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Kirsten writes about exploring the Middle East

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Current Status:
Back home in Seattle as of 1 August 2001

London Bombay Cebu

An Oasis of Sanity
by Jim Laurel

Dispatch #10, Jordan
3 March 2001
At the final border gate before entering Jordan, a military policeman was scrutinizing our passports one more time. After checking each, he hands it back with a cheery "welcome". Once we’d been "welcomed" four times, once for each passport, he waved us through and we had officially entered our 12th country.

Having conquered two of the land borders that most concerned us (Turkey-Syria, Syria-Jordan), and feeling every bit the hardcore overlanders, we charged into Jordan with confidence. We had hoped that Jordan would provide a much-needed break from Syria’s relative austerity, and we weren’t disappointed. (Kirsten likes to say that the Syrians are too serious.) The country is a rare example of the "benevolent dictatorship" form of government, having been ruled for 46 years by the pragmatic, forward-thinking King Hussein, who obviously had the best interests of his people at heart.

Though Jordan is situated in one of the world’s most politically volatile regions, and despite the fact that Jordan has few natural resources, arable land, or even water, King Hussein has managed to give his people an enviable standard of living. Drive through Syria, and you’ll see huge billboards depicting President Assad in his various guises: Assad the war hero, Assad the statesman, Assad father of the Syrian Arab Republic, Assad the teacher, Assad the giver of all good things. Drive through Jordan, and you’ll see huge billboards erected by the government showing everyday Jordanians, with the slogan "Think big. Jordan". Jordan’s monarchy prefers the empowerment of its people to self-aggrandizement.

Jordan is a small country, and the drive from the Syrian border to Amman takes a little more than an hour. Though it is probably the one of the friendliest cities in the Middle East, Amman isn’t likely to win any beauty contests. It is a chaotic jumble, clogged with traffic mostly idling on poorly planned roads. Before long we found ourselves sitting in a classic Amman traffic jam, vainly struggling with our maps and GPS, trying to find our hotel. We finally resorted to our old trick of hiring a local taxi and following it to our destination. Works every time! Just be sure to get familiar with the local currency first, and ask someone how much the trip should cost, because this particular taxi driver ripped us off for $20, for a trip that should have cost $5. Chalk it up to experience.

We had arranged to spend 4 days in Amman in order to get our Iranian visas, which had (hopefully) already been sent to the local embassy by our friend Sam Sadeghi in Tehran. A quick call to the embassy revealed that, sure enough, Sam had everything in order and our visa numbers were waiting to be stamped into our passports. Getting Iranian visas for Americans is no mean feat, and we owe Sam a debt of gratitude for arranging this for us.

It is indeed a shame that most Americans view Iranians as dangerous terrorists. At the Iranian embassy in Amman, we met the Consul General, and were treated with the same kindness and respect that we were to experience during our travels in Iran itself. We filled out a few simple forms, and the next day, we were on our way with our Iranian visas in hand! Karin and Kirsten each left with a beautiful scarf – gifts from the Consul himself.

With our embassy business concluded, we headed south to Petra, the ancient Nabatean city carved into solid sandstone by the ancestors of today’s Bedouin people. It’s difficult to overrate Petra. Even though it hosts quite a bustling tourist trade, the place is large enough that you can still experience some of its grandeur in solitude, so long as you’re willing to hike a little way off the main tracks.

The entrance to Petra is dramatic. You enter through a large cleft in the rock, called a "siq", which winds along for around 2km, finally opening up into a small plaza of sorts, fronted by the "Treasury", featured in the movie "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade". Many of the package tourists turn around right there and go back to their luxury hotels, which is a shame, because there’s so much more to the place than just the Treasury. We spent three days just wandering around marveling at the ingenuity of the builders of the place, and the tenacity it must have taken to carve such immense structures from the solid sandstone. And the allure of the place isn’t just the incredible architecture. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision how the place must have looked two thousand years ago, when it was a busy trade center along the main caravan route from Southern Arabia to Europe.

