Monday, February 28, 2011

Indiana Jesse and the Last Crusade

The ancient city of Petra is simply incredible. Built by the Nabataeans in the 6th century BC, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The city is massive, and we spent over 10 hours walking, climbing and exploring the ruins.*

We entered Petra via the Siq, a narrow sandstone gorge that served as a busy highway of travelers and pilgrims, and was also a natural defense of the city. Channels on either side of the Siq held water pipes, and carved niches throughout were filled with small statues of gods and kings.

The Siq is massive and over 1 1/2 kilometers long

The Siq opens into the breathtaking Treasury, or Al Kazneh.  No evidence has been found that it was actually ever used as a treasury, although plenty of people have attempted to uncover its reputed treasure.  We prefer to think of it as the resting place of the Holy Grail.  

Indy and Henry Jones explore the Treasury (by horse)
Jesse and Dave Meshkov explore the Treasury (by foot).
We turned down many, many opportunities to explore by camel or donkey.
Heading deeper into the city along so-called Facades street, the towering sandstone cliffs are dotted with tombs (now apparently used as urinals/trash dumps. Sad. And smelly.)

All those little holes are tombs carved into the rock face.
Hi from inside a tomb.
Smells soooo bad.
The countdown on the camera timer seemed to last forever.
Not all the tombs are this small.  Some of them, built for kings and other VIPs, are truly massive.

The Urn Tomb (I think), built around 75 AD
Some other tomb - it's hard to keep track.

The town of Petra used to be a bustling marketplace, with goods traded from far and wide.  Below are some remains of the main commercial street.  Today, Petra is unfortunately still a marketplace, with plastic made-in-China trinkets and overpriced snacks hawked every few feet.

There are also the remains of a massive temple that is currently undergoing excavation by a team from Brown University.  We spent some time climbing up and down stairs and along back passages to nowhere.

Pillars topped with elephant heads

Finally, we headed up towards the Monestary, or Al-Deir.  Originally built as a temple, it was later used as a church by early Christians.  

Dave (that little spec in blue) rejoicing that we are done climbing the thousands of steps that take you up to the Monestary.
And, of course, it is also the hiding place of the Matrix of Leadership in Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen.**  If you're not up for a twenty minute climb, there are hordes of men and boys offering to take you up to the Monestary on donkeys.  

(Endless) steps to the Monestary

Our favorite donkey-hawker line:
"Taxi! BMW Taxi!"
Once you're up at the Monestary, you can hike a little bit farther for some spectacular desert views.  Apparently you can see Israel, although if that is true than I assure you that Israeli desert appears indistinguishable from Jordanian desert.

We checked it out.  The sign was a bit of an exaggeration.

A great view, but still not the best view.

The view towards Israel (we think)
To get to what we think is the best view in all of Petra, you're going to have be willing to climb.  A lot more stairs.

Yep, more stairs.
Also, in case you haven't noticed, the colors of the sandstone are incredible!

In order to get there, find the flight of stairs in between the tombs marked 14 and 15 on the Petra map that you get when you buy your ticket (not the map in the beginning of the post).  Follow the steps until they end, pass a stone hut of sorts (and if you see a young Bedouin guy in there, ask him if it's his bachelor pad, more about this later), and then continue on downhill-ish along the (faint) path. 

Follow the cairns (that's little manmade rock piles for you non-supertrekkers) until you come to this:

The Treasury from above.
Best view in Petra.
(Yes, Dave is wearing a fitten).
After we drank in our fill of the Treasury, we headed back the way we came.  It wasn't long before a young Bedouin guy invited us to tea.  Skeptical, we hemmed and hawed and then figured "Why not?"  I guess the philosophies of the Why Not Shop had really stuck with us.

First, he offered to let me ride his donkey, Shakira (Shakira, Shakira!)

Shakira's hips did not lie.
Then, he and a buddy built a fire and brewed up some Bedouin tea, to the tinny sound of Bob Marley played on a cellphone.

