Christmas in the desert

Wadi Rum, Jordan

Wadi Rum, Jordan

In the autumn of 1997, well before I was up to speed with the internet, I tried to book a Christmas holiday in Florida, only to find that Florida was full.

So instead I gazed at the travel agent’s display of brochures, pointed to a picture of Petra, and said, “I’ll go there instead.”

After a lifetime of running tours of one kind or another, I like an occasional mystery tour, so I declined to read up on Jordan beforehand. I was entirely content to trust the tour-company, Bales [http://www.balesworldwide.com], and they lived up to their reputation.

My Uncle Frank, who’d been to Jordan on his National Service, warned me it’d be cold. I didn’t really appreciate that, though the sun is bright, the December wind across the desert is chilly, and each day I wore the one sweater I’d brought on top of layers of T-shirts.

I was particularly glad of my keffiyeh scarf, especially when I realised that while the Egyptians use them as headgear to keep off the desert sands, the Jordanians use them as multi-purpose scarves à la Pavarotti.

On Christmas Day we went to Wadi Rum, the desert area which is not only associated with the real T E Lawrence but was a prime location for David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia.

Noël Coward thought Peter O’Toole too pretty for the part: “It should be called Florence of Arabia,” he said. Noël Coward knew Lawrence personally, and when the hero of Arabia went into hiding in the Royal Air Force as Aircraftsman T E Shaw No 338171, famously wrote to him beginning, “May I call you 338…?”

Wadi Rum was magnificent: I could watch the colours changing on the hills and the sand all day and into the night. We drove about in 4×4 open trucks, me wrapped up in my woolly sweater and Yasser-Arafat/Pavarotti gear.

The desert air made me ravenous. Three times a day I said to myself I must not eat such insane amounts of food, and at the next opportunity there I was tucking into yet another enormous buffet – salads awash with olive oil, meats cooked in interesting things like yoghurt, astonishing sweets such as Om Ali which is an Arabian bread-and-butter pudding beyond any Briton’s wildest dreams of custard.

I seriously feared for my waistline but I found on my return that I hadn’t gained a pound. As I met my familiar friends they declared without exception how well I looked, so I concluded my trousers must have shrunk at the dry-cleaner’s.

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