“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Wadi Rum and Desert Nights

In her autobiography, Queen Noor described weekend trips to Wadi Rum with her husband, the late King Hussein, on the back of his motorcycle. It was the description of this Mars-like landscape that inspired me to put it on my must-see list. It did not disappoint. 

Wadi Rum is a protected area in southern Jordan just north of the Saudi border. The drive down from Petra brought us along the ancient King’s Highway over a mountain range with spectacular views. At elevation,  and this area can see snow in winter months. Driving by through Jordan this week has been a treat in and of itself, just as fun as sightseeing. The history in this country boggles the mind. The King’s Highway was mentioned as far back as Genesis, and the route by which Moses requested to move his people (was that Exodus?). Moses will be a subject of interest a few times on this trip.  I’m no biblical scholar, nor religious, but I do appreciate the ancient history of this land. 

En route to Wadi Rum we passed a small train station and a train engine with cars. This marked the place where Lawrence of Arabia and his men attacked an Ottoman train, as depicted in the famed movie. We have a Japanese sand garden in my office back in Chicago. I so desperately want to put a little train, horses, and miniature army men in this sand, as a diorama of sort. I wonder if anyone would notice. Dad, can you send me a set from your model train collection, please?

Something I noticed and found alarming during he drive but is quite normal in Jordan according to my driver, is the frequency of hitchhikers. Many people stand along the side of the road and flag down anyone passing. It’s part of the hospitality culture to aid the traveler. I love that this is a thing, but my driver was surprised that I found it shocking, and that it’s so dangerous to do in America. “Really??”  Dude, is go from the side of the road alive to the side of the road dead. #nope

As we arrived at the Sun City Camp in Wadi Rum, I experienced what was becoming a pattern during this trip... being handed off from man to man to man. My tent wasn’t yet ready, so I was “handed off” to a young Bedouin man who was sharply dressed in a long white thobe, grey overcoat (much like a dress), and a keffiyeh headscarf. His English was pretty decent and he was friendly, but not overtly so. We hopped into his Jeep for a 3-hour tour of the surrounding desert.  Much like Mongolia, roads are an idea, not a concrete patch of tarmac. When we stopped for pictures at a rock carving by commemorating Lawrence, a bus of Chinese tourists engulfed my guide with unsolicited pictures and selfie sticks. He wore an embarrassing friendly smile as picture after picture was snapped alongside strangers. He was obliging them but clearly uncomfortable. When he did manage to steal away, I shared a similar story of being in his position as a white blonde female photo attraction in China and India, and we shared a good laugh. I hope I put him at ease, so I did feel his discomfort, although innocent. 

The geography of Wadi Rum consists of fine, soft rolling sand dunes broken up by massive red and black mountains. I would love to see this country with a geologist to know HOW this place was formed. Some of these isolated mountains and rock formations were created. Many of them were not so much connected to each other as much as stand-alone with sheer cliff faces. We witnessed some petroglyphs that were drawings of camels and people. When ancient caravans were traversing the area, these petroglyphs were road maps of sorts.  The direction the camels in the pictures faces was the direction the caravans should follow. How cool is that?!

One moment we stopped near what appeared to be a near-dead bush. My guide started pulling sprigs of green off the bushes and mashing them with a rock on top of a larger rock. I didn’t ask questions, as I wanted to see where this was going. He picked up the mash in his palms then asked me to pour some water into his hands. When he rubbed the water, mash, and hands together, suds began to form. This is what the Bedouin use to clean things! 

The little desert excursion ended as I climbed atop rock formation as we watched the surrounding mountains turn a bright red and orange from the setting sun. 

Back at camp, my tent was ready for me; a  large goat hair tent lined inside with faux satin walls and an ample washroom. I was surprised to find that I had running water and electricity!  The blessing was the discovery of a heated mattress pad on my bed that warmed up while I was out for dinner in the main dining area. Temps in the desert dipped just above freezing at night so this was necessary. I event grabbed the quilt off the other twin bed and added it to my own. I’m a hot sleeper, so I fluctuated between sweaty hot between two down quilts and a heated mattress pad, and cold when I turned off the pad or shook off a quilt. But at least I was sleeping in a real bed and not on the ground in a basic camping tent (see also; Mongolia). 

