Final Thoughts

23Dec15

..and so, that was the adventure of the Third Wheel Camel Family in the Middle East.

My travel philosophy can be generally summed up in a quote by the late Christa McAuliffe:

If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.

I’m generally not one to be moved by motivational quotes and trite inspirational platitudes, but I so truly love this sentiment that you need to take the opportunities that are presented to you, even if they make you uncomfortable or force you to face unknowns.

Unfortunately that philosophy didn’t end up working out too great for her, but thankfully it has (so far) been much kinder to me.  I’ve had the great fortune to be able to travel around the world with or to people in wonderful places, and this is no exception.  I am so happy I had the opportunity to go to the Middle East, a place that is so foreign to and so misunderstood by so many people.

That being said, I admit that in many of the stages leading up to the trip… from the initial suggestions, to the planning, even up until we got on the plane… I was scared.  I knew that Zach would not take me to a dangerous place and I knew that Jordan was friendly with Americans and relatively westernized… but that logic was often overshadowed by the horrified reactions I got when I told people where I was going, or the constant propaganda and bile that is spit around the US as to how barbaric the Middle East is.  I’d look at a map and I’d see where I’d be and how few inches there would be between me and some truly dangerous places and..  well, it was scary.  It felt like I was doing something kind of crazy.

But you know what?  Once I was there, I wasn’t scared for a moment.  The fear I had been feeling was only the fear of the unknown (..and flying, god I hate flying).  Once I was there, I saw that there was nothing to be afraid of (besides flying).  Once I was there I was too swept up in the beauty of the surroundings and the friendliness of the people and the food and the drink and just the whole experience that there was no time or place to be scared (except about the flight back home).

Even in places that are very, very different, there’s still so much that you see is the same.  We mostly want the same things out of life.  We love our families and work hard to provide for them.  We’re proud of our homes and our cultures.  We laugh, we cry, we eat, we drink, we sing, we dance.  There are bad people and cruel people and selfish people too, but even in that we are all the same.  Being an asshole truly knows no time or place, and that is actually a very comforting thought.

And all seriousness aside, this trip was really just fun as hell.  I got to experience so many firsts!  First time in either country, first time in the Middle East, first time swimming in salt water, first time in the desert, first time riding a camel, first time cursing while driving 160km down a dark Jordanian highway, etc. etc.  More so, I got to experience it all with my husband (!!?!!?! ..someday that won’t sound really weird to me but today is not yet that day) and two of my closest friends.  It really, really did not suck.  I hope that from my pictures and stories that people are able to see how great it really can be.

So, in conclusion..

Don’t be scared of the Middle East.  Yes, there are places there that have tremendous problems and that are incredibly dangerous…  the same could be said about the south side of Chicago.  Do not let the stereotypes and the xenophobia that run so rampant in the US cloud your judgement of a whole, huge region.

Don’t be scared of Muslims.  Yes, there are extremists and yes, there is plenty that is problematic about the religion …so are many parts of the Bible.  Do not be fooled in to thinking the religion is synonymous with oppression or militance any more than any other religion can be.

Don’t be scared of refugees.  They are just trying to live their best lives and do what is best for them and their family, just like you and I do every day.  They are escaping hell.  We can and should help.

The world can be really, really scary in theory but it is really, really not scary in practice.


Morning came harsh and early, but we had to persevere for just one more day of tourism before heading home.  We had something particularly awesome to look forward to in Petra, so that made the sleepiness bearable.  The nice folks at our hotel had made us some boxed breakfasts since we were too early for the complementary breakfast there, so we wolfed down some pastries and headed down into Petra.

To give a little background, Petra is an ancient city built in to a canyon that dates back to something like 300BC, first by the Nabataeans then the Roman Empire took over.  It was partially destroyed by earthquakes in 363AD which was the beginning of its demise, and eventually the last people were forced out by the Arabs conquering the region and poisoning the water supply in 663AD.  If you’ve seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, you know Petra.

The entrance was literally 15 feet from the door of our hotel, so we were quickly on our way in.  We were joined by a friendly dog who guided us down into the canyon (we named him Indiana, natch) and towards the Treasury, which is probably the most famous part of Petra.  Zach tried to make us do a jumping picture, but it was far too early for that noise..

Sad attempted group jump photos

That was terrible, guys.  Just terrible.

Along the way there are various other ruins to explore.  You can also see remnants of the pipe system they used to run water in to the city, which was really ingenious.  They were able to collect water and pipe it down into the canyon and basically create an oasis, plus they made a series of dams and reservoirs to prevent from all regularly being swept away in flash floods.

These are some ruins:
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…and this is where the pipes went.

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Riveting.

The rock that makes up the mountains that surround Petra is just insane with bright color striations.  My pictures can’t really do it justice, but you can at least see the different shades.  IMG_2576

After about 10 minutes of walking through a canyon, you come around a little bend and …oh, hello.

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Can you imagine the first time some western explorer dude came across this?

Zach’s foresight to get us up early was greatly appreciated when we got here and had the place to ourselves.  It’s not often you can have a picture of yourself at one of the wonders of the world without some other tourists wandering by and ruining it.  P1100017

From here there’s lots of tombs to explore as you head further in to the city.  Depending on where and when they were built, how buried they got in earthquakes, and how grave robbed they got in the 19th and 20th centuries the ruins are all in a variety of shape..  some things like the Treasury are almost perfectly preserved, while other parts of the city have nearly melted back into the mountain.

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Oh look at me, I'm a rich Petra dweller living in my Rock Mansion

Ahh, it’s good to have tomb.

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Here is a much better example of what the colors were like:

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Nature, you crazy.

There is also, of course, plenty of merchandising.. lots of people set up little shops with trinkets and tea and the like.

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There are still lots of areas where excavation continues and things are still being rebuilt.  Zach has been to Petra a few times before, but there was even some new things to him that hadn’t been uncovered yet the last time he was there.  This particular temple thing (that’s the technical term) is being excavated by archeologists at… um, I think it was Brown University.

