Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Border crossings, Mars, and choosing wisely

It's a long trip from Boston to Tel Aviv and, intrepid travelers that we are, we refused to stop there. Only a few hours after landing in Ben Gurion airport, we hopped on an Israir flight (Israel's #2 airline. For those keeping score at home, there are only 2 state owned airlines in Israel, but let's not focus on that) to Eilat in the southern trip of Israel.

Eilat is one of only three border crossings between Israel and Jordan and is the crossing closest to Petra, our ultimate destination. But first, we needed to get into Jordan and visit Wadi Rum.

The Border Crossing
Israel and Jordan have been at peace since 1994, but I think there's some healthy skepticism about its staying power. One of the fun outcomes of this relative peace is that you get to do a border crossing that looks a lot like a scene from Exodus.

Matt's friend Gilon was kind enough to organize a tour of Jordan for us, two of his friends (Maya and Odelia), and Joe (one of Matt's coworkers). So the six of us met at the Israeli border, found our Israeli guide, Amit, paid our exit fees, got our passports stamped and got in line with several hundred Russian tourists.

After handing our exit ticket to the Israeli guard and walking around the metal detector, we began the 1km walk through no man's land. Seriously, to our backs (Israel) was a very tall chain link fence, with barbed wire at the top, security cameras, and abandoned guard towers. Ahead of us (Jordan) was pretty much the same thing, except the guards were on foot instead of towers. And in between, nothing. Just dirt. And several hundred Russians, 3 Israelis with backpacks, and 3 Americans with rollerboards. Did I mention there are people with guns ahead of and behind us and they don't really like or trust each other?

Wadi Rum and the Arabian equivalent of "George Washington slept here"
Safely on the other side of the crossing and inside Jordan, we met up with our Jordanian guide, Hassan, (we were required by law to have a Jordanian guide) and hopped into our bus for the two hour drive to Wadi Rum.

Wadi is the Arabic word for valley or dried riverbed and Wadi Rum is the largest wadi in Jordan. If you've ever seen the movies Lawrence of Arabia or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen then you've seen Wadi Rum. It basically looks like Mars - fine red sand everywhere, mountains carved and smoothed by the wind, and sand dunes several stories tall. And I cannot stress enough how fine the red sand is - I emptied by shoes 5 times during our 2 hour tour, then again, an hour later at lunch, then several hours later when we got to the hotel, then put them in my suitcase where they deposited yet more sand, then washed my socks (by hand in the hotel sink) 5 times, and still, when we got home and I put everything in the washing machine and STILL found sand in the drier!

Up until the mid 80s, Wadi Rum was known mainly to the Bedouins who lived there and film crews. But, after being featured in a popular guidebook for trekkers, Wadi Rum has become one of Jordan's biggest tour attractions and the Bedouins have gone from farming and ranching to running "Jeep," hiking, and camping excursions for tourists.

The landscape is unlike anything we'd ever seen - the colors of the rocks were so vibrant, the shapes absolutely otherwordly, and and the sand so red and fine (perhaps I mentioned the fine sand already?). So brace yourselves for lots and lots of photos of rocks, boulders, mountains, and dunes.

As if being the closest thing to Mars that you can find on Earth wasn't enough, the Jordanian government/Bedouin residents, decided to capitalize on the fact that T.E. Lawrence may have spent time here and that Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here by naming every possible thing "Lawrence's _______." We saw Lawrence's Spring, Lawrence's Tree, Lawrence's 7 Pillars, Lawrence's Fine Red Sand (ok, I made that up, but I have mentioned how damn fine the sand is?

Choosing wisely and not inhaling
After Wadi Rum, we had a very yummy lunch at a Bedouin "camp" (more like a resort) then drove to the town just outside Petra. We settled into our 3-star hotel and emptied our shoes of the fine red sand. Soon it was dinner then time to go to the cave in the back of the dining room (not kidding. Really was a cave. Really was in the back of the dining room) to hear from Amit about the history of Petra. We were all pretty wiped at this point so to stop us from nodding off, Amit and Gilon ordered up a hookah for us. For those who have not had the pleasure, a hookah looks like the thing the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland smokes, that uses water to filter flavored tobacco. Unlike cigarettes, you are absolutely not supposed to inhale the smoke, just find creative ways to puff it out of your nose and mouth. After a not insignificant amount of peer pressure, Matt finally gave in and tried the apple flavored hookah. Twice. He did not inhale.

Now, very very tired, we retired to the room an our now working shower. Fresh and clean and (we thought) free of fine red sand, we snuggled into bed and flipped on the TV. And lo, what should be on the only English speaking channel? Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

It was a sign from the universe. We had chose wisely. We were destined to go to Petra in the morning.

For all our Wadi Rum photos clock here: http://gallery.me.com/matthewjarman#100019

Finally, a bit of excitement

Sorry I've been so very delinquent about updating the ol' blog. To be perfectly honest, life isn't too terribly exciting (mostly just work and home) and I figured that if I find my own life boring, there is a very good chance that other people will find it even more boring than I do. Of course, there have been some moments of excitement - Thanksgiving in Ann Arbor with Diana, Adam, and my Dad, Christmas in Vermont with Matt's family and then in Mentor with my Dad - but I guess I've just been too lazy to write about it.

But last week, something exciting finally happened - Matt and I went to Israel (and Jordan)!

Matt's good friend Yael, who he met and Sloan and who was instrumental in bringing him into American Well where he now works, was getting married and invited us to her wedding in Tel Aviv. We've always wanted to go to Israel but, given the "situation" there, it was always hard to justify the trip. However, there is no excuse better than a friend's wedding to travel, so we started planning a whirlwind vacation to the Holy Land.

It was a jam-packed week:
Sunday (March 21) - landed in Tel Aviv and then flew to Eilat in southern Israel
Monday - crossed the border into Jordan and visited Wadi Rum
Tuesday - Petra (best known as where Indiana Jones found the Holy Grail)
Wednesday - back in Israel, to Masada and the Dead Sea
Thursday - Jerusalem
Friday - Yael and Ophir's wedding
Saturday - Tel Aviv and fly back home

As you might imagine, there are thousands of photos and even more stories, so we're going to ease you into everything. Each day I'll post one day's worth of events and a link to our online album. As with the Copenhagen blog, there will be obligatory history lessons and little stories. But, given the locations, there will also be the occasional reflection on religion or politics. We'll try to keep it neutral (Matt and I are a bipartisan marriage after all - kinda like Mary Matlin and James Carville, but Matt's better looking and I'd like to think I have a better hair style), but apologies in advance if you get offended.

Stay tuned - Day 1, "Wadi Rum," will get posted later today...