So, here I am, sitting on a sand dune in Wadi Rum, Jordan watching the sun set over the massive red rock formations. I’m all alone and due to a minor miscalculation, I won’t be staying in a camp tonight. I have a warm sleeping bag and the dune is fairly comfortable so I should be fine until morning. There’s plenty of water in my bottle and food in my backpack and the changing desert skyline is way more entertaining than television or movies. All in all, I look forward to a pleasant experience. What could possibly go wrong? As the sun falls closer to the horizon, the sand all around me starts to sparkle. The sky transforms from blue to pink to purple. Is that watercolor, acrylic or oil? It’s hard to believe its real. Maybe it’s not. Maybe I’ve fallen asleep already and this is some kind of psychedelic dream. It was a long walk in the hot desert sun. Perhaps my brain melted and synapses fused together to produce this effect. Wait a second. What’s that? In the sand a few feet away from me there is a shining prism of light. With a scene so spectacular, so vast and so incomprehensible, how come this tiny little thing captures my attention? It’s a concentrated dollop of magic in a great big beautiful world. The entire sand dune is shimmering but this one tiny spot is more intense than the rest. I have to lean over and stretch to reach it. I plunge my fist into the dune and grab a handful of sand. When the many tiny particles leak out between my fingers, all that remains is a singe clear crystal about as big as my pinky nail. Oh my goodness gracious! Holy weasel critters! Bodacious bouncing Buddhas! Shimmering shaking Shivas! Jumping Jehovahs! Is that a diamond?
My journey from Egypt to Jordan is relatively uneventful but as a metaphor, it’s rather idyllic. It’s a four hour ferry ride along the Red Sea on a ship crowded with locals. I have to hand in my passport upon boarding and pick it up again at the port so for the duration of the voyage I’m a man with no identity. Four hours without a country, four hours in the neutral zone, four hours in the space between borders, four hours free. I am surrounded by the lands of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Egypt. But on this big old boat in the middle of the sea we are not on anyone’s territory, we are all just brother and sister humans. If only the whole world could be this unencumbered.
Customs is a breeze and I get my stamped and approved papers back at immigration on shore. A full citizen of the empire again, now I just have to figure out how to get to town. I soon discover that the Kingdom of Jordan may very well be the only nation on the planet earth that has a worse public transportation system than the U.S.. There’s no bus from the port to the city center. The only option is a taxi and because I’m American it’s a very overpriced taxi. Ugh.
My big plan for Jordan is the archaeological site of Petra. As a matter of fact, Petra is my primary destination for this whole journey. Nevertheless, during my travels throughout Egypt, many people suggested I visit Wadi Rum as well. I’ve never seen the Lawrence or Arabia movie and I’ve never read the book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” but apparently the area known as Wadi Rum is the place where Lawrence spent most of his time during his glory years on the Arabian peninsula. It also happens to be located in between the Red Sea city of Aqaba where I arrive in Jordan and Petra where I want to go so I figure that I might as well check it out en route.
I spend one night in Aqaba and try to catch the local bus to Wadi Rum the following morning. But there is no local bus because its Friday and Friday is the day of rest for Muslims (those darn commandments again). There are, however, ten or fifteen non-resting guys who offer to take me the 70 kilometers of distance in a private car for 35 dinars (about 50 US dollars). I’m tempted to walk it, or hitchhike or spend another night in Aqaba and try to catch the bus tomorrow. But one of the guys has to go to Wadi Rum anyway to pick someone up so he offers to take me for half price. 17 dinars (25 bucks) is way over my budget but I reluctantly agree to go anyway.
The journey takes about an hour so the price is not unfair but the mere fact of having to take a taxi such a long distance is still somewhat disturbing. I know, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not really a big deal. I should learn to relax and just accept life’s little luxuries and comforts. But I can’t help it, I have a problem fossil fuels. My home country (the US) is the absolute worst in this regard. Indeed, our entire economic system measures success (what the pundits call growth) by calculating the amount of fossil fuels and other energy we consume. I personally believe the opposite. In my humble opinion, the driving force of our economy should be human creativity and effort rather than external energy sources. Thus, whenever I consume energy unnecessarily, I feel a deep seated aching in my soul. It may seem crazy to people educated in America but the truth is, I really do prefer the public bus.
There is a visitor center a few kilometers outside of Wadi Rum village and the driver waits while I go inside to pay the entry fee and find information. Almost immediately upon entering, I am approached by several different Bedouin men who try to sell me four wheel drive truck tours. This is the means by which about 99 percent of visitors see the region. Like most of the wild and wonderful places on the planet, Wadi Rum has been commodified. There are nine or ten “sites” within the park that each tourist is supposed to see. The four wheel drive tours go from site to site so that visitors can hop out at each one and snap photos. The more sites you want to do, the longer the tour you have to sign up for and the more money it costs. The process is fast and efficient. If you want, it’s possible to “do” the whole park in a couple of days. Additionally, there are designated camps within the park that provide food and lodging. Generally, the camps are connected to the tours but it is possible to stay at them separately from the tours. All this is well and good for a typical tourist on a short holiday. But for a long term traveler on a limited budget like myself, it’s very expensive. Besides, I prefer to walk instead of riding around in the back of a truck.
