Dirty rose under yellow and blue horizon, sun setting, I’m riding in the center on the stripes, as locals do. 210 k’s, 10 hours with minimal breaks, hardly headwind relent. Hear a truck behind, angle toward the edge. Most locals don’t use headlights at night, but flick them on momentarily when they think they might see something. Obviously, I’m not joking, as that wouldn’t be the least bit funny but rather a kind of deranged supposition. This reality is somewhat mitigated by the aforementioned driving in the center, so I know I can just drift right (or left) and be relatively safe. Being on the roads after dark is one of those things people urge you not to do here, which is a responsible bit of wisdom to write down in a book, but — like advice not to walk in certain neighborhoods at night — it is only marginally related to on the ground reality. I’m musing about the fact that this is even pleasant. Confident, too, in that I’m lit up like a bowling alley marquee, can’t compete, though, with a mosque I pass, decorated in neon green, blue, pink, and red trim. Mosques are cool, did I yell that out loud just now?, I’m laughing giddy, there hasn’t been much food today, ragged and loopy, I talk more at the sky, I sing, I think up and then immediately forget excellent bits of movie dialogue, I can see, 6?, 10k? the oasis in the distance. Arriving into town saying the usual hellos and not pausing too long with maps lest that lead to a friendly but protracted discussion, there is no avoiding three teens intercepting me, interested very much in my spectacle. I roll close, give their leader a high five to create a positive disposition. Ask in Arabic for the hotel I am looking for. They enthusiastically offer to show me the way, animated conversation — one has quite decent english — about my bicycle and journey and country. I can see in his eyes that he wants to ride it but won’t ask, so I hop off and tell him to go ahead, he speeds off around the corner. Theoretically, abstractly like words written on a chalkboard, I consider that I might not see him again but there is no plummet in my center. I continue with his friends, he comes back exhilarated. They all take rides.
Ferry to Egypt across bay of Aqaba. Sinai, burnished brass splintery rock with intermissions of copper dunes curling in the wind. Pedal creak tock creak, watching my hands burn then brown in cracked lips heat down the east coast.
Days of contradictory juxtaposition: Nuweiba, dusty purgatorial seashore town that might once have been a tell stories about hippie retreat but is now just sighing shacks and faded shopsigns. Once mosquitoes bad enough that the tent gets set up in the middle of the room to catch some sleep. And then Dahab, an abstraction of location, a backpackeur enclave homogeneous with any other — Thailand, India, Baja — affording no danger of touching the actual local culture preferring instead the comfort of empty pseudo tribalism in bare feet banana pancakes dreadlocks sheesha pipe affected local garb Bob Marley hardly half baked world philosophy. Some people come for the excellent diving. Needless to say it is an effortless indulgence to sink for a guilty span into the mocking mock diversity of culinary and beer options and read a book on the beach, 88 degrees F and a solemn sun puncturing sundry blues. The call to prayer seems especially loud as the European and Russian and Chinese tourists in sunglasses, bikinis, sandals scrupulously concentratingly don’t flinch, but I am sure it is my imagination.
Out of the canyon nearing Wadi Musa. More cars, like the camping area around Slickrock before the BLM started containing things. Familiar but not expected here. Friday night, conceptually like our Saturday since a day off, families camped out on the sandstone with spreads of food, three foot high speakers, teens kicking the futbol around with the younger boys, older teens smoking with their uncles and fathers, women in groups laughing. Like Mexico or the 4th of July. Again timed it, well, not wrong, but, anyway, ill for riding in the light. 5:15 sunset leaves too few hours for civilized lunches or sitting for tea, thus gloves and puff jacket and headlamp. Alien, incomprehensible industry and majesty of Petra tomorrow.
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Now into Wadi Rum, Lawrence of Arabia fame, lofting rock, arches, red gold shadowed crags against swelling dunes. Essential wind and landscape.
