Stuck in the Desert

Outside of Fayyoum is desert full of “balls”, or giant fossilized fish eggs, which apparently is not a sight to be missed. So we hired Mostafa to take us, and Peter and I kind of looked at each other when we saw him pull up in a Toyota Prius, but we climbed in and away we went. Maybe it should have been a red flag that we passed at least 3 Land Rovers double the size of the Prius driving into the desert…

It turned out to be very windy that day, but despite the chilly weather, we were ready to explore. Apparently, the desert had a different agenda. The wind had blown sand over the one lane road through the desert, making the drive precarious. Mostafa kept going though, continuing to speed up when he felt the car losing grip in the sand.

And then it happened. We were stuck. This little Prius was like the Little Engine that Could trying to drive out of this desert, and it just wasn’t happening. We were stuck. No matter how hard Mostafa pressed on the gas, our wheels were spinning. We weren’t going anywhere.

All three of us got out of the car, stood there in disbelief. From horizon to horizon, there was nothing but sand. Peter and I turned to each other and just laughed, there was nothing else we could do! Meanwhile, Mostafa started to dig.

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Peter’s really taking initiative and helping Mostafa come up with a solution.

Not sure why his bright idea was to literally dig the car out of the sand, but the more he dug, the more obvious it became that this was not the solution. So then he started letting air out of the tire that was stuck. Peter and Mostafa pushed the car while I pressed on the gas, but it didn’t move. So he released more air. We tried again, no luck. More air…no luck. It was getting dangerously close to the point that not only would we be suck in the sand, but we’d also have a flat tire!

And then, out of nowhere, four men emerge from behind a sand dune on their motorbikes with their headscarves and galabayas blowing in the wind. It had to have been a desert mirage, or at least a movie, because this could not be real life.

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The four men stopped to help us push the car out of the sand, and with the extra force, we were free and back on the desert road in under half an hour. We continued on to the desert balls, which were very impressive. They were massive, and it was so impressive to think that the the land we were walking on was once buried under water.

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We finished the trip on the banks of Qarun Lake, where we made a fire and drank tea before heading back to Tunis Village. As we walked back to the car, Mostafa threw the keys at me, telling me it was my turn to drive. I was a little hesitant given our prior mishap, but I had always wanted to drive in Egypt so this was my opportunity! I got behind the wheel and drove us 40 minutes through the desert back to the village, safe and sound.

Takeaway of the day: A Prius is NOT a suitable desert car.

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Our Journey to Jordan

Peter and I decided to take a long weekend trip to Jordan since it’s only one hour away from Cairo by plane. If you want to travel to an outer suburb of Cairo from downtown, it might take you more than 1 hour given the terrible traffic, but by 10:00 AM that day we  were in another country on the road to Wadi Rum!

Quite frankly, the thought of renting a car was scary at first since I had never driven outside of the US, but it was absolutely worth it to have a car instead of trying to navigate public transportation, and it enabled us to see more of the country. On the last day we had some extra time before needing to be at the airport, so we decided to take a 30 min trip to see the Ajloun castle, which we wouldn’t have been able to do on short notice without the car.

I’ve been to Jordan three times now, once for 6 months, and the others for shorter trips, but every time the country takes my breath away. Follow our stops along the way!

Wadi Rum

This spectacular desert was the highlight of our trip, and if you’re planning a trip to Jordan is a sight that cannot be missed! We made the 3.5 hour drive straight from the airport to   the Wadi Rum Visitor’s Center, and for the full experience, we stayed a night in a Bedouin camp. We were met by our guide in his well-worn Toyota pickup, and we climbed into the bed which was modified with “benches” for an off-roading experience. We spent the afternoon climbing rock formations, the burnt orange sand dunes, and exploring the caves until sundown, when we were driven to the campgrounds.

We ate a traditional dinner of meat and roasted vegetables, cooked underground and finished the night around a campfire with sweet (very sweet) sage tea. We two tiny beings absolutely in awe of Mother Earth, surrounded by the profound silence of nature and the clear, starry sky. It was incredibly breathtaking.

The following morning we departed on a 2-hour camel trek back to the visitor’s center, and our desert experience came to an end. It’s not the most comfortable mode of transportation, but knowing that you are recreating the routes people have taken for centuries upon centuries is spectacular.

Petra

From Wadi Rum, we drove an hour to Petra, through on back roads and through tiny mountain towns (which I still am unsure as to whether it’s the actual route or the GPS took us the wrong way), but we managed to get there despite an intense fog covering the roads. It got to the point that I was driving by the yellow line of the side of the road since I couldn’t even see 2 feet in front of me!

The roads down to Petra were so steep, that at one intersection Peter told me to keep going straight, but the road looked like it was a complete drop. Like I was about to drive off a cliff. There was a bulldozer trying to come up the road I was coming down, there were people trying to pass through the intersection, and I was frozen thinking about trying to drive straight down this hill. The bulldozer flashed his lights at us, and I just started crying. Peter looked at me like “oh my God what is happening here” and immediately offered to take over, so we switched drivers. The bulldozer is still flashing his lights, people are trying to pass us on this hill, and now the Peter can’t move from park to drive. A Jordanian man comes over to the window and I’m half crying, half yelling “fi mushkila” (there is a problem), and the guy reaches into the car and starts it, Peter manages to move the gear to drive, and off we go down this hill. Turns out that Peter (who has only driven a manual car) didn’t realize he needed to keep his food on the break in order to switch gears.

