Archive for October, 2007

October 16th 2007

Posted under Jordan & Middle East

We checked into the Petra Gate Hostel and, after our rather adventurous passage to Petra, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice, uneventful evening. We awoke refreshed at about 7:30 the next morning, intending to beat the rush of tourists to the ancient city, but were enticed into having breakfast at our hostel. The scrambled eggs, fresh pita with apricot jam, and hot coffee were a perfect start to our day but the best part of breakfast, the part that kept us at the table for over an hour, was the company. David, a Swiss native, has been working for the Red Cross for the past couple of years. He has been stationed in Sudan and Nepal but, most interestingly, is now working with Iraqi detainees in American military prisons in and around Baghdad. We sat around the table in wild-eyed amazement, listening to his fascinating stories. David and his team, as a neutral party, go into the prisons to assess the conditions of detainees; they help the prisoners contact their families, try to resolve prisoner complaints, and try to improve individual situations. David has met with the family of Saddam Hussein as well as members of his cabinet. He said that this is his most frustrating assignment because the conditions are so unstable that he is only able to spend about thirty percent of his time in the field. He is doing noble work and we felt honored to make his acquaintance. We also spoke with a Danish couple who were traveling with their three young boys. They had traveled extensively and were so friendly and interesting. The table conversation was of war, politics, religion, and travel from three very unique points of view.

After breakfast, we walked with David to the ancient city of Petra. He had been there the previous day and knew the way, which was about fifteen minutes of steep downhill walking. At midmorning, Petra was crawling with tourists, most of whom were Sri Lankan. We were fascinated by their attire – business casual shirts, slacks and dress shoes for the men and colorful, flowing dresses for the women – in the rocky, dusty hiker’s paradise.

The entrance to the ancient city is the bed of a deep, narrow canyon where, thousands of years ago, a river eroded an eighty meter deep gorge into the sandstone. As you walk through it, you cannot help but marvel at the rolling curves, varying colors and unique formations, created by nature, in the cliffs on either side of you. Just as you are beginning to get lost in the nooks and crevices, you suddenly catch a glimpse of the most well-known monument in Petra – the Treasury. The morning sun illuminates the façade of the Hellenic-style building, carved into the side of the rock, so at first you only see a thin slice of the glowing façade between the dark, shaded canyon walls. Only when you emerge from the canyon do you get the magnificent full view of the Treasury. It is 43 meters tall and 30 meters wide; with two stories of Greco-Roman pillars, the design combines round, rectangular and triangular shapes with intricate and ornate detail, creating an artistic majesty that rivals the architectural and engineering genius.

The old city of Petra was built by the Nabataeans, an ancient Arabian tribe that migrated to Jordan. The city was built over five centuries, beginning around 200 B.C., and flourished as a result of its location along the busy trade route between Africa and the Middle East. The Nabataeans were in the caravanning business and were thus exposed to a variety of foreign influences, which is evidenced by the facades of the many sandstone buildings combining Greco-Roman, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian architecture. We were astonished by the size of the ancient city with its seemingly endless winding mountain roads and paths. The more we walked, the more the city opened up to us with rows of business and residential dwellings, including a theatre, a monastery, temples, tombs and a colonnaded walkway, carved into the sides of the cliff at every turn. We climbed a steep succession of rock steps, enduring occasional vivid Sinai flashbacks, to the High Place of Sacrifice. The ascent was intense but, with fresh legs and childlike curiosity, we propelled ourselves up and up and were justly rewarded with spectacular views at the summit. We sat at the edge of the cliff, staring out over the bustling tourist activity in the city below, and imagined Petra in the prime of its life: giant caravans carrying Indian spices and African trappings, herds of animals; civilization and commerce, powered by man and beast. The artistic diversity of the city implies that the Nabataeans were an open-minded society, embracing ideas from all cultures, with a hunger for knowledge and enlightenment.

Petra is full of Bedouins, who seem more Westernized than the nomads of Sinai. The Petraean Bedouins speak functional English and most of the young men wear Western-style clothes. They make their living by peddling horse, camel and donkey rides within the ancient city and by selling handmade crafts, souvenirs and refreshments. As we neared the end of our first day in Petra, we stopped on a shaded bench to eat our lunch and conversed with a group of young Bedouin men who were also enjoying the shade. They had fascinating, exotic faces with wild Arabian eyes lined with black coal, like Captain Jack Sparrow. I was wearing my “Dive Now. Work Later” t-shirt from Dahab and one of the guys said that he had been diving there and also did the Sinai hike without a guide in an hour-and-a-half (we barely made it in three). My initial perception of the Bedouins was that they were close-knit tribes who lived and died in their villages with little exposure to the big, bad world. At this point, I can only laugh at my own ignorance and naiveté. My only solace lies in the knowledge that I am growing everyday, shedding the many tinted shades over my eyes, one layer at a time.

