I wake up at 1:00 am, and even with Julie snoring, am able to go back to sleep until 8:30 when she wakes me. We go upstairs to enjoy a meal from the buffet by the window, but not before taking in the view of the city surrounded by mountains and ocean from the pool area. I feel lucky to have pita with yogurt and honey, along with pound cake and French bread, to carb-start my day before making our way to Wadi Rum.
Jordan’s ‘American Alley’ consists of KFC, Pizza Hut, Popeyes, and Burger King. There are a few metal art installations and lots of planted trees along the road and in the roundabouts, and then… the giant wooden fish that seems to be eating one of his scales. I want to stop and hike in the mountains, pet the goats that are eating rocks, and ride the camels grazing in the field; but that’s the traveler in me that prefers to explore without time restraints, boundary laws, and property rights – at least when it comes to animals.
I pause at the railroad crossing to take in the view (or look cautiously for the train that could come speeding around the blind corner) and admire the sign of the little engine with its big puff of smoke (which seems entirely possible that the train would overheat in this region). Ten minutes down the road appears what could be a radio station or an active train depot – if it wasn’t for the rusted boxcars and the 1916 sign making it more like a museum or an interactive site to travel through time. But again, no time to stray from the semi-planned itinerary.
It’s only another 15 minutes, past the mountains that go from looking like stacked papers to shelved books, to the visitor center main entrance. There’s a large sign with the option of a vehicle or camel tour with distance, time, and price listed beside each choice. Our guide, the man who called dibs on us, is ready to waive the entrance fees if we will hire him. Julie tells him to back off before she gets bitchy, and we go into the pricey coldstore to buy a large water each and a Connection for me – a Snickers/Musketeers comb0, while we discuss our plans; she doesn’t want to be late for Petra by Night.
We agree to meet him in Rum Village at 11:00 am where the restaurant and camel rides are, and the tours begin. This parks reminds me of Canada’s parks in the sense that they are unpaved with little proof or signage of their existence, so the guide is here to wait for us to return from short trips within the vast expanse of desert path that we have chosen – looking out for the safety of the park and its visitors to Middle Eastern standards.
I see a camel and an opportunity to experience the ‘stand and sit’ before we start. The guide calls the owner over and I’m on the hump taking selfies. There’s a lot of padding and even a handle on the seat and I imagine what it would be like to ride a camel through the desert, especially if he got in the mood to run, which is why they have guides walking them with harnesses. I’ve been on a running horse on a small farm, but I’m sure a camel doing the same thing here would alter my dream to the extreme; of course this will remain an item on my bucket list.
Julie regrets not riding an elephant in Angkor Wat and doesn’t want to feel the same way about Jordan, so over she goes. It’s funny to watch her throw her short leg over and then scream when the camel goes to sit as she thinks she will fall – hence why the men stand nearby as it’s a common occurrence. The men tried to hide their chuckles, but I laughed out loud, and continued to do so on the way to the tour truck.
With a good laugh out of the way, we’re ready to start the tour at an agreed price of 40 JD. It was 35 when we left the visitor center, but we can appreciate the even number with the agreement that we get at least two hours, and some cash towards the camel guy. The guide puts two cushions in the back and we’re grateful as we hit the bumps of the road and the rocks and sand of the desert. I thought Jordan would be flat with Petra hidden in the middle, but this country is full of mountains, sand dunes, deserts, farmland, trees, cliff sides, and water – it’s beautiful.
Our first stop is a natural spring. Our guide has the option to sit in his truck, sit in the shade of the tent selling things to tourists, or to join us. He goes with the first and I begin to wander and then to climb, not as high as the man who made it to the small spring surrounded by plenty of lizards out enjoying the cool weather, but high enough to get a better view of the valley below, and to see a lizard rock hopping. We make our way back to the truck with Julie’s new 10 JD keffiyeh on her head to help shade her from the sun. I put my hoodie up to protect my neck since my hat that I brought for this reason is smashed inside my bag that’s packed in the trunk of the rental.
Our next stop is a single dune on top of a rocky hill. Our driver has to back up and try again (more gas pedal) to get us parked by the others that are on their way as we pull up. I enjoy feeling the soft sand on my toes until it starts to burn. I put my sandals back on until I make it to the crest where I can dig my feet in to the cool below while I take a panorama before we head to a canyon. Julie starts to explore as I go the way another woman has just come – the toilet direction. I think I find a good spot until I look up and can see the camp. I go down further between rocks and find other patches of wet sand where others haven’t ever seen a cat pee.
