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Tour Leader exchange - trekking in Jordan

Added 01 May 2014
Tour Leader exchange - trekking in Jordan

Maxi Biela was the Spanish winner of our Regional Awards and was given the chance to travel on Spice Trails of Petra in Jordan as a customer. Read on to find out how he fared.

"Time goes by so quick!!!

If 15 years ago I would have been able to have a look to the future and see myself in this moment, I would never have believed what my eyes would be seeing. In that moment I was working in a bank, and after 20 years of experience…why to lie? …I hated my life! If that day 15 years ago, looking to the future, I would have been able to see myself wearing a turban and walking among the impressive architectural gems of the lost city of Petra, I would never have recognized myself. Am I on holidays? I would have wondered myself…

No Maxi….you are enjoying an award that the travel company Explore has given to you for your job with them during the last 10 years.

Whaaaaat????? Are you talking about meeeee????? An award??? And what an award!!! The dream of every traveller. The dream of every lover of this beautiful planet, the lover of diversity of cultures, the lover of life. eight days touring the wonders of this small but awesome country called Jordan; Petra, the Dead Sea, Wadi Rum, Jerash!!! Summarising... a dream coming true!!!

Spice Trails of Petra...a very intriguing name for a Tour. When I found out I had been awarded the prize, I could not repress a great joy and also pride in the recognition of my work. It was a fantastic motivation to keep working hard!

Who would have told this to me 10 years ago when I was waiting for my first group at the airport of Barcelona with my trembling hands holding the Explore sign. What memories...and what privilege. For the first time in my life I was going to lead groups of walkers on one of my favorite places in the world, The Aigues Tortes National Park and Lake St. Maurice in the Pyrenees (ON FOOT IN THE PYRENEES), one of the best kept secrets of Europe ... SSSHHHH!!! SILENCE PLEASE!!! IF YOU HAVE BEEN THERE, TELL THE SECRET ONLY TO YOUR BEST FRIENDS!!!

But let’s go back to the Middle East. I have to confess that when I get to Amman, capital of Jordan, my mood is not at its best. I have just arrived five days ago from a long trip in New Zealand, and I'm not sure why but I'm down, sad and lacking of energy...I don’t know if I really want to be here right now!!!

Saleh, my Tour Leader for the next eight days, is waiting for me at the airport with a big smile in his face. It is strange to be at the other side of my usual role, looking for the Explore sign...being an Explore member of the group and not the guide.
Saleh is Jordanian from a Bedouin tribe of the South, and has a huge knowledge of his country. He also has a degree in English literature and Jordanian archeology. It's 11:30 p.m. but he has plenty of energy and endless vitality. “Maxi” , I say to myself, “I think you can learn a lot on this trip”. Saleh has only been Tour Leader for two years, but I can see his professionalism and confidence.

Very soon arrive more smiling group members and we go altogether to our hotel in Amman, not too far from the airport, where the staff receives us with another big smile.

Throughout the trip, Jordanians are going to give us constant kindness and sympathy. They are relaxed people. It is a country of six million people and the Sunni Muslim are majority. There are also Christian minorities, Armenian, Coptic, etc... They all live together in harmony. There are about 1.7 million Palestinian refugees, and now the country is getting more refugees from Syria, its neighbour to the north. Nevertheless, this piece of desert in the center of the Middle East is an oasis of peace in a region of the planet surrounded by conflict. Thankfully Jordan is a haven of calm and stability, and you can feel it in the streets. And there are not beggars or people bothering tourists as can happen in other Arab countries. From the first moment I feel safe and my instinct tells me that I can relax, there is nothing to fear.

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It's late at night but Saleh organizes the check-in very quick and send us to our rooms to rest. Before that, he worries about our needs and he gives us clear instructions for the next day. Tomorrow the adventure begins and we have to be fresh. My mood is still low, but something starts to move inside my soul.

Early in the morning the whole group meets after breakfast with Saleh. He gives us a very detailed briefing with all the information we need to know at the moment for the first couple of days. I take note of the details and keep learning a lot from my colleague. In total we are seven guests and with Saleh, eight. It is funny how every time I start a tour, independently if I'm a guest or a Tour Leader, at the beginning everybody seems so strange. We all are so different and I think "this is not going to work!!!"

