Rocking the Desert ~~ December 27, 2017

Amir is in Morocco by now, starting another travel adventure with another client. Besides guiding, he is developing a business as an adventure concierge, an expert and natural travel companion who explores new places at your side while somehow making the connections and smoothing the pathways so that you don’t have to.

His natural talent for starting a conversation with a stranger whose language he doesn’t speak, and ending up with an invitation to dinner and a place to sleep is remarkable. His laidback good nature and his flexibility kind of seep into your bones and the nuisances of travel fade away while the experience becomes the thing.

I don’t know how the heck he does that but traveling with him is a joy and I have future trips already lining up in my mind. I hope he finds a way to market what is truly an unusual skill, beyond guiding in a place he already knows. The travel whisperer, that’s what he is.

Anyway, our time with him was just super. He has led me through two of the four best travel experiences of my life. A natural story teller, he weaves historical detail with bits of information on nature, politics, science, and human nature to create a narrative of place and time that makes the localities we visit rich and memorable for reasons more than their mere existence.

He may be in Morocco but we are still in Eilat. We leave for Jordan in a couple of hours with a new guide, who is Maria. We met her the other day at her home, which also used to be Amir’s home (he now lives next door.) The parents of two gorgeous kids who look a lot like both of them, Amir and Maria are in the process of separating but are staying neighbors, friends, and coworkers.

The last of our days with Amir were in the desert. Normally when I think “desert,” I think “flat.” Ozymadias flat: “The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The deserts of Israel are vast and empty, but they are not level. The hills roll into mountains as if giant hands had been playing with clay. It wasn’t hands though, exactly. It was the shifting of the earth, continental plates clashing to cause geological craters that Amir says occur only in Israel, with their astonishing depths and startling views.

It is a landscape that is dramatic and stark, that steals your breath and occasionally causes your stomach to plummet as you drive on switchback roads and peer over cliffs that fall away into nothingness.

After a heavenly sunset on Christmas Eve, we had dinner in the tent of a Bedouin family, sitting on soft mats with the patriarch — father of eight sons and one daughter. In the firelight his strong, handsome features looked about 45.

We didn’t meet his wife although her voice could be heard in a tent further away and her presence was evident in the magnificent tray of food that soon appeared.

Several of the sons sat with their father (smart phones in their hands or sticking out of their pockets) as he pounded coffee beans he had roasted himself in a sort of tubular wooden mortar and pestle arrangement.

The pounding makes a rhythm or song that traditionally tells the neighbors to come hear the news, because visitors have arrived. No neighbors came to meet us but the coffee pounding music was oddly soothing and nice.

He also made “man’s bread” — a hearty loaf that men make over a fire in the desert when they are traveling. They shape dough into a flat cushion, and bury it in the embers of the fire where it bakes, covered in fire and ash.

He flips it bare-handed and it bakes a while on the other side before he removes it and carries it to a pounding stone where the ash is knocked off.

It’s hot, wheaty and delicious.

We eat it with a lovely sweet tea and watch the many cats that sit in the shadows, waiting for food more attractive to carnivores.

It comes, a laden tray carried in by one of the sons.

A huge plate of rice and vegetables with chicken, a staple in Arab Israeli kitchens, even when that kitchen is a tent. Bowls of hummus, tahini, eggplant dip, and vegetables are crowded on to the tray, along with piles of the delicious, chewy thin bread I learned to make there on a previous trip (women’s bread, I guess), and glasses for the best lemonade I have ever had in my life.

We eat with our hands, trying (but not succeeding very well) not to use our left. The food is just wonderful, the bread phenomenal. We scoop and eat, scoop and eat. Eventually we are sated, happy, and covered with rice.

The chill, breezy night is as clear as glass. The stars are a brilliant canopy that only makes you wonder how blazing the star that led the wisemen to the baby Jesus must have been.

We’d had the option of sleeping in tents but had decided on modern comforts. I am now sorry we won’t have the experience of sleeping, bundled up, under those stars.

We say goodnight to the lovely family (at least, the male contingent whom we have met) and drive to a nearby inn where the stars stay outside, the water is hot, the duvets are cozy, and the breakfast the next morning is delicious.

And then it’s a day of driving in the desert, seeing the land that the darkness the night before had hidden.

Some people find solace in mountains, some in the desert. I have always been a water person myself, absorbing peace from the sound of waves and the infinite expansiveness of the ocean.

I can see the allure of the desert out here, though. It is also expansive and humbling, reducing one’s time-bound human worries and concerns to mere specks in the cosmos.

Amir drives us to his village, some 40 families and a giant new hotel complex seeking desert solitude, and we meet Maria and his son. Standing on a cliff edge, looking into shadowy, stony depths, I can imagine why one would choose to live out there.

It sinks in that what seems to be out in the middle of nowhere is very much the center of somewhere.

We end our final full day with Amir in Eilat, on the Red Sea. The lights of Jordan twinkle across the narrow inlet, Egypt is a few miles away and Saudi Arabia not much further. I had never thought to find myself here and it takes a map to actually believe that I am. We have a seafood dinner and an early night. One more day.

That day is spent walking the sands, climbing into tunnels (not me), collecting rocks and hiking in the Timna Valley (an exercise that landed me with a crack, knee first, on a rock.)

Then a savory and wonderful Moroccan lunch — a warm-up for Amir.

A hurried goodbye with big hugs for Amir, who dropped us at our hotel and has to race to the Avis office to return the van by 5:00 pm. He texts his safe arrival and I assume he didn’t get a speeding ticket. He says he had an amazing time and I text back that we did too.

By now he has met his client in Paris and is off to Morocco and we are repacking our bags to meet Maria in an hour. A new adventure awaits.

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