Brewing the tea

Drinking from "Bedouin cups" - a liter bottle of water cut in half, the jagged ends melted smooth(ish) with a lighter.  Mmmmm, hins of carcinogens.  There is really nothing like the long finish of of burnt plastic.
Happily, they wanted nothing more than to chat, practice their English, and enjoy our good company.  As the sun set, we said our goodbyes and enjoyed a few last twilight photos in front of the Treasury, before setting off back through the Siq in the growing darkness. 
Petra, seen from the Siq.

* You can be assured that it was indeed over 10 hours since Dave, as he is apt to do, started a timer on the iphone when we entered Petra and stopped it upon our exit.
** I know this because, WHILE WRITING THIS POST, I turned on the TV and this very scene was playing on HBO (or some sort of weird India HBO knock-off with Hindi commercials). I'm not sure if the Matrix of the Leadership part is right, I could barely understand the description of the plot when I tried to read it on Wikipedia.

You can see even more of our Petra photos by clicking here.


Wadi Musa: A taxi from the Amman airport to Wadi Musa (the town where Petra is located) costs around $75 USD.  You can also get there by taking a bus to the south bus station, and then another bus from there to Wadi Musa.  If the bus driver tells you his bus is going to the south bus station but he is a huge liar and in fact his bus is going to the north bus station (can you tell this happened to us?) then you can take a taxi back through Amman to the proper bus station.  And don't forget to bargain for the price of your bus ticket, especially if they're making you buy an extra seat for your luggage!  We stayed at the Saba'a Hotel in Wadi Musa - really nice people, and the room was fine for about $30/night.  Great shwarma place by the traffic circle near the hotel.

Petra:  The ticket to Petra is crazy expensive - $50 JD ($75 US) when we were there - so get there early (like 7 AM to get in all your time and to beat the tour buses).  You can also do Petra By Night, a candle-lit walk through the Siq to the Treasury, on Monday, Wednesdays and Thursdays.  As mentioned above, the view of the Treasury from above is a must-see, and the Monastery is also totally worth it.  It's easy to get a donkey ride up if you're feeling lazy.  There are other sights to see near Petra that we didn't have time for, and apparently the hike from Little Petra to Petra (with a guide) is fabulous.  Finally - we suggest bringing your lunch into Petra with you.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Week Fourteen Daily Journal

Friday, December 31
Cape Town, South Africa

We all went over to the Cape Quarter mall for a late breakfast.  Our taxi wasn't going to make it before the breakfast service ended so we all told Darren our dream meals and miraculously they were all on the menu!  After walking around the mall we headed over to Greenmarket Square, the African market.  Later that day J got a haircut and then we all went to Wakame for our NYE dinner, and then to the bar at Pepenero's to ring in the New Year.

Saturday, January 1
Cape Town & Wilderness, South Africa

Delicious coffee and muffin at the Blue Cow
All of our friends left for safari - it was so sad to leave them all!  We got off to a late start as the alarm failed to off and by the time we got packed up and found a taxi we didn't get to Avis until 12:15 pm.  And it turns out they closed at noon on Saturdays.  Slightly panicked we called the Avis reservation line and were told there were no cars left.  Very panicked, we took a taxi to the central Avis office in the city.  They were about to close but luckily they were able to get us a car!  So we drove off to Wilderness.  Unfortunately, since we didn't get on the road until after 2 we had to skip what we had planned to do, an ostrich farm and the Cango Caves.  We did have a nice break in Barrydale at a small family owned coffee shop, the Blue Cow, which was located on the land that the family farmed.   We finally got to Wilderness as it was almost fully dark, and drove the long and winding road up the mountain to our hostel, The Wild Farm. Turns out it was day 2 of a massive 2 day new years rave, and we unexpectedly got into a fight with the manager over the missing key to our room, so we scarfed chicken sandwiches and fell asleep to horrible thumping house music and the revelry of the many partiers.

Sunday, January 2
Wilderness, South Africa

On the Wilderness Beach
We woke up with the intention of driving back to Ootdshoorn to go to an ostrich farm and see the Cango Caves.  But by the time we got to George we had lost motivation so instead we drove back to Wilderness and walked along the gorgeous beach.  We had lunch at the Wilderness Beach Hotel, overlooking the water, and then in the late afternoon headed back to the mall in George to do some internettting and see Due Date at the movie theater.  We were trying to delay having to go back to the hostel so we had dinner at an italian restaurant in Wilderness.  Happily the hostel was quiet and had been cleaned!

