I had a four-day window of time to fill en route to Israel. I have always wanted to visit Jordan to see Petra. My experience in Iran of seeing King Darius’ tomb in the precipitous cliff at Naqsh-e Rustam, a short distance from Persoplis was a great curiosity for me to compare these cliff-face mausoleums. Petra, I guess would be worth a tantalising visit. I scoured the Internet for a reliable Tour Agency to provide me the experience. I was impressed when I saw Travel Jordan Agency online with an instant messaging response to my queries. Travel Jordan Agency through Mr Hani Al-Abadi responded to my queries and he was so efficiently courteous that very soon I was booked on a personalised three-night four-day tour of Jordan. The price quoted was very reasonable for a private tour with a driver. The only information I needed to provide Hani is a copy of my airline schedule. Below describes the first of my three nights of the amazing Jordanian experience.
I arrived Amman at 5.50 am at Queen Alia airport, on Royal Jordanian Airlines, went through the procedures of getting a Jordanian visa at 40 JD and went through immigration and customs hassle free. Wael the driver, was out in the greeting area with my name card. He led me to his beaming red new Mazda 3 and off we went towards the direction of Wadi Rum, 340 km away. The roads are spotted with cracks here and there and there is nothing on either side except undulated stony and often dusty greyish brown landscape. Wael pointed towards a few industrial sites that process phosphate and nitrate, which are the only two minerals, this country could get out of its grounds. Jordan has a population of 6 million and considering the high value of its dinar currency, which is above par of the US dollar, I wondered what is it that made this country so stable. As our conversations unfolded over the next two days, I worked out that this country is under the subjugation and patronage of the United States to maintain peace with Israel. USAid is one of the unspoken mainstays of their economy.
We stopped by a huge and neat looking store to have Jordanian coffee served strong and black. It is also a huge souvenir store that boasts of everything looking quite Turkish but with a few items of homemade mosaic tiles; the pride and joy of Jordanian artisanal creativity since antiquity. These mosaic pieces could grace the home and walls of either Christians or Muslims alike, given the choice of their themes. Wael warned that the price would be unreasonable in any stores of this nature except at the Queen Noor Foundation stores where they are price controlled. As I roamed around, I unknowingly dropped my phone speakers kept in my phone bag. After we have driven about ten minutes, my sixth sense told me to check my handbag and I told Wael about it. He turned back and retrieved it for me.
We drove for about four hours and time seemed to pass really fast although the sceneries along the way are relatively bland. We chatted. Wael is an open and kind young man. He revealed to me that he was recently separated from his young wife and nine-month old daughter, most of the reason being due to his itinerant job. Hani, the tour operator rang several times through to Wael and communicated with me and asked me about the journey and other requirements. All through the trip, Hani was adjusting and calling ahead to make sure everything is ship-shape perfect. At times, Hani gives me an impromptu update of whatever that has shifted and changed with the bookings, almost as if the journey can be accommodated in real time. I have always had an accommodating disposition while travelling, so this schedule did not unhinge me although occasionally, I almost felt as if this tour seems surreal, yet pleasantly surprising.
Vines in Abu Youseff’s compound
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We arrive at a village scattered with untidy homes outside Wadi Rum. Plastic and rubbish were strewn along the irregular streetscape. The car turned into a little sheltered compound, shaded by a huge acacia tree in the centre. Several very healthy lemon trees graced the compound of the flat roofed cemented home. Grape vines with tiny grapes leaned over a rectangular wooden frame. Abu Youseff, the Bedouin owner of this property have “ come home to roost,” so to say with his two wives and twelve children in this permanent home in Rum village. The children are between the ages of twenty years old to seven months; a total of “half a dozen of each” from each wife, according to his words. I saw his youngest, baby Ali lying down with a family friend on a set of cushions set on three sides of this hall. Abu Youseff has barely a few wrinkles on his cheek-bones, handsome with smooth and slightly curly charcoal black hair. He says he is forty-two while his two wives are 39 and 36 respectively; the first wife being a cousin by relationship, which is the way Bedouins intermarry within the family, he explained. His second wife is married by love marriage. I was trying to work out whether baby Ali’s mother is from Abu Youseff’s first or second wife. I think this house is where the first wife lives as it is in the front of the house while the second wife lives in another separate house behind this first one. Both Abu Youseff and his first wife have sharp features of nose and face and a delicate mouth while the second wife has a flat face and thick dark lips. The children borne by the first wife are beautiful and handsome, especially little Ali who has bright-eyes that sparkle alertness to his surroundings and he smiles and responds whenever his name is called. I could not lift my eyes off this enormously sweet little Bedouin child for the two days I was with them. Fatima is an 18-year old daughter of Abu Youseff and she could speak some English. She was trying to make me guess which one is her mother. I guessed wrongly from her roundish face as the child of the second wife but what gave her away is that she is as beautiful as the first mother.
