On April 25, 2013 Grandma and I began our grand adventure to the Holy Land! We had been looking forward to this day for so long that it seemed unreal when the day to leave actually arrived. We were so EXCITED!!
The Middle East (specifically Egypt, Israel and Jordan) is not a part of the world we felt comfortable navigating ourselves so we signed up to travel with a tour group called Fun For Less. One of our main reasons to travel with them, besides their good reputation, was that Susan Easton Black would be the Guest Educator on the trip with us. She is a well known, dynamic professor at BYU who has the rare quality of being both brilliant and entertaining. I took her class at BYU and absolutely loved it. Grandma has read her books and seen her devotionals and was equally impressed. So naturally, when we knew she would be leading this tour we wanted to be apart of her group. Last year we had looked into going on the tour she led but before we could finalize everything the tour sold out. Luckily this year everything worked out perfectly. She was so wonderful, as was her husband George Durrant. In addition to them, we had two guides from Fun For Less, Jay and Leanna, who took care of all of the details and kept everything in the group running smoothly. We also had additional local guides in each country we went visited. There were about 95 people in our group, so keeping us all organized was no small task.
Grandpa drove us to the airport early in the morning and we flew from Bakersfield to Denver, where we had a 5 hour layover (3 hours expected + 2 additional hours for engine maintenance). We eventually made it to Chicago and enjoyed staying in the Hilton right by the airport (found a great deal on Expedia). This was extremely convenient since we would be flying out again the next day. Since airline travel can be so unpredictable we wanted to arrive a day before our international flight so we wouldn't have to worry about missing our big flight if there were any delays. Plus, it was nice to break up the travel into two days and it gave us time to see a bit of Chicago.
After a great nights sleep we were ready to spend the day seeing Chicago before our flight that night. Despite the bad weather Chicago had recently been having we lucked out and had clear skies and sun (although it was still chilly). We figured out the subway system and enjoyed walking around downtown looking at the skyscrapers and historic sites. We grabbed lunch at Panera and Grandma ordered the best vegetable pesto soup.
We popped into a giant Macy's just for fun. It was nice (look at that ceiling!), but the big Macy's in New York is the one we were really wanting to see.
The highlight of Chicago for me was being able to see The Bean!! I've been wanting to see it for ages and although it's smaller than I expected, it totally lived up to all of the hype. It's official name is Cloud Gate and looks like a giant mercury drop.
The reflection of the city - so cool.
Can you find Grandma and I?
We saw someone get engaged in front of the bean. I see someone getting engaged or married everywhere I go it seems.
We walked down to a Harbor off of Lake Michigan afterwards and enjoyed the pretty scenery for a short while before heading back to the airport.
Towards the end of the afternoon we headed back to our hotel, grabbed our bags and then went to the airport to board our flight! I'm glad we got to the airport with plenty of time because checking our bags took forever since they were training new people (I was afraid they would check our bags to the wrong destination, but they all made it just fine). During the wait a Jordanian man traveling with his wife struck up a conversation with Grandma and even before leaving the US she got a taste of the culture that awaited us. She told me that he was very nice, but that he was absolutely shocked that Grandma was traveling without her husband - as if that were almost scandalous. She assured him that they were happily married and he was so glad that she could be on this trip, but even still I don't think the Jordanian man every fully understood why she would travel without her husband.
We boarded our red-eye flight for a 12 hour journey to Amman, Jordan on Royal Jordanian airlines. Grandma has never flown overseas before and she told me ahead of time that she might be nervous during takeoff, but that wasn't the case at all - she was a total pro and the flight was a piece of cake for her from start to finish. We had pretty good food on the way over and lots of shows to choose from on our personal TV to keep us entertained when we weren't visiting or sleeping. Speaking of sleeping, I was amazed at the seemingly uncomfortable positions Grandma could sleep in on the flight - I would have had a backache for days if I slept in the positions she did, but she was perfectly okay. Our only complaints on the flight were the slightly small seats and the excessive AC. It was so cold on our plane, but Grandma was prepared and had brought her own blanket in addition to the free ones the airline provided.
I love tracking the flight status on the plane as I travel overseas and watching information change, such as the altitude, time and distance to destination, outside temperature etc. The airport/airline employees announce everything in Arabic first, English second, but we joked that it doesn't matter because you can't understand them either time haha. Before takeoff there was a prayer said in Arabic over the loudspeaker which I recognized from my time in Bahrain. Certainly not something we're not used to hearing. I love those differences in culture, they're so fascinating.
The models RJ used on their intro screen were both attractive people, especially the woman, but I found it interesting that they both had slight double chins (it's hard to tell from this shot). Any form of a double chin in the US is definitely something that is avoided at all costs, especially in advertising, but to Jordanians it didn't seem to matter.
When we arrived in Jordan it was dusk and I looked out the large airport windows and said, "This could be Bakersfield" and Grandma responded, "Or Arvin." haha. We traveled so far and yet the scenery hadn't changed too much from home. Of course, that would all change when we eventually left the airport, but in the meantime we had to go through security a second time (even though we never left the airport) and meet up with our group during our layover.
Despite being tired and a bit frazzled it was nice meeting some of the people we'd be spending the following weeks with. Grandma and I didn't know anyone else in the group beforehand, but to my surprise it turns out we actually did know another couple in the group. My former roommate and dear friend Diana's parents were apart of the group as well. They are the most wonderful people you've ever met and it was so much fun to get to travel with them. The only thing that could have made it better was if Diana and her family were there too! A sidenote: Diana's Mom told us that on the flight over she had to sit in the middle seat because the Jewish woman on their row would not sit next to a man that wasn't her husband. I found that very interesting.
After waiting at our gate for a couple of hours we eventually received permission to head downstairs and wait at another gate before being able to board our flight to Cairo. Despite it being just a 1.5 hour flight we were served a sandwich, snack and drink which was nice. We finally arrived in Cairo and after picking up our bags at the carousal two luggage men immediately started helping Grandma and I put our luggage on a cart and wheeling it out to the bus for us. At this point we weren't sure if they were somehow associated with our company or just men from the airport, but it was nice to have a little help getting all of our things loaded up. We soon learned they were not associated with the group when they started to quietly and sneakily say, "Money money money. You have money tips? Money money money." They were shockingly uncouth and persistent. Despite being put-off by their lack of manners, I gave them a small tip and prepared myself to be ready for people like this the next three weeks of our trip.