The air around me was cool and damp, the kind of pervasive dampness only found in old spaces, spaces locked off from human habitation for decades, centuries even. On every wall, remnants of an ancient culture depicted animals, kings, triumphs, and women, lots of women. We had visited several desert castles in Jordan that day, and Quseir Amra was the last. We had, it would seem, saved the best for last.
I’m time-jumping a bit here, away from my recent travels with my niece, and instead into my treasure chest full of stories that have not yet made it onto this site. A few times a month I’d like to share stories that bubble up to the surface, usually inspired from some recent encounter or conversation. In this case, during a discussion with my niece on how we understand and investigate ancient history. How murals left behind show insight into past cultures. I pulled Ana over the computer to show her some of the murals I found on my travels in Jordan last year. Murals abounded. Jerash had murals, Mount Nebo too, and sculptures came to life right out of the walls of Petra.
And, in this case, we looked through and discussed the beautiful frescos from the Quseir Amra desert castle in eastern Jordan, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Following the path of UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world wouldn’t be a bad way to travel, these sites are rich with history. Natural history in some cases–forest sanctuaries teeming with biodiversity and life. Or cultural history in other places–monuments, castles and man-made structures.
Quseir Amra falls into the second category of UNESCO sites. The man-made fortress-cum-castle houses some of the most well-preserved frescoes from the 8th Century. One of the things Ana’s come to appreciate is living history — knowing she can now get on a plane and touch, taste, feel, and experience the places where history happened.
This is the short of it. I subjected Ana to a longer discourse on art, the tribal art I studied in college, the churches and art I will take her to see in Europe one day, and the pre-Islamic and Christian art I observed in Jordan.
So tell me, are you a history buff? Any artwork or murals that have fascinated you over the years? :)
The Jordan Tourism Board sponsored my trip; the experiences, photos and stories, though, are my own :)
The wackiest ideas are often born from a single comment, an off-handed remark meant as a joke but then expanded into a full-fledged idea. This is precisely the case with my decision to jump around Jordan; my very first day in the country fellow travel blogger Jodi joked about my recent travels through China where I nailed a perfect jumping shot on the Great Wall of China.
And thus was born the self-proclaimed mission to jump at iconic, historic spots and wide open desert spaces around Jordan…pretty silly but it made a fun task as we traveled from place to place!
Jumping through Petra, Jordan
The the mysterious Nabataeans built the ancient city of Petra, Jordan and the huge city built right into the towering sandstone rocks fascinates me. I love the myth and mystery still surrounding the history of Petra — in short, the Nabataeans were industrious, creative (huge burial tombs, intricate carvings) and super smart (they landed a prime spot on the ancient trade routes).
Jodi Jumps too at the Citadel in Amman!
Jodi and I hatched the jumping plan together (along with Jordanian friends Reine and Halla) and our very first jumping pictures in the country took place on one of Amman’s seven hills. The Amman Citadel holds the Temple of Hercules and the crumbling marble towers stand like soldiers looking over the modern life filling the surrounding six hills, hills filled with the people and suburbia of Amman. In short, it’s the perfect spot to add some humans floating through the air!
The Jumping Continues in Jerash
The ancient city of Gerasa is located in Jerash and the ancient town holds some of the best preserved Greco-Roman ruins in the Near East (and yes, I copied that nearly word for word from Wikipedia). But it’s true, so I felt compelled to add that tidbit of history here. The Jerash ruins sprawled over a wide area of land covered in shrubs and crumbling marble. Many ruins within the city are still intact, with the city’s “streets” and carriageways still clearly visible as you look down from a nearby hill at the ruins below you.
Making Sand Shadows in Wadi Rum Desert
Harder than it looks, I attempted to create a really cool jumping shadow picture. Unfortunately, as magical as the deserts of Wadi Rum are, they do not allow me to unattach myself from my shadow Peter Pan style! However, that being said, spending a sunset and sunrise in Wadi Rum stands out as one of the top-ten experiences on my round-the-world travels.
