Explore Jordan With Tracy Swift


Culturallyours Podcast Explore Jordan With A Local

Explore Jordan With Tracy Swift

Show Details

In this episode, we explore Jordan and the city of Amman with a local Tracy Swift. Tracy lives in Amman with her family and as a photography she knows some of the most epic areas to visit to experience the grandeur of Jordan – from dramatic landscapes, to ancient historic sites like Petra, the Dead Sea and the beautiful Wadi Rum desert. She also shares some off-the-beaten path adventures around Amman that can help you explore this amazing city. From restaurants to outdoor spaces, Tracy takes us on a beautiful adventure – right from the comfort of our homes. She also shares some beautiful images of all the places she talks about via our blog.

Show Notes

Karthika explores the beautiful country of Jordan with a local Tracy Swift. Tracy lives in Amman with her family and she shares her love for her city – unique experiences in and around the city. She shares some off-the-beaten path adventures around Jordan that can help us explore this amazing country that is known for its ancient history, dramatic landscapes, deserts and the famous Dead Sea. From restaurants to outdoor spaces, Tracy takes us on a beautiful adventure – right from the comfort of our homes. Karthika and Tracy also talk about the future of travel as seen from the eyes of an international traveler and explorer.

The Transcript

Karthika: Welcome Tracy. Thank you so much for joining me on CulturallyOurs. I am very excited to have you on the podcast and I cannot wait to chat with you and get to know you a little bit better and get to know your corner of the world a little bit better.

Tracy: Thank you so much for having me.

Karthika: Absolutely. So before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about who you are, where you’re from, just to kind of help set the stage for this conversation?

Tracy: Sure. So I am an American, who has lived overseas for about half my life, which is almost 20 years. I am currently living in Amman, Jordan, and I’ve been here for a little over a year.

Karthika: Oh, wow. So how did you, you mentioned you’ve lived all around the world. Could you expand a little bit, how did you moved around and what led you to Jordan?

Tracy: Yeah, so I actually grew up in this region in Egypt and in Yemen. And I loved growing up here. I love Arabic language; I love Arab culture and food. And then I basically went back to the United States,  as a young adult and then my husband joined the U S foreign service as part of the agency for international development. And that brought us overseas. So we were in South Africa and Ethiopia and then Myanmar over the last 10 years. And then now we find ourselves here in Jordan.

Karthika: Oh, wow. You’ve definitely been all over the world.

Tracy: Feels that way for sure.

Karthika: So talk to me a little bit about Jordan and that region. And I agree with you, it’s just something about the middle East – the culture, the people, the food. It’s very interesting. And so culturally rich, so talk to me a little bit about Jordan and Amman and just the whole kind of area that you are in.

Tracy: Yeah. So Jordan is in a really interesting location. There are a lot of conflicts going on around in this region and Jordan is just like this Oasis of calm. They have taken in a lot of refugees and so there are a lot of aid workers here, and you see a huge international community here to help the refugee situation. And   the Jordanians have been so welcoming to all of them. So it’s a really kind of unique place right now in the world where you have this population welcoming to an enormous refugee population into their country. So that’s been really amazing and there’s so many opportunities here to help and it’s like, you can really feel like you are having an impact at the same time.

Tracy: It’s a relatively developed country especially compared to some of the other places that we’ve lived in worked. There are many very Western like shopping malls and all of the American chains and restaurants are here. So it’s a little bit different for us to be in a place where we feel like,   there is a lot of money, there’s a lot of jobs and developed. There’s really good roads. I mean, it’s just   an easier place to live and it’s a very easy place to travel to.  And just so welcoming to everyone.   so it is unique for us and for our work as aid workers. But at the same time, there is a huge need here.

Karthika: Right and being in that part of the world, there is so much going on. It’s just hard not to see that everywhere, but sounds like you know Jordan and Amman as well. There’s a good mix of different cultures and it’s like a melting pot in a way. A lot of different cultures and communities are kind of coming together and living and trying to make the most of it.

Tracy: Absolutely. And I just feel so, I’ve said this already, but I feel so welcome here and I feel comfortable and I don’t feel like I stick out.

Karthika: Right. Now obviously so much has changed in 2020 and continues to change as well with the pandemic and everything. Can you talk a little bit about how your community or the local area has kind of adjusted and handle the pandemic and are things opening up and if so, how is that being handled across people and businesses.

Tracy: Jordan has really handled this well, I’ve been so impressed. I would say they’ve handled it better than almost any country in the world. And how they did it was to basically lock us down for several weeks at the beginning of this crisis. And I mean, we couldn’t leave the house. People think they understand what quarantine means, but no one understands what we went through here. Grocery stores were closed. It was very difficult to get food. The government did provide food. They sent bread trucks out and chicken trucks and I would wait in line to get food. It was very stressful, but at the end of that period, we had basically zero cases in the country. And so we had a very normal summer. The kids went to camp, we could go to restaurants and really not worry about COVID-19, for a couple of months. The airport has been closed this whole time. But now they have been allowing some flights from other countries into Jordan. And so gradually they have had a rise in cases and just this past few weeks, they have risen to a level where they’re very concerned again. Our kids were in school, but as of today, the school just let us know that school will be closing for a couple of weeks. This back and forth that I think all of us are experiencing in different ways around the world. And this virus is just so contagious that even when you have such a strict lockdown situation, it’s still eventually starts to spread.

Karthika: Yes. And with a planet of 7 billion people, it’s hard to kind of make everybody thinking the same way and kind of follow the same guidelines. So there’s bound to be a lot of people in both camps. And I guess we won’t go there cause that’s not the premise of this discussion. That’s probably like a whole another discussion, but considering that things had opened up and like you said, had a relatively normal summer, talk to me a little bit about how travel has changed for you guys? Are you guys traveling around in the country or exploring your part of the world a little bit more?

Tracy: Yeah. So, because we are basically stuck and the airport is essentially closed. We have been doing more local travel and it’s such a treat here because they have some of the most incredible sites in the world. I mean just a few hours drive is Petra, which is an incredible place. We’ve been there a few times now. We’ve had it all to ourselves. We have the dead sea which is 45 minutes drive from my house. And that’s just a beautiful place. So many different Wadis, which are dry riverbeds to hike. And the red sea is only about four and a half hours drive. So you can go diving and snorkeling there. And the desert is absolutely incredible Wadi rum. They filmed all the star Wars movies there, cause it’s so beautiful and we just have it to ourselves right now. So travel domestically has actually increased, like Jordanians and,   foreigners who live here have been traveling much more within Jordan than they normally do. So that’s been really great to see.

Karthika: Yeah, I guess that’s what I was going to go ask next in terms of, is it more like overnight trips or day trips, but it sounds like things are slowly opening up in terms of like hotels and like you mentioned tours and stuff, right?

Tracy: They have been again pretty strict about how things can open up. You see a lot of measures being taken. I mean, even when we were at zero or one or two cases a day in the country over the summer, it felt kind of silly sometimes, to see, the single serve items being served at restaurants like wrapped up separately and then your silverware would be wrapped in plastic and sanitized and people would wear masks and gloves everywhere you went. And so it’s, sometimes it felt like, do we really need to have all these measures when there’s like one case a day in the country?   but they were really great about it. And I think that’s important to show that in the tourism sector they’re taking it so seriously because they want to welcome back, international tourism and so that’s great.

Tracy: And the hotels were limited to 50% capacity. So when we would go to hotels, we felt like, I mean, there were a lot of people there, but you could always find a spot at the pool, that kind of thing.   so not like before  and it’s a nice feeling to have things be a little bit more relaxed and not as full. So that will probably continue assuming that they’re able to reopen the airport and bring people back in they’ll have those same kinds of measures where just for everyone’s safety and comfort you don’t have overcrowded hotels and someone right next to you at all times, and there’s no buffets, that kind of thing it’s really changed how you travel, but we’ve found that it’s still really enjoyable.

