Souq or shuk (part 2) (Saturday, 2019 February 13)

May 20, 2019

Whew! I started writing this in February but (as of this writing) it’s already May and I still haven’t finished it. I started a few months after the last post because I still had things I wanted to say about our Middle East trip, and quickly wrote up a series of vignettes about our trip, but ran out of steam before I finished. I’m going to try to tie this off, let’s see how far I get.

Somewhere over the Atlantic

We fly on WOW Air, which is a low-cost Icelandic carrier, out of EWR with a layover at Keflavik, which is a pleasant-enough airport. We disembark directly onto the tarmac on a staircase, which is always charming. On the first flight, some woman overhears us talking either about Hebrew or about Israel and strikes up a conversation. She’s Israeli and we try to get as much information about what we’re getting ourselves into as possible. We tell her we’re going to a friend’s wedding and she says it’s good that we get to see an Israeli wedding. We tell her that Yaya told us it would be a small wedding, and she laughs. "To Israelis, a ‘small wedding’ means 200 people." We’re doubtful, but who knows. We learn that although the extremely Orthodox don’t climb the Temple Mount, we’re unlikely to fall into that category, since, after all, we’re flying on a Friday. Great.

We have a beer in Keflavik during our layover. Everything is expensive. Surprisingly, both the moms and Rita are all selected for additional security screenings. We manage to board our flight on time.

Ben Gurion International Airport (outside Tel Aviv)

Immigration takes forever. We are waiting in line in a giant hall. About a half-hour passes and we make not much progress. Suddenly there’s a loud commotion, including some shouting, and for a second I panic, wondering if I need to duck and cover or what. But no, it’s just an audience reacting to the World Cup games being broadcast on a television in the corner.

We continue to stand in line and after a while, Rita and I are the last two of our group to talk to a surly immigration officer. He wants to know if I’m Jewish, to which I respond "My father", which for me is a shorthand that explains a lot. I wonder if it will mean the same things to him. He wants to know if we’ve arranged meetings with any revolutionary or terrorist organizations. No, of course not. How about Arab or Muslim organizations? Well, we’re going to Wadi Rum to stay in the desert with some Bedouins. We’ll be going with those four women that have already gone through customs. Does that count? He’s nonplussed, to which we try to be friendly and helpful. He flips through our passport pages, looking for anything suspicious. "Here, it says you were in… Doola. Where’s that?" Doola? "Do you mean ‘Douala’? That’s in Cameroon." Rita and I exchange glances. We reach an unspoken agreement not to follow up with "You know where Cameroon is, right? In Africa?", lest we give offense. Eventually he concludes that we’re harmless if ignorant tourists and off we go.

We take the bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I had expected the entire Middle East to be essentially sand dunes and dust storms, and the area on the road to Jerusalem isn’t like this. We drive through hills and valleys filled with scrub. Jerusalem at first glance looks much like a typical European city, although it is mostly shut down for the Sabbath. We pass Ethiopian restaurants and apartment buildings.

We’re staying in the old city, which is much like other old cities, in an Airbnb that bills itself as a "Palestinian home". Really it’s something like a basement, but there’s hot water and it’s hot outside, so having a clammy dungeon to come back to is not so bad.


I really wanted to visit Ramallah, the "de-facto capital of the West Bank", and out of fear that some kind of civil unrest could spring up at any time, we decide to head there first.

I really like Ramallah. It feels friendly and inexpensive in a way that is familiar. Yaya later comments that the West Bank provokes in her a feeling not dissimilar to being in Cameroon. I’m not sure what exactly provokes this feeling, but I agree with her. Maybe it’s because people walk around selling stuff. For example, people dressed in what I assume is traditional Palestinian dress pour some beverage (tea? carob juice?) for passersby. (I thought I took a picture of one, but I don’t seem to have it any more, so here’s one from this person’s blog.)

It could also be the markets. Some stalls are built in concrete structures that reminded me distinctly of markets in some Cameroonian city (although I can’t quite put my finger on which one). Others are under roofs but felt similar to an open-air market that you might find in village (pictured in the last post).

More interesting merchants in Ramallah.

Eating arab gum ice cream in Ramallah.

The outskirts of Ramallah on the bus ride back.


One the list of things I absolutely have to do on this trip is going to the Western Wall. I have been given a small note by my father to try to put into the cracks between the bricks and I don’t want to miss my chance. We head there the next day, first thing in the morning to beat the crowds. Personally, I find it more interesting from an archaeological and sociological perspective than for any religious one. There are so many people, many working through their individual rituals, including a tour group from Nigeria (who we see throughout the day around Jerusalem).

