April 24, 2014

"An Incredible Experience"

Dear Reader,

At 4:45 a.m. I jumped out of bed, completely awake. I checked and double checked what I had already packed and then threw in some final necessities. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Captain has turned on the Fasten Seat Belt sign. If you haven't already done so, please stow your carry-on luggage underneath the seat in front of you or in an overhead bin. Please take your seat and fasten your seat belt. Please make sure your seat back and folding trays are in their full u-OKAY. Let's go.

We landed in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in the early afternoon. After a long wait inside the airport, we got a cell phone working and a rental Jeep Wrangler that smelled faintly of cigarettes. We maneuvered that rental through the city of Amman for a long time and eventually found the restaurant that was highly recommended by a Jordanian from my dad's workplace. It was delectable, and worth the trouble.

We spent our first two nights in a relatively small town named Madaba. It took us a solid hour to finally figure out how to get to our hotel. It's not that we couldn't see it or that we didn't know where it was.......it just proved to be inexplicably difficult to get to. The whole ordeal was fun. And exhausting. After such a long day of travel, Sam and Mom decided to crash in the hotel room while Pops and I hit the town. Together, we walked the narrow, busy streets until we came to a church that stood on the highest ground in Madaba. A man welcomed us in and showed us a staircase. The sign above the staircase read "To the Bell Tower". With boyish enthusiasm, we started climbing. The normal stairs started getting steeper. Then they began to twist. Then we started ducking under support beams. Then I had to make sure I didn't ring a bell with my forehead. Then the stairs became metal ladders. Eventually, we clambered up into a small, square room. "Okay," I thought. "Now how do I get onto the balcony?" I looked down in the corner and saw the way out. With considerable discomfort, I made it through the 2' by 3' opening in the wall. The cool wind flapped my shirt as I walked all around the balcony and took in the view of Madaba from it's tallest tower. Minarets and steeples rose above the dusty city, and in the distance, rolling green hills could be seen. It was a beautiful view. The icing on the cake was that I got to test out some of my rudimentary language skills with a German couple that was also enjoying the view. "Ich bin eine Kartoffel....Ich mache was ich will." (Thanks Eli Larsen and Lisa Rathgeber!) We ducked and wound our way back down through the interior of the bell tower. Once we had made it back into the church, pops found a staircase that descended into the humid space underneath the church. There was an ancient well down there, and we could hear drops of water echoing from deep inside the earth. After exploring for a little bit longer, we went back to the hotel, where we woke up Mom and Sam. We all took the elevator up to the top floor of the hotel and ate at the restaurant there........let's just say that the view was better than the food. After dinner, Sam and I quickly fell asleep.

The next morning, we wasted no time in getting to the hotel's breakfast buffet. I filled up on a delicious cross between a shawarma and a breakfast burrito. This combination of my own creation gave me the full stomach I was going to need for a full day of exploration. After the most important meal of the day, the family climbed in the Jeep and we started driving to the place of Jesus' baptism in the river Jordan. On the way, we passed many, many shepherds that were tending their flocks in the fields. At one point, we hit a military checkpoint. After a brief stop, the men with cold machine-guns and warm smiles waved us on. We reached the site's parking lot and then took an aged shuttle towards the river. "This is a military zone, so don't wander..." Our guide warned us. The bus stopped and we walked through some scrub to the exact spot of Jesus' baptism. The river has shifted with time, so the exact spot is actually some really nasty stagnant water now. We kept walking until we hit the actual river, which was much more beautiful. It was really special to be there next to that river, to swish my hand around in the cold water. There were at least three different Christian denominations doing baptisms there, and a group of tourists in matching hats were singing hymns. After watching them for a bit, I scanned the crowd on the far bank. One man stood out from the others. Standing in full gear, armed with a heavy machine gun was an Israeli soldier. I looked to my right and saw a Jordanian troop with his own black metal. It was just weird, standing there observing those soldiers. The strangest thing was that in between those two uniformed men, there were dozens of people being baptized.

