Hiking with Allah (Dana, Jordan; February 2013)
So, here I am, wandering all alone on a trail at the bottom of a deep canyon somewhere inside the nation of Jordan. I’m not lost. The guesthouse and small town I stayed in last night is only seven miles up the steep hill behind me. But I’m not exactly found either. I’m a white guy… a westerner… and I am making my way on foot through the very heart of the Middle East. This is Bedouin country… Arab country… Muslim country. The people who live here worship Allah and follow the teachings of the Koran. Is that bad? Is that dangerous? Should I be afraid?
I hear a loud commotion up ahead. A cloud of dust rises from the landscape. The sound of stampeding hooves reaches my ears. And then I see them. Eight men on horseback are riding towards me. They are apparently of military age (20s and 30s) and are dressed in the traditional Islamic clothes of the region. Turbans cover their heads so all I see is eyes and beards. Not surprisingly, they also carry an assortment of dangerous weapons. They have a rifle, several pistols and a number of machetes with which they could easily chop off my head. I am, of course, unarmed and the barren rocky landscape provides no place for me to run and hide. They can see me anyway already. I have no choice but to face them out here, in the middle of nowhere, all by myself…
After my pilgrimage to the world famous ruins of Petra, the next place I want to visit in this fascinating country of Jordan is a national park that is called the Dana Biosphere Reserve. According to my guidebook, it is a hidden gem of Jordan with many miles of trails for hiking and a great variety of flora and fauna. Unfortunately, it is rather difficult to get there from here. The access point for the national park is a small village called Dana and it is only about 100 kilometers (60 miles) by direct road from where I am in Wadi Musa. The public buses, however, don’t go directly there. Instead, I will have to go way past Dana on the main highway; change buses twice and backtrack to get there. The journey by public bus will probably end up taking me all day. I could, of course, sign up for an over-priced guided tour and thereby travel by minivan directly, but I’m a low budget traveler so I insist on taking the public transport route.
But alas, sometimes I get lucky and the gods do smile upon me. Just as I’m checking out of Valentine’s in Wadi Musa and getting ready to go to the bus station, another traveler arrives there by private taxi from Dana. The taxi is empty for the return journey so the driver offers me a ride for the same price as the public bus. Oh yeah! What a deal. Imagine that; cheapo budget traveler me touring Jordan by private car.
The journey between towns could not possibly be better. Since I am only paying an absurdly discounted rate, the driver treats me kind of like a hitchhiker rather than a typical fare. In other words, we go where he wants to go instead of following my directions. He has friends to visit en route and we have to stop twice for tea and once for lunch. On all three occasions, I am treated as an honored guest and am not charged for food or drink. I sure do like this Islamic tradition of welcoming strangers with hospitality and friendship. They don’t speak English, of course, so I can’t really participate in the conversations. So I guess it is possible that they are cursing the infidel who has crashed their tea party. But I don’t think so. Their attitude and energy is very friendly and kind. I rather enjoy sitting among them listening to the sound of Arabic words swirling all around me. We also stop at a mosque so the driver can make his midday prayers. But that only takes about fifteen minutes and I wait in the vehicle while he performs his religious duty. Finally, we take a slight detour so that I can see the crusader castle of Shobak. A very impressive place; the massive fortress of stone rises up out of the barren rocky landscape like a man made mountain. The stonework is rather sloppy though. Obviously built for battle rather than beauty, it hardly compares to Petra or the Pyramids.
We arrive in the village of Dana in the mid-afternoon and I don’t know if I could possibly like a village more. The very small town is perched upon a large promontory of stone that juts out into a massive canyon like a finger pointing towards the setting sun. Indeed, the views from along the western edge of town can only be described as spectacular. I sit comfortably on top of the cliff and watch an afternoon mist slowly envelop the landscape. Sunlight shining through water particles provides a vision to inspire spiritual contemplation. It sure is great to be alive on this beautiful planet earth.
There are only about thirty buildings or structures in the town and they are all constructed with irregular local stone fitted together and then packed with mortar. The craftsmanship is impressive and the building style fits perfectly with the atmosphere and landscape. It seems as if the town is part of the environment rather than an intrusion upon it. Everything about this place is just a wonder to behold.
I find inexpensive but very good accommodation at the Dana Tower Hotel. It only costs the equivalent of twenty U.S. dollars a night and that includes both dinner and breakfast. I meet the hotel tour agent and ask about hiking possibilities. He informs me that most trekkers like to walk the 14 kilometer (8.5 mile) trail from here in Dana to the Feynan Eco-lodge at the bottom of the canyon. He can reserve a room for me to stay the night in the lodge or he can arrange to have a four wheel drive truck meet me there and bring me back here because there is an access road to the lodge from the other side of the canyon.
“Can’t I just hike down to the lodge and then hike back?” I ask.
