Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Race Report: Petra Desert Marathon

In 2017, my friend Aidin and her friend and roommate Paola, traveled to Jordan to run the Petra Desert Marathon from San Diego, making a stop in New York on the way over. We had lunch in Jamaica the afternoon they arrived, before they headed out later that evening for the long 11 hour trip to Jordan. I was so enthralled by this trip that a year later, I decided to make the trip myself, and also convince my friend Frank, who I met at the Australian Outback Marathon in 2017, to register for the race as well.
My route flying from New York to Amman, via Abu Dhabi.
Conveniently, the race happens over Labor Day Weekend in the US, and I was able to work a half day at the office on Wednesday before heading to the airport for my afternoon flight.  After a 12 hour flight from JFK to Abu Dhabi, a two hour layover, and then a 3 hour flight from Abu Dhabi to Amman, I finally set foot in Jordan, landing at Queen Alia International Airport at 4pm.  I was able to get through immigration rather quickly; with an American passport, one can pay 40 Jordanian Dinar (equivalent of about $59 US) for a visa on arrival. I grabbed my bag from baggage claim, and proceeded out to the arrivals hall and found people with the Petra Desert Marathon waiting for runners arriving from all over the world.  A fairly large group of us waited while other passengers (including runners from the US, Ireland, Singapore, China, New Zealand, among others) began to arrive from other flights, and after a little bit of a wait, we boarded the bus en route to the Dead Sea. I met another solo runner, Stacey, from Austin, Texas, who was going to run the marathon, and we chatted as the bus made its way out of Amman.

Sunset over the Dead Sea and Israel
After about an hour's drive, we got to the Dead Sea Highway, with the sun fast approaching the horizon. The bus dropped off runners at two other hotels before finally dropping me off at the OH Beach Hotel, where my roommate for the weekend, Frank, was already waiting - he had arrived at 5am from Denmark by way of Istanbul, an easy trip for him and only an hour's time difference.  Meanwhile, I was dealing with a SEVEN hour time zone change. I quickly got checked into the room with my key, and then changed to get the opportunity to take a dip in the Dead Sea, just as the sun was coming down, which was quite a beautiful experience.  From our vantage point, we could see the Israeli coast on the other side of this body of water only 15 kilometers away, despite the hazy weather at sunset.  It is such a unique sensation, being able to float in the water without any need to paddle, since the very high salinity content of the water allows for some extreme buoyancy. I dipped a finger in the water to taste it as well, and as you would expect, it is quite disgusting.  Don't try it or even try to dunk your face in... you will most definitely regret it.

The night began to descend, so we were called out of the water for safety reasons, and Frank and I got ourselves showered and out the door to get dinner at the restaurant onsite (the only one in the area, as there are virtually no other places to eat other than at the resorts themselves.)  It was an ok dinner, nothing that special, but we made some great friends out of two Americans, Wendy and Tammy, from Philadelphia and Minneapolis, respectively, who arrived the night before, and had met in a similar situation to me meeting Frank - they had met at the Athens Authentic Marathon a few years back.
After a good night's sleep, Frank and I woke up the next morning, eager to take a little more advantage of our time at the Dead Sea, so we headed back out to do more floating.  This time, we also used some of the mud around the area on our skin; while the thought of it sounds unsanitary and gross, the mud is actually very mineral rich, with magnesium, sodium and potassium, with some antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. The shores of the Dead Sea are 1,412 feet below seal level, and considered the Earth's lowest land elevation, with year round sunny skies and dry air.  At the same time, that means average highs at this time of year in the mid 90s... and it got very hot very fast.  While we enjoyed the dip in the water, the heat was almost too unbearable to deal with, s
o our second time out floating on the sea was quick.  After all, we still had to dry our bathing suits - which dried rather quickly in that heat!

