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Egypt: Paradise Island and cheers to 2019

“Don’t be afraid of life! Don’t be, because then you will not live at all.”

This plain and simple truth was Mustafa’s answer to my question about the exact place where a bomb attack has killed 4 people 3 days before, in Gyza, a short drive from Cairo, the place where we were. My cat like curiosity… Mustafa was the Bedouin guiding us from the camel ranch to the plateau where the ancient Pyramids were, fascinating people for over 4500 years. My guide recommended a camel ride for two reasons: to avoid the people trying to sale souvenirs, that can get pushy sometimes and to more easily walk through the desert sand on the plateau.

And so, here I was again up on a camel, though I have swore myself I will not ever do it again after my first camel ride in Israel. Why? Because of the permanent feeling I’m gonna fall down and break something. This seems even more close to happen when they kneel, only then I get close to smashing my face to the ground. And as camels are not at all short animals, chances are high. Plus, they also seem to hate it, getting in their knees on and on and on. I was trying to ignore this while on my right, the Pyramids and the Sphinx were offering one of the most iconic views, that of a world wonder.

December 31st

2018 was a fabulous year! It was so rich in experiences I couldn’t have ever dreamt so far or wished it will be that much. From the northern lights at the Arctic Circle in Norway to the rose city of Petra in Jordan and my first bare footsteps on the desert sand in Wadi Rum, from the streets of Jerusalem to the tea plantations in Sri Lanka or the green rice paddies in Bali, from the breathtaking views of Kuala Lumpur or Singapore skylines, from infinity pools, to the jungle sounds in Taman Negara, the 130M years old forest. This year gave me so much. 15 countries with 13 of them seen for the first time, 3 continents, my first trip to Asia (I really need to find the time to write about this adventure) and my first steps in Africa. 30 flights and my first long haul flight of almost 13h to which I survived successfully. More than 35 cities, 3 islands and I don’t remember how many incredible beaches and sunsets. But most of all the people, the amazing people everywhere and the absolute feeling of faith in humanity. It’s truly a world of wonders and people really are good and caring.

There was no better way to end such a year than a trip to Paradise. Paradise island in Hurghada. It surely looked as its name was promising. Turquoise clear waters, white sand beach, sunbeds in the shadow of low umbrellas made of palm tree leaves and an unbelievable underwater paradise with colorful corals and plenty of fish.

At least the misfortune from the previous day in Luxor, when I was taken to the “never heard of” Valley of the Queens instead of the iconic Valley of the Kings, brought me something: endless excuses from the owner of the tour company, which I didn’t necessarily needed and a VIP status on this trip to Paradise (Island), with everything included. This one was really helpful since I was so messed up to forget in my hotel room my brand new snorkeling set and the beach towel.

Paradise Island, Hurghada, Egypt

I was actually hoping to stay away from this guys by planning this trip with the help of my new friend Nura instead of the guy at the hotel reception, who first booked the Luxor trip. But it seemed I ended up on their tour again. The way I found this out was quite funny: when I arrived to the port, where the guy who came after me at the hotel drove me, I was met by another guy who asked me again about Luxor. Since I saw still irritated about the subject, I made a little drama starting with “better don’t ask me”. Soon after I found out he was the owner of the agency. The reason I insist on this is that I was so surprised they actually cared so much, the owner of the agency came in person to meet me because of what he heard: someone was not happy with his service. He even waited for me in the port when we came back and drove me back to the hotel, promising me a free tour to Luxor whenever I come back to Egypt again or any other tour I wanted for free or even a discount for a PADI certificate when he heard I was interested in. He miraculously got me to the point where I wasn’t upset at all anymore and I told him I really can’t accept so many instead because that won’t be fair. Well, Egyptians really take hospitality to a level I never seen before.

Paradise island offered us a perfect hot summer day in the middle of winter, actually my first experience like this. Replacing boots with flip flaps and the winter coat with a swimsuit is heaven… And yes, I entered the Red Sea and yes, as they all said already, the water temperature was perfect. If only I wouldn’t have forgoten my snorkeling set and the one I was given wouldn’t have been damaged to make me breathe water… Even so, I saw enough to confirm that Egypt coast is ideal for observing the underwater world. It can compete to famous places for diving from Malaysia and Indonesia. 