I pick my way through the crowds of mostly Orthodox Jews with sprinkling of a few others and place my father’s note in a space among other notes. Everywhere around me, others are praying sincerely, and I feel I ought to try, as long as I’m there anyhow, although (as I have admitted before) I don’t really have a clear idea of how. I start by looking within myself, trying to find any sensation of divine presence. I don’t find one, even with my eyes closed.

I look around again, trying to see what everyone else is doing, maybe hoping for a bit of advice from a stranger. Some are some distance away, singing and chanting and reading from books. Others are close-in to the shade of the wall, as though in a conversation with an interlocutor. I try touching the stones of the wall, and with my hand there, pray again. It’s hard to shake the feeling that I’m praying to a wall. I rifle mentally through the things in my life that I’m unhappy with — there aren’t that many — and politely request that they be fixed. Eventually I do feel a sort of calm or peace come over me, perhaps as a response, but it’s hard to tell if it’s the divine presence and not just, say, the wall itself, answering with the everyday presence that a cool stone wall has. I turn to leave, passing one other gentleman who had found a peace that was indistinguishable from having fallen asleep in the hot sun.

From there we go to the Temple Mount. Immediately upon setting foot on the area, I feel a holiness and sacredity that had been missing from the Wall, though in hindsight maybe that was just because there were no hysterical Orthodox carrying on. I think, then, about how the Jewish tradition was that some aspect of divine presence is still on-site. Maybe so, but it’s also simply a wide, quiet plaza, with not too many visitors and beautiful architecture, and it feels easy to mistake one for the other. We spend some time here taking pictures. The Dome of the Rock is stunning. In terms of the beauty of their sacred sites, the Muslims are really thrashing the Jews.

The plaza in front of the Western Wall/some of the men’s side.

The Western Wall (women’s side).

The plaza at the top of the mount.

The Dome of the Rock.

We didn’t try "The Bible Experience" virtual reality attraction.

Overlooking Jerusalem from the south side of the Old City.


We travel north somewhat to Haifa. Haifa is the site of Israel’s first underground transit system (the Haifa funicular) and we are determined to see it. Unfortunately, we discover when we get there that it’s closed down. There was a fire and it’s still being repaired. Other than that, there’s not a lot going on in Haifa — if Tel Aviv is Manhattan, Haifa is Jersey City or maybe Newark. (I’m not sure what Jerusalem corresponds to in this analogy. Maybe a reverse Atlantic City.) Beyond that, our plan is to use our location in Haifa as a jumping-off point to see the Galilee. In hindsight, maybe we oughtn’t have bothered. When we told Yaya of this part of our plan, she asked our traveling companions, "Are you Christian?", the implication being that if you weren’t, you could probably find a better use for your time in the Holy Land.

On the day we arrive, we are too late to go much of anywhere, so we wander the streets. We see the outside of the Bahá’í gardens, which are impressive; a bit of industrial waterfront; eventually we wander our way over to a bit of beach. We sit at a table outside a beachfront refreshments stand; adjacent, there is another table, at which are seated some salty-looking Israelis drinking and smoking. Eventually one of them makes eye contact with me and says something in Hebrew. I indicate that I don’t understand Hebrew and he becomes embarrassed, maybe even saying "Sorry" in English while gesticulating something like an apology. He and his friends have a laugh. He points out one of his friends to me and says something else in Hebrew that I don’t understand, to which the friend replies in English "Don’t believe anything he says. He’s drunk!"

The view from our balcony.

These "Danger of Death!" signs around Haifa amused the ladies.

Bahá’í gardens.

Sunset on the beach.

A playground on the beach.

The next day we go to Tiberias, more or less at random but because it’s adjacent to the Sea itself. It’s underwhelming. Everything is hot and bright, and the sea is hazy with evaporation. We go to the national park, where we briefly dip our feet in the hot springs. Within the park is also a reconstructed synagogue dating from the 4th century CE; it has a mosaic floor depicting a mix of Jewish symbols, Greek writing, and the signs of the Zodiac. It’s a reminder of how deeply intertangled the overlapping histories of religion are in the Holy Land, which, as you probably already realize, is a major theme of the trip.

We spend the rest of the afternoon across the street in a "resort" (kind of like a pool/gym), swimming and hanging out, before heading back.

