March 29-April 1: At Sea Days.
We have come to enjoy our at-sea days more than we had anticipated, so for this post we’ll give you an idea of how we occupy our time aboard ship when we’re not off on an excursion.
- Classes: Digital Workshop (Word, Windows 8.1 apps), drawing
- Lectures: countries we’re visiting, Indian Ocean, Arab culture, Rappin’ with the Rabbi
- Activities: family photos project, writing posts, laundry, walks around the deck, reading
- Evenings: cocktails with friends or at the Piano Bar, dinner with our tablemates or other friends, shows (music, dance)
Holland America offers many more activities, such as fitness, Tai Chi, meditation, games of chance, bridge, watercolors, arts & crafts, dance, wine, cooking, trivia, but our list above keeps us occupied and happy.
April 2: Petra, Jordan.
Our excursion today was to Petra, first brought to our attention many years ago in the opening scenes of the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Carved out of the red sandstone rock in the desert mountains of “Arabia,” Petra was, to my mind, the ultimate exotic location, and we knew that experiencing it would be one of the highlights of this around the world cruise. Access to Petra is via Aqaba, the port city at the southernmost tip of the country of Jordan.
This morning, we docked in Aqaba, which is Jordan’s only access to the sea. From this area we could see lands in Jordan as well as in three other countries: Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Our guide, a Jordanian native, gave us a few facts about Aqaba and about Jordan.
- It’s the largest port in the Middle East.
- The impression is that “All Jordan comes here to work.”
- The city is growing fast but only to the north since the Gulf of Aqaba is to the south, Israel is to the west, and Saudi Arabia is to the east.
- In our drive through the city at the end of the day, we could see that it’s generally prosperous and attractive.
- The language of Jordan is various dialects of Arabic.
- About 12% of the population is Christian; the rest are Muslim. Religious tolerance is strictly observed: they celebrate each other’s holidays, support each other as needed, and receive equal treatment from the government.
- It has the highest tax rate in the Middle East, with much of the revenue being used to improve infrastructure.
- Although Jordan doesn’t have natural resources available for export, such as oil, two important sectors of its economy are manufacturing and tourism.
- The government requires that Jordanians achieve a high level of education and that everyone study English. On our tour of Petra we found that even the youngest vendors were able to speak some English.
- Women in Jordan can choose whether to wear the black robes and headgear which we’ve seen in other Muslim countries, but they can also drive, travel, and work in all sectors: government, education, medicine, army, police, etc.
- Jordanians can travel freely except to Saudi Arabia, where they are not welcome because Jordan chose to remain neutral in some recent conflict.
Our guide today was a Bedouin, you know, those nomadic herders who ride camels through the desert and live in black goat-skin tents. But this Bedouin is also a tour guide. He was born in a cave in Petra during the 1960s (one of 16 children), was educated in Amman (the capital of Jordan), has studied abroad, and has served as tour guide to important people, such as Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, and the Prime Minister of Indonesia. His commentary throughout our time with him was full of insights and facts which we would never have known otherwise.
For most of the two-hour drive from Aqaba to Petra, we followed the highway that leads north to Amman. This is a major truck route from the port to the interior, as we could tell by the numbers of trucks and truck stops along the way. Curiously, there were speed humps every few miles, which caused the bus to shift into a lower gear and sometimes almost to stop before we could continue. I wonder if this is the Jordanian way to control speeding.
Eventually, we turned off the highway onto a secondary road as we made our way towards Petra. The scenery for the entire trip was amazing. It reminded us at various times of parts of the desert southwest that we love so much: southern Utah and Colorado, Joshua Tree National Monument, the Grand Canyon, etc. There were steep, rugged mountains with no greenery except what was struggling along in the bottom of washed-out gullies. At higher elevations, there were places where rocks seemed to be emerging out of the alluvial plains, some in rounded piles, and others just in jagged clumps. Occasionally, we would see small herds of goats or sheep, always attended by a nearby human being. So there must have been some kind of vegetation which we couldn’t see from the road. There were no fences except around holding pens. Our guide also pointed out to us several Bedouin campsites, with the characteristic long black tents and people wearing long robes and headgear. Most spectacular were the distant views: from the bus we could often see for miles and miles into deep valleys with all kinds of rock formations which had been created by the wind and rain of the desert.
