But I would not feel so all alone, Everybody must get stoned.
Bob Dylan, Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
‘They’ve locked me out. Could you let me in?’
Someone was knocking on the little window above my bed. When I yanked open its wooden shutter, I could barely see her face. It was so dark outside, I could not tell whether or not she was upset. She did not sound upset.
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I had met Sam for the first time just a few hours earlier. I was coming back from a walk down the wadi. As I got to the top of a trail that was sometimes as much a scramble as it was a walk, I spotted someone wearing a polka-dotted sunhat and oversized sunglasses with lemon yellow frames. She was sitting on the stone wall by the entrance to the village. I probably looked strange, too, with my sunburnt head inexpertly wrapped in an olive green shemagh.
‘Binda Feynan?’ she asked.
‘Sorry?’ I said.
‘Binda Feynan?’ she asked again. ‘Did you just walk down to Feynan?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘About halfway. It’s a long walk to Feynan.’
‘Can I ask,’ I said, catching my breath, ‘where you’re from? Your accent sounds familiar.’
‘Minnesota,’ she said. ‘Where are you from?’
‘Other side of the river,’ I said. ‘Wisconsin.’
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It was a strange place to meet. Stuck like a barnacle on the side of a cliff facing the western border of Jordan, Dana still looked like a village out of the early Ottoman Empire. In the 1960s, the villagers got tired of walking to the top of the cliff every morning to work at the cement factory there and built a new village next door. Dana became a ghost town. But in the 1990s, some prudent villagers decided to float the old boat on the rising tide of ecotourism, moved back down to Dana and opened a couple of rustic lodges like the Dana Hotel, where Sam and I were both staying.
After dinner in the hotel dining room, Sam and I retired to the overstuffed sofas in the hookah lounge, where you could drink cup after cup of seriously strong mint tea and smoke bowl after bowl of seriously strong apple shisha, which, of course, we began to do. The tea was made on a potbelly stove in the middle of the lounge, the heat from its wood fire nicely toasting our feet. While the days in the desert were hot, the nights were quite cold, with the winds from the Negev blowing along the bluff.
We wrapped ourselves in Bedouin blankets and Sam told me her story. When she was in her early twenties, Sam and her husband set up a software company in St Paul. The software company had done well, but the marriage had not. Following a rather messy divorce, Sam got half of the company, as well as the house. She sold her half of the company, kept the house and decided a solo bike ride from Cape Town to Cairo was just what she needed. But when she got to Cairo, Sam found she needed more. So she turned left, hoping to cycle across North Africa to Morocco. Turned back at the Libyan border, Sam had been bouncing around the beaches and the deserts of the Levant on her bike ever since, including six months in Jerusalem, living in what sounded like a garden shed.
‘Your turn,’ she said. ‘So what are you doing in Dana?’
I told her I was there to recuperate from a group trek through Wadi Rum. A trek for a single trekker cost too much, so I had no choice but to go with a group. I had occasionally gone with groups before. Some had been good, some had been bad. The Inca Trail, for example, was a good group. The trek to Kanchenjunga in Sikkim was a bad group. If I had had to spend another afternoon in that dining tent, drinking tea and listening to my fellow trekkers talk about their gardens and their grandchildren, I would have slit my wrists. Mercifully, our Tibetan guides saved me, introducing me to the pleasure of sucking hot chang through wooden straws from tall bamboo tumblers. But Wadi Rum was another bad group, without the charming diversion of chang. So every night, I would grab my sleeping bag and climb as high into the desert as I could.
‘With all this tea and tobacco,’ Sam said, ‘I’m a little high myself. In fact, I feel quite stoned.’
‘Everybody must get stoned,’ I said.
‘Would you like to see my bike?’
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I saw Sam’s bike, went back to my room, read for a while and was almost asleep when I heard that knock on the window. She passed me her knapsack, grabbed the jambs with both hands and jumped. Sam had the body of a longer Victoria Pendleton, slipping quite easily through that little window, until it came to some seriously hard thighs. Then it was a wiggle or two before she plopped onto the bed like a goldfish plopping back into its bowl. She said she was too buzzed from the tea and the tobacco to sleep, so she had decided to go for a walk around the village to come down. She was still buzzing, so I asked if a glass of red wine would help.
Sam gave me a long look.
‘Are you telling me, Tom,’ she finally said, ‘that instead of all that lousy tea and all that shitty tobacco, we could have been drinking wine?’
‘Well, no,’ I said. ‘There’s only a half bottle. I bought it in Aqaba before I caught the bus up here. I’m on rations. One glass per night.’
‘Well,’ Sam said. ‘Let’s have that glass, then.’
We sat cross-legged on the bed, taking tiny sips of wine, and talked bikes. We told stories of flat tires, broken spokes and snapped cables. We discussed the advantages and the disadvantages of gear hubs and disc brakes, of drop bars versus flat bars on touring bikes. We talked about our love of steel frames, who makes the best bike bags and our favourite saddles.