Mosaic floor.

Sea of Galilee. It looks beautiful here rather than humid and miserable.

Al Amari Mosque, now disused and in need of repair, in what I think used to be the town square.

Tel Aviv

We see a little bit of Tel Aviv, in particular the beaches, which are populated with the most beautiful people by far we see on the trip. We see a little bit of the rest of the city, walking through another open-air market, but mostly we don’t have a lot of time because we need to get ready for the wedding.

I ate a sandwich out of a bus station vending machine between buses.

A "frame" set up by some tourism authority to inspire you to take a photo of the scenic beauty. Hashtag trying too hard.

And what a wedding it is, dear reader. Just as the woman predicted on the plane, there are 200 attendees. There is also an open bar, of which liberal use will be made later. There are five or six "stations" each serving a different food. One is serving falafel and hummus — by this point in the trip I have gotten so used to the "xh" sound in "xhummus" that when I ask about the bread, I mistakenly call it "xhole wheat". Embarrassing!

The ceremony is beautiful. Most of the speakers graciously speak in English, and generally everyone appears happy to converse in English (Rita and I never manage more than a few words of Hebrew). The remarks are wonderful — I’ve forgotten most of them, but I remember Amit’s brother, who addressed Yaya’s family regarding their joy at Amit being newly added to their family: "I get it. He’s a hot doctor." Similarly, to Yaya, how happy that he was that she was joining theirs: "Not only are you beautiful and intelligent, but you have the ability to Shut. Amit. Down. Which is much appreciated."

After the ceremony, a screen is set up and a video is played. It’s a "life and times of Amit" that have been put together by some of Amit’s friends as well as his family. It shows Amit’s mom talking on the phone (this part is subtitled in English) about her son and how proud she is that he’s decided in high school to major in Arabic but that she’s uncertain that the school is really set up for it. Later it shows Amit (depicted by a friend wearing a printed photo of Amit as a mask) deciding what unit of the armed forces to join. Each unit he considers is portrayed as a stereotype — the marines are all doing push-ups and bicep curls, the infantry are all marching and standing at attention, but finally when Amit considers the signals unit (i.e. the one he really joined), it’s portrayed as a bunch of flamboyantly dressed weirdos. In the next scene, Amit is portrayed meeting Yaya (portrayed again by someone wearing a printout of Yaya’s face) — she’s throwing a frisbee (a shout-out to her ultimate frisbee career). Suddenly the manner of the video changes to a nature documentary, with a British voiceover talking through Amit’s prowling manner as he attempts to close in on his prey, with silence being his only chance. Suddenly, he passes gas, startling her. She turns to look at him. "Uhh… ni hao ma?" he tries. She replies, "I’m from Detroit, motherfucker!"

After the video, there is some commotion as a clearing is produced. Out of nowhere, a skit is performed — all of Amit’s friends have put together a show in addition to the video! The skit is in Hebrew and I can’t follow all of it, but it largely takes the form of Amit interviewing with someone about his time in the armed forces. Someone playing Amit sits opposite a woman who is asking him questions. Occasionally other friends will jump in behind/around him to enact "flashbacks". For example, one question that transcended the language barrier was about Amit’s drinking habits: does he drink too much? No, he replies, as one of his friends crawls along the floor and passes out in front of him. Eventually the skit ends on the question: who is his favorite Johnny? "Depp," replies Amit. "Depp?" "Depp." And with that…

… the dancing begins. There is a lot of dancing. And drinking. At one point a table is lifted by several partygoers and the newlyweds are hoisted onto it to dance atop it. Or maybe that was after they were lifted into the air and crowdsurfed over to the open bar, whereupon the bartenders poured alcohol directly into their mouths. I seem to recall the parents also getting lifted onto the table, or maybe it was only Yaya’s father. It is, to put it mildly, a wild party. Us Americans stick together. Yaya’s father and I were already fast friends at the first wedding when he bought a bottle of moutai and I drank most of it. The rest of her family is also awesome. The drinking and dancing continue. At some point the party clears out and we board a bus to go back to Tel Aviv. Someone throws up on the bus. However, the contents of my stomach remain where they are. Somehow we stagger back to the hostel and pass out, and not a moment too soon because the next day we are making the overland crossing to Jordan and have to get moving as early as possible.

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A video of the dancing.

It’s really blurry, but you can see some of the printouts on sticks in the background to serve as masks.

