This is the final part of my four part series on Petra. Although this story can be read independently, it is a continuation of the previous part and as such it will make a lot more sense if you read part III (A) first. Actually, the whole series works best if read chronologically from beginning to end. To find all three previous parts, scroll down the main page.
The Petra Pilgrimage, Part III (b)
Wadi Musa, Jordan; Februay 2013
I still have about three hours of sunlight left on my last day here at Petra. I’ve seen it all; every building, every museum and maybe even every cave. I’m now drinking another cup of coffee at Ali’s scenic café in the side canyon near the museum. I could call it quits and head back to the hostel or linger here sipping warm beverages until sunset. It’s been a full day already. I don’t need to do more. But sometimes I just can’t help myself. The mountaintop “Monastery” that I saw on my first day at Petra is, perhaps, the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in the whole wide world. Sure, it requires a couple mile hike up a mountain to get there and yes I’m already exhausted from the long hike to the tomb. But I know I could be there for sunset. It’s the perfect finale for my Petra Pilgrimage. So, of course, I have to go.
My legs feel like lead and the trail that seemed easy two days ago now seems a punishing ordeal. I consider turning around several times and going back. Do I really need to see the most incredible thing on the entire planet earth a second time? Well, yes, I do. Once is not enough. I do make it, but barely. And I make it in time for sunset. The vision is spectacular… beyond spectacular. My photo can’t do it justice and I can’t describe it in words. Totally exhausted in a delerial euphoric bliss from too much exercise in the hot sun, I stand before the carved out mountainside that is literally glowing in the sunshine. Did humans make this or the gods? Wow! I feel the tingle deep inside. It’s a stone mason’s version of a mystical experience. My cells are glowing to match the glow from the building. The power of the universe is flowing into me. It feels so good I can’t possibly explain it. And that’s when I hear the voice…
“Hey Buddy, could you take a photo of me in front of the building?”
I turn to my right and see a young man reaching a cell phone towards me. He has clean cut blond hair and designer sunglasses. With his high-end casual wear, he looks like he belongs to an organized tour group but there is no one else nearby.
“Yeah sure;” I say, “no problem.” I take his phone. He jogs over closer to the building and does some poses. I take a few photos with the phone. He climbs into the doorway and does a few more poses and I take a few more photos. He then hops down and jogs back to me.
“Thanks Buddy,” he says; “if you have a phone or a camera, I can shoot you too.”
So I hand him my camera and go stand by the building and in the doorway for a few poses. They really will be good to have for my scrapbook. I walk back to retrieve my camera and that’s when he introduces himself.
“My name’s Scott,” he says, as he reaches out his hand to shake. “I’m from the U.S. of A.”
I shake his hand. “I’m Pat,” I say, “I’m from the states too.”
“American!” he says excitedly. “Wow! That’s awesome. I thought for sure you were European. I would have guessed Dutch. It is so great to meet other Americans here, on the other side of the world, in foreign territory… if you know what I mean. They don’t have beer here but what about a coffee? Can I buy ya one? There’s a café right over there. We can sit and chat about the homeland.”
“Yeah sure,” I say with a slight smirk, “why not? Let’s sit and chat about the homeland.”
The Bedouin café is a hundred meters or so back from the Monastery but from the outdoor tables there is still a perfect view of the amazing building. I definitely need to sit for a while before the long trek to the exit. We walk over, take seats and order coffee.
“America,” says Scott longingly, “I sure do miss America. I haven’t been back now in 14 months and I am one American who could use some leave.”
“Some leave?” I question. “Are you in the military or something?”
“Oh no,” he says, “leave is just an expression. I’m not military. I do have top security clearance though.” He pauses after he says this and looks around to see if anyone is watching us. “I probably shouldn’t tell you that, the top security stuff; but you’re one of us anyway so it doesn’t matter. I work for the state department. I am part of our country’s diplomatic mission here in Jordan.”
I can’t see him well with the bright sunlight in my eyes and the dark shades on his, but he looks a little young for a diplomat. “Really,” I say, “that’s interesting. And what do you do for the state department?”
“I am what they call a business liason,” he says. “I speak Arabic and it’s my job to facilitate relationships between the American business community and the Jordanian business community.” He turns sideways to the sun now; takes off his sunglasses and puts them on the table so he can rub his eyes.
Honestly, he looks like he’s about 15 years old. Does he even shave? I can’t picture him in any position of responsibility at all. I’m guessing he is some kind of intern that likes to exaggerate his importance. But I humor him anyway. “That sounds very interesting,” I say, “and how do you like doing business in Jordan?”
