Thursday, April 10, 2008

Remembrances of the Holy Land (Jordan)

PHOTO: Robert Marshall

In one of the pre-trip planning meetings TS had told us he wanted to apologize in advance because he sometimes has a passive-aggressive attitude when it comes to things on trips, especially  people might be running late. The first day (and only trip day) I was the recipient.

There was a legitimate reason though. I have a bad habit that if I feel very warm, I turn the air conditioning up full blast and sleep with just the top sheet. This time it resulted in the worst thigh cramps I think I've ever had in my life. I literally crawled to the bathtub so I could soak in a hot water batch until they loosened up. That caused me to have a restless sleep.

After getting back to sleep again, I was laying there in bed when a little after 6am I experienced my first Call to Prayer. It was coming from a giant minaret several miles away and was absolutely haunting.

As I couldn't sleep anymore I got up and spent an inordinate amount of time packing my gear, then headed down to the bus. After dropping it off I grabbed a quick bite to eat for breakfast. TS came in and sat across the table from me with a certain smile on his face asking if everything was OK? (I guess I was one of the last people down).

I told him I was, and he left me alone to finish eating (after another five minutes I felt the need to be expeditious).

Amman is an interesting city to see during daylight. Everything is pretty much one of three shades; tan, light brown or something in between. In fact, our Jordanian tour guide told us that Amman's civic building codes spell out what colors can be chosen from.

It's a shame their building codes don't have a requirement that projects were completed within a certain amount of time. Apparently, as long as you are showing some minimal amount of progress, even at a snail's pace, they won't bother you.

Our first stop was the St. George Greek Orthodox Church, in Madaba, Jordan. While the church has some nice tile mosaics of Jesus, we mainly stopped to see the Madaba Map. It's from this map that historians got their first understanding of where many cities from antiquity were located.

On the way back to the bus we walked through the streets of Madaba. I snuck a photo of a couple of military guys standing on the corner, and as I was walking away I could hear a machine gun bolt being pulled back. I have no idea whether that was a message for me, or someone else who overtly took their photograph.

I also noticed some interesting graffiti. You'd expect pretty much most graffiti in Jordan to be written in Arabic. However, on one corner, there was an English batch touting this city being peace-loving Arabs. I guess this was a message for any tourists that came by?

You hear about tour guides taking you to shops where they get kickbacks. After the Map, our Jordanian guide had us stop at a tourist trap where they had handcrafted items for purchase.

Most items were ridiculously expensive, especially handcrafted Ostrich Eggs, which were as high as US$600!! Very pretty, but I was afraid to breath for fear I'd break something because they were so fragile-looking.

One guy on the trip, SeL, was from Cincinnati. For whatever reason the topic of chili came up. All of a sudden, one of the shop managers piped up that his family actually founded one of the more famous chili fast food restaurants there! Small World, eh?

Leaving Madaba, we headed up to Mount Nebo. This was where God showed Moses the Promised Land, but forbid him to cross over the Jordan. Unfortunately, we were disappointed because the Catholic church on the summit was being renovated so we couldn't stop there.

As we crested the road, we were introduced to a very windy two-lane road which I have to believe didn't see too many big tour buses. A few hairpin turns down the driver suddenly pulls off into the dirt and we piled out for our first lesson of the day.

We were supposedly able to see Jerusalem from there, but there was so much water vapor haze that absolutely nothing could be seen. I even put on my 70-210mm zoom with tele extender, but that didn't help at all.

After a few minutes we piled back into the bus, winding and winding down the hill for what seemed like forever. At the bottom we stopped for a moment while the driver figured out which whether we were supposed to go straight, or turn left. Sitting in the dirt on the right side of the bus was a young Jordanian girl, who must've been in her teens. Strewn all around her were tomatoes, which she'd apparently tossed out of the box she'd been selling.

For quite some time we wandered through the Jordan River Valley towns. A couple of us thought that it would be interesting to spend some time visiting. However, we also came to the conclusion that our presence might disrupt the Jordanian life we wanted to experience in the first place.

In one town two very young kids were playing Good Cop, Bad Cop as the cute little girl stood on top of a rock wall smiling and waving as tour buses went by, only to have the young boy start wielding rocks at the windows a few seconds later. I saw a rock leave his hand, and then heard it hit the bus somewhere behind me.

Our next stop was Bethany-Beyond-The-Jordan, a site many people consider as the real site of Jesus' baptism.

Our bus did one of those Hollywood Movie House drive-byes as we were told out the right side of the bus was Elijah's Hill, where the Elijah ascended to Heaven. Frankly, from where we were it looked more like a bump of dirt than a hill.

(After returning home from the Holy Land I found some sites online, as well as a History Channel program, and was disappointed to see just how much of the site we really didn't see. I suppose you can only do so much when you have a limited amount of time. But, it was still a let down.)

We finally reached the baptismal site built for Christians who want to be baptized in the waters of the River Jordan. Earlier our JEWISH tour guide had laughed saying he had to call ahead to get the "Jew-cuzzi" filled with water.

