A Little Immersion…Humanizing the Travel Experience

Our pickup truck bumped and jostled down the unpaved path, the driver weaving around the deep pits and pot-holes by rote, each piece of this desert clearly as familiar to him as the lines on his darkly tanned hands. For twenty-five minutes we plodded a slow path through stark and open plains and into the raw and honest surrounding beauty of Jordan’s Dana Biosphere Reserve.

The Feynan Valley on the way to the Feynan Ecolodge in Jordan

The sprawling Feynan Valley on the way to the Feynan Ecolodge in Jordan

The mid-afternoon heat of the day meant even the birds were taking a break from patrolling the sky and as the minutes ticked by, I flitted around in my head with the thought of getting motion sick before shoving the possibility into the recesses of my brain; conversation ebbed and flowed around me in the cab of the truck. I pondered the Ecolodge we were about to visit; the Feynan Ecolodge is set far out into the nature reserve and on paper so clearly embodies the principles I travel with – sustainability, conservation and socio-economic development from within the country and community.

As a relatively budget traveler all over the world, it’s often hard to find and visit those grassroots development projects, ones that are actually making a difference. Community supported, Jordanian initiatives. I throw my hands in the air when projects and opportunities turn into feel-goodery for the tourists at best, and the AIDS Orphan tourism in Africa at worst. That’s what I fear–the wanting to help but finding efforts amount to little more than personal satisfaction.

I was snapped out of my musings when our Bedouin driver, with an understated and graceful bare minimum movements, gestured deep into the Feynan Valley; squinting my eyes I was able to make out a desert colored structure sitting at the base of the valley and blending in naturally with the miles of pale orange sands surrounding our truck.

The Feynan EcoLodge in Wadi Feynan, Jordan

The Feynan EcoLodge in Wadi Feynan, Jordan

The truck abruptly stopped and our driver dropped us at the front door of the lodge where I was instantly greeted by Nick, an American man married to a Jordanian and now living in Jordan and working in the communications and marketing department for the Ecolodge. As our Bedouin driver reversed and drove away, Nick explained that all of the local Bedouin living in the area are rotated for the Ecolodge’s transportation needs and the money goes directly to the driver and the community.

Score a point for the Ecolodge. As Nick explained more about the Ecolodge I was increasingly intrigued; the Ecolodge is a joint project between several initiatives within Jordan and in addition to providing higher-end fully eco-friendly accommodation to guests, a central tenant to the lodge’s ethos is:

To sustain the cultural integrity of the local people by hiring members of the community, and respecting their habitat and traditions.

The handicrafts and weaving loom created by the local Bedouin near the Feynan Ecolodge in Jordan.

You know, as Nick explained more about their mission and development projects, I was sold. So, to better move along this story (and to keep me from waxing poetic about truly sustainable eco-development) let’s just give the lodge plus 20 points and move onto to the other aspects that sold me on this lodge – the experience. I could endlessly list the ways that the Ecolodge is minimizing their impact on the environment and supporting the local Bedouin in the area, but that’s only half of what made my afternoon at the lodge so special.

The experience the Ecolodge crafts for visitors stands out. The setting is quiet and remote, the pristine Dana Biosphere Reserve is a wide-open stretch of land in south-central Jordan serving as a home to many diverse plants and animals sprinkled throughout the 119 square miles. In the U.S., Montana is nicknamed “big sky country,” I’ve never visited Montana but I can only imagine that the vast expanse of open blue skies stretching out for miles in every direction in Jordan’s Dana Reserve channel that same startling beauty.

Wadi Feynan on the drive to the Feynan Ecolodge in Wadi Feynan, Jordan

Wadi Feynan with clear blue skies on the drive to the Ecolodge in Jordan’s Dana Biosphere Reserve

I used the term “remote,” and that’s the truth, the lodge is set back into Wadi Feynan (wadi means valley in Arabic) and well away from the main highways crisscrossing the length and breadth of Jordan. But though you’re remote, you’re not actually  isolated. Instead, the Ecolodge is a prime way for the Bedouin in the area to maintain their semi-nomadic lifestyle and make a more traditional living while also affording travelers and volunteers a window into the Bedouin culture that is not as easily visible from the traditional tourist path around Jordan.

