Climbing the Mountain in Petra

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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.)

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