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  • Debra Palmen

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime


You know we're really back in Australia. You know we've opened a pop-up shop in Eumundi and now we're eagerly awaiting the delivery of 1.5 tonnes of goodies we bought on our travels. But first let's get this trip finished ....

When the time came to say goodbye to Jerusalem we decided against a crowded bus through the hot, dusty miles of desert to the border crossing into Jordan. Fortunately we found the lovely Ali, a taxi driver who agreed to take us the long drive to Beit She’an for a reasonable price after only a bit of haggling, and none of it Pythonesque.

Before we left Jerusalem Ali took us on a quickie tour of a few spots we hadn’t seen. The Mount of Olives, looking down from the crest, looks completely different. Even in the early morning light, with so much exposed white limestone it’s a harsh, barren landscape. In the last few days I’ve learned that this mountain is effectively being hollowed out so an additional 22,000 graves can be incorporated into the walls of huge, underground chambers. That solves the wait-list issue I was wondering about in my last Newsletter. Until we get to wait-listee 22,001.

Then we had time for a quick look at Pater Noster, the spot where Christ taught The Lord’s Prayer to his Disciples. Finally, we cruised past the enormous, ugly concrete wall that separates Israel from the Palestinian territories in the West Bank. Now that’s a wall.

Then it was the trek to Beit She’an. It’s the northern border crossing into Jordan but more reliable than the nearer Allenby Bridge crossing because the Israeli military is prone to closing the Allenby Bridge at any time, at a moment’s notice. Then there’s no going anywhere until they’re good and ready to reopen it.

Our journey took us past the Dead Sea, which looks a serene, inviting turquoise but is totally toxic. Then on to Jericho, where the walls have indeed long since tumbled down. It was first settled in 9000BC and is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. In Arabic Jericho means City of the Moon, which is a romantic notion. This region has its own bleak beauty and a full moon hanging low in the desert sky, fat and creamy, is certainly an arresting sight.

Ali proved to be a chatty, friendly guide. But just before we reached Beit She’an we arrived at a Police checkpoint and he suddenly became quiet and wary. Don’t worry, he told us as we approached the barrier, my ID shows that I’ve been a driver for 44 years and you’re clearly tourists, so we should have no problem.

But Houston, we had a problem.

And just in case you wonder, no, there are no photos to show you what happened next. Do you think I'm mad, or what? Instead, I shall use this photographic interval to show you some random shots from around the pop-up shop. You can see more on our Facebook page.

After a brief exchange with Ali, the first guard took a good long look at us and decided we warranted a thorough going over. We realised our indignation about being ignored by security at Istanbul airport and discounted as outlaws was actually the better option. Our egos can survive being ignored, we’ve decided. Because not being ignored by Israeli border guards is really tedious.

We had to cart all our bags into a building where they were X-rayed. And because Israeli X-ray machines apparently don’t reveal the same as every other X-ray machine on the planet, the bags then had to be unpacked. The lovely old pestle and mortar we bought in Jaffa came in for extra special attention.

What is this for? a female guard asked curtly. For cooking, Doug told her. She looked blank. In the kitchen, he said. She looked blank. For grinding herbs and spices. More blank. Finally he remembered what a metal shop man in Jerusalem had told us about how pestles and mortars are often used in this neck of the woods. For grinding coffee, Doug said.

Ah yes, the international language of coffee. Everyone understood, and finally the guards could stand down from the clear and present danger that our kitchenware had presented. But not before the guard had bashed the bejesus out of the bottom of the mortar. The 150 year old mortar.

Meanwhile, Ali’s car was slowly being dismantled. My Hebrew is a little rusty so I asked Ali to ask the guards what they were looking for. They say you look like you might have drugs or bombs, he said. Really? I said. Really? I was a little bit flattered at once again looking like an outlaw, and a little bit outraged.

Really?, Ali asked. No, not really, they said. But you’re Palestinian and the day is boring and they’re a good diversion. I instantly stopped being a little bit flattered and went fully into outraged mode.

But just as I started to bristle I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder and a mouth at my ear. Whatever you’re planning to do, don’t, said Doug quietly. I sniffed – I was planning nothing at all. They had big dogs and bigger guns and a whole lot of attitude, so I wasn’t planning anything I told him. Yeah right, he said. Just say nothing, just say nothing, he continued in a quiet chant.

Have you seen the movie Finding Nemo? Just keep swimming, just keep swimming sings Dory at one point. I’m pretty sure it isn’t a Doug-type movie, but somehow he was channelling a little blue fish while warning me to avoid doing something that would get me arrested.

