Reflections, Revelations, and Rock Bottom in Jordan

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When I missed my flight from Saigon back to Shanghai in August 2010, there was no turning back: my round-the-world journey had begun. As I made my way up the coast of Vietnam with my travel companions Amber and Kale, I devoted the majority of my free time and energy to devising a suitable itinerary from that point forward.

I’ve always wanted to visit the Middle East, but the fact that it came up when I was making a list of potential destinations had more to due with its location precisely between where I was (Southeast Asia) and where I wanted to end up (back in Austin) than by any intentional design. When I loaded a map of the region on my computer, however, I remembered that my college classmate Najwa had invited me to come stay with her in Jordan just before we graduated.

Although I said yes at the time, I never in my wildest dreams imagine I’d have the funds or wherewithal to accept my friend’s offer of hospitality. When I found myself sitting beside her at the lowest point on Earth more than four years later, the salty Dead Sea glistening in front of me wasn’t all that was reflecting.

One of the first places I visited after arriving in Jordan was the Amman Amphitheater, located in the city’s historical center a few miles from Najwa’s home. Najwa’s sister Jihan and her father waited at the bottom of amphitheater while I ran up to the top to enjoy the view and take photos. Shortly after I photographed the young woman pictured here, I noticed that she wasn’t sitting alone to enjoy a moment of wistful contemplation. Rather, a young man I can only assume to have been her boyfriend was hurrying back to ground level without her, shouting angrily back toward her as he descended.

Walking around Amman’s city center just after my visit to the amphitheater gave me my first glimpse into the living standard of working class Jordanians, which was vastly different from what existed in upmarket West Amman, where Najwa’s family lives.

West Amman is divided into several “circles,” with the first and smallest being one of the city’s main nightlife and entertainment hubs. After my visit to the Amphitheater, Najwa met me in a cafe where Jihan, her father and I were having coffee. The two of us spent the evening walking around the First Circle, which was eerily deserted in spite of the fact that it was Thursday night, the de-facto beginning of the weekend in Muslim countries.

Dating back to Roman times when Jordan’s present day capital was known as “Philadelphia,” the Amman Citadel is perched on a high mountain that overlooks the rest of the city. A visit to the Citadel provides not only a glimpse into the region’s past (something enhanced by the adjacent Jordanian Museum of Archaeology), but also a dramatic illustration of Amman’s geographical orientation — namely, that it’s built on the tops of seven mountains.

After a relaxing Friday I spent mostly sleeping, Najwa, her family and I headed to the Dead Sea first thing Saturday morning. When I was leaving Amman two weeks later, the man sitting next to me at the airport asked me if I knew why the Dead Sea existed. His explanation? “It’s because large numbers of homosexuals were living in Sodom, a city that used to exist in the Jordan Valley,” he said, “and God punched the Earth to get rid of them.”

I’d be lying if I said the prospect of seeing real-life camels almost every day wasn’t one of my greatest sources of excitement when I visited the Middle East. I was positively over the moon when I spotted this smiling dromedary my last day in Jordan, when Najwa and her friend Alaa took me to the Lost City of Petra, recently designated as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

The three of us spent most of our first three hours at Petra hiking. After making our way through the Siq, the natural gorge formation that protected Petra when it was first settled more than 2,000 years ago, we came upon the city’s iconic treasury. Hungry for more, Najwa, Alaa and I hiked up to the highest point within the historical complex. In addition to an amazing view of the ancient city’s Ad-Deir Monastery and its surrounding, pink-tinted desert rock formations, we were treated to the sweet guitar and vocal stylings of a local Bedouin musician.


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