The Al-Gawaher Travel Club
Merry Thanksgiving, O avid reader, and forgive this one his lack of haste in telling an unhasty tale. Here we cover the country on the River Jordan, up to the Walls of Rum, though since the conclusion of this chapter I have passed on across the Red Sea to the beaches and reefs of Noweiba and Dahab. On the 23rd my friends and I came to Cairo, and I am one of the few Americans who on Thanksgiving visited the Post Office and the Pyramids. The street carts serve yams, and though the restaurants lack turkey, they roast chickens and pigeons. Tomorrow is Eid, and the streets will flow with the blood of Mohammedan sacrifices. However strange your family may be, this is well stranger.
I had arranged to meet the Aussie girls, Kate and Amelia, plus Jean and Keith in Amman on the 23rd of October for Kate's birthday, and that morning woke up in Damascus with a long way to go.
First I went to Bosra with Francis the Quebecois. The Romans built the town of black basalt, and that strong rock kept its ruins standing, so that with a few repairs they now contain the mosques and stores and houses and stables of Syrians. The theater is the town's most significant attraction. Above the stage, the high and columned facade has niches for the gods and emperors of Rome. The Crusaders built around it and around the grandstands to turn the theater into a moated fortress. From the top we could look over the black rock and rubble and palm trees of the old city to the plains of Syria, which danced with a storm and dusty tornadoes.
It took us until four to explore it all, and then I had a tea and left in a private taxi for the border, since no buses went straight there. I said goodbye to Francis, who would take a bus back to Damascus. My taxi couldn't take me all the way to the border, since he was not registered, so I walked a long way between the end of Syria and the beginning of Jordan. Despite my reservations over the Mukhabarat and my laptop, I had no problems with any of it.
I ended up at the check point leaving the Jordanian station at the same time as a shared taxi. The guards looked incredulous when I told them I would hitchhike, and a nice Tunisian woman in the car with her Jordanian husband asked me if I wanted to go with them to the capital. I happily accepted. “Do you have Jordania dinars?” she asked, and I did. The guard leaned his face in the window and said something that made them laugh. Tunisia told me, “He said that you had better pay with Jordanian dinars or he will shoot you with his gun. But he is only joking.”
“Jon, you're here! We were about to leave!” shouted the waiting gang when I arrived in the lobby of the Palace Hotel, only five minute late and last of all. “We thought you had been arrested!” “Yeah,” I said, unaware of the excitement of my entrance. “Do you think they have any vacancies here?”
I found a place for my baggage in a dorm room at the Venezia Hotel down the street, and we five piled in a taxi and asked for Rainbow Street, which a Damascene artist had recommended to Jean as the place to be in Amman. The driver liked us so much he let us out for free. The street was up high on a hill, lined with cafes and restaurants, and in one we got sandwiches and drinks.
It being an Australian's birthday, we wanted to drink something more than tea and fruit juice, so we went into a liquor store that my careful eye had spotted on the taxi ride onto Rainbow Street. We bought a bottle of vodka to put in our fruit cocktails—“But how will we get it in?” they say—“Put it in a water bottle,” says I. This we did, crouched behind a car on a sidestreet, feeling a lot like high schoolers. We went into a crowded cafe with a terrace, looking suspicious in our attempts to look cool, and took a shadowed booth in a far corner of the roof overlooking the capital.
Amman filled in the creases of hills with streets and stairways, and supported on ridges and heights restaurants and terraced cafes that steamed with narghile and echoed with Arabic ballads. The lighted domes of a few mosques and the windblown patriotism of a massive flagpole disturbed the black block glitter of the city below.
We watched this and mixed our vodka into our juice and talked about many things. Often this meant Al-Gawaher, since few of us knew the whole story, and all of us were storytellers. We went around the circle and everyone said something about themselves. Kate was a geologist, in love with rocks. Jean had wired tanks. Keith was an actor. Amelia had once joined in a casino-robbing operation under a genius physics teacher who understood the laws governing slot machines. I was writing a book. We were the Al-Gawaher Travel Club, and inseparable.
