A few years ago, my travel agent, now my husband, offered me the opportunity to join a lady’s-only group going to Jordan. Although Jordan wasn’t on my bucket list at the time, it intrigued me as I was in an adventurous phase of my life. After a little research and assurance from him that it would be safe and totally fantastic, I decided to go.
The trip was a 10 day bus tour in October, with a private guide and overnight stops in all the most popular sites. The hotels were all 5 star, so I knew that no mater how many camels we rode, or archaeological digs we visited, we’d have a safe clean bed to sleep in every night. Our group included both American and Canadian women originating from various cities, most of whom met up in Chicago for the trip to Jordan. I decided to travel one day earlier and arrived in Amman late at night. It was all prearranged that I would be met by a gentleman carrying a sign with my name on it. He was responsible for driving me to the hotel, where I would meet the rest of the group the following evening. It took a little bit of trust but, it worked out really well. The Jordanian people are amazing: very welcoming to tourists and very happy to share their culture and heritage. Arabic is their main language, but many speak basic English and are happy to engage in a conversation.
Our trip started in Amman, the capital of Jordan. I stayed at the Amman Rotana hotel which is very modern, centrally located and my room was very well appointed. After an 18-hour flight from Calgary via New York, the first thing I wanted to do was get something to eat, have a shower and then fall into bed. I wandered down a couple of floors to the only bar that was open at that time. I ordered a glass of wine and a small pizza and then leaned back to take in my surroundings. Surprisingly, there was lots of smoking right there in the bar of this 5-star hotel. There were also a couple of men with what appeared to be bodyguards. All of them wore red head scarves which meant nothing to me at the time, although I later learned that the colour of the head scarves identified their tribe. TRAVELLER TIP It is always a good idea to learn a few words in the local language and have a small amount of local currency with you.
The next day, I ventured out to the open-air mall beside the hotel. There were metal detectors at every entrance to this open-air strip of shops which, of course, made me feel both safe and unsafe at the same time. The traffic in Amman is as busy and fast as in any heavily populated city in North America and yes, women drive there. The major cities in Jordan are very modern, and everyone has a cell phone just as in North America. Although most women wear hajibs, the rest of the clothing is similar to what you see here. Some of the girls we spoke with compared the hajib they chose to wear to choosing a regular skirt or a miniskirt when going out on a date. Fancy ones are for fancy occasions, black or white ones are for everyday wear.
When the rest of the group arrived, we spent a day in Amman and had the chance to meet with different organizations working to help women – whether that meant creating sustainable work opportunities for college-educated Jordanians or helping refugee women to become part of the community. Our visits allowed us to see firsthand and to better understand the struggles and successes of women living on the other side of the globe. As we travelled around the country, we had many opportunities to meet and visit with women.
We visited a mosque that had a shop inside owned and managed by Jordanian women. That is where we learned about hajibs. The different colours and fabrics, who does or doesn’t wear them, and what it means to them is quite an involved personal story, unique to each woman. They wear them as a fashion statement, out of respect for their religion and, mostly, because they choose to. We were shown how to put on a hajib which worked well for some of us and not so well for others, as its not as easy to put on as you might think!
The following day, we left Amman and drove 45 minutes north to the ancient Roman city of Jerash, often called the “Pompeii of the Middle East. The Roman ruins are considered the second-best preserved ruins of the Roman empire outside of Italy. There, we entered the ruins through Hadrian’s Gate, the original triumphal gate built for the emperor’s visit in 129 BC. We had our own private tour of the site, and saw the ruins left here by the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines. The artifacts we saw were amazing and we could walk right up to them.
That evening we were hosted in the tasting room of the Zumot Winery, the first winery to operate in Jordan in modern times. We did a wine tasting, led by one of their staff, and then enjoyed a dinner of local specialties to accompany the wine.
One day, Ramzi, our guide for the trip, took us to visit a family for lunch. Their apartment was located in a very modern five-storey apartment building. It was similar to what we would refer to as a penthouse in Canada. It turned out to be owned by Mohammed who had picked me up at the airport when I arrived. He was our hostess’ husband. Unfortunately, she had been up most of the night with a sick child but she had made a commitment to Ramzi, and was determined to prepare a genuine Jordanian meal for our group of 15. With only the help of her brother-in-law she managed to somehow pull it all together. Her two older children entertained us by singing traditional songs and dancing, as well as by engaging with us to practice their English. Other than language, clothing and religion, we are not so different after all.
On our way to Petra, we stopped and visited the town of Little Petra, a suburb of the ancient city that most tourists don’t have the chance to see. This area has smaller rock formations than Petra but is quiet and away from the crowds. It is often set up in the evenings for special events like weddings or anniversaries etc. We were told how the area is lit up at night with candles and lanterns and we could imagine how amazing it must be.
There are a few things not to be missed in Jordan and one, of course, is Petra, the famous archaeological site in Jordan’s southwestern desert. It is one of the seven Wonders of the World. Dating to around 300 B.C., it was the capital of the Nabatean Kingdom. Accessed via a narrow canyon called Al Siq, it contains tombs and temples carved into pink sandstone cliffs, earning its nickname, the “Rose City.” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was filmed there, and the iconic Treasury Building and Al Siq pathway were highlighted in the movie.
