(Jordan – 25 February 2014) By the time we concluded our extra-long travel day from China to Amman, Jordan, it was scarcely beyond 5 AM; even the sun was still sleeping. Everything we read about Jordan prior to paying it a visit said it was a safe and welcoming country. Nevertheless, we couldn’t escape feeling a touch nervous about coming here. It is hard to get deeper into the Middle East than Jordan. Syria sits to the north, Iraq to the east, Saudi Arabia to the south, and Israel to the West. (Talk about trouble all around!)
Jordan is a solidly Islamic country, too. While more moderate in the practice of their faith than most Islamic states, from the moment we landed we saw plenty of women wearing the head-to-toe burka. If not the full burka, it was a secure hijab (head scarf), for sure.
A measure of uncertainty accompanies us whenever we arrive to a new country. In Jordan, that feeling was magnified tenfold.
My Scariest Moment of the Trip…So Far
Getting through immigration and customs at the Jordan airport felt awkward. Even though they stamped our passports and waved us through without issue, the dark, brooding faces of the immigration agents gave us no comfort. Exiting the controlled passenger area after customs, we saw two Jordanian men standing behind the cord, one of them held a sign that read, Gary Breaux. It wasn’t hard to pick them out since the airport was virtually empty at that hour and they were the only two people standing there.
This was unexpected! We had arranged in advance for a rental car in Jordan, but I assumed we would either find the company’s service counter or take a shuttle to their off-site location. The two guys greeted us in basic and labored English and motioned for us to follow them. I felt really weird about it, but followed like a lamb to slaughter.
We followed the duo through the airport’s exit and into the closest parking lot. The lead guy smiled and said, “This is your car.” We placed our luggage into the trunk and they opened the doors for us to take seats. The lead guy took the wheel, I sat in the front passenger seat while Jessica sat in the back. The second man hovered outside of the car for a few seconds until the driver said something to him in Arabic prompting him to hop into the back seat behind me.
It was all very strange. I was uncomfortable as hell. At this point, morning was finally on its way… though the sun was still below the horizon. Fog in the air kept visibility down. Or was that smog (like China), or maybe there was a sandstorm (or locusts) approaching. Glancing over my shoulder at Jessica, I tried to gauge if she was feeling as nervous as me. She looked cool but the car was dark and it was hard to tell for sure. I asked if we were going to the office and the driver responded with nods and smiles. I was not comforted.
A cell phone rang. The driver pulled a phone from his pocket, glanced at it quickly and placed it on the dashboard. A second phone emerged from another pocket and this one he answered. The conversation was entirely in Arabic, but unfortunately my imagination was doing the translating for me. “I have the Americans in the car. We’ll be there in 10 minutes.” After the call, he said something to the man seated behind me. My fear escalated. I felt trapped. Aside from our opening conversation and the phone call, we rode in frigid, awkward silence.
The drive to the office sure seemed far. Through the dusty darkness I could feel we were leaving the airport grounds as we crossed over a highway. As if my fear needed another boost, the driver suddenly turned off the road and surged into a dusty field. “Where are you taking us!?” I blurted out dramatically. The driver laughed and reassured me that we were almost there. Don’t be scared, he said. “He’s just taking a short cut,” said the guy in the back.
True to his word, we really were almost there. A minute later we pulled up to the office and started doing car rental paperwork. The guys asked us if we’d like something to drink. Oh geez, what a paranoid American fool I was. I had allowed my judgment to be distorted by the world of tv and movies that tells us over and over again who the bad guys are. Gone in an instant was my leading assumption about people- that we are all (99.999%) generally good, well-meaning souls, doing our best to make our way through a complicated and challenging life -supplanted momentarily by ingrained tribal fears I scarcely knew existed.
As Jessica and I talked about it later, I learned that she wasn’t feeling uncomfortable at all. All of the drama was confined to my own head. “They were just helping us,” she pointed out. The whole episode was not my finest moment.
Here we are trying out the latest Jordanian fashion.
Jordan, An Island of Welcome
The people of Jordan seem to understand the stigma associated with “the Middle East” and appear to be working hard everyday to change the world’s perceptions of it. At the very least, Jordan wants badly to distinguish itself from its neighbors. It would also like to correct the image people have in their minds about what it is like to visit a “Muslim” country.
