“This wind comes to us from Egypt,” reported Abu Mahmud, the proprietor of a modern truck-stop and highway oasis in that section of the Levant east of the Jordan River. This once was the biblical Wilderness, now part of the nation of Jordan.
Unlike the ancient caravaners many months on the trail with silks and spices from China, we were without a camel to lie down behind for shelter. We only had a modern sports utility vehicle equipped with enough transmission gears to scale Mt. Everest, a compass, cell phone, an altimeter and a gauge to indicate the degree of incline (on a road that could not be seen even with our set of night-vision binoculars that had been adapted in some bazaar somewhere to work through a SUV cigarette-lighter outlet rather than an electrical port of a Russian battle tank).
SUVs and Russian armored vehicles contain a lot of sophisticated gadgets, but they lack the inate sense that inspires a camel to wait out a sandstorm. For example, why did we see clearly Mr. Mahmud's sign proclaiming his Ba'albaki Tourist Oasis when the stripe in the road under our tires remained invisible? In fact, within the sheltered patios of the Ba'albaki hotel and restaurant, sheltered fountains played with hardly a ripple from the elements.
Our particular oasis was as conveniently modern as any Route 66 Little America motel, a traditional haven for refugees from North American blizzards. Awaiting a break in the sandstorm, we lounged on padded couches among hanging vines and faux indoor palms (South Seas coconut variety). We sipped Arab coffee and some of us fired up a hubble-bubble water pipe from the restaurant's ample supply.
“Truck drivers say the road back to Amman is now closed,” reported an impromptu interpreter as we clustered around a wall map. He added that the highway southward (where we were headed) might be clearing. So when we could make out the figure of a goatherd bent into the wind on the next ridgeline, we decided to forge on toward our destination -- Wadi Dana, a nature preserve sheltered by canyon walls.
“Beware of white camels,” adivsed Mr. Mahmud with a wave as we parted. “They like to stand in the middle of the road and are very hard to see in a sandstorm.” We reached our destination without encountering a white camel, but we did cross a small river so mud-clogged that it was impossible to tell where the shoreline ended and the water began.