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  • Writer's pictureThomas Lee

Uncovering the Rich Cultural Tapestry of Jordan through its Food, Landscapes, and People


Making tea while exploring Wadi Rum
Tea in Wadi Rum

My toes are still resting on a nice cushion of sand inside my shoes while I sit at Queen Alia International Airport. Deciding to wear running shoes with dozens of little holes on the top was a mistake while hiking dunes and rock formations in Southern Jordan for the last 48 hours but I barely even notice, in fact right now its providing a quick reminder of the completely out of this world experience that just took place.  12 hours ago I had just finished playing some form of desert chess in a cave with three Bedouin members, while sipping the ever lasting pot of tea and staring at the billions of stars above me, I moved to the cave that I was staying in for the night and for the first time in my 39 years on this planet was trying to stay awake just a little longer to watch the sky that was alive with light above me. Eventually I had to relent and slipped away into a hard sleep after an amazing day.  


I came to Jordan at the very beginning of February 2024, which came at a tense time in the region to put it modestly.  The humanitarian crisis taking place in Gaza seemed to be deteriorating, someone from Syria had recently flown a drone into a US base in Northern Jordan, killing 3 American soldiers, and the Houthi were continuing to fire rockets into the Red Sea despite heavy US and UK airstrikes in response.  My Bedouin friends even remarked that at times the silence of the desert would get broken by US fighter jets screaming overhead towards Yemen.  


Amman, Jerash, Aljoun & Dead Sea

My trip started with two slightly rainy days in Amman, a beautifully hilly metropolis that is buzzing with life and incredible food.  I spent the time there exploring the markets of downtown, climbing to the top of the Roman Citadel and Amphitheater and eating on Rainbow Street. Rainbow Street is the hip, new area of town that hosts some great restaurants and apartments with fantastic views of the rest of the city.


Jerash and Aljoun Castle are an easy day trip from Amman, with the most agonizing portion of the trip being rush hour traffic out of Amman. Driving in Jordan was overall a pleasant experience, roads were simple, Google Maps got me around just fine, and for the most part other drivers made life easy. Around Amman things were a bit more chaotic, the concept of staying in your lane or using a turn signal were lost on most but it appeared that all were playing by the same rules and making their way around just fine. I was able to see Jerash over a few hours and then the Aljoun Castle over an hour or so. Hot tip, get some coffee with the dudes in the tent outside the Castle, very welcoming and good tea or coffee.


My next day I left Amman for good and made my way to Mt. Nebo, a quite little Franciscan Monastery overlooking Israel and the Dead Sea. Now the monastery aint what the place is known for, its known as the location where Moses saw the promised land and died. A quick car ride down that mountain towards said promised land brought me to Bethany on the Jordan, where John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. Which was a nice little hour long tour of the area and the ability to bless some items if you'd like.


Finally I turned directly south and made my way to before my swanky Dead Sea resort for the afternoon and evening.  I lounged, jumped into the Dead Sea (word of advice don’t put your head under it stings) and had a relaxing dinner at what is considered the lowest place on Earth (at least by my resort).





Petra - City Lost in Time

An early drive from the Dead Sea put me at the gates of Petra at 9:30 am the next morning and that’s when the experience went from one filled with welcoming people, great food, cool historical sites to something out of literal Hollywood movies.  I find it no surprise that Southern Jordan and Petra are used in other world, magical movies like Indian Jones, The Martian, Star Wars and the oh so appropriate Dune.  I’ve been around the block and this is something I did not expect.  


The town near Petra (Wadi Musa) is a small town that’s tucked away in the hills of South Central Jordan.  I park my car at one of the free parking lots right by the gate and make my way to the visitor center.  Following some pretty simple research it became apparent right away that purchasing the Jordan Pass before my arrival was a no brainer.  It cost a little over $100 but covered the $60 visa into the country, my tickets into the Citadel, Roman Amphitheater, Jerash, Aljoun, Petra and Wadi Rum, and that’s just what it covered for me, it covers much much more than that.  After quickly getting through the ticket booth I start the descent into Petra.  It begins with a gentle sloping walkway through a small canyon, fairly quickly we are greeted by white stone cut buildings on either side of us.  And then the siq begins, which is basically just a large fissure, crack in the earth.  Red, multi colored walls shoot up 80 feet on both sides of the siq, it narrows and expands from 15-30 feet for close to a mile and the walk is almost worth the entire trip itself.  As you walk the now ancient riverbed, you see everything from small carvings of shrines, to cut off statues of people of the time and almost the entire siq has a small aqueduct running along one wall.  Finally after the mile of anticipating what the next turn will bring you catch a glimpse of Treasury’s columns from a good 50 yards away with the siq still threatening to close her doors before you can reach it.  Then you are ejected the plaza in front of the Treasury itself and left in aww at a building that makes you actually have to consider the possibility of ancient aliens. Symmetrical, enormous, intricate and unbelievable are just some of the words that are failures to bring into full context the magnitude of this tomb. Not a treasury but thought to actually be the tomb of one of the Kings. Which gets my imagination running of some grave robbers thinking they were hitting some treasury to only stumble upon the curse of some tomb.



