We really didn’t mean to make Jordan an afterthought on our recent trip to the Middle East, but it got short shrift, I’m afraid, for a number of reasons. The primary impetus for our trip was a business meeting in Jerusalem, Israel, but I insisted that we add Jordan to the mix because it’s right there! and a relatively easy crossing from southern Israel.
Added to our limited number of days was, one, the unfortunate timing of our arrival in the country at the very beginning of Ramadan and, two, the current state of tourism in Jordan due to (largely unfounded) concerns about happenings in Syria and other neighboring countries. As a result, Jordan was not only eerily empty in places but lacking in services and certainly any air of festivity in the days we were there. I’m not Jordan-bashing; in fact, I left the country a fan of at least the places I saw, and I’d love to see more. In some ways, being there during the Muslim holiday added to the appeal, just as tramping though St. Petersburg in the dead of winter seemed to me to bring out the true soul of Russia.
Jordan is theoretically easy to visit on your own, especially using the Rabin/Wadi Arava crossing from southern Israel. In an effort to boost tourism, the Jordanian visa fee is waived at this crossing only, and going west to east into Jordan is fairly painless from an administrative standpoint. You can choose to make it harder physically, which of course we did. Instead of taking the bus to the central bus station in Eilat and catching a 5-minute, $8 cab to the border crossing, we got off at a lonely bus stop in the middle of the desert and walked to the border crossing based on some great money-saving advice I got online. I cursed this decision almost immediately, as we had to drag our bags about a mile down a baking asphalt road, rendering us overheated and short-tempered by the time we reached the Israeli exit window, where the computers were conveniently down for the next 40 minutes. After finally exiting Israel and making the 5-minute walk across no man’s land between countries, a series of bad signs and bad decisions led us to slog past a series of closed windows only to find we had not gathered the correct stamps and paperwork on the Jordanian side. Back we staggered, wilting with each passing minute, to complete the process before being loosed into a parking lot full of taxis waiting to gouge us for the ride into Aqaba.
On the Red Sea, Aqaba was a sleepy beach town, at least at the start of Ramadan. We had trouble finding lunch, the town center was shut down, and alcohol was a no-go almost everywhere, even at most eateries at our hotel. We lucked out at dinnertime, finding that a restaurant recommended by a Jordanian friend from home was not only open but serving beer. A postprandial stroll reinforced our luck in finding this great dinner spot as many places remained closed and the streets unnervingly vacant in a typically busy area, even after the sunset breaking-fast time was past.
On the plus side, chairs by the pool or the sea were widely available!
Ramadan and the drop in tourism continued to change our trip in ways both good and bad as we continued on to Petra (next post – more photos – stay tuned!) and Wadi Rum. At the height of Petra’s tourism crush, some 5000 people roamed the site each day; in the few days preceding our visit, we were told that total was down to about 70 on average. We did have a few more the day we visited, only because a cruise ship had dumped its passengers off for a day trip here, but the UNESCO World Heritage Site was surprisingly and marvelously uncrowded, especially as we roamed deeper and deeper into the ancient city. On the other hand, the pursuit of a drink (nearly impossible) and dinner (difficult before 9:30 pm) in Petra led us on a wild goose chase in town that evening, and all of the shops were closed.
Driving from Petra to the Wadi Run protected desert area the next day, our driver told us how daily fasting causes accident levels to spike during the month of Ramadan. Shortly afterward, we saw a huge semi overturned on the side of the road, a sobering glimpse of a somewhat more serious ramification than my not getting a beer at the end of each day. Another crash appeared just a short time later, either as confirmation of his observation or just a wild coincidence.
Our driver was purposely not fasting in order to stay alert in his job, but he advised us to be as thoughtful as possible when eating or drinking around the other guides, drivers, or camel herders. In the end, we refrained from eating at all with anyone fasting and tried to stay hydrated as inconspicuously as possible. While it did not rise to the level of a real challenge, the ability to get a beer or glass of wine was kind of a bummer at the end of our hot, dusty days in Jordan, and many eating establishments had special breakfast tents in the evenings instead of dinner to accommodate Muslim locals and travelers who were breaking their fasts at that hour.
Did Ramadan and some ghost-town-like inactivity impair our enjoyment of Jordan? Not at all. It was different – abbreviated in some ways – but it was a fascinating place to visit. Please watch for my next post(s) on Petra and Wadi Rum in the coming days to see the beauty of this peaceful land.