The first time someone in Jordan asked us where we were from, I hesitated. “America…?” Slowly and cautiously I spoke with an eye out for any negative reactions. Never did I get one. Instead I received gracious smiles and the words we heard at least a hundred times, “Welcome to Jordan.” Many Jordanians took it a step further and expressed how much they like America and Americans. Very often they would ask which state we were from. Can you imagine meeting a Jordanian traveling through the US and asking, which governorate (their equivalent to our states) are you from? Eventually, I think I figured out what was going on. During just our short week in Jordan, we met a dozen people that have a sibling, cousin or other family member living in the United States.
English was spoken in many more places than we expected, too. Of course, we mostly traveled through the touristy corridors, but not always. Even then, English was spoken to us quite easily. Overall, everyone we encountered in Jordan was genuinely warm, friendly, eagerly helpful and most of all, welcoming.
The Road to Petra
After picking up our rental car in Amman, Jessica and I drove for 40 days and 40 nights southward through the Arabian desert towards the Ancient City of Petra. (It was actually 4 hours, but I gotta go with a Biblical reference in this case.) I made clear in the above section how absolutely awesome everybody was to us while in Jordan; however, at this point in our trip (just a few hours in), we were still a little shaky regarding our new surroundings. And there we were barreling down a mostly empty highway in the middle of a desert in Jordan. Holy burning bush! That desert sure looked intimidating, too. “What are we doing here?” Jessica kept asking.
Were it not for the abundance of phenomenal historical and archeological sites in Jordan, I swear…no one would come here. Driving through the desert that morning showed us one of the Earth’s harshest landscapes. And yet, people live here. Dry, dusty, dirty God-forsaken towns, not vastly different from some we’ve seen in West Texas, by the way. Still, it makes you wonder… What are these people doing here? What kind of a life is this? We slowed down for speed bumps (that too many times caught me by surprise) but otherwise raced through those towns like desert wind.
Relieved is a good way to describe how we felt arriving at our hotel in Wadi Musa, the fortunate little city that sits next to Petra. Our hotel was nice and the staff even nicer. Finally, we could calm down, relax, catch up on lost sleep from our travel days, and begin to enjoy our Jordan experience.
Walking Through Time
What is Petra? Only one of the hands down grandest archeological sites in the world. More specifically, it is what remains of an ancient civilization that thrived some 2,000 years ago. Enormous buildings carved out of sheer mountain cliffs by its enterprising Nabatean inhabitants are Petra’s main draw.
As cities go, ancient or modern, Petra is like no other in the world. The city’s design is long and narrow as it follows the terrain of a basin running between high cliffs of red sandstone. On one end, in a part called the Siq, the basin is only wide enough in places for a couple of horses to pass. Walking through the Siq is nothing but cool. The narrow walls ascend more than 100 feet high on both sides. Knowing that the passage on which we walked is the exact same one used by traders since the time of the Silk Road is a mind warper. At the end of the 1 km long Siq, the pathway opens and The Treasury comes into view.
The winding basin eventually opens up further to hold the core of what was once a thriving metropolis.
The two best known architectural achievements of Petra are The Treasury (shown above) and The Monastery (pictured further below). Of course, we took plenty of photos of both. However, Petra is much richer still. There are many impressive structures worth marveling at, including several roads and buildings constructed during the Roman era that closely followed the reign of the Nabateans.
From one end of Petra to the other, horses, donkeys and camels offer rides to the tourists for just a few Jordanian dinars. Good thing, too; the distances to be covered within Petra are huge. Riding a camel isn’t just about the novelty, it can be a very useful form of transportation. We never chose to ride one ourselves….even though we were asked if we’d like to about 10 times per hour.
“Want ride with a camel?”
Our hike through Petra was made that much better by our conversations with some of the local Bedouins. Jessica stopped to look at one guy’s unique collection of jewelry, and… Ever heard of that best-seller, Married to a Bedouin?
Turns out the shop owner was one of the children of the author. He spoke English perfectly, and with a New Zealand accent, too, a result of spending a good chunk of his childhood in NZ. Nice guy and a lot of fun to chat with. Another local told us about Obama’s visit to Petra that took place less than a year ago. He even showed us the cave where 8 Secret Service men slept the night before Obama’s arrival. It wasn’t this cave Jessica invites you into, but one similar.
We took many photos at the Monastery. The first photo below shows it from afar. However, seeing the behemoth structure with people posing at its base is the best way to get a sense of its terrific size.
A local Bedouin has some fun.
