Thursday, May 28, 2009

It keeps you running...

Neither Mike nor I got much sleep the night before the Dead Sea half marathon; too worried about missing the wake up call and still reeling from the day's stress. It was a relief to get up and head quietly downstairs in the morning. However, arriving down in the lobby spot on time at 5:15 am, was there a driver to take me to the race bus pick-up? No, there was not.

The staff were torn between staring at my spandex clad white legs (though they tried not to---I was feeling a little naked there for a while) and making sure I wasn't upset there wasn't a driver. Neither of the two men spoke much English, but even so the security guard tried to distract and amuse me by proudly pointing out who each of the royals were in photographs displayed on the lobby. The reception guy made phone calls, gesturing and speaking loudly while watching me out of the corner of his eye to make sure his performance was observed.

I tried to be as enthusiastic as I could about the royal family, but the minutes were ticking by. The buses, according to the information packet, left at "6:15 sharp" and I wasn't entirely assured that the driver would find it as easy to find as I had been told. 30 minutes passed. I was trying to somehow communicate how important is was to be on time without being unplesant.

Eventually they couldn't help themselves and asked about my legs. Was I going to a swimming competition? You must run too much, the one said, your legs, they are...he drifted off into silence, staring, then embarassed, jerked his eyes away, fumbled with paperwork, then as a man grasping a lifeline, seized the phone and renewed his loud yelling into it, though whether he actually dialed first is questionable.

The phrase too much tends to mean "a lot" rather than "too much" as we would use it, by the way, so his comment was open to interpretation. Do with it as you will.

Half an hour became 45 minutes. It was nearly six and I was jumping out of my skin. Finally the driver arrived: a taxi. Apparently they don't have their own driver after all. I nearly left my gear and change of clothes behind in my haste to get into the car; the security guard dashed after me and pushed it into my arms. Zoom, we were off.

There wasn't actually a meter in the taxi, so I hoped the driver wouldn't ask for more money than I had. He'd fallen asleep, he unapologetically explained. I think I was supposed to yell at him at this point, but I didn't and he grinned widely at me. He drove in the classic Amman style, straddling two lanes, the divider line square down the center of the car. But he drove the correct direction, and we found the place, following the blinking blue lights of police cars doing crowd control. I overpaid him and dashed out of the car. Undoubtedly the sucker of the year, but if it made his day, fine with me. I was happy to finally, finally reach the elusive bus pick-up point.

Crowd control was indeed necessary, but not all that looked as though the entire youth population of Amman, perhaps Jordan, had turned out for the race. There were rows and rows of buses, and no one, not the officials, nor the runners, seemed to know what to do or where to go.

I wasn't wearing a watch and didn't even want to know if 6:15 had come and gone. I pushed and cajolled my way through the crowd, taking care not to get burned by the cigarettes waved about carelessly to punctuate a point.

I felt buried in Arabic. Despite the babble of raised voices, no English words were spoken within my sphere of hearing, and I was getting desperate, feeling stupid and inept. What in heck was I thinking, running a half marathon in a strange country? I hate crowds anyway, being jostled and stomped on, claustrophobic. My some miracle I pushed my way to a man in a safety vest standing in front of a sign that said, oh, thank you, thank you, there is a God, "21K".

He wouldn't let me past with my bag, and pointed me back to the baggage trucks. I scurried around the perimeter, handed the bag to someone who gave it a casual fling onto the top of the pile and shoved my way back to the man with the sign. He allowed me past to where, oh glory, there was a 21K bus.

Another handler at the door. "Half marathon, 21K!" I gasped at him, showing my yellow race number on my chest.

"There is only room for one more." he said, glowering at me.

"I'm your woman!" I assured him brazenly, giving him my very best crazy American grin. Just one, yes just one, well OK then. He moved aside and I got on. In the very back was one spot if some shifting was encouraged and I plopped down. Next to me was another runner, she wearing an Arizona Wildcats shirt. I nearly cried with happiness. An American!

Our goal: the Dead Sea shore, lowest point on earth.
Fortunately for her, she turned out to be not only outgoing but cheerful and chatty and the perfect new running buddy. Jessica is indeed from Arizona, living abroad in Jordan for a year to study Arabic. I was suitably impressed. A single woman, living in Amman. Wow.

I interviewed her thoroughly, both before and during the race as the miles went by. What was it like to be alone in Amman? How was she treated? Did she usually wear a ring? (Yes.) Did she train outside? (No. She was pretty sure one could get arrested for that as a woman.) And so forth. Here is her blog, with her take on the half marathon and some commentary on the VanCleave clan as well:

The port-a-potties, the major attraction for us as we waited to run, had no toilet paper, nor did they flush, nor were there sprayers. This made hygene...difficult. However, I read another person's report that the ones at the marathon start were locked shut, so apparently I should have been grateful for what we had. About an hour after the race was scheduled to start they set us off to run. Our side of the road was closed down so we wouldn't get smashed into roadkill, and there was lots of machine gun carrying (of course) police presence along the course.

