Clandestine Petra by Night

By J.T.

I had heard about the hospitality of local Bedouins in and around Petra, but after so much hassling from dishonest hostel owners, lines of cab drivers, people selling horse, donkey, and camel rides, and kids hawking postcards, I had a healthy dose of skepticism. I figured that nothing in Petra came free and that perhaps Bedouin hospitality was a myth. Even when I met someone who had been invited to stay with a local she’d met on the bus ride into Wadi Musa, the town that sprung up outside of Petra, and said she was having a great time with her hosts, I still had my doubts.

But then I met Agab. On our third day in Petra, Jason and I hiked up past the royal tombs to get a glimpse of the Treasury, Petra’s most famous site, from above. Agab, a 22 year-old Bedouin, with wild hair, a missing front tooth, and a disdain for shoes, owns a small shop at the top of the trail, overlooking the rock-carved mausoleum. He gave us tea, free of charge, while we chilled out and ate our packed lunches. This was one of the most pleasant and peaceful spots we’d found in Petra. A place where we could relax in the sun and enjoy the view.

 Resting in the sun at Agab's shop.

Resting in the sun at Agab's shop.

Even though it was only 2 o’ clock in the afternoon, Agab invited us to stay for dinner, and experience Jordan by Night, a program with singing and flute-playing wherein candles are used to gently light the Treasury. Still a bit skeptical, we asked how much he would charge. He said it would be 10 dinar (about $15) for the groceries, and that was it. How would we get down? It would be dark by the time we left. He’d bring us donkeys when he got the groceries. How much for the donkey ride? Free.

This was the exact sort of organic experience I’d been wanting, yet I could feel that I was becoming too jaded to accept it. But Jason wanted to try so I said ok.

Agab is a bit crazy by anyone’s standards—Western, Jordanian, or Bedouin. He told us that he could climb down to the ground below and back in 10 minutes. I urged him to prove it. So he dug out some old, battered sandals, and off he went, down the steep, zig-zagging trail, over boulders and around sharp hairpin turns. He reached the ground in four minutes, and was back up in another six. This act of craziness, which even his friends thought a bit daunting, endeared him to me. Not because of the recklessness of it, or because to him was less reckless having done it many times before, but because he seemed more like a man of his word. He said he could do it in 10 minutes, and he did.

Strictly speaking, what we were doing was illegal. Petra by Night is a separate ticket from the daytime entrance fee, and tourists are not supposed to stay inside the park with Bedouins after hours. To skirt around this, Agab asked his friend, Suleiman, a quiet 17-year-old kid, to take us farther up to watch the sunset while he went out for groceries and the park closed. Suleiman guided us up rocks and boulders to what must be the most spectacular sunset view in the area. I’d come to discover that Petra is a mix of two of my favorite things, history and hiking. From this view, we couldn’t see the ruins of Petra, but we could see the natural rock formations that made this area so formidable for centuries.

Back at Agab's shop, we peeked over the edge while they were setting up. It was now dark, but they must have heard us because they aimed a giant spotlight up at our location. Heart pounding, I ducked behind a boulder to keep out of sight.

I had given Agab a 20 dinar note, because we had initially thought that he meant 10 dinar each. This would be a little more than we had planned to spend on dinner, but thought it might be worth it. But when Agab came back, he brought me 10 dinar change.

With the 10 dinar, Agab bought juice, cookies, vegetables, and a frozen chicken. I estimate the chicken was about 3 dinar, the vegetables maybe another 2 at most, and the juice and cookies another 3 or 4. He might have kept what was left up to 10 dinar for himself, but I don't really begrudge him that.

By the light of the fire, I used a knife with no handle to help Agab chop the vegetables. We cooked it up the chicken and vegetables in a tinfoil packet.

 Solid campfire food.

Solid campfire food.

Petra by Night was great, but I don't really remember it. The Treasury had a romantic glow from the candles, but when I think back to it, I remember sitting by the fire with Agab and Suleiman.

Suleiman hardly spoke a word, but Agab told us he didn't have a great home life. I asked both of them to write their names down. Agab couldn't write his name in English, but did write it in Arabic. Suleiman couldn't even do that.

At the end of the night, we got on the donkeys and the guys lead us out the back way to the Bedouin village.

For whatever reason, I got the bigger donkey, and Jason the smaller. Jason's legs were about the same height as his donkey's back, and his feet dragged on the ground. Jason said he could walk but Agab insisted riding was o.k. He looked like something out of Don Quixote, or an old-timey cartoon.

The moon was nearly full, so we could see pretty well, and I tried to focus on the stars as the donkey plonked down several flights of stone-carved stairs. Suleiman told me to relax, but eventually I said that I would prefer to walk down the steps because it was too scary for me. At the bottom of the stairway he said o.k., I could ride again. There were no more stairs.

This was about the longest thing I heard Suleiman say. I don't really know what his life was like. I know that Agab's shop was his escape. Of couse, Agab smoked spliffs and talked about drinking, so I don't know how good of a role-model he was.

 The steps are steeper than they look. Or I'm just afraid of going downhill.

The steps are steeper than they look. Or I'm just afraid of going downhill.

A few days later, we met some people heading to Petra. Jason and I went to a nearby shop and bought Suleiman a new pair of sandals, and kitchen knife for Agab to pass onto them. These messengers actually snuck into Petra outright but were caught. They didn't have a chance meet Agab and Suleiman, but they met Agab's mother and sister, who own a shop a little farther down from Agab's, and passed the gifts on to them. They reported back to us that they were grateful and would pass them on in turn.

I don't know that we'll ever meet Agab and Suleiman again, but we've been telling people the story of our visit and hopefully a few more free dinners have come their way as a result. Moreover, hopefully they've touched the lives of a few more jaded travelers.

 The Treasury from down below.

The Treasury from down below.