It’s 7am on a Friday morning. Wadi Musa, the small town that stands at the entrance to the ancient city of Petra is barely awake. Two men are carrying building materials to a house in the valley. Somewhere a dog barks and, away in the distance, a cockerel crows.
In the chill, pure light of a spring morning, I am also slowly working my way into the day. I’m sitting on the verandah of a local woman’s home, sipping Earl Grey tea, wrapped in her farwah, a floor-length robe, for warmth. From here, I have an uninterrupted view of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Petra. I can see the entrance way and the main drag, built by the Nabateans more than two thousand years ago.
I’m taking the road less travelled into what is, undoubtedly, one of the wonders of the world and this moment sums up just how wonderful it is to do so. Petra has been on the tourist trail since it was introduced to the Western world by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. Anyone can arrive at the entrance, pay 50 Jordanian dinar (US$70), and walk through the stunning siq – the narrow gorge that leads to the city – and around the site.
In many respects, little about this glorious ancient city, hewn from rose-red rock, has changed in millennia. But I’m here to see the
life and people of modern-day Petra too – to experience the town of Wadi Musa and its surroundings, and venture off-piste into the desert and mountains. It’s all part of an experiential tour created by a young couple, Steph and Anas Altwassi, who want to develop alternative tourism in the town, boosting the local economy in this time of regional instability and creating a way for people from different cultures to connect.
I thought I had experienced all the wow moments that this beautiful place has to offer. Not so. I stand agog
“The exchange between cultures and beliefs is so important,” says Anas. “This is what I valued most when I used to work taking tourists on horseback around Petra. Jordan is rich historically, but it’s the people who make a place. People may do the sites, but they won’t have really seen Jordan. Jordan is its people.”
Inspiration also comes from the couple’s own personal experiences. They met in 2005 when Steph, originally from Birmingham, came on holiday with her parents and brother. Like many tourists, they spent just one day in Petra.
But that was enough time for her to meet Anas, who was waiting to take tourists to the head of the siq on horseback, and for the pair of them to fall in love.
“I don’t remember a thing about Petra,” Steph laughs about that fateful day. “I do remember him and being convinced that that was that. I knew that I was home and was with the right person, even though he smelled of horses!”
When she moved to Wadi Musa, Steph recalls having the “urge to stop tourists walking down the street and show them what life was like there. “ That urge led Steph and Anas to start their eco-tourism firm, A Piece of Jordan. Visiting the country with their help gives tourists a meeting of minds and cultures they simply couldn’t get from staying in a luxury hotel.
The most popular experience offered by A Piece of Jordan is eating with a local family. So it is that I find myself sitting on the floor of Ahmed Hasanat and Samaah Twassi’s house. We’re tucking into a mountain of stuffed vine leaves, which have been picked from Samaah’s vine in front of the house that morning, roast chicken and a pile of vegetables. I have no Arabic and Samaah speaks no English. But, with Steph translating, it’s just like visiting a neighbour’s house. “I like to show visitors some of the best Jordanian dishes that they haven’t already tried,” says Samaah.
She tells me that her mother taught her to cook when she was nine or ten years old. She pauses. “Actually,” she says, “I’ve cooked the stuffed vine leaves in memory of my mother. She died just over a year ago and didn’t live to see last year’s leaves. So I’ve made extra tonight to share with friends in my mother’s honour.”
We chat about the heartbreak of losing parents, the way food connects us to our pasts and what we like doing in our spare time. Samaah is a keen upcycler and enjoys drawing. She recalls talking politics with American guests and realising just how much they have in common.
A Piece of Jordan’s other offerings include bread-making with a local lady (I turn out to be hopeless at this), spending half a day with a goatherd (I am more successful at herding) and a dining experience in the great outdoors. We take the Steph and Ana’s pick-up truck and head out beyond the normal tourist haunts into Little Petra, an area frequented by locals for barbeques and shepherds for herding. From where we sit, under the lee of a massive sandstone rock face, three or four herders’ tents are visible. A few of their goats pop over to say hello and we’re greeted with some surprise by a family of camels. It is utterly quiet, apart from birdsong, the eager cheeping of baby sparrows and the conversational barking of dogs. We eat kebabs, and gorge ourselves on local melon.
Then it’s time to head for Petra itself, walking a back route known only to locals and used since the time of the Nabateans. There are no marked footpaths, no signs, we just follow Anas’s knowledge of every twist and turn. It takes us through a giant landscape, along precipices and around bends that throw up vistas stretching to Wadi Araba and Palestine. We walk past a deserted Iron Age house and meet a goat herder, who shinnies up a sheer rock face to greet us. We even meet a team of builders who are widening the path built by the Nabateans. We meet no tourists.
Then, suddenly, rounding a bend, there it is in front of us: the monastery, one of Petra’s most famous spots. Having visited the site half-a-dozen times before, in the conventional way, I thought that I had experienced all of the wow moments that this beautiful place has to offer. Not so. I stand agog. This little moment, along with our glorious breakfast with a view, encapsulates why going off-piste is such a glorious way to experience the life of Petra today.
Just sitting on rocks looking at the monastery, chatting and, in my case, catching my breath is idyllic. Steph recently ran a half-marathon and Anas has spent his life in the saddle, so neither of them are even sweating. We look like a modern recreation of the famous painting of the monastery by the Scottish artist David Roberts. But his picture doesn’t feature a puppy being offered water by a tourist (me). Anas points to the urn carved out of sandstone at the top of the monastery. “We used to climb up there,” he says, “and do headstands on the top of the urn.” My eyes are like saucers. “How? Why? Are you mad?”
He smiles, “I didn’t have responsibilities then.”
Just around the corner from where we’re sitting, exhausted tourists who’ve trudged up the steps to the monastery are now busy collapsing in a heap, or refuelling in the mountain-top cafe.
But we sit on our rock and enjoy the view. “I can breathe here,” says Steph. “It’s liberating,” says Anas.
Suddenly, I can breathe, too. I know the route less travelled has been a rewarding one. I’ve experienced the real life of Petra. I’ve been to the market, made bread, lunched in an orchard, herded goats and, most important of all, made friends.
“Whoever comes out with us, they all say the same thing,” says Steph. “They say it’s been the highlight of their trip. After all, we may have
different beliefs, but we have the same likes and dislikes. When you sit and have a meal together you forget all your differences and end up chatting as friends. I hope we can challenge stereotypes and change the world. It may sound like a dream,” she smiles, “but I’ve seen it happening already.”
From desert to oasis
Combine a visit to Petra with some r&r by the Dead Sea
Floating in the Dead Sea is certainly a unique experience. When you’ve had enough of lying on your back gazing at the blue, blue sky, you can opt to cover yourself in Dead Sea mud, sit on the shore while it dries and then shower yourself clean. You’ll end up with super-soft skin, at least for the day. That’s the joy of a visit to Jordan, where a trip to historical Petra can be combined with downtime by the water, just a few hours’ drive away.
The Jordan Valley Marriott, Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea, and the Dead Sea Spa Hotel all offer day packages that allow you access to the Dead Sea itself and the chance to indulge yourself in any number of pampering sessions to counterbalance your time in the desert. But surely the highlight of a visit here is driving up to the mountains overlooking the Dead Sea as evening falls. If you’re not sure where to go, just follow the locals. This is a supremely popular activity, and people park at random places by the side of the road. They’re attracted by the stunning view of the sun setting over the Dead Sea. Swallows and swifts whirl about in the pink-and-yellow light, catching flies, as the water turns every colour of the evening. Never mind a massage, this view will definitely relax you – and it’s free!