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 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 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.
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.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.
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.
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.