We left Petra around 3:30, hot, dusty and tired. The modern city of Petra is small and antiquated, with very little in the way of amenities, but we managed to find a private rooftop café with a decent view, a chess set and great coffee. Happily relaxed on the rooftop, we ordered a coffee and sheesha – the secondhand smoke is going to kill us anyway; might as well enjoy some of it firsthand. Sheesha is relaxing and social and it neither hurts your throat nor leaves your mouth tasting like an ashtray. You could almost trick yourself into thinking that the apple-flavored smoke isn’t harmful…if you didn’t know better. We Americans are well-versed in the dangers of tobacco smoking.

We initially had the rooftop all to ourselves but were eventually joined by a Jordanian man who ordered up his own water pipe and made friendly conversation with us. After about twenty minutes of intermittent puffing and chitchatting, he invited us to his home to watch the sunset. Aaron glanced at me to gauge my interest and comfort level. We had felt so warmly welcomed by the Jordanians that we’d met that I didn’t have a moment’s hesitation and we soon found ourselves in Issa Sbehat’s car, ascending winding mountain roads. Issa’s home was on a scenic lot with a perfect view of the sunset. He pulled out three plastic chairs onto the terrace and we all sat down to watch the sun quickly disappearing below the blue horizon. We soon heard the pitter patter of little feet behind us and turned to see Issa’s youngest son ambling toward his father with that adorable toddler clumsiness. Issa pulled him onto his lap, kissed him and smiled like a proud papa.

Issa said that I should go inside to meet his wife. The invitation was only for me, not for Aaron, so he waited outside while Issa showed me inside and introduced me to his beautiful dark-haired wife with sparkling blue-green eyes. She didn’t speak a word of English so we awkwardly shook hands and smiled and then she disappeared into another room and I sat alone on the sofa while Issa went back outside with Aaron. Just as I was beginning to realize that I would likely be expected to sit with the wife – a language barrier the size of the Grand Canyon between us – while the men talked business and smoked sheesha outside, Issa appeared in the doorway, called out to his wife in Arabic, and entered the house with Aaron close behind. Issa’s wife emerged from the back room with her dark, pretty hair now concealed by a red hijab and greeted Aaron shyly.

The interior of the house was beautifully decorated and pristinely kept and our hosts humbly and graciously accepted our generous praises. Issa led us into a less formal sitting room, which he called the “Bedouin Room”, while his wife remained in the kitchen. The small, rectangular room was lined on three sides by long, blue cushions and several decorative pillows, making a large, floor-level, u-shaped sofa around the cozy sitting room. As we relaxed and visited, we were served hot Bedouin tea with sprigs of fresh mint by another one of Issa’s sons. We were soon joined by his third son, his brother-in-law and his mother-in-law. Still, Issa was the only one who spoke any English. The others just looked at us and smiled but we shared laughs over the playful antics of the children. I was enjoying the visit with this beautiful Jordanian family but was beginning to strategize our departure when Issa briefly stepped out of the room and returned with two plates of hot appetizers of meat and rice rolled in grape leaves and cabbage, very similar to dolmas. He set the plates on the small table in front of us and gestured for us to eat. Aaron and I exchanged quick, inconspicuous glances and instantly read each other’s minds: this could be the beginning of a long night of “worshipping the Porcelain God” but here goes nothing! We tried one of each kind – they were pretty good – but as I picked up the plate to pass it around, Issa stopped me. “No, these are all for you. Just for you.” OK, this was going to be awkward. Issa ate a few pieces, only because I insisted, but the others sat watching and smiling. The mother-in-law brought in a small glass and a chilled bottle of water, which she proceeded to pour into the glass for us. I took a small sip and then, a few minutes later, as I went for another sip, Aaron nudged me with a wild-eyed look on his face. At that moment, I saw what he saw: the cap on the bottle wasn’t the original cap. The bottle had been recycled and refilled from an unknown source – a “big no no” on the road. You always break the seal yourself to make sure that the bottle has not been refilled with “local” water, which could be full of nasty little microbes with the potential to turn you greener than Kermit the Frog in a matter of hours. We ate a respectable percentage of the dolmas and then Issa took us outside to show us his fruit trees. He pulled fresh figs, grapes and nectarines from the branches and we ate them right there. They were all perfectly ripe and sweet and I thought to myself what a lovely oasis Issa had created with scenic views, lush fruit-bearing trees, a warm home and a beautiful family with whom to share it.

We wandered back into the house, ate more fruit while we visited, and then Aaron asked Issa if we could take a photo of him with his family. “Not ok”, he said. “OK to take a picture of my boys and me but not my wife.” A short moment of uncomfortable silence followed and then we resumed our conversation. I asked why all of the women cover their heads and he acknowledged that it is because they are Muslim and it is in the Qur’an. He clearly didn’t want to elaborate and I didn’t push it, even though I was dying for a glimpse of his perspective on the subject. When I felt satisfied that we had stayed long enough so as not to be rude, I asked Issa if he would drive us back to town. We took some photos of him with his three boys and his brother-in-law and the boys took some of us with Issa’s camera. We thanked everyone and left. As we were driving away, Issa explained which of his family members lived in each of the neighboring houses. He also pointed out an old, stone, one-room house that had belonged to his grandfather. Aaron and I were simultaneously contemplating whether to take an Imodium and a Cipro as a preventative measure. Back at the hostel, we thanked him again for his wonderful hospitality. It was such a unique and interesting experience and we hope to have many more like it in different parts of the world because, as we’ve said many times before, the people are the intrigue of this adventure as much as any of the sites. We are thankful for the warmth and welcoming spirit of the Jordanian people, all of whom have been wonderful. It should also be noted that we survived the night with no signs of intestinal discomfort.