At 8PM in that evening I still had no idea how I will spend New Years Eve. I was so tired I could have slept immediately. But I remembered what my grandmother always says: your new year depends on what you do the night before it starts. So I wasn’t going to risk a whole sleeping year.  

It all arranged by change. I went out on the hotel terrace to play with a cat. It was an amazing evening with 18C. I decided to take a walk and buy some chips and water. The main street was so alive. The possibility of sleeping wasn’t so tempting as I got contaminated to that energy. I saw Gad, a restaurant Nura recommend. It was a fast food and a restaurant in the upper level. I went up and had the best shawarma in my life, on a plate full of deliciously cooked meat slices, a big plate of fries, garlic sauce and salad of veggies freshly chopped. I got a message from Mandy, one of the guides from the trip to Luxor. I have sent him earlier that evening a message to tell him that Paradise island was indeed a paradise, as he said. On the way back from Luxor he made me promise I will send him a message with my opinion. He was right in front of Gad and he was hungry. He joined me for dinner and we decided to meet after for a drink. I was in desperate need of a shower after that day on the beach.

At 11PM we met in front of my hotel, as he was living right nearby. And what was to come was the most crazy New Year’s Eve I ever lived. Egyptians do know how to party wild! They might not have the spectacular fireworks show in other places, but they have all it needs for a memorable fest: the joy of life.

We meet two of Mandy’s friends, great guys too, and we had whiskey and then guava and chips and oranges brought especially and immediately for me when I said I’m not so much into drinking alcohol. It was an old office with a screen showing images from the security cameras outside. I found out this became common for any building in Egypt after the revolution in the Arab Spring. A large window was opened to the street and it felt like a summer night outside.

Hurghada, Egypt

00:00 o’clock found me on the front seat of Mandy’s old car, with the side windows opened completely and loud Egyptian music playing, mixing with all the other songs played in the main street we were driving slowly, through crowds of people, with his friends singing and dancing on the back seat, shaking hands with others in the street. Men, women, children, all were outside, celebrating. A few fireworks were shot in the air marking the first seconds of 2019. I said my wish full of hope and so happy. We continued in a club where Mandy managed to got us in, the owner was a friend of his. We got a front table, ordered beer for the 3 of us and celebrated together with Egyptians, Ukrainians and Russians there. The dance floor was on fire. People were dancing, men were dancing. I don’t get to see this very often in other places. Two men started a fight at the entrance. It was violent but it bothered no one and has ended soon. The atmosphere was just like Egypt, loud, intense, alive and so addictive.

It’s unbelievable how wrong we can be when we just don’t know. 3 days before I was arriving in Egypt feeling quite worried. And here I was now, only 3 days after, at 2am, celebrating New Years Eve with 3 Egyptian men I barely knew. Perfectly safe and enjoying the best time, more than I could have hoped for. I was happy I came alone, this couldn’t have happened otherwise. Mandy showed me the photos posted minutes before, on Facebook, by some people from the tour to Luxor. They were a big group of friends, all together in the photo, all in black tie, wearing the classical New Years Eve shinning hats and holding champagne glasses inside a nice restaurant from a luxury resort there in Hurghada, surrounded by other people, also tourists. That photo could have been taken anywhere, mine in Egypt only.

Open your eyes means open your world. And as long as we’re alive, cause truth is no one is getting away alive from this life, we shall live.   

  

Egypt: Time travel in Luxor

Day 2

Walking among those great impressive columns of limestone, all covered with hieroglyphs signs, some still in perfect condition and even preserving the colors they were painted in more than 4000 years ago, was something indescribable in words. I grew up being fascinated by the ancient Egypt, with its pharaohs and queens and Gods and pyramids and temples and mummies and legends… Its all! Who thought one day I would walk the streets of Thebes, the old ancient capital of Egypt, the present Luxor. On these dry lands, my favourite ancient culture was once risen, flourishing in the old times, and now, in the new times, I was here, simply living a childhood wish. I was more enchanted than a kid could ever be in a candy shop, while walking around Karnak Temple, staring countless minutes in front of Ramses II statue, of every wall or column or block. Everything had a camel color, all was covered with hieroglyphs that I could even touch if I wanted so. The temple was changing its shades as the sunlight ruled upon it in the afternoon, beautifully contrasting the blue sky above. From the reddish colors around me to the blue sky above me, my eyes followed the perfect straight shape of the old Obelisk, this pointed pillar representing then and now the petrified ray of the sun God Ra. I walked the Avenue of Sphinxes to the great Temple of Amun, resting by the Sacred Lake after circling around a statue representing a scarab for 7 times. This is a superstition for good luck. I already felt lucky. I was in Luxor.

