Rolling in the Wadi Rum
Note: This post was written on Sunday, May 21, 2011.
“Now, I have a question for you,” said Ahmad. “Why do you come to Wadi Rum?”
After a few guesses and no avail, our Bedouin chef answered for us: “Because Wadi Rum does not come to you.” Laughter ensued, some of it forced. This seems to be a popular joke among the Jordanian people. A few days prior, I heard a similar joke-and-punch-line combination regarding Amman. The people don’t get old, but that joke did after the one telling. Oh well. I chuckle to appease him. I’m one of the fakers.
I stood atop 20 steps at the edge of the Wadi Rum Bedouin camp earlier this morning. My view of this vast, mountainous, desert land was astonishing: the beige sand stretched on into the distance for miles in all directions. The sun was squelching, the breeze nonexistent. Denis called the group back to the big yellow Sariyah bus. After the count is done to ensure all of the students are aboard, we depart. 20 minutes later, we arrive. Or so it seems. There are a few Toyota trucks that look like they’re straight out of the 1980s. 50 or 60 tents fill the space between two mountains, with a carpeted tent in the center of the Bedouin camp. Two concrete structures stand at the entrance to the camp, one of them housing toilets and the other is a rounded fire pit.
As we all pour out of the bus, leaving behind our technological connections, the heat is our first encounter. I have finally found the heat I expected when we arrived in Amman nine days ago- I just had to go into the middle of the desert. I joined my fellow peers, our group totaling 32, under the tent where we were served traditional Bedouin tea, or chai. As we decompressed from the long voyage from Petra, we were slowly introduced to this ancient, traditional sect of Jordanian society. The Bedouins were very welcoming, warm people.
As the sun rose in the sky, we departed for our jeep tours of the desert. I joined Erin, Ally, Michele, Valerie and Jessica in what I first assumed was a broken down Toyota. We were off, into the sandy dune passages between the red-beige rock formations. All of this land was once the ocean floor, 100,000 years ago. As we journey through the sand, seven caravans in all, I noticed that the sand was changing.
Gone were the light brown and beige colors, and we had entered an area where the sand was red. I loved every minute of the experience. Our first stop was beside some camels and a tall mountain. I took it upon myself to trek up the steep sand dune toward the top. Jené and Anna joined me, and I found Denis traveling a few feet away. My trip to the tip-top was cut short, in part to the call from my professors, as well as my fatigue. The view from the lower peak was incredible; I could have stayed there for the rest of the night, and waited for the sunrise.
As my group grew increasingly impatient, I began my descent down the sand dune. Initially, my plan was to roll down the sand to the base, but after the climb I noticed there were many stones jutting out from under the soft, hot sand. I decided against it, lest I cracked my head against a rock in the middle of the desert and concussed myself. That wasn’t a risk I was willing to take. I also didn’t especially want to have sand anywhere and everywhere. A few friends, however, did roll. I heard their screams of joy and loud laughter from the top of the mountain, and later saw their sand-covered faces.
We departed this site and continued our journey through the desert, stopping at a tent where souvenirs were sold. We were treated to more glasses of tea, delicious, sweet, and rejuvenating. I am still amazed that these people live out here, in the middle of this vast emptiness, away from modern life and all of its complications. It is amazing, yet commendable. Why do we need all the commotion, anyway? Cell phones were ringing, which was a strange sound out in the wilderness, but that was the only tie to outside world.
Along the way we saw a few older men, Bedouins, walking through the desert, alone. They waved at us from a distance, and we all waved back. Was he calling for help? I don’t think so, not from us. What did he need? He had his health, his legs, and his tradition. I did wonder, though, and still do, where he was going. How would he get there? All of this looked the same to me; sand everywhere, mountains interspersed, and vast emptiness. I do not mean to judge this man for his lifestyle, but only to question it. How is it that someone living in 2011 would choose to live like this? I wonder, too, if he knows of the outside life, and the wonders that exist beyond this wilderness.
Just hours away is a vast metropolis, Amman, where taxis buzz by and the streets are bustling with people, the sidewalks lined with street vendors and shops. I have been away from this modern concrete world for less than 48 hours, and yet I don’t mind it or miss it all that much. As I mentioned back in April, I couldn’t wait to be away from it all, and this venture into the desert of Wadi Rum was exactly what I wanted, what I needed.