Back at the hostel, we ventured into the dining area to visit with some of the other travelers. The lack of amenities in Petra has served as a social catalyst among the boarders. We have enjoyed the varying dining room dynamic of the Petra Gate Hostel more than any other so far. Hostels are great because you meet so many young travelers with an equal passion for travel and the adventurous spirit to back it up. We especially enjoyed visiting with a pair of American girls who are studying at universities in Cairo and Amman. They had recently traveled in Lebanon and Syria and we were instantly intrigued by their descriptions of their experiences. Now we want to travel more extensively in the Middle East but, of course, we cannot – not with the Scarlet Letter (a.k.a. Israeli stamp) on our passports. The Middle East will have to wait.

We are now in Amman, just for the night, and flying to Nairobi tomorrow evening to begin the African adventure. Lions and tigers and wildebeests, oh my!


October 14th 2007
Passage to Petra

Posted under Jordan & Middle East

Disclaimer: The following account should probably not be read by those who have a personal stake in our well-being, namely our parents. Momma, Daddy, Bear Mom, we know that your curiosity will get the best of you so please keep in mind that we know we’re supposed to be careful out here in the big, crazy world. Your loving words ring in our heads every day, especially on days like this. You have raised us to be strong, sharp, independent thinkers who feel safe in the world and bold enough to follow our dreams, wherever they may take us. So here we go…

Our goal that day was to cross the northern border, near the Sea of Galilee, from Israel to Jordan, and then try like hell to get all the way down to Petra on the same day. Problem: we didn’t have any good information on how to a) get to the border town and b) get bus transportation to Petra after crossing the border. The internet is pathetically deficient on this subject and the Jordanian JETT bus system doesn’t have a website. Most people cross at the southern border but that was decidedly inconvenient since we had spent the majority of our Israel stay in the north. We walked to the Tiberias Bus Station, with packs in tow, and boarded the earliest bus to Bet She’ean, which looked on the map like the closest town to the border. Our research on the border crossing was fruitless and no one that we asked seemed to have a clue about how to get across. We were winging it.

The bus dropped us at depressing spot in Bet She’ean. Nearly all of the services were closed and the few people that we asked for directions barely spoke a word of English but we eventually managed to get pointed in the general direction of the border town, which we were told was about 3 km away. There was supposedly one shuttle from Bet She’ean to the border but it only ran at 1:00 (about five hours later) so we started walking down the road. We came upon two women who were out for a walk and, in very broken English, they told us that we were headed in the right direction but the border was VERY far. With no taxis or buses in sight, we walked on in the increasing heat of the morning, our packs getting progressively heavier while our spirits waned. Aaron turned off into the parking lot of some kind of official looking complex in hopes of getting more specific information. He disappeared around the corner for five to ten minutes and then reappeared, motioning me to follow him. As I rounded the corner, a small car was pulling out of its parking space and the Red Sea parted before us. The man was offering us a ride to the border! Without hesitation, we threw our ball-and-chain packs into the trunk and showered that Good Samaritan with thanks and praise. Thank God for that man because it was a LONG ride! We never would have made it on foot, even without our packs. Aaron tried to give him some money but he refused it. Bless his heart!

Crossing the border from Israel to Jordan proved to be a long, frustrating and painstaking process. We stood in about six different, slow-moving lines between Israel and Jordan, each time enduring the same uncivilized pushing and shoving to which we have by now grown accustomed. At the border, however, the heathens would cut in front of us with a stack of passports in their hands (they were all seemingly traveling with three or more children) so it was more like five to seven offenders for each one. When we finally emerged from Israeli immigration, we followed the masses toward a small pavilion with a sign marked “Bus to Jordan” and shoved our way onto the bus. About ten minutes later, we waited in more lines to buy our Jordanian visas, then to clear immigration and customs. When we were finally official, we inquired about a bus to Petra or Amman and were told that we would have to take a taxi. We slowly walked over to the single taxi stand, bracing ourselves for the worst. There was a sign with posted fares: 25 dinars (about $35) to Amman; 70 dinars to Petra. The black-toothed taxi driver naturally tried to talk us into a ride to Petra by telling us that there were no buses running that day from Amman to Petra because of the end of Ramadan – a three day celebration. Still skeptical from our encounter with the Israeli cabbie con artist, we took the ride to the Amman Bus Station to see for ourselves. The ride was long and rough, through winding mountain roads, but the route was scenic so we quietly enjoyed the views. We arrived at our destination: a sad excuse for a bus station on the northern outskirts of Amman. There were a handful of buses and a few taxis in a big, dusty parking lot. Of the twenty or so stalls that lined the back of the complex, only three showed any signs of activity and they all sold refreshments but no tickets or information. Our driver dropped us off on the opposite side of the parking lot, which seemed a bit shady, but we paid him and humped our packs to the other side of the “station” to inquire about buses to Petra. As we reached the most populated area, a taxi pulled up beside us, with two European passengers inside who asked if we wanted to share a cab to Jerash. We said that we were looking for a bus to Petra and they told us that we were at the wrong bus station. It seems that our driver didn’t want to drive the extra 15 km to the southern bus station, the only one with buses to Petra. Their driver hailed another cab for us and explained to the driver where we wanted to go.

