To say Little Petra is a long way off the tourist trail is an understatement. To get there we drive past the tourist police’s outpost, turn left and off-road alongside ancient, dried riverbeds and finally up a sand dune into the lee of a red sandstone cliff.
The only other people sleeping out under the stars are a few shepherds
Siq al-Barid in Beidha, otherwise known as “Little Petra”, is about 5km away from Petra, a Unesco world heritage site since 1985 and famous for its ancient buildings sculpted out of solid red sandstone.
We are here to experience a different side of Petra – thanks to a young married couple, Anas and Steph Altwassi’s venture, A Piece of Jordan. Their aim is “to show the real Jordan, where people of all faiths live together and that welcomes visitors from all walks of life”. It’s one that goes beyond a purely archeological experience and gives visitors the chance to integrate with the community.
Steph, originally from Birmingham, visited Petra with her family 12 years ago, aged 17. Anas led the horse that took her down to the entrance to the site that is now among the seven wonders of the world. It was love at first sight.
After months of expensive international phone calls, they were engaged and married the following year. They now live in Wadi Musa, the nearest town to Petra, with their two young children.
Their enterprise started out as a local project, but has evolved into something bigger – a commitment to changing the perception of Jordan by offering a true cultural understanding of what it’s like to live here, rather than just appreciate its ancient sites.
A Piece of Jordan offers you the chance to make bread with local women, learn how to cook a Jordanian meal and dine in the home of a family in Wadi Musa.
I opt for a guided overnight stay in the wilderness. I’ve visited Petra half a dozen times before, but this is a unique way of doing it, meeting people you simply wouldn’t if you took the normal tourist route.
Anas and Steph drive us 20 minutes out of Wadi Musa in the family’s pick-up truck, laden with mattresses, tents, water bottles and food. The only other people sleeping out under the stars are a few shepherds.
We’re camping on a sand dune with our backs against a red cliff. A family of camels grazes nearby. Dinner is jointed chicken and homemade kebabs cooked over a fire, plus a salad and melon. What’s nice is being involved in the food preparation – I went to the market before Friday prayers to buy provisions and to choose what we would eat that evening. The covered market in Wadi Musa is where the locals shop.
Anas’s cousin Jethro, a tour guide, escorts me, translates and haggles over prices. The grocery stalls are piled high with apricots and bananas, strawberries, fresh, green chickpeas, every size of aubergine, chillies and tomatoes and piles of ginger. We pick up lettuce, tomatoes, onions and a melon that smells so sweet it’s too ripe to leave on the shelf.
Then we head to a tiny butcher’s shop nearby with fresh goat carcasses hanging up – good for kebabs, says Jethro. Inside, the butcher takes a fearsome-looking cleaver, cuts meat from a goat’s side, chops it, mixes it with herbs and onion and minces it. Perfect for our barbecue tonight.
This sort of authentic experience isn’t a side of tourism many are trying at the moment. The war in neighbouring Syria has made potential visitors fearful.
“Business is 80% down on what it was before the war, though it’s getting a little better now,” says Jethro. People are slowly realising this sort of guided tour is more rewarding.
“Tourism isn’t just coaches and the site of Petra,” he says. With this you have the chance to get to know the local people. And without the locals, this is just another place.”
Mosa’ab Nasarat is one of those locals, a horseman and goat herder who offers visitors a half-day ride out into the desert and a delicious home-cooked meal.
Despite the downturn in business, he is building up and expanding his stables hoping that his business will improve. I help him groom and wash his favourite horse, Dinari, a chestnut stallion, before heading out into the wilderness to camp under the stars.
As the sun sets, the sky and rocks turn every shade of yellow, pink and red. Dogs belonging to the shepherds in the neighbouring valleys begin to bark in chorus as darkness falls.
Slowly, the smell of chicken and kebabs fills the air. We eat them with salad wrapped in freshly cooked bread, and sip mint tea. I lie on my back on one of the mattresses and enjoy a spot of star-gazing.
This is the road less travelled in Petra – but I can’t think of a better way to experience it.