27 September 2014

Petra, Jordan 2011

Third time lucky? Who said that?

Half a year after the Arab Spring began, a one-day expedition was a choice of Wadi Rum or Petra. Since the cruise Nazi excursion leader said no camel ride option at Wadi Rum, I chose Petra. Our leader has only one priority: getting us on the bus, off the bus, and finally getting us back on the bus at the appointed time. How many times did we hear this: no bus, no boat, no cruise, goodbye vacation.

Our entry port is Aqaba, still the small town of four years ago, destination of savvy scuba divers. I see further signs, though, of a developing, stand-alone tourist resort. Away we go on a two-hour drive up, up into the mountains, 5,000 feet, how high the desert is here! ... and the spectacular scenery I remember. My heart gives a strange lurch as we bypass Wadi Rum off in the distance; I would rather be there. 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. Four hours here: allowing almost an hour each way for the entrance walk, not much time to traverse the entire “city.” I tell our guide Talal I’m gone once we enter Petra. No problem, but do not miss the bus departure! 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.

Some Bedu continue to return to the caves on a seasonal basis. Once we enter the ancient site, 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 was enjoying the lack of tourists compared to other times. The vendor stalls are fewer now, indicative of the sudden tourism decline. Marguerite’s (Married to a Bedouin) son Raami has moved to a different spot.

I’ve been walking briskly for about 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 the shrine of Aaron (brother of Moses). 

A youngish guy with a donkey spots me. 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 JD$20 bill, but some American cash. I laugh and say JD$15 .. not telling him three years ago I paid a fair price for a first class ride. He is indignant and we have a largely incomprehensible dialogue about the American dollar exchange rate. The camel station still offers more promise. Onward.

He won’t go away. We do more haggling with me up to US$20 and he is stuck at $US30. For like a forty minute ride? I’m getting a creeping Giza feeling — and I should have stayed with it. “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 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. Where has gone the welcome of Petra’s Bedu people? Worries, of course. The slow economy and political uncertainty have made them desperate and more like the Giza rogues. But this year the Giza rogues, perversely, had more charm.

This little tyke was selling bits of stone, mama hovering in the background. 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. 

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 rather clearly for all his want of English that this is how far I get for $25. Looks like payback for not forking over US$35. I am so pissed off. He leaves with the camel. Me not happy with my failed bargaining. Now who’s surly? 

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 but mutually satisfactory haggling. 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 picks it up, “Make my day!” but I don’t think she has a clue about Clint Eastwood. Haggling is exhausting. 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 by the Siq entrance for a rest. The heat is taking its toll. Clearly, in the allotted time, 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 even harder than navigating the Roman paving stones. Dodging the careening horse carriages is another hazard.

Photograph by Jean Housen, 2010, Wikimedia Commons
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 the 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 (among her multiple activities, Queen Rania sponsors care of these Arabian 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.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

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