Saturday, January 13, 2018

World tour: Levant

After leaving Athens, our world tour continued in the Levant: a brief stop in Beirut followed by two weeks each in Jordan and Israel.  A couple months ago, we happened to be in Spain during Catalan independence.  This time we were in the Levant just as the US recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital.  It made the politics of the region especially obvious.

Here's Jericho on the terrace of the BYU Jerusalem Center describing some of Jerusalem's history. The Dome of the Rock is in the background.

Anyway, our flight from Athens to Amman was on Middle East Airlines through its main hub in Beirut.  We only spent 4 hours in the airport in Lebanon, but it was a fun introduction to the region.  There were European tourists wearing jeans and sweats, Lebanese business men wearing Italian suits, and Saudi women wearing abaya with niqab.  Signs were in Arabic or French with very little English and numbers all used the eastern Arabic system: ٠١٢٣٤٥٦٧٨٩.  Fortunately, the airport gates were all labeled with western Arabic numerals so we knew where to go.  The gate signs also served as a Rosetta stone so we could decipher eastern Arabic numbers.

Our flight path from Beirut to Amman is a good example of how this region's politics impact people's daily lives.  The distance from Beirut to Amman is only about 130 miles, as the crow flies.  Israel won't allow Lebanese planes to fly through their airspace.  Syria is in the middle of a civil war so they can't fly over Damascus either.  Instead, our flight flew over the Mediterranean to Tripoli then east through the mountains and deserts of Syria to cross Jordan's border.  Then they can fly freely into Amman.  On the positive side, the circuitous route gave us time to eat our in-flight meal:

I really liked Jordan.  It's only the second place on our trip so far to which I hope to return someday (Iceland being the other).  After arriving at the airport, we got a taxi to our apartment.  The driver of the small taxi assured us that all seven of us and our luggage could fit into his little taxi.  We managed to squish together with me in the front passenger seat and the other six of us on laps in the back seat.  As we got under way, the driver made known in very broken English and with a broad smile that if the police saw us, he would get in trouble so he expected us to pay the fare of two taxis instead of just one.  I smiled at his bargaining and assured him that we'd pay him a reasonable fare.  When we got to the apartment, I paid him what I had budgeted for the trip and he accepted with another big smile.  It was only about $40 and about half what we'd paid for two airport taxis in other countries but roughly double what he expected.

For the rest of our stay in Amman, we used Uber.  It's illegal in Jordan (driver subject to $200 fine and loses his car for two weeks), but in practice nobody seems to care.  Uber can get you almost anywhere in the city for $3.  The police almost caught us riding an Uber from the mall one day, but the driver had lived in Los Angeles and told the officer that we were his American friends.  He spent the rest of the trip telling me how much he liked America and how he hoped to return.  I assured him that we'd love to have him in our country again.

Bedouin are still prominent in Jordan.  For example, every morning a Bedouin man brought his sheep and goats to graze in the field across the street from our apartment.
Nearby restaurants would dump old bread into the field during the night and his sheep and goats would eat it the next morning.  When they were done, he'd move them elsewhere in the city to graze. Throughout the city, there are Bedouin living in tents and herding goats right next to luxury apartment buildings and shopping malls.

We visited Petra, which is really amazing.  The whole area looks like the red rocks of southern Utah, but the rocks are carved into buildings and decorative caves.

We planned to see more of Jordan, but half of us got colds and sore throats so we had to lay low for most of a week.  This is the first real illness we've had on the trip, which is great.

A few more random observations about Jordan:  The large shopping centers all have metal detectors as you walk in. There is always a male and a female security guard working together.  Male guests work with the male guard and female guests work with the female guard.  Jordan is a very modern and western feeling country, but you can clearly see the deference to Muslim modesty throughout the culture.  I loved hearing the Adhan (call to prayer) five times each day.  It was even played inside the grocery store so that everyone could hear it.  I expected people to drop everything and go pray, but they didn't.  Islam gives substantial leeway in when the prayers are performed so most people finish what they're doing and then go somewhere private to pray.  The large shopping centers all have dedicated prayer rooms so that guests don't have to leave the building to pray.  Oh, and spices, lots and lots of spices:

Jordan's pharmacy system is also really nice.  Pretty much everything is available without a prescription.  After being away from the States for three months, we'd run out of certain medications.  We tried to restock in Spain, Italy and Greece but they all required a prescription.  The Jordanian pharmacy gladly sold us what we asked for without questions.  The people in Jordan are also exceptionally hospitable.  When we arrived at our apartment, the landlord offered to walk 2-3 blocks with me to help me purchase a SIM card so one of our phones would work.  When I asked one driver if there was anywhere nearby to buy some lunch for the kids, he drove to an amazing schawarma restaurant, accompanied me inside, made some menu recommendations, translated for me as I ordered and walked me through the process of picking up the food from elsewhere in the restaurant.  The whole country was like this.  Most people spoke some English, but the ones who didn't all knew how to say "Welcome to Jordan".  About 30% of the country's population is refugees from elsewhere: Palestine, Iraq, Syria.  Welcoming people is a deep part of their culture.  They also like American movies.  We watched Star Wars: The Last Jedi in a beautiful theater in Amman.  The theater had assigned seats, like at an NFL game and Arabic subtitles, unlike an NFL game.

