Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Major Update Part I (or Much Adventure in International Travel)

We left the kibbutz on Friday morning at 7:30, and drove to the Israel/Jordan border crossing. We got there just after 8, and waited to be let into the compound. Then we had to go through Israeli passport control, and while I was walking into the building, I heard a loud popping sound, and jumped so violently I banged into the person in front of me. I was sure I’d heard a gun shot, but it turned out it was a bird cannon…

Other then that, I cleared passport control ok, but they had to run some kind of extra check on Jenn, which took quite a while and was kind of scary, but eventually they gave back her passport and let us go.

However, that took so long our bus driver who was supposed to shuttle us across the river to Jordan passport control had gotten tired of waiting for us and left! So we had to wait for a public shuttle and pay 4 shekels for it. Once we finally got across the river and met our guide, we had to go through Jordanian passport control, where they kept our passports until we’d gone through the baggage check. Once they’d cleared our baggage and we got our passports back, we trekked to the bus, and then they stopped the bus at one more checkpoint where an armed guard got on the bus and checked everyone’s passports before they let us out of the compound. By this point it was pushing ELEVEN am. Oy!

The landscape around Jordan is totally different from the more lush landscape around the kibbutz. It’s very arid and dry, and there is not much in the way of agriculture. The cities are crowded, noisy, run down and dizzying. Our first stop was the ancient decapolis city of Jerash, which in itself was pretty cool, but partway through the tour the Moslem guy in the tower started preaching and wailing over the loudspeaker, and it was so overwhelming. I didn’t enjoy it much, although the structures they’ve uncovered there are very impressive. We did happen to run across a Moslem full-fledged fancy dress…playing Ode to Joy on the BAGPIPES of all things! That was quite entertaining, I must say.

Then we went up to the top of Mt. Nebo, the site where Moses stood and overlooked the Promised Land before he was taken into heaven. It has an amazing view – you can see the Dead Sea, Jericho, and on a clear day you can even see Jerusalem from there. Unfortunately it wasn’t a clear day, but it was awesome to see the Dead Sea.

After that we went down to this church with a map of the Middle East in mosaics on the floor around the altar. We hiked really quickly through the city from the place where there was room for the bus to stop to the church, had a quick tour and then booked it back to the bus. By this point, because of the delay at the border, we were running a couple of hours late and we still had a three hour drive to our hotel just outside Petra.

You should have seen the hotel d├ęcor…it was called the Silk Road Hotel, and the lobby looked fairly normal, but as we started heading down the stairs to our rooms, the walls were all painted bright purple. Jess commented that it was like Alice in Wonderland…when we got to the landing, even the chairs were squishy purple velvet. Our room was entirely purple, too. It was pretty crazy.

On Saturday morning we set off for Petra – we walked the few blocks to the park entrance, and from there a few people rode horses to the entrance to the Siq, and some of us walked. We hiked down the Siq, and it was amazing. It was cool and shady, and there were a ton of neat rock formations. It was so beautiful, and when I got my first glimpse of the treasury, it was everything I had imagined it would be. Unfortunately after the first minute or so of stunned awe, a really noisy crowd came in behind us and kind of changed the atmosphere a bit. I could probably have sat there for much longer and just looked at it, but there wasn’t time.

Near the treasury there is a lower level of tombs that have been partially excavated, making a pit, and then it was covered over with bars to keep people from falling in. I went over and aimed my camera between the bars to get a shot of the tombs, but as I pulled away, my lens cap caught in the bars and the elastic strap came loose, and the cap fell into the pit. What a pain! But a little part of me will now always be in Petra. :)

We hiked down to the other end of the park, had lunch there, and then some of us tackled the 800+ steps up to the tomb known as “The Monastery” at the top of a mountain. Near the end, I was NOT sure I was going to make it – hiking up a ton of slippery limestone steps covered in donkey dung in the middle of a hot desert afternoon is a lot of work. Dr. Schuler kept saying “we’re almost there” and waiting for me and the couple other people who were lagging. It was kind of like being herded by a sheepdog, and I probably would have given up otherwise! I was surprised to find that I’m likely to push my limits more if I have encouragement to do so…interesting, hey? I’m not sure if the Monastery itself was really worth the hike, but I was pretty proud of myself for doing it in the end.

Hiking back down was also an adventure – while it wasn’t nearly as difficult as going up, the slippery steps were even more treacherous, so I took it pretty slowly. Once we were down, we started the looong walk back to the hotel, avoiding the myriad of offers for camel, donkey or horse rides. (Says the kid leading the donkey “Taxi miss? One dinar!”)

