The two Jewish religious practices I try to maintain, besides being intelligent and good with numbers, are keeping pesach for Passover (i.e. not eating bread) and keeping the fast for Yom Kippur. I suppose both reveal a desire for sacrifice and penance within me. Fasting for a day isn't really hard (you miss breakfast and lunch one day, as it goes sunset to sunset) for me as a wrestler, so there's that pride thing too.
So I kept the fast here, same as always. What was different was how the rest of the world behaved.
It seems obvious to say that Israel, being a Jewish country, would take Yom Kippur more seriously. But to call this a Jewish country is reductive. A sizable part of the Jews in the country (who in themselves make up only about 75 % of the population) are not religious. That other 25 % is Christian, Muslim, or Druze, with Arabs and foreigners filling up the sheet.
And yet on Yom Kippur, the country coalesces into a day of rest. On Shabbat, for example, those who are observant do not drive, but those who don't care much for the religious details take over the roads.
On Yom Kippur, it is heavily frowned upon to drive. By 3:30 (about an hour and a half before sunset, as daylights savings in Israel are really early, due to Orthodox politicians/lobbyists who asked for an easier time on YK) the afternoon before Yom Kippur starts, nobody is supposed to be driving. This is a big deal; riots in the old, mixed-population city (i.e. Jews and Arabs) of Akko broke out over how an Arab drove through a Jewish part of town (it's disputed whether or not he drove quietly or with music blasting, and as usual, it sounds like both sides are much at fault).
I live in Nof Yam, a part of Herzliya Pituach, which due to its affluence, nearness to Tel Aviv, and heavy embassy population, is one of the most secular regions in the country. Still, the roads were virtually carless. I went for a walk at midday. In 45 minutes of walking, including a cross over the highway via bridge, I saw one car driving, an apologetic woman behind the wheel.
The roads were not, however, empty. Instead, bikers and rollerbladers and walkers flocked to the streets. Mostly families or kids on the main roads, they were people on bikes who enjoyed the freedom. On the highways, there were packs of serious bikers in matching tight red shirts and black spandex shorts. It's sort of a national bike day, a day where the whole country stops and then allows everybody else on the road. It was most tranquil. (NB: Looking through my archives, I think I must have used the "It was most tranquil" line about ten times. Anybody catch where it's from? (nb of nb: I've used it three times before this.)
After Yom Kippur there are two more holidays in the high holiday season; Sukkot and Simhat Torah (the latter is the reason I can write this blog, as there's no school). For Sukkot, I received an invitation, along with another young colleague and friend, to have dinner with another, older colleague's family. Under their sukkah (a hut, where a family is supposed to take all their meals for the week of Sukkot), we enjoyed a nice soup, pot roast, and sweet potato dinner. There was fine conversation about the movable Do, jury trials, and naive art. The youngest boy at the table threw up (that is, not me), and the big Jewish family feel of it was really nice. My personal practices haven't really changed much, and I don't have any curls growing down the side of my face, but seeing a Jewish country is a strange, refreshing, and at times saddening experience.
The Appropriate Music for the Holy Land
Ok, I'm not going to cover the entire holy land. But Tel Aviv is a city that feels like it should have Leonard Cohen on low volume at all times. The poetry, the mysticism, the cracking voice, the sex, the gypsy 3/4 songs, all a part of the Tel Aviv experience.
But that doesn't mean that if you're cruising down the Ayalon (the major Tel Aviv highway, like Rt. 93 in Boston) and have some difficult thoughts to work out, you can't crank up Purple Rain and "Wanna' Be Starting Something." In fact, quite to the contrary.
Another Strange Thing About Driving
First of all, I'd like to lay to rest the notion that Israeli drivers are bad drivers (a notion that most of you readers heard only from me. Sorry). When I drive 100 KM/H in the right way (roughly 62 MPH), I'm usually passing more than I get passed. 120 KM/H (75 MPH) is about enough to be the alpha car on the highway. So the speed isn't that big a deal.
Of course, like everywhere else in the world, Israelis clog the left lane unnecessarily and at times make outlandish lane changes. The latter actually is a trick I abuse too, so no worries.
Are the Israelis a little maniacal on regular roads? Yes, probably, just like drivers everywhere except in the American South and Midwest.
Are they ruder? Well, that's an excuse to share one of my favorite anecdotes from my dad.
Q: What's a split second?
A: The time between when the light goes green and when the guy behind you beeps.
Here, the split seconds are shorter. Also, there's the Red/Yellow warning light to precede the green, which means by the time it gets to green, you're already late.
The second point I'd like to make (so belated that I had to go back a day later to edit it in) is that in Israel, a flashing light on a police car means something different than in the States. What it means, I'm not sure of. After seeing a bunch of cars with them on, however, and a bunch without, I've noticed that difference. In the states, flashing lights is enough to signify that the cop car is on the hunt, and get out the way.
Here, cop cars drive with the lights on, but they drive with no particular sense of urgency. 85 KM/H in the right lane? That's just fine with these cops. A red light? We can wait. Streams of cars passing by the cops in laughter? These cops are above it.
Again, I have no idea what it means. But usually, when I pass the cops, I skip the laughter. Usually.
Mixed Martial Arts
One of the avenues I've picked up to supplement income and acquire new friends is teaching a local group of M.M.A. fighters how to wrestle. I got the gig from wrestling with one of the main coaches of the club, Ido, who happens to have been on the Ultimate Fighter show, and is a celebrity in Israeli M.M.A. and B.J.J. circles. He's also known as "The Hebrew Hammer".
Every other Sunday morning or so, I drive down to a stadium in a northern part of Tel Aviv (in fact, the very stadium where the wrestling federation is housed), throw on my gear, sans wrestling shoes and headgear, and train a bunch of Muay Thai and Brazilian JiuJitsu fighters.
So far we haven't gotten beyond a snatch single with various leg in the air finishes, and I'm still adjusting to the realities of teaching wrestling in a sport where a knee can always stop a shot in the facial area. But a few other differences and interesting tidbits have come to my attention.
