“What do you do all day?” many people would ask when they met me at one of the camps where I slept in Wadi Rum, Jordan. “I take walks,” I would say. “I write, go through photos, listen to music.” Filling the time was never a problem. They would nod their heads, some in understanding, though for themselves most seemed content to move on after the standard visit to this desert valley: a day in a jeep tour, an evening of zarb–the Bedouin way of cooking food in a metal container buried in the sand over hot coals–and a morning breakfast of Jordanian bread, labneh, za’atar and foul.
I, too, thought I would stay in Wadi Rum two or three nights at most. Instead, I spent nearly three weeks there in total, enjoying the company of fellow visitors for breakfast and dinner and having the desert mostly to myself during the day. Each morning as guests zoomed off in the jeep, I was reminded of something the farm owner in Jerash said when a handful of guests drove away, leaving us in sudden quiet after a buzzing weekend. “People come, and then they are gone,” he said. “Both are good.”
On my first days in Wadi Rum, my breath quickly slows and deepens at the sight of the crumbling sandstone mountains and expansive valleys. The towering cliffs near my tent give me a sense of being firmly rooted to the earth. I spend the early mornings under a leopard print blanket with the tent door open to watch the black birds that sail the wind in front of the sheared cliffs. I bond at breakfast with a fluffy orange and white cat who has strategically taken up residence outside the meal tent. Mid-mornings, I begin long solo walks across the desert. The clay-colored sand is dotted with bushes that look a sage green at a distance but a bare winter white as I get close. Small lizards and black beetles skim the surface of the rippled sand. I wear a hat with a wide brim to keep the sun and flies off of my face as I follow my whims to make each day’s trek. One day, I spot what looks to be an abandoned Bedouin camp with a toilet bowl jack-knifed in front of the tent. I walk up a nearby siq (canyon), working my way past rocks with spots and stripes in varying shades of brown and stepping on shards of rock that make a hollow clanking sound underfoot. Eventually, I stop to sit on a boulder. I soak in a rare quiet that is broken only by an occasional bird tweeting or slight whistle of wind. As I continue my walk, I am drawn to a huge boulder with an edge like a piano keyboard. It is perched on other fallen boulders, seemingly on the verge of crashing deeper into the canyon. I hold my palm against the cool stone before turning to make my way back.
More than once, I pack to leave but decide to stay. Soon, I am there almost a week. I wonder if I am too isolated here–a lone ship–but I love the quiet and solitude. I have the feeling that this vast open space is healing me, maybe from so many years of living in a vibrating city of concrete and millions of people.
I return to Wadi Rum two weeks later and camp in a different area of the desert. The camp owner is tall, thin and has a mustache. Like every other Bedouin man I meet, he wears the galabeya, an ankle-length shirt-dress worn with thin pants underneath, as well as the red and white scarf called a keffiyeh that is draped on his head and held on by a headband called an agal. On our way into Wadi Rum, we stop at his farm so he can give water to his sheep and goats. For dinner, we eat mansaf at the camp of a Bedouin family. I have had several variations of mansaf–considered the national dish of Jordan. This one has the typical thin layer of bread called shrak on the bottom of the pan, along with rice and chicken. It varies in having pasta and potatoes scattered on top, as well. We sit in a circle on the sand and scoop the food out of the pan with our right hands. After dinner, we wash our hands and head to the truck. The owner invites me to sit with him in the cab of the truck while the other tourists sit on benches in the back. A fellow tourist notices I am missing and asks the owner to wait for me. “She’s staying with the Bedouins!” the owner calls out. “Can we say goodbye to her??” the tourist yells back with alarm. The owner climbs in the truck giggling.
In the evening, the owner invites me to an open cave to stargaze. As we walk back to the camp later, I ask him about a particular line of stars that a friend and I had seen in Aqaba. We had both thought we had never seen this constellation before. “That’s Orion,” he says, laughing. Then he points up to the sky and says, “And that–that is the moon!” We both laugh.
While my first visit to Wadi Rum was about the magic and healing power of nature, this visit becomes about the easy connections I make with people I meet each night. Our conversations range from deep talk of spiritual beliefs and our dreams for our lives to joking about our inability to figure out a stargazing app and one Korean man’s travels with his aging father, a Buddhist monk who is snoring in bed at 7:30. “I just asked him once if he wanted to come,” the son said. “And he said yes…so quickly…”
Several days into my visit, the owner invites me to the second–and final–day of his nephew’s wedding in Wadi Rum village. We are among the first to arrive around 9 a.m. There is one tent for men and one for women. As a foreigner, I am welcome to visit the men’s tent, but I decide to stay with the women. Not only is it a rare opportunity to spend time with women in a small community in Jordan, but while the men are mostly talking and smoking cigarettes or sheesha, the women will have music and dancing.
In the early morning, I sit with a handful of women on plastic mats drinking tea. I only speak a few words of Arabic, so I participate by helping to pick up wrappers and some broken tea glasses from the day before. Through hand signals I answer their questions to let them know that I am not married and have no kids. I meet the camp owner’s wife, daughter and sister. Some men come in to set up lights, music and a throne on which the bride will sit. The women wear headscarves, but most of their faces are fully visible. When the men enter the tent, the women bring their scarves up from their necks to cover their mouths and noses. Eventually, they get a boom box working and some women start dancing to Arabic music. I cannot say why, but as I watch the women dance, connecting to the music and to each other, I know that I have only skimmed the surface of Jordanian culture. Some women take off their black robes and head coverings, underneath which they wear shimmery fitted dresses in colors such as light blue and beige. I see one woman wearing a burka that reveals only her eyes. She has bubble-gum pink shadow on her eyelids and thick black liner just above her lashes.
