Along for the Ride

Youssef creeps slowly towards the crest of the sand dune. It’s winter in Jordan now and Youssef is wearing the heavy, ankle-length fleece coat that Bedouin add atop their Galibeya in the cold months. He peers over the crest of the dune and slides the heavy coat off of his shoulders, holding it up. Five feet away a desert fox is nestled in the sand, wind frisking its fine fur. Youssef had spotted the fox nearly one hundred yards away while smashing sidehill across a steep sand dune in his Land Cruiser, and had pulled around the dune to sneak up on it.

I don’t know what Youssef plans to do after he catches a wild desert fox in his winter coat, and I don’t get to find out. “It’s dead,” he says after creeping forward a few more feet. Youssef’s scrunched-up creeping posture drops and he whips his coat back on. It’s not dead though — not yet. I get close and the fox is lying on its side, legs mechanically sliding back and forth in the rich red Wadi Rum sand. Glazed eyes stare at us, spectators of a slow death, as the fox’s legs make the one-sided sand angel. It is strange and beautiful and for a long moment we stare back into the glazed eyes.

“Snake bit.” Youssef says flatly. He shrugs, settling inside of his big coat. “Let’s go.” We turn and I slide back onto the bench seat of the old Land Cruiser. My climbing partner and I have just been picked up from three days of climbing in Barrah canyon, a section of Wadi Rum 17 desert kilometers away from our house in Rum village. Like every aspect of the two weeks I spent climbing in Jordan, this latest foray was random and unplanned. My climbing parter Doug and I, as we came to call it, are along for the ride.

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Jebel Um Ishrin as seen from Jebel Rum; Rum village nested in far right corner

This trip came about because of the slow start to the Sinai climbing season. I wasn’t doing much at work and found myself trolling the Mountain Project forums for a partner somewhere in the Middle East. Climbing with a parter from the internet is a lot like a blind date: you’re apprehensive and hopeful, trying desperately to find out everything you can about them on Facebook the night before. Except with a climbing partner, your date quite literally holds your life in their hands.

A long email chain set our blind date to meet at the McDonalds in Aqaba, Jordan. The whole thing seemed dubious before it happened: we were both crossing international borders in the Middle East; I was taking a notoriously unreliable ferry used by Egyptian laborers and had an overdue visa, while Doug was crossing from Israel with advice from Israeli friends that said the whole thing would be expensive and maybe impossible.

I rolled into Aqaba a full day early with no food, no currency, and no phone or way to contact the random stranger I was supposed to meet and climb with for the next two weeks. Arab cities can be overwhelming in the busy evening hours and that night felt especially impossible as I stumbled around with a huge backpack and the wrong kind of Arabic on my lips. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta roll with it.

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Doug and I on the pitch 6 ledge of Lionheart

The next morning I met Doug, another unmistakable white dude stumbling around Aqaba with a huge backpack, and we managed to secure both money and food. Things were quickly looking up from the night before, though we still had to figure out how to get into the desert where we were planning to climb in Wadi Rum. While I ducked into a store to grab something Doug sat down on the street corner where he was chatted up by two random Jordanian dudes. By the time I walked out and saw him talking to them they had already gleaned our climbing plans and were telling Doug that any taxi would take us there for 45 Dinar.

After repeating for a few minutes that I only had 20 Dinar to spend on the ride one of the dudes jumped up and said, “All right, all right, 20 Dinar. We go. Now,” and he hopped into the drivers seat of a lifted 4×4 Toyota Hilux sitting two feet away from us on the curb. I thought I was speculating on a taxi price randomly with strangers and not actually bargaining for a ride, but 20 Dinar was a good price so we chucked our bags in the back and hopped in the truck. After passing us cigarettes the dude ripped the big Toyota into busy traffic and we were on our way into the desert — along for the ride.

Our new compadre did his best to sneak us through the tourist fee of the Wadi Rum Protected Area Visitor’s Center by yelling at us to roll up the tinted windows and duck, but the swarm of Bedouin tour guides at the gate pounded on the hood and did everything but physically drag us out of the truck. Our trusty chain-smoking truck pilot didn’t envy our fate and as soon as the ruse was up he cut us loose, the Toyota spitting sand as he swung onto the pavement towards Aqaba.

The extent of our accommodations planning for Wadi Rum was hearsay about a place one could pitch a tent for a few JOD a day. The swarm of tour guides around us were trying to sell us spots in desert camps, camel rides, jeep tours, and all manner of other things when they got out of us that we would be there for two weeks. A quiet man in the back, though, won our hearts.

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Sand and Sky: looking South from the Abu Ailah towers

Standing away from the chaos with a cigarette hanging from his lips Youssef said, “you can stay at my house for five bucks a day,” and we were cruising in the most clapped-out Land Cruiser I had ever seen in my life towards his house five minutes later. “Don’t lean on the door,” he advised Doug in the passenger seat. “It has an automatic eject feature.”

When Youssef said, “at my house” he also meant with his entire family. When we got to the walled-in compound both of his parents, his brother, and a mob of children and wives were running around and hanging out in an outdoor tent, smoking. We were immediately invited for Bedouin tea and a smoke with what was to be our family for the next week.

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Doug espousing the merits of spring loaded camming devices with a young apprentice

The Arabic dialect spoken in Jordan was completely new to me on this trip but I was still able to exchange basic pleasantries and blunder through a conversation. Doug had absolutely nothing, and was looking a little wary of the surprise cultural component of the trip. When he pulled out a package of tobacco and started rolling a cigarette, Youssef’s mother asked him, in Arabic, if he wanted any hash to add to his cigarette. Not understanding anything but the word hashish, Doug started stammering, desperate to explain that he didn’t have an illicit drug in his hands.

