Black Tea and Desert Sand

I have to be honest. I am not a desert person. I’m more of a mountain, beach or someplace-where-things-grow person. My bad attitude stems from a US cross country road trip and a stop to admire the desert in Arizona. Everyone talked about the beauty of the sand, the colors in the rocks and the starkness of the landscape. I was extremely underwhelmed (sorry Arizona..I wanted to love it, I really did) and I mentally ticked off all deserts as being not-for-me.

Wadi Rum  photo by Guillaume Baviere

Wadi Rum photo by Guillaume Baviere

Wadi Rum was an entirely different desert experience and my time there qualifies as one of my most memorable travel experiences. The scenery was spectacular, our experiences were exceptional and the Bedouin hospitality unmatched. My only  disappointment was that I only spent a day and a half in a place that deserved much more of my time.  I guess I’ll just have to go back.

Wadi Rum (Valley of the Moon) is a World Heritage Site located in southern Jordan. Made famous by the epic film, Lawrence of Arabia, the desert is now a protected area encompassing 720 sq kilometers of dramatic granite cliffs, sweeping desert sand and hidden canyons. All expeditions into the desert are guided and travelers interested in jeep tours, camel or horse trekking, climbing, hiking, walking or camping must make a reservation (more information below).  As much as I wanted to camel trek through the desert, our time was limited and a jeep tour was the most efficient way to see the highlights of Wadi Rum.

View across Wadi Rum by Guillaume Baviere

View across Wadi Rum by Guillaume Baviere

We started our day in the desert with Mohammed, one of the local Bedouin Huwaitat tribal members and jeep tour guide extraordinaire.  We met Mohammed at the visitor center and piled into our covered (thankfully!) 4 x 4 and drove off in the direction of the desert. He explained what we were going to see that day and peppered  our conversations with anecdotes about the Bedouin, his family and life in Wadi Rum.  Just before we drove through the visitor center gates, Mohammed said “Hold on!”, pulled a hard left and tore into the desert.  He took great joy in testing the capacity of his vehicle and my sense of adventure by driving up and over the top of the dunes as fast as possible.  It was exhilarating and the views were spectacular at every turn.

Carving and inscription commemorating Lawrence of Arabia's time in Wadi Rum

Carving and inscription commemorating Lawrence of Arabia’s time in Wadi Rum

Petroglyphs dating back to Thamudic times found throughout Wadi Rum

Petroglyphs dating back to Thamudic times found throughout Wadi Rum

Mohammed promised to show us all of the locations featured in the Lawrence of Arabia films as well as locations significant to Bedouin lifestyle and history.

Intro to camels, 101 with Mohammed

Intro to camels with Mohammed

He knew we were obsessed with camels, and stopped periodically to visit with the locals and let us chase the camels around with our cameras.

Running down the dunes with Mohammed

Running down the dunes with Mohammed

Showing Rachel how to wrap the head scarf properly.

Showing Rachel how to wrap the head scarf properly.

Our view from the top of the red dunes.

Our view from the top of the red dunes.

Some of our most magical moments in Wadi Rum were the quiet ones…sitting in absolute serenity on the high dunes, watching the camels or the occasional jeep go by.

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Lest you think we were just sitting about and letting Mohammed do all the work, we did a little scrambling up the rock cliffs.  In the photo above Rachel and I are discussing which one of us will  climb up to rocks to the bridge overhead for the photo.

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I lost (or won, depending on how you look at it).  Mohammed thought this was hilarious.  I’m not pathetic.  I am barefoot, in a skirt and it’s a looonnnggg way down to the desert floor.  So there.

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We ended our day with Mohammed making tea in the shade of the red sandstone cliffs as we lay about, sipping the delicious tea  and soaking in the beautiful sand dunes, mountains and vistas of Wadi Rum.

Things to Know

Desert excursions can be booked at the Wadi Rum Visitor Center.  If you find bargaining and negotiating stressful, you should consider booking ahead online through any number of reputable and local agencies. I personally recommend booking ahead using Jordan Jubilee ‘s suggestions or UTA booking service. . The local Bedouin have embraced the concept of TripAdvisor for ratings and direct contact information.  Do your research before booking.

The tour vehicles used in Wadi Rum are purpose built vehicles.  They are old, but reliable and easily repaired with whatever is on hand. Some are fully enclosed, some are pickup trucks with benches in the back.  Make sure you know what you are getting.

