If I asked you to come along with me on a road trip in the Middle East, you probably wouldn’t know how to react. In these times of ISIS and extremist terrorism, a road trip through the Arabian Desert is probably not on anyone’s vacation list. However, that’s exactly what my wife and I did: we flew to Jordan, rented a car, and travelled the country.
We did a lot of homework and research before travelling—not to mention I grew up in the Middle East as an expat, and my wife was on a consultation project for the Government of Jordan a few years back. So we were already familiar with the territory and the culture.
The Kingdom of Jordan is a beautiful country. However, it’s right in the middle of all the turmoil striking the region, although none of the direct effects have spilled into the country. Indirectly, however, the fear of the chaos in neighbouring countries has affected the country’s reputation. Not surprising, then, that its tourist population is far from what it used to be. The Bedouins, years ago, traded most of their camels and their traditional way of life for Range Rovers (for giving tours). The few camels and horses they kept were used to give rides to tourist families.
Jordon is a place one has to experience to fully understand its beauty and complexity. The country is rich with history and culture and boasts some of the most hospitable and life-loving people on the planet. We started our trip in the capital of Amman, eating at the famous Hashem restaurant, walking through the loud and boisterous bazaars while munching on indulgent kanafeh, and then travelling up the byzantine streets to find the famous Trinity soap store, which welcomes travellers with a patio that boasts a breathtaking view of the city.
We then rented a car and toured the country, stopping at the world famous historical site of Petra (cue the Indiana Jones music). After half a day of climbing through historic monuments and traversing steep mountain trails, we left Petra to camp out in the famous Wadi Rum desert, the setting of movies such as Lawrence of Arabia, Transformers, and, most recently, The Martian.
On the way there, we almost ran out of gas. It was hard to panic, though, because the sunset greeting us ignited the whole mountain valley in a sea of purple, pink, and gold. Only when it got really dark, with no gas station in sight (in the middle of the desert, mind you), did we start to worry a bit. When we stopped to ask for directions, we found that everyone was friendly and very eager to help us reach our destination. After being directed to the closest gas station, we finally made it to Wadi Rum, where we camped out in a Bedouin encampment and watched the stars.
The next day we hiked the surrounding campsite with a friendly desert dog who guided us through some rocks and lookout points. Whether he was trained to do so or not, it was an unforgettable experience. We hired a Bedouin guide to take us deeper into the desert and visit a number of points of interest such as Lawrence’s Cave, Mushroom Rock, and ancient desert wall carvings.
After exploring the famous desert, we hopped back in our car and made for the Red Sea port town of Aqaba and explored more bazaars, hung out with friendly locals, and spent the evening sipping tea and puffing on a hookah.
Our final destination of the region was the Dead Sea, another famous tourist spot and a must-visit place when in Jordan. We were able to take a few dips in the mineral-rich sea before settling in for the evening and partaking in a fun Jordanian dinner party, complete with hookahs and belly dancers.
Our road trip came full circle upon arriving back to Amman to drop off the car and have dinner with a few of my wife’s old colleagues. We feasted on traditional Jordan fare in an area called Rainbow Street. As we sat and soaked in all the sights and sounds and reminisced about our travels, I started to remember the reactions of people when we told them we’d be doing this trip. I also started anticipating their reactions when we came back and began to envision their mixed reactions when I told them about all our fun, safe (but adventurous) travels through the kingdom.
Looking back, I realize we were part of a small handful of tourists in the country at the time. On top of that, we were part of a smaller portion of that group that decided to travel on our own. While in Wadi Rum, I remember our Bedouin guide explaining to us how times have changed drastically: “The world has painted all of the Middle East with one giant brush stroke. Because of that, no one wants to visit us anymore, and that’s unfortunate because as you can see, we’re quite safe here, and we welcome all people to our country. We have a lot to offer.”
It’s true. Jordan is steeped in history and majesty and splendour. The country’s hospitality knows no boundaries. Visitors are treated and welcomed as friends, and Jordanians, Bedouins, and city folk alike take pride in their country. Everywhere we went, every greeting and goodbye was, “Welcome to Jordan, welcome.” Would we go back? Absolutely. The Middle East is a vast and complex region. Yes, it has its risk and dangers, but so does everywhere else in the world. Obviously, be careful of where you travel and how you get there. But also be careful of painting the whole area with the same brush—you may paint over smaller, hidden gems waiting to be re-discovered.
Planning a new travel adventure? Don’t forget your travel insurance.