Middle East 2019 – Conclusion

I keep this blog in defiance of the great Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, who wrote:

Travel and tell no one,
live a true love story and tell no one,
live happily and tell no one,
people ruin beautiful things.

I write to tell everyone who can find this blog how much I love traveling.  It’s probably my very American identity that aligns the spirit of this blog with Mark Twain, who wrote:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

I travel because I love visiting new places, meeting people, and trying new foods.  I love being gobsmacked at how little I know about the world.   There is no amount of reading the newspaper or watching documentaries that can ever tell me what the lemonade at Petra tastes like or how quiet the desert in Wadi Rum is at midnight. I guess that is why I always loved the line from Good Will Hunting when Robin Williams’ character says, “I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel.”

This trip was great and quite different for me.   We traveled with a lot more people than I am accustomed to and I had to get used to that.   When Spencer, Samer, Holly, and I travel we each have a role and one never feels too much burden.  This time, Samer and I both were definitely the leads of at least half of the trip.  There was some stress with that identity, but nothing I didn’t overcome.   “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” I guess.  Samer had the added responsibility of being the translator.

With all of that being said, this was an excellent trip that I enjoyed.   I think 2 weeks is a great way to see Jordan and Lebanon.   Jordan and Lebanon could not be more different.  Jordan is an Arab country with a fairly cohesive identity to a westerner. Lebanon is an Arab country with a grab bag of identities from all over in it.   When you are in Jordan, the language of the country is obviously Arabic.   When you are in Lebanon, you never really know what language to choose.   Signs are in Arabic, French, and English.   Hell, in the right neighborhood you’ll also see Armenian.

An unexpected outcome of this trip was about my career.   It’s no shocker, that I have not loved my work for the last couple of years.   I left the trip wondering if I could make a business at being a modern-day travel agent.   I’d happily research and design an untested itinerary for a trip and sell it to you.   I love reading about places, chatting with locals online about unrecorded opportunities, and making a plan for others to follow.  Honestly, I think I am pretty good at it. This is not a tenable business plan, but I have fantasized about it since I left.  It’s more evidence that it may be time to do something different with my profession.

In order to coordinate everything, we used apps like tripit, travefy, and splitwise.  I am sad to see travefy is disappearing.  It was a great app to create itineraries.     I thought Royal Jordanian was a good airline.   I would like to visit Jordan again and explore Amman.   I could see myself doing 3 days there before a trip to Lebanon. I will return to Lebanon.  There is more to see, more food to try, and more wine to taste.

Everyone should go to these 2 countries.  I am not sure I would do anything different.  I enjoyed myself at every stop. I really enjoy the Middle East.  I struggle to make sure that I am not patronizing or fetishizing the Middle East.  I do not understand it, I do not fancy myself an expert in it, but I will continue to humble myself to its people and cultures.  It is only then, that I (maybe we) can begin to learn about the Middle East.

Joshi

Jordan – Day 7: Good-bye / Lebanon – Day 1: Hello!

We did not have a lot of time in Amman, so we packed our bags and visited Souk Jara right when it opened.  This is a great outdoor market filled with art, trinkets, and food.   I tried my weight in jam and za’atar while we visited.   I bought this really good black seed paste made from habbatul-barakah.  It reminds me of sweet tahini.   I’ll be having it on toast in the near future. We did try to buy some coffee at the market, but the guy with an espresso machine seemed to have never used it.  We waited for about 5 minutes and told him that we’d pass.

We made our way down the hill and to the ancient Roman Theatre.  We were running short on time, so we did not stay long.   The Romans loved their theaters and this one was massive.   It’s bigger than the theater in Jerash, though not as well preserved.   The theater was built when the city was stilled called Philadelphia (why change it?!?!).  We took a taxi back to the Airbnb and loaded up the van one last time.

Google maps are not quite as accurate abroad as it is in the USA.   Sam was driving and we found ourselves going the wrong way down a one-way street.   We got to the airport, blew some leftover dinar in duty-free and settled into the lounge.  The Royal Jordanian lounge is not particularly amazing, but we weren’t there for long before we boarded our direct flight to Beirut.

