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Published: March 2nd 2012
The first Bedouin I met, I loved immediately. His name is Hamdan and he owns a few huts on the beach in northern Sinai (a camp called Yasmina, near Al Mahash, if you want to go visit him – and I recommend you do). With every Bedouin I’ve met since then, my appreciation for them has only grown. They are some of the most genuine people I have ever met and I completely dig their view on life. Money is not an issue for them; instead, sharing is caring. They share endless cups of tea, they share food, they share stories. But, most importantly, they share positive energy. They love seeing people see through their eyes, and they love to see people smile.
While most people go to Wadi Rum to experience traditional Bedouin life – roaming through the desert made famous by Lawrence of Arabia on the back of a camel – Ada and I experienced a much more contemporary Bedouin life – torpedoing over the red dunes in a 4x4, the back wheels spinning out on the soft sand, and Arabic music blaring through the loudspeakers. Even if they use cars more than camels nowadays, Bedouins still live
a nomadic lifestyle, never staying in the same place for more than a few hours. We’d arrive in a camp, relax over a few cups of tea or some food, then move on to the next camp to repeat the process all over again. It was just what I needed at the time, someone to tell me, “Take your bags, we’re going somewhere else now.” I didn’t have to think about anything. All I had to do was look out the window and take in the beauty whizzing past me.
The Wadi Rum desert is stunning. It’s totally unique, but in a very familiar way. The best way I can describe it is the sand dunes of Namibia-meets the honeycomb caves of Cappadocia-meets Mars. Huge sandstone megaliths rise straight out of the flat valley floor, their craggy peaks reaching up to tickle the white underbelly of the clouds. Thousands of years of erosion have given them the appearance of a burned down candle, wax dripping down its sides into puddles on the table. Besides El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park, I’d never heard a mountain calling to me as loudly as these ones did. I could hear them
pleading to me, “Come climb me. You know you want to.” I did. And when a large chunk of the soft sandstone broke off under my grip, I understood why the rocks were so red – they were bloodthirsty. I paid my respects to their power and continued upwards. The view of the valley from the top was even more impressive.
On our second day, our hosts drove us deep into the desert (only a few kilometers of the Saudi Arabian border) to camp for the night under the stars. When the crackling of the fire died down, the sound of the silence was absolute. There were no crickets, no frogs, nothing – just the Milky Way, unfurled against a moonless sky. And cold. Finger-numbing, sleep-depriving cold. But it was beautiful, and peaceful.
In the morning, Ada and I waffled over whether or not to go to the ruins in Petra, the so-called Eighth Wonder of the World. Most visitors to the Middle East claim the site as the highlight of their tour – and its entrance fee reflects its position at the top. Neither of us could afford going in, but we decided to leave Wadi Rum
for the valleys surrounding Petra, with the hope our path would lead us across something interesting. We put ourselves out on the road, knowing that at the very least we’d have fun, and that, worse come to worse, we could always watch India Jones and visit Petra through the TV screen.
Life provided, as it’s wont to do. When we first wondered off the main road, it provided a nametag-waving buzzkill, who threatened to call the police if we didn’t go back to the road immediately. He proceeded to follow us for the next few kilometers to make sure we didn’t try any more sneaky moves. Then, more fortunately, life provided a mule named Madeline, a donkey named Susannah, and two Bedouins named Sammy and Ali. Sammy is the Bedouin version of Captain Jack Sparrow, complete with black eyeliner (many Bedouins use kohl
to protect their eyes from the sun). You can tell that he gets great pleasure from meeting people and sharing his mastery of English phrases, such as, “Later Gator.” Ali, is a sixty-something grandfather type who not only kept pace with the donkey on steep ascents, but did it while smoking a cigarette and talking on
the phone. He didn’t even break a sweat. Take the cigarette out of the picture and I hope I’m capable of doing the same when I’m his age.
The two of them happily led us through Petra’s back roads (their backyard) from atop their beasts of burden, free of charge. Before you pass any judgment about us skipping out on the entrance fee, let me tell you a few things. In the past year, the ticket price to Petra has tripled. The money isn’t used to build schools, or hospitals, or community centers. It isn’t used for any type of development. It goes directly into the pockets of politicians. My conscience is clear. I would have been happy for the good company and conversation our guides provided anywhere in the world, but it was even better against the striking backdrop of Petra. The ruins are majestic, to say the least, but what I marveled at even more was the marbled sandstone from which they were carved. Twenty-three different shades of pinks, purples, yellows, oranges, and grays swirl and swoop around each other, forming intricate pictures and patterns.
When night fell, we cooked a simple dinner on a fire
in a cave. Afterwards, Sammy, Madeline and I set off to see what my lack of ticket had denied me seeing earlier – a view of the Treasury from ground level. We clip-clopped down the Siq, the main entranceway to Petra, Madeline’s hoof beats echoing off the cliff faces that soared overhead. After over a kilometer in the narrow passage, we saw the ancient building through a crack. We emerged into a small opening and craned our necks to take in all 43 meters of the expertly sculpted rock, bathing in the light of a quarter moon. It was then that I appreciated the ingenuity of the Nabataeans who carved these monuments over 2000 years ago, and understood why so many people flock there. I was happy I had come to Petra. It seemed unreal that I would leave for India in the morning. My Middle Eastern adventure had come to an end, but it was the perfect ending.
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