Kneading jameed, a thick goat's milk yogurt, near the Feynan Ecolodge in Wadi Feynan, Jordan Making fresh shrak, a type of bread on the saj near the Feynan Ecolodge in Wadi Feynan, Jordan

Human connections and stories often stick with me more vividly than temples and ruins. Seeing the joy and happiness, the smiles that crossed the language barriers as the Bedouin woman invited me to her side of the tent, that’s the memory for me, the one I will tell my grandchildren about one day.

I will surely share stories of Wadi Rum and Petra too, these stunning sites are stenciled into my memory with a Sharpie, but in the quest toward cultural understanding, the immersion possible in Wadi Feynan and the ability to see and learn from the Bedouin, to ask my questions directly, gave a deeper understanding of everything I had just spent a week in Jordan observing.

Abu Abdallah serving tea near the Feynan Ecolodge in Wadi Feynan, Jordan Handmade shrak, a type of locally made bread, near the Feynan Ecolodge in Wadi Feynan, Jordan The traditional serving of sweetened tea at the Feynan Ecolodge in Wadi Feynan, Jordan

That’s what immersive travel brings to my life; a deeper understanding. Don’t get me wrong, immersion is everywhere and just as possible chatting with a local at a sheesha bar in Amman, but the nuances are different, and, given the choice – I think both styles are ideal, or any style really.

Find the moments that compel you in life and do that. For me, it’s an afternoon spent awkwardly learning Bedouin tea customs with Abu Abdallah (as sure as you tell me not to do something is the moment I will accidentally do it), cooking shrak with the Bedouin wives, and overcoming my dead animal issues to sit next to a goat skin container and learn how to knead and mix jameed, a thick goat’s milk yogurt traditional in Bedouin cuisine.

Quick Tips: Visiting  and Volunteering at the Feynan Ecolodge

Where: The Ecolodge is set right in the heart of Wadi Feynan and the western side of the Dana Biosphere Reserve. The site clearly outlines directions for getting there…and it’s not particularly easy to explain so use their site for clear directions. Plan on between one and three hours from most anywhere in Jordan (Amman is a three, while the Dead Sea is two to give you an idea). 
How: This is where it gets fun – you can hike into the reserve (about 5-6 hours to get to the lodge from the Dana Village and 6-8 hours from Wadi Ghwayr) and ease yourself into the beautiful surroundings. Or drive your own 4WD to the lodge, or stop at the reception center and the local Bedouin will drive you to the lodge (transport costs support the local community). 
What: Prepare for a full experience; the produce is locally grown and thus pretty natural, bread is freshly made each day by local Bedouin women, and the lodge is lit by candles in the evening. The staff are exceedingly friendly and the nature nearby is perfect for hiking, trekking, mountain biking, and exploring.
Extra tips: Given extra time I would have loved the sunset hike – this comes very highly recommended. Then spend the evening counting stars – you’re deep enough into the heart of the desert that travelers can geek-out on the explosion of astronomy-goodness.
Volunteering: Each month throughout 2011 (and likely beyond) the Ecolodge is looking for two English language teachers (4-8 week commitment) – arrange the teaching volunteering through GeoVisions. If you’re looking for longer-term cultural immersion and development, contact the Ecolodge directly.

I traveled through Jordan as a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board; all of the experiences, photos, inspiration and opinions are solely my own!

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25 Responses to A Little Immersion…Humanizing the Travel Experience

  1. Shivya July 30, 2011 at 2:41 pm #

    You’ve described it beautifully. Even virtually, I can see the charm in volunteer travel in a place so rustic. I spent the last month volunteer traveling at Spiti, in the Trans-Himalayan region of India, and the experience was equally moving. Thanks for sharing yours :)

    • Anonymous July 30, 2011 at 3:34 pm #

      Thank you Shivya, the experience in Spiti sounds really amazing – that region is so raw and inspiring. Have clicked through and am reading about your own volunteer experiences in Northern India :)

  2. Laradunston June 19, 2011 at 6:23 am #

    So glad you enjoyed Feynan! Lovely pics too, Shannon. We just loved it – we spent a few nights there just over 18 or so months ago. Coincidentally, we just had a story published on it this week in Asia’s Lifestyle+Travel magazine. Love the long hike (downhill) and the sunset walk, but star-gazing was also super.

    • Anonymous June 20, 2011 at 12:27 pm #

      Thanks Lara! It was such a wonderful spot in Jordan, a highlight for me :)
      Very cool that you guys are spreading the word into Asia, it’s an
      experience worthy of experiencing and I would love to go back and stay for
      longer than the mere day we had there.

