Jonesing For Jordan: How I Fell In Love With This Tiny Arab Country

Give me some random things you associate with Jordan. The Lost City of Petra? Wide expanses of desert? The Red Sea? The Dead Sea? Hilltops and valleys where Moses and his crew hung out back in the day? A bunch of Biblical names and places you haven’t thought about since those long boring hours of Sunday School you were forced to go to as a kid?

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Getting in touch with my inner Indiana Jones at Petra

Perhaps the Middle East is more of an exotic collage of thoughts and images to you. Seeing camels roaming free in the desert, hearing your first call to prayer from a  mosque, eating lamb roasted over a Bedouin campfire. Along with these images may come some very real questions: Are Americans welcome in Jordan? Is Jordan a safe place for female travelers? What can I expect in Jordan in terms of modern technology and comforts? Well my friends, the answers, much like so many other things about Jordan, may surprise you.

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My choice to go to Jordan this summer was a fairly random one. Petra’s on the bucket list of just about every child of the 80s reared on a steady diet of Indiana Jones, but it wasn’t particularly high on mine. In the end it all came down to opportunity. I was at a loose end as to how to start my summer travels and a friend invited me to tag along on his adventures to Israel and Jordan. And just like that, an adventure was born! Honestly, sometimes the more random a destination is the more I get out of it. I went to Jordan with zero expectations and no pre-conceived notions and it totally knocked my socks off!

To Tour Or Not To Tour?

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Beach Blanket Bingo in Tel Aviv! 

My friends and I decided to kick off our journey in Tel Aviv, Israel’s notorious party town on the Mediterranean Sea. In my research, I found that plenty of people travel to Jordan from Tel Aviv without tours and get along just fine. However, there were a few major factors that inspired us to book a group tour:

First of all, traveling to Jordan was a chance for me to learn about a culture I’m completely unfamiliar with. I wanted what I was experiencing to be contexted for me by a guide who really knew their stuff.

Second, I just couldn’t see myself renting a car and getting lost (or heaven forbid breaking down!) in the desert. That kind of road trip just isn’t my cup of tea.

Third, I’d heard mixed reviews of the difficulty of the land border crossing from Israel to Jordan and back. Flying via the Israeli border town of Eilat is said to be the most hassle-free option, but I couldn’t find a tour that had that option. The ground crossing is considerably more complicated, owing to the fact that Jordan and Israel used to be at war and it is still to this day a highly fortified border. With the group tour, we had somebody meet us at the border and guide us through each step, without which I would have been totally lost.

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Crossing the border was a multi-step, hours-long process that I’m glad I had assistance with. Interested in crossing on your own? Here’s one blogger’s experience. 

Picking A Tour

There’s a smorgasbord of tours offering all kinds of options to choose from out there, so do your homework. In the end we booked through Tourist Israel, which is a large booking service that set us up with a package tour with another subcontractor. Our guide was great, but the individuals who took care of transit and border crossing were a mixed bag so I can’t recommend a specific company for you with 100% confidence. I will say that all of them are not created equal and you shouldn’t cheap out. Be sure you know what you’re most intrigued by before you book and find yourself a tour that specifically focuses on that. Otherwise, you’ll be doing too many “drive-bys” of interesting places in your big-ass tour bus!

Unforgettable Experiences

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There’s so much to explore in Jerash

The first destination once we crossed the border into Jordan was the ancient city of Jerash. Jerash is said to be the best-preserved Roman city outside of Italy. Another bonus, it’s a chance to wander around and get up close and personal with the ruins without having to contend with hordes of obnoxious crowds the way you’d have to in Italy. Make sure you’ve got water, hat and sunscreen as there’s little shade and you’ll want to spend some quality time trundling around the forum, the theater, and Hadrian’s gate!

 

 

 

If you listen carefully to this video of Jerash, you can hear the midday call to prayer at the local mosque.

Madaba

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Our group stopped at a mosaic shop and learned all about this intricate art from the craftspeople working there.

From Jerash, we made our way to the small city of Madaba, to see intricately mosaiced Greek Orthodox Basilica of St. George. I know it sounds silly, but my favorite moments of my first day in Jordan were looking out the windows and watching the sights roll by. From majestic fertile mountains to roadside markets, I’d just never seen anything like it before and was so keen to soak it all in.

