“A Country as Old as Time Itself”

Photo of “A Country as Old as Time Itself” 1/21 by Nitish Agarwal
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When I started planning my itinerary for 2 weeks of travel, I was sure about two things 1) I am going to scuba dive and 2) Visit some off-beat location. Gili Trawangan (beach paradise on earth) had made it to the list. But that would have been a one week adventure only. So, I had to add another destination to my list. As I dug deeper into possible travel itineraries, I realized that Jordan, which is a small landlocked country in the Middle East surrounded by terror inflicted neighbors like Saudi Arabia/Israel/Syria/Iraq was much easier to navigate than Egypt and safer to travel than Israel. Guess what, it even provided Visa on Arrival and boasted of more than one unique places to visit.

Filled with historical places like Bethany (Jesus was baptized here), Petra (One of the seven wonders of the world), King’s Highway (A popular trade route) and Mount Nebo (Moses Burial Site and the Land that was Promised), Jordan also offers the opportunity to get in touch with nature through the Dead Sea, Hot Springs(a hot waterfall) and Wadi Rum (the red desert).

I immediately booked my tickets, searched for hotels and made my bookings. I even prepared myself for the trip by listening to numerous fusion tracks (Turkish + Hindi) on Coke Studio (Man Amadeh Am, Ishq Kinara, etc). And just like that I was about to embark on my first solo trip.

This being my first solo trip, I was obviously a little apprehensive if I would be able to enjoy myself. And the first of many errors that I made was being over confident and not carrying my hostel booking documents. This led to me being harassed by the immigration officials for more than 2 hours. And when it finally came down to them approving my visa, apparently all they needed was the fact that I had visited the United States of America and I had an american 10 year visa stamped on my passport – confirming that I was not a terrorist or smuggler. Nevertheless, I decided to keep my spirits high and enjoy the moment. I was in Amman (capital city) now and an unknown world waited out there for me.

Amman is the capital city of Jordan and as per some old biblical dictionary it means a city perched atop 7 Hills. As I drove from the airport to my hostel in downtown, this fact became apparent as I came across several viewpoints which offered a panoramic view of the entire city. My stay was booked at The Boutique Hostel (nothing Boutique about it though) in downtown Amman. It was a small house managed by a helpful but shrewd Palestinian owner. The itinerary for the day was to visit the Roman Theater and the Citadel. Both nestled inside the city limits. I got my directions from the hostel manager and decided to walk (walking is the best way to explore any city).

The entire downtown Amman is filled with shops that sell everything, from classy leather jackets and boots to the boring electronics to the much hyped dead sea cosmetics. People are warm and friendly. Infact, I was approached by many of them as they instantly recognized the traveler with a camera and the fact that he also looked Indian. Questions pertaining to Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Sachin Tendulkar, Mumbai, Delhi were asked and offers made to buy discounted products from their shops. I only asked further directions to the Roman Theater.

Unfortunately, the Roman Theater was closed due to severe flooding that had taken place due to torrential rains (something that is least expected in a desert) and I also came to know that the next place I planned to visit was supposed to be closed for the day in the next 15 minutes. I immediately rushed to my next destination, not wanting to miss out and have nothing to speak about my first day as a solo traveler. Upon my arrival at the Citadel, several tour guides offered an extra hour of sight-seeing beyond the closing time so that I could see the entire place, for an extra 20 JD. Well, it was totally worth it. The majestic sun was calling it a day, the city was turning into a burning red rose and I was on top of one of the 7 hills of Amman surrounded by history and roman architecture.

I walked back to my hostel (atleast 4-5 kms) and upon my return, I got to meet my room mates – an Indian, a friendly Taiwenese man and an aloof Japenese teenager. Pranav had arrived two days back in Amman and was still to explore the many tourist destinations of Jordan. Being Indians, we bonded quickly and even faster we made plans about the places to visit for the next day. 