Despite this harrowing experience, we made it to Petra. We stayed at the Movenpick, which is right outside the gates of Petra. And let me be honest, the bright white hotel sign was the the beacon of hope that kept us going those last 20-30 minutes of hiking back to the main gates.

And Petra really is a hike, especially if you climb the monastery. The walk down to the treasury is downhill, but boy, is that walk back to the entrance is daunting, uphill and seemingly never ending, especially considering that you’ve already walked the entire site from the Monastery to the Treasury, and there’s still 30 more minutes to go!

We entered the site at about 1:45, and we were warned that it would close by 5 or 5:30 latest. And by 3:25 we had seen the Treasury, hiked up to the tombs, explored the caves, and walked down to the beginning of the Monastery trail. We saw increasingly fewer people on our way, and we were told that the full hike up to the Monastery is about 1 hour. Since it was already quite late, Peter was hesitating as to whether or not we should start then or just leave it for tomorrow. But there was no question for me. We had made it this far, we were hiking the Monastery and not coming back the next day (that was my true motivation). And so we hiked.

The walk was tough, but worth the view, and we made it in exactly 30 minutes (although we did go quite fast and took 2 short breaks). We could have gone up by donkey, but honestly the stairs are steep and slippery so it’s almost easier to walk up yourself. The path was littered with tents selling jewelry, scarves, and other knickknacks, but the really tempting tents are the ones selling refreshments making for a nice little pitstop! But onwards we went, past the tents, past other couples resting, for fear that we would be locked in Petra until the following day! Peter had even already picked out our cave for the night.

But we went quickly, stoped to take in the breathtaking monastery and view from the top, and made it back to the front gates by 6:00 PM! No cave dwelling for us!

Dead Sea 

Peter and I have both been to the Dead Sea before, so we didn’t stop again. However, we did take the “scenic” (and also very scary, mountainous route) from Petra to Amman that goes through the Jordan Valley and along the Dead Sea. It was worth the view. From the mountainous terrain to the farmland of the Jordan Valley to the beautiful turquoise of the Dead Sea, the 4 hour drive was breathtaking at every turn.

*Also, I have to put this little tidbit in here just for Peter since it was legitimately one of the highlights of his trip. Whilst driving through the mountains we came across a couple of stray dogs, which for Jordan is not abnormal, but we were so confused by what they were doing in the mountains. Then we turned the corner and we saw hundreds of dogs and an old abandoned train car teetering off the side of the cliff. As we slowed the car in awe, the dogs surrounded us barking loudly, to the point that if we had gotten out, I think we would have been attacked. So that option was off the table.  As we drove off, they faded into the distance, and Peter’s only regret was not taking a photo.

Jerash

From Amman, we drove about an hour north to Jerash. What astounds me about Jerash is how an ancient Roman city is preserved right along side the modern Jordanian one, where the old city walls run alongside the main through street.   Jerash “boasts an unbroken chain of human occupation dating back more than 6,500 years,”*  and the ruins are really well preserved. You can walk down the Cardo Maximus (the main road of the city) that is lined with in tact columns and still see where the chariots passed through thousands of years ago. The site also features Roman baths, two amphitheaters, many temples and churches, old markets, and rolling hills for miles. Ultimately the city faced fire and an earthquake that led to the destruction of some structures, but what is left in tact is worth a visit.

Amman 

As the capital, Amman cannot be missed, however you really only need one or two days to cover the city. Having lived in Amman for 6 months, there really is not much to do. Nobody walks around the city since it’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer, and it’s very, very hilly (the city was built on 7 hills), so you can’t really even go for a walk. But there are a couple sights worth exploring. Unfortunately for us, it was rainy, windy, and really cold, which made touring around miserable, but we still managed to see the main sights.

Our first stop was Rainbow Street right off of Circle One, which is a nice almost-pedestrian street lined with European-esque cafes, restaurants, and shops. To escape the pouring rain, we went had a burger and french fries at a particularly Westery-style restaurant, and then got ice cream as we walked to the lookout point before turning back to the hotel to escape the weather. We ventured back to Rainbow Street the next day for a little walk and brunch at Books@Cafe, which was one of my favorite spots when I was studying in Amman.

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From Rainbow Street, we went to explore the sights downtown. First stop, the Citadel, which sits at the highest hill of the city and has a breathtaking view (even in the rain!). It was occupied in since the Bronze Age, and like Jerash, it is amazing to stand in ruins from centuries prior and look out over the modern city of Amman. After the Citadel, we went to the nearby Roman Amphitheater, which is very well preserved as well. It was built in the 2nd century and sat 6,000 people!

To escape the rain again, we went to Hashem for their famous falafel, and we didn’t even have to order; we sat down, and they brought us the full spread of foul (a bean dip), hummus, falafel, and french fries to build our own sandwich – all for 4.50JD. When we finished,  we walked 250 meters down the road to Habiba to try their famous kenafa for desert! We had more than enough to eat in Amman, especially after having finished up the night at Jafra, a restaurant serving typical Jordanian food with a great atmosphere.

A bit outside downtown, we visited the King Abdullah II Mosque (or the Blue Mosque) is absolutely gorgeous. It’s quite modern inside, but beautiful with the blue and gold inscription, the stained glass windows, and the marble surroundings. We made it just before prayer time, which made it seemingly more serene, and was the perfect way to end our sightseeing tour in Amman.

Peter’s and my first vacation together was a success, so here’s to documenting many more adventures around the world!

*http://international.visitjordan.com/Wheretogo/Jerash.aspx