One of the joys of Jordan was seeing local life – in the streets of Amman, but especially in the more rural areas from our car. The roads (except the main highway) are not very busy, and it was almost always easy for us to screech to a halt, and leap out to capture a photo of local life. (Though there were many I regret missing). Excited by the first goat herds and donkey riders we saw, these soon became commonplace, although it was still surprising (even at the end of our trip) to see a herd of goats casually crossing the major highway of the country near Aqaba. In the latter, desert portion of our trip, goats were replaced by camels as our favourite animal photo subjects. It was quite a thrill to see camels in the desert, both in and near Bedouin camps, and seemingly very remote. Photo opportunities were endless – camels know how to turn to give a classic pose. When there is a sand dune, or dust devil, nearby, then you find happy (if inexpert, and hurried) photographers.
We drove the historic King’s Highway south, a highway that was once one of the great trading routes of the world, but lost importance when the Silk Road gained supremacy. When we headed north, we took the Desert Highway, a fast road, at times very rough, and full of trucks. Trucks driving north from the only port at Aqaba, heading to Amman, or Iraq, and trucks driving through from Saudi Arabia too, on the route north. We frequently saw trucks stop, and it always amused me to see a driver emerge from the cab in full Jordanian clothing – a long robe and a red-and-white checked head-dress. I wish I could have captured a photo of the man who was working on his truck’s engine on the side of the road.
Hitch-hikers abound in Jordan. On the highways, on the back roads, and even as we drove the dead-end road in Wadi Rum, we saw hitch-hikers. It is a common and accepted form of transport, and we saw old men in their long robes with suitcases behind Wadi Rum, women in their hijabs and abayas with young children in the hills in the north, and everywhere young men in jeans and t-shirt, all standing on the road thumbing a ride. And they get them too.
The most beat-up cars on earth seemed to inhabit Jordan. I’m sure there are worse elsewhere, but I swear that on the Desert Highway, I saw a car with absolutely no windows, the passenger reclining in the front seat, with one foot through what should have been the windscreen, and one through his passenger window. But these old cars, beaten and battered, still seem to go, and they were everywhere on the roads.
One of the things that really surprised me was the presence of Bedouin camps. They were far more numerous than I had expected. Wikipedia informs me that Bedouins make up from 33% to 40%of the population of Jordan. In just a few days of driving, we saw dozens, if not hundreds, of camps. They seemed to be placed in the most difficult, the ugliest, the most inhospitable of locations, often right by the highway. (Though perhaps that location makes sense if your only means of transport is hitch-hiking.) Even driving into Amman there were large Bedouin camps. Tents, always goats, maybe some sheep or a few camels, and if they were lucky, a pick-up truck. Romanticised, perhaps glamorised in the movies, it does not look like a pleasant or easy life.
Traditionally the large communal tents are black, made of goat hair, and whilst we saw some of these, more were made of sacking, or cardboard, or the occasional side of corrugated tin. As someone who has had a lot to do with refugees in Asia, I was amused to see a number of camps with a white UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) tent. Though this too was a reminder of Jordan’s lot, as the recipient of many Palestinian refugees after Israel annexed the West Bank in 1967, and now, in the north, many from Syria as well.
One of the few disappointments – aside from the wildly inconsiderate (but ultimately hilarious) parking – was the enormous amount of litter. It was everywhere (though to be fair, we saw it not only in Jordan, but also in Israel, Dubai and Qatar, even at the Singing Sand Dunes). We drove behind people who just turfed cans and rubbish out their car windows. It is quite distressing to take a photo of a pristine desert landscape, only to discover there’s a large plastic bag in the foreground.
But I don’t want to leave on a negative note. Jordan was a delight, and driving in Jordan was the best decision we could have made. It gave us independence, some interesting interactions with the locals, and the ability to manage our own timetables, along with lots of camera stops we wouldn’t otherwise have enjoyed. It took us off the beaten track, allowing us to see Jordan beyond the incredible tourist spots. And that was our real treat.
My overwhelming memory of Jordan is the landscape, the sand, and the dust, the dust devils, the endless dust. New Zealand is not only rich in soil, covering our bones, but rich in coverage as well – our land is draped in green, and beautifully adorned with rivers, beaches, snow, and trees. Jordan on the other hand feels like a land stripped bare, down to the skeleton at times. There seems to be nothing holding the mountains together, these mountains of dust and rock and scree. They appear to be in desperate need of soil, veins of water, and vegetation to pull them together. It was extraordinary and beautiful and yet painful to see. I cannot imagine what it is like to live there, without soft green grass and abundant water easing our way in the world. But I am very glad I have visited.
Jordan. The End. I promise.