he often skips class to go exploring and hangs out with this crew on occasion, but not regularly. They think he's aloof, independent, mysterious. He thinks they're too group-oriented, no sense of individuality. I was reminded of a conversation with Sarah's friend in September; he grew up in Colorado and went to UW. His take on Seattle was that it's a great place to be an individual, do whatever you feel, be whatever you are, and not worry about what anyone thinks of it. I've mulled over this since then. Amman's Redemption
Upon returning to Amman in the evening, we went to explore the old part of town. I was excited for this because at this point, there was no place in my heart for Amman. If Rome is your mistress, Amman is the one you never bothered to call back. It is a city completely devoted to automotive movement. Cars are king. Highways traverse the city with neither hide nor hair of stoplights. Pedestrians walk alongside fast cars and cross at roundabouts in perilous fright. The whole city seemed like one big Aurora Avenue, the part north of the ship canal (for yous in Seattle) minus the crossings Aurora has every half mile or so and the view of the space needle and the troll and all its other redeeming qualities. There were no charming neighborhoods that I had yet seen and the nostrils were constantly offended by exhaust fumes. Add the lack of cafe and bar scene, sparse people-watching opportunities, no coastline or prominent river, and it is as far from my kind of town as you could possibly dream up. I needed something to like about this city--so far is had only some interesting topography...

The next phase redeemed it. We walked down from the fort, through a series of alleys on a hillside with intriguing signs on doors, rugs hanging, lots of stairways, and views across the low-lying valley where the old roman theater is carved out of the opposite hillside, then descended into the colorful and boisterous market.
I was starving now and in tried to buy one banana; the vendor thought this quantity so absurd, he gave it to me for free. I gobbled it, he chuckled, and I then bought some dates, walnuts, and golden raisins. The dried fruits and nuts in the Middle East are unparalleled. The aroma of shwarma and shish kebabs on a grill lured us into a small crowded restaurant and we, exhausted, sat in relief and anticipation of the deliciousness we would soon encounter. I overdid it on the hot peppers and then wanted to buy a coke because I liked the bottle with Arabic writing on it. The guy said I couldn't take it out of the restaurant because of the bottle deposit. "But I want to. I'll pay for the bottle." This was unheard of and it was too confusing so he said to just take it, never mind it all, don't pay for the bottle, in fact, don't even pay for the coke. Enjoy! Shopping opportunities abounded here and everywhere I looked was a feast for the eyes. The stores were clustered according to type of goods sold and one row really caught my eye--the shisha shops! After a purchase or the ornate blue-glass fruit tobacco water pipe, lo and behold, a liquor store popped out of the woodwork (hard to find here)! This was shaping up to be a night of vices. I also spent a good amount of time perusing the goods here. Jordanian arak (licorice liquer), brandy, even Petra Beer! I worried about the heavies and breakables that would be in my bag on the journey home, but the alcohol was so much cheaper here, and different items. Consumerism got the best of me and I went home with a quantity of material goods George W. would have been proud of in 2008 when he gave us the consumer stimulus. Back to Ben's flat, I assembled all the parts for shisha and readied the cherry tobacco with foil on top. I invited the roommates to join in the festivities but they all declined. One guy was busy on his computer. The other guy snuck out of the house with his girlfriend to walk her home. The conservative landlord told the boys they aren't to have women in the flat (no inviting female friends over for dinner parties and the like). This just plain doesn't work for those of the western world (or far eastern, or anyone but Arab world I suppose) so I was also nervous to be seen walking in and out of the building (so conspicuous as I am). Nonetheless, we enjoyed good conversation and very nice Arabic treats into the night.
Over the Jordan River and into the Promised Land
At 6 am, I caught a cab to the bus station, bought an egg/falafel sandwich, and a mint tea for the ride. Al
l was well until the border crossing, agonizingly long and never knowing what was going on or what absurdity we were waiting for. At the Israeli immigration, all the Palestinians were prancing through (this is the one crossing they can go to, and Israelis cannot) the agent took my passport and continued to pass everyone else through as she indicated to step to the side of the window. She made a phone call.
"What is going on? What is wrong with my passport?"
"Just wait a minute (grunt or something incomprehensible)"
"But what's the problem?"