Siq looking at the Treasury - Petra
Siq looking at the Treasury - Petra


The next mile or two of the city opens back up into a valley surrounded by houses, tombs, and temples, all intricately carved into the stone. There’s plenty of side trails and walkways to explore through the main site, and without water, restrooms and more than a few folks hawking cheap souvenirs you’ll have plenty to keep you busy.


The biggest decision you’ll have is the climb to The Monastery. As the main site comes to and end you can take a hard right and start the ascent to The Monastery. It’s a beautiful climb and the path is safe, but you definitely gain some elevation over the next 30-45 mins. There’s great views that have tea, juice stands set up as well, plus the ever present trinket tent. Now there is the option to ride a donkey to the top, which will be presented to you often, I forgo this route as it didn’t look like it would be horribly comfortable for either me or the donkey but there were people who chose this path and seemed to enjoy it and it did help them get to the Monastery.



Monastery - Petra
Monastery - Petra


Finally the trail ends and you are again presented with a beautiful carved masterpiece all alone on some outlook in the middle of some hills in central Jordan. It was peaceful there, quite, less tourists make the trip and it was the perfect spot for a Turkish coffee, water and a rest. 


After a half an hour rest or so I started the 90 min or so walk back to the visitor center. I stopped along the way to pay the equivalent of $1.50 to a few shopkeepers who have been hurting by the down season and lack of tourists from the multiple conflicts going on around them. On my way back I broke off to climb to the High Sacrifice site, which was amazing in its own right. High atop the entire city you get an amazing few of the mountains and valleys strong around you. I enjoyed tea at the top with some Bedouin women and then headed back. And then it was back to check into my Airbnb.


Now if this was my entire experience at Petra it would’ve been well worth it. But that evening was one of the few nights a week that they do Petra at night. At this point I’d already walked 30k steps and had an early morning drive the next day. I’d also heard that maybe it wasn’t quite worth it, I’d heard that it was slightly cheesy and a long experience. Luckily the rational thought that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and it’s not like I had anything better to do that evening. So I signed up, showed back up at the visitors center at 8:15 and started the walk down. And the walk down was worth it in its own right. Looking up through the siq at all the stars as I walked the candlelit path was breathtaking. The staff had to hurry us up as folks were lagging behind and going to miss the show at The Treasury (which is the only site you visit at night). Once at The Treasury the had the plaza in front of the building covered in candles as well and had us all sit looking at the carving. We were served tea and then entertained for 30 mins or so with some Bedouin music, which was a fine enough experience and then we were turned around and started our last trip up the hill. All told we were back at the top a few minutes after 10 pm, I found the third bed that I’ve slept in in three nights and crashed, sleeping like a rock after 37k plus steps for the day.



Petra at Night
Petra at Night

Wadi Rum - Like No Place on Earth

I got up early again the next day and jumped in my car and started the journey farther south into the belly of Jordan, towards the village of Wadi Rum.  The drive was a quick hour and a half and beautiful at that.  5 miles or so before the visitor center of Wadi Rum you start to see the amazing rock formations exploding out of the red sand of the desert, intense, unique formations that do make you feel that you are entering another planet. I met Mohammad at his house in town, quick side note and not ground breaking here but there are a lot of folks named Mohammad in Jordan.  Again not surprising but I seemed to have a run of meeting like 6 dudes and 5 of them were named Mohammad, all incredible folks, great name, just must get confusing at some points.  But who knows, maybe someone from Jordan comes here and is like I met a Michael, a Mike and a Michelle today, is everyone named Michael here?


I arrived at Mohammad’s and was immediately shown into a tented off area next to his house, sat on the ground on some comfy cushions and we had some tea (another constant in Jordan) and visited for 15 mins or so.  Mohammad is Bedouin as well, relaxed, not in a hurry and open to answering all of my questions about the country, the desert and his life.  Eventually his cousin Yousef (another revelation is these dudes have a lot of cousins, everyone we met throughout he day seemed to be related) came by to pick me up in his Toyota truck, and we set off on our excursion into the desert.  We grabbed some drinks, nuts and a raw chicken on the way out of the town and started out through a neighborhood in Wadi Rum, eventually the road beneath us disappeared, the houses stopped and next thing I knew the tires were on red sand and we were driving right out into the wide, vast desert in front of us, Sturgill Simpson blasting over the radio. Towering formations blowing up on each side of us, stretching out as far as I could see, we were driving along seemingly aimlessly into the empty desert before Yousef took a right along some imaginary road and started towards a rock face, as we got closer I noticed the Bedouin tent, camels and one other jeep parked at the base of the rock.  We pulled up and Yousef (who’s English was rough) pointed to the rock and said climb up there, Lawerence of Arabia’s spring.  I asked where the trail was and he shook his head and just motioned towards the rocks, so fuck it, I started scrambling up the rocks, every 10 mins or so I turned around gazed out into the vastness and looked down on Yousef who would wave one way or another for me to climb in another direction.  Eventually I did find a white tree growing seemingly out of nothing and as I got closer I saw the crack in the rock, then the pool of water, I turned around and looked out on miles of rock formations and open desert, every so often a Jeep or Toyota zipping across the desert like a pod racer.  It truly seemed that I was either on Arakis or Mars and it was magical.



