T.E. Lawrence described Wadi Rum, a beautiful stretch of desert in Southern Jordan, as “vast, echoing and God-like.” Yet, pacing a patch of sand in June 2012, I was rather more focussed on the relentless sunshine, lack of water and notable dearth of medical facilities. As the leader of a university charity expedition, perhaps I should have been better prepared for this.
I had chosen my team (a band of merry, though deeply unqualified volunteers) according to the high principles of enthusiasm, academic interest and a wholehearted devotion to the utopian worldview of Pax Studentia. We were venturing into the Middle East, a biblical battlefield where youthful activists subverted the machinations of despotic madmen through social media. If only we could reach these noble villagers and teach them English, they would be able to win their freedom on the Twittersphere.
We were working as language assistants in a rural school. After an intense week struggling through the alphabet in broken Arabish, our pupils needed a rest – and so did we. In high spirits, I took our team off for a weekend trekking through the desert. Under a canopy of stars, I strolled around the campground reflecting on our magnanimous efforts to save humanity.
But in a blur of blood and confusion the serenity was quickly dispelled – my friend was nipped by a stray dog. Alone but for an avenue of mountains, the night came alive with concern and conjecture: was the dog rabid? Although unlikely, this particular infection penalises prevarication with lethal effect. Sarah had limited time to receive a vaccination, lest we leave her health to fate.
As the son of two doctors and with an expired lifeguard qualification, my sense of medical expertise far exceeded any real ability to administer effective care, although not for want of trying. Our troupe of do-gooders had already sustained battle scars, having racked up a litany of casualties in Petra the previous weekend – several of our warriors were admitted to the health centre with dehydration, allergic reactions and an unsightly case of bed bugs. This recent experience with desert-related illness familiarised me with the two pillars of primary medicine: crouching protectively over a fallen comrade and muttering seemingly intelligent diagnoses. But like a true doctor, I decided to refer Sarah to specialists.
So, as the sun rose in Wadi Rum, hopes were buoyant. After lengthy phone calls back to HQ in Britain, we arranged for our desert trucks to drop us in the nearest village and from there we would charter a taxi southwards to a military hospital in Aqaba, near the Egyptian border.
As I emerged from the village megamart (a kitchen-sized store that stocks “everything”), I was greeted by commotion. Emily, last weekend’s dehydrated damsel in distress, had collapsed again. Half the town fumbled through the first aid kit whilst the other half bore her aloft, hurrying to the health centre. I watched from the side-lines, stoic in the face of our latest trial, as local medical staff injected her with a drip.
So, our jaunt down to Aqaba hospital acquired a new member. Piled into a rickety ambulance, Sarah was relegated to regular seating as Emily now occupied the bed. Each hairpin bend threatened to roll her onto the floor, with Sarah desperately grasping hands, feet and hair to keep Emily from flying sideways whilst her drip swung in my hands like a furious pendulum.
Finally the military hospital in Aqaba appeared amid a cacophony of honking taxis and blossoming palm trees. We stood perplexed. Doctors and nurses were in such high demand that we didn’t attract anyone more official than a man selling watermelon. After our long voyage south in search of professional attention, we resorted to DIY. I commandeered a hospital bed, draping Emily lengthways with Sarah perched unobtrusively on the edge. Now we merely needed to locate a qualified physician.
Help finally came. Indeed rather more quickly than predicted – anyone familiar with NHS waiting rooms would have been pleasantly surprised. Barely two hours later, and several hundred dinars lighter, we tucked into delicious chunks of watermelon. With juice dribbling down our faces, the unexpected adventure drew to a close and we dutifully headed back north to reassume our role as humanitarian vigilantes.
Lawrence of Arabia gave his parting thoughts on Jordan:
“No man can live this life and emerge unchanged… He will carry…the imprint of the desert…and he will have within him the yearning to return.”
Perhaps, Mr Lawrence, but first I’ll have a strong drink in a rainy London pub.