Jordan, on a magic carpet ride
Sonia Nazareth vists Amman, meets the hardworking Bedouins, gazes at Petra's timeless wonders, and floats in the Dead Sea's waters with a book
Best time to visit: March-May
You need: 5-7 days
I have no more connection with Jordan than a twice-stamped passport, yet I find aspects of this ancient land frequently glittering in reverie. You have only to visit once to see that Jordan, with its dramatic deserts, alluring seas, vibrant food-scape, and a heritage that disappears back into the mist of biblical tales, has so much diversity packed into so small an area, that any journey through here can only be summarised as epic.
Wadi Rum has a maze of monolithic rockscapes that rise up from the desert floor up to a height of 1,750 mt
The city of Amman
Landing in the capital city of Amman, I get an immediate sense of molten history. Remainders of ancient Philadelphia can be seen at the Citadel, that sits on Jebel Al Qala'a (850 mt above sea level) — the highest hill of Amman. But the attraction of Amman lies as much in these ancient monuments, as in the throb and hum of its population — shrugging off the present, bursting into the future. I park myself in the popular Sufra restaurant on Rainbow Street that evening, and end up getting recommendations for the rest of my time in Jordan from a group of ultra-chic women in headscarves.
From Amman, it's a three-and-a-half hour drive to the salmon-pink, rose-red city of Petra — the architectural legacy of the ancient Nabateans. The Nabateans, for those who came in late, were an industrious Arab people who settled in Jordan more than 2,000 years ago. To get under the skin of Petra requires hours of walking. But as we pass through the Siq — the colossal rift in land leading towards the hidden city of Petra, even the most sluggish traveller is pushing forward with excitement. Through the mile-long gorge we go, eyes at the edge of their stalks so as not to miss any part of the rock formations that look as if forged out of the deep subconscious.
Al-Khazneh or The Treasury at Petra. Pics/Sonia Nazareth
Dreams in rock
Atop a candy swirl of rock, we watch the dramas of everyday life unfold. Playful bargaining is the welcome mat to any interaction in these parts. Tea at a Bedouin stall near the rainbow-coloured hollows of the royal tombs is a great place for an exchange of views. That evening over a Bedouin meal of Mensaf — lamb, rice and pine nuts combined with yoghurt and drizzled with oil, Hatim, our guide, speaks warmly of Pope Francis's visit to Jordan.
"The entire region needs more peace and love. Much of the fear in the world is caused by insularity, rather than by real interaction." Saying this, he slips his calloused paw into mine. "If you want to come back one day and set up business here, my dear… maybe an Indian restaurant, I'd be happy to help..."
Mount Nebo -- the hill Moses ascended according to the book of Deuteronomy
I learn that the Bedouin, some of who are still tending goat and sheep in an unbroken connection with the past, understand the meaning of hardship. They know what it's like to live in extreme weather conditions on goat-hair beds with the ever-present threat of scorpions. And have learned from these interactions, the meaning of humility and the importance of human connection in a challenging landscape. With such thoughts in mind, we set off on the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Wadi Rum, to see whether the reality of the Bedouin matches the expectation
Exploring Wadi Rum
Hiring a four-wheel drive vehicle to explore Wadi Rum, with its maze of monolithic rockscapes that rise up from the desert floor to heights of 1,750 mt, is the way to go, if you're keen to see the vastest terrain in the quickest possible time. But at the first chance I get, I clamber out to scale a sand dune. In time-honoured fashion, we stop for tea at a Bedouin tent. Some trigger-happy travellers attempt to photograph a group of Bedouin in their keiffiyah (red and white head-dress held in place by a rope).
A Bedouin man is annoyed at being photographed without permission, but brushes his annoyance aside to pour me yet another cup of tea and says, "We may have Syria on one side, Israel on the other. But we are Jordan. I simply don't understand why people are always trying to make sweeping generalisations about the Middle East. If we'd been located in Europe instead of the Middle East, we'd have been perceived quite differently." Once started, a Bedouin man can go effortlessly on, "But people lack knowledge about things — including our reefs, which have stayed pristine. Have you gone diving in the Red Sea at Aqaba?"
Sunset at the Dead Sea
I have and I'd love to linger and share my thoughts with this warm Bedouin on what snorkeling the reefs, or sailing on a glass-bottomed boat in the Red Sea feels like. But as Hatim, says, "The sun is falling and we must be on our way."
Coming alive at the Dead Sea
The Dead Sea, or the Salt Sea as it is known in biblical parlance, is another place you'll probably know of, even if you've only ever been to Jordan by armchair. So blue-green that it looks photoshopped into existence. This body of water is not really a sea, but a lake. With a salt content of 31 per cent, the buoyancy makes it perfect for a float.
Intricate mosaics at Madaba
Bobbing about at the alleged lowest point on the earth's surface, in minerals that have long been exploited since the time of Cleopatra for their spa qualities, is the high point of my day. Covered in the calcium-and-magnesium-rich Dead Sea mud, from buckets on the shore provided by the Crowne Plaza (or whichever hotel along the strip you choose to stay at), I read a book in the water, toes happily pointing toward the sky.
Soon, my thoughts return to the activities of the past few weeks, in which I've snorkeled in the Red Sea, tried Arak (local aniseed firewater) in Aqaba, admired the painstaking work that created the intricate mosaics in Madaba, been blown away by the views that Moses saw from atop Mount Nebo. And I realise that holidays that focus solely on relaxation may be overhyped.
The camaraderie of the locals outside all heritage sites is touching
Sometimes an active holiday can shake you out of your comfort zone, prompt new ways of seeing and let you take them to your life back home — not just a rejuvenated body, but also a refreshed mind.
Getting there: There are several one-stop flights between Mumbai and Amman
Where to Stay: The Landmark (www.landmarkamman.com) satisfies the basics and the little luxuries.
In Petra, The Movenpick is as good a stay option as it gets, not least because it's located right outside the historical site of Petra and is itself rife with quirky charm. Visit movenpick-hotels.com
Near the Dead Sea, hotels have their own private strip of beach from where you could experience its marvels. Several options along the strip, of which The Crowne Plaza With its multi-sized swimming pools works well, if you're travelling with family. For more information, visit ihg.com
What to buy: You'll get Dead Sea products, mosaics and mud soaps wherever you go, and in a range of prices
Eat: Local Thai food is found almost everywhere. There are also Mexican, Italian and Indian restaurants in Bophut. Try the Italian food at Prego at the Amari Palm Reef Resort