Saturday, February 4, 2012

Jordan - Day 7

All right.  With just a couple days left in the U.S. (again), it's time to finish Jordan's posts!

The day after visiting Petra we woke up, packed out, and went for a scenic drive above Petra and then to Little Petra.  Little Petra is more of the same of Petra in a much more accessible place.  We were impressed but didn't have the desire to stay for a long period, so south we went.  Today's destination - Wadi Rum!

I love the desert.  Some of my favorite memories are from the Kalahari and Namib deserts in Southern Africa, looking at the stars and listening to the unique sounds of the desert at night.  So I was thrilled to spend a couple days in the fabled Jordanian desert, experiencing Bedouin hospitality.  This is the desert of Lawrence of Arabia fame (someone I knew very little about before this trip).

We arrived shortly before lunchtime at our staging camp, a large area with goat-hair tents, several campfire areas with surrounding majlises, a dining tent, and pristine bathrooms.  I could go on and on about the bathrooms.  These were, by far, the best camp bathrooms I've ever seen.

After a pleasant light lunch of salads and hummus, we embarked on our 4x4s for a half day 'jeep' excursion into the desert.  The 'jeeps', mostly a collection of Toyota pickup trucks with benches fitted into the beds, were atmospheric if not the most luxurious rides.  We slathered ourselves with sunscreen, fitted hats and scarves on tightly, secured our sunglasses, and we were off!  After a scenic drive through a nearby village, we were soon well away from civilization and surrounded by dunes and amazing rock formations.  And camels!  We did a bit of dune riding, which was exciting and heart-palpitating, but mostly we just drove and marveled.  And as one of my companions so cleverly noted, we kept making turns through the sand instead of going straight.  Why?  There was no reason we could fathom. 

One of our three jeeps got a flat tire, so those passengers doubled up on the other jeeps while we waited for a replacement to come.  The extra people meant some were standing, which contributed to wonderful photo opportunities!  We were joking about an hour into the ride that it was time for a tea and trinkets stop, both of which were readily available wherever and whenever we stopped somewhere.  Sure enough, we rounded a large rock mountain and found a goat-hair tent, its occupants beckoning us in for mint tea.  A table displaying trinkets stood nearby.  We laughed.  For me, though, the really neat thing about this stop was seeing the rock carvings on the mountain.  Apparently Nabataean and put there to direct camel caravans, they were absolutely beautiful.  Very similar to the carvings I've seen in South Africa, though the animals depicted were quite different!

Once the replacement jeep arrived, we loaded back up and headed out again.  While the whole afternoon was wonderful, I was a bit disappointed that there were so many other jeep caravans in the same spots we stopped in.  It detracted a bit from the 'being out in the middle of nowhere' feeling we were trying to cultivate.  Not to worry, that was still to come.

We stopped a few more times at natural rock formations that were great for exploring and photographing, and then we set off to find a perfect spot for sunset.  We did, and as our drivers built a fire for, what else, mint tea, we bundled up against the cooler temperatures and watched a spectacular sunset. 

Our drive back to the staging camp was cooler and darker, but it just gave us time to watch the full moon rise over the horizon and the stars come out.  As we pulled into the camp we were greeted by dozens of lights illuminating the rock mountain behind the camp.  What an amazing sight!  We watched our hosts unearth dinner - literally, it was cooked underground - and then settled in for a pleasant evening of good food and Bedouin music.  And then, for some reason, a disco.  They plugged in amps and speakers and started playing pop music.  Loudly.  We opted to head off to our night camp then.

We piled into two jeeps with our overnight bags and set off on the 30 minute journey to our rustic but comfortable tented camp, a semi-permanent private camp of goat-hair tents.  With the full moon and a sky full of stars (and our group full of laughter), it was a wonderful ride.  We settled in and then relaxed around the fire for a while.  A nearby sand dune provided great fun as several people climbed it and proclaimed themselves kings and queens of the Wadi, with the full moon shining high above them.  The beds - simple frames and thin mattresses - were well appointed with heavy blankets, so sleeping was a cozy affair.

