Well, after 30 hours of travel, we finally made it home safe - at 2am this morning. The trip was fantastic, but we were so busy that I really only had time to hit the high points in the blog, and there was so much more to the trip.
We loved Istanbul, a modern city built on ancient bones. The hotel was not in a major tourist spot, so it was easy to wander off into side streets and catch glimpses of the real city. There were a lot of cafes and restaurants with people playing backgammon and smoking nargile, or water pipes. And there were a lot of cats. Not so many dogs, but lots of cats. Of course, I didn't see any rats, and with such a dense population you would expect to see rats. I've seen them in Milwaukee, especially close to the river. One of the things we liked about Istanbul was how easy it was to get around the city. They have mass transit, plus it is very walkable.
We loved Jordan as well, but for different reasons. The landscape is dramatically beautiful, and our guide Ra'ed was just wonderful. On the way to Petra he had the bus pullover so he could buy us all pomegranates from a roadside vendor. At Petra he stopped at a vendor at the beginning of the Siq and introduced us to Frankincense, Myrrh, Ambergris and Musk (he burned the first two, and applied the latter two to the inside of our wrists), all items that figured prominently in the economy of that ancient city. On the way to the Dead Sea he had the bus stop at a little shop so he could buy some Arab bread, which he proceeded to share with the group. The bread was flat, but not as flat as Naan bread. I think it may have had some leavening. It was still warm when he got it and he said that it was very special bread and that not many people make it anymore. And after a very hot morning at Bethany he bought cold drinks for everyone. Even the driver got in the act, buying dates for us on the way to the Dead Sea. Ra'ed is also very knowledgeable about the history of the country and was great at contextualizing what we were seeing.
I think that the sites that I loved the most in Jordan are Petra and Little Petra, primarily because of the way the people lived in those areas. Their homes were carved into the sandstone cliffs, and they captured virtually all of the water that fell on them with their channels and cisterns. It is unfortunate that those systems no longer function, because Jordan needs all the water that it can get. When we were at Shobak we heard a loud boom and when we asked what it was Ra'ed told us it was the water tank adjusting because it was empty. It seems that a lot of Jordanians do not have water all of the time. They have water tanks that they have to fill, and when they empty they make this booming sound. He said that you get used to hearing it.
The hotels we stayed in while in Jordan were all beautiful, 5-star hotels. Opulent comes to mind. But they were also in more touristy areas, so it was harder to get a feel for the real county. Tourism is big business in Jordan, but it is a two-edged sword because those hotels use a lot of water. In fact they were ostentatious in their use of water, and water is probably the greatest challenge facing Jordan. We saw a lot of building going on, but when we asked Ra'ed where they would get water for all of those buildings he just shrugged. As you can tell from the picture of the Jordan river in my last post it is a shadow of what it once was. Israel takes a lot of the water, and Jordan takes much of the rest. The Dead Sea is drying up because the rivers that flow into it (among them the Jordan river) are being diverted. The Mujib river, which used to empty into the Dead Sea, is being diverted to provide the hotels in that area with their water. To be honest, I really didn't like that aspect of the trip. Although it was wonderful to relax in the lap of luxury, I would have preferred a more eco-friendly accommodation - as long as it was still basically comfortable (I do like a hot shower and a flush toilet).
If you ever get a chance to travel to Jordan, take it. It is a marvelous country and the people are very warm and friendly. One of the things that I noticed was how polite the drivers were. There were not many stop signs or traffic lights, instead they would use speed bumps to slow traffic at intersections, but these were not our small annoying speed bumps, these were longer and were not as tall. They also used roundabouts a lot. In contrast the drivers in Istanbul are pretty aggressive.
If you do manage to travel to Jordan and need a guide I would recommend our guide: Ra'ed Hammouri, firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a great guide and a great human being. I would also recommend the Smithsonian Journeys. We had 4 lectures during the trip that were interesting and informative, and the group that we traveled with were just great.