Heaven Above and Hell Below in Wadi Rum

There are some moments, some places, some experiences, that literally change you forever. Wadi Rum, Jordan initially sounded like a three-star Michelin restaurant, complete with all the ingredients needed to guarantee a world-class adventure. After all, Adventure is my middle name. My dreams to conquer Mount Everest, visit the Titanic, and win Olympic gold started when I was young, and since I haven’t made it to 29,000 feet up or down, or stood on the podium with my medal, I spend my time as a professional photographer, media producer, and world traveler. I thrive on going off the beaten path, so, Wadi Rum was set to be the highlight of this Middle East work trip, and I was ready.

After driving all day and stopping at the last McDonald’s this side of civilization for one last chance at a Western toilet, we arrived in early evening and found our tour company, Bedouin Directions, at the end of a paved road within a walled compound. We were eager to load up, head out and enjoy the off-road Jeep trip before dark.

We tossed our overnight bags in one vehicle and climbed into the back of the other. Minus the Jeeps about to take us off into the wilderness and our guides talking about the Internet, it was easy to imagine what life had been like here for the past five-thousand years. Moments later, we left the pavement and drove back in time, to when camels ruled the world and Bedouin campfires lit the night sky. We were surrounded by tall red sandstone cliffs, vivid blue sky streaked with high wispy clouds, and beneath was nothing but warm, soft, red sand, stretching past the horizon, which smelled like pancake syrup.

We stopped at a tent shop to purchase traditional Jordanian headscarves to keep the sand out of our hair. The Bedouin men wrapped our heads and we were off again, this time stopping briefly at a famous location from the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Finally, we reached a steep rock wall. Our driver stopped, turned off the engine, and we climbed out.

Silence.

There was nothing for miles around to break the spell. As a social person whose only fear is being locked up in solitary confinement, I actually found this new experience rather profound; the stillness, the peacefulness, and the utter solitude was intoxicating.

Shortly before sunset, a herd of camels crossed our path and we stopped to take pictures. The scene couldn’t have been more beautiful, with golden and pink light casting long shadows. Moments later, we watched the sun set atop a sand dune to watch the sun set, then eagerly headed off for camp.

In the twilight, we came to a high sandstone wall with an overhang perfect for setting up camp. Our Bedouin hosts were cooking a pot of vegetable stew and warming up flat bread over an open fire. The soup was delicious, and between bites I took long exposure shots with my tripod to capture the perfect evening Around 10pm, our guide said, “They’re here.” I turned on my flashlight to discover seven stealthy camels, not ten feet away, silently watching me while re-chewing their last meal. They hadn’t made a sound, but the smell of our stew wafting through the night air had brought them to us.

Our group leader booked not the one, but two-hour camel ride in the dark. While the rest of the group settled in for a comfy midnight trek toward Saudi Arabia, it quickly became clear that I was mounted on a vibrating meat tenderizer sans shock absorbers. My body was being jiggled so violently, my legs stretched unnaturally over the back of this massive beast, and I couldn’t imagine enduring two hours of this torture. From my years of riding horses, I know what an uncomfortable gait and ill-fitting saddle feels like, but this was off the charts. I begged to get off and walk, but the response was less than understanding. Those were the longest two hours of my life! I tried to enjoy the billions of stars above me, but I was trapped by the hell beneath me.

Back at camp, our six mats were waiting for us side-by-side. In mere moments, our driver was snoring loudly, and our Bedouin guides were also asleep a few feet away. I chose the mattress at the far end from the snoring section. I lay there listening to Il Volo sing about “the Bedouin fires at night” from U2’s Beautiful Day. It was such a surreal feeling, realizing that I was actually lying by the Bedouin fire in the middle of somewhere between Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Then, as I heard the opening strains of the ethereal string introduction to Il Mondo, it was a defining, incredible moment that I’ll remember forever. I will never forget the view from my pillow as I lay there, feeling very small. The top of our rock overhang created the perfect silhouette, framing the beautiful night sky filled with millions of dancing, radiant stars. After a few times hitting “repeat” on my iPhone, I drifted off to sleep and awoke a couple hours later covered in a layer of sand, which invaded every square inch of my bed, pillow, and face. The rest of the night was spent wiping sand off my pillow each time I rolled over. Apparently, when sleeping in a giant sand box, it’s not uncommon for mini-sand storms to erupt whenever the breeze blows, and since I was at the end of the line, I became a human shield, protecting my peacefully sleeping friends in the middle.

At long last, morning came. I crawled wearily out from under my sand pile, every inch of me aching, but relieved that I had survived one of the greatest, once-in-a-lifetime travel adventures of my life. Now, if only I could walk!

Published in Destination, Middle East
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