Friday, April 18, 2008

Remembrances of the Holy Land (Petra)

PHOTO: Dave Kim

Today was going to be a really long day. Not only were we going to go all the from the Red Sea to Amman, we were also going to spend a good portion of the day exploring Petra, something I'd always wanted to visit ever since seeing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

It was somewhat odd waking up in Jordan, after having spent so much time in Israel these past few days. Also odd was not hearing Doron's voice saying, "Hello" or his phone's crazy "Ding-a-ling-a-ling" ringtone from some comedian.

Our new guide was a much younger person, named Robert. He was friendly, and certainly sounded like he knew his stuff. He just didn't seem to have the forceful presence of Doron.

As we walked out of the hotel it was eerily quiet. More like a sleepy seaside village than the bustling vacation spot we witnessed last night.

A few miles out of town our driver pulled over  and we were told this would be a quick photo stop for those that wanted to get one last look at Aqaba.

From our observation point, the town was made of low level buildings all the way to the sea side, except for the hotels and small business district. The port easier to pick out now, compared to last night.

You could also see the much bigger Israeli town of Eilat, just across the water and If you squinted a bit you might've even made out Taba, Egypt. It's really a shame these three cities are so close together, yet have pretty much nothing to do with each other due to religious and political differences. 

We caught the Desert Highway just outside of town. This would be the road that took us all the way to Amman, except for the detour to reach Petra.

The roadway was amazing. Its quality could have been mistaken for a US Interstate highway, and cut through a rugged wadi. I have no idea what it's called, and I did have to wonder if this was the same path that Lawrence of Arabia took his Bedouin army through when they surprised the Turks during Arab Revolt of 1917.

After wandering through the meandering wadi, we come out into the desert. Miles and miles of sandy regions, with rock escarpments here and there.

Several of the group decided to have an impromptu musical jam session/sing-along towards the back of the bus. Not sure what the front of the bus was doing.

The farther north we got, the more undulating hills we started climbing. I'll never forget this big turn we took that allowed a broad view to the south. We also passed a small jeep/vehicle with what looked like a 50 caliber machine gun on the front hood, though I don't think it was military.

A couple of hours in, we branch off on the King's Highway, one of the other main north-south highways in Jordan, though comparing it with the Desert Highway would be like comparing the Pacific Coast Highway (CA-1) with Interstate 5. They both get you there, but it's nearly twice as long, time wise, and a lot more windy!!

At El-G we get even more windy going through Wadi Musa (Valley of Moses). The driver pulled over so Robert could point out Moses' Well, where he supposedly struck a rock to get water for the Israelites. We didn't get out.

Finally, Petra came into sight from a Vista Point parking spot. Close, but still far.

Petra was the capital of the ancient Nabataean kingdom, and probably one of the largest collections of ruins left from the empire. However, I'd bet most Americans are more familiar from seeing the Treasury Building in the Lucasfilm movie. Sad, but true.

What's the first thing we saw after getting off the bus? The Indiana Jones Snack Shop and Indiana Jones Gifts Shop. Mind you this was 19 years AFTER the film was released. At least there was a connection. I would have loved to have heard an explanation for the Titanic Snack Shop!!

Robert handed us two tickets, one for the entry into Petra and one for the horse ride. Yes, I said horse ride! Perhaps this might be a surprise to anyone reading this, but I'd have never ridden a horse up until this point in my life, and wasn't exactly sure what to think of the idea.

The Jordanian wranglers had set up a loading zone where you simply walked up and then climbed over the horse's back. No need to stepping up into stirrups. One by one we mounted our steeds. I was getting a little more psyched up, especially after I saw this gorgeous black horse with red tassel saddle.

Just as I'm about to head towards that queue, I hear a voice say, "Sir, over here. Jenny will take care of you." Jenny was an older grey horse, who looked like she'd seen better days. I could almost hear the grown from the poor horse when she saw me starting to slide my left leg over her back.

The experience turned out to not be so much of riding a horse, but more like sitting and holding on to the saddle handle while being led at an ultra slow pace. I was extremely happy when the ride turned out to be a few hundred yards. Jenny most certainly was.

As I dismounted onto the nearby rock fence, the wrangler immediately started hitting me up for a tip. Robert had told us that tips were included with the entry fee, and so we shouldn't give in. I was going to abide by that suggestion, despite his hounding me. Finally, I gave in after he told me poor Jenny needed money for her hay. I flipped him a US$1 and walked away.

We now headed through Al-Siq,the twisting narrow canyon that stretches between the horses and the main valley of ruins.

A strange factoid is that the walkway through the canyon is actually artificial. Over the years debris had washed into the canyon. Several years ago an effort was made to muck out the debris, and they paved the floor with concrete. This made walking a lot easier, though the ground was certainly  funny looking.

A word of warning to people walking. Keep a watchful eye for horse carriages, which are allowed through the Siq to the Treasury. The drivers seem to relish at racing each other through the area. At a few points there's very little extra room and you have to hug the walls to get out of harm's way.

I witnessed one carriage have to come to a screeching stop and I thought the horse was going to break his two front legs when he put the brakes on. RW and PW road a carriage and said it was an interesting experience at moments.

While winding through the Siq, Robert pointing out several wall carvings. Frankly, most of them were impossible to make out at first, and even after he pointed them out some were still not easily seen.

Al-Siq became really narrow and I started wondering when we'd get to the main show, when all of a sudden the top of the Treasury came into view through a slot! I was dumb founded. I had to ask myself, "Are you REALLY here???"

The Treasury was just the first real taste of the buildings carved out of solid rock. However, it's somewhat protected from the elements so I guess that's why it looks as crisp as it does. There were no FX used in Raiders III.