The Red Sea and Our Day of Luxury
After Petra we sped a few hours south to the town of Aqaba, located on the northern end of the Red Sea. (Emphasis on the first syllable: A’-ka-ba). We were still technically in the desert, but the large body of water that is the Red Sea gave Aqaba a softer feel. Aqaba is a resort town. Our visit was at least two months prior to their busy season, but we could tell that Aqaba served as a nice playground for the wealthy. Out on a walk by the water, we strolled inside one of the fancier resort hotels and it was quite fabulous.
While not able to swing a fancy resort ourselves, we did sign up for a day trip to one of the Red Sea’s many exclusive beaches. A van picked us up at our hotel in the morning and dropped us off only about 25 minutes down the road. The private beach club had two nice swimming pools, a bar/restaurant, and a protected beach area lined with large umbrellas and lounge chairs.
The water was cold, but tolerable for short snorkeling dips. So clear, too; we were inside an aquarium with no glass, able to see a great variety of fish and coral living just feet below the surface. A poisonous lion fish patrolled the ladder that entered the water from the end of the pier. A large but tight school of small silvery fish did their synchronized swimming rehearsal right there within the snorkeling area. It was mean fun to swim towards them and mess up their routine, watching them split into two groups, if only for a few moments. Unfortunately (or mercifully), none of this action was captured with the camera because we’d forgotten to bring the underwater pouch with us.
It was a slow and relaxing day of luxury. (Hey, traveling the world ain’t easy. Sometimes we just gots-ta relax!)
The Dead Sea and the Opposite of Luxury
After wrapping up our days in Aqaba, we drove several hours back to the north for our rendezvous with the Dead Sea. (The blue line on the map above shows our clockwise route.) Israel was within sight to our left as we ventured through additional parts of the same Arabian desert we’d never left. Border watchtowers topped the desert dunes. It is unlikely that we will ever come this close to Israel again, we thought. Because of how both the highway and the border meandered, we were literally a stone’s throw away from Israel in certain places.
Watch out for camels, say the road signs.
Perhaps they also need signs that say, “Watch out for the poor.” Our drive took us near a couple of Palestinian refugee camps. It was clear what they were because we could see the UN Refugee Agency’s block letters (UNHCR) on top of the tattered tents.
Once the Dead Sea came within view the dilemma became how we would actually swim in it. The highway ran along the sea’s coastline for many miles, but it wasn’t clear how to access the water that was deeply recessed into the terrain. It would take a horrendous scramble down the steep rocky sides just to dip in a toe. Onward we drove with our eyes peeled for some sort of public access point. Finally we came upon a place where cars were pulling off the highway into what looked like a primitive park of sorts. We naively followed. Jesus and Lord mercy! What we found was a miserable, trashed-out ghetto hole, swarming with really-really poor people. We are traveling the world and can appreciate the full spectrum of humanity, but that place was a sad and depressing slice of it, for sure. Let’s get outta here!
Our next attempt at reaching the Dead Sea was at a day spa and resort similar to the one we’d visited at the Red Sea. The cost to enter was about $40 per person (lunch included). Yikes! That’s a heckuva lot of money for the few hours we might spend there. Then, there was this other pressing issue; we both needed to use the bathroom. I cleverly asked them if we could take a look at their facilities before deciding if we wanted to stay or not. They agreed politely and let us enter. Wowzers, this place was luxury, indeed. The contrast with our previous stop was jarring. Though happy to relieve our bladders, we didn’t stay at the richy-rich place and continued driving northward until finally finding a Dead Sea access point that wasn’t too rich and wasn’t too poor. Sadly, I cannot say it was just right.
I don’t know why the Red Sea is so named. Its clear blue waters are not red in the least. The Dead Sea, however, gets its name because neither fish nor any other sea creatures can survive its incredibly high salt content. It is the fourth saltiest body of water in the world. One resulting phenomenon of the high salinity is that the water is extra buoyant. Everybody says that swimming in the Dead Sea is an experienced not to be missed.
After one poverty stop and one luxury stop, neither of which we found suitable, we finally committed to a public access point. The entry gate listed two prices, one for locals and a second- higher -price (about $12 ea.) for foreigners. What we didn’t fully put together until later was that it was Friday- the Muslim equivalent to our Saturday and Sunday combined. This meant tons and tons of people, mostly families, large families, all out to enjoy a day at the Dead Sea. And then there was Jessica and me, standing out like two apples on an orange cart.
