A long day today. We've docked in Aquaba, Jordan. It's on a little(?) dead-end inlet off the Red Sea at a point where Jordan, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia all come together. Check it out on the map. It's a weird spot that I didn't even know existed.
The theater is full of people awaiting their tours. Apparently more than five hundred passengers have signed up for shore excursions here. Our tour is called early and we manage to get on a bus with some people we know and like. Then the tour guide starts talking. And he can barely speak English. But I am suspicious. He seems to know some words that I wouldn't expect a novice speaker to know. But everyone is nervous; it could be a long day with this guy! After ten minutes, suddenly, the guide switches to speaking very good English. Is this the same person? What's going on? Well, it seems it was all just a joke -- the fake accent, the inability to speak English. Funny, huh? No, not really. So now I'm really uncomfortable -- this guy is talking very fast and I'm wondering -- seriously wondering -- about this guy's mental health. It's the end of the day now and frankly I am still not sure he isn't on some serious psychiatric medication, has a multiple personality disorder and/or is self-medicating.
The drive to Petra is long (two hours) but fortunately we stop at an extremely smokey (and overpriced) gift shop along the way -- hah. Seriously though we are able to see the rock formations of WadiRum from the highway and this is a pleasant surprise. We had originally signed up for a fourteen hour tour that was to include both Petra and WadiRum but we decided fourteen hours was simply too long and switched to the just Petra tour (ten hours is long enough!)
The rock formations and the stark landscape are very reminiscent of the South West. It's what I call a geological landscape, that is a place where geology dominates. Just rocks and sky and sand. Oh and trash. Lots of trash. Plastic bags half-buried, broken glass glittering in the sun. We see camels and Bedouin shepherds with their flocks of sheep. Rock cairns mark their territory.
After two hours we arrive at Petra. The bus parking lot is rapidly filling up and immediately we come in contact with today's nemesis--school groups of adolescent girls. It seems there isn't an adolescent girl left in school anywhere between Aquaba and Ammon. They are all at Petra. Screaming and squealing to their hearts' content. Ugh.
Our guide quickly hooks up the folks that need or want horseback ("it's included in the tour price but not covered by insurance") or horse and buggy transportation (not free, no shocks and undoubtedly also not covered under the tour operator's apparently sketchy insurance policy). We choose to walk in but after a half an hour with not very interesting guided stops every five minutes we decide to bag the group and proceed on our own.
The weather is glorious. Deep blue sky, low humidity, temperature in the low eighties. The way in is downhill all the way. Eventually the two lanes (one for pedestrians and one for horses, carts, etc.) combine and the surrounding hills close in. We are in a canyon now with sides that are increasing in height as the path narrows. Not that that slows the cart drivers who proceed as if demonically possessed, scattering screaming school girls in all directions. Are we having fun yet?
Eventually we arrive at the Treasury which is the Petra sight that you are probably familiar with. First we see it ahead through the narrow, winding path and then there it is in front of us. It's hard to get a great look at it because well it's a straight up madhouse here. There are people everywhere (of course) but also a cafe, a gift shop, a pay toilet facility, vendors trying to sell bracelets for "a dollar" (or are they saying "a dinar"?) carts and horses dropping off and picking up passengers -- oh and to top it all off -- camel rides! The half dozen camels look tired (to me) and put upon as they slowly pick themselves up off the ground with yet another overweight, wanna be Indiana Jones weighing them down. They trudge five yards to the spot in front of the Treasury that has been designated as the best spot to get your picture taken so that it appears you are a.) alone and b.) that you arrived via camel (which you did not). Ugh.
The building, if it can be called such for it's mostly just a facade, is impressive though worn. Mercifully, you can't go inside so we satisfy ourselves with a seat along the wall in front of the Treasury where we sit with backs to the building and soak in the real sight -- that is, the insane maelstrom of tourism run amok which is right before our very eyes.
Eventually our guide and the rest of the group arrive (including Richard who you may remember from a previous blog entry) and we re-attach ourselves to the group (though definitely not Richard) in order to explore the less famous tombs. Unbeknownst to me, this place is essentially a necropolis, that is a glorified cemetery. R is impressed by the size and scale of the place and I suppose I am as well but it's hard for me. I am still stuck on the camels. And the horses. And the mules (talk about a "put upon" expression!). All the animals seem hungry and mistreated and probably thirsty and tired as well. I want to free them all and am only half listening to the guide as I try to avoid twisting my ankle (I am determined not to end up in a Jordanian hospital) whilst simultaneously not making eye contact with any vendors (lest I suffer the wrath of R).
R offers to climb the steps to the Royal Tomb which is a good distance above the valley floor and looks to be considerably less crowded up there (i.e., no camel rides). While it is tempting I think I've pretty much had my fill at this point. I definitely should have done my research on this place because I really have very little understanding of what I am seeing and who constructed it. Perhaps I just want to over-complicate things. It is what it is but still I can't shake the feeling that there is something about me that's preventing me from fully appreciating this UNESCO-designated "World Heritage Sight".
The return trek to the entrance where a surprisingly good buffet lunch awaits us is more of the same: squealing teenagers, adults walking slowly and seemingly determined to block your (my) way and horse carts upsetting everyone with regularity (are they filming some kind of episode of "Carts Gone Wild" and I just don't know it?).
Back on the bus,we drive through town and I see a goat's carcass and next to it the skin hanging in front of one store while a cow's head is proudly displayed in front of another shop. "Why?" I wonder. It seems further evidence of a lack of compassion for animals and a hardness that I just don't understand. "Welcome to the Middle East," our guide says but it's not that simple as I've seen the same or nearly so at other places on this trip. I guess I am just not used to it. I suppose I prefer my slaughtered animals to be a little further removed, a little more sanitized.
I am getting off track. The ride back to the ship is interesting. The landscape, stark and barren as it is, is nevertheless beautiful and timeless. We pass olive trees growing on land that was terraced no doubt hundreds of years ago. The road is in good condition and not crowded despite the presence of many cars in people's driveways. Carpets and bedspreads hang in the sun. Laundry also (always laundry). Children wave. I see a soccer field with artificial (it would have to be) grass. Rocks are everywhere (and I thought Connecticut soil was rocky).
The trash seems less now on this return journey and our now slightly less hyper guide takes us on a narrated drive around Aquaba. At first I am not enthusiastic (big surprise there) but I am glad that he did. There is more going on in this town than the bleak landscape suggests. New luxury hotels, a new and attractively modern City Hall, expensive condominiums being built by the hundreds.
Back on board the ship we have dinner in the dining room. I neglected to ask our server what he thought of Petra. We saw him there and I sensed he was conflicted about the place. Am I searching for a fellow skeptic or just looking for some indication that it's alright to feel the way I do about my visit to one of the "Seven Wonders of the Modern World".