It was early.
The kind of early that does not align well with vacation plans, even “vacations within a vacation” as I tended to describe this trip. Only moments prior the sweet cacophony of the Adhan, a mainstay of Muslim countries, punctured the arid desert air of Wadi Musa and the surrounding valleys.
With my cat like maneuvers honed through years of crashing clumsily into stationary objects, I did not wake my roommate as he still laid there lightly snoring away the early morning hours. He wisely advised me to not bother awakening him to join me on my foolish morning errand. I quickly gathered my belongings and only knocking over one errant chair I departed into the cool, dry, December morning.
The streets were eerily quiet. Granted, here in December it wasn’t very busy at all, but there was something strange about the utter stillness of the streets en route to Petra. Occasionally a distant sound of the Iqama whispered to wind that the observant were commencing their morning prayers.
All around nearby stands were shuttered, and I awaited tumbleweed or whatever the local flora equivalent. I walked down the path towards the gate, passing by shops cleverly marketing off of “Indiana Jones” and other tourist ploys.
* * * * * *
The gate and ticket windows were vacant, completely absent of the throngs of people pushing their way to get their tickets. The time was still a bit early for entry but this did not bode well, and I scoffed my feet and paced slowly to keep warm and occupy my time as I awaited the approaching opening.
Which summarily passed.
It is Jordan I had to remind myself, standing alone; decrying punctuality is fruitless.
I leaned up against the booth in a sigh and heard a small stir inside. Trying desperately to peak inside the small office through the dust stained windows with little luck. Inside, I could only make out small bits of clutter but no people. I rapped lightly on the window regardless, perhaps just in hope as I had nothing to lose anyway.
Then I heard another stir, so I knocked once more.
“We don’t open for 30 minutes, come back later.” – I heard a voice call out.
“The sign says it should be open already” – I replied, although I was not certain the receiver.
“Now it is 30 minutes later, they changed it a few months ago.” – He replied.
I really did not want to go back only to turn around again. And I certainly did not want to head back to my hotel and disturb my friend once again.
“I’ll wait.” – I sighed and continued my pacing to stay warm.
I heard some scuffling and some mumbled words and then a door open outwardly. A older gentleman exited slowly but deliberately; the look of sleep still hanging heavy on his eyes. He donned a worn but well kept sweater and pants, and a smegh wrapped tightly around his head to keep out the morning chills. Stretching, he turned to me and licked his lips to speak.
He complained about not sleeping very well, and stretched some more, trying to prepare his body for his daily routine. Smiling, he welcome me to Jordan as so many have done before.
“It is dark, too dark now to go into Petra”
I replied by pointing out my headlamp.
“You need a ticket, and it is closed now”
I showed him my two day ticket from yesterday.
He sighed, clearly frustrated by my preparation. But I was steadfast, as I really had no where else to be.
“Well…It is still a bit early, but I will let you go.”
And with that he wandered away smiling, and with a snap, the gate opened, and off I went. I was to be the first tourist into Petra this morning.
* * * * * *
I moved quickly as I made my way through the gate and onto the path towards the Siq, the impressive 1km long slot canyon that is the entrance of the city. My headlamp, the only light, drew colorful figures on the well beaten path as my feet bounced along towards the valley below. I could still see the stars lightly in the morning sky, knowing at any moment they would be washed out by the rising sun. The only sounds were those of my scuffling feet and kicked stones that tossed about as I moved quickly along.
I wandered along the trail approaching the entrance to the Siq. Surrounding me were the shops, usually full of touts and tourists, but now standing vacant, absent of any activity at all. In an almost post apocalyptic manner, the trinkets and other goods for sale still lay out in their displays, unlocked and unwatched, still inviting tourists to take them home yet without the proprietors watching them.
A layer of dust blanketed everything, masking the time of withdraw. Beyond that in a similar manner a police booth appeared empty as my headlamp lit up its windows. The spooky feeling of absence with the black and white quality of my light reflecting off the swirling dust made me feel as if I happened upon another civilization’s abandonment of the city of Petra.
Just beyond view I could see the walls of the Siq as the light reflected off. It is strange how much more imposing it felt in the darkness. The world around me seemed to be only colored in black and white. As I looked at the walls my light could only reach outer edges and not pierce the inky black interior. It appeared I was to enter a void between two mountain sides.
Even with my headlamp, the lack of light made walking in the Siq disorienting. Trying to imagine how an ancient invader would feel as he went through these walls towards the city beyond. I turned off my light and the world went dark. I knew the walls were surrounding me and I felt simultaneously without guidance and claustrophobic.
My other senses heightened at my loss of sight and I could smell the dirt below my feet and even believe I could smell the light must of the walls closest to me. My ears keenly aware of the lack of sound like the inside of an anechoic chamber. Not even a light breeze stirred nearby. If you ever felt the absence of sound before you probably understand the feeling of strangeness and clarity.
