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Of the seventeen cyclists who would embark on the trip, I was the first to arrive in Amman. A man holding a sign displaying my name met me at the airport. He took my bag and guided me to his car. The drive to the Hotel in the heart of Amman was an adventure. I tried to compile a catalog of all the sights and store them in my memory. As I gazed upon the images of this unique culture, I marveled at how different it was from my own. Women were draped from head to toe as if remaining unseen was an essential goal. Yet the men did not hide their faces or cover their hair. We crossed over the only cable-stayed bridge in the country and passed numerous in-progress construction projects.

After I arrived at my hotel room, I had the afternoon to relax. I stepped out onto the balcony and took in a panoramic view of the city. Flat-topped buildings and rubble-sided roads provided an interesting contrast for the newest construction. The skeleton of a skyscraper surrounded by cranes and scaffolding captured my attention. Its metallic curved edifice came up to a point unlike anything around it. The difference between it and the cubical buildings that looked like they had been hewn from the ground made it seem out of place. Architectural modernism was making its way into Amman.

What surprised me most were the broadcasts that blared through loudspeakers attached to the mosques. Five times every day, the Adhan (a call to prayer) could be heard across the land in Arabic. I wondered if there was only one religion in Amman and what happens to people who believed differently. At the same time, I marveled at the solidarity the people of Amman must have shared. I later learned that 90% of Jordanians are Sunni, and only 8% are Christian.

The people with whom I would ride from Amman to Wadi Rum began arriving in the late afternoon. My roommate, Rachel, entered the room with a broad smile. She, like everyone else, was from Europe. I was the only American in the group. A few hours later, we gathered for an introductory meeting, and our guide, Sami, explained the next day’s activities.

We rose early for breakfast and boarded the van to our first stop, the ruins of Jerash. It was the hottest day of our stay. Shepherds watched their flocks on the sides of rocky hills. Despite the heat, they were dressed in long pants and shirt sleeves. I was already feeling the effects of the heat as we wandered through the remains of arches, temples, theaters, and stone-laid roads. I tried to play off the mild dizziness and nausea. This was my first experience with heat exhaustion. We boarded the van again and drove to the place where we would meet our cycling guides.

Firaz and Abdul met us on the side of the road with our bikes. They unloaded them from the SAG vehicle and fitted a bike to each of us. We were ready for our first 26-mile bike ride. The sun seemed so close to the earth. The terrain was rocky, dusty, and dry. Although the ride was much less hilly than we would experience in the coming days, it was challenging. Firaz and Abdul rode up and down long inclines with ease while some of us got off of our bikes and walked them up the hills. I was so glad to reach the end. I dropped my bike and dashed the air-conditioned van. Drenched with sweat, everyone tore open bottles of water and guzzled them down. I just went to the van and laid down on the back seat.

Our Jordan cycling experience took us through steep descents and sharp inclines. We walked to Mount Nebo and looked out over “the promised land” from the place Moses is believed to have viewed it. From there, we saw the King’s Highway, the very road we would ride down to the Dead Sea. It was a descent so steep that there were warning signs posted for motorists. I marveled at the temperature change as we rode into the earth. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth, 423 meters (.26 miles) below sea level. It was like riding into a furnace. Once there, we floated on the medicinal waters and felt better than when we went in.

For two days, we didn’t ride our bikes. Instead, we walked the .75 mile Siq, a narrow gorge overshadowed by 80 meters of red-stoned mountains, to Petra. The city is an architectural wonder of human ingenuity carved out of the pink and red stone mountains by the Nabataeans. We climbed 850 steps to the Monastery and then kept climbing to the highest peak. My knees, legs, and feet were shot, and I limped back to the hotel, but what an experience. I used the second day at Petra to rest.

We cycled to Little Petra, north of Petra. While we were there, a young Bedouin sang for us. Some of us tipped him for his efforts. There was an older Bedouin man who played a rudimentary one-stringed instrument with a bow. He also played for his supper.

The next day, we rode our bikes through little villages and were met by children who hopped on their bikes and rode alongside us. We rode through the desert, pot-holed roads, and spectacular views. It was our longest day of cycling. We spent the night in Aqaba on the Red Sea. It was Eid, and the locals lined the beach. The shepherds had been fattening their sheep for this day. Tamarind juice vendors sold juice from ornate traditional dispensers on their backs. I tried some. It was good. Hookah pipes were everywhere. People, clustered in groups, sat by the sea and smoked. Rachel, Kamal, and I walked to the Al-Sharif Al-Hussein ben Ali Mosque. We were required to wear a burqa and hajib to enter the small room in the back of the mosque for women. The men entered through the opulent marble arches into a colonnaded interior.
The next day, we took a boat to a reef on the Red Sea, where we snorkeled. That afternoon, we got back on our bikes for the last time. We rode into Wadi Rum, flat desert land. We would spend the evening in a Bedouin goat-hair tent, tasting bread kneaded and cooked in front of us, drinking tea, and eating a meal that had been cooked in the ground. Some of the best food I have ever eaten was on this trip. Always fresh and savory. I don’t think they use preservatives. We could choose to sleep under the stars or in a tent. I slept under the stars.

The next morning, a few of us rose early and rode a camel into the desert, where we watched the sunrise. When we returned, everyone was up. We had breakfast and climbed into the backs of a couple of 4 x 4s for a 2-hour tour of the terrain. I marveled that there were families that lived there. For them, driving through sand was like driving through snow for us. They had mastered it.

Our adventure was over. We piled into the van for the last time and rode to Amman, where we had the rest of the day to explore, shop, or just relax. I was determined to find something unique to Jordan to take home. I considered an Oud, but I was afraid it was too bulky. As Rachel, Kamal, and I wove our way through the streets, I came upon a store displaying richly embroidered jackets. Since Kamal spoke the language, he negotiated with the vendor to get the price down to something I could afford.

That night, we shared a meal for one last time and took a group picture of us gathered around the table. The next day, we headed for the airport. That was the last time I saw them. But the memory of that trip will remain etched in my mind forever.


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