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.


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.

IMG_0950 IMG_1330

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.


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.


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.

Picture 165

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 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!


Spring Break 2015 Vol. 3: The Continuing Adventures in Al Ula (pt.2)

This story picks up on day 2 after a quick stop for lunch.
If you missed the first part of the day, check out Spring Break 2015 Vol.2

plus see the full photo albums for the Dadan and the Dinner as well as for Old Town and the scenic sunset on my facebook page 🙂

The Dadan

Unless you’re up on your Bible study, this tribe may not be familiar to you. I actually didn’t know about it at all until we visited the site, and I had to do a fair amount of digging to get any information at all online. The Dedanites were an older version of the Lihyanites, and are basically only mentioned in the Bible and obscure archaeological texts. If anyone reading this knows more sources, I’d love to see them in the comments.

Mr. Fayez told us that the Dadan predate the Nabateans (seems to be true) and that their habit of carving tombs into the rocks was the inspiration for the necropolis at Madain Saleh. However, little else seems to be known about them, probably again from the complete lack of archaeological study in the Arabian Peninsula before the late King Abdullah. Inshallah, one day we may know more.

Like everywhere around Al Ula, the landscape was striking with huge jutting rocks and rich native greenery. In addition, the Dadan ruins were in the midst of several date palm farms, adding extra green to the scenery. The colors in the bright afternoon were stunning: dark green palms, red rocks and sand, and a deep blue sky with streaks of white clouds. The heat was intense in the late afternoon. Nothing, I’m sure, compared with the summer, but it made me glad that I had chosen to come in February because I simply could not imagine being outdoors in the late afternoon in a warmer month. The sun is simply scorching!

From a distance, Mr. Fayez pointed out some faint dots on one of the high rocks and told us those were the Lion Tombs of the Dadan, and that we were going to walk up to them.

IMG_1147Once again, my shoes filled up with sand as we trekked to the base of the towering rock and then up the stairs that had been added later for the benefit of tourists. Indradeb gave up once he got close enough for his zoom lens to capture the tombs, but I persisted in spite of the heat, and once more found myself face to face with history, my fingers tracing the outlines of ancient carvings left for thousands of years. The climb in my black abaya in the afternoon sun was intense, but worth it.

The lions were quite simple, and there were no pillars on the doorways of the tombs, but it was fairly obvious that the style had inspired the necropolis at Madain Saleh. And the view from the top that took in the entire landscape we had traversed to reach them was breathtaking.

After climbing back down, we drove a short distance (thankful now for the cooler full of cold water and juice that had seemed unnecessary in the cool morning) to the ruins of a village that was in the process of being excavated. IMG_1181Archaeologists don’t work all the time in Saudi. In fact, there don’t seem to be any native Saudi teams at all, only teams of foreigners who come in to the country for a few weeks at a time to dig and catalog what they can before returning to their own countries to analyze it. However, the stakes and strings were still in place, and the village was clearly in the process of being uncovered.

IMG_1189I walked to the edge of one hole and was able to see down into what had been a building of some sort. The village well was fully uncovered in the center, and off to one side, there was a thick round stone that bore similar chisel marks that I had seen in the tombs. The stone would have been used for grinding grain.

When I was a kid, Indiana Jones seemed like the coolest job ever, and although after discovering that real archaeology meant hours in the dust and sun sifting pottery shards I decided maybe it wasn’t the career for me, I’ve never really lost my love of ancient cultures. I feel in many ways like we are isolated from these discoveries because we only see them in photos or behind glass in museums. I understand the absolute importance of studying and preserving these things, but damn it’s cool to come face to face with them in such an authentic environment.

Old Town

Having completed our tour of the ancient civilizations, Mr. Fayez wanted to show off the history of his hometown a little bit. Al Ula has obviously been inhabited for a really long time, but the modern Arabs who have become Saudis have a history too.