Bring your own water, snacks and other necessities with you into Wadi Rum.  There are one or two small shops on the outskirts of the desert and none within the boundaries. Be prepared.

Dress appropriately.  Temperature is dependent on time of day and season.  The summer is oppressively hot (over 34C) and winter is cold.  Daytime and nighttime temperatures vary as well.  Best to check here before you go.

Stay longer.  We had just enough time for our jeep safari and an amazing night under the stars during our one night stay.

We stayed at the Milky Way Ecolodge, situated within the Wadi Rum protected area.  Owned and managed locally, the camp offers visitors a comfortable and ecologically sensitive way to enjoy all the desert has to offer.  The raised tents sleep  1 to 6 people in comfortable (real!) beds, complete with bedding, duvets, pillows and linens.  The camp also provides full (and solar-powered) bathroom facilities…showers, toilets, sinks and running water. Meals are served communally in the gathering tent where guests can sit, drink tea and socialize with other “campers”  after dinner.  You can read my review here and/or here

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Petra by Night

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Petra is undoubtably a highlight of any trip to Jordan. Spending a day (or two or three) in Petra allows visitors to enjoy all the Rose Red City has to offer, but some say the best and most dramatic introduction to Petra is at night.  Ticket holders to the Petra by Night program gather at Petra’s entrance  (near the Indiana Jones gift shop 🙂 ) to wait for a guide.  After a brief introduction and a request for guests to approach the Siq and tomb in silence, the group follows a Bedouin guide through the dramatic, candlelit canyon.  Constellations peek through the Siq roof and shadows play along the red  canyon walls.  Cats scamper in and out of the caves and outcroppings, keeping a wary eye on each passerby.  After the initial crowd surges ahead, the groups thin to couples, stragglers and those anxious to bask in the beauty of the Siq (almost) alone. Someone invariably whistles the Indiana Jones theme amdist fits of giggles. Voices hush in anticipation of the big moment just around the last bend in the Siq walls…the first glimpse of the fabled Treasury, illuminated by hundreds of candlelit lanterns.  Most visitors stand slack-jawed at first, drinking in the moment, measuring it against what they imagined it would be.  Once their eyes adjust, they shuffle to a spot on the blankets spread on the ground in front of the Treasury and enjoy tiny cups of hot, sweet tea served by traditionally-dressed Bedouin men. There is a wave of shush-ing as guests and hosts plead for respectful silence. A man, hidden away in the cliffs, begins to sing.  After a short music program, visitors wander among the lanterns, snapping pictures and conspiring to stay behind for a few moments of tranquility before being gently ushered back into the Siq. The entire experience, including the walk back home, is magical.

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I can’t decide if it would be better to see Petra by day or by night first. Some feel it is best to see  Petra in the daylight, when it is easier to orient yourself and truly appreciate the magnificence of Petra.  Some say the first glimpse should be by candlelight as it might have been centuries ago. Regardless of the order you choose, Petra at night offers a beautiful and unique opportunity to enjoy one of the Wonders of the World.

Have you been to Petra?  Do you think it’s best to see it at night or by day first?

Things to Know

Petra by night takes place on Monday, Wednesday and Thursdays.  Tickets cost 12JD and are available from Petra’s ticket office/ Visitor Center.  Check information locally when you arrive, as days and times may change.

If you can’t get to Petra, you can enjoy watching it via live cam.  I spend entirely too much of my time watching it.

Where to stay

We stayed at the Movenpick Petra jut outside the entrance gates.  The hotel was beautiful, the food excellent and the staff efficient and friendly.  I would return in a heartbeat (the breakfast buffet is legendary). There are other hotels conveniently located in the small town and a few Bedouin camps that offer overnight stays nearby.  I only write about or support hotels where I’ve stayed, so I can’t really recommend other hotels. My review on tripadvisor is pending.There is a wide variety of accommodation, suitable for every taste and budget.  Do your research.

If you have any questions about visiting Petra, feel free to ask!

“Why Do You Sleep in the Road?” A Night in the Wadi Rum

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Mohammed dropped us off at Milky Way Camp and drove off in a cloud of desert sand. Our camp host showed us to our tent and invited us for a cup of tea, which we gladly accepted.   It had been a long day and we were exhausted. I don’t know why we were so tired…jeep trekking, tea-drinking and dune-running in the Wadi Rum desert all day?  Perhaps.

