Thursday, May 23, 2013

Week 17: Majesty and Mystery in Jordan

It has been way too long since I last updated my blog. One of the main reasons for the silence on my blog is the fact that my computer was out of commission for about three weeks of that time (another story for another post). The other reasons are that I'm simply living life in the Holy Land, meaning I don't have time to devote to blogging (and I may have developed an obsession with watching Criminal Minds online). Nevertheless, I have recently completed one of my most adventurous trips since I've been here (perhaps even in my life).

Last week was the holiday of Shavuot. What I have gathered about the meaning of this is that you eat dairy food, study Torah 24 hours straight, and I had Tuesday and Wednesday off from class. My friends Mollie, Brittany, Violet, and I decided to take advantage of the break to go to Eilat, Israel and Jordan for the week. Mollie and Brittany have recently become big fans of Couch Surfing. Basically you make a profile on a website and find other profiles of people willing to host travelers for a night or two for free. It's actually a fantastic way to travel on a budget (being a student abroad is hard).

Our plan was to take the 7:00 am bus from Jerusalem to Eilat and stay with someone in/near Eilat Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Thursday morning, we would head to the Jordan border, cross into Aqaba, stay in Jordan Thursday and Friday nights, visit Petra, and return to Israel Saturday in time to catch the bus from Eilat to Jerusalem after Shabbat ended. Like I said, this was the plan. What actually happened is something completely different. Providence must have had a hand in all of this for reasons that you will see.

Tuesday morning, we rose bright and early (5:30 am) and headed to the bus station. We didn't end up leaving until 6, and we didn't want to miss the bus to Eilat (we knew it would be busy), so we took a cab to the bus station. We stood in line with about 100 other people who were all trying to go to Eilat on the first day of this holiday. No one had told us that we needed to buy our tickets online beforehand. Even with the two buses, we were not able to board because everyone else had bought tickets. We decided that since both the 7 am and 10 am buses were booked (the next bus wouldn't be until 2 pm), we would try to hitchhike to Eilat. Disclaimer: Hitchhiking in Israel is much different than it is in the States. Mollie and I had multiple successful hitchhiking attempts over Pesach break. That story will come in another post. I promise.

So the four of us walked from the bus station to the streets to try to get to the highway going south that would take us to Eilat. We asked everyone we saw which highway we wanted to get to. Each person gave us a completely different answer, which was super helpful. We were successful in hitchhiking a few times; however, we literally hitchhiked from the Central Bus Station back to the Kfar by 9:00 am, where we had left at 6:00, earlier that morning. Three hours into our journey, things weren't really going as planned. We were all tired, moody, and hadn't had our coffee. We didn't know where we were going or how to get there. I, being my mother, had packed a huge pack full of anything anyone would need on our trip, including lots of food and about 4 liters of water. I was tired of walking around carrying this pack. I just wanted to go to bed, especially since it was so close. We decided that hitchhiking to Eilat wasn't really going to work. So we went back to the Central Bus Station to buy tickets on the 2:00 bus before they sold out.

We arrived back at the bus station around 10:30, just after the 10:00 bus had departed. We bought our tickets and spent the next 3 1/2 hours sitting on the cold bus station floor napping, eating, and being delirious. It was ridiculous. We boarded the bus for Eilat at 2 and were finally on our way.

About three hours later, we got off the bus at Kibbutz Ketura, our lodging for our time in Eilat. We had struggled to find a couch surfing host in Eilat, but Mollie found Jake a few days before. Jake is from Chicago, visited Israel, and never left. He made Aliyah (became an Israeli citizen) and has been living on this kibbutz for four years. He was a fantastic host. We arrived just in time for Shavuot dinner, which was an amazing feast. Everyone was so impressed by the communal lifestyle on the Kibbutz, as they all come from basically a big city lifestyle. For me, I recognized what I have come to know and love in my time living, working, and volunteering in intentional communities at Bethelwoods and with Christian Appalachian Project. It was amazing for me to watch my friends become entranced by the lifestyle that I have already fallen in love with. They kept saying that this is the Israel that people fall in love with. This is the reason people stay. I believe that a large part of the reason for that is that the kibbutz lifestyle is so isolating from the rest of the country, particularly the conflict. In Jerusalem, we see it every day. On the kibbutz, it is so distant and invisible.