We go up the stairs, stones and clay, on the rock and into the canyon. We tiptoe the edge; along with the other people covered in hats, cameras, bags; past the water to get in further. This is where the angles are: the smooth lines and deep crevices; the sharp edges and soft water; and the bright sun contrasting the petroglyphs on their canvas. The next pool is an unknown depth and we’re not ready to swim, so we take some more pictures – of the canyon and ourselves before going back to camp where I hear one guide describing the local attire and watch another apply a burqa to a woman to aid in his explanation. We sit along the wall and have tea, mine with no sugar.
The boy sitting next to me, definitely a teenager, has beautiful eyes, as most Jordanians do. I ask for a picture and he asks for money. Our guide tells me to kiss him on the cheek and he shies away – not that I would’ve done it unless I was guaranteed the picture for proof. He went un-kissed and un-photographed and we were on our way to the temple, or what’s left of it. The guide had told us we have time for one of the bridges, but wouldn’t tell us how long that would take and wanted an extra 5 dinars each, so we headed back to town.
I wouldn’t walk on a historical wall in the States, but here there are rocks positioned just for that, at least that’s what it looks like to me with the footprints for added proof. I go in to inspect the rocks and crevices and Julie goes the other way to see what she can find. We meet back at the truck and our driver sits up – what a job he has. Perhaps if we were sitting in front we would get more info about the area, but that’s not happening. He drops us back to the car and we give him 20JD each.
Our guide offered to take us to lunch. We both said no thanks at the same time. We are very capable of finding food and don’t need to pay him for his assistance. There is a restaurant across the street, but we will be making our way north to get to Petra before dark. I’m excited and my foot heavy. We’re making great time flying down this smooth section of road sans speed bumps which Jordan is famous for – at least for surprising us since most are unmarked and Julie was unaware of what the sign meant.
I see the sign for the railroad tracks – the ones with a stop sign because there is a sharp turn for the train and no bars or horns to warn you otherwise of its approach. We stopped on the way down and took a picture from the window. This time the picture will be of the flat tire I get us at 1:30pm after we crash down on the other side. I’d like to blame this on the shit condition of the car – bumper falling off, two bald tires in front, and the headlights pointing down because they’re loose, but the damage is from the scratched rim poking a hole – way to go Jess.
Even though I know how to change a tire I was quick to throw my hand in the air at the truck following behind us. The passenger is kicked out to help us while his friend drives on. He’s quick to put the donut on only to realize that it has as many cracks in it as the road does and we’ll soon have another flat. He rides into town with us and directs us to a garage. We are charged 50 dinars ($70) for tire and services, which some might consider a great deal in the States, but an overcharge here. All Julie and I can think of as we drive away is that we should’ve gotten a receipt for reimbursement from the rental company.
Julie will take over driving for a while. We need the other tire to last. At 2:45pm we stop at a Petra gift shop where the owner tells me everything is handmade and some of their costs are paid for by US AID, so since we’re Americans we can get things 25% off. As grateful as I am I have no need for tacky magnets, rusty locks, shiny lamps, large bags, and plenty of other displayable items that I have no shelf for. Julie does find something nice though in the blue color she loves and after enjoying a glass of tea we’re back on the road.
I thought Petra was just the Treasury hidden in a butte in the middle of the desert, but I was wrong. There is a shopping village and beautiful mountain range in the town of Wadi Musa (the water from the opposing mountain in the distance – 14 km hike). It’s a long way down to the valley, past the entrance to Petra, and up the hill behind Movenpick (that was booked, regardless of our coupon) to the La Maison behind.
We check-in to room G-08, and buy our 17 dinar tickets for Petra by Night. I’m eager to see it, but it’s 4:30p now and the site closes at 7pm so they can set up the candles for the reopening at 8:30p. That would be a lot of walking (but as anyone who has been knows, it’s definitely worth it) or running (and I don’t want to rush). I will check out the town after I put my bag in the room and head out with phone, camera, and cash. We can leave the key with the front desk and I leave the car keys with Julie.
I walk down the hill, past the purple and yellow flowers, to the shops. I’m stopped by a curious guy who offers me a free lemon popsicle and some conversation with him and his son. They want to take me to dinner and I tell them it has to be before 7:30, pre-Petra, or at 10:30, post-Petra, but he says that’s too late. I head to the visitor center to see what the museum has – lots of pottery, busts, and information about the Nabataeans – and their women being equal to men in society. I inquire at the desk and the site opens at 6am – enough time to explore before we have to leave tomorrow.
Outside, I’m stopped by Abdalah who wants to talk and offers to buy me a drink at Guest House Hotel. I ask for a local white wine and am brought a glass while he drinks his whiskey from a paper cup. I’m eager to get outside and see things, not sit inside, but I tell him the story of the boy with the beautiful eyes, so we go into his shop and I let him put kohl on my eyes – to help bring out the color. He put it on lightly and then another guy applied a second coat.
