Monday, July 27, 2015

Petra, Jordan, Part 2: Deep In The Heart Of Petra

We used Day 2 of Petra to explore further into the city. The National Park is huge, and there are tons of routes and trails you can choose to take, all of which will lead you to separate buildings and scenes and stories.  And a lot of Petra still remains un-excavated!   

You know, just taking our time going through the Siiq by taking more ridic jumping photos

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Since we wanted to see as much of Petra as possible, we decided to go the mule route and hired mules for the day to cart us around.  I really wish I could remember my mule's complex Arabic name. 
  • I'll say it again - Petra is HUGE.  There is so, so much to see.  Our focus for the day was to see another incredibly well-known building called the Monastery, which was much, much, much (x3) farther than the Treasury.  I'll let the pictures speak for themselves
My mule looks like a total monster next to Drew's.  We are in front of the stadium in Petra - I can't imagine how long that thing took to carve out

A former relief carved into the walls of the Siiq that's since been worn down by erosion. You can see it used to be a man leading a camel and a caravan - all you can really see now are his feet and the camel's hooves.  For something 2,200 years old, however - pretty legit
My favorite part was that you could see so many buildings hidden in the rocks in various shape - some were still pretty intact, while others were so eroded that you had to look hard to see the faintest trace that there used to be something there
Drew's mule was slow (who can blame him!? He was like, half the size of my mule) - so our guide took a bunch of photos of me and my mule in front of a canyon while we waited
Not only that, but Drew's mule had to carry this boy with them too
The ride up to the monastery was so, so gorgeous - like huge valleys and cliffs and rock formations and crazy winding paths with dangerous-looking stairs and such.  I started to feel terrible for my mule for having to haul me up the steep trails. I'm sorry about my ice cream habit, mule-friend

Our little caravan, approaching buildings in the background

After the longest, craziest path through steep winding walkways overlooking breathtaking gorges, we arrived at the Monastery!  It's in such a remote location, and again - IT IS GIGANTOR

To get an idea of scale and how huge this building is - I am the tiny green speck at the bottom. 

The building wasn't a monastery at all despite its nickname; they think it was a temple of some sort

And then we rested in a tiny cafe next to the monastery (it was seriously the hottest day known to man), AND THERE WERE ADORABLE KITTENS

I fully realize I just wasted two photo slots of this post about the most baller city ever on this baby kitten. But seriously, look at its face. Are you dying yet

Drew bought a Jordanian headwrap (men out here actually wear these everywhere) for the trip home. And then of course, we needed an epic jumping photo to go with the headwrap. And on the right, my mule's butt

  • It was crazy because we had so much time to visit Petra before we had to go catch our 5pm bus to Amman.....but before we knew it, time was up and we had to have our mules pick up the pace a little on the way down from the Monastery.  Bouncy.  Very bouncy.

One last view of a cart speeding through the Siiq

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • Apparently the best time to see Petra is super early morning - the sun hits some of the buildings just so, and they light up and look especially rosy.
  • We would not know the fun fact above personally, because we did not successfully get up at 6AM to execute

Petra was also one of the coolest places I've ever been.  I can totally see how people can spend multiple days exploring the place - there are so many amazing buildings to see, and the ones we did get to see were nothing short of TOTALLY INCREDIBLE.  I think I love the Nabateans.  A lot of the hiking is incredibly legit as well - we did a short 15-minute hike from the monastery up to a lookout point, and the view was so gorgeous.  

My favorite part was also that while Petra is Jordan's biggest tourist attraction, it is so large and so remotely located that it's not overrun with tourists.....yet.  There were still many parts where it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.  

Sweaty, hot, dusty, and having spent the entire day in the sun and on a mule, we got on our 4-hour bus to Amman to catch our flight back to the States.  