- When the fighters shake hands to begin a sparring or live session, they add a little pound after the handshake. So far I have not considered adding an explosion into the mix, but it's now close to my mind.
- I practice what little Hebrew I know while coaching. If somebody's head isn't in the right place, and he doesn't speak English as well, I'll point to where the head is supposed to be and say, "Rosh po." If somebody has to squat their butt down, they explain to me that the word is "tusik", or "yashvan". In a related but not MMA related note, I'm getting decent at pronouncing Hebrew r's, the letter "resh". You have to swallow the r, you see, and say it all the way in the back of your throat. It's quite difficult, and I may end up choking on my tongue, but whatever.
- The fighters conversely get to practice their English. While much of it is of a blue variety that I would never print on such family friendly webspace, I do like how one of the guys pointed out that when I would call them to the center by shouting, "Bring it in," I was living up to all the coaches in movies. Apparently all I'm missing is the line, "Hit the showers!" Yarr!
- I also managed to develop this into potential social interaction. I've talked with many people here as well as friends from other places about the occasional, surprising challenge of trying to hang out with someone when you know them in one context. For example, one could be in a chorus south of Tel Aviv and unsure about how to approach their fellow choral singers to have a drink one night. Or a cool fellow might play tennis with another cool fellow, decide he wants to hang out with other cool fellow, and then wonder if asking other cool fellow to hang out would sound too awkward, like asking somebody on a date.
I'm told this is more of a guy problem, actually.
Anyway, we watched the most recent UFC the other night in some bar 5-10 minutes from my house. It was a private party and there were a bunch of kids waiting outside for another party. My man Ido let me in to the dimly lit bar area and I nursed a glass of red wine while I watched two guys punch each other for awhile. I can't say I was thrilled with the fight, but it was mostly an effort to set up that social action. And an American wrestler is fighting next time. And I forgot to pay for the wine. Then again, my man Ido was quoted on the Israel broadcast of the fights as saying that he who knows how to wrestle best will win the fight, so a little secret weapon action is worth a glass of wine, eh?
My Favorite Paris Story
The first foreign destination from which I updated this now veritable blog was Paris. I then mentioned the city in various posts, detailing all the adventures I had as well. Actually, there was one adventure I only briefly mentioned, so allow me to share it in detail now before I return to the present and future:
I had mentioned that on our second day in Paris, Ben and I went to the Yitshak Rabin Gardens and then the Palais du Bercy. And that we had to sprint to the train afterwards, and had a very confusing departure. But what we did at the Palais du Bercy added to the fun.
The Palais is, I think, a sporting venue. It's walls have this grassy face to them, and sleek concrete walls to mark each subsequent section of the wall. Atop each grassy face is a little walkway.
Naturally, seeing that wall, I decided to climb it. Ben decided to cheer me on. And naturally, going up was the easy part - pulling by grass or railway or just low balance, I scrambled to the top of this venue. I climbed it just because it was there, and upon being atop it (about 50 feet above Ben, at about a 45 degree incline), I received no satisfaction except the climbing thrill.
This was countered by the fear of how to descend. It's one thing to climb up by pulling and slowly edging. Going down you have gravity to take into account (it's a bitch, ain't it?).
I decided tiptoeing along the concrete face while holding onto the grass might be the trick. Surely a crab walk down would be a controlled, manageable venture.
For about the first five feet, it was controlled. Then I or my old sandals' soles slipped, and all of a sudden I was sliding. Having begun to slide, I started screaming, a happy sort of scream like on a rollercoaster or when I jumped off the 10 meter platform diving board at Duke, but with a hint of fear. Meanwhile I'm using my hands to try to slow my momentum. And Ben is waiting at the bottom, not sure if he should laugh, try to save me, or call for help.
I landed ok, skidding forward a little. As soon as I proved ok, the two of us burst into a couple minutes of hard laughter. And the damage suffered was a badly scraped finger and my left sandal, which tore up on the top so that I couldn't wear it before. If you ever wondered where my trend/fetish for buying brightly-colored shoes came from, it was out of mere necessity: the Roman blue Nikes where the cheapest things I could find at the train station in Rome, and I didn't have my backpack where my sneakers lay.
Me right before I lose control and start screaming.
So anyway, I'm going to Paris again in November with the AIS team. As part of the International Schools Sports Tournament, we travel at the end of each season, and Paris is the destination this year. I'm looking forwards to a triumphant return, a hotel 25 KM away from the center (though a small part of me thinks our tournament is at the Bercy), a meeting with Ben, and more unexpected good times. Of course, this time around, I'll be a leader of young men, and maybe such antics will be frowned upon...
Out on the Ledge
Speaking of students, here are a few of the latest fun things they've been challenging me about, and then a few more examples of how not different students and teachers are.
- One of my study skills sections has a few kids eager to be friends with me on facebook. They've spent class time and even a little of time out of class asking me about it, trying to figure out the proper spelling of my last name, and then still getting stumped. Little do they know that it's only recently that I've gone by Daniel.
- Some of those same kids were chagrined when I made fun of them for liking Jack Johnson. But I'm only looking out for them.
- Just like the wrestlers I worked with last year, all these kids are very eager to see me live out all their facial fantasies. Handlebars is the common request from the kids, and by handlebars they mean a fu manchu (where the mustache goes down along the chin, but with no goatee anchor; handlebars are the things that curl off your face, and I can't grow them yet). One freshman who grows far too much facial hair for a high school freshman has been bugging me to have a "Beard-off". Poor kid doesn't realize that regardless of the result, he will not be a winner in this event.
- Now to the teachers. Saturday I hung out with a few other teachers at our lovely colleague/friend Kate's apartment (she's actually the one who went with me to Sukkot). We drank, we spilled drinks, we had a good time. Her apartment is on the top floor of an apartment building (one that also houses my dentist's office) right next to the beach, and after a little bit of time, she invited us out to the ledge.
Accessed through climbing a few walls, the ledge hangs over the street. It's a fairly wide ledge, and there is minimal danger in sitting out there and enjoying conversation and one another's company.