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We then began the long climb up a mountain to go see the other jewel of Petra, the Monastery.  I assume because monks like solitude they decided to stick their monastery way the hell up there.  There are tons of Beduins with donkeys who offer to give you rides up there, but that’s sort of ethically sketchy for a variety of reasons so we hoofed it (it’s really not that bad).

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Along the way there’s even more stands with trinkets, along with a variety of goats and cats hopping about, including this insanely adorable kitten that I have to share because it’s been a while since I’ve included a cat picture and also because it is awesome:

Loud kitten

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So… we trek on to the top, and we get there, and… yeah, the climb was totally worth it.

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The Monastery is probably more impressive than the Treasury.. it’s bigger, that’s for sure.  It’s hard to imagine how people in ancient times got up and down from there, but I guess if it was just monks living there they didn’t need a whole lot.

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There was also a nice cafe at the top, so we stopped there for a bit to have some tea and lemonade and we met two other travelers, Jack and Charlie, who were both Canadian and traveling solo but had stayed together the night before.  P1100041

The best part about the cafe is that it was ALL CATS.  SO MANY CATS.

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Ok, I have now effectively made up for the severe lack of cats that this travelogue has had for the last several entries.

Anyway, we got to talking with Jack and it turned out she was trying to get to a nature preserve that was between Petra and Amman, where we were heading later that afternoon.  She had been planning to take a bus, but since she didn’t have much stuff we could cram her into our shitty, shitty rental and drop her on our way.

From the cafe there was a few more lookout points that you could walk up to at the very top of the mountain.  One of them had a sign that proudly stated “BEST VIEW”, so we kinda had to go check that out..

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The view was pretty damn spectacular, even at a safe and respectable distance from the not at all elaborate safety measures they put in to prevent you from plummeting to your grizzly death and then being eaten by goats.

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The trip back down the mountain was uneventful, though we did stop to spend a few random dinar on trinkets along the way.  When we got back down it was late in the morning and things had gotten much more lively, with more tourists around and people doing demonstrations and such.

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At this point we decided we were hungry and also wanted to get on the road to get our 3 hour drive back to Amman over with before it got too dark outside, so we hiked back out to get the car and find some lunch.

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Zach asked for schwarma recommendations and we were guided to a place that certainly was no Schwarma Reem, but was totally serviceable and also dirt cheap.

Lunch with Jack, the Canadian solo backpacker

Once again, check those unflattering schwarma faces.  As you can see, we got a whole pile… many of which we left in the hotel in Amman for some unlucky cleaning person, but more on that later.

We then got on the road and got to drive through some small towns and through some gorgeous mountains and then down into a valley to drop Jack off at her destination.  She went on her way, and then we had to try and coax the shitty, shitty rental car up some gigantic hills… which, for a moment, we thought we might not be able to do.  Thankfully the ol’ crappony made it and we got back on the highway towards Amman, the Citroen beeping at us if we went too fast all the way.

We didn’t quite make it back to Amman before dark and we had the added fun of hitting the city right at peak rush hour, so the last bit of our drive was pretty stressful… but after a few detours and close calls, we made it to the swanky Le Royale hotel back in Amman.  Zach used to live nearby and could see it from his house (it’s tall) but never could afford to stay there.. so this was an aspiration fulfiller for him.  It was also the second depressing time that we checked in to a really, really nice hotel that we wouldn’t even be staying at for an entire day… and in this case really it was only about 10 hours before we’d have to leave to catch our 6:30am flight.  We weren’t even there for a moment of daylight, so the awesome view from our 20-somethingth floor room was somewhat wasted.

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Ok.. it was still a pretty good view.  We got settled in and cleaned up and then headed down to the German style sports pub to have a few drinks before we were to meet some of Zach’s friends for dinner.

So, I’ve mentioned a few times in here that Kate was looking for a soccer scarf from the national team of Jordan for her brother, since he collects them.  She had been asking around in Amman and Aqaba and Wadi Musa (the city outside of Petra where all the shops and hotels and restaurants are) and half the people didn’t even know what she meant and many more claimed that they don’t even exist.  She did find a few people who knew what she was looking for and were incredibly nice and tried to find one for her, even going as far to visiting other shops to try and hunt one down, but with no luck.  We looked online to try and see if she could get one that way with also no luck at all..  we were starting to think that maybe they really didn’t exist.  And then…

We walk in to the pub and there it is.  A Jordan soccer scarf.

The closest we got to acquiring one of these

Now, one thing about the Middle East/Asia in general is that pretty much anything you want can come with a price.  It’s corrupt, but I have to say it’s also incredibly convenient at times..  so with this in mind, Kate began the negotiations.  Unfortunately, this dude was not willing to budge at all..  he kept saying you could get them in the gift shop (you could not) or that you could get them at any store downtown (we had looked).. Kate tried to reason with him that since we were leaving at 3:30 in the morning she could just buy that one off of him and then he could go to any one of these supposed numerous shops and get a new one since he, ya know, lives there…. no dice.  Damnit.  We should have just stolen the damn thing and ran… but I guess not causing an international incident in the name of a soccer scarf was also a valid choice.

We wanted to go back to the same delicious restaurant that we had gone to our time around in Amman, particularly because it was a short walk from our hotel, but as it was a Thursday night, which is really Friday night in the Arab world, when we called they said it was all booked up.  Thankfully B harnessed the magical power of the concierge at our hotel and he got us the hookup for a table.  Much manti and delicious chickens for us!  We also had to end the trip the way it started, with anise flavored liquors.

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After dinner we made a quick excursion to a convenience store to get a few last little odds and ends we wanted to take home, like tea.  B and I headed back to our room to take what at that point would basically be a nap before we all agreed to meet in the lobby at 3:30am.  Zach and Kate broke on to the roof of the Le Royale and then Zach took an across town stroll before also settling in to a wee nap so we could be headed to the airport to arrive with plenty of time for our 6:30am flight.

