I flew from Paris to Amman, then on to Aqaba, where I wanted to do some diving in the Red Sea. I stayed at a nice little hotel/dive centre in the hills above South Beach. I was lucky enough to arrive during the night of the Eid celebrations. The family that owned the hotel was serving a proper feast at the restaurant, and they invited me to join them. What a fabulous introduction to Jordanian food!
Unfortunately, I experienced a bit of a travel disaster in Aqaba. I had bought myself a brand new Nikon coolpix before the trip so that I could take pictures underwater. I failed to notice that the the latch wasn’t fully closed, and as I ventured into the sea for my dive, water seeped into the camera. RIP memory card, RIP battery and RIP camera 😦 On the plus side, I hadn’t taken any photos yet, so I didn’t lose any precious memories. Also, the dive master had a camera on him, and he kindly took photos for me.
We swam right from the beach down to Cedar Pride, a Lebanese freighter that was scuttled for divers in 1985. I had done a wreck dive in Thailand during my scuba course, but the visibility had been terrible that day, so I didn’t get much out of the experience. For this dive, the water was perfectly clear and we could see every detail of the ship.
If you’re particularly observant, you’ll have noticed that my goggles are a different colour than in the first photo of the day. Despite my best clearing efforts, my original mask kept fogging up. When we were about 10 m down, the dive master noticed me struggling and pointed at the spare mask he had brought with him. I nodded, then he yanked my mask off and replaced it with the spare one. I panicked a bit at first, and I had to remind myself to breathe through the regulator. I’d practiced this manoeuvre in my training course, but that was almost four years ago. In the end, I’m glad he made the switch, and I’m proud of myself for recovering nicely and for not making my nervousness too obvious!
When my undersea adventure was over, I flew back to Amman to join my tour group. This time, I picked G Adventures to take me around the country. I was particularly attracted to the “active” theme of the tour. Since I’m glued to a desk all day at work, I like to keep moving as much as possible while on vacation.
On our first night in Amman, we walked down to the Hashem restaurant, where we feasted on plates of fresh hummus and falafel. I think I ate hummus for three meals a day in Jordan. By the end of the trip, it was practically running through my veins! But I never grew tired of its chickpea goodness.
The next day, we drove north to Jerash to see the ancient Greco-Roman city. The ruins are remarkably well preserved, and I had a great time wandering through the site. Our guide, Bassam, told us all about the history of the place. I would encourage anyone who visits Jordan to make a point of stopping there. There is so much more to the country than Petra!
After leaving Jerash, we went further north to the Aljoun Forest Reserve. It’s one of the only places in Jordan where you can see any greenery, since it gets some rain in the winter. We hiked up to the top of the hill for a wonderful view of the region. On the way down, we walked for a long time along the road, and we had the misfortune of encountering a dead goat rotting in the sun. At least, I found out it was a goat later when I asked Bassam. The only thing really identifiable was a giant bone! The smell was even worse than surströmming. Fortunately for anyone reading this blog, I refrained from taking any photos.
After dinner that night, the cooks showed us how they make kanafeh, a Palestinian dessert consisting of soft cheese and sugar sprinkled with nuts. It was love at first bite for me. I simply couldn’t get enough of it. I eventually had to cut myself off to avoid one of those sugar-induced stomachaches.
From Aljoun, we headed down to the Dead Sea to do some canyoneering in Wadi Mujib. I had a serious case of the permagrin during this adventure. It involved some of my favourite travel activities: climbing up and sliding down waterfalls, jumping into frothy white water, and seeing spectacular scenery. I didn’t have a camera on me since my waterproof Nikon had met its end in Aqaba, but thankfully other people in our group took awesome photos.
For some post-canyoneering relaxation time, we checked into a luxury hotel resort on the Dead Sea. I had been to the Dead Sea before on the Israel side, and I was excited to have another opportunity to experience the saltiness.
As I got myself all muddied up before plunging into the water, I became keenly aware of every single scrape and scratch I’d acquired while canyoneering. I probably could have done a better job of covering my whole body, but I have an extremely low pain threshold.
Swimming in the Dead Sea is always loads of fun. I especially enjoy being able to sit upright and peddle my legs without sinking. It’s endlessly amusing. When we were finished floating for the day, we washed off all the salt and hopped into one of the pools at the hotel. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth, and the region is exceedingly toasty in the summer. During the day, you need to be either in some form of water or inside an air-conditioned building. At night, the temperature is somewhat more tolerable.
Our next stop was the Dana Nature Reserve in the hills above the Dead Sea. We took the bus all the way to the top of the trail, then hiked back down to the desert. The air was wonderfully cool at the start of the path, and it got progressively hotter as we passed through the different bio-geographical zones (Mediterranean, Irano-Turanian, Saharo Arabian and Sudanian penetration) (yes, I just googled that to put it in the blog).
From Dana we moved on to Petra, the highlight of any trip to Jordan. Our hotel had a sweet rooftop restaurant with a fantastic view of the city.
