Petra, Jordan

Today a number of us leave Israel for the day and REALLY take a journey to a another world – Petra, Jordan. Before today, all I knew about Petra is that it’s the place Indiana Jones was filmed. I had been told it was a must-see, but I really never gave it much thought.

But now I get it. I don’t think I’ve ever said “wow” so much in my life – and I know everyone in our group felt the same way. Petra is, we learn, one of the 8 Wonders of the World, and I totally get why. It’s a massive archaeological site from the first century. When it was inhabited, the people were cave dwellers who created their world out of carvings in the limestone mountains. Much of it sits deep below huge jagged rock mountains with narrow stone pathways, so as you walk through it you’re surrounded by the steep, sky-high limestone. It’s like being at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, but walking in the center of a narrow, winding stone pathway.

The pathway winds around the magnificent rocks, and with each turn there’s a new and greater ‘wow!’ The mountains on each side of you are so narrow that shade and rays of sun – and the reflecting colors – alternate as you turn. You constantly pass ancient caves, sculptured figures, tombs and carvings, with horses, goats, dogs and the occasional camel.

Words like ‘incredible’ and ‘amazing’ just don’t do it justice. I’m out of superlatives when it comes to Petra. I’ve exhausted my vocabulary. I would need Roget’s Thesaurus to find the right words. In fact, I think Roget himself would be lost for words when it comes to describing Petra.

The whole thing just looks and feels ‘other worldly’. Indiana Jones was looking for the ‘ark of the lost covenant’ here, and it now makes perfect sense to me. This place is indeed an exotic treasure.

The landscape leading up to Petra is also unlike anything we’ve ever seen. This is where ‘The Martian’ was filmed, as well as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘Mission to Mars’ and many others. Hollywood must love coming here if they’re looking for a vast, bizarre and barren land. The set is all in place. Just roll the cameras.

We head back and stop for a delicious lunch. Before the meal, Cantor Smolash leads us in singing the ‘hamotzi’, which MUST be a first for Jordan. Another insanely bizarre moment on this trip – and in my life!

We get back on the road for a 2 hour ride back to Eilat. A few people start nodding off and we’re all feeling nice and content. There’s nothing and no one around for miles. Just total desolation. We’re humming along the lone desert road and everything is calm and cool.

And then….something strange happens. There’s a loud, steady thumping sound from underneath the bus. It doesn’t go away. Something is clearly wrong but the bus continues down the road and we all start getting just a tiny bit alarmed.

Soon, the noise is loud and ominous enough for us to HAVE to pull over. What the hell??! The driver and guide get out and check it out. They turn off the engine and now it’s undeniable what’s happening – we’re really stranded in the middle of nowhere. A few people swear they smell smoke and it quickly starts feeling a little hot and uncomfortable. Could this really be a serious situation?, I ask myself.

We all get off the bus and see the driver nervously working on some fan belt problem or something. He’s not making us feel confident. I’m staring at him and its obvious to me that he has no clue how to fix this, which means we have a real problem on our hands. No reason to panic, I say to myself, right? Right??!!

Cantor Smolash, cool as a cucumber, summons us to all gather around. He tells us about an analogous episode in his life and that in Judaism there’s always a purpose to everything. “Look for the message here,” he says.

Ok, I’ll try. But I’ll also look for a bus.

Just then we notice two sheep and goat herders nearby. They’re straight out of central casting. A few of us carefully approach them. Suddenly their herd starts coming towards us – right towards me, in fact. I’m thinking that I have to keep them out of the road to protect them and then, right then and there, I start doing my best to herd the livestock.

“Back! Back!, I shout at the sheep and goats, and start gesturing my arms with all the herdsmen technique I could muster. I’m literally herding sheep and goats in the middle of the Jordanian desert! Of course I had no idea what the hell I was doing (but, hey, we never got that lesson in Oak Park).

Meanwhile, the crowd is cracking up and actually having a fun time now with the whole thing. We’re all fine, we know we’re eventually going to be ok, and we’re taking in the whole experience with a positive attitude. The sun is beginning to set over the rows of shaded mountains in the faraway distance. It’s actually quite exquisite.

Everyone in the group is in good spirits. Laughing, high-fiving, fully aware that we’re in the middle of a wildly crazy spontaneous adventure – in Jordan!

Scores of buses pass by. A few slow down and we start celebrating, and when they speed away and we all groan in unison. “Shalom hope!”

Finally, about one hour later, the police arrive. They’re a handful of young, handsome men, and a few of the women noticed. We all applaud and in no time some of the women ask if they could take pictures with the guys. Right before the photos are snapped one of the women asks if they’re allowed to touch them, to which the cop laughs and says no. A truly hysterical scene.

These guys thought they were coming to rescue tourists in distress and instead they found a group of giggly West Bloomfield women who were acting like they were meeting guys on J Date.

Finally, a couple of hours later, we’re rescued and get back to the hotel. We laughed the whole time and our bonding was strengthened. We shared a once in a lifetime experience and I don’t thing a single person would change a thing.

The Jordanians were wonderful, by the way. The guide, the driver, and even the police couldn’t have been kinder. The government actually held the border open for us beyond the normal 8 p.m. closing time, and they gave us water bottles as soon as we arrived. So the story ended with a beautiful gesture from a former bitter enemy of Israel’s, a country that attacked Israel three times in 70 years. If that isn’t a sign of hope, I don’t know what is.

Sometimes the best times in a trip (and life) are when you go off-script. We went WAY off-script today, and it’s one of the most memorable experiences of our lives.

As Steve Jobs once said, “The journey is the reward.” For this group of wandering Jews from Temple Israel who found themselves stuck in the middle of the Jordanian desert, we certainly proved Mr. Jobs right.

Mark Jacobs

Read yesterday’s blog from Israel, Blogs From Israel – Mark Jacobs’ Day 10

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