Much is made of culture shock for uninitiated Westerners visiting a Muslim country. And at first, the sight of a young woman in a head-to-toe burqini was a bit disconcerting — but really only because she’d just emerged from the depths of the Red Sea at the jetty in Aqaba thus clad, assessorised by oxygen tanks, weight belts and breathing apartatus; the wet suit not visible. She stepped out of her flippers as out of slingbacks and strode off up the beach with her Saudi dive mates. Culture shock indeed.
We were not so skilled but our diving instructor perservered. Telling us snorkelling was but a visit to the zoo compared with the safari adventures of the scuba diver, he coaxed us to a depth where the sun danced on the sea bed – and the fish were astoundingly plentiful and breathtakingly multicoloured.
Ancient-ruin buffs and religious enthusiasts can visit Jordan at any time and come away happy but increasingly so too can more seasonal sunseekers, eco tourists and those is search of outdoor adventure.
In Petra, we passed three long sunny days exploring a seemingly inexhaustible warren of trails and treks that criss-cross the ancient city. We laughed when the man at the tea stall by the amphitheatre told us his donkey was predicting snow.
But later that afternoon as we trekked the backroad from the Jebel Madhbah High Place of Sacrifice above the magnificent Treasury cloud moved in; the air cooled and stone lions were shadowy, eerie figures in a gathering mist out of which we eventually stumbled into the warm, steamy comfort of the hammam. Next morning we rose with the call to prayer and headed south and out of town on the 6am bus just as the first flurries of snow reached Petra’s northern fringe.
At the desert in Wadi Rum the sky was loaded a gun-metal grey and cold wind whipped sand in our faces. Off on the horizon, a man tried to shovel sand drifts off the narrow-guage tracks to allow a train to pass.
We fled south again, this time into the arms of the very hospitable people at the Movenpick Resort on the corniche in sunny, warm Aqaba. Unphased by our arrival in their five-star lobby looking like we’d been pulled through a desert backwards, they settled us into considerable comfort three days ahead of schedule. That evening, in the hotel bar we eavesdropped on young American cyclists trading survival tales of snow on the Desert Highway as they got quietly drunk and forgot to go to dinner.
We tried to picture this shoal of svelte multicoloured lycra, backside to the snow-bearing wind, glide away from the Dead Sea where little more than a week earlier we’d basked in the microclimate of this lowest and saltiest place on earth.
Having watched the great resorts of Egypt and Israel colonise the opposite shores of the Red and Dead seas, Jordan is improving and growing its own resorts but for now, at least, still retains some of the old-world charm of resort days past. The Dead Sea offers near constant balmy conditions (and, they say, less UV danger) to those who want nothing more strenuous than to bob about in the manner of an angler’s float on water so saline if Jesus didn’t walk on it, he should have. We made our way over rocky crystalised salt to float on our backs reading the newspaper until hotel lifeguards decided we were crinkly enough and fished us out, forcing us indoors to treat ourselves to the Movenpick’s signature salt and mud scrubs.
Reluctant though we were to leave the comfort and pampering, when the man sporting an impressive grey beard, nice sunglasses, traditional full-length kameez and red and white keffiyeh drove up in a battered white Toyota pickup we knew it was time to go. He hoisted our backpacks, and off we headed in our Bedouuin taxi for the Dana Nature Reserve to spend a couple of days enjoying the excellent hikes in this beautiful protected area.
Several hours later, the paved road gave way to rougher going and we moved deep into nomads’ land. Camels sauntered about as though walking the land, goats and sheep skipped and trotted, while children played in their infinite playground. A woman in traditional jilbab and hijbab shepherding goats over a flat expanse of sand and rock took us back to Biblical times — until she brought a smartphone from her pocket to quieten something akin to Greensleeves.
Many young Bedouins are abandoning nomadic life to settle in government-provided villages, attend university and enter the professions. Butthousands of families still live in tents close-woven from goats hair by the women, where traditional Bedouin life still goes on as it always did — with the addition of pickup trucks and moblile phones. One young tourist guide at the Feynan Eco Lodge in the reserve told us he lives in the village with his wife and baby but decamps to the tents for the long, hot summer.
February, though off-season, usually yields enough sun and heat to keep the average north European happy. The locals were as surprised by the snow — in reality a dusting that never made it to Aqaba — as we were, and before we were properly settled on our sunloungers new arrivals were giving the cyclists’ snow stories a run for their money with tales of heat and rehydration.
Close to the border with Saudi Arabia, Aqaba is a diver’s dream come true and, increasingly, a popular sun destination. It is also a bustling market town with a thriving port developed along 18 kilometres of Red Sea coast obtained from the Saudis in exchange for a large tract of desert in the east. It is popular with Saudi tourists who escape to its relatively cool 40C temperatures between June and August.
Tempting though it was to become five-star institutionalised, we returned to Wadi Rum determined to walk in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia. From our desert basecamp in the shelter of a great sandstone cliff we struck out each day on jeep and camel safaris. Some desert trivia: The camel is known as the ship of the desert because seasickness may be the reward for riding one.
We ate Bedouin fast food (chicken and veg cooked for four hours – rather than the usual eight – in in hot stone and cinders); gazed over oceans of sand at magnificant sunsets; knocked back Bedouin whiskey (strong sweet tea); and feel asleep under the white light of a full moon in our Bedouin tent to the sound of traditional arabic tunes drifting from the camp fire in the communal tent.
From here we conquered Jabal Umm ad Dami, at 1, 854m, the highest mountain peak in Jordan. Our guide, Ahmed, tracked this way and that to find the best route up and after a couple of hours scrambling and traversing we reached the summit. To the south lay Saudi Arabia, and a thin black line of road off in the distance snaking away from a border check point to disappear into the desert hills.
We’d set out from Madaba at the start of our trip and travelled west through the Jordan valley to look over the original promised land. At Mount Nebo, our Muslim guide was a treasure trove of cross-referenced religious scripts. Pointing to the many ironies of religious difference, he led us past the site where John the Baptist baptised Jesus to the river bank where a Jordanian soldier stood strapped to some kind of automatic weapon. Across the river, pilgrims were giving praise to a Christian god on land, controversial as you like, that is claimed by Palestine but controlled by Israel. Off in the distance the humps of several West Bank cities – Jerusalem, Jericho, Bethlehem, Hebron – rose out of a hazy day.
Three weeks later we ended our trip with a three-day stay in Amman, which many visitors avoid. But this busy, unpretentious capital is a wonderful opportunity to experience a thriving Middle Eastern city in ordinary, everyday action. Rich in cafe culture and street life, it is well worth a visit. Alcohol is available in Jordan – in many restaurants and in most resort hotels – but it was refreshing to be in a place where it didn’t dominate every social interaction.
In the cool of evening friends, courting couples and families sit under trees in the park, over a meal in a restaurant or streetside cafe or on a bench near the mosque, chatting and laughing. Much of the time we ate in the cheap-eat street cafes but, in Amman, treated ourselves to dinner at the Tannoureen restaurant, where tables brimmed with families and friends, and two is a lonely number.
Beside us, about a dozen women on a night out, all in traditional Middle Eastern dress, their meal finished, sat back and enjoyed the hooka pipes, sending the heady aroma of smokey mixed-fruit wafting towards our table. That, for two people who think smokers really do belong outside, somehow marked the perfect end to a wonderful trip.