Herding camp along the road.
The first part of the race was a steady downhill towards the Dead Sea, then turning at the Baptism Site and along the coast to the finishline. I was looking forward to the distance: half marathon has been my favorite race since I started doing them a year ago. This was to be my fourth. Jessica and I were well matched in pace. She'd done all her training on a treadmill, an idea that gave me the shivers. That's devotion, and not for me. Though, I suppose if I had to choose between that, not running, and jail, well...

We chatted and sweated and pounded the pavement. I completely enjoyed her company. Our race times were being called out as we passed critical points, but unfortuately for me, in Arabic. However, Jessica who did understand the Arabic said the times made absolutely no sense to her; apparently I didn't miss anything. The herding camps along the road, the gawkers, the mosques and tents and low buildings made for good scenery.

Views and a fine companion to run with to the lowest point on earth, but something was very wrong; my hips hurt all the way down to my feet with every stride, and I was getting tired out much faster than I expected. Perhaps it was sitting in a car driving around the country for seven days, or the stress of the night before, or the sinus infection I'd been fighting for 10 days, no matter what it was, this was turning out to be awful.

At 16 kilometers I stumbled to a walk and waved Jessica on..."I'll catch up," I gasped. Fat chance of that. I had taken advantage of the water stations, and even eaten a banana proffered by a race volunteer but nothing wanted to work. I gave myself 30 seconds and started running again, and this time, after only a little ways, my legs simply stopped.

I didn't stop them, they gave up and refused to go more than a slow, jelly-legged quivering walk. I simply didn't have anything to make them go. I was gritting my teeth and trying to speed up and suddenly running was the most difficult thing in the world. It was worse than awful, it was betrayal. My legs were traitors.
I threatened with a firing squad, but they knew I was bluffing.

We were starting to get into the throngs of 10K walkers, teenagers who were out for a good time with their friends away from their parents. Now, while I completely understand their desire to have the silly crazy fun of youth, support it even, I do wish they hadn't walking shoulder to shoulder in gangs, throwing empty water bottles all around the course which made footing hazardous, and spitting water at one another. It only took a couple of times of getting caught in the crossfire to make even a forgiving soul like myself think bad, bad thoughts.
Though the last kilometers had been described as flat, they lied. Lots of lumpy hills. I did get to run through a checkpoint and not even have to give the Humvee with its machine gun turret a second glance. I'd turned up my walkman all the way to 11 and the best songs, head down, get this damned race done already.

Finally, finally, I ran across the finish line in 2:00:04, which was, surprisingly, an OK time overall (6th in my age group of 30-39 year old women and the 24th of 162 women) but my God, did I hurt.

I figure it was the downhill that contributed to the OK time and at least some of the pain. I clenched my jaws and wandered around, trying to find Mike and the kids. I did manage to smile for a friend's camera. Note that my jacket is tied backwards around my waist and I'm too shell shocked to notice.

My muscles were stiffening and congealing, and I was wet with mostly sweat, probably some ptooey water mixed in there somewhere. There was one heck of a party going on...singing, dancing...the Jordanians know how to get down, but all I wanted to do was go home.

I found Jessica among the multitudes and arranged to get together for dinner in the evening, congratulating her on kicking my butt. Always important to be a good sport, and she earned it.
After sifting through many piles, I found and dug my bag out at baggage claim, met up with Bethy and Thomas and Mike, and after putting my medal over Bethy's neck, grabbed an ice-cold shower in the overcrowded little bathroom. I also got to have an interesting conversation with a Swedish runner in her 60s as we waited (and waited and waited) in line for the potties about the impressive gashing of her thickly bandaged chin and badly skinned-up hands.

I traded sympathy and tourist information about Dubai for the story. Apparently she'd caught a toe on one of the metal strips embedded in the concrete that the Jordanian authorities use to signal "slow down" to drivers. For her it had meant face first slowing down, smack into the street.
I'd done some hopping over those things myself, and could easily see how she'd gotten caught. She was a tough gal for one so soft spoken and thin, and had wanted to run the rest of the race before allowing them stitch her up. She was bleeding too badly, though, so had to content herself with finishing post-doctoring.

On the way back to the car, I saw my friend Sara and her husband Tom, both of whom you may remember as being on my Wadi Bih relay team. He'd wisely run the 10K and she'd just finished running her first ultramarathon. No matter how tired I was, I had to at least check in with her. She looked pretty good for a woman who'd just run 50 kilometers. "How was it?" I asked. "Oh, it was good," she replied, almost nonchalantly. I made several we are not worthy comments and bows in her direction and followed after the kids and Mike.