After our pit stop, we packed ourselves back into the back of the jeeps and continued to our final stop from which we would watch the sunset. As many aspects of the trip, I wish we had actually stayed to see the sun drop behind the horizon. But, “yalla shabob” was quickly shouted from the base of the mountain and we had to go. Insert sad face here. The hike to this peak was a simple one, straightforward. Our group eventually all reached the top, and everyone was posing for their artsy staring-into-the-sunset shots. I was guilty of it, though I was more interested in absorbing the moment. I was atop a mountain that had, at one point, been buried beneath the sea, and watched the sun descend over Wadi Rum. The sky was changing to brilliant shades of pink, purple, navy. The moon, however, I did not spot.
After more photos were snapped, attempting to capture the moment, we all went back down to the sand and piled back into the jeeps. This departure wasn’t as smooth as the others, though. One of the jeeps faltered, its tires getting stuck in the sand and its engine not starting. Wonderful. After five others drove down without a hitch, we noticed that one of our group was stuck. A bunch of us climbed down and began to push the jeep through the sand, stopping only every few minutes to dig out the sand from in front of and around the tires. We continued to push, rolling closer to the edge of the sand with a large stone structure now only a few meters in front of us.
The driver, a seemingly 14 or 15 year old kid, began pounding under the hood with a rock. I wonder what my dad would think of this take on automobile repair; it was a far cry from the state of the art Volvo dealership where he fixes countless cars every day, all day. After several failed attempts to restart the engine, we succeeded. We rolled it into ignition, and avoided crashing into the rock. Although, I’m not so sure that would have been the worst thing. If the little rock help restart the engine, supposedly, maybe a larger rock would have got the job done that much faster. Wishful thinking…
We arrived, 10 or 15 minutes later, back at the campsite. I was free to rest until dinner, which had been in the works since we left the camp on our excursion. Below two mounds of sand and coals, two vats of lamb, potatoes, and chicken were slowly simmering. The desert dog, pet of the Bedouins, knew what lay below the surface, and she tried digging her way down. Clever little beast, she is. I stood with a group of Arabic students who interviewed Ahmad, the chef, about his lifestyle, his duties as the resident cook, and the traditions of the Bedouin people. (The audio of the interview will be posted next, with a transcript attached.)
Dinner was soon served, after a ceremonial unveiling of the finished product. After more than two hours beneath the sand, Ahmad shoveled away the mounds and the charcoals and pulled out one round steel vat, followed by the next. The group watched, eagerly anticipating what was sure to be a splendid traditional meal.
It didn’t fail to meet expectations. The lamb fell off the bone, melting in my mouth. I pushed aside the plate of hummus, olives, potatoes and pita and opted to eat only the lamb. Its taste and texture were reminiscent of kleftiko (κλεφτικο), a traditional Cypriot meal consisting of lamb, vegetable and potatoes. I wasn’t shy, going back to the buffet and filling a second plate, this time solely with lamb. It was delicious, mouth-watering, to put it simply. I wish that my stomach could have handled a third plate, but I didn’t want to push it. Especially since I was so sick only four days earlier.
After dinner, the group of Bedouins brewed more tea in the fire pit and two argile, or hookah, pipes, were fired up. Groups of my colleagues began learning traditional Bedouin dances around the fire. Video of the dance can be found here. It was a pleasant evening under the stars of Wadi Rum. While bright city lights could still be seen shining into the sky on the horizon, the stars have never been more clearly seen on this trip. I still couldn’t spot the moon, and it was nearly 9 o’clock. Hm….
I would later venture across the Mud Flats, or Moon Valley, as it is affectionately called by the locals, where the moon was directly in front of me on the horizon, larger and more orange than I have ever seen it. What a sight- the stars in plain sight, scattered beautifully across the black night sky above, the moon now clearly in view, and silence abound.
I slept under the stars with seven of my peers, and we watched shooting starts streak across the sky. I fell asleep around 4 o’clock in the morning, only to be woken by the sunlight at 6:30. I began my Sunday with a hike up the mountainside behind the camp with some other friends, which was followed by a camel ride through the desert and two hardboiled eggs.
I can’t further describe with words this night. You, my friends and readers, will all have to come one day to experience Wadi Rum for yourselves. Jordan continues to reveal itself, leyer by layer, and I hope that in the coming final week I will experience more of the lifestyle, tradition and hidden treasures of this beautiful kingdom.