Royal Decree Holiday: Getting to Sharm el Sheikh

When I found out we were maybe going to have an extra week of vacation, I started considering my options. I’d originally planned my March outing to be a weekend trip to the iris fields outside of Riyadh, but since that tour was the weekend before our holiday, I decided I’d take a longer trip outside Saudi again instead. Turns out I got to see some pretty beautiful flowers anyway, and a whole lot more.

I went to my friendly Saudi expat Facebook page for advice on where I could go for a week and not spend a fortune. I felt like I was pretty much done with Dubai for the moment, plus it is not cheap there. I thought about Bahrain, but the airfare was becoming prohibitively expensive. Then several folks suggested a place called Sharm el Sheikh. I did some research and found out that this is a beach resort town on the southern part of the Sinai peninsula in Egypt. Although our holiday hadn’t been confirmed yet, I found a resort online that was going to cost me less than 300$ for the whole week, and was all inclusive and had a waterpark on site. Since it was free to cancel, I booked it.

I then went through the dance that results from nothing being sure until the last minute. By the time we were confirmed for our holiday, ALL flights going anywhere from Tabuk were sold out. It was literally impossible for me to fly out of Tabuk. I further found that it’s not allowed for women to take the public intercity buses without a male escort. I remembered one of my co-teachers had hired a driver to take her to and from Jordan, so I asked her for the contact information and began to arrange a private car to Aqaba. But the resort is not in Aqaba, it’s in Sharm. So then I had to figure out how to get from Jordan to Egypt. I looked at flights, but they were more than 600$ and went through 2 stops on the way, Amman and Cairo. I thought about giving up my great resort deal and just spending my vacation in Aqaba, but Jordan is much more expensive than Egypt, and I could not get anything like the accommodation for anything like the price, so I’d probably end up paying just as much to fly and stay in Sharm as I would not to fly but stay in Aqaba.

Finally, my searching led me to discover the existence of ferries that run from Aqaba to the Sinai peninsula. For some reason, tourism websites for the Middle East aren’t well maintained or updated, so I found a lot of false leads and no way at all to book a ferry ticket online, despite finding several places that said that tickets had to be purchased days in advance of the trip. After many emails and phone calls, I finally found a company that would arrange the boat, as well as the car drive from the ferry terminal to my resort. It was almost as expensive as the flight, but I was running out of options. So I agreed to pay the fare and asked them to confirm the booking… then never heard from them again. I hadn’t actually given them any money, so that was pretty strange. At nearly the last minute, I found another company with much better prices and booked with them instead, saving myself several hundred dollars. (aqaba@sindbadjo.com)

You can read about my days in Aqaba here.

Friday evening, I left my Aqaba hotel and headed down to the marina to meet my boat to Egypt. I couldn’t find the slip, but was able to call the company who told me where to go and sent the ship’s captain out to meet me. They made me some coffee while we were waiting, and we had to run up to the immigration office since the official decided not to come down to the slip. There I paid my exit tax for Jordan and was allowed to board the boat. The captain showed me up to the bridge, saying I got the VIP seat.

The captain talked to me for a while about the change in Egypt over the last 5 years, the fall of the Mubarak regime and two revolutions. The collapse of the economy and the death of the tourist trade that made up 34% of their economy before. He was not a young man, and I can only imagine all of the things that he has seen Egypt go through in his lifetime. He seemed to love his country despite all it’s problems and he was proud that they had learned from other democracies and finally arrived at a limited term presidency. He told me about the new capital city that’s being built outside Cairo, and he seemed genuinely hopeful for Egypt’s future.

When his attention was required to navigate the international waters, he returned to his instruments and doused the light in the room. I stepped into the doorway that led onto the deck, remembering the advice of another captain I know “one hand for you, one hand for the boat”. So it was that I found myself crossing the Red Sea by starlight from bridge of a yacht. As I looked up at the stars, I found the familiar constellation of Orion, and then reminded myself that here he was known as Osiris. I am so glad I didn’t fly.

As we reached the far shore, the bare rock mountains of Sinai loomed suddenly out of the water, lit by the streetlights along the narrow road between the sea and the cliffs. In no time at all we were pulling into the port at Taba. I bid farewell to my host and joined the shuffling mass of tourists heading toward customs and immigration. We passed through with little ado, but when I got clear of the border post, tourists were being rounded up into buses by tour guides. I asked several if they knew where my bus was, but no one did. I think before coming to the Middle East this situation would have made me really nervous, instead I was just exasperated. I called the company back and explained the issue, they gave me the name of the driver I should ask for and I proceeded to. Another driver said he knew the man, but that he wasn’t there that night, so he called him for me. The driver who was supposed to collect me denied that he had been scheduled, so I called the company again. After a few more calls and some offers from other drivers to buy a seat on their bus (not an option I wanted to pursue, since I’d already paid one company for a round trip), the Jordanian manager of my company arranged for another driver to take me that night, effluving apologies and making rather disparaging comments about the Egyptian workforce.

Take home lesson, if you’re lost in the Middle East, make your tour guide sort it out. I’m not a huge fan of tour guides in most situations, but these guys were really helpful in navigating the paperwork and arranging the transportation that would have definitely been more expensive had I tried to simply take a taxi from the port. Plus they do trips both ways, so on my way back a week later, I was amid a group that was headed to Petra for a day before returning to their resorts in Sharm. Shameless plug, but the countries need the tourism and the Sindbad guys really were nice, efficient and well priced.

The drive from Taba to Sharm is 3 hours according to Google maps, but took us more like 4.5. Not only are the roads in terrible repair, making it very hard to rest for all the bumping, but we had to stop at every checkpoint and wait for the entire caravan of vehicles to catch up before we were allowed to move on. I understand this is a security measure to keep isolated vehicles full of tourists from being lost on the road. I don’t know if it’s a normal thing, or if we got extra security because of the 26th Arab Summit that was going on while I was there.

For the first couple of hours, I actually didn’t even mind. The view was really beautiful with the sea on one side and the mountains on the other. The stars overhead were stunning so far from any large urban areas. But after a while, the stars disappeared and the weariness of the day began to sink in. We stopped at a little gas station/rest stop to get coffee and use the bathroom. There was a fee for the restroom, and I hadn’t had a chance to change any currency since leaving Saudi. The employees there were accepting British pounds and US dollars in addition to Egyptian pounds, but looked shocked when I told them I only had Saudi riyal. Not to be deprived of money, they figured it out, and I got a few Egyptian pounds in change and access to the the toilets. Considering the exchange rates, I think they were charging us less than 20 cents each, but they must have made out like bandits having several busloads of road weary tourists with nowhere else to pee.

After a further couple hours, we finally arrived. The driver took us around to all the resorts on his list, dropping a few tourists off at a time. Most of the people on my bus were Russian. It seems that Sharm is a very popular vacation destination for Russians. I later learned that all of the vacation literature is published in English and Russian, and most of the staff speak one or both languages as well. I finally got to the Radisson Park Inn around 2am. When I told the gate guard I was there to check in, he asked about my luggage and was really surprised that I only had a backpack. Apparently most people arrive with loads of bags (I often saw piles of luggage outside the reception area awaiting delivery to rooms) and leave with even more, since shopping is a popular Arab pastime.

After a full day that had included scuba diving, crossing the Red Sea and driving the Sinai coastline, I was totally worn out, but I knew I had a full week ahead of me and so I headed to my room and zonked out.


To be continued…

Explore the resort, the beach and the people of Sharm el Sheikh with me in the next installment of the Royal Decree Holiday. 

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Royal Decree Holiday: Diving in Aqaba

Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve written in here. There have been some life events that maybe when I’m farther away from I’ll be able to write as interesting anecdotes, but for the moment they’ve had me holed up and uncreative. Now I’m on my way out of the Kingdom soon and looking forward to some new summer adventures visiting friends in Europe, so I figured I’d try to get the last of my holiday travels written up before I go on to new ones. Thanks for hangin’ in there with me 🙂


Our second semester of classes was meant to be one 5 month long string of classes with no relief in sight (a fact that had I known, might have made me reconsider my choice of employer and has since caused me to add a new question to my interview pile). However, suddenly and out of nowhere, the new King declared that all the schools in the Kingdom would be closed for a week in late March. Later there was some speculation that this might have been related to the impending invasion of Shia held territories in Yemen, but at the time, we had no idea that was coming, we only knew that school was out because the King said so. I think a lot of people believe that the Saudi monarchy is more honorific than practical, because our picture of royals is so based in Britain, however, Saudi is a true monarchy: the King owns all the land, the King owns all the oil, the King makes all the rules. There are advisory councils and local representatives (some of whom are even elected), but in the end, when the King says close the schools, the schools close.

There was a period of debate from my employers however, since we are a private school not entirely subject to the same rules as the Saudi schools, and while our branch was on a Saudi university campus, many of the company’s other schools were not on such campuses and had no reason to close. And of course, during this time of debate, we were strictly told not to purchase any plane tickets or make any non-refundable hotel reservations, because this trick happened last year and the vacation was cancelled at the last minute, screwing dozens of teachers out of their holiday plans and the money they had spent.

I booked a great (refundable) hotel, but had no idea how to get there if not by plane, and all the flights out of Tabuk for the holiday were rapidly filling up, even weeks before the holiday, because all the Saudi’s knew for sure they weren’t going to school. In fact, by the time the holiday was officially acknowledged by my employer, there were no seats on any flights out of Tabuk going anywhere for any price. (valuable lessons have been learned, dear reader, oh how full of fine print and loopholes is the glorious world of ESL teaching)

My only option remained a private driving service that ran shuttles from Tabuk to Jordan. So, along with two other teachers escaping for holiday, I hoped in an SUV and embarked on the desert road trip. Actually, it’s an astonishingly beautiful drive. The desert in northwestern Arabia was once, like all of Arabia, under water and the stunning rock monoliths that jut from the sand in striations of color and peculiarities of shape are quite breathtaking. We stopped in Haql just inside the Saudi border to get some gas (I’m sure it’s much cheaper in Saudi), snacks and find a restroom. The gas station didn’t have one, but we hopped across the road to the public beach that had a changing room/bathroom for public use. On the way back to the car, I grabbed some quick pictures of the sun setting over the Red Sea and some beautiful pink spring blossoms.

It took us a long time to get through the border. There was a lot of paperwork and waiting, and at some point the whole process shut down for sunset prayer. Sometime well after dark, we were finally released into the freedom of Jordan, and one of my car companions popped into the duty free shop at the border crossing to buy a beer. I am not normally one to grab booze at the first exodus from the dry zone that is KSA, but it seemed like a fun idea, so I grabbed a can and looked longingly at the bottles of wine before remembering that I had another border crossing the next day and no idea what the customs rules were on open bottles, so wine could wait until Egypt.

The eventual solution for getting to my resort in Egypt, by the way, was to take a ferry from Aqaba (Jordan) to Taba (Egypt) and then get a bus to Sharm el Sheihk (Egypt) where the resort was. I would have flown if I could have, really, but then I would have missed this amazing side adventure in Aqaba, so I think it worked out for the best. The ferry departed in the evening around 7, but we were supposed to check in at least 30 minutes early to deal with customs. I knew that it was a 3 hour drive from Tabuk, which meant that theoretically I could have made it to the docks in time, but decided not to chance it and booked a hotel for Thursday night in Aqaba near the Marina where I would catch the ferry the next day instead. It was a good thing too, since the border crossing had taken so long, it was well after 8 when we arrived at my hotel.

I checked in without incident, dropped off my things in the room and came back out for dinner, having only had some laban and a pastry since lunch. I ordered something lamb and tomato which was quite delicious, and chatted with the Filipina waitress while secretly passing tidbits of my dinner to the puppy and the cat who ranged around the patio. I also enjoyed my beer with dinner in the cool spring evening air before crawling into bed and falling asleep.

