Reflections & Surprises-The Middle East

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Reflecting then. Reflecting now. Egypt’s rich history overshadowed by its present.

For those of you who follow my Facebook page or Twitter feed, you know over the last couple weeks I’ve been posting a few photos and thinking about the time I spent through Egypt in 2008.

First, I still haven’t connected with my host in Cairo, Mohamed Magdi. During the height of the demonstrations, the email bounced back to me several times. I still await to hear from him. Certainly I am happy for Egypt and though the road ahead will be rough and potholed, I do wish for a smooth transition to a solid democracy that will pave a smoother road for the country’s future and destiny as a mid east leader.

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Ana, Gregor, Ana and Borut are from Slovenia taking a couple week journey to Jordan on their V-Strom and GS1200.

As protests and uprising spread through the region I also thought about Jordan and Syria, two of my favorite countries in the region. Just as Mubarek was about to step down, I received an email from a motorcyclists I met at the entrance to Wadi Rum, the legendary desert where Laurence of Arabia led a growing group of Bedouins to Aqaba where they singlehandedly toppled the Ottoman Turks and captured the city. Wadi Rum is vast desert of other worldly rock formations, rich umber and brick colors and lots of sand.

Gregor, Ana, Borut and his wife were on a two week tour of the region when I spotted their bikes at the Wadi Rum visitors center. To be sure, I didn’t see many foreign motorcyclists in the Middle East. Curious and intrigued the four of us shared lunch and stories of the region. I’ve never visited Slovenia, but have always wanted. Detailing their route around Slovenia, Turkey, Lebanon and such, Gregor explained that Slovenia can be described as shaped like a chicken. He pulled out his maps and detailed the shape. Forever I cannot think of Slovenia without thinking of its chicken shape.

Gregor and Ana were planning on riding two up to Egypt this spring. But the questionable stability in the region caused them to rethink their plans. So, they’ve decided to visit the United States. With such short time to prepare, they realized the shipping the bikes would be too costly and the cost of renting similar bikes here, much too expensive. So they’ll land in Los Angeles in early March and take a couple weeks to tour California and the western United States.

In Jordan I was intrigued by the panniers that Borut and Gregor had on their bikes. Turns out, Gregor owns a company that manufacturers an automatic oiler for chain driven motorcycles. He also made the panniers on their bikes. Even more, the company that provides some of the machining tools is US-based in Oxnard, California—just a 30 miles north of Los Angeles. So their trip will include a visit to the factory in Oxnard, and after they’ve made a loop which will include Route 1 to San Francisco, the Sierra Nevada mountains, the Grand Canyon and more, they’ll stop here at my place before heading back to Slovenia.

I’m sure we’ll pull a couple corks of some good wine, though I understand Slovenian wine is very good yet not widely available here. If the timing works I’ll try to interview both of them for an upcoming edition of the long-lost WorldRider PodCast series—if you’ve never listened, it’s fun to go back and check out both the stories and the production.

Gregor, Ana and their friends have toured dozens of countries in the region—including Iran, a country I was repeatedly denied a visa for entry. Here’s what Gregor told me about his trip to Iran:

“Iran was a beautiful country and the people are realy great, they are inviting you in your homes all the time. Must say that Iran was the best country we everer visited.”

Gregor, Ana and friends continue to push their boundaries and tour on motorcycles to places we all like to dream about. You can see some photos of their adventures here.

Stay tuned, I look forward to sharing more about Gregor and Ana when they visit.

Syrian Visa: Another Waiting Game

Getting out of Israel was a snap and all the immigration officials on both sides of the border played along with stamps or lack thereof so that a trip to Syria wouldn’t be hampered with any evidence that I’d been to Israel.

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Any time you can take a diversion for a trip into Salt is a diversion worth taking!

The enterprising Jordanian who allowed me to leave Doc at his house was playing cards with his cronies when I debarked the community bus from Jerusalem. Doc fired up and I was motoring through the Jordanian country side as I flanked the Dead Sea before turning northeasterly toward Amman while thinking once again about how the Arab world has changed since TE Lawrence led the Bedouin to victory against the Ottoman Turks.

The history is mind-boggling and the more I learn here, the more I realize I don’t know nor understand. So I set my sights on Syria with a bit of apprehension.

Syria has a policy that it will not grant foreign-nationals admittance into its country without a visa. Sounds normal, right? Except there policy boldly and unequivocally states that if Syria has diplomatic relations with a vistor’s home country, a visa MUST be secured from the consulate or Embassy in your country PRIOR to entering Syria. It will not issue a visa at overland borders to anyone who failed to get a visa in their home country.

So riding the tarmac toward the Syrian border a bright red Volkswagen with a group of Syrian students passes me and cheers. When I stop to take a picture of a sign they want to know if I need help. And so the tone was set for my journey through a country with a questionable government but often misunderstood populace.

At the border I attract the usual attention. Most Arabic speakers try to mutter some English words, while those with a command of the language admire the flags on my panniers. “You go to Israel?” a Jordanian asks, “you no can go to Syria when you come to Israel,” he offers. It’s then I remember that I have a few Israeli shekel shekel bills and coins in my pockets. Subversively I find hiding places on the bike. I find a brochure and tourist map from Jerusalem which would be better torn up and tossed into the trash can outside the office.