Monday, January 3
Knysna, South Africa

Tasty mini-muffins from Mon Petit Pan
We've never been so happy to leave a hostel, especially since the owner had been so nasty to us when we checked in and attempted to negotiate a discount since they had lost the key to the room and we would have to walk outside in the mud and rain to use the bathroom.  Anyway we got in the car and drove right to Knysna and the charming Knysna Backpackers which had everything you would want in a hostel - nice staff, clean rooms and bathrooms, etc.  Dave took a nap while J went into town.  Later we had tasty sandwiches (and a spectacular mini almond muffin) at Mon Petit Pain and then drove to the Knysna Heads and went to the Knysna Beach.  We went back to the hostel to meet Ted and Sarah and we all went down to the waterfront and had oysters (Knysna specialty) and nachos at The Oyster Catcher.

Tuesday, January 4
Knysna, South Africa

We slept in and then we all went to Il de Pan, a famous Knysna restaurant, for lunch.  We drove to the Knysna Heads for our scuba dive appointment but the water was too rough so we couldn't go out.  Instead we went back to Mitchells Brewery for a tour and tasting and then spent the rest of the day at the beach.  For dinner we went to 34 South,  a bustling waterfront seafood restaurant.

Wednesday, January 5
Port Elizabeth, South Africa

We said goodbye to Ted and Sarah and drove to Storms River for our canopy ziplining tour.  The zipping was fun but all the waiting around in the heat was tough, and the 10 zips ended up taking 3 hours or so.  After the included lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches, we drove back to the Bloukrans Bridge, the dividing point between the east and west cape and also the location of a 216 meter bungy jump.  Fortunately there was a cancellation so D was able to do it!  J sat in the cafe and watched it on the tv and chatted with an Israeli girl who also wasn't jumping.  That evening we drove to Port Elizabeth, checked into the Wet Hippo Backpackers, and cooked a chicken stir fry for dinner.

Thursday, January 6
Dubai, UAE

It was an early wakeup to get to get to the airport and return the car before our 8am flight to Johannesberg.  We spent our layover in JNB shopping at Cape Union Mart and returning to our old haunt, Cafe "mad flava" Flavor, in which we spent 12 hours back in 2008 when our flight to Botswana was repeatedly delayed and then canceled.  Our love for it was marred as we spent way too long arguing with the cashier about the price of substituting salad instead of rice as the side with Dave's roast chicken meal.  The flight to Dubai was long but wonderful.  Emirates has possibly the best in flight entertainment system we'd ever seen, with dozens of excellent movies (j watched 4 over the 8 hour flight) and actually pretty good food.  We landed in Dubai after midnight (the airport is huge, spotless and looks like a casino) and by the time we got through the incredibly slow immigrations and customs, it was after 2am by the time we got to our hotel, the Ibis Mall of the Emirates.  Their whole computer system was down so they couldn't make us a key and at first took us to (and opened, with their master key), an already occupied room that people were sleeping in.  Awkward!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Desert Skiing - 30 Hours in Dubai

Ski Dubai?  Yes please.
In November, sitting in our Buenos Aires apartment, we were drawing up our plans for the beginning of 2011.  As is our custom we played around on Kayak, looking for cheap flights to the general regions of the world we hoped to visit. Because the primary goal was to visit Egypt the entire pre-revolution Middle-East was in play.  The best (read: cheapest) flight we could find had the interesting routing of Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg, Dubai, Amman, and then finally to Cairo.  Always ready for an adventure, we decided each of those places, save Johannesburg, was sufficient interesting for a visit, and we - actually Meri, thanks! - booked us two one-way tickets out of Africa and into the Middle East.