When we arrived at the southern bus station, the parking lot scenario was the same as the first: no ticket counter, no information counter, everything was closed. There were some buses and minibuses with people standing around them so we asked around about buses to Petra and were directed toward one particular minibus, which was jam packed with Arab men. There seemed to be an appointed coordinator who tried to usher us into the crowded minibus, which already looked to have standing room only. We strategically hesitated. I did not like the looks of the situation, especially with all of the men on the bus curiously eyeing me. The coordinator sensed our apprehension and showed us to another empty minibus. This bus would, of course, not leave until it was as full as the first, which might have taken hours, so it seemed an equally unfavorable option. Finally, after some exchanges in Arabic with several men, the coordinator walked us over to a couple of random Jordanian men, standing in front of a compact car, and told us that they would drive us to Petra (a distance of 220 km) for a total fare of 10 Jordanian Dinars (about $14). We were naturally skeptical of the whole situation so we clarified all of the details repeatedly. “So you’re going to drive us, in this car, to Petra for 10 dinars. To Petra. Ten dinars total. For both of us. Yes? Yes. OK!” They popped the trunk and we dropped our backpacks inside. The coordinator then yelled to a third Jordanian guy who was standing about fifty yards away and the guy walked over to us. He was apparently riding with us too. The coordinator said something in Arabic to one of the guys and inconspicuously handed him some money. The five of us got into the car and we pulled out of the parking lot. With three of us packed into the back of the dusty, compact Daewoo with the windows down, it was going to be a hot and sweaty ride. Then, of course, the first cigarette was ignited. Aaron and I exchanged our usual reciprocal looks of disgust but our reactions were premature because, before we knew it, all three Jordanians were puffing away…sometimes simultaneously, sometimes in succession but, at all times, a cancer stick was alight. None of them really spoke any English, and we speak even less Arabic, so the atmosphere was uncomfortably quiet at first. In the haze of secondhand smoke, I sat quietly assessing the situation, trying to determine if and when these three guys were planning to deliver us to the terrorists – we are surrounded by the Axis of Evil after all. After about 100 km, I started seeing signs for Petra, which helped to curb my naively prejudiced suspicions.

The drive from Amman to Petra is absolutely desolate – you drive for miles and miles with nothing but desert in sight. About a half-hour into the ride, the driver pulled off the road into a service station and we all went in to buy refreshments. Since Aaron and I hadn’t eaten all day, the “roadie” fare of potato chips, Snickers and Coke pacified us for the remainder of the journey. When we regrouped in the car, we noticed that two of the guys had bought cigars and, for the next half-hour, the hot box was dense with the equally treacherous but more aromatic cigar smoke. The guy sitting in the back seat with us had rolled a thin cushion up in his window to block out the afternoon sun so he could not open the window to smoke his cigar. This small obstacle didn’t hinder him in the slightest. He lit right up and proceeded to ash on the floor of the car. A short while later, they stopped again, this time to buy a cassette tape to which they jammed and sang along for the rest of the ride. Our driver was fast and furious and we made it to Petra in record time, despite the two pit stops. The three random Jordanian guys turned out to be cool and we had miraculously crossed the border to Jordan and made it all the way to Petra in one day and in one piece!


October 12th 2007
Jerusalem and Two Seas

Posted under Israel & Middle East

Nestled on the western border of the infamous West Bank and simultaneously claimed as Holy Land by Muslims, Jews and Christians who live there in a segregated togetherness, Jerusalem can most accurately be described as “intense”. We stayed at the Jaffa Gate Hostel, inside the Old City, near the Tower of David. The hostel was friendly enough, tucked back in a small nook amid the old stone walls, but it left a lot to be desired in the way of cleanliness. We have come to realize that paying to rent a room, even in an establishment that is in the business of renting rooms, does not guarantee you a clean room. The linens, though tattered and worn, seemed relatively fresh but the shower, if you could even call it that, was filthy. It appeared as though it hadn’t had a good (or even a bad) scrubbing in quite some time. Also, as with many old buildings with old plumbing, you couldn’t flush ANY paper products down the toilet – I will never get used to that as long as I live! To compound the issue, there was no daily maid service to empty the trash. Suffice it to say that this girl was ready to either vomit or move on at the end of our three night stay.

We planned our first day of sightseeing using brochures from the tourist information center near our hostel. We decided against purchasing the Israel guide book since our stay would be short but we definitely missed having one. The Lonely Planet guide books are expensive but they are like our Bible on the road. Since we had only budgeted a few days in Jerusalem, we tried to fit in as many sites as possible on the first day, which turned out to be a bit overwhelming.