It seemed like a joke at the time. However, when we reached the spot, there was a wooden roof shading a fancy tiled wading pool which many Three Star motels would be proud to have. We had a ceremony where 11 of our group were baptized.

Before going on the pilgrimage I'd always told myself if I ever got to Israel I'd like to be baptized in the River Jordan. When we got to the site I was angry at myself because I'd tucked my suit away in my luggage when I was repacking that morning. Rather than say something, I went without. After seeing that it was a pool filled with cleansed river water, much of the sting was gone.

We climbed out of the Jordan River Valley to Jerash, Jordan. Jerash is known to have some of the best preserved Roman ruins in the Middle East. They even have a reenactment group that performs in period costume, though we didn't get a chance to see them.

I was talking with one of the local residents by the South Gate when my lens cap fell off my camera, lodging behind a huge block of stone. Nobody had a skinny enough arm to reach it so I reluctantly gave up and went on my way.

That guy apparently found a stick and worked at it till he freed the cap from its captivity. He then hunted me down to make sure I got it! I offered him some coin for his troubles, but he refused. I thanked him profusely and he headed off to converse with another tourist.

After leaving Jerash it was on to Israel! By the time we reached the Sheikh Hussein Border Crossing it was after dusk. We had to grab our gear and go through Jordanian customs, a totally different experience compared to JFK, or even AMM for that matter.

None of the Jordanian border guards spoke English. Everyone had to so show their passports and have them examined. Some people had their thumb prints collected for Lord knows what reason. When I asked "Finished" my guard gave me a thumbs up sign. I have no idea whether that was and indication he wanted my thumb print, or if I was really done. I quickly grabbed my passport, smiled and beat a hasty exit. Nobody chased me down so it must've been the latter.

Leaving the large portrait of a smiling King Abdullah II behind, we walked a few hundred feet, arriving at the Israeli entry checkpoint. As people lined up to be inspected I put my bags down so I could straighten out my camera gear. A guy came over and tersely told me "No Pictures!"

I said, "Even if I wanted to take any photos, it's too dark in here anyways. I'm just putting stuff away." He retorted "I didn't ask you about the quality of light" and watched me finish putting everything away before returning to help inspect other people's baggage.

When it came to my turn, I expected to have all my stuff gone through with a fine tooth comb as the same guy was running my line. He started quizzing me about "good camera gear" as if he wanted to see if I knew what I was talking about. After successfully answering his quizzes I proceeded to the other side of the machine only to see another guard treating my overly large zoom lens more like a telescope than a camera lens; holding first the back and then the front up to his face.

Mind you, the Canon 70-210 f2.8 is a pro lens, and I'd hazard a guess they've probably never seen one as these guys were all in the early 20s. After a couple of them chatted away in Hebrew the first guy waived that I was OK to move on.

The last stop was to get our passports stamped for entry into Israel. Now that would seem simple enough…right?  The girl asked me if I wanted a separate piece of paper stamped instead of the actual passport.

You're probably thinking this sounds like an odd question to ask. There's a good reason for it though. Many of the Arabic countries do not recognize Israel as a nation, and will turn you away at the border if there's an Israeli stamp in the passport anywhere. They've adopted this accommodation so that you'll be able to remove the evidence if you need to.

I told her I didn't need the separate paper and to go ahead and stamp the book. (Ironically, I noticed later on that she stamped it on a new page, not the one behind the Jordanian stamp, and then the border guard at Aqaba stamped a new page too, so if I ever wanted to slit the page out I could - Either that, or they didn't want cross border cooties!!).

After about 50 minutes we boarded our Israeli bus and it was off to Kibbutz HaOn, our home on the Galilee for the next three nights.

As crazy as this sounds I'd been extremely down in the dumps (depressed would be a wee bit over exaggerated) because the San Jose Sharks were going to be going through the Stanley Cup Quarter Finals while we were in the Middle East. But, I figured a way to deal with that!

Around Christmastime I'd picked up a Slingbox Solo. This allowed me to watch my home television from anywhere I had Internet access. Go half way around the World only to watch hockey?? I know, a wee bit irrational.

Because of the time zone differential I set my Tivo to record something like six hours so I'd be able to cover the whole game, which was actually happening at 5:30a IDT. I'd then be able to watch it tape delayed after our daily travels.

Well, at least that's what the plan was.

It's worth mentioning that the kibbutz had free Internet. However, it's also worth mentioning that it was spotty at best, with wifi reception varying depending on which end of which couch you sat on in the lobby. For most of our stay at Kibbutz HaOn, members of our group jockeyed for the two feet of prime position!!

At first things looked promising. I connected to the Slingbox and pulled up the Tivo menu. I started watching the first game matching the Sharks and Calgary Flames, and was excited to hear the high pitched voices of Drew Remenda and Randy Hahn.

Then it happened. Stuttering, freezing and then the connection was lost all together. After about five minutes of frustration I finally gave up and went back to the bungalow.


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