I bring up this night, however, to draw similarities between us and them, with us as teachers and them as students. We like to imagine high school kids are especially immature, and that they do and say things we would never do. However...
One of our conversations on the ledge revolved around walking by people's houses and seeing if they have porn on TV, and all the implications of such thoughts and actions. Later, back in the apartment, the three girls (there were five of us total) went into a long discussion about tampons, their first periods, and the various implications of remembering these things. Which was fine, but not all that much better than the things our kids might talk about.
And needing to match the level of intrigue and weirdness, I, upon leaving, flashed a little worm on my arm. Somehow, that didn't repulse everybody, and marks the second time in a week's span that I showed female friends that little worm. The bastard's hanging around, alligator blood and everything.
Anyway, enough grossness and silliness. Until next time.
So a bus came and rescued our stranded group of bus riders somewhere in the deserts an hour north of Petra, leaving the first, tired vehicle behind. We arrived in Amman at 9:30, an hour later than we might have. At this possibly inconvenient hour, I had to reach out to my friends, and I knew not how.
First of all, "friends" is a loose definition. Natalia, a classmate and freshman dormmate of mine back in Durham, was to be my lovely host. We were never BFFs or anything, but had hung out and seen each other around, played the occasional facebook tag, and she even hugged me upon my graduation. She was there along more so to congratulate the other half of my hosting party, Khaled, her longtime gentleman companion. Khaled's family is from Jordan (as a trio, we cut quite an international grouping: a Ukranian-born American citizen and a Jordanian-born Canadian citizen, hosting an American born citizen whose family consists of Jews from Russia and who is living in Israel; it made for fun when we thought up morbid headlines as we wandered into shadier parts of Amman. But I precede the plot...), and as such it was a reasonable landing place for them in the hazy phase of post-college life that most people lamely call "the real world."
85% of the previous paragraph comes from information I garnered after meeting up with them. Before that, I was armed with most of my knowledge about Natalia, the invitation she extended me (initiated, by the way, by a certain memorable entry in this here blog), a mobile phone number, and uncertainty over whether they were available to host me that night, as our facebook discussions before I started the trip only confirmed Tuesday night. I knew of Khaled but hadn't formally met him. While I was pretty sure things would work out, strength would not be the word to characterize my position.
I stepped out into a clear Amman night, my back sore, my feet sore and dirty. I knew little, except that I needed a phone. And that the Arabic middle-aged male greeting me as I got off the bus would ask me the following question.
"Need a cab, mister?"
He asked it.
"I need a phone first," I said. Perhaps not amazingly considering the potential for JDs at the end of it, the man lent me his phone. After some confusion over how to dial the number (i.e. with 0 or not), and then some busy signals and Arabic deciphering on his part, we got through. The man talked first, and then upon confirming that someone was there, gave the phone to me.
"Hello," I said.
"Hello," a male voice greeted me.
"Is this Khaled?" I asked, shelving the "My, Natalia, how Amman has changed you," alternative remark.
And we were off. (Aren't my dialogues always riveting?) After some thinking, we decided the best move would be for me to take a cab straight to his parents' house, where they were living. Khaled told the cab driver how to get there, and he took me there with no problems. We saw a car crash at an intersection unfold in front of us: one driver driving on the left side of the road, who received heavy yelling from the two guys in the other car. We avoided similar hijinx, arrived at Khaled's house, and after another couple minutes of phone calling and wondering whether this was the place, Khaled emerged from a gate. I tipped the cabbie for the ride/phone, introduced myself to Khaled, and all was well.
There's not much of a narrative to tell from here, but a few descriptive elements are worthwhile. For example, going into the trip I was worried about Ramadan, and the implications of eating in public during daylight when the general population fasted. Petra was of course a tourist-happy exception to that rule, and I didn't make it into Jordan before sunset Sunday, but surely Tuesday I would have to face that.
Except I learned from N&K that my second Amman arrival coincided with the end of Ramadan, and the beginning of Eid. "You got here on Christmas, basically," they told me. Nothing would be open for my one full day in the capital, but at the same time, I could eat freely. Also, nothing was open that night, so for dinner we ordered McDonalds (they deliver!).
While I'm on food; I lucked into having an authentic Jordanian meal with the pair. Mansaf is the dish, a rice-based meal. Nuts are mixed into the yellow rice, and then gravy-laden lamb is served atop the rice. A yogurt-based sauce is the garnish, and really pulls the dish together. It's quite good, especially when chased down with a nice cleansing glass of Pepsi. Ahh.
I had a hard time getting a feel for the city. We walked around Khaled's neighborhood before the mansaf, and it looked modern and nondescript. Gray buildings, few skyscrapers, hilly with some nice views, the occasional mosque or picture of King Hussein, and construction that suggested skyscrapers were coming (groups in Amman aspire to make the city the next Dubai, it appears). After mansaf, we took a cab to a hipper part of town, only coincidentally dubbed Rainbow st. Near the tallest flagpole in the world, we had tea and then dinner, but while the street looked like a cool little place, it was mostly shutdown due to Eid.
Amman, from what I was told and what I could observe, is an interesting mix of economic and quasi-Western strivings (ala the construction and longing to be Dubai) and Middle Eastern ways and means. The city and history of the place is fairly liberal, as far as the region goes, but religion is an ever-present facet of city life, if only because it seems like the call to prayer is a constant one, with each mosque issuing it from a speaker system. The government is a constitutional monarchy, somewhere between democracy as we know and export it and tyranny as we support and/or oppose it.
Put those two paragraphs together and you might say that Amman doesn't seem like much, on the surface - and how many people set Amman as a destination, especially when Jordan, travel-wise, is considered a one-rock city- wonder? - but there's a lot going on here.
Anyway, my stay in the city was lovely, if that had mostly to do with the company and the recuperative aspects there of. While the trip already became a success high on that hike in Petra, it cemented itself that way during the laidback Amman appearance. And I made it home without any problems bigger than the cab charging 15 more JDs than I thought he would (because we were confused on what bridge to go to). I even bought the guy a pack of cigarettes at the border, duty-free of course.