When we landed in Lebanon and the guys in passport control were more than annoying. First, they asked us the address where we were staying.   Guess what?  That’s a trick question because Lebanon doesn’t really have street addresses.  I told them “Madame Chafica Badr’s house near the Liban Post in Broummana.”   That answer sufficed, but Holly B. was at a different guy.  Samer circled back to help her, and then the passport guy had the audacity to hand Holly B.’s passport to Samer!   This is not a good look Lebanon.

Our driver was waiting for us and took us to Samer’s house in the Broummana.  Broummana is a summer resort town east of downtown Beirut and up on Mount Lebanon.   The climate is cool, so people come up during the summer to beat the heat.   Samer and his family have been doing that every summer for as long as he can remember.

Of course, Samer’s mom showered all of with a feast on the first night.   We ate, drank wine, visited family, and all went to bed fairly early.   Week 2 of vacation was just begining.

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Next – Lebanon – Day 2: Beirut

Jordan – Day 6: Jerash & Amman

We woke up on the Dead Sea and drove to the ancient Roman city of Jerash.  Jerash had not originally, been on our itinerary, but we decided to sacrifice time in Amman to see it.   I am very glad we did.

I really enjoyed the guide we hired from the site office.   He had been leading tours in Jerash since the 70s. He was old and nimble, he almost floated through the ruins.  He carried a stick to point at things and there was soothing percussive nature to the way it tapped the cobblestone as he moved.   He was a delight.

The ruins of Jerash are the best-preserved Roman ruins outside of Italy.  The forum and theater are incredibly impressive.  The acoustics of the theater are fantastic.  You can be speaking outside the center of the theater, step into the center, and instantly hear your voice fill the space. It’s wildly impressive. The forum and the cardo are lined with columns which give the entire site an impressive and imperial look.   The structures of Baalbeck are more grandiose, but as a whole site, Jerash is phenomenal.

 

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Photo Credits: Samer Badr, Spencer Mcgee, Josh Ferris

We were famished and did not think an hour drive back to Amman was a great idea while we were hungry and tired.   We walked across the street and found an air-conditioned fast food joint called Cheesy Grill.  It was comically bad.   The first sandwich we ordered was unavailable, so they made these chicken, American cheese, sweet mayo monstrosities.   Megan’s verbal review was “this is disgusting.” We named these sandwiches cheesy blasters after the 30 Rock joke, filled up on fries, some Syrian sweets from the neighboring shop and got back to the car.

Our Airbnb was on Khirfan Street and was very nice.  It was right in the center of a pretty hip neighborhood.  After we settled and showered, we treated ourselves to a drink at Books at Cafe.   This bar/cafe is the first overtly queer-friendly place I saw in Jordan.  It was nice to walk into a place with “Equality Matters” slogans littered about. We shared a Jordanian Rose wine, that would have been better if it had been served chilled.

We ended the night with a traditional Jordanian meal at Sufra. The quality of food on this day of the trip really ran the gamut.   This food was delicious.  We sat in an outdoor courtyard in the back of an old house.   There was a fountain at the center and it was lined with lots of plants.   It was a fantastic scene.   I do not remember everything that we ordered, but Hayan and Samer figured it out for us.   This was the first time we had the famous Jordanian meal of mansaf.    Mansaf is meat, rice, and yogurt sauce.   It’s not bad, but nothing I’d seek out in the future.

At the end of the meal, our group split up.  We said good-bye to Megan and Hayan, and we went back to go to bed.   I fell asleep instantly, but Holly F., Samer, and Spencer enjoyed the balcony overlooking Amman.

Next – Jordan – Day 7: Good-bye / Lebanon – Day 1: Hello!

Jordan – Day 5: Petra & a dip in the Dead Sea

We decided to go to Petra really early.   We wanted to beat the 100 degrees (F) heat, so we met our guide at 6:15 am at our hotel.  We were leaving before the free hotel breakfast was set out, so Holly asked them to wrap us up something to go.   We grabbed our packed breakfasts and entered Petra.

Our guide was named Zeid, tourism was the family business, and he was all about business.  He moved fast and talked along the way. There was very little small talk. He was particularly annoyed when Hayan and Holly B. befriended a stray dog near the gate.   Every guide has their own style.