Yitzhak Rabin Border Crossing

Getting moving as early as possible turns out to be difficult because of the aftereffects of the party. Somehow we manage to get to the bus station a bit earlier than we need for the 12 o’clock bus. We’re doing the overland crossing both for the practical reason that there are no direct flights from Israel to Jordan or Egypt and also because philosophically it should be more interesting. We have committed to being at Wadi Rum in time for dinner but that seems increasingly difficult. We are going to take a bus towards Eilat but stop before entering the city and instead go to the border crossing. Shirley (the cool mom) is coming back from the bathroom when the bus pulls in to the bus station. Julie (the less cool mom) suddenly realizes that she, too, would like to go to the bathroom, and hurries off to do that while we’re loading our luggage onto the bus. A few minutes later she comes back — the bathrooms are coin-operated and she doesn’t have the right coin. JC gives her the coins and off she goes again. We’re getting pretty close to the scheduled departure time now… The driver starts the motor. "Can you wait for JC’s mom?" we ask. "No — I’m leaving now," he replies. "Shit," says JC. In the heat of the moment, we make a foolish decision: we decide to split up. JC removes her luggage and her mom’s from the bus. They’ll meet us there somehow. Of course, JC hasn’t read the documents I have meticulously prepared and doesn’t know where exactly to go. I tell her to tell the driver "Yitzhak Rabin", but by the way she repeats it back to me I know there’s no chance she’ll get it. But no problem! There’s wifi on the bus. I’ll text her what she needs to know and when she boards the next bus (an hour later…) she’ll be able to get the instructions and behave accordingly. So thinking, the bus leaves.

I’m still hung over so I nap. When I wake up, I haven’t received any response from JC. This is bad. More time passes as we drive through the desert and I’m becoming increasingly anxious. I decide that we will have to use a bit of finesse: we will have to wait for them at the bus stop, flag down every bus they could conceivably be on, and then board just to look for them. This feels risky in a number of ways — they could not have boarded the bus at all, they could have boarded a different bus than they were supposed to, the bus could take a detour for any of a number of reasons — but we’re supposed to be at Wadi Rum that night and I don’t have a better idea.

We descend at the correct stop and unload all our luggage. We are now in the desert, the Negev just north of Eilat. It is warmer than one would like. Cabs and vans come and go, probably driving people from Eilat back to the border crossing. We are rationing our water, just in case. Buses with other numbers go by, but our eagle-eyed team pays them no mind because there is only one number they could have taken. The bus stop lends a little shelter against the sun, but not much.

Eventually the whole hour goes by and we spot the bus in question. We flag it down and lo and behold, JC and her mom are there, completely oblivious! I signal to them and they get off and retrieve their luggage. "We thought we were going to take this bus to the end of the line," JC tells me. It doesn’t matter. We’re going to be super late to Wadi Rum. We start walking to the border crossing; unfortunately there are no more cabs to be had on this side of the border. The border crossing is essentially pleasant — the Israeli side is crisp, efficient, almost European; the Jordanian side is casual, almost disorganized. We somehow make it through OK and find two taxis. Wonder of wonders, they agree to reasonable prices to take us to Wadi Rum. We eventually make it — we are the last ones to arrive, and they have been holding back dinner for us. Everyone is reasonably good-spirited about it.

Border crossing.

Zarb being extracted from the sands.

Successful zarb.

Wadi Rum

We stay with Rum Stars, which is where Jenny stayed on her trip to Jordan. Being in Wadi Rum in the summer has its advantages — the camp is almost empty, and it’s warm enough even in the evenings that you can sleep outdoors. In Cameroon I wouldn’t, because of the risk of mosquitoes, but there doesn’t seem to be enough standing water for them here. Besides, the Bedouins who run the camp do it all the time. Wadi Rum is vast and dry and empty, and at night you can see stars upon stars. (It looks like the recent XKCD. We assume that the lighter patches we see are the Milky Way, but honestly we have no idea.)

We spend a pleasant day and a half here. We ride camels. After you mount them, they lurch terrifyingly up on their hind legs before standing up on their front legs. It is startling and not entirely pleasant. The ride is itself uncomfortable, and some of our camels seem interested in flirting/picking fights with the other camels. Afterwards we drive around a lot and look at rocks and go hiking, with plenty of stops at different Bedouin tents where we are offered tea and the opportunity to purchase tourist goods. We pay prices that we later learn are dramatically inflated, but we are tourists so what do you expect.

