Shifting Perspectives In the Shifting Sands of Jordan
“What’s the best place you’ve ever been?”
It’s my most ‘Frequently Asked Question’ as I’m fortunate to spend my life on the road in a messy work/play mash up. Unable to define myself I scribble ‘traveller’ in the occupation box of incoming passenger cards. I’ve lived both the highs and lows of globetrotting from polar swimming in Antarctica to getting food poisoning on a plane returning from India. Yes full blown food poisoning. On. A. Plane. So what’s the best place I’ve been? It’s an impossible quandary given every corner of the globe offers up different perks depending on your preference. Luxury traveller? Overwater bungalow in Bora Bora. Adventurous Bucket List? Camp at Everest Base Camp. Want undiscovered? Head to Timor Leste.
However, if you asked me ‘Who are the friendliest people in the world?’ I can answer that without skipping a beat...
The Jordanians of the Middle East. You didn’t see that one coming did you?
Hot and exceedingly dry, Jordan is a tiny desert land. It has no natural resources and is the second water-poorest country in the world. Ninety-five percent of the population are Muslim with a whopping one-third refugees (an estimated 1.4 million are from Syria and 2.1 million are from Palestine). It shares borders with Iraq, Syria, Israel and the partially recognised state of Palestine, as well as a maritime border with Egypt. With all the chaos unfolding in the Middle East I would forgive you for thinking it doesn’t sound particularly safe or friendly. And yet…
A travellers’ curiosity has always drawn me to the Middle East but the sceptic in me long held reservations. I pondered how safe it was, how it would be travelling as a woman in an Islamic country? Did I need to be covered head to toe to explore? I toyed with whether cycling knicks would be acceptable or too revealing (they’ve just launched the ‘Jordan Bike Trail’ a mixed track traversing the entire country and I was keen to do a leg), but I threw them aside and packed another scarf. The horrific news headlines I’d absorbed over the past decade streamed in rapid fire across my brain as I boarded the plane. I’ll be honest, I was nervous (and somewhat ignorant).
I arrived late at night, tugging at my long skirt. At the border I was on the back foot but the official looked me dead in the eyes, broke into an enormous smile, and welcomed me to Jordan before he even took my passport. A lifetime of airports and that’s the first time I’ve been acknowledged as an actual person at passport control.
In the taxi to the hotel my driver graciously invited me to dinner with his family. No, it was nothing suss. He had a daughter my age he thought I could be friends with. By the time I checked into the hotel at nearly 1 am, the gentleman on reception fell over himself to help me with my bags. He disappeared before I had time to tip him. Far from being insincere, this open-heartedness became standard and never stopped. A chorus of ‘welcomes’ followed me everywhere. I was an honoured guest merely because I was there.
At first, Jordan’s mighty landscapes; scalded, parched and hazy with heat, repeatedly conjures up the question ‘Why?’ Why would people choose to settle here? Life isn’t easy, there’s no water, no arable land, hardly a skerrick of shade. Just sandstone mountains set in red sand deserts, at most a bristly scrub. Magnificent? Yes. A natural wonder to behold? Absolutely. An environment in which to permanently settle? Umm. Maybe if you want to live on Mars.
Yet this inhospitable, incredible place is a prize, and forever has been. Full of history, it’s the cradle of the world’s largest religions, the seat of some of the oldest human settlements. As my guide Ayman says, “If you pick up a stone in Jordan you can find a story. Immediately you’ll go back in time… you can walk through the history and the culture of Jordan by just grabbing any stone. Go on, you’ll sense it.”
It’s true. Pick up a piece of this land and you could be holding history. That rock could be from a Crusader castle, a fragment from a mighty Roman column, a piece of an ancient Nabataean aqueduct system. This place has seen both the birth of great civilisations and the conquering of them. Empire after empire marked by the moving of sand and stone into temples, tombs and treasuries. But why? The question rings persistently in my head as we start a mountain bike ride to Petra.
