November 30, 2009 GMT
Some Hot Springs Incidents

After Wadi Mujib we reached the hot springs at Wadi bin Hammad for the night, where we almost sparked an international diplomatic incident.

When travelling through strange places in the manner that we are, you can never predict what the effects of your presence will be, other than there will be some effect, however subtle. And it's really necessary to be aware of it.
When we arrived at the springs the warden showed us a small spot to camp with our bikes alongside. The spot also included the bonfire patch.
A large group of spirited schoolboys were herded away onto an adjacent concrete area by means of some loud and forceful shouting by the warden.
Today was the Saturday of the Jordanian New Year holiday weekend, and later, among other visitors, a group of young men arrived in a car with a full barbeque's worth of food, firewood and cooking gear. There was some animated discussion between them and the warden, whereupon one of them, speaking good English, came over to introduce himself and explain.
He said that because of our presence, the warden was not allowing them to use the bonfire area.
Oh dear......

We spoke to the warden.
His English was not quite so good but was adequate and he explained that it was National Parks policy that foreign visitors are given priority for camping spaces and that Jordanian visitors are kept segregated from them. This policy was enforced by the police. He had already forced the schoolboys onto the separate concrete patch through threats of calling the police, so it would be pretty awkward if we accepted the local men's kind invitation to join them in their barbeque cooked on the bonfire in 'our' camping patch.
Oh dear again.

Well, the schoolboys by then were fully occupied in the waters of the hot springs, and the local men had some more negotiations with the warden and some of the boys before going ahead and cooking their barbeque for us and themselves on 'our' bonfire. The warden seemed pretty worried saying it would be tricky for him if the police turned up on a routine visit, but he could call them straightaway if we wanted him to. All we could do was to stay strictly neutral and insist we had no problems with anything.

As it was, all was OK, the barbeque was huge and the schoolboys kept to their area. Except their use of the hot springs was an all-night affair with an outstanding amount of loud singing and raucous night-long noise in general.

Local lads put on a huge barbeque. Hubble bubble smooths over international incident.

So we were a bit tentative when arriving the next evening further south in an area of at least three hot springs and deciding where to camp.

There's another hot spring down here somewhere......

Two were free, the usual arrangement, and one was gated with a substantial charge for entry and camping.
One of the free places was on the edge of a tomato-growing operation of industrial proportions, with most of the patrons seeming to be temporary workers on the tomato farms.
The other, Hammamat Burbayta, looked more conventional and was crammed with families for the holiday weekend, who we deduced, as far as we could, would all be leaving by nightfall.
Also, being families, there were lots of women present. In this, a moslem country, we had seen no women at any hot springs or camping areas, and we had discovered that the hospitality of all-men groups can become somewhat forceful and overbearing at times, a bit tricky if all you want after a long ride is your sleeping bag.
So we parked our bikes and just hung about, waiting for space to become available for the tents.

Tentatively, a few of the younger women approached, all in the usual Islamic headwear, discreetly examining us. Eventually one of them was bold enough to exclaim, "Yes, she is a woman!" staring Caroline in the eyes.
Immediately Caroline was besieged by all the women, children and babies on the site, practicing as much of their English as they could to find out all about us.
They had hardly ever seen a motorbike in their lives, let alone a woman riding one!
Cameras were produced, children and babies plonked onto motorbikes, and scores of photos taken of bikes, visitors, children and mums. For once the men stayed away - it made quite a change!
Tea and coffee flowed, although what they descibed using the English word 'coffee' was really a herbal tea made with dozens of strange ingredients.
Out of nowhere, while Caroline was being mobbed, two little girls, about five or six, decided they wanted some of the action and ran up to me. There, they proudly recited the western alphabet, a to z, in perfect musical time, and then dashed back to their parents somewhere in the field.

