Jordan.

If you’re about my age, somewhere in your mid-30’s, I’ll bet you watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  What a great movie!  Wasn’t the ending, set in that amazing building carved out of a red-hued canyon wall, just about the coolest thing you’d ever seen? And wasn’t it even cooler to discover that such a place, or, in fact that very place actually exists? Ever since the time I learned that the Last Crusade was filmed in Petra, I’ve longed to go there, longed to see the facades a thousand years old that ornament tombs and sacred places, longed to ride a horse though the Siq and into the sunset like Harrison Ford and Sean Connery (and the other two guys).

Finally, it happened.  Most of it, anyway.  I didn’t ride a horse though the Siq, I’m sorry to say, but I did put my wife on a donkey and send her up to the Monastery that way.  So that’s sort of similar.

What is Jordan like? Coming from the UAE it’s a bit of a surprise.  It’s poor.  There’s lots of trash on empty lots. White plastic bags and other litter degrade the landscape as you drive along.  Buildings aren’t tall and splendid–they’re short or stunted, some missing an upper story, perhaps to be added at a later date when money has been set aside for that purpose.  Cars are old and beat up.  A layer of dust covers most everything.  But the people are nice.  They’re humble and friendly, and they work hard for what they own.

At a cafe in Madaba, men relax and watch the cars roll slowly by.

At a cafe in Madaba, men relax and watch the cars roll slowly by.

Much of the waterways which once supplied Jordan with water have been diverted by other countries.  The Dead Sea’s levels are declining rapidly as various tributaries which feed into it have been dammed and co-opted for things like irrigation.

I work with several guys from Jordan.  Excited that we were planning a visit, they offered suggestions on where to go and what to do. Among the many places they listed, we managed to hit Karak (site of a dilapidated crusader castle), Madaba (home of a large Christian community and location of the oldest image of Palestine), Petra, Wadi Rum (where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed and where Lawrence himself once roamed), and the Dead Sea.

Any fan of history, including Biblical history, medieval history, Roman, etc., would find Jordan a stellar place to stroll around.  Walk where Moses died atop Mount Nebo, for example, or look over the valley below Karak from a castle window, or compare the architecture of the various facades in Petra to each other and spot the Nabatean style vs. the Roman style, and on and on and on. If ancient history isn’t your thing, perhaps modern history is: consider the guard towers along the shores of the Dead Sea as you hand your passport to the armed checkpoint guards along the road.  Talk to someone and find out that Jordan is one of the only countries in the region to officially recognize Israel as a state.

Those are salt crystals on the buoys.

Those are salt crystals on the buoys.

And if you say to yourself, “Screw history, I’m all about the present,” then enjoy a mediocre takeaway pizza you bought near the exit from Petra on your way back to the Bedouin camp you’re spending the next few nights in, wash it down with some hyper-sweet tea made over the open fire, and chat with the friendly fellow with bad teeth that owns the place.  Be surprised that he travels extensively, and that he’ll be in London next month. Climb the rocks and watch the sun slowly set, turning some blonde chicks hair to sparkling gold as they sit in front of you. Rub your hands along canyon walls as you walk the Siq and sing with your wife, glad you’re there at 7:15am, not 4:30pm when it’s packed, and you couldn’t hear your voices reverberate over the cacophony of the many. Enjoy the winding road from Petra to the Dead Sea, carefully drive along the detour where the road had fallen away into the sheer nothingness below, and let your ears pop as you descend 1,000 meters in no time.

So about Petra–about Indiana Jones, the Siq, and that donkey.  We spent an entire day there, from sunup until approaching sundown. We carried the little one most of the way.  Fortunately he decided to nap in that amazing Boba Air carrier that we’ve taken all over the world with us, so he didn’t feel the need to be down and running around the entire day, or we’d have never gotten anywhere. It was, indeed, something special to see the Treasury (that’s the Indiana Jones place, you know) present itself as we made our way through the Siq approaching it.  The sun colored the rocks orange as it rose higher.  We climbed to the High Place of Sacrifice, and descended to the Great Temple, an area that Brown University has been excavating since 1993. Midday by then, we were feeling tired, so I hired a donkey to take Jenia up to the Monastery, and by the time I stopped to rest in shade kindly offered by an aged merchant lady, drink some water, and let the toddler get out of the carrier, I was wishing I’d gotten a donkey ride myself.  But, being the manly man I am, I sucked it up and took the baby in hand (actually, I put him on my shoulders) and climbed the remaining 4,000,000 steps (exaggeration, yup, but it felt like a lot).

