Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sunday, May 10, 2015 - No comments

Journey to Jordan #8: (Making a) Living in Petra

When I pictured “spending a day amongst the Bedouin” in the ancient city of Petra, hanging out with the Pirates of the Caribbean wasn’t what I had in mind.  But from the moment we entered the Siq - the narrow passageway that winds its way for just over a kilometre before opening into the ancient city - we were surrounded by Jack Sparrow lookalikes.  Black kohl smeared under their eyes and wild curly hair tamed under a bandana or a traditional keffiyeh made it easy to picture them listing crazily at the bow of a great ship.  

Many of the local Bedouins make their living as tour guides and “chauffeurs” for the tourists who come to explore the red rose city where most of them grew up.  Our first encounter with these colourful characters came as they careened their way through the gorge with the thunder of horse-hooves echoing against the high rock walls, dragging tourists clinging desperately to carriage rails in their wake.  Having successfully avoided a crushing death-by-pirate-mobile (and dodged the abundance of selfie-pods and Korean tour guides wielding large flags) we were rewarded with a golden view of al-Kazneh (The Treasury) as we rounded the last bend in the Siq’s striped stone walls.  

The area, surrounded by high rock on all sides, was crowded with other tourists taking photos, carpet-backed camels who seemed happy to pose for said photos, and tanned Bedouin children shouting, “Happy hour!  Ten postcards, one dinar!”   As we took turns posing for the obligatory “I was here” shots in front of the grand stone edifice, a guy in camouflage pants, a navy blue Ralph Lauren Polo sweatshirt and a white bandana approached us, leading a grey donkey by a rope.  

“You want I take photo of you together?”

We smiled and he clicked, and then he informed us (nonchalantly, in a practiced non-pressuring voice) that he’d be happy to give us a ride up the 800 plus steps to the Monastery if we wanted.   

“Much easier for donkey than for you,” he smiled, gold caps shining in the sun.  “If you can’t find me, ask anyone for Feraz.  They find me.”

As it turned out, Feraz was rarely out of our sight.  Or, rather, we were rarely out of his.  As we strolled the Street of Facades, poked our heads into royal Nabataen tombs and took in the grandeur of the Roman amphitheatre, we never went more than five minutes without him appearing on his donkey, nodding as he trotted by.  No one was going to steal his customers, that was for sure!  Occasionally, other men and their camels would sidle up to us, the animal’s smile revealing a checkered dental past, the owner calling out, “Taxi, Madam?  Air-conditioned!”  We decided that, rather than spending our time shopping around, we’d stick with the devil we knew.  When we were ready to make the trek up to the Monastery, Feraz got us saddled up on a horse and a donkey and off we went.

“The donkey knows the way,” he called out as my mount trotted on ahead of where he was walking my roommate’s horse.  “Don’t worry!”

And as if to reinforce the message, the dreadlocked owner of the donkey whose bottom I followed along the millenium-worn colonnaded Roman road turned on his transistor radio and bopped in time with Bob Marley.  “Don’t worry about a thing,”  he belted out, accompanied by the clip-clop of hooves.  “Every little thing gonna be alright.....”

A few minutes later, when we’d settled into the sway and swagger of our beasts of burden, Feraz pointed to a hillside sloping up away from the Roman temple we were passing.   

“See that cave, there?  I was born there.”  We had read that many of the Bedouin currently running the tourist show had lived inside of Petra until the government built them a “new village” nearby, so I was inclined to believe him. 

“How long have you been working here?” my roommate asked.  

“I start when I am seven,” he answered.  “Like these kids.”  He nodded at a pair of boys racing their donkeys up ahead, eliciting a flurry of shutter-clicks as they paraded in front of a group of Asian tourists.  “I learn from the older boys.  And now I teach these boys.

I was grateful for my little grey donkey as we made the steep climb up the narrow path.  He indeed knew the way, and moved with surefooted familiarity up the steps carved out of the mountainside.  (Other donkeys, apparently, weren’t so trusty.  For example, the one sporting the Aussie who flew by us yelling, “Look out!  Out of control donkey!!”)  My roommate’s horse, a natural tour guide, it would seem, was intent on giving her an up close and personal view of the grain of the stone in the rock wall, often at the expense of her right leg.  Feraz, himself on foot, appeared to be no less winded than his animals, though his dark sweatshirt didn’t seem to be doing much to prevent the beads of perspiration collecting on his forehead.

