wadi rum

june 25-26, 1999

well, i've made my decision to leave petra, and i'm back on the kings' highway, again racing the sun south, this time towards wadi rum, the magical and sprawling desert of lawrence of arabia. right near the saudi border. sure, petra was not to be missed, but a desert full of thirsty, binocular-ed, and water-bottled tourists feeding off the sales-hungry locals (or was it the other way around) have turned the spectacular rose-colored landscape, the wind-sculpted canyons, and the human carved temples into camera-clicking turnstiles of greed and eco-tourism. simply put, there were just too many damn tourists for me. i had to get out.

so -- two twisting and turning hours later, i arrive, again without incident, at wadi rum. whereas conventional wisdom is bringing busloads of daily tourists to its northern, more accessible neighbor, petra, the more unconventional, alternative scoop among those in the know - is wadi rum. i can tell by its empty parking lot and its plethora of available and aggressive bedouin guides that this place is also hungry for business. but not many of petra's adoring hordes have continued on to wadi rum. so of course "business" is a little different out here in the middle of the jordanian-arabian outback. even before i can park my car, i am approached by three different white-caftaned guides - offering me jeep tours, camel caravans, sunset hikes - overnight, for days, weeks, whatever i want. i decide to park and check things out a little more carefully.

i meet a young peach-fuzzed graduate archeology student from canada named cabot. he's wearing wire glasses, green army pants, and a safari hat. he has a large steel-framed backpack with aluminum pots hanging from it, and he's nosing his way around some of the guides too. it turns out he doesn't have any money, but i figure his knowledge and more than a little fluency in arabic will be well worth my picking up the tab. at least ninety per cent of it. we narrow down our tour guides to no-nonsense salim, who takes us over to his spare, concrete, muslim-decorated house and spells out our options to us. we decide to go with the overnight economy package. we get salim, his jeep, a sleeping bag and blanket for me, and the sunset tour of all the well known hotspots in nearby wadi rum. and because it's the economy tour, we also get the chance to buy our own food for dinner in the local arabic grocery store. i remember adnan's delicious concoction from the sinai, so we get a can of tuna, some noodles, some flat bread, and canned peas. cabot fills up three gallon jugs of local water to wash with and boil for dinner.

we're off. bumping and humping our way over this implausibly-huge, uncivilized, sandy desert. there are no longer any official trails, just the random tire marks of criss crossing jeeps. every once in a while we see a camel caravan, both of local bedouin and the more obvious tourists. we stop at t.e. lawrence's former british outpost where the great commander wrote: "our little caravan fell quiet, ashamed to flaunt itself in the presence of such stupendous hills."

there is so much open sky and space, such a contrast to the dominating manmade verticality of petra. of course there are also massive eruptions of rust colored mountain ranges, and lavender landscapes of wind-carved granite and sandstone which make the desert seem painted by the hand of allah himself. we travel into the "valley of the moon", where by sunset, we can see the white crescent of the moon rising on one horizon and the red-orange globe of the sun sinking on the other.

but now salim throws us a curveball. he unpacks our jeep of its sleeping gear and cargo, and says "salaam", he'll see us in the morning. this is a little unsettling - to say the least. i thought we had engaged a guide - overnight. we have no tent, no fire making tools, and no courage. salim tries to make light of it, saying we will have no problem, it's perfectly safe out here. "what about insects and scorpions," i ask. he looks at me like i'm crazy. but when i continue to protest, he says that it's simply impossible for him to stay with us; he has to go back to his family and his life "in town". cabot and i consider going it alone, but even my valiant friend looks a little skeptical.

i spend the next half hour bickering with salim, demanding he stay with us like we keep insisting, he agreed to. he must think i'm even more hard-headed than some of his bedouin enemies. finally he comes up with a solution. he will take us to a bedouin family he knows who live out here in the desert, and if they agree, we will pay them a token fee to spend the night. he, salim, will still pick us up in the morning. okay. we agree. in five minutes, surprisingly right around the sunset ridge, we find a bedouin family who are obviously full time residents of wadi rum. we see two large, double-peaked desert tents, a pen full of live goats, a chicken coop, a tin shack for shelter, a rusted-out abandoned car, and a few tools and collectables against the side of the cliffs. we also see a large, gregarious desert party in full-blown action - in italian.