I have two beers that I had in my bag when we left Israel. I am somewhat uncomfortable about carrying them due to the strained diplomatic relationship between Israel and Jordan, but equally unsure about the protocol about drinking them in a Muslim country. I share them with an American woman who is working for Rum Stars. She seems unbelievably grateful — it is the first beer she has had in months.

Camel spider in the camp. Harmless but enormous.

Camels at sunrise.

The desert.

A certain amount of climbing and scrabbling occurred, which led to some great shots.

Wadi Musa/Petra

We have arranged travel with the same taxi drivers who brought us from the border crossing. They stop at a gas station on the way and buy us soft drinks. It’s a nice gesture that makes us feel a bit welcome. Middle Eastern hospitality is definitely a thing.

Wadi Musa is basically a nothing town that exists only to house people visiting Petra. The site of Petra has been slightly developed, with turnstiles and pamphlets. The downside is that there are no shortage of vendors trying to sell you more souvenirs as well as trying to get you to ride their horses, donkeys, or camels. Received wisdom on this is to not take any animals; their hooves aren’t good for Petra and the humans don’t treat the animals well. Because it is still the low season, there are much fewer tourists and it feels like everyone is just a little more desperate, and it’s incessant and more than a little exhausting.

I bought one of these bottle openers.

One thing that stands out is how the vendors call you. In Cameroon, a vendor in the market may try to get your attention by shouting "Oh, le blanc, vient acheter quelque chose, non?" ("Oh, white guy, come buy something, no?"). In Cameroon, it isn’t considered rude, but to an American’s ears it can be quite grating and aggressive. The Jordanians, by contrast, will address you with: "Welcome!", followed perhaps by a suggestion that it will cost you nothing to look at their wares. It goes a lot further towards engendering goodwill. Of course, the haggling is just as bloodthirsty as in Cameroon, and as the tourist you are still just as much at a disadvantage, but the experience is more pleasant. Overall, the impression you get is that a Jordanian may try to cheat you, but he will never try to rob you.

Petra itself is remarkable. "A rose-red city half as old as time" indeed. Just find some pictures online if you don’t believe me. The pictures are in my opinion every bit as good as going yourself, or maybe better. The color of the stone doesn’t stand out until you are no longer surrounded by it. It’s also fascinating as a ruin of a city, the capital city of the Nabateans, about which we seem to still know very little. In particular, signboards and blurbs indicate that the functions of those rock-cut facade structures is yet unknown. (Or maybe it’s just that I know very little. Wikipedia tells me that the Treasury, the best-known part of Petra, is actually a mausoleum.) The Monastery, some 800 steps up a hill, remains disputed, with it serving perhaps as a family tomb or perhaps a meeting place for members of a cult. And (again, typically), the place just oozes a long and complicated history. Some structures (including the Monastery, thus its name) were clearly repurposed at one time or another as Christian churches. The Colonnaded Street tell of its time as a Roman colony. Even the name Petra is itself Greek, named for the stone the city was carved out of. (Wadi Musa, the name of the nearest town to Petra, translates as "the Valley of Moses", since in the Muslim tradition, it’s where Moses struck a rock to produce a spring.)

It’s quite a spread-out site — UNESCO Heritage or no, I think it could do with a bit of funicular — and in the summer heat, quite exhausting to walk around. Did I mention how hot it is? At the top of the hill with the Monastery, there’s a little cafe with a few stray cats. (JC and Rita have dozens of pictures of stray cats all over the Levant, and indeed any animal of any kind that we saw anywhere on our trip.) It’s so hot that the stray cats would come up and beg — not for food, but for water, which we would pour into the little bottle caps of our water bottles, from which they would drink gratefully.

I’d encourage you to know what you want to see ahead of time. There’s no shortage of sights and once you get off the beaten path it’s easy to find yourself trekking down some underdefined path towards a sight that, while interesting, was perhaps not the best use of your valuable time in Jordan. On the other hand, Little Petra, unless for some reason you have an excess of time in Wadi Musa and literally nothing else to do, I’d recommend skipping. It’s not as developed as Petra itself, and suffers more from the pushy vendors as a result. It’s essentially just one long alley, with structures that are similar in style, although perhaps it’s a tiny bit easier to scramble up and down the rock and imagine how this alley may have functioned thousands of years ago.

Dead Sea / Madaba

We take our stuff to Amman via the adventure related in the last post and we hire the same driver to take us to the Dead Sea the following day. From reading Jenny’s travel report I know that it will be wise to also stop in Madaba and possibly somewhere else such as Mount Nebo. JC’s mom ensures we get a late start.

