I identify myself as a European and every year I travel across Europe to its many beautiful and varied cities, to see its countrysides and people. I fell in love with the warm, sunny beaches of Southern Europe, the mountain ranges of the Alps and the Pyrenees with skiing in winter and hiking in the summer. The historic cities of Prague, Dubrovnik, Budapest, Berlin and London and the romance and chic of Paris. But sometimes its good to venture further afield for a new experience and whilst its not always possible to gather together the money and time for the really big trips I decided to have a week off to visit one of the most European-friendly middle eastern countries – Jordan. Economy airfares are widely available and a return trip booked a couple of months ahead will typically cost under 250 Euros.
Europe needs links with stable countries in the Middle East since the recent turmoil in so many of the countries there, Syria, Egypt, Iraq to name just a few. With its tolerant and generous citizens it is one of the most likely countries to provide a bridge between the West and the Middle East. A large part of its economy (about 40% before the Arab Spring) is tourism and this has been badly hit by the unrest. So one of the best ways we can help is by visiting and enjoying the wonderful experiences the country has to offer.
I took a few days off the beaten track to explore Jordan’s varied and beautiful natural environment. In the North you will find meadows of flowers and herbs and the scent of pine trees and forest reserves. By the Dead Sea and further south wild canyons and the harsh desert terrain of Wadi Rum. Jordan has so much to offer and this is its best kept secret.
In early November I headed off to Jordan to see something more of the country before the British winter. And as always I found yet more to love and explore – on earlier trips I had seen some of the many sights Jordan is so famous for such as the ancient Nabatean city of Petra and the remains of the Roman city of Jerash. However, I had explored hardly any of the spectacular countryside en route to these sights. So I was very excited when I found a book entitled ‘Jordan – Walks, Treks, Caves, Climbs and Canyons’ by Di Taylor and Tony Howard, who had been trailing, climbing and hiking around Jordan for more than 30 years. I saw that there was a whole new Jordan I had yet to discover. Not strictly speaking a new Jordan but rather a Jordan of rocky hills and trails to walk, canyons to hike down and wadis streaked with dry riverbeds from the rainy season. I hired a car and headed south from Amman down to the Dana Biosphere, a rugged and beautiful landscape covering some 320 square kilometres along the face of the Great Rift Valley.
Staying true to my recently acquired environmental perspective I chose to stay the night at Feynan Ecolodge Hotel. After a disappointing English summer I was looking forward to beautiful walks, cultural encounters and epic stargazing. I was not disappointed.
The Bedouin ‘taxi’ driver took me the last few miles of rough track in an ancient pick up truck. Bits of steering wheel fell off as the truck rattled its way to our destination. As they did so the driver held them in place with his free hand. It had been a good call to leave the my car at the reception centre. I couldn’t tell the make of the truck, any emblems or signs had long ago dropped off or worn to nothing. The driver was in his late forties, perhaps older and unlike the younger men spoke no English save ,as we passed several UNHCR tents near the roadside to say “Syrians” by way of an explanation. I was accustomed to this by now and to the Jordanian’s generous reaction of sharing the little they had with this massive influx of refugees. I doubted many other places would have been so inclined when it became clear that their own limited resources, in particular water, were being used up at such a rate. I suspect the driver would have experienced a very different Bedouin upbringing from that of his children and in comparison his father’s childhood would have been almost unrecognisable.
On arriving at Feynan lodge nestled in the magnificent Wadi Feynan, a warm and friendly welcome awaited. The day to day running and staffing was by folk from the local Bedouin community. The lodge itself was as Eco-friendly as its possible to be; it is completely solar powered and, at night, illuminated by candle-light. The vegetarian food was sourced locally and the water came from a nearby spring.
After only an hour a Bedouin guide was taking me on a sunset walk. We settled down and from our vantage point we watched a spectacular sunset and drank the sweet Bedouin tea. A wonderful sense of peace and calm surrounded us as the evening light gently faded and I felt an out of body nostalgia thinking back to people before us centuries and millennia ago.
We wandered back and met the charismatic managing director of Eco hotels, Nabil Tarazi, whose hands on approach and enthusiasm contributes so much to the lodge’s success. He explained that an essential part of managing the lodge is integrating the local Bedouin community into the day to day running. It is now staffed almost exclusively now by locals. Dinner was served on a terrace outside with candlelit tables in the moonlight and such a wide choice of delicious food all so tempting that I was quickly embarrassed by the pile accumulating on my plate.