After 15 minutes or so and watching the horrible line stack up in front of me for the next event in the process, I decided to be in the way. Thinking, I have to go to work today, I don't have time for this (so American I am, my time is valuable, opportunity-cost failure here). I moved from the side to the front of the window, so it was difficult to carry on business. She wants me to be in the way so I will. I started acting out my antsyness. So odd, no explanation whatsoever. I looked at my lonely passport laying on her desk unstamped. The Canadian went through just fine. So did the Romanians. Why me?

After what seemed like two hours another woman moseyed along and looked at my passport, muttered, then stamped the page and returned it to me. A big resounding "whew" in my head. The next seventeen stages were relatively painless.
So then it was the overpriced "sherut" (shared taxi) to East Jerusalem, the light rail to the central bus station, the bus to Tel Aviv, the walk home, the bus to work. Except the latter didn't work out because I didn't feel like going in after all.

I unpacked my bags and went to the beach. Just me, the bike, the house key. I swam in the mesmerizing Mediterranean loveliness until it was mid-afternoon. The sun sets early these days; it lost its warmth, the cold breeze blew and I got out of the water. I pedaled home smiling in the
freedom-bike-riding-salty-air-own-the-road feeling that I love.

What a week! I needed some time to decompress. I'm not even sure I had the "nice to be home" feeling, save the beach and the bike. Excitement, awesomeness, randomness, best of everything every day of the Jordan trip.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Jordan Part III: Shobak, Kerak, Wadi Wada

Road Trip
A Japanese guy called Saul joined us in the car, just for a ride to the bus station. When he got out at the deserted station, someone there told him since it's Friday, Muslim holy day, there are no more buses to Amman. The way it works is this: bus drivers work if they want to on the weekend. So no one ever really knows if there's public transportation on any given Friday (in the Arab world that I've visited) until the moment it should normally depart. Even the hostel could not tell us whether there would be a bus to Amman and if there was, what time (even a general idea) it would depart. But Saul didn't seem too upset and decided to join us on our adventures for the day, which would eventually and circuitously land him in Amman.

Shobak Castle
Our first stop was a stop at the castle in Shobak, a crusader stronghold dating to 1115 and later conquered by Saladin (first sultan of Egypt). It was a great place to explore, and the fun part was running into a couple I had seen at the camp last night. An Israeli guy from a Kibbutz in the north and a Hawaiian American Israeli girl, now from Jerusalem. They invited me to join them down the deep dark well passage that descends from the castle deep into the mountain for 300 steps and emerges at the bottom. This is where the people went during the siege by Saladin and also where they obtained water. For 50 or so, the steps had nice 90 degree edges. Then they deteriorated into more of slopes than steps. The Israeli guy had a flashlight which helped quite a bit, but it was still getting treacherous. Sliding rather than stepping down the last half, after 20 minutes, we made it to the bottom and looked for the water. It eluded us, so we scrambled around in the dank dark chamber until our feet got wet. We found the channel and inched along it sideways, single file until we got to a room at the end with a ladder. Such a mysterious nice chamber with a ladder up to oblivion, disappointingly lead only to a trap door that was sealed off. But there were bats hanging from the concrete ceiling. A bit of algae. So we slinked back out in line the way we came in though the narrow well passage. Another ladder with rungs much to far apart led to a functioning opening, we saw the light of day and made our way up and over to the brilliance of the sun on the side of the midday mountain. To our dismay, our taxi driver, dressed in a button up shirt and slacks with dress shoes, was now perched on the concrete edge of the outside portion of the water basin and was dancing to his Arabian music blasting from the car. His hands were twirling and feet tapping along the ledge. His sunglasses glistened and his smile widened when he saw us. So this is what drivers do as they wait for their passengers. He tried to spread the good vibe and we danced for a minute too.
Kerak Castle
The Kerak Castle was expansive and majestic. I brought my headlamp this time because it was full of secret rooms and chambers and passageways and underground tunnels. The best part was climbing up to the shelf of the lofty room where I imagined dozens of knights would have clanked their goblets of wine in rowdy drunkenness and gnawed on turkey legs together under dim torchlit chandeliers. Once on the shelf near the ceiling, we were able to crawl through a clerestory window opening and walk through the secret hallway along the edge of the building. Eventually it led to a dead end, but it was fun while it lasted to be so high and look down upon such a grandiose high-ceilinged room. I imagined I could have been a spy up there in earlier days, crouching behind the stone window ledge but hearing every word echoing throughout the chamber, then escaping down the mountainside and through the wild red fox valley to tell the enemy of the knights' next plan of attack.
Wado Wada We piled back into the car and were headed off to Wadi Mujib--a large nature reserve I had been told was a must-see. From the King's highway, we headed west, diverging down toward the Dead Sea. Just as we turned onto the Dead Sea Highway, police cars crawled out with flashing lights and we pulled over (me, nervously). Oh boy, now what… apparently this section of the highway was closed, all the way up to Wadi Mujib. Taking place was the special meeting of the World Economic Forum on "Economic Growth and Job Creation in the Arab World." There were talks by President Zardari of Pakistan, the Queen of Jordan, and Tony Blair; for security, this entire section of the highway was closed for the next few days. Atrocious! When Obama spoke at MIT, it was maybe a two block section of Massachusetts Avenue closed for an hour! Sheiser, no Wadi Mujib. But nothing to be done. Water over the damn. Now what?

