Jordan: First Impressions

For the last several days we’ve been making our way around Jordan – from the capital of Amman to the edges of the Rift Valley, from the north, now to the south. Although we still have much more to do and see, we thought we’d take a breath and share some of our first impressions of Jordan — from the cultural, to the human, to the culinary.

Audrey and Dan Get Decked Out in Traditional Jordanian Dress
Hamming it up in traditional Jordanian dress

1. Ahlan Wa Sahlan (You are welcome.)

We hear this phrase often – from the woman working at a silversmith shop to a shepherd slinging grass for his goats to the coffee master at the side of the road. It’s more than just a pleasantry, it carries meaning. Its importance is underscored: sometimes it’s the only phrase a person knows in English.

This is connected to the concept of guest something that runs deep in Jordanian culture. People want to be sure that you are taken care of and enjoying yourself. When we were in Georgia (Republic of), we often heard a local phrase — “guests are a gift from God” — and we felt this. We get a similar feeling in Jordan.

2. Living ancient history

From Nabatean to Greek to Roman to Byzantine to Umayyad to Ottoman to modern day, the breadth of civilizations and depth of history in Jordan is almost overwhelming. Walking through Jordan’s historical sights like the Citadel in Amman or the Roman ruins of Jerash provides a living history lesson.

Walking Through Roman City of Jerash - Jordan
Walking through the Roman City of Jerash in Jordan

And to think, we haven’t even hit the mother lode of the Nabatean civilization at Petra yet.

3. Jordanian sweet tooth

Given the standard sweetness of tea and coffee in Jordan, we suspect a national shared sweet tooth. Ask for your coffee or tea “medium sweet” and you can’t really imagine what the full-blown version might taste like.
Jordanian Coffee

Time to Make the Coffee - Jordan
Sweet Jordanian Coffee to Start the Day

Another example of sweetness beyond is kunefe, a beloved dessert that combines cheese topped with baked, crunchy semolina and sweet syrup. Delicious, but decadently sweet.

4. Mezze style of eating

A little bit of this, a little of that. Jordan’s mezze style of eating goes throughout the day, from breakfast to dinner. It aligns with our preference for the small plate and the opportunity to sample multiple tastes and dishes at once. And hummus for breakfast? Although we had our doubts, we’ve since become converts.

Eating Family Style in Azraq, Jordan
Family style dinner and mezze in eastern Jordan

Wonder what constitutes a dinnertime mezze? Click on the image above (you’ll be taken to the image in our gallery). On that page, hover over each dish with your mouse and you’ll find a note describing what you see.

5) Jordan, a crossroads culture

We were aware that Jordan has a large ethnic Palestinian population, but what we didn’t realize is that there are also pockets of Chechen, Turkmen, Circassian, Druze, and various ethnic groups residing for generations in Jordan. Some came to Jordan to leave persecution or war at home, others for economic opportunity. Makes for an interesting mixture of cultures, cuisines, traditions — and ideally, tolerance.

6) Arabic language = endless proverbs

It seems like no matter the topic, from the mundane to the profound, there is to be bound to be an apt proverb or poetic turn of phrase to capture its spirit.

The other morning we complimented the tea by saying it was so good it didn’t need sugar. For this, we learned a saying in Arabic that roughly translates: “When your finger touches the tea, this makes it sweet.”

7. Surprisingly varied landscape

Before arriving in Jordan, we had images in our heads of white cities, deserts and rocky lands (think, Lawrence of Arabia). Sure, there’s plenty of that. But there are also forests, fertile valleys and vast expanses of red rocks and canyons reminiscent of the American desert southwest.

Early Morning View of Dana Village - Jordan
Early morning view of Dana village and reserve

8. Farewells, the future and “Insha’Allah”

Each time we discuss our itinerary or future plans with anyone, “insha’Allah” (God willing) captures the closing moments. To us, this expression acknowledges one part hope and another part grounding that nothing in life is guaranteed. Given our lifestyle, we can certainly appreciate this.

We should note that we’ve also heard that “insha’Allah” can also be used to indicate that you hope for something that’s unlikely to occur.

9. Breathing below sea level = nice

In our travels, we’ve trekked up to over 5,400 meters (almost 18,000 feet) where the air is thin and simple footsteps can prove challenging. Until now, we’ve never gone below sea level as we have in Jordan. At Ma’in hot springs we enjoyed breathing stunningly fresh, oxygen-rich air at 300 meters below sea level – air was so fresh, walking up hills was a breeze. If we could bottle this air, we’d take a tank with us.

Ma'in Hot Springs in Jordan
Ma’in Hot Springs in Jordan.

We’re wondering if we’ll turn into oxygen-fueled superheroes when we visit the shores of the Dead Sea — a breath-giving 460 meters below sea level — next week.

10. Tea, the social lubricant

We joke that we need to return to Jordan just to fulfill all the invitations for tea that we’ve received so far on this trip. Tea is served everywhere. It’s often the first sign of respect and trust with new people, and it serves as a social lubricant.

