Monday, July 28, 2008

Travelogue 7: "Camel Ride to the Tomb"

Nothing grabs your attention quicker than a camel. Only die-hard Powell-heads will recognize this post's title, however. Books Do Furnish A Room is the 10th volume in the 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell's masterful rendition of 20th-century decline and decay. In this particular volume, Powell tells the story of novelist X. Trapnell (loosely based on Julian McLaren-Ross) and a disastrous affair with Pamela Flitton Widmerpool (loosely based on Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman). In the story, Trapnell--a typically tortured artist type--is something of a one-hit wonder, whose fame rests solely on his Camel Ride to the Tomb. In a fit of pique, Pamela tosses the manuscript to his new novel in the canal, leading to his tragic demise. Trapnell viewed a camel ride to the tomb as a bleak metaphor for life--bumpy, uncomfortable, and ending in death. But I digress.

Camels also put me in mind of Rose MacCauley's The Towers of Trebizond. Her opening line has been called one of the best in English literature: "'Take my camel, dear,' said Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass."

I saw a good many camels here and there in Jordan, and figured I would have opportunity to ride one in Petra. I was not disappointed. Petra lives up to its hype. The ruins of the old Nabatean city definitely deserve listing among the wonders of the world. Just don't mistake the modern tourist-trap town that has grown up outside the entrance as being any way representative of Jordan.

My nephew and I had been climbing the peaks overlooking Petra that morning, and by late noon had made our way down to the restaurant in the center of the park. By this time, we were both dog-tired and ready for a bit of rest. We had to pass through an area where Bedouins were offering rides on camels and burros. A young Bedouin boy tried to interest us in a camel ride, but I told him that we were going to eat lunch, then climb the mountain path up to the monastery and come back down. We agreed that if he were still there when we returned, I would talk to him about the camel ride. He made me promise I would choose him instead of the older men hawking their camels. I was happy to oblige.

By the time we came down off the mountain, I was ready for a camel, or a helicopter, or anything else that would get me out of there other than my feet! Our camel boy saw us coming from a distance and started waving for us. My nephew (ever the attorney) tried a bit of haggling over the price, but I was just ready to get on the animal. The camel has to kneel on the group for one to climb up on the saddle. When the camel unfolds itself, you suddenly realize just how much higher up you are than upon a horse.

My camel ride lasted 30 minutes or so. The camel kept wanting to break into a trot, though I was fine to just mosey along. The ride is not at all uncomfortable, though the gate takes a bit of getting used to--totally different than horseback riding. You just cross your legs in front of you, across the camel's neck and enjoy the ride. I talked a bit with my camel boy. He lived with his family, in a cave up above the ruins. Bedouins still live among the ruins, herding goats, primarily. Some operate crude, makeshift souvenir stands along the trails, selling home-made items as well as kitsch. I was amused to hear one assure a potential customer that yes, they took VISA. The young man informed me that the Jordanian government registered camels and allowed each family 2 of the animals--to avoid any camel monopolies, I suppose. As we were heading towards the gate, another young camel boy was coming toward us, riding a camel and leading another. As we approached, he said in English (for my benefit, I suppose), "Your camel has only one eye." Apparently this is one of the most insulting things you could say about some one's camel. This set off a heated interchange between my camel boy and the other young man. Still indignant, he assured me that my camel had TWO eyes! I didn't tell him, but at this point, a flea-bitten, one-eyed camel was just about my speed.


Anonymous said...

Such vivid insults! :)

Thanks again for sharing your adventures, and knowledge. I am loving sitting here in Sydney, reading, and dreaming, about the Middle East.

John said...

Thanks, Ian. I may write some more later, but this could be the last post for this trip.

I know what you mean about the Middle East. For obvious reasons, I don't think there is any other part of the world that has such a hold on so many people as does this little corner of the earth.

But from my standpoint, sitting here in East Texas, your Syndey sounds like a pretty exotic destination in itself.

Anonymous said...

As does Texas to me. :)

And forgot to the camel shot: sounds, and looks, like an interesting beast to ride.