(October 2009)

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Trip report

Although Elaine being "downsized" out of Portland was the last thing we wanted, one of the unexpected benefits of Elaine's new base in New York City is the exotic destinations Delta flies to (and she can therefore work).  Knowing that things will change once the Delta/Northwest merger is complete (with Elaine hopefully having the option of being based back in Portland, or if that isn't a possibility - somewhere on the west coast), we have decided to take advantage of the opportunities presented by her being based in NYC by visiting some interesting destinations.  With this in mind, Elaine was able to bid for a six-day Amman trip, with her working a flight over to Amman, laying over for four days, then working the flight back to NYC.  My parents watched Sierra and Cooper, allowing me to join Elaine's "working vacation".  The extended layover allowed us time to explore some of the fascinating Jordanian archaeological sites.

After an 11 hour flight from JFK to Amman we checked into the swanky hotel Delta puts their crews up in, then took a cab over to the bus station to procure tickets for our adventures south the following morning (emphatically recommended by the hotel concierge - "are you sure you don't want to go with a tour group?").  The first cab ride in a new third-world city is always an interesting experience: negotiating a fare in a currency you do not know, communicating in a language you do not speak, and directing the cabbie to a place you have never been.  The process involves hand signals, a map and a lot of patience on both parties' part.  Elaine and I were both slack-jawed as we wound past open air markets, minareted mosques and uninspired residential areas.  The whole process of buying bus ticket to Petra was easy enough, and wouldn't even be worth mentioning except for the fact that I always enjoy that "first cab ride".

One of my preconceived misconceptions of Amman (and Jordan as a whole) was of extreme poverty, having seen so many desperate images from nearby Gaza with its collapsed economy and refugees.  I was expecting a city like Managua, but reality was something more akin to Santiago (Chile).  I also expected my dollar to go further (like Managua), and was surprised at the exchange rate of $1.40 dollars to 1 dinar (comparable to the dollar - euro).  The cost of travel in Jordan was roughly equivalent to Mexico, comparing the cost of transportation, hotels, food and archaeological sites.

Our main reason for visiting Jordan was to see the "lost city" of Petra.  The site was built predominately by the Nabataeans (400 BC - 100 AD), but was previously inhabited by the Edomites (1200 BC - 400 BC), and controlled by the Romans after the fall of the Nabataeans (100 AD - 730 AD), finally being conquered by Muslim invaders around 730 AD and forgotten by the western world until it was "rediscovered" in 1812 AD.  Petra, being an integral part of the old spice routes from Asia to Europe, was a strategically important city in the inhospitable Syrian desert because of its constant source of spring water.  The springs are referred to as the "Spring of Moses" in the Bible, where the Prophet Moses is thought to have struck a rock with his staff to extract water.  Before alternative trading routes from Asia to Europe were established by the Romans, the Nabataeans were able to exact tolls on trade through the area, and thus became wealthy enough to build the monuments we see today.  Because the Nabataeans were nomadic traders before they conquered and settled down in Petra, and having no distinct architecture of their own, they adopted much of their art and architecture from the peoples they were exposed to through trading; Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Unique red sandstone "rock-cut architecture" carved into spectacular tombs, temples, monuments, obelisks and sacrificial altars, along with the later Roman additions of colonnaded streets, churches (one with fantastically intact mosaics), and an amphitheater are the primary draw of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. (More on Petra's history here and here)

A 6:45am departure the following morning and subsequent drive through the barren Syrian desert (this is "the land of "milk and honey"?) got us to the entrance to Petra at 10:15am, giving us the better part of the day to explore the site.  Walking in, one couldn't help but be shocked by the number of tour buses (somewhere between 75 - 100).  I think that everyone who enjoys seeing archeological sites hopes to have that "sense of discovery" . . . that sense of seeing a long-lost city for the first time.  To achieve this, in a place that has obviously already been studied, mapped and categorized, it helps to have an absence of large groups of people.  Nothing is worse than a bunch of bloated geriatric booze cruisers clogging up a beautiful spot (think Chitzen Itza Mexico).  Our experience, as we walked down the Siq the first day in Petra, was just that.  Tour groups from all over the world, "loving the place to death".

Apart from the fact that I wasn't the first westerner to "discover" Petra (that honor was earned in 1812 by a Swiss national named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who spent years studying Arabic before wandering the Mid East by caravan in search of lost civilizations - a commitment beyond the abilities of most), the site was spectacular. Undulating sandstone hills, cliffs, monoliths, "washes" and narrows reminded me of Southern Utah / Northern Arizona, but with more swirled color embedded within the rock formations. Built within these natural rock formations were seemingly endless tombs, monuments, obelisks, and altars. As far as the eye could see, up every hill, every cliff, every monolith and every wash, these remnants of an ancient culture beckoned. We spent eight hours hiking around exploring the site, enjoying the exercise and being amazed by its vastness.