One of the things I think I will always be grateful to King Abdullah for is his encouragement of history and archaeology. I saw too often in China where people had lost their history after the Cultural Revolution and had to rebuild ancient sites from a few scattered notes and drawings, and it was sad. The strict form of Islam that Saudi was founded with was not particularly interested in any history other than that directly related to Islam, and even then, they were less interested in good historical investigation and preservation than with the production of hagiographies.

I had read several books on Saudi before coming here and was generally advised that any and all archaeology didn’t exist here. Ilhamdulilah this isn’t true. There was the beautiful museum in Riyadh, and I met a whole team of British archaeologists in the airport once on their way to a historical site near Tabuk. Madain Saleh and the old souk Al Balad in Jeddah have both been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites and the Saudis are starting to take some serious pride in their whole history.

And so it is that that the “old town” of Al Ula is being slowly reclaimed and restored from the dust.

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Like so much in Saudi, the influx of oil money caused a great expansion and building of infrastructure. New town Al Ula is modern and comfortable with many public services, parks, recreation areas and a bustling if small souk (shopping) area. But families living there can trace their roots to the the small collection of stone and mud buildings in Old Town, and some of them decided to restore the little village. The process isn’t yet complete, so we were able to see the slow changes.

IMG_1195The whole town in enclosed in a wall, the gates to which were closed up at night for safety against raiders. The Arabian peninsula was a very violent place until the last several decades. The houses were build with shared walls between them and the streets were covered by a roof made of whole palm trunks thatched with palm fronds and covered in mud. This kept the sun out of the town making it a cool refuge in the heat of the day. In fact, I noticed it right away when we stepped though the gate that the temperature inside the village was lower than merely standing in shadow outside it. It was like stepping into a cave.

IMG_1208We saw a mixture of original and restored in doors, walls, ceilings and steps. There was even a house that had some relics of tightly woven date frond floor mats and an old metal storage box. It’s very likely that some of the older folks in Al Ula had actually lived in these houses before the oil money came in and the new town was built up. Mr. Fayez told us that he learned most of the history of the town from his grandmother who had seen it change so much.

IMG_1222The old town also boasted a stone watchtower, built on one of the natural rock formations that overlooked the whole area and would have allowed them to see any danger long before it reached the walls. From this vantage point we could clearly see the progress of the houses that had been fully rebuilt and the ones that were still waiting for attention.

Change of Plans at the Viewing Platform

At this point, my guide, Mr. Fayez, had to leave me and drive my co-explorer for the day back to Madina. Indradeb was actually enjoying his last day in Saudi Arabia and should be back in England even as I am writing this. (waves!) However, not to be a bad guide, Mr. Fayez had arranged for a friend of his to continue the remainder of my tour and make sure that I got to the airport safely. His friend happened to be a member of the Police Intelligence whose name I shall not be sharing out of respect.

So we drove back to the hotel where I once again tried to divest my shoes and socks of sand and enjoyed a brief cup of Turkish coffee in the courtyard before setting off for the final stop on my tour. Little did I know that my day’s adventure had so much more in store for me.

The officer was plain clothes, dressed in a traditional Saudi thobe and shemagh. He didn’t speak much English, possibly even less than I speak Arabic at this point, but we managed to have a sort of conversation on the drive out with our limited vocabulary and some charades. He was actually very open minded and well traveled and quite pleasant company. I hope that he’s a good example of Saudi police, but honestly he’s the only one I’ve ever talked to, so I have no way of knowing.

When we reached the last stop, a very high peak overlooking the whole town of Al Ula, we were right behind another tour group that we’d passed a couple times throughout the day. In fact, it was the same group we’d talked to at Madain Saleh. The lady worked at the Swedish Embassy in Riyadh and her husband was one of the few male dependent spouses among the expat community. Her parents had come in on a family visa for a visit. (Apparently it’s easy enough to get visitor visas for parents, but not for siblings, so Mom, Dad, lemme know if you wanna come visit).

