It was the year after I graduated college. With no direction or plan for my life, I decided to travel to Israel, my parents’ birthplace, to learn more about my Jewish heritage. I spent most of a year volunteering with a group of social change nonprofits in Acre, and it was there that I first heard about Petra, the legendary ancient site carved into the cliffs of the Jordanian dessert.
When I couldn’t find anyone to go with me, I decided to go by myself. It would be an opportunity to travel alone to a world-renowned monument, and, perhaps most of all, to indulge my fan-girl lust to see the striking backdrop to the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
A few hours by bus from the Israeli port city of Eilat, I was in a different world. I stepped off the bus into a barren landscape of low, reddish-tan hills spreading into the horizon as far as the eye could see. The air was hot and dry but I could smell the musky scent of history. I could have been breathing in the same dust that once coated nomads’ cloaks and sandals.
Clusters of Jordanian men were yelling at us new arrivals. Some offered taxis. Others touted themselves as tour guides. One enterprising man carried a canvas bag full of pita to sell to hungry tourists.
Around me, travelers were organizing themselves into pairs and groups, and I grew aware of how conspicuous I was, a foreign woman alone. I had always enjoyed the freedom of travelling by myself, but even in those first few moments I could sense that I would be far more vulnerable here than I had ever been as a backpacker in Europe.
The men eyed me openly. They pointed and stared at me, laughing with their companions. Each one had something he had to say to me. My beauty was equal to the sum of the stars in heaven. My hair was like a fine horse’s mane. My figure was like the curve of an antique vase. At least three dozen men asked me to marry them, some shouting their offers from across the street. I was told by one enthusiastic suitor that I was a queen, and that I should be his queen. The fact that he was wearing dusty torn jeans and riding a rusted bicycle did not help to entice me. I wanted to hide in my hotel room, far from their relentless pestering.
I located the cheap hotel that I had reserved from Tel Aviv. The lobby smelled like coriander, dust and garlic. The male attendant smiled languidly at me, eyeing me like a side of beef at a butcher shop. Not much older than myself, he wore a gold chain and heavily-scented cologne. I tried to mollify myself, noting the care he took with his clothing and his efforts to speak English. But then I remembered that this man’s attentions came with access to the key to my room.
“I am Ahmed,” he told me, as he walked me up the flight of stairs to a tiny room with a single cot on the tile floor. The only other piece of furniture was a small nightstand.
Ahmed’s cologne was making my eyes tear. I set my suitcase on the bed, knowing that all my valuables were in the knapsack on my back. He leaned on the doorframe, following my every move with his eyes.
“Thanks for your help,” I chirped. “I’m fine now.” I tried to close the door, but he stuck out his arm to block me. “What are you planning to do today? Do you need a tour guide?”
My tongue tripped over my teeth. “No thanks, I’ve got my guidebook. I’m just planning on walking around the ruins, seeing the Treasury.”
“I’d be happy to take you.”
“Thanks, but I’m fine.”
The entrance bell rang, and the man glanced toward the stairs. “We can talk later,” he said, regretfully leaving to attend to his next customers. My neck unclenched, and I felt air flood into my lungs with relief. I locked the door, made a quick bathroom visit and tip-toed out of the room.
When I went downstairs, Ahmed was attending to an older couple, but his gaze floated beyond his customers straight to me. If I didn’t look at him, I could pass the front desk without any more conversation. I kept my eyes on the floor as I glided through the front hall and escaped into the outdoors. Relief. I’d made it. I could start my real trip now. I studied the map in my guidebook and headed down the street in the direction of the ruins. Two more men accosted me on the first block. “Would you like a guide, beautiful?”
I shook my head, and strode up to a group of older Americans standing on a street corner listening to a local guide wearing a nametag that said “Hanifah.” I pretended to listen, trying to position myself close enough to the group to look as though I were part of it, but far enough that I didn’t look like I was poaching Hanifah’s tour-guide services.
I spent the day clinging to the edges of American and European tour groups. When one group took too long in a spot, I moved ahead to the next. I stayed in the vicinity of the ruins as long as I could, but when it started getting dark, I knew I had to get back to the hotel. I hoped Ahmed’s shift would be over. It was, but the end of his shift meant he was free to spend his time with me.
He greeted me heartily as I walked in. “It is the beautiful American.”
I nodded my head in greeting.
“You should come out with me tonight. How about a drink?”
“I will show you the beauty of Petra at night.”
“I appreciate your offer, but I’m tired from traveling. I’d rather go to sleep early and rest for tomorrow.”
“You do not know what you are missing! I will take you to the best places. No tourist sees the places I can show you.” His tone had an edge of menace.
“No, thank you.”
“You are stupid. You should come with me. I will show you everything. I will give you a good time.” His eyes gored into me. Fear’s tendrils started snaking up my spine.
“No. I must rest.” I started up the stairs while he was still talking.
“You do not know what you are missing!” he called behind me.
I struggled with the key to my room, trying so hard to jam it into the lock that it kept bouncing off. I finally got the key into the lock, stormed into my room, tripped on the threshold, and managed to close the door behind me. There was no bolt or security chain. I looked around the bare room and my eye landed on the nightstand, the sole piece of furniture besides the bed. I dragged the nightstand over to the door to block it. Then I put my suitcase on top of it. The light piece of furniture and small bag wouldn’t keep the door shut, but at least the sound of the suitcase dropping and drag of the wood on tile would alert me to a break-in.