Our bus taking us to Petra!
We checked out of the resort by 11am that morning, and were in our bus for the 3 1/2 hour journey south to our ultimate destination, Petra, with stops along the way.  This was our first full day with our tour group, and we got to know our fellow riders - a few from the US, such as Abi, also from New York, and Cheryl, from Phoenix; and some from other countries, such as Andy and Katie from New Zealand - as well as our guides: Daniella, with Albatros Adventures; and Hani, a local Jordanian with Jordan Experience Tours.  Our driver Mohammed was at the wheel, taking us along all three of Jordan's major highways - first heading south along the Dead Sea Highway, then south along the Kings Highway (a route that takes its name and route from one of the most important historic trade routes between Africa and Mesopotamia), and the Desert Highway.

Wendy and I with Petra beer!
As we took the road that skirted the Dead Sea, with Israel very clearly seen in the distance to our right, we drove past sheer cliffs to our left, at one point driving alongside the entrance to the Wadi Mujib gorge, where those who were taking the Adventure Extension would be canyoneering along the Mujib River. We then took Jordan Highway 50, making twists and turns and sharp hairpins as it makes its way from the Dead Sea all the way up to the town of Al Karak at just over 3000 feet in elevation, some 28 kilometers away. In Al Karak, we made a quick pitstop and took in a beautiful view of the town and its Karak Castle, a large Crusader castle built in 1140s that is one of the largest crusader castles in the Levant, dominating the city’s skyline. Here, Wendy and I stopped into a store to purchase some Petra branded beer, which we promised we'd consume after we finished the race at the big celebration party.  Our guide, Hani was clearly very knowledgeable about his country, as most of the trip down to Petra, he provided us with a pretty detailed history about the country and how it came to be, from its history as a Hashemite Kingdom and of the four kings who have ruled over the country since being granted independence.

We finally arrived into Wadi Musa, the town nearest to the archaeological site of Petra, with all the hotels and restaurants for tourists visiting the site. Having been slightly delayed on our trip (we had some mechanical issues with our bus, as an alarm kept going off - so at one of our stops, we were the last to leave), we were the last ones to arrive, and were starving as it was the late afternoon.  The bus dropped us off at a restaurant called Al Qantarah for a late lunch, then we checked into our hotel, the Petra Moon Hotel, located just a five minute walk away. This hotel was added for one of the buses some two weeks before the trip to accommodate an influx of new registrants, and luckily it turned out to be a pretty decent hotel.

Race briefing at the finish area
At 6pm, we walked over to the finish line area just across the street from our hotel (in fact, we were the closest hotel to the finish line) for the race briefing given by the race officials with Albatros Adventures and the Medical Team.  There, we finally saw everyone participating, and it was quite a lively crew of runners from all over the world. The 2018 edition of the race was having its largest turnout ever in its seven years of existence. This year, 160 marathoners and 120 half marathoners from 35 countries signed up to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime race.  I also got to finally see my friend Susan from Colorado, who was staying at a different hotel, as well as meeting my contact from Marathon Tours, Scott.  After the briefing, we headed to dinner at our hotel at the rather late hour of 8pm. We tried to eat quickly so we could get to bed... the race was starting at 6:30am, and we were requested to be at the visitors center to be led through to site to the race start an hour earlier.
Frank's breakfast before the marathon.  Seriously.
Assembling at the visitors' center before walking into the site.
Our first peek at the Treasury
We were up before 5am, and when we were out the door, it was just around 5:30am. Of course, at that hour, the sun’s not even up yet. The call to prayer, the first one of the day, could be heard all around the town of Wadi Musa at the gateway to Petra. Runners began to assemble at the visitors center to make their way through the Siq, the 1.2 kilometer long narrow gorge, where at the end lies the famous Treasury, or Al Khazneh. This is the iconic temple of Petra, carved out of the sandstone cliffs, and made famous in many Hollywood movies, gaining particular fame after being featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the facade serving as the entrance to the final resting place of the Holy Grail. It’s quite magical seeing this beautiful sight in person for the very first time, especially with very few people around - only us runners. We quickly had to shake off our touristic tendencies because we were about to run for several hours in the blazing hot Middle Eastern sun, so after a couple photos (including one big group photo of the whole group), and everyone scrambling to get their pre-race jitters out of the way, we got ourselves assembled at the start.
Frank and I before the race start
Getting ready to start the race!
Street of Facades
At 6:30am, we set off to start running through the desert, and almost immediately, we are transported to a place that seems like a whole other planet, with soaring rock formations and cliffs as far as the eye can see. The sun was still hiding behind the high cliffs, offering us at least a respite from its rays, but it was bright enough to at least light everything around.  We pass through the Street of Facades, barely registering what we were seeing, since at the same time, we're trying to understand how to maintain our footing on the sand and packed dirt we're running on.  All around us are some forty tall, impressive Nabataean tombs carved into the sandstone cliff face, tombs thought to be those of well-to-do city officials, with rough rudimentary caves mixed among them. Many have eroded down due to natural factors. We pass the more impressive Royal Tombs, much more grandiose structures that are carved higher up into the cliff face, then run along the "Colonnaded Street," while stray dogs, just waking up and wondering what the heck is going on at this early hour, begin to run alongside us.
Running before the sun would start to affect us
Beautiful official race photo with the Royal Tombs behind us.
I'm featured near the front of this pack (and I would not stay there for long, lol!)
Like running on Mars!
Eventually, we take a right turn, and the sandy path becomes asphalt road.  And this was all within the first mile of the race.  Over the next two miles, we would make our way out of Petra and climb some 630 feet up a steep road to the small sleepy village of Umm Sayhoun, considered the “back door” to the archaeological site.  When UNESCO designated the ancient city as a World Heritage Site in 1985, this is the village where the Jordanian government relocated over 300 Bedouin families to, as they had inhabited the caves within Petra during the rainy and cold season over the centuries, potentially damaging their already fragile state. This uphill was only some 400 feet, but it was steep enough for us to take this hill slowly... this was only the beginning of the endless amount of uphills we’d be running. And the sun still hadn’t even reached above the tall mountains that surrounded the valley.

