JERUSALEM RESTS on slopes three thousand feet higher than those of Jericho, and the road between them, treacherous with switchbacks and boulders, meanders toward the desert floor beside cliffs and outcroppings.
"Always the good hiding place for thieves and murderers," Sol--the guide named Solomon, sent to us from the Rent-a-Guide service--says through his microphone as he drives with one hand. "It is the road in the Bible where the traveler is mugged and saved by the Good Samaritan." He notches up the van's airconditioner, points out a sprawl of tents, and adds, "There is Bedouins. Bedouins is the worst thieves and murderers of this century."
He's told us he speaks seven languages fluently, but he's also informed us that he needs only his excellent English to guide this particular tour of eight Brits, Scots, New Zealanders, and one American.
That morning he gathered us from our hotel earlier than usual, and while we hitched ourselves into the high van, he added the caution, "It will get hot fast, and we spend the morning in the desert, so do not be forgetting the hats and sunglasses and water bottles."
The van's axel is now ably clearing the stones of the rutted road to Jericho while he talks.
"We stop here for a moment for you to take pictures of the Monastery of St. George which is built many centuries ago. We do not have the time for you to cross the wadi and struggle up the path to go in, but inside is not worth seeing anyway."
We dutifully climb down into the blazing glare and swirling sand, and a few steps away from the van, one of the Englishmen murmurs, "Did you notice that no matter how far in the past the events happened, Sol always talks in the present tense anyway."
"I think the past is the present here," I say as we straggle to the side of the dry riverbed to gaze at the distant collection of buildings.
"It's too bloody stifling to breathe," someone else mutters as we stand looking across the wadi. "They shouldn't have scheduled our trip to Jericho in this heat."
St. George's cloisters jut from the mountain, seeming themselves living stone, but we've been safely assured that the interiors aren't worth crossing the gorge and making the laborious climb to see.
"Please. Give me money. I am hungry." A little hand touches mine, and a grimy child, in a pair of jeans and what must be an unbearably hot sweater of orange and green stripes, looks up with a pitiful expression. "Give me your watch. I sell it to eat. Please. Give me your camera. I am very hungry."
"Oh, what a charming little boy," one of the Scottish women comes up beside us. She touches his matted hair. "Where did you come from?"
His supplicating sorrow immediately mutates into a calculating smile, ageing him years older than his size, while he gestures toward the dunes behind which lie the Bedouin encampments. "My house, my family there, lady."
Then he pulls two toy sheep from his jean pocket. "Please, lady. Buy from me. Ten shekels. My mama make these to sell for food. My family very hungry."
The tiny wool balls with matchstick legs, identical to those we've seen at every tourist stop, still retain their "Made in China" labels.
"I left my purse back in the van." She smiles down at him.
"Come. I walk you back." The little boy gallantly holds out his grubby hand.
She laughs and looks at me as she takes the proffered fingers. "Isn't he the sweetest thing."
I want to say he's not sweet at all but terribly damaged by being forced to become a fawning, insistent beggar, but I don't say it as I follow them down the rock?strewn path to where Sol waits behind the steering wheel with the airconditioner humming.
When we open the sliding van door, Sol glowers at the boy. "Get away from here, you little beggar."
The child doesn't move. "Give me shekels. Please, pretty lady. Give me bon-bons."
"I'll just give him a shekel for walking me to the car," the Scottish woman says meekly to Sol, who continues to frown from beneath his ample eyebrows.
She puts the coin in the boy's hand and picks up the sack of peaches we bought from a vendor as we left Jerusalem. "I don't have any bon-bons, but would you like a piece of fruit?"
The coin and the toy sheep have disappeared, and the little boy reaches in the sack with both hands. He adroitly extracts half a dozen peaches, turns in a flash of striped green and orange wool, and speeds away across the sand.
We shade our eyes and look after him.
"Wasn't he adorable."
I want to say, "What in hell are we doing to our children," but I don't want to appear the dour American, so again I don't say anything as I climb in the van.
