Sunday, May 29, 2011

On Jordan's Roads and Highways

Bedoin Tents

Jordan is a small country carved out of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference after World War I.  The current King Abdullah, of the Hashemite family,  is a descendent of King Abdullah who first ruled the new country.  It is still proud of its Bedouin heritage - those tribes that roamed the deserts and fought fiercely.  While most of its people live in Amman and other cities, Jordan’s countryside reveals a bygone time as well as the country’s emerging economy.

We crossed from Israel at the Allenby/King Hussein bridge, a tedious procedure through seven checkpoints that cost two hours going and three hours back. When we finally got on the road to Petra, our driver, Moreed, maneuvered the back roads along the Jordan river. Tents of modern day Bedouins still dotted the landscape but were now also made of canvas, thatched grass, cardboard, plastic sheets and newspaper as well as the traditional woven goat’s hair.  Rock cairns marked a shepherd’s grazing field.    In May, the tribes load their pick-ups and move to the cooler high altitudes in the near-by mountains.  Camels are still raised for meat, not travel.  Our driver insisted their meat had medicinal value as Bedouins didn’t have cancer! When we stopped to photograph the sheep and goats, a shepherd in modern day pants and jacket asked if he could brew us some tea from the makings in his pack.  We reluctantly declined.

Also in the lower elevation were irrigated  fields of vegetables and fruits.  At the end of a row, the neighboring dry desert land lay fallow.  Further down the highway were orchards of medicinal herbs and aromatic plants that provide two per cent of  Jordan’s exports.  The Hawthorne tree is one example whose products are reported to reduce blood pressure and treat heart ailments.

Dead Sea on Jordan side
Soon, the Dead Sea approached with its deep blue-green colors and white salt crystal beaches.  Jordan has a major development of high-end hotels along these waters. Marriott, Crowne Plaza, and even the Holiday Inn are just some of the chains that have built large facilities with beaches, pools, spas, and restaurants.  The Dead Sea water is buoyant enough to sit up and even read a newspaper.  ts minerals make the water silky and the temperature is perfect for a refreshing float. Jordan is far ahead of Israel in promoting the Dead Sea as a resort destination. At the end of the Dead Sea,  factories mine potash and salt from the water - all for export.

One of many pictures of
King Abdulla

Turning east, we began the climb through a moonscape of dry mountains with our lone road providing the only color contrast.  At the top of the ridge, an outpost straight out of Star Wars sported a photo of King Abdullah, rug covered benches, and the head of a gazelle. A  turbaned Arab in his jallabiya robe, offered drinks as he lounged on his black leather couch under the thatched porch.  Only the TV dish and refrigerator betrayed the scene as current.

Crusade Castle at Kerak

We soon turned onto The King’s Highway, one of Jordan’s two north-south corridors.  The road dates back to Biblical times when Moses lead his people to first see the promised land at Mt. Nebo.  If accompanied on this highway by a Bible, Koran,  history book, and a good archeologist, one could check off Biblical sites, Roman fortresses, the massive Crusader castle at Kerak, fine Christian mosaics, a 1918  battle site for Arab Independence at Al Tafilah, early Islamic towns, a Shia holy shrine and the Nabataean capital of Petra.  Add in the geological wonder of the Wadi Mujib, Jordan’s Grand Canyon, and your Jordan bucket list just got smaller.

Water pipes being installed
Coming off the central mountain ridge, we joined the Desert Highway, the primary four-lane, commercial freeway from Amman to Aqaba at the Red Sea.  Immediately, we were surrounded by trucks moving freight to and from the port.  Signs for Iraq and Saudi Arabia reminded us of their proximity.    Despite the barren land, efforts were being made to beautify the road with patches of newly planted bushes, watered by small, elevated tanks.  Alongside the road was an incongruent scene of large pipes being buried to transfer sweet, subterranean water from the desert to Amman.

We passed several security checks for drivers’ licenses, an opportunity for the policemen to rib our driver about being with three women.   Bedecked Bedouin drivers passed us in their pickups talking on their cell phones, a notable change from camels of the past.    Yet we were still advised to watch for the “ships of the desert” on the road.  And signs of the past included a decaying Turkish fort and an army base made sparse by the abolition of the draft in 1978.

During our four short days on the road, Jordan’s past and present were on display. From the busy Red Sea port of Aqaba through the historical Wadi Rum desert of Lawrence of Arabia fame, to the pink carved sandstone of Petra, the small country is capitalizing on its beauty, history, and geography.  Its economy benefits from the trucks and the tour buses - an alliance that serves this petroleum absent country well and tourists most.