Wednesday morning, we slept in late, got lunch in the dining hall, and began our trek to Eilat. Kibbutz Ketura is actually about 30-40 minutes away from Eilat proper so how did we want to get there? We had to try our hand at hitchhiking again. It is much easier hiking to Eilat from the middle of the desert than it is from the middle of Jerusalem. There is really only one way for people to go on this highway. In less than 15 minutes, a woman in a van pulled over. She said she only had room for one, but Brittany, Violet, and I said we could ride in the back. So we did. This woman was from the Ukraine originally. She didn't have seats in the back of her van because she has a goat who normally rides in the hay that we were sitting on. She had just dropped her goat off at a party (interpret that as you wish) and was going to visit her boyfriend who lived in Eilat. She drove us all the way to the middle of Eilat and asked for no payment. It was great.

We then took a cab to meet our friends who had also come to Eilat the day before on one of the south beaches. The day ended up being a pretty lazy beach day. We sat on beach chairs, floated on rafts in the Red Sea, and snorkeled. I've been snorkeling before in Hawaii, which was absolutely amazing. At least where we were, the snorkeling wasn't anything to be absolutely amazed by. It was still fun to watch the fish swimming with you. I saw plenty of rainbow fish and Dory from Finding Nemo fish, which brought back great childhood memories.

Jordan and the Red Sea, as seen from Eilat

Late in the afternoon, our friends left to go back to Jerusalem, and we started to trek back to our kibbutz. We decided to walk back to the center of Eilat where our first driver dropped us off. This ended up being a much longer walk than we had anticipated. By the time we got there, we realized it was too late to get dinner at the kibbutz, and our stomachs couldn't wait that long, anyway. We decided to get dinner at Paddy's Irish Pub and Restaurant. Little did we know that we had to go to Eilat to get back to America. We had just sat down when two Navy men started talking to Mollie and Violet. Then I heard music to my ears: a Southern accent. It turns out that a U.S. Navy ship was in Eilat for four days so that the members of the Navy and Marines on board could get some free time after being on the ship with each other for six weeks. The Southern accent belonged to a member of the Navy from Texas. Somehow Americans always find Americans. We started talking to them, and they convinced us to go to a nearby bar. We learned a lot about the differences between the Navy and the Marines that night. A group was going on a tour of Jerusalem the next day, so I decided to impart some of my knowledge and experience onto them. I described the Old City and all the sights that Jerusalem has to offer that a Marine from North Carolina probably hasn't seen before. After I felt like I had given him great advice, he said to me, "Are there Muslims there? Because I really don't like Muslims." Ladies and gentlemen, these are the people we have serving in our military and representing us overseas.

By the time we escaped the military infestation at the bar, we could only get a taxi back to the kibbutz. The next morning, we had another late start and got ready to go to Jordan. Again, we hitchhiked to get to the border. This time, a very nice man named Nathan who was on his way to go scuba diving in Eilat picked us up. He drove us all the way to the border crossing and helped us with all of our bags.

We crossed the border from Israel to Jerusalem seamlessly. Our only slight hiccup was exchanging money. We assumed that we would have access to an ATM near the crossing, but that was wrong. Instead, whoever had money exchanged shekels to Jordanian Dinar, and we decided to live communally while we were in Jordan.

Mollie had found a profile on Couch Surfing of a Jordanian Bedouin who had many positive references (almost 40, which is a lot). So we decided we would have an authentic Jordanian experience and stay with this Jordanian Bedouin man in Wadi Rum. Little did we know what we were actually getting ourselves into. We took a cab from the border to the village of Wadi Rum, which was about a 45 minute drive. The views out the window during the drive were absolutely amazing. We had all seen the Jordanian mountains across the Dead Sea and past Aqaba, but we didn't realize just how beautiful they really were until we were driving through them. Even though, there is only a sea and a tectonic plate separating the two countries, it is obvious that the landscapes are very different. I don't really know specifically what makes them different. I just know that they are.

