Jordan: One Surprise After Another

Monday, April 29, 2019 Road Junkies 0 Comments


Days 25-31:  Barcelona to Jordan.  Though we subsequently learned that Jordan has a lot to offer beyond its well-known rose red city, there's no doubt that the opportunity to visit Petra was what put Jordan on our agenda for this trip.  Since Petra's carved sandstone facades were featured as the site where Indiana Jones found the Holy Grail in the 1989 blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, tourism to the site has grown steadily.  Being selected as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in a global voting campaign in 2007 further stimulated the flow of visitors.
Obelisk tomb.  Bottom floor had banquet hall where the family held annual feast to honor the dead.
Petra was founded around the 4th century BC as the capital of the Nabataen kingdom.  This ancient Arab state amassed prosperity and power through their strategic location along major trade routes.  Gaining control of the lucrative incense trade made them wealthy, and that status was reflected in their beautiful capital city.
Arriving early allowed us a view of the Treasury without hundreds of people present.
The iconic image most people associate with Petra is the so-called Treasury, undoubtedly the most spectacular and dramatic monument remaining from the Nabataean period.  With the height of a 12-story building, the structure is actually a mausoleum, probably the burial place for a Nabataean king.  Its familiar name stems from a local Bedouin legend that the king hid a treasure in the urn at the top, which is pitted with bullet holes left by would-be grave robbers attempting to retrieve the mythical riches.
The main street through the city (gate at end) was once lined with tall columns.
At its peak, Petra was home to about 20,000 people.  In the second century AD, Nabataeans were conquered by Rome and the opening of sea routes undermined their trading dominance.  After an earthquake destroyed many buildings in 363, the city's population dwindled to a small group of nomads.  The once flourishing powerful city faded into oblivion until it was 'rediscovered' in 1812 by a Swiss traveler and geographer who disguised himself as an Arab and convinced his Bedouin guide to take him to the lost city.
Carriage and horseback rides through Petra are offered by Bedouin vendors.
After the Swiss explorer wrote about his experience, Petra gained fame in the West as a beautiful  rose-colored city of antiquity.  In 1985, Petra was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, prompting the Jordanian government to negotiate an agreement with the Bidoul Bedouin people who inhabited the caves at the ancient settlement.  They were allowed exclusive rights to the tourism business in Petra in exchange for resettling in a town a few miles from the site.  A few years later, Harrison Ford came by with his film crew and Petra sealed a spot on the tourism map.
The siq leading to the ancient city is reminiscent of slot canyons in Arizona and Utah.
From the entrance area, visitors walk about a mile through a wide valley to the siq, a natural geological fault split apart by tectonic forces.  At the end of a three-quarter-mile narrow passage, the siq opens up onto the Treasury.  We opted for an early start, arriving at Petra around 6:15 to avoid the heat and thousands of cruise ship passengers who visit by bus from Aqaba.  By the time we walked the main path through the tombs, temples and monuments carved into pink sandstone cliffs and returned to the parking area four hours later, we had amassed 6.5 miles on our daily fitness goal.
Donkeys bear goods for vendors set up on the stairway to the Monastery.
One place we did not visit was the Monastery, Petra's largest monument, dating from the 1st century BC.  We had planned to try climbing the 850 steps to the top, but after seeing how treacherous some of them were, realizing we had to share the steps with donkeys hauling goods and visitors up and down, and assessing our fatigue level and what we had already seen, the decision to bypass the climbing opportunity was an easy one.

Although we recognized our limits at Petra, we failed to comprehend what we had planned at another Jordanian site we had read much about—Wadi Rum.  In the far south of Jordan, Wadi Rum is a desert valley cut into the sandstone and granite rock.  Inhabited for many centuries by a variety of cultures which left their marks in the form of petroglyphs and rock paintings.
It's in the middle of the desert.  How do we get there?  (photo from
Like Petra, the area became known after it appeared in several movies, often used to represent a Martian landscape.  Local Bedouins have created a tourist industry for visitors who want to explore the area with camping retreats and popular activities like rock climbing, 4x4 safaris, and horseback or camel riding among the massive rock formations.

