He pointed at the cigarette burns on the back seat and marked them on his clipboard. Then the scratches, dents and paint chips on the side doors. We processed around the SUV with the Avis agent, pointing and marking until our rental form resembled the scratch paper at a pen store.
This would be our chariot for the next 9 days in Jordan and it was exactly how we wanted it. Renting a pristine, new vehicle means avoiding gravel roads and sticking only to calculated plans. But renting a battle-tested tank riddled with dents and scratches meant we could be a little less wary of contributing our own. We planned to take this car from the southern city of Aqaba north through deserts and up the side of mountains, and this car looked ready.
To get to Aqaba, we first had to cross the border into Jordan at Eilat, Israel. This involved taking a quick taxi, paying an Israel exit fee to get an exit stamp, walking the 100m of no man's land between the two countries (which gives you just long enough to think about how you wish you knew some Arabic), and getting new stamps and a new taxi to Aqaba on the Jordan side.
Once we'd made it to the hotel, we made our way down to one of the beach bars along the Red Sea for a good old Piña Colada. After all, it would be our last taste of something icy before heading out into the hot, dry expanses of Wadi Rum.
After driving north from Aqaba, past dozens of roadside stands selling fruit and herds of slowly wandering camels, we met up with Mohammed, our guide for the next three days. We'd organized a tour with him via Bedouin Directions and we were eager to start romping around the desert.
Wadi Rum, also known as the Valley of the Moon, is like a massive sandy playground. The colorful sandstone and granitic pillars surrounded by a sea of ever-shifting sand make for epic vistas in every direction. It's no wonder that many famous movies, from very real stories like Lawrence of Arabia to otherworldly tales like Prometheus and the Martian, were filmed here.
We took about a million photos in Wadi Rum and probably half of them included the jeep. We loved it because of its rugged utility combined with playful rainbow-colored tassels strung all around the inside, but mostly we admired Mohammed's ability to make it surf over sand dunes, climb rocks and barrel down steep hills.
Our first day was a tour de force of many of the Wadi Rum highlights. Mohammad would surf to a stop, make sure we had water and point to where we needed to go. We'd hike a bit, taking as much time as we wanted to appreciate the place, then find him and the truck and set off for the next thing to climb.
Half of the time, we would return to find him with a small fire crackling away and his trusty teapot, pouring us yet another glass of strong, sweet tea—"Bedouin whiskey!" At one of these many stops we had the privilege of seeing him measure out the ingredients for the tea, discovering it was actually almost equal parts water and sugar.
As night fell, we headed back to the camp with Mohammad and met up with a couple of his friends. A few rounds of tea deep into the evening, they started demonstrating some of their favorite Bedouin games that involved a surprising amount of hopping, picking things or people up, and pretty amazing tricks with scarves. Incredibly, it was even sillier than this picture makes it look.
We lost every round, but we still had a good laugh trying.
At bedtime, we dragged our blankets and sleeping mats outside and slept in a sheltered cove with a theater of stars above us. Still riding high on all the wonders of the day (and the many rounds of tea), we restlessly pointed out constellations until far past our bedtime.
While we really enjoyed our tour on day one, we fell in love with Wadi Rum the second day. We started off the day with a hike up Jabal Umm ad Dami, Jordan's tallest mountain, giving us clear views back into Jordan in one direction and down into Saudi Arabia in the other.
After that scramble, Mohammad could just tell we wanted to do more hiking, so he dropped us off in a valley for a little free-form trekking. As he surfed away in the Jeep, we set off on what would be an unforgettably beautiful walk. If it wasn't already magical enough, a couple of sweet, swooping swallows tailed us the whole way, making the occasional acrobatic dive.
On the way back to camp, we stopped for a surprise visit to one of his Bedouin friends out with his flock. A parade of dogs and goats ambushed the vehicle as our jeep pulled up. I set off to take some pics while Stef made introductions.
It was wonderful to let loose and just enjoy the desert with our new friend, not having to run around from sight to sight.
On our final night, Mohammed did the most classically Mohammed thing possible: casually climbing a gigantic sandstone rock with our jeep straight to a nice perch for making tea and taking in one last sunset.
We just can't get enough desert! We're heading north to the ancient city of Petra and the Dana Biosphere Reserve.