Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Exploring Petra, Jordan + Spending a Night Illegally in Cave like Al Qaeda

The Magnificence of Petra
Mahmoud drove me to Petra’s gate early in the morning, where I parted with the rather hefty $45 entrance fee, thrilled however to be seeing one of the Seven New Wonders of the World.
As I hike the trail, the mountains slowly close around me like the coils of a snake, until I am walking a winding path just a few feet wide, sheer cliffs on either side of me. Ahead, the tunnel opens, sun shining through, its golden light illuminating The Treasury.
Petra's treasury, discovered by Indiana Jones
The Treasury is carved directly into the limestone rock, and received its name because it was rumored that an Egyptian Pharaoh had hidden his wealth inside.
Check out the Treasury!! Move over Indiana Jones

(To see The treasury in person is jaw dropping.)

The magnificent treasury of Petra

Yoni and Zuzka
While admiring the Treasury, a 25 year old Israeli, Yoni, asks me to take a picture of him and his girlfriend, Zuzka.  We start walking around together, agreeing to jointly undertake the exploration of this ancient civilization, with me getting dibs on pharaoh’s treasure.

The many hones in the carved in the mountains of Petra, Jordan
Chiseled in the cliffs are the former residences of these long lost people. We pass by an outdoor coliseum, I daydream about what spectacles were once witnessed here: Gladiator fights? Public executions? Unveiled Muslim women? My fantasy comes to an abrupt end, as none of these are exactly appealing visuals for the imagination.

The coliseum of Petra
We climb the cliffs and admire the surrounding view of the parched mountains, enjoying a lunch consisting of canned tuna and pita bread. As I listen to their travel stories, I realize what I love about trekking the globe are the variety of adventuresome people you meet.
Yoni, in Israeli tradition, is intense, loud, and attempting to renegotiate my claim to pharaoh’s gold. He recently completed his required service in the Israeli army, and is looking forward to marrying his salsa dancing Czech girlfriend, Zuzka, whom he met in South America, the announcement of which I predict will be deemed by Yoni’s mother akin to dropping the Hiroshima nuclear bomb directly on her head, and the radioactive guilt she will release will have a half-life equal to her own.
Zuzka for her part, is a software engineer living in Canada, who lives to travel. She has a very nicely shaped face with a squarish jaw, and being adventurous, open, smart, and brave, I dub her as one of the coolest girls I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.

A Brush With Death
We climb the cliffs up and down, dipping into caves, admiring the scenery, exploring as much of Petra as anyone could hope to. Yoni is the best mountain climber of the three of us, and generally leads. The cliffs are generally quite steep, and it becomes important to plan your moves in advance, not to just take the next easiest step.
We begin to climb another mountain, far beyond the path most tourists take. This time I lead. Near the end, the cliff becomes nearly vertical, with few places to grip or place your feet. I’m only ten or so feet from the top. It looks somewhat daunting, but with resolve, I push off from my resting place. I climb the first half with ease, but around ¾ of the way, my grip of the rock starts to slip.
My heart skips a beat, a fall here likely means death, not only for me, but odds are I’ll be taking Yoni and Zuzka with me as they are directly below me. My hand continues to slide off the rock. 
Do something!  
I can’t breathe. With seemingly no other option but to take a mighty gamble, I use what leverage I have from my legs to push upwards on the rock, I rise just enough for my hand to find a slightly better grip. I push off with my legs again and scamper up the remaining distance, and onto a small overhang.
A minute later we are all resting safely on the ledge. I’m not sure if Yoni and Zuzka have any idea how close we were to disappearing in the Middle East, likely to be found by flies and scorpions long before any human.

Middle East Politics
Having survived another cliffhanger brush with death, I throw caution completely to the wind and start discussing politics with an Israeli.
Yoni tells me that he used to dislike thinking of himself as an Israeli, with most of the world hating his country, but today he’s proud of his heritage. I wonder whether just having completed his service in the Israeli army has anything to do with his changing mindset.
He wishes there was peace in his land. He doesn’t like the old guard or the fundamentalists, on either side, that help foment this never ending struggle and hatred. He is hopeful that his generation can do something to change that. He hopes to be one day involved with the political process.
He says that part of the reason the world hates Israel is that the Palestinians have a better PR machine, and control the story much better than the Israelis do.
“I want peace,” states Yoni.
“How would you accomplish that?” I inquire.
“I have a plan,” reveals Yoni, “When I arrive at the forefront, I will change the narrative the world hears. I will tell the Israeli side of the story and as the world understands the Israeli position, the Palestinians will not have the same leverage in negotiations they have now.”
I’m shocked by this response. Changing into a fancier suit and hiring a publicist to sway the opinion of your peers, is a positively futile undertaking, and will never change the underlying relationship between you and your wife, if she continues to show up for events with bruises all over her face. (and of course this goes vice-versa for the Palestinians, as both sides are guilty of shameful deeds)

Residence of ancient Petra
Later on in the conversation, Yoni does an about face, asking whether I know who Gilad Shalit is.
“Yes, the Israeli soldier who was abducted by Hamas in a cross border raid, and sadly, continues to be held, victim of the political struggle.”
Yoni pauses, and then says, with a seemingly guilty conscience, “One Israeli is kidnapped, and we go beserk as a nation. Most days, the IDF, (Israeli Defense Force) kidnaps three Palestinians off the streets, and interrogates, sometimes tortures them, because we think that those individuals will be able to provide intelligence on where the next attack on Israel might come from.”
Violence, coupled with the need to survive, begets more violence, and decency and morality are the first to be thrown by the wayside. Both sides are at fault, in this seemingly ceaseless ideological, egoic struggle for this “holy land.”

(Check out what lies outside the Treasury)
Overnight- Sadaam’s Chemical Weapons
It was getting late, and the three of us were sitting on a ledge high above the ground, playing a game of chicken to see who would buckle first at spending the night in this ancient civilization. No one blinked.
We had water, and some pita bread to last the night, and with the park now closed and the sun setting, and the government workers, apparently unaware of our remaining presence, unleash Sadaam Hussein’s chemical weapons.
A truck, drives down the gorge below, spraying the entire area with a thick poisonous cloud meant to eradicate flies from Jordan’s #1 tourist destination. It seems like overkill, literally, as the toxic haze drifts towards us, causing us to violently cough and flee to the other side of the mountain, moving as quickly over the rocks as the combination of low light and lethal gas chasing us will allow.
Eventually, we reach the peak and descend to the other side, finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. Twenty minutes later, a series of SUV's clamber down the road, shining search lights on the rocks. Are they looking for us? Quite possibly, it’s illegal to spend the night here, not to mention dangerous. Perhaps we should hide.
We duck into a cave, and wait for an hour, murmuring amongst ourselves. The search lights disappear, we head out onto a limestone ledge, a couple hundred feet off the ground. We lay down on the flattest places available and look up at the stars. At three AM the full moon rises over the mountains, showering us with translucent light. Slowly, we go fall sleep, not knowing that the CIA is already working on the case of the missing American in the Middle East(follow up story link)

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