methow grist 2011-2014 archive
Lebanon – Petra in Jordan

An excerpt from Bill Hottell's unpublished memoir.

Posted: March 10, 2011

Bill HottellThe great adventure of a lifetime, the formative experience of a lifetime was the nearly two-year journey around the world in 1968 and 1969. The day I was discharged from the Marine Corps in El Toro, California, my young wife, Diana, and I left the U.S. for Iceland, bought a Volkswagen camper in Germany, and began a long series of exploits and adventures which still make my skin tingle with excitement.

A couple of the exploits took place in the Middle East. Before arriving in Jordan we had spent some time in Lebanon exploring the ancient port of Byblos, the majestic Roman ruins of Baalbek, the Crusaders’ castle in Tripoli, and hashish fields in the Lebanese countryside. But in the glamorous city of Beirut I spent eight days sick in bed with some strain of dysentery from eating street vendor food in Alexandria. I could not eat any food and had to be fed intravenously at the American Hospital of Beirut. With a temperature of 104 degrees I could drink nothing but soda pop. For days the diarrhea was so severe that I was vomiting violently and shitting at the same time. Fire-hose bursts of pea soup shot from both ends.

When I finally recovered from the fever, we were able to fly from Beirut to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. From its capital, Amman, we immediately traveled to southern Jordan to see the rose-red city of Petra.
We found a station wagon that serves as “group taxi,” and piled in with three other passengers. The driver sped south out of Amman, but long before we reached Petra we came to a road block. Our vehicle was stopped by a member of Yasser Arafat’s Al Fatah who was collecting money “donations” for the Al Fatah organization. The man carried a semi-automatic rifle and wore a red and white checkered headcloth as well as a cross-chest bandolier filled with rifle shells. When he asked the six of us for contributions Diana gave money as did everybody else aboard including the uniformed soldier of the Jordanian army who sat next to me. I alone refused to contribute, but he allowed our car to pass anyway. (If I am ever named chairman of a fund-raising campaign, I’ve got to remember this technique. Collecting donations at gunpoint works very well.)
The long-abandoned city of Petra is one of the chief wonders of the Middle East: a pre-Roman Nabataean city of colossal buildings carved right into the stone cliffs of the narrow canyon.

This was June of 1968, exactly one year after the stunning Six-Day War, so no tourists were coming near Jordan. As a result, Diana and I had the magnificent rose-red city all to ourselves. We rented two horses and rode the entire length of Petra over the stone road built by the ancient Romans. The horses’ hooves clattered over the stones and echoed wonderfully off the sandstone walls of the narrow canyon-city.

That evening we ate dinner in an ancient tomb. The “restaurant” occupied a cleanly-carved stone chamber which had served as a tomb two thousand years ago. This added a touch of solemnity to the evening meal.

When we left the marvelous city of Petra and decided to hitch-hike back to Amman, we met three Jordanian gentlemen who were delighted to find two Americans. They drove us many miles north and then invited us to their home for dinner.

Preparing the meal was a long, slow process. It was cooked by an invisible wife whom we were never able to see. We all sat flat on the ground, Arab style, and ate with our fingers – there were no utensils – also Arab style. The platter, a huge metal tray almost three feet across, was piled high with a mountain of steaming rice with six boiled chickens placed upon the mountain. Then, after one of the men had poured a pitcher of hot goat’s milk over it all, we began to eat by forming small golf balls of milky rice with our fingers. Next we pulled hunks of meat off the boiled chicken, also with our fingers. This was a real feast and a truly exotic experience.

By the end of the meal my leg muscles were totally cramped up from the unfamiliar position of sitting directly on the ground and all ten of my fingers were sticky with rice.

We two complete strangers, two Americans, were welcomed as guests inside a Jordanian home for an expensive meal in a desperately poor country. I felt humbled and grateful for this gesture of hospitality. When I look back on that lavish meal, the generosity of the three Arab gentlemen nearly moves me to tears.

As Diana and I continued our hitch-hiking north through Jordan, we hit pay dirt again. A black Mercedes-Benz pulled to a stop and the lone driver had to move his semi-automatic rifle and ammunition to clear a place for me to sit in the front seat. He moved the rifle into the back seat beside Diana. He was a leader of Al Fatah, spoke some English, and was a fascinating travel companion. He insisted on driving past a Palestinian refugee camp so we Americans could see how Palestinian Arabs were living here in a large tent city where it gets very cold at nights. The 40,000 tent-dwellers were driven from their homes a year ago during the Six-Day War. “I want you to see how these refugees are living and tell your people back home about them.”

Here in the heart of the Middle East, the fascinating adventures while hitch-hiking across Jordan again reminded me of my debt to Mark Twain and his fictional character who inspired me as a boy to seek out the exotic and the unusual, to find high adventure far away from home.

From Jordan we continued across Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. Spent time in Iraq in the period before Saddam Hussein came to power. As Americans we met a hostile reception in Baghdad, principally because of U.S. support of Israel in the Six-Day War.

In Iran we traveled by local bus from Tehran to the glorious city of Esfahan, which boasts some of the most beautiful blue-tile mosques in the world. This was in the years before the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile and created an Islamic state in Iran.

In Afghanistan we stayed in Kabul and were fortunate to savor that wonderful and exotic city before it was devastated. I found the Afghanis, always suspicious of foreigners, to be not very friendly to us. Many houses in Kabul were built of mud bricks and some of the mosques were beautiful, but what I really liked was a city filled with an atmosphere of mystery and intrigue. Unfortunately, however, the fascinating Kabul of the 1960’s has been almost totally demolished by the Soviet invasion of 1979 and the other subsequent wars.

We left Kabul on a bus which crossed Afghanistan and passed through the legendary Khyber Pass. Here I saw dried-mud buildings that were a combination house and fortress guarded by Pashtoon marksmen sitting on the roof-tops.

Summer 1969