So I just got back from the weekend’s extensive traveling, and even though I feel like my head is filled with sand (literally) and I should probably be finishing up my lesson plans for tomorrow’s class, I wanted to record the details of the trip as thoroughly as I can before it, like the sand, slips from my sleepy brain. As a fair warning, this entry is over 6,500 words long, so I recommend printing it out instead of staring into your computer screen for an hour. Or at least, pour yourself a cup of coffee, or possibly a stiff scotch. Yes, that’ll do nicely. Ready? Let’s begin.

I didn’t want to write about the weekend’s plans before now just because, just like getting Ayn Al Basha and Internet ready and working in a timely fashion, I didn’t want to gush about the future before I was actually sitting on the bus, speeding towards the famous Petra itself. The whole trip probably cost me JD 68, all told, and for the chance to get a taste of three famous Jordanian sites, it was definitely worth it.

I met up with Haitham and his two medical school friends Ee’sad and Hazzum late on Thursday night after I got home from work. Haitham wasted no time in taking charge of the operations of directing the purchases of food, drink, and cooking, and we spent an hour scurrying about Zah’ran Street to various still-open grocery stores picking up supplies. I offered to buy dinner for everyone (why not, at JD .60 a person?) but they all declined, citing the medical issues with the constant eating of fuul and hoummus. Darn it, this is what happens when you hang out with med students.

Haitham bustled about the kitchen, taking charge of making 3 dozen sandwiches of 3 different types: egg, beef, and cheese. He clicked his tongue at us, “dahl hohn! [come here] and let’s get going! We need to be up at 4:30 in the morning to catch the bus at 5:30!” I do have to definitely admit, those sandwiches he made for dinner were definitely far better than the greasy food I regularly eat. As Haitham always quotes to me disapprovingly when I tell him of my enjoyment of the cooked farva beans called fuul, Fuul makes fools, my friend.”

As expected, 4:30 arrived way too soon, and we were all slightly muddy-headed as we wandered shakily outside at 5:15 in the morning to catch a taxi to Garden street to meet the waiting bus. We were completely laden with sacks of food, courtesy of Haitham, but curiously (I thought to myself) I was the only one carrying a pillow and sleeping bag. No one told me until much later that all that good stuff was provided at the camp, but oh well, at least I had something comfy to continue sleeping on the bus with.

The four of us took our seats as the rest of the bus filled up. I was the only white guy on the bus; everyone else was Arab, or east Asian. There was a couple in front of us snuggling and whispering into each others’ ears, causing Haitham to frown disapprovingly and mutter something about “disgrace to Islam.” I noted that the vast majority of the other guests were a group of around 20 young students, raucously singing and calling out to each other as they stampeded aboard. From reading the backs of their matching letter jackets (which were in English, surprisingly) I could see that they were “Class of 2009 of ITC,” whatever that was. One thing was for sure, they definitely weren’t sleepy like the rest of us, and they started hooting and even (I’m not kidding) banging on 1-2 bongo drums that they had brought with them. Although they were quite rhythmically talented, I very quickly wanted to strangle them with their own checked keffiyeh scarves.

The leader of the trip, a tall, skinny young Palestinian named Kemahl, did his best to keep order as us older travelers gazed mutinously at him, wincing as the ITC kids started singing badly off-key hiphop music. However, his black and white checked keffiyeh wrapped prominently around his neck and his soft, quiet voice probably did little to affect the students, the majority of whom were festooned with the traditional, “true Jordanian” red and white scarves that old families wear to show their wahtanee; patriotism. Adding to the ineffectiveness of Kemahl’s pleas to keep it down was the fact that the bus’s sound system appeared to actually be an old karaoke machine that was set on “theater echo mode” which made his voice sound like he was speaking through a Darth Vader mask. If not for the fact that the rest of us were all trying to sleep, the whole situation would have been comical. “They’re just blowing off steam, you see,” Haitham explained. “When you’re in school, you are always told what to do, when to do, and it’s all very strict. They can’t make a sound; very repressing.”

