Jordan was a very spiritual trip for me. I felt the historical significance of everyplace we visited.
It is a little scary, in this day and age, to be an American woman visiting the Middle East. There is no doubt that we are different, and with my long blonde hair, and my husband with his requisite baseball cap, I felt as if we stuck out like a sore thumb, and we did.
I was a little afraid to fly into the Middle East alone, as the tensions have been pretty strong for the past couple of decades. I don’t remember a lot about the airport, just that it was small, and that I did not understand the signs or what I was supposed to do to get through customs and into the country to meet my husband. After having my bags searched (thankful that I had learned to pack small), I finally received my visa stamp to visit Jordan.
I had my very first aha moment, knowing that I was not in America anymore, right at the airport. After I made it through security and met Arick, who had flown in the day before, I had him hold my bags while I used the ladies room. Other than I really needed to go, I had brought a scarf to wear over my hair to both show respect, and somewhat hide my glaring Westernness. I was definitely in for culture shock. There was no toilet. There was a hole in the floor with a ridged area for your feet on each side of it.
I am not sure if I mentioned that it was fall and pretty cool outside, so I had a long coat on, along with that giant scarf that I brought to cover my hair. Then I had my purse, and of course, I had on a pair of jeans. Honestly, I did not know what I was supposed to do. I wondered if the other ladies coming in and out of the restroom even had anything on under their black dresses (Aba). I had to nearly completely undress, thank goodness there was a coat hanger on the door.
This may be TMI, but in case you hadn’t thought about it lately, you can’t really squat over a hole with your pants over your knees, they have to go down lower than that. Did I mention these stalls did not have hand rails? There were women way older than me making their way in and out of here in steady succession, and I was still trying to figure out how not to fall down or pee down my leg. Well, I did finally manage to balance myself and do what I came to do, when reality number 2 set in. There was a hose coming out of the wall with constant running water, but there was not toilet paper.
Now, I am just a country girl from Louisiana. I don’t know how to use a bidet, much less a water hose coming out of the wall onto a hole in the floor at an airport in the Middle East. Luckily, I was able to hobble forward to the door and grab a napkin from my coat pocket. I threw it down the hole, not even knowing if I was supposed to do that.
Now, I am not exactly a germiphobe, but I am not a fan of bathroom locks, knobs and handles, either. It did not pass me lightly that the handle of this stall had been handled by nothing but bare hands that had not used toilet paper in said stall. Luckily I had another napkin in my purse. I figured Arick was getting worried that it was taking me so long, and I know he could see the shock on my face as I came out, but he never said a word. The man has learned a thing or two over the years. (In case you are wondering, I used it before we got to the airport on the way home.)
I had booked a room at the Marriott in Amman, Jordan for our first couple of nights, so we grabbed a cab and made it there in no time. I don’t think that I talked much during the ride, I was still uncertain about my surroundings and trying to take in all of the local sites. The street signs, for the most part, were in both English and Arabic. Cars honked and drove frantically through the streets, and the whole thing was the norm for them, and mesmerizing to me.
My first impression (after the bathroom scare) was that everything was the same color. The dirt, the buildings, the roads. Nothing stood out, nothing was simple, nothing was spectacular. It was a large city, of course, with lots of hustle and bustle, but there were subtle differences that reminded me that I was in a foreign country.
When we arrived at the Marriott, we were greeted and treated very well. As is customary in most upscale properties, especially abroad, they wanted to take good care of us from the moment we arrived. Of course, we are the “do it all myself” Americans, and carried our backpacks ourselves up to the room. That embarrassed me a little, but my husband is who he is, and he likes to do things for himself, so I just go with the flow.
We were both tired, after spending most of the past 36 hours flying or at airports, so we showered and took a moment to relax. I have never lived near a Mosque or heard religious “calls to prayer” over city-wide loud speaker systems. It was beautiful, and I do respect the customs and beliefs of those who were taught differently than I was taught.
We decided to head down to the lobby for dinner, and entered Champion’s Sports Bar. There were a lot of empty tables and booths, but we sat at the bar so that Arick could see American sports on the TV, and ordered a burger and fries.