Inside a huge sign in English and Arabic punctuates my fear that getting a Syrian visa might not be easy. Or worse, I might have to make a U-Turn and head back to Africa or take an alternate route around Syria. But this notion is unacceptable. I want to go to Syria. So I step up to the window while noticing the only three other white westerners in the building — a couple and their young daughter — they’re siting on benches adjacent to the window where foreigners must start their immigration process.

The stodgy 60-something man with wire rim glasses and a nose that seems to have been pushed into his face. He flips through the pages of my passport in rapid motion. Once. Twice and then a third time and hands it back to me. “You no have visa. Where you visa?” He asks. “Not possible to enter no visa.” He walks away. I just stand there. Wearing taupe uniforms neatly pressed and sporting an official hat, my contact starts a conversation with another official who then walks to the window.

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“Where’s your visa?” the question is repeated again. I explain that I’ve been traveling for more than a year and have not had an opportunity to go back to my country to apply for your visa. “Plus,” I further detail, “when your visa must be used within 90 days of issuance, so even if I received a visa a year ago, it would be invalid today.” He grabs my passport and flips through the pages and then asks, “You’ve been to Israel?” Must be a trick question, I thought. There isn’t anything that indicates this in my passport. Or is there? “No. I have not been to Israel,” I tell him the white lie to hide my secret.

He tells me to sit down and that he must send a request to Damascus, the Syrian capital. Plopping next to the young family I learn they’re British nationals who’ve been waiting four hours for a visa. I tense up and then breathe, preparing myself for a long day. It’s 12:30pm. Others tell me I can get to Damascus in a couple hours. So in order to make Damascus before sunset, I gotta be cleared through immigration and customs by 5pm. I start pacing. Check out the bike. More questions from more people. A group of Arabs in ultra white and neatly pressed gowns with matching keffiyeh, the cotton headdress and agal, a rope circlet that holds the Keffiyeh in place. There is not a stain or touch of dirt on these gowns and their shoes are clean and simple sandals. Only one speaks English and tells me they’re from Saudi Arabia. They join me on the bench and insist I come to visit their village which is less than 100km away. With a visa problem in Syria, I can’t imagine what it would take to get into Saudi Arabia. But I ask him to jot his name, number and address in my moleskine book.

Nearby is a rather ostentatious duty-free store, on the level you’d expect to find at airports in Paris, Milan or Frankfurt. There’s the usual assortment of fine spirits and liquor, brand name clothing, electronics, cell phones and chocolate and sweets. They’ve even got French wine on shelves sharing space with Lebanese wine. I wander the shop and chat about cell phone technology with the young sales guys before returning to the immigration window. It’s 2pm.

The British couple are still waiting. I’m told that they haven’t sent my request yet, but will do so soon. Great.

At 4pm the British couple get their visa. I’m told to wait.

It’s apparent that I will not make it to Damascus so I explore my options and learn that above the duty free shop is a hotel. Looking rather fancy, I discover it’s actually cheap. So by 7pm and still no visa, I opt to book a room. At only $30 it could be the nicest place I’ve stayed since South Africa. I’m getting hungry. And the restaurant downstairs doesn’t have a menu in English. So I just ask the waiter to make something good. I get some kabobs, a nice salad and a warm beer. Hey. At least there’s beer.

At 9pm I’m back at the immigration window. My visa request was approved 30 minutes prior. Next I proceed through a maze of windows purchasing more postage-type stamps in my passport. Then I must by insurance for the bike. Customs is open 24 hours so I spend the next couple hours plowing through the simple yet complicated process of getting my carnet stamped and cleared for exiting the country.

But it’s dark and I’m tired. The duty free shop is also open 24 hours. The technology guys agree that between them they’ll keep an eye on my bike. So I ride it up the steps to just outside the automated sliding glass entry doors and park dark then cover the bike. Weary and ready, I slip into new and very clean linens.

Welcome to Syria. Though I’m still in Jordan.

My Israeli & Jordanian Quagmire.

A Wall Too Far?

Flanking the Dead Sea it’s hard not to consider the history of those lands just a stone’s throw from Jordan. I wouldn’t have much time to spend in Israel, so I had to make what time I had count. The wine regions of the north, the resorts of the west and the bustle of Tel Aviv would have to wait. Jerusalem, the world’s holiest city, would be my target. Of course there are complications.

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Getting into Israel usually requires a valid passport which the local authorities will gladly review and stamp. Problem is, Syria won’t let anyone with an Israel stamp in their passport cross into their country. And while some Israeli border agents are sensitive to this issue and might stamp a paper inserted into the passport, even this concept presents problems for would be overland travelers heading into Syria after an Israeli excursion. For exiting Jordan at either of the two major border crossings along the Dead Sea means a Jordan exit stamp in your passport. So even though you might not have an Israeli stamp, Syrian officials will look at Egypt and Jordanian stamps in an effort to see if either of those countries were exited through Israeli borders. And Jordan officials are certainly less sensitive to the diplomatic problems between Israel and Syria and the challenges these issues mean for travelers.