We arrived to the village of Wadi Rum and met our host for the next few days, Tasir. By this point, we have probably been asked about 10 times where we were from and then given a warm welcome by all of the Jordanians with whom we came into contact. Tasir got us coffee, and we sat down to talk about our plans for our stay in Jordan. At first, it seemed as though he wanted to charge us for a tour of Wadi Rum, which we immediately shut down. We, as a group of friends, are pretty against the whole touring/tourist thing, and didn't want to spend any money; hence, the couch surfing. It was slightly uncomfortable because we still really didn't know what we were getting into. We decided to stay in Wadi Rum Thursday and Friday nights and to go to Petra Saturday. Then, we changed our plans and decided to go to Amman Saturday night so that we could get up early Sunday morning to cross near Jerusalem so people with Sunday classes could get to class.

We piled all of our stuff into Tasir and his friend's cars, got into the two cars, and headed into the desert. Brittany and I were in an SUV with Abdou, who wore traditional Bedouin clothing of a thobe and kaffiyeh, and Ali. Brittany and I were still wary of the situation as we drove into the desert. Being a desert, it has no roads, but these men drove, and they drove fast, over the tracks of previous cars. I have no idea how they knew where they were going, but they did. We first stopped at a traditional Bedouin camp, and they picked up mattresses and blankets from the tents. We drove on to one of the popular tourist spots in Wadi Rum, a natural bridge. Now I've spent a lot of time in the mountains and in nature, but I have never spent much quality time in a desert. I was amazed at the ease with which I was able to climb the sandstone structure to get to the top.

Tasir and Abdou (in traditional Bedouin clothing)

Bedouin tents

Natural Bridge #1

After playing on the natural bridge, we got back into the cars and headed to our next destination. By this point, Mollie and Violet had talked to Tasir and were much more comfortable with the whole situation so Brittany and I were also more at ease. We drove to what seemed like a random place in the desert to watch the sun set. We gathered wood, and Abdou made the quickest fire I have ever seen (without using lighter fluid). While they prepared tea for us, we took advantage of the free time to explore the mountains around us. We were able to walk through the sand barefoot without worrying about sticks, rocks, or animals, which is unlike the nature I am used to. In fact, wearing shoes was harder than going barefoot because all of the sand would weigh your shoes down. Again, I decided to go climbing on the sandstone nearby. Next thing I know, I have climbed to the top of a mountain and can't see Violet and Brittany at the bottom. As I was on top of the mountain, I admired the view and absolute silence I heard. It was in this moment that I finally found the Middle East I had come here to see. I felt the feeling that only comes a few times in a lifetime: inner peace. I realized what my purpose was for being in this part of the world for this semester. My mind was suddenly clear. A refreshing breeze was constant as I sat on the mountain contemplating processing the beauty I was experiencing. Eventually I climbed back down to join our friends for tea. Since I had climbed so far away, I was last to return to the group.

As I was returning, Violet, Mollie, and Brittany were receiving their Bedouin names. Violet was named Gemra. Mollie was named Nwara, meaning beautiful moon. Brittany was named Sharuq, meaning the most beautiful place to watch the sun rise. Due to my adventurous spirit and ethnic attire, I received the name Lawrence (i.e. Lawrence of Arabia). Mr. Palmer, my high school history teacher who showed the movie in class my senior year, would be proud. In fact, where we watched the sun set was where Lawrence of Arabia had actually traveled during his time in the Middle East. Later, Tasir decided that I needed a better Bedouin name (because Lawrence is English), so I was renamed Fatima, who was the daughter of the prophet Mohammed. Apparently Bedouin women strive to be like her in all parts of life and it was more suitable with someone who obviously "had such a romantic personality," according to Tasir.