The food was good, the atmosphere was good, and the bartenders were friendly. We were actually there a couple of hours, when all of a sudden, a door that was not noticeable along the black walls, opened, and a steady stream of young people began to enter. Not a few couples, but at least 100 or more. There was someone collecting cover charges at the door, and a disco ball and strobe light lit up a large area of the bar that had just been opened up. It filled up quickly.
These were not ladies in burkas, these were 20 somethings in full out party wear. Mini skirts, high heels, and enough makeup to make Ru Paul proud. We were now sitting in what I imagine a New York club would look and feel like. The party walked in the door with them. The DJ played techno-style music and Michael Jackson music, loud and clear, and did an awesome job of keeping everyone dancing.
We didn’t stay long after that, as we once again didn’t fit in, but this time it was because we were too old, and some might say, way underdressed!
After a day of rest, and enjoying Amman, we asked the concierge for tips on where to go and what to see. Arick mentioned Petra (I had never heard of it!), and the concierge set us up with a room at the Marriott in Petra, and called us a cab for the 3 hour drive. They told us that our driver would stay in Petra, too, and drive us back to the Dead Sea Marriott Resort 2 days later, if we paid him an extra $100. We agreed.
The driver seemed friendly enough, and we loaded into the backseat with our bags, and settled into his large sedan. I remember that I found it odd that he had tattoos on his fingers, since he was an older man, and honestly, I just never thought about Middle Eastern people getting tattoos. Showing my lack of international knowledge, again. Anyway, there were a lot of checkpoints along the highway, and once again, I was a little uncomfortable, but tried not to act nervous. I know that Arick would protect me from anything that may endanger me, but I still felt very out of place.
More culture shock, and more awe, more spiritual sensations, it is hard to even describe all of the emotions that I felt during that ride.
There were Shepherds herding their sheep. Yep, just like on TV, just like in the Bible. There were men dressed in what I would consider gowns and robes or cloaks tied with ropes, holding large sticks or staphs, herding their sheep along the highway. All I could think was that this looked like such a God forsaken land. There was nothing but dry dirt everywhere. The Shepherds were leading the sheep to small patches of grass that were sparse and smaller than a dinner plate. I don’t know how they all did not starve.
There were Bedouin villages deep in the valleys, they were large tent-like settlements that were made from make-shift materials, sticks, mud, blankets, fabric. They were large, too. Some of them must have been the size of a football field. It seemed like one would pop up every time there would be a pond or water source.
We went through a couple of very busy small towns, people crowded on the streets, traffic slow and chaotic. All of the women were covered head to toe in black, just their eyes showing through a small slit (Niqab). The men were in white gowns (Thobe) or khaki pants and white shirts. Donkeys and sheep and Shepherds stopped and slowed traffic at will. No one and everyone seemed to be rushing around.
We finally made it to Petra, it took closer to 5 hours, and was getting dark. We were tired and ready to get out of that car. Did I mention that the driver smoked like a chimney. That man must have smoked 100 cigarettes between Amman and Petra.
The Marriott at Petra was magnificent. It felt extravagant from the minute you pulled into the circular brick drive, and the hallways were spa-like. It was so nice. One of the nicest places that I have ever stayed. We set up for our driver to pick us up in the morning to visit Petra, and he left.
Our room was large and clean and the view was breathtaking. I can still see it if I close my eyes. The mist over the mountains looked so clean, for as far as you could see. You could feel that this place was special, it was in the air.
After a good night’s sleep and a wonderful full breakfast, we took the short ride to the entrance to Petra. It was just a gravel and dirt driveway past a fence and some brush, that lead to a dead end at a mountain, or so it appeared. The driver let us off at the fence, and I was certain that he had misunderstood where we wanted to go, but he took off, and there we stood. Someone walked out of a building that was carved into a rock, and asked us for money to enter the site. Arick paid, and we took off walking down the deserted road. Within minutes, men walking donkeys and camels came by offering us a ride. Of course Arick said we could just walk, and I was eyeballing a real camel offering me a ride. This was not Louisiana, that’s for sure.
We walked what seemed like a mile. I’m sure it was less than half, and saw that there was an opening in the mountain. Kind of like a big winding crack. I wasn’t sure we should go in there, how did he know we wouldn’t be ambushed by the donkey and camel guys for turning down their offers to ride? (Ridiculous, I know, but did I mention that I am a little scared of the unknown?)
