Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jordan Part I - Wadi Rum and Aqaba

Sorry it's been a few days, due to internet access as well as spending two days and one night in the middle of the desert. On Thursday I flew from Beirut to Amman in order to pass by Syria, which was only a 45 minute flight.

I flew Middle East Airlines, and the airport in Beirut was the most exciting I've seen... women everywhere in niqabs, and terminals all with such exotic destinations: Dubai, Cairo, Bahrain, Kuwait. The possibilities were wondrous.

When I arrived in Amman, I was greeted by airport staff who briskly walked us through customs, obtaining visas, and arranging a taxi to Aqaba (beach resort town in Southern Jordan, on the Red Sea). The people in Jordan are fantastic- all extremely accommodating, helpful and always exclaiming, "welcome, welcome, please enjoy Jordan, welcome!" They have gone out of their way to arrange every last detail to meet my needs, to the extent that you almost don't want to ask a question about something because you know someone will bend over backwards to have the item in front of you.

Aqaba is the most incredible area. You can easily see across the water to Eilat, Israel, and slightly further to the south where I stayed in Tala Bay you can see across to Taba, Egypt. The three triplet cities meet here on the beautiful Red Sea.

Early Friday morning my friend and I took a taxi to Wadi Rum (Wadi meaning valley), which is a protected reserve in the middle of the desert hosting some of the world's most outstanding desert landscapes. Indeed, this place was completely surreal; to me it looked as I imagine the surface of Mars. (Wow- I actually learned just now from Wikipedia that Wadi Rum has been used as the surface of Mars in the 2000 movie "Red Planet"... hmm!)

We were greeted at the visitors' center by our Bedouin guide, who took us around ALL day in a jeep, showing us the sights of his home.... Lawrence spring, different canyons, a few natural rock bridges, one which was possible to climb. I scrambled over boulders, hiked partway up mountains, and climbed huge sand dunes. It was an exhausting and spectacular day.

As evening drew we watched the sunset and set up camp around a fire. Although it's easily 100 degrees during the day, the Bedouins somehow spend their time building fires and drinking hot tea! For dinner, they cook meat, potatoes and vegetables on coals in a large pot which is buried under the sand.

We spent the evening having conversation with the Bedouins, listening to their views on politics (they are surprisingly informed) and learned that King Abdullah was also spending the night in the camp nearby! Apparently the King loves Wadi Rum and visits frequently with his wife and children, or friends... he seems to be a very kind and beloved King. Additionally, Prince William and Kate are expected to arrive in Wadi Rum soon, and preparations were being made though the Bedouins haven't been told exactly when.

I spent the night outside, in the middle of the desert, under a billion stars... the sky was so clear and I saw at least a dozen "shooting stars". Not bad for my first time camping!!

Yes, I actually climbed up to both of these places!!

In the morning, camels were waiting to take us back to the visitors' center, which took over 2 hours. As fun as it was, riding a camel is shockingly uncomfortable and 2 hours is a long time! I was rather glad to get off. :)
Camels are extremely strange and interesting creatures up close, but the best part to me was that my allergies did not overcome me, with just one Claritin!

Carlie: 1, Carlie's immune system: 49875230452345!

Words can't explain how incredible that desert trip was, but getting back to my resort and taking a loooong shower may have been even better! I spent a much need day Saturday relaxing by several pools.

Today we took a taxi (our same driver the whole time, Reziq, was a very interesting and informative man!) to the Jordanian side of the border, and crossed to Israel on foot.

Maybe not everyone would find this so interesting, but to me it was one of the most thrilling experiences I have ever had. There's an empty stretch of desert land between Jordan and Israel, with barbed wire fences to the sides and border stations on either end with huge proud flags. Unfortunately no pictures can be taken here.

The best I could do- Welcome to Israel!

We had little trouble crossing, with the usual security screening and just a few questions asked about our travel intentions. I'm now on a bus from Eilat and on my way to Jerusalem. It's only been one week but it will be extremely nice to settle in, do some laundry and actually unpack my luggage for the first time! Whew!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Day 2- Anjar, Baalbek, and Ksara Winery

Today started off with a rude awakening, the hotel phone because I was not downstairs at 7:45 am when I was supposed to be to meet my tour group.  I never figured out if I set my alarm wrong (my phone still hasn't registered the time change?) or turned it off in my exhaustive sleep.  Anyway, though the day began in a mad rush, it only improved from that point on.

