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20140929 Reaching for the Stars

I just returned from an amazing adventure in Jordan. It is beautiful. Not in a green, lush sort of way, but in the majesty of its mountains and deserts. From the first moments of walking into the Amman airport all the airport security, immigration, customs and money exchange staff greeted me with “Welcome to Jordan.” Everyone I met was relaxed and friendly. In the context of where I have been living for the last 10 months this attitude is a welcome difference. Breezing through customs and immigration in only a few minutes, I was out on the curb and directed to a line of waiting cabs. So far I found Jordanians to be pleasant and welcoming people. Each encounter was prefaced with "Welcome to Jordan". Even when the officials relieve you of a 40 Jordanian Dinar ($60) entry visa fee, they are gracious about it.

The drive was about an hour to my Amman hotel, and the friendly driver had the windows wide open. Not much traffic on the road at that time of the night. Barreling along the highway with the outside air on my face, I kept detecting a whiff of lentil soup and mint. What? The lentil soup aroma turned out to be essence of driver, and the mint was the local brand of chewing gum. The hotel staff was welcoming and of course saluted me with “Welcome to Jordan.” I was already falling in love with Jordan.

Breakfast tasted like real food. The egg counter was manned by a charming young fellow who whipped up a tasty cheese, tomato and parsley omelet. The fresh walnuts, honey, hummus, and apricots were the best things I’ve tasted in months, full and alive. The hummus danced in my mouth and my taste buds could discern the taste of salt and chick peas, even the local olive oil. It is so unlike the bland mush we get in the compound dining hall. The breakfast buffet was bountiful, replenished and tended with obvious care and pride by the attentive guys on the counter. The walnuts tasted like they had just been cracked. I never tasted honey like that in my life. It is not thick and heavy or musky, but almost like light syrup.

When the terrace door opened, a wonderfully fresh, cool draught breezed in. It has been a very long time since I felt natural cool air, not counting the Baltic blast from the air-conditioning ducts above my head in the office.

Missing the only public bus at 0630 the next day didn’t come as any surprise. The hotel ordered me a car to drive to Petra – my main destination. My driver “Sam” turned up and suggested that he give me a tour, since the drive to Petra was only three hours, and he had all day. He was charming and spoke good English. Of course, we pulled over for the inevitable Arabic coffee. I decided to take the offer of a stop at Mt. Nebo, where Moses died, followed by Madaba, the source of mosaics for many centuries. Later we added Wadi Rum down in the south of the country, why not? I could tick off three major sites in one day, and then spend the rest of my time in Petra.

Visiting Mt. Nebo where Moses died and overlooking the Holy Land was incredible. I saw River Jordan and the Dead Sea (but I didn't get time to go down into the valley). Looking down at the vastness of this rugged desert and mountains made me realize that all the Biblical stories play down the incredible achievement of just walking for a few miles. Seeing this historic and holy place first hand was emotionally and physically overwhelming. Even with a camera, you cannot capture the vast, empty majesty of this place. I was 50 Kilometers from Jericho and Sam pointed out Jerusalem in the distance. From Mt. Nebo we journeyed south to Madaba, where there are mosaics on the Christian church floor that date back almost two thousand years. There is an active cottage industry still going on there. I watched as young women and men created mosaics using tiny clippings of different colored local rocks. The color spectrum was impressive, as I was going to find out later on my cliffs of Petra leg of the journey.

We stopped for lunch where there was one thing on the menu. Halfway Castle, a treasure trove of locally made artifacts, proudly serves the national Jordanian dish called Mansaf. It consists of lamb shanks cooked in a sauce of fermented dry yogurt (jameed), served with rice. This dish has been a staple in the region for thousands of years, and literally translates into “large tray”. The local food is simple, fresh and tastes amazingly lively. My taste buds had a grand time relishing the vivacious sauciness of these flavors.

The desert is scattered with mines producing phosphate and bromine. Phosphate is used to produce fertilizer. Bromine is fairly rarely occurring in nature, and it is used in the manufacture of TV screens, photographic film and in well drilling fluids. The land looks bone dry, but it is arable; yielding tomatoes, olives and bananas. Many wealthy landowners have palace sized homes and employ the once-nomadic Bedouin who live in makeshift tents and humble breezeblock or stone houses. . The landscape, like many places in the Arab countries and North African, is heavily littered with plastic bags of all sizes and colors. The national bird, maybe.

