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Windsbird: Footprints around the world

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Jordan, 2013

Sand Storm and the Buffalo Face – Jeep Tour at Wadi Rum

I wake up in the Bedouin tent still irritated. I sulk more for the fact that I could not sleep under the open sky last night than for someone having had rubbed his manhood on me.

As I open up the thick camel skin covering the entrance of the tent, light floods in to reveal the brilliant colours and patterns of the carpets surrounding me. It’s a simple place, furnished only with a bed, a lamp, and a piece of string hanging across the ceiling which I used to hang my clothes – and I suddenly feel grateful for having had a moment in this beautiful place, which I would not have had had I slept outside.

After a simple breakfast of yoghurt, bread and fruits, I am taken back to the Wadi Rum village at the entrance of the desert, where I wait with Mahdi and a couple of other Bedouins for my guide to arrive. Today I will be doing a jeep tour to see the key sites of Wadi Rum, finishing it with a Bivouac camping where I will be sleeping in the middle of the desert in a real ‘Bedouin style’ (i.e. no showers, no toilets).

Last night’s all too fresh memory still bothering me, I only answer Mahdi’s polite questions enquiring about my day yesterday with monosyllabic replies….until this conversation happens:

 

“Where are you from?” A Bedouin on my right enquires.

“Korea” I give him an already well practiced answer.

“Ah! You know the Buffalo Face?” “A what?” “The Buffalo Face! The Buffalo Face!”

It takes a good few puzzled questions from me to finally understand.

“Buffalo Face! Crazy guy! In North! The Buffalo Face!” It suddenly clicks that he’s referring to Kim Jong Un in DPRK.

 

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I’m quite glad to be back in the familiar company of Id, and can’t help but to be a little disappointed when he drops me off at the first stop of Lawrence Spring and tells me I can go and explore the area by myself. Albeit being alone most of times, the jeep tour turns out to be a great way to see what Wadi Rum has to offer.

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Lawrence SpringIt requires a small climb of around 10 minutes to reach a small area of natural spring water surrounded by wild ferns and trees. I spend some time trying to get a good close up photos of blue and red dragonflies, pick a lavender looking flower and press it between pages of my diary (it shall be a birthday gift to my friend back in the UK), and attempt to have a quiet, introspective time. But I soon got bored and climb back down.

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Khazali Canyon – This canyon was once used by the local Bedouin to rest in the shades. Many ancient inscriptions in old Arabic and drawing of animals can be found on its walls.

Red Sand Dune – One of the few sand dunes I came across in the desert. Trying to climb to the top in the blazing heat is not an easy task. My walking sandals dig deep into the sand making each step heavy and tiresome, and the soles of my feet burn when I try walking with barefeet. I’ve heard some tourists use a board to slide down the dune or even roll down it, both of which I would have loved to have a go at. But I feel too silly to do it by myself so I resort to running down the dune and try glide down as if surfing – a compromise between trying to have fun and trying to look cool. It didn’t work.

 

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Lawrence House – A house with the legend that Lawrence of Arabia had stayed here during the Arab Revolt. The legend is not true (Lawrence did not cross this area) and there isn’t much to look at but shabby ruins.

Then comes the time for lunch. It has been very windy whole day, and it takes some time for Id to find a suitable corner where we will be sheltered from sand blowing everywhere. Even with the blue jeep strategically parked to block our corner from the wind, simple activities continue to be a struggle. First we struggle to lay a mat on the ground, and then we cannot start the fire. Sand keeps blowing into our eyes and mouths making any sort of conversation impossible. As the last resort, Id makes some space at the back of the jeep and brings in the food inside. I grew up in Korea with the “floor culture”, so sitting and sleeping on the floor without any elevated furniture is a second nature to me. Id notices me sitting comfortably with my legs crossed and exclaims, “You are sitting like a Bedouin!” I feel smug, even if the pride I feel is something very childish.

 

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After lunch, we find a spot for a nap. Id disappears somewhere without telling me anything, but I have already grown familiar with the Bedouin ways of not offering much explanation so it doesn’t really bother me.

In the distance the wind and the sand has turned the sky cloudy, and it gets a little chilly in the shades. Id comes back having put on an extra garment that covers him from neck to foot, lies on the hard uneven floor of the rock, wraps his entire face with his red headscarf and falls asleep. He reminds me of an Egyptian mummy, Bedouin style.

I also use a raised plane of a rock as my pillow, find the most comfortable position and close my eyes. I hear the gusty wind, eagles calling, and occasionally, Id snoring.

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DAY 6: 23 September 2013,  Jeep Tour at Wadi Rum

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“It’s like a dream, is it not?” – Night at Wadi Rum No.1

It is already dark when we finally arrive at the Bedouin camp compound. Five small sleeping tents and a communal area form one square section of the compound with all their entrances facing inwards so that it creates an intimate courtyard in the centre. The toilet facilities and the kitchen are on the other end of the section. It’s a small and cozy site surrounded by rock hills all around.