As dinner was cooking nearby under a pile of aluminum foil and sand, I sat by the fire pit  chatting with some Kiwis. While I was shocked to learn that it was 17-hours and 3 flights from New Zealand to Amman, they were just as shocked at my direct 11-hour $499 nonstop from Chicago. Score!

Cats are a fixture in Jordan, and this camp didn’t suffer from a lack of them. They always knew where they were getting their next meal. As dinner was served, kitties roamed the diners looking for scraps. They were friendly. I bonded with some nearby Spaniards at the hilarity of the cat’s cunning, as they were pretty endearing. One cat snuck up behind the food table and helped himself to the baba ganoush!  This is how I spent Thanksgiving dinner, with heaps of roasted lamb and chicken amidst the felines and travelers. 

I had also signed up for a sunrise camel ride which needed me to be at the rally point at 5am. I usually listen to advice about great sunrises and have yet to be disappointed. It turns out I was the only sunrise camel rider despite the camp being full, and another Bedouin man beckoned me over to where he camels were parked and off we went back into the desert, again, the repeated experience of following strange men that don’t speak English into the unknown. Since all experiences had turned out just fine, I had to learn to trust and get over my American suspicions of potentially shady encounters. I had only slept three hours - not in a row - so I admit I was looking forward to napping before breakfast was served after the ride (spoiler: a nap never happened). We sauntered out to a sand dune and joined another group of two Portuguese-speakers, their Bedouin guide,  and playful sheepdog. As the sun broke over the horizon, the mountains burst into color again and I nearly applauded. Okay, I did actually clap, although muted by my mittens. It was colder than expected, but happy I was prepared with my latest love of Uniqlo Heat Tech ultra-thin layers, down jacket, a warm hat, and thank god for gloves. 

Not being a morning person (so why do I keep doing these kinds of things??), I ate a delicious traditional Bedouin breakfast alone and enjoyed a cup of tea back at the comforts of the fire pit, just watching the rest of the tour groups shuffle about. In this environment I was the only solo traveler, which I would repeatedly experience outside Petra. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Petra, Betch!

Landing in Amman was uneventful and I quickly moved through passport control. A guide from my tour company met me to help me get my visa. Since I went through an official group, my visa was free. After checking into my hotel I ventured out to find dinner... I was able to read the sign of a shwarma place across the street and place a basic order. Success on Day One!

The next morning my driver picked up Arabic coffee for us. I’m not a coffee drinker but I obliged due to his hospitality. Extra sugar, extra milk. The coffee is made is cardamon and smelled fantastic! And it tasted as much, too! I could get on board with this. But I also think the offers of coffee and tea every other hour is why my Ambien isn’t keeping me down all night. 

The drive to Petra was three hours along the Desert Highway. This country isn’t nearly as chaotic as Egypt, so one could easily rent a car here to get around. Signs are in English and traffic rules are mostly obeyed. Just be alert for bedouin crossing the highway and lots of police checkpoints monitoring speeders. 

A bit of news about Jordan relative to its neighbors. Jordanians can no longer take weekend shopping trips to Damascus or Beirut due to the conflict in Syria. Two million refugees have flowed across into their borders, adding to the already taxing one million Iraqi refugees from the 2003 war *sigh*.  Jordan avoided the uprising of the Arab Spring because the monarchy is extremely popular. Queen Noor was officially designated as the Queen Mother (even though she’s the King’s stepmother), and she implemented a lot of programs across the country to promote culture, micro loans, education, and elevating the poorer class. (Did you know she is American?) King Abdullah II aso remains popular, and as a western-educated scholar, he is familiar with democratic principles. There is little corruption. There is secret police, mostly undercover to keep an ear to the ground to listen for discontent. Complaints were addressed during the Arab Spring and the public satisfied. What Khalil told me matches the news of Jordan I’ve been monitoring for years, as well as having read Queen Noor’s autobiography myself. Jordan may have shady neighbors, but hey, don’t we all?

