Note: More pictures posted in the “Israel: Three Weeks in Sar El” album! Also, please note that there’s a “Jordan: Whirlwind Weekend” album up to go with this post! Wow, I’m all caught up on pictures AND posts! Can’t quite figure out why I’m no longer able to post pictures IN my posts, though. Hmph.
The Eilat Bus
Diane elbowed me awake as gently and unobtrusively as she could. My eyes refused to focus for the first few seconds, but as I glanced about, blinking rapidly, everything around me became sharper. The bus seats in front of me; the other passengers; the glare from the window a few inches from me; all of this became clear and I turned to Diane to see what occasioned this interruption to my nap. We had to be near Eilat, since we’d left Tel Aviv about five hours before, but now we were at a complete stop, the desert looking hot and dry beyond the windows. Diane was looking away from me, back into the aisle into the rear of the bus. Everyone seemed a little tense, a little confused. The bus driver was pacing, if one can pace in the space of the front of a bus, going down the steps to the closed doors and glancing out, muttering in Hebrew to no one in particular and raising his voice now and then to coincide with his hand motions.
I glanced across the aisle and out the window. On the roadside we were stopped at, a black IDF soldier was pulling baggage out from under the bus, holding pieces up for the inspection of a few people who were standing outside with him. They were three young black men who I recognized as fellow passengers, standing somewhere between sullen slouches and over-alert attention. They didn’t look upset or disturbed, but there seemed to be a tension in their stances anyway. Everyone on the bus was surreptitiously watching as each identified his luggage and the IDF soldier searched them. At one point, the soldier came back on the bus and motioned for a fourth black passenger to go outside as well. After ten minutes of searching their baggage and checking some papers that each presented to him, the four passengers got back on the bus, ignoring everyone else, and we were on our way again to Eilat, which we reached within minutes.
At the time I didn’t understand, and my American upbringing tsk’d, “Racism!” According to some Israelis I’ve told the story to, this isn’t far from the truth, although most seem to shrug it off with the vague and undetailed explanation, “Sudanese refugees, they find them near Eilat all the time.” The guess from what details I could provide is that the IDF soldier was most likely an Ethiopian Jew and the four passengers, being the only black people on the bus, were inspected as possible illegal refugees from Sudan.
After being handed off from the Israeli border to the Jordanian border and being found by our pre-arranged tour guide, Diane and I were taken to our Aqaba hotel, the Golden Tulip. Trying to keep costs down, we’d chosen the three-star hotel option offered by the tour, but our nervousness was relieved immediately when we walked into a lovely big room, nicely decorated. We cooled off and immediately decided to walk around the area and explore our first Arabic city. Both Diane and I were Jewish and American, so our perceptions of Arabs and what an Arabic city would be like were colored similarly. Being typical tourists, of course, we giggled at the fast food signs in Arabic – Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King – and took pictures, both voicing our disgust at one aspect of a world power’s influence in the world.
We sat at Tche Tche’s, a family-style café, for coffee and snacks. At a table near us, six Muslim women sat, eating and chatting and passing a hookah hose around. It struck me as one of those cultural norms here that seemed strange but perfectly placed. Diane mentioned under her breath that we were getting some stares from various other patrons, but nothing seemed out of place.
Later, we got into our bathing suits and headed for the Jordanian side of the Red Sea. The hotel clerk recommended a private beach we could take a taxi to, but Diane and I, being thrifty travelers, opted for the public beach that we could walk to in minutes. As we approached, following a stone promenade which meandered up and down the coast, we realized our very Western, rookie mistake. Although we were excited to be in our first Arab country, and we were both aware and educated about at least some of the most obvious Arabic customs, we had somehow failed to recall dress standards. There were few women at the beach. Those who were there were covered from head to toe in long black garb, closed-toe shoes guarding their feet. Few wore masks across their faces, and the little girls wore Western-style bathing suits, but when Diane stated that we probably shouldn’t swim, I agreed wholeheartedly. We walked along the promenade, discussing and rejecting the possibility of getting our feet wet. We didn’t touch the sand. We were both wearing pants and shirts over our bathing suits, but we still occasioned the odd glance from passersby, mostly men. No one harassed us but it was obvious we were out of place.
A Few Hours in Petra
Having expected to be on a tour bus, Diane and I were surprised and, eventually, pleased at our personal car, driver and tour guide. They had picked us up at the Golden Tulip in Aqaba and, after brief introductions and handshakes, we were on our way to Petra, two hours drive away. Faqid, our tour guide, kept up a running commentary for over an hour of the drive, telling us about the geology, history, economics and interesting facts regarding Jordan as a whole and Petra in particular. He himself was originally from Petra, although he now lived six months of each year in Coral Gables, Florida, and the other six months in Aqaba, Jordan. I was surprised to learn that the Dead Sea accounted for much of Jordan’s economy, behind tourism. Also, it seemed that Jordan was the poorest Arab country amongst it’s neighbors, but was considered (at least according to Faqid) as the jewel of the Middle East; our reception by everyone from the hotel, shop owners and people on the street had been so cordial and friendly that I could imagine this to be true.
The desert scenery zoomed past us, with it’s odd formations and occasional Bedouin encampment or semi-permanent village dotting the landscape. When we finally reached Petra, everyone was happy to stretch their legs. Faqid beckoned and we followed him into the park, which began with the Siq, a huge crack in the rocks which we learned had been created long ago by an earthquake breaking the small rock mountains apart. The minerals made patterns that looked as if “painted by hand,” a favored description by our guide. Faqid pointed out natural shapes in the rocks: a fish, a person, an elephant. He showed us the aqueduct, carved into the rock wall so long ago, that was at eye level at the beginning of the Siq but high above us by the end of it. The cliff walls towered above us, dwarfing other people walking through and messing with our sense of size. A mile into our walk and tour, Faqid pointed back behind us, asking us to identify the rock formation there. I turned my head this way and that and finally gave up.
“Never mind,” he said. “Take a look at what’s really important.” He turned us around and there, through the twenty-foot wide gap in the cliffs where we were walking, we could the Treasury’s façade. The Treasury, named centuries after it was originally carved for it’s rich look, actually houses three huge tombs. The entire façade is carved straight into the cliff side, and as we stepped out of the shade of the Siq, the sunlight about sparkled on the stone. The Treasury façade is enormous and we craned our necks back to look to the top of it. Faqid detailed each shape and feature that we saw, from the columns to the representations of days, months and years, to the figures carrying wheat on their back, resembling angelic figures. Eroded stones near the top had once been eagles. And parallel lines of pockmarks on either side of the façade were manmade stone ladders, where the original carvers had done their magic from.
All of Petra was similarly awe-inspiring: a half-stadium carved into the rock, able to seat over 3,500 people; “churches” carved into the cliffs, with caves as rooms, with the influences of four different civilizations etched into their features; the dromedaries that would rise from their resting positions to hover above us, lips mashing and jaws making perpetual chewing motions. Shopkeepers called us to see their wares and donkey and dromedary riders offered us rides. When we would refuse, they would smile and chat with us. One dromedary rider told us all about his impending marriage and move to New York, which would have to be soon because no marriages were conducted during Ramadan.
Diane and I spent two hours hiking on our own, going to see the mosaic tile floor of a disappeared church and watching a platoon of Roman-costumed Jordanians march around with their spears and shining shields. The morning sun turned into an afternoon scorch by the time we made our way out of the Siq, and as we began our two hour drive back to the Jordanian-Israeli border crossing, my imagination was filled with visions of those who must have created and lived in the massive creations carved right into the stone of the desert cliffs.