DESTINATION: A Journey Through Jordan
Whether rational or not, the Middle East seems to be a daunting travel destination for a lot of people. I suppose I understand why, as every time you turn on your television it seems like there's some sort of breaking news coming out of the area discussing the violence and unrest that plagues parts of the region.
Talking my friends and boyfriend into spending our annual travel adventure in the area took a bit of salesmanship on my part, but eventually the allures of natural wonders and ancient history won them over. We bought our tickets (four people, three different routes) and arrived with a bit of jet lag and a lot of excitement in the capital city of Amman.
We didn't spend much time there though, which I regret in retrospect. As with any trip, you only have so much time, and we as a group had agreed we would spend out time exploring places other than Amman. We did spend two nights there while heading out to other nearby areas, and what we did see of the city while transiting showed us a vibrant city core with plenty of personality and sights to keep you entertained for a day or two. If I had to do it again, we'd spend some time exploring what appeared to be a pretty cool city. Amman definitely seems like one of those cities that doesn't appear too interesting on paper but once you're there comes alive and pulls you in. There's plenty of reasons for me to head back to Jordan, but I'd definitely go just to get a better feel for Amman.
So, instead of exploring the capital we spent our first few days exploring the deserts outside of Amman. There are quite a few ancient ruins in the area, and we decided to hire a car to take us out to look at a few of the abandoned castles located to the east of the city.
As you'd expect, there was very little of anything out in the desert. We drove for miles and miles with nothing but sand and gravel for as far as the eye could see. It's a lot like Nebraska but without the corn and a lot more Muslims.
Jordan has quite a few castles laying in various states of ruin in the desert. Qasr Kharana, Qasr Amra, Qasr Mushata. There's no shortage of locations to wonder at the history of this little parcel of land. You really get a grasp of how young of a nation the United States is when you stand in the doorway of a castle built a thousand years before someone ever even thought of erecting a building in your hometown.
I'm not sure if we were lucky, or it's just not a popular option on the tourist trail (I doubt that), but almost every Qasr we visited happened to be void of any other visitors. We had the run of the place for the most part. Each location had a friendly curator or a handful of guides (licensed or otherwise) offering their services and a smile in exchange for a few of your dinars.
I love that this is one of the universal constants in the world - no matter where you've set foot on the globe, outside of a historic sight will be a handful of guides strolling their territory like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. "What are you looking for tonight baby? Ten extra dinar and I'll take pictures of you and your wife."
I prefer to explore on my own and simply absorb sights and atmosphere, while a few of my travel companions did end up asking guides to give them a whirl of a few locations. Well, not so much that they asked. I think it was more one of those situations where someone walks up to you and starts a conversation and before you know it you're being given a tour with a small donated fee requested at the end for the modestly detailed history lesson of the castle's frescos. Win some, lose some!
We enjoyed our time at the castles but we all agreed that if given a choice again we probably would have preferred spending our time back in Amman viewing some of the historic sites there or perhaps going north to the Roman site of Jerash. Hindsight is 20/20.
It wasn't an entirely wasted attempt at adventure though. One of the best things about heading out to the less populated eastern deserts were the multiple stops in small towns and roadside tea stalls. Just a handful of locals (almost all men) sipping tea and snacking on treats under woven tents as the musky of cigarette smoke wafted in the air. Little conversation but lots of smiles and nodding. The hospitality of Jordanians really showed through on these little pit stops.
Having spent some time in the east, we changed gears and headed southwest from Amman to the city of Madaba. While there are a few interesting sights in town, most people come here to visit the Church of the Map. This church contains a 6th Century mosaic map of Jerusalem and surrounding areas, and is apparently a fine preserved specimen of ancient mosaic art styles.
The map was indeed quite beautiful and the small church with brightly painted walls and candles was a treat in itself.
From Madaba we continued westward toward the coast of the Dead Sea. We stopped along the way to climb to the peak of Mt. Nebo and get a view of the Sea and the Holy Land.
