Fretwell's Travel Journal: Chapter 8 -- Petra to Rome.

April 18th -- We arrived in Al 'Aqabah (hereafter Aqaba) at 6 am, and were in our bus by 7 am for the 9 hour tour to Petra. Aqaba is a designated free-port city, and exports considerable phosphate. The city is quite similar in architecture to what we saw in Oman, only not so nicely maintained.

Jordan is a country of interesting antiquity, being the land so often mentioned in the Bible as home, at differing times, of the Canaanites, the Edomites, the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Israelites, and the Amalakites. During these past times, Jordan's climate was more hospitable to agriculture. It is now semi-arid, supporting irrigated agriculture near river wadis and dry-land farming at higher elevations. Near Aqaba the mountains are very rugged and jagged, like in Muscat, Oman, and almost certainly for the same reason -- plate tectonics, where two of Earth's plates are crashing together. Further inland, on the road to Petra, the mountains transition into high rolling hills and high plateau with deeply incised canyons.

The highlands support dry-land agriculture, but not anything to cause a farmer's heart to flutter. It is stony ground, and the crop yields are only fair. They grow wheat and barley, but it appears to be mostly subsistence farming. Nonetheless, when compared to Oman's arid climate (4 inches of rainfall per year), Jordan is relatively blessed with more rainfall, putting it into the semi-arid category (6 to 15 inches of rainfall per year). It is a dry Mediterranean climate, with relatively cooler summers (86 degrees) and cooler winters (55 degrees).

Much of Jordan won't support fixed agriculture, but does support sufficient native vegetation to support nomadic tribes moving about grazing their camels, sheep, goats, donkeys, and horses; and the nomadic Bedouins still live their traditional lifestyle here -- albeit with several modern conveniences, like pickup trucks to transport their tents.

We saw many Bedouin encampments. Their outer tent fabrics are traditionally made from the hair of donkeys and dark haired cattle. I was surprised that they seek out the dark colors to enhance heat absorption. I had thought that cooling would be the big concern, but no, it is heating that they seek to enhance. We saw, however, the dark tents in the highlands, and more modern white canvas tents in the lowlands, so tent coloration may always have been determined by what elevation they frequented.

Jordan is a constitutional monarchy, but the King has much control over the legislative and judicial processes, and can and has, at will, suspended constitutionally enacted law. The current king (since 1999) seems to be modernizing Jordan more than his father, and the country enjoys a fair standard of living for many. He has good relations with the United States and has reaffirmed Jordan's peace treaty with Israel. Jordan enjoys a high degree of freedom from street crime, being one of the safest countries to live in. Governmental corruption, however, seems to be a difficult matter to control. The King has repeatedly declared war on corruption, but it seems to be a many-headed hydra.

Jordan's legal system is highly influenced by Sharia Law, because 97 percent of the population are Muslim, but it also has elements of the Napoleonic system, and elements of tribal tradition. Although Jordan's Constitution declares judicial independence, by stating that judges are "subject to no authority but that of the law," their attainment of this ideal is about as good as our attainment of "equal justice for all." Both are still worthy goals. Those who knowingly say, "Why bother? We know it isn't true, never has been, and never will be.", thereby acquiesce not only it never becoming true, but, more importantly, to it automatically getting worse.

Petra was interesting. I am still partial to the study of countries more than to the study of ancient artifacts, but even so, Petra has its charm. It used to be called the "eighth wonder of the world", but now is called seventh of the New Wonders of the World. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Jordanian government enjoys considerable profit from it, as it is Jordan's major tourist attraction, and admission is about $75 US per person.

From a high sandstone plateau one travels down into narrow gorge cut by water, in a time when water was far more abundant in Jordan. Start at plateau surface, the gorge is cut almost vertically into the sandstone, deepening at a fairly steep gradient for about two kilometers, where it opens out into a wide area, the ancient town of Petra. In this two kilometer distance, the gorge has cut down about 260 feet into the sandstone, yet remains as narrow as 10 feet, and probably averages about 15 feet wide.

At the bottom of this gorge, named the As-Sig, the sandstone walls spread out, and one exits the gorge facing the famous Al-Khazneh (Treasury) building, cut deep into the solid, rose-colored sandstone. The inside of the Treasury building is no longer open to the public, but diagrams nearby show that it is not a mere façade, but is an actual building hued into the solid rock. The building extends into several rooms, perhaps as far as 150 or 200 feet deep into the sandstone.

