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Not Your Wadi’s Musa

We woke up that morning and headed downstairs to the lobby of our scummy hotel in Wadi Musa, Jordon. It was a place by the name of The Valantine Inn. Rough place. Despite the scummy nature of the joint, we had slept decently. That is at least after the machine gun fire ended. The celebratory shooting had continued until perhaps 1:00 or 2:00 am, but died off after that, allowing us some reasonable hours of slumber.

Meanwhile in the lobby, a couple of the guests were engaged in a noisy argument with the proprietor. It seemed the in-house breakfast is advertised at one price, scrawled in Magic Marker on the wall, but only if booked in advance. These poor travelers had inadvertently sat down to a breakfast that turned out to be double what was marked on the wall, and now were claiming false advertising.

The osmotic pressure of the travelers’ stress was intense, so we headed out to where we’d locked our bikes to an air-conditioning unit, and down into the city. It was the first time we had seen the place in the light of day. It was an interesting looking town, spread out over a section of rolling hills and valleys. It was not a big place, and very few of the buildings were over a few stories.  In the distance, we could see the complex immensity of the geologic formation into which Petra is carved. It’s a kind of bulbous rocky maze, full of spires and crevasses, all in the shadow of a great mesa.

We had been researching how to best explore Petra the night before, since sleeping was initially not an option, due to all the gunfire. Our research had been a disappointing story of expensive rates and restrictive rules. Wheeling, it seemed, was not allowed at all in the park. To make matters worse, we would also be charged at least $40.00 per person to enter, plus be forced into working with the monopolistic bus companies and water vendors therein. How were we to choose freedom?

That was a question too large for pondering on empty stomachs, so we climbed on the cycles and began the slippery slope downhill past the core of the tourist zone into what we hoped would be more of “the people’s” city. We selected a roadside restaurant for breakfast. We ordered some hummus with meat sauce, cucumber yoghurt,  a plate of fries, “special rise,” and an onion and tomato salad. This was all to accompany the central dish, which they most accurately dubbed “chicken from the machine.” These rotisserie chickens were to become a staple of our travel in the Middle East.

We drank the coffee and did “Chicken from the Machine” B-horror-movie shtick until our food arrived.  The food was good, and after haggling a bit over some dubious fees that had been added to our bill, I paid the man, and we hopped back on the cycles. We wheeled on past this tethered horse, and began to explore.

We stopped when a man wandered out of his house to flag us down. He asked us where we were from, and whether he could take one of the Dahons for a quick spin. We were more than happy to indulge him. He then invited us to come into his house for tea. We had just eaten and caffeinated ourselves, and were all set for wheeling, so we politely declined his offer, heading off in search of the Wadi Musa that was for “the people”, not just tourists.

We found ourselves on a hilltop, in the parking lot of a cinder block government building . We were staring out over the city and into the tangled rock that made up Petra beyond. Just then, the call to prayer was sounded, and the city began to fill with the voices of one hundred imams, all singing at once, in different keys. The cacophony became a bittersweet, dissonant symphony of rising and falling prayers, all carried up to us on the dry desert wind.  It was magical.

That was when it occurred to us. The way to choose freedom was to not go to Petra… at least not through the main entrance. We would ride out on a road that we could see from this hilltop, which skirted  around the park. From there we would be able to park the cycles and head in on foot. We’d see what we could see, experience the geology, and see whether or not we got in trouble with the authorities. It was an attractive plan: cheap, exciting, and proactive.

So off we went, tearing downhill, across Wadi Musa and back onto the main road toward Petra. We soared right past the turn-off to the main gate, heading back uphill and into the rocks. Eventually, we found the perfect turn-off and parked the cycles there, eventually folding them up, and locking them in a great pile, tucked behind a rock, and barely visible from the road.

And off we headed, into the desert.

Some call Petra an archeological site, but people also definitely still lived out here. Some of them we could even see, crouched in homes dug out of the rock, napping in the midday heat. Others we knew of only by what they had left behind. Even significantly far from the road, the rocks were strewn with water bottles and the bones of dead sheep.  Many, many sheep had been killed and eaten out here.

Off we went, deeper and deeper into the site. The farther we went, the more intense the carvings became. Soon the homes were not just holes in the rock face, but full on caverns with windows, cupboards and the like. Also, the farther we got in, the less occupied the place became.

As we drew farther from the road, the local population diminished. After a while, we had not seen anyone for a few kilometers. That was when Scott began to feel sick. As you many have already guessed, dear reader, this was not the best place to fall ill. But it was also not the worst. Scott needed to drink some water and rest. He needed to get out of the sun and into somewhere cool.

Luckily, there were plenty of options, and we had brought two liters of water each. So we continued up a set of stairs that had been carved into the rock, through a natural stone arch, and scrambled up to a kind of penthouse carved into an outcropping, perched, unsettlingly skull-like, atop a nearby cliff.  We half walked, half slid down the gravelly entryway and into the space.  It was a shocking 15 to 20 degrees cooler inside. We crawled in and Scott pulled himself up against a stone wall; he was soon snoring.