The taxi driver, Aref, had some ideas--there's a wadi near hear, back up the road toward Kerak, backtracking, but it's quite nice, and no entrance fee. Sure, not many options at this point. Let's do it! So he drove us up there and we turned off the highway at a nondescript something of a schoolyard-looking place. Dozens of kids ogled at us as we got out of the car and attempted to change discreetly into hiking/swimming gear. This hike would be though water most of the time. The watercourse started as a concrete channel on a ridge, with a check dam and no good place to walk except on the thin concrete curb alongside. A group of locals came sauntering towards us with a herd of goats. This trail ain't big enough for the both of us, I thought. We were very high up and a sheer drop to a certain death in a lonesome obscurity was mere centimeters to our left. But we and they and the goats all managed to squeeze past each other unscathed.

So we continued and the channelized waterway eventually gave way to a natural stream. It was decorated with plenty of plastic bags, food wrappers, plastic and glass bottles, ripped old soggy garments, from who knows who and why. All the things you would never see on a hike in the US but are par for the course in a developing country. So unpleasant and detrimental to the scenery. Determined not to let it detract too much, the first difficult part was where we had to climb under a precariously wedged boulder which a strong waterfall cascaded over, under, and around. It was impossible to get up to the next level without getting drenched. Crumpling over my camera to keep it safe, I worked my way up the slippery rocks.
From here on up, the trash decreased dramatically and the scenery became more verdant. The next difficult part brought an end almost entirely to the trash in the stream and the vegetation increased to make for a very lush and sumptuous landscape. It was getting more beautiful by the minute! The stream was made up of a hot spring and a cold spring which merged throughout and as a result it was a warm water all the way through. I wanted to keep going, but as a result of our late start, we didn't have a lot of time. Aref told us that at some points, we would need climbing gear to get over the waterfalls, which we didn't have. We had to get to Amman at a reasonable hour and we still had a couple hours driving. Very reluctantly we turned around. "Next time call me ahead of time, I'll bring climbing and camping gear because it takes 2+ days to do the whole wadi. Apparently this guy was no simple taxi driver. He was a full-on tour guide that knew the 22 wadis of this part of the Jordan river valley like the back of his hand. If only we had known him before, I would have loved to spend a few more days exploring these unpopulated gorgeous streams and waterfalls that are not in the mainstream guidebooks. On the way down, Aref diverted us to a perfect little pool, built by the Romans where the hot and cold spring meet. It was hidden and lush and warm and wonderful! Late in the evening, we got into Amman and sat in LA-esque traffic to get into downtown. We tipped Aref, parted ways with Saul, then Ben and I went to a crowded shwarma shop, ate one and it was so good we turned right back around for another. Amman is not the place to relax with a beer in the evening but unfortunately, this is what we really wanted post-hike. So after a few failed attempts at finding bars, we were literally hand-held to an English pub (complete with a red phone booth in front) by a guy on the street. The Jordanians were incredibly friendly and helpful; two made calls for us to get address and directions, and a third ended up walking us four blocks or so to the doorstep. The pub was a beautiful expat haven--a hide-a-way of the simplest of pleasures not enjoyed by many in this land. Naked-headed women, men and women sitting together at the same tables, a group of hefty Nigerian businessmen speaking English--we made ourselves at home at a tall table and blended right in. Usually I go for the beer but I suddenly felt like a tequila sunrise of all things, and was happy.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Jordan Part II: Petra