Our first uphill challenge, up to Umm Sayhoun.
Looking back down toward the road to the uphill
Looking back down at the uphill!
What happened to the road?
About 3.5 miles in, the marathoners made their first split off, taking a route that took us some three miles separate from the half marathoners to the hilltop "Al Musirh," before relinking up at our 8.25 mile mark/their 4.4 mile (?) mark. This was a tough trail area with lots of loose rock and gravel and some short steep downhill sections that required lots of attention to the terrain in order to not lose footing. And now that we were out of the shadows of the cliffs, we were fully exposed to the elements, now about an hour and forty five minutes into the race, and the sun blazing. This section was fairly steep in its up and downs, and I did end up witnessing a person wipe out on some jagged rocks right next to me, getting pretty scraped up in the process; luckily she was able to get herself to the medical tent a few kilometers later on her own accord, but I don't believe she ended up finishing the race. We finally left what would end up being the sandiest part of the race, to run back on the asphalt at the 7.75 mile mark. After roughly an hour only covering 4.75 miles, we re-linked back to the path with the half marathoners near the entrance to the archaeological site known as "Little Petra" at Siq al-Barid, but this would be short lived, as the marathoners were going to turn left to embark on a long, tedious, and rather lonely 5.3 mile/8.5k out and back, reaching an aid station that on the return would be the first of two cutoff points that we needed to make by a certain time.
Back to the asphalt, and a sheep on the side of the road
The first gradual uphill of our out-and-back.
The flat section of the out-and-
back. It was really hot by then.
The out and back, altogether from the 8.4 mile mark out to a turnaround point about a mile past the halfway mark and then back to the 18.9 mile/30.5 km mark of the marathon was one of the most grueling parts of this race... up to this point.  The out and back also took us from one governorate (and administrative division of Jordan) just past its border into another - from Ma'an to Aqaba - into the Wadi Araba desert. This area has some incredible rock formations that few tourists get to visit. After a slight hill, we were treated to a fairly flat section, followed by a section that was extremely hilly; all the while, the sun was baking us big time. It was during the hilly section that I ended up running alongside fellow New Yorker Abi, and we ran most of the out section together up to the turnaround point. Seeing other runners on the out and back, though, was very motivating. It would also be the only time I'd see Frank on the entire course - he was not far behind the leader of the race at that point. The English speaking runners, particularly Stacey, Andy, and Katie, were so friendly... they would yell out some very helpful shouts of encouragement to me, seeing that I was having a tough time. The turnaround point was at the bottom of a very steep hill with a couple of switchbacks, knowing full well we'd have to ascend it after reaching the turnaround point.
Oof, that's a hill.
Downhill switchbacks to the turnaround point!
Making my way back...
We got there at just under the 3 hour mark, and after guzzling down a much needed Coke, I grabbed the required orange wristband (to show proof we made it to the turnaround), and headed back in the direction we came...uphill. After this point, Abi got a second wind and continued on, while I was relegated to walking nearly all of the hills we had just traversed - and sadly, also that long flat section (my legs seemed to be done by mile 17!)  Along the way, we also had our first breeze of the race, coming in at the 18 mile mark. That felt refreshing in this extreme heat, probably over 90º by this point. I soldiered on, and finally reached the 30.5 km mark, finally the end of the out and back.  This was also the aid station that marked the first cutoff point for marathoners, which we had to reach by the 5 hour mark of the race; thankfully, I got there in 4 1/2 hours. Only marathoners who reached this point within the cutoff time were allowed to continue. AND THEN CAME THE CRAZY HILL.