3am that day

Traveling and going to dreamy places means not just beautiful photos and fresh looks. It’s also about LOT OF sleep deprivation and LOT OF energy squeezed out of your body.

I woke up feeling deadly tired. The previous 2 nights with almost no sleep and the crazy first full day in Egypt consumed too much of my fuel. But the temples with pharaohs statues and colorful hieroglyphs were waiting. Luxor was waiting. I jumped out of bed and on my way out of the hotel, through the ringing screening machine at the entrance, I grabbed my breakfast in a bag handed by the guy at the reception. He was so sleepy too. Also sleepy and even grumpy were the 3 Egyptian guides in the bus. A big bus with only few people inside. Even so, I was not allowed to stay on one of the seats in the front. Saying don’t sit there to a sleepy person is like saying don’t touch that to a hungry one. Made me furious but I let it go and fall asleep. I was woken up to make some room for a Chinese girl who wanted to sit right next to me. I thought why the hell she wants to sit right next to me in an empty bus and I offered to move one raw in the back so I can still enjoy 2 sits. I was told it will be a full bus that day. This was after one hour of picking up people from all the resorts in Hurghada. Jesus! I realised it will take forever to finally leave for Luxor. After another 2h, the sun was rising and we were still driving from one place to another to get the people in. Three women came and occupy the seat I first wanted. Just great!

At least I realised 2 things: 1 – Hurghada was way bigger than I imagine the first day, when I said is huge and 2 – my hotel was the poorest. Still, was the most central and I wouldn’t have traded it for none of those 5 stars resorts placed in the middle of the nowhere.

After more than 3h spent together in the bus while picking up the entire group, a breakfast served on our laps and another 3h on the road to Luxor, who wouldn’t became friends? Even myself and the Chinese girl did.  Nice, talkative, a little messed up up, enough for me to liked her. She was actually a Canadian, moved there with her family when she was 7. She was in love with scuba diving and traveling through Egypt all by herself. She was teaching kids with special needs in London and her name, which I wasn’t able to remember, signified, in Mandarin, yellow firebird.

She takes terrible photos though. She and many others I met in Egypt cause I came back home with so many photos in which one of my feet didn’t make it entirely. Just details…

11am that day

We arrived in Luxor after a more than 3h ride, on a dusty road filled with old cars. Every time we were entering and leaving a city or a village, there was a small security point where army men wearing bulletproof vests and rifles were looking at every car passing by. Some cars were pulled over for checking. We passed through large cities like Safaga and Quena, but most of the road was through villages. Not much of a difference anyway. Cities or villages, they all looked the same: dusty, filled with people looking the same and dressed the same, in shades matching that unbearable dust that was everywhere, kids running and waving to us, old houses, some bearing old marks of arabic words written on their walls, other looking as if they were waiting to be demolished soon, stores selling barely nothing with no customers seen around. So many people rushing everywhere as if life itself was entirely developing on the side of this very road. Very few women, like small moving black dots wandering unnoticed in that permanent mist of dust. If inside the cities some women were only wearing a hijab, leaving their faces uncovered, in the rural area no woman face was to be seen.