I woke the next morning, hurriedly dressed in the chilly morning air, and then emerged from my tent to find that our camp was in a truly magical setting, nestled at the juncture of two rock mountains in a perfectly sheltered little cove.  It was spectacularly beautiful.  What had seemed neat the night before was absolutely breathtaking by day.

We headed back to the staging camp for breakfast and then headed out for points south.  On our way we stopped to photograph Lawrence's famed Seven Pillars, for which he named his autobiography. 

Next stop - Aqaba!

Lawrence impressions by friends.

Spectacular scenery


Camel caravan rock carvings!

Tea and trinkets at the ready...

R goes in for a closer look.

Silly tourists in the way...

See what I mean about congestion?  This is supposed to be the middle of a desert people!

It took quite a bit of pantomiming to get them to pose like this, but what a great shot!

Gathering wood for the fire.

Oh how I love me some sand dunes!

Dinner! Fresh from underground!

First daytime look at our camp.

I mean, it doesn't get much more perfect than that!

Seven Pillars

Seven Pillars up close

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Jordan - Day 6

Well.  Now that things are a little less, um, exciting around here, let's continue with the travelogues!

My group woke early on November 8th, excited to visit one of the newly-christened New7Wonders of the World.  The gates opened at 6:30 am; we were there at about that time, and we were among the first to enter the site, and definitely the first tour group. 

Petra is only accessible by two or four legs:  scores of horses and carriages wait near the main gate, eager to bring tourists the ~1km to the entrance of the Siq, or, for the elderly/disabled, all the way through the main sites.  Once you hit the main sites, the menagerie expands to donkeys and camels, along with their eager handlers.  In the past the poor treatment of these animals has been big news, but there's now an animal/clinic at the main gates that treats the working animals (for no or low cost), educates their owners about proper treatment, and warns tourists not to add to the animals' burdens. 

We were warned ahead of time that Petra was not particularly developed and not to expect too many amenities, but I didn't find this to be true.  Sure, there are no trolleys or McDonald's, but there were clean bathrooms, cheap water and other drinks for sale, trinkets, including lots of jewelry, almost no trash, and plenty of benches.  There were a couple restaurants in Petra City and smaller food stalls throughout, and I think it's perfect for the site.  I wouldn't want too much more commercialism. 

Local Bedouins are the only people allowed to work inside Petra, and many of them live in villages not far removed from the sites themselves.  Our guide told us that all the men look like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, and he wasn't too far off.  So much kohl!  The few vehicles that you see in Petra are driven by the Bedouin and are not for tourism.

As the sun came up on a crisp fall morning, we set off from the main gates for the first kilometer of walking to the entrance of the Siq.  The Siq, a 1.2 km narrow canyon wending its way through tall, sandstone walls.  The first glimpses of Nabataean carvings appear in the Siq, but the natural rock formations are the real attention-grabbers.  We were all quite hyped up with adrenaline at this point, anticipating the famed moment of coming around a corner and getting our first glimpses of the majestic Treasury.  Our guide occasionally pointed out important features, but we mostly walked along in awed, excited silence.  At one point, Zuhair pointed to a sight high on the top of one of the canyon walls.  We all gathered round him and strained to see it, but he seemed the only one able to distinguish the monument from the rock.  "Oh," he said, "perhaps I'm mistaken.  Perhaps it's on the other side."  As we turned to see where he was pointing now, we all gasped.  There, straight ahead, was the Treasury, visible only as a slice through the canyon walls.  Zuhair had tricked us perfectly, not allowing us to see where we were until we were already anticipating something, without raising anyone's suspicions.  Absolutely perfect.  As was the vision of the Treasury.

We all but ran the last hundred meters or so and emerged into the wide area surrounding the Treasury and marking the grand beginning of this ancient Nabataean city.  It was early enough that there were few other tourists, so we managed some photos without millions of heads in the way.  The two camels lying down in front of the Treasury, waiting for tourists to ride them, proved great props.

