Fact: There is a small village in Israel called Shittim.
My guide picked me up from my hotel in Eilat around seven am, and we crossed over the border at the Yitzchak Rabin crossing into the Duty Free zone of Acquba, Jordan. Myself and 19 other English speakers began an adventure in the desert. Technically, two of the members of our group live in Italy, two in Singapore, four in England, five in Israel and the rest in the United States. Including a pregnant Jewish woman from LA, who walked all the day in the sun, and whom the guide kept hoping would give birth in Petra at some point during the tour. ("We give your baby Jordanian citizenship.")
Our guide for the first day, Ali, gave us a thorough history of Jordan as a Kingdom and as a political entity, and just in case one would forget the current ruler of the Hashemite Kingdom, approximately every five feet, in both the cities and on the highways, some photo of King Hussein, past and present, appeared. The King in formal wear, the King in military wear, the King with his now dead (1999) father, the King with his wife and children. Ali explained that the nation loves their ruler, and that the photos show how powerful he has become since he ascended the throne. I look at this display and interpret it as insecurity, much in the same way that every house car and dog had an American flag wrapped around themselves after 9/11; if you create a fantasy and hit everyone over the head with a hammer with the message, maybe someone will believe it.
The city of Acquba boasts the largest free flying flag on the planet. This composite flag which represents the successful revolution against the Ottoman Empire, can be seen across the road so to speak in Eilat, and makes so much noise that it disturbs the sleep of those 100,000 port workers who live nearby.
Approximately two hours later, we arrived at Petra, and began a six hour hike in the most naturally beautiful canyons and Nabatean/Roman ruins. Words cannot do it justice, you will have to wait for me to post the photos. For fans of Indiana Jones, there is indeed a dramatic moment, when you round the corner in the canyon and come upon the Treasury Building seen in the movie, though our group did not find any treasure there that day. Also impressive are the rows of the Royal Tombs, carved into the cliffs, each in the style of the various civilizations that inhabited the site.
The taxis in the area, the camels and donkeys, seemed hot and tired and overworked to me, though I may be anthropomorphising these beasts of burdens. Ali assured me that their masters treat them well and feed them regularly. I was also slightly concerned at the very young children herding the taxis and selling jewelry; Ali assured me again that it is Jordanian law that all children go to school, and that the school year starts next week.
After a Middle Eastern style lunch, we were given two hours to return to our starting point, the Petra visitor's center, marked by two giant portraits of the Kings Hussein. I wandered back with my Singapore friends, Meg and Beng, and we took horses for the last 300 meters uphill, the heat had become overwhelming, but we Tigers (the name of our group) made it, albeit sweaty and exhausted.
Of note, Petra is located in Wadi Musa, named after the Jewish Prophet Moses, whom the Muslims seem to revere almost as much as their own prophet Muhamed. Throughout the day, Ali kept referring to the "Prophet Moses", and pointing out various springs in the desert named after him as well. Ali also taught me something I did not know: the Dome of the Rock is not in fact the place where Muhamed ascended, but the rock brought from the very spot in the desert where Moses had the whole burning bush discussion, he and G-d.
I came to learn much more about Muhamed and the Koran on the second day...
The evening was spent at the Taybet Zeman hotel, an entire Arab village near Wadi Rum which was converted to a five star hotel. This hotel has entire complex of shops bars and restaurants, a Turkish bath, a Heliport and a swimming pool. My room faced a stunning view of the mountains, including the mountain on which Aaron (Moses' brother, another revered figure in Arab culture) is supposedly buried. The suites are outfitted with the finest accessories and the gardens are beautifully manicured. Every time you breathe, some staff member asks if you need anything. If you ever find yourself near Petra, there is only one hotel in which to stay. (Not an official endorsement.)
And it was the best shower I have taken in a long time.
(End of Part I)