Monthly Archives: June 2012

From the Top of the World – Looking Back on it All

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As my last touristy act in the country of Lebanon, I took a ride on Jounieh’s Teleferique ride up to the tiny mountain village of Harissa, the home of Our Lady of Lebanon. Though it was a bit of a cloudy day, the coasts were still clear enough to see all of Jounieh piled up around the Sea while we were cruising over a rich bit of forest below us. The 9-minute ride was peaceful and once we were at the top the cool, fresh air and breeze were perfect.

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After the teleferique, a funicular takes you to Our Lady of Lebanon, a huge white statue of the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of Lebanon, with her arms stretched out to the bay of Jounieh. There’s also a small chapel underneath and a large church in construction behind it.

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Dealing with the annoyance and frustration of having to be quick to avoid a guy who had clearly been following us the entire time since we got on the Teleferique got me to thinking about everything I would be happy to be done with once I left this country and also the things I would miss after living here for so long. So here’s my list:

What I won’t miss:

  • Pollution
    • It would be so much prettier without a brown cloud of smog hanging over the whole city.
    • Trash. Everywhere.
    • The air just feels dirty and heavy in Beirut, it’s so gross.
  • The awful congestion and traffic. Why are main roads (Gemmayze) only one lane and people are constantly stopping for stupid reasons in the middle of the road for no reason??
  • Tiny, tiny sidewalks that are so worn down.
  • Along the same lines, how Beirut is very unfriendly and unwelcoming to pedestrians.
  • Beirut was just ranked the number #1 expensive city in the Middle East. And it really is. Some things here cost the same, if not more, than they do in Boston.
  • Constantly having the same conversation with anyone I meet: who am I, why am I here, what do I do, where do I work, where do I live, how do I like it, where am I from, where are my parents from, etc, etc. After the first few questions I just cut people off because a stranger has no business knowing exactly where I work or my family history. Plus it’s so annoying always getting the same confused and exaggerated response from a Lebanese if they find out none of my family is Lebanese and I just came here all by myself.
  • Sleazy guys making comments or noises at you from the street or their car/scooter/shop (does not matter how much or how little you are wearing, if you’re remotely female-looking you will get this), including:
    • Hissing
    • Making kissy noises
    • Whispering “oh my god” or “beautiful” under their breath
    • Blatantly staring with no attempt to hide it
    • And much, more
  • Awful infrastructure
    • Internet is worse than some 3rd world countries
    • Regular and irregular electricity blackouts
    • No clean tap water
  • Evil cab drivers that try to:
    • Rip me off. Um, I’m not stupid, I know it doesn’t cost $10 to get to Hamra from Gemmayze.
    • Get me to marry them
    • Get me to go fishing with their family
    • Find out every detail of my life
    • Get me to ride in their cab by beeping at me incessantly on the road. Because obviously who would ever want to walk anywhere and I must be deaf or blind to not just see them and hear the first 20 beeps.

It’s not all bad though! There were things that I really loved.

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What I will miss:

  • Beautiful landscapes
    • The Qadisha Valley
    • The Chouf Cedar Reserve
    • The Bekaa Valley
    • Being on the Mediterranean
    • The views driving along the highway, with glittering blue water along one side and mountains covered in villages on the other.
    • Even though the beaches aren’t the best I’ve ever seen, there’s definitely an abundance of them and people to go there with.
  • Really amazingly preserved, and sometimes mysterious, historical sites. Even for someone who isn’t a history buff like me, just being at these places is something else.
    • Baalbek has to be one of the most amazing places in the country, along with one of my favorites
    • The Obelisk at Hermel
    • The Hippodrome in Tyre, the best preserved in the world
    • Beaufort Castle
    • Random places in the middle of Beirut. You’ll be walking along and suddenly “oh here’s a Crusader Castle” or “look at these old Roman baths in the middle of Downtown.”
  • The abundance of roof-top hangouts
  • All the things I got to climb while I was here. There are far fewer people yelling at me to get down here than anywhere in the US.
  • How getting anywhere in this country is an adventure. Sometimes I just want to be there already, but for the most part the journey is half the fun.
  • Skiing at night. That was way too cool.
  • The huge diversity and range of people here, in terms of religion, culture, lifestyles, everything.
  • Cheap transportation. A two-hour bus ride to the end of the country costs $2. Plus the drivers are crazy, in a grabbing-the-edge-of-your-seat-with-white-knuckles-because-this-van-may-flip-at-any-moment sort of way.
  • Mini-shops everywhere. If you ever run out of something essential at home you can easily walk half a block to a store that has all the basics you need.
  • Food
    • Fresh fruits and vegetables are incredibly cheap – $5-8 bought me tons of fresh produce for a week
    • Lebanese food is so delicious – koussa, my favorite example
    • The labneh and hummus here cannot be beat
    • Fruit cocktails! Seriously, what could possibly be better than a huge, colorful bowl of all sorts of fruit (banana, melons, strawberries, kiwi, ashta, and more) and strawberry and avocado purees, artfully arranged and topped honey, sweet cheesy fluffy, and a wafer cookie or some sliced almonds? I’m going to have to start making my own.
  • Meeting other foreigners who aren’t just sheep blindly accepting everything the news, media, and governments tell us. Just because Lebanon is in the Middle East doesn’t mean there’s a suicide bomber waiting around the corner to kill you.
  • All the opportunities I got to travel to new and exciting places and everyone I met along the way.

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Divin’ it Up!

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I finally got my Open Water Scuba Diving Certification! Woooooo!

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Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to scuba dive, relying on your own air is so restrictive, but at the time I was too young, then it turned into being too broke, too busy, whatever. A couple months ago I found a coupon for Living Social to get the Open Water IANTD Scuba Diving Certification from NISD here in Beirut for 50% off so I snatched it right up. I got started as soon as I got back from Jordan and 1 class, 6 dives, and 1 test later I finally have my card!

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NISD is at the Beirut Marina right next to Zaitunay Bay.

I think it was definitely way better getting it done here; it’s so much more practical than the certification programs I was looking at back in the US. Those included a bunch of classroom hours and pool time before actually making it into the water. For the program I did here I spent a couple hours watching some videos about diving before making my first skills dive in the sea instead of a pool. Practical instruction for assembling and caring for gear are done at the dive center with your gear so you can practice while you learn, and then underwater skills are taught and learned underwater before a quick swim around if the instructor thinks you’re ready. Fortunately I was with a pretty competent group so our instructor took us around for a while before leaving the water.

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After the skills dive, I did 5 more dives over the course of the next 4 weeks and then yesterday headed over to the dive shop to take my test and get my card. I’m glad I finally got this out of the way! Now I don’t have to worry about being allowed to dive at any cool places I visit and can start thinking about getting my certification of Advanced (30 meters) and Deep (40 meters) Diving, since Open Water is only for 20 meters.

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The launch site.

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Lebanon is not the most exciting place in the world to dive though, the underwater landscape is pretty dull, no corals or anything, and a lot of the really cool shipwrecks and stuff are pretty deep – way too deep for Open Water. However, I got to see some cool animals and all the people at NISD are really friendly and cool so it was a great experience nonetheless.

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Octopus under a rock.

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Eel.

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Octopus hiding.

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Eel.

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Sunset over the Marina.

To the Chouf

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Slowly but surely, I’m crossing things off my “Lebanon Bucket List.” Last week I took a day off work to venture down to the Chouf Cedar Reserve. The Chouf is Lebanon’s biggest nature reserve, stretching down the length of the Barouk mountain below the Bekaa Valley. Lebanon used to be covered in cedar trees, now thanks to the destruction brought about by war, human development, pollution, and general carelessness about the state of the environment, what remains of the Cedars is a measly quarter of what they used to be. What’s left though, is still pretty awesome, so I hope the Lebanese really take more care to preserving it.

