Off the Backpacker’s Trail — Nine Days in Jordan

When I think about travel in Jordan, the best word that comes to mind is established. Kira and I have spent the past few months mostly bouncing around different backpackers haunts. From the mountains and cobblestone streets of the Andes to Moroccan deserts and medinas, we’ve found ourselves to be just another pair of nomads in a self-reliant travel culture. Of course there will always be tour groups in massive coach buses and retirees with trekking poles and name tags around their necks, but there have also always been other people like us, figuring it out as they go. Usually a few years younger, sometimes a few years older, but always carrying a backpack that’s equal parts dirty laundry and souvenir sweaters or scarves, usually wearing a pair of hiking boots or trail runners, and always down to swap stories and laughs over a beer or tea.

In Jordan that backpacker culture is hard to find, despite the dozens of people I saw who were, like me, wandering around Petra with a copy of Lonely Planet in hand. I think due to a combination of the institutionalization of tourism here — where your visa to enter the country can be lumped into a (theoretically) all-inclusive pass to access Jordan’s highlights that’s reminiscent of a fast pass at a theme park — combined with the perceived danger of traveling to a country that borders Iraq and Syria, it seems that even young travelers that might otherwise be found riding public buses around Peru are, in Jordan, hopping on group tours that promise all the highlights of the country in just <insert your amount of available PTO> days.

In fact, it seems the only real way to be a do-it-yourself, figure-it-out-as-you-go traveler here is to rent a car and wander around in the desert. So, naturally, that’s what we did.

We drove from Amman to Bethany, and saw the site where Jesus was baptized. We drove to Mt Nebo, where Moses first saw the Promised Land and the guy at the gate told us the ticket to the top of the hill now costs 2 dinar. We got back in the car.

We drove to Madaba, saw Byzantine mosaics and ate perfect hummus in a cafe I found in Lonely Planet across from one of the oldest churches in the world. We spent the night, and the next morning drove to the Dead Sea where we checked into a resort and slept in a suite that was almost as big as our old apartment.

We drove the Dead Sea Highway south, passing the salt-crusted banks where locals go to soak in the healing waters that, as an aside, I think actually work. We drove past huge factories with French names and green roadside farms. We took a left onto the King’s Highway and climbed east into the hills en route to Petra.

Along the way we scanned the radio til we found a station in English and jammed out to some absolute bangers. From U2’s Where the Streets Have No Name (which was fitting, since the best directions google maps seemed able to provide was just “turn left”) to Kissed by a Rose and Landslide, the music between the static was nostalgia punctuated by occasional bursts of commercials in Arabic.

Passing through the tiny towns along the way we encountered smells you’d never find inside a perfectly air conditioned tour bus. We got lucky with our worn old Hyundai and the climate control at best blew lukewarm air mixed with hints of stale cigarette smoke when we turned the dial to “Max A/C.” So we drove with the windows down, breathing in the salty air of the Dead Sea or the dry dust of the desert mixed with the diesel fumes of the truck in front of us, or the smell of the sheep and camels grazing in the rocky fields beside the road. Passing through a small town between Wadi Musa and Kerak on the second day of Ramadan, traffic slowed us to a crawl and the smell of fresh bread just pulled from an oven filled the car. I imagined the bakers eagerly waiting to enjoy the bread at sundown, and if we hadn’t needed to return the car that night, I might’ve stopped to ask if we could join.

We spent two days at Petra, paying extra to enter after sundown and see candles lighting up the Treasury (which, like all the facades at Petra, was actually a tomb and probably never contained any more treasure than anywhere else here). Over those two days we walked roughly 45 kilometers exploring as much as the unrelenting desert sun would allow, thinking this place must be unbearably hot in July and August. The next day we stumbled, brutally dehydrated, to the car and drove to Wadi Rum.

We explored Wadi Rum riding in the bed of a banged up Hilux driven by a man in a white djellaba with a red Adidas bag to carry his hookah. We sat on benches roughly welded into the bed across from a British couple in their 50s that told us stories about sneaking into North Korea to go skiing and said we just “absolutely must” go to Cuba. We watched the sunset and I felt tiny in the massive expanse of emptiness surrounding us. And then, after two nights in that massive red emptiness, we drove back to Amman and turned in the worn out old Hyundai and the road trip was over.

