It has been a goal of mine for years to see firsthand the wonders of the ancient city of Petra located in southern Jordan. I finally had the opportunity this week to join a tour group to make a day trip there. I took a midnight bus from Tel Aviv to Eilat. My bus arrived at Eilat's Central Bus Station at 4:30 in the morning so I took a taxi over to an Aroma coffee shop that I had heard was open 24 hours. I watched the sun rise over the Red Sea and tried to pass the time with a fictional book that I had brought about a girl who grew up in Jordan but the book tuned out to be boring.
The Petra tour bus arrived at 7 am to take me and the other 13 passenger already on board to the border. After surviving the exit questions on the Israeli side, we walked across the border to wait to be admitted by the Jordanian border control. While our passports were being examined I got to know my travel companions and looked around the little tourist booth of dust covered trinkets. I selected a thread bookmark with a scene of Petra and the word Petra woven in English and Arabic. It had a price sticker of $1 on it but the man at the counter waved his hand at me and said "It's a present." I thanked him in Arabic and dashed out the door to join my group. After our passports were returned, we were led to where our next bus was waiting to take us to Petra. Our Jordanian tour guide, personal policeman (why does that not make me feel safe?!) and driver were already on board.
It was a 2 hour bus ride from Eilat to Petra. Petra is north of Eilat. Even though we drove on the Trans Jordanian Expressway, there were hardly any other cars on the highway with us. When we drove through the few large towns, especially Aqaba, there was more traffic but not nearly what I am used to or would expect from a country of about 6 million. Many of Jordan's citizens still live the nomadic lifestyles of their ancestors. The rest live in villages according to tribe. Only in the largest cities is there a mixing of the tribes. The tribal lifestyle may account for there not being a need for cars.
Our tour guide took part of the bus ride there to give us a history and cultural lesson of the country. I learned that Jordan is the most expensive of the Arab countries. For example, gas prices:
Saudi Arabia: 3 cents/per liter
Jordan: $1/per liter. What a rip off. (I am joking, of course!!)
I also learned that Jordan is governed by a monarchy which is the Hashemite family who are decedents of the prophet Mohammad. The current king is the 45 generation from Mohammad. Our tour guide pointed out the interesting sites we passed like the tomb in which Aaron (Moses brother) is traditionally buried in.
Out my window was a silent film of everyday village life in Jordan: the groups of men clustered around store entrances smoking hookah, boys coming home from school their books under their arm, glimpses into shops and quiet streets. The absence of woman was painfully obvious although our tour guide informed us that it is compulsory for men and woman to receive a university education and men and woman equally serve in the army. At one point we passed what I thought was a huge shoe mart because there were rows and rows of shoes along some stairs and on a shelf to the side. I thought that until I saw a man slide his feet into a pair and walk off. That is when I realized it was a mosque and not a shoe sale.
After driving through the newer part of Petra which in now the inhabited part, we parked the bus and prepared to go the rest of the way by foot; partly by our own feet partly by animal feet. That's right, a stretch of the tour is taken on donkey, or if you are willing to pay a little more there is an option to go by camel. If you are willing to pay a little more than that and run the risk of whiplash, there is also the chariot option in which the driver gives you enough time to climb into a 3 seater buggy and close your eyes before he tares off on original hand hewn rock. The faster he gets your ride over with the sooner he can pick up another rider and consequently make more money. In a country where at least 60% of the country's income is tourism, every bit counts. I was happy with my donkey.
Petra was the capitol city of the Nabateans who were an Arabic tribe and inhabited the area until the 1990's. It was virtually unknown to the Western World until 1812 when a Swiss explorer stumbled upon it on his way to Lebanon (sounds like the Christopher Columbus story!) Enclosed by towering rocks Petra not only possessed the advantages of a fortress, but controlled the main commercial routes of the Middle East. Petra is a unique city of skyscrapers carved out of the actual, massive rocks of that region. The most famous is called The Treasury.
Browsing the little tea cafes and trinket shops I met a woman from New Zealand who married a Bedouin and actually lived in caves near Petra. I decided to buy her book to keep me occupied while I waited for the return bus since the other book that I had brought had turned out to be such a dud. I scoured every shop until I finally found the Bedouin herb tea blend that is so popular in Arabic homes here in Israel. (Although, most Arab's living in Israel get the tea from Bedouin's living in Israel or prepare it themselves but I was anxious to taste the difference.) Then I made the mistake of listening to one smooth salesman. That's a Middle Eastern trait that I thought I had successfully immune myself to. This time it was good since I came away with a gorgeous scarf in addition to the fragrant tea.
I kept thinking the guys looked an awful lot like Captain Jack Sparrow and it wasn't until that smooth salesman that I finally figured out why: Jordanian men wear eyeliner!
After another 2 hour bus ride, a bus tour through the city of Aqaba and stops through the two passport checkpoints, me and my tired band of happy tourists were back on Israeli soil. I felt like whistling HaTikva (Israel's national anthem) while walking to the border. Since I had a 5 hour wait for my 1 am bus back to Tel Aviv, I browsed the out door shops along the coast in Eilat and wandered around the big sea coast mall for awhile before catching a taxi to the Central Bus Station. I should have bought toothpicks too to keep my eyes open when I bought the book from the woman who married the Bedouin. I didn't get very far in the book while waiting for the bus to show up.
Warmed by my Bedouin scarf, I slept the bus ride away. Another bus ride from Tel Aviv brought me to Petach Tikva where I rushed home to take a quick power nap, shower and grab my books for ulpan!