I looked up from my yogurt and fresh fruit just as a wonderfully strange bird landed on the low wall around the rooftop of Beit Sabee Guest House. The Hoopoe is a fairly common bird in Egypt, but I’d never seen anything like it. His red-crested head swept backward to a perfect point, while his long stiletto beak arced downward – two ends of a double-tipped javelin. One beady black eye peered at me with curiosity. Slowly, I picked up my camera and snapped a photo. Seconds later he unfolded his peach and black-striped wings and launched off the ledge into the vast sepia-colored plain on the West Bank of the Nile River.
I closed my eyes, leaned back, and basked in the sunshine. The rich fragrance of fresh-ground coffee suffused the air. A light breeze rustled fronds of the date palms in the surrounding gardens. Scores of unseen birds chattered and chirped. I was utterly at peace. A faint whooshing sound interrupted my reverie. Perhaps a leaf blower, I thought. A few seconds later, I heard it again, this time louder. “What is that?” I wondered. The third time was so loud that I jumped and opened my eyes. So close I could have reached out and touched it, an enormous hot air balloon floated past the rooftop and into the desert. Read More
On my way to the ancient tombs and temples in Luxor, Egypt, this woman invited me into her home to see her Egyptian traditional bread oven. The delicious smell of fresh-baked bread stopped me in my tracks as I wandered past her house. Lined up in a row on a stone bench were a dozen or so loaves of the flatbread that is so popular in Egypt. She spoke no English and I spoke not a word of Arabic, but somehow we made a connection and before I knew it I was inside her home and she was demonstrating how she rolled and formed the dough before sliding it into the beehive-shaped stone hearth. Read More
Karnak Temple in Luxor, Egypt is the second largest ancient religious site in the world, after the Angkor Wat Temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Construction at the massive site began during the reign of Senusret I in the Middle Kingdom (between 2050 BC and 1710 BC), when the city was still known as Thebes, and continued into the times of the Ptolemaic Kingdom (around 305 BC). The site was revered by more than 30 different pharoaohs and each one added something more to the complex. Read More
The boy couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old but he seemed perfectly at ease with the Bedouin men sipping tea in the cafe at Petra, Jordan. He tossed his unruly black curls out of his eyes, flashed a pearly smile that split his deeply tanned cheeks, and lit up a hand-rolled cigarette. Outside, two immense camels sat on their haunches under a searing sun. Every few seconds, one of them brayed in protest, exposing its blocky yellow teeth to the world. Multi-colored striped blankets were mounded between the front and rear pommels of their saddles, but no amount of cushioning could hide the fact that these ungainly beasts are a nightmare to ride.
When both camels started screaming in unison the boy jumped up from his bench and made a beeline for them. “I hope he’s careful,” I thought. Camels can be bitingly mean. My alarm turned to astonishment when he picked up the rope of the lead camel, put one foot on its flank, and swung up into the saddle effortlessly. Boy and camel rose in one fluid motion, as if they’d been born that way. The second camel grudgingly rose and the trio galumphed off in a cloud of ocher dust. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Bedouins learn to ride in the womb. Read More
This photo perfectly portrays why the desert landscapes of Wadi Rum in Jordan are often referred to as the Valley of the Moon. The the jaw-dropping view above was just a few steps from my traditional goatskin tent at Desert Rose Camp, which occupied high spot atop a rock outcropping. An occasional camel ambled by and the odd jeep kicked up a column of dust as it delivered visitors to one of the campsites scattered around Wadi Rum. Mostly, the vista was of shifting sands in myriad colors and Read More
I sought the advice of friends on how to book a tour to Petra and Wadi Rum prior to traveling to Jordan. Everyone assured me that any hotel could make the necessary arrangements. As they had advised, my hotel in Amman put together a custom tour that included transport in a private car via the King’s Highway to Petra, with stops at some of the most important tourist sites along the way. After three nights in Petra (not included), a driver would transfer me to Wadi Rum, where I would spend two nights in a traditional Bedouin tent and enjoy a two-hour jeep tour of the desert. From Wadi Rum, I would be driven non-stop back to Amman via the Desert Highway. The price of slightly less than $600 seemed reasonable, given that I would have a private driver at my beck and call. And it would have been fine…if I’d gotten what I was promised.
On day one I climbed into the car with my driver promptly at 8:30 a.m., excited to begin the seven-hour journey down the King’s Highway toward Petra. Our first stop would be Karak, a 12th century Crusader castle in the town of Al-Karak. I’d been told we would be driving down the King’s Highway, but my GPS map soon indicated otherwise. We were on the Desert Highway, which parallels King’s Highway some miles to the east on the opposite side of a deep gorge known as Mujib Canyon.
Assuming my driver would cut over to the west at some point, I logged into his wifi and checked my email. A few miles down the road he pulled off onto a narrow asphalt road that was riddled with potholes and gullies. Less than a half mile later the asphalt gave way to gravel and the road became increasingly rough. We slowed to a crawl. Featureless, dun-colored hills strewn with jagged rocks stretched to the horizon. There was not a house, an animal, or even a tree within sight. Read More