One of Liz’s goals was to visit Petra. Petra requires going to Jordan. Before we left, I read some guy’s blog about how to cross the border as an independent traveler. “Hey,” I thought, “We’re independent travelers. We could see Petra on the cheap.”
Instead, I reluctantly booked a tour through Abraham Tours, which included the Jordanian cities of Jerash and Amman and only six hours at Petra.
Turns out the tour knew best. We were fascinated by the other cities and six hours was exactly the amount we needed in Petra.
Also, I’m pretty sure I’d still be blubbering at the Jordan River Crossing if we’d attempted it ourselves.
The Jordanians posted this little sign to gently guide their visitors through the process of entering their country. Just follow these two simple steps and you’re on your way to a pleasant stay!
Here is how we REALLY got into Jordan.
- A guy got on our bus. He didn’t do anything, just got a visual of the contents. Made sure the bus was full of tourists and not rabid badgers.
- Entered Israeli side and stood in line to pay 106 shekel border fee. The huffy lady gave us a little receipt which we took to another line where an equally huffy lady gave it a firm stamp.
- Got back on the bus. Before it went anywhere, another lady came on to check that everyone had their receipts and they were, indeed, stamped.
- Drove half a block to the Jordan side. Everyone and luggage got off the bus which scooted back to Israel. Our Jordanian guide, Rami, met us there.
- Gave our passports to Rami—while he took them to get barcode stickers, we went to the currency exchange (no ATMs anywhere) and exchanged shekels for 40 dinar.
- Gave dinar to Rami who returned our passports. Took luggage and entered a building crammed with people. We were told there was an Enrique Ingleses concert that night! Turned out it was big Arab festival in Jerash—Enrique may or may not have been playing.
- Rami bypassed the line—must have had a friend at the desk—handed over our cash, then called us up to present our passports for a stamp.
- Ran our bags through the scanner, ran ourselves through the scanner and scurried off to our new bus with a new driver.
- The very last checkpoint, a Jordanian police officer got on the bus and inspected our passports with the shiny new stamp.
Was it worth the trouble?
Where else could you hear an Amazing Grace/Yankee Doodle medley played on bagpipes by Jordanians in a Roman amphitheater?
There were 15 of us on our tour. I know there were 15 because we were constantly counting each other to figure out who was holding up the bus.
“I think one of the Dutch is in the bathroom.”
“The German wasn’t feeling well, so she’s down by the gift shop.”
“Where did the Portuguese go?” (They were usually the culprits.)
After two days, we still referred to each other by our country of origin: Five Americans, two Dutch, two Portuguese, two Swiss (one of Turkish descent which earned him extra questioning on the way back to Israel), a German journalist, a Chinese intern, a Brazilian lawyer, and a Canadian biologist (who was living in Portugal, but didn’t care much for it, which she didn’t mention to the Portuguese).
Rami, our bus driver, and a Jordan Tourist Policeman rounded out our merry party. We asked why the policeman was with us if Jordan was as safe as Rami insisted emphatically, multiple times, that it was. Rami shrugged. “He’s looking for a wife!”
The policeman grinned. A less-intimidating fellow I have rarely laid eyes on. He was tall and slight and couldn’t have been more than 24. He didn’t speak English, but smiled happily the whole time he was with us.
“I hope he has a gun somewhere,” I whispered to Liz, “Otherwise I don’t think he’s going to be much help.”
He did. He also stood guard, at a polite distance, when the girls got off the bus to use the bathroom, or when Liz withdrew money from a gas station ATM.
“Even though Jordan is safe, there are people who would like it to not be,” said Rami. “He comes along so…no one is bothered.”
They had a very vested interest in making sure we had a good time in Jordan. Rami told us tourism in his country is only 1% of what it used to be.*
If something happened to us, the 1% would be zero.
