“Turn around now, can you see the 2 male figures sculpted into the wall above?”, 27 of us look up to where Mo is pointing his little green laser pointer. No one spots the male figures. “Here, come back a little and to the left, look now, can you see them?”, 27 pairs of eager eyes looking up. No clue what we should be seeing. An Impatient Mo says “if you all just come back a little further and to your right, I am sure you will see it!”. 27 of us shuffle some more to the back and right, brows furrowed looking for the carvings…. “There, there it is” one of the group pipes up….. the rest of us, feeling a little like the back benchers in a classroom, struggling to understand the math problem, still searching still not finding….
Mo, with a determined voice, says, just a little further back and you will see it. Yet again the group does Mo’s bidding. Finally, Mo says “now turn around”……. And there it is! PETRA, in all its glory, golden red sandstone, cut at least 2 – 4 meters deep into the cliff wall, the high and imposing treasury gates even more stunning in reality than the countless pictures or film scenes I had seen. This is what I wanted to come to Jordan to see and there it was within touching distance, grand and imposing, as if it had just emerged fully formed and intact from the cliff face.
That Jordan is full of surprises, should be of no surprise to anyone. The 2nd or 5th, depending on which article you read, poorest country in terms of water resources, sitting on the edge of the most volatile region of the modern world is abundant with natural beauty and some of the most charming and cultured people I have met. Considering there have been no acts of terrorism in this country since 2005, that the Arab spring movement was deftly and peacefully resolved, shows intelligence, common purpose and a sophistication lacking in many other parts of the world.
I was part of a 27 group self drive expedition through the Jordanian country. My favorite and most efficient experiential travel company, Adventures Overland, www.adventuresoverland.com had pulled together a treat for all senses itinerary for the Jordan, Dead Sea Drive 2017 expedition.
I got my first glimpse into the strategic importance of Jordan, musing over the ruins of a the Greco-Roman world in the ancient city of Jerash. Eclipsed by its more flamboyant neighbor Lebanon or the ancient civilizations of Damascus and Syria, Jordan holds the important position of being the true Holy Land. Holy, not because of the confluence of religions, but because it has some of the finest arable land in the world. Saleh, our guide in Jerash, explained, tomatoes yield 4 times as many as other growing countries due to the rich sediments and fresh mountain spring waters of the Jordanian Wadi’s. If legend is correct, it would explain, Moses crossing the red sea searching for land that would feed his people.
Our expedition in earnest started with a presentation from our expedition leaders, Sanjay Madan and Tushar Agarwal. Explaining the topography of the country, images of the roads we would be taking, safety rules, do’s and don’ts in the Arab world etc etc. The following day we sat in our Mitsubishi Pajero’s and on “convoy rolling” instruction from Tushar we set off. Our first stop on the day was Mount Nebo. The supposed (as our most knowledgeable guide Mo, pointed out, there is no scientific evidence to prove Moses is in true interred here on Nebo) final resting place of Moses. A short walk up to the viewing point, where Mo pointed to the dead sea and Israel beyond that. The significance of where I was and what I was looking out over, stories of Moses leading his people, to a better life in this country did not escape me. We made our way into a church built on the peak of Nebo. It was sparsely decorated, preserving mosaics from the 5th and 8th century AD. It was Sunday and the priest was conducting a morning service. As we looked around, people attending the mass, started singing. Later we found out, a group of Christians from Sri Lanka were visiting the holiest sites in Christianity. Their singing filled the church as we sat and listened in. A sense of peace and tranquillity descended in the church like warm sunshine.
Driving further into Wadi Hasa, we drove off road into a small valley. Lunch was waiting for us, cooked by the jolliest, round, few tooth’s missing Ibrahim. A man who cooks and feeds from the heart. He had prepared for us hearty local Bedouin cuisine, saffron rice, tender meats, local organic vegetables, and salads. We devoured the food, standing or sitting on rocks alongside a cool rapidly flowing mountain stream. Post lunch, we all decided to test out the Pajero’s by driving through into the mountain stream over gravel, but of course avoiding big jutting rocks!
My anticipation level was high as we approached one of the highlights of this expedition. A nights stay at the Feynan Ecolodge, www.feynanecolodge.com. Voted one of the best ecological hotels in the world, the Feynan, relies on candles, and minimal solar power for all their electricity needs. The sun set at 4:30pm after which as there is no light pollution, darkness descended rapidly. The access road to the Feynan was an off road dirt track, which we all handled well to finally arrive at 6pm. A vision in candle light hit us. In semi darkness, we all identified our rooms and then made our way up to the terrace for drinks and relishing in the success of day 1. Our group size was such that we were the only residents at the lodge tonight. Needless to say 27 Indians aided by alcohol can create enough noise to power a generator or 2!
