Searching for Something #9: Pilgrimage to Petra – Petra, Jordan

9: Pilgrimage to Petra

30 Mar 2002
I’ve made it there and back again from Jordan although at this point, I figure that the journey deserves to be called a pilgrimage.

After all the red tape of the embassies, I finally got my Jordanian visa and took the first overnight bus from Cairo through the Sinai Peninsula to the port town of Nuweiba.

Unfortunately the bus system here is nowhere near as good as in Turkey. The seats are small and uncomfortable (I was sitting by a very portly gentleman) but the biggest issue was the LOUD and continual television showing slapstick Egyptian movies.

Upon arriving at Nuweiba port at 5:30am, I sat down to wait for the 9am ferry to cross the Red Sea into Aqaba, Jordan. 9am, no ferry. 11am, no ferry. No one spoke much English, but after extended pantomiming, I finally got some information – apparently the winds were too strong for the ferry to leave; however, they could change at any minute in which case the ferry would immediately leave so I wasn’t to go anywhere. I settled down to wait. And wait. And wait.

The ferry finally left Egypt at 1am the next day, making it a grand total of 17.5 hours that I spent in a dank waiting room. I later discovered 62 mosquito bites all over my body – a final scar for the pilgrimage. However, I’m making it sound a lot worse than it really was. I was waiting in the women-only area so I had a really good time chatting with 5 Arabic women (one of whom spoke English) and finding out more about their lives. We exchanged several life-stories worth in the 17 hours, although it was somewhat limited by the language barrier. It was a truly unique opportunity for me to make some friends since I hadn’t been able to talk to any women while travelling through Islamic countries.

Petra, Petra, Petra
But every bit of hassle was worth it for the sight of Petra. I’ve only been in one place in the world that was similarly magnificent, and that was Macchu Picchu in Peru. I met up with Josh in the town of Wadi Musa near Petra and due to the ferry mishap, we missed each other and ended up spending the first day in Petra alone. That may have been for the better.

The entrance to Petra is down a long winding siq that was created by an earthquake eons ago. Wandering down the siq completely alone was a magical experience. At times, the high walls narrowed so that I could almost touch both sides with my outstretched arms. The rock is slightly reddish-tinged, which is why Petra is sometimes known as the rose-red city. At the end of the siq, the walls dramatically fall away to reveal the awe-inspiring sight of an ancient Nabatean tomb, the Khazneh, carved out of the rock walls. You can see pillars with the intricate patterns still intact as well as remnants of statues with eagles and gods surrounding a central urn. This was the first entrance to Petra.

Various tombs, dwellings, sacrifice-places, an amphitheater, and monasteries are scattered through the rest of the city, all carved out of the cliffs. From one of the high places, you can look all around and imagine the city teeming with life, people making their houses in every cave around. The rocks glow with different colors that vary from deep red to pale beige. The cliffs are swirls of color with each different rock type contributing to the beautiful gradations. The ancient Arab Nabateans built this city around the 6th century B.C. and managed to resist all conquerors until the Roman onslaught in 100 A.D. Until the early 1800s, Petra was a “lost city,” kept hidden and unspoiled by the Bedouins. I am still completely in love with Petra, and luckily my experience was enhanced by the lack of many other tourists.

Arab Hospitality
I’m happy to report that people in Jordan are more genuinely friendly than in Egypt. I was inundated with offers to sit down for tea and invitations to Bedouin barbeques. Starting from the immigration officers, almost everyone around would wish me, “Welcome to Jordan.” Josh had similar and better experiences travelling through Syria, a far less touristed country. For the days that he travelled alone, he never once paid for meal – as soon as he entered a restaurant, strangers would beckon him over to share their food. He’s been invited inside numerous homes and given countless numbers of lifts everywhere. I must say I’m jealous, but we’ll have to go back to Syria someday. I never expected the Middle East to be this warm and welcoming, and I really look forward to returning to spend more time here.

The Desert
After several days in Petra, we headed out to the Wadi Rum desert. Through a combination of camel and jeep, we explored around the fantastic landscape with a Bedouin guide. The desert looks similar to the landscape around Moab in Utah, but in my opinion, far more beautiful. I had fun running down bright red sand dunes and climbing to the top of arch and bridge formations. The rock climbing is also amazing here, but we didn’t have the time to do more than simple bouldering through a gorge, which we soon had to give up as it became too dangerous without a harness. We passed groups of grazing camels, including cute white baby ones. We watched a beautiful sunset followed by the full moon rising from the Bedouin camp where we spent a fun-filled night listening to singing and music from a guitar-like instrument. Pure bliss in the desert.

Dress Like an Egyptian
Since returning to Egypt, I’ve kept my headscarf and loose clothing on. I was getting quite comfortable and happy before leaving Cairo as the men were leaving me alone and people were starting to think that I was a local and speaking to me in Arabic. When tourists saw that I was reading an English novel, they’d stop me to ask for directions. So, despite all my previous negativity, I’m quite happy in Cairo now.

Figuring out how to cross the street, however, has made me feel like a real local. There’s a constant stream of cars through the streets, and the honking never stops. So, you have to cross the like playing the old “Frogger” Atari game. You make your way across the 8-lane road one lane at a time, stopping between the lanes as the traffic whizzes by on each side. Eventually you’ll make it all the way across. However, like with all good video games, there’s the random factor of the cars never staying in their painted lanes, so you have to keep an extra eye out for that. And finally, the drivers kind of watch out for you and judge where you’ll be based on your pace, so never start running because it’ll mess them up. That’s my road-crossing strategies for the day.

We saw the Pyramids today and are off down the Nile to Luxor tonight.