The more I travel, the more I appreciate the opportunity it gives me to catch a glimpse of the vastly different lives of people all over the world. I can rattle off the sights in a certain place, sure, or where to eat… but the fleeting interactions I have with people of different cultures are increasingly what impact me most. In short, the people make the place.
This was especially true in Jordan, where my friends and I packed several weeks’ worth of exploration into just four days this past weekend. Wedged between Israel, Syria, and Iraq to the north and Saudi Arabia to the south, Jordan has a blend of cultural influences that are immediately apparent. A stable constitutional monarchy surrounded by countries in conflict, Jordan relies on its tourist trade, which has suffered in recent years in spite of the warmth and hospitable nature of its people.
The Rose City of Petra (aka the Lost City of Petra) is as magnificent as it is enormous. With only one day to spend there, we decided to pony up the 50 JD ($70) that it cost to get an official guide from the visitor’s center. We were greatly rewarded for this investment in our guide, Jaber.
We quickly learned that Jaber is part of Petra’s excavation team and is working as a guide on the side to save money for his upcoming move to Manchester to pursue his PhD. While I can’t independently verify any of this, Jaber was extremely knowledgable about the site and had a thorough answer to every question we had. As we wound our way through the 1.2 kilometer canyon (known as “the Siq”) towards Petra’s main entrance, Jaber presented a variety of proven facts as well as debated theories about the life and religion of the Nabataeans who built Petra between the 1st century BC and 3rd century AD. Finally, we made it to the pièce de résistance: the Treasury (Al Khazneh).
Jaber gave us time to take dozens of pictures before explaining the various architectural influences in the Treasury. We then continued our tour down towards Petra’s other major sites: the Roman-era theatre, various tombs (which were inhabited by the local Bedouin people until Petra became a UNESCO-protected site in 1985), Colonnade Street, and the Arched Gate.
He also introduced us to the son of New Zealand-born Marguerite van Geldermalsen, who is internationally famous for the book she wrote about living in one of Petra’s caves with her Bedouin husband. The family now sells the book as well as handmade jewelry from the local community in their stall beneath the tombs. As all of Petra’s guides do, he left us at the foot of the 920-stair climb to the Monastery, Ad Deir (which was only 850 steps before he and his team re-worked certain parts to make the path a bit easier, he explained). We thanked him, wished him luck in his studies, and began our ascent.
The gradual climb to the Monastery took us past Bedouin women selling souvenirs, children on donkeys, and the rainbow-colored cliffs that led our way. When we reached the top, what little breath remained was taken away for the second time of the day as we turned the corner to see the massive carved structure. Nearly as large as the Treasury itself, the Monastery was the day’s second best surprise.
The award for “Best Surprise of the Day” goes to a local Bedouin man named Abid who we found by following a sign advertising “The Best View.” As we scrambled up yet another cliff to see what all the hype was about, we heard Abid before we saw him. The gentle sounds of the lute brought us to Abid’s perch, seemingly on top of the world, with incredible views of the massive Monastery to his left and the immense valley below to his right.
“You made it! Welcome,” he greeted us warmly before offering us a cup of tea. Like the others we had passed on our way to the top, Abid seemed to be selling souvenirs, but he did not reference them once during our brief stay with him. Instead, he explained how he was born 38 years earlier in a nearby cave and had fought UNESCO for years to retain his post high above Ad Deir.
Like other Bedouins we would meet, Abid said he feels most at home in a natural environment — so he spends the majority of his time on his mountain-top perch, returning to his wife and kids in the village twice a week to restock supplies. As we sipped our tea and watched the sun slip further towards the horizon, Abid played us a song he wrote for his brother who had recently passed away. “I play it each day to remember him by,” he explained. With the light beginning to wane, we reluctantly said goodbye to Abid and made the long decent back to the Treasury and through the Siq for a much-anticipated beer in the world’s oldest bar.