Desert sunset

After tea and sun set, we drove through the desert to our final destination for the evening. It was a small cave-like structure in a mountain. We unpacked the mattresses and blankets as Abdou made another fire in record time. We sat around the fire talking as our food was prepared and cooked. We had only been with these men for about 4 hours, but we already had such a strong connection. It was the kind of connection that you have with someone because you are sharing an experience. No one else in the world will ever have the exact same experience that you are having with that group right then. It was a very surreal feeling. We opened up conversation with the expectation that it was a safe place where everyone could be completely honest. We all gave our first impressions of our companions and told how much we trusted each other already. By this point, Mollie, Brittany, Violet, and I had realized that our experience was not one that could be bought with money. Ours was truly authentic.

You see, Tasir had actually forgotten that we were coming until Mollie messaged him the day before. The four of them had already planned on spending the weekend camping in the desert. We just got to tag along for their vacation. It wasn't a tour, and there wasn't the expectation that they had to show us the exotic nature of Wadi Rum. Instead the four of them shared a little part of their home and paradise with us.

Later in the night, I wandered to a rock a little ways away from our campsite and laid down to look at the stars. I have done plenty of stargazing in my life, but this was a completely different experience. Even though I would say I live in the country, the city has grown around us, as my dad would put it. You can see a lot of stars from our driveway, but the light from our yard and the distant Charlotte lights make the sky hazy. Even at Bethelwoods, the stars are dimmed by the pinkish city lights from 30 minutes away. As I lay looking at the stars, I heard Mollie and Tasir talking around the fire. She was amazed by the fact that even though our lives are so completely different (four college girls from the states studying in Jerusalem, four Jordanian Bedouin men who were born and raised in Wadi Rum, a world and culture away from each other), as humans, we share the same feelings and reactions to certain situations. No matter our background, our similarities might outweigh our differences. It made me think of the Gender Similarities Hypothesis that I studied in my Gender Role Development class last term. For some reason, that paper has stuck with me. Basically, we focus so much on differences between groups rather than taking into account the obvious basic similarities. No matter our upbringing, religion, socioeconomic status, gender, race, or abilities, we are all connected on the level of humanity.

As I lay there, Ali came to go for a walk. We walked about twenty minutes until we got past the mountains where you could see the moon. It was there in the middle of nowhere in the desert in Jordan that I understood the true value of moonlight. It was less than a half moon, but all of the open space between the mountains was illuminated so that you didn't need a flashlight to see the way. We lay in the sand watching the stars and saw about five shooting stars in twenty minutes. In the hyper-busy, over-connected world in which we live, it is impossible to experience absolute silence. You always hear traffic, an electronic device of some sort, the heat or air conditioning, animals, or a breeze. But not here. In the middle of the night in the desert, nothing is moving. There is no breeze. There are no bugs. You can hear the slightest noise from so far away. I'm pretty sure that was the first time in my life I have ever truly experienced absolute silence. And it was great. My ears didn't even know how to process no stimulation so they were ringing for the first part of the silence.

It was also the first time in my life that I felt completely disconnected from the world. When I was in Rome last month, I felt disconnected because I couldn't use my phone to find the people I needed to find. But in that instance, I was in a huge city full of people and places. Here, I was completely disconnected from the world, save the seven other people who were in the desert with me. It was a new concept for me to think about being basically absolutely alone in the middle of the desert in the middle of the world, hundreds and thousands of miles away from friends and family. But it was a pretty cool feeling, too.

Ali and I walked back to the group to find some of our friends asleep. We ended up pulling some of the mattresses out and sleeping under the stars, fully exposed. I suddenly had a full appreciation for Bedouin culture. This experience was beautiful and amazing. How could I feel anything but love about it? I have been trying to get to Jordan many times since I arrived in the Middle East, but it never seemed to work out. Now I know why. Had I gone at any other time, I would have had a completely different experience with different people. That's not the way it was supposed to happen. I am so grateful to have had this incredible experience. I can only hope that I have been able to convey it to you in as real a sense as I can.

The next morning, we awoke to the sun peeking through the morning clouds coming up over the mountains. We ate a small breakfast, packed up our site, and headed off into the desert again. We drove to a tourist spot of a desert well. I honestly didn't really understand the importance of it. We drove to another natural bridge and climbed on it as is necessary.