Later, we drove to Mount Nebo and parked the jeep. When we got out and started looking around, we noticed that there were a lot of teenage Jordanian schoolgirls walking around. They started strolling slowly around Sam and I and staring. A group of them approached Sam and started chatting it up. I walked over and joined the conversation, which I knew would be interesting. "How long have you been in Jordan?" one of them asked. "3 days maybe." I said, unsure of how long it had actually been. (I was tired.)...."How do you like it?" She questioned with a smile..."I love it! It's a beautiful country!" I replied sincerely. "You need to go to the Dead Sea, and see Petra." She advised. "I could be your tour guide..." She smiled at Sam and I and all of her friends giggled. Thanks, but no thanks. We said goodbye and walked over to another exhibition area. Sam kept catching them staring at him. Eventually, I got uncomfortable with the attention and I sat near the wide gate we entered. As I rested in the shade of a tree, a Jordanian man sitting next to a friend of his called out from across the exit road. "Are you British?" He asked. "No. American." I answered. "Welcome to Jordan!" He said cordially.  After a pause, I decided to ask a question about what Arabic greetings were most commonly used in Jordan. They couldn't hear well, so I got up, walked over, and sat next to them. They answered my Arabic question and then we talked about what I thought about the country and the people. I said that I loved both. They smiled real big and let me know that they really loved tourists coming in to see Jordan. We exchanged names and parted ways. After stuffing ourselves at a buffet, the Merrills went to a museum with a bunch of animatronic people that were hilarious and creepy. We then went back to Madaba to explore the city again, but this time, with Sam and Mom. I took Sam to the top of the bell tower at sunset. There were a bunch of other people up there in that small space, and that made things quite interesting. Eventually, they all cleared out except for two Italian men that let me photobomb one of their pictures. Sam and I visually documented the beautiful sunset, explored the space beneath the church, and then met back up with the parents. That evening, we went to a different restaurant that was in the middle of town. The food was fantastic. My only complaint was the Arab woman blowing shisha smoke in my face the whole night, but that unpleasantness was offset by the man that played the oud as we ate. With full tummies, we strolled back to the hotel and got another good night's sleep.

The next day, we were set to roll out of Madaba by 7:30 a.m., and at 7:10, Sam and I went to go throw our bags into the back of the Wrangler. Strangely, the front door of the hotel was locked. Sam spotted the door keys on the front desk and unlocked it for us. (You'd think the staff would be awake...) We drove to Umm ar-Rasas, a world heritage site which contains ruins from the Roman, Byzantine, and early Muslim civilizations. (Thanks, Google.) The whole place has hardly been excavated. There are no ropes. No barriers. No guards. Sam and I walked all over the site, through the ruins, under the arches, on top of beautiful mosaics. I even found a pottery handle! ('nuff said about that...) We left that site and tried to find our way to Herod's castle. The smooth-talking navigation man beguiled us into taking an extremely long, scenic route through a wadi. It was beautiful, but quite remote. At one point, an unaccompanied herd of goats sprinted across the road in front of us. After we thought they had all passed, one straggler appeared and trotted across the asphalt. "You've goat to be kidding me, man. Hurry up!"

We reached Herod's castle during the hottest part of the day. Before Sam and I climbed up to the ruins, we walked around the base of the hill and explored some caves carved into the rock. Three French women showed up and one of them said "Hello" to me. I responded "Bonjour." Surprised, they asked in French if I spoke French and I said I didn't flipping know French, in French. (Pardon my French.) Later, as Sam and I were climbing the hill, we saw the ladies again. From behind, I called out "Je suis fatigué" and they replied "Moi aussi!" Then they were like "Wait...you do know French..." I told them that I'd only learned a little bit on my own, and that the phrase "Je suis fatigué" had really stuck with me. Once we reached the top of the hill, I noticed that Herod had good taste for location. You could see the Dead Sea and all around. After a long, hot walk down to the car, we drove back to Madaba the fast way. Because we were so hungry, we pulled over at a.....uh.......foodstuff establishment to buy some processed nastiness. I wandered a little and found a small, ultra-sketchy "restaurant" staffed by two Arab men. I ordered some falafel sandwiches and as they prepared the food, we conversed. They asked me where I was from and I told them. 'MERICA! Then I asked where they were from, and one of them replied "Egypt." I immediately said "مصر" which is Egypt in Arabic and he smiled real big and shook my hand just for knowing that. We ate those delicious, dirt cheap sandwiches on our way to our next city. The best part? They didn't make us sick at all.