Depending on who you ask, Jordan has the second or third fewest water resources per capita of any country on earth.  In Amman, the water pipes are turned on once each week.  Each apartment has large water tanks on the roof which they fill up when the pipes turn on.  Not being familiar with the scarcity, we accidentally used up all our water 24 hours before the next delivery.  Our landlord graciously moved some water from another apartment in the building to help us out.  If there hadn't been water available in the building, you can hire private water trucks which can refill your tanks at market prices.  Quick economic tangent: as with most resource scarcities, the water scarcity in Jordan is caused by restrictions on the price system.  Water provided by the city costs 1/25 of the market price as charged by private delivery trucks.  The delivery trucks never run out of water, only the city.

Anyway, enough about Jordan.  From Amman we crossed the King Hussein Bridge into Israel.  The process usually takes about 4 hours.  We got there in time for the first bus of the day and there weren't many tourists so we crossed in only 2 hours (for a 3 mile drive; thanks politics).  The Jordanian side of the transfer was relaxed and disorganized.  The Israeli side was organized and strict.  Both sides were friendly.

In Jerusalem, we visited Yad Vashem (a Holocaust musem), the Garden of Gethsemane (pictured above), Mount of Olives and the Old City.  The holy sites are so crowded and touristy that I can't really recommend them.  Some people have a really spiritual experience in these places, but they weren't for me.  Walking around the Old City was cool though.  It was fun to see all the Bar Mitzvah celebrants walking through the city gates.  Gideon found a paper map of the Old City in our apartment, so he guided us during our explorations:

The Old City also has some nice squares and quiet little corners where you can just enjoy the ambiance:

Unlike Jordan, everything in Israel is really expensive.  Food and taxis are almost 10x more expensive on the Israeli side of the border.  It's no worse than New York City or Boston, but it was a bit of a shock after Jordan.  Random tidbit: burger joints in Jerusalem don't sell cheeseburgers because Orthodox Jews don't eat meat and dairy together.

My favorite thing about Israel is probably Hebrew.  I'm kind of a language nerd, so Hebrew was really fun.  Prior to the mid 1800s, Hebrew was pretty much a dead language.  It was only used for Jewish liturgy and spiritual purposes, but had no native speakers or use in modern life.  Now it's spoken natively by millions of people and the primary language of commerce throughout Israel.  Hebrew is the only example of a natural language being resurrected from the dead like that.  It was cool to drive through Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and see the scale of the success of that linguistic experiment.  Since the country favors Hebrew so strongly, there was almost no signage in English.

Both Israel and Jordan have substantial restrictions on the free practice of religion.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has church units in both countries, but they mostly accommodate foreigners (State Department employees, students, etc).  Most locals are prohibited from participating, so meetings are done in English instead of the local language.  Amman has an Arabic branch since Jordanian Christians are allowed to convert to a religion of their choice.  Between Athens, Amman and Jerusalem, we had five consecutive weeks where we understood what people were saying to us at church.  In Jordan, our church meetings were on Friday (out of respect for the Muslim holy day) and in Israel they were on Saturday (ditto for Jewish shabbat).

It's also been interesting to see the extent to which English has become the world's lingua franca.  Our flight from Tel Aviv to Sofia had a Hungarian crew with mostly Israeli and Bulgarian passengers, but everyone on board was communicating in English.  It's more true than ever, "the world is flat."

Next stop: Bulgaria and Hungary.


Mary Hendricks said...

What a wonderful, newsy letter. I'm going to forward it to Rick since he has been in Israel and has been learning Hebrew. I've met Jordanian people/ and yes, they are friendly. I'm glad your trip has been so positive with rich experiences. I'm looking forward to hearing about Bulgaria and Hungary.

Shellie said...

I love hearing about the experiences you and your family are having. Thanks for sharing. It brings back a lot of memories! I spent a summer with the BYU Jerusalem program and loved my time in that part of the world. The Jordanian people really are so kind and sincere. Keep sharing and enjoy! -Shellie