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“What is your donkey’s name?“
The three of them ride up on a little brown donkey, sitting on a saddle made from scratchy looking, colourful fabric, leather and wooden scraps. It is tied to the animals back with rough ropes wrapped in more fabric, digging into its shaggy belly as it moves in small, bouncy steps. None of their feet reach the stirrups, but they still sit with perfect poise, barely holding on but balancing with an expertise suggesting years of experience. Once in a while, the girl at the front smacks the donkey with a long stick, while shouting something in Arabic and pulling the single dangling rope tied to the halter in the desired direction.
I, on the other hand, operate under the belief that the carrot is better than the stick. Accordingly, my donkey trots along the path in disdainful monotony, without acknowledging me in the slightest, suggesting it had given up on life long ago.
“Uhm, Leyla I think”, I answer, as the Bedouin girls nod their heads. It’s a good name. The three rattle off their names as well, speaking fluent English, and we compliment each other on our donkeys. But that is about as far as the pleasantries go.
Only the smile flashing across her dirty face warns me of what Fatma is about to do. I hear the air whistle as she smacks the branch squarely across the hindquarters of poor Leyla and sends the animal sprinting towards the ancient city of Petra in the dusty valley below. The three girls race after me, giggling like maniacs. “Haruan, Haruan”, they shout, something that roughly translates to “faster, faster” in the local language.
A few hundred meters down the road, Leyla has recovered from the shock and decides to slow down again and I have declared myself the winner of the race. While the others in the group struggle to catch up, the girls already wave goodbye and veer off into another direction to, according to them, sell postcards to the tourists.
Brendan, I and our two guides from Aqaba, Ibrahim and Tareq, have our mind set on trekking to Haroun’s (Aaron’s) Tomb on top of Petra’s highest peak. It’s a three hour donkey ride to get there, leading us over rocky, rugged terrain and through landscapes seemingly picked straight from some ancient story book.
Shortly after leaving the ruins of Petra, the few early morning visitors and the crazy Bedouin girls behind us, we seem to be the only beings alive in this wide expanse of brown earth and blue sky. A few faded shrubs and straggly trees make a weak attempt at surviving and once in a while, a Bedouin watches from his cave home or a caravan is driven in the opposite direction. But mostly, we are alone.
Apart from my run-in with Fatma and her stick, the first hour goes by smoothly and we spend the time joking about stubborn donkeys and gawking at the ever changing mountainous landscape. While all the donkeys seem to be quite thick headed, it is Ibrahim’s animal, that seems to behave especially suicidal. Several times, the donkey trots straight towards cliff edges and often veers right off the path and straight down a hill. Pleads for help are answered by laughter from the rest of us, while our Bedouin guide runs after the stubborn animal and it’s charge to make a half-hearted rescue attempt.
As the path gets steeper, we begin to feel uncomfortable. A trail, sometimes not even recognizable as one, winds it’s way up the almost vertical mountain, disappearing behind the cliffs in the distance. The path is made of little else but smooth rock, slippery beneath the donkeys hooves, and natural steps, that seem too big for the animals’ small legs. But like goats, they climb higher and higher, while we can only hold on and hope to not tumble off the sheer cliff.
When we reach the peak at 1350 meters above sea level, the donkeys are drenched in sweat and we dismount bowlegged and with stiff hands to proceed the last couple hundred meters on foot. Only a short hike up the last remaining cliff, too steep for even the donkeys, and behind big, jagged rocks, a white dome glints in the sunlight. The view that awaits us at the top is spectacular and as far as the eye can see, the rugged beauty of a vast expanse of valleys, peaks and dry, rocky earth bakes under a harsh Jordanian sun.
We descend from the mountain the same way we came up, clinging to a saddle, sometimes with eyes closed and hands clenched, while the donkeys have to jump down yet another cliff. But we already feel more comfortable and at home on the donkeys backs. And as we ride back into Petra, Brendan has morphed into a true Bedouin, shouting “Heroin, Heroin!” – his own interpretation of the Arab word – and racing around the ancient ruins like a drug crazed addict. I follow behind, Leyla now finally obeying my commands, and even with a hurting bottom, sore knees and smelling like a stable, I wish this day wouldn’t have to end.