Wanderlust took six readers to Jordon to answer the eternal question: is it men or women who make the better travellers?
Science tells us that men and women (despite what marriage counsellors and bad comedians might say) are separated by just 78 of our 25,000 genes. Six Wanderlust readers and myself found out exactly what that amounts to in practical terms in the beautiful kingdom of Jordan. Strangely, it seems that Mary Poppins knew the answer long before the Genome Project was ever dreamed up: it’s just a spoonful of sugar...
The idea was simple: six Wanderlust readers – savvy travellers all – would spend a week in Jordan performing a series of devilish tests designed to find out once and for all whether men or women make the best travellers.
At least, that was the excuse. The reality was that we would be spending a week doing the thing we love most: travelling somewhere exciting, in good company.
Our group of six comprised three men and three women. Between them they had notched up an impressive amount of travelling. One had supped tea with mujahidin, another had worked with big cats in Africa, while another had even trained with the SAS in Iraq. So surely a bit of shopping couldn’t prove too tricky, could it...?
We started in Amman, Jordan’s busy capital. The teams had been instructed to find the city’s souks and buy four specific items as cheaply and quickly as possible.
The women immediately asked a local for directions then jumped in a cab, while the men turned to their Rough Guides and set off on foot. Hmm, so far, so true to gender stereotypes – the men wouldn’t ask for directions, the women couldn’t read the map.
Walking with the men, I enjoyed that sensory assault you always get when you’re somewhere foreign. Amman may not be one of the great Arab cities but, in its way, it has plenty to recommend it.
“No one’s batting an eyelid at us,” John remarked as we strolled along. “It all seems very low-key.” There was none of the hassle of other Middle Eastern countries, even though we were the only travellers around. It was recognisably Arabian, though – cars were constantly tooting their horns, men far outnumbered women in the streets and Arabic pop blared out from every radio.
As we trooped around town doing our shopping, we slowly fell in love with the place. Amman is hilly and compact, with a colourful little souk that has all the life and vigour you’d expect, but with no tourist presence – it’s just there for the locals. On our way to buy a mosque alarm clock, we bumped into the women.
“Isn’t this place great?” they enthused. “Everyone’s so polite. We haven’t had any hassle at all – it feels so safe and friendly. We’re spending 15 minutes in each store because the shopkeepers are so nice.”
As the men moved on (we couldn’t go home without some now-defunct, Saddam Hussein-emblazoned Iraqi dinars – they’re collector’s items), John turned to me: “Everyone should do this on their first day in a country. It really makes you get out and talk to people, find the good bits, feel you’re really somewhere abroad.” I had to agree; it’s not often men get so enthusiastic about shopping.
Dinars bought, the men rushed to the Roman theatre to see if they had beaten the women. They had – the women had got carried away with themselves and, living up to the worst female stereotypes, stopped to buy a few extra gifts. But when we got the money out and saw who’d bought what, we found that they were still the best shoppers – clearly more ruthless when it came to haggling. Of the seven points available, the women snatched the lion’s share.
Women 4 Men 3
At Dana Nature Reserve the teams took on a task that shouldn’t favour either sex: a walk through the reserve, with points awarded for successfully spotting and identifying the flora and fauna.
The walk was also a chance to see a unique slice of Jordan’s countryside. Where the high plateau of the east falls to the Jordan Valley in the west, a jumbled series of mountains, cliffs and gorges make up Jordan’s most impressive landscape. The sides of the valley fell a vertical mile in a series of colourful banded strata all the way down to the Negev Desert in Israel.
With our local guide, we walked through terraces of fig, pomegranate, olive and walnut. Then suddenly the guide’s foot stamped down on something. He lifted it up to show us a squashed locust. We looked shocked, so he explained: “These animals eat 200 times their body weight each day. This is one of the last areas of green in Jordan; let’s try to keep it that way.” We were all convinced, and every time one of us spotted one of the destructive insects, our boots crunched down on it.
Leaving the terraces behind, we entered the wilderness zone. The teams went quiet and kept their eyes peeled, but although they identified wild mint, prickly oak and juniper, partridge and lesser kestrel, there was no sign of the ibex, mountain gazelle, wolf or sand cats that live here.
By the end of the day, the points were still level.