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As much as we wanted to sit in the tent and drink tea for hours, it was getting late and we had to scramble if we wanted to watch the sun set across Wadi Rum. Rachel and I set down our tea cups, grabbed our cameras and set out across the valley. We saw a hill in the distance and decided the top of that hill would be the best place to catch the last rays of sun.  We walked for 20 minutes and decided to sit down for a minute to rest.

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We sat silently for a long time, enveloped by the incredible beauty of  Wadi Rum. We watched a herd of goats heading home, a pair of camels wandering across the sand and the last rays of sun dropping behind the mountains.  It was absolutely silent and so….peaceful.

I heard the engine before I saw the jeep.  I screamed for Rachel to wake up.

It seemed our “sitting for a minute to rest” had turned into “tipping over and falling dead asleep in the sand” 500 feet from camp. I turned to see the jeep idling 20 feet from us.  The driver was a young-ish man, traditionally dressed in a shemagh and white robe. He looked at me through the windscreen.  I looked at him.  We stared at each other for a minute or so before he stuck his head out the window…

Man:  “You from the camp?”

Me: “Yes!”

Long awkward pause.   He grinned.

Man:  “Why do you sleep in the road?!”

What road?  How was I to know the weed-less part of the sand is considered the road?  I told him we were walking to take pictures of the sunset and got tired.  He laughed hysterically.

Man: “You like the Bedouin…you tired, you sleep… you awake, you go.  Come.  I will give you a ride to see the sunset.”

Rachel and I piled into the front seat of  the truck and barreled across the desert with our new friend, Abdullah (also manager of the tourist camps in Wadi Rum) just in time to see the sun sink behind the mountains.   Another instance of  Arabic hospitality.  Shokran Jazeelan, Abdallah. It was a beautiful sunset.

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Things To Know:

Milky Way Ecolodge is situated within the Wadi Rum protected area of Southern Jordan.  Owned and managed locally, the camp offers visitors a comfortable and ecologically sensitive way to enjoy all the desert has to offer.  The raised tents sleep  1 to 6 people in comfortable (real!) beds, complete with bedding, duvets, pillows and linens.  The camp also provides full (and solar-powered) bathroom facilities…showers, toilets, sinks and running water. Meals are served communally in the gathering tent where guests can sit, drink tea and socialize with other “campers”  after dinner,

Candles provide lighting at night in the tents and at dinner, but it’s a good idea to bring a flashlight/torch/headlamp.

Children are warmly welcomed!

The accommodations were lovely, the food was good, the company exceptional.  Sitting in the silent desert watching the Milky Way spread out across a pitch-black night sky while listening to Abdullah tell stories about growing up in Wadi Rum was magical, at least for these city girls.  Go.  

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about our stay in Milky Way Camp!

Petra: A Lost City Revealed

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The entrance to Petra is unassuming…small shops, a cafe or two, a visitor’s center.  The path widens and clouds of dust drift over the road, kicked up by the tourist-laden horse and carts clattering down the road to the Treasury.   It’s hard to contain the urge to race through the narrow, twisting Siq for my first glimpse of  Petra, but I know doing so would be a crime. Rachel and I decide to walk the 1.2km path through the Siq with our local guide, taking the time to admire the color-swirled rock on the towering canyon walls and absorbing the atmosphere and history of The Rose Red City. Around a corner and through the last narrow passage of the Siq, we see a glimpse of a glowing pillar, a sun-lit facade and hear the calls of the local Bedouin.  Petra.

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I can’t describe the feeling that washed over me as we stood in the courtyard before the Treasury.  Awe, certainly.  There are no pictures or words that could capture that moment.  And so we stood, slack-jawed, surrounded by tourists, guides, camels, donkeys, carts and merchants, imagining this city as it was thousands of years before.

The Nabataeans established Petra as their capital city in 600BC, a center for trade and commerce for passing silk and spice caravans. Petra remained under Nabataean control until 106 AD when it was absorbed into the Roman Empire, marking the beginning of the city’s decline.  A powerful earthquake in 363AD destroyed many buildings and the complex water system that was essential to the city’s survival. Petra was abandoned and slowly slipped into obscurity.  The city remained “lost” to the western world until its rediscovery by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812, who disguised himself in traditional clothing and entered Petra under the guise of offering a sacrifice at a local temple. The “Lost City” was found once again.