There are already a few tourists gathered in the communal area listening to the Bedouin music played by three musicians.  I take my shoes off and sit myself on one of the cushions sprawled along side the edge of the wall. There are two or three couples, and one German family. Everyone keeps to themselves and not much conversation is happening.  I have no access to electricity for the three days of stay in the desert which means no unnecessarily playing with my phone.The light bulb attached  to the ceiling is a little too dim to do any reading or writing. For the first time in my travels alone in Jordan, I’m bored and I don’t know what to do with myself.

The dinner is served – chicken and vegetables cooked in underground oven – which is plain and is only seasoned with salt. All the Bedouin guides wait till all their customers have taken their plateful of food, and while we eat our dinner in silence, they discretely take their share and eat outside.

After dinner there is more music. One of the Bedouins in a white robe gets up and dance, and we all sit there and watch him. It takes a good effort for him to persuade another English tourist to get up and dance with him, and another good 10 minutes to get another (also English) to join them. The rest of us smile dutifully and clap along, but no matter how jovial the rhythm of the music is, the Westerners remain rigid and unparticipating.

Enough of this awkwardness.  As I am about to walk out the communal area, a young Bedouin stops me and says hello, which seems to be the very first verbal interaction between a tourist and a local in the evening on the compound.

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By the time I come out of shower and come back to the tent, the whole compound is quiet. Mahdi had said that I could ask one of the guides to show me a good spot in the desert to sleep outside, but there are no Bedouins to be seen.   All lights are off and everybody seems to be sleeping inside.

Not wanting to end the day quite yet, I sit a few meters away from the sleeping tents and look up at the sky. The compound is surrounded by walls of high rocks so the sky is the only view that is granted to me right now.

“Hello.” Out of nowhere a Bedouin with his headscarf loosely wrapped his head around approaches me. It’s Ayaan, one of the musicians that had talked to me earlier in the evening. He has his sleeping mattress and places it next to my sitting spot.

“Oh, is this where you usually sleep? I’m so sorry, I didn’t know. I just wanted to look at the sky here.”  I say naively, thinking it is an odd place to sleep, so close to the toilet and without any privacy.

“It’s ok. Sit next to me so I can talk to you.”  He gestures to the spot next to him on the mat.

“I just wanted to look at the stars.’ I reply staying put where I am.

“It’s beautiful isn’t it? If you like, I can take you outside to show you the night desert.”

It’s a dilemma. My two inner voices fiercely arguing with each other – The Sensible reminds me of all the advices on travel websites not to venture into the desert night alone with a man, even if he is an official guide of a sizeable tour company. The Curious has no reasonable counter argument, but fills my head with an obsessive plea, ‘But I want to see! But I want to see!’.  Naturally, The Curious wins and I accept his offer.

“None of my friends know I am here. Maybe you shouldn’t tell Mahdi that you were with me here tonight.” Ayaan suggests as he guides me out of the safe walls of the Bedouin compound.

The moment we climb onto a higher pane, a magnificent view of the vast desert land unrolls before my eyes.  Black, solemn mountains at the backdrop of a silent sky, and the sandy ground with its light blue hue illuminated by the radiant moonlight in its full silver glory. I cannot help but gasp at this mesmerizing sight.

“It’s just like a dream, is it not?”

I nod, speechless.  If I squint hard enough to block out the moonlight, I can just about make out the milky way and the occasional shooting stars. He leads me further away from the camp and I follow him like a girl enchanted. I can feel the soft sand between my toes and the crisp night air on my skin but it feels like I am standing on a land that doesn’t exist – it’s just too beautiful to be true. I haven’t a faintest idea that this night is about to get even more surreal.

We sit at the nearby rock, and Ayaan teaches me a couple of Bedouin games played with small rocks. We tell riddles and sing our own traditional songs to each other. Ayaan gathers some firewood and lights a small fire, and we listen to the desert foxes squeak in the far distance.

“You see this foot print on the sand? This is of the eagles. And the ones that look like this,” says Ayaan making a hoof mark with his fingers on the ground, “is of a camel”. He goes on making various footprints of various desert creatures, and I recreate them with my fingers.

I tell him I want to see the desert fox, so he goes back to the camp and brings some left over cheese. We leave it out some distance away from us so that the foxes won’t be scared by our presence, blow out the fire and wait in silence and stillness.  Ayaan keeps his eyes fixed into the distant mountains, his dark curly hair falling just short of his broad shoulders.

The foxes do not come, and we resort back to talking. We are now both subdued by the tranquility of the night and the stillness we have just been dwelling in, and our voices grow softer and gentler.