Although the trip to Petra took about 4 hours, we took breaks every hour or so for people to get out and stretch their legs. Who am I kidding? We took breaks every 50 minutes or so for people to race off the bus and light up as many cigarettes as possible, puffing away frantically in the chilly morning air. At this first such occasion, at a little restaurant/rest stop an hour outside of Amman, we four enjoyed the first few of our tasty sandwiches as the kids pulled out a football (Americans should read as = soccer) and somehow managed to smoke, kick the ball around, and play that !#$! drum at the same time. I don’t remember having THAT much energy when I was 17, but I guess they just have to keep it bottled up all week. I wandered over to the edge of the restaurant’s parking lot, stepping gingerly between tall, thick green cacti and looking out into the desert, which instantly began beyond the cacti barrier. As is sadly the norm in Jordan, the first 10 feet in all directions was strewn with bottles, bags, and various other garbage-related items. In the distance, I could see a herd of goats and a few scattered tents.

Eventually though, we swung around the final corner over the final mountain pass and the amazing, breathtaking sight of Petra came into full view, with the tiny tourist town of Wadi Musa in front of it. The driver slowed down as we all dug out our cameras and snapped away. Of course, slowed down for a Jordanian means, “drove in a way slightly less likely to cause us to fall off the mountain” and so, the picture below is the best of the otherwise-blurry bunch. It can’t do the true sight justice, though – it was completely unlike what I expected to see. The ancient capitol of the Nabateans appears to almost grow straight up out of the desert, and then, as you can see in the far background, fall back away into nothing.

The village of Wadi Musa with the imposing Petran mountainscape beyond

The village of Wadi Musa with the imposing Petran mountainscape beyond

Within a few more minutes, the bus had wound through the tiny, heavily commercialized town of Wadi Musa. From what I’ve heard, there were two tribes of indigenous Bedouin in this area in the 80’s when Jordan’s government turned the area into a natural park, and one of them got the ludicrous deal of the hotels and shops in the town, and the other was pretty much forced to live off whatever they can hawk to tourists inside the park itself. Not the fairest deal I’d ever heard of, but I vowed to see it for myself before making judgment (with totally neutral info, obviously!)

I watched Ee’sad pay twice as much as Amman prices for a pack of cigarettes, and then we picked up our tickets from the tourist center near the entrance. For the three Jordanians, the price was a dinar apiece. For me – 21 dinars. Definitely a sweet little racket the Jordanians have going, but I can’t really fault them because their country has little else besides tourism to make money off of, so I’ll forgive the price as just how things are. Besides, the reason my bread is 10 cents for a stack is because of government subsidy, so maybe I’ll eat my losses later, anyway.

Petra's Obelisk tomb; sadly tough to see in the morning with the sun behind it

Petra's Obelisk tomb; sadly tough to see in the morning with the sun behind it

It didn’t take long down the sunny, broad trail before we came across the first Petran ruins, the interestingly-shaped Obelisk tomb. I’ll try to include information on each item too, but be forewarned; it’s just the stuff I read off the back of the free pamphlet/map I picked up on the way so it’s not like I’m able to give out any new information, sadly. I think I’d have to be one of the somewhat rare Nabatean scholars in order to do that. Here’s one though; my dad emailed me this the night before we left. Ahem! Anyway, this tomb apparently had both Egyptian and Greek influences on its construction; the guide tells us to note the obvious pyramidal towers, as well as the European-style colonnade around the door. The Nabateans, who existed here for a thousand years before Islam even existed, were incredible traders, and definitely had trade routes between Greece and Giza. The guys instructed me to hurry along, “this is only the beginning! We haven’t even entered the Siq yet!” Haitham told me he’d been here once before seven years ago for a class trip, but neither of the brothers had ever been to Petra before. I was a little surprised that they didn’t want to browse and wander more outside the Siq, but I was definitely starting to see that Haitham was the ringleader here!

