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Leaving Wadi Rum – Part 1

I said good-bye to Ahmed at the campsite at 8 a.m. He had guests on a two-day tour so they were leaving for another day sightseeing in the desert and he wouldn’t be returning to the village before I left.

I looked at the our jeep and our three American guests and their luggage. There was no way we were all going to fit. I remarked to Salem that Ibrahim and I would probably be walking back to the village.

“It’s your last day, Ichchryim. You’re coming in the jeep if I have to put you on the roof,” Salem reassured me.

With Salem and I in the front, the three American kids in the back seat, and Ibrahim crammed in the back with the luggage, we were off.

No we weren’t.

It had been a particularly cold night and the old Toyota’s engine wouldn’t turn over.

Ibrahim unfolded himself from the back of the jeep and there was some tinkering, some water added somewhere, some banging. They seemed to know what they were doing as if it was a ritual performed many times.

Nothing.

“Push!” Salem declared.

With giddy enthusiasm, the three Americans and I helped Ibrahim push the jeep down a small hill.

Have you ever tried running in flip-flops in the sand? One by one the flip-flop clad Americans were strewn on the sand behind the still silent Jeep, Ibrahim huffing from one too many shisha nights. The jeep coasted to a halt.

Ahmed could see our plight from the camp and came to the rescue with his jeep.

With jumper cables either a foreign concept or just currently unavailable, the guys, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, transferred the battery from the working jeep to the dead one to turn the engine over and voila. Houston, we have ignition.

It was as if the desert gods knew I wanted to stay that little bit longer and have one more adventure in the beautiful desert before leaving Jordan.

Don’t try to change the world; just change yourself. Why? Because the whole world is only relative to the eyes that are looking at it. Your world actually only exists for as long as you exist and with the death of you, includes the death of your world. Therefore, if there is no peace in your heart; you will find no peace in this world, if there is no happiness in your life; you will find no happiness anywhere around you, if you have no love in your heart; you will not find love anywhere and if you do not fly around freely inside your own soul like a bird with perfectly formed wings; then there will never be any freedom for you regardless if you are on a mountaintop removed from all attachments to all of mankind! Even the mountaintop cannot give you freedom if it is not already flying around there inside your own soul! So I say, change yourself. Not the world.” – C. Joybell C.

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The Wonders of Wadi Rum

Stunning sandstone mountains sculpted over millions of years by the elements.

Great granite rock formations rising from the sandy valley.

It’s a geologist’s wet dream and a traveller’s fantasy.

T.E. Lawrence wrote about it during his participation in the Arab Revolt of 1917-18.

Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here.

It’s 720 square kilometers of protected desert, but it is like no desert I have ever seen before.

All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did. T.E. Lawrence ◦ Introductory Chapter. Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922)

Salem with his cousin, Ahmed, looking at the lamb bone that Sydney found in the desert that day.

Call Me Ichchryim

It took a while, but I received my Bedouin name.

I had been dropping hints for a few days – if you consider “If I don’t have a Bedouin name soon, you can call me a taxi back to Aqaba” a hint.

It happened unexpectedly one night. I was chatting with Sydney from Oregon. She and her parents were on a two-year trip around the world. They sold their house and quit their jobs. We were kindred spirits!

Sydney is the smartest nine-year old I have ever met. She’s going to have a farm when she grows up. She has every inch of the farm planned. Every animal. Every crop. Every detail.

She was peppering me with questions about my family’s farm back home when Salem looked at me and said, “Ichchryim.”

I gave a puzzled look to Salem.

“Ichchryim, your Bedouin name. It means ‘generous one’,” he explained.

There was a five-minute tutorial on how to say it. I explained I have a step-nephew, Khiym. “Close, eh?” I said. “Not really,” they said.

I accepted it graciously and I am addressed for the rest of my stay by my Bedouin name. Like an obedient puppy, my ears perk and my heart glows when I hear my name.

I often hear what I think is “Ichchryim” in their conversations the following days. I’m tickled that my name comes up so often. I imagine,

“Ichchryim is such a great guy.”

