Archive for the 'Jordan' Category
We read that a highlight of a trip to Jordan is spending the night in a traditional Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum. The Bedouin are desert-dwelling tribes who have inhabited this region for thousands of years, and a good camp experience can provide insight into a traditional culture and way of life that is increasingly threatened. Unfortunately, many of the camps are rather commercial, and finding an authentic one can be difficult. Luckily, going to Wadi Rum is one of Kristi’s favorite pastimes, and she enthusiastically referred us to Mzied Atieg, a Bedouin man whose father founded one of Rum’s first camps.
As we walked towards the Visitors’ Center at Wadi Rum Village, a young man approached. “Are you here for Mzied?” he asked. How did he know? “He’s my uncle,” he said. Out of nowhere, a deeply-tanned man with striking coal eyes appeared. His wavy hair fell loosely below his ears, with tinges of gray dabbing his temples. He looked impossibly cool, a Bedouin rock star. A firm hand emerged from the sleeve of his olive-green robe. “I am Mzied.”
He led us to his mud-spattered Toyota Hilux, the modern day camel, making a quick stop for snacks. “No food for me,” he explained. “Ramadan,” the answer for everything these days. We dropped two men off in town – more relatives. We quickly learned that Mzied, and most of the people in Rum Village, have lived their entire lives there, and everyone seemed to be related in some way.
Maikael and I were the only two people who would be staying at the camp that night. “You’re my guests, not tourists,” he said, railing against the many camps that had sprung up in Wadi Rum that provide a mediocre experience. Mzied specifically keeps his camp small. We bumped and swayed our way into the desert, the morning sun still low in the sky. Soon we were spewing heaps of deep orange sand in our wake; there are no roads. I asked him how long the Bedouin had inhabited this area. “We were born here,” he said simply, as if I had inquired after the obvious.
Our Lonely Planet guide promised that Wadi Rum boasts “some of the most dramatic desert scenery you will ever see,” and it didn’t disappoint. Mzied drove us to a towering arch, where we walked to a table rock that lent panoramic views of the desert below. He rested in the shade to save his energy, checking his cell phone for messages. We could see huge sand dunes in the distance, and hear nothing but the faint twitter of birds as a line of camels ambled by. This was the land that Lawrence of Arabia rode across, and aside from the cell phone, it was easy to picture.
Mzied was excited that it had rained the night before, and wanted to take us to sights where we could see “the waters” and stay cool in what promised to be a scorching day. The Bedoin are noted for their adaptability: given the harsh desert climate they call home, they have to be. In the cool crevasse of a canyon, we saw ancient pictographs of goats and camels dating 2,400 years old – the same animals who inhabit the area today.
We spent the heat of the day in a shallow canyon, where amethyst walls gave way to a small pool of water and a patch of cool sand. Mzied drew shapes in the sand with his fingers that looked curiously like the cave drawings we had seen earlier in the day. We snoozed and read while Mzied prayed. Eventually, another guide and two young men quietly entered the canyon. “My brother,” Mzied said, gesturing towards the guide.
As the heat of the day waned, Mzied suddenly declared, “It’s time to go shopping!” On our way back to the village, Mzied stopped every few meters to collect firewood that had washed down from yesterday’s flash flood. Once in town, we stopped at his family’s house, a one-story structure painted in earth-toned leaf patterns. When we pulled into the driveway, some of his seven children were playing in his Land Cruiser. We waved, and they grinned and waved back. They tentatively shook our hands, smiling shyly.
We were invited into the house for Bedouin tea, a sweet black brew that is best slurped while piping hot. We weren’t sure what was next on the agenda, but soon we were off, stopping back in the village for supplies with his second oldest son in tow. Maikael was desperate to buy the bag of potato chips emblazoned with what looked like a photo of Arabic soap opera stars.
“The children are excited about the rains and want to play in the desert,” said Mzied. On our way back towards camp, we stopped at a sand dune that we had seen earlier. “You want to climb?” asked Mzied. I’ve always had an inexplicable desire to race down a sand dune, and my moment had come. After the arduous hike up, we blasted down the sandy pyramid, giggling uncontrollably all the way to the bottom (Maikael won by a nose).