We were on our way in search of Petra Beer, at 8 and 10% ABV (with no need for the 13%), at 6pm. It’s something else new for me to try, and something I don’t usually do – drink on vacation. We happened upon his friend Mohamed who was traveling with an Israeli singer who he just met outside the entrance of Petra as well, and walked with her to the Treasury. They were glad to join us as we stopped at one place and then took to the village hills to find the beer at Valentine Inn where they have a 15 dinar Turkish bath for hotel guests; along with Wadi Rum tours, dinner buffets, movie nights, and a midnight curfew – popular in the Middle East for hotels and women under 25.
In keeping with my mood to stay outside we decided on a hill overlooking the city to watch the sunset. It was absolutely amazing to be sharing this moment with these people. The girls had beer, me what was left of mine after I foamed it up, and the guys whiskey with apple juice – a yummy combo. The sun went behind dark clouds and soon the mountains. After 7pm, the Maghrib prayer filled the canyon with amazing sound. Then it was time to pee. The singer went behind the large rock and Abdalah showed me some sage growing on the rocks (perhaps something to wipe with) before I found another rock. I went to take a picture of the piece he picked and he said why not get the whole plant… sage advice.
I told the group that I would meet Julie at 7:30 and that they were welcome at our hotel’s happy hour from 7:30 to 8:30. On the way to the hotel, and popular in Jordan, I noticed that taxi drivers have their inner lights on when there’s a passenger. I don’t know if this is to make the customer feel safer, or to let people hailing cabs know that this one is taken, as there’s legal debates all over the States as to the amount of distraction with lights inside the car and to their legality of use at night.
At La Maison, Julie had tried to see the top floor and been denied, something about renovations. Abdalah talked with a guy and they opened up the balcony for us – and the bar. I drank a beer with them; then Julie and I walked down the hill and said we’d see them at 10:30p. We started walking along the luminaries at 8:30 and I could hear crunching rocks and foreign languages. I could tell we were heading into a canyon as the lights started to grow on the shadows around us – placed in holes and on steps, but I couldn’t see anything else but the dirt around the bags and lights in the distance that soon faded as we made our way into the park and away from the city.
I appreciate a park being open after dark, with the advantage of a different perspective, even if it is a separate entrance fee. I know we’ve reached the Treasury by the 200 candles lit up on the stairs – and I’m gauging how long this will take me to see in the morning when I can take more photos if it takes 30 minutes before the light of the moon has had time to join us down here – how deep are we?
The 300 people are led in to sit on the stairs behind the candles, on the ground amongst them, and filling in the space between the steps in front of me and the wall behind me – like we’re in a topless cave. I stand in the back and listen as the flute player fills the canyon with sound before a man uses his voice with a rababa – a bowed instrument aka a spike fiddle – to do the same. I’m glad people are willing to watch with their eyes and not their phones. I watch the cats weave around the candles that cast light enough to cause curiosity, but not to fulfill it.
There are men carrying trays of tea glasses and as soon as Julie gets hers at 9:30 I squat beside her. This is great for the peaceful ambience, but I want to experience the canyon without all the people, and now is the time. We walk back and are slowly joined by others passing us. The moon and stars are beautiful, the shadows playful, and the area more magical, mysterious, and spacious. It sedates my feet and quickens my heart. I have to come back.
I get to the lift of our hotel at 10:30 as the group is coming down. They were done waiting on us, and Julie had gone down the street to get a soda. I said I’d be back for her in our car or theirs. We called out to her and she ignored us at first, as usual catcallers that know her by name, and then we were able to convince her to cross the street and get in. At 11:15p we were back at Valentine Inn getting beers and ice, and an old man was kind enough to sing for me while playing his oud – a paired-string instrument popular in East Africa and the Middle East aka an Arabic lute.
Julie was ready to go after dinner plans went from trying mansaf – a traditional Jordanian dish – to getting firewood for a BBQ. The guys loaded the wood into the back of the car, we dropped Julie back to the room, and made our way to Little Petra to cook in a cave – or a grotto-esque recess – about big enough for six to sleep with a fire, which we had going by 11:30pm. We were joined by two other guys, one I recognised from earlier as we’d given him a ride, but they left before the food was ready.
We passed the time talking by the fire, dancing under the moonlight on the rocks, and the others singing their cultural songs. I feel bad now that I didn’t participate but I debated singing Twinkle, Twinkle or Old MacDonald or the Star Spangled Banner. There were half chickens with bread and I had two of them. I didn’t know I was that hungry. We put our trash on the fire before kicking the extra wood out to save for the next people, and then put the coals out. There’s a great view of the city lights from here and I appreciate the local perspective given to me by Abdalah and Mohamed who got me back to the room by 2am. I woke Julie for a second just by coming in the room, but was quick to change out of my smoky clothes and climb into bed.