Our vodka was gone, our shisha exhausted, and so we took a cab back. “Stop!” we cried in unison, seeing the white lights and brown shelves of an open liquor store. We bought beers and Jean bought a flask of Jordanian whiskey, and we walked them back to the Palace Hotel. Kate and Amelia smuggled three boys into their hotel room, and we drank more and made a lot of noise. A French girl knocked at three a.m. to us that. “I have earplugs,” said Kate. “Do you want some?” “The whole hotel would need earplugs.” “That's okay. I have a lot.”
At noon I got up from the floor where I had slept, and Jean and I went back to our hotel. Jean had drank most of his Jordanian whiskey and passed out. In France, he is notorious for sleeping at parties and waking up at 5 when things are dying down, ready for more.
I had developed a strong affection for the Middle Eastern juice bar—freshly blended from pears and bananas with yogurt, honey, juice, and ice. I said, “I'm going to get some juice, and I'm going to get some whiskey and put it in that juice.” Jean halted a clenched fist at his mouth and almost spewed across the sidewalk.
We spent that lazy day in Amman, working off the hangover in cafes and restaurants. Kate had to leave that day, and we said goodbye sadly. Jean and I switched to the Palace. We got a room with Amelia, down the hall from Keith's single and from the hirsute American, Spencer, whom I met in Goreme. I traded Necropolis for The Rum Diaries. At Hashem's world-famous alley restaurant, Keith, Jean, and I ate mezes—ful bean sauce and yogurt and hummus—with bread and felafel, and went down the street to line up for some sugary deserts, and brought some back for Amelia.
There is not much to do in that city, other than a lackluster citadel and a small theater. Everyone on the road tells you, Stay a day. We looked through Amelia's Lonely Planet and picked out Madaba, a short ride away.
Jean rode his motorbike, and Amelia and I beat him on the bus. We poked around the Tourist Office, and found Jean with his helmet in his hands, talking to the senile caretaker of the Madaba Hotel when we returned. “Did you pay?” she said to us. He moved into our triple, and we all went to see the Byzantine mosaics that put Madaba on so many maps, and which render it a very touristy town. These included a map of Syria on the floor of St. George's Cathedral.
Amelia had seen the Dead Sea with Kate, but Jean and I had not. “It's fifteen dinars to stay at a resort,” said Amelia. “Fifteen dinars!” we raged. “So much!? I don't want to go. I'm not going.” We consulted Lonely Planet until we found an entry about a beach which was filthy and polluted but free, and Amelia made us take a water bottle to wash the salt off. We rode off without helmets on the long, winding road, till we could see the sunken sea in its pit, and then took switchbacks down 300 meters below sea level.
Desert aridity has evaporated most of the sea, leaving a super-salinized swamp of much denser water. You cannot sink in it, but float on top as if on a mattress, reading a paper or a book. It stretches, flat as a table and windless, from Jordan to Israel. When we had come out of the ridges that were once the slopes of the lake, we found a parking lot and scrabbled down some rocks to the sea's white banks. The rocks nearest the shore had a crust of salt on them.
We swatted away the insect throng that shortly discovered our presence and made to devour us, and scrabbled into the water on bare feet. Our attempts at sinking failed, as did our attempts at floating photography. Jean grabbed his old miniature camcorder and reentered the water, but he tripped. He held the camera out above his head and fell face-first into the saltwater, so that it got in his eyes but not in his lens. It was a horrible pain, and all we had was the bottle of water. We used that as best we could, and chugged back up the hill to Madaba.
That night Jean, Amelia, and I had a powerful hunger and decided, since Hotel Madaba had a kitchen, to make for ourselves a great feast. We bought bread, noodles, vegetables, tomato paste, fruit, and beer, and a half chicken to supplement what we made ourselves. With saucier skill from his Japanese mother and French genes, Jean turned eggplant, onion, tomato, cucumber, and paste into a sauce for the noodles. Amelia and I cut things up for a fruit salad and a Greek one, and then stood behind the counter with our elbows on it and our chins in our hand, snatching bites of food when the Frenchman looked away. We ate until stuffed and watched Pineapple Express, which Steve had given me, on my laptop, which we placed at the foot of our beds.