When I got home, I Googled “Is Jordan safe?” out of curiosity. (This probably would have been a good Google before going to Jordan, but…) It doesn’t have a travel advisory, but, among other things, the U.S. Department of State warns that, “Celebratory gunfire is common, especially during major festivals, sporting events, or the biannual release of high school test scores.”
Good thing we were there during summer break!
“We are suffering, the whole region is suffering,” said Rami. “In the news, it’s always, ‘The conflict in the Middle East, the war in the Middle East’ so tourists don’t come. Everyone thinks the whole area is dangerous. But we have borders. Tell your friends, ‘Come to Jordan!’”
He motioned to the beautiful hotels in Wadi Musa, the town just outside Petra. “Most of these are empty,” he said.
Our meals were gorgeous buffets, long tables groaning under silver warmers of carefully prepared food, in restaurants that could easily seat a hundred. We were the only tour group.
It gave the impression of a region that had just perfected its tourism, only to run out of tourists.
The evening of our first day, the bus was quiet after a long, hot day of exploring the Roman ruins of Jerash (the ancient amphitheaters were outfitted with speakers and stages for the music festival that night) and Amman. Our driver turned down a gravel road and we were lulled by the clattering wheels. We drove for a long time in pitch darkness, up and down hills, deeper into the desert. Finally, the driver made his last turn and descended into the valley, Suddenly, the mountainside in front of us glowed with tiny lanterns. The orbs of light climbed high up the slope and we blinked, wondering if we were imagining things.
“What is it?” we asked.
Rami smiled proudly, “It is for you!”
We’d arrived at the Bedouin camp.** The camp itself was in the valley, but they had strung lights across the mountainsides and covered them with bags. The effect was quite magical.
We stayed that night in little huts in the desert and the next morning we piled into the bus and clattered over the gravel roads to Petra.
Our entrance fee was 50 JD (about $70). “For the Jordanians–guess how much they pay?” asked Rami. “One dinar is all! We want them to come!”
Petra is a city carved out of rock by the Nabataeans, a tribe of nomads with a penchant for facades. It dates to about 300 BC. The city is deep in the desert and the entrance is a high narrow canyon called the Siq. It was abandoned in about 550 AD and mostly lost to record except by the locals who drove their goats beneath the shadows of its towering tombs. For that is what most of the facades are: tombs.
The city was rediscovered in 1812 by a Swiss explorer who had heard rumors of the place and told his Arab guide that he wanted to sacrifice a goat to Aaron—whose tomb is nearby.
Since then it’s been excavated, starred in many movies, become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and joined the new Seven Wonders list.
We wound through the Siq, past the camels for rent and their persistent owners, stared in awe at the Treasury and then began the hike up to the Monastery, a facade three times as big as the Treasury, but less intricate. It’s exposed on the side of a mountain and much of its details have been eroded.
Our hike was punctuated by the persistent entreaties of Bedouin men (and higher up, in the less desirable locations, women) selling everything from necklaces made from camel bones to dusty plaster magnets.
“Hello! Ladies! My name is Sarah! Remember me on your way back. Good prices. One dinar only! No customers in three days!”
We returned Israel by the Allenby Bridge crossing, which deposited us into Palestine. Due to some regrettable miscommunication, Liz and I got separated from the rest of the group, and took a shared taxi and tram back to our hostel in Jerusalem. We were rather proud of our independent public transportation skills, and were smugly checking in when the rest of our tour group barreled through the doors of the hostel.
We had assumed they’d gone on without us. But no. They’d waited patiently for the Americans in the parking lot at the border crossing. And left only because another member of our group had to catch a plane.
The bonds of experiencing Jordan run deep.
*I know this is not a very helpful statistic. One percent of how many? How long ago was it at 100%? I don’t know. That’s all I wrote down in my journal, so I present it to you with the purpose of underscoring that tourism is basically nil.
**This was a Bedouin camp for tourists. The bathrooms were nicer than our hostels and I’m pretty sure our hosts dressed in Bedouin garb solely for our benefit.