We entered the sandstone looking gap, and it was so clean, so “entrancy” that I knew we were headed someplace special.
When we reached what I now know is called the Keyhole, I probably stopped breathing for a second. The Treasury, in all it’s glory, stood court over the opening that emerged in the clearing, and I had never even imagined anything like it, much less actually experienced it.
We were the size of ants in comparison. I just cannot comprehend how much effort went into this marvel. It towered over us, and was carved nearly the entire height of the mountainside. How did they get up there? There is no way that it was one artist, but it was an art. A pure work of art. I can only imagine the rudimentary tools that they used to sculpt this building from the rock. It appears as a building that would have been built by stacked rock, another miraculous feat, but it is intricately carved, inside and out.
There were other “buildings” started in the cliffside, but none as complete or intricate as The Treasury.
There were guided tours and more people coming in as I still stood there in a stupor, gazing at this wonder. I overheard a tour guide telling his group that the holes that were carved into the heights of the other mountains were ancient burial tombs. Of course, I imagined Jesus, and the tomb, and the rock.
Apparently, families would start preparing their small caves/tombs ahead of time, and a rock would cover the entrance, once it was occupied by a deceased loved one. He explained that some of these had been used, and some had not. I took that to mean that we were also in an ancient burial ground from that time. It was mind boggling to feel as if I was walking through history, through Biblical times. Through grounds that Jesus and the Disciples probably walked. It weighed on my heart, and was a very fulfilling experience.
Alas, we ventured as deep into the “city” as we were comfortable visiting. They said that there were a few more “buildings” carved further into the area, around the mountains. It looked quite deserted and the tours did not go that deep, so we chose not to, either. I still wonder what was there. It will forever be a mystery to me, but I felt comfortable with our choice.
Exiting the grounds, we ventured around the corner to see where the gatekeeper had emerged from earlier, and were blown away to see the “Cave Bar”. It just did not feel right. It was funny, unexpected, and unusual. We went inside, of course, and guess what? It was a bar. In a cave. It was indeed a Cave Bar. My spiritual quest ended in a bar, in a cave, in Petra, Jordan. Commercialism has hit the last corners of the entire earth.
Magically, as if he knew what time we would be ready, our driver reappeared and brought us back to the Marriott. We asked if there was anything else to see, anyplace to go, for dinner or something, maybe, and he said no. Marriott for dinner it was, and it was delicious. We made plans for an early pick-up, and headed inside.
I took in as much more of the view as I could hold, and we rested peacefully. (Look for another blog post about “That Baby” if you wonder about the stuffed animal in some of the pictures.)
Our driver arrived bright and early, and we, comfortable with him now, threw our bags in the trunk, and I even lowered the scarf from my head for the ride.
We were supposed to be going directly to the Marriott Resort at the Dead Sea, and it was about a 3 1/2 hour ride. Knowing how long it took us to get from Amman to Petra, we wanted to make sure we got to our new destination while it was still daylight. We didn’t.
Our first unexpected detour was to a castle, or the ruins of an ancient castle. I did not know why the driver stopped and got out of the car. He didn’t say anything, he just got out. We sat there a minute, then got out, too. He pointed us to the castle and said it was important. So, we started up the sidewalk to the castle, agreeing that we would only take a minute, since we really wanted to get on to the Dead Sea. The driver took off. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. He waved at us. Arick said he waved in a “be right back” manner. All we had was what was on our bodies. I didn’t even have my coat or headscarf on since I had not planned the stop, and we had decided to just make it quick.
We decided to trust that we would be safe and take advantage of the opportunity to visit the ruins of what I learned was the Crusader Castle of Kerak, built in 1132 AD.
I was cold, the wind was blowing and it was sending a chill straight to my bones. We spent about 20 minutes in the castle area, and walked back toward the side road parking where we had last seen our driver, and there he was, right back in the parking spot where he had dropped us off. I was so thankful.
We took off and Arick told him 2 or 3 times, straight to the Dead Sea.