What I didn't know was...she'd WON. Her first Ultra, and she took it by storm. I wish I'd known, but apparently she didn't really believe it until hours later.

Later that afternoon, tired, vaguely disappointed, thinking about the race, I went down to the front desk of the hotel for something.

"You are happy today!" exclaimed the concierge. "You are smiling!"

"Really?" I asked.

"Oh, yes." He beamed.

I ran this morning, I told him.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Looking at the world through a windshield

Back in Amman, we checked into another room in the Hisham Hotel, larger and more comfortable than the mini shower. A real, honest-sized shower. We could turn around in it and everything. Happiness abounded, but only until we tried to go out and find where I was supposed to pick up my race numbers and the bus pick-up point for the Dead Sea Half Marathon. Actually, it was the pick up point for the Ultra (50 km) the Marathon (42 km) the Half Marathon (21 km) and the 10K (self explanatory).

We drove and drove and U-turned and swore as kid-friendly as we could for literally hours. I think it was on this portion of the trip that Bethy learned (and thank goodness forgot) at least one extremely non-kid-appropriate word. Perhaps if I hadn't hit Mike after he said it she wouldn't have zeroed in, but I couldn't help it. She chanted it in the backseat a few times while we burned with shame in the front.

The strawberry sellers rushing up to the car at stoplights, risking their lives in the traffic, the houses built into the hills, the banana selling stands and even the occasional donkey lost their luster for the occupants of our car as time ticked by and all of us decided we dislike Amman. Intensely. Or at least driving in it.

Now, I know you must be thinking at this point in getting to know us that we are truly navigationally challenged. It cannot be denied that we were missing the GPS sorely, but the directions to the race number pick up were: " located in Shmeisani, (a neighborhood,) second right after Burger King, third building to the left. Hussein Al Jisr Str, second floor."

We had actually found the Burger King in a previous getting-lost episode (then we were looking for a gas station). We did find it again, which was quite good, after several tries, but then it was on a street that went both ways, and had another street running alongside. After Burger King which way? North, south, towards a hotel, give me something to work with here, people!

I asked a woman sitting, eating her supersized whatever and she immediately hoisted herself up, ignoring my protests that she should sit and eat, and in rapid fire Arabic queried the workers at the counter for me. The burger flipping guys inside had no idea where the society was, and apparently had been asked by other lost looking "British" during the day. I thanked her profusely and tried to look more confident than I felt so this good-hearted lady could sit down and finish her lunch.

Mike and the kids ordered something to eat while I headed out on foot. Would you believe I actually did manage to find the place, and there I asked the nice volunteer stuffing race shirts into bags how to find the start. "Oh, it's easy!" he exclaimed, "no problem at all. You've been driving around Amman, of course you know the city?"

"We've been driving around, yes, but have been lost for almost all of that time," I told him, "I need really, really good directions. Idiot proof."

He sketched me out a map, off the 7th Circle, here is the store everybody knows (I didn't and said so), don't take this turn, drive up this hill, if you go this way you will be will be no problem.

No problem, easy. Why did those words send a chill up my spine? But, I had the city map, and now this hand drawn map, How bad could it be?

Apparently quite bad, as, again, hours later Mike was gripping the wheel with white knuckles, closer to crying out of sheer frustration than I'd ever seen him. I was apologising over and over again for even liking running, the kids were in the back keeping their heads wisely down most of the time, whining when they couldn't help it.

Some time, during the driving around and trying not to scream because the street signs didn't match the map at all, I realised the problem. Whereas the map might say Al-Ameer Ali Bin Al-Hussein the street signs said "Prince Hussein St." Oh, hell. So, Al-Ameerah Bint Talal was "Princess Talal St," and Al-Shareef Abdul Hameed Sharaf Street was what, again? I'd figured it out on Al-Malekah Noor St: Queen Noor St. I was reading her autobiography, after all.

At least we learned the words for prince and princess and queen and king (king is malek). However, while decoding the map helped, it didn't get us there, not by a long shot, and the hand-written map simply didn't have enough information for us, even if someone else would have found it patently obvious.

As daylight was beginning to fade, I got a great idea. We'd go to the pre-race pasta feed and ask the folks there. I had friends from Dubai also running the race, they'd know. We abandoned Traffic Circle 7 and headed towards the dinner, which, according to the directions was at Zara Centre off the 3rd traffic circle.