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, was high on our list of sites, partly because we had been lazy about doing any research in advance on the Christian sites and partly because our combined Bible knowledge is borderline heathen, so we hopped on the morning bus to educate ourselves on one of the most powerful and haunting events in human history. There is no real way to mentally prepare yourself for the experience of walking through the most comprehensive collection of Holocaust artifacts and personal accounts of the survivors. The museum is in a nondescript location about two hundred yards from the main road. The focal point as you enter the compound is a plain white building, which houses a reception desk, cafeteria, cloakroom, and gift shop. The museum itself is built underground. The large rectangular structure is brilliantly designed in such a way that you enter from one end, view each section chronologically through a zigzag formation, and finally emerge breathless, tearful and forever changed at the opposite end. The beginning of the exhibit focuses on answering the most pondered question regarding the Holocaust: How did humanity let such atrocities take place? How did a regime of hatred and unadulterated murder literally exterminate millions of innocent people while the world remained oblivious or turned a blind eye? The audio tour, stunning photographs, and descriptions of political, social, and economic conditions in post WWI Germany lay the foundation for understanding the people’s vulnerability to Hitler’s horrific brainwashing schemes. Why Hitler chose the Jews as his target still remains a mystery. It is, however, abundantly clear that he built his political strength on the desperation and despair of the people, providing them a scapegoat for their struggles. The German Jews were educated, cultured, affluent and hardworking. They could not fathom the hatred that was brewing around them, among their own countrymen. They had no way of predicting the horrific course of events that became their collective fate. Hitler preached fear into the hearts of the Germans – fear that the Jews were a threat to their very existence. He preyed on man’s inherent struggle to survive. Kill or be killed. History has repeatedly shown that we humans, created by God in his own image, can be manipulated like puppets on a string by governments and mass media.

As I walked through the many rooms of the exhibit, listening to the personal accounts of Holocaust survivors who had been children and teenagers at the time, I grew increasingly emotional and often found myself choking back tears. The depravity of abuses and degradation, the lack of regard for human suffering and human life, are unimaginable and yet here were walls of photographs of hundreds of emaciated corpses, diaries of innocent children who perished at the hands of their evil captors, the recorded tearful interviews of survivors describing gruesome details no photographs captured. Millions of Jews were heinously murdered. Millions! I want to scream at the thought but I can only cover my eyes and fight back the tears that want to flow like a river of the blood of millions.

The museum is dedicated to the all of the living and the dead who were victims of the Holocaust. Admission is free. The powerful experience of walking through the zigzagging corridors could not be equaled by reading a hundred books on the subject. It was a haunting, overwhelming, shocking, intense moment of enlightenment that has left me forever changed. Every person should see this place. It would change the world.

The Christian Sites

We had spent several hours at Yad Vashem, much longer than we had planned, and when we finally emerged in the early afternoon, I was emotionally exhausted. I would have preferred an afternoon of quiet contemplation but that was not in the cards. We took the bus back to the Old City and tried to walk to Dome of the Rock, which was built upon the rock which Abraham is believed to have bound Isaac in preparation for the sacrifice. It is a holy place for Muslims, many of whom go there to pray when they are called to prayer over the loudspeaker five times a day. The Ramadan breakfast seems to occur at a different time in every town and in the hour or two before breaking the fast that day, the narrow, enclosed stone road in the Muslim Quarter, leading to Dome of the Rock, was completely congested with shoulder-to-shoulder pedestrian traffic. We slowly shoved our way through the crowd but as we reached the entrance to the Dome, we were sternly turned away by armed Israeli guards; no gringos allowed. How they differentiated us from Muslims going to the mosque to pray is beyond me…just kidding.

We pushed our way back through the crowd and turned down the Via Dolorosa, where an intimidated-looking group of European tourists were eagerly waiting for the Ramadan madness to run its course so that they could cross. We walked the Via Dolorosa from the Lions Gate to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the road on which Jesus carried the cross to the site of the Crucifixion. It was a narrow, stone road lined with stone and mortar buildings and, as we walked, we came upon the Prison of Christ, where he was held in captivity prior to his death. The prison was cavernous, claustrophobic and full of sweaty tourists. We descended a narrow, winding staircase to the lowest level and found a single cell: a deep hole carved out of the wall and rusted iron bars, sealing the fate of the captive. In ancient times, there would have been no light, no place to relieve oneself; nothing but hopelessness. We emerged stoic and thankful for the fresh air and daylight in the street. We continued along our path to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which contains the sites where Jesus was nailed to the cross, crucified, prepared for burial and buried. It all seemed surreal and we spent the afternoon in a state of weary disbelief. It didn’t hit us until later that we had stood in front of the most significant sites in the history of Christianity.