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We had come to the site to overlook the city and all the places we’d been during the day and to get a great view of the sunset. Their tour guide exchanged idle ribbing with my escort, teasing him that police officers were becoming tour guides now. The Sweds and I chatted idly about our experiences in Saudi and for the day’s tour as we snapped photos and waited for the sun to paint the sky. We were not disappointed.

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Dinner in the Desert

As I mentioned before there are only a few flights in and out of Al Ula every week, so they were heading out on the same evening flight as I was. We thought we were parting ways until the airport, but their tour guide told me that they were all heading to a Bedouin dinner in the desert before the flight and I was welcome to come along. Since it wasn’t even 6pm and the flight was at 10pm, I said sure.

So we piled into the cars and drove back out to the cliffs of Madain Saleh. While we couldn’t enter the historical site at night, we pulled off right across the road and went up a small hill toward some more stunning giant rocks that had been light from below with electric lights. There was a Bedouin tent set up with carpets inside and a fire crackling. We took a little while to explore the rocks, finding a little stairway that led up to another viewing platform, then returned to the tent for hot sweet tea and dates while we waited for dinner.

The dinner was a home cooked meal made by some of the local ladies, traditional foods like kabsa and jareesh and kofta and tabuleh and sambosa (yum). However it was also substantially late. Our poor guides were beside themselves since they had expected the food to be waiting for us when we arrived and it didn’t show up until after 8pm! Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue, but they were especially worried that we wouldn’t make it to the airport. I can’t say that they would have been so worried if half of the guests weren’t carrying diplomatic passports, but regardless they were quite vigilant that we catch our flight.

While we were waiting for our meal, we found out that the French Cultural Attache had been misplaced. He was in town visiting the French archaeologist at the dig site in Madain Saleh, but no one could find him and his phone seemed to have gone dead or been turned off. My ersatz guide began making phone calls to the town police to set up a search party. No one likes to loose diplomats.

After a long day of walking and hiking, we set to the food with a will when it did arrive. I don’t think the lack of time to eat was actually an issue since we were all quite hungry and ate with what can only be described as gusto. The food was also excellent. I feel like its a real shame that younger Saudi women aren’t learning how to make these dishes because I fear the cuisine may be lost.

Their version of kabsa was especially nice. The traditional cardamom spiced rice had been augmented with a mixture of caramelized onions and sultanas and the chicken was both sweet and savory. Jareesh is going to be one of my favorite foods forever now, even though I know I won’t be able to eat it in America (silly Monsanto wheat!). This one was so creamy and rich I could only eat a tiny bowl but it was amazing! The kofta meatballs were huge and made of a velvety texture that only the best meatballs ever achieve, soaking in a spiced broth that was ideal to slurp up with the broken up kofta. The tabuleh salad was cool and had fresh greens and a light tahini taste and the sambosa were quite generous as well, filled with spiced meat and chopped vegetables. I didn’t try the okra stew, since I’m not a huge okra fan and all the other foods were so delicious.

That One Time I Helped Rescue the French Cultural Attache (ok, so that may be a tiny exaggeration, but it sounds cooler this way!)

After dinner we quickly reshod our feet and hied back to the cars to get to the airport on time. There was still no sign of the missing diplomat, but there wasn’t really anything I could do, so I watched the traffic and the clock, hoping that if we were late for check in at the airport my police escort might help smooth my way.

Then the officer escorting me got a phone call and pulled over behind the vehicle in front of us. It turned out that one of his officers had found the Frenchman (Cyrille is his name) and we were stopping to pick him up and add him to our airport caravan. Cyrill hopped in the backseat quite flustered and two things soon became apparent: 1) Cyrill spoke no Arabic, and 2) he’d lost his passport sometime during the day.

He told me that he had a strong interest in history and archaeology (a Ph.D worth of interest to be precise) and that in addition to visiting his country’s resident archaeologist, he’d been doing some exploring on his own when his car became lodged in a sand dune. The sand out here is tricky. One moment it’s packed like a dirt road and the next its a shifting sliding slog. The two don’t always look different either, a fact I’d noticed on previous outings off road in the Kingdom.

