Though my fascination with Jordan develops in leafy Orjaan during the unhurried seances of tea, it is time to head south. I start upon the King’s Way, an ancient trade route connecting Africa with the kingdom of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and pass villages nestled in remote valleys and towns hunched on hills the color of nearly ripe olives. The landscape grows increasingly arid.
I arrive at Dana Nature Reserve in the late afternoon, when the heat from the long day of sunshine reaches its zenith. The spectacular mountains, valleys, and rifts of the biosphere in southern Jordan stretch out for 300 kilometers. More than 1000 species of flora and fauna call Dana home.
Just outside the ages-old slopes of Wadi Dana, I meet Waleed, a self-described medicine man in his 70s. Walking briskly up and down the hilly path, Waleed puts my physical form to shame as he guides me through a trail deep in the valley. Here and there, he points out various herbs and flowers along our route. This one is good for digestion and that one will cure your headaches. Put this one in your stews. I frantically try to write down the name of each herb but eventually give up. Waleed laughs: “Why don’t you have a boyfriend?” I answer the only way I know how: “Because I’m busy traveling the world.” “You’re right,” Waleed chuckles. “That’s better than a boyfriend.”
We stop for tea near an ice-cold stream cutting a trail through the bottom of Wadi Dana. Waleed produces a kettle from Allah knows where and brews a sprig of sage he has just picked with a packet of strong black tea. We relax in the shade of a mountain as a small herd of curious goats passes by. Waleed tells me that his family has lived in this valley for several hundred years and invites me to stay in his open-air “million-star hotel” next time I come to Jordan. Soon, I bid farewell to the medicine man as I head further south. The wonders of Petra await.
Half-built, half-carved on a caravan route between the Red and the Dead Seas, Petra was the epicenter of the northern Aramaic-Arabic Nabataean culture. 20,000 Nabataeans and their descendants have lived there since at least 312 BCE. Today, Petra is abandoned, but millions come from all over the world to marvel at its ancient temples and monasteries. More adventurous types wander inside the red gorges and secret passages with winding paths known only to the locals who still live in the surrounding villages.
To beat the crowds, I rise before the sun and hike deep inside the city of Petra. My quiet guide, Mohammad, seems to know every turn of the back road by heart. We climb up and down wobbly stones and narrow crevices and, at times, veer off the barely visible path completely. Then, just before the next corner, Mohammad tells me to close my eyes. I follow his lead as the front door to the city of Petra, the Treasury, appears before me. I stand in quiet awe while Mohammad disappears into the nearby bush and comes back with a handful of twigs. Minutes later, a fire is on and the water is boiling, producing tea of a rich and bright amber hue.
During the day, Petra is extremely crowded. When the site closes, it goes through a spellbound transformation. I stay into the evening to witness Petra by Night, a special event when the ancient city is lit by a thousand candles and a myriad of early stars. As I stand back in front of the Treasury, a childlike sense of wonder overcomes me.
The next day, I set on the road for another wonder of Jordan. Vast, echoing, and godlike, as described by T.E. Lawrence, Wadi Rum stands apart from the other deserts I’ve seen. Cut into sandstone and granite rock, mountain crevices and boundless expanses of space create a moonlike landscape that simultaneously enthralls and humbles me.
I meet Ayed, a descendant of Bedu and a co-owner of the camp I stay at that night. Ayed’s eyes are knowing. His smile is kind. We share a meal of maklouba, a feast of upside-down rice and chicken served on a large metal tray, then drive an hour past giant red dunes and narrow gorges, the occasional camel leisurely crossing our path. Ayed’s father, Ameer, greets us at the camp. I take Ameer’s portraits and, with a twinkle, this man of proud stature asks if the photographs will be printed in a National Geographic magazine. “Inshallah. God willing,” I answer and we all laugh before settling in for tea.
When night falls, a brilliant carpet of stars spreads out before me. In this fickle light, the shapes that were not seen before slowly come into view. I find faces and names, devout Muslims and generous hosts, proud Arabs and kind human beings, cups of tea and medicinal herbs. Before I fall into a deep slumber, my last one in Jordan, I spot a bright flash in the sky of a pre-dawn meteor shower. As the shooting stars enter our atmosphere to meet their demise, they leave behind a glowing trail of light and, for just a moment, everything is illuminated.