So I was successfully distracted and held my tongue. I didn’t express my outrage or wave my arms about or demand to speak to the Officer-in-Charge. Just as Ali stood by without objecting while his car was being damaged. All because he was Palestinian and we were judged okay to inconvenience because it was a quiet day on this middle-of-nowhere desert road and the guards were bored.

If you keep visiting indignities on people every day, if you keep crushing them rather than treating them with professionalism – and dare I suggest respect – just because you can, do you think they will ever stop hating you? Grand speeches on the international stage about a commitment to a Two State Solution are all very well but away from the spotlight, on a day-to-day basis, we saw a good deal of provocative behaviour by Israeli police and military. And it was unpleasant being subjected to it ourselves.

So that was the Ridiculous bit. You can see why I did not photograph the armed checkpoint guards - another thing that saved me from being arrested. A little while later Ali dropped us off at the border. We gave him a good tip in recompense for the damage to his car. He was a lovely old chap, just doing his job. Then it was through the formalities (and more searches) for leaving Israel and entering Jordan and at last we met up with Mohammed, the driver we had hired. Hiring a driver isn’t expensive and it’s much faster and more comfortable than public transport, especially when your time is limited.

My first impression of Jordan was unexpected – I was overwhelmed by the amount of rubbish laying about. Genuinely shocked. Everywhere we looked, rubbish, rubbish, rubbish. Mounds of it. Piles of it. Everywhere. Mostly it was plastic, and there wasn’t a spot in every village we passed that wasn’t marred by it.

Jordan is a poor country and perhaps there isn’t a municipal rubbish removal service. But just throwing things anywhere when you’re done with them makes for a horrible living environment. Even the road to Mount Nebo, the most revered holy place in Jordan, wasn’t immune to this scourge.

But Mount Nebo itself was nicely maintained. No-one knows where Moses was buried, but Mount Nebo is where it’s widely accepted he was shown the Promised Land before he died. The little church perched at the top is filled with the most amazing, intricate Roman mosaics; more in one place than I’ve ever seen together. Many were very large and resembled beautiful Persian carpets, only in tiny stone tiles.

From Mount Nebo we travelled to nearby Madaba, one of the modern centres of mosaic making in Jordan. We stopped in one shop and received a quickie lesson on how mosaics were made in the old days, versus modern techniques. Either way, it’s a time consuming, painstaking task.

We noticed a large number of armed Police throughout Madaba. And when I say ‘armed’ I mean totally armed to the teeth. They had enormous vehicle mounted machine guns on almost every corner, the same as you see throughout Iraq and Syria on the television News, and all manner of guns, big and small. Strangely, they were all black. Don’t guns come in any other colour? With those tight black trousers, knee high military boots and body armour that provides the wearer with a fake six-pack, you could put together a stylish SWAT ensemble with the right coloured accessories.

We asked Mohammed what the problem was, and it was no laughing matter. In fact, it was a drama of Shakespearean proportions. Two powerful and volatile families in a blood feud that had endured for decades. It started beyond living memory so no-one in town could say with certainty why it started. Even the families couldn’t definitely say why they hated each other so much but only the previous week relations had flared back into violence, with 14 people killed in tit-for-tat murders.

The only way to stop it was through an overwhelming show of force from the Police, and for the moment that was working. The Government found it important to clamp down hard on these families because of the number of tourists who visit Madaba and nearby Mount Nebo. Jordan is a poor country and tourism is vital for the economy. Getting caught in cross-fire is what you go to America for, so it had to be stopped.

Then on to Petra, where we arrived late in the evening. Mohammed had phoned ahead to place a special order at his favourite restaurant and to ensure it was ready and waiting for when we arrived. A lamb and rice dish, with a rich, creamy yoghurt sauce, in a huge bowl to share and eat with your fingers. Fortunately, we didn’t need to be told the rule about only eating from your right hand so there were no faux pas.

We got up early(ish) for our assault on Petra. No-one knows for sure when work on the city started, but some scholars suggest it was established in around 315BC. Being hand-carved from sheer cliffs means it was clearly a work in progress for a long time. It was certainly the capital of the Nabataean Empire from the 1st century BC, and became rich as a centre for the trade in frankincense, myrrh and various rare spices.

It was our plan to walk the entire route, from our hotel door and back. And by golly, that’s what we did. As soon as you’ve bought your ticket you’re invited to ride a horse the kilometre to the actual entrance of the complex. Actually, you’re nagged nonstop for the first hundred metres or so. But we said no.

After your kilometre march from the ticket booth you reach the entrance to Petra. This is a kilometre long, winding, high-walled sandstone canyon, known as the Siq. The Siq’s walls are rose pink and deep tangerine through to washed out mauve and ochre, often weathered into strange, abstract shapes and dotted with occasional weather-blasted carvings by the Nabateans. These colours provide a stark contrast to the intense blue you can only see by looking straight up, and provide a cool reprieve before you emerge into sun, dust and heat of the main complex.

