Arm Wrestling Arabs in Petra
Another lesson to add to the travel log book is: Don’t arm wrestle with Arab men for money. I learned this lesson on my way out of the ancient town of Petra in Jordan, which is one of the most amazing, other-worldly places I have ever been. In fact, I never had planned on coming to Petra, or Jordan for that matter, but it is close to Egypt and so many other travelers told me that it was the highlight of their trip in the Middle East. It was easy to persuade travel-buddy Jim, so after Dahab, Egypt, we headed to the border.
Jordan is pretty similar to Egypt, but right away you can see the many differences. It is like driving from the ghetto to the suburbs of the same town. The buildings more modern, the cars nicer, the traffic makes some sort of sense, the people aren’t slightly nuts and are still really friendly and speak good English. On the road to Petra we passed truck after truck after truck loaded with fuel, cars and other goods. Our driver said that most of them were headed for Iraq. He refused our request to follow them and take the the three hour drive over to Iraq to see what was going on. Said something about a war.
So Petra is this: an ancient city founded around 200 B.C. that was carved right out of the mountains. All of the dwellings and tombs and government buildings are perfectly preserved because they are built out of the rock itself. It is absolutely incredible. It was built by the Nabataens, who positioned the city at the end of a mile long narrow gorge that made it virtually impossible to attack. We walked through the gorge in the morning, as the sunlight was hitting the sandstone and turning it into blindingly bright orange colors. The gorge is only about four to five meters wide and the rock canyon walls soar dramatically straight up and pierce the bright blue sky.
The first building you see as you come out of the gorge is the Treasury building, which simply doesn’t look real when you first see in peeking through the walls of the gorge. It is perfectly cast as the building at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; it at once conveys the sense of a romantic, ancient adventure. After the Treasury, Petra opens up into a valley of mountains that sprawls on for miles and contains all of the old artifacts of the city. Apparently the city was abandoned around 200 A.D. and became a lost city that was only rediscovered in the 1800’s. Today there are just some Bedouin villagers selling fake artifacts and over-priced water, and a few tourists wandering around. It is actually amazing how few tourists there are considering what an amazing place it is. I guess when people hear the name Jordan, the only Jordan they think of played for the Chicago Bulls and doesn’t live right next to Iraq.
Another building that will blow you away is the Monastery, which you can only reach after an hour climb through the mountains. Add it to the list of the few things in your life that make you say “Holy Shi-ite” when you first see it. In fact if you stood at the spot where you come around a corner and it suddenly appears, you would probably hear the expression in many languages all day long (shizer, merde, etc.) I could go on about how incredible Petra is, but as many traveling descriptions go, words just don’t do justice.
One more thing about Petra: it’s vastness will slowly wear you out. For your convenience there are many Jordanians offering rides on carriages, horses, donkeys, camels, and God knows what other four-legged creatures to tour and taxi you around. Not surprisingly, they will pester you all day long to take rides. As Jim and I were coming out of the gorge to go back to the hostel, the young horse handlers were bugging us to ride with them. I explained to them that I was very strong and could walk on my own, and in fact, I would give THEM a ride on MY back for the cheap price of 5 dinars. They were amused by the offer so we went over to a low wall to mount.
There were some young Jordanians arm-wrestling and playing around at the wall, and when they saw this silly, camera and water bottle-toting Westerner who was willing to give piggy-back rides, it gave them the idea that I needed to arm wrestle one of them. For two, no five, no ten dinars. What the hell, I needed the entertainment, so I agreed on a five dinar wager. They all looked like your typical young, lean, tough and wiry looking Arab boys, in their early 20’s, and I was up for the challenge.
So I sat at the wall with the young Arab, we positioned our hands, feet, elbows, knees just so – they were very particular – and almost as quickly as we began I dispatched the young horse handler. They all looked shocked and “oohed” and “ahhed” and became excited, their rapid-fire Arabic increasing in intensity. Apparently it didn’t occur to them that a soft-looking Western white boy could defeat one of them. I asked for my five dinars and they demanded and re-match with another boy. After quickly beating the second guy I was ready to collect my money and move on. Not so fast. They wanted ANOTHER re-match with ANOTHER guy. This just couldn’t be possible, this white boy beating them. They were all looking at me with wide, excited eyes and mouths slightly agape, just waiting for me to crack, for the truth of my weakness to be shown.
