“With all the conflict nearby, Jordan has been a real uniting country for the region.” Our friend Vaughn said while driving us to a Wadi for a day hike just outside of Amman.
“You have Syria to the north, Iraq to the east, and Saudi Arabia to the south with Israel to the west of the Jordan river.” He pointed out. “Jordan is not a rich country and doesn’t have oil reserves like the Arabian peninsula, but they are a very hospitable people and take in those in need. People here have nothing, but they are always mindful of those less fortunate.”
There are dozens of refugee camps in Jordan and the Zaatari camp in northern Jordan is the sixth largest refugee camp in the world. Since 2014, Jordanians have been taking in Syrians displaced by war and the Assad regime because taking in people fleeing violence is, in their opinion, the right thing to do. A far cry from the populist and nationalist rhetoric that is growing around the world.
Landing in Amman with the ‘Jordan Pass’
We had a Royal Jordanian flight from Larnanca, Cypress to Amman on December 4th and bypassing immigration couldn’t have been easier with the ‘Jordan Pass‘. Our friends in Amman turned us on to this find which costs 70 JD (about 100 dollars) and includes your visa and entrance to 40 sites around Jordan including Petra, Wadi Rum and dozens of ruined cities. Overall, it reduced our entry fees by 50% and although it was a big chunk to pay up front, it reduced costs down the road.
We met our friends from Saigon (Vaughn and Ally) who work at the premier international school in the city and used their house as a base for exploring the city. The first day, we visited the Citadel and walked down the hill to the souks and roman era amphitheater with a stop at the Afghan market and ‘Hashems’ for lunch with some of the best hummus we’ve had in the middle east. They call Jordan “The City of 7 Hills” as the city’s neighborhoods sprawled out from these notable hilltops which gives Amman a feeling of being at sea with the peak and troughs of waves covered by domiciles and houses in every direction.
What really amazed us was the hospitality of the Jordanians as a whole. We would frequently be asked by locals: “Where are you from? Oh really? Welcome to Jordan!” without any hope of reward, baksheesh or patronizing their establishment. Being badgered by touts in Egypt made us hard and suspect of strangers and it took a couple of days for us to let our guard down.
Our dollar rent a car rep came to our house and dropped off our car and we were off to Jerash. Like most places in the region, cities were clogged with traffic and getting around was a little bit of struggle, but once were outside the city center, things opened up. It was nice to drive on the right side of the road again and not have to content with driving a manual transmission with my left hand. I had to force myself to stay right at roundabouts (which was the opposite in Cyprus) and use my horn fastidiously when cars veered into my lane which was…all the time.
We’d never heard of Jerash before coming here, but it was the best preserved Roman city we’d ever visited. Entering through Hadrian’s gate (pictured above) through the southern entrance gives you a view of the best preserved ‘Hippodrome’ in antiquity complete with spectator seating for the chariot races . The similar ‘Circus Maximus’ in Rome with its broken down arches and grass taking over the stone blocks gives you a footprint of what such a site could have looked like, but in Jerash you see what it was.
From the ‘Oval Plaza’ and it’s dozens of columns, it’s a long walk along the beautiful ‘Cardo Maximus’ which takes you to the north gate where market vendors once sold their wares to the north amphitheater, Nymphamium and the Temple of Artemis.
Floating the Dead Sea
We found a good hotel deal at the lowest place on earth which broke up our trip down to Petra. At 400 meters below sea level, the dead sea with its shrinking and ever receding coastline must have looked like an oasis to water starved travelers in the ancient desert and filled them with false hopes of nourishment. It’s 9 times saltier than the ocean and its salinity allows only a few forms of resilient bacteria to thrive. Because salt is more dense than freshwater, it gives a bather a buoyancy unlike any other place in the world.
Walking into the water, you first feel the soft mud on the bottom and chunks of salt crystals squishing between your toes. Upon getting ‘waist deep’ you can simply sit down and raise your arms and lets above water level. Wading out to deeper water, one floats at mid chest level verses the neck when treading water. The ‘Hilton Dead Sea Resort and Spa’ had staff down by the waters edge that covered us in mud and then gave us salt scrubs taking off 2 pounds of dry skin from as far back as Morocco.
Petra- Nabatean Perfection
We drove down to Wadi Musa and spent the night there before the long walk to Petra- the crown jewel of the Nabatean kingdom and they carved out (literally) a civilization in the sandstone walls across the wadi valleys.
It’s a considerable walk downhill through the narrow Siq, but after the last turn, the most iconic structure, (the treasury) appears between the sinuous canyon walls and you can’t help but feel like explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt did in 1812 when laying eyes on it for the first time. Petra’s other notable structures are the beautiful royal tombs and Monastery which open up in the valley below. Gazing around the cliff faces, you see hundreds of hollowed out holes where whole families must have lived and interestingly, many modern day Bedouins have taken refuge. Visiting the royal tombs, I spied some small make shift kitchens and sleeping cots for the touts and vendors that still this day call this place home.
We chartered mules to take us up the 800 steps to the Monastery and save us 3 hours of climbing. Our guide ‘Mohammad’ was only a kid, but helped us mount ‘Champagne’, ‘Shakira’ and ‘Katy Perry’ for the long trip up.
“Don’t have your feet all the way in the stirrups, just have the tips of your toes in.” I told Ava.
“Why not?” She said back.
“Because if the mule falls over the edge, you can jump off more easily.”
“Well, accidents DO happen, and chance favors the prepared.”
Sure enough my foresight didn’t assuage her fear, but heightened them and as we climbed up, our mules toed the edge of hundred foot canyon wall drops by mere millimeters.
“Daddy I’m freaking out! Why did you tell me that!”
“Well, I just wanted you to feel safe!“
Wadi Rum: Desert Camping
We drove two hours south to Wadi Rum from Wadi Musa to try some desert camping. When looking for a desert camp in Wadi Rum, I was pleasantly surprised to see amidst all the luxury camping options, Bedouins renting out their caves in the desert on Booking.com. We were given GPS coordinates to a gas station in the middle of nowhere and were met by our hosts that drove us to their family’s camp snuggled in at the base of a huge sandstone monolith amidst the red sea of sand dunes.
Our first night gave us one of the most spectacular sunsets we’d ever seen in our lives and we spent the evening with other guests sharing our stories, and playing card games. Ava won a memory game that night, beating out all the adults and our hosts gave her complimentary meals for the duration of our stay as reward.
In Comes Google Lit Trips
As Ava finished her year long Math curriculum five months early and started to review for her final course test, we started reading ‘Number the Stars’ by Lois Lowry with ‘Google Lit Trips‘. Google lit trips layer Google earth images with the storyline to give the reader some discussion questions that relate to the text but also with images for reference that come up in the reading. In the case of ‘Number the Stars’, the story takes place in Denmark at the start of Nazi occupation and cites castles and places were new to both Ava and I.
“So Ava, what were your favorite parts of Jordan?” I asked.
“I loved floating in the dead sea, playing with all the kitties, and Petra“
“What did you like most about Petra?”
“Taking the mules up to the Monastery was amazing don’t you think? Daddy?…..Daddy?…..Daddy?“