We stop at Madaba first. It’s a cute little town. We wander around the "archaelogical park" looking at the mosaics. Madaba has mosaics galore — the archaelogical park contains mosaics that were recovered from private residences, which had re-used the mosaics that had been built on top of previous earlier mosaics, as flooring. Some of the mosaics on display in walls had been defaced in antiquity for depicting living things, which is of course against Islamic practice. We also stop in at the Orthodox Basilica of St. George, which is marvelous. Not only does it have the famous map of the Holy Land, but there are dozens of other mosaics on the walls.

This one is my favorite. The combination of the halo and the Arabic are another reminder of the rich, confusing history of this part of the world.

If, like me, you are American, the Dead Sea probably has a mystique, with its mud ascribed powerful healing and beautifying properties. You may also consider it a "fun" place to go, where you can float on the water even without being able to swim. And when we actually enter the water, we do begin bobbing like corks, even with all our limbs out of the water. However, the idea of fun is quickly qualified by signs warning us not to enter the water face down, because we can be borne off our feet and unable to get our faces out of the water and quickly drown. Not only that, the whole valley is blanketed with a dense haze even thicker than the one over the Sea of Galilee — as Earth’s lowest point on land, it’s very hot, and the distance between where the infrastructure ends and the sea starts speaks to a lot of evaporation. (Indeed, the Dead Sea is dropping by about 1m per year.)

A pleasant suggestion along the shore of the Dead Sea.

The water is so salty that you can’t stay in it too long. It sets every opening on your body to burning. JC didn’t think things through and regrets shaving the night before. Jenny Wang described it in her blog post as "caustic", which is apt. Another thing we didn’t anticipate is the smell. Rita describes it as being like burnt tires. It’s enough to remind you why this place is called "the Dead Sea", not just "the Really Salty Sea at the Bottom of a Valley". Nothing can live here. It’s hard to imagine wanting to try.

It looks better than it smells.

We try to leave the mud on us for as long as we can manage but it’s rough going. We try to wash as much off as we can, but the smell follows us in the car back to Amman. [Editor’s note: while doing research for this piece, I discovered that "Currently, only sewage and effluent from fish ponds run in the river’s channel." I wonder if that’s the source of the smell?]


We spend a couple days in Amman. We stay at the Jordan Tower Hotel, which is where Jenny Wang reported staying, and find that not only are the price and the location are unbeatable, but the staff is quite friendly, even forbearing of Julie. (One morning, Julie comes down to the lobby with a scarf over her head, perhaps to protect from the sun. She jokingly tells the man behind the desk, "I’m a Muslim today!" The rest of us are of course horrified by the reductive and regressive attitude and rush to explain that we’re sorry, she doesn’t know better, etc. but what’s worse is that with her accent, it sounds like she’s saying she’s a "mushroom", so before we can even apologize we have to translate what she’s saying to the baffled gentleman, who (luckily) finds the whole thing amusing and even asks Julie on future mornings if she is a mushroom today.)

We are also quite close to Pizza Roma Cafe/Amman Pasha Hotel, which has a lot of things going for it: a rooftop terrace overlooking the Roman theater; waiters who will bring you beer for decent-ish prices (considering); a collection of animals, because apparently the owner likes to take in strays. I think their website does a pretty good job selling the story.

Clearly some previous visitors were French.

Although beer is not 100% readily available, we are quick to discover a replacement beverage in the form of sugar cane juice, which is available from stalls everywhere for quite cheap (less than one dinar, usually). A pleasant diversion, and one that we embrace for the rest of our trip.

Of course we see the Roman theater, which is interesting enough. We also see the Citadel, which has its own dramatic Roman ruins. Amman is a city of seven hills, and the Citadel is on top of one of them. The afternoon prayer time arrives while we are there, and the call unwinds from several mosques all around the city and echo throughout, mixing into an unearthly although beautiful sound, the sound of a city muttering to itself. I try to record it with my phone and don’t get great quality, but if you turn your volume up, perhaps you will get the idea.

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Julie is bored to tears by the Citadel and on subsequent days, JC cuts her loose with some money and instructions not to get into trouble. After that day, when we find her back at the hotel, she is visibly brimming with excitement. She apparently took a cab to the posh part of town and found, wonder of wonders, a Burger King. "Ice cream is only 79 cents!" she exclaims.

A perfume shop. This was lots of fun!