A second passport might help, but getting Jordanian officials to provide an exit stamp in a passport that shows no entrance stamp will likely result in a dicey and difficult conversation. So even if I could explain the concept of two passports and the need for avoiding any hint of my visit to Israel, I would have another challenge: the motorcycle and the Carnet de Passage.

Like a passport, my carnet is legal-sized book of papers that provide detail as to the ownership of my motorcycle and the countries it has entered and exited. I deposited quite a significant sum of cash with the Canadian Automobile Association, who is responsible for management and issuance of such Carnets in North America, so that if the bike failed to leave a given country the customs of that country would be able to collect taxes/duty on the bike. Some countries don’t require them while using it in others simplifies the border crossing and temporary importation of vehicles. The Syrian government requires a carnet. So does Israel.

Things would be easier if I were traveling south into Africa as Syria can be visited prior to Israel. But there are fewer options. I could avoid Syria altogether — a notion that many of my readers might advise, but doing so means missing out on visiting the oldest continuously inhabitated cities in the world and more. Stubborn as I may sound, I wanted to visit Israel. Plus, with the violence currently wreaing havoc in Lebonon, I have less interest in traveling through that country at this time.

So if I show up at the Syrian border with a Carnet stamped at either Jordan/Israel border crossing would mean there’s no way I’ll be permitted to enter Syria with or without Doc.

You might say I was in a bit of a quagmire.

Old Jerusalem Sits Behind A Massive & Ancient Wall

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But gazing from the old walled city to Sharon’s Wall dividing Israeli communities from Palestinians West Bank, one can’t help wonder if this is a good idea. Personally I find the old wall much more aesthetically pleasing.

But I discovered one other possibility. I could possibly cross into Israel from Jordan over the King Hussein Bridge. This would mean convincing Jordan officials to bypass stamping my passport using my promise of an “official” exit from Jordan through Syria. Then I would need to convince the Israeli’s, too. This border crossing is closed to private and commercial vehicles. Anyone looking to enter through the border must do so in a government sponsored bus.

So I found a local Jordanian who lived a block from the immigration and customs office who would watch and let me park Doc next to his home while I traipsed in Jerusalem on a bus. Success.

I received more hassle and interrogation from the Israelis than the Jordanians, but at least they didn’t hole me up in a small windowless office while paging through my passport a dozen times and repeating the same six questions for two hours like they did the Belgium guy who shared my taxi ride into Jerusalem.

In Israel and once again I’m faced with another language I know so little.

Shalom.

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A nice Israeli treat as I begin my discovery of Old Town Jerusalem.

Attacked In Jordan

I know that for many readers halfway or all the way across the globe, that the notion of riding a motorcycle alone through the Middle East sounds either far fetched or perhaps incredibly dangerous. Many would pick a hundred other destination before choosing Jordan or Syria. But the truth is, I have never felt in danger nor have I felt the curse of “an American?”

But today I did experience my first targeted act of aggression. The perpetrators, however, were hardly terrorists. But the act was not to be taken lightly. While making my way to the Amman, capital city of Jordan, I decided on an off-the-beaten track road which carved through rocky hills and winded around scenic buttes. Cresting one woop-de-woop roller coaster like hill with a quick drop I spotted some of the friendly locals walking on the side of the road. There were groups of them for a mile or so. Closer inspection revealed they were young school boys walking home.

Then in a second I felt a dull thud strike my jacket. It took a minute before it sunk in. Was I shot? a few hundred meters as I tested the anti-lock braking system of my trusty BMW. I peeked in the cracked rear view and watched the kids flee in all directions. Thankfully, I wasn’t bleeding. The weapon? A small stone about three inches in diameter and an inch thick. It bounced off my gear and then nestled itself neatly between the body of my bike and the bracket holding my Jesse panniers.

Remembering my childhood winters where my brother, Dick Jones and several other neighbors would camouflage ourselves in the tall hedges of nearby neighbors and hurl snowballs at cars that sped by. Our hearts would pound heavily when the brake-lights of an irritated motorist would glare as the car slammed to a stop. And nothing ignited the fear nor our running shoes faster than when the reverse lights lit or the car made a fast U-turn. We’d hide in the pool shed or under the steps of another neighbors house. We’d sometimes sit there for an hour until Mom made the nightly call for dinner. We were barely 12 years old. At the same time we were fearless and bold and in a second frightened and shaking like the young school boys we were.

I popped the clutch and popped a small wheelie and screamed back after the kids. I jumped off the tarmac onto the rocky front lawn of a roadside home. I climbed a rocky hill and spotted the kids running up a hill away. I revved the engine with fervor and shouted at the top of my longs, “Get back here now!!!”
I figured that if I scared them enough the next motorcyclist or motorist might be spared the dangerous act — a rock is a far cry from a snowball, but in the desert I’m confident these kids never seen a snowman before.