I am back in the States currently and it feels so weird. SO. WEIRD.  I can't even figure out how to adjust.  Luckily, it's only a brief hiatus for me, as I head to Southeast Asia next week.  I might throw out some rando blog posts in the meantime, but otherwise - I hope your inboxes enjoy the break for a week =)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Petra, Jordan, Part 1: The Coolest Ancient Lost City EVER

Petra is a place I've been dying to go for forever - the photos look incredible, and I'm totally fascinated by the idea of this lost city carved out of sandstone rock walls.  Also, a whole bunch of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" was filmed here, which I loved growing up because I loved Harrison Ford, and I might have written him a fan letter when I was in 2nd grade.

What It's All About:
Petra is an ancient city located in the south of Jordan in the middle of the desert. It was built by the Nabateans, an Arab tribe, between 400 BC (uhh is it me, or are these dates getting crazy older!? 400 BC is like, unfathomable to me) and 100 BC.  The Nabateans were a prosperous trading tribe, and Petra was their capital city, linking China/India to the Mediterranean.  They were worldly and cultural, as they came across so many other tribes and traders through trading.

This is especially evident in Petra - which includes an extensive water irrigation system, and gorgeous buildings carved into the surrounding sandstone cliffs.  When you enter the park itself, there is this crazy gorge you walk through (called the Siiq - this is the part in Indiana Jones) - it feels like walking through the Grand Canyon: it's basically a thin passage winding between huge sandstone cliffs. You can see evidence of carvings and reliefs all over the walls.  The city itself is nothing short of BREATHTAKING - the buildings that are intact are awe-inspiring in their enormity, and you can't believe that people could be capable of something so incredible.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • We dropped off our bags at our hotel (right outside the entrance to Petra National Park) after our fun border adventure and a 2 hour cab ride.  Petra is fairly expensive, it's 50 JOD (about $70) for a one-day ticket - but it gets more worthwhile the longer you buy for, so a two-day pass is only 55 JOD.  So we bought a two-day ticket with the intention of wandering solo and taking our time the first day, then doing a more in-depth tour the second day.
First sign I knew I loved Petra - you walk in and your ticket includes A FREE HORSE RIDE from the park entrance down to the entrance of the gorge (Siiq).  All you have to do is tip the horse leader a couple dollars

Riding past one of the structures - most of these structures were tombs. This one has both Greco-Roman and Egyptian architectural influences, which shows the blending of cultures the Nabateans utilized. I kind of love how forward-thinking this tribe was for their time.

  • Then we arrived at the Siiq and started walking through. It's about a 30-minute walk through the gorge, and it is INCREDIBLY gorgeous. You look up the walls and they're ridic high.  This is the route all the caravans took entering/exiting Petra on their way to trade
The Siiq. You can still see shadows of some of the cravings on the left-hand wall

Look how huge the cliffs are!

And again

Annnd given that we had some extra time, we took a series of ridic photos
  • After 30 minutes of walking through the Siiq, you arrive right at Petra's most famous building, the Treasury. The Treasury was originally built as a tomb, but was believed to later have been converted to a temple.

If you look at the people sitting outside the building, you can get an idea of how freakishly huge this building was. It's truly unbelievable

And there are always camels outside; another win in my book

Yet another animal that is excellent at posing for photos

Drew titled this "Connie's future child when they get in trouble"

  • While the Treasury is the most famous building, the entirety of Petra has a zillion (count 'em) more buildings and temples and incredible rock facades - you can seriously take days and days and days to explore and hike and never get to see even a fraction of the park.  We only had time for a quick trip to the Treasury before heading back to grab a quick dinner before a night tour we had signed up for.
  • Our night tour was called "Petra By Night", which basically involves taking the exact same route as we had earlier, except in total darkness.

