Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Remember, only the penitent man shall pass.
This morning, Abu Ala and the rest of the Gumia held a small ceremony in our upstairs study room where he presented Loren with an award for his service in the Badia. It’s clear to see how much these people love Loren out here. His outgoing personality and his ability to chameleonize into the local mindset endear him to most of the people here. Ralph Brown, his daughter and nephew, and Malcom Botto were also all present at the ceremony.
By noon, we were all off to Amman to begin our three-day vacation through Petra, Wadi Rum, and Aqaba. Our first destination in Amman was the ancient Roman amphitheater near the center of old Amman. It seats six thousand and is still in use today. Afterwards, we checked into our hostel. On the way there, I was reminded of how effectively disorganized traffic is in Amman as our cab driver disregarded lane divisions and blasted through tight squeezes. That night we ate at the falafel and kunafa specialists Hashem’s and Habiba’s. We stayed up late chatting with Jenni’s very Westernized host family.
Waking up at five to get on our three-hour bus ride to Petra was a little rough, but something about seeing limitless barren deserts out either side of the bus is kind of invigorating. It’s hard to believe that even before the ancient Edomites and Ammonites we read of in the Old Testament, people were crossing and inhabiting little pockets of this inhospitable region. Jordanians still do today. As a Las Vegan, I’m really not that different; of course, I demand the comforts of electricity, AC, and automobiles.
Petra itself is astonishing. They call it one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. I can attest that it does not disappoint. This two thousand year old city was constructed by the pre-Islamic Arab traders of the region: the Nabataeans. Carved out of beautiful red sandstone in Greco-Roman style, this hidden city one my heart in Indiana Jones’ Last Crusade. So, seeing it in the flesh was cool to say the least. Contrary to my assumptions, Petra is not one solitary building façade, it is a city complete with suburbs, temples, government buildings, and even a stone carved water pipeline that supplied the city. As I walked through the city, I couldn’t help but be inspired by the ambition of these people.
My favorite spot was the treasury, which is tucked away in the intersection of two narrow sandstone canyons. This is where the Holy Grail was housed for centuries until 1944 when a Nazi sympathizer named Elsa led an unsuccessful expedition to recover it. An unexpected earthquake destroyed much of the inside of the treasury, and the Grail was lost in a crevasse. Elsa was killed and the Nazi’z went home empty handed. The Jordanian authorities have since blocked the treasury’s entrance to keep curious tourists from being decapitated by one of its many booby traps. However, I could still get close enough to the inside to see a mysterious sparkle in the shadows. This undoubtedly came from the chainmail worn by a crusader who continues to guard the Grail’s final resting place deep below the crust of the earth.
By late afternoon, we’d made it to Wadi Rum. The best way I can describe it is Lake Powell with sand instead of water. Wadi Rum is a region of the southern desert where sandstone mountains rise hundreds of meters out of the sand. The climbing was great and the views were spectacular. While hiking, I met this hilarious guy from Amman whose Arabic was impossible for me to understand. I eventually understood his invitation for me to eat with him and the rest of his middle-aged friends who were as crazy as frat house boys. I ended up chatting and dancing with them at our group’s camp for most of the evening (men danced with men and women danced with women). Although we were total strangers and had little in common, these older men invited me to their village for Mansaf, insistently included me in their group, and helped me with my Arabic for the rest of the weekend (we were traveling in a group). Most of the people here are remarkably kind.
The next day, we were in Aqaba, the first Ottoman stronghold that Lawrence and the Arab Revolt took in WWI. The snorkeling was great. The mall was strange – it was filled with only Chinese products and Chinese shopkeepers. The one-mile divide between Aqaba and the Israeli city of Eliat was even stranger. The thin strip of desert between the two cities is a visible reminder of the tension that remains in the region. What happened off the coast of Gaza this morning sparked a demonstration here in Amman, but I’ve encountered no problems. Unlike many Westerners, most of the Arabs I’ve met have the ability to separate their attitudes towards governments from their feelings towards people. No one I’ve met has liked the Bush administration, but all have liked Americans.
Well, I’m excited to get back to work in the Badia. We have some great projects coming our way.