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Windsbird: Footprints around the world

Hong Kong edition

Crickets chirp and chirp – Burkina Faso, Day 2 (10 September 2014)

After a simple breakfast of bread and butter I sleep again. It’s like my body is trying to purge out the stress from the theft from yesterday. The entire day spent on trying to keep my spirits up, trying not to feel the disappointment, anger and frustration at my own stupidity of not being so careful. And now all those feelings grow heavier and start to sink on me. So I sleep.

I sleep till lunch, and even then I feel weary. I have no appetite for venturing out, meeting with people and trying out new food. Instead I sorely miss Dubai, where I have the familiarity of a friend and being able to speak English. Here, it’s either French or Moori, and I speak neither. I did try to come to grips with basic French a month before getting here, but I was bombarded with so much workload that I had time for nothing else.

The entire day is spent within the comforts of home, where I have the luxury of wifi and Korean speaking people. The entire day I try to come up with something, anything, to make this trip exciting without feeling I’ve lost out because I no longer have my euros. When family and friends have heard the news of the theft, some have suggested I come home early, to which I replied, “Hell, no way”. Why should my time in Africa be less fun just because I don’t have any money to spend? There’s only one person who tells me exactly what I am determined to do – that I can still have a great time regardless – and it makes me smile. He’s always been the one who just understood me, and here he is again, being the only one saying out loud what’s on my mind.

It’s already evening and I am still in my room. I open the window to see the sunset, glowing in bright orange. As the children outside play a game of chasing a goat,  the air is suddenly filled with laughter and the animal bleating. Then as a base note there’s a chant of ezan, the daily call to prayer from a mosque nearby. On a higher note, crickets chirp – as buisily as ever, as loud as they can. A seranade brought together by unlikely of performers.

It is over as soon as it started. The mosque goes back to its silence, and the children disperse one by one to their mothers. Only the crickets remain, chirping and chirping. The sun has set. Time for tomorrow.

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Chocolate Thief – Burkina Faso, Day 1 (9 September 2014)

I cannot find it. My 600 euros that I had hidden in my pink make-up pouch so people won’t know it’s actually a money pouch. Had I misplaced it?
My head frantically shifts through my memory. When was the last time I opened this bag? I check my first-aid kit pouch, electrical charger pouch, toiletry bag, telling myself think, think, think.

I call my friend in Dubai, and my friend picks up my call during a meeting with a customer. Panic already setting in, I can’t even explain the situation properly and abruptly ask, “Have I left any euros at your flat?” “No,” my friend says. “But I’ll have a look again”.

I open the front pocket of my luggage. There is an unopened, brand new dark chocolate bar my mum had put in for me. Only that the wrapper is now torn open and a bite has been taken off from it. A realisation. I go back to my pink pouch again and take out an empty envelope.  The significance is that it’s an envelope that used to contain the cash. I connect the dots. An intruder. A Thief.

This is how my first morning in Burkina Faso began. An airport staff (Qatar? Algiers? Burkina Faso?) breaking into my checked in luggage and then leaving his teeth mark on my favourite bar of chocolate as if to say,  hey, I’ve been here.

The local police says they can’t issue a report, and my travel insurance company says they won’t be able to issue me a compensation for this particular loss (so much for the Premier level insurance). None of the ATMS here will accept my master card and all I have is 90 euros in my pocket. There goes all my plans to travel around the country, and here I am, stranded in this foreign land of Burkina Faso.

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9 September 2014, Burkina Faso

Here, in West Africa – Burkina Faso, Day 0.5 (8 September 2014)

I quit my job as a TV news producer. I chose Burkina Faso as my next place of travel, a small West African country that most of my friends go, ‘Huh? Where?’ It didn’t take me long to decide this. Without even consulting my Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Experiences travel reference book, I just ran a few country names in my head and decided on Burkina. Just like that, after one minute of pondering.

Getting there is no easy task. I leave from Dubai after a week of visiting a friend, fly to Qatar, Algiers, then to Burkina Faso. Over 27 hours are spent on flying and waiting around in the airport. It is a plentiful time to amuse at my unusual travel itinary of 6 days of being driven around in a sleek Porsche sports car visiting  the world’s tallest/biggest/most luxurious places; and then to spending 10 days at one of the world’s poorest countries.

I get off the plane. The weather is much cooler than I had expected. Nothing like the humid heat of Dubai. It’s only 25 degrees here and the breeze is cool and pleasant. There is a whiff of earthy musky smell in the air and people. It’s the smell of Africa that I so love and had missed.

Many had asked me why I had chosen Burkina Faso, and I’d say, “Because I like Africa”. I give this over-simplistic answer because my real answer would be a bit too vague for many ears  and it does sound a bit too romantisised. In fact, I, myself, cannot exactly pin point out why I am here.

I always felt pulled towards Africa since I was a small child. Something about it makes my heart beat faster and my eyes brighten with a hawk like focus. When someone asks what my future life plan is, I answer, ‘ I want to live in Africa’. I don’t know why, and I have no detailed plans in what I would do. It’s all up in the air and I don’t even know how I would make it happen. It’s like squinting far far ahead through a thick layer of hazy atmosphere, trying to make sense of what it is that is laid on my path. I hear a faint drum beat from somewhere but cannot make out the source of it. I swish my hand around in a murky pond trying to catch the fish that I swear that had just swam by.

What IS this thing that keeps me calling? Tugging and pulling consistently and obsessively?

How else to better find out, than to get there and see what I find?

8 September 2014, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

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

“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

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