“I give you a Bedouin name. I call you Gomar. It means, Moon.” He whispers, stroking my long wavy hair, tousled and still moist from the shower.  “Gomar..” I repeat after him, looking at the full moon hanging above us. He leans in for a kiss, and I move away from him and shake my head to tell him no. Perhaps it was my cue to call it a night and go back to the tent but I don’t. The serenity of the night in Wadi Rum is intoxicating, and I dare not break away from it.

Ayaan shifts his position and lies behind me, so that I have to twist my waist to my right in order to talk to him. I was sitting a meter away from him 20 minutes ago, and I cannot remember how we ended up sitting so close. I can feel his waistbone hard on my back and I shuffle forward to create some distance . “Awal, thani, thalith, rabe’h…” He starts counting in Arabic and I follow after him. Never before had another language sound so exotic in my ears. Again I feel something hard on my back – he has moved closer to me – so I shuffle forward again. “Khamis, saadiss, saabe’h, thaamin…” Ayaan recites, his voice growing even more gentler. And again, something hard pressing against my back. Without much thought I turn around to look behind me.

“OH MY GOD…”

When had he pull down his trousers? His penis tall and erect, pointing towards the moon I had been adoring all night. Smile beaming across his face, he proudly exclaims,“Look at that!”

I look. I look with an odd determination to remember the sight clearly so that I do not tell myself later that I had imagined all this. The spell of the desert night is horrendously shattered, and I can feel my anger rising up, stifling my breath.

Without another word, I turn around and walk away. I fear that I will not be able to find my way back to the camp amongst all these rock mountains but there’s no room for such worries now.

‘Gomar!!’ He stands up and calls after me, but only once and no more.  I do not look back, nor does he come after me.

 

 

DAY 5: 22 September 2013, Bedouin Camp in Wadi Rum

 

At the peak of Jordan, Um Ad Dami

Passing the main entrance of Wadi Rum, the bus enters into the Wadi Rum village.

Made famous by TE Lawrence’s book Seven Pillars of Wisdom and the film Lawrence of Arabia, the desert had been under the stewardship of the nomadic Bedouins for centuries. Now, many of the remaining 5000 Bedouin have chosen the settled life in the Wadi Rum village situated at the north of the desert.

The visitor centre in the village is surprisingly well built, in contrast to shabby looking houses surrounding it. It’s a long open building, with a yard in the front with many benches and tables. I get out of the bus and spot a slim man in a simple black tunic head scarf, standing at the side of the courtyard. There’s a quiet but sturdy charisma in the way he holds himself, and even before getting to see his face properly, I know it’s Mahdi, the head of the Wadi Rum tour group whom I’ve been corresponding with to discuss my travel arrangements.

We exchange greetings and sit down on the bench. He brings me Bedouin tea (black tea with herbs and lots of sugar) in a small glass cup and explains to me where I would be travelling on a fold out map of the desert. There’s something about the way he speaks that makes me shy. Softly spoken with a hint of Arabic accent, each word meaningfully uttered to form carefully thought out sentences. There is no room for silly chatters in his presence. After his introductory talk of the desert, we sit there in silence for a while. I’m not sure whether he’s waiting for me to take my time of rest, or I’m waiting for him to tell me we are ready to go. Too shy to ask, I just sip my Bedouin tea and stare down, studying intently every single font on the fold-out map.

Today’s plan is to drive to the southern end of the desert and hike a mountain called Um Ad Dami . It is more than 1,800 metres high and is the highest peak in Jordan.

Visitor Centre
Visitor Centre

My guide is a 24 year old boy called Id, with a slightly chubby face that looks like he still has his baby fat. The initial awkwardness for meeting for the first time fades out quickly and we soon get on like a pair of old friends.

‘Are you married?’ He asks me, as everyone does here in Jordan. I shake my head and he asks again. ‘Then why are you wearing the ring?’ pointing to the fake wedding ring I’ve been wearing while travelling by myself, in case of any unwanted advances – ‘Oh, my husband will be here any second’ would be my cover story while showing my ring. I never got to use it though – I couldn’t bring myself to lie.

‘No, I’m not married’. ‘What’s the ring for then?’ He asks and I just shrug my shoulder, not really wanting to explain myself. Then I also notice a ring on his left hand. ‘Are YOU married?’ He shakes his head and I raise my voice. ‘Why are YOU wearing a ring then?’, exactly imitating his intonations. ‘I’m married to Jordan’, he cheekily replies to which I bounce off by proclaiming, ”I’ll marry Wadi Rum then”. We both giggle.