The next day we again assured the senile landlady that we had paid, Jean loaded up his motorbike, and Amelia and I went to find out how to get to Dana. Her patented little sister smile, which all little sisters learn, did not work on the tourist bus drivers, so we had to take a bus back to Amman and then down to Dana, an hour south of Madaba.
Three main arteries connect Jordan from north to south: the Dead Sea Highway along that salty pit, the Desert Highway that shoots straight through the wastes out east of the other two, and the King's Highway, an ancient road that winds through the wadis between the two. Jean drove his motorcycle through the last of these, past Kerak and other wonders, and Amelia and I beat him there on the Desert Highway, though with much less to say about it.
The bus arrived in Qadsiyya around 5, and then drove down onto a promontory over Wadi Dana, where the town was situated, overlooking the wide sandstone cleft towards where it fizzled out into the sunset haze of the sandy sea. The houses were built of rock the same color as the gorge, and most were falling down. Only three families still lived in Dana Town, and they ran the three hotels—the Dana, the Tower, and the Guest House—and the small minimarket. There was a mosque, but it only played recorded calls to prayer. Everyone else had moved up to Qadsiyya.
We had planned to stay in the Tower Hotel, at the end of the promenade. The paunchy owner welcomed us with a smile and guessed that I was 26 and Amelia 14. The hotel manager was named something like Harris, and he showed Amelia and I two rooms, one with a window and one with a bathroom. You can get better bathrooms almost anywhere, but that window was something special. Outside the dusk crimsoned a veined canyon, and the desert whispered. Its name was the Sunset Royal Suite. The white walls bore the Sharpie remnants of a hundred globe-trotters, messages like, “The horse jockeys at Petra call picking up white women 'fishing',” and, “9-11 was an inside job.” The bed was big enough for four people, and there was a third one next to the wall.
The Filipina servants dished out dinner at 8, and since we had two hours to wait we dropped our bags in the suite and wandered out to a good overlook. We saw the general store and a few donkeys, though cold ears better served Amelia's fetish, she said, and from the roof, choked with worry over the French rider, noticed a single light swirling down the road from Qadsiyya like a will-of-the-wisp. Jean, though, was exhilarated by the King's Highway. “I'll never ride on a better road,” he said.
The terrace courtyard was a crowd of people, and among them we picked out a traveler Amelia had ran into before, in Damascus and Petra, though in Petra Yashar was on his way to Couchsurf in a Bedouin cave and only had time to spare his email. He was an Iranian, raised in Vancouver, in the last year of a degree in business and bio-chem, though he did not like the ethics of it, and had ridden a bike from Amsterdam to Istanbul as part of a charity group.
His friend Jordan was also Canadian, narrow-headed with a blond mane, and sat with us at the dinner Yashar abstemiously refused. After going through rehab in Seattle, for heroine and cocaine, Jordan went to Sri Lanka. He was trying to organize an alcohol rehabilitation house in a town near the conflict zone, with the government blocking him every step of the way. “They don't want the Tamils to get treatment,” he said. We talked about Wadi Rum and the contemplative silence of the desert, deep as meditation or dreams. He stayed in a Bedouin tent, and when his guide drove him out to it, the Arab stopped him a kilometer from the site and said, “Look at me. Don't take pictures of the women. Whatever you do, don't take pictures of the women.”
After our meal, we moved back onto the courtyard for coffee and shisha, and when the wind blew too cold, relocated again into a wide sitting gallery, enclosed in cushions and carpeted. I fiddled with the tape player under the window until Harris showed me its broken parts and switched on the radio. He showed us how to do a Jordanian line dance, and then when we had laughed back onto the couches he told us about his older friend. The man had married at 40 to a girl not yet 30 with slim prospects, and had a rough time getting along with her, which was why he slept on the couch that night. Harris himself had a girlfriend, but he could never marry her. The villagers would say very bad things, and Harris' family would lose tremendous face. He would have to arrange a better marriage.
