“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Wadi Rum and Desert Nights

In her autobiography, Queen Noor described weekend trips to Wadi Rum with her husband, the late King Hussein, on the back of his motorcycle. It was the description of this Mars-like landscape that inspired me to put it on my must-see list. It did not disappoint. 

Wadi Rum is a protected area in southern Jordan just north of the Saudi border. The drive down from Petra brought us along the ancient King’s Highway over a mountain range with spectacular views. At elevation,  and this area can see snow in winter months. Driving by through Jordan this week has been a treat in and of itself, just as fun as sightseeing. The history in this country boggles the mind. The King’s Highway was mentioned as far back as Genesis, and the route by which Moses requested to move his people (was that Exodus?). Moses will be a subject of interest a few times on this trip.  I’m no biblical scholar, nor religious, but I do appreciate the ancient history of this land. 

En route to Wadi Rum we passed a small train station and a train engine with cars. This marked the place where Lawrence of Arabia and his men attacked an Ottoman train, as depicted in the famed movie. We have a Japanese sand garden in my office back in Chicago. I so desperately want to put a little train, horses, and miniature army men in this sand, as a diorama of sort. I wonder if anyone would notice. Dad, can you send me a set from your model train collection, please?

Something I noticed and found alarming during he drive but is quite normal in Jordan according to my driver, is the frequency of hitchhikers. Many people stand along the side of the road and flag down anyone passing. It’s part of the hospitality culture to aid the traveler. I love that this is a thing, but my driver was surprised that I found it shocking, and that it’s so dangerous to do in America. “Really??”  Dude, is go from the side of the road alive to the side of the road dead. #nope

As we arrived at the Sun City Camp in Wadi Rum, I experienced what was becoming a pattern during this trip... being handed off from man to man to man. My tent wasn’t yet ready, so I was “handed off” to a young Bedouin man who was sharply dressed in a long white thobe, grey overcoat (much like a dress), and a keffiyeh headscarf. His English was pretty decent and he was friendly, but not overtly so. We hopped into his Jeep for a 3-hour tour of the surrounding desert.  Much like Mongolia, roads are an idea, not a concrete patch of tarmac. When we stopped for pictures at a rock carving by commemorating Lawrence, a bus of Chinese tourists engulfed my guide with unsolicited pictures and selfie sticks. He wore an embarrassing friendly smile as picture after picture was snapped alongside strangers. He was obliging them but clearly uncomfortable. When he did manage to steal away, I shared a similar story of being in his position as a white blonde female photo attraction in China and India, and we shared a good laugh. I hope I put him at ease, so I did feel his discomfort, although innocent. 

The geography of Wadi Rum consists of fine, soft rolling sand dunes broken up by massive red and black mountains. I would love to see this country with a geologist to know HOW this place was formed. Some of these isolated mountains and rock formations were created. Many of them were not so much connected to each other as much as stand-alone with sheer cliff faces. We witnessed some petroglyphs that were drawings of camels and people. When ancient caravans were traversing the area, these petroglyphs were road maps of sorts.  The direction the camels in the pictures faces was the direction the caravans should follow. How cool is that?!

One moment we stopped near what appeared to be a near-dead bush. My guide started pulling sprigs of green off the bushes and mashing them with a rock on top of a larger rock. I didn’t ask questions, as I wanted to see where this was going. He picked up the mash in his palms then asked me to pour some water into his hands. When he rubbed the water, mash, and hands together, suds began to form. This is what the Bedouin use to clean things! 

The little desert excursion ended as I climbed atop rock formation as we watched the surrounding mountains turn a bright red and orange from the setting sun. 

Back at camp, my tent was ready for me; a  large goat hair tent lined inside with faux satin walls and an ample washroom. I was surprised to find that I had running water and electricity!  The blessing was the discovery of a heated mattress pad on my bed that warmed up while I was out for dinner in the main dining area. Temps in the desert dipped just above freezing at night so this was necessary. I event grabbed the quilt off the other twin bed and added it to my own. I’m a hot sleeper, so I fluctuated between sweaty hot between two down quilts and a heated mattress pad, and cold when I turned off the pad or shook off a quilt. But at least I was sleeping in a real bed and not on the ground in a basic camping tent (see also; Mongolia). 

As dinner was cooking nearby under a pile of aluminum foil and sand, I sat by the fire pit  chatting with some Kiwis. While I was shocked to learn that it was 17-hours and 3 flights from New Zealand to Amman, they were just as shocked at my direct 11-hour $499 nonstop from Chicago. Score!

Cats are a fixture in Jordan, and this camp didn’t suffer from a lack of them. They always knew where they were getting their next meal. As dinner was served, kitties roamed the diners looking for scraps. They were friendly. I bonded with some nearby Spaniards at the hilarity of the cat’s cunning, as they were pretty endearing. One cat snuck up behind the food table and helped himself to the baba ganoush!  This is how I spent Thanksgiving dinner, with heaps of roasted lamb and chicken amidst the felines and travelers. 

I had also signed up for a sunrise camel ride which needed me to be at the rally point at 5am. I usually listen to advice about great sunrises and have yet to be disappointed. It turns out I was the only sunrise camel rider despite the camp being full, and another Bedouin man beckoned me over to where he camels were parked and off we went back into the desert, again, the repeated experience of following strange men that don’t speak English into the unknown. Since all experiences had turned out just fine, I had to learn to trust and get over my American suspicions of potentially shady encounters. I had only slept three hours - not in a row - so I admit I was looking forward to napping before breakfast was served after the ride (spoiler: a nap never happened). We sauntered out to a sand dune and joined another group of two Portuguese-speakers, their Bedouin guide,  and playful sheepdog. As the sun broke over the horizon, the mountains burst into color again and I nearly applauded. Okay, I did actually clap, although muted by my mittens. It was colder than expected, but happy I was prepared with my latest love of Uniqlo Heat Tech ultra-thin layers, down jacket, a warm hat, and thank god for gloves. 

Not being a morning person (so why do I keep doing these kinds of things??), I ate a delicious traditional Bedouin breakfast alone and enjoyed a cup of tea back at the comforts of the fire pit, just watching the rest of the tour groups shuffle about. In this environment I was the only solo traveler, which I would repeatedly experience outside Petra. 

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