Petra, Jordan

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Feeling completely bagged, I touched down in Amman, Jordan, my first Middle Eastern country, with tired eyes and an excited and open mind. We decided last minute at the Dubai airport to skip spending a night in Amman and instead head straight to our Bedouin camp near Petra and stay there two nights instead. With a tight schedule, we only had about five days in Jordan, so we had to really pick and choose  where to spend our time to maximize it.  The last minute decision cost us a staggering 70 Dinar (that’s about $140 CAD) to get transport to our Petra camp from the airport. It was a 2.5 hours drive in a private taxi, our only option from the airport – surprisingly we weren’t even being scammed, these were set prices by the reputable taxi company at the airport, all prices were posted.  Needless to say, it hurt my backpackers soul to pay that much.

I tried to shake off the burning hole in my pocket as we cruised down the highway at 140km/hr. The sides of the highway were utterly drenched in garbage. I was confused. How could Jordan have such a strong economy that their dollar was on par with the British pound, and yet the surrounding land looked like a landfill?  As we cruised further and further from the city, nearing more mountainous terrain, the garbage decreased and I began to really feel like I was in the Middle east. Everything had a dusty look about it, as the desert landscape blew the sand around to cover everything in sight.  Beautiful rock formations and hillsides peppered with sparse green shrubs came into view as we drove deeper towards our destination.  The camp was amazing. Hidden in the mountains, it was 15 little canvas tent frames, each with a bed and night stand inside it. The whole camp was completely empty when we arrived. In the main area there was a large rectangle tent for an eating space and a longer rectangle tent lined with carpets on the ground and huge comfy cushions on the floor with massive pillows and a roaring wood stove set up in middle.  Outside was a huge circle of benches around a massive fire pit that they would have a bon fire in each night.

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As soon as Rug and I arrived we crashed hard for three hours because we hadn’t slept the night before – 30 hours of travel and no sleep will take a lot out of you! It was one of the most peaceful and quite naps I’ve ever had the pleasure of taking. With no other people around, the only sound was the very distant Azan (call for prayer) from a mosque. We woke up feeling completely messed up, but forced ourselves to hike above the camp, scrambling up the steep slope of smooth rocks to take in the views surrounding us. It was so strange to be up there, to look out at the vast mountains pressing in from every side, and not see any other people. All we saw were a few goats on the adjacent rock face bleating away at us. It was so quiet and peaceful, the perfect way to wake up from a long, groggy nap and take in the sights of a new country. Aside from the goats, the place was eerily quiet and deserted, but we only appreciated it all the more after hustle and bustle of the cities and Turkey. It was such a stark contrast to go from the madness of a boisterous and chaotic city like Istanbul to such solitude and vacancy. 

That night, we lounged in the tent on the cushy floor pillows while they served delicious, piping hot, sweet sage infused tea, and stoked the fire. It was so cozy, nestled in to the plush pillows, the heady smell of wood smoke wafting through the air, the gentle murmur of travellers sharing stories over their steaming cups of tea that never had a chance to empty before they were refilled by one of the Bedouins.  I never wanted to leave! The smells and hot tea were making me sleepy however, and we had an early start in the morning to get to Petra so we shuffled off to our tent to get some more much needed rest.

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Instead of taking the usual taxi to the entrance of Petra, we arranged with our camp host to take us to see little Petra first before heading on a back route into Petra. We were the only tourists in little Petra. A bedouin silently walked with his donkey, passing us in the narrow sand covered pathway. They were the only other people we saw. The sandy coloured rocks shot up above us on all sides and the city began to show herself. A stairway was carved into the rocks. Carved out rooms began to appear. We climbed around with free range of the place, which we knew wouldn’t happen in Petra. Little Petra was so beautiful, this strange abondonded city carved into the sides of the sandstone. Some of the Bedouins still used the cave like rooms as kitchens and had fires to cook food and make tea inside them. I couldn’t get over the fact that there wasn’t a single other person here. I felt so fortunate to be able to see and explore this unique place all to ourselves without the hordes of other tourists pouring around us.

We didn’t linger too long as we had a bit of a hike ahead of us, and hours of exploring inside Petra. We hopped back in the 4×4 truck and scuttled along the dirt road. As we bumped along, I heard a puppy yelping from the back of the truck and our guide told us the little guy had come into their camp, but couldn’t stay as they had several cats at the camp, so he was dropping him off out here. We pulled over and he brought out a tiny little black pup from the truck bed and set him on the side of the dirt path. My heart nearly burst for the pitiful little thing, yelping and crying for his mother. Our guide hopped back in the truck quickly and took off.  I stared back at the little guy who immediately bolted into a dead run after us. 

“He’s following us!” I exclaimed, hoping our guide would stop, have a change of heart and bring him back to camp to take care of him.

