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Die Another Day

1 Jul

Our bus left for wadi rum at 8:15 am. A Styrofoam box of stuffed pastries and a juice box was waiting for us in each seat. After a pit stop and a visit to see St. George’s church with the oldest surviving original cartographic depiction of the Holy Land, we arrived at “Captain’s Camp” which consisted of tents, a rest-stop looking bathroom, and a common area where we were served traditional Bedouin food. We were glamorous camping, glamping as they say. After being shown to my tent, I threw my book-bag on my full sized bed and got some mint tea.

Before departing for our desert tour, we were given koofias to protect us from the sun but mostly to distinguish us as tourists. We hopped in the backs of trucks and set off for wadi rum. Finally we stop to get on our camels. Some are taller than others, some fatter, all are incredibly awkward. When they stand, their skinny three-jointed legs rise unevenly in the front and back. Their steps are clumsy in the sinking sand and they seem unaware that they’re bumping into each other. Their eyes look sleepy and are probably half closed to keep out the desert sun. Their overall appearance is hilarious. After dismounting our camels we climb to the top of a small mountain to watch the sun set before we head back to camp.

The next morning we left at 8 for Petra, the rose-red city. Again our tour guide explains the history of the land, how the Nabataeans carved the city out of sand stone 2000 years ago. We walk through a gorge for about a mile and then our tour guide tells us to stop and look down. He leads us a little further and then tells us to look up. The famous Al-Khanez (treasury) lies before us. He explains the theories of what it was built for. No one knows for sure but one thing was certain: the Nabataeans built to impress. Thousands of years ago, visitors to Petra felt the same awe that we were feeling now. After lunch we’re give the option, or challenge, of climbing the 900+ steps to the monastery. It takes about a half hour to get to the top, well sort of. There are a few paths that lead to even more incredible views than the monastery. So we make our way up to the tallest one. The sites throughout the canyons were beautiful, but nothing beats looking down on it all.

After two days in the desert I’m exhausted and turn to head back. I pass a Bedouin man leading a donkey up the mountain. Aren’t you going to see the other views, he asks.
La, ta’aban. (no, I’m tired)
But you have to see them.
Tourism is understandably the main source of income here and we’ve been declining offers to buy things all day: trinkets, donkey rides, cold drinks, etc. No thanks, I say.
He points to the donkey. For free.
No, I shake my head. (Nothing is free here.)
Come on, it’s free. Money doesn’t make friends. We are Bedouin, we like to make friends. (despite his accent his English is good.)
I look up at him for the first time (with mistrust). He’s got the dark skin, shoulder length black curly hair, and beautiful kohl lined eyes of the people here. It’s too much to resist.

He helps me onto the donkey and directs me to scoot up in the saddle and hold on to the handle. I’m only four feet off the ground, but the ground is nothing but sand and rocks and happens to be hundreds of feet above the canyon floor.
He reassures me that donkeys have four legs and humans only have two, ergo the donkey is more stable. I speak a little Arabic to him and from then on we exchange Arabish. His name is Abdullah and he has 13 brothers and sisters. (his father has 4 wives, but he could never afford that many.) He’s learned Spanish, Portuguese, English, and another language just from tourists. I don’t need to travel; the world comes to me, he explains.
We head down a small rocky slope. I’m freaking out.
Close your eyes and open your mind, he says. I do.
Which path first? Down to the waterfall or up to the top view?
I don’t care.
To the waterfall then.
We start down and he keeps himself between the donkey and the rocky ledge.
Shway (slow), I beg.
It’s ok, close your eyes and open your mind, he reminds me.
We’re a few feet from the cliff and I’m hyperventilating. I clench the metal of the saddle but my hands are so sweaty that if the donkey goes down, there’s no holding on. He reassures me that no one dies before their time and waits for me to calm down before going on with what he’s saying:
The valley down there is the source of our civilization. All of the green is because of the spring that starts up there, the water runs all the way down there. It’s because they found this one spring, that the people could build an entire city around it. A city along a major trade route that’s seen countless people. He’s proud to show me this, and rightly so.

Next he takes me up the other path and points out the highest point to the left and the shooting location of the film, The English Patient, to the right. It’s the end of my ride and I thank him. All my friends are up at the top, giggling at the situation. Abdullah goes into a hut. His friend comes out and says, how many camels for this one, pointing to me. More laughter. Tsharafna (nice to meet you) I say to Abdullah and head back down with my friends.

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