Party Under the Desert Moon
Of all my experiences in Jordan, the one that was probably farthest out of my frame of reference initially was the night spent in the desert at Wadi Rum as guests of nomadic Bedouin people. When I first saw it on the itinerary, I was intrigued, but the brief description didn’t conjure up much imagery. I had little in my experience to draw on. I pictured white sand, scalded by the sun reflecting blindingly, camels ambling slowly in the sweltering heat, and that’s about all my imagination produced. It was about as much like the reality as a postage stamp that says “US” represents the whole US. The night at Wade Rum turned out to be one of the most ecstatic experiences on a kaleidoscopically thrilling trip.
The Wadi Rum experience is available to Americans via concessions that have created a sort of sample package of what life for real Bedouins is like. The Jordanians who run the concessions can speak the language of Western business, and are sophisticated about marketing to the travel industry. But the people who facilitate the experience on the ground, the operators of the concession, are real Bedouins. The operation provides employment for a number of people.
Ibrahim Abdel Haq, the tour director on the Jordan Tourism Board’s tour, explained that the word “Bedouin” describes a lifestyle, not a race. And we indeed met many people who choose that lifestyle even though they have open doors to the Western world if they want to. One striking example was Raami Manaja, the son of Marguerite van Geldermalsen, a New Zealand woman who wrote the book Married to a Bedouin. In the book she describes how she did meet a Bedouin while backpacking through Jordan, fell in love and joined the Bedouin lifestyle. Her son, Raami, spent four years while growing up living in New Zealand, four years in Australia, and even lived and worked for a while in Colorado. But he found Western life stifling and returned to Jordan and the nomadic life. He speaks English with a Kiwi accent, is well-spoken, young, handsome and charming. He has all it takes to succeed in the West, but prefers life out in the open. He is still, however, a blend of both cultures and is currently maintaining his Bedouin lifestyle while engaging the tourist market with a concession at Petra that sells his mother’s book as well as jewelry, pottery and crafts made by locals. He also has created his own inbound tour operation called Raami Tours (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Other Bedouins said essentially the same thing. “I don’t need the Western lifestyle, I have the stars.” The Bedouins who hosted us at Wadi Rum told us with their actions and gestures that they were quite happy with their lives. And after spending a night at their camp, it was hard not to be persuaded of the appeal of the nomadic desert life.
JTB’s two coaches of writers and photographers from North and South America converged at a welcome center for Wadi Rum where we were treated to a plentiful lunch buffet of Jordanian foods and then loaded into several trucks that formed a caravan and drove out across the desert, following tire tracks on the roadless orange sand. It was the landscape made famous by the movie “Lawrence of Arabia,” with craggy mountains and giant rock formations like sculptures so grand they could stop you in your tracks. The drivers were local Bedouins, with headscarves, long shirts, skin tanned and toughened by sun, wind and sand, and happy smiles on their faces. Though few of them spoke much English, their faces told us that they were having a really good time.
They drove us to their campsite, where about 20 tents were gathered in a circular formation at the base of a mountainous rock formation. The tents were constructed of rug-like woven tapestries thrown over frames held in place by ropes tied to stakes in the ground. The tents surrounded a campfire area with open, public tents with low table surfaces covered with bright red tapestries for dining, drinking and socializing. We were told to bring our own beverages if we wanted beer or wine. We were served a buffet of a great variety of food prepared at the camp, with meats prepared in cookers designed to cook while buried under the sand. Musicians played drums, reed and stringed instruments, sang and danced and in the exhilarating fresh desert air under the clearest and largest of skies. The atmosphere became joyfully festive in no time. At any point you could walk off the campsite and encounter the vast silent night of the desert, what Lawrence of Arabia called, “vast and echoing and God-like.” It seemed so natural to be camping under the stars. The freshness of the air, the festivity of the camp and the awesome display of nature were exhilarating. It was effortless to discard the trappings of Western civilization that we are always plugged into back home and to feel like this was really the way people ought to live.
Admittedly we only stayed one evening and morning. I surely would miss my Western gadgets and comforts soon. My bath the morning after at the luxurious Mövenpick Hotel in Aqaba, was one of the greatest ever. But though the Bedouin experience was short, it was a glimpse into that world that made it possible to understand how people live happily that way.
The next morning we went on a boat trip on the Red Sea where we had lunch in the sun and snorkeled off the side of the anchored vessel. We got another kind of desert experience when we spent a night at the Feynan Eco Lodge, a property in the Dana Biosphere Reserve in Wadi Feynan. The lodge is owned by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, and managed by EcoHotels in a rigorously low-impact manner. The property generates its own electricity with solar panels, gets its water from a spring, lights its rooms with candle light, with one low-consumption electric light in the bathroom. Food is composted and plastic is recycled, though plastic will soon be eliminated, according to the management. The hotel provides jobs for many of the local people. The area was once a Roman settlement built around copper mines and some impressive ruins are not far from the lodge.
For me as an American, Jordan was a world of wonders and completely novel experiences that stretched my mind to new dimensions. In sum it was head-spinning, eye-opening. It reminds me of the line from Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
For more information on Jordan, contact the Jordan Tourism Board at www.visitjordan.com.
-- David Cogswell