Men were outnumbering women by far. Always men, on every street, in every car, in front of every store and in each small gathering, in front of a house, sitting on the remains of what once was a wall or simply on the ground, smoking. Everybody was smoking, even our driver inside the bus. Egypt looks like a country of men. As we were driving through this spectacle of life in Egypt, I didn’t wanna miss any detail of it, of any street or any corner. I reached far, looking on the little streets, going deep among the houses, searching for small gestures or faces, having only 1-2 seconds until we drove further. We stopped at one point blocked in the traffic. A man was vomiting on the side of the road, another left the car to see if he’s ok, an old car in front of us was full of sheep, from another one laud Arab music was filling the air, a little further a young man and a women were changing sights, smiling and in love. I had no idea where one city or village ended and another started, they seemed all connected by the canal of water running on the left side of the road. On some portions I couldn’t see any water in the huge amount of garbage down there. I wished I could be invisible, get down the bus, walk unnoticed, cross the street, walk the streets in that village, enter its houses, see the women faces left uncovered maybe, listen and understand what people talked about. And tell them I was already regretting to stay there 5 days only.

Out of the blue the dust was gone and green fields of clover replaced the dusty villages we now left behind as if they never existed. It looked similar to the rice fields in Indonesia, with people in light clothes and bare feet working those fields. Tens of white egrets sit on those fields and the water canal that now looked clean enough to drink from it. Green palm trees and bushes of pink, orange and white bougainvillea beside the road. My Chinese friend just woke up and her reaction “Where did all this green came from?” made me laugh. Indeed, it came from nowhere. And then we saw the Nile. Everything there was a gift of the Nile. Luxor was beautiful, green and fresh and intense, filled with marks of what once was the capital of the ancient Egypt, Thebes.  

Mandy, one of the guides, was so pissed off because we were constantly leaving the group like two lunatics, wandering around the site at Karnak Temple. He started yelling at me that he didn’t wanna lose us there. Egyptian manly personality… Mine is also far from being better, so we yelled at each other for a few minutes, in the middle of the site, in the middle of a sea of tourists.

We left Karnak Temple as I took one last look at its wonderful columns we left behind.

We soon arrived at the backs of the Nile, this gift from God which is, in its turn, offering us all, since forever, this amazing country. Dahabiya boats with large white sails were moving up and down the Nile.

The Nile, Luxor, Egypt, beautiful places

We crossed the river to get to a restaurant for lunch. One hour later, we left to Hatshepsut Temple, driving for a while through a desert valley of limestone, with straight walls where old tombs were built inside. The story of queen Hatshepsut is fantastic and so was her temple. Daughter, sister and wife of a pharaoh, she takes the role of a pharaoh when her husband dies and her son was still too young to rule. She somehow manages to rule Egypt for 21 years, becoming the first great woman leader that we know of in history. She was the only woman buried in the Valley of the Kings.

Hatshepsut Temple, Luxor, Egypt,

This was supposed to be the next destination, The Valley of the Kings, a place I could not wait to see, the place where all the pharaohs were buried. At one point, after leaving Hatshepsut Temple, the group was split in two by the guides. I had no idea why, no one did. My Chinese friend was sent together with other people in two small busses. I was sent to our previous bus, with a few people already waiting there. It seem strange so I went to the guide again before leaving and ask why were we split. He waved his hand in a rush and sent me back to the bus. We left a few minutes after the two small busses with the rest of the group. After driving for about 15 minutes we stopped. And so I find out that I was in the Valley of the Queens not the Valley of the Kings. I have never even heard before about this place. I was ready to explode. I was told that, apparently, the price I paid was for the cheaper version of the tour, for the queens not the kings. I had no idea there was such a difference since I was told from the hotel the program included the Valley of the Kings. I was too angry and pissed off and I didn’t enjoy at all this Valley of the Queens, which was actually really nice.

Valley of the Queens, Luxor, Cairo

We went deep down, inside two tombs with empty square rooms, all covered with hieroglyphs. All that was found there was now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. In one of the tombs was found the sarcophagus with the mummy of the daughter of  Ramses. One of the Ramseses actually since there were no lett than 18 pharaoh named like this.

Even if all the other few were feeling just as angry as I was for missing the Valley of the Kings so stupidly, I was the only one making a big deal out of it. Because for me it was a big deal. The entry price was 100 Egyptian pounds for the Valley of the Queens and double for the Kings. A difference I would have paid with no hesitation if I only knew. I felt disappointed and fooled but determined to argue about it and bring the subject back in discussion constantly for the rest of the trip. And so I did. Soon all the 4 Egyptian guides realised I wasn’t going to get over this as they thought and started apologizing for the misunderstanding. It didn’t help either and I was ready to fight the guys in my hotel for messing this up.