While poking our heads into the inner cavern of the Urn Tomb, I started "hooting", enjoying the acoustic echo effect in the large hallowed out room.  Another person in the room, who was a part of a small group, gave me a smile and started singing a religious hymn, with the other members of her group joining in one by one.  Their voices vibrated through the room in a way that my "hooting" hadn't (surprise, surprise).  The harmonized singing was supernatural, resonating through the room and sending chills up my spine!  The melody and vibrations off the walls took me away from the Urn Tomb, Petra, and even Jordan, transporting me to some enchanted netherworld.  The singing even temporarily shut up the geriatric booze cruise tour groupers (which is saying something).  When the choir finished their song you could have heard a pin drop.  The audience broke out into applause as the choir members looked at each other in stunned disbelief of how powerful their performance had been.  The small group was obviously part of a church choir, and the fact that the Urn Tomb was converted to a Byzantine church in 446 AD probably made the experience all the more meaningful to them.  All I know is that I have seldom witnessed such an amazing musical experience.  Score one for the tour groups.

Thankfully most of the people cleared out in their big tour buses around 4pm, meaning that we didn't have to bump elbows and say "excuse me", "con permiso", "excusez-moi", "entschuldigung", or 済みません (sumimasen)" every time we got close to one of the more popular tombs.  As the afternoon wore on, our jet lag kicked in.  Jordan is 10 hours ahead of our body time (Pacific Time Zone), meaning that our bodies didn't know which end was up.  Simple things like eating and sleeping are thrown into a tailspin when one's body time is shocked so severely.  My mind started getting fuzzy around the edges, along with my coordination and endurance.  After the walk back into town, we had an early Kabasi dinner and fell into a deep sleep.

The first several hours the following morning were the best hours we spent in Petra (before the tour busses arrived in droves).  The sun was low, the temperature was cool, and it felt as if we had the place to ourselves, which must be what the site is like during the winter months (off season).  We took the opportunity to hike to some of the more remote tombs. The solitude and lack of people gave us the much sought after "sense of discovery", reveling in the magic of the place.  After having lunch and walking back to the main area of the site, we crawled up onto a hill to get some panorama photos.  Elaine noticed some pottery shards, which I chalked up to broken trinkets that some of the many Bedouin vendors were selling ("nice gifts here - happy hour").  After closer inspection, the hill was littered with countless shards that must have been actual artifacts.  It was a surprise (to me) that most of Petra is still buried, leaving decades worth of excavating for future generations.

Elaine and I had a startling revelation on the walk from the main site to the entrance (and our bus ride to Amman).  Our "revelation" was that we had miscalculated our "time on the ground" in Jordan, losing a day.  On paper, the trip Elaine was working was six days, but because the trip took off at 10pm the first day (from NYC) and left Amman at 12:30am on the sixth day, we only had three days on the ground (not four).  This threw a hitch in our giddy-up, as we had planned on seeing the ancient Roman ruins of Jerash and the sights of Amman with the two days we thought we had left.  It was a little perplexing as to how we had missed the now-obvious fact, but we came up with the plan to spend the following morning seeing the sights in Amman, early afternoon enjoying some rest and relaxation by the hotel pool, and the early evening napping before our midnight flight back to New York. Alas . . . Jerash would have to wait for a future trip.

The bus ride back to Amman was spent sleeping.  Hiking ten miles a day and the ten hour jet lag caught up to us with resounding snores.  Our sleep was only interrupted long enough to get from the Amman bus station to a corner shawarma stand, then back to our hotel for a much-needed long night's rest.

Our last day in Jordan started with a tour of the Citadel.  The site was pretty unimpressive after seeing Petra, although the views of the sprawling city below were nice.  The highlight for me was the National Archeology Museum, which had some nice pieces ranging from Ancestor Statues to Dead Sea Scrolls.  We walked down the Citadel hill to a large Roman Theater, then on to a fun market area where everything under the sun was for sale.  Elaine was something of a spectacle as the only woman to be seen, and became self-conscious of this fact as we were squeezing through the crowd.  The claustrophobic atmosphere finally got the better of us, so we retreated to the luxuries of our hotel pool.

After a nap and a stressful hour or two worrying about whether I was going to make the flight back to the States, I made my way out to the airport.  Following what seemed an eternity, I was given a seat (one is never sure when flying standby and the loads are "tight"), and started writing this trip log and organizing the photos from our whirlwind trip to Jordan.

If one is to believe the American media, a leisure trip to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a foolhardy adventure at best, and downright asking for trouble at worst (or suicidal if one watches FOX News).  Our experiences were neither, giving credence to Lou Reed's lyrics in Last Great American Whale - "Don't believe half of what you see / And none of what you hear".  The people we met were very open, friendly, and went out of their way to make us feel welcome.  This attitude is similar to the people I met in Turkey in November of 2001 (the only other predominately Muslim county I have visited).  That isn't to say the people we met in Jordan were thrilled with American policy towards the Middle East in general and the invasion of Iraq in particular (a neighboring country to Jordan), but everyone we spoke with were able to separate "American policy" from the American people (a.k.a. tourists like ourselves).  A casual observation is that this is a distinction that many Americans are unable to make when the tables are turned.

So, that is our "Jordanian experience" in a nutshell.  Petra was amazing and well worth the effort!  I don't know that I'd recommend traveling ten time zones and 27 hours (each way) for three days on the ground, but Elaine and I had a fun time doing it.

Photos from the trip:  Click here for the gallery view, or here for a slideshow view.

Map of the areas we visited in Jordan


Travel links

Trips from the last two years    Interactive travel map



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