United Travel Agency (UTA)  is a good, long serving company for your travel needs.  United Travel Agency Jordan  Ask for Moreed as your driver.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Israel - Tourists Welcome as Life Goes On

“Israel and Jordan” I would reply to inquiries of my next trip.  What followed were wide eyes, momentary silence, and the following “Aren’t you afraid?”.  The last question is a product of our instant, sensational news programming.  Statistically, I was in no more danger traveling to Israel than a quick trip to Dallas.  Other than references to Foreign Terrorists Organizations and sudden Israeli crack-downs in the West Bank, the U.S. State Department could only warn travelers to Israel about car break-ins and an occasional purse snatching. And, despite the Middle East turmoil, the State Department warnings haven’t changed since last year. Yet,  many visitors still hesitate to come.

One obvious difference between a trip to Dallas and one to Tel Aviv is the lack of an underlying, simmering tension among Israel, the Palestinians, and neighboring states.  Stories that appear in international papers are frightening.  Just two weeks before we were scheduled to depart, an Israeli family in a West Bank settlement was murdered at night in their home. For the first time in four years, a bomb went off at the bus station in Jerusalem and one person killed.  And rocket missiles were once again being fired from Gaza into southern Israel.

I wrote our contacts in Israel, asking if we should be concerned.  Our landlady’s response - “Not at all”, our friend’s answer - “Not enough to cancel”, and our guide’s thoughtful reply “Of course this attack brings back fears but we Israelis try not let  atrocities like this change our lives…  so life pretty much carries on as normal.  Due to the attack, people are being more vigilant and careful and there is heightened security around and one hopes and prays that it is an isolated incident. At this stage, I don’t think you need to change your plans. ”

We didn’t change our plans and arrived at the Ben Gurion airport on a beautiful day in April.    In the next two weeks, we saw much of Israel and in particular, Jerusalem, but few crowds of tourists.  Never did we feel in danger.   If we hadn’t occasionally read the the Jerusalem Post, we would not have been aware that a Gazan missile had killed a child in a school bus.  Nor would we have known that Israel had inaugurated the use of a portable anti-missile machine used to knock down the missiles from Gaza before they landed.  Life simply went on in Israel.  We even had some Israelis confess they didn’t listen to the news at all because it wouldn’t change how they lived their lives and only made them anxious.

Israel is careful.  The country was on high alert for the Easter and Passover holidays.  Threats had been made of planned  kidnaping.  Security was particularly high in Jerusalem.  This meant a pumped-up armed army presence at holy sites, entrances, and bus stations.  Yet the soldiers still posed for pictures with the tourists. I watched one army unit casually eat at a snack bar near a major archeological site.  And on a Saturday night of R&R, a group of uniformed women enlistees walked down the street singing and carrying their fashionable purses.

This determination to continue normal life was most evident one late afternoon.  We had visited the old city of Acre, filled with Crusader churches, views of the Mediterranean  and a living Arab presence.  Fifteen minutes away was the Lebanese  border where a tourist attraction beckoned.   A cable car carried visitors down to the sea to view the beautiful grottos formed at the base of the cliff.  Upon arrival, we spotted Israeli soldiers atop the cliff keeping watch over Israel and Lebanon.  The road literally ended at the cable car parking lot.  Below were farms, homes, and the grotto. We visited with an Israeli family who lived down the road and was just out for the evening. Yet, I had read recently that Hezbollah was accumulating rockets just inside Lebanon to use against Israel, literally a stones throw away.  This fact made little difference on that Saturday outing.  Life went on and so did we.

The turmoil in the Middle East does worry Israelis and hurts business.  Some see it as a good time to solve the long-standing conflict with the Palestinians who are also affected by the drop-off in tourism.  When we visited the Palestinian West Bank city of Bethlehem, we had to take a taxi on the Jerusalem side to the security wall that now separates the two cities.  After clearing security,  a Palestinian taxi driver drove us to the Church of the Nativity.  On a Palm Sunday, when thousands of pilgrims should be gathered outside the church, we walked in the door without waiting.  The slowdown in tourism in the Palestinian areas is attributable to the concern about the Middle East and a hesitancy by visitors to cross the security wall.  Yet the Palestinian police are trained by us!  We were treated well, never felt in danger and wished we could have stayed longer.

Humans have a hard time ignoring sensational news.  One death from a missile in southern Israel is far more intimidating than many deaths from drug related fights in south Los Angeles. Our emotions want to ignore the numbers that prove Israel and the West Bank are as safe as the United States to visit.  Could the Middle East erupt in a war while you visit?  Of course, but what are the chances, really?  The wonderful travel writer, Paul Thereoux, recently wrote a piece in the New York Times called “Why We Travel” .  He has found that in almost every case, the “know-it-all, stay-at-home finger wagger’s” advice  not go to a distant place has been bad advice.  I returned from Israel with a greater understanding of my Christian heritage, the Jewish/Palestinian conflict,  the geography of the Holy Land, and a love of pomegranates.  And, I found one thing  Israelis and Palestinians can agree on- they want the tourists to visit.

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