From Mt. Nebo we took a meandering, winding path down from the high ground toward the Sea. This was a difficult journey for me as I'm scared of heights and the road had quite a few switchbacks that came dangerously close to steep cliffs. I enjoyed the view, but did indeed tremble in fear like a butterfly in the breeze for a good 30 minutes.
Before long we had reached the lowest point on Earth - the Dead Sea. Despite the fact that it was mid-April the weather was warm and we were able to strip off our clothes (my apologies to the people of Jordan) and enjoy the waters of this most famous of seas. No matter how much you read about the buoyant properties of the water, the sensations you feel when you get into the Sea and have your feet fly up from under you cannot be prepared for. The same can be said for the glorious sunsets.
Eventually we had to bid farewell to the shores of the Dead Sea and head even further south into the desert to Wadi Musa, best known as the location of one of the new Seven Wonders of the World - Petra.
As we made our way down the Siq, the long path down into the main site, you can't help but recall those scenes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as you finally round the last bend and see the slightest peak of the infamous Treasury staring back at you.
And suddenly it's there. The most famous attraction in all of Jordan. The Treasury, called Al Khazneh in Arabic, is likely misnamed as it is believed the original purpose of the building carved out of the red sandstone cliff was as a mausoleum. While time has eroded much of the intricate detailed design on the face of the building, it still stands as a testament to the beauty and timelessness of human creativity and determination.
You can't help but stand there for awhile and just marvel. One of the odd things I noted about Petra is that just about everyone seemed to make the trek down the Siq to the Treasury, snap a few photos, and turn tail and head back out. A much smaller portion of people continued into the site to explore further. These folks that were doing a drive-by on one of the most amazing sites of the ancient world are quite frankly complete fucking idiots.
Swing by for five minutes at Chicago's Navy Pier. Walk through the Vegas strip while checking your Facebook. You don't do a drive by on Petra though.
While there's quite a bit of abandoned city left to see that's easily accessible from the Treasury, the real treat is located a solid hike up into the hills to a building called Ad Deir (the Monastery).
You can hire a donkey to take you up the numerous steps, but to be quite honest all of the animals appeared to be quite poorly treated by their handlers. Despite having one member of our party with health issues that made hiking difficult, we opted for the exercise. Not to mention the fact that even if those donkeys had been perfectly well cared for, forcing them to haul my fat American ass up into the mountains would have likely been a violation of the Geneva Convention. Also we saw a few folks that did hire the donkeys head up the hill and those poor things were slipping and sliding all over the place. Not something I'd like to experience on a cliff. No ma'am, I'll walk my happy ass to the top, kthanks.
So up the stairs we went. One foot after the other, up and up and up till we were out of breath. In the picture above you can see how few people attempt the summit. Compared to the crowds around Al Khazneh, the smattering of people on this path was nothing. Like the Nickelback fan club annual convention. The vistas along the trail are quite lovely though, so stopping to catch your breath has its perks.
Vendors of snacks and trinkets have camped out along the way, hoping to lure a customer with a cup of tea or a beaded necklace as they gasp for air. We didn't end up purchasing anything along the way, but my boyfriend did make a new friend while enjoying a bit of shade.
After two hours we had closed in on the top. It's likely to take others less time to reach the summit, as we stopped frequently to allow our friend to rest her leg. In retrospect it probably wasn't the best idea to let her hike this trail, but she said she'd flown all the way from Chicago to see what Jordan had to offer, and she wasn't going to let some bone spurs stop her. So with a pair of trusty hiking sticks we had purchased at a shop just outside of Petra's entrance, we continued our pushed up the hill and after a bit more strife and struggle were treated to a view of Ad Deir.
Luckily there's a cafe set up a good distance back from Ad Deir for an exhausted hiker to relax, re-hydrate, and gather themselves. On the down side, there's a cafe set up a good distance back from Ad Deir, which kind of messes with the "mise en scene" of the experience. I took the good with the bad and ordered up some coffee to sip on while gazing upon a 2000 year old building. As tourist traps go, you could definitely do a lot worse.