Need I tell you how that went? After asking and driving and asking and more driving, now in the dark, we finally found the place, where they were packing up the food. I suppose it was not their fault we took an hour and a half to find it, though it was 7 and the dinner was supposed to go until 8. Dashed in, got some noodles for the kids. I asked a fellow runner who looked like he spoke English how to get to the start gathering point. He looked surprised. "You take the bus from the hotel, of course."

Ah. The bus from the hotel if you had booked your hotel through the race's tour company. The same ones who would have brought the race numbers to our room, had we booked through them. A light was beginning to shine, got it: use the tour company or you are on your own, bucko.

Accursed map in hand, I cornered the race director, interrupting the gushing from her admirers as soon as I deemed it reasonable. "Show me where the buses pick you up to take you to the start." She looked surprised. "But it is so easy!" She said. "Just off the 7th Circle."

"Show. Me." I said again. She never even looked at the map. "Take a taxi," she said, dismissing me. "They will all know where it is. No problem."

Trying not to cry into the map, completely worn down, looking for something substantial to bang my head against, I had another idea. The front desk at our hotel had mentioned several times that they had a driving service for folks to and from the airport. I could use them!

I had heard that the taxi drivers in Amman were notorious cheats and while I didn't care overmuch about the price, I didn't need to be taken on a wild tour of the city to run up the meter while missing the bus to the race start. Nor did I want to pack Mike and the kids into the car and repeat our no-finding adventure: it simply wasn't worth it. I queried at the front desk, they set it up for 5:15 AM, plus a wake-up call, and we went to our room and collapsed.

No problem, right?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I hear Jerusalem's bells a-ringing...

The spirit of total self indulgence at the Dead Sea prevailing, Mike and I got a room service and a babysitter for the kids and for ourselves. It was a beautiful evening and we had reservations at the award-winning steakhouse at the hotel. (Best Steakhouse in Jordan and Lebanon by the Grumpy Gourmet, 2008. Hey, you can't make stuff like that up.) Having missed our chance in Aqaba, we were determined to make a night of it. The steaks were thick and perfectly medium rare, the Mt Nebo wine garnet red and delicious, deemed a new favorite, and the atmosphere just dark and intimate enough.

We wandered from that restaurant, nicely sated, through the extensive grounds of the hotel, artfully lit at nighttime, and followed music to an outdoor sitting area overlooking the sea. There a belly dancer was jiggling and scarving and seductively weaving and doing things with her eyes that surely would have earned her John the Baptist's head on a silver platter, had she desired such a thing. I assume she did not, though one never knows.

The two of us relaxed back in chairs, the music swelling, the dancer artfully exotic, the cocktails entirely superfluous, stars overhead, and observed the people watching the dancer as much as we watched her. Good clean fun.

The moment the last cymbal crashed the belly dancer made a mad but graceful dash off the stage and Mike and I watched with some amusement as, away from the audience, she quickly put on her abaya, draping all her curves in concealing black and transforming into a nondescript woman beneath the veil.

As the music faded from our consciousness, another sound could be heard. The sound came across the Dead Sea, a muffled booming. We could see the lights of Jerusalem twinkling prettily, but we knew the sound was the bombing of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It was a sobering moment, and such a contrast, to go from fun and light to consider what was happening...right over there.

Mike and I walked down to the sea, which was now rough with dark waves, I made nice to an apparently friendly cat along the rocks who corrected my mistaken perception by taking a good nip at me, and the evening soon came to an end.

The next morning we packed up, and drove away from the Jordan Valley and sea, back over the hills, to Amman.

Thomas escorts his Thomas the Tank Engine suitcase back to our car (top of our luggage pile). He was very concerned whenever he wasn't actually pulling it along behind himself.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Float on...

The Dead Sea is known for a few things: incredibly, strangely buoyant waters with salinity six times greater than the ocean, being the lowest point on earth, and the mineral rich mud that even the most squeamish tourist seems willing to smear all over themselves.

We went down to the sea and it was as flat and glossy as a mill pond. We'd been warned not to shave; that we'd quickly discover if we had any small cuts in our skin, but I'd gone ahead and de-fuzzed my legs anyway. If people are going to have to look at me in my swimsuit, the least I can do is to be presentable.

I felt a slight tingling, but no real problem. Thomas, however, grabbed his little bottom, shrieked and charged back out of the water, never to return. Well, it's really only 2/3 water, the rest being dissolved solids. The clear oily swirls in the Sea are calcium chloride, and there is an occasional chunk of black bitumen floating by. You didn't need to get any of the water in your mouth to taste it, with the high levels of magnesium chloride. Need I say there are no fish?

The one thing you did not want to do was to get that stuff in your eyes.

Salts crystalised on rocks on the shore of the Dead Sea

The waters themselves were cool with a sensation almost soapy, and you could sit back in them like a loungechair. People were reading newspapers as they lolled back in the waters, or at least pretending to do so and getting their photos taken.

