Every seat on the flight from Kathmandu to Amman is full. I stand up to go to the bathroom, look around and realize that I am the only woman on the plane, aside from the stewardess. The thought puts me at unease, bringing a heightened awareness to our next location, the Middle East. Modesty is necessary in Nepal as a cultural respect, but women are treated equally. It is evident that we are entering into another world and what would that world look like? How would we be received as Americans? Do we even admit we are Americans?
Echoing as loudly as the cries from the mosque, we repeatedly hear “Welcome to Jordan.” The generosity of the Arabic culture is unexpected, refreshing, restoring faith in humanity of connecting for the sake of relation and not finance. The men at the souq shove pieces of exotic fruits and roasted nuts in our hands. Try it; do you like this? Try this one. Try, try.
Amman, Jordan’s capital city, is rich in history with a modern vibe. The walking tour weaves us through the town, in and out of the fresh produce market (the souq), by the Al-Husseiny Mosque where men in long robes stream in for midday worship past the Theater and Odeon amphitheater up to the thousands-of-years old Citadel. In our travels, this is our first brush with ancient history. The remains of the Temple of Hercules reach skyward in an impressive display of ingenuity and art of the 2nd Century. The museum displays artifacts dating from the Bronze age as well as Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad periods: jewelry, statues, coins and pottery.
Touring the ancient gives us an appetite for the modern. We feast on platters of hummus, falafel, pita and vegetables at the Turkish-run Hashem Restaurant and continue our gluttony at Habibah famous for kunafa, fried cheese topped with shredded wheat and honey. The switch from rice and vegetables to calorie dense, nutrient rich food bombs our stomach with satiation that we have been craving for months.
On to the next is the theme in Jordan. With only 16 days left on our round-the-world trip, it is time to pack as much as possible in. The bus for Petra leaves at 6 AM sharp. Scrambling out the door of the hotel, we need a taxi NOW. A car pulls over asks where we are going. We negotiate 4 dinar to the bus station. Once inside the car we both realize: we just paid someone to kidnap us. Are we that naive? comfortable? stupid? It is actually a culminating moment in our travels. We ride the waves. Sharks may be in the water but the risk is worth taking.
The ride to Petra is uneventful until we arrive at our hotel. We have no reservation; I accidentally booked the previous night and we were a no show. I had lost track of dates and days of the week. Fortunately the manager is kind and allows us to stay at no extra cost; the only thing hurt is my pride as the trip logistics coordinator.
Petra is unlike anything I have ever seen or experienced, duly earning its place as one of the new 7 wonders of the world. It is like entering into Indiana Jones’ Last Crusade. Pictures can’t capture the hues of colors in the sandstone, the delicate carvings and the connection to civilizations of times past. The majestic awakens the imagination, spirals you to a time come and gone. Petra is a living museum of Neolithic villages, Nabatean trade routes, Roman conquest and ongoing Bedouin life. At the High Place of Sacrifice, a local Bedouin points out two fascinating facts: the tomb on the distant mountain is Aaron’s tomb and over 40 Bedouin families still live in the caves of Petra. Jordan continues to illuminate the connection between ancient and current. History is part of their lives, their story, reminding us of the cultural differences in the concept of time and cycles of life.
Asia has taught us to live in the present. Our plan: get to Wadi Rum and figure out the climbing situation after we arrive. We take the local bus and get dropped off in the slums. The small desert village looks completely abandoned and the one place suggested to check in about climbing knows nothing about climbing. Frustration rises. The planner side of me cringes. What were we thinking? What are we supposed to do? What a mess! We take a walk to simmer down/check things out. There is one “travel agency” open who knows someone who knows someone else. We return to the rest house where we dropped our bags, resigned to eat lunch and wait to see what happens. We have no option. No plans. No guidebook. No information.
Word travels fast. The friend’s friend of a friend, brother to a “famous climber” finds us. We are dubious at first but have no other leads. We follow Muhammed to his brother Muhammed’s house (maybe same father, different wife? we don’t inquire). Next thing we know, we are sitting in the living room floor, sipping Turkish tea and discussing an agreement to be dropped off in the middle of the desert at a climbing area. The problem, we still don’ t have a guidebook. “Don’t worry, I know the area.” We get into the well worn white SUV and bounce our way through sand dunes into Burrough Canyon. Muhammed points, “Climbing there, over there too.” Nothing more specific. “I pick you up in 4 days?” he asks. “No!” I exclaim. “Only 2 climbs here. Need guidebook. Come back tomorrow with guidebook. Don’t leave us here for four days!” His guidebook is off somewhere with an Israeli group; we expect it is not too challenging for him to retrieve it.