Being totally worn out does have a way of stealing some of the majesty of any experience, but seeing the Monastery was still pretty awesome.  It’s big, y’all.  There’s a great place to eat in the shade, on a bench, right there with a view of the Monastery (so named because it was repurposed as a church for a while) and we ate our lunch there.  Jenia made the descent on her ass, and I on foot. The way down was easier.

Treasury

The Treasury, shown when being approached through the Siq (which means “shaft”). The man in front of it gives some idea of scale.

In Petra

A musician playing in Petra.

What tarnishes Petra?  Could be the myriad stalls set up haphazardly selling trinkets. Could be the tons of guys hawking horseback rides, donkeys for steeds (“This one his name Michael Jackson”), or kids trying to get you to buy postcards with images probably better than the ones you’ll take. Could be nothing tarnishes it, if you’re expecting the clatter of generators powering snack shops in the canyons.

Wadi Rum was another highlight–and someone asked me “Why?” the other day.  Er, it’s just one of those places that’s worth visiting to experience for yourself, that’s why.  We thought it was cool to spend the day on camels and in a 4×4 with a local Bedouin guide whose family is among those who have exclusive rights to the national park there.  We found the scenery amazing.  And if you should spend the night there, either in a tent or a cave, as many people choose to, you would be amazed by the total lack of light pollution late at night.  The stars present themselves in a way that it’s easy to forget is possible when you spend most of your time in the urban sprawl that encompasses much of our modern world.

Seen from the so-called Lawrence's House area (because he may or may not have actually been posted there), a bit of the Wadi Rum desert.

Seen from the so-called Lawrence’s House area (because he may or may not have actually been posted there), a bit of the Wadi Rum desert.

The way to the Dead Sea twists and turns like crazy.

The way to the Dead Sea twists and turns like crazy.

Karak

Jenia and el nino at Karak Castle. He wanted to walk around a lot, but the area was a bit unsafe for him with precipices galore.

The Dead Sea is the last thing I’ll write about. Yeah, it’s pretty dang cool to find yourself standing in shoulder-deep water, and when, the instant a gentle wave hits you, suddenly you’re floating, your feet sticking into the air, suddenly bobbing about because gravity doesn’t seem to function like it does in every other body of water you’ve ever been in. But it’s not cool to scare your toddler by putting that famous black mud on your face.  Although the skin does feel might refreshed when you go rinse the mud off a few minutes later.

So, in a nutshell, Jordan. Indiana Jones didn’t lead me wrong–it’s a great place to visit. Go there.  Your view of the Middle East will be altered still further than it was by your visit to the UAE.

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Al Ain’s Old Souk

Al Ain is a city of texture. Some areas are quite polished and upscale. Other areas are anything but. There are buildings that are literally palatial, and others which make a bomb shelter look comfortable and inviting. On the outskirts of town you will find shanties housing those willing to subsist on the meagerest of wages.  Al Jimi Mall is the place to go if you feel like watching the locals cruise about in their Rolls Royces, tarted up Bentleys and Ranger Rovers, AMG Mercedes’, or the rather less common Ferraris or Lamborghinis.  By contrast, in the town center, not so far away, there are Pakistani workers, entirely carless, squatting on their haunches.

And in the very center, in a series of garage-like structures nigh to the bus station, there lies an amazing market known as the “Old Souk.” For years, the souk has functioned as a place that vendors can come to sell their wares free of any charge. Those who are selling come from a variety of locations, and sell all sorts of things. They have certain areas they usually set up in, and most of the shops, with some exceptions, look more or less permanent. There is a new souk established outside of town, behind the nicest of Al Ain’s malls, but an attempt to move things out there failed, and the sellers were soon back in their traditional place in the middle of the town center. Fridays are the best day to visit, for that is when things are busiest.  Much of the souk is indoors, or semi-indoors, but there is also quite a bit outdoors.

