A gust of wind shook me out of a deep slumber, and I pulled down the faux velour blanket from over my head. The air was misty, and a light fog covered our campsite, obscuring the tall, bulbous, orange-red rocks around us. For a moment, I lost all sense of where I was.
I sat up and scanned my surroundings: I was alone, bundled in myriad layers and curled up on a thin foam mat — a stranded explorer floating on a tiny island in the middle of the sea.
But this was Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert, and I had sand in my hair — and ears, and mouth, and many other places, for that matter — to prove it.
My travel mates were no longer sleeping; they had all abandoned me for the comfort and shelter of the nearby goat-hair tent that we had set up the previous evening. As I unraveled my cozy alfresco cocoon, my bisht (a cloak traditionally worn by men in Arab states) flowed in the wind behind me. I made my way toward the tent, a lean-to shelter used by Bedouins in this protected desert wilderness area that borders Saudi Arabia to the south.
I was in Wadi Rum to experience nomadic life. I had joined a customized, multiday tour to explore the routes of ancient and modern Arabs with Rahhalah, the first professional adventure travel company in the Middle East. Founded in 2011 by Suzanne Al Houby, the first Arab woman to climb Mount Everest and the Seven Summits, Rahhalah has offices in the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Jordan, and it employs a team of local experts for each of its unique itineraries.
With our trip guide, Samer; storyteller, Raed; and a convoy of trusty camels, we traveled alongside a few real-life Bedouins, led by Abu Yousef. The strikingly handsome nomad — who always seemed to have a movie-star smile on his face — allowed us an intimate look into his migratory lifestyle and culture, as well as the chance to get to know his family: two wives and 13 children. Each day, we trekked five to eight hours in the 280-square-mile UNESCO-designated Wadi Rum (with the option to sit atop one of the camels, which carried most of our gear), stopping to cook lunch over an open fire.
And every evening well before sunset, we would set up camp in a new location, plop down under the goat-hair tent with whatever incredible meal Raed — also the trip’s chef — had created, and settle in for story time. As we sat rapt over fare such as kebabs with shrak (traditional Bedouin bread) and mansaf (lamb with dried yogurt sauce), Raed would recount the history of the paths we had walked that day.
We discussed religion — Jordan’s population is about 95% Muslim — and how, just as in America with Christianity, the traditional perspective on sex, relationships and marriage has changed with the times.
We debated the perks and pitfalls of modern technology, and learned how it has affected the younger generation’s desire for nomadic life; I spied one of Yousef’s teenage sons checking his Instagram account while setting up camp.
During our time in Wadi Rum, we also climbed Jabal Umm ad Dami — Jordan’s highest mountain — and scrambled up Burdah Rock Bridge to its photogenic arch. But what stuck with me most were the small moments I shared with the Bedouins.
Though Yousef and his family didn’t speak English, we needed little translation. (And, in fact, he dubbed each person in the group with an Arabic name; I was Fatima.) On our first day, I played with two of Yousef’s daughters, Yaqeen and Baraa, outside his “summer home” — one of his tented camps at which his family spends about three months each year. No words were spoken as we kicked around a soccer ball, ran after baby goats and took selfies on my iPhone. When I saw the girls two days later at Yousef’s brick home in Wadi Rum Village, they ran and embraced me, pulling my arms in different directions to show me their toys, their younger cousins and, most important, a tiled structure just outside the house with a toilet and a shower — a luxury in the area that indicates Yousef has done well for his family.
That’s the beauty of such an immersive trip: It’s a reminder that no matter where you travel, no matter if you think the cultural, religious, political or language differences will divide you, humans are humans everywhere. And we need to spend more time intentionally connecting with one another — no words necessary.