The Dead Sea

The earliest morning bus from Jerusalem dropped us off in the parking lot of our intended destination: the Ein Gedi Spa. The admission price was about $15, which included use of the spa facility, shuttle to the Dead Sea, a mineral mud bath and the spa pool. We changed into our swimsuits and decided to walk the path to the Dead Sea. It was a long, straight dirt road; with mountains behind us and the sea in front of us, we felt the desolation of our surroundings. The walk to the sea lasted about fifteen hot minutes and we arrived among the first sea-goers of the day. After dropping our things on a couple of sun chairs, we carefully waded in. The shore was made of solid, crystallized salt that created a glistening, wavy ground beneath our feet. The water felt oily and warm on our skin. When we were about waist deep, we sat down as if in a chair and the density of the water caused our feet to shoot up as though we were sitting in a Lazy Boy. In a swimming pool, you can float on your back, with your body straight, and rise and fall as you inhale and exhale. You control your buoyancy with your breath. In the Dead Sea, you are buoyant; you float, even at full exhalation. It is oddly relaxing, comfortable and effortless. You feel as though you are lying on a float in a swimming pool, only there is nothing beneath you but water. We floated and laughed away the beautiful, cloudless day. We were so happy.

After frolicking in the water like schoolchildren, we rinsed off in the freshwater shower and rode the shuttle to the mineral mud bath area, where there was already a crowd of mud-covered, giddy tourists. We went right for it, digging our hands into the square wooden trough of slimy Dead Sea mineral mud and slathering it all over ourselves and each other. I liked the way it felt on my skin and the way it made our bodies sleek and dark. Playing in the mud put everyone in a playful mood and we were no exception. We let the mud work its mineral magic for the recommended twenty minutes and then followed the crowd to the sulphur shower. The water was unpleasantly hot and tasted awful. I hurriedly scrubbed the mud off my body and moved to the freshwater shower to rinse away the smell and taste of the sulphur. Satisfactorily rinsed, we headed to the spa to find some lunch. I had asked Aaron in the morning to give me one day without commenting on the price of anything and he humored me, even at the whopping $15 sticker price on the buffet, which reminded me of a lesser quality version of Bishops. We ended the Ein Gedi Spa day with a short dip in the spa pool and then caught the first afternoon bus back to Jerusalem.

A quick comment (a.k.a. short rant) on the public buses in Israel…
There is a phenomenon at the main bus stations whereby passengers push and shove in a barbaric, disorderly fashion at the terminal gate for admission onto the bus. The problem is this: tickets are sold at the ticket counter inside the bus station but with no assigned seating and passengers can alternatively pay the fare to the driver upon entering the bus. The unruly patrons, mostly young adults, have no respect for the order and civility of a single file line. They elbow and shoulder their way to the front of the crowd under the guise that only the strong shall survive; likewise, only the ruthless and pushy shall get a seat on the bus. And it’s absolutely true! You can arrive at the gate thirty minutes early to get in line but people completely disregard the line and push their way to the front. It’s maddening!

We spent our last day in Jerusalem catching a few last-minute sights. We saw the crypt where the Virgin Mary lived the remainder of her life after the Crucifixion and eventually died. The crypt was a cavernous vault on the lower level of a church. In the center was a carving of the Blessed Virgin lying in repose, encircled by benches on which you could kneel and pay your respects. A tour group entered shortly after we did and commenced to sing a beautiful hymn to Mary in Italian, the harmony reverberating off the ancient marble walls. Again, the experience was surreal. The story of Mary’s life is just that – a story to me; it was difficult to comprehend that this was the place where the flesh and blood Virgin actually lived and died. We also saw the room where the Last Supper supposedly took place and I felt the same way there – stoic. Part of the problem was that we viewed these Holy sites in the presence of a throng of tour groups, their trusty guides explaining the details in seemingly every language except English. The experience of walking inside those walls in quiet solitude would have been a more suitable environment for prayer, reflection and realization of where we were. We concluded Jerusalem with the Ramparts Walk – a walk along the top of the stone wall surrounding the Old City. From there, we got some excellent views of the Dome of the Rock and the Temple of Mary Magdalene, as well as a bird’s eye view of the Muslim Quarter, bustling with the usual Ramadan madness. The intensity of Jerusalem was overwhelming and the population of religious extremists created an atmosphere which I found to be stifling and ultra-conservative from every angle. While we believe that there is much more to Jerusalem than we have uncovered during our short stay, we are ready to move on.

The Sea of Galilee

At the last minute, we decided to spend a couple of days in the sleepy resort town of Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee’s western shores. This area, not far from Nazareth, is where Jesus is said to have spent almost thirty years of his life and where he multiplied fish and bread to feed five thousand people. Today it is where vacationing Israelis come to enjoy the picturesque mountains surrounding the serene sea. We had envisioned spending a few relaxing days sitting in seaside cafés and lounging on sandy beaches to rejuvenate ourselves for our upcoming Petra adventures. The reality was a non-descript, two-street town with trendy clothing shops but few cafés, many of which had already begun closing down for the winter. The only beaches were rocky, cobbled patches along a busy highway without a sunbather in sight. The highlight of our short stay was a great meal at a quaint restaurant called Little Tiberias, where we enjoyed a wonderful local Galil Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and three delectable, leisurely courses. We have had very few alcoholic beverages thus far on our trip so the two half-bottles of wine slipped easily down our throats and worked wonders on our spirits.