And so, with nothing left to say, I turn to photos to complete this trilogy. Enjoy, and until next noteworthy item in my life. Because you're dying to hear about it, and I to glorify it.
The outdoor table set at Khaled's house. It reminded me of Chekov plays.
I and my host. The male one. That's also a telling shot of Amman behind us.
In case you weren't sure about Rainbow St.
You figure it out.
The lighting is poor, but the flagpole is in the distance.
A Wedge O' Cheese for the Win!
One of the underrated aspects of the cell phone age is the increasing disappearance of alarm clocks or even watches from our lives. This falls more on generational lines, I believe: younger folks like myself are more inclined to skip watches and just dig into our pockets for our cell phone. And it's easier to customize a cell phone alarm tone than a regular alarm clock anyway. Truly, it's a grand age we live in.
Except when one travels in a foreign country where his cell phone gets no service. And when his cell phone, in light of the no service condition, goes into a "powersave" mode. And when he sets his alarm clock to catch the early morning bus to Petra, the only bus that goes to Petra each day at a discount of about $100 from taking a cab, and he is unaware that in "powersave" mode, his cell phone's alarm clock will not work. Then things aren't so grand.
For all that, while my alarm was set for 5:15 - to give me a chance to shower maybe, then catch a cab to the Jett station to be there by 6, with plenty of time to get on the 6:30 bus - I managed to open my eyes with alertness at about 6:14, right when I wake up for school. Cursing, I threw on my t-shirt and strangely stained shorts from the day before and bolted out the door, waving a goodbye to one of the guys at the TV in the lounge of the hotel as I left. I caught a cab a minute after getting out of the door, made it to the station, found a ticket for 8 JD, and by 6:40 the bus was on its way to Petra, me in tow.
The bus ride took three and a half hours, time I mostly spent reading or trying to sleep (my alarm clock went off during the one stretch near Petra where I got reception, strangely enough), so I can report not at all on the Jordanian landscape. It seemed pretty desert-like whenever I peeled the window curtain back, but that was not often.
I got out at Petra and immediately a bus driver or someone similar told me that the only bus back to Amman left at 5. Ugh. I had hoped to spend all day in Petra, the night in a hostel, and then the following morning riding back to Amman. Now I had to choose between staying an extra 7 hours or cutting the night out of my plans.
At first I leaned towards the night in Petra. Or near Petra - Petra itself is the rock city, while the "modern-day" town near it is Wadi Musa. The hostels I had written down were cheap and, purportedly, within 250 meters of the bus station. As we were dropped off right near the entrance to Petra, I figured I could stay nearby and be all set for the next two days, allowing for a nice peaceful exploration of a place everybody says you have to visit. I bought a two day ticket (only 26 JD, compared to 21 JD for one day) and set off for the main drag of Wadi Musa, hoping to find a spot to rest my head.
There plenty of hotels on the street, in various levels of disrepair or repair, but they all were in the "hotel" category, one I had no interest in partaking in. I could have sworn the Cleopetra should have been closer, but it's clever name never appeared on any signs near me, and the road in Wadi Musa only threatened to go up, around a hill. Here I should mention that in Hebrew, "Wadi" means riverbed. In Arabic (slightly more pertinent), it means desert. It felt like one, that day.
After asking around and finding that the hostels I had in mind were atop that hill, I reversed my decision. No way I wanted to deal with walking up there or taking a cab both ways a bunch of times. I was on the border anyway, and this pushed me back to the other side. It was not yet 11:00, and they suggested I be at the bus by 4:30. 5 and a half hours would be enough, I figured. Ahh, screw it, who did I have to prove myself to, right?
So I exchanged my ticket to regain 5 JD and, after using the facilities in the Visitors' Centre, I marched into Petra. First I had to clear the gift shops and kiosks outside the entrance, most notably the Indiana Jones Gift shop. (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was filmed here. I've never seen it.) Then, upon entrance into Petra, I had a 10-15 minute walk down to the "Siq", Arabic for "cleft", which gives way to the main part of the city, including the most splendid building, the Khazneh (treasury).
Having been in Morocco and then Israel for some time, I've understood that in Middle Eastern or Arabic countries, you're going to get a lot of offers for service or goods or whatever from people trying to sell. Here, the most common "service" was a donkey (or camel or horse, but especially donkey) ride.
"Want to ride on a horse, mister?" one fellow asked me.
"No thanks," I said, "I'm good."
"Come on, it's much easier and faster, nice price."
"I got two horses," I said, thinking quicker than usual. I slapped my thighs and said, "Strong, they'll get me there."
"Oh, you have horses!" he said with a laugh. "Can I get a ride?"
"Sure, nice price too," I joked, before walking away and allowing any questionable elements in that conversation to continue.
Without a four-legged animal beneath my butt, I managed to make it through that introductory level with no problem. I detoured to a couple tombs on the way into the city, stopping in one to eat breakfast (bread and hummus I toted the whole trip) and drink water, as well as to change my t-shirt. I only later realized that being in a tourist's Mecca like Petra, there was no reason to worry about drinking or eating in public during Ramadan.
In Petra there is that introductory 10-15 minutes, and then you enter the Siq. The Siq is path between two tall faces of rock, leaving a path about 10 meters wide - small enough so that when a donkey chariot goes by, you have to get close to the wall to allow everyone space. There are a few man-sculpted items along the rock, but for the most part it's geological layers of beauty stripped to the sun and the naked eye. The layers are all browns and dusty reds and blacks, and they change color under different lights. This is an appropriate proper entrance into the city, as it's the first time the mystical astonishment of Petra hits. And of course, at this point I discovered my camera was having problems (I also discovered how to work around the problem, and hence the pictures. And by the end of the day it righted itself, on to new problems).