Out in the desert, Mzied built a campfire, placing a grate over the coals to grill crispy pieces of salted chicken and roasted tomatoes. Steaming pots of soup and rice stayed warmed next to the fire. This was typical Bedouin fare. Mzied sat next to the fire and placed his youngest son in his lap. He punched a row of holes with his thumb in the sand, then used his pointer finger to quickly dash through the holes, making a goofy sound as he went. His son squealed with delight: Mzied was clearly a master at sand games. I watched his other children effortlessly climb rock facades like mountain goats, as I struggled to haul myself up. The desert was their backyard.
We gathered around the fire on a huge jute mat, devouring our feast. Liters of soda and juice were consumed in a flash. It was iftar, and most people hadn’t eaten or drank anything all day. After dinner, one of his sons tended to the campfire, showing skills that only the most adept Boy Scouts have mastered. “I think your children would survive better than me out here,” I said. He laughed, but I wasn’t joking.
As dusk descended, the moon cast a soft glow over the desert. The fire softly crackled, and Mzied mentioned that a wolf had killed a camel a few nighs ago. Camels are a valuable commodity in the desert, and the wolf was promptly killed. If there were wolves, what else was lurking out here? “Oh, you got to be careful of scorpions. But the snakes don’t come out much at night.” It was time to head to camp, and we were determined to sleep under the stars. We laid our mattresses out in the open, under a dense blanket of stars that pierced the cobalt sky. “I’ve never seen Orion so bright,” Maikael said, as we gazed upward. There were no lights. There wasn’t a sound to be heard. Not even a wolf.
Staying with Mzied and his family was one of the most memorable days we’ve spent on this trip. It was the real deal. If you find yourself in Jordan, we can’t recommend this experience enough. Mzied Atieg offers desert 4WD and camel tours, trekking, hiking, climbing, and Bedouin-style camping. He can be reached at the following addresses: Mobile: 00962 777 304 501 Email: email@example.com Web: www.mzied.com2 comments
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Our primary destination in Jordan was Petra, a remarkably-preserved ancient city carved into rose-colored limestone, three hours south of Amman. Petra was once inhabited by the Nabataeans, Arabs who dominated the region around the time of Christ. It’s a remarkable site: just last year, it was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World (along with Machu Picchu and Taj Mahal, two sites we will visit on our trip around the world).
When we arrived in Jordan a week ago, the country was experiencing a heat wave. “It’s not usually this hot this late in the year,” people kept telling us. We waited for the thermometer to drop before setting off to Petra, but after three days in Amman, the temperatures were holding steady in the high 90s. “I’ve done Petra in the summer and it’s a killer,” one man said, “but you gotta do it.”
Most people associate Petra with the ornate pink-stone facade of The Treasury – it was represented as the site of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – which is magnificent. The approach is equally dramatic. After walking down a narrow canyon, known as The Siq, you round a bend to reveal a sliver of the pink facade, framed by the jagged walls. One can’t help but gasp at that first unexpected glimpse.
But there is more to Petra than The Treasury. Many people visit Petra on half-day tours, and never bother to explore much beyond the primary sites that line Petra’s main avenues. It’s understandable in the late summer heat, when getting off the beaten track often means scrambling up steep stone steps, worn dangerously smooth by thousands of years of use, as the midday sun threatens to addle your brain. We hiked 14 miles over two blistering days, consuming liters of water that resulted not in full bladders but cascades of sweat: our pores were leaky faucets. But towards the end of our first day of exploring Petra’s quintessential sites, I saw something that convinced me to run as fast as possible off the beaten path.
Petra is home to multiple forms of alternate transportation, and I’m not talking about hybrid cars. Local guides will ferry you by horse, donkey, carriage, or even camel from one site to another for a fee, ranging from 2JD to 10JD. (As a result, Petra’s cobbled streets are lined not only with history but grass-green piles of animal waste.) Guides lurk around every corner with promises of “air conditioned taxis.” We got very good at politely declining a ride for lack of funds, to which one 12-year-old guide, looking curiously like Captain Jack Sparrow, responded, “No money, no honey.” Personally, I would rather save my money for a great dinner, but people seemed to be thrilled at the prospect of riding a smelly animal.
