In 1992, I travelled to Egypt, Israel and Jordan with about as much forethought as a 22 year old with a short attention span can have. I simply took leave from my job in a TV station and boarded my first jet plane – my first of many firsts. I was armed only with a childhood obsession with Ancient Egypt, Bible stories from a Catholic upbringing, and knowing Monty Python’s Life of Brian off by heart. I was certainly less of an intrepid traveller and more of a clueless one (what’s Ramadan?); and luckily this did me no harm at all. In fact I was oblivious to the various political crises that dogged our trail, the ones being reported home to Australia that had my extended family in conniptions. I was having a lovely time being in the most foreign place I had ever experienced in my life, all the while feeling as though I had come home.
In Egypt, this nostalgia for the unknown and unseen completely swept me up. The familiar face of the Sphinx smiled affectionately at me, the dusty light gave a golden touch to everything in the daylight hours and the sounds and scents of nightfall touched me deeply. I was braver in Egypt than I was at home: haggling at markets, riding galloping horses behind the Pyramids, lowering myself into tiny tombs that would now give me the collywobbles.
Israel was an altogether more contemplative place, where modern people lived ancient lives treading the tracks of their ancestors, grieving, praying and bathing in places that were centuries older than any of the cities in Australia. Here I grew introspective, aware of my youth: how little I knew, how easily my 22 years had come.
But it was in Jordan that I was able to give of myself, in a way that will forever connect me to it, and which I’m sure they still talk about in awed whispers. Aqaba seduced me with the freshest seafood and the heady scent of clove cigarettes. And then there was Petra.
Petra was on the precipice of becoming a serious tourist destination, one hotel had been built and more were planned that looked across at the ancient carvings. The most famous of these, The Treasury, had been used in the climactic scene of the 1989 film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and finally the world was catching on. But in 1992, Petra was still small enough that having spent the day exploring the historical site, our tour group was invited to watch the movie with the Community Leader, who had been gifted with a copy of the movie and a VHS player to watch it on.
We filled the room, sitting on traditional tufted mats and pillows along with proud townsmen and settled in to watch Harrison and Sean do their wonderful thing. Do you remember watching videotapes? How sometimes there would be a copy from the rental shop that would roll with an intermittent band of white noise, and yet you would sit through for a time hoping it might just disappear on its own? In Petra, Indiana Jones shimmied with interference that distorted both the action and the audio and we all sat there, staring as the long, eye watering night stretched before us. Except me. I was having one of my now-famous internal discussions. I had operated that exact video machine many times in my workplace; I was pretty sure it was just a tracking issue, which I knew how to fix. Would it be rude to offer to fix it? Would it be an affront to the hospitality, their masculinity? Maybe this was all a test to see how well behaved we could be as guests? Maybe this was a way of offering polite invitation when secretly they wanted us to call it a night?
After ten minutes of my standard overthinking, I put my hand up and asked the Community Leader if I could try to fix it. He looked doubtful but, possibly more out of politeness than hope, he agreed. I located the tracking and rolled it: the screen static grew frantically and the room of people groaned. Wrong way. I rolled it back…and then beyond and the picture miraculously cleared and there was an international cheer of joy.
At the end of the night we left, shoulders clapped, fond friends. At 22, it was momentous; I had helped. I had helped in another country. I had contributed. A very significant first. The next day, I tripped going up the steps of the coach and split my lip open, and balance was restored in my world once again. But for the briefest of moments I was a truly Intrepid Traveller; a moment I’ve never forgotten.