June 4, 2014
The first thing I did when I woke up this morning was open the windows and go out onto the balcony. The view was so breathtaking I almost couldn’t believe it was real. All of the buildings rose and fell with the flow of the land, over hills and down into valleys. The white and cream colors of bricks and stones reflected the sun and practically sparkled. The sky was clear, not a cloud in sight, and such a soft light blue it seemed dreamy. I found out later that’s because all the dust that gets kicked up makes the air hazy, but at the moment it seemed much more surreal than dusty.
We went down to the main floor for breakfast and then met our tour guide in the lobby. He walked us over to convenience store to buy water. The tap water in Jordan is not drinkable, so we have to buy bottled water. Aside from being one of the most water-poor countries in the world, the Jordanian public water supply also has trace amounts of trihalomethanes, which is basically radiation. In the hotels and touristy areas the water can get up to seven dinar, but in the convenience store we bought one liter bottles for 50 cents each. We bought enough water to last us two days, since we wouldn’t be able to buy water tomorrow in Petra. He also helped me buy a SIM card so I could make calls back home. I set it up and bought minutes, but so far I haven’t been able to make it work. Every time I try to make a call to the US, a robot lady comes on the line and speaks to me in Arabic and then hangs up.
Even though we spent the night in Amman, our first few days in Jordan were going to be spent in the south, which meant long bus rides. Not that I was complaining. Jordan is a beautiful country with huge rolling hills and deep valleys carved by the ancient ocean that covered the area millions of years ago.
The first place we stopped, Machaerus, is famous for being the location of Herod the Great’s huge palace where John the Baptist is traditionally believed to have been beheaded. Nothing of the structure remains today, and everything on top of the hill was constructed later on for tourists to have something to look at. Off in the distance, you can see the Dead Sea, and on the other side of the water, Israel.
There’s a sort of cistern looking structure built into the hill with a rickety ladder. Me being the brave adventurer that I am, I had to climb down inside of it. I realized it was probably a bad idea about a fourth of the way down, seeing as the wires holding the ladder to the wall were rusted and most of them were broken. The ladder didn’t seem to like holding my weight either.
After a short excursion we hit the road again, this time heading to see the Mujib Dam. Jordan is mostly desert, save for the area around the Dead Sea and the river that feeds it. Jordan is also one of the most water-poor countries in the world. In order to keep up with the country’s water demand, a dam was built to stop the water from flowing into the Dead Sea and keep it in Jordan for the people who need it. But because of that, the Dead Sea is drying up very quickly. My professor said there are estimates that it will be gone by 2050.
While we were looking out over the valley, a salesperson approached us and tried to sell us little trinkets. I wasn’t about to spend my money on cheap souvenirs that I knew would fall apart easily, but I’m a total sucker for rocks. He had a few really cool rocks with ancient fossils in them– old seashells from the massive ocean that once covered the area. My professor bought one before our tour guide intercepted us.
He took the rock and looked at it skeptically. “You paid how much for this?” Sam demanded.
“Five dollars,” my professor answered.
Sam shook his head. “These rocks are everywhere. Everywhere in the desert. You want more rocks? We will get more rocks later.” He handed the fossil back and we loaded back into the bus.
Our bus is pretty comfortable and I managed to get a little bit of sleep to make up for my jet lag. The roads made it almost impossible for me to sleep, though. Driving in Jordan is absolutely crazy– people ignore the lines on the road and drive wherever they please and pass people even if there is oncoming traffic headed at them. I thought maybe it was just that way in Amman, since driving in big cities is always pretty crazy, but the whole ride was like that. To stop people from driving too much over the speed limit, there are speed bumps everywhere, even on the highways. I was pretty content to just stare out the window at the olive trees and houses, through, since every time I fell asleep we hit a speed bump and I went flying out of my seat.
We made our way to the city of Karak, famous for the Karak Castle. The castle is a very old desert fortress from the time of the Crusades. There have been several structures in that same area for a very long time but the one from the time of the Crusades is still standing. The whole city is built around it and integrated into it. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant that was in one of the old towers.
Our lunch was a traditional Jordanian dish called mansaf, which is lamb meat cooked in unsweetened yogurt and served over rice. I tried a few bites but quickly found out that I don’t like lamb, so I stuck to my hummus and vegetables instead.
There were so many amazing old structures still standing at Karak. I am always impressed by old things– when I was in Germany I was constantly gushing about how well preserved the buildings from the 1600’s were. Here, in the Middle East, structures can date back to BCE. Karak was refurbished by the crusaders in the early 1000’s, which basically blew my mind.
As we were exploring the ancient structures, our tour guide suddenly stopped and picked something up off the ground. “This is amazing!” he exclaimed. “Do you know that this is?” He held it out to us. It looked like a rock. We shrugged and shook our heads. He turned the rock over onto the other side. It was smooth and bright yellow and shiny. “I thought you were archeologists? This is pottery. Islamic period. Very special.” He grinned. “Who wants it?”
“Can we just… take it?” someone asked.
“Sure, why not?”
“You said it was special.”
“Eh, special to us. Not special to them.”
Immediately my eyes were glued to the ground, searching for treasure. But I came away from Karak empty handed.
We loaded back on the bus once more and headed out of the city. Outside in the countryside people herd their sheep and goats all over the place. They come right up next to the highways with their flocks. After a while, our tour guide stopped the bus. “Earlier, you bought a rock with fossils,” he said as the bus pulled over onto the shoulder. “Now, we go get rocks for free.” We loaded off the bus and wandered off the side of the road in search for cool rocks. I’m sure we must have looked ridiculous to everyone driving by, but I got a really cool free rock.
We drove to Petra just in time to make it for dinner at our hotel, the Petra Panorama. From the hotel balcony you can see the huge cliff faces of Petra. This hotel wasn’t as nice as our hotel in Amman, but the food was amazing. I think at this point there is probably hummus in my bloodstream since I’ve been eating it with every meal since I got here. I haven’t had a single fried object that wasn’t something like pan-fried vegetables or fish. Everything is fresh fruits and vegetables, soft bread and cheese, pita and hummus, and rice and meat.
We wanted to explore the city a little bit, but the hotel closed its gates after sunset. Disappointed, we headed back to our rooms to change into pajamas. After about 20 minutes, I heard screaming coming from one of the rooms down the hall. I assumed it had to be someone from our group and went to go see what all the commotion was about.
A spider, probably five to six inches across, had crawled out from behind one of the girls’ closets and climbed up onto the ceiling. It was massive and scary with big fangs and long legs. There were about six of us just standing in the doorway, open mouthed, freaking out about how big the spider was. Finally someone caught it with a trashcan and tried to set it free outside, but ended up accidentally flinging it off the balcony. I’m not easily scared by insects or arachnids, but I’m really glad that I’m not sleeping in that room tonight.