I think the Middle East is one of my favourite places to be, a conclusion I arrived at when coming into land at Amman, Jordan’s capital. Flying from Dubai we had flown over nothing but desert which is an environment that always captivates me for a reason I have no idea of. On arrival we waited patiently in the empty arrivals area for our visas to be issued by one of a group of officials who were having a jolly good time maybe discussing much about the complexities of life yet likely doing nothing more than gossiping and avoiding work. Nonetheless, I loved being surrounded by Arabic tones once again and all the cultural quirks that go with it. The irony is that I haven’t actually travelled much of the Middle East and when asked what my favourite country in the area was, I only had Saudi Arabia in my pocket other than the UAE and Bahrain that don’t really count. I’m sure that no Jordanian will want to hear this, but their country is extremely similar to Saudi in appearance and how life goes about on a day-to-day basis and so to a certain degree I felt quite at home. There is no hiding the fact that I have missed being in the Middle East and to avoid moving back there I have decided that I need to travel around and see a lot more of it as soon as I can. Without falling into a tirade, I would like to point out that we spent a long time in Jordan before seeing women in work which I found amusing while I was once again trying to fight Saudi’s corner as people blasted it for all the usual bobbins. Upon landing in Saudi Arabia, one will find the airport is run by local women and away from the airport there will be female tour guides and the rest of it, no guide in Jordan was female but I don’t suppose this matters because Jordan has opened its arms to Western hypocrites (a little like Dubai) who ultimately just want a picture with a camel in a supposedly dangerous part of the world.
Jordan is tiny, which caught me off guard and also makes it well suited to tourism as it packs a lot of beauty and adventure into a small area. The problem with a small area is that it’s difficult to avoid the tourist cloud of misery and the destruction of authenticity that is left behind, but that isn’t to say that Jordan isn’t a great place to visit. It is. The Dead Sea is a good and peculiar place to begin with. Stretching along a part of the western boarder shared with Israel and Palestine, the sea receives its water from the River Jordan and sits 400 metres below sea level making it the lowest place on earth. The sea used to be 80km long but since the 1950’s its level has been falling by one metre every year thanks to the River Jordan being tapped up by Israel and Jordan. You don’t really grasp where in the world you are until entering a Dead Sea hotel where all luggage is scanned, and your girlfriend is pulled aside for having a tiny pair of RSPB binoculars that were confiscated for the duration of our stay. Jericho was about a 40-minute drive away, Jerusalem wasn’t much further and directly west of us, and the country borders Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Israel and Palestine. Of course, the Dead Sea itself, ironically dying, is a bit of a let-down. A short minibus ride dropped us to the hotel’s access to the sea which was barren except for outdoor showers, deckchairs, a pit of mud and a beach bar selling non-alcoholic drinks and blasting out reggaeton. While driving alongside the sea had showed off beautiful views of blue unadulterated water, the swimming area here was murky to say the least. Undeterred, I got into the lukewarm water that made scratches sting, the eyes burn, and the mouth gag should the saltwater make contact with any of these. Otherwise, it was an amusing experience in part because I could genuinely lie back with my hands behind my head and comfortably float and also because while in this position, I could watch a heap of actual humans gather around a pit covering themselves in mud like a drove of pigs around a feed trough. A natural pool of mud and I may sympathise, but a concrete ring that is obviously topped up by the hotel on a regular basis is just desperate. But apparently this is what should be done at the Dead Sea and once lathered up with mud, people stand around for a few minutes wondering what to do next until finally jumping in the sea to wash off and thus leaving behind a bath of water like that of a 19th century chimney sweep.
Like all great places in the world I was mentally prepared for Petra and the chaos we would likely experience, and as with all such occasions I left in spirits far higher than I imagined. A warning shot was fired when we went to ‘Petra by night’ which was a crowded but delightful night-time walk down to the Treasury (the main attraction) lit by candles. On arrival, the 2,000-year-old Treasury was bathed in continually fluctuating colours and we were herded into a position where we could sit on the desert floor and await something quite spectacular other than the Treasury itself. Silence descended, a man played a wooden pipe whistle thing for 10 minutes, he stopped, another man started to tell us the story of Petra before breaking off and telling us all we would learn the rest from our guides the following day, an attempt at serving tea was made, and that was it, we went back to the hotel. It was beautiful, surprising, unsurprising, hilarious, eccentric, hectic, confusing, delightful and charming. Essentially everything I would expect from an Arabic tourist attraction. The following day was hot but because we were on an ‘active’ tour we had the pleasure of walking around 18km from one end of Petra to the other and as such we saw a lot of good stuff and with surprisingly few people relative to my expectations. Even on arrival back to the Treasury it wasn’t as frenzied as I was anticipating. Petra is basically the remains of an ancient civilisation that carved a lot of stuff into the sandstone making it quite beautiful and unique. However, what really stood out for me was the offer of a camel ride on a camel with free WIFI onboard (the logo was even sprayed on its neck), and the sheer number of golf carts transporting people around, people that appeared perfectly able to walk, or at the very least take a WIFI enabled camel.
Wadi Rum would be another of Jordan’s highlights. If you like a bit of sand and mountains then this is the place to be, but then everyone already knows this judging by the number of desert ‘camps’ in the vicinity. As is the majority of Jordan’s natural environment, which is harsh yet stunning, Wadi Rum is quite unique in that incredible rock formations rise high out of the desert floor. I’ve seen deserts and I’ve seen mountains, but I don’t believe I’ve seen a combination of the two which may account for why the place is one huge movie set that has hosted the likes of Transformers and The Martian. It’s quite the place to visit if you have never been to a desert before but it lacks the feeling of emptiness I believe a desert should come with thanks to a well-trodden tourist path that even includes a ‘Nature’s window’, as do most natural places around the world these days apparently, that and a freestanding rock that has been carved out by the wind. There is then the customary en-suite bedroom made from brick walls that finish off any remaining romantic notions of being in the desert. Still, climbing up a sand dune away from the camp and its electric lights provided an epic night sky with the Milky Way faintly overhead before a full moon rose to create the most incredible mood lighting anyone could wish for, lighting up the rocky outcrops and casting shadows of all shapes and sizes across the desert.
Jordan rounds off four months of travelling and I can safely say I’m knackered! My knees hurt, my wrist hurts, my shoes are falling apart, and I can safely say that the days of drinking half the night and cracking on the next day are long gone. What I’ve learnt this summer is that when I retire, I don’t want to be travelling around the world caught up in a plague of tourists. I want to be sat in my garden wherever my home may be enjoying a book and sipping on red wine, happily reflecting on more youthly past times when endless energy abounded, pain was merely a concept, and the world was ever so slightly more intact. What’s more, as I watch young Europeans in Jordan lap up Starbucks coffee instead of local Arabic coffee on the border with Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Saudi Arabia, I’ve accepted humanity for what it is and where it’s going. I’ve ranted a lot over the past four months and I will no doubt continue to rant and continue to travel thus adding to most of the problems I rant about, but ultimately I believe travel shouldn’t be easy. It should be tiring, it should be overwhelming, it should involve the unexpected, it should involve effort, it should be uncomfortable from time to time, it should be eye opening and thought provoking, and it should most definitely be different to normal daily life at home otherwise what’s the point?
See the tour here