It was fun riding off the tarmac so I made my self audible and visible until I was waved down by a man sporting the typical Bedouin headdress. Sitting behind him was a young boy — but not one of the evil-doers — far from it. Attayak promised that he would speak to boys of the neighborhood and to the school teacher so they know the danger they could cause to drivers. He then invited me into his home for tea. We set in a room about 20 feet by 12 with cushions lining the perimeter of the room. An Arabic calendar graced one wall while a single window provided light. I never did see his wife but when the tea was ready a knock of the door and Attayak then served the tea. We spoke of the upcoming presidential election in the USA and I asked about the late King Hussein, who was known to be a motorcyclist. After an hour it was time for me to ride again. We exchanged hugs and a few photographs and I rode on.

I had no destination that day and though the incident was really the first I can 100% confidently say I was targeted by stone throwing kids, I wanted to ride the desolate land of Jordan. In a few days I’d make my way into Israel. For now, I wandered Jordan coming close to both the Iraq and Saudi borders, but never crossing.

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Wandering Through The Lost City of Petra

It’s hard to imagine I’m in Jordan. Just three years ago as I scanned the world atlas to better acquaint myself with world geography the tiny scribbly line that defines Jordan’s boundary just wasn’t on my radar. Yet as I ride through the desolate landscapes of this young country I find it difficult to remember what I thought of Jordan before landing in Aqaba earlier this week. To be sure, the pictures, people and places I’m encountering now don’t add up to the pictures painted in my head through my own volition or through the flood of media in the past. Friendly and helpful and the woman beautiful. The sand a golden yellow and the shadows long and narrow.

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Entering the Lost City of Petra requires a lot of hiking. You can hire a donkey, horse or camel. But better, these enterprising Bedouins make for scenic photos against the dramatic backdrops of rosy red rocks and interesting shapes and textures formed by thousands of years of wind, water and sand.

I’m glad I’m here. Because I long imagined what the red hewn rock palaces of Petra would look like in real life. Would there size dwarf me as a little ole goliath wandering the Arab world on a motorcycle. Or would I be disappointed? Photographs tend to render places with massive scale miniscule. Riding along the Dead Sea for a portion of my journey to Petra saw the Jordan sun shimmer while the desert heat and its intensity paint my nose red. Ah yes, this is Jordan and I’m still in the desert.

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The dramatic entrance into the Ancient City of Petra is through a mile long “Siq”, a cavernous gorge where the stones are as old as the city and worn through the years of traders, warriors, pilgrims and holy people.

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I was taken back by the shapes and textures of the rocks and the interesting way they changed colors depending on time of day.

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It’s hard to capture the scale of these hewn rock ruins. But I try.

Known as the “Lost City”, the rose colored rocks where Petra’s magnificence seem to thrust from were first discovered by the Western world in 1812. Sadly, perhaps the imagery has been sterilized through with the help of pop culture as it’s the set where Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones found the Holy Grail in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. Desensitized or simply made familiar through such pop culture idioms, its the nearly mile long walk through the siq, a long narrow chasm carved out of the red rock where each step builds the excitement much like the interpolation of the simple yet dramatic two notes from the Theme of Jaws creates anxiety, to borrow another pop culture reference, until a swath in the rocks reveals one of Petra’s most impressive and familiar structures The Khazneh, or Treasury.

Long before Alexanders conquest the Nabateans abandoned a nomadic lifestyle and slowly a civilization emerged throughout Arabia — Petra was its capital. Little is known about the Nabateans save they were savvy traders and highly skilled in engineering as evidence of a water system that provided irrigation through dams, reservoirs and canals. Petra was ideally situated at the crossroads of many trade routes that connected Arabian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Green and Roman traders. Built originally as a fortress, Petra soon became very wealthy. Meaning “Stone” in Greek, for hundreds of years Petra as akin to today’s phantom lost city of Atlantis. Travelers and explorers swore it existed, but there was no physical evidence, largely because its existence and location was a very closely guarded secret known to local Bedouins and Arab tradesmen. But in 1812 a Swiss explorer and recent converter to Islam, Johann Ludwig Burkhart on a three month “treasure hunt” disguised himself as a Pilgrim seeking to make a sacrifice at the tomb of Aaron. He convinced nomads to reveal Petra’s location and ultimately Burkhardt shed Petra’s light on the western world.

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Those not new to these stories are familiar with how I’ve come to respect and dig donkeys. Here at Petra where animals are used by the local people for work, it’s nice to see there’s a attention to keeping them healthy and treated well.

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Facades are built into the rock high above the path and along its ridge-line. It’s a life-size museum that’s hard to capture through the lens of a camera.

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A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985, some historians note that Petra is referenced in the Old Testament but confusion and argument among archaeologists and historians have failed to identify the true origins and dates of Petra. Though there is more agreement as to the age of the buildings hewn out of the rose red rocks. For me the most impressive structure in Petra sits high atop the normal touristed Treasure, facades and tombs along the walking path. Taking an earlier morning climb up the “1,000 steps”, I was the first person that morning to see The Monastery. A structure larger and more magnificent than the treasury. Built around the 1st Century BC, “The Monastery” was built as a temple dedicated to Obodas I. And like most sites in this part of the world, its fate and history has been at the hands of the Romans, Assyrians, Persians and Christians.