“It’s okay,” he said when we reached the top, patting his horse with a metallic smile.  “I take taxi down.”

I don’t know if the donkey would agree, but I thought the Monastery was well worth the trek.  Not only did the monks back in the day do a spectacular job of finding an “ends of the earth” sort of a place where they could worship in peace with an incredible view, but they (or whomever they hired) carved a real masterpiece out of that rock face.  I was in awe of how they managed to produce perfectly round, evenly spaced pillars without the use of modern tools, especially when, like the Treasury, the components were not so much “assembled” as “called out from the stone.”  Amazing.

We scrambled up yet another hillside (Where was that donkey when I needed him?) to admire the Monastery from a higher vantage point and I laughed when I saw that the lookout was populated by Inukshuks.  Either the monks were the ancient ancestors of the Inuit or some other Canadians had left their “I was here” marks in recent days.  I couldn’t resist grabbing a few stones and adding a little one of my own to the collection.

Turning our backs to the Monastery, we took in the  "well-advertised view" of the vast expanse of barren desert and windswept rock that is the Wadi Araba.  It’s no wonder the children of Israel needed a cloud and a pillar of fire to guide them - I’d be completely lost if I were set loose in the wide open emptiness and told to find my way home!

After fortifying ourselves with dried fruit and cookies from my backpack and Coke and Mr. Brown’s Iced Cappuccino from the mountaintop refreshment stand, we picked our way back down the steep trail, this time sans donkey.  I wanted to spend a bit more time exploring the Kings Tombs, but my roommate was done with climbing for the day, so I deposited her at a little cafe to people watch and then made my way up the trail to the western facing facades of the Urn, Palace and Corinthian Tombs.  Lonely Planet had informed us that the late afternoon sun would turn these grand edifices a blazing shade of pink.  Low cloud cover dulled the effect somewhat, but I was still dazzled enough to understand why the Nabataen kings would want to spend eternity on this particular hillside.

The crowds had thinned out considerably by this point in the day - at least to where not every photo was splattered with sun visors and unsightly fanny packs.  Several of the souvenir stands were sitting unmanned while clusters of Bedouin locals took tea breaks in the shade.  I spotted a couple of donkeys taking a break from Monastery Duty in the coolness of a cave.  As I approached the multistory Urn Tomb, three little girls clambered around on the ancient equivalent of a great stone jungle gym, either too distracted to offer to show me their uncle’s trinket stall or too young to know they ought to.  

In the distance, a long walk in the sun away from where I stood, I could make out what I thought, judging by my map, might be the Crusader Fortress.  Just above it, on a high ridge, sat a cluster of half-finished cement houses.  I wondered if that was where the “new village” for the Bedouin had been built - the one that replaced their caves with doorbells and indoor plumbing.  Were they grateful that the place where they lay their heads at night was free of ticket stubs and clicking cameras and Europeans trying to figure out how to tie their new checkered keffiyehs?  Or did they stare at those four concrete walls and long for their red rock home?

As I headed back down the hill, ready to call it a day and make the trek back up through the Siq towards dinner and a comfy bed, I turned around to admire the warming of the colours on the rock one more time.  Motion beside what otherwise looked like an abandoned souvenir stall caught my eye.  I squinted and recognized the camouflage pants kneeling, then rising, then kneeling again, the white bandana being pressed to the ground.  It was Feraz, tucked back in the shadow of a flapping tarp, doing his namaz.

I felt like I was intruding on a private moment, and yet I couldn’t help but watch.  Here was a man who spends his days charming weary hikers and shuttling them around in his “four-legged taxi” for a fee, and yet even his few solitary minutes with his Maker weren’t completely free from the eyes of a curious tourist like myself.  I watched as he stood a final time, cupped his hands and then brought them up to his face, sliding them slowly down his cheeks to receive the blessing of Allah.  He rolled up his prayer rug and tucked it under the trinket table beside him.  And then, straightening his bandana, he untied his grey donkey and made his way back down the hill to find his next fare.