FDR and her mom have to cut their trip short after Jordan, but Rita and I will be continuing with JC and her mom to Egypt. We take a taxi to Queen Alia International. We are stopped at a checkpoint. After a spirited discussion with the soldiers there, the taxi driver turns to me. "China, right?" What? "You’re going to China?" No, we’re going to Egypt. The taxi driver relays this information to the soldiers, and they wave us through.


We land in Aswan, which is a small regional airport, comparable in nature to the Yaoundé airport. We have no Egyptian pounds and it is not clear how we are going to get any before taking a taxi to our hotel. We spend a while waiting by the baggage carousel for our suitcases. They don’t arrive. I’m on high alert, feeling quite vulnerable without local currency or our suitcases. JC asks politely of a white-uniformed policeman if there are more suitcases. While I am distracted, he requests JC and Rita come with him. I eventually notice that they’ve gone and start to get anxious, but before I can get very far, they are back with our suitcases. (Apparently the suitcases had gotten flagged for some random screening or whatever.) We ask if there is an ATM, and the policeman instructs me and me alone to follow him. We walk through the airport to an ATM and I am able to extract a sufficiency of money. I’m off balance — is this a bribery situation? Some kind of airport security thing? But before I can figure out what’s going on, they politely escort us out the front door.

We easily procure a taxi. "Welcome to Alaska," the driver says, referring to the oppressive arid heat. We haggle a bit just for the practice but the taxi drivers are firm in their price and honestly we don’t really care that much, because the taxi fare is still cheaper than the price that the hostel quoted us to meet us in a shuttle. The drive is pleasant enough; we see a little bit of the village and before we know it, we are at the place. We are the only guests.

The host is a pleasant man of Nubian heritage who has traveled relatively widely. He is happy to arrange "excursions", in particular he can take us to the Nubian village, where we sightsee and hold a crocodile, and he can arrange for a Nubian dinner prepared by Nubians. Not only that, he says, but one thing he sometimes likes to do in the summer is to take people down by the first cataract, where there’s something of a little beach, and you can take a little swim in the Nile and cool down. JC is immediately excited about this. My initial reaction, like any good RPCV, is to remember that back in Cameroon, we had been warned not to swim in any fresh water for fear of getting schistosomiasis. But I catch myself before I say anything — certainly this is not like Cameroon, and our host wouldn’t have suggested it if it weren’t safe, right?

From a felucca ride.

The hostel doesn’t have Internet access the first night, which is a bit of a hardship. "Sorry about that!" he says, "But it’s a little bit Africa here, you know?" I do know. Still, we have enough information to go out and see a little bit of the town, and especially so we can book travel to Abu Simbel.

We go to Philae Temple, which is inconvenient and only accessible via extortionate boat people. All Egyptian monuments are beset with intrusive Egyptian "hosts" who try to show you things you can already see, prevent you from taking pictures, permit you to take pictures, take pictures with you, etc. in exchange for a little money. It makes the experience quite a bit less pleasant. Still, Philae Temple is beautiful and the heiroglyphics are intricate.

Still at Philae Temple. This cross "graffito" is a relic of when Philae Temple was repurposed much later as a Christian church.

I am startled to find that unlike e.g. Cameroon, where by dark everyone is inside for the night, and despite my preconceptions of the Middle East as strict and repressive, in Aswan we find that people are still out and about, the souq is still active, etc. fairly late, with a decent gender mix, at least until 10 or 11. This pattern holds true in all the Egyptian cities we visit. Perhaps it’s because the height of the day is unbearably hot.

More refreshing sugar cane juice!

Aswan at night.

We also see Abu Simbel, which (while impressive) is an enormous pain in the ass to get to and may not be worth it. (If you do go, I echo the recommendations of the editors on Wikivoyage who encourage you to read up about the site before you get there.)

Obligatory Abu Simbel photo.

We got to visit the traditional Nubian village where they still raise crocodiles in the traditional manner. They are heavy!

Camels rushing through the Nubian village.

This is the dinner arranged by our host. I guess this is Nubian food! (It was delicious, whatever it was.)

The Internet isn’t available on the second night either, but after coming back from our splash in the Nile, we do finally get some access. Just out of curiosity, I look up schistosomiasis; Wikipedia helpfully informs me that "Schistosomiasis is endemic in Egypt, exacerbated by the country’s dam and irrigation projects along the Nile." (Rita and I try to get checked out back in the States. We test negative and we are asymptomatic, for whatever that’s worth.)