Up the Desert Highway
The taxi dropped us off where the bus was parked alongside the hazy highway. It was full of people, mainly travelers, and we found out it had been waiting half an hour for us!
Only in Jordan! We felt so ashamed to have caused so much waiting for so many weary travelers yet so glad to take the 5 dinar bus rather than a 50 dinar ($75) taxi. I made myself comfortable sitting in the aisle and Ben sat upon the steps in the front. We were able to get seats a half hour or so later when two Dutch women disembarked somewhere in the middle of nowhere. The rumbly little bus rocked me to sleep like a baby.

Petra: Day 1
Upon arrival in Wadi Musa, we were greeted by a man with a white van who said "Valentine Inn?" This is indeed where we had thought to stay, so we climbed in with him
(white vans not having the same connotation they do in the US). Though not settled on this place, it was a free ride into the town center anyway. We spoke with the man at reception who was a Coptic Egyptian with a cross tattoo on his wrist. Somewhat stoic but not unpleasant, looking at us dubiously and skeptically, he offered us tea and we looked at the bunk room and pondered over booking beds here. Not eager to shlep around town with our packs, we paid the Egyptian and walked down the steep lane towards Petra. We stopped in a market for Ben to buy cigarettes and snacks, having heard the food in the archaeological site was expensive and mediocre. Once at the entrance, I very painfully paid my 55 dinar ($80) two-day ticket. No national monument, UNESCO world heritage site, or any such historical attraction has cost me half this much. Thievery! Ben has Jordanian residency so was entitled to the $1 dinar entrance fee. (Even more painful to see this, jealous but happy for him.) This took a while as he had to argue since he doesn't look the part, and I waited impatiently, being heckled by souvenir sellers and vowing not to spend another dime here. Eventually we were on our way into the Nabatean capital city and made our way down the lane toward Petra village through the canyon and marveled first at the tomb monoliths, then the cave dwellings, then the splendid rock carvings, then the Byzantine mosaics. We thoroughly enjoyed the wonders of the ancient city, and in the afternoon, stooped to buying an overpriced Turkish coffee to refuel.
As we went to see our last monuments for the day, two Bedouins around the age of 19 or so, both wearying Bedouin eye shadow, twinsy-looking, on donkeys (hereafter referred to as donkey twins, purple shirt, or white shirt) pleaded with us that we needed a ride up to the monastery to watch the sunset. "You won't make it in time if you walk, it is the best place to see in all of Petra!" and so on. But we had planned to visit the monastery the next day, so declined over and over again. When they kept reappearing every time we got back to the main path, we decided it was worthless to try and escape them, so we chatted with them as we all walked the long way out of the park together. Ben had a dislike for them so had a hard time chatting. I always chat with everyone so it was fine for me. We declined a donkey ride with them, then turned them down for tea, then declined again when they offered to share their cab up to town with us. I thought we had escaped but when we got into town, we ran into them again as we were navigating in the dark and missed our street (dangit!) They invited us for dinner and we turned them down. But we cordially talked about how we'd be at Petra tomorrow, and perhaps see them then.

A Pleasant Surprise
As we turned to walk down to our turnoff the right way this time, donkey twins still yapping at us, there in front of us wandering up the street w
as Ahmed, our guide from the desert! Looking halfway between thug and lost boy, he had hitched his way up the two hours from Wadi Rum and was looking to find us! He had heard us mention the Valentine Inn and was asking around how to get there, hoping that was actually where we went. What a coincidence I thought! Though it actually was not at all, he had worked it all out that afternoon and hoped for the best. We had in fact invited him to join us, but made no particular plans of such. Glad for a very legitimate diversion from the twin troublemakers, we gleefully joined him and went to our hostel where a buffet awaited us! Unfortunately the management wasn't fond of Bedouins "they're the ones (besides the tourists) who come in and buy alcohol" (this, one of the only places in town that sells it as it is forbidden in Islam). The skeptic Coptic only trusts ones he knows, and Ahmed, neither a local nor a frequenter of Wadi Musa was not acquainted. With his red checkered headscarf, Ahmed had to sit in the smoky lobby all apartheid-like, away from the tourists who were chowing on the sunset hillside patio. When Ben and I finished eating (several courses--there were over 30 dishes to choose form and I was in heaven) we rescued Ahmed from the segregation and went with him and his friend to an unofficial campspot for a bonfire.