The room was not luxurious, there were three beds arranged in the space and it was clearly meant for larger groups than me, but it was reasonably clean and the air conditioning worked, even if the television did not. What the hotel lacked in room amenities it more than made up for in awesome people.

I headed out of my room for breakfast the next morning, unsure of what to do with my day but unconcerned as well. While I was staring at the carafes trying to determine which one was coffee, the Pakistani couple already seated clued me in. We exchanged some lighthearted comments about the importance of morning coffee and they invited me to sit with them. It turned out that the husband was also a teacher in Saudi and so they were on the same holiday from school that I was. They were surprised that I had recognized them as Pakistani, saying that most people thought they were from India based on their accents. I’d like to say it’s a lucky guess, but I’m slowly learning that at least in the ME, Indians are treated as servant class, so it was more their clothing, demeanor and status as tourists that clued me in to their economic prosperity and thus their nationality.

We chatted about life in Saudi and I asked about their holiday plans. It turned out they hoped to see Petra, so I was able to share my advise on where to stay and what to see. They were happy to have the insight. I really hope that they made it and were able to enjoy the sights.

Shortly after the couple left to catch a ride to Wadi Musa, I settled in to the hotel’s outdoor seating area to read. Aside from the outdoor dining area, there was a small pool, two floor seating areas designed to mimic Bedouin tents, and another patio with raised seating. Everything was surrounded by climbing trees and vines that were blooming in the late March sunshine. Happy little birds chirped in the trees and the puppy roamed around amiably. The air was fresh with the breeze from the sea that was just over the main road and I had a book and a cup of coffee. I felt that I could happily spend the whole day just like that.

I was interrupted by a friendly face come to say hello. And as I’m sure you all know by now, I love meeting new people, so I put down the book and commenced to chatting. Ismael, as it turned out his name was, ran the dive shop attached to the hotel and had come over to see if he could convince me to take a dive that morning. A scuba dive. Which I had never done before and had no training in whatsoever. I told him as much and he said it was no problem, that the dive master would take good care of me and I would have a wonderful time. Wary of a sales pitch, yet loathe to be rude, I followed Ismael over to the dive shop next to the restaurant where he showed me the equipment they used and several underwater pictures of the reefs were they took people to dive. The offer was becoming more and more tempting.

Before coming to Saudi, I had read about the wonderful coral reefs in the Red Sea and it was my firm determination (believing at the time that I would live in Jeddah, a city on the Red Sea with lots of beaches) to scuba dive for the first time in the beautiful waters there. On my one trip to Jeddah, I was able to go to a beach that had a reef close enough to shore to access without a boat and went snorkeling there. It was amazing. I felt like I was in a National Geographic documentary, even though I never swam deep enough to have to hold my breath. I knew that if I had lived there, I would have spent all the time I could at those beaches and learned to dive if I could find a school that would take a female student, but alas, I did not live in Jeddah, and my weekend trips soon became curtailed when the company decreed that we could no longer take personal vacation days, even unpaid ones, but only national holidays or sick days with doctor’s notes.

So when I found myself suddenly presented with the option to actually dive in the Red Sea, as I had declared my intention to do a year previously, I was a bit overwhelmed. Ismael was patient but persistent, he addressed my concerns, talked to me about safety procedures and even offered me a discount by way of encouragement. Adventure finally won over practicality and I went of to don my swimsuit and contact lenses (which I had brought thinking I might go snorkeling again, glasses don’t fit under swim masks at all). Back at the dive shop I was fitted out with a scuba suit and introduced to Mogli who would be our dive master that day. Mogli was a kind and modest young man who really seemed to love his job. He was a capable instructor and did a good job of encouraging us and dealing with my total inexperience.

We donned all the gear and walked from the pavilions down to the beach, which is quite a heavy walk let me tell you. The Red Sea is very saline and we had heavy weights in addition to the tanks. Once we got in the water, he made sure that our fins were on tight and had us practice breathing in the shallows to make sure we were ok with the tanks. He taught us some simple hand signals: ok, problem, go up, go down, out of air, and he told us a signal he would use to tell us to pose so he could take pictures. We practiced getting water out of our masks and practiced the hand signals some more, then headed out toward the reef.

My first scuba dive was done with about 10-15 minutes of training, but it was really cool. Even more than snorkeling, where one is mostly looking down upon the ocean floor, we were able to swim around such large reefs that from the ocean floor, we were looking up the reef with fish swimming above us like birds. I spent a lot of energy focusing on my breathing. You can’t breathe in scuba like you can in air, it requires slightly more force to inhale and exhale, not an uncomfortable amount, but not so little that you can do it without thinking on your first try. There were moments when I would feel like I couldn’t get enough air, but thankfully I’ve had a lot of training in breathing from band, choir, martial arts and yoga, so I was able to stay calm and find the rhythm of breath again. I also had a hard time orienting myself, when I stopped moving I would drift or bits of me would start floating. I don’t have much experience swimming with fins, so I had to keep reminding myself to stop trying to swim with my arms.

It was a lot to take in, I kept getting distracted by the beauty all around me and would forget to do something with my body. It would be like trying to learn to drive on a beautiful country road surrounded by flowering trees and soaring mountains filled with magical waterfalls. You have to pay attention to the road or you’ll crash, but you want to watch the beauty around you. I’m grateful to have had such a good guide, who had me hold on to his arm as he guided us around the reef so that I could worry less about where I was going and spend more time watching. In addition to so many beautiful living corals and colorful tropical fish, we spotted a lone puffer fish and a beautiful red lion fish among the rocks.

Before I knew it, the dive was over and we were heading back to shore. Once we left the water, the gravity that had seemed to ignore us for the last 30 minutes came back with a vengance, and we slogged back up the beach in all our heavy gear in the newly unfamiliar pull of 9.8m/s2 in mere air. We loaded all the gear back in the jalopy and drove the short way back to the hotel. It was still before noon, so I went back to my room to take a shower and get dressed. I managed to find the hotel manager to ask about check out time. I told him I was catching the ferry that night and so wanted to hang out until it was time to go, but could check out whenever it was necessary. He told me not to worry about it, which was nice.

Ismael and Mogli invited me to join them for dinner. I wanted to catch a nap after my exertion diving, so I asked them to call me when it was ready to wake me up. They were preparing a local dish called zarb which involves digging a big hole and putting a fire in the bottom, then layering in chicken, rice and vegetables, covering up the hole and letting it all slow cook in the earth. I had a nice afternoon nap and woke up just a bit before they called me about dinner. We gathered around a large communal dish in the room behind the diving center, myself, Ismael, Mogli, Tyson and another quite shy young man whose name I’m sad to say I never properly learned. We ate without utensils as is the custom of the Bedouin, but unlike the Saudi kabsa, the Jordanians pour yogurt over the rice and chicken, which is not only delicious but makes it much easier to scoop up in your fingers.

I also noticed that although at least some of them did mutter “bismallah” a kind of pre-meal prayer, that the prohibition of left hand food touching wasn’t really observed. I thought about it more and realized that every time I’d been at one of the no utensil meals that it had been necessary to use both hands to tear apart the meat on the plate, since both lamb and chicken were served whole or in barely separated large chunks far to large to pick up whole and often far to stubborn to rend with one hand. They may have moved the food to their mouths right-handed, but the chicken was torn apart two handed. I think there were two or three chickens, in addition to a huge pile of rice, a half dozen potatoes and some onions and peppers. I was quite hungry, and the food was amazing, nonetheless I still ate far less than my hosts who continued to claim I should stop being shy and eat more (some things it seems are the same even across the border).

 

We spent the rest of the afternoon chatting, drinking tea and smoking shisha, I collected the pictures that Mogli had taken underwater. My host called out to everyone passing by, some he knew and others were strangers. Some came to talk, drink and smoke with us, others passed by with a wave and a smile. I enjoyed myself immensely, and as the evening drew to a close, I packed up my bag and accepted a ride to the marina from one of Ismael’s many local friends.

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On my way back from Egypt a week later, I arrived on a very early morning ferry and caught a ride with one of the tour guides, although I was not a part of his group. He took me back up the beach to the hotel and as it turned out, was also a friend of Ismael’s. The folks at the hotel were happy to see me again, and I camped out around the public spaces, mooched some coffee from the kitchen and settled down to enjoy my last day of freedom before the driver came that afternoon to take me back to Saudi.

Ismael managed to talk me into a second dive, which was not really very hard to do. This time I went alone with Mogli and we went to an area called the Japanese gardens. We didn’t have the camera along, but it was even more stunning than my first dive. I was a bit more comfortable with the gear, but still felt awkward trying to move along. I am very buoyant naturally, and combined with the high salinity of the Red Sea, I’m extremely buoyant. I remember floating in the water in Jeddah it took no effort at all to float fully vertical with my head above water. Normally, staying vertical requires treading water, and floating requires more horizontality, but not in the Red Sea. Our second dive was a little deeper and even with the weights, I was still floating too much, so Mogli had to put some rocks in my vest to weigh me down. I hadn’t really learned to adjust the buoyancy controls myself yet, so I felt like I was always to light or too heavy. This was probably not helped by the fact that in the crystal clear water it was almost impossible to tell how far away the corals below us actually were.

However, the gardens were unbelievable. They really did resemble beautiful gardens of sculpted topiary and shrines of carefully balanced rocks with beautiful little flowers dancing in and out of the cracks. We swam around so many beautiful formations. One of my favorite color combinations is a sort of sandy brown with a light blue and the corals offered this combination over and over again along with stunning purples, greens and yellows, not to mention the flashing silver, rainbow and neon of the fish. Mogli showed me the anemone clinging to one towering wall of stone and coral, touching them lightly to make them hide. We saw so many amazing animals. There were more puffer fish and large lion fish on display. There were thin snake-like fish disguised as blades of sea grass. There were schools of fish of all colors and patters, zebra stripes, neon blue and sunny yellow, purple so intense it was almost ultra-violet and silver that flashed bright in the sea filtered sun.

It will probably take me many more dives and much more training to be able to use the equipment on my own and to get used to the strange method of locomotion that isn’t like any other style of swimming I’ve done, but it will be worth it. In less than 90 minutes of time in the ocean on only two occasions, I’ve become an addict. I don’t know where and I don’t know how, but I will get my open water certification, and you should too.

After my second dive, I didn’t have a room to shower in, but there were some in the public bathrooms at the hotel, so after washing off the salt, I spent a happy few last hours with Ismael and his friends, drinking tea and smoking shisha and watching the people pass by in the beautiful spring weather. Although my holiday was planned for Sharm el Sheikh, a chance overnight hotel booking became a magical adventure and beautiful two days, starting and ending my holiday with nature’s beauty and humanity’s goodness. In many ways, it was this part of my holiday even more than Egypt, that made returning to Saudi so difficult and has made the contrast between what is available here and what exists elsewhere.

It isn’t just Dubai, the Las Vegas of the Arab world, that offers freedoms and fun in the Middle East. All of the people that I met in Jordan both in February and again in March in three different places were open, friendly and very moderate Muslims who embodied all the hospitality of legends while displaying absolutely none of the intolerance or violence that has come to be associated with the Middle East in the media these days. It safe, it’s beautiful and the people are wondrous. I think I’ve fallen a little bit in love with Jordan, and that if I ever return to the Middle East to live it will be there.

 

Hotels and Hostels, Spring of 2015

So, I meant to do this before I went on my second spring break, also known as the “Royal Decree Holiday”, but I’m clearly not motivated to write every day, which is probably why I’m still not getting paid for my words. Alas. So without further ado, let me tell you all about the places that I stayed during the two (separate) weeks of holiday in the Middle East this spring. Although this is mainly a “review” post to help other people decide where to stay, I still hope some of you will enjoy the stories.


