After having to break day 2 up into two posts to fit everything in, I thought I could get all of Jordan/Petra in one place, but that was a dream. So here’s the story of my first day in Jordan including a small peek at Amman and Petra. Don’t forget to check out all of the photos on facebook. 🙂
Amman and the Roman Ruins
To get to Petra, I first had to fly to Amman, a large city in Jordan filled with ancient Roman ruins and quaint, steep hilled neighborhoods that make Queen Anne look flat. My flight had changed so I arrived in Jordan at about 3am and shuffled bleary-eyed through customs and passport security to meet my hostel’s driver. (awesome hostel, by the way, I’ll be doing a full write-up on them in another post) I had booked a room in a female dorm, and at nearly 4am, crawled into my top bunk as quietly as possible and fell asleep.
I knew there was no way I was going to catch the 6:30am charter bus to Petra, so I came down for a leisurely breakfast and a think about my plans. I checked on costs for taxis and car rentals, but in the end I decided I’d just go ahead and take the public transportation. But first, since the hostel was a mere 30 meters from the Roman Theater, I decided I should have a look before I left on the 3 hour bus ride to Petra.
Lo and behold, I walked about a block and turned the corner into an ancient Roman ruin of the kind we usually identify with Italy. I spent about 20 minutes poking around the public areas, had to politely pry myself away from a would-be tour guide who wanted to drive me up to some of the other ruins nearby. I was also tentatively greeted in English by a group of Jordanian ladies.
The Muslima fashion in Jordan is quite different than Saudi. Most girls wore skinny jeans and boots with varying lengths of jackets (because it was cold). Some more modestly covered their hips and bottoms, but several wore tops that showed off their assets quite well. Hijabs were in many colors and seemed to be concealing either a cone-head, or the alien skull. This one is about an average size, but some were bigger! Seriously, I have no idea what those girls have under there, but there is no way it’s only hair. Prosthetics are clearly involved.
Eventually decided that if I had more time, a ticket inside would be nice, but I didn’t want to feel any more rushed, so I hailed a taxi to take me to the bus station. (more photos)
Taxis and Buses
I’m still trying to figure out why I’m such a commodity in the Middle East. Men never hit on me this much in the West. At least this one wasn’t as clumsy as the guys in Saudi. It was certainly an interesting test of my Arabic skills. I realized during the ride that I’d really picked up more than I thought. I still can’t form sentences worth a damn, but I can understand a lot more than I used to, and generally make myself understood too.
He tried to get me to come stay at his house, offering to share beer and saying it was nicer than a hotel. But he was good natured about being turned town, and kissed my hand sweetly when I left the taxi.
At the bus station, I knew I needed to find the bus by asking around, since there are no signs or schedules. I found a bus going to Wadi Musa which is the town next to Petra and another enthusiastic taxi driver who helped by telling the bus driver where my hotel was so he could drop me off at the door for an extra Dinar. He also gave me his number and said I should call him when I was heading back so he could pick me up and take me to the airport. When I explained my flight was hours after I’d be returning, he offered to take me to his house where his wife would cook a wonderful dinner for me. (I never called that guy)
The buses don’t run on a schedule, but rather just wait until they are full, then leave. I had arrived just as one full bus was leaving and was the first person on the next bus, so it was a long wait. But I did save over 100$ (US) by taking the bus instead of a car, so I feel like an hour was worth it.
The drive was long and the driver stopped briefly but repeatedly to drop passengers off along the way, seemingly at random. About halfway through, we stopped at a little rest area with a small cafe, a convenience store and a public bathroom. I picked up a cup of sweet hot Turkish coffee and took the opportunity to nab my hijab out of my bag and tie it on. I felt fine walking around Amman without it, but I had noticed that all the other women on the bus were wearing hijabs, and while no one had said anything, I felt more comfortable once I wasn’t standing out so much.
I was really surprised at the landscape. Despite the fact that it isn’t that far from Saudi, it didn’t feel like a desert at all any more. In fact, shortly before we arrived in Wadi Musa we seemed to hit a green belt and were surrounded by beautiful evergreens for the last part of the drive. The mountains snuck up on us slowly, we drove through foothills that had so many ups and downs that it was easy to loose track of the fact that we were gaining elevation until we were suddenly surrounded by mountains on all sides.
True to his word, the driver pulled up right out front of my hotel and let me out. It was already almost 3 in the afternoon and Petra closes at sunset, so I wanted to get a move on. The hotel staff were quite accommodating, getting me checked in quickly and even giving me a lift down to the Petra gate when I couldn’t find a taxi.
