Briefly we paused before the gold-leaf moons of Mycenean masks; before groups of figures petrified in some vast cataclysm of beasts and gods. That, I consider, is the best method for the traveler. Either you live with things, or else you give them only a fleeting glance… It is the detestable habit of belauding beauty to the skies, of magnifying myths, that makes them seem so remote from us. Jean Cocteau
Jordan was all about expectations and contrasts for me, not to mention romantic disillusionment, embarrassment and the beginning of understanding my ‘see it sideways’ policy. When I was on a short visit to Egypt, my dear friend Imogene suggested we go away with a friend of hers for a long weekend to Petra, Jordon. I had never heard of Petra but agreed. Then she described the route: driving across the Sinai Peninsula down to Taba at the top of the Red Sea, taking a taxi across the thin slice of Israel at Eilat to Aqaba, Jordan, then northwest again by taxi to Petra.
Aqaba! I would love to go see Aqaba! Forget the Sinai, the famous Taba Hilton, the Red Sea, Eilat, Petra and its Nabataeans. Aqaba! Aqaba! Aqaba! That scene from Lawrence of Arabia was set in my soul. What wouldn’t I give to see Aqaba? What glories would await me in Aqaba? I was beside myself, dancing around Imogene’s kitchen. Aqaba! Somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good because here I was, out of the blue, handed the chance to see that spot of perfection: Aqaba.
Could it have ended as anything except a crashing disappointment? If only I had read Proust before I had landed in Egypt. He understood the perils of expectation, but I can say that from the moment I learned we were going until the moment I actually saw Aqaba, my life had a rare sweetness and glamour.
Off we set, Imogene, me and her friend, Humphrey, in a Pajero. I should have known it wasn’t going to be a good trip given the fact that it wasn’t a Land Rover. We left Cairo on Wednesday at 4 pm with sandwiches and drove UNDER the Suez Canal (the ferry crossing is about 45 minutes away and lots of guys with very big guns near the tunnel so although I’ve been very close, I haven’t seen the canal) then through the Sinai which was fine; I never mind driving through a nice desert. Some sand dunes but mainly a flat, rock-strewn wasteland with occasional large rock outcroppings and piles of loose rocks – colors range from beige to wheat/ light brown/ oatmeal/ off-white/ toast/ manila/ etc.; you can drive for a long time and not feel you’re getting anywhere, especially if you’re listening to Traci Chapman and BBC reports about airport expansions (yuck and double yuck).
As Humphrey had previously confided in me that he could not understand his co-workers who complained when the elevator was broken and they had to tramp up 8 flights of stairs, I knew we were not bound to be soul mates but his taste in listening pleasure foretold that even a mutually respectful truce would be difficult for me to manage.
Lack of signs caused a few delays and Imogene’s driving saved us from certain death. She was a whiz at fast breaking on the incline down to Taba, preventing us from barreling onto the back of a jack-knifed truck carefully strewn across the road with no warning except a few large rocks the driver had carefully hauled into the middle of the pitch-black highway (oh that cute Egyptian psychosis of putting rocks in the road when a car breaks down). She also kept us on the washed-out road as we descended from the desert down to Taba
The Taba Hilton lived up to all expectations: big pool, three restaurants and lots of cute Egyptian guys walking around arranging tanning chairs and bringing you towels. For residents (like Imogene and Humphrey), all this hedonism was $15 a night.
To bed and up for buffet breakfast then walked to border with Israel – about 10 minutes away. We left Egypt (1/2 hour – 15 Egyptian pounds), entered Israel (45 minutes – free), took taxi to Jordanian border (20 minute wait, 20 minute drive – 25 shekels), left Israel (10 minutes – 45 shekels), got into Jordan (1/2 hour – 15 dinar). It was odd to see Lycra again while crossing Israel after all the well-bundled women in Cairo.
And then Aqaba. Sigh. I am sure it’s a nice town, a lovely town, a charming town, but about as romantic as a cement factory. The less said of my crashing dejection the better.
