Rebeca visits the Middle East

Coming right on the heels of Jack’s visit to KSA, daughter Rebeca also came to see me over in this part of the world. The planning started with a simple request from me, “What would you most like to see over here?” It didn’t take too long for her to respond with, “I want to visit Dubai and I want to see Petra.” We discussed the challenges of her coming to KSA (as a single, liberated young woman), and decided that could wait for another time.

In a relatively short period of time, we had put together a plan where I would meet her in Dubai and then travel together to Jordan to visit Petra and other sights. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985, Petra seems to be on nearly everyone’s bucket list, especially after having appearances in the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen movies (only one of which I have seen…). I had also been told to spend some time in the nearby Wadi Rum, a place also immortalized in film, with the classic Lawrence of Arabia having been largely filmed there. That movie just maybe had an influence on the naming of this blog. Also, because we were going to be close by, we decided to spend a couple days at a resort on the Dead Sea (on the Jordan side).

Because of her position with Southwest Airlines, Rebeca is now a skilled non-revenue flier. She was able to hop an Emirates flight to Dubai, for just the price of the tax. I flew in from Dammam, and the timing of our flights coincided so that I only had to wait about 30 minutes for her to clear immigration and meet her in baggage claim. Another perk for working for the airlines is discounted hotel rates for locations throughout the world. Since we were going to go big on this holiday, we opted for the 1%-style all along the way. Accordingly, we hopped a limo to the Ritz Carlton in the financial district. This provided a quick jumping off point to visit the Dubai Mall, the Burj Khalifa, and a nice restaurant to enjoy some fine sushi.

As always, you can click on individual photos to see higher resolution pics.

 

We would highly recommend the Dubai Ritz.

 

No visit to Dubai would be complete without ascending the Burj Kahlifa. If you’re willing to spend a little more for the VIP option, your wait time will be just minutes and you get to go to the highest floor that visitors can go (148, which is impressively higher than the normal tour at floor 125).

The next morning, we hopped on a flight to Amman, Jordan. I had prearranged a Petra/Wadi Rum tour (Classic Wadi Rum and Petra Tours), and a guide would pick us up from our hotel in Amman the next morning. We stayed at the Kempinski in the city, and the only remarkable thing about the hotel (otherwise, quite unremarkable) was that there was a bowling alley in the basement. Tempting as it was, we didn’t end up bowling…

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There’s entertainment to be had at the Amman Kempinski. Who knew?!

Bright and early the next morning, our driver picked us up and we had about 4.5 hour ride to the town of Petra. We dropped our stuff at the tour-arranged hotel in town, and headed to the visitor’s center entrance. There we were met by our guide for exploring the ancient Nabatean city of Petra.

Most people who are curious about Petra, or have seen the aforementioned films, probably have the impression that there are just a few (but spectacular) sights to see there. The reality is that the site sprawls over quite a large area. The Nabatean culture occupied the area for hundreds of years, peaking during the 1st Century C.E. with an estimated population of about 20,000 inhabitants. We spent close to six hours exploring Petra on foot – while we definitely saw a lot, we easily could have spent hours more. I say “on foot”, because if you’re so inclined, you can take horse-drawn carriages, donkeys, and camels if you want alternative transportation around the site.

The approach to the city descends down a narrow gorge/wadi called the Siq. At times, the Siq experiences flash floods and, unfortunately, lives have been lost on those occasions. But, the geologist in me says that if there weren’t floods and a lot of moving water, the Siq would not be there and the impressive unveiling of the city upon entry would not be nearly as dramatic. The very first edifice that you see upon exiting the Siq is the iconic Treasury building (the Al-Khazneh facade).

We visited Petra in mid-late January, and the weather was cold. But! Visiting Petra at that time of year ensured that there would be few other tourists there. Our guide told us that during the high season (March-May), there can be 5000 tourists there per day. I can’t imagine how crowded the Siq would be. As it was, there were maybe a couple hundred others spread out across the city. We really felt fortunate to be able to enjoy the place without the mad crush of other tourists. Some of our photos make it seem that we were the only ones there!

The modern town of Petra, not the ancient city of Petra, along with the visitor’s center and entrance to the site.

Entrance to the Siq, with some folks on horseback for the trek. Deep within the Siq. And the famous Al-Khazneh facade of the Treasury. 

Yes, we were really there, and there really were not hordes of other people there.

