Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Weekend Away

My life is familiar to all those who work all week and then have downtime on the weekend. Sometimes you just have to get away. I am blessed by the fact that my downtime takes on special overtones when I can take off to the Mediterranean Sea or drive to Nazareth via Jericho or take a day trip to the Dead Sea.  I appreciate how adventurous it must sound (and it is) yet these are the places in reach for me. And I have learned that there are times when it is necessary to take a weekend away.

Recently I went with friends to Petra, in Jordan. This place has a special spot in my heart because my father was here a long time ago. Both sets of grandparents spent varying amounts of time in the Middle East, my parents met and lived, for a while, in the Middle East and now my brother lives in Dubai and I live in Jerusalem.  There is a beautiful colourful Middle Eastern thread that runs through our family stories. Both my brother and I have tried to take the opportunity to walk in our parent’s footsteps, and visit the places about which we have heard so much. Petra has definitely been at the top of the list.

Driving down to Eliat, at the very bottom of Israel, one can see Jordan, Egypt, and off in the distance, Saudi Arabia.  It sits on the Gulf of Aqaba and is a beautiful vacation spot.  It is green and lush but as you move away from the coast the topography changes to a desert landscape and it is not difficult to image Moses wandering, lost in the desert. It is confusing and the mountains appear bare and desolate. On the Jordan side, we drive up from the coast for a few hours gaining altitude and then - a view that goes forever. It is beautiful and far across the way, lonely and shining white in the setting sun, is Aaron’s Tomb. 

From the top, we drive down into the valley. We make our way to our hotel, settle in, and prepare for a night walk into Petra.

One thousand, five hundred nightlights have been placed along the path to mark our way to the Treasury – nearly a mile and half.  My level of anticipation is high, walking gingerly on stones and gravel and sand, through natural rock formations, with the stars overhead and the soft glow of the candles at our feet.  As we enter into the Siq (the long path to the Treasury) the overwhelming feeling of adventure – past and present – is palatable. We reach our destination and are guided to a seat on a  woven carpet. We are told the story of the Nabataeans and the city, carved from the stone, which they built here. Then the night is filled with Arabian music. Soulful singing accompanying the Ute, and the haunting melodies of the Bedouin flute. We are served sweet Bedouin tea and sit on our carpet, enraptured by the night.  I try to take pictures in the dark but they don’t really come out and there is no way to capture the feeling of the evening. We walk slowly home and I look forward to the morning when I can see everything in a different light.

The next day, we arise early and head into Petra while it is cool. I am amazed to see what I walked by last evening in the dark. Tombs carved into the rock. Jinn blocks, huge squares of granite. And the Siq, a long winding path through the rock. I pass the spot where my brother had his photo taken, just within the last month, and I am happy to think that he, too, has passed this way.

We come around a corner to see the immense carved frontal of the Treasury. It is here that I have a ‘moment’.  Once upon a time my father stood here. I lay my hand on the rock in a gentle reminder of the stance he took in an old photograph, grainy with age.  I think of how time is such an odd thing. Last year I would never even have thought of the possibility that I could be here now. Sixty years ago, I am sure my father could not have imagined that he would have a son, and a daughter, who would one day stand here too.  The rest of my day is spent looking through my father’s eyes. And I am sure that what I see has not changed too much. Certainly the view, the amazing Cardo, rock hued caves and tombs are still the same.  I see the young men running up the stone steps to the highest places, I hear their laughter, and joking about on donkeys. I see them with a cool drink in one hand and a cigarette in another. I see the shadow of my father as a young man everywhere.  My father, now, is an old man, and his recollections are fading. What an honour I have been given – to have the opportunity to embrace his memories and make them a part of my own.

Altogether, we have a wonderful day. We chat with Raami, the son of Marguerite van Geldermalsen, the author of ‘I Married a Bedouin’, I have kohl put on my eyes and wrap a scarf around my head in the way of the Bedouin women. We take donkeys up to the Monastery, another huge granite carved building. Once at the top, the site was well worth the death defying trip up, however, it is something I will not do again. The donkey ride part, I mean.   I appreciate that those animals do that trip up the mountain every day, but there are places where the steps have been worn away and there are no steps at all and the drop straight down is way down and when Sherry’s donkey tripped over its front hooves, well, that was it for me.  I will say that the walk down was just lovely, I saw quite a few things I had missed on the way up with my eyes shut tight. On the final leg home, after a long day of hiking, we rode horses. I like horses.

