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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

 

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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

 

 

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