Cue the room phone ringing me awake in our pitch black hotel room.  I grab my iPhone to check the time and it’s… OH SHIT WHAT IT’S FIVE WHAT THE FUCK WHY DIDNT MY THREE ALARMS GO OFF WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?  I stumble around trying to find the room phone that actually works and finally answer to an equally panicked Zach who also was wondering how the fuck all four of us managed to sleep through/turn off/somehow screw up our alarms.

Thankfully I had packed our stuff up almost completely the night before, so we were able to throw on clothes, grab our stuff, get down to the lobby and get the car in record time.  Kate and Zach soon followed and we took off.  In a normal situation, the drive to the airport would take about 30-40 minutes, but Branden pushed our little Citroen to the limits, the governor screeching warnings at us that we were going too fast, Zach trying not to spray the side of the car in vomit, and Kate and I sitting quietly in the back thinking speedy thoughts.

We got to the airport with no time to spare and thankfully got an understanding and efficient person at the car rental return counter who let us throw the papers at him and run.  We busted in to the airport and rushed to the counter just to be told that the flight is already closed.  We all gave him our best pathetic, hysterical “no, please, no, just let us on” and, Allah bless him, he got on the phone and talked to someone and then let us check in.  We made it through security (only after Branden discovered that he left his large knife in his carry on and after for some inexplicable reason an agent cut a hook off my toiletry bag that I have flown with at least 20 times and never had a problem with) and got to our gate and soon we were soaring off to Istanbul again.

On the way from Istanbul to Amman we were able to watch the map and see what route we took, so I could tell that we flew a relatively non-getting-shot-down path…  on the flight on the way back it did not show us a map of where we were flying, and we did not fly over nearly enough water to have gone the same way we came.  Honestly, I’d rather not know.  All went well and that’s all that mattered.

We had a 4 hour layover in Istanbul’s airport, which was… a layover.  Look at how excited Zach is about it.
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A few days prior several dudes from ISIS had been caught trying to get to Germany posing as Syrian refugees but were busted when the hotel they were supposedly going to had no record of them, so security was understandably completely insane.  There was 2 customs checks to get on the plane and anyone without a US passport had to provide the address of where they were going before they could board… which resulted in boarding taking for freaking ever and us leaving over an hour late.

Flight home was bumpy at first and then uneventful…  just long.  So long.  So goddamn long.  I just wanted to be home.  I did finally watch The Godfather and their inflight music system had Exile on Main Street so I was able to persevere.

We arrived in Chicago to a freaking snowstorm, because of course the only snowstorm of the year would hit when we have to drive through it after being awake for approx 24 hours.

Before and After.
It was hell.  We nearly died, but we didn’t and then we were home.

 

 

 

 


We awoke to a beautiful desert morning and had some hummus and bread and tea before heading out for a day of adventure, guided by Fa’ez, to various sites of note in Wadi Rum.

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The sun was out when we left the campsite and I didn’t bother to bring a jacket or anything because… well, desert.  I figured once we were hiking we’d be plenty warm.  Zach particularly wanted to climb up to and walk across a very high natural bridge on one of the mountains… which I knew I wouldn’t be doing, but would at least hike along a bit.

Branden attends to hijab his loved one, with turban-ish results

Asking B to tie my kaffiyeh was a mistake.

First stop was a smaller bridge, which was none the less too tall for my tastes.  I stayed on the ground and served as photographer.

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backwards-spider-crawl, common traversal method in Rum

It was here that things turned cloudy and thunderystormy (yay!) and cold (boo!).  Thankfully Fa’ez had a gigantic jacket he lent us to huddle under in the back of the truck, but it did end Zach’s bigger-bridge-dreams for the day.  There’s plenty else to see though, so it wasn’t a huge tragedy (says the girl happy she didn’t have to wait on the side of a mountain for her friends).

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We headed off trying to get away from the clouds a bit when we came across a surprise waterfall.  It had stormed badly the day before, so water was still cascading down the side of one of the mountains.  The ground here also looked really weird and from a distance we couldn’t tell what it was.  We stopped the truck to get out and have a look, and holy shit..

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It was hail!  My weird dream about it snowing in the desert sort of came true!  Fa’ez said that he and Suzie were caught in a storm the day before and the hail had been golfball size, we weren’t sure if this was remnants from that or fresh.

Note the waterfall in the middle of the picture.
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A desert “snowbank”. IMG_2390

SNOWBALL FIGHT!!!
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Our next stop was the opening of a canyon for us to hike through, where Fa’ez dropped us off and pretty much said “welp, catch you on the flipside” and went off to drive around the mountains and meet us at the other end.  It was actually pretty nice, since it blocked the wind and made things much warmer.

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The rocks in the canyon were gorgeous, and since it was protected and water tends to pool there it was just about the only place we saw trees the whole time we were in the desert.  The path did get a bit dicey after a while and required a bit of climbing and some very, very uncomfortable wading.

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We made it through to the other side without loss of life or limb and thankfully our chariot awaited and we headed off again to Lawrence’s House, aka the place where Lawrence of Arabia stayed when he was wandering through the desert.  Thankfully by this time the sun was starting to come out, so it wasn’t as horrible cold.

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Since Lawrence’s House is one of the main tourist attractions in Rum, there’s a little tent there set up by some Beduins who are selling a few little things and, of course, making and handing out tea.  Surprisingly, one of the Beduins there that day is another of Zach’s old friends named Omar who had guided him on another trip out to Wadi Rum, that time with his parents.  Amusingly, Zach’s parents acquired cats not long after their trip, so they named them Suilemon and Omar after the guides… so we got to meet the other cat namesake.

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These rocks basically say “Lawrence was here”

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Definitely the most exciting part of Lawrence’s House was the awesome lizard that was hanging around.  Lizard!