Al Ula ARAC Resort, Saudi Arabia

This was my hotel in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia when I decided to go see Madain Saleh. Al Ula is a very small town and has only 2 hotels. (Booking.com swears now there is a “tent camp” option, ooo.) I scoured the internet for reviews, but neither one was well spoken of. It seems that since they basically know that they have a monopoly on a world heritage site that they don’t actually have to provide service and can charge whatever they like.

I will admit, the resort was very pretty. The grounds had well cared for trees and lawns (actual grass!) and even some flowers trying to bloom. The view was stunning, but I get the impression that would be true nearly anywhere in Al Ula since it is surrounded by great sweeping cliff-like mountains. And the room was clean, which has not always been my experience in travelling. However, my positive things to say basically end there.

When I arrived with my guide who had picked me up from the airport, the receptionist was unable to find my reservation, even though I had printed out a copy of the website’s receipt and confirmation number. After keeping me standing around in the lobby for a while (this is after my all day travel and 7 hour layover stuck inside the Madinah airport), my guide told them to just find a room for me and sort it out later. So they did. However, the room had not been prepared? I guess, since the hot water tank was switched off when I arrived so I had no hot water to bathe with, and would have to wait several hours for the tank to heat up.

I also avoided the restaurant entirely because of the price gouging. My guide took me by a local restaurant where I got a very tasty dinner for much cheaper. The prices are rather insane and the quality of the food, from what I gather from others, is nothing to write home about.

Having to bathe cold, I was somewhat grateful for the blankets, but had to put both bed’s blankets on me to get warm, since the room lacked heat as well. I know it’s Saudi, but February in the desert at night is NOT warm.

At breakfast, I went into the lobby to get some coffee from the little shop there whose sign proclaimed it to open at 8am, however it was completely dark and the receptionist told me they didn’t open until 2pm… which would have been less of an issue if they had bothered to update the rather large sign in front of the counter. So I slunk into the restaurant which only served buffet style breakfast (90 SAR) and had no a la carte options. There I purloined a cup of the “American” coffee, but since there was no staff anywhere to ask the price, I gave up and went back out to the courtyard to enjoy my leftovers and coffee with the stunning mountain view.

As if all of this weren’t disappointing enough, a couple weeks after my holiday, I got an email from booking.com telling me that since I hadn’t stayed in the room or cancelled that I would be charged anyway. Whut? The fine folks at Al Ula ARAC who couldn’t find my booking registration at check in apparently found it later and filed a claim for payment, despite having been paid when I checked out. And this is why, even though I pay a foreign transaction fee, I like to use my MasterCard to pay for big items like hotel rooms. Papertrail.

After a couple more weeks of sending the original receipt, a print screen of my bank statement and a photo of the room I stayed in, booking.com finally agreed that yes, I really had stayed there and they would inform the hotel.

And the rub? I don’t think I can in good conscience recommend the other hotel any better, because it has even lower ratings and more complaints. So, if you’re going to Madain Saleh (which you should if you get the chance cause it’s quite cool), just resign yourself to a cold shower and an overpriced dining experience with unhelpful staff, then get out and enjoy the city where there are cool people, nice restaurants and excellent things to see.

The Jordan Tower Hotel, Amman

My next stop was in Amman, Jordan. I really wasn’t planning on staying there long, just one night before heading out to Petra, so my criteria in booking were primarily about cost. I booked a bed in the all female dorm at the Jordan Tower because it was going to cost all of 7$ (5JD) and included breakfast. I wasn’t expecting too much, but boy was I surprised.

A staff member contacted me shortly after I made my reservation and introduced himself and what services the hotel offered, asking if there was anything else they could do to help. We exchanged a few emails about my plans in Jordan and he gave me tons of information about transportation options and ideas for what else to do. I ended up using their driver service to pick me up from the airport, which was nice since it was about 3am when I came in and was saved all the trouble of looking for or haggling with a taxi.

The manager decided not to bother with the official check in that night and simply showed me to the room so I could go to sleep. My one and only complaint of this whole place is that the dorm was listed as 4 bed and turned out to be 4 bunk beds, so 8 people. I think in the end that didn’t matter too much because all the ladies were super polite and I didn’t even hear them when they got up a few hours after I came in to go on their own adventures, but it still would have been nice to know.

Picture 101Breakfast was really nice, bread and cake with lebnah and jam, also fresh egg and veggies and bottomless hot coffee or tea. I sat by the window enjoying the downdown view as I soaked upt the good food and coffee. During breakfast the staff helped me feel out my options for getting to Petra, looking up prices for rental cars and private drivers as well as bus station information. They really were awesome. When I checked out that morning, heading off to see the Roman Theater and then on to Petra, I didn’t really expect to see them again.

The next day, when I returned to Amman from my overnight in Petra, I had several hours to kill between when the bus arrived and when I needed to be at the airport. I had sort of considered heading back to the hotel simply because it was familiar and I knew they would help me find a place to eat and possibly something to do. I headed off the bus considering how best to flag down a taxi, but to my surprise there was a driver there with my name on a sign!

The Jordan Tower had sent their driver to pick me up at the bus stop based on our emails of my plans, even though I had not made any specific arrangements. I suppose if I hadn’t wanted a lift, I could have just said no thank you, but it was dark and cold by then, and I loved the idea of a car waiting to take me somewhere warm. The driver had thought he was taking me to the airport, but I explained that I still had a long time yet and would he mind taking me back to the hotel instead?

There I got a huge bowl of steaming soup, some kind of flavorful broth with what seemed like giant couscous and a heaping plate of bread. I also met a fellow traveler, who you can read a little more about in Spring Break Vol. 6. We hung out in the lobby chatting and drinking coffee until it was time to go and were also able to split the cost of the car back to the airport.

I cannot recommend this place enough. It’s small, and up a flight of stairs behind some kind of junk shop, but it’s amazing. Best service, really above and beyond, plus clean rooms, good food and nice fellow guests. If you are ever in Amman, go check them out.

The Rocky Mountain Hotel, Wadi Musa (Petra)

Picture 150This place also turned out to be pretty amazing. I decided I needed 2 days in Petra, so I booked an overnight room in the nearby town of Wadi Musa (nearby meaning a few minutes drive from the park entrance, if you felt like adding another 20 minutes of walking to your hours of park exploring, you could even walk there). My bus dropped me off right at the door, and they got me checked in pretty fast, since I wanted to get up to the park quickly. I had planned to get to Petra earlier, but as events transpired it was already after 3pm. When I couldn’t find a taxi to take me down to the park entrance, Jane (the owner) said she had to run down to the market anyway, and gave me a ride the short way.

When I got back to the hotel after dark, I waited briefly with some other guests in the lobby for our ride over to her husband’s property, an outdoorsy tent hotel (heated tents, and a generator for wi-fi) up in the mountains, where we had a Bedouin dinner. The dinner was pretty standard for me, but would probably be a cool experience for someone who doesn’t live in a half Bedouin town already. And the setting was astonishly beautiful. Far from town we had a great view of the stars, and they had set up paper lanterns on one of the nearby rock faces.

Sadly, my one complaint about the Rocky Mountain is the timing of their hot water. I understand the need to conserve both water and electricity where they are, so hot water is only on for a few hours each morning and evening. In theory, I have no issue with this, but since her husband’s hotel’s dinner didn’t get us back to our hotel until after hot water time, it seemed like poor planning. I know a lot of people prefer to shower in the morning, but I like a hot shower before bed, especially when I’ve been travelling all day and want to wash the road dust off before climbing in clean sheets. This was the 3rd hotel in a row with no pre-bed hot shower for me, so it was a little disappointing.

Picture 152Everything else was great. Although the heater in the room was off until I got back (did I mention Petra is cold at night in February?), it worked really quickly and I was soon warm and slept comfortably. Breakfast was again included on the rooftop restaurant where we had a stunning view of the valley with our traditional Jordanian breakfast (eggs, fresh veggies, bread, lebnah and jam).

The hotel also provides a shuttle service to the Petra gate 2 times each morning and each evening, so I got another ride back to the park. I was also able to request a packed lunch for my day, since there’s only a few places to eat inside Petra and all are expensive. I got a simple sandwich with some snack cakes, a candy bar, a juice box and come “all natural” corn puffs. It sounds like a lot of junk food, but when you’re hiking all day, high sugar and carbs is actually pretty welcome. There was enough food for my lunch in the park, a snack on the way out of the park, and a dinner on the bus back to Amman for 8JD.

Jane was also really helpful with information about the area. I asked her several questions about the locals I had met on my first day including safety, general expectations and trustworthiness as tour guides as well as what I should expect to pay for certain tour services. She also helped me figure out the bus schedules to make sure I wouldn’t miss the only bus out of town that afternoon, and kept my bag for me after I’d checked out until I was ready to leave town.

Maybe there’s a better place in Wadi Musa (there is a Movenpick after all), but I can’t imagine you’ll get a better deal for the price than the Rocky Mountain, plus you’ll be supporting small business so it’s really win-win.

Tamani Marina Hotel, Dubai

IMG_1476This was the last stop on my February trip. I had planned to spend 3 days in Dubai, and after being highly disappointed in the quality and price of hostels there, I went into fantasy mode and just started randomly checking the prices of hotels near the beach. Most of them were way outside of my price range, but then suddenly my cursor hovered over one that popped up a really reasonable rate! I checked about 4 more times incase there was a catch, but since booking.com has free cancellation, I decided to go ahead and book it, then do more research. If it turned out to have a horrible reputation later, I could always cancel and find something else. However as I continued to research the hotel, it looked like it was a pretty nice place, and moreover that I had something close to a 60% discount on their normal rate.

And thank goodness I did. Because if I had paid full price for that, I would have almost certainly been outraged. As it was, I was just a little miffed.

When I first arrived I had quite a wait while another guest harangued the girl behind the counter about having to show his passport again. I kind of thought he was being a douche and felt bad for her, so I tried to just relax in the lobby and wait it out rather than complain and add to her problems. When they finally did get someone to me, I was chastised for “checking in late”. I had arrived at the hotel around 2pm, which is standard check in start time for most hotels in the world. I flew into Dubai around 9am and knew I wanted to do some shopping, but wasn’t sure how long it would take. Apparently because I had told them I might arrive early, that meant I was now late. And they had given my room away.

The clerk said they were all out of singles now, but I could have a larger suite for just the increase in city tax. I guess I could have stuck to my guns, but I really wanted a bath and a bed after so much travelling, and the tax wasn’t all that much so I agreed. The room was insanely huge. I think two families could have stayed there comfortably. Picture 173There were two furnished bedrooms, plus what seemed like another empty room, four bathrooms, a giant living room, dining room and expansive kitchen. There was also a washer/dryer combo unit, so I dumped in my clothes and went off to bathe. The baths win all the stars. I also took a short nap. But even after all of this, my clothes weren’t done. I managed to pull out everything but two lightweight items so they dried faster, but this left me with a pile of wet laundry.

Why not just leave it running while I went out for the evening? Well, it seems even in luxury hotels, you have to put the key card in the wall to turn on the power, so as soon as I took the key to leave, the machine would stop running, leaving my wet laundry to get stinky. So I called down to ask for another key. This shouldn’t be hard, and it really shouldn’t be a negotiation or an argument, but it took a really long time to explain the situation and make it clear that I was not going to be held hostage in my room by their stupid electricity issues, so they needed to bring me a key.

The next day, I tried to ask their tourism desk, the people whose job it is to know what tourists staying at their hotel can do, where the Big Red Bus stop near their hotel was. I should point out that it’s less than a block away, and one of the largest tour bus operators in Dubai. They actually knew the company, but insisted that there was no stop near them, pulling out an outdated map to try and prove it to me. I had to cut and run, since debating the issue with them was just going to make me miss the bus they knew nothing about. Later on, when I brought them an updated map for their records to help future guests, they treated me like I was something on the bottom of their shoes.

