"What do you know about Wadi Rum?"

7:46 am

Aqaba, Jordan

It’s interesting what you notice when there isn’t much going on in the town you’re in. It reminds me a bit of the John Steinbeck short story, The Pearl when he describes the little Mexican village the book’s protagonist, Kino has lived in his entire life:

“It is wonderful the way a little town keeps track of itself and of all its units. If every single man and woman, child and baby, acts and conducts itself in a known pattern and breaks no walls and differs with no one and experiments in no way and is not sick and does not endanger the ease and peace of mind or steady unbroken flow of the town, then that unit can disappear and never be heard of.”

I discovered among other things that one of the elevators at the hotel I’m staying at has two lifts, but only one worked…until today.

I now know which convenient stores sell coconut water, yogurt, and are air-conditioned. I could tell you where to buy shampoo, shaving cream, or rent a tuxedo.

I’d happily point you in the direction of the nearest mosque, archaeological site, or arguably the best spot to wade in the Red Sea. I’d inform you the restaurant Fish Fish just down the street lists carrot juice on its menu, but never actually has any. I’d also tell you not to be alarmed by the countless and nebulous military posts where young Jordanian soldiers listlessly stand guard as the hot sun shoots its arsenal of sunbeams down on them.

You notice more. A lot more. Like the difference between solitude and loneliness.

After yesterday, I might also tell you not to bother with Wadi Rum, a desert land of camels, peaks, and caves.

I decided to get out of town the night before. I was going a little stir crazy in this quarter mile radius of closed shops and endless prayer calls. The good news is I’ve been quite productive in my time here, reading, writing, and contemplating the next important moves of my life upon my return to the States. I suppose I’m just not the type of person who can aimlessly lie on the beach for hours on end. I start to feel antsy, if not guilty. My programming requires I create, build, work towards something.

After breakfast I headed down to the lobby and spoke with a gentlemen who handled tours in and around Aqaba. I knocked on his door cautiously as he turned slowly from his computer and waved me in all in one fluid motion. His office was well lit, but without ventilation, or any real life. It reeked of sweat and immobility.

“I was thinking of going to Wadi Rum today,” I beamed. “I planned on hiring a cab to take me there this afternoon. What do you think would be a fair asking price?” He stared at me motionless. He appeared to be in his mid-60s and inexplicably my motivation suddenly became to try and make him smile.

“What do you know about Wadi Rum?” he asked skeptically. “Well, I know it’s basically caves and mountains.” He leaned in slowly looking me square in the eyes before making certain not to mince words, “First of all, it is not just caves and mountains. It is much more. There are Bedouins, camels, and lots of other things you can see and do.” I debated for a moment if I’d offended him with my Wadi Rum cliff notes, but he seemed more interested in enlightenment than bullying.

Our encounter was brief, but memorable. In the end we both agreed seeing Wadi Rum would be a good idea and so I set out to find a cab, which took a mere 10 seconds. Drivers here are as easy to find as the sun. Instantly a green Kia appeared out of nowhere. I went up to the passenger side window and asked if he spoke English. “A little,” he said. “How much to take me to Wadi Rum?” I asked. He seemed puzzled by my inquiry. Perhaps it was the first time he’d ever been asked. “Just a second,” he said. “Please, sit down,” he pleaded, fearful I’d take my money elsewhere.

As he conferred with what I gathered was a higher up, a shameless cabbie tried to poach me, parking just a few feet from my new friend’s back bumper. The gentlemen, was closing in on 70, and resembled some of my distant relatives from my father’s side. He approached me and for a brief moment I thought I was going to get whacked.

“Hello,” he said. “Where are you going?” Just then, almost on queue, my friend in the Kia said, “Okay! 40 dinar,” which seemed like a screaming deal, especially since the concierge in my hotel had suggested I pay 55 dinars for the one-hour journey, roughly 70 dollars for a round trip. “Okay,” I said. And got in.

“What’s your name?” he asked. “Nick,” I said. “My name is Mohammed,” he shouted back. He tried earnestly to make conversation but realized he’d exhausted all he knew. He hopped on the phone and I could hear him say the words, “Wadi Rum,’ several times. Instead of leaving the city we headed to a neighborhood I’d coincidentally walked through the day before. Something was up. I thought.