Sitting in the tent with Eido and Mohamed, Beduins. Another arrives, introduces himself, Zedan asks where I am from. “So your English is good?” I confirm that I have some practice. He deadpans, “I speak English like a French person: not very bad but not good.” We laugh. They make fun of my American accent imitating another recent visitor with an exaggerated square, overclear diction, “Hell-oh. I am Day-Vid from Cal-uh-forn-ya!” When they say they haven’t met many brits either, I realize that mostly they’ve ever spoken english with people for whom it is not their native language, Continental tourists, this strange pseudo lingua franca that I foolishly take for granted.
Later, the boys are howling heartily in mirth. I ask whether the joke can be translated. Eido, gamely, “There is this man. He is going hunting far away on a camel. You know, camel?” I nod. “But he smokes a drug first to go hunting. He goes five kilometers and then falls off his camel and goes to sleep.” I sit impassively as they study my reaction. “My English not good.” I assume he means he can’t translate the rest of the joke. Mohamed says, “you see, some things are very funny in Arabic, but not in English. This must be true in English when you make it into French or Spanish, yes?” I say, “of course,” waiting for them to continue with the joke. Oh, I see, that evidently was the joke.
Hilly, cosmopolitan, prosperous young hip lively Amman. One of my students, home on winter break, at a cafe overlooking the city. Reflecting on politics and history in the pan Arab world, on growing up Jordanian and Palestinian, sometimes we laugh, sometimes we shake our heads grimly, I learn a great deal, we shake hands saying goodbye until another context next semester. Trafficwise, an unexpectedly easy morning highway exit out of urbania, to a 25 mile descent from 2,500 feet to the Dead Sea, minus 1,385 feet. Requisite float otherworldly high on the water, lofted by the dense salinity. Busloads of tourists to visit what is believed to be John’s site for the baptism of Jesus of Nazareth on the Jordan River.
Another day, climb back to the top of mount Nebo from the lowest dry point on Earth, grinding desert hours on switchbacks, could be Sonora or Western Colorado but for the turbaned shepherds, camels, olive trees. But for the story of Moses surveying the promised land though going no further. Soldier checkpoints 50 cal on a humvee and their purple grey black camo is curious, look over passport, kids themselves gleeful at the imagined bicycle journey.
Days riding in familiar comforting landscapes, canyons. Demanding, constant climbing waves of road to hilltop villages with green fluorescent lit mosques and concrete homes, fortified by snickers bars or flat bread. Ascending from a deep ravine, Sammy calls out from his enormous bedouin tent to offer a cup of coffee, retired from the Jordanian air force, had spent time in Texas and Arizona being trained, now he huddles behind his flight jacket and ready sense of humor. One of the ubiquitous white pickup trucks pulls up with three of his friends who chortle in Arabic as Sammy translates the particularly funny anecdotes. The coffee is splendid and they’re all enthusiastic that I might camp there with them but instead I press on seemingly ever upwards.
Recurrent hills the approach to Amman, misty chill descents, overheating on the twenty minute climbs. I’m wobbly struggling to unzip and remove a sleeve on a heavy pitch, a pickup truck coughs alongside, the elderly driver imploring me to stop. We trade kindnesses. “Joseph, are you Muslim?” “No.” “Why not?” “Perhaps someday, insha’allah,” I say diplomatically. “No, it must be now! to have no fear and to have hope in your heart. There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the prophet of God. Repeat it with me, will you?” Momentarily weightless between honesty and politeness, it’s unusual to encounter such brazen evangelism, with Christians I would be more incisive, here now I am sweating chest heaving and it is the timing that impresses. It should be clear to this well meaning person that I am in no way right at this instant seeking spiritual guidance, pedaling motion arcing into fatigue and elusive rhythm, it should be obvious but that the moment is so remote says something about how modern faiths get a substantial foothold precisely in their abstraction from local contextual conditions of geography or fauna, religious practice becomes something portable half in ideas rather than actions in a specific place or material framework. Still struck by this as we part on agreeable terms, gifted clementines in my pack.
Proximity to the city and the traffic is vectorless bedlam, a series of poor route finding choices and the advice of traffic police leads to a dark tunnel where every rider internal warning claxon goes off, gutter and wall to the right, speeding trucks left, roaring diesel fog, and I not so much will to calm but just blankly wait for it.
Emerge into clear streets downtown skyscrapers mosques Burger Kings boutique clothing peach sunset.