While the Siq is quite impressive on its own, it also serves as that proper entrance to the city because, as I said, when you exit it after 15 minutes or so of skygazing wandering, you are met with the Khazneh. The treasury is all facade, as there's nothing inside to see (and you're not allowed in anyway), but it is a very impressive building, covered in statues and crawling with tourists. If anything, it almost begins the Petra trip on its peak, with everything downhill from there.
That's mostly figurative, however. After milling about the building and buying a water, I went to my right, where a path descended into the rest of the city. The street of the facades followed, and in all the rock there were structures to be seen and buildings to marvel at. When arriving upon more open ground again, you can find to your right an impressive Byzantine Church atop a hill, with other structures around it. To the left is a little shop, and above that shop a set of stairs. I, being the curious type, took the stairs.
The Byzantine Church (possibly mis-identified) and the other structures near it.
My guidebook, as well as the official free brochure the Visitors' Centre provides, talks about the High Places altar, where sacrifices of old used to be done. Both mention it as a highlight of the city. I, realizing as I began to walk up the stairs that this was where I was heading, looked forward to a brisk climb and nice views, plus more cool structures.
Thirty sun-drenched uphill minutes later, I was resting in the shade, fears of dehydration somehow sneaking into my brain (because, you know, I've never forcefully dehydrated myself for a day or anything). This was mostly a stair climb, but it was tough. Throw in the fact that I had eaten a meager breakfast and that I had my stuffed backpack on my back, and I was beginning to feel it. I was beginning to doubt. Which leads to a mild digression.
The long and winding stairway to heaven, or a sacrificial altar. Same thing.
When Ben and I traveled through Galicia, we joked about how we "won" at various phases of the trip. We had conquered our trip, mastered it, and seized victory.
That's a silly way to look at traveling, to a certain extent, and we meant it as nothing more than a joke.
But it does get into questions of why we travel. Yes, a traveler wants to see new things, meet new people, explore new worlds. That's all noble. But there are also things like "being able to say you went," or "I had to go see it, that's what everybody said," (how many times have you justified a trip with a line like that?). Similarly, somebody like me thrives on the extremes travel forces upon the traveler, because that creates good stories.
At the same time, travel is wearying. It forces you to live in the present moment, but a bad trip leaves you eager to get back home. Doubts creep into your head; "Why did I come here," "Why didn't I just stay home and rest and save my money," "What's the point," "What are those strange glazed spots on my shorts anyway?"
So as I sat in the shade near the top of my hike to the sacrificial altar, I felt like I was losing this trip, and like staying home for five days of swimming on the beach and writing and not worrying wouldn't have been so bad after all. My car wasn't here, I couldn't contact my friends, my back hurt, etc. A change had to come for this to be salvaged.
After I resumed my trek, five minutes brought me to a shack. To my right was the last bit of the climb, to my left was a Roman Soldier's Tomb, but in the conditions I opted to go straight, for some guidance and maybe some water.
Two women sat behind a table on the elevated floor of the building. They had headscarves on.
"You can't go up there," one said to me as I approached.
"To the altar. Did you bring a chicken or a goat?"
"You need to bring a chicken or a goat, so the priest can sacrifice it. Otherwise, you can't go up."
"Yeah." The woman had kept a straight face and a straight voice as she said this, though her friend to her left was giggling all the while. I was 95% certain she was messing with me, gullible as I am, but I decided to deal with bigger issues first.
"Can I get some water, at least?"
"Oh, yeah, sure, help yourself."
I climbed into the shack and walked to the refrigerator, where a bottle of water leaked on the other bottles. I took one. I returned to the sand ground below the shack. I approached the woman awkwardly, however, at first from the ground and then thinking that rude, I climbed the stairs back up to pay her on an even ground. She, sensing the confusion said, "Here, come eat with me."
I didn't think it a bad idea, and so I said, "Ok."
So I sat down with this woman, a Bedouin who commuted from two and a half hours away each day to work at Petra, selling souvenirs and water. She spoke pretty good English, and we spoke in bursts, punctuation for our meal of pita and a wedge of cheese with a German or Dutch gal on the wrapper. She told me that one day was not enough for Petra. I took another water. Two dudes to our right slept on rugs or prayer mats or something. It was all very humble and nice.
As if that wasn't enough fun, we noticed a couple on the hill near the soldier approach us. All of a sudden, we were unite to discover who these new visitors were.
"Espana, yes?" she said as their speech began to reach us.
"I think so."
"But I think this guy is Arabic," she said. The guy has silver and gray hair and was tall and robust, with a skin tone that could have been Arabic, Spanish, or anything in between. The woman with him was a full-figured brown-haired lady who looked in her early 40's, a few years younger than he. She was dressed in all blue.
They approached and he and my Bedouin friend talked in Arabic for a bit. It was about water, apparently, because the Spanish lady took a seat and he went and got her a Sprite. I seized my chance to flash a little experience.
"De donde eres?" I asked.
"De donde en Espana?"
"Ahh! He vivido en Madrid en Marte y Abril," I said, already butchering her fine language.
Soon she told me she lived in the mountains, 40 minutes from Madrid, and I told her I lived in Arguelles. In fact, the guy lived on Calle Guzman del Bueno, the very street I inhabited. Ahh, what fun!
We talked a little more. The Bedouin confirmed that the dude was Arabic and bragged of her cleverness to me. I finished my pita and cheese portion and decided that if I was going to make one day enough, I had to ship off. So we took pictures, and then I took off.
"You can go to the top," the Bedouin lady told me.
"Oh, great." I smiled in silly relief.
We all said our goodbyes. And even though the altar top had very little to see besides nice views of the rest of Petra, the tide had turned enough. From that point on, I won. And it was good.
This may have been the altar. Or a child's playset.
The rest of the Petra was fulfilling if not as dramatic. I descended from the hill and further went into the city. There was an old Roman colonnaded street to see, as well as a Great Temple, which was nice even if it was festooned in "Brown University" signs, since Babs's favorite school had excavated it. One more big hike loomed to a monastery, considered the second nicest building in Petra by the brochure. (My guidebook, Fodor's Israel 2006 which also covers the side trip to Petra, was strangely silent on it. I inherited the guidebook in my room, and it has its helpful elements, but also can be a little silly).