That was the thing I enjoyed the least about Petra – the descendants of the Bedouin who originally lived there now live in government funded housing just outside, and run all the shops etc in Petra. They really have it down to a science – snagging tourists. I managed to avoid getting hooked by anything, but Ian almost landed in some trouble with a kid who asked to be in a picture with him. Once the picture was taken, the kid expected Ian to give him a dinar! I just really did not enjoy being hassled when I was trying to soak in the sights.

After supper at the hotel, we were talking to our guide, and he estimated that we walked between 15 and 20 kilometres that day! I was stunned that I had done that – it’s all due to two weeks of hard labour on the dig site, I’m sure – there’s no way I could have done that three weeks ago. Yay! :)

We did a little shopping before bed, and then in the morning we set off for a whirlwind tour of Amman, the economic capital of Jordan. The actual political capital is in a different city, but most of Amman is fairly western, and there are quite a few Roman-era ruins there. Something about the Middle East: they don’t seem to be big on crosswalks or pedestrian right of way, so while our guide is booking it on ahead, we’re all trying to keep up without getting left behind or run over. It was quite the adventure…luckily our armed “Tourist Police” guard earned his pay by holding up traffic for us a couple of times.

So after the mad dash through the souk, apparently just to get the flavour of it, we went to the old Roman theatre and the little Jordanian culture museum that was there. Then we went up to the old citadel and the museum there, which has some fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls on display – that was worth the price of admission right there – SOOO cool to see, even if having parts of the Bible on display in a Moslem museum was a little weird.

Something else that was weird about Jordan was tipping in the bathroom. I can understand maybe tipping in store where you just go on for that purpose and don’t buy anything, or even tipping for a particularly clean one, but we went to a few where there wasn’t any toilet paper, soap, paper towel or a working blow dryer, and they still had someone standing there collecting tips. What a racket!

Our last stop on the way back to the border on Sunday afternoon was at a traditional Jordanian restaurant for a “bbq” lunch, which has nothing in common with a North American bbq except for the cooking over open flame part. It was hands down the best culinary experience on the whole trip – I ate till I thought I was going to burst, and then finished off Linda’s watermelon as well! They brought a round of little salad-y things with pitas and olives, and then brought bbq’d lamb and chicken with more pita and then two kinds of melon for dessert. I really thought I’d died and gone to gastric heaven – and they only charged us 10 dinars each – about $15. If I went somewhere like that at home, with that many hovering waiters and that much food, I would have expected to pay at least twice that. It was amazing.

Our goal was to be back at the border crossing by 4 pm so we could be back at the kibbutz in time for supper at 6:30, so our bus driver is booking it down this bumpy road (I’m sure way faster then he should have been) and there was this huge jolt and a block later he pulled over. Turns out he blew out one of the shocks and they had to call for a repair guy. Thankfully he came quite quickly, especially by Middle Eastern standards, and we were only delayed on the side of the road for an hour. It could have been much, much worse!

We cleared Jordanian customs and passport control with a minimum of fuss, and got back on the bus to be shuttled across the bridge. I looked at my watch at that point, and it was just coming up to 5:00 and I figured that would give us lots of time to make it for supper. Well, I guess the Israelis didn’t like us crossing the bridge in a Jordanian bus, and decided to hold us on the bridge for about 45 minutes before someone came out to talk to us. (This was very excruciating for those of us who had to go to the bathroom, let me tell you!)

Finally two people came over and Dr. Schuler went out to talk to them. They asked him a ton of questions about who we were and what we were doing, and then picked one person randomly off the passenger list to haul out and ask the same questions, presumably to see if the stories matched up. Once they did that, they came on the bus and asked us all if we were carrying any weapons, if someone in Jordan had given us something to carry across the border, and if we’d packed our luggage ourselves. Finally they let us go, and once we got off the bus, we still had to clear customs and passport control, and several of us were searched.

Once that ordeal was over, we emerged to find that once again, and despite Dr. Schuler’s two or three phone calls to say we’d be late, the Israeli bus driver had gotten tired of waiting for us and taken off. We eventually got back to the kibbutz two hours later then supper. L Then we still had to finish packing to go home, have Sunday church and say our goodbyes to everyone. I didn’t get to bed till very late!

It was so sad to say goodbye – when I’d been planning for this trip I’d thought a lot about what could go wrong (thankfully none of those things happened!) but I hadn’t thought much about what kind of people I might meet. I was very blessed to work and tour with an amazing bunch of people who will always be very special to me.

After I was mostly done all my running around, I walked down to the lake one last time. It was well after 10 pm, and I don’t think I’d stayed up that late the entire time I was there…so I got to see a beautiful sky full of stars, listen to the waves, and just soak it all it. I could have stayed out there all night, but I knew I needed to rest for the next day and our big trip to Jerusalem.

More about that to come in Major Update Part II (or How Much of Jerusalem Can You See in One Day?)

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