“You can if you want to,” says the agent, “but you probably don’t want to. The trail is very, very, very steep. Once you reach the bottom, hiking back will seem impossible. It is best to organize a jeep in advance. Otherwise, you may end up having to stay at the lodge and that is even more expensive.”
But alas, I am a budget traveler who likes to walk so I decide to hike down and hike back. After all, I don’t have to go all the way to the lodge. I can turn around and head back whenever I start to get tired.
The next morning, I have an early breakfast. I also grab a couple extra hunks of bread, some cheese and some olives from the buffet. These few items, along with my full water bottle are my only provisions for the long hike ahead of me. I hope it will be sufficient for the 28 kilometer (17 mile) round trip journey I am planning.
I set out walking towards the western part of the village and reach the edge of the canyon as the sun rises into view and the morning mist burns off. Wow! Impressive. Not as wide or big as the Grand Canyon in Arizona but deep enough to inspire awe. The variegated colors in the massive rock walls shine and sparkle in the morning light. A few birds swirl around overhead and chirp as if they are greeting me. That’s right; this is going to be fun. I find the trail that goes down and begin my descent. The way down is very steep but the trail is easy to follow and not so steep that it is dangerous or involves rock climbing. Instead, there are long switchbacks that cling to the canyon walls. The tour agent was correct, when I get to the bottom of this, I will not want to come back up. Oh well, I shall cross that bridge (or climb that hill) when I come to it. In the interest of saving a hundred bucks, I can probably somehow manage.
It takes about an hour to reach the bottom and after that, the trail flattens out. From here on to the lodge, the walking should be easy. The path follows a riverbed that is mostly empty of water. No doubt it is a raging torrent after each and every rainfall, but presently, it is just a trickle and at some points there is no flow at all. Abundant vegetation clings to some sections of riverbank but other sections are nothing but barren rock and dried out wasteland. The trail crosses the river on several occasions but because the water level is so low, the crossings are always easy. I see lots of birds flying all around the river and several flocks of sheep on the distant hillsides but no other wildlife. According to the guidebook, there are ibexes, mountain gazelles, sand cats, foxes, wolves and many other mammals in this habitat but no such creatures make an appearance for me. But that’s okay. I am happy enough as it is strolling among the birds and looking around at the awesome rock formations in the canyon walls.
I am probably about halfway down the trail on a particularly barren and rocky section of landscape when I hear the stampede of hooves and see the cloud of dust up ahead. It is a group of eight local young men riding towards me on horseback. No doubt they are armed with pistols, rifles and machetes but they are not mujahedeen on the hunt for infidels, they are shepherds out to gather their flocks. There is nothing at all to worry about. I step to the side of the trail so that they have room to pass. They pull up on their horses’ reins to slow them down to an easy walk.
“Salam ali Kum,” I say in my best attempt to pronounce the local greeting as I smile and wave at them.
“Hello, welcome,” they respond as they smile and wave back to me.
In a few moments, they are gone as they continue up the trail on their horses. I am once again alone hiking through the incredible landscape.
I probably walk for another hour or two before I reach the first shepherd encampment. Five or six Bedouin tents are clustered together on a small plateau a short distance above and away from the riverbed. As I walk nearby, a middle aged woman comes out to greet me.
“Salam Ali Kun,” I try to pronounce.
“Hello,” she says with a big smile, “tea?” She waves her hands and beckons for me to follow her back to the camp. It is the kind of enthusiastic invitation that I cannot possibly refuse. And so I follow her towards the tents. Once I reach the encampment, I am surrounded by three women and about ten children. “Salam Ali Kum,” I say again in another pathetic attempt at the Arabic greeting.
I am offered a rug to sit on and a cup of tea. I say shokron (thank you) for the tea and sit down. The scene that follows is kind of awkward and kind of funny. They don’t speak a word of English and I don’t speak a word of Arabic. They all just stare at me as they laugh and giggle. I smile back at them as I slowly sip my tea. They are obviously very poor as the kids are dressed in rags and are very dirty. But they appear to be well fed and the sincere smiles indicate some level of happiness. I do attempt to introduce myself as “Patrick” but they don’t even seem to understand that. They don’t introduce themselves in response. Instead, they talk among themselves in Arabic; laugh and giggle and point at me like I am some sort of zoo animal. When I finish my tea, I say, “shokron” and stand up. They try to offer me another cup but I say no thank you and turn to walk away. As I leave the camp behind, the whole group waves at me enthusiastically with big smiles on their faces. Their friendliness is amazing even if language communication is impossible.
I walk another 15 minutes or so on the trail before I come to a second Bedouin encampment. The same scene that just occurred repeats itself a second time. A friendly woman invites me for tea. I feel obligated to accept. I am soon surrounded by several women and a gaggle of dirty children dressed in rags. No men are around because it was probably their men I saw earlier on the horses. No real communication is possible because I don’t speak Arabic. Nevertheless, I am immersed in a sea of smiles and laughter as I slowly sip my tea. It is difficult to describe the sensation; a mixture of awkwardness at the failure of my language skills and joy at the beautiful manifestation of universal human kindness.
