The Bedouin whose cave I couchsurfed at for two nights outside Petra, Jordan, terrified me. He was tall, muscled, had dreadlocks, and was really serious all of the time. He didn’t laugh or smile once, no matter what you said, and he always had some nugget of philosophy to impart. He was like a Rastafarian Gandalf.
In the couchsurfing world, Ghassab is a megastar, having been featured on CNN and with over 200 references on couchsurfing.org. It’s part of his life’s mission to show curious travellers what life is like at his cave.
From the bus stop in the modern town of Petra, I took a taxi to the tiny Bedouin town a few miles away. People here were riding ponies in the street or driving around in 4x4s. There were no other modes of transport around, except for my little taxi. I stepped out with my rucksack. I looked more out of a place than Prince Charles at a Trivium concert. All eyes were on me.
Actually, that’s a lie. I was expecting everyone to be looking at me, this stranger in their village. But pretty much everyone ignored me. A guy with a stern, weathered face came out of a shop and asked, “Ghassab?”
I said yes and was led a little way down the street to a house, which was more a collection of rooms next to each other to make a place to live than a semi-detached with a garage, potted plants and gnomes wearing waistcoats and carrying fishing rods. I came in through a side entrance, walked through the kitchen, into a back yard where a moped was looking a little worse for wear, and then to a back room bedroom. Ghassab was there, sitting at his computer.
“Hi, hi,” he said. “Chirpy, yes? We have three other people coming today. We wait for them then we buy food and go to my cave. You excited?”
I said yes, was brought some kind of cinnamon tea in a small glass, and was left in that small room on my own for an hour or so. I took a nap, more by accident than choice.
After the Chilean girl, her French husband, and the spiritual Dutch lady arrived, I threw my stuff on the back of Ghassab’s 4×4 and climbed on the back after it. The others piled into the 4×4 itself, not fancying the challenge of holding on and bumping around at the back. Cowards.
At first I was able to snap some photos of the Jordanian rock wilderness, but when tarmac turned to dirt track and we started crashing up and down rocky hills, I put my camera down. As we made our way further and further from the edge of somewhere to the middle of nowhere, I began to get a little concerned. What if something happened? We were miles away from anywhere and getting further and further from civilization. Rastafarian Gandalf was taking us to Middle Earth.
I waved to a family of Bedouins standing around a pile of tyres. They glared at me.
Then we found a building. Well, two holes in the rock with doors attached. A kitchen cave and a bedroom cave.
We sat around together – Ghassab, Ghassab’s brother, the Chilean girl, the French guy, the hilarious Dutch lady, and me – and we ate fish and pasta that Ghassab cooked, and drank some whiskey, and talked about stuff. When Ghassab spoke, everyone was quiet, rapt with attention like primary school kids listening to their teacher read a story. The Dutch lady made jokes which we laughed at until Ghassab resumed his philosophising.
When the food was gone, the whiskey was gone and the stars had appeared overhead, we slept. We grabbed mattresses from the cave and lay them out on the rocks. It was too warm and too beautiful outdoors for us to hide away in the cave itself. I lay on my mattress for a while, staring up at the sky. I hadn’t seen so many stars in one place since I watched The Expendables. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. It’s incredible how much impact light pollution has, even in smaller towns and villages. It really reminds you that there’s a world outside your immediate environment. In a city, your world is the concrete and steel and dodgy takeaways, but take those away and you find out what you’re missing.
Then the Dutch lady started snoring.