Most people spend the Christmas holidays with their families, eating turkey, drinking egg nog, revisiting old memories and making new ones. This year, on New Year’s Day, my partner Jaime and I found ourselves in Aqaba, Jordan, having just crossed the Red Sea from Nuweiba, Egypt by ferry the day before. Our cab driver picked us up in Aqaba to take us to a Bedouin camp in the Wadi Rum Desert, that big open space on the map you see at the bottom of Jordan. “Big open space” was the sum total of what we knew about where we were heading, other than my aunt telling us that the Wadi Rum is where they shot the famous film, “Lawrence of Arabia,” and where they say that T. E. Lawrence hid in the desert before his siege of Aqaba during the Arab Revolt.
The cab driver pressed the accelerator down to the floor, shuttling his human cargo as quickly as he could. Red desert, stark mountains, and the occasional camel flew past. We stopped only for military checkpoints supervised by solemn men in military garb, large automatic guns slung nonchalantly on their hips. We drove in silence. Not knowing where we were going, I questioned again our decision not to wear headscarves. The night before we saw women socializing in the streets of Aqaba, a welcome change after our week in Egypt, where we saw few women out in public. Still, the women in Aqaba all wore headscarves. I thought back to a previous visit to Cairo, when we walked up to an Egyptian friend that we adore, slightly uncertain of the silk headscarves that we’d tied on with varying degrees of success. We knew we were faking it, but didn’t know what else to do. Our friend smiled and asked, “Are you Muslim?” Long silence. “Then you don’t need to wear them.” We haven’t worn headscarves since.
We pulled up to the Wadi Rum Visitor Centre where our guide Mahmoud* waited to greet us. Mahmoud was young, charming, and looked more than a little bit Hollywood, sporting expensive Ray-Bans along with the traditional red and white-checked Jordanian headdress and robes. Soon he had us in the back of his jeep hurtling toward camp down desert “roads,” which were actually paths in the sand carved out by other cars earlier in the day.
Camp was four tents pitched in the middle of the desert. Mahmoud and his cousin Abdul were the only people around.
After drinking Bedouin tea, we were off on the back of a pickup truck flying across the red rock desert, like I imagine the surface of Mars must look, without the deadly chemicals. We ran up a hill made of red sand and climbed to the top of different rock formations, including a huge natural archway. We had lunch by a fire in our own private canyon, then watched the brilliant sun plunge into the desert sand, painting the sky with brilliant pinks and golds as it said goodnight.
We pulled back into camp expecting to see the six other guests supposedly spending the night, but it was still just us. We settled in by the fire, mesmerized by its light, and relaxed while sipping Bedouin tea. After some time passed, Mahmoud asked, “You ready for dinner? Come and see.” We trundled out into the cold and watched several men dig a large, steaming oven out of the earth, where our chicken dinner had been cooking in the dirt for hours. Turns out, chicken cooked underground, along with fresh cucumber and yogurt and rice, is simply delicious.
Two other visitors arrived, a young couple from Mexico, bringing along with them their guide, who I will somewhat affectionately refer to as Scary Uncle. We really enjoyed our time with Mahmoud and his cousin, but weren’t quite as sure what to make of Scary Uncle. He didn’t help his cause when during dinner, with no prompting, he informed us, “Man is number 1.” “What?” “I’m number 1, my wife is number 2.” Jaime responded, “I’m glad I’m not married to you.” Ho, ho, ho…. I’m pretty sure he didn’t understand her, but it only made me love her more. Scary Uncle then started communicating with us by crossing his eyes and making funny faces, like an Arab Larry or Mo who wandered off the set of a “Three Stooges” episode. I became totally transfixed by my chicken plate, the fire, and the top of the tent. But we laughed, what else can you do?
Later the hookah pipe came out. [Mom, stop reading here – the cat’s REALLY hungry. You should take care of him, seriously, he’s starving. And the story is boring from here on out anyway.] It must have been the hookah, because when Scary Uncle said, “Come outside, let me show you the stars,” the only rational reaction should have been, “Oh, nooooo…. nope, thanks, we’re nice and comfy here by the fire.” Instead, thinking that others were joining us, Jaime and I moved toward the door and went outside. We suddenly found ourselves alone with Scary Uncle out under the desert sky. He moved off into the darkness and told us to follow him. I reminded myself that one of the visitors at the camp happened to be from the U.S. Embassy and decided that the group back at the fire could definitely hear us scream. We heard noises in front of us in the darkness, large objects being thrown onto the ground. “Body bags,” I whispered, while we laughed. Turns out that Scary Uncle wasn’t so scary after all, as he set up a nice little mattress on the ground for us, wrapped us in blankets, then jumped in his pickup truck and drove off into the night. We watched his truck bump and hurtle over the sand, the headlights growing smaller and then disappearing into the darkness.
For two city girls, the silence of the desert was overwhelming. We stopped laughing long enough to breathe in the stillness. The silence had substance, weight. It felt heavy, like the several thick woolen blankets that had just been cast onto our shoulders. The night sky was scattered with the gold dust of thousands of stars. We leaned into each other, feeling our warmth against the bitter cold air, and welcomed in the New Year.
* Some names changed to protect privacy.