This seem to be the leitmotif of every place I like and I wanna go back to: I somehow always skip something I really want to see.

We ended the tour on Banana Island, a small island on the Nile. We met here the rest of the group and had guava, bananas and oranges, all produced organically right there, on the island. It was so green and lush. Eating those delicious fruits finally made me just a slight less angry. Seeing the photos taken by the Chinese girl in the Valley of the Kings also helped. It looked similar to the place I was unintentionally taken to, an open valley of limestone, with tombs carved inside the mountain.

On our way back, the sun setting behind Banana Island made the entire Nile look as if it was on fire. The red sky, the black tall palm trees on the island we left behind, white boats with large sails floating on those endless orange and dark blue waters and a hypnotising Arab song played loud. I reached my hand down the small boat and touched the Nile. It was an unforgettable sunset!   

The Nile, Luxor, beautiful places 

We drove back to Hurghada on the same dusty road, through the same villages, filled with people. Only now, at night, there were even more of them outside, on the streets. This time gathered around fires. So many fires lighting that dark dusty mist and thick smoke filling the air. It was an unbelievable atmosphere of feast for no reason. Of celebrating nothing or maybe everything: a day was ending, a new one was to come. So celebrating life itself.

I reached my pocket and pulled out a little white paper with my name written in Hieroglyphs, by one of the guides: 3 birds and a river.

Petra: lost, found and too fascinating

A few days ago, a friend who’s planning a trip to Jordan soon, asked me: Petra, is it truly worth it or it’s more like photoshop?

Years ago I saw for the first time, in some newspaper, an image of the Treasury, the most iconic facade in Petra, with its columns carved into the high cliff. I thought seeing this place is a dream too big for me. Expensive, far away, arab country, not safe and difficult to get to… But I never thought it might be photoshop. Instead I instinctively hoped I could get there one day. Maybe…

Five months ago, one morning in June. I was probably the most excited tourist at the Petra Visitor Centre, the starting point for the visits to the lost city. From our hotel restaurant, in that early morning, I could see the panoramic top view of the sandstone canyon which has been hiding the city of Petra for more than 2000 years. Rounded cliffs of different heights, all gathered together, as far as you can see. No clue of what’s inside.

We followed a dusty large path in a valley, among other groups of tourists, carriages and horses carrying those who didn’t wanna walk. I wanted to step on every centimetre. My brand new walking sandals, bought especially for my first journey in the Middle East, were made for this trip. We started seeing cave tombs carved into the wall stones, perfectly round shaped, what was left of once imposing statues of gods and two huge columns marking the majestic entrance of the city. We followed the path guiding us deeper and deeper inside the canyon. This 1,2 km long gorge is called the Siq.

 

Its walls of sandstone, high and straight, looked as if they were all polished with sandpaper. A true nature masterpiece, shaped by the floods that sometimes, in spring or winter, are covering this place. In the old times as well as in the present ones, the water continues to take the lives of those accidently caught inside the canyon in a bad time. People are describing these events as torrents of water coming suddenly and silently from the top, pouring down like rivers, out of nowhere, giving no chance to anything that’s breathing down. Besides these, are the earthquakes. In 693 A.D. Petra was hit by a devastating earthquake that destroyed most of its amazing water management system and deep canals built to control the floods, left the city in ruin, forcing large numbers of its inhabitants to flee. And so the city was forgotten for more than 1000 years, until 1812.

 

The more we walk inside, the more stories I heard about the Nabataeans, the ancient Arab tribe that founded this wonder rock-cut city, once a flourishing caravan centre for the scents of Arabia, the silks of China and the spices of India, at the very crossroads of Arabia, Egypt and Phoenicia. Their commercial skills, knowledge and beliefs, together with the courage they stand up against the brave Greeks and the conqueror Roman Empire are now amazing stories to listen or read about. This enigmatic city, half built, half carved into the mountains, among passages and gorges, continues to amaze the modern world. Not only they were fighting the drought to survive, but recent discoveries brought to light proofs of existing gardens, crops and even a large swimming pull. All these 2000 years ago, in the middle of the desert. Our imagination can’t even reconstruct now the greatness that this place once had.  