Very excited because of the adventure we are starting to live, we load all our luggage in our private minibus and start driving straight to the south, always to the south, in direction to the border with Saudi Arabia. Soon we leave back the enormous city of Amman (2 million inhabitants), and we enter in a totally deserted and lifeless terrain. There is not any tree or any bush anywhere. Only trucks and more trucks, the current camels of this modern nowadays Silk Road. It seems incredible that life can continue in such a hostile terrain.

In total we travel about 325km, almost the whole length of the country. As we are driving through the fast highway, and thanks to the couple of stops we do to drink tea and go to the bathroom, the journey is fast and fun. Step-by-step we are knowing each other and getting more confident and relaxed. Now the unknown people are not so unknown and I can feel the harmony I always have been able to enjoy in the more than 200 Explore tours I have participated. I take the very popular phrase from Facebook…. I LIKE IT!!!  And my sadness starts to melt.

Few kilometers before getting the Wadi Rum Visitors Centre, huge and barren rocky mountains say us hello. The landscape has become magical and surreal. A world of beauty and solitude hits my heart and infects my soul from the first moment. It is very strange. I have the feeling that I have been here before. Even I have the feeling that what my eyes are seeing is living inside me. I have been always here and now, finally, these two parallel universes come to meet.

We stop very short at the Visitors Center. It's noon and despite the distance traveled, we have the feeling of having the whole day ahead. Carrying just the necessary for two or three hours walk, we leave the civilisation behind, and move into this amazing planet called Wadi Rum.

The organisation will be responsible for carrying our luggage to the Bedouin camp, where we will spend the next two nights. Surprised I realize that a few hours ago I was a bit sad and depressed, unsure whether I wanted to be in Jordan or not. At this point I begin to realize that possibly there is no better place for me right now than here. Something very strong is happening inside me and I keep feeling I have been here before. Wadi Rum and its beauty enter inside me from the first second and I know immediately I'm in love with this place forever. This plateau of sand, granite and sandstone, is a gigantic labyrinth of rock formations that reaches more than 1800 meters above the sea level.

We are in April at the desert but it is a nice temperature. I cannot imagine how hot will be this place in the middle of the summer. Step-by-step and slowly we move under the silent gaze of eternal stone giants. We walk around the mountain called "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom". This mountain was named in honor of the famous Lawrence of Arabia, who was hidden in this desert during the First World War, while he was fighting with the Arabs against the Ottoman Turks Empire. We are in a place of legend!!!

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Behind a little hill we find Mahmud and his assistants. They have prepared for us a Bedouin picnic in a shady and pleasant place. Mahmud is going to be our cook during the four days we are going to camp in Wadi Rum and Petra. We always will find him at the best places and at the perfect moments with his 4x4 car converted in an improvised buffet.

They will never serve us western food; salads, yoghurt, hummus, Bedouin stews, fruits. A treat for the senses, whose flavors make us move to tales of Arabian Nights. Initially Mahmud is a bit shy and reserved, but after some days he will show us his big heart and love for his work and his land. We can feel all this in the food he prepare for us.

Personally I think everyone should travel more. We should all try to mingle more and understand each other better. In this trip, Arabs and Westerns have lived, laughed, conversed, and sung together...we have enjoyed, respected and learned from each other. Travelling is not just seeing beautiful sceneries, is not just taking lots of pictures. Traveling is to learn, to evolve, to know other people, to know other customs, to know other cultures and be able to know ourselves better. Travelling makes our mind more flexible and helps us to understand how the others, apparently so different than us, act. And helps us to realize they we all are not as different as we believe.

After the picnic we walk less than an hour to arrive to our camp in the middle of the desert. There are two big Haimas (Bedouin tents), placed under the protection of a mountain of impossible shapes. One of the Haimas is our common bedroom and the other one is the kitchen, the bedroom of our team and the dinner room if it is cold outside. Under a rock ledge a bonfire surrounded by mats creates a nice cozy space to relax. We drink a welcome tea. Bedouin tea and coffee will be a constant on the trip, and another of the pleasures.

