We turn away from the airport onto a quiet, winding road. Tiny towns are scattered across the desolate landscape, each one filled with partially constructed buildings that seem to have been abandoned as hastily as they have been built. The structures look new and untouched, as if the owners might return any moment to re-inhabit them.
Bedouin camps dot the landscape between the ghost towns. The makeshift structures are made of tin, cardboard, scraps of cloth, and bits of goat hair; in sharp contrast to their concrete counterparts these portable homes are bustling with life. Children play, goats graze on tiny patches of grass, and women hang clothes on the line. Everything and everyone is covered in dust.
Bedouins ride their camels on the side of the road, and, as the signs predict, goats appear out of nowhere, seemingly unaware of the cars speeding by. We stop and wait while children cross the street on tiny, exhausted donkeys with patchy fur. They tow wooden sleds loaded with brush and scraps. It is startling to see the children working in the hot sun, and we realize yet again that we are a long way from home.
The landscape changes as we turn onto the road for the Dead Sea. There are still Bedouins with camels, but they stand on the side of the road offering rides to tourists. Ramshackle food stands with giant umbrellas are scattered along the beach, accompanied by Coca-Cola signs and plastic chairs. The strange scene reflects the paradox of Jordan; a country steeped in culture and tradition, both blessed and cursed by the natural resources and tourism it attracts.
The road to Madaba brings us back to reality. There are no signs of life, except for a few lost goats that casually cross the road in front of our car. We see a military checkpoint up ahead, and wonder if we should turn around, but it is too late. The guard comes out to meet us, sees that we are tourists, and breaks into a warm smile. He greets us with the usual Jordanian questions. “Where are you from? Are you married? Do you have children? Are you pregnant? Do you like Jordan?” Jordanian hospitality comes second only to their obsession with family. “Insha’Allah,” we reply. He smiles and points the way to Madaba.
We follow the 3,000-year-old King’s Highway for nearly two hours, passing through town after town on an endless stretch of highway. Locals stand on the side of the road warming their hands over makeshift heaters, and most offer a friendly wave as we pass through. Every town looks the same; a small mosque in the center, roving bands of dogs crossing the road near vacant lots, and women going about their daily business of shopping and child rearing.
The King’s Highway leads us to Wadi Mujib, proudly referred to by our guide in Amman as “The Grand Canyon of Jordan.” We follow the highway along hairpin turns, stopping occasionally to gawk at the crater below. We agree that this is the closest we’ll ever get to seeing the moon, if the moon were inhabited by shaggy goats and laughing Bedouins.