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Al-Khazneh (commonly known as the Treasury) dominates the entrance to Petra. It is carved directly into the rock face and stands over 43 meters high.  Al-Khazneh’s purpose is uncertain, although archeologists suspect it was a temple or tomb. We could see bullet holes in the walls and damage to the magnificent urn left by gun-toting tomb raiders and treasure hunting visitors who hoped to find gold and treasures hidden within.  They all left empty handed.

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The local Bedouin merchants offered passerbys treasures of their own…beads, baubles, camel rides and hilarious commentary.

“You would like a camel ride?”

“No, thank you”

“Ah, but my camel is the Ferrari of the desert.”

“Haha. No, thank you.”

“Donkey?”

Our guide shooed the young entrepreneurs away with advice to accept if you were interested, decline politely if you were not, but to never say “maybe later” or “I’ll think about it” which is seen as a promise for you to return at some point.  Good advice.

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We continued along the Street of Facades, lined with tombs carved from the sandstone cliffs. We dipped in and out of the caves, contemplating the work involved in carving out a mountain of sandstone to create homes, temples and tombs.

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We left our guide at the Theater (poor man put up with us for 3.5 hours) and continued following the road to…the restaurant, of course.  My original plan was to return to our hotel for lunch, not realizing that the trek through the Siq was a serious commitment.  I was in “travel light” mode and brought a few bills and no credit cards. Our lunch consisted of a bottle of water and a turkish coffee, truly a lunch of champions. Thankfully, it  was enough to fuel our afternoon hike up the 800+ rock-cut steps to the Monastery. We set out along the road, accompanied by a few friendly locals offering a “taxi ride” to the top (read donkey).  We declined.  The path to the top was dotted with local women sitting outside their tents offering “Happy hour for you…half price!” specials on jewelry, pottery, beads and other trinkets. They also offered encouragement “Almost there!  Only 300 more steps!” It did tug on our heart strings to pass by tent after tent without buying anything, but I was dinar-less after our “lunch.”  The hike to the top wasn’t very strenuous and the rewards (and views) were spectacular.

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We reveled in our success as we hit the top step and rounded the corner to see The Monastery in all its glory.  It’s hard to comprehend the scale of the tomb, but if you look very closely, you can see one of the local kids (dressed in white, top right of the building) climbing up, out and around the top, entertaining and terrifying the tourists below.

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We ended our day at Petra, standing at the top of the mountain, listening to the bleats and bells of  goats grazing nearby, watching the canyon walls begin to glow in the fading afternoon light.  The local Bedouins encouraged us  to join them for a cup of tea in the growing shadows of the Monastery …”Tea, ice cream?  Come…take a break with a Kit Kat bar! Have a Coke and a smile!”  It sounded like a great idea, but for us, it was a long hike back through the canyon to civilization and a late, late lunch.

*All photos in this post are courtesy of Rachel Belt

Petra

It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,

by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;

But from the rock as if by magic grown,

eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!

Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,

where erst Athena held her rites divine;

Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,

that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;

But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,

that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;

The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,

which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,

match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,

a rose-red city half as old as time.

                                                                                       by John William Burgon (1813-1888)

 

Things to Know:

I didn’t stay long enough. I regret it and spend my days conspiring to return. Petra is huge.  One day is not enough to truly explore the 250km2 of caves, tombs and hiking trails.  We had a full day (10 hours!) and didn’t see many of the things we wanted to see.  Plan to spend a minimum of two days (three is better and more leisurely). It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for good reason. Explore the hidden tombs and caves, hike to the High Place ,visit the archeology museum, have tea, watch the sun set against the canyon walls and make sure you attend Petra by night (post pending!).

Ticket prices vary according to length and type of stay.  There are discounted rates for some categories and children under 12 are free.

Arrive early (it opens at 6am!) to enjoy a few uncrowded minutes standing in front of the Treasury before the tourists arrive.  Explore the streets of Petra early in the day and save the hike to the Monastery for the afternoon when the path is shaded by the canyon walls.

Bring cash 🙂 and water bottles.  Small bills are best for buying, tipping camel/donkey drivers and paying for the occasional cup of tea.

Hire a local guide.  Our guide was local, articulate and knowledgable.  We learned more about Petra in our half-day tour than I did reading my three guidebooks and scouring the internets for days. Our guide was arranged through UTA and Audley Travel, but local guides are available at the visitor center and offer tours in many different languages. Of course, if you prefer to wander on your own, you should!

Sit for a cup of tea.  You will most certainly be asked to join one of the local Bedouins for a cup of tea.  Accept (at least once)!  Sit and enjoy, talk to each other and ask questions about life within Petra.  You should consider a gift of 1 or 2 JD in exchange. It is greatly appreciated.