I’ll leave the more detailed descriptions of Petra to the travel books, but suffice it to say that, if you haven’t seen it for yourself, you can’t imagine the place. Petra deserves a place on every avid traveler’s list of must-see places. One bit of advice: don't accept offers from the Bedouin to ride the donkeys, especially up to the "Monastery". After being pestered beyond endurance, we finally agreed to hire 3 donkeys to take us up there, concerned that the hike would be too long for Kirsten and Connor. Bad move. About halfway up, the childrens' donkey collapsed on top of them from exhaustion. The mistreatment of these poor creatures is described in the Lonely Planet guide and it's no exaggeration. In just three days, the sight of these animals being beaten and cursed by thier owners became common.

As you walk through Petra, you notice that the surrounding cliffsides and walls are pocked with cave entrances which, until recently, were inhabited by the local Bedouin. But as Petra's status as a tourist destination grew, the Jordanian authorities started moving the Bedouin out into new settlements constructed of concrete and rebar.

We had the opportunity to talk to a Bedouin gentleman who still lives in one of Petra's caves, as he relaxed outside his tea shop. In vivid detail, he described how you could look up at night and see the soft glow of candles and fires inside the caves all around, and hear the echoes of families going about thier lives. Though his new home in the settlement was no doubt more modern and by our standards, more comfortable, it was clear that this fellow missed the old days. It was same kind of sad lament many of us will no doubt start to sing in the autumn of our lives.

From Petra, it’s an easy drive down the Desert Highway south to Wadi Rum but of course that just wouldn’t do. Instead, we decided to try crossing Wadi Araba and heading south from there. But when we inquired about the route, everyone said it was "not possible", "very difficult", etc. Little did they know that was our cue! We headed into the Wadi – a veritable moonscape of sand, rocks and torturous tracks. Around mid-day, we were surprised to spot a convoy of spanking new black Land Rovers with German plates! They were on their way to Wadi Rum the next day, and invited us along. They also informed us that we were about halfway across the Wadi and that the current track did indeed dump out near the Dead Sea Highway.

Some hours later, after a series of frustrating detours through a sparsely populated desert area, we found the Dead Sea Highway and turned south toward Aqaba. We hoped to find a way back across the wadis and mountains that separate most of Jordan from the narrow western strip along the Dead Sea. Our Lonely Planet travel atlas showed a promising-looking road, which was also shown on the GPS. We took the turnoff, and bumped down a short dirt road before coming to a small compound manned by a lone Jordanian soldier with a fierce-looking automatic weapon who trained it at my midsection the moment I jumped out to ask directions. The fellow eyed us with no small amount of suspicion, as we tried vainly to communicate where we wanted to go. No luck. Apparently, the road was closed, but he could call ahead to his superiors to come and talk to us. No thanks. We knew that at that moment, the Palestinians and Israelis were busy pummeling each other just across the border, and we figured it was best not to get tangled up with any Jordanian military types. Better just to head straight down the Dead Sea Highway to Aqaba, then double back up the Desert Highway toward Petra, where we had arranged to meet our German friends the next day.

What we didn’t realize was that in order to get to the Desert Highway, we’d have to go through Aqaba, which is now a free trade zone. The idea is to lure tourists there to shop tax free, but they don’t want regular Jordanian citizens buying their new Sony camcorders there and not paying taxes on them. So, the official policy is that unless you can show proof that you had an item in your possession when you entered Aqaba, you will be charged 100% duty for it when you leave!

The officials who approached us were friendly enough and, as is the practice in the Middle East, immediately began some polite chit chat. Once they found out we were American, they wanted to know how we liked our newly-elected President, "Booosh". "Which one…W?", I replied. Now wearing big grins, the officials nodded. "Booosh is good, yes? Jordanian people like Booosh, the W, but not Gore." (Turns out its not so much Gore they’re opposed to as his running mate. And this feeling was intensified with the conflict going on in the West Bank and the fact that a majority of Jordanians are Palestinian.)

With political consensus established, we got down to business. We admitted to the customs officer that we were carrying all manner of camera and computer gear, and he dutifully hauled out his pad of forms, which would take us until the next day to fill out. "Isn’t there some way we can handle this more quickly?", I asked, "After all, I’m not stopping in Aqaba at all, just passing through on our way to the King’s Highway." "Well, sir, if you don’t want to fill out the forms, there is no problem", he said. By now, we had been in the Middle East long enough to know that when someone says "no problem", that’s the time to start getting worried, so I pressed: "But if I don’t fill out the forms, I’ll be charged duty when I exit, right?" Putting away his forms, he said, "no, you won’t be charged anything. If you don’t want to fill out the forms, it is no problem." Karin and I stared at each other dumbfounded. Did we need to complete these bloody forms or not? "Welcome! Welcome in Jordan!", he continued, "You may go now."