Driving south to Petra - windows open, dust flying, Arabic music blasting, Sam up-sold me on another side trip. This time to Wadi Rum; former stomping ground of Lawrence of Arabia. By the time we reached Wadi Rum it was about 5PM. Sam called ahead to Unis, a Bedouin friend, who greeted us at a truck stop with his Toyota 4-wheel-drive. These whopping great vehicles last for years and out-do a Hummer in the desert. Unis, Sam and I took off into the wilderness to see Wadi Rum – Valley of the Gazelle. There was certainly evidence of gazelles, camels and maybe even goats, and I saw a few wild camels out there.

Wadi Rum is the location where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed, and T. E. Lawrence indeed spent time here. Sam and Unis showed me the well Lawrence drank from, near the cave he slept in. Unis is native to the area, and while he knows the terrain, I was glad that it was still daylight. I wouldn’t relish driving over this terrain in the dark. The desert has great fissures and old gulleys where once water ran. The rock formations are other-worldly. There’s something that looks like the skull of a dinosaur, and you can definitely see an elephant in the outline of Elephant Rock. The Nabateans were there centuries ago, and left their marks on the cliffs and caves, long before Arabic writing was born. I clambered around the rocks in Wadi Rum, watched an amazing sunset, then gathered sticks and arranged some stones so Unis could welcome me with “Bedouin Whisky.” That’s the euphemism for tea, for that’s the strongest thing they drink here, apart from cardamom-flavored coffee with an inch of sludge at the bottom of the cup. I love them both. 

All you hear when you sit in the desert at night is the wind, if there is any. The fire crackled a little, and the three of us sat in the sand until the sun was gone beyond the mountains. I have not felt such peace in such a long time. The truck stop of course had a prayer area and Sam went to worship while I visited the snack shop. With due credit to the truck stop, they had the best public toilet I encountered in Jordan. Unlike the loo at Mt. Nebo which had western style toilets, soap, sinks, paper, and no running water. It was humming to high heaven, so to speak. 

Wadi Rum to Petra in the dark with heavy transporter traffic is best done asleep in the back of a car. I was wired up from all the tea and coffee, and I wanted to see black skies full of stars. There is no sign of human habitation whatever on the drive, and I was with someone I had known for nine hours. It was a very rich and exciting day, seeing another type of desert, and with natives who were gracious to me.

According to locals, drinking camels’ milk makes you strong, especially for a man. Camel milk yogurt mixed with ginger is said to cure kidney stones and help the heart. Also, if one eats an even number of dates, it is bad for the body and stores the carbs under the skin as fat. However if you eat an odd number your body can break them down and use the energy. Now that smacks of “old wives’ tale” but there may be something in it. To the westerners’ eye, it seems that life for some of the Bedouin people has not changed much in thousands of years, except that some shepherds on their donkeys have cell phones. What's more amazing is that even in the middle of the desert or in the caves, the cell phones work! Now that's impressive.

Sam dropped me at my hotel in Petra late at night, and I slept like a baby. Early morning, fortified with a boiled egg, tea and a slice of cake, I took off to the entrance of Petra before the crowds mobbed the place. This ancient Nabatean city has long been on my must-do list. Nabateans were an ancient people who lived from the Euphrates to the Red Sea and surrounds. They controlled trade and oases in their day and were a literate bunch, making their marks over the walls and cliffs throughout the region. They were often invaded, ultimately by the Romans and eventually their culture was diluted. That’s the short version.

The price of admission to Petra includes a horse ride from the gate down to the Siq (a dim, narrow gorge that runs for over a kilometer and ends at Petra's most famous ruin, Al Khazneh -the Treasury). There is a gentle jostle to get tourists on the animals because obviously it can lead to other more worthwhile activities. I decided to walk, however, with a bit of gentle persuasion I mounted a horse. Within seconds, the reigns changed hands and I was now in the capable hands of Majed, an experienced local guide. It didn’t take long to convince me that I could see the best sights ever if I trusted him to take me into Petra “the back way”, only a little climb. 

