Jordan. A country so deeply enraptured by the NBA that they named themselves after His Airness.
Jordan. A country whose main export is Air Jordan sneakers— no, I’m kidding it’s probably dates or some shit.
The brown Chevy Cobalt (none of those three words inspired any confidence in me at all) I picked up at Amman airport was the second most dicked-up rental car I’ve ever taken custody of. (Good luck topping Ireland on that front, rest of the world.) It appeared to be about 30 years old and to have spent most of those years hauling sheep. None of the buttons inside the car did anything at all and the clock was set to Chicago time. In honor of Michael Jordan.
Driving in Jordan was frequently punctuated by me bursting into laughter over some impossible thing that had just happened in front of me.
A bus drove in the oncoming lane, against traffic, for miles on end because hey, F you, I’m a bus. Everyone else just swerved around it the best they could, with a calmness that suggested this raging buspocalypse was a ho-hum daily Jordanian occurrence.
Jordan is quite fond of the old “100 KPH speed limitHA HA SPEEDBUMP, SURPRISE MOTHERFUCKER!” joke, which never gets old. At first I felt kind of embarrassed that the speedbumps kept sneaking up on me in a sudden cacophony of squealing brakes and scraped underbody, until I began to notice the locals launching off of them like they were filming an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard.
Eventually I figured out the secret of knowing exactly where the perfectly road-colored speed bumps are: When you feel your teeth hit the steering wheel, you know the speed bump is directly underneath your car.
I knew I had fully acclimated to my time in the Muslim world when I blurted out “Mohammed!” instead of “Jesus Christ!” as a concrete pillar suddenly appeared in the lane I was driving in for no goddamned reason.
Jordan also has a bizarre wormhole factor you have to take into account when planning a drive. Two routes can look identical on the map but one can take two hours and the other seven hours, because the second one wiggles like someone trying to break an Etch-a-Sketch and it also passes through approximately 700 tiny villages full of narrow, winding streets and people wondering what in the hell a strange creature like you is doing in their one-goat village.
I’d taken the first kind of route down to Petra in two and a half hours, then quite involuntarily ended up on the second kind during my five-plus-hour drive back to the airport, thanks to a single extremely costly wrong turn. In addition to the 700 villages, I ended up in someone’s back yard, at the door of the regional police headquarters, and at one point so far off the grid I thought I might have crossed over into Israel.
The street lights suddenly ended and then it was just me, my not particularly trusty Cobalt, and the big, black night. It was so dark it felt like I was driving into the sky. The eventual appearance of red lights, evenly spaced on the towers of a power station off on the horizon, only made it more confusing, like I was driving through some kind of bizarre wire frame video game.
This situation was not helped at all by the fact that the Cobalt’s headlights cast exactly as much light as that “Light” button on your watch, which I assume people use so they can track exactly when they wet the bed. The headlights were also pointed in two different directions, neither of which was particularly helpful. The brights were a little better, but every time I toggled them off so as not to blind the driver of an oncoming car, it was like I’d turned off the headlights entirely and had suddenly gone into stealth mode so the Jordanians wouldn’t suspect there was a Cobalt in their midst.
This whole detour off the edge of the Earth was simultaneously harrowing and a complete blast. But by the time I rejoined the main road hours later, it was with more than a small measure of relief. I was so relieved, in fact, that I Planes Trains and Automobile-d and got on the freeway going the wrong way, against traffic. This is far, far easier to do in Jordan than you would think or likely believe. Jordanian roads are constantly switching between separated lanes with a median, two-ish intermingled lanes somehow supporting four cars headed in opposite directions, and the more than occasional total free-for-all.
I had passed three or four oncoming cars before I realized why I was seeing the backs of all the road signs. I thought “Oh wow, I’m still alive. Huh...” and then quickly and expertly pulled off the elusive hasty mid-freeway U-turn, surely a line item on every reasonable person’s bucket list. My favorite thing about Jordan is that I’m 100% certain the four cars I passed going the wrong way on the freeway found nothing unusual or alarming about this situation at all.
Jordan is also having road construction. As in, all the roads are under construction simultaneously right now. Every 30 seconds or so, the highway would switch between 110 KPH normal mode and a special 40 KPH “The Lane You’re Driving In Dead Ends Into a Concrete Wall and You Need to Swerve Into The Oncoming Traffic Immediately So You Don't Wile E. Coyote Right Into That Wall” mode. They hadn’t even redone the paint or added cones or anything, making it both amusing and horrifying to see the road markings directing you straight into oblivion.