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Times like these are when I really wish Lebanon had a better public transportation system because getting to the Chouf could definitely be easier. It was easy enough taking a bus from Cola to Beitedinne for 3000, but that was about as far as it went. At that point we had to find a cab and negotiate with the driver to take us all the way past the entrance to the trails and then wait for a couple hours while we explore before driving us back to the bus stop. I was with an Arabic speaker so I thought everything would be taken care of when suddenly the cab driver turns to me as says “portugues?” Um…what? I guess that works too. Turns out this guy lived in Brazil for 30+ years, so we hit it off and I ended up doing all the negotiating with him since he spoke Portuguese and Arabic. Turns out, I’m not nearly as bad at Portuguese as I thought. I was able to hold my own throughout the entire conversation pretty well. Well enough that he actually invited us over to his house to meet his wife afterwards, before driving us back to the bus station.

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Anyways, we finally got to the Chouf and spent a good couple hours walking around, throughout the trees and on some paths with beautiful views of the valley and mountains. According to our cab driver, some of the trees are over 2,000 years old, and those ones are definitely the most epic. It was really nice getting out of the city and getting some clean, fresh air for the morning. We didn’t stay too late though, as we had stuff to do back in Beirut later in the afternoon so once we headed back down to the cab so our driver could take us to coffee before boarding the bus again for the 1 hour ride back to the city. It was actually quite perfect for a half-day trip, really relaxed and without the huge commitment and extra effort that comes from full-day or weekend trips. Though the contrast between the city and the country was even more striking coming back in the middle of the day, with the heavy, oppressive air weighing down on the streets of Beirut. I’m really glad I finally had the chance to make it out there, it was worth it.

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Sufism Electro

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Last night was night five of the Beirut Spring Festival! The Festival started in 2009 by the Samir Kassir Foundation, inspired by Kassir himself, as one of the things he believed in was promoting tolerance and diversity through the arts and getting the public involved with free events. The week was made up of a lot of dancing, singing, and performances portraying a wide range of styles and messages as well as a lecture about the Arab Spring and films about life that speak to people across cultures.

Unfortunately I missed a lot of the events because I found out about them too late, but I managed to get myself up to speed in time for last night’s performance by Mercan Dede and the Secret Tribe. This group from Turkey fuses together Sufi and electro music, along with a whirling dervish, to create a captivating and unique show. Dede believes in the power of creating a universal language that speaks to everyone by blending natural sounds with the electronic. So while he hangs out with his DJ set, occasionally chiming In with a wooden flute, the Secret Tribe, made up of 4 members, play the kanun, clarinet, darbuka (drum), and a variety of other instruments.

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I really loved the mix of the two, the organic and the electronic. The blending of new and old is definitely my favorite way of listening to traditional music. The performance itself was high energy and melodic, though it slowed down significantly when the dervish came on stage, but that’s just the nature of the whirling dervish dance music. It lasted for the perfect amount of time, too. By the time I was ready to leave they had just finished up their set. Based on the people I saw in the crowd, Dede is doing a really good job at accomplishing his goal of a universal language of music that speaks to everyone because I saw so many different type of people in the crowd, from ages to heritage to culture, everyone was represented.

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I’m sure it also didn’t hurt that Samir Kassir Square has to be one of the coolest places in Beirut to host a lovely outdoor concert and the whirling dervish had a light up skirt. I wish I could find more stuff like this in Boston.

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The Lowest Point in My Life

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I’ve hit salt bottom.

And it was awesome.

After a fun night in Amman where a friend of Alexis from school, Nina, and her boyfriend, Anas, brought us around the town to a cool outdoor hookah lounge where I tried a mysterious, but delicious, red juice and saw The Avengers, we hopped in a cab with a couple guys from our hostel to go to the Dead Sea.

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As we all know, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth at 1,400 feet below sea level, bordering Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank, and it’s insanely salty, which means you can float in the water without even trying. It also means it’s too salty for any animal life to possibly survive in the waters, hence the name.