Naively sitting in our suburban home in Georgia, we conducted lots of research on the "luxury" camps available and carefully read dozens of reviews of the forty-something options.  We hand-picked a camp with private tents (pictured above), each with its own bathroom.  Information sent to us after reserving our tent indicated the camp was 12 miles into the desert from Wadi Rum Village, and that someone would meet us in the town upon our arrival and provide directions to the camp.
Our transportation options
Driving to Wadi Rum, we watched miniature dust devils kicking up sand along the roadside.  Outside the car at the visitor center, we were assailed by blowing sand stirred up by the wind.  Only when we arrived in the village and found the office for the camp did we learn that we had only two options for transportation to the camp.  Rather than driving there in our rental car, which we had understood from the communications we received, we could ride a camel or in a jeep.  The jeep sounded fine until we learned a new definition for jeep—sitting on a bench on the back of a pickup truck with all our belongings, while everything (including us) became coated with dust on a 12-mile ride across the sand (and back the next day).  And, by the way, it was 85° and the goat-hair tent had no air conditioning.
Our Chevy Aveo rental and a local worker in Wadi Rum Village
That's when we came face to face with where our needs stood on the scale between comfort and adventure.  We dutifully paid the bill for the tent ($84) since we were cancelling last minute, drove south 35 miles to Aqaba on the Red Sea coast and paid way too much for an executive suite (only room available) in a luxury seaside resort.  And we were happy to do it.  No sand in our clothes, hair, ears, or belongings, and we liked it.
Hadrian's Arch, Jarash.  Central passage for chariots, sides for pedestrians (one for nobles, one commoners.)
Though Petra and Wadi Rum are the best known Jordanian sites on the tourist map, they are certainly not all there is to see.  Just 30 miles north of the capital city of Amman is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Jarash, a location with a chain of human occupation dating back more than 6,500 years.  Lying on a plain surrounded by hilly wooded areas, the city of Jarash was built by Alexander the Great around 331 BC.  Standing at the crossroads of trade and communications and with an abundance of natural resources, the city grew rapidly.  And like the rest of this part of the world, it was ruled over time by a variety of empires.
Original paving stones of the main thoroughfare were rutted by chariots that once jostled along them.
Conquered by General Pompey in 63 BC, Jarash came under Roman rule and became one of the ten great cities of the Roman Decapolis League, with imposing ceremonial gates, colonnaded avenues, baths, great theaters and temples, and a population of 20,000.  Like Petra, Jarash began to decline when overland trading routes were supplanted by shipping to transport commerce.
The South Gate of Jarash, one of four along the city wall.
Though the city had a brief period of rejuvenation after the Muslim conquest reached the area in the 7th century AD, Jarash was destroyed in 749 by a series of earthquakes.  By the time Crusaders came to the area in the 1100s, using some of the ancient ruins as a fortress, they described Jarash as abandoned and uninhabitable.
The Roman forum, unusual for its oval shape and huge size (300 x 260 ft)
No further mention of Jarash was recorded until its rediscovery in 1806 when a German traveler came across and recognized a small part of the ruins.  The ancient city had been buried in sand, accounting for the remarkable preservation of some of its structures.  Archaeological excavations begun in 1925 and still ongoing, have gradually revealed more of this well-preserved ancient city.

A Different Brand of Hospitality
Almost every travel writer we read before this trip—from professional journalists to bloggers—raved about the incredible Jordanian hospitality.  We arrived eager to embrace the people of this country which has never closed its borders to refugees in need.  What we found was not exactly what we  expected based on our research.

In all fairness, our perceptions may have been influenced by our experiences in Albania last spring.  Based on our impressions in visits to 60+ countries, Albanians set the gold standard for hospitality, always genuinely eager to offer you any kind of assistance and unwilling to accept compensation for it.  Even the young Albanian woman who helped pay our postage when we lacked sufficient local currency refused to let us pay her back in euros or dollars.  Albanians' interactions with strangers are friendly and open and sincere.

Our interactions with Jordanians in the week we have spent in various parts of the country could not be more different from what Albanians taught us about heartfelt hospitality.  In our experience in Jordan, you're expected to accept everything that is offered, whether it's something you actually want or not.  And whatever you offer, especially in payment, is never enough, even if it is clearly considerably more than an object or service is worth.

A few examples will best explain.  When we arrived at our Petra hotel, one of the desk clerks offered us a glass of orange juice, a nice gesture.  When I declined because I don't care for the beverage, he brought me a glass anyway, and it was thrust upon Ken with the expectation that he drink mine as well as his own.

At a Crusader castle we visited, a local dressed as an ancient warrior offered to pose for a photo with us for a fee, and we declined politely with the Arabic phrase for "no, thank you."  When we walked back past him on exiting, he sneered at us and made some pointed comments to his similarly clad colleagues.

