Stepping Into a Dream: The Wonders of Petra (Jordan)

A smiling Bedouin approached me and said, “Here.  Please take my card.   It has my website on it.   I am here if you have any questions at all.”   Impeccable english.   Within seconds, I was blown away by the archaeological treasures before me and now, this interesting chap.  I looked over to his camel and visualized riding off over the sand dunes never to be captured by the modern world again.

We’d been tipped off by the locals to get here as the gates opened if we desired a tranquil experience.   The Red Sea was not far away and swarms of air conditioned, modern tour busses would soon load their pink-skinned cargo straight off of their plush cruise liners and they’d be upon us like locusts!   Best to make haste slowly.  No time to waste!

The drive from Amman was itself an interesting trek across the Jordanian desert.   Before the sun rises, then as it peeks above the horizon, the magical lights bring the quiet sands to life.   Our driver asked what radio station we’d like and as we always do, we replied that we’d be very happy with his local station.   Why on earth would we want to listen to something “western” when we are here?  Please.

As we approached, descending to the site, our spirits soared.   We could see the almost empty parking lot and my wife and I were glad that we’d risen at four in the morning to be the first ones here.   Sweet tranquility.

So much to take in, so little time.   Grateful, however, that at least we had this chance.

The walk from the exposed desert and immediately into the narrow gorge was wonderful.  Looking up, all I could see was a strip of blue sky.  It reminded me of an earlier adventure in southern Utah when I had waded up a chilly creek in Zion National Park (the Narrows).  Shortly into the gorge, the wall carvings began to appear, some sadly worn at about the four to five foot height due to careless tourists touching them.  Same damage as I had noted while in the ancient stacked pyramids in Egypt years prior.

If only we could select the humans that would respect these magnificent places…

Once through the gorge, the famous Treasury Building came into view and to my astonishment, about 300 other structures as well, all carved into the beautiful, red sandstone; a stone so curious with all of its various, curved striations.

So deep into the canyons were we that the sun only began to strike us as we hiked up the steep paths to the upper plateaus.

I could write an entire book on this morning’s experience, but this entry shall have to serve as a tease and an invitation for you who read it to go visit this wonderful site.

By the later morning, as we made haste to leave before the masses arrived, we found we were too late!   Nooooooo… a primal “geschrei” arose within us!    Through the narrow gorge, they all came streaming out, each grouping led by an underpaid tour guide with colored umbrella.   Within seconds, we were overrun and the once quiet place was abuzz with rude tourists bouncing off of each other each in desperation for the much needed photo.

I could barely breathe as my wife and I waded upstream through the gorge and to our amused driver waiting at the edge of chaos.

Well…, it was a magnificent experience, one that I would highly recommend.   If I had the Bedouin’s business card, I would surely post his contact information for you so that he might guide you for a quiet and contemplative experience of your own.

Erasing History – The Yom Kippur War

When you are a 15-year-old kid (1975) and desperate to record your ‘fine’ rock and roll music, you hunt through your dad’s stuff, find a cassette tape (remember those?) and of course, tape over the existing recording…   except that, what was on that tape was far more interesting than the horrid, out-of-tune rendition of Honky Tonk Woman that followed.

34 years later, as my driver followed the Jordan Valley Highway south to drop me off for the tour of Jesus’ baptismal site, I thought back to that fateful day when I wiped out some interesting history on tape.

I wasn’t close to the old boy, but I can’t deny that he had a great go at life.   As a US diplomat stationed in Ankara (Turkey), he’d be called on to handle various assignments; one of which was to assist Henry Kissinger in his shuttle diplomacy during the early 1970s.  On one such assignment, during the Yom Kippur War, he found himself shuttling between Syria and Israel, the details of which I found in his journals and I’d rather not share.  But the tape he brought back of his time with the Israeli Army was surely fascinating.

While that conflict raged on, he found himself inside a mountain bunker with the US and Israeli military officers and NCOs while the Syrians were hurling artillery and vectoring closer to their hardened site.   And as the incoming barrage intensified, one could clearly hear the tenor of voices, the back and forth over the radio, and most of all the increasingly terrified voice of the civilians inside; my dad, included, though I could tell he was working hard to be brave.

I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the day my dad came into my room and asked, “have you seen my cassette?” and of course, seeing it on my desk, his heart sinking as he realized that I had taped over a good portion of his prized piece of history.  To his credit, he never lost his cool.  He just laughed, walked out, and closed the door behind him.