I took about another 6 seconds to beat that guy and I really was ready to go. No, no, no, I must have been cheating, they decided. How about I use my left hand? No problem, another horse handler, same result. They were really getting excited now, jumping around, and Jim was in the background watching me being surrounded by about 10 young Jordanians that were trying to figure out how I was beating them so easily. (I think the secret might be reverse grip barbell curls). I went along with the show, laughing, and pointed to the ones I beat, “YOU, five dinars, YOU, five dinars, YOU five dinars, where are my dinars?” They were not ready to pay me yet, and 5 dinars is quite a bit, about $7 US, although another guy put out one dinar as a down-payment for another match. I snatched it and told him I already earned it and my arm was done. “Get your dinar from him,” I told him, “He already owes me five.” An older Jordanian man was standing a few feet in the background, he had been watching stoically on the sidelines for awhile. The young boys pointed to him. “HIM. You must play him.” My arm was aching, but apparently this was the big dog so I figured it might be the way to get the show over with and collect my winnings. We sat on the wall, positioned our hands, and the boys, as they had been doing for all the matches, paid close attention to every detail to make sure I wasn’t cheating; elbows positioned evenly just so, left arm behind my back, wrists straight, feet squared up. I knew this guy would be a little tougher, he had a sturdy working-all-his-life-in-the-desert middle-aged man’s demeanor.
Ready, set, go…neither of us budged. And what was worrisome is that he didn’t appear to be trying. The old man just sat with the same mildly entertained stoic expression; his hard, brown, wheathered hands wrapped like leather around my pink and white fingers. After a few minutes of him staring me down with the faintest of smiles, and me summoning all the strength I had left to get in a strategic position, neither of us were giving up ground. He was like another rock carved out of the Petra countryside; had been there for ages and seen and done it all. A small Jordanian crowd had assembled around us, and Jim was somewhere in the back, trying to take a picture but for some reason they wouldn’t let him. A few minutes went by, I was starting to breathe a little, my elbows were getting scraped bloody from the rough rock wall and I was digging in for the long haul. Hey, I was traveling and I didn’t have anywhere to be and I was damned if I was going to lose just by giving in.
It was about that time that I made my fatal error, trying to go for a subtle re-positioning of the wrist that caused me to lose my wrist lock. It was the moment he had been waiting for, and he clamped down with whatever strength he had left. My wrist bent ever so slightly and it was a slow 10 second descent to the wall. They all shouted and jumped around…of course… and I shook the older man’s hand. He just nodded, gave a faint smile and walked off, not interested in the wager. But suddenly money was an issue to everyone else, and they demanded immediate payment. I pointed to the ones I beat (I was really pointing randomly now) and told them to give me my money first. This plea to common logic wasn’t working, and they pestered Jim and I for payment for another 100 meters as we made our way out. I was exasperated at this point and just shook my head, laughed and walked on. Some of them became very animated and threatening, but my experience with Arabs is that they are not violent and it was all for show. One boy even raised his fist in a mock threat, but I knew he wasn’t going to do anything, especially not after I handily whipped five of his friends.
Jim and I walked towards town, my arms sore and elbows bleeding a little, and stopped for ice cream. I had a newly earned dinar burning a hole in my pocket. The ice cream man wanted a ridiculous 2 dinars (about $3), so I told him my story of defeating many horse guys in Petra and not getting my money. He was intrigued and wanted to make a deal, so he grabbed my hand and said that if I squeezed his hand hard enough to make him say “Stop,” he would give it to me for one dinar. Another physical challenge! Must be a theme in Petra. At this point, why not. I squeezed, he didn’t say stop, but he apparently was impressed by my effort so he let go of my hand and retrieved my hard-earned ice cream for one dinar (I think he WAS hurting). Let me tell you, that was some good ice cream.