As soon as the others wander back from the photographic view of the monastery, Sol counts us, slams the van door, and bounces us onto the rocky road again. "We are delayed. It is too hot to be out here. The Jerusalem Post is saying that we have a sharav these days, heat over a hundred degrees. So we should be going back as fast as we can. It would be better to be traveling to the beach instead of to Jericho. As soon as we return to Jerusalem, it is good to go swimming in the hotel pool."
We drink from our water bottles and dab our faces with sodden Kleenex as Sol resumes his lecture.
"See. Here is the inn of the Good Samaritan. It is only a pile of stones now." Like a trained opera singer, he doesn't seem to need to inhale to keep being. "Look there at the tracks on the hillside. From the goat herds of the Bedouins. In winter the hill is covered with grass, and the trails is easy to follow. Now is nothing, but Bedouins can track over stone as well as through dust. The Bedouins is the best trackers in the world, and the Israeli army uses them to search out and kill the terrorists who cross the borders and try to hide in the hills."
A few cameras aim behind us toward the Inn of the Good Samaritan; swerve toward the forbidding arid peaks over which the Bedouins ferret out hiding Arabs.
"When we are reaching Jericho I must warn you that the old city is disappointing." Sol generally talks non?stop, sometimes explaining over his shoulder, sometimes watching the road and speaking through the amplifier. This was one of the over-the-shoulder occasions. "There is nothing to see. Only a tel, a hill, and the tourists come away disappointed."
He explains that no digging has been done for over a decade because the archeologist who held the excavation permits died in a car wreck and the permit titles thus still remain in doubt after fourteen years. "So we will not stay long. You will be looking only at a disappointing pile of dirt."
An unaccountable spot of red abruptly appears on the chalky landscape.
"Look, Sol, is that a Bedouin?" The Englishman in the front passenger seat leans forward eagerly and peers out the windshield.
Sol shrugs. "Maybe."
The road dips into a gully, and we all stare ahead as the van labors up from the valley again.
A figure comes toward us through the shimmering ribbons of heat.
As we get closer, I can see that the person walking in the desert isn't a Bedouin but a blond girl in khaki shorts, tee shirt, and a red baseball cap. She's briskly pacing along the side of the road with her water bottle and camera slung around her neck and her face shaded under the red bill.
Sol edges the ungainly van past her while she ignores us entirely and strides on as if she's alone on the dry stretch of road cut.
Sol glances out the side window at her. "She is foolish. Two women is killed a week ago by Bedouins for much less than the expensive camera she is carrying."
"Shouldn't we stop and tell her that?" I say to the back of his neck.
The red crown of her hat moves steadily by my window.
Sol glances at me in the rearview mirror. "What can you tell young people these days? They are knowing already whatever you want to tell them."
He's mentioned a daughter, and I have a sudden intimation of their relationship. I nonetheless say, "This girl may not know about the murder."
"The tourists, the young people, they think they know everything."
"We ought to stop and warn her about the killing."
No one else says anything, and although I don't turn to face my British companions directly, I know they're gazing at the skull-white landscape. I also know they're ready to return to the hotel and the rooftop pool.
I look out the rear window.
The form of the girl in her crimson cap is barely visible through the cloud of white sand particles raised by the van.
"You speak enough languages," I say. I think my voice may be starting to plead. "She's bound to understand one of them even if she doesn't understand English. We shouldn't let her keep walking into danger like that."
Sol doesn't respond as he chums the van up another incline.
As we crest the hillock, I see a large tour bus at the bottom of the hill.
"I imagine that's the girl's group down there," the Scottish woman, the one who gave the Bedouin child the coin, says from beside me. I know she's saying it for my benefit.
"What if it isn't?"
"It probably is," another voice from the last row of seats throws in. "She undoubtedly didn't walk all the way from Jericho."
"Even if it is her tour group, they may not know about the murder either."
No one backs me up, and Sol guns the van past the tour bus.
I feel myself the ugly American. Someone who considers causing problems by shouting at our tour guide, someone who contemplates climbing over the seats, jerking the keys from the ignition to stop his van, and delay us all.
And I don't insist.
White dust billows from behind the wheels, the red?hatted girl vanishes into it, and we speed toward the tel of Jericho.
Which will disappoint us all.