Swimming was a challenge,though a fun one, and immediately I thought they need to have a Dead Sea Duathalon. I rather hope someone does, I think it'd be an interesting feat and you can't tell me there aren't athletes who'd do it. Me, for instance!

Bethy was over the moon excited that she'd finally learned how to float. She would later say that was the best part of the trip for her, though occasionally she'd change her mind and say it was watching the cartoon Ben 10 on cable TV. We couldn't stop grinning at the novelty of being held up and cushioned by the water.

For once we didn't have to worry about kids and water safety; I'm pretty sure it would be impossible to drown unless you really, really wanted to. Even then, I think it would be a challenge. We got pickled and slimed for awhile, then splashed out to try out the renowned Dead Sea Mud.

The mineral-rich mud is harvested it from a variety of sites around the sea for the hotels and beauty products. We had a big square container of it and globbed it on. I was trying out a scientific experiment and left the salts in my hair, and smeared the mud over that. It's a look I am sure will be all the rage next season:

Bethy was also very into the mud, and Mike dutifully smeared it on much of his persona. Not Thomas, though. He was disgusted with all of us, and circled the mud container, picking up bits of mud and carefully putting them back in. It was a balancing act for him to clamber up there in his cleaning attempts, but he managed not to fall in.

We went back into the sea to wash off, then under the seaside showers. However, washing off the dried mud and salts was not the easiest thing in the world, and in fact, I found my little experiment had gone horribly wrong. My hair did not feel like my hair. It was, in fact, only after days and days of repeated washings that it finally felt like hair again.

We spent the rest of the day in the extensive pools, on the water slide and beneath the waterfalls. Bethy duplicated her feat of floating on her back in the pool waters and was ecstatic. Mike and I availed ourselves of the poolside bar service, entirely relaxed, lazing on the lounge chairs and oversized hotel towels while the kids frollicked in the wading pool. The palms waved gently in the breeze, the sun was warm, sheer bliss.

Friday, May 15, 2009

I traveled the banks of the River of Jordan

Israel on the other side of the Jordan River

Traveling to Jordan on Bethany is the sort of experience where one doesn't really know what to expect. One one hand, it's nothing short of staggering to visit the place where, nearly 2000 years ago, John the Baptist ministered, giving his sermons, and where he baptised Jesus, along with many others. Pope John Paul II visited back in 2000 and Pope Benedict celebrated Mass there just last week during his Middle East visit.

Yet this place so steeped in significance is also a tourist destination with its own website (that they humorously made us aware of by spelling it out in a large mosaic next to the river: Add to this that though it is not supposed to be a military border zone after an agreement in 1994 between Jordan and Israel, well, people can only come in or out past the machine guns by paying to be packed into little buses. This was the closest we would come to Israel; one can look across the river where the Israeli flag is flying. It was all a bit surreal.

I made us miss the first bus from the visitor's center by lingering too long in the souk while trying to find a souvenir for Colleen that didn't say Jerusalem or Bethlehem on it...if it had an Israeli city on it I was worried customs would take it away when we got to the UAE. Not to mention that we weren't in those places!

Cracked earth and the River Jordan

The UAE does not recognise Israel; one had better not have an Israeli stamp in one's passport and try to enter the UAE at this time. Some people have 2 passports, others get an insert that can be removed as is necessary to not offend whatever country you're coming into or out of. A sort of don't-ask-don't-tell policy.

Back at the souk, I gave up on getting something but got my own sermon from Mike when the bus we were going to be on filled up before I got back, a sermon which was not well received.

Bethy at the Baptism site

Nearly an hour later, the bus we did catch emptied us out past the guard station and we walked through a forest of tamarisk (salt cedar) trees paths to the green waters where it is thought Jesus was baptised, then beyond to a small but beautiful and lavish golden domed church and then down to the River Jordan itself. Our tour was conducted in English, mostly directed towards a Christian sensibility, and then again in Arabic, describing Jesus as a Muslim Prophet. The two groups walked along together, hearing what they wanted to hear and taking in the sights.

There the river is green and muddy and bordered by high reeds, bringing to mind baby Moses in his basket on the Nile. A particularly devote father jumped right on in and baptised his young son who managed to look both scared and pious. Bethy and Thomas were being mobbed by Jordanian girls out on a day trip, Thomas carried away until he yelled for backup and Bethy asked to pose for photo after photo.

A Jordanian soldier who couldn't have even been 20 years old, machine gun slung casually over his shoulder, looked on unconcernedly as the group milled around, looking across to Israel where another area of worship is being built, taking photographs whenever the flag with the star of David unfurled enough in the breeze.