What I have not adjusted to here is the ever-present scent of cigarette smokes. Everyone and their dog smokes. Indoors. Khalil doesn’t smoke in the car with me, but you can tell he does when he’s not toting tourists around. Inside restaurants, rest stops, the list goes on. I may have picked up a mild chest cold on the way, so my asthma is extra sensitive this week and the smoke really gets to me. Cash me ou’side. 

I didn’t roam into Petra until nearly 2:30pm. Wanted to take a spin about the place and get a lay of the land since I had to be out by 5. Turns out, Petra is MASSIVE. The entrance is about a mile long through the Siq, which is a narrow 20-story canyon winding through the sandstone. Think Antelope Canyon in the US. I had a feeling I was getting close to the Treasury because there were more people leaving (I was one of the few to be going IN at this late hour).  Khalil suggested I get a guide, but I do so much damn research and watch every damn documentary that I feel pretty well prepared. And I like to roam solo. I don’t feel like making small talk with a guide. I turned my iPhone video on (because if The Last Crusade was true, there would be a reveal).  And indeed it was. Through the narrow sliver of the Siq, the Treasury appeared to an open clearing. Here it was. Magnificent. Exactly as I had seen and imagined. There were far more tourists than I anticipated, which I was happy to see that business was good. I walked about to take pictures from different angles, at which I became verbally haggled by touts. No, I didn’t want a guide or a camel or a donkey or climb up above.  It was like swatting flies. “I prefer to be left alone” seemed to do the trick. I had my Rough Guide and maps and a Nova documentary committed to memory so I was good. This is my solo trip. I want to be solo. 

Walked to the right past the Treasury, The Valley begins to open up and reveal numerous temples and crevasses carved into the sandstone cliffs at all heights. Souvenir vendors were constant. A couple girls took me for 3 necklaces. They could probably use the money more than I, is how I justify it. An ancient Wadi, creek, ran through the center of the city. In one side is a massive amphitheater, and opposite side of the Wadi are many levels of more massive temples carved above. Standing in the middle of this took my breath away, followed by an audible WOW. I’ve been to Karnak and Thebes. They were huge temple complexes. But Petra is an entire city. I’ve never seen anything like it. It surrounds the visitor in all sides and heights. Perhaps the Forbidden City May be as large, but it’s a tough call. Past the amphitheater, the ancient cobblestone toad turns to one long, wide, straight Avenue with a large multi-tiered grand temple as the focal point. The river used to flow along the avenue, and I could almost imagine pools of water and waterfalls cascading down into the creek. This was clearly a bustling ancient city. 

But at this time fog was rolling in and a light rain began to fall. It was starting to get dark and I didn’t want to be in the Siq after dark. As I approached the Treasury at 4:30, all but the last carriage remained. We agreed to 10 dinars and I hopped in the carriage for the ride back. I would come to find that walking is preferable because the carriage is a rough ride on old cobblestone. I took advantage of some quick gift shop shopping (rather, I was on the advantage was opposite) to land a tunic and a caftan. All along my standard wardrobe has been Jordanian-inspired. Who knew??

Khalil introduced me to Mohammad at the Sand Stone restaurant by the entrance, so I returned twice to eat and build a rapport. Mohammad looked out for me by giving me free desserts and bottles of water. Their mansaf was also quite good. But again, I couldn’t linger since smoking is permitted inside, and my lungs weren’t having it. 

The next day, another driver was coming to pick me up early to take me on my hike. It was a cold rainy morning and I had forgotten my umbrella in Khalil’s car. So I layered with my Uniqlo ultra-lite down coat, Cubbies visor, wrapped my new scarf over my head, and donned my long black hoodie.  No’ar delivered me to Hamad The Bedouin. It would be just me and Hamad. His English was worse than my Arabic so we would mostly walk in silence. He was as think as two noodles in traditional Bedouin robes and keffiyeh. And off he went! While at this early hour I knew I had to pull it together to keep up with him. The first hour was a light rain. We took cover a few times. My jeans were wet against my skin. My coat soaked. But here we were. Fortunately the forecast said it would be over in an hour, and indeed it was. Thanks to Google Translate and an extensive cellular service even in remote areas of Jordan, I was able to whip up a few questions, like, how long is this hike? Two hours. Okay. I can handle that. 

