It’s a lie to say I went on my first trip to Jordan with no expectations. Everywhere we travel, our experiences are colored by what we know and what we predict we’ll find in the destination. Looking for blue cars? You’ll find them. Looking for dangerous strangers? Every shadow will seem more threatening. It’s called confirmation bias, and it’s a well-documented perceptive distortion we can’t escape.
To say then that I was a blank canvas, ready to be impressed by Jordan however she might see fit, would be untrue; I had plenty of ideas of what I might find: breathtaking Petra, salty Dead Sea water that holds me up, stories of wonderful hospitality in a region surrounded by turmoil, and many more. I hadn’t done much research before my trip, in the hopes that I might simply learn on the ground, but I still had expectations and dreams.
Of course, the reality of my trip was wonderful and weird and different in countless ways than my expectations. I didn’t expect to be so mentally and physically challenged by getting sick while traveling. I didn’t expect it to be so hot (yes, I know it’s the Middle East!). I didn’t expect to be quite so emotionally invested in Jordan by the time I left. I also didn’t expect these other surprises about Jordan I had during my trip.
It’s cheesy, but Jordan is easily one of the most deeply moving destinations I’ve visited. I like to think my worldview has been challenged many times by travel, but never quite the way Jordan did. If you gain nothing else from this post, I hope you understand that even the most worldly travelers with the most reasonable expectations are always surprised – and Jordan certainly surprised me.
The My Call to Prayer
It was 3:48am on my first night in Amman when I bolted awake. I had pried the window open in my hotel room, and fallen asleep to the sound of cars on the road outside our hotel… but I hadn’t counted on the call to prayer.
A crackling sound preceded the beginning of the broadcast, and suddenly my room was flooded with hauntingly beautiful music – none of which I could understand. I was, after all, at the same level as the speakers of the mosque a short block away, and directly in the line of fire for this first “get your butt up to wash your face and prepare to pray!” call. At 4:06am, the call began again, this time the official call to prayer.
I’ll be straight with you: I have tons of misconceptions about Islam, mostly borne of ignorance. Nonetheless, I became entranced by the calls to prayer, the ornate construction of mosques in each town we visited, and the commitment most Muslims displayed to their religion. I just don’t see that here in the U.S., at least not in the communities and social circles I spend my time in.
Likely, you won’t see me converting to Islam any time soon. I do however have a greater appreciation for the nuances and beauty of the religion that still sparks curiosity when I think back on my trip.
The Landscape is Outrageously Dynamic
Again, I’m not sure exactly what I expected of Jordan; my ignorance is probably laughable for most travelers out there. But as soon as we left the wide-sprawling city of Amman, I was shocked to see how diverse the landscape was. From Mount Nebo looking out over the Jordan Valley to the siqs and wadis of the southern region – Jordan was an endlessly changing landscape of rock, tree, bush, and water (just because you don’t see the water doesn’t mean it is never present!).
Particular favorites were the Jordan Valley (which we saw from both Ajloun and Mount Nebo) because it was so unexpectedly pleasant and lush, and Dana bio reserve – but more to come on the latter in a minute.
“You Drink Hot Drinks When It’s Hot”
Our guide said this on the first day, and I thought he was completely bonkers. When the temperature is well into the 90s, why the HECK would I want to drink hot tea?!
By the end of my trip, of course, I was singing a different tune.
Heavily steeped black tea sweetened almost to the point of sickliness and poured over fresh mint leaves, tea is as important to social interactions in Jordan as pints-in-the-pub is in England. It’s a fundamental part of displaying hospitality, and a social lubricant in every get-together between friends, family, and visitors.
Yes, you drink it when it’s hot, like among the mountaintops in the Talifah Governorate. You also drink it when it’s cold, like in the desert of Wadi Rum once the sun has set. It’s perfect for every occasion, no matter the temperature.
Jordan is Incredibly Fertile
I noticed this before we even left Amman, but it was more obvious day by day as we drove through the Jordanian countryside between towns and cities: Jordan is a very fertile country, despite being scarce on water most of the year.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are proudly displayed at stands throughout town, and we passed countless small produce stands manned by single Jordanians snoozing under canvas tents or in the shadows of nearby trees. Tomatoes, watermelon (Watermelon! In the desert!), leafy greens, cherries, apricots, small, sweet bananas, and so much more – if you can dream of eating it fresh, you can likely find it somewhere in Jordan.