Karthika: Yes I agree. I remember over the summer, we were in Breckenridge in Colorado for like a couple of days. And my kids are big swimmers for them. Every hotel that has a pool is like a treat because we don’t have a pool at home. But I remember the night before we had to kind of put our names down because they would only allow a maximum of two families in the pool and no more than like eight people. So we had to kind of book a time slot, which was a little weird,   definitely felt a little weird, but I’m glad they did it because if you felt comfortable, you were not kind of stressing out about, Oh my God, who am I engaging with? what, where they have, where have they come from? What am I not seeing?   and people for the most part were okay with the mask and following the rules. So I guess when you are in a touristy place, it behooves everybody to kind of follow the rules a little bit, to make it enjoyable for everyone.

Tracy: Absolutely. And I’m glad that people were doing it even when there weren’t the cases that there are now, it’s good to, as a reminder, and the government would do things here, like having Friday lockdowns, just to remind people we’re still in a crisis. Yes. It feels like normal life some days, but    please don’t gather in large groups that kind of thing.

Karthika: Yes. Now I know you’ve talked about a few amazing places. So maybe we can dig a little bit deeper into that. If I, or somebody else out there wanted to plan a trip, where would you kind of take us, give me an itinerary of sorts, of where to go, what to see from, from your perspective, from the local’s perspective.

Tracy: Yeah. So, one of the little known facts, I mean, most people come to Jordan to see Petra, right. They’ve seen Indiana Jones and that scene where he’s riding out through the Canyon, that’s Petra. And it’s an amazing place it’s ancient. It was discovered, relatively recently, in the last couple of hundred years, but it’s really ancient, it’s thousands of years old and it’s just, these buildings carved into the rock. It’s so cool.  But everyone comes here to see that. And I think obviously you have to see it. But beyond that scene from Indiana Jones, there’s so much more around there. And I had no idea. I thought it was just the one building, that iconic Jordan image. And there’s just so much more, so I would highly recommend seeking out either local guides who know the best ways to go, the best times to go. And one great tip is to use the back entrance at Petra, not the front entrance. Most photographers know this. I’ve talked to a lot of photographers who’ve done shoots there. And they say not just get there early, but don’t go in the main gate, go the back gate. I just see so much more and you’ll still see all the, the iconic spots, but those are usually very crowded. We were there last December and it was like Disneyland. It was just packed. I mean, you could not get a shot even in this little narrow canyon I was trying to take a shot of my kids without anyone else. It was impossible, then you have to edit out the people. But if you can go in the back gate, it’s really not that bad. And there’s also little Petra, which is,   just another trail that you can take and there are other really cool ancient buildings there too.

Tracy:  So there’s all these places you don’t hear about until you come here. And  I think if you’re a tourist and you’re planning your trip, you’re just going to try to hit those main things. But I think most people would enjoy the quieter spots more and they really are just as cool as that iconic one building Jones. For sure. It’s just, it just, all the images that I’ve seen, it’s just so gorgeous and I’m sure it’s kind of like a wonder of the world.

Tracy: It is really very cool to see. The first time I went there last year I thought it was just one building. The main building which is called the treasury. But if you keep walking for a couple of hours you will see many other really cool sites. That would be my biggest tip about that site. And even here in Amman or nearby, we have really incredible ancient sites here too. There’s a Hill in our city that overlooks the city, it overlooks the downtown area.  It’s really beautiful. And it has all of these ancient ruins. It has Roman ruins and Greek ruins and even these old caves that are like from the bronze age.

Tracy: So it’s a 5,000 year old site. It’s really amazing. And that’s where I do a lot of my photo shoots here, just because it is like so special. I can’t believe I live in a city where we have these ancient ruins and these huge columns and there’s like a huge hand from a statue of Hercules and it’s really cool. So I think it’s worth coming here to Amman. From a cultural aspect of too, the food is amazing. You can go to many markets and areas that have a lot of personality especially in the older downtown area.

Karthika: That sounds amazing. Now you kind of touched on this a little bit, so let’s kind of jump there.   One of the things that we are seeing in, and probably you’re seeing this as well, is that a lot in the travel space is kind of going more grassroots, more, off the beaten path, like your example of going the back entrance of Petra versus the front entrance, right. And more hyper-localized experiences. So this next series of questions is your perspective because I want to get a local’s opinion. And I would love to know the why behind it as well. So what is your favorite restaurant? And this can be in Amman and why.