As we continued down the easily-sloping hill at a fairly rapid rate, dodging the dozens of pedestrian tourists, camel-riding tourists, horse-riding tourists, and etc (you get the picture) as well as the Bedouins doing the providing of the animals. Several times, we were hailed by hopeful guides with weatherbeaten skin and long robes. “Would you like to hire a camel ride!” they shouted, and Haitham called back, “For free is good!” in English, obviously for my benefit. At this retort, the salespeople usually fell silent as Haitham hustled us past briskly. Out of all of the half-dozen ethnic groups I saw during the day, there was a noticeable lack of Arab tourists. The Bedouins seemed to feel at a little loss for words as the three co linguists strode past them, with me following behind at a slower pace, snapping pictures every few seconds at what probably looked like random air molecules to anyone watching. I should have just set the camera on autofire mode and mounted it on my forehead; that’s essentially the rate at which the shutter was moving.

After about 15 minutes of walking through the sunlit path, we came to the massive jaws of the As-Siq, the 1.2 kilometer long gorge that leads down into the city itself. I’ve put a few pictures up here on this website, but many more soon on my Flickr account (update: now!); the awe-inspiring beauty and height of the monstrous walls is just incredible. The four of us craned our heads back and stared up into the tiny sliver of daylight that we could still see as we walked downwards. Cool breezes started to billow around us as we entered the shadowy crack in the stone; the place so far down that it’s never not in shade. The stone along the walls was sandy to the touch and I wondered how much more narrow this path had been a millenia ago when it was new before wind and time began to eat away at it. Along one wall, throughout the half an hour long hike through the Siq, there was a trench embedded into the wall, presumably one of the sources for thirsty traders to stop and drink on their way to deliver their goods to the city below. Throughout the hike, bamboo and fig trees clung to the walls pathetically, trying to catch enough water and, more importantly, sunlight to stay alive. The fig trees in particular were yellowing and tattered, their roots cracking through the stone like gray talons. Every 400 meters or so, the Siq widened out into a theater-sized opening with a wider mouth and lower walls. Although we had certainly been walking down the entire time, the complete inability to see anything outside of the Siq was rather disorienting and I had no idea how high or low we were.

The winding path through the Siq dropped us deeper and deeper into the mountain until we entered one last skinny channel in the rock and the huge facade of the Treasury (Al Khazneh) loomed imposingly in front of us like a burnished Roman wall. Even though everyone’s seen the Treasury before, either in pictures or in Indiana Jone’s search for the Holy Grail (yes, it’s the place from that last scene), we all gasped and took a step back to peer up through the thin shaft of light to look at the edifice, still another hundred yards in front of us.

We come around the corner I probably shouted, "oh WOW!" like a little kid

We come around the corner I probably shouted, "oh WOW!" like a little kid

Do you think it looks like Lake Michigan? I do. Or maybe Palestine, if you squint a little.

Do you think it looks like Lake Michigan? I do. Or maybe Palestine, if you squint a little.

Obviously, it wasn’t really a hundred dinars to get in; not even the Jordanian tourism board is that cruel. We were able to walk right up and stand in the doorway of the Treasury, but not any closer than that. We all crowded up and looked into the ancient building, but it was only one large room, with doors to smaller rooms on the side. The ceiling, however, looked like a polished sheet of strawberry ice cream, with pink and red swirls interspersed with white flecks. I was starting to get hungry, but Haitham, the big mishkelgee (troublemaker) that he is, turns and shouts to the rest of the crowd, in English, “nothing to see here, folks! Don’t worry, we’re repainting the thing tomorrow!” and so I quickly focused my attention on a Bedouin guard, dressed in full 1950’s Jordanian army regalia (or something) whose sole purpose seemed to be to take pictures with tourists. Although I didn’t get one with him (the line was too long) I did get a picture with an even older fellow, dressed as a Nabatean, who smiled placidly at me and posed with a semi-toothless smile to the camera. Well, at least the government is employing the Bedouins in some way!