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October 8th 2007
Seeing Saba

Posted under Israel & Middle East

We left the hostel around 7:30am and caught the sherut to Central Bus Station, where we took another sherut to Haifa. A sherut is a privately run minibus system in Israel. We haven’t found any published schedule; you just ask around about where to catch one for a particular destination. The sheruts drive around and you hail them like a taxi, holding up as many fingers as you have passengers in your party. If they have room, they stop and pick you up. The fares are fixed: 5 sheqels (about $1.25 US) for a local ride and 25-35 sheqels between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Once seated on the sherut, you pass your money forward like an assembly line and your change comes back to you in exactly the same way. It is a cheap and convenient way of getting around, especially between the bigger cities. The drivers seem much more honest and helpful than the cockroach taxi drivers that we’ve encountered.

Haifa was beautiful! The sherut dropped us off a couple of blocks from the Baha’i World Center and, since I had characteristically left Saba’s directions at the hostel, we had to ask a friendly pedestrian to point the way. We didn’t see any signs for it but suddenly there it was on the left, a rising sequence of lush, green garden terraces with a wide marble staircase through the center, seemingly leading up to the gates of Heaven! The moment that I saw it, I gasped at its majesty. Saba was waiting for us on the other side of the tall, wrought-iron gate and we immediately took a taxi to The Shrine of The Bab, which sits between nine lower terraces and nine upper terraces, built into the steep slope of Mt. Carmel and overlooking the Mediterranean.

The Shrine houses the remains of the Bab, who foretold the coming of the Prophet Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i faith. The interior was simple: colorful Persian rugs lined the floor while a few chandeliers and vases of fresh white flowers adorned the rest of the room. Interestingly, the Baha’i faith has no clergy and the Shrine is a place for solitary prayer and meditation. The affairs of the faithful are administered by a system of elected councils. According to the brochure that we received, the main principles of the Baha’i faith are as follows:

Abandonment of all forms of prejudiceFull equality between the sexesRecognition of the common source and essential oneness of the world’s great religions Elimination of the extremes of poverty and wealth

Universal compulsory education

Right and responsibility of each person to search independently for truth

Establishment of a world federal system

Recognition that faith must be consistent with reason and that science and religion should be in harmony

It seems like a beautiful and peaceful religion, focusing on the equality and importance of individuals, as God’s creation. During our guided tour of the upper terraces, we learned that the symmetry of the garden represents equality. I felt very drawn to the gardens, not in a religious way, but as a place of self-discovery and reflection. I believe that so many spiritual answers lie inside us all but we are too distracted with our daily lives to spend the necessary time in prayer and mediation to realize them. We (generally speaking) rely on our priests, pastors, and rabbis to spoon-feed us the interpretations and we feed on them like carnivores on a carcass, hungrily devouring every word in our state of spiritual famine. I love my priest for his wisdom and guidance but I admittedly use him as a crutch, instead of actually reading the Scriptures and determining how they apply to my life as an Orthodox Christian. I believe that we must be students of our faith rather than sheep in a herd, led blindly by the shepherd to the ends of the Earth. But enough of my religious ranting…Aaron and I are fascinated by world religions. We dream of studying them in greater depth someday as well as learning to salsa, starting a business, having children, writing a book, living in Europe, traveling the world…so many dreams, so little time.

I can see why Saba is enjoying her volunteer work at the Baha’i World Center. It is a very serene, perfect setting for prayer and for walking, reading, thinking, or simply admiring the beauty of the gardens, which are meticulously manicured. I wanted to stay there – to spend more time wandering contemplatively through the terraces but there was no time for that. Instead, the three of us walked to Saba’s flat to change into our swimsuits, and then headed for the beach, where we relaxed and read all afternoon until the sun had set. The night breeze from the Red Sea had been warm in Egypt and we could comfortably sit by the water in short sleeves but the evening winds off the Mediterranean are cool and crisp. When the sun had sunken below the horizon, I quickly grew weary, covered in goose bumps and ready to hail the sherut to head for “home”. As I said goodbye to Saba, my old partner in crime, I didn’t feel sad because I know, with a strange certainty, that we will see each other again soon.

Back in Tel Aviv around 7:00pm, the end of Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath, during which many businesses close down), the city was bubbling with activity but we were too tired to go exploring. Instead, we hibernated in the privacy of our room and packed up our things for our bus trip to Jerusalem the next morning. Tel Aviv seemed to us like just another big city – very Western and cosmopolitan – but we didn’t spend enough time there to really get a feel for its energy and offerings. Still, we felt ready to leave. We have only budgeted two weeks for both Israel and Jordan – the two countries were not even added to our itinerary until I randomly reconnected with Saba via email a couple of weeks before our departure – and there is so much yet to see.


October 7th 2007
Taba to Tel Aviv

Posted under Israel & Middle East

We took a minibus from Penguin Village to Taba and walked across the border to Israel without any problems. We were traveling that day with an Israeli guy, named Yura, whom we had met in Dahab (he was on the Sinai hike with us and did it in flip flops!). After crossing the border, we approached a taxi driver to inquire about a ride to the bus station in Eilat, where we would then catch a bus to Tel Aviv. The driver said that there were no buses running to Tel Aviv because of the Jewish holiday, Sukkot, and subsequently offered to drive us to Tel Aviv for a thousand sheqels (about $250 US), which we firmly declined. We agreed to have him drive us to Eilat to find a place to spend the night near the bus station. When we arrived, the driver demanded 13 more sheqels than we had previously agreed upon and referred to a small sign on the rear side passenger window stipulating an extra fare for baggage. We begrudgingly paid and the three of us walked to the bus station to check on the earliest bus to Tel Aviv the next morning. As it turned out, buses were running to Tel Aviv that afternoon, departing every hour. The scumbag taxi driver had blatantly lied to us in order to extort $250 out of a couple of unemployed travelers! And that was our first encounter with a local Israeli – not a great first impression – but we decided to go to Tel Aviv anyway.