We take the train to Luxor. (In case it isn’t clear, I lean into overland travel vs. air travel for within-vacation stuff, since it’s usually more pleasant if not cheaper and easier.)

While we are in Luxor, we make sure to partake in the traditional Ancient Egyptian hot air balloon ride. (Luxor is also a great place to learn to walk like an Egyptian.)

We see the Valley of Kings, the Ramesseum, etc. but by this point we’ve seen more than enough ancient Egyptian ruins to last us for a good while and in particular the ladies are over it. Medinet Habu is pretty interesting, especially because of the mystery of the Sea Peoples. (These are shots of Medinet Habu.)

The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut.

From Deir el-Medina.

While at Karnak Temple.

At Luxor Temple. The first is from the avenue between Luxor and Karnak temples. The last is from a collection of Egyptian monument fragments reassembled and ordered by period, which let you see the deep conservatism of Egyptian art and the subtle influences over different historical periods (such as when the Greeks and Romans showed up).

We also go shopping. Through perseverence, I am eventually able to purchase a Stella Beer t-shirt (motto: "That which does not kill us, makes us stronger"). We end up in a multi-level souvenir store which according to my credit card statement was called "George Bazaar". JC spends some time buying jewelry, and in particular silver. The store seems to be operated by Coptic Christians. (Interestingly, the word "Coptic" is a corruption of a word which was itself the corruption of a word which was itself a borrowing of the Greek Aigýptios.) When I am back in the States, I ask a family friend, a naturalized Egyptian, what religion he is and whether he is a Coptic Christian. "Let me tell you something," he says, smiling. "If you look at the history, all of that stuff," meaning religion, "that all happened in Egypt. We invented the whole thing."

We saw some of these little water-fountain kinds of things, which I thought were fascinating (a far cry from the wells we had in Cameroon), but never got close enough to really interact with.

We engaged a local entrepreneur to drive us around on motos for a little while. Here the ladies are posing ferociously. (Well, I think Rita just looks ferocious by accident while she tries to untie her hair.)

Murals in Egypt were quite charming. (The first is in Aswan, the others in Luxor.)

We take a sleeper train overnight from Luxor to Cairo. Next to the Luxor train station is a liquor store (Drinkies) and I am able to purchase a few beers for the trip.


Cairo is a nice enough city. (I find time to take the subway, which is pleasant.)

The view from our balcony.

Another carob juice vendor (or whatever it is). I’ll drink anything!

Although we are completely sick of ancient structures, we take the time to go to see the Pyramids. We have a terrible time. First, we try to go with someone we met on the train, but he flakes out on us, costing us valuable time and making us look stupid. Second, when we finally arrive at the site, we are pressured into riding animals (we accept out of fear of being hassled too much while inside the pyramid complex, and also because of misunderstanding of just how large the site is — it’s only about 1km a side), for which we pay too much. Third, after all the intricate carvings we’ve seen at all the different temple, the pyramids themselves are underwhelming — just giant piles of blocks. Wikivoyage describes the Sphinx as "a frankly mangy-looking lion" and they’re not wrong.

However, our "handlers" (from whom we rented the animals) encourage us to take the time to stage several ridiculous photos.

Behind the scenes of the shots.

The photos are so ridiculous that looking at them after they are taken is enough to reduce the ladies to hysterics.

We also visit Saqqara, which has some slightly-more-interesting monuments. (We come within sighting range of the Pyramid of Djoser and the Pyramid of Userkaf.)

We see the Citadel and the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, which is rich and stunning.

We see Old Cairo, which is fascinating and beautiful.

We also visit Al Azhar Park, which is an upscale paid-admission park. While we are eating ice cream, some people come up to us and ask to take photos with us. It’s not unlike in Cameroon. Operating under the doctrine of "once a PCV, always a PCV" I pose dutifully with many different Egyptians. However, Julie loves the attention and has a great time being photographed. The taxi back to the hostel overcharges us.

Thus ends our trip. Even the baggage handlers at Cairo airport who hoist your luggage through the scanning equipment ask for tips. Although this could be considered a nice example of local flavor, I feel that this is a violation of the international monoculture/cultural imperialism of airports and give them nothing. While shopping in the duty-free store to kill time, Rita and I buy a bottle of Egyptian rosé (Obelisk brand) for $6.


Our planning efforts were aided by Jenny Wang’s heroic blog posts: Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. Additionally, this site on the overland crossings from Israel to Jordan was pretty helpful.

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