Sunday, April 15, 2007

Keeping up with the Joneses (and T. E. Lawrence)

Looking back ... we took a minibus from Aqaba, cramming ourselves into a vehicle full of people and luggage and food and with even more suitcases and taped-up boxes strapped to its roof. The crowded, weighted-down bus got a flat tire just as we crested our slow, steady climb from the Red Sea into the mountainous desert to the north; the driver pulled over and all the men nimbly leaped over the luggage on the floor and out the door. In no time, they efficiently jacked up the bus and replaced the tire, allowing them all to have a smoke break in the process. It was a well-honed system.

We got to Wadi Musa in the evening. The town, just outside of Petra, exists solely to serve the tourist population, and as such doesn't feel like part of Jordan at all; it's more of a neutral international space, not unlike a rather dusty outdoor airport. Succumbing to the atmosphere, we had some ice cream (okay, and a little whiskey, too) at the Swiss-owned luxury hotel Mövenpick. (We were amused to note that a small postcard shop called the Pick 'n' Move had sprung up next door, across from the Indiana Jones Snack Bar.) We watched the other tourists as they gawked at the belly dancer in the bar, and prepared ourselves for an early assault on the huge site of Petra the next morning .

You approach the ancient Nabatean city through a long, dramatic gorge called the Siq, emerging suddenly into the light right in front of Petra's most famous facade, the Treasury. A day scrambling around on the rocks yielded glimpses of caves, huge carved facades, dramatically lit stone landscapes, streaky worn sandstone; natural and man-made wonders combine to make Petra completely astonishing.

The next day, we got another early start to take the 6 AM bus to Wadi Rum, a 30-square-mile protected area southeast of Petra containing some of Jordan's most beautiful desert scenery. It's often associated with T.E. Lawrence, although his actual connection with the place was limited to a passing comment that it was a very attractive landscape, because the movie Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here in 1962; now many of the canyons and rocks have been renamed things like the "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" and "Lawrence Spring."

There's nowhere to stay in Wadi Rum. If you want to spend some time here, you have to arrange to camp at a Bedouin campsite, and you really need a guide to go hiking or driving around; all those red rocks start to look the same to the uninitiated after a while. Our guide met our bus and took us on a jeep tour, including some hidden Thamudic petroglyphs carved into the rock. We cooked chicken and stew over an open fire in the company of our fellow campers, an English/Dutch family based in Amman who proved to be incredibly athletic. In the time we were there, they managed to hike every trail that we did and climb every (steep, windy, hot, drifting, generally grueling) sand dune that we did - twice, literally! (To add to our disgrace, they were all scheduled to compete in a 50K run from Amman to the Dead Sea the next day.) We were shamed, but our own slow and pathetic amblings did yield some great vistas and the supremely satisfying sight of about ninety camels grazing quietly in the desert.

More (alas, grainy) pictures of our hair-raising, spine-tingling, transfiguring adventure are available here:

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