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Man, I still can’t get over it.  Wadi Rum is seriously one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

After Lawrence’s House, we went to go play on some sand dunes while Fa’ez and Suzie prepared us some lunch.  We had a snowboard (sandboard?) with us, so we could climb up the dunes and then ride down.  Seeing as how board sports do not cater to my best abilities (being up high, having balance, etc.) I had never tried it before and was a little nervous, but the sand is quite soft so wiping out was no big deal.  Which is good, cause wipe out I did.

In my head I looked much cooler when doing that.  I guess it wasn’t too bad for my first try.  Zach was the best of all of us, but because I am a dolt I screwed up taking a video of his expert run.

Here is B being Branden of Arabia:

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In case anyone was wondering what sports might look like once we destroy the Earth and have to colonize Mars, this is probably a pretty good guess…

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After sandboarding we were all starving, but thankfully it was just a short walk to where Fa’ez went in a little sheltered nook to make a fire and prepare lunch for us.

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While we were waiting, Zach did some climbing.  Immediately after I took that picture, he remarked that he had no idea how he was going to get down and was just going to have to become desert folk and live there.. but thankfully he figured it out.

Lunch was tomato slices, soft cheese, hard boiled eggs, bread, and a tomatoey, garlicy stew called guhliyeh (or quhliyeh..  as Zach says “there’s no correct way to spell it in English).  It tasted pretty much like angels singing in your mouth, as any food will after a morning of hiking and tromping about.

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When we finished lunch, the sun was finally out for a bit and we headed off to our last spot, a canyon that has ancient petroglyphs in it.

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Since the petroglyphs are in this tiny, tight cavern that probably has been filled with sand at various times in history, they have been very well preserved even though they’re in soft sandstone that is prone to wear and tear.

They ranged from “super freaking old”

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To “we did not yet know how to use our words” old:

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The canyon itself was also really awesome, though too filled with random pools of water to go in too far.

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According to Fa’ez, most of the writing was some variation on the theme of “Praise Allah”.

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After the canyon, we made the trek back to our camp, followed by ominous clouds.

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It soon started raining after our return, so we all retreated to the big dinner tent to read and try to stay warm.  Soon the rain ended and Suleimon arrived back to camp and made us a fire, while Fa’ez and Suzie made us a chicken and rice dish called muqlubeh for dinner.

Suleiman by the fire

It's muqlubeh time!

Those are the faces of some weary desert travelers, lemme tell you.

After dinner we once again sat around the fire and drank tea while Suleimon entertained us.  I forgot to include this in the previous evening’s entry so this is actually from the first night..  but that doesn’t matter…  anyway, he sang for us while playing an instrument called a rababah, which is a stringed instrument popular with the Beduins. The video doesn’t offer much in the way of visuals because it was dark, but gives you an idea of what it sounds like.

I can’t say I’ll be rushing out to buy the Super Sounds of the Rababah compilation album, but it was cool none the less and very appropriate for sitting out in the middle of the desert.  The particular song above was about lost love or something, though to be fair all the songs he played us kind of sounded like they were about lost love…

Even though the rain had moved out, it was pretty cloudy that night so no stargazing for us and once again we slept in a tent rather than outside (particularly because of the threat of rain).  Without the moon and stars it was DARK out there.  I totally got up to go to the bathroom and had a “Pa Ingalls” experience like when he thought there was a black bear in front of him in the Big Woods but really it was just a stump…  except replace “Big Woods” with “desert” and “stump” with “shrub”.

The next morning Zach arose early to try and make his bridge-crossing dreams come true, and Kate accompanied him.  B and I slept in a bit, and then hung out around camp and climbed about on our mesa since I hadn’t been up to the top yet.  It was a beautiful, beautiful morning.

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Look, ma!  I’m on a mountain kind of thing!

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I basically had Life on Mars stuck in my head the entire time we were out there.

Meanwhile, Zach and Kate were off on a (terrifying sounding, to me) adventure trying to find the rock bridge…  which, despite their best efforts they were not able to do.  Apparently the trail was not well marked in the least and a guide would be advisable, which they did not know until they were precariously inching along the side of a mountain.

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The most visible sign of human intervention

wall-jumping up the mountain

Yeah, that all is a big ol dumptruck of HELL NOPE.

While they were on their way back from death mountain, our noble steeds arrived.  Camels are actually way cuter than I thought they would be.  They’re so fuzzy!  They have such kind little faces!

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We loaded out bags into the truck for Fa’ez to bring back to the village and we mounted our steeds for what we then learned would be about a 2 hour trip back to the village.

Salem the Camel Master decides who gets which camel

As you can see, my camel was not thrilled by the prospect of the journey.

So, it turns out that camel riding is fun for about 15 minutes, and then it just gets painful.  Their “saddles” weren’t so much saddles as big piles of blankets… mine was relatively cushy but some of the others were not as lucky and saddle sores abounded.  I managed to avoid that, but I was pretty sure I was going to be bowlegged for the rest of my life though.  The ride was also prolonged by the camels wanting to stop and nibble every single shrub we came across… which, I mean, I’m not one to deny anyone snacks, but c’mon dudes, you’re on the job.

This is pretty much how it all went:

AAAAARRRRRRAAAAAABBBBBBBIIIIIIIIIAAAAAAAANNNNNNN NNNNNIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIGGGGGGGHHHHHTTTTTTTTS

Halfway through we stopped to let the camels have a rest, but for some reason we could not get off them so my poor bowed legs did not also get a break.

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Finally the village appeared over the horizon.  Please don’t be a mirage, please don’t be a mirage, please don’t be a mirage.

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Yay, not a mirage, we made it!

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Thanks for getting me back safe and sound, my humped buddy.

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We stopped back at the visitor center to say our last goodbyes to Suleimon, who I barely recognized wearing western clothes.  We chugged a warm beer from the car while we got reorganized and then we headed out of the desert.

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As soon as we got back to a main highway and found a convenience store we stopped to get a variety of snacks as we were all starving.  The consensus on Jordanian junk food is that it’s all pretty damn good.  A+, would snack again.