The Dead Sea Alive with Jumping Action
No travel prose or wild tangents in my imagination prepared me for the surreal feeling of floating in the Dead Sea. The waters in the Dead Sea maintain about 34% salinity (compare that with a mere 3.5 % in the pleasantly salty Gulf of Mexico near my hometown). Because of the high salt and mineral content of the water it’s customary to coat yourself in brown Dead Sea mud from head to toe. Yes, I kid you not, head to toe in mud.
Deserts, Rocks and Jumping Off Clifs!
Though a small country to be sure, it takes several hours between the major historic sites in Jordan and days of stretching desert sands. Our driver and guide were oh-so tolerant to pull over at every view-point, and even joined in on the game once they knew the type of open landscapes we loved for the jumping shots. These last couple shots show the endless desert landscapes that lodged in my memory along with the intricate carvings at Petra and Jordan’s delicious pita and fresh mezze dishes.
A big hug of thanks to Jodi, without her photography talent there would have been no jumping through Jordan and without her shouts of caution when I jumped near a ledge, there may not have been a Shannon either!
The Jordan Tourism Board sponsored my Jordan travels, but the experiences, photos, & opinions are my own :)
I like to fancy myself a citizen of the planet…I go places, I see, I do, I eat and I learn. And on the eating front, I take cooking classes in new places with the forever hope that someone eventually imparts in me the skills it takes to cook anything beyond a truly awesome American salad (now those I am good at!).
You see, my humble beginnings set me up for the woeful failure of a cooking experience I will soon share. My mother, for all that she did give us kids, it surely wasn’t talent in the kitchen. When I flashback two decades in my personal foodie history, images of me gagging down garbage soup float to the surface.
…and for the uninitiated who didn’t have the extreme pleasure of growing up in a large family, garbage soup is the term for adding the leftovers of every, single, thing, in the refrigerator to a big pot with a bland soup base before feeding it to your hungry masses (and then the cook (mom) is amazed by how quickly everyone’s hunger dissipates long before the bowls of soup are empty…).
Never one to accept personal failure without a real effort first, I take these cooking classes all over the world (Tibetan momos in India, traditional foods in Laos) and they lull me into a false sense of comfort that I can actually cook. You see, a cooking class is a magical place; each cook-in-training is often given a Martha Stewart-esque cooking space decked out with precisely the tools needed to make the dish. If you need a sifter, great, it’s there…steamer tray? Yep. An open flame? Copy that, they have a beauty of a device right there on your table.
Then the class starts and each tiny porcelain bowl holds your pre-measured ingredient as you follow along with the teacher and dump, mix, heat, flash fry and garnish. It’s good fun.
And you know why it’s fun? Because the food turns out beautiful! Like dishes in a magazine.
Let’s revisit the moutabel story now. Moutabel is a very popular eggplant mezze dish in Jordan and it’s quite similar to baba ghanoush, a favorite dish on Middle Eastern menus world-wide. Moutabel ingredients include: roasted and mashed eggplant, tahini, lemon, and olive oil. Simple enough right?
On my Jordan travels, the Tourism Board sponsored a cooking class for me at the Beit Sitti cooking school in Amman because I mentioned I enjoy learning to cook. The class was so lovely; wide marble counters and a steady supply of lemon and mint drink as we prepared and cooked moutabel, makloubeh, and knafeh (all three dishes explained in my vegetarian guide to traditional Jordanian foods).
I gobbled down the flavorful moutabel with fresh pita bread and noted to myself that this was a dish my parents would love…I resolved to cook it when I returned home to share a piece of my Jordan travels.
I tracked down tahini, purchased my eggplant, lemon, and garlic and got straight to work after returning home this past summer. The entire time my taste buds salivated at the prospect of tasting this dish after months separated from the creamy texture and smoky eggplant flavor.
After the garlic mincing, lemon squeezing, and eggplant mashing my masterpiece was ready. I even artfully sprinkled the olive oil to imitate the restaurants throughout Jordan because, you know, presentation is half the battle!
What I won on presentation though, I lost completely on the other end. I sampled and raised an eyebrow….why did it taste like that? Maybe not enough lemon?
With dutiful purpose I extracted the other half of my lemon from the fridge and generously squeezed more juice into the dish.