Later, as I sat on the roof sipping yet more tea and gazing on a starry desert night in all its brilliance, I felt like a child under a cluster of the brightest twinkling christmas tree lights waiting to be put up. The next day after breakfast it was time for a gentle 4 hour trek along the wadi with a young bedouin guide who was incredibly entertaining with his stories of traditional bedouin life, customs and beliefs. Along the way he drew attention to a variety of trees and plants many of which seemed to have endless uses as medicines, fuels or foods.
Traditionally the Bedouin were, and in some places still are, nomadic desert peoples who survived in the harshest and driest of conditions travelling from place to place by camel to find pastures for their animals.
As time has gone by many of them have settled and though still keeping many of their traditional customs they move either not at all or shorter distances to graze their livestock. The animals are valuable and well cared for. Each day they are taken to grazing land and given access to water and on occasion a shampoo and bath in oleander leaves boiled in water to rid their fur of parasites. Oleander wood has toxic properties and mustn’t be use for certain types of fires, in particular not for shraak or bread – delicious pancake like type of bread made simply with flour, water, a little salt, no sugar and cooked on an inverted metal pan called a siq.
On the gentle amble back to base my guide extended an invitation to his ahahgyd family tent for tea. Traditionally the Bedouin home is a tent, and a magnificent tent at that. Bedouin tents are usually made by the women from goats hair and sheep’s wool and sewn into strips in such a way that during the hotter seasons the sides can be lifted up to catch any cooling breezes that might stray past.
The opportunity for employment the lodge provides is welcomed by many families in the surrounding area. Inside the tents are beautifully tidy clean and welcoming and can be adjusted for coolness or warmth depending on the season. It was explained that the courteous and respectful way to enter the tent was to only walk outside the ropes and enter through the front entrance. Once in the tent or the tent area whether invited or not you are welcome and offered hospitality and you become under ‘the protection of the family’ for the duration of your stay. This means that other people, families or individuals are not allowed to harm you because of this protection. And this seems to hold true whatever your crime, be it murder or theft. Hearing this it seemed in stark contrast to the sharia law we hear so much about. There follows in many cases a period and method of dispute resolution which will often involve the elders of the group – Arabs have a traditional respect of their elders and the wisdom they have by virtue of their extra years on the planet, something often lacking in western society. If a murder has been committed then it maybe that compensation in the form of material goods such as goats or money must be paid. If another family has for example lost a dearly loved child, they must not take revenge but rather seek resolution. In many cases this will then be reported to the police who will agree or otherwise with the settlement. More extreme cases will have to be dealt with by the police.
Two of my host’s sisters brought tea then returned to their part of the tent immediately without an introduction. It would, I later learnt , have been rude to have enquired about them at all even to the extent of asking their names. The very sweetly sugared tea offered to guests is consumed in abundance and our guide admitted to drinking some 40-50 cups per day and told us that that his family of 14 consumed 60 kilos each month. It was refreshing to see this weakness for tea not limited to my own countrymen. As he described how much he loved it it did appear to be almost an addiction. This combined with the heavy smoking seemed a lethal combination though when put beside our own best loved addictions like alcohol and overeating it would be hard to say which is worse! During my brief stay I was offered many such cups although when one of our group asked if she could, because of her diabetes, have unsugared tea, many of us opted to join her and I found it a more refreshing alternative. I could then taste the added sage, mint and other herbs more potently. The stay gave me a tiny and privileged glimpse into life in the desert and its earlier times. I was left with a sense of wonder that these desert places, according to recent archeological findings, may have been home to humans some ten thousand years ago, long before England had been severed from its European parent.
I had seen the warmheartedness of the Jordanian people who always had time to help each other and strangers passing by. I was struck by the relative lack of materialism in and around the countryside as well as in downtown Amman. Something rare and beautiful in my own continent.
I already plan to return to this wonderful country to see and experience more of what it has to offer. Jordan has limited natural resources and no oil. Tourism is a major part of the economy and sights such as Petra deserve more than a hurried day trip from Egypt or Israel. It is one of the most stable of Middle eastern countries and many of its citizens have close ties with Europe. It is vital to build on these links and create a more stable globalised-world for future generations to enjoy. We all want Jordan to flourish and one of the best ways to help it do so is to visit the country and meet some of its most welcoming people.