Women 7 Men 6
Galloping down the canyon, sheer rock rose high on each side. The horses were breathing heavily, their footsteps thumping through the sand. Somewhere ahead of us was the Holy Grail. But somewhere else ahead of us were The Bad Guys. Would we beat them to the Grail? All we had was our wits, our speed and a copy of the Rough Guide.
Today, I was with the women and, yes, we were all getting a little carried away. But that should be no surprise: not only were we at Jordan’s most famous attraction, they were also racing around on a treasure hunt. The gallop was followed by a breathless trot on foot down the Siq, that winding canyon of sheer sandstone, only two metres wide in places. Secretly, although we didn’t say anything, we were all worried it wouldn’t justify the butterflies in our stomachs. Would it be like my first view of the Pyramids, which left me feeling cheated? Or like my first gasp at the Taj Mahal, which exceeded every expectation?
There ahead of us, through a narrow gash in the canyon walls, appeared a slice of orange rock. Pillars revealed themselves, then a roof. Emerging into blazing sunshine, we stopped and stared – the first view of Petra’s most famous building was everything I’d imagined.
“Come on, it’s got to be here somewhere.” Tabitha, the most competitive of the women, broke our reverie. No time for gawping; they had clues to find. The women started looking for the second riddle that would get them one step closer to the Grail itself.
As they raced from clue to clue, Kerry voiced what we were all thinking. “This place is huge. I thought there’d just be the Treasury and a couple of other buildings. But its scale is mind-boggling.”
Forty-two sq km of tombs were hacked and carved from the soft sandstone in pre-Roman times. But even if you took away all the Nabatean tombs, it would still be one of the most dramatic places for walking in the Middle East.
The mountains are rugged, steep-sided and riddled with improbable trails, weathered into strange colours and textures. In some places, scarlet and white sandstone had eroded to look like a sliced red onion; in others, warm yellow hues mixed with darker orange, which glowed in the sun. It is a place of marvels, yet 70% of the site remains undiscovered.
As the clues tumbled one by one, Shauna suddenly realised where they were leading us. “Oh no, we’re heading to the Monastery, aren’t we? I can’t believe we’re covering so much ground so quickly.” And they were. In solving the clues the teams were having to learn about Petra fast – within just a couple of hours, they were becoming experts.
The Grail was found, as Shauna guessed, at the top of the 880 steps leading to the Monastery. When the women finally got there, they found that the men had beaten them to it by a scant five minutes. The Grail (a copy of Wanderlust, of course) was the men’s.
Women 8 Men 10
Fraser sweated and cursed, pummelling the goat’s udder in desperation. The cliffs and desert looked on with cruel impassivity. We were in Wadi Rum, that magnificent landscape of desert and mountain made famous by the film Lawrence of Arabia. And we’d felt like Lawrence, riding along the broad sandy valley on our camels earlier, wrapped in headscarves and covered with the grime of a week’s travelling.
Right now, though, Fraser didn’t care about any of that. All he wanted was to somehow extract a cupful of milk from one bemused goat. The women had already won at camel-saddling; Shauna had just filled a cup with milk. But by the end of Fraser’s minute, his cup was bone-dry – he looked more sheepish than the goat. “This animal’s broken,” he complained. “Is it definitely female?” Mzied, our local Bedouin friend, bent down and expertly squirted a long jet into the sand. “No problem with the goat,” he smiled. So with one test to go, it was a draw – ten all.
Mzied’s tent was made of goat hair, and sat alone on the sand, miles from anywhere. He’d grown up here, and after dinner we settled down with him for the last task: making a cup of Bedouin tea. After a week of competitive fun, it all hinged on this – both teams got brewing.
Remarkably, they both made their tea in exactly the same way, using the same herbs – so only a tasting would decide the winner. It seemed at every stage there was a conspiracy to reinforce trite gender stereotypes: the girls won at shopping, the boys at map-reading. And now the male tea tasted strong, the female tea sweet. Bedouin tea is not strong, it is sweet and mild. So for a spoonful of sugar, the Women won 11-10.
Our competition was over; Andy summed it up: “All in all, it couldn’t have been closer. The tasks didn’t matter – they were just a great way for six people to enjoy Jordan. They got us talking to the locals and made us learn about the places we visited. These are the things that make the difference between travel and really good travel.”
So according to our experiment, women are the better travellers. For the men, it was a bitter pill to swallow. But you know what they say: just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
Final score: Women 11 Men 10