Almost the entire group went to see Petra by Night, but I, along with my tourmate Anna, decided to skip the event. Instead, we hung out with Bassam in a “grave bar” beside the site. The bar is carved into the rock wall, and seats and tables are set up in each individual tomb, which date back 2000 years to the Nabataean era. Anna and Bassam bought some drinks, and I guzzled down water like a proper teetotaler. Bassam regaled us with tales from his childhood and youth, and he told us hilarious anecdotes about other tour groups he has guided around the country. Protip: tourguides have the BEST stories. If they’re willing to talk, you’ll be entertained for hours on end.
We were up at the crack of dawn the next morning for a full day of sightseeing around Petra. Since we were on an “active” tour, instead of taking the regular Siqit path past the Treasury, we took the alternate Wadi Muthlim route. The adventure-seeker in me was in absolute heaven. I had such a blast scrambling over boulders and crawling through all the tight spaces.
The route spat us out directly in front of the magnificent Royal Tombs. The rock face changes colour depending on the sunlight, and when we arrived it was completely red.
Bassam took us past an amphitheatre and over to a path leading to the High Place of Sacrifice. I have a weird passion for staircases, so I was elated to learn that we needed to walk up 700 steps to reach the altar. It was hot and sweaty work, but the views were totally worth it.
As we followed the meandering path down the Wadi Farasa, we came across ruins at every turn. There was so much to take in! One thing that surprised me was the relatively small number of visitors. We walked for hours without seeing any other groups. Bassam told us that, before the Arab Spring, about 2,000 people would tour Petra on an average September day. The day we went, there was maybe 200 people at most. This was wonderful for us, but terrible for Jordan.
To reach the famous Al-Deir Monastery, we had to climb up another 850 steps. I was ecstatic 🙂 This time, very little of the path was shaded, so the hike was somewhat tougher. But I do think the harder the walk, the greater the sense of achievement when you finally reach the summit.
Our last ruin of the day was the famous Treasury. Bassam encouraged me to close my eyes as I rounded the corner and to open them only when I was standing right in front of the building. That way, I would see the whole thing at once. I must admit, it was very impressive.
Our group walked a total of about 20 km that day, mostly in the boiling heat. To reward ourselves, several of us went to a Turkish bath, or hammam, in town. I had already been to a hammam in Kusadasi on my Greek islands cruise back in 2011, and I was excited to experience another one in Jordan. We started the bath by sitting in a steam room, which was unbearably hot. My face and lungs were on fire. We had to ask them to turn the heat down a notch because we were weak westerners who simply couldn’t handle it. That was the case for me, anyway! After getting thoroughly steamed, we lay flat on a stone table. A man dumped buckets of cold water on us, which felt amazing. For the grand finale, we were taken to another room one after another for a soapy scrub down (a lady washed the ladies and a gentleman washed the gents.) I suppose the process was supposed to be relaxing, but I’m absurdly ticklish. I had to force myself not to squirm and squeal, especially when the lady was scrubbing my feet and stomach. Nevertheless, I came out of the bath feeling delightfully zen, and I happily slurped down my cup of tea while almost in a trance-like state.
The following morning, we drove over to Little Petra, another Nabataean site. We had one last chance to explore some incredible ruins.
That afternoon, we drove down to Wadi Rum in southern Jordan. We all piled into the backs of 4x4s and motored through the desert. Every so often, we would stop to have a closer look at the rock formations. In some places, we were able to scramble up the rocks and take some really great photos.
The cooks at the desert camp made us a delicious Bedouin barbecue dinner. First, they dug a hole in the ground. Then, they placed a metal oven containing the meat in the hole and buried the oven along with with a few hot coals. Finally, a few hours later, they invited us to see the big reveal. We watched them dig open the hole and pull the meat out of it. It smelled delectable!
While the desert was unbelievably hot during the day, the air at night was absolutely perfect. It was practically skin temperature! There was no wind at all, which felt very strange. Our group walked a short distance from the camp, away from any lights. We all lay on our backs on the hard-packed ground to have a panoramic view of the sky. Every few minutes, a shooting star would zoom across the heavens. It was truly magical.
Bassam arranged a boat cruise on the Red Sea in Aqaba so that we could cool off before driving back to Amman. I was thrilled to see the fishies again! This time, I stuck to snorkelling, a much lower-maintenance activity than scuba diving. Our boat was also the perfect height for some jumping-into-the-sea action.
The Red Sea is one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world, so needless to say, I was relieved when I could finally take a shower when we returned to Amman. On our last night of the tour, we went out for one last meal as a group. I was sad when it was time to leave Jordan the following day, but eager to return to Paris for one more night of travel adventures.
“I regret nothing!”
– Me, after bumping my spine on yet another set of rocks while floating instead of walking along the river in the Wadi Mujib canyon.
“You’ll be walking along the path and suddenly you’ll see Indiana Jones riding by on his donkey.”
– Bassam, after he negotiated a lift to take him up the trail to the monastery at Petra.
“Can we take this temperature and bottle it?”
– One of my tourmates at night in Wadi Rum.
“You look as happy as our bus driver did when the Bedouin music started playing at the desert camp.”
– One of my tourmates, after Bassam told me that we’d have another chance to eat kanafeh at the end of the tour in Amman and my face exploded with joy.
“Helenka, the office wants to know why you’re going to Sudan.”
– Bassam, after I accidentally missed one number when I gave him the information for my return flight to Paris.