Early the next morning, I was riding a horse into another world heritage site, Petra. The man who was leading the horse kept talking about some sort of back path into Petra. "I swear, you see the best of Petra. I can show you top view. Best of Petra. Short time in the back way, best of Petra." He said with a big smile. I was thinking that he was just going to show us the trail head and say goodbye, but I was mistaken. He talked the whole family into the alternate route, and we followed him away from the crowd. I understood why we had to have a guide pretty quickly, because the path was not clearly marked. I walked close behind him until I caught a lot of second-hand from his cigarette. (Our friendly guide ended up being a chain-smoker.) I was a little bit skeptical about the thing I had pressured the rest of the family into, until the man walked us right up to the edge of a cliff. Beneath us, carved into the rock wall was Al Khanzeh, or "The Treasury". Here's a photo of Sam and I with it in the background.

We spent the entire day walking around, exploring the site. The Treasury was a neat introduction to Petra, but the rest of the city was shockingly impressive. It's such a big place that it took us two full days of walking in order to see all that we wanted to see. After the second day, I was so tired and whacked out that I wasn't sure if I could make it out of the ancient city. One thing I clearly remember about that second day is that as Sam and I were about to walk out of the city, we encountered Marcella Kukulka, a sophomore that goes to ACS Abu Dhabi with us. Seeing her there was kind of strange, but really fun. 

The last leg of our trip was spent relaxing at a guesthouse in the small village of Dana. Getting away from all the touristy craziness of Petra was really special, because we were able to meet Jordanians that don't always interact with foreigners. When we were trying to find Dana, we stopped and asked a man on the side of the road for directions. He was eager to help out with directions. He even invited us to come into his home and have some tea. We declined, but it was a very kind offer. The crumbling village of Dana is right next to Jordan's largest nature preserve, and it is a quiet, peaceful place. Later in that day, after getting our stuff loaded into the guesthouse, we took the Jeep out to locate a campsite that had hiking trails around it. On our way to the campsite, a spray-painted arrow on a rock turned us onto "the road less travelled." More arrows directed us, but as we continued, it became apparent that we were not heading in the right direction. Eventually we came to a cliff, and the last arrow in sight pointed off the edge. That's when we knew it was time to turn around. At long last, we found the correct place. We parked the Jeep at a station and rode in the back of a truck down to the campsite. For the next few hours, we hiked around and appreciated the natural beauty of Jordan. After tiring ourselves out, we returned to the campsite. 

As we sat in the shade of a building waiting for the shuttle, Dad asked Sam for a pair of his really nice sunglasses. Sam put up a little bit of a struggle just for fun, but eventually he let Dad take a pair. An Arab man who had seen this exchange came over and started to talk to Sam. He told him very seriously that he ought to respect his father more, and then he related several stories related to parental respect. After he ran out of stories, he asked his friend if there were any more stories with that theme. Halfway through a tale about a famous war leader and his long cloak, the shuttle arrived. I wish that it hadn't. Honestly, I could've laid there in the shade for hours listening to that old Arab man tell stories. Life goes on, though. We made it back to the guesthouse and relaxed there for the rest of the trip. No driving around. No crazy sightseeing. Just beds, books, and a beautiful view of Wadi Dana. 

In summary, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was magnificent. The people were warm. The food was delicious. The sites were breathtaking. The experience was truly incredible.

Thank you for reading! Rock on. NM

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