A trail led down into Wadi Dana from the town and followed the valley on forever. Yashar and Jordan had taken it the day before all the way to an eco-lodge, a sustainable house of candles and dreadlocks that cost $70 a night—“Not very sustainable,” I said. Their hike had been 25 miles, and we were less ambitious. Amelia came with Jean and I down to the base of the gorge and then started the long hike back up, while we continued.
The wadi snaked through pockmarked rock—sandstone and limestone and basalt, red and white and black as fascist heraldry—and the path swung down into it, to follow the left hill into creases in the ridge that bore long reeds and thick trees and shrubs. Black circles in the dirt and Arabic scrawl on rock palettes marked Bedouin campsites in the shade of trees. We passed around a high cone of dust and rock in the center of the wadi and saw three bleak donkeys, and far below three camels, one of them black, and a huge dromedary set apart from her brothers. The male camels were noisy, the females silent and more dependable.
Ahead, as the ridges lowered and the maze ahead came to a hazy end, with open Arabia beyond, we saw a procession of goats guided by a woman with a donkey and a dog. Our trail curved around their grazing ground and climbed a hill where a young Bedouin watched. “Tea Bedouin?” he asked. He lit a fire with dry brush and a spark from camel dung and filled an old pot with water and sugar from plastic bottles and tea from a satchel. His sister came up and waited at a distance, and his mother, a goat shepherd from below, smiled with teeth that were either rotting or gold. The young girl covered her mouth when Jean took a picture of the boy.
We drank two cups of tea a piece and left them with a gift of paper money, and then turned back up the wadi. All we really wanted to see was Bedouin.
We came up starving, and Jean was convinced that I was half German by my relentless marching. I took a welcome shower, found water, and went out to read Tai-Pan on the terrace, surrounded by French people. Jean conversed avidly with them. His English was too excellent, and he missed the country of Francophones. Amelia and I abandoned ourselves in the middle with our books—though one of the Frenchmen almost bought my extra camera for his son.
When we talked, we talked about Al-Gawaher and Ahmad and the rest and laughed again at the old stories of his courtship of Amelia. “Have you fallen for any guys in your trip?” asked Jean.
“You haven't asked me my story yet,” she replied coyly, in the singsong drawl of Oz.
She was a short, slim, and sun-bronzed woman, who looked at 31 just as she did in her twenties. Her rock drummer's fringe hung lower than normal. Her eyes angled up a little, and the left one was slightly larger than the right. A country town raised her with wide open spaces and boys on motorcycles. Her father made ceramic art, and her tough older sister had a growth spurt at ten and knew she wanted to be a pilot when she was fifteen. The little sister flitted between fashion and photography, and traveled often.
Amelia been to India and Southeast Asia, spent a year in South America, and she started this trip in May, in the Czech Republic and Poland. She went south to Croatia to meet an Australian she had started seeing before leaving. They went together to Istanbul, where they parted—“It would be stupid,” he said, “to continue this, when we don't know what will happen."
He flew across the desert to Dubai to teach English, and she continued on through Turkey by a slower and more sublime rout. When Kate arrived, they analyzed things intensely, taking everything into account, but the frank words of an Aussie in Goreme stayed with her. “It sounds like he isn't into you,” he said. “If I liked you, I wouldn't say something like that and risk some other guy picking you up.”
So she wondered at or dismissed from her mind those worries, and wandered the desert, her ticket home a long way off, and enough money in her pocket to live contentedly on some warm and palmy beach until she had to go.
In the morning, one of the Filipina girls who worked at the Tower Hotel talked to Amelia and I. She said she had worked at the hotel for two years, and that it was a good job. She was treated well and got two weeks of vacation every year, which she mostly used to go shopping in Amman, though she had been once to Petra. Many of her friends and acquaintances had jobs in Jordan or other Arab countries as nannies or maids, and they were mistreated by their employees and their wards.
