This year, I’ve prioritised travelling alone.
I didn’t do a gap year after school, and most of my international travel has been with friends, family or my husband. Although I love travelling with others and just lolling around on a beach drinking endless Black Russians, I really wanted to travel solo through a physically challenging environment in a completely different culture. I wanted to reassure myself of my independence, that I could figure problems out on my own, find my way after getting lost, and look after myself when things got tough. And I wanted to feel like I’d well and truly worked for every one of those glorious moments you treasure when you’re in a foreign place.
Ever since visiting Lebanon in 2016, I’ve been a little obsessed with the Middle East. Visiting The Met earlier this year, I made a beeline for the Islamic Art, and it was a similar story when I returned to my spiritual art home, the Victoria & Albert museum in London. So, I signed up to a small group trek through Jordan, run by Intrepid Travel.
If you haven’t heard of Intrepid, they’re awesome. Deeply committed to socially and environmentally responsible travel, they use local guides to give an authentic experience, select activities that directly support local communities, and they vet every element of the trip to make sure it meets high safety standards (including food hygiene).
They promote environmentally responsible travel by encouraging you to use reusable bags and bottles, making you conscious of energy consumption, and only endorsing activities involving animals that meet international standards of animal welfare.
Our group was also pretty small (12 including myself and the guide), which made the experience personal and helped our group to bond.
This experience was pretty life-changing and left a real mark on me, in many positive ways. So, here are some of the things I loved and learned during my short time in Jordan.
The people are incredibly friendly, and renewed my faith in the kindness of strangers
Aside from every café barman, taxi driver and store owner being inquisitive about why I was travelling alone, Jordanians are a warm and friendly people, and generous hosts. I experienced this kindness as soon as I arrived at my hostel at 4am, jet lagged and jittery. The young concierge made me coffee you could literally stand a spoon in, set up my wi-fi and brought me a chocolate bar to keep me from passing out until my room was ready.
Modern Jordanian society is built upon Bedouin culture, a diverse group of Arab desert dwellers who have lived a nomadic lifestyle for centuries. We experienced the famous Bedouin hospitality several times on our trek, most deeply appreciated being when we were offered shade and a cup of sugary hot tea as we scrambled our way down a stifling hot mountain (side note: I’ve definitely come around to the hot climate + hot drink idea. It works!).
I had a bit of a medical mishap early on involving an infected blister, crazy swelling caused by heat and intense hiking, and a pretty significant emotional overreaction due to jet lagged exhaustion. Internal dialogue: “I surely have blood poisoning and will probably need to have this foot/both legs amputated in a foreign hospital.” My group leader (who I’d known for a grand total of about 48 hours) was incredibly compassionate in treating me and making me feel better.
We also dined with a local family, who cooked us a traditional meal in their home and spoke with us via our guide. It was a real privilege being welcomed into a stranger’s home and treated with such kindness. I really enjoyed meeting new people and found that the experience restored my faith in the goodness of strangers.
It was physically and personally challenging
Over the course of the nine days I was there, we walked anywhere between 8 and 24 kilometres each day, in temperatures ranging from high 28˚ to 45˚C, and no, that’s not an exaggeration. When we finished our first trek from Mukawir to the Dead Sea, it was 41˚C. At. 6pm. In. the. Evening. There were also a lot of inclines, whether battling way up Amman’s steep and windy streets or trekking a red sand dune in the desert of Wadi Rum.
Although I looked like a complete noob, I was glad to have physically prepped beforehand (side note: hauling a 20 kilo backpack to your downtown Wholefoods will definitely attract stares as you do your groceries).
Although it’s still got a way to go in terms of giving citizens full democratic rights, Jordan is very safe to visit and for the most part has maintained its calm despite the turmoil from affecting its neighbours.