Housekeeping managed to steal or throw away some of the groceries that I’d bought at the Carrefour next door, while at the same time leaving trash and dishes that needed cleaning. One evening I decided to order food in because I was just too tired to go anywhere, but there wasn’t a room service menu in the room. I called down to ask for one and they told me, rather annoyed, that it was in the binder next to the television. Now, the suite is the size of a large house, so not being able to find something right away isn’t all that odd, but there was no menu in the binder. So I called back, and had to argue with them, again. I feel like if I was asking for something odd or unreasonable that the staff might need to disagree, but if you’re asking for something like an extra key, a menu or a towel, there shouldn’t need to be a discussion. The guest says ‘please bring me x’ and the hotel staff say ‘sure no problem’. Even when someone finally showed up with a menu, I had to show them the menuless binder before they would hand it over! At least the food was tasty.

Also, on the day I needed to take a taxi instead of the bus, one of the hotel staff stepped up to me as I headed for the line of taxis and asked if I needed one. I replied that yes I did. This didn’t seem odd at the time since I’ve seen lots of places have deals with drivers or queues and try to make sure that guests get into waiting taxis in order. The guy told me they had metered hotel taxis, stressing the meter. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a standard meter and ran almost double the city taxi rate. The car may have been nicer, but I felt lied to. They could easily have been upfront about offering “luxury” or “private” cars at a higher rate, that’s what Uber does and it works just fine. And I might even expect local drivers to try to claim they’re homemade meter is just as good as a taxi. But I was pretty upset about having been deceived by the hotel staff where I was a paying guest.

By the time I was ready to leave, I had more sympathy for the guest I’d seen on the first day than the staff. After several days of being treated this way in a supposedly luxury hotel, it was about all I could do not to loose my cool with the staff too. The only thing that really made it bearable was my discount, but this place is no way worth it’s normal price tag. The best thing about it? Walking distance from the Barasti Beach Bar and Carrefour.


Thus concludes the Spring Break portion of my accommodation reviews. During the Royal Decree Holiday I stayed in 2 more places.

Bedouin Garden Hotel, Aqaba

I have a lot of good things to say about this place. However, when I first arrived I thought I’d made a terrible mistake. I came in after dark, having driven from Tabuk after school Thursday and planning to leave for Egypt on the next day. Aqaba was just meant to be a resting spot in my journey from Tabuk to Sharm el Sheikh. When I was shown my “single” it had three beds crammed in, and there was no TV or (far more important) wi-fi, despite the fact that both of these had been advertised on the website. There were also several large flies in my room.

wpid-20150320_162111.jpgReminding myself that it was just one night, I gritted my teeth and decided to bear it. I got some dinner (which was quite generous and delicious), chatted with the Filapina server and went to bed. My ferry to Egypt didn’t leave until around 6:30 the next evening, but the hostel looked much better in the light. wpid-20150320_094947.jpgThere were flowers in bloom and lots of “Bedouin tent” style outdoor seating areas. I figured I could just enjoy the weather and read my book until it was time to go. Breakfast was simple but good and I got to chat with some Pakistani guests who were also out of Saudi for the holiday and heading to Petra.

There was a dive shop there, but since I don’t have my license, I kind of ignored it. I bid good travels to my breakfast companions and took my coffee over to some cushions in the shade to relax and read. The full story of my Friday adventure will be told in another post, but my plans of quiet reading were fully and enjoyably foiled. I had a great day at the Bedouin Gardens, and as it turned out accidentally ran off with their key, so I came back again the following Friday as I was making the reverse journey and spent several more hours there.

So, yeah, the rooms aren’t much. You’re not going to watch movies on satellite TV in your room or surf the web from your laptop, but if you give it a chance, you won’t miss those things at all and you’ll only be in your room to shower or sleep. Wonderful people, amazing place, beautiful beaches. I recommend it to anyone who wants to get out of the city and see the beach in Aqaba.

Park Inn by Radisson at Sharm el Sheikh

This was another one of the luxury deals that I found online. Not quite as big a discount as Tamani, but Sharm is so insanely cheap because the Egyptian Pound is very weak and business are dropping prices to attract tourists back after two revolutions destabilized the country. I should mention, I felt totally safe the whole time.

wpid-20150321_071427.jpgThe resort is insanely huge. Buildings and buildings full of rooms, two swimming pools, two restaurants, 5 bars, a private beach across the road, a water park on the premises, and a gym + spa. It took me about 45 minutes to walk around the whole thing. Plus there were shops and bars outside too.

My very low price tag included 3 meals a day (but really more, because poolside snacks were served all day) and free local booze, which amounted to pretty low end stuff, but free and unlimited goes a long way to making up for quality. It was a really beautiful place, the staff were if anything too friendly, the food was decent, although not 4 star. In terms of value for money I can’t say enough.

I had a few issues, since nothing is ever perfect. I had some trouble with overly flirty staff pushing me for a phone number or to come out with them after work to some local bars. I think if I had been with a group, that might have been fun, going out with the locals and seeing local bars, but since I was alone it just made me uncomfortable, especially coming from people I would see every day in the dining room or bar. The good news is that the one time I felt something went to far, I commented that I thought it was not appropriate and he stopped instantly, so I think they have just found that more often than not, guests respond well to the attention and so do it to everyone.

I also got food poisoning. Normally this might be enough to turn one off of a restaurant, but I know that it’s a normal hazard of international travel. Honestly, considering everywhere I’ve gone in the last few months, I’m surprised this is the only time it’s happened. I’m less upset about the illness than how the hotel handled it. I know I was already getting a cheap deal, but it would have been appropriate for them to offer some kind of recompense, especially since I had to delay my trip to Cairo at extra expense. Instead they just awkwardly tried to change the subject when I brought it up.

wpid-20150325_095331.jpgHousekeeping was adorable, if overly persistent. If I forgot to put up the do not disturb sign when I went to take a nap, they would just knock and knock and knock. Once they even had reception call me to ask me to let them in. But, to be fair, any time I had that sign up, they were quiet as mice. They also would shape my new towels into various animals on the bed and bring fresh flowers into the room.

I also noticed there was plenty of kid specific entertainment, as well as nightly activities on site like karaoke or dance performances, and daily poolside activities like yoga and water aerobics. I myself was mostly a bum, sitting poolside with a gin and tonic in hand, but there seemed to be a lot to choose from.

wpid-20150321_163956.jpgOverall, I still would recommend this place. It’s a really nice resort with lots to do and it’s easy to see many places around Egypt on day trips from Sharm. It’s less pricey than some of the swankier places, but it’s still more than nice enough to make you feel like you’re on a pampered lux vacation and you can easily spend a week or two there without breaking the bank.


So what have we learned? Well, I can tell you for sure that all my best vacation experiences are shaping up to be at tiny hole in the wall mom and pop stop type places, while the big fancy resorts are somewhere between just ok and a let down. I’m still planning to drag friends and family to some of the resorts because I think they’ll be more fun in groups and easier to do with kids than my solo traveler preferences, but it is sort of a relief to know that I not only don’t have expensive tastes, but might actually enjoy myself more at the cheaper options!

Thanks for reading, I hope it was entertaining or maybe even helpful. Check out all the adventures surrounding these hotels in any of the Spring Break 2015 posts or the soon to be published Royal Decree Holiday posts! 🙂

Spring Break Vol. 6: Tales of the Bedouin and The Journey Back

Sometime during lunch, I stopped to actually check my phone (not just take pictures with it) and noticed that I’d gotten a message from Eagle at about 10am telling me that the price for the “back way” tour would be 50JD. If you remember, my helpful hostel manager had told me her price was 60JD, so that was actually low enough to be a good deal without being so low as to be cause for concern. However, since I was now at the Monastery, it was too late to take the offer. I messaged him back to let him know that it was too late and felt a little sorry as I did.

After a leisurely lunch at the Monastery, I decided that it was time to head back into the city of Petra. We’d spent about 3 1/2 hours on our way through Petra and up to the Monastery and about another hour exploring the area and relaxing. With three hours left to keep my bus schedule, I took my leave of Bernard, who was planning to stay another day and had no pressing need to return to the gate as I did. I knew if I went fast enough, I could probably get to the gate in as little as 90 minutes, however I wanted to take my time and enjoy the new views that the afternoon sun would reveal. Plus, I’d promised to do some shopping on my way back down.

Trading with the Bedouin

wpid-20150307_105340.jpgOn the way, the ladies I had promised to return to called out to me, saying they had been waiting for me. From the first (well, last met/first returned to) lady, I bought a lovely Pashmina scarf. While I know these are imported, I was looking for a new and more colorful hijab, so it’s something I actually get some use out of. The one I got was a lightweight silk blend with a fetching taupe and blue floral pattern. I didn’t bargain terribly hard, and got it for a little less than $15. wpid-20150307_105718.jpgAt the next, I turned my eye to jewelry and finally settled on a nice traditional silver piece, that kind of dull and black rimmed look that old silver gets, although I’m fairly sure it is simply a silver colored alloy, set with rough shaped polished stones. For this one I paid closer to $20 which is somewhere between reasonable and a steal depending on what website you look at. They both tried to get me to buy something from their neighboring vendor, offering discounts for multiple items, but I explained that I had promised yet another lady my patronage. I also had at least one vendor claim to remember me from the trip up even though I had not stopped to talk to her. I suspect it may be a common tactic since tourists are mostly unable to remember individuals from the many ladies who chat and offer tea along the way. However because each one of the ladies I bought from had made a special impression on me, I stuck to my plan and finished my shopping at the stall of the first lady we’d sat with and with whom I’d shared the “secret” of lemon lightening hair.

After trying on a few necklaces, I found myself drawn to a simple loop made from fired but undyed camel bone discs. The colors were rich and varying in a natural way, and the shapes of the overlapping discs were pleasant. wpid-20150307_105643.jpgWe haggled price for a bit and finally settled on 13JD, but I only had a ten and a fifty in my wallet and she had not yet made a sale that day, so didn’t have enough change. We tried to ask a few passing tourists if they could break my larger bill, but no one could. She tried to get me to buy enough more items to make up the difference, but the JD is actually worth a little more than the dollar. I’d already spent 25JD at the other shops and couldn’t really justify more expense even if the deal was good. Then she asked if I had some lotion or lip stick for her. So I pulled out my lip balm , almost new, and after checking how much was left, she decided to accept the 10 in cash and the other 3 in trade. That necklace is now my favorite souvenir for the whole trip.

As I continued down, I thought back to the girl at the Roman Theater who had tried to get me to give her my hair clip for the postcards. It seems as though the Bedouin women are happy to take trade for beauty items and cosmetics that aren’t easy to come by in their remote village. Now I have a plan to bring a bag full of sparkly hair clips, small bottles of lotion, perfume and other make-up goodies to see what I can trade for next time.

Walking Back

The view on the way back down was no less spectacular than the it had been climbing up, although somewhat more populated. I spotted a herd of goats grazing alongside the path, as well as a young man and his mule resting higher up near one of the widely interspersed carved caves.

One of my favorite parts of travelling is meeting new people. I suppose it’s an advantage of being an extrovert, I’m just not shy about greeting strangers or jumping into conversations. And people who are travelling to remote parts of the globe often have their own unique and interesting stories. This trip was no exception. I met some new walking buddies on the way, a man and his wife from the Dominican Republic and another man from Israel (who I think was a relative of theirs). They admitted that they’d taken a donkey ride up the steps and were astonished that I had not. I also ran into the touring ladies from dinner the night before, and an older couple that had been globe trotting for several decades. I love hearing stories of other people’s travels, especially comparisons through time, so I spent a while walking and sitting with them, even though they were moving a bit slower than me. And one other of the people I met actually studied Petra so she was a fun tour guide to follow too.