We continued on, with the path widening again and breaking into open sunlight to the northwest. Haitham now seemed to be greatly enjoying being an Arab “tourist” and when a little boy offered us (i.e. the American) a donkey ride, Haitham engaged him in conversation for a minute, in English, with a straight face, asking him how he was, how much the ride was, etc. The boy looked extremely unsettled to be speaking in English to a fellow Arab and then finally screwed up his face and said, in Arabic, “You’re joking with me, getting me to think you are a dumb American or something,” and continued on his way. I shouted after him, also in Arabic, “Hey! We’re all Americans here, dude!” as the other three cracked up behind me.

I had resolved to buy some postcards to send to people at home, and the prices for them in the Visitor’s center were a little ridiculous. The problem was solved when an tiny Bedouin boy, his face streaked gray with dust and grime, tapped me on the arm and hopefully held up a book of Petran postcards. “Buy?” he queried me hopefully. The price was one dinar for fourteen, which undercut the center by about 300% and pleased me so much I gave him an extra half dinar as well. Haitham and the other two squatted besides the boy and queried him as to his age and where he was from, which he shyly answered with an averted gaze. He was six, and lived near Wadi Musa. Haitham rolled his eyes as he saw the extra coin I gave him. “Now you must thank him,” he commanded the boy, who gave me a gap-toothed smile and whispered, “Thank you Mister.”

Haitham encouraged us to pick up the pace, as we had only just left the Siq and Treasury, and there was only an hour left before we were supposed to be back at the bus. I would have been content to wander in the sand for another half-dozen hours, but found myself hustled along, past a crumbling amphitheater and another half dozen tombs carved grandly into the rock. These tombs, far more exposed to the wind and elements than the shaded Treasury, had worn down over the centuries and although you could still see the remains of their height and arching shapes, there was not much left of them.

You might not be able too see them all, but there's probably about eight tombs in this picture alone.

You might not be able too see them all, but there's probably about eight tombs in this picture alone.

Although I was eager to visit to visit the High Place, where bestial sacrifices were made to the Nabatean’s gods and the entire mountain range can be seen, as well as the Monastery, which is almost as splendid as the Treasury and more simplistic and Persian than Hellenistic. Alas, it was not to be – there was not simply enough time in the day. I gazed mournfully down the path, watching the other tourists continuing to walk the last half kilometer to the Monastery, and turned back the way I had came. I didn’t want to leave completely empty handed, though. Haitham and Ee’sad had found a broken chunk of Petra’s famous red sandstone lying, half buried in the sand, and had further split it down to give us all a piece. But I wanted something a little more “souvenir-y” to take home to America.

One Bedouin merchant, lounging casually on a mat, called out to me as we were heading out. “Treasury refrigerator magnets here,” he languidly intoned as we trudged past. “Looking’s free you know,” he continued, which made me chuckle and I stopped to see what he was offering. Haitham, who until that point had stopped me from buying any other souvenirs with the promise that I could get something better for cheaper, now relented (probably to keep me from holding the group up anymore) and told me that the prices seemed fair. The Bedouin man looked to be about fifty, with almost blackened skin that stretched like crinkled leather over his slender face. He conversed with us in easy English, which I complimented him on. “English is easy,” he said. “I can probably speak about seven different languages for selling things, but English is the one that everyone knows a little of.” I asked him where he was from. “I was born here, in the caves with my family, before the tourists came. We Bedouins have always been here, you know.” As I purchased my trinket; a little stone rabbit with another little rabbit carved inside its hollowed insides, the merchant dropped the 5 dinars I handed to him into his other palm, which appeared suddenly from behind him, holding a stack of small bills, as well as 50 dinar notes. In another second, the hand had vanished back into the folds of the billowing robes again, and I found myself wondering just how badly off this tribe really was! He smiled knowingly at my raised eyebrow, showing dark, tobacco-stained teeth. “It is a good business for us; we do not mind your people here.”

