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Chapter XII: Crossing

The Israeli/Jordanian Border

It's a surreal thing, crossing a border on foot. After being processed by the Israeli side, we entered into a wide, fenced dirt corridor. Through the fence, we saw that we were being guided across a wide, empty strip of desert and palm trees that was also fenced in on either side and stretched as far as the eye could see. We were quite literally in “no man’s land,” neither here nor there, and there was a rebellious euphoria that endured the length of the three-minute walk. In planes, we cross borders all the time without taking much notice, and we tend to forget that they are physical, man-made things which can be raised, crossed, or totally obliterated.

As we passed under the “Welcome to Jordan” sign and entered the ramshackle government complex of a different world, I took a last look at Eilat and the space in between, marveling at both the power and frailty of human division.

Aqaba, Jordan

From the moment we crossed the border, I felt that I had become something else. Perhaps it was because of the expectations that I had formed from hearing the accounts of female classmates who had been here, or perhaps the mustached men in well-worn uniforms really were looking at me like I thought they were. As they checked our ID's and ushered us through metal detectors, they smiled cheekily and made remarks that I couldn't understand, though I didn’t need to. With a sinking feeling, I realized that, although we were not exactly dealing with the top brass, if these men were the authorities, I would have to be very careful here.

When we were released from processing, there were a number of cabs lined up that seemed disproportionate to the scant number of people who were waiting. There was a man whose sole purpose seemed to be negotiating between the customer and the driver, and he ushered us toward one cab in particular. "You don't want that other one." he said. My "scam-o-meter" kicked into high alert. "Trust me, this one will charge less." I looked at Tyrone, who was also skeptical. We read the large sign that specified standard rates for various distances, and then followed the man to the cab. "Where are you going?" he asked Tyrone. We showed him our information: the Bedouin Meditation Camp, somewhere in the Wadi Rum Desert. "OK, thirty-five dinar," he said.

"No," Tyrone countered in Arabic, "twenty dinar. It says twenty." He pointed at the sign. It was clear that the Arabic changed things. If this man's job was to rip off non-Arabic speakers, then his services were no longer needed. He deflated a bit.

"Okay, twenty dinar." He leaned down toward the middle-aged, mustached driver and repeated "twenty dinar" in Arabic, very pointedly. I still didn't fully understand the nature of the arrangement between these two, but I soon would.

The driver seemed to be a nice guy. We conversed with him as well as we could, as we drove through a wide expanse of run-down, white apartment buildings that were built into a slope running up into the smooth-backed desert hills. As we cleared the city and headed up a steep grade into the hills, the traffic became virtually nonexistent. The terrain became rockier and redder, and we turned onto a smaller road that stretched straight ahead for miles and miles. This road led us into the Wadi Rum, and my breath was taken as we entered an endless labyrinth of red rock formations that were as tall as mountains. They were alien-looking, and I was consumed by the sight of them. It was like being on Tatooine.

We passed a train station dated from the early 2oth century and crossed over the track. It struck me that this must have been the same line that Lawrence of Arabia sabotaged during his guerrilla campaign against the Turks. We were going to stay with the tribe that he had lived and fought with, in the same desert in which the actual events had occurred and much of the movie was filmed.

The driver lit up a cigarette and offered us one. Tyrone accepted and reclined back in his seat. He seemed to be enjoying his present image: smoking in the back of a cab, speeding through an exotic land, the desert reflecting in his sunglasses. I had to admit, I enjoyed it, too.

Although I was relishing the scenic nature of this ride, we had been driving for a long time. The driver had begun mumbling to himself, conveying a clear sense of confusion. A little later, he turned around in his seat to face us. He said something about "taking the wrong road" and asked to see our information sheet again. We handed it to him, fully believing in his predicament. It was a big desert, after all, though there weren't many wrong turns to take.... He glanced at the information and shook his head, still grumbling. His frustration with himself was mounting and we felt a bit sorry for him. He apologized profusely and promised he would fix it. Then, he pulled over and got out of the car. Tyrone and I looked at each other in silence and then out at the vast expanse of a desert valley that stretched out on both sides of the road. I half expected a tumbleweed to roll by.

The driver smoked, leaning on the trunk while he talked on his phone. I wondered vaguely what level of shady this was. Was it kidnapping level? Or just general cab driver shenanigans? I decided to keep calm by believing it was the latter. I turned to check, and he was still on his phone, clearly upset. Whatever his endgame was, he was working very hard. A car rolled up from behind and slowed down to talk to the driver. After a lengthy conversation, the driver got back in the car, told us that he’d figured it out, and continued apologizing for the remainder of the ride.

We pulled up to a large, freshly-built Visitor Center that had to be the only structure for miles. It had a distinct, movie set style that looked like Disneyland had built a Middle-Eastern village. There were Bedouins sitting outside smoking, draped in white cotton with heads wrapped majestically in checkered cloth bound by crowns of black rings. I figured that there was only one visitor center per Wadi Rum Desert, and I wondered how the driver could have possibly gotten lost. I was anxious to pay him and get out of the cab before he revealed his master plan. Sure enough, as we pulled out the twenty dinar we had agreed upon, his kindly, apologetic demeanor disappeared. "No, no, no," he stated. He argued that, since we got lost, the ride took much longer and, therefore, we owed him more money. At first, we tried playing dumb and just handed him the twenty dinar, but he was having none of it. We confronted him, retorting that we were not going to pay more. The standard fee was twenty. We got out of the car and, to our great dismay, so did he. He was really mad now, red in the face and mustache quivering, and it was pretty clear to me that we would just have to pay him what he wanted.

Tyrone, however, was not backing down so easily. The situation was escalating and we were attracting the attention of the Bedouins, who had been watching with minimal interest from afar, until one of them swooped over and gestured the driver toward him. His flowing headdress and tunic conveyed a timeless authority that commanded respect. The Bedouin declared that we would be paying him what we agreed upon, and, with that, the dispute was resolved. The driver sped away with his twenty dinar and without another word. "Welcome!" our savior greeted us, offering a calloused hand.


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