Spence Green

التكرار يعلم الحمار

I work at Lilt. In addition to computers and languages, my interests include travel, running, and scuba diving. more...

Jordan, Day 1

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The pace of the last few months has prevented a thorough accounting of my travels through southern Jordan last December. In January, I devoted considerable attention to work, which had suffered in the fall due to the variety and extent of my leisure activities. February provided no respite, as I made two diving trips, ran a (lackluster) marathon, and traveled by car through Oman. Now I sit in Heathrow, awaiting a plane to Paris, thinking of the improbable sequence of events that characterized the Jordan expedition. But I’m getting ahead of myself… Incidentally, my notes date to December 11, when I installed myself at the same table (Gate 20, Heathrow, just near a coffee shop) and wrote brief notes about the trip. Then, a week had passed; now, three months. And yet time has not damaged the clarity of those days in my mind.

Ali Bushnaq, a Palestinian/Jordanian friend, had climbed in the Aqaba/Ramm region (go here: He will climb Everest in April) and described its beauty. He also referred me to a discount airline and guide in the area. I proposed the plan to my friend Anthony who embraced it with no reluctance, an example of his habitually sang froid demeanor. We purchased tickets from a travel agent who revealed a price of only $125 round-trip. After confirming that this price included engines for the aircraft, we drove to Dubai airport on the evening of December 1.

The flight left from Dubai Airport Terminal 2, which appears as the bastard stepchild of its regal parent. Pakistanis and Indians lined the dreary entrance atrium, each laden with a tower of luggage. Quilts, bundled with tape, boxes bursting with the tchotchkes, suitcases larger than coffins, old bags, new shirts, and a litany of other containers. An Emirati guard bellowed at them in Arabic to stay in line; he would have fared better commanding the wind. Capitalizing on the chaos of the situation, we slipped behind the weary Arab and cut to the front. In line at the baggage counter, a Jordanian women turned when she heard us speaking English. If she had related primary knowledge of the Exodus, I would have believed her, such was her withered appearance. I inquired as to her destination, and she said, “America. Atlanta. You know the High Museum?” How improbable! This woman had immigrated 17 years ago and ran an alterations shop in Powder Springs. She was leaving after a Ramadan visit with her brother in Dubai and noted that she would return in January for Hajj. I acquired her number in the event of a problem in Jordan and then passed through customs to the gate.

The plane landed at 3:30AM in Aqaba and we rode by cab to the city center to find a hotel. The expanse of the Red Sea appeared as dark abyss on our right. After a lengthy interval, we found a hotel that evidenced at least a degree of structural integrity, secured a room, and retired for the night. I had a halting but fitful night of rest, awakened only by Fajr (the pre-dawn call to prayer).

Next morning we inquired as to the bus stop’s location. English is not widely spoken in southern Jordan, thus I was forced to speak Arabic here and for the remainder of the trip. It is remarkable how proficiency in a language increases when one has no other recourse. The hotel clerk (who also served as guard, concierge, cashier, etc.) handed us off to an Egyptian carrying a newspaper. He lead us up a steep incline, the pellucid Red Sea at our backs, and gave us to another pedestrian. This misdirection play eventually lead us to the station, where we discovered that no busses ran to Wadi Rum on Friday. A delighted cab driver indicated that he could provide transport for a special price. Though the solicitation probably varied by several orders of magnitude from that enjoyed by non-Western clients, we considered it, given the weakness of our position. No bargaining could happen here, for these simple people had discovered that collusion yielded better results than internecine price warfare. None would undersell his neighbor. The weary capitalists thus acquiesced and headed toward Rum.

First, the driver (who spoke broken English) directed his machine toward a dilapidated residential section. I was alarmed as he backed into an alley and spread a curtain around the rear of his car. A man came out bearing a canister, and we learned that this was a Saudi gas bootlegger. “Better price,” the driver said with a wink. We left him to this ignominous business and joined a vigorous soccer match in the alley. Four Jordanian boys tried to outmaneuver us while conversing in the international language that consists of such components as proper nouns (“David Beckham”), similes (“like Beckham”), abbreviations (“Becks”), and colloquialisms (“the bender”). Several pleasant minutes passed before the driver collected us. We joined the highway, speeding north.