“Ichchryim is very helpful around the camp and in the office.”

“Isn’t Ichchryim funny?”

“Isn’t Ichchryim smart?”

“Are all Canadians as nice as Ichchryim?”

“I wish Ichchryim could stay forever.”

One day I just have to know and ask what they are talking about. Turns out there’s some other Arabic or Bedouin dialect word that sounds similar to my Bedouin name.

Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try to understand each other, we may even become friends. – Maya Angelou

 Salem with his cousin, Ahmed, looking at the lamb bone that Sidney found in the desert that day.

Salem with his cousin, Ahmed, looking at the lamb bone that Sidney found in the desert that day.

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Walking With Ibrahim

On days when we have guests, one of the guides drives me and Ibrahim to the desert camp around 1PM. Ibrahim is the camp cook and caretaker. He takes out the groceries and supplies from the village for the overnight guests, cleans the camp from the last day’s guests, prepares dinner and smokes a lot shisha after his evening duties are done.

Every afternoon I help Ibrahim clean the tents, watch him prepare dinner while we listen to his Arabic music, and we chat. Ibrahim is from Giza, Egypt, just across the Nile River from Cairo (basically a suburb – it’s where the pyramids are) and he has been in Jordan two years.

After breakfast we always catch a ride back to Wadi Rum village in a jeep with one of the guides and their guests. Until day three. It was a busy night with guests and there is no room in the jeeps.

“Cool,” I say to myself. We get to hang out at the camp all day. No office work for Terry this morning.

No sooner had I stretched out on the traditional Middle Eastern floor couch in the main tent with my tunes and a book and Ibrahim says, “Yella (let’s go), habibi. We walk.”

“We walk?” I reply in disbelief knowing for a fact it is at least a two-hour camel ride.

“To the village? Through the desert? Us? Now?” I add to make sure we are all on the same page.

“We walk,” Ibrahim confirms.

After I process this, I accept it as a decent proposition. It’s a two-hour hike. No big deal. We have guests who do five-day hikes. Beats a snowstorm. I’m now fully on board, slightly concerned with the quickly rising sun and my heavy kit bag.

Just as I have embraced the situation, Ibrahim says, “Ahmed should come. He comes because you are here. Ahmed not come if just Ibrahim. Ibrahim will walk all the way if you not here.”

So, we begin our trek across the southern Jordanian desert toward Wadi Rum village, both hoping we soon see a jeep and its sandy dust trail on the horizon.

About twenty minutes into the walk I need to shed both my sweater and jacket.

“Let’s stop, habibi. I have to take off some layers. Layers – you know layers? It’s like an onion,” I explain demonstrating onion layers as I know he knows what an onion is.

I don’t think layers translates the same way in Arabic, but he knows we are stopping either for me to take off some clothes or I need an onion.

We both have our phones with our favourite music, so we walk the calm desert, trading off favorite songs, trying to explain the meaning of each. Ibrahim’s playlists contains some pretty awesome Arabic music, but some Back Street Boys sneak in there, as well as Ray Charles. We are indeed hitting the road, Jack. Albeit a hot, dry desert one. And it’s really not a road, but Ibrahim gets it.

With a sight of a jeep on the horizon I am slightly disappointed, then relieved when it is not Ahmed. This is what travel is about. The people. The moments. The cultural exchanges. All enveloped in the quiet of the desert. And the Back Street Boys.

Thirty minutes later, peeled to my last layer, sun rising fast, kit bag absorbing about a half liter of my sweat, I am relieved when Ibrahim sees a Toyota and at about a kilometer away can identify it as Ahmed’s.

It was a good walk with an Egyptian.

Please be a traveler, not a tourist. Try new things, meet new people, and look beyond what’s right in front of you. Those are the keys to understanding this amazing world we live in. – Andrew Zimmern

Zeyd (7 years old) and Abdullah (9 years old). Jameel (cute).

Grab A Goat, Would Ya!

