Friday, July 29, 2011

Where would you choose?

Tel Aviv Bauhaus architecture  photo credit
My mom and I tend to play a game while on vacation, which we initiated three years ago during the "Mommy and Me" trip we took. Since then, 'I could live here!' (guess how the game works) has provided hours of conversation material.

When we reached Tel Aviv, I declared it on the spot.  "Man!  I could totally live here," I exclaim to my mother.  The city is vibrant; a Miami meets LA atmosphere.  Palm trees line the waterfront and city streets. Its Bauhaus architecture had me waiting for Don Johnson, wearing a white blazer over his pink T-shirt, to appear at any moment.  There's hardly a soul that isn't between the ages of 20-40.  Well built men in wife beaters and Bermuda shorts work out on the beachfront gym equipment, as women with perfect bodies run past them on the beach's walking path.  Natural food and specialty grocery stores are hidden around every corner. Frozen yogurt shops (with all you can choose toppings) grace every city block. There's shopping and restaurants galore. I was wide eyed in amazement. My heart even skipped a beat when, due to a confused taxi driver, we drove past a Max Brenner's Chocolate Shop.  I demanded we eat there, which we did.  Twice.  In the evenings, the city is abuzz with beautiful people making their way to the best clubs, or to their late night dinner reservation. It felt as though we were in a whole new country, thousands of miles away from the Israel we had experienced up to that point.

"I don't know," my mom replied, "I think I'd rather live in Jerusalem."

Monday, July 25, 2011

the zoo

Crossing the border back into Israel was inevitable, but doing so back in Aqaba/Elat was not a possibility.  We only had one option, and through my pre-travel research, that option didn't seem very pleasant.

Around 2pm we stood at a window counter of Jordan's King Hussein Bridge crossing, where an unhappy gentleman grabbed our passports and told us to pay for the exit fees, pointing to the woman behind us.  We paid and were directed to another window where another unkindly man looked at the receipt and stamped a few papers.  He then told us to sit off to the side, in the waiting area, for the bus to arrive - gruffly informing us that he wouldn't return our passports until we entered the bus.

Our wait, in a windowless room, was over 30 minutes.  Our knowledge of the bus's arrival had to be instinctual, because no one advised us of when it would come. But somehow those of us seated in the waiting area knew the right moment to make our way outside and onto the bus.  Our passports were returned, after we paid the bus fee, which we were informed of after we were comfortably seated inside it.

The 15 minute ride took us across no-mans land; an area stark and desolate in the parts not covered by the Dead Sea.  Our bus stopped right outside the beautifully landscaped, gated, entrance into Israel, where we stayed for a good 40 minutes. Once given the green light, the bus continued into the border control complex where our luggage was unloaded and we queued in line. Two seconds later, a bus load of Palestinians crammed their way into the queue, pushing themselves in front of us. It was a veritable mosh pit. Suitcases were floating over our heads and people were crawling between our legs.

Thirty minutes after we got in line we reached the luggage drop-off point, where 10 people would try cramming their suitcases into a small opening to 2 governmental workers. Somehow the workers managed to keep track of each suitcase and the correlating passport which we all had to surrender as well, to have scanned and tagged before being returned to us.

We were corralled along, forced to wait another 30 minutes before reaching the interrogation point.  Upon passing the minute long spitfire questioning we moved from outside to inside... to, surprisingly, wait in yet another line.  It only took a few seconds for us to make our way through the security checkpoint, which we thought was the end.  But our elation was short lived.  We turned the corner to see rows and rows of lines slowly inching their way forward to customs officers.

So we waited, in our own tourist queue, for another 20 minutes before reaching a friendly customs officer - who was surprised I actually wanted an Israeli stamp in my passport as opposed to one on a separate sheet of paper like everyone else had requested. Maybe the rest wanted to go to Syria or Afghanistan or Iran?  Although..., Iran would be a neat place to visit. Thankfully my passport expires soon.  But, now I digress.

Because we made it. We had finally made it through.  But not completely. For after we left the customs officer we had another (yes, another) line to go through.  An official needed to verify that the officer did, in fact, stamp our passport - or sheet of paper.  Then we were free.  Free to go into another line for someone to confirm that we had a piece of luggage (based off the sticker tagged on our passport) so that we could randomly pick whichever suitcase looked the nicest.