IMG_1423When we got back to the Temple, there was a group of locals doing what was supposed to be a reenactment of a Nabatean military drill. Sadly, if somewhat humorously, they looked like kids in Halloween costume armor playing make believe. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), we all stopped to watch. To be honest, I’m still not sure how I feel about the performance. On the one hand, I know it can be a good tourist draw and informative entertainment to have historical recreations. On the other, since this performance had no basis in history and no independent entertainment value (such as beautiful costumes, good music, or skilled athletic performance) it seemed rather sad and tacky… like the stuffed camel souvenirs.

Royal Tombs

As promised, the sunlight was shining brightly on the Royal Tombs and they presented a spectacular view as we passed back through the Gate. I discovered via one of my walking buddies that there is actually a path up to the tombs that allowed you to get a good up-close view. Yet one more reason why I really think Petra needs 3 days. Looking mournfully at my clock, and checking in with my aching feet, I realized that such a climb would have to wait until the next time.

Around this time, Bedouin started to recognize me from being in the village the evening before. It was kind of interesting because it seemed to exempt me from the intense sales pitches and instead net me some more generalized friendly greetings. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of folks still followed us around proffering stuffed camels, beads, postcards and whatnot, but the camel and mule drivers became much more amiable as word passed around.

Then, while seated on a bench listening to the older couple relay some of their past adventures, Eagle walked by. His face lit up when he recognized me, and I smiled back. He stopped to talk and we discovered that somehow my message from the night before had not been delivered to him until that morning. We blamed the poor service in the general Petra area. I was genuinely glad I had a chance to see him again and find out what had happened and I told him so. He said he was happy to see me too and looked a little wistful. Then he said that he had some customers and had to go, so we waved farewell.

Lost Phone Scare

The last of my walking buddies left me at the Treasury having decided they were tired of walking and wanted to take one of the carriages back to the entrance. So I walked through the narrow shady passage alone, enjoying the silence and respite from the sun. About halfway through, I realized I was really flagging in energy, so I sat on a bench to have a small snack. The hostel had packed more lunch than I could eat in one sitting, but that turned out to be a good thing, because now I had a juice box and candy bar to pump me full of sugar for the final leg of the long walk out of Petra. I took my phone out of my pocket to check something, but instead of putting it back in a pocket or bag, I set it next to me on the bench. This is a true sign of how tired I was.

After my rest, I set out again, only to realize about 10 minutes later that I’d forgotten my phone! Adrenaline added to the sugar boost and I rushed back. My mind was racing with obstacles and solutions, how could I get the phone back if someone had already picked it up? I’d purchased a remote security app after my last lost phone scare, so I knew my data would be safe and that I could even track the phone’s location, but I was leaving Petra in an hour! Was that enough time to track down the phone and retrieve it? I’d have to get out of the park and back to the hostel just to get online to look for it. How could I complete my travels without it? I rely on the internet so heavily for everything from maps and bus schedules to airport check in. Oh please let it still be on the bench!

Just then some of my walking buddy travelers rounded a bend coming toward me. One woman called cheerfully to me as soon as she saw my face, “Hi! We found your phone!”, pulling it out of her pocket and waving it in the air. I was flooded with relief and thanked them profusely. They asked if I’d gotten all the way to the gate before realizing it was missing, but thankfully it had only been a few minutes up the trail. Even more thankful that I had met these good people who then recognized me from the photos on the phone and were determined to get it back to me. They told me if they hadn’t caught up to me in the park, their plan was to find me on Facebook and mail the phone back! How awesome is that?

We kept pace the rest of the way out, talking about our evening plans. They were staying in Wadi Musa (the town near Petra) and talking about local bars, restaurants and the ice cream selection at the Movenpick Hotel. Apparently there’s a “Cave Bar” right outside the gates of Petra built in, you guessed it, a cave. I, however, had a bus to catch back to Amman, and later a flight to Dubai. Since the woman who’d found my phone lived in Jordan, her friends asked her to advise me on some cool things to do at night in Amman while I waited to go to the airport. She did do this, and I’m sure they would have been awesome, but between the long day and the cold after-dark weather, I was all explored out.

Return to Amman

I did manage to bargain with a taxi to drive me up to the hotel and wait while I grabbed my bag then drive me back to the JETT bus stop (which is also right outside the Petra gate). I made it in plenty of time, and the bus ticket was cheaper than the online price, so that was nice. The seats were very comfortable and leaned quite far back. The bus wasn’t even half full, but because it was a charter bus and not a public one, it left on time. I ate the last of my packed lunch and settled in to doze.

By the time we got back to Amman it was full dark and getting cold. Since most of my holiday was in warm places, I hadn’t packed any jackets or sweaters, so I just layered on some more shirts. I wasn’t sure which bus stop to get off at as this was not the same type of bus I’d left Amman on, so I pulled out my phone to check the map. I’d decided that I was simply too tired and cold to seek out any more adventure that day, and that I would just head back to the hostel I’d stayed in two nights ago. I could get dinner there at least, I thought, having remembered seeing a restaurant below it. I hoped I could catch a taxi from the bus station, but when I stepped off the bus, there was a man holding a sign with my name on it.

The hostel had actually sent their driver to pick me up! Clearly, these folks know their trade. I gratefully accepted the ride back. I discussed airport times with the manager when I got back, and quickly got some dinner and coffee ordered. I also met a nice young lady from Australia named Fiona who was drifting around between permanent settings and on her way to London to meet up with her boyfriend. She was also flying out of Amman that night, so we decided to share the ride fare to the airport when it was time to go. It was way too cold to go out and explore the neighborhood (although I might have done so if I’d had proper clothing), so we stayed inside and filled our evening hours with conversation.

The dinner turned out to be soup with bread: a huge bowl of soup that was primarily composed of something that looked like really big couscous and tasted delicious served with a heaping pile of different types of bread. Thanking the food gods that whatever it is in American wheat that makes me sick doesn’t seem to extend across the Atlantic, I dug in and polished off the whole thing. A big pile of carbs after a whole day of hiking does not make me feel even slightly guilty. Fiona beckoned one of the younger staff members, addressing him as habibi, a term of endearment in Arabic. The young man enjoyed the familiar attention from a pretty girl, and we got some free coffee out of it.

A Bedouin Crush?

I also got some more texts from Eagle during the evening. His spoken English is much better than his written (“living” means “leaving”), but the general tone was that he really enjoyed seeing me and would like to do so again.

I admit, I was flattered. Eagle had been nice company. He was friendly without being pushy, and like many of the young Bedouin men, quite nice to look at also. However, I’m not really into one night stands, or long distance relationships, which makes meeting interesting guys while travelling a more platonic experience. Often, I have no compunctions about telling someone I’m not into to buzz off, but I really didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I tried to be as clear as I could that yes, I had enjoyed meeting him, but I also had to leave.

He’s actually sent me a few messages since then, just checking in, once to make sure I’d gotten to Dubai safely, and another to check on me in Saudi. I tend to assume the best of people until they give me reason not to, so it wasn’t until about 4 days ago when while browsing facebook I found a page about the Bedouin men of Petra that it even occurred to me that his messages were anything but sincere. It was a facebook page dedicated to helping the women who’d been seduced by Bedouin men find each other and deal with the betrayal. Eagle wasn’t on the site, but other men from Petra were listed, photo’d and had apparently had multiple tourist girlfriends who they would con into giving them money.

Now, I’m pretty liberal minded, so I think if a girl wants to have a one night stand or short fling with a pretty Bedouin man, then as long as she’s protected, she should go for  it, have fun. But really girls, they’re not likely to be interested in marrying you unless you’re Muslim, and do you truely want to live in a cave? Is this scam so prevalent that it has it’s own Facebook group? I was also really disappointed to think that Eagle had only been running a con on me (which I’m sure is how cons work, no one wants to think its happening to them). He hadn’t asked me for anything, though. He didn’t try to even hug me, let alone anything “romantic”, and the only time we talked about money was for tour services that was actually a reasonable tour guide price.

So I did some more research and I found a pretty wide range of experiences. Yes, it seems like a lot of the Bedouin do like talking to pretty foreign girls, but like all humans, some of them are jerks and some of them are nice. This woman had a pretty negative experience, but the men she met were really slimy from the sounds of her story. I realized in reading it that this could easily have happened to me when I’d decided to walk alone into the mountains with Eagle, but then I found another story that was really quite positive. That woman had couch-surfed her way into a furnished Bedouin cave! And that made me really happy to know that many of the people of the village were genuine and friendly and not just out to scam foreigners for sex and money. I also noticed that the facebook page is almost entirely populated by comments from one person, it’s admin, so while some people do have negative experiences, there’s not actually an army of scammed and jilted women out there.

The last time we chatted was about two weeks ago. He texted me from his cave in Petra to say he wished I could be there.

When I talked about going back in the summer, I a) didn’t know about the March holiday yet and b) hadn’t done all that Bedouin research. I knew I wanted to go back to Petra again because of all the things I hadn’t seen, and I also thought that it might be nice to have some friends and guides there, so all of that was my ham-handed attempt to stay friends without “leading him on”. I’m stuck in some awkward half wish state because I really hope his feelings and kindness were genuine and not the beginning of a scam, but I also don’t want him to actually think of me too much because I’m not really available. Yes, women are crazy.

I am going back to Jordan briefly in March, and probably again in July. But I think unless I go back to Petra itself, I don’t think I will try to reconnect with Eagle. Men in the Middle East don’t generally know how to have inter-gender friendships, and I like him enough as a person that I don’t want him to get the wrong idea about his chances as a suitor. So, I’ll be content to join the small ranks of people lucky enough to have a good experience with the Bedouin of Petra and leave it at that.

Leaving Jordan

Fiona and I spent about 3 hours in the lobby of the hostel, but it didn’t seem like a “wait” at all because we were having fun just talking. When we got to the airport, we found out she couldn’t check in for her flight yet, so I checked in for mine and decided to wait up front with her until I had to go board. The Amman airport has a very peculiar security design. When you first enter, there are a small number of shops, followed quickly by a perfunctory security gate which simply checks passports, but doesn’t do anything with them. We passed through this gate and went to the check in counters, which is where we discovered she couldn’t check in yet. From the check in counter area, there is another security point before there are any more shops. However, without a boarding pass, Fiona couldn’t go that far, so we turned around to go back out through the first checkpoint to get some coffee. The security personnel there didn’t want to let us go back out, which I couldn’t understand since it’s not like we could do anything in the airport without passing his checkpoint again. I pointed to the cafe on the other side of his cordoned off area and said “coffee”, which he seemed to accept and let us go by.

It was now after midnight, so we were both starting to yawn a bit, but we traded facebooks before I headed off, so maybe if we’re ever in the same city again, we’ll stop and say hi. Soon it was time for me to head to my boarding gate. Dinner had been about 4 hours ago, so I checked out the shops at the gate to see what I could take with me. I almost caved in and bought a beer (since I still hadn’t had a drink even though I’d been out of Saudi for two whole days), but decided that it could wait until I got to Dubai, after all. So, armed with a chocolate croissant and an apple, I boarded the flight.
The plane was nearly empty, and it seemed like each passenger had a whole row to themselves. I remember there was a meal served, but I was barely conscious for it, and soon after, I stretched out across the seats and dozed again until the flight attendants told us it was time to land. We’d arrived in Dubai and it was 9am.

To be continued… I spent 3 days in Dubai doing more sight seeing and meeting more awesome people, so look out for more Spring Break 2015 and don’t forget to check out all the photos on facebook! 😀

Spring Break 2015 Vol. 5: To the Monastery

Before going to Petra I had tried to do some research online about how long it would take to see the place. The consensus seemed to be that two days was the best, although it could be done in 1, but that three days was too much. I disagree. Even if my first day in Petra had been a full one, I still think I could not have seen everything in two days. There is a single long trail from the entrance to the Monastery and back. It takes about 3-4 hours to walk it (depending on how often you stop for photos or rests) and includes somewhere between 800-900 stairs. However there is no official park exit there, so you have to walk all the way back to the main gate. Considering rest stops, photo ops and lunch, that’s pretty much an entire day. Beyond this there are several side trails including the High Place of Sacrifice, a trail that goes up to the Royal Tombs, and several others throughout the park. I suspect one could easily spend another couple of days exploring these, and still not see everything. I suppose it depends on your motivation for visiting Petra, but I personally am looking forward to returning one day to see the things I missed.

