Okay, so the response I got when I told people I was going to the heart of the Middle East in the midst of the Arab Spring wasn’t quite that severe, but it was close. My mom’s response? “Are your tickets refundable? Please tell me they’re refundable.”
Interestingly, safety wasn’t really a concern when my friend Molly approached me to say she wanted to plan a trip with me to Jordan. In fact, we didn’t even look into what the State Department had to say about travel to Jordan until after we had clicked the “Confirm” button on our plane tickets. (For the record, we would have changed them had there been any serious safety warnings, and I recommend that anyone check out the site for advisories before booking any international travel.) It just seemed exotic, specifically because I had been to some 30+ countries before and Jordan had never even popped up on my radar.
Doing things backwards, as I sometimes seem to do, I got together with Molly and quickly purchased our tickets, only then to ask “what is there to do in Jordan”? She had already told me about Petra, which only confirmed my ignorance of our planet, seeing as how it’s one of the Seven New Wonders of the World and yet I only knew it as the place at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where the old greedy dude drinks from the decoy Holy Grail and faces the usual face-melting fate of Indiana Jones movie villains.
Turns out there’s a ton to do in Jordan. In addition to Petra, we quickly filled up our itinerary with floating in the Dead Sea, riding through Wadi Rum (in the Arabian Desert) on camels with Bedouins, scuba diving in the Red Sea at Aqaba and just across the Israeli border in Eilat, and a visit to some beautifully preserved ancient Roman ruins at Jaresh, leaving us just an afternoon to scope out the capital city of Amman. The seven days we had allowed ourselves weren’t nearly enough.
Wadi Rum Desert – one of the most peaceful and serene places you can go
The Treasury at Petra
Practicing my snowboarding skills in the middle of the Arabian Desert
Aqaba on the Red Sea
Ancient Roman ruins at Jaresh
And yet despite all of these incredible activities and adventures in one of the most beautiful corners of the world, I felt like Jordan was one of the few remaining well-kept secrets in travel. On the trip I spoke to several Jordanians who were very happy to see us, but a bit dismayed by the fact that the situation just north of their border in Syria was scaring off scores of potential visitors. This desert country is – not surprisingly – lacking in agriculture and forestry and – very surprisingly – completely devoid of any oil resources. This means that tourism plays a massive role in supporting one of the West’s most valuable and still stable allies in the Middle East, and yet the instability of Jordan’s neighbors has hurt its tourism industry at a time when it needs those funds the most.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of this writing the conflict in Syria has pushed half a million refugees over the border into Jordan. At one point the Zaa’tari Refugee Camp had enough inhabitants to make it Jordan’s fourth largest city. The country has received less than half of the some USD 1 billion in funding requested to deal with the influx, and this continues to cause an immense strain.
I can’t begin to tell you how friendly and hospitable the people of Jordan were to us when we visited. Random strangers stopped to help us when it was clear we needed it. (Apparently two blonds even just driving around in suburban Madaba is a clear indication of being lost.) We encountered no scams, at least that we were aware of. We did get a few long stares, but these were always more of a curious nature than a creepy one, and the second we smiled and waved at any of our gazers they promptly snapped out of their dazes, smiled and waved back. Most people were shocked that two out-of-place blond girls would opt for a rental car and independent itinerary as opposed to the usual tour bus gliding from tourist trap to tourist trap. Apart from the most common “Your first time in Jordan? Welcome, welcome!”, one of the more frequent questions we encountered was “Where’s your group?”.
Unlike other countries where the locals see tourists as a financial opportunity, we felt the Jordanians were more determined to show us what their country had to offer. We never felt unsafe or threatened in any way – unless you count the horses and camels that thought it a good idea to share the highway with us. Yeah, watch out for that.
OUT OF MY WAY, CAMEL!!
In sum, go to Jordan. It may have a few scary neighbors, but I can assure you it is not Syria, Egypt or Iraq. You’ll help support a much needed industry in tough times and get a new perspective on the world in a place very few, if any, of your friends have seen.
Sunset over Wadi Rum
Feel free to get in touch with me if you’d like tips or recommendations on travel in Jordan. And as always, do research on the safety and stability of the country before booking.
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