I visited Petra on two sequential days seeing both sunrise and sunset over these lands and ruins. Early that morning a curious guard walked with me as I made my way to the start of the 1,000 steps. I suggested a bit disappointment that I couldn’t ride my motorcycle down the dark and narrow Siq. Recognizing and opportunity for some “baksheesh” he suggested that this could be arranged at the end of the day, but I would have to do this without stopping and move quickly. Tempting as this might sound, I couldn’t imagine how disrupting the loud exhaust of my pipe, which is desperately in need of repacking, would be to this sacred and peaceful place.

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One must climb the 1,000 steps to get high above Petra and to see the Monastery.

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Where Am I Going?

Wow things sure change once you cross the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. At least here in Aqaba. Wedged between Israel to the west and Saudi Arabia to the south, Aqaba reminds me more of an up-market beach resort destination than any of the preconceived notions of what an Arabic country bordering Syria an Saudi Arabia might look like.

With a polished McDonalds on the water, a tony yacht club, outdoor shopping malls and resort hotels, Jordan’s answer to Eilat in israel is right here — though much more reserved and compact. And perhaps that’s its allure. I’m told that just up the road in Israel and the northern beaches of the Gulf, Eilat sports nearly 20,000 five star hotel rooms. While in Aqaba there are about 500. But like all alluring destinations this too will change.

For me Aqaba represents an opportunity to brush up on my Arabic, find a map of the Middle East and map out my next routes and destinations. Finding a map turned out to be almost impossible. There are no shortage of bookstores (called libraries here) but save the typical tourist guide books, most offerings are in Arabic. And maps? Who needs them? Tourists are either on highly managed and multi-itinerary driven guided package tours, backpackers on the same itinerary only in lower cost transportation accommodation or are locals who don’t need maps.

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The Gulf of Aqaba doesn’t feel like an Arabic town other than the language and the fashion of those non-tourists that work and play here.

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Doc is secure at a local budget hotel.

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Lawrence of Arabia cruised from the Jordan River to Aqaba to defeat the turks in July 1917. Here in 2008 I enjoy Jordanese wine while the sunsets on the Gulf of Aqaba — Wine of The Holy Land.

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Yes. In the Middle East and only a dozen or so kilometers from the Saudi Arabia border.

There are two primary routes heading northeast toward the legendary historic enclave of Petra and Wadi Musa – the King’s Highway through the desert and another along the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea route probably gets you to Petra the quickest, though I’m unsure of the condition of this old road. And the King’s Highway, which feels like a great multilane scenic byway in the West. Because I wanted to spend some time in Wadi Rum, I chose the King’s Highway. I’d then head eastward toward Petra before making my way across the border in to Israel.

Not that I was starved for more desert scenery, but Wadi Rum is spectacular and in a short span of 20-30 miles it will deliver nearly every cliche of an Arabic desert scene and then some. And it’s not cliché — it’s the real thing. Beduins roaming seemingly the harshest conditions none to man on caravans of camels. Towering crimson colored mountains from a sea of ochre or butterscotch colored stand providing a striking contrast and scenes that beg contemplation or meditation.

It was here that I met two Slovenian motorcyclists and their wives — on a two to three week ride from their homeland to Jordan and the Gulf of Aqaba and back. Now if you live in Slovenia you’ve got quite a few options for great motorcycle riding. You could simply head to Spain via Austria, Italy and France crossing the Alps and the Pyrenees along the adventure. Or, you could cruise through Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syrian and into Jordan to the Gulf of Aqaba. Probably equal distances, but one offers a journey deep into the lands where Lawrence of Arabia wandered and ultimately created. For if not for Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence, the Middle East might have quite a different makeup than we see today. And therein may be some contributory faults to problems that haunt this region today, though to be fair, these problems are several millennia old.

It’s fitting to think of Lawrence as I head from here to ultimately Ankara and Istanbul in Turkey. For Lawrence and his band of unlikely guerilla arab soldiers did the impossible and defeated the Turks by ultimately capturing the Port of Aqaba on July 6, 1917. It was the legendary trek via foot and camel across this desert and through the spectacular landscapes including the inspirational Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a rock formation named by Lawrence and the title of his autobiographical book describing the amazing Arabic revolt which he led.

The history the oozes from the desert and the locales I’m soon to ride and wander is mind-boggling. For across these lands lies the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, the paths of Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, the Persians and the Crusaders, Mamluks, Turks and T.E. Lawrence’s Arab forces — and others. It’s that the soil here has been walked on by virtually every walk of life. And that’s why still today it’s the most heated and controversial soil on our planet.

So while not only the riding is spectacular and I’m winding through roads of tar and dirt, watchings camels and Mercedes limousines I truly am passing through the pages of history.

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The tiny encampment of Wadi Rum is home to Beduin people who offer camel rides, 4×4 tours and simply go on with their life here in the desert.
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Ana, Gregor, Ana and Borut are from Slovenia taking a couple week journey to Jordan on their V-Strom and GS1200. Ran into them toward the end of their trip at the vistor center for Wadi Rum.

