Many travelers claim to want to see the entire world but never consider exploring the Middle East. Assuming the entire region to be unsafe and the culture shock to be unduly uncomfortable, it’s all too easy to write off the opportunity to see this part of the world that is so dramatically different from home. But I’m here to tell you that would be a mistake.
It is possible to experience the Middle East in relative safety. Jordan, an Arab kingdom bordered by Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iraq, Syria and Palestine, is no less safe than any urban area in the United States. There is culture shock, sure — the modest dress, the early morning calls to prayer bellowing hauntingly from loudspeakers atop mosques — but that’s sort of the point for adventurous travelers who actually want to see the world. In the middle of this tumultuous region lies a prosperous, moderate and peaceful country where travelers can experience arid desert that was home to scenes from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” in the morning and, just a few hours later, explore crumbling Roman ruins set against lush green rolling hills.
Indeed, one of the great things about Jordan is the variety and history of landscapes within its borders. It’s quite small (click here to see a map of Jordan superimposed on the U.S.), which means you can use the capitol Amman as your home base for exploring the best Jordan has to offer.
Jordan’s currency, the dinar, is worth more than the U.S. dollar, so the trip can be slightly challenging for travel budgets. It still was far less expensive than the most popular tourist cities in Europe, but for the very budget-conscious, it can be a concern. We cut corners where we could.
In Amman, we stayed at a very inexpensive hostel (B’deiwi Hostel & Hotel, about $30 per night for a double-bed private room). It certainly wasn’t luxurious or the highlight of our stay, but the owner/manager was a young guy who spoke excellent English and was eager to make us as comfortable as possible. He also arranged a transfer from the airport for about $30, which was a good deal.
I’ll never forget what it was like to step out of the Amman airport into the blinding sun, feeling totally and completely out of my element. After greeting our driver, we spent the next half-hour cutting through small mountains of sand on the highway, our journey set to what felt like endless vocal tracks of traditional Muslim music. It sounded exactly like American movies would have you believe. The entire experience was surreal.
We heard music like this throughout our stay in Jordan. To this day, if I hear traditional Muslim music, I immediately feel a small pang of nostalgia.
I was also lucky enough to have a mutual friend of someone who lived in Amman, who put us in touch. This woman and her father treated us to an exceptionally delicious traditional dinner on our first night there, an unforgettable experience I’m very grateful for.
Amman was not our ultimate destination, though it was interesting to see a bustling Middle Eastern metropolis and be jolted awake by the calls to prayer. Without air conditioning, it was also more comfortable sometimes to sleep with the windows open. Needless to say, earplugs are a necessity in that part of the world.
Three hours away by bus (about $30) is the ancient city and archaeological site of Petra. Petra is known for its rock-cut archaeology, shaped by the ancient civilization that inhabited the area, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and its role in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” I had to go back and watch it again after visiting the Treasury, whose facade plays a critical part in the movie. (You can’t actually go inside, so that part of the movie was all fake. Sorry!)
If you give in to the men waiting with their beasts, you’ll traverse the area on camelback. Or you can save a few bucks, hike the area on foot (no easy feat, if you actually want to do some exploring) and just pay them later to take pictures on their camels, as I did.
I also stayed in a bedouin camp, but contrary to what you might think, this was not a money-saving move. It was about $60 per night for a private tent (outfitted with a double bed) with communal, dormitory-style bathrooms and showers just a few steps away. If we were looking for a cheaper experience, there are plenty of hostels in town we could have chosen. But the experience of sleeping in the desert, hosted by a band of bedouin brothers (one of whom incidentally looked exactly like Captain Jack Sparrow, eyeliner and all) was unforgettable and worth every penny.
Back in Amman, we spent one more night at B’deiwi and hired a cab driver to take us to the Dead Sea and the Roman ruins of Jerash, which are in opposite directions from Amman. This cost us about $80 but was well worth it for the experience of a fully customized itinerary and private driver. Our driver spoke about two words of English, which made for an entertaining and ultimately successful game of charades.
As we drove away from Amman towards Jerash, I remember watching in surprise as the sand hills gave way to rolling green mountains of olive trees, planted in rows resembling vineyards. Soon we were in Jerash, a short distance from town. Suddenly, I was standing among Roman ruins — which felt somehow familiar to me in this experience — and found myself even more foreign to locals than before.
My experience in Jordan was one I will treasure forever, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to those who itch to get out of their comfort zones. And even though it’s not the cheapest country you can visit in the Middle East, it can still be done on a budget — and it’s well worth the experience.
All photos by Megan Van Groll.