To be sure, pictures don’t do it justice. It’s scale and the intricate carvings into the sandstone are simply remarkable and breathtaking. From the initial shock and awe of the Treasury, we moved on to explore other parts of the city.

The very large carved amphitheater, and tombs and dwelling scattered across the sandstone cliffs.

Our guide left us to explore on our own, and suggested (if we were feeling up to it) that we ascend a steep and winding trail to see another impressive facade. It only took us about 25 or 30 minutes to make the hike, and we’re very happy we did. The “Monastery” was as impressive, if not more so, as the Treasury facade. And there were only a couple other people there the whole time we wandered around.

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The impressive Monastery. It’s huge, by the way – much larger than the Treasury. Definitely worth the hike. If you don’t think you can make the hike, you can hire a donkey and guide to get you up the trail.

Here are some other sights around Petra. If this is on your personal bucket list, I would urge you to figure out a way to make it happen!

A view along the hike to the Monastery, some animal friends, and a parting shot of the Treasury from the Siq.

The following morning, our driver took us to meet our guide for exploration of Wadi Rum (a wadi is an ephemeral/intermittent stream course that is subject to flash flooding – basically a dry river channel/valley that sometimes becomes a torrent – common in arid climate settings). The area has become an eco-tourist destination for hikers and rock climbers, along with day trippers like us coming from Petra. Our guide took us around to see various sights within the wadi, including canyons, dunes, natural rock bridges, springs, and interesting rock outcroppings. Tourism is the main source of income for the local bedouins, and there are many encampments around the vast wadi that host and cater to tourists. After we spent the day exploring the wadi, we stayed overnight in one of the bedouin camps and ate a traditional dinner of chicken and vegetables with rice cooked with coals in an outdoor pit.

Nabatean ruins and sandstone outcrops of Wadi Rum.

Awaiting sunset, a natural bridge, the bedouin camp, and inside the communal tent.

Certainly one of the highlights of our trip to Wadi Rum was a hot-air balloon ride the following morning. There is only one hot-air balloon pilot in all of Jordan, and Captain Khalid and his crew were awesome. We left camp in the dark and met up with some other tourists to make an early morning sweep across the desert landscape. This was the first balloon ride for both of us, which is kind of surprising given its popularity near our home town of Boulder, Colorado. On most still mornings there, you will commonly see a half dozen balloons in the air. But why not try it out in an exotic desert setting in a foreign land for our inaugural flight, right?

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Finally, a little warmth to ease the very cold morning air.

A very interesting process to get the balloon filled and in the air with eight of us plus Captain Khalid.

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Just about to land (and a very gentle landing it was!).

After a couple of days of Petra and desert exploration, we were ready for some leisure time. Our driver took us from Wadi Rum, south through the outskirts of Aqaba (where we could see the Gulf of Aqaba), and the north to the resort area of the Dead Sea. The drive took over five hours, but the scenery was excellent along the way. We stayed at the Kempinski Dead Sea Resort and Spa and spent two nights there before heading back to Dubai through Amman.

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White salt shrubbery along a rocky shoreline patch of the Dead Sea precipitated from its hypersaline waters (the salinity averages around 340‰, or about 34% – for comparison, normal/average seawater salinity is 35‰, or 3.5% dissolved salts).

Of course, one of the things one must do when visiting the Dead Sea is to experience the buoyancy of the hypersaline water. It’s pretty freaky – you simply can not sink below the surface.

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Bobbing up and down atop the tranquil waters of the Dead Sea.

The Kempinski has a gorgeous infinity pool and spectacular sunsets.

The final part of the trip was a couple more days spent in the Marina district in Dubai. We stayed at Le Royal Meridien Resort and Spa, perfected our relaxation skills, ate great food, and walked around the Marina district. We also visited and shopped the Souk Madinat Jumeirah, noting the surrounding lavish hotels and excessively expensive cars.

Architecture of the bustling Marina district of Dubai by day and night.

The Souk Madinat Jumeirah.

We capped the whole visit off with a wonderful dinner with my former student Abdul and his wife Nasreen, complete with shisha and belly dancers.

The beach and evening meal at Le Royal Meridien.

This was such a great trip. I’m so glad I had the chance to spend time individually with my kids over those couple of weeks. We all agree that the next adventure should be for the three of us together. Wherever that will be, I know it will be another special time together.

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