A delightful flight on Emirates Airlines - hello 250+ movies, entire seasons of television show, and believe it or not, delicious food - landed us in Dubai for a 30 hour stop-over.  Although aware of the gulf state's wealth, its extent became apparent when we arrived in the glittering, casino-like marble palace that was the Dubai international airport.  The city-state held many promising activities for us: the most important, obviously, was the opportunity to ski, indoors, in the desert, the others were to take a dhow (a rickety, semi sea-worthy boat) to the old gold souk (market), have a drink at the Burj al Arab, the world's only (self-designated) seven star hotel, check out the world's tallest building at the Dubai Mall, and of course, meet the Slomaks for a delightful thai buffet dinner (we coincidentally overlapped with the Slomaks for one night in Dubai, how fun!)  Pretty much your typical 30 hour Dubai layover.

As is the Meshkov custom, we selected our hotel based on its proximity to the slopes. Because the slopes in Dubai are in the Mall of the Emirates, that is where we stayed.  So, at ten AM, when the doors of Ski Dubai opened, we were there.  Because it was not a powder morning, when the doors opened we were actually having a (mediocre) coffee, but as soon as we finished our coffees we strolled in to buy a two-hour lift pass, that included: skis, poles, boots, socks, ski jacket, and ski pants.  The pass did not include hats, gloves, or underwear. Thankfully, we had recently done all our wash, so underwear was not something we needed to rent...

Look at those handsome matching his & hers outfits.
If you look closely you can see that the entire suit closes with snaps, which lack both warmth and strength.

After donning our matching Ski Dubai uniforms we collected our low-performance skis and boots and (taking a move from the Beaver Creek playbook) headed up the escalators to the actual slopes.  At the top of the escalators is a staging area and a large revolving door to the "snow area."  Remember, everything is inside, so the dressing and ski rental area is nice and warm.  As we shuffled through the revolving door, however, the cold air hit us with a blast.  And just like that, in the middle of the desert, we were standing at the base of Ski Dubai.  two hundred and seventy eight vertical feet of skiing - including a beginner, intermediate, and expert run - accessed by chair-lift or poma. The ceiling was lined with industrial-sized air conditioners and gymnasium-style lighting, but it was fairly quiet and the overall setting was that blue-gray sky of a slightly overcast ski day.

The view of the slopes
from the Emirates Mall.
Who doesn't love escalators
to the ski slopes?
The staging area.  The revolving door leads to the slopes.

This was exciting.

Chairlift self-portrait.
First, we had the on-mountain photographer take a few shots of us in our Ski Dubai gear.  Tip: whether you are skiing indoors or outside, in the Rockies, Alps, or Gulf Coast, its always best to get the pictures taken first thing, and then you can focus on skiing.  Next we headed for the chair lift for the the quick ride to the top.  There, we tightened our boots, cinched our Ski Dubai pants, and away we went.

The structure of the building is such that from the skiers perspective, the run is gentle on the left side (i.e. for beginners) and more challenging on the right. This also means that there is a slight double fall-line. At the mid-mountain lodge, that's right, there is a full service mid-mountain lodge on the run, the trial splits and remains intermediate on the skier's left, but drops into a steeper "advanced" run on the right.  This is where spent most of our time.

Me "resting" halfway down the run.
The skiing itself was fun, each run took about 30 seconds to get down and the ride up either 3-4 minutes on the chair or 2 minutes on the poma. The poma interestedly, was built to go up the expert side of the run, and  it was steep!  In places deep ruts had formed so you would basically come to a complete stop, and only when the poma was fully stretched out would you lurch forward and continue up the hill.  Riding the poma was the only place any Meshkov fell while skiing in Dubai.

After an hour and a half of our two hours of skiing we were getting a bit cold, a perfect opportunity to try the hot choco in the mid-mountain lodge. Taking another play from the Vail/BC book, the hot chocolate cost $6, but at least it had heaps of whipped cream and M&M's on it.