As the afternoon sun bore down, we took a seat just beyond one of the “taxi” stands, having just sang our chorus of no-thank-yous. Meanwhile, an older man and his wife were negotiating a ride. His snowy hair perched upon a gleaming, tomato head. A navy blue polo shirt was stretched taut over his belly, which sat just above his khaki shorts, filled by legs that supported a tube of white from knee to toe. We watched in amazement as the guide selected the smallest animal from his fleet, a donkey that looked as if it might blow over should a gust of wind whoosh by.
The man slung his tennis shoe into the stirrup, then heaved himself over the animal. The donkey’s back bowed as it let out a low groan. The man looked just as unhappy as the donkey. A group of onlookers snickered as a crowd formed around the man; the donkey wobbled back and forth, his little knees buckling. Even from a distance I could see the blind panic on this man’s face. After the donkey took a few tentative steps, the man pulled himself from the donkey, clutching his wife’s arm for dear life. As he quickly shuffled off in the other direction, regaining his balance, two things happened.
One: the guide ran after him, asking him for money for his 10 second ride. When the man shooed him away with the the arm that supported by his wife, the guide offered another, larger animal. Two: as he continued to walk away, a swarm of guides descended, offering their clearly superior horses and, should he be saddle-shy, camels. But nothing could persuade the man to get back on an animal, no matter how hot or tired he may have been.
I refuse to get on these animals not only because of cost, but because it represents the passive travel experience. Visitors are encouraged – and want — to be carted around from location to location, silent observers who flit through the site but never really soak anything in. These mechanisms also have a way of making tourists look like total rubes. The man on the donkey was not unlike a large man wearing a very small hat: ridiculously incongruous. The guides, predominantly local Bedouin whose traditional ways of making a living have been largely displaced by tourism, are simply trying to work, but the whole system creates an unfortunate tension between the two parties.
As the sun sank behind the clouds, casting a welcome shadow over the valley, we decided to break away from the crowds and make the arduous climb to The Monastery. Larger but less accessible than The Treasury, it sees only a fraction of Petra’s daily visitors. The site required a steep hike up a narrow stone staircase that wound its way around a rocky mountain, where a herd of shaggy black and white goats temporarily blocked the path, their bells softly tinkling. Even out here smatterings of tea gardens dotted the hillside, as Bedouin women encouraged us to buy their jewelry. When we rounded the bend at the top of the hill we saw it: towering sandy columns stretched skyward, less ornate but every bit as impressive as The Treasury. There wasn’t a person in site to block the view. I honestly expected Moses to pop out of the doorway.
Having an improved experience off the beaten path, we spent the second day away from the hustle and bustle. We woke early to enter Petra through a narrow canyon, requiring us to dodge massive boulders like gymnasts. The rising sun blinked behind the mountains as local men on horseback ambled over the rocky terrain. No one offered us a ride. “I guess they’re on their way to work,” Maikael said.
We climbed to the Place of High Sacrifice, whose name tells it all: you can still see the large troughs that were once used to siphon animals’ blood. On the way up, an ancient Bedouin woman took my hand and guided me towards the figure of a lion carved into the stone. She smiled at me through ragged teeth and yellowed glasses; faded indigo tattoos marked her face.