As we approached the modern town of Petra, which lies outside ancient Petra, the road descended through the mountains toward the town center. Off in the distance, we could see our destination, the red sandstone cliffs behind which ancient Petra was located. Built only during the past 40 years or so, modern Petra is a collection of exclusive hotels and of tan and white flat-roofed houses clinging to the hillsides. Stone stairways connect some of the streets, olive trees are everywhere (olive oil can be a family business), and signage is often, though not always, in English as well as in Arabic. Our tour bus had to negotiate the narrow streets of the town and deposit us near the gate in a parking lot with at least two dozen other tour buses. That gave us a hint about what to expect in terms of crowds. Actually, there were lots of people at the site, but given what we were seeing, they didn’t really detract from the experience.
When we arrived inside the gate, our guide started his commentary about the site. It has been populated throughout recorded history and before, but the monuments we see today seem to have been built during the first century B.C.E. by an Arabic people called the Nabateans. The influence of other civilizations, such as the Greeks and Abyssinians, can be seen in the architecture as well. To reach the monuments, we followed a well-worn path and then walked about 1.5 miles along a deep, narrow canyon, slightly downhill. This passage is called the Siq. The walls of this canyon have been sculpted by water and wind, and with our guide’s help we also noticed severely eroded man-made figures which reflected the business of Petra as an important trading center. At the end of the Siq, the space suddenly opened up into a wider canyon, and the Treasury was before us. What an amazing achievement! This is the most famous and outstanding of all Petra’s monuments. The space in front was full of tourists, camels, donkeys, and vendors, but the sculpted red sandstone is what attracted the eye. Our tour group stood together for a while as we took in the experience and the guide gave us more history; then we moved on down this wider canyon another half mile or so to view some of the other sculpted rock faces. We could see openings for caves everywhere and there was even a theater which could seat 3,000 people. We were given a map of Petra which identifies 36 different monuments which can be found nearby. We saw only a few of them. We would have loved to have seen the others but had neither the time or the hiking ability to see more at this time.
As for what we saw at Petra, we have to fall back on the picture is worth a thousand words concept. Denise’s pictures will show you what we saw in the hour or so we spent in the canyon. Just being there among the sculpted architectural structures and the naturally eroded stone passages was among the most moving travel experiences we have ever had.
April 3: At Sea Day – Transit Suez Canal and Passover.
Today, we passed through the Suez Canal. This is a sea-level waterway (it needs no locks) which connects the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. It was opened in 1869 after 10 years of construction. It is owned and maintained by Egypt, but according to international treaty, it may be used by ships of any country. We had to lie at anchor most of the day as we waited our turn to pass through. Dredging operations, the Captain told us, had disrupted normal procedures, and ship traffic was able to run in only one direction. Our forward decks were full of onlookers as the ship entered the canal about 4pm. We went up to the 6th deck, but there wasn’t much to see, actually. A few ships were anchored nearby, ships were ahead of us and behind us in line to enter the canal, a community of apartment buildings was on the left side (displaying hundreds of satellite dishes on the roofs), and sand was on the right. As we continued, we could see past the sand banks on both sides to the communities beyond. There was also evidence of the recently undertaken construction project which is supposed to markedly increase Egypt’s revenue from the world’s use of its canal. The ship was due to exit the canal after midnight, but we knew we would be too tired to stay up to watch for that.
Dinner tonight was the Passover Seder. It was held in one side of the Lido restaurant and included about 170 people. At our table were our neighbors from across the hall and our normal dinner tablemates, none of whom was Jewish. The meal was somewhat shorter than Denise was used to, but I thought the pace and amount of detail were fine. The food was also good except that each of us was served half of a chicken – too much to eat, so Denise and I shared one. Rabbi Starr runs a good service, and our tablemates seemed to enjoy the evening, as we did.