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After a long, long drive, we finally reach the southern end of the desert. Only carrying two bottles of 1.5 ltr water on Id’s backpack and a DSLR with my Canon EF-S 10-22 mm lense, we set off the hike of Um Ad Dami. It seemed like a plain rock mountain from afar but up close it’s actually full of plantations. Only that they are grey, short, and spikey. Not the lucious green ones I am used to seeing in the mountains in Korea. As we zigzag our way up, Id frequently stops so that I could get my breath back and take a sip of water. The Kenyan cloth I draped over my head and shoulders provide me with some sort shade from the sun, but the heat is so strong that covering only makes it hotter and sweatier. Id comes and makes it into a headscarf by wrapping it around my forehead in Bedouin style. It cools me down immediately and makes me more relaxed as I no longer have to constantly raise my had to wipe the forever dripping sweat from my face.

‘Long time ago, there was an American tourist who sneaked out the camp and climbed … without a Bedouin guide. Instead of zigzagging, he climbed vertically, fell off the mountain and died’.

Our conversation fades out as we get closer to the summit. My energy slowly draining out, I have to bite my tongue from pestering Id with ‘Are we there yet?’ every ten minutes.

When we finally reach the top, we plop ourselves on the rocky ground and take big gulps of water.

‘That’s Israel, and that’s Saudi Arabia. I would have taken you to see my family tomorrow but they are now camping in Saudi.’ Explains Id with a cigarette in his mouth. ‘You can just go to Saudi Arabian part of desert from here?’ ‘Yeah we just pack and go’.  I am slightly disappointed that I don’t get to see the real nomadic family life.

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‘You know, Koreans shout Yah-ho whenever we reach a mountain top’. ‘Yah-ho!!!’  Id shouts into the distant mountains. ‘YAH-HO!’ I follow suit. Yah-ho..Yah-ho..Yah-ho…. A multiple layers of echoes come back at us, as our voices hit against many mountains and reflect at different points of time. I’ve never heard an echo like this before, and me and Id spend a good ten minutes shouting as loud as we can in all directions.

‘We better get down now. The sun will set soon. We will have dinner at the camp and there will be some musicians’.

It’s another hour of drive back to the campsite, and the White Desert that we drive through turns dark pink as the day darkens.

 

DAY 5: 22 September 2013, Um Ad Dami

 

 

Aqaba, and a hungry traveller

The sunrays gallantly shine into my room and wake me up from sleep. ‘Wadi Rum!’ is the first thought in my head as soon as I open my eyes. It’s the crux of my trip in Jordan and I am dedicating whole third of my time for this place.  ‘Breakfast!’ is the next thing that pops up in my head. My stomach has been hollow for so long and I think I can feel the entire casket of my body reverberate as it rumbles with hunger.

I get dressed with a speed of lightning and run downstairs that leads to the reception, then follow the arrow sign labelled ‘Kitchen’.  But the area leading from the reception is not the dining room, but a kitchen. Where do I go and eat? Just at this time of confusion comes out the Smiling Man from the kitchen and gestures me to sit on the sofa at the reception. Soon he brings out the Bedouin tea, some cheese and pitta bread stacked high on a small plate. That’s all I get for breakfast-  10 pieces of bread and cheese. I try to eat as much as I can crouching over the lounge table, but there’s only so much bread I can take.

Hotel Reception
Hotel Reception
Breakfast at Aqaba
Breakfast at Aqaba

At the check out, the Smiling Man asks me when I would be back in Aqaba. ‘I love you. I phone my friend, he give you free scuba diving. All for free. Stay here longer, please’. If Wadi Rum was not on my next itinerary, it would have been a tempting offer.

I only have an hour and half to look around Aqaba before catching a bus to Wadi Rum, so I decide not to venture out too far in case I get lost in the city. The locals are obviously used to tourists coming here for scuba diving at the Red Sea as there’s no obsessive staring I received elsewhere in Jordan. Only the taxi drivers who wish to strike up a business say a friendly good-morning, offering a bargain ride. I walk along the sea hoping to get a good look at the Red Sea, but a closer access to the beach is only reserved to those who are using the resort for diving. I walk further on in the squelching heat to get to an ancient ruin, only to find it’s nothing but a small pile of rubbles.

Red Sea...from afar

I get to the bus station an hour and half earlier than the departure time, as advised by the Bedouin camp manager at Wadi Rum. It is to ensure a seat as the bus gets full very quick. It is much cooler to be waiting outside, but I decide to stay put in the bus as I don’t want to lose my seat. The ‘excursion’ in Aqaba done and the mini bus to my destination found, now I can relax and have my lunch.

I open up the blue plastic bag that contains the food I had just bought. I have actually asked for a sandwich so it would be simpler and easier to eat but it turns out to be an open top kebab, and there is no plastic fork with it. The heat of the foil container on my lap makes me sweat even more, and the pungent smell of lamb fills up the air of the bus which is already getting crowded with people. But heck, I’m starving and I delve into the cooked meal that I had been deprived of since yesterday afternoon. I can live with my fingers smelling of meat and chillies.