We half-walked, half-jogged back the few hundred yards into the Siq again, and took a few more pictures of the Treasury again as we passed, now more heavily cloaked in shadow on its face, which faces due east. I couldn’t resist taking the following video as I left.

We were making good time, or so I thought until Haitham called Kemahl as we left the Siq behind and started towards the Obelisk Tomb. The bus had left Petra, and the four of us, behind! Haitham put the phone away, uttered several choice words in Arabic which have translations I shouldn’t repeat here, and started jogging up the hill. “I pray to God he is joking with me,” he panted as we reached the tourist center. But no, sure enough, the bus was nowhere to be found. The guys started speaking too rapidly now for me to hear was going on, so I zoned out and passed the time by resigning myself to living in Petra and Wadi Musa for the rest of my life, subsiding on leftover croissants thrown out from the tourist hotels and sleeping in a cave. Just as I successfully consoled myself that at least the croissant supply would be unlimited, I followed the other guys into a hotel seemingly at random to find the rest of the group calmly eating lunch (except for the students, who were of course, hooting uproariously and beating that drum). I rounded on Haitham – “I thought you said they had left! I thought you meant they had left for Wadi Rum already!” He responded indignantly that they shouldn’t have left us behind at all; we were only fifteen minutes late. I retorted that it wasn’t a big deal, the bus hadn’t actually left, that we were technically late and we just should have been more on time. I knew full well that I was probably greatly responsible for us being a little behind, too. Haitham gave me an exasperated look. “When have you EVER known any Arab to care about being somewhere on time?” I had to admit that he had a very good point.

On the way to Wadi Rum, a pretty young Jordanian-American girl introduced herself to me as Ruuwan; she had heard me talking and her some of the others talking about me, and wanted to know where I was from. We spent the next hour chatting about America and Jordan, with her telling me stories of her other trips into the country before. She had grown up in America, but had a lot of connections in Jordan with family. She was a lot of fun to talk to; I hadn’t met any new Americans for at least two months and it was good to compare thoughts on the contrasting cultures with someone new, especially someone with natural knowledge of both American and Arab culture. As the bus entered the Wadi Rum park, I learned that she had stayed here many times before with this tour group, as a long-time friend of Kemahl’s. I was curious to know if they would mind if I took my sleeping bag outside and slept on the sand instead of the tents they provided, and she exclaimed that she always did the same! Haitham hemmed and hawwed, warning me about the threats of scorpions and spiders that might attack me in my sleep, which Ruuwan promptly discounted as not a problem.

Moments later, the bus ground to a wheezing halt at the “Magic Oriental Camp” (or so said the sign in shaky English) and we disembarked. The small camp consisted of 16 two-man pup tents, permanent toilets with a water supply (hurrah!), a large firepit with a dancing circle around it, and long, low tents further back from it with the traditional Arab cushions for relaxing on. No one else seemed to be here at this time, and it didn’t take long for the ITC kids to whip out their football and begin bouncing it off of everything in sight. The entire camp was a small dot at the foot of a huge sandstone mountain which rose directly out of the sand behind it at what looked like a 90% slope. There was no way anyone of us were going to be doing any rock climbing without sophisticated gear and some experience, of which the four of us had neither.

Haitham collapsed with a noisy sigh onto his cot, which promptly collapsed with a noisy crunch underneath him. He leapt up again with a look of fury and found Kemahl and the camp’s manager to begin berating them for faulty materials. I told him that he should just use mine because I wouldn’t be needing it, but he continued in his angry diatribe to Kemahl and the manager, an elderly Egyptian man who looked exceedingly apologetic.

While this was going on, I amused myself by climbing around the silky sand dunes and further examining my surroundings. The red sand was like completely powdered sugar and I had never been on such smooth and soft-feeling sand before. The mountain above the camp suddenly flickered to life; although I couldn’t see them before while they were turned off, there was a dozen or so tiny Chinese lanterns attached to the sheer rock wall, where they glowed cheerfully. I didn’t worry about getting lost during my wanderings; it was very easy to turn back and pinpoint the camp’s location!