Thankfully, there’s a very cheap rest house in the village where I can sleep in a big tent for three dinars. Before going there, however, the taxi driver takes me to see his friend the guide. I explain to the guide that I am traveling on a budget and not interested in a tour of sites. I just want hang out in the desert for a few days. In response to my statement, the guide offers me a “deal”. If I will buy my own food at the market, he will drive me out to his family camp 12 kilometers out in the desert where I can stay for free for as long as I want and then he will drive me back when I want to leave. I only have to pay for the transport in the four wheel drive.
“That sounds reasonable,” I say, “how much for the transport?”
“Only 60 dinars,” he says.
“But that’s like 90 bucks for 25 kilometers round trip,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says, “so. What’s your job in America? You work with computers?”
“No,” I say, “I work with rocks. And I’m going to stick with my original plan and walk to see the desert.”
So I go to the rest house and reserve a place to sleep for the night and leave most of my belongings there. I bring my daypack filled with snacks from the market and a full water bottle and head out towards the desert on foot. The afternoon is absolutely fantastic. I only have to walk for twenty minutes to get beyond the village and into the spectacular scenery. A seeming infinite corridor of orange sand surrounded by steep red rock walls stretches out before me. The walking is not particularly easy through the deep sand but its not impossible either. The sun shines intensely on my face but when I walk close to the walls, shadow protects me. I only go about 3 kilometers before the left side wall ends and there’s a sharp turn towards what can only be described as a desert wonderland; a sea of endless sand with many massive red rock islands rising up in the midst of it. Wow! A person could really get lost out here.
I have a map from the visitor center though and I’m not planning to go far. Today is only a warm up wander to familiarize myself with the territory. Hopefully, after I get a feel for the place, I will set out on a more extensive adventure tomorrow. I find myself an interesting massive rock outcropping and scramble my way up a crevice that seems to split the thing in two. Those four wheel drive trucks won’t go up here, that’s for sure. At the top of the outcropping there’s a hollow and a significant pile of sand. I sit up there, eat cookies, drink water and watch the scene. An endless desert surrounds me; sand, rocks and sunshine. The only sign of life I see is four or five trucks driving in the distance.
Around sunset, I start heading back to the village. I stop at a good place to watch the sun go down. Somewhat randomly, that nice place turns out to be the tourist site of sunset point. While there I meet a nice French woman who’s spending the night at Sunset Camp. She is surprised to see me walking and asks where I am sleeping.
“Wadi village is only a few kilometers from here. I’m going back there.”
“Why aren’t you staying in one of the camps?” She asks.
“Because I didn’t arrange it and I think it’s kind of expensive.” I say.
“It’s only transport and tours that are expensive,” she says, “because of the high price of gas. But the Bedouins are friendly and welcoming to guests. As long as you are walking you can probably stay for free. If you want I can ask the guys here at Sunset camp.”
“Thanks,” I say, “that’s a good idea. But I’m already booked in the village for tonight. Perhaps I’ll try to find out about Bedouin hospitality tomorrow.”
By the time I make it back to the village it’s after dark. I eat a nice meal in the restaurant at the rest house and retire to my designated tent at an early hour. The following morning I set out on my quest. I’m not going anywhere in particular but I do bring my sleeping bag in addition to food and water because I’m planning to spend the night out in the desert. I figure that I will just wander around randomly until I find a camp with friendly Bedouins. If worse comes to worse, I can always sleep in a sand dune.
The day is like a hallucination. No, I’m not smoking weed but the hot desert sun and mild dehydration cause a similar sensory experience. It’s 18 kilometers to the furthest site on the tourist map. I head generally in that direction but the rock outcroppings rise up and turn me left and then right and then left again. It really is like a great big desert labyrinth and I imagine that I am an adventurer lost in the maze. But I’m not too worried about getting really lost because every hour or so I see a four wheel drive truck filled with tourists go zooming by. If worse comes to worse, I can always flag one down and ask for help. On two occasions I see a cluster of vehicles all parked together and I walk over to find one of the “sites” from the map. Truthfully, the sites are not really any more interesting or spectacular than the region in general. But I rather enjoy the experience of strolling in out of the sand dunes alone to meet a tour group and watching the various reactions. “What? Are you walking out here? Are you crazy? Wow! That’s cool. Is it dangerous?”