Claudia and I spent the next hour and a half wandering deeper into the archeological site, scrambling over worn stone walkways carved into the rock, and exploring the living spaces and remnants of what must have been a very interesting city.

We could see the places where the steps that had been carved into the stone would have connected to a bridge across a crevasse. The bridges were, of course, long gone, so we needed to find ways to skirt them and scramble over these obstacles.

After we felt like we’d gone far enough in the blazing sun, we turned around and made our way back to find Scott still snoozing. We ran over to collect all our stores of water and returned to the cave. As we entered, my dear friend began to stir, soon rising, looking much refreshed. After we all spent some time sitting and drinking water, we headed back to the bikes, which were as we had left them, just out of sight on the side of the road.

Back on the cycles, we pulled onto the road. We paused for a moment at the shoulder, though, discussing the best plan of action. We could see the next town over, perched on a mesa overlooking Petra.  After some discussion, we decided the pull of wheeling it was too strong to ignore.

So we began to ride now, through the heat of the midday desert, along the side of a cliff, slowly climbing up  toward the mesa. The longer we rode, the more spectacular the view became.

Soon we reached the nearby hamlet. It was certainly a slightly more down home town than Wadi Musa had been. It too, however, seemed to be mostly fueled, in one way or another, by its proximity to this tourist Mecca.

We continued to wheel slowly into this town, rolling down the street, and attracting plenty of stares from the locals. All around us children ran around with few clothes, goats munched garbage from dumpsters, and old men and women looked on from patches of shade with mild looks of disgust.

Near the end of the town’s main (and only) street, we passed a handful of men, all struggling to clean a couple of camels. The cleaning process, it seemed, was producing a fair amount of camel hair, which now was piled in frothing wads in the street.

At the end of the road, we found ourselves facing a protected back entrance to Petra. We paused for a moment to look out over the delightful geology, and the clusters of parked police vehicles parked by the entrance.

Then we turned around and rode back out of the city. Before we had completely made our way out, though, we decided to stop at a large trinkets shop to buy some cool drinks from their humming, and rather beaten up Coca-Cola branded fridge.

We struggled the last bit of the way up and out of the city, and then relaxed into a few kilometers of luscious downhill riding. Whipping along toward Wadi Musa, we rode with a savage upward stretching cliff to our left and the immensity of Petra spilling beneath to our right.

Back in town, we pulled over at a roadside café, and ordered some drinks and hookah.

We spent a while relaxing from the intensity of wheel and the hike, as Claudia did her best to explain Islamic women’s dress to us.

Refueled slightly, we decided to wheel the rest of the way into town and find food. While we were pausing at what was now becoming our favorite water vendor, the van driver from our exceedingly mediocre hotel rolled up. He asked us in English what we were doing, and we explained the story of our day and that we were looking for a restaurant. He told us of a certain restaurant that his friend ran, and where we might get a discount if we mentioned his name.

As he drove off, it occurred to us that the restaurant he mentioned was in fact the same tourist joint we had visited the night before, with that strange kid. So we decided to wheel on, moving intuitively.

Eventually, we found a good looking joint, and immediately pulled up to one of the outside tables and plopped down. We ordered a feast. It was the usual suspects: hummus, flatbread, babaganouj, yoghurt with garlic, fresh chopped tomatoes and onions,  and fowl.

Just as we were about to dig in, our van driver friend rolled by. He seemed a bit taken aback by the fact that we had not honored his offer. He made some awkward remarks from the driver’s seat of his van, and we attempted meekly to explain ourselves. Eventually he just drove off, and we turned our focus back to eating.

When the bill came, we paid and got back on the bikes.  As we were heading back, Scott spotted a barber and decided to walk in for a little trim. We did our best to haggle, but the fellow was insistent on charging an arm and a leg. So we moved on to the next place. This fellow wanted only an arm and a bit of an ear so we left Scott there, to go under the razor, while Claudia and I rode back to the hotel to off-gas.

Scott returned while Claudia was in the shower and I was shaving. I strolled over wrapped in a towel, and opened the room door to find this guy staring back at me.

The Extremes of Experience Indeed.


  1. Mark/Dad | November 16th, 2010 | 10:15 am

    I’m not sure if the text was meant to refer to the photo, but those were mules (or donkeys?–ask Cleo!) doing dumpster dining, not goats. Was the guy swinging the pot in the video cooling it off or doing a physics demo for you?

  2. Woody Schneider | November 16th, 2010 | 1:04 pm

    @ Mark/Dad
    Agreed. Goats they are not.

    He was actually attempting to heat things up, not cool them down. The tin is filled with fresh coals, to which he has just added some hot old embers which he us using to light the new ones.

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