It was very helpful to have a guide as he showed us the remnants of sculptures and other things we missed the day before in the siq (canyon.)  Additionally, this was the first real explanation of the Nabataean society that I received. Samer was excited to ask him is Fairuz’s Queen of Petra play was accurate.   You can imagine Samer’s shock when this young Jordanian man did not know about the famous Lebanese singer’s play.  We deduced there is nothing real about the play.

Petra was as breathtaking as it was the day before.  The treasury is a fantastic reveal coming out of the canyon and it lived up to my expectations.   I was truly in awe when I stood in front of it.   The rest of the complex is quite impressive, but that first moment is one to revel in.

Now, I must confess something.   I think I broke a traveler’s golden rule: always be a responsible traveler.    The largest building at Petra is not the treasury, it’s the monastery.   It’s 850 steps up the side of the mountain, and it was already hot by 9 AM.    I succumbed to exhaustion and hired a mule to carry me up the steps to the monastary.

Peta published an exposé a year ago on how terribly the animals are treated.  I am really thankful for the ride to the monastery, but I know that I was being terribly lazy.   The mules go up the side of the mountain in less than 20 minutes.  Normally, I would not have elected to do this, but our trusted guide suggested we do it.   That (false) assurance was enough for me to jump on the mule and go.

If you decide to do this, negotiate precisely what you want to do with the mules.   We told the mule owner that we wanted to go one-way and we’d discuss more.  He was under the impression we wanted to use the mule’s more and we got stuck paying him more for a ride out of Petra later, that no one really wanted to take. Karma eventually struck and during my walk down from the monastery, my knee started to hurt. It made the descent miserable.

Once we got to the top of the 850 steps we arrived at the monastery and the “best view in the world” outpost.  The facade of the monastery is so big that it is hard to capture with a camera.   Simply put, it is massive.  We were unable to enter it, but I understand it is a single chamber.  This was probably not a monastery, but a temple honoring a dead Nabatean king.

While you are looking at the monastery, directly behind you is a path to an overlook claiming to be the best view in the world.   There is a man with a tent, where you can relax and enjoy the view of Wadi Araba below.    It’s quite nice and was a great way to beat the heat.

I don’t like telling stories that are not mine, but I’ll make an exception this time.   The group split for an hour.  One group took the mules to a very high point in Petra to be able to look down on the treasury.   While they were on the mules, a snake came out of the brush and onto the trail.   Holly F. reports that a guide jumped from his mule, pulled out a whip, and killed the snake with the whip! Others thought it was a machete, but Holly and Spencer both assure me it was a whip (Indiana Jones style).

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The “new” road.

Before we left our guide, we told him where we were going to stay at the Dead Sea.   He gave us directions that would not yet be on google maps because it’s a new road.  He told us the views were marvelous.  All we had to do was take a left at Abu Huimel Coffee Shop near Little Petra and take this “new” road all the way to the Jordan Valley Highway (road 65).  The road went up and over the mountains, through the desert, and finally to the highway.    It was one of the most terrifying roads any of us have ever been on.  Along the edge of the rail-less road were road signs with prayers in Arabic saying “God is Great.” and  “Ask God for forgiveness.”

The Dead Sea

We stayed at the Al Mujib Chalets on the Dead Sea.   Originally, I thought that we’d leave Petra later than we did, so I opted for us to skip the more resort-style hotels on the northern end of the Dead Sea.  This hotel was closer to Petra.  Al Mujib Chalets are little cabins in Mujib Biosphere Reserve with access to the Dead Sea.   They are simple, you get breakfast, and there is a nice communal dinner offered as well.  Oh, and the air conditioner works really well.

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Photo Credit: Josh Ferris

I confirm that the Dead Sea is one of the weirdest sensations you will ever feel.    It feels as though the sea does not want you in it and is constantly trying to expel you.   You really float … a lot.  The salt content is unbelievable.   The Dead Sea burns everything; my scrapes, my cuts, my ass, and even my dick! The whole thing is a burning, bouncy, out of this world experience.   I accidentally got some water in my eye and was convinced I’d gone blind.    This description paints a fairly horrific picture, but I loved swimming in the Dead Sea.   One must do it.