Tea Time Near Qasr Khan - Jordan
Tea time in Jordan.

Tea is served piping hot for a reason. It gives us time to become comfortable with one another, to develop rapport, and to cultivate more interesting conversation.

Disclosure: Our trip to Jordan is sponsored by the Jordan Tourism Board, but the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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Comments

  1. says

    Sounds like you are having a good time – insha’Allah.
    How’s the schedule so far – are you able to get of the tourist track at all?
    Also – consider this – in Lebanon they also have kunefe – but they eat it for breakfast between two pieces of bread that looks like a sesame seed hamburger bun! It helps cut the sweetness a little!
    Have fun in Petra!

  2. says

    Beautiful article, genuine and from the heart, thanks! The picture of the “mezze” table is fantastic. The more I keep reading about the Middle East (and similar cultures) the more I’m intrigued. Cheers and enjoy!

  3. says

    oooh – love this “Tea is served piping hot for a reason. It gives us time to become comfortable with one another, to develop rapport, and to cultivate more interesting conversation.”

    Love that you’re on this trip!

  4. says

    Dan- you were saying you were due for some new clothes when you were here last… so is this the new look you’re going for?
    And is Audrey pouring tea in that shot?
    Sounds like you’ve had a wonderful time–thanks for sharing!

  5. says

    Incredible post. It took me back to the time when I visited Jordan 6 years back. Jordan is a country full of culture, history and sweet people.

    Have you visited Ajloun Palace yet?

  6. says

    Your Jordanian dress photo is a great one! I love eating Jordanian style on the floor and with your hands! It just feels so comfortable to me to get down close with the food.

  7. says

    Great Post!

    Jordan is really amazing. Early last year we started developing a bicycle tour through Jordan and the pre-tripping for the route and locations and accommodations brought us to many of the same conclusions as in your post; incredible history, welcoming people and amazing simple foods. Thanks for sharing and reaffirming the great travel option that is Jordan.

    Ed Loessi
    DuVine Adventures

  8. says

    I found the same sweetness of coffee and tea in Egypt. I had come from Turkey where they put a ‘normal’ amount of sugar in their drinks, so I expected about the same in Egypt. But they use soooo much sugar! hahahaha! It’s tasty, as long as you are expecting it!!! :)

  9. says

    We have never considered visiting Jordan before, and now the possibility is starting to swirl around in the back of our minds. It seems to be a fascinating country!

    Logistically, how are you getting around from place to place–taxi, private driver, bus? Also, did the tourism board provide you with a guide for some places, or are you exploring everything independently?

    Wonderful article, as always!

  10. says

    @Sherry: Yes, we have definitely had a good time in Jordan! Our schedule has combined some of the traditional tourist sights (Petra, Jerash, Dead Sea, Aqaba, Wadi Rum) as well as time at the Nature Reserves (Aljoun, Azraq, Dana, Feynan) and with family dinners at different locations. While the schedule is bit more organized than we usually plan for ourselves, we use coffee breaks to stop in random villages to explore new areas.

    Trying to imagine kunefe eaten between bread for breakfast!

    @Neha: In Bedouin culture, there should always be a fire with hot tea and coffee to always be prepared to welcome (unannounced) visitors. Quite a nice thought as well.

    @Fabio: Jordan was our first stop in the Middle East and we definitely are looking forward to returning. We’ve seen and done a lot here, but our interest is now piqued to learn more and go deeper. And yes, mezze eating is awesome.

    @Naomi: Glad you enjoyed this and thanks for your continued support of our travels! Drinking tea really is a great feature of life in Jordan.

    @Roxanne: We’re headed to Amman again tomorrow evening – hope we can fit another visit to Habiba’s for kunefe!

    @Margaret: Dan does look pretty spiffy in his Jordanian outfit, doesn’t he? Afraid he’s sticking to his travel gear for now.

    The pot I’m holding (and pretending to pour) is actually for Arabic coffee. We’ll be writing more on this later, but there is a whole ritual around serving and accepting coffee. Quite fascinating.

    @Ahsan: Glad this post brought back good memories! We visited the Ajloun area, including the Nature Reserve. But, didn’t visit the Ajloun Palace – will need to add it to our “next visit” list.

    @Connie: Most of our favorite and memorable meals were eating on the ground family style with our hands. Not only has the food been great, but you’re close to people and feel a sense of community as well.

    @Richard: We agree! It’s funny that about 5 minutes after we published this I heard a woman at the breakfast buffet who said, “Hummous for breakfast?! I can’t imagine.” I was about to turn around and try and convince her otherwise, but she had already move on.

    @Ed: We’ve really enjoyed our time in Jordan and the Jordanian people play a big role in this. Many tourism companies are feeling the pinch right now since so many people have cancelled tours to this area because of fear from other parts of the Middle East. Truly a shame as Jordan is such a safe place right now.