Turning down the donkey offers and the promises that they would cut my trip in half or even more, I set off again. If the sellers had told me I was doomed to step in donkey shit the whole way up, I might have listened to them with more attention. In Petra, far worse than other places I've been, it's not so much whether you're going to step in donkey shit or not, but whether you're going to be lucky/sharp enough to step in the dryer variants that won't stick on your shoes.
A long 30 minutes climb, with a brief stop to buy a liter and a half of water and a small, crappy souvenir elephant, since the lady didn't have enough change, took me to the monastery. It was indeed quite nice. I rested, enjoyed the view of it and of the rest of the area around (later I heard you could see into the Sinai in Egypt from here, but I think it would have looked the same - desert). And then I descended, thinking I'd have enough time to make it through all of Petra and back to the bus stop in time.
The monastery. And a horse.
As it was, I did have enough time, but just barely. Feet aching, back sore, I marched on, refusing to give in to rest or donkey rides. The walk back to the Khazneh was about as long as I remembered, the walk through the Siq slightly longer even if I wasn't stopping for pictures, and the now uphill introductory section dragged on far more than I remembered from five hours ago. And yet, I made it through the gate of Petra at 4:40, which was just enough time to get a ticket on the bus, buy a sand-filled bottle with designs in it from the Indiana Jones gift shop, load up on junk food for dinner, and change t-shirts before the bus left. Sore, dirty, tired, and relieved, I was back on to Amman. Still no contact with my friends, but I'd figure that out when I got there. I hoped. Except I was too tired to care.
And of course, our bus broke down for an hour on the side of the road on the ride back. It made no difference to me.
A few more pictures:
Still fresh-faced and eager before the first climb. How foolish.
I was born for the stage! Near the Petra theater, anyway.
The view from the monastery. Possibly to Egypt.
Sandals in Petra? Not the smartest choice.
On A Sunday Driving
The initial omens appeared promising. Leaving my apartment at noon, I went to the local upscale mall and managed to load up my cell phone card in a completely Hebrew transaction, and also to get a screw in my glasses replaced without paying. Who needs Costco? Who needs fear? I took off East for the grand unknown:
With scenic hills and brown but not barren landscapes, my route from Tel Aviv to just past
The West Bank, territory reserved for the Palestinian people still living in the bounds of modern-day Israel, is a lima-bean shaped chunk of land, with the inversion centering on Jerusalem. The city is, as always, at the center of all things, with East Jerusalem in the West Bank and the rest of the city in
While the West Bank is reserved for Palestinians (and here is not the place to worry about the Israeli settlements, because I don’t know anything about them and really only want to provide a setting for my journey, as long-winded as both might be), the political control mostly resides in Israeli hands. That is, there is only Palestinian autonomy in a few cities and spots: Ramallah,
All this is to say, my driving to and through the
No, driving in the
Knowing visas to
“You need special permission to drive across the
I left my car to the side of the crossing area. After putting away the face plate to my radio, I took my backpack out, and armed with my two legs and a bottle of Fanta, I crossed the border by foot and descended into blistering bliss of Jordan, a short cab ride away from Amman and a longer one away from Petra. Nobody would ever steal my crappy little Fiat anyway, would they? Or abduct me on the side of the road?
Unflustered, I wheeled back out to the 90 and headed north. The windows were down, the sun high and bright, the music blaring, and I knew everything would be alright. The road was similarly spectacular here, deserted and winding through mountains that showed more and more plant life on their faces as I sped away from the Equator. I stopped for gas at a podunk Palestinian run station, and the young boy who filled my tank seemed excited to see me. I learned the Arabic word for thank you – “Shokron”, one of three words I learned in Arabic, along with “Salaam Aleikum” (hello) – and continued on with a smile and a full tank that I was sure would last me through
I approached the crossing and again forked over my passport to the guard on my passenger window side.
He asked me where I was going. I told him.
He asked me where I was coming from. I said Tel Aviv.
“Why did you go such a roundabout way?” I stuttered something about my border crossing travails.
The “This guy’s a crazy activist” lights went on in his eyes. “Why don’t you just pull your car up to that spot over there,” he said, pointing to my right. He held on to my passport. I complied, with a sigh.
15 minutes, a security screening, a bomb-sniffing dog test of my car (in which I learned from another guard how to pop my hood, since I couldn’t find the trigger and hadn’t popped it myself yet), a bathroom break, and a compliment from the bomb-sniffing dog guard on the Coltrane disc I had in my car (Giant Steps, itself recommended specifically by the clerk at Tower Records in that upscale mall, who insisted I buy that for my first Coltrane rather than A Love Supreme) later, and I was back on the road. Still not too flustered, but wearying.
Beit She’an arrived on my horizon in under a half hour. I stopped for a falafel sandwich. As a sign of how wearied I was, how about that I had to circle around the set of two roundabouts twice to find the entrance to the parking lot? Or that during my order of falafel, I mistakenly went for the falafel of the Ethiopian girl before me in line (this before I had even ordered anything), or that when asked to give 13 shekels for the falafel, I gave 30, drawing a puzzled look from the man behind the counter? That is all to say, the driving was beginning to get to me.
Beit She’an was a five-minute car ride away from the border, however, and a few mashed, fried chickpea balls later, I was ready enough to leave the country. I turned out on the 71 (West to Tel Aviv, East to
The first gate was a goodbye Israel one. The guard at the gate looked at me skeptically when I expressed my interest in bringing my car with me to Jordan, but he issued me a yellow paper, a pass for me to get stamped before I could take the Fiat across. Already, I had visions in my eyes of pictures I would take of my car with Jordanian license plates, and perhaps the guard noticed those visions and knew they were foolish, brass rings that I would never grasp. But would I destroy myself in the effort?