After an offering of several cups of very sweet Bedouin tea, Abu Youseff packed some food and drinks in an Esky and invited me to jump into his passenger seat and off he drove into the Desert behind his house. We spent a total of four hours out in Wadi Rum as he seemed to turn into unsigned desert tracks here, there and everywhere as if in randomly, from the perspective of my ignorant eyes. I checked out his fuel gauge and it registered zero. I became worried. Somewhere along the journey, I asked him that the light on his fuel tank is showing red. Fancy being stranded out here! He said that his car’s meters are faulty from constant use and he had just filled up a full tank. If we should be stranded, he has two mobile phones and he only need to call his son, Yusuf whom I met earlier and he will come out in their second four-wheel drive. I felt safe with this assurance.
We turned round corners upon corners of huge mountains and saw the unique patterning of the rocks in the midst of the absolute silence of these monoliths. As you may already know, the Wadi-rum valley is a desert with hills and mountains of different shapes and sizes around it but they are magnificent in their structure. Students would love to study these mountains first hand especially when covering the topic of Geology in Science. The mountains are all sedimentary rocks and you could literally see that the ocean covered them at one time millions of years ago. You could see evidence of the watermarks as the sea level drops slowly but surely over time. As the very fine layers-upon-layers of fine sand of these rocks wore away, you can see the remains of mud-drips vertically down its sides but now suspended as if it has frozen in time; evidence that the waves had washed on its sides or that the waves had slowly lapped on the sides of these underwater mountains over the last several million years. The wave marks and mud drips are so clearly made out that I could feel as if I am underwater going back in time, watching the rocks protrude above the sea as the ocean receded. These vertical curtains of mud formed such beautiful lattice patterns as it sits on the face of the mountain while the horizontal layers of sedimentary rocks lay behind it, overall looking like a piece of Chinese ink brush painting from a distance. It is breathtaking to see the works of nature in this way. One could certainly appreciate howthese "strokes of paintbrush" done randomly by wind and water could conjure up such beautiful "paintings."
Monolith of sedimentary rocks
Mud dripped surfaces
Finesandstone surface of sedimentary rocks
Fine sandstone surface with remnants of mud strips
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Evidence of water erosion
Abu Youseff made several stops to point out the this and that of desert plants, a pair of mating sand beetles and told me to watch their rituals, a Bedouin tent stop next to a mountain with pictorial etchings of a camel train on the rock face. His Bedouin friend scurried back from somewhere in a battered truck when Abu Youseff called him on the mobile that he has a guest. We tasted tea from where this Bedouin friend began with pouring hot water off a blackened pot into a shiny, charming brass pot, as if for touch of class and then into a tiny glass followed by several top-ups for me. This guy then got out an oud and strummed his melodic soulful Bedouin rhapsody while serving me this mildly sweet but deliciously flavoured cinnamon and herb-spiced tea. Like usual, I bought of few items of perfumed soap, his tea concoction and incense and off we went on our desert trek.
Enthusiastically, Abu Youseff showed me two arch bridges of rocks formed by erosion of wind and water. He drove to a well at the side of another mountain and yelled into the well to let me know about its depth and where the Bedouin shepherds come to get water to feed their goats. I saw scrawny camels and many, many sheep, both longhaired and shorthaired ones; a few donkeys along the way. At one stop where a dense clump of wispy leaves grew in bushes, he crawled into the undergrowth and gathered thin wiry dry wood at its bottom and threw the whole clump of about a dozen twigs into the back of his truck. He drove further, got down the truck and picked some fine needle-like leaves off the Ajarum plant and set about grinding it on a flat piece of stone, added water to it and then rub it to form a foamy lather. He explained that this is the way Bedouin women wash themselves, free of the constraints of commercial soaps and detergents.
The truck was parked next to the leeward-shade of the afternoon sun and Abu Youseff set about making a makeshift stove from a few rocks and a fire was lit using the twigs he gathered earlier. He placed the wire contraption for the barbeque to burn off the remnants of the last barbeque; let the fire die down to its embers and then set about arranging the marinated chicken his wife has prepared. He let it cook in the glowing coals, turning over and over again till it smelled mouth-watering and looked relatively charred. He also took out two long cushions and set it against the side of the mountain for me to sit down and watch the scenery, which is one of peace, solace and tranquility. A bird here and there soared with the updraft and nothing is heard except the exchange of chatter between Abu Youseff and I. His smattering of poor English got him by and he managed to tell the story of his family, often throwing in terms like, “Father me” about his father and “me Father” pointing to his chest to indicate this is about him. It was very interesting listening to him as he said he learnt his communication English from taking tourists around. I could work out his story by extending my imagination from his earnest effort to tell about his life from when he lost his mother when he was six to his father (Father me) who later got another wife. She only gave birth to another sister and Father me became widowed again. Earlier in the day, Abu Youseff told me that he spends a night each, alternating between his two wives. His house in the Rum village has two separate units where his wives live away from one another. Abu Youseff says he has to be very strict with his wives so that they do fight....it basically means he talks and his wives follow. I was fascinated that he set forth to procreate with a vengeance as a result of Father me’s misfortunes.
