II & III: A Guest Post from Kelly

Remember months ago when I promised to finish describing our first Eid vacation? Yeah, that totally didn't happen. But as it turns out, Kelly volunteered to share the write-up she sent her parents--so enjoy. She picks up at the Monastery of St. Katherine's at the base of Mt. Sinai.

Enter the Burning Bush. The monastery is home to what is believed to be a descendant of the original burning bush. The plant itself is more tree-like than I imagined, and puts Aunt Deb’s best efforts to shame [Editor’s Note: Kelly’s Aunt Deb mailed her a plant the size of a five year old child our freshman year. The tree (named Zarathustra) took the place of Kelly’s absent room-mate but despite our best efforts died a rather quick death]. The monks have encircled it with a wall, but parts of it hang down low enough for pilgrims to break off part of a branch as a souvenir. We didn’t know what we were looking at until a friendly Croatian informed us, at which point we joined the throngs snapping photographs. The monastery had a beautiful Coptic chapel, with engraved doors dating from the 14th century. Over the centuries, the chapel had accumulated a large number of relics and artistic masterpieces, which were a treat to see.

We returned to our hostel just long enough to grab our backpacks and set off again. Our group split up into threes, so that the others went to Dahab, a beach town, and Tommy, Katelyn, and I embarked on an inter-country sprint to Jordan. At the Egyptian border, we had to convince the guards to issue us re-entry visas for the return trip, as they are not offered on the way in from the Israeli border. Our original tourist visas had expired, and the government had not yet processed our requests for student visas, so we were technically in the country illegally. However, the visa paperwork was entirely in English, which none of the guards fully understood. This set up an interesting half-English half-Arabic discussion heavily reliant on hand gestures to indicate exactly what we wanted and why. We made good friends with the director of the border with the time we left, who assured us that we would have no problems returning as long as he was on duty.

Entering Israel was reasonably easy. We were each questioned about our travels, religious affiliations, and parents’ names. The first official radioed ahead to the next station to tell them to expect three Americans travelling together. Security on the Egyptian side was not comparable. Once we stepped onto Israeli soil, I was hit by a wave of culture shock. Egypt, Israel, and Jordan are separated at the base of the Red Sea by just a few miles, yet each country is a world apart from the others. The Israeli streets were crammed with billboards advertising luxury hotels, watersports, and Heineken. Women walked around freely in shorts and low-cut tops, and very few wore any form of head covering. The buildings and amenities looked modern, the taxis were clean and had functioning meters, and traffic seemed to follow the posted rules. I saw all of this from the back seat of a Taxi; we stayed in Israel just long enough to get to the Jordanian border crossing. Although we technically could have taken a ferry from Egypt to Jordan and avoided Israel altogether, we had heard far too many horror stories about having to wait for eight hours in an unair-conditioned warehouse and waiting in port in Jordan for hours. It was both faster and easier to make four border crossings.

At the Israeli border, we had to pay a departure tax of 85 shekkels for leaving the country we had just entered. In total, we were in Israel for 30 minutes, meaning that with the exchange rate we were charged more than a dollar per minute to pass through Israel. Rather a steep price, in my opinion. The guard at the border raised her eyebrows slightly at seeing our still-fresh entry stamps, but allowed us to leave without any difficulty. The process of entering Jordan consisted of a glance at our passports and a quick stamp of the passport. They didn’t even bother to x-ray our backpacks. I guess they figure that Israel does a good enough job for the both of them, which is probably true.

We managed to cross into Jordan just before sunset, and so hired a taxi for the few hours to Petra in twilight. The taxi driver cranked the sound system and sang along with the few English songs he knew. My musical introduction to Jordan was “Barbie Girl” on repeat for fifteen minutes. At that point I fell in love with the country.

For some reason there are no ATMs at the Jordanian border, nor were there any within 5 kilometers of our hostel, so by the time we paid the taxi driver with the dinars we had exchanged for in Israel, we were broke. Luckily, our hostel agreed to take us to an ATM the following morning to pay the bill, and allowed us to eat in their restaurant and add the cost to our tab. We got halfway through our food before our eyes began to droop, so we hobbled our way up to our room and crashed into bed at the senior-citizen hour of 8:30 pm.