Part of this hike reminded me of Mongolia where there were no roads, but Hamad knew exactly where he wanted to go. The landscape was a mix of sand, rocks and boulders, sprouting crocuses, and shrubbery that looked like it would burst into flames at any minute and begin talking to me. How biblical. Surrounding us were massive stone mountains and rock formations in every color, with peaks and valleys through which we trekked. At one point uphill, my trekking stick came out. Hamad may be used to this terrain, but Chicago is flat. I am out of shape. I can deal, but with a bit of effort and a couple occasional hits off the Albuterol. Every time we reached a peak, the vista did not disappoint. I knew some basic conversation words, and the most successful conversation we had and understood was 4 words: Bush bad. Obama good. (We didn’t talk about the other guy).

At the highest peak we stopped at what  oils best be described as a shack with a view of Wadi Arabia and a huge black mountain far off in the valley. Breathtaking. The Bedouin woman greeted us with hot mint tea and I warmed my hands by the small fire with her daughter. She had some trinkets set out so I patronized her and purchased a few camel knickknacks for my nephews. Yesterday they requested camels. Mission accomplished. 

Feeling refreshed, we set out again, and at the two-hour mark, my guide stopped and pointed. “There. You go. Left.”  He was sending me on to The Monastery and he was turning back. I saw some people far in the distance, but there was no other soul near us. Just me? Alone, in the desert? He’s going away? I did not expect this. I did, however, come equipped with paper maps and Google Maps was working. However, I opted to set out on instinct alone. Down the crevasse I went, following footprints from some traveler before me (today? Yesterday? No idea). It was just ME. Quiet. Solo.

Welp, time to pay attention. Look for footprints. Any consistent path of animal drippings. A semblance of a path. And general direction as I switched back down the valley. A bit later I spotted a sign and heeded the direction toward the monastery. Soon I spotted goats. A heard of goats means a shepherd is nearby, and therefore civilization. Follow the goats. And I did... right up until I spied the top markings of the temple peeking out from the rocks. As I approached the site, it was 10am and a few tourists had already made their way up from Petra. Me, I emerged from the opposite brush like some dirty hobo, damp and caked with mud and my hair looking like Medusa done over. I felt like Reese Witherspoon in Wild when she encounters civilization. Fortunately the clouds were parting and the sun shining so I could dry out. I was able to get some solo shots of this huge temple. It was worth the hike from any direction. I asked a couple next to me which was the way back to Petra and they looked at me like I WAS Medusa. They didn’t understand that I arrived from an opposite route and didn’t come up with them. When they asked where I came from, their eyes were as big as soup spoons. That tended to be the typical reaction whenever anyone asked me what I did today. Clearly my hike wasn’t a frequent route. I set my Apple Watch in the morning, and it died a few hours in. About 9 miles, 1000 calories burned, until the battery died. Ammarin-Little Petra-Monastery-Petra. 

I relaxed a while with mint tea before heading down into Petra. The climb up was noted as about 800 steps. Gravity isn’t exactly your friend here, to quote the infamous 2011 Huayna Picchu Hike, it’s like holding a squat for 40 minutes. What made this easier than Huayna Picchu was the addition of a trekking pole. God bless. The trek down was lovely and a jordan kitty followed me for a while then jumped on my laps for pets when I rested. At one point there was a second Jordan kitty about my ankles. I wasn’t mad about it. Kitties! Gatitos!

Emerging from the Monastery path I was at the far end of Petra in the main city center. I missed this end yesterday so this was fortuitous. A massive and nearly-intact temple stood at the far end. As an archaeological architecture geek, I nerded out in the Nabatean design styles that I’ve seen in no other ancient ruins. There were hints of Greek and Byzantine influence, but also Abyssinian, which was a special treat. And then styles that were uniquely Nabatean, such as split crowns and inverted steps and oblong angled towers. (Pictures to come soon.)