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We went down to the Dead Sea Spa, recommended to me by the owner of the hotel we stayed at in Wadi Musa, since he owns this one too. Besides going to a public beach, which I was not crazy about because of the modestly issue, the Dead Sea Spa is one of the cheapest options in a coast covered in expensive resort beaches. The Dead Sea Spa was beautiful, with 4 pools, 3 different main areas for lounging and tanning (including one right on the beach), and a nice chunk of Dead Sea beach. We got settled and went into the water. I had been super careful the past week, as I usually end up with a random assortment of cuts and scrapes at any given time from just falling around and walking into things. So besides the scab on my knee from the car I was free to enjoy myself in the water without any stinging or pain from the salt.

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The Dead Sea.

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It was so fun! I don’t know why, but I expected the water to feel somehow thicker because of the density. It was just regular water though and floating on it was so weird. Then it was time to move on to the famous Dead Sea mud. Instead of taking mud from the “Free Mud Box” the spa had set up near the shoreline, we went on a hunt along the floor of the sea to find the silkiest, smoothest mud we could use to slather ourselves with. What we originally thought were rocks getting in the way of our mud were actually huge chunks of salt mixed in with the mud. After a while though, the mud dried all over me and it got really hot so I hate to wash it off. My skin was amazingly soft after the mud came off, so nice and exfoliated from the salt too.

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Floatin’

For the rest of the day we relaxed by the pools and played in the waterslides for a while before random guys around the pool were creepy enough that I just went to hang out at the other end of the pool area. Late in the afternoon Nina and Anas drove out to the Dead Sea to pick us up and drive us to the airport, stopping on the way for a surprise impromptu camel ride! Anas had heard that neither I nor Alexis had ever ridden on a camel so he brought us out here as a surprise. Really, these two were the most welcoming and generous hosts to Jordan, it was great to be able to hang out with them while we were in Amman.

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Our lovely hosts.

The Adventures of Sheep in the Rose-Red City

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After an early morning flight to Amman Thursday morning and an unexpectedly long and tiring combination of buses, cabs, and shuttles, I finally arrived to the small town of Wadi Musa in the Wadi Arabia valley of Jordan. Wadi Musa is a town run pretty much exclusively on tourism to the ancient, but uninhabited by anyone but Bedouins, city of Petra. I was traveling with Alexis, when we found a great deal for a hotel + food + Turkish bath package in Wadi Musa we found the motivation to make it out to Petra during our time in Lebanon and I am so glad we did. The first night we checked in the hotel owner took us on a short tour of Wadi Musa (there isn’t much to see), drove us over to Little Petra, and brought us to the sunset point overlooking the city before returning us to the hotel to an absolutely delicious, traditional Jordanian dinner.

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Our hotel room’s view of Wadi Musa.

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The entrance to Little Petra.

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A Bedouin woman making tea.

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The view of Wadi Musa from sunset point.

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If I remember right, it says “Welcome to Wadi Musa.”

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Right after dinner was the Petra by Night tour, an extra expense that was completely worth it. Our first time entering Petra was epic, after dark, walking through the Siq on a path lit by candlelight until reaching the Treasury, breathtakingly mysterious in its candlelit glory. We walked fast to get ahead of the crowd and were one of the first ones to reach the Treasury and I don’t know how, but one of the ushers chose us to get the best seats in the house. We had to wait on the edges of the normal seating area until the show started, but once it did this guy came and found us, brought us to the back of the area and helped us climb on top of a rock formation where we had the best view of the entire spectacle ahead of us. It wasn’t front row, which is what we were originally aiming for, but it was better the same way that sitting higher up in a movie theater is better than the first row. The show consisted of Bedouin musician playing a traditional rebab and a flute before some storytelling. It was a little on the boring side, I expected more, but the atmosphere of the place was magical. I’m glad we did the tour before actually visiting Petra and seeing it in daylight, it was like a tease that served to build up the anticipation for the full feature.

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Petra by night.

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The Treasury lit by candlelight.

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Great view from our rock.

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Group flash lights it up.

