Jordan: Desert Camping & Cave Surfing to Petra

Jordan offers beautiful beaches; great scuba diving; fantastic food; camping, jeep safaris, and spectacular star gazing in white sand deserts; ancient Roman ruins as magnificent as those in Italy; and Petra, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and UNESCO World Heritage Site, yet very few travelers even consider visiting this small Middle Eastern nation. Nestled in between Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, Jordan is a peaceful country wrongfully associated with the violence plaguing its neighboring countries. I will admit to never having heard of Petra until last year (I never saw Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, which brought Petra international fame and initially prompted tourism from the US in the late 80s/early 90s), and had never considered visiting the country until I began planning a trip to Egypt. I looked on a map, saw Jordan just across the Red Sea (30-minutes by ferry!), and thought “Why not?”

Friends, family, and colleagues expressed concern for my safety but I felt safer traveling through Jordan alone than I have in many countries across the Americas. Since 9/11, the Jordanian tourist industry has been struggling and every Jordanian I met, from Immigration & Customs and border security officials to taxi drivers and falafel shop employees, went out of their way to make me feel safe and welcome. Each of them literally greeted me with “welcome” and a warm smile. Women approached me on public buses, asking if I needed help getting to my next location. Men waiting for taxis made sure I found the correct microbus and ensured the driver wouldn’t overcharge me. A restaurant owner even insisted I borrow an extra pair of sneakers he had lying around (two sizes too large) that were better suited for the rain than the sandals I showed up in to trek through the ancient Roman ruins of Jerash. He insisted I keep the shoes for my trip to Ajloun Castle (a 12th century Muslim castle on a gorgeous green hilltop) and only backed off when I told him I wouldn’t have room for them in my backpack.

My trip started in Jordan's capital, Amman, where I visited top attractions like the Roman Amphitheater, Citadel, and Hashem restaurant, where the astonishingly low-priced falafel and hummus is so fantastic that the King himself dines there! I made a day trip to float in the hyper-salty Dead Sea and visit Mount Nebo, where Moses viewed the Promised Land. A few local friends, “the three Mohammeds,” took me through vegetable and spice markets and to the oldest house in Amman. We walked along the popular Rainbow Street and through the hip neighborhood of Weibdah, where streets were lined with buzzing cafes, cute restaurants, and art galleries playing salsa music. The skyscrapers and hyper modern apartments in the “Boulevard” area were a stark contrast to the small, makeshift tents that I saw many poor Jordanians living in along the roads leaving Amman. One of “the three Mohammeds” is a journalist documenting human rights abuses in Syria and continues to go back despite the fact 25 of his 36 colleagues have been killed in such missions. On Friday night, we went salsa dancing at Trader Vic’s night club ($25 admission?!?), Saturday was spent wandering the streets talking politics with the other Mohammeds, and Sunday he was back on a US military base in Syria.

My day trip to Petra turned into a three-day adventure including “cave surfing” (couch surfing in a cave), a several-hour hike into the back entrance of Petra, and tea at sunset on top of a giant sand dune in Wadi Araba desert. My host in at the Little Petra Bedouin Camp, Ghassab, has hosted thousands of travelers over the years through Couchsurfing, Trip Advisor, AirBnB, and just about any other site he can find. He also told me about a dating site he’s on where he meets European women. For a man who grew up in a cave and who still prefers to cook his food over a wood fire in the desert, he was surprisingly tech-savvy. Thick, pillowy sleeping mats and camel hair blankets kept me warm and comfortable and a metal door bolted into the rock kept the cold winds out. In case you’re wondering, no, there is no bathroom. CNN even did a story and video about him and his cave.

