Walking to Jordan: Returning to the Middle East With Fresh Eyes and a Teenaged Son
Story and photos by Sneed B. Collard III



A writer who spent a formative youthful winter in Israel returns with his son, traveling overland to Wadi Rum and Petra.


Jordan travel story

The sudden concussive blast startled me as it thundered across the mist-covered valley and echoed off the surrounding hills. It also took me back forty-two years to the last time I'd stood anywhere close to this spot. Today, the blast had been set off to keep thousands of Common Cranes moving so that they wouldn't destroy a farmer's field. Forty-two years ago, the thundering booms had come from exploding artillery and tank rounds as Israel launched an attack against terrorists in southern Lebanon.

I had been eighteen then, working and traveling during a year that would transform me from a kid into a young man. Opting to delay college, I had instead gone to Israel at the invitation of Avi, a biologist friend of my father who thought it might be more of an adventure for me to see another part of the world than to check into a dorm room. Really, it was a no-brainer. I bought an airline ticket with money I'd saved from a summer job at Mount Rushmore and boarded a flight to Israel just after my eighteenth birthday.

Thanks to Avi and his family, my adventures began immediately. His nephew somehow conned his youth group into letting me accompany them on a soldier-escorted expedition through the Sinai Peninsula, still controlled by Israel after the Six-Day War. We drove through little-known desert canyons filled with spring-fed date palms. We stared across the Red Sea at the faded, distant shores of Egypt. We climbed mountains and slept under the stars, and I kissed my first—and only—Israeli sabra on a beach near what was then the tiny village of Sharm El-Sheikh.

Upon my return to Haifa, I applied for a slot as a volunteer on a kibbutz near Nazareth. For the next ten weeks I picked grapefruit, worked nights twisting dough at an industrial bakery, and unloaded delivery trucks for the kibbutz kitchen. I made friends among the other volunteers and got bossed around by Yiddish-speaking older women—some of them survivors of Auschwitz.

When the warmth of spring finally arrived, the kitchen ladies loaded me up with canned goods and other supplies, and I set out to explore. With my love of nature, I bee-lined back to the Sinai and spent a week camping alone along the Gulf of Aqaba, snorkeling in waters so clear and so pristine that my heart raced every time I jumped in. After that, I rode the bus back to Jerusalem where I woke every day before dawn to explore the narrow, mysterious alleys of the Old City, watch bakers slide poofed-up pita out of ancient stone ovens, and drink Turkish coffee alongside Arabs smoking hookahs and playing shesh besh. After four months in Israel, however, the one place I hadn't explored was the very north—the Golan Heights.

Year of Hope and Terror

Through pure accident, I traveled around Israel during a thin slice of time when hopes for peace with its Arab neighbors had reached a zenith. A few months before, Egypt's Anwar Sadat had visited, setting off talks that eventually would result in a treaty between the two countries and the return of the Sinai to Egypt. Conspicuously, the Palestinians had been left out of the emerging talks and while I was still exploring the Old City, PLO terrorists landed near Herzliya and hijacked a bus in an attack that would kill thirty-eight Israeli civilians, including thirteen children.

In a demonstration of just how small and intimate the country was, one of several heroes in the defeat of these terrorists happened to be the father of a youth I had traveled with to the Sinai when I'd first arrived. Finding himself a passenger on the bus under siege, the man had lost an eye while throwing a live grenade out of a window before it could kill countless other passengers.

As horrified as I was by the attack, I saw no reason for it to interfere with my visit to the Golan Heights. Call it stupidity or my own youthful sense of invincibility, but I went ahead and boarded a bus from Jerusalem and began making my way north. Traffic crawled as tractor-trailers loaded with tanks trundled up the winding road ahead of us, and F-15s patrolled the skies overhead. By the time I reached the northern border town of Kiryat Shmona, dusk had begun to fall and it had become clear even to me that the emerging military activity would prevent me from continuing to the Golan.

One of the perks of volunteering on a kibbutz, however, was that volunteers were welcome to stay at other kibbutzim around the country. I thumbed a ride to another kibbutz only a couple of miles out of town, and was given a hot meal and a bunk with other volunteers. That night, I repeatedly woke to deep rumbling sounds from a nearby road, and the next morning I decided to check things out.

The road ran only yards from the Lebanese border and as I walked, I quickly discovered what was making the noises—heavy tanks and trucks heading east. As the lone pedestrian anywhere in sight, I received curious glances from the tank drivers and we exchanged stiff waves as their vehicles clattered by. Minutes later, I heard the first heavy explosions from across the border as Israeli forces launched against enemy forces in southern Lebanon. That afternoon, I managed to catch a bus back to my new Israeli family in Haifa without incident, and weeks later, I departed Israel aboard a ferry traveling to Greece.