  3. Anonymous June 16, 2011 at 10:00 am #

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    the rapid days

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  4. Faith June 10, 2011 at 6:12 pm #

    Wow, this sounds like such a great experience! What an awesome post. The writing is lovely, and I really like your photos. It’s funny because the post is talking about immersion, and the writing/photos combo made me feel like i was being immersed in Jordan, too. Loved it :)

    • Anonymous June 10, 2011 at 6:41 pm #

      So appreciate Faith – Jordan tops out my list of places I’ve traveled and
      memorable experiences, Wadi Rum being one of them for sure – thanks for your
      kind words! :)

  5. Elise Reeks June 6, 2011 at 3:18 am #

    Wow. That seems like a truly amazing place. The photos are stunning too. Finding places that are actually sustainable and have the mind set to give back to the local community can be few and far between but it seem like you found a great lodge. The English teaching opportunity sounds amazing too.

    • Anonymous June 6, 2011 at 7:42 am #

      Thanks Elise! And so glad to hear Feynan resonated with you :)  The people and experiences along the way are what often shape and deepen travel. The teaching is right up my alley too- would love to go back and participate.

  6. Joshywashington June 1, 2011 at 10:05 pm #

    Great prose and beautiful photos, Jordan looks like a wonderful place to visit..

    • Anonymous June 2, 2011 at 12:22 am #

      Thanks Josh, it truly is one of the more memorable places I’ve traveled – so
      many diverse experiences and poeple (cultures) packed into one relatively
      small country! :)

  7. Anonymous June 1, 2011 at 5:31 pm #

    Thank you Sasha, I appreciate the kind words :) The experience is well
    worth a visit if you head to Jordan, I think it really adds to the travel
    experience when you can learn from the local community!

  8. Bluegreen Kirk May 31, 2011 at 12:58 pm #

    Like Robert says that place does sound amazing but I bet it gets really hot and humid.  The jameed looks like scrabbled eggs almost.  How was the sweet tea?  I know some places where the tea is just too sweet for my taste.  Love the photos!

    • Anonymous June 1, 2011 at 3:19 am #

      The humidity is actually quite low because of the desert surrounding – my face so dry after just a few days in the the country! As for the tea, it is really, really sweet. It’s one of the few places the Bedouin use sugar in their diets, so they use it with enthusiasm :)  Thanks Kirk!

  9. Sasha May 31, 2011 at 4:33 am #

    Sounds like an incredible experience! There should be more tourism around the world like this focusing on sustainability along with giving back to the local communities by giving them jobs and education.  Such a great initiative!!! And really you can’t go wrong in such beautiful surrounds! Also just wanted to add I love how you write, it’s so descriptive, you’ve a very good story teller! :)

    P.S. I loved this post so much I submitted it to Travel Blog Chronicle :)

  10. Robert McKay May 29, 2011 at 3:45 pm #

    This place sounds amazing! Do you have any idea what it would be like for a vegan to stay there? Either way, I think I would try to get out there and at least see it.

    • Anonymous May 29, 2011 at 3:58 pm #

      The food is completely vegetarian and natural – so you would be in the
      clear! I am fairly positive that a lot of what they serve is vegan by nature
      (the lunch I had there mostly was…). Everything is solar powered, and
      since they’re low on electricity the meals tend toward very fresh and
      vegetable driven, with fresh bread made each day by the local Bedouin women
      :)

      • Robert McKay May 29, 2011 at 4:02 pm #

        Yeah, silly me. After I made my comment I went to their website. It’s now
        been added to my list of destinations. Truly wonderful. I really should look
        around for places like this in the US since we’re going to be traveling here
        for a while before he head out into the rest of the world.

        • Anonymous May 29, 2011 at 4:18 pm #

          Hmm…I’ll keep my eye out, and if I come across any in the US I’ll let you
          know! :-)

    • Fadi May 30, 2011 at 8:52 pm #

      i live 200 miles away from Feynan.. in the capital city Amman.. i have been first time there  DEC 2010.. definitely next winter i am going again for a couple of days… worth it.. AMAZING 

      • Anonymous May 31, 2011 at 12:46 am #

        Thanks so much for sharing your experience Fadi, and so glad you enjoyed it
        too – hard not to surrounded by all of that beauty :)