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About 30 meters far from the Haimas, there is a basic toilet with running water, where despite having no showers, we can wash ourselves with dignity after the walk. Our dormitory is a big space covered with carpets where Mahmud and his assistants have placed one mattress, one pillow and one sleeping bag for each of the members of the group. There is enough space for us to feel comfortable and just a curtain in the background creates a small section where we can change clothes in privacy. For a few days we will be desert nomads and we will live like the Bedouins have done for hundreds of years. What an experience!!! I would not change it for the best five star hotels!!!

We still have some free time before dinner to relax and explore the area on our own. I decide to go alone to walk around the area and get the top of the mountain which is above the camp. The next two hours I spend in the wilderness are the best in many years. The feeling of sadness and despondency that gripped me before, mixed with the beauty and solitude of the desert, produce a chain reaction in my soul, turning despair into quietude, sadness in peace... Now everything is clear to me. Coming to Jordan, coming to Wadi Rum has not only been a gift from Explore, it has been also a gift from life. The sunset gives me an amazing spectacle of light and shadow that becomes mine forever!!!

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Back to the campsite everything is going to be different to me from now. The unknown people, the guide, the assistants, they are now my friends and my family for the next few days and I think they feel the same. It happens once more what has always happened to me when I work as a guide. Those unfamiliar people at the beginning become close people and possible friends for life. This is a plus in my work and my “bank account” of friends grows and grows over the years. Dinner under the stars, sitting around the campfire adds more magic to the situation, and we all enjoy joking and telling stories of former trips. Saleh with his enthusiasm and deep knowledge of his environment, explain us thousands of things and details of his country.

We will spend next day exploring the area nearby the campsite. In total we will walk almost 20 kilometres. Endless fields of sand, rocks of impossible shapes, silent gorges…infinite beauty!!! Saleh seeks, finds and shows us, footprints in the sand of all kind of animals that defy the extremely difficult conditions of the desert. Free like the wind, birds observe us from the distance. And we find once more Mahmud in the best places to support us and give us another great Bedouin picnic.

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Along the way we find petroglyphs, silent testimony of other civilizations that were here long time ago before us. Wadi Rum desert has been crossed during thousands of years by men that were looking other destinations, carrying their dreams, desires and illusions, as we also do nowadays. Back to our campsite we find a group of Bedouins with whom we share a heartwarming tea. Their camels in the landscape create a beautiful picture among the rocks. Camels are so important in the Bedouin culture and they are also called the ships of the desert, because they are perfectly designed for sailing on the oceans of sand.

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Second night falls at the desert and no one of us misses the comfort we usually have in our “normal” life. After dinner, Saleh surprise us again with his knowledge about his land. We talk for hours about the Arab Spring, and he pushes us to ask whatever we want without fear or taboos. Maybe world leaders should meet occasionally at a Bedouin campsite in Wadi Rum. Maybe there would be fewer problems in the world.

Next day we leave walking our last two days home. Some hire a camel to ride for two hours until the meeting point with our vehicle. Back to civilization...for a short time!

During those two hours on a camel, I can’t stop looking around me and I try to fix every detail in my memory. I say goodbye to Wadi Rum with the intense desire to return one day. This is one of those places on earth where it doesn’t matter how many times you go because you always will like to return.

When we reach the road, our motorized camel is already waiting for us. It will bring us through the route called The Way of Kings highway. Three thousand years of history pass under our wheels. Hundreds of years before the Romans, merchant caravans have used this route that crosses the country from north to south through lonely mountain ranges. To our left, below us, stunning ravines and gorges form an impregnable natural border. In these rugged gorges awaits the mythical lost city of Petra.

Petra!!! Just hearing that name make us shiver. I cannot believe that in a few hours we are going to be in one of the considered seven wonders of the world. Anyway I decide not to get my expectations very high. When expectations are very high, we can feel very disappointed if we don’t find what we expected. I try to calm my hopes and disappointment will be less.

We arrive to Wadi Musa town. Many buses, hotels, bars and restaurants tell us that this is the entrance to Petra. We are not so deluded to think that we will be alone in this place. To be alone in Petra we should have arrived here 200 years ago when the city was lost in oblivion, and it was the best kept secret among the local tribes.