Friday evening at Wadi Rum, just as the sun vanishes behind the mountains

Friday evening at Wadi Rum, just as the sun vanishes behind the mountains

As the sun dropped over the jagged peaks of the mountains enclosing the camp, the huge firepit was lit, with what appeared to be gasoline, by a plump, enthusiastic-looking soldier named Hussein, who had his own red keffiyeh wrapped around his head. I had assumed that like most public gatherings, there would be a soldier on hand to provide protection, if it was needed. The pit flared to life, the speakers began to belt out ridiculously loud Arab dance music, and then ITC students flooded out of the darkness to begin to Dapka dance in the dusty gravel in the firepit’s circle. Meanwhile, a few more buses pulled into the camp’s lot, adding to the mix far more Arab women, as well as a large number of other Caucasian tourists.

I tried to convince Haitham, Ee’sad, and Hazzum to come from their seats around the edge of the dancing circle and Dapka with Ruuwan and myself, but they declined, citing the low temperatures. Haitham gave a sideways, incredulous look at Ruuwan’s sleeveless shirt and pajama pants as she danced, and then at the other Arab women, who were quietly sitting under the far tents, fully dressed in Hijab and long jeans. “Why does she wear clothes like that if she says she is a Muslim?” he demanded. “A woman like this is a not respectful to herself or to men,” and the other two nodded in agreement. By now, I was quite used to Haitham’s strict interpretation of Qur’anic morals, and I jokingly told him that it would be a good test of resisting temptation, then, to dance with her and I. “Come on, man,” I laughed, “remember what we promised each other? You don’t try to convert me to Islam, and I don’t try to convert you to Christianity.” He settled back in his seat, muttering, and pulled his cap down over his eyes, scowling slightly. Ee’sad offered to take pictures of us, but then Hussein shouted from the DJ booth that taking photographs was not allowed because it might make the women uncomfortable. Apparently, some men at festivities like this just go and take pictures of the women, then send them around the Internet. Haitham got an exception for me, though – all he did was take me by the arm, and then point to me emphatically while talking with Hussein rapidly, and apparently my status as “not an Arab” was enough to them to allow me to use my camera. Not that it mattered anyway, by that point, as it was far too dark for pictures to come out clearly.

The dance party went on for about 3 hours, until dinner was served to us at about 9. By that point, we were all completely exhausted, and even the ITC’s constant drumming was faltering with fatigue. At one point, one of Ruuwan’s male friends, a young guy who looked like he was probably 16-17, shouted to me, “I’m so DRUNK!” and then ripped off his shirt and started break dancing in the sand. Like a keffiyeh-wearing flash, Kemahl was next to him, sternly telling him to put his shirt on and control himself, immediately. For a Muslim male to take off his shirt in public, in mixed company, was a grave breech of respect. The fact that the boy was apparently intoxicated probably didn’t help his case. “Why am I not surprised,” Haitham said with a snort, when I told him about it a few minutes afterward. Besides that small lapse in judgment, though, the rest of the dance passed by uneventfully. As before, I was amazed by the fact that although each Arab seemed to be going through about a pack of cigarettes an hour, they could still sing and dance with tremendous energy; it seemed to defy the laws of medicine. During one of the later songs, right before dinner, a lot of the high school boys took off their red keffiyehs and began waving them emphatically over their heads. The Palestinians however, kind of lingered near the edges of the crowd and did not join in. “It’s a song about the Jordanian town of Kharak,” Haitham explained to me when I asked. “But don’t worry, the Palestinians have their own songs for their own wahtanee.”

After dinner, the other tour buses pulled away down the small path back to the highway, leaving only our tour group remaining to spend the night in the camp. The campfire was dying down, and the drum was now only banging intermittently (that drum turned out to be a good gauge of the ITC’s energy levels). Of the thirty of us left, we scattered around the fire circle, talking quietly among ourselves. The huge moon hung heavy in the sky, causing the mountain behind the camp to first glow with a hazy aurora from behind, then suddenly its pure-white shape burst into full view over us, so bright that even though it was almost midnight we could suddenly see our full shadows outlined on the sand, brighter than I’d ever seen before. Perhaps it was because of the desert sand’s reflectiveness.