While I was taking photos at Petra, Ken reached out to engage with an older female vendor nearby.  In an effort to help her, he offered her one dinar (about $1.40) for a tiny, ordinary pebble on her sales shelf, something he could have easily picked up a foot away for nothing.  "Two dinars," she insisted.

As we were driving through an off-road area looking at rock formations, a young boy of about nine chased after us yelling "one dollar, one dollar."  When we declined to give him any money, he made a face and demonstrated a too-mature hip grinding gesture toward us.

We could enumerate many other examples, but, suffice it to say, our impression of Jordanian hospitality was nothing more than aggressive sales pitches.  Hands were extended to us for money, not in friendship, as we experienced repeatedly in Albania.  We went on road trips in both countries.  Had we broken down on the road in Albania, there is no doubt an Albanian would have stopped and helped us and refused to accept compensation for his trouble.  In Jordan, we were unsure whether anyone would have helped, but had someone stopped, there is no doubt the person would have expected money and lots of it.

One Country's Trash
Not to obsess over Albania, but last year before we visited the country, we read often that it had a significant problem with litter.  In driving many miles all around the country, we can attest that this is simply not true.  Oddly, we heard not a word about Jordan's massive problem with litter until we observed it after we arrived.
The country has some incredible scenic beauty with fascinating rock formations and mountains.  Roads wind through these landforms in ways that offer superb views through the windshield of outstanding scenery.
Yet one has to look beyond massive amounts of roadside trash to enjoy the view.  Plastic bags, bottles, cans, old tires, and other types of debris are littered anywhere and everywhere.  We even saw a police officer at a checkpoint light up his last cigarette and drop the empty package on the road.
Jordanians love to picnic, and once spring arrives, they can be found out of doors on Fridays and Saturdays (their weekends) enjoying time with family, friends and nature.  Unfortunately, this popular activity also contributes to the litter problem, as people tend to leave the wrappings and containers from their picnic where they used them.
All that being said, we did enjoy our week in Jordan, with one surprise after another.  One aspect we did not expect but found delightful was the remarkable natural scenery (once you overlooked the litter).  The Arabah Valley that runs from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba offers some spectacular views, and we admired the engineers who designed roads traversing this mountainous area.
But Wait.  There's One Last Surprise Before You Leave...
Though we've experienced minor annoyances at airport security screenings before (I'm looking at you, Amsterdam agent, dipping your hand into the waistband of my slacks), the Amman crew took things to a new level.  When we arrived at the security line, an agent looked at our passports and boarding passes to Tel Aviv and told us to go to Line 5. Then the real scrutiny began.

Even after the usual removal of shoes, belt, jacket, watch and laptop, iPad, liquids in bin, I still set off the walk-through metal detector.  The female agent who disrespectfully groped my body as she chatted with a colleague left nothing to chance as she included a full examination of my nipples in her pat down.

In addition, we were both under suspicion for having tiny grooming scissors with us (compliant with TSA rules and the security regulations at six other airports on this trip).  That led to much more invasive examinations.  Ken’s probe started with his liquids bag.  His three test tubes with about 1.5 ounces each of water from different seas were confiscated.  “No water,” the agent complained.  He also determined that a small can of shaving cream was suspect and was taking it until his supervisor said it was OK.

Our problems worsened after I foolishly tried to ask about Ken’s items that were being taken. After that, the supervisor agent pulled every single item out of Ken’s backpack and examined it, even down to opening the packing cubes and putting his hands inside. Why? We were told X-ray showed scissors, nothing else.

Both our laptops and my iPad were swabbed and tested.  I pulled out my tiny scissors and surrendered them.  Ken did not, thinking he wasn't allowed to touch his bag, as is true in most security screenings.  (We later learned that his scissors were never confiscated, supporting our theory that the agents' excess scrutiny, which was afforded to no other passengers, was simply an exercise in harassment.)

Finally the agent finished with Ken’s bag, testing of our devices was done and we were released to get our things back together. Before we could, I was called back for even more screening, including testing of my laptop three more times, always with nothing suspicious found.  While my laptop was sitting on the table to be tested and retested, dozens of other laptops came by and were swabbed while I waited. Some were identical to my MacBook, so I ignored the agent and kept my eyes on my device the entire time to be sure it wasn’t switched off somehow.