Saleh has organized for us a tasty Bedouin lunch in one of the local restaurants. The service and food are excellent and prices are very reasonable. Big smiles light up our faces. After lunch we walk down on the main street towards the entrails of the earth. A wide valley gradually turns into a deep ravine. We arrive at the visitor center that is at the same time Petra’s gateway. I get scared... “oh my God!!! This is very modern and full of shops!!!” There are many people...but...less than I expected!!! “Uffff!!!” My expectations are shaking now!!!

My fears soon vanish. Passing the gateway is not just entering inside the archaeological site of Petra. Crossing the gateway is to get into the time machine. In a few minutes we became Nabateans, the creators of the city, and it doesn’t matter that there are many tourists like us. From now we all are Nabataeans, and we are the inhabitants of this supercivilization.

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The experience we are going to live in the next 36 hours is very difficult to describe with words. Personally I was not sure what was Petra before visiting it. I knew about its temples carved into the rock and not much more. I can say now that Petra is one of the most amazing places I have ever been, and I ever will be. Being able to walk and spend in it close to 36 hours is a privilege, and it would take weeks, months, years to know and understand the place.

Hundreds of funerary buildings, temples, amphitheaters, are watching us from wherever one looks. Very complicated water pipes show us the great wisdom of those nowadays missing engineers. Impossible stairs get lost in the heights of the mountains, searching for the gigantic sacrificial altar. And those mountains are ideal for this fairy tale of the Arabian Nights. Where are the princesses? We always miss them when they disappear. Please come back!!!

The beauty of Petra is precisely for that perfect combination of the most beautiful human work, and the stunning natural architecture formed of capricious colored mountains and ravines. They form landscapes that don’t seem from this world. Just Petra buildings deserve hours of contemplation. Just the sight of the mountains of Petra, is breathtaking. The combination of both is almost unbearable for the brain and once more is worth it being alive, just for being here.

One of the great engines of human civilization is madness. Without a point of madness there wouldn’t exist places like Venice in Italy, Cappadocia in Turkey, Machu Pichu in Peru, Eiffel Tower in Paris. They were unreal ideas that somebody one time dreamed possible. The Nabateans gave us a great gift of madness and wisdom, creating an enchanted city on a scenario of another planet. These crazy and intelligent people migrated from the south of the Arabian peninsula, more or less two thousand years before Christ, to the area called nowadays the Middle East. This area of the world was mandatory passage between merchant caravans traveling between India and China to Europe. It was a superhighway among some of the most important civilizations of that age.

They were able to take advantage of their geographical situation, and created a control passage area, serving travelers, charging tolls and trading with them. His wisdom was not limited to architecture and engineering, as they were able to open their mind and absorb all the good ideas and knowledge of the civilizations who visited them. Proof of this is to see all the influences reflected in their buildings; Greeks, Romans, Arabs...They became very powerful politically and economically, and that was the beginning of their end. The Romans, scared of the Nabateans growing power, annexed Petra for the Empire in the year 106 after Christ.

Petra remained significant until the opening of new maritime trade routes between East and West. Then the city fell into decadence. From the fourteenth century Petra disappears of the history, and it will not be rediscovered until 1812 when the Swiss traveler Johann Ludwig Burckhards, disguised as Arabic and on the pretext of sacrificing a goat to the Prophet Aaron, deceived the suspicious locals and reached the lost city. I can’t imagine how this man was feeling when he arrived alone to such a sacred place. This is a privilege that justifies a lifetime.

All this information and much more is transmitted to us by our guide Saleh. I call him the encyclopedia with legs. The whole Explore family we are amazed and our cameras are fuming. The 1.200 meters narrow gorge, a gem in itself, brings us more and more inside this unreal world. Suddenly after a corner, it appears the most desired jewel of Petra; the Al- Khazneh building, also called the Treasury. We can see it shy, among the narrow fissures of the gorge. It is a unique and unrepeatable moment and in few metres we are facing one of the biggest architectural myths of humanity.

But what happened with my expectations? Long time ago they have burst in an explosion of colors and sensations. Now it is impossible for me to describe what my eyes see and what my heart feels. You have to be there to experience it, to feel it... do you want to know what I mean? You'll have to go to Petra to know it!!!