Ad Deir is pretty much the end of the line on the hike, though there is a bit of room left to go a bit beyond for additional vistas of the valley and surrounding mountains. Still, as you make your way deeper into the valley you can't help but gaze back at the Monastery and be awed by the sheer willpower it took to cut it out of the stone with nothing but some muscle and a few tools.
The last stop we made during our week in Jordan was the furthest point south we'd go - the vast valley carved out of the Jordanian desert known as Wadi Rum. We had a driver in a four-wheel drive and asked him to take us out to his favorite spots. Of course at first he took us to some of the traditional tourist haunts, including stops to view some petroglyphs and carvings dating back to various clans of inhabitants over the years.
The real adventure to be had in Wadi Rum is just enjoying the beautiful landscapes and solitude, which eventually our driver understood was what we were interested in seeing. We spent the majority of our time walking up sand dunes, wandering through dry river beds, and climbing rock formations. Just four friends in the middle of Jordan making conversation and memories.
I can personally attest to the fact that there are few things more satisfying in the world than plopping yourself down on a hot sand dune, emptying your shoes of sand, and take in the scenery.
Despite some residual pain from the hike up to Ad Deir back at Petra, our friend picked up her trusty hiking poles and wandered the sands with us. We had laughed at the tourists we'd seen earlier in the week that had bought head scarves, but we quickly realized after our day hiking in Petra that even in April the Jordanian sun is no joke. By the time we had reached Wadi Rum, we all had purchased our own scarves and were dutifully wearing them as protection against the solar onslaught.
For our last night in Jordan, we climbed to the top of a rock formation to watch the sun set off in the distance. My boyfriend, being a bit of a photo nerd, was busy setting up lens, tripods, and assorted accessories in giddy anticipation of the sun's descent. Our friend Ryan had staked out a seat a bit off in the distance and sat in quite repose.
I took a seat next to one of my best friends, Deb. She was the one who had been struggling with a bad foot for the entire trip. She sat with it dangled over the edge of a drop off, gazing out over the scene before us. We sat there for an hour and reflected on life and on our friendship. We'd met years before working at a company that I had long since left and she had long since become a rising star at.
We are a bit of an unlikely pair of friends. I'm a man, she's a woman. I was born and raised in Japan, she was born and raised in rural Michigan. I am an atheist, she's a devout Christian. I'm gay, she's straight. I'm a bit of a liberal, she's a bit of a conservative. I'm Team Jacob, she's Team Edward. You get the picture.
But there we were, two friends sitting on the edge of a mountain with our legs dangling in the wind. Chatting and laughing and smiling as the sun set over one of the oldest of lands the world knows.
Sometimes the best things you experience while traveling have nothing to do with what you've seen while there.
Satisfied that we'd spent our evening well, we made our way back down the mountain, hopped back in our jeep, and headed to our campsite for the evening. Exhausted, we ravaged the dinner offerings before hopping into our tents for a well deserved rest. We knew the next day would be a long trip back to Amman to catch our flight to Dubai.
Again, I understand why people find the Middle East frightening. Yet it's really important for people to educate themselves about the vastness of the region, as there are many stable and safe destinations to enjoy.
That's why I was so happy with the time I spent in Jordan. Not only were the people friendly and the sights phenomenal, it really did wonders to open up the minds of my friends and family back home about what the Middle East was all about. For every Syria or Yemen (and even those countries have a lot of offer once the turmoil subsides and peace returns) there's a Jordan or Oman. The region is not in any way a monolithic destination where all rules apply across the board. If anything, it's the opposite - a diverse region with a variety of religions, cultures, and histories to share with the intrepid traveler.
Jordan is an excellent gateway drug for those who are curious about the region. Generally speaking it's affordable, easy to navigate, the locals are friendly, and it has dynamite sights to visit. If you've been considering a trip to Jordan, or the Middle East in general, and haven't pulled the trigger on a ticket just yet - stop everything and open up Kayak.com right now.
You won't regret it.