My heart races as I encounter my first Jordanian at the customs office -- a line of wooden shacks with swinging doors that open like a Western movie set. I approach a sole man who emerges from a window. He looks like the Arab men I have seen on TV with dark skin, a thick moustache, and a gun at his side. I hand him my passport, and he examines it carefully. He notices that there is no Israeli stamp, and he asks me why. I am tense with my reply, "Well, I just wanted to avoid any trouble in other countries I might travel to..." He seems upset by this, and in an unyielding voice answers, "But Jordan is ally with Israel, there is no problem here!" "Yes, of course, but I may go to Syria or maybe..." I trail off unsure of what else to say. He looks at me for a moment, "Welcome to Jordan," he states matter-of-factly, stamping my passport. Just beyond the entrance gate, I notice a single car waiting in an otherwise vacant lot. I stand still, apprehensive of my next move. The customs agent nods his head at me, pointing to the vehicle, "Taxi , go, go." I tell the man in the car that, "I'd like to get a bus to Petra?" He informs me in good English that the bus to Petra has already left for the day. "I will take you there," he adds without hesitation.
The man drives me to another man in town, and I get into a different car. I know I am being ripped off when I agree to pay $50 for the trip, but there are some moments when traveling where I have to put my frugal character aside in order to keep moving safely. Mohamed is happy to have me as his American passenger, and I am happy to be traveling into a new land. In fact, I have to force myself from not smiling from ear to ear in order to conceal my childlike excitement of actually having arrived in Jordan by myself. Mohamed asks if I am married. I show him a picture of my high-school prom date, a precaution I had read about in an in-flight magazine. I point to the photo, "My fiancé." He nods in comprehension. We speak little the rest of the trip, and I try to act as calm as possible. We stop for 1 hour in the town of Wadi Rum, which has been made famous by the movie Lawrence of Arabia. It is my first chance to view the extraordinary desert scenery. Every direction is quiet and boundless. The few people we do pass call out to me frequently, "Welcome to Jordan." I feel a strong sense of peacefulness and start to slow down to the timeless rhythm of desert life. The passing landscape is exceedingly beautiful.
Mohamed tells me that every hostel around Petra has closed due to the lack of tourism, so he takes me to his friend’s hotel. Once again, I have to accept what is presented to me, as at this point, I know I am fairly helpless on my own. When we pull up to Hotel Rosa, I spot a young European-looking backpacker relaxed under a canopy, writing in his journal. I am almost out of my skin with delight to discover another backpacker, and I have to force myself to settle into my dorm-style room before racing outside to bombard him with questions.
As the sun begins to melt into the desert canyon, a few more backpackers trickle into the hotel. Chris (who turns out to be British) tells me the food at the hotel is worth the visit to Petra alone, and for a mere 2 Jordanian dinar ($3), they serve an extensive buffet-style dinner outside under black tents. I gawk at the chef as he carries out dish after dish of soups, salads, vegetables, meats, and fruits. I am stuffed and feeling elated when I meet Craig, an Australian plumber who has taken the year off to travel the world. We make a plan to hike the ancient ruins together the next day.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is sadly all I really knew about Petra before I arrived. (It is the place where Indiana goes to find the cup of eternal life). So, I would like to take a moment here to share with you its unusual history, as Petra is perhaps the most astounding ancient city left in the modern world. For more than 700 years, Petra was lost (literally hidden behind towering mountain cliffs), and only the members of the nomadic Bedouin tribe lived there, guarding their treasures in enormous tombs and caves. Of course, eventually some European heard about the legend of the Lost City and had to come discover it, steal all the treasures, and kill all the indigenous people. Nonetheless, the city has miraculously stayed intact as much as anything could that was built in the 8th millennium BC!
Petra is approached through an incredible narrow crevice in a mountain that runs 1.2km long, and it is known as the Siq. Just after dawn, Craig and I walk quietly and gently through it, as if entering a majestic church. The sound of the wind whistles its way through the tunnel-like passage to create an eerie carol. I look up to view towering sculptures peeking out from the 10m high rock walls fashioned by human hands into impossibly delicate structures. I find the walk through the natural division of earth appropriate upon entering the Lost City, as it provokes a tangible sense of traveling back in time. The warmth of the sun splashes down upon me as I exit the Siq and come face to face with an Arab world of the past. My eyes are graced with an angelic ancient catacomb called the Treasury (or the Al-Khaznen), which is carved out of solid iron-laden sandstone to serve as a tomb. The elegant pillars, alcoves, and plinths are masterpieces. I am humbled by its greatness.
I am in a photographer’s paradise; I cannot stop capturing the images that surround me. There is a little girl with a runny nose selling rocks to tourists (snap). I spot a man seeking refuge from the sun, rolling a handmade cigarette (snap). There are men on camels carting baskets of souvenirs (snap). Several Bedouin people are walking around: they are desert dwellers and live off the earth in square tents made from black goat hair. They have fascinating faces full of history, and I am lucky enough to catch a smile from an old Bedouin woman (snap). These images become ingrained in my film and in my memory, remaining forever lost in time.