On our night tour, they line all the roads into Petra with candles. But it was still incredibly dark and some of the roads were a totally treacherous; I have no idea how they avoid lawsuits 

Then you arrive at the Treasury, which has hundreds of candles out front lighting it up.  My iPhone took terrible photos and couldn't catch the soft lighting of the Treasury, but trust me when I say it was beautiful

Drew and I outside the Treasury. For the tour, they had some people come and play traditional instruments and music to add to the ambience


Fun Facts of the Day:
  • In addition to loving NBA, people in Jordan loove smoking. In areas you forgot people ever once smoked in; a.k.a. our taxi driver while driving our taxi, etc. 
  • In Petra, you can hire three kinds of animals to take you around (it's pretty intense hiking in some parts): 1. Camels (these don't go very far; they're not good at paths); 2. Horses (I love horses but in Jordan with its plethora of animals you can ride, YAWN), and 3. Donkeys/Mules.  We had a donkey that lived in a field outside our hotel and would sadly bray occasionally.  
  • Desert. Hot. Bring the sunscreen.

Next up - we spend the next day exploring Petra more in-depth. I seriously cannot believe HOW MUCH there is to see in this place, and how much more you can explore: more than just the Treasury (which is all you ever see in pictures), and more than pictures can ever depict.  This is seriously one of the coolest places ever.

Travel Tips: Crossing the Israel/Jordan Border By Land (Eilat to Aqaba)

Of everything on the Middle East leg of my trip, the thing I was most nervous about was crossing the land border between Israel and Jordan.  Looking on the internet, you will find stories of those who crossed with no issues - but then you will also find horror stories of long waits, arbitrary delays, difficult border guards, etc.  The thing about the Middle East is that you never know - rules constantly change depending on the day and situation, so I was nervous about the unexpectedness of it.

There are three land checkpoints between Israel/Jordan: the one we went through was the southernmost point called the Wadi Araba checkpoint (it's called Yitzhak Rabin on the Israeli side). This checkpoint takes you from the city of Eilat, Israel on one side, to Aqaba, Jordan on the other.

From Eilat, we took a taxi to the border, which took around 10 minutes and cost 30 NIS (about $10). The taxi dropped us off right at the border.

This way to the border crossing....oh and birdwatching!
The first gate you see when you pull up - the Yitzhak Rabin Border Terminal
  • The border terminal opens at 6:30AM, and we'd heard there are times when you will encounter long lines (especially sometimes in the mornings with tour groups).  But when we arrived around 10AM, the entire terminal was pretty empty.  We walked up and an Israeli policeman checked our passports.
  • From there, the process was pretty seamless.  There are a series of windows you visit in order.
  • The first window (passport control) checked our passports again
  • At the second window (customs), we had to pay an Israel exit fee of 104 NIS per person (about $30).   At this window, the lady also gave us an option to change cash into Jordanian dinars using a debit or credit card (which you will need as soon as you exit on the other side to pay for a cab).  Lastly, she stamped our passports with an exit stamp  - you can request her not to do so, since an Israel stamp in your passport can prevent you from entering countries like Iran or Lebanon.  I was too slow to react - that stamp came out of nowhere!  Drew was not too slow, and she was fine stamping a receipt for him instead of his passport.
Walk this way to Jordan.  But first, go buy things duty-free
  • Then they make you walk through a duty-free store - just a small one, but there are signs everywhere telling you this is your last chance to shop before entering Jordan.  We used every last penny of our NIS on water and a pack of Twix (the cheapest item in the entire store). 
Looking back...leaving Israel
  • After you exit the duty-free store, you approach the no-man's land between Israel and Jordan. 
Eating our breakfast of Twix from the duty-free store and walking through no-man's land

Welcome to Jordan!