Women’s rights are improving, and women have access to education, can travel freely without male accompaniment and hold public and political posts. However, due to traditional beliefs and cultural restraints, Jordanian women are under-represented in the workforce, domestic violence is prevalent and under-reported, and arranged marriages and ‘honour killings’ still occur.
Overall, I felt safe and would highly recommend Jordan to other female travellers, although rambling around as a solo blonde chick presented the occasional personal challenge. I inadvertently walked through the downtown area (where the King Abdullah Mosque is,) in the middle of Friday noon prayers, where literally thousands of men were lining the pavements and roads, and I was aware that it wasn’t really appropriate for me to linger in the area or watch.
Even though I dressed from head to toe whilst in Amman, I still attracted a lot of stares, random offers by strangers and frequent heckling. You kind of get used to this, and a firm ‘la, shukraan‘ (no thank you) is usually enough.
Women need to be cautious and aware of scams targeting female travellers, both alone and in groups, in Petra. I was completely unaware of these when I visited and felt safe wandering around with a few other women from my group. We didn’t experience anything other than friendly hospitality from the Jack Sparrows (and some pretty persistent invitations to join them for drinks, which we declined).
If you’re going to Jordan alone, I’d recommend:
- Wearing a wedding ring, even if you’re unmarried,
- Having a photo handy of your ‘husband’, and/or a cover story that you’re meeting your partner/friends/tour group shortly,
- Doing your research beforehand on Jordan’s cultural traditions, and make sure you have the contact details/address of the embassy or local police if you need help,
- Be trusting but not stupid. Ask your hotel or group leader what look out for, and don’t be afraid to say no or walk away from offers that sound a bit dodgy.
Both the physical and cultural challenges have had a pretty lasting impact since I’ve returned. I figure if I can get up at 5am and hike 20 kilometres in sweltering heat, I can probably haul myself out of bed for a run or make it to the end of my circuit class. And being little more forceful with persistent random strangers, and less hung up about being polite over being safe, has made me a more assertive in my everyday life.
The history runs deep, and the natural beauty is breath-taking
Human civilisation in Jordan apparently reaches back to the Paleolithic period (translation: that’s a really, really long time), with evidence that people have lived in the region for approximately 250,000 years. I discovered that the Ain Ghazal Statues on display in the Jordan Museum are some of the oldest human statues ever found, and date back to around 7250 BC.
Jordan’s story is a tapestry of threads weaving together Bedouin culture, Egyptian, Greek and Roman influence, the distinctive impact of the Nabateans, the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and more.
I won’t even attempt to summarise how much historical, religious and political insight our guide shared with us, but I felt like I was fully immersed in Jordanian culture, and day by day learning learning more about about modern life and the country’s complex and ancient history.
I can honestly say that Jordan possesses some of the most beautiful and unique landscapes in the world. Meeting lone donkeys and goats on high mountain roads, staring down vast rocky valleys towards the Dead Sea, and watching the sunset in Wadi Rum were some of the most phenomenal and serene moments of my life.
Obvious highlights were glimpsing the Treasury building for the first time, the feeling of walking through quicksand in the deep red wadis, and the bizarre and slightly stinging feeling of floating in the Dead Sea.
I wasn’t prepared for the spectacular view of Amman from atop the Citadel, the vast panoramas that span the lesser-known back-trail into Petra, or watching shooting stars soar across a dazzling night sky whilst lying on camp mattresses in the middle of the desert. I love reflecting back to those moments, and reliving the sense of tranquillity and vastness that those places invoked.
I hand-on-heart believe that travel can help build a more empathetic, tolerant world.
By plunging head-first into cultures that differ significantly from our own, in discovering the reality and nuances of religious ideology and practice, in making new friends and fleeting acquaintances with people we would never normally encounter, I believe we gain genuine insight into how we have more in common with other people than we realise.
So, if you’ve always wanted to experience Jordan, I’d highly recommend visiting this beautiful and vibrant country. It’s sure to leave an impact on you, too.
Have you been to Jordan? What were some of your highlights?