(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Week in Jordan

Since the last posting, a lot has happened. I have been moving around a bit. Currently I’m in Dubai. I spent the night here last night and am trying to work my way back from Amman to Burundi. Other than my overnight in the United Arab Emirates, I have to spend about 8 hours in Nairobi when I get there and then about an hour in Kigali before finally arriving in Bujumbura at 1:45am. Woo hoo!. All in all this trip has amounted to 3 days of travel (1 ½ days each way) for three days of meetings. I figured Burundi to Jordan wouldn’t be very direct but it was a bit less direct than even my pessimistic expectations.

Oh well, in addition to the 3 days of meetings, I took about 24 hours to head down to visit one of the seven wonders of the world – Petra. I’d been there before almost 20 years ago but it’s the kind of thing you could see periodically your whole life. It’s pretty amazing.
Due to my restrictive timeline – about 24 hours including 3 ½ hours driving each way – I had to be pretty precise as to when I left and returned. I decided on taking a taxi. It’s what many people do anyway but when I’m alone I normally like to do this sort of thing on the cheap if I can. Renting a car wouldn’t have been much less and it would have eaten up even more time. And I’d have needed to figure out where I was going and all that. So I arranged the taxi through the hotel. I bargained on the price and did ok but it was still enough to make me swallow hard when I pulled out my credit card.
Thursday after my last meeting, I went to the lobby and the concierge said that the driver was out front. As I walked out I noticed that my taxi was a sleek, black 2011 Mercedes. Nice. I was starting to feel better about how much I’d paid. Moreover, the driver, Gabriel (English version he goes by) not only spoke English, he strangely enough had an accent that was half Arabic and half Texan. He’d apparently spent some time in the US many years ago and has since retained his excellent English. He also spent time in Iraq as a translator for the US military. His rich use of American profanity was a testament to time spent with soldiers.
The guy was full of stories and the drive through the barren desert went fast.  He talked about his role as a translator and how it was far more than he’d signed up for. Every day was tense and often scary helping people understand each other, mostly at police/military checkpoints. He gave an example of a situation in which an Iraqi, frustrated and angered by the presence of US soldiers on his land, pulled out a gun as his car was being checked. He apparently had nothing to hide, he’d just reached the end of his tether as the questions and searching went on.
One of the soldiers put a bullet in his leg at they tried to get him to drop the gun. Though wounded he refused to put down his weapon. The translator had become a mediator as he tried to get assurances from the soldiers that if he put down the gun, he wouldn’t be harmed. After a long and excruciating moment, the guy lowered his gun. At that moment, one of the soldiers fired on him and the Iraqi was killed instantly. Shocked by what had just happened, he turned to the soldiers in disbelief. They turned away and carried on with their duties.
Gabriel talked about how much that incident, and others, scarred him. He said he’d thought about raising the issue further but he was afraid of losing his job. The salary wasn’t great but it was far more than anything he’d earned before. So he kept silent and it still haunts him. He’d given the Iraqi his word that nothing would happen to him and he was killed nonetheless. 
 Wadi Musa
Initially I’d wanted to take the longer road which follows the east side of the Dead Sea but Gabriel said he had to take the Desert Highway according to the agreement to go to Petra. Apparently this was something I was supposed to have discussed in advance. I also found out that he was hungry and wanted to get settled into Wadi Musa and get something to eat. Whatever. This time of year, with the shortened days in the Northern Hemisphere, daylight is reduced so it was probably just as well that I didn’t try to bite off more than I could chew. Getting to Petra after a half day of meetings, visiting the site and getting back to Amman for my flight the next day was relatively ambitious as it was.
view from the hotel
Upon arrival it was chilly and the sun was already getting low. We stopped at the first hotel we saw and I agreed to the first rate the guy gave me – about fifteen bucks. Tourism is suffering right now due to low season and the Arab Spring so I wasn’t in the mood to bargain. Also, it was pretty cheap as it was. Gabriel asked if I wanted to see the room first. That’s of course normally advisable but I was in a hurry to send Gabriel on his merry way and have the evening to myself. The guy behind the desk assured me there was hot water, gave me a clean towel and handed me the key. I have to say, I haven’t stayed in a place like this since my single days traveling around Europe. The carpet was nasty and it smelled like a 1980s pub at 2am but I have to say, it didn’t bother me a bit. I was happy to be there.
Wadi Musa is in the southern part of Jordan. Its reason for existence is primarily the adjacent historical site of Petra. It has no particular charm but, like most towns at the doorstep of cool places, its purpose is more about being functional. I wandered about the place for a while and finally stopped for some local food. In spite of the cool air, I ate outside to avoid smoke and a loud TV. After eating my fill of good food I meandered my way back to the hotel, took a hot shower and called it a day.

the siq
The next day, Gabriel was ready and waiting at 6:30am as we’d agreed. We drove the 5k to the entrance and I was off. The combination of off season and an early start gave me a peaceful walk through the siq, the long narrow canyon that takes you into the ancient city carved from sides of rock faces. Already I was noting changes from the way it was nearly twenty years ago when I was last there. The natural dirt path was now covered by tarmac. There are now benches and rubbish bins, more signs, etc. I suppose things are a bit more “civilized” but I sort of liked it a bit more raw.
Coming to the end of the siq you arrive at the famous Treasury, the incredible façade made famous in part by Indiana Jones. I had the place to myself with the exception of two camels, a Bedouin and a cat. That in itself was amazing. When I returned three hours later the area was filled with hundreds of tourists. One change to the Treasury since my last visit was that the interior is no longer accessible. It’s not a huge loss since it’s not that amazing on the inside but the extent of the carving is impressive. And it has nothing to do with what was shown in the movie.  
the Treasury
After a short visit, I moved on. I could hear the echo of voices coming through the siq and I wanted to stay ahead of the coming throng.  As I walked through the ancient city I stopped at a small tent and bought a thick cup of coffee from a couple of Bedouins. I walked along with my cup to-go shooting photos and enjoying the cool desert morning. I hiked up to the monastery, sat for a moment and enjoyed the view from the top and then started heading back down. 

the monastery
After a three-hour visit or so I was back to the Treasury which was by now a sea of tourists speaking every language imaginable. After taking a few more photos with the different lighting, I worked my way back up the siq feeling a bit like a salmon swimming upstream. Arriving at the entrance I located Gabriel who was having a smoke with his friend Mohammed. We shared a quick mint tea and then it was time to head to Amman. I still had a long trip ahead of me that would include a flight to Dubai, overnight in a hotel, flight to Nairobi (where I am writing this during my 8-hour layover), flight to Kigali and then on to Bujumbura for my 2am Saturday arrival. Then no more travel until…Monday.

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