Can you find Thomas in the gaggle of girls?
(hint: he's wearing a pale green hat)

The beautiful Stream of John the Baptist as it flows down to join the River Jordan

At the river, thinking about the act of being baptised, being blessed and spiritually reborn through the element of water, I realised something. It's taken me nearly a year of being hot in a desert land to understand how valuable water really is, how spiritual it must have been to the Baptismal candidates to be completely immersed in water in a land where water is scarce, people who grew up knowing first hand that water is the difference between life and death.

For me, anyway, that's what I took away from Bethany on Jordan.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Farewell today, travel on now, be on your way...

Don't know what it says or means, but apparently its quite important.

The Dead Sea highway, running north from Aqaba, was an unsettling journey once we left the comfortable familiarity of the city. To the left of us was Israel, and if we'd needed a reminder, the watchtowers and numerous checkpoints along the desolate road made it abundantly clear.

At each checkpoint, out in the middle of nowhere, nothing but sand and rocks and soldiers with machine guns, we felt exposed and vulnerable. At some of the checkpoints we were waved through after a question or two, in others they checked our passports, the trunk of the car, asked a few more probing questions.

Mike, with his vacation beard and dark glasses, was looking a bit swarthy, and we had a tense moment at one checkpoint when he greeted a soldier with "Salaam Aleekum."

The soldier replied amicably "Alekum Sala'am" and then proceeded with a barrage of Arabic.

Mike said he didn't understand Arabic and the soldier bristled "You just said Salaam Aleekum to me!"

Mike protested: "That's all I know!"

Oh dear. After a moment the soldier leaned against the car and asked, casually, "How are you?" and Mike didn't answer.

I only wish I'd had a blood pressure cuff on me at that moment. I'll bet the numbers would have been exciting. "We're fine, thank you!!!" I blurted after an awful second, leaning forward so he could see my blue eyes, western clothing and pale skin, "say hi to the soldiers, kids!"

Fortunately, after carefully examining our passports, they came to the conclusion that we were merely silly American tourists and let us go.

I'd like to say I didn't yell at Mike, but I did.

Miles and miles of sand as we drove up the Rift Valley, nothing to see along the two lane highway. (I didn't take any photos, knowing that the watchtowers had nothing better to do than turn their high-powered scopes on us. Taking photos, uninvited, in a military area is a big no-no.) The occasional checkpoint did for excitement, then more driving.

After hours, the land and military presence softened a bit, we spotted a few goatherders with their charges, and tents, then small stone homes in villages along the road.

A man in a moment of solitude in the desert

As we drew near to the Dead Sea there were areas where the desert gave way to tall reeds and green farms, vinyards, and the crop of the day, tomatoes, judging by the number of tomato stands. It seemed that the job of selling tomatoes could become boring, as there were squished red globes scattered around each stand. You could tell who had a good arm.

We wanted to visit Lot's cave. Yes, that Lot, from arguably the raciest bit of the Bible where, after the wife turned to a pillar of salt and the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, he and his daughters hid out and, well , er, they kind of got him drunk and seduced him and got pregnant. Yes, the Bible can make for some very interesting I the only one who doesn't remember this from Sunday School?

Anyway, make of that what you will, we found a sign pointing us in the right direction after wending our way through a less-than-affluent town, dark-skinned little boys with very white teeth playing soccer, women walking in groups of two or three, abayas blowing in the wind, kids rolling tires along the road, brightly colored clothing hung out to dry, much rubbish, and packs of goats like dogs.

Up, up on the hillside we found a monk, who, it was apparent, slept on a table under a thin blanket in a tiny open shelter but had a wonderful view of the valley below. He took us up many, many stone stairs to the cave, smiled much, pointed some, and we got along well.

The cave itself was part of a small open place of worship. I don't think I'd like to hide out there for any length of time, but obviously the Lot clan was made of tougher stuff. Or something. It was a large cave, deep enough to make us clutch Thomas and speak sternly to Bethy.

Outside, beneath the sand and pebbles and a protective cover, our monk-guide revealed the edge of an elaborate mosaic we'd been tromping heedlessly upon. Mike, looking over the valley to the southernmost edge of the Dead Sea noted that there was smoke rising...the long lost site of Sodom and Gomorrah, perhaps? He got a (quickly stifled) snort out of me for it, regardless.

The Dead Sea is not, as I had imagined, an icky murky brownish puddle. It is large and beautiful, vibrantly blue among red mountains, the salt encrusted upon rocks along the shore.

