Amman, Dana, Petra, Wadi Rum, Aqaba, Dead Sea

"Ahlan wa sahlan, welcome to Jordan!""

These words will be the first ones you hear from almost any Jordanian. Whether from a local shopkeeper inviting you into his store, a heavily armed yet exceedingly friendly police officer stopping your car at a checkpoint, a random passerby in the street you ask a question to, even jacked bros showing off their biceps in the gym or heavyset toweled therapists rubbing layers off your skin in the local hamam. And these are not just empty words or a superficial turn of phrase, but rather a first sign of the culture of hospitality that is deeply ingrained within the ancient nation's society. Originating in the nomadic customs of the bedouin tribes that have roamed the Arabian desert for centuries, and even inscribed in their code of honor, acts of hospitality were not simply meant as a social kindness but existed just as much to provide security and exchange information with other travelers. Housing a stranger for three days and nights before asking their name, offering tea and warmth at the fire to anyone in need, showing genuine interest in the life of a person they might only meet briefly - are only some examples. And even though most people in this part of the world no longer live a nomadic life, the spirit of these age-old customs remains very much alive.

Maria and I arrived in the capital city of Amman on a cold mid-winter evening, with a mix of excitement and cautious wariness that experience has shown to be most appropriate when arriving in an unknown country for the first time. We got a somewhat rocky start when a taxi driver offered to give us a cheap ride to our hotel after having gotten lost on public transport. They were kind, played awesome Arabic party music and overcharged us fivefold for the trip. It's taken me over a year on this trip to get ripped off by an airport transportation service, but I suppose some things never change. This incident would prove to be the only stain on the otherwise spotlessly welcoming experience we had during our three weeks of traveling here. During a few cozy yet chilly days in Amman, Maria preached frequently from the Book of Lonely Planet Jordan, which helped us get introduced to restaurants serving incredibly tasty Jordanian food, find a local bath house where our bodies were steamed, cleaned, peeled and oiled to perfection, and informed us that renting a car was really the best way to see the country properly. Maria immediately uncorked her uncanny, Swedish bargaining skills and got us a great deal for a lovely little red Hyundai rental. Road trip time!

Not having imagined that Jordan would be the first country I'd drive a car in on this trip, we brazenly set off in the direction of adventure. I've driven a car in over a dozen countries by now, and I've learnt that there are specific quirks to the respective driving circumstances that can only be realized through experience. In Jordan, roads are generally decent but with occasional potholes. The highways are hilarious, since the speed limit is ignored by everyone, including in the presence of police cars, and by the police cars themselves. The effective speed limits are enforced instead by nasty speed bumps that can pop out of the road at any point in time, often without any warning sign. Hitting even one of those without slowing to a crawl will result in rear bumper dents. Once we got used to this, the desert roads with their wide open views became rather scenic. While I drove, Maria narrated the Book's account of some of Jordan's long and complicated history and its position at the center of a region in much turmoil. When you consider that the country's five land borders are shared with Syria, Iraq, Saudia Arabia, Palestine and Isreal, it's not difficult to understand Jordan's precarious role as watchful mediator during many decades of surrounding wars, as well as a host to the second highest number of refugees per capita in the world. From that point of view, Jordan's hospitality to foreign visitors can also be seen quite literally as a matter of security. We got an example of this almost right away, when police officers stopped all tourist vehicles by the side of the highway and made us drive in convoy, escorted by their vehicles, over a long stretch of road, while armored crowd deterrence trucks drove up and down constantly to look for signs of trouble. And this was just a precaution against the possibility of a local protest in one town along the way.

We were never once in trouble, though, quite the opposite. Over the next ten days, our road trip led us to Dana, a boulder-scaped biosphere reserve where we hiked to dramatic cliffs and distant views. We spent two full days exploring the Wonder of the World that is Petra, and I now fully agree with that title. A 2500-year-old city of carved-out stone temples, massive dining halls and imposing tombs, this necropolis stretches far beyond the famous Treasury that is always photographed, and has dozens of trails and quiet spots to take in the impressive Nabatean and Roman architecture. Almost right next to Petra lies the overwhelming, Martian desert landscape of Wadi Rum. Massive sandstone formations, carved out over millenia into exceedingly intricate shapes, rise up vertically from the flat, red desert as if gravity somehow affected them in their own special way. We stayed overnight in a bedouin camp, watching the galactic night's sky and seeing the sun rise after an early morning camel ride. I easily count Wadi Rum among the three most spectacular natural landscapes I've seen on this trip, if not in my life.

We spent Christmas in the southern city of Aqaba, Jordan's Red Sea side getaway destination, and the only place to escape the cold during winter months. Since most Jordanians are muslim, Christmas is not widely celebrated at all. Luckily for us, Maria pulled a Taiwanese-Jordanian restaurant out of her hat (or, rather, the Book), which served a delicious Christmas duck platter, accompanied by red wine and a collection of maddening shlager-like western holiday pop tracks that had all been resynced to match the exact same, synth-provided rhythm. The whole situation felt somewhat like the beginning of a cheap Christmas-themed horror flick, but we were perfectly content and nostalgic (and went back two more times that week!). We made a little home in Aqaba by staying there for nearly ten days, driving around and getting to know the area, lounging by the pool of our mostly abandoned budget resort when the weather allowed it, rounding off 2022 quietly and reminiscent. Except for one day, which we spent reef and wreck diving in the Red Sea, taking in some of the most beautiful aquatic life and dramatic underwater structures I have ever laid eyes on (Avatar 2 excepted).

There is so much more to say about Jordan, from its amazing bread-falafel-hummus-based cuisine, to the ubiquity of shisha pipes on basically every street corner (I'm actually smoking one while writing this story), to some less positive aspects like the deeply entrenched inequality between genders and a less-than-stellar political climate. But I feel that what I'll remember most of my time in this country is its boundless hospitality, the rivers of complimentary tea (required to contain at least 50% sugar) and mountains of kind smiles accompanied by curious questions.

After a final stop at the Dead Sea, enjoying the luxury of high-end spa treatment at 420m below sea level, we arrived back in Amman, having come full circle. With Maria now having gone back to Denmark, I'm once again on my own for the forseeable future. The final country I'll visit before heading home to Belgium is one that has spoken to my imagination for a long time. After 15 years of traveling, I'm finally venturing into sub-Saharan Africa, into the height of summer of the southern hemisphere.

It's time for South Africa.

January 8th, 2023

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