Petra is best seen at around 8:00 am, well before the onslaught of tourists arrives with their tripods and hunger for souvenirs from the ramshackle shops lining the winding climb to the Monastery.
It’s advisable to climb a trail adjacent to the Treasury for optimum camera angles, whether or not you want to pay the five or six entrepreneurs at the top an extra dinar to get the “best” view (I didn’t). A decent lens is a must, as is sunscreen and a quality shemagh bartered for from one of said shops. There are also camel-, donkey-, and horse-back rides if you want — the latter two if you need to cover ground and the former if you want the rush of a 700 lb animal grumbling and snorting as it sea-saws under yet another eager customer for a dinar a minute.
Most important, however, is cultivating the evidence that you’ve been here. Every carefully chosen purchase, every image arranged to be both respectful of history and flattering on your multiple social media platforms, is essential to communicating that you were somewhere.
After all, Petra’s one of the Seven Wonders, in the top five of several billion bucket lists. In fact, it’s difficult to separate the awe you feel at finally cresting the 850 stairs leading to the Monastery from the expectation of how people will react to your profile shots once they’re finally online.
But for those of you who get through all this and still don’t feel like you’re really here, there may be a problem. Perhaps you need another selfie. Perhaps the realization that you really could be just another tourist doesn’t sit well with you. Or maybe it’s actually some weird version of the fomo you feel while staring at your buddy’s Instagram.
But how could that be?
You’ve taken some great pictures and asked an Australian guy to photograph you, be-shemagh-ed and sweaty, in front of The Monastery. You’ve successfully managed to buy enough one-dinar water bottles so as not to shrivel raisin-like in the heat. You’ve learned that “special price” means a variety of things when shouted from souvenir tents and that you really need to learn how to barter.
But once you’ve bought your frankincense, packed up your handmade scarves, and been shrewd enough to perceive the kindly Bedouin man’s offer to line your eyes with kohl as a way to overcharge you (I didn’t), you’re ready to move on. Board the bus. Be immersed in another experience.
In a way, Petra – for you – exists as a series of post-able snapshots, moments of savvy non-touristyness, and the occasional correctly pronounced Arabic sentence. In other words, it was your chance to make people envy you.
You’re going to learn a lot of vocabulary in Arabic class about these three places: the Dead Sea, Petra, and Wadi Rum. If you’re like me, these words will include Nabateans, rock, Rose-Red City, tourists, crowded, and the forgettable verb meaning “to take benefits from.” Your teacher will probably use the latter to talk about how foreigners have coveted Dead Sea mud as a cure-all for skin problems, but in a way this is what I expected to do in each of these places: gather the benefits of having been a savvy visitor to three of the most famous sites in the world.
Hear me out: Petra is a Wonder because it’s meant to be wondered at in real time, not stowed away for vicarious awe in albums and cover photos.
So, do yourself a favor: find ways to be there.
Let the Bedouin guy draw kohel around your eyes (and maybe barter a bit more than I did).
Get a shemagh (did I mention this already? Just make sure you don’t wear one any lower than your head or your shoulders out of respect for Jordan).
Muster the dinar for that profile picture of a lifetime in front of The Treasury (if you’re lucky, you might get some tea too).
Walk/catch a donkey to The Monastery (Eight hundred and fifty steps? Oh yeah. It’s worth it).
And above all, for God’s sake, speak Arabic (you know that posse of Jordanian language partners and roommates who know all the best Arab tunes? Join them. Laugh at your language mistakes and take your first stab at dancing in a moving bus).