At 2 pm, it is scorching. We set up our tent in the shade of the rock next to a pile of camel bones sticking through the sand. With only time on our hands we wait for evening to check out one of the vaguely referenced chimneys to climb. After closer inspection, we cannot differentiate one line from the next. It all looks possible but we can’t risk being on an undeveloped climb without anchors or way off the top, especially this late in the day. Our exploration leads us across sand dunes back to camp where we settle for a one pitch route next to our tent.
As the night air cools we start cooking dinner from provisions that haphazardly bought from a tiny shop next to Muhammed’s house: canned fave beans, rice, pita and hummus. The flavors satisfy and comfort us. Finally we are alone in the wilderness, home with each other and our tent. We rise with the sun to ascend Merlin’s Wand, a stunning 5-pitch route. Adrenaline revs our engines, reminding us that it has been a few months since we have climbed.
Back to the tent, we take a midday break and wait for Muhammed. I realize that my communication may not have been clear. Is he going to come back today? Should we pack up or wait? By 5 pm there is no sign, but we have nothing else to do but pack up our life. Like a true Bedouin, it is time to move camp. Just at the moment we were losing hope, the rattling of Muhammed’s “camel” rings through the desert. He came back.
Muhammed is drenched in sweat. He rubs his head, asks for medicine and pulls out a new guidebook. “I drove 2 hours to Aqaba for this.” Conflicted to be excited for his nobility or to be scared for how much we are now indebted to Muhammed, I attempt to express balanced gratitude. We are baffled. Grateful, but uncertain. Jordan hands him another 50 and we hope to settle up later, although our cash has all but disappeared at this point. We hop in his car and search the book for the next location to camp and climb: Jebel al m’Zaygeh.
Jebel Al m’Zaygeh
Life has become an amusement park. Jump on the ride and laugh or throw up. Tonight the mood is calm. Guidebook in hand, tent reset and sunset views lull us into a peaceful evening. The morning brings more stunning climbing, a 4-pitch climb called Runner Up, a 2-pitch climb called A Pale Moon Rising and a few sport routes on the face in between the dihedrals.
The camels grunt and groan in the distance, sounding like ewoks invading from space.
On cue, Muhammed returns. He is impressed with our morning session. On the way back, he asks where we are going, do we need a place to stay. Unsure if this is a welcoming invitation or a financial transaction we openly say, we have very little money left. We would love to stay at your place if we are not in your way. Also, would you be interested in accepting our rope in exchange for the transportation and lodging? Grumpily he does the side to side head shake that we loosely translate to okay, maybe.
Jebel Rum East Face
By 5 pm it is cool enough to consider climbing again. Hiking past the ruins of Lawrence of Arabia’s spring, we go to Jebel Rum East Face to sample the first pitch of Inferno. The day closes around us in purple hues as we return to our makeshift room on Muhammed Hussein’s living room floor.
Jebel um Ejil
Steep bedouin steps lead us into the narrows of the canyon, twisting and turning into the depths of the maze. Traversing slabs and down-climbing gullies we finally find our way into the heart of the Rakabat Canyon, to our climb, Beauty. This is one of the most superb lines we have eyed in the desert. Clean cracks and liebacks to the final unprotected off width pitch. Jordan basically free solos the pitch, finally finding a #1 placement 30 feet after leaving the ledge. On top of the climb, the sounds of the repetitive prayers, warmth of the sun and beauty of the place validates why we spend so much time climbing rocks. There is depth that cannot be described in words, only experienced to understand the beckoning call.
Beauty is our last climb on our rock climbing trip around the world. It is a summation of what we have experienced: new cultures, overcoming challenges, adventures, rewards, insight, renewed spirits, connectedness, laughter, increased trust and reliance on our faith for strength and ability to push through uncomfortable situations to find the beauty within.