The dirt, gravel, and cobblestone trail through the gorge to Petra is fairly easy to walk going down, but it can be a chore coming out, because of the steep gradient. One has a choice of walking, or hiring a horse-drawn carriage. It is either-or: you walk both ways, or you ride both ways. You can't walk in and ride out. I elected to ride, saving my walking energy for Petra itself, which is fairly extensive, continuing down the Wadi Musa (Valley of Moses) for another three kilometers or so. The fare was $30 for a round trip carriage ride -- for the whole carriage, which carries two adults plus the driver.

Ardie didn't go on this tour, because of concern over the long hours of the tour, its "strenuous" rating, and the predicted temperature of 97 degrees. As it turned out, it wasn't strenuous if one took the carriage, and the temperature probably never exceeded 82 degrees. It was a great day. I shared my carriage ride with an Englishman, age 83, who was a great conversationalist, but I missed much of what he said because I have a 35-percent hearing loss in my right ear (wife's side) and he was on my right.

We spent about 2 1/2 hours in Petra itself, which was enough for all the photographs one could possibly need, but not enough to climb up to every tomb, explore every overlook, and the like. It was sufficient for me, but if one is really into ancient sites, a two day visit would be essential. I estimate I got past the amphitheater and about half way to the Ad-Deir Monistary, the furthest building from the Visitors Center, and saw possibly 80 percent of the buildings. That was more than sufficient for me. I took a few pictures today; a mere 185 pictures kept after culling out the bad ones.

Our visit to Petra was on a Friday, which is the day off for many workers and students, and there were thousands of visitors to Petra, probably half of them native Jordanians and the rest us tourists. I think I enjoyed watching the people, the camel jockeys, the donkey jockeys, and the carriage drivers almost as much as the sights of Petra.

Petra was founded about 300 BC, by the Nabataens, as their capital city and the center of their caravan trade. Not only is the city a marvel, but their water reservoirs and aqueducts to supply the city with year around water are also engineering marvels. The eventual abandonment of Petra, completely by 663 AD, was partly caused by Roman occupation and subsequent Arab conquer of the area, partly by replacement of caravan routes by sea trade, and probably by climate change as well. The evidence is that the area received greater rainfall in the past, and the old reservoir and aqueduct system could not possibly support such a city now.

April 19th -- Today was a welcome and uneventful sea day, spent cropping photos, organizing them, and catching up on sleep. We went to bed early, because we were supposed to enter the Suez Canal tomorrow at 7 am. The Captain warned us that this was "Egyptian time," where hours shorten or lengthen at will.

April 20th -- At 4 am we were awakened by sounds of the anchor being dropped outside the southern entry to the Suez Canal. Shortly thereafter we heard it being raised again. We were too sleepy to dress and run out on deck to observe entry into the Canal, but we were awake enough to know that "Egyptian time" had taken over and we were entering the Canal almost 3 hours ahead of schedule. I was disappointed that we missed the locking through; until we learned later that the Suez Canal has no locks at all. So no big deal.

The Suez Canal transit is 11 hours, going North, and a bit longer going South, because there are three "bypasses" or sidings where southbound convoys must wait for northbound convoys to pass. Northbound traffic always has the right of way. The Canal is one way traffic throughout, and ships travel together as convoys at more-or-less regularly scheduled times (Egyptian time) so that the bypasses can be effectively used. Transit speed is limited to eight knots (about 9 mph) to limit bank erosion.

There are few bridges crossing the Canal. If I counted correctly, there are three; two of them highways, and one of them railroad. The railroad bridge is two rotating halves so that the bridge can be rotated open until a train comes. There are many ferries crossing the Canal at various points, and they look to be well used. The ferry crossing is very short, and the ferries scuttle between convoying ships, which look to be spaced about 1/2 mile apart.

Despite the three bridges and many ferry crossings, the Egyptian government is building a host of pontoon bridges on the west bank of the canal, stored on the canal banks until needed. Which raises the question, "Needed for what?" One of our ship's passengers remarked to me that it looks like Egypt is preparing for war.

He thinks the pontoon bridges are being built to allow Egyptian tanks to quickly get cross the Suez Canal and into the Sinai Dessert. I came back to our stateroom and looked at a map, and decided that if they are, they're flaming idiots. Once they get on the east bank, they'd have a 100 kilometer run across the Sinai Desert to get to Israel. Israel's air force would turn all those Egyptian tanks into "toasters" before they made 20 kilometers.

An alternative explanation might be that any good military general would want ready access to all parts of the country he is defending, and that their quick access to the Sinai has been decidedly limited since construction of the Suez Canal. Perhaps the pontoon bridges serve no other purpose than to enhance Egypt's defenses?