Pranav and me had booked a tour guide who would pick up from our hostel and take us through the King’s Highway to visit the Moses Burial Ground, the Dead Sea, Panorama and the Ma’in Hot Springs. King’s Highway is the one of the oldest trade routes in the middle east, offering scenic spots of the entire country side of Jordan and connecting all the major tourist spots. Its runs like a snake carved through mountains and has no speed limits. Going up and down the hills, it offers some great sights for photography.

After visiting the boring burial grounds, Bethany (a holy river separates Jordan and Israel and this is where Jesus was baptized) and Panorama (highest 360 view of Jordan), it was time to have a splash in the Dead Sea. There are many options to chose from on how to visit the Dead Sea. There are many sea side resorts (extremely expensive) and only one public beach. We obviously opted for the public beach (only 20 JD – provides towels, shower and locker).

To state some facts about the Dead Sea – 1) It is the lowest point on earth 2) It has the highest salt content which allows you to float without any effort. The only things you need to be careful about are making sure that you don’t let the water inside your eyes, mouth or nose. Apart from having many cosmetic benefits, the dead sea mud and salts are known to heal a number of skin diseases. Later in the day on our way back, our guide stopped us at his cousin’s shop which sold dead sea products. And I ended up spending about 140 JD on the bath soaps, mud packs, creams and face wash. Funny thing is I haven’t even used any of those till date.

A short note about the Hot Springs – If your guide tells you about such a place – VISIT IT. It will be one of the most relaxing experiences ever. Ma’in Hot Springs had a naturally formed sauna and is also a hot waterfall under which one could lay down and feel the pleasures of being massaged by a 1000 delicate fingers.

Upon my arrival in Petra, I took a cab to my hotel and quite daringly asked my cabbie about a special strain of hashish famous only in Jordan known as Blonde. This turned into an invitation to a party he and his folks were having late in the evening the same day.

Charged up with this good news of getting HIGH in the evening in a foreign land, I quickly put my baggage in my room and left for the monument of PETRA (in hopes to make it in time for the get high session). There is a QUEEN ALIA Pass costing 70 JD, and covers the JORDAN VISA cost and Site Pass for Petra (along with several other tourist passes).

Petra is actually an old biblical city established by the Nabatean (extremely smart businessmen community) in the early 300 AC, but was abandoned due to water shortages and an unfortunate earthquake. To reach the main monument called the Treasury one has to walk more than 2 km through a path called as SIQ. This is where Harrison Ford shot the famous movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusades. What remains today of the glorious city what was Petra are the ruins of broken dams, water channels, broken construction tools, entertainment grounds, burial grounds, temples, palaces and stone huts.

Two main monuments at Petra are the Treasury and the Monastery. Treasury is 2 kms walk from the entrance gate and the Monastery is further 2-3 kms from the Treasury plus a good 20-30 min hike up the mountains. The best thing about the monastery is that it has a nice Cafe built in front of the monument. So after a 30 min trek up the hill, one could chill here and sip in the hot tea while sitting amongst rugged mountains, admire the beauty of the ancient ruins and appreciate how far the human race has come from carving mountains to building things on the CLOUD.

Something you cannot miss in Jordan is the world famous CINNAMON TEA. It is everywhere and every one drinks it. My daily average of tea cups in Jordan was more than 5. And as I was sitting in front the of the monastery and sipping my hot tea, I over heard a Bedouin (villagers of Jordan) who was flirting with the old foreign women passing by, talk to his nephew about arranging some hashish for his friends. I was tired and could have used a puff or two to make the downward hike more enjoyable.

The nephew Bedouin (dont remember his name) was slick as a rat. Said to me that a joint would cost 70 JD and would come along with dinner. Later, I bargained it down to 35 JD and he took me home to taste some authentic Bedouin dinner. As we walked down the hill, back to his village, we met a Polish couple who agreed to come along and the slick as a rat Bedouin took fancy to them. (Indians are treated racially in this part of the world). Anyways, the Hashish was good, the weather cold, the dinner delicious, the polish couple friendly and the Bedouin spoke to us at great lengths about his country and religion. I even got another joint to last me the next day at Wadi Rum.

(The queen is highly respected in Jordan, more than the King. But of course, what one man in Jordan says, all his brothers say the same thing. Truth and facts don’t matter, that is how their ideology works. The Bedouin and me in the above pic.)