We drove along, eyes red from the smoke, and made our way back through small towns with Shepherds and donkeys, very similar to the ones we had passed through on the way to Petra. Nothing looked familiar, though. Then, as we were enjoying the amazing mountainous views and vistas, the driver pulled over again and got out of the car. On the side of the road. In the middle of nowhere. He walked to the cliff-like edge of the road and waved for us to get out of the car. We did. We took in the most amazing view. There was no way that the view from the car was giving this place the justice that was due to it. It was glorious. The peace in the air was overwhelming. It felt like meditation.
The bedouin communities could be seen in the valleys in the distance. Shepherds were, of course, herding. I went back to the car for my camera, and even got a shot with our driver. I surmised that we might need that for evidence if they found our skeletons out here one day. (My somewhat irrational fear of the unknown was in full gear by this time.)
Back in the car with another reminder to go straight to the Dead Sea, we took off. Within about 30 minutes we pulled over again and picked up a hitchhiker. A HITCHHIKER! (I am surprised that I did not hyperventilate. Didn’t he learn to never pick up hitchhikers??)
It was very awkward sitting in the back seat, feeling non-existent, and a little bewildered in the fact that we now had a stranger in the car with us.
The man did not stay in the car with us long, he and the driver spoke a few minutes in Arabic, and the car stopped and he got back out of the car on the side of the road. In the middle of nowhere. Back out on the side of the road.
Within a few miles, the driver pulled over again and said “Mount Nebo.” Arick said “No, we need to go on to the Dead Sea. No more today.” The driver got out and opened Arick’s car door and said, “Mount Nebo.”
We said ok, reluctantly, and as soon as we were out of the car, we had not even reached for our jackets yet, and he had ran around the car and hopped back in. He rolled down his window and said “Petro” and sped away.
It is an understatement to say that I was scared to death at this moment. Mt. Nebo is in the middle of nowhere. I was overlooking the Promised Land that Moses had once seen, but I was looking for places that we could hide and hunker down for the night if we had to camp out here.
It was 5:25 PM local time, and just starting to get hazy and a little dark. Across from the Mt. Nebo facility, there was a scenic overlook, but it had venders selling their wares who were breaking down for the day.
We walked up to the gate of the entrance to the Mt. Nebo exhibit building, just as they pulled out a roadblock with a sign that Mt. Nebo closed at 5:30 PM daily.
I could see a farmhouse in the valley below, which would be where we would seek shelter, if this was a Lifetime movie. As it was, we were two Americans without our bags, without our coats, without our phones, and for the first and only time during a trip abroad, without our passports. I was scared. I could tell that Arick was scared, too, but I knew he was planning something to keep us safe. The infantry soldier in him was going to kick in, and he would know what to do if we were about to get ambushed. I know how crazy all of that sounds right now, but I am being honest and telling you the truth about what was going through my mind.
You know those news stories about Americans being killed or kidnapped as they backpacked through a Middle Eastern country? I hate to admit that the first thing that crosses my mind when I hear one of these stories is “what in the heck are you doing backpacking in a hostile territory?” Now, Jordan is not a hostile territory, but no matter what distance you saw us from, it was obvious that we were not from the region, and heck, we didn’t even have our backpacks.
As we stood on the side of the road and watched the vendors drive away, and the gatekeepers for Mount Nebo leave, we just stood there, alone in the middle of nowhere on the side of the road in the Middle East.
Then, out of nowhere, we could see lights coming down the highway. We did not know whether to try to find a place to hide, to start walking toward the Dead Sea (still 60 miles away) or what to do. Then it happened. The car pulled over beside us, and it was our driver.
I don’t know if I have ever seen Arick so upset, yet controlled. We got in the car and he said “straight to the Marriott.”. His voice was firm, and I was so thankful that this jerkwad had picked us back up.
The driver asked if we wanted to go to the Baptismal site, and once again, very firm, Arick said straight to the hotel.
He must have got the message, as he drove along quietly for a while. The car slowed down and he said that the bridge to the right would take us to Jerusalem.
I knew our situation, and I wanted to get to our room, too, but if we passed over that bridge, we would be in Israel. I asked Arick if we could just go across the bridge and turn around so that I could say that I had been to Israel.
Reluctantly, Arick asked the driver to drive us across the bridge and back. The driver said no, and for once, he was the one who looked scared to death. He said that he was not allowed to enter Israel. We just looked at each other and were glad that there were now street lights starting to appear, the roads were wider and more traveled, and the signs indicated that the Dead Sea was close.
