Travelling overland from Istanbul to Upper Egypt very slowly - taking four months to complete the journey - we had no real plan, meandering (by train, taxi, ferry, bus, hired jeeps, camels...) as the mood struck us, relying on advice received from travellers we met on our way. Aleppo was the first city in the Arab world we saw - it's where Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express actually begins, on a platform in the quaint train station. We barely used guidebooks, wanting to get lost. The romance and mystery of travel in the Levant can still be savoured in full in Syria, especially when one is unprepared and confused, as we were. We couldn't even count our change; the Eastern Arabic numerals are not what Europeans call Arabic numerals - the 5 looks quite like a zero, for example, so at first we thought we were being given coins worth nothing in some devious joke.
After a month and a half in Syria, a country that is as yet essentially untouched by globalization, we took a shared taxi from Damascus to Amman. We found the Jordanian capital with its chain hotels and lack of mystery insufferable and soon headed for Madaba. The owner of the Mariam Hotel there (www.mariamhotel.com) had studied engineering in Moscow and was a fount of multilingual information on all things Arabic. We had already learned that the well-known hospitality of "the Orient" is often layered; even when pecuniary motives are at the fore, as in bargaining (and one must bargain for pretty much anything and everything in the Levant), there is usually a layer of genuinely friendly interaction - the unavoidable teas with those wanting to sell you something come with authentic curiosity about who you are and whence you come. In the case of the owner of the Mariam, the sales pitch is transparent; tours throughout Jordan with reliable drivers and guides are on offer at very decent prices, but if you are on a tight budget he will just as delightedly tell you how to travel by public bus. We desired to get lost, but at that point the curious rigors of aimlessness had worn us down and we sought ease, too - and we did have a "must see" list. Petra must always be towards the top of such a list, of course, and thence we went by the King's Highway. The driver from the Mariam was an excellent guide, but like most drivers in that part of the world he gets a commission from the hotel he attempts to lure you into. We insisted (and insisted, and insisted) on being taken to the guesthouse a very experienced traveller we'd met had recommended. After a week of wandering about in Petra and spending many an evening with many a fascinating traveller - including a retired German gentleman who had been on the road ceaselessly for seven years, visiting over forty countries - we decided to visit Wadi Rum.
The desert had drawn me ever since I read The Sheltering Sky as a teenager. Paul Bowles wrote of the Sahara, not the Jordanian desert - but the books we consulted in hotel lobbies and some of the travellers we encountered promised us that Wadi Rum would offer a similarly mind-bending experience of transcendental silence. Lonely Planet, for instance, suggests "slowing down to the timeless rhythm of desert life" there and notes that "like most deserts, Wadi Rum is as much to be experienced as it is to be seen." But the "timelessness" as invoked in that guidebook seems to me to be somewhat flaccid and non-specific. Not only does the scenery of deserts differ dramatically, from the desolation of the Tanzerouft to the organ pipes of the Sonoran Desert - the peoples who inhabit them do, too, and drastically so. Though one can seek out a desert due to landscape alone - and Wadi Rum is breathtaking - few journey here only for the scenery... or, if so, the scenery includes the inhabitants and their culture. We had encountered the Bedouin both in Syria and at Petra, and found them magical - invited into one of their homes (Western women, by the way, are something like honorary males; local females mostly remain hidden, their eyes occasionally glittering behind screens), I was not rarely drawn into a sort of infinite staring. The head of the household would stare into my eyes without surcease, without a trace of rudeness or awkwardness, and at times it was as though he were entering my soul - his own remained inscrutable, but uncommonly alive.
Though we'd heard the promise of a transcendental experience from a few travellers, others we met dismissed Wadi Rum as an ingenious tourist trap in which the natives play up the stereotypes those from "the Western world" have about desert life in the Middle East. The Bedouin are rarely nomads nowadays, preferring the creature comforts of houses that do not wander like the "houses of hair" do; the beit al-sha'ar (the traditional tent hand-woven from black goat hair) has been replaced by rather ugly houses in which a grotesque plastic chandelier will quite possibly be adorned by a cluster of plastic bananas, the walls covered with posters of American pop stars). Not rarely, the Bedouin were forced to abandon their nomadic existence by the governments of the region. Those travellers disappointed by Wadi Rum hinted to us that the Bedouin now prostitute the clichés of an austere but impossibly romantic existence for the tourists, essentially hawking a kind of "genuine imitation leather." There can indeed be a certain tastelessness to the whole enterprise - at least at first glance.
But Wadi Rum is both and neither of these; as Bowles wrote, an "important difference between tourist and traveller is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveller, who compares it with the others"; those who are disappointed may be mirroring a mirror - one expects to see something out of One Thousand and One Nights, or out of a palimpsest thereof, and instead sees something else... but this "something else" may also be a mirage reflecting our expectations. Lonely Planet and many another guide hint at the ultimate desert experience, and many tourists set themselves up for disappointment by believing that they can cram such an experience into watching a single sunset, spending a night sleeping in the sand and climbing a dune to watch the sun rise. That is the package on offer most often; dinner with the Bedouin, a brief camel ride, a jeep tour of the wadi and total fulfilment at departure, with no plastic bananas or other dreadful reminders that you are still in the world in evidence. The "Bedouin" scarf you might be presented with at the end of your stay is likely made in China, like the baubles they try to pass off as "authentic" at Petra.
Wadi Rum is also known as the Valley of the Moon - the bottom is approximately 900 metres above sea level, and the jebels of eroded stone rise as high as 1800 metres. No specifics can give you a sense of what it is like to be alone on a strangely shaped rock formation in total silence, watching the sunset. As Bowles wrote of the Sahara: "The desert landscape is always at its best in the half-light of dawn or dusk. The sense of distance lacks: a ridge nearby can be a far-off mountain range, each small detail can take on the importance of a major variant on the countryside's repetitious theme."
