Desert Life

It was time to head home. The remaining members of our tour group had left. Our wallets were depleted of dinars, and I had ran out of clean undies. Our week-long travels in Jordan had tested our physical endurance and broadened our perspective of the middle-east. Jordan can be considered a role-model nation for the region. Bordering with troubled states such as Iraq and Syria, our country of choice is testament of how a nation of people show respect to fellow locals and visitors of differing gender, race and religion. This country of mostly muslim population was where the prophet Jesus was baptized. A tiny estuary close to the Jordan River is monument to the services of John the Baptist.

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For sure nobody journeys to Jordan without visiting the temple at Petra. "The Treasury", they call it, although I’d prefer a label sounding less anglican and more arabic. To reach this gem of a location, the traveler must walk a kilometre through narrow winding gorges, curvaceous cliff-faces, moulded by water, wind and time. The pathway ends at the Siq, the entrance that opens up to the chiselled facade and high pillars of the shrine. We visited this spot twice within a span of 24-hours. The first occasion was at night, when the floor of the entrance was flooded with candles, as musicians and poets performed under the crescent moon. The following morning we were there again to witness the morning light strike the rock face, flaunting its colours and rigid structure.

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A further 20+ kilometer hike from The Treasury, up 800 winding steps, under searing desert sun, took us past the monastery and adjoining structures. Made of sandstone. Constructed by Nabateans. Built in the first century. The thrill of the trek was not the destination, but the challenging terrain. Donkeys carried water and logistics up the dusty trails and galloped back down again at break-neck speeds with empty vessels. The dangling carrot that encouraged us to keep walking was the view at the cliff edge...

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Wadi Rum is not an alcoholic beverage concocted by the Jordanians. It literally means the Valley of the Romans and it  is a vast expanse of desert and rock formations. Where the Treasury at Petra was depicted in the third instalment of Indiana Jones, and the Monastery was the shooting locale for the second instalment of The Transformers; Wadi Rum was the backdrop for the one epic feature of Lawrence of Arabia. The sands were red, the rocks extraterrestrial in appearance, and the dunes seem ready to swallow any unsuspecting living being. We rode on open four-wheeled vehicles through the martian-like terrain, barely making a dent in the 720 square kilometres of earth.

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The rugged ride ended at a camp nestled beside a towering rock-face. This was where we were to spend the night. We were entertained by the local cuisine and the bedouin tour guides who took us through a day in their lives where traditional habits would clash with modern essentials. I was taken aback to learn that some of the locals would work 9-to-5 office jobs and then return to their nomadic desert life on weekends.

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That night, all fifteen of us tourists plus tour-guide-extraodinaire decided to pull our cots out from our tents and sleep under the stars. I was probably the only one who stayed alert throughout the night, fearing that a sudden drop in my consciousness would wake up the universe from the thunder of my sleep-apnea. As I lay with eyes wide open, I gazed at the milky-way, focused on a star that eerily seemed to oscillate back-and-forth, and pondered when the blanket that covered me was last washed.

A highlight of our tour happened at the lowest point on earth. The Dead Sea is actually a lake that sits 400 meters below sea level and is 10 times saltier than the ocean. In humid 44 degrees celsius, I donned my speedo, bared my family-pack and bobbed on the hypersaline water. The water’s salinity enabled us to float like cork. It was a surreal experience, to borrow an overused adjective... A comforting sensation, conscious that I usually sink like the Titanic... A painful lesson, once the H2O with salt consistency of 340 g/kg entered my eyes.

Introduce the Black Sea Mud, the black muck of the region that supposedly contains dermatological properties. My wife and I generously applied the dark matter on each others writhing bodies; face, belly, legs and all. After the mud dried and hardened likedark terracotta warriors, we submerged ourselves again in the lake to rinse off the dirt. What I discovered, I swear to you, was that my cheeks felt soft as a baby’s bottom!

On the last day of our visit, we hired a taxi and driver to take us to a few ancient castles. I stared out the window as we rode past a sign giving direction to the Syrian border. No, we weren’t heading towards where the arrow pointed. The neighbouring troubled regime was never in my mind a factor that could ruin Jordan’s existence. Religious tension? Very unlikely. I didn’t witness any extremism nor any oppression of one group towards another.

Half way through the ride, our driver gestured to the right where wilted palm trees and dying vegetation covered a mostly barren wasteland. “This is where I played as a child,” commented our chaperone, “it was much greener and lush thirty years ago.” That comment summed up my concern with this land. The population relies heavily on bottled water. Average annual rainfall is only 110 millimetres (compared to 1,220 mm in the UK). Public latrines fail to flush. And the Dead Sea is receding at a rate of one meter a year!

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Now back at home, I lovingly held my mug and gulped down cool refreshing tap water from the kitchen. A quick peek through the blinds and I realize the garden outside is wet due to precipitation. Jordan seems worlds away, but I can now hold dear the memory of observing the sun rise over the desolate horizon… perched above a boulder with my significant other while a caravan of dromedaries etch lines in the sand… sensing life come in to being on a desert valley in Jordan.

August 2017

© Prakoso Sastrowardoyo 2012