“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

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. 

No comments: