Tuesday, July 15, 2008

the hashemite kingdom of jordan

You know that's the official name of Jordan? That's what it says under the ubiquitous photos of the king: "His Majesty King Abdullah II of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan." That's an awesome title.

(Of course, Bhutan's ruler still wins, hands down.)

But wait wait, I was still diving in Dahab last update. Diving is as addictive and more expensive than drugs, so one last goodbye to the loverly aluminum cyclinders, and let's go.

As soon as you turn around from the blue blue Red Sea waters, you're looking at Sinai's barren red red mountains. They look great. I wanna go see 'em closer up.

That's the view at sunrise from the top of Mt. Sinai. I waited and waited and waited for hours, but no commandment tablets from up high, so Reginald (another disappointedly un-chosen climber) and I made up our own. Free pizza Sundays, no pants Fridays... we hope they catch on.

Actually, if God had to make up a single commandment for everyone who climbed Mt. Sinai, He'd never have time to eat!

Here's a high-school-art-class photo I took.

Alright, I'm doing well on time, let's see Petra. I've heard good things.


The problem is that Petra is in Jordan, and while I thought Egypt bordered Jordan, it turns out Israel slices down to the port of Eilat. I did not realize that.

So, to save precious real estate in my passport, I opted for the somewhat expensive (Nuweiba, Egypt) -> (Aqaba, Jordan) ferry. It was a disaster.

After being lied to in Dahab about how the ferry's not running today (the guy wanted me to stay another day at his hotel), by the time I figure out the truth (the ferry doesn't run tomorrow), I've missed the bus. So $30 taxi to the Nuweiba dock, and get there in plenty of time for the 2pm ferry. But where's the ticket guy? Out to pray, back around 2pm. But that's when the ferry is! "Don't worry," I'm reassured. I've heard that a lot on this trip. It's as much an alarm as "good price."

Serendipitously ran into Mini, whom I befriended in Siwa, so the time passes fast enough, but by 6pm she and the Japanese couple we met were taking naps. No word on the ferry. Nobody seems concerned or aggravated. Now in India, I expect this, but Egypt so far has been pretty decent.

Around 9pm, I'm getting hungry. The ferry isn't even in the dock yet (if there even is a ferry), so screw it, I'm leaving this sweaty-hot concrete-box port and getting some food. Here's where things get really sour. The soldiers won't let me leave the port, as officially I've exited Egypt. If I want to get food, I need a re-entry stamp. But it's past 3pm, and the immigration folks have all left. We get in an argument, which ends with an armed guard escorting a fuming me back to the port, hungry and stuck.

Beyond this gate is Egypt, where I'm not allowed.

By about 10pm, folks are getting aggravated, little bubbles beneath the surface, and 4 soldier/guards come over to play sheepdog. People start getting angry and shouting, and the soldiers are barking and make us all sit down crowded together outside. The very few women in the group, Mini and Japanese friends included, are taken on a bus somewhere. (I learned later they were taken to the ferry, which was somehow already pretty full, and left without the men). This whole scene, hundreds of hungry, tired, half-angry half-despondent people sitting cramped together as armed guards seperate the women and put them on buses, while the men wait huddled on dark concrete ground at night lit by a half dozen flood lights, it really makes you think of prison, or war, or something. There were maybe 300 of us cramped together, and I was really hungry and trapped and the whole scene was awful and surreal and I kinda snapped, and stood up and started yelling at the nearest guard.

This group of Egyptians, about my age, try to calm me down, and one of them speaks excellent English. He calmly talks to the guard I was yelling at, and then takes me aside. He tells me that (1) don't worry, he's going to take care of me, (2) the ferry has already left for Jordan, but will be returning for us, though the trip is 2 hours each way, so we have to wait 4-5 hours, and (3) I have to calm down or I'm going to be arrested.

This guy (his name is Mohammed, of course), became my guardian angel. He got me an apple. He found a curb that was more comfortable to sit on. When the ferry finally came, at 3am, everyone's pushing and shoving to get on, because not everyone is going to fit, and I'm one of the people who does NOT get on. Then, I swear to you, just like a guardian angel in a cheesy made-for-TV movie, Mohammed walks from the ferry (he's already on, somehow) directly to me, takes me by the hand, and I don't know what he's saying to these officials, but he's like the Great Gatsby meets the Artful Dodger. I follow him past everyone, through doors, past guards, and up stairs to the ferry's VIP lounge, where he takes my passport and when I wake up, still in my plush VIP seat, I have a Jordanian visa. I don't know what I would have done without Mohammed. I just don't even know.

I arrive in Jordan at 7am, after one of the worst nights of my trip.

You know what's a really viscerally uplifting sight? The rising sun. Seriously, night's over, and something about seeing the sun come up, it just lifts you.

As some sort of cosmic compensation, from 7am on, everything goes as well as it possibly could. There's a taxi driver who takes me the 2.5 hours to Petra for 15 Jordanian dinars, which is like $22, and is about a third the price everyone else was asking. He said he's going to Petra anyway to pick a group up. He got me tea and grapes just to be nice. Met some wonderful folks at the hotel (Cliopetra Hotel, hahaha!), and the avuncular hotel owner gave me a pair of apples and tea, and drove us himself to the entrance of Petra, no charge. I'm groggy and slow and have probably looked fresher, but I'm here. Let's see Petra.

--- PETRA ---

Petra is AWESOME.

This is just the entrance!

Lookit that entrance! And it's not like 50 feet long, or even a football field. No man, the Siq -- that crazy tall canyon thing -- is half a mile long! It just goes forever! And it's really huge. If you zoom on that photo, for scale, there's a tyke running there. He was running for his life. That little man was running with the terror of God in his heart. I half expected a dinosaur to come thundering through in a minute, or a ghost or a cold wind or something.

I kept thinking, even if you took away the great company I had (Pedro, Raquel, Garreth, and Malena were really ideal, fun travel mates), and even if you took away all the carvings, tombs, theatres -- the entire city of Petra: diyanu!

The geological beauty of the area rivals the Southwestern US. It's incredible. I didn't want the Siq to end, but wait, what's that I see peeking through?

There it is, the most famous site in Petra: the Treasury. Welcome.

What is this place, anyway?

According to the visitor's center booklet, "most people, when asked, will tell you that Petra is an ancient city carved into solid rock by the Nabataeans, whose capital it became." Ummm, you way overestimate how much "most people" know about Petra.

In short, the Nabataeans were the semi-nomadic Arabs who ruled the region's trade routes from roughly 500BC to 100AD. Petra was their capital, and since they were nomadic, it's about the only structure they left for posterity. Just about everything in Petra is a tomb. For years, archeaologists thought Petra was just a huge necropolis. The Romans took over the Nabataean empire around 100AD, and they kept using and "updating" and repaving the city for a few hundred years. I'm not sure when it was finally abandoned. The ancient city was lost to the West until the crew of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade stumbled upon the ruins. For this discovery, he's about the only character you'll see more than King Abdullah.

Indiana Jones would give you two false impressions of Petra, though.

First of all, the decadence and grandeur of the facades belie what lies inside. That enormous Treasury? Walk in, and this is the entirety of it:

But man, lookit that stone! Here's another tomb. Eat your heart out, Sisteen Chapel!

The other false impression Indy gives is the size of Petra.

Petra is huge! It's not just a couple carvings; it's a CITY. You can go on exploring forever. The booklet proclaims that only 8-10% of Petra has been found. (I assume they mean "excavated," as I have no idea how you'd quantify what you haven't yet found.) This main road goes on and on and on, with structures everywhere.

Near the entrance, especially in front of the Treasury, there are a million tourists. Good place for photos of people taking photos.

But you can explore your way to solitude if you like. And we liked.

Go up some ancient steps. (Ahh! I don't know why the computer rotated this photo a quarter turn clockwise; now it looks so Escher-esque and confusing.)

Vistas of sections of Petra.

Oooh, it's just like the Treasury, but a long hike means fewer tourists!

We went way off the beaten path, and found the world's most beautiful (and kinda dangerous) cliff vista, where we took lunch.

I'm tired, too, donkey!

But I could look at this rock forever! Is that the most beautiful natural rock you've ever seen, or is that the most beautiful natural rock you've ever seen?

We ended up exploring Petra for 16 hours over two days. It's like a national park in America's southwest, with an ancient capital carved in to boot. I liked that place. But my plane's in Luxor, and while Egypt left a very sour taste in my mouth that last day, I'm still excited to head back.


Even though two other folks at the hostel used the ferry with no problems, I didn't want to support them. And Pedro and Raquel were going to Egypt overland anyway, so let's all go together through Israel, precious passport real estate notwithstanding.

A potent portent of times to come. There was this comedy of errors as Pedro, Raquel and I were bounced around in those no-man's-lands. But they were good company, and the emergency cabs to embassies and ATMs were split three ways. But I lost a day to this fiasco, and my poor passport: I exited Jordan, entered Egypt with two visas (one was subsequently canceled), and entered and exited Israel twice on the same day! What do you do if you run out of pages?

Once in Egypt, the shared minivan to Cairo gets held up at the very first checkpoint. Lots of forms, collect passports, etc. What's the problem? You have an American on board; you need a military escort. Apparently, I, personally, need an armed escort. Why? The guy writes down, on a sheet of paper: "you important." Good answer.

So after maybe 40 minutes, a suit with two guns and a radio gets in the front seat, CIA-style. He's coming with us to Cairo. His name is Mohammed.

The minivan was 6 Danish missionaries (Christian), a Palestinian peace activist slash preacher (Christian), Mohammed the CIA escort guy (take a guess), and Me the important American (secular Jew).

Warning about this next sentence: it involves a traffic accident. I don't want to be graphic, but we passed a horrific crash and there were several bodies still on the road. It was... I don't know how to describe it. Horrible. Everybody in the minivan except me starts praying, and the van is silent for a few minutes. Mohammed the CIA guy says something to the Palestinian, who speaks both Arabic and English, and the Palestinian turns to me, translating: "Mohammed wants to know why you didn't pray." Here goes.

"I'm an atheist."

I swear, I said it as politically as possible. It was purely informative, like "I'm eating this clown cone because I like ice cream, thank you for asking."

Translation pause.

"Mohammed says even a blind man can see God. He says your life is very, um... dark and empty."

What I should've said here is nothing, but instead we played escalatio for a bit until Mohammed called me a godless infidel and I called him a hypocrite with a belt of guns, and then this poor multilingual peace activist refused to translate further.

A few hours later, Mohammed and I apologized and we shared some snacks. The peace activist slash translator was mighty proud. And the endless stretching road-to-the-horizon background made it a very cheesy moment.

And now I'm in Cairo, wasting a day online (I don't like cities) before catching an overnight bus to Luxor.

It's July 15th already! Man, I'll be home in a blink (so excited, but that was fast!), and more important, it's Mommy's birthday in two days! She's turning 44 ;)

I'll try to call from Luxor, but in case I can't:



Betty said...

Hi, Jake -

I know I should take a back seat to your family members commenting on your blog, but I was actually a bit worried that you hadn't posted for over a week. It looks like you've had your share of close calls and rough travelling. See what happens when you try to do things other than diving?

For a nomadic people, the Nabateans sure took the trouble to chisel out some permanent structures.

Your dive jacket will be ready when you come back. When you run out of pages in your passport, they glue in a length of folded paper that can be pulled out accordian-style so it is the equivalent of several more pages. I've been there. Take care.


Anonymous said...

I've never known you to have a temper. And you start with it in Egypt? So some Mohammeds are killers and some are life-savers. Welcome to the human race.

Your 44-year old Mom

Jake Cooper said...

Betty - Worried? You're so sweet! ANYONE's welcome and encouraged to comment here; I love it. And I thought running out of passport pages was only for ubertravelers like Tuzin Yowis or Tilmann, or for business travelers like Erica. Which are you?

Mommy - I KNOW! Since when am I the least bit pugnacious? I guess traveling can be really stressful. Just had to argue with a guy for 5 minutes that there's no way my dinner should be 34LE. He didn't realize I can read Eastern Arabic numerals, and presto, now it's 14LE. The good times are good, but that stuff -- and it's constant -- I guess it wears on you.

jdcooper said...

dammit Jake, don't be such an idiot. It makes me angry when I see you be so naive. Keep your dangerous opinions to yourself when you're in a dangerous land surrounded by armed people. Seriously.

daddy said...

jake, i've told you this before and now i'll echo josh's accurate comments and say it again

will you PLEASE keep your religious, philosophical and political opinions TO YOURSELF
until you've landed at o'hare

harold reads your blog and called me to say that you should shut the hell up and (he's is wordly savvy) that he would never do what you're doing, and don't even ask what the myersmith's think

this is not funny

i'm glad that all is well but stop pushing the envelope!!!!!!!!!

Jeanne said...

Now, it's time for a little sisterly love. I say this not because I want to be the third person in the Cooper family to tell you what to do (because I hate it when people tell me what to do). But, I want to encourage you to do practice something...not telling the truth. I know the Cooper family is big on honesty, but there are times when you should just kick that value to the curb and lie. You were so good at in India, weren't you? Didn't you tell some people made-up professions and income? Just transfer some of that imagination to these Islamic countries...that's all. For example, if they ask why you didn't pray in the van, you just reply, "At home, we pray with our eyes open." See...wasn't that simple? And, now you have satisfied the curious Muslim and you are safe...and we are all happy.

I'm so sorry the ferry was a disaster. That sounds like the worst situation to be in- I'm not a good person when gone long hours without food. We will absolutely not take the ferry.