As any Egyptian Pharaoh, Roman Emperor, or present day world leader would happily point out, Jordan is a geographic gem that connects Asia, Africa and Europe. Hugely strategic, it’s been a conduit of trade and communication since the dawn of time. Connecting East and West, North and South, it still plays that role today. It’s been part of the dominions of the Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Mesopotamian Empires. For a time Pharonic Egypt held its power while the ingenious Nabataeans rose and built their empire. Petra, their centrepiece is recognised the world over. To fathom that was all BEFORE Jordan was engulfed by the classical civilisations of Greece, Rome and Persia! The relics of which are probably sitting heavy in your hand. An archaeologists’ Aladdin’s Cave is an understatement.
Perhaps that’s why, despite the odds being stacked against them (with a lack of resources and the geopolitics of the day), Jordanians are so accepting of travellers. Sitting smack bang in the heart of the trade route for millennia they are educated, open-minded and open-hearted. Their layered pedigree has given birth to a unique mentality. True world citizens influenced by everything they are open to anything. How obvious that they would be progressive! Nomads are honoured to the highest degree so the last thing you need to worry about is your safety. Your only concern is changing your perceptions of travel in the Middle East and how many cups of tea you can drink in a day.
Take the Bedouin hospitality for example.
Flushed and red-faced we were part way through our ride to Petra (yes I did deeply regret not bringing those bike shorts and yes you can wear whatever you like within basic decency and respect). Bouncing over desert rocks, ripping through dry valleys and clicking over the kilometres we came upon a hessian tent surrounded by a flock of goats and two camels standing as sentries. A man, Abu Sabba, appeared, his face etched with desert wisdom. One could only hazard a guess at his age. He had a classic red and white keffiyeh scarf wrapped around his head and bright eyes lined with kohl to absorb the glaring sun. He invited us in. Seated on Persian carpets laid upon the sand he presented us with camel’s milk. As is custom, he drank first to show us the milk was good. We followed suit but sipped tentatively, it was sour and warm but not unlike cow’s milk, honestly better than I expected.
The Indigenous Bedouin, whose lifestyle has not changed much since biblical times will always invite in a wanderer. No questions are asked for three days until finally on the fourth the host is allowed to ask your name and intention. The host is expected to boil their last rice and slaughter their only sheep to feed a stranger. Under their roof you are under their protection. They know firsthand the perils of desert travel, and in turn when they roam they count on the unquestioning hospitality of their kin.
Refreshed, we were back on the bikes, heat rising fiercely from the ground, swirling about our sweaty, dust coated calves. Our final descent brought us to Petra. From afar it’s impossible to distinguish this 2000-year-old city, hidden within a maze of monolithic rocks rising from the desert floor. It is this same camouflage that kept it lost to the world for hundreds of years until a Swiss man; Johann Ludwig Burckhart, arrived in 1812 and tricked the locals to let him into the lost city by pretending to be an Arab pilgrim.
Today, the rose gold metropolis is well walked but still sane. Busy but not bursting. If it’s on your bucket list get there early in the morning and weave quietly through the narrow slot canyon named ‘The Siq’. Take your time to discover the kilometre of vertical sandstone sails, some reaching up nearly one hundred metres as they unfurl before you. At the end, you’ll step into a natural arena and be rewarded with that postcard view of Petra, the famed Treasury, but promise me you won’t stop there – keep exploring! The city is enormous, each tomb, room and ruin fascinating. What you see is still only the tip of the iceberg, with experts estimating that only fifteen percent has been excavated and a further eighty-five percent lies untouched beneath the sand.
To get the most out of Petra, don’t miss the Monastery and the hike to view the Treasury from above. Definitely find a local guide to regale you with the actual history of the nomadic Natabeans as they are sure to capture your curiosity. Genius engineers and masters of secrecy, elusive to say the least. Their aqueduct system and architecture enabled them to literally devise a thriving oasis in the desert, thereby enabling the trade route and reaping the rich rewards for their efforts. To me, they are the most incognito, ingenious and underrated ancient civilisation there is.