As we made our descent, heavily spiced aromas filled the air. Bedouin tea. A small family circled a crackling fire, beckoning us to sit down for a cup. Were it not for the din of the tourists below, quickly coming into earshot, we might have.2 comments
We’ve just finished our whirlwind, 72-hour tour of Jordan. I will be posting more about what we’ve seen and photos in the next day or so, but here are a few highlights to whet your appetite:
- Slept under the stars in a Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum
- Watched a frightened man nearly break a donkey’s back
- Saw a camel parked at the end of a street
- Witnessed a car zoom up a huge, twisting hill in reverse for what seemed like miles
- Raced each other down a towering red sand dune
- Ate roasted chicken in the desert at sunset
- Brokered another shady transportation deal
- Wept in a cave
- Stalked by a menagerie of cats, camels, horses, and donkeys at Petra
- Hiked eight sweltering miles in one day, consuming six liters of water
- Gasped at Petra’s iconic Treasury, and hiked to the less-famous-but-equally-impressive Monastery
- Walked to yet another ATM when we ran out of money
- Played games in the sand with a group of lovely Bedouin children
- Negotiated the odd business hours of Ramadan
- Were had, once again (if we’re scammed for less than $20 a week, we’ve decided we’re doing pretty good)
Friday, September 5, 2008
On our first day in Amman, we rested at the house while Jonathan and Kristi went to work. Around lunchtime, we heard a man’s voice blasting over a loudspeaker in Arabic outside the house. “Holy crap,” I thought, “what’s going on?” The saturated voice sounded urgent and stern, as it was delivering some sort of an evacuation message. We peered out the kitchen window to the street below and noticed that the sound was projecting from a navy blue truck, slowly making its way down the street. Was it some sort of a propagandamobile? A few moments later we heard what sounded like an ice cream truck, its tinny song tinkling through the streets. It seemed like an odd place and time to be peddling ice cream, but what did we know?
When Jonathan and Kristi returned home from work, they asked if we had heard the man on the loudspeaker. “He’s the junk man,” they said, “and he’s announcing that he’s buying junk.” We felt totally stupid. “Don’t feel bad,” Kristi said. “When my mom was here last year she heard the same guy and thought we were at war or something.” And the ice cream man? Selling propane.
The next day we needed to take a taxi from the house to the downtown area. Jonathan had briefed us on taxi etiquette. Just as a taxi passes you, the driver will honk his horn to signal that he’s available. You simply flick your palm up to let him know that you’re interested; otherwise, you keep walking.
As we made our way out to the main street, a small, canary car ambled towards us. It wasn’t honking, but we signaled the taxi anyway. The car passed us without stopping, and we peered in window as it drove by. A woman was driving the taxi! Our Lonely Planet guidebook mentioned that Amman had initiated its first woman taxi driver in 1997, and here she was, driving down our street! A few moments later, an identical taxi passed with another woman driver. Unbelievable! What were the odds?
Suddenly, the taxi slowed to a crawl. Then, the driver cautiously backed around the corner. It was then that I noticed the red and white triangle affixed to the roof of the car.
We had been hailing student drivers.1 comment
Thursday, September 4, 2008
“Who are you staying with?”
This is the typical reaction when I explain that I am staying with my cousin’s neighbor’s daughter and son-in-law in Amman, Jordan. When we planned this trip, we tried to choose locations where we knew people, in the hopes that we could get a little help along the way. We knew no one in Jordan. We knew nothing about Jordan. But we added it to our itinerary on a whim, since Amman is a major hub for the airline partners we are flying.
When Kristi and Jonathan offered for us to stay with them in Jordan, we were floored. Not only did we never expect a Jordan contact in a million years, but we were total strangers. We eagerly accepted the invitation, excited to have the opportunity to spend time with a local couple and experience life in a given place, all while having the luxury of speaking English.
After having spent so much time in Istanbul, whose skyline is bulging with buildings as far as the eye can see, Amman’s cityscape was a shock. As our plane made its descent, I saw nothing but desert and clusters of low-lying, sandy-colored buildings. “The joke in Amman is to say ‘I live in the sandstone building next to the mosque,’” Kristi said.
Jonathan and Kristi met us at the airport, a welcome sight after all the difficulties in getting out of Istanbul. As we drove home, the streets were largely empty. We noticed a small roadblock in the other direction, where a policeman was checking documents, and saw a young man herding goats near the side of the road. When we turned down their street, Jonathan explained that the street used to go through until a neighbor decided to build a carport for his house in the middle of the road. We weren’t in Istanbul anymore.