As you leave the Siq, the first thing you see is the Treasury. Despite its name, scholars believe it was actually part of a tomb complex. It’s stupendously tall, hand carved into the sandstone cliff and the façade has surprisingly crisp detail, given that it’s been weathered for the last few thousand years. You can only look at the façade because it’s forbidden to go inside. Not that there is anything of note inside – all the decoration is on the outside. This façade featured in the movie Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade.

From the Treasury you move into the rest of the complex. There are many donkey, horse and camel handlers, all trying to convince you to ride their beast the two kilometres through the complex to the steps that will take you to the Monastery, the upper-most point in Petra. But again we said no.

And it was good to take our time and walk. It’s an amazing place, covering several kilometres and with massive rooms carved directly into the cliffs, often with highly decorated facades. It’s difficult to describe how big everything is, from the towering ‘rooms’ themselves, to the distances you need to cover to get around the complex.

In the right season archaeological digs take place throughout the city, and they’re interesting to watch for a while. Mostly Nabataean and Roman coins are unearthed, but bit by bit foundations and walls of previously unknown buildings are being revealed. I studied archaeology for a while but these days I find notion to be more romantic than the reality of slowly digging, digging, digging, trowel-full by trowel-full, and mostly finding nothing but more dirt. And yet, the prospect of volunteering for a while on a dig in Petra did tickle my fancy. For a while. But early in the day, before things get hot and dusty and hot and painstaking and hot.

If you want to visit the Monastery and you’ve declined the horse/donkey/camel assistance then you’ve already walked four kilometres through the desert sun before you reach the steps. The interminable steps. The 800 interminable steps. Some are little more than weather-worn ripples in the rock, some man-made and firm under-foot, but all different heights and angles. Up, up, up. There’s the occasional pool of blood where a hapless visitor has misjudged a step and taken a bad tumble. There’s no Nanny State here – you are responsible for where you put your own feet and getting hurt, or worse, can easily happen. So be careful, Ninnies!

We sensibly brought 4 litres of water for our trek, but it wasn’t enough. Fortunately, there are micro-shops dotted along the entire route, and we bought more along the way. I asked one lady very high on the climb, almost to the Monastery itself, how she got to work every day. She said if she had stock to carry in, she came by donkey. But if not she came on foot at around 6am every day. Every single day, this lady – and the other vendors – climbs to the top of Petra. By golly they’re fit. We bought a couple of kaffirs (traditional scarves) from her as nice souvenirs.

During the climb you often meet donkeys on the way down from delivering their considerable loads (customers) from the top. You’re asked if you wouldn’t prefer to take a donkey quite a lot, but it was our aim to make this walk, not sell-out and get carried. So we said no.

Also, those poor little donkeys were pretty small and some pretty fat tourists were teetering on them. I said I would not inflict my ample bottom on a poor little beast. But madam, said one young donkey-handler, you don’t have to worry - this donkey can carry 300kg. Thanks a lot young donkey-handler! The bottom isn’t quite that ample.

The higher you climb in Petra, the more stunning the vistas become. Layer upon layer of impossibly steep, jagged mountains as far as you can see. Just why the Nabateans picked this particular spot to carve out an enormous stone city is anyone’s guess, because there’s an endless choice of hidden canyons and sheer cliffs for miles around.

Once you reach the top – or what you think is the top – you find the Monastery, another enormous façade along the lines of the Treasury but said to have been used for important ceremonies. Thank goodness there’s a small café right about where you’re going to collapse, selling lots of cold drinks or even hot mint tea if you want.

So you recover in the shade, admiring the view and also admiring yourself for being so strong that you could make the climb without resorting to a hapless donkey. Everyone who arrives sans donkey gets a special secret smile from everyone else who made the trek under their own steam. We are the Elite of Petra! We scorn sell-out donkey riders! Although I have to say those donkeys were starting to look pretty good towards the end of the climb, when I was starting to flag. Doug kept encouraging me by telling me we were almost there. But Doug lies. A lot.

After a little rest you realise that there’s still a way to go before you reach the absolute top of Petra. Big signs in English, notify you that ‘THE VIEW!’ is over there. It turns out that the view is a little longer to get to than it first appears, but yes indeed it’s worth trudging a bit further. We saw some truly stupid tourists balancing right on the edge of sheer precipices to get selfies with this spectacular view. None plummeted to their deaths while we were watching, but that was dumb luck. What is it with selfies? They weren’t even looking at the view, just photographing themselves in front of it and then they left.

After some rest and refreshment you face the long, long climb back down the mountain, and 800 steps going down can be harder than going up. It’s so easy to lose your footing, and straight away I almost twisted my ankle on a wonky step that was a little too steep for me to comfortably step down onto. But I learned my lesson and took the rest slowly and carefully.