I slept little and poorly. No one tried to enter my room that night, but I didn’t want to go through another night like that. At first light, I packed my suitcase and left it on the bed, so I could be ready to go at any moment. I wanted to leave Petra that day, a day earlier than I intended. I exited the hotel through the front lobby. No Ahmed…. I found a quick breakfast near the bus station, and checked the schedule for a bus I could take back to Israel that day. The only bus left late at night and would require finding a place to stay in Eilat before getting back to Tel Aviv. I decided to think about it over the morning and make my decision by lunch.
I hiked back to the ruins and consulted the guidebook to see what I had missed. I decided to check out the archeological museum. On my way in, I stopped to examine a stone carving—a bas-relief of a man between two winged lions, its detail rubbed smooth by time. A peaceful-looking American with short brown hair stood reading the placard next to the carving. He smelled like soap and freshly washed cotton. He smiled at me kindly. I smiled back. What a relief to be around a man who didn’t gape at me as if I were chattel. More American men gathered behind him, of varying ages but similarly peaceful demeanors. Soon a tour guide arrived, much less serene than the group of men he was guiding.
“This mosaic is a rare surviving example of the tile work that lined all the buildings in this complex.” The guide stood on a raised ledge so everyone could hear him. He was serious and erudite, and spoke enthusiastically about the history of the site. The men listened to him earnestly. I decided to follow this group.
As I trailed them to their next destination, the man I had seen at the carving outside the museum turned to me. “Where are you from?” he asked in a friendly voice.
“America. New York, mostly. You?”
“Minnesota.” he answered. “New York City is very grand and busy. I was there once.”
“I’ve never been to Minnesota.” I kept up the conversation. “What’s it like?”
“Greener than here. It’s quiet, where I live. Much quieter than New York City.”
“Do you think it would be okay if I followed your group around and listened to your tour guide? He seems really knowledgeable.
“I don’t think it will be a problem. You’re welcome to join us.”
He introduced himself as David, and I stayed with his group for the remainder of the afternoon. In the company of these gracious, gentle men, I could finally breathe freely. Accompanied by the comforting sounds of placid feet scuffling on rock, I took in the glory that was the Treasury, a graceful building carved in elegant curves and columns in the red and white rock of the desert.
My eyes still wide from the thrill of seeing the ancient beauty, I followed the men towards their lunch destination. I overheard three of them talking about taking their tour bus to Amman that afternoon.
“Excuse me, did you say your bus was going to Amman today?”
“Do you have any extra room on your bus? I want to leave Petra today, and there are no public buses I can take.”
The men looked at each other. “There’s room, but you’ll need to ask our guide.”
My chest tight with apprehension, I approached the tour guide and explained my situation. His response was sympathetic—he seemed to understand me completely. “Let me check with the group leader,” he said, and went off with a determined look on his face. When he returned several minutes later, it was with a jolly thumbs up. “It is not a problem, he told me. We can drop you off in Amman near the bus station. Just meet us at noon in the bus parking lot.”
I ran back to my hotel, passed Ahmed without a word, galloped into my room and grabbed my bag from the bed. I race-walked back down and waved goodbye, ignoring Ahmed’s pained look. “Gotta go,” I said, breathlessly. “I won’t be staying tonight.” I threw the room key on the counter, and was out of the lobby before he could say a word.
I made sure that I was at the bus parking lot at noon. The men all smiled at me as I climbed the bus stairs, the stale cool air-conditioning welcoming me like a calming massage after the desert heat. I aimed for a plush molded seat behind David, but he turned around, smiled in his kindly way and said, “Please, come sit next to me.” He moved over to the window seat to make room, and I plunked down beside him.
We spoke about the things we had just seen at Petra, recalling all the places that had excited or moved us. The bus engine started up, and its continuous hum settled me into a soothing calm. It was only then, relaxing into the soft chair, Dave pulling out a bag of nuts beside me, the low chatter of the men filling the cool bus air, that it occurred to me that I had no idea what kind of group I had just joined.
“What brings your group to Jordan?” I asked.
“We’re here to see the Holy land. It might not be that obvious, but we’re monks.”
“Monks!” I repeated, a little confused.
“Yes. My brother monks and I all live together in a monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota.”
For the next three hours we spoke about his life, and the lives of the other men who had made a conscious decision to renounce worldly pleasures. Dave explained to me about Catholicism, and their Franciscan branch of it. He talked about his life at St. John’s monastery in Minnesota—a life where the men turned inward, and measured themselves according to the demanding standards of the church.
It sounded as foreign as Petra.
Singer-songwriter, writer, and composer Elisa Korentayer (AKA ElisaKorenne), writes nonfiction and performance pieces. Her songs have received songwriting awards and been featured on HBO, VH1, and ABC. Elisa is presently performing shows about historical oddballs, recording her fifth album, and finishing her memoir about moving from New York City to rural Minnesota. Learn more at www.elisakorenne.com.