Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Middle Eastern Adventure

Amman, Jordan
 Adventure, conquest, discovery and perhaps a dose of American Pie – such were our goals and themes for the Eid Break trip to the Holy Land.  With limited planning, little knowledge of where we were going, and only a basic knowledge of the Arabic language, we set out on an expedition to discover the unknown and make our own stories to marvel the masses.  So on Saturday morning, with three hours of sleep, we hopped on the 6AM train to the Dubai bus stop, and we were on our way.  We checked into our flight at the bus stop and took the bus to the Abu Dhabi airport, about ninety minutes away.   The airport security was extremely lax.  Over half of the people set off the metal detector, and, when they did, the security guard would simply do a quick pat-down and wave them along.  I felt less than confident about the safety of our flight, but this was supposed to be an adventure right?  Our flight took us over the Saudi Arabian desert; all we could see was the plane’s shadow over miles and miles of rolling desert sand dunes straight to the horizon until out of nowhere we saw khaki colored structures, and we knew we had arrived in the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. 

The Roman Theater
After landing in Amman, we hit the duty free shop, grabbed some cash from the ATM, and found a taxi into town.  The taxi was really cheap – only $25 for a 45-minute ride into city center!  The ride into the city was quite a culture shock coming from the skyscrapers and high society of Dubai.  Much of the area was full of poverty, with shepherds herding goats and camels next to their desert dwellings.  As we moved into the city, the most incredible things to see were the ancient buildings hugging the mountains and plunging into the valleys.  We drove through the crowded streets with merchants running around with their various goods through the back alley markets before arriving at an ancient Roman amphitheater, built in 70AD, located directly across from our hotel.  We checked into the hotel just as the sun began to set and decided to do a bit of exploring in the town.  At the Roman Theater, we got a picture and took a brief tour of the structure.  We then checked our map and headed up the street that looked like it would have the most going on for dinner and decided on a place called Sara’s, hoping for an English speaking waiter.  The main dining area was full, but before we could check somewhere else, the owner whisked us into a back stairwell, into a small closet elevator without an inner door, and, just as we were beginning to wonder if we were being abducted, into a second dining room overlooking the street below.  It was then that we realized that in Jordan, few people speak English despite the Western names of different establishments.  The only Arabic food vocabulary we knew were hubz (bread) and dajaj (chicken), so we decided that bread and chicken would make a fine dinner.  Unfortunately, it was a seafood restaurant, so we sat with just hubz and no dajaj for twenty minutes while the waiter looked for an English menu.  After dinner, we returned to the hotel, got dressed, and went to explore some of the Jordan nightlife on the much-anticipated Rainbow Street, oddly not the gay district. 

Roman Ruins in Amman
It took us an hour to find the place on foot due to our lack of map reading skills and our inability to express anything in Arabic other than “I’m Jacob the American; bread and chicken.”  We went up and down the street, eventually settling on a bar that overlooked the city valley.  Afterward, we went into another local restaurant only to realize it was Arabic Bingo night.  With dozens of old Jordanians staring at us and yelling things in Arabic, we got the feeling that we shouldn't be there, so we started the search for our hotel.  We immediately took a wrong turn and asked for help as best we could from some local kids who were roaming the street.  It was amazing to see how safe the city was, with kids and women walking alone or in small groups at night in areas which I would have deemed “sketchy.”  It felt like reading Kite Runner’s opening where he talks about roaming the city safely as a child.  Anyway, the kids showed us a dirt “staircase” carved into the rocks of the mountain that ran next to some apartments hugging the slope and wished us good luck (or maybe just laughed at us – it was hard to tell with their broken English…).  After some hiking and unanticipated exploration of what we called the "Jerusalem Staircase," we made it safely back to the hotel and called it a night, but not for long.