Over the ensuing decades, my entire journey—and especially my time in Israel—never strayed far from my thoughts, but honestly, I never believed I would return to the Middle East. I wanted to, especially to see Avi and his family again before one of us passed away, but the world held many other places to see, there was work to do, and a family to raise. It was with total astonishment, therefore, that I received an email one spring day in 2019, inviting me back to the Levant for an experience that would prove every bit as memorable as my trip 42 years before.

From Bullets to Books

The email came from a librarian at an American school near Herzliya, and she was inquiring to see if I might be willing to return to Israel as a visiting author for her students. I responded immediately and we began planning my visit for January, 2020. From that first moment, I also contemplated taking my sixteen-year-old son. I had been scarcely a year older than he when I had traveled to the Middle East on a journey that had transformed my life. Perhaps, I mused, a visit to Israel might work similar magic for Braden?

We arrived at 2:20 a.m. on Sunday, December 28, just as—unbeknownst to us—the first COVID cases were silently spreading through Wuhan, China. After whiling away a couple of hours eating cheese bourekas and catching up on our journals in the new and unrecognizable Ben Gurion Airport, Braden and I caught a train heading for the coast. Israel's rail network, in fact, would be a source of constant wonder to me over the coming weeks. In 1978, a single passenger line ran between Haifa and Tel Aviv, and I was forced to ride buses or hitchhike every place I went. Now, trains would be able to carry us to most of the places we wanted to go.

cranes in Middle East bird watching

Avi's daughter Yael—now grown with four children of her own—picked us up at the Binyamina station and I felt like I was reuniting with kin. Over the next four days, we not only re-bonded with her, her brother Barak, and the rest of the family, they acted as consummate hosts. Along with Avi, still healthy in his eighties, they took us to the Crusader fort and an outstanding hummus restaurant in Akko, showed us all around Binyamina, and indulged my son's and my passion for bird-watching by driving us to the world-famous Hula Valley. There, 15,000 cranes spend the winter and more than half a billion birds pass through on their annual migrations.

Yael even helped nurse me back to health when I came down with the flu only two days after arriving. Despite my weakened state, however, Braden and I felt eager to stop imposing on our hosts and strike out on our own—much as I had done 42 years before. Instead of heading for a kibbutz, we caught the new train to Jerusalem for three days of exploration. Then we headed south for a taste of the desert—and the most exciting part of our itinerary.

Sun Birds in Eilat

Eliat hotels

Not surprisingly given the terrain, Israel's train system does not yet extend to its sole port on the Red Sea, Eilat, but the five-hour bus ride from Jerusalem proved pleasant. We gradually left civilization behind and followed a winding road through the Negev Desert before plunging into the breathtaking Jordan Rift Valley with its stunning vistas and date palm plantations. Arriving in Eilat proved a shock. When I had visited in '78, I had simply stepped off the bus, walked several hundred meters to the beach and camped with dozens of other travelers next to the lapping waves of the Red Sea. Now, with modern hotels stacked like glittering pyramids along Eilat's compact ten-kilometer shoreline, I doubted authorities would welcome a couple of beach bum campers. Instead, we checked into a modest beach and diving resort a mile from the Egyptian border, and I let Red Sea sunshine and perfect winter temperatures burn the last of the flu virus from my system.

Over the next couple of days, Braden and I took full advantage of Eilat's spectacular surroundings. We spent a wonderful day birding the trails and evaporation ponds of the International Birding and Research Center and the shoreline near our hotel. My favorite place? Holland Park, a natural area with trails that quickly whisked us away from the city's hubbub and into the magic of the surrounding desert. We, of course, also snorkeled the Red Sea and couldn't resist relaxing by the hotel pool. We needed the relaxation time, because the next day we would head to places I had been dreaming about for decades.

Eliat International Birding Center

Crossing a Conflicted Border

As I pored over maps before the trip, an almost forgotten desire had suddenly popped into my brain like a sizzling hot felafel ball: visiting Jordan's Wadi Rum and Petra. I had first learned of Petra while living in Israel in 1978, but the official state of war between the two countries had made a visit unthinkable. Now, that had changed, and a little research revealed that plenty of packaged tours from Amman and Eilat would accommodate us. Then again, the thought of visiting such epic sites packed into a sheep-like herd sounded about as fun as eating a plate full of rancid gefilte fish. Instead, I began pursuing a more adventurous alternative: arranging an independent tour and walking into Jordan on our own.

Waking early, we checked out of our hotel and caught a cab to the Yitzhak Rabin/Wadi Araba Crossing, one of three open border crossings between Israel and Jordan. My pulse pounded as we approached and I wondered if it was from excitement or a dread that I was making a horrible parental decision. After all, the United States bore more than its fair share of responsibility for trouble in the Middle East. Tensions had been ratcheting up even more thanks to President Trump's unabashed bias in favor of Israel's national interests over all others. Was it really so wise for me to take my child and cross into an Arab country by ourselves?