Our tour bus drove through the mountains and down to the Bekaa Valley.  It was really astonishing and sad to see the vast number of buildings that are still completely destroyed, abandoned or both from the civil war.  Lebanon used to have a thriving train system but it was completely destroyed and never rebuilt.

Here you can see the remains of one of the train tunnels.

Our first stop (after labneh pizza breakfast in Chtoura) was the city of Anjar, home of 8th Century Umayyad ruins.  The Umayyads were the first Muslim dynasty after Mohammed, from Syria.

These ruins were quite large, composing an entire city with streets, palaces, shops, a mosque, public baths heated by ovens.  The interesting thing to me about this city is that it was destroyed about 30 years after it was built, never to be used again.  What a waste of all that effort!

Anjar is very near to Syria- at one point we were 10 minutes from the border, the closest I will get on this trip unfortunately. Next we continued on to Baalbek, which hosts the largest ancient Roman ruins in the world and also the best preserved Roman temple (Bacchus, seen in the last photo below). The temple is almost an entirely complete building you can enter- just the roof is missing, because that was made of wood. Apparently the temple was nearly buried in sand until the recent past which is why it is so well preserved. This entire place was incredible. And huge.

Both the Umayyad ruins in Anjar and the Roman ruins in Baalbek are certain to have untold historical artifacts buried underneath them, probably much older than even they are, but none can be excavated for fear of damaging the significant discoveries that stand there now. And as always, the mystery of how these wonders were built so long ago remains.

I almost forgot; we stopped on the way home for a traditional and delicious Lebanese mezze dinner, and a tour of Ksara Winery which was also fun!

Day 1 Cont. - Beirut

Well to finish out yesterday, we did indeed set out for Gemmayzeh on foot. I cannot tell you how far of a walk that was, but it was worth it because I stumbled upon many incredible sights along the way, notably the breathtaking Mohammed Al-Amin (Blue) Mosque.

I also saw the Parliament building, which was situated on a nice circle that offered rather upscaled shopping. For some reason traffic was blocked from the area as well, which was a welcome relief- apparently the Lebanese do not care about traffic laws, or they simply do not exist, but either way it makes most of the city a loud and exhausting affair. People park at odd directions wherever they want, they beep their horns constantly for no clear reason, and the way to get through intersections is for everyone to drive at them at once. Add to this the pedestrians wandering across and it gets quite crazy! I have a video to attest to this as well.

Dinner was at Le Chef, which apparently was featured on Anthony Bourdain's show No Reservations, and it was very good and inexpensive. I had Moudardara which is basically lentils, brown rice and carmelized onions.  Deelish! 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Day 1

Maybe making a blog was a mistake, because I'm pretty sure words can't describe most of the things I'm experiencing.  Best sight from the flight-

(Click on the photos for a larger, higher res image.) I didn't get to see anything as we landed in Paris, but when we took off again the plane actually circled the city and I had incredible views.  I did not expect to be able to find the Eiffel tower; I clearly didn't realize how easy it would be to spot!

Then, as we were landing in Beirut I could see the city and the televisions were playing loud Lebanese music and showing people dancing, it was pretty exciting.  I got to my hotel and was greeted with fresh mango juice.  I was pretty exhausted by this time (and the traffic and driving is all crazy!!) so was just happy to eat, shower and sleep.

Stepping out of the airport and first sight of the city-

This morning, I had a delicious breakfast complete with halva and more "exotic juice".  So far the food is definitely NOT disappointing!

 Next my friend and I just wandered off down the street, heading toward the Mediterranean... we walked for an hour or two along the coast taking in the sights before heading back to the (rooftop) hotel pool because it was around 10 am and already getting HOT!

These beautiful flowers (gladiolas I think?) are growing everywhere like wildflowers.

Now I'm relaxing in my room, I feel like it's been a full day and it's only 12:30 in the afternoon, the time I normally enjoy waking up :)  The plan for the evening is to head to Gemmayzeh district for dinner, which apparently is known for its restaurants and nightlife.  Other than that, I don't know, but it has already been an amazing first day.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


All packed and about to head to the airport- can't believe my next post will be coming to you from Beirut, insha'allah! :)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Conversation with Syd

This isn't a new video.  I'm just posting it here for the hell of it, because I have the most amazingly talented and loveable pet ever.  I am truly going to be missing his company so much this summer!