Saturday, October 29, 2011

Jordan Challenge 9:Fulbrightain Ride Naqahtain through Wadi Rum

All the people I know who love to travel, myself included, do it for a combination of reasons.  There is the chance to see amazing new places, obviously, and taste, hear, smell and feel things totally out of our usual comfort zone. Just as important is the opportunity to connect -- briefly but meaningfully -- with people who are simultaneously distinctly different and profoundly similar to ourselves.  And I have the strong suspicion that I'm not the only traveller I know who is particularly excited to see places I vaguely heard of as a child, and always thereafter associated with exotic, almost mythical, tales and adventures.  Once in a great while all these reasons come together in a short space of time to create a particularly memorable experience. That's what happened this weekend when Elizabeth and I visited Wadi Rum.

Wadi Rum is the classic Arabian desert, made famous to Westerners by the story and movie of Lawrence of Arabia.  It's a land of pink and orange sand, spectacular wind-carved sandstone cliffs and canyons, sun and shadows.  Although the Bedouins who still live there are as likely to be driving (VERY FAST) pick-ups and 4x4's as camels (though there are still plenty of those) and the camps they've created have fluorescent bulbs in addition to the lanterns, it's a land otherwise virtually untouched by time, homogenizing commercialization or liability lawyers.  The only thing that determines how fast you go in a truck or how high you climb on a cliff is you, and your willingness to take on the dares of your utterly carefree Bedouin driver or guide.

With absolutely no idea what to expect, and our major goal being to scout out the area for future trips, my good friend and fellow Fulbrighter, Elizabeth. and I took off on a Friday morning in the taxi of Muhammad, who enjoys the well-earned reputation within the Amman expat community as the most honest and caring driver in the city.  As we travelled south with stops along the way for many tiny cups of sweet coffee and tea, he generously threw in numerous lessons on Islam, Jordanian culture and language.  In Wadi Rum we he introduced us to Meta'b, our Bedouin driver, who proceeded to spin several 360s in the truck (with Elizabeth and I in it) in the gas station parking lot as a little mini-orientation.  Afterward an older man in a police uniform waved him down, and I thought we might at least get reprimanded for this display of recklessness, but it was just Meta'b's uncle wanting to say hello.

Over the next 36 hours we
  • drove to some of the more famous cliff formations (including one where that we arrived just after sunset, and promptly got stick in the sand.  Meta'b yelled something in Arabic (which I later learned was, "anyone who loves the prophet Muhammad, come out here and push!") which amassed an army of young men in about 15 seconds flat who laughed and joked as they impossibly  pushed the truck out of the sand pit and up a dune);

    A view of the desert -- and our white truck -- just minutes before the sand swallowed it, necessitating the concerted efforts of a dozen good-humored Bedouins
  • spent the night at a beautiful new camp and ate a dinner of meat roasted in a deep pit and shrek bread cooked over a giant stone;

    Pulling the sheep and chicken out of its charcoal burial so we can devour it
    A view of our camp from inside the tent where we ate
    Elizabeth points out the amenities of our tent, including our favorite, the towels folded up like swans on our beds (which we didn't use because neither of us felt like taking a cold shower in the chilly morning).
  • hiked out of the camp and up a sand dune with Muhammad and Meta'b late in the night to see the thickest carpet of stars I've witnessed outside of rural Tanzania and held a competition for two hours to see who could see the most shooting stars while learning the differences on the Islamic and Christian takes of the New Testament and cracking jokes (the theme of most of them being that Arabic has a special construction for words in between singular and plural that involves adding "tain" or "ain" to double them);
  • Muhammad, Elizabeth and I drinking three more of the innumerable cups of tea we were served in Bedouin tents all over the desert
  • hiked up sand dunes and cliff formations to see Nabatean hieroglyphics and amazing views; and

    Meta'b and I standing in front of a wall of Nabotean hieroglyphics after climbing up to get to them.
    Resting on top of a high sand dune -- you can't tell from the photo that only a minute before I was desperately panting for air -- hiking uphill in the sand is hard!
  • fulfilled a longstanding dream of both Elizabeth and I to have our Lawrence of Arabia moment by riding through the same area he did, the same way he did, on camelback.

Fulbrightain (two Fulbrighters) riding on naqahtain (two female camels).  Our work here is done.
Not bad for a day and a half. 

One trip, two new friends.  Here's Elizabeth on the way to Wadi Rum with Muhammad...

...and just before we left saying goodbye to Meta'b.
Wadi Rum needs to go on everyone's bucket list.  Seriously. I can recommend an amazing camp and some great drivers who might just become long-term friends.  All you have to do is go.

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