All I can be said for sure is that Egypt is indeed building many, many pontoon bridges on the west bank of the Suez Canal. I'd wildly guess that they are building pontoon bridges on slanted launch platforms about every two miles or so.

For me, the neatest part of the whole transit was to contrast the arid Sinai Desert on the east side with the fertile irrigated agriculture on the west side. The Suez Canal parallels the Nile River, and irrigated agriculture predominates most of the land between the Nile and the Canal. (The Canal actually receives some irrigation drainage water.) Of course I knew, from grade school geography, the important role of the Nile in irrigating Egypt. But there is nothing like actually seeing for oneself! The demarcation is abrupt. The Suez Canal limits the extent of irrigated agriculture eastward, and the east shore is true desert.

I found a great spot to watch the transit from, on the foredeck of deck 6. It is normally closed off, but was opened to passengers for the Suez transit. Watching the countryside panorama roll by at eight knots from a 6-story vantage point was great.

The Egyptian soldiers stationed about every kilometer along the Canal always waved to the passengers as we passed by. Ardie asked me why so many guards. I responded that the last thing the Egyptian government wants is for some terrorist to plant a mine in the Canal and blow up a ship in it. This would greatly interrupt the flow of commerce for many countries, and would create huge expense for the Egyptians.

Trees along the west bank of the Canal are all bent southward, indicating a strong prevailing wind from the North, and today was no exception. We had headwinds of 15 knots all the way through the Canal and into the Mediterranean beyond.

Once we exited the Canal at Port Said, we had to stay inside narrow channel markers for about five miles into the Med. Shoaling was visually apparent on either side of the channel markers, so straying would be a major mistake. The wind remained strong from the North for about 5 hours, and then abated as we got further to sea.

The greatest threat to the Suez Canal is not terrorist bombings of ships. It is global warming. Already there are several ships each year that take the Northern Sea Route, opened up by melting Arctic icepack each summer. Canadian icebreakers are available to help them if drifting icepacks create difficulties. If more icepack melting occurs, this route will become the major trade route, shaving thousands of miles off the Suez Canal route. The Suez will always remain important, but it could lose a great deal of shipping in future decades.

April 21st -- We are deep into the Mediterranean Sea now, temperatures are cooler (65 degrees), and all piracy concerns are behind us. We have had remarkably calm waters throughout our voyage. Yesterdays steady north winds produced four foot seas, the greatest we have experienced. Even that subsided quickly. Most days we have almost pond-like conditions. Considering the many seas we have been across, and the thousands of miles traversed, it has been an amazingly calm voyage. And we are not complaining.

Today is a sea day. Tomorrow we reach Piraeus, Greece. For today, I have been catching up on photo cataloging and Journal writing. April 22, 23, 24 -- Wow, am I behind on my Journal. I'm writing about the 22nd on the 27th. Both Ardie and I got food poisoning or a virus, and we were just butt-dragging exhausted for 3 full days. No tours, just hardly enough energy to get dressed. But it has passed, and we're doing better. Ardie is still tired, but I have fully rebounded.

In Taormina, Sicily I did go outside on deck 3 and take photos of the port, the city, and of 10,924 ft. Mt. Etna which forms the backdrop for the city. Taormina has a dry Mediterranean climate, and looks a lot like the hills of California near the Bay. Very scenic.

April 25th -- Today we visited Naples and Sorrento. Both are very interesting.

Mt. Vesuvius towers behind Naples, a mere 5.6 miles away, and Naples is built on the ejecta from Vesuvius. Vesuvius is considered the most dangerous volcano in the world, not because of its capabilities so much -- although they are not to be lightly dismissed -- but because of the proximity of four million people living on its slopes, its very active nature, and its explosive eruptions. I was surprised to see development so far up the flank of the mountain. I was also surprised to learn that one can drive to within 600 ft. of the summit and walk the short distance to the crater rim. Vesuvius is not a tall volcano, standing only 4,200 feet, but this squat little volcano has produced ejecta at the rate of 1.5 million tons per second, with thermal energy output 100,000 times that of the Hiroshima bomb.

The government has told the people of Naples that they can give them a 1-week warning before any eruption. What a gross oversimplification! Indeed, the seismologists can and will detect precursor tremors; it is well known that volcanoes always give seismic warnings. What isn't well understood by the general public is that they often give warnings for months prior to eruptions, and just as often give warnings and then go quiescent. So, seismologists get a swarm of near surface tremors, and issue a high-level warning -- but they cannot say when the volcano will go off. Does a city of 4 million residents evacuate and all work in that city grind to a halt? Or do most residents wait for a clearer warning, like the beginnings of an actual eruption? The latter is always most often happens. It is a very dangerous game of roulette with volcanoes know for explosive (Plinian) eruptions. Another Pompeii could be in the making, and it could make the 16,000 lives lost in Pompeii and Herculaneum seem miniscule in comparison.