Cresting the rolling mountains overlooking the Dead Sea, passing Jordanian military check posts every few kilometers, I thought back to those earlier years and wondered what the old boy really did see in the desert so long ago.

My driver dropped me off under what looked like a crude, Bedouin tent with the deuce and a half parked next to it (military truck w/canvas top).   There were a few other tourists assembled and we all hopped into the back of the truck for our visit to The Jordan River Baptismal Site of Jesus Christ.   It was a fascinating walk to the famous river, the Israeli flag snapping in the wind across the way under the unrelenting high sun.   Surreal, in a way.

Sitting on a rock by the site, random thoughts coursed through my mind that afternoon.   If only my devoutly Catholic grandmother and great-grandmother could have joined me on this pilgrimage; though, I swore I felt their presence…

Bridging Cultural Barriers with Art in Amman, Jordan

In an age of mistrust, one largely fueled by a broad spectrum of news media with agendas to fill, I find myself on a mission to diffuse that.   We can choose to be willing participants a la George Orwell (1984), or we can turn off those vexing screens and go out into our world and work to counter these insidious effects.   One way that I have found works well is through art and creative expression.

Jordan is a real jewel.   If you break from the tourist busses and go solo, the locals you encounter along the way will almost always take the time to smile and share their treasured insights.   One such encounter happened while sketching the King Hussein Mosque one spring day as I sat under an old olive tree.

An unexpected tap on my shoulder and I turned around to see a smiling young boy and girl, no older than three or four.   Wearing sandals and white robes (thawbs), these two looked like little angels, their jet-black hair framing their friendly faces.  And as I turned to look for their parents, there they were also smiling but a bit more reserved.   The father approached, arms behind him, and began to speak to me in impeccable English;

“You are enjoying your moment, yes?”

“Yes, thank you, I am.” as I stood out of respect to chat with him.   “I am studying architecture and I am trying to sketch this grand mosque.   I hope that is ok to do.”

An almost imperceptible grin came over this impressive man, “Of course it is.   I hope that my children have not disturbed you.”

“No, no.  Not at all.   What a glorious day it is.”  And though the exchange was brief, it was typical of the way that I go about my travels abroad and in the US.   People know when there is a threat and when there is not.   I’ve worked hard to present myself in a respectful way.  Why do otherwise?

Hundreds, if not thousands, were walking up the hill on their way into service and soon I would have the gardens all to myself.   Conscious that I was a Westerner in this sacred area, I was careful to keep my distance and low profile.   So much of this region was in turmoil, that I knew I was a bit vulnerable, but I also appreciated that this may be the only time that I would be in Amman and so I kept sketching the intricate structure.

It was probably an hour when the main doors opened again and the worshippers came back out; it was a sea of people walking towards me as I tried to make my way back to my driver on the other side of the complex.   I kept my head down, again, consciously aware of my foreign presence when suddenly I hear,

“Mister!   Hello, mister!” and I turned to see the tall, slender man with the impressive beard smiling at me as he and his entire family approached.

I must have been a bit surprised and now quickly, a bit embarrassed hoping that they’d not ask to see my sad looking sketch, but too late.

“Please.   You have finished your drawing.  May we see?”, the little ones were particularly eager.   Dread filled me because this really was not one of my better works, but I relented.

“Of course you may, but I must warn you, it is not very good.”

They all smiled, some probably spoke no English, and I have learned that the gentle and kind expressions have a way of speaking a language of their own.   I kneeled down, placed my backpack on the ground and opened my worn, leather journal to my mediocre sketch when I looked at the two children whose faces were now grinning ear to ear.  To them, I suppose it was a masterpiece.

The masses were moving around us, some looking down at what was going on at knee level when I carefully tore the two pages out of my journal and handed this to the children.  I placed my hand on their shoulders and told them it was a gift.

The father looked genuinely touched as did the other adults and I shook the man’s hand as we bade each other a farewell.

“Inch Allah”  (God Willing)… a beautiful saying

“إن شاء الله”, I responded, as we parted ways.

With God’s will, perhaps those sad, looking sketches will endure as a sort of cultural embrace in a world seemingly gone mad…

[Multimedia, public domain image, filtered through Prisma for artistic expression]