I hiked the cliffs and mountains for many hours with Majed who was born and raised in Petra. Of course it's dangerous and crazy, but I managed to get up to the top of the mountain cliffs above Petra and saw the whole place from a height that made camels look like ants. My sense of enjoying life was really enhanced by this visit, and I felt so alive after pushing myself to climb over the cliffs. Edging over some of those narrow ledges, I realized that one slip meant death, but it did not deter me. It has been a goal for many years just to see Petra, let alone climb over the top of it. The climb was fairly rugged, but the heat of the sun hurt more. My Bedouin guide encouraged me, and at times held my arm when I looked down from the dizzying heights of a narrow ledge and felt squeamish. Majed helped me reach higher than I would have done by myself, and afterwards I felt really empowered and pleased with my accomplishment. It has been a few years since I climbed after I had hip surgery.

The Bedouin hospitality is legendary, and I see why. A young girl gave up her seat on the donkey (AKA Ferrari-Jaguar- Lamborghini) when she saw me coming down a steep mountain path. I’m guessing she didn’t have to be much of a mind reader to see my state of thinking. By this time I was sporting the boiled lobster complexion despite the hijab over my head and shoulders. After hours of hiking and clambering around cliffs like a mountain goat, I had to refuse Majed’s kind offer to go eat dinner and barbeque chicken in a cave. A cold shower and a bite to eat in one of the local establishments and I crashed for a fantastic sleep. The next morning my legs screamed at me when I tried to walk - “Are you kidding me?”  After all, I’ve spent an entire summer sitting at a computer screen in an air-conditioned room, unable to stand the 50o Celsius temperatures outside.

Majed arrived in his well-decorated Mitsubishi and we took off for a less strenuous adventure. First stop – coffee shop for a little WiFi action, then on to Little Petra then an ancient castle. Little Petra is just as it says; Petra on a smaller scale, without the legions of visitors. Sitting quietly beneath the ancient cliffs sat an elderly man playing on a home-made instrument that looked like a crude banjo with one string. There were a few stray cats, some crows having a sky diving skirmish over a morsel, and silence.

The ride afterwards to Shawbak Castle was like a step back in time. Shawbak Village is a dusty place in the mountains en route to the castle. It is littered with old Nabatean houses, more recently occupied by the local Shawba people and now abandoned. At one point we pulled over for two little shepherd girls on their donkeys. Majed gave them some cigarettes, and a big bottle of water. Later we picked up an elderly man and dropped him at a Bedouin tent further along the desert road. Shawbak Castle ruins date from the Crusader times centuries ago. The guards dressed in period costume, appear more pantomime than fierce in their metal helmets, bows and arrows, with well-fed physiques. It is a forbidding place, perched in a wild and remote landscape. 

Several times, when we stopped at a place for lunch or drinks, people at neighboring tables offered to share their food. When was the last time that ever happened to you? Along one of the trails, Majed even found a Roman coin and an old Bedouin dagger.

Our destination was Bana Village to see the sunset and stay over in the nature reserve. Nestled in the elbow of a valley called Wadi Arabia near the border, the tower is a cluster of very old rock hewn alleys with habitats dotted around the pathways. It has been made into a guest quarters. As the owner boasts, it’s not a five star resort, but a million stars and moon place. How right he is. The sky is black at night, with no ambient light from the earth. The heavens are crystal clear and I wanted to touch the stars above me. The sunset was spectacular against the black mountains. Now I understand what silence is. Only the wind reaches your ears, and an occasional bird call. 

Hazam, the young man who runs the Bana guest quarters, also conducts tours into the nature reserve with hikes down the steep valleys. He’s a brilliant drummer with a fantastic sense of humor, rhythm and a flair for making everyone welcome. Every few minutes, he doffs his hat and announces, “Welcome to Jordan”. I have not laughed so much in ages. After dinner we made a car trip to the local store a few miles away for more coffee. We danced and sang until late and I must practice my shoulder shimmy and hip wiggling before I even think of carrying on like that again. The men were encouraging him to take a scarf and do lady dancing, while I let myself be cajoled into doing man-dancing. My screaming hot leg pain disappeared for a while in the pure joy of laughter and listening to Hazam’s music and banter. Despite being wired up from all the sweet tea, I crashed in my cavern and slept like a log. 

Seeing the sacred place where Moses saw the Promised Land was touching. Meeting the wonderful people of Jordan, and visiting ancient cities and castles was something I wanted to do for many years. This was truly a trip that touched my heart on many levels and I feel somehow restored.

Wee Shufti