My second day was not truly a full day since the bus back to Amman left at 4:30 sharp and my bag was stashed at the hostel. I knew I had to leave the park between 3:30 and 4 to get back to my bag and then to the bus stop in time, otherwise I would be stranded in Petra or have to pay a private taxi to drive me back to Amman. Thus it was that I wanted to start as early as possible. My hostel ran a shuttle service down to the gate at 7:30 and 8:30, but I knew it would take me 6-7 hours to get to the Monastery and back so I vowed to skimp on sleep again and catch the early shuttle. This had me awake at 6am trying to repack my bag and get upstairs for breakfast on the terrace.

I checked my phone for a message from Eagle, but still nothing about the price or arrangements needed to take the “back way”. I generally don’t fight the universe too hard about my adventures, so I figured it simply wasn’t meant to be and carried on with my front entrance plans.

Over a lovely Arabic breakfast of eggs, pita, lebnah (my new favorite dairy item), veggies, rusks and jam (lebnah and apricot jam on biscuits or toast is awesome btw, ate that with breakfast both days I was in Jordan) I met up with one of the guests from dinner the night before who was also staying in the hostel. He was another American with a travel bug, but rather than working abroad, he simply scheduled international vacations whenever he could. We exchanged some travel stories and headed down to catch the shuttle. Thus it was that Bernard became my walking buddy all the way to the Monastery.

I try to be conscious of not intruding on other travelers just because we happen to be in the same space. Some people (like me) love to meet fellow travelers and have erstwhile company, but not everyone does, so I’ve gotten in the habit of trying to watch for signs and give people polite outs if they don’t want my company. But Bernard stuck with me and was fun to talk to, plus it meant we could take pictures for each other which is always nice.

We got back into the park around 8am and began the long walk through the entrance and Siq, running the gauntlet of Bedouin horsemen and trinket sellers. Sure enough, they tried again to say that the price included with the entrance ticket was only good for that day. Bernard laughed appreciatively when I told him they’d said the same thing to me the day before.

The Treasury was no less stunning the second time, although the anticipation of seeing it around the corner was different from the unexpected surprise of the first day. I also took more time to really look at it today. Bernard told me that some locals had a legend that there was treasure in the round carving near the top, and that all the bullet holes were a result of them trying to shoot it open. I told him that in Madain Saleh the bullet holes were the result of people hiding out in war-time.

In front of the Treasury there is a pit, covered by a chain link fence allowing us to see in, but not fall/climb in. It showed yet more carvings and entrances below the ground level. We took turns taking pictures for each other in front of the monument, which is nice because it gives a great sense of scale and better scrapbook material.

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We fended off some more camel drivers and I ran into the boy who’d tried to sell me silver bracelets the day before. When he recognized me, I asked him why he wasn’t in school like he told me and he quickly ran off to find another tourist.

We toyed briefly with the idea of trying to climb up to the high place of sacrifice, having seen several tourists coming down the trail, but after a few minutes of really steep climbing, we thought it was best to save our strength for the 800-900 step climb to the real goal, the Monastery, and so continued along the main trail instead.

The Street of Facades, The Roman Theater and the Royal Tombs

I made a much more thorough inspection of the Street of Facades this time as well, actively comparing the facades to the carvings in Madain Saleh, and pointing out the similarities to my walking companion. Most of Petra actually looks very little like Madain Saleh, or at least the parts that are open. Since the city at Madain Saleh is still yet to be unearthed and all we can view are wells and tombs, there is no way for me to know what the city centers, government buildings or other public sites looked like. The Royal Tombs have several common traits, but the Facades really show the connection best.

The two pillars to either side of the cave mouth, the triangle peak above them, and the five stepped ziggurats at the top are clearly visible. The one on the left is Madain Saleh, and the one on the right is Petra.

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The way that they incorporate multiple tombs into a single cliff face is also very similar, although as I pointed out, in the Royal Tombs of Petra there is a much stronger Roman influence, and you can often see the architecture of the Treasury and Monastery echoed in the tomb faces. Below you can see a collection of tombs in Madain Saleh as compared to a similar collection in Petra, and further contrasted with the Royal Tomb’s very different construction. You can see all the pictures here.

As I was playing amateur archaeologist, admiring the nuances of carving along the street, a young girl approached me and began to chat. She was clearly selling postcards (several other small children were doing so as well, it seemed to be the starting trade for the younger children). This girl alone gets an honorable mention because her trick basically worked. Even after I turned her down, she chatted amicably, asking my name and where I was from, saying she wanted to take a picture with me. This happens to me a lot when I travel, so I didn’t actually give it any thought.

IMG_1335During the picture posing she pressed one of her books of postcards into my hand. There’s a horrible human reflex where we automatically grasp things put into our hands, and therein lies the trick. See, once it was in my hand, she let go. “A gift for you.” yeah. right. Then she asked me for a gift. I didn’t really want the postcards, but she’d worked very hard, and giving them back would have basically involved me dropping them on the ground and causing a scene (part of the plan, I’m sure) so I gave her 1 Dinar (the price the other children had quoted). She tried to ask for more, and when I refused she tried to get me to give her my hair clip in trade. The clip being worth rather more than the postcards which I had been tricked into holding, I was unwilling, and told her if she wasn’t happy with the exchange, she could take the cards back. With rather bad grace, she accepted the 1JD and slunk away. But at least there was no ensuing trouble from an older brother. In the end it turned out to be of some benefit, as I could then use the cards to ward off the dozen or so other small urchins selling the same thing.

IMG_1337I wish I could be more excited about Roman Theaters. I worry that by the time I get to Rome, I’ll be amphetheatered out. However, they all do kind of look the same, and since we couldn’t go climb on this one, it wasn’t terribly attractive compared to everything around it. The only real point of interest for me was that it was in direct sunlight as we passed, where it had been in shadow the day before.

The Royal Tombs had also all been in shadow, but in the morning as we passed by them again they still were. It wasn’t until the afternoon returning to the main gait that I really got to see them well, and there are more stories to be had at that time, so for now, we look onward to the Colonnaded Street.

The Colonnaded Street and the Temple Complex

I’d enjoyed the colonnaded street the day before, but not in any detail, since I was walking with Eagle and the sun had already fallen behind the high mountains.On this day I took more time to wander down the street and admire the detail in the ruins where the sunlight displayed what twilight had kept hidden in what was once the largest structure in all of Petra city.

It seems like only about half of the street remains, the rest having been lost to sand and time, and scarcely anything remains of the tremendous buildings off to the side. According to the signs, there was a lower area that consisted of a large paved courtyard flanked on either side by triple colonnades. This would have been the “street” we were walking on. Of the over 60 columns that once stood, only a half dozen or so stumps still lined the left hand side, and none at all stood on the right. Of the limestone caps carved in intricate shapes, only a small sample remained in disarray on the ground. The upper area was accessed by two sweeping staircases and contained a small semicircular theater which was most likely used for council meetings or judicial hearings. It seems as though Brown University may still be conducting ongoing excavations there, so we were unable to get up and explore the upper area, but it was nice to have some informative signs, nonetheless. Apparently, there were also underground drainage systems and some bath houses nearby.

I can imagine what it must have been like to enter the area, wide and smooth paving lined with giant pillars, carved and painted to display the wealth of the royal family and the glory of the gods. There were probably arches connecting the pillars, leaving a pedestrian feeling as though they were walking through some vast stone forest canopy with the great arch ahead leading to the Temple itself. For us, from the road, we could see the bases of a few remaining pillars, the beginning of the stairs that led to the upper area, and some fallen decorative carvings that had escaped destruction. (see more pictures here)

The Temenos Gate, or remains thereof, is intensely impressive in its own right. It stands as a barrier between the colonnaded street and the Temple Qasr al-Bint. This archway would surely have put anyone passing beneath it in appropriate awe of what was to come. Once it would have been the crowning jewel at the end of the long paved pavillion, now it stands out as the tallest remaining pillars in an otherwise open valley.

Qasr al-Bint, the Grand Temple itself, would once have stood about 34 m tall (a little over 11 stories high) making it taller than any other structure in the city. It’s remains are less than a third of that height, and from a distance it looks like nothing so much as a bombed out concrete high rise. There were no signs warding off trespassers and no fences either. This occurrence being somewhat unique on the main trail in Petra, we quickly diverted from the path and began exploring the temple grounds and interior.

Against one wall was a space so clearly reserved for idols that I would have known that was its purpose even if I hadn’t read where we were. I could almost see them, towering larger than life statues, painted and gilded and draped with fine cloth while plumes of pungent frankincense (the main export of the Nabatean empire) filled the air. The great arch of the main doorway still stood, although the wall above it was gone however, leaving just the archstones in the air.  Beneath its apex, my head tilted back to stare straight up, I could imagine the thrill of the sacred that a supplicant to the temple might feel when passing through the same arch.

IMG_1375In places the bare brick walls had a few patches of their facade still clinging, showing us that the walls of the temple would not have been mortared brick, but smooth expanses filled with raised geometrical shapes that were almost certainly painted or otherwise decorated. It’s easy to forget that our ancestors did not live in a world of earth tones. The ruins all appear sand beige or stone brown because the paints, precious metals and fine fabrics have not survived time and thieves. But traces found at many historical sites around the world tell us that they painted, gilded, dyed, lacquered, polished, inlayed or tapestried every surface they could afford to. There is no doubt that this temple matched or exceeded in grandeur and color the most ostentatious of Renaissance cathedrals.

It was hard to differentiate because of all the rubble, but I think there were several rooms. I don’t know very much about the Nabatean religion, but it seems like it’s not as well recorded as say, the Roman religions, so I don’t feel too bad. I have no idea what all the rooms were for. I have trouble imagining a 11 story building that didn’t have at least a few floors because vaulted ceilings only go so high, but I had to be content to stumble around the rubble and look at signs in the stones of the walls and floor for clues. In one corner, a lone pale grey donkey stood patiently waiting.

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To the Monastery

At the middle of the park, just past the Temple is a cute little restaurant (we didn’t go inside, but the outdoor seating we walked through was nice looking), and a surprisingly clean toilet. I’ve grown accustomed to the toilet facilities in remote places/tourist sites being pretty scungy, so when I walked into a large, bright, clean and fresh smelling restroom in Petra, I was pleasantly surprised. Also at this collection of buildings is a museum. I normally never pass up a museum, but I did want to make sure that I had enough time to get to the Monastery so I opted to press on and now alas, it is added to the list of things to see next time.

From this little rest area, the long climb to the main attraction commences. Although, I gathered from many tourists that a lot of visitors simply don’t bother because the climb is so long and the Treasury is so impressive, they seem to think it’s not worth it. I have mentioned in the past that I believe myself to be an achievement junkie, so climbing stuff because later I can say I did is more than a little appealing to me. Plus, I had two Taoist mountains full of Chinese stairs under my belt (7.5 hours to climb Hua Shan with oh so many rest breaks) so I was not about to miss out on the Monastery because of a mere 800-900 stairs. The number varied depending on the person telling us, and at first we thought the increasing numbers were a sales tactic by the mule drivers offering rides up the steps, but as we continued walking, it became clear that counting the steps is trickier than it seems since some of them are clearly carved, some made with stones and mortar and still others just natural rock formations that resembled stairs.

