Third time lucky? Who said that?
On a one-day expedition in the fall of the year of the Arab Spring, the either/or choice was between Wadi Rum and Petra. I chose Petra because the cruise company nazi said there would be no camel ride opportunity at Wadi Rum. At Petra, we would be on our own for at least half the day. So off we go from the port of Aqaba in a convoy of buses. It’s a two-hour drive up, up into the mountains, 5,000 feet, how high the desert is here! ... the spectacular scenery I remember. Strange to be bypassing Wadi Rum, a place I love, off in the distance. Turning onto the King’s Highway (the ancient route), there are more villages than I recall. Not much later, we begin the winding descent into Wadi Musa.
I tell our guide Talal I’m gone once we enter Petra. No problem, but do not miss the bus departure (hammered-in-steel rule for all day trips). We have a measly four hours here. Allowing almost an hour each way for the entrance walk, ... not much time to traverse the entire “city.” The entrance walk itself has no shade for the first half; the second part is rough footing through the wadi leading to the Siq. The return hike needs more time because then it’s uphill and the sun in the final part is blistering. Avoiding dehydration is a must.
Once we enter the ancient site through the Siq, I head myself along the cityscape trail. I’m not sure about the timing for reaching the little museum at the end of the trail. My plan is to have a glorious ride back to the Siq (camels are not allowed on the long entrance walk for obscure reasons). In hindsight I’m sorry I didn’t take a camel both ways within the “city” but enjoying the lack of tourists compared to other times. The vendor stalls are fewer now, signs of the sudden tourism decline. Marguerite’s (Married to a Bedouin) son has moved to a different spot.
I’ve been walking briskly for what seems like an hour, pausing here and there to buy trinkets or take photos. Only one or two camels pass me. As usual, many donkey rides are on offer, for climbing the surrounding mountains. It would take a young Olympian to attempt the entire ascent on foot, consuming the better part of the day to reach acrophobic heights like Aaron’s shrine (brother of Moses).
A youngish guy on a donkey spots me as a mark. No, I want a camel, I say. Big mistake to speak up: he will get me one. No, I’ve already seen my destination ahead: the camel station by the museum. The ensuing conversation gets more annoying as I understand he doesn’t want me to reach the camel station. I don’t stop. He quotes US$35 to ride back to the Siq. In my bag I have a sole JD20 bill, but some American cash. I laugh and say JD15 .. not telling him three years ago I paid a fair price of JD18. He is indignant and insists the JD (Jordanian dollar) is worth more than the American dollar therefore I am insulting him. My math is always shaky and he may be right but what the crap, I can get some bidding going at the camel station. Onward.
He won’t go away. We do some more haggling with me up to US$20 and he is stuck at $US30. For like a 30 minute ride? I’m getting a creeping Giza feeling—and I should have stayed with that instinct.
“His” camel is nowhere in sight but he has a cell phone and somehow his minion, an older guy, beams onto the spot with two decent-looking camels. More arguing, no attempt at charm. I’m almost at the camel station and he throws in the deal-clincher for US$25. His claim that the camels at the station are “reserved” for a shipload of tourists is highly suspicious but I cave. Maybe I’m having sunstroke. Donkey boy rides off before I can ascertain any names for men or beasts.
Via sign language the totally taciturn (let’s just say surly) minion agrees to photograph me. Maybe he’s the actual camel owner for all I know. His photography is adequate as far as it goes but once again no long shot when the friggin’ camel is standing. Away we go with him on the lead camel so this is not going to be a thrilling, independent Zsou-Zsou ride. In fact, no joy here in his job, just another hurry-up and get on with it. Where has gone the welcome of Petra’s Bedu people? Worries, of course. The slow economy and political uncertainty has made them desperate and more like the Giza rogues. But this year the Giza rogues, perversely, were employing charm.
The poorest do not have stalls; they spread their crafts on a blanket or send their children about—more children in evidence than previous times, with souvenirs and strings of beaded necklaces. This little tyke was selling bits of stone.
About halfway between the midway rest stop and the Siq, my guy stops and at a silent command my camel folds up. What?!! No, no, I say. I’m not getting off – my ride isn’t over! (naturally, there’s no way I can make this camel stand up again.) Minion then informs me this is how far I get for $25. I am so pissed off. He leaves with the camel. Not happy with myself and my alleged bargaining skills.
Youngster approaches to offer necklaces, quite the patter. One is cheap but two are cheaper (the chosen one is always the most expensive). He motions to sit down ... perhaps anticipating extensive haggling of a mutually satisfactory nature. Or else he senses my now-vulnerable self-esteem. Why not. A couple more kids gather: a live customer! Maybe this is a kids’ co-op. We settle down with some Cokes.
They have a few stock English phrases but not much interest in learning more. We struggle to find words for what one necklace is made of. Camel bone seems most agreeable to all. I pay for three necklaces trying to tell the boy I made his day. One of the little girls repeats, “Make my day!” but I don’t think she has a clue about Clint Eastwood. She shyly gives me a small stone, striated sandstone, the kind the kids try to sell. It’s a piece of Petra to take home.
Cruise people have mustered to rest by the Siq entrance The heat is taking its toll. Clearly they did not get far enough to see all the tombs, especially the higher ones requiring some climbing skills and a mastery of vertigo. Treading the sandy parts of the walk back is harder than navigating the Roman paving stones. Dodging the careening horse carriages is another hazard.
When I stop to rest where the wadi opens into the sun, an unaggressive young man suggests a horse ride to complete the last mile of this trek. Included in my entrance ticket: who knew?! So I get on this Arabian horse, grateful for the relief; photo opp is the last thing on my mind. He’s happy to chat away about “Canada” and the Rocky Mountains and horses (Queen Rania sponsors care of these horses in their senior years). This is more like the relaxed, engaging Jordan I remember. The tip he gently recommended was worth it. :-) My timing is good. Enough to browse the Rural Women’s Co-op Shop and not miss the damn bus.
© 2012 Brenda Dougall Merriman