Wadi Rum is an expansive red desert where The Martian was shot to replicate Mars. Far away from the hustle bustle of city, it promised me a chance to look at a starry sky and see some shooting stars. Over here, I found my tour companions were an american dude, a Brazilian chick and a Brazilian hippie dude. We did not need many introductions, we were just travelers. It did not count where we came from, what we did. We were just people lost in the moment, ready to explore the desert and see what it had to offer. Our tour guide took us to different view points which involved a lot of hiking. All of us had a simple Bedouin lunch and I personally waited for the night. By late afternoon we had reached the camps where we were supposed to spend the rest of the night. I was fidgety waiting for it to be dark.

By now, I had already told my Brazilian hippie friend about the hashish and we decided to roll two thick joints mixed with tobacco. The Bedouins laid out the dinner and set up a bonfire for us to keep warm in an otherwise cold night. We were joined by people from other nearby camps for the dinner and all of us sang and danced together. I took an early break from the drama as it was something else that I seeked. “A Million Stars”.

I stepped out of the camp and walked far away into the darkness, with my held up high, trying to spot the stars. And the dream came true. However cold it might have been, I did not need anything to keep me warm as I was covered by a blanket of million stars (it might have been just an edge of the milky way, but for me it was the path to infinity). Quickly, me and Pedro set up my camera and took some snaps of the milky way. We lit up the the joints we had rolled and like two perfect hippies, we trolled over all the nuances of working a dead end job and how traveling was the holy grail. Pedro showed me how to spot the shooting stars and from there on I was able to spot one every 5 mins. We spoke at great lengths about traveling across S. America and Astronomy. I was still unhappy about the photos we had taken earlier of the stars and I decided to stay a little longer in the cold taking somewhat perfect photos of the milky way. (Pardon me, but I know I have a long way to go before I master night sky photography.)

I sat there alone for about 2 hours in the cold, my feet were numb, I couldn’t feel my nose and hands, and I was just wearing a jacket in almost close to zero temperature. Took as many photos as I could and decided to call it a night. Now, only one last thing that remained was to meet an old colleague friend from Jordan.

I arrived back in Amman the following day in the evening and decided to take in much needed rest after spending the last night in extreme colds. Pedro and me decided to visit the much famous cafe culture of Amman during the night. First we decided to buy some souvenirs to take back home.

The entire downtown has small cafes placed in every nook and corner which serve sheesha, tea and snacks. I visited the Hashem Restaurant (oldest restaurant in Amman) first to try out some local dishes like the Falafel, Pita bread and Hummus. Pedro and me together later went to a nearby cafe to try the lemon mint sheesha and lemon mint cooler. We dined on authentic dinner food like shish tawouk (chicken kebabs), chicken kofta and mensaf (mutton rice).

Near to midnight, my old colleague friend from Jordan, Hasan Qandil, joined me in downtown and we spoke about the old days talking about Schlumberger, India and Jordan. He took me to this super famous dessert join where we tried Kanafeh (most Jordanian desserts look similar to the Indian Desserts and i had noticed this particular joint had 10-20 people waiting in que every evening). Kanafeh is like the Indian halwa with a lot of cheese and melted sugary syrup. FOOD ORGASM!

All in all, though the Jordanian people did not impress me, I fell in love with the Jordanian food. This was the end of one week of adventure, a trip of a lifetime (of course I am never traveling to Jordan again) and the first solo traveling-wala-trip.

The first day I remember calling my mom and telling her how I wished I was traveling with friends and how that would have helped me have fun on my vacation. But, 5 days later I knew I had more fun traveling alone, visited way more places, soaked in way more culture and history, tried new delicacies, all while making new travel friends (aka Living the Hippie Traveler’s Life).And, wait it gets better, the next stop was at Indonesia in Gili Trawangan (Gili Tralalala .. it makes you lazy enough not to say the whole name) and that was going to be one hell of a party and I was gearing up for another adventure.

This post was originally published on 'The Indian Abroad'.