Gah! No! Crap, now there was too much tahini so I over-corrected with yet more lemon.
By the time my dad came into the kitchen ready for my much-touted masterpiece I was pouting…
Failure. Not an epic failure, both my parents humored me…my mom’s not a hypocrite so she stayed mum about anything off-tasting, and we all munched our way through the entire dish.
I giggle at the thought of attempting this again…I will at some point because I love the dish and think I went wrong by not roasting the eggplant for long enough…who knows though!
It’s worth noting too that I loved my cooking class in Jordan; Beit Sitti was such a fun evening with just the right combination of cooking and relaxing banter as the class prepared the traditional foods. My shortcomings as a solo cook (maybe I over-salted it?!) have never once stopped me from enjoying learning from the professionals in each new country because I love seeing the process behind a country’s foods, even if I sorely lack the skills to replicate that process ;-)
Any great cooks out there? Do you take cooking classes as you travel or have any epic foodie failures to share?
A rose-red city half as old as time; though these words sound like the opening lyrics to a love song, they’re instead penned by a poet and speak of an ancient civilization that carved evidence of their history deep into the soft sandstone rocks jutting toward the soft blue Jordanian skies.
Wandering through the miles of sandy roads, the nubby domes of eroded mountains visible in every direction, I was overwhelmed the moment I stepped into this ancient civilization. How did they do it? Why did they carve such beautiful structures into the side of the towering rocks? And I wondered even more, since sandstone is so delicate, why is the evidence still here a full two thousand years later?
The hilltop holding Amman’s temple is unremarkable as far as hills are concerned; the things, Amman, Jordan is a city comprised of seven hills, and the one holding the Temple of Hercules isn’t taller than the others, it’s not greener, or more “hilly,” but yet this hill was the one chosen by the ancient Romans to hold the Temple of Hercules. And in hearing the name Hercules, in an instant my mind takes a fanciful wander through Greek history and mythology.
As the illegitimate son of Zeus and Alcmene, Hercules has long held a fascination for me…and likely not just me. Greek mythology paints Hercules as a human as much as he was a demigod, as strong as the Gods but riddled by earthly disputes and relationship problems.
I find it hard to describe the way my memories often work — I remember experiences as if a single Polaroid photo was taken of each event. Sometimes, mini vignettes play out and conversations echo around the central snapshot memory; rarely the whole event, instead brief and often times quite inconsequential moments.
My earliest childhood memories standout in this fashion and already snapshots of memories from my trip to Jordan this past May are bubbling to the surface as snippets. These people may never remember my name and face in ten years, but these are pieces of the memories I take with me. Not all of my memories. No, certainly not all. But instead a few moments that made a brief impression, they created enough of an impact to come back and make me smile all over again.
Amman, Jordan, a capital city churning with activity, hemorrhaging with people, and pulsating with an open curiosity throughout the nearly uniform off-white and cream sandstone brick buildings. The Western woman is still a bit of a novelty on the streets of Amman and stopping to catch a photo of a busy street-side coffee spot yielded hilarity. Far from the innocuous “take a surreptitious photo and move on” mentality I had planned, rapid and friendly Arabic exploded onto the street as I slowed with my camera pointed toward something intriguing.
This oh-so-young coffee barista was prodded into action with a playful admonition from a Jordanian man perched against a car nearby; Ali, my guide translated the interchange between the two men: “quick, make a cup of coffee so she can take a photo!”
Although no one was buying a drink at that moment, our diffident and goofy barista worked in slow-motion to make a cup of coffee so I could document the entire process (unprompted by me, mind you!). Everyone in the nearby vicinity was entertained and my only regret is that I don’t speak a lick of Arabic and thus lost out on the comments and observations from anyone nearby; our scene induced giggling and smiling from on-lookers and I hammed it up for them, documenting the tiny coffee nuances, as well as the big grins.
The restless and rapid friendliness of Amman (it is a capital city after all) transitioned into a slower pace outside of Ajloun, a wooded and forested region in the north. The green and verdancy came as an abrupt jolt as I passively watched the endless miles of stretching desert give way to a rolling hills and crisper, cooler air.