The Old Souk, here made a bit more vivid with a snappy filter.

The Old Souk, here made a bit more vivid with a snappy filter courtesy of that funky smartphone app known as instagram.

One building houses the vegetable and meat market.  Seeking some good flat cabbage?  Or maybe a nice, succulent camel hump?  This is the place to get it.  Maybe you’d rather skip the camel and get some nice, fresh goat.  That’s readily available, as it’s a very common meat here, usually served with biryani (an Indian style rice dish).

As we approach, we encounter an Omani woman who is happy to show us her wares, which include a number of interesting items uniquely Middle Eastern.  She has come from Buraimi, just a short way off, almost every day for years. She is also pleased to allow us to take her picture, something that isn’t always to be counted on here. Jenia purchases a souvenir for herself, and one for her friend–the golden face covering that seems to be known as a “burqa” here.  The burqa is meant to accent the woman’s eyes, we are told.  Jenia decides to buy a second one to give to a friend of ours, and the woman, noticing that Jenia is with child (yes, we did this before the baby came), refuses payment (a mere 10 dirhams) for it, and insists on giving it as a gift.

Vendor

If you’re looking for fresh Emirati fish, this is the place to find it. The types that are most renowned are available here: hammour, Sultan Ibrahim. They’re all freshly caught from around the Emirates. The vendors are happy to show you their catches.  If you’re trying to find a good price, you can probably get it here–but you should know what the going rate is, and it helps if you read Arabic, because most of the signs and numbers aren’t in English.  The best way to get a deal is to bargain, which is expected.  I, of course, have no idea what a reasonable price is for any seafood, but I enjoy looking at the huge number of fish, big and small, and the sellers enjoy telling us what is what.  Jenia strolls about with her camera, snapping the images you see here.

In the image above, Amro, one of the main folks involved with Al Ain Weekends, a lovely group which organizes excursions for anyone interested in learning more about the area, shows off a fish.

Despite the stern expressions these two men wear in the photographs, they are happy to explain all about the fish they are selling and let us take their pictures.

Leaving the fish souk, we pass smiling faces, families, and virtually no other westerners other than the ones we came with.  There is Yemeni honey for sale, and one of the guys selling it gets me to try some.  It’s good, but I’m not about to pay the kind of money they’re asking for it, and I don’t feel like bargaining in the first place.  The wife and I are interested in seeing the people, smelling the odors that flavor the air, and simply being a part of the bustle of the souk, a place that seems mostly left out of the rush toward hyper-modernity that Al Ain has generally embraced.  Incidentally, you’ll notice the reduction in quality of most of the pictures after this–they’re the ones I snapped with my phone.  Jenia gets all the credit for being the better photographer of the two of us.

Beautiful, characterful people enjoying the souk.

Beautiful, characterful people enjoying the souk.

Soon, we are standing outside a shop that makes a traditional Omani sweet called halawa (spelling?).  This is basically made from sugar or corn syrup with added sugars.  It’s boiled for a long time in huge basins, being stirred the whole time.  If memory serves, the boiling/stirring must go on for at least two hours.  The sweet is rather delicious.  There are all kinds for sale, and there are buyers in and out while we are there who purchase big boxes full for parties or weddings.  We are lucky enough to be invited to the back room to watch it being made.

Boiling the halawa.

Boiling and stirring the sloppy goop that will become halawa.

Next, we stroll through the camel souk.  Here we see anything you might need for your camel.  If you’ve ever seen a camel wearing anything, it’s probably for sale right here.  There are blankets, muzzles, ropes, and much more.  I enjoy seeing some of the simple things for sale, like camel shampoo.  When I took the dog to the vet back in the States, I used to see horse shampoo for sale, but I’ve never seen this before.  Naturally, I whip out my trusty old iPhone and snap a photo.  Good instagram, right?

Gotta have that camel shampoo if you have a camel.

Gotta have that camel (and horse) shampoo if you have a camel (or horse).

