Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Desert Dream

Friday night found me staying up late, prolonging the inevitably short sleep before our vacation. The initial goal? Pack all I need into my school backpack. That led me to question how many pairs of socks I could conceivably go without. Somewhere around 3 am I finally went to bed only to wake up a few hours later. It was a long bus ride to our first stop.
Kerak. Wikipedia describes it as " of the largest crusader castles in the Levant." It sure was a large castle, though I've never really been to any castles before coming to the Middle East. What I remember is running around tunnels and walking around this ruinous artifact of history. At one point Daniel and I parkoured down to the museum looking for a model trebuchet and completely walked past it as it was rather small. The architecture was impressive. You imagine what it takes to build something of that scale in the time period.
Back onto the bus and onward to Shobak. You wouldn't believe it but Montreal exists in the Middle East! As a crusader castle with an extremely long and steep tunnel leading down to a well and eventually an exit. There was more exploring, more parkour, more picture snapping. And then the tunnel. I had a rather bright headlamp and jumped in as one of the first. Towards the head of our group was a little girl of 7. Makayla Bradford. Grandaughter of my first Arabic teacher. She is bold and ready to dive in headfirst to most things. This was not a good thing here with dark-steep-slippery tunnel. So I jumped to the head of the group and proceeded, most of the way backwards with legs perched on either side, to keep her from sliding all the way down and breaking something. We happened upon two young guys with an older man dressed in military get-up. The older man was struggling to get down, afraid perhaps. After a few times of the younger men asking us to wait I was reminded by Melanie that we speak Arabic and that I should tell him we're not in a hurry. Duh. Of course I know Arabic. Wait.... when did that happen? So on and on we went, down, deeper and darker. We finally reached the well portion of the tunnel (which was wide and tall enough for us to stand in most places) and a short walk after that on flatter ground led us to the short ladder up. Little Makayla couldn't reach one of the rungs and came back down. Melanie suggested I carry her up on my back. I've not  felt stronger and better than when I carried that little girl up the ladder on my back. I then started snapping pictures of everyone else as they popped up out of the dark tunnel and into bright daylight. Danny did a heel click out of the well.
Back up the hillside and onto the bus.
Our next stop is Little Petra and (big?) Petra. There's a small bedouin town next to the entrance to big Petra, where we stayed in a small hotel. Before checking in we stopped a couple sites to see a giant sandstone well basin where the rock was carved on the mountain side to drain rainwater all into this giant carved out basin. Dil, our program director, makes it a point that whenever we have a large group in any big room, we sing a hymn or two. So we sang. The hotel's dinner was nice enough. Nothing too fancy. Much better than the trip food we packed for ourselves... Cookies and fig-filled stuff. After dinner a group of us headed into town for exploring and water buying. We found a few young kids playing soccer in a small dirt lot with a mostly flat ball. After walking by we decided to walk back and play some soccer. The next 30 mins or so was an intense soccer game that kept accruing more players as word spread. Foreigners have come to play soccer with us! It was a great time. Dust flew and a flat ball moved quickly back and forth between two sides. One side didn't have a clear goal but we knew that whenever it flew past the goalie it was in. Even on a full stomach it was a fun game. My favorite memory from it was watching a little kid, no more than a few feet tall, get knocked over by our TA Jordan. As quickly as he fell over she whisked him back up. I'm sure he was fine but Jordan felt so bad. We definitely teased her awhile after that.
