A Story from the City of Mysteries

It was around 9:30 pm when I finally arrived to the city of Petra in Jordan. I had planned on getting there early in the afternoon but I spent 6+ hours haggling at the border of Israel attempting to cross into Jericho, Palestine (the Israeli border control wouldn’t recognize Palestine as a separate country, story for another time). By the time I got to my hotel I was exhausted from driving all around the Dead Sea from Amman. I happen to be there on a day they were having the Petra By Night light show. This had been on my bucket list for ages and the fear of missing out was coursing through my veins.

 Everyone at the hotel including my guide told me that I was much too late to see it because the tour started at 7:30 pm. There was absolutely no way that I could be there and take no for an answer so I laced up my runners and grabbed my camera. I had no idea where I was going but I eventually found the entrance. The guard at the gate also told me I was too late to buy a ticket but with a crisp $20 in his hand he was able to look the other way. 

It was a new moon that night and the stars were glowing like fire in the sky. There were candles in paper bags placed every 6 feet along the trail that lead into the desert. I didn’t know how far away the Treasury was (turned out to be a little more than a mile) and I was completely alone. The only sound I could hear was my feet hitting the ground as I sprinted into the darkness illuminated only by candlelight. Canyon walls began rising around me. The trail became winding and the walls narrowed so much that I could barely see the stars. The canyon was so dark that there could have been anyone hiding in the corners and I couldn’t have possibly seen them. This was also a motivating factor to get there as fast as I could. I could hear the echoes of applause. As I turned the final corner I ran straight into a man who laughed and he told me not to worry, I hadn’t missed a thing. He showed me to an open seat and brought me a cup of tea. They began to project a myriad of lights on the Treasury as travelers sat around the candles, staring up in awe. The energy of this time and place can only described as wanderlust.  

The man who I had run into in the canyon began to tell me about himself. He looked exactly like Jack Sparrow with the long hair, beads and red bandana. He spoke only in drunken riddles. He explained that he was a Bedouin tribesman who was born in the caves behind Petra. He never went to school and couldn’t read or write. He could speak 5 languages because he works in the little trinket shop across from the Treasury. Once the show had ended, he offered to take me to a perfect view. There were still many people around so I weighed the risk vs reward and followed him around the dark corner. He lead me top an invisible path  up a cliff to a secluded ledge overlooking the lights.  

Before I even realized it was midnight which marked the beginning of my 20th year around the sun. I was looking down from the ledge at the most beautiful birthday candles I could have ever dreamed of. In this surreal moment I couldn’t comprehend how and why I’ve been given this life. Instead of questioning the experience I simply laid there in the midst of all this beauty, drinking it in, thanking the universe for giving me this moment. We stayed up on the ledge until we were the last people there, other than his cousins who were picking up all the candles. When we climbed back down we were back in complete darkness. He offered to give me a ride back to the city on the back of his donkey, or as he called her, his Jordanian Ferrari. Laughing about the unprecedented randomness of the situation I hopped on the back of the donkey with him and we rode back through the canyon accompanied by his trusty dog Luna. The stars were brighter than ever without the light of the candles. The sound of the donkey’s hooves echoed through the narrow gorge. Then Jack began serenading me, his voice was one of the most enchanting sounds I’ve ever heard. He sung poetic Arabic songs inspired by the desert and I could feel the nomadic influences ripple through his voice. 

He left me at my hotel with a kiss on my hand and we agreed he would show me the real Petra the following morning at 5 am. When I was planning this trip to Petra I was assuming I would spend my entire 20th birthday alone. This is the most exhilarating part of travel, you literally never know what is going to happen next. One moment you’re alone absorbing the changing landscapes and reflecting on your personal life and the next you’re completely immersed in another person’s world view. I went to Petra knowing nothing of the history or way of life and left having had a glimpse of what its like to grow up there. I saw the cave my friend was born in and met his grandmother. I saw the interconnectedness of the Bedouin community who share everything from cigarettes to their Ferraris. I was brought to places I would have never imagined to be there. I would have never seen those places if I hadn’t been late to that Petra By Night show. He never asked me for money but he gave me hours of his time because he genuinely wanted me to experience his home. I’m realizing that everything and everyone that you encounter in life has purpose.