Nighttime in the Desert
Fast car on rolling hills, nearly catching air on empty highway into the desert night where nobody disturbs but the infrequent passing car making dramatic shadows on the
big rock face like a spotlight on a stage show. From a quiet spot up on a hill we constructed a fire and set the charred teapot on the coals. The Jordanian equivalent to a park ranger, but in a beat-up sedan and traditional Bedouin dress checked on us several times--I wasn't sure if it was for our safety or the environments' but it spooked us each time the hum of his motor and headlights peaked around the rock and we hushed, wondering who would intrude.

Petra: Day 2
We met
Ahmed at the Petra entranc
e and talked about our program for the day. Yesterday was all the main sites, today would be all the long hikes: the high place of sacrifices, another wadi (valley) the monastery and view of Moses' mountain, the narrow cavernous Wadi Mudlin on the way out. Ahmed was a slave-driver leading us to the top of the high place of sacrifice, but we rested and enjoyed the view before heading down into the valley again. Then wouldn't you know it, at one of the cafes on the hill, there sat the donkey twins, looking coy and sinister.
Trouble Begins
When I passed the one wearing the purple-shirt, he casually spoke "cheap woman" flatly with a grimace. I looked him in the eye, then continued walking. When we got to the summit, I told Ben about this, "What--and you just ignored it?!" "What's the value in doing anything? I am non-confrontational." "I would hit him." "Well you're young and passionate, though I really can't believe he said that." "I can't believe you just let it go, now I want to punch him." Ben is about 21, not the aggressive type, but had already been in a fight with a Jordanian in Amman when a guy threw rocks at him. We continued down the hill and I repeated the insult in my head. What right--the audacity to say that to a tourist! I should hit that little punk. He probably weighs 90 pounds. Cheap woman! Why, because I talked to him last night for an hour and now I have a different Bedouin with me? I guess I should not talk to anyone. My blood started to boil. If I see him again I will roundhouse him off his donkey. Now I really wanted to see him and set things straight. I should care more and have more self-respect I though, rectify the situation and put people in their place. So it was a while later he passed through the filmstrip reel of the already dramatic storyline of travels in Jordan. I had calmed down by now and in the meantime while I was in my head, Ben had taken it upon himself to tell Ahmed of the incident.

Violence Erupts
When we emerged from parsing the small museum of antiquities, Ahme
d saw the purple kid on the trail. He walked up and asked him "Why do you say these things to the tourists? Leave them alone." The purple-shirt said something and pushed Ahmed in the chest. Uh oh. Bad move. Ahmed retaliated by pushing him back. The white-shirt twin emerged to the aid of purple, then out of the woodwork, ten or more people were wailing on each other. It's all a big blur as to who did what in the midst of the fighting, but purple-shirt was whacking Ben on the back with a stick. Ahmed's shirt was ripped across the shoulder and his face was wild with anger. The violence went on for at least ten minutes. Yelling in Arabic resonated throughout the canyon as people were being beaten on the ground and bodies were tumbling about. A French retired couple wedged themselves along the margin of the path, gingerly holding the videocamera in action. I had a fleeting thought that I hopeed they post it on youtube. I don't remember how it calmed, but we started to walk away and purple shirt yelled in English from atop his donkey. "Cheap man, you follow the tourists from Wadi Rum!" I shoved him and he fell to a nice angle, parallel to the ground before recovering a position of control on his donkey. No one touched me, being a girl, but the brawl then saw a reprise. Oops, maybe.