At about 12:30, I dragged my sleeping bag, pillow, and a large woolen blanket that I found in the tent out into the dunes, about 40 yards away from the other tents and on a slight slope. Even though Haitham had continuously warned me that I would have a horrible night, I went with Ruuwan’s contrariwise insistence that we would be just fine. I chatted with her a little bit more, along with Kemahl and some of the other tour guides, and then bid them goodnight, curling up into my sleeping back and watching my breath crystallize on my pillow. Haitham appeared to have been incorrect; with my combination of sleeping bag, pajamas, jeans, two shirts and a jacket, I was toasty and quite warm, except for the tip of my nose. That, plus the moon above being so bright resolved me to the bag over my head, and that’s the last thing I recall until about 5:30 in the morning. That’s about when my spinal cord started urgently telling me that although desert sand seems soft and comfortable when you roll it in your hands, it’s not nearly as cushy after being compressed into a hard, compact block underneath you. Then, it’s like sleeping on a slab of granite with a wool blanket over it. Ouch. I sat up, staring up at the mountain blearily with a moment of confusion. Then I stood up, heard something click in my vertebrae, and promptly tripped over my forgotten shoes that I had set next to me the previous night. I rolled down the dune a little ways, then shook the sand out of my hair. Woke me up, at least.

My sleeping spot, and "our" mountain. I wish we could have climbed it!

My sleeping spot, and "our" mountain. I wish we could have climbed it!

We all had a quick breakfast of bread with olive oil, spices, and cheese, and then loaded onto the bus again in preparation for the final journey south, to Aqaba. On the bus, I asked Ruuwan how she had slept, and she confessed with a laugh that she had gotten so cold the previous night that she had retreated into a tent within a matter of hours. By this point, we were already so far south that it was only another 45 minutes before we reached its outskirts. Before entering the “Aqaba Free Trade Zone,” however, we had to be scanned and checked by the usual machine-gun armed guards, who stalked through the bus checking passports and ID cards. Unfortunately, I hadn’t brought my passport with me (not knowing that I’d need it) and so Haitham had to pull some strings and actually, make up some wusta on the spot so that the guard would just accept my Wisconsin driver’s license and move on. We were held up there for an extra 15 minutes because two of the ITC students were Iraqis, and it seems that frequently, traveling Iraqis and even Palestinians are interrogated by Jordanian guards as to their intentions. Because Aqaba is free of the government-imposed 16% tax that is on everything else in the country (yes, a ridiculous number, I know) the guards want to make sure that no one is getting something for nothing, and that if you’re a foreigner like myself, you have a valid stamp on your passport.

We zoomed straight through the city of Aqaba, and headed all the way to the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba. The weather was perfect, the water was incredibly blue and inviting, and it wasn’t too crowded. The only problem was that I didn’t have a towel, or proper footwear with me. I soon came to greatly regret the latter problem very much – as Haitham, Ee’sad, Hazzum and I stepped gingerly into the lukewarm water, we instantly found ourselves crunching shells and barnacles underfoot. No problem for the other three guys, who were all wearing sandals, but for me, the barefoot guy, this resulted in a few howls of pain, and a lot more careful picking of my steps from that point on. The current was so strong that it took about 6 minutes to fight against the waves and get to a point where the water was deep enough for me to not get my feet sliced up.

Right at the edge of the rocks, just when it seemed to be safe to put my feet down gingerly on the gulf’s floor again, I was rudely introduced to a massive swath of what seemed like some sort of coral/barnacle colony that was sending up what felt like 6-inch tall daggers, coated in sandpaper. Gritting my teeth as my blood started to gently flow into the water (I’m not kidding) I reached down and broke off one of the daggers’ tips to see what had gored my left foot so badly.