The next morning we woke up bright and early to tour the legendary ancient city of Petra. Other tourists on Mt. Sinai had told us that we would really feel the pain of the climb on the morning afterward, and that was most unfortunately true. I had difficulty walking down the flight of stairs to the lobby, and only managed by bracing myself with both arms on the walls and swinging my legs down. Katelyn felt the pain as well, so we established a very sedate walking pace. Tommy was somehow unaffected by the climb, but humored us and stuck to our slow-and-steady pace. Petra was overrun with hordes of tourists, more than I’ve seen in my time in the Middle East. Seemingly every other store in town sells souvenirs and “priceless antiques”. Admission to the site was also very expensive for tourists, at roughly $40. The entry price for a Jordanian? $1.50. I learned quickly that Jordan is an expensive country. The Jordanian dinar is stronger than the US dollar, which makes prices even higher for tourists. Coming from Egypt, where dinner can cost 20 cents and a cross-country bus ride barely surpasses $10, it was quite a shock to see my money disappear so quickly.

All things said, however, the admission price was worth every penny. To enter the site, we walked down into a tall, narrow passageway. The passageway is usually called a canyon, and is large enough to be one, but is in fact one mammoth sheet of rock that has been rent apart by tectonic forces. The walls of the canyon show the remnants of engravings and tombs carved thousands of years ago. The canyon stretches for more than a kilometer, twisting every so often. Just when we had begun to envy the tourists in horse-drawn carriages, we rounded one last bend and found ourselves face to face with the Makhzen, widely considered to be Petra’s greatest treasure.

Before I go further, it may be of some benefit to explain the historical significance of Petra. Out of all the ancient towns and settlements, Petra is unique in that it was carved entirely out of the massive rock faces encircling the city. The ancient city was entirely contained within these gorges, isolated and easily defensible from the outside world. Alexander the Great’s general tried for four years to conquer Petra, but ultimately failed, as did many other would-be conquerors. This means that many of the carved buildings are largely intact today. Carved into giant rock faces are temples, tombs, warehouses, wealthy homes, and other structures from ancient city life. Petra was at the center of the East-West trading routes and controlled trade for thousands of miles, so it was prosperous enough to produce immense, breathtaking monuments. The city flourished for several centuries, but ultimately fell victim to its own geographical uniqueness. Petra was wracked by a series of powerful earthquakes within a span of a decade. While many structures were not damaged beyond repair, the current of a nearby river changed and swept into the canyon, forcing the evacuation of the city. Petra remained hidden to the Western world until the late 19th century, wherein it became one of the most fascinating centers of history of which you may have never heard.

Understandably, I was more than a little excited to visit Petra.

And now, for a continuation of the ridiculously long story about my Eid vacation:

Petra was incredible. As I described previously, huge pillars of rock tower over the small valley, giving way to inexplicitly ornate and beautiful designs and carvings. We spent a good 6 hours just walking through the site and gawking at everything. They had a nice museum explaining the history of the city, and many entertaining souvenir shops. Because Katelyn, Tommy, and I apparently enjoy pain and pushing ourselves beyond a reasonable person's limits, we decided to climb our second mountain in 30 hours in order to reach The Monastery, a huge and supposedly beautiful temple carved into the top of a nearby cliff. Muscles aching and joints groaning, we slowly hauled ourselves up the rock-hewn staircases winding their way up the cliff. The guidebook said the Monastery was "a pleasant 45-minute climb", proving yet again that guidebook writers are superhuman. It took us about an hour and a half before we collapsed on the last step. Once we recovered with celebratory Borios (the knockoff Oreos that have become our reward for meeting challenges) we turned the corner and were confronted with a mammoth structure emanating from the mountain. The Monastery was indeed huge, at a good eight stories high or so, and had gorgeous columns and pillars. Furthermore, the mountain looked over the town and valley, providing incredible views of the rocky landscape. No matter how poorly we felt at the moment, the trek was more than worth it.

Unfortunately, what goes up must come down, and by this point my legs were so exhausted and in pain that I had difficulty walking even on flat terrain, and anything resembling stairs or a ledge required serious effort and concentration. Rather than spend hours crying my way down the mountain, I elected to rent a donkey to carry me to the bottom. After that experience, I can say with finality that one should never, ever ride a beast of burden down a mountain unless one is physically incapable of making it by oneself. Katelyn planned to ride a donkey down as well, but insisted on getting off after ten feet. The donkey simply plunged his way down the stairs, throwing me at 45-degree angles to the side of the mountain, staring directly into the sheer drop from the side of the path. I leaned so far back as to be nearly laying flat on the donkey's back in order to simply stay on. The donkey's uneven steps joined with a weaving, uneven pace so as to continuously bounce me out of the saddle. At times, the only reason I stayed on the donkey was because the donkey's owner was literally pushing me into the saddle as he walked beside me. The donkey careened sideways down the path with little regard to anything in its way. At one point I actually knocked a woman off the path when the donkey slammed into her. Thank goodness she was on the side attached to the mountain and not on the precipice. I was more than slightly terrified at some points, but kept on because it was really my only option. Multiple tourists I passed addressed me in a mixture of incredulity and outright shock, combined with some admiration. All in all, it was one of the most exhilarating experiences I've had in a while, although not in an entirely good way.