Later that evening, some of us set out for a walk. Ali, the hotel manager and I decided to walk further and stayed out longer than the rest of the group. On the way back, Ali, a bedou by birth, pointed out a small hill, “when we have no visitors, I often come here and sit atop contemplating life”. On a sudden impulse, he asked if I wanted to climb up there. I had ballet pumps on, far from ideal hiking footwear. But, when was I going to be at that moment in my life again? So yes I said and 20 mins later we were at the top, guided only by moonlight and starlight. I said to Ali, you must have a name for your hill. He said he didn’t, so we named it the Mount of tears….. it was that kind of a moment. Retrospective, peaceful, in some ways restorative. We sat in silent meditation, sharing a little, but mostly looking out at the lodge and the surrounding mountains.
We left the next day, making our way into Wadi Rum. We were given a change to test our vehicles in 4WD and drive in the sand dunes. It was adrenaline infused fun, and in spite of a minor mishap with one of the cars, all had a good time. That evening we arrived at the luxury tents camp in the middle of Wadi Rum. Set against imposing cliffs, under the star filled night skies we settled into our tents. Drinks followed by a night photography session, attempting to capture the countless twinkling stars and the milky way, was one of the most fun evenings for me.
The next morning we woke to see the sun shine on the red cliffs of Wadi Rum. What I realized in the morning light, we were surrounded by the red cliffs, but for a opening in the front allowing the cars through. We set out again to explore Wadi Rum. Driving deep into the valley, admiring the handiwork of mother nature, hewn cliffs, rugged mountains, red sand, a surreal landscape. Captured so well in the film The Martian, it truly feels other worldly. Over lunch we bid goodbye to Ibrahim, our personal chef of the last 3 days. He had pulled together a very special feast. Grilled marinated chicken, roasted aubergine baba ganoush, biriyani to name a few. I offered myself in marriage to him, only to be rejected! Alas! He is one of the nicest, caring, genial people I have met. His love for his craft shone. We will miss your food, Ibrahim, and your big heart!
Sunset that evening, was a spectacle over the dunes and cliffs of Wadi Rum. The feeling of kinship, gratitude and love filled my heart. For the place, the day and the people I was with.
Petra, crossing over the Kings highway, was our destination the next day. We arrived just after lunch, and wandered in the city till 5pm. Taking our leave only with the promise to return at nightfall, for the spectacle that is Petra by night. Hundreds of candles lighting the 2 km walk to the treasury, casting eerie glow over the cliffs, led us back to the city. We made it there just in time for the flute recital. Mystical bedou music floated in and around us. The music, star studded night skies, candles, servings of warm sweet tea made the evening so very special.
Our final stop was a float in the dead sea. After applying copious amounts of dead sea clay, turning all of us into the same shade of Arnold Schwarzenegger camouflage as in the Predator, we lay in the warm waters basking in sunshine.
This was a experience of a lifetime; and I feel I had waited half my life to do it. I fell in love with the soul of Jordan, the landscapes, simplicity of life, culture, the food, the valley, and the people. I will cherish every moment, especially as I am one of the lucky few to do so with great friends beside me.
maʿ al-salāmah Jordan. I will miss you.
Trail tips and links:
Try the local chhai. It’s the local bedou tea, an infusion of black tea and dried sage. Try it sweet, health permitting. That’s the way the locals drink it.
Jordanian cuisine is very hearty and similar to Lebanese, but with subtle differences. As a vegetarian, there was a wide variety of local mezze available. Jordan grows practically all it’s fruit and vegetables. The taste of the local food therefore very delicious.
Do chat with the locals. they are hospitable, friendly and so knowledgeable.
Be respectful. Jordan is an Arab country, while quite liberal when it comes to Alcohol, most Jordanians don’t consume liquor. In Petra, try the local brew or the Philadelphia!
For women, I’d recommend dressing sensibly and conservatively. doesn’t mean you need to be covered from tip to toe, but trousers and full sleeves are ideal. We used the Holiday Inn resort, private beach at the Dead Sea, where there were women in bikini’s and burkini’s. However if you are using a public beach, please check online what the ideal beachwear should be.
The local currency is steep: 1 JD = £1.05 and $1.48 in November 2017. but as an example, we bought 3 magnets from a souvenir shop on Mount Nebo for $5.
Petra and Night sky photo credits – Sanjay Madan #wanderwithsanjay