    @Amy: You are so right that the sweet tea is good, if you’re expecting it. Now, when we get tea without sugar (i.e, we have to add our own) it just tastes a bit flat. We’ve become quite used to the Bedouin style of tea!

    @Ayngelina: Mezze is such a fun way to eat. Not only do you get to try many different dishes, but there’s also a feeling of community as well.

    @Kathy: We’re glad to hear that Jordan has entered your mind as a place to visit! It really does have a lot to offer travelers – history, people, trekking, and more. Our visit more than exceeded our expectations of Jordan.

    The Jordan Tourism Board has organized our transport (car with driver) and guides. We have a host who has been with us the whole time who knows the country well, but we use local guides along the way as they have more detailed and local information about that area. This also helps support local people.

    We’ve been asking lots of questions along the way about independent travel options. Public transport can get you to most places. Rental cars are also quite reasonable. Hitchhiking is also common and safe. All major sights offer local guides – these are people from the area who have gone through a one year training program to be a guide. Both local guides we had were excellent.

    We plan to post our entire itinerary with information and options for independent travel (transport, accommodation, guides, treks, etc.). If you have any specific questions related to this, please let us know!

  11. says

    I just wanted to point out that “Inshallah” is also a handy way of getting out of something you don’t want to do.

    Example:

    “You come to my shop later?”

    “Inshallah!”

    If everything under the sun is the will of God, you’re telling the truth here. Indeed, you really don’t have to take responsibility for anything!

  12. says

    I love the mezze photo. It looks so full and delicious. We had one of our best meals in the back streets of Aqaba, a fresh fish grilled over wood coals, served with a healthy selection of mezze style sauces and salads.

  13. says

    The mezze style of eating is my kind of eating – getting to eat a bit of everything, taste everything (and thus avoiding food envy) sounds perfect.
    Safe travels, inshallah!
    Scott’s comment above is so true. I’ve been studying Arabic for over a year now and my teacher tells me all the time about how often it was used when she was living in Syria and how it’s so useful when you want to make an excuse not to do something or go somewhere!

  14. says

    @Scott: Fabulous. Inshallah as an escape hatch. It’s got everything: cultural relevance, truthfulness and deft evasion all in one roll. This is a keeper. Cultural consultants get paid big bucks for doling out advice like that.

    @Cam: Mezze is the way forward at the Jordanian table.

    @Rebecca: May we always avoid food envy, inshallah! (“Food envy” — love that phrase, by the way.)

  15. says

    Hey guys,

    I am new to following this blog, but it looks like I picked a great week to start! I spent 6 weeks working in Amman last year, and I got to visit just a few places in the rest of the country (limited by time and money). I loved my time there, and I’d love to go back and explore some more. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of your posts about Jordan to get a sense of what else I should see if I can make it back there.

    I was definitely fascinated by the layers of history and overlapping cultures everywhere we went while in Jordan. Despite the possibility for conflict in a convergence like this, people seemed generally very tolerant and friendly, though one of my friends from Jordan always jokes that Jordanians never smile.

    When we traveled to other cities, I rarely felt like I was being scammed by local guides or retailers, which is distinct from most other places I’ve traveled before–like Morocco (which I loved, but definitely felt like I was being scammed more often). A few travelers and I somewhat reluctantly accepted an offer from a guy driving an unmarked car at a bus station near the Dead Sea to take us there. As a local, we had no trouble where you had to show passports, and then he even drove us all the way back to Amman for a very reasonable price. I never would have done something like that in Morocco. I was nervous about hitchhiking, but after reading what you said about it being safe, I’d be way more willing to do it next time, since I hear that’s the only way you can visit the desert castles without private transportation.

    Can’t wait to read the rest!

  16. says

    @Cathy: Your observations about Jordanians being tolerant and friendly definitely aligns with our experience.  As for Jordanians smiling, we got our share.  But one’s relationship to a place is different when living there (as your friend did).

    Your observation about guides and shop owners in Jordan also squares with our experience.  I suppose we were expecting something a little more intense (say like we’ve heard about Egypt), but the Jordanian sales pitch is not intense at all.  Even at a place like Petra, camel guides and shopkeepers might make an offer once, but they were very low key and let go as soon as it was clear there was no interest.  It was refreshing, and probably also better for business.

    Regarding hitchhiking, our host told us it was safe and we trust his judgement. But, I wouldn’t do it as a single solo female traveler due to cultural norms –  we met a young German woman recently who had some uncomfortable situations hitchhiking by herself in Jordan. She never felt threatened, but there were misunderstandings as to why she was traveling by herself. Some thought she was looking for male companionship, if you get my drift. But, if you are a couple or several people then it would be a great way to engage with locals and see some places off the bus routes. I would definitely hitchhike with Dan.

    Here are all our posts on Jordan if you are interested: http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/category/middle-east/jordan/

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