I have to go up THAT?!?!
Having seen that road going up the mountain when we had returned to the asphalt at the 7.75 mile mark nearly three hours earlier, I didn't realize that that was what we were going to ascend.  Near the top of the hill, I could see a futuristic dome-like structure, which I later found out was a glamping site, and was supposed to be where we were going to have our post-race celebration dinner the following evening.  We began the ascent from the mile 19 mark, just past the small Bedouin community of Al-Baydha and just went up. Up, up, and up. Some young boys would walk with us as we struggled to make our way up the road, seemingly begging for dinars, but could only utter out a simple, "La," Arabic for "no."

Looking back down at what I just did.
From mile 19.25 to 21.5, we ascended some 1,026 feet - the half marathoners taking this near the end of their race, but us marathoners extra exhausted since we had an additional cadre of miles under our belt already. Those half runners were long gone by then... it was a painfully slow pace, clocking in successive 21 minute and 34 minute mile splits at the 20 and 21 mile marks. A few other marathon runners near me, struggling to make their way up the hill, had stopped at times because they too were suffering. The heat, magnified by the black asphalt, paired with the extreme grade made me super light headed, and I had to stop to put my head between my legs nearly half a dozen times over that section alone. There were moments I thought about DNFing, but slowly and eventually, I made it to the top.  Near the crest of this massive uphill was the domed structure, which we passed by... there was still a little more uphill from there. 

There's a road there, I promise.
From mile 19 to the finish, these last 7.2 miles were the hardest of the entire race, and probably the hardest section of any race I've run, ever.  Now that we finally reached the top at around the 21.5 mile mark, I looked down.  I couldn't believe I had managed to get up that extreme slope. A bit more elevation change still awaited, changing into gravel trail, and the last 2.5 miles was made up of some extremely steep downhills. I gingerly made my way down them as to not aggravate my already pained caves and quads!  It was really lonely now, too, as I barely saw anyone in front of me or behind me... I didn't know whether I was going to be the last finisher, or if I even was going to make it to the finish line in time before the cut off. At one point the only living thing I could see were a shepherd with hundreds of goats and sheeps taking a break alongside the path - some blocking the way, but still with enough space for me to move by.