A short while after I leave this camp, I walk past a third encampment. Once again, a nice woman comes out and invites me in for tea. I don’t like to say no because the offer of kindness and welcoming is so genuine. But seriously, how much tea can one man drink? And besides, if I have to stop at every single camp for tea, I will never reach my destination. Over the course of the next hour, I walk past seven different groups of Bedouin tents. At almost every place, someone comes out to offer me tea. Thankfully, they continue to be nice and friendly after I politely refuse their welcoming warm beverages.
It is sometime in the early afternoon when I reach the eco-lodge and the end of the trail. It is obviously a high end establishment with lots of concrete and many big solar panels. There are several 4×4’s in the parking area and it also looks like there is some type of ongoing construction project. I do a big circle around the building, but I do not approach it. No one comes out to invite me in for tea. Truthfully, it’s not my kind of place. No doubt, it is environmentally efficient and ecologically sound through the use of the most modern and technologically advanced techniques. But what can I say; I am a bit old fashioned. I prefer the style of the Bedouins and their tents.
The area around the lodge is nicely landscaped. There are well cut pathways and awesome benches strategically placed to create several sitting areas along the river. I sit down on one of those benches and eat my lunch. It was nine miles getting here so now I have nine miles to go back… uphill. It is going to be a long and arduous afternoon. As I pick my way through my olives and cheese, I start to wonder about how many times I will have to stop for tea? Can I keep saying no when they are so friendly and genuine about their invitations? I don’t want to offend their culture. I am a guest in their country and I wish I knew the polite thing to do. Truthfully, I wish there was some way I could avoid the interaction all together and just be left alone to hike.
The idea occurs to me like a flash from the heavens. But of course; I can just walk the riverbed. The banks of the river are 10 or 15 feet high. The river bed is from 15 to 25 feet wide. It really is like a hidden channel that runs through the heart of the landscape. The trail or path is up above on the bank where it winds its way through a collection of Bedouin encampments. But if I walk the dry river upstream nobody will see me. So that is what I decide to do.
Thus, the return journey up the canyon resembles some type of waking dream. Did someone push play on the adventure travel machine? For starters, the scenery is incredibly intense… up close and personal with riverbed world. Secondly, walking is much more complicated than on the trail. It is a serious athletic challenge as I sometimes have to jump from big rock to big rock and I sometimes have to invent new yoga poses to maneuver around mud holes, rock slides and small pools. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the dramatic possibilities for the way I have taken are almost too good to be true. My imagination runs wild with adventurous plot lines. If only I could put it down on paper, it might be a best seller… The rugged individual American quietly makes his way through the secret tunnel. Up above his head, the angry Muslims are swarming. No doubt there are jihadis among them; Al Qaeda; Isis or the Army of Conquest. They are probably armed with machetes and are hunting for infidels. Will the American Hero make it to the safe zone? Can he complete the obstacle course and find his way to freedom? Or will the evil ones chop off his infidel head?
Ha ha ha. The story is preposterous… ridiculous. No one would believe such nonsense. Angry jihadis kill an unarmed man traveling alone? How crazy. That violates a foundational principle of Islam. The principle that teaches Muslims to welcome strangers as guests. As long as I am unarmed and not an “occupier” in Muslim lands, I am as safe walking here as I would be walking anywhere else on the planet. That’s the reality. The truth is; I am hiding down between the banks of the river because I’m afraid of Islamic hospitality. I don’t want to drink any more tea. I don’t have the time or patience for more awkward socializing with the happy, friendly people. It would just be wrong for me to pretend that I am afraid of jihadis here.
My trip back up the canyon all along the stream bed is exceptionally pleasant. My imagination runs wild with crazy stories to tell as I soak up the heavenly atmosphere. No doubt, the walking is difficult. I work up a good sweat, I breathe hard and I have to drink a lot of water. When I climb from the riverbed and re-connect with the trail, it is time for the steep ascent. I look up towards the top at my final destination and let out a great big sigh. Holy shit… that looks impossible. Please God or Buddha or Ganesh or Allah… just let me make it to that Promised Land I see.
I think it is Allah that answers because I am hiking in his zone of influence. I can’t say for certain, of course, because the spirit world is always ambiguous. But some special force comes along and gives me an extra push. In the interest of cultural appreciation, I’m going to say that force was Allah. I guess he willed it for me to get back to the Dana Tower Hotel. And lucky for me, I arrive just in time for the evening 16 course buffet. Wow! What a feast. After a 28 kilometer (17 mile) round trip through a desert canyon, I can hardly wait to eat. How good is this life? Pretty gosh darn incredible. Inshallah…
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