I’m fairly certain, just based on memory, that other countries have non-construction zones on their roads. Jordan does not. It’s just not zoned for it.
The other driving factor to adjust to are the soldiers standing by the sides of the road who will flag you down at random and ask you where you’re going. I was slightly intimidated by this prospect, as my Arabic is, how you say, nonexistent. Thankfully, the first few times I pulled over for soldiers, they yelled at me to get the hell out of there because they weren’t pointing at me. The first soldier who did flag me down intentionally was stationed just outside Petra, which is Jordan’s #1 tourist attraction and literally the only thing any white person has ever heard of in Jordan. And so it was relatively easy to convince him that I was, in fact, going to continue driving up this road ten more feet into Petra, in spite of the language barrier.
I did not have such an easy time on the road to the airport when I was returning that night. The soldier there stopped my car and asked me, in broken English, where I was going. I said “The airport.” He looked at me like I was the stupidest person alive.
“Where you fly to?”
My brain froze up. I literally had no idea where I was flying to. I’d had one hour of sleep the night before and had spent the entire day alternately climbing all the trails in Petra that the guidebook said were supposed to collectively take three full days, and driving through Jordanian wormholes in the dead of night. I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind, which was “Oman.”
I was definitely not flying to Oman, but he didn’t know that. Or did he? After a moment’s pause to mentally verify that Oman is, indeed, a place that people can fly to, he waved me through and into the airport.
Whew. I was happy about this development for approximately four minutes until I realized there were no gas stations between the checkpoint and the airport. There hadn’t been any at all on the long road to the airport itself, and I was supposed to be returning my goat cart on full. As I pulled into the complex tangle of the car rental return area, the returns guy directed me to back into a parking spot.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t find a petrol station. The guy at the counter said there was one near the airport but he was clearly just messing with me.”
The guy thought about that for a moment and then, against all of my expectations and previous experience, he climbed into my car.
“I will show you. Let’s go.”
Okay then! As I drove, the guy admonished me for only spending one day in Jordan and also for driving too slow.
“These cameras are all turn off. Go faster. What can you do in one day in Jordan? Nothing!”
“I drove all the way to Petra and back.”
“Oh. Oh my. You are very tired.”
You have no idea.
“What is wrong with your clock? This is not right time! *press press press* These buttons do nothing.”
The gas station was only about 15 miles and 37 turns away from the airport. Yeah, I no longer feel bad about not finding this thing, it was easier to find the holy grail. The rental car guy yelled at the gas station attendant for trying to overcharge me for gas, and the gas dude sheepishly handed me cash back after overcharging my credit card.
On the way back to the airport, the car rental guy detailed a harrowing journey he had taken to Iraq a few years back, which he felt lucky to have survived.
“Oh yeah, I’m going to Iraq next year,” I replied awkwardly.
We approached the checkpoint and I tried to suavely steer into the lane that wasn’t being manned by the soldier I’d told I was going to Oman. The rental car guy already knew I was flying to Qatar, so this whole thing could easily blow up if I ended up in a conversation with the two of them together.
As I pulled up, the soldier I was trying to avoid jogged over to my gate. Balls.
He said a whole lot of things to me in Arabic, and the car rental guy had to point out that I speak none of this.
“Oh. Sorry. Where you going?”
“Qatar?” I answered, nervously.
The soldier thought about this for a long moment and shook his head. Shit.
The soldier and car rental guy talked back and forth in Arabic. Yep. Probably going to jail in Jordan.
Finally the soldier addressed me.
I paused. Oh! Yes yes yes.
Arabic-speaking people pronounce the name of the country “Cutter,” like a cookie cutter, due to the way it’s spelled in Arabic. Only English-speaking people pronounce it “Qatar” like “kah-tar”. Still kind of weird he couldn’t put two and two together on this, but how many white dudes do they get driving into the airport to fly from Amman to Qatar? Can’t be a ton. At least he didn’t remember that I was the Oman guy. Thanks Jordan!
It’s at this point that the reader naturally asks: What’s a Petra? What’s a Jordan? What’s an airplane? I’m glad you asked.
Petra is the place Indiana Jones and his dad ride through at the end of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, the narrow canyon rock tunnels and then the building carved into the cliff face where Indy goes inside to ask if they have a public bathroom and stumbles across the holy grail.