“It is very challenging,” he says. “More difficult than you might think.” He leans in closer to me and acts as if he is revealing some sort of big secret. “You might find this hard to believe, but Jordanians don’t really like Americans.”
“Really?” I say with an intonation of disbelief.
“It’s true,” he says. “I mean sure; they like American money and some of the young people like American culture and products. But still, they don’t like Americans. They don’t trust us. They resent us. Thankfully, the Jordanian government is still our close ally. But the people in the street; the business people and the regular people are hard to convince. It’s almost as if America is the bogeyman or the big bad wolf. And that factor makes business transactions complicated.”
“The bogeyman?” I say.
“Yes,” he says, “the bogeyman, the bad guy, the villain of their story.”
“And why do you suppose that is?” I ask.
“If you think about it and you know your history,” says Scott, “it is very understandable. After the second world war, the United States inherited the responsibility for securing the world.”
“Inherited the responsibility?” I question.
“Yes,” he says, “of course. All the other modern civilized countries were destroyed in the world war. Somebody had to protect international trade and commerce so the responsibility fell upon us. But we were then and still are now a very young and inexperienced country. Securing the world is a difficult and complicated task and previous administrations made many mistakes. No doubt they did manage to protect the world from a soviet communist takeover, but they had to step on a few toes in the process.”
“Step on a few toes?” I say.
“Yeah,” he says, as he leans in again close to me like I am some sort of confidential insider. “You know, step on a few toes; throw a few elbows. That’s the way the world works. And the same thing applies now, to us, to this administration. Only now the enemy is terrorism instead of communism. It is our duty, our responsibility, to protect the world from it. Occasionally, as part of that responsibility, we have to do things we would rather not do. Sometimes accidents happen. We are doing the best we can to keep the world safe but the locals here in Jordan only seem to notice the things that go wrong and they often blame us for everything bad that happens in the whole region whether we did it or not.“
“Like drone strikes on wedding parties?” I say.
“Drone strikes are a good example of what I am talking about,” he says. “Generally speaking, drones are very accurate. But unfortunately, there is occasionally a little collateral damage. The problem is that the people here pay no attention to the many successful strikes; the hundreds of violent dangerous terrorists we have eliminated. And instead, they focus all their energy and attention on a few failures; a couple weddings and funeral; what’s the big deal?”
“So America is exceptional but not perfect?” I say sarcastically.
But he doesn’t seem to hear or get my sarcasm. “Exactly,” he says excitedly. “Exceptional but not perfect. That could be a motto or a slogan for a campaign. I like it. I really do. A little humility goes a long way in this world. That’s right; we are not perfect. We make mistakes but we are still exceptional. We are still the best. We are still the country the world needs to keep it safe. High five to that my friend.” He actually raises his hand in the air and faces it towards me.
I acknowledge his odd gesture with the appropriate slap of the hand. Uh… yeah… that’s right, I ah, give a high five for American Exceptionalism. I cross my fingers behind my back though and chuckle at the absurdity.
The sun falls behind the mountain and the light starts to fade. It is a four or five mile walk to the exit so we better get going. We pay for our coffee and head down the trail. I am very exhausted from my full day of activities and my sore legs walk slowly. Truthfully, I am kind of hoping that Scott will dash on ahead of me. He does seem quite full of youthful energy but for some reason I don’t understand he uses that energy to circle around continually talking instead of going on ahead.
“I finally get to check Petra off my to-do list,” he says. “Can you believe that I’ve been in Jordan for over a year and this is my first visit to its most famous attraction?”
“That is surprising,” I say. “It is a pretty impressive place though, don’t you think?”
“It’s cool,” he says, “but if you ask me, it’s a little over-rated. Some old dude at the embassy told me I needed three days to properly appreciate it.” He uses his fingers to put air quotes around appreciate. “But I did the whole place top to bottom in about five hours.”
“Only five hours?” I say in disbelief.
“That’s right,” he says, “five hours. I left Amman at seven this morning and got here by 1pm. It’s only six now and I’ve seen it all; the Siq, the Treasury, the stadium, the tombs, that place with the tiles, the museum, the caves and now the Monastery. I’ve seen it all in five hours and I have pictures on my phone to prove it. And tonight I’m going to catch a ride to Wadi Rum so I can do that too. I’ll do Wadi Rum in a day and be back in the embassy in Amman by Monday morning with both of Jordan’s main attractions scratched off my list.”
