Petra is just a short, three hour drive, from our home base in Amman. One beautiful, fall Friday we load up and cruise out of town, music on, coffee in hand, while the kids spot dust devils spawning along the horizon from the back seat and the way back seat.
Amman is built atop a series of hills and sends you down a luge of sorts each time you head out of town in any direction. You seem to descend to each destination from the center of the city, as if by airplane. Your ears even pop along the way for authenticity. We slip through urban sprawl, by nurseries that line the road on either side and are packed with baby trees, growing temporarily, in recycled olive oil cans. We pass under the occasional pedestrian overpass and past young boys waving dented aluminum trays like racing flags, beckoning hungry drivers to fill a plate with mansaf or some other local delight.
It looks like the outskirts of most cities, in most foreign countries I’ve lived in. I get lost easily in the same day dream as we pass through; imagining myself as a woman, a wife and a mom in any of these suburbs, wondering what daily life might be like, maybe it would be filled with many of the same duties, shopping, cooking, shuffling the kids off of and onto the bus each morning and afternoon.
Once the sprawl runs out so do my day dreams and I’m brought back to life with the sobering vision of road signs to Syria and Iraq and a million miles of desert spread out before me. It isn’t the vast desert of my mind, red with smooth waves of sand (although there is that, too), it’s a lunar landscape of rocks, which turn to tumbleweeds that reminds me of the space between eastern and western Washington, which I traversed by Volkswagen van, monthly in my youth. Vast. It feels ready for military war games, like those that really do happen in middle Washington. Perhaps I am not the first to make this depressing connection.
We arrive at our hotel, just outside of town, perched on top of a cliff that overlooks the sharp pink hills that encase the ancient rose city. Each sunset and sunrise, the pool deck becomes a stadium, seating hushed spectators, as the mountains change from bright beige to pink.
Our children are still young and our expectations for deep exploration of Petra are low, unlike friends that have gone out the same weekend for an eight hour hike to Aaron’s Tomb. As I will later learn, there are a hundred ways to see Petra and with plenty of time here in Jordan, we desire only to scratch the surface.
We’ll hike in through the Siq, a narrow pathway cut through the rock. We’ll marvel at the treasury, consider perhaps, riding camels in further. We’ll go in only as far as we dare, knowing we’ll have to make our way back out with three hot and tired kids, but we’ll keep the option open to ride a camel back.
Before we pass through the pearly, touristed gates on our way to the ancient city, we pass through Wadi Musa, the modern town, which serves as the home base to the many tour guides, vendors, and the people that make our stay in the area after a long drive so meaningful. These people are the bookends, periods, colons, and hyphens of a visit to Petra. They are absolutely a part of what makes our visit so much more than just a thousand images of the treasury that I’ve seen throughout my life. They are the people that bring Petra back to life.
Every pomegranate tree in the city is heavy with bright red, bulging grenades, some burst open on their branches, as if they couldn’t bear the sun on their backs for another second. Each driveway we pass gives way to a sneak peek of small container gardens, trellises heavy with ripe grapes, wrapped in scraps of leftover fabric so the birds don’t nibble at them before they are harvested. I even glimpse the passing slaughter of a sheep, being performed by a grandfather and his grandson beneath a knobby olive tree.
The walk in is leisurely and cool in the shade of the canyon. Echoes can be heard for miles, as each horse drawn buggy that passes, filled with riders, clops it’s way up or down into the city. The kids, Paul and I are enthralled with the smooth walls, the layers of time unveiled around each twist and turn and the slim thread of sky that unwinds above you like a path to the hidden treasure. The unveiling of that Treasure, the Treasury it self, at the very end of the siq is nothing that could have ever been lost in a million perfectly styled Instagram shots of it, as I had worried it might be. We haggle over riding camels in further, but ultimately decide to walk, taking time to explore the shops and caves along the way.
The banter among the swarms of “for hire” guides is friendly and comes in every language you can imagine, as it does in places like these. The difference I note, is in the gentle and hospitable demeanor of the Jordanian people. They are easy to laugh and good with sales, but know a headstrong woman who doesn’t want a camel ride, when they see one. Still offers of rides on their “ferrari” (donkey) and reminders to “Ask for Jack Sparrow if you change your mind!” make the usual haggle more lighthearted than it can be in some other countries.
We make it only as far as the amphitheater, just below the pathway to the monastery where we stop outside of a cave for a quick sandwich and rehydration. The kids are tired, we are all in awe, and the hotel pool awaits us so we grab a few donkeys for the kids and let them ride back up to the treasury. We all hike leisurely out from there and make our way back through Wadi Musa with a stop at a local schawerma spot on the way out. The remainder of the evening we spend at the pool, sipping wine while the kids swim and the sun works its magic on the hillsides.
The next morning on our way out of town, we stop to let the kids play on a playground we’d spotted with arguably the best view in the world, then we pack everyone back in the car for the long drive home. Plans are already in the works for our next Petra adventure.