Sam swallowed the last few drops of wine and handed me the glass.
‘Tom?’ she said.
‘Yes?’ I said.
‘Did you think I invited you to my room tonight to see my bike?’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Well, you can stay here, if you like.’
‘Okay,’ she said.
Sam uncrossed her legs and picked up the sandals she had dropped on the floor. She stood up and placed the sandals beside a wooden chair whose paint had mostly peeled, making sure both toes were pointing in the same direction. Then she stepped out of her jeans and hung them neatly from the back of the chair, followed by her cardigan, her tee shirt and her panties, all hung or folded carefully to avoid wrinkles.
Then Sam unzipped her knapsack, took out a hairbrush, a toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste and went into the bathroom. She brushed her teeth, unbraided her hair and gave it a good comb, while I crawled back into bed. She came out of the bathroom, smiled and got into bed like she was getting into bed somewhere in St Paul.
‘I hope you have a condom,’ Sam said.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I think I have one somewhere.’
‘You think you have one condom.’
‘So here we are,’ she said, ‘stuck in the middle of the fucking desert, with a half bottle of red wine and a condom?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Great,’ she said.
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At breakfast the following morning, Sam suggested she move out of her room and into mine. My room was bigger than hers, with plenty of space for a bike. So we asked the manager of the Dana Hotel if that was okay. Yes, he said, of course. A splendid idea. The hotel was very full, he said. He smiled and winked at me. I wanted to smile and wink back, but Sam was looking at me, wide eyed. It was the only time I saw her upset.
We spent our days walking around the wadi, reading and sleeping. Sam had not read a book for some time and the only book I had was a book someone had read on the trek and then given to me, thinking I might like it. It was Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, about growing up in Iowa in the 1950s. I would read a chapter, rip that chapter out of the book and pass it on to Sam to read. So we were reading the same book at the same time, but not the same chapter at the same time. The stories of Bryson’s Midwest childhood were like the stories of our Midwest childhoods, even though Bryson was older than us and we were both a bit snooty about Iowa.
In The Thunderbolt Kid, the five-year-old Bryson finds the behaviour of his father and his mother so embarrassing that he cannot believe these people are his biological parents, thinking perhaps he is from another planet, the planet Electro in the galaxy Zizz. His real father, King Volton, sent him to Earth in a silver spaceship shortly before their planet exploded, hypnotising a random couple in the Midwest into thinking he was their son, not an alien being with some pretty amazing superpowers.
‘Did you ever feel like that when you were a kid?’ I asked Sam. ‘Like your parents weren’t your parents? Your brothers and your sisters not really your brothers and your sisters?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I only have a brother, no sisters.’
I told Sam everyone in my family was born in the same small town in Wisconsin – my parents and their siblings were all born there, my brother and my sisters all born there – but I was born in Canada.
‘Oh no,’ she said, leaning away from me a little and giving me a good look, as if I were also from another planet. ‘Not Canada.’
‘Yeah, I know,’ I said.
‘You poor thing,’ she said, putting her hand on my arm and giving it a squeeze. ‘Do you need a hug?’
‘Anyhow,’ I said, ‘the family joke was I was adopted. I sort of believed them. My mother also told me the first baby the Canadian nurse brought wasn’t me, so she sent it back. Then they brought me. So, you know, who knows?’
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We walked around the wadi because we were not allowed to walk around the village. They were shooting a Hollywood film there, with some pretty big stars. Streets were often closed for filming and they even filmed a few scenes at the Dana Hotel, meaning we either had to scat for a couple of hours or stay in our room. The film crew hung out at the hotel and they always ate lunch there, before buggering off to some posh hotel in Petra every evening.
During the day, Dana did whatever Hollywood told Dana to do and Dana became whatever Hollywood wanted Dana to become. But at night, Dana became Dana again. Even during the day, though, Dana was still a little bit Dana. If you look closely at some of the scenes in the film, you can see our laundry in the background, flapping in the breeze on the roof of the hotel, including Sam’s glorious knickers.
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Setting: A village somewhere in Iran, not long after the fall of the Shah, the rise of the Ayatollah and the return of Sharia law.
The major characters are the Good Wife, the Evil Husband and the Dodgy Mullah, the Husband and the Mullah being best mates.
The Evil Husband wants to divorce the Good Wife and marry a buck-toothed teenager from some super rich family in the city. Right, the Good Wife says. What about the kids? Who pays the bills? Well, says the Dodgy Mullah. How about you become my sigheh, my holy whore, as allowed under Islamic law, and let me worry about those silly bills? Dirtbags, the Good Wife says. How about you two go fuck each other?