Petra is the famous capital of the ancient Nabatean civilization. It’s also the place Indiana Jones went in Last Crusade (don’t worry, I didn’t drink out of any fancy chalices). Not only is it an amazing site on its own, it is also related to the sites in Saudi that I had just seen at Madain Saleh.
The single day entry fee to Petra is 50JD and the two day is only 55JD, so even though I only had a couple hours of light left, I decided that it was worth an extra 5JD (about 7USD) to go in that afternoon. The ticket sellers were reluctant to sell me a pass, even though it was for two days, trying to explain that I “didn’t have enough time” (nearly 2 hours). I managed to convince them anyway, but they closed all the ticket windows as soon as I had paid and turned to find the gate.
While Madain Saleh is a restricted and private area that we basically had to ourselves and a couple other guided groups, Petra is the classic definition of tourist trap. Even before you get to the gate there are rows and rows of souvenier stalls selling stuffed camels, “authentic” Middle Eastern clothing, hookahs, caps, hats, pashmina scarves, beads, magnets, and other gew-gaws.
Upon entering the park, you are accosted by Bedouins trying to sell you a horse ride. These claimed that the price was included in the ticket, and that it would not be free the next day. Don’t you believe it. They’ll ask for a tip or a gift or something. It’s not free. It’s also not much of a ride, just a trot up and down the first few meters of the park. Even if you have small kids, I’d say skip the horses and hold out for the camels. If you really need help with the long walk, skip the camels and hold out for a mule.
I walked through the open area, following the trail and politely declining about a dozen offers of a ride. Several also told me that I didn’t have time, even though I knew that the walk from the gate to the Treasury was between 30 and 45 minutes, and I also knew that I didn’t have to be out the gate at precisely sundown. But I bet they make a lot of money from the kind of tourists who never read travel blogs before they go.
There were a few carvings that looked similar to Madain Saleh, but nothing spectacular. You have to walk for a long time to get to the spectacular.
The next phase of the walk is called the Siq. It is a narrow passage between two towering cliffs. The mule drivers came out here and started trying to sell me a ride and even mule drawn carriages that go to and from the Treasury. The later are obscenely expensive, by the way, considering it’s only about a 20 minute walk, and such a beautiful walk at that. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to go in a covered carriage and miss the upward view!
If my narration seems interrupted every couple sentences by someone trying to sell me something, that’s because the experience was interrupted every couple of minutes by someone trying to sell me something. Petra is beautiful, but it’s hard to take in the awesome splendor of the ages when someone is pestering you to spend money. I had read on another blog that the best way to deal with these merchants is to maintain a polite and sunny attitude and simply say “no thank you”. It was actually surprisingly effective. I think they’ve been conditioned to respond to “thank you” with “you’re welcome”, like a Pavlovian English response, because most of them did just that and moved on. A few were more persistent, but for the most part it worked quite well.
It probably also helped that this was February and none of them were trying quite as hard as they might during the height of tourist season.
The Siq gives this sensation like you’ve fallen down a crack in the earth. The path is very smooth and comfortable to walk however, and there are a couple rest benches and trash bins along the way. I spent most of the walk just gazing upwards, staring at the vertical landscape, ribbons of color in the rocks, waving and jutting formations and the shifting sliver of late afternoon sky far above. Finally, I rounded another bend and in the narrow gap ahead a tiny shard of the vast bulk of the Treasury soared from ground to sky.
The close walls and immense height of the cliffs of this part of Petra make one feel exceptionally small, like a mouse in a giant’s home, and the Treasury does no less. The sheer scale of the monument is unbelievable. I have pictures, and even have some with humans for size perspective, but it can’t convey the way that standing in front of something so immense makes you feel.
And then someone tried to sell me some silver bracelets. Kids who live in the Bedouin village are put to work early learning to fleece tourists. This one probably spoke better English than my college students back in Saudi, and had a whole list of reasons why I should buy from him that day, one of which was that he could only work on the weekend and had to go back to school tomorrow. I’m sure these all would have been harder for me to deal with if I hadn’t spent so long in China where fleecing tourists seems to be the national past time. As it was I replied, Ah school! Good for you! and he ran off to find someone less teachery.