On the brighter side, the freshly generated volcanic soils on the slopes of Vesuvius are very fertile and support some of the finest vineyards of Italy. The climate is a damper Mediterranean climate, with lush green vegetation, and the countryside is gorgeous. Many generations of residents live their lifetimes in this beautiful setting without experiencing a serious eruption.

I elected to take a bus tour to Sorrento today, to see the Italian countryside in more detail, and because Sorrento is such a well-loved tourist destination. I was not disappointed. The countryside is spectacular and so is Sorrento. Sorrento lies on high bluffs over the Terranean Sea, and is favored by tourists, artisans, and retirees. One of the crafts developed here in Sorrento, or at least that is what they claim, is the art of wood inlay. The company, A. Gargiulo & Jannuzzi, has an inlay factory here, established in 1852. We got to see their products, fancy inlaid tables selling for €30,000, inlaid music boxes, inlaid coffee tables, and the like. Definitely world-class stuff, designed for the rich and famous. I think this part of the tour was the highlight for me. The work is handcrafted perfection.

Another craft we saw was the making of cameo jewelry. I always liked cameos, but didn't understand that they are made from pieces of seashell. A piece of appropriately colored shell, something about one-eighth inch thick, from abalone or other large shell is selected, and cut to rough size. The jeweler then uses tiny chisels to form the colored base, and leaves the white "core" of the shell for cameo figure, whatever it may be. Then, the jeweler painstakingly hand carves the figure.

After the carving is completed, a silver or gold frame is made, and the cameo is priced and set out for sale. They are not cheap! But they are works of painstaking artistry. One lady in our tour remarked that she had several cameos from her Grandmother, and had not understood their making, nor their value. She said she's going home and get them appraised and insured.

April 26th -- Today we arrived at Civitavecchia, about 75 minutes away from Rome. I had booked a 9-hour tour of Rome, which turned into a 12 1/2 hour tour. More on that later.

In all our travels, I have said that Bangkok, Thailand is the place I most want to return to. Well, now I have to change my plans. Rome just beat out Bangkok for me. The Etruscan and Roman Empire history are fascinating, and the countryside and City are beautiful.

Our tour started in Civitavecchia, and we traveled by bus to Rome, passing through some of the most beautiful farmland one can hope to see. It has rich volcanic soils, and a spectacular climate. I was reminded of the fields of Clark County, Washington, both for growing crops being grown, and for the climate and wild vegetation surrounding the farmland. After about 75 minutes of travel along mostly very fast toll-ways, we reached Rome, a city of about five million population. And what a city it is! A mixture of modern and truly ancient. Rome gives up nothing to other major European cities, but also has the 2,000 to 2,700 year old Roman Empire ruins interspersed, and Vatican City. The ancient Etruscan populace is said to have been far more advanced than the Romans when the Romans conquered them. The history of the Etruscans and the Romans are something I will learn more about.

Technically Vatican City is its own separate City-State (pop. ~880), but it lies in the heart of Rome, and most everybody (except, perhaps, the Vatican residents) thinks of it as part of the City of Rome. The Vatican has its own police force, and the Swiss Guard; but I also saw City of Rome Police within its boundaries. The Vatican is the smallest country in the World (in size and in population) and has the largest cathedral in the world.

Our tour inside Rome started with Vatican City, which turned out to be quite a marathon for us. The Vatican is setting up for the canonization of two new saints on Saturday (former Popes John and John Paul), and is abuzz with news media, clergy, and the faithful. The crowds were horrendous. What is normally a short wait in line followed by a tour through the Basilica Di San Pietro (Basilica of St. Peter) turned into a 4-hour stand-in-line, and a 15 minute rush through the Basilica. It is a spectacular cathedral, and I took about 70 pictures inside and outside.

I have to admit that I'm no longer a cathedral fan, after having visited at least 50 of them in the US, Canada, and Mexico. (My favorite is the Lost Cathedral in Batopillas, Mexico, at the bottom of the Copper Canyon -- but that is a different story.) We thought we'd be in Vatican City for about 2 hours. We were there for 5 hours! This set us back a full 3 hours in our tour.

The Piazza outside the Basilica is very nice, and is where we queued up for the long line to enter the Basilica. We were thankful for the shade, and enjoyed the tall travertine columns. We were also appreciative for the dozens and dozens of Sani-Cans nestled just outside the columns, so the tourists and the faithful could take a potty break during their long wait in line -- provided they could get their neighbor to hold their spot in line for them. The Sani-Cans detract from the esthetics of the Piazza, but I'm glad the Church deemed our body comfort more important than the esthetics.