While he was stuck only 5-6km from the hotel, it was an unpleasant terrain and on top of that his cell phone battery had died! He had been rescued by some people passing by (another testament to the hospitality and the power of charades) and driven back to the hotel by them where he was able to then get yet more folks to come and help him dig his car out. In the ensuing confusion, however, he’d left his camera bag (with diplomatic passport) in the car of the first helpful group.

Most unusually, I had been seated in the front of the officers car while he drove me around, figuring that no one was going to stop us and ask for papers since he was the police. (it’s not ok for me to do this normally, only wives or relatives can sit up front with the male drivers). And when Cyrill saw me communicating with the officer driving us, he leapt to the conclusion that I spoke Arabic and somehow I became the defacto translator between them.

Thankfully, the story of the missing passport/camera bag and some kind of vehicle description had been relayed to our escort by one of the other folks in the phone chain, because I cannot be sure I would have been able to convey all of that, but once I established that he knew what the problem was, we were able to discuss the plan of action.

To help you further understand the insanity of this situation: Our flight was at 10:20 pm. Check in for flights closes an hour before take-off. Yes, ok, I knew from previous personal experience that this wasn’t an absolute, and I was fairly sure that we could be a little late and that between the police presence and diplomatic presence, we’d be allowed to board, but it was already after 9pm at this point and both Cyrill and I were becoming a little anxious. Since he was just flying back to Riyadh, he wouldn’t need the passport to board, but then it would be lost in Al Ula, which is not what you want to take back to your Ambassador, I’m sure.

I gleaned that the plan was to have the unis track down the camera bag and bring it to us at the airport. So here’s me with something like 30-40 Arabic words to my repertoire trying to navigate the complex explanations of our host whose English parts of the explanation included “camera” and “passport” with a French diplomat relying on me to help translate his needs and concerns, and to reassure him that the passport was being recovered and we would make the flight on time. I cannot make this stuff up.

The officer had stopped several times to talk to uniformed police as we continued on our way, and we were growing increasingly anxious about the check in time. Cyrill and I continued to talk on the way, perhaps he was trying to keep his mind off the missing passport, I know I would be going nuts if I lost mine. Within a minute of the cutoff time we pulled into the airport parking lot and headed inside. Let’s check in, I told him, then we can take our time following up with the passport.

However, like so many people in the modern world, Cyrill’s flight information was safely tucked away in his phone, which was dead. Me to the rescue again with my trusty back up charger! I got this spare battery basically with solar panels and all because I thought it would be horrible to be out travelling and not able to charge my devices that I depend on for everything from music and camera to document storage, to translation dictionary. Turns out it is horrible. So I hooked up Cyrill’s phone and got him back up and running.Shortly after that the officer told me that the camera bag had been recovered and was on its way. Not surprisingly we also met the Swedish delegation at the check in counter and got to relay the whole thrilling tale to them as well.

Once the bag and passport were safely returned, we profusely thanked and bid farewell to our guide and host and gratefully flopped into the seats in the lounge to await the flight. And now I have a French diplomat in my contacts list and an invitation to whatever event happens to be going on at the Embassy the next time I’m in Riyadh, so we’ll just have to see how that pans out next month.

So that wraps up the first full day of adventures for this vacation. I don’t think it could have been any more fully packed if we’d used a prybar but it certainly was amazing and unforgettable. Some people may say tourism in Saudi isn’t worth it, but I find that every time I set out for a trip I get all that I could have dreamed and more. One of the guides told me that the reason Saudi isn’t open to tourism is because they want to finish developing all the roads and access to the tourist sites so that they can present an image that is commensurate with the country’s great wealth, but I know it won’t be the same by then and while I will always encourage others to see this country as more than the home of Osama bin Laden or the place where oil grows,  I know that we will loose something if they turn all these sites into wealth-showing attractions, and I will always treasure my time here in these days of change.