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Kitty kitty

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The next morning, we woke up stupidly early (6:15am, blergh) to get a yummy, fresh breakfast before making our way down to the entrance of Petra for our first real sight of the place. It was 100% worth it. We spent 7 hours walking around Petra, slowly making our way through the enchanting Siq for our first view of the Treasury in all it’s lit-up glory, climbing around old tombs and rocks, getting lost on mountains, exhausting ourselves, and generally being dumbstruck but how awesome it all is. We climbed hundreds of steps in the hot afternoon sun to see stunning views of the Siq and Treasury from above along with the imposing Monastery and amazing views of Petra and Wadi Arabia, reaching out all the way to Palestine. I’ll let the pictures do the talking:

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The Siq.

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Almost there!

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The Treasury, in all its glory.

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Fancy camels.

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This is why its called the Rose-Red City.

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Street of Facades.

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Needless to say, climbing two mountains and being on my feet the day after I got hit by a car made me a bit more than sore and tired. We were both cranky and tired by the time we reached the entrance and managed to avoid taxis wanting to rip us off by haggling a van ride by a guy from another hostel to drop us off at our hotel. He was so nice he didn’t even let us pay him. I didn’t think I would be able to walk for days at this point. All was not for nothing though! A Turkish bath came included with our hotel so after vegetating in our rooms for half an hour we slowly hobbled our way across the street to the most rejuvenating, perfect thing that could have happened to me at that point. Sitting in a hot steam room and rotating between the hot steam, a hot marble bed, alternating cold rinses, massages and scrubs for the next two hours made me feel like a new person. Seriously, I can’t even imagine what sort of shape I would have been in the next day if it wasn’t for that Turkish bath.

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The natural textures and patterns of the stone are stunningly beautiful.

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Palace Tomb.

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Epic Mountain #1. The climb was tough but this view made it worth it.

I think the most disappointing thing about Petra was the loss of the true Bedouin culture, turning this amazing historical relic of past civilizations into purely a money-making scheme. Every step you take on the main road, you are bombarded by “Bedoiuns” selling donkey/camel/horse rides, for a small fee and tip, of course. Though they won’t tell you about the additional tip until you take advantage of their service. And they will keep asking you over, and over, and over again no matter how many times you say no. The two long climbs to the top of the mountains were the best parts of seeing Petra because of the lack of constant harassment. It finally gave me the chance to stop and marvel at the beauty I was surrounded by and the land I was standing on instead of being bombarded with money-hungry “Bedoiuns.” Stores all around Petra and Wadi Musa were covered with references to Indiana Jones, since one of the movies was partially filmed there.

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This mule did not look very happy.

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The Colonnaded Street.

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Lion Triclinium. On the way up to the Monastery.

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Epic Mountain #2. The Monastery. Again, totally worth it.

While finally leaving Petra, we were bombarded with “Bedouins” trying to get us to take a “free” horse ride back, included in the price of the ticket. I already knew the ride wasn’t actually free and a tip would be demanded at the end, so when the same guy kept on trying to get me to take the horse ride despite me saying no every time he asked I finally told him to stop asking me. In return, he screams at me that this was “his business!” and why am I there if I don’t want to feed his business? Hmm, maybe I came for the “rose-red city have as old as time,” the ancient capital of the Nabataeans that controlled commercial trade routes of the area, cut directly and artistically from the stone mountains, an artificial oasis in the desert made from an excellent and advanced water conduit system. Wait that’s stupid, obviously I just traveled to another country to waste all my money pay fake Bedouins to ride their mistreated animals and deal with their sleazy attitudes. My bad.

And that’s on top of the now $80+ entry ticket to the site itself. Thanks to the New7Wonders contest, which ended up costing participating countries a small fortune, the entry price to Petra jumped from around $20 to four times that much practically overnight. Whereas I sucked it up and paid the 55JD fee for the 2-day pass into Petra, there was no way in hell I was throwing away all my money on these losers. Their behavior was pathetic, I can’t see any real Bedouin being happy about how these guys make their population look.

Despite bed experiences dealing with these “Bedouins,” I still had an amazing time in Petra and Wadi Musa thanks to the sheer beauty of Petra itself and the amazing hospitality of our hosts.

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View of Wadi Arabia.

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Sheep at the Monastery.

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Sheep at the Treasury on the way out.

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Proof of a long day in the desert.