Don’t be deceived, Jordan is not all history, there’s plenty of adventure too. With both a trans-country hiking trail and the Jordan Bike Trail connecting the length of the country you can sightsee and sweat all at once. There’s challenging rock climbing in the Martian-like land of the Wadi Rum, and excellent canyoning the country over. If you’ve had enough of the desert you can get refreshed at the Red Sea, diving and snorkelling with whale sharks.
As a keen horsewoman, riding through the Jordanian desert was one of my ‘must dos’. We set off atop stunning Arabian horses, my stallion was strong and full of fire, yet manageable and attentive. Exhilarated, we cantered through the soft sands of dry riverbeds and galloped up onto a rocky outcrop that engulfed an entire landscape. The Bedouins set up a billy and boiled syrupy sweet tea spiced with wild sage. As I sipped my tea looking out to the horizon, my stallion nuzzled into me and I had a conscious moment of knowing that this was one of the best adventures of my life.
However, on our way back, quietly walking our sweat lathered steeds, a fellow rider came aside my horse. Agitated by another stallion his horse bucked violently, one hoof landing on my horse’s shoulder, the other connecting square with my ankle. The searing pain was overwhelming and I lost my foot from the stirrup. My horse reared and then straightened his neck as if to bolt. I anticipated him knowing that if he went, I’d come off in seconds with no traction in the stirrups. He seemed to sense my determination and danced on his feet, throwing his head before finally calming, snorting, and giving me the opportunity to slip down his side. My ankle swelled immediately to twice its size. I was in agony.
Fortunately, after a quick trip to the hospital and a few x-rays later (always an experience in a foreign country), I was given the all clear. While miraculously nothing was broken (just some nasty soft tissue and ligament damage), I was disheartened to think that my injury would ruin my adventure.
The next day, we were four-wheel driving through the Wadi Rum to climb the country’s tallest mountain before heading on to Aqaba. I worried I was missing out as I joined the team in the tray of the open-backed ute. However, not being able to walk meant that for half a day, while everyone else climbed, I sat quietly by the vehicles with our Bedouin drivers. Playing charades through our limited shared language, sharing tea and broken stories. It was such an authentic experience; one of real culture versus the ‘canned culture’ we so often get on the road as we hurry to ‘sightsee’ but fail to ‘people meet’.
Sitting with my newfound friends, I had one of the best, most wholesome travel experiences of my life. Prior to my trip, if someone had asked me whether a white woman sitting alone with two strangers in the deserts of the Middle East was a good idea, I would have warned against it. But here I was, sitting in the sand laughing with these kind hearted souls who treated a stranger like family, realising my fears were unfounded and my stereotypes misplaced. I felt hugely apologetic for my past judgement.
The billy boiled and we dropped more wild herbs in the sweet black tea. My hosts broke into a spontaneous dance because no tea party is complete without the party part right? In Jordan, life is good, and therefore everyday moments like these should be celebrated with song!
As you embark on your journeys, near and far, reflect on your assumptions and seek to change your stereotypes. I’m not saying throw all caution to the wind, but rather, allow your experience to dictate your beliefs, rather than your beliefs to curtail your experiences. And remember, sometimes our misadventures can lead to our greatest moments.
How to do it:
Travel with the amazing folk from Experience Jordan who can engineer any itinerary and are experts in adventure www.experiencejordan.com
Jordanian adventures not to miss:
Hike a part of the Jordan Trail – or ride a leg of the Bike Trail
Float in the Dead Sea – the world’s largest mineral spa and lowest point in the world
Smoke Hubby Bubbly (Water pipe flavoured tabacco or Sheesha) with the Bedouin and sleep under the stars at one of their camps
Eat Mansaf – the delicious national dish comprised of slow cooked lamb in a sauce of fermented dried yogurt and rice
Explore the Ancient Red Rose City of Petra including The Monastery and candlelit Petra by Night
Visit the Burdah Rock Bridge in Wadi Rum (also known as the Valley of the Moon)