  • As you enter Jordan, another passport check. Then a security scan, where they screen your bags and belongings. The guards started off a little tough with us by demanding we open our bags and show them everything inside after they'd gone through the scanner. However, in the midst of opening Drew's bag, they started a conversation with us about the NBA and their their demeanors got lighter as they were talking about how much they love the Lakers (yuck why).  Both guards started chattering away and seemed to forget they hadn't opened my bag yet, so we took advantage of the situation by smiling at them, nodding a lot, and picking up our bags and scooting out of the room.  Thank goodness they didn't get into my bag - it was stuffed to the brim and was probably one of those situations where once they started taking things out, I'm not sure it all would have fit back in. 
  • More windows. We got our passports checked a couple more times, a couple questions about why we were entering Jordan, and entry stamps/visas stamped into our passports.  As my passport had already been stamped by Israel, I didn't care what was stamped into it afterwards, so all was good with me. However, Drew asked the guard not to stamp his again (because even if you don't have an Israel stamp, if you have a Jordan stamp in your passport showing you entered Jordan by land, customs can deduce you were in Israel beforehand).  This time however, the guard refused and stamped his passport anyways. Whomp whomp.  However, I'm not sure if this was due to a miscommunication, because I've heard of people being able to make it through this border crossing completely stamp-free.  
  • Typically there is an Jordan entry visa fee of around 40 Jordanian dinars (~$57) - but somehow we were not charged. I don't know if someone forgot to charge us. Oh well.
  • Upon exiting the terminal on the Jordan side, there is no public transport or anything - just a group of taxis. It is known in traveling circles as the "taxi mafia", as they basically have complete control over how much to charge you since you have no other options. You can take a cab into the nearby town of Aqaba, but we were heading to Petra (about 2-3 hours away) - so we hired a cab to take us all the way there.  It is very taxi mafia-feeling - there was a sketchy man who was seemingly in charge and ordered the drivers about and had us move our bags from one car to another. The second car he moved us to, I saw the driver had to pay this guy some money. It was not the most comforting feeling, but at the end of the day, we got to where we needed to go, and at a price we saw was fairly comparable to what we researched beforehand (about 50 dinars, or $71) to go all the way to Petra.
All in all, the entire border crossing process took around 30 minutes for us. We've heard horror stories of some crossings taking hours and hours, or interrogations and such - so overall, I think we got pretty lucky and our experience was almost completely seamless (save for the tiny passport stamp fiasco. I hope I don't have a pressing need to go to Iran or Lebanon anytime soon).  

Beforehand, it was surprisingly hard finding complete, thorough information on the entire process online (or information that wasn't a couple years old anyway) - so hopefully this might be slightly helpful to someone, somewhere.  Even if not, it was an incredibly interesting process that I'm glad I got a chance to do and wanted to detail.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Eilat, Israel: Gateway to Jordan

Drew and I arrived in the city of Eilat after a 3+ hour bus ride from the Dead Sea. Eilat is on the southernmost coast of Israel, and is situated on the Red Sea. Which Drew mentioned was our 3rd sea we've touched in a week (Mediterranean, Dead, and Red). Yay seas.

What It's All About:
Eilat is so pretty - it's bordered by these gorgeous red mountains and is close to both the borders of Jordan and Egypt.  A ton of the coastline is beach and it's a popular vacation destination for families (when I booked our hotel, there was super limited availability). And the boardwalk is just like Atlantic City, filled with carnival rides and food stands and shopping, and mobbed with families and childrens and teens.  Never mind that I've never been to Atlantic City; it's what I've always imagined it to be like.

Lastly, and probably the most important point, is there is a dolphin reef where you can swim with dolphins (eee!). And lots of snorkeling. Again, not like we did any of this - purely from my very cute animated tourist map.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • The drive down to Eilat was desert as far as the eye could see.  The farther south we drove, the closer the road got to the Jordan border - there were a lot of warning signs that the border was close and the roads were not passable through the border. 
Desert drive
Our hotel room had the prettiest views of the mountains and Red Sea
  • We walked down to the boardwalk for dinner. The boardwalk was full of hotels, rides, cafes, those cheesy stores filled with cheap beachwear, clubs with weird lasers, etc. 