A few minutes later we picked up a heavyset man in his early thirties. He smiled and said hello before asking me if I was Spanish. He then claimed his seat on the front passenger side. He may have been sitting shotgun, but was undoubtedly in charge.

“Wadi Rum?” he confirmed. “Yes,” I said, beginning to feel like I was in a Dave Chappelle skit. We took another quick turn and there waiting for us was another man. He was dressed in a traditional Muslim garment, was unshaven, with his hair a bit disheveled. I’d guess he was in his late 50s and owned the car. “You want to go to Wadi Rum?” he asked as well. “Yes,” I said. “Is that a problem?” I was growing steadily more agitated by what seemed like a simple request. Perhaps it was the car’s stench or the heat that threatened my poise. “We switch drivers. He speaks English. 50 dinar. Okay?” Now the price and the stakes had been raised, but I wanted to rattle neither. “Okay,” I said.

Mohammed left as my new stout friend and I drove off together. He offered to let me sit up front, but I’d grown as content as possible under the circumstances right where I was. This man was more brusque, rough around the edges, but earnest in his attempt to make conversation. His vocabulary too was limited and so we sat without speaking for much of the ride. He blasted loud Arabic music perhaps as a way to pass the time or awkwardness, or both. It sounds strange to say, but I already missed Mohammed.

The drive itself was relatively painless. We arrived in Wadi Rum in about 35 minutes, which immediately made me suspicious. He pointed animatedly to the peaks on either side of us convincing me we were in fact where I’d asked to be. There were camels and signs that could verify his claim in a court of law I suppose. Still, I was very underwhelmed and would bet the house he didn’t take me to the part of Wadi Rum where they sent the photographer for the brochure. The hell with it, I thought. I’d been duped in China, Turkey, and though this was an honorable mention, why not tally it up as well?

He begged to take a photo of me with the mountains in the background and I obliged. I asked him to wait as I took a long stroll alone towards the highest peak in the vicinity. I walked and walked until it was eerily quite. I took solace in the calm and was relieved to be alone, at least for now. What am I doing here? I thought to myself. My life is so weird.

I walked back to the car to find my friend swatting merciless flies who’d essentially taken over the car. As we drove along the narrow and desolate highway, I watched as he screamed into his phone, while swatting flies, and perilously swerving across the road. This would be one hell of a way to go, I considered.

When we got back to my hotel I handed him 50 dinar before he attempted to shake me down for an extra 5 insisting it was for Mohammed. “No,” I said. “First it was 40, then 50, now 55? No way,” I shouted. I knew he didn’t grasp the words of my argument, but could make out the tone. Money and deception need no Rosetta Stone.

I was proud I’d stuck up for myself and eventually made my way to the beach. I stripped down to my boxers and headed into the Red Sea. It was just what I needed as I wondered why I hadn’t done this earlier. As the day began to give way to the early hours of the evening I was approached by three teenagers, one of which asked if I could beat box, which I most certainly can. I offered a rendition of a Godfather tune I’d practiced for years in the shower and he liked it so much he recorded it on his phone before rapping in Arabic, and sharing some his favorite tunes, one being a Rihanna song.

A small group gathered as I beat-boxed and he spit lyrics. A gentlemen who’d they approached before was now sitting oddly close to me on my left. He was a 20-something tourist from Turkey who took an interest in where I was from and what I was doing in Jordan. He asked where I was staying and I told him nearby. I asked him the same question and he pointed to the towel where he’d just come from. Part of me envied that abandonment of heart before I took solace in my age and knowing I could take a hot shower.

Eventually, I made my way back after a long but eventful day. One of which I suppose I orchestrated in some perverse way. Now, my earphones were blasting with the sounds of Drake as I strolled past a mosque. I turned the corner and stopped by that convenient store with coconut water. I handed over the half dinar before the clerk asked me if I was French. “No,” I said amused at how sunglasses and slicked back hair had made me Spanish a few short hours before, while the same Ray Bans and disheveled hair courtesy of the Red Sea knighted me French. I set out for home and cracked open my drink taking a deep and unapologetic sip. And all was good again.

Yesterday, my friend Herta, a UN usher in her 50s, originally from Austria, emailed me to share the following bits of advice: Observe your actions and observe the chain of events following that action. Don't compare yourself to others. Humans are like ants; they always follow the crowd. Don't follow the crowd.

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