In October of 2009 I was working in Israel for the first time. While at work I overheard people talking about visiting Petra as a weekend trip. I enquired how everyone was doing this. They all said that you have to book a tour. As tours aren’t generally how I like to travel, I asked if anyone had tried to just go it on their own. There were comments that no one knew how that might be accomplished and lots of comments about safety. Safety shmafety. I got back to my hotel and googled “seeing petra without a tour”. There were a few people that described the process and it seemed doable to me, and as I didn’t get the gene that makes people afraid of the unknown, I decided to embark on the trip on my own. So I booked a trip from Ede Dov airport in Tel Aviv. They are a smaller regional airport that services Elat Israel which is where I would need to start the trip. As I had only brought my large suitcase to Israel I borrowed a backpack from a friend in Israel. The backpack was his sons bag that he used while in the military. Why does that matter? You’ll see.
I arrived at the airport on a Friday afternoon and entered the airport as you would any other. Except this is Israel and to say security is strict here is the understatement of the century. I walked up to the counter and the questioning began. “Where are you going? Why? Who booked your trip? Why? Is that your bag?” etc. I was answering all the questions to their satisfaction until the bag question. “Is this your bag?” Me, “Yes”. They look at the bag and see the name Goldrich, clearly not my name. The lady says, “Why does it say Goldrich?” My first thought was that I was finally going to get the cavity search I had always dreamed about. Close. I explained that it was the bag I was using and that it was a friend’s bag he had loaned me for the trip. She made a phone call and two armed guards arrived and said “Come with us please”. Sweet, hopefully they have lube. They take me out of the terminal and to a building out back. I was asked to sit outside while they rooted through “my” bag. After a while they asked me to come inside and to take off all my clothes except for my underwear. They gave me a metal detection once over and then said to get dressed and go back outside, which I did. A few minutes later they come outside with my laptop and asked if this was my laptop. Yes, it’s my laptop. “Then where is the charging cord?” they asked. “It better be in that bag you are searching through, because I packed it”. They went back inside and searched more and found it. Then they called me back in and asked me to strip again. Same drill, metal detection etc. I go back outside and sit. After a few minutes they come out with my electric shaver. They ask, “Is this yours?” Yes. “Are you the only one that uses it?” Yes. “You cannot take it with you” I ask why, they say “Because it is not allowed, you may pick it up on your way back”. My way back? The plane has already left. I have missed it at this point and I tell them so. No they say, they are holding the plane for me. At this point they escort me out to the airplane. I am not allowed to carry my bag and I am told not to get out of my seat for the duration of the flight.
I arrived in Elat 30 minutes later without further incident. I retrieved my bag (less the shaver) and walk out of the airport completely clueless about what to do next. A cab driver leaning on his car said, “You need help?” I said “Yeah I want to go to Petra, any idea how I do that?” He responds, “Sure, I will take you to the border, you will cross into Jordan and get a cab to Petra”. Perfect. He drives me to the border which Jordan which is mostly deserted except for military. I go to the exit window, some pleasantries are exchanged and they ask what I am doing, I tell them and they tell me what to do. You have to walk across the zone which is a ¼ mile of demilitarization zone. There are military on each side pointing guns at each other and I had to walk between them. I finally get to the Jordan side and with nothing in English I walk up to the window and hand them my passport. The guy stamps it, asks for some money and then I go to the next window and do more stuff. When I am done, I head for the gate (picture a crappy old chain link gate, yeah, that is what gets you into Jordan), a big Arab reaches for my passport and then literally starts yelling at me. My Arabic isn’t what it should have been for this type of encounter so I gave him my WTF are you wanting me to do face. He points to the windows and I realize I have forgotten one of them. After going back getting another mystery stamp and back to the gate where I am now allowed in.
