Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Wadi Rum, Jordan

Our guide, Abu Mishal, waved down our bus from the side of the road as we entered Rum Village, a cigarette dangling from his mouth.  He wore a grey pinstriped ankle-length caftan and the ubiquitous red and white checkered head scarf held in place by a crown of black rope.  We tumbled out of the bus, bleary-eyed from our 4:30 a.m. wake up to catch the early ride.  Abu Mishal motioned for us to follow him and shuffled off in his thick leather sandals.  Four sets of eyes peered at us, two through a hole in a cinderblock wall, and two peeking over the top.  Abu Mishal led us through a gate into his enclosed yard.  Seeing us, his wife hurriedly pulled a blue scarf over her head and ran into the house.

The four sets of eyes belonged to Abu Mishal’s young children, two of them barefoot, and all with unruly jet-black hair.  Abu Mishal introduced us to his only son, a mischievous boy of seven years named after his father.  He did not introduce the three girls standing beside their brother.  We sat on a carpet inside a burlap tent taking up half of the yard, and his wife brought out a copper tea kettle and poured us each a thimbleful of sugary sweet hot tea.  We could hear cats yowling and skirmishing just behind the wall of the tent.  Abu Mishal and his wife disappeared.  The kids chattered away to us in Arabic.  They were ineffectively trying to start a fire in a raised metal bin with damp sticks; Mohit got up to help them get the fire going, and soon a cloud of aromatic smoke was blowing inside the tent.

We sat in the tent for hours, no idea why we were hanging out in this yard or when our pre-paid 4x4 jeep tour through the Wadi Rum desert would begin.  We’ve both recently read “Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts (an amazing page-turner of a book that we both highly recommend) and decided to adopt the author’s philosophy of just letting adventure unfold by going with it.  So we waited.  Abu Mishal wandered in and out, chain smoking Marlboros and chatting away in Arabic on his cell phone (frantically procuring our fabulous tour, we hoped).

We drank thimbleful after thimbleful of sweet tea, kept warm in the brass kettle over the coals of the fire.  We met Abu Mishal’s father, the sheikh of the tribe.  We were served Bedouin bread, thinner and airier than a tortilla, a sheet maybe two feet in diameter, which Abu Mishal dropped into the ashes of the fire (near, but not on top of the cigarette butts that had been dropped there too), then pulled out, shook off, and handed to us warm with a foil triangle of Smiling Cow cheese.  We played endless rounds of “give me five, other side, down low….you’re too slow!” with the littlest girl, who had no idea what we were saying but liked the game anyways.

Finally, three hours after we’d arrived, a skinny teenage boy drenched in cologne showed up, we loaded our bags into his waiting 4x4 jeep, and we were off.  He barely spoke English, so we had only the vaguest idea where he was taking us.  For a few moments, we felt resentful that we’d been ripped off- this was the least organized, most unprofessional “tour” we’d been on, and it wasn’t cheap.  But when the jeep jumped the asphalt curb and bounced off into the uncharted desert, with nothing but sand and looming towers of rock as far as we could see , we grinned, held on tight, and reminded ourselves to just go with it…

It was a windy, drizzling day, un- seasonably grey and cool for the desert in March.  I was freezing and so kept my head warm and dry by wrapping my multi-purpose Indonesian shawl over my head and around my neck, fitting in fashion-wise with the local women without meaning to.  For the rest of the day we rode around in the jeep, stopping a half dozen times to get out and explore a canyon, a natural rock arch, an incredibly smooth and red sand dune, a natural spring dripping water into the otherwise desolate landscape.  We were both struck again by how beautiful rocks and sand can be.

We drove by a herd of camels grazing on nibbles of green weeds growing out of the sand.  There was no settlement, no tent, no camel shepherd anywhere as far as the eye could see (and we could see for miles in any direction).  But these camels clearly belonged to someone because each had its front legs tied together with a short length of rope, which forced the animals to take short, shuffling steps, sort of like a girl in a too-tight skirt, or prisoners in a chain gang.  I felt bad for them.