Tracy: My favorite is called Shams el Balad.  Shams means sun and balad is the downtown area. So it is right downtown. You can see those ancient ruins from there. And it’s a very food kind of a place. It is really well done. The food is amazing. There is this amazing pita bread and all of those things middle eastern. But there is more to it. They have their own spin to a lot of dishes and all their ingredients come from like local organic farms. They get their bread from my favorite bakery, which is right by my house and they bring it all the way there downtown. I mean it’s really just a thoughtful place and they have  a really beautiful area to sit in outside. And so I was just there the other day I felt really fortunate to be there cause they’re going to be shutting down restaurants for a couple of weeks.

Karthika: What is your favorite activity to do?

Tracy: This is a really good question. Because people sometimes complain that there’s, especially during this, the COVID crisis, what do you do here when there’s so many things that are shut down and, but honestly I love to walk around rainbow street, which is downtown and there’s just so much there, there are so many really cool shops and little cafes and, I think it really gives you a sense of Amman culture.   So here in the city, I think that would be my favorite place to walk around. And I just love walking. I mean, this is what I do when I travel. I just walk, I’ll walk all day and just find things. I do love to take day trips. There are so many cool places to see within an hour or two away. Hiking and exploring all of these ancient sites that are all over the place. I mean, there must be hundreds of them. I can’t even list them all, but you could do something different every weekend for four or five years here and not hit everything.

Karthika: You mentioned earlier some of the historic sites and also the dry river beds and hiking trails. So are there any outdoor spaces that are kind of more of a locals hangout maybe because  like you said, things shutting down, not enough things to do, people are out and exploring more. Have you found anything that’s more like a local hangout versus something that you would find like in the guide book or something?

Tracy: It’s been difficult here with those lockdowns to really explore. But a lot of people will just take picnics out too, just around the hillsides or even within the city. The city has a lot of hills and places where you really can’t build. And so you’ll see animals around like a herd of goats just grazing. I live right in the city, but you’ll see that I am kind of on the edge of the city, but it’s really interesting. You’ll see people take picnics too. There’s a lot of different parks around town and people love to enjoy the weather here. It is spectacular weather. I always thought. The middle East meant hot. I grew up in Egypt and I don’t remember it being cold, like ever maybe twice it was cold, you know? But here it is not that hot. And we do have a real winter and sometimes we even get snow. It does rain a lot but you can enjoy the outdoors all year around.

Karthika: I would have never guessed snow in Jordan.

Tracy: There are like outdoor malls and things like that where we can just walk around and people watch. There are also lots of outdoor restaurants. And again it has such nice weather that people just try to enjoy it and outside.

Karthika: Oh, it sounds fascinating. Now are there any local experiences that we should try when we come there and I’m thinking like cooking classes or bike tours or something that might not be on the  Lonely Planet guide to Amman or Jordan, but something that you think we should really kind of check out.

Tracy: So, yes. I mean, they have all kinds of amazing options for like cooking classes and art and tours. I mean, there’s its endless and you can actually find a lot of things to do. Most businesses don’t have a a dedicated website. They will have a Facebook page or Instagram. I took this really cool art class here,   with a local artist. She taught me calligraphy, which was just so cool. I’ve always wanted to learn how to do that. And I made a really neat little design with my kids’ names in Arabic. And she teaches tile painting and all kinds of things. And then she offered to show me all the galleries in the city to some of the local galleries to see local art. That’s just how generous people are here.

Karthika: That sounds fascinating. Now I want to get your perspective on this next question and I just want you to know that there are no right or wrong answers. So whatever you’re comfortable sharing,   given everything that we’ve kind of gone through and given how the travel industry has shifted or tilted on its axis, whatever you want to call it. Where do you think travel is headed in the future? And what do you think it’s going to look like?

