Those of you who know me know that I’m not above sneaking into a place that would be cost-prohibitive otherwise. Granted, I usually avoid such places, but once in a while there’s a compelling reason to enter. You may also know that I absolutely LOVE the desert, connecting spiritually to a place and primitive living. A culture that has a history of any of this gets my attention right away. Add to that the fact that a cave-dwelling Bedouin friend of mine invited me (and everyone else) to visit him in Petra and you have a recipe for…well not quite disaster, but…
One of the seven wonders of the world, the previously lost (to the Western world) city of Petra is an amazing, ancient city in southern Jordan. Established some time around 312 BCE, Petra (then known as Raqmu) was the capital city of the Arab Nabataeans, a nomadic group that became very wealthy as a result of nearby trade routes. Until recently, it was the longest continually inhabited city on Earth. (They forcibly removed the Bedouin families living there to make the tourist attraction in 1985, hence ending that claim to fame.)
This and the fact that it had been featured in Indiana Jones was about all I knew before going there. Well, that and stories about tourists getting lost and dying in there and that the area itself spans over 7 square kilometers.
I’m also not a fan of tourist destinations–esp. expensive ones or ones surrounded by an irritating tourist culture (i.e. lots of scams). I skipped seeing the pyramids in Cairo for just that reason. But I was determined to find the cave Bedouin–I’d never yet met any and I really wanted to see how they were different. That, and I was invited. (Granted, it was two years after the invitation, but who’s counting?)
Only 25 families were left in the caves in Petra and the friend I met in Cairo belonged to one of them. I was going to try to find him. At the worst, I wouldn’t find anyone and would sleep overnight in the desert somewhere (something I love to do). Or in the ancient city overnight. Or I’d find others, but he wouldn’t be there. None of these were bad options.
The main entrance to Petra is through the gates of a visitor center and tickets start at around $70 for a 1-day pass. No thank you. Not just to visit my friend. So I spent a day scoping an alternate way in to the city. It involved quite a bit of hiking in extreme heat, but was nothing I couldn’t handle.
Since I wasn’t prepared to do a major expedition, I was going to have to go through the main entrance, what they call the Siq. The visitor center was a good ways away from the main Petra entrance so I wasn’t expecting any real difficulty. I just needed to enter around dawn when fewer people were around. Originally just a ceremonial passage into the city, the Siq is the main route in these days (most tourists know it as they only route in). I figured I could go in this way and then go out the back way, which I knew went through the Bedouin village (not to be confused with the cave dwellings).
My climb was successful and I made it into the city proper without a hitch. You can see from the shadows that it’s still super early. In the past, hundreds of tourists would be in here by now (to get a jump on the heat of the day), but after all of the problems in Syria and heightened tensions in Israel and Egypt, the tourist industry has taken a sharp hit here.
The first thing one sees as one exits the Siq (other than camels and people trying to to get you to ride them) is what modern day excavators call the “Treasury” (originally called the the Khazneh). This was the building used for the Indiana Jones movie (and many others).
There was a lot I had to make my way through to figure out how to get to where I might find my friend.
It was blazingly hot and I found myself needing to nap a couple of times in caves like the one below (this one is actually a tomb).
So basically, following my nose, I walked through about a third of the ancient city before making my way out around the back, looking for the cave Bedouin. I finally came to a ravine where there were animals and fruit trees living right smack against the walls of the ravine. Literal farms lined the ravine and soon water could be seen. There was even a spring.
I found their spring first (you won’t believe how amazing water int he desert is after a scorching hot day of rock, rock, and more rock!). I then followed the ravine in the other direction and found what I was looking for–the cave dwellings. This is the view from the first family I visited:
And here’s the family. (They’re laughing because I asked them to say “jibna” after counting to three with the photo. “Jibna” is “cheese” in Arabic.)
Now trust me, I’m not under any romantic illusions about how traditional or “connected” with the Earth a culture may still be given our age of media. Not at all. But that doesn’t mean I’m not drawn towards discovering if there might be any people left who would rather listen to the wind than watch TV. I know, I know, a privileged viewpoint, but knowing that doesn’t erase my longing for finding those not addicted to the modern conveniences that seem to be rapidly eroding what little connection we have with nature.
Children always want their photos taken. How this little one could be so warmly dressed in this heat I’ll never know. It’s so hot, in fact, that the Bedouin families I visited didn’t even sleep in the caves for the most part–they were too hot. Once night fell they slept outside.
It was getting late and at this point I was perfectly willing to visit a few more homes looking for my friend and then work on hiking out (not back through the city). While it was true that I’d fantasized about being the city on my own without the ceaseless noise pollution from the generators, it seemed the long way out and there were plenty of caves all over the place to sleep in. (It wasn’t going to be cold.)