Just like (what I imagine looks exactly like) Atlantic City
The craziest thing to me is that it was this fun vacation/family/beach atmosphere, but then all the shopping mall entrances had metal detectors and security everywhere
  • The next morning, we started our journey to cross the Israel/Jordan border and southernmost checkpoint by land.  Will be detailing that in a separate post here.
  • And then we got to Jordan!  We got a cab for the 2+ hour drive to Wadi Musa, a town right outside the ancient lost city of Petra and our next stop.  The Jordanian landscape was so pretty -  it was filled with rose-colored rock formations, and ANIMALS.
Prettiest rock formations in Jordan
CAMELS BY THE ROAD. Drew may have asked the taxi to stop so we could take photos, and then poked me awake.... because he knows that I love camels
This looks like a horse but I swear it's a camel
  • Our cab driver was awesome - having noted the fact that we love photos, he stopped again at a scenic overlook of the valleys.
Jordan valleys

And then we passed a herd of goats on the road
  • And then we got to Wadi Musa.....next stop, Petra!  
Wadi Musa

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • The second we stepped into Jordan, the people changed instantly.  They were all super curious where we were from, and when we told them, it was almost always followed with a "I love America!"  Also, apparently NBA is big there.....because when Drew and I told them we were from Boston/New York, they'd go, "Celtics! Knicks!"  In the first day we were in the country, I think we had at least 3 separate conversations about the NBA. Random. Yet awesome.
  • So many security checkpoints. Both Israel and Jordan, there are tons of security checkpoints on the highways and roads - you just kind of get used to men dressed in military uniforms with guns stopping your car and checking things out. A constant reminder as to the part of the world we were in.
  • Jordan has these groups of Arab tribes called bedouins - they were historically nomadic and lived all over the desert. Many of these tribes are more modernized now, but still retain some of their cultural/living practices today (think of a Jordan-version of gypsies).  We saw groups of them as we drove down the highway.  Anyways, as a tourist, an incredibly cool thing you can do is stay in a bedouin camp (look it up!).  You get to stay in a tent out in the middle of the desert, ride camels, etc. - and the bedouin tribe will cook for you and everything. It's apparently amazing. I wanted to do it so badly, but it didn't fit into our timeframe =(  Next time, Jordan.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Dead Sea, Israel: Floating In An Oil Slick

Post-Bethlehem, Drew and I headed by bus down south to the Dead Sea. It was super exciting, especially because the drive was surprisingly gorgeous, and I WANT TO FLOAT IN THE DEAD SEA.  Do all the things.

What It's All About:
The Dead Sea is freakishly salty. That's really about all one needs to know. It borders both Jordan and Israel (you can visit from either side), and due to its salinity, you can float at the top of the water with no problems at all.  MAGIC.  Also, people believe the water/mud/minerals offer health benefits and often travel to the Dead Sea to remedy their ailments.  We saw a ton of factories on the drive in, including the Ahava factory, which produces high-end skincare using Dead Sea minerals.


Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • I loved our bus ride down to the Dead Sea. The drive is only about 2 hours, and after a little bit, all the locals had gotten off the bus and Drew and I were the only two people on the entire huge bus.  We also happened to be sitting in the front row (I had asked the driver what the best seats were when we got on because I am annoying like that, and he had indicated the first row).  At this point, the bus driver (who I really loved, btw) started calling himself our taxi driver, and telling us all about the drive and the Dead Sea. 

Our front row view of the drive
  • Things we learned from our bus driver: A lot of the previously very popular resort areas have closed within the past few years, because the sea level has been dropping very rapidly from drought.  He pointed out a lot of hotels, roads, etc. that had previously been on the water - but now the water is super, super far away.  This has also caused another huge problem: sinkholes. Because the water level has gone down so quickly, sinkholes have started appearing in the land, in the roads, etc. We saw a bunch from the bus, as well as a bunch of stretches of the highway that had been closed entirely, with new paved roads winding out to the side to avoid the sinkhole-ridden roads, eventually winding back to the original highway after awhile.  It was sad.  Our driver pointed out beaches that used to be packed with people and locals, places that are now completely dead and abandoned.
  • We arrived at the city of Ein Bokek, a small seaside city that is comprised almost entirely of Dead Sea hotels. Like, big fancy spa-treatment type hotels.  Our hotel was the Oasis Dead Sea Hotel, which I had booked because it was the most affordable. We walked in to find this:

Uhh, after staying in a bunch of tiny old hotels, this place was like a dream

  • Post check-in (every hotel has a security guard that makes sure you're a guest before they let you in - strict policies!), we headed out for a quick sunset Dead Sea dip.  Which was right across the street.