Danny and I roomed together in both hotels. Our teachers made room assignments for our two bed rooms. I don't know where he got it from but I guess every time he goes to a hotel he counts down and jumps into the bed first thing. So we did just that. Next thing was a nice hot shower. What a luxury! A bright and early start had us walking down the the park entrance for Petra. Our tour guide is a knowledgeable man who has guided BYU groups for a number of years now. I don't know how many of us truly enjoyed the potential knowledge we could get from him... I didn't particularly enjoy the time spent waiting as he explained things... but then again there were some things I wouldn't have noticed or understood had he not said anything. We walked down the Seeq(slot canyon?) down to the treasury, cameras in hand. Coming up to the treasury was an exciting moment. You see pictures on the internet, watch Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and just imagine what it'd be like to walk up to this amazing structure. My Facebook has the pictures to attest my experience but I'll likely appreciate this memory much more when I return to the States, unable to be so close to such a wonder. The Treasury itself is massive. The detail and symmetry of its structure impresses the mind of how much love was put into this art by its creators. This and most other carved structures in Petra were mausoleums, or tombs for fallen soldiers, and notable people. And there was no shortage of them either. You could hike, climb, and meander over to hidden tombs all throughout the hills of Petra. Which I did. One of my favorite spots was the garden tomb. Above it just a short hike was what players of Skyrim would say is a "word wall" I made sure and told my little sister Becky about this as soon as I got back to my laptop and uploaded the pictures. Up here near this enclave was a carved out pit in which a large green tree was growing. In a desert there is still life and you will find it if you look. We started at probably 7-8 in the morning and I didn't leave the park until 6 at night. My legs were extremely sore by the end of this adventurous day. Another magnificent site was the Monastery. A good 2-3 mile hike away from the Treasury up so many stairs. Past small stands run by Bedouin women selling wares and gifts. "Good price, just for you." "Buy her something special, she will love you more" Inside the Monastery a group of us BYU kids sang a handful of church hymns, entertaining other tourists. One black woman from Australia came up to a couple of us expressing deep gratitude for our songs, saying how much she enjoyed them. I ate lunch a hike away from the Monastery, overlooking a vast desert expanse on one side with a deep gorge just below, and the Monastery and Petra to the other side. My lunch was meager but filling. Water and bite sized fig-filled pastries. Nearby was a large Jordanian flag flying in the wind and a Bedou tent with some man playing an instrument and singing. The craziest of adventures happened when we(the gang and I) decided we'd try and find this one overlook of the Treasury. Jordan, our TA who had come to this study abroad 2 years before and visited Petra, told of this overlook and how she and her group had found it when they came. That and a nearby Bedou man told it was just up the mountain side maybe a half hour hike. Up past some ruins, up stairs and into narrow Wadis... A few of us splintered off and decided to return to the base of the Treasury. At this point I had to go to the bathroom. But Danny, Jordan, and Tyler were headed off to look at another way, hoping to find the right path. Now Danny's become quite a friend to me these past weeks. I chose to hang out with him rather than head back. It was a good decision but I was unaware of the hiking craziness that would follow. The next hour or so had us scrambling up steep stairs and through small canyons to pop up onto what we later found out was the main trail heading to the overlook. Before finding that trail there was a couple more backtracks and dead-ends. After chancing upon this main trail we ran into Harold and Shae who'd come a different way. We yelled down to them asking about their way but just before Shae finished his second word we heard a distinct "HeeeeeeeeeHAWWWWWW HEHAW HEHAW HE HAW" echoing in the canyon. A friendly donkey happy to see us.  Eventually we found the overlook. That and a small tent and two Bedouin men cooking something for their dinner. They told us the best view was from their tent but we chose a small outcrop just below their abode. Honestly, I was very afraid to be that high up and so close to the edge... so I elected to stand back and take a few pictures of the others. Jordan, Danny, Tyler and I decided to head back and tried finding our same way back. We chose the wrong path and started climbing down a small wadi. Danny was at the head of our entourage and told us to wait while he checked ahead a short way. We hear him chuckle and say "No way" He described a giant boulder with a cliff going down maybe 100ft. So back up we go, up, up, up. We decided to head up this trail we'd chanced upon originally and ran into Shae and Harold again. After following this well-worn path a ways we found a wide set of nicely cut stairs leading downwards. The main path to the Treasury overlook. Well, the going down was easier by far but the adventure up proved to us that we could do hard things. Always a good lesson to learn. We found Sylvia at the base of the Treasury when coming back and decided to wait with her as she was alone. She'd been waiting for some others(whom we later found out had gone ahead to the hotel) but in the meantime we mingled with the little Bedou girls who tried selling us postcards for only 1 dinar. They tied our kufiyehs for us and sweet talked Tyler until he gave in. I talked with a camel and apparently insulted him as he stretched out his neck to nip at me. Just before leaving I was lucky enough to snap pictures of these two camels seemingly kissing in front of the Treasury. Photographer's dream. Danny, Jordan, and Tyler sped up a ways and I was left to have a nice chat with Sylvia before getting back to the hotel.
Another beautifully warm shower, washing my two pair of socks and two changes of underwear in the shower. Dinner. And afterwards watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with the group.(not the whole student group, but my immediate group of friends).