Finally, we get to the tobacco area.  Here folks can purchase the very strong type of tobacco that is so popular and which a bunch of my students smoke in the bathrooms.  I forget the name of it, but it’s actually no longer legal to grow it in the Emirates, so this stuff we’re seeing is imported from Oman.  The guys here are also selling the slender little pipes that are used to smoke this stuff, and a number of accessories handy for this kind of addiction.  The men have the sort of faces that make great photos.

This tobacco seller has a great face, just oozing coolness.

This tobacco seller has a great face, just oozing coolness.

In this post, I’m afraid I omit a lot of interesting details about the wide range of merchandise for sale in this bustling market.  There’s so much more than I can write sufficiently about.  I don’t remember what many things are called, and I forget the reasons some of the unusual items are for sale.  There’s pollen for date palms, palm fronds, harnesses of rope for climbing and trimming palm trees, saws for that purpose, dried goods, liquids of all sorts, and on and on and on.  If you’ve been to the souk, you can no doubt think of something striking that I neglect to mention here.

Thursday List: You Know You’ve Been to the UAE Long Enough when…

1)   A daytrip to Dubai is just a part of the routine.

2)   So is a trip to Abu Dhabi.

3)   You no longer notice that everyone around you is wearing kandoras or abayas.

4)   You shorten your sentences and speak each word very distinctly so that the non-native English speaker you’re communicating with will (maybe) understand you.  Optionally, you leave out linking verbs and articles.

5)   You say “petrol” instead of “gasoline”, “mark” instead of “grade” and tell people your flat is on the ground floor. Oh, and “inshallah” becomes a household word.

6)   Somebody else pumps your gas, er, petrol, and you think that’s normal.

7)   You haven’t washed your car in six months because you can get someone else to do it for five bucks.

8)   You stop noticing that there’s no sales tax.

9)   When the temperature drops below 70 you think it’s really cold out.

10) Every time you go outside you meet somebody who’s neither American nor Emirati, and you’re not the least surprised.

11) You’re no longer terrified by the crazy drivers or the confusing roundabouts.

12) You see so many Porsches and fancy Mercedes that you don’t even notice them any more.

13) However, when you see a girl in shorts/skirt/dress that do not cover her knees or in a sleeveless top, you wonder what in the world she is thinking.

14) You no longer try to snap a photo of every camel truck passing by.

15) When you hear the word “date,” you think of a fruit, not an event.  You even have a favorite kind of date.

16) Truly clear, blue skies are exciting.

17) Seeing a dog is equally exciting.

18) You remember to not take or give anything with your left hand.

19) Last time you had so many friends living in the same town as you, you were in high school.

20) You are ready to pay $10 for a box of White Cheddar Cheez-Its.

More Dubai: Mondial 2012

It’s supposed to be Money Monday.  And I’ll find a way to make this work: I’ll talk about the price of admission for this nifty event we attended today.

Anyway, on the the subject.  Today’s recreational event: go to Dubai.  To do this, we have to find our way past at least two closed roads to SkyDive Dubai, within sight of the Palm Jumeirah, which is hosting the Mondial 2012 world parachuting championships.  Our agenda is simple enough: watch skydivers from all over the world compete.  What we end up doing instead is watching them practice their formations on the ground and pack their chutes.  While this is kind of interesting, there isn’t anyone actually coming down in parachutes.  So we hang out and talk for a while, and basically do a bit of baking in the sun.  ‘Cause it’s still pretty hot.  Shorts weather, easily.  And finally, after what seems like forever, we almost leave when there’s still no parachutists descending.  Our friends, Frank and Melissa, who have their baby in tow, are getting restless, and so are we.  “Let’s wait five minutes,” I say, hoping, but quite doubtfully, that we might yet get to see some action.  And then, as we are on the verge of leaving, to our delight, the distance championship event begins.

In the Air Chutist1 Duo Windsock Sign

Here’s what it’s like: you’re standing in the sun, a tad too warm, the sun blazing right at the point that the plane has just dropped sky divers from.  That makes it hard to see them, because you’re squinting and covering your eyes.  But you can see them, nonetheless, even though you’ve scrunched your face up like a kid who just sampled his first lemon.  And you watch as they gently float along the air currents, turning now and then.  Then one of them, a bit lower than the others, kicks up his feet and tugs on the lines, and he leans forward, the leading edge of the parachute tilting, and he picks up speed like mad.  You hear the speed, the sizzling of air cut by the parachutist and his canopy, and then he’s skimming the pool in front of you, before he pulls up at the end of it to try to gain some height and fly the greatest distance possible before he touches the ground.