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The Treasury of Petra is one of those places you can’t stop looking at. You stare and stare and try to keep it inside yourself. You turn around, you don’t see it anymore and immediately you turn again to watch it once more, desperate to absorb the beauty, understand it, make it part of you...My sadness is definitely very far. My spirit is light as the few clouds that look down upon us from the top of the gorge. And I can’t keep my feet on the ground, and I try to fly, and I’m flying again...During few days I had forgotten to fly. My Explore mates get infected with my desire of flying, and we all fly together. I can feel the Nabateans ghosts laughing and enjoying with our acrobatics.

I'm forgetting that this is a travel blog. I should be brief. But it is so hard to be brief when you have to write about a place like Petra. Petra is a journey through time, a journey to the beauty, a journey to the interior of ourselves, a journey to our memory and common heritage as human beings. We all are part of Petra.

Hours go by and we have time to continue visiting and exploring. There is so much to see. In the late afternoon we retrace our steps, now with fewer people. It is a surreal trip back to "reality", walking that magical gorge and crossing crazy fast Bedouin carriages.

Back in Wadi Musa we drink a deserved beer (Jordan, despite being a Muslim country, it is quite flexible about selling alcohol). And what a better way to end the day than having a Turkish bath or Hammam. We have spent two days washing ourselves with limited means, and this new pleasure is irresistible. For those who don’t know, Turkish bath consists in staying first in a very warm room with lots of steam. That helps all our pores to open. This is combined with occasional cold showers, and back to the heat. After about half an hour of heat and steam, we move to another cabin where a man or a woman, according to our gender, wash us and massage us properly for another half an hour (Don’t imagine strange things because there are none). It is a very ancient Arab tradition and something not to be missed ... especially if you have not showered in two days.

The day has been long, very complete and it has become dark, but we're not so tired. Overall we are pleased. A short drive takes us in 15 minutes to our new Bedouin camp in the middle of the mountains. It's as basic as Wadi Rum campsite, but we all are happy to get away from the hotels, from the civilization and to meet again smiling Mahmud. He feeds us once more with food born from the entrails of this land. We remain Bedouins in the silent remote mountains of the Middle East.

The next day is going to be another of those days to be framed in the personal story of each of us. We start walking early in the morning from our Bedouin camp. We go up and down among lonely mountains without seeing any other tourists. The scenery is extremely beautiful. Wind and rain have worked together to shape amazing sculptural formations at the surrounding sandstone mountains. Sometimes ravines and chasms remind me the desolate canyons of the island of Gran Canaria, where I have the privilege to lead one of the Explore tours.

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We all are overwhelmed with the immensity of the landscape we are walking through. One of the highlights of the day comes when after about two hours of walking, the fabulous Monastery building appears in front of us. This is another moment I can’t describe with words. The day is going to be long but we are not in a hurry. We can stop as much as we want to enjoy the best places, and there is always a little shop in the middle of the mountains where we can have a tea. The archaeological site of Petra is so huge, and it should take a long time to see it all and to understand it. Maybe we would need a whole life.

The Monastery inspires us to improve our flight skills. First Saleh and me perform low flights, and later the entire group fly in perfect harmony. The time has stopped, the watches do not exist. Only we, our happiness and Petra, exist.

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We spend the rest of the day exploring and walking up and down mountains, valleys and gorges. We visit new temples, tumbs, Roman avenues. At the end of the day, tired but satisfied we walk back to our campsite, watching the lights and shadows of the sunset among giant stone silent mountains.

It comes a new day and we leave with some sadness our hideout in Petra. This is another place where we always will want to return. But this adventure is not over yet, as we still have two intense days ahead. We got into our vehicle and in a short drive we arrive to Little Petra. Long time ago this place was a rest stop for travellers. The Nabataeans created it to serve the merchant caravans that were crossing these lands. It is much smaller than the city of Petra, but no for it less interesting. In a deep gorge we can visit the kitchens, chambers and temples carved in the rocks. We try to imagine the place in the bustle times. Who could travel in to the past and have a look for a while.

After Little Petra we drive heading north. There is so much to see yet, but at the same time we approach to Amman, city where the trip will end in a couple of days. As all the highlights of Jordan are aligned from north to south, it means that however we travel, we always have to go up and down the country. Fortunately the desert highway made things very easy in our first day.