View from our room
Instructions for the Dead Sea. DO NOT immerse your head
  • Being in the Dead Sea: wild.  First off, the water is warm.  By warm, I mean hot.  Secondly, the consistency of the water is weird - it feels oily and thicker, and any kind of open skin on your body starts to sting (a hangnail I'd picked that morning = sting.  my baby shark bite from Tel Aviv = stingstingsting).  And then all you do is sit down, and your entire body is completely buoyant.  It is SO CRAZY.  And awesome.  You can basically sit there and paddle yourself along with a hand or a slight kick. Like a floating balloon.  And when you get out of the water, you feel a sheen of grease all over your skin, like you just bathed in a vat of oil.  You definitely have to rinse off afterwards
Drew was especially enthralled by the floating because he claims he normally can't float at all.  
Sunset over Ein Bokek
  • The next morning, we'd had grand plans to go hiking in the nearby town of Masada.  Those plans were quickly scrapped because IT IS HOT, Y'ALL.  We are definitely in the middle of the desert; if I had to use my Connie-gauge, I would estimate the daytime was like 100+ degrees and the nighttime was like 95 degrees.  You walk outside and are immediately zapped of all energy. By 6AM, the heat was already oppressive. The craziest part is it looks and feels like you're in a beachside resort town, but you can't go down into the water to cool off because the water is just as hot (if not more), and when you're already hot, the last thing you want to do is walk into a boiling vat of water.  So we spent the day chilling by our hotel pool.

Surprise, the pool was a happening spot. Because the water isn't 120 degrees
  • After sufficient time at the pool, we went down to the sea again to use some Dead Sea mud because hey, I'd like to be cured of all ailments with the magical healing minerals of the Dead Sea.

Dead sea mud!  I know this is an incredibly attractive photo and not hot-mess-looking at all.  Also, hello stranger's finger
Rinse rinse rinse. Sting sting sting.
The Dead Sea is surprisingly beautiful

MVP of the Day:
Before heading out from the Dead Sea, we decided to grab a quick lunch from the small poolside food counter at our hotel before our bus.

The food counter was empty and looked like it hadn't seen much business.  We ordered a plate of sausages from the teen boy staffing the cafe, mainly because the description said the sausages came with Israeli salad, fries, AND a free drink. We mentioned we were in a little bit of a hurry to eat before our bus arrived, and the guy kept checking in with us to let us know our food was coming out soon. After a bit, our food was brought out - pretty standard poolside greasy spoon fare. We noticed, however, that we didn't get the salad the menu said it came with. 

Drew asked the employee about the salad, who was like "Oh I can make it! I'll make you a plate of vegetables!"

He ended up bringing this huge platter of freshly cut veggies, along with a bowl of hummus and olive oil, explaining he'd brought them for dipping and was gonna heat up bread for us too. He was the nicest, most attentive guy - he ended up bringing us fresh pita and then offered to bring us more as we wolfed it all down. The sides ended up being so much more than the original main course because this guy kept adding on - even as we were cramming down the last bit of pita and hurrying to get out to catch our bus, he offered to get us more for the road. For an initially bored-looking 16 year old employee, he ended up being the sweetest and greatest and I really adored him. Me and the half a bowl of hummus, platter of veggies, and numerous pita pockets I took down. 

Overall, it was amazing getting to do a more relaxing part of the trip at the Dead Sea - I know, I say this from every single beach I go to BUT IT'S TRUE. Being a tourist is hard. The struggle is real.

Next up, journeying south to the Israeli city of Eilat and border-crossing by land into Jordan.  EEP.