The next morning, we spent several hours hiking to the back entrance of Petra, through a series of mountains and valleys that resembled a smaller, greener version of the Grand Canyon (check out this short video I took of the canyon). Ghassab pointed out medicinal herbs along the route and greeted the occasional goat farmer we encountered. Just before reaching the Monestary (the last stop on the traditional Petra tourist route), a beautiful Bedouin man with thick black eyeliner posed for a picture with his donkey. “Ever since the Pirates of the Caribbean came out, all the Bedouin guys put on eye liner for the tourist girls,” Ghassab remarked. I will admit that I liked the eyeliner and I found myself avoiding the eyes of several camel drivers in Petra. The young man preparing my falafel sandwich later that day was apparently “looking for an American wife”. “Look, he has beautiful eyes!” his friend exclaimed, pointing to the thick strips of “kohl” (a plant-based eyeliner) around his eyes.

As we walked through Petra, Ghassab pointed out human bones, bullet shells, “ancient Roman pottery” and other items scattered along the path. He introduced me to female friends of his who sell souvenirs in front of the monuments. I stepped inside one of the cave structures, which smelled of urine and general staleness. I assumed some careless tourists had camped there. I’m glad I didn’t comment on the smell because Ghassab informed me the women selling souvenirs live in that cave. In the corner of another cave were the same thick mattresses piled against the wall that I had slept on the previous night. I asked where their clothing and other belongings were and Ghassab explained that cave dwellers own very little. Many people only own one outfit and they wear it every day for 3-4 months then throw it away and buy another. I have no idea where or how they shower and was too embarrassed to ask.

The following day, Ghassab dropped me off at the main front entrance of Petra so I could explore the rest of it. Camel drivers hounded tourists to give them rides and dozens of vendors pushed their Chinese-made souvenirs. I explored solo for several hours, approached by significantly more vendors than I had been with Ghassab, then met back up with him to head to Wadi Araba desert (“wadi” means “valley”). It was too late in the day to spot large herds of camels roaming but we had the entire desert to ourselves. Ghassab encouraged me to climb a massive sand dune and meditate while he made us tea. Fantastic idea! We then cooked dinner by fire at his sister’s house and headed to bed early so I could catch the 6:30am bus to Wadi Rum.

Wadi Rum is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Jordan after Petra and for good reason. It’s an expansive, largely untouched, protected desert full of breathtaking sites and opportunities to explore. I met a Chinese girl on the bus, also traveling alone, and we hired a driver to take us on a jeep safari – Wadi Rum’s claim to fame. We hiked through gigantic cliffs that looked like melting chocolate, climbed up precarious rock formations that would surely include liability waivers in the United States, and meditated on large sand dunes that a group of Venezuelans attempted to surf down on snowboards. At least a dozen campgrounds scattered the area, each offering individual tents complete with beds, blankets, and electricity. Larger, communal tents serve as the dining and lounge area and a small building includes several toilets and a shower with warm water. As tourism was lower than normal, I had the entire desert camp to myself. The only other person was the chef/caretaker, who brought me tea as I watched the sunset over the desert and prepared a fantastic veggie meal for us. Jordanians across the country had told me Wadi Rum is the best place to see the stars and they were absolutely right. The sky was clear and bright and I think I saw more stars than I’d ever seen in my life. I contemplated spending another night there but I had an appointment for scuba diving the following morning.

6:30am seems to be the time that most buses leave in Southern Jordan and I made it to the coastal city of Aqaba by 8:30am. My mood was dampened after I was asked to give my seat to a man and move toward the back of the bus (feeling for the shortest moment a fraction of what black people felt for years in the segregated United States), but I perked up when I arrived in Aqaba and saw the beautiful Red Sea. After taking me on a shipwreck dive that included an underwater air pocket, my scuba diving instructor drove me to the ferry terminal to investigate booking a ferry to Egypt. I was unsuccessful at convincing him to drive another 5 miles to the Saudi Arabian border for lunch (apparently “lunch in Saudi” isn’t a thing), but he picked me up at my hotel at night to give me a tour of the city by car. Another Jordanian I met sitting on the beach also gave me a tour by foot and helped me find spices, Dead Sea mud, and other last minute souvenirs.