At the next home I was invited into, there was a 17-year-old guide who was sleeping there because he hated sleeping in the village. He was a beautiful boy, super sweet and definitely seemed to be hitting on me at the edge of propriety, even though I told him I was “married” and I was more than twice his age. (Saying I have a partner doesn’t make a lot of sense over here–in most cases you’re either married or your not.) He convinced me to stay the night even the mother of the household wasn’t so sure. They wanted to know if I’d gone through the visitor gates and gotten a “ticket.” If I had, I had to go back out of the visitor gates before the park closed or a huge search party would be looking for me. Luckily I hadn’t, so the youth convinced the mother it was okay for me to stay the night there.
Having a practice of saying yes whenever I can, I accepted. Darkness fell and still the husband wasn’t home yet. It wasn’t until after midnight that he came back, well after we’d gotten onto our prospective cushions to sleep (outside but under this horrific solar light–doesn’t anyone look at the stars any more??). He took one look at me lying there and panicked, believing that he was going to get into dire trouble–apparently tourists weren’t allowed to sleep in the caves with the Bedouin. (This goes against every grain of hospitality they have.) I explained that I wasn’t a tourist–that I was just here looking for my friend. (The 17-yr-old knew my friend and told me that he’d moved away, first to the Bedouin village and then to Canada where his wife was from. So much for that.) Still, he was so scared that immediately called security. For god’s sake, I was half asleep and already in bed! AND I could have easily hiked out if I’d left before dark. I was pissed.
I talked to security by phone and they decided that I was “fine” if I stayed there and slept. I knew, of course, that the husband would call security in the morning to escort me out, so staying there was, in my mind, not an option. But the husband was going to call security if I left. It was a bit of a pickle (and well after midnight).
Backing up a few steps, here’s a reminder of what I learned about getting into and staying in Petra:
- Everyone who goes in through the visitor center HAS to go out the same day, or the cave Bedouin will be mobilized to search for you.
- If you did not go in via the visitor center, but you go out that way, they will fine you double the price.
- All non-Jordanians are considered tourists; there are no other options (unless you marry in).
- Tourists are not allowed to accept overnight hospitality from the Bedouin (probably in part because the Bedouin would start charging tourists to do so and make a pretty penny off it and/or because it would be too hard to maintain security).
- The friend who had invited me to stay in his cave probably knew how to get around these restrictions.
- Even though I was no longer in the city proper, it would be assumed that I’d gone there and I would be charged double if caught. (I found this unfair, as I knew by this time how to hike to the caves without going through the city.)
Another thing about me–I can be SUPER stubborn. I HATE being told what to do–especially it I find it unreasonable. And I WAS NOT going to be escorted out by security.
My only recourse was to wait for them to fall asleep and then sneak off. They knew I didn’t want to stay, so they were watching me. This means it took an hour or two at the very least (luckily they were both very tired) before I could even consider escaping. Not knowing if they were Fremen-style Bedouin or city-style Bedouin, I had no idea how difficult it would be to slip out. Luckily there were dogs barking all night long–LOUDLY–and household was so used to it didn’t even register. That would mask my departure. Slowly, ever so slowly, I rearranged my cushion to look like I was still there under the blanket and softly made my way out of the light. Nothing. I then got my stuff together and inched out. I knew I’d be greeted by their dog, and I could only pray it wouldn’t wake them. It didn’t.
And there were dogs EVERYWHERE. Most of them were just barkers, luckily, but it was unnerving and I kept some stones in my hand just in case. My first plan was to hike out the way I’d originally planned, following a road that led around and away from the city but hopefully back to Wadi Musa. No go. Not far down that road there was a cave with firelight still flickering and a dog guarding it. There was no telling if I could get past it without waking any one up, and if they found me–a “woman” walking alone in the dead of night–it would be hell to pay with security. I tried a few other promising trails, but none worked out. So I diverted and decided to choose the road I’d been told led back to the Bedouin village. It, of course, dropped me right off in a part of the ancient city I hadn’t seen, and everywhere I turned there were dogs guarding the shops.
Now, the ideal was to get out of the city before it opened for business in the morning–about dawn. That gave me a little under two hours, as I was sure it was well past 2am. There was no moon yet and darkness shrouded everything, but I could make my way along the broad streets with little trouble. Still, I was in a hurry. I wasn’t lost per se, but following my nose in the dark with dogs blocking my every path wasn’t the easiest thing to do after a super exhausting day and a hell of a long night. I soon discovered that the city was not empty of people–there were people sleeping in places it was impossible to see until getting right next to them. (And I thought all I had to worry about was the dogs!!) Sometimes I wouldn’t see the light of a room until after I’d passed it, and I wouldn’t know if the light was on because they’d heard something or because that was simply how they slept. Once, I actually just about walked into a tent that was guarding an excavation point. (The dog saved me there!)