Next – Jordan – Day 6: Jerash & Amman

Jordan – Day 4: Drive to Petra (and a visit to Little Petra)

We woke up in the middle of the desert and slowly discovered what the landscape around us looked like.  Salman drove us back to the camp for breakfast where we washed up and a few tried fresh camel milk.   We said thank you to everyone and started our drive to Petra.

We did not have a lot on our agenda that day.   All we needed to do was drive to Siq al-Barid (Little Petra) and then make our way to our hotel.  On the drive to Petra, we stopped at a souvenir shop that touted the claim of “we have the third-best view of the world.”  It was a nice view, but the claim made us laugh.    The shop was fairly expensive, but we had a cup of coffee, enjoyed the view, and Spencer and I played a game of chess on a $2000 set (it included chairs.)  I lost.

As we drove through the town of Wadi Musa, Hayan got a serious craving (a hankering, if you will) for knafeh.   Knafeh is a Middle Eastern dessert that is baked cheese with a crust and then syrup poured on it.  It is wildly decadent.  The Lebanese have taken it one step further down the path of gluttonous absurdity and they’ve stuffed it in a piece of bread.   It’s some sort of ancestor to the disgusting stuffed crust pizza in the United States.  We convinced Hayan to wait until after lunch and we first went to Little Petra.

Siq al-Barid is a nice introduction to Nabataean architecture.   The Nabataeans carved these great cities out of the sandstone cliffs.    None are extremely deep, but they are abundantly impressive.  Little Petra will take you an hour to explore.  The heat is oppressive and it’s small compared to Petra.   There is a pretty view at the end, which most of us skipped.   We were tired, hot, and hungry.

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Siq al-Barid Photo Credit: Josh Ferris

We made our way back to Wadi Musa for lunch at Bukhara and dessert at the place across the street.  I recommend Bukhara.  I had a very good kofta sandwich, but their specialty is chicken.  Megan had their chicken dish and really enjoyed it.  A kid was working there, who (let’s ignore the child labor for a moment) came up to us at the end of the meal and totally asked up to review them on TripAdvisor.   His entrepreneurial forwardness made me smile.

After dessert, we all went to the hotel to shower and relax.    We stayed at the
Petra Guest House, which I thought was a great hotel that is very close to the main gate to Petra.   Half of our group decided to take a nap and enjoy the air conditioner.   Holly(s), Spencer, and I decided to go to see a little bit of Petra.

Petra Map

We made our way through the canyon (Siq), past the treasury (!!) and to the Nabataean theater. Petra, I went to Petra.   It’s really incredible.   I loved it.   Walking through the canyon is a wonderful experience.  The Nabataeans clearly had a flair for the dramatic.   It’s 1200 meters long with twists and turns.   We were there late in the day, so there were not a lot of people.  I’ll write more about Petra in the next post, but seeing something that blew my mind as a kid watching Indiana Jones really was delightful.

We all met up at the hotel bar to eat some mediocre bar food to chit chat.  The bar was in an old cave, and it had a cool look to it.   We ordered some Petra brand beers and a pizza that took quite a bit of time to make.   When we decided to order another pizza, the waiter told us that there were no more pizzas possible.

Oh well.

Next – Jordan – Day 5: Petra & a dip in the Dead Sea

Jordan – Day 3: Wadi Rum

Wadi Rum is incredible.  You should go as soon as possible.

The End.

Ok, I’ll tell you more, but I really enjoyed Wadi Rum.  We all said goodbye to the Kempinski in the morning and Holly F. drove us to Wadi Rum.  She navigated through Jordanian checkpoints and enormous windmill blades being hauled along the road all in an underpowered 12 passenger van.  We made it to Wadi Rum in about an hour and checked in at the visitor’s center.

What is Wadi Rum?  It’s kind of hard to describe.  It’s a giant desert valley cut out of sandstone mountains.   It’s hot, brutal, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.  There are camps of different Bedouin families scattered through Wadi Rum and many of them are for tourists.

I made a reservation at the Bedouin Lifestyle Camp with Attallah Alblwi before we arrived. Originally, we booked a camel tour of Wadi Rum with the option to camp under the stars.   When we got there, he offered (upsold) to change our reservation to that of a jeep tour, with an option to ride the camels for an hour at sunset.   We decided that this change was a good idea because we would be able to see more things in Wadi Rum that day.

