adventure solo travel middle east photography
A Solo American Female in the Land of Islam (Part 2)
This is Part 2 of my experiences as a solo female traveling in The Middle East. You can read Part 1 HERE.
After a few days in Madaba, Ajloun and Jerash, I set out on my own in a rental car to explore the southern areas of Jordan. A zippy little Kia Picante was delivered to my quiet side street at 7am by a disheveled but very efficient young man. After he left I went to the car to unlock it with the key. The alarm immediately went off and I couldn’t navigate the unfamiliar buttons on the key fob to stop it. I frantically pushed everything and nothing worked. An eternity later a man from a different rental company who happened to be down the street came over and helped me. “Never put the key in the lock”, he said. “Only use the buttons to unlock. Otherwise this will always happen.” Good to know. As a foreigner driving in Jordan you really need a GPS. This was especially true for me, as I have little aptitude for reading maps in any language. There are, however, times when a GPS is a curse, and getting out of Madaba was one of them. I was a little nervous starting out alone in a car and thus desperately trying to avoid the tangled mess of narrow backstreets and no-rules roundabouts in the souk area, so I asked my awesome hotel owner for directions that avoided downtown. He carefully drew them out for me and I easily followed them…until my GPS belligerently insisted I go in the opposite direction. In a moment of extreme lack of faith that I can only attribute to jangled nerves, I chose the GPS over the directions of my friend. Two hours later I had navigated every hilly, cramped, traffic riddled side street in all of Madaba at least twice (and driving a stick, no less). When the GPS finally decided to spit me out onto the highway heading south, I was drenched in sweat and my left calf was cramped in half. The worst was over and now I was ready to go.
The King’s Highway is, as Rough Guides so perfectly puts it, “a long, meandering squiggle of road running through some of Jordan’s loveliest countryside.” It loops back and forth along the spine of the Great Rift Valley and has been travelled for centuries by Nabateans, Romans and Hajj pilgrims on their journey to Mecca. It is only about 174 miles long but takes 5-6 hours to drive if you don’t stop at every turn to take in the views. It took me 8 hours, but three days would have been ideal.
Once outside of Madaba heading south, the road winds through fields, villages and mid-sized towns until suddenly, quite without warning, the precipice appears leading down to Wadi Mujib Dam (both photos above). It was the first of many times over the next few days that my jaw would
actually drop. The drive to this point had been very isolated with almost no traffic outside the towns (the same would hold true for the
entire rest of my trip), and I had the pullout to myself. A full half hour passed before a car pulled up and a bunch of men jumped out, threw
down their rugs, and began their prayers. They were all dressed in traditional keffiyehs and thawbs (headdresses and robes) except for one
who was wearing more westernized clothing, which is not at all uncommon. After prayers, one of the men approached and asked if I would drive his
friend down the hill, pointing to the man dressed in westernized clothing who waved but obviously spoke no English. I agreed, and we
spent our descent of the canyon with him waving his arms and grinning every time he wanted me to shift gears. He didn’t like how long I left
the car in 3rd as we approached the curves in the road. I dropped him off at the police station near the dam, which is how I found how he was a guard at the checkpoint there.
Rules of the road in Jordan are optional. This isn’t really an issue on the open roads, but it can get a little hairy in the towns. I actually came to enjoy the challenge of simultaneously watching for pedestrians, vendors, double parked cars, brake lights, open doors and intersections where no one stops. The only thing I never got used to were the roundabouts. Those were just a mess.
The best thing about renting a car is the freedom to make your own schedule. As I neared Petra I rounded a corner that looked just like many others and saw a sign advertising coffee. The stand had obviously been unused for years, but I stopped anyway because I wondered why someone had put it there. The view beyond, completely unseen from the road, was like something out of a sci-fi movie. The cliff I was standing on gave way to a hazy purple rift surrounded by short but inhospitable mountains. After awhile I heard bells, which seemed to be coming from all sides of the valley. Eventually I found the source: a Bedouin on a donkey leading a trail of sheep toward the village of Dana (in the image above the sheep are about center of the cliff in the forefront, Dana is off to the left just out of frame). The Bedouin stopped, his sheep
halting one by one behind him. Silence. I waved. More silence. We waited. I don’t know if he waved back, but just when I felt like we would stand there forever he continued along the path and started singing. It was my favorite moment of the entire trip.
I met these girls in a town whose name I couldn’t read. I stopped to take a few photos from the overlook and saw them behind me crossing the
street. Honestly, I was worried they were going to ask for money, which in hindsight is ridiculous because not a single person in all of Jordan ever once asked me for anything. They wanted to practice their English and so we shared stories of where we were from, most of which started with “Is it true that in America…???”.
The day’s destination was the town of Wadi Musa, the gateway to Petra. I pulled into my hotel, a three story brick building in which I’m
pretty sure I was the only guest and the staff was so eager to please that within a few hours I was up to my eyeballs in pots of tea. They were astounded that I had driven the King’s Highway by myself (it’s not a bad road but women don’t often do road trips alone) and sat around asking question after question. When I walked through the lobby at 5am the next morning they were all there, a row of smiling faces wishing me a wonderful day at Petra.