Camels are One of my Favorite Animals
Maybe I’m a goober, but I was really excited to take photos of camels. They’re just so ridiculous and funny-looking. I wasn’t expecting to discover that, on the whole, they’re quite chill creatures (at least the ones that I saw, which are all very used to humans) and not nearly as smelly as I expected.
I also loved my camel ride in Wadi Rum. One of the only bits of “research” I did was to watch Queen of the Desert on my flight to Amman. Quick movie geek sidebar: I don’t normally love Nicole Kidman but her portrayal of Gertrude Bell was immaculate, and director Werner Herzog handled the story and scenery with aplomb.
Anyway, I kind of fell in love with the way Kidman seemed so comfortable and natural on a camel, and I hoped I could be equally graceful in my own right. Secret confession? I was! The camel ride was a total blast, and one of the happiest moments I had in a week of otherwise intense discomfort and sickness.
The Yosemite Experience I Dreamed Of
I have always meant to write about my experience in Yosemite in January – but it’s really hard to find the energy to write about experiences I didn’t enjoy (traffic! crowds! people letting their children and animals run wild!). Luckily, the universe decided to give me a second chance.
Dana Bio Reserve seemed like a blip on the map of an otherwise stunning itinerary that included Jerash, Petra, Wadi Rum, and the Dead Sea, but it ended up being one of the most impressive experiences I had. On my first night of being sick (what I later learned was a massive allergic reaction), I spent half of the night sitting atop the roofs of a sleepy town of sand-colored stone houses, keeping company with the cats and a donkey mama-and-baby who quietly plodded the streets. I watched the sunrise behind the mountains, and the world woke up around me – a magical mosaic of red, green, and white that bore a resemblance to the Jordanian flag.
We then went for a hike in the reserve itself. Between towering stacks of stone-like pancakes with formations like syrup drizzled over the top and wide expanses of sand and scrub brush (most of which we learned was edible or medicinal), the sun was relentless but it felt good to stretch my legs and see more of the surprising landscape in Jordan.
If you’re looking for an incredible place to stay in Dana Biosphere Reserve, check out Feynan EcoLodge.
You Can Find – and Drink – Wine
Jordan is officially a Muslim country, where over 97% of the population practices Islam. Thus, alcohol is not exactly in abundance, as the vast majority of the population doesn’t imbibe.
But, our guide told us one day that many of the Christians – Greek Orthodox; an admittedly tiny portion – often take advantage of the fertile land to cultivate personal vineyards, and there are a small number of publicly distributed vineyards too. As a foodie, I love wine tourism (even though it’s not one of my central motivating factors when traveling and eating), and wanted to see what Jordan had to offer – especially after trying several of the other fresh fruits and experiencing how rich the flavors were.
Since my first trip to Jordan in 2016, the wine industry in Jordan has grown, and you can now find wine in most restaurants in major cities; Jordan River is the top winery, but my favorite is still Saint George (which specializes in organic, small-batch wines).
For other things to drink in Jordan? I’ve got a list!
Tourism is Fundamental to the Jordanian Economy
As Wikipedia says, “tourism is one of the most important sectors in Jordan’s economy.” Comprised of several major pillars – adventure/outdoors, cultural/historical, and medical – Jordan relies heavily on the tourism dollars we all spend when we visit, and they suffer greatly when we don’t.
Tourism in Jordan – despite being quite safe for visitors – struggles because of turmoil in its neighboring countries (which include Syria, Iraq, and Israel) as well as less tourism-friendly policies in some other adjoining countries (here’s me as a woman, lookin’ at you, Saudi Arabia…).
This is heartbreaking, as Jordan is easily one of the most hospitable countries I’ve had the pleasure to visit so far. Jordanians were endlessly welcoming, willing to share their knowledge about Jordan, opinions about the world, and food (and tea) from their tables. While there are certainly cultural differences between my creature comforts and daily life in the U.S. versus those I enjoyed in Jordan, that only enhanced my appreciation for what drives people to visit Jordan in the first place.
What surprises about Jordan did you have during your trip? Or what are you most looking forward to experiencing? Let me know in the comments below!