I’m not an athlete. I don’t charge down trails and bound up mountains. I walk at a measured pace with lots of breaks. What I lack in oomph I make up for in stubbornness. I was determined to walk the trail and not to ride. Many erstwhile hiking buddies have left me in the dust because they simply wanted to move faster. Some of it may also come from childhood hikes with my mother who would stop and admire flowers, leaves, rocks, birds, animals or insects wherever we went, pointing out nature’s wonders to us. Maybe it’s because I’m more intent on the journey than the destination. Or maybe I’m just out of shape. Either way, I stopped often on the climb to admire the view or chat with a traveler going the other way, or take pictures or just to catch my breath. Bernard stuck with me the whole way, so kudos to a very patient hiking buddy!

IMG_1394Around the halfway point, there were a couple little shops selling trinkets and snacks and after that an ever increasing number of little stands run by Bedouin women selling bits of new and antique jewelry, statuettes, stones and camel bone carvings, and other “native” sparklies. The women would call to us to stop and have a cup of tea, and eventually I lost track of how much tea I drank, but it certainly meant there was no hurry to climb. Of course all of them were hoping we would buy something from them, but their hospitality and offers for tea were ice breakers not tricks.

Bernard was a bit hesitant at first, I suppose watching me get conned by the postcard girl early on may have made him suspicious of “gifts” but I reassured him that tea was a custom all over the Arabic world and that it placed us under no obligation. There was one woman who made a particular impression. She offered tea and invited me to sit next to her, which I did being somewhat in need of a short rest. She also offered us some bread that she had made herself. It was the flat bread so common in the area, but had quite a nice flavor. We chatted about this and that, the normal questions of where are you from and what do you do. She commented on my hair which I’d worn in two long braids that day and said that she loved the color but could seem to get hers light enough for the henna to take.

She actually took her hijab off to show me her own hair, which was quite long, thick and black. I asked her what she’d been using and talked about different ways to lighten hair. She told me about a bad experience she’d had at a salon that had used bleach and damaged her hair quite badly, so she was reluctant to try again. Remembering the lemon grove from the day before I asked if she’d ever tried using lemon juice. Surprisingly, she had never heard of the idea of using lemon and sun to lighten hair. For me, this was one of my earliest hair transformation experiences, long before my mother would let me anywhere near bleach or dye, I would douse my hair in lemon juice and sit out in the backyard on sunny afternoons. So I told her about this method and she was very interested. I also suggested that she could use a little olive oil if it dried her hair out, since that’s another thing they have ready access to at the village.

After a while it was time to move on, but I promised to come look at her wares on our way back down. There were two other ladies who made good positive, if not as deep, impressions on the way up as well. I generally dislike souvenir stands, but I always like to support local business. These ladies all lived in the caves and village like the Bedouin I’d met the day before. And most of what they sold was handmade, if not by them personally, then likely by others in the community. I learned about Bedouin silver and the firing technique they use to color the camel bone. There were also some antique coins, and items carved from the rocks around Petra as well as an infinite supply of Pashmina scarves (which all the ladies themselves wore as hijab). So I decided I would make the effort to return to the three ladies who had been the nicest to us on our way up and find something to buy from them.

IMG_1395The last several shops told us cheerfully that we were almost there, and just as I was starting to doubt the translation of “almost”, the open area came into view. The first thing we noticed from that distance was the restaurant and rest area which lay just beneath another high peak with a large sign that read “view” atop it. We were debating how much further of a climb it was to that point, fairly sure that we would have to get there to see the main event when we rounded another bend and were struck silent by the looming mass of the Monastery.

The approach is from behind, so you cannot see the Monastery until you turn the final corner. The architects of Petra certainly had a great sense of the dramatic. I couldn’t help but wonder how religious pilgrims ascending through the mountains from the city below must have felt trekking the hundreds of steps through the majestic red rocks to be greeted by the vast bulk of grandiose carved stone. What rites took place in the wide open space in front of the cliff that housed the house of the gods? Was it a hushed and solemn place or a temple of color and music? Were the monks austere and grim or did a market bustle at their gates? As far as I can tell, the answers to these questions are not really available, but it’s quite magical to imagine.

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All thoughts of the climb or lunch or anything else simply fell away in the draw of the artifact. Although in photos the Treasury does indeed look more spectacular, because it is more intricately carved, the Monastery is much bigger and we were able to approach it much closer. There was no doubt for me that the climb had been worthwhile. We wandered around, admiring the work and taking photos.

Picture 159bSelfies are entirely impossible with such a monumentally large backdrop, but I’m including this one because you can see Bernard in the background right up close to the door. Yes, that little speck. When I approached the door myself I could barely see over the lintel because it’s about 5ft high.

However we did take some nice photos for each other as we had done at the Treasury, and after satisfying ourselves with the up-close views, we retired to the restaurant’s balcony seating to have a rest and enjoy the panorama.

I ordered us some fresh lemon mint juice because Bernard had never tried any before and broke out my packed lunch. Despite the very plain fare (cheese and tomato sandwich on pita), I think that lunch gets to go up on a special list of awesome lunches for the view. We were also instantly beset by a large community of cats who turned out not to be picky at all and enjoyed some of my tomatoes. The weather was absolutely glorious. Although I had gotten a little sweaty on the climb up, the combination of sunshine and cool breeze made the seating area a really pleasant place. I looked with some longing at the “view” sign behind us, but in the end, I decided to just relax and soak up the experience at hand.

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To be continued…

See all the photos from Petra on my Facebook Page, and read about my first day in Petra in Spring Break 2015 Vol. 4

Spring Break 2015 Vol. 4: To Jordan, to Petra…

After having to break day 2 up into two posts to fit everything in, I thought I could get all of Jordan/Petra in one place, but that was a dream. So here’s the story of my first day in Jordan including a small peek at Amman and Petra. Don’t forget to check out all of the photos on facebook. 🙂


Amman and the Roman Ruins

To get to Petra, I first had to fly to Amman, a large city in Jordan filled with ancient Roman ruins and quaint, steep hilled neighborhoods that make Queen Anne look flat. My flight had changed so I arrived in Jordan at about 3am and shuffled bleary-eyed through customs and passport security to meet my hostel’s driver. (awesome hostel, by the way, I’ll be doing a full write-up on them in another post) I had booked a room in a female dorm, and at nearly 4am, crawled into my top bunk as quietly as possible and fell asleep.

I knew there was no way I was going to catch the 6:30am charter bus to Petra, so I came down for a leisurely breakfast and a think about my plans. I checked on costs for taxis and car rentals, but in the end I decided I’d just go ahead and take the public transportation. But first, since the hostel was a mere 30 meters from the Roman Theater, I decided I should have a look before I left on the 3 hour bus ride to Petra.

IMG_1271Lo and behold, I walked about a block and turned the corner into an ancient Roman ruin of the kind we usually identify with Italy. I spent about 20 minutes poking around the public areas, had to politely pry myself away from a would-be tour guide who wanted to drive me up to some of the other ruins nearby. I was also tentatively greeted in English by a group of Jordanian ladies.

The Muslima fashion in Jordan is quite different than Saudi. Most girls wore skinny jeans and boots with varying lengths of jackets (because it was cold). Some more modestly covered their hips and bottoms, but several wore tops that showed off their assets quite well. Hijabs were in many colors and seemed to be concealing either a cone-head, or the alien skull. This one is about an average size, but some were bigger! Seriously, I have no idea what those girls have under there, but there is no way it’s only hair. Prosthetics are clearly involved.

Eventually decided that if I had more time, a ticket inside would be nice, but I didn’t want to feel any more rushed, so I hailed a taxi to take me to the bus station. (more photos)

Taxis and Buses

I’m still trying to figure out why I’m such a commodity in the Middle East. Men never hit on me this much in the West. At least this one wasn’t as clumsy as the guys in Saudi. It was certainly an interesting test of my Arabic skills. I realized during the ride that I’d really picked up more than I thought. I still can’t form sentences worth a damn, but I can understand a lot more than I used to, and generally make myself understood too.

He tried to get me to come stay at his house, offering to share beer and saying it was nicer than a hotel. But he was good natured about being turned town, and kissed my hand sweetly when I left the taxi.

At the bus station, I knew I needed to find the bus by asking around, since there are no signs or schedules. I found a bus going to Wadi Musa which is the town next to Petra and another enthusiastic taxi driver who helped by telling the bus driver where my hotel was so he could drop me off at the door for an extra Dinar. He also gave me his number and said I should call him when I was heading back so he could pick me up and take me to the airport. When I explained my flight was hours after I’d be returning, he offered to take me to his house where his wife would cook a wonderful dinner for me. (I never called that guy)

The buses don’t run on a schedule, but rather just wait until they are full, then leave. I had arrived just as one full bus was leaving and was the first person on the next bus, so it was a long wait. But I did save over 100$ (US) by taking the bus instead of a car, so I feel like an hour was worth it.

The drive was long and the driver stopped briefly but repeatedly to drop passengers off along the way, seemingly at random. About halfway through, we stopped at a little rest area with a small cafe, a convenience store and a public bathroom. I picked up a cup of sweet hot Turkish coffee and took the opportunity to nab my hijab out of my bag and tie it on. I felt fine walking around Amman without it, but I had noticed that all the other women on the bus were wearing hijabs, and while no one had said anything, I felt more comfortable once I wasn’t standing out so much.

I was really surprised at the landscape. Despite the fact that it isn’t that far from Saudi, it didn’t feel like a desert at all any more. In fact, shortly before we arrived in Wadi Musa we seemed to hit a green belt and were surrounded by beautiful evergreens for the last part of the drive. The mountains snuck up on us slowly, we drove through foothills that had so many ups and downs that it was easy to loose track of the fact that we were gaining elevation until we were suddenly surrounded by mountains on all sides.

True to his word, the driver pulled up right out front of my hotel and let me out. It was already almost 3 in the afternoon and Petra closes at sunset, so I wanted to get a move on. The hotel staff were quite accommodating, getting me checked in quickly and even giving me a lift down to the Petra gate when I couldn’t find a taxi.

Petra

Petra is the famous capital of the ancient Nabatean civilization. It’s also the place Indiana Jones went in Last Crusade (don’t worry, I didn’t drink out of any fancy chalices). Not only is it an amazing site on its own, it is also related to the sites in Saudi that I had just seen at Madain Saleh.

The single day entry fee to Petra is 50JD and the two day is only 55JD, so even though I only had a couple hours of light left, I decided that it was worth an extra 5JD (about 7USD) to go in that afternoon. The ticket sellers were reluctant to sell me a  pass, even though it was for two days, trying to explain that I “didn’t have enough time” (nearly 2 hours). I managed to convince them anyway, but they closed all the ticket windows as soon as I had paid and turned to find the gate.

While Madain Saleh is a restricted and private area that we basically had to ourselves and a couple other guided groups, Petra is the classic definition of tourist trap. Even before you get to the gate there are rows and rows of souvenier stalls selling stuffed camels, “authentic” Middle Eastern clothing, hookahs, caps, hats, pashmina scarves, beads, magnets, and other gew-gaws.

Upon entering the park, you are accosted by Bedouins trying to sell you a horse ride. These claimed that the price was included in the ticket, and that it would not be free the next day. Don’t you believe it. They’ll ask for a tip or a gift or something. It’s not free. It’s also not much of a ride, just a trot up and down the first few meters of the park. Even if you have small kids, I’d say skip the horses and hold out for the camels. If you really need help with the long walk, skip the camels and hold out for a mule.

I walked through the open area, following the trail and politely declining about a dozen offers of a ride. Several also told me that I didn’t have time, even though I knew that the walk from the gate to the Treasury was between 30 and 45 minutes, and I also knew that I didn’t have to be out the gate at precisely sundown. But I bet they make a lot of money from the kind of tourists who never read travel blogs before they go.

There were a few carvings that looked similar to Madain Saleh, but nothing spectacular. You have to walk for a long time to get to the spectacular.

