We sat down together on the outside deck, shady from the big trees, and prayed. My friend’s husband of just a few months asked God to bless the food and bless us, too. Then we ate. My friend-since-preschool scooped me a hot pepper stuffed with cheese, and later we had the grilled steak and asparagus. She cooked, and he grilled. We talked, laughed and enjoyed our food together outside in the summer air. When we finished we took everything inside, and my friend brewed us a fresh pot of coffee. She poured it into two beautiful little mugs—one of which she gave me earlier for my birthday present— and served it with cream and sugar. Over coffee we talked, smiling and laughing and savoring the sweet drink. We dipped blueberry scones in it. That tasted divine. How odd it was to see my friend bustling around her kitchen with her new husband. How strange that just yesterday it seems we were bustling between our eighth grade classes and shooting rubber bands at boys. How strange that in some time and space that defies labels we somehow both grew up, she becoming a hair stylist and I a writer. Will time, I wondered, continue on like this—strange as can be and leaving me in its wake, watching….wondering what happened? Writing is very nearly the closest we’ll ever come to stopping it. With words, we freeze time—make it stretch out long and lithe like taffy to our heart’s wishes. But even in the strangeness of seeing my childhood friend as a grown woman in her grown-up house, I felt also incredibly happy for her because I’d rarely seen her so happy. I felt that deep down stomach joy that bubbles all the way up and through to the tips of your fingers. She was being loved here in this place by this caring, good man, being romanced every day by someone who pledged himself to her forever and ever, who said, “I do.” I left that night feeling life much more fully than when I had walked in, heavy from a long day’s worth of work. Friendship is one of those indescribable things—moments perhaps when two people agree completely on things, a coming together—that makes life feel not so lonely and cold but rather full and warm and wonderful.
I felt fall this morning before I even got out of bed. It was that feeling when the air is just that smallest bit colder that it makes you want to stay snug under your covers for just five minutes longer. I returned from the Adirondacks a couple of days ago. There autumn already kissed the tops of the trees in red colors that fade downward into summer green. The ground there, bedded with pine needles, feels soft beneath your feet, and in the early morning — when mist still hovers over the lake — I can hear loons calling to one another. Before anyone else wakes, I look out from the log lean-to and admire the view from our island: a silent lake framed by trees. For a moment I wonder why anyone lives apart from a place like this. I get the feeling that such a view may one day no longer exist. Pavement compares poorly with this cathedral.
The days in the Adirondacks are long and warm, the afternoons filled with swimming off the soft, sandy beach, and the evenings, filled with nothing-talk and firelight, turn chill. The fire burns brighter then, it seems, and warmer. Yesterday, while back in the city, I stepped on a crunchy leaf, and then another, and another. A whole pathway of them, all crunchy. Is it the draught, I wonder? Or fall’s early arrival? Both perhaps?
I enjoy fall more than any other season. To me fall means beginnings, because for most of my life, up until just recently, it signaled the start of something new. September’s synonymous with something that’s momentous in the life of every child—school’s beginning—and it’s burned into my brain. So even still, at 25-years-old, when the leaves begin changing and the air turns crisp and my breath I can see in the early morning, I feel a sense of new beginnings, of starting over. I get this urge to buy fresh new notebooks filled with perfect white paper, pens filled full with ink and packs of pencils with erasers still unused. I feel like I should buy a few new items of clothing and that I should get organized. How strange it is then when I find that September comes and nothing in my life changes but the weather, turning colder, wetter and stormier until finally snow flies. The leaves turn crackly and the air cold, but every day I go to the office and sit in my chair without even a window to look outside and watch my favorite season. How strange that September comes and yet school doesn’t. And never will again. Everything changes, and I watch, wondering if I ever will too.
From a distance, he appears as a white dot. As we climb closer, he gets bigger, and the white dot turns into the outline of a man perched on a ledge. His feet dangle off it, and he wears a white robe with a white and red tasseled turban of sorts wrapped around his head. He’s got what looks like slippers on his feet. As we climb the final few steps, we see his brown skin and the lines through it. His eyes crinkle at their edges as he smiles our way. He makes his living off people like us, tourists who come from across the globe to see the ancient city cut into the rocks. Petra. But before tourists ever came with their dollars, Bedouin filled Petra. They lived off the land and from their animal herds. Today, the Bedouin still live in Petra, in far fewer numbers, but most do not inhabit the caves as they once did. They sleep in modern tents, the kind American campers use, or housing the Jordanian government built for them. They make their living from the industry Petra generates not by doing anything but simply by being the historic, remarkable place that it is. People need to lead the horses on which tourists’ ride, to give them tours, to lead them on camels so that they can take pictures that they will go home and show friends, to sell them souvenirs. The Bedouin are happy to oblige. Not only do they make their money from this, money they use to feed their families, but they enjoy it, too. They believe that blessings follow guests, and to turn someone away is unthinkable — not an option. Guests are from God. The old ways for them are fading, though. Few sleep as all Bedouin once did on summer nights: under the stars, stretched out on a bedroll placed on a rock somewhere.