After our fabulous day of antiquities and exercise, Sherry and I found the Turkish Bath and indulged in the steam room, the scrub and the massage.  We went out for a lovely dinner, courtesy of Graham, and raised a glass to my dad, family and friendship. A perfect end to a perfect day.

Our weekend away continues in the Wadi Rum.  This immense desert is the land of Lawrence of Arabia.  We travel by jeep out into the desert and see the place where Lawrence lived, rubble now, since earthquakes are common here. We are taken to see petroglyphs of camel caravans and ancient trade routes. We see springs of water in the crevices of rock mountains, worn by wind and rain and sand storms. There are places where the rock looks like it is melting, still too hot to touch. We climb red sand dunes and see far off into the distance. We see herds of camels lazily marauding through the desert. And realize that the desert is alive with shrubbery and wildlife – an incredible array of flora and fauna.

We are taken to the natural Rock Arch. And in our enthusiasm of the moment Sherry and I decide we are going to the top. This is no nice and easy hiking path. This is scrambling. Straight up. Our barefoot Bedouin guide leads the way and we follow, a hand placed here, a foot indent there, and then a hand held out and we have made it half way. We follow along a slim path and through a crevice and out onto the rock bridge. We are way up and now our guide shows off by doing hand stands. I can’t look at him. I do however look out across the landscape and am indescribably amazed at what I see.  It is beautiful and the colours range from sandy to red to almost blue and purple in the light of the day.  Soon, we make our way down (much easier going down on our bottoms) and are driven to the perfect spot to watch the sunset.  There is a mist of late afternoon cloud that edges the horizon so we don’t actually see the sun go down but we watch as the colours of the day change and we turn our faces into the cool evening breezes.  

As darkness begins to fall, we are driven to where we will spend the night. Bedouin tents, tucked up against the red rock of a desert mountain.  We are the only people in the camp tonight, except our hosts. We are graciously given sweet tea before our dinner which includes lentil soup, then chicken, vegetables and rice, with yogurt. We sit in the large tent where everyone gathers. The colours of the cushions and various wall hangings are bright with different tones of reds, pinks, and blues. Some of the patterns are reminiscent of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.  The land is the same in many ways so the desert colours and the mountain peaks are a familiar incorporation into the artwork.

After dinner, we decide to go for a walk in the desert. We walk out a ways, into the dark, into the silence and lay on the sand gazing at the stars overhead. I am imagining who before me as seen this same starry night.   It takes a little bit of time to quiet ourselves. And we are not sure what we are hearing – is it crickets? the wind? our heartbeats?  It is so quiet.  And the distance is hard to gage. We see the headlights of a jeep way, way out there but cannot hear it at all.  We ponder the speed of light versus sound. Then, as I lay in the sand, I ponder scorpions and then I decide it is better not to think about them at all, and I just think about the mystery of the Universe.

Eventually, we slowly, softly and quietly make our way back to our tents. 

In the middle of the night I am awaken by the sound of rain.  The wind has picked up and the sand is hitting the side of my tent. There is a soft rain that dampens down the dust and turns the sand deep rust red.  In the morning it is deliciously cool and I go for a little walk around the camp area. The silence is peaceful and enveloping.

After breakfast we return by jeep, to our car, and begin our journey home. We stop for a swim in Aqaba and go snorkeling in the Marine Park.  It is like swimming in an aquarium – the angel fish and blow fish, incredible blue fish and pink fish, and the various sea anemones and coral. I float on the surface, looking down into this world of colors and beauty, and watch the sea life dance on the currents of the ocean.

This weekend away has been a wonderful respite. It has given me time to rejuvenate and to sit in the quiet of memories, the quiet stillness of the desert, and the quiet gentle flow of the ocean. I hold these times close and call them up in the midst of busy days or stressful times.  

I hope you, too, can find a quiet and restful moment in the midst of your busy life.

Salaam, Peace.