Wadi Musa and the finish... so close!
With 1.5 miles to go, I could finally see Wadi Musa come into view.  And one could also hear the amplified sound coming from the finish line.  6 1/2 hours into the race, I finally got into the edge of the town, shuffling down extremely steep roads from the mountainside, changing from gravel back into asphalt, as we made our way into a residential area with just one mile to go.  We ran down the treelined Tourism Street, heading into the finish line, and I crossed the mat in 6:49:11, just under eleven minutes from the 7 hour time limit. It was easily the HARDEST marathon I’ve ever run in my life... the temperatures soared from 82° at the 6:30am start, to a faintness-inducing 97° nearly seven hours later.  With no shade, no clouds, and a whopping 6,800 feet of elevation change (3,550 feet of gain, 3,269 feet of loss), it was a real test of mental fortitude. I crossed that finish line mat begging for shade, something cold to drink, and just to sit... or in my case lay down. Frank had stuck around to wait for me along with several other new friends, to cheer me in, which I was so grateful for. Frank himself had a fantastic race, finishing in 3rd place just over two minutes behind the winner and 2nd place finisher who battled it out in a sprint to the finish. In the end, we both conquered a fantastically difficult marathon.
Look at that crazy amount of elevation change.  NUTS.
Victory Headstand in front of the iconic Treasury (Al-Khazneh) in Petra!
Shade and rest w/ Frank after finishing!
After getting my core temperature back to normal, we walked back to the hotel (SO glad it was so close) and I got a much needed shower to wash off the seven hours of dust, sweat, and God knows whaat else I'd accumulated.  After what felt like the most refreshing shower ever, I collapsed into bed for a much needed 3 hour nap. After waking and with a bit of time to spare before evening festivities began, I got in touch with my friend Susan, who had finished the half marathon, and we grabbed dinner at the delicious restaurant at her hotel just down the street, the Mövenpick.  When we finished, the sun had gone down, and many of us assembled at the Visitors' Center once again to enjoy "Petra By Night," a magical way to see the Siq and the Treasury lit entirely by candlelight. The event was complete with some traditional Bedouin music and some complimentary tea; afterward, the facade was magically lit up after the show by colored spotlights for a unique photo opportunity. This particular show is only done a few times a week, and a special marathon participants-only event was made possible for our group on this Saturday night!
Heading back into Petra for "Petra by Night!"

Guided tour of Petra by day!
On Sunday morning, we got a three hour guided tour of Petra by our local guide Hani, passing through the Siq once more (now *after* sunrise) and getting a clear history and understanding of what history tells us about how this place came to be. The cliffs surrounding this passageway are just impressively tall, and the Nabataeans responsible for building it were master engineers! Just like the day before, seeing the Treasury appear at the end of the Siq was incredibly awesome, but this time, it was teeming with energy, as other tourists had begun their morning visits to the site, and Bedouin vendors and guides were already beginning to sell their wares and camel and donkey rides to tourists. Our guided tour continued as we walked along the Street of Facades and Royal Tombs, stopping once to grab some complimentary coffee or soft drinks, before continuing on to see other sites within the humongous complex.  This included a majority of us hiking out past the Colonnaded Street toward Al-Deyr, also known as the Monastery.
Taking the steps up to the Monastery.
The Monastery, or Al-Deyr.
To get to the Monastery, it required ascending some 800+ rock-cut (and sometimes very uneven) steps up to the top of a mountain, with scattered Bedouin vendors selling their wares in locations precariously perched alongside the steps all the way up. At the top, we reached another Nabataean ruin, this time a massive awe-inspiring structure measuring 160’ wide by 148’ high. From the Treasury, it was roughly a half hour walk to the foot of the stairs, with approximately another 45 minutes to exhaustedly get up the stairs to the top.  With sore legs from the marathon the day before, it was daunting, but definitely well worth it. The Monastery was just as majestic as the Treasury, towering over people below.  We returned the way we came, walking down the steps, gingerly navigating the sometimes slippery and dusty rock faces.  But the trip was made more interesting as I absentmindedly started humming the lyrics to Drake’s “In My Feelings” (essentially 2018's Song of the Summer) and a 70-something year old Bedouin woman selling tchotchkes along the path started singing along with me.  Who would've thought  I'd find some old Jordanian woman, seemingly unconnected to the outside world, but so in tune with pop culture... perhaps I underestimate what they have access to from the middle of the desert!
Amongst the many camels being offered for rides through Petra!
On our way back toward the Siq, we had to stop at The Royal Tombs, that included yet another set of stairs up, but far less than at the Monastery.  In particular, the Urn Tomb is the most distinctive, its name derived from the the enormous urn that crowns its pediment.  It is believed to have been the tomb of Nabataean king Malchus II, constructed around the year 70 AD, and later converted into a church by the Byzantines in 447 AD. The main vault, with its beautiful natural rock ceiling, also has impressive acoustics, which I had to take advantage of!