As we drove through the desert, we saw Tasir's brother Abdu sitting on top of his jeep while Abdou drove. Brittany, our token climber, decided that she also had to take a ride. So she also took a ride on the roof of the jeep through the desert while holding onto Abdu or Abdou (whoever wasn't driving). That's definitely not an experience you get if you're on a tour...

Brittany and Abdu on the Jeep

It was nearing midday when we drove to another spot in the desert where we would relax for the hottest hours of the day. Apparently this is the only place that has shade at noon. Some of our hosts drove back to the village to get more water and food for Friday as we napped on mattresses in the shade of the mountain. It was a pretty lazy day for us. We watched the sun set from another location and then drove to another site for Friday night dinner and camping. This one was at the base of a huge mountain that was one of many around the area. (Fun (or maybe not-so-fun) Fact: We were camping less than 10 km from the Saudi Arabian border.) It had another great area for climbing, which I had to do barefoot, again. If you have ever seen Aladdin, I'm pretty sure the artists got their inspiration from this site. The outlines of the mountains during the night looked just like the mountains in the beloved Disney movie. Even though we hadn't done much, we were all tired from being in the desert for two days, so we fell asleep almost immediately after dinner.

Desert sunset site

Camping site

Saturday morning, we woke up bright and early again as the sun is ruthless in the desert. Tasir drove us back to the village so that we could catch the 8 am bus from Wadi Rum to Petra. As we were waiting for the bus, a cab from Petra dropped off some tourists in the village. The cab driver was already heading back to Petra and would charge us the same as a bus ticket. Tasir arranged all of this for us, and we were on our way to Petra. When we got to Petra, our driver told us he had a hotel in the city of Petra where we could leave our bags for the day at no cost. We were hesitant to leave our things at this random hotel in Petra, but it was better than the prospects of carrying them on our backs all day. Our cab driver gave us his card and told us to call him when we were done. He would pick us up, take us to get our bags, and take us to the bus station so we could take the 5:00 bus to Amman. He then drove us straight to the gates to Petra.

After spending two days basking in the natural beauty of the desert of Wadi Rum, Petra was honestly kind of disappointing. None of us really knew the historical significance of the city or why it was hidden for so long. We only knew that it was in Indiana Jones, and everyone takes a picture in front of this one cool-looking old building thing. The rock was beautiful, but we were skeptical about how much was natural and how much was manufactured to add to the aesthetics of the tourist attraction. It also didn't help that we saw children as young as four selling post cards and jewelry around every corner. Eventually, we got to the Treasury (that famous place, which actually never was a treasury but a tomb) and took the obligatory "We're in Petra!" picture. Our photographer was this delightful older Australian man who was on a Christian pilgrimage tour from Sinai through Jordan and to Jerusalem. If I've learned anything, it's that you meet the coolest people for the briefest glimpse of time while traveling.

Violet, Mollie, me (Lawrence of Arabia), and Brittany at the Treasury
As we continued through Petra, we reached a place where people were trying to get us to take a donkey ride up the mountain to go to this "high place." As soon as you enter the gates, people are hassling you to take a donkey, camel, or horse-drawn carriage ride through the site. We decided we would try to get to this "high place" just by climbing. We didn't know what we were really getting into, and we thought that it was a broken English phrase (the "high place) and that we would reach the top in about five minutes. That was completely wrong. Violet and I climbed all the way to the top accompanied by Rami and Sami, our new Bedouin friends who had tried to convince us to buy a donkey ride to the top. By the time we got to the top, they were telling us where to go to get the best view and to take the best pictures. They even took pictures with us. As it turns out, this "high place" is actually the High Place of Sacrifice, which is a real historical place that has a pretty basic name. From the peak, you have a panoramic view of Aaron's Tomb, a Bedouin village, and Wadi Musa, a village near Petra.

Rami, me, and Sami, our new Bedouin friends who accompanied us all the way to the High Place of Sacrifice
High Place of Sacrifice
Violet and I climbed back down the way we came to get Brittany and Mollie. We were hot, tired, and not really interested in seeing much more of Petra, so we walked back to the entrance. We called our cab driver from earlier who picked us up within a half hour. He drove us back to the hotel to pick up our bags. We were still planning to take the 5 pm bus to Amman when our driver told us he had a friend who was heading to Amman and was willing to take us for the same cost as the bus. Again, we found ourselves getting into a car with a stranger Jordanian man who was just a friend of a friend of a friend who we met via Couch Surfing. At this point, we had had access to wi-fi (and thus our phones/internet) for about 30 minutes since we had entered Jordan two days earlier. We hadn't had time to find a hostel and figured we would find one when we reached Amman.