Bus to Wadi Rum
Bus to Wadi Rum
Bus to Wadi Ru
Bus to Wadi Rum

The people in the bus must be Bedouins living in the desert visiting Aqaba for supplies. By the time the bus departs, every remaining floor is occupied with the box full of goods they are taking to Wadi Rum. All women and kids are sitting at the back, and the men at the front. The thick, carpet like curtain loosely hangs from all windows, shielding everyone from the fierce sunrays, but it’s not enough to cool down the hot air.

The journey remains sweaty, claustrophobic, and bumpy throughout. The view outside continues to be monotonous – plain sky, barren land, and sand dust.  The small child whines next to me, and I try to open the window for her and my sake but it remains obstinately closed.

Would I be able to get off where I am supposed to? Does the driver remember I am heading to Wadi Rum? In the tediousness of the bus ride surfaces up the petty worries of a solo traveller, but they soon sink back under carefree, come-what-may spirit. The bus continues on its long winding road, its tyres grating themselves against the rugged Jordanian terrain.

The sudden change in the landscape wakes me up from my half-sleep. Those majestic rock mountains grandly announcing the gateway of the Wadi Rum desert. I can no longer remember my disappointments in Aqaba nor the stale air of the bus, but my heart beats faster and faster at this long awaited sight. This is Wadi Rum.

On the road to the desert
On the road to the desert

Entrance of Wadi Rum Village
Entrance of Wadi Rum Village
Wadi Rum Village
Wadi Rum Village

DAY 5: 22 September 2013, Aqaba to Wadi Rum

 

 

The man with the moustache greets me in front of the hotel with his smile as broad as his arms wide open. ‘Welcome to Aqaba. Welcome, welcome’ – pronouncing ‘c’ like how the Spanish would pronounce a ‘c’, like all Arabs do here. He takes my luggage from the taxi and leads me into the hotel. It’s 2 am and all the lights are out in the building apart from the reception area. We are careful not to make a loud noise, but our whispers still echo against the stone walls, slicing the the cool early morning air.

‘Oh.. so beautiful, so beautiful’. He keeps repeating as he helps me check in and carries my luggage upstairs, smile never leaving his face. He opens the door for me and places the luggage on the floor. It is a small plain room, with thick furry colourful blankets being the most decorated furniture in the place.  In the middle of the room is a chunky, old fashioned TV on a stand with it’s legs at an angle that makes it look unstable. It takes up so much room that I need to twist my body sideways whenever I walk past it, so I don’t knock my arm on it’s protruding wooden panel. In the corner of the room is an equally clunky fridge. Despite the online advert promising a mini-bar, the fridge is totally empty.

The smiling man turns on the light in the bathroom – a clean modern one to my surprise – and shows me the switch that operates the electric shower. Then he goes towards the other end of the room and turns on the air conditioning on for me.  It’s been a long long day which includes getting lost in As-Salt and sitting in the bus to Aqaba on an empty stomach for 7 hours. My heart and soul desires nothing else but a hot shower and a bed to collapse onto.

But there he stands in the middle of the room, still beaming with a smile. ‘Oh I love you. The moment you got out of the taxi.. I saw you.. So beautiful. I love you’. My mind races at this unprecedented situation. Why is he just standing there? Is he waiting for an invitation? I quickly scan his posture and eyes for any sign of lusty expectation, but to my relief I find none. Just an innocent adoration. ‘Thank you’, I reply courteously and obligingly. Had I ever in my life responded so casually to an I-love-you.

As soon as he leaves the room, I rush into shower and savour every moment under hot water. Air condition is a little too cold to have it on during the night, but I cannot figure out how to turn it off completely. The off button I pressed has stopped it from pumping out cool air, but it carries on whirling. Never mind.

I drop onto the blue and orange blanket, its thick fur comforting and warm against my freshly washed skin. With the buzzing of the air condition reverberating in the room, I sleep ever so contently.

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The hotel promised me a mini-bar..

DAY 4: 21 September 2013, Hotel in Aqaba

 

 

 

Welcome to Aqaba

Luggage packed. Early dinner eaten. Bus timetable checked. I will be getting a coach at 5 pm and travel for 5 hours to get to Aqaba, the city at the southern end of Jordan popular for diving in the Red Sea. Arriving there at 10 pm would give me enough time to get my 8 hours of sleep at Aqaba, which means I can wake up early in the next morning for a quick tour of the city, and head to Wadi Rum desert at noon. I have already checked the location of the coach station in Aqaba, and have intentionally booked a hotel at a walking distance in case there are no taxis after 10 pm. It’s all been planned. It’s all been double, triple checked.

