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On the Road to Petra – Petra, Jordan

On the Road to Petra

Petra, Jordan

Wadi Musa with Petra in the background
Wadi Musa with Petra in the background
In three days I would be leaving Jordan and I had yet to see its most prized attraction, the ancient city of Petra. I guess one cannot say he has been to Jordan if he has not been to Petra. Petra is that important.

To make sure I didn’t miss the bus which I was told leaves for Petra daily at 7:00 a.m. from Al Wahdat Station in Amman, I hired a taxi and went there to verify the bus schedule on the eve of my departure. The Bedouin barker at the Petra slot confirmed the timing and assured Nidal, my taxi driver, that he would take care of me. He admonished me to come early.

I did arrive early at the station but a bus was nowhere in sight. The barker of the day before was replaced by another, and a dusty white car with two peasant-looking men seated at the back was parked near the spot where the bus should be. Nidal inquired with the barker. “There are no buses to Petra today because it’s Friday. He [referring to me] should better take this car which will leave as soon as it’s full.” I paid JD 6 (around $8 US at JD 0.7 to the dollar), took the front seat and waited. I wanted so much for the car to fill and leave right away.

A young lady who was probably not even half my age, with Far Eastern features like me, had been standing near the car obviously waiting for the bus also. I thought she would be very brave if she joined us, four strange men on a long journey through the desert. I believe in mental telepathy and so I looked at her and tried to transmit the message that she would be safe with me.

Traveling alone in a foreign country can be lonely sometimes and even frightening when exploring an uncharted area. It’s a good fortune when one meets another lonesome traveler to link up with. I thought I had that fortune when two days earlier I met Alessio from Italy while exploring the ancient city of Jerash in the northern part of the country. We agreed to meet again for our excursion to Petra, but for whatever reason he did not show up or call. This girl presented another opportunity to be with somebody.

Whether or not it was due to mental telepathy, the girl finally decided to take the car. Her name was Ichen. She was from Taiwan. She embarked alone on this trip to Jordan only to see Petra and Petra alone. It had been her dream, she said. What, I wondered, is it in a place that can stir such an intense desire in a person?

Ichen at once reminded me of Adelle (the madly-in-love girl in the film The Story of Adelle H.), declaring “It’s incredible that a young woman should sail over the oceans leaving the old world for the new world to join her lover; this thing will I accomplish.” Her desire to see Petra was that intense and I could feel it.

The road from Amman to Petra passes through gently rolling hills which (at least in winter) are colored green closer to the city but gradually becoming brown farther to the south. Every now and then small herds of goat and sheep could be seen grazing.

Two hours passed without any of my co-passengers talking and I had to struggle to stay awake. The purring of the motor and the Bedouin driver’s murmuring of Ya Allah, Ya Rabb (oh God, oh Lord) like a mantra made it worse. But before I could fall asleep, the car took a turn away from the main road and meandered through hills and hills of barren desert until a while later we reached Wadi Musa, gateway to Petra. One by one the peasant-looking men alighted.

With only Ichen and me left in the car the driver proceeded to the center of town and, while informing us that there would be no bus going to Amman that day, he deposited us at the Cleopetra Hotel (Tel/Fax +962 3 2157090; e-mail cleopetrahotel@hotmail.com). Before leaving he gave us two options: he could pick us up at 5 p.m. and take us back to Amman for JD30 or we could spend the night at the hotel and take the bus to Amman the next morning. Ichen and I agreed we could explore Petra more if we stayed.

The road to Petra
The road to Petra
The rooms at Cleopetra were small yet clean but what got me were the immaculate white sheets. The rates are dirt-cheap (Single $7-12; Double $10-16 including breakfast and lots of free coffee and tea, free transport to and from the entrance to Petra and to the bus station, and free use of kitchen and refrigerator). There is central heating but hot shower comes only after 5 p.m. Hotels like this abound in Wadi Musa. For the well-heeled there is the 5-star Movenpick Hotel.

Ichen took a single room and I took the only other available room which was a double. Still she expressed concern that the rate was hard on her budget. To help her I offered to share my room with her, which she accepted despite my warning that I snore. So, that settled, we began to explore Petra.

The only entrance to Petra is a narrow chasm called As Siq. To reach this entrance we had to walk a kilometer of pebbled road from the Visitor’s Center. I lagged behind Ichen who, to my surprise, walked faster than me even if she was shorter with a bag on her back. I was almost tempted to ride a horse which a Bedouin boy kept nagging me to hire.

It is a different world inside As Siq. It is eerie to be sandwiched between kilometer-long walls of rocks which are so high they make people look so little. Strange rock formations make it mysterious too. The chasm is wide enough for a car, which is not allowed, or for a horse drawn carriage, which may be hired to traverse this passage.

The first scene that greeted us at the end of As Siq is the one made famous by the Indiana Jones movie, The Treasury or Al Khazna in the local language. It is a 43m-high temple carved on the rock with an elaborate façade and one big room that leads to three smaller ones. Its name was the result of the mistaken notion that the urn on its top contained gold. From here the route passes through the principal attractions: the Street of Façades, tombs, colonnaded streets, the Roman Theater and the Palace of the Pharaoh. At the point where the Basin Restaurant stands the route narrows to a footpath which goes up to the surrounding cliffs.

Midway through the climb I caught up with Ichen who was resting on a rock. Between huffs and puffs I praised her stamina, while silently vowing to go back to the gym soon to get fit again. She asked how much of the hotel fee I would let her share. I told her not worry about it since with or without her I would have to pay the same amount anyway. She said it was not fair and then stood up to continue her climb. I offered to look after her bag and to wait for her. When she returned nearly half an hour later it was my turn to go. I told her I would meet her down later and we would return to the hotel together.

The climb became steeper and steeper. Bedouin women selling souvenirs position themselves at shady spots along the trail while Bedouin boys offer their donkeys to those who are unable or unwilling to make the punishing climb on foot. Somewhere I caught sight of Alessio standing on a ledge and surveying the view below. I waved at him and he waved back but as I felt snubbed earlier I decided against going up to him. The rewards that awaited me at the top are The Monastery, bigger though less beautiful than The Treasury, and the magnificent rose-colored panorama.

It takes four to five hours to complete the tour and return to the Visitor’s Center so that if one arrives at 10 a.m. by bus from Amman there is time to catch the last bus back to Amman at 4 p.m., except on Fridays that is. But others prefer to stay to view the ruins at night or explore the surroundings the next day. By sunset or moonlight the ruins take on a different charm.

The Treasury
The Treasury
Upon descending I looked all around the ruins for Ichen. She was nowhere. I went back to the Visitor’s Center and looked again in vain. I waited near the gate till sunset eyeing every face returning from the ruins. Hers was not one of them. Disappointed, I proceeded to the restaurant where the hotel representative would pick us up and ordered dinner. Before I could finish a plateful of lamb kebab I overheard someone behind me saying that he was looking for one Pilipini together with one Chini. I rose to introduce myself and told him how I lost Chini.

The cool breeze and the view of the starry sky from the half-opened window of my room were so conducive to sleep. But Ichen was on my mind. I said a silent prayer for her and wished that she was ensconced somewhere and would be safely back in Taiwan soon. And with those comforting thoughts I dozed off.

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