The tires of the pickup whined as they hugged each turn. It was difficult to look at the young driver, head wrapped with a keffiyeh, making two cell calls simultaneously in a language I didn’t understand. I felt the back of the pickup floating as small waves in the road sent it slightly into the air. At one point the speedometer read 165 KPH; I turned away quickly. Everything about the situation was improbable and If I had nine lives when I was born, I had probably already used up five in my life…no use worrying about it, might as well chalk this one up as six. It’s been a good journey.
Two days earlier I set off as a volunteer photographer with the Badia Fund, a development organization in Jordan that Jaala, works for. Abdullah would be my driver. I realized quickly that he spoke about ten words of English, just about the same number of words that I knew in Arabic. Using hand and arm signals along with stick figure drawings I thought I understood that we would “take some photos four days from now.” So, I packed my camera gear and two liters of water and left with Abdullah racing towards the Israeli border from Amman at top speed.
We stopped at one of many checkpoints and the police looked at my tripod case suspiciously. After a heated discussion between Abdullah and the police, I removed the tripod for inspection. Later Abdullah used his hands to make a gun and laughed, then shrugged his shoulders as we headed to the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth.
On this trip, I was also asked by the fund director to teach Abdullah how to take photographs, which ended up being pointless. After some attempts to show him the basics, he repeated his normal routine of driving up and parking on top of the photo destination saying, “…photo, photo!” Then he would shout, “yaala” or “let’s go!”
Heading south, the paved roads ended and dirt roads eventually gave way to a river bed in a massive valley. At that point we were in the middle of nowhere. I was a little confused about exactly what we were doing, but Abdullah insisted on waiting. Sitting around, I saw a robed man walking to the truck from out in the distance. At this point we acquired a friend Mussa and continued to drive further and further from civilization.
Soon we saw our first Bedouins of the day. The tents were ragged and some carpets were strewn on the ground as beds. Livestock grazed as the women rushed inside the tent so they wouldn’t be seen. Mussa and Abdullah talked with the family elder and he invited us in for Arabic coffee. This first Bedouin we met was truly happy in life and full of joy. He smiled often, gave us everything he had and asked for nothing in return. I’ve heard about Jordanian hospitality, and as I would learn throughout the rest of the trip, it’s truly legendary. After the family thanked America for all of the help fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, we moved on.
Later that day Mussa would take us to visit many Bedouins, see camels, chase snake trails in the sand and visit ancient biblical sites off the beaten path. It was a great day and as the sun began to set I was ready to head home with a camera full of photos.
Thinking the trip was almost over, I felt nostalgic. There’s something about places in the world where you don’t need to lock your doors, everyone waves to oncoming drivers, and people help out strangers without asking for anything in return. These places are becoming few and far between and every time I stumble across one in my travels, I smile and think of Montana, New Zealand, or other gems in the rough.
“Abdullah… arooha Amman?” (Are we going to Amman?)
“Naam naam,” (yes, yes) says Abdullah, but I can tell we are going south instead of east to the main highway.
Another hour off-road took us through the black night to what looked like 50 abandoned cottages. Abdullah went in with a key and turned the lights on. We were definitely not in Amman; this was where we were spending the night.
“Abdullah… bus hon al yoom?” (Are we stopping here today?)
“Wa bukrah? When bukrah?” (And tomorrow? Where tomorrow?)
“Janub Jordania, Bedouin, wa Wadi Rum” (Southern Jordan, Bedouins, and Wadi Rum)
As I thought about this for a minute, I realized when I interpreted Abdullah as saying, “Let’s take photos four days from now,” what he really meant was, “let’s take photos for four days!” I could only laugh about it as I kicked my feet up on the bed. Abdullah had been a good guide so far, and I wondered what tomorrow would bring.
I woke up the next morning before the sun rose and was greeted by mountainous terrain. Abdullah and I headed up a hill to take photos of an old Roman fortress.
The day continued as we picked up random locals in strange locations far from civilization. We saw wild Arabian Ibex and Oryx, sandstone arches, and ancient dwellings. After sunset in Wadi Rum we ate dinner and watched traditional “dubka” dancing. During the dance, the men pretty much just lock arms and bounce around in unison. Some of the locals joined in and Abdullah did as well. Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t blessed with a rhythm gene and he bounced around wildly with a goofy smile on his face more or less breaking the rhythm of the others, but having a great time doing it.
The next morning I was awoken by an early morning cat fight that echoed deep off the massive sandstone walls. Wild dogs seemed to be cheering for the cats and I envisioned it as a scene from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”
“Abdullah… When al yoom?” (Abdullah, Where today?)
“Jimal wa deer” (Camels and deer (he meant Ibex))
Surprisingly, instead of just seeing a few camels in the desert, we were going to a locals’ only camel race!
We arrived as people were still riding their camels from distant locations to the start point. Abdullah was getting a little frantic and urged me to move quickly. Just as I jumped in the back of the pickup truck, the race began with truck horns, yelling, and mad trampling of hooves. We raced in our truck next to the lead camels on the inside of the track, while all of the camel owners drove on the outside of the track cheering for their animals. It was chaotic, intense and goofy all at the same time. Camel legs are so long that when they sprint it looks like a bunch of drunk giraffes attempting to race. Everything ended with gunshots in the air, and we were off for the next adventure.
We picked up yet another local. This time it was the very young, keffiyeh-clad one from the beginning of this story who could handle two cell phones while driving at Dakar rally pace, off established trails through the desert. He knew every inch of the land from years of exploring as a boy and took us to ancient dwellings and meetings with more local Bedouins.
As the day wound down we made our way north towards Amman. We stopped in Ma’an to see a “castle” which instead turned into a meeting with the provincial governor. Many people in business suits and sheiks in tailored robes stopped what they were doing when we walked in the room because somehow our dirty grimy duo was a big deal. After the fast and furious meeting the governor opened the gates to a castle closed to the public, then we drove down the road to another locked fence. The groundskeeper talked (yelled) with Abdullah and then Abdullah turned back to me with a goofy grin and the fence opened up to let us in.
In the next moment, we found ourselves at King Abdullah I’s palace wandering around the well-kept grounds with free-reign.
Finally, after a trip to a local Bedouin market, we drove back to Amman.
Sometimes the best adventures are the improbable ones, without a rigid plan, taking things as they come and letting go of control. I can’t wait for the next Jordanian adventure when I’ll have Jaala with me, then everything will be right in the world.