Day 5: Bedouins and Camels

Trip Start May 19, 2009
Trip End Jun 16, 2009

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

(Day 5, Wadi Rum, Jordan) An early morning--up at 6:00, on the way to the Jordanian border by 7:00. The passage went smoothly enough, as we were shepherded through the Israeli bureaucracy by a tour company rep and sent to walk across the 50 yards of no-man's-land to the Jordanian side (quite a change from the usual border crossing to Canada that I'm used to), where we were encouraged to buy souvenirs already!

Once in the Hashemite Kingdom, pictures and billboards of King Abdallah and his fabled father, King Hussein, were everywhere in evidence; though Jordan's Independence Day was approaching (Monday 5/25), I had a feeling these portraits never come down. This was the case both in the city of Aqaba (opposite Eilat), which we toured briefly, and in the sporadic small towns we passed through on the modern, well-maintained highway, which took us into the scrubby desert, bordered by dramatic, colorful mountains in the distance on either side. Men and women in the towns wore particularly conservative head-to-foot garb, despite the heat (actually, we never saw anyone in anything immodest in the least). Once, we paused while a young boy herded some goats over the freeway, and we often saw signs indicating that one could expect camels to cross.

Our driver/guide was surprisingly taciturn, once in while offering a factoid or a place name, stopping to buy a watermelon (of which we never partook) at a roadside stand (one of a number), and finally suggesting a two-hour ride on camel, which we accepted. That turned out to be a great idea: we drove off the main highway to the west, twisting through sandy roads in the nearly-barren wilderness towards the mountains, finally arriving a long tent in the middle of nowhere. When we were shown in, we sat on pillows in a mostly empty room, but for the carpets. An old man sat with us, and his son Nassar, maybe 15 years old, served us hot tea. After a while (and a trip to the outhouse--four cinderblock walls around a hole), we mounted the camels that awaited us outside, and the old Bedouin and Nassar led each of us on a long trek through a wadi (valley or riverbed) and up a hill to an amazing vista of the vast wilderness and the long line of mountains of various colors. We paused at the edge of a great canyon, climbed down into it just a bit, and sat again for more tea in the middle of nowhere.

There we had a little conversation with what Arabic I could muster. Turns out the man is 59 and has 14 children, ages 3 to 30, the oldest daughter being married now. (Back at the tent, they were all hidden away, probably behind the curtain that hid the other two-thirds from us, although I did catch sight of some black-clad women on our way back, then they disappeared again.) He's spent his whole life in this area, having only been to the capital Amman now and then briefly. He is missing most of his top front teeth and smokes frequently. He told us about the natural features we saw. We told him a little something about where we were from. Oh, and no, we're not married... And then we headed back to the tent in the distance, where we had lunch and finally moved on, having thoroughly enjoyed the leisurely, rhythmic bouncing of the ride, even if it did mean holding on tight when the camels climbed a hill or came down it.

Our driver took us on back to the other side of the freeway for a wild, nauseating ride into Wadi Rum, a gorgeous, desolate stretch of mountains and desert (where "Lawrence of Arabia" was filmed). It was off-road driving in the utmost sense of the word, the driver following nearly indistinguishable tracks over miles of rocky sand, or creating new ones. We stopped here and there for some breathtaking view or amazing colors or rock formation, and then continued on, bouncing wildly at dizzying speeds. He seemed eager to be done with us, and by 3:00, we were being dropped (mercifully) at Beit Ali, the Bedouin campsite, where we were going to stay.

Although it was quite remote, otherwise it was nothing like I was expecting. Instead, it was a quite large, well appointed complex, including a large open-air dining hall, satisfactory bathroom facilities, an apparent entertainment hall, a swimming pool (yay), and a choice of dozens of cabins or tents. We dumped our stuff in the largish tent (figured out how to tie the flap shut), and settled by the pool to read for a bit (despite the loud young Jordanians frolicking by the pool). We hiked up the rocky hill behind the camp for an awesome view of the camp and Wadi Rum and the sunset over the mountains. Then it was time for dinner, which was a plentiful buffet of salads and kababs, accompanied by an Arabic music DJ, which got a group of young Arab men clapping and on their feet, dancing debkas and moving in a transfixing way they seem to have. Or maybe it was the nargilah (hooka pipe) we were smoking. Anyway, it was a raucous end to a memorable day. Early to bed, another 6:30 day awaited...
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