After comprehension he laughed and declined her offer. She shrugged, pulled a bag of hash from somewhere in her clothes, rolled a fat joint with one of Doug’s filters and started puffing happily by herself. Meanwhile Youssef was explaining to us that the adorable tiny girl squirming in his lap was from his first wife, whom he had recently divorced. His current wife hadn’t had any children and the girl split her time with him and his first wife. And again I learn that culture isn’t powerful enough to change the fact that we’re all the same species and not so far down, all pretty similar.

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Doug rapping out of the sandstone sea of the Jebel Rum face

On either side of Rum village the massive sandstone walls of Jebel Rum and Jebel Um Ishrin reach out of the desert sand. Youssef’s house was a five minute walk from the clean walls of the main Jebel Rum massif, and in our short time there that was where we did most of our climbing. The scene in Rum is a lot more developed than we had expected, having been discovered by a crew of trad climbers from the UK in the late 1980s, who also published the only guidebook for the area. We had a photo-copied printout of the guidebook, which was already infamous for incredibly vague topos and brief descriptions of long, complex ascents, so even the more popular routes still felt adventurous and untraveled.

We started small — first dates, y’know — but eventually worked up to stuff like Lionheart (5.10d, IV) which was both Doug and I’s favorite route of the trip. The climbing in Rum really is excellent and felt to me a lot like the bigger faces of Red Rocks in Nevada, except with no bolts, more adventure, and more splitter cracks. You can read specifics about the climbing stuff on my Wadi Rum page.

To our surprise and amusement there was a Fugi LED tv with 400 channels in the room Doug and I shared, a fact made ironic by the lack of functioning overhead light wiring in the house. For the first week we dropped into the unexpected routine of waking up early, climbing hard all day, having tea and broken conversation with Youssef’s family around the fire in the evening, and watching tv at night. I’ve found that when climbing and psyched on it, the other facts about what you do during the day don’t dampen a feeling of profound content and the strange and hilarious scene we returned to at Youssef’s house each evening made this feeling even better.

On day five we found ourselves being dropped off 17 kilometers farther into the desert with three days worth of food and a mysterious quantity of water in “the water jug” that Youssef procured for our use: a large welded steel tank that looked suspiciously like it was meant for gasoline. We plunked it into the sand and watched Youssef’s creaky Land Cruiser disappear in the dunes, wondering if he really would be coming back in three days.

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Barrah Canyon campsite with suspicious tank lugged onto the rocks

The prior evening Youssef had interrupted a session of glazed Sky News Arabia viewing by announcing that he was taking us into the desert with his friends from Amman, and could drop us off to climb in Barrah canyon the next few days if we wanted. We suspected that our presence was a source of entertainment and gas money but agreed readily enough, and after driving around until midnight, assisting with breakdowns in the desert (“Gasoline car is always better. Diesel will leave you to camp in desert at night,” Youssef advised us as we drove away) and waiting, the friends from Amman showed up where the pavement ends.

“I hope they brought a big tow rope,” Youssef said when he saw the Hyundai crossover with five dudes inside. They didn’t, and after we all got out to push the Hyundai out of a few jams Youssef hopped behind the wheel for the rest of the way, disregarding concerns about suspension, ground clearance, or rev-limiters and rallying the Hyundai through the desert. The language barrier was lowered with whiskey and cooking and a campfire, and though we never really understood who the dudes from Amman were we shared a memorable desert night with them.

The next morning, as we were watching the taillights disappear behind a dune, we realized that we didn’t really know where we were but our water-filled gas tank was heavy enough to declare its current location our new home — and so it was. We deciphered the topos and for the next three days climbed a selection of classic Barrah Canyon routes. We joked about the lack of our Fugi LED tv but you really can’t beat sleeping with the cycle of the sun in the desert sand, especially when surrounded with spectacular sandstone domes in every direction.

Youssef showed up an hour early with a giant pot of rice and bread and we felt shame for doubting him. He looked smug as we thanked him for the food and loaded the water tank in the truck, which he happily announced had just had a new engine swapped into it. I asked him what the criteria are for a ‘good engine,’ seeing as how KMs on the clock probably don’t have much bearing. They are the following: doesn’t smoke, makes power. The new motor purred and we rolled away from our impromptu home.

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Hidden valley between Abu Maila tower and Jebel Rum

And so it was I found myself staring into the glazed eyes of the snakebite fox, limbs twitching with neurotoxin but still alive, and still beautiful. Other strange things had happened on the short ride, including picking up a strange man in the middle of the desert, almost crashing the truck after plowing through a bush on a steep slope, and uprooting a small tree with the truck and a cotton scarf. I didn’t know who the man was we had picked up, but he was with us then, holding on for dear life as we soared over sand dunes, and was with us now as we stared in silence at the dying fox.

We left the next day. When I asked about when the ferry left port that day, Youssef said that there was a national holiday in Jordan and it wasn’t running. I fretted about how I was going to get back to Egypt until Youssef said, earnestly: “Oh, that was a joke. Just messing with you. That’s how it is in life, yes?”

Thanks, Youssef. For the wisdom and hospitality, and for taking us along for the ride.

Posted in Blog, Egypt
One comment on “Along for the Ride
  1. Susan Rice says:

    Way cool Riley.

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