 The deeper we went inside the canyon, the narrow the path was becoming. Looking far up, all what was left to see of the sky was a tight blue line. The sunlight has now found its way down to us. It was midday. Two bedouins were resting in the shade, on a few rocks, listening to a Rihanna song played on a phone. Dressed in jeans and t-shirts, with their head covered with turbans and smokey eyes from kohl makeup, a technique they still use to protect the eyes from the sun light.    

As sun rays were now coming down the sandstone walls, the entire place was transforming, changing its color. The light brown walls from before were now turning reddish, with the curved lines in different colors becoming more visible. The reason for the other name of Petra, The Rose City, was now revealing.

It was spectacular. As most of the tourists were already ahead, also my group, I was lucky to catch a few moments when I was all alone, among the walls of the canyon. And it was almost silence. And like that, was perfect.  

This natural beauty was only preparing me for the best to come. I entered an area of the path so narrow that the sunlight couldn’t get to. In front it appeared unexpectedly the shape of the iconic image I once saw in a newspaper. Half of the immense facade of the Treasury, while the rest of it was still hidden behind the corner. In a few other steps the narrow path of the canyon ended into an open large space, surrounded by rocks and flooded by sunlight. In the middle, the Treasury was sitting like a king. Was bigger than I expected. The facade with huge columns is impressive, in the middle of what was once the centre of Petra.

 

Bedouins with dark eyes and colored turbans, riding camels covered with colorful rugs, chariots pulled by beautiful horses, donkeys, marchands selling souvenirs or bedouins style jouleries, tourists posing for photos that will make their friends back home so jealous, others climbing a cliff for an even better photo. I couldn’t decide in which direction to look first. It was another world and with an effort of imagination, if I could exclude the tourists and keep only Petra and the bedouins and camels, I wasn’t in 2018 but hundreds years in the past. This was the best feeling that Petra gave me: of time traveling.

My new Aussie friend and a guy from the group, Australian too, we were on a mission called the Monastery. We turned left, leaving the Treasury behind and we continue straight, following the way in an open valley. This must have once been like a main boulevard. The high straight cliffs around were housing round shaped caves with 2-3 rooms inside, that served as houses for the rich people of Petra, in front was the Amphitheatre, with all 15000 seats carved into stone, a little further the columns of the ancient temple, with pink oleander growing next to. We were asked many times if we want a ride by bedouins with donkeys or camels, but a polite: no thank you very much, convinced even the most insisting ones. We were advised by our guide not to make promises in vain. If you want a ride, take the ride, if not, say it as you too believe it. The bedouins are making a living out of this, they might seem pushy to the more sensitive tourists, but we had no problem.

 

I couldn’t resist not petting a camel in a group of 5, resting in the shade. I asked someone there for directions. We were on the right way and soon we reached the first steps. They were “only” 800 more. And so it started. It was so hot and dry now, no shade. I had my new red and white keffiyeh tied on my head, by our guide, Wael, in a very Jordanian style. It didn’t seem impossible to replicate, but I would need a few tries for a pretty close result. This people definitely know best how to deal with extreme heat and wearing it felt so good and so local.

On our way we met a few merchants with stalls improvised among the rocks, in tents, with colorful rugs on the ground, selling handmade bedouin jewelry or just water. I bought a regular stone from a little girl with the most beautiful eyes.

Petra, Beautiful places, destinations

The large steps were carved into the stone, going up as a large spiral. Rainbow steps, I called them, because of the many coloured lines in the sandstone. As we were going up following these never ending stairs, the views were fantastic, changing constantly as we could see the canyon beneath from different angles. The more I saw, the more I understood why this place is one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, but also a nature work of art.  

I felt my heart beating like crazy and the sweat running down my face. The people we met, total strangers, were encouraging us now with: you’re close, almost there, totally worth it. Probably we looked like in need of that. We passed by an improvised bar selling cold lemonade, where our guy abandoned us for a cold drink. All I needed was to finally see the Monastery. A few steps more ended in an open plateau and in the right, there it was! Even bigger than the Treasury, or at least it seemed so then, the beautiful Monastery, with huge columns carved into the mountain that make your eyes reach the sky when you try to follow their structure from bottom all the way up to the top, is just astonishing. Now I believed those saying you won’t see Petra unless you see the Monastery and you climb the 800 stairs to get there. Only a few people were around.