And then there was the line for the taxi and the hotel ordeal that inevitably ensued...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ancient city, youthful charm

Whereas the two items on my wish list were Petra and canyoning, my mother wanted to do nothing more in Jordan than go to Jerash, the largest Roman city outside of Italy.  Her excitement peaked when she discovered daily chariot races are held in the ancient hippodrome.  Her discovery occurred at a moment we thought canyoning might not be a possibility.  I was discouraged, and in her pitiful efforts to cheer me up she chimed "but Claire, the chariot racing will be so much cooler than canyoning!"  "No, mother, no it will not," came my response.  "Well, at least it will be just as cool," she argued.

Just for the record, I would have won had we made a bet.  While my eyes rolled during a very long 45 minute show comprising of mock fights and 3 second chariot racing, my mom laughed out of embarrassment for ever thinking the show would be worth seeing.
One of many "thrilling moments" in the chariot race show
The city ruins on the other hand were interesting to see.  We arrived at the same time as a few busloads of school aged boys. They ran around the ancient city, playing football (soccer) in the city square, climbing on buildings and taking constant pictures.
My mom and I found a quieter area and took a picture or two ourselves when one boy came up to us and asked "take your picture?"  Assuming he was asking if we wanted him to take our picture for us, I politely declined.  A few minutes later my mother determined it was imperative to have a guide, so she went off in search of one while I sat on an archway overlooking the entrance to the ancient city.

 "Take your picture?," another boy came up to me and asked.  "No thank you," I responded.  Soon after, I noticed one boy after another strategically place himself in front of me, while trying to act inconspicuous, to have his picture taken.  It then dawned on me what they were actually asking.  "Hey," I called to one of the boys standing a few feet in front of me, "do you want a picture with me in it?"  His eyes lit up and he nodded his head.  "Sure," I smiled, "I'll take a picture with you."

Hoards of pre-pubescent boys rushed to my side and passed cameras back and forth, snapping photo after photo.  The session was cut short with the return of my mother with our guide. In their gratitude, I was presented with a poppy to adorn my hair.

Those boys were never too far away, though, as we toured the cobblestone roads.  For when the poppy began to wither in the heat, I was immediately presented with another, and another, and another.

If only experiences like that would happen to me in the rest of the world... but by men who were in their 30's as opposed to boys who were 13.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Wadi: an Arabic term traditionally referring to a valley

Two things.  That's all I wanted out of our entire vacation together.  The first was to visit Petra, and the second was to go canyoning.  My second desire was touch and go for a while during vacation planning, but in the end it was better than I could have wished for.  Abseiling, hiking from 500 feet above sea level to 400 feet below with a delightful guide, water sliding and more.

Fun fact:  after we completed our hike, our driver took us to the top of Mount Nebo (where Moses was given a view of the promised land).  On our descent, the driver stopped the car, put it in neutral and stepped out.  The car then began to go backwards - UP the hill.  I wouldn't have believed it had I not experienced it myself.  But I did.  So now I believe.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

the Last Crusade

secluded lunchtime retreat

50 Euros for a tour.  Yes, that's right.  50 Euros.  "But I want to know what I'm looking at," my mother reminded me. I should have made her pay for the entire thing.  Not that the 3 hour tour into Petra wasn't enlightening, it just wasn't worth the price.  Unless... . If the following day's adventure was brought into account, which was due to that 50 Euro tour, the price wouldn't seem too astronomical.

Our guide walked us down the Siq (the hour long entrance to the city) and told of a time when the entire gorge was filled with trees and greenery.  He showed us the artwork carved into the walls, rocks made to look like animals, and boasted of his photography skills as he would take pictures of us without getting another soul in the shot. He gave a brief history of the ancient city as we walked past the enormous cliff buildings.  He explained that most of the buildings were family tombs, and there were many more below the ground which we were standing upon. The city seemingly went on forever in every direction.

When the tour was nearly finished, we stopped at a cave shop to get a drink. There we met the Bedouin shop owner, Ali, who after a friendly conversation invited us to a genuine Bedouin dinner at his house that evening.  We had to decline, due to the Petra by Candlelight tour we had planned (which, in case you were wondering, is not worth seeing).  So we planned on meeting him in the morning and having a genuine Bedouin lunch instead.

8:30 the following morning we piled into Ali's truck after breakfast and drove to his house.  We met his wife and kids, grabbed a few bottles of water and started on our behind the scenes trek into Petra.  The hidden back entrance to Petra provided views of cliff side buildings most tourists never set eyes upon, or know exists. Ali led us up and around all the places we hadn't seen the day before, walked with us into the dark rooms of open cliff buildings, introduced us to more of his family and showed us the cave he grew up in - which is now inhabited by his sister and her family.

