Wadi Rum - The Desert Oasis

Wadi Rum in southern Jordan isn't an oasis by the "look at these date palms and bountiful spring in the middle of the desert" sense. It's dry like you would expect a desert to be dry. But after the less than stellar experiences in our short visit to Jordan, the serenity and comfort of Wadi Rum felt like an oasis to us.

For our visit, we booked a night at a Bedouin camp along with a 4x4 tour of the area, with all meals and transportation included*. Our goal for the trip was to just spend the night in the desert, so we were a hard sell on the 4x4 tour, but it turned out to be awesome. We rode around in the back of a pick-up from site to site. We stopped at sand dunes, Lawrence of Arabia's "house", great rock formations, and, in general, just enjoyed the beauty of it all.

Since we were there off season*, our camp was practically deserted*, just us and 1 other traveler. Our tents were super comfy and we spent the evening around a fire inside a communal tent listening to the desert silence. The evening treated us to a gorgeous sunset. We went to bed very happy.

They say the desert has healing properties and I can see why. The calmness and beauty helped us wash away (or at least get the larger chunks off) our other Jordan experiences. If time and budget permitted, I would have stayed another week, spending the days meandering around the rock outcroppings and sitting and listening to the natural world. But, alas, we had a plane to catch, so back to the real world it was (with a stop along the way to look at camels). But the short time out in the desert at Wadi Rum refilled my precipitously low traveler's tank with wonder and excitement readying me for the final leg of this epic adventure. Thank you Wadi Rum!
Friday January 15 2016File under: travel, Jordan

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Questioning the Value of a Visit to Petra

There's no doubt about it: Petra, that lost city in Jordan of buildings carved into stone amongst narrow picture-esque canyons, is amazing. It's beautiful, magical, breath taking, and one of a kind. You can't go and not come away with some amazing pictures (see below). And you'll probably remember your visit for the rest of your life. But despite all that, I can't say for certain that I'm glad I went. There were just too many downsides to the experience. In short, it was a bad value.

Petra is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and for good reason. But it the most expensive UNESCO World Heritage by a long shot—more than the pyramids, Angkor Wat, and the Taj Mahal COMBINED! Sure it's just money, and if it were money that felt like it went to something good, it would be different. But the way it seems to me, Jordan just uses Petra as a built in ATM machine, gouging cash from tourists to be spent on anything but maintaining, preserving, and policing the site.

After our visit, Della and I made a list of grievances we plan to pass along to the park. It includes such things as poor treatment of animals, heavy [and rude] harassment by the vendors, extra charges for supposedly included features (bathrooms for example), lack of any sort of authoritative presence (to report abuses to), local hucksters running amok (playing their boom-boxes while donkey racing through the streets, climbing atop the priceless monuments), and, of course, the exorbitant fee.

What does all this mean? I can't, in good conscience, recommend that you go out of your way to see Petra. If you do, you'll see some spectacular buildings carved into stone, bedrock of amazing colors, narrow canyons that were traversed for millennia, and bits of history that are better preserved than maybe anywhere else on earth. But you also might go away feeling like you've just supported something that you don't feel good about, and that's not fun.



Wednesday January 13 2016File under: travel, Jordan

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Un-Welcome to Jordan

Any traveler worth his salt knows that international borders can be trouble spots. Being a bit of a salty traveler myself, I know this. That is why I do my research: online forums, official websites, travel guidebooks, and more. But, as it turns out, no matter how prepared you think you are, you can still get screwed.

See me in this picture? I'm smiling, ready for the next country on this grand adventure. An hour previous, we had just smoothly sailed through the Egypt/Israel border at Taba which was rumored to be a grueling one. All my research suggested that the Israel/Jordan border at Eilat was to be even easier. Aqaba is part of a free economic trade zone so visitors can enter without a visa provided they yada yada. We were fully yada yada compliant so I was looking forward to smiling "Welcome to Jordan" and being sent on our way. Alas, it was not to be.

Three days previous to our crossing, new border rules went into effect. No word was put out ahead of time of the upcoming rule changes. No contingency plans were put in place to help those travelers put in a pickle by the new rules. In what we sadly came to know as a typically Jordan way of doing things, it was just done willy nilly without much consideration towards the visitor.

As you might imagine, we weren't the only ones arriving at the border being told "Due to the new rules changes you couldn't have known about, you have to go back to Israel and apply for a visa that might get granted as early as tomorrow if you're lucky." If this had been said with an apologetic tone and a sincere attempt at trying everything they could, I might have considered complying. Instead, I suggested that I stay put, sleeping on the couch of the border office if necessary, until they could sort it out themselves. They didn't like this.

And so it escalated: trickery, lies, stern works, and even threats of imprisonment, first from the lowlies and then from the higher ups. And as this is all escalating, more would-be tourists are joining the fray, each attempting their own devices to secure entry: pleading, reasoning, appealing to compassion. Nothing seemed to be working. Until, in chatting with the border guy about how stupid this was, I learned that just yesterday, they let a couple in through a process of buying a Jordan Pass online, What's App-ing some files around, then paying a runner to get said files printed and delivered back to the border. "Hmmm....that would have been helpful to know...3 hours ago." Now we had a unified purpose.

So ensued a scramble to find a smart phone with local service to buy said Jordan Passes, credit cards that could be used for the extortive amount, coordination of passport numbers, currency exchanges, a runner to print stuff, etc. Being cell-phoneless and of the mind that too many cooks in the kitchen...I left Della with the passports and money and went off to breathe. Or, to be more specific, to juggle.

It turns out, the government populace of the Jordanian border crossing at Aqaba are really interested in juggling. It started with the lowlies coyly watching while smoking their 23rd cigarette of our saga. Then they gestured for tricks to be repeated, called their friends over, and tricks repeated again. Soon, the previously "I'll drag you off to jail" guy takes me and hauls me into the Major's office to show off my stuff. He is entertained and invites me to share tea. A conversation ensues (through interpretation of the once-gruff underling) where-in I explain the research I did, the trouble their rule change has caused, and some simple suggestions on how to fix it ("perhaps a sign on the Israel border to alert travelers to the new rules would save people having to pay $30 to exit Israel only to be returned 20 minutes later, not to mention the loss of a day or more").

At this point, Della comes looking for me partly for the need of more money and partly to make sure I wasn't being severely beaten. I used this as a graceful exit point from the Major's office (as the conversation had devolved into admiring the automatic dolma rolling machine that was being advertised on the TV in the corner). She informed me that project "Extortion via Jordan Pass" was proceeding well and we should be Jordan bound within 3 hours. To pass the time, I roped her into doing our juggling routine first for the guards and then for our fellow stranded travelers. It went over swimmingly.

After a time, the printed passes arrived and were slowly processed. The eight of us that stuck to our guns to find a way through finally filtered off into Jordan via over-priced taxis into the night. Della and I were forced to spend 2 days' budget (on top of all the border monies) to catch back up to our plan of making it to Wadi Musa to prepare for seeing Petra the following morning. But as the adrenaline subsided, the stewing anger grew. Never did anyone say "Sorry about this" or even "Welcome to Jordan". It was almost as if it were more of a "Well boys, let's fuck over some people again tomorrow".

I'd like to say that some time in Jordan made up for the bad border experience. And maybe it will. But, as the saying goes, you never get a second change to make a first impression. And my first impression of Jordan couldn't be worse.
Friday January 8 2016File under: travel, jordan

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