The bride arrives in a pickup truck about 4 p.m. She wears a white beaded gown, heavy makeup and an ivory silk hood that covers her hair until she is in the tent. She sits on a two-person throne, and eventually dances to one song in subtle, flirtatious movements to the other womens’ applause. The young girls play hand games with me and an Estonian woman who is volunteering with a local family. I attempt to learn a simple dance with the girls, holding hands and moving counter-clockwise as we step and kick our feet in rhythm with the music. At times we stand in circles and do a call and response while clapping.
A couple of hours after the bride arrives, the groom arrives in the same pickup truck. The bride is stone-faced until the groom gets closer, and her face breaks into a wide smile. The bride and groom take a handful of photos and then leave in the truck together. The rest of us–probably 100 women and young girls by now–eat chicken with rice, peas and onions from silver platters placed on the carpets. I sit with a group of girls and soon find myself being taught to eat by kids ranging from the age of seven or eight to 11. They show me how to pinch my fingers together and then eat the food off the tips of my fingers to get it in my mouth rather than on the rug. Much of the meat is mostly fat. The girls move piece after piece of gristle to my side of the platter, pointing at it and saying “delicious” to me over and over again as they smile at each other. After dinner, I wash my hands and go to find the camp owner. I am exhausted from nearly 10 hours of socializing with strangers. “You were there the whole time?” the camp owner says with a surprised smile. “Yes,” I say, with equal surprise. There was another option?
The next three nights I sleep outside, first in the cave and then on the sand dune near the tents. I am blanketed by the moon and stars. I open my eyes several times in the night to see a large ring of light shining with the moon as its bullseye. In the earliest daylight, I lay on the thin mattress and watch the long sunrise, changing colors from pale pink and orange to the soft white light that only the sun can bring. One morning I wake and watch black birds soar across the sky in front of the setting moon. In my mind I hear the Beatles song “Blackbird” that I have most often heard sung by the Grateful Dead:
“Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were always waiting for this moment to arise…”
I continue my walks during the day. I follow nooks and crannies, my boots striking on the broken rock that has fallen between the mountains. The mountains are both solid and crumbly, weathered on many sides to look like the dripping wax on a candle. I meander, scrambling up the rocks for panoramic views. At night, I continue to chat with other guests. I laugh with the camp owner’s brother as he tells me that two men got in a fight at the end of the wedding, one of them adding some dramatic flair to the situation by going to the hospital in Aqaba–the nearest city to Wadi Rum–for a tiny cut on the head.
On a Thursday night, I tell the camp owner I plan to leave the next morning. I have now been there nearly two weeks, and he tells me I am welcome to stay, from his heart. It is a way of talking that touches me, but I know it is time to go. First, though, I return to the camp I originally visited. I walk to a favorite spot to take in a view of a mountainous pile of black rocks. I am thrilled to see the fluffy cat peer his head around the corner of the meal tent and sidle up to me for some love.
It is now late fall in the desert. My final night it gets so cold that I have trouble moving under the weight of three heavy blankets. I wear long underwear, socks, two shirts and a jacket to bed. I take a shower so cold my scalp hurts as I rinse out the shampoo. The next morning I walk two hours back to the village, stopping periodically in the brisk wind to take in the scenery–rocks sheared to a smooth face with piles of large gravel at their bottoms. I stop before I get to the village and turn to look at the desert again. “What do you do here?” people would ask. I would tell them I write and take walks and go through photos. But what do I experience here? Quiet. Strength. All of my senses alive. I stare back at the desert and say thank you. From my heart.
Where I Stayed:
I stayed at three camps in Wadi Rum. These are the two I recommend. Both have very friendly staff, good food and can arrange activities for you in the desert. You can also choose to camp there and make your own activities, as I did. These are my pros and cons of each, though both are great options.
Bedouin Meditation Camp: Hot showers (solar heated). Beautiful sunrises and sunsets. Somehow I made more connections with fellow campers here, though I do not know if that was just the moment or that the place was more conducive to it. I enjoyed the walks I took here, but I preferred the walks/scenery I had near Bedouin Lifestyle Camp. Music is played many nights but often only briefly. A more informal environment, which I enjoyed. There is no lunch option if you are staying in camp for the day, so you will need to bring your own snacks.
Bedouin Lifestyle Camp: It is more expensive to camp here, though the tents, beds and bathrooms are a bit cleaner and more comfortable. Lunch is available for an extra cost if you decide to stay in camp for the day. Food is good at both camps, though I would give the edge to Bedouin Lifestyle. Music is played nearly every night before and after dinner around a fire. Cold showers (the water may be warmer when the weather is warmer). I preferred the setting here of camping right next to towering cliffs. Very friendly fluffy cat, though some of the other resident cats can be a bit relentless at dinner if you are the only one in camp. Let’s just say you will have an audience as you eat.