Kilometres go by. We stop a couple of times to relax and drink tea. We still follow the Road of Kings and at noon we reach the ancient city of Karak where we have lunch and visit its imposing castle. This fort was built by the Crusaders in the year 1140 to protect Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslims. Finally Saladin conquered the castle for the Arabs in 1189. Saleh, our guide, explains us what life was like in the castle, and the function of each of its rooms.

After visiting Karak castle we continue our journey to the north and then we have to overcome a huge geographic barrier; the Wadi Mujib gorge, a huge canyon that reaches 1.300 meters at its deepest point. The Road of Kings falls down to the bottom of the gorge, to go up again to the other side after an endless climbing. If we were able to follow the stream of this wonder of the nature, we would get the shores of the legendary Dead Sea.

After overcoming this last difficulty, the traffic increases and soon we reach the town of Madaba, our last destination today and very close to Amman. Before going to the hotel, we visit the famous Christian Greek Orthodox church of St. George. In its pavement was found a mosaic representing a map of the Holy Land. After the visit we go to our hotel where we are all anxious to enjoy a well deserved shower after several days of Nomad life. Today has been another excellent day that will end with a very good dinner at a nice Jordan restaurant. We will enjoy a fantastic meal, surrounded by trendy locals and listening to live music from local musician Manhauel.

And we get the last day of the trip but no for it less attractive and intense. We repeat the routine of the nomadic travelers; we leave the hotel, we pack our luggage in the car, and very soon we are at the top of Mount Nebo. We get the place very easily and have taken much less time than the Biblical Moses to get here. Legend says that Moses reached this place after 40 years of wandering in the desert. From here he could see the promised land.

We also see the promised land. Despite the hazy atmosphere, we still can see a huge portion of land. On our left and very down we can see the Dead Sea. The Jordan river divide the land in front of us. Across the east bank of the river; Jordan where we are. At the west bank of the river, Palestine and Israel. We are located just 60km from Jerusalem and it is difficult to imagine from our position, how complicated can be life at the other side of that tiny and distant river.

But Mount Nebo is not only a lookout. Also there is a basic church built on the ruins of the original temple, and the place has become an important place of pilgrimage for the Christians. Its popularity has increased since Pope John Paul II visited the site in 2000.

From Mount Nebo, we get again our bus and drive down an endless descent towards the lowest point on earth; the Dead Sea, whose surface is 420 metres below sea level. To swim and to float in its waters is another of the great moments of this trip. A bit of beach time, sun and relaxation are appreciated after so many days of adventure. We take baths covered with a very black mud and that gives us more reasons for laughs and jokes. Floating without effort is very pleasant and we can’t stop joking. The group has a special good time laughing at me, because Saleh has to rescue me three times dropping fresh water in to my eyes. As I can’t stop fooling, super salty water enter all the time in my eyes getting me completely blind. When it happens it is impossible to see anything and itching is unbearable. Saleh, thank you for saving my life and my eyes!!!

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But this super trip still has a last surprise for us. After lunch we visit the remains of the Roman city of Jerash. A huge settlement that came to cover 800,000 square metres and was an important metropolis of the Roman Empire. Its main mission was to bring stability to the region. In the year 747ad an earthquake destroyed much of the infrastructure of the city and subsequent earthquakes caused its decline. Despite the earthquakes we still can see the magnificence of Hadrian's Arch, the amphitheaters, the temples dedicated to Zeus, the Oval square, the impressive avenues lined with immense columns. No doubt, the visit to Jerash is a very appropriate ending to a unique journey.

Completely exhausted because of so many sensations, so much beauty, so many experiences, we get back to Toledo Hotel in Amman.  That night, all happy, all being part of the same family, we celebrate our last dinner together at a fantastic restaurant, that again our good friend Saleh has organized for us. Speeches and tributes, laughs, jokes, promises to meet again. The same ambience that I have been fortunate to enjoy so many times as a Tour Leader, leading my Explore groups. But this time I have the opportunity to experience it from the other side and I feel privileged. Undoubtedly I am privileged. And I have learned a lot...Saleh has taught me a lot and I wish to never stop learning.

Jordan is mine forever and I belong to Jordan forever!!!

There is no trace of the sadness that gripped me the first day of the tour. Inside myself I feel that one week later I'm rich, I‘m much richer, I’m filthy rich!!!"

By Maxi Biela

Maxi travelled on Spice Trails of Petra.