Counterbalancing these fears was the knowledge that even when I'd visited Israel in the 1970s, Jordan and Israel had existed in a state of strained codependence. Though both countries downplayed the relationship, Jordan relied on Israel for military intelligence, water resources, and physical protection while Israel counted on Jordan as a buffer zone between it and more hostile countries such as Iraq. In 1994, the two countries finally ended their 46-year state of war and formalized a peace agreement that promised greater cooperation on the Palestinian issue, water supplies, defense, and their economies.

Since then, unfortunately, reservoirs of goodwill have steadily drained, largely because of Israel's continued colonization of the West Bank and the failure of anyone to come up with a meaningful political solution for the Palestinians—including the two-million-plus who live in Jordan. Unbeknownst to me, in fact, just before Braden and I departed for Israel, Jordan's King Abdullah had publicly announced that relations with Israel had reached a new low.

As we shouldered our backpacks and walked toward the border, it was probably good that I didn't know.

Cruising on What Saddam Built

The border seemed eerily deserted when we arrived, and that surprised me since a taxi driver had told us that hundreds of Jordanians from Aqaba crossed each morning to work in Eilat's hotel and other tourist industries. I guess the workers aren't needed in early January, I concluded.

walking to Jordan from IsrealWe paid an Israeli exit tax before passing easily through passport control and then walked across a surreal no-man's land with tall border fences and scrub desert stretching to the left and right. Reaching the Jordanian checkpoint proved more intense. Security personnel asked the purpose of our visit and then thoroughly searched our backpacks. I thought that our cameras and telephoto lenses might attract scrutiny, but it was Braden's Vortex binoculars that sparked a pointed discussion among the security officers. They studied the binoculars from all angles and looked through the eyepieces. I never did learn why. Perhaps the device looked like it had special infrared or radiation detection capabilities, and I wondered, Could Vortex actually be owned by the CIA?

After five minutes, the officers waved us through to the final station where we met our pre-arranged escort, Hassan, who helped us pay for our tourist visas and get our passports stamped. Then, with a flush of relief, we stepped out into Jordanian fresh air and sunshine.

Although I had opted for Braden and I to cross over into Jordan on our own, I had determined that actually getting to Wadi Rum and Petra independently would require just a little more logistics and uncertainty than I felt willing to tackle. As a result, I had contacted a company called Classic Wadi Rum Tours that had received high marks from other independent travelers and was willing to put together whatever kind of trip we desired. The company quickly convinced me that I had made a wise choice. Hassan, who worked for the tour company, introduced us to a man named Yusef, who would be our driver for the next two days, and after dropping off Hassan at his home in Aqaba, Braden and I found ourselves cruising a modern highway bound for Wadi Rum.

The highway wound through a deep canyon and emerged into a harsh landscape of mountains and valleys. Yusef pointed out Bedouin tomato farms on each side of the highway and we occasionally passed little stands full of ripe tomatoes for sale.

"Nice road," I told Yusef, appreciating the scenery, the smoothness of the highway, and the fact that only a few other vehicles plied the lanes in either direction.

"This road was built by Saddam Hussein," he told us.

"What?" I asked, surprised. "The Saddam Hussein?"

Yusef explained that even before the first Gulf War, Saddam had wanted to make sure he had a way to get goods in and out of Iraq in the face of hostilities from Iran and other countries, and so had paid for this modern highway through Jordan to the port of Aqaba.

Just one of many things we Americans never hear about, I thought.

Half an hour later, we reached Wadi Rum.

Mars on Earth

The epic landscape of Wadi Rum has been featured in some of history's most iconic films, from Lawrence of Arabia to the Star Wars movies and, more recently, The Martian and the live-action Aladdin. Its fame actually made me a little nervous about visiting. I remembered my letdown touring Machu Picchu on a cold, rain-soaked day several years earlier and thought, What if Wadi Rum doesn't live up to its Hollywood presentation?

Jordan Wadi Rum

I needn't have worried. Yusef drove us into the village of Wadi Rum, home to a couple of thousand people largely supporting the tourist trade, and ten minutes later Braden and I were sitting in the open back of a pickup truck, speeding into the desert.

In my six decades of life and travel I have rarely encountered anything as impressive and awe-inspiring as Wadi Rum. With the chilly air buffeting our faces, Braden and I stared mesmerized at the immense red sandstone formations rising in every direction. According to geologists, these were laid down in several stages beginning about 600 million years ago. Over time the deposits had been compacted, uplifted, and eroded, creating a world of unparalleled natural monuments framing wide expanses of sandy desert.