Wendy and I finally enjoying our beer!
Having spent several hours in the hot sun, we were ready to head back and rest a bit.  As the evening came near, we reassembled as a group to board the buses to our celebration dinner, which was originally going to be held at the dome structures we all ran by near the top of the huge hill during the race.  Unfortunately, a last minute change in the road access caused them to move the entire celebration to an alternate site, which was just off the road from the race route.  We arrived with the sun having already set, and the whole area completely dark... all of a sudden, a switch was hit, and a rocky outcropping was lit up with hundreds of lights, leading us toward the area where we would have our celebratory dinner!  The small group we had bonded with over the course of the last several days found a table together, and we dined grandly - so many food options to eat.  Wendy and I brought our beers with us that we bought during the drive down from the Dead Sea. We were treated to a slide show of photos and a video assembled from the race, before traditional Jordanian dance troupe came to perform for us... and then the house music came on, and dance we did, until the last bus was announced to take us back to our hotels in Wadi Musa!
Last photo before the extension!
The Crusader fortress at Shoubak
The celebration that night marked the end of the official marathon tour, and the following morning, some folks would be taken back to Amman to return to the airport for their trips home.  But many of us opted to partake in one of the two extension packages that Albatros Adventures offered - either the adventure extension, which included canyoneering, hiking, and camping out in Wadi Rum desert; or the cultural extension, a more traditional tour package taking us to important historical sites between Petra and Amman.  Both Frank and I would take extension packages, but he would be going on the adventure extension, while I would be going on the cultural.  After breakfast and one last photo with our tight group (particularly Andy and Katie, who were heading back to New Zealand that night), we packed up to get ready to leave Petra that morning.  Our cultural extension bus left a little late, heading just out of town to Shoubak. Shoubak's dominating feature is a Crusader fortress built in 1115 perched on the side of a rocky, conical mountain, looking out over fruit trees below. It was of strategic importanc due to it dominating the main passage between Egypt and Syria.
Walking through the ruins of Shoubak
An amazing meal in Madaba!
After making our way in and around the ruins of the fortress, we then had a lengthy three hour drive up out of southern Jordan, making our way to Madaba, to have lunch.  Unfortunately, our guide Hani, was not looking well and seemed to be in some sort of medical distress. After a doctor and nurse, who happened to be on our tour, assessed him, they realized he was in the middle of passing a kidney stone, and so we ended up having to drop Hani off in Madaba, picking up another tourguide Rami, who joined us for the rest of the day as our local guide. We finally had lunch, having a most amazing meal, coming from a local restaurant offering us assorted mezze including kibbeh, pita, zaatar, hummus, baba ghanoush, fattoush, tahini and then a delicious main meal of lamb with bulghur wheat and chicken with rice and almonds.

The Mosaic Map of Madaba
After lunch, we began our tour of the city of Madaba. A city of 60,000, Madaba is located some 19 miles southwest of Amman, with a history that dates back to the Middle Bronze Age.  It's a city that is known for both Muslims and Christians co-existing in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect. In the latter part of the 19th century, many Christian families moved to Madaba, and began excavating mosaics dating back to the 6th century found here, after earthquakes had previously left the town abandoned for nearly 1100 years.  The Madaba Mosaic Map is part of a floor mosaic in the early Byzantine Basilica of St. George, now a Greek Orthodox Church, and is the oldest known geographic floor mosaic in art history. Part of it contains the oldest surviving original cartographic depiction of the Holy Land, from the Nile Delta to Jerusalem.  Only a third of the original map exists today due to fire, moisture exposure, and earthquakes that have damaged the other parts of it over the centuries; at one time, it would have contained 2 million pieces. After this tour, we'd head back on the tour bus; the heat we were dealing with would make itself become a common theme throughout the rest of the trip, tiring me out immensely, and causing me to fall asleep within five minutes of reboarding the bus!
A hazy view over the "Promised Land" from Mount Nebo
A memorial to Moses on Mount Nebo
We then made our way just fifteen minutes away to Mount Nebo, also in Madaba.  Mt. Nebo is important for being the place where, stated in the Bible, God granted Moses a view of the "Promised Land." The view from the summit provides a panorama of the Dead Sea, the Holy Land and, to the north, a more limited one of the valley of the River Jordan. The West Bank city of Jericho is usually visible from the summit, as is Jerusalem on a very clear day, but that wasn’t the case on this hazy day. The site is also where Moses was supposedly buried, although this location is not specified; a memorial, nonetheless, stands here, housing the remains of a Byzantine church and monastery that was constructed in the second half of the 4th century as well as a mosaic covered floor. We ended the first day of the cultural extension at a workshop where mosaics and other handicrafts were made by locals from Madaba. A small museum featuring different portrayals of Jordanian history and daily life followed, which had some of the strangest looking exhibits with mannequins sporting ...interesting facial expressions and rather funny animatronics. Watch below and enjoy.

