Is Jordan safe? To find out, we hitchhiked from the border of Syria to the Red Sea. We went to cities off the tourist grid, to see how they would react to foreigners. We relied only on local communities to take care of us and guide us. Our journey began at 7:30 am from the Jordanian/Syrian border. We walked alongside a row of mechanic shops in the town of Ramtha. Men quickly invited us to stop and have tea. An hour and a half went by, exchanging stories and embracing warm welcoming smiles. The fact that it was 8 a.m. didn’t stop them from setting up a hookah for us to enjoy. At this pace, our plan to arrive at the southern border the following evening was not going to happen.
The city of Mufraq is not frequented by tourists. We wanted to see how two Americans would be received. After some friendly small talk with locals, we discovered it possessed the same characteristic found throughout Jordan: extreme hospitality.
As we began to work our way out of town, we found ourselves in good company. A man in his sixties. Deep wrinkles spreading out from his eyes. Years of squinting into the sun. He began sharing with us his pride of being from Mufraq. “All foreigners are welcome here,” he said. “We have Muslims and Christians living together, and we are all one. Anyone is welcome.”
We soon found ourselves in a car on the road to Zarqa. We seized the opportunity to get to know the driver better. “What do you think about foreigners?”
“I want them to have a better understanding of Arabs,” he said, “not just from what they see on the news. I think we can learn from each other. The base of our religion is to respect all people, all religions. I respect you, you respect me.”
After Zarqa, we found ourselves sitting in a gas truck, being served coffee by the driver (while driving).
A few rides later, and we were heading down to Shouneh in the Jordan Valley, north of the Dead Sea. Our driver pointed to a village. “Any house you walk up to, they’d invite you in.” He wrote down his name and phone number for us. “Anything you need here, I’m ready to help. Just call me.”
A local man from Shouneh gave us a short ride to the edge of town. He had a gentle look about him, one that reminds you of grandpa. How quickly impressions can be formed, and kindness shown. He took us as far as he was going. “Want some tea? That is my house right there.” We politely declined; feeling the need to get to a place to sleep before sunset. After all, it was late afternoon and we had only made it a quarter of the way to the southern border.
From Shouneh, we wanted to go to Ghor al Mazra’a, just south of the Dead Sea. A young man picked us up. “I normally don’t pick up hitchhikers,” he said, “but when I saw you were foreigners, I knew I had to help.” Once again he took us as far as he was going and we stood on the side of the road anticipating who we would meet next.
A middle aged couple who lived just south of our next destination were the next to provide us a ride. As we drove, the sun set over the Dead Sea, and the wife served us tea in decorative glass cups. We handed our driver a cell phone so he could get directions to our friend’s house in Ghor. When we arrived, our driver got out of the car and gave our host a big hug, realizing they knew each other. How small the world is.
We arrived in Ghor al Mazra’a just in time to take pictures of the sun setting over Israel and Palestine and take in the amazing view of the Dead Sea. Jon had met our host, Sa’ed, while participating in an event with the Zikra Initiative. Sa’ed’s wife just had a new baby and they had invited Jon to come see him.
After settling in and being welcomed with tea and the chance to hold the new addition to the family, Sa’ed led us on a tour of his village. We met and sat with his extended family. Sa’ed’s life is not easy. But he is hopeful. We listened to his dreams for his family’s future; “I want my daughter to become the first woman doctor to come out of our village.”
Later that night, we prepared a local authentic tomato dish together and fell asleep to an Egyptian sitcom. When Jon awoke, he discovered that Sa’ed had covered him with an extra blanket during the night.
Being in someone’s home, getting a glimpse of life from their point of view, changes the way you see the world. It reorganizes your priorities. We want Sa’ed to see his hopes become reality.
In the morning, we set out for Karak. There, we were picked up by a young man making spice deliveries (whom we later nicknamed “Mohammad Spices”). He drove a bright tangerine-orange truck. Oregano, thyme, coffee beans, sesame seeds, and various nuts, piled on top of one another. We’d be welcome to ride with him to Tafila, our next destination, but he first needed to finish his rounds in Karak. From shop to shop we went, making deliveries. Each shop we entered, Mohammad introduced us as his friends. It was the best smelling ride we’d taken our entire trip.
We were struck by the warmth of the people of Karak, and Mohammad’s rapport with them. Upon entering each shop, he laughed and joked. He extended his condolences and shared in the grief of a shop owner who had recently lost a family member.
Mohammad Spices bought us lunch and took us to a beautiful spot overlooking an enormous canyon. We parted in Tafila. He would continue to call us the rest of the day, making sure we were alright and offering his assistance if we were in need.
Later that afternoon, we were dropped off at a cement factory, hoping to catch a ride on a truck to the highway. The cement factory, it turns out, had closed for the evening. There were no trucks heading to the highway. There were no cars at all. We began to walk, hoping someone would come by. We continued to walk. The sun continued to set. Jon’s phone rang. It was Mohammad Spices. “Where are you, are you okay?”
“We’re fine,” Jon said. “The road, however, is empty. We haven’t seen a car for a long time.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll come and pick you up. We’ll drive back to Karak, spend the night with my friend, and you can continue your journey in the morning.”
We did not doubt his sincerity. Wanting to reach the southern border that evening, we declined.
The sun set. It grew dark. Some time later, headlights crossed the horizon and headed toward us. The car changed lanes and passed. Our hearts sank. For the first time we considered that we might have to sleep on the side of the road. The car stopped. We ran toward it. An old Bedouin man in a pickup opened his door, and greeted us with a toothy grin. “Come in,” he said. “When I saw you were foreigners, I knew I had to help you.” He took us to the Desert Highway.
Our next driver, Habib, invited us to come to his home for mansaf, the national dish of Jordan. “If you don’t come to my home and share a meal with my family, I will be mad at you!” he said.
We were nearing our destination. Before entering Aqaba, Jordan’s city on the Red Sea, all semi trucks stop for customs entry papers. We said our goodbyes to our new friend Habib, hopped out of his semi and walked to the entry point for cars. The military guards at the checkpoint stopped us. We explained why we were carless. Laughing, they shouted to some guards who were greeting cars as they passed into Aqaba. “These guys need a ride! Get them a nice car!”
We soon found ourselves sitting in the back of a shiny BMW, being served cold juice by the driver and his friend. Twenty-one cars and a hundred conversations after the start of our journey, we pulled into the Red Sea town on Jordan’s southern border.When we began our trip, we wanted to see if Jordan was a safe destination for travelers. Setting out from the northern border, we worked our way south. Not only did we discover that it is safe, our picture of Jordan was enhanced by the remarkable people who call it home. We were showered with smiles, introduced as friends, and overwhelmed by the generosity and hospitality of the Jordanian people.
Our trip began with tea, laughter, and conversation. It ended with a profound realization: A life changing experience lies waiting for those who not only visit Jordan’s sites, but interact with her people.