It was beautiful, green country with rolling hillsides and newly paved winding roadways.
After another couple of checkpoints, we arrived at the end of a long, winding road that had a Marriott Resort sign at the entrance. There was a guard shack (a nice one, though!) at the end of the driveway, and our driver got out. It took quite a while. It was getting kind of cold in the car, it was now completely dark, even though the road ahead of us was well lit, we were tired and just wanted to check in.
The guard refused our entry, and we actually had to get out of the car and explain that we had reservations. The hotel sent a car for us, and removed our bags from the cab, and we paid the driver and he made a U-turn and left. We were astonished, but there was more craziness to ensue. We had to place our bags and all of our belongings (coats, purse, passport badge) onto a conveyer belt just outside the entrance, and were then escorted inside. I was a little miffed, and did not understand, and did not understand what was going on. We were gold members of the Marriott Rewards program, all of our info was in the system. I felt like they thought we were up to something bad, and it was embarrassing and hurt my feelings a little.
While we waited for our bags and were interviewed about the reason for our visit (did I mention this was a Dead Sea resort? What the heck other reason do you need to visit a hotel?), I explained to the front desk clerk that I was confused, that we had never had to have our bags searched at a hotel before, and I did not understand what was going on.
After directing us to go wait in the gift shop, I guess he saw my shocked expression, and finally explained. Our driver is who was not allowed on the property, and the reason for our search and delays. The tattoos on his fingers were from being in prison, and he was labeled as an unsavory character, and since we were with him, we were now suspicious, too. WHATTTTT???????
He waved us off to the gift shop, not even listening as I explained that the Marriott in Amman is who sent us this guy, and had arranged for him to be with us for the last several days. He did not believe me, and said that the Marriott properties have a list of drivers that they can recommend, and that this guy was not one of them, and that a Marriott would have never placed us with him. (Well, they did, but I wasn’t going to stand there and argue with the guy.)
Anyway, the gift shop was full of expensive Dead Sea salt products. Lotions, potions and soaks were amass, alongside all of the other normal resort gift shop fare of scarves, robes and tote bags. This was the first commercial place we had been to that looked exactly like a resort in the states.
The grounds at the resort were impeccable. The lobby was not a grand destination like some resorts, but I tend to think that is a waste of space, anyway, and appreciate the extra space going into the rooms themselves.
Our room was not fancy, just an average (but still very nice and clean) Marriott room. Except for the view.
I have never wanted to just stare out a hotel room window and take in the surroundings, I would rather just get out and experience what the city has to offer. This was different. I was looking at the Dead Sea. The lights across the way? That was Israel. And Palestine. This was the Holy Land. I stood and stared in silence, imagining everyone who could have possibly stood on the same ground that I now stood. I thought of my grandparents, and how much they would have loved being here. I thought of my Mama, praying that the actual salt, mud and water that I was bringing home would somehow miraculously cure her cancer. (It didn’t.)
The walkway from the hotel itself down to the dead sea was stepped in levels, and was very well kept and groomed.
The beach area was private to the Marriott, and there was no one else there when we got down there. It was windy and a little chilly, but I was determined to get into the water.
I brought a tank top and shorts, feeling a little uncomfortable even in that, given that most women in the area were expected to wear more modest attire. I wasn’t sure what was normally worn into the water, and since I was the only one there, with Arick, of course, I just went for it.
I had heard all of the miraculous stories about people coming to the dead sea and having the minerals from the water and the mud cure their ailments. All I could think about was getting some of the mud for my Mama. She had Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma with Sezary Syndrome and Mycosis Fungoides. The skin of her entire body was affected.
Actually getting the mud was a feat within itself. The stories about not being able to sink in the Dead Sea are true. The buoyancy is something that you have to experience to understand. It is like when you try to force an empty plastic bottle under the water, as soon as you let it go, it bounces back to the top.
The first few feet of the water have sand at the bottom, the mud does not start until you are about chest high. It is even impossible to stand at chest depth, at least it was for me. I could feel the mud under my toes, but I could not get to it. Not much of it, anyway. I would try to grab a “toe full” of the mud and bring it up to my hands to throw to Arick to hold, but I continued to lose my balance and bobble. I tried to go under the water to grab some with my hands, also impossible, and until you have had Dead Sea water in your eyes, you have not known eye pain.