cabot and i slide in almost unnoticed. salim makes his deal and is off. we simply throw our gear to the side of the main tent and try to mix it up with a few words of italian (me) and a few other words of arabic (him). the italians are mixed friends and family and seem fun-loving and more than a little drunk on a few bottles of some fine italian wine they've brought with them from perugia. however, we soon discover they are not staying the night. no, their white-caftaned and red kaffia-ed guides, adudullah and mohammed, are taking them back tonight; it'll be cabot and i alone with a bedouin, arabic-speaking family of four: a grandfatherly, older man and his slightly younger-looking wife, a younger woman of indeterminate age and a still younger boy, about six.

now things are quiet. very quiet. cabot and i have been left in the "party" tent while the bedouins have moved over to their own. we've spread out our sleeping gear and are now trying to make ourselves some dinner. adnan's famous tuna casserole. simple - boil some water, throw in the noodles, heat up the tuna in a pan, throw in the peas, and voila. well, it's been half an hour and we're still on steps one and two: make a fire and open the can of tuna. first off, we haven't brought any wood, and although i suggest just using what i've seen lying in piles all around the camp, cabot thinks it's rude. so he goes off trying to gather his own. meanwhile i'm working my swiss army knife, trying to open this belligerent can of tuna. we're both equally successful. he comes back with about five scraggly pieces of what, at another location, would be called "kindling", and i've gotten the can open about half way. yesiree, we sure are the rugged outdoorsmen.

finally, the younger woman of indeterminate age comes over to see how we're doing. she has the courtesy and self restraint to not laugh outright at us, and she wanders off again. in a few minutes though, she comes back with an armful of supplies: a fire starter, a lamp, some newspaper, a can opener, some decent pots and pans, and some more wood. boy, do we feel ridiculous - and relieved. soon the fire is started properly, the young boy and the older couple are sitting around our fire, and we are making a truly improvised desert feast. the young woman, whose name is sameera, has insisted over cabot's initial refusal to bring over some of the family's larder. before we know it, our tuna casserole has been augmented with canned tomatoes, canned chick peas, and even some kind of tough, dried meat. cabot and i look at each other; we're afraid to ask what it is. but soon we're all eating and laughing away - cabot trying out some of his rusty arabic, me signing away and teaching a few welcome words of english. my mime is succeeding almost as well as his arabic (whose formality does not seem to translate well into this bedouin dialect), and we are all having a fine time. we're in the middle of lawrence of arabia's wadi rum - with a native bedouin family - miles and centuries away from any signs of western civilization - speaking pidgin arabic and clown language - and i for one, feel incredibly - privileged.

it's now bedtime. our newly adopted family for the night has retired back to their "private" quarters (i don't think anything is really private out in the desert). cabot has taken his sleeping bag outside the tent to sleep under the star-filled, sheltering sky, and i'm on my own, tucked into my rented sleeping bag, under my rented, but amazingly authentic bedouin tent. it feels like it should be another nearly "perfect moment". but i can't sleep. i'm tired, yes, but for some unknown reason, i'm also agitated. perhaps it's just the immensity of the situation - of the desert itself. perhaps it's the strains of arabic music i hear cascading off the surrounding cliffs. perhaps it's - something else.

i decide to get up and walk out into the desert. under the huge night sky. towards the music. within fifteen minutes, i've reached its source. i see an elaborate camp circled around a burning fire - like an apparition suddenly appearing in the middle of a void. there are cars, trucks, and generators - at the foot of the cliffs - a complete non sequitur in this pre-civilized landscape. i can see men and women sitting around a long, white-tableclothed horseshoe table. the men are in white caftans and kaffias, the women in fine dresses, some traditional, some highly westernized and fashionable. some of the women are dancing for the men. belly dancing. finger cymbals. others are leaning over the men at the tables, flirting, kissing, whispering - what? i don't know what this kind of event is called out here in wadi rum in the summer of 1999, but i get the gist. it's something between a well-heeled corporate orgy and 1001 tales of the arabian nights.