Nevertheless, we put our bags in the back of the truck of a man who looked like a Jordanian cowboy. He didn't say much, wore cowboy boots, blue jeans, a crisp white button-down shirt, and a black cowboy hat. His facial hair looked as if it were painted on, as is the Jordanian custom. They know how to sculpt a beard, mustache, and side burns like no man I have ever seen before. We piled into the truck and saw the sticker across the top of his windshield, "Desert Wolf." We still did not know this man's name. So he was (and will forever be) known as Desert Wolf.

At this point, I invite you to listen to this song as you read this next section. As we drove to Amman, we did not listen to the traditional Arab music that we heard blasting from the speakers as we drove through the desert. Instead, our mystery man put on some American tunes, one of the first of which was the song that you should be listening to right now. I didn't really know the song, but Brittany sure did. She was singing like we were on a road trip in the States. After this song, we listened to a variety of American oldies (Hotel California), 80s power ballads, reggae, Adele, Nickelback, Alan Jackson, and even some Backstreet Boys. I didn't realize that I had to come to Jordan to feel like I was home.

Throughout our trip to Amman, we stopped twice, and our driver bought each of us cappuccino in a cup (like noodles in a cup, add water), which was the best coffee I've had since I left the States. He bought us bottles of water and even a box of Kleenex when we had runny noses. I haven't seen such matched hospitality since I left the South. Jordanians are beautiful people. Jordan is an absolutely beautiful place. In three days, I fell in love with the country and the people.

After about three hours, we reached Amman and stopped in the parking lot of a Burger King. I normally despise Burger King and don't eat there in the States. However, when you are presented with an opportunity to have American food, you don't say no, especially when cheeseburgers (non-kosher) are involved.

As we entered Amman, our driver asked us where we needed to go. We had kinda sorta looked up some places to stay but hadn't fully decided on one. This guy had even more tricks up his sleeve. He told us that he was staying in a cheap hotel for the night before he picked up a tour group from the airport and that we could get a room there. It was perfect. We went to the actually quite nice hotel and got a room that cost less than $15 USD per person. We were all able to shower for the first time in days. After I got out of the shower, I felt cleaner than I had in my whole life, but it's all relative.

We went downstairs after we had showered to find our Desert Wolf sitting in the lobby watching Sherlock Holmes. He said he was going to take us out to see the town. He drove us to a very modern, and American-looking restaurant called Books@Cafe. We sat and talked to Desert Wolf for a while. Then his friends/family showed up. You never know if people are related or just friends. As we were chatting, we learned that Desert Wolf did have a real name, Mahmoud, which kind of takes away from the mystery of his persona. However, it would have been weird for us to spend so much time with this guy and not know his name. We were exhausted and got Mahmoud to take us back to the hotel at around 12:30.

The next morning we got up and caught a cab to take us to the border crossing by 8:00 am. We were in the first group to get there. You have to take a bus from the Jordanian to the Israeli terminal, and we were on the first bus. We assumed that meant we would get through the border fairly quickly. However, when we arrived at the Israeli terminal, we saw a long line of Muslims already ahead of us. We still don't know how or why that happened, but we eventually got through. The King Hussein/Allenby Bridge crossing is only for Palestinians and foreign passports. No one with an Israeli passport can enter Israel there because it actually crosses into the West Bank. All of the signs were in Arabic and Hebrew so we had no idea how to navigate through the terminal. Eventually we crossed and took a sheirut (van taxi) back to Jerusalem where we were able to catch the light rail home.

And thus ends the adventure that was our Shavuot vacation. It was a life-changing adventure that I will never forget. Together we made many memories that only we will share and experiences that will connect us forever. It was an amazing way to lead up to the end of my time in the Middle East.