Larry and Lucy of Arabia

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The minute I threw my leg over the saddle of my camel and settled
myself to withstand the strange pitch forward then back that camels do
when they rise, I knew I must have been a desert nomad in a previous
life. Not quite a Bedouin, something a bit cleaner and tidier than
that – but the vision of wandering peacefully through the hypnotic
landscape of the desert, swaying gently with my camel’s gait captured
me.

We’ve just spent three days in the awe inspiring Wadi Rum desert where
T.E. Lawrence did most of his charging about on camels and where the
movie about his desert campaign (highly romanticized by him and by the
movie makers) was filmed. On our drive from Petra we paused to see
“Little Petra,” a small Nabatean city, quite beautiful with preserved
ceiling paintings. Strangely to us, since the rock is so beautiful,
the Nabateans covered their walls and ceilings with frescoes, none of
which remain in Petra itself. Even the best of fresco paint doesn’t
take well to 2000 years of erosion.

Our first night was spent just outside the Wadi Rum protected area in
a gorgeous little lodge called Bait Ali. What a wonderful spot –
smack in the middle of nothing, with accommodations ranging from pup
tents to miniscule “chalets” to lovely self contained “VIP” rooms,
one of which your aging correspondents felt the need to sample.

Next morning we were off bright and early to meet the guide we had
booked for our two days in the desert. We set off with a young
Belgian/Spanish couple in an ancient Landcruiser with our driver
Sabbah to four by four it through the sand, over dunes and rocks, to
various spots where there were beautiful views, odd rock formations,
petroglyphs of unknown origin, springs springing out of nowhere, etc
just for the sake of rambling in the desert. Every time we passed a
shady overhang there would be an ancient vehicle stopped with someone
squatting beside a tiny fire brewing tea. Sabbah would screech to a
halt and wave at yet another craggy canyon and say, “Nice canyon, you
walk, I see my friend.” And off we’d go and the canyons were
beautiful and the views extraordinary. The peace and calm of the
desert is remarkable.

Tea stops for us were frequent too and it was cool to watch Sabbah get
a fire going in seconds with a bit of dried root he would pick up from
the sand. There are almost no trees in the desert and the plants are
very dry leaved and prickly but there always seemed to be a bit of
dead wood to start the fire and he only needed a couple of eight inch
long pieces. In a few minutes the wood burned to coals and he put his
tiny kettle beside it. In a couple of minutes we had strong sweet
tea, of which the servings are miniscule.

Sabbah was born in the desert and his parents still live the
traditional nomadic life with their sheep and goats, moving every
couple of months. He has 9 siblings and step siblings as his father
has two wives. He himself has only one wife and only two children so
far. His wife and children live in the little settlement of Wadi Rum,
but he prefers to sleep in the desert so is happy working as a guide
where he often goes out for a week’s expedition at a time, how the
wife felt about it didn’t seem to enter the equation.

We ended the day watching the sun drop into the desert from a high
place on a craggy hill. The temperature immediately plummeted, we had
been warm all day but not hot as there was a constant, sometimes dusty
wind. At night the wind is downright cold and darkness brings a
remarkable temperature change. Off we went to our camp, where a
traditional Bedouin tent had been divided by partitions to make
comfortable sleeping compartments for fussy westerners. Another tent
had the usual rugs and cushions on the floor, with a large metal
firepit in the middle so, though we put on all our warm clothes to run
from the sleeping tent to the communal tent, once inside we were warm
as toast, albeit smoky, all our clothes now smell like a campfire.

All day we had been meeting up with another of our company’s
Landcruisers with a lovely young family from New Zealand with 2 kids 6
and 9 years old. The kids (and the parents) were charming and we
really enjoyed their company. They have lived in Sydney where the
kids were born, London where they started school and learned English
accents, and now are based in Israel for a few years, following his
work. The kids were a hoot, the older one read her Harry Potter book
all day, when she wasn’t rocketing up and down the mountain sides, and
the younger one took a particular shine to Doug and nattered non stop.
Brought back memories.