Heading out of Jordan
At 5:30 that morning, we were awakened to incredibly loud sirens right outside our window.  Coming from Alabama, I thought for sure a tornado was on its way.  When the four of us woke up and came to our senses, we realized that it was actually the morning call to prayer and that we had unfortunately been given a room right next to the outdoor speaker.  A few minutes later after the echoes of “Allah is great, Allah is good” had ceased, we fell back asleep for another hour before breakfast.  That morning, we ate an Arabic breakfast that the hotel provided – a plate of pita bread, jam, something that had a picture of a penguin on it, olives, hummus, potatoes, and of course cups of tea and juice.  After breakfast, we began our journey into the forbidden destination – Israel.  For months, we had been warned against visiting the country of Israel because, if a visa stamp appeared on our passports, we would be unable to reenter the UAE, and would be deported back to the United States, unable to finish the fall term at school.  Needless to say, we were more than a little nervous as our car drove us back out of the city, through the mountains, and toward the West Bank.  It certainly didn’t help that our driver kept playing chicken with cars in the opposite lane as he passed people going too slowly.  It also didn’t help when we pulled over on a street corner, he said, “I go no more!  Police at King Hussein Bridge!  F**k the police!” threw our bags into another taxi with the words “give him no money!” and sped back in the other direction.  Weighing our options of trying to communicate with the locals in this one-stoplight outpost or getting in the car for no money, it wasn't a hard choice.  The second car delivered us to the Jordanian border control gate where we gathered our bags and walked into the compound, passports in hand, and fingers crossed for a speedy and safe journey through the West Bank.  If we had only known... 

We went to the first counter where I insisted that I didn’t get an exit stamp; the guy laughed at me, took my passport, and fed it through a window to a guy behind another counter.  I went to counter two, asked for my passport, and they guy said, “I have passport.  Get on bus.  You get passport later.”  There was not much to do other than comply and pray our passports were returned without a stamp, so the four of us bought a $5 bus ticket and hopped on with the fifty others waiting to cross into the West Bank.  After waiting for a half hour, the border control agent came aboard the bus with a stack of passports and began redistributing them to us along with a separate piece of paper with an exit stamp and our names.  With a thankful prayer, the bus got moving and stopped just outside of Israeli immigration.  We sat on the bus for two hours, not knowing what was going on but thankful that we at least had our passports in hand.  Our bus finally made it to the end of the queue (3km in 2 hours…), and then the harassment package began.  At passport control step one, Tom made the mistake of not knowing the name of our hotel which was deemed sketchy behavior by the border security.  They called me over to explain where we were staying and our purpose for visit, and we hoped that would be the end of it.  The next step was security.  After making our way through the line, we were called aside by the same guy who questioned us earlier. “We just want to ask you a few questions about your visit to Israel,” he said as he flashed a creepy grin.  I knew from movies that this phrase is never a good sign.

The Western Wall
Tom and I were separated and questioned individually for twenty minutes about our reasons for visit, our backgrounds, why we wanted to go to Dubai, etc. Nothing was off limits for these security guards.  They first questioned Tom and started on me afterward.  Luckily our answers matched up, and after we had satisfied their requests for information, they decided we weren't a threat and let us proceed to the final passport processing desk where we were granted a tourist visa into Israel.  From the border, driving through the West Bank and the Palestinian Territories was an unreal experience.  In the US, the media often groups the Gaza Strip and the West Bank together, equating the two in our minds.  So when we drove through the West Bank and weren't avoiding rocket fire, I was happily surprised.  The West Bank, like much of the Middle East, is a relatively safe area despite occasional outbreaks of violence.  Like my friends who traveled to Lebanon said, violence tends to erupt in brief periods, but, so long as you avoid those areas for a week or so, they are perfectly fine to return to later.  After forty five minutes of driving through the desert, we entered the city of Jerusalem which was a total culture shock from the old Middle Eastern streets of Jordan we had been on earlier that morning.  Jerusalem was like 1930s provincial Europe – trolleys traversed stone streets lined with shops, cafes, and four-story apartment buildings with flower window boxes.  Hissidic Jews were all around, dressed in full suits and long skirts, heads topped with yarmulkes.  The only thing that interrupted the vibrant creative atmosphere were the teen-aged Israeli defense members walking around with M16s at their side.  Something about a girl younger than me dressed in military standard issue and carrying that kind of gun was incredibly intimidating. 

