The Dana reserve comprises an astonishing diversity of geography and wildlife, from barren deserts dotted with tiny oases to wooded hills, sheltering hundreds of species of plants, birds, and mammals. Many of the latter, such as the Nubian ibex and the Syrian wolf, are endangered. The park rangers are local men, as sturdy and weathered as cypress trees, with a passion for the land that they convey to visitors in a quiet, intense way. It’s not just noble sentiment: the classy way the Jordanian government has developed the preserve has lifted most of these men out of ill-educated poverty.
When we set out, Hussein, the ranger who showed me around, was depressed about my prospects of seeing any wildlife after the icy blast of the previous night. I was content with observing the velvety lichens and groves of gnarled juniper and cypress trees that cling to brilliantly colored sandstone outcrops, wind-hollowed into surrealistic sculptures, and simply taking in the valley views, which extended into golden ether in the far distance. Yet Hussein, I knew, was keen for me to take away a more impressive souvenir of the place.
He led me up and down trails that crossed some of the most primeval wilderness on the planet, hoping to spy a gazelle bounding up a hill or a falcon drifting as slow as a feather in the sky. Just as we were about to turn back to the lodge, Hussein stood on a rock ledge perched above a narrow chasm, peering through his binoculars. His face lit up with joy and he called me over: he had spotted an ibex on the opposite side. I could see it without the binoculars, a gracile doe nibbling on a shrub. It was a moment of electric connection with the world as it was when it was new—made all the more satisfying by the expression of triumph on Hussein’s face.
Farther south, where the desert wastes melt into the sandy border with Saudi Arabia, nature takes on a crueler, more sublime aspect. Descriptive prose about the majesty of the desert always overreaches and yet still falls flat; it’s easy to see why the Arabs’ chief contributions to literature have been in poetry and philosophy. After the relative lushness of Dana, this corner of the kingdom is an overwhelming vastness, a place so elemental as to be almost abstract.
I settled in at a tourist camp in Wadi Rum, a shallow valley some 60 kilometers northeast of the Red Sea port of Aqaba. Rum was where T. E. Lawrence set up his headquarters during the Arab Revolt of 1917, celebrated in David Lean’s epic film, Lawrence of Arabia. I roamed the dunes in a four-wheel-drive truck driven by a pair of skinny teenagers. Squeezed together in the driver’s seat, the boys relished sharing with me the thrill of racing up a dune and flying into the air—and landing with a bone-shattering thud—until I made them stop it. As the sun, prodigiously potent even in winter, began to decline, we stopped for tea at a Bedouin tent, which was set up like a compact caravanserai in front of an immense, Petra-red dune. It was another artificial cave, this one constructed of woven, matted camel hair, which kept the sunlight out with the opaque efficiency of stone. The place was run by an 18-year-old lad named Imad. Dressed in a long white robe and a haji’s cap, he brewed us a pot of sage tea and played a few plaintive ballads on his lute, a distilled essence of Jordanian romance that will always be with me.
I explored the tent and found piles of toys and handmade dolls, tiny pots of kohl, and bags of dried sage for brewing tea. I pointed to them inquisitively, and Imad answered, “They are things you can buy, sir.” But he was more interested in getting my name card for his collection than in trying to sell me something I didn’t need. When I offered to pay for my tea, I got the same mildly scandalized dismissal that Hussein gave me when I had tried to tip him in Dana.
When I first arived in amman, I found it to be a pleasant city of some 2.5 million people—nearly half the country’s population—but disappointingly small to someone accustomed to the teeming megalopolises of Southeast Asia. Yet when I returned there after my desert wanderings, I felt like a hick, bewildered by the press of humanity. Amman is one of the most progressive cities in the Middle East, with its own share of fine antiquities. At the center of it all is the Citadel (Jebel al-Qala’a), a complex of ruined palaces and temples that crowns the highest of the city’s seven hills, which in turn faces one of Asia’s best-preserved Roman amphitheaters, built two centuries after Pompey’s conquest of the region in 63 b.c. After climbing to the top and touring the monuments, I ventured to a precipice to take in the view.
As far as I could see, the hills and valleys of Amman were mantled with blocky, low-rise buildings of sun-bleached limestone that glinted in deep chiaroscuro in the crystalline winter sunshine, only sparsely relieved by splashes of pale green where trees overtopped garden walls. Seen from this historical vantage, the city took on an eternal, changeless aspect. In the evening, when I plunged into the labyrinth, I found that Amman’s meandering alleys harbored cozy tea rooms and hip cafés, well-stocked bookstores and stylish boutiques. Jordan’s capital favors a relaxed, intimate style over big-city buzz. In cosmopolitan urban villages such as Shmeisani, the residents are friendly and curious, eager to meet foreign visitors over a cup of tea—and that seldom meant they were seeking a free English lesson, for the standard of conversational English here is exceptionally high.
The final highlight of my trip, like the first one, came at the airport in Amman. While I was traveling through Jordan, for the first time in years I wrote postcards—remember those? little squares of cardboard with a pretty picture on one side and space on the back for a message?—to send to friends at home. I was continually reassured that I could mail them from the post office at the airport, yet when I inquired at a coffee shop in the departure lounge where the post office was located, the waiter informed me that it had just closed. He saw the dismay on my face, and his own instantly filled with sympathetic distress. He said, “Sir, do not be sad. I will send your postcards for you.” He refused money for the postage, and clasped my hands warmly. “It is my pleasure, sir. I wish you to leave my country with a happy feeling.” And so I did. It took over a month for the postcards to arrive at their destinations, but I never lost faith: I knew my romance would have a happy ending.
Royal Jordanian (rj.com) flies to Amman five times a week from Hong Kong via Bangkok, in addition to a twice-weekly direct service. From Singapore, fly Qatar Airways (qatarairways.com) by way of Doha. Visas (about US$14) are available on arrival for most nationalities; see visitjordan.com for details.
When to Go
Spring and fall are the best times to visit Jordan; summer months can be searingly hot, particularly in the desert, and the winters can be biting cold. That said, off-season travel means fewer crowds at Jordan’s historic sites, especially Petra.
Where to Stay
In the Jordanian capital, the reliably luxurious Four Seasons Hotel Amman (5th Circle, al-Kindi St., Jabal Amman; 962-6/550-5555; fourseasons.com; doubles from US$295) rules the roost with a host of five-star amenities, including a spa that does amazing things with Dead Sea mud and salt. For an inexpensive alternative, try the 23-room Hisham Hotel (Mithqal al-Fayez St., Jabal Amman; 962-6/464-4028; hishamhotel.com.jo; doubles from US$93), which is also located in Amman’s embassy district. The atmosphere is homey, and facilities include a good Arabic restaurant and a convivial pub.
The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature’s cliff-top Dana Guest House (962-3/ 227-0497; rscn.org.jo; doubles from US$70) offers basic, hostel-style accommodation in the Dana Biosphere Reserve. Other options are listed on the RSCN’s Web site, including the Feynan Ecolodge, a solar-powered compound located deep in the reserve.
Wadi Rum can be explored on day-trips from Aqaba; for those preferring to spend a night in the desert, there’s Bait Ali (962-79/554-8133; baitali.com; doubles from US$65), an encampment of Bedouin-style tents and concrete cabins set around a swimming pool. Activities include jeep safaris, camel riding, and, when the winds allow, hot-air ballooning.
Originally appeared in the December 2009/January 2010 print issue of DestinAsian magazine ( “A Fine Romance”)