Jordan: Camping with the Bedouins
Musicians at the Captain’s camp in Wadi Rhm, Jordan – photos by Kent E. St. John
By Kent E. St. John
Senior Travel Editor
The braying of a donkey pierced the peace of the slow arrival of the morning sun that was becoming evident even through the goat hair tent. Memories of the sinking sun’s majestic departure were pushed back as the whiff of cardamom-spiced coffee permeated the bone-dry air. I could now understand Lawrence of Arabia’s love for Wadi Rhum. After several days of meetings in Amman, the simple Bedouin lifestyle fit like a camel and his hump.
Camping in the Wadi may not be everyone’s idea of an ideal experience but my initial hesitation was totally unfounded. The sun-seared vision of camel caravans passing wide-open places was etched forever in my brain’s gigabytes. Abraham, our talented guide, gave wise advice upon entering the Wadi. He had us walk away from the jeep into the desert in different directions, just to put everything out of our overloaded brains and simply listen to our own breathing. It set the perfect mood for time out in Wadi Rhum.
Hospitality is Key
It was very apparent that the legacy of Bedouin hospitality is based in fact as we entered the campsite put together by the Captain’s Tour. Sweet hot tea was passed into our hands as we entered our moon-like encampment. Rugs lay around the fire pit and the scent of spiced lamb clung to the “u” shaped cliffs that formed the border of our hideaway.
Quickly we scampered into our simple traditional goat hair tents to leave modern life behind. The harshness of desert life is the basis of Bedouin hospitality; basically it was formed because it was necessary to work together way out in the Wadi. At some point the unforgiving conditions encourage being forgiving. It is a tradition that I wished was in place in so-called hip urban centers such as New York or Paris.
As if guided by the sharing spirits, I put a bottle of Bacardi Gold for all to partake in (it was gratefully sipped) as the young camels gathered by us as if drawn by the Puerto Rican rum. Alcohol is not a part of the lifestyle of the Bedouin so if desired it is BYOB.
The harsh climate of the desert is one reason for the Bedouins’ tradtition of hospitality.
We climbed the solitary rock pillar as if fifteen feet would bring us closer to Allah; surely we had approached the gates of heaven, at least mentally. The view changed moment to moment as the sun escaped west. Below, the sound of traditional music drifted up and out to the surrounding mountains.
Traditionally Bedouins accepted all strangers with hospitality and protection, knowing that they themselves might need it some day themselves. The harsh environment required it. The Wadi doesn’t suffer fools easily.
The Thoab, or long hooded robe, is another example of development due to environment; the cloth provides loose cover and can protect from harsh sun and blowing sand. The headgear that is made of the Shmagh-cloth and agal-rope is the gear associated with the Middle East, and it has special meaning for the Bedouin, both for symbolism and adaptability. Wearing it is indicative of the ability to uphold responsibilities of manhood.
Let There be Music & Food
As darkness took over the wide open space, the sound of music brought us out of our perch. The soulful pitch of the shabbaba (a long flute like instrument) matched the dance of a huge bonfire, as if the fire was a grand conductor. It was coordinated with the rababa (a type of one string violin) that pierced the canyon walls.
The Captain’s tea table
In a short while the camp was all hip shaking and foot shuffle, the music demanded it. Dancing like Elaine on Seinfeld I worked up an appetite worthy of Wimpy, the hamburger eater in Popeye cartoons.
On cue the music stopped and we headed to the zaarp or Bedouin oven, an underground stone oven. The fire long ago started was made into embers and a lamb prepared was buried for hours. As it was uncovered the aroma was amplified by the clean pure air.
In deference to Western tastes chicken was also served, and the table was filled with various vegetables and hummus style dips. No vegan would starve under the starry desert skies.
Traditionally Bedouins eat with hands, and it truly fit the meal even though plastic wares were there. With the perfect flat bread I did without. Sated, I entered my goat palace and by candlelight slipped off my (by now) sandy clothes and slept within seconds of blowing out the candle. My dreams were replays of a day spent exploring one of nature’s top displays, ancient Nabatean graffiti and scenes of a Bedouin lifestyle.
Jordan has a particularly great tourism board with a great website, SeeJordan.com.
While the area attracts some that will go their own way, I was grateful for the way my trip was organized. Jeeping out we noticed some on foot with back packs trucking, seemingly lost; the desert is unforgiving and the Bedouins depend on visitors, so use the knowledge. The best place to do just that is at the newly finished Visitors Center or online at VisitJordan.com.
For accommodation options, find unique Jordan hotels and interesting tours in Jordan.
Horse, camel, jeep or hot air balloon can be arranged and reasonably, rock climbing on sandstone cliffs requires it!
The Captain’s camp was unique and well run, food wonderful and service tops!
Ruth Caswell has been writing about Wadi for over twenty years. Her website, JordanJubilee.com, is an wonderful look at all Wadi is.
Kent E. St. John has been GoNOMAD’s Senior Travel editor since the website was founded in 2000. During that time he has circled the globe many times, visiting more than 80 countries. He is also a Contributing Editor for Transitions Abroad and a correspondent for Around the World Radio. He frequently writes for Travel International, NSNBC, eTurbo News, Travel Video Television and SoGoNow.com, as well as several other media outlets.
Kent St John
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