It’s Christmas Day and I’m waking up in a Bedouin tent in the desert.
It all feels very biblical, except instead of sleeping in a stable I’m under canvas and there are camels spitting rather than cattle lowing. And I can’t find three wise men, but that’s a universal problem nowadays.
Spending Christmas Eve in a desert in Jordan was a rather bizarre affair. The festive tipples were limited to Coke or Sprite, because this is good Muslim territory, and we played charades in a communal tent and performed some inelegant belly dancing that had our Arabian hosts alternating between grimaces and the giggles.
Christmas Day dawned bright but chilly, as winter days do in the desert. I wriggled reluctantly out of my sleeping bag, fastened my hiking boots over socks that had stayed on all night, and legged it for the toilet block 200m away.
Some fellow campers were already up and queuing for a breakfast of hummus, pita bread, jam, feta cheese and olives. A wall of camel-hair blankets enclosed the camp in a valley of massive rock formations that look like melting candles, as if smooth rivulets of stone have trickled down in the relentless summer heat. But this was deep winter, so we donned scarves, beanies and mittens and waited for the sun to struggle higher and burn away the chill.
It’s the same every Christmas. Since I don’t have any family to get merry with I trawl the travel websites and plot my escape with a bunch of strangers. The results are unpredictable but always entertaining, and there we were in Jordan, a motley crew wishing each other Happy Christmas in a Bedouin camp.
The Bedouins have sensibly realised it’s a bit daft to eke out a living raising scraggly goats on inhospitable sand when they can charge tourists to stay in their tents, be flung around in 4x4s and take camel trots around Wadi Rum.
For visitors it’s fabulous. We scout around for firewood during the 4x4 drive so we can light a fire and drink mint tea. We watch the chefs excavate metal pots filled with huge chunks of lamb that have been cooking for hours on coals buried in the sand. We order more soft drinks and play silly games to pass the evening, then go outside and look for shooting stars, before pulling on more clothes to go to bed.
Jordan isn’t an obvious tourist destination. There are two attractions really, Petra and The Dead Sea. And I’ll argue with anyone who says the Dead Sea is attractive.
Yet Petra is one of the most amazing sites in the entire Middle East. On the planet in fact, since it’s been declared one of the seven modern wonders of the world. It’s a place you’ve seen a hundred times before you even arrive. It’s in books and brochures and films and probably on stamps and jigsaws and chocolate boxes and anything else that needs images of something glorious and astonishing.
So we all know exactly what to expect as we offload in a coach park ominously bristling with souvenir shops and postcard touts, and start the long walk down a gravel path towards the extraordinary passageway in a solid wall of rock.
After a kilometre or so you see the narrow opening, and excitement bubbles as you walk inside, dwarfed by steep cliffs that tower above.
After an earthquake in 749AD saw the already declining city abandoned, Petra lay hidden from the western world until it was rediscovered in 1812. Now hordes of tourists stride though the narrow gorge every day, and you curse as they get in the way of every photograph.
But if you hang back you can sometimes lose the crowds and gaze on the magnificent secret chasm in solitude. You run your hands along the pinkish stone and admire a tree clinging to the rock face with not a grain of soil to feed it. You see sunlight casting beams into the narrow gorge to illuminate slabs of rock. Then you stop at a viewpoint and gaze up through a crack in the rocks to see a floating pink angel. It’s a brilliant architectural flourish designed so your first glimpse of the mystical city is an angel hovering ethereally on high. Finally you emerge into a massive open square with the pink-tinged Treasury and its angels straight ahead.
The ancient city was carved by the Nabateans and at one stage an estimated 30,000 people lived there. Yet no houses have been found, only beautiful, but to me quite baffling, facades of temples leading nowhere. Ornate carvings with only a small bare chamber behind them. Art for art’s sake, I suppose, and I guess civilisation wouldn’t have progressed very far aesthetically-speaking if a practical person like me had been in charge.
You need a whole day to do Petra justice, and even then there are areas you barely touch as you walk past the amphitheatre, scramble in and out of tombs, and make the strenuous hike up the mountain to the Monastery to admire another massive façade going nowhere.
After Petra our final port of call was the Dead Sea. It’s very well named, because there’s absolutely nothing to do there except spend your time in one of the four hotels that line its most popular stretch of shoreline. The water itself is slimy, dirty and uninviting. But it’s the Dead Sea, and you know you’ll float in a most amusing manner. So even on a cold winter’s day there’s nothing for it but to strip down to your skimpies and wade in. Or inch in, if you’re a wimp like me.
I expected the buoyancy to bob me up like a cork, but I just kept wading in deeper with my feet still firmly on the ground. Eventually I figured I could wade across to Israel or the West Bank if I kept going. That was a bad idea given the loud booms I kept hearing, which a taxi driver later shrugged off as explosions. So I lifted my feet, lay back, and did the classic Dead Sea duck impression. It’s fun for a few minutes, then you wade out and wonder how to get its slimy, mucky film off your skin. You can’t, without lingering under a cold shower, and since you’re messy already you may as well slap on the dense black mud gathered on its shores that’s supposed to leave your skin all gorgeous and gleaming.
With no sun to dry the mud to a nice hard clay the only way to clean up was to slop through the hotel feeling like the creature from the black lagoon and wash under a hot shower. I expect the hotels are used to gruesome-looking sea monsters squelching up the corridors.
Duty done, you search in vain for the next bit of Dead Sea entertainment. There’s no town to explore, just a building site where the four hotels will soon be joined by several more. Eventually we did what all tourists do, and congregated in the bar.
A trip to Jordan is more of a cultural exploration than a fun-in-the-sun affair. It’s beautiful in a stark, barren kind of way, and Petra is an absolute must, while the Dead Sea is an almost irresistible natural oddity.
Environmentalists believe it will eventually dry up completely. It was good to get there before it did.