[published on behalf of the author, Arthur Ketcham written on his flight back from the Middle East]
Sandstone and Lightning Storms
28 October 2015
When one wakes up in the middle of the night to a clamoring electric storm, it may be natural to sit up and watch the show, especially knowing it’s going to keep you awake regardless. The morning, I awoke this way. The unusual part of my vantage to this storm, was that I was looking out from a wavy red sandstone mouth of a cave, and my Bedouin guide Awad was fast asleep under the opposite wall, dreaming about the lush fields of winter barley this torrent will germinate.
That evening, our group of three Coloradans, four Bedouin young men, and one Bedouin elder had met for dinner, in a cave used during herding seasons. Getting there was an accomplishment in its own right, as our guide’s ancient Toyota pickup braved monsoon rains, crawling up dirt roads, leading us to a point where me continued by walking on stone trails built along cliff wedges. When me got to our cave, we met the other guides who would have dinner with us. When the rains started flooding the first cave, we evacuated to a larger cave close by, carrying all the food, drinks, and sitting blankets which had been brought by donkey before the heavens opened up.
Once we got set up in the new cave, we bantered about the sites and archaeology in Petra we saw earlier that day, then about families, freedom from high tech, and paradoxically the lack of desire to leave home range-lands for the semi-nomadic Bedouin, and the globe-trotting wanderlust on the part of we urban Americans. To quote one, “I left home for nine days once, and I missed Petra more than I could handle.”
Under the magical wavy sandstone ceiling accented with hundreds of year old campfire soot, we regaled each other with stories. The elder, a dark and wrinkled soul, his head covered by a large red-and-white Arabian Kafia held in place by heavy black leather bands, told tales of warfare, pointing up to the scars in the sooty ceiling above our heads, where bullets from across the valley had targeted the caves dwellers, just a couple generations previous. The stone wall covering the opposite entrance of the cave, except for a small portal window, was used as a gunsight by those defenders of these cliffs, against rival tribesmen.
Then came stories of how the previous king promised free infrastructure developments in return for them moving out of their ancient city, inhabited since pre-antiquity, only to fill it with tourists, hotels, and high bills for these “free” infrastructure improvements. That said, they’ve learned to resourcefully hock wares, souvenirs, and mule rides to tourists.
While waiting for dinner to cook, two young Bedouin would call out a melodic chant in their language, and the elder, standing outside by the fire, would call back with a responsive verse.
Our dinner, after an hour of prep and another of cooking, was eaten entirely by hand-and-pita: sliced potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and chicken legs, served with crème fraîche. There were no plates, utensils, tables, or chairs. Just our cross-legged laps, and abundant pita bread.
Though my travel mates went back to their hotel after dinner, I stayed behind with the Bedouin, ready to enjoy the finest Sandstone accommodations this side of Utah. I wouldn’t say I slept well in a cave on a stormy night, but I’m so glad I had the experience!
So what do I make of it all? Well, I have new friends: nomadic goatherds connected by Facebook and WhatsApp. I discovered the wonders of Arab hospitality, and this I will never forget. I look forward to visiting my friends again, insha’Allah.