I walked along the main city street admiring everything around me. Goats had found their way into high temples. “Sure-footed as a mountain goat” rings true. The same girls found me again today and I snagged one more necklace. Who wants a Jordanian necklace? I have extras. Back at the Treasury where this all began yesterday, I rested and hung out for a bit. A young teen that recognized me from yesterday spotted me and I agreed to let him guide me to the cliff above the Treasury, because heck, it’s a view I may never see again. Despite my aching feet and jelly legs. So up we went. It was a rough climb. A few times he had to grab my hand to hoist me up. This kid is used to this kind of activity. It isn’t customary form for males to touch females here (outside a handshake) but I permitted it for this sake of safety and not plunging to my death. But when he asked for my hand to guide me down a flat path, I refused. Let’s not get carried away, kid. I may not be a hijabi but I wasn’t born yesterday. 

That said, I was joined upon the cliff by another female solo traveler from New York. I was glad to meet so many solo dames this week. I wanted to stay in her company for a while because she also had a young male guide. The view promised was delivered and worth the effort. I paid Omar and he quickly scampered down. Without me. My mistake. So I had to find my own way down, which at one point I got stuck on a six foot drop without a grip or place to secure my trekking stick. So... I squatted as low as I could and slid down, landing with a reasonable thud on the rocks below. I tweaked my ankle a tad but was able to shake it off and hours later is still seems fine. I was able to hike another mile on it. So all good there, and all my camera equipment in my bag survived. Okay, good. 

Back on the ground, it was the typical routine of playing whack-a-mole with camel and donkey “taxis.”  I had come this far on my own and wanted to walk out of this place just as I had entered. A nice, level walk back up the Siq would bookend my time in Petra.  And so ‘twas. 

I brought a bottle of water and snacks and did utilize them, but realized at 3pm that I hadn’t eaten lunch. I reeked of fire smoke, sweat, and a red dust clung to me. I desperately wanted lunch IN my bathtub with those Dead Sea salts I received. I grabbed some take-out for my room and attempted a bath. But because water is scarce here, hotels don’t permit baths. Dammit. I needed to do something to ward off imminent pain the next day, so I sauntered into a Turkish bath, a Hammam, just down the hill.  It wasn’t fancy, but it was utilitarian, and had distinct separate male and female sides. (Did some quick research beforehand and this isn’t always common). 30 JOD got me a half hour in the steam room (with a rented bathing suit - I didn’t bring my own because I didn’t plan on swimming, so... but whatever. They were clean.  Then the lovely Hammam mom came to get me for my table scrubbing and massage. Aaaaaahhhhhhhh........ all the dead skin, a healthy rub-down of my legs and feet, alternating hot and cold splashes. It’s a bit more structured than a Korean Spa, so I was fine with the routine. After dressing again I relaxed in the quiet room with some tea, google translate, and showed her pictures of my sisters and nephews. Mashallah is the standard exclamation for “how wonderful!”  

Refreshed after the scrub, I popped in to a shop that was sporting some handsome tunics. The young shopkeeper, maybe in his early 20s, was a bit too eager to fit me into the tunics. He wasn’t overt, but I kept pushing his hands away, with a few “don’t touch” vocalized.  In Chicago this wouldn’t be a thing, but on a scale, he thought he could get away with it with a non-hijabi (despite me wearing baggy pants, a tunic, and large scarf, I still sported blonde hair in a bun and, well, am Western. The male adults here have been respectful, but the young ‘uns ain’t got no sense yet. This is a tourist hot spot. I get it. You see what you can get away with. I knew this wouldn’t be Jordan’s high point of hospitality and decorum. I expect better outside this town. Perhaps I’m more sensitive right now due to the political climate in the US at the moment, but either way I realize I have to be more insistent if it happens again. He breached cultural norms and knew it. As did I. It’s not a #metoo thing, just when you’re out in the world, everything is on a scale. But hell, I got a tunic I wanted and I’m leaving town tomorrow. Get over it. 