Smiles waited for me high on a hilltop in Rasoun at the Tourist Tent Camp; the setting is remote and quiet, with views of nearby Syrian mountains and Palestine, alongside a new cultural lesson to take away for the day. I shared a tea with Zuher, the owner of the mountainside tent camp before some sweet moments with his lovely daughters; they were completely intrigued by us as foreigners. The eldest daughter, shy but beseeching, she so desperately wanted her father to continue prodding her to practice her English with us and the cute dimple when she fully faced us, no longer pushing herself into her father’s leg for security, and shared her age and name was so very, very sweet.
Cooking dinner with a family in nearby Rasun just hours later yielded more giggling, smiling girls, eager to handhold and be held. I miss my niece and nephews something fierce when I’m on the road, changing destinations and they’re back home, losing teeth and growing up. So the time with these children, a brief window into their lives and interactions intrigues me—I compare experiences, attitudes, and that ever-so-present smile. Even the shyest children around the world will reward the patient and attentive with a smile.
I bounced between playing with the children running through the house and kitchen-time with the women of the house as we cooked dinner. Just us women cooked and shared, we were sequestered away from the men who sat outside swapping stories around the garden fountain. These moments stand out as some of the quieter moments of gentle cultural exchange. A cutting board, knife and some quick gestures communicated enough to prepare the dinner with the mother and daughter duo. I’m not an adept cook in any country, so Jordan was no exception and my blunders in cutting (I mean really, is anyone fantastic at mincing?!) created the universally understood chuckle as I grinned and did my best.
I gripped the small glass cup delicately on the rim to avoid a burn and one sip of tea was enough to shoot my eyebrows to my forehead as my eyes widened in surprise. I contemplated the cultural differences indicated by our palates as I comfortably settled further into a brightly colored woven blanket, feet crossed Indian-style and a cup of steaming hot, super-sweet Bedouin tea in my hand. The Bedouin are such an intriguing culture; so different from my own. Without packaged sweets accessible in their diet, traditional Bedouin tea is served piping hot right from the fire and with a boat-load of sugar.
As the sugar seeped down my throat, I glanced up and noticed Abu Abdullah studying our group with what can only be called a mischievous grin. I cautiously continued sipping my tea and watched as he prepared the beans for our lesson on how to make traditional Bedouin coffee. The women nearby, watched avidly at my every gesture, but not in an “holy cow I’m under the microscope” way, but rather a with a curiosity and keen interest I reciprocated mere minutes later when I learned to make jameed, a thick goat’s milk yogurt.
Even the camels smile in Jordan! The camels at the eco-camp in Wadi Feynan are treated by the bedouin like cherished members of the community. The owner of these happy camels had a deep bond with the animals and he took delight in introducing us to his animals, and then carefully selecting which camels we would ride for our sunrise camel ride.
The sunrise was magnificent, and it remains one of my most lasting memories of traveling Jordan. But coupled with that are memories of hugging baby camels and learning about how the bedouin integrate the camels into so many parts of their daily lives.
There’s no single moment to pin down for Ali and Rami, my guide and driver for the ten days I spent in Jordan as the guest of the Jordan Tourism Board. The entire ten days are soaked with laughter in my memories; my laughter, their laughter, all of us in fits and stitches as we drove the stretches of desert highway.
My friend and I are full of shenanigans when we travel together and Jordan was no exception. I didn’t expect, however, that Ali and Rami would embrace our senses of humor and take us through not only the historic sites and serious discussions about Jordan, but the lighter side of friendly banter as we toured and explored.
In short, we met as strangers and parted as friends.
These are snippets of other people’s lives that stuck with me; I enjoyed their company for mere minutes in some cases, and yet the imprint of the interactions sit on my memory. I always wish that I could travel back to a moment in time; I don’t want to just revisit Jordan…but instead I have an emotional attachment to the experience I had.