Now, in between all of this boredom and drama, we decide it’s high time to grab some lunch.  There’s a camel tethered near the gate, on display for tourists like us (and like the Asian skydivers who were posing and photographing each other next to it when we arrived).  It’s keeper, an old Emirati guy wearing a tan kandora, spies the beast spread his legs a little and start urinating.  What’s the old fellow do?  He goes over and sticks his hand under the stream, cups it, and lifts it to his face.  “What’s he doing?”  Asks Melissa.  “Is he smelling it?” says Frank.  “I don’t know,” I say, but I have my suspicions.  We can see more clearly the next time he does it.  Yup.  He’s drinking the urine.  It is like a horrific car accident–you can’t take your eyes off it, it’s so terrible.  Sadly, or fortunately, in Jenia’s opinion, we are too far away to capture this singular act on film.  Anyway, the women making repelled faces and Frank and I wearing rather more intrigued ones, we we make our way to the dining hall.  And when we get there, we end up, quite by accident, with front row seats for a stunt show by a young Polish motorcyclist named Rafal who goes by the moniker Stunter13.

Our friends were posing for a lovely shot with this camel, well before the urine drinking took place, when suddenly he started sneezing.  Melissa was a little taken aback.

Now, allow me a switch to the past tense as I finish up.

There were also BMX stunt riders and a motocross team on hand doing hourly shows. At one point there was a standing invitation to go take a leap from a tower into a huge airbag below.  Would’ve done it, but by that time we were all ready to go.

Oh, I forgot to mention the part about money.  Want to guess the asking price? All of this was entirely free.

Tired of baking in the sun, regardless of the nifty stuff going on, we moved on to the huge Mall of the Emirates to eat a real meal (because there wasn’t much available at the Mondial) and enjoy some air conditioning.  Thank goodness for technology, and particularly for navigation systems, because Dubai’s roads are nothing if not confusing, and several were closed so we had to take more circuitous routes.

Russian Team

The Russian team enjoys the sunshine while packing their ‘chutes.

For some video of the parachutists and the motorcycles stunt show, click here: (I shot it myself, using that dandy iPhone of mine).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0P2jiPKghYE

Camels in Trucks

Camels in trucks are not an uncommon sight here.  Here’s one we captured on whatever the digital version of film is recently.

Notice the camel…

The camel was quite interested in his surroundings.

We drove past a bigger truck loaded with no less than three of these guys, all of whom seemed quite thrilled to be going for a ride.  Unfortunately, the best picture we could get did not show them clearly.

I hear, by the way, that a camel is worth, on average, around 1 million AED (that’s approximately $250,000, if you need the conversion provided).  That might explain why this one is so tightly secured in the bed of the Toyota.  Just in case you were wondering.

Peace.

Shon and Jenia

 

 

Camel Farm Pictorial

Pj and students heading for the camels.

A student and a young (2 year old) camel.

Petting the camel.

Posing with my students Ali and Hamed.

Pj becoming a snooker player.

Here we pose holding a realistic looking plastic rifle. The boys put on a show for us with the guns, twirling them and doing a dance later.

You’ll notice a few things from the photos.  The color of the sky, for instance, accurately reflects the color (or lack thereof) that is normal for August and September here.  It’s now the 27th, and today was the first day that I can remember actually seeing the sun beating down from a clear, blue sky, with visible clouds spread about.

The camel ride was a great experience.  While we didn’t get to take the reigns, we did get quite a good walk being led about.  I’ll try to get some more photos from Pj’s camera and share them.  The farm is a good distance into the desert and past the Al Ain oasis, so it was neat just to drive out there.  Seeing all the camels was cool, and we got a true cultural experience, as I mentioned a couple posts ago.

I had at least four, perhaps five, rounds of tea or coffee with the menfolk.  We sat on the surprisingly comfortable carpet arrangement you can see behind Pj and me in the last photo above.

We didn’t get home until 10:30pm, and we were bushed by then.

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