I feel like I turned a corner on this trip. No guide in Petra. Hiking alone after Hamad left me to fend for myself. No fear, no hesitation, I just dove right in on the first night, facing the challenge of a new written and spoken language, then relying on my bearings. I was so incredibly comfortable exploring Petra on my own, I felt as if I belong there and belonged to what I was doing. Me, a backpack of supplies, a camera, maps, tech, and the ability to go and do whatever I wanted, far away from the familiar life I knew. And although this was all new to me, the feeling wasn’t. This is what I do. This is what I love to do. To chat up some Bedouin kids or tourists from Chile. Changing three languages in a few hours. Wanting to trust and push myself. And sure, I have already made a few mistakes, but I take them as “notes to self” and learn from them. I feel as though I have finally left “amateur traveler” status behind. I never knew where or what trip would do it, but this was it. Been there, done that. 

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and I’m headed to Wadi Rum. Will I get a Mars space capsule tent where I can fall asleep watching the night sky?? We will see! And we’ll also find out how stiff these limbs are about to be. 

Jordan Here I Come!

I’m off to Jordan. More than a few times I’ve been asked the question, “Why Jordan?” Why? Why NOT? Petra! Wadi Rum! Jerash! Amman! Seeing the great movie sites of The Last Crusade, Lawrence of Arabia, The Martian, and Hurt Locker. Legendary hospitality. The tribal culture. The serenity of the deserts. To see the Dead Sea before it evaporates. To appreciate the history of the Jordan River. Because tourism is down 50-80% in places. Because they need our tourism dollars to support their families. Because it’s under-appreciated. Because I’m attracted to places off the beaten tourist path. Because I have an “I’ll show them” attitude about visiting the Middle East compared to many Americans who put too much stock in media hype and Jordan’s shady neighbors. Because it’s been on my list since I was a child, picking up a book in my parents’ library about biblical archaeology with a picture of Petra’s Treasury on the front and wondered where this magical place was. 

And because the ticket was $499 nonstop round-trip. How do you say no to all that? Surprisingly to me (maybe not to you), not many (any) were interested in making the same trip. So here I am, settled in to my seat after a delicious chicken makhni dinner (I confess I love airplane food) and watched The Devil Wears Prada for the umpteenth time. Two Xanax in and I’m not even caring that this plane is bouncing about over the Atlantic. I hope it rocks me to sleep first. 

This is my first flight aboard the Dreamliner and I announced my excitement to the crew that greeted us at the door. One attendant took me on a brief tour of the first class cabin, complete with wooden floors, the infamous magical Dreamliner windows (they don’t have shades, they darken digitally!), and even offered me a cup of Arabic coffee when I commented on the pleasant smell of cardamon filling the front cabin. I carried the cup back to my coach seat and settled in. The Dreamliner is spacious and pleasant, and so very quiet compared to most jets. Following dinner, I retired to the loo to change into my pjs. Listen, on any flight over 6 hours, I’m going to attempt to feeling a human on land and go through my bedtime routine just the same, and change again after breakfast service. Staying in the same clothes for 16 hours does not sound appealing. Although in the 10 minutes I was changing, someone absconded with my pillow and blanket as later lingered in the galley stretching my legs, hydrating, and practicing Arabic with the FAs. So they didn’t seem too peeved when I reported my missing bedding and rolled they’re eyes with an exasperated “oh, passengers!”  Pretty confident it wasn’t directed at me. 

So what’s planned? After some quick R&R upon arrival in Amman, it’s off to Petra for two days! I opted to stay right outside the entrance in case I want to catch sunset, sunrise, or the Treasury illuminated by a thousand candles at night. I can’t wait to be inspired with my camera again. The next day I’m off on a Bedouin-guided 13km hike into the back of Petra. They claim it’ll take 3-4 hours. I’m counting on 2. I learned my lesson from hikes in Peru and China that this time I’m prepared with a trekking stick and proper shoes. And a compass. You never know. 

