We were going to Egypt. We had always wanted to see Petra in Jordan. So we went to Jordan without any pre-conceived notions or expectations about what we would experience.
What we got was 4 days of some of the most intense travel experience we've ever had - Petra, Little Petra, John the Baptist's Pool, incredible modern architecture, camel rides, a donkey ascent up 800 stone steps, a manic drive through the desert to Lawrence of Arabia's encampment, incredible Roman ruins, Crusader fortresses, and a cultural lesson we're still digesting - all delivered by two of the most interesting personalities we've ever traveled with.
We came to see a dead city. We ended up laughing constantly in between arguing about Mid East politics, plate tectonics and why a cat's eyes shine in the night. We had an incredibly good time for 4 rollicking days.
Firstly there was Bashar Herzalla - our driver/escort - Palestinian, raised in the Gulf states, Muslim, married father of two, calm, unflappable, kind and possessed of a sense of humour drier than the desert.
Then there was one of those personalities you meet few times in your life - our guide Osamah Twal. 34 years old, single, Christian, a lineage in Jordan going back to forever, relatives all over the world, an ever mutating story of where he lived and what other business ventures he was involved in, a seeemingly intimate acquaintance with every camel driver, shopkeeper, restauranteur and hotelier in Jordan, deep knowledge of ancient and modern history and a frequent laugh so infectious that we were constantly in danger of abdominal damage.
Of course he can toss his scarf in 50 different variants that would have a Roman Boulevardier green with envy
We'll take an incident out of time sequence to characterize a tour with Osamah. We're at Wadi Rum in southern Jordan. This is real desert - sandstorms, virtually no plant life and a glimpse of Saudi Arabia beyond the next mountain range. It's also where Lawrence of Arabia actually camped and appropriately so did Peter O'Toole when David Lean shot the movie.
Our 4WD rental is from friends of Osamah's (everyone is a friend of Osamah). Our driver - Omar - is around 20 years old, friendly and has no idea what he is in for.
The landscape is gorgeous. Great stone crags spring out of the moving sand. As Liz described it ....."open the truck window and you can get a $200 dermabrasion job for free"
Then - what should be Omar's first clue - much Osamah conversing in Arabic and suddenly we're off the trail and driving up a dune to one of Osamah's "favourite places". It is worth it. Ancient Bedouin glyphs on the cliff face, a distant view towards Saudi, elegant silver bushes and the beginnings of the sandstorm that is blowing in
More glyphs follow. Osamah does his mercurial shift from amusing to instructor and explains the history and meaning of the glyphs at an academic level
Then on to Lawrence's encampment. It is a haunting place with a great natural stone face peering down over the campsite cliff in the rocks. A small engraving in a stone outcrop bears witness to history
We continue to explore - taking the 4WD along a shelf with a significant cliff face
We come across the Movenpick encampment where tourists go to spend a night in the desert. Liz and Dick's fondness for facilities made of porcelain dampens our interest in this level of experience authenticity
The encampment is at the foot of a large dune. We are at the top. Omar gets out of the driver's seat and stares down the dune face with dubious confidence. Osamah is now in the driver's seat, Liz yelps "Holy Shit", and we're off over the face of the dune. It's the first drop on a roller coaster - over before you realize it and Osamah is grinning fiendishly.
(a later Google check reveals that the rest angle of a dune is 34 degrees - not your average expressway off ramp)
We then drive back to meet Bashar as the storm swirls in. Travel with Osamah is never boring.
And a favourite road sign......