By Padraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
I like the way your sparkling ear rings lay
Against your skin so brown
And I want to sleep with you in the desert tonight
With a billion stars all around
I got a peaceful easy feeling
I know you won’t let me down …
Written by Jack Tempkin | Recorded by The Eagles
I couldn’t get the song out of my mind. “Peaceful easy feeling” had pretty much colonized my entire thought process. “I want to sleep with you in the desert tonight with a billion stars all around …” kept repeating itself like I was listening to it on the original Eagles LP from 1972 but with copious quantities of fluff on the needle. There were no brown skinned girls and no sparkling ear-rings to inspire or sustain the thought but there was a desert and there were billions of stars. I was standing on the veranda outside my tent somewhere in the middle of the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan. Over my head there was a scintillating canopy of stars and in my heart there was a peaceful easy feeling.
Under cover of darkness
I arrived in Jordan under cover of darkness 24 hours previously and formed my initial impressions of Amman, Jordan’s capital, from the window of the Hyundai vehicle in which I was conveyed downtown to the Intercontinental Hotel. Beyond remarking how hilly Amman was and how its buildings were all coloured in a brownish white or ochre I was too tired to take real notice. I did notice, however, how the assistant manager at the Intercontinental, Mahmoud Mu’min, personally came out to welcome me, presenting his card with the comment that I should call him if I needed anything. I’m sure he says this innumerable times each night to bleary-eyed late check-ins like me but he managed to say it convincingly and I did feel genuinely at home! The Intercontinental celebrated its 50th anniversary this year and is Amman’s longest established international chain hotel. With Four Seasons, Kempinski, Grand Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, and Sheraton it makes for an impressive line up of 4 star deluxe and 5 star international hotels around the city. And the high-end inward investment continues with St Regis and Fairmont due to open in 2015, surely a giant thumbs up of confidence in Jordan as a next-generation destination?
Amman to Petra
Next morning Mohammad was waiting in his Hyundai Sonata to whisk me off to Petra. Petra is to Jordan what the Pyramids are to Egypt, the Forum to Rome, Machu Pichu to Peru. It’s the “must see” attraction, the essential “see, do, buy the tee-shirt”. But it’s a full three hour hike to get there from Amman, on a road that sometimes feels like the road to nowhere. As you travel south, leaving the modern metropolis of Amman in the hazy distance, new impressions of Jordan form, only for them, in turn, to be supplanted by even newer ones. At first it’s all arid, flat and featureless, a scorched earth. The conurbations that the highway takes you through suggest a disregard for aesthetics or, at least, for those that you understand. Homes are half finished and half plastered and have steel rods sticking out at roof level like random, untamed tufts of hair. Plastic bags and trash, old tyres and car parts, broken appliances and random detritus occupy front yards and contribute to a pervasive sense of disorder. But as you venture deeper south and the marks of modernization are less in evidence, the natural desert prevails, assuming a beauty of its own, its burnished brown acting as a magnificent counterpoint to a steely blue sky with which it forms the horizon. The scene becomes a postcard when a caravan of camels materializes, their elegant ambling the only animation on an otherwise perfectly still canvas.
Mohammad provides occasional commentary on the unfolding scene in quiet, unobtrusive fashion. You snatch a sneaky snooze or listen to Fountains of Wayne’s beautifully appropriate “I – 95” and before long you’re in the midst of urban bustle with all signs pointing at Petra. The site of the ancient city, 65% of which remains undiscovered and unexcavated, is reached via modern Wadi Mousa (Moses’ Valley in English) whose narrow, undulating roads you negotiate before arriving at the Movenpick hotel beside where the contemporary visitor portal has been constructed. Your local guide, the garrulous, ebullient Mohannad al Nawafle, is prompt and poised and off you set on foot for what turns out to be a 10km round trip on foot under a blistering mid day sun. Mad dogs and Irishmen, indeed!
Cultural melting pot
The ancient city is largely the work of an ancient Arab tribe, the Nabateans, and was built over a 300 year period straddling the ancient and modern ages. Colonized by the Romans around 100 AD and later by the Byzantines and the Crusaders, what you see today is a fusion of these diverse cultures and architectural styles. A 2km trek takes you down the narrow Siq, or pathway through the sandstone gorge, before the ancient city opens up before you, a magical reveal to take your breath away. The towering Treasury building, carved meticulously from the porous sandstone rock, extends to over 40m, a stunning testament to the engineering genius and artistic craftsmanship of its creators. An open, tolerant, commercially-focused culture, the Nabateans freely absorbed Greek and Roman architectural elements and represented these conspicuously on their built heritage to honour and flatter their trading partners.
Everyone knows which camel is his
All too soon, it’s back in the car again for a further 2 hour jaunt to encounter another ancient tribe of the desert, the Bedouins, whose lifestyle today, [except for the Jeeps!!!], is largely unchanged from what it was centuries ago. Wadi Rum [High Valley in English] is a protected area of unique natural beauty and extraordinary archaeological importance with a thriving indigenous Bedouin population. Mohammed handed me over to Salem, a Bedouin elder and local logistics partner of Fadi Sayess of Discovery Bedu at whose astonishing eco-camp I was being hosted. Profoundly handsome, Salem wore an air of dignified pride and was soft spoken and gracious. His teeth were whiter and more perfect than a Valley Girl whose father had shelled out $20,000 to an LA orthodontist. He drove me in his jeep to see thousand year old inscriptions and told me all about camels (everyone should have one, they’re fascinating creatures and very easy maintenance – they go “walkabout” for months, and can last weeks without food and water). Finally he took me to where Fadi, Lana and team were waiting for me. And that brings us back to where we started.
A desert, billions of stars and a story to be continued!
Pádraic Gilligan was in Amman with his friend and Site colleague Fernando Compéan. Under the auspices of USAid and the JITOA, and with the precious assistance of Marie Claude Bouffard, they delivered the 2 day Certified Incentive Specialist (CIS) programme to 30 local incoming tour operators and DMC. Discovery, strategic partner in Jordan of Pádraic’s former company, Ovation Global DMC organized whistle stop visits to Petra, Wadi Rum, Ma’adaba, the Baptism Site, the Dead Sea and the Amman Citadel.