Though not as bad as the trashy hell-hole we passed-over up the road, this place was still plenty awful. Once through the entrance we walked among the crowd and down a concrete path towards the water. Where that path ended, filthy packed dirt began. There would be no sand at this “beach.” The ground was rarely level or even, yet people found a way to stake out their terrain. They threw down blankets, set up grills, and kids kicked soccer balls across the dirt. It was picnicking the best way they knew how. All perfectly normal….except for the down-trodden and unworthy facilities. What were they doing with the money charged at the entrance? It obviously wasn’t being used for beautification.
Ninety-five percent of the women were covered from head to toe leaving Jessica to feel self-conscious, to say the least. She wore a blue dress over her swimsuit to make accessing the water easier should she decide to go for it. More troubles…it was so crowded that even finding a decent spot near the water to put our things down was tricky. In the end, we entered the waters of the great Dead Sea one at a time, the one on the bank left holding on to our stuff (and taking photos).
Entering the water was not easy. The dried salt at the water’s edge was jagged and hard to walk on. The water was much too cold for comfort and the strong salty smell, uninviting. Despite all of these challenges, we hadn’t come this far just to turn back. It was the one chance in our lives to float in the Dead Sea and we weren’t going to blow it.
Floating in the Dead Sea really is quite a strange sensation.
Take a good look at the pic below. This is what qualifies as a day at the beach for many Jordanians. Notice the guy covered in mud. We actually saw several people similarly bathed in mud. Supposedly it has healing properties. Yuck!
After we got out of the water and the sea evaporated from our skin, we turned into salt-encrusted pretzels.
If it had been warmer and if we could have afforded the fancy day spa, our conclusions might have been very different, but as it stands: Swimming in the Dead Sea = Not worth it.
Gritty Amman and The Ancient City of Jeresh
Amman is the largest city in Jordan and its capital. Aside from being a densely populated and ugly city, we didn’t think Amman had much to offer. We spent our last two Arabian nights there in a bustling and gritty section of downtown Amman. Good for providing us with a taste of what real life is for many third-world city-dwellers.
On our final day in Jordan, we traveled about 1 1/2 hours north of Amman to the city of Jeresh. Along our route, we saw how people set up impromptu stands right there on the shoulder of the highway in order to sell whatever crops they’ve managed to grow. Poor farmers placed their meager crops directly on the asphalt in hopes that someone would stop to buy produce on their way home. Things are tough all over, my friends.
There is the modern (current) city of Jeresh and then immediately next to it… the Ancient City of Jeresh, 1 of 10 major Roman cities in this region that collectively became known as the Decapolis. What makes the Ancient City of Jeresh notable today is that it is the best preserved Roman city in the world. Along the city’s main avenue we could even see grooves worn into the huge stone pavers from chariots and wagons that once traversed the city two thousand years ago.
Food and Shisha
One thing we surely enjoyed about Jordan was the food. One of the best meals of the trip so far was served to me in Jordan. Nothing fancy, it was a simple oven-baked chicken and vegetable casserole topped with cheese. It’s the herbs, Herb! Jordan uses some fantastic herbs and spices. Not strong; subtle flavors, all of them. Yet, remarkably delicious.
One morning in Amman we walked to a (locally famous) outdoor eatery for breakfast. Supposedly the place was a favorite of the royal family. And sure enough, pictures of King Abdullah and his family adorned the walls. We sat down and there was no need for us to order. They just started bringing us food- pita bread and hummus, fried balls of falafel and hot tea. All super cheap, too. I think we paid the equivalent of about $4.25 for the both of us.
Restaurants in Jordan don’t provide patrons with traditional table napkins. Instead, a box of Kleenex accompanies the salt, pepper, toothpick dispenser, and ashtray at every table. The ashtrays got some use but not nearly as much as one might expect; shishas or Arabian water-pipes (a.k.a. hookahs) are the norm in Jordan.
Restaurants did not typically serve alcohol, but various flavors of shisha (e.g., strawberry, raspberry, mint…) could be ordered as easily as ordering a Coke. The couple of times we went out to eat dinner, Jessica and I were the only ones not partaking in the custom. We found the smoke from the shishas to be less intrusive than cigarette smoke, so at least that was a plus. Yo kids, that doesn’t mean we endorse the practice. Adverse health effects from the shisha are reportedly the same or worse than smoking.
For all our early trepidation about Jordan, the truth is that we needn’t have worried about a thing. The Jordanian people were consistently warm and welcoming to us from start to finish (despite what my imagination conjured up). And Petra? Now we’ve seen it with our own eyes and, yes, it deserves to be on everyone’s list of must-visit ‘wonders of the world.’
From here we fly to Turkey. We hope you’ll come with us.