i walk a little closer. i'm spotted. a heavy-set, kaffia-ed security person barks something at me in arabic. it sounds fierce. i go into my self-deprecating, no speak english clown act ("no english, no english. sor-ry. bye-bye. sor-ry"), and i take my expedient leave. i rub my magic lantern, and disappearing just as quickly as i appeared - poof - i'm gone.

another half hour, and i'm completely alone. and i do mean - alone. i'm stunned with the overwhelming magnitude of the place's simplicity and austerity. i mean, not one person in the entire world knows where i am at this moment. not my friends or colleagues back in LA. not my parents. not my childhood buddies far away in new york. not my hip, international e-mail correspondents around the globe. not a single ex-girlfriend. not even cabot or my bedouin hosts. no, not a single solitary soul on the planet could phone me, trace me, touch me, talk to me, kiss me, or even find me. if i don't walk back to my bedouin tent, i'll be swallowed up by this desert and never heard of, or seen, again. what an incredible feeling. of smallness. of anonymity. of transcendence. one of the most powerful, liberating elements of travel itself. the total loss of identity to a foreign culture. to a place. to a time - to a desert - to a night sky - to this night sky...

i'm now another hour away from the cliffs, out in the flatlands of the all-encompassing, lonely desert. there's no sound. no music, no human conversation, no crickets, birds -- no nothing. i've walked straight for maybe two miles, taken off my sandals, and i'm lying on my back, staring up at the sky. there are more stars than i've ever imagined. every few minutes i see, or think i see, comets - or asteroids - or galaxies - shooting and hurtling across the sky, leaving tails and trails of light. me? i'm as insignificant as a grain of sand. i've given up all caution and surrendered to the desert. lying on my back in the sand, shoeless, defenseless, i remember salim's look of utter disbelief when i was so worried just eight hours ago about scorpions and insects. i now take it to mean that there's nothing out here to worry about. nothing that's alive. nothing that can harm me. i don't know if i'm crazy or just naive, but i don't want to think about it realistically - about how vindictive and destructive this same desert could be on another night - when the balmy summer stillness was replaced with scorching winds, deadly enemies, parching thirst and nothing to eat.

no, tonight, i don't want to think at all. because tonight i'm no one. not "me". not an individual. i have no identity. i?m not an artist, a writer, an educator. not a traveler. not a son, brother, uncle, boyfriend, poet, con, whatever. tonight i'm nothing. just a piece, a grain of the desert. an infinitesimal speck of the universe. in sync. blown away. inconsequential. no ego. no self. no pride. no loss, no gain, no bank account, social security number, birth certificate, citizenship, personhood, e-mail. no hi-roller, no loser, winner, no ambition, no nonsense, no logic, no fear, no words. silence. rolling over on my side, then again on my back, unknown to the entire universe, i carve circles in the sand with my fingers, with my toes. i am as mad as lawrence himself. i am lost, invincible, invisible, nothing, everything; i am painfully and ecstatically no longer- ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!.

by violet-colored dawn, i have somehow dragged myself back to my tent. my "family" is awaiting me with a cup of hot tea, some reviving cookies, and many questioning eyes. "where have i been? am i okay?" i smile reassuringly and crawl back into my sleeping bag for an hour or so of rest. i am awakened in the blink of two tired eyes by the sound of a jeep. it's a messenger from salim - one of his teenage nephews, hamid. actually, it's our surrogate ride back to base camp. fortunately however, hamid is in no hurry (i don't think there really is such thing as "hurry" out in the desert). from what cabot can surmise, the older woman has asked hamid to give her, and two other boys who have suddenly appeared, a ride to the goat herds. and cabot and i have been invited along for the ride.