 

As if 800 steps were not enough, we followed Wael advise and climbed the rock in front of the Monastery. It was one of the best 360 views I was ever blessed to see. The canyon, the Monastery, the deep valleys, the mountains with sharp cliffs, covered in green, contrasting the rose shade of the canyon.

Petra, who’s name comes from the word stone in Greek, truly let me “stoned”.

The lost city, the found city, the rose city, for me the dream city, Petra is now one of my favourite beautiful places. A historic treasure for us all, this place it’s indescribable. I felt like I haven’t seen anything before coming here. It is not so expensive as I once thought, not that far, not at all difficult to get to, people are amazing and I got closer to a culture that is beyond fascination. In Petra, time traveling is possible.

 

   next: My first trip in the desert – Wadi rum

Jordan: Bedouins, Traditions & Wonders

First day in Jordan

I had to stop to catch my breath. We did it! We climbed all the 800 steps carved into the rainbow colored rocks of the canyon, all the way up to the Monastery. I wasn’t dreaming. I was in Petra. “You can’t say you saw Petra if you don’t see the Monastery”. I heard this too many times the night before, in the restaurant, from the Jordanian guy who was trying to convince me and a couple of Americans to pay more to a Bedouin guide who could get us there. And now, Christine and her husband, they had made it too. Instead of a guide they opted for two donkeys to carry them for most of the way up. I waved my hand towards them, from the top of the rock facing the Monastery, as they were resting in the shade of one of the two large stone walls guarding the ancient monument. And I got back two thumbs up as an answer.

The view was unbelievable. I must have turned in circle a few times. The canyon where we came from in the front, hidden behind the rocks, the vast plateau with the Monastery facade in the left, where a donkey was trying in vain to get a few centimetres of shade from a pillar, a few kids were following a herd of goats with long years and two Asian girls were taking selfies. In the entire side in the back and the right were deep valleys with rocky mountains and sharp cliffs of dark green, contrasting the reddish shades of the so dry canyon. And they were reaching as far as you could see.

At 5am the day before I left Jerusalem. I was even more grumpy than the hostel host that was already awake and come barefoot to open the large entrance door for me, wearing only his shirt and looking like a cricket with his naked skinny legs. Who cared after a night when I couldn’t shout an eye… Maybe it was the too sweet black tea’s fault, the one offered by my Palestinian new friend or the stories about his life, which triggered a storm of thoughts in my head. The morning sky in Jerusalem was divine. The sun was coming out from a huge puffy cloud, spreading orange-pink shades and a multitude of rays of light so amazingly well defined, like in those old paintings depicting God. If you don’t believe in anything, Jerusalem will raise some questions to you and if you believe, probably some answers.

I was in no mood of socialising with the rest of the group. We drove by a wire gate with surveillance cameras for many km before finally reaching the border with Jordan.

Hello Jordan

The first impression of Jordan, right after crossing the border, was of that of a country facing strong economic difficulties, to say it gently. I’m not coming from a rich country myself, poverty and hardship is not something never seen before for me, but life there seemed tougher. It was the middle of the Ramadan month. Small towns with dusty streets, tiny shops with little to offer, mini eateries with almost no food and barely one two clients, simple buildings with 2-3 floors and old commercials in Arabic, small square houses with small windows. Only one color: limestone. From buildings to the streets, people’s clothes and the dust all around, all was matching that same color – limestone. I thought Israel landscapes were arid, but Jordan looked like a desert and the towns we drove by looked almost deserted. Rarely I could spot silhouettes of men wearing grey or beige thobe, touching the ground, or women covered in black niqab. All were moving slowly. A group of kids started running towards our bus, waving their hands. As kids everywhere, they were full of joy. Days after I realised I had no photo taken with the places I first saw in Jordan. I was completely absorbed.

