Friday, April 15, 2016

Go to Petra

There are certain trips that those living in Dubai should make as a matter of course, and a visit to Petra - the ancient Nabatean city cut into rock, deep in a Jordanian valley - is one of them. I must admit that I was never that bothered about going there myself, ignorant as I was of the wonders therein, apart from a vague childhood memory of a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It's fair to say that I am now a convert to the cause of Petra and tell anyone who will listen that they should go.

Credit for our trip goes to Him Indoors, who had rather more memory of the Indiana Jones film, and an interest in ancient history which means he reads stuff about these things and listens to obscure history podcasts.

Petra, is quite frankly, indescribable. But I am going to give it a go. 

Those of you who have visited the Grand Canyon will probably remember the first memory of seeing that awesome expanse of nothingness opening up before you as you approach the edge, with the cascading rust red rock formations seeming to pour down from the precipice on the opposite side. Petra, is man-made, if very ancient man, so the effect is different but similarly gobsmacking.

So, here is my attempt at describing what it's like, walking down the Siq and getting that first glimpse of the Treasury rearing up before you in the morning sun. 

Here it is.... 

Are you ready now?






I saw it for the first time, turned to Him Indoors, and said: "F***... How old did you say this is?"

There it is.

It's simply awe-inspiringly swear-inducingly brilliant, is Petra. And the best thing about it is that once you've seen the Treasury, there's absolutely bloomin' loads of it to spend a day or more seeing and exploring. And, even better, it's in Jordan, which is one of the friendliest places I have ever visited. 

Now that's what I call an amphitheatre

Him Indoors and I have been on some truly splendid holidays since we moved to Dubai, taking advantage of its handy location compared with the UK to visit places like Nepal, Kenya and India etc, but I think of them all, Petra has to be hands down, my favourite. Last year was a heck of a year in one way or another, and I'll be honest, the thought of carting a sometimes sleepless Desert Baby to an unknown country was not exactly a prospect that filled me with joy, but boy am I glad that we did. 

The Monastery, it's carved into the rock. How the hecking heck did they do it?

Travelling in Jordan with a little one has its challenges, but there are also giant advantages. Desert Baby was nine months old at the time (yes she's 14 and a half months now, I've been busy and yada yada yada) and had already entered the giggling, smiling and waving her little starfish hands at nearly everyone she meets phase, and everywhere we went, people engaged with her, and talked to her, told us "mashallah". From the moment we stepped into our hotel in Amman, one of the concierges made friends with her and took her off for a little walk around the foyer and she was showered with compliments and attention for the entire holiday. At no point did you get the tuts and mutterings that having a small child in tow can cause in other parts of the world, even when she decided that she didn't feel like following our proposed itinerary for the day and started bellowing her head off.

The challenge, for those travelling with a young child in Jordan, is definitely food, particularly for those who are used to the 24/7 restaurant culture of somewhere like Dubai, where you can eat your way round the world simply by picking up the phone. Luckily we took a bunch of Ella's Kitchen pouches with us, or we would have been in trouble. Home cooking is still very much valued in Jordan, so on demand food to order is just not the thing. Why would it be when you are most likely always getting satisfying food at home? We were aware of this before we left, but simply didn't quite believe it, assuming that as Him Indoors and I will eat pretty much anything, even from grungy looking cafes, we would be fine. 

Not so, even grungy looking cafes shut on Friday mornings and more or less whenever they feel like it, and when they are open, they tend not to serve food until traditional meal times. For example, hotel restaurants we frequented didn't serve food until 7pm, so we couldn't sit and eat an early evening meal with Desert Baby, we resorted to feeding her a pouch and then trying to silently eat room service dinner while she slept later on more than one occasion. On other days, trotting around Amman, which as a capital city you would have thought would be a safe bet for a meal whenever you fancied one, we existed the entire day on a bowl of funny lentil snacks that came with a cup of coffee, and on another day, it was just the coffee. Those of you who know what Him Indoors and I get like when we're hungry can appreciate how impressive it is that we returned from that trip still married.  

But, Desert Baby, trooper that she is, did not let any of this get her down.

At the temple of Hercules, Amman

She was still being breastfed at this point, which is bloomin' handy for not having to worry about things like sterilising bottles and clean boiled water, and she generally giggled and wiggled her way through the trip as happily as can be. 

She even only got a little bit cross when we did this to her:

All in all, though, I would recommend taking a nine month old to Petra, providing, that is, they are the kind of baby that is willing to spend quite a bit of time in a Baby Bjorn, or similar, because there's a lot of walking involved, and it sure as hell ain't buggy friendly, as is the case with much of Jordan, unless you're inside a large international brand hotel or similar.

Luckily, Desert Baby thinks the sling is the bees knees.

 Entranced by the view at Petra's highest point

There was one thing that we did take away from the trip that irked us slightly, and that was the  attitude of our fellow Brits. It might be that we just got big heads from being told at pretty much every turn what a delightful, beautiful genius baby that she is (which she is, obviously, well, except when she's teething, then she's a rabid beast) but we both got the slight hump about the way that of the two British tourists we met in Petra, both were keen to point out to us that: "She won't remember it, you know." 


"Really? Damn, because I was planning to ask her to pitch a travel piece to when we get back and leave it to her to write it herself. Well, this is a monumental disappointment to me, I wish I had just left her in a cabbage patch in a Fujairah field rather than bring her with me," is what I should have replied, but one only thinks of these things afterwards. Seriously. I am as cynical as the next bod, but really, that is the limit. Sort it out, fellow Brits.      

I will let some pics do the rest of the talking about Petra, but keep scrolling for a hilarious tale of the road trip to Petra which took roughly eight times longer than it should have done, including an encounter with the Jordanian police near the Israeli border.

 Bedouin dudes with donkeys. They offer you a "donkey for later" "all the way up" (by which they mean to the monastery). Obviously the only dignified reply is: "Yes, send them to my hotel room, but saddle them up, I'm not a perv."
 A view of the amphitheatre from inside a cave

 No reason for this, other than this cat looks EXACTLY like my former cat, Kitty, may she rest in peace.

Him indoors embarking on the climb to the monastery with Desert Baby strapped to him. Even the Brits we met managed to congratulate him on his fortitude. 
About half way up and looking pretty happy about it

This is what the climb was for

And this

Followed by this

So, the thing about Petra, then, is that it's really fr***in' remote. It's really staggeringly far from anywhere, and tourist numbers, if the Telegraph is to be believed, are dwindling, due, in part, perhaps, to those Daesh idiots who are currently terrorising parts of the region. This may mean investment in infrastructure may be a long way off, and that many may experience a journey similar to what me, Him Indoors and Sand Baby experienced.

There are two ways to reach Petra from Amman via road. First, the quickest route, the Desert Highway, which is about as boring as it sounds, then the Dead Sea route, where you drive alongside the moodily flat waters admiring the watery view, the salt deposits and the pinkish sands, the bedouin camps and the occasional bromide plant. You keep going along the coast for an awfully long time then turn left along a somewhat rural road to Wadi Mousa, the modern-day settlement next to Petra. 

We, obviously, chose the latter, and hopped into a rather beastly but it turned out handily rugged rented four-wheel drive and set off. We were a little late starting as the hire car company were late delivering us the charger for the sat nav. There was no effing way we were setting off without that. We made a stop at the baptism site of Jesus Christ along the way (also on the Israeli border, and for another post) and then made tracks towards Petra..... 

So along the coast we drove, having fed Desert Baby a pouch and eaten some packets of crisps ourselves for lunch (see above) until we came to the famous left turn towards Petra and Wadi Mousa mentioned above. It was after 5pm, if I remember correctly, and darkness was falling. 

And there was a sign at the start of aforementioned road, saying "road closed". 

"B***ocks," we said. "What do we do?" "Hmmmmmmmmmm."

As is probably more often the case that it should be on our holiday adventures, the theme tune to the BBC series 999 as presented by Michael Buerk began to sound in my head. Along with the downcast presenter's imagined voiceover:  "The young(ish) couple were excited about their trip to new World Wonder Petra, and it was a beautiful day on the Dead Sea as they took the route towards modern day settlement Wadi Mousa. That day was to end in near tragedy, with their fatal mistake being to ignore a road closed sign on their final descent into the city....."

The immediate answer as to what to do seemed to be to sit in the back of the car and breastfeed Desert Baby, who had been surprisingly compliant about a day mostly spent in various vehicles so far. In the mean-time Him Indoors attempted to get a signal on his phone so he could Google the situation and find out what was wrong with the road. 

This went on for a while as the darkness became increasingly inky black and various vehicles turned right out of the supposedly closed road, looking for all the world like vehicles who had just driven from Petra with no problems. But, as foreigners with little Arabic and little knowledge of local conditions and even less knowledge of what the hell to do in an emergency, we thought driving willy nilly along a road that said "road closed" may be classed in the "somewhat foolhardy" category, particularly with an admittedly game nine month old in tow.

As the darkness thickened, and Desert Baby began to give us looks that seemed to say "you know, I may be the world's most patient baby, but even I will lose my sense of humour at some point," and cars continued to pass us nonchalantly, a large, armoured and camouflaged four-wheel drive pulled up in front of us. 