Jean had met two French girls who would hire a taxi that day to Wadi Musa near Petra, and Amelia and I pitched in and rode along. The taxi took us straight to Valentine's Hotel. Since the Italian woman who now owns it took over, the hotel has become one of the best businesses around Petra, especially with travelers. For locals, it is one of the few places in Wadi Musa to buy alcohol, and their trucks are constantly parking in front and leaving surreptitiously with black plastic bags. Her violent four-year-old son guided us up to a triple room on the fourth floor. From the terrace in front of the entrance, we saw that the town curved around a slope and into the wadis to either side like two amphitheaters. Far below in the valley was a parking lot full of buses that marked the entrance to the Nabatean canyons of Petra.
Jean was still on the road, Amelia working on an application to be a tour guide on a route from Istanbul to Cairo, and I went down to enter Petra. A Disneyland line followed the road from the ticket office to the Siq, the narrow and steep-sided gorge that the Nabateans expanded and paved and turned into a city of tombs. Bedouin raced their horses up and down a dirt path adjacent to the flagstone one, asking girls if they wanted to ride and smiling with rotten teeth, and some had carts that they flew into the tight quarters of the Siq without abandon. You knew by the approaching echo that one was coming.
A bend in the Siq opened onto the Treasury, the immortal structure south of Alexandretta where Indiana Jones found the Holy Grail. The monstrosity of its legendary pillars and the impossibility of its high roof was distressing, all carved by the patience and diligence of human hands. The Nabateans hid from Seleucids and Ptolemies and Romans and Sassanids in the red fastness of the mountain, which reached back from the Treasury into an valley of tombs closed in on all sides by ridges.
I passed through the valley into a wider plain. Crowds of tourists in shorts resisted admirably the Bedouin riders, who offered camels and horses to pretty girls. To the left, a cobbled avenue went back past the colonnades of temples, under hills weighed down by Roman structures, up to a high fortress and a Crusader castle on top of, and inside of, a monumental porous rock that stood apart from the surrounding mountains. In the hills above my right, more tombs were carved out of the mountain.
I went up the escarpment to one of these, and then climbed up a stairway to a ridge, and up into a rocky defile on a Bedouin trail to the top of the rock, a mile high. The trail led into a shallow valley between two wind-rounded ridges. It was silent as an imagined desert: the softest voice of the wind, the clod of my sandaled heels. The rock I scrabbled up looked down on the narrow deepness of the Siq and the might of the Treasury, and all the crowds of tour bus pilgrims. The muted echo of their conversations and their wonder came up to me like smoke up a chimney.
On the way back I felt the magnificence of loneliness. I passed the Bedouin trail I had taken up and found a stairway back down the mountain. As I looked down on it, I heard a noise behind me and, turning, found a Bedouin hut in a cave in what I had taken for an ordinary rock. Tea was served, and I sat on a mattress and listened to odes to Italian girls and to beer and hash from two gurus of the three. The stairway went down between two high walls and spilled onto the desert beneath the mountain.
Leaving Petra was like leaving a rock concert or a sports event, so crowded was the pathway back, in the dust of the desert's cavalleros. I walked back, as best as I could find my way, through a filthy suburb. Little children grinned up at me and said, “Hello, where are you from?” even as they palmed small stones to throw.
Jean was napping and Amelia was still working on her application at a table outside when I turned into Valentine's. The sunset was a glorious picture, the orb and its amber flare sandwiched between the black cup of the hills and the white ribbon of cloud, which sent up streamers of shadow into the deepening blue. As we considered it, a little muscle car pulled into Valentine's, and Skip got out, with his rumored brown hair. “Skip!” cried Amelia, and she grabbed him in a hug. “Hey guys,” he said.
Skip had met an Aleppine on the train to Damascus, and they returned to Aleppo together. The old man stayed at Al-Gawaher and helped Ahmad with small tasks around the place. He went to bathhouses owned by friends of his friend and met interesting people.
