Saturday, July 11, 2009

Peace in the Middle East

To satisfy our pre-nuptual pact to see at least one new country every year, Kendall and I headed over to the Middle East for some rest and relaxation. We had already used one of our get-out-of-jail-free cards (Mexico) and are saving the other (Canada) for the year we are forced to retire our Corolla and spend all our life savings on a car that can accommodate more than a single toddler and his stuffed pet snow leopard named Meow Meow.

This year, we traveled with our parallel-universe counterpart couple, Chad and Amy, to Jordan. The nice thing about traveling with friends is that it emboldens you and provides a false sense of security. Once we knew we would be together, renting a car in a country where the writing on the road signs bears an uncanny resemblance to noodles thrown on a wall seemed like a great idea.

Renting a car, though, turned out to be a great way to see Jordan. Our travels took us everywhere from the northern most tip of the country through Irbid and down to Aqaba in the South.

We navigated Amman's seven rings of death (enormous multi-lane urban roundabouts governed entirely by drivers' testosterone levels) and performed numerous U-turns on the highway through Irbid as we each weighed in on what direction we thought was the right one.

We gestured our way through military checkpoints where the guards were puzzled by our insistence in driving through remote villages that never made it into any of our guidebooks. What they didn't know is that we would do anything to avoid driving through Irbid again.

We meandered on a narrow dirt road through mountainous sheep-herding land, following identical signs that nobody could read, until reaching the ruins of an ancient church. What church? We didn't know. We don't read Arabic.

Below are some of the more specific highlights from our trip:

1. Asking the women at a clothing shop in Madaba to dress us in full local attire, which turned out to be a double head covering and a floor length polyester dress (with silver glitter!). Thank goodness it was only like 180 degrees outside. In Jordan, fashion is not seasonal.

Now I know why the women in Jordan were masters of eye makeup. That's the only thing that shows. I desperately wished I had brought some eye-liner with me.

2. Eating packaged snack cakes and sipping cold fruit drinks with the Mount Nebo tourist police squad. The head of the squad had, just the week before, been the Pope's personal interpreter and guide for Mount Nebo. As he explained, he was the designated guide and interpreter for "official delegations," not mere tourists. His favorite English phrase? "I agree with you." He has clearly been learning diplomacy.

3. Braving the sweltering heat to see the Jordan River, including the likely site of Jesus' baptism, and being allowed into some ancient hermit caves (of the type that John the Baptist may have lived in during his ministry and famed culinary encounters with grasshoppers).

When we asked why these hermit caves were blocked off, the guide told us that tourists were not allowed inside, but then added, "But this is the Middle East" and allowed us inside.

4. Floating in the Dead Sea after earnestly believing that I would sink into the brine.

Look, Ma, no hands. Or feet. Just salt.

5. Wandering among the ruins of Jerash and enjoying a hands-on lesson on Roman architecture. Remember: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian are three flavors of architectural embellishment.

Columns, columns, and more columns.

We joined an audience of giddy school children to watch underpaid Jordanian actors re-enact a Roman chariot race, gladiator fights, and military formations.

6. Being followed throughout Ajlun Castle by Ali "the Fighter," who we thought was overly eager to practice his English with us. Ali was a mysterious man: we couldn't figure out why he was hanging out at a tourist/field trip hub, and he had very few answers to our questions. But because all the Jordanians we had met had been so genuinely hospitable and nice, we accepted Ali's invitation to join him for lunch. However, we refused his request that one of us ride with him in his car. Alas, no lunch took place because Ali the Fighter was detained by Jordanian police as we walked out to the parking lot in front of the castle. We considered waiting for Ali to be released, but quickly decided that it was best to do lunch on our own.

The suspect is on the left.

Ajlun Castle was a Muslim fortress dating to 1184 AD. Think Lawrence of Arabia, Kingdom of Heaven, or any other of your favorite crusade movies.

7. Desperately ordering everything on the menu at the "Rest Room" (restaurant) at the ruins of Umm Qais to appease "Hungry Chad," who was turning colors and foaming at the mouth from lack of food.

8. Discussing the concept of marital fidelity, embraced by both Mormonism and Islam, with our guide in Petra, who believed that the requirement applied mostly to women.

Yes, I hummed the Indiana Jones theme song as we entered the city. Look at the facade in the upper right corner of the collage. Those dots in the doorway are people. The scale is unimaginable.

9. Scuba diving in the Red Sea and splurging on a nice hotel in Aqaba.

We don't have an underwater camera.

10. Crossing the border into Israel, where rifles and handguns are fashion staples.

A cigarette, a surf bag, Dolce & Gabana sunglasses, and a military-issue weapon.
What more could one want? Maybe a bottle of Evian.

Our two days in Israel included a third-of-a-mile-long jaunt through Hezekiah's Tunnel, an almost three-thousand-year-old aqueduct. While I'm sure it's usually very pleasant, I had the distinct sensation that we were mere mosquitoes flitting between two giant, merciless stone hands. Perhaps it was the fact that we were stuck behind a herd of slow-moving, song-singing, identically-dressed teenagers. Or maybe it was because the teenager directly in front of Kendall had a rifle strapped to his back that bounced on his hip with every step he took. Or it could have been the rather chatty Japanese tour group pressing up against our backs. But it was probably just the fact that I could barely get my thighs past the slimy wet walls.


  1. Great recap! I will just live vicariously.

  2. Sounds absolutely amazing. Thanks for all of the photos--I loved "touring" it all with you. Glad you had such a good time.

  3. wow. great trip. great post.

  4. That's awesome! I love to read about others' vacations. I need to get to the Middle East sometime in my life!

  5. Sorry for butting in. I know this post is almost a year old but I stumbled across it searching for pics of Jordan. I'm very jealous of your vacation, as someone who used to be a student of Arabic (I still consider myself a fan of Arabic and Arabs). Some day I will take this vacation.

    The sign says "Mosque of Historical Somethingoranother". It's no surprise you can't read it really, there's an error in the second word, the second letter isn't, well, a letter. So it says nothing to someone who can read Arabic too!

    It might have been intended to read "Mosque of Historical Books/Documents" or something like that judging from the last two letters of the second word, or it could have been a name, but it's really impossible to tell!

  6. Josh, thanks for the translation. We had given up on ever knowing what it said--now we know why nobody could give us an explanation!

  7. Anonymous6:07 PM

    hi my name is Petra and its so amazing to know that there is a country in Jordan named Petra(: