Published: Nov. 27, 2013, 8:19 p.m.
This is The Reunion Part II! Since leaving you at a drool-soaked table at Egypt airport, The Earthbound Astronauts have ventured through ancient Jordan, taken a spontaneous detour into the religious epicentre of Israel and were unexpectedly stranded in turbulent Egypt, the very place we were attempting to avoid! We hate predictability, so what comes next will not disappoint!
To listen to the Part II podcast click HERE!
Jordan – Amman & Petra – October 22nd – October 29th
Casey and I arrived into Amman completely exhausted after our restless night in the Cairo airport, so we headed to our prearranged hostel. This particular hostel had been so highly recommended by a multitude of people online, with all the comments including how wonderful the proprietor ‘Andrew’ was. The hostel itself was nothing special, quite rundown and minimalistic, but we did have the opportunity to meet this infamous Andrew, completely validating all the positive comments. We spent our first day in Amman recovering followed by dinner at one of the best restaurants in Amman, the Hashem restaurant. The Hashem restaurant purely served the mixed selection of falafel, pita, salad and two dips, yet it was easy to understand how it had earned such an outstanding reputation. We now have a new appreciation for falafel and hummus, and the variety of ways to consume said food, but more about that later. We spent a day exploring the Roman ruins and visiting the ruins of a citadel, which rest above the remainder of the city. It was intriguing to see the remnants of ancient civilisations that dated back over three thousand years, whilst tracing the progressive evolution of these civilisations and observing the variations in culture and religious belief over time. It was here that we started to realise how historically and culturally significant this entire area really was.
We decided we wanted to visit the famed Dead Sea, so Andrew organised ‘George’ to take us on a day trip to the area. George initially took us to Madaba to see the oldest known map of the promise land, which was an intricate partially preserved mosaic on the floor of what is now a Catholic church. We then visited Mount Nebo, where it is presumed 120-year-old Moses climbed so God could show him the Promised Land before dying there. The view from the top was truly impressive allowing us to appreciate all the elaborate rock formations and the Dead Sea, which was our next destination. We paid an exuberant price to enter a complex with pools and direct access to the beach of the fabled sea. Entering the water was a surreal experience, as you expect your body to sink as in all other water, but we defiantly stayed buoyant with no effort on our behalves. As we left the water, we could feel the salt now layered on our bodies, which slowly precipitated into large salt deposits. We observed a direct contrast between effortlessly swimming in The Dead Sea and the exhausting swim in the pure water of Crater Lake in Banlung, Cambodia. Returning to Amman, after helping George out by utilising our duty free privileges, we decided it was time to head to Jordan’s main attraction, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Petra. We caught the public bus to the town Wadi Mousa, which acts as the tourist base for people visiting Petra. Andrew had suggest a hotel for us to stay in while in the area, “The Valentine Inn”… Luckily, they had a twin room available even though there were still hearts on our key...
Just like Indiana Jones before us, we entered Petra through the ominous entrance, a relatively small division between two formidable walls of rock. We were humbled by this intimidating stone corridor before the channel opened onto the renowned treasury, currently the most exquisitely intricate building in Petra. It was unbelievable and almost implausible to conceive that people had built such an amazing structure into a rock face. As we continued into Petra there were numerous tombs and other buildings erratically scattered within the surrounding landscape, linked by hidden staircases leading to what were once possibly prominent areas. As we’d decided to spend two days at Petra, we used our first day to explore the major attractions such as taking the long trek to see the astonishing monastery (seen in Transformers 2), which rivals the treasury in its grandeur, and used our second day to go off the beaten track and find a great location to watch sunset. Whilst at Petra, we were completely at the mercy of the sun, so we tried to track shade at any opportunity. Even when we left the main trail, we were still coming across the remnants of life in the form of carvings, stairs and buildings. We were, and continue to be, completely in awe of Petra and the amazing artistry the founding civilization had masterfully utilised to create this former epicentre of trade.
After immensely enjoying Petra, we headed to Wadi Rum, an arid nature reserve approximately two hours south of Wadi Mousa, where we’d organised a tour for one day and a night. Jumping into the back of a ute, we were chauffeured around the reserve to various impressive naturally occurring springs and rock formations before we were taken to a Bedouin camp to enjoy the remarkable desert sunset. Having decided to avoid Egypt due to the enduring civil unrest, we had intended staying in Jordan for two weeks. However, whilst in Amman, the seed had been planted to visit Israel and Palestine. Catching a taxi from Wadi Rum to a town on the Jordanian-Israeli border, Aqaba, where we nervously prepared to cross this precarious border.
Israel & Palestine – Jerusalem – October 31st – November 3rd
We anxiously crossed the border by foot, passing the armed guards on either side. As we crossed into the Israeli immigration area we were welcomed by what seemed like endless photos of Bill Clinton… We were heavily questioned by immigration officials about where we’d been, how and for how long we’d known each other and our intentions in Israel. After being allowed to enter the country, we walked to the city, allowing us to observe the stark contrast between the small town of Aqaba in Jordan and the heavily westernized city of Eilat, where we saw a dramatic increase in infrastructure and overall wealth. From Eilat we organised a bus to Jerusalem, but not before we went to an upmarket shopping centre where Casey purchased an iPad to replace his water damaged iPhone.
Arriving into Jerusalem was a surreal experience, a city that has consistently been at the focal point of history and contributed to the evolution of countless religions. The city was such a blend of culture, with an obvious division demonstrated through something as simple as the architecture in differing districts. We had organised to stay at a hostel within the walls of the historical old city, near the Jaffa Gate. Joining a “Holy city” tour we were taken to the main attractions that have importance to the differing faiths. Initially, we were taken to the Temple Mount, which is now also the location of the building with the iconic golden dome and adjacent to the Western or ‘Wailing’ Wall. The Temple Mount is only open to tourists for a single hour everyday, and when we arrived people had already been waiting for hours. Luckily, our tour group was able to join the line with another tour group, which saw us clearing security within the allocated time. We had been in the site no more then ten minutes before they started aggressively ushering us out. We had been lucky to visit this site, but we did feel a twang of guilt for pushing our way into the line and robbing people of this rare opportunity. We later learnt (after continuously interrogating our guide) that the Temple Mount was part of the area controlled by Palestine and an ‘incident’ between Israel and Syria at the precise time we had entered the area partially explained our rapid expulsion. The presence of police and army members at various points through out the city really does contribute to the already prominent tension we were feeling.
After visiting the Temple Mount, we headed to a small portion of the Western Wall where we were able to write a ‘wish’ and place it into the cracks of the wall, replicating a Jewish practice. The remained of the tour predominately followed the assumed stages of Jesus’ crucifixion. As we walked the small alleyways, we were shown locations that coincided with events that were referenced within the Christian New Testament before we reached the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church, which is owned by all the major denominations of Christianity, housed the proposed location of Jesus’ crucifixion (Golgotha), the place of his anointment and the place of his burial. The people that were there on spiritual pilgrimages greatly contributed to the ambience and authenticity of the site. We then headed to the proposed location of the Last Supper, which, like the majority of sites in Jerusalem, had been in the possession of, and therefore influence by, one of the three main religious groups at one time or another. The tour was quite overwhelming in a way as were taken to sites that are considered sacred to differing people for a multitude of differing reasons. Walking through the four quarters (Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim) of the old town was really an experience in itself, but it was fantastic to see such diversity within the small area. The following day, Casey and I headed up to the Mount of Olives; where in Judaism it is said the prophet will descend and walk to the Temple Mount. Many cemeteries rest on this mountain for this very reason with their feet facing the summit as we were told, “people don’t want to miss the show”. Other prominent sites that rest on this mountain are the Garden of Olives, where it is assumed Judas betrayed Jesus, and the tomb of Mary, mother of Jesus. We also got an amazing view from the top over the city.
Jerusalem, on a whole, was quite an expensive city, which made eating extravagantly difficult. We found a tiny restaurant next to our hostel that made the most amazing falafel sandwiches, so amazing (and cheap) that it became our staple food whilst in Jerusalem, so much so that we were consuming two on each occasion… We were originally so apprehensive when it came to visiting Israel and Jerusalem, yet we were shocked by how Westernized the city was in parts and how isolated, yet apparent, the ongoing battle for territory really is between the conflicting sides. As we headed to the bus station to leave Jerusalem and Israel, we were shocked by the presence of a metal detector at the bus interchange, yet the large number of 18 to 20 year olds on their military service arbitrarily walking around with assault rifles seemed to make this somewhat redundant. We headed north to a border crossing we were assured would not be an issue to cross and returned back to Amman where we were catching our flight to Egypt and then Argentina the following day. We also had the pleasure of seeing Andrew again, who graciously sorted us out with a private room at a discounted price because “we were friends”.
Egypt – Cairo – November 4th – November 6th
As we were attempting to avoid entering Egypt, we had booked a flight to Cairo on the day of our flight from Cairo to Argentina. To avoid paying for an Egyptian visa to enter the country just to pick up our bags and check-in once more when we arrived in Cairo, we arrange to have our bags directly placed on our next flight. All smooth and seemingly easy... As we arrived into Cairo, we were ferried off to a room or ‘holding area’ used for transit passengers, having our passports confiscated. Feeling like were captives in this highly secured room, we waited for three hours to be presented with our connecting boarding passes, yet, we were ignored. Eventually, a man approached Casey and started asking about our visa receipt number. As Casey had travelled to Argentina before, where he had paid a reciprocity fee at the border, we were convinced that a prearranged payment was unnecessary. This situation continued, as we thought this seemingly less-then-official airport employee was taking us for a ride, before the man escorted Casey to the Qatar Airways desk. Casey then returned to the transit lounge, shockingly accompanied by our luggage. Unbeknown to us both, as of July, this fee must be paid online before departure to Argentina. They had refused to let us board the plane because we had not paid the fee, a fee that can be paid within minutes. I was also erroneously denied using my EU passport that doesn’t require a fee payment; we had been officially rejected from boarding the flight.
We were escorted back to the original terminal, Qatar Airways washing their hands of us, after what was quite appalling handling of the situation on their behalves. Unfortunately, the blame rests solely with us, yet I do not hesitate to partially condemn the airline for their disorganization and lack of knowledge and assistance in what should have been a recoverable situation. Being told we could pay to return to Jordan or enter Egypt, we, still in shock from our shattered reality, reluctantly decided to stay in Cairo. Our presumption of being in South America within 48-hours had been crushed in the space of minutes. We had arrived into Cairo on the day of the Morsi trial, so tanks and other armoured vehicles littered the streets. We had found a hotel, which, like many of the tourist-centric businesses, was feeling the effect of numerous governments condemning travel to this politically unstable country. We had to determine our next move.
As we were in Egypt, we figured that we should at least try to see the sights we could in the short time we were here. Fortunately, Casey had made a friend who lived in Cairo whilst on his course in Germany, Naggar. Naggar came to meet us, acting as our more then capable guide through Cairo, organising a cruise on the infamous Nile River, taking us to an authentic Egyptian restaurant before taking us to a hotel where we could look over the city by night. Telling Naggar we had decided to visit the Pyramids of Giza seemed to fill him with slight concern and he decided to escort us there the following day, which we were more then grateful, yet perplexed by his concern.
We fought through the incomprehensible Cairo traffic before we started approaching the ancient pyramids. The final approach to the pyramids was one of the most stressful situations we’d been involved in thus far. As we drove, people started to approach the car trying to secure employment as a tour guide. We initially experienced a man being denied by Naggar, yet he desperately continued to run next to the car as traffic progressed before he collided with a turning bus. We then came to an area where people were trying to jump in front of the car to the shock of Naggar, who was evasively able to avoid them. We arrived at the pyramids where Naggar secured our tickets and a guide, who was employed purely to prevent unwanted advances. The pyramids and sphinx were formidably standing before us, and it was more then obvious why the pyramids were considered an ancient wonder and also an honoury member of the current Seven Wonders of the World. Yet, it was hard to fully enjoy the experience, as we were the only tourists present, we were continuously harassed by people wanting money. Having Naggar with us to both drive and organise everything for us was amazing. We now know why he hesitated when we told him about our plans to visit the pyramids solo, and I think even he was shocked by the conditions we encountered. We are incredibly grateful he was willing to accompany us during our time in Egypt. The entire experience of visiting the pyramids really did reiterate the pressure the entire country has been feeling during this incredibly turbulent time, unfortunately it was evident that the country was struggling.
The main question we had to answer was, ‘What do we do next?’. Do we pay for a new ticket to Argentina? Do we choose a new destination? And if so, where? This debate continued as we frantically searched Skyscanner for the cheapest destination that would partially coincide with our already booked flights. I’m sad to say to all our diehard fans out that there that Casey and I chose differing destinations. The Earthbound Astronauts are splitting once more! I had found an incredibly cheap ticket to Toronto, Canada, so thought I would go on a journey to find a polar bear. Casey, thought completely outside of the box, and decided to head to Tanzania where he’d organised a work away! Planning to meet up in the US in about a month, we said our goodbyes and farewelled each other once more. We truly are unpredictably earthbound after all. Keep posted.