Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Petra, Part 3 of 3: Khalid, the Cave Man

Turning around and heading down from the High Place of Sacrifice (STORY), I passed a sunbathing cat toward the well-beaten path that would take me back to the base of the Treasury, the place where my day had begun and now would end.

I had heard there was another way down, "the not easy way", one with spectacular views of the Theatre and Treasury from above.  When I asked a young woman selling tea at the top of the main path heading down, she said "you'll never find it on your own".  Taking that as a challenge, I headed in the direction of what seemed to be the most "not easy way".  Several minutes off the path, a man on a horse tried to point me back in the direction of the main path down.  When I told me I was looking for "the not easy way" down, the one with the better view, he said "you'll never find it.  And it isn't safe to go on your own."  Calling out to a young man on a donkey passing by, he said, "My friend will take you, but just to the place where you can see the Theatre."  The young man tied his donkey to a tree, mumbling "so he doesn't run away", as he laughed.  "Follow me."

He introduced himself as Khalid but said his nickname is "Cave Man".  When I asked why, he said, "because we are Bedouin.  We live in the caves here" and told me that there are still 25 families that live in the caves, making money guiding tourists, but otherwise living pastoral lives.

Khalid asked if I had been given an Arabic name, and when I said no, he said, "You will be Audi.  Like the car," and laughed.

As we walked, I touched the patterned pink stone on my right until the cries of a herd of passing goats drew my attention to the pink valley down below.

"Look!" Khalid said, pointing across the valley.  "The Two Obelisks."

Arriving at a hut on the edge of the cliff where Khalid's friend was drinking tea, he sat down and pointed into the valley where the grandeur of the Theatre hewn into the rock could be seen far below us.

After a few moments of discussion, Khalid agreed to take me to the place overlooking the Treasury and then "the not easy way down".   Leading the way up the side of the rock and across a stone ledge, he warned me to be careful of my head on the low overhanging rock.  "You have good shoes for climbing" he said, turning around and looking down at my boots even as he continued to walk across the narrow ledge.  I looked down to my left into the valley below: one misstep on the smooth pink rock and that would be it.  Khalid, having reached the other side, had stopped talking and was watching my every step.  As I walked along the edge ducking my head as he had warned, I must have arched my back as my backpack scraped the rock above me.  Khalid scuttled over with the balance of mountain goat, having been born and raised on these rocks, and though the narrow ledge was barely wide enough for one of us, he stepped between me and the edge and held his hands out.  I felt safe with him there, although had I slipped and fallen, Khalid could not have saved the both of us from tumbling down into the valley below.  How could he have felt so protective of me, someone he had just met, trusting both me and my boots enough to place himself between me certain death?

"You made it", he said, motioning for my camera.  "Smile!"

Climbing back down the rock on the other side, we followed a dried-up stream bed that Khalid said will flood with the winter rains that will begin to fall any day.  

"One more rock to climb", he said, pointing up.

Twenty minutes later we arrived at the top where Khalid approached the edge and knelt down.  I joined him on the ledge overlooking the Treasury.  And we sat in silence.

"Now, 'the not easy way down'," Khalid said, his eyes shining as he pointed toward the gorge leading straight down to the base of the Treasury.  Not only would I have never attempted such a descent on my own, it never would have even occurred to me to try, and yet now, with Khalid leading the way, it never even occurred to me that I couldn't. 

After sliding down a particularly steep rock and worried that it was going to get in my way, Khalid looked up and said "give me your bag."

"I can handle it," I said, bracing my hands on the rocks on either side as I prepared to slide down.  "How old are you anyway?" I blurted out.  

"Twenty.  Almost twenty."

"Well, I'm almost forty, but I can still carry my own bag," I laughed.

"Then throw me your camera."

Reaching the half-way point of our descent, Khalid observed, "The way of the water is steep."  Swinging off a tree branch growing defiantly out the rock, he let go, and dropped down onto the hard, pink rock below.  "Come on!" he called, looking up at me.  I took a deep breath, grabbed the branch and landed next to him with a thud.  "You made it!"

Turning around and looking up at the gorge, it was hard to believe that we had just climbed down from the top.  Stepping through broken rocks and around a barrier, we passed an "Off Limits" sign that warned tourists that not only was this was a falling rock zone that was dangerous but that it was illegal to attempt to climb up the gorge.

Stepping into the main plaza in front of the Treasury, four Park Guards taking a coffee break noticed us just as we noticed them.  "Keep walking, " Khalid ordered.  Successfully walking past them, Khalid turned around just as one of the Guards stepped into my path and stopped me.  Still holding his coffee, the Guard used the cup to motion toward the sign we had just passed.  "Did you see that sign?  It is illegal to climb up those rocks," he said sternly.

"Yes, I'm sorry, sir," I said.  "But there was no sign at the top saying we couldn't climb down."  

He cracked a smile.  "Yes, well, I suppose that's true."

The Guard rejoined his colleagues, and I walked over to Khalid.  "I thought I was in trouble."

"Not when you're with me," Khalid said confidently.  I thanked him for guiding me and for showing me a part of his world.  "Please," he said, "Tell your friends Jordan is safe."

"I will."

We shook hands, and as I turned around to head back through As-Siq, the narrow gorge that leads the way in, and out, of the Ancient City of Petra, Khalid called to me.  "The next time, you will stay with my family and me in the cave."

"It would be an honour."
--- END --

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