Jesse savors every sip of her
most expensive hot choco ever.
The mid-mountain Avalanche Cafe.
As our minutes ticked away (each time you passed through the lift line it flashed your remaining minutes), the urgency to squeeze in as many final runs grew stronger and stronger, or at least, this was the case for one of us....  With 12 minutes to go we should have been able to get three more runs on the poma.   We raced down the expert slope and flew through the gates for a second to last run.  I was first on the poma, with Jesse close behind.  As we were pulled up the hill, I was busily calculating whether in fact, I might be able to somehow get one more run, if I skied extra fast.  At the top, however, Jesse was nowhere to been seen!  In the pressure to make the final runs she had never fully situated herself properly on the poma, and rather than being pulled up by the seat, she was valiantly, but ultimately unsuccessfully, holding on with only one hand!  After a good fight, she let go and drifted back to the base where she had to wait to re-enter the line.  Seeing that we had separated I raced to bottom to make my last run.  As I entered the queue for the final time my pass read 1 minute remaining, and Jesse was only halfway up the poma, not knowing whether she would have enough time to get her 3 final runs.  Because she is a Meshkov she did not wait for me at the top, but instead bombed down in an effort to get one more run!!!  It was such a proud moment for me.  Thirty seconds later she was at the bottom, blocked behind an unmoving turnstile that flashed, TIME EXPIRED, TIME EXPIRED.  Back at the top, I also knew I was on my last run.  With large carving turns I covered the entire width of the trail on my final run, drinking in the first, and possibly last time I ski indoors in the desert.

Racing down for one more run.  Although all the skiers wore the same outfit,
it was always easy for Jesse to spot me amongst all the other Middle-Eastern skiers...
I mean, look at that form.  
With expired passes we head back to the revolving doors and left the winter wonderland, dropped our skis, boots and ski suits and headed back to the mall, where we checked out the gold vending machine - it sells bars of gold like vending machines in the States sell bars of candy - and headed to one of the four Starbucks for some free wi-fi.

What do you do if a gold vending machine malfunctions?

From the mall we took the Metro to the creek where we cruised the gold souk and took a traditional dhow (pre-oil-wealth means of transportation).

Dhow on the Dubai creek.

In the old Gold Souk.

After that we headed to the Burj al Arab for our cocktail.  Because you need a reservation at a bar or restaurant to even get on the hotel grounds (and there are many people standing at the gate just looking at the hotel), we booked their most modest cocktail package - $80 per person for two drinks and two apps.  Once we got in, however, we deemed the bar where we had a reservation did not justify the price, and canceled. Thankfully, they did not levy any cancellation charge on us, and since we were in the hotel, we were free to go about as we like. The hotel, as expected, was over the top.  Everything was big, gold and gaudy. 

Burj al Arab from the outside.

Burj al Arab from the inside

Nonetheless, we sat and watched the excellent fountain show, and then made our way back to the Dubai Mall, to see another spectacular fountain show, the tallest building in the world, and a truly ridiculous mall that included, among other things: an aquarium and underwater zoo, ice skating rink, sega adventure park, kid zone adventure park, 22-screen movie theater, gold souk, over 150 restaurants, over 1000 shops, and 5 department stores. According to the Dubai Mall, "The Dubai Mall is the world's largest shopping, leisure and entertainment destination."  Whatever that means.

A acquarium in the Dubai Mall where you can dive with all sorts of
marine life, including eels, sting rays, and big sharks!
The most cool.  Wish we could have done that.
Also, fun fact: The aquarium is in the Guinness Book of World Records for
"the largest single acrylic panel in the world."

Most of our time in the mall was spent surreptitiousness emailing with the Slomaks from various electronic stores to see 1) had they landed, 2) did they want to meet, and 3) when. The conversations in the stores went like this:

JLM to Salesman: Oh does this computer do email?  Can I look at my email on it?
Salesman: Sure (opening up an Internet browser).  What other questions do you have?
JLM: What other colors does it come in?  Which do you have in stock, in the back?
Salesman: Hold on, I will have to check
JLM: Take your time, I will just see how well this computer can handle gmail...

Tallest building in the world.
Pretty cool.
Light & fountain show in front of the tallest building in the world, set to Thriller.
Even cooler.
From there we headed to the Hyatt to meet the Slomaks for a delightful dinner.
And after that, back to our mall hotel before an early morning flight to Amman, Jordan.

Dubai by night.

You can see the rest of our Duabi photos by clicking here.

Highly recommended.

Stay closer the airport, Ski Dubai is slightly away from the main part of town, but easily reached on the metro.

The light show at the Dubai Mall was great, 100% worth seeing