Saturday, April 18, 2009

Far and Away...

"Vast, echoing and God-like"
-TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) on Wadi Rum

After reaching an impasse with the room phone (there were no directions, for those of you sniggering in your hands, as to how one could dial out) I went downstairs and had the reception desk call Budget. After expressing my uncertainty as to the desert-worthiness of our rental car they promised to come by and exchange it for a free upgrade. Not bad! However, the free upgrade came with an empty tank. "No problem!" We were told by the rental car guy. "There's a gas station very near for you, no problem."

Mike, being of sound mind and body, figured we could manage to find a gas station in the capital city. I am pretty sure the decision to drive around and around an unknown city with the "empty" light glowing ominously on the dashboard cost us a good year apiece off of our lives.

Happily trading Amman for the Desert Highway, we noticed that the trend of rebar sprouting from the top of buildings, reaching for the empty skies continued, as though everyone expected to add another story...someday. Sheep and goat herders had their animals grazing the median strips, usually accompanied by a donkey, and sometimes a herd dog. I was impressed that the shepherds, often boys rather than men, somehow managed to get their herds safely across the multilane highway and then keep them out of harm's way. I saw no flattened mutton.

The trees and blooming fields around Amman were left behind as we continued south, replaced by endless, windwhipped sand and scrub brush. The kids, who by this point had earned the right to be completely squirrely, continued to be well-behaved in the back seat, playing, singing, reading. Hours passed.

The rock formations and beautiful sand of Wadi Rum reminded us both of Arizona in their staggering beauty. The sands varied from brown to most orangy red, and the views were romantic and wild. Proceeding into the village of Diseh I began asking the locals how to find Harb, our local host. Now, what he'd told me was: Come to the desert. Raise your head and smell the air. You will smell the Bedouin man. Smells like camel. That is me.

I had heard the Bedouin have a sense of humor. Obviously this was true. We'd failed to get our mobiles to work in Jordan, though we'd given it a good try; I'd spent a goodly amount of time in a local mobile phone service store with the owner changing settings on my phone. In the absence of our own phone, (Mike was just telling a visitor from Seattle how your mobile number is like your social security number back home...absolutely essential), we pulled up to locals along the dusty street, asking "Do you know Harb?" "Could you please dial this number for us?" In other words, being truly annoying tourists, and painfully aware of it. We kept getting sent down the road, literally, and many small children got a good laugh out of us.

Darkness approaching, we were thankfully rescued by one of the Bedouin guides in his small but obviously desert-worthy little work truck who led us with unmistakable good will to Camp Zawehdah at the base of one of the larger rock formations. He made sure we parked at the entrance and flipped a wave to us as he headed back to wherever it was he was going.

Mike's favorite reading spot on the rock in Camp Zawaideh.
Thomas implored us: I haff-a climb-a mountain!

Once inside the camp, things fell into place. There was room for probably a hundred guests, but as it turned out it was just our family and a retired Dutch couple staying that evening. We were given the choice of a Bedouin style goat-hair tent or the canvas variety. I chose based solely on the Thomas-falling-out-of-bed factor: the canvas ones were erected on the sand, the goat hair ones on concrete. The tents were quite large, with real beds and quilts and they brought us clean white sheets. Bliss!

Our host, Harb, tall and like all Bedouins, swarthy with dark hair and large, dark, heavily lashed and intelligent eyes, showed up to make sure we were comfortable and to grill me about the economy in Dubai and the viewpoints of Americans on the Arab world. I found myself apologetic but honest about my countrymen. Harb listened at length, then went and spoke with the othe guests and staff and finally excused himself to attend his sick father. I was under the impression that the entire family was there at the bedside, keeping tabs on who was there and who not, as what seemed to be wrong with their patriarch was a back ailment.

The camp itself was extraordinary, well laid out and clean, the red sand underfoot and the sculpted rock face and stars overhead. Old lanterns and campfires, brightly patterned weaves in blankets, camel saddle seats, a delicious dinner of local cuisine. Mike told me that the rice would have been a luxury; they always carried it out on the sands, but it was a real treat when they had enough water to cook it. I was partial to the fattoush, myself, a tomato and cucumber salad with onions and garlic and lemon and vinegar, and croutons made from thin Arabian bread baked in the oven and undoubtedly drizzled with oil at some point.

We were so happy to be out camping, sitting on rugs by the fire, drinking spiced Bedouin tea, with habuck and marmaraya herbs that give it a market spice sort of flavor without the orange, cinnamon-y. There would have been singing and dancing and drum playing had the number of guests been larger, but as it was we got what was probably a more "authentic" experience of sitting around the fire as the Arabs answered their mobiles, smoked cigarettes, local folk appearing out of the darkness for a cup of tea and companion-ly discussion in Arabic, then leaving again, to be replaced by others.

The desert itself was silent, so silent with a clear sky arching away, the shapes of Wadi Rum all around us. Thomas and Bethy amused themselves by chasing the camp cats, their loud laughter absorbed into nothingness by the desert stretching away.

That night the mosquitoes dive bombed us. Being a veteran camper, did I bring bug repellent? No, I did not. As the bloodsuckers would buzz nearby (I think perhaps in the encompassing silence the relative loudness of these insects was magnified) Mike and I were both smacking ourselves with ringing slaps and I, personally, was hiding under the covers whenever one got especially close. Thomas could not be persuaded, even in sleep, to keep his little arms beneath the blankets and when he and Bethy got up in the morning they were both a mess of angry red bites.

We awakened before them to the faraway sounds of camel racing, the camel owners calling "Heh! Heh!" to their animals as they chased them around the distant course with their 4x4s. The shadows fell away as the sun rose, and we prepared for our first day in Wadi Rum.

It began with an hour long camel ride, and us being sure Thomas was not going to make it to see another sunrise...

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