It’s my first full morning in Wadi Rum and I hear a commotion. It is coming from the back of the building where I live and work. I am just twenty-four hours in Wadi Rum Village and have not checked out the property too closely, so I go for a look.

The building where I work is part of a larger compound that includes the family homes of my hosts, the Al Zalabeyh family. This family compound includes the typical Bedouin inventory of livestock including a herd of goats – the source of the commotion.

My host Ahmed’s two youngest brothers Abdullah (9) and Zeyd (7) are herding the goats. They may as well be herding cats. There are goats everywhere. There are goats on the street and there are goats in the front courtyard of the office and there are even goats in the reception area. I am not sure where the goats are supposed to be, but they clearly are not supposed to be in reception. I encourage the goats to leave reception.

To the side of the office courtyard area there is a section that is lower where there are goats trapped and they cannot, or do not want to, make the jump out.

I stand and watch Abdullah and Zeyd try in vain to get the goats to jump up out of the lower courtyard. I watch because herding goats is not in my job description, nor do I have experience in herding goats, and the ‘other related duties’ clause was never mentioned.

I am about to go get my camera when a frustrated Abdullah shouts at me in Arabic, motioning to me to help pick up the goats and help them over the ledge. His orders don’t take the first time and he shouts again, eyes wide and fixed on me, with a slow motion mimic of lifting a goat over a ledge. I don’t know what he is shouting, but may translate something like, “Dude, you are six feet tall. I’m three feet tall and nine years old. The goats are bigger than I am. Pick up a goat, you useless Canadian!”

I assist three adult goats over the ledge with Abdullah and Zeyd standing there acting out the motions of heaving goats over a ledge, nodding with reassurance with each goat transfer. Zeyd picks up a baby goat and even though he could have easily placed it over the ledge, he hands it to me to put over, shaking his head in frustration all the while.

After the goat fiasco, having clearly demonstrated my ability to assist things to get where they should be, Abdullah climbs the wall in front of the office and motions to me to help him up to the archway above the front entrance to the office. As he hangs from the bottom of the archway, holding on only with his tiny fingers, I look to our camel wrangler, Abu Baka. Abu Baka shakes his head and conveys an emphatic “La!”. I turn to Abdullah and pass along the “la” and leave Abdullah swinging in disappointment.

When we get out of the glass bottle of our ego and when we escape like the squirrels in the cage of our personality and get into the forest again, we shall shiver with cold and fright. But things will happen to us so that we don’t know ourselves. Cool, unlying life will rush in. – D. H. Lawrence

Abu Baka - Our Camel Guy.

How Do You Say “Scared Shitless” In Arabic? – Part 2

When Ahmed picks me up at the Visitors’ Centre, he immediately apologizes. He has a bad toothache. He explains he needs to sleep.

Even in this condition, he is a gracious and kind host. He shows me where I will be working. I have a room at the office too, but will only stay there when we don’t have guests. On nights we have guests, I will sleep and eat dinner and breakfast at the camp.

Ahmed introduces me to Abu Baka, our camel wrangler, and then Ahmed leaves in agony. Abu Baka hands me the office keys. I guess I’m in charge.

It quickly becomes apparent that Abu Baka speaks about five words of English. I recognize the Arabic word ‘chai’ in the midst of a few sentences.

I nod, “Aiwa, chai. Shukran.”

Abu Baka leaves to make the tea. He returns and pours me tea from exactly the style and age of kettle one should be served sweet Bedouin tea in a village in the Arabian Desert. It is a cup of diabetes. If I could marry a drink, I would marry sweet Bedouin tea.

I sit at the desk. Abu Baka sits in a chair off to the side. It’s going to be a long day. I have left my English/Arabic dictionary home in PEI.

“Shukran jazeelan, Abu Baka. Chai moomtaz,” I say, proudly forming a complete sentence in Arabic. (Thank you very much. The tea is excellent.)

“Ana min Canada,” I continue. (I am from Canada.)

“Wa ant, Jordan?” I ask. (And you, Jordan?)

“La, Sudan,” he replies.

