This is Part Two of a Three Part post about Petra in Jordan. To read the first part, click here.
All the guidebooks plead with you not to enter ancient sites without paying, as the money is needed to conserve the area. Well I say bollocks to that! If they’re going to charge £50 to get in, I think everyone should go to see Petra without paying. Boycott the box office. That might convince ‘em to be more careful about biting the hand that feeds them. Or robbing it blind.
The tombs at Petra have stood for more than 2,000 years. The place has hardly changed. It’s been attacked and conquered, sacked and relieved, stolen, lost and rediscovered by every civilisation this part of the world has known. Despite it being low season, the car park was rammed out with tour buses, at least fifty I reckoned. If just a thousand of us were there that day, the authorities had made fifty grand. What the hell kind of conservation they were undertaking on that budget? Building a life-size replica out of Lego?
Most of the tombs were closed anyway. No explanation was given – just steel or plastic barriers stretched across the entrance of all the most popular tombs mentioned in our guidebook. ‘With a funeral chamber in the upper story, it’s a must-see…’ the book gushed. Nope. A mustn’t see. A soldier with an AK47 was lounging against the entrance to Tomb #67.
“I want to go inside,” I complained.
“No. Is closed.” And he patted his gun.
Had I paid to get in I’d have wanted to swear at him, point out that I’d just paid his wages for two days of sitting there, stroking his weapon, telling people what they couldn’t do. But I hadn’t, so I didn’t.
The injustice continued on the souvenir stalls. Yes, an experienced haggler could barter a deal that made both sides think they’d won, but that wasn’t really the point; this is Petra: recognised globally (even if it is because of Indiana Jones), if not a Wonder of the ancient world then certainly a marvel. But it’s also a market. Hundreds of stalls line the trek through the canyon, selling buckets of fake silver jewellery and shitty beady necklaces. It would have been interesting, if every tourist site I’d visited so far hadn’t been lined with identical stalls selling identical ‘hand-made Bedouin products’. I was starting to think that these mysterious Bedouin were bloody productive, given that there were only a handful of them scattered around the remotest parts of the country. And as closer inspection of the trinkets revealed, at least some of them now lived in China.
I struggled to comprehend the depth of the scam; they charge us such a ludicrous sum of money to get in here that we don’t dare leave until we’ve walked every square metre of the place. Then they fill roughly 50% of those square metres with irritating locals trying to sell us stuff. Presumably they take a cut, in the form of licensing these people to continually harass the paying guests. So we’ve basically bought a ticket into an enclosed version of the tourist-scamming hell we’ve been trying to escape since we set foot in the country! Oh, somebody, somewhere high up in a Jordanian government building, is laughing into his quail omelettes.
We sped through the site barely pausing at the tombs, intent on making the furthest part of Petra before the crowds. There were steps we wanted to climb – eight hundred of them. They wound up the gorge to a distant plateau where the most impressive structure – the Monastery – was carved into the side of a mountain. The views were legendary and the trail, gouged out of the rock by hand centuries ago, was twisted and torturous. Precipitous, even, bordering on the downright scary. One one side, then the other – or occasionally on both – vertical drops for hundreds of feet led to a nasty finish on a carpet of fallen boulders. Narrow, steep, uneven – all these words were redefined by these monumental steps. Eight hundred – that’s about sixty-four floors of your average building. I loved every minute of it.
Well, apart from the stalls which lined the entire route.
What IS it about these people? WHY do they think I want to buy their shit? I had just run the gauntlet of over a dozen tatty stalls pushing exactly the same crud. At each, a fistful of filthy merchandise was thrust in my face and a voice pleaded with me to pay for it. I repeatedly fended them off whilst shouting “No, NO!” in five languages – one of which was even their own. So what in all the hells makes the stall holder at pitch #13, watching my progress from his ragged awning, think “Eh up! This guy looks keen…”
By stall thirty I’d started swearing at them. By stall ninety I’d run out of swear words and my throat was full of sand. Luckily enough stall ninety-five or so seemed to be selling cans of cheap cola – no doubt for the price of a Stella in a swanky Soho night-club. But between me and the outrageously priced beverages lay at least four more stalls. I could see the owners rubbing their hands in glee. “This one’s lost the will to fight already,” they were saying to themselves, “he hasn’t cursed anyone for ten stalls! Perhaps he will buy my shit just to shut me up. Quick! Rasheed! We must be extra persuasive…”
A young Arab clucked to his donkey as he rode down, leaning back against the incline. Sure-footed, the donkey plodded down step after step, picking a path so precarious it had me clutching at the rock wall for support. Of course there were no handrails.
“Hire a Porsche?” The man asked as he came level with us. “Air conditioned, see!” He waved his hand above the donkey’s ears.
I had to smile. “Sir, your Porsche is trying to eat my hat.”
With a chuckle he was off, slapping the ass of his… ass. It paid him no heed, taking its own sweet time to choose the footing.
“I think I’d be more scared doing this on a donkey,” Mum said.
“Me too,” I told her. “But mostly I’d be scared for your donkey.”
I had to run the next few steps.
To Be Concluded…