LEFT: That was my largest injury, but my feet and soles were covered with smaller rips as well. RIGHT: And there\'s one of the culprits right there. Now in handy souvenir form!

LEFT: That was my largest injury, but my soles were covered with smaller rips as well. RIGHT: And there's one of the culprits. Now in handy souvenir form!

After fighting my way painfully through this 10-foot wide patch of pain, I finally made it out to deep enough water that I was able to swim freely without touching the bottom below. The water was quite warm here, and it was quite pleasant. Behind me, the other three had quickly turned back around and headed for shore and were now seated under an umbrella, watching me. I stayed out there, treading water and backfloating a little bit (trying futility to remember any of the 7 years of YMCA swimming classes I had took). I don’t know if it’s like this in every gulf but it was almost impossible to make any headway northwards towards Aqaba; the current rapidly tried to push me farther out to sea. After twenty minutes of splashing around (I was avoiding having to make the trip back across those knives) I finally started edging back towards the shore. The combination of those painful coral outcroppings and the sizzling salt water on the cuts they created was definitely an annoyance. To make matters worse, the waves and rocking of the seawater prevented me from moving cautiously through the treacherous field; I was constantly forced to step back and forth with the current and therefore kept puncturing myself! Eventually, I made it out of the water, staggering and weaving slightly slightly as my legs readjusted to not being pushed around by strong current, and triumphantly raised my arms. “Mahbruuk,” called Haitham in congratulations from the shade, getting up to bring me a towel.

We waited quite a while for the bus to return to the beach to pick us up (it had gone to get gas while we were occupied) and all of us had quite the time trying to patch ourselves up, and, most annoyingly, keep the flies from settling on our bloodied feet. Yuck. I saw an ITC student limping out of the bathroom with toilet paper wrapped around one foot, flies buzzing around his legs happily. if not for the agony of going over those rocks again, I would have climbed back into the water instead of waiting for an hour on dry land!

The last few hours of the journey were comparably uninteresting, except for me finding a liquor store after lunch, that sold Newcastle Brown Ale for JD 1.4 per can. I picked up six, with tears of joy in my eyes. Where have you been all my life, Newkie? Or at least, for the last three months! It’s sad that I now view a 12 ounce can of beer for $2.40 as a “good deal,” but you get used to it. After another short bus ride deeper into Aqaba, we were disgorged in front of a huge mall, which I eagerly entered, the thought of cheap tax-free electronics dancing in my head. However, the entire mall appeared to be filled with Chinese clothes stores and craft projects. It was like a Jo-Ann Fabrics, the size of two football fields. “What did you expect, a mall like Amman?” said Ee’sad. “This is what a mall everywhere else in Jordan is like; it just happens to have lower prices here.”

It took about 5 hours to get from Aqaba back up to Amman, but everyone was fairly tired and even the ITC drummer only managed a weak rum-pum-pum before petering out. Of course, Kemahl couldn’t stand to have the bus be without “beautiful white noise” so he put on some local music, played at about the same volume of a plane taking off. The songs themselves weren’t so bad, but the combination of the horrible speakers and the insane volume made me feel like shoving my head between the seat cushions. Haitham and I hurriedly exited the bus at Sixth Circle to catch a taxi back to my place, leaving Ee’sad and Hazzum to continue northward towards the bus station back to Irbid.

Back at home, I embraced Haitham and bid him farewell, kissing him on both cheeks, which is the common greeting and farewell for close friends. Even though the guy can be very exacting and particular, as well as extremely conservative sometimes, I love him like an older brother. He always goes out of his way to help me out and show me his country. He didn’t have to go with me and pay JD45 for a bus ticket, but he did – and that’s a lot of money in this country! This picture is taken a few minutes before he left and I started writing. The combination of the sand and the salt water gives my hair an interesting style, don’t you think?

I'm thinking Flock of Seagulls, circa 1982.

I'm thinking Flock of Seagulls, circa 1982. Time for bed!