Everywhere I turned things seen yesterday seemed brand new again in the early morning hours. A tree in a corner, or the odd turns the Siq makes as it winds its way forward. My concentration was heightened due to the limitations of my narrow light.
I had almost forgot about the incredible feeling of having this entire place to myself. How often does one get a place like this to oneself in this day and age? And surely I wouldn’t be so lucky again.
I slowed my steps further realizing I was getting to the end of the Siq passage, the entrance to the city ahead. Less old era fortune seeker and more modern curios shopper. But as I turned the last corner of the Siq that opened into the wide area of the Treasury, I saw a light, shining straight at me and the outline of two men silhouetted in the darkness.
Clearly I was not alone.
* * * * * *
Officially the Bedouins had all been moved out, to nearby villages outside of Petra proper. But as with many things, policy does not equal reality, as the Bedouins, regularly peddling their wares to wide-eyed tourists still live in the shadows of these incredible wonders.
They stood frozen there for a moment staring at me as I slowly started to approach. I was as unexpected to them as they were to me. And if there is anything that can cause your mind to return to the present day is someone checking to make sure your entrance ticket is valid.
Clearly happy with me not having snuck into the World Wonder this morning, they smiled, welcomed me and returned to their morning chores.
I stood there slowly setting up my tripod while they watched me curiously from the corners of their eyes. It was still really dark and I could barely make out the outline of the Treasury as it stood watch at the far side of the valley. I tried to light up corners up it with my flashlight to take photos, and sat there waiting impatiently for the morning sun.
It’s often when we come for a specific reason, such as a photograph, that we focus all our attention on that instead of the incredible moment we find ourselves in. Here before dawn, waiting for the first light to shine in this historic city. It felt right out of a Indiana Jones movie (Reference clearly intentional… )
* * * * * *
The area was large, but felt both larger and smaller than it did the day before. The confining darkness enveloping me and preventing my sight beyond a few meters in any direction and imposing walls and entrance enclosing my possible movements.
As I waited I watched the few locals busying themselves with the morning. Two in discussion a few meters to my side and the other behind me quietly sweeping and picking up trash to beautify the area before the inevitable onslaught of tourists.
So I sat, against the edge of the Siq, with my camera an arm’s length away. I was mesmerized as much by the actions of the people around me as of the place I was in. As I was watching the movement of the folks around me, one of them wandered over to me with two cups of tea in hand.
* * * * * *
He sat down next to me as he insisted I share a drink with him and we began to chat.
We talked a lot; about life here in Petra. How they lived in a small place right behind the store I could see just off in the distance. How incredible it is to wake up to this amazing place. Life in tourism, in Jordan, in the Middle East. We talked about my few weeks here and my unknown plans for the future. Taking a “break” from work without the guarantee of a place to return. He said God would provide and I of course knew he was right.
Things always happen for a reason don’t they?
It was fascinating hearing a local point of view on Petra and the areas around it. The changes it has seen over the years now especially that it is consider a “New World Wonder”. For one thing the price went up a lot! He also had family in Chicago (It seems that nearly everyone in Jordan has family in the US somewhere, particularly in Chicago), and it was a dream of his to visit there and see his family. Strange our dreams, some are so much easier for ones to accomplish than others.
I told him about my story, my desire to learn Arabic, and the path that lead me here that day. He said my Arabic was good (it wasn’t – I had been only in Jordan a few weeks at this point), and he also mentioned that the “Ammiya” (colloquial) Arabic I was learning was all wrong. Ammiya changes greatly between countries and even regions within a country, so what I learn in Amman would very well be incorrect here.
* * * * * *
Sunrise came…I recall. It is really hard to judge the exact timing of the rising sun over the walls of the Siq. We both sort of noticed it at the same time. It wasn’t spectacular to be honest, but I excused myself to take a few shots. Mostly for posterity and to justify dragging all this gear to Jordan and to Petra in particular.
I had spent so much time waiting and hoping for sunrise to almost not realize that the great value was in the encounters. The ones that you remember longingly when you look upon the photos years later. The ones you try to recount to friends and family while stating, “You just had to be there to understand”.
We sat for a bit more, still chatting, the tea long finished, laughing, joking, and sharing stories and ideas. I practiced my Arabic which lasted about 15 minutes at this point, which was by far an accomplishment for me.
It wasn’t until another hour or so passed when I saw a few more wide-eyed tourists exit from the Siq pointing and staring at the Treasury before them. We knew time had come for us to part ways. I figured it was a good time to call my friend and see if he was awake.
His work day was beginning and it was time to start our respective days. He excused himself, we thanked each other, and said our goodbyes. He headed back towards his store and waved as I folded up my tripod, waving in return, and continued my walk deeper into the city.