In reality this building is the Treasury of Petra, and it contains neither bathrooms nor holy grails, though you can almost certainly buy one at the tacky souvenir shop located ten feet away from the majestic façade of the treasury. A shop which is literally called “Indiana Jones Souvenir Bullshit” and that sells bullwhips and refrigerator magnets and small, carry-on-luggage-size children.
This is the essential conundrum of Petra. It is, simultaneously, one of the most majestic and awe-inspiring archaeological sites in the entire world, and also a complete tourist trap toilet. You will hurt your neck gawking up at the beautiful ancient pillars and awnings carved into the sandstone cliff faces, and you will be asked every ten seconds if you want a donkey ride or if you’re 100% sure you don’t want a New York Yankees baseball cap or a Kit-Kat. You can’t have one without the other. I mean, I guess you could get only the tourist crap by going to Graceland, but who would do that? Millions of people? Okay!
After you’ve paid your $70 to get into Petra (I think I was technically supposed to pay more but they charged me the “is staying overnight” price without asking, I guess I managed to conceal the crazed look of someone who was going to drive all the way back to Amman that night) and have navigated the 437 souvenir shops at the entrance, you walk past the Djinn Blocks, funerary monuments placed there by forward-thinking ancient Nabataeans to promote Disney’s upcoming remake of Aladdin starring Will Smith.
The Nabataeans were nomadic Arab traders who stumbled across the ready-made natural fortress of Petra around 600 BC and said “That’ll do, pig.” Everyone was confused because they didn’t have movies or pigs yet, but the Nabataeans were like “You just wait, guys.” And they were totally right, everyone eventually got the joke.
Eventually the Nabataeans built up a powerful empire, with Petra as their capital. This lasted for hundreds of years until Petra fell to the Romans, then shrank in importance as trade routes changed an an earthquake destroyed much of the city. Eventually Petra was entirely forgotten, before being rediscovered in 1812 by a Swiss traveler who was looking for the tomb of Moses’s brother.
This fact makes me highly confident I will discover an ancient city some day myself, since I’m never sure where my brother is.
The walk through the long narrow stone tunnel of the Siq to get into Petra is mesmerizing, the swirling patterns in the rock walls curving at odd angles above you, cutting off and then revealing the sky straight above.
The reverie is occasionally broken by small horse-drawn carriages suddenly thundering chaotically by, seemingly piloted by people new to the concepts of public safety, carriages, and horses.
A Polish woman stopped me and asked me to take a photo of her with the backdrop of the Siq. I assume this is what she was asking, she was speaking exclusively Polish and continued to do so long after I’d made it clear I speak none of this. But she did not object when I took her camera and snapped a photo of her in front of the rock walls. …I mean, at least she didn’t object in any language I could understand.
After walking a kilometer in a mesermized daze through the Siq tunnel, you’re treated to the grand reveal, the majestic Treasury, suddenly all up in your grill.
The funny thing about The Treasury is that it wasn’t a treasury at all, it was a temple and mausoleum for King Aretas IV. Bedouins who stumbled across long-forgotten Petra in the early 1800s assumed there must be treasures inside this swanky building, and so we still call it The Treasury because we’re stupid.
The question I’ve been asked the most about Jordan is if these facades actually have any “inside” at all. They do, though you’d probably be disappointed by the insides, they tend to be just surprisingly small shoebox-shaped rooms carved into the stone. It really should have taken the Bedouins about 30 seconds to realize there was no treasure in there, so I’m still not sure how the name stuck.
The Treasury also comes with 40,000 tourists standing in front of it, and the aforementioned souvenir shops, so I was quickly climbing up the opposing cliff to get a better view from above. This ascent was slowed by a six-year-old boy who was running a scam claiming that I needed a permit to climb up here, but he’d keep quiet for a bribe. I called his bluff but had one of the nicer conversations I’ve ever had with someone who was trying to blackmail me.
Beyond the Treasury, you pass the theater, where the ancient Nabataeans went to see Hamilton.
From the theater you can climb up the hills to see the various ornamental tombs and to buy a snowglobe with the Las Vegas skyline inside it.
One of the things that fascinated me the most in Petra was staring into the beautiful patterns in the red sandstone inside the tombs, which alternately looked like marble, flames, or wood grain.
The view from outside the tombs spanned far out across the valley.
Down below, I loved this donkey that was faceplanting on one of the signs.
I feel you, dude.
It’s possible that you’ve been up too many hours in a row when you find yourself most closely relating to the donkeys.