As-Salt cityscape
Dinner was at a hotel in Amman that we were finally going to check into that night, and after a long day of riding in the bus and seeing sites in the hot Jordanian summer, getting to bed was of utmost importance.  I luckily had a room to myself for the rest of the trip, so I passed out pretty early.  Day 2 of the extension began early the next morning.  Our last minute guide from yesterday, Rami, had another group to lead that day, so Ali joined us for our last two days to be our local guide. Unfortunately, we received word that Hani would no longer be able to be with us for the remainder of the trip, as he was going to need surgery for his kidney stones.  This morning, our bus took us an hour outside of Amman to the city of As-Salt. As-Salt was once the most important settlement in the area between the Jordan Valley and the eastern desert. Because of its history as an important trading link between the eastern desert and the west, it was a significant place for the region’s many rulers. As-Salt stands in contrast to the “White City” of Amman by its yellow sandstone buildings perched upon the cluster of three hills that make up the city.

As-Salt's Hammam Street market
After touring the Abu Jaber Mansion, offering a history of the town, and some of its cultural importance (including seeing a sample of one of their unique Jordanian women's clothing), we got to make our way through the stairs and streets of the city, and in particular walk down the busy Hammam Street, essentially a pedestrianized street turned into a market. We also got to experience hearing the Islamic call to prayer or Salat, at Dhuhr (after the sun reaches the highest point in the sky, or noon), on our way to lunch.  Lunch was held at Beit Aziz restaurant, and it was qutie delicious, especially the lamb kofta!

Soaking my feet in the River Jordan
After lunch, we boarded the buses to drive out of As-Salt toward the Jordan-Israel border, to Al-Maghtas, or the Baptism Site, also known as "Bethany by the Jordan." It is said that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist along the River Jordan, a river which used to be much larger during his day.  Since then, the river has fluctuated in size from dams and canals upstream, so what Jordan claims as the original site where Jesus was baptized is now dried up riverbed, located a few meters east of the river. The river is also the political border between Jordan and Israel, established after a 1994 peace treaty between the two countries - so just across the buoys on the river itself is Israeli territory, and they have tourists that visit a site they claim is Jesus' baptism site, from that bank of the narrow river, as well. Magically, when we arrived at the river, a dove was sitting at a baptismal font. The temperatures here was also the hottest I'd experienced on this entire trip... an extremely dry and parched 106°F.

Sharing a toast with my fellow runners
We returned back to the hotel for the night, then met back up for dinner, with the bus taking us to our dinner location, Tawaheen Alhawa, or "The Windmill." This beautiful open air restaurant is decorated in a "Don Quixote de la Mancha" theme, as Jordanian cuisine was delivered to us over the course of the evening. It was an extremely delicious and filling meal, enjoying it with all of my new friends at our table (who all just happened to be women), as we got to learn more about each other, and our lives back home in the US. We were having such a fun time, clearly enjoying each others company, returning back to the hotel, somewhat sad that we only had one full day left in this magnificent country.