Standing in line for 4 hours, eight abreast, to see something you really don't care whether you see or not is a situation fairly begging for some sort of comic relief, and we got it. Many visitors, particularly the faithful, truly wanted to get inside the Basilica, as part of their pilgrimage, and they had not planned on a 4-hour wait in line. Desperate to get in, many of them resorted to cutting into the line wherever they thought they could get away with it. This was relatively easy, because the crowd was massive, and the line encircled the entire Piazza, so those within or without the circle had to push through the line to get to where they wanted to go. Once a break in the line formed, up to 50 or 100 people would pass through the line. Invariably there would be one, two, three, or up to 25 line cutters who "stuck" in the line, and didn't pass through.

Well, after standing in line for over an hour, you knew who was in front and in back of you. After a line break occurred and the line had closed ranks again, we'd inspect the crowd in the line, identify the sneakers, and shame them out. Only some could not be shamed. They'd swear to us that they were always there. But, of course, we knew something they didn't; we were in a tour group, and all our group, and the groups before us and after us, were wearing VOX earphones to hear their tour guides. The sneakers didn't have any!

Despite us pointing this fact out, some still stuck. Mostly, if they couldn't be shamed back out of line, they were allowed to stay, but they had to endure grumbling and snide remarks from time to time, because the line cutting was so rampant we estimated our wait time was extended from 3 hours to 4 hours by the line cutters. I'm amazed the Vatican police haven't figured out how to efficiently channel the lines inside portable barriers that would prevent the line cutting. But they haven't.

I found it very amusing. What else was there to do but be amused? But one fellow was not only a line cutter, he was arrogant to our tour guide who asked him to not cut into our group, and acted like whatever HE wanted to do was RIGHT. You know the type, haughty, self righteous, arrogant, condescending. He was the only one who truly annoyed me, and for entertainment I took it upon myself to embarrass him.

I announced to the fellow beside me, loud enough for the line cutter to hear, that I thought I'd take his picture and post it with my travel journal, as one of the line-cutting creeps at the Vatican. I raised my camera, and he turned away! He didn't want his picture taken. I knew then that I had him. I lowered my camera, and looked away. Gradually he turned back towards the line. I again raised my camera, and he turned his back again. We kept this up about five times, and people in the line behind me were starting to laugh.

He thereupon took out a green-cased tablet with a built-in camera and held it in front of his face, both hiding his face and taking my picture. I then spoke to him and said, "You're welcome to have my picture, because my conscience is clear. But I will get your picture, given time." With that, he broke rank and left the line -- amidst cheers from the line. I actually felt sorry for him; but not a whole lot, because of his arrogance to our guide. I do have pictures of him -- three of him hiding behind his green tablet case, and one of his face. I won't include them with my Journal; but whenever I review my pics from Vatican City, these will bring a broad smile to my face.

After touring the Vatican, we visited the ruins of the ancient Roman Coloseum (Coliseum). More properly called the Flavian Amphitheater, it was constructed between 70 and 80 AD by the Emperors Vespasian and Titus to keep the Roman citizens entertained, and thus happy. It was largely funded by the spoils from the Jewish Temple following the Siege of Jerusalem. It seated up to 80,000. The gladiator fights, fights with animals, fights between animals, executions, shows, and re-enactments of battles were great diversions for the citizens away from thinking about the deeds of their Emperors. Today we think of the events there as savage, but it was normal fare for them.

The engineering of the coliseum is mind bending. Built of stone blocks, bricks and concrete, it should have withstood the several earthquakes that have damaged it, due to its Lego-type construction. Stones blocks were not just set one upon the other. They were set with iron pins between them, joining them solidly against lateral movement. But, after the fall of Rome, metal was in short supply and high demand, and scavengers chiseled away the corners of the stones to remove the iron pins, thereby greatly lessening the building's resistance to earthquakes, and also giving the structure it regular pockmarked appearance today.

We did a "drive-by" tour of the Roman Bathhouses, the Roman Circus Maximus, the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II (his mustache is five feet across; his horse can hold twenty men inside), Rome's City Hall, and several other places I can't recall. It was too, too much for one day. But I want to return and do Rome justice. Two weeks sounds about right. We arrived back at the ship at 8:40 pm. Departure time was supposed to be 6:00 pm, but the ship waited for the three buses that had visited the Vatican. It was a thrilling day, but don't ever, ever, ever try to see all of Rome in a day!

-- Marvin O. Fretwell, 4/27/2014

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