Alright. This blog just got interesting. Nothing like a weekend in the most beautiful place I have ever seen (not even exaggerating) to breathe the life back into this online publication. Welcome to Wadi Rum, everyone!
As always when it’s difficult to know where to start, it’s best to start at the beginning. In this case, that puts me on a bus with my friend Lesli at 6:30 yesterday. If you haven’t met Lesli yet, allow me introduce her: http://mideastwandering.wordpress.com/. That’s a link to her impressively fun and detailed blog. I have numerous wonderful things to say about her but, for now, let it suffice to say that she has a killer smile and is the best travel companion I could have asked for.
Anyway, we had been led to believe that this particular bus left on the hour and, having already missed the first bus that left at 6am, we were eager to get going so we could take advantage of as much sunlight as possible at Wadi Rum. The plan was to arrive after a roughly four-hour journey, meet our guide, and set off with all our camping supplies across Jebel Um Ishrin (Um Ishrin Mountain), west of Rum Village. The trek w0uld be through Rakabat canyon, a narrow passage that takes about two hours to complete. Once we were on the other side, we would say good bye to our guide, set up camp and stay the night before returning back through the canyon and starting our journey home to Amman.
Sounds grand, right? Well, like just about every great plan, it didn’t work out exactly the way we had thought. After spending all night partying with my host family (more to come on that experience later), I was working on about an hour of sleep. Naturally, I settled in for a nice nap as soon as I got on the empty and waiting bus. Imagine my surprise when I woke up two hours later to find bus only slightly less empty and just as waiting as it was before. A bad sign. After a few questions to the bus driver, Lesli and I concluded that it would be best to check on prices of the vulture-like taxi drivers who were circling the bus station, swooping up potential passengers that, had they entered the bus, could have guaranteed a much speedier departure for all of us. However, as soon as I descended the bus and asked one driver his price to take us to Wadi Rum, a ride we had heard from reliable sources should not be more than 10 JD (14 USD) each, I was swarmed by taxi drivers who all insisted on charging at least 50 JD. Suddenly our 5 JD bus ride sounded much better.
It was then that I noticed that the bus was driving away, so I hopped on. But it was all a show. The driver moved about 2 feet, then turned off the bus and got back out, trying to coax more people on. The next hour was spent threatening to take a taxi, getting on the bus for about a minute, and then stewing in frustration after we realized that we still weren’t going anywhere.
It was all pretty absurd. And in hindsight, hilarious. But by the time we finally got going, it was about 10:45. The bus was stopped a couple times by police– twice for ID checks and once for someone violating the new public smoking bans (what’s weirder: the fact that people smoke on public buses, or my surprise that someone was actually busted for it because I’m so used to it?). But other than that, it was a very uneventful ride.
At the small-ish city on the highway near Wadi Rum, the bus stopped barely long enough for us to leap out, scramble for our packs under the bus, and close the door before it zoomed away. We crossed the nearly empty highway on foot, waved to some goats who were doing the same thing up the road, and hopped into a van that took us to the visitor center, the checkpoint everyone must pass through to enter the reserved area of Wadi Rum. There, we met our guide, Sulayman. Actually, we thought we did. But after putting our stuff in his trunk and climbing into his truck, we all realized that we were meeting a different Bedouin named Sulayman and he was meeting a different pair of Americans. Hilarious. Finally, we met our Sulayman and made our way to the village.
It was immediately obvious that Wadi Rum was going to be one of my favorite places on Earth. Like I said before, I really am not exaggerating. But we were pretty disappointed because it was already about 3:30 and we had lost most of our sunlight for the day. So, after a cup of coffee with Sulayman, we decided to walk out into the desert and build our camp before returning to do both legs of our originally planned trip the following morning. Rather than trying to describe it all to you, I’ll just include a few pictures:
As night fell, we found a cozy spot between two enormous rocks (mountains?) and set up camp. By then we were starving, so we feasted on bread, cheese, falafel, hummus, bananas, and oranges. Yum! The weather was cold, but we were pretty cozy and warm inside our tent and sleeping bags. The next morning, we woke for a spectacular sunrise so we could be back in the village in time to meet Sulayman for our journey through Rakabat canyon. Walking through the sand is tough work! We did our best to walk on the compressed sand left by tire tracks, but the the flat walk for 1.5 hours with those packs on was surprisingly exhausting.