As we were leaving little towns behind, an open plateau was stretching far away in that burning sun. Because of the heat, the distant areas seemed covered in mist. The road was just a line between two identical sides. And right there, where almost nothing grew and water exists only when brought by rain, a large black tent was rising sometimes out of nowhere. More like a large blanket suspended on a few wooden posts, with nothing else around on sides, just a few carpets covering the soil. A few goats around, surrounded by a fence or usually free. Always a blue water storage tank near. Never many people around. Sometimes only a woman in black niqab with a child following a herd of goats, other times two young men doing something around the tent, often 3-4 people sitting under the tent. All men wearing shemagh to cover their heads. Those were the Bedouins, the so called pure blooded people of Jordan, the first to live on these dry lands. For the next days their simple lifestyle in the middle of the digital age and comfort will not cease to amaze me. These people are the first to see the sun in the morning and the last to watch it in the evening. They don’t live in the wild cause they are often close to the cities and what we call civilisation, turning heads away from the comfort as we know it and living a different way, their own way. Closer to nature, in harmony with nature. For the Bedouins outside means home. These people of the desert, nomadic populations living in regions of North Africa and the Arabian peninsula, are free people.

Jerash, Jordan

We stopped in Jerash. The Pompeii of the Middle East. Except here, sand was preserving the ancient treasure of the city built by the Romans. Majestuous gates, colonnaded avenues, temples and theatres, all speak of times of fame and glory of the ancient city, once an important imperial centre. It was so beautiful and so terribly hot, I was using a scarf to cover my hands. My head was burning and the hat I forgot home was now becoming a basic need.  

We passed through a small bazar. I talked to a vendor about my country and his. He sold me a pomegranate juice. I felt I was alive again. And we left.

The places and people I saw when we first entered Jordan had nothing in common with the capital Amman. Beautiful buildings, large streets, residential areas, nice stores, parks and a crazy traffic. Basically the description that could suit any other capital. Only one thing in common: the limestone color. The city was proudly wearing an all limestone shade.AmmanThe cooler breeze and the panoramic view of the Promised Land on top of Mount Nebo were another treat to be spoiled with by Jordan. The place where Moses looked down in the past to what we call now the Dead Sea, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. And where now, Steve, an american born and raised in US, with old Jew origins, whom I’ve talked a little before about accents in US, asked rhetorically how come the Muslims admit the existence of Moses but without accepting the legitimate right of Jews to live in those lands.   Mount Nebo  It was passed afternoon and my last meal was more than 20h before. Others in our group of about 15 people were in the same boat. First we started joking about it and teasing Wael, our Jordanian guide who was really trying to find a place selling food. But in Jordan they take the Ramadan very seriously. Most of the people fast until sunset. This means almost no one sels food, as this is considered a temptation for those who fast. All the small restaurants he knew were closed. Every time we stopped and Wael went out of the bus in search of food, coming back empty hands there was a general  AAAA to be heard. First we joked about it and so we started talking to one another. As only a few places in the bus were occupied, since we were a small group, everyone had empty seats around. Now hunger crossed these barriers. Finally Wael came back successfully with two bags of some pastries. I wasn’t so happy when I got mine. But one first bite and I was the happiest. It was delicious, still warm and all filled with dates cream and some sort of spices. I still have gourmand fantasies with that.

The sun was burning less strong when we arrived in Madaba. In that place I got the chance to watch the making of two of the most amazing handcrafts: the handmade natural stone mosaics inspired by centuries of mosaic making tradition in Jordan and sand drawing inside bottles. The last one is something you can’t believe if you don’t see it: in a bottle with many layers of colored sand, a woman using only a stick was moving rapidly the sand inside and the results were camels, palm trees, mountains and whatever the client wanted. All in a few minutes. Here masterpieces are created every day. We tried local products in a store, delicious dates, walk a few streets and finally, after a long search, found my hat for the next days, with a nice discount offered by the owner of the shop: a beautiful white and red shemagh.

It was dark when we arrived in Petra. After the AirBnb in Tel Aviv and the poor hostel in Jerusalem, a four stars hotel felt soo good. The view was unreal, as the hotel was on a cliff above the canyon. We had an amazing dinner, I talked a lot with my new friend from Australia, Illa and finally went to sleep exhausted but happy to be in a country that was slowly revealing its wonders. And ready to add something new to those I called my beautiful places.

Next: Petra and Wadi Rum