Scott and I sporting our headscarves
Our final day of the cultural extension had us enjoy breakfast at the hotel, followed by the bus taking us 45 minutes north to the Greco-Roman city of Jerash. Jerash is considered one of the largest and most well-preserved sites of Roman architecture outside of Italy. It is the second-most popular tourist attraction in Jordan, with visitors numbering closely behind those that have visited the ruins of Petra. On the western side of the city, the ruins have been carefully preserved and spared from encroachment by the development of the modern city around it. Donning a traditional shemagh mhadab headscarf that I purchased in the indoor marketplace at the entrance, we went out for the next two hours, enjoying the sights all around the old city.  We enjoyed seeing the hippodrome, the two large temples devoted to Zeus and Artemis, two theatres (the Large South Theatre and smaller North Theatre), the long colonnaded street or cardo, and the oval-shaped Forum surrounded by a colonnade of 56 unfluted Ionic columns. After the tour, we were driven a short distance to our lunch spot, Artemis Restaurant, where we were treated to a delicious buffet meal, and I got a chance to try a local beer - Philadelphia!
The group posing for a photo in Jerash
The ruins of Jerash with the modern city rising in the background
An Amman cityscape from the top of the Citadel
After lunch, we drove back to Amman where we visited the Amman Citadel. Before heading to the Citadel, we made a quick stop to check out the city's gorgeous King Abdullah Mosque, with its beautiful blue mosaic dome, and across the street, the Coptic and Greek Orthodox church of the city. The Amman Citadel is an important archeological site, and one of the seven "jabals" or mountains that originally make up the city.  It has had a long history of occupation by different civilizations and offers some of the most beautiful views of the sprawling metropolis, attributing its nickname as the “White City.” Most of the buildings still visible at the site are from the Roman, Byzantine, and Umayyad periods. The major buildings at the site are the Temple of Hercules, a Byzantine church, and the Umayyad Palace. We also got to walk through the small Jordan Archaeological Museum, to see artifacts found all around Jordan that span the centuries and the different peoples and cultures who have inhabited this area.

We then were given the rest of the afternoon to enjoy downtown Amman, dropped off near the Grand Husseini Mosque. A group of us walked down Al-Hashemi Street and King Faysal Square, window shopping through the many retail stores, tchotchke shops, as well as spice and sweet shops, where we got to sample and purchase lots of Jordanian food items to bring back home.  Our group of nine had to split up to try to grab a cab to take us back to the hotel, and it was quite a tight fit for the group of five of us who had to fit in a small sedan - but we made it back to the hotel in one piece, and only for 3 Jordanian Dinar total.

Great food from Hashem restaurant!
After a bit of rest, I got a Facebook message from Stacey about heading back to downtown Amman for dinner.  We first met with a bunch of the other members of the tour group at the hotel's terrace for a drink, before we got a cab to head into town, to a local favorite spot recommended to us by Ali earlier in the day, Hashem Restaurant, known as the oldest restaurant in Amman.  The food there was delicious (and VERY inexpensive... only 6JD altogether!) for a fantastic falafel dinner. Afterward, we decided to locate Jafra Cafe, which was recommended by our hotel concierge for shisha, but instead ended up going to a place called Afra, just around the corner.  It turned out to be much nicer, as we had a balcony seat to look over King Faisal Square, as I enjoyed my Jordanian shisha and we drank some juice and milkshakes to close out the night!

Thursday morning, I finally got to sleep in! With check out at the hotel by noon, I bided my time, getting all my things together, and then headed downstairs to wait for my assigned transfer shuttle to take me to the airport.  Though I was there much earlier than I needed, I got to sit at a cafe near the Etihad check in counters until they opened for my flight, and I had a couple hours then to pick up some items at duty free for friends back home (boxes of dates and more Jordanian sweets!) then stopped into both of the Amman Airport's two Priority Pass lounges - first the Petra Lounge, then the Crown Lounge.  The flight to Abu Dhabi went off without a hitch, and I enjoyed sitting in Etihad's Business Class for the nearly three hour flight.  I had a four hour layover in Abu Dhabi, where I stopped into the lounge there, before heading to my gate for the long-haul flight back to JFK, thankfully able to get through US Customs Pre-Clearance (an amenity of Abu Dhabi airport!) but ended up having to get some additional screening due to the dreaded "SSSS" secondary screening marker on my boarding pass.  The flight back to JFK took off at nearly 3am, and we were in the air for over 13 hours before landing at 9am in New York.  My bag came out of baggage claim pretty quickly, and I made my way to the office for a full day of work!

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