When mapping out my day, I’d figured I would have to sacrifice seeing the Monastery of Petra, situated far up in the mountains at the most distant point in the entire site. All the advice was to take a full day just to see that one location, since the hike was so long. But as the afternoon drifted into evening I figured I had nothing to lose and decided to see how far I could get. At worst, maybe I’d get to see the monastery off in the distance.
I didn’t take many photos as I was hoofing it up the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of steps leading up to the monastery, the sole person going against the tide of everyone hiking back down at the end of their day. Approximately half-way through the climb I realized that starting out with legs already wrecked from my adventure inside the Great Pyramid the day before was not the most advisable thing I had ever done. It wasn’t the least advisable, either, I mean that’s a really long list. But it was on there somewhere.
I did manage one photo of the beautiful rock formations, when I paused to try to remember the last thing I’d eaten. I think it was a juice box on the way to the airport that morning?
My dreams of a distant view of the monastery were shattered by the constantly curving path ducking in and out of the tall rock walls all around me. But it didn’t matter, as after an hour or so of semi-unconscious climbing I made it up to the monastery, in plenty of time to sit on a rock and try not to barf.
Before I knew what was happening, there was a crazy person sitting on top of the monastery. What the- Is that me? I don’t think so? Wow. How did he get up there?
As if in answer to my question, he climbed up perilously to the highest point of the structure and began to dance around, whooping.
Someone who may have been me gasped “Holy crap!” and then the collected tourists returned to whogivesashitsville. Sorry, crazy guy.
After he threw a water bottle off the top, which caught the wind and flew around for several minutes before reluctantly tumbling down the cliff face, the dude climbed down and returned to his post at the entrance of the monastery. Oh, that crazy guy’s one of the guards. He’s there to make sure nobody does anything stupid. Shrug emoji.
Once I’d got my fill of a big beautiful building that’s just an empty shoebox on the inside, I noticed the sun was beginning to set and began my hike back down. The locals who sold water and assorted bullshit along the trail were packing their bullshit onto donkeys and embarking on their commute home.
At one point I stopped and was entranced by the innocence and utter presence of this small donkey, his soft eyes taking in the mountains all around him. This probably does not come across in the photo at all and may have also been related to my not eating all day, but it was a beautiful moment.
Eventually I found myself back in the Siq tunnel, as the sunset seared the rocky peaks above me.
The rock walls of the Siq swirled around us like flames pouring out of the Earth.
As the sun began to set and an eerie twilight filled the canyon, out of nowhere two guys rode through the gloom, perched together atop a far too small donkey and bumping along to intense, glowering gangsta rap that poured forth from their boom box and echoed off the canyon walls all around us.
This was possibly the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen.
As I walked along, the crowd thinned out until I was just me in the tunnel, the gravel crunching under my feet the only sound. I stopped and stood in front of one of the walls. Hmm.
I put my hands on the stone wall and felt myself shift into it, my consciousness flowing through the stone and following the curves down into the earth. The stone felt light as air in my hands, as if I could lift the entire Siq. Only a tiny portion of my consciousness stayed with my body as it buzzed and I felt the twists and streaks of stone swirling all around me, the rock seeming to fold in around me as my awareness expanded to encompass all of it.
Suddenly I was yanked back into my body and jumped to one side as a horse carriage chaotically rambled straight through where I’d just been standing, the horse’s hooves sliding as the carriage careened around the narrow corners of the tunnel. The whole clattering production scrambled around another corner and then it was gone, the echoes of horse hooves fading, leaving me alone with the immense rock and the fading sky.
So that was Jordan. Any questions?
You in the back. Can you see Jordan in a day? Sure! I mean, not as much as you’d see in a month, obviously. Some people in travel circles get really snooty about “slow travel,” and how if you’re not spending a month in a place, it’s not worth going at all. That’s great if your circumstances allow for it, but kind of silly as a blanket decree about travel. My choice wasn’t between a day in Jordan or a month in Jordan, making lifelong friends and learning to cook local dishes from the deck of my villa on the Dead Sea. It was between spending a day in Jordan on my way home, or not going at all.
I love engineering these kinds of creative layovers where I get to blitz a country essentially for free. Especially if it’s a country I don’t know a ton about and where I don’t have a long wishlist of things I’m dying to see. It’s nearly always a great fun introduction to a place, and there’s really no pressure to see it all or have some incredible experience. It’s only a day.
And here’s a little secret: You can go back. I kind of wish I’d had time to visit the scenic desert of Wadi Rum while I was in Jordan, but I can just fold that into some future Israel/Palestine trip. It’s not a big deal. You may have to wear a fake mustache but they’ll let you back in.