Around lunchtime we were joined by a friend of Ali's with a donkey loaded with food goods. Together we hiked around cliffs, down hills, and across stretches of green sagebush, until we were in a private valley surrounded by brilliantly colored canyons and an occasional tree.

Ali (on the right) and his friend
They gathered brush and began a fire on which a beautiful lunch of chicken and vegetables was served with yogurt and flat bread. That along with the scenery made the whole afternoon seem somewhat surreal. But my watch continued to keep reality in check. The time raced forward to the hour when our bus to Amman was scheduled to leave.  I was unable to truly relish in the moments of the carefree Bedouin way of life because of it.

When I voiced my concern, and the current time, we quickly packed up and hurried towards Ali's house.  But even at our quick pace, we were still losing in the race against the clock. Once we reached the center of Petra, knowing we would never make it to the bus on time, Ali commandeered two donkeys and a horse. We all jumped on our respective animals and galloped (as quickly as donkeys will) to our destination... making it to the bus just in time.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Journey to the Rose City

Due to the fact that our flights back home were on a Sunday morning in Tel Aviv, and on Shabbat there is a lack of transportation and shortened border crossing times, we decided to shove our visit to Jordan right in the middle of our trip.

The border crossing into Jordan from Elat, a resort city on the coast of the Red Sea at the southern tip of Israel, was highly uneventful. In less than 10 minutes we paid exit fees, had our passports stamped, walked across the border, paid for a visa and had our passport stamped again. It was much easier than I had imagined it to be. But then again, it wasn't the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge crossing which we would experience later in the week.

Just outside the border crossing were a few taxi drivers, ready to take us wherever our hearts desired. One greeted us and offered his services - to take us all the way to Petra, a few hours drive, if we wanted.  We talked things over and decided to take him up on his offer.  But once we reached his car my mom was visibly worried.

"It's not a marked taxi," she whispered to me.

 I stopped and tried thinking of the last time I had actually been in a real marked taxi.  I couldn't remember if I had in Bosnia, I knew I hadn't in Mali, definitely didn't in Kenya, I really don't think I had in Zanzibar, I never did in Russia.  My unresponsiveness made her a bit more nervous... I guess the time it took for me to think of a country I had taken a real taxi in was longer than I had thought.

London!  I had definitely taken a marked taxi in London. 

"Mom, it's fine.  We're not in a Western country... that's just how it is." 

A group of taxi drivers a few feet away also confirmed my statement as our taxi driver pulled out his permit to calm her nerves.

She was still a bit hesitant while I threw our suitcases in the trunk and slid into the back seat of the car. 

"It's just that I've always been told to never get into an unmarked taxi," she stated as she slid in next to me.

Five minutes later we were pulling up behind another taxi... a marked taxi. 

"I've called my son, and he'll drive you up the rest of the way in his car, that way you'll be more comfortable," our driver said to my mother.

"Oh!  No! You didn't have to do that," she replied. I shook my head and got out of the car.

Thaer, our new driver, had us in hysterics the moment we entered the taxi. All Jordanians, we later learned, were natural comedians. He asked me if age made much of a difference in a relationship, because to him love knew no bounds... not even our 9 year age gap, with me being the older of the two. 

"What about your girlfriend you just mentioned 5 minutes ago?," I asked. 

"Oh, her?  Well actually, I just met her last week and she'll be leaving soon, so there'll be plenty of room for another."

He serenaded us with songs played on the radio, changing a word or two as the lyrics went along. "Lady," he sang Kenny Rogers style, "for so many years I thought I'd never find you... I mean this, I really do.  You have come into my car aaaaand made me whole."

So it continued on our ride up to Petra. That is, until one point when my mom exclaimed "LOOK!  A shepherd on his donkey guiding his flock!  Can we stop and take a picture?"

Thaer swerved to the side of the road and slammed on the breaks.

"Claire, get your camera," my mom ordered as we all stepped out of the car.  So there I was, taking pictures for my mother after being given permission by the shepherd.

And the next thing I knew I was sitting on top of the donkey.

Monday, July 4, 2011

"He is not here"

The location my church and I believe Christ's tomb to be is half a mile away from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, outside of the city walls.  The garden tomb, as it is called, is a night and day difference from where the Orthodox patriarch steps in once a year to witness the Miracle of Holy Fire.

Because, even with the Easter revival held in front of the tomb, there was a sweet peaceful spirit there.