Last Scene Here
What I Did on My Summer Vacation (Part II)
As a kid, I was in a school play called Appointment With Death. It was an Agatha Christie story set in Petra, which a 19th-century poet described as “a rose-red city half as old as time.” I’ve wanted to see it ever since, and I’m pleased to report that a visit to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is like living an issue of National Geographic.
Amman, its capital, looks like the love child of Cairo and San Francisco—steep, densely populated hills, with the green light of a mosque on every corner. Not exactly where you’d expect to eat some of the best Asian food you’ve ever tasted, but the Four Seasons delivered exactly that, while shopping in the souk yielded everything from rugs to Yemeni coffee to spices like za’atar.
Wadi Rum is the desert in the south where Lawrence of Arabia fought (and the movie was filmed) in a dramatic, Mars-like landscape. Huge rock formations, seven-story sand dunes and jagged mountains are punctuated with fissures where ancient travelers carved petroglyphs, and in-between, vast stretches of wind-swept emptiness.
Our guides were Rakkan (the owner of Terhaal Adventures) and his Bedouin friend, Salem, who had two modes: singing and sarcastic. I can’t overstate how nice it was to be around someone who wouldn’t know a Kardashian from a pistachio nut. His camp was a barracks-like setup of goat-hair tents, with a communal area of cushions.
Because the desert gives the hinges of hell a run for its money, the Bedouins sit in the shade and drink coffee or tea during the heat of the day. Even when we climbed a mountain, Salem stopped near the top to gather wood and pick a clump of something green. In the shade of a rock, with a view that would’ve staggered Ansel Adams, Salem boiled tea with wild thyme. For coffee, he roasted green coffee beans on an open fire and then mixed them with cardamom.
For such a caffeinated society, it’s amazing the Bedouins aren’t bouncing off the canyon walls but are extremely laid-back. They eat, sleep and breathe camels—which are their favorite topic of conversation. There’s even a joke: When dinner is served, men go first, camels second and women third. Lest that sound sexist, female camels are valued more highly than males, and for three days we tried to help Salem find one of his herd with her baby. We spent an afternoon helping to fill the water troughs tucked into cracks in the sandstone, but despite seeing a camel’s ugly mug every time we turned around, there was no sign of her until we were leaving Wadi Rum. He called to her from half a mile away, and she came trotting.
But still, we hadn’t seen Petra. Until a few decades ago, Bedouins lived in the ancient city, which was settled more than 3,000 years ago. They now live in a nearby hill town, which boasts several excellent restaurants, among them Petra Kitchen. Patrons there help prepare traditional Arab foods, and I now make a mean baba ganoush and a fatoosh salad to plotz over. Afterward, some lemon-mint tobacco in a water pipe, aka “hubbly bubbly,” was just the thing to aid digestion.
You can’t describe the scale or magnificence of Petra, the capital of the Nabataeans (look ’em up in the Old Testament). Visitors enter through a mile-long chasm made famous by an Indiana Jones film that launched a thousand souvenir shops. Sheer stone walls, 300 feet high, enclose you, and just as the claustrophobia begins to seep in, you turn a corner and glimpse a sliver of the gigantic, ornately carved façade of the so-called Treasury Building (which was actually a temple). It’s jaw-dropping, and just the beginning of a naturally fortified city that includes houses and shops carved into the multicolored sandstone, royal tombs to rival any pharaoh’s, a “monastery” high atop a mountain and an amphitheater dating from the Roman era. The only thing more mind-boggling than Petra itself is the fact that only a third of it’s uncovered. The rest is still buried under eight meters of sand.
On our way out of the country, we got a glimpse of two royal nature preserves—Dana and Wadi Mujib, which boast stunning vistas and amazing biodiversity, plunging from alpine heights to hundreds of feet below sea level. Leaving Jordan was like waking up from a dream out of 1,001 Nights, and by all appearances, King Abdullah II and Queen Rania deserve all the adoration they enjoy. I just hope that when I go back, and I certainly intend to, the Bedouins still don’t know what a Starbucks is.
Photos captions, top to bottom: Salem making tea in Wadi Rum, the Treasury Building in Petra