One day, Skip's friend received a call from an estranged father: “What are you doing with this Australian man named Rob?” Later Skip himself received a phone call from a man who screamed in Arabic and then hung up. The caller made another call, and another, and on the fourth call said in English, fatally, “Leave Syria. Leave Syria now.” He had gone to Damascus with Ahmad, who was chasing a girl, and unhurried by the warning, left the country two days later.
Jean, Amelia, and I talked to him after the hotel's great buffet dinner. Inside, whilst puffing a shisha in front of the television, we met a Seattlite named Terry, a business student of Taiwanese descent with a promising job to return to after a half year of travel, and Jean and I arranged to go into Petra with him the following day.
We had breakfast at the hotel and got them to pack us meager lunches, and we took the hotel's bus there at 7 a.m. The tourist buses had yet to unload, so the Siq was empty, and only a dozen gazed up into the heights of the Treasury. We followed the Siq out into the valley of dead houses, and then took a long stone-carved stairway that wound up through the twists and bends of the mountain to a Hyborean altar at the top called the Place of High Sacrifice. The tourists had started flowing into the valley by that time, and so we sat on the lip of the cliff and nibbled biscuits while watching them contemptuously.
The trail went back down on the other side of the Place, past lion statues and soldier tombs, into a wadi. We circled around past tombs and across deep pits, saw Bedouin trains on the horizon, came up onto shingled hilltops, and looked fruitlessly for the statue of some snake god. A Bedouin girl ambushed us and asked for, “Banana! Banana! No banana? Paper!” I gave her some paper and she took us up to her camp site, where a frazzled toddler sat under a weight of multicolored jumpers and a broken-toothed mother served us tea in a cup we all shared.
Terry was anxious to leave. He was one of those purblind travelers who crossed sites off a publicly recognized list, and he did not like the somber, quiet, affirming confusion of meeting strangers in a strange land. We continued on down the road, up a stair into the Crusaders' rock fortress. Jean and I laughed at the pitiable, amateur appearance of it. “This is definitely an English castle,” I proclaimed. “The French build a real castle like Krak, and the English are so hungover they just put a few shacks on top of a rock.” Jean said, “The French are all drinking wine and picking up Arab babes.” Terry ran ahead while we enjoyed a slow lunch and an immense and beautiful view.
The Monastery was our next goal, up a long steep path high above the plains of Petra. I stopped to climb up some rocks, so we took longer to climb. At the top was another carved structure like the Treasury, but smaller and more picturesque, more open and less secret. The peak of the mountain was close above it like a roof, and before it across a plain were a series of small, steep hills, topped by canvas tents, with names like, “The View at the End of the World.”
On the way down we met Marcel, a Canuck staying at the hotel, his small, violent Spanish friend, and a Lebanese-Australian girl named Claire, who were staying at Valentines, and walked with them. A little Arab boy had climbed most of the way up a ten meter rock and was up there shouting. “Should we rescue him?” said Marcel. “Yeah,” I said. I climbed up onto a ledge and handed him down to the Canadian, who set him on his two feet on the ground. The boy smiled at us and held out a hand. “Money,” he said.
We came to the bottom and walked down the cobbled avenue to the high tombs, then around the mountain I had climbed the day before. As the sun set, we found the crevasse—a sharp gravel path between walls pockmarked and red as the face of a teenager—and took it. It twisted at sharp corners and climbed up ledges of piled rock and rubble, coils of barbed wire, and discarded carts. The walls monitored us imperiously, six feet of sky between the rocky arbor. Two roads diverged ahead, and we took the busiest-looking. It climbed steeper, over slippy rock. The walls looked the same. As it widened, they sloped at a more gradual pace to the crenelated castles in the sky. Vegetation filled in the wadi's edges and spilled reeds in our way.
At an open area, with five paths spread out like a hand, we turned downed the easiest, which came at length to a black gash, a cave that led to the bridge and the racetrack and the entrance. “Warning,” said the sign, “do not enter the cave without a guide.” “Ha,” we said, and took a group picture.