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We soon were back in the mountains, and good fortune came our way as we rode down the King’s Highway (heyo, gratuitous Petty reference), which was beautiful and terrifying.  We stopped to take in a scenic vista and got yelled at a bunch by a dude who thought we were going to climb over the wall and fall down the mountain (we were not even close to doing either thing).

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We arrived in Petra just before dark, which was fortunate because driving at night in Jordan is not something we wanted to do, particularly along sketchy mountain roads.  Our hotel was right at the entrance to the site, so we got settled in and took the best goddamn shower I’ve ever taken, got some dinner, considered going on a Petra at night tour but deciding against it, and instead chilled out for a bit in our awesome hotel bar that was built right in to some of the ruins.

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As Zach had suggested we get in to Petra at the crack of dawn, we called it an early night to get some rest for all the hiking we’d be doing the next day.


The next morning we awoke to say goodbye to the sea and head a bit east into the desert, specifically Wadi Rum.  B and Zach set off on an adventure to get our rental car, a shitty, shitty Citreon.  We also stocked up on schwarma from a place that was a knockoff of a famous place in Amman.. it was actually my first official schwarma and it was delicious.  Need more spinning meats in this country, for real.

Bint Reem - not affiliated with the original Schwarma Reem, but whatever
No one looks charming when they are schwarma-ing

Once we were properly fed and loaded in to our shitty, shitty rental, we were off over the mountains to go to Wadi Rum village.

Ok, lesson time:  “Wadi” is Arabic for “valley” and used to describe a whole variety of different places in Jordan, with Wadi Rum being the largest.  It has been inhabited since prehistoric times (more on that later), and now is primarily inhabited by Bedouins who have turned it in to a tourist attraction for camping and rock climbing.  It’s probably best known for being associated with Lawrence of Arabia, as the real one passed through there several times and the Peter O’Toole version was filmed there.  It was also used to film the outdoor scenes in The Martian… which, as you’ll be able to see from my pictures in a moment, is pretty much perfect.

Bedouins are sort of equivalent to Native Americans in some ways (or at least, some Native Americans), in that they’ve descended from the earliest nomadic people in the Middle East, are generally organized in to tribes.  They continue to generally lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle of goal and camel herding along with their tourism pursuits.  There’s a very big Bedouin population in Jordan (about a third of the total population) and they’re provided things like education and healthcare from the government.

It was about an hour drive through some beautiful desert and mountains, Branden handled his first Middle Eastern driving experience perfectly.  Allah take the wheel.

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The first place you arrive in Wadi Rum is the Visitor’s Center where you check in and pay your fees (another thing covered by the Jordan Pass… thanks Jordan Pass!).  Already it was spectacularly beautiful.

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We then proceeded to Wadi Rum village, which is… well, a village where a bunch of the Bedouins live when they’re not out wandering the desert.  Here we met up with Suleiman, the owner of the camp we would be staying at for two nights.  He is an old friend of Zach’s, as he has stayed with him on several occasions, so they had a glorious reunion filled with “habibi”-this and “habibi”-that (“habibi” being the male form of an Arabic word that basically means “my darling friend” … for women it’s “habibti”).

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Suleiman also handles quite a bit of the business for the camps, so he was not yet able to come out to camp with us, but he introduced us to his cousin Fa’ez and their volunteer Suzie who would be driving us out to the camp and taking care of us for the time being.  He also taught us how to properly tie our kaffiyehs so that we were the correct kind of Arab desert chic.

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We loaded up the Toyota pickup truck (the preferred transpo for nomads and jihadists everywhere!) and headed out for the 20 or so minute drive out to camp.

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At this point, words start to fail me to describe how amazing this place is.. it’s…  it’s just spectacular.  The sand is brilliant red and there’s mountains poking up all over the place and all of the rocks have a bazillion different colors in it and… wow, just… wow.

We arrived at camp, which is nestled up against a mesa, and got settled in to our tent and had a look around.  The area on the left was where the kitchen was, the things in the middle are just some of the tents at the camp, and the building on the right is the bathroom (with running water!  They were actually pretty nice, at least as nice as anything you’d find in a state park campground!)

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If only Team Sets on the Beach was here to play some EPIC sand volleyballIMG_2290IMG_2291

B, Kate, and Zach climbed up on top of the mesa to check things out, with spectacular results: P1090881P1090885P1090883

I, on the other hand, harassed desert wildlife.
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…don’t worry, it was actually long dead.  No terrifying beetles were harmed in the making of this picture.

The site had a wonderful little seating area carved in to the mesa that overlooked the camp and was a great place to hang out.  We settled in there with some tea and some rum (you kinda have to drink rum when you’re in Rum, right?) to enjoy the scenery and the sunset.

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Soon after the sun went down, it was almost time for dinner.  Fa’ez and Suzie made a big dish of chicken and rice, and then there was of course the ubiquitous hummus and pita and cucumber/tomato salad.  While we were waiting for everything to be ready, Suleiman had Kate try on some traditional garb they had laying around.

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This may actually mean they’re married now, this is unclear.

Dinner was enjoyed out by a fire while sitting around on some old mattresses.

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Once the sun was down it got pretty damn chilly, but thankfully there was a good fire and blankets a plenty to use.  It had clouded over a bit immediately after sunset, but they started to break up after a while… and as an added bonus we could see lighting in clouds in the distance.  Woo desert thunderstorm!  How lucky could we get?!

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When the clouds finally broke, the stars were spectacular.  It was the first time I’ve actually really seen the Milky Way with any real clarity, and so far out from any lights it was particularly intense.  Once night comes, there’s not a whole lot to do besides sit around the fire and look at the stars and in the dark you get sleepy pretty quickly…  as B demonstrates below..

