Saturday, 16 April 2016

Finding my inner mountain goat!




I'd arrived in Petra after two nights of no sleep - one on a flight from the UK and another in a freezing cold seedy hostel in old Amman - and a five and a half hour bus journey, two hours of which were spent standing on the side of the Kings Highway waiting for a replacement bus after the driver broke the suspension by driving through one of the many giant potholes while he was distracted by chatting to the accompanying police officer.

The guys at the Seven Wonders Bedouin camp had arranged to meet me from the bus and collect my bags and leave me to go in to the Petra site for a few hours.  But my utter exhaustion and sickness got the better of me and I was in no fit state for anything except heading to my tent for some rest.  Hashem, a charming young bedu drove me around the twisting roads of the Wadi Musa valley, through the town of Umm Sayhoun - (built in the 1980s to accommodate the bedouin who were forcibly evicted from the Nabataean caves which they'd inhabited for hundreds of years, after UNESCO declared Petra a world heritage site), and on towards the camp.

We passed handsome young men on horseback, trotting through the town, children playing in the middle of the road, elderly bedouin pulling carts, and mules and dogs roaming about.  As we drove higher up the side of the valley, we passed a little donkey curled up asleep on the side of the road!  The scenery was breathtaking and although lacking in much vegetation was no less spectacular for it... like a bubbling cauldron of caramel, an endless valley of sandstone outcrops and their shifting shadows stretched before me.

The google map had positioned the camp within walking distance of Petra but as Id been in the truck for 20 minutes already, I soon realised this wasn't accurate so I wouldn't be visiting Petra today, even after a rest.  But I was in no mood to rush or care - I already felt a million miles away from the stresses of my life and that in itself was enough for now.

When we finally reached the camp, and I was shown to my tent, I was very quickly in heaven.  This was exactly what I needed.  Peace, solitude, natural surroundings, fresh air and a comfy bed..... I decided to lay my exhausted body down for a while before going anywhere or doing anything.  Sami bought me some towels and a sage tea ...a traditional bedouin remedy for my sickness, and then let me be.  I lay there listening to the buzzing of insects on the other side of the canvas and the distant shouts of the guys between each other as they busied themselves preparing the camp for more arrivals that evening.  I let the sounds wash around me until they faded and I slipped into a delicious and desperately needed snooze.

I had nodded off for about an hour when I woke up feeling warm... it was quite hot inside my tent so, feeling much better, I decided to get out and explore.  Sami had told me that Little Petra was walking distance - and easy to find.  I set off with just a little water.  I hadn't wanted to eat anything since the day before and my appetite was yet to recover.

Walking up the dirt road towards the highway, I was headed off by Xamsa.  He was incredibly handsome and reminded me so much of my dear Yemeni prince, Yazid.  He was young - probably early 20s, tall, slim, strong, with long black wavy hair tucked under his black kefiiya (headscarf).  He had bold facial features... huge dark brown eyes, a strong straight nose and full lips.

He wasn't a bedouin, he proudly announced.    He was a city boy from Amman.  Its funny how the guys try to distinguish themselves from each other .....although they appear like brothers with each other, they don't hesitate to talk bad about each other when competing for the interest of a woman!!  I took the chance to practice my arabic and we walked and talked for maybe 10 minutes until I got to the highway and Xamsa returned to tend to his camp duties.

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I continued along the side of the highway when suddenly behind me, I hear the gallop of hooves... I turn to see two young bedouin on a couple of mules.  When they saw me, they slowed and gave me  a big smile and a wave and a "hi how are you?"..... "Mahrbar!" I shouted (Hello in Arabic).  I loved this place - I loved the craziness, the feeling of freedom and the warmth and friendliness of the people Id experienced so far.  I was already feeling attached..... a sort of love at first sight but for a place, rather than an individual.

Continuing on, I eventually found the entrance to Little Petra.  Id been warned by a few people to be careful of the attentions of the Ammarin tribe inside Little Petra.  So I was ready to say... "no thank you, I want to walk alone" to anyone who tried to 'guide' me.  Then Awad appeared.

"Hi, welcome to Little Petra... known as Siq Al-Barid" (cold canyon in Arabic)..... "Id be happy to show you around and tell you about the history"... No its OK, thanks - Id rather walk alone... "don't worry, I won't ask you for payment.  Id be happy to just spend time with you... that would be payment enough."  Yaahhh suuurrre !  But you know what?  I was too tired to fight and he was already walking beside me, so what the heck. Fortunately, Awad wasn't my type and didn't remind me of anyone but he was amiable and funny and clearly didn't know that much about Little Petra which I found hilarious.

The good thing about Little Petra is..... actually there are a few good things...

  1. There is no entry fee
  2. There were no other tourists... AT ALL!!
  3. You can totally explore, including climbing into the caves and temples and seeing the structures right up close
  4. Its small enough to see in a day
So we entered the main Little Petra site and Awad said..... "come on, we'll go up there!"  errrrrr What?  How exactly?  He was looking at the large temple carved into the sandstone rock face.  It was a good 30 feet to climb up a vertical rock face so I thought he was joking.... he wasn't.  He climbed up ahead of me, barefoot, heaving me up each next section.  
Little did I know, this was the taste of things to come!  Once up, it was worth it.  I was inside what would have been the temple - it was an incredible feet of engineering, given it had been built in the first century.   Little Petra was a suburb of Petra, the Nabataean capital and it would have hosted visiting traders on their travels.

After a quick look around, we climbed back down - which was worse than the climb up!!  I was surprised at the energy I had, given my earlier sickness and exhaustion.  But Awad had a lot more in store!!  Around the corner were more rock carved buildings - one, apparently the dining and entertainment area for all those visiting little Petra.... again another climb and another which contained the so called 'Painted House' where Awad showed me an ornate painted ceiling of vines and birds which had survived centuries of bedouin camp fires, graffiti and dust storms.

I was also able to see, up close, the system of cisterns that the Nabataeans used to collect rain water and store it for dry times.... an incredible system of channels, tunnels and rock cut tanks which were plastered to seal them to stop the water being absorbed into the porous sandstone.


After taking some time to explore all these caves, temples, tombs and houses, we headed up through a narrow canyon with natural rock steps, up towards Awad's shop, which of course for him was the entire aim of the exercise.... for me to spend some money in his shop.  

But once there, he put the kettle on and we sat in the shade and drank tea and relaxed for a while.  He showed me one of the bedouin scarves - which I told him I had a whole wardrobe of at home and didn't have space in my suitcase for another!  

But anyway, I impressed him by tying it myself.... and then he said, well, we're only half way to the top!!  Top of what? I asked.  "Top of the mountains....".... "it will be the most incredible view if you have the time.... you can make it" he said with a glint in his eye....

I wasn't quite sure whether he was joking and I had no idea how far it was, how high it was or how dangerous!  Lets face it, Im not a 20 year old gazelle by any stretch of ones imagination, but I had started to discover my inner mountain goat!!  I sipped my tea and contemplated whether to risk it..... I would be trusting a man Id only just met with my life.    

.... to be continued!!