When I was preparing to travel to Jordan to test out a new trip for The Bucket List Company this June, there were several things that I knew would be unforgettable experiences. Hiking through the towering canyons of Wadi Rum, exploring the intricately-carved tombs of Petra, floating in the salty water of the Dead Sea…

What I didn’t expect, though, was that even these incredible bucket list moments wouldn’t end up being the most memorable and cherished of our trip.

Now, don’t get me wrong – Petra, Wadi Rum, the Dead Sea – they were absolutely fantastic, far surpassing my expectations. But I knew they would – we’ve all heard of the Wonder of the World that is the Treasury and the countless other ornately-carved buildings of ancient Petra. We’ve all imagined the epic landscapes of Wadi Rum and the Arabian Desert.

It’s a lesson that I perhaps ought to have learned by now; that when you travel, you should expect the unexpected. More specifically, the details that you don’t expect to be anything out of the ordinary can be, well, extraordinary. 

For me, the unexpectedly extraordinary moments of our trip to Jordan were all to do with the local Bedouin culture. But who are the Bedouin people, and what made our encounters with their culture so special in Jordan?

Who are the Bedouin people?

Bedouin culture Jordan

If you followed our Sahara Desert trek earlier this year, the Beoduin people are a cultural group you will be familiar with. The Bedouin – or Bedu – are a group of nomadic Arabic peoples who have historically inhabited the desert regions of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant. The latter of these regions includes the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. 

The name “Bedouin” derives from the Arabic description of these communities’ way of life – meaning “desert dweller”. In the Jordan area, Bedouin families migrate between canyon valleys in the cooler winter months, and higher altitudes in the hotter summer period – depending on grazing conditions for their livestock.

Today, there are many different Bedouin clans living everywhere from the Sahara Desert to Wadi Araba in Jordan and beyond. Whilst many people of Bedouin heritage have moved to cities, there are still over a quarter of a million Bedouin people in Jordan living their traditional way of life, or combining their cultural practices with a few concessions to the industrialised world.

You can identify Bedouin communities in Jordan by their black goat’s hair tents, locally called “beit al-sha’ar”, pitched near their herds of goats, sheep or camels. They often cover part of all of their hair to ward off the heat of the sun – for men, this is called the ‘shemagh’, and for women, it is called an ‘usaba’.

A taste of Bedouin hospitality in Jordan

Our first encounter with Jordan’s Bedouin heritage came when we arrived at Feynan Ecolodge, after a day-long hike through the Dana Biosphere Reserve. Feynan really does seem to emerge from the middle of the desert – after hours of hiking through the remote and colossal canyons, the only clues that we were approaching were some tyre tracks and a few baby goats climbing brazenly up roadside trees. 

When we arrived, the first port of call was a sunset hike to a nearby viewpoint. Bedouin guide Suleiman led us and a few other guests past his family’s home, explaining a little about their way of life. When we reached the viewpoint, a few other local men joined us, and we stopped for a hot cup of Bedouin tea as the sun settled on the horizon and bathed the desert in a warm glow. 

We returned to the ecolodge, thinking that this was the perfect end to a fantastic day. But then one of the guides instructed us that we should follow him up to the roof – it was time for stargazing. On the roof, we found lots of comfy cushions, yet more steaming hot Bedouin tea, and a truly phenomenal view over Wadi Feynan. 

The ecolodge had its own very high-tech telescope, which we were able to look through to study the contours of the moon in incredible detail. This was very exciting for me, as it was something I had never done before. Another Feynan guide, Ali, talked us through the position of the constellations with a very impressive (and self-taught!) knowledge of astronomy, as we sat back and sipped on our tea, staring up at the sky. 

As we sat and watched the stars, tea in hand, I had a genuine “pinch yourself” moment – something that, even after a fair amount of adventure travel, I rarely experience. Never did I imagine that I’d one day find myself stargazing on a rooftop in the middle of the Arabian Desert. It was one of those evenings where you have to remind yourself to take pause and absorb the atmosphere – this wasn’t something I was reading in Lonely Planet, it was real. 