It was getting dark, and I was beside myself, wanting this mud, thinking I was going to save my Mama’s life, and being helpless to retrieve it.
Arick finally convinced me to go in and come back out in the morning. I did, and I wrapped my hotel robe around my shivering self and made my way back to the room and enjoyed a long, hot shower.
This is the time when I might share a little TMI, but did I mention that I only got to see my husband quarterly? When I woke up, I took a quick shower and shaved my legs, trying to look pretty and feminine for Arick, put my shorts and tank top back on, and was ready to head back to the water. Big Mistake. Big, big mistake. I thought I was going to die….
Once again, we had the beach area to ourselves, and I was determined to get some of that mud to take home. There were big boulders along the shoreline, and some strategically placed along the beach. I noticed, on the way in, that there was a huge pile of mud on one of the rocks, and you could see where someone had their handprints in it, but they must have came and gone before we arrived.
I wanted to gather some of the salt that was everywhere along the rocks. As the tide would roll in, the water would splash on the rocks, and the residual salt would solidify on the rocks. Hard as a rock, too. White salt crystals everywhere. It was caked on, and not that easy to chip off. I got a little of the salt in a Ziploc, and Arick said he would get more salt if I wanted to go on in to try to get mud. I agreed and walked back to the beach area and into the water.
The burn was instant. Every pore on my body seemed to have opened up to allow the salt to burn like acid into my body, My legs were on fire. Literal fire. Well, almost literal fire. It felt like literal fire. The salt was eating me up.
I bobbled for a few minutes, holding back tears, wanting the mud so desperately, my skin now raw and irritated. I didn’t know what to do.
Arick asked if I just wanted to take some of the mud that the person before us had obviously left for the next person. I didn’t. I wanted to get my own, but I couldn’t. I gave it everything I had for just a couple of “toes full”. I agreed.
I could barely even walk or move my arms by this time. The salt was causing friction, and if my arm even touched my body, it was like scraping the fresh skin off of a wound. Of course, there has not been a thigh gap in sight on my body for 30 years, and my legs were like lobsters. I waddled, trying to bow my legs and hold my arms away from my sides, and scraped away what I could of the mud that was magically waiting for us on the boulder. I was so thankful, but all I could think of was that shower.
Arick went on ahead of me so that he could get the shower started for me, as I ever so gently tried to get the robe on my arms and still have skin left.
When I got to the room, I was cold and in so much pain that I was in tears. It hurt so bad. Every inch of me hurt so bad. My entire body was chapped. Every inch.
I started crying because he did not have the shower on. He apologized, and said that I was not going to be able to shower, that the bathtub was full of sewer water.
This could not be happening. I looked, and sure enough, brown, chunky water filled the bottom of the tub. I cried harder. I called the front desk, desperate, and told them what had happened, and that I needed a shower. We were checking out in a couple of hours. I had shaved my legs. I had to have a place to take a shower.
The front desk clerk said that maintenance was not there yet, and there was nothing that they could do. They mentioned that there was a bathhouse down on the beach with a shower, and I cried harder. There was no way that I could go back down that incline. I could barely walk. I was in so much pain.
They finally agreed that they would give me the key to another room to shower, as long as I agreed not to sit on the bed in the clean room, or I would have to pay for it. Of course, I hastily agreed, and they sent someone with a key to a room that seemed to be a mile away, but I was so thankful. I love to shower, but I don’t think I have had, or ever will have, another shower that felt so good.
By the time I got back to our room, the maintenance staff was plunging the bath tub, and Arick had our bags packed. We were pretty grossed out, wondering how in the world the plumbing was connected that allowed the raw sewerage to come back up the tub.
The front desk staff were very friendly, as they had been when we arrived, and called a driver for us, to get us back to the Amman Marriott for our last night before flying out. They advised us to go to the gift shop, as the wait would be at least an hour, but a car was there within about 15 minutes.
Incidentally, I mentioned to the front desk clerk at the Amman Marriott about the driver they gave us on our way out not being allowed to bring us onto the Dead Sea property, and they denied knowing a driver by the description that we gave, and said they only use drivers from their approved list, and none of them have tattoos on their fingers.