Saturday, May 5, 2007

Return from the Hidden City

Last time I told you about how getting to Petra, and everything we did there. But getting back was an adventure in and of itself. Also, this has been one of the most boring weeks ever, so I'm working the Petra story for all it's worth until something else exciting happens.

We set out from Wadi Musa to Aqaba fairly early, wanting to get the 12:00 fast ferry back to Egypt. Since there were no minibuses or public transportation, we were forced to use the hostel's pickup truck, at pricy $40 for a 2-hour ride. But it was a lot of fun driving through the Jordanian landscape, and it really had me very thoughtful and pensive the whole way. I wasn't able to get many good pictures because of how fast we were driving, but the landscape is very desolately beautiful - rolling dry plains and rocky mountains, extending onwards and onwards under a massive blue sky. Joe reminded me of a very perceptive quote - a historian who said that it was no wonder monotheism came from this land with nothing in it but hills and rocks and sky. In the fertile valleys of Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia, Rome, and Mesoamerica, the people could make gods for everything - trees, rivers, sun, earth, animals, the sea, and so on. But herding sheep in the dry hills of the Levant, there's not much to worship aside from the sky.

And it really hasn't changed that much...we drove for an hour without seeing much more than hut-like homes and black Bedouin tents with their herds. The same sense of wide-open wilderness still prevails in many places. It's a land that makes you feel very small and alone, out beneath that immense sky.

But that ended as we drove through the desert valley leading into Aqaba, finally culminating in the sprawling, modern port city. A massive Jordanian flag easily 50m across waved lazily in the breeze. We got to the ferry-port - and there were no spaces left on the fast boat. This condemned us to the "slow boat", a conventional ferry that departed at 3 - nominally - and took 3 hours instead of 1. So standing around the port at 10 in the morning, we prepared to wait.

And wait.

All told, we were there for 7 hours before departing. We sat in the cafeteria, hid from the sweltering sun and heat, and tried to pass the time, reading all the books we had, writing in journals, talking, drinking coffee, and staring off into space. There were really two ways it could go: sit there in utter misery at our predicament, or laugh it off as one more ridiculous 3rd-world transit adventure. Fortunately, we chose the Douglas Adams-esque latter option, and ended up having a pretty good time just laughing and chatting. Never underestimate the presence of a good travelling companion - without Joe to converse with, I would have gone totally bat-shit.

And speaking of Adams - although he said "always know where your towel is," in the middle east I think that gets translated to "always know where your kaffiyeh is." I've heard the epithet "towel-head" used for Arabs and now, frankly, I don't think it's insulting at all! A kaffiyeh is the world's most useful garment. Wrap it around your head to keep the sun or the rain off, around your shoulders as a shawl for the sun, around your face in a dust storm, use it as a towel after washing, pile it beneath your head as a pillow, put it over your eyes to help you sleep, and of course it's always a stylish scarf. I used it for all these things in the course of 2 days - it's my new favorite item of clothing. It would seem Adams knew what he was talking about!

Anyways, we also spent part of the time at the ferry part talking to two travelling companions, a Saudi entrepreneur and a taciturn Japanese retired engineer. They fulfilled their stereotypes perfectly - the Japanese man was a prolific traveller, very polite, with limited English, and when I mentioned Boston he got really excited about Matsuzaka. The Saudi was a loud, arrogant man in a brilliant white robe and mirror shades, who talked incessantly about money and the correctness of Islam, and used one of his two camera-phones to show us pictures of his horse, his motorcycle, his farm, his daughter, his car, etc., etc. Yes, he really just mixed his daughter in with all his other possessions. As a sociological sample, he was interesting, but as a person he was dreadful...I can only hope all Saudis are not like that. He also had a weird way of shifting from telling dirty jokes and making crass comments about women to talking about how shameful the way Western women dress is and how terrible alcohol is.

We boarded the boat around 4, and spent another hour and a half waiting for it to leave while they loaded trucks, cars, and so on. I tried and failed to take a nap, so I spent the time just conversing with Joe. Our conversation lasted almost two hours, so we were well on the way by the time it ended. We decided to get dinner, a not entirely dismal affair, and then were ambushed by the Saudi guy again. We went to the top deck to chat, and when I got sick of him, I went down to a lower deck to nap, which lasted until our arrival.

But a bizarre thing happened on our arrival - we were on the upper uncovered decks, enjoying the fresh air, and they locked the doors. Every single door leading down into the ship was chained shut. Though probably just for crowd control, it was very disconcerting, and we joined a couple of sheikhs in yelling at the officers until they let us out. Sometimes being an ajnabi, foreigner, really helps. We finally shuffled out through the car deck, almost unbreathably inundated with diesel fumes, and slid through customs in tenth of the time it took back in Jordan.

It was now about 9:30 or 10 at night, but fortunately there was a night bus to Cairo. While waiting for tickets, we met two travelling Libyan entertainers - one was a singer, the other an actor. They were really fun and funny guys, who spoke very clear Arabic. One of them was even diabetic, and we commiserated about that. As Arabs often do, they bought us water and food without even asking, and we passed the time chatting to them until the bus left. It was a welcome change from the Saudi bore.

The ride itself was weird, but not bad. My seat "broke" - which meant it reclined 90% into an almost perfect bed on which I slept for about seven of the ten hours. Unlike the journey to Nuweiba, which had shown an ancient C-quality Sinbad movie and The Man in the Iron Mask, the movies on the inbound bus were bizarre Arabic drama/comedies with lots of yelling. I put in my earbud headphones, wrapped my kaffiyeh around my head, and slept.

I woke in Cairo, feeling cheerful and rested, and though we had to argue at the bus station taxi drivers about prices, we eventually beat it down from 50 pounds to 20. The taxi driver even brought me a glass of tea, which was pretty difficult to drink as he careened through the streets. But my lightning reflexes kept me from spilling any, and we arrived in good enough spirits to not collapse for the whole day.

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