After about twenty minutes of gawking, exploring, and photographing, we set off again.  We walked down the Street of Facades, home to dozens of beautiful tombs and watched as the first souvenir stalls set up for the day.  It was incredibly peaceful and scenic and quiet - exactly what you'd want for visiting such a site.  Things were a little busier by the Roman Theater, and it took a little longer to get a good photo.  We stopped for tea and snacks at a small cafe, where the local cats joined us on the benches, sunning themselves and looking for handouts.  Donkey handlers called to us constantly, imploring us to ride - why walk?  The Royal Tombs were next, but the climb was a bit too precarious for my knees, so I hung out with the cats, relaxed in the gorgeous sunshine, and took countless photos. 

The weather was as perfect as it could possibly be - sunny without too much intensity and cool enough to make walking and hiking tolerable without shedding too many layers.  I don't think I even need to roll up the sleeves of my shirt all day. 

Next up was the colonnaded Cardo Maximus, a Roman addition to the site.  It was much less picturesque than the tombs but pretty nonetheless.  We passed an ancient pistachio tree and herds of goats foraging on the rocky outcrops.  And, then, as I was sitting down taking things in, I heard someone say, "Sadie?"  I looked up to see familiar faces, but it took a minute to place them as colleagues from Jeddah!  We didn't realize each other would be heading to Jordan for Eid break and so met completely by chance.  What a fun surprise! 

After visiting the Qasr al-Bint, the only free-standing structure at Petra, we reached Petra City, a small collection of restaurants, museums, and dozens of donkeys and camels.  Most people set off for the Monastery, arguably the most impressive facade at Petra, but I couldn't fathom going up (and then down) 800 stairs.  Oh to have functioning knees!  And there was no way I was riding up on a donkey... 

I walked through a museum and jewelry shop, pondered the expensive buffet restaurant, and decided I wasn't hungry enough for a $30 meal.  And then, with a free afternoon ahead of me, I set about returning to the parking lot much more slowly than the walk in.  The changing light of the afternoon provided different canvases for photography, and I took about a million photos as I meandered.  I stopped and bought a few tacky but oh-so-cool jars of colored sand paintings and had my name (and my niece's and nephew's) written inside. 

As I was walking back, I noticed that the number of visitors had gone up significantly.  It wasn't quite overwhelming, but it was pretty different than 6:30 am.  I can't imagine a busy day - we were told this was a slow day!

The area in front of the Treasury was packed with tourists by the time I came back, and it was much less pleasant than the morning.  I was amazed as I walked back through the Siq how many people were on their way in, even in the late afternoon.  I was even more surprised at what some of the people were wearing.  Maybe it's just me, but I am not sure high heels and tight skirts are the most comfortable for hiking and clambering about in the desert...

As I emerged from the Siq and headed back the interminably long main road to the gates, people were passing me in droves on their way in.  They would only have time to rush to the Treasury, take a few photos, and rush back out before the site closed for the day!  I know a lot of people do day trips from Aqaba or Jerusalem and so have less than a half day at Petra, but it seems a waste to rush to only one site, as seeing Petra is an experience to enjoy, at a leisurely pace.

The rest of the group slowly filtered in to the parking lot, each with stories to tell and legs to rest.  A brave few had gone to the Monastery and to the High Place of Sacrifice (another 800 steps).  We were all exhausted but exhilarated after a perfect day. 

After a brief rest in the hotel, we met up for dinner and more story-telling before turning in for a well-deserved night's rest.  Wadi Rum tomorrow!

Dawn on the road to Petra

Contemplating the entrance to the Siq

The Siq, that way.

Wide walls, getting narrower.

So, so incredibly cool!

Some perspective

First glimpse of the Treasury, courtesy of trickery!

Add caption

And there it is...


Not the friendliest camel

Street of Facades

Street of Facades

Roman Theater

Royal Tombs

Goats. On rocks!

Qasr al-Bint

Sand painting.

And now with mega-tourists!