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As I was freezing, I opted to eventually go sleep in the tent rather than out under the stars (as much as Zach tried to convince me otherwise).  That first night I had some of the craziest, most vivid dreams I’ve ever had in my life.  I would wake up and then fall back into them almost immediately, making it all seem totally surreal.  I dreamed the desert flooded, that we had to make our way along a rickety rope bridge, and that it snowed, amongst other things…  only one of these dreams actually came true, but I’ll keep you guessing as to which until we get to that part of the story.  In the morning Suzie said the first week she was living out at the camp she had horrible nightmares every night, and other people who stay there have reported similar things… so I don’t know what it is about the desert but it messes with your mind.

Here I will take a pause in the story, but stay tuned for pt. 2..  stormy desert boogaloo.

 

 


We awoke to our second day in Aqaba with big plans to go snorkeling.  Kate left earlier than us to make another attempt at scuba.. she had been having some ear problems that screwed up her dive the day before, but thankfully the second attempt was a success!  While she was off in the briny deep, Zach, B and I took our time eating breakfast and getting ready and then caught a cab to meet Kate up at the sister resort of the one we were staying at, which is further out from the city center and therefore much better for diving and other such snorkel sports.

The other location of the resort was much, much bigger and had more pools and a much larger beach… and thankfully since we were staying at the other one, we had full reign.  It was a few hours before the next boat was going out for snorkeling, so we killed time by playing in all of the various (awesome) ((unheated)) swimming pools.  Thanks to our thick midwestern blood we could handle the chill, though the few other people we saw around all looked at us like we were insane.

Check out this intense waterslide action:

Hahahaha…  eh, it was fun none the less.  The resort itself was even more beautiful and tropical than the place we were staying at, and since we were there on Sunday, which is Monday in the Arab world, we once again had a gigantic resort practically to ourselves.

We then all went to get ready for my (and Branden’s) first ever snorkeling experience, while Kate got ready to do another dive.  The water is pretty warm there, but we wore light wetsuits just so that we wouldn’t get chilly being in the water for an hour.  They also help with buoyancy,  not that it’s particularly necessary in the Red Sea, which is not as salty as the Dead Sea but is none the less pretty damn salty and therefore easy to float in.

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Meow.

While you can apparently dive by walking right in from the beach, we took a boat about 5-10 minutes to get closer to some sweet coral reefs that were along the shore.  There was also apparently a sunken tank somewhere in the area where we were, but damned if we could find it.

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Snorkeling was totally amazing.  The water is incredibly clear, so the visibility is great.  There was a variety of different types of coral, from the big brainy looking ones to smaller, swishy ones.  We got to see lionfish and clownfish and sea urchins and a bunch of things I have no idea what they were but were all gorgeous.  I managed to only suck a serious amount of seawater in to my snorkel once, so I’ll consider that a win.

After we all emerged from the briny deep, we got a nosh at the resort and then caught a shuttle back in to the city and our hotel.  Once we got cleaned up, Zach, Kate and I went out on a little shopping adventure..  we were still trying to find a damn Jordan soccer scarf, which was a bust, but we did find a cool shop for a non profit (http://www.johud.org.jo/) that had all crafts handmade by Jordanian women that we patronized heavily.

checking out JOHUD handicrafts in Aqaba

After our shopping excursion, we collected Branden and headed to the Aqaba outlet of Wings N’ Stuff since they advertised that they played NFL games and it was time for the Packer game and we had been waiting all day for Sunday night.  When we got there they were playing a godawful Steelers/Browns game and I think we traumatized the bar staff with the intensity which we begged them to put on the Packers.  Turns out their satellite package only gets games broadcast on CBS, so we had to settle for what football we could get.  The staff was soon laughing at us because they knew it wasn’t the game we came to watch but we were still yelling and cheering.

(Not pictured: yelling and cheering)

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I determined that the NFL has a video streaming service for anyone who has an IP address outside the US and that service had a free one-week trial, so around halftime we returned to the hotel and watched the remainder of the game from the comfort of our hotel room.  It was particularly trippy because we had the option to watch the Packers local stream, so we were sitting in the Middle East watching commercials for, like, Menards, with a warm sea breeze blowing in the open windows in the middle of November.  It was glorious… and the Packers lost, which was even more glorious (even if I was a little worried we’d get a visit from management from all the yelling).  Best vacation ever.

And so, our last day relaxing in Aqaba came to a close and we headed off to bed to rest up for our voyage the next morning into Wadi Rum to go sleep in the desert for a few nights.

 

 


After chatting with our fellow racers for a bit, chugging water, recovering from a near certain death (on B and Kate’s part, thanks to the crazy wind), and packing up our stuff, Hassan drove us from the finish line in to the city and our hotel so that we could check in and get cleaned up before the awards ceremony.  Since this hotel was one of the sponsors for the race and also where the evening reception would be, there was a ton of filthy cyclists all trying to check in at once.  We had very little patience left at that point, but managed to get sorted without murdering anyone and made our way to our awesome little apartment where we’d be staying for the next three days…  which included a pool-on balcony and views of the Red Sea.  Zach helpfully provided a tour:


We all took amazing showers and got changed, and then fighting unconsciousness we dragged ourselves back out to the street to get a cab back to the previous resort to go to the awards ceremony and (hopefully) get a trophy.

Returning to the ceremony turned out to pose a bit of a problem.  Seeing as how the resort isn’t even close to being open and, while the biggest goddamn thing I’ve ever seen, is kind of on the outskirts of town and not particularly well marked yet, not a single cab driver knew where we wanted to go.  Several of them conferenced together to no avail, we tried to find a website or a map to no avail, and Zach’s usually excellent Arabic skills were slightly diminished by exhaustion.  Luckily, we saw some other folks from the race come out of the hotel, and while they didn’t have enough room in their cars to give us a ride, they at least were able to tell us how to direct a cabbie to get there.

