January 8, 2016
Parceled, packaged and sold to tourists as the desert of Lawrence of Arabia, the standard tours to Wadi Rum are a far cry from the romantic image. The shantytown-like feel of the Rum village is left behind as we drive into the desert and it is only from afar that one doesn’t see the garbage strewn dirt roads and the general fly-blown feel. The vague sense of desperation generated by the drought in tourists hangs like a pall and peppers the conversation. There are dozens of camps littering the protected area of Wadi Rum but tourists are few and far between and each camp seems to have just a couple of tourists a day if they are lucky. The four-wheel drive vehicles are just a step away from the scrapheap graveyard but the drivers manage to coax them over inclines with the ease of long practice.
The so-called sites are barely a handful and every tourist-toting vehicle makes the same circuit. The spring that has been renamed Lawrence Spring and the same two rock bridges sees cars come to a halt and disgorge visitors. Despite the hundreds of sand dunes scattered over this area it is the same one, pockmarked with footsteps that we stop at. As the drivers huddle down to tea and a chat, the tourists are expected to dutifully trudge over the sites, climb the soft sand dune and immortalize themselves in plentiful photographs. Selfies are mandatory.
Come sunset, each vehicle totes its cargo of tourists to its camp. Many of the camps remain closed and the ones that are open wear a tattered air. Doors lean drunkenly and carpets that covered the frames either flap in the wind or are missing altogether. A cavernous dining tent that can seat a hundred, now has half dozen visitors a week – on good weeks. Dinner is a mundane affair and at the crack of dawn, after a desultory breakfast, one is whisked back to the village in haste and dumped with a collective washing of hands on part of the tour operators. This is assembly line tourism at its best and not for the faint-hearted. It is standard fare I suppose and I should have known better than to sign up for it. Honed to a fine art, tourism in Jordan may be just the ticket for some but it is far too developed for the likes of me.
But the desert itself stretches out in shades of beige, brown and pale rose tantalizing my senses. There are secrets in this desert begging to be explored. A cleft in the towering rocks called Khazali Siq leads inward in twists and curves and on the walls of the chasm are inscriptions. Some are Thamudic in origin, some are Arabic and some are scrawled in long-forgotten languages. There are pictures as well. They tell tales of men and women and of sheep with long curving horns. One picture shows a man with a bird – hunting with eagles perhaps? The origins of these drawings seem lost in time and our driver could tell us nothing concrete. Rumour has it that the nomadic tribes that roamed these lands drew them.
At another spot in the desert is a flat rock with multiple carvings. Most were of feet, each pair pointing in a specific direction. Some were adult-sized and some child-sized – depicting a family perhaps? Perhaps they showed the route to specific destinations for the caravans and nomad tribes?
The nomadic tribes that once walked through this area are long gone, or so I am told. There are Bedouins here still. They still own camels and goats and sheep but they do not travel with their animals like in the days of old. They live in concrete houses in the Rum village or a permanent tent in the desert. Their tents when in use, have a propane cylinder and a kitchen range and are placed not far from the village. The cell phones need charging so one cannot be too far away, explains the owner. And who can blame them? But these are not quite the nomads of Mongolia or Tibet or even those of Morocco. There are tents in the desert, at the edge of the village and pens with camels and sheep and goats. The tent is occupied minimally, only when caring for the animals. The sheep seem skittish despite their enormous size. I am told that this ram costs as much as a small camel. The goats are less skittish and the camels display a curiosity. One of them follows the owner around like a pet dog.
A part of me wonders how it would be to set off by camel for parts unknown. What a delight it would be to explore at leisure and camp along the way! I have a few days yet. Although past experience has taught me that to do what I have in mind will take many more days than I have, I mean to give a good try.