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The formations that make up Wadi Rum remind me of Utah and Northern Arizona — only more vast and remote.

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Housing under construction on the outskirts of Wadi Rum.

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Beduin man is more comfortable on his camel than, say, my motorcycle.

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Imagine Lawrence of Arabia and his Arabic forces making their way through these lands to the Gulf of Aqaba.

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Some sand and some harder packed dirt made this part of the desert easier than Sudan. Though another route is very deep sand and off limits to motorcyclists.

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Getting Out: Nearly As Hard As Getting Into Egypt

At least I had a good meal last night at my hotel. For my last night in Egypt and on the Sinai Peninsula I stayed at the north end of Nuweiba at Casa del Mare a beautiful and cozy seaside hotel called where I was the only guest and perhaps the only hotel in Nuweiba with wireless internet access. The owner told me that since the bombings business has been extremely slow. Used to be Israelis coming to Nuweiba, but now its nearly dead save a couple months during high season.

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My goal was simply to get aboard The Princes for Aqaba by 2pm that afternoon. But it didn’t work out for me.

But the comfort of my evening faded quickly as I melded into more madness and prepared to get Doc cleared out of Egypt and aboard The Princess the fast ferry boat bound for Aqaba in Jordan.

Part I: Getting Out of Egypt By Ferry & Motorcycle – Almost stella2.jpg
First I visited the same unfriendly, pouty man wearing the same shirt as last night sitting behind the window and ignoring everyone pressed against it at the ferry ticket office. With a dozen people cramming the space in front of the window, there was not sense of order. No line. No courtesy. Just pu shing, rude interruptions and the whole crowd pushing papers and passports toward the window while grumpy man somehow managed to ignore the chaos while banging on his analog typewriter slowly one finger at a time. When he finally took my passport and carnet for my bike I was told to come back in an hour. That’s when I ran into a Portuguese man and his wife. He was wearing a BMW riding jacket so the story telling commenced. Seems his bike was stuck in customs here in Egypt since arriving yesterday. The Egyptian customs wouldn’t let him bring the bike into the country because he didn’t have a carnet. Seems there was no way around not having a carnet. He was buying another ticket to return back to Aqaba and look at alternatives for heading back to Portugal. Sad.

I paid $70 for passage to Jordan and for Doc it cost me another $40 — using only US currency and none with small heads. Then I through myself into the ring.

I’ll try to do my best to keep this short, but you should know that getting cleared out of Egypt took me ten hours from the time I entered the ticket office to the time I boarded the ferry.

About six uniformed police, most with weapons watch the gate at the entrance to the port. There are several boats that use this port, some commercial and the fast ferries. I checked in at the gate and my details were logged into a large ledger book while in a small cubicle of an office a plain clothes security type made some scribbles on the back of my carnet de passage, then he told me to head to another building and look for Ahmed who would help guide me through the process.

In his late fifties with a crisp white uniform, polished shoes, a friendly face with the texture of fine sandpaper, soft eyes set in deep dark cups and a mop of thick black hair that seemed to flare at 45 degrees from under the weight of his hat, he directed me to a hut on the other side of the port where I got photo copies of my passport and carnet and was instructed to buy a file folder — all for 15 Egyptian pounds. Then he hijacked the vehicle of two Jordanian travelers in a station wagon, held the door open and pushed me inside advising me to go with them. Neither spoke English but somehow we managed to navigate the maze of the Nuweiba port. If all the running around here had to be done entirely by walking it’d add an hour or more to the ordeal.

Passing lines of people with strapped boxes, corrugated bags, push carts full of stuff, a group of Arabs with a large screen TV and people with baskets of food, sacks of sugar and rice. Everyone had just debarked The Princess and were angling to get into Egypt through customs and immigration. We’d driven to the wrong building. No fear, at another building where outside cars and trucks lined up in the parking lot while pedestrians pushed carts of stuff all trying to to get cleared so they could board the 2pm ferry to Aqaba — the one I was anxiously looking to get on. I still had two hours before departure.

We climbed some stairs and into another room where men were smoking, drinking tea and huddled around an ink pad and old typewriter. I had no idea why I was here, but the guy asked me for 15 Egyptian pounds and then handed me another flimsy tab-less file folder with a bad imprint of some Arabic form. Back in the car we drive some 300 meters back to an office adjacent to the photo copy hut where two men sitting at old metal desks. One reviews my folders and scribble my name on one, initials some papers before shoving into one of my new folders and hands t to the other guy. He reviews the folders and contents, scribbles something on the papers and hands it all back to me.

Okay. So now I’ve got my folders with lots of initials and a few papers — yet nothing was rubber stamped. Amazing. What do I do now?

I’m guided by my crisp uniformed assigned tourist cop to the building not far from where I had purchased my file folder. This time I had to walk. All the while my motorcycle is sitting in front of the photocopy hut and I’m schlepping my folder in this hot jacket and barely comfortable motorcycle boots. How I wish I was wearing a t-shirt, shorts and my Keen sandals. At this new building I pay 21 Egyptian Pounds for two receipts and a piece of carbon paper. I’m then told to remove the license plates from my bike and return them to another office in another building. When I do I’m given a small strip of coated blank paper and asked to pay another 1.50 Egyptian Pounds.