So, we get in a cab and start going, Zach in front and the three of us crammed in the back seat.  We’re still not entirely sure where we are going, but this cab driver at least seemed to understand where we wanted to get to.  As we were getting closer, we finally saw a sign for the resort, at an intersection.  Zach was insistent that we turn around and go down that road, but the cab driver was quite insistent that it was not the right way to go.  After some arguing (this is all happening in Arabic so we had no idea what was going on), the cab turned around once more and went further down the road, when we finally found the right place to turn and got dropped off with Zach apologizing profusely and paying the cabbie extra.

Turns out that the argument that they were having was that the road that Zach was insisting that we turn down was a private road that lead to one of the King’s palaces.  This lead to the cab driver uttering the take home quote of the trip:

“My friend, I am trying to help you, but if we go that way, we will be shot.”

Good lookin out, cab driver.  You earned that extra dinar.

The guards at the resort wouldn’t let our cab go any further than the entrance, and as you may remember from the race story it’s several km in to where the finish line and awards ceremony were.  Thankfully a nice guard saw our exasperation and exhaustion and gave us a ride in so that we did not all just lay down and wail and gnash our teeth.

After several long, boring, agonizing minutes of them thanking sponsors and stuff, they finally started makin’ with the trophies…  and our triumph was confirmed, we won our division!

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After the awards ceremony, the same nice guard found us and drove us back out to the road, and then a nice mother and son who we had made friends with before the race when waiting in line for the bathroom gave us a ride back to the hotel.  At this point it was still a few hours until dinner and we were all RAVENOUS, so we went to one of the bars in the hotel and got ourselves some melted cheese based snacks, including an Arab take on nachos that included cheesy Doritos for the chips (inno-fucking-vation, right there).  We then did a little power napping and headed down to the banquet and reception.

When we first walked in we thought we’d kind of just hang in the back, but our competitors slash new friends from BAT were having none of it and invited us over to sit with them… and share their bottle of vodka.  What we had initially thought would be a quick dinner and then back to our room to pass out turned in to a fun night of shooting the shit and reveling…. though not too much reveling, we were all pretty exhausted.

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The next morning we arose to a beautiful, warm day and absolutely nothing at all to do…  ahh, glorious.  When we were in the planning phases of the trip and deciding how long we’d stay in various places, Zach “warned” us that pretty much all there was do to in Aqaba was “the beach and cheap booze”… to which Branden and I replied “perfect!”.  It was nice to have a few days in the same place and some downtime.. I mean, this is vacation after all.

After some breakfast, Kate headed out to make an attempt at scuba while B and I headed immediately to the private beach (lord-a-mercy) at our hotel.  We spent the late morning and early afternoon taking dips in the sea, basking, drinking fruity drinks, picking up shells, basking in a different area, swimming some more, petting resort cats..  ya know, beachy shit.

We eventually got hungry as evening started to roll in, so we ordered some snacks to our room and enjoyed the balcony and the warm night air.  Man, I love warm night air.

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Our biking friends had given us a 50% off coupon for the swanky rooftop restaurant at the Doubletree in Aqaba, so for dinner that night we swanked it up there.  It was your standard overpriced faux fancy hotel fare, but I got to eat a whole fish and gross B out by eating the eyes, the views were awesome and it was a really nice night to sit out and enjoy some nargile before dinner.

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After dinner we headed back to the hotel and pretty quickly called it a night since we had another long day of beachy shit planned for the next day.

 

 


Dead2Red

15Dec15

When we left off it was 3 in the morning and we were standing outside our hotel waiting for our van, driver, and bikes to arrive.  I was tired and anxious and not entirely sure how I would manage to get through the experience on just an hour and a half of sleep and some crappy Nescafe.

Our chariot arrived, and by chariot I mean cargo van.  There was only two passenger seats in the front so two people would have to rage in the cage (as we affectionately called it) on a mattress and no windows or way to talk to the front.  For once I was happy to be on the receiving end of chivalry, as B and Zach agreed to spare Kate and I the motion sickness and terror.

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As we were staying at the far northern part of the Dead Sea and the race began at the southern edge, it took about an hour to get to the starting line in a random parking lot.  The ride was a bit nerve wracking..  there’s not really lane lines to speak of and it was mostly pitch dark because most of the time we were driving right along the sea.  There was also a disconcerting amount of places where the guardrails had been blown away, presumably by drunken party Arabs who plunged to their death in the sea after a night of drinking.

It was during this initial ride to the starting line that we also learned of Hassan’s deep and abiding love for the song What Does the Fox Say.  No seriously, motherfucker LOVED that song.  I think we heard it at least 20 times along the course the day.  He also loved to randomly turn the volume up to ear-splitting 11, which is pretty much the last thing you need at 3:30 in the morning.

We made it to the start promptly at 4am, as requested, only to find that we were basically the first ones there… minus a bunch of Brits who worked for an NGO that doesn’t allow them to drive after dark, so they “camped” in the parking lot all night (and by “camped” they meant “drank a shitload of gin”).  We got our team registered and all set up and availed ourselves to the coffee, tea, and snacks they had available while we waited for the race to begin.

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The setup was apparently far more elaborate this year than when Zach had did it in previous years and it was a much more casual, thrown together thing.  That said, they did pick a parking lot that was basically covered in shattered glass, so it did still maintain that “eh, fuck it..” charm you so often find in Middle Eastern/Asian countries.

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It was decided that Zach would go first, and then we pretty much just had to play the waiting game until it was time to race.

Just before 6:00am everyone started to get lined up to begin.  The race has several different categories of competitors, from the elite group that contained members of the national cycling team of Jordan (so the people that will in theory go to the Olympics next year), to road bikes, to the “open” category, which was people on hybrids and mountain bikes (and the category we were in).

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At 6 on the dot, the race was on!  Zach screamed something about doing it for beer and cheese through his face mask as he shot out like a rocket.