I reach the coach station and ask the man standing outside, ‘Aqaba?’ He nods and tells me it leaves at 6 pm. I go inside to get a ticket and ask the staff, ‘Aqaba? 6?’. He nods and gives me a ticket. I am not the only one having arrived too early for the bus. Two Arab girls in the early 20s, and a small boy about 9 years old are sitting a few seats away from me in the waiting room. They are giggling constantly throughout the whole two hours of waiting time. It is a tedious wait, sitting on a plastic seat with only a ticket booth and an analogue clock on the wall to stare at.

‘Aqaba?’ I ask once again when a coach finally arrives 10 minutes later than the scheduled time, and the man repeats another ‘yes’ with a hint of suppressed smile on his face. I realise ‘Aqaba?’ is the only word I’ve been uttering at this coach station, and I get on the coach feeling a little too silly. The giggling trio is already seated at the back of the bus, but as I sit myself down at the front row they immediately gather all their bags and change to the seats on the opposite side of mine. The closer proximity between us induces them into more uncontrollable fits of giggles, and I feel amused at that I’ve been the source their entertainment all along. Feeling completely nonchalant rather than irritated,  I offer them my lemon sherbet from England hoping to make friends. Our language barrier means we go no further than the exchange of names, but at least the I have passed over the stiff wall of being strangers and I feel more at liberty to stare back at them and satisfy my curiosity in who they are.

They told me they were siblings, but they do not look alike at all. The little boy has a doll-like round big eyes, but is too sleepy to be mischievous. Slouched across the two rows of seats he is mostly asleep throughout the long coach journey. The girl sitting on the window side doesn’t talk much but smiles shyly everytime I look at them. The taller girl, who is called Safa, has been giggling the loudest has an animated voice. Soft black material with brown leopard print at the hem is wrapped around her slim figure bringing out her fair skin more than any other colour would have. The way she makes sure her little brother is comfortable and takes care of all the affairs tells me that she is the eldest of the three. Her elegance in her demeanor and uninhibited youthful laughter, her motherly tenderness over her siblings and the dental bracelets she is wearing is combined together and bring out a peculiar charm about her. 

The allegedly 5 hour journey lasts for 7 hours all I’ve eaten for the day is some pitta bread with hummus for breakfast and a small portion of pasta for early supper. Feeling my energy draining, I scoff down the KitKat chocolate bar Dody from the hostel gave me and fall into sleep. When I wake up an hour or two later, Safa taps on my shoulder and gives me a handful of crisps. Thirty minutes later comes another tap, and she gives me a carton of juice. This goes on several times until all her snacks run out.

Travelling alone, I can do, eat, and go wherever and whatever without anyone’s wishes to adhere to. Coupled with this liberating independence, a child-like dependency is what I continuously experience. I often encounter situations that are part of Jordanians’ everyday lives but is foreign to me, and I am standing there alone like a fool until someone comes along for guidance. I am always slightly embarassed by my helplessness, but it also makes me much more grateful of all the kindness people shower me with.

I couldn’t be more glad when the bus finally reaches it’s final stop at 1 am. The passengers quickly disperse into the empty town and I get my map  out trying to locate my hotel which must be near by. I say I shall walk but Safa insists I get into the taxi with her. I try to gesture with my hands that I don’t have far to go, but Safa resolutely says ‘taxi’, so I get in. 

The famous resort city is eerily quiet. Warm humid breeze strokes my cheek as I gaze at the endless rows of palm trees. The song Everything I do, I  Do it For You is playing on the radio, and the voice of Brian Adams sounds huskier than I remember. Safa chats to the driver in her characteristic melodious voice. The drive is so much longer than I had expected and I realise what a terrible mistake it would have been if I had stubbornly insisted that I’d walk to the hotel thinking it’s only 5 minutes away. What could I have done in this empty city, without a faintest idea of my whereabouts and no-one around to help me? It’s a daunting thought.

The taxi finally stops in front of a tiny building, where a man with a moustache is waiting outside with a big broad smile. I already booked the hotel, so he must have been waiting for his last guest to turn up. It is so late into the night and I feel awful that he had to wait for so long. But there is not a trace of annoyance or irritation. He spreads his arms wide open and his eyes make a crescent shape. He comes down the steps and with an Arabic accent that I am now so familiar with, he warmly greets me saying, ‘Welcome to Aqaba’.

DAY 4: 21 September 2013, from Amman to Aqaba

‘Where the hell am I?’ Panic kicks in as soon as the bus from As-Salt drops me off at this unfamiliar place. I have asked for the North Bus Station but they tell me to get off here. “Tababour? (North Bus Station?)” I ask again helplessly but they point to the left and drive off. Presumably the bus station is towards the left, but I didn’t want to risk crossing the wide road and try to reach there on foot. How do I know  how far I would end up walking?

