Part II: A Little Indiana Jones, a Little Lawrence of Arabia: The Kingdom of Jordan

p1010033-2After an eventful, and quite honestly a rather stressful stay in Egypt, my next stop was Jordan.I’d made prior arrangements to meet a Bedouin guide named Odeid, who was from the southern part of Jordan at the Amman airport and he would be taking me to the famous archeological site Petra, and then to his Bedouin camp near the Saudi border. My flight out of Egypt was delayed a bit, but eventually I was in the air for the short, 45 minute-long flight. However, once I’d arrived, there was one little problem with me getting into the formally titled, Kingdom of Jordan.

Upon arrival, a visitor must get a visa, and it costs 10 Jordanian Dinars… about $15. The problem: Matt had no dinars yet. There was a currency exchange counter next to the visa counter, but they were unable to give me cash advances with my ATM card and the ATM machines were outside of Customs!  I was trapped!  I began trying to explain my predicament to the man at the exchange booth, who just sort of shrugged at me. And then, out of nowhere, a blondish woman who may have been on my flight just walked over to me and HANDED me a 10 Jordanian Dinar bill!  Before I could even speak, she said, “I have been in exactly the situation you’re in now. Take it with my blessing.”  I was so grateful! I got my visa, got through customs, and found Obeid waiting for me, dressed in in full Bedouin headgear. He showed me the cash machines and the toilets, and I had trouble deciding which I needed most. After I got my Jordanian money I scanned the airport looking for the angel who had given me the money, but she’d vanished as fast as she’d appeared.

Obeid was a young-looking 48 year old, with piercing black eyes and a wide smile. He tossed my luggage into the trunk of his car and we exited the airport as he proudly showed me the plaque we’d received from the queen that morning; he had received an award for the success of his tourism business and had actually been presented a plaque from the Queen herself.

It was a three-hour drive to Petra, the ancient city ruins where I’d be spending my first overnight. Obeid was great company, and told me how he had just lost his mother three weeks ago due to diabetes and circulatory problems, which was unsettling to hear after 10 days of swollen ankles and painful legs during my stay in Egypt. Obeid has some very strong opinions about people of other nationalities. He detests the Egyptians and complained that many of them have come to Jordan to work in hotels and the tourist industry, but he said the problem is, “They treat the tourists here like they do in Egypt! They are always trying to find ways to cheat people and take advantage of them and they are aggressive, and that is not what the Koran tells us to do!”  I found that pretty interesting. He also went on a tirade about the Saudi Arabians and what a nasty people they are. He’s not a fan of Yemen, either! He seemed to like the U.S. a lot, and he was rather indifferent about Israel, but given that I am an American, he may have been holding back.

The drive was through rather ugly desert, but as we neared Petra the scenery was more mountainous and dramatic. Soon we were talking our way through the security barriers of the Crowne Plaza Hotel Petra and a handsome Jordanian bellman with black hair and blue eyes got me checked in and showed me to a beautiful room that looked out on the otherworldly hills surrounding the ruins of Petra as the sun was setting. Obeid said goodbye and vowed that he would return for me at 11:30 the next morning. I was signed up to take an 8:30 PM candlelight walking tour of Petra, so I went down to the hotel restaurant at 6:00 and was informed that the DINNER BUFFET would begin at 6:30. After 16 or more buffet dinners in Egypt, I almost ran screaming into the dark Jordanian night until I found out that I could order from a menu and sit in the bar area. And as if in answer to the craving I’d had for several days in Egypt, a tuna sandwich with cheese, and fries and a delicious salad was the daily special. God bless Jordan!

At 8:30 about 100 people gathered at the Petra Visitor’s Center. Petra was inhabited by a group called the Nabateans at least 2500 years ago, and eventually found itself under Roman control. Entrance to the city is through a 3/4 mile long, winding narrow canyon called the Siq that eventually opens into a city that was literally carved out of the walls of the wider canyon beyond. I knew that they had filmed one of the Indiana Jones movies here at Petra and had marveled at the photos I’d seen of the place, but nothing could have prepared me for seeing it in person. We were led by a Bedouin guide who insisted on absolute silence as we did the 20-minute long walk to the Treasury, the first major building beyond the Siq. The entire path was lit by REAL candles inside of canvas bags… like the luminaria that you see at Christmastime in the southwest. During the candlelight tours they use 1500 candles to light the way! What a job that must be to set up, but it was so beautiful! I was right at the front of the line behind the Bedouin as I didn’t want to be in the middle of a whole pack of people. I had to really watch my footing because I was so drawn to the amazingly bright, starry sky above us and the way that only that starlight was illuminating the surrounding white sandstone hills. It was almost otherworldly.