Thanksgiving will find me dining at a Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum eating a roasted lamp cooked in a sand pit, under the desert stars. Have you ever been in the remotest parts of the middle eastern and Arabian deserts? It’s as beautiful and calming as the sea. I look forward to the solace. Life since July has been punching me from all directions; professional, emotional, physical, psychological, financial, social, along with my own doubts about my future, whatever that looks like. Insert midlife crisis. I have fine-tuned my life to be as devoid as drama as possible, yet sometimes the planets align against you and test your blood pressure. I need an astrologist, not a therapist. This all has been necessary. Looking forward to walks and silent meditation under the infinite stars and the red cliffs. 

Next stop will be an Ecolodge well far off the tourist track in the Dana Biosphere Reserve, names by Condé Nast Traveler As one of the The 10 Best Ecolodges in the world. Since the Ecolodge I’ve wanted to visit in Egypt (Adrere Amelal in Siwa is too close to the Libyan border for comfort), Feynan will do. No electricity, no refrigeration, all food is grown on the property, the lodge is lit by candlelight, and the lodge proceeds support the nearby village, where the women cook all the bread that’s used as the lodge. 

I didn’t want to hop on a generic tour bus here. I wanted my money to mean something and make a difference. So I chose an organization to organize my driver and activities that had partnerships with initiatives that directly enrich local communities. For instance, after Feynan, I’ll depart for a small impoverished village on the Dead Sea that the Jordanian conservationists are trying to revitalize. This is exchange tourism. Helping with the olive harvest, learning the art of local crafts, baking bread, cooking, and passing down stories helps enrich not only my view of the world, but my funding contribution is used to fund micro loan programs that the villagers use to start businesses and hopefully find a way out of poverty. Forget staying at a Marriott and hopping on and off a tour bus. I want to make a small difference to someone. 

My next stop is oh-so-characteristic of me. It will be in Madaba, the home of Byzantine-era mosaics. Artists would apprentice here and then set out across the Byzantine empire to practice their craft and adorn places of worship like the Hagia Sofia. On the floor of one of these ancient churches is a mosaic map of the Holy Land as it was known nearly 1500 years ago!  I’m crazy about maps, new and old. My Greek is a bit rusty, but if I learned one thing in my college sorority, it was the Greek alphabet, so I’m hoping to interpret some of this famous map, located next to Mount Nebo, from which Moses allegedly viewed the Promised Land. 

And then onward to Amman, where I’ll spend a half day exploring Jerash, the largest collection of Roman ruins outside, well, Rome. I hope to be able to squeeze in a couple afternoons of shopping in Amman, with the ultimate weeklong goal of grazing on a great platter of mansaf, Jordan’s office’s dish. If I haven’t made this dish for you yet, reminded me to invite you over for this indulgence. Perhaps I’ll find time to squeeze in a mansaf cooking class, but this week is already jam-packed with activities. 

It’s been 20 years since I embarked on my first solo trip - to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. It was for a fencing tournament and a friend backed out. I swore then I wouldn’t let someone else spoil my plans, so continued without him. Since then I’ve embarked overseas solo to Dubai, Rio, Europe twice, and now Jordan. Solo travel gets a little easier each time, although some mild pre-trip anxiety is normal. But once I’m at the airport, the jitters are gone. The Middle East is a magical place in which I’d love to share the experience with someone else so we can exchange ideas and perceptions and reflect on our visit. Don’t dismiss this part of the world because of the raucous neighbors. You’d be missing out on what makes the culture and religious customs so great. Actually, this will be my first trip back to MENA when it’s NOT Ramadan, so I’m also looking forward to what normal daily life looks like. 

It’s interesting... Middle East, Paris, Spain, any Spanish-speaking country feels more comfortable to me than many parts of America. It’s no secret to myself that I feel more at ease around diversity, or even when I’m in the minority (I’m one of two blondes on this flight).  Perhaps because the world fascinates me so I, that I’ve dreamed of exploring the world from such a young age that this has became familiar to me. And yet I continue to surprise myself with every trip with how much more I learned and am humbled but why I don’t know. Exploration feeds my yearning to learn. I am so excited fo what lay before me and what I’ll take away from this trip.