“It is okay”, our guide replied. “The other dogs will hear his cries and will come to investigate. They will take care of him.”

I couldn’t believe how fast the little guy could run, how desperately he was trying to keep up with us, how terrified he must be at being abondedon all of a sudden. My heart was breaking and it took all I had not to jump out of the moving truck to run back and scoop him up in my arms and tell him it would be okay and that I would take care of him. But, as promised, a group of dogs came bounding out of the distance, drawn by the woeful yelps. The little pup stopped and flopped onto his back, ensuring the pack was aware of his passivity. I was terrified for a moment that they would attack the little one, but they merely sniffed him out and then they all ran off together. My heart swelled. He had found his new home 🙂

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The only other beings we saw on our back trail to Petra were these goats and their herder (not pictured)

   We parked the vehicle after about 15 minutes and began our hour long hike through the back side behind Petra. Petra was amazing, but believe it or not, the hike in was even better than the ancient city itself. We never encountered a single other tourist on our hike. We passed a couple of herds of goats with their Bedouins bringing up the rear, staff in hand, urging their goats along the rocky narrow pathways. One was stopped, huddled against the rock overhang, making a pot of tea with his goats wandering close by. I um, sort of love goats. Like a lot! So I was elated to be sharing our path with hoards of them instead of hoards of people. 

The scenery was utterly spectacular. We climbed higher and higher through the mountains, the strange rocks always changing colour – from orange to burnt umber, peanut butter to rust and even a deep mauve that reminded me starkly of PB&J sandwiches when it appeared next to the sandy colour rocks. Gnarled trees clung to the rocky outcrops, and the clouds swirled in the distant sky.

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“That is Israel, over those mountains”, our guide pointed out. “And just around this bend is Petra.”

Sure enough, as we rounded the bend, off in the distance we could just make out the façade of the Monastery. Normally, you enter Petra through the front, walking through the narrow pathway (called the Siq) until it suddenly opens up and the first building you see is that of the great and renowned Treasury. You would then work your way through the city until you reached the Monastery at they very end, after climbing over a thousand gruelling steps to reach it. We were more than pleased to have bypassed the steps and instead taken a beautiful winding mountain trail with striking vistas of the surrounding canyons and mountains. Our guide left us here and we made our way over the scree, summiting a small ridge which then brought the full majesty of the Monastery into view. It was breath taking. It was colossal. We scrambled down to get closer and the towering façade loomed above us, enveloping us in its shadow. It’s hard to explain what seeing Petra is like. It’s bizarre. The Nabataen empire literally carved an entire city inside the mountains. The incredible parched climate of Jordan is the only thing that has allowed the ancient city to remain so in tact after all these years. Once the thriving trading center of the Empire over 2400 years ago, Petra has withstood the sands of time (he he!).

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We spent eight sweltering hours wandering around Petra and losing ourselves amid the ancient city. We purchased some awesome Bedouin scarves for ourselves, had the lady wrap them on our heads the proper way, and explored the cavernous openings in the rock face, climbed through old bath houses and ambled among the remaining columns standing without a roof to uphold. We climbed stairs that led to no where and dodged camels as they came careening down the roads, kicking up plumes of dust. We watched local children play in the dirt, their faces smeared with earth, smiles wide, teeth brilliantly white against the dark smudges of dirt around their mouths. Eventually, we made our way to the front of Petra. As we rounded a corner I looked to my right and found myself suddenly staring at the Treasury. The Treasury is that famous image you’ve undoubtedly seen in Indiana Jones’s The Last Crusade.  The name is misleading as the building was actually likely used as a royal tomb, and is quite small on the inside, the façade being the true marvel.

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It was undeniably impressive (though I found the Monastery to be more so!), especially with the two guards standing in front (to ensure no one enters, as this is strictly forbidden) and a group of colourful camels patiently waiting for their masters. It made seeing the Treasury that much more incredible, stumbling upon it, and not expecting it. After marvelling at the Treasury, we walked down the long narrow path known as the Siq: 250 foot high walls of smooth rock soaring straight up.  The arenaceous walls of eroding rock towered in waves high above us, a mixture of rust, burnt umber and cream blending together sinuously. The illusory effect of the coalescing colours was dizzying.

The pathway was empty of tourists, most were now inside the ancient city itself. The rock looked as if it had been polished by the hands of giants, the velvety surface nearly shone. You could see the ingenious water catchment system running along the entire length of the stone corridor, and even old remnants of a carving of a man leading a camel caravan, a vestige from the once flourishing trade past of the city.