Then the wife of the Village Idiot chokes to death on an olive pit. The Good Wife accepts a job cooking and cleaning for the Idiot and his simple-minded son, hoping to save enough dosh to divorce the Evil Husband and decamp with her cherubic children. So the Evil Husband and the Dodgy Mullah come up with Plan B, to accuse the Good Wife and the Village Idiot of adultery. They tell the Idiot, if he does not play ball, they will stone him, too, and ship his simple-minded son off to some third-world loony bin. So the Village Idiot plays ball.
Emceeing a pre-stoning pep rally, the Dodgy Mullah tells the seriously pepped stoners the Good Wife has brought dishonour to the village but, with every stone they throw, they bring honour back. They bury the Good Wife up to her waist in the village square, tie her elbows behind her back and stone her, mostly in slow motion.
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After lunch, the Mullah would often ask if he could join us on our favourite bench in the hotel courtyard, dressed, of course, in his turban and robes. He always sat between us, talking mostly to Sam and only occasionally to me. The Mullah was originally from the Lebanon, but lived in Los Angeles now, where he played terrorists on American television, amplifying his accent and blowing stuff up. This was the first time he had played the part of a mullah.
Feeling a bit bored, I would often excuse myself, either to find somewhere quiet to read The Thunderbolt Kid or to return to the room for our afternoon nap. Sam would come looking for me about a half hour later, either putting her arms around me and asking when she would get the next chapter or snuggling up to me in bed. How’s the Mullah? I would ask. Busy, she would say, then tell me what scene they were shooting that afternoon or the latest gossip, like how upset the villagers were about some of the film crew entering the mosque that morning without removing their shoes. Now the women would have to scrub the whole place clean.
The Mullah was also the first to ask how long we had been married. But he was far from the last. Sam and I began to wonder what we looked like. Sam had taken quite a few photos, so we went through those photos, looking at ourselves. And, sure enough, there we were, sitting on that overstuffed sofa in the hookah lounge, wrapped in blankets, drinking tea. We looked like an old married couple even before Sam jumped through that window. I had been in relationships before where we eventually became more brother and sister than boyfriend and girlfriend, but this was my first experience of a relationship that jumped from complete strangers straight to old married couple, leapfrogging everything in between.
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It was time to go. I needed to fly back to London and Sam needed to get back on her bike. I would head up the King’s Highway to Amman and Sam would head down the King’s Highway to the old Nabataean capital of Petra. The manager of the Dana Hotel had arranged for a driver to take me to Tafila, where I would catch the bus to Amman. Since I did not need to leave before mid-morning, I offered to walk to the top of the cliff with Sam, who wanted an early start. There was no way she could ride her bike up that road, with or without bags. I even offered, somewhat gallantly I thought, to push.
The dirt road to the top of the cliff ran along the escarpment, slowly rising until it met the King’s Highway on the plateau above. It did have the occasional steep bend, though, where Sam’s bike would suddenly become much heavier. When I needed a breather, I had to pull on the brakes so the bike would not slip back.
‘The Mullah will miss you,’ I said, as we looked back at Dana, our hotel already difficult to distinguish from all the other stone structures.
‘Probably,’ she said.
We went round a particularly nasty dogleg, where I had to pause for a moment, pulling hard on the brakes. I was sweating pretty good now, even though the sun had not yet risen over the top of the cliff and the air was still quite cold.
‘Actually,’ she said, also breathing quite hard, ‘I told him I would stay with him in Petra tonight. I think there’s a party.’
Even Dana was hard to tell now from all the grey rock surrounding it. Before long, we could hear traffic above us on the King’s Highway and we could almost feel the heat of the sun spilling over the edge of the plateau.
‘Why did you tell me that, Sam?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know,’ she said.
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When the dirt road met the tarmac of the King’s Highway, neither of us knew what to say, not that we had talked much on the way up. I took a quick photo and we kissed a couple of times, then Sam spotted a pickup truck hurtling down the highway from the direction of Petra.
‘I think it’s the film crew,’ she said. ‘This could be your ride back down.’
Sam waved and the truck screeched to a stop, the driver and his passenger smiling like loons.
‘Hey, Sam,’ the driver said. ‘You need a lift?’
‘No,’ Sam said, ‘but Tom does.’
They stopped smiling. There was clearly room in the cab.
‘Get in the back,’ the driver said, jerking his thumb at the mostly empty bed behind him. I jumped in, finding a spot next to some scraps of lumber, a battered toolkit and a half dozen cans of paint.
As I bounced downhill in the back of the speeding truck, Sam became smaller and smaller, looking more and more like someone I did not know, like just some woman with a bike. In the only photo I have of her, the photo I took just before she spotted the truck, Sam is standing beside her bicycle, squinting into the morning sun, her long braid of blonde hair falling across her collarbone, her helmet hanging from her hand. She is leaning somewhat oddly to one side, putting more weight on one leg than the other, like she is trying to dodge something.