by Lucas Barrow-Townsend
Through glass, darkly. Boxing Day, Aqaba beach, Jordan.
I’m a few dozen feet out, swimming in the sea, when I see a horrible cluster of broken glass bottles on the seabed. I start diving down and bringing the shards back to shore. It takes several journeys to clear them, and it’s all a bit tedious, but it needs doing, and as Hillel the Elder said, ‘If not me, then who? If not now, then when? I’m just about done when some locals wander up. They’ve been watching me and are intrigued about why I – clearly a tourist – am cleaning up ‘their’ beach. Looking at the glinting slivers of glass, they say they’re a bit ashamed. I explain it was the horrific image I had, of someone slicing open their feet, that made me want to do it. (A bit like stepping on a plug in the dark, perhaps, only potentially more lethal). They want to thank me – and ask me to join them on New Year’s Eve (that year is the first time it’s been a national holiday in Jordan) in ‘their’ cave, in Wadi Rum, ‘the Valley of the Moon’, where parts of David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia were filmed.
A few days later we’re over ten miles from the nearest road, and as darkness falls I’m being given my best New Year’s Eve ever: the delicious food (cooked in foil buried under the fire); the genial company; that whole ancient Bedouin hospitality vibe. Above all, the utterly incredible landscape, the stars as bright as any I’ve ever seen. In the morning I wander off from the cave and notice, in the fine desert sands, the huge number of faint traces of the night’s activities left by various small animals doing their thing as quietly as possible.
Wadi Rum in December by Raya Sharbain (Wiki, CC by SA 4.0)
The air is crisp, the light magical. I feel the deep satisfaction from taking part one of the oldest and most atavistic pastimes – humans sitting around a fire and breaking bread. It left an indelible impression.
All because I started picking up some litter… The original satisfaction lay in just clearing up the debris so that I simply didn’t have to worry about it anymore (I find this the easiest way to deal with my irritation with rubbish despoiling the land – or sea – scape; just clear it up instead of roiling with annoyance). So this entirely unexpected, uniquely memorable, and utterly authentic desert experience was just the icing on the cake, an unexpected bonus – but as the great Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations, “true good fortune is what you make for yourself.”
Eye Witness Account by
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by Lucas Barrow-Townsend