Somewhere along the past few days we must have struck friendship with Muhammed. For the first time he invites his wife to join us for Turkish coffee. We sit awkwardly and stare at each other until Muhammed breaks the silence with funny climbing stories from his past. He accepts our rope with actual excitement in contrast to the stoic expressions we normally receive and we donate Jordan’s dented helmet and a couple pairs of well loved climbing shoes. In the end we are friends.
Aqaba and the Red Sea
The Red Sea connects Israel, Jordan and Egypt. All three countries are visible from the shore. We travel south to stay at Bedouin Village near the Japanese Coral gardens. The hotel that we randomly pick from Agoda happens to have a scuba and snorkel shop. Jordan goes to check out the rates for snorkeling while I settle into the room. He returns in a few minutes and asks, “Do you want to go scuba diving instead? We have to decide now.” After a series of yes, no, yes responses, I realize there is no legitimate reason to not go. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Our “surfer dude” guides give us the full run down. The suit of armor feels better in the water. “Practice breathing through your tube,” the guide says. Cool, no problem. That was while I was standing with the ability to lift my head above water. The next test was to go down 3 feet and practice breathing. Jordan and his guide took off while I struggled with the simple philosophy of breathing underwater. After a couple times of coming up for air, I disappointedly realized that I might not be able to do this. Fears flood my mind, fears of water flooding my lungs. The theme is not encouraging. I mentally fight a losing battle of negotiating with myself underwater to trust the tube. I am faking it good enough to go deeper. That’s when panic sets in. My exhales increase so rapidly that I can’t calm my breathing. And what is worse is that I am stuck 20 feet below the surface of the water. We can’t go directly up, we have to pause three times before I can plunge my head above the water and gasp for air. I have never felt this way before. It is like all the fear of the last ten months is being released. It is irrational: choking, the tank not working, sharks. The rational is yelling at the irrational while emotionally I’m in tears with the battle. My guide patiently takes my hand and says, “You very strong woman. You can do this, I know.” “Yoga breathing.” So we lamaze and zen out until I can fake looking calm again. I don’t want to miss out on seeing the wonders of the coral, diversity of sea life and the ship wreck. I forcefully talk myself into calm breathing, yoga mindset, slow, fighting the demons while remaining present enough to engage in the world around me.
We travel under the surface, far enough to see the coral but close enough to escape quickly. Fifteen minutes of handholding, I want to go into the depths of the water and see the floor of the ocean face to face. Comfortability sets in and I would smile but then the mouthpiece would come out and I would choke and drown. On with the story, comfortability sets in. My eyes are opened to another layer of life, of color and freedom. I rip through the barrier of fear to discovery. Curiosity and desire are powerful tools in helping defeat fear.
When we emerge from the water, Jordan is oblivious to my struggles. He had jumped right in and set off, unknowing to my panic attacks and battles. Some fears can only be faced alone, well kind of alone. My guide did hold my hand 95% of the time. 🙂 Out of all the things that we have done on our trip, this is one of the most memorable and that I will cherish. It isn’t about always doing the easy or the comfortable. When we push beyond, we discover more about ourselves and grow into a more secure person.
The lasting memories of Jordan finish with an ocean adventure swim with a merman. He beckons us toward him “Please come. Fire coral. Stone Fish. Danger!” We swim over to our new friend. He pulls us toward him in an awkward triangular hug. From the pocket of his swim trunks he pulls out pita–fish food. Swarmed by thousands of fish, the ocean comes to life. Come with me, he says. Mesmerized, we follow. He wipes our hands on slimy coral that nourishes our skin. Then he disappears for a few minutes to re-emerge holding a sea urchin in the palm of his hand. We wade through the swarm of purple stingless jellyfish. “I show you the dangerous things now.” We swim to fire coral, then he teases a stone fish from its camouflage. Come, rest. He pulls us in for another awkward triangular hug. “Water, good for your eyes. Take off your masks and clean them!” So, we obediently do as he instructs. It is refreshing; no burning or stinging. My body shivers uncontrollably but the adventure is such a precious gift that we continue. He disappears again, pulling up a sea cucumber, snake skin and live coral. What seems like hours later we bid farewell to our Merman and to the incredible journey throughout Jordan.
- Buy the Jordan Pass in advance to arriving in the country. The pass covers the tourist visa and free entry to any national park and historic site, including the very expensive Petra. The pass would have saved us a couple hundred dollars, but we didn’t find out about it until after arriving.
- Go to Jordan, it’s awesome.