“That’s a busy weekend,” I say.
“All my weekends are busy,” he says, “because I’m a doer; an accomplisher; I get things done. That’s why I have top security clearance even though I am only 26 years old. The more I do, the further ahead I get. I want to make the big time in this world and the only way to make the big time is to get things done.”
“Well good for you,” I say, “no doubt you will be very successful.”
“And what about you?” he says finally. We are almost down the mountain at this point. We have been conversing together for close to an hour. “How long have you been in Petra and what are you doing here?”
“This is my third day,” I say.
“Really?” he answers. “Three days at Petra. Has it been worth it? Did you just look at buildings the whole time or is there something more here that I don’t know about?”
“Definitely worth it for me,” I say. “I’m a stone mason. I like to go slowly and admire the work of the ancient masters.”
“A stone mason huh? So you are on a professional trip; a business trip?” He asks. “Do you write the whole thing off on your taxes?”
“No,“ I answer; “it’s definitely not a business trip. It’s more the opposite of a business trip. I’m out wandering, you know, traveling. I like stone stuff, I was in the vicinity of Petra so I came to check it out.”
We have reached the bottom of the mountain now and are walking past the central Petra complex. It’s getting rather dark and there are still a few miles to go to the exit. It’s a good thing I have my headlamp in my daypack, I’m going to need it. I can barely see Scott now but just by the tone of his voice, I can tell he is confused by my comment.
“Wandering?” he says. “In the vicinity of Petra? Are you talking about trekking?”
“No,” I say, “not trekking. Though I do like trekking and I actually did a little today. But wandering is different. It’s traveling, but in a non specific way. I like to explore different cultures but I don’t do tours. Instead, I mingle with the locals and try to get to know what they are like as people. This winter, I’m in the Middle East. I have about three and a half months to bop around and see what it’s like?”
“Three and a half months vacation in the middle east?” he says in disbelief. “Wow. You must be quite successful. Do you own your own company?”
I laugh. I love telling this truth to my fellow Americans. It really messes with their heads. “I don’t own anything,” I tell him. “I don’t believe in it. Not a company, not a house, not a car, not anything. Ownership is a delusion. It’s the modern religion. Sell your soul to the banker priest. Too many people take it way too seriously and it’s driving our society totally insane.”
“I don’t understand,” he says. “What you say makes no sense. How can you afford to travel if you don’t own anything?”
“Not owning is how I afford it,” I tell him. “Use value or possession is all you really need. All that ownership extra is just a con. I earn enough to cover my food and shelter and with all my extra I travel. While some people collect assets or things, I am more interested in experiences. I don’t own a house, or a car or a plasma television, but I’ve managed to wander around fifty or so countries in the last 13 years.”
“50 countries,” he says, “That’s impressive.”
“Not really,” I say, “its way less than half the world and I want to see it all.”
The sky grows darker and darker as the last glimmers of daylight fade. We walk along in silence for a while. It is, indeed, the first quiet moment of our entire encounter. I can’t help but wonder what Scott is thinking about. Did I, perhaps, confuse him? When we reach “The Treasury” and the beginning or end of the Siq, it is so dark that I have to take out my headlamp and put it on. Scott does the same with his. I point my light up towards “The Treasury” for a final look before departing. Amazing. Amazing. Amazing. I want to build something like that… something big like that. I can hardly wait to get my hands on a hammer and chisel. I turn away from the great stone masterpiece and enter the Siq. Just as the steep walls of the dark canyon close in around us, Scott speaks again.
“I’ve been thinking,” he says; “you should get a job with the state department.”
I laugh. The sound of my mirthful chuckle echoes through the crack in the earth.
“I’m serious,” he says. “You could really fill a niche. With your world travel experience, you would make a great cultural ambassador. Think about that. You could get paid while you travel and you wouldn’t have to work as a stone mason anymore. All you would have to do is represent your country in foreign lands.”
“That is certainly an interesting possibility,” I say. “But I don’t think so. I’m against the violence. You know, the mass murder; the killing of innocents. What some people call state terrorism.”
It is another one of those very surreal scenes. I feel like I am walking in a dream. The crack in the earth surrounds us; our two headlamps shine ahead in the darkness; our voices reverberate off the solid rock walls as we walk.
“America doesn’t commit terrorism,” he says, “America defends the world against it. Maybe there are mistakes. And maybe there are accidents. But America only tries to kill the bad guys. It’s the terrorists that kill indiscriminately. That’s what separates us from them. We have accurate weapons and we only attack because we have to. Someone has to keep the world safe from the psychopaths and extremists and we are the only ones who can get it done.”