The next morning, after a delicious breakfast, we headed back to the Bedouin tents. Here, Suleiman greeted a young boy, who admittedly didn’t fit the prototypical image of a Bedouin I’ve painted for you. His football team t-shirt was a testament to how globalisation has influenced the new generations of Bedouin children – yet this cultural fusion seemed to work to his advantage. Since the lodge was built, Suleiman told us, local children attend a new school just a few hundred yards away – meaning they are able to maintain their family’s traditional way of life, rather than having to stay in a city during the term time.

We were welcomed into the motheif – the guest quarters of the tent, and invited to take a seat. The boy then brought in a bowl, some flour and water, and began mixing bread. Suleiman explained to us that this was the kind of bread that Bedouin people would make whilst out hiking, as it require very little in the way of ingredients or equipment – just flour and water – thus reducing load weight. A smart snack indeed!

Now, I won’t give away exactly how the bread was prepared and cooked, but let’s just say that, for us in the UK, the techniques were incredibly interesting, and somewhat unconventional! All in all, it was a fascinating insight into the Bedouin lifestyle – seeing how the most basic of chores is carried out on a daily basis in the family home.

Perhaps our most memorable encounter with Bedouin culture was the evening we spent at Ammarin Bedouin Camp. This camp is nestled among the high-walled canyons of Wadi Al-Amti, just 10 kilometres from Petra. 

Being keen climbers, we were immediately excited when we arrived, with a veritable amphitheatre of bouldering all around us. We escaped for a quick scramble among the rocks as the sun set, and returned to the camp at 7 p.m. as instructed, to drink coffee with the owner – wondering why we had been invited to do at such an hour.

But your average brew this was not.

What followed was an hour-long ritual, a true labour of love between our Bedouin host and the tradition that clearly connected him with a long line of ancestors, who had all once made coffee for their own guests in just the same way. 

He took green coffee berries and hand-roasted them over an open fire, explaining his process as he did so. Next, it was time for the grinding. He poured the beans into a large mortar known as a mehbash, and ground them in a sustained rhythm that echoed off the canyon walls. Occasionally, he and our guide Mahmood would break into a local song, with the coffee grinding as their drumbeat.

Finally, the coffee was ready. Our host poured each of us a small cup to try – revealing, finally, that Bedouin coffee is caffeine-free! We drank the delicious, cardamom-infused coffee in the middle of the canyon under a billion stars.

With no cameras and no phones, only a cup of coffee and conversation with our new friends, I felt completely present, with a genuine sense of connection to the culture that we had been lucky enough to engage with. This wasn’t the kind of ‘authenticity’ that marketing managers like me usually speak of. We weren’t being sold a pre-packaged ‘experience’ – we weren’t even allowed to take photos. 

Bedouin coffee in Jordan
As you can probably guess from my previous point, this one is a stock photo!

How different this was from other trips I’d been on, where every “authentic local experience” had been subject to hordes of tourists and their camera phones, vying for the perfect shot for their Instagram feeds.

Now, I have nothing to remember our experience by besides, well, my memories. And I think I might actually prefer it that way.

The Bucket List Company

I left Jordan having ticked many sights and experiences off my bucket list. But I also left having learnt a great deal from the people we met – and especially from the wisdom of the Bedouin people. They reminded me that travel isn’t all about ticking things off – it’s about the process, the journey, the moment – whatever you want to call it.

Admittedly, the moments I spent learning about Bedouin culture aren’t the kind of thing you will find on the average bucket list, but I have a feeling that they will remain written in my memory for many years to come.

Tips on Bedouin Cultural Etiquette

  • – Bedouin people tend to dress relatively modestly, so it is advised to cover at least your shoulders and knees when in the desert.
  • – In Bedouin cultures, it is impolite to show other the bottom of your feet. When visiting a Beoduin family’s home, you will usually be asked to take your shoes off, but make sure to sit so that the soles of your feet are covered!
  • – Typically, Bedouin people eat with their right hand. 
  • – When you approach a Bedouin tent, it is custom to announce your presence before entering and wait to be invited in. You will usually be seated in the ‘motheif’ room for guests – never wander into another part of the home without being invited!