To be faced with your own incredible smallness in a time in the world when all the likes and loves and the ability to swipe from country to country – has us feeling larger than life – is a gift I wish I could give to everyone. Alas, I can only give it to a few. My few.
Wadi Rum was, without a doubt, the thing we were most excited about when we learned we were coming to Jordan. With all the Star Wars and Sci-Fi fans in my life, this other-worldly place feels a little like the Universal Studios of Jordan. Wadi Rum has been the backdrop to many movies, the latest being Aladdin and the newest Star Wars movie, both filmed while we were here.
We didn’t get down to Wadi Rum nearly as many times as we would have liked in our two year stay. We had dreams of camping in and exploring the desert every weekend, but the weeks have been long and the weekends short. The drive from Amman to Wadi Rum is about four hours, on a sometimes questionable highway through the great nothing, but when the nothingness gives-way, it falls off hard, in big giant chunks, and you land in Wadi Rum. Then suddenly everything dusty and dirty, and all that nothingness, becomes worth enduring because it is so beautiful and otherworldly that even though you thought the desert would never end or change, it does. Like most proverbial deserts we endure in life. We did make it twice and those two times, while nowhere close to the number I’d envisioned, were enough. And not enough like, “that’s enough of that,” but enough- like when something is just the right kind of good and you require less of it to be fulfilled.
Our first trip was to meet our friends who had hopped over the border from Jerusalem, friends from our Chennai days, and the second time to take my parents who were visiting. We stayed in the same camp on both occasions and it was nothing short of magical. These photographs are an amalgamation of those trips.
When we arrived we parked our car in a parking lot just inside the village, beyond the gates of the park, and were immediately greeted by a man both Paul and I agreed was painfully handsome. I believe his name was Mohammad. He wore a long, perfectly pressed, white thoab, and about his head, a keffiyeh. His skin was the color of honey, and his eyes – that sort of light amber that makes you feel a little flush to stare into. He ushered us into the bed of his vintage Toyota truck, fitted with benches beneath a faded floral drape, hung about four posts to provide some shade from the desert sun. After loading our bags into the cab, we made our way slowly through the village and to its very edge where both the asphalt and the village fell off like the edge of the world-into the sand and nothing but mountains and lunar landscape lay before us.
That is when we picked up speed, following tracks that only Bedouins and camels could know. The kids hung their heads out the side of the canopy and like puppies with wind flapping their ears, they grinned all the way to camp.
Our camp rose up out of the sand just around the backside of a mountain and was nestled neatly into a wadi between two cliffs. We were greeted with tea, and a swift retying of our previously Petra-tied keffiyehs, in the bedouin style, and ushered to our tents. As we’d done with our friends previously, we ordered lunch for the group, Maqlouba, a dish suited to feed a crowd and made especially for our hungry group. While we waited for our lunch, we sat in the shade beneath, a cliff in a banquette fashioned to crawl along the cliff walls. We sipped strong coffee, talked and watched as the kids played in the sand and began to scale the rocks on the adjacent side of the wadi. A climb we would wake up for at sunrise the next morning.
When the Maqlouba was served we sat within a tent fitted into the same cliff; about large, low hexagonal tables, we made sizable dents in a platter of chicken, rice, and vegetables cooked right side up and flipped just before serving, but it seemed we would never reach the bottom. We treated the kids to cold sodas and stretched lunch until nearly 4:00, butting us right up against our sunset jeep tour.
We were assigned a new, yet equally handsome driver, and a similarly outfitted jeep and headed back out to explore the park. From any mountain top in Wadi Rum, the next peak seems near enough to skip to, but once you gain even the smallest distance, looking back, it seems as though you’ve come a million miles. And ahead of you, a million more. Standing there in the center of the sand, you are but a pin on a map. A truly humbling feeling that brought me back to myself a time or two. Our first stop was an enormous sand dune of soft, Martian red sand, where we ditched our shoes and climbed, a fight against the soft sand, to the top. Followed by a small wadi, with ancient writings and bursts of green sprouting from its oasis. The last stop, before pivoting the jeep towards the sunset was a natural bridge that we all climbed while giving thanks to the desert gods today wasn’t the day the thing came careening down.
Sunset point was a dune overlooking what felt like the entire desert. Our gracious driver, pulled cushions from the trucks bed and laid them beside the truck for ease of viewing. The kids ran around acting like dinosaurs while we watched for the green flash, a phenomenon my dad had shared with us. When the sun had dipped behind the mountains, an almost instant chill fell upon the desert and we headed back to camp for a buffet of lamb cooked underground, bread, and mezze in the communal geodesic dome. On our first visit, once the kids were in bed we snagged chairs and a sheesha pipe – filled with a little watermelon mint tobacco – and smoked with our friends while the stars appeared one by one in the sky and the kids slept quietly in the tent beside us. The night we visited with my parents, Paul and I stole away into the desert after dark to star gaze for a few moments before crashing into our tent of perfect desert quiet ourselves.
The morning would bring my first scorpion sighting, less traumatic than I’d expected, given that I didn’t step on it, a sunrise hike and a hearty Middle Eastern breakfast of hummus, pickled vegetables, labneh, halva, bread and eggs. Before ascending back up into Amman, we stopped to tour the Hejaz Railway Station and its remaining trains. For the train lovers in the group, of which there were nearly as many as Sci Fi fans.
I’ve always felt boxed up in cities, as much as I crave them to live for my creative spirit, but a trip to the desert or the ocean has always allowed my body and mind to spread out its mess of thoughts and ideas, sort through them with space to rearrange and then pack them all back up again, neatly for the trip back to reality.