Date: 31 January 2015.
Location: Centro, touted as the best restaurant in Amman. I couldn’t resist as it’s right around the corner from the hotel, nestled between the Prime Ministry and several palatial embassies. I’m very pleased to report that Australia’s is just gorgeous.
Marriage proposals: 9. (Edit: make it a round 10, the maitr’d just popped the question. This country is crazy good for a girl’s self esteem.)
‘Close your eyes. Make a wish. Then turn around.’
I do as I’m told by my local guide and there it is: the Treasury of Petra.
The feeling is devilishly difficult to describe. I won’t overplay my skill with words by trying and loading you up with ornate prose. I imagine it feels like, for those of you lucky enough to have seen them, getting your first glimpse of the Great Pyramids. Certainly seeing the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty or the Sydney Opera House doesn’t even compete. Seeing the Taj Mahal at sunset comes closest.
Unlike the Pyramids (‘You see from one side: pyramid. You see from next side: pyramid!’ sneers my guide), Petra is much more than Google images may have you believe. We walk for two hours through the heart of the Rose Red city that was lost to the West for hundreds of years and we’ve barely scratched its surface. We walk down a collonaded street and 40m tall tomb facades rise out of the sandstone to gaze down upon us imperiously. It gives me that unsettling feeling of being a tiny speck on this planet, inhabiting an eyelash-blink of time on the continuum.
It bloody is.
The ‘steps’ are long and steep, in parts it’s more a clamber than a hike. And now, guideless and blonde, I’m prey to all of the Bedouin merchants and donkey handlers that dot the path, ‘Long climb miss! Where you from? Taxi!,’ they offer, brandishing a donkey, ‘free air conditioning!’. It grows hotter as I climb, and the merchants more agressive. It’s like the path to hell.
At one point I acquire a Bedouin guide I’m completely unable to shake. His name is Salaama, meaning peace. He’s twenty-one and the proud owner of the funniest little donkey, Shakira. Initially I’m actively hostile to him, as Nadir strictly advised. Then, as I tire, I’m merely curt. By the time we reach the top of the jabal, he’s somehow cracked me and we’re laughing together. Then the Monastry, El-Deir, appears and it’s the Treasury feeling all over, except this time we’re on top of a mountain and there’s not another tourist here. I buy a pomegranate juice from the little cafe and we chill. Salaama tells me about his home: a traditional Bedouin cave. With wifi. And satellite TV. Soon, he suggests we hike up further to see Palestine. I hesitate.
“Don’t you trust me?”
Well, friend, to be perfectly frank not in the slightest. You’re a twenty one year old Bedouin guy whom I met an hour ago when you refused to leave me alone. And we’re all alone up here above some very sheer cliffs and I’ve read Picnic At Hanging Rock and I’ve seen The Lion King. But I acquiesce anyway. My gut feeling says it’s okay and Shakira has trustworthy eyes. We hike further up, my thighs protesting wickedly, past a little sign boasting ‘the view at the end of the world’ to a tiny ledge. Here we can look out over Palestine and the Dead Sea. Salaama shows off and we snap photos and goof around. It’s the perfect afternoon.
‘No. No, no, no I don’t want to ride your donkey or talk to you. At all. I want to walk alone!’
‘You come to our home and you’re not open to talk to the Bedouin!’
It’s a fair accusation but it’s all been too much. I’ve been overwhelmed by the sights of Petra, I’m tired and sore and thirsty and hungry and exhausted from feeling so exposed. I burst into tears. And so I learn that crying is an effective way to scare off a man in any culture.
Right before sunrise Nadir takes me to Little Petra and, again, I have the entire place to myself. Or, I sort of do…
I can hear flute music playing as I crawl up to a painted cave. Then I hear the mournful strains of the Qar’an being sung. I look down and there’s a little man, looking for all the world like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Carribean, singing as he wanders through the red rocks. It’s mesmerising and I plonk down in the ricks to watch. I take his photo. The singing stps, and I think he’s spotted my paparazzing but, no, he’s simply stopped to take a call on his cell phone. Of course he has. I’m shocked back into this century. A few hundred metres on a narrow, sloping crevice leads tantilisingly up towards the setting sun. I clamber inelegantly up and, up top, is Johnny Depp awaiting. Just him, an amazing view and a ginger cat who, he explains, he has named Catty. He invites me to take tea with him and, too exhausted to say no and with the accusations from earlier ringing back, I sit. We chat and drink awful tea and watch the sun go down and it’s actually very nice. He, too lives in a cave. He tells me about all of the tourist friends he’s made here at Little Petra and how, sometimes, they come and stay with him in his cave and they watch the shooting stars together. He has friends in Germany, England, the country of California. I’m Iearning to better trust my instincts, and they tell me that here is a gentle soul. I actually manage to relax. He gives Catty an apple and is sad and admonishing when the creature isn’t interested. He tells me to take Catty home with me. We wander back to the car together and I, weird, feel much more at peace than I have in a long time
That night I indulge in a Turkish bath at the hammam and walk out squeaky clean but starving. I steel myself for braving Jordan alone again and arm myself with my iPad, a. P.D. James murder mystery and a ready-for-battle expression. It does not at all work. Within minutes of sitting down the host has brought me hot pita bread and extracted from me a promise that I will later drink tea with him. Dammit. But I’m again grateful for Cedric and all that he does for me. Cedric, I should mention, is my galant imaginary husband. We ‘wed’ when I travelled in India last year. Lady Lovelylocks kindly quizzed me until I had his details down pat: stockbroker, 32, Aquarian, cheap taste in wedding rings. Cedric helps me escape and I slink home after dinner (and tea). Exhausted, I fall asleep with the TV remote in my hand.