The point of the exchange is that things are always flexible in the Middle East. There are rules, sure, but they are always subject to interpretation by the official in question. A little pleasant chit chat goes a long way to greasing the skids. And no, we had no problems getting out of Aqaba – simply a wave through with another cheery "Welcome in Jordan!" We wondered if some kind of hospitality classes were mandatory in this part of the world.

We met our German friends the next morning, and proceeded south to Wadi Rum. They had plotted an interesting course – off-road most of the way, through rocky and sandy tracks. It was actually difficult to keep up at times, since they were very lightly laden, and all their Land Rover Discovery Series IIs were sporting the new TD5 engine, a powerful new turbodiesel that unfortunately is not exported to North America. That's a shame, because it has the torque of a small block V8 yet can deliver around 25mpg while hauling around almost two tons!

If you are fortunate enough to have seen "Lawrence of Arabia" on a big screen, you may have a sense for the beauty of Wadi Rum. But go there, and you actually feel as if you are in the movie! When you enter the Wadi as we did, from the north, rather than from Rum Station, with the other tourists, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the grandeur of the place. Wadi Rum is a place that will leave even the most jaded traveler speechless – vast expanses of sand punctuated by massive rock towers (jebels) rising up from the floor.

To the unexperienced eye, it looks like a barren place, but anyone who knows deserts will tell you that Wadi Rum is an incredibly fragile ecosystem. The 4WD tracks that criss cross the desert and all the waste left by tourists are starting to take a toll. The area has been taken over by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, so strict controls are on the way. We took care to drive only on established tracks rather than adding our own new ones. It was indeed a privilege to drive Wadi Rum.

We were determined to navigate around the Wadi by ourselves, but the Lonely Planet and local maps were virtually worthless. To anyone but a Bedouin, the jebels look more or less the same, so we found getting around difficult. Nevertheless, we did manage to locate most of the key sites of interest, including the ruins of T.E. Lawrence’s house, where we promptly pitched camp. We also found a number of ancient rock carvings depicting wildlife and hunting scenes from as early as the 2nd century BC.

Our time in Wadi Rum was a real highlight of the trip so far. We had the most perfect weather you could imagine, with blue skies and daytime temps around 80-85 degrees and clear, cool starry nights. On the morning we left, as we were working our way out of the Wadi, we happened upon a group of Bedouin with some 60 camels, sitting in the sand apparently having breakfast. As we drove by, they motioned for us to stop and join them and, as proper nomads ourselves, we accepted the invitation.

As we sat there sipping tea and talking, it struck me that these people probably have a better handle on life than we do. While we’re stuck in traffic idling away the hours during our morning commutes, the Bedouin are sitting in the sand, talking with their friends, tending the camels, and frying eggs and tomatoes for breakfast over a wood fire in a place of incomparable beauty. And while we stress out over being late for the next meeting, the Bedouin continue their age-old traditions, living in synch with their environment.

Anxious for one last bit of luxury before heading toward Iran, we stopped for a few days at the Dead Sea. A prime destination on both the Israeli and Jordanian coasts, the Dead Sea isn’t much to look at (or smell), but the water reputedly has therapeutic benefits. It is some 30% salt, so as you walk into the water, your legs just seem to pop out from under you! You can literally float high enough on your back to read a newspaper! What an amazing feeling. We covered ourselves in the black mud we scooped out along the shore, and filled our lungs with the rich air. The Dead Sea lies at 400 meters below sea level, so the air is highly oxygenated. I can’t say if it was the water, the mud or the air, but we left the Dead Sea feeling fresh and rejuvenated.

At last it was time to head north, toward Iran. We had been hearing all sorts of things about Eastern Turkey and the dangers there due to recent skirmishes between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK). But with luck, we'd make it through without any trouble. As Bilbo Baggins said, "I was beginning to trust my luck more than in the old days."

Next up: Iran!

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