My main reason for visiting Jordan - other than living out my “Lawrence of Arabia” fantasy – was to visit Petra. Petra is an incredible Nabatean city carved out of the cliffs, dating back to the first century BCE. There are still Bedouin who live in the caves of Petra, making this a city that has been inhabited for at least 2,500 years.
To that end, I had arranged with my hotel to hire a taxi for the day to take me the 128 kilometers from Aqaba to Petra. The hotel manager assured me that this was a driver he trusted; the driver would wait for me while I explored Petra and drive me back. The fee was JD85 (about US $120) which was steep, but it was certain, unlike the buses.
My driver, Naef, spoke very little English and I spoke even less Arabic (um, make that NO Arabic beyond “thank you,” which isn’t always the appropriate response.) But he seemed friendly, and he showed me his registration as a taxi driver, and his taxi license, so off we went.
About five minutes into the trip, Naef turned off the main road. I thought this was a
little odd, but hey, maybe it’s a shortcut. We drive a little deeper into this shabby neighborhood when he pulls up in front of a small, dilapidated, cinder-block building and stops. “Oh, (expletive!)” I thought. “Five minutes into the trip, we aren’t even out of town yet, and already I’m being hijacked.”
He gets out of the car and says “Five minute. It more better.”
A few moments later he comes back with a five gallon jerry can and a cut down two litre bottle to use as a funnel. As he proceeds to pour gas into his taxi, I relax and decide to take what comes for the rest of the trip. An Attempt at Conversation
His lack of English and my lack of Arabic makes conversation difficult. An example: Me
: How many people live in Aqaba? Naef
: Khomeini?? Me
: (pointing to him) Persons – how many persons in Aqaba? Naef
: me Khomeini?? (looking alarmed) Me
: No, no, what number persons in Aqaba? One, two, three, five hundred, one thousand? Naef
: Five hundred.
This number was obviously incorrect, but not wanting to alarm him further I
restricted myself to pointing at the landscape and smiling a lot. Smuggling
Aqaba is an important port city, and is known to have had its share of smugglers, going back thousands of years. Today’s concerns are drugs, weapons, and nuclear armaments. On several occasions within the past year, arms destined for Iraq have been confiscated before they left Aqaba, and just two months prior to my visit a large shipment of drugs had been seized.
On our way out of town we were stopped four times by police and border patrols. The first time was a formal checkpoint with an inspection of the trunk of the vehicle. The other three times were a roadblock set up along the road by the police. At first I thought it might be a shakedown by the cops, but I saw no money change hands, the police were polite, if stern. We got through them quickly and continued on our way. By the Side of the Road
About half an hour later, Naef pulls off to the side of the road. There is absolutely nothing out here except sand, rocks and an elderly Bedouin who
has set up a small tent. He was sitting in its shade on a low bench when we pull up. “Five minute,” says Naef. I get out and start walking towards the shade. “Baby camel,” says Naef, pointing. Sure enough, tethered in a depression in the sand are two adult camels and a young one. Now, I generally don’t have much truck with camels, but the little one was kind of cute in a camel sort of way.
After admiring the camels, I was ready to get going, but Naef lit another cigarette and patted the bench he was sitting on. I was shown a bowl half full of foamy white liquid that turned out to be camel’s milk. The Bedouin brought out small glass cups and Naef told me our host wanted us to have tea. I know better than to turn down an offer of tea, so I took the cup into which were poured half tea and half camel milk. It was sweet tasting and surprisingly good.
The old gentleman trotted out some of his other pets for me to admire: three turtles, a porcupine, and a baby cobra which he kept in a ventilated
two-litre soda bottle. I’m not sure how humane it is to keep even a very small cobra in a soda bottle, but I certainly didn’t want him to let it loose while I was in the vicinity.
It was time to get on the road, but I got the feeling the Bedouin was glad to have a little company and I was certainly happy to drink tea with camel milk. Petra
Getting into Petra is an expensive proposition. Jordanian citizens can visit this site for JD1. If you are a foreigner and spend at least one night in Jordan, the entrance fee is JD50 (about US $75). If you are a foreigner and just here for the day, the cost goes to a whopping JD90 (about US $130.) I was told this higher cost for day-trippers was aimed at Israelis who come across the border from Eilat. You cannot pay in any currency other than Jordanian dinars, and you CANNOT pay by credit card. Services of guide are also on a cash only (dinar) basis.
I didn't have the cash to pay for a guide, but a large group of English speaking tourists just
the Bedouin's other transportation
happened to be going through at the same time, so I eavesdropped on their guide. The city itself is wonderful and amazing; I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. I find it astounding that such intricate carving could be done by people without modern tools.
On the way through the city, I came across a group of school girls with their teacher. They were sweet and eager to practice their English. “Hello,” “What’s your name?” “You are very beautiful,” was echoed by each girl in turn. Their teacher was equally friendly, and in the space of five minutes told me she had two children, was divorced, thought her students needed more practice in English, and gave me her opinion on the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon. Then they were off, with the little girls calling “I love you,” over their shoulder as they continued up the trail. “Oh My God!”
I spent about four hours wandering around hot, dusty Petra. Fortunately, I had thought to bring plenty of water with me. I finally exited the site, found my taxi driver, and we were off. Well, not before we stopped at his friend’s
On the trail
Yes, I wimped out and rode a horse from the entrance to the site to the start of the trail.
shop on the outskirts of town for tea, but no matter.
Once we got back on The King’s Highway headed for Aqaba, I was drowsing in the front seat. It was warm, and I was tired. Suddenly I heard the squeal of tires and Naef slammed on the brakes. Not 100 yards in front of us a semi-trailer lost control going around a curve midway down a steep hill. His cab bounced off the center dividing rail, almost flipped, settled back on its wheels, and skidded across the road to land on its side in a ditch in a shower of sparks.
“Oh, my God! Oh my God!” was all I could say. Naef pulled off to the side of the road and sat there stunned. We looked at each other, “Call the police!” I said. “Yes, call,” he said as he got out of the taxi with his cell phone to his ear and started running towards the truck.
Two other cars stopped, and the men in those vehicles also ran to the crippled truck. I got out and started to motion to oncoming vehicles to slow down. Once the women in the other cars saw
Mohammed the horse wrangler
I picked him because his horses looked well-fed. At the end of the trip he asked for a tip ... and one for his horse, too.
what I was doing, they also got out and motioned on-coming traffic to slow. Good thing too, the next three trucks were tanker trucks with fuel headed south.
We stayed until the ambulance came. The truck driver was alive. Naef got back in the taxi and fluttered his hand over his chest to indicate how his heart was racing. “Yes, I said. No more excitement. OK?”
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