There are a few vendors with spices, medicinal herbs, colourful beans and food and, of course, jewellery but otherwise it’s very much just walking in the sand. You can hire a camel for a short ride or for the entire trip and there are some motorized vehicles for people with disabilities. Early the following day we had the opportunity to go back to an area near the Treasury and participate in an archeological dig. There is still much research going on in the area and it was cool to have the opportunity to actually see how careful and tedious the work is to find these amazing artifacts. TRAVELLER TIP You need to have a reservation or to buy your tickets in advance or you may find yourself waiting in the very hot sun for a long time and a private guide can point out things along the walk that you would otherwise never see.
After arriving at our next stop, the Mars-like desert of Wadi Rum, we had lunch at our glampsite (“glamping” is luxury glamorous camping) and then hopped into 4×4 vehicles with local Bedouin guides for an excursion into the desert for a sunset champagne toast. Sitting around the fire, listening to the Bedouin stories, is another experience that I won’t soon forget. While we were on our excursion, our hosts prepared the evening meal, which is cooked in the ground in the traditional manner. Dinner at Wadi Rum was a Bedouin-style feast with traditional music and dancing.
Stargazing at night in the clear desert sky is truly an experience! Wadi Rum is an area in southern Jordan where many movies have been filmed including “Alien” and “Star Wars”. I was fortunate enough to stay overnight in a Martian bubble, the same ones you can see in the movie “The Martian” starring Matt Damon. The bubbles are basically domed structures made of transparent panels covered inside with curtain-like fabric that can be opened in the evening for star-gazing as you fall asleep. Around the bubbles there is desert as far as the eye can see!
Camels are a vacation novelty in my life, but I quickly realized that they are a way of life for many people who live in the desert areas. We rode them out into the desert to the edge of a sand dune one morning before sunrise and watched the sun come up. At 3:30, when we crawled out of our Martian bubbles and stumbled to our meeting area, riding camels didn’t seem like such a great idea but, I will never forget how my three newfound friends giggled while trying to get on the camels and then laughed even harder getting off. Another thing not as easy as it looks! TRAVELLER TIP Nice smelling antibacterial hand wipes were a great thing to have after our camel rides!
The best way to experience the Red Sea is by being on (or in!) the water. Our next stop was Aqaba. Aqaba’s strategic location at the northeastern tip of the Red Sea, between the continents of Asia and Africa, has made it an important port for thousands of years. We enjoyed a yacht excursion which afforded us the opportunity to sunbathe and snorkel at one of the best warm-water coral reefs in the world. The clear blue water and the warm sun, after a seafood barbeque on board, had many of us searching for a spot to lie down, relax and take in the incredible scenery.
Another evening we had dinner with a Jordanian family. The mother of that family was the principal of a local school. It had been suggested to us that we bring along some English children’s books as a token of our appreciation for allowing us to come to their home for dinner. It is a challenge to find English books in Jordan so our hostess’ children were very excited to receive them that evening. The children had prepared traditional songs and dances and participated in the serving and cleaning up for the meal. Dinner was served in a special meeting room that is part of every Jordanian house. There were couches all around the inside edges with many stools on which to place the food and drinks as the meal progressed. There were many, many courses and I have to admit I didn’t always know what I was eating but everything was delicious!
We then drove north along the Dead Sea coast to reach the Jordan River Valley. Here, we visited a number of significant religious sites. Our first stop was Bethany Beyond the Jordan, known as the place of Jesus’ baptism. We walked the trails and the banks of the River Jordan. One side of the river is in Jordan, the other side is in Israel. It kind of blows your mind to think you are standing where Jesus was baptized! Afterwards, we ascended the desert hills by bus to Mount Nebo, a beautiful lookout and now the site of a pilgrimage church from where Moses is said to have first been shown the Holy Land.
The last few days of our trip were spent relaxing at the Kempinski Ishtar Dead Sea Resort. The Kempinski boasts the largest spa in the Middle East and features the therapeutic benefits of the 21 minerals that are only found here, at the lowest point on Earth. It is an experience everyone should try at least once in their life. The spa treatments, although very expensive, are over-the-top fantastic! The Dead Sea, of course, is very dense in salt so, no matter how hard you try you can only float! Before going into the water, it is a ritual to cover yourself with the mineral-rich mud from the shore and then rinse off and relax in the sea. There were many photo ops and lots of laughter again.
I can’t wait to return to Jordan and spend some more time delving into the history and amazing places that the country has to offer. Now that I know more about their history, I will better understand the places that I visited and probably appreciate them even more on my next trip. Pre-covid there was a trip to Wadi Rum planned, staying in a Martian bubble on New Year’s Eve, and is on my bucket list. What a cool way to ring in the New Year one day soon when we can travel again! Let us know if Jordan is on your bucket list or if you’d like to know more!