Swelter 33

Maybe it's a personal thing, all of life lately coming to seem like one big club: long stretches of taedium vitae alternating with moments of opportunity, true glamour, hope, and glimpses of bliss. Status and one's place in the world, a frighteningly random proposition, rising and falling without purpose. A rough game, though, as Joan Didion once pointed out, you can't win unless you're at the table.

That whole club/life coming to mind during a recent reporting stint for an English publication, covering the inaugural flight of the Vintage Air Tours taxi service between Orlando and Key West, flying aboard a reconditioned DC-3 done up as a kind of airborne Forties theme park. A perfectly nice experience, and then, out of nowhere, an executive with Vintage and Virgin Airship and Balloon Company of England extends an invitation to Jordan for King Hussein's 57th birthday party. High concept Lawrence of Arabia stuff. A king dying of cancer, blowing out with an international balloon rally at Wadi Rum, a desert valley where the real T.E. Lawrence once fought an epic battle. The American-born Queen Noor, the former Lisa Halaby, bringing in the jet set. Five-star service in Bedouin tents. Camels charging across the desert. A royal reception in the capital of Amman. At long last, the ultimate party.

Over to London on Virgin Atlantic, entranced by the reconverted soda fountain in the courtesy lounge, dispensing unlimited Tanqueray. Clawing into Mid Class, comfortably watching a movie on a tiny built-in television, and making the inevitable mistake of touring the Upper Class lounge, the ultimate VIP room. Up all night, boarding a Royal Jordanian flight to Amman the next morning, and finally collapsing at the Inter-Continental hotel. The next day, motoring down to Wadi Rum, plunging into a beautiful but very strange country, a Gulf state without oil and a limited glitz quotient.

A largely poor country, the tourism industry in decline since the Gulf War contretemps, full of refugees and 50 percent Palestinian. The very small monied class frequenting elegant restaurants, full of couture-clogged Jordanian women and slick businessmen, in a country where a father can legally kill his daughter for taking up with a man outside the family. Every strata of dwelling -- windowless concrete huts, Bedouin camps, hotel-like megahouses surrounded by barbed wire -- clinging to the highway, the rush of light, noise, and ultimately civilization. Arab men in traditional garb, lolling like cats on the road, holding hands and kissing cheeks. Photographs of the great leader everywhere, on brightly painted trucks, hotel lounges, and rest camps. Herds of goats and camels, tended by women in veils. At dusk, the eerie chanting of the muezzin from the mosque, the daily background soundtrack encompassing everything from insistent Arabic music to cabdrivers with a penchant for vintage Tom Jones.

Arriving at Wadi Rum, adrift in the valley of the moon. A spectacular setting, the Jordanian equivalent of America's Badlands, crimson cliffs rising on either side. An open Bedouin tent made of goats' hair, with various dignitaries and catered guests, the standouts being ex-King Constantine of Greece and Queen Sophia of Spain, Richard Branson of the Virgin Group off shooting with the King of Spain. A pair of helicopters land, the media cameras click like locusts, but King Hussein is actually up the road, granting his blessings to the local tribesmen. Lots of general milling around, and then a low-key Third World entrance, Hussein driving his own Range Rover, accompanied by the queen and two of his eleven children. A few words from the Royal Jordanian airline sponsors, the desert police -- the Badia -- parading by on camels, and then some 50 hot-air balloons -- standard shapes, floating Diet Pepsi cans, jumbo jets, and French castles -- launched into the brilliant blue sky. The Queen, an attractive blonde Junior League type, chatting about the real party later that night: "We're just having a few close friends in." His Royal Majesty driving off in a cloud of dust, another busy day of public appearances and pardoning prisoners, including two fundamentalists who had, three weeks earlier, attempted to assassinate him.

The nonroyal contingent plowing on to the Wadi Rum Cooperative Tourist Camp, a concrete roadhouse in the center of a gorgeous nothingness, our home away from home for four long nights. The orange plastic pup tents a rude shock after all the five-star hype. Surprisingly good food, though, with the Inter-Continental crew functioning as doormen ("Four dinar for lunch -- pay first..."), cultural attaches, and companions around the fire, offering tokes on the water pipe and provoking commentary: "Saddam Hussein is a very great man, yes?" Clinging to the two graces of Scotland, Mo Foster of Virgin and Nicola Sherriff of the Royal Geographic Society, through a series of bright moments and encounters. Driving out into the cold night on an army transport truck for an old raj-style party at the British ambassador's camp, Jordanian troops serving hors d'oeuvre and drinks. The ambassador and his wife sleeping on the rocks, devotees of the desert gestalt: "We come out here all the time. The Jordanians are the nicest, gentlest people in the Mideast. Now, the Israelis are really aggressive." Folk dancing and a "balloon glow" for an evening divertissement, fifteen ballons fired up in the darkness for dramatic effect, Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" blaring out into the void. High-production fun, reminiscent of the go-for-broke entertainments of the Vietnam war.

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