Thursday, September 12, 2019

Camel Surfing in Jordan

     After more than a year my PTSD has decreased enough that it is time to tell the tale of our trip to Jordan.  Ever since Kathleen and I met we have talked about doing a long distance desert crossing by camel.  The original dream was to cross the Sahara but currently there is not a safe way to cross North to South that does not involve crossing Al Qaeda territory at some point.  Our Plan B was to do a crossing of the Taklamakan (Sea of Death) Desert in western China but that is currently where all the Uighur “reeducation camps” are located so the Chinese government will not allow Westerners in that area.  Our dream hasn’t died however so we decided that we would go to Jordan to learn everything we could about long distance camel trekking – how to ride, feed, saddle, handle, and take care of them in general.  We did some research on the internet and contacted a guy named Mohammed in the Wadi Rum Desert of Jordan who had bred racing camels in the past and was willing to create a “Camel School” to teach us the skills we needed.  We would dub this “Camel Camp”.   

     Once we started planning dates for the trip it turned out that our friend Rich White wanted to join us including coming to Camel Camp.  He had never had an urge to ride camels before this but it sounded fun to him and he had the time off.  It also worked out that we would overlap for part of the time with our Canadian friends Kristin and Ryan.  The first half of the trip would be more typical tourist with us visiting the most important cultural sights of Jordan and then the second half of the trip would be Camel Camp.

     Kristin and Ryan had arrived the day before the rest of us so they met us at the airport with a rented SUV.  Jordanian driving was typical Middle East or Italian style driving.  Lanes don’t mean anything and the first car there wins.  We drove to the Dead Sea first and stayed at the Crown Plaza.  This hotel was much more high end than Kathleen and I normally do and it was obvious that it was a fancy enough hotel to be a terrorist target.  Concrete barriers rose up and down out of the ground at the gate, guards searched under the cars with mirrors for bombs, and there were metal detectors and X-ray machines to get into the lobby.  The nice thing about this hotel was that it has direct access to the Dead Sea.  The mud there is purported to have healing properties and the water is so saline that you float with no effort.  From this hotel there was also easy access to Mt. Nebo which is where Moses first caught sight of the Promised Land.  There are also a lot of old mosaics in the area worth seeing.  The following days were spent exploring old Crusader castles, hiking in the mountainous Dana Biosphere Reserve, and spending 2 days exploring most of the ancient city of Petra.  On our hike at the Dana Biosphere a shepherd and our guide stopped, built a fire, and made tea for everyone.  That was followed by milking one of the goats and giving us a sample (after boiling it) with sugar added.  It was like a hot chocolate without the chocolate.  A very sweet and tasty desert drink.  In Petra we met a man named Faris who has a home in the town but prefers to live in the cave houses within Petra like his ancestors did.  We were invited to and had dinner one of the nights in his cave. These caves were small square rooms with cushions, pillows, and rugs, a small kitchen with a hot plate and small sink, and a solar powered TV with a satellite dish on the top of the rock.  It was one of the best meals of the trip and one of the cooler cultural experiences we had.  Afterwards we were able to sneak around the Petra site after dark though the guards we ran into were not happy about it.  

     Eventually we made our way to Wadi Rum (also known as the Valley of the Moon).  Kristin and Ryan joined us for the first day and then the rest of us spent another 6 days riding through the desert exploring most of the Wadi Rum Protected Area and beyond in a big circle along the Saudi Arabian border.  The landscape there looks like Mars and this is where many of the exterior shots for the movie, The Martian were filmed.  Wide open expanses of red sand with sheer faced sandstone mountains jutting up all around.  With the erosion the mountains had the appearance of melting and if a person were on hallucinogens they might freak out with all the faces and skulls that appeared even when you were sober.  Brilliant blue sky, yellow mountains, slot canyons, and red sand made for a visual feast for the eyes.  
Starting off out of Wadi Rum Village          
The only trees seen at Lawrence's Spring     
Patiently waiting                                           
Enjoying the sunrise                                     
Eroded rocks                                                
Views everywhere                                       
Kathleen riding the tracks Day 3            
Big Rock Bridge                                   
Right from the beginning our 18 year old guide Mutlek showed us how to saddle the camels up.  Lots of blankets and padding is the key.  The girth strap needs to be pulled pretty tight but the belly band behind it not so much.  The camels tend to grumple and flutter their soft palettes (dulaa) which appears like a fleshy balloon out of the side of the males mouths, especially when they are not happy.
Mutlek checking saddles                 
Watering the camels                        

Mutlek also taught us the basic verbal commands – clicking your tongue to get them to go faster (like a horse), “Ichhhhh” to get them to kneel down, and “Haj” if you really wanted them to go faster.  

