Thousands of years ago, the hands and feet of the Nabateans roamed over the ancient rocks that make up the city of Petra. They scaled mountains hundreds of meters high and carved majestic buildings, tombs and caves into them. Today, it is the feet of tourists that frequent it most.
However, Petra is home to many secret inhabitants. There is a whole community of Bedouins that live and function within the old desert city. They live in the caves, selling random items to tourists and offering “naturally air-conditioned” donkey rides to far away destinations within the city.
My friends, Kait and Aaron, and I entered Petra for the second time in two days with the intention to take a different hike to the center of the city. Typically, visitors enter Petra by way of the “Siq,” a narrow, mile long gorge cut through the massive rose-colored mountains that lead up to the city. After having done this route on our first day in Petra, we wanted a new experience. I found a different trail on the map, the Muthlim trail, and with a few bats of my eye lashes, I convinced the police offers that turn tourists away from the trail to allow the three of us to attempt it.
I took off my sandals, and traversed the rocks barefoot, hoping to place my feet where many before me had. The path started off by taking us through a tunnel and on the other side, cavernous rocks and gorges pointed us in the right direction. It was a trying hike. There were many steep drops and inconvenient blocks to the path. But after walking for a few hours, we made it to the end of the closed in path. It opened up to show us the back side of the city of Petra. There were caves and tombs spotting the desert landscape and it was completely devoid of any other life, or so we thought.
It was unbearably hot walking in the afternoon desert sun. So, we shambled up toward one of the caves in hopes of finding refuge from the sun. As we neared our desired cave, we realized that there were people there already. Aaron, who had gone up first, noticed them and not wanting to disturb them, he urged us to get away unseen. It was to avail. They saw us and immediately ushered us into their humble (very humble) abode to share some Bedouin tea.
Inside the cave, which smelled faintly of urine and moist sand, the little family sat on an old, thick blanket. There were three adults in the cave, two women and one man, and an adorable little boy with the darkest skin and lightest hair I had ever seen. The mother of the little boy hobbled over to the corner of the cave and set fire to some desert brush she had brought in. She built a small make-shift stove out of rocks and placed a pot of tea on top of it. After the tea had boiled, she poured each of us small glasses.
In return for their hospitality, we offered to share the little bit of lunch we had with us. We brought out the six pieces of pita bread we had, along with a small bag of Doritos, a wheel of cheese and a can of hummus. They sliced up a tomato they had stored and we all feasted for a good hour. The little boy scooped up handfulls of cheese and hummus and shoveled it into his dirty little mouth.
The only one who spoke any english at all was the father of the little boy. It was broken and he only knew a select number of words (words he had obviously picked up from haggling with tourists over many years of living in Petra). Consequently, much of the time we spent in the cave was spent in silence.
Regardless of the fact that we had no way to communicate, there was an unspoken bond between us. It did not matter to them where we were from. It didn’t matter to us where they lived. In that moment, our nationalities, boundaries and all other limitations were stripped away. We were just people, sharing a modest meal, enjoying one another’s company. I could have easily walked away that day with nothing more than a pleasant memory. Instead, it taught me that beneath all of the politics, the religions, the nationalistic hullabaloo, there are people; people who need and want the same things.
Eventually, we finished our meal, we sat in the cave sipping our tea contentedly for a little longer — trying to force ourselves to believe that it was really happening. The sun was going down and it was time to continue on our trek. We thanked the family and headed out of the cave.