What first springs to mind when you think of Jordan? The ‘lost’ city of Petra? Maybe the Dead Sea? Fair enough – these are classic Jordan travel experiences for good reason. The highlight of my visit to Jordan, however, was something I didn’t quite expect: the people.
You only need to glance at a map to get a sense of how Jordan’s unique geographical position has shaped its history and culture. Today, there are some brilliant opportunities for cultural immersion, from staying at Feynan Ecolodge, a world-renowned hotel staffed by local Bedouins, to touring the moonlike landscapes Wadi Rum, where you can bed down beside Bedouin hosts in traditional tented camps. I experienced both on a fantastic tour of the country with Experience Jordan, but, curious to learn more about what life is like for regular Jordanians, I also arranged a homestay with Engaging Cultures, a company that promises to connect travellers more deeply to the destinations they visit.
After a busy day first day in Jordan exploring the capital Amman on foot (quite comfortably as a solo woman traveller, if you’re wondering), I was collected from my downtown hotel for my transfer to Orjan, around two hours drive north of central Amman. Halfway through the drive, I started to feel a bit nervous. Was spending the night with a traditional family in a country I’d just arrived in – knowing just a handful of Arabic words – a little ambitious?
But I needn’t have been concerned. Soon after pulling off the highway into a lush valley brimming with fig and pomegranate trees, I arrived at my host family’s humble home. My host father Mohammad was waiting in the driveway to greet me. He didn’t speak much English, but his warm, welcoming smile put me instantly at ease.
After I’d freshened up, the lady of the manor, Maysoon (or, more formally, Umm Mahmoud – mothers are customarily referred to as ‘mother (umm) of eldest son’) popped in to introduce herself and brief me on the afternoon’s activities: we’d be driving across the valley to a new house the family were in the process of moving into. The new house, she explained, had a much larger kitchen, perfect for cooking up the Jordanian feast we’d be preparing together.
I reluctantly took the front seat in the beat-up family car as Maysoon and her four children (three girls and a boy under 12) piled into the backseat for the short journey to the new house. Built with funds saved through participation in this community tourism project, the new house backs onto an olive grove and the veggie patch of my dreams, with views down the valley. Taking my place at the kitchen table, Mohammad pours me some cardamom-spiked Arabic coffee, and Maysoon and I get down to work. As I begin to de-core a bag of zucchinis for stuffing, Maysoon tells me that Mohammad had a good job as a farmer before recently being laid off.
“The Syrian refugees will work for less,” Maysoon explains delicately, and without a shred of hostility. “The situation is not perfect, but these people have made a great sacrifice by leaving their homes. We are lucky.” Indeed, despite the troubles of its neighbours, Jordan remains one of the most stable countries in the region.
Mohammad now spends more time looking after the children (and the garden) while Maysoon works two jobs, rising early to start work as a computing teacher, then returning home to host tourists who have booked homestay experiences. It’s a busy life, but she tells me she enjoys it.
Over the next several hours, I receive the ultimate crash course on what it’s like to live in today’s Jordan, and most interestingly, what it’s like to live in today’s Jordan as a woman. As Maysoon’s youngest, two-year-old Mahmoud, tears up and down the hallway on a plastic ride-on scooter, Maysoon speaks candidly about everything from fashion to marriage, politics to motherhood. All the while, I struggle to wrap spiced rice in grape leaves (picked fresh from the garden earlier by Mohammad) at half the speed of my host mother, who is a year younger than me!
While the feast cooks, Maysoon’s three daughters take me on a walk through the local olive groves. Extremely shy at first, they warm up to me a little when I ask them about school. The girls discuss my questions between themselves in (sometimes heated) Arabic before answering ever-so-politely in English, which I find hilarious.
When we return, Maysoon is transferring two delicious traditional dishes – maqluba (a chicken, rice and vegetable casserole that literally translates to ‘upside down chicken’), and lamb slow-cooked with warak enab (stuffed grape leaves) and kousa mahshi (stuffed zucchinis) – onto serving platters. It’s a lovely evening, so the children set about transferring the lounge-room cushions to the front patio for us to eat outside. A plastic tablecloth is spread on the ground, and I’m served more food than I can possibly eat. The ‘table’ falls silent as everyone tucks in, and as I inch closer to clearing my plate, Maysoon swoops in to fill it again. Aware that refusing may be seen as impolite, I quietly make room in my imaginary second stomach and keep going. It’s a good thing the food is delicious.
Back down at the old house, I sleep like the dead. Woken early by the call to prayer blasted through the village loudspeaker, I catch Maysoon on her way to work and she gives me a big hug goodbye. But there is no going back to bed for me, for within minutes I hear little footsteps slapping on the concrete followed by little fists banging on my door. “Sawah Sawah Sawah! Bwekfaaaast!”
I open the door to find a sheepish Mahmoud sitting at a table in the courtyard that Mohammad had laid out with a breakfast feast – zaatar (a tasty mix of ground Middle Eastern herbs), fresh pitta, yoghurt, olives, falafel, hummus, boiled eggs and olive oil, and I set about eating as much as I can. Some of Mohammad’s siblings, who live next door, join us, eager to practice their English. They are so friendly I wish I could stay chatting, but my driver arrives to whisk me back to Amman via two of Jordan’s key sights: Ajloun Castle, one of a handful of Crusader-era castles scattered throughout the country, and Jerash, the largest Roman city in the Middle East.
During the rest of my trip, I saw more amazing sights, stuffed myself with more delicious food, and met some truly fascinating people. But my fondest memory of the trip is sitting around the kitchen table with Maysoon, stuffing zucchinis, and gossiping like old friends.
A one-night homestay experience with Engaging Cultures, including visits to the Roman city of Jerash and Crusader-era Ajloun Castle en route, costs US$169 per person for a group of six. If you’re self-driving, the price for the homestay, dinner and breakfast is US$69 per person. Thanks to Engaging Cultures and the Adventure Travel Trade Association for supporting my trip.