My jolly uniformed tourist copy tells me to bring the motorcycle to the parking lot where I’d seen all the other cars and trucks parked earlier. I’m asked to wait while every one of the dozen or so cars parked are awaiting inspection by the police and verification of chassis numbers by the engineer. After about 30 minutes of waiting the engineer grabs the blank coated paper and searches for my chassis number. I’ve been through this a month before at the High Dam in Aswan where an imprint of my VIN# was made. The first impression failed, so he tried again. The numbers were hard to read but eventually it was cleared and initialed.

Then in the chaos of getting the imprint something happened to the plastic laminated card that I originally received in Aswan and is mandatory to return prior to leaving Nuweiba. I had handed it with all my documents to my uniformed tourist copy. When I returned to go to yet another office he couldn’t find it and insisted I had it. No way. We run to three of the offices I’d been to previous looking for this document. I think he dropped it in the parking lot while aiding in an inspection of a Mercedes while I the engineer was getting the imprint. It’s about business card sized and was in one of the folders he was holding. We spent 30 minutes looking for the card.

That’s when my cop told me I wouldn’t make the 2pm boat. What? I’ve been running around here, there and everywhere in this port and I can’t make the boat. “No. Everything close now,” he says while several buddies in like uniforms congregate around my bike. “We go to Mosque,” explaining it was prayer time and that all activity in the port ceases for about an hour, “we finish later.” I’m confused. There’s nothing I can do as I watch the boat pull out of the port while they strip the ties from their uniforms, remove hats and head toward the tall minaret towering high above the port.

I’m hot, hungry and frustrated. So I head toward the exit of the port where just across the street outside I’d seen a few kebab eateries. They’ll pray. I go to lunch. But it’s not that easy. The first gatekeeper won’t let me out of the port. “But my passport hasn’t been stamped, I’m still in Egypt,” I explain the truth and that immigration hadn’t put the important exit stamp in my passport. This didn’t matter. I escalate to another cop. Then to a plainclothes version. All reject my desire to exit the port. “Not possible.” While I relentlessly plea and try to reason, I recognize the cop I’d seen the night before when I rolled into town. He walks over and like old friends we shake hands, shoulder hug and talk about the motorcycle. After some talking and explaining I agree to jet across the street and be back in the port in 15 minutes. They let me go. Friends matter, I guess, it’s who you know!

Nobody seemed to be working in the kebab places. One with rotisserie chicken and a television playing a broadcast of the prayer session with cheesy superimpositions of the mosque, town streets and prayer leader as he sang from the Koran had a few people seated. I bought some chicken, flat bread, rice, veggies and headed back to the port while prayers blared from the speakers.

Part II: Getting Out of Egypt By Playing Document Roulette.
My cop returns and asks about my plastic ID card. “You have it,” I explain. Defensive and resistant he denies every taking possession. I don’t need tarot cards to see where this is going. Innocently I suggest we retrace his steps. The parking lot where inspections and chassis number verification are handled is empty save my lone motorcycle.

Despair and now showing a bit of sweat on his brow, my tourist cop seems agitated as we head to the Port Office. Here I’m told to write a statement about the missing card. The tourist police then translates this into Arabic. We both sign it. Another copy is handed a large black ledger book filled with tattered and dog-eared pages which we take with the signed letter to the entrance of the port where at the gate a police officer jots more info into the ledger. It’s then taken to a “Major” who reviews the letter and the ledger book and signs both.

The pace of the tourist cop’s gait has quickened as we head back to the Port Office where I’m offered a plate of food and tea and wait until the group in the 10×10 room finish lunch. Without a chair I decided to sit behind the vacated desk close to the door. As I start to get comfortable fingers are aggressively waived at me “no, no, no.” I guess that was a bad idea.

We must return to the Traffic Police office where I returned my license plates and spend 2.50 Egyptian Pounds and receive in lieu a couple postage like adhesive stamps which we take back to the Port Office and the scene of my no, no, no desk seating incident. The stamps are then affixed to yet another handwritten document which now must be photocopies. We must interrupt a meeting where men in similar white uniforms but with more bars and metals affixed and get two of these officers to sign the new document. As he’s signing the man with the salt and pepper hair, modern wire framed eyeglasses and an angular face looks up at me with a friendly smile and finishes signing. We take this letter back upstairs to the same room where I tried to hijack the desk and chair and get one more signature. This is definitely a case of document roulette and I’m wondering when someone is going to refuse to sign. Or is this why all these cops are there? It’s the signature battalion.

We return to the Traffic Police office for yet another signature before walking back to the entrance of the Port where the customs officials read the letter, handwritten document and my carnet which they finally initial and stamp. I must take the signed carnet and my ferry ticket and get these stamped and signed. It’s funny because all of this business at the Traffic Police is design inside the office behind windows where dozens of Egyptians are angling to get documents signed, stamped and who knows what else. I can’t imagine the stuff these people must deal with on a daily basis living in Egypt with all this bureaucracy.