Tyseer and Sultan
After a good night’s rest, we made our way down the King’s Highway to Wadi Rum, where we met our hosts for the next 24 hours: Tyseer and his cousin Sultan of Wadi Rum Full Moon Camp. 23-year-old Sultan would be our guide for the day, so we piled into his jeep and set off through the desert towards Burdah Arch, which we proceeded to climb for the reward of lunch and stunning views of the desert.
The climb, which was a bit challenging for some of us, was a breeze for Sultan — who hopped effortlessly from rock to rock in his sandals. Supportive and patient, Sultan applauded us when we made it back down from the three hour climb and summoned us back to his jeep. We spent the rest of the afternoon speeding through the desert to play in sand dunes and view ancient carvings, stopping occasionally for tea in a few of the Bedouin tents scattered across Wadi Rum.
Just before sunset, we reunited with Tyseer, who welcomed us to our home for the evening: the cave where he was born. The son of a Bedouin Sheik, Tyseer – in addition to his duties running the camp – is an accomplished poet and helps manage the Wadi Rum Visitor’s Center.
As our dinner cooked on the fire at the center of the cave, Tyseer delighted us with tales from his trip to Dubai to compete in an international poetry competition and the negotiations that took place with the producers of Matt Damon’s The Martian to film without damaging the protected flora of Wadi Rum. Particularly after our long day of climbing in the sun, the steaming platter of meat and vegetables that emerged from the fire was easily our most satisfying meal of the trip.
After a peaceful night sleeping under the stars, our hosts woke us with hot tea and breakfast before we packed up camp and headed for a morning of rock-climbing. Sultan proved again to be a true professional, with gear and a plan at the ready. We scaled the rock face a few times in the shade before reluctantly returning to Wadi Rum village to shower and continue our journey. We waved goodbye to our hosts, promising to return again soon.
Fadiyah, a Bedouin woman in her 80s, was the only wife of her late husband – more wives are "trouble," she says. She now has over 30 grandchildren in the nearby village of #WadiRum, but prefers her life in the desert, where she tends to her goats and her family brings her water and travelers regularly to keep her satiated.
Without a doubt, the most memorable stop the previous afternoon was to a tent belonging to Sultan’s grandmother, Fadiyah. Like any grandmother in any other culture might, Fadiyah turned her attention to the two young women in our group immediately, asking in broken English whether we had children yet — and if not, why not.
To my friend, she helpfully suggested that she start working on having children “tomorrow, or in two or three months.” To my husband, she noted that in her experience the first child usually arrives soon after a man takes his second wife. How many wives did her husband have? “One,” she laughed. “More wife, more problem.”
For the rest of our brief visit, Fadiyah alternated between scolding her grandson and asking him to translate her story of the young Australian volunteers who recently lived with her for six months. As we thanked her for her hospitality and left her tent, I couldn’t help but wonder about the rest of the life stories that were hidden behind her knowing smile.
The final person worth mentioning is not Jordanian, but an Ethiopian pharmaceutical salesman named Hailu that we met on our visit to Bethany Beyond the Jordan — the site where it is believed that John the Baptist baptized Jesus. Bethany, which is located in a militarized zone between Israel and Jordan, attracts thousands of pilgrims each year who wish to renew their faith in the waters of the Jordan River.
As we approached the river’s modern location, several baptism ceremonies were taking place at the water’s edge in a variety of languages. As one of the groups dispersed, Hailu and several of his colleagues, emerged from behind us in white gowns that they had purchased from the Visitor’s Center. Even for a non-believer, Hailu’s reaction to bathing himself in the river was incredibly moving.
“I’m not bathing until I get back to Ethiopia,” he gushed as he stepped out of the river. “This is the best day of my life.” As we walked together back towards the van to depart, I assured Hailu that I would send him the pictures I took of his baptism and told him how honored I was to have been part of that moment with him.
“We were both meant to be here today,” Hailu replied. Looking back over all of the incredible people I’d met and places I’d seen during my brief stay in Jordan, I had to agree.