So every direction I chose was blocked by dogs and often times sleeping humans. And I was running out of time. The second option would be to hole up in a cave overnight and come out in the afternoon of the next day–the original idea–but at this point I just wanted to get out. The moon eventually came out, making it possible to read the tourist signs. This was only somewhat helpful,as I was still in a part of the city I didn’t know. Empty caves, stone column, roads paved by Romans, and shops shrouded in stillness surrounded me. It was eerie in a pleasant way, but I had no time to enjoy it.
Perhaps a half an hour later I finally found the back way out that led to the Bedouin village. And of course, not far down it were both rabid dogs and people sleeping just feet from the road itself. No go. It wasn’t until I turn backed and re-thought the information I’d seen on a sign that I figured out where I was. It all clicked. I’d been here before. Relief flooded through me. Immediately I turned around and made straight for the Siq. It was still a long way away, but at least I knew exactly where I was going. But the light was growing brighter every moment, aided and abetted by a huge sliver of a waning moon near the horizon.
As I neared one of the restaurants I’d stopped to rest at on my way in, a chorus of dogs went crazy. At the same time I saw headlights coming my way. Crap! Trying to figure out which way was best to hide (away from both the dogs and the headlights) I settled with crouching behind a rock only part way away. The dogs settled down and the truck went by, but….it went down the one road I needed to go to–to the only way out. Great.
I stood for a few moments in confusion–what to do? Eventually I decided to get as close to the entrance as possible and then find some place to sleep; it was clear I wasn’t going to make it out with people at the entrance to the Siq. I got a bit farther down the Roman boulevard (going past the crazy dogs) when I saw two more sets of headlights coming. This time I had a better place to hide, but not much hope of getting out. I sighed and turned towards the Northeast, hoping to find a good place. To sleep.
In the day time finding a good cave that no one would be interested in was easy. By night, it seemed like each and every cave was a prime tourist destination. I kept walking and walking, watching the light grow in the sky. Not one cave seemed like the place to be. I eventually found myself at the “monastery”–a place I’d assiduously avoided during the day as it was a super-long hike in the hot sun and every Bedouin guide was hankering to get you to pay them for transport. Annoyingly, I ran into the same problem–no caves that I thought wouldn’t be visited in the morning. So up and up I climbed, along this huge staircase in the pre-dawn light. By dawn I was witnessing a most incredible experience, and even had the wits to get out my camera (the shots didn’t turn out half as amazing–I was too tired). People probably dreamt of witnessing the dawn from that vantage, but I have to confess, I was so tired and over-adrenalized, I wasn’t able to take in everything (at least consciously).
There were no decent places to sleep at the top of that amazing roost, but I found a small crevice I could lie down in vaguely out of view and hoped that I wouldn’t be seen while sleeping.
Dawn came and went and I was abruptly awoken by a tourist who’d made their way to the top. He was standing just a little ways away from me and saw me once I moved. I hoped he’d think nothing of it. I knew it was best for me to wait until mid-day to go out–it would look suspicious if I left through the Siq in the early morning. Still, I was fried and had had enough of Petra to last a few weeks at least. I really just wanted to get back to Wadi Musa. So I risked it.
Rearranging my clothes and determining to only speak English, I took off down the long path, walking slowly.
And I was caught.
A young Bedouin I’d told my story to before finding the caves saw me as I was about to enter the Siq. I didn’t recognize him immediately and thought he was the 17-yr-old I’d escaped from. This guy knew I liked to sleep outside and like the rest of the Petra Bedouin, was used to hustling. He could recognize a lie ten miles away.
“Where are you coming from?”
“Wadi Musa,” I say innocently.
He narrowed his eyes. “I think I know the name of the friend you were looking for–Abdullah, right?”
“No. It was Adnan, but I don’t want to talk any more–I left some friends back at the visitor center.”
“Yeah, right. See you soon,” he says sarcastically.
[There was more to it, but I can’t remember the details.]
Luckily he didn’t tell on me. I don’t think he knew that I’d come in without a ticket. He was a village Bedouin and quite possibly not one of those called upon to find lost tourists…
I got a lot of curious looks on my way back out the Siq–no one should have been headed in that direction–but nobody stopped me. On the other side of it there was next to no one there, so I was easily able to slip into the hills and take the most direct way out of the valley and back to Wadi Musa. I got back to my hostel just in time for breakfast and was laid into by the manager. Apparently everyone is always kept tabs on in Jordan. (I thought I’d told him I might stay with friends that night…) <sigh>
The end result: I’m still integrating that night and recovering from the sense of being inside a video game one can’t escape from. With all of my attention focused on the task at hand, I think I left some back doors open…we’ll see. It definitely felt like the ghosts of thousands of years were wandering around in there.
But one thing I can tell you definitively: I was more than happy to NOT see another cave in the desert for a long, long time.