The treasury was really stunning, and I was very glad I decided to come into the park even if just for a couple hours because I’m sure I would have felt horribly rushed if I’d really tried to see everything in one day. What am I saying, I still didn’t see everything. I only managed to walk the main path and had to turn away from all the tantalizing side trails. Maybe if I’d known the layout better, I would have tried to visit the High Place of Sacrifice that evening, because it’s a one way trail that leads to a high platform, but then comes back to the treasury area. (more photos)
And then someone tried to sell me a camel ride. I’ve actually left out most of the sales attempts from this narration, but some are amusing. This on tried to tell me what an interesting experience riding a camel is. MERS aside, I’ve ridden a camel before. Interesting is the perfect word, about halfway between when a small child shows you a scribble of lines and shapes and you say, oh my how … interesting and the old Chinese proverb about interesting times. I’m A-OK not riding more camels. Ever. So I thanked him and declined, saying I’d already had the experience, and that I saw camels every day in Saudi. This created some amusement among the camel drivers around, perhaps they thought it was strange for a lone white woman to talk about Saudi camels?
The Street of Facades, The Royal Tombs, the Roman Theater and a Bedouin named Eagle
I wandered around the corner and saw the Street of Facades and the Theater. There isn’t much Roman influence in Madain Saleh, but Petra is covered with it. Not only are the columns more frequent and ornate, but there is a full on Roman Amphitheater against one cliff.
The Street of Facades and Royal Tombs are really neat because it is where you can see the most resemblance to Madain Saleh. There are two pillared doors with peaked arches and five step ziggurats of the necropolis are echoed in this part of Petra quite clearly, like a bridge in time between the earlier developments of Nabatean culture into Roman and even later Christian influences that came into Petra.
Here another young man tried to sell me a mule ride, although his attempts at salesmanship were a little half-hearted. However, after accepting my disinterest in riding (it was getting close to closing time after all) he paced his mule along side me and began chatting. I like meeting new people on my travels, and since he wasn’t trying to sell me anything anymore, I was fine with this. He introduced himself as Eagle and told me that he had actually been born in one of the caves of Petra. He also still liked to live in a cave there most of the time. He was a part of the native Bedouin tribe that had been very gently relocated to a nearby village that the King built for them when Petra was made a National Park and UNESCO Heritage Site.
Eagle walked with me from the Roman Theater, past the Royal Tombs and along the Colonnaded Street. He shared tidbits of information about the things we passed, playing tour guide and boasting about his home. He showed me where to walk along the crumbling ancient roadway. He pointed out the two-humped camel rock in the cliffs on the horizon. And he even took some pictures for me on the road in front of the tombs. I asked him questions about his life in Petra, how he had come to learn English, whether he was happy there, and he asked me questions about America and Saudi and how I came to be travelling alone.
The sun began to set and I walked much farther into the park than I had originally meant to, but I knew the path back was clear, so wasn’t too worried about getting lost even if the light faded. Plus a cell phone makes a handy emergency flashlight. He told me how beautiful Petra was at night and I asked about the candlelight tour that I had read about online. He said it wasn’t really worthwhile, since the people operating it were very strict about where people could go and always trying to get everyone to be quiet but failing. But he said that the Bedouins often came into the caves of Petra at night to eat, drink, sleep and enjoy the night.
I like meeting people, but I’m not sure I could have stayed in the park at night with only the native Bedouin, so I shifted the subject. The other Bedouin sales people, camel and mule drivers were all packing up and meeting in a central spot before heading home. We walked into a clearing that was filled with camels. Eagle told me that his village was a short walk up the hill and that he could get someone to drive me back to the hotel for 2-3JD (about the same as a taxi would cost from the gate) and that I was welcome to walk there with him so I could see a new view and have some company instead of walking back to the front gate alone.
I decided that was safe enough, plus I wanted to see where these people lived. Some of my favorite travel experiences have been hanging out with natives, not just taking in the tourist attractions, so we set off up the hill toward the village.
To the Bedouin Village
The rock formations in Petra really are stunning and I got to see some of the amazing colors in the deep red rocks. The shapes and colors reminded me of nothing so much as sleeping dragons. We passed a few more tombs, caves and carvings along the way as well as a little lemon grove that the Bedouin cultivated. I was told they also grew olives and made very fine olive oil.
The walk was much farther than the 20 minutes I’d been told, but I don’t think he was being intentionally misleading. We were walking at a leisurely pace, and were passed by many other Bedouin driving camels and mules back at a brisk trot, so I expect it normally is about 20 minutes for him. Eventually, the climb became quite steep. I’d hiked all over Al Ula just the day before, then flown to Jordan and only had a few hours of sleep before setting out again, so my energy was flagging and I finally accepted the offer of a ride on the mule, whose name was William.
Watching the sun set in Petra and seeing the first few evening stars appear over the cliffs as we ascended toward the village is not something I will ever regret or forget. As the Maghrib Athan began I realized for the first time why everyone always tells me that they imagine Athan as this haunting and beautiful experience. In Saudi it’s often just a side note in my day, but here in the red striated cliffs and golden light of the fading day as the call to prayer drifted down to us from the village mosque above, I felt the beautiful connection of divine, human and natural meeting in one moment.