I feel like we’ve only seen a fraction of almost every country we’ve visited on this trip. From Baja in Mexico to the three-day hike to the Ciudad Perdida in Colombia to the Peruvian Amazon to Essouaria and the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco, there’s so much more that I want to do in all of the places that we’ve been. Except for Jordan. In Jordan I think I’ve done all that I wanted to do, and at first I thought that was a bad thing. But as I write this now, on my phone in a bus across the flat green Cambodian farmland somewhere between Phnom Penh and Siam Reap, I’m grateful for that sliver of closure. I’m grateful for the tourist attractions of Petra and Wadi Rum that brought me to a place that honestly reminded me a lot of what Syria and Iraq could probably be like if they weren’t, well, Syria and Iraq.

Some of my friends from my old job were a little surprised when I told them we were going to Jordan. They asked why I’d want to go back to the Middle East, saying it’s mostly the same, just a lot of goats and stern men drinking tea in the desert. And to an extent they’re right. There are a shitload of goats. And those men drinking tea sometimes look pretty damn stern. Until you hit them with a salaam alaikum or a marhaba and their faces light up and they ask, in English, if you speak Arabic. I always apologized and said no, just a few words that I’d practiced relentlessly, and then they always, invariably, tried harder to teach me more in five minutes than my Georgetown professor did in the five weeks I lasted before I dropped the class.

And that’s why I think everyone, but especially guys like me that have seen the absolute worst parts of this corner of the world, should travel to Jordan. As Americans we’ve spent at least twenty or thirty years sucking down every fucking bad story about the Middle East that the mainstream media can throw at us. Somehow you don’t hear a word about this part of the world unless there’s a bombing, or a sound bite on the oppression of women, or a CNN special on the water crisis.

And I’m not saying those things aren’t true, sometimes. But you know what? A bottle of water is cheaper in Jordan than it is in the US, even with the exchange rate. And there are tons of women that drive (gasp!) and even quite a few women that don’t wear headscarves (double gasp!) and those that do aren’t oppressed robots like the news wants you to believe. In fact, one of my favorite people in Jordan was a woman in full hijab that I saw in a trendy cafe off Rainbow Street that we accidentally stumbled into. (It was waaaay too nice for us.) Yes, she was wearing a flowy black outfit that covered her from head to toe. Only a narrow slit was open for her eyes. She covered those eyes with a pair of designer sunglasses that would’ve gone for upwards of 400 euros in Paris. When she removed tight black gloves to unlock a brand new iPhone 13 Pro Max without a case (tell me you’re rich without saying it out loud) her nails were perfectly manicured and on her left hand, right next to her thumb, was a small tattoo of a smiley face. When the cappuccino she ordered arrived, she staged it perfectly with her Louis Vuitton scarf and her Chanel purse and started snapping photos, blasting them out to her friends on Instagram and Snapchat while her husband across the table took a long drag on his shisha pipe, exhaling the smoke to show off a grille that would’ve made Post Malone jealous. Under all that black, I’ll bet she was gorgeous. And she knew it. She was just like any wealthy girl anywhere in the world, just dressed in different clothes.

Jordan is super easy to travel, almost frustratingly easy if you’re like me and enjoy the challenge of broken conversations in a language you don’t know. Almost everyone speaks functional English and everyone is incredibly helpful in possibly the most genuine way we’d experienced on this trip. The roads are pretty good as long as you take things slow and keep an eye out for wayward sheep meandering across in front of you. If you want to shell out the cash, you can rent a gleaming brand new Land Cruiser and drive in luxury, although I think I preferred our old Elantra. And above all else, it’s worth seeing Jordan to learn more of the truth about a region that is far too often, like the rest of the world, portrayed in a very negative light. And Petra was super cool too.

Note: I don’t know how many people read to the end of these stories, but if you’ve made it this far I want to share a word of thanks to one of my first best friends, Alex, for sharing all of his advice on traveling Jordan. Without your encouragement I probably would’ve just resignedly hopped on one of those big tour buses, or at least paid for a driver instead of driving myself. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the tips, and more importantly your constant encouragement to try new things, from my first sushi when we were in high school (sorry I hated it) to road-tripping Jordan. I loved that one.

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Andrew Mullikin

Andrew Mullikin

Current nomad, striving to live a story worth telling. Former US Army Ranger, using this platform to share travel writing and photographs.