With the bike cleared I’ve got one more task. Or so I think. I head to the immigration office where nearly 100 people are fighting and crowding three lines to get passport exit stamps. It’s madness as these people who seemingly and frankly, obviously, have no manners, courtesy or decorum blatantly cut in front of elderly female tourists, their own neighbors and make a made dash that would make an Olympic coach happy. As two cut in front of me, I commented that I was here first. This was shrugged off but one very tall man pulled me into the line where my face was pressed against his chest from the weight of everyone pushing behind me. Ahhhh. This is the Egypt I remember from the LAST ferry I debarked in Aswan nearly a month earlier.

It took nearly 40 minutes but I got stamped. While everyone in that line had to wait for a dilapidated transit bus to take them toward the loading area next to the ferry, I simply rode Doc to the base of the loading ramp of the boat until I was asked to move. Made sense. Because after the ramp was lowered the stream of loaded up vehicles and busses exited. I couldn’t believe how many cars fit into the belly of this ship. While waiting another uniformed man asked me if I had my ticket stamped. “Of course,” I told him, “I’ve got a whole collection of stamps!”

Well, I was wrong. I still needed one more stamp and signature. So I had to ride to a tiny phone booth sized office a scant 100 meters away from the boat where a man in a different color uniform reviewed my ticket and inked up his rubber stamp and firmly planted on the ticket. Thank god.

At just a few minutes before 7pm I rode Doc onto the Ferry and headed across the Gulf of Aqaba to Jordan.

My plight wasn’t over yet. A larger ferry was docked in the proper slip where The Princess could lower her ramp and unload the vehicles in her belly. Instead, we docked with the starboard side of the boat to the dock and all pedestrians were unloaded. All of us with vehicles would have to wait. Even after the other ship left we weren’t able to dock The Princess where her ramp could be lowered. Why? The wind and the current in the Gulf made it impossible.

Three hours later the sea calmed and I was able to unload doc and start the Jordanian customs and immigrations procedure.

Things go a lot smoother in Jordan than Egypt. But I was challenged with something I hadn’t prepared for: money. To get Doc cleared for passage on the roads of Jordan I had to buy insurance. Plus, I had to pay a nominal customs fee. I had enough to pay for the insurance, but was surprised that I still needed to pay customs. No worries, I could possibly change money or use and ATM? Not quite. It was well past midnight by the time I started my clearing process. And all of the money changers in the port were closed. I was told to wait for one to return, but after 45 minutes I abandoned this effort and searched for someone willing to change money in the port.

This plot was foiled as my collection of currency at this point was less than desirable. I pleaded with the guy I bought the insurance from and he agreed to change the small amount of money I needed — about eight dollars worth of Jordanian Dinar. In the end I was short about fifty cents and the customs officers wouldn’t let me slide. Once again my insurance buddy helped and paid the difference.

It was pushing 2am and I asked for directions into town. Insurance man offered to go with me if I’d wait until he closed up. Great. So my documents were reviewed at the gate of the Port of Aqaba and I was free and now in Jordan. Insurance man walked behind and I wondered where he parked his car. Oooops. Not quite. When he said he’d go with me he meant he wanted a ride with me.

I pulled my Camelback pack off the seat and onto his back and we rode into Aqaba. I found an ATM and hotel. Head on the pillow: 3:30am local time.

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It was too much food but as the only guest at Casa del Mare in Nuweiba, Egypt Sinai I was treated fantastically and fed well. Highly recommended and very reasonable.

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The Ferry Ticket Office before the chaos.

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I was assigned a Tourist Police Officer to help guide me through the red tape and file folder madness of customs procedures at the Port of Nuweiba.

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The Port was crammed with people coming and going with lots of stuff.

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Everyone seemed to be running somewhere. People looking to enter others hoping to leave. All in a day’s activity at the Port of Nuweiba.

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I visited the Traffic Police Office a half-dozen times including once to return my Egyptian License Plates. I always got to go in the back door and avoid the lines.

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This office was responsible for reviewing documents that another office signed to verify that ….

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The engineer made an etching or imprint of my VIN# which would need to be presented elsewhere for verification. Other vehicles had to be emptied and inspected. They used a mirror on wheels to look underneath the vehicles. I guess they’re looking for explosives as well as contraband.

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I had to present a paper that the engineer had etched my VIN# in order to verify the vehicle on the carnet was the same I was leaving Egypt with.

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I should’ve been on this boat.
Unfortunately with all the chaos and the case of a missing registration card, I missed the 2pm departure to Aqaba in Jordan.

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It was disappointing for me to see this backpacker showing a bit of disrespect. I was called by the Port Police before I could tell him that he had sewn our flag on his back-pack upside down. Couldn’t find him on the boat either.

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The ferry seemed to discharge an infinite number of passengers and vehicles while I waited to board.

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Some people are very creative in their loading techniques.

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Loading and Locking Doc onto The Princess. Phew…..

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This Ferry is quite the contrast form the one I took from Sudan.

Welcome to Jordan.