I struggle with the next part, trying for some reason to narrow down where in Sudan. As if I know many places in Sudan.

“Jordan – Amman, Aqaba, Wadi Rum. Sudan? Abu Baka?”

“Al Khartoum,” he quickly replies.

It worked! Yes, Khartoum. I know Khartoum. It’s the only place in Sudan I have ever heard of. It’s the capital. Too bad we can’t talk more about it.

I was beginning to exhaust my Arabic phrases. In many parts of the world, children appear out of every nook and cranny when a tourist is in the neighbourhood, so I have learned a few conversation continuers. I know how to say “How old are you?”, but that doesn’t seem an appropriate question to ask Abu Baka.

My next question in my kid conversation would be, “Mimken sura, min fadlak?” (May I take your photo?) Didn’t seem the time or place, but knew I could use that one in a few days.

Abu Baka offers me more chai and I immediately accept as I could offer another ‘shukran’ and ‘zain’ (good) or ‘moomtaz’ to keep things moving along.

The office is cold and I know the word for cold so I motion for us to move out into the sun, delivering my “bah’red” and rubbing my arms. Perhaps a change of scenery would inspire some more vocabulary.

I point to the sun and say, “Mmm..,zain.” like it was an M&M or something. I ask how to say sun in Arabic.

“Shamesha,” Abu Baka replies.

I nod and struggle to find the next topic of conversation and blurt out, “Jesus! The camels!”

He’s the camel guy. Show me your camels, dude!

“Jemel,” I say pointing to the camels across the road and then to my eye and then me and then Abu Baka and then across the road. It’s a bizarre game of Arabian charades.

I offer several, “Jemel jameels.” (Beautiful camels.)

I then point to a camel, motioning my hand in steps to show size and counting in Arabic from one to five which was as close I could get to age. I know how to ask age, but at this point I am mentally exhausted and can’t conjure it.

Abu Baka tells me the ages of some of the camels.

I know how to ask names. I wonder if the camels have names? I say I know how to ask names. I can ask the camel, like a person, its name. That would be precious. I can’t manage the Arabic linguistic gymnastics to convert “What is your Name?” to “What are the names of the camels?”, so I do my best.

“Ism Terry,” I say and then point to Abu Baka and repeat his name and then point to camels with raised eyebrows.

He tells me some names which I can’t pronounce nor remember. He also points to a camel and says, “Mama. Bebe.”

A pregnant camel. Splendid. Now we are in business.

“Teyb (OK),” I say followed by an enormous sigh. I should know the Arabic word for ‘when’, but I don’t.

“Bebe (for some reason we seem to be using the French word for baby)…wahad youm…ithnyn youm…(one day…two days..)?” I ask.

“Ithynyn,” he replies. Two days. Can’t wait.

We spend the next two hours getting high on chai and pointing to every object we could find and me writing down the Arabic word and Abu Baka trying to repeat and remember the English word.

I impress him with my counting up to ten in Arabic and scribble the numbers in the sand with a stick. He gets a great kick out of learning one and three in English, but never remembering two.

The whole afternoon plays out like a Monty Python skit. It is draining. It is exhilarating. It is intense. It is fun. It is comical. It is how I like to travel.

I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always … so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you. ― Yann Martel, Life of Pi

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How Do You Say “Scared Shitless” In Arabic? – Part 1

There’s a saying, “Life starts where your comfort zone ends.” For me, life started on January 12, 2014. It’s a day I will never forget.

I didn’t sleep too well my last night in Aqaba – ironic as I had a king size bed and four fluffy pillows. I was spending my last night with my fully equipped bathroom with sort of hot water, depending on the time of day. I had a balcony overlooking the Red Sea. There was a pool on the roof.

Wadi Rum village is one hour’s drive west of Aqaba. In the desert. The desert gets very cold at night. There are no rooftop pools in the desert.

I wasn’t beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into – I was a good week or two into the process. I started to doubt my decision even before leaving Canada. When I told people, “I’m going to live with the Bedouin in the Jordanian desert for a few weeks,” the looks and comments I received were not unexpected, but made me further question my sanity.