So….Petra. Yes, it was in Indiana Jones and all that, but honestly the place is difficult to describe. First off I would like to thank whomever posted on TripAdvisor that the gates open at 6 in the morning and the tour buses don’t arrive until 8. My ticket was punched at 6:15am and I walked a silent and solitary mile through the tall, narrow canyon known as The Siq. There was one other backpacker at the entrance to the Treasury who quietly moved on…
…and so that left just two camels, a Bedouin, and me.
Petra was built by the Nabateans, beginning as early at 312 B.C.E, as a capital and center of their caravan trade. The site ranges for miles along the steep slopes of the mountain known as Jebel al-Madhbah. Al Khazneh (The Treasury), is its most famous monument, but all of Petra is well known for its rock-cut architecture (monuments carved directly out of the cliff faces) as well as its early water catchment and conduit systems. The rocks there are an usual shade of red, giving it the name The Rose City. Petra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 and measures are now being taken to preserve it from erosion and unsustainable tourism.
Petra’s Monastery is one of the more difficult places to reach, but it is absolutely worth all of the sweat, willpower and litres of water
to get there. It sits at the top of the mountain and is a hot, dusty 2.5 hour hike up steep rock paths. The reward is not only the monument itself, but a breathtaking view of the Wadi Araba desert on one side and the valley of Petra on the other.
Next up, Wadi Rum. The desert is officially called the Wadi Rum Protected Area, and it is wholly the home of the Bedouins. It’s 700 sq km and the 1000 or so people who live there are all descended from the same tribe. While a few enterprising fellows run tours into the desert and have a couple of permanent camps set up for visitors, most Wadi Rum residents prefer a nomadic, traditional way of life. The land is theirs
and entry to the area is at their discretion, as decreed by the king. I was met at the tiny village by Salem, who owns a small tour operation with one of his brothers (he has 13 siblings). It was then that I found out I would be the only person on the jeep tour for the day. This made me a little nervous, as many people had said not to go alone into the desert with a Bedouin, but I reminded myself that this particular group had come recommended for solo female travelers by a western woman who married a Bedouin and knows these brothers personally. So I took the plunge and went ahead with it.
My first moment of anxiety came when trying to decide whether to sit in the front or back of the vehicle. Women here never ever sit in front
unless they are with their own family. But Salem invited me to the front seat of his very beat up jeep and off we went.
We started at Lawrence’s Spring, where Lawrence and his army got their water as they traveled around fighting the Turks. The people in Wadi Rum are direct descendants of the Bedouin he fought with. As we were driving, Salem went through the Lawrence of Arabia film blow by
blow and explained all the ways Hollywood messed up representing the Bedouin culture. They love Lawrence, but not the movie. Lawrence’s Spring is at the top of an incredibly steep gully and marked by a giant fig tree growing out of the water source. Salem let me out of the car and said, “You can climb it, just do your best.” I felt like it might be a bit of a test, so I scrambled up the entire thing.
When I got back down (which was harder), Salem and I became fast friends. He took me to some different places than the scheduled tour,
including a massive red sand dune that we climbed up. We had to rest 4 times and he practically hauled me up by hand at the end. The best part was running straight down while laughing and skidding every which way.
Every few hours we would stop for sage tea with camel milk, which is made over a fire with dry sticks and sage collected from whatever area
we were in. We talked a lot about the situation in the Middle East and the Bedouin way of life, which includes two main tenets: wassa, which is
the sheltering/feeding of anyone for 3 days, regardless of who the are. After 3 days the Bedouin ask “What do you want?”. The second tenet is “today is today, tomorrow is tomorrow”. Meaning be free, don’t worry, enjoy the moment.
I spent the night in a camel-hair hut at a Bedouin camp in the absolute middle of nowhere. It was pitch dark and incredibly quiet.
After stories and tea around a fire, we walked out to look at the stars, which were more plentiful than anywhere else I’d ever been. Later that
night I had a moment of panic when I woke up to something big scratching along my arm. The huts did not have electricity, so I fumbled
for my headlamp, which I eventually found tangled in the pillowcase. Thankfully, the scratchy thing turned out to be a large but harmless black desert beetle and not a scorpion.
The next morning I took off for the Dead Sea to wash the campfire, sand and hooka smoke off my skin before driving straight to the airport to fly home. As expected, the Dead Sea is amazing…you can hardly turn on your stomach without tipping over and can easily lie with your arms
crossed while never getting your head wet. The sea is clear and beautiful and not muddy at all. There is so much salt that it creates a
transparent slickness on the top of the water that looks a bit like someone has spilled some olive oil. The black mud they slather all over you smells a bit…earthy, but it kept my skin soft for the entire flight from Amman to San Diego.