I am sitting around an open fire in the middle of the desert, eating goat with thirty-five Bedouin. Why am I the only foreigner here? Does anybody speak English? And what’s wrong with everyone’s left hand? This is my third trip to Jordan. Years ago I came here for a week, singing for the British Council's Jazz Festival. That trip was memorable for two reasons: (1) I met John Inman, who on meeting me said: "I've never been in Amman before", and (2) my taxi to the Dead Sea broke down in the baking hot desert leaving me to push-start it, while the driver (who was almost as big as the car) engaged the clutch.
The second time was last November when I saw the incredible Treasure House of Petra. This time I am on the sands Lawrence of Arabia made his own in the Wadi Rum desert.
After a 45 minute taxi ride from Aqaba I found another driver with a sturdy 4x4 and 3 hours to spare. Mohammad (actually, everyone I met here’s called Mohammad) sings like no one's listening, dances like no one's watching and drives like no one's hoping to make it back alive.
At the first stop Mohammad recommended I climbed up the mountain for a better view of Lawrence’s desert. After half an hour clambering over rocks, I realised this was probably his little way of keeping me occupied while he drank coffee with his mates. He did show me “ancient carvings on a rock”, but didn’t know “what they meant, who wrote them or what the language was”. Wikipedia has since told me they are petroglyphs depicting humans and antelopes dating back to the Thamudic times, around 2000 years ago.
We stopped by various rock formations, a sand dune used by David Lean in his epic movie, and finally the highlight: watching the sunset.
It was a lovely sight. I have to say not the spiritual experience the guidebooks lead me to expect, but it was very nice. If I’m honest, I’ve seen better in Scarborough.
When we returned to the village, Mohammad invited me into his family's garden where about 20 men were sitting, against the walls, on carpets, looking in on 10 more who were praying. He gave me tea, told me to sit and disappeared to help prepare dinner. People smiled warmly but no one spoke English. Others arrived and we all stood and greeted them. Small boys came around with warm water and we all washed our right hands (I realize now the left hand is reserved for other duties). Then out came platters of roast goat served on rice, soaked in a delicious stock. There was no ceremony and no dinner conversation; this was about eating. In ten minutes the platters were bare. More tea was served and then Mohamed's brother introduced himself to me. In perfect English he explained that everyone here was of the same family: brothers, cousins, grandchildren. I didn’t ask where the women were. I had been invited at his father’s request for no other reason than I happened to be there when this gathering was taking place.
As a tourist, sitting around a fire, chatting to people whose lives are so far removed from our own, truly makes a trip memorable. Suddenly you're not ticking off sights from a guidebook, you’re learning how people live and what makes them tick. It opens the heart and enriches the mind. That’s why I love to travel.