When I was in law school, I traveled to Jordan during spring break as part of the legal work I was doing with refugees. After a really intense but educational week, my fellow students and I took a four hour taxi ride south to Petra. I had been fascinated by Petra since I was very young, having seen photos of it lit up by candlelight and imaging life for the people who lived there thousands of years ago. I could not believe I would get to see it in person.
We arrived late in the evening and were at the gates of Petra by 6:00am the next morning. We were the first visitors that day and we were able to visit the Al Siq, the Treasury, and the Monastery all alone, in silence and awe. I hung out on a ledge overlooking a valley with a Bedouin girl who told me all about her life. I bought some necklaces made of camel bone from her mother. It felt like a real adventure, seeing Petra in all its natural glory.
Eventually, we were ready for the 10km journey out of this natural wonder. As we descended, it was approaching midday and hundreds (thousands?) of tourists had arrived on buses and had completely overrun most of the sights below. It was loud and chaotic, strollers everywhere; it could easily have been Disneyland if you photoshopped the background. I was horrified. I felt this did not do Petra justice. The sense of awe, the quiet reflection was gone. The appeal of Petra is not just the beauty of its constructions but that it was untouched for so long; it was rediscovered just 200 years ago. You cannot channel these feelings in a throng of hundreds of shouting people who just want to snap their photo and move on. I was so, so thankful that I had been able to experience Petra as I did at first, alone.
That day I learned a lesson that when you do something can be just as important as what you do. I would have a very different memory of Petra if I had gone at a different time. I have carried this lesson with me. From the Great Wall of China to the beaches of Malaysia and Algarve, Portugal, I put the extra effort to enjoy and appreciate the places I long to see when they are at their best. Of course you cannot always control your timing and you have to make do. But when you can, when you are going to a place that demands quiet, respect or awe, go at dawn. And you can always take a nap later.