At first I was my own worst enemy. I drove my car around the border area, twice blundering into an area reserved for those entering the country from Jordan. Fortunately, the Israeli guards managed to direct me and yell at me without jumping to International Incident level. Then I thought all I was to do was drive to the exit gate from the crossing. Happily, I wheeled up to the gate which said, "Thank you for staying in Israel, go in Peace!" or something like it. A guard await me, and upon my approach he asked me for my pass. Unhappily, I handed over my unstamped gate pass and realized this was going nowhere. "You have to go to passport control. Windows 7 or 8," the guard told me. I reared out of the gate and parked my car in a parking lot of unclear distinction.
Passport control led to customs, who were the ones to deal with cars and the like. And customs led to the exchange bureau, who would translate my registration from Hebrew into English. This all to make sure my car was not a stolen one that would never make it back to Israel.
At the exchange bureau, an obscenely well-endowed woman and a co-worker of hers (who was not slim-chested for her part), blond and brunette, explained to me that I didn't have the registration to my car that said the car was mine. Apparently, that's a problem. So, my head down and my dreams crushed, I returned to Customs, who drew big blue lines on my pass to indicate that it was a fail.
Now I was faced with a decision. Go on should I to Jordan, or stay here in the northern Israeli area, near the Kinneret, would be better, or just jumble syntax at home and try another day I could do? In this tumultuous debate that raged inside me, there was a trump card to ensure my going over, besides the fact that I'd be embarrassed with myself if I gave up: I had a friend in Amman, and she sounded reasonably excited to see me (Brief aside: she has a boyfriend and so there was nothing of that at all in the invitation. However, when I went to get my visa the week before, instead of saying I wanted it to go to Petra, I mentioned that I was going to visit her. She has a Russian-sounding name, and my passport has two Russian visas. So naturally, the sharp fellow behind the Jordanian visa counter said, "It looks like she's more than just a friend." The poor guy was a little mixed-up on the Russian women in my life.) It's not that I'd make a huge difference, but we had a steady stream of facebook messages that would go for naught if I didn't go through with the trip. As you well know, one does not let a steady stream of facebook messages go for naught. After all, as I saw my former classmate Chris Hughes quoted in some student newspaper or another, if you're not on Facebook, you might as well not exist. Online, anyway. And heavens knows I want to exist.
So I went through with the damn thing. Ahh, shit, I gotta get there one way or another, and I thought about taking a bus anyway, so why not? Maybe Petra by Sunday night, as was my goal, wouldn't work out, but I'd make it over the border by hook or by misguided guide book.
I returned to my bosom buddy at the exchange bureau, who turned my shekels into a paid border tax and a bunch of Jordanian Dinars (henceforth known as JD). Her behavior epitomized the popular stereotype/description Israelis give of themselves. The sabra is a fruit with prickles on the outside, but with a juicy sweet center beneath the thorns. So are Israelis a bit blunt and unkind at first, but then upon second glance happy to help and more jovial and familiar about it. Not that we did anything crazy, she and I, but she was a little more pleasant about everything.
After the JDs and the passport stamp, I was finally ready to cross. It was a little past 5:00 pm. Amman was about 100 KM away, and Petra another 200-300 KM beyond that. My goals adjusted on the fly.
To cross the border without your own car into Jordan, you must take a border crossing bus. For 4.5 shekels (roughly 150 cents) you drive 150 meters into Jordan. I fudged those figures a little to get to the cent/meter stat that rounds it all off. But still, it's another silly bureaucratic thing that is of no great consequence.
Except when the bus doesn't come for a half hour. And then when the bus does arrive, the driver gets out, tells you to wait via gesture, and then disappears for another half hour. Actually, it didn't bother me so much, but the older guy in a suit who showed up just after the driver vanished gradually became furious over the whole thing. He kept looking to me for support, but as I spoke minimal Hebrew and no Arabic, all I could do was mumble and nod. That's what I call good listening.
The bus did leave eventually, filled with about 8 Italian tourists in a group, that man, me, and an Irish woman who works in Nablus (in the West Bank). She seemed confused whether to speak to me in Hebrew or English when she asked about when we paid for the bus ride, but otherwise was a ruddy red-haired Irish lass who looked agreeable but strong-willed.
We arrived in Jordan and began the passport control process on their side. As I stood in line behind the group of Italians, I found myself remembering more Italian sentences from my year and a half of study than I thought I might. I asked one of the women, "Dove andate?"
"A Petra," she answered.
"A, certo, anch'io vado a Petra. Posso andare con voi?"
"Si, certo, certo!"
And so I hopped on their tour bus and rode all the way to Petra, amusing with bad Italian and a few English practice sessions. Then they invited me to a wine-drinking session and a Roman orgy.
Once through passport control, I came to a parking lot. There were no buses there except for those taking tour groups, and only a bevy of vultures hovering around the parking lot kept me from being alone. Err, that is, the cab drivers approached me and demanded I ride with them. I said I was going to either Amman or Petra. Set prices had them at 35 or 100 JD a ride, respectively. (1 JD=about 1.5 $). I was loath to pay that much, certainly to go to Petra, and possibly for Amman too. Using the "walkaway" technique, I set off towards the road.
"Hey, Daniel, where are you going!! Stop! It's Ramadan, haram, nobody's out there!" they yelled at me, knowing my name because I gave it to them. Apparently, bargaining was not part of the process here. And considering their better knowledge of the situation, and their leverage, I conceded and took a cab to Amman.
My cab driver was a nice guy. He offered me water from the restaurant he pulled over too, and then would brook no refusal when he stuck a sort of strawberry swiss cake roll in my hand. He also apparently wasn't worried about keeping the fast, as the sun still hung above the horizon.
My cab driver was also a pretty determined driver, without being reckless. Good, because the drive from the border to Amman was a treacherous one. For one, the crossing was in the Jordan Valley, Amman was well above it, and a mountain range separated the two. Not the Himalayas exactly, but the Jordan mountains immediately added a degree of difficulty. So did the oncoming darkness. But more especially, it was the combination of the two factors along with the shaky road quality on the way. Hairpin turns is one thing; gravel or dirt roads on a steep mountain climb is a second thing; those things along with big piles of sand or dirt that had to be avoided and that often turned "roadways" into one-way passes is quite another.
