Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Journey to the Ottoman Crescent (II)

"—What is it, Major Lawrence, that attracts you personally to the desert?
—It's clean."
Lawrence of Arabia (film, 1962)



An impeccably dressed MEA representative handed me my passport and a stamped document, folded in a crisp triptych.  "Hand it to the driver over there; we are sorry for your flight delay" —he said. Thus, what was originally intended to be a one-hour layover in Beirut turned into an overnight stay in a country I knew little about, other than it being the home to one of my favorite cuisines and a long, bloody civil war between 1975 and 1990. I would have less than 18 hours to visit it.

My improvised shuttle, an obvious American auction import, blazed through dark highways and leaky underpasses to Al Hamra. My eyes, half open, glanced back and forth between the blurry instrument cluster of the car and the dewy dust in the windshield, the orange glow in the distance and the lifeless intersections. It was past 10pm. We passed banks and bakeries, appliance stores and garages; still, not a soul in sight. A sudden ninety-degree turn landed us right in front of the lobby of a hotel with a grandiloquent name, faint memento from the days of Lebanese Wall Street.

The place was old, perhaps built in the 1960's or 1970's, with little maintenance ever since. An uninspired receptionist handed me a key a heavy bronze anchor and a wrinkled note with the wireless password, then proceeded to lounge with his friends in a cloud of smoke across the reception desk. A doorless elevator, caked with grime, took me to my floor, where I found my room wide open to the darkest corners of the hallway. I rushed in, reaching for all the lights in hopes not to meet any unwanted presence, and locked the door with as many turns as it would allow. I sighed in relief, eating a few pieces of Turkish candied fruit and getting ready for a shower. Not much later I would collapse on my bed, exhausted by the trip from Istanbul and this Beirut layover. I would have to wake up early the next day to catch a flight to Amman, in Jordan.

I was left disappointed that I did not have time to visit the country in more detail —and in a more positive light—, but in time it will happen, and become one of the many articles on this website.


How to bypass a war zone 101.

Wedged between Syria, Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, lies the Kingdom of Jordan. Traversed almost in its entirety by the Bible's most famous river, this pistol-shaped country is home to countless epics, stunning scenery, and tales of clashing cultures and film that stood the test of time. Those visiting Jordan come in search of their more adventurous selves, wide-eyed before the Petra Treasury like Harrison Ford did in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or deeply contemplative amidst the cliffs of Wadi Rum like T.E. Lawrence did exactly one hundred years ago.

Jordan is virtually a tourist's paradise, offering leisure and relaxation from the coastal town of Aqaba to the Dead Sea, further north; motorized adventures in Wadi Rum, and historical attractions in abundance, ranging from the times the Nabateans to the early 1900's.

Throughout history, Jordan has been an inclusive nation, taking immigrants and refugees from its neighboring nations with open arms. This is most visible in Amman, its capital, where the irregular layout and rushed architecture are testimonies to mass exoduses of the past, and entire communities of people who had to build their lives from scratch into this tolerant nation.

Being a car guy, my first stop was, without hesitation, Amman's Royal Automobile Museum. The collection did not disappoint, with two of its best pieces being the intimidating Mercedes 770 (gift of Hitler to the king of Syria) and their Aston Martin DB2, lost for decades in Iraq. Right afterwards, I had lunch with the former Museum Director, now Head of the Royal Heritage Directorate, and made the supreme mistake of thinking that the 300SEL 6.3 had a three-speed transmission. D'oh!

King Abdullah II's rallying cars in a diorama-like setting.

Presidential limos across the ages, from Buick to Cadillac to Mercedes and more.

Two of my favorites: Mercedes 770 (Middle) and Packard Double Cowl Phaeton (burgundy, right)
Their magnificent Aston Martin DB2, restored to brand new condition by the Aston Martin Headquarters.
Behind the scenes, the rover featured in the film "The Martian", starring Matt Damon.

Following my short stay in Amman, I embarked southward on to Petra and Wadi Rum. While I visited Petra on my own (glad I did!), I contracted a guide for Wadi Rum, given that it is absolutely necessary to have a 4x4 and the required driving skills for such tricky terrain. In order to visit Petra, I recommend Jett Buses; the best strategy is to wake up early, take a taxi to their own mini-station and book your ticket on the spot (about 10 dinar, roughly $14). The ride is ~5 hours.

This is where Petra starts, once you have gone through the visitor center. 