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We made our way back in towards the city to keep exploring. We didn’t want a guided tour as they were pricey, and preferred wandering around on our own besides. We eventually found some steps carved into the mountain that led up a steep  rock face and would take us towards the High Place of Sacrifice. There were but two other visitors up there, and it was nice to escape the crowds from down below and get some space to ourselves. We also had a spectacular view of much of the city far down below. We encountered a local Bedouin woman was selling some wares, but she seemed rather apathetic towards them. Instead, she greeted us warmly and followed us up to the High Place of Sacrifice just a few steps further. She took out an old rusted cut piece of metal pipe that had crude holes carved into it and began to play a crass tune through it, bouncing surprisingly agilely on the balls of her feet. She gestured around to show us where the sacrifices took place and eagerly urged me to come over to her and lay down so she could sacrifice me! She used her pipe as a ‘knife’ and pretended to sacrifice me over the intended area, a carved out basin that would catch the blood. I laughed hysterically along with this little old lady, as she cackled manically through her few remaining black teeth hanging precariously from her gums. She then showed me how to wear my scarf like the ladies instead of the mens style as I was wearing it in. She kept telling me I was a ‘good wife’ as she adjusted my scarf to match hers.

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While we were up in the area, we attempted to find the viewpoint of the Treasury, but we weren’t too successful. We started hiking through some back trails, that were hardly trails, so we kept a close eye on landmarks to ensure we didn’t lose ourselves. We saw some goats scrambling up some rocks and thought maybe we could follow their path. A local man came along and told us we needed a guide. We told him we did not! He insisted and said we shouldn’t be walking around alone here because we would get lost and that he must guide us. Not to be suckered in (we found out the hard way later in our trip that Jordan is ripe with scams and we were ripped off repeatedly), we refused over and over and he finally left off and trotted away on his horse. We ran into two other girls also looking for the arial view of the Treasury and each went our own way exploring. Soon, we came across some tethered horses and a pretty view of the city below, but still couldn’t seem to find the trail to the treasury. We eventually think we located it on Maps Me, but realized it would take hours to get there and back, and being 3pm already it wasn’t worth getting caught in the dark up here, so we sat down, ate an old Mars bar, crusted in whitened chocolate that had melted and solidified too many times that we had bought at a stand below, wrote in our journals, watched the clouds cruise by and then slowly made our way back down the main city.

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Over 10km of walking later, our feet were aching, our clothes drenched in sweat, and our pockets lighter from the steep prices in the park, we began the long walk out of the city through the Siq. The sun was just setting as we at last came clear of the towering rock canyon walls and came face to face with a sign that said ‘ice cream’. I nearly cried tears of joy and got myself a lemon popsicle. As the sun set behind the mountains, the  faded stars began to wink lightly in the orange and navy sky high above. The moon rose and we finally made it to the end of the road where we waited for our ride to pick us up and return us to camp. An old ’88 Toyota Cruiser roared up minutes later with three guys in front, and four more in the converted back with bench seats in the truck bed holding propane tanks they just had filled.  We climbed inside to join them, all smiles, and sped off on the windy curving road toward camp as darkness enveloped us entirely. They rambled away to each other in Arabic, and made a quick stop to grab water for the camp, which we added to the now crowded back. We cruised through a small village, and the street lamps illuminated an old Bedouin man, red and white scarf tied round his head, the traditional long brown robe draped over his stooping body as he made his way slowly across the street. Two small children played gleefully in the street under the lamp light, one sitting on a sled made of plastic garbage, the other pulling him along giggling loudly, the laughter filling the back of the jeep momentarily before fading away like the village lights as we cruised out back into the mountains. I got dizzy following the headlights on the road as they zigged and zagged all over the place and held on tight, hoping we make it safe to camp on these dark and dusty wild desert roads.

That night, we had amazing traditional Bedouin dinner put on by our camp. There were four kinds of salad, chicken and rice, roasted vegetables in sauce, vegetable soup with cardamom, pita, fruit and the best baklava – seriously, better than in Greece and Turkey! And of course, more sage tea! That evening we joined the others outside on the benches around the big bon fire.  The hosts brought out cushions and blankets (it’s damn cold at night in the desert!) and kept serving us hot sage tea all night. A bedouin sat by the fire puffing on his hookah, the sweet smell of the aromatic tobacco wafting over to me. Several of the younger Bedouin’s began to play traditional Arabic music.  The oud -a guitar like instrument – trilled into the night air accompanied by the deep and sonorous  echo of the daff drums that reverberated off the mountain sides. It was absolutely enchanting. I sunk back into my cushions, snuggled up to Rug for some body heat and cinched my blanket tight around my neck, tucking my feet underneath me. The hot tee warmed my hands as I stared  hypnotically into the fire and let the delicate and vaporous Arabic notes lull me into tranquility. It was without doubt the perfect way to end a day exploring Petra, the perfect introduction to Jordan, and a night that will linger strongly in my memory for years to come. 

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