Looking for Peace
Some trying to break it up eventually succeeded and the three of us went on our original way up the path toward the supposed-to-be peac
eful mountaintop monastery. Ben and Ahmed agreed that it wasn't over--the situation was not resolved but the fighting had to end. We climbed to a rock ledge off the path to rest. We checked for damage and found that Ben's glasses were not broken, no one sustained anything but minor injuries--these two did in fact have a size advantage over most of the troublemakers. Ahmed and Ben were now brothers. We had a serene hike for an hour up to the monastery and no one talked much. Ahmed's friend owns a tea shop on the tip top of the mountain, where we rested on the floor cushions in the shade of the tent. The old man served us hot thyme tea and we chatted for a moment until the conversation gradually became more and more Arabic and I dropped out and ate an orange. Ben went out to see the view, Ahmed wrapped up in pillows and blankets and fell asleep, and I read a few articles in the Economist (strangely enough an English copy) that was sitting on the floor. Encounters with Law Enforcement
Once back down to check out the monastery itself, we had barely begun exploring the interior when the tourist police showed up. We sat on the plinth and spoke with them for a moment and they wanted us to go with them to talk to the boss.
We followed them into what looked like an empty cafe and spoke with 4 or 5 of them. We retold the story, then there was lots of unknown words exchanged in Arabic between the police an Ahmed. Don't worry, they repeated to Ben and me several times. You'll be safe now. I wasn't so concerned about being safe as I was of enduring unpleasant situations and wondered if this happened often with the donkey twins. The police proposed to us that we go to the city police department to file an official report for the record--they'll drive us there and back. Ugh--the last thing I want to do with my afternoon when I have limited time to explore Petra. Over the course of the hour or so we talked with them, a new development occurred. The donkey twins' older brother had caught wind of the event and was ashamed for the family. He wanted to speak with us to apologize on behalf of them. I thought this was a good gesture but not particularly useful as the problem was with the twins, not the family and if they themselves are not apologizing, nothing is resolved. We met with the brother anyhow in the paddywagon in the park with a few officers. A crowd of Bedouins gathered around the vehicle and tried to spy and eavesdrop. The brother was extremely gracious and tried to explain how they were young and immature. We accepted his apology and assured him that we did not have a bad impression of Bedouin people, which was certainly true. We had met so many kind and good-natured people so far. The police asked if we were okay with the situation and we affirmed, not wanting to pursue it further for the sake of our precious time at Petra. Ahmed was okay with this outcome too and he told us later that the family contacted him again apologizing and invited him to dinner any time he is in town. We emerged from the wagon like celebrities as all the guys surrounded, stared, and muttered.
We meandered down the Wadi Mudlin trail that experienced a flash flood several years ago and killed a dozen tourists. No rain was in the forecast this day. It was deserted, off the beaten track for most of the tourists here. We then had another encounter with the police--they caught up with us and asked to see our tickets. No problems here. They were looking for a group of Israelis who snuck into the park from the mountains without paying. I'm sure this happens all the time with the outrageous price they charge--if I knew the landscape a little better I would do the same thing. The sun sank low and the canyons dimmed. We made our way into civilization just in time to see the town illuminate.Another Beautiful Night
This evening, we went to another Bedouin camp, this run by Ahmed's friend. He had a
brilliant array of a hundred candles set into little caves all over the mountainside behind the camp and it was truly captivating. A billion stars in the sky, twinkling flickers on the mountain face, sparkling moonlit sand below us. We sat under the communal tent drinking tea as some boys brought a small fire into the room to make it cozy and warm--the pillows, cushions, carpets, and blankets were still no match for the cold night. Rogue embers singed the rugs and the boys poked at the fire. Most of the western tourists were away at the "Petra by Night" show and the tent was full of Jordanian men and a few Saudis smoking shisha, the rest puffing up a cigarette storm and gabbing. Needless to say I felt a little out of place, the only girl, the only westerner. I sunk quietly into the pillowy corner and tried to pick out some words in Arabic. Ahmed made sure I was happy every few minutes and the boys ensured my teacup was full. When the westerners returned, we feasted on a delectable array of lamb, chicken, grilled eggplant and other splendid and spicy gastronomic pleasures. The next morning greeted us with typical pita and dips breakfast in the communal tent, cinnamon tea, and lots of swirling cigarette smoke trapped in clouds in the tent. Ben and I hired a driver for the day and soon the Taiwanese and the American set out northbound on the King's Highway toward the capital city of the Hashemite Kingdom.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Jordan Part I: Aqaba and Wadi Rum

I was excited to go to Jordan, but had no idea that it would be so rich and glorious and make me feel so alive! Passion, violence, romance, meteor showers, moonshadows and campfires, fear and angst and friendship--it was everything beautiful and wonderful and magic and mysterious life can afford. For the sake of time, I won't bore you with all the details.