The first leg of the walk is a claustrophobic slot canyon. Be careful not to be run over by all the horse carts!
Out of nowhere, you will end up at Petra's Treasury, arguably one of the most iconic monuments of all time.
Following the Treasury, you will get to a large open space surrounded by constructions on the hills.

Inside of one of the constructions. A geologist's dream!

Walking towards the Gate, on my way to the Monastery.

The Gate; it is in this section that you will find camels, donkeys and horses to get up to the Monastery.

Camels, awaiting customers too tired to continue on foot.

My heart almost stopped —for real, had to lie down— on the climb up. The Monastery is far larger than the Treasury.

Similar building to the Treasury and the Monastery; not a whole lot of information was provided on its function.

I have walked down the streets of New York and Chicago, and sailed my imagination at the crowns of its towers. I have climbed monuments the Mayan built to defeat the millennia, and gazed at the stars next to splashing crocodiles and solemn temples in Egypt. I have stood at the feet of Burj Khalifa and the boulevards of Paris, toured the galleries of Milano, and sailed through the canals of Venice. I have witnessed the industrial might of China, the chant of the mosques of Istanbul and the colorful markets in Oaxaca; shivering and hungry, I have seen the sun rise from Panama's highest peak. I have lived enough to see the human beehive valleys of Medellín on my way home. But never before, however, have I been in such awe as in Petra.

Perhaps it is the scale of it all —or the overwhelming idea of what it was, and what it is now— that leaves its mark on the imagination. Petra is a delight to the senses, yet one that required input to be enjoyed: effort, curiosity, stamina. Large part of it still lies unexploited, a long trek into the valley of treacherous rocks and thorny bushes; still, in the distance, one can see the towering, monumental tease for real adventure, for going off the beaten path into ancient cities that were visited by little more than local shepherds. The wide margin of discovery, of potential, that Petra leaves to speculation defines my amazement about this monumental complex. Petra promises of two Indiana Jones, one for the trekkers of the beaten path and one for those willing to take the leap of faith into the horizon, to find themselves alone in halls forlorn by the centuries.

The furthest off-the-route hall I could reach on my own —before my knee failed. I limped all the way back.

After a long and tortuous backtracking walk —mostly in pain—, I found my designated guide at the entrance of the visitor center and we drove out of the mountains into the main highway, on to the world-famous valley of Wadi Rum, a place so geologically fascinating as it is historically significant.

My home for the night. It took a long time to adjust to the utter silence in Wadi Rum.
The next day, I woke up at 6am, still in the dark, to walk to the nearest mountain and see the sunrise.

One of the Bedouins we stayed had lost sight of his herd. We retrieved them from grazing a couple miles into the mountains.
How photogenic is Wadi Rum? Ridiculously so. This photo was taken with a telephone!

Signs of Wadi Rum being covered in water —notice the waterfall patterns on the rocks.

Barren landscapes carved by centuries of water licking the soft stone.

Placeholders by past visitors who dared climb high into the rocks.

Much like the Grand Canyon, Wadi Rum is a place of obligated visit in one's lifetime. Never before you will see as many shades of red, vermilion, deep oranges, pastel tangerine, magenta, brown and ocher in one place. Wadi Rum is a true feast of the senses, and while the silence reigning among the boulders deprives the visitor from sound, it well compensates for it in a visual feast of shapes, shades and colors unrivaled by any place on Earth. Much like Petra, its sheer scale adds to its already imposing array of natural monuments, shaped by sand, water and time.

Wearing a traditional Jordanian ghutra (headscarf) with the agal (headband). Mornings are cold!

Few countries have stimulated the mind as much as they have moved the heart. Jordan truly holds something for everyone, surpassing any expectation you may have from this noble land. Do not let instability in Iraq or Syria worry you; at no point I felt unsafe here. In fact, I felt genuinely welcome; my curiosity about Jordan and its people was kindly rewarded with a myriad of stories on the fascinating history of this land, from the Arab Revolt to the recent migratory events to the North of the country. If anything, come visit and see for yourself —I highly recommend it.

Next up: Curator on the Go. The plan, the route, the museums. And hopefully, the funding to do it.


  1. Nice photos ! thank you for sharing . -Nate

  2. Enjoyed reading this. You've convinced me to add these places to my bucket list! -Karen

  3. Miguel, my brother Richard (ROLLGUY) sent this link to me and I spent several hours reading your blog. Your English and writing skills are superb and I look forward to your next installment!

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