And if I go back it will be different. Good different, bad different…that’s all here nor there. It’s just always different. This is the case with nearly every country, every time I make new friends and spend time exploring and enjoying I know that if and when I return the world will have shifted. I feel this way about Jordan, Nepal, and Thailand. And Laos, where I had a wacky happenstance run-in with Laura, a college-years friend, just one day into my six weeks backpacking around Southeast Asia; though unplanned, we spent six weeks exploring Laos and Cambodia together and I loved both countries so much, but with her anecdotes and presence also in those snapshot memories.
I love these random moments that pop into my head months and years after I leave a country—these are the ones most prevalent right now and I’ve been collecting the snapshot images from my brain for weeks. I’m intrigued to ponder what may stir to the surface a year from now, and even ten years.
Tell me, have you had any moments and snapshots of memories percolate to the surface months and years later? Would love to hear your thoughts below! :)
(Please refresh the page if you can’t see the slideshow below!)
As a vegetarian traveling to a new country, I face a few extra challenges and considerations. While I wouldn’t out-right skip a destination because of food, the pecking order does change if I know I can eat well once I’m there. So when I read the invitation from the Jordan Tourism Board about a sponsored trip to the country, my initial thoughts circled like vultures around every tidbit of Middle Eastern foodie information stored in my brain.
A few quick keyword searches online and bam! I had my answer—all systems were a go on the foodie front, Jordan offers dozens of dishes consistently cooked vegetarian and the country is touristy enough to easily communicate the concept of vegetarianism.
Unrelenting Indian sun bounced off the yellow sand, sneaking under my hat and slowly tinting my skin red as I cautiously posed next to my camel for a photo-opportunity. Before my brain even registered the aggressive nip Krishna the camel aimed in my direction, my guide intercepted, creating a needed wall of safety between me and my camel. Minutes later, as I focused the camera and zoomed in on Krishna I caught a shot of the camel spitting and jutting his head at my cousin—clearly she had gotten to close.
The novelty of the experience propelled me happily enough through my two hour ride and I left India still loving the look of camels, those huge lips, eyelashes, and long gangly legs, all angles and awkwardness, but not so much the animals themselves. They just didn’t seem to rate on the friendly-meter and certainly didn’t come close to “loving” creatures.
Nearly two years later, I furrowed my brows and gazed out the window of my air-conditioned car at the sun-bleached sands of the Jordanian desert stretching on either side of the highway. Sedate brown and beige camels were dotted across the desert for miles, all walking and munching on the sparse olive-green grasses daring to sprout from the dry earth. Behind these camels a lone figure, head wrapped in a faded red keffiyeh scarf, treading a slow, measured and solitary path across the barren landscape.
A Bedouin man tending his camels.
His slow pace, a pace echoing his nomadic ancestors, a direct contrast my modern car whizzing across the stretches of highway dissecting Jordan. My car slowed down when Rami, my driver, noticed my fumblings. A quick snapshot before the moment passed. And then we barreled onward, toward Wadi Rum desert where I was assured I would find more Bedouin, more camels, and yes, answers to feed the bubbling well of questions forming in my head.
Captain’s Desert Camp, Wadi Rum, Jordan
In desperate need of coffee after stowing our bags, Jodi and I met our guide, Ali, inside the giant dining tent at the Captain’s Desert Camp; it was an off time of day we were quite the sensation as Ali introduced us to the servers, workers, and other guides. The workers began making our coffee when I noticed an impish man trying to get our attention with emphatic gestures toward the tent’s back window; our curiosity sufficiently stirred, we couldn’t resist looking.
Not just one camel either, but four! Two knobby-legged tiny, awkward little baby camels playfully nipped at their mothers in a patch of sand at the rear side of the enclosure.
Skipping with joy, I propelled myself out the door behind Shabula, the impish man exited to show us his prides and joy. Caution was my first instinct as we neared the camels, my experiences in India flickering warnings—surely these mother camels would be doubly aggressive with protective instincts on high alert, right?
Without a hitch in his step, or even a moment to warn the camels, Shabula greeted the closest mother camel with smiles and affection, before angling left and calling the four week old camel over to us like it was merely a goofy little puppy.
