FEYNAN VALLEY, As we climb up a hill outside the Feynan Eco-Lodge in south-central Jordan, Ali, our 25-year-old Bedouin guide, tells us a story he heard from his father. Ali points to the flood plain below us. It's late April, half a year away from the area's rainy season, and the hills and mountains surrounding us are crusty and parched except for the occasional burst of colour from a pink oleander shrub.
"There was once a man who found himself in a flood plain," says Ali. "He noticed water coming and climbed onto a tree. Other Bedouins saw him still in the tree as the flood kept building and carried him away. The people who saw him thought he had drowned and worried about how to tell his family. The next day, he reappeared. He had been swept down the river."
Up until then, our group had visited the monumental stone tombs in Petra, the Roman ruins in Jerash, and Mount Nebo-the pilgrimage site where Moses was said to have first seen the promised land. I was impressed but also a bit bogged down by Jordan's past; at the end of the day I was worried there'd be a quiz. Fortunately, our time spent among the Bedouins provided us with a glimpse into an enduring way of life and an alien landscape that needed only to be experienced.
The Bedouin people of the Feynan Valley, which is part of the Dana Biosphere Reserve, have largely given up their nomadic lifestyles. The Feynan Eco-Lodge, a 26-room resort that serves exclusively vegetarian meals and suites that are lit only by candle at night, employs several of these locals. Still, many Bedouins continue to live in tents and raise goats in the area. After watching the sunset by an acacia tree on one hill, we are taken to one Bedouin tent, a rectangular structure with carpeted panels for its slanting walls, to watch Bedouin bake bread. Sitting on cushions while served sweetened tea, we watch a Bedouin baker knead the dough and place it into a shallow fire pit inside.
"The Bedouin people will always welcome strangers to their homes for three days," Ali explains. "For three days, you can stay with us and we will not ask you why you have come."
We leave that night before really taking the custom out for a spin, but the freshly baked bread is moist and soft.
Our next encounter with the Bedouin people occurs a couple of days later when we visit Wadi Rum Desert, where the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia was made. Our group is split into two cars: one that will go fast, and the other slow. There's no room left in the slow car, so I hold onto the side of the truck bed as our Bedouin driver, Mahmoud, fishtails in the red sand and skids down the dunes as Jordanian blares from the cab.
In between the adrenalin jolts, there are moments of gaping serenity. The sandstone rock formations in Wadi Rum were once part of the ocean floor. The rocks, some shaped like giant camel toes or pyramids, have been contoured by the movement of the primordial oceans as well as rain and wind.
The car ride ends in a Bedouin-style campground organized by Captain's Desert Camp, which features working (albeit grimy) toilets and showers. As traditional musicians play an assortment of songs from the Egyptian love song "Inta Omri" by Oumm Kulthum to "Fur Elise" by Ludwig Van Beethoven, we gather for dinner around banquettes arranged around a campfire under the desert moon.
The meal's highlight is called zarb. Lamb, chicken and potatoes are placed in a metal pot and then slow-cooked in the sand in oak and cedar charcoal. Full of meat and hummus, I fall asleep under a goat-hair blanket in bed as hookahs get passed around outside.
In the morning, I am offered the chance to ride back to the main camp, where breakfast and our group's bus await us, on a camel. My saddle fits awkwardly so that my back aches throughout the journey, but as we near the end of the ride I find an unexpected moment of serenity.
Approaching a plain, the distant horizon glistens in the morning sun. It looks almost like an ocean, and I can picture the ocean that existed here millions of years ago. For a moment I feel like a sailor navigating the waves of the desert sea.
For more information on Jordan, go to visitjordan.com.