Note: This piece was written about an excursion I took while studying abroad in the Middle East in May 2016. It was originally conjured up as part of a travel writing scholarship application I penned in March 2017.
Being serenaded in Arabic by a blind man playing the oud in a Jordanian desert was not a memory I ever suspected I’d make.
But there I was, sitting beneath a long, multi-colored tent fashioned into a mess hall, swatting at pesky flies as I chomped on blackened lamb and beef kebabs and sipped on a lukewarm Sprite. I hadn't a clue what he was singing about, but his tone was soothing and the meal in the shade at the Captain's Desert Camp was a welcome reprieve from the sun's beating rays beyond the tent flaps.
An hour before, our group — 20 students, three program assistants, and a pair of mustachioed men in my professor and our Jordanian tour guide, Isam — had saddled up in the back of a caravan of early-'90s model Toyota pickup trucks and set out into the vast valley cookie-cut from sandstone and granite in southern Jordan that is best described as the world's attempt to recreate a desolate Star Wars desert planet.
This was Wadi Rum, an ocean of blistering sand occasionally interrupted by fissure-filled rock formations, situated some thirty-odd miles east of the city of Aqaba.
It is a place of paradoxical proportions: both out of this world and very much a part of it at the same time, a gritty wonderland for curious tourists but also home to a handful of the historically nomadic Bedouin peoples, such as the oud-playing man at camp.
Shortly after setting out in the dusty trucks, our drivers had led us to one of the wadi's rather climbable stone mountains. Some of us clambered out of the beds of the pickups and scrambled up the side of the structure, moving fast to be the first to take in the view, but also to avoid leaving our feet in any one section of the lava-like sand for too long.
From up high, the desert canvas, painted in its many browns — beige, taupe, tan — had seemed to stretch forever. The air moved in waves in the distance, physical in every sense. Standing up there, I remember feeling small, separated from time. I had half expected to spy Sand People moving sneakily between the nearby rocks, but there were none to be found — only some Bedouins far off, flanked by their camels.
Later, on our way to camp, our chauffeurs had treated us to a little bit of high-flying fun, zooming down a modest dune as we hung on. Before it was over, one student's hat, bearing the winged wheel of the Detroit Red Wings, had gone flying, stolen by the wind.
We never went back for it. It became an ornament of the desert, lost forever in time.
P.S. For a complete travel series on Israel and Jordan, start with Israeli Days/Jordanian Nights: Day 1.