Giant granite, basalt and sandstone mountains known as ‘jebels’ in shades of sepia brown, red and pinks rise up defiantly, piercing the azure desert skies. This rocky landscape has weathered over millennia, into domes, weird shapes, craggy ridges and a mind-boggling range of textures. We are awed by the sheer bulk of the distorted structures whittled away by the wind and the soft red sand. Wadi Rum in Jordan is the quintessential desert. It’s a favourite with rock climbing enthusiasts-its network of rock bridges, ravines and canyons is a sure draw. You can visit Wadi Rum as a day tripper or opt to camp out under the blanket of a zillion stars or in tents with the Bedouins. The Visitor’s Centre is edged by the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, some colonnades with fluted turrets, named after T E Lawrence’s book published in 1926. The all time favourite David Lean’s, epic movie Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here!
This was the embodiment of desert romance. The British officer, a brilliant strategist and a soldier of integrity who led his Bedouin soldiers across the mountains to the port of Aqaba to wrest it from the Ottoman Turks- the great Arab Revolt. I was far too young to understand the story or the complicated plot when I saw the movie as a child- what I remember was the brutality and the vastness of the desert. Blackish purple shadows are cast by the afternoon sun on the pinkish sands. We ride a rattle-trap 4WD slithering through the sands, watching the rugged panorama unfold in front of our eyes with a cinematic drama. The odd shrubs break the monotony of the ripples in the red sand.
Our guide, Salem, shows us evidence of past cultures- ancient graffiti, rock carved drawings and inscriptions, religious symbols and whimsical drawings by caravans who passed through this desert, sculptured by weather and time. A Neolithic village dating back to the 8th Century BC has been excavated here. Riders on camels with their faces covered; with just slits for eyes pass us by. How you know where you are going in such a terrain, I wonder. Several Bedouin tribes live in this desert, following nomadic lives, making traditional tents out of black goat’s hair and moving around with their herds of camel. We stop at a Bedouin Camp where a herder markets a camel ride to us. He is dark skinned, with a peculiar head gear, but speaks good English. Salem tells us that a Bedouin’s bank account is the camels that he owns! Getting on to a camel is more complicated that I expect. The camel casts me a baleful look as if to say, “Why do you city slickers complicate my life?” I clutch at a small piece of rod awkwardly as the creature stiff leggedly lumbers forward… I shift in the saddle, hoping parts of my anatomy are not sore tomorrow! Salem tells me that long ago people used to ride a camel to Mecca for the annual Haj pilgrimage. God, how their bodies must have ached! I wonder how Lawrence was enraptured with the desert- me, I like my creature comforts.
From the bone dry desert we drive to Aqaba, the year round resort on the Red Sea. Since 2001, Aqaba was made a special economic zone, so goods are considerably cheaper here than the rest of the country. Aqaba is the centre of a huge government backed tourism drive and we see building activity everywhere. Aqaba is also the premier diving capital of Jordan and a scuba paradise. We stay at the plush Movenpick Resort on the beach, giving us a great view of the city. The town is balmy, breezy and inviting, the indigo blue ocean fringed by palm trees and ringed by red mountains. We instantly love this town which has a super-relaxed vibe typical of a sea-side town combined with an Arabian charm. There’s nothing much to do other than diving or snorkeling and that seems to be the charm. The city is compact and a pleasure to walk through. There are many local cafes, kebab stalls and alluring sweet shops selling the delicious kanafah- deep fried goat’s cheese and almond and pistachio pastries. The evening’s entertainment at the Hotel is a nubile belly dancer with her sinuous moves performing to an audience of people from all parts of the Middle east who’ve driven here from their less liberated countries to ‘witness’ this performance. Our guide Salem turns professional psychic in an attempt to entertain us. He reads the fortune of a girl in our group through a coffee cup. Yes, it’s a common Middle eastern custom- turn the coffee cup upside down at the end of a meal and takes a glimpse at the pattern formed by the coffee grounds. Our friend’s cup shows caravans and a camel( you need to use your imagination, of course)…maybe a mystical glimpse into the recent past!
We walk through the souq which has shops selling strings of gaily coloured beads, from lapis lazuli to various shades of coral, rows and rows of Hubble-bubbles or hookahs, Lebanese coffee spiked with cardamom, tacky belly dancers outfits, dense soaps made of Dead Sea mud and nuts and aromatic spices of all varieties. There’s a huge Jordanian flag fluttering above the shores. Aqaba seems to be a favourite with Jordanian and Saudi tourists. Even Jordan’s King Abdullah II has a vacation home here! The beach is filled with children, women in billowing black robes alongside lithe women in teeny bikinis. Aqaba is wedged between Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Sinai and has an international feel. Across the waters of the Red Sea we can see Eilat, Israel’s premier sea resort with its towering hotels and malls. We take a ride on a glass bottomed boat, looking at a rainbow of soft corals resembling human brains, giant coral roses, shoals of glassfish, even a sunken naval vessel and the impossibly blue waters of the Red Sea. The contrast of the dry, desert scape of the previous days and the multi coloured coral formations is dramatic and enjoyable.
PUBLISHED IN THE DECCAN HERALD, 2010