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Petra at the mid-level (the tombs)


We believed that it would be perfectly safe for Bryan and me to explore Petra despite because we would be riding mules led by guides who would even adjust our saddles and stirrups so all we had to do was hold on. The “Treasury” at ground level is where you meet and strap in. It all starts out easy with the gentle sway of the mule and its slow pace. After you reach Level 2 (the Tombs) the stairs narrow; you are about one foot from sheer drops. Another half hour goes by and you are now at the top where there is a monastery. I want to take the opposite of a vow of silence and scream “Hell, NO!” But it’s too late. They are serving us tea and giving the clearly exhausted mules water. In a few areas the steps are destroyed so you have to get off and walk around cracked boulders while the mules are whipped and pulled. We are encouraged to take pictures of the beautiful sunset. We are the last to leave (having been the last to arrive).

It becomes pitch black shortly after we get down the first and worst of the ruined steps. I say to my guide, “We waited too long, didn’t we?” because you cannot lay blame in this culture, especially if you are a woman. He says “yes.” I want to get off the mule and walk down but he says the truth we both know: “It’s not possible.” We are all only one foot from the ledge. He’s walking on the outside, holding my arm and the lead to the mule. My hands are nearly numb. It is six degrees at night (more like Alaska than Hawaii) and there’s a stiff wind that almost blows you over. To reassure me, Mohammed, our guide, tells me he used to walk barefoot back and forth here five times a day. He slips twice and so does the mule. He promises we will get down safely “Inshallah” (God willing). I offer the light on my iPhone. He says it will ruin his night vision. (So will plummeting off this ledge!) He then offers to buy my phone. I insist I need it. I keep looking up at magnificent stars while my hands go numb from holding on so tight; the mule is balking and has to be whipped on his underbelly to go forward.

On our way up we had to duck our heads nearly parallel with the mule as we went through some of the tunnels. We find these tunnels in the dark by our faces scraping their tops and we try to lean as far backward as possible. It is a tight fit. We get down to the second level but there is no time to rest. After crossing a field, the downward stairs resume. By now my stirrups are unwinding—as are the blankets that masquerade as a saddle. I lurch far left or far right and the ten-year-old (who is the second guide) is tired, scared, crying and wants to go home. He wants to ride, so they hand Bryan the reins to his mule. At my invitation, Ahmed climbs onto the back of my mule and holds on. More slip-sliding, bumbling, hard-jerking and stumbling around shattered stairs, narrow cracks to the exit . . . and it is now pitch black. I am beyond exhausted and terrified. You can tell because I am no longer taking pictures. In the midst of most crises, I usually whip out my camera. The stirrups are digging into my calves. When we jump down from high rocks I want to scream. But none of us can let go into panic. After every hairy challenge, we call out, “You’re doing great!”

Finally, we get back to the Treasury on level ground with a sigh of relief. We did it! But we are still half an hour from the entrance. It is a 35-minute downhill hike or ride by mule to get to the Treasury through cracks and crevasses, but no stairs. Furthermore, the area is closed now. We are not supposed to be here. Police will arrest you after hours. We dismount and have to be very quiet. Our guide asks us to get back on the mule for another three hundred yards and when we see a car, to get into it quickly. He has a friend who will pick us up. That friend gives Bryan a Palestinian headscarf and asks him to put it on to hide his face. I’m sitting in the back wearing a hoodie. In another ten minutes we are at a little-known back entrance (although police did try to stop us from leaving the Treasury.) We could have flown over the whole epic site by helicopter for $3,000 for one hour but that wasn’t an option. The only word for everything you see is “Wow!” Petra has been here for 2,000 years, known only to the Bedouins.

These mules were not owned by our guide. He pulled his ten-year-old out of school for the day and borrowed somebody’s animals. I doubt they were experienced on the trail. I was reminded of a scene with Inspector Clouseau in a Pink Panther movie:
“Does your dog bite?”
“I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite.”
“That’s not my dog.”

– Janice Urbsaitis –

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