The terrain differs dramatically from the Gulf region and one could scarcely aggregate the variety of landscape under the rubric “desert.” The mountains look as if formed by a dramatic collision between continents, not as the rolling terrain of America’s east coast. A blanket of course rubble covers the hills and the sand has a red hue, which causes the desperate plants installed in narrow crevaces to stand out in relief. This regal patina inspires the spirit. What is a man’s brief walk on Earth compared to the timelessness of this country? If we accept the thesis that man constructed religion (that is, we deny revelation), then perhaps it is no coincidence that the three major world religions originated here.

Before the 2003 campaign in Iraq, our guide drove trucks along the 1000km route from Aqaba to Baghdad. He criticized the new Iraqi regime, predicating his discontent on the “benevolence” of the Baathists, who evidently distributed money to the people. Like many other Arabs, he likes America but not its leader. In my experience, the prospect of liberty without effortless money is quite unpopular in the Middle East.

We neared Wadi Rum, Lawrence of Arabia’s camp during World War I, and our guide phoned his friend, who would transport us into the village. Mattalah met us about 5km from Rum. His truck was held together by necessity. We tossed our bags through the broken rear window, mounted the wretched artifacts that served as seats and went speeding off through the desert.

Mattalah stopped before Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” which looked as squat columns arrayed in a delta, with the infinity of the azure sky as capitals. We proceeded toward a sealed road, which was the only avenue into Wadi Rum. The village followed a remarkably regular programme with residences arrayed in blocks along a grid of narrow streets. At the entrance, a row of tents indicated the government Rest House, where we intended to sleep that evening. Across from there, boys rode about on camels, their short legs straddling the massive dromedaries. Mattalah took us to his home, where he said that his brother would guide us into the desert. Now Ali Bushnaq had referred us to a fit fellow who could take us into the mountains, but spontaneity had yielded fruit thus far. We had thus agreed to hire Mattalah’s brother under the precondition that he would take us hiking. To our dismay, a sedated man appeared with a burdened method of ambulation. He seemed two bits short of a dollar, and we later learned that he had crashed his truck into a ravine or something. “You want hiking okay,” he said, whereupon he drove us into the desert, pointed to a hill, and said, “You hike there.” Anthony and I decided after five seconds of deliberation to return to the camp and find Ali Bushnaq’s friend. Though I suspect this man could scarcely recall the content of his last meal, he did understand that we did not want to pay him, which elicited a significant response. Having already learned the nepotistic nature of this country and unwilling to soil such a small pond, we gave him ten dinars and told him to beat it. This paltry sum, we later learned, was not enough to extricate us from the cab driver’s acquaintances, or himself.

At the Rest House, Lafe Mohammad waited for us. About 21, he had a generous smile, a healthy, though not obese build, and an unfettered demeanor. A supple lock of hair curled over his brow with a flourish, making him a bronzed Elvis. He first lead us to his home, a concrete box with sleeping mats, barred open windows, and a television equipped with a despairing device. A power cable ran from the ceiling and was spliced directly into the box’s rear panel. One passage lead into several interior rooms, from which we heard younger children at play. Lafe left us to purchase gas so I took leave for a walk through the village.

When I returned, Anthony had wandered off. Lafe’s sister, Thoriah, came from the concrete box and motioned for me to follow. We walked through a section of sand demarcated by a fence that was strewn with years of mechanical refuse: cylinders, a few engine blocks, a dilapidated jeep, and dessicated timbers that could have come from Noah’s ark. Anthony had found shade from the oppressive afternoon sun under a tent, where he was having tea with Lafe’s family and refining his pidgin. Bedouins here brew their tea in an unusual manner. First they boil a small pot by placing it directly on smoldering coals. Next, they pour tea leaves into the water itself. Finally they add several heaping cups of suger and a generous helping of condensed milk. The result has the viscosity of Karo syrup and tastes exceptional, though it may be correlated with the porous dental profiles displayed by these people.