After we staggered out of the site, we were quite hungry, and lo, just outside the entrance was Mystic Pizza! As in, the astonishingly cheesy 80s film starring Julia Roberts. Katelyn and I had just seen the movie the previous week, so we considered it a sign. Turns out the pizza is fabulous, and we swear the secret ingredient is pumpkin. That sounds odd, but it tasted fantastic. Who knew that Jordan held the secrets to great pizza?

Exhausted but happy, we decided that we all deserved some rest and relaxation, so we struck out for the natural destination: the beach! Not just any old beach on any body of water, but the luxury resorts on the Dead Sea. We spent a full day just floating around and enjoying the incredible buoyancy of the water. The Dead Sea is incredibly salty, so everything and everyone just floats. It's difficult to even try to lower yourself in the water. There were also huge chunks of solid salt lying on the shores, which Katelyn and I used to exfoliate. For the record, I have never exfoliated before because I always thought it was kind of creepy, but the ultra-softness of my skin convinced me of its benefits. We all floated on our backs in the water, as the salt even kept our heads above the level of the water. Eventually, we all fell asleep and took a nap, while still floating. Tommy woke up when he beached himself on a pile of sand.

In an effort to save money, we generally settled for very basic amenities throughout our trip-using the public bus systems, sleeping in hostels, eating street food, etc. However, there are no budget options on the Dead Sea. There aren't even any mid-range hotels within 25 miles. So we ended up staying at a five-star resort for the night. To summarize, it was fabulous. In addition to the extensive private beach, it had three children's pools, two adult pools, a lap pool, and a waterslide. We took advantage of satellite t.v. to watch one of the presidential debates, slept like children on the featherbeds, and took as many toiletries as we could carry. We had a wonderful time going from pool to pool and just relaxing. The resort also had a spa, but as tired as I was, $40 massages are not cheap. As it was, the room only cost us $80 per person for the night, so as far as luxury hotels go it was a great deal. It was also the perfect accompaniment to two days of hard travel and mountain climbing.

The next morning, we sadly bid adieu to our dear hotel and set off for Wadi Rum. Wadi Rum, for background knowledge, is host to some of the most spectacular desert scenery in the world. There are a wide range of improbable rock formations, like a rock bridge and huge sculptures resting precariously on very thin columns, along with vast sand dunes. The sands are punctuated with mountains jutting out of the dunes in a variety of hues. Wadi Rum served as the backdrop for Raiders of the Lost Arc, and some of the materials constructed for the movie are still there. Bedouin nomads roamed the area for centuries, tending goats and sheep on the sides of the mountains and tapping into underground springs. Their descendants still reside in the area, although in a semi-permanent lifestyle. We hired a guide to take us in a 4x4 tour of some of the most impressive sights and ended up sand-sliding, turquoise hunting, and climbing yet another structure, albeit much smaller. Remarkably, the guide drove us for four hours on an empty tank of gas. I watched the needle steadily decrease and as it reached the critical point began to worry about getting stranded in the desert, but apparently jeeps don't require fuel in the desert, because it lasted us all the way until the closest gas station hundreds of miles away.

We were planning on returning to Aqaba, the Jordanian border crossing point with Israel, to spend the night and prepare for the four border crossings that would get us back to Cairo. However, we arrived in town at 2 pm Egyptian time and decided to press onward and try to make the last bus out of Taba, on the Egyptian side, which left at 4:30 pm. This was probably one of our less inspired ideas, but nevertheless, we hurried to the border.

Leaving Jordan was no problem whatsoever. The border crossing seems quite relaxed compared with the Egyptian and Israeli posts. We walked to the Israeli side, changed our Jordanian dinars into Israeli shekkels, and hustled through the border, answering the obligatory questions about our religious heritage, family background, and purpose for travelling to the Middle East. There were no other people passing through the border except for one family in a car. Putting this from our minds, we hastened (in reality, hobbled as we were still sore) out of the checkpoint in Israel to find a taxi. Five minutes later, after realizing that the border was completely deserted of life and taxis were not simply waiting to chauffer us at will, we returned to the border and begged the guards for assistance. It turns out that Saturday, being the holy day in Judaism, is strictly observed as a holiday by most Israelis, and finding taxis can be challenging. The guards had to telephone a company to come and pick us up in order to save us a very long walk across Israel. When the taxi finally arrived, we explained our haste and had him get us to the border at Eilat as quickly as possible. We jumped out of the taxi, threw some colorful Israeli currency at the driver, and hightailed it to a sandwich shop just outside the crossing station, where we grabbed some lunch/dinner to go. I grabbed what I thought were knockoff cheetos that turned out to be peanut-butter flavored. Very odd, and not very good. The sandwiches were excellent, however, so I didn't mind much.