“Oh Scott,” I say empathetically, “I know you want to believe that. I really know that you do. But, unfortunately, my experience teaches me otherwise. America, that Nation state you work for, practices a diplomacy of aggression and dominance. As a matter of policy, it kills people and destroys cultures in order to take control of their markets and assets. That’s not something I personally could ever be involved in. It’s against my principles.”
“America is against your principles?” he says. I can’t see him in the darkness but his tone is one of disbelief. “But America is only trying to make the world a better place and you are American. How can you be against your own country?”
“I believe in kindness,” I say, “You know, being nice to people. If America practiced a diplomacy of kindness, I wouldn’t be against it. But they don’t, so I am.”
“Diplomacy of kindness,” he says with a scoff. “How absurd? How naïve? How one dimensional? You sound like an idealist. My father was one of them; a hippie war protester in the sixties. Peace, love and understanding. What a bunch of crap. Kindness gets you nowhere in this world. You end up poor and stupid and living as a nobody. Kindness kills accomplishment. It’s another word for weakness.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way; I really am.” I answer. “Such a perspective will probably make you miserable in the long run. But I guess it all depends upon what you are trying to accomplish. I’m a stone mason who likes to wander, not a diplomat. For me at least, kindness gets me everywhere.”
Scott does not respond at all to this last comment of mine. The canyon walls are tight around us and our headlamps beam forth into the nothingness. He walks beside me in silence. I can hear his breathing but no more words are coming forth. I wonder if I offended him or hurt his feelings. I certainly didn’t mean to. I do have a tendency to get preachy sometimes. But really, I have his best interests at heart. The truth is, more than anything, I feel sorry for him. As far as I’m concerned, Americans who work overseas representing America have some of the worst jobs on the entire planet. No doubt the benefits are many and the perks plentiful, but there is no position at all more tormenting or horrifying for the human soul. The mythology of patriotism, freedom and democracy will sustain a well trained brain for a while, but once a person gets overseas and the reality of conquest and economic domination becomes apparent, most sane and moral humans will face a psychological crisis that might be described as spiritual hell. The psychopaths, of course, have no problem with the hell… as a matter of fact they thrive and rise to the top. But most foreign service people are not psychopaths. They are good people caught in a bad situation. Poor, unfortunate, young and innocent Scott; if only there was some way to ease his troubled soul.
We reach the end of the Siq and the terrain opens up. I can now see a half moon part way up in the sky. I am tempted to turn off my headlamp for the last half mile to the exit but I don’t. We continue walking silently following our beams of light.
We turn off our lights at the gate because now there are overhead lights along the sidewalk to the road. Somehow, the extinguishing of the headlamps returns the world to a more normal reality.
“It has been really nice to meet you,” says Scott, “our conversation was very interesting. If you are wandering towards Amman,” he uses the finger quotes around wandering, “you should look me up when you get there.” He reaches in his pocket and pulls out a business card. “They even have beer in the big city and I know a few places where we can continue our conversation.” He hands me his card.
“Thanks,” I say as I take his card. “I am heading to Amman. I’m going to the Danner Nature Reserve first but I should be in the capital by the end of the coming week. How about you? Where you heading now? Wadi Rum? Is there a night bus or will you have to wait for the morning?” We have just reached the road and there is a line of taxis with drivers standing beside them.
“Buses are for people who don’t have expense accounts,” he says with a proud declaration. “I’ll take a taxi.”
“A taxi? Really. It’s like three hours from here. Will a taxi even take you that far?”
“Money talks,” he says, “they will take me anywhere. See you in Amman my friend.” He shakes my hand and then heads to a taxi. Sure enough, I watch and hear him as he says “Wadi Rum” to a driver. The driver smiles big and says, “Wadi Rum, yes yes, I can take you there.” Scott climbs in the taxi and then he is gone.
It’s a half mile walk through town and up a hill to my hostel. I consider taking a taxi myself because I am so exhausted. But I decide against it as a matter of principle. Me and my damn principles… The walk takes much longer than it should but the rising moon is very beautiful. Along the way, I consider the story of my interesting day. Just as I reach my destination, I figure out the ending…
I met the “other” on the mountaintop near the sacred building. It was a friendly meeting and he seemed a nice guy. Somewhat surprisingly, he made an effort to recruit me to his cause. I said no, of course, and continued on my way. Who was the devil in this story?
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