Dinner Time
We spent the afternoon exploring the Old City, going to the Western Wall and checking out the various alleyways of Jerusalem.  If walking through the downtown area was like entering the 1930s, traversing the Old City was something like entering the 100s AD.  Though the city has been built upon itself many times over the past two millennia, it still feels like walking the streets during Biblical times, with car-less streets, winding alleys, secret staircases, and souqs lining the walkways.  It was incredible.  That evening, we returned to our hostel, the Abraham Hostel, just outside the Old City.  Noticing that it was happy hour at the hostel bar, we of course had to stop by to try some of the local drinks.  Israel has two national brews, one darker and one lighter as well as a national liquor called araq (pronounced sort of like the country Iraq) which tastes like black licorice.  The bartender had worked at the hostel for a few years, and we actually had a common friend from Alabama who I went to high school with.  She gave us some suggestions for evening entertainment, and we set out on our way.  We stopped at a street café for some good Israeli food – semi spicy egg and tomato with fresh bread.  Afterward, we stopped at a couple bars, found a McDonald’s, and headed back to the hostel. 

The Crucifixion Site
The next morning, I headed out on a tour of the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus is said to have taken through Jerusalem on his way to Calvary.  It took me forever to find the starting point, and I at one point found myself roaming around the Mount of Olives, not even close to the gate.   Stations one through nine were amidst the still populated city which was a bit of an adventure, avoiding merchants with carts of goods racing through the streets.  Starting with station ten, though, it is removed from the main street as the path moves to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (pronounced sep-uhl-ker), built on top of the site of Calvary.  Walking through, you can feel the chaos of the street on the path where Jesus carried the cross through the crowded streets, with crowds of people rushing about, confused, not sure what was happening; however, when you get to the last four stations at the church, you are suddenly removed from the chaos of the street and, despite the masses of people, feel a much greater sense of peace and finality than the frenzied, uncertain streets.  At the church, my map ran out, and I wandered around aimlessly for a few minutes, unsure what was what.  I ran into a monk who lived there, and, through his broken English, was able to give me an overview of what everything was in the church, from the crucifixion site to the tomb and resurrection location.  It was amazing to see thousands of pilgrims roaming about the church in a candle-lit mass, finishing a sojourn that for many was months and years in the making. 

From there, I met up with the others for lunch at a café on the main street.  It was about this time that we realized that none of our credit cards would work.  That meant no cash withdrawals and limited use at restaurants and shops, many of which didn’t even accept anything but cash.  Some may call it bad planning, but we called it adventure.  Not having money in a tourist city has many consequences including: the inability to provide a sufficient tip to our free tour guide (shout out to tour guide Mitch – we’ll get you next time), lack of souvenirs, and general loafing about looking for free activities.  That evening after dinner at a restaurant that accepted Visa, we ended up back at the bar in the hostel, limiting ourselves to one drink.  As we pondered what to do that evening, the hostel staff announced that it was Pub Quiz Monday!  We scraped up 20 shekels (about $5) to enter our team and hinged our future, or at least evening plans, on our knowledge of random trivia.  The game began.  World capitals?  Check.  Nobel Laureate history?  Check.  Major films?  Check.  Israeli folk music???  And that’s where it started going downhill...  Soundhound was no help, and we were on our own with no background in Hebrew or Jewish tunes.  It was a nail biter as they scored the quizzes and called out the right answers.  We listened in disbelief as the obnoxious Yankee team in the back called out the correct Israeli folk music song titles and knew we had lost it.  But miracle of miracles the bartender called out our team name, and the 100 shekel prize was ours!  We took our winnings and went to a market just down the street to explore some of the underground music scene and spend our fortune.  Yah, that money was gone in about fifteen minutes, but at least the music was good. 
Saying goodbye to Jerusalem

We went to sleep that evening with a sense of victory and an alarm set to catch the bus back through the West Bank to the next stops in our desert adventure -- hiking the Caves of Petra, swimming in the Dead Sea, and hoping that we make it through four more immigration checks without deportation!  This journey was shaping up to be one of the most incredible trips of my life.

To Be Continued

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