According to a quick glance at my watch in line to leave Israel, we now had one hour before the bus left. It should have been plenty of time. Knowing my life, though, it was going to be much more interesting and harrying. First, Tommy's bag was pulled aside and searched in security. They didn't find whatever they were looking for, so we continued on to immigration, where we were forced to wait in line behind a very large Egyptian family that had documents, passports, and people all over the place and required a lot of time to sort things out. At the kiosk to pay our departure tax, we skillfully maneuvered our way in front of said family and successfully paid the tax (again, more than $1 per minute in Israel) and changed our shekkels into Egyptian pounds. The last stop was to get our passports stamped and walk across the border. When we got to the passport stamping booth, however, there was a line several people deep that was not moving whatsoever. There seemed to be a problem with the passports of some Eastern Europeans ahead of us that held up the passport agents. Eventually it was sorted out, we thought, and we stepped up to the counter. The two young female Israels agents just stared at their computer screens with blank faces, though, and wouldn't take our passports. They simply sat staring at their screens and joking with each other, ignoring the line of people waiting for the departure stamp. Eventually I figured out that their computer system had broken, and they didn't know how to fix it. The two agents finally thought about calling for help, and managed to break their phone when they picked it up, which set off another round of jokes and giggles. We weren't in the joking mood as we watched the minutes tick away down to twenty minutes until the bus left. A supervisor finally came over and overrode the system so that we could get our stamps and continue.

Desperate to make the bus, we ran across the border at top speed and didn't stop until the metal detectors in Taba. The guards saw us coming and greeted us with bemused expressions. I explained what we wanted to do, and they sped us through the station, bypassing the usual lines to take us directly to the station manager. As luck would have it, it was the same man who had sorted out our visas previously, and he was delighted to see us again. He glanced at our passports, stamped our entry, validated our visas, and sent us on our way in less than five minutes. Now we had ten minutes to get to the bus station, buy tickets, and board before we would be stranded in Taba for the night. Again, we took off running and commandeered a minibus (a 15-passanger van that serves as a shared taxi), directing him to take us to the bus station immediately and not to stop for anything. He drove straight past some Egyptians and a policeman attempting to flag down the bus. We arrived at the bus station right at 4:30. Luckily, the bus had yet to arrive so we bought our tickets without issue and were waiting when the bus pulled in ten minutes later. Tommy, Katelyn, and I boarded the bus and settled in to finally enjoy our Israeli sandwiches and nap a bit for the seven-hour ride back to Cairo.

However, the bus only got about a mile down the road when it was pulled over and boarded by two military officers. It is normal for policemen and military officers to board the buses at checkpoints, but we had not yet reached a checkpoint and the men were not checking everyone's passports. Instead, he made a beeline straight for the three of us and uttered the terrifying words, "you three, come with me." Everyone in the bus turned to stare at us as we left the bus trying to figure out what we had done to merit getting personally escorted off the bus. There were several men outside who began pointing at our passports and arguing among themselves in rapid Arabic. I couldn't understand fully what they were saying, but it seemed to center on our two entry stamps for Egypt. While the bus was made to wait, we were questioned about our arrivals in Egypt in August and just then. It turned out that in our haste to make the bus, the border guards had forgotten to charge us the port tax for entering Taba. That made us illegal in the country for the half-hour before they caught us (I prefer to think of us as outlaws). We got everything straightened out and paid the $10 tax, and they allowed us to re-board the bus and continue on to Cairo. The rest of the trip was quite uneventful, as I slept until we pulled into the downtown station.

All in all, though, it was certainly a trip to remember, for a lot of reasons, some great and some merely great stories. I'm sorry that it took me so long to tell the entire adventure, but I couldn't see shortening any of the details. I'm sure that by booking through a travel agency we could have avoided many of the hassles and nerve-wracking moments, but it was quite fun for me to roll with the punches and see where each experience would take us. I did learn that it is a bad idea to cram so much serious climbing into so little time when we were completely inexperienced. It was a week before I could walk up or down stairs without soreness, but that eventually faded. I have a lot of great photographs now that will last much longer.

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