The Journey
Our bus left Tel Aviv central station at 11:59 pm on Sunday night. Anne-Laurence (Ana) and I were on our way to Jordan. She is a Swiss, German-speaking, blonde and blue-eyed cheery neighbor of mine, doing a semester abroad in Israel. The 4.5 hour bus ride (which we almost missed it thanks to me carefully preparing a vodka tincture for the road to ensure our comfortable sleep) took us to Eilat, the resort city at the far south of Israel on the tip of Red Sea. Arrival at 4:30 am wasn't so nice and we slept on the floor (they had anti-bum seats) in the bus station until we were literally kicked awake around 6 am and told in so many Hebrew words that our presence was not appreciated any longer.

The sun was on the verge of cresting the horizon so I deconstructed my hard-boiled egg I had brought and gobbled it before hailing a taxi to the Jordan border. The crossing was a breeze, but getting a taxi on the Jordanian side was an angering racket--fixed price at 5x what it
should be. Grrr. Feeling cheating and scammed, we arrived in Aqaba--Jordan's Red Sea City, where I had told Ben a meeting point. He is my Taiwanese friend in Amman, and would be taking the bus down to join us. He wouldn't arrive until noon so we thought to take a nap on the beach for a while. Ana did, but this plan was thwarted when I was overcome by the smell radiating from the Turkish coffee stand. Unable to sleep, I sat under a tree and watched the glass-bottom boatmen linger alongshore.

After much pleading by a group of four Palestinian-
Jordanian young men (many Palestinians sought asylum here after 1967 and now cannot return to Palestine) I had a second cup of coffee with them under a shady tree. Now underslept and severely overcaffeinated, tired of speaking slowly in basic English about whether I'm married or not, I was ready to be along my merry way. So was Ana and we slung the packs over our backs and moseyed up the hill to to find some food in town.

One restaurant stood out above all--the sidewalk tables were packed so we slithered through to find a spot. Hummus, baba ganouj, foul, and pita, with a spicy topping and amazing fresh pickled vegetables to accent. A while later (no hurry for us on this lazy holiday morning) we were enjoying our breakfast and I noticed a pair of men look at us as they took a table a row away. The man facing us had somewhat of a striking appearance and was clad in army colors, camo pants, and the typical red and white pattern Bedouin head scarf over locks of dark hair with golden highlights. I felt like he was looking at me so I didn't look at him again. Our plates were clean and as we sipped tea, satisfied, I took out my guidebook for us to make some plans. Apparently this was the guys' cue to ask if we needed help. "Join us for a cup of tea please" (they also begged after we declined). So eventually and skeptically, we caved and were glad we did. Turns out they were just what we were looking for. Ahmad and Sammy both ran Bedouin style camps in Wadi Rum--our chosen destination and just the type of price and environment we had in mind. Sammy offered free transport to the desert and told us of the delicious home-cooked meals that were included. Sounds good and all, but we need to find Ben.

They then gave us a ride to our meeting point at the five star Movenpick Hotel (which I chose so we would have a reason to go inside and admire, and use resources if need be). For not being guests and looking a bit travel-worn, we were still treated like royalty when we asked to make a phone call. Sammy said he'd come back for us after we found Ben, but he had to leave by 1pm, so give a call before then. Ben's phone was off, the meeting spot was
ambiguous (turns out there were two Movenpicks) and just when it started to seem dire, Sammy showed up in the lobby with news he had found 'the Chinese guy' outside. Gleeful that all had worked out thus far, the five of us were off into the vast expanse of the ancient Bedouin sand dunes and red rock magic wonderland.

Wadi Rum
Upon arrival at Caravan Camp, Ahmed served us Bedouin tea (black tea with sugar and herbs added--thyme, mint, sage, or cinnamon) and we then napped on the colorful rugs and cushions in the temperate shade of the tents. The midday heat passed as we wiled away the afternoon chatting over teapot after teapot.