The Siq

IMG_1308The next phase of the walk is called the Siq. It is a narrow passage between two towering cliffs. The mule drivers came out here and started trying to sell me a ride and even mule drawn carriages that go to and from the Treasury. The later are obscenely expensive, by the way, considering it’s only about a 20 minute walk, and such a beautiful walk at that. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to go in a covered carriage and miss the upward view!

If my narration seems interrupted every couple sentences by someone trying to sell me something, that’s because the experience was interrupted every couple of minutes by someone trying to sell me something. Petra is beautiful, but it’s hard to take in the awesome splendor of the ages when someone is pestering you to spend money. I had read on another blog that the best way to deal with these merchants is to maintain a polite and sunny attitude and simply say “no thank you”. It was actually surprisingly effective. I think they’ve been conditioned to respond to “thank you” with “you’re welcome”, like a Pavlovian English response, because most of them did just that and moved on. A few were more persistent, but for the most part it worked quite well.

It probably also helped that this was February and none of them were trying quite as hard as they might during the height of tourist season.

IMG_1310The Siq gives this sensation like you’ve fallen down a crack in the earth. The path is very smooth and comfortable to walk however, and there are a couple rest benches and trash bins along the way. I spent most of the walk just gazing upwards, staring at the vertical landscape, ribbons of color in the rocks, waving and jutting formations and the shifting sliver of late afternoon sky far above. Finally, I rounded another bend and in the narrow gap ahead a tiny shard of the vast bulk of the Treasury soared from ground to sky.

The Treasury

The close walls and immense height of the cliffs of this part of Petra make one feel exceptionally small, like a mouse in a giant’s home, and the Treasury does no less. The sheer scale of the monument is unbelievable. I have pictures, and even have some with humans for size perspective, but it can’t convey the way that standing in front of something so immense makes you feel.

Picture 111

And then someone tried to sell me some silver bracelets. Kids who live in the Bedouin village are put to work early learning to fleece tourists. This one probably spoke better English than my college students back in Saudi, and had a whole list of reasons why I should buy from him that day, one of which was that he could only work on the weekend and had to go back to school tomorrow. I’m sure these all would have been harder for me to deal with if I hadn’t spent so long in China where fleecing tourists seems to be the national past time. As it was I replied, Ah school! Good for you! and he ran off to find someone less teachery.

The treasury was really stunning, and I was very glad I decided to come into the park even if just for a couple hours because I’m sure I would have felt horribly rushed if I’d really tried to see everything in one day. What am I saying, I still didn’t see everything. I only managed to walk the main path and had to turn away from all the tantalizing side trails. Maybe if I’d known the layout better, I would have tried to visit the High Place of Sacrifice that evening, because it’s a one way trail that leads to a high platform, but then comes back to the treasury area. (more photos)

And then someone tried to sell me a camel ride. I’ve actually left out most of the sales attempts from this narration, but some are amusing. This on tried to tell me what an interesting experience riding a camel is. MERS aside, I’ve ridden a camel before. Interesting is the perfect word, about halfway between when a small child shows you a scribble of lines and shapes and you say, oh my how … interesting and the old Chinese proverb about interesting times. I’m A-OK not riding more camels. Ever. So I thanked him and declined, saying I’d already had the experience, and that I saw camels every day in Saudi. This created some amusement among the camel drivers around, perhaps they thought it was strange for a lone white woman to talk about Saudi camels?

The Street of Facades, The Royal Tombs, the Roman Theater and a Bedouin named Eagle

Picture 115I wandered around the corner and saw the Street of Facades and the Theater. There isn’t much Roman influence in Madain Saleh, but Petra is covered with it. Not only are the columns more frequent and ornate, but there is a full on Roman Amphitheater against one cliff.

IMG_1326The Street of Facades and Royal Tombs are really neat because it is where you can see the most resemblance to Madain Saleh. There are two pillared doors with peaked arches and five step ziggurats of the necropolis are echoed in this part of Petra quite clearly, like a bridge in time between the earlier developments of Nabatean culture into Roman and even later Christian influences that came into Petra.

Here another young man tried to sell me a mule ride, although his attempts at salesmanship were a little half-hearted. However, after accepting my disinterest in riding (it was getting close to closing time after all) he paced his mule along side me and began chatting. I like meeting new people on my travels, and since he wasn’t trying to sell me anything anymore, I was fine with this. He introduced himself as Eagle and told me that he had actually been born in one of the caves of Petra. He also still liked to live in a cave there most of the time. He was a part of the native Bedouin tribe that had been very gently relocated to a nearby village that the King built for them when Petra was made a National Park and UNESCO Heritage Site.

Picture 128Eagle walked with me from the Roman Theater, past the Royal Tombs and along the Colonnaded Street. He shared tidbits of information about the things we passed, playing tour guide and boasting about his home. He showed me where to walk along the crumbling ancient roadway. He pointed out the two-humped camel rock in the cliffs on the horizon. And he even took some pictures for me on the road in front of the tombs. I asked him questions about his life in Petra, how he had come to learn English, whether he was happy there, and he asked me questions about America and Saudi and how I came to be travelling alone.

The sun began to set and I walked much farther into the park than I had originally meant to, but I knew the path back was clear, so wasn’t too worried about getting lost even if the light faded. Plus a cell phone makes a handy emergency flashlight. He told me how beautiful Petra was at night and I asked about the candlelight tour that I had read about online. He said it wasn’t really worthwhile, since the people operating it were very strict about where people could go and always trying to get everyone to be quiet but failing. But he said that the Bedouins often came into the caves of Petra at night to eat, drink, sleep and enjoy the night.

Picture 133I like meeting people, but I’m not sure I could have stayed in the park at night with only the native Bedouin, so I shifted the subject. The other Bedouin sales people, camel and mule drivers were all packing up and meeting in a central spot before heading home. We walked into a clearing that was filled with camels. Eagle told me that his village was a short walk up the hill and that he could get someone to drive me back to the hotel for 2-3JD (about the same as a taxi would cost from the gate) and that I was welcome to walk there with him so I could see a new view and have some company instead of walking back to the front gate alone.

I decided that was safe enough, plus I wanted to see where these people lived. Some of my favorite travel experiences have been hanging out with natives, not just taking in the tourist attractions, so we set off up the hill toward the village.

To the Bedouin Village

The rock formations in Petra really are stunning and I got to see some of the amazing colors in the deep red rocks. The shapes and colors reminded me of nothing so much as sleeping dragons. We passed a few more tombs, caves and carvings along the way as well as a little lemon grove that the Bedouin cultivated. I was told they also grew olives and made very fine olive oil.

The walk was much farther than the 20 minutes I’d been told, but I don’t think he was being intentionally misleading. We were walking at a leisurely pace, and were passed by many other Bedouin driving camels and mules back at a brisk trot, so I expect it normally is about 20 minutes for him. Eventually, the climb became quite steep. I’d hiked all over Al Ula just the day before, then flown to Jordan and only had a few hours of sleep before setting out again, so my energy was flagging and I finally accepted the offer of a ride on the mule, whose name was William.

Picture 141Watching the sun set in Petra and seeing the first few evening stars appear over the cliffs as we ascended toward the village is not something I will ever regret or forget. As the Maghrib Athan began I realized for the first time why everyone always tells me that they imagine Athan as this haunting and beautiful experience. In Saudi it’s often just a side note in my day, but here in the red striated cliffs and golden light of the fading day as the call to prayer drifted down to us from the village mosque above, I felt the beautiful connection of divine, human and natural meeting in one moment.

Picture 126

We left Petra proper, passing by the park police. It felt a bit strange to be walking out of the park this way, but the guard at the gate nodded and exchanged greetings with Eagle as we passed and seemed to find my presence unremarkable. As we continued up the road, Eagle told me about another route up to the Monastery called “the back way” that included a site called Little Petra. He said if I wanted he could help me arrange a tour up to that part of the park so I could approach the Monastery from that direction and then descend again through the front part of the park.

While I always want to believe the best of people, I am a natural skeptic, so I was unwilling to commit to such a thing until I had a chance to verify the story. Sadly, I’d read accounts online of the Bedouin extorting visitors (though never hurting them or anything) and didn’t want to fall into a scam or trap no matter how nice Eagle seemed. So he gave me his number and told me to call if I wanted to go in the morning.

In the village I met several of the children that had been selling postcards or bracelets in Petra, as well as Eagle’s brother who also spoke excellent English and told me that he had a wife in France. Then true to his word, he had another friend give me a lift back to the hotel, letting me know that I could give him 2-3JD for the ride. I gave him 5. (more photos)

Dinner at the Seven Wonders

Back at the hotel, I quickly checked in with my host there about dinner, since we were supposed to go up to her husband’s hotel (a Bedouin style tent encampment up in the mountains) for a group dinner which sounded way cooler than dinner alone in my room.

While we were waiting to be picked up, I asked her about the Bedouin in the village, what she knew about them and their interactions with tourists. I explained about the invitation and asked her advice, figuring since she’d lived there for five years, she’d know. She told me that mostly they were fine, but to be careful about staying with them after dark. Although the gates of Petra close at sunset, the actual curfew is midnight, so sometimes visitors stay with the Bedouin there and drink in the caves, but the Bedouin get drunk and don’t want to leave, resulting the the tourists being stuck or getting in trouble with the police for being there after curfew.

She also said the back way was legitimate and that she herself charged tourists 60JD for that tour option so as long as I wasn’t paying more than that, that I should be perfectly safe going that option with Eagle and his friends.

Waiting for the ride I met a couple more tourists, one who lived in Jordan and her friend who was a nurse in Portland, but had gone to school in Seattle (small world gets smaller!). The path to dinner was a dark road out of the town of Wadi Musa and into the mountains. The stars were completely out by this time and simply filled the night sky. If it weren’t so cold, I probably would have stood outside and stared at them forever, but Jordan is quite chilly in the winter and combined with the desert climate and mountain altitude I couldn’t stand to be outside for more than a few moments before I caved and went into the fire-warmed tent.

Picture 145The rocks around the permanent camp had been decorated with paper lanterns, similar to what is used in the Petra by Night experience. It was really quite lovely, the dots of soften firey glow-light around the cliffs, offsetting the patterns and edges and casting a gentle light into the camp that showed us the path without interfering with the starlight.

The other two girls were actually staying in that “hotel”. Apparently there are individual tents in the area that are also fire-warmed, as well as hot showers during a few hours each morning and evening, and a generator to provide wi-fi as well. I had actually looked at it when booking online, but decided that while it might be really cool in summer, that during February I would opt for something indoor and thus wound up in the wife side of the husband/wife businesses.

In the main tent it was indeed quite warm with a large cast iron fire pit in the center that had a suspended sort of chimney/flue above it to funnel smoke up and out of the tent. We joined several other guests in the tent and sipped hot sweet tea and enjoyed the fire while we waited for dinner to be ready. It was a nice evening, chatting and sharing stories. I wanted to send Eagle a message about the tour the next day to find out how much his friends would be charging, but it took me a long time to figure out what I had entered incorrectly. What’s App is great for international SMS, but it’s very picky about how you enter a number into your contact list. I finally got in touch with him, but didn’t get a price quote that evening.

The dinner was fairly standard “Bedouin” fare, similar to what I had in Saudi before, kabsa and salad (though not as good as what I had in Madain Saleh), there was a stewed vegetable dish that was quite tasty and some of the cream cheese filled pastries made of the vermicelli-like pastry dough. It was mostly amusing to me to watch the new tourists marvel at the “strange” food which has over the last six months become quite familiar to me.

By the time I got back to the hotel it was after 10pm and I’d vowed to try to catch the 7:30 shuttle to the Petra gate that morning, so I cranked up the heater, set my alarm for 6am and fell asleep.

This story is continued in Spring Break 2015 Vol. 4: To the Monastery and Back. Don’t forget to check out all the photos of the trip on my facebook page!

🙂