The bus ride was about five hours long, which included several stops, and Aaron was inconveniently suffering from “intestinal discomfort” the whole day. We are traveling with a small arsenal of pharmaceuticals but neither Immodium nor Cipro seemed to appease the microbial devil inside. With no lavatory on the bus, he was a much better sport than I would have been. When the bus finally arrived at the Tel Aviv Bus Station, the largest bus station in the world, Aaron ran for the entrance, only to discover that we had to stand in line to have our bags searched before entering. We later learned that this is a common security practice in Israel; our bags are searched at malls, at McDonalds…everywhere. Once inside the station, we urgently searched for a restroom and when we finally found one, it took Aaron a good five minutes to figure out how to get in because you had to deposit a coin and then rotate the turnstile. Thankfully, we had obtained some Israeli coins at the border because he was in a serious state of panic at that point. These are the least glamorous moments of our journey. We are exposed to so many different foods along the way – you never know what’s going to disagree with you – and, unlike our new friend Andrew who is now back at work in Texas, we can’t sustain ourselves solely on French fries.

Tel Aviv is the first place that we had landed without already having at least our first night of accommodations prearranged and I was not happy about it. I prefer to have at least one night booked so that you don’t have to 1) figure out how and where to get to the general vicinity of cheap rooms and 2) lug your heavy pack around after a long day of travel and try to negotiate a rate at the last minute. Aaron had a general idea of where we needed to go to search for a place to stay – we just needed a ride. Outside the bus station, we came upon a row of taxis. We had been warned not to pay over 20 sheqels for a taxi from the station to the beach, where the cheap accommodations were supposed to be. We approached a group of three drivers standing together and showed them a piece of paper that had the name of the street we wanted at the beach. Despite my protest, one of the drivers snatched the paper from my hand and began speaking in Hebrew to another driver. The stress was mounting after our long day of travel not to mention Aaron’s personal issues and when the driver quoted us 70 sheqels for the ride, my weary husband (usually a pillar of poise and diplomacy) uncharacteristically blurted out “F – – – you!”, which incited a testosterone-fired rebuke. Being the only one of sound mind, I grabbed Aaron, who was still in shock from his own actions, and we hurried away, eventually securing a cab at the end of the taxi line for the extorted fare of 40 sheqs. We made it to the beach and took a room in the third place that we tried.

We had planned to meet Saba around noon the next day, in front of our hostel, and we sat on a bench outside to wait for her. When we first saw each other from a distance, we excitedly waved and smiled and it suddenly seemed like not a day had passed since we last ordered cheeseless pizza to save calories, made Rice Krispies treats and ate them out of the bowl, shared clothes, and found so many reasons to laugh at ourselves. We had spent a year together as roommates during our freshmen year at Iowa State. Saba and I were two peas in a pod – curious, happy, adventurous souls, making the most of our first experience away from the safety and supervision of our parents’ nest. Amazingly, in our all-girls, non-alcoholic, non-smoking, quiet dorm, we had one of the best years that either of us can remember.

There are people in my life who have touched my heart in such a way that, while our lives have taken us in different directions and we have lost touch for lengthy periods, I will always long to know them. It has been twelve years since I last saw Saba. After freshmen year, I moved into the sorority house and Saba roomed with another friend. We both left Iowa State after our third semester but we had already lost touch by then. Saba did some interesting things after that – joined the Peace Corps, lived in the Dominican Republic and Ecuador, got a Masters in Public Health in New Orleans, learned to salsa in D.C., and now lives in Haifa, Israel as a volunteer at the Baha’i World Center – and I…well I have certainly had my share of adventures but that’s another story for another time.

So the three of us – Aaron, Saba and I – headed off to the beach, which was only a ten-minute walk from our hostel. We bought some sandwiches at Aroma (“the Starbucks of Israel”) and found a shady spot in the sand. It was wonderful to see that Saba is still the same Saba (still skinnier than me – damn!) but with a few more years of wisdom and experience under her belt. We reminisced, shared travel stories and caught up on each other’s business over the last twelve years. After lunch, we walked on the beach and found an unusual spot where the crests of the ocean waves actually folded sideways into each other, creating a shallow walkway (perpendicular to the shore) toward a rock island about fifty yards from the beach. We walked through it, feeling like the sea had parted just for us, and changed into our bathing suits in the privacy of the rock wall. The water was warm and inviting so we went for a swim, treading in the ocean and riding the gentle waves toward the shore. After our swim, we dressed and walked into town for gelato, then watched the sunset from an outdoor café. The evening ended early because Saba had to head back to Haifa and we would plan to meet her there the following morning.

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