Into taxi to go to Petra (2 1/2 hours trying and failing to get police permit, sneaking around back way to avoid police, taxi driver talking police out of giving him a fine; 2 1/2 hours driving – 30 dinar). The drive was, at first, on winding roads through rocks (bigger than hills, smaller than mountains, no plants or animals, light brown to dark brown shadings) then climbing up to cool, fresh air and open rolling hills, if the scrub was a few shades greener and the sky a few shades bluer you would think of the Scottish highlands or maybe Ireland. Very pretty and restful after the dulling, dust haze of Taba/ Eilat/ Aqaba. We got a hotel room then walked down 1/2 click [kilometer] to ancient Petra; skirting the official entrance, we snuck through the back of the Petra Rest house (4 stars) and scampered up some rocks to watch the sunset. Dinner (humus, cucumbers, tomatoes, chicken, pita bread, jello) and reading.
Before we discuss my Day Of Infamy, a few notes on Petra – the best thing to do is go get a National Geographic article on it. I can’t do a good description and I’m sure at some point they’ve sent in a team. It’s the site of an ancient city built by the Nabataeans who appear on the scene about 4th century BC, got conquered by the Romans in 106 AD and disappeared from the screen in the 1200s, the city was re-discovered for Western Europe in the early 1800s. The Nabataeans lived in caves (carved 4-square) in a valley in the middle of Jordan (check your map); the reason that they’re important (and we all trekked there) is that the front of their tomb and ceremonial caves are elaborately carved – some look exactly like the front of baroque churches – amazing. Even if you get pictures it’s hard to imagine that all this complex carving, several hundred feet tall, is done on a sheer rock wall.
Back to Black Friday. We were woken up at 6am as the French tourist horde got itself on the bus, got up at 7am for breakfast of boiled eggs, pita bread, cucumbers, hummus and tomatoes and then to Petra. Walk to entrance then one click down on a gradually narrowing, dusty path to the Siq (narrow passage made by ancient, now dry, river). Walked one click through canyon (10 to 30 feet wide, tall cliffs on either side from dark brown to dark red, sandy floor) to “The Treasury” (remember the final scene from the last Indian Jones movie? this is it).
The guidebooks says: 2 superimposed Corinthian orders, 30 meters wide, 43 meters high. Then through the “city” with caves on the cliffs of both sides of a wide road and a Roman theater which could seat 7,000. Walked 1/2 hour up steps to a “high place” where they did sacrifices, 2 hours down the other side of the plateau, past several carved monuments and more tombs, then out onto scrub land to another part of the city. We stopped for lunch (Imogene and Humphrey brought eggs from breakfast, but as eggs are one of the three remaining menu choices at the hostel, I can’t face them anymore and, like a normal person, stuck to Doritos and shortbread).
Then Humphrey decided we should head up to the Ad-Dier (Monastery). “Up” would be the operative word. Up I staggered for an hour and upon reaching the summit I had one of those Epiphany Moments: at a certain level of hunger, exhaustion and pain (pounding headache) I can’t appreciate anything, nothing, nada, zip. You could have put the Taj Mahal in front of me and I would have crawled under a nice marble bench and napped. No marble benches here but some comfy stones to sit on and a view of the 50 meters wide, 45 meters tall facade.
Imogene and Humphrey scampered up on top of the facade while I contemplated the availability of helicopters to assist me. But then down I walked, very slowly. At the bottom I had a CAMEL RIDE, on a most attractive camel-colored camel. You lean forward, then allllllll the way back, then forward, then you are way up high and going forward in a nice swaying motion. I can see when one might get seasick, but I didn’t mind and I pondered the possibility of hiring a camel to take me home.
Upon arriving at the hotel I found out that they had moved my cot out of the room. Back down three flights of stairs. Where was the cot? A mistake. Up 3 flights of stairs. The manager comes, verrryyyyyy sorry but we can’t spend the night in the hotel because a tour group is coming. It’s 6:30 pm I’m too tired to think and starving (notice absence of food since “lunch”?). I pack my stuff and haul it down three flights of stairs to wait until L & N get back. Manager comes up so verrrryyyyyy sorry but the tour is coming NOW, I have to get L & N’s stuff out of the room. Up 3 flights, pack and haul bags down three flights. Man approaches and says that he has a verrryyyyy nice house that we can sleep in. Fine, I go to try and find the others, who by this time have consumed some local fire water and are feeling no pain. On the way back to the hotel Humphrey insinuates that perhaps the proper course was to leave the bags in the room and argue it out with the manager. I don’t have enough energy to argue with anyone, much less punch Humphrey as I am inclined to do, so I abdicate all responsibility to Humphrey. He argues with manager then we all agree to go with Hussain to see verrryyyy nice house.