The moon rising over the mountains enthralled the kids (all children love the moon) but it was the sunset that was truly breathtaking. Mike pulled over and I took photo after photo as the sun slipped away over Israel. Bethy indulged me and posed for this one:

At the gateway to the Dead Sea Marriott we waited in the car as the guards scrutinized the trunk, checked the car's undercarriage with a mirror, and then did a bomb scan of our vehicle, finally waving us in, moving the the huge, evil-spiked rollers that blocked our way. We drove down to some 400 meters below sea level and checked ourselves into our next home.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Shakedown, breakdown, honey, just about the time you're thinking it's all right...

The power supply for our laptop has died an untimely death, so, with apologies, there is going to be a break from blogging until I can get to the photographs for you again.

The computer store said about a week, though Mike is pretty clever and may get me back online before then.

My goal this American Mother's Day (the British Mother's Day was back in March) is to politely ask the teaching staff not to correct Bethy's spelling of "mom" to "mum" know, we do things differently back in the States.

Happy Mother's Day to everyone who is or has a Mom to celebrate. :) That should pretty much cover it.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Come take a ride with me to a distant shore...

Our next morning in Aqaba began in the hotel dining room where Mike and I both noticed the large window flush with the floor, 2 1/2 stories up that was open, and were in the process of pointing it out to one another as a safety hazard for the kids while we utterly failed to notice the other one Thomas was making a beeline towards. We got him just before he made it over the threshold and into oblivion...

There was Arabic music playing as we sat down and tried to calm our nerves...having your three year old nearly plunge to an almost-certain death wakes you up and gets you jittery almost as well as a strong cup of coffee. We were the only people there in the dining room, and the young man waiting on us quickly went and turned on the lights. (He turned them off after we'd finished eating and were on our way out.) Then he switched the music to something along the lines of Limp Bizkit, possibly thinking that as Americans that was what we'd like.

Breakfasts thus far had been very similar each place we went and this was no exception; boiled eggs, some sort of Arabic flatbread or toast, coffee, sometimes juice, cucumbers and/or tomatoes, and sometimes a cereal. Occasionally something crazy like really salty vinegary cheese. I was seriously beginning to crave a Denny's Grand Slam. (Not that there is one available within this hemisphere.) I complimented our waiter on his very good English, to which he confessed he had learned by watching Mel Gibson movies all the time, especially the Lethal Weapon series.

I was more than half tempted to ask him to act out some of his favorite scenes, but with the children present, well, not so much.

Our slightly guilty goal for the day was to change our address to somewhere else. The Movenpick was beautiful and full. The Intercontinental, however, was willing to accomodate us. It cost nearly 5 times the hotel we'd just left, but what an awesome place. Huge, gorgeous lobby, incredible pools and view...I loved that the kids got to enjoy room service pizza on the balcony, overlooking the Red Sea. Now, that was more like it!

New hotel view. An improvement, don't you think?

In our room we had the biggest shower we'd ever seen, neatly bracketing our experience in Amman with the world's smallest one. Bethy went into the spacious bathroom and came careening back out, exclaiming "Mom! Dad! There's a shower on one side and a bathtub on the other! That's the coolest ever!" It was pretty cool. I spent about an hour with the extremely tolerant and helpful concierge at the Intercontinental rebooking the rest of our vacation into 5 star hotels. Pricy, yes, but no more surprises. We'd decided it would be well worth it.

We spent the time relaxing in comfort, in the pools, trying out the Red Sea, eating well and just...relaxing.

Mike and I even went crazy and got ourselves a baby sitter one of the nights we stayed there, though, alas, it turned out that Mondays were a day for the best restaurants to be closed for some reason unfathomable to American tourists.

In the days we were there, we visited the ancient remains of Ayla, an archeological site of medieval mosque and ruin, where we wandered under the sun and tried to imagine a life long past. Then we explored the other historical attraction for us, Aqaba castle, a relatively well-preserved site built by the Crusaders and later the Mamlukes and Ottomans. I bought a beautiful ceramic pot with petroglyph-like markings from the nearby local arts center, made by local women, a real treasure.

Aqaba Castle

Mike and the Red Sea, towards Egypt

Bethy in the ruins of Ayla standing on a fallen column

The kids got to play with opportunistic cats stalking tidbits every morning at breakfast, which was extensive and completely overwhelmed and cured any cravings I had for Denny's, and we left Aqaba refreshed and ready to drive the Dead Sea Highway up the Rift Valley along the Jordan-Israeli border.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Show me the way to go home...

Aqaba, our next destination, is Jordan's only seaport and resort, on the Red Sea at the southernmost point of Jordan, known for it's coral reefs, snorkeling and moderate temperatures. I'd email-argued with a travel agent back in Dubai about what sort of hotels we needed for our stay in Jordan, explaining that all we needed for our family was safe, clean places to stay when he was pushing 5 star options. In frustration, I'd found and booked all our places myself with the help of our Lonely Planet-Jordan book, the only Jordan guide in either of the big book stores in Dubai, and I bought the only copy they had.