Once we reached the Treasury, long mats were placed on the ground and we were told to be seated on them. We were served a glass of sweet tea, Bedouins played long musical pieces for us, one on a flute and one on a stringed instrument of some kind, and then there was a bit of storytelling, after which we were told we could take our time and walk back through the Siq at our own pace. That was good news, as I was feeling so tired and winded as I hiked back out of the canyon, up a gradual but constant grade. I really have felt at a low point regarding my health on this trip, and in the last few days I have felt like I am really dragging energy-wise. My leg still hadn’t healed from my camel incident in Egypt and the bruised area was still very swollen.

I got up and out by about 7AM to take a daylight walk through Petra before Obeid was due to pick me up. It was a very cool, but sunny morning and to my surprise I had the trail pretty much to myself. I could hear the hooting of owls that are believed to have been in the area since the city was founded, and in fact the owl is the symbol of the city. The ruins were very impressive, but by 9AM the sun was already baking and the tourist groups were starting to swarm through the Siq like a flash flood, so I went back up and out.

I talked my way out of a breakfast buffet at the hotel and got a simple omelet at the bar and at 11:30, I came downstairs to find a dark haired, Jordanian young man waiting for me. “I am Subhi. I here for Obeid. His cousin die, so I take you to Wadi Rum.” At that moment Obeid called my cell phone to tell me what had happened, so off I drove with Subhi for the hour and a half ride to Wadi Rum, an area near the Saudi border where Obeid’s camp is.

Subhi didn’t know a lot of English, but he was a chatterbox nonetheless. When I said I’d just come from Egypt, he went on a tirade about Egyptians and how bad they are. Then he launched into an attack on the Philistines (Palestinians), who he said now outnumber Jordanians in their own country and whom he accused of “no want to work hard, only to destroy things!”  He showed me a picture of his 10-month old daughter on his cell phone and if I am not mistaken, he said her name was Mohammad, which seemed odd for a girl. He complained that he had gotten a ticket from the police for driving while on the cell phone, and was fined 15 Dinar (about $23). “They take milk from my baby Mohammad’s mouth!” he moaned. Still, he checked his cell phone about once every two minutes! There were police parked along the road every 10 or 15 miles and sometimes they pulled drivers over just to check ID, and sometimes they just wave you through the checkpoints. They always have both radar guns and machine guns.

The scenery became absolutely stunning as we neared Wadi Rum: jagged mountains and red, red sand; a cross between Utah and Mars. Obeid met us at the entrance to the valley and brought me to his camp. Tucked into a sand-filled valley were two long, dark “Bedouin style” tents and a bit further away were 3 individual tents. I was given a choice of a communal tent or an individual one, but I opted to stay in my own tent. We drove up to one of the smaller tents and dropped my luggage off.  Obeid then invited me to the big tent to meet his 20 year old son Nail (“It’s pronounced like the river”, he told me) and to have lunch…some canned tuna and a bit of chopped salad and pita; not exactly a tuna melt, but light and tasty.

Over lunch I met Emma and Richard, a British couple who were on their honeymoon. Emma never stops speaking and Richard seemed barely able to get more than two words out at a time. They had spent the prior night at the camp and were planning to be there for 4 days. Emma gushed about how Jordan was their favorite place EVER, and how they had just come from Syria, but were now arguing about whether to try to go to Israel because Richard felt it might be too dangerous, which struck me as odd, since Syria sounds a whole lot more dangerous than Israel.

Nail then took me in a pickup truck (I sat on a couch-like seat in the bed of the pick-up) for a 3 hour “desert tour” that consisted of places where the film Lawrence of Arabia had been filmed, places where Lawrence himself supposedly set up camp, a natural arch, and a Bedouin camp where people tried to convince me to go on a camel ride and I politely but firmly declined. At sunset he drove me to a remote promontory and told me to go see the sunset, so I hiked out a bit and sat on a huge rock and watched the changing colors. It was wonderfully quiet, except when the wind died down and I could hear Nail screaming into his cell phone off in the distance. Even in this remote outpost, the modern world intrudes.