Sulayman was waiting for us in his car, asleep. We knocked on the glass and asked if he was ready to go. Surprisingly, he was. All he needed was a 1.5 litre water bottle and a pair of Converse high tops to scramble through the mountain.
And I really do mean scramble. I’m not familiar with rock climbing at all, so it was a new term for me. Apparently a scramble is something between a hike and climb. Although no safety ropes were necessary, there were some pretty exciting moments. One minute we were climbing hand over hand, wondering when we would see over the next rock; the next, we were deciding whether to ease our way down a steep slope/slide/mini-cliff face, or just jump and brace ourselves. We had spectacular views, and the rock formations themselves were gorgeous. Sulayman was a speed-demon, but slowed down enough for us to catch up with him every few minutes. During one of our short rests, he told us that he had been married just two months ago in December. He described the celebration as a giant tent in the desert, where they invited the entire 2,000 person town. “Yes it was very big. We killed 20 goats.” 20 goats?? I don’t know much about goat-killings to human attendance ratios, but it sounded pretty grand. I loved the way that Sulayman substantiated his claim of the magnitude of the gathering in terms of goats slaughtered rather than places set or– if you’re in college– cups distributed. Since we weren’t camping, we left our packs in his jeep. Thank goodness we did. Early on we realized that it would not have been possible to squeeze through all those tight spaces with them on.
The first person we met at the edge of the village was a young girl, about 8 years old, I think. She was by herself, hanging out by an enclosed garden, and was wearing comically large high-heeled slip-ons. Thinking of the kids in my mom’s daycare, I thought she must have playing dress-up by wearing her mother’s shoes. She was thrilled that we spoke the tiniest bit of Arabic and invited us to tea. We told her were going to the village to meet our friend (Sulayman had hitched a ride on a jeep while we walked back), but she walked with us into the village anyway, insisting that we have tea with her. Hoping to change the subject, I told her that I liked her shoes. Her response was “1 dinar.” It was surprising how jarred I was by these words. But I shouldn’t have been surprise. This girl was extremely poor and lived in a town that, during peak season, was full of European and American tourists. I would have said the same thing. The reality of it just sneaked up on me.
As we walked away from her towards the restaurant, she came running out of her house to hand me a catchy English-language brochure from Aqaba, the beach city to the south. I refused, thinking she would likely charge me for that, too. But she made sure I kept it as she backed away, nodding and smiling. The actual brochure would have been insignificant to me, but the fact that she gave me the most fitting gift she could think of made me hold onto it. Walking away, I noticed most children were playing barefoot, and it occurred to me that she probably hadn’t been playing dress-up at all.
After a relaxed lunch, we thanked Sulayman, and rode back to the highway in his friend’s jeep. From the road, we saw the iconic Seven Pillars of Wisdom rock formation. This may sound ungrateful, but after all the beautiful terrain we had seen, it didn’t impress as much as I had expected. Maybe I just wasn’t close enough.
The driver dropped us on the main highway with little more instructions than “The bus will come.” I was prepared for a long wait, but after about two minutes, we flagged down a charter bus and it stopped for us. The doors flew open and we met Nasser, driving his empty bus back from Saudi Arabic, bound for Amman. Glad for the ride, but suspicious of his enthusiasm, I asked how much he charged. He looked at me with such genuine surprise that I was afraid I had insulted him.
It turns it was just good old fashioned hospitality. Not only did he provide us with a comfortable ride, he bought us coffee and tea at a rest stop. We told him we weren’t hungry when he asked if we wanted food, for fear that he would continue to shower us with gifts. But there was no escape. As soon as he saw the bread we had on the bus, he shook his head, went back into the store, and came back five minutes later with lamb sandwiches and a Coke. I’m learning that the best way to handle this is just to say “Shukran!” and accept.
The rest of the way back, we spent conversing with Nasser in the front seat about all his travels as a tour bus guide. He showed us two passports– and old one and his current one– each filled to the brim with stamps upon stamps upon stamps. He really did drive that bus everywhere.
And with that final, flattering picture, I’m going to call it a night. I knew this weekend was going to be great, but I didn’t know how much it would blow me away. Breathtaking sites, great company, an energetic climb through the canyon– I can’t wait to do this again soon.