Rollin’ On The River—Cycling Across Jordan

by Nancy Bestor

Maybe it happened when our jovial taxi driver told us that, in the end, we are all brothers and sisters, whether we are Muslims or Christians, Americans or Jordanians. Or perhaps it was when we were in a butcher shop in Amman, admiring the way the men were expertly carving up a lamb, and we were invited for hot tea and warm conversation. Or maybe it was in that moment when I rode my bike past a small Bedouin camp deep in the Wadi Rum desert, and a man hollered “Where you from?” and when I hollered back “America,” he shouted, “You are welcome.”

However it happened, I realized on a ten day trip to Jordan, smack dab in the center of the Middle East, that we are all just people. Yes, we’re different—very different, in fact (more on this later). But our religion and/or home country doesn’t make us better or worse than anyone else. In the end, we really are all the same.

Several years ago, when our two daughters were still in high school, Bob and I stumbled across an email from BikeTours.com about a cycling trip in Jordan, with stops at the Dead Sea, Petra and the Wadi Rum desert. We knew this wasn’t a trip for our family (you’re welcome kids), so we filed it away in the “empty nest” travel folder. This fall, at the beginning of our second year of empty nesting, was the right time.

If you’re wondering whether people bicycle in Jordan, the answer is not really. The 10 bikes our tour group used represented about half of all the bikes we saw on our entire visit. But that doesn’t stop Terhaal Jordan EcoAdventures (www.terhaal.com) from offering outstanding cycling tours of its homeland. Our eight day tour included five days of cycling, a swim in the Dead Sea, a two day visit to Petra, and a night at a Bedouin camp in the Wadi Rum desert, to name just a few of the amazing highlights. It was fully supported with a guide who rode with us at all times, as well as full vehicle support (aka the sag wagon). About 60% of the 120+ miles on the bike were off-road (dirt, rock, and sand tracks) and the rest was on paved back roads. All lodging was included in the price (about $1550 per person), as was the bicycle rental, and most meals too.

To say that this adventure was one of our top travel experiences would be an understatement. The combination of the people, the scenery, the biking, and the tour itself made this trip one of the top highlights of our lives. I’m still at a loss for words, but I’ll do my best.

Going in I was nervous. Not— surprisingly—because we were traveling to the Middle East, but because it was our first ever “tour”, and I wasn’t certain I would enjoy spending all day, every day, with a guide, with other travelers, and with a set itinerary. But I could not have been happier with how it turned out. Our trip leader, Anas, a 30-year-old, three-time Arab countries cycling champion, was the sweetest and most capable tour guide I could imagine. The six other travelers in our group were an absolute delight at all times. And the set itinerary included so many special stops and events that there is no way we could have duplicated this trip on our own.

For example, on our first day, a 56 mile ride (gulp!), we stopped for lunch in the home of a Jordanian family, in the small village of Mukawir, in the middle of nowhere. This family is paid by the tour company to provide lunch for bikers. And what a lunch it was. Sitting outside under a tent, we ate Maklouba (which translates to “upside down”), a chicken/vegetable/ spiced rice dish that is cooked in an oven with the chicken on the bottom, then flipped upside down for serving. This, along with fantastic yogurt, a tomato/ cucumber/parsley salad, and pita, were all delicious, and outside of the rice, every item came from this family’s home and farm. The patriarch of the household spoke with us through an interpreter, telling us about his family, his village, and his life. We had to ask, twice in fact, to meet his wife, the cook of our delicious meal. She came out of the kitchen as we were leaving, graciously accepting our thanks and declining to be in the group photograph with her husband.

This long day of bike riding ended with a steep, 15-mile descent down a twisty and picturesque back road to the Dead Sea. While one can take the busier and quicker main route to get there, our newly paved road had no cars, and offered extraordinary vistas of the red desert canyon, the Dead Sea, and Palestine beyond. I found myself blinking back tears as I coasted down this descent, awestruck by the beauty around me, and at my fortune in being able to experience it.

The Dead Sea is the deepest salt lake in the world. It sits at 1400 feet below sea level, the lowest point on the surface of the earth. Here we spent an hour floating in the buoyant and briny water and laughing hysterically with our fellow travelers. Note to self: Next time I’m in the Dead Sea, I’ll try to do a better job of keeping it out of my eyes, as the salt water of the Dead Sea isn’t just buoyant and rejuvenating. If it gets in your eyes, it stings like bloody hell. Of course, we also covered ourselves with world-renowned Dead Sea mud, which is thought to have restorative and nourishing properties. While one can buy alluringly packaged Dead Sea mud products all over Jordan (and throughout the rest of the world) we simply scraped it from beneath our feet. Bob is still raving about his soft skin.

Our tour included excellent local guides at the main sites. On most trips that we take on our own, we rely on our guidebooks, which although good, do not offer the thorough and often personal information that guides provide. My friends know that I ask a lot of questions (aka, I’m nosy). Thus I could often be found sidled up to Anas, or another of our guides, asking for details about Muslim culture (such as multiple wives), their family lives, their jobs, and more. Our overnight stay in the Wadi Rum desert, at a family run Bedouin camp, afforded us a close up look at Bedouin life, and our guide Salaam was both fascinating and hilarious.

At times we rode our bikes past camps and villages in the middle of nowhere. Children came running out of their homes to gawk at us. Some laughed and pointed, others raised their hands for a high five, and some just stared and stared. I’m guessing these kids don’t see many people at all, let alone pale-skinned men (and WOMEN!) on bicycles.

In the city of Jerash, for instance, before our bicycle tour began, Bob and I visited outstanding Roman ruins. After dinner we ventured into town to look for an ATM. I was wearing a skirt that fell just below my knees, and a short sleeved shirt, with no scarf covering my head. It quickly became apparent to me that I was woefully underdressed. Men and women, children, and perhaps even dogs and cats, stared holes through me. I’m surprised I didn’t cause any accidents. Bob and I have traveled in many places where we were the only non-tourists on any given street or in a village. But I have never been so self-conscious as I was here. I tugged my skirt as low as it would go, and tried smiling and nodding at everyone who stared at me. This only caused them to stare more.

Our guide Anas was wed a year and a half ago, in an arranged marriage. His wife Sara went into labor with their first child while we were on our cycling tour. Anas got regular updates on his cell phone while we were riding, and was visibly nervous when he heard that Sara might have to have a cesarean because she had been in labor nearly 24 hours. But while eating lunch later that day, Anas got word that his daughter Elena had been born without surgery. He proclaimed the news to our group with tears in his eyes, and thanked Allah. The women travelers in our group got a little teary too, and I realized again that while we might look and sound different and have dissimilar marriage and family customs too, we all want the best for those we love. And that makes us more alike than we might first believe.