Our teenage driver skidded in the sand around the corner of a rock outcropping and stopped beside a simple Bedouin tent, similar to the one we’d been sitting in in Abu Mishal’s yard.  We were to be the only ones staying here in the desert tonight.  We were surprised when he dropped us off, then got back into the jeep to leave us alone in the middle of nowhere.  He said Abu Mishal would arrive in one hour with food for dinner and would stay the night with us to return to town in the morning.  Until then, it’d just be us, the rocks, and the wind.

As he drove away, I thought- this is crazy.  My fingers are so cold I can hardly feel them, and we have no idea if we‘ll be stranded here.  We tried to warm ourselves sitting in a tent that barely sheltered from the wind and sand, it was made of coarse woven fabric.  The floor was dirt, scattered with woven plastic mats and a few old wool rugs.  Luckily, Mohit had begged the boy for a lighter before he’d abandoned us, and so we scrounged around for bleached sticks and gnarled dead scrub brush, then started a fire that filled the tent with smoke.

Abu Mishal never came.  We waited alone for four hours, reading, warming our hands around the fire, and exploring the mist-shrouded desert surrounding our tent.  We plotted what we would do if no one returned for us.  We rationed our one water bottle.  Finally, as the evening light faded into darkness, a much more banged-up and rustic military-style jeep returned- it wasn’t Abu Mishal, but our teenage driver and a friend.  They brought steaming aluminum pots brimming with rice and lamb kofta in a salty tomato broth.  And we’d thought that we would be cooking our dinner over the campfire…oh well.  The food was delicious though.

As we stepped out of the tent later to head to bed, we were surprised to see a huge nearly-full moon and millions of stars overhead- the clouds had finally parted, and the whole desert was bathed in a blue glow.  The hulking rock outcrops were illuminated like spaceships.  It looked like we were on Tatooine.  I climbed up onto a rock to soak in the moonlight.  Not a sound but the wind.  No signs of human life as far as I could see.  Breathtakingly beautiful.

We crawled fully-clothed into bed: thin foam mattresses on the sand floor of the adjacent tent, with sand-encrusted blankets to keep us warm (thank goodness once again for silk sleep sheets!).  Before I fell asleep, I hoped that there were no camel spiders (thanks to my brother for planting that fear) or leopards or coyotes, since there wasn’t even a flap to close the tent door to the elements.

In the morning we woke with the sky still dark and climbed into the unprotected back of the jeep with our bags.  The two boys hopped into the cab, and we sped off across the sand, our driver with only one hand on the wheel since he had a smoking cigarette in the other hand.

The jeep jerked and bounced on the wind-sculpted sand and threatened to eject Mohit and I at every lurch.  It felt like we were going a hundred miles an hour, and I closed my eyes and screamed into the wind.  I was petrified; Mohit was laughing at me.  Don’t tell our moms (this is a joke, since they’re our most dedicated readers), but I think that jeep ride tops the most dangerous and death-defying things we’ve done on this trip; one big bounce or a rollover and we would have been crushed.

We made it out of the Wadi Rum desert in time to catch our 6 a.m. bus to Aqaba.  It WAS the most haphazard tour we’ve been on, but it was not at all disappointing.  We were both glad we’d just gone with the flow…


  1. Fascinating adventure!! I can't wait to get there in about 2 weeks!

    Great writing!

    Don Peterson

  2. Which tour guide/ group do you recommend?

  3. Natasha-
    Unfortunately, I would not recommend the tour we booked, since it was very disorganized and haphazard. We booked it through a budget hotel in Petra. There's no need to book before arriving in Jordan- there are plenty of options upon arrival (and you'll save money this way too). Ask the other travellers you meet in Jordan until you find someone who enjoyed theirs. Good luck! Wadi Rum is beautiful!

  4. www.jordan-adventures.com

  5. Hi Kate/Mohit,

    We are planning a road trip to Jordan and intend to rent a car and drive around.
    Did you rent a car (your blog makes me think that you went along with tourist guides)? Also, which month did you go in? Our trip is scheduled in March - will the Wadi be really cold?


  6. ETJ jordan tours in Jordan - http://easytraveljo.com

  7. interesting report, thanks

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