It turned out that we were Mutlek’s first guiding experience but Mohammed had picked him because he had a better rapport and understanding with the camels then most other people.  We also had a support truck driven by Salem who was our cook and was a well known local musician who would play his Oud (a lute type instrument) each night.  
Salem and Mutlek playing music   
Lunchtime jam session                   

Mutlek struggled with our names so soon gave us Arabic names:  I was Nasar, Kathleen was Hederra, and Rich became Saleh.  We struggled with the Arabic names for the camels so we named them:  Seth Rasta Rum, Francis Wadi Walla, and Louis Maudeline Jordan.  Mutlek’s camel was dubbed Krissy because it was the fastest and liked to run away. Despite their names all the camels were boys.  
Seth Rasta Rum                               
Maudie and Krissy                          

The first night we glamped in fancy tents with a Syrian refuge family cooking for us.  The rest of the nights we slept under the stars except for one night about a mile from the Saudi border where we slept with a Bedouin shepherd and his son in their tent.  
Desert camp on Day 4                     
Day 4 Camp                                    
Sunset on Day 4                              
Day 5 Desert Camp                         
Sunrise from camp 5                       
Morning at Desert Camp #6           

The Bedouin are allowed to cross the border but we were told that despite being wilderness that it is closely monitored by cameras and that if we tried to cross we would be rapidly apprehended.  Our path went past the high point of Jordan, Um Ad Dami so we scrambled up that one of the mornings with distant views of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, and the Red Sea.  
View on the way up Um Ad Dami 
Summit of  Um Ad Dami               

Camels can be ornery and stubborn when they don’t want to do things.  One morning I woke up to watch the sunrise just in time to see Mutlek’s camel Krissy walking off and disappearing over the ridge about a mile away.  Luckily I was not the one that had hobbled them the night before.  The camel wanted to go home and was headed back in the direction of the village.  Mutlek and Salem jumped in the truck and took off after it.  I was holding onto Maudie’s rope when he decided with Mutlek gone that he could start acting up.  All of a sudden he tried to run off.  I held onto the rope but he wanted no part of me.  I tried to get him to Kush (kneel down) but he bared his teeth and continued to dance around.  After a minute or two of watching this Rich says, “Let me give it a try”.  The next thing we know Maudie put her head down, bared her teeth, and charged Rich.  Kathleen and I still have an image of Rich’s legs being a blur in his flip flops as he ran away tripping over bushes with Maudie going after his ass.  No one got hurt so it ended up being pretty funny.  We gave up trying to control him and just held onto the rope until Mutlek got back and he instantly calmed down again.  We rode every day for a week and fell into a routine that felt like it could go on forever.  Ride in the morning until lunch, take a siesta during the hottest part of the day, and then ride in the late afternoon/early evening until shortly before dusk.  
We would ride until dusk                  
Entering one of the many canyons    
Our view each day                             
It wasn't all sand                                
Erosion does crazy things                  
Our camel crew                                  
Could be Mars except for the camels 
Sunrise with beginning of sand storm
Start of sandstorm                              

By the end of the week Mutlek was comfortable enough with our skills that he let us do all the feeding, saddling, and hobbling.  I would have him check the saddles after putting them on since if they slipped they could cause pressure sores and injure the animals but otherwise he trusted us and I think he liked that he was getting paid and that we were doing all the work. 

     It was a grand adventure until the last 15 minutes of the trip as we were riding back into Wadi Rum.  Before we started Mohammed had told us that as a Bedouin it is very shameful to fall off of your camel, but if you do fall off of your camel, “Fall onto soft sand, not hard sand.”  The sand around Wadi Rum village has been driven over by multiple trucks so it was compacted down and might as well have been concrete.  Mutlek has been riding camels since he was in diapers.  All week he would periodically stand up on the back of his moving camel and salute us as it walked along.  
The inspiration 

In those last minutes of the trip I decided that if I was ever going to try this it was now or never.  No thoughts of the consequences or what I would do if the attempt failed.  (Dumb!)  As I got to my knees in the saddle the voice in the back of my head was screaming “Maybe that’s far enough!  Maybe that’s far enough!”  while the voice in the front of my head just said “Shut up back there, I’ve got this!”.  I didn’t even come close.  As soon as I stood up I basically pitched over backwards from the top of the camel, probably 8+ feet off of the ground.  If I had rotated another 15 degrees or so I would have landed on my neck or head.  I don’t really remember falling.  One second I was standing up, the next I was on my back in the dirt with a lot of pain.  At first I thought I had just taken a heavy blow.  I jumped up, put both arms over my head (the last time I would do that for months) and said “I’m OK!”.  However, after a few steps I had to kneel down to gather my wits.  I reached over to my right shoulder and felt a bony deformity underneath my skin.  Basically my collar bone had dislocated from the shoulder and was sticking up at the base of my neck.  As soon as I felt this I knew I was really hurt.  I collapsed to the ground and said “I feel faint.”  By that time Rich (who is a paramedic) had launched off of his camel and was by my side as I passed out.  When I woke up I was laying in the dirt with Rich blocking the sun from me and putting a wet bandana on my forehead.  We were close enough to the village that they had a truck out there within 15 minutes which then took me to the local clinic.  This was out of their league so they called an ambulance to take me to the city of Aqaba about 45 minutes away.  A shot of hydromorphone took the pain away and 3 radiographs showed it to be a Grade 5 clavicular location (the highest grade).  The doctors tried to reduce my shoulder in a vain attempt to put it back in place.  It didn’t hurt because of the pain killers but my body didn’t like what they were doing and I almost passed out again.  At that point they started talking surgery and since a delay of a few days would not matter I elected to wait until I got home to Seattle.  When you are admitted to the hospital there your passport is taken.  You get it back when you pay the bill.  They also informed me that they only take cash and that there was an ATM in the lobby.  I was worried about being able to pay until I got the bill.  All of the medical care and ambulance ride came up to a grand total of the Jordanian equivalent of $40 US.  I was able to pay that out of the cash in my wallet.  We then spent the next 2 days sitting by a pool in Aqaba and a day wandering around the capital of Amman waiting for our flight to leave.  The shoulder ached but with pain killers and muscle relaxants it was bearable for those days and the flight home.  2 surgeries and 4 months of rehab later I was back at work.