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The next six hours went basically as follows:  one person would get on the bike and take off while the rest of us would put the currently-not-in-use bike back on the van and get situated.  We’d then go catch up with our rider and chill along side them until they got tired and then we’d zoom a few kilometers up ahead to get in place to trade off.  We started out trying to each do 10km legs, but we fairly quickly figured out that shorter time-based legs worked better for us.  The race only had 1, 3, or 5 person team options, so we were a 5 person team with only 4 and it worked better to swap out often and keep everyone relatively fresh.  The first few legs for me were a bit rough, as I hadn’t been on my bike nearly as much as I should have leading up to the trip and riding a big knobby-tired hybrid bike was much more of a workout than my typical cyclocross w/ it’s slicks.

Thankfully since we were going slow enough, it was acceptable to keep the back door of the van open so that no one had to sit in terrifying darkness and instead we could all shout encouraging slogans at each other.
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The scenery in the desert was absolutely breathtaking.  I have a habit of getting lost in my surroundings while on my bike and ending up straggling along at a crawl because I’m too distracted by what’s going on around me… and man, this was a particularly difficult impulse to fight during this race.  As I’d never really spent any time in the desert before it was mostly all new to me, and it was also surprising how many different types of desert we’d see in relatively short periods of time…  sometimes it was rocky, sometimes smooth sand dunes, sometimes filled with scrub brush.. and everywhere was backed by gorgeous mountains.

There was also an UNBELIEVABLE amount of garbage littered along the sides of the road.  Like, obscene amounts of garbage.  Zach’s theory on the mentality that leads to this is basically twofold and somewhat related.  One, to Jordanians the desert is just a big, vast stretch of “that’s the King’s problem and not mine” so people don’t feel any particular ownership in it or pride in keeping in clean.  Two, Arabs put a premium on their personal spaces and keeping them in order, so to them it would be insane to keep an empty bottle or some kind of garbage in their car, fouling up the joint… to them it makes much more sense to chuck it out the window and out of their personal sanctuary.

After a few hours we did not see many other teams too often, though there was a few individual riders and one particular other team in our group named BAT that we would leapfrog from time to time.  The team was comprised of middle aged guys, and as we kept seeing each other we engaged in plenty of friendly shit talk.  Ahhh, shit talking, the international language.  It was all in good fun, and we were actually very happy to have them because it made us far more competitive.  We had gone in to the race with the attitude of “meh, we just want to have fun and finish”, but as the day ran on and we saw that we were doing well, the desire to win kind of took over.  It helps that Branden is insanely competitive and hates to lose..  this became important as the race went on.

So, we took turns blasting across the alkali flats and listened to What Does the Fox Say approximately 49 million more times and found a camel skull and raged in the cage.  I also got the unique experience of biking by a dead-but-not-totally-decomposed camel, which is a smell I will not soon forget.

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As the race went on, thanks to ol’ Iron Lungs Branden our lead continued to remain sizable, and though we’d still see our main competitors pretty regularly we figured we had it in the bag.  The race ended in a city called Aqaba, which is also a special economic zone within the country that is all duty free, to encourage tourism.  When we reached the border of the special economic zone, we had to stop at a checkpoint.  Since we were in a van that had a company name on it we were forced to stop so that Hassan could go and file tax paperwork so that he wouldn’t try to sell off his bikes tax free or some such nonsense.  Thankfully Zach was aware that this was a possibility, so he hopped out of the van and grabbed the bike from Branden so that someone with fresh legs could start a leg in case we were significantly delayed by paperwork.  Hassan went in to the building w/ some officials and we then had to spend several very tense minutes watching group after group of cyclists and support vehicles get waved through and sent on their merry way without a question.  Thankfully Hassan had his documents in order and handled things with the quickness and we were able to get going and catch up with Zach, who hadn’t lost any ground.

It was mighty suspicious then that suddenly, out of nowhere, another team of 5 and their support vehicle materialized between BAT, the team we had been leapfrogging all day, and us…  they definitely did not pass us at the checkpoint and we hadn’t seen them all day, so they definitely cut in somewhere in an attempt to cheat.  We consulted with BAT who had also noticed this and were wondering what the fuck was up, and they shared our conclusion that these fuckers were trying to cheat…  which is just…  the hell?  There’s not a cash prize, there’s literally nothing at stake but pride.. what a stupid competition to cheat in.

They were real smug assholes about it too once they realized that we knew they were fucking around, shooting us shit eating grins and laughing at us and shit.  This only served to make us not only competitive but angry as hell, and we were going to show those sons of bitches what was up.

As we started to come in to the city, the race kept getting tighter and tighter.  The race was to end on the grounds of a (completely INSANE) resort that isn’t even open yet (and won’t be until 2025), after taking a loop around it’s golf course in the desert and several lagoons (what did I say.. it was insane).  Branden was set to take us home and we all thought it was basically over when he turned a corner and a. saw a sign that there was still 6km inside the resort to go and b. was blasted by the first significant headwind we’d experienced all day.. and it was a killer.

For the last 6km of the race, any member of your team can be riding, so Kate decided to hop on the other bike to follow B in case some horrible mishap took place so that all our hard work would not be for naught.  I took great pleasure in seeing the cheating asshole come around the corner and smack right in to the headwind and basically lose all momentum and struggle to even peddle.  Haha.  Fucker.

Meanwhile, Zach and I had to go to the finish line with the van and there we spent several nerve wracking minutes waiting for the racers to come in to view around the final corner.

Waiting for Branden and Kate at the finish line

Finally, in the distance we could see a black jersey snaking along without anyone right behind them.. it took a little bit to tell, but HOORAY!  It was Branden!  He did it!

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Please enjoy this very terrible video that Zach was far too excited to take properly, which also gives a good idea of how windy it was:

Moments later, Kate also triumphantly crossed the finish line and the Dead2Red was over (well, for us.. there was still lots of teams behind us and some poor straggler didn’t finish for another 4 or 5 hours).

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At this point we were like, 90% certain that we had won our division, but we would have to wait until later at the awards ceremony to be absolutely certain… but regardless, we were grimy and triumphant and also very ready to get to our hotel and check in and shower, since we all smelled in a way that people should not be able to smell.

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