“Welcome!” the man says to us. He’s short, thin and dark as all the people here seem to be in this ancient city where the ghosts of something great, the Nabataeans, roam in their old capital city. But he has a swagger, too. He’s proud to show us this place, the monastery. He’s the only one here. At his urging, we move toward the tables. On them, spread out across multiple tables, are the goods he tries to sell us — Petra souvenirs and stuffed camels and plastic bracelets and necklaces. A generator keeps the small refrigerator filled with cans of pop and water cold. Those too are for sale, along with a small rack chips and popcorn are clipped to. Down below tables fill parts of Petra where the natives sell their goods all day. From a nice-looking Bedouin who knew little English but said it so enthusiastically (and wrongly) that I found it sweet I bought a small turtle with brilliant swirls of color through it. The man told me proudly that it’s made from the rocks there, “all natural.” I picked it up, examined it and knew I had to have it. It wasn’t tacky, like some of the other things. It was cool—really cool—because it was in a way like holding a little piece of Petra itself. So I paid my 10 dinars for the rock, giving my money to the now even happier man with the dark and beautiful eyes and tucked it into my bag. My dad was just as happy receiving it as I was discovering it.
But up by the monastery, it’s just this one man, who looks almost old but moves quickly, and his tables. It seems strange that here, a place that’s even remote by Petra standards, a place you have to hike to, is a business man. It looks incongruent. From this vantage point, Petra is spread out in a sweeping view, something you can take in as a panorama. And it’s incredible. The golden brown desert under the almost-setting sun, the smattering of ink-black holes in the rock ledges where the caves were cut for tombs and later used as homes. I sadly thought, as I always think in moments such as this, that I’d probably never be back, that my brain and heart better wrap themselves around this moment, absorb it the best they can and remember it always. A cool evening breeze blows past us all up here, a welcome relief from the hot sun we felt at midday. The sky’s taking on a different color now as the sun begins to set, and the sound ebbs from Petra as the tourists ebb away, too. The hoof beats on the packed ground from the horses pulling carts filled with tourists sound more distant and infrequent. The stillness feels palpable now, as if these great rocks breathe a sigh of relief once everyone’s gone home for the day. Petra, I realize, is returning to the place it once was for hundreds of years. And because we’re laggers, and got a late start to our day, we get to see it change. A blessing I never could have foreseen.
We almost don’t go. The sun’s about to slip down for the evening, and our feet ache. Tourists walk back now, not further into Petra. We feel fatigued from the intense midday sun and all the walking, but we go anyways. One decides to go — we’ll never be here again, right? — and then another followed by another until we’re all walking together to the monastery that’s 20 minutes up the mountain. The two guys in our group zoom ahead of us. We see them five minutes later. They appear as two dots in the distance, waving from the rock’s ledge. They holler down for us to take pictures as they strike ridiculous poses. At that moment, we ourselves are getting our picture taken by a group we meet from Barcelona, Spain. “Gracias,” I say as they hand the camera back.
This one word amidst all this Arabic makes them extraordinarily happy, and a smile spreads across their tan faces. It’s just one word, but it’s the sound for them of home. Here in Jordan, we say “shukran” — which means thank you in Arabic— all day long to nearly everyone we meet. It slips off my tongue now, and I say it to the taxi cab drivers, restaurant waiter and young man who surprised me by wiping down my shopping cart before I use it at the grocery store. In a service-oriented place like Jordan, it’s a word visitors should keep readily available.
Before this end-of-day hike up the mountain and before we had our tour, we rode horses into Petra. Their coats were dusty, and they appeared tired and too thin. They’d been carrying tourists all day. As I swung my leg over its side and situated in the saddle, what I really wanted the horse to do was rest and drink water, but we were off. As we swayed on the horses’ backs under the sun, we took our first look at these other-worldly rocks people travel across the globe to see.
A skinny Bedouin man with a baseball cap, wrinkled button-down shirt and baggy pants leads my horse. The people here look different here than in Amman. Their skin is darker, hair jet black and they appear thinner and shorter, too. He asks after a couple of minutes where I’m from, as he probably asks everyone he leads every half-hour, and I tell him, “New York.” Those two words sound surreal here, as if the place not quite exists really except in books, newspapers and on television. Even to me it sounds strange. In Petra there is just Petra, or so it feels, and there is nothing at all but the rocks, as if they create another world all their own. He nods in a way that means he’s heard of it before, knows what it is, and probably pictures New York City all ablaze with lights and people and exploding with cars, but it’s no use to say “Western New York,” for he wouldn’t know it anyway. I picture the City of Buffalo but mostly its outlaying farmlands nestled in rolling hills. How different my home is from this golden desert.
He asks if I want to hold the looping leather reigns, and so I do while he trots along beside me on a low stone wall buffering a dip in the land. I worry for a moment he might fall off the wall and disappear into the sand, but he looks a part of it somehow, part of the land. All the people here in Petra have that same quality, as if they are an extension of the dust and rocks and sun, their skin growing even more brown from soaking under it for hundreds of years. They are in no more danger dangling from even the highest ledge than a champion surfer would be riding the waves. This is their home, and these crushing rocks they grew up climbing.
(More to come, later.)
The real stories from real life have been lacking these past few months, and for that, I feel sheepish. I feel like one among the hoards of eager people who start Blogs super enthused, only to quit them soon after after that enthusasm fizzles. Well, the enthusiasm is still present, just dormant. I hope to get back into a regular Blogging ryhthm soon. Why? Because this Blog is for me as much as it is for anyone who happens to read it. Here I can be me, in my voice, writing whatever it is that I want to write. There’s not just freedom in that but also joy. I returned not long ago (last month) from the Middle East, Jordan in particular. I could use a lot of abstract words to describe the experience like “wonderful, fantastic, incredible and amazing,” but I won’t. Because I don’t like those words. I cannot see them. Most readers have just this one command: “Make me see.” So, in the next few posts I write, I intend to write things readers can see. Or at least I’ll try to; as Middle-Easterners would say, “En-Shallah,” which means God-willing.