At 4pm the three travelers and Ahmed went on a tour of the dunes and rock formations of Lawrence of Arabia's old stomping grounds in a 4x4 pick-up truck equipped with cushion-covered benches in the bed. We saw spectacular views of Wadi Rum by climbing up some the highest rocks and entertained ourselves by running/jumping/tumbling/freefalling down the steep sand slopes. There were carvings on high rock faces of yesteryear's directional markings indicating the Caravan trade route from the Arabian peninsula to Petra. There were cave dwellings, the occasional man with camels, and a donkey or two. We stopped on a plateau overlooking a vast plain, where Ahmed built a fire and made a pot of tea. We climbed to another outcropping to a high place to watch the sun sink over the rosy red-rock backdrop of the wind-swept movie-set landscape.

Back in the truck, it drove lopsided over the dunes, fast to get a running start up the hills, slow over the dangerous hidden rocks, and jalopy-like back to the camp. We had another pot of tea and relaxed in the evening coolness as the stars were not yet bright enough to warrant moving to a place under the open sky. A humble yet delicious dinner was served to the three musketeers of Europe, America, and Asia, with the company of the Arabian guide. Herbed chicken and spiced rice, a variety of salads with tomato & tahini, yoghurt & cucumber, parsley & tomato & cucumber, apples for desert, and tea.

We sat around the campfire drinking tea again when Ahmed caught my eye and whis
pered "I have a surprise--come with me to the kitchen" So I followed and we munched on a few dates as he revealed to me the majestic embroidered Bedouin dress and face mask. "Put this on and sneak around the tent back to the fire circle. They won't recognize you and sit down and surprise them!" It took a few tries to tie the mask on properly, and the coal eyeliner was also a struggle to apply.

Everyone was delighted around the campfire when the mysterious strawberry blonde Bedouin woman stopped lurking in the shadows and joined the circle to reveal her identity. They all took turns trying on the outfit. We talked into the night as the infrequent car passed on the highway, lighting up our camp for a brief moment like a few frames from a movie projector and we stargazed until our eyes were heavy.

Day Two
Ben came a-knocking on the canvas door to wake us for sunrise at 5:30. The three of us set chairs in the clearing and bundled up for the chilly pre-dawn desert morning. The sky
was light long before the sun rose, but at 6, the glowing sphere peaked over the point of the mountain across the plain and we gasped in enchantment. It was a lazy morning because we had a lot of time before our appointed camel ride. But I, loving the desert, full of joy and wonder and anticipation could not sleep any more.
We relished in the newfound warmth the morning sun brought to the skin; glistening under the pink-orange morning brilliance; I was in a sublime state of peace. Around 8 am, breakfast was served out in the open--pita, three salads, labneh, hummus; my absolute favorite was the zatar (herb mixture with sesame) mixed with copious amounts of fresh olive oil. I mean fresh, it was so rich and flavorful! And our guide showed us to mix the cream cheese triangles with marmalade for a nice treat on the pita. A big plate of halvah beckoned me after I finished the salty things.

At 9 am, a Sudanese-turned-Bedouin arrived with two camels. Ana and I cautiously climbed to the top of the humps and sat on the blanket-with-handles contraption. Ben walked alongside and talked to Abdallah in broken Arabic and found that he had found it easy from Sudan to assimilate in Jordan, being already and Arabic speaker.

The rest of the day we spend drinking tea, taking a trip into the village for groceries, and doing a marvelous exploration of our surroundings on foot, climbing imposing rocks, sliding down perfectly-formed sand dunes. There were some newcomers to the camp--a pair of
Spanish men so we chatted with them in the afternoon and lounged around on the cushions in the shade, reading and drawing.

Later that evening, a large group of Australians came in. They were not particularly outgoing, so neither were we. And maybe we were just a bit sad that we no longer had the quietness and vast open desertland all to ourselves. But with more people, the dinner was increasingly fancy. Tonight it was lamb and chicken cooked in the subterranean pit, Polynesian-pig style, and a cornucopia of roasted vegetables.

Shooting stars abounded and the sand was cold and the night too beautiful to describe.

Sunrise again over peaks woke us for the new day. We waited in the freshness of morning when everything's new and clean and bright for a car to take us away from this extraordinary place. It finally arrived, and we sorrowfully piled in with the Spanish guys. We waved Ana goodbye as she was making her own way to the Sinai peninsula to meet another friend. The driver took us to the junction on the Desert Highway where we separated; the Spanish continued to Aqaba and Ben and me hopped out to meet the bus here to go north, it would be a 2 hour ride to Wadi Musa on this bus that only ran once each morning (foils if we miss it)...