The truth is, it’s not dangerous at all. The total area within the national park is not that large, the weather is more or less ideal for walking (a little hot in the direct sun but plenty of shade from the rocks), and there are Bedouin camps scattered about to provide assistance if necessary. Indeed, except for the minor difficulty of trudging through sand I would describe it as the perfect place for hiking. Nevertheless, almost nobody hikes here. A few of the more adventurous sorts go the old fashion way on camels. But even that is considered an impractical novelty. The overwhelming majority of visitors are carted from place to place on gas guzzling, polluting four wheel drive trucks. To each his own of course. And I hate to sound like a superior judgmental ass, but I am entitled to my opinion. And in my opinion, the experience of being awake and alive in the desert is a lot more interesting than the experience of being a tourist riding in the back of a truck.
I walk for the entire day. From eight in the morning until about six. Over the course of my walk, I see about five different camps. I find it impressive that the Bedouins live out here like this and I look forward to joining them for a night in their world. But it’s early yet and my legs are still strong so I continue my journey deeper into the desert. Hopefully there will be a camp conveniently situated when I’m ready to stop for the night. I walk the length of a corridor of sand, cut through a crevice in the mountain wall and then circumnavigate another massive outcropping. The shapes of the stone are alive with possibility. With a stone hammer, chisel and a whole lot of time, it sure would be fun to bring forth the images I now see with my mind. There’s so many things to do on this planet, I’d have to live forever to pursue all my dreams.
During the course of my wander, I also think about Lawrence and the info I read about his time here in Wadi Rum. He is credited with leading the Arabs in their revolt against Ottoman rule. The image is one of the heroic Englishman who went native to help those poor suffering Arabs. Unfortunately, the real truth is he merely aided and abetted one of many European backstabs perpetrated on the locals. Yeah sure, they said, fight and die against the Ottomans to distract them from their war against us. We will give you independence when the battle is over. But here we are, almost a hundred years later, and the Arabs are still fighting for the promised independence from Western control. Nowadays, there’s more smoke and mirrors with puppets and propaganda. But the fact remains, the dominant military force in the region is the US of A. How would we feel if there were Chinese and Russian troops stationed all over the States?
The sun is falling towards the horizon when I spy another camp across a valley of sand. “Ah… my home for the night,” I think to myself. I make the final trudge rather quickly because I want to be resting comfortably when the sun finally sets. But alas, the camp is strangely empty and abandoned when I arrive. I consider moving in and making myself at home. Honestly it looks like no one has been here for quite some time. It’s such a beautiful spot, I could even claim it as my own and move in permanently. I wonder if Ms. B. would come to Jordan and join me… No probably not. And what if someone returns in the middle of the night and finds me trespassing. Who’s that sleeping in my bed! Perhaps it’s best if I sleep somewhere else.
I do have a sleeping bag. And there’s a big old dune right here in front of me that looks rather comfortable. So I walk a short distance away from the camp, lay out my sleeping bag on a pile of sand and make myself at home. Shortly thereafter, the sun hits the horizon and electrifies the world all around me with a dazzling display of color. And that’s when I see the special little sparkle just a few feet away from me in the sand. A diamond? A real diamond?
Probably not. Yeah sure, it certainly looks like one. But for all I know it could be a tiny shard of glass from a coke bottle some drunk tourist smashed on the fender of a truck. What is a real diamond anyway? A beautiful crystallized rock that the advertising industry tells us is worth a lot of money. How do we as a society determine value, money and worth? Value is subjective. Beauty is subjective. If I find a crystal in the dunes of Wadi Rum, and I think it’s infinitely valuable as a metaphor of my life’s journey and I give it to Ms. B. as a symbol of my love, why is it worth less than some silly real diamond purchased at a corporate shopping mall? Would such a gift make me a super romantic and charmingly sweet guy or just a cheap bastard trying to score points with very little effort… Actually, Ms. B. does happen to be a super talented jeweler and I bet she can wrap some silver around this baby and transform it into a very nice necklace or ring. Anyway, I’m going to save it and give it to her. If it’s just glass at least it will be a nice keepsake to always remind me of this incredible place.
I spend the night alone on the dune. Every human should get a chance to do the same at least once in their life. Truly incredible. I’ve never seen so many stars. The constellations come to life and do a dance all around me. I wish upon the shooting ones and make so many wishes if only half come true I should be set for life. Like I said, the real world is way better than television. I fall asleep with a smile on my face and visit a world of happy content dreams. I awake at dawn to witness the spectacular sunrise. How good is this life? Oh so good.
I was going to stay another day in the desert but I didn’t bring enough water. I hike back to the village to get more and arrive just as the one daily bus to Petra is about to leave. I figure this is a sign and I hop on the bus. My visit to Wadi Rum was a good one. Now is time to head to the next great destination. Perhaps the best destination of all…