A Chance Meeting in Wadi Rum
GUEST OF THE BEDOUIN
I pulled up behind the battered white Hilux. It had certainly done some miles, and it looked like none of them had been easy. I got out and walked around to the front, where a young bloke, dressed in a grey-brown galabaya, was topping up the radiator. ‘Hello mate. You ok?’ ‘Hello. I have..this one…’ and he pointed to the fanbelt, still wrapped hopefully around the pulleys, but flailed into ribbons. ‘Can you help me?’ ‘Yeah sure mate.’ The young bloke asked if I would follow him back towards Rum Village, in case the belt let go completely. I helped him put the tools and water back into the Hilux, he cranked it over, dropped the bonnet, and slid away down the other side of the dune.
I followed along behind wondering how far he was going to get. The answer came soon enough, with the Hilux overheating and settling in the sand with a jolt. The young bloke, who I guess would have been in his early twenties, popped the bonnet again, retrieved what was left of the belt, and then asked if I would drive him to Rum Village.
The young fella spoke pretty good English, and we chatted a little during the 25 minute drive to the town. I asked his name, and thought I heard ‘Laeth’, but wasn’t entirely sure. I was expecting one of the more popular Arabic names so was a little thrown. Reaching Rum Village, we drove off the sand and onto the tar, and I was guided to the general store. Laeth jumped out and went in search of a replacement fanbelt. Having no luck in the store, we went around to his brother’s place, but no luck there either. After another stop on the fanbelt wild goose chase we ended up back at the store, where Laeth settled for a couple of belts that, although not ideal, may be encouraged to fit.
We drove back into the desert, and followed the track to the stranded Hilux. There was enough adjustment in the alternator bracket to fit one of the replacements, and after installing the belt and refilling the radiator, Laeth asked if I would come to his family’s camp that night. He explained that they had a guest coming from Saudi Arabia (the Saudi border is only about 10km from Wadi Rum’s southernmost point), and were cooking a sheep in his honour. He said we could go and share the meal, then camp out in the desert. I thanked him for the invitation, and said I would very much like to meet his family.
After reaching through the window and starting the engine, Laeth put his hand behind the spinning fan (don’t try this at home kids) and nodded approvingly. He gunned the old rig through the sand, and I followed along behind him back to Rum Village, where we were going to leave the Hilux and head to the Bedouin camp in my rental ute. When we were nearing the town, we stopped so Laeth could talk to a young bloke who was riding a camel, with several other camels in tow. ‘My brother’ Laeth explained. Apparently he was out training the camels for an upcoming race at the nearby town of Diseh.
I followed Laeth to his house, where he parked the Hilux and disappeared inside. A short time later he re-emerged, wearing a startlingly white galabaya, and carrying a small bag of belongings. He tossed a bedroll and a couple of rugs into the ute and jumped in. I commented on his galabaya, and he replied that he needed to dress appropriately for the special dinner. I subsequently felt very underdressed in my camping gear.
We took off into the desert, with Laeth providing the directions. As we headed south, I wondered what the camp would be like. How many people would be there? How big would the set up be? How would the evening unfold? I really didn’t know what to expect, but was secretly hoping for something on the small side. I find big groups a bit overwhelming at the best of times, not least of all when I’m the odd one out. Arriving at the camp on dusk, there were several 4WDs lines up, and three large tents. It was a big affair.
Laeth lead me to the first of the large tents, which had walls on three sides. Running alongside the walls were long rugs, which extended out onto the sand beyond the open side. A small fire was burning at the entrance, with a blackened kettle nestled in the coals. Present were a small group of boys aged under ten, about five teenage blokes, and a group of about 10 older men aged between twenty and sixty. We walked around the group, shaking hands with all. ‘Welcome, welcome…’ I was invited to sit on one of the rugs at the entrance to the tent.
Laeth was seated along the back wall of the tent, and was talking to a slightly older fellow sitting to his left. After their conversation (which no doubt centered on where Laeth had bumped into me and why he had brought me to the camp) the older bloke said: ‘Thankyou for helping my brother. We were wondering where he was, and my father was getting angry that he was late. You are welcome here. This is your home. You are welcome here anytime’. I thanked him for his hospitality. A small glass was placed in front of me, and boiling tea poured from the kettle. I sipped at the piping hot, syrupy brew of desert herbs and cardamom as I listened to the men converse in soft Arabic.