Wadi rum is basically a deserty place with large rock formations, small mountains if you will. Here we took a jeep/camel safari to look at the landscape and pass by Bedouin camps. Our camel ride was maybe 15-20 minutes while the jeep safari was about the same. It was a really nice day. Not too hot. My camel wasn't tied up to anyone else's camel (like some were) and they gave me the freedom (or rather the freedom of my guide, a 15 year old boy) to roam among other groups of camels. Getting on wasn't so hard as they are pretty low to the ground while laying down, but as they get up you really gotta hold on because first their back legs stand up, leaving you leaning forward really far, and then their front legs pop up. Throughout the trek I constantly learned new ways to do yoga on top of my camel to stay comfortable. I can't imagine riding a camel all day through a desert, so uncomfortable. Did I mention that this was my first time riding any type of animal for a considerable distance? I'd ridden pigs before, for about 3 seconds. Cows? Maybe 5 seconds. Never a horse. I feel accomplished. Our camels took us to a group of tents where we had probably the most delicious meal of our vacation, in the desert of all places.
Afterwards we got on the bus and headed to Aqaba. It was deserty on the way and getting more and more humid the farther south we went.
This tourist town looked remarkably similar to a California town what with its palm trees and touristy stuff.  The only difference was the beautiful white mosque near the beach, the crystal clear waters, and not to  mention the plethora of Arabs. This hotel was much fancier, with a very small rooftop pool and a Jacuzzi that lied(it was colder than a normal pool). Dinner was also on the rooftop and this time there was music. Before dinner a group of us headed out to see downtown and have a look around. Tourist shops selling knick nacks and trinkets. Nothing terribly fascinating. One of these days before I leave I still ought to get an Aladdin lamp. A small one. There was no shortage of coral jewelry either, though I didn't end up buying any of that until we were out of Aqaba and on our way back to Amman. During dinner we found ourselves sharing the roof with a group of elderly ppl, apparently out on vacation to celebrate a dear friend of theirs. They at one point got up and starting dancing. A few of the students in my group encouraged me to get up. So I did. And it was fantastic. I spent most of my evening playing ukulele or watching cartoons in Arabic.(speaking of which , first thing Danny and I did upon getting to our hotel room, besides jumping on our beds in sync, was to watch Sonic the Hedgehog in Arabic). The next morning's breakfast was pretty good. A sizable number of our group had signed up and paid for a snorkeling trip out in the gulf. We walked to the dock and onto our boat with partial glass bottom. A nice morning. Once out to the site I was one of the first out into the water. It wasn't really cold at all and extremely clear. In some depths it seemed to go down 40 ft or more but I could see clearly all the way to the bottom. Amazing. A short swim away from the boat I found a small jellyfish the size of my fist. It scared me at first. What scared me more was trying to learn how to breathe with my face underwater. I'd swam upshore with a couple other guys a ways and saw many colorful and beautiful fish... large coral reefs. A blowfish. I even picked up a small sea urchin shell that had long been vacated. It's mostly white with a tinge of pink here and there. I swam around until I found Danny again. I brought him up shore to see more fish, at which point everyone else had gone back to the boat. Lunch was provided. Kebabs, salad, bread, and hummus. Music blared and we all sunbathed and dried as we made our way back to the dock. I danced a little, did a handstand for a picture. And just enjoyed the sunshine. I made it a point once we were back to shore to get back to the hotel with enough time to rinse off in the shower before we left for Amman. The bus driver took us back by a different high way, the King's highway (our way down was by the Desert highway) and this particular road took us by the Dead sea..which is an impressive sight any time. I tried sleeping most of the trip down and back but I have no particular talent for sleeping on planes or buses. Although the whole of the trip was fantastic and never to be forgotten, there is always some amount of pleasure in returning to a place one calls home, even if this quaint Middle Eastern apartment in northern Amman is my home for only 4 months. Speaking of 4 months, I have only 6 more weeks in Amman before heading out on another adventure to spend a few weeks in Israel, or Palestine as the locals here would say. Hope you enjoyed the read.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The only thing I have

My life is not without the influence of those around me. The only piece of my reality that is independent of all is my own choice. All that leads to that choice is influenced and affected by all else, yet my decision remains my own. By this I know that my salvation, although ultimately dependent on my choice, is not mine alone but is connected to the salvation of my friends, my family and anyone I will ever or never meet.
My life is not my own. I am made of dust from the earth and dust from the stars. Life is given to me in each breath of air made possible by trees and plants all over the world. Water sustains my living while the lives of plants and animals bring me sustenance and strength. I walk among men, women, and children. Silently we share the light we’ve been given.
I am not me without you and because of you I’m made all the more me.
Never again should I consider my life without in the same thought considering those around me.