But my cab driver handled it well and with decent speed, considering. At no point did I feel like my life was in danger, anyway. Or at no point did I feel like my life was any more in danger from his driving than I did from the possibly poisoned roll he offered me, or from the prevalence of military-manned checkpoints along the road. We made it to Amman unharmed by any of these negligent threats.
He blanched when I asked him to drop me off at the bus station, saying that no buses would run at night, but I insisted and he relented. He smiled when he dropped me off in nightlighted Amman, and that was that.
His reports of no buses at night was confirmed by another cab driver at the bus station, who said that I was at the wrong bus station (since the public "Jett Station" is another entity, I guess) and that the bus to Petra leaves at 630 am to Petra. The first bus, I assumed. Instead of taking the new cabbie up on his offer to drive me to a hotel in the center, I set off by foot for the one and a half kilometer trek, eyes peeled for either a place to rest my head or a earpiece to rest my ear upon, and by that I mean a phone from which I could call my friend and see if the offer to mooch...stay with them might start a day early.
There were no phones to be found as I descended into the center of the city. With some wavering, I made my way to a market scene in what I think counted as downtown. For being past 8 pm, the scene was quite lively, with a few streets lined with stands and tables and offers of jewelry or clothing or wallets.
It was quite an aural setting above all else, as the clamor of the market, in the strange to mine ears tongue of Arabic, mixed with the bustle and honking of cars on the street. And over that rose the call to prayer from the downtown mosque, leading the faithful in the 9:00 pm worship. Amman is not the most religious place in the Middle East, as many went on there business, not heeding the call.
I too ignored the call as I turned back towards the bus stations. On my walk back I found no phones but a place (named Habibah, Arabic for "loved one) that served kinaffeh, a middle Eastern pastry stuffed with cheese that I hadn't seen before, and which was much sweeter than I expected. I also found a hotel to lay my head in, and after some confusing negotiations (for some reason I was concerned that leaving early in the morning would be a problem), I took a room for 10 JD. A little reading, an alarm clock setting, and I nodded off, eager to make it to Petra in the morning.
Also, I thought about the many turns of the day. In Hebrew, there's a word imported from either Russian or Polish: balagan. In Russian, the word either describes a farcical puppet theater, akin to the Italian pulcinello, or means something is a mess. The latter meaning is what it has taken on in Israel. And, I thought in that spare Jordanian hotel room as the drone of the prayer calls led me to sleep, nothing summed up the first day of my trip better than balagan. Oy!
Pts. 2 and 3 to follow shortly. If I keep up this pace, 6,000 words to go!
One of the more interesting ideas our school has is the "Week Without Walls." In said week, the high school students spend two school days doing community service and then three days on a field trip to somewhere in Israel, for a deeper and separate cultural experience of the country. The middle schoolers just do the field trip part. Anyway, it's a nice concept that could lead to exciting new activities and a chance for students (and teachers) to bond in different ways outside of the classroom. In theory.
In practice, most students go with their friends. Those with good attitudes get a lot out of the activity and wish for more. Those with poorer attitudes try to play a garbled gambling form of blackjack beneath the cliff the rest of their group is rappelling on and then get yelled at by the intern teacher when they go back on their word to actually rappel after two hands. Fortunately, I didn't have to deal with any of that...
That said, there's not a whole lot of storytelling to undertake over the trip. We went to a place called Metzuke Dragot, near the Dead Sea and officially in the West Bank, below Jerusalem (a little more on this distinction in my next post). It was a nice little resort complex, and served as a safe base for our rappelling experience. We went to a nearby cliff and rappelled down it a few times. The most challenging part of the whole rappelling bit was the knots they taught us on the first day, knots that for the most part we did not need to tie the rest of the time. Also, the kids giggled a lot when the guides talked about Prusik knots. Actually, the group of 7-8 freshman boys we had on the trip reminded me a little bit too much of myself and my group of friends freshman year, from the ethnic diversity (theirs actually quite larger) to the good-humored/poor taste racial ribbing to the lack of individuality. This tempered my temper, at times. (Also, with regards to the Prusik knot bit - most of the guides giggled just as much as the kids.)
There were a couple other moments of note. The first night, we met up with another group from school that was rappelling about 20 KM south of us, and after a pedestrian drum circle, a high school dance broke out. A group of Ethiopian (or otherwise African; Ethiopians are the most common African peoples in Israel) high schoolers tried to get in to our dance, including one persistent girl especially. She pleaded, she claimed to be from our school but didn't know the name, she begged, and then she resorted to claiming one of the boys from our school, an Angolan, was her long lost brother, and that she wanted to reunite with him. She didn't get his name right even after somebody told her what it was. (It is a tricky name, to be fair.)
On our last night, we went to a spa near the Dead Sea. As such, while the kids hung out mostly in the pool, the spa did offer both a tub of mud to cover oneself in and sulfur springs hot tubs. The SSHTs were hot and smelled like rotten eggs. After about 10 minutes in one, I got out, or right about when I started tasting the sulfur on my lips. (I was warned not to dip my hair in, because then it might stink for a couple days. I mean, stink more than usual.)
After some cleansing chlorine, I covered myself in mud from head to toe. I can't really claim any great benefits of sticking mud on your body, and I only had it on for 5-10 minutes, which is probably insufficient anyway. But I tell you what, smearing yourself in dark mud that you take from a wooden tub of it in the middle of an open spa square at night is as much as it sounds, and then twice more. The whole putting on the mud thing makes up for having to shower in sulfur to rinse it off. Also, the other teacher in my group told me that a guide or someone there told her, "It's best to put it through your hair and on your genitals and everything." Sadly, I only heard about that after the fact...
Ok, here are some more pictures.
This, friends, is the Dead Sea. It's pretty.
A lonely olive tree on our resort at night.
The place wherein we did the bulk of our rappelling.
And for my next trick, we're off to Jordan! Next post, rather.