Back in 2005, I took a career break and worked as a tour leader for Explore Worldwide. I was a lucky so-and-so and got posted to the Middle East, to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
It breaks my heart that a country as beguiling, packed full of treasures and with such warm people is now being torn apart, with no end in sight.
My local guide in Syria was Saad. He was my total right-hand man. To be honest, I was really his sidekick, as he did all the history bits and whenever I had an issue to sort out, it was him that talked to fellow Syrians in hotels/restaurants to solve things.
Saad lives with his family in Damascus. Since the war began more than two years ago, Saad’s life has been devastated. He has not been able to work and all his money is now gone. There is no water and only rarely electricity. He has a wife and children who he can’t support.
Explore Worldwide is trying to help him by collecting money that will go directly to him. At a time when it is hard to know how to help anyone in Syria, here is a chance to help one family for real.
If you can afford a spare couple of quid to help Saad and his family, please chip in to bank a/c: Explore Appeal Fund. a/c no: 00192082, sort code: 20-35-35 quoting reference ‘Syria’. Explore’s integrity on this is rock solid – for once, here is a way of knowing that money will really help a family in need in a war torn country.
My favourite place in the world is Petra, the hidden Nabatean city in southern Jordan.
It is hard to describe the hold and the pull that this mystical, magical place has on me. I visited first in 1994, before tourism took off. It was the year that the Jordanian and Israeli governments opened the border and day trippers were just beginning to hop over from cruises.
I was with Explore Worldwide, back in the days when they really WERE all about small group travel (sadly, that changed many years ago). There were eight of us plus a British tour leader, who was passionate about Jordan and hugely knowledgeable about the geology of the beautiful rocks.
It was a formative holiday for me and when I took a short career break eight years ago to become a tour leader, I was thrilled to be sent to the Middle East, to take tourists on a circuit of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
Petra has remained an inspiration and I hope to take a small group of friends there in spring 2014, Inshallah.
In the meantime, it has been the backdrop to my biggest creative project to date: a novel. I have no idea whether the finished article will be of publishable standard but I have loved every minute spent writing this tale.
I thought I’d share the passage in my manuscript where the protagonist walks through the Siq for the first time. For those of you who have visited Petra, I’d love to know whether the description resonates. For those of you who haven’t, I hope it inspires you to visit. You will be richly rewarded….
Alex woke with the call to prayer. She liked the plaintive wail. It was a powerful reminder that she was in a strange land.
She crept down the hallway, anxious not to wake anyone and feeling like a thief leaving the scene of a crime. In reception, she was offered a small breakfast. She relished the strong coffee and wrapped up the food.
She was at the entrance gate at six. The first small rays of light were stretching over the hills behind her to light the path ahead. Alex was surprised at how open it was. She had expected to be surrounded by the tall narrow rock walls of a gorge. This was a proper track, wide enough for a car and open to the skies. The rocks formed a tight wall to her right with the valley stretching fifteen metres to her left. There was no one around but she could hear horses whinnying and men talking in a stable block somewhere behind her.
Alex came to the start of the gorge. Huge rocks rose in front of her, with an opening enticing her in. She felt goose bumps on her arms and a shiver at the back of her neck.
She spent the next half hour in wide-eyed wonder; the ravine was narrow – in some places just a couple of metres wide – and the rocks curved up as far as the eye could see, with a narrow band of pale blue light above. Each twist and turn brought a new pattern in the sandstone and Alex stopped every few minutes to admire the layered waves of colour. The peace was broken by an occasional flurry of wings, as birds took off from nests high above. Alex wrapped the silence around her like a pashmina. It was both spooky and comforting.
Footsteps made her jump. She swung round as two figures emerged from a bend. She smiled and the couple nodded a silent greeting in return. Alex waited a few minutes before carrying on. With each swirling bend in the path, Alex wondered if the famous view would be just around the next corner.
There it was; a slender, uneven slice of light pink embossed with columns and carvings. Alex gasped, the familiar postcard sight made new and exhilarating in real life. She paused, allowing her eyes to adjust to the light, and looked into the narrow frame.
She emerged into sunshine. The tall façade rose up before her in an area surrounded by towering cliff faces. A path broke the rocks to her right, disappearing into a bend. She gazed at the sight in front of her. El Kazneh! Tears pricked her eyes and although no one was around, she felt foolish for being so moved by a stone monument. Alex marvelled that this grandiose, intricate façade was carved out of the rock, not built into it. Pairs of square marks ran up the side, as if someone had carved footholds in order to climb up to create the higher reaches.
She walked toward the building and climbed up the steps into the shade. There was nothing inside but it was impressive all the same, the cool, dank walls covered in wavy stripes of multi-coloured sandstone.
By the time she came out, the rough-hewn square was full of activity. A camel was folded onto its knees by the steps, its prehistoric moans echoing in the square, and a few Bedouin men were unpacking things to sell.
Good news for anyone who is planning a trip to Jordan. Rough Guides has a new edition of its Guide to Jordan, researched and written by Matthew Teller.
I highly recommend this jewel of the Middle East. Petra is well known (most people have seen tantalising flashes of it in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) but other highlights include Jerash, Wadi Rum and Kerak Castle.
Do go. Jordan has suffered a huge drop in tourism because of the troubles in neighbouring Syria but it is unaffected by what is happening there. It is a welcoming and warm country to visit with a treasure chest of breathtaking sites and stunning experiences.
I didn’t have a digital camera back in 2005, so these are the only images I have from my six months there as a tour leader.