we've been hugging the cliffs for about twenty minutes, and have now parked our jeep in a surrounding alcove of rugged desert mountains. there are overhanging cliffs forming a series of protective caves where we can see the remnants of several abandoned campfires. i can't help but wonder how many families or tribes of wandering bedouin have eaten and sheltered here over the centuries. the boys have hopped out of the jeep and have attacked the mountain. they scramble up its sheer vertical facade like mountain goats themselves. it seems literally impossible to do, even as cabot and i watch with our own eyes. they have it down, the older, stronger boys pulling up the smaller one, standing on each others shoulders, grape-vining, leapfrogging over each other with boundless energy and concentration. in five minutes they've scaled a precipitous five hundred foot wall of stone and desert brush, and have disappeared over the ridge of the horizon.

cabot and i sit down in the middle of the massive alcove with our gracious host, and cabot extracts from her that the older man is her father and that sameera and the young boy are her children. she's had many other children, and although several have died over the years, she continues to smile her partially-toothless smile throughout her story. of course, maybe i'm projecting my own urban spin on these simple desert lives, but life seems good for her and her family. it seems so much less complicated than mine and the civilized world's. so much more immediate, practical, real. food, weather, shelter, family. she doesn't worry about income, security, career, success, vanity, loneliness. i even doubt she worries about death. or i like to think she doesn't. she doesn't need a therapist, doesn't wrestle with herself about her self esteem, what she needs to do with her leisure time, her recreational income. no, she needs to milk the goats, make the cheese, make the flat bread, keep the camp tidy, protect her loved ones, and sleep under the stars. maybe she yearns for a friend far away, or looks beneath her eyes and skin for a lost child or loved one, or maybe she's saddened when she pulls up her tent for another change of season. how would i ever know? but sitting here in the vastness of the wadi, listening, sharing, reflecting with her, i feel, and perhaps she feels, and perhaps cabot feels too, part of each other. part of the whole. part of the patchwork and inter-connectedness of history and humanity. we look at each other, into each others' sad, wise, accepting eyes... and... we smile.

the boys are scampering down the mountainside. their shoulders are draped with heavy goatskins full of fresh warm goat milk. cabot and i simply can not refuse the offer to try some; it would be an insult to do so. the voice of my beverly hills "travel medicine doctor" is pounding in my paranoid eardrums: "do NOT drink unboiled water or UN-pasteurized milk!" oh well, i bite the bullet; sometimes you just do what you gotta do. the milk is very sour and acrid. we hope to survive. soon we're back in the jeep and "back home" at the bedouin tents. in the next moment, hamid has loaded our gear and it's time to go. we reluctantly exchange our goodbyes, not being able to promise seeing each other ever again, not taking addresses to mail copies of photos to - and - just as instantaneously as we appeared, we're gone. in another hour, i've put cabot on the bus north to petra, and i'm back on the road south to aqaba - alone.

a lot happens in a short amount of time when you travel. the time is cram-packed with chance meetings, memorable events, ephemeral friends, and intense experiences. it's exciting, demanding, and expansive. it's so much fuller, more alive than the routine of daily life back home. i can see how people become travel junkies. perhaps i'm a travel junkie - at least for two or three months a year. but what would life be with nothing but constant travel? it would become a routine itself - of constantly changing faces, scenery, and memorable experiences. exciting, demanding, expansive - yes. but i think it would be hard too - no home, no roots, no one to share your stories, your past with. it would be lonely. in fact, as i'm driving south towards aqaba, towards my next unknown adventure, towards my next unknown place to rest my head, it is, i am - lonely. one of the tradeoffs, i tell myself, of freedom.

and so as i roll into the southern capital of the hashemite kingdom of jordan, i am once more chewing my own cud, mulling over life and its mysteries, my adventures and misadventures, my ongoing sense of isolation through it all. i'm okay. it's what i've chosen. what i've created. i am a lucky man.