Wadi Rum in JordanDuring the next four hours, our likable, laid-back driver Ahmed hit an awe-inspiring procession of stops and sites as he drove us around the desert on tracks that seemed to meander with the shifting sands. First up was Lawrence's Spring which, Ahmed confided, had no actual connection to the eponymous British officer who helped organize Arab resistance to the Central Powers during World War I. It was here, however, that two enthusiastic Bedouin boys eagerly led us on a mandatory five-minute camel ride, a ride that brought the biggest unabashed grin of the trip to my son's face. After letting the boys look through our binoculars, we explored nearby rocks, where Braden spotted several desert bird species, including Jordan's sublime national bird, the Sinai Rosefinch.

From Lawrence's Spring we headed deeper into the desert, climbing stunning sandstone lookouts, exploring petroglyph-filled slot canyons, posing on mind-blowing natural arches, drinking tea with Bedouins, and observing Wadi Rum's scant-but-hardy bird life. We were simply savoring being halfway around the world on a sunny, chilly day in one of the most soul-tapping places on Earth.

Pouring in Petra

Two hours in the car led to Wadi Musa, the staging area for one of the world's most exalted ancient sites, Petra. The next day, before dawn we awoke to the sounds of dueling muezzins calling the faithful to prayer through loudspeakers mounted on the city's minarets.

After a hurried breakfast, we met our local history guide, Mamoun, in the hotel lobby and emerged outside to encounter the last thing we ever expected in Petra: snow. True, only a few flakes reached our particular altitude, but a white blanket frosted the rocky hillsides a hundred meters or so above where we stood, rendering the surreal landscape even more other-worldly.

Like most visitors to Petra, we set off through the Siq, a narrow rock cleft whose red walls rose 90 to 180 meters above our heads. Mamoun began his tour by telling us that almost everything we'd ever heard about Petra was wrong. As we walked the first kilometer, he gave a rapid-fire summary of the ancient Nabateans, who dominated the region for several centuries starting by at least 400 BCE. According to Mamoun, the Nabateans who built Petra invented navigation, the Arabic language, time-keeping, the 360-degree compass, the 365-day calendar, and more. Suddenly, we emerged from the narrow canyon to face Al Khazna, the Treasury.

Petra in JordanCarved into solid rock and rising more than forty meters high, the beauty and grace of the poster-image site for Petra overcomes even the most jaded traveler. Long considered a tomb—along with many other Petra sites—its actual function has been questioned in recent years. Mamoun, who has intensively studied the archaeology of Petra, insisted that far from being a burial chamber, Al Khazna may have served as a library, and with my own love of books and education, I eagerly embraced that possibility. According to Mamoun, in fact, certain early archaeologists weren't exactly the brightest bulbs in the scientific world and lazily labeled almost any impressive structure as a tomb when more rigorous investigations might point to other explanations.

Whatever its function, Braden and I were duly impressed by Al Khazna and spent a good fifteen minutes admiring it. Unfortunately, by now a bone-chilling rain had begun to fall, and we discovered that our supposedly waterproof raincoats functioned disturbingly like sponges. Shivering, we continued on to other impressive Petra sites, but as at Machu Picchu three years before, we cut short our visit and sought refuge in a comfy restaurant called My Mom's Recipe. There, we devoured mussakhan and sipped hot tea, struggling to restore our core body temperatures and assimilate a place and experience we would almost surely never get to revisit.

IF YOU GO:

A year and a half after our visit to Israel and Jordan, the world remains in the grip of the COVID crisis, and those dependent on tourism are among the hardest hit. I contacted one of the owners of Classic Wadi Rum Tours to find out how they are doing—or even if they are still in business. She told me that they are hanging on, but had to cancel every tour from March 17 to the end of 2020. "For towns like Petra that rely on tourism as their main industry," she explained, "the effects of Covid are noticeable. Hotels are closed, many restaurants have gone out of business. Tour guides have no work. Drivers have sold their cars." Recent conflict between Israel and Palestinians has been a further setback.

Fortunately, the Eilat/Aqaba border crossing should be open by press time to those who have been vaccinated, and tour companies are once again accepting reservations. As always, check on the latest government guidelines or with a reputable tour company before making plans.






Sneed B. Collard III is the award-winning author of more than eighty-five children's books and the adult travel memoir Warblers & Woodpeckers: A Father-Son Big Year of Birding. He is a popular speaker and his travel and nature articles have appeared in Islands, BirdWatching, Big Sky Journal, and more than a dozen other magazines. Learn more about Sneed at his website www.sneedbcollardiii.com and follow the birding adventures of him and his son at fathersonbirding.com.




Related Features:
My Palestinian Pillows - James Michael Dorsey
Nomadic Voices in the Kingdom of Jordan - David Lee Drotar
Israel is in my Passport, but is it in Me? - Emily Matchar
The Back Door of the Amazon Jungle in Ecuador - Sneed B. Collard III


See other Middle East travel stories from the archives


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