It goes without saying that each and every item in my day bag had to be removed and scrutinized, though there was no apparent reason for doing so.  The agent delightedly confiscated a plastic knife and seemed disappointed that he didn’t find more.  But again, problem items would have been seen in the X-ray and none was reported.
Our favorite view of the Amman airport receding as we departed
Finally, reluctantly, they again released us to go to the gate area. We wasted no time in doing exactly that, thankful that we each had one bag that wasn’t pawed through. Even after stopping at a cafe for a bite of breakfast, we were the first ones to arrive at the gate and it was a little creepy because that entire section of the concourse was deserted for at least 30 minutes before other passengers began showing up.

During that time, we fretted that we still might have to undergo more security demands. I even reverted this blog post on Jordan to a draft because I had questioned the myth of Jordanian hospitality in it.  Eventually more passengers began to arrive at the gate and we began to breathe a little easier...and fret about our arrival in Israel and what that examination might be like.  But really not until we boarded the plane AND it pushed back from the gate did we believe we would be able to leave Jordan without further hassle.  We don't expect to return for more in the future.

Coming Up
The final country we'll be visiting on this trip into the past is Israel.  We'll be there for nine days before a couple of days in London on the way home.
Chapter 7 Stats
    •  Started in:  Barcelona, Spain
    •  Ended in:  Amman, Jordan
    •  Air Miles:  2,587
    •  Road Miles:  613
    •  Gas Cost for Road Trip:  $86.04
    •  Foot Miles:  39.53
    •  Weather:  43° to 90°, sunny, hazy, windy
    •  Potholes on Roads:  too numerous to mention
    •  Unmarked speed bumps:  1,261
    •  Goats & sheep in road:  1,908
    •  Foreign tourists at Petra:  92%
    •  Foreign tourists at Jarash:  18%
    •  Local hitchhikers:  1.3 per mile
    •  Bottles of water we drank:  31
    •  Cars driving wrong way on highway:  24
    •  No littering signs:  1
Loved:  The massive geological formations.  Jordan is mostly rock and desert and the spectacular landforms in shades of brown and red are fascinating.  The area has much in common with the deserts of Utah and northern Arizona.

Road signage—intersection right-of-way indicators, street names, speed bump warnings, highway designations.

Learned:  You can't always believe what others say.  Of course, we knew that already from our experience in Albania. 
No Gas Buddy Needed Here

Fuel prices in Jordan are set by the government.  They are reviewed and adjusted on a monthly basis to reflect international oil pricing.  Prices during our week in the country were equivalent to $3.785 per gallon, significantly less than we paid in Spain and Greece.
Blanketed with Security

After a series of coordinated bomb attacks at Amman hotels in 2005 killed 57 and injured more than 100 others, Jordanians take hotel security very seriously.  Before entering hotel car parks, vehicles are searched, swabbed for traces of explosives and have their undercarriages inspected.  Airport type security screenings with walk-through metal detectors and baggage x-rays are required before guests can enter the building.
What's Odd Here?

We've become so accustomed to the practice of smoking being prohibited in hotels, we find ourselves surprised when we see an ashtray provided, as it was in our Aqaba suite.  When we asked an agent at our Amman hotel whether smoking was permitted there, she replied with a smile, "Of course!  It's a Marriott!"
Now You Don't

Jordanian streets and long-distance highways are fitted with frequent speed bumps.  When installed, they're painted red with yellow and white stripes on either side, making them easy for drivers to see.  Apparently, this explains the lack of signage warning drivers that they're approaching a speed bump.  Unfortunately, the next time the road is resurfaced, asphalt is applied over the speed bump, covering the colored indicators.  If you don't know the road and you're not driving behind another car, you will definitely be unpleasantly surprised by these nuisances.
One of many Bedouin vendors selling wares in the ancient site of Petra.

Dijinn blocks throughout Petra are believed by locals to house spirits.
Camels were saddled and waiting in front of the Treasury for tourist photo ops.
Two of Petra's workers (one resting) among the camel-colored stones.
Lots of these little guys were working hard in Petra (and often being beaten to give more).
Ancient theater carved into the sandstone at Petra.
Sand art is alive and well in Petra.
The Temple of Artemis towering over Jarash was dismantled to provide materials for churches in 386.
The huge Nymphaeum was the main water fountain of Jarash with water cascading through 7 carved lion heads.
The one and only sign we saw addressing litter, but it's only an offense if you throw it from your vehicle window.
How did the driver get that car up on that rock to picnic?
And we thought we had picnicked in some odd places.  Never on a bridge...yet.
Along freeways in Amman, vendors selling fresh produce are a common sight.
Livestock should be seen and not herd. 
Same familiar shape and lettering, but here with a yield sign.  Does the driver get to choose?
Numerous Crusader-era castles such as this one at Shobak can be found around the country.