Just like lunch, dinner was held in the big tent again. A campfire was built in a pit in the middle of the floor and it was smoky, but there were openings near the top of the tent where smoke could exit. We sat on the floor, leaning against things that looked like camel saddles, but when I tried to recline a bit, Nail brought pillows for me to lean on. Dinner was cooked outside in a huge metal pot that was covered and buried in the sand, kind of like a New England clambake! There was rice, a tasty mixture of onions, tomatoes and zucchini, pita, and chicken. The chicken in Jordan and Egypt is not exactly of Foster Farms quality; there is very little meat on each piece and it is always cooked so that it is very dry and tough. We also had a nice sweet tea and slices of a lemony cake. Obeid, this Bedouin in a tent in the middle of nowhere, spent much of the evening playing on his Blackberry, which again struck me as rather comical. Lawrence of Arabia with a cell phone.

Since the Bedouins usually sleep by 8:30 or 9:00, Emma and Robert invited me to sit outside their tent with them and have some wine. As we walked across the desert sands, the stars were amazing, and the planet Mars and the constellation Orion were especially gorgeous. As soon as we got to their tent, Emma surprised me by asking if I could tell how desperate she was to get to back to civilization. I had to laugh because she gave the impression of being totally into this whole experience, but it seems she was hating it! They hadn’t taken a shower in two days because she was so freaked out by the poor shower facility and the single hand towel we had been given to wash and dry ourselves with. Some honeymoon this must be for them!  They had reserved for three nights, but Emma had been trying to hint to Obeid that Robert wasn’t feeling well and needed to be indoors at a hotel down in Aqaba on the Red Sea, but Obeid wasn’t picking up on the hints.

I had to confess that while this was an exciting way to spend a night, one night was enough and I was looking forward to my comfy hotel room that awaited me in Tel Aviv the following night. The only comforts I had in my tent were a gas lamp and bedroll with pillows and the bathroom and shower were housed in a tiny concrete building 140 steps down a sand dune from my tent… yes, I counted! I went to bed around 10:30 and slept about 9 hours. In the morning I gathered up everything I’d need and trudged down the dune to the showers. I got the last 3 sheets of toilet paper, and then hopped into a lukewarm shower, and while I did tell Nail that we needed more toilet paper, while I was showering, Emma came in to use the toilet and then found that there was no paper. I ran off to tell Nail again about the toilet paper situation and then headed to my tent to get packed.

Breakfast was pita bread, some salad, and the scariest looking scrambled eggs I have ever seen.  I grabbed a hard-boiled egg instead! Emma nervously confessed that she never did get any toilet paper, and again with neither of them having showered in two days, I wondered what the hell kind of honeymoon this could be! Despite their hints to Obeid about going to a hotel in Aqaba, he told them he had set up a 6 hour long horseback ride across the desert for them for that day. Emma threw me a panicked, but resigned look.

Obeid grabbed my bags and we were off for the 4-hour trip back to the Amman airport, and the last scene I saw was Emma and Richard at the stables getting set up for their marathon horseback trip. We passed through a dozen little cities along the way, all consisting of a smattering of stores selling bottled water, Coke and Fanta, or tires!  That’s it. Take your pick. We did stop at one little stand to get a Turkish coffee. The first three sips are OK, but if you drink it down too much you have a thick sludge of Nescafe instant coffee and sugar at the bottom that will make you gag if you accidentally swallow it.  I thought about the lights of Tel Aviv waiting for me, and pictured Emma and Robert in their third hour of horseback riding and I smiled to myself.

During the drive, Obeid got into a long description about Islamic customs and how they relate to sex! He explained that you can’t “make sex” with a woman when she has her period. You must also not make sex with her for 40 days after she gives birth, and of course she is not allowed to enter a Mosque during these times because she is not clean. I wanted to say, “Over-share!”, but I didn’t think he’d get the meaning. Both he and Nail had asked me a lot about whether I was married during my time with them, and were very concerned to learn that I was not.  Mostly their concern seemed to center on the fact that I would have no family to take care of me when I got older. I wonder how they would have reacted if they’d known I was gay.

At the Amman airport, Obeid went inside to be sure we were in the right terminal and while he did so, a porter just grabbed my luggage and started to take it from me without me asking, and despite my protests. Obeid came back just in time and yelled at the guy, asking me if I’d given the guy permission to take my bag. When I said that I hadn’t, he said, “You see… I could tell from how he spoke that he is an Egyptian and he does things the Egyptian way, like I told you before! It’s always the same!”  With a laugh and a big thanks, I bid my Bedouin host farewell, I headed off through security to check in for my flight to “The Promised Land”, Israel.

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