The family invited us to explore a Nabatean temple just behind Rum; their children followed us. The temple has existed in various forms since antiquity, though only a foundation, stone floors, and the bases of several formidable columns (see Qur’an, Sura 89) remain. Aretas IV (8/9BC – 40AD) enlarged the original structure and Rabbel II further elaborated it. Jebel Rum explodes from the ground just behind the temple, as if God had hurled it down from heaven.

Lafe returned with a truck and we left for the desert with his friend. He stopped at a pathetic boulder that rose no more than twenty feet. By now, these lethe bedouins had exhausted our enthusiasm and Anthony, flush with displeasure, consulted his palette of vivid imperatives to address our navigator. Lafe could not decipher the slogans applied to him, but was clever enough to slam the vehicle into gear and find more compelling terrain. Several minutes later, we breasted a dune and the wheels sank into the malleable surface. Anger turned to laughter and after twenty minutes of struggle, the machine rolled down the dune. Lafe sped down a ravine, around a bend, and onto a flat basin. He spun to the right, developing a cylindrical cloud of dust and killed the engine. Several hundred feet above us, a land bridge connected two precipices. He pointed with a hopeful grin. Good boy, Lafe, your English has improved.

Approaching the cliff, Lafe hesitated to join us for the hike. His friend elected to brew the tea and guard the jeep, while he finally resigned himself to the task, leading us to a sloping boulder. Just before the stone, he abandoned his porcine shuffle, discarded his shoes, and bounded up the mountain like a monkey. The metamorphosis stymied me, but I quickly joined the chase, relucant to let this duffer gain the advantage.

The climb took an hour and from the peak we could discern the network of canyons, rifts, and ravines spreading like arteries over the desert. Pebbles, smoothed by water millenia ago, littered the ground. The descent lasted a half hour and after a tea break, we drove to another precipice to watch the sunset. I wandered off, alone, pausing to hear the silence. I thought of a cave: no insects, no wind, no rustling leaves. Just as the horizon swallowed the sun, it gave a great shout, its crimson streaks of protest bathing the mountains and billowing clouds. I thought of the following:

Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
For he spoke, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast. (Ps. 33:8-9)

Back in the jeep, Lafe inserted a tape into the stereo. At first, nothing happened. Then he slapped a dusty box next to him, which I recognized as a boombox speaker. A wire extended from the dashboard to the box. Arab music bloomed from the speaker and he looked to Anthony for affirmation. I tell you the noise was just awful, but Anthony masked his revulsion and forced a smile. Ebullient, Lafe floored accelerator, his head rocking back as we lurched forward. Bronze Elvis hit the box again, whooping as we sped toward Rum.

He brought us to his tent. Flaps had been attached to its side and course rugs laid across the sand. Smoke from the fire traveled along the roof’s pitch and exited from an opening at one end. We had tea with his immediate family and various friends and relatives made visits. They offered us dinner, then said we could stay with them that evening. We accepted each offer with increasing enthusiasm. After dinner, I walked to the Rest House and met a timorous Italian reclining by the restaurant. A farmer, he worked only five months out of the year and spent the rest traveling. This year, he had purchased a motorcycle and ridden across Greece, the Balkans, Turkey, Syria, and now to Jordan. Next he would cross the Sinai to North Africa. You meet such vagabonds in these places.

I returned to the tent and found Anthony locked in combat with a winsome five-year-old. These bedouins had never played “Knots and Crosses.” Neither had I, until the child fashioned a tic-tac-toe board before me. After a brief argument in which my label was judged as base by this Imperial noble, we spent the remainder of the night demonstrating various learned techniques. In a thousand years, long after the West’s flame has burned out, I suppose these people, living as they always have, will speak of the promethean Anthony, who brought fire from Olympus.

Written by Spence

March 12th, 2006 at 12:21 pm

Posted in Travel

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