You could walk right up to the Treasury building. However, only the front room was open to tourists, with a rope blocking the way beyond. The rock patterns were absolutely fascinating. It almost looked like the grain of stained redwood or pine. So colorful.

A fair amount of people were congregating in the area taking pictures. Pictures of the building. Pictures of the camels. Pictures of other people. There were a couple of Jordanian park police on horseback looking bored.

Our group stayed around for about 15 minutes before it was time to continue down the main valley, known as the Street of Facades. I hadn't realized how many buildings Petra actually included. Not just the central valley, but in adjacent canyons, and higher on the hillsides. Some were quite run down due to weathering.

At one point, I stopped to look inside one of the tombs. It was pitch black, and I had no flashlight, so decided not to venture beyond the light of the doorway. DE came over and checked it out too.

What happened next was funny, and still puzzles me. A 30-something Jordanian guy came over to us. He was dressed like a tourist, with polo shirt and jeans. Not dusty like the local residents. He asked to take my photo. Not for me, but for him. He looked at DE and said, "you too." Not sure if he thought we represented typical American tourists, or what.

He snapped his shot, and was on his way, never asking us our names or where we were from. I looked at DE perplexed and wondered aloud about it,. She brushed it off with not much thought.

Further down the valley on the left was an amphitheater. I wish I hadn't chosen to just walk on by. It was carved from rock and has a capacity of nearly 10,000 seats.

Halfway to the end, the valley widened out in several directions. I was surprised to see a rustic-looking shop at this crossroads selling stuff.

About this point the hard-packed rocky soil made way to the Colonnade Street, a paved road which used to have columns on both sides. Unfortunately most of the columns are now gone. Walking on the flagstone pavement was hard on the knees due to the uneven stones (more so than the Roman Cardo in Sepphoris).

To avoid the jarring I switched to the sand that had built up on the sides. While it wasn't jarring, it was pretty tiring. Basically like walking down a dry beach. On top of that, I'd really planned on having my hiking boots for this, not my relatively flat sneakers.

At the end of the Colonnade Street is what's left of a tall arch. Robert said it was time for lunch, and I'm wondering what kind of food are they going to be serving here. Beyond the arch was, of all things, a Three Star quality restaurant!! It's called the Basin Restaurant, and is actually run by the Crowne Plaza Hotel chain.

Huge awnings were set up over tables if people wanted to sit outside. They had large grills set up on their veranda where all sorts of meat was cooking. The aroma wafted into the air the closer you got.

You paid for your food at the entrance. Inside chaffing trays were set up, buffet style, containing all sorts of meats, salads, and vegetarian options. Drinks were extra, but that's not unusual for most buffets. I think all of us sat inside. The idea of stuffing myself while in the Jordanian heat was just not appealing.

After filling up on way too much good food, the group was to congregate at The Girls' Temple, just through the arch, and to the right, off the Colonnade Street.

Here we had our final sermon of the trip. TS explained how there are beliefs that after society eventually falls, people will flock to Petra as a refuge.

A local kid came in hawking postcards, which seemed to be the racket most young kids did in the Middle East. He was very mindful and let our guide and pastor finish talking, including our concluding prayer. Because of that, Robert encouraged him and suggested we should all buy something since he was so good at waiting. I think the price was something like 5 Jordanian Dinars.

After eating such a large meal, and realizing that was our last sermon, it was hard to get moving back towards the Siq.

I took off first. Not because I was in a hurry to get back to the bus. But, because I figured most people would end up being faster than me. Sure enough, most had passed me by before I got to the end of the Colonnade Street.

We paused for a few minutes to soak in one last glimpse of the Treasury before entering Al-Siq.

Once through Al-Siq, we were back to the horse wranglers, who were negotiating with people on how much to pay. The going rate seemed to be 2 JD. One of them point blank told LL for her it was 3 JD because she was a big American. (Lord knows what he'd have tried to soak me for if I'd been there first!!). With that idiotic comment, he'd pretty much lost any business.

LL said she was going to walk. I wasn't looking forward to riding a horse again, so welcomed the walk. As we were walking, others in our group road by with much confidence. Apparently the horse wranglers (all young men) were only too happy to ride along with the American girls. LOL!

We can proudly say we almost made it back all the way without stopping; only stopping once!

I hit the Indiana Jones Gift Shop before the bus, but ended up only buying a book on the exploration of Petra, which I think is still in plastic wrap!

Later, on the bus I noticed one of the girls bought one of those clothing pieces with all the little metal disks that make a noise when a person danced. I asked GC if they knew how much the "shaky shaky thing cost" since I couldn't come up with the right name. Her only answer was "Uh Oh!!!" (whatever that meant), and I dropped it after that.

We finished loading up the bus after everyone was finished with their souvenir shopping and headed back through Wadi Musa, then to the north along  some winding roads before hitting the Desert Highway once again.

Once we were back on the main drag, it was open mic time for people who wanted to share thoughts about their experiences on the trip. Many people ended up crying a bit as they spoke.

I chose not to share. Not so much as I didn't have anything to say, but because a funk was setting in as I it was really sinking in that this was the end of our trip. By that time tomorrow we'd be 38,000 feet above Europe somewhere.

Halfway between Petra and Amman we stopped at a nice rest stop to grab snacks and drinks, and to use the facilities if necessary. It reminded me of the stops on the East Coast toll roads with gasoline pumps and shops selling things so you wouldn't have to exit the rollway. I also noted that they were actually cleaner than many of the rest stops I'd seen in the western US.

By the time we got to the hotel (the Golden Tulip Grand Palace again), everyone seemed to be pretty tired and checked into our rooms so that was it for me that night.

I found out afterwards that many had stayed up really late, drinking and chatting in Trader Vic's bar, located in the Regency Palace Hotel, next door.


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