Kristi and Jonathan have worked for an international school in Amman the past four years, and were eager to share information about Jordan. They’ve also traveled extensively throughout the world, and we were charmed by the little welcome “basket” they left us in our room. We made our way up to the patio at the top of their house, where we spent hours chatting and learning more about Jordan. It’s a small country that’s experienced relative peace and stability in recent history. “The former king used to say that Jordan was caught between I-raq and a hard place,” said Kristi.
Jordan is, indeed, an oasis in the desert. Unlike many of its neighbors, it’s major industry isn’t oil but medical tourism. I spent the day reading JO magazine, a monthly publication discussing all things Jordan, trying to get a pulse for this place that I know very little about. Barack Obama was in Amman in July, delivering a speech about relations in the Middle East. The JO article closes by saying, “Jordan was also briefly mentioned in the speech – but whatever Mr. Obama had in mind for the visit, it seems that learning about the parts of the Muslim world not plagued by war and violence was definitely not it.”
Jordan is modernizing at a rapid pace. When we went to the grocery store, Kristi remarked that, when they moved here four years ago, a cheap tent cost five times that of an REI tent, and that cereal was prohibitively expensive. Now, Western products are becoming easier to buy, which is reflected in the cost. I noticed two articles in JO that addressed this issue of Westernizing Jordan. One discussed the Bedouin culture, Jordan’s traditionally nomadic people, whose culture is changing in modern times. The other article was concerned with malls, which are extremely popular in Amman. Jonathan explained that malls are packed on Friday’s nights, the equivalent of a US Saturday night, but most people aren’t buying things: Jordanians use malls as a place to windowshop. It’s an outlet to socialize outside the home.
We’ll only be in Jordan a short time. We plan on taking a trip to Petra, an ancient city carved into a sheer rockface, and then to Wadi Rum to stay under the stars at a Bedouin camp in the desert. Sightseeing aside, we’re also delighted to have entire, complex conversations in our native language and eat Corn Flakes for breakfast. It’s a place I never dreamed I’d ever visit, but I’m glad we did.1 comment
Maikael is chomping at the bit to see the new Indiana Jones movie, whose release date shares an unfortunate spot on the calendar with my 30th birthday. Had it been any other day, I’m confident Maikael would have been the first in line to see the new flick. Sure, we’ve heard all the jokes about Indiana Jones and the Walker of Doom, but Indy Fever is hitting our home full throttle.
Last night we watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which I hadn’t seen in years. Because we’re going to Petra, Jordan, on our trip, which is portrayed as the site of the Holy Grail in the film, Maikael has been eager to watch this movie again. This is just my speed of research. I’d rather ooh and aah over the ancient city built into the pink cliffs (“Do you think we’ll get to walk through a crescent canyon to get there?” I asked Maikael) than meticulously research the top budget accomodations in the greater Petra area.
This point of view may come as a surprise to many of you, who know me as the consumate planner. But the fact is, I’m easily bored by details. Planning the broad strokes and imagining the possibilities of our itinerary was much more interesting to me than researching individual countries. Unfortunately, the latter is the stage we are at in the planning process, and I find I have very little energy for it. In reviewing our itinerary, I’ve noticed that we’ve included a number of countries that I know very little about (most of what I currently know about Petra is derived from celluloid). But rather than being scared, I find the prospect thrilling. I’d rather go into most places without my impressions being colored by a guidebook, and make discoveries based on my own experiences.
Maybe it is the sheer scope of this trip that has taken away some of my need for control. It is impossible to plan the ins and outs of an eight-month trip, so why bother trying? We are currently focusing on planning the first few legs of our trip; namely, Portugal, Italy, and Turkey. There is a growing part of me that just wants to show up and see what happens. And it’s a bit unfortunate that we’re landing in Europe in the throes of tourist season, where budget accomodations can be hard to come by without advanced reservations. So I’ve accepted that some amount of advanced planning will be required. But in the meantime, I think I’d like to curl up on the couch and read Under the Tuscan Sun.No comments