Hussain expands on the niceness of this place with such fervor and loquaciousness in his pickup that I finally say that I am more of a visual type and LET’S JUST START THE VEHICLE AND GO. Hussain finds me hysterically cute and starts asking why I am “angry”; Humphrey decides to offer me in marriage for a mere $75 and begins mis-pronouncing my name. We, after stop to pick up Hussain’s sister, drive UP to the house (which means a longer walk down in the morning).
Humphrey decides the best way to handle my unhappiness is to make more fun of me and then (when no one else is in the room) to hiss “this isn’t New York.” Hussain and his sister walk in again to ask if I am still “angry” with big, happy smiles. Sigh. But then it turns out we can’t stay there after all, back into the pick-up to another house, one flight of stairs up.
Roasted pieces of chicken, hummus, tomato & cucumbers salad, pita bread: good dinner at 9:30 despite Humphrey’s tales of the wimpy running club that only sets up 1 1/2 hour runs (“by the time you are all sweaty and ready to really start, it’s over”) and a real trip he had (slog 6 hours through waist-deep mud, sleep out in the open with no way to get the mud off you or food, then slog home the next day).
Next morning I am woken up at 6am by the wife, who immediately asks if I am still “angry” – I smile through clenched teeth and pronounce my intense satisfaction with everything in the whole universe. We go to breakfast with me not acknowledging Humphrey’s existence and Imogene deeply regretting that she didn’t decide to stay home drink Scotch all weekend. Breakfast is pita bread, hummus, cucumbers and falafel in the same kind of restaurant as last night – good food served in bowls (no plates or silverware, you use bread to scoop up what you want); about 6 card tables with aluminum kitchen chairs, linoleum floors and tiled walls. As the wife told us that she would make us dinner at 7:30, I bid Imogene (with kindness) and Humphrey (with a sneer) adieu until the evening.
They pace off to conquer no less than three high places (most of it off-path), I slowly stroll down from town (about 1 1/2 clicks) then into Petra. I start out at the main tombs, then keep following the curve of the cliff, quiet and easy walking, where I run into Imogene and Humphrey who have come into Petra from the difficult approach: through steep incline, water, fire pits, snake-infested tunnels, hungry lions and dangerous rabbits. I walk back to the city following a river bed: a smaller version of the Siq, only about 6 to 10 feet wide and 20-30 feet high, winding and full of oleanders in bloom. Then up a short path to another sacrifice place and along a hill path with no one but a few goatherders and lots of goats around.
Back up to the house about 6 pm. I talk to the couple for a while, he is a tour guide and she teaches high school psychology. Their apartment has a formal living room (where I sleep), a children’s room, a living room, kitchen and the parent’s bedroom. Dinner was chicken and rice with tomato and cucumber salad with pita bread.
We left the next morning and did the border dance in reverse. Back to the Taba Hilton by 2 pm. I sat by the Red Sea, read my travel books and got my toes wet (cold water!). Dinner by the pool and drive the next am along the coast to a secluded spot for snorkeling then back to Cairo.
This was over 25 years ago and the two memories that are strongest are the manic joy I felt when I heard that I would see Aqaba and the peaceful joy I had on the second day when I wandered around the Petra site alone, stopped for lunch and watched a shepherd walking with his goats.
I can see now that I behaved badly, but I have put that bad behavior to use. When I see similar hissy fits/ breaks downs among expats, I know that I have been in their place. A certain level of tiredness and uncertainty can destabilize even the mellowest person. Although I had totally forgotten about Humphrey (even his real name!) and him hissing at me until I re-read this essay, I have carried with me those moments of fury because of and mixed with helplessness and I try to calm both myself and others when those feelings come up again. It’s hard to travel and live out of your home-space and for many people, dealing with Covid is like being forced into a foreign country that you had no intention of visiting. So try not to hiss. And have some falafel. And take some times to enjoy whatever scenery you can see.
Maxfield Parrish – City of Brass