 

 

 

 

On the road in Jordan

Petra

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The destination you’ve been waiting to hear about! Petra is one of the few places I’ve been in my life that truly was worth all the hype. There’s nothing you can do to prepare yourself for the sheer magnitude of it. Thousands of years of history carved into sixty square kilometers of dramatic sandstone cliffs and canyons. Do I have some advice about how to enjoy it properly? You know I do.

Get there early: It’s cooler in the morning and there are fewer crowds.

Take more time than you think you need: My biggest regret of this entire trip is that we tried to see Petra in one day. People, this was not my finest travel moment. I felt like I ran through the entire complex, including up the 850 steps up to the monastery.  If you’ve got no other choice, see it in one day. If you have any control, take at least two so you can really linger and soak up the history.

Drink water, wear sunscreen and wrap up: Once you enter the complex it’s very spread out and although there are water and toilet facilities, it may take some time to locate one.  You’ll be completely exposed under the hot desert sun and sweating like nobody’s biz so take at least a liter of H2O with you, two is even better. At the entrance to Petra, people sell a lot of souvenirs, including scarves that they’ll help you wrap around your head, bedouin style. Is it cultural appropriation for a westerner to walk around like that? Probably. But honestly, the bedouin head wrap kept the sun off my head and my body cool way better than a flimsy straw hat could. Without it, I may have gotten heatstroke.

Don’t participate in animal abuse: Petra is rife with people trying to sell you rides on camels and donkeys. Our tour guide warned us before we entered that most of these animals are overworked and abused. Not only is this cruelty to animals, but it represents a danger to tourists if exhausted animal trips and falls.

While walking through Petra I saw a lot of animals who were abused and in pain while Western tourists sat on top of them as if nothing was wrong. If an animal is panting, crying, collapsing, being whipped or being pushed up a hill by its owner while you sit on it, you are participating in animal abuse. This is not okay and it is NOT as one woman I met on the trail insisted it was, “An authentic desert experience.”

Prepare to be pressured: The people living in the area around Petra are completely dependent on tourism. You’ll meet a lot of Bedouin people in the complex, many of them children, who will really try and pressure you to buy things, take camel rides, or go on special guided walks. Some will even lie to you and say you can’t go certain places without them, or that the cost of the extra tour they are proposing is included in your admission price, only to pump you for money once the service is provided. You don’t have to pay for anything additional besides food, water or souvenirs. If someone is pressuring you, be polite yet firm and keep walking.

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Respect the camels, just take a pretty picture and see the wonders of Petra on foot. 

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You can do it! Ascend the steps to the monastery on your own, stop along the way to buy tea or souvenirs if you need rest.

Wadi Rum Desert and Bedouin Camp Ground

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Sipping tea in a bedouin tent in the middle of the desert, an experience I never knew I needed to have until I had it!

I had no idea what the Wadi Rum desert even was before I arrived in Jordan, yet it ended up being a highlight of my trip. If the bold colors and dramatic landscapes look straight out of a movie, that’s because they are. Scenes from Star Wars and Laurence of Arabia were shot here! We did an open-air Jeep tour which was a fabulous way to get out into the center of the desert. You can also do a camel tour of Wadi Rum. I was reassured to see the camels in Wadi Rum looked considerably more healthy and well-rested than their cousins at Petra.

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By far the best part of this experience was sleeping in a bedouin camp in the desert. Be forewarned that this isn’t a real Bedouin camp, it’s basically a glamping experience made for tourists. Our camp provided us with a full meal cooked over an open fire. We also had a pool and optional sunset yoga classes. The most magical part of the experience was losing power on the first evening we were there. All the lights went out and everybody had to put down their phones and lie in the desert underneath the stars. We stayed at Bait Ali Camp, which I highly recommend.

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Our desert oasis in Wadi Rum.

And So Much More…

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Other amazing moments on this trip included seeing the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, Mount Nebo, where legend has it Moses first got a glimpse of the promised land, visiting a mosaic studio, sampling Jordanian pistachio baklava, noshing on enough hummus to sink a ship and watching wild camels run in the desert at sunset. What I did only scratched the surface. My biggest regret about Jordan is that I didn’t spend enough time there. If I could do my trip over, I would have spent less time in Tel Aviv and more time in Jordan.

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Kickin’ it Moses style at Mt. Nebo

But is it safe?