Doug thoroughly enjoyed telling red faced, wheezing climbers close to the top that the Monastery was now closed for lunch. Or that there was only an hour to go before they got there. You should have seen the horror on their faces. Oh how he laughed. And so did I a little bit, before slapping him and telling him that someone who didn’t appreciate his warped sense of humour was going to pitch him off the mountain quite soon.

Finally, when you reach the bottom of the stairs, you momentarily feel triumphant. Then you realise there’s still 4km of walking in the dry, intense heat to get out of the complex. Donkey/camel/horse handlers immediately descend upon you again, trying to convince you that if you walk you’ll fall down dead and get all wizened up and desiccated in the desert sun long before you even get back to the Treasury, let alone through the kilometre-long Siq, this time going slightly uphill, and then that final, killer kilometre back to the gate. And it certainly does feel that way. But we’d come this far and weren’t going to give in now. We’re not fit, but we are determined.

And so, at last, we hobbled back into the hotel. As we staggered through the foyer the concierge caught my eye. Been walking in Petra?, he asked. I managed a nod. Up to the Monastery?, he asked. Another nod. He gave me a tight little smile of sympathy. We see this a lot, he said. See what?, I wondered. Until we got to our room and saw in the bathroom mirror a horribly dishevelled, purple-faced, filthy-looking wild woman. Doug denies everything, but he was no better. We might have joined the Petra Elite, but it came at considerable cost to our super model looks.

We met up with Mohammed for a final delicious dinner. He tried very hard to get all tour-guidey on us, insisting that we meet early next morning. I told him it wasn’t going to happen. He tried to insist. But it wasn’t going to happen. I told him he could lurk in the hotel foyer from whatever time he wanted but I would not be emerging from my room until 10am and that was that. Mohammed wasn’t used to not dictating the agenda, but when I’m the hirer I’m also the agenda dictator. Or just the Dictator, according to Mohammed. Too bad! He hadn’t climbed to the top of Petra that day, he’d slept in until midday.

So the next day we set off at a leisurely hour for the trip to Bethany. The newly constructed road through the desert made the going very easy, and the scenery was stunning. We were amazed at how many Bedouins live out there, in the middle of absolutely nothing but low prickly bushes and the occasional thorn tree. There were at least 10 goats for every person, with the occasional camel thrown in. It’s a hard, tough life.

Bethany is the second most holy site in Jordan and the place on the Jordan River where Jesus was baptised. If you want, you can be baptised there too. The river forms part of the border between Israel and Jordan, and the Israeli side is certainly a lot richer, with more swish facilities. But it’s on the Jordanian side where it all happened, where churches from almost every denomination are now located, and to us it seemed far more ‘authentic’ and atmospheric.

Finally it was on to Amman for a tour through the city, including the enormous Roman amphitheatre right in the middle of the old city, which is still in use today. Mohammed’s mother rang to see if he was working that night, and she immediately invited us to dinner at her home with the rest of his family. What a lovely, gracious lady. She spoke little English and we speak no Arabic, but her hospitality was touching and we managed to chat and laugh nonetheless. Mohammed’s wife and brother had learned a good standard of English just by watching television, which is a pretty amazing feat, and we had a lovely evening.

The flights to and from each buying trip are the bits I hate, and this leg of the journey was no exception. Amman to Dubai to Bangkok to Brisbane over about 28 hours had nothing to recommend it.

But finally we made it home and what bliss to crawl into our own bed. The moggies had played up merry hell while we were away, particularly the Bengals – what a surprise. But they’ve been suspiciously well behaved since we’ve been home. We’ll see how long that lasts.

So that was Buying Trip 2017. We had a terrific time and we’re already planning the next trip. Angkor Wat is a good contender to visit next time after the shopping is done. But so is the Great Wall and so is Pompeii. Doug fancies Dubrovnik and then down to the Greek Islands, so we’ll see what happens.

Now it’s official that we’re back in Australia. And we’ve already opened a pop-up shop. After I bought so, so much on this trip Doug told me I’d better find a pop-up shop quick smart upon our return, and yay our previous pop-up shop became vacant within two days of our return. We know it’s a great location, right in the middle of Eumundi directly opposite the market, so fingers crossed that we do well there again. More on that as it happens.

Calypso and I will be running the shop from Tuesday to Saturday until the end of January 2018. Our new shipment should arrive by early(ish) December – after we’ve survived our usual battle with Quarantine officials – but we’ve still got plenty to offer before then. Today is Day 6 in the shop, and Calypso and I have already settled back into the routine – me doing all the work, she getting all the admiration. Of course.


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