Dress accordingly.  This is a muslim country, so try to dress modestly. Wear comfortable hiking shoes and sunscreen and/or a hat.  The sun can be brutal no matter what time of year you tour Petra.

Know your fitness level and don’t underestimate the power of the sun and heat.  Petra requires a lot of walking and some hiking (if you choose to do so).

Where to stay

We stayed at the Movenpick Petra jut outside the entrance gates.  The hotel was beautiful, the food excellent and the staff efficient and friendly.  I would return in a heartbeat (the breakfast buffet is legendary). There are other hotels conveniently located in the small town and a few Bedouin camps that offer overnight stays nearby.  I only write about or support hotels where I’ve stayed, so I can’t really recommend other hotels.  My review on tripadvisor is pending. Do your research.

What to read/What to watch

Go ahead.  Watch Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade.

Read Married To a Bedouin , the tale of New Zealand born Marguerite, who married a Bedouin tribal member and raised her family within the walls and caves of ancient Petra.  

Read Petra:  The Rose Red City , a small and highly readable guide to Petra, written by two archeologists who worked in the region.

Peruse Jordan Jubilee, a website filled with information about Petra and other areas of interest in Jordan

Ancient Roads and Crusader Castles

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Our drive from Amman to Petra was by way of the Kings Highway, an ancient route that winds past Crusader castles, rugged mountains, deep gorges and desert sands.

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The drive usually takes about 6 hours, but we lingered a bit at Mt. Nebo, the spot from which Moses saw the Promised Land (He must have had either better eyesight than I do or been there on a clearer day, because we could barely see across the valley).

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and saw the ancient Byzantine mosaics in the Orthodox church in Madaba.

We were also invited to see some spectacular mosaics at a private home.  Who could say no?  Note: The dark spots on the mosaic are due to the heat of a cooking fire.  The family lived in this home for generations, unaware that this spectacular Byzantine mosaic lay hidden beneath their feet until the day grandma decided to do some extra scrubbing and voila’!

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We also convinced Maher to stop the car and let us pet a donkey.  Hehe.

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During our lunch overlooking one of Jordan’s spectacular canyons, we found out our next stop, Shobak Castle, closed in 30 minutes. We were an hour away. Maher saw our disappointed faces and offered to make a phone call “to see what he could do.”

He returned to tell us that he phoned the guard at Shawbak Castle who agreed to hold the castle open for us. We knew it was our fault for adding stops for donkey petting and picture-posing along the King’s Highway and protested. Maher smiled and told us not to worry. I’m glad he didn’t listen to us. Our visit to Shobak ended up being a highlight of our trip to Jordan.

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road to shobak

Shawbak Castle sits high on a ledge overlooking wild and seemingly desolate surroundings. The sun was sliding behind the hills and there was a sharp wind  blowing through the abandoned villages along the approach to the castle.  We turned into the gravel lot and noted that we were the only people there. Rachel and I felt guilty about arriving late and  decided to forgo the local guide and tour the ruins ourselves. We thanked the gentleman who held the castle open for us and ran past the guard shack and up the hill, vowing to speed-tour the castle so everyone could go home.

We climbed over endless piles of rubble, found the foundations of ancient churches and looked for the catacombs, caves and passageways mentioned in our guidebook.

The self-exploration was not for the faint of heart…precipitious, unfenced ledges, dark, unlit passageways and pedestrian bridges made out of rickety wooden planks.  It was brilliant.

Eventually, high wind, cold and darkness drove us back down the hill to the exit where we were waved into the guard room for some tea.

The room was warm, cozy and filled with the haze of recently and frequently smoked cigarettes. The guard had a visitng friend who spoke a little English and they both clattered around arranging chairs and preparing the teapot and glasses.  They motioned for us to sit and poured scalding cups of cardamom and sage infused black tea into tiny, glass cups. His friend spoke a little English and asked about my family and if I had children.  He told me that in Jordan, I would be addressed according to the name of my oldest child.  I would be  “Umm Rachel” (Mother of Rachel).  This pleased Rachel immensely.  After we finished the first of many cups of tea, the guard pulled out a handmade instrument and proceeded to sing “a song of welcome” for us.  He also sang a song about Rachel’s beautiful hair :). And there we were, serenaded at sunset in a Crusader Castle high in the hills of Jordan.

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