Monday, January 28, 2013

The End of the World, or How Not to Do Petra with Kids





The sign said, 'The end of the world'; as did the look on my three-year-old's face. Below us, the dusky pink desert canyons and dimpled, rocky mountains of the Jordan Valley stretched west towards Jerusalem. And somewhere, far, far below the precipice we'd scaled to 'Sacrifice View', a bright blue cap was now swirling away, whisked off my son's head by the sharp wind that greeted us at the summit.

It was already late in the day, and here we were, five-month-old strapped to my chest, standing at one of Petra's remotest points, with an inconsolable small child. What had possessed us, not only to climb up 1,000-odd slippery sandstone steps to the monastery, which at 50-ish metres tall is the largest of the ancient city's vast edifices, but to continue beyond it to reach a peak?

The answer, of course, is the same reason we'd braved a two-day drive from Jerusalem, where we were living, with a car- phobic baby: for the chance to see Petra. All of Petra. Or as much as was feasibly possible to cover in a day while keeping donkey rides strictly for emergencies, which did not, incidentally, include climbing up to the monastery, but did include getting the aforementioned, now cap-less, son back to our hotel in Wadi Musa for his dinner.

Before it all went so wrong, it had all gone so right. Our trip, in December 2011, came at a bad time for Jordan: tourists were shunning the country out of misplaced fears it had been caught up in the Arab Spring. This had made Petra our own, give or take a few horse-drawn cal├Ęches weighed down by overweight visitors. And all we had to do to avoid those was clamber up to explore some of the many rose-red structures carved at neck-craning height, or higher.

Every visit starts, however, with the Treasury, the building immortalised in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. This columned marvel, seemingly superimposed on the jagged mountainside, bursts out of the cliffs as you exit the Siq, the 1km-long winding gorge through which all visitors must enter. Ropes bar you from going inside these days, although plenty of the other 800 buildings and monuments that the Nabateans carved out of that famous pink sandstone some 2,400 years ago are still accessible.

We'd mulled over bringing Louis's scooter, but the Siq's cobbled pathway is quickly replaced by the ancient city's sandy streets, so it was just as well we hadn't. A buggy would have been similarly useless, for anyone tempted. But the baby carrier, or carriers, for I packed a spare in case Raf faced a change of perspective, was just the ticket and made taking a baby around Petra a doddle.

It's the sense of isolation that awes you, once inside, as well as the immense scale. Climbing that peak really did have an end-of-the-world feel to it. As I trudged the 6km or so back to the entrance, I felt I'd short-changed the Nabateans by sacrificing just the one cap. But it turned out I needed not to have worried. The vomit-strewn sheets of a sunstroked child combined with the news that our London home had been burgled almost exactly while we were looking at that view, meant I ended up more than paying for my Petra experience. Not that I had any regrets.

(This was something I wrote for the Independent, but as I'd never posted from our side trip to Petra while living in Jerusalem in 2011 I thought I'd add it.)