Our driver in Wadi Rum was named Salman.  He loaded all of us into his jeep and  told us that we could ride on the roof rack.  One person in our group questioned if we needed a helmet and then I chuckled because there were obviously no helmets available.  Our jeep hit the roadless desert and the small Bedouin village quickly faded away.

 

 

Photo Credit: Josh Ferris
Spencer McGee

We explored Wadi Rum for the day, which included visiting a canyon, climbing rocks, and sandboarding.   We epically failed at the last one.   The board would simply not move and by the time we were halfway down the dune, we were utterly exhausted from making it move.   Here is a real-time video of me attempting this sport.


Salman made us a lunch of kafta and a tomato stew in the shadow of the mountain.   We napped while he prepared it and when lunch was over we headed out to the desert again.   Salman was a very fun guy and we stopped for a dance party at one point.  At 6:30 we met up with a few camels and took a ride during sunset.

That night we returned to the Bedouin camp for dinner and music.   There were several dishes but the highlight was a dish called zarb.   Zarb is basically a Bedouin barbecue.  They cook the food in a pit in the ground.   The chicken was very good, but the potatoes were fantastic.    The grill is a mettle ring with multiple grated tiers.    Coals surround all sides of it and it is covered with sand and a blanket.

Finally, the night ended with tea and music.   While we were listening, Samer decided to ask if he could play the drum with them.   The drummer happily obliged and Samer became a member of the band.   Here is a clip of him playing.

Our group of 7 decided to leave camp and sleep under the stars.   It was an incredible experience.   Salman drove us for 15 or 20 minutes away from all the lights.   We all slept together on cushions and a large mat on top of a sand dune.   When there are no lights on the ground the night sky lights up.  The cosmos are infinitely impressive.    We watched shooting stars for a long time and I was one of the first to doze off.  It was magical.

Next – Jordan – Day 4: Drive to Petra (and a visit to Little Petra)

Jordan – Day 2: Snorkeling in the Red Sea

After a very long flight and then a long drive, I was a bit jet-lagged.  However, when I walked onto our hotel balcony, all of my exhaustion washed away.  The Red Sea was very beautiful and the hotel was very nice.

We hired the diving company Sea Guard to take us out snorkeling for the day.  It cost us about $60 per person and included a nice lunch of grilled fish and vegetables on the boat.   My expectations for this excursion was high.   We just snorkeled in the Galapagos and I read that the Japanese Gardens were some of the best underwater views in the world.

The snorkeling was fairly bleak.   I’ve read about global warming bleaching coral reefs, but this was my first experience with it.   The coral landscape was really amazing and new to me, but all of the colors were a dull white or off yellow.   There were schools of fish, but not many, and there was trash on the seafloor.   Other than fish, I did see a dead octopus, but it was being eaten by a group of fish.    It was all rather grim.   This is what I expected to see on my visit.

This is what I actually saw.

After the Japanese Gardens, we snorkeled a bit more along a wall, and that was more interesting.  There was interesting coral and more fish to look at.  When we were done, we returned to the hotel pool for some drinks and relaxation.

While we were swimming and drinking we met a super jacked tattooed American who we figured out was some sort of mercenary.   We referred to him as Blackwater for the rest of the trip. He was super interested in talking to Holly.  First a prince and now a mercenary.   She attracts all types.

We figured out that he was a mercenary because he told us that he just finished a contract in Iraq.   He was vacationing in Aqaba to dive for a few days before he started a contract in Sudan.    I refused to engage with him very much, however, he did tell us what the best drink on the bar menu was (tropical mojito), so I guess he deserves recognition for that bit of info.  He did tell us his name, but I don’t remember it and it sounded fake.

He told me that he would not go to Lebanon and mentioned he thought it was “too unstable.”  I almost said, “thanks to scum bags like you, the entire region is not on the best footing.”  I did not say that as that man literally kills people for a living.  However, he did become the center of a laughing fit when Samer and some other tourists spotted his obvious boner when he got out of the water.

We had dinner at the Royal Yacht club that night with the highlight of the meal being Sayadieh.   It’s a fish and rice dish that Sam will make in the states, but it seemed a particularly appropriate time while on the Red Sea.

Next – Jordan – Day 3: Wadi Rum