Occasionally I would be asked a question in English. Where was I from? How long was I staying in Wadi Rum/Jordan? Did I work in Jordan, as I had a car with Jordan plates (rental cars have different plates which are easily recognisable; see ‘Wadi Rum’)? I told my story, adding that my sister had traveled to Jordan many years ago and said that I must visit. Leith’s older brother said that he had just met an Australian. ‘I have only known him for a couple of weeks, but he is a friend for life.’ I wondered how an Aussie had ended up in Wadi Rum, as there are not many of us out and about at the moment with the nation still locked down due to Corona. I didn’t have to wait long to find out.
A car pulled up, and a couple more blokes appeared, one in a glaringly white galabeya, and the other in shorts and a t-shirt. The bloke in the t-shirt was of paler skin than his compadre, but I had noticed a few Jordanians in Aqaba that were quite fair. The pair went around the tent and shook hands with everyone, and the bloke in the t-shirt came and sat beside me. I introduced myself, he told me his name was Matt, and it turns out he was the Australian which Laeth’s brother had referred to. During my last 15 months of travel I had only met three other Aussies. What were the chances of meeting a bloke from Brisbane in a Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum?
I didn’t realise how much I had missed talking to another Australian. Just being able to converse with someone who spoke English as a first language was a treat in itself, but to be able to speak naturally, without needing to drop out slang or curb my accent in order to be understood, was a joy. Matt was attending university in Abu Dhabi, and was completing a work exchange in Rum Village during his semester break. Through the evening we talked about anything and everything from world affairs to travel to Australian Rules Football. It was great.
Other cars turned up, and more immaculately dressed Bedouins joined us in the tent. With each new arrival, we all rose and shook hands as the men (I didn’t see, or hear, a woman during the evening) made their way around the group. The guest of honour arrived, and there were many warm greetings. The mood was happy and relaxed, and although the conversations flowed freely, the volume of voices and laughter was reserved.
After a while the younger blokes brought in three huge, round, steaming trays piled high with rice and topped with pieces of lamb. One tray was placed inside the tent for the older men, one nearer the entrance, and one outside. A pot of broth was brought and a ladle used to scoop the liquid over the meat. Matt and I were invited to eat from the outside tray, along with the younger kids. It was the first time I had been assigned to the kids’ table in a long time, but I definitely didn’t feel insulted. Kneeling around the tray, we scooped up the buttery rice with our hands (Matt reminded me that it was only the right hand that should be used). One of the older men knelt next to me, and while encouraging us to eat, used one hand to remove some of the tender lamb from the bones for us. Flat bread also appeared and was shared out.
When we had all eaten well, and presumably the hosts had seen a general pause in action around the meal, the tray was removed and placed a few paces further from the tent. The hosting family then gathered around our ‘leftovers’, of which there were plenty. It was definitely the best meal I had eaten in a long time, and tasted particularly good after my recent diet of dried and canned camp food.
After the meal the men reclined on the rugs, chatting and smoking cigarettes or shisha pipes. A number of watermelons were brought in, cut up and handed around, with our hosts encouraging us to eat plenty. As I sat and ate the sweet fruit, I was well aware of how lucky I was to have been invited to the Bedouin camp. Visitors to Wadi Rum can pay to stay at one of the many tourist camp grounds, run by the Bedouin, where a traditional meal is included in the package. Although I have no doubt this would be a great experience too, I was getting the authentic real deal.
Laeth came over to me after dinner and said that whenever I was ready, we would head off and find a camp for the night. I had no idea what time it was, but in June it gets dark late in Wadi Rum, and we must have been at the camp for several hours. Matt and I chatted for a little longer, then I caught Laeth’s eye. We got up, and I did another round of the tent, thanking all for the hospitality they had shown me. I wished Matt well, and Laeth and I left the glow of the tent and walked into the darkness. The air was cooling after the heat of the day and the stars were brilliant.
We climbed into the ute, and Laeth guided me down a series of tracks past the looming sandstone massifs of Wadi Rum. After about twenty minutes we crested a dune, where he declared that this was the spot we would camp.
Taking his rugs from the tray, he arranged them on the sand so we had a clean surface upon which to place our bedrolls. Lying in the bivvy, the desert breeze blowing across our little camp, I thought about the unexpected turn my day had taken. Stopping for the stricken Hilux had lead to a chance meeting in Wadi Rum, and an amazing experience as a guest of the Bedouin.
To visit the Wadi Rum Protected Area official site click here
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2 thoughts on “A Chance Meeting in Wadi Rum”
Really enjoyed this, thanks Jim. My brother spent about 8-9 months walking aroind USA last year, partly prompted by being fed up with people and hoping to avoid them. Much to his surprise the people he met and shared experiences with were the highlight of his journey and restored his faith in the human race. This post reminded me of some of his stories. Thanks mate.
G’day Steve glad you enjoyed the post. Yeah it’s funny how things work out – I was on my way to another solo camp in the desert and then things turned out very differently!