Once I established Aqaba as my home base I decided to check out Wadi Rumi and Petra. While traveling to these places I experimented with an alternative means of travel; Hitch-hiking.
The day before leaving for Wadi Rumi I thumbed 10 km to a beach south of Aqaba and after this rewarding test I was comfortable with bumming 70km to Wadi Rumi.
A cab took me to the edge of town, away from the labyrinth of the city, and left me on the road to Wadi Rumi. I started walking. It may appear counter intuitive to walk when hitch-hiking, because standing still would get you to point B quicker, but, walking is part of the experience. After 15 minutes, I was picked up by a forgettable character and we navigated the bulk of the road until we separated at the fork where he continued to Amman and I began thumbing again. Sometimes the drivers expect payment for the added weight and sometimes the drivers feel benevolent and the trip is free. I brought extra oranges and offered them to my drivers, and if they accepted, the trip usually became cheaper.
After walking for eternity (20 minutes) under an omnipotent sun, I began to doubt my new travel methods. There was a camel-crossing sign hugging the road. I telescoped the desert floor to see if the sign was valid. And, sure enough, 400m to my right three camels were sun-bathing.
Finally, a dying Toyota that was sympathetic to my situation pulled over and offered me a ride. The two men in the car were brothers. The passenger had prominent cheekbones because of his skinny, almost emaciated, construction. His stoic face was dark and his skin, leathery. I imagined him slitting a throat and serving tea with the same frozen glare. I thought about jumping out of the car.
His brother, the driver, was lighter in color and spirits. They informed me that they were guides to the approaching Wadi Rumi, where they were born and raised. The stoic brother would occasionally turn around and dictate the course of my day. "You come to our house, drink tea." I made a decision here not to succumb to the paranoia I experienced with the coffee vendor. Pragmatically I combated my irrational imagination and soon embraced the experience with deserving excitement. The driver, Odah Hamd, was to be my guide and as the day progressed I found he frequently forgot his stern Bedouin guise and became a cheerful comedian.
After tea and crackers Odah and I jumped into the family heirloom, another ancient Toyota, and drove into the heart of Wadi Rumi. T E Lawrence, in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, writes this of the wadi:
The crags were capped in nests of domes, less hotly red than the body of the hill; rather gray and shallow. They gave finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place: this processional way greater than imagination…Our little caravan grew self-conscious, and fell dead quiet, afraid and ashamed to flaunt its smallness in the presence of the stupendous hills.
Lawrence wrote correctly, and the combination of his words and the pictures I took leave little for me to say.
The brothers own a campsite 3km into the Wadi, and, after the day was spent touring the wadi, Odah left me to enjoy the wadi in solitude there. Using random wood Odah collected for me, I pathetically started a fire, after exhausting half a box of matches and a box of tissues. The fire was too weak to provide reading light, so I was forced to mull over life. As the night aged, a cold calm covered the wadi. I pulled the blanket closer to my head. It smelled like urine. I was too tired to care.
In the morning I ate a pita lined with a can of tuna and, feeling replenished, began the hour trek back to the road to Aqaba.
I reached the Wadi Rumi Visitors Center and from there began walking down the road to Aqaba. Twenty minutes into the thumbing game I was frustrated with constant rejections. Most of the people passing by were in the ubiquitous rent-a-car, and, being vacationers, not likely to pick up a hitch-hiker. Another rent-a-car drove by and I, sarcastically, tossed up my thumb. To my surprise, 50m later, and probably after a brief conversation, the brake lights flashed and the car pulled over. I jogged to the car and opened the door. I was greeted by Marco, Enriquiz, and Franco, three Italians on vacation.
I had trouble believing they just ruffed the night in the same place I had, since it looked like they were returning from a night club, not a desert.
They were in awe. I was their image of the rugged wanderer: A nomad, who threw away all possessions except what he could carry, searching for the deeper truths in life. They began firing questions. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?!" "Is this how you travel?"(Italian accents). The amazement increased when they found out I was heading to Yemen.
Feeling the traveler status divide growing, I informed them that, honestly, I had pack luxuriously and had a wardrobe and small library waiting for me in Amman. I also informed them that, despite the illusion caused by hitch-hiking, I had a rigid itinerary. Equilibrium was restored and they were a little letdown. The conversation turned into recommendations and a comparison between Lonely Planet and Ruff Guides.
Franco, the driver, sneezed. They all said "Ewww" and giggled.
When I first stationed at Aqaba, I thought the most memorable experiences would be visting Wadi Rumi and Petra. Both places were great, but, after hitch-hiking, I remembered (cliche coming) that the journey and the people we meet on it are just important and memorable as the destination.