Once it was completely dark all the families departed, leaving us yet more 'coffee' and greetings. During the night small groups of Bedouin arrived, some on donkeys, to use the springs.
Later, speaking to a Welsh couple we had previously seen a few times travelling the same route as us in a Land Rover, we learned that we did well to avoid the gated hot springs with the entry charge. They had looked inside and found it to be crammed with a huge all-male party determined to make this one of the noisiest new-year weekends ever.

Our next night was one of the quietest, and despite our two previous 'free' nights, about the cheapest.
We headed yet further south to Dana Nature Reserve, billed as the most ecological and well-managed reserve in Jordan - one of the 'must-see' places. We had heard that camping was possible in the carpark, with hostals in the village if the altitude, over 3000ft, was too cold for camping overnight in December.
Well, the reserve was closed for the winter, not unexpected, but the rangers are still present 24 hours per day for protection against poachers.
And there's non-stop hot tea for out-of-season visitors like us.
What's more, said Khalid the warden, we could camp for free.

24-hour hot tea at Dana Nature Reserve

And if we got cold in the night, he had a heater in his little room which we were welcome to share "after 10pm when the head ranger goes home."
And, "I'm a very good chef, so I'll cook you dinner."
And, "You'll want breakfast in the morning, there's plenty for all of us."
And, "The toilets are over there, you can wash clothes there if you like."
And, "There's no electricity here."
So that did it. We installed our tents amongst the trees ignoring the hostals in the village, although we did pop in for a visit.
What's more, Bertrand, a young French cyclist riding the same route as us, turned up and confirmed something I had long suspected.

We first met Bertrand in Palmyra, Syria. He stayed in the same Bedouin tent and left the same morning as us. We had seen him a couple of times since, and now here he was pedalling into Dana the same day.
"So there you have it," I thought. "It's confirmed. We three are travelling at the speed of a bicycle, even across the mountains of southern Syria and Jordan!"
(That was later re-confirmed, a few hundred miles of mountains further south, when we greeted Bertrand yet again, on his arrival at Wadi Rum. Hats off to Kipling for observing:
"Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne,
He travels the fastest who travels alone.")

So, Khalid cooked all four of us a magnificent dinner which we just about finished. And the more of his tea we drank the happier he was.

Khalid takes a break from feeding us dinner.

Then started the intensive evening-long Arabic lesson. He was a very talented teacher, using lots of imaginative animation to bring the lesson alive. And it didn't stop there.
The next morning, Khalid clocked off to go home when Ahmed arrived for his shift. Over a long breakfast, most of the morning in fact, the lesson moved on to the advanced subject of Arabic writing.

Ahmed (centre) takes a break from feeding us breakfast. One of the Rangers on the left.

He was very skillful in demonstrating the phonetic nature of Arabic script. We had already seen this at the border crossings where the immigration man, customs man, insurance man and passport man all need to write your name down in Arabic. And it's no good showing them your name in your passport. That means nothing. You have to say it out loud, they need to hear it, so they can then scribble it, in Arabic, in the appropriate box.
Never are you asked "How do you spell that?"
And it works. When you are passed to the next window at a border, the official behind it, reading from the form written in Arabic by the previous official, calls out your name with exactly the same pronunciation as you yourself originally said it. Amazing.
If I remember, in the frenetic activity of the next border crossing, when the insurance man asks my name, I'll say "Cholmondely Featherstonehaugh." Just as an experiment ..... in how to be thrown out of the country .....

And Ahmed's lessons didn't stop there.
One of the Rangers arrived, (in the above photo), in full Arabic headdress, for a cold morning on the Reserve. So Ahmed got to work teaching us the art of donning the Arabic Kufiya......

Lesson 1 - The teacher puts it on for you.

Eventually we departed Dana for Petra, having had a night's camping, tea, dinner, breakfast, Arabic lessons oral and written, headdress lessons, a bit of laundry, endless entertainment, all for free.
(Well, we did leave a donation for the Wardens' Benevolent Fund).
Only time will tell if history repeats itself.

Posted by Ken Thomas at November 30, 2009 08:22 AM GMT

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