Wadi Rum
Wadi Rum


The next 6 hours Yousef and I drove around, listening to music, drinking tea, from time to time he would like up a cigarette or hash joint (which he was kind enough to offer but I politely declined), and we would stop at different rock formations and Yousef would point out some hieroglyphics, show me some spring, tell me to climb through a mountain.  It was magical and although we didn’t talk much, we seemed to connect and I definitely felt connected to the world around me.  The craziest thing was how quiet the world was out there, I’ve heard the term deafening but had never truly experienced it to this level.  Even while talking to someone I would realize that there was absolutely no background noise, nothing at all, maybe a gust of wind but that was it.  


We stopped at various tents plopped throughout the desert that were occupied by some cousin of his, we had tea, had lunch and relaxed.  Everyone I met (and this goes for Jordan in general) was extremely open, welcoming and happy to invite me in for tea.  It was an amazing experience and one that has stuck with me after returning to the US.  They seemed to be slightly more connected with each other and those around them, less distant and stuck in their phones, less neurotic and consumed by anxiety, this may just be the perception I got from a very small sample size but it did stick closely with me.  


Exploring Wadi Rum
Exploring Wadi Rum


We finished the day by pulling up to a large tent erected against a rock formation, Yousef walked me past that tent and towards another rock formation and behind a small rock wall that was about thigh high was a queen sized mattress which had a 100 foot rock as its head board. This was going to be my bed for the evening.  I put my bag in the little fortification and Yousef and I went back to the tent which would be our mess hall, hang out center for the evening.  Yousef let me know that if I walked about half a mile past some rock formations, I’d find a large break in the desert and could watch the sunset (at least this is what I thought he was telling me).  I started off towards the open desert and as I rounded one rock formation I realized that I had no phone, no one else around me and, after a quick flash of fear of getting lost in the desert, I felt a sense of calm and peace.  I found a small rock jetting out of the sand, took my shoes off and plopped down, using the rock as a back rest, and watched the sun slowly set over the incredible landscape in front of me.  



Sleeping Quarters for the Night - Wadi Rum
Sleeping Quarters for the Night - Wadi Rum


After I successfully made my way back to Yousef, Mohammad and his brother had arrived.  We sat on cushions around the fire, drank tea, ate chicken and rice cooked on the fire, they smoked hash and we talked about everything.  It truly felt like four guys just shooting the shit, talking about the stars, Mohammads plans for cave expansion, the impact of all the Instagram bubble hotels popping up in the desert, the wars in Syria and Israel, the Houthis, the Quran, the Bible, they taught me a weird chess/checkers game that is played with rocks and a board drawn in sand.  It was an evening like I’ve never experienced before.  Finally it was time for bed and as I slowly made my way through the extreme darkness I found my bed against the rock with no roof and no one within 200 yards of me.  I was initially curious if I would be able to sleep, if I would be too scared, what if something happens, but I felt an incredible sense of calm and being home and experienced no fear at all.  I laid in bed looking at the most stars I’d ever seen in my life.  It was alive, the sky was literally alive, I don’t know how to describe it, it was as if the entire sky was blinking, breathing, that is was alive.  I didn’t want to sleep, I didn’t want to miss out on a sky that I may never see again but eventually I relented and drifted off under my camel skin blanket and had one of the deepest sleeps of my life. 



Camping with the Bedouin - Wadi Rum
Camping with the Bedouin - Wadi Rum


I awoke at 5 am due to the fact that I had to make the drive back to Amman that morning and sat on the edge of the bed still gazing out at the endless sky in front of me.  I sat there five mins and thought how this could get better when all the sudden a large green meteor (at least I think it was) shot across the sky in front of me before exploding in the atmosphere (at least I think it did) and dissipated into millions of little pieces, slowly dying into the night sky. I sat there not totally sure what I just saw and thanked the Universe for the trip that I just experienced.


Finally I grabbed my bag and walked down to wake Yousef up (Mohammad and his brother had left the night before).  After some tea and a light breakfast, Yousef and I packed up the truck and made the 40 min drive through the desert back to town.  The sun rose, the desert was reveled and I sat in peaceful gratitude for Jordan, its people and the week that I had been able to experience.


After getting in town, I said goodbye to Yousef jumped in my car and made the three hour drive up to Queen Alia International Airport, which is where you are finding me now, waiting to grab my three hour flight to Abu Dhabi and after a quick eight hour layover, I’ll grab my 15 hour flight to Chicago, before another layover and final three hour flight home to Austin.  It might seem like a lot, and honestly I could’ve planned the travel a lot better but it was amazingly worth it.  The food, the people, the nature, the history, the spirituality are all on full display in Jordan, a place that is wedged in the middle of chaos but one that offers an experience that I’ve never found anywhere else in the world. 

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