Him Indoors got out to greet the large, burly, peaked cap and fatigues-wearing soldier who got out of the armoured four-wheel drive, with his customary "hellair". The soldier, doing his job, patrolling the Israeli border, started to ask a series of rather sharp questions about what the heck we were doing hanging around there, until I got out, carrying a waving, cheery, smiling Desert Baby, and suddenly, everything was ok. The solder phoned his friend and ascertained that yes, the road was indeed "out", and then taught us another rather vital lesson about Jordan in addition to the rather stiff one we had already learned about the availability of food. 

There was, at this time, nor is there likely to be by now, no petrol station in Petra or indeed Wadi Mousa, so if you find yourselves at the left turn from the Dead Sea with possibly not enough fuel to get there and back, as we did, you need to think on. Whatever we did, said the burly, somewhat frightening, but also in some ways reassuring dad-like chap, we needed to leave quickly. 

"That is Israel," he said, pointing at the blackly disappearing hills on the other side of the narrow Dead Sea, "is problem". 

Aaaaaaah, "problem"... That word, that in the subcontinent and Arabic world can mean everything from a flat tyre to a full scale war. I tell a lie, the phrase used to describe wars, famines, genocides and the like, is "big problem". 

The best and safest thing to do in terms of the road he informed us, was drive to Aqaba, the border city with Saudi Arabia, and then turn back along the Desert Highway. Not only was the road to Petra out, but all of the petrol stations en route to Aqaba were out of fuel, so despite my furious protestations, that is what we ended up doing.     

We arrived at a petrol station on the outskirts of Aqaba, filled up with fuel, purchased some of the crackliest and most uncomfortable nappies Desert Baby will ever wear, because we were running short of those and they were the only ones available, and attempted to feed her a pouch. Unsurprisingly, she was getting a little bit testy by this stage, and a windy, dark, service station forecourt, surrounded by some of the scariest characters I have ever seen in my life is not the most joyful place to enjoy a pureed meal.  

Luckily for us, she sportingly agreed to be strapped back into her car seat as we set off from Aqaba, to approach Petra from the other side. The sat nav, which we have learned during our various comedy road trips over the years to ignore, (there was a memorable occasion when we followed it through an Australian mountain range, when there was a perfectly good motorway we could have used) wanted us to take a choice of terrifying looking single track rural roads through rocky looking hills towards Wadi Mousa. 

We took the route that the map told us was the main route which was still pretty terrifying, but there didn't seem a lot of choice with temperature dropping, the darkness thickening still further, and when we were quite frankly, in the middle of effing nowhere with a thankfully sleeping Desert Baby. 

We set off down this moderately terrifying road, and immediately understood why the original left turn road had been closed. A dense, miasma like mixture of sand and fog made visibility bad enough that we could barely see beyond the end of the car's bonnet. It was, quite frankly, the most hair raising journey of our lives, on top of an already somewhat hair raising day.   

As him indoors had done an entire day's driving to Aqaba, it was my turn in the driving seat, and I clung on to the steering wheel for dear life, as the sat nav continued to give vague suggestions that we should drive off a cliff, turn straight into a pile of rocks, just turn back, for the love of God just turn back! As we crawled along, we were overtaken by a taxi, the driver of which clearly spotted we were not local, and crawled along in front of us, pointing out of his window to the direction we needed to go to give us warning when we needed to turn. The Jordanians are probably the nicest people in the world. 

Luckily, Desert Baby slept on, as the taxi driver peeled off down a rocky track towards what was presumably his home, he gestured once more out the window, pointing out the route, so we finally took the slightly less terrifying road down into Wadi Mousa. We were cross eyed with exhaustion and unable to keep it together to find our way through the town to the Petra Guest House where we were to stay, so Him Indoors got them on the phone to be tactfully told we just needed to head towards the main gate of Petra and we would find them.  

We pulled up at the guest house at about 10.30pm, and got ready to check in, at which point Desert Baby withdrew cooperation, which was probably entirely fair enough, considering the frankly reckless behaviour of her parents, and woke up. After we stuffed a room service dinner into our mouths, and convinced the hotel staff to turn on the heating, because yes, we might look like Europeans, but we are desert dwelling wusses these days who can't cope with the cold (temperatures drop to 2C at night during the winter), she settled briefly in the cot, before waking roughly every half hour until dawn.  

Luckily, the excitement of seeing Petra for the first time was enough to make the next day pass without any of us murdering each other, filing for divorce or child emancipation. The day after that, we got up early, not that we had much choice as Desert Baby was up with the sun, and caught that magical first sight of the Treasury again, as the early morning sun begins to bathe it in light.

So, here endeth my lesson on travelling to Petra. You should go, you really should, but bear in mind it's a good idea to have a supply of snacks with you and, particularly if you do it in the winter months, aim to be there before dark, particularly if you are driving yourselves there, because that night-time trip across the barren mountains to get there is far from funny. Well, it is now, considering we all got out of it alive, but at the time, not so much.      

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