We left Petra proper, passing by the park police. It felt a bit strange to be walking out of the park this way, but the guard at the gate nodded and exchanged greetings with Eagle as we passed and seemed to find my presence unremarkable. As we continued up the road, Eagle told me about another route up to the Monastery called “the back way” that included a site called Little Petra. He said if I wanted he could help me arrange a tour up to that part of the park so I could approach the Monastery from that direction and then descend again through the front part of the park.
While I always want to believe the best of people, I am a natural skeptic, so I was unwilling to commit to such a thing until I had a chance to verify the story. Sadly, I’d read accounts online of the Bedouin extorting visitors (though never hurting them or anything) and didn’t want to fall into a scam or trap no matter how nice Eagle seemed. So he gave me his number and told me to call if I wanted to go in the morning.
In the village I met several of the children that had been selling postcards or bracelets in Petra, as well as Eagle’s brother who also spoke excellent English and told me that he had a wife in France. Then true to his word, he had another friend give me a lift back to the hotel, letting me know that I could give him 2-3JD for the ride. I gave him 5. (more photos)
Dinner at the Seven Wonders
Back at the hotel, I quickly checked in with my host there about dinner, since we were supposed to go up to her husband’s hotel (a Bedouin style tent encampment up in the mountains) for a group dinner which sounded way cooler than dinner alone in my room.
While we were waiting to be picked up, I asked her about the Bedouin in the village, what she knew about them and their interactions with tourists. I explained about the invitation and asked her advice, figuring since she’d lived there for five years, she’d know. She told me that mostly they were fine, but to be careful about staying with them after dark. Although the gates of Petra close at sunset, the actual curfew is midnight, so sometimes visitors stay with the Bedouin there and drink in the caves, but the Bedouin get drunk and don’t want to leave, resulting the the tourists being stuck or getting in trouble with the police for being there after curfew.
She also said the back way was legitimate and that she herself charged tourists 60JD for that tour option so as long as I wasn’t paying more than that, that I should be perfectly safe going that option with Eagle and his friends.
Waiting for the ride I met a couple more tourists, one who lived in Jordan and her friend who was a nurse in Portland, but had gone to school in Seattle (small world gets smaller!). The path to dinner was a dark road out of the town of Wadi Musa and into the mountains. The stars were completely out by this time and simply filled the night sky. If it weren’t so cold, I probably would have stood outside and stared at them forever, but Jordan is quite chilly in the winter and combined with the desert climate and mountain altitude I couldn’t stand to be outside for more than a few moments before I caved and went into the fire-warmed tent.
The rocks around the permanent camp had been decorated with paper lanterns, similar to what is used in the Petra by Night experience. It was really quite lovely, the dots of soften firey glow-light around the cliffs, offsetting the patterns and edges and casting a gentle light into the camp that showed us the path without interfering with the starlight.
The other two girls were actually staying in that “hotel”. Apparently there are individual tents in the area that are also fire-warmed, as well as hot showers during a few hours each morning and evening, and a generator to provide wi-fi as well. I had actually looked at it when booking online, but decided that while it might be really cool in summer, that during February I would opt for something indoor and thus wound up in the wife side of the husband/wife businesses.
In the main tent it was indeed quite warm with a large cast iron fire pit in the center that had a suspended sort of chimney/flue above it to funnel smoke up and out of the tent. We joined several other guests in the tent and sipped hot sweet tea and enjoyed the fire while we waited for dinner to be ready. It was a nice evening, chatting and sharing stories. I wanted to send Eagle a message about the tour the next day to find out how much his friends would be charging, but it took me a long time to figure out what I had entered incorrectly. What’s App is great for international SMS, but it’s very picky about how you enter a number into your contact list. I finally got in touch with him, but didn’t get a price quote that evening.
The dinner was fairly standard “Bedouin” fare, similar to what I had in Saudi before, kabsa and salad (though not as good as what I had in Madain Saleh), there was a stewed vegetable dish that was quite tasty and some of the cream cheese filled pastries made of the vermicelli-like pastry dough. It was mostly amusing to me to watch the new tourists marvel at the “strange” food which has over the last six months become quite familiar to me.
By the time I got back to the hotel it was after 10pm and I’d vowed to try to catch the 7:30 shuttle to the Petra gate that morning, so I cranked up the heater, set my alarm for 6am and fell asleep.
This story is continued in Spring Break 2015 Vol. 4: To the Monastery and Back. Don’t forget to check out all the photos of the trip on my facebook page!