“Hold still,” he says, and it’s all I can do not to laugh, because I, who am renowned for my trust and surrender issues, have decided to trust this man who is wearing a dress. He is a Bedouin I have known for all of ten minutes, and at this moment he’s pointing a sharp, tarry object at my left eyeball. “Don’t worry,” he says, “I made this myself by crushing juniper berries.” Somehow that doesn’t make me feel any better.
Despite my best yoga breathing, I feel my eye twitch with nervous anticipation as he applies his homemade kohl to the inside of my lids. “It’s good for your eyes,” he says. “It protects them from the sun.” So far my $10 drugstore shades have been doing just fine on their own, but I promised myself that I would say yes to every weird life opportunity that presented itself on this trip. So here I am, trembling like a newborn deer, on what I will soon find out is not exactly the top of a mountain in Jordan.
His name is Awan, I’m guessing he’s about 28, and we met purely by chance. I’ve been in the country for less than three hours, even counting the time the bored border guards take carefully going through my belongings. I was the only person making the crossing from Eilat, Israel into Aqaba, Jordan, and you’d think I was the first western woman they’d ever seen. Their attentions are more flirtatious than intimidating, despite their best efforts. I guess that’s the benefit of traveling alone in your 40’s versus your 20’s. In your 20’s, everything is scary. In your 40’s, only strange Bedouin men pointing sharp objects at your eyeballs are.
My plan is to take a bus from Aqaba to Petra, but the “taxi coordinator” at the border tells me the buses were on strike. I suspect I am being sheistered, but since I already know the buses could take as much as four hours to fill up and leave, and the mercury is already over 38C, I let myself be ushered into a car driven by Odeh, a native of Wadi Musa, just outside of Petra. Another benefit of traveling in your 40’s: money in the bank for long, unexpected taxi rides. Odeh and I soon haggle our way into a 3-day deal, full of lamentations of empty bellies at home (on both sides) that ends with a fist-bump and a smile. Odeh tries to convince me to come home and stay with his family, but fortunately I already have reservations at a hostel in Wadi Musa. Nothing against Odeh, but he’s not the first Middle Eastern taxi driver to try to convince me to become his second wife.
Despite my rejection, and perhaps because of it, he’s enthusiastic to show me his country, and after a stop for tea with his buddy (who conveniently owns a souvenir shop), he takes me to “Little Petra” and tells me to go explore on my own while he stays at the entrance to pray and drink tea. “You won’t be more than an hour,” he says. Little does he know I will meet Awan.
Little Petra is exactly what it sounds like: a smaller version of the world-renowned tourist site. Although it is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s not the reason anyone would come to Jordan. Seen before the “real” Petra, though, it’s pretty cool. It’s when I’m about to scramble (in my case, stumble) down from checking out the fresco in one of the carved structures that I spy Awan sitting on a bench below me in a traditional Arab thobe and headscarf.
Something about him catches my photographer’s eye, and I’m on about my eighth frame of him when he looks up, catches me in the act, and waves. Busted. I slip and slide the rest of the way down, ask to take his picture, and he flashes me a model-worthy smile completely incongruous with all the other dental work I’ve seen in this part of the world. If Land’s End had a catalog of Bedouin clothing, he’d be their star. He also bubbles with an energetic life force that I find irresistible. “Come,” he says in almost perfect, if heavily accented, English. “I’ll show you something most tourists don’t see.”
“NO!” screams my middle-aged, reasonable mind. “Sure,” my betraying mouth says. And so, after a short but steep scramble up some stone steps I’d never travel on my own, I’m sitting in Awan’s lair (or so I’m calling it). He has the physical grace of a young gazelle, and several times he has to slow to help this old wildebeest up the hill. Now I’m comfortably seated on a colorful cushion peering through the same trinkets I saw at Odeh’s friend’s shop (but they’re probably much cheaper up here). They’re hanging from a lovely a shade tree set in the deep rocks of the hill we’re on, and a gentle breeze cools me and makes them tinkle lightly. Behind a screen Awan is heating tea, singing “no sugar, no chai” to a Bob Marley melody. It’s a tune I’ll be unable to get out of my head for a week, or maybe forever. “Bedouin hospitality!” he says as he hands me hot tea spiced with clove and sage, just sweet enough to make hot tea acceptable on a warm September afternoon.
We spend a few minutes in what counts for my version of small talk, which in other circles might be construed as CIA waterboarding: Did you grow up here? What’s your family like? How many siblings do you have? How did you learn English? My mind is still reeling over him being number three of 13 children (“Camel milk is Bedouin Viagra and makes my father strong,” he says) as I pop the next question at him.
“Wait here,” he says, as if I have anywhere else to be. A moment later he comes back saying, “Now I will make you a real Bedouin woman.” “But I am already married,” I laugh. That’s when the hot poker comes out, and somehow I make it through the process of him applying hot kohl to my eyelids. Something about him screams competence, like if I were to stumble off the edge of his cliff (very likely in my case) he’d somehow, magically make it down the mountain in time to catch me. Maybe I’ve watched too many Disney movies. He selects a scarf hanging on a nearby rock (“Woven by local women!” he promises) and winds it around my head, Bedouin style.
“Come,” he commands, holding out his hand, and although my mind conjures every Aztec virgin sacrifice ceremony I’ve ever learned about, my legs obey. After all, I’m neither Aztec nor a virgin, I reason with myself. He, barefoot, scampers like a billy goat up to what really is the top of the mountain while I lumber up like a slow camel. And then below me unfolds the kind of view that brings a tear to my eye and takes my breath away.
A few minutes later, while I’m still gasping either from the view or the climb, we hear a shout from below. It’s Odeh, worried about me, because I’ve been gone more than two hours. Awan looks at me with intense Bedouin eyes and says, “You should stay. The sunset is beautiful from here.” I half consider it, but my rational mind intervenes with the reality that only bad things can happen if I stay. Like, for instance, I’ll learn that this hot 28-year-old only wants to sell trinkets to my lonely traveling middle-aged self and my Disney dreams will crash to the ground far below. So Princess Jasmine climbs gingerly off her magic carpet, into the waiting taxi of her paid servant, and off into the sunset forever.