I had a vague idea of what life would be like in Wadi Rum. I knew I would be leaving my western comforts, but that was part of the intrigue and excitement and what made it an authentic experience. And the comforts were only a small part of my anxiety. It was new country, new culture, new people, new temporary ‘job’ – albeit unpaid. But this is why I do these things – it’s a personal challenge. I knew I would have these feelings of doubt and fear. For now, I would pack them up and put them in my suitcase, easily accessible if I needed them.

I needed a taxi to take me to Wadi Rum Visitors’ Centre where my host, Ahmed, would meet me. My cousin, Philip, says I should write a book about my travels. I could write a book about my taxi driver experiences over the years. I’ve never had a bad one. Someone else could be placed into my body and past experiences and say they’ve never had a good one. It’s all about how you look at things.

One thing I don’t mind paying top dollar for is the convenience to get where I want to go locally. I’ve taken a mini bus in rural Turkey with elderly women clad in babushkas. I’ve ridden overnight trains in India. I’ve experienced public transportation in a dozen countries, sometimes surrounded by caged chickens and rice bags in the aisle. All of these were great experiences, but sometimes you just need to pay for a taxi.

I always do my research before arriving at a destination and know what a reasonable rate is for a taxi ride. Of course, there is the local rate and the tourist rate. I generally pay the tourist rate. These guys are just trying to make a living. An extra $5 to me could be as much as a half day’s pay to them.

I liked my airport to downtown Aqaba taxi driver. He liked me. I spoke a little Arabic and, based on my research, paid top dollar – plus a generous tip. My driver’s name was Alla’a. He gave me his business card when he dropped me off at the hotel and we agreed he would pick me up at the hotel on noon Sunday, January 12th and I would pay an exorbitant price.

There’s Terry time and there’s Middle Eastern time. I’ve accepted this, but when you are picking up an ATM machine, you could at least show up on time. Granted, I only give Alla’a fifteen minutes, which is about thirty minutes early in the Middle East. I ask Abdul Aziz, the hotel doorman and all around good guy, to call Alla’a.

Two minutes later Alla’a shows up with a smile and all is forgiven.

Between my limited Arabic and his slightly better English, after an hour in Alla’a’s taxi I feel like I have been interrogated by the KGB. I learned many years ago there’s no question too personal when in the Middle East.

During our drive from Aqaba to Wadi Rum, Alla’a and I discuss my purpose in Wadi Rum and that Ahmed will meet me at the Visitors’ Centre and take me to the village.

“Which Ahmed?” he asks to sift through the many Ahmeds running tour businesses in the village.

“Ahmed Olgah Zalabeyh, Rum Stars & Bedouin Adventures,” I clarify.

“Ah, I know him. Good guy. You have his number?” Alla’a asks and I show him the number in my notebook to avoid any confusion in the translation of the numbers. He dials several times with no luck, holding the phone to my ear with the Zain Mobile Lady’s recorded voice saying something in Arabic.

“Not good number,” Alla’a tells me.

He asks for my notebook with Ahmed’s phone number. With his mobile in one hand, my notebook in the other, his knee driving the car, and me reading the numbers in Arabic, he finds the problem. In the Middle East (and Europe, I’ve noticed) they make their 1s like 7s, so he misread one of the numbers.

At this point Alla’a’s knee is steering us off the road and I grab the steering wheel.

“La, la. No problem,” he says, slowing down and pulling off to the side of the road while calling Ahmed.

Ahmed contacted, we continue to the Visitors’ Centre gate and I anxiously wait for him to take me to my Bedouin home and office. I hope there’s an attached conservatory for my butterflies.

What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country … we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits … this is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure. There is no pleasure in traveling, and I look upon it more as an occasion for spiritual testing … Pleasure takes us away from ourselves in the same way as distraction, in Pascal’s use of the word, takes us away from God. Travel, which is like a greater and a graver science, brings us back to ourselves. – Albert Camus, Notebooks, 1935 – 1951

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