From Wadi Rum, through the desert, then down into a sandy canyon to where the landscape opened up again to reveal Aqaba. We found our hotel, overlooking the Gulf of Jordan, to be sure, but surrounded by massage parlors in a littered, graffitied part of town. Admittedly, the grafitti seemed relatively harmless: spray-painted line animals and phone numbers. Not that I would recognise an Arabic swear word written out, but I can at least tell the difference between the Arabic letters and numbers.

After going though what appeared to be the entrance to the hotel but getting it completely wrong, and consequently chased out with a broom, the wielder of the broom barking "No women HERE!" (heaven only knows what that place was,) I found the correct lobby and asked to be taken to see our room.

It was, frankly, a little bit scary. Dark, narrow halls, and in the actual room, scarred furniture, cracked plaster, and wires hanging out of the walls. Red curtains, instead of adding warmth, gave the room an ominous rusted blood color overtone. If I were a location scout looking for a movie set, this would be the perfect place to film actors portraying some sort of squalid drug overdose.

The guide book described it as: "A stone's throw from the castle and hence removed from (but easy walking distance to) the bustle of central Aqaba. The rooms are clean and pleasant and most have great views. Five new rooms come with beach views. Credit cards are accepted. A good family option."


The hotel staff had arranged for our kids to have a room across the hall. The employee who'd taken me upstairs was surprised I didn't need to see it after having had an eyeful of the first room, but was very nice about it as I fled back out into the sunshine. There was just no way we were staying there with Thomas and Bethy. Just us, maybe. With kids, no way.

A travel agency in Amman had recommended another hotel, the Crystal. So we tracked down hotel #2, traffic circles and one-way streets, of course, but fortunately the tourist area of Aqaba is small enough that we found it after driving through an alley that may or may not have been one way. This hotel was described (again by the guidebook) as: "Walk into the plush marble lobby and you'll feel like you're in an upmarket hotel. The rooms are very comfortable and spacious, if a little sterile."

Sterile sounded pretty good. I went in, again for a preview before unloading the family. Indeed, a marble lobby past the now-ubiquitous metal detectors. Strangely, though there were a few people inside, most of the lights were turned off. Again at the front desk I asked to see a room.

The first I was taken to was small, which we could live with, but so freshly painted and varnished it smelled like a chemical factory. The employee who'd taken me there practically said "tah-dah" as he waved his arm expressively around the room. I hated to say no, but we would have been better off sleeping in our car. He made a quick phone call and a flurry of Arabic resulted in my following him to another room. The elevator tried to take us there, but conked out after one floor so we went for the stairwell, my escort looking embarrassed. This second rooms was perhaps a bit dingy, but mostly clean, beds nicely made, and only one outlet coming off the wall. Well, what the heck.

Mike, upon seeing the room, said to me, "This is an improvement on the other one? Seriously?"

"Seriously," I averred, "trust me."

There was some sort of cinema outside our window on the street below, dramatic music and shouted lines in Arabic, people milling about. Carpet sellers, motorbikes. The kids glommed onto the room's television immediately, but the only English channel was CNN Sports. Lots of golf. Ah, well, that'll teach them.

We went to a local spot for shwarma, a meat cooked similarly to Gyros, served with pickled vegetables and french fries and fresh squeezed juice cocktail. Shwarma is the take-away fast food for the Middle East. There were only two little tables, both outside, for sit-down patrons, and we sweated and squinted in the sun as we enjoyed our meal, the table slanting dangerously downhill with the pitch of the sidewalk. The cooks were tickled to meet Bethy and Thomas, and were so obviously proud of their juice that I praised it effusively.

Back in the hotel we went up the dark stairway to our room, the elevator having proven to be less than reliable, moved tall furniture away from the windows so we could open them. We'd realised that the air conditioning was not going to make its presence felt, oh goody, Then I went through the now-ritual of setting up a water bottle at the sink and sternly instructing the kids once again to use the bottled water for drinking and teeth brushing. Outside of our room's door, in the center of the hotel, was a patio garden with plants and rocks attractively arranged that would have been charming had it not been for the curiously disembodied toilets all over.
After a show of fireworks out our window, a wedding celebration, most likely, I made Thomas a bed of pillows on the floor and the other three of us crammed into the bed for the night, after Mike wedged a chair under the door handle...the safety chain was broken, after all. I made a mental note to myself to email that travel agent when we got back to Dubai and tell him: You were right, I was wrong.
The kids were all bug chewed from camping, miserably itching, the room uncomfortably warm and the street and theatre noise intruding. All that wasn't enough to keep us from sleep after a long day.

The view from our hotel window