After dinner, where we met two other couples, the four guides got out
their instruments and played and sang Bedouin songs around the fire.
I think they would have gone on all night but the poor little six year
old fell asleep in her father’s arms, and not long after we all
started to nod off. The Bedouin thought we were awful party poopers I
think, by 10:30 we had all decamped to our beds on the tent floor.
They all bedded down on the sand as they said they liked to sleep
under the stars. There was a full moon, quite magical in the pitch
darkness of the desert to see the flood of moonlight.

The next day was our day with the camels. I was quite concerned that
Doug would be crippled for the rest of the trip, but one of the other
people who had spent the previous day on the camels told us to sit
with one leg wrapped around the horn of the saddle, and lock the other
leg over it. I thought the Bedouin boys just did that to look cool,
but it really is remarkably more comfortable, then you sit a bit
sideways so that you don’t knock your back on the wooden horn at the
back of the saddle. It is also essential to relax and rock with the
camel’s rolling gait. I found it completely comfortable and not at
all sea sick making as elephants are, and was quite sorry when the
journey ended.

Our little camel driver had limited English but was hilarious, dancing
in his seat on the camel’s back, and shouting 1, 2, 3 at intervals as
that seemed to be the sum of his English repertoire. It is not easy
to be a camel driver, they are skittish and grouchy beasts and he had
to be very firm and use muscle to get the lead one to obey him, after
that our two mostly followed suit, but they complained bitterly every
time they had to sit down or get up. Both of those procedures are
somewhat tricky for the rider I have to say.

Just like horses, when after about 4 hours we came in sight of Wadi
Rum in the distance, they sensed home was near and began to misbehave
even worse. When we stopped for our picnic lunch the lead one yowled
and carried on, then sat while Doug’s camel sat, but leapt up again
before mine could and began dancing about with our driver hauling
madly on the lead rope, me clinging to the horn of my saddle wondering
what would happen if all three of them decided to run away with me
into the desert. Camels are high, there is no way you could just leap
off. The driver yelled and hissed and yanked and finally he got the
beast down, then tied its ankle to its thigh so he could let go of the
lead and haul the second camel down. Finally mine sat and I could
disembark (they are called the ships of the desert…)

We rode right into the little village of Wadi Rum, past the mosque,
and finally dismounted right beside our parked car. Seemed so
incongruous, and rather hard on the camel’s feet after the soft sand
of the desert, but they seemed quite pleased to be back. We went into
the house of the boss – Attayak Ali by name – to pay for our tour, but
commercial dealings are not done in such a bald, straightforward way
here. We expected the preliminary cup of tea, but not the tray full
of lunch (pitas, tomatoes, cucumbers, and oddly canned tuna, the usual
fare). The cook at the camp had given us the exact same thing for our
picnic, with a sort of Laughing Cow cheese substituting for the tuna,
but we ate more to be polite. This has not been a weight loss trip!

It was interesting to see their home. It is a given here that you sit
on cushions on the floor. A large round wicker mat serves as the
table in the centre, and the tiny glass of tea is obligatory for any
occasion. Attayak’s wife was very friendly and all five of his kids
came in to smile at us – the oldest is eight, the youngest a baby.
Though Attayak has the gorgeously hawklike sculpted features of most
of the Bedouin, his kids were shaping up to be much chubbier – the
quantities of candy and sweet juice they ate while we were there may
have had much to do with it. Our camel driver came in to join us, it
turned out he is a cousin. He and Attayak were off that evening to a
party to try to arrange his marriage. I was surprised that he was not
already married as he was not young, so I wished him good luck as
Attayak translated. He was very pleased and replied, “In shallah”
(God willing)

Finally we made our farewells and headed back to Bait Ali to stand
under the hot shower to get off the many layers of desert dust. Our
clothes reek of smoke, quite a pleasant aroma but very pervasive.
What a great experience, so much more than I expected, which pretty
much sums up my impression of Jordan so far. Off to Aqaba on the Red
Sea for a bit of R&R. A tough life but someone has to do it!

Click on the rainbow circle to get Doug’s pictures.

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