Tracy: Just seeing how they planned to open the airport here and require a quarantine, depending on which country you’re coming from, I think those of us who are committed to traveling a lot we’re just going to have to be prepared for longer stays when we, when we do travel. And so I think it might just look like that. It might look like, okay, we can’t just do a quick trip anymore and just spend a week somewhere, we might have to block off our calendar. But the really interesting thing is now that a lot of companies are shifting to telework that might be possible, like we might have. And I think Europeans already do this, right. They they’ll take a couple of months every year and go somewhere. And that’s normal. And I think, for Americans, it’s really hard for us to wrap our brains around that. The idea of taking a month or two off, but that might be where things are headed. And we traveled differently and we stay places longer and it might enable us to learn more about the places we’re going and, traveling like a local might become the norm might become the only way we can do things. So, I mean, we’ll have to see, but that’s, that’s how I kind of envision it’ll be. In January I took a three-day trip to Prague with some friends and my kids, and I just jumped on a Ryan air flight and just went. We may not be able to do that anymore. That might be kind of a thing of the past. And it might just mean that we plan longer stays, build in a short quarantine or testing or whatever we need to do.

Karthika: Yes. I completely agree with that thought as well. And I just want to add that, I think it just will change even our life outlook, because like you said, for as Americans, it’s just like, okay, we have two weeks,   we have 10 days off in a year and where can we go? What can we see and make the most out of those 10 days? And sometimes it’s just overnight in Paris or two days in London and then we’re jumping on another plane to go somewhere else. And just almost like ticking things off on this proverbial bucket list versus now it’s more longer stay, if it’s more immersive, maybe that spills into life as well, where we’re not so rushed and we kind of take things slow. That might not be a bad thing.

Tracy: Don’t get me wrong. Things have been incredibly hard too. But I do think that there are some upsides and that might be one. If this goes on for a long time, we just have to think of travel that way and say, this is an opportunity to really immerse ourselves in another place and to commit to taking longer breaks from our regular lives. And maybe that that’ll be okay.

Karthika: And maybe people look to their local area and communities to explore and learn more about.

Tracy: Absolutely. I mean, a lot of us had spring break plans and that was kind of when everything went crazy and we were all planning to travel internationally. That’s just what you do when you were an ex-pat and your kids have a break for a week or two, you take off, you go to another country and we couldn’t do that. And so it forced all of us to say, okay what can we do here?  For the first few months it was, what can we do within a month? We found hiking trails within the city limits. I had no idea. You can see the dead sea from certain points in the city. There are places right outside the city where you can see Jerusalem. I mean, that’s how close everything is here. I had no idea. I mean, this is where I live and I didn’t know this. So just kind of exploring within our own city. And then once we could leave the city saying, okay, where can we drive to, what, what new places can we see? So it really did change our mindset. I definitely would have gone home to America this summer. We always do. But it was just a different kind of summer. And we did a lot of hiking.

Karthika: Yeah, that’s great. So on that note, if, and when things open up, what are your travel plans? Where would you guys like to go next? If you don’t mind sharing?

Tracy: Well, we’d love to go visit family back home for sure.  So that would probably be number one on our list. But when we back, I told my kids I would take them to Egypt and show them where I grew up. So I hope I can take them there.

Karthika: So you grew up there, how many years were you there in Egypt?

Tracy: I was there for about seven years. I used to go horseback riding at the pyramids at Giza every Friday. And it sounds so spoiled now but that was a normal activity for the weekend there.

Karthika: That sounds amazing.

Tracy: I would just ride horses in the desert out by the pyramids. And so my younger daughter is now really into horseback riding. So I told her I’m going to take her there. We’re going to go horseback riding at the same stables where I used to go and see the pyramids. So hopefully that will happen.

Karthika: Thank you so much, Tracy. This was amazing. It sounds like such a fantastic place. And I have to say, I have fantasized about Petra ever since watching that Indiana Jones movie. So at some point, maybe I will get there. But thank you so much. This was amazing. And thank you for coming on the show.

Tracy: Welcome. Thank you. And I hope you do make it here. I’d love to meet you in person if, and when you get to come to Jordan.

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