I get a taxi and ask for Tababour, and it turns out it’s only 3 minutes away from where I was originally dropped. So I  show the driver a piece of paper with my hostel  details, including it’s address in Arabic and a map. The hostel is near the Roman Amphitheatre which is one of the major tourist attractions in Amman, but surprisingly he isn’t the first driver who gives a puzzled look at the hostel’s whereabouts. After examining the map for sometime, he gets out his mobile phone and calls the hostel for directions.

On my journey back to hostel in the taxi I ask him how much the fare would be, with the knowledge that it should be around 3JD or below. “5 JD”, he says, and as I protest, he talks in Arabic and points to his phone. I insist on 3 JD but he’s adamant, and continues to point to his phone. I think he’s trying to charge me for the phone call he made earlier. “5 JD FOR A PHONE CALL!! I’m not paying that much! Drop me here and I’ll get another cab!” I quickly flare up and raise my voice. Apparently the fiery temper of Jordanians has already rubbed off on me. I’ve just surprised myself at this burst of uncharacteristic temper, but it is liberating to give an immediate external response to my feelings rather than suppressing it in my usual way.

The driver drives on, as if he hasn’t heard my shouts at all. It confuses me a little and makes me wonder if I had misunderstood him in any way. And I feel a little silly for getting fired up. When we reach the hostel, the meter on the taxi says the journey costs 4 JD. I hand him over a 5 JD note and hold out my palm for a change, but he pulls a ‘baby face’ with his lips pouting and holds up his index finger – ‘It’s only 1JD. Please let me keep it’, he seems to say. It is as if a child is pleading for one more piece of candy, and I get out of the taxi 1 JD poorer but laughing heartily.

DAY 4: 21 September 2013, On the way back from As-Salt

Tomb of Job, Joshua and Jethro

I am so, so proud of this small piece of paper that I prepared  before setting off to As-Salt. The name of the Biblical figures that are allegedly buried in the town are all written here in Arabic – the product of my pestering of the hostel manager and his of phone calls to find out the Arab-equivalent of the English names. It had been my sole means of communication/navigation in As-Salt where practically nobody could speak English.

I take out this carefully folded paper and show it to Auntie and her girls, and they grab passers-by and ask for me. They look and think for a while, and grab some other passers-by and show them the paper. This repeats for a while and soon a handful of men and women are hurdled together in a circle, heads bent down for a better view and fingers pointing towards the paper in the middle – the paper that is the  nucleus of their debates and exchange of ideas.

After 10 minutes or so, they spot a taxi and put me in the car.  I had imagined the tombs would be in the town, as obscurely located they may be  – but the taxi drives up and down a couple of hills and we are soon out of As-Salt. There was no way I could have found these places by myself let alone reach there – they are all at least 15 minutes away from each other by a car and most of them are kept in mosques hidden away from the general public.

Yes, they were in mosques. Not tombstones in a graveyard in an open field, but Muslim mosques. Apparently, Joshua and Jethro are considered as holy prophets in Islam, but I had not known that. I stand at the gate of the first  mosque we reach, blushing at my inappropriate attire revealing my bare arms and calf. Thankfully, the taxi driver fetches me two pieces of women’s garment from inside and gestures me to put them on. They are simple cotton with flower patterns all over,  with elastic band around its hem so that they can fit on the waist or  around the face.

I am entering a mosque for the first time in my life, wrapped around in these makeshift covers. The elastic band pulls the fabric and makes them puffy, and I feel like a decorated potato sack. Covering my entire body  immediately affects my posture, making me walk more discretely and quietly. It’s interesting how a simple covering can shift how I feel about myself and how I interact with the surroundings. Each tombs are a couple of metres long, covered with decorative cloaks. There’s always someone praying at the holy shrine, or a preacher teaching to a group of people.

On our way to each mosques, we talk with gestures. Simple words accompany the hand signs but they do not add much significance to our communication as neither of us hardly speak a word of each other’s language. Naturally, it takes on average of 10 minutes to understand the meaning of a single sentence.

Driver: Ayyub, Yusha, Shuayb – Muslim. (Job, Joshua, Jethro are Muslim prophets)

Me: You, Muslim. I, Christian.

The driver looks puzzled at the word ‘Christian’ so I try again. 

Me: (With the gesture of praying) You, Allah. Me, Jesus.

Driver: Messihi.

Me: Messihi?

Driver: Me, Muslim. You Messihi.

Messihi. I instantly like the word which I understand it to mean ‘a Christian’. Perhaps it derives from the word Messiah (meaning ‘saviour’) and ‘Messihi’ feels like a word that beautifully summarises what we Christians are: the follower of our saviour.

After we have seen the tomb of Joshua (he succeeded the role of Moses and led the Israelites to the Promised Land in the Bible), the driver lets me drink water in the mosque which seems to be the spring water from the ground. I smile broadly and take another refreshing sip, as the he gaily tells me that I am drinking the very water Joshua have drunk.

