The Bedouin culture still remains vibrant and strong, even as many aspects of their nomadic lifestyle have become impractical and obsolete. We had our first experience when we traveled north of Petra into the desert last night and had dinner in a Bedouin tent. That began to give me the idea that they have exchanged animal husbandry with tourist husbandry. The tent was huge and decorated with flowing fabrics. Brightly patterned rugs were on the floor. In a nod to our comfort we did not sit on the floor, but everything else felt semi-authentic. A Bedouin DJ played tunes outside. This background music became the evening entertainment as Jordanian men wearing traditional garb danced to energetic songs with a strong beat. One song included a live bagpipe player. The pipes became part of the culture during the long British occupation. In Petra the forbears of most of the Bedouins who fed and entertained us used to live in caves, but after the government built them new housing and made them leave, they seem to have accepted the change with aplomb.
Today we traveled to Wadi Rum, a scenic desert area that was the backdrop of the films: Lawrence of Arabia, The Martian and the latest Star Wars. I had never heard the term “wadi” before arriving in Jordan: It refers simply to a valley carved by water. But Jordan is famous for its wadis, most of which are narrow canyons that provide great hiking and an escape from the sun. Wadi Rum is vast, the largest in Jordan, taking up 280 square miles, nearly the area of New York City, and extending south to Jordan’s border with Saudi Arabia. Wadi Rum has an other worldly look and it easy to understand why it attracts film makers, especially those looking for something that we imagine could be Mars.
The Bedouins who used to make a living here raising sheep and moving trade on camelback; now they all own 4-wheel drive trucks and entertain people like us. We climbed in the back of the trucks and took a bone jarring ride through the desert. The bright orange sand punctuated with sandstone hills eroded into fanciful shapes got our shutter fingers clicking. They took us to a spot where a herd of camels was waiting to take us on a real ride. Riding on a camel is fairly pleasant once the camel gets up. As it unlocks its knees from a prone position, it lurches you 45º forward followed by a quick 45º backward. Everyone hung onto the pommel for dear life and no one fell off. Our group was lead by Bedouins walking on foot the rope of the lead camel in their hands. We were left wondering how you steer a camel while you are on it. There was no bridle or stirrups and it seemed like they could just go wherever if they weren't attached to the walking man with the rope. We passed geodesic domes that are being used to house tourists who want to camp in the desert. They had A/C, bathrooms and mini fridges. Not exactly roughing it.
After about a half hour ride, my back was beginning to protest the rocking back and forth. I'm not sure I would sign up for a camel tour. It sounds more exotic than it felt. We ended the ride at another huge dining tent where a lavish buffet awaited us. The meat was cooked under the ground in the traditional manner and was juicy and tender. The cook and his helper dug in the sand to reveal the handle of a large pot. After carefully clearing away the sand, they pulled out a traditional meal of zarb — lamb, vegetables and rice — that had been cooked underground, Bedouin-style. After a while the buffet food starts to feel a bit same old same old, so we are looking forward to the next few days when we will be on the Clio, a cruise ship which will take us to Egypt.