He showered the baby camel with affectionate hugs and invited us to come for a snuggle and a kiss. Up for most anything, I stroked the baby camel’s soft curly hair and planted one on him.
Those ten minutes spent in the sandy enclosure can only be described as frolicking with the camels….and who would have ever thought you could do that?! Shabula’s genuine affection and love for each camel filled the enclosure and his interactions highlighted some of the core philosophies of desert life.
The Bedouin: Respect and Generosity
This is the point where I cop to knowing very little about Bedouin culture before I arrived in Jordan. The Bedouin are, in the simplest terms, desert inhabitants. And with a bit more to it, the Jordanian Bedouin are traditionally and culturally nomadic camel-raising tribes living in the Badia, a semi-arid desert covering 80 percent of Jordan.
The Bedouin I met throughout Jordan were adapting to modernity and many were now semi-nomadic, settled near schools, and raising goat and sheep in addition to camels. Our desert camp was an intriguing experience because of the direct access to the culture, the ability to ask my very specific questions. Many of the guides and workers are first generations from the fully nomadic lifestyle of their parents, and their culture is still imprinted on them.
Talking to our guides, taking tea inside their family tents, and observing behaviors and protocol throughout our Bedouin interactions highlighted two prominent aspects of Bedouin culture: respect and hospitality.
Every interaction, every new fact and facet fit into this cultural framework. Respect for the family unit, traditions, and their animals. Shabula cared for his animals, respected them, and honored the camel as integral to his life. During my visit to a Bedouin community in Wadi Feynan , Abu Abdullah respected his family unit with grace and friendliness as he warmly invited us to tea while kindly asking to photograph the community respectfully.
He protected his cultural customs, while also displaying the absolute Bedouin hospitality; throughout the hour we spent in his tent we were offered numerous glasses of traditional tea and coffee; an offer that would be made to any visitor as a direct and unshakable Bedouin custom.
So, What Makes the Difference
I started this musing with reflections on my camel experience in India largely because the disparate experiences are a hiccup in mind when I witnessed the Bedouin’s cultural respect for their animals. I never knew camels could be sweet and affectionate, but there was Shabula, not the exception, but rather a close and accessible example.
To understand the Bedouin better, the camel is a logical starting point. Camels play a pivotal role in how nomadic tribes are able to actually traverse such vast open and inhospitable spaces. I have this picture in my mind of every clichéd Hollywood film set in the desert: of course the camel is there, and a local tending the camels. I’ve long known camels equal deserts, but why is something I’ve never bothered to ask before. Why is the camel better than, say a horse?
Asking that questioned yielded a long litany of reasons why camels may just be the most highly evolved animal on earth today. The have physiologically adapted to an extreme environment and several camel characteristics are unique only to this animal and prove the role of evolution:
Camels store fat for food/energy in their hump (not water).
Their super long eyelashes and sealable nostrils evolved to combat sand.
A camel’s body has a totally unique water usage system for cooling the animal, circulating blood cells and and ensuring it can’t actually over-hydrate (like humans can!).
Certain breeds can carry as much as 900 lbs on their backs (though it’s rare for them to carry this much).
The Bedouin use every part of camel, but especially rely on mother camels for protein-rich milk.
That’s why a camel rocks in general; for the Bedouin, the technical details are secondary to the function, they may not have known that camels have evolved with oval-shaped red blood cells rather than circles to facilitate blood circulation, but they did know they could take off into the desert for weeks without exhausting the animals (and yes, I wikipedia’d that fact :).
The relationship between Bedouin and camel trumps most others–the animals are the cornerstone reason behind their cultural traditions. Without a camel, often called the “Ship of the Desert,” humans didn’t (and maybe even still don’t) have an effective way to live and cross open desert. The bottom line comes down to respect the camel for the fundamental survival of the Bedouin lifestyle and culture.
A woman at the desert camp in Wadi Rum summed it up, the Bedouin live for three simple things: family, fire, and camels. Each one of these tenants is honored and respected and the results were visible as I talked with Bedouin guides, tribes, and when I dreamed up a whole life story for that lone Bedouin figure trekking through the desert, making his way back to his campfire and family, camels in tow.