"That Hidden Gem" by Elizabeth Russ
I’m sitting in silence. The sound of nothing hangs in the air while a cool desert breeze floats by. It's almost midnight. The stars are bright, accompanied by a mere haze and the strength of the full moon. I’m now laying with my back in the sand, breathing in and out, letting my fingers sink slowly — looking up into the heavens. It's chilly. I shiver and try embrace the dryness as I stare across the wide space, empty but for small desert shrubs. The red mountains, in contrast with the inky blue sky remind me of Mars. Our guide, Issa, breaks the silence with the cracking of twigs. He’s dug a hole in the sand and started a fire. At our bequest, he tells us a tale of his encounter with a jinn, a malevolent desert spirit, while lost in the Arabian desert. As he spins his tale, I look out across the vast stretch of land. I can’t help but feel small. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude.
We spent this day traipsing through the Wadi Rum desert. First on camel’s backs, then by jeep. We climbed through chasms with the help of our Bedouin guides, and then danced Dabke, smoked hookah, and looked up at the stars. The hidden gem of Jordan, other than the welcoming people, the mansaf, kanafeh, or the fresh fruit, is clearly the vast beauty Wadi Rum.
We first arrived in the morning. Slightly woozy from the bus ride, I stumbled off the bus and into the dry, blazing heat. My feet sinking into the sand, I plodded through, almost falling several times until I reached the bottom of a small dune. We were at the edge of the desert, looking out upon an old train and railway built by the Ottomans. With the Turkish flag flying high on the train, I am reminded of the remarkable and extensive history this desert is home to. Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, now more than a hundred years ago, much has changed. My pensive moment is shattered with the arrival of camels. The tourist in me squeals when I see these massive beasts, with eyelashes much lusher than mine, strutting in from the horizon in tow with their master. When I look up at them, they grunt in annoyance. Rude, I think. Immediately after this thought crosses my mind, I feel a warm breath on my neck — I turn around and a camel is eating my hair.
The camels take us to a collection of pickup trucks to transport us to our camp for the night. After getting settled in the bed of the pickup truck, under the protection of a canopy made from a make-shift cloth material, we're suddenly off. The colors of the desert, as we drove at alarmingly high speeds through the roadless sand, struck me. The reds, the yellows, the baby blue sky — this contrast reminded me of something only a greenscreen could achieve.
After some time meandering haphazardly through the dunes, our guides decide to take us somewhere new. We drive towards the bottom of a towering cliff, and as we arrive closer, it is clear that there is a small crack in the rock — a space barely wide enough for two people to stand side-by-side. Naturally, the trucks stop and we hop out. We watch in sheer awe as our Bedouin guides jump and climb into and up the chasm upright, using only their feet. After watching these acrobats for several minutes, my daring (or we thought so anyways) friends and I attempt to join them. Soon enough, I am being hoisted by a man half my size into this chasm, about 10 feet from the ground. What I see surprises me. In the middle of Wadi Rum, a desert with little life, certainly not lush in any shape or form, is a small pond filled with algae. The guides, brothers Mohamed and Ahmed, explain how Bedouins would climb these caverns to find water. In a place so seemingly bleak and lifeless, is a hidden oasis — only available to those who look hard enough.
I blink, and it's midnight again. I lay under the stars, cherishing the cool sand, the vastness of my surroundings, and think: how lucky I am to have been shown that hidden gem.