Access to the valley is strictly controlled by those who live in the village of Wadi Rum. The tribe living there is essentially interrelated and fecund - our guide has 31 brothers and sisters, for instance. We found him in Petra, where the owner of the guesthouse recommended him. Descending to the lobby to send an e-mail one morning, there he was - in the traditional flowing robes with what looked like a large diamond sparkling upon his ring finger.
Zidane al-Zalabieh drove us from Petra to Wadi Rum, stopping at a grocery along the way. Stopping, also, at the most picturesque vistas he knows so well. He asked if we didn't want to be in the pictures. I said - no; you fit in and we don't. A Bedouin belongs to the desert, Zidane answered, staring.
We were in no hurry. Zidane long ago pitched what he claims was the first camp in the valley itself; others followed, but the wadi is large enough - narrow, but 130 kilometres long - to accommodate the camps out of sight of each other. But at first we had to hang out at his house in the village, replete with plastic bananas hung from the ceiling. The jeep broke down and our tour was yet further delayed while we drank countless cups of tea. We decided to stay on at the camp instead of opting for the brief excursion. The house of hair was pitched against a spectacular rock formation that one could climb to watch the fabled sunsets. The silence was nearly total at times; at other times it was rudely broken by jeeps bearing tourists. Jeeps leave tracks, and the unbroken sands are mostly broken. The less there is and the more crystalline the silence - the more such destruction disturbs.
Zidane bills his camp as the Bedouin Meditation Camp (www.bedouinmeditationcamp.ewebsite.com). Our visit was in late winter and other visitors were few. We took the day-long jeep tour, seeing Thamudic petroglyphs of antelopes and humans and climbing a fabulous scarlet dune. Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here, and Wadi Rum served as the surface of Mars in the 2000 film Red Planet. Though many of the sites associated with T. E. Lawrence have no real historical basis for being so associated, the valley is so gorgeous and offers so many scenes that might be out of a vision become a film that one can forgive these attempts to create ersatz sights. The crimson dunes could definitely be on another planet. There are also ample opportunities for for more strenuous trekking and rock-climbing; the highest mountain in Jordan, Jebel um Adaami, is at the southern end of the wadi. One can see the Red Sea from the summit, 1840 metres above.
Those Bedouin involved in tourism are the opposite of isolated. The fourteen-year-old who served as our guide when we decided to take a lengthy journey by camel had been to French and Swiss Alps; his father works as a guide at Mont Blanc. The people of Rum are born climbers.
Zidane and his huge family offer numerous package tours, but informality and flexibility are key on both their part and your part; you can mix and match and tailor a trip to the length of your stay and your desires, just as it may be that another traveller will arrive and your jaunt could be delayed, or that there could be equipment failure. Zidane took a liking to us and we ended up staying for over a week, though we abandoned the idea of a camel trek to the Red Sea city of Aqaba because... well, because Zidane sized us up and decided we maybe couldn't take it. All that staring means that the Bedouin can size one up. We travelled by camel for two days instead, sleeping on a rock ledge completely alone - the boy who guided us (hitting the obstinate camel on the head with an empty plastic bottle, which though disturbing wasn't really painful to the animal, which he loved) asked if he could go visit his cousins and abandon us for the night. My camel had delayed us considerably by eating flowers along the way, the beast obviously realizing that I was not in command. We were delighted by the solitude (and a chance to rest our aching rumps). We were often left alone at the camp, too, and though "meditation camp" is a moniker that doubtless came from some savvy Western tourist, we found the setting and the company meditative.
The wiry adolescent leading us through the desert by camel kept meeting cousins on the way, some of them quite lovely. Towards evening I asked him if there was anybody in that part of the desert who was not his cousin. After some hesitation, the answer he gave us was "no". After watching his dalliance with an especially beautiful cousin, I asked him which he planned to marry. He hesitated for quite some time, then said "I think I want one France wife, one Germany wife, one Japan wife and maybe that cousin."
Along the way, we stopped for coffee at a "real" house of hair, the home of nomadic goatherds, spending a pleasant hour sipping coffee and staring into their eyes while our guide translated their questions about where we were from and where we had travelled. Returning to Zidane's camp, we were treated to a dinner cooked in the sand, as is traditional. "Bedouin chicken," Zidane said, passing it around. "Bedouin potato." Then - "Tourist vegetable." A tall man, he would often balance on one leg on the edge of the bed like an ibis, trying to improve the reception of his snazzy mobile. There are beds in the tent, but after watching Zidane and his friends dance and sing it is best to take your sleeping bag out into the sands and lie under the stars, impossibly bright. There is no way to Wadi Rum in a few hours, and even if you linger longer, unless you marry a Bedouin you are unlikely to ever get closer to the soul of the valley. But you can share the stare, and if you take your time you may find that even plastic bananas can't ruin this remarkable place or those who belong to the desert.
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Keywords: Jordan, Wadi Rum,
I visited Wadi Rum last week and choose Bedouin Advisor as our guide for the trip.
We did the 1 Day / 1 Night trip option. We had a Jeep tour with numerous stops to do some light hiking.
The camp that night was very nice and more luxurious than I would have imagined for desert camping. That is coming from my wife who is not a fan of camping at all.
Ayesh were just wonderful hosts to us. Our Jeep tour inculded 2 other couples and at camp that night there were a few other couples as well, just about a dozen of us.
After the yummy dinner Ayesh told stories of the beduin lifestyle and history and answered any questions we had.
Visiting Wadi Rum and our stay with Bedouin Advisor was one of the highlights of our trip to Jordan.
We both said we would come back and stay with them over visiting Petra a second time, if we are able to make a return trip to Jordan.