Wadi Rum: Lawrence of Arabia Slept Here

In the late afternoon of our 2nd day at Petra, Christiana and I agreed that we would spend the night at the Bedouin camp at Wadi Rum. “Wadi” is a word that denotes a place with a seasonal source of water. I don’t know the meaning of “Rum.”

This turned into quite the adventure because the camp name that we had been given turned out to be a dead end. We discovered this while we were riding in a taxi toward Wadi Rum. “Ah! No problem,” said our driver, “I can fix it for you.”

Christiana and I both went on alert, but still willing to listen. ” Let me call,” he said. Long story made short, he knew of a good place that had space for us for 60JD. Dinner and breakfast would be included.

While this transpired, the sun had gone down and it was dark. We were hungry. He seemed like a nice guy (the driver had been called by the guy at the desk of our hotel, so not a complete and total stranger. Not really.) Plus, there is virtually no violent crime in Jordan, especially to tourists. Over-charging by taxi drivers, yes, absolutely, but no violent crime.

“Okay,” we said, and drove in the dark to a place that I will never find again. On the side of a dark road, we changed vehicles and received a new driver, Khalid, who drove us into the desert where there no roads, buildings, or any other discernible signs of civilization. It was a moment of human faith in humanity.

It seemed like forever, but really it was only about 25 minutes later that we arrived at a large white tent with lights inside, and four or five Bedouin men taking care of the camp. The driver unloaded our luggage and took it somewhere. We were invited into the tent and given tea, dates, and cheese.

There were other guests already, and we all introduced ourselves. There were fourteen people altogether, and it turned out that eleven of them were from New York. Three of them were from Ithaca – graduate students at Cornell University. The others were from the Hudson Valley, except for a parent who was now living in Minnesota. Christiana, being from South Africa, and Paul, who turned out to be from Poland, and the Bedouin, constituted the multi-cultural experience. It was difficult for Paul, as he spoke Polish and Spanish, but no English, which was the language of the evening.

There was a fire going in the fireplace in the tent because this was still January and Jordan, especially the desert, gets cold in the winter. The conversation carried on and we helped ourselves to the food and tea, until it was time for dinner.

The dinner had been cooked in the traditional Bedouin way. Earlier that day, they had dug a pit, and put hot coals into the bottom, then layered wrapped chicken and vegetables, covering it all with sand again, letting it cook for a few hours. When it was time to serve dinner, they gently dug it up and brought it into the tent, arranging it on platters for us. It was delicious.

We eat many of the same foods in the United States, but I never realized that they came from the Middle East – cauliflower, cucumbers, eggplant, mint, and lemons, for instance. It’s the Mediterranean diet. In modern times, just like many places, the eating habits have changed, but these were among the foods in traditional cuisine.

There was also a traditional Arabic dessert, which was very sweet and very good. While dessert and tea were being enjoyed, the Bedouin men treated us to a couple of traditional songs.

The evening closed when the Bedouin announced that the generator – there was no other power – would be turned off at 9:00 p.m. I wanted to have light in our tent while getting ready for bed, so off I went.

The stars were spectacular. In the middle of the desert, there is no ambient light to speak of, so the visibility is excellent. I was sorry that it was too cold to sleep outside.

The next morning, after breakfast, Christiana and I were taken on a tour of the desert area. It is historical because the Bedouin have been there a long time, and because this was the area that was home to T.E. Lawrence during his years with the Arab revolt. One of the stops was “Lawrence’s House.” It was a stone house, now collapsed, built up against a huge boulder, part of a rocky outcropping. These rocky places are scattered through the desert. This particular spot was on a trading route from ancient times. The Nabataean caravans traveled through here on their way from Petra. The trading caravans would pay the local Bedouin tribe for safe passage on their way through. Lawrence’s house would have had an excellent view of any approaching traffic.

Other things we saw were plants of the desert, and the places that Bedouin used for storage and how they marked them for ownership. Boundaries are fluid for the Bedouin, and the guide spoke of how many moved back and forth between Jordan and Saudi Arabia without any thought of passports or borders. We learned the way in which camels were marked for ownership, which was a system of three marks identifying tribe, family, and individual.

We stopped at a place of huge red sand dunes. The game was to climb up, and then “surf” down the hillside. It was fun, but strenuous and once was enough for me.

Christiana and I went on to the Wadi Rum Visitors’ Center. We were on a time line to return to Petra in time to catch the bus back north to Amman. Christiana said that if she had been alone, she would never have done it.

Someday, I will return to Wadi Rum, in warmer weather, with my sleeping bag, when I can lay outside and sleep under the stars.

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