Since I booked my trip to Jordan, my goal was to “sail the Red Sea” to Egypt. Apparently foreigners are not allowed to do that. Actually, it is an option but only to a city several hours further south and on a boat that only leaves a few nights a week after midnight. Terrible! I hoped to take the ferry from Aqaba, Jordan to Taba, Egypt, about a 30-minute ferry ride across the Red Sea. Foreigners are not allowed to take a one-way ferry to Taba so I was forced to cross the border by foot through Israel the next morning. Hundreds of Jordanian men lined up at the border, as they do every morning, to cross into Israel, where they earn higher wages. Many of them held plastic bags containing stacks of pita bread and hummus for their lunch, reminiscent of the hundreds of Mexican men I've stood in line with at the Mexico/California border, many with plastic bags full of tortillas and beans. My taxi driver said women go directly to the front of the line but the guard quickly sent me to the back. A couple men who witnessed this got out of line to take me back to the front and insist that I be allowed to cross before the men. I’m not sure if that qualifies as chivalry but whatever it was, it almost made up for being forced to the back of the bus.

The customs agent said he saw me in Wadi Rum the other day. “I remember your eyes.” Oh goodness! After he stamped my passport and I left, I noticed he didn’t charge me the $15 I had saved to pay the exit fee. I would later use this leftover Jordanian money to pay a cab driver to take me to the Egyptian border. As friendly as the Jordanians were, the Israeli border officials were equally unfriendly. A woman interviewed me for at least 20 minutes as the men behind me unsuccessfully tried to show her their passport so they could get to work. “Why do you travel alone?” “You don’t speak Arabic?” What kind of last name is that?” “Which one of your parents is German?” “I see you travel a lot. Why do you go to Mexico so much?” “Why were you in Jordan?” “What will you do in Egypt?” “Who will you stay with?” “Why won’t you scuba dive in Israel? We have good diving here.” “What is your job in the US?” She would not let me pass until I connected to wifi and could show her my plane ticket that would be leaving out of Cairo. Crossing the border into Egypt proved to be a challenge as well (detailed in upcoming blog entry!) but at least they were friendly.

I had a great time and felt safe during my trip, as did other solo female travelers I met, but I must note that I learned that many Bedouin men routinely approach women for sex (despite some of them already having wives in Europe) and the situation doesn’t always end well. My host in Petra (who others told me has a wife in Germany) warned me to “not go off with any Bedouin guy who offers to show you the stars.” Several guys would offer to show me the stars in other cities and one even talked about how he enjoys being alone and single in the desert (before making the moves on me). My taxi driver in another city happened to be this guy’s cousin and told me the “single” desert Bedouin has a wife in France. Check out this article for more information about the Bedouin romance scammers. Ladies, go to Jordan and enjoy it, but be careful and watch out for Jack Sparrow look-alikes!

I enjoyed Jordan so much, including visiting the top sites along with non-touristy, off the beaten path locations that I'm planning a group trip to Jordan in April, 2018!

Petra Camel drivers, all wearing "Pirates of the Caribbean" eyeliner

Petra Camel drivers, all wearing "Pirates of the Caribbean" eyeliner

Sunset escape to Wadi Araba desert

Sunset escape to Wadi Araba desert

Desert tea at sunset

Desert tea at sunset

I had the desert camp in Wadi Rum all to myself

I had the desert camp in Wadi Rum all to myself

Many of the rocks in Wadi Rum look like melting chocolate

Many of the rocks in Wadi Rum look like melting chocolate

Tea time in Wadi Rum and the biggest tea pots I've ever seen

Tea time in Wadi Rum and the biggest tea pots I've ever seen

Hiking the back entrance to Petra

Hiking the back entrance to Petra

The monestary in Petra

The monestary in Petra

Night market in Amman

Night market in Amman

My tour guide and his friends, who delivered us food in time for our cave camping trip

My tour guide and his friends, who delivered us food in time for our cave camping trip

A police officer in Petra

A police officer in Petra

Food market in Amman

Food market in Amman