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We set out to return to his home after about three and a half hours in the desert, savouring the visual beauty of the many mountains, which are monoliths unto themselves. I kept imagining this place as a huge ocean at one time. How would this phenomenon relate to the current hue and cry about climate change, if ironically man existed then?
At about six pm, Abu Youseff’s whole family packed up their beddings and pots, tossed them into the back of the Mitsubishi four-wheel drive and off to the desert camp we went, two babies, two other younger children, one of whom is named Abdul Rahman, an older eighteen year old daughter, Fatima and his two wives in tow. I sat at the passenger seat on the driver’s side while the family squashed in the back and two young children was perched above the beddings on the truck bed. Abu Youseff occasionally broke into a rendition of some happy Bedouin song. He seemed content and happy with all his chattels in one load and a guest whom he also makes some pocket money out of hosting.
After about 45 minutes we reached a solitary tent set up next to the Kaz Ali mountain on one side and another short crackly row of stony hills about 30 metres in height on the other. According to Fatima, that hill is the outdoor toilet for their tribe. One just walks and disappears into the rocks and performs nature’s calls. For the not so immediate toilet needs, one simply goes behind the big black tent. Abu Youseff’s whole tribe of immediate extended family was out there to welcome us. There is Father me, an uncle and his wife, their 50 over goats, a donkey and two dogs. Sudan, their tall, dark and handsome Sudanese shepherd with perfectly straight white teeth flashed his gentle smiles, as he came in with the sheep a few minutes later from behind Kaz Ali mountain. After setting up my single modern tent, and the men’s beddings scattered in different parts around the camp under the sky, we set about dinner. Abu Youseff’s wives quietly worked cooperatively and cooked a one-pot dinner of yoghurt-chicken and rice over a gas stove in the second partition of the tent while tea was brewed on a makeshift fire in the main tent that served as a lounge for the family and guests. Sudan entertained us with his home-made oud made from an empty petrol can, two sticks stuck into the can and several fine wires that looked as if it had been extracted from electrical wires. The sound made a beautiful timbre and he sang, smiling and giggling shyly along. While food cooked I shared my video on my Antarctica journey with them. Sudan, the children Abdul Rahman and his sibling; Fatima and Abu Youseff were suitably fascinated when they saw the penguins and snow.
My Bedouin host’s camp
A proud family man with four of his twelve children
My bedouin camp next to Kaz ali
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We shared dinner, communal style. The men and the elder aunt shared the meal from one shallow metal tray while the two wives; Fatima and another little girl sibling ate off the same pot used to cook the meal. The monotonous, nonchalant motion of the women’s fingers dipping into the pot repetitively and rolling the food into a ball, putting it into their mouth, and talking un-animatedly was almost hypnotising for me. I ate off a plastic plate with a plastic fork.
Abu youseff's family
Sudan entertaining us with his oud
I saw stars so clearly in the sky although a string of streetlights lit up in the distance showing maybe the Rum village. A wide band of bejewelled twinkly lights indicating the Milky Way galaxy dangled above me. The air was cool and crisp and the red sand felt clean. The fifty to sixty goats were corralled into a pen just a few metres away from the tent. Mixed with the aroma of their droppings and their occasional bleating, I felt so much part of this landscape and extended tribal family. I managed to brush my teeth and then dive into bed after Abu Youseff asked me if I want to go to the toilet. I declined but he pointed the general direction I could go next to the side of the main tent or next to his Mitsubishi. I was knocked out the minute I hit bed. There were two huge “Made in China” fluffy blankets and a clean pillow and mattress that I used this afternoon as bed. I woke up at 3.30 am and made my toilet round bravely behind the Mitsubishi with the help of my little LED torch. One of their two dogs barked at my intrusion into their territory.
Philosophically speaking, the journey of life is but a short-one, all the more in terms of the geological age of these mountains that surround me here in the Wadi-Rum. We are but an infinitesimal entity in this Universe but seeing the Milky way in the sky dripping like jewels and looking at star-lights that come from light years away and knowing where I stand in this time-line of space and time.....Hmmmmm, it made me smile that I am part of this parcel of life and this experience in the Universe.
Hani and Eng meeting finally on the last day of tour