Let me set the scene. There is nothing in front of me except for a small dirt parking area with a bunch of run down cars and about 10 Arab guys in the Tunic thing they wear, which are all chatting. One guy breaks off and comes over to me, “Where do you want to go?” he says. “Petra, how do I get there?”. He says, “I can take you for $100”. I had already done some research and found that the going price was $75ish. I barter, and eventually we settle on $75 for a round trip ride. He walks back to the guys and words are exchanged and almost immediately they are all screaming at each other with many of them pointing at me. I’d be lying if I didn’t have second thoughts about my life choices at this point, but I’m not quitter so I stand there waiting. Soon the fight trails off and my guy comes back and says, “OK I take you”. My guess is he underbid the job and no one else was willing to do his cheap work. So we get in his car and head off. We haven’t driven far when I see a piece of crap car on the side of the road and we are pulling up behind it. Oh so this is where I will die, I say to myself. My driver says, “This guy will take you to Petra”. I am told to get out and get in the other car. Sure, why not, I mean this adventure isn’t sketchy enough. I get in the other guy and it’s a younger guy driving, seems friendly, says “Hi” which is 100% of his English language repertoire. That’s ok I don’t even know hi in Arabic. Off we go into the desert. It’s about a 3 hour drive. I had told the first driver that I needed to be taken to a hotel as I hadn’t booked one and as we arrive in the city of Petra my driver pulls up to a super sketchy motel. He points to it and stops. I think AH HELL NAW. We go inside and I think, nope. Not going to happen. They try to book me a room and I try to tell them in the most polite way, hell no. The desk guy screams at my driver (Im suspecting because he wasted his time) and we get back in the car. He tries to pull up to another sketchy place and I say “No, I need pool, 5 star, do you know 5 star?” He nods and off we go. He pulls up to a super nice place and I thank him. I try to ask where he will pick me up on Sunday, which starts off the worst game of charades you’ve ever seen. He says noon and I points to a spot. I am skeptical that I will ever see this kid again.
I book myself a room in the Movenpick, drop off my stuff and head for Petra which is actually a bit of a walk to get to. Its 100 degrees and I get a ticket, some water and head out. Petra is everything the photos show. It’s unbelievable. It’s also how a bunch of poor people make their living and you are bombarded by people trying to sell you horse or donkey or camel rides. It’s nonstop. I spend the rest of the day wandering the ruins and return to my hotel in time for dinner. When I was researching Petra, I came across a post that said, “If you really want to see something cool, get up before light and walk into Petra in the dark and sit and watch the sun come up over the Treasury building”. I decide I am definitely doing this. The next morning my alarm goes off at 4am and I get up and start walking. Let me just tell you how unbelievably spooky walking into Petra in the dark is, but I get to the treasury and get to watch the sun come over the hill and hit the building. It’s easily one of the top 3 incredible moments of my life. I continue walking into the ruins and as I am walking, a woman with a child on a donkey comes riding towards me, as they pass I lift my camera as the child reaches out to me and click the shutter. It’s the best photo I have ever captured for lots of reasons, mostly because it feels like it captures the magic of the moment.
The next day I check out of the hotel and start to prepare myself for trying to figure how to get back to the border as I am certain my ride isn’t coming back for me. But as I exit the hotel, there he is, right where he said he would be. Amazing. I get in the car and off we go. As we exit the town we stop at one of the many military checkpoints. I say military but really it’s just a bunch of guys with Kalashnikovs. I am in the front seat with the driver and he pulls up and rolls down his window and takes off his sunglasses. I sense a bit of seriousness and tension. A guy with an AK comes to the window and starts talking. He continually points to me. After some time another guy with an AK comes over to the car and gets in the back seat. To say I have some concern about this is also an understatement. This seems really bad. Off we go with Mr AK in the back. While we drive I construct a plan that if I get poked with the AK, I am grabbing the steering wheel and we are going to cartwheel down the highway at 80mph. I’m not going out without a fight. But after an hour or so we pull up at a small town and stop. The guy gets out of the back seat, says thanks and walks off. All that worry for nothing. We were just giving the guy a ride. We make it back to the border without incident and I get back into Israel and get a cab back to the airport. Security is a disaster again, so much so that I have to give them my Israeli friends phone number to call to get them off my butt. They call and then immediately let me go without future questioning.
I arrive back at the small airport and they are waiting with my shaver (Im not kidding). It has a receipt on it that says “Shever”. I still have the receipt somewhere. I go back to work the next day and tell people of my adventure. They all agree that I am insane. I disagree. It was a fantastic adventure and a few years later, I was able to take Rena back with me. As I had already done the whole thing, I knew exactly what to do and it went off without a hitch. Rena loved it and loved the adventure just like I did.