In a word, yes. Jordanians are incredibly warm and friendly and the general attitude toward American tourists was more positive there than it is in many European countries I’ve visited. My tour bus was personally escorted everywhere by a member of the Jordanian Tourist Police. As far as I know, his job was mostly to look cool in a jaunty beret, smoke hand-rolled cigarettes and deal with any visa issues that came up.

I personally did not feel unsafe at any moment in Jordan. Other women have experienced being groped, harassed, even scammed and sexually assaulted.  As always, please trust your gut, have an exit plan, follow my safety rules and if an offer from somebody seems too good to be true, there’s a good chance it could be. In spite of these stories, there’s no reason to fear that Jordan is too dangerous. According to the Global Peace Index, Jordan is rated the 77th safest country in the world, America is 128!

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Use common sense but don’t let fear keep you from exploring in Jordan.

Western amenities:

There’s wifi almost everywhere and you’ll see goat herds in the traditional bedouin dress in the middle of the desert on their cell phones. That being said, Jordan is a poor desert country so plumbing sanitation and water pressure won’t be what you’re used to. Carry your own wet wipes and Kleenex. If you prefer to use tampons, pack them in your luggage.

What’s it like to be a female in Jordan?

Jordan views itself as a progressive Arab country. Jordanians will proudly tell you that women have access to all levels of education, are allowed to drive, work outside the home and initiate divorce. There are even gender quotas in parliament. In practice, Jordanian culture still looks fairly traditional to Western eyes. I did not encounter any Jordanian women in the tourist or retail sectors. Our tour guide told us that many women face pressure from their families to take traditionally female jobs such as nursing or teaching and to give up working altogether once they are married.

Wardrobe matters:

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Protip: if you find yourself feeling a bit exposed, purchase a scarf from a local vendor. It will double as a souvenir later.

Although there are no laws what women are and are not allowed to wear, all of the Jordanian women I saw in public wore some form of traditional Muslim dress. We can debate the finer points of how obligated female travelers are to adhere to the cultural norms of the countries they visit, but I do find that if I take a little extra care to cover up when I travel in countries where women dress conservatively, I am able to move through society with a little more ease and comfort than when I do not. This matters to me.

Fortunately, it didn’t take a massive amount of editing to my wardrobe to feel like I was being respectful of Jordanian customs. I and most of the women I traveled with wore typical western summer clothing such as shorts, tank tops, sandals, longer dresses. This seemed acceptable in touristy areas. I wore leggings that covered my knees in most places and carried a large lightweight scarf I could use to cover up in holy spots. As far as I know, none of the women in my group received any hostility or harassment about how they were dressed.

Interacting with Jordanian men:

Jordanian men can be very forward. In the cities of Aquaba and Madaba I couldn’t even nip into a convenience store by myself to buy a bottle of water without the shopkeeper trying it on with me. Fortunately, I felt like 99% of this attention fell into the unwanted and uncomfortable yet harmless category.  Unfortunately, not every woman who travels solo in Jordan can say the same thing, so be forewarned. Thankfully, in my experience, a firm but polite no thank you was all it took to get the men who approached me to back down. My general rule is that if they ask if you’re married, it’s not leading anywhere you want it to, so always answer YES. And if a man seems very interested, not only are you married but your husband is waiting for you just outside. No, it is not the most feminist thing in the world to get a man to back off by essentially telling him you’re another man’s property. But here’s my take: when I’m traveling, it is not my job to do the emotional labor of educating every man I meet about female independence. It is my job to safely and comfortably enjoy the place I’m traveling in. If that means telling a little white lie here and there, so be it.

Is it safe for solo females?

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Follow in your own footsteps!

This is a very personal question. The internet is full of solo female travelers who have had safe and enjoyable exploits in Jordan. I would not caution an experienced traveler who knows what she’s getting into to avoid going to Jordan solo. For me personally, this was my first trip to a Middle Eastern country and as such, I had no idea what to expect. I was grateful to be able to have the safety of a group to slip back to when men pushed my boundaries. I also would not have felt comfortable getting around in a place where I did not understand the language and culture. Group travel was the right choice for me, but how you do it is all up to you.

In the end, my only regret about traveling to Jordan is that I didn’t spend more time there. I am smitten with this tiny desert country and it has really whet my appetite for more travel in that part of the world.

So what about you? What’s the place you went to with no expectations that totally blew YOU away?

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