Tomb of Job
Shrine of Joshua
A little girl waiting for her mother's prayers to finish
A little girl waiting for her mother’s prayers to finish

After we have seen all the tombs on the paper, the driver takes me to another tomb and tells me it’s not a Muslim tomb but a Messihi one, of a prophet called ‘Hazeer’. The tomb was hidden under ground, not in a mosque – the most humble one out of all other’s I’ve seen so far and my favourite. I asked him to write down the name of the prophet so I could google it later, but I still couldn’t not find any information on this prophet. If anyone has any information, do please let me know.

Tomb of Hazeer
Tomb of Hazeer
(Top) Message from Noora (Bottom) Tomb of Hazeer
(Top) Message from Noora
(Bottom) Tomb of Hazeer

DAY 4: 21 September 2013, As-Salt

As-Salt: ‘Freedom for Syria’

“Salt: Salt never experienced the intense wave of modernisation that swept across the capital, and as a result has retained much of it’s historic charm”, says my beloved Lonely Planet guidebook.  It is also said to house a number of tombs and shrines of Biblical figures, which makes As-Salt even more irresistible.

A cozy, idyllic village with stoned pavements was what I had in mind for Salt, which was instantly shattered when I saw an overbearing hill packed with buildings.  I pick a street that seems to be the main road, hoping I would come across any of the tombs, or even better, a tourist centre to pinpoint where the shrines are. The town is surprisingly empty for it’s size and I only come across a handful of kids playing and a few men smoking cigarettes along the way. Before I know it I’m already climbing up the hill, and I am approached by a middle aged lady who holds my hands as if I am her long lost relative.

‘Salam alaikum!’ She exclaims and  I greet her back with equally matching enthusiasm followed by the usual perplexed smile all the way through her Arabics. ‘Shai?’ She eventually asks with a gesture of drinking tea, and I eagerly nod my head. I would love for an opportunity to see a real household of a Jordanian. Together we walk up the steep hill, through a narrow door that leads to an even steeper staircase. At the front door, her three daughters who seem to be in their 20s open the door, and three little kids peep through. It the very first time I’ve seen women without a headscarf.  They don’t seem at all startled at this sudden intrusion of a foreigner, and they lead me to a small balcony which overlooks a narrow street. The cool air from the stone floor immediately soothes my face and arms that has been grilled under the piercing sun the whole morning.

I am led to the balcony to sit, and Auntie (the lady pointed to herself and said what I think is the English word ‘Auntie’) sits opposite. After family introduction, we don’t know what else to say to each other so we simply smile. To cover up the awkwardness, I gesture the children to come to the balcony and start taking photographs. The children instantly hold up their fingers in a ‘V’ shape.

‘We were in Zaatari. We came here one month ago. Angelina Jolie came to Zaatari and took photo with our Farah”. They turn on their laptop and show me the picture – Jolie lifting up Farah, the youngest of the three children, surrounded by many onlookers.  At the mention of Zaatari I light up. I had considered visiting Zaatari on my trip, but abandoned the idea because going there as a tourist seemed somewhat inappropriate. ‘How did you get there? What’s living like? How long were you there for? How easy is it to get out of there?’ Questions after questions are eager to spill out from my mouth, but I see a flash of gloom pass over Aunties face at her daughter’s mention of the place. Perhaps it’s a place with awful memories. I decide not to ask anything. She goes on to tell me that there was a man who wanted to get married to her, but he had died in Syria. 

I think of my Syrian friend Dody back in the hostel in Amman, whom  I have already grown very fond of.  They all have this beautiful untainted smile as if to defy the struggles and heartaches they have known.

‘In Syria, ‘V’ means freedom’. Noora, the eldest of the girls explains as the children never fail to hold up their two fingers every time I click my camera shutter. It is only then I remember – the endless news footages  with all those people in Syria – men and women, young and old – all of them holding out a ‘V’ to the video camera as their country is torn apart. I begin to understand the depth of their yearning in the two tiny fingers held up by a girl who is too young to understand the plight of her homeland.

Noora takes over my camera to take a picture of me and Farah together. I wrap my arm around her little waist, and on my hand glistens a ring that Noora had given me earlier. Farah and I hold our fingers up together in a ‘V’. The gesture is no longer an automatic camera-reflex of an East Asian, but a poignant reminder of my beautiful friends’ pains and